Archive for April, 2011


Monday, April 25th, 2011

By Mat Johnson

The Short Take:

Wow! What a witty romp Mat Johnson has concocted for our enjoyment! His adventure-fantasy satire gleefully pokes at racial identity and even slavery (!?!). His writing is so sly, his approach so original — I just loved it.


We’ve seen spurious sequels and twisted takes on classic books, but this one is something special. E. A. Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is Johnson’s the starting point — not exactly the best known piece of American literature (and, blessedly, you need absolutely no prior knowledge of that book to fully enjoy this one).  Johnson’s protagonist, Chris Jaynes, discovers that fantastic tale may have some basis in reality and sets out to discover the truth.

Jaynes is a wonderful creation — equally self-aware and self-deluding — he makes a brilliant narrator for this novel. Johnson surrounds this pale-skinned African-American with an all-black team of unlikely crew mates who cope with every obstacle they encounter in wildly different ways.

The entire plot is full of astonishing twists that both parallel with and depart from Poe’s original. But it’s the stories within this book — centered around things like DNA testing, an ongoing riff on a popular artist found in shopping malls, the ineffectiveness of diversity committees — that really strengthen the reader’s enjoyment while cleverly getting across the author’s point.

A Little Plot:

Chris Jaynes doesn’t get tenure because he refuses to serve on the diversity committee (and he’s the only professor of color) and would rather teach Poe than African-American literature. Fortunately his attention is diverted from his woes by an old manuscript written by a real Dirk Peters — the supposedly fictional black character in Poe’s supposedly fictional narrative.

Both the manuscript and the novel describe the land of Tsalal, a land populated only by black people with no European interference. Jaynes determines to find this land and puts together a group to help him: his former (and still loved) fiance and her lawyer husband; an overweight and out-of-work bus driver; a pair of gay, would-be heroes; and his civil rights activist cousin.

They head to Antarctica to harvest glacier water to subsidize their journey where they encounter another type of human, also referred to by both Peter and Poe. That’s when those tales because all too real.

For more about Mat Johnson, Pym, and the other influences Poe’s only novel had, visit the author’s website by clicking here.

Impatient with Desire

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

By Gabrielle Burton

The Short Take:

Ignore the romance-style title. This imagining of Tamsen Donner’s personal journal of the Donner Party’s western journey and snow-bound entrapment is a fascinating tale of human endurance and frailty. It’s a worthy read.


Burton admits to a certain obsession with Tamsen Donner, wife of the group’s leader, and her book is all the better for it. It’s a thoughtful and detailed look at the hardships faced by early wagon train travelers. By using Tamsen’s supposed journal entries to convey the bulk of the story, Burton gives you access to her protagonist’s deepest secrets, fears, and hopes as well as day-to-day events. This allows for a much richer and more rewarding portrait than simply presenting the facts could ever accomplish.

I was glad to find that Burton did not dwell on the cannibalism that gained this group of people such fame. It is treated straightforwardly as just another defense against starvation — a way to keep one’s children and oneself alive long after normal sustenance has given out and even cattle hides are gone.

The story starts with the Donner Party already stranded in the mountains, waiting out the snowy winter and moves backwards and forwards in time to give you a picture of their entire journey. To give background to her character, Burton also makes use of family letters to explore Tamsen’s upbringing, personality, and innate wanderlust. It all works together quite nicely.

However, I was so put off by the book’s title, I almost let this one slide by. It sure sounded like a bodice-ripper to me. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Instead Burton has taken a tragic story and given it great context, with worthy empathy for its participants.

A Little Plot:

You basically know this one: A group of families travel by wagon train, headed for California in search of new opportunities.Along the way, some poor choices are made that ultimately result in them being snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for the better part of five months. Starvation and death become constant companions.

It’s an unimaginable situation, but Burton does a solid job of helping you see — and feel — what it must have been like.

For more about this book and Gabrielle Burton, click here.

Congratulations to Jennifer Egan!

Monday, April 18th, 2011

She just won the Pulitzer for her novel: A Visit from the Goon Squad.

I thought it was a terrific book. You can check out my review by taking my little calendar back to September 10, 2010.

Other winners include Siddhartha Mukherjee for The Emperor of Maladies in nonfiction and Kay Ryan for The Best of It in poetry.


Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

By Karen Russell

The Short Take:

The Bigtree family owns the Florida gator park Swamplandia! and when the family matriarch and star performer dies every character goes to hell, or at least some version of the underworld. Their dream/nightmare-like journeys become progressively darker as the book moves forward but the outstanding writing shines throughout. Plus, Ava, the main protagonist, is an irresistible character


First of all, don’t judge this book by it’s cover. I did and was expecting a quirky family story in the manner of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. While you might draw a few comparisons, this first novel is something else entirely. But that’s not a bad thing at all.

Danger and darkness take the larger roles in Russell’s book, yet there are also plenty of amusing moments scattered throughout — from bright humor to sharp irony. Russell’s vividly crafted descriptions of the 1000 Islands area in southwest Florida are similar in nautre — bright light piercing dark and dangerous landscapes. She surrounds you with its sights, scents, and mystery.

The Bigtree family itself is as quirky as they come, living an isolated life with only the most tenuous connections to normalcy. Older brother Kiwi is a voracious learner and not happy with the family’s circumstances. Middle child Osceola is a romantic dreamer with a mystical leanings. Ava, the youngest at 12, just wants to be as good a gator wrestler as her mom. Dad is largely uncommunicative. And, as I mentioned earlier, they each take a journey into the underworld — yet in entirely different forms.

This is a rich, imaginative book. It starts relatively lightly then carries you into deepening feelings of dread. But there is no way you can abandon little Ava — her spunk, family loyalty, and determination keep you buoyed no matter how dark and murky the future looks.

A Little Plot:

Swamplandia! is in trouble: its star performer (and mother to the Bigtree brood) has died, debts are high, and a new nearby theme park — The World of Darkness — has opened nearby siphoning off what few tourists Swamplandia! drew. The Bigtree family is in crisis.

Osceola starts dating ghosts, or at least thinks she is. Kiwi leaves to work at The World of Darkness, a truly hellish theme park, to raise money to save Swmaplandia! Dad also leaves “on business” of an uncertain nature. When Osceola elopes with her ghost to get married in the underworld, Ava is determined to find her sister and reunite her family. To do that, she must take the most dangerous journey of them all.

Budding gator-wrestler that she is, Ava  is up to the task.


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April 2011