Category: Book Review

Read More
A stylized rendering of an anonymous villain from Dan Schneider's novel, "The Vincetti Brothers".

Against Literary Lollipops: On Dan Schneider’s “The Vincetti Brothers”

Here is the letter I wrote to Dan Schneider after reading his manuscript. I’ve known Dan since 1992 when we used to read poetry at open mics, and later when Dan formed the poetry group, Uptown Poetry:

I just completed your manuscript. In view of all the time you’ve spent helping me with my work, I’m sure I owe you a response to yours.

The Vincetti brothers are lower than snakes. You took me to a world that is more repugnant than vomit. I thought I had met some lowlifes, and I have, but the character of Gino takes them all.

And that’s what you did – take me all the way in. Never I have read a book with such visceral depictions of human beings, and it was not just a section, but the whole book. I was reading it with one eye on the page and the other one shut.

However, it was fresh like blood. You didn’t use tired old descriptions in your portrayal of these thugs. No, every page brought me to a new level of revolt. […]

Read More
Chris Ware, author of "Rusty Brown"

Mere Reaction: Why Chris Ware’s “Rusty Brown” Fails

In reading the comics of Chris Ware again, long after the dazzle of his formal novelty had dimmered, a word came to mind: ‘reaction’. Now, let’s excise all narrow political connotations and deal with the essence of the term: that any swing too much in one direction necessarily begets a counterforce, less because it has value than simply that it must exist, as uniqueness is a perennial human want, though little understood. And, as much contemporary media is infantile, democratic in the basest sense, and abusive of well-rooted psychological patterns, alternatives are almost destined to crawl out of the margins of the mainstream. In the most lucrative, and most besieged mediums, that of comics, video games, and animation, reaction creates a mirror-world of seriousness, clutches at ‘the grown-ups table’, an aesthetic to counteract the frivolities, the ‘sell-outs’, that is consciously unfun, unentertaining, uninteresting, and bloated with consciousness itself. None of this determines that the products be mediocre, as Art sometimes has a way of slipping past intentions. Yet what it means is these works are subject to the same dice-rolls that plagues all pabulum. This is because reaction is also a pattern; a nobler pattern, but a pattern all the same. […]

Read More
A stylized depiction of Macbeth in William Shakespeare's titular play.

Superstitious Ambition: On William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”

“Good friend, for Jesus’s sake forebeare/ To digg the dust enclosed heare/ Bleste be the man that spares these stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones.” The writing on Shakespeare’s grave makes us wonder, was the mysterious bard superstitious? In his play, Macbeth, he gives us the three wicked sisters who prophesize the life of Macbeth. Magic shows up in other works by Shakespeare most notably in The Tempest, with a ghost and a skull in Hamlet. Shakespeare wasn’t Merwin, but he did dabble.

And we know Shakespeare was ambitious like his character in Macbeth. It’s one thing to be superstitious and another to be ambitious, but when we mix them all bets are off and the sky is the limit. Shakespeare definitely shot for the moon. No one talks with the words Shakespeare put in the mouths of his characters, at least not all the words in one sentence, line after line. The playwright was well beyond everyday reality as most of us know it.

He presented a different brand of reality. He presented the reality most of us have in our guts, and magic was this cloud that gave the audience space and made his work palatable. Nobody could handle a Shakespeare play directly. Except that his characters do.

We have the aspiring king in the person of Macbeth prodded on by a scheming wannabe queen in a direct path to the top. But he just can’t seem to do it without the help of the witches. His road is tainted and unsurprisingly leads to destruction. […]

Read More
A stylization of Martin Guerre, French peasant, depicted in Janet Lewis's The Wife of Martin Guerre.

Facts of a Face: on Janet Lewis’s “The Wife of Martin Guerre”

The more one looks back, the more time crowds, with history itself entrapped. Ages slant, personal becomes personnel, while facts flourish. A writer writing about the distant historical past may find such a subject liberating as, already packaged, the facts never blur the way they do in moving time. Yet, art is never about the facts. What the historical fiction writer wishes were true plays as much a role as the truth itself. And, to make great art, the facts must always be a canvas, upon which faces ambiguate.

While reading The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis I was struck by how comfortable she was with facts. In this novella, Lewis crafts, with alluring prose, the case of Martin Guerre: a well-known historical episode in 16th-century France where a peasant woman was fooled by an impostor playing her husband for three years, after the real one’s disappearance years back. In about a hundred pages Lewis creates a simulacra of French peasant life, reinventing their customs and livelihood amidst lush nature. The extent of her research shows on every page. She follows Bertrande, the aforementioned wife, first as a young girl marrying Martin in one of those underage peasant marriages, then her married life, the years of loneliness after the disappearance, the deluge of doubts after the impostor’s reunion, and the case that unfolds when she finally brings her doubts before the French courts. Neatly packaged, The Wife of Martin Guerre terminates where sufficient: the real Martin Guerre returns at the last moment and is revealed to be a cur; the imposter is executed, even though he may have been a better husband to Bertrande; and the omniscient narrator of the story adds a bit of historical ambiguity to the ending with the following paragraph: “Of Martin Guerre, nothing more is recorded, whether he returned to the wars or remained in Artigues, nor is there further record of Bertrande de Rols, his wife. But when hate and love have together exhausted the soul, the body seldom endures for long.” Life returns to facts, plunged in their mystery. […]

Read More
A photo of a smiling Sayaka Murata, author of "Convenience Store Woman"

Strange Peg: On “Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata (2016)

It’s a certainty that anyone who has worked within a corporate structure has met this person. Doggedly ideologically committed to their workplace, no evidence of a life outside of that workplace. These people are often the object of rumour-mongering, of conspiratorial whispering behind backs. They are often excluded, as they violate the complex, phatic social signals and performances that indicate a neurotypical/psychologically average person. It gets especially strange in jobs of little power or advancement. Then it seems to fill an odd vacancy in a person’s chest.

