Monthly Archives: January 2015

“The Secret Sister” by Fotini Tsalikoglou

Jonathan Argyriou, a third-generation Greek-American, is on a flight from New York City to Athens. En route, he imagines a conversation with his sister—who’s missing from the seat next to him—and looks back on his family’s generations of loss and secrets, which he can no longer avoid: “Like a strangely bulimic climbing vine, the unrevealed secrets embrace the family’s flesh a little tighter each day, until in they end they become one with it.” Jonathan’s stream-of-consciousness narration weaves between his own memories and those of his forefathers, revealing eerie parallels. Marred by a tendency toward mawkish aphorism (“Transformation is the magical medicine for our country.”), Tsalikoglou’s first novel to be translated into English is an elegant, if slight, meditation on a family’s strained relationships with its past and homeland.

–Published in January by Europa Editions. Translated from the Modern Greek by Mary Kitroeff. 116 pages. $15.00


“The Hollow Land” by Jane Gardam

This lovely collection of stories for children—originally published in 1981—captures its eight-year-old protagonists’ innocence and, yes, naiveté, but maintains its dignity throughout, never slipping into irony or an affected “little kid’s voice.” It follows the friendship between Bell, son of a farming family in the Hollow Land (so called for the abandoned mines underneath) and Harry, son of a London-based journalist who brings his family to a country house there on occasional vacations. Gardam wrings much humor from the differences between the natives of the Hollow Land and the “London folk,” as when Bell’s family starts mowing a field in the middle of the night to beat the rain, much to the displeasure of Harry’s. The two boys meet soon afterward. In other adventures, Harry visits the home of a devout gypsy, the two boys get trapped in an abandoned mine, and, eventually, they grow to adulthood. Gardam has a knack for charming details, like the “two or three swallows sitting on a wire warm as toast and wondering if there was any point in going to Africa.” Less-than-idyllic realities occasionally intrude, as when Harry’s mother warns him not to pick up Bell’s cockney accent, but The Hollow Land concerns itself mostly with the grand adventures of little boys in a green and pleasant countryside.

–Published in January by Europa Editions. 176 pages. $15.00

“The Seventh Day” by Yu Hua

Hua’s fifth novel is fantastic in both senses of the word, but provides a sharp look at the vagaries of contemporary China. Its narrator, Yang Fei, finds himself deceased after a restaurant fire. Lacking money for a burial plot, the 41-year-old resident of Beijing wanders the land of the unburied in search of his adoptive father. There, he meets others who either lack the means for a plot or are putting off their eternal rest, including a couple killed when their apartment was demolished; his ex-wife, a businesswoman who slit her wrists while under investigation for fraud; and 27 fetuses and babies who were classified as medical waste and dumped in a river. Through the stories of the unburied, Hua deftly portrays the love and turbulence of relationships in which people have little but each other, and the inequality (even in death) between the beneficiaries of China’s economic rise and those it has missed or trod underfoot. Such inequality is made strikingly clear when Yang visits the crematorium between life and death, where VIPs get comfortable armchairs while commoners are consigned to plastic chairs: “Whereas the VIP section was focused on the relative expense of the crematees’ garments and urns, among the plastic chairs the focus was more on who got the best value for the money.”

–Published January 13th by Pantheon Press. Translated from the Chinese by Allan H. Barr. 213 pages. $25

Nothing That is Hidden

For all its glory, Nineteen-Eighty Four is not a particularly artful novel. Especially in contrast with Orwell’s journalism, it’s painfully blunt, hammering in the same point again and again at the expense of its narrative.

And yet, it endures. Though it trips over itself to do so, the novel reminds us that truth is sacred and must be guarded. Facts can’t be warped by power or torture as humans can, but they can be hidden and replaced, which is just as bad.

Though the novels’ settings and voices are incomparable, Okey Ndibe’s Arrows of Rain falls in the same tradition: its rough edges and simplicity are utterly forgivable in the face of its relentless advocacy for truth. (The novel was originally published in 2000 as part of the Heinemann African Writers Series; Soho Press is now making it available to a wider audience.)

