Each of the stories in Thomas Pierce’s Hall of Small Mammals drew me into separate vortexes of quirk. I was bemused by the frustrations endured by lonEach of the stories in Thomas Pierce’s Hall of Small Mammals drew me into separate vortexes of quirk. I was bemused by the frustrations endured by long-suffering Mawmaw when left to pet-sit an illegally rescued, formerly extinct, miniature mammoth in “Shirley Temple Three.” I was equally engaged by the conflicting agendas of scientist and showman as they wrangled over fossil bones in “We of the Present Age.” Although the skull is missing and many of the bone shards seem extraneous to the original saurian, the academy’s representative is expected to construct a prehistoric monster that will satisfy a carnival audience.
Curiously, I found myself committing most willingly to a story, which was itself a mosaic of parts that initially appeared to be only tangentially related. In “Videos of People Falling Down,” Pierce fabricated a complicated plot structure that kept me in a state of suspended gravity.
Why do we laugh when people fall down? Pierce’s characters approach this question from various vantages.
In a section called “trans/FALL,” an artist suggests that “when we watch videos of people falling down, we are waiting for the moment of impact—for a bruise, a hurt, a collision—and that expectation makes us full participants in the event. Every fall we see is our own, and all of us are falling at the same time” (171). One small segment recalls early kinetoscopic footage in which one of Thomas Edison’s assistants is caught in the act of tripping over a prank wire. “Falling down has never been the same,” says Pierce’s narrator:
"Now we can watch the same fall a hundred times. We can laugh at it. We can study it. We can slow it down. We can speed it up. We can linger on a single frame. We can see the birth of fear and panic in a human face. We can identify that moment when a person suddenly realizes that he is no longer in control of what happens next. But the simple truth is that we are never in control of what happens next." (147)
For me this passage exemplifies Pierce’s entire collection. So many times, I felt like Edison’s assistant. I’d be motoring along, feeling like I could trust the story’s trajectory only to find that the author had surprised me with a trip wire, generally near a narrative's conclusion.
I kept wanting to protest when I suddenly found that I’d fallen flat out of the frame. “What just happened?” I wanted to demand that the author account for his plot foolery. Clearly, Pierce did not want me to get too self-satisfied, thinking I’d figured my way through his tricks.
I’m not sure how many readers will forgive Pierce for dumping them out of tales without resolution, but the above passage did help me to trust in the author’s intentions. I’m not convinced he’s playing pranks for the reader’s own good. No. He’s just reminding us what falling into (and out of) story feels like.
I am grateful to First Reads for providing me with this opportunity to be pranked or jackassed or catfished or whatever we’re calling such hijinks these days. (Just hope no one was filming me as I frantically flipped pages back and forth in search of secret compartments that would tell me whatever happened to . . . ...more
Although the title of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas about Famil Although the title of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas about Family may not appear to promise as grim an outcome as the titles of her previously translated volumes (There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales and There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories), the fictions in this latest collection leave behind a bitterer aftertaste. The reader may close the book feeling slightly nauseated, worried that she’s been poisoned by exposure to such unpleasant fictional beings.
Although “Chocolates with Liqueur” is the only one of the three stories to boast a villain extreme enough to have been lifted directly from melodrama, I found its plot less harrowing. Somehow, literally murderous characters are less dispiriting than the ones who metaphorically poison each other a little each day.
The dysfunctional characters from “The Time Is Night” and “Among Friends” make the casts of American reality television seem like well-adjusted representatives of humankind. Half-starved females endure privation and humiliation to feed ungrateful children. Impoverished mothers and grandmothers might seem pitiable at first, but prove manipulative and mean. Adult males tend to be brutes, their treacherous finagling motivated by the desire to get registered at a Moscow addresses.
American readers who seek confirmation for their perception of communism as an inevitable producer of stolid misery will likely feel validated by these tales. Can we blame ideology alone for the manifestation of such degraded personalities? Or are people petty everywhere regardless of the dominant belief system? Readers seeking stories that privilege triumphs of the human spirit should look elsewhere.
But, hey, I’m grateful to First Reads for providing me with the opportunity to review this book—and not only because I didn’t pay money for it. I’ve read all three of the titles by Petrushevskaya that Penguin has published thus far—and I would subject myself to more. I don’t need to like characters to enjoy reading about them. In fact, I much prefer to expose myself to vanities and depredations of the human psyche when they are safely ensconced in pages of imaginative literature so long as I don’t have to watch people embarrassing themselves on “reality” TV. ...more
“The pain-body comes, first, from being born in a body. After that there are all the hurts and humiliations, large and small, which wound us. Everyone “The pain-body comes, first, from being born in a body. After that there are all the hurts and humiliations, large and small, which wound us. Everyone carries around pain from the past. We all know people who are in pain most of the time — [Eckhart] Tolle would say they have very active pain-bodies. They’re constantly down on themselves, or constantly medicating themselves with alcohol or drugs or entertainment. Whenever you ask how they are, they tell you their troubles. The message is always the same: I’m a basket case, I hurt, I’m overwhelmed, I’m misunderstood, I’m a victim. Nobody appreciates me. I’m ugly, I’m a bad person, I have no talent, I suck, I hate myself.”
