Monthly Archives: November 2014

“Preparation for the Next Life” by Atticus Lish

This novel’s star-crossed lovers, united through a chance encounter in a dilapidated building, have little in common except a commitment to physical fitness and a desire to disappear into the indifference of New York City. Skinner, freshly released from the army, lives in a rented basement, works out, and drinks. Zou Lei, an undocumented Uighur, works at a restaurant and has revised her American Dream downward after being detained by immigration authorities: “She was going to stay where everybody was illegal just like her and get lost in the crowd and keep her head down. Forget living like an American. It was enough to be free and on the street.” Even as Zou Lei starts to notice Skinner’s aloofness and demons from the war, she falls deeper in love and starts to imagine a life together. Lish sets this romance in a city where people’s daily struggles have imbued them with a necessary selfishness and Muslims live in anxiety amidst post-9/11 excesses of law enforcement. His sparse prose often stumbles over clunky similes (“his head was running like an engine”) and long passages of terse sentences that read like Hemingway parodies, creating monotony rather than tension. Yet Preparation’s rough edges become utterly forgivable as it builds towards its tragic conclusion.

-Published November 11th by Tyrant Books


Cardinal’s Biography Lacks Mass

Cardinal Timothy Dolan provides a biographer with the opportunity to examine issues affecting the Catholic Church, and—like the subject of any biography—to portray a life with highs, lows, and contradictions. Born in a working-class suburb of St. Louis after World War II, Dolan entered seminary amidst the changes set in place by the Second Vatican Council. Serving as the Archbishop of St. Louis, then Milwaukee, then New York, he grappled with controversies surrounding celibacy, same-sex marriage, abortion, and clerical abuse.

Most of the time, Christina Boyle’s An American Cardinal: The Biography of Cardinal Timothy Dolan merely tells us what a great guy Dolan is. Among other things, he’s a “fun-loving character” with “leadership skills and [the] ability to put other people at ease,” and who, during his doctoral studies, “always appeared to grasp the topics with ease and never seemed to be overly burdened by the workload.” I don’t doubt that Dolan’s an intelligent, diligent individual and an exemplar of Christian love. But that fact alone does not make for a compelling biography. What, for example, did Dolan research while pursuing his doctorate in church history? Did any of the sources he read challenge long-held beliefs? Did he ever struggle with his studies? Boyle is rarely so specific, and An American Cardinal reads like a fawning celebrity profile stretched to fill the better part of 300 pages. It’s a commissioned biography, so this may be the form’s fault as much as the author’s.

Occasionally, Boyle provides a constructive, if not convincing, insider’s perspective on the Catholic Church. In 2007, while Archbishop of Milwaukee, Dolan moved millions of dollars into a trust marked for the preservation of cemeteries, where it was safe from lawsuits from victims of clerical abuse. To the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the action showed that the church was more concerned about looking after its own than administering justice. To Dolan, however, it was necessary (in Boyle’s paraphrase) to prevent “everyday Catholics [from] being made to suffer financially for the sins of a few. Terrible wrongs had been committed, but was this justification for bleeding the church dry?” There are also charming anecdotes, like a young Dolan serving communion to stuffed animals. Such moments, unfortunately, are few and far between.

Boyle’s prose, clunky and cliché, only exacerbates the inanity of her reporting. Dolan and his college classmates “spent a lot of time together, developed firm friendships, and quickly came to know one another’s strengths, weaknesses, and annoying habits.” When he became Archbishop of New York, “[e]veryone was eager to cast their eyes on this man who had been making so many headlines.” Earlier, in St. Louis, “Sister Rosario arrived bursting with a sense of adventure and a sparkle in her eye.” Bursting with a sparkle in her eye? I hope she saw an optometrist.

