Displaying articles for: April 2011

There Is No Year

Surely you recall the trippy climax to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Astronaut Dave Bowman's psychedelic voyage through the hyperspace tunnel, and his awakening in a Louis XVI bedroom, aged and dying, only to be rejuvenated by the Monolith as a space fetus? Well, Blake Butler's There Is No Year, his first novel outside the small press realm, is pretty much that whole sequence replayed one hundred times in succession, occasionally slowed down to one frame per minute. But this analogy has to take into account the following highly distinctive changes.

 

Dave Bowman is now three generically named individuals, "mother," "father," and "son," a family of shamblers suffering from various teratomas, fluctuating body parts, mental lacunae, spastic tics, insatiable appetites, and catastrophic identity disorders.

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Quantum Man

One posthumous measure of a person's life is how often you imagine his impossible return to deal with some event he never lived to encounter. You picture his reactions, his advice, his sage commentary and humorous asides.  For instance, I think about Mark Twain's hypothetical take on current events several times a week. That's the legacy of Twain's achievements and character.

 

By this measure, I believe, famed physicist Richard Feynman still bulks large in the collective psyche of a certain segment of mankind. Nearly twenty-five years after his death, those who knew him personally and those who enjoyed only a book-based familiarity with the man are still imagining how he would react to new scientific discoveries, new headlines, and new cultural trends. How we could have used his irreverent insights into the Fukushima nuclear disaster, for instance.

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Thinking in an Emergency

Elaine Scarry, best known for her meditation on The Body in Pain, here offers a slim yet gravid essay that occupies a curious nexus.  It is partly a work of sociological analysis, on the order of Bowling Alone.  It is partly an appeal to the power of philosophy and rationality, akin to Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy.  It is partly a work of speculative neuroscience examing our thought processes, such as Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine.  It is partly a controlled rant (pardon the oxymoron) that seeks to speak truth and justice to power, along the lines of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience.  And it is partly a dry-as-dust work from some federal agency like the Congressional Government Accountability Office, documenting with reams of precise statistics why we should all eat more vegetables.  Luckily for the reader, the other four passionate actors in the troupe sit heavily upon this bluenose lecturer and only let him get in an intermittent squeak or three.

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Orange Crush

Simone Muench is a Chicago poet by way of Louisiana. Her third book of poems, Orange Crush, sets its tone early with her opening lines: "Trouble came and trouble / brought greasy, ungenerous things." The tempting call in this poem, "Hex," evokes a depravity which sets the stage for Muench's central characters: London's seventeenth-century "orange girls," who sat outside theaters selling china oranges for six-pence each--or, more accurately, selling themselves to the audience, to the men, to the trouble to come.

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Blood Work

If I might paraphrase Lady Macbeth, who mused sweetly upon one of her victims, "Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him," I would suggest that a delighted reader's first reaction upon finishing Holly Tucker's captivating, enlightening and mildly horrifying Blood Work might be, "Yet who would have thought the history of blood transfusion to have had so much sheer entertainment in it."

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July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.

Pastoral

When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).