Author: joshuadisard

Among The Wild Mulattos and Other Tales—Review by Joshua Isard

11664971_10206473052840432_524789873_oPretty much everything you need to know about digging into Tom Williams’s newest book is in the title: Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. For me, it’s one of the best titles in recent memory, and shows readers the humor Williams brings to the topic of race before they open the book.

Don’t mistake that humor for flippancy. The book is funny, but as a result of raw honesty about the situation.

And do not mistake that raw honesty for an oppressive read. Williams does not pull his punches, but nor does he ever pile on.

Yes, every story in Among the Wild Mulattos deals with race in America, but some do so more intensely than others, some with outlandish humor and others with a darker tone, creating an ebb and flow of emotion and intensity through the book.

Williams’s collection begins with “The Story of My Novel: Three Piece Combo With Drink,” a story about a writer—a bi-racial man—who can’t sell his writing in the traditional manner, and instead queries his favorite fast food chain. The chain publishes his novel, but changes it to make it a piece of propaganda for the company. The character then embarks on a hilarious, slapstick-style tour of franchises all around the country to promote what is only sort of his book. The heightened style Williams employs here adds to the humorous farce of it all.

However, the range of this collection is revealed when one contrasts “The Story of My Novel” with “Ethnic Studies,” a story about four men of different racial minorities recruited to stand in front of a college class and be, essentially, humiliated by the professors and their students’ ignorant questions. The professors, in a misguided and self-righteous attempt to broaden their students’ horizons, eventually become the butt of the jokes when the men brought into the class take control of the conversation.

“Ethnic Studies” is a funny story, especially at the end when the men parody their own stereotypes, which only makes the sheltered students more uncomfortable. But the style is more terse than many of the other stories, and the indignities the characters suffer are more brutal and overt. But, in the end, the humor is what Williams uses to balance things out, to restore a sense of justice to the story.

In constructing such a collection, Williams achieves a deft balance of poignancy, clarity, and humor. His work reminded me of a quote by Vonnegut:

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”

It would be natural and justified to write a tearful book about the frustrating and exhausting situation of race in contemporary America, but to write one with laughter is its own accomplishment, perhaps a more difficult one. And, the clean up from this reading experience is pretty easy.

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Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales is available here.

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Lost in Space – Review by Joshua Isard

imageI’ve come across a lot of dad-writing lately, probably because I’ve been a dad for 20 months now. A friend gave me a copy of Abbot Awaits as soon as he found out my wife was pregnant. When Cobalt Press released Four Fathers, I jumped to review it, half because I knew it’d be good (it was), and half to figure out this whole dad thing.

I’m not sure this genre—the existence of which makes me exceedingly happy—shows any father how to operate, but rather functions as a canon of shared experiences. With these stories out there and available, I think today’s dads are more confident and open than ever. We don’t even joke about not changing diapers—of course we change them. Jay-Z changes his kid’s diapers. We put our kids to bed, even on the difficult nights, and hug them where everyone can see. This is beyond accepted, it is expected.

This is 21st century fatherhood and not only is it awesome but dads all get to talk freely about how much they love it. To their wives, to each other, and in print.

Lost in Space, a collection of essays by Ben Tanzer about his own experiences as a father—and, in a few selections, a son—fits clearly into this canon in its candor and humor. In a way, he shows how sacred fatherhood is by stripping away the facade of anything hallowed and dealing honestly with the funny, wacky, sometimes paradoxical nature of being a dad. He engages the weird, which is engaging the truth of it all.

For example, in an essay about his first son’s bris: “…what they don’t tell you about circumcisions, is that when the hood is gone, much of the size goes with it, and seeing this made me sad.” Later on in the same essay: “I know I am going to do everything to be a good father by modeling confidence even when I’m lacking it, providing positive reinforcement, and looking to build their self-esteem in a healthy manner. I also know that I will fail them as a man in some fashion… but there is no question in my mind that a larger penis would help ameliorate these problems from the start.”

If we’re being honest, the bris is one of the stranger Jewish traditions, but no Jewish father would ever think of not having his son circumcised (if I’d had a son, you bet the mohel would have been at our house eight days after the kid was born). Tanzer, in embracing the nature of the ceremony, looks at all sides. Sure he drops a few dick jokes—they’re funny, which makes it OK, and really, how can he not? But he goes beyond that, takes the opportunity of a penis-centric ceremony to explore what it means to be the father of sons.

These essays, while all good humored, delve further into Tanzer’s connection with his sons than just being guys of different ages. One thing that comes up frequently is insomnia, that he often can’t sleep and neither can his son. Most parents have frustrations from sleep-depravation at some point, but for Tanzer it’s more than a kid who can’t close his eyes and relax, it’s a family heritage:

“Sleep is not the enemy, isolation and the anxieties that surround it are. It is the lack of touch, love, and intimacy, and the voices that keep reminding you just how alone you are in the world and what a failure you have become. I didn’t understand that at ten, but now I recognize this is what we had in common, not the lack of sleep per se, but all the reasons we cannot.”