However poorly, though, this biography presents a truth about the Catholic Church that liberals and Protestants (and those of us who are both) can be loath to acknowledge. There’s more to the church than the social conservatism and clerical abuse we too often know it by. The institution is far from infallible, but it strives for the superhuman generosity and compassion of Christ in the Gospels. Dolan puts it well here, reiterating his church’s commitment to “[t]he unemployed, the uninsured, the unwanted, the unwed mother, the innocent fragile unborn baby in her womb, the undocumented, the unhoused, the unhealthy, the unfed, the under-educated.”

–Published November 4th by St. Martin’s Press


“See You in Paradise” by J. Robert Lennon

Technically, it would be accurate to call this short story collection absurd and fantastical. It contains, after all, a woman attacking her dinner party guests with fried onion slices, a man resurrected after his death in a boating accident, and a magic portal in a suburban family’s backyard. Yet beneath such elements, Lennon (author of several novels and a previous short story collection) maintains a strong sense of familial love, and the disappointment that often accompanies it in middle age. He shows us the aforementioned magic portal and the worlds it leads to, but also conveys a father’s angst as his family drifts apart: “I’m tempted to blame the portal for all this, the way it showed us how pathetic, how circumscribed our lives really were. But I didn’t need a magic portal to tell me I was no Mr. Excitement—I like my creature comforts, and I liked it when my wife and kids didn’t demand too much from me….” Some more realistic stories, like an account of stunted lives intersecting at a dilapidated restaurant, are no less moving. Lennon’s stories contain many bells and whistles, usually put to good use, but their greatest strength is compassion.

–Published November 4th by Graywolf Press

“A Load of Hooey” by Bob Odenkirk

In “A Hazy Christmas Memory,” a piece from this collection of humor writing, a man struggling to remember an idyllic childhood Christmas discovers that it wasn’t that idyllic after all. The smell of cinnamon, upon further reflection, turns out to have been the smell of stale beer. The narrator also recalls what his parents told him about “Jesus H. Chriminy”: “[T]hough he was a man full of joy and love, at the same time, this man—whom I never met—was deeply disappointed in me on a very personal level.” The subversion of the sentimental and wry observation are representative of Odenkirk’s humor at its best. He mocks the sacred and points out the absurdities in common knowledge, but goes beyond a self-satisfied awareness that he’s being contrarian. He tackles big ideas and engages with their substance, rather than falling back on tropes about pretentious intellectuals or blind believers. A disappointing minority of these pieces take an idea that might be worth a chuckle—what if Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech for which he was completely unprepared?—and drag it into tedium. Overall, though, Hooey provokes laughter that makes you tilt your head to the sky, and perhaps pause to think after you’ve caught your breath.

–Published October 7th by McSweeneys (at which, full disclosure, I was once an intern)

“The Heart Does Not Grow Back” by Fred Venturini

After losing his hand in a shooting, unremarkable small-town teenager Dale Sampson finds that his body can regenerate itself. His newfound powers lead him to LA, where he becomes a reality TV star—the Samaritan, who gives a body part to a deserving recipient every episode—as part of a convoluted plot to save a new love interest from her abusive husband. The material for a pleasant but stale YA novel is all here: a more confident best friend who reveals vulnerability at climactic moments; a plot twist involving a childhood crush and twins’ mistaken identity; observations about the shallowness of mass media, acute but hardly new; and some magical realism thrown in for zest. Yet Venturini equips his debut with the ambiguity and thoughtfulness such novels often lack. Dale’s powers save lives, and bring him fame and fortune, but they can’t save his mother from cancer, save a classmate from getting murdered, or repair his fraught relationship with his best friend. Throughout, he maintains a beautiful cynicism: “I walked to the beach, where it’s easy to get mesmerized by the vastness of the ocean at night, but really, it’s a bunch of filthy saltwater slapping against a shore that has been as many needles and condoms as seashells.” The novel ends, however, on a note of hope—a slight, realistic hope, that comes not from a contrived plot twist or hokey revelation, but Dale’s reconsideration of priorities.

–Available November 4th from Picador