Archive for the ‘guest columns’ Category

Guest Column: Valerie Trueblood

Friday, December 7th, 2007

Seattle writer Valerie Trueblood contributes the column below about the famed traveler Isabelle Eberhardt, who, for much of her short life, lived and wrote about Algeria during the French occupation.

eberhardt.jpgHardly anybody who met the writer Isabelle Eberhardt at the turn of the last century thought she was an Arab man. But all of her physical and mental powers went into making believe she was one: she dressed like one, she rode and camped like one, she lived hand to mouth in the Algerian desert as a nomad and disciple of Sufism. At the same time, she wrote for the French newspapers and even sought to embed herself with the troops expanding French “protection,” having vague ideas of a fusion of Islamic and French culture in her adopted country. For herself, she chose firmly against European life in any form. The French in Algiers—other than officials who kept an eye on her movements—shunned her, despite their intense interest in her disguise and her exploits. As for the undeceived Algerians, they courteously received her as a man.



Guest Column: Valerie Trueblood

Wednesday, September 13th, 2006

This week, Seattle writer Valerie Trueblood contributes a column about Swiss writer C.-F.Ramuz. Valerie’s first novel, Seven Loves, came out this summer from Little, Brown. She is at work on an essay about the fiction of Ramuz, a book of dog stories, and a second novel.

In July, it got so hot in Seattle–a near-100-degree, breathless, un-Pacific-Northwest heat–that I thought of a novel I used to love, and took it off the shelf and read it again: The End of All Men. It made a hot night even longer. It’s not a book to take your mind off global warming.

The great Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, who wrote of life on the steep pastures of the Swiss Alps, published Présence de la Mort in the twenties. Here we waited until 1944 for a translation, The End of All Men. Ramuz has been compared to Hardy for his depiction of rural life, but his barely individualized characters are no kin of Tess and Jude. Hardy would recognize the way their fates dog them, but fate, for a character in Ramuz’s disaster novels, is nothing deserved or tragically earned, it’s a blow dealt straight from earth and sky onto the body. Reading Ramuz is an exercise in giving up ideas of human cause and effect, and feeling the rumble of tectonic plates. But the humans are there, tiny figures living lives of great particularity on the ground-and somehow we want to go along on their hopeless errands. What is to become of them, these men and women in whom character is beside the point?



Katrina Denza’s Lit Mag Roundup 3.0

Thursday, July 20th, 2006

The Lit Mag Roundup is a quarterly feature at, in which North Carolina-based fiction writer Katrina Denza shares her literary discoveries of the season. Below is the summer roundup, where Katrina reviews the latest from The Pinch, Washington Square Review, Tin House, Night Train, and Ninth Letter.

One thing became clear to me as I set aside a batch of journals with the intention of reading and reviewing, if not all, at least most of the pile: there are so many quality journals publishing extraordinary work, I couldn’t possibly comment on as many as I’d hoped. And although those I did include in this summer’s column are not the only ones I’d recommend from the tall pile that sat on my desk, they certainly made enough of an impression for me to devour their contents and write about.

The first issue of The Pinch, formerly known as River City, is a strong one, with a sophisticated southern flavor. It’s named after the Pinch District, the residential area originally for Irish immigrants and Jewish merchants, which has enjoyed a resurgence of interest and has become a historical landmark. The issue is lovely with a glossy cover designed by Gary Golightly, and glossy, easy-to-read pages within. In the fiction category, Anna Baker illustrates the power of few words with her brief, but evocative piece, “Silent Couple Drinking Coffee.” In Carol J. Palay’s “Blue Plastic Bags,” a man impregnates another woman and his fiancée dreams of his baby’s death. A man and woman sort through belongings on the eve of their separation in Jim Tomlinson’s “Stainless.” Tomlinson’s ability to elicit emotion with subtle strokes makes his piece particularly powerful. I enjoyed Shellie Zacharia’s hilarious and poignant short-short, “What To Do On A Saturday Night One Week After Your Lover Announced, ‘Sayonara, Sweetheart,’ Even Though He’s Not Japanese And He Never Called You Sweetheart.” Laurel Jenkins-Crowe offers a different look at married life with her clever story, “Do It Yourself.” The unexpected is the theme in Carol Ghiglieri’s story, “Homecoming,” with both a surprise pregnancy and a surprising gesture of love. Kelly Magee writes of grief in her short-short, “New Orleans Isn’t There.” And in David B. Essinger’s “A Jar Full of Bees,” a man imagines an explosive end to a difficult life.



Guest Review: Katrina Denza

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

voodooheart.jpegVoodoo Heart
Scott Snyder
Bantam Dell
276 pp.

The men in Scott Snyder’s debut collection of stories Voodoo Heart, are running–either away from constricting lives or after the objects of their affections. Each yearns deeply for that which is beyond his reach.

In “Blue Yodel,” a man drives his Model T across the country in pursuit of the blimp which carries his girlfriend away from him, toward the West Coast. The reader can only guess why the girlfriend has left him. Perhaps it’s the intensity of his feelings for her–feelings he describes as “an exhibit on hydroelectricity he’d seen at a fair.” The chase, which lasts through the whole story, serves as an apt metaphor for the ultimate surrender to the unknown course of love.

Snyder’s men possess the innocence and curiosity of children, and this sense of youthful wonder and outrage at the world is the very thing that endears the reader to them. The narrator of “About Face,’ has an appealing naiveté. Miles Fergus is twenty-nine, well-meaning but unlucky. He’s given a community service job playing the horn for troubled boys after a good deed goes wrong. The camp’s director enlists Miles’ help in driving his ill daughter to her treatments, and the reader is swept along with Miles as he begins to believe in a happy ending, but as in many of Snyder’s stories, happy endings aren’t so much a possibility as an anomaly.



Guest Column: Ayun Halliday

Wednesday, June 7th, 2006

dirtysugar.jpegThis week, writer Ayun Halliday contributes a column on zines. Halliday is the founder of the quarterly zine The East Village Inky and the author of four self-mocking autobiographies, most recently Dirty Sugar Cookies: Culinary Observations, Questionable Taste. She is BUST magazine’s Mother Superior columnist and has contributed to a vast array of low-paying forums. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, playwright Greg Kotis, and their two well-documented children. Here is what she had to say about starting her own zine:

Long before I had kids or book contracts or Internet access, I was struck by something Spalding Gray said in an interview with Tricycle magazine. Asked what motivated him to start performing his autobiographical monologues, he replied that he got tired of waiting for “the Big Infernal Machine to make up its mind” about him. I never met him, and have long suspected that he might be one of those charismatic, neurotic handfuls best worshipped from afar, but he was one of my heroes, and those words meant a lot to me. At 31, I was loathe to relinquish my dream of a life in the arts, despite overwhelming evidence that, should I ever be tempted to offer myself up for serious consideration, the Big Infernal Machine would drop my resume in the shredder without even opening the envelope.

