Review: Shot-Blue by Jesse Ruddock

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Shot-Blue
by Jesse Ruddock
Published 2017 by Coach House Press
$19.99 paperback ISBN 978-1552453407

By Noah Sanders

Jesse Ruddock’s debut novel, Shot-Blue, feels like two novels loosely stitched together. They share a locale, and the author’s deep love of describing it, a handful of characters, and the lyrical strands of familial connection. These disparate chunks ostensibly live under the same narrative umbrella, but in both style and story they differ sharply to the detriment of the novel.

Both sections of the book take place on a smattering of islands on Prioleau Lake, a remote wilderness populated by a handful of weathered locals. The first section revolves around Rachel, a single mother and sometimes prostitute, and her son Tristan, an odd kid unhealthily tethered to his sole parental unit. They stumble around the islands, picking up odd jobs—Rachel sleeps with local boater named Keb for cash—just barely skirting by. The second section finds Tristan, now alone, half-feral and living alone on the island he once called home. When a group of developers arrive to turn the island into a tourist resort, Tristan is forced to work alongside a handful of mainland youth and in doing so, slowly emerge from his shell.

The first hundred or pages or so of Shot-Blue feel like an elegiac knot, a tightly woven mass of poetic landscape descriptions with a thin narrative threaded through the center. Ruddock’s writing ability is nothing to shake a tree limb at, and she paints the landscape of the isolated northern wilds as a character in itself. Rachel, and to some degree Tristan in the early goings, are ghosts of this forested, lakeside hinterland, damaged souls disappearing back into nature. As stunning as Ruddock’s descriptions are, their vague nature in the opening chunk make the characters slippery, the reader left to sort through the tangled knots of prose struggling for purchase.

This changes when Tristan is left on his own and his one time home is torn down to make room for a glaring tourist trap. Tristan is a child of the wilderness, and as it is razed to make room for what might be called civilization, he is grudgingly forced to succumb to this new world. With no parents, and nowhere to go, Tristan becomes a guide for the new resort. Without his mother to hang on to anymore, Tristan becomes wary friends with a roughshod waitress, Tomasin, who finds her own solace in his strange, quiet commune with the natural surroundings. Ruddock’s writing relaxes as she introduces more characters, and where the opening sections of the book feel almost like prose poetry, the second feels like an alternate universe camp story, with Tristan the nebbish dork who learns a few life lessons. There are jocks and cliques and the type of boozy games only dumb teenagers partake in, and at times it feels like pitch-black adaptation of Moonrise Kingdom or any other kids-at-camp flick. It is, of course, more than that; it is a story about reemerging from the grips of childhood, and the sense of loss that accompanies it, of discovering who you are and how you fit into the world. Each character, to varying degrees, discovers themselves on the tree-lined shores of Prioleau Lake, Tristan with the greatest intensity.

This is Ruddock’s first novel though, and you can feel it in how much she wants to do. She wants to write the lyrical environment novel as much as she wants to write the classic coming-of-age story. As beautifully as she’s able to write both, they feel disconnected, and the characters, and their individual storylines suffer because of it. Characters we were led to believe were important in the first half of the book, disappear without warning—Keb, so prominent early is barely a flicker in the later bits—and Ruddock fills their void with an overabundance of far less fleshed out new characters. She isn’t able to wrangle all of them, and as the book peters to an end, many of them are left stranded, without closure. As insular and claustrophobic as this book can feel, it doesn’t dampen the author’s ambitions. She may slip on the rocks of her own aspirations, but Ruddock is gifted stylist and with her skill, she can’t be faulted for reaching up towards the blanket of stars.

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

 

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Lincoln In The Bardo
by George Saunders
Published 2017 by Random House
$28.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0812995343

By Noah Sanders

My first time reading Saunders—the opening short story “Victory Lap” from his outstanding short story collection The Tenth of November—its storytelling left me dazed, the literary equivalent of horse kick to the temple. “Victory Lap” doesn’t explicitly buck the standard structure of storytelling, it nudges it slightly off the beaten path, forcing the reader to assess and reassess exactly what they’re looking at. The characters in “Victory Lap” interact with the voices in their heads—of family, friends, an omniscient crowd of supporters—allowing the reader a chance to not only hear their inner monologue, but to be swept up into it like a riveting conversation. Saunders enjoys structural tinkering, and as almost all of Saunders award-winning oeuvre does, it usually works. With this in mind, the release of Saunders’ first ever full-length novel—Lincoln In The Bardo—brings with it a foot-thick crust of anticipation, even expectation, of how the novel will be dusted off in the hands of a master. As it turns out, Saunders’s choice in terms of upending the structure of the novel is his most ambitious one, and sadly, his least successful.