The above quote has been lifted from chapter 18 of Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within (W.W. Norton, 2009)—and, yet, it could easily serve as part of an introduction to Addonizio’s most recent collection of short fiction, The Palace of Illusions (Soft Skull Press, 2014).
Reading this book is probably the closest I’ll ever come to binge drinking. (An alcohol-intolerant person can’t resort to method acting techniques in order to understand the psychic state of alcoholic personalities.) Most of the characters featured in Addonizio’s stories resort to psychoactive chemicals to survive their circumstances or their own personalities. Even Doc (the sagest of Disney’s seven dwarves) clutches scotch whisky for compensation when his fairy tale yearnings don’t seem likely to come true in “Ever After.”
My favorite stories in the Palace include: “Night Owls,” in which a young woman of mixed species (half-human, half-vampire) struggles to reconcile blood and love hungers; “Beautiful Lady of the Snow,” in which a seven-year-old responds to her awareness of the destructive sexual impulses of the adults around her by engaging in escalating acts of violence; “Cancer Poems,” in which a dying creative writing student provides Addonizio with the opportunity to enact many of the conversations and frustrations experienced in the typical introductory creative writing class.
I’m currently reading Ordinary Genius just after completing The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, which Addonizio co-wrote with Dorianne Laux (W.W. Norton, 1997). I’ll be using both of the nonfiction texts in my spring semester class in poetry writing so I’m highly entertained by the way themes cross genres in Addonizio’s work. Chapter 21 of Ordinary Genius opens with an epigraph from Salvador Dali: “I don’t need drugs. I am drugs.” Some of the illusions in the Palace are clearly fueled by prescription drugs, some by marijuana, some by mixed drinks, some by chemical potpourri.
Although most of the collection's characters are destructive, whether toward self, other humans, or animal companions, I did not find the stories depressing overall, possibly because of the occasional quirky manifestations of fairy tale or magic realism.
First Reads provided my review copy at an opportune time as I’ll be able to recommend and share snippets from Addonizio’s fiction in order to demonstrate the cross-fertilization that can occur across genres as I encourage next semester's students to take Addonizio’s advice to read voraciously, eclectically, receptively, and opportunistically. (And, yes, when asked to identify my addictions in Chapter 21 of Ordinary Genius, I answered: books and books and, oh yeah, books. I thank Addonizio and First Reads for enabling my addiction.) ...more
I probably did not need another source to justify my appreciation for clutter, asymmetry, uncertainty, chaos so far as those concepts contribute to cr I probably did not need another source to justify my appreciation for clutter, asymmetry, uncertainty, chaos so far as those concepts contribute to creativity, but, all the same, I did enjoy Stephen Collins’ graphic novel, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, though I did wonder at his decision to maintain the black/white dichotomy throughout even after the boundaries of his characters’ world begin to blur, even once their shirts untuck and sidewalks unstraighten. As someone who is uncomfortable in controlled environments where everything has its place, where graphs and charts and acronyms are projected and applauded, because they aren’t as disturbing as that murk that is ocean or poetry, I am grateful to First Reads for providing me with this excuse to read and write about something that hasn’t arrived in my electronic inbox with “high importance” attached. Collins' evil isn’t your grand-devil’s evil. All the same, I will be sure to recommend his book to the very next person who dares to advise me on methods for controlling my weeds of hair (or other blights of head)....more
Isabella might have been dubbed “The Explorer Queen” or “The Inquisitor Queen” just as readily as she is dubbed “The Warrior Queen” in the subtitle to Isabella might have been dubbed “The Explorer Queen” or “The Inquisitor Queen” just as readily as she is dubbed “The Warrior Queen” in the subtitle to Kirstin Downey’s biography of the fifteenth-century monarch. In addition to sponsoring Columbus and other travelers, Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand, are known for launching the Spanish Inquisition, for her a means to purge her realm of false converts to Catholicism, for Ferdinand, a means of augmenting royal coffers.
Downey may have settled on her choice of subtitle to emphasize Isabella’s role in the many campaigns against the Ottoman Empire and European rivals. The book is so fraught with conflicts that I found myself suffering battle fatigue. I confess to tuning out during some of the conquest paragraphs just as I had during some of the extended battles in The Lord of the Rings films. After a while, I began to feel like the various clashes resembled movie scenes in which large numbers of combatants had been replicated via special effects. Some readers may be entranced by such passages.