These days, blogs provide an excellent forum for those looking to claim a piece of the action without first securing the big infernal machine’s approval. Even a cavewoman like me can figure out how to publish (and promote!) on the Internet. Still, there’s something to be said for a good, old-fashioned print zine, the kind that gets stapled up on a dining room table and then stuffed into an envelope whose flap will be moistened by the publisher’s own tongue.



Guest Review: Colleen Mondor

Wednesday, April 19th, 2006

princeamong.jpgPrinces Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians
By Garth Cartwright
Serpent’s Tail
309 pp.

Garth Cartwright was already familiar with Gypsy music when he decided to travel across the Balkans in search of the truth behind Gypsy myths. He set out to not only interview well-known Gypsy singers and musicians but also to explore how the Roma people were surviving in the former Yugoslavia and other Eastern European countries. (The term “Roma” refers to people of an established ethnic group and is slowly coming back into use. “Gypsy” was a title conferred by Europeans on the first Roma to arrive in Europe a thousand years ago as they mistakenly believed them to have arrived from Egypt. It is now used somewhat negatively to refer to anyone who leads a nomadic life, regardless of ethnicity, but is still the accepted term for Roma music.) While it may sometimes be difficult for some readers to keep track of the many unfamiliar names and destinations that Cartwright rattles off with ease, his intense desire to know just what life is like on the ground for a people struggling not only to hold on to their traditions but also to keep a roof over their heads makes his book, Princes Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians fascinating reading.

In traveling through Serbia, Macedonia, Romania and Bulgaria, Cartwright found most Romas living in “mahalas” or Roma settlements. The poverty is staggering, with the musicians often proving to be the only community members who are able to afford indoor plumbing or electricity. This is the story that, as Cartwright explains, is all too often ignored by journalists investigating post-war Yugoslavia or the collapse of communism. As he writes in the book, “their role in history is reduced to a silent supporting cast. And the Roma know this – nobody’s listening – so [it’s] feeding a sense of exclusion.” This feeling is supported by the fact that few historians acknowledge the Roma genocide in WWII, where they were one of the few groups specifically targeted by Hitler for extermination and lost approximately 500,000 people in concentration camps. Cartwright makes a serious effort toward combating this lack of information by discussing Roma history in each of the countries he visits, explaining how they initially came to live there and their political and social struggles to gain equality. His research reveals that it has not been an easy road for them, and each step of the way their struggle has been gone largely unrecognized.



Katrina Denza’s Lit Mag Roundup 2.1

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

litmag2.1.JPGThe Lit Mag Roundup is a quarterly feature at, in which North Carolina-based fiction writer Katrina Denza shares her literary discoveries of the season. Below is the second installment of the spring roundup, where Katrina reviews the latest from Subtropics, Bellevue Literary Review, and Passages North.

I’ve enjoyed reading these next three journals; they include eclectic, and sometimes breathtaking, pieces. The debut issue of Subtropics, for instance, is handsome, inside and out, with its intriguing cover art and glossy inner pages. Edited by David Leavitt, it will be published three times a year by the University of Florida in Gainesville. If I were to choose a word to describe the contents, it would be ‘elegant.’

A retirement community is stirred up in John Barth’s story “Peeping Tom.” Eileen Pollack’s “The Bris,” is the story of a man who requests a bris on his deathbed so he can finally become the official convert he’d been pretending to be all along. A mathematician is confronted with the possibility that his most famous theorem is incorrect in Manil Suri’s “The Tolman Trick.” In Ariel Dorfman’s “Gringos,” a South American couple traveling in Barcelona accepts the help of a stranger with less than positive consequences. In Joanna Scott’s uniquely organized story “The Lucite Cane,” readers are introduced to people briefly connected by a man’s cane.

Kent Annan takes readers to Haiti with his essay “Sketches of Scarcity.” Harold Bloom discusses the work of Hans Christian Andersen in his essay, “Trust the Tale, Not the Teller.” In her memoir piece “Guilt,” Abigail Thomas writes openly of her feelings surrounding her husband’s life-altering accident. Chris Bachelder’s “Near the End of the Symphony Strike,” a musical prose poem, decorates the back cover, and Anne Carson’s “Grasscolored: A Threat Documentary” really struck me. Here’s an excerpt:

“…You may receive your own obituary in the mail. A person in black stops before you in the street then hurries away. And suddenly, at six in the morning, as if swept by winter rivers, everything will change. Your telephone, your kitchen, your driveway, all these things that had a notion of you now change their gaze and watch you from a different place, no, from two places. Everything now happens from two places. You brush your teeth in the second and third person, watching the driveway, waiting for your child who is late from school. You sweat from those places.”



Katrina Denza’s Lit Mag Roundup 2.0

Wednesday, March 29th, 2006

litmag-2.0.jpgThe Lit Mag Roundup is a quarterly feature at, in which North Carolina-based fiction writer Katrina Denza shares her literary discoveries of the season. In this installment, she reviews the latest from The Baltimore Review, Small Spiral Notebook, A Public Space, and Gulf Coast.

It’s the end of March and evidence of spring’s arrival can be found outside my house in various forms: forsythia and hyacinths were the first to bloom; narcissuses, daffodils, irises, violets have now risen up vibrant and lovely from beneath the ground and the first of the azaleas have blossomed. Just as the first flowers have appeared in the yard, so have the latest issues of some of my favorite journals begun to fill my mailbox–and some brand new to me as well.

The Baltimore Review‘s Winter/Spring issue begins with a note from managing editor Susan Muaddi Darraj, acknowledging the hard work of the editorial staff (fourteen volunteers in addition to the founding and managing editors). Of the six pieces of fiction, the first is Jacob M. Appel’s “Waterloo,” the hilarious story of a man who attends a birthday party for his girlfriend’s dead niece. In Clifford Garstang’s “Heading for Home,” tension builds as a sheriff is confronted with prejudice and doesn’t release until the last sentence. Shawn Behlen’s “As Children Do,” tells of a man struggling with the truth of his parents’ relationship. Told in alternating POVs, “The Middle Stretch,” by Holly Sanders, is an expertly controlled story of an exchange between a woman and the trooper who pulls her over. In Louis Gallo’s “Dark Matters,” a man and his wife ponder dark matters and dreams on the way to the podiatrist. Three siblings use their imagination to cope with violence in their home in the last story of the issue, Alaura Wilfert’s “Indians.” There are three pieces of creative nonfiction: Melanie Hoffert’s prizewinning “Going Home,” about the author’s connection with the land she grew up on and her attempt to speak openly of her sexuality on her return home; Marcia R. Aquíñiga shares her childhood experience of acting as translator for her Mexican grandmother in “Doing All the Talking;” and Jerry D. Mathes II has a riveting essay on fighting fires in north-central Idaho called, “Falling into Fire.” Of the ten poems, my favorites were Colleen Webster’s “Voices Along the Yangtzee;” Daniele Pantano’s “Patrimonial Recipe;” and Margaret J. Hoehn’s prizewinning “Five Prayers of Apples,” part of which reads:

Near the place where I stopped to rest,
what hung to the ground, like a bird’s injured wing,
was a branch that had splintered
beneath the ripening fruit, a way of saying
that even abundance has burdens,
that beauty sits side-by-side with loss.