The story, set in the early 1860s in a decrepit cemetery—“the Bardo” (a Buddhist term for a purgatory of sorts)—finds then-President Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his son Willie as The Civil War rages across the country. His ghost, tied to the earthly plane by his continued want of human existence, wanders The Bardo, accompanied and protected by a motley crew of other specters, each admonishing the true afterlife in hopes they’ll be granted return to their former existence.

Structurally, Lincoln In The Bardo is told in the form of a chorus. Every description, every transgression that litters the page, is done so through the direct utterance of a character or, at times, of a primary source. It reads, to simplify, like a play. Lincoln In The Bardo is, regardless of its period setting, a timeless ghost story that explores the ideas of collective grief, anger, and mourning and in this, the chorus structure befits it. We feel the pain of each individual ghost, but Saunders is able to pull the camera as far back as he chooses—in distance, time, or otherwise—to illuminate how their specific anguish ties into the greater pain a country devastated by war is afflicted with. Slavery and economic disparity and religion are all addressed, but instead of lengthy diatribes shoved down our throats, the splintered selection of first person narrators makes the reader feel a part of the continued experience of collective emotion, because, well, we are.

There is no doubt this is a George Saunders book. There’s an almost psychedelic humor that flows through it. Each ghost is afflicted physically based on what they continue to yearn for: so Hans Vollman—an unsatisfied lover—walks through purgatory with a constantly erect penis; Roger Bevin III, a paranoid, 18th Century gay man, has hundreds of eyes and ears, always on the lookout; angels seduce potential recruits with hazy visions of a heavenly plane suited for each. Though veiled in oddness, Saunders manages to imbue the characters—unsightly, mainly selfish ghouls at best—the setting, and the story with an underlying warmth. You like these ghastly spirits, you wish for them to somehow depart the grim middle-ground they’ve chained themselves to. As the book speeds towards an ending—a riveting, almost slapstick chase scene from stone tentacles—it morphs, revealing the humanist guts pulsing within. This is a gorgeous, inspirational book about how we must lean on each other to move forward from the horrors of life.

Unfortunately, to enjoy the characters and discover the beautiful, existence-affirming themes, you have to wade into the treacherous swamp of the book’s structure. Frankly, the chorus structure is distracting. The visual format of the book—speech, character name, page break, repeat—subjects the reader to page break after page break, with each break pulling you off the page and out of the story. It becomes particularly bad when Saunders uses reams of primary sources and essays alike to describe the setting and atmosphere of America as a whole. Saunders feels compelled to share the author and the full title of each piece, and flipping through these sections becomes more akin to reading the expanded bibliography of a piece of non-fiction. And to be frank, there doesn’t seem much reason to break the story into the chorus structure. Saunders, in pieces like “Victory Lap” has played with the idea of multiple, almost first-person-like viewpoints to much greater affect. The multiple voices creating an enjoyable cacophony unweighted by the boulder-like strain of format or structure. The most enjoyable moments in Lincoln In The Bardo fall during long monologues by singular characters, when the page breaks disappear, and you can lose yourself in the joy of simply reading; lose yourself in the illusion that what you’re reading is simply a novel.

It isn’t that Saunders has mistaken form over content, as that would imply that the book isn’t immaculately written—which it is. Rather, Saunders has managed to unintentionally obscure his own brilliant writing behind a smokescreen of structure. At his level, with his boundless talent, and with this his first published stab at longer work, the literary world would be remiss if he wasn’t pushing the boundaries of what writing can do. Perhaps next time, a bit more of a balance between pushing the form and telling a story can be struck.

Review: An Arrangement of Skin by Anna Journey

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An Arrangement of Skin
by Anna Journey
Published 2017 by Counterpoint Press
$25.00 hardcover ISBN 9781619028470

by Noah Sanders

The word “taxidermy” is one rife with images of dead, stuffed animals, moments frozen in time. When translated from Latin, it becomes “an arrangement of skin” the simple image of taxidermy now a messier, a gorier image of our human covering, rearranged, laid bare, revealing all that lies beneath. In the titular first essay of poet Anna Journey’s debut collection, An Arrangement of Skin, she writes of visiting famed Parisian taxidermy studio, Deyrolle. In describing the stuffed, dead animals she sees there, she writes, “I imagined each creature held a history inside it, the intricacies of a lived life, with its shifting landscapes and loves.”