At times, I seemed to be slogging through exhaustive side plots, losing track of minor characters. Perhaps, if I were a scholar of the period, I might have considered more of these asides to be worthy of careful study. So far as I was concerned, many of the block quotes could have been deleted. Downey may have been quoting these chunks merely because her research involved primary texts that had not been consulted in previous scholarship. The “Afterword” to this volume suggests as much.
However, I do read popular histories—and I must say that I found Alison Weir’s The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn and Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution to be easier reads, possibly because those biographies did not veer away from their primary subjects so extensively. I mention these titles to give the reader of my review a sense of my preferences, which might prove useful to those with tastes that correspond to mine.
I will say that I appreciated some of Downey’s excursions into other lives (those of Cesare and Rodrigo Borgia, Christopher Columbus, Vlad the Impaler, Juana la Loca), but, perhaps, my attention wanted a little more familiarity. When I had encountered the historical figures in other contexts, I had an easier time comprehending their relevance. In a way, the book might be perused as collective biography, which enables the reader to place Queen Isabella in a detailed tapestry of time.
Thanks to First Reads for providing my copy. ...more
For a little more than 300 pages, I expected to assign five stars to Paulette Jiles’ Lighthouse Island if only because of the sedimentary depths of heFor a little more than 300 pages, I expected to assign five stars to Paulette Jiles’ Lighthouse Island if only because of the sedimentary depths of her world building. Although I sometimes felt mired in the administrative grit that caused her characters fear so chronic, so constant it couldn’t be called paranoid, I willed myself through her dehydrated urban labyrinth.
At least, I could empathize with her two protagonists: the rebellious Nadia Stepan, who can see because she once was blind, and James Orotov, who charges willingly into the unknown because he’s been confined to a wheelchair for much of his existence. I’d love to believe that I could maintain such righteous resilience if I lived in such an unfair world. I was willing to go the distance with these two. I also loved the scrappy cat, who appeared, half-drowned, rather late in the narrative. I could believe in these three survivors.
Then I met the “Five Companions” in Chapter 47. And that’s when I began to resist. Suddenly, I felt like I was being introduced to an entire cast of survivalists (think: The Walking Dead only without seasons to develop feelings for individuals, to care who lives, who dies). I didn’t have time to get to know any of the comrades before the novel headed off the cliff into “the end,” what passes for Xanadu in dystopialand.
Coincidences had already begun to fray my determined suspension of disbelief when Nadia was presented with a photograph and a family history pretty late in the novel’s day. By the time I closed that back cover (with a huff), I was seriously put out. I didn’t want a grim denouement, but I wasn’t any more convinced than I was by the conclusion of True Blood on HBO. (Were any long-time viewers satisfied by that going away party?)
Maybe Jiles’ conclusion wasn’t quite that insulting to her characters, but I did feel like a door in her labyrinth had manifested without too much exploration being required to discover its existence. A sign suddenly blinked “DEUS EX MACHINA” above its frame, and the reader passed through into a new, vague space where s/he was welcomed by happy strangers. And I wondered if I’d passed through a portal into some other fictional room in the multiverse. “Who the hell are these people?” I muttered to myself.
I felt like someone who had been rescued from a deserted island only to immediately yearn for return to its relative privations, because the welcoming party was too enthusiastic to be trusted.
Maybe I’m an overly introverted reader. At any rate, I do believe in Jiles' imaginative powers. I’m just not sure I trust her to get me off an island, out of the Hotel California, or any other overly convoluted plot of water or land.
My copy was provided by First Reads Giveaway. ...more
I’ve read a number of novels about the harrowing experiences of victims of Nazi ideology in WWII, including Sophie’s Choice, Sarah’s Key, The Devil’sI’ve read a number of novels about the harrowing experiences of victims of Nazi ideology in WWII, including Sophie’s Choice, Sarah’s Key, The Devil’s Arithmetic, The Book Thief, Number the Stars, and Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi. I’ve witnessed similar fictions and nonfictions through television and film (The Holocaust, The Reader, Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautiful, and The Pianist). I’ve also read nonfictions in varied forms: The Diary of Ann Frank, Night, Etty Hillesum’s diaries and letters, the graphic novels Maus I and II. I’m sure I’m forgetting a number of other examples.
