Issue 35, Final Fringe

Tagged: reviews

Book Blog Review: Isak

by Nina Ignaczak 07.15.2010

Welcome to Isak, the project of journalist and fiction writer Anna Clark. Named after writer Isak Dinesen, the blog seeks to provide “a space to celebrate tales and truth in the curious, loving way that embodies the spirit of the writer for which it is named.” On a given day, you may encounter Clark’s musings on the merits and inadequacies of author Francine Prose, an in-depth look at the work of recent Pulitzer winners, or a list of top literary magazines to which you absolutely must subscribe. Isak was recently listed as one of Largehearted Boy’s “Blogs to Read 2010.”

Clark’s meditations reflect a heartfelt reverance for literature and its importance to society and spirit. Whether she is arguing with literary critics on form (the role of narrative vs. scenes in fiction in Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping), expounding on the macabre prose style of William Styron ’s Lie Down in the Darkness, or commenting on a Wall Street Journal article about a kid’s campaign to prevent closure of a local independent bookstore, she exhibits unmistakable allegiance to the power and sanctity of words.

In 2009 Isak launched Choose Books: A Gift Guide for Those Who Love Stories series, a 53-page Christmas shopping guide designed to... more »

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Inside The World of 'Unskilled' Labor

by Anna Lena Phillips 05.17.2010

Anna Lena Phillips reviews Gabriel Thompson's Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do, a new book of nonfiction about how immigrants earn their way in the U.S. more »

Chalcot Crescent, Fay Weldon

by Sam Peczek 12.02.2009

Chalcot Crescent coverThe blurb hooks us with a tantalizing premise: aged ex-copywriter Frances sits on her stairs waiting for the bailiffs to give up and leave her in peace.  By way of killing some time she pretends to reflect on the exciting array of world history she has beheld over the past five decades, including such delights as the rise and fall of Communism, Feminism, and Capitalism (which was promptly followed by the Shock, Crunch, Squeeze, Recovery, Fall, Crisis and finally, Bite).

Sadly, this dizzying array of economical, political and social upheaval is merely a backdrop for our narrator’s main gripe – namely, her ex husband, Karl (one of many) and her disparate handful of offspring and offsprung.  She also happens to be the What If sibling that Fay evidently never had and most likely didn’t want anyway (Frances nicks Fay’s would-be hubby, but pays for it later).  There is absolutely no real purpose to this, as Frances appears to be little more than a skinny version of Fay.  I don’t think this is necessarily the case of shoddy characterization (although let’s not rule that out) more than another symptom of the irksome line of wrongness that etches its way through the novel. ... more »

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Moon (2009)

by Sam Peczek 08.23.2009

dir. Duncan Jones (yes, yes, a film set in space spawned by the spawn of Bowie)


So you wouldn’t be weird if you didn’t think ‘yes, this film was definitely fashioned in 2009’ rather than wondering if it’s a long lost relic from the early 70’s, that time before Star Wars shook sci-fi and took it to, well, a different sort of place. Lots of people have declared that Moon is a squashy Silent Running/Solaris/2001/Dark Star hybrid, but having not seen that latter two I lack the education required to comment with any real insight along the history of thinking sci-fi line.

All I can say is this: the plot is interesting, if a little shaky in places, and the final third is perhaps not as riveting as the opening scenes might demand, or deserve. But there’s much in the way of good stuff here: isolation, claustrophobia, a touch of maybe-madness later tinged with probable-paranoia, a top notch performance by Sam Rockwell (who is pretty much the only character gracing the screen) and an artful score which enhances the atmosphere without snatching our attention away from the action.

Even during the more pressing moments, there is something oddly subdued about the film; everything is contained... more »

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Submarine, Joe Dunthorne


“One of the things I have discovered is that, although my father’s beard looks ginger from a distance, when you get close up it is in fact a subtle blend of black, blond and strawberry.
I have also learnt that my parents have not had sex in two months. I monitor their intimacy via the dimmer switch in their bedroom. I know when they have been at it because the next morning the dial will still be set to half way.”