 

Journey’s essays beautifully chart this idea: the stacking of histories that lay beneath our skin and the ability of art—poetry especially—to expose the layers and layers of experience, oftentimes morbid, that shapes them forward and back. The essays in An Arrangement of Skin cover a fascinating array of subjects—javelinas, wisteria, a tattoo artist named Captain Morgan—but the prevailing subject in every chapter is Journey herself, her history, her family, her friends and lovers. Each essay is a deep delve into her own past and those stories, those moments frozen in amber, that have piled atop each other to make her what she is today.

 

An Arrangement of Skin is bookended by essays on taxidermy—“Birds 101” and “Modifying The Badger,” Journey’s own taxidermy tutelage, used as thematic bookends. In “Birds 101” she remakes a simple starling, and her experience is one of merely capturing the moment, of using the gussying up of death to celebrate “the wonders, textures, and varieties of life.” The understanding Journey comes to is superficial in nature, a beginning, or as Journey writes of preparing the bird, “I opened it up and entered as if turning the first page of a story.”

 

“Modifying The Badger” finds Journey returning to the act of taxidermy, with the author and the reader now privy to her personal arrangement of skin. In recreating a boar raccoon, a more involved, laborious process, Journey discovers that capturing a moment is similar to the creation of poetry, or any art; she writes, “By conjuring a fantastic world in which this impossible form might exist… we’re offered a moment that testifies to the beauty, bittersweetness, and gravity of impermanence.” The dead animal is an object, as is a poem or a tattoo or a human being, and though we see these as singular caught images, they are merely a covering, a skin even, for the myriad experiences of life, contained within.

 

Journey is a stunning writer, clear and lyrical, her poetry background enabling descriptions of the most mundane experience to come tearing and frothing off the page. A starling’s skin is “wheat-colored chain mail for an airborne knight,” while wisteria is “flamboyant as a drag queen, wild as a psychedelic grapevine.” She crafts her own world so beautifully, with so much of her own history revealed that it is difficult not to tear through the essays like a pulpy thriller, always wanting to know what tidbit Journey will explore next.

 

Every essay focuses on an “object”—her cuckolded ex-boyfriend Carrick and his collection of stand-up basses or the story of Bluebeard—but the object that is best dissected, laid bare, is Journey herself. Her mother is the star of the essay, “The Guineveres,” a quirky, entirely morbid woman who uses dark stories to impress lessons upon her two daughters. But Journey pulls the curtain back, a taxidermist peeling back the skin, revealing the stories that shaped her mom: her years as a stage actor, a folk singer, a camp counselor, to name a few. In exploring her mother’s history, Journey is compelled to explore her grandfather’s history, the history of race relations in The South, the history and importance of folk music and field historians, The Lomaxes, and on and on. All of it now, her own shared history helping to shape the object that is the author. The book becomes an exploration of the idea of who she, the object explored, is, and how though she shapes our own stories just through thinking and living, in the end we are simply the continuation of every other story, great or small. If we are only able to remember in scenes, frozen moments, than Journey takes it upon herself to make us understand and appreciate the pulsing entrails of experience that beat below all of them.

 

An Arrangement of Skin contains a bigger idea though, about just how poetry or writing or words, hell, creation itself allows us to not only retain our memories, but to explore them, to find meaning in them, to dig deeper and deeper, no bottom ever in sight. This brilliant collection, shows us how the object, and the artistic interpretation laid across this object allows it, and the dangling strands of story and narrative that make it up, to stretch across time, generations, and family; to become something bigger—a single sliver of the greater public consciousness.

Review: Human Acts by Han Kang

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Humans Acts
by Han King
Published 2017 by Hogarth
$22.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1101906729

By Noah Sanders

Reading Han Kang’s book, Human Acts, would be a difficult task regardless of the current American political climate. Human Acts follows a cast of loosely connected characters as their lives ripple forward and backwards from the brutal 1980, 10-day suppression of student protestors by the South Korean government now referred to as the Gwangju Uprising. It pokes and prods at the vile actions of a government lorded over by a ruthless dictator, showing the short and long effects of tragedy—on the individual and the community, the past, the present, and the future. The title, Human Acts, certainly refers to the barbarous actions we are, in Kang’s purview, all capable of, but also of the humane deeds, small or large, that allow us to overcome.

