Book Reviews

Andrew (A To Z)

Andrew (A To Z) by K.B. Dixon. Review by Jacob Aiello

Andrew (A To Z), the new novel by author K.B. Dixon, is a novel only in the most cursory sense. It is, among its various definitions, a dictionary through the prism of a character, a character study choreographed with words. Without flashy plot or overarching action, the novel navigates letter by letter through the alphabet, building and deconstructing Andrew by his relationship to words.

Under “Delusion,” for example, Andrew says, “I have a feeling—which I try to regularly ignore—that the only thing standing between me and despair are some wispy figments of my imagination.” In other selections, he is more playful, teasing the words with puns and double entendres. Under “Halfway,” he writes, “There is a town in Oregon called Halfway. Karen and I were going to visit, but it was a long drive. We got only halfway to Halfway when we turned around. We knew that philosophically it was possible we could never get there (see Zeno).”

The definitions themselves serve as little poems about the tedium of family life, career, office politics, suburbia; or even more apt, modern day excerpts from Félix Fénéon’s Novels In Three Lines. To wit, under “High Opinion,” he says, “Russell’s ex-wife remarried several years ago. His children seem to have a high opinion of the man, who is apparently from Ireland and has a beard.”

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Twenty Questions

Twenty Questions by Alison Clement. Review by Doug Dean

If three travelers chance to occupy the same compartment, that is enough to make vaguely hostile “others” out of the rest of the passengers on the train. In small-town eyes all persons not belonging to the village are strangers and suspect.”

—Simone de Beauvoir, Introduction to The Second Sex

On packed bookshelves lining the walls of my grandparents’ house, there are mystery novels. My grandfather (“Popi”) once noted that with all the countless hours my grandmother (“Aughma”) logs watching Murder She WroteMatlock, and reading Agatha Christie novels, “She must know a thousand different ways to do me in without getting caught.” Whenever there was a missing tee-shirt, toy, Nintendo cartridge or pair of sneakers hidden somewhere in our house, my mother (“Mom!”) would sit me down after I’d desperately scoured all the probable locations and question me. After taking a statement that always included my retraced steps and usually a few follow-up questions, she would stand up and walk directly to the couch, car or bathroom (this was frequent), with me following closely behind, and then quickly uncover the item. Then my mother would declare, “I would’ve made a good detective.” This compliment, self-administered or given, was among the highest in our family.

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The Dart League King

The Dart League King by Keith Lee Morris. Review by Jeremy Benjamin

Keith Lee Morris gives the reader a portrait of a small town through the eyes of five characters all of whom are easily (or did I mean eerily?) recognizable to anybody who’s spent time in a small town. Of the principal cast of five, the two most captivating stories were that of Kelly Ashton, the attractive single mother, and that of Tristan Mackey, the arrogant, womanizing college grad. The opening scene depicts a fairly mundane routine of a dart competition at the town watering hole, told through rich narrative colloquialisms that probably would have made me laugh out loud if not for the fact that I was reminded of my own small town of origin. As the story unfolds, the lives of the main characters become more and more dramatic, and the dart league scene becomes incredibly suspenseful as the layers of this town’s personal affairs are revealed. The events of Kelly’s and Tristan’s stories are the kind that force the reader to wonder what they would do and what they may or may not find themselves capable of doing when faced with harrowing situations not out of the scope of believability. The ending is powerful. I had to be alone for a few hours after reading the epilogue.

Salvation

Salvation by Lucia Nevai. Review by Alice Clark

Salvation is the story of a girl, Crane Cavanaugh. Crane is the heroine and the reader meets her as an impoverished girl living in a shack. She has two mothers a step-father, an older brother and an older sister. Religious fanaticism is a daily part of family life. Lucia Nevai’s voice leans toward experiential narrative. Crane is seen in various contexts, but her viewpoint remains largely the same.

The novel is a bit of a ramble through Crane’s life. The characters around her, though diverse and rich, serve as obstacles in relationships for her. The tone is gloomy, though Crane is mostly resilient. The language in which Crane lives is existential; it creates eerie moments for the reader. The novel opens, “There was a boy on the ceiling. He was hairless, but not in a way that would upset anyone. His mood was both passive and recalcitrant. People who thought his silence meant they could talk him into things had better think again.” The distance from Crane’s life and experience lets the reader watch Crane for who she is. It gives the impression of being a disjointed little girl; the fear and the independence are there.

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Tin House: The Political Issue

Tin House: The Political Issue (Fall 2008) by José Saramago, J. C. Hallman, Christopher R. Howard, Adam Braver & the Editors of Tin House. Review by Spencer Cushing

The fiction fare provided by this issue of Tin House fits rather simply into their political theme. Each of the four stories I read (the fifth story is an excerpt from a novel that you will find in full review here on the Portland Fiction Project site) stood at attention when bearing their narratives, most of them not straying for from the most political of subjects: War and its effects. Each carried a strong display of relationships effected by such politics, but none moved too far into the abstract of the political, save for one story. José Saramago’s excerpt from his novel Death With Interruptions stood out as the most unique of the bunch, though not the strongest.