Oliver Tate is 15. He is abnormally preoccupied with his parents’ marital relations, determined to lose his virginity before he turns 16, and has a girlfriend who can do some very clever things with matches. Oliver is fond of new words, translucent skin, and will happily feed rat poison to your dog if he thinks it will ’safeguard’ your long-term emotional stability.

Joe Dunthorne has a real flair for language, splattering the pages with one-liners and odd observations, as gleaned from the delightfully skewed mind of a protagonist whose mixture of intelligence and immaturity is best served in the guise of a teenage boy. Oliver can pen witty diary entries to appease his girlfriend (crafting delicious parodies of Adrian Mole), yet remain stubbornly... more »

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Lorrie Moore's writing broke my heart, in a bad way.


I’ve long been a fan of Lorrie Moore’s short stories. If you haven’t had the opportunity to read her work, I’d recommend it. She’s funny, smart and cynical, which are my three favorite adjectives. Also, she often writes stories about interesting female protagonists of the funny, smart, and cynical variety.

If you’re interested in podcasts and the like, you can listen to Louise Erdrich and New Yorker fiction editor, Deborah Treisman read and discuss a Lorrie Moore story here.

So, I was greatly disappointed when I read her novella, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, which I found largely whiny and flat. Lorrie Moore is an author whose voice I identify with so strongly and whose characters I often wish were real people so I could befriend/think I’m already friends with. Because of this (unhealthy) relationship I have to her work, I felt strangely betrayed by this novella.

Readers, have you had this experience with an author? Please share!

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Waltz with Bashir (Israel 2008)


Snarling, angry dogs; eyes ablaze, teeth bared and saliva glistening in the sickly yellow light of the dawn sky. They stampede through grey streets, knocking over everything in their way as they hurtle towards their quandary, who stands waiting at a window. This is the recurring dream that old friend Boaz tells director Ari Folman about one night in a bar, explaining that they are the 26 dogs he was ordered to shoot during the Lebanese war; he still remembers every face. Folman is surprised to realise that he remembers very little about his own experiences of the war, and sets about tracking down old friends and acquaintances from the past, in the hope of bringing into focus the elusive imagery he is able to dredge up.

What follows is a mesmerising investigation into Folman’s wartime experiences, detailing the subjective, slippery (and often hallucinatory) nature of memory and its ties to trauma, guilt, and confusion. Past and present, fantasy and reality, horror and beauty all blend into each other, further muddying the murky waters of the filmmaker’s hazy recollections. The result is undeniably stylised yet sufficiently substantial, ensuring that the viewer is instantly engaged with the subject matter and soon absorbed entirely into the collective recollection of... more »

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Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams


Last month I met one of my idols. A writer that was introduced to me before I ever thought of myself as one. A woman with a multifaceted voice that comes from a landscape very different from my own but who has an outlook on family and tragedy that brought me in. When I learned that she would be at my local bookstore to read, I screamed and danced around my apartment. I realized I would get to hear her voice, reading her words, and that I might even get to speak with her. I still get sick thinking about the fact that I did.

Terry Tempest Williams
came to Porter Square Books, a small but powerhouse independent bookstore in Cambridge, MA, in late October to read from her latest publication Finding Beauty in a Broken World. TTW found her inspiration as she lost her sense of self in a post 9/11 country broken and at war:

We watched the towers collapse. We watched America choose war. The peace in our own hearts shattered. How to pick up the pieces? What to do with the pieces?

It was the “pieces” that inspired Williams to look closer at our fragmentation and the potential to not only... more »

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You, The Living (dir. Roy Andersson)


“Be pleased then, you, the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.”