In the fictional African nation of Madia, strikingly similar to Ndibe’s native Nigeria, a cub reporter sees a crowd gathered around a dead woman. Bukuru, a loner, is accused of her rape and murder, though he testifies that the crime was one of many committed by soldiers.

His testimony is met with contempt by the police and the courts, and he’s thrown in jail. The cub reporter visits Bukuru, who starts telling the story of his own time as a journalist twenty years earlier, shortly before Madia’s current leader gained power in a military coup. Bukuru witnessed the leader, then a major, rape and murder a prostitute, but, after being greeted with disbelief and contempt by friends, decided not to tell anyone else.

Throughout, Ndibe (himself a journalist and author of another novel, Foreign Gods, Inc.) skewers the excuses the powerful make for themselves when confronted with evidence of their wrongdoing. Bukuru recalls being called “misled” for one of his articles, and recalls of a now-deposed leader, “Everybody who knew him agreed that he was not a thief. He liked a good time, and enriched himself at the expense of the nation, that was all.”

Ndibe’s storytelling recalls the simplicity of a folk tale, the conciseness of a news bulletin, and the earnestness of a young adult novel. The prose is largely utilitarian, though it contains occasional flashes of beauty (“The sky’s broken water came down in monstrous sheets”) and cliché (“Newborn Madia was met with a swell of hope and expectation”). A plot twist in the novel’s final chapters, involving an adoptee’s search for his father, seems sentimental and out-of-place.

The journalists in Arrows are not heroes. They drink too much, make fools of themselves at editorial board meetings, and, like young Bukuru, stay silent out of concern for their safety and are ashamed for it. But they seek out the truth, steadfastly rejecting the myth of a wise leader harassed by a dishonest press.

Journalists are often treated with derision, usually for good reason—too many value sensation over substance, and tell scraps of a story as if they’re the whole thing, among other sins. Ndibe reminds us, though, that “journalists” include those who dig for truth, find it, and share it, not just, say, slick men on TV who wonder aloud if a missing jet was sucked into a black hole.

Unlike Orwell, Ndibe leaves his protagonist scared but undefeated, stuck with a story that needs to be told. Arrows of Rain is a tribute to journalists working in unsafe conditions throughout the world, and an ink-stained middle finger for those in power wishing to stay exalted and unexamined: “A time shall come when those who today sit on the heads of others will themselves be called to account.”

–Published January 6th by Soho Press. 304 pages. $15.95

A Man Sails in Search of his Soul, and Discovers Cliché

After reading the manuscript of The Pearl, Steinbeck’s editor remarked, “In this parable you say there are only black and white things and no in-between, but what rich blacks and what dazzling whites.” The same could be said, with serious reservations, about veteran science journalist and poet John Benditt’s debut novel The Boatmaker.

Though the novel is vaguely set in 1800s Northern Europe, it exists more in the world of myth than at any point in history.

Here, men work with their hands, drink too much, and get into fights. Women are long-suffering and use sex to win security from those men. The residents of Small Island are backward, those of Big Island are slightly more sophisticated, and the Mainland is undergoing an ambitious program of modernization.

Being from Small Island, the titular boatmaker is a simple man. He shapes wood into elegant furniture but does not feel strongly one way or the other about his craft. His drinking sprees can last for months. Apart from an occasional lover, he is alone.

After waking from a fever dream, the boatmaker builds a boat and sails to Big Island, then to the Mainland, where he finds work, makes friends, and tries not to drink too much. (Benditt’s descriptions of the boatmaker’s alcoholism are particularly compelling: “As always, the drink seems to know him by name.”) He doesn’t quite understand the significance of money or friendship, as he had little of either on Small Island.

After a brutal beating at the hands of his “friends,” the boatmaker is recruited into a religious order, the New Land, where he settles into a routine of prayer and farmwork despite his lack of faith. He escapes after New Land’s charismatic leader tries to recruit him into a violent and self-sacrificial movement. Then, as anti-Semitism starts rumbling through the Mainland, the boatmaker becomes apprentice to a family of Jewish furniture-makers and begins an affair with the family’s daughter.

