Tahar Ben Jelloun, Leaving Tangier, (Penguin, 2009)
Takes us into the heart of political influence on civilian life in Morocco, exploring issues of sexuality, ambition, religion, love, and family. Azel, a young man dreaming of freedom from political oppression, meets the older Miguel and allows himself to be led to Spain as a young lover, leaving behind his fiancée. Azel’s sister, Kenza, also wishes to leave the impending doom of Morocco’s government, and start a new life in Spain as Miguel’s legal wife. The complications that arise from their unique living arrangement destroy Azel’s and Kenza’s legitimate relationships.
The level of sexual liberation, particularly regarding homosexuality, may be viewed as an indicator of the modern era, although there are references to a steady presence of comfortable male homosexuality of varying degrees throughout all of the characters’ lifetimes. A prominent theme of Leaving Tangier is casual sexual ambiguity for men, especially during youth. These male divergences in personal sexual histories are more readily accepted, and even joked about, by men than women, who either wholly deny the issue or turn a blind eye.
Aside from the political climates of the countries involved, Jelloun makes very few demarcations indicating the time period. Fashions are mentioned only a few times, in reference to traditional garb or to indicate social status. There are a few mentions of cell phones and actors, but the scarcity of pop culture references renders it a classic story of love, freedom, and all the factors hindering the pursuit thereof.
—Tatiaana L. Laine
Ron Singer, The Second Kingdom, (Cantarabooks, 2009)
Loopy and highly intelligent, Ron Singer has carved his name in the stone ruins of literature. Far too esoteric for a misleading marketing campaign, far too uncompromising and exceptional to be ignored, he is an author perpetually on the fringes of the New York establishment. With The Second Kingdom, incarnated in e-form with Cantarabooks, Singer’s irony and wit informs a selection of tightly-wrought stories.
Cantara, with a mission of “international literature,” is a fitting affiliation for Singer’s group of multi-culti stories, and one wonders if Singer’s blend of sharp prose and smarts wouldn’t be better appreciated by Americans if he weren’t American. Singer, meanwhile, ponders literature (Dante’s Inferno), politics (Homeland Security, 9/11, the Turkish National Intelligence Organization), and divine beings (the Devil and a Navajo deity), with his hallmark wit and wisdom. In “The Parents We Deserve,” for example, Singer examines a spoiled couple who face their own mortality. The wealthy pair hire surrogate parents, which is, at turns, heavenly and hellish.
Always surprising and clever, Singer’s prose is well worth a look in any incarnation. The Second Kingdom is Singer at his finest—deft, funny, and screwball. Oh, and puns. Let’s not forget that, or we’ll find ourselves committed to plugatory.
— Dan Fall
Monica de la Torre, Public Domain, (Roof, 2008)
Shifting identities, shifting page orientations, shifting style, Public Domain draws itself together into a book—a book of poems—that demands it be read and understood as a whole. A series of footers on “lists” spans 23 pages. The book even extends beyond its own pages, with several poems pointing to poems that aren’t actually included, and, very likely, exist only inasmuch as they are poems about the poems that don’t actually exist.
“The next poem was inspired by something I overheard…” begins the first poem in the collection, “Is to Travel Getting to or Being in a Destination.” The poem closes: “The poem, called The ‘Hanged Man Game,’ is a couplet made of nineteen letters in the first line, and seventeen in the second.” With that phrase, de la Torre proceeds to give us two lines, centered, of 19 and then 17 hyphens.
As one embarks on Public Domain, one wonders at such tricks: will the “real” poem emerge? Would it be possible to guess the couplet? Did de la Torre ever write that couplet? By the end of the book, one has answers to all of the above. No, no real poem will emerge. No, guessing the couplet is unlikely. Yes, de la Torre wrote the couplet. Despite her casual patina and her seemingly all-over technique, one has the sense of de la Torre as maniacally craft-oriented. Public Domain reads like a series of intricately interrelated short stories, and presents narrative rewards as well as poetic ones. De la Torre’s confession about “The Crush,” fills a space that is deeply personal, and whether the narrator or a fictional character or the author, the terrain, for non-sentimental poetry, is disarming.
