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Articles by

<Eleanor J. Bader>

01/06/10 5:00am

The Farmer’s Daughter
By Jim Harrison
Grove Press

Love may not conquer all, but as the three exquisite novellas comprising Jim Harrison’s The Farmer’s Daughter remind us, having a friend or lover in your corner beats the alternative.

In the title piece, 15-year-old Sarah, a home-schooled kid raised in nearly complete rural isolation, falls in love with a middle-aged professor. On top of age difference, their liaison is troubled because Sarah is suffering from the aftereffects of a brutal sexual assault and is bristling with revenge fantasies. At the same time, she is filled with longing for her arduous suitor. Her ability to engage with Alfredo, or not, rests on whether she can forgive her rapist, a hefty challenge for a girl barely out of junior high. Harrison zeroes in on Sarah’s burgeoning independence while capturing the emotional pushes-and-pulls of adolescence. Throughout, her yearning for the safety of a protective home is palpable.

The two remaining stories also involve characters in precarious straits. In “Brown Dog Redux,” BD, a working-class, Native-American underachiever, has to decide whether to donate his sperm to a white, middle-class social worker he’s lusted after for years. As he thinks about whether to get involved, BD’s ideas about responsibility, race and class come to the fore.

The final entry, “The Games of Night,” introduces a man suffering from damage caused by two almost-simultaneous animal attacks. Now part beast, he has monthly “episodes” that are causing him to age prematurely. This bizarre development puts his childhood pal-cum-girlfriend in a difficult situation: Should she remain in a dyad fated to be short-lived, or cut her losses?

It’s big stuff, and Harrison is a master at subtly depicting the politics of everyday life. He’s a writer who asks questions—explicitly and implicitly—about the limits of love, the nature of community, the need for human connection, and the desire for respect and recognition. His characters are tautly drawn and leave much to the imagination. Nonetheless, they’re people to root for, folks who’ll stick in your head long past the denouement of each story.

11/02/09 4:00am

By James Hannraham
McSweeney’s
Available Now

Growing up, Gary Gray aspired to become a preacher and set out to live an exemplary moral life. The rules were simple: Love God, get married, have kids, and lead a parish. But that was before he laid eyes on his hunky roommate at Florida Christian College. While the feeling wasn’t mutual, Gary’s panic over his same-sex attraction sent him reeling and without much thought, he convinces himself that a close female friend is his soul mate. One unprotected sexual encounter later, Annie finds herself pregnant, and before the pair know what’s hit them, they’ve dropped out of school, gotten married, and are raising a daughter.

Not surprisingly, both Annie and Gary are miserable. While Gary enjoys Annie’s company, he has absolutely no interest in sleeping with her, and Annie is becoming increasingly sick of their platonic liaison. She doesn’t want a roommate, and can’t imagine why his libido is so low. For his part, Gary can’t tell her, since he fears condemnation for this detestable sin. Still, no matter what he does to suppress his desires, his lust for men is irrepressible. In fact, despite turning himself inside-out to stifle his impulses, they grow stronger; eventually, Gary starts having random, if guilt-laden, sexual encounters in men’s bathrooms and public parks. Annie, meanwhile, is trying everything she can think of to entice her disinterested mate. And nothing works.

Then Gary switches jobs and finds periodic respite from his tormented home life thanks to job-related travel. At first it’s fun, allowing him to have discreet rendezvous far from Annie’s watchful eye. But what about the commandment against adultery, he wonders? Visions of hellfire rip at his conscience and render him conflicted and hopeless.

Things get so bad that Gary attempts suicide, and fails. Indeed, his desperation is so enormous that he is willing to try anything, including a far-fetched plan to fake his death. It’s preposterous—but it works—and once his demise is orchestrated, he reinvents himself as one August Valentine and moves to Atlanta. The plan goes smoothly, until a freak run-in with a past acquaintance shatters the deception. Annie soon learns of Gary’s ruse and after a battle royale between the spouses, a contrite Gary agrees to enter a year-long Christian recovery program for homosexuals and addicts. As you’d expect, Gary finds recovery impossible.

God Says No explores the homophobia promulgated by mainstream Christianity and addresses the ubiquitous negativity that surrounds most discussions of homosexuality within church circles. The religious recovery movement is presented as well-meaning, but pointless, and everyone involved—whether queers or the people striving to cure them—seem damned whether they do or don’t. It’s wretched.

Although the novel is often funny, Hannraham’s writing is never more than adequate, and he routinely elevates message over craft. Nonetheless, it’s an important epistle, making God Says No a worthwhile, and sometimes piercing, look at the damage wrought by Fundamentalist dogma.