In 1980, in city of Gwangju, students of Jeonnam University gathered to peacefully protest the political ascension of soon-to-be South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan. Government troops, under Doo-hwan’s orders, entered Gwangju and shot, killed, and beat the gathered students. What followed was a ten-day battle in the streets of the city, ending ten days later with an estimated 606 civilians dead. This is not a beat-by-beat record of the event; instead Kang focuses on the death of a fervent middle-schooler, Dong-ho, and its effect on those who knew him, even briefly, over the course of the next four decades. In doing so, Kang allows the reader to understand the motivations behind the protests, and the revolt that followed, through the eyes of the individual, using Dong-Ho as an avatar to put us directly in the grit and grime of the conflict. And as devastating as Dong-Ho’s experience is—Kang has no issue using her vast writing skills to describe the gore of armed conflict—he’s just an entry point to a discussion of the larger grief that flowed outward from the event.

Each chapter is told through the viewpoint of a character somehow connected to Dong-Ho and the Gwangju Uprising: a censored editor in the mid-1980s; the trapped soul of Dong-Ho’s friend; an imprisoned protestor; even Han Kang herself. Though the opening chapter introduces Dong-Ho, and momentarily, each successive character, their individual chapters are presented chronologically, allowing Kang the opportunity to showcase the long reach of the Gwangju Uprising’s horrifying effects. The editor, Eun-Sook still lives on the precipice of her nightmares, reality just as dark; Dong-ho’s mother chases his specter through a crowded marketplace, still searching for his soul.

Human Acts is, primarily, about how a single tragic event creates a before and after, a memory of the “times that were” and everything else beyond that. For Kang’s characters, the Gwanju Uprising not only redefined their futures, but also recreated their pasts. As the characters move further and further away from the event—some finding healing in time, others not—the moments prior to the event take on greater meaning, an almost rosy-hued nostalgia that only adds to the characters’ ongoing misery. Eun-sook, the editor, sees a play so heavily censored that the characters remain silent, merely mouthing the words. “After you died I could not hold a funeral,” a character in the play says, “And so my life became a funeral.” The past creates the future, the future reshapes the past, and in the greying limbo between them both are where the characters of Human Acts live.

Kang, here translated by Deborah Smith, is a gifted writer (The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize in 2016) whose prose ably toes the line between lyrical poignancy and brutal realism. And though, again, this is not a non-fiction account of the Gwanju Uprising, researching it after reading the book made it clear that Kang had to sacrifice some delineation of the scope of the event to make room for her stellar dissection of the undulating waves of grief it caused. This bleeds over into the paper-thin representation of General Chun Doo-hwan’s forces, shadowy slivers of evil that butcher innocents at a whim. Yet, this isn’t the story of the Gwanju Uprising—the good, the bad, the deceased—it’s the story of how it affected those who survived it, of how it continues to affect South Korea.

And though reading Human Acts isn’t a pleasant Sunday drive, by any accounts, it is even more terrifying in the context of the current American political climate. We’ve faced “before” creating events in the near past—9/11, the Newtown Shootings, the Orlando Massacre, etc.—but in Kang’s world, the event isn’t an act of terrorism, it’s a decree sent down from the very, very top. Even if Kang’s book is centered on an event that took place almost 40 years ago, it feels like a warning, a harbinger even of a physical and emotional future, a universal grief felt from sea-to-shining-sea, suddenly, horrifyingly, possible.

 

Gentlemen Prefer Asians by Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta

Gentleman



Gentlemen Prefer Asians

By Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta
Published 2016 by ThreeL Media | Stone Bridge Press
$14.95 paperback ISBN 9780996485203

Reviewed by Krista Varela Posell

Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta’s first book, Gentlemen Prefer Asians, is a collection of essays that details the marriages of three gay Indonesian men in their pursuit to become US citizens. Though the book’s subtitle is “Tales of Gay Indonesians and Green Card Marriages,” the essays amount to so much more, creating a nuanced portrait of family, love, and friendship in the 21st century.

The book begins with meditation on the impact of our memories, the way they “occupy,” “attack,” and “metastasize,” establishing one of the recurring themes throughout the book. The narrator invites us in to relive some of these “precious fragments” from his life, launching us into a narrative that is raw, vulnerable, and dynamic.

Throughout these essays we are introduced to multiple characters, many of whom are referred to by their profession: The Pilot, The Baker, The Nurse, and even the narrator’s husband is referred to as The Musician. In this way, the focus of the story is geared toward the narrator and his two Indonesian friends, Ario and Jaya. We witness the history of the narrator’s former relationships in a series of essays entitled “Gentlemen Suite.” Other minor but important characters include the narrator’s parents, who play a supportive role in supporting the narrator’s life. “Your Daddy’s Rich and Your Ma’s Good Lookin’” is an especially poignant essay that describes the narrator’s exodus from Indonesia from his mother’s perspective.

