Book Reviews


Wayne Benson is tired of living a complicated life. His needs are pretty simple—quiet time to write, three square meals a day (preferably prepaid and prepared for him), and comfortable surroundings. But where to find all of these things in one place? Enter The Sunset—a retirement community he once toured with his parents, prior to their move to Florida. The only problem? He’s thirty-two years too young. Enter Wayne Senior, his alter ego and aged doppelganger, courtesy of a grey wig and stage makeup, complete with cane and a stooped, halting gait (he’ll learn not to run for the bus when late). For a time, Wayne’s plan works great. But what he hadn’t planned on was the complications of falling for a sexy fellow resident (yes, sixty can be sexy!) and becoming friends with his cranky next-door neighbor. Add a suspicious landlady and a blackmailing security guard, and things soon get way more complicated than Wayne’s former young life had ever been. Perhaps the best part of the book for me (and so much of it was great fun) was moving through Wayne’s emotional maturation as he goes from viewing his fellow residents as obstacles to insightful, interesting people. His initial, skeptical view is evidenced by this passage: “Eventually, the van would arrive in front of the supermarket and park. The driver would stay inside with the engine running and the A/C downgraded from arctic blast to cold front. Slowly the seniors would stir and with the help of a couple of Sunset staffers begin to vacate the vehicle. The legs of walkers and the tips of canes would emerge first, like the tentacles of some strange space creatures trying to blend in with humanity, they would descend on the store, sporting wraparound sunglasses, shawls, light-weight summer sweaters, and fistfuls of double coupons. Aisles would be congested, workers berated, and cashiers interrogated.” Into the Sunset is a lively, engaging, romp-of-a-read, and by the end of the book, Wayne’s attitude and understanding have greatly softened—a truly older, wiser and more sanguine Wayne has emerged for us, his readers, and we welcome his rebirth into old age....

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Jack Gorse is a complicated man. The particularity of his nature is revealed in the book’s opening paragraph as he describes an episode of curdled cream in his self-serve coffee—an episode that led him forever after to drink his coffee black and obsessively double check each time he fills his cup. We soon learn that he is also facing eviction from a rent-controlled apartment in New York City, an apartment he has illegally inhabited for years following the death of a similarly named uncle. The slow, cold war of attrition that ensues leaves Jack the only remaining tenant, and the architect hired to oversee the project his only human contact. The ever unfolding layers of Jack’s personality reveal a man both intelligent and oddly naïve, shy and slyly voyeuristic, cunning and emotionally guileless. He is a fascinating man. He is also a quiet man, but even though this story is a first-person narrative, I would hesitate to label it a quiet book. The Understory crackles with the energy of compulsion and unrequited obsession that is slowly and meticulously revealed in a way that could be called meditative (for its gradually deepening understanding), except for the fact that Jack fails miserably at meditation. No, the true genius in the storytelling here is that Jack reveals his deepest self, without actually revealing his deepest self. He simply recounts, while we see what he cannot. In fact, it’s this continual dichotomous tendency that serves up the book’s delicious tension. Gorse is beset by a stubborn ennui that plays against a dramatic narrative backdrop of eviction notices, narrowly escaped fires, and a culminating scene of violence that is as sudden and unexpected as it is dramatically right. The Understory is a book that relentlessly and incrementally pulls you forward on intelligent tenterhooks till you slap against a conclusion that resonates long after the turning of the final...

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In June of this year, Press 53 released Curtis Smith’s most recent short story collection titled The Species Crown. Smith is also the author of the novel An Unadorned Life and two previous short story collections, Placing Ourselves Among the Living and In the Jukebox Light. This was my first chance to read a book of his, but it will not be the last one I read. I so enjoyed this collection. Some of the stories in The Species Crown are lighthearted, always a nice touch in short story collections, which can tend to be a bit on the dark side. One of my favorite stories was “My Totally Awesome Funeral” first published in Hobart. Although written in the first person, there’s a wonderful twist of an implied directive, the storyteller directing the reader to celebrate his passing–when the time comes. Here’s a sample: “Drink another just because you can. After my wife and son have gone to bed, let the hardcore partiers hijack me for one last ride–shotgun!–and no matter the season, roll down the window and let the wind lash my hair.” It manages to be a raucous celebration of death that makes the reader smile. How often can you say that about a short story? Another story I especially liked was “The Real, True-Life Story of Godzilla!.” It’s a third-person tale of Billy Glenn, a washed up semi-pro basketball player who gets conscripted to join a Team America style group that will play throughout Japan. When that ship runs aground, Billy–because of his height–finds work playing Godzilla in grade B films. He finds love, then loses it unexpectedly and ends up spending his days searching through the eyeholes of his Godzilla costume, looking for lost love. My very favorite story–I’m certain of it–was “Vacation in Ten Parts.” The descriptions put me right smack in the middle of a floundering marriage desperately attempting to find its footing in the shifting sands of the Caribbean. The supporting cast of characters all ring true as fellow desperados on a flight to or from somewhere–no one is quite certain. The second-person lyricism throws it all in high relief: “Study your wife through the fine scrim of mosquito netting. Peaceful, her slumber, her legs tangled in crisp, white sheets, the cotton ripe with the ocean’s briny scent.“ This collection is so rich and varied, so skilled in the many different voices, locales, and points-of-view, that I was sad when I reached the end–always the sign of a great...