05/11/09 4:00am

Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent
Open Letter
Available May 26

Reading Death in Spring, Merce Rodoreda’s final novel, is like looking at a Salvador Dali painting. Even if you aren’t sure what it means, it defies expectation and is both beautiful and mysterious.

Rodoreda was born in 1908 and lived through the widely hated regime of fascist dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco. For more than two decades she remained in exile, working as a seamstress in France and Switzerland and writing on the side. Death in Spring was composed over 20 years; it was first published in Spain in 1986, three year’s after Rodoreda’s death.

On the surface, the book tells the story of an unnamed male adolescent who lives in an unnamed rural village. Like most 14-year-olds, he is struggling to make sense of the whys and wherefores of his bizarre community. Time and again he’s confounded. Why, for example, are all of the houses painted pink and why are they repainted the same shade year after year? Why is a man sacrificed each spring, forced to swim in a rough, rock-strewn sea that batters him to death? Why is a prisoner locked in a tiny cage in the town center for the villagers to taunt and abuse? And why did his now deceased but once-beautiful mother scream and wail outside the bedroom window of the newly married?

As the protagonist attempts to make sense of the senseless, multiple themes emerge, from the seeding of resistance to the human tendency to follow age-old traditions. But nothing is explicit.

In fact, this elegant and highly descriptive novel can be read on multiple levels. First, there is the straightforward story of conformity and acquiescence to social mores that defy logic. While the scenarios presented in Death in Spring are undeniably odd, it’s a typical coming-of-age tale, chronicling the process by which each individual determines which rules to follow and which to eschew.

At the same time, Rodoreda seems to be denouncing rigid religious dogma and ritualized violence. In dozens of short chapters she presents the obscene realities of everyday life. It’s often horrific. People are repeatedly weighted down; those wishing to die are literally filled with cement and ultimately suffocated. What’s more, the townspeople have elevated order to the level of sacrament and the populous does everything it can to maintain the status quo. Not surprisingly, stoicism is prized and even the youngest child is taught to avoid emotional outbursts. For this community, continuing traditions that have been passed from generation to generation is the be-all and end-all.

Yet the story also includes numerous acts of resistance, some large, others small. Most are personal, tiny actions known only to those who do them. Still, rebellion has a cathartic effect making it clear that change is possible, perhaps even inevitable, if one takes the long view.

Or does it? It’s difficult to know if Rodoreda believed in political activism to promote cultural shifts or if she saw death as the ultimate freedom. The novel can simultaneously be read as a meditation on our ephemeral existence and as a political tract steering the reader from blind obedience.

But however it’s read, Death in Spring is evocative and creepy, and readers are sure to find it compelling, dramatic, unsettling and strange.

03/04/09 12:00am

University Press of Mississippi • Available now

Pablo Neruda called murals “the people’s blackboard.” Mural-maker and artist Janet Braun-Reinitz and writer/publicist/painter Jane Weissman call them “a window into the unwritten history of a neighborhood.”
Since the public art movement began to take shape in the late 1960s, more than 500 murals — some commissioned and others not — have cropped up on walls throughout the five boroughs. Several themes have recurred regardless of era: the struggle against racism; the need for better public schools, improved access to health care and an end to police brutality; support for decent, affordable housing. Braun-Reinitz and Weissman call them “murals of opposition” because they take issue with the status quo and demand rectification of problems. Still, they are quick to add that not every mural is politically charged: some celebrate local history, ethnic pride, or favorite pastimes, from music to baseball, while others memorialize the dead. Still others are simply decorative, with vibrant flowers, evocative street scenes or, in one case, an enormous praying mantis hovering above a giant tomato.

The authors highlight the fact that murals are a temporary art form beholden to the vagaries of weather and real estate, and say it is no coincidence that most are located in low-income or gentrifying areas. What’s more, On The Wall documents several incidents that showcase the conflict between long-time residents and more affluent newcomers. In one particularly nasty clash, yuppies, afraid that an anti-redlining mural would diminish Park Slope property values, battled both the artists who created the work and the owner of the wall. After months of haggling, the property’s managing agent gave in and withdrew permission to use the site. Shortly thereafter, unknown “vandals” whitewashed the painting, destroying it.

Indeed, many of the murals referenced in On The Wall no longer exist, but thanks to more than 150 photos, a vital bit of city lore has been preserved. The end result is a spirited look at multi-story public blackboards — and the grassroots sentiments they honor.