Ario and Jaya, two Indonesians married to American men, are the two other central characters and serve as a contrast to the narrator. Ario is somewhat conservative and subscribes to ideals about romantic love, yet complies with the open marriage his American husband desires and has trouble adapting to life in the US. Jaya is an outgoing, vivacious stud married to a man forty years his senior and, despite his bubbly demeanor, struggles to face his some of his own demons.

Many of the book’s most pivotal moments come through conversations between the narrator, Ario, and Jaya. These conversations highlight the insecurities and vulnerabilities of the three men within each of their relationships. Ario acts as the voice of wisdom for the trio and offers insight into the power dynamics between these men and their American husbands, spouting off lines like, “You are married, which means you are owned by a man,” and “Being equal means having power and power is sexy.”

Guiding us through these scenes is a narrator with a distinct voice that is witty and honest. He’s quirky, but intelligent. He’s well read and nerdy. He’s familiar with the Bible and Sylvia Plath, but also knows just as much about Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. He’s self-deprecating, describing himself as a “gay, feminine Klingon,” but this makes him all the more endearing. The self-awareness in the narrator’s voice gains the reader’s trust as he gives us an honest account of his previous relationships—the way he kept The Baker on the hook, the way he uses The Pilot as a rebound.

Tuanakotta plays with the essay form in multiple ways. Some of the essays experiment with the second and third person, and from multiple points of view. Other essays are lists—the “Nonimmigrant Visa Applicant Checklist” and “Permanent Resident Case Filing Checklist”—that give a more objective perspective into the process of becoming a citizen. While most of the book is rooted in scene, some essays collectively titled “The Demons of Indonesia” are devoted to exposition, bringing the reader up to speed on the current political climate and LGBT movement in Indonesia. These acknowledgements of the queer struggle on a global level help to illuminate the complicated feelings that the three main characters have toward their husbands, their marriages, and the places that they call home.

Ario asks the narrator about halfway through the book, “Would you still marry your husband if you were American?” to which the narrator doesn’t respond. This is one of the implicit central tensions of the book—the balance between trying to find true love and becoming an American citizen. Though the narrator’s marriage to The Musician is hardly played out on the page, it isn’t really the point. These stories don’t portray the typical fairy tale romance of finding true love and living happily ever after. Ario divorces his husband and returns to Indonesia, and Jaya resigns himself for the time being to a loveless marriage to ensure his future financial stability. The narrator himself ends on a note of ambivalence, acknowledging apprehension of the (at the time of publication) upcoming US presidential election. His final thoughts are a sobering reminder that we still have a lot of work to do to protect the voices of those like the narrator, Ario, and Jaya. Their stories must be heard and spread widely to continue the conversation.

 

 

 

Homesick for Another World: Stories by Ottessa Moshfegh

Homesick for Another World


Homesick For Another World
by Ottessa Moshfegh
Published 2017 by Penguin Press
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0399562884

Reviewed by: Noah Sanders

Ottessa Moshfegh’s is a joyfully disgusting writer. Her worlds are populated by an unappealing lot of losers, perverts, drunks and drug addicts, struggling to find purchase in whatever gutter they may have woke up in. Moshfegh seems to thrill in detailed descriptions of cystic acne, bloated bodies, horrifically mangled and misshapen limbs, and a slew of other physical deformities that afflict her characters. As monstrous as the characters in her first short story collection – Homesick for Another World – are on the outside, they are imbued with the potential for worse within. And it is a testament to her immense abilities as a writer that in the collection she is able to make these ugly creations not only relatable, but strangely likable. She is, quite frankly, a master of revulsion. Her characters breath, bleed, screw, and ooze from the page, sloughing through their sad existences, weakly reaching for someone, or something, to lift them up to places even marginally better.

In Homesick for Another World Moshfegh’s keen eye and descriptive power are turned towards a motley cast of down-on-their-luck characters – a Chinese factory worker who seeks love, a woman who seeks vacation in destitution, a wall-eyed country kid trying to become a Hollywood star – their only connecting thread the want, in even the smallest way, to find solace, or escape, from their uniformly miserable existences. Moshfegh’s is a hopeless world, the stories set in barren, hard-luck locales that on occasion read almost post-apocalyptically, consolation to be found only in the skewed connections between human beings. The tales told in Homesick for Another World place universal life moments we all share – first dates, break-ups, moving to a new place – underneath Moshfegh’s powerful microscope, pushing past the superficial to expose the warts, pustules, and enlarged genitalia laying just beneath the surface.

