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|Nixoncarver by Mark Maxwell Buzz Books/St. Martin's Press US 1998;
UK title: That Other Lifetime, Sceptre 1997
It's difficult to imagine Richard Nixon and Raymond Carver as good buds (Gawd!), but once you read Mark Maxwell's inspired take on the idea you'll be convinced that these two could have formed the perfect male bond. In Maxwell's fictional universe, the two meet up late in life on a California beach - each having walked "a couple hundred miles," one north, one south. Nixon has already been forced to resign from the presidency and Carver is dying of cancer. But the casual conversations and activities that ensue are more upbeat than not. Nixon's infamous gutter mouth is grossly amusing and Carver jumps right in chuckling and teasing. Whatever ideological differences these two have is water under the bridge at the final hour, which is given over to such activities as fishing, a trip to a baseball game with Nixon in a ridiculous disguise, and cleaning out Dick's garage. The talk is typically male with lots of joshing. One of the best chapters is "Diddling," in which Nixon talks about the most important thing in life: to be able to "diddle over someone else." To Carver he says: "I think your poems are diddles. Only they're self-inflicted diddles. You're just like a lonely wife kneeling in a laundry pile. What good is that? You ever try to masturbate while fantasizing about masturbating? . . . You're just diddling yourself when you could be diddling somebody else."
There is a nameless tag-along narrator, who sometimes joins in the conversation, as well as a third-person narrator who relates such moments as Nixon's chance meeting with McGovern on a plane and his wife Pat's attempt to rouse him out of his depression by dressing seductively and exposing her "beaver"; in addition to relaying stories about Nixon's childhood and adolescence interwoven (though to a lesser extent) with Carver's. There is also the occasional "guest" narrator, an old neighbor or acquaintance, telling a story about Nixon. Both men came from dysfunctional families. Nixon's father was cold and demanding; Carver's an alcoholic. Both men followed in their fathers' footsteps, but overcame (or worked with) these obstacles to achieve greatness. In this intriguing portrayal the low-key Carver plays just the right counterpart to Nixon's mania. (One wishes Nixon had had Carver for a friend.) And, most amazing feat of all, author Maxwell manages to elicit a compassion for the doomed ex-president. Tender, wacky, funny, and oh so vibrant - this gem of a first novel (briefly reviewed in BR's sneak previews, June 1997) is a must read for anyone remotely interested in the subject. J.A.
|Disco 2000: Nineteen new stories from the last hours of 1999
Edited by Sarah Champion Sceptre UK 1998
Nineteen writers - including Douglas Coupland,
Nicholas Blincoe, and Poppy Z. Brite - were asked to deliver short stories set during the
last hours of 1999. And what's delivered is some very good short fiction that takes us to
millennial gatherings from one end of the world to the other. Blincoe's "English
Astronaut" zooms on the club scene in Jerusalem where a crazed numerologist (amidst a
host of nutters) meets the new millennium his way. Helen Mead's "Game On" takes
us to an elitist party gathering on a paradise island between the coasts of Thailand and
Cambodia while Charles Hall's "Millennium Loop" presents world travelers on the
rave circuit caught in just what the title suggests. Poppy Z. Brite gives us a glimpse of
Zach and Trevor from Drawing Blood, last seen in Jamaica having fled the US to
escape the FBI (it's nice to know they're still lovers nearly ten years down the line,
living and partying in Amsterdam). But there's more doom and dire circumstance than not in
these fin de millennium stories, which often have a sci-fi/fantasy slant - suicidal
man taken in hand by Bacchus and condemned to party forever; the world awash in dead
bodies falling from the sky - while Douglas Rushkoff's prose poem portrays a Jim Jonesian
cult messiah conducting a mass suicide. Still, it's a good collection and will get you
thinking about where you'll be come the time - or more likely where you won't
want to be. One of the more likely and humorous scenarios comes from Coupland: "Donny
and Christine's New Year's Eve party was not the place where he had always
envisioned himself at century's end."
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Marukami: Translated by Jay Rubin: Alfred A. Knopf US 1997: Harvill UK 1998
Japanese author Marukami begins by giving us a typical Japanese couple who appear to be living a typical life. Yes, 30-year-old Toru Okada is temporarily out of work, having left his job at a law office in Tokyo, unsure of what career to pursue (though law, he feels certain, is not it), but his wife Kumiko, who has a good job in publishing, assures him he should take his time to decide. Okada assumes the job of house-husband, a role that suits him just fine. Then one day their cat runs away. Soon after, Kumiko disappears. And life for Okada - and the duration of this novel - becomes stranger and stranger. A hint here and there suggests that Kumiko has run off with another man, so Okada does not pursue her disappearance in the usual fashion by alerting the police and calling relatives. He continues life as before, but now he's taken to sitting for long stretches in a dry well that sits on some vacant property at the end of a back alley behind his house. He also develops a friendship with 16-year-old May Kasahara, who lives next to the vacant property and knows he climbs down the well. (She removes his rope ladder at one point for several days to see how he'll react.) Enter in a myriad of other bizarre characters: there is the psychic, Malta Kano (who Kumiko had hired to help find the cat) and her sister, Creta Kano, who pop in and out of Okada's life. Creta tells Okada her strange life story, which includes being a prostitute and "defiled" by Okada's much despised brother-in-law, a cunning, on-the-rise politician. (She becomes a "psychic prostitute" and comes to Okada in his dreams.)