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The Believers/Zoë Heller


Whereas Notes on a Scandal employed the services of an embittered yet wryly perceptive narrator, The Believers casts a wider net, this time opting for a third person narration which cunningly absorbs the conflicting perspectives of the assorted characters whose lives it intersects. We follow this tangle of delightfully toxic and brittle souls as they proceed to negotiate their tense and often vicious encounters and are treated to glimpses of their anger, resentment, shame, weakness, and self-loathing. Such sentiments are expressed (and repressed) with varying degrees of honesty and venom, ranging from enthusiastic precision to resigned politeness. Along the way, each character’s respective values and convictions are tested, discredited, abandoned and amended (hence the novel’s slightly crappy title).

Heller’s decadent mix of linguistic flourishes and biting humour – immediately apparent in her previous novel – is perhaps more restrained here, waiting until after the understated prologue to come into play and wow the humble reader. Save for the occasional slip, Heller avoids common cliché in both her descriptions and her details which touch on human weakness with nuggets of piercing accuracy and that clever breed of wit which wavers between sardonic and sympathetic.

If Notes looked at an affair from the obsessive gaze... more »

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Review of The Tenth Muse by Judith Jones


Judith Jones, at least to me, is one of those women in publishing. You know, those ones. You’ve heard their name somewhere, only you can’t remember where. Maybe on NPR? You know she’s responsible for something to do with…oh, cookbooks…publishing…you’re pretty sure she’s really important. Recently I picked up a copy of The Tenth Muse at the library feeling I ought to get to know a bit more about what this woman has done for publishing and also for cooking.

Suffice to say if there was a great discovery to be made, Jones quite likely had a hand in it. It was Jones who brought The Diary of Anne Frank to publication and, as if that weren’t enough of a career accomplishment, Jones who championed Mastering the Art of French Cooking into its publication. Jones chronicles the process of working with Julia Child to present a recipe for a French baguette because, at the time, no such thing was commercially available in the US, and both women believed French bread to be crucial to a fine French meal.

Jones’s memoir reads like a who’s-who of the genesis, not only of American cooking (Marion Cunningham. MFK Fisher, Edna Lewis, Jams Beard)... more »

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Danny Treacy's 'Them'


The Photographer’s Gallery

until 20 September (make haste!)

Danny Treacy’s fantastic life-sized portraits display the artist in an array of bizarre outfits cleverly assembled from clothing and materials found abandoned on the streets, ranging from a soiled sleeping bag to an indefinable animal costume – occasionally embellished with something sparkly; a sequined glove, a tattered veil. The glorious detail in these shots brings out the contrasting textures of these various pieces, mixing faded glitz with pure grime.

Treacy’s stance is bold, poised, aggressive. His face remains hidden, which adds to the underlying threat. Yet at the same time, these masks also make the figure appear vulnerable and sightless, constrained and bound.

Mythical creatures; grubby superheroes; urban warriors – however you decide to label them, the overall effect is unsettling, eerie and deeply intriguing.

If you don’t happen to live in or be stopping by London this week I insist you stop by to gaze at Treacy’s array striking creations (they’re taking them away after Saturday so be swift and speedy). And if you happen not to be in suitable proximity, worry not, for the artist has arranged a rather nice online space to display all sorts of fascinating photo joy, just for you. Oh yes.

And in case you’re itching to read more... more »

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The God of Small Things


Arudhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is a superb book. Roy won England’s Booker Prize the year the book came out, and it’s easy to see why. Her physical descriptions of people are unrivaled. The characters are round and emotionally complex.

The book is truly Fringey in its portrayal of feminism, and in the complex way it wrangles with Marxism. The work lives up to its packaging, on which John Updike proclaims, “A novel of real ambition must invent its own language, as this one does.” Roy’s nimble linguistic inventions recall Ulysses in their lists, nicknames, and capitalization.

A Real. Good. Read.

The book follows the travail of a family in Kerala, India, particularly of two fraternal twins, Estha and Rahel, alternating between a past tragedy and its ramifications in the present. The family is Christian, of a touchable caste and owns a rubber plantation, rice fields, and (to my delight) a pickle factory.