A sense of escapism trickles through each of the 14 stories in the book, a morbid romanticism that drives and consumes these characters, pushing them towards reprehensible acts in the hope that it will free them from the lives they inhabit. The titular character in “Mr. Wu”, is a lovesick, bitter drunk who writes intimidating texts to a local arcade owner, hoping it will draw her to him, only to ignore her when the chance arises. “Nothing Ever Happens Here” features a wall-eyed teen who departs his small-town life, convinced he’s the next big Hollywood star, his self-delusions bolstered by the awkward romantic advances of a fading gossip columnist. Moshfegh is at her best when she writes of dreamers, no matter how abhorrent, failing to touch the stars, but discovering the small joys of their own lives in the process.

Most of the stories here are written in the first person, allowing Moshfegh to showcase the world of her narrators through their cracked and skewed perspectives. It is here that her often stomach-turning descriptions are most powerful, as the moles and receding hairlines and picked-scabs her characters are infested with seem to trap the reader within these lives. Forcing us to find the hints of light in the very darkest depths that allow her characters, sad as they might be, to move forward.

In short story form though, Moshfegh occasionally abandons narrative pay-off, bowing down to her own seeming delight in the strange and disgusting. In Eileen, her acclaimed debut novel, she had page space to build character and plot amidst the internal and external filth, allowing the ending to organically blossom. Though the weaker stories in Homesick for Another World – “A Dark and Winding Road” or “Dancing In The Moonlight” – still sing with her visceral characters and descriptions, the shorter form forces Moshfegh to make relatively large leaps that often times strand her characters, and the reader, without adequate closure. But Moshfegh’s writing is so immersive, so hideously enjoyable, that even when she can’t stick the landing, the routine leading towards it always merits attention.

To say that Moshfegh’s stories are hopeful, inspirational even, seems a strange descriptor. She revels in pouring on the disgustingness, but in her capable hands, it only makes the characters more real, more relatable. All of us want to meet someone, all of us have dreamed of fame, just like all of us have a truly ugly, even creepy side to our thoughts, to our physicality. Yet, she even as she afflicts her characters with arms that look like “prawn claws” or a tendency to “vomit in public, just to make a scene” or a general nihilistic approach to the world as it is, she drags them from the gutter, even for just a moment, allowing them a chance to stand up just a little taller, even if they’ll surely stumble back down.

 

 

Super Mario Brothers 2 by Jon Irwin

All the World’s a Stage: A Review of Jon Irwin’s Super Mario Brothers 2
Reviewed by: J. Scott Donahue

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 ISBN2 978-1-940535-05-0

The game begins with a tableau in red, blue and sepia.  Each character is frozen in a vaudevillian mélé. Press start and select one of the four characters–Mario, Luigi, Toad or Princess Peach–to begin one of the most bizarre dreams in videogame history.

In the same clever way a Super Mario Bros. 2 gamer chooses the right player for each world, Jon Irwin plays four different roles: a videogame journalist, a nostalgic fanboy, a personal essayist, and a player in life negotiating obstacles in death, existence and the absurd. Writing with reverence and good-natured snobbery, the prose oscillates between a doting blaison and a sleuthing inquiry.

We learn the origin story of SMB2, an exegesis of the game’s genesis.  Mario is traced back to his original role as “Jump Man,” the protagonist of Donkey Kong, and the ubiquitous “Video Man” in other early ’80’s Nintendo games.  Then came Mario Bros. in 1983 and Super Mario Bros. in 1985, games that prepared the way for Mario’s pop culture canonization. Fun fact from the book: Mario is now a more recognizable icon than Mickey Mouse.  An even funner fact: The Mario Bros. game franchise has since progenated over 200 games.

With Mario’s Methuselan genealogy in context, it’s a mystery as to why SMB2 stands out in history as this mutant limb, or maybe a super-glued limb, on the family tree.  Humorously, upon the games release in 1988, the jarring inconsistencies were inexplicably camouflaged before the transfixed player.  Even critics hailed the game as a “direct successor”, according to Irwin.

Irwin spends much of his book investigating that which many of us NES players only could sense was amiss about the game. So many questions arose: Why is Mario throwing tubers at quadrupedal Shyguys wearing masks; where are the Goombas and Koopa Troopas; and where are those iconic boxes with question marks?  Players absorb mushroom power just by lifting the thing up. Players vanquish enemies by overhead-throwing objects (or other enemies).  And instead of following the damsel in distress trope, the Princess can play to save her own damn self.  Such questions and disconnects that Irwin points out, compared to the original SMB, somehow evaporate more quickly than a moment in the game’s Sub-Space–if only for the game’s brilliance, mystery, theatrics, and adorable weirdness.  The game begs the questions aimed at the game, “Who are you, and what have you done to Mario?”

