Jenny and the Jaws of Life

 

I first discovered Jincy Willett through a benefit anthology of short fiction, compiled by David Sedaris, entitled Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules (2005). The collection is a line-up of heavy hitters, such as Amy Hempel, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Dorothy Parker, and Tobias Wolff. I was beginning to explore short stories in a serious matter when the book was released, and it exposed me to a breadth of writers I otherwise would have taken much longer to uncover individually. Nestled amongst these celebrated pieces is a story entitled “The Best of Betty” by Jincy Willett.

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One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

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“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon one_hundred_years_of_solitudewhen his father took him to discover ice.”

The opening line of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is as fresh in my mind today as when I first read it. Following Márquez’s death on April 17th, I thought it would be a good time to look back on what is widely considered his masterpiece, for which he won the Nobel Prize for literature. Continue reading

Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella by Christian Anton Gerard

CAG_BookPlus1. Conflation

There are two quotes at the front of Christian Anton Gerard’s new poetry collection, Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella. The first is Sir Philip Sidney’s first sonnet in the Astrophil & Stella sequence, a series of love poems in the Petrarchan form. The second is an excerpt from a letter written by John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester to his wife.  Laid alongside one another, the pieces introduce us to the driving force of Gerard’s book. There is immediate tension on the page, generated by the complexity of those two voices, Sidney and Wilmot. Both the poem and the letter give us voices that are wrapped up in love and guilt. We will return to this.

The poems in Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella track the lives of one couple, Wilmot and Stella. They are married. They are not Wilmot, Earl of Rochester or Sidney’s Stella in any literal sense, though their point of origin is clear. Wilmot cheats. Stella struggles with what to do. Wilmot struggles with what not to do. Their pasts intrude on the present. Push and pull. Escalation. They tumble toward an end-point.

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The Color Master by Aimee Bender

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           I first discovered Aimee Bender as a graduate student, inside a collection of contemporary short stories the Professor assigned for the course. “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” was the selected Aimee Bender story, from her collection of the same title. Immediately, I was captured by how different it was from anything else I had read. It was confusing, surreal, and just comical enough to make me question whether or not the disjointed images and scenarios were supposed to build toward some epiphany.

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The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

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1797442_10200858089929301_1372662167_nI’m a big fan of Goodreads.com, a sort of Facebook-for-book-nerds, not just because it satisfies my urge to organize virtual bookshelves and keep track of the books I read, but also because the user-generated reviews there offer more insight into what real readers think than the kinds of reviews you find in lit journals and the New York Times Book Review. The reviews at Goodreads are driven by the joy or ire the readers feel reading the books rather than by academic concerns and provide a glimpse into the collective unconscious of the reading public without pretense.

Though the panty-dropping five-star reviews of Shades of Grey are a notable exception, the one-star reviews written by readers who truly hated a book so much they couldn’t wait to vent about it are often more entertaining than the gushing reviews by smitten readers. These hate-filled diatribes often provide as much insight into the reader as they do into the book. When it comes to James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, many of the most scathing reviews show us that some folks want their historical fiction a little more, well, historical. Or maybe they show us that some readers don’t really understand the concept of fiction at all, placing verisimilitude above all else. Either way, those who hated the book, a wildly irreverent and highly fictionalized account of  abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, solely because it plays fast and loose with historical fact are missing the point.

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Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

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“Forget what you’ve heard about human beings having descended from apes. We didn’t didn’t descend from apes. We are apes.” These words set the tone for Sex at Dawn, a book that takes an in depth look at the sexual practices and nature of our ancestors. Authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha have taken principles, studies, anecdotes and evidence from several disciplines to put forth some fairly novel and controversial ideas about the way we get it on, mostly that we’re not naturally monogamous. Continue reading

Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson

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Lone SurvivorLone Survivor, by Marcus Luttrell, is a fast-paced, personal narrative of a Navy Seal stationed in Afghanistan and a mission gone completely FUBAR. While not the best-writing I’ve ever read, Luttrell, with the assistance of Patrick Robinson, speaks with a clear, passionate and strong voice that is easy to read for hours-on-end. While many will be familiar with the movie of the same title, starring Mark Wahlberg, the book, by virtue of Luttrell’s narrative, is reminiscent of a captivating bar story. I can’t speak for the movie but the book was fascinating: the story itself was incredible but it was the insights into the war in the Middle East, life as a Navy Seal and the perspective of a man in service to his country that kept me reading.

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Mack Bolan no. 61 Tiger War by Don Pendleton

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Photo Mar 26, 10 38 37 PM“I’m bad, and that’s good. I’ll never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me” declares Wreck-It Ralph on his way to sacrifice himself to save his friends as he has a revelation that the qualities that make him a video game villain are the same qualities that will make him a hero. The parent watching this along side his or her child probably gets a little misty eyed seeing the nobility in Ralph’s sacrifice and recognizing that Ralph’s desire to be a hero becomes realized once he accepts his role as the antagonist to Fix-It Felix.

Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan The Executioner no. 61 Tiger War, in my life, made the same sacrifice that Ralph made. Through the first few pages, Tiger War became a villain in my life. I hated it. It was cheesy and generic. “This book I’m reading is the Mission Possible II of literature,” I told my wife one evening. But sometimes bad books can become the hero. This book will never be good, and that’s not bad.

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Paul by Walter Wangerin Jr.

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photo-3It’s hard to make an old story new. I’ve known the story of Paul, author of much of the New Testament, for as long as I can remember. So when I picked up Walter Wangerin Jr.’s book Paul, I didn’t have high expectations. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised!

It was like watching your favorite movie with someone who’s never seen it before. Have you ever done that? You really should; it makes the experience new again. I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” (which I’ve seen at least a hundred times) last Christmas with a group of college students who had never seen it. Aah, it made me fall in love with that movie all over again, hearing them laugh, gasp, and sigh at all the right moments. I realized afresh what makes that movie so wonderful. And that’s how reading this book was. Not that I “fell in love” with this story, but it’s pretty darn good. One of the book’s reviews calls it a blend of “biblical knowledge, a sense of drama, unobtrusive scholarship, and the ability to tell a crackling good story.” And it’s true.

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Grendel by John Gardner

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Who doesn’t have a little bit of the monstrous in his or her personality? Sure, we know that criminals, little siblings, and middle schoolers do… But psychology teaches that every person, no matter how genuinely good, still retains some amount of the bad, too. Artists and philosophers and writers and judges and psychologists and mechanics and dog groomers and vacuum cleaner sales people and waitresses (Shall I go on?) have pondered over this idea and reached all kinds of conclusions. Even Star Trek got in on the discussion in 1966 with the episode The Enemy Within, in which Captain Kirk is literally split into these two sides of himself – the good and the evil. All this pondering of good and evil leads to further philosophical ideas: Nihilism, Existentialism, and so on. Now, I’m no philosopher; but I do find this philosophical discourse in Grendel [Spock voice] …fascinating.

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