The issue ends with six book reviews and a fascinating interview with author Tristan Davies by Nathan Leslie.

Small Spiral Notebook‘s latest issue is appealing in its elegance, but don’t let the slenderness of the volume fool you: it’s loaded with rich, sophisticated material. The fiction is impressive. In Aimee Pokwatka’s “Perennials,” a couple mourns their inability to grow a lush garden. Paul Yoon tells of a friendship between a sea woman and a wounded boy in “So That They Do Not Hear Us.”



Guest Review: S. Ramos O’Briant

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006

manwithoutcountry.jpeg endangeredvalues.jpeg

A Man Without a Country
Kurt Vonnegut
Seven Stories Press
192 pp.

Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis
Jimmy Carter
Simon & Schuster
224 pp.

At first glance, Kurt Vonnegut, author, pessimist and humorist might not seem to have much in common with Jimmy Carter, author, optimist and former President of the United States. But these two members of the so-called Greatest Generation are worried about America, and both have recently published books on the subject.

A Man Without a Country is a slender book of Vonnegut’s musings, opinions and insights about the state of humanity, specifically American humanity. It starts out grumpy — which brings my mother to mind, only eighty to Vonnegut’s eighty-three and Carter’s eighty-two. Like her, it focuses on all the bad news in the world: greed, religion, politics, and the curious admixture of religion with politics. He ventures into the last subject via an obscure reference to the Great Lakes people, apparently extinct except for Vonnegut, allowing him to mention Socialist Party candidate Eugene Victor Debs, which naturally segues into Stalin, Christianity, the Spanish Inquisition, Hitler and, ta ta ta ta, Karl Marx. Notice a trend here? And I don’t mean the K’s in Kurt and Karl. No? As with all Vonnegut books, a pattern will emerge. Or not.



Guest Column: Tommy Hays

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2006

Tommy Hays is the author of The Pleasure Was Mine, which comes out in paperback this month. A previous contributor to, he sends in this short column, titled “Church of the Big Legs.”

As a child, when I thought of Unitarians, I thought of pizza and women with big legs. My best friend across the street in Greenville, South Carolina, where I grew up, was Unitarian. One Sunday his family took me to their church, which was like no other church I had been to. I had had some inkling that it might be a little different because he had told me to bring my swimsuit and a towel, but I didn’t think anything could be much stranger than my own religious upbringing.

As a toddler, I had often accompanied my great great aunt and uncle to a small conservative Baptist church, where the preacher harangued, and I often screamed back in a kind of mutual and strangely satisfying hysteria. Then my father, who was from the Midwest and whose parents had been Christian Scientist and who had his own mystical leanings, decided we (at least my brother, my mother and I) should attend a Christian Science Church, while he stayed home and read the Sunday morning paper. At the time a Christian Science Church in a Southern town was a real anomaly, and when my teacher at school discovered I was Christian Scientist, she would ask me questions in front of the whole class like, “If you contracted malaria, would your parents give you quinine?” In my religious upbringing I had gone from fire and brimstone to Mary Baker Eddy’s murky mortal mind, from the heat of hell’s eternal furnace to the intellectual intricacies of Science and Health.

So the Sunday morning I accompanied my best friend’s family to a Unitarian Church I did not know what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect that their church would be a house in a neighborhood. Didn’t even have a steeple. No crosses. When we went in, no one was dressed in Sunday clothes. Among the men, there wasn’t a coat or tie in sight. Many of the women had on slacks. There was one woman in shorts who had the biggest legs I’d ever seen. I was nine-years-old and hadn’t seen that many women in shorts. My mother never wore them. No mothers I knew wore them. I certainly had never seen anyone in church wear shorts. While no one else was wearing shorts that day, I had the suspicion as I looked around, that all Unitarian women had monstrous legs.



Katrina Denza’s Lit Mag Roundup 1.1

Wednesday, February 15th, 2006

Three weeks ago, we presented Part 1 of The Lit Mag Roundup, a new, quarterly feature at, in which North Carolina-based fiction writer Katrina Denza shares her literary discoveries of the season. Below is Part II of her fall 2005 review.

For every commercial movie I go to see, I watch about ten independents. I want to be moved; I want an experience unencumbered by packaging for the masses; I want to learn something: about another culture, another time, about humanity. Literary journals offer all of these things as well.

In the Fall/Winter 2005 issue of The Paris Review, readers can expect to be taken to faraway places. The issue begins with Karl Taro Greenfeld’s dispatch, “Wild Flavor,” a riveting account of how one young man, hoping for a better life, moves to Shenzhen and contracts SARS. Andy Friedman and Nicholas Dawidoff take us to the hidden world of Brooklyn’s fish market, soon to be forever changed, in “At the Fish Market.” There are two insightful interviews: one with poet Jack Gilbert and one with novelist Orhan Pamuk. Both offer wisdom on the writing process. There are poems by Jack Gilbert, John Burnside, and Mary Jo Bang. My favorites of each (“Ode to History,” “Winter in the Night Fields,” “Nothing”) all have a reverence and a visceral magic to them. Suyeon Yun’s “Two Koreas, Ten Portraits,” shows us hidden North Korean escapees in Seoul. Dmitri Nabokov has translated one of his father’s poems, “Revolution.” In Ma Jian’s essay, “Tibetan Excursion,” he writes of his disappointment in the reality of Tibet and of his persecution by the Chinese government for his collection, “Stick Out Your Tongue.” His story, “Woman and the Blue Sky,” offered in this issue, is part of that collection. And in Benjamin Percy’s “Refresh, Refresh,” a young man’s life is greatly affected when the men of his Oregon town, including his father, are deployed to Iraq.



Guest Review: Kay Sexton

Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

talesofthenight.jpgTales of the Night
Peter Hoeg
The Harvill Press
308 pp

Tales of the Night is a short story collection linked by two themes: all eight stories take place in the same moment — the night of 19 March 1929; and all deal with the idea of love. So says the writer. Most readers would spot cross-cutting themes without the writer’s assistance. The stories range from the Congo to Denmark, a fishing boat to a physics laboratory, but while each is clearly set in the same narrow time-frame, finding the element of love in some stories requires an excavation of archaeological proportions.