One could suspect foul play or fraud. The original sequel of Super Mario Bros. was first released in Japan.  “Masochistic,” in fact, is the word Irwin employs to describe the Japanese game, designed by Takashi Tazuka.  Poison mushrooms, levels of excruciating difficulty, not to mention words that flash on the screen that literally translate to “Unskilled crap”, reminding you of your failure–proved too much for any sane gamer to take.  In Irwin’s words, “It took a player’s confidence away, decimating self worth.”

Upon reading the book and realizing the true origin of SMB2, my nostalgic feelings toward the game admittedly took a rage spiral.  How did I not notice some clue of foul play?  And surely my seven-year-old self had been duped or worse–in the American suburban child’s case–handled with care.  From this book I learned that my childhood experience of playing NES had been censored for the safety of my mental health.

Yet somehow, American Nintendo Rep Howard Phillips found a way to satisfy the American addiction to winning, all while crafting a game that isn’t boring, and to do it as cheaply as possible.  Enter stage left: A Japanese game, called Doki Doki Panic,comprised of a family of four characters and aesthetics of One Thousand and One Nights.  Enter stage right: Nintendo’s ethos, striking a balance between the reused and the nuanced. SMB2 is, in every sense, Nintendo’s philosophy of adding nuance to the husk of a game.  The book answers the question early: Nintendo found it to be in its best interest to cater to Americans’ victor complex.  Take away the punishment from its predecessor, all while crafting an unforgettable game as cheaply as possible.  Nintendo’s ethos strikes a balance between the reused and the nuanced.  To that extent, SMB2 beloved to Mario Bros. fans and a profitable successor to the original, is nothing but a testament to Nintendo’s philosophy.

This book is hardly an indictment of Nintendo’s committing mass fraud to devoted Mario players, and more about how Nintendo saved the brand of Mario from going the direction of torture. Irwin earns the answers with some hard-won sleuthing, interviewing Nintendo pioneers like Tazuka, Phillips and other Nintendo pioneers.

Getting personal, Irwin’s obsession with the game breaks a wall between a third-person avatar.  He embodies the oft-chosen character, Toad, who wears turban-like mushroom headdress. The action of the player tapping the D-pad, and buttons A and B, sitting criss-cross applesauce on the carpet is nonexistent, while braided throughout the book are scenes in which author might as well be in the game.  The narration of each play field is performed in first-person, so much so that you almost imagine a minimized, digitized version of the protagonist; think Jeff Bridges in TRON. A crisp scene of the author sucked into the game in the final dramatic moments of game play. Toad isn’t battling the boss; the author is fighting the boss.

Of course, no book devoted to a retro ’80’s game should forgo an inevitable moment of the absurd.  After all, absurdism is as much a trait of the game as it is in existence.  SMB2 is like a ready-made game, a piece of dada art.  The connection between the game and existence is finally bridged, however, after Irwin witnesses the final moments of his grandmother’s life.  After which he returns to the game and, in a moment of sobriety, asks himself a question.

The author’s relationship to the game mirrors that of his Toad character struggling to keep a key above his head, while a demented flying mask zooms by.  This game, I agree, is too important to slip into a wrinkle in Nintendo’s canon of classic games. The author fights to keep SMB2 relevant as a Mario Game, to keep the book from disappearing from the collective consciousness of Mario Bros. aficionados.  In the words of former “speedrunning” world record holder of SMB2, the game’s has a lot of weird things in it.”  Weirdness, Irwin makes the case, is at the heart of the game’s worth.


 

Phoning Home by Jacob Appel

Reviewed by: Charlene Caruso

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Publisher: University of South Carolina Press
Language: English
ISBN-13: 978-1611173710

When read together, each of the thirteen pieces in Jacob Appel’s Phoning Home build upon the next, resulting in a multifaceted glimpse into the mind of Appel as he explores the ways in which identity can be consumed by illness and eroded by modern society’s response to approaching death. He is uniquely qualified to tackle these questions as he is both a physician and a bioethicist. Each essay is crafted to invite the reader into the author’s mind. The title essay introduces us to seven year old Jacob. His parents are being tormented by a crank caller who is never caught. Appel employs this experience to reflect on deceit, secrets and how little we know about ourselves or others. He manages to slip in and out of his past, admitting about his childhood self, “I still have no idea what made this creature tick,” peeling back the layers of time—as a grown man—sitting across from his aging parents wondering if he should confess the truth. He decides against it as he looks at them, “What they have gained in happiness, they have lost in joy.” He riffs on how confession reveals what strangers we are even to those close to us and that misbehavior is not always a predictor of pathology.