Roy lays all her cards on the table early on — the reader knows that the book’s central tragedy involves the death of the twins’ cousin, a half-British girl on vacation in India from England, as well as a local worker on the property of whom the twins are fond. And yet, this knowledge,... more »

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Welcome to Shirley Review


Welcome to Shirley tells the story of author Kelly McMasters’ working-class hometown on Long Island.

I whipped through this book in a matter of days. McMasters uses her sharp eye for detail to create fully rendered and complex characters.

While much nonfiction is “simply the facts, ma’am,” Welcome to Shirley exhibited a welcome literary sensibility that enhanced the story. Here’s a physical description that stayed with me — “His jeans hung from his hips as if on pegs, and his skin, always so tanned and pliant, drew across his temples in waxy white stretches.” (84)

While the environmental destruction wrought by nuclear waste leaks at the Brookhaven laboratory provides the central focus for McMasters’ narrative, she puts it in perspective, holding it up against smaller-scale tragedies — deaths and misfortunes that are smaller in scope.

Welcome to Shirley is the first memoir I’ve read in recent memory, but I found McMasters’ novelistic tone eased me into this new genre. Highly recommended for a beach read, but have a few tissues handy.

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The Quick and The Dead: A Review by Matthew Salesses


This is the fourteenth of a many-part series written by the staff and editors of Fringe Magazine, who will be reviewing books from the Pool as part of the 25 Books Project

“Thoughts are infusorial,” says Nurse Daisy, bard of Green Palms nursing home and one of the many characters populating Joy Williams’s sharp-as-the-reaper’s-scythe The Quick and the Dead.

This idea of the collective unconscious is in keeping with Williams’ web imagery and interlocking narratives. The latter includes three motherless girls, a father who sees the ghost of his dead wife (urging him to join her in the next world), a suicidal pianist, an eight-year old who pours sand over her head, a dog murderer who suffers a Jake-Barnes-injury from a parcel bomb, a retired big-game hunter who listens to the music of air conditioners, a stroke survivor with a vivisected monkey in his head, a dog becoming increasingly paranoid, and so on.

The theme of exploration of life and death (as the title indicates) link these narratives, which take place in a fictional American desert town where the heat and landscape contribute to a certain sensitivity toward portentous images and events. As you would expect, characters die, move on, or are otherwise carried... more »

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The Witch of Portobello: A Review by Julia Henderson


Okay, I know. I wrote my review of The History of Love and gushed about it, and now you’re all going to think that I only write gushy reviews. But here’s the thing…this book *really* made me think about who I am and where I am going, and who I want to be as a woman, a wife, a soon-to-be-mother, a daughter, and a human.

I didn’t always like Paulo Coehlo’s work. I tried to read The Alchemist in college and the novel just didn’t do it for me. But a friend recommended Veronika Decides to Die to me while a loved one was in the hospital for depression and I was struggling to understand what might be happening in there, and ever since, Coehlo has been one of my obsessions.

When I picked up The Witch of Portobello, I didn’t know quite what to expect. The synopsis said “How do we find the courage to always be true to ourselves—even if we are unsure of whom we are? That is the central question of international bestselling author Paulo Coehlo’s profound new work…”

“Oh. Profound,” said the skeptic in me. “We’ll just see about that.”