It is a daring collection because it makes great demands on its readership. Hoeg doesn’t compromise: he expects the reader to master Danish jurisprudence, African colonial history, wave and particle theory, and a final dizzying exploration of obsession — each in the space of a single short story. But Tales of the Night is also uneven. This earliest published work of the writer now famous for Smilla’s Sense of Snow, shows a writer exploring craft, rather than one communicating with certainty.



Katrina Denza’s Lit Mag Roundup 1.0

Wednesday, January 25th, 2006

The Lit Mag Roundup is a new, quarterly feature at, in which North Carolina-based fiction writer Katrina Denza shares her literary discoveries of the season.

I bought my first literary journal subscription in 1999. A longtime reader of novels, that was the year I’d begun to explore writing. I don’t remember where I first saw an issue of Story, but after I read a copy, I fell in love with the short story form and subscribed. I still have on my desk an old issue of the now-defunct magazine, edited by Lois Rosenthal and Will Allison, and featuring stories from Tim Gautreaux, Matt Cohen, Ingrid Hill, and the late Carol Shields, to remind me of when my excitement for short stories first ignited.

Now, my bookshelves are filled with literary journals. I subscribe to at least twenty a year, and piled in stacks all over my house are samples from over sixty journals. They are as important to me as the short story collections and novels with which they share shelf space. This is all well and good for me, but if I were to ask some stranger on the street if he’s heard of a particular literary journal, most likely his answer would be no. I wonder how it is that such amazing work is left to collect dust in the few bookstores that carry them, or kept insulated in the academic world. If books are the showy muscles of the literary world, then journals are the blood: hidden, self-renewing, and essential.

The vast array of print journals is staggering. Some are associated with universities, others are independent. Some journals such as Zoetrope: All Story; Orchid; Land-Grant College Review; and One Story print all fiction. Many journals, like Missouri Review; AGNI; The Kenyon Review; Virginia Quarterly Review; and others of similar quality offer an excellent mix of fiction, essays, poetry, art, author interviews, and book reviews. Some focus on poetry (Borderlands, Poetry, and Beloit Poetry Journal). Still others specialize in offering short-shorts (Vestal Review, Brevity, Quick Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly) or a mix of poetry and prose poetry (Cranky, The Bitter Oleander, Parting Gifts). There are journals that showcase women (Iris, Calyx, Emrys Journal) and others that feature stories about, and for, mothers (Brain, Child and Literary Mama). Most are glossy covered, some are stapled together, some have unique packaging (McSweeney’s), and one even has an artful hand-bound format (Spork). The choices seem unlimited, something for everyone.

Because I’m a visual person, I’ve picked up a journal solely on the vibrancy of the cover. Some journals I buy out of curiosity and a few get my subscription money simply because one of their fiction editors went out of their way to be encouraging or supportive of my work. A journal’s reputation may induce me to pick up a copy or subscribe for a year, but it’s not what keeps me going back for more. Here’s what does it for me: excellent, attainable fiction and poetry, beautiful art, and an encouraging, courteous staff. There are many I love–it would be hard to name favorites. And like my books, I buy more than I could possibly read with the thought I’ll get to them eventually. In this new year I plan on getting to know them better and sharing my discoveries. I’ll begin with two recent examples of literary excellence:



Guest Column: John Kropf’s Unknown Sands

Wednesday, January 18th, 2006

unknownsands.jpg (Ed: If, like me, you know sensationally little about Turkmenistan, you may be interested in this excerpt from John Kropf’s Unknown Sands, an account of the two years he spent living, working, and travelling through this closed country.)

For centuries, Turkmenistan was the world’s most feared territory. Since the time of the Mongols, the nomadic tribes of its vast desert wastes were deemed ungovernable. Russians and Persians were captured and carried off by the fierce Turkmen to be used or sold as slaves. Europeans avoided traveling through the area at all costs. It was not until the late 19th century that Turkmenistan– the last of the wild Central Asian territories–was finally subdued by the Russian Army. Now, an independent country strategically located between the hot spots of Afghanistan and Iran, it sits atop one of the planet’s largest natural gas reserves. Still, Turkmenistan is virtually unknown to the outside world.

The country had always been subsumed as part of larger indefinite, geographical regions with names like Khorezm, Tartary, Transoxus, Turkmenia, Transcaspia and Turkestan. Before its conquest by the Russians in the 1880s, the territory was never considered a country in political terms. Its boundaries were undefined and its people were deemed ungovernable despite repeated attempts to subdue them. While the Turkmen tribes had been the last to submit to Russian rule, it came only but only after a terrible cost. There are some who doubted it should even be a country at all; that it should instead be returned to its natural, pre-Russian existence that was nothing more than a harsh desert sparsely occupied by fierce nomadic tribes. The country represented the southernmost reach of the Russian Empire in the Great Game with Britain.



Guest Review: Clifford Garstang

Wednesday, January 11th, 2006

hannahandthemtn.jpgHannah and the Mountain
Jonathan Johnson
University of Nebraska Press, 2005
224 pp.

In poet Jonathan Johnson’s lyrical memoir, subtitled “Notes Toward a Wilderness Fatherhood,” every day presents a new challenge: the Idaho snowmelt trickling ominously under the cabin he and his wife, Amy, have built; surviving on Johnson’s meager writing grant, without glass in the window-frames, insulation, electricity or running water. But the challenges, both physical and financial, truly begin when a pregnancy test confirms what Amy already suspects.

Johnson’s richly-observed descriptions of the land–snow-covered mountains, pine and fir trees, the raging river that severs access to the nearest road–prove his vital connection to his surroundings. He is convinced that Baby Hannah was conceived in a nearby field, under the rising moon, and her origin makes Johnson’s ties to the wilderness indissoluble. He prepares for her arrival in this landscape, gradually smoothing the cabin’s rough edges, as his anticipation of fatherhood builds.

Amy’s difficult pregnancy confines her to bed, further stretching the couple’s financial bind and heightening Johnson’s anxiety. He wonders if he has endangered their baby by imposing his backcountry dream on Amy. Did their fragile finances force Amy to work longer than was wise? He is a man under a mountain of worry, but at the bottom of that worry is his love for the baby.



Guest Review: Colleen Mondor

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

kantner.jpegOrdinary Wolves
Seth Kantner
Milkweed Editions
330 pp.

Ordinary Wolves provides a clear portrayal of a subtle culture clash that continues to play itself out in the northernmost reaches of the U.S. It is the story of the complexities that make up the distant part of the American wilderness and at its heart, it is about a boy who does not know who he is, and the lengths that he will go to find out just where he belongs.