The quiet tyranny of behaviour is innate – the idea that if someone conformed to our idea of a well-functioning, emotionally healthy person, then they would suddenly find themselves just that. This is what probably what the modernists called the human condition. But neurochemistry is complicated, so is trauma. Who’s to say what makes a healthy person? Should we just leave the out-of-shape pegs be? These are questions worth exploring, but Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman leaves an absence where a meatier, or braver, or more articulate text could fit snugly. […]

Read More
A stylized screenshot of the two lovers from Jane Campion's "Bright Star"

The Long Longing in Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” (2009)

The life of a poet is rarely easy. Feeling unappreciated, unrecognized, misunderstood, allied with one’s inability to make a living—the list goes on. But for John Keats, he not only struggled at life but also at death. Succumbing to tuberculosis at 25, the early death of Keats is one of the great literary tragedies alongside other early deaths— Oscar Wilde, Buddy Holly and Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr. Just what might they have produced had they lived? Yet for Keats, his lush verse reveals an eager, sensitive mind that grew into one of the most well-known Romantic poets. 

Jane Campion’s Bright Star is not so much a film about romance as it is about longing. Roger Ebert describes the young couple as ‘Forever in Courtship’—that is, if only their lives together could be as strong as the love they both long for. The film’s title is taken from one of Keats’s poems, which he wrote for his love interest, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Keats (Ben Whishaw) is the artsy intellect who mutters artistic insights on a whim, whilst still conveying vulnerability therein. Whishaw is well cast, as he is thin, impoverished and handsome. He wears a dark, velvet coat and carries a top hat. He has a brooding introspection about him, and we can see this whilst he sits in the garden to write, often staring off into space for periods of time. What is he thinking about? Might his thoughts betray him? […]

Read More
A stylized screenshot from James Huston's adaptation of James Joyce's "The Dead"

Distant Music: On Recollection, Ephemera & James Joyce’s “The Dead”

Can anyone claim a memory? Or tame it into something more familiar? We become anonymous—the ultimate air we move across. We ponder The Dead—because that is the ultimate. We are dead, or will be, inevitably. Not like this is some profound revelation, but rather, an invitation. A reminder that what lives is merely ephemera. And so, what of it? What do we become? There are those who move about in life as though they are dead already, and mostly, we care not to mention them. But they do exist, unfortunately. Work life is brimming with them. Corporate clones. I knew one, and he was one who would, in his attempt at comfort, actually make me feel worse. Projecting his convention, he’d remind me of all the ways I differed and why this was a problem.

‘You think you are stressed? This job is nothing compared to working as a computer tech,’ he said one afternoon, amid my duress. Of course, no one’s stress could ever compare to his. He’d then ask the trite questions. ‘Don’t you ever get FOMO?’

‘FOMO for what?’

‘So, you’re telling me that you really enjoy those old movies you watch? Like, you find them interesting?’

‘No, I like to be bored.’ Then he’d passively insult me mid-joke. If I didn’t laugh, he’d presume I didn’t get it. The joke was his attempt at redeeming himself. He was such a great and funny guy, after all.

It’s not that he was shallow, as shallowness requires a base—a platform from which to start. With age and time, one might hope that with enough depth, a shallow person could fill. But he would never fill. Rather, he was hollow—akin to a bucket full of holes. Submerge him and there will be nothing there—he will just float upwards whilst everything empties. I thereby concluded that he was already dead—albeit moving about in some sort of otherwise. His life would not even resort to memory, as no one ever observed him closely enough to recall. Who would care to, anyway? […]

Read More
A stylized image of Violette Leduc, author of Thérèse and Isabelle

“Thérèse and Isabelle”: Violette Leduc’s Honest Eroticism

If you haven’t read anything by Violette Leduc, you are not alone.  This haunted, underappreciated writer was never a literary star, yet she produced wonderful, edgy, heartbreaking prose with sometimes horrifying honesty and startling clarity. Her works ripple with eroticism—sometimes very subtle, sometimes more explicit, but always the words provide for the reader what erotic literature tries to do but often fails miserably: an honest, real-person account of passion, sex, and female presence—written in a psychologically sharp and uncompromising, but beautifully-phrased, prose style. She is as honest with herself as she is with her reader; she is brutal as Homer’s Iliad, but much more open than Beauvoir’s journals and memoirs. The reader is comforted with the surety of feeling that she holds nothing back. So it is with her novel, Thrérèse and Isabelle.

Thérèse and Isabelle was originally the first section of her novel (150 pages), Ravages, which Violette Leduc offered to the publisher, Gallimard. And contrary to the received wisdom of free-love, wide open sexuality of the French, it was considered “scandalous” and obscene and was censored by the publisher. Eventually it was published as a stand-alone novel. Leduc’s work reflects the misery and rejection she felt growing up; it reflects her desperate need for affection and her constantly remembering and feeling the circumstances of her birth: the illegitimate daughter of a man who rejected her and never legitimized her. Her mother was both critical and distant. […]