Other characters' long tales are relayed to Okada as well. One comes from the aged Lieutenant Mamiya, who tells his story of being captured by the Russians in Outer Mongolia during World War II - a hideous story that involves a man being skinned alive and Lieutenant Mamiya being thrown down a dry well (which inspires Okada's present fascination with 'his' well). Then appears a second set of psychics - the stylish 40-something Nutmeg (real names are not disclosed), who does psychic realignments for wealthy middle-aged women, and her handsome son, Cinnamon, who doesn't speak, but communicates well enough and serves as sort of a cook, housekeeper, and business manager in the "fitting" business. Nutmeg tells her long story , which begins when she is a child living in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in Hsin-ching during the war, where her father was veterinarian at the zoo and ordered to kill the big animals when meager supplies threatened starvation.
Nutmeg and Cinnamon purchase the vacant property - which includes a house known as the "hanging house" because it has only brought death and doom to its past inhabitants - so that Okada can continue his meditations in the well in its back yard and pursue his psychic journeys through the bottom of the well where he travels in hopes of reaching Kamiko.
Some of the novel's many parts work better than others, but overall it is a fascinating exploration of personal and national alienation and dislocation by way of a thought-provoking overview of seemingly unrelated historical events, which leave the characters pondering the nature and relevance of cause and effect. As May Kasahara says : "It's like when you put rice pudding mix in a microwave and push the button, and you take the cover off when it rings, and then you've got rice pudding. I mean, what happens in between the time when you push the switch and when the microwave rings? . . . Maybe the instant rice pudding first turns into macaroni gratin in the darkness when nobody's looking and only then turns back into rice pudding. We think it's only natural to get rice pudding after we put rice pudding mix in the microwave and the bell rings, but to me that's just a presumption." These are the kinds of things Murakami wants us to explore on a grand scale, and he awakens the imagination to do just that. It's deliberately quirky - structurally and thematically - and you will definitely feel as though you put some time in sitting in the depths of this damn well, but that's what it's there for - to contemplate the metaphysical without everyday distraction. I rather missed the well at novel's end. J.A.
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| Wasted by Marya Hornbacher : HarperCollins : U.S. 1998
Flamingo UK 1998
[First previewed in the BR, Aug. 1997] Having trouble losing those extra few pounds? Here's a how-not-to and a half. Twenty-three-year-old Hornbacher became bulimic at age nine, anorexic at age fifteen, and veered back and forth from one to the other until age twenty. Her personal account is riveting and provides the most insightful analysis to date on the subject of eating disorders, a subject on which Ms. Hornbacher would seem to have something to teach the experts. There are no easy answers, but various and possible contributing factors are explored: the author's genetic make-up; her mental and physical precociousness; the slightly dysfunctional family; and, perhaps most importantly of all, the cultural milieu that equates self-control and self-esteem with thinness. This is quite the page- turner as the reader follows the author through her sexually promiscuous junior high years and on through her teens and drugs and hospitalizations and institutionalizations and a mad sojourn in laid-back Bodega Bay, California, on to university in Washington D.C. before receiving the one-week-to-live verdict at age 19. She beat that rap but is far from cured. Intelligent, honest, without the least hint of self-pity or undue accusation, this is not only the definitive personal account on the subject of eating disorders, but one hell of a book full stop. J.A.
| Snake Cradle by Roberta Sykes: Allen & Unwin Australia
"I wrote it because it was time," says Aboriginal Australian writer and activist, Roberta Sykes, of the first volume of her three-part autobiography, Snake Dreaming: The Autobiography of a Black Woman. Snake Cradle, published by Allen & Unwin in Australia last October and the winner of several Australian literary awards, recounts the story of Sykes' often traumatic mixed-race childhood in Northern Australia during the 1950s. As a young person in the 1970s, Roberta was one of Australia's fiercest activists for Aboriginal rights -- newspaper clippings referred to her as the Angela Davis of Australia. In the 1980s Sykes attended Harvard University and earned a Ph.D. in Education, subsequently returning to Australia where she became active as a health care advocate for the Aboriginal community outside Sydney. Snake Cradle is a homage to the Aboriginal people of Australia and tells the tale of a period in Australia which author Peter Carey, author of Oscar and Lucinda, has called the "dark time."
