Reviews

Review: ‘A River’ by Marc Martin

A River_9781452154237_71c07Guided by a river outside her bedroom window, the child in A River by Marc Martin embarks in a tiny silver boat that carries her on a budding adventure. The story begins in her bedroom, adorned with carefully drawn posters, knick-knacks and toys. As she travels downstream, the textures and scenery of each spread invite the reader to join in her journey of discovery. (It is worth noting, I think, that the gender of the main character in A River is never mentioned. My only deciding factor was the hairstyle, but that honestly means nothing. I like that Martin doesn’t limit the audience, and, whether intentionally or not, opens up the sense of wonder to everyone.)

Readers will no doubt end up spending more time carefully looking at the images than reading the words. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. The adventure in this book doesn’t exist just in the writing or just in the illustrations—but in the combination of the two. I found myself running my hands over the pages, wanting to feel each object.

Martin uses cool blues and quiet greens that blend softly together. The color palette is natural, and while objects are defined, there aren’t harsh lines to separate one concept from another. In my favorite section, animals are seen only as tiny eyes in a nighttime jungle…until you look a little bit closer. You won’t find bright flashes of color directing your attention, but that kind of device is not necessary.

A River introduces the concept of interconnectedness; the same river outside your window could carry you to faraway places: under distant bridges, beside factories with plumes of smoke rising into the sky, beyond fields, through a jungle and eventually to the ocean—but only if you dare to go. Even if it’s just in your imagination.


A River by Marc Martin (Chronicle Books | 9781452154237 | March 7, 2017)

Review: ‘The Life-Writer’ by David Constantine

Review: ‘The Life-Writer’ by David Constantine

The Life-Writer_9781771961011_bd079As anyone who has ever loved and lost can attest, love and mortality are hopelessly entangled. Katrin’s husband Eric makes it clear that he plans to face his own mortality in as matter-of-fact a way as he can. “I don’t want to be like that colleague of yours, Dennis What’s-his-name,” he says, in the opening sentence of The Life-Writer, the poignant new novel from David Constantine (whose collection In Another Country inspired the Oscar-nominated film 45 Years). “I don’t want to be…clinging on…I don’t call that living when all you think about is staying alive.” Eric has been diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and elects to let it run the course it will. “I can’t complain,” he says, describing his illness as “correct and final.” And, perhaps, the truth is that he can’t. He’s lived a full life, and even a rewarding one.

His death, dignified or not, does not take long. Before too much time has passed, Katrin is his caretaker, and not long after that, he is gone. But, one night right before his death, Eric surprises Katrin when, lucid and energetic, he begins to tell her a story.

It is from these beginnings that Katrin, a respected literary biographer who has devoted much of her career to exploring the lives and works of little-known and largely unpublished writers and artists, will begin to sketch a broader, and yet simultaneously more incisive, portrait of the person she loved. And it is from these beginnings that Constantine crafts a tender, richly observed novel that slices right down to the bone of the state we universally define as love.

The story Eric wants to tell – and that he cannot finish – is the story of a long-ago summer spent in France, when he thought  that “the land and its roads and traffic would never be anything but kind to him.” It is also the story of his first love – a woman who is still alive and well in Paris.

After his death, left with his letters and with the memories of one of his closest friends, Katrin, with her biographer’s eye, begins to read between the lines, picking out the instances that, eventually, made the man she knew.

Ordinarily, a reader would expect this premise to lead them one of two ways – either to a catastrophically painful revelation, or on a trite journey of self-discovery. Under Constantine’s steady, gentle touch, however, The Life-Writer becomes something quite different and truly rare: a honest and objective story of grief and acceptance.

The Life-Writer is perhaps at its most powerful, in fact, when Constantine is examining not only the acceptance of a loved one’s death, but acceptance of the life they inevitably lived before they met you, outside of the orbit of your shared existence. Few readers will have trouble relating to Katrin’s particular brand of fascination with the parts of Eric’s life she missed out on – the chapters of his biography penned in the decades before they met. Who, after all, has not felt some keen interest – neither wholly innocent nor malevolent and jealous – in the long-ago experiences, routines, friends and lovers of a person they later loved themselves?

It may be that the most loving thing we can do is to delve head-on into that past. It may be that the truest way to grieve is to tell stories.