Seth Kantner won the Whiting Award in November for this debut effort and authors such as Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver and Alaskan Nick Jans have lauded the novel for its honest intensity. As someone who lived in Alaska for ten years, I was happy to see that the novel does not contribute to the long litany of titles trying to cash in on Alaska’s poetic wildness – for example, you will find no images here of tourists suddenly finding religion when sighting a herd of caribou for the first time.

Kantner was born in the bush and lived there all of his life (in a relatively remote northwestern area of the state). He has lived the fabled frontier life, hunting, fishing, and running sled dogs, and knows every aspect of this world for what it is, and not as some romantic show performed for visiting journalists. More significantly, Kantner knows and writes about what it is like to be white and live in an environment dominated by Native Alaskans.



Guest Column: Nasrin Alavi

Wednesday, December 7th, 2005

alavi.jpegI became aware of Nasrin Alavi last summer, when I came across notices of her book, We Are Iran, a portrait of contemporary Iran through its (very dynamic) blog culture. The book was among a handful to be recommended by English PEN, and was also selected by Pankaj Mishra for the New Stateman Best Books of the Year list. We Are Iran was published this month in the United States by Soft Skull Press. Nasrin Alavi contributes a guest column on Moorishgirl today; she will also guest-blog on TEV this Thursday, December 8, so look for her there as well.

Iran: Then and Now
Nasrin Alavi

As Western leaders consider Iran’s referral to the UN Security Council over its nuclear activities, there is another, furtive Iran simmering behind the headlines.

Those who lived through the Iranian Revolution of 1979 are now a minority. Iran has one of the most youthful and educated populations in the Middle East. Her younger generation has been completely transformed through the Islamic Republic’s education policies of free education and national literacy campaigns. Seventy per cent are under thirty, with literacy rates of well over 90%, even in rural areas. Notably, last year, more than 65% of those entering university were women.

It is the voice of this educated youth that comes through loud and clear in the phenomenon that is the Iranian blogosphere. The internet has opened a new, virtual space for free speech in Iran, a country dubbed the “the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East”, by Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF). With an estimated 75,000 blogs, Farsi is now the fourth most popular language for keeping online journals. A blogger asks: “Has everyone noticed the spooky absence of graffiti in our public toilets since the arrival of weblogs?” Unlike the graffiti, Iran’s blogs are boundless and global. Only time will tell if Iranian blogs are merely a place for the beleaguered to blow off steam or a modern day Gutenberg press that would usher in the age of Democracy. But for now they offer a unique glimpse of the changing consciousness of Iran’s younger generation.

It is no secret that most of the rulers in the Middle East are out of sync with their youth, and Iran is no exception. Except that while Arab leaders have tried to crush the militants, in Iran’s case you have had a militant regime. Tahkim Vahdat, Iran’s largest national student union, was formed after a decree by Ayatollah Khomeini to reinforce his rule; yet nearly a quarter of a century later it became one of the most vocal critics of the regime.

In November 1979, at the dawn of the revolution, Khomeini had stated that “a country with 20 million youth must have 20 million riflemen or a military… such a country will never be destroyed,”. The intention was to create soldiers of the state, but now groups of young people who aspire to a more Western lifestyle have even turned events like St Valentine’s Day into a local festival. The regime’s attempt to shield Iranians from the West’s ‘cultural invasion’ has backfired magnificently. The country’s youth is now almost obsessed with the Western culture they have been deprived of for so long. Last year Iran’s former deputy-President Ali Abtahi, a mid-ranking Shia cleric, greeted the new cause for celebration for young lovers in Islamic Iran in his blog by writing that although there are many irritated by all this, “We cannot deny the reality. And anyway the Islam that I know encourages life and love.”



Guest Review: Roy Kesey

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2005

thedreams.jpgThe Dreams
Naguib Mahfouz
American University in Cairo Press

Dreams are strange and wonderful things. Our own dreams, that is. Other people’s dreams, of course, are just fucking irritating. “And so then this huge purple-and-green snake rose up out of the stick of butter! And the snake had the face of Tom Cruise! Except it wasn’t Tom Cruise, it was my sister! And then the stick of butter turned into an M1 Abrams, and all of a sudden I’m on a battlefield, kind of like Vietnam except not exactly, more like Ecuador, maybe? Are there battlefields in Ecuador? Anyway, so then…”

Which is why I got a little nervous when I read in Raymond Stock’s translator’s introduction to The Dreams that the mini-narratives in this, Mahfouz’s latest book, are all based on dreams that Mahfouz himself actually had, and then developed into fiction. Cue the butter-snakes, I thought.

I needn’t have worried. Mahfouz has written more books than most people have read, has shown time and again that he knows his way around the narrative block, and well and truly earned his 1988 Nobel on the strength of both his early historical work (most notably the Cairo trilogy–Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street) and his later, more allegorical and/or experimental work, including Miramar, The Journey of Ibn Fatouma and Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth.



Guest Column: Mandu Sen

Thursday, November 17th, 2005

I met Mandu Sen at a reading I gave in Boston earlier this month and we began corresponding shortly afterwards. She sent me this guest column about Amir Peretz, the Moroccan-born politician who’s been making headlines in Israel of late:

The rioters in France were not the only people from North Africa to make the news recently.

Amir Peretz’s election last week as the head of the dovish Israeli Labor party is a dramatic change in the Israeli political map. Or perhaps it is no change at all, but is yet another expression of the political chaos Israel has been in ever since the collapse of the Oslo agreements in 2000. It is hard to tell as of yet. He just won a vote among tens of thousands of voters. For his ascent to be a real and lasting change, he will have to win the vote of millions in a pending national election and create a functioning coalition in parliament (Most coalitions in Israel don’t function. Not well, anyway.)

What is certain is that it is interesting, very interesting, and to those of us who care about such things, even very exciting. See, people like Amir Peretz aren’t supposed to get so far in Israeli politics.

Amir Peretz was born to a Jewish family in 1953 in Bojad, Morocco. His family immigrated to Israel in 1957, part of a wave of immigration that brought hundreds of thousands of North African Jews to Israel. The Israeli government had a policy of sending new immigrants to temporary settlements in areas that they wanted to populate. Peretz’s family was settled in such a place in the South of the country, away from the economic and cultural heart in Tel Aviv. Like many of his background, Peretz’s father, who was a community leader back in Bojad, found employment only as a factory worker.



Guest Review: Clifford Garstang

Wednesday, November 16th, 2005

deviltalk.jpgDevil Talk
Daniel A. Olivas
Bilingual Press
158 pp.

What enchants the reader most in this fast-paced story collection is the element of surprise, the frequent juxtaposition of the realistic and the supernatural. There is a swirl of the fantastic with darkly-observed social commentary, of Latin American imagery and mythology with the gritty streets (and freeways) of L.A. It is not a stretch to associate the tone of these magical pieces with the stories of Gabriel García Márquez or Jorge Luis Borges.