At its best, Benditt’s storytelling is as clean and functional as the boatmaker’s furniture: “Before leaving, he swept the shed, leaving the door open for the next man who wants to use it. He took the important tools with him, in case he needs to find work on Big Island. Any honest man of Small Island is welcome to the rest.”

In its earnestness, however, The Boatmaker often steers into the territory of a harlequin romance or Dungeons and Dragons novelization. One of the boatmaker’s lovers “has worked so hard to keep the layer of ice around her heart intact.” When they make love for three days straight, “[n]either of them feels at home, yet neither has any doubt that they belong in this room together.” Later, the boatmaker realizes that the New Land and another religious order “are closely joined in a dangerous conspiracy that reaches all the way to the palace itself.”

In other words, it’s corny. The novel says nothing constructive about faith and love and self-discovery even white constantly alluding to those themes. It’s also populated entirely by archetypes—the rough working man, the genteel lover, the privileged but persecuted Jewish merchant—with little humanity to fill them out.

Even the anti-Semitism, with its blatant and inevitable echoes of Nazism, fails to lift The Boatmaker above the level of a long and dull fairy tale. These poor Jews seem as if they were thrown in to make this wispy novel more real—they could have easily been replaced with elves or forest sprites or Robin Hood’s Merry Men without changing the tenor of the tale.

A bit of corniness, used as a foundation, would have been both forgivable and necessary. Great literature has been written when authors give color to sappy themes. The Pearl, as noted above, is not a particularly subtle novel. But Steinbeck portrayed Kino, his wife and son, and their impoverished town with a level of detail Benditt never achieves in The Boatmaker. (This isn’t to say that Steinbeck always hit the mark. His portrayal of the mestizos in Tortilla Flat shamelessly exploits the stereotype of the drunk, carefree brown man.)

Ultimately, The Boatmaker fails because it never develops beyond its fairy-tale corniness. In this colorless novel, the blacks are not rich, nor the whites dazzling.

–Available in February from Tin House Books. 464 pages. $15.95

Thanks to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, for confirming the quote that begins this review. You can learn more at

“Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries” by Ander Monson

Monson’s latest book collects notes that the poet and author wrote in response not only to texts—ranging from novels to his wife’s reading log to an in-flight safety card—but to other readers’ annotations of them as well. (These notes, which the author first inserted directly into their texts, aren’t meant to be read in any particular order but are arranged alphabetically here.) The concept is promising, but Monson merely restates obvious facts of reading while luxuriating in his own quirkiness: “The margin note is a spark of snark, the reader irritated enough to inscribe the space, glyphs of the age of type, the type of age we’re in when a student asks me what font was the Declaration of Independence written in.” Yes, we know, annotations can tenuously connect us with our fellow readers. Yes, we know, books can bring us into other worlds. Yes, we know, books are magical. Can you please move along and say something—which is, after all, the act that gives books their magic? Monson, apparently, cannot. Some crisp one-liners are strewn throughout (“I hope you live in silence by choice and not default.”), but do little to alleviate this book’s merciless banality.

–Available February 17th from Graywolf Press. 160 pages. $22.00

Faith is Not Feeling: An Essay

It was Good Friday, Easter’s gloomy but necessary prequel. The sanctuary was bathed in the dusk of small-town Iowa, with nothing but low rolling hills between the church and the horizon. Listening to the pastor, I stared at the cross and recalled a line from a short story I’d read recently: You know this was a torture device, right?

For the first time in too long, I felt good. I recognized the irony of feeling good while staring at a torture device, and felt even better. It was a virtuous cycle.

My thoughts were no longer dominated by my failures as a friend and student, by my vices, by the memory of all the time I’d wasted. I still knew that things were far from ideal, but my center of consciousness had shifted away from the negative. I felt a respite.

I had been going to church for only a few weeks, and suspected that this feeling, the awe and the bliss, were what I’d been looking for. This must be what draws people to worship, I thought. This must be what faith is all about.