In wit, in range, de la Torre’s gifts are all-too apparent, but her real brilliance is in bringing together seemingly mutually exclusive elements: the poem/the story, the emotive/the theoretical, the amusing/the tragic.
— Dan Fall
Binnie Kirshenbaum, The Scenic Route, (Harper, 2009)
In a voice clipped, wry, wise, and naïve, The Scenic Route captures the horror of loving but not bothering. Too much fear, too much baggage, too much marriage—Kirshenbaum is master of the quiet and all-too convincing qualification.
America is no longer a young nation, and our attitude in tramping the world has changed from wide-eyed innocent, to—as Kirshenbaum imagines it—cynical divorcee. And, recent divorcee. One cannot help but entertain the notion that there is some political allegory in Kirshenbaum’s formulation: full of need and lacking in principles.
Readers will find a charm, an appeal to Henry, the married man with whom Sylvia, our heroine, embarks on her oily excursion—and Sylvia herself possesses a certain doomsayer allure. That The Scenic Route is a deeply sentimental meditation on aging and love may go unnoticed—the stab of the prose is sharp and un-nostalgic—but Kirshenbaum should be praised for an acumen and intelligence that goes where acumen and intelligence are loathe to visit. The affair, the hurt, and hope—Kirshenbaum rolls it over and over in her staccato sentences. And never, not for a moment, will the reader’s heart beat hum-drum.
No maps of the highway, no convenient scruples or shortcuts, Kirshenbaum takes the long road, true, but one has the sense that this journey will not end on the rose-hued doorstep of happily-ever-after, or in the lime-pits of death-and-despair. Kirshenbaum, one has faith, will guide us to some truer roadblock, some more real terminus.
Amina Cain, I Go To Some Hollow, (Les Figues Press, 2009)
There is a surface feeling to Amina Cain’s stories, published in gorgeous format by Les Figues Press. At first it seems Cain skims above the water, refusing to tackle big waves. She neither rides the crest nor dives deep, yet the disassociation of her characters soon becomes familiar, their feeling that what is familiar can never quite be known. And there is subtlety in the way Cain handles disembodied experience. How else can the protagonist of the opening story, “Black Wings,” claim, “I get up out of my body and walk around every part of the room”?
In these stories time is ambiguous, adding to the sensation of one voice throughout. Yet Cain’s work is not self-indulgent. From it we gain insight into the experience of being a young woman where place matters less than feeling and connecting to others is all about disconnecting from others. There is distance here, which is Cain’s point. How do we connect with another when we are so absorbed in feeling, in thinking about these feelings?
Teresa Carmody and Vanessa Place, publishers of Les Figues Press, engage in dialogue and beauty. The beauty takes place in the superb quality of their books, which include art pieces. Books become tactile; one holds art and reads it too. The dialogue takes place within introductions which engage the writing to follow. In the introduction to I Go To Some Hollow, Bhanu Kapil invokes Ida Rolf (the woman who developed Structural Integration, commonly known as Rolfing) to perhaps suggest the idea and reality of connective tissue holding us together.
Amina Cain luxuriates in tissue, trusting that whether we meet ourselves in another—or don’t—our urge to connect remains: “I looked at her arm; it was muscular. If I looked inside it would I see myself?”
—Renée E. D’Aoust
Renee E. D'Aoust
Renée E. D’Aoust’s Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press), an interlacing series of essays, was a Foreword Review’s “Book of the Year” finalist. Recent publications include Brevity, Inside Higher Ed, Los Angeles Review of Books, Sweet, and Trestle Creek Review. D’Aoust teaches online, is the Managing Editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and lives in Switzerland.