Through the collection, Tanzer captures the cacophony of emotions that come with being a father: the affection for your kids clawing at the heritage of being an American tough guy tackled by the anxiety of a child that has to go into surgery. He owns it all. I’m glad he does. It’s guys like him that let the rest of us own it too.

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Joshua Isard is the author of Conquistador of the Useless, a novel, and several short stories. He is the director of Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing. You can find him on the web at JoshuaIsard.com, and on Twitter @JoshuaIsard.

Four Fathers—Review by Joshua Isard

1398615723When Cobalt Press announced about a year ago that they’d assembled four excellent writers to contribute to the collection Four Fathers, I was probably happier than most people. My baby daughter was only a few months old and I was well aware that there is no guidebook to the whole fatherhood thing. I thought this might be as close as it gets.

Well, guidebook it is not, but this collection of stories, poetry, and a novella evoke a real and often hilarious empathy from me. One of the things about fatherhood is that many times you think you’re doing it wrong, but then you talk to another dad, find out that he did the same thing, and in the end figure out you’re actually pulling off the parenting thing pretty well. Reading this book is like having that conversation.

Four Fathers is composed of five sections. Short stories by Tom Williams bookend the collection. The first story is about a man struggling with his own life as a single guy, thinking often about his father and the relationship he has or wish he had with him. The second story (last in the book) picks up years later, after the character is married and dealing with being a father himself. Those stories sets an excellent tone for the book—by beginning with the man who has no idea and ending with the same man having figured out what only a father can, Four Fathers has a definitive emotional arc as a collection.

Between those stories is a series of flash fiction by Ben Tanzer, poems by BL Pawelek, and a novella (or a novelette, I have no idea where the line is) by Dave Housley.

Tanzer’s flash pieces each hit on a single element of fatherhood, which is an effective way to approach the experience and give the little things, both funny and serious, their due. This series of stories reminded me a little bit of Abbott Awaits by Chris Bachelder, a novel about fatherhood in flash-style vignettes. The stylistic similarities are easy to see, but the mix of wit, humor, and sensitivity to the sometimes paradoxical nature of fatherhood is what makes Tanzer’s work stand up there with Bachelder’s.

The poetry by BL Pawelek consists of a series of shared moments. Not without humor, like the rest of the sections, the verse is more intimate, and particularly focused on the father-daughter relationship, which might be why it struck such a chord for me. My little girl is 18 months old, and I found myself lingering on several lines of Pawelek’s poems, enjoying being in the society of fathers of daughters.

Houseley’s novella rounds out the collection. It deals with the pop-culture differences in the generations, and features a main character hallucinating Ryan Seacrest as a sort of pop-guardian angel. It is funny and absurd, but also examines one of the more important parts of parenting: the fact that your kids won’t like what you liked and that has to be ok as much as it hurts. A juxtaposition of Justin Beber with Bon Jovi plays a central role in this story, and brings the absurdity of it all to a poignant end.

Four Fathers comes out at just the right time for Father’s Day, and any dad who’s also a reader will appreciate it.

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Joshua Isard is the director of Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and the author of the novel Conquistador of the Useless. You can find him at his home page, or on Twitter.

 

 

Mr. Boardwalk, by Louis Greenstein

3016943Louis Greenstein’s debut novel, Mr. Boardwalk (New Door Books), captures an essential Philadelphia experience—going down the shore. Day trips and long weekends in Atlantic City are a large part of the city’s identity, and while this novel will conjure up any local’s finest memories of walking along the boards with a funnel cake, Greenstein goes beyond the summer phenomenon and delves deep into an essential turning point in Atlantic City’s history.

The novel begins with a middle aged Jason Benson walking down the boardwalk with his wife and daughter in the present day, telling them about his teenage years in Atlantic City. This frames the main narrative: flashbacks of Jason’s summers on the Atlantic City boardwalk, working at his father’s soft pretzel factory, and also learning to juggle and becoming a successful street performer. We learn about Jason’s love of performing, his financial success from it, and how it affects his relationships as a high schooler.

Mr. Boardwalk’s central concern, however, is Jason’s love for Atlantic City in the mid-70s, and his nostalgia for it in the present day. Jason’s teenage years down the shore were those immediately preceding legalized gambling, when Atlantic city wasn’t exactly a more innocent place (Greenstein deals honestly with the drug and sex culture of the era), but a more honest one. Before the huge casinos with faux themes and the false hope of winning big, the city was full of local seasonal businesses which, in the novel, seem to act more like family than competitors.

Greenstein brings us vividly back to that time, while also reminding us that it was not without its consequences on the individuals who lived it, and that nostalgia can have a bit of a dark side as well. Through the novel, Jason’s love of Atlantic City begins to border on an obsession, which affects not only his life in the 70s, but also his adult life. This connection between the two narratives is one one of the real strengths of the novel, and leads to a tight, satisfying ending.

I read this book in front of a fire in the middle of winter, and it gave me visions of my own trips down to the boardwalk, but also an insight into the Atlantic City before my time. Now that the weather is turning, I think it’ll make anyone ready for a trip down the shore.

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Joshua Isard is the director of Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and the author of the novel Conquistador of the Useless. You can find him at his home page, or on Twitter.