02/18/09 12:00am

Anger is front and center in Roger Alan Skipper’s atmospheric second novel. Here, deep in the West Virginia hills, white working-class men struggle for a toehold in fast-changing rural communities. There’s gentrification, with prefab developments clouding the landscape, and a bevy of Latino immigrants moving into what were once homogeneous enclaves.  What’s more, old-timers are aghast that the entertainment of yesteryear — especially fishing — is being replaced by newer diversions.

The story revolves around 58-year-old widower and Vietnam vet Lane Hollar, the owner of a bait and tackle shop. Most area residents keep Lane at arm’s length. Laconic, sharp-tongued and exacting — maybe even hard-assed and cold — he’s a man with few friends.  Listening to him is a cultural excursion: his talk is salted with words like “reservoy” for reservoir, and phrases like “hows come,” “hair near” and “dadblameit.” He is a beautifully drawn character’s character.

As Skipper tells it, Lane has been content to live simply since returning from Nam thirty-plus years ago. That changes one morning when he and his 12-year-old grandson, Toby, are fishing.  Just as the boy nails The Big One, shots ring out and local misfit Billy Bean ends up in the lake.  Lane is convinced it’s murder, but an autopsy reveals that Bean drowned. Worse, folks at the lake, including Toby, deny having heard the gunshots. Is Lane losing it? Or are others too scared to talk?

Lane determines to do what law enforcement will not: investigate Bean’s demise. As he digs, his life turns inside out. His store is vandalized; his home is invaded; he is fired at and wounded. 
Skipper’s compelling narrative explores the mysteries of who did what to whom and butts up against such issues as aging, community development, death, family ties, friendship, racism, romance and substance abuse. The result is gripping, honest and often surprising.

Lane describes one encounter as “tearing at his ear like fence wire dragged through a rusted staple.” In the end, that’s the novel — a tense but wholly engaging, entertaining and original look at the heroes and villains of everyday life.

02/04/09 12:00am

According to activist Joel Berg, ten percent of US households, or 35.5 million people, were “food insecure” — that’s Bush-speak for hungry — in 2006. As the Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and a short-term Department of Agriculture bigwig under Bill Clinton, Berg understands the positive role government can play in ameliorating poverty. His excellent, if statistic-heavy, analysis of 50 years of domestic food policies, All You Can Eat, slams the demonization of the poor as malingerers and lambastes the racism and sexism that underscore this media-reinforced stereotype.

Berg is critical of food stamp requirements that make applicants feel like criminals, and he’s outraged that food banks and soup kitchens have been expected to pick up the slack for federal inaction. “Trying to end hunger with food drives is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon,” he quips.

Instead of relying on private philanthropy to stem need, Berg posits government shifts to help America’s poor. “For a community to have good nutrition, three things need to happen,” he writes. “Food must be affordable; food must be available; and individuals and families must have enough education to know how to eat better.”
He recommends serving breakfast and lunch to every child in every public school, regardless of income; streamlining the food stamp application process and ending the fingerprinting of applicants; upping eligibility for benefits to include those living at 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines, or $32,500 for a household of three; and urges the business community to pay living wages to employees so that full-time workers are not impoverished. He further supports consolidating state, local and federal antipoverty programs to avoid overlap and minimize bureaucracy.

“We can end food insecurity for the cost of what the government spends on a year of agribusiness subsidies, three months of war in Iraq, or six percent of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts,” Berg concludes. The pricetag, $24 billion, is hefty, but national security demands nothing less.

02/27/08 12:00am

The line between keeper and kept is nearly invisible in Jami Attenberg’s compelling dissection of marital life. The story revolves around Martin Miller, a successful 30-something artist left comatose by a brain aneurysm. His wife, Jarvis, has been selling his work to support herself and pay for Martin’s care, but is otherwise frozen. This isn’t wholly new. Impervious to feminism, Jarvis has played caretaker and muse for her entire life. Six years into Martin’s deterioration, however, she’s sad and lonely, at least until she meets three handsome house-husbands — the trio-turned-foursome meet at the laundromat each Tuesday — who jolt her out of her funk. Despite rescue fantasies, this damsel in distress is saved by neither knights in shining armor nor wise male oracles. Instead, circumstances force her to parse ideas about death, politics, family, friendship and taking charge. Never preachy or sappy, The Kept Man testifies to the power of human connections. At the same time, it captures Williamsburg’s gentrifying grit and gives readers a believable, if at times frustratingly unproductive, heroine to root for. 

01/30/08 12:00am

Templeton, New York, a tiny hamlet so picture-perfect it looks like the inside of a snow globe, has been home to descendents of Marmaduke Temple since the 1700s. Both tourists and residents marvel at the town’s immutability, touting it as an unspoiled exemplar of simpler times.