Sykes' unknown father was a phantom character - Aboriginal, Pacific Islander or African-American serviceman - and this made all the difference in 1950s Australia, where race and class were heavily policed by the ruling elite and Sykes was brought up having to "act white." Her white, working-class mother took in laundry to pay the rent and depended on Roberta, her eldest daughter, as her indispensable aide; in return, her mother protected her from racism, enrolled her in schools that were off-limits to girls of full Aboriginal ancestry, and encouraged her athletic and musical talents. When she was 14, however, the Nuns expelled Roberta from school, as she was no longer a child but a budding Aboriginal woman who could not be allowed an education reserved only for whites. Roberta's world is devastated after she is expelled and this event is the catalyst for tragedy. Sykes takes several menial jobs and even manages to secure a nursing position -- but her world has been shaken to the core. At 17 she enters a talent contest and wins; afterwards, she is separated from a friend and accepts the offer of a ride from "friendly" men who end up gang-raping her and leaving her in the bush. Sykes' white mother intervenes and the rapists are eventually brought to justice.
Sykes tells her story through the eyes of a child growing into adolescence; the writing is visual, vivid, free of long, introspective passages. Snake Cradle tells the story of black Australians -- a tragic story of stolen land, stolen children and poverty and drug addiction peppered with many moments of family love, a respect for the spirit world and the wonders of nature -- and always the drive to survive, despite roadblocks at every turn. The second volume of Snake Dreaming, due out in Australia later this year, will tell the tale of Sykes' years as an Aboriginal activist.....years when the sweet young "colored" girl became a threat to the cultural and racial hegemony that tried to enslave her young spirit. After reading Snake Cradle, it's apparent that Roberta Sykes has a great deal more to say.
To order Snake Cradle ($19.95 Aus), please contact www.otheredge.com.au/aa/sykes/sc.html The book will be available in the US and UK later this year.
Review by Siobhan Benet
ISSUE: 5 February 1998 Back to Top
| Cavedweller by
Dorothy Allison: Dutton US (March 1998)
From the author of Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) comes this second novel set
again in the rural south (Cairo, Georgia), this time focusing on the lives of Delia Byrd
and her three daughters. It begins in Los Angeles in the early 80s where Delia is living
with her youngest daughter, ten-year-old Cissy. Cissy's father, a rock star of some note
as was her mother before leaving him and the band, has just died in a motorcycle accident.
After the funeral Delia decides it's a good time for her and Cissy to pack up and move
back to her hometown of Cairo. And she has her reasons: as a teenager Delia had married
the darkly charismatic Clint Windsor and had two daughters; but Clint was abusive and
Delia fled for her life by hopping on a tour bus of the rock band, Mad Dog, where she
hooked up with lead singer Randall and soon joined the band. Attempts were later made from
LA to get custody of her two baby girls, but they remained with Clint's religious fanatic
mother who thinks the worst of Delia, as do many of the townspeople of Cairo. On her
return Delia must deal with the community's wary-to-negative attitude towards her while
trying to handle an understandably confused, hurt, and recalcitrant Cissy. She manages to
strike a deal with ex-hubby Clint, now a cancer-ridden alcoholic without long to live:
she'll care for him until his death if he'll sign the two girls, now young teenagers, over
to her. The new household consists of Delia and the bedfast Clint, Cissy, and her new
sisters, Amanda and Dede, who resent their mother, their new sister and the move. Amanda
is a stern religious type like her Grandma, but Dede is less so and soon shows a wild
streak. This household-from-hell where each inhabitant harbors his or her own deep and
personal anger and grief forms the structural setting which takes us on into the decade
and sees the coming-of-age of the three girls.