However, I’m not sure I have ever encountered a novel that remains in the perspective of German characters who have bought into Nazi ideology for such a sustained duration in the way the protagonists do in Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking. Although her soldiers do commit war crimes and her Berlin-based characters do benefit from the evictions of Jews and the confiscation of their property, Magee maintains limited omniscience so that her reader is forced to walk in boots stolen off the bodies of dead Russians, to slip into jeweled bracelets and mink coats that were not willingly donated to charity by former owners. It’s hard to be comfortable when one is confined to the perspectives of Nazi sympathizers, especially when the characters are not stupid or sadistic by nature. We might prefer to believe that history’s villains were less like us.
I was especially intrigued by the way in which Magee engineers her plot so that the psychological trajectories taken by the married protagonists, Peter Faber and Katharina Spinell Faber, cross during their wartime separation. When the couple meets, Peter has every intention of becoming an educator like his father. But, he’s (rather quickly) convinced that his ambitions have been parochial rather than patriotic. Initially, Katharina seems to be the more likely of the two to succumb to sins associated with faith in social engineering. She is certainly more impressed with appearances, and she’s perfectly willing to breed some superior babies for her homeland.
However, as the months of separation accumulate, Peter only manages to cope with the physical and psychological damage he suffers, witnesses and commits by convincing himself that he is serving the interests of his wife and child. He refuses to believe that he and other members of the infantry are little more than cannon fodder. Meanwhile, back at home, Katharina begins to see through the nationalistic delusions when her brother, the favored child, returns from the battlefield with an extreme case of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
Although Magee does not try to compete with previous works of Holocaust literature by visualizing graphic horrors inside concentration camps and gas chambers, she does expose her characters to traumas that would necessitate “trigger warnings” if such labeling were required by university policy, but, honestly, I can’t imagine a war novel that wouldn’t. Magee’s characters are unlikely to win any awards for congeniality or for functioning on a superior moral plane. They are not likely to be beatified. However, they aren’t exactly sadomasochists, either. The Undertaking offers honest insights into some of the more ordinary manifestations of evil.
I received my copy via First Reads giveaway. ...more
I was first attracted to Dagmara Dominczyk’s The Lullaby of Polish Girls by the cover illustration for the paperback edition. Eleanor Hardwick’s photoI was first attracted to Dagmara Dominczyk’s The Lullaby of Polish Girls by the cover illustration for the paperback edition. Eleanor Hardwick’s photograph features three blonde adolescents dressed for a mad tea party (one in a top hat, another in a rabbit mask, a third in summer blue dress). The teens don’t look particularly mad. Only the one in the mask might be dubbed eccentric. Still, I expected the spirit of Lewis Carroll’s manic characters to manifest in some manner in Dominczyk’s book.
The Lullaby does not turn out to be remotely fantastical. Still, I appreciated the opportunity to meet its three likeable protagonists. The teens meet in 1989 when Anna, the so-called Amerkkanka from Brooklyn, spends the summer visiting family in Kielce, Poland.
The ensuing narrative shifts between past encounters and the present of 2002 when the trio reunites after Justyna’s husband has been murdered by her sister’s boyfriend.
Justyna is the “fast” one among the three friends, the first to engage in casual sex, the first to marry, the first to breed. Kamila is the desperately awkward one. She falls in love with and marries a homosexual male friend. Anna is the most “normal” of the three, though her future career choice reflects the unsettled nature of her identity. She eventually acquires limited celebrity as an actress. Maybe that’s why she was the least interesting of the three characters for me. I’m just not that interested in Hollywood or Hollywood wanna-be types.
Although the photographer, Hardwick, clearly did not arrange her version of "afternoon tea with teens" with Dominczyk’s characters in mind, I find it easy enough to associate Justyna with the girl in the tight blue halter top. Her very posture hints at the lameness of the entire situation. Like Alice, this girl would like to be anywhere but where she is. Dominczyk’s Justyna would prefer to be a bar or other night spot. She certainly would not assimilate to polite society.
I find it harder to decide whether Kamila or Anna ought to be lurking behind that plastic bunny face, but, ultimately, I assigned that role to the former since Kamila undergoes cosmetic surgery and diets so rigorously, so fanatically that she bears some resemblance to a march hare’s bony nervousness.
And, although Anna’s performances might not be as off-key as the hatter’s elocutions in Carroll’s fantasy, Anna’s roles really are as provisional as hats. She does not appear to be the kind of method actor who refuses to remove her hat after the camera ceases rolling. She does not take adopted personas to extremes.
As for the plot of The Lullaby of Polish Girls, the murder of Justyna’s husband really just serves as an excuse for the backward looking exploration of feminine selfhood. The author does not depend on suspense for momentum so I suspect her drama won’t satisfy domestic thriller fans. In other words, I don’t see Dominczyk’s book inspiring a blockbuster following of the Gone Girl kind.
Still, I appreciated the opportunity to sample these Polish and Polish-American character studies. Thanks to First Reads for providing my review copy. ...more