But all I know is this…the protagonist of the book, Athena, follows... more »

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Flannery O'Connor and Heroes


So this is my first blog attempt and I’m assuming it’s going to suck, but stick with me. Good intro, right? Now I’ll talk about what kind of food got stuck in my teeth this morning (cinnamon apple sauce) and my favorite kind of toilet paper (whatever that commercial is with those red bears!)…. I thought that was how blogs worked? You see, I did a little research. Dwight Schrute’s blog is about a time capsule he sent to himself. No, really. I’m actually getting to something literary. Seems to me time’s a pretty mysterious mofo. Heard about this study about how people like to see, in their movie trailers, everything that’s going to happen in the movie? Not original. Flannery was doing that stuff ages ago. See “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” You know damn well they’re going to meet the misfit the moment the grandmother, and then the storeowner, mentions it. Or “A Circle in the Fire.” Fire’s in the title, even, and it’s the protagonist’s greatest fear. What she really pulled off is making us pant with anticipation (that’s right, like a dog) until we get there. Why don’t we see this in a lot of... more »

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Two Cities: A Love Story by John Edgar Wideman: A Review by Katie Spencer


This is the thirteenth of a many-part series written by the staff and editors of Fringe Magazine, who will be reviewing books from the Pool as part of the 25 Books Project

It may be that the most enduring, affecting art produced within modern cultures develops when cultures are in crisis. Think about the greatest Russian literature. And think about the art that has come from black urban America in the final third of the 20th century. When beauty and destruction, oppression and exhaustion, history and outrage, love and grief combine, you get art distilled to such poignancy that it makes your heart literally ache. You get, for example, Funkadelic’s instrumental Maggot Brain, you get John Edgar Wideman and his brilliant, heartbreaking Two Cities.

Two Cities skips perspectives, delving most deeply into Kassima, a young woman who has lost a husband and two sons to AIDS and violence; Robert, the man who breaks the shell around her heart; and her tenant, ancient Mr. Mallory, a quiet man with a rich inner life and backstory.

The love between Kassima and Robert is a buoy neither expected to find, but one that nourishes long-dormant tendrils of sweetness and vulnerability in both of them. It’s a... more »

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Bastard Out of Carolina: A Review by Elizabeth Stark


This is the twelfth of a many-part series written by the staff and editors of Fringe Magazine, who will be reviewing books from the Pool as part of the 25 Books Project.

Dorothy Allison’s
devastating novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, was the last fiction book I read before entering journalism school. The day I started reading it, two different strangers on the train came up to me and said, “that’s a really good book,” and Bastard delivered.

The novel falls into the Bildungsroman category, following Ruth Ann Boatwright, nicknamed “Bone,” who, like the author, was born to a 15-year-old unmarried waitress in South Carolina. The first person voice is compelling and takes the reader inside poor white rural culture.

Although the novel is about abuse, Alison writes against stereotype, keeping Bone’s pedophiliac stepfather, Daddy Glen, looming ominously in the background for most of the book, which keeps the story from lapsing into the sentimental. This authorial choice makes the subject of the book Bone’s early life, rather than the abuse, which shapes, but does not define her.

Due to the subject matter, it’s not the easiest read, but the passion of this book makes its unpleasantness well worth it.

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Heartbreak Hotel by Gabrielle Burton: A Review by Katie Spencer


This is the eleventh of a many-part series written by the staff and editors of Fringe Magazine, who will be reviewing books from the Pool as part of the 25 Books Project.

Gabrielle Burton’s Heartbreak Hotel runs each of its engines at full capacity. It is completely intelligent, completely feminist, completely hilarious, completely furious, completely compassionate, and it does the whole thing inside out. It is an exhausting book. It is worth the effort, and then you will force it on your friends.

This is a story of the rebirth of the straight white middle-class American feminist, written in the mid-1980s, and it takes place in Buffalo. It is dated, but to a feminist era and type I feel unlived nostalgia for: there’s a Midwest-runaway New Yorkiness about this sarcastic, corny, male-affectionate, DIY feminism; little bits Gilda Radner and Silver Palate Cookbook. Characters are tortured by middle-class feminist questions like, does it bring me pleasure to serve others? I say this without mockery. It’s a good, often hushed question.

Heartbreak Hotel is intentionally written to be diffuse, not like those, ahem, linear books you’re used to reading, and it has the guts to create two-dimensional characters and give each a voice, and through jokes,... more »

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