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Coming Attractions by David Prill : St Martin's Press US (March 1998)
Boogie Nights may be the year's hit film to date with its foray into the world of porn cinema, but what about the marginal world of - get this - Christian cinema. Sound absurd? You bet it is and more fun for us. The "inspirational film community" forms the basis of this wacky and very funny spoof on Hollywood, blinkered Christians and right-wing pro-lifers. Center stage are the Minnesota-based Christian filmmakers - The Good Samaritans, Inc - whose inspirational movies, with titles like Hear the Word, A Carnival for Timmy, and Three Strikes and You're Saved are as laughable and dire as you might think. Still, they manage to garner "Ark Awards" at the yearly ceremonies. Then competition comes along in the form of Blood of the Lamb Films, a company fixated on pro-life shock films. The Good Samaritans have other problems, too. Teen star Ricky Bible is now 25 years old and of necessity being groomed for the role of Jesus Christ, once played by Rance Jericho until he chronologically outgrew the role. Evie Speck, daughter of Good Samaritan producer Noah Speck, has been having a behind-the-scenes affair with Ricky, but now that he is Christ she feels odd. To complicate matters she is pregnant: "I'm in love with the Lord and I'm carrying his baby." Evie puts out an ad to form a support group for women in relationships with men who portray Jesus Christ. (Her one response is from a woman whose husband plays Muhammad, prompting the change of name to "Women of Men Who Portray Christ or Any Other Deity.") Meanwhile, Blood of the Lamb Films has a blockbuster with The Fetal Detective, which has thrown everyone into a tizzy and tests the moral fiber of all concerned. The plot goes a bit wonky near the end, but the sheer bizarreness of the narrative keeps you turning the pages and the author's very real talent for fantastical satire makes it well worth the effort. I'll definitely be checking out the author's previous two novels, as I just did Prill's homepage on the web - well worth a visit! J.A.
| Nail and Other Stories by Laura Hird : Rebel Inc UK
From the Scottish publishers who launched Irvine Welsh,
Alan Warner, et al., Rebel Inc. now introduces a female voice that rings as loud, clear
and true as her male peers. First came the novella, "The Dilating Pupil," in the
critically-acclaimed anthology Children of Albion Rovers (1996). Now we have Ms
Hird's first collection, and a memorable one it is. Nail consists of ten unsettling
stories set in and around the urban environ of Edinburgh where surface reality often masks
a dark underside. "Imaginary Friends" tells of a little girl's visits to her
piano teacher where all is not what it seems to either her or those around her. The
curious "Nail" reveals the hidden secret (fleshy black fungal fibre protruding
from a fingernail) of a snobbish, neurotic young woman, whereas "Of Cats and
Women" peaks at a jilted woman's obsession for tormenting her ex, and includes the
flat and memorable opening line: "She was sitting in the car watching his house when
she first saw his slut." "Tillicoultry/Anywhere" shows how far a
middle-aged suburban woman will go to please a hubby fixated on the idea of a
wife-swapping venture while "I Am Gone" takes us literally behind the scenes by
allowing us to view a grieving young woman through the eyes of her dead lesbian lover, who
must surely wish she'd never left the grave. "The Last Supper," told from a
young male's point of view, shows the serious mischief a down-on-his-luck lad can get up
to when pushed by a bastard of a landlord.
"Routes," a short story selection from Nail
and Other Stories,
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| My Sister
Life: The Story of My Sister's Disappearance by Maria Flook Pantheon Books US 1997
This is the true-life double story of author Maria Flook, nee Mitchell, and her older sister Karen, who disappeared from the family home at age 14 in 1964. Flook chronicles the history of the family, dominated by an eerily selfish, vain, and beautiful mother, and gives us Karen's story in detail: sexually promiscuous from an early age, Karen ran away from home at 14 with a 50-year-old ex-Navy man, who took her to live in a seedy trailer with him and his sometime paramour, Ruth, who runs the local whorehouse for sailors at "Nofuck" Virginia. Soon enough Karen becomes a child prostitute. She takes the job and everything else in stride, growing up so fast one can hardly believe her age. Two years later this scene is played out and Karen returns home where she is immediately committed to a mental hospital on the advice/order of her mother. Upon release she falls back into the low life as the much abused girlfriend of a drug-dealing black man from whom she later escapes by jumping with her new baby from a two-story window. Her sister Maria, two years younger, has followed a different life, but not without some similarities. She was a delinquent in high school, but went off to college, got married, had a child, and got divorced. She and her sister, both single mothers, live together for a time and ward off abusive boyfriends, but the women are far too incompatible for this set-up to last. Jump ahead twenty years: both Maria and her sister are married and each have had another baby. Karen works in a gambling casino; the author is a writer and teaches at Bennington. The book is an engaging double history full of period details: the Vietnam War, Woodstock, bell-bottoms, drugs, sexual promiscuity, etc. Perhaps the author works too hard at placing all the blame on their proud mother and perhaps she works too hard at constructing a "parallel" life between herself and her sister, but there is indeed enough evidence to support this approach. The more intelligent, academically inclined Maria, once a tomboy, makes for an interesting "shadow" to her older, sexy, more street-wise sister. Maria is always trying to analyze her situation - and their lives - while Karen floats along accepting what comes her way without much thought. The icy and narcissistic mother, Veronica, is well portrayed and highly memorable as is the well-intentioned but ineffectual father. This is a compelling fractured family portrait that sets out to prove bad moms make for crap daughters - at least until they outgrow the damaging influence and get their acts together. J.A.
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ŠThe Barcelona Review 1998