Learning and telling the story of a life can be gratifying, surprising, and mesmerizing. It can be painful, too, but it is the kind of pain that goes hand-in-hand with love. It is in examining a life, in learning its minutiae, that we acknowledge and even overcome our grief. It is in telling stories, Constantine shows us, that we come to terms with just how close love and mortality truly are to one another.

In The Life-Writer, David Constantine points us right at the intersection of love and grief, and rolls us quietly, kindly through. We are better for the journey.


The Life-Writer by David Constantine (Biblioasis | 9781771961011 | October 11, 2016)

Review: ‘Swimming on Hwy N’ by Mary Troy

Swimming on Hwy N_5824d91c9a337.imageReaders seeking an antidote to the omnipresent New York novel will find it in Mary Troy’s Swimming on Hwy N. Rather than focusing on one or two twenty-somethings (perhaps with too much time and money on their hands) picking up life lessons in the Big Apple, this book features an array of eccentric characters road tripping west of the Mississippi. Beginning in Bourbon, Missouri with a thrice-married woman in her sixties and ending at the US-Canadian border with two young lovers, it winds through a few different states and character arcs in between.

Troy’s novel also avoids another cliché of contemporary reading material–the tendency to depict the “flyover states” as monolithic right-wing strongholds. Rather than choosing sides and painting middle America as either the last bastion of hard-working, common-sense people or a vast reservoir of hateful idiocy, Troy’s Middle America is full of real people with differing ideas and perspectives. While it does seem likely that the author is a bit left of center, each character is nuanced, containing both strength and weakness. A young man who deserts his post during the Iraq War and relies on a network of old hippies to help him evade the authorities is just as flawed as an aged crackpot circulating an Alex Jones-style newsletter to a tiny audience. (One of the novel’s many moments of wry humor occurs when it is revealed that one of the hippies is perhaps the newsletter’s most devoted fan.) Troy allows these characters to both be played for laughs and exposed as vulnerable, regardless of who or where they are in life.

The range of characters and the time in which it is set (the second Bush presidency) allow Troy to draw similarities between the 1960’s, the recent past, and today. The book also has a winding plot that reflects the journey of the characters, veering off course unexpectedly and taking strange turns into the unknown. Peppered into this trip are flashbacks and interior monologues, deepening and thickening the plot. Whether readers enjoy this indirectness will be a matter of taste, but surely nobody will findSwimming on Hwy N typical, predictable, or narrow.


Swimming on Hwy N by Mary Troy (The University of Arkansas Press | 9780913785898 | November 1, 2016)

Review: ‘La Croix Water’ by Russell Jaffe

La Croix WaterTimely. Relevant. Zeitgeisty.

These seem like the best words to describe poet Russell Jaffe’s latest chapbook, La Croix Water. In both form and in theme, it holds a magnifying class to contemporary American culture in a way poetry doesn’t often do. It is a meditation on the feelings surrounding Jaffe’s realization that a beloved object of his childhood is now hugely popular. Longtime Star Wars nerds and comic book aficionados have voiced their feelings on going from mocked and marginalized to seeming to be just another poseur. For Jaffe it’s not a Jabba the Hutt figurine or a Deadpool hoodie that stirs these emotions. It’s a canned beverage.

Whether it’s the recent episode of the Gastropod podcast or the social media hashtags promoted by Sundance Beverage Company’s corporate PR team, there are many examples of how LaCroix water is having a moment. Also of the moment are listicles, BuzzFeed quizzes, and other interactive content. It’s fitting, then, that after Jaffe’s personal testament to his connection to the drink, the book moves on to a list of flavors, offered as a “Which Flavor Are You?” exploration. While it’s anyone’s guess how Jaffe devised these flavor/personality correlations, it’s undeniable that each of these poems is unique. Rich with imagery and varying in form, they both accept the commodification of the personal and reject the shallow nature of this type of marketing. While they’re unified by the listicle style and endings that utilize parenthetical fragments, each poem leaves an impression in the mind as different from the next as Pamplemousse and Cerise-Limón.