As befits the title, the Devil makes frequent appearances. In the opening story, “Monk,” a couple’s cat is named Diablo, and the reader can’t help wondering whether this feline Devil is somehow behind the central character’s otherwise-unexplained rebelliousness and his unsettling dreams. In the title story, “Devil Talk,” the Devil actually knocks politely on the front door, planning to make a deal with Jesus Zendejas, only to leave disappointed since Jesus (now Ysrael after his conversion to Judaism to please his Jewish wife) as a non-Christian is no longer eligible for Hell. The Devil takes a female form in “Don de la Cruz and the Devil of Malibu,” a chilling story about class, and in “The Plumed Serpent of Los Angeles,” where the displaced Aztec god Quetzalcoatl tries to seduce La Diabla in order to regain his throne. In all these stories we discover that it just doesn’t pay to bargain with the Devil.



Guest Review: Colleen Mondor

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005

writersontheair.jpgWriters on the Air
Donna Seaman
Paul Dry Books

The best thing about an interview collection like Donna Seaman’s Writers on the Air is the eclecticism of the offering. In one book you can find authors as varied as Wade Davis, Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Diane Ackerman, Terry Tempest Williams and Ward Just. The one thing they have in common is that all of them have been guests on Seaman’s Chicago-based radio show, Open Books.

I will admit that I am a big fan of interview collections, but I’ve read enough of them to know that unless the interviewer takes the time to know their subject, the result can be dull at best. Seaman clearly does voluminous research before going on air, as she states in her introduction, “I write out pages of notes and questions in preparation for each interview, hoping to structure a narrative arc so that each discussion has a story line and builds toward some sort of resolution.” This determination to have a point to her interviews, a “focused give-and-take” prevents the sort of inane questions that are certain killers and deadly dull to listeners (or readers).



Guest Review: Viet Dinh

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

3generations.jpgThree Generations
Yom Sang-seop
Archipelago Books

When people speak of “East Asian literature,” it’s not surprising that the conversation is limited to Japanese and Chinese writers. Almost none of Korea’s writers (with the exception of Yi Munyol) have been translated or widely distributed within the United States. But one hopes that Yom Sang-seop’s Three Generations (Archipelago Books, 2005) will bring Korean literature to a wider, English speaking audience.

Originally published as a serial in the early 1930s and as a book in 1948, Three Generations chronicles the life of Deok-gi, the youngest adult of the wealthy Jo clan. Beloved by his grandfather, the formidable patriarch of the clan, and estranged from Sang-hun, his father, college-aged Deok-gi navigates the strictures of the Korean social system, aided by his socialist friend, Byeong-hwa, the other focal point of the novel.

Immediately, Yom gets up the family conflicts: the grandfather dislikes Sang-hun for becoming a Christian minister, while Deok-gi finds his father hypocritical for fathering a child with a young girl, then abandoning them. But the inter-generational squabbling is not the whole of the novel; indeed, though the recipient of the grandfather’s inheritance drives the first half of the novel, the suspense picks up considerably in the second half when Byeong-hwa’s socialist activities cause trouble.



Guest Review: Clifford Garstang

Wednesday, September 21st, 2005

andthewordwas.jpgAnd the Word Was
Bruce Bauman
Other Press
350 pp.

In Greek mythology, Castor, son of Zeus and the mortal Leda, was a soldier and champion athlete who was killed in a battle that was not his. In Bruce Bauman’s And the Word Was, Castor is a precocious New York City teenager killed in a Columbine-like school-shooting rampage. Names are important in this book, although the conjured associations are left incomplete. Mythology’s Castor had a twin brother, Pollux, granted immortality by Zeus in compensation for Castor’s death. Here, Castor has no siblings, let alone an immortal twin. In Hindu mythology, Holika, sister of a maniacal king, could not be harmed by fire but still burned to death when the king tried to use her to murder his disloyal son. Here, Holika is a fiery Indian heiress who also finds herself at the center of a palace controversy, but escapes unhurt the fire that incapacitates her corrupt, power-crazed brother.

Neil Downs (the name is a silly pun, given the character’s atheism) is an emergency room physician in New York City. His wife, Sarah, is a modestly successful artist. After their son’s murder (by disaffected students shouting ethnic slurs), and the revelation that Sarah was with another man at the time, Downs runs as far away as he can, and finds that he feels at home in chaotic Delhi, a “city on the verge of collapse.” The U.S. ambassador to India, Charlie Bedrosian, happens to be an acquaintance who feels beholden to Downs for saving the life of his only son, and appears to favor Downs by introducing him to Holika, the niece of a prominent industrialist. But Holika eventually helps Downs see Charlie’s venal motives and the truth about his ties with both her uncle and the CEO of a palm-greasing American conglomerate.



Guest Review: Colleen Mondor

Wednesday, September 14th, 2005


Natives & Exotics
Jane Alison
238 pp.

Jane Alison’s Natives and Exotics is a fascinating look into the way in which people interact with the natural world. From the very beginning, with a prologue that includes Sir Joseph Banks and Alexander Humboldt, Alison defines herself as an author uniquely in touch with natural history and its impact on modern man. She makes it clear that while this is not a book with a direct political message in the obvious sense, it does demand that the politics of man and nature be considered. As Banks marks his map and plots where exotic plants will be relocated, at his direction, anywhere in the world, he remains blissfully and willfully unaware that, by spreading his vision of progress, he is endangering the lives of native creatures. You can forgive Banks for his empire building vision as he was a man of the 18th century, but Alison’s book stretches forward to the 1970s and could very well have continued into the present. My local paper is full of the controversy over large ships dumping ballast water from foreign locales and transporting thousands of exotics species to the Pacific Northwest from Asia. We live in the world that Alison historically explores in her book and the questions asked by her characters are the same ones we should be posting today.



Guest Review: Jill Stegman

Wednesday, September 7th, 2005


Ideas of Heaven
Joan Silber
250 pp.

Joan Silber’s “Ring of Stories” weaves six distinctive voices together with stunning dexterity. From a young poet in 1500’s Venice, to an aging homosexual dancer in modern day New York, the characters seem like people we know. This is due to Silber’s beautifully nuanced, understated style which allows us to examine the lives of the characters in their own words and pulls us into each compelling and unique world.

Silber obviously did a considerable amount of research into time and place to succeed so well in convincing us we were reading fiction. Four of the selections, “My Shape,” “Ideas of Heaven,” “Gaspara Stampa,” and “The High Road,” felt particularly autobiographical. The protagonists told their stories simply, revealing themselves by their actions and attitudes. Although not all of the main characters were sympathetic, it was easy to fall under the spell of their personalities and feel an intimate involvement in the joys and sorrows of their lives.



Guest Review: Dan Olivas

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2005


The Lives of Rain
By Nathalie Handal
Interlink Books
Paperback, 67 pp.