Enter Wilhelmina “Willie” Upton, daughter of Vi, a middle-aged former hippie turned born-again Christian. Willie is in the throes of an emotional meltdown — she recently fled California after attempting to murder the wife of her doctoral dissertation adviser-slash-paramour and has no idea what to do with herself. Her mother, meanwhile, has no patience for this unfolding soap opera and throws an additional whammy at Willie by confessing that the 28-year-old’s father is not exactly the mystery man she’d previously said he was. Instead, Vi admits that Daddy-dearest not only resides in Templeton but is one of the town’s premier businessmen. Vi further asserts that she never told him she was pregnant. What’s more, she refuses to disclose his name.

Vi’s pronouncement compounds Willie’s funk while simultaneously sending her on a quest to determine the details of her origin. The resultant investigation takes her back to Marmaduke’s time and reveals an astonishing array of scandals involving an astonishing array of people. Adultery, arson, blackmail, election stealing, prostitution and murder — you name it, it’s all happened behind Templeton’s closed doors. In short order, the quaintly picturesque town — which is patterned after Cooperstown, NY, the author’s birthplace —begins to look as tawdry as Peyton Place.

Although the dozens of characters and multiple threads would be overwhelming in less competent hands, Groff ably juggles people and place and keeps the story from bogging down. Indeed, The Monsters of Templeton — and, yes, there are underwater sea creatures, several ghosts and more than a few two-legged ogres — is compelling and complex, entertaining and original. It’s also charming and poetic, upbeat and loving. Message is clearly secondary to the telling of the tale, nonetheless, truths about honesty, friendship and parental bonds are revealed, making it a memorable and auspicious first novel.

09/26/07 12:00am

Benjamin Percy  
Graywolf Press    
On sale Oct. 2 
  

There is little hope, and even less cheer, in Percy’s disturbing second collection of stories. In ten stand-alone tales, people — mostly men — struggle to express themselves. Set in central Oregon, the stories are disconnected from time and it is only through references to extant events that we find a contemporary foothold. This is a world bypassed by feminism, a world in which men prove their mettle by hunting, fishing and fighting, and women are near-silent co-conspirators. What’s more, it’s a world where six-year-old boys are more likely to receive guns — and lessons in using them — than Webkinz, a universe in which blood and gore are routine companions.

Percy’s writing is spare, his imagery and language so matter-of-factly violent that it is sure to unsettle urbane readers. Throughout, he also explores what it means to be limited by a lower-middle-class culture that restricts personal options and stymies creativity and difference.

The title story, ‘Refresh, Refresh’, won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize and was included in Best American Short Stories 2006. In it, teenaged boys attempt to understand why their National Guardsmen fathers have been sent to Iraq. Hoping for news, they compulsively check their email, repeatedly hitting the refresh button. Their never-articulated need for paternal attention is palpable; despite feeling abandoned, they want to make their fathers proud. Indeed, fractured father-child dynamics are repeatedly explored in Refresh, Refresh. In ‘The Woods’, for example, a camping trip brings a middle-aged parent and his adult son together for a weekend in the Ochoco National Forest. Never close, the pair struggles to undo their lack of camaraderie. It’s heavy stuff, with a chilling denouement. In ‘The Killing’, Jim is desperate to protect his daughter and grandson from her abusive mate; once again, their inability to communicate limits what’s possible. Here, as in the rest of this collection, violence takes over when words fail.

The impact is consistently devastating, whether Percy is depicting a post-apocalyptic West Coast or showcasing the ways we, as humans, have bungled the promise of co-existence. Intense and angry, vivid and creepy, these are stories that shock, awe and stay with you.

08/01/07 12:00am

Everyone knows someone like Jason, the protagonist of David Rosen’s endearingly hilarious debut novel. A marginally employed 25-year-old in search of the perfect buzz — and maybe a chance to give Little Petey (yes, he’s named his penis) a workout — he’s a Manhattanite on the prowl, a slacker who blurs the line between sweet and annoying. His friends are getting tired of him. After all, they’re beginning to couple, pursue careers, and settle down, and Jason’s “you won’t believe how wasted I was” stories are getting old. Even his indulgent middle-aged neighbor, herself a party girl back in the day, is ringing cautionary alarms. But what’s a guy to do? Jason’s search for his place on the planet includes numerous sexual trysts, one with a woman who makes off with his favorite jeans; a night of debauchery that literally lands him in the gutter; and brushes with both religion and mortality. While the optimistic ending is predictable, this barely matters. Instead, raunch meets redemption in this wonderfully observed, breezy and entertaining story.