Adding to the interactive nature of this collection are the invitations at the end of each section for readers to write their own thoughts on the various flavors, personal connections to the product, and/or stream of consciousness bubble enjoyment.  This reflects the ambition of both Jaffe and his publisher, Damask Press, which is committed to releasing unique artifacts rather than churning out a series of interchangeable poetry chapbooks. Whether you interpret La Croix Water as a statement about late capitalism, a moment frozen as if in amber, one man’s testament to his love of seltzer, or a way for people to meaningfully create and connect through beverage company marketing, this chapbook is as refreshing as a can of Melón-Pomelo.


La Croix Water by Russell Jaffe (Damask Press)

Page and Screen: ‘Grand Hotel’ by Vicki Baum

grandhotel9781590179673_91c23Movie enthusiasts might know Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel Grand Hotel as the source material for the classic film of the same name. Released in 1932 and directed by Edmund Golding, it features greats like Greta Garbo, the Barrymore brothers, and Wallace Beery while often being remembered as Joan Crawford’s breakthrough role. If you loved the movie, or at least had heard about it and were curious enough to look for the book, finding it was somewhat difficult for many years. This summer, however, NYRB published a new edition translated from the original German by Basil Creighton (also known for bringing Hesse’s Steppenwolf into English) and with an introduction from Noah Isenberg, whose book on Weimar cinema demonstrates his expert knowledge of Grand Hotel‘s context.

There are many movies based on books; not all are worth a casual reader’s time. Grand Hotel is one that not only stands on its own merits and is culturally interesting in its own right but also lends a bit of insight into the film. Like the movie, the book features an ensemble cast of characters with well-defined motivations who begin the novel as strangers but soon feature prominently in one another’s lives. The balance between characters and transitions between perspectives are generally flawless; while a few sections run overlong, Baum’s sense of timing feels smooth and natural. These characters develop in interesting ways over the course of only a few days and nights, and it is these changes that draw readers into each personal drama. Whether it’s watching a bland bureaucrat become truly corrupt or seeing people who had been mere performers in their own lives discover genuine feelings, it’s hard to resist being pulled into the separate stories as they become tightly linked.

These characters are, of course, living in Germany just before the rise of the Nazi party. Neither they nor the author could’ve known what would happen to the country (and the world) soon after the events of the novel, and this element of the book–its existence as a sort of cultural time capsule–makes it even more fascinating. Grand Hotel offers a peek at the growing class resentment bubbling beneath the surface of polite German society in the form of a lovable underdog who spends his final days living big, and this awareness of social stratification is explicitly referenced at several other points as well. A character who is a part time typist, part time nude model, part time concubine (partly out of financial necessity and partly out of a desire for new frocks) plays upon social anxieties about the New Woman without becoming a morality play. The perspectives of the hotel workers pepper the narrative, offering a behind the scenes look at the banal day-to-day operations that make it possible for the wealthy playboys to dance to jazz and drink Louisiana Flips and humanizing figures often relegated to the background or treated as human props.

Baum also captures the strange liminality of Weimar milieu through fascinating snapshots of transition and artful tonal shifts. People get stuck between coming and going, and the novel stops to notice when the music has stopped and not yet started again. The old high-class entertainments like ballet are being supplanted by lowbrow pursuits like boxing; those who try to cling to the past find the world they knew is slipping away, but people immersed in this new culture are unfulfilled, lonely in a crowd, and caught between a past that’s not quite gone and a future that has not yet arrived. At The Grand Hotel, the present is an uncomfortable wait in the lobby as the revolving door send people to unknown destinations and brings in new customers from parts equally unknown. There’s always a feeling that “the real thing” is happening somewhere else, or has already happened, or is yet to come. Knowing, as a reader, exactly what is to come for Germany makes this tension even more striking and uncomfortable.

The novel isn’t all uneasy modernity and meditations on mortality, though. The novel’s darkness rests beneath witty banter between hotel guests, charming vignettes, and dashes of light humor. There are passages full of adventure that marvel at the novelties of the age, like airplane flight and the spectacle of flashing neon. While Baum ultimately ends her book with a reminder that even the honeymoon couple faces “an abyss of loneliness,” the moments of meaningful connection between characters and wonder at the small joys in life prevent it from being a dreary read. Playful enough to be fun while serious enough to have substance, Grand Hotel is both an excellent example of fiction from its own time and a timeless classic.


Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum, translated by Basil Creighton, revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo, introduction by Noah Isenberg (NYRB Classics | 9781590179673 | June 7, 2016)