“The Doors of Exile,” the prologue-poem of Nathalie Handal’s accomplished and affecting debut collection, presents the bleak and disorienting nature of the Palestinian diaspora: “The shadows close the door / this is loneliness: / every time we enter a room we enter a new room / the hours of morning growing deep into our exile / prayers stuck in between two doors / waiting to leave to enter / waiting for memory to escape / the breath of cities.” For those in exile, there is no arriving, no here or there, only loneliness and a hope that memory-of something unspoken and unspeakable-will fade. And exile produces a multifaceted loss; it has more than one door. This poem sets the tone and theme for the collection.

Handal divides her book into three untitled sections. The first set of poems focuses on the nature and consequences of Palestinian displacement. In “Gaza City,” the narrator laments: “My hands and my cheek against / the cold wall, I hide like a slut, ashamed…. / Every house is a prison, / every room a dog cage.” This is the nature of being made unwelcome in one’s own home: the victim feels guilt, like a “slut,” nothing more than a “dog.”

With remarkable and brutal clarity, Handal shows us the longing created by war when she focuses on an individual’s suffering. “It’s been a long time-,” begins the narrator in “The Combatant and I,” remembering her absent lover, “where have you been, where are you?” She recounts her loss: “I miss your frowns, / the dark shadow of your oval chin. / I can’t breathe at night, can’t feel my legs. / Dreamed I stopped seeing. / Are you lost?” And she imagines his response: “I suppose you would say, / I should be happy that I can still love.”



Guest Review: Mary Akers

Wednesday, July 13th, 2005

bittermilk.jpg Bitter Milk
John McManus
208 pp.

John McManus’ startling debut novel Bitter Milk tells the emotional coming-of-age story of nine-year-old Loren Garland. Loren is an awkward, overweight, fatherless child growing up haphazardly in the mountains of Tennessee with a mother who is acutely unhappy in her female skin.

Loren’s story comes to us through the voice of Luther, a young boy who is by turns presented as Loren’s imaginary friend, his evil alter ego, and even a twin who died at birth but retains a sort of omniscient dominion over his surviving sibling. Luther-as-narrator speaks directly to the reader, as well as maintaining the ability to speak freely with both Loren and Loren’s mother. This is a tricky position for a narrator to hold and at times the various relationships become confusing as we are fed bits of insight through Luther’s quixotic (and quotationless) first-person narrative:

That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, I said. I never thanked anyone for creating me.

You say everything’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard.

That’s because everything you say gets dumber each time. Anyway, I didn’t ask her to bring me into the world.

She didn’t bring you into the world.

Yes she did.

No she didn’t.

Yes she did.

And that was the last thing I said to him, because I was too bound by the terms of the wager, and it was time to abide, and wait. Loren went to bed and lay awake most of the night. When he awoke the next morning, Mother was gone.

The “wager” between Mother and Luther remains largely unexplained (as does the means by which imaginary Luther can speak to Mother as well as Loren), although we do find out that the wager has something to do with Loren choosing between Mother and Luther and thereby growing up.

Mother’s reason for leaving, by contrast, remains a mystery only to Loren, as the reader learns on page one that Opal Avery Garland is not happy as a woman, wears overalls, blue jeans, and a chest binder, and goes by Avery, rather than Opal. In fact, the whole extended family (as well as the entire town) seems to know exactly what the mysterious “hospital visit” will do for Loren’s troubled mother. However, even when Loren finds a letter in the mailbox of Mother’s girlfriend, addressed to Mr. Garland and outlining fees for a double mastectomy, he remains puzzled as to the meaning of her disappearance.

Since Loren is otherwise a smart, perceptive child, this contrived confusion becomes Bitter Milk‘s main failing. (Further exacerbated by the scenes with Mr. Ownby, the principal, who we are led to believe is Loren’s real father, although Loren never suspects, despite the many clues.) Time and again, the reader, the narrator, and the writer all seem to be having a joke at Loren’s expense. We all get it. He still doesn’t. Poor, pitiful Loren.

Far more satisfying would have been the chance to see Loren struggle openly with gender and identity issues, instead of adopting a forced naivet


Guest Review: Kay Sexton

Wednesday, July 6th, 2005


Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson
Jonathan Coe
477 pages

All teaching must be simplification,
and to simplify is to falsify:
how to teach the landscape of the complex heart
to those who have no wish to learn: and why?

This final stanza from B.S. Johnson’s poem “Basic Landscape” written in 1964, could stand as a metaphor for the life-and death-of this troubled and innovative writer. Jonathan Coe, an award-winning novelist in his own right, has tackled a daunting subject, not just because Johnson was a complicated man and sometimes impenetrable writer, but because Coe finds himself exploring the nature of the novel, and the nature of the writer of novels, through Johnson’s eyes. The perspective of a man who found writing to be an inadequate bulwark against the system often provides an uncomfortable viewpoint.

Bryan Stanley William Johnson was born in 1933. He wrote seven novels, two volumes of poetry, and many plays and scripts as well as articles and what can only be called polemics. He committed suicide in November 1973 after a series of literary and emotional disappointments apparently overwhelmed him. But the bare bones of fact cannot begin to clothe the astonishing reality of B.S. Johnson: a larger than life man in both the literal and the literary sense.

One of the many strands that Jonathan Coe brings to his complex delineation of Johnson is the fatefulness of coincidence. When Coe was a boy his family watched a documentary featuring Johnson because he was talking about a part of Wales they visited on holidays. They found it so odd and distasteful it was switched off, but Coe had been exposed to the man whom he would later spend eight years and five hundred pages exploring.



Guest Review: Julie Benesh

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005

The Apple’s Bruise
Lisa Glatt
Simon & Schuster, 2005
194 pages

The title of this collection, taken from an incident in its lead story “Dirty Hannah Gets Hit by a Car” hints at the Genesis story of the fall from innocence and the acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil. In Glatt’s story a bully steals hungry Hannah’s sandwich, just as Hannah is about to bite into it. She is left with only a bruised apple “and chewed and chewed, pretending she loved it, pretending that brown spot was the very thing she was hungry for, the very thing she craved.” In Hannah’s act of pride and deception are the seeds of empowerment, seeds which take root by the story’s end. Thus Glatt’s protagonists cross lines, extend their established moral boundaries, resulting in personal consequences comprising a refreshingly realistic amalgam of remorse, defiance, and inevitability. The stories are honest without being brutal, sensitive and subtle without sentimentality.

Fans of Glatt’s striking debut novel A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, about a young female professor, her terminally ill mother, a female student of the professor, and a social work client of that student, will find these stories equally compelling. While Comma‘s biggest (and perhaps only) drawback is a somewhat stitched together quality that imperfectly unites its various threads, The Apple’s Bruise, conversely, combines unity and diversity to the best possible effect, making it a great introduction to Glatt’s sensibility for readers new to it.