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Perry L. Crandall would like you to know that he is not retarded. Retarded would be 75 on an IQ test, and he is 76. Besides, Perry takes care not only of himself, but also of his Gran, a crusty, no-nonsense woman who loves him for who he is and lets him shine his light through his own accomplishments. (She tells him the L in his name stands for Lucky.) Perry describes his life in simple and succinct sentences that manage to be full of wonder and surprise. As he speaks, we see all too clearly the many ways in which his nuclear family has failed him, but Perry never sees it that way. His glass is always half full. Shoot, his glass is three-quarters full–it only looks half-full to those of us too blind to see things the Perry Crandall way. And it’s this innocence and optimism that makes his family betrayals all the more heartbreaking to the reader. We want to crawl into the book and protect Perry from the vultures, especially when he faces the biggest tragedy of his life. But Perry insists he doesn’t need protecting, and he proceeds to prove it us and to the three remaining people who care the most about him: Gary, the owner of Holsted’s Marine Supply who has employed Perry since he was sixteen years old; Keith, Perry’s heavy, flatulent, potty-mouthed co-worker; and Cherry a young, tattooed and pierced cashier at the local Marina Handy Mart. When Perry wins the Washington state lottery we learn just who his real friends (and real family) are. His mostly estranged cousin-brothers come knocking, strangers arrive on his doorstep…and we hope–oh how we hope–that Perry can learn to distinguish the friends from the leeches. There is so much to love about this big-hearted first novel. The characters are rich and real and alive. Perry’s voice is fresh, authentic, consistent, and homespun-philosopher-wise…and then, there’s the ending. Oh, the ending! The ending is so unexpectedly perfect and poignant and satisfying. I keep trying not to write, “Keep a box of tissues handy,” but, well, keep a box of tissues handy. You’ll need them. But–to use another cliche–you’ll be smiling through your...

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Carrie, the protagonist of Claire Cameron’s debut novel The Line Painter, is consumed by grief after the sudden death of her boyfriend Bill. She takes off in Bill’s car, headed, she decides, for the western reaches of Canada. Friends and family, worried–both about her state-of-mind and for her safety–call repeatedly on her cell phone, leaving messages that give us, as readers, insight into Carrie’s plight and hint at a darker reason for Carrie’s sudden departure. In a remote area, north of Lake Superior, Carrie’s car breaks down in the middle of the night. She hasn’t passed another car for hours, her friends and family have no idea where she is, her cell phone can’t find service, and most immediately pressing of all, she has an overfull bladder. Universal law dictates that as soon as she squats, headlights appear. But–no ordinary headlights–these belong to the truck of a line painter. In the remotest regions of Canada, Frank works the night shift, alone, tranforming dingy grey road lines into bright white reflective ones, with the help of millions of tiny glass beads suspended in the paint. He offers Carrie a (very slow) ride into the nearest town. Carrie, we soon realize, is an enigmatic character: she takes up smoking again, because it seems like the thing to do; she tells us she tried, earnestly, to make herself “grow up” by moving in with her boyfriend, wearing suits, and playing house; and she alternates between extreme naivete and a heavy world-weariness. At times, Carrie’s inability to distinguish real danger from imagined, her impulsive attempts to establish control over the situation, and her refusal to face her problems are a source of readerly frustration. But as the story unfolds, her doubts and anxieties begin to make perfect sense. By the end of the book, I was captivated by Carrie’s experiences and by her heart, which was larger than I ever expected. The layers of guilt, regret, grief and loss that emerge in the last third of the book expose the beating heart of this unusual story. At it’s core, I believe that The Line Painter is a high concept novel. Like Life of Pi, or The Alchemist, Cameron’s novel covers a physical journey–a journey with strange, fantastical elements–that leads the protagonist to a life-changing epiphany. If Life of Pi’s high-concept hook is, “Boy crosses the ocean in a lifeboat with a tiger,” The Line Painter’s hook could be, “Stranded woman gets picked up by a line painter, embarking on a road trip of terror–and ultimately of...

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Daja Wangchuk Meston begins his memoir dramatically with a desperate leap from a third story hotel window in a remote area of Tibet. It’s a quick glimpse at a man pushed beyond his limits, unsure of his place in the world, and desperate beyond sense. When he jumped, he fully expected to die. That was in 1999, and the author had been in the custody of Chinese authorities, suffering long days of interrogation with no sleep, accused of crimes against the People’s Republic of China for his work on behalf of Tibetan rights. The memoir then leaves behind that awful, desperate step–a step that shattered his heels and his life (both of which would take years to mend)–and takes us back in time to his first steps as a toddler on the Greek island of Corfu. Daja was born to hippie parents (Feather and Larry Greeneye) who hoped to leave behind the commercialism of their own American upbringing. When he was one, his parents travelled to India on a whim, and then on to Nepal to attend a Buddhist retreat. It was there, in the mountains of Nepal, that the author’s father suffered a debilitating attack of paranoid schizophrenia and disappeared, only to emerge from the woods a week later, disheveled and incoherent. He was sent back to the states (alone) and did not see his son again until decades later. When Daja was three years old, his mother inexplicably delivered him to a local family (Tibetan nobles, living in Nepal) to raise. For three years he believed they were his real family–until they sent him, alone, at the ripe old age of six, to a Buddhist monastery to take the vows of a monk. A number of privileged Americans have gone (by choice) to monastic retreats, seeking solitude, respite, and peace. This might lead the innocent reader to assume that Daja’s upbringing took place in a peaceful, idyllic setting. The truth is, his childhood was far from idyllic. Thanks in part to his pale skin and blond hair, Daja was treated as an outcast both by his peers and adult monks alike. And the indignities he suffered over the next ten years were Dickensian in scope: sleep deprivation, forced labor, lice infestations, constant hunger, humiliation, beatings, dysentery, alienation and isolation. He was further emotionally orphaned by a mother who chose, herself, to join the (different) monastic life of a Buddhist nun, shaving her head, wearing robes, and leaving the secular world behind (to include the responsibilities of parenthood). At its core, this is the heartbreaking story of a lost childhood. It is the tale of one man’s lifelong...

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