Review by Anna Kirsch
The Port-Wine Stain (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016) is the third installment of Norman Lock’s American Series, a series where each novel is a stand-alone narrative dedicated to memorializing great American writers by writing in a style that is part pastiche and part homage. The Port- Wine Stain is devoted to celebrating Edgar Allan Poe.
The Port -Wine Stain is narrated by Edward Fenzil to an undescribed listener he calls Moran. Fenzil is a young surgical assistant to Dr.Thomas Dent Mütter, who in the winter of 1844, meets Edgar Allan Poe. While to the literary reader Poe is the most recognizable figure, Mütter is just as important to Fenzil. It is Mütter who sets up the meeting between Poe and Fenzil and it is Mütter’s early form of cosmetic surgery that introduces into Fenzil’s imagination the concept of physiognomy. Physiognomy maintaines that a person’s character is determined by their physical body, or to be exact, the shape of the body. The idea that a twisted body could be the sign of a twisted soul is the ideological cornerstone of the novel. Continue reading “Book Review: The Port-Wine Stain”
Review by Burcu Alkan
Richard Wiley, 1987 winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Best American Fiction, takes a new path in his latest novel, Bob Stevenson (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016). Having lived in Korea, Japan, Nigeria, and Kenya, his previous novels mainly deal with distant geographies and cross-cultural encounters. Yet, with his eighth book, he brings his storytelling closer to home. Set in New York City, Bob Stevenson tells the story of a psychiatrist who falls in love with a patient and the very-human difficulties of emotions that arise from such a knotty affair.
The novel opens with Dr. Ruby Okada rushing off to meet a fellow doctor and a friend, Bette, for dinner. In the elevator of the clinic, she meets an enigmatic man with unidentifiable charms that grip her attention. What happens next is unravelled in the rest of the novel, as Ruby tries to come to terms with the consequences of her impulsive decision. The mystery of the man in the elevator, and Ruby’s relation to him, is presented through a curious narrative that touches upon the emotions underlying and shaping one’s filial, social, and romantic relationships. Continue reading “Book Review: Bob Stevenson”
Review by Katelyn Smith
In his first full-length book, Annals of Pornographie: How Porn Became Bad (2016), Brian Watson traces the long history of pornography in the West, reiterating throughout his work the need to place our modern understanding of porn in context. Porn became popularized through the printing press, which allowed cheaper reproductions of obscene texts, and Watson has made use of the modern day printing press for his own description of the obscene, self-publishing his research in e-book format. The book is an expansion of Watson’s masters’ thesis on the Society for the Suppression of Vice (Drew University, 2013), which attempted to regulate and exterminate “smut” in nineteenth-century England, one of the many organizations Watson discusses.
Watson argues the book is an “attempt to trace a history through the ‘underside’ of Western culture, its art, literature, philosophy, sexology, psychology and its changing laws. It is an attempt to explain the modern view—to explain exactly why, where, and how porn became ‘bad’”(9). He disputes the belief that pornography is a modern conception and instead that we must ‘begin at the beginning.’ His history begins with the 14th century Italian Renaissance and Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1353 work, The Decameron. While recognizing the text is not usually labeled pornography, Watson points to its underlying philosophy, humanism (where “living people deserve as much attention as the future world”), claiming that this philosophy would significantly impact the development of porn in the centuries to come (18). Continue reading “Book Review: Annals of Pornographie”
Review by Sarah Parker.
People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be (18).
It would be misleading to describe Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) as a “debut” work. Jahren has been the recipient of numerous academic accolades, including three Fulbright Awards, and she has been published several dozen times prior to the recent appearance of this memoir. Academic publications by definition have a limited and elite readership of specialists, though. In Lab Girl, Jahren opens up to a much broader audience the fields of geobiology and paleontology, fields whose very names can intimidate us with the reminder of our small and yet terrifyingly destructive place in the long course of our planet’s history. The book develops an extended metaphor relating Jahren’s accomplishments and setbacks to the obstacles that plants face in their struggle for survival and their attempts to flourish. Jahren’s in-depth knowledge of the evolutionary history of plants rescues this metaphor from cliché and instead introduces the reader to a complex botanical world of which most of us are shamefully oblivious: “As a rule, people live among plants, but they don’t really see them” (3).
These plants are Jahren’s passion. She examines their history, teases apart their inner workings, and considers them as actors in a world that has become increasingly hostile to their success. The result is the fascinating personal story of a woman who made it in a world dominated by men, a wonderfully wacky tale of Jahren’s friendship with her lifelong lab manager Bill, and a surprising paradigm shift in the way that we think about plants.
Beginning with her childhood in the Midwest, where she spent time in her father’s lab at the local community college, Jahren shares her successes and failures with the reader in an engaging prose style that is alternately laugh-out-loud funny and sharply poignant. For example, Jahren tells the reader of her discovery about the content of ancient hackberry tree seeds when working on her dissertation. She muses that most would probably find this “either trivial or profoundly dull” (72). For her, though, it signals the beginning of a new path in life as a researcher:
I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. […] Until I phoned someone, the concrete knowledge that opal was the mineral that fortified each seed on each hackberry tree was mine alone. […] I stood and absorbed this revelation as my life turned a page, and my first scientific discovery shone, as even the cheapest plastic toy does when it is new. […] I stared out the window and saw the first light of the day spilling its glow out upon the campus. I wondered who else in the world was having such an exquisite dawn (71-72).
Continue reading “Book Review: Lab Girl”