After the service, I left in silence and retreated to my dormitory. The awe and bliss proved short-lived. Without the cross and the sunlight, I was once again defined by brokenness, my own and that of the things I’d broken. I fell back into junk food, pornography, and online punditry. (I spent a lot of time skimming the Huffington Post just so I could feel superior to something.)

I’ve been a Christian, or have been trying to be one, for the better part of a year now, and have yet to relive that feeling I felt on Good Friday. Even during communion or the Lord’s Prayer, my psyche does not reach new realms. When I clear my head of distractions I reach blankness, not bliss.

I worried that this blankness meant I was doing something wrong. Perhaps I wasn’t focusing well enough, I was breathing too hard and fidgeting too much—or, more plausibly, it was all a delusion and my last sane sliver was telling me to stop kidding myself.

I’ve learned that this blankness is absolutely okay, and means little one way or another. It’s just there. It’s what’s left in what my brain when I’m not thinking.

Though strong feelings often accompany faith, Christianity is not built on feeling. Rather, it’s built on the acceptance of an absurd truth and the mission that follows:

There is a benevolent intelligence behind the universe—let’s call it God. In our pride, humans wandered away from God and the universe turned corrupt. God kept trying to reach us, but we rarely listened. His most radical intervention in human history came in the form of an itinerant rabbi who performed miracles, placed love over law, and spoke about the Kingdom of Heaven, a kingdom not of conquest but of God’s love being made a reality on earth again. The rabbi was murdered, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. He’ll be back someday, though, honestly, we were hoping he’d be back by now.

In the meantime, it’s our job as disciples to set the groundwork for this Kingdom. Nobody, of course, can give as God gives or love as God loves. But we can spend a few hours a week at a soup kitchen. We can litigate and rabble-rouse alongside the downtrodden to help them win their rights. And we can set aside our own concerns and listen as our friends and family share their burdens with us.

I suspect that there are many who are in the position I was in on Good Friday. You’re in church and don’t know why. Perhaps you’ve been so defeated that you feel no choice but to stumble toward faith, hoping for its comfort despite your skepticism. Faith, you may imagine, is ecstasy and comfort and certainly, which we could all use. It means feeling good.

But it doesn’t. It’s okay if you don’t feel anything, because belief—as proved through good will and good works—is the core of faith. That’s good news, because doing things in the realm of reality is much more feasible than chasing after an emotional state.

The first disciples, as recorded in the Gospels, didn’t spent much time basking in bliss and awe. Instead, they tried to figure out their rabbi’s parables—What does the seed mean? What about the sheep? They stole a donkey. They questioned their rabbi for talking to women and Samaritans, and got scolded for their arrogance and lack of faith. They ran errands. They doubted. They walked.

They may have felt awe for some brief moments, as recorded in Acts, when they squinted at the sky after Christ’s ascension. But even that didn’t last long.

As they were straining their eyes to see him, two white-robed men suddenly stood there among them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here staring at the sky? Jesus has been taken away from you into heaven. And someday, just as you saw him go, he will return!” (Acts 1:10-11 NLT)

In other words: The heavenly stuff will take care of itself. Don’t you have work to do?

(Scripture such as the Gospels and Acts, written years after the events they describe in an era before modern historical methodology, shouldn’t be read with the same literalism we’d apply to a history textbook or reportage. While acknowledging that they’ve been filtered through centuries of Christian tradition, we can use them to glean broad outlines of history. The resurrection takes a leap of faith to believe. But there’s no denying that Jesus walked and changed the world.)

As I write, we’re inching into January. The thrill of the holidays has faded, replaced by the banality of yet another year. Life is, more often than not, boring. And while our creator loves us, a quick scan of headlines and even a cursory study of earth science tell us that his creation certainly does not.

Under these circumstances, emotional blankness makes more sense than any strong feelings–ecstasy would be inappropriate, and despair would paralyze us. Christians may not have a reason for constant bliss, but we have a savior to keep faith in, and a kingdom to help build.