Saramago’s novel, first published in English this year, details the effects on a nation in which death has stopped functioning. He creates an environment that benefits greatly from his normal experimental style of an abundance of commas, a lack of quotations marks, and a sparing use of periods. Such style creates an almost shadowy feel to his magical-realist world, allowing the blur between life and death to take prominence, at least within the excerpt in TinHouse. Even though the obfuscated word-craft makes it difficult for those not used to his styling, the more human moments of a family transporting their ill grandfather and sick newborn across the border, so that they may finally rest in peace, ring with emotional depth. Unfortunately and fortunately Mr. Saramago’s style makes it difficult to tease out the narrative and it is this facet of his storytelling that lends itself to magical-realism and world where death and life move closer together.

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The Weight of the Sun

The Weight of the Sun by Geronimo G. Tagatac. Review by Tim Josephs

First, let me say that the imagery in Geronimo G. Tagatac’s The Weight of the Sun is wonderful. That didn’t really mean to come out all Paula Abdul-ish: “You look fabulous in that dress, you really do.” Or maybe it did. I started off enjoying this book, but the more I read, the more that enjoyment waned. And I can’t exactly pinpoint why. Have you ever seen a movie that you didn’t really like but when questioned, you couldn’t put into words why you didn’t like it? That’s how this collection of short stories made me feel.

In his introduction, Tagatac talks about his compelling childhood and family history and what led him to writing the book, and I think had that been his subject it would have been much more interesting. Instead he writes about the fictional Guerrero family, following different members over a span of about seventy years. And I believe therein is where part of the problem lies. We meet lots of different people and Tagatac doesn’t really give us a chance to get attached to any of them. And though their physical characteristics and surroundings are described beautifully, we never really get to know any of them too deeply.

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Yes, Yes, Cherries

Yes, Yes, Cherries by Mary Otis. Review by Jeremy Benjamin

A friend of mine once wrote a story about two kid siblings who volley cruel jokes against each other (this friend does not happen to be Mary Otis, but I promise to mention her and her story collection before starting a new paragraph). My friend’s story takes a dark turn when one of the siblings manages to trap the other in a small, confined space and walks away. The protagonist intends to let the sister kick and scream for a while and then release her, but the longer he waits (was it a he? Did the author specify gender? The specifics elude me), the more he fears her retaliation, so he puts it off. Such have I procrastinated on writing this review. Over the past few months, a paperback bearing the title Yes, Yes, Cherries has been interred in the bowels of my sweaty-ass backpack, kicking and screaming to see daylight, stuffed between my gym shorts and a hardcover book of trashy horror stories I picked up at a yard sale off Hawthorne. Now, with shaking hands, I withdraw the brainchild of Mary Otis from its prison (and I meant “sweat-ass” literally; that backpack has seen many a hot summer day from behind a bicycle chugging up Mt. Tabor, which is where I practice my nun-chuck skills), and with a stomach that thinks it’s riding the Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair, I open it.

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Human Resources

Human Resources by Josh Goldfaden. Review by Tim Josephs

With an opening sentence like “The salt of blood, hot sweat, the wide open vagina,” I can see why my colleague Matt was reluctant to delve into this book of short fiction. I, on the other hand, never one to back down from a challenge (or a vagina for that matter), trudged forward. And I’m glad I did. Human Resources, the debut book from Josh Goldfaden, is well written, at times funny, and often thought-provoking.

At one point does someone who has a problem throwing things away become an obsessive hoarder? Why do people choose to have children? Is Bruce Springsteen a good tipper? These are the questions that plaque my daily existence and thankfully for me, they happen to get explored thoroughly in this book.

Along the way we meet interesting characters like the landlord/mayor of a town that consists of seven people, and the retired National Geographic photographer who now studies a different kind of animal: his neighbors, and a chef working temporarily as a pirate (and brandishing a rolling pin) to earn money for his own restaurant.

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Do Me: Tales of Sex & Love From Tin House

Do Me: Tales of Sex & Love From Tin House by Various Authors. Review by Jason Moore

Do me? Do me! Do? Me!

Rare is the two-word construction that inspires such expectations of pure, visceral joy. Perhaps You’ve Won, or I Do, or Yes, Lower (uttered in a breathy voice, with a dramatic pause between words) come close, but in my experience a minimum of three words are used when one hopes to elicit such reactions. “Yes, please honey. Do do me.”

Why point out the two-word oddity? This collection of short stories is as unusual as its two-word title because I liked nearly all the stories contained within (reprinted from Tin House, 2001-2005). I attribute this to the editorial standards at Tin House, and of course, my obsession with all things sex.

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The Tsar’s Dwarf

The Tsar’s Dwarf by Peter Fogtdal. Review by Jacob Aiello

American readers may best know author Peter Fogtdal from his blog “Danish Accent,” featuring his musings on everything from books and Scandinavia to American curios as seen through a uniquely Danish prism. But even though he’s the author of a dozen novels written in Danish and translated into French and Portuguese, The Tsar’s Dwarf marks the first time American audiences will have the opportunity to read his work (unless they’re fluent in Danish, French or Portuguese, of course).

Deftly translated by Tiina Nunnally (perhaps best known for her translation of 1992’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow by that other contemporary Dane-of-the-Arts, Peter Høeg), The Tsar’s Dwarf follows a female dwarf (or gnome, or karlitsa, or imp) named Sørine, a caustic, impoverished creature who is arrested in the streets of Copenhagen and given to the infamous Russian tsar Peter the Great by King Ferdinand IV of Denmark.

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