We follow him as he explores assumptions and beliefs about his own identity, those of his family members, and by extension each of us. He is a storyteller, a man full of important questions. In “The Man Who Was Not My Grandfather,” he reveals his grandmother Lillian’s refusal to marry a distant cousin, thereby denying her family their only opportunity to leave Latvia and come to America, a chance to escape the Nazis. This story is untold until an aunt tries to track down Lillian’s genealogy, finding an old photo of this handsome unnamed cousin with all his sisters. There is also a group portrait of three rows of the extended family taken at a wedding, rows of young children, many of them toddlers, unknown cousins, staring at the camera. They were among 16,000 Jews who lived in that region of Latvia before World War II. Less than one hundred survived. All the rest murdered, likely shot or starved, many before the end of 1942.

When asked about the man in the photo, Lillian admits he was the man her father wanted her to marry. “Why should I marry a man I’d never met?” This is a story Lillian doesn’t want to remember. She reminds Appel that if she had made the choice to marry that cousin, there would be no Jacob Appel to ask these questions. Instead, an entire branch of the family tree was destroyed. Who could predict such evil? Who can acknowledge its meaning, even now? A young girl’s decision, reflected back in time, can never answer these questions.

Another essay, “Caesura—Antwerp, 1938,” is a story about Grandpa Leo and a broken watch. Leo had emigrated with his parents from Belgium before the Nazi invasion. He met Lillian in the U.S. and they married. Decades later while in Spain on vacation, his prized watch stops working. The watch is old, and after asking around he is given the name of one man who possesses the skill to repair it. When Leo enters the shop he recognizes the man as a childhood friend from Antwerp. Their meeting is brief and they part without any promises to keep in touch. This man is one of the only survivors from their neighborhood. “Each had assumed the other was dead.”

Leo had told many stories about his life in New York but rarely discussed his early years in Antwerp or his boyhood friends. Appel finally realizes, “For my grandfather, time had stopped like a broken watch in 1938 Antwerp—and when it restarted in Manhattan, after a seven-day voyage across the Atlantic, it did so in a different continuum, its hours and minutes both identical to and, entirely unlike, the hours and minutes preceding his escape.”   Appel reads a letter written to his grandfather at the end of 1945, “Alas, the news from the East is not good. We have heard nothing from the following relatives, and we can only assume the worst.” The rest of the letter contains a handwritten list over two pages long of names of another branch of the family murdered in the Holocaust. Name after name, all memory of them erased. These two essays linger, acting as a refrain throughout the collection.

In “An Absence of Jell-O,” Appel draws us in by humorously describing a child’s anticipation of tasting his grandaunt’s Lime Jell-O, “a weapon of torture,” a forbidden treat secretly promised to him if he behaves himself while visiting his elderly great aunt. He uses humor to convey his overwhelming, childish disappointment as visit after visit, no matter how hard he tries to be good, he fails to secure any Jell-O. Looking back as an adult he realizes there never was any Jell-O. He sees her bizarre behavior and peculiar eccentricities as a form of dementia, often undiagnosed in those days. He concludes she may have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Appel’s disarming use of humor nudges us past our fears and into examining the pros and cons of undergoing DNA testing to determine the presence of genes linked to Alzheimer’s disease. He presents facts in a conversational tone, and poses moral dilemmas in a personal framework. Appel makes the decision to get tested.

Appel’s voice is engaging and compassionate. We meet real people in his essays, people losing the battle with age and disease and losing the right to decide their fate, patients in hospitals and mental wards. We meet doctors who cannot heal them.  In “Dropping Dead—A Eulogy,” he makes a solid argument for dying with dignity instead of enduring the suffering a prolonged death imposes on us by advances in medicine. Many diseases which proved fatal not so long ago can now be managed and the mortality risk reduced. For Americans, sudden or swift death is now the exception rather than the rule.

Appel reminds us that the added years of life are not always a positive experience. Sometimes, surviving one illness leaves us vulnerable to developing other chronic diseases that rob us of our independence and prevent us from enjoying those extra years. It is an important discussion as technology and scientific discoveries rush far ahead in the ability to extend the length of our lives but often at the cost of significantly reducing its quality.  Whether discussing lost toys, lost loves, lost minds or lost lives he reminds us that our individual voice needs to be heard. It is rare when a collection of essays written and separately published over a span of almost a decade reads like cohesive chapters of a tightly constructed book. Phoning Home gives us that experience.