In many of these stories, Glatt’s emotional landscape evokes that of Mary Gaitskill: girls and women get drawn into shame-infused encounters that leave them emotionally devastated, bereft, empowered, and wise in varying combinations and proportions. In the aforementioned “Dirty Hannah Gets Hit by a Car,” abuse and damage transform (as Nietzsche long told us) into strength and pride. “Body Shop” presents a wife understandably compelled to investigate her husband’s inexplicable act of disloyalty; this “research” inevitably leads her into her own. In “Eggs,” a series of pressures drives a somewhat judgmental professor to acts once off limits and beyond her recent comprehension. The young widow in “Soup,” drawn to her son’s hoodlum friend, must confront the darkness in herself, and, far more distressing, in her son.

The lines where proximity becomes collusion and where collusion becomes culpability are most closely examined in the two stories with male narrator-protagonists. In “What Milton Heard,” a man endures police questioning about his serial killer neighbor and is called out on his stalker-ish obsession with the wife of the new neighbor. The narrator of “Animals,” the head veterinarian of a zoo where animals are dying at an inexplicable rate, must navigate his complicated relationship with both his wife and his wife’s seductive teenage sister who is living with them.

In several stories, a quality of abjectness startlingly similar to that exemplified by minimalist icon Raymond Carver fairly shimmers up from Glatt’s lucid prose. Glatt’s story “Waste,” while covering quintessential Gaitskill S&M territory ends: “…I am leaving him. I will leave him. It’s sure as anything” strikingly reminiscent of the close of Carver’s story “Fat.” Two other stories demonstrate the frequent minimalist technique of projection. In “Bad Girl on the Curb,” a couple, estranged as a result of the wife’s recent mastectomy, contemplate earthquakes and speculate on the precise culpability of the accident victim outside their window, a subtle Rorschach test for their views on the intersection of fate and will in their own lives. Similarly, in “Tag,” the morning after their one night stand a couple witnesses a childhood game as it devolves into violence. As Carver often juxtaposed the mundane with the psychologically agonizing, so Glatt does in her harrowing “Grip,” where a couple coldly and without explanation abandon their three year old daughter amid domestic arguments about coffee-making and conciliatory discussions of auto maintenance. The story is made emotionally bearable by its shifts in perspective from the man to the girl and finally to the girl’s fireman rescuer who is named, perhaps significantly, “Adam.”

Many stories use humor to good effect, and at least one, “Ludlow,” is unabashedly comic, complementing its poignancy.

But Darlene Tate is persistent…I shot up from the couch and went to the kitchen, where I opened a drawer and pulled out a pad of paper and a pen. “Make a list for me…I’m all about self-improvement. Darlene wants to better herself,” I told him.
The first thing he wrote down: It bugs me when you talk about yourself in the third person.

The last story in the collection, this is one of many that ends in a gesture of reconciliation as Jimmy says “No music…let’s just talk. I want to hear everything you have to say, Dar. You’re my wife.”

As readers we might hope to have better luck than these characters in extremis, may hope to escape from having to make similar choices. But, deep down, we suspect there is no escape, and that when our time comes we might well not exercise any better judgment than they do, either. The consolation of this insight is that it connects us to our flawed culture, our flawed humanity, just as it binds Glatt’s characters to one another. In all of these stories, there’s a strong element of comfort, even cheer, in the attitude that it’s never to late to ‘come of age.’ The chance to embrace the wisdom that is gained as innocence is lost can happen to any of us, at any moment, and any time of life, whenever we choose to wake up, bite, and savor the apple’s bruise.

Julie Benesh’s fiction has appeared in Tin House and Bestial Noise: A Tin House Fiction Reader, and many other magazines. She is completing an MFA in Fiction from Warren Wilson College and teaches creative writing at the Newberry Library in Chicago.


Guest Review: Colleen Mondor

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2005


Under the Persimmon Tree
Suzanne Fisher Staples
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005
270 pages

Under the Persimmon Tree has an irresistible premise for readers curious about Afghanis struggling to have a “normal” life under the Taliban. It tells the story of Najmah and her search for her family on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in the months after 9/11. The twist is provided by the dual plotline, that of an American woman, Nusrat, who teaches refugee children in Peshawar while she awaits news of her Afghani husband who has crossed the border to work in a field hospital. A desperate Najmah ultimately ends up in Nusrat’s classroom, “under the persimmon tree” and the two find comfort in each other’s company as they wait for word on their loved ones and cope with the dangers and uncertainties of war.

One of the most striking things about Under the Persimmon Tree is the way in which Najmah’s world is easily and effectively destroyed within only a few pages. Author Suzanne Fisher Staple was a UPI correspondent for ten years and lived in both Afghanistan and Pakistan; clearly the Afghanistan Civil War is a subject she knows about. By approaching this story from the perspective of a young girl she gives readers a chance to view their own childhoods in a completely different way. What would it be like for any of us if we came home one day to see our father and brother dragged away, if we lost our mother in an instant, if we had no one to trust? What would we do if finding our family bordered on the impossible, and ever reclaiming our home again seemed like a dream? If you were Najmah what would you want for the rest of your life and what would you hope for your future?

Because the author is American the answers to Najmah’s questions might seem obvious, but Staple has a lot of surprises in this book. The character of Nusrat in particular is a revelation, an American who has chosen Islam for its beauty and complexity, and explains her choice in a manner that makes it both understandable and compelling. There is no glorification of one religion over another in this book, simply questions of math and science and faith that help one woman decide where her place should be in the world. For the girl Najmah there is the definition of home, and what it means to her even if the people she loves are no longer part of that familiar landscape. In many ways Under the Persimmon Tree is about who you are and where you belong, and what you will do to discover the answers to those questions.

The thing I loved best about this book, though, the part that still resonates with me, is Najmah’s response to Nusrat’s offer to return with her to New York City and pursue a new life there. Nusrat knows that Najmah has better chances to obtain an education in New York; that in many ways her future would be without limits in the U.S. She thinks this would be the best thing for the young girl. Najmah’s immediate response is heartfelt and deeply honest:

For hundreds of years my people have lived a good and simple life in hills that are more beautiful than anywhere on Earth,” I say at last, for this is the truth. “I think always of the wind on my face and the smell of grass, the gentle sounds of the animals. I cannot imagine living anywhere else.

When tomorrow’s casualty numbers blink across my television screen, it is these words, from a fictional Afghani girl, that I will think of. What if she does live in the most beautiful place on earth? Shouldn’t we be doing something to save that beauty? Reading about Afghanistan is the smallest thing we can do, the first thing. Learning about the land that lives under the same sky and stars as America is a beginning, no matter what age of reader; it is a place to begin.

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