Harold Parker

Three generations of mother-daughter entanglements get sharp scrutiny in April Reynolds' lyrical debut novel, Knee-Deep in Wonder. Even more impressive, though, is the author's portrayal of Southern black life: Reynolds' characters are funny, memorable and complex, and she tells their stories with the ease of a trusted friend.

Helene Strickland returns home to Lafayette County, Arkansas, in 1976 for her aunt Annie b.'s funeral. At the same time, she wants to visit her mother, the now reclusive Queen Ester whom she's never really known. Simply put, Helene seeks “mother love, deep and dark as a carpet”; she also hopes to discover her father's identity.

The impending reunion is a jumping-off point from which Reynolds begins to peel back the years, exposing chunks of Strickland family history. Her focus, it turns out, is on Queen Ester's relationship with her mother, Liberty. These two women are locked in an emotionally stunted dependency, due primarily to Liberty's abandonment by both parents (and a lover). Things change fatefully after a young man, Chess, stumbles into Liberty's home-based cafŽ.

A surprisingly intriguing figure, Chess is a ladies' man whose womanizing disguises a sensitive streak his own need for the safety of mother love. When he appears at Liberty's doorstep, he's been on the run for 11 years. He's haunted by a flood, the murder of his father and a “want that tasted like loathing.” The repercussions from a mother love that is skewed or denied altogether are portrayed in expansive and deliberate style. Reynolds, who teaches creative writing and literature at Sarah Lawrence College, sustains a compelling story and imbues her characters' lives with the richness they deserve. She is a writer to watch. Harold Parker writes from Gallatin, Tennessee.

Three generations of mother-daughter entanglements get sharp scrutiny in April Reynolds' lyrical debut novel, Knee-Deep in Wonder. Even more impressive, though, is the author's portrayal of Southern black life: Reynolds' characters are funny, memorable and complex, and she tells their stories with the ease of a trusted friend. Helene Strickland returns home to Lafayette County, […]

Following on the heels of Helen Dunmore's acclaimed novel, The Siege (2002), one might expect that another book focusing on the Nazi blockade of Leningrad during World War II would have a hard time attracting attention. Happily enough, though, Elise Blackwell's debut novel, Hunger, carves out its own niche. Hunger focuses on efforts by a group of scientists to preserve a collection of seed specimens, even at the price of starvation. It's a remarkable, fact-based story of heroism and self-sacrifice under the harshest of war's privations. It is also a story of the desperate will to survive. Blackwell has employed an unnamed, rather mysterious narrator to tell her story of survival. He's a scientist, and apparently a participant in the work of his colleagues to preserve seeds; his insider's view of the siege is refracted through the prism of distance and old age.

Through this narrator, readers get a feel not only for the countless horrors which occurred, especially during Leningrad's "hunger winter"(ranging from offers of bodies and souls in exchange for food, to self-amputation of limbs, murder and cannibalism); an appraising light is also thrown, for example, on the misguided idealism of the scientists' leader, or petty complaints over an orchestra's performance.

The narrator's perspective is more tender regarding the stoicism of his wife, Alena, also a scientist, who dies protecting the seeds. Unlike his wife, however, the narrator has no interest in martyrdom.

The prose of Hunger is terse, stripped to essentials, but it produces a lilting, nearly poetic quality. The detail is exacting and freshly presented. Blackwell's most notable achievement, however, is a compelling exploration of the moral chasm that war can create.

Harold Parker writes from Gallatin, Tennessee.

 

Elise Blackwell's debut novel, Hunger, carves out its own niche. Hunger focuses on efforts by a group of scientists to preserve a collection of seed specimens, even at the price of starvation. It's a remarkable, fact-based story of heroism and self-sacrifice under the harshest of war's privations. It is also a story of the desperate will to survive.

In 1961, Halley Martin returns to Homeland, Florida, from prison, after doing 20 years of hard time. His arrival nearly coincides with a fire that destroys the home of Preacher Ned Jeffries, who is severely burned in the blaze.

These two events in Richard Yancey's impressive debut novel aren't actually linked, but the men are. Halley (named for the comet) and Preacher Ned share not just an old acquaintance they each harbor an unquenchable passion for Ned's stunningly beautiful wife, Mavis.

Some 20 years before, Halley rashly committed a murder, apparently on Mavis' behalf, following an accusation of rape; he was a silent admirer of the young woman, who was the sheltered daughter of a wealthy businessman. Years later, Ned pressed an advantage afforded by financial necessity and managed to convince the mature and desperate Mavis to marry him.

A Burning in Homeland is really a fateful love triangle of a peculiarly Southern variety. Yancey, also an actor and playwright, exhibits a good feel for drama and atmosphere; his imagery is simply splendid. The language is lush, as befits the setting, and the characters often fall victim to their own overwrought emotions as Preacher Ned does during his climactic sermon (or tirade) on the occasion of his homecoming. And, as all the townsfolk expect, there's an inevitable march toward what Halley calls a “reckoning” between himself and the preacher.

But, also true to form, and to Richard Yancey's credit, the final confrontation demonstrates that there can be no making up for lost time or missed chances, no redeeming act of vengeance in answer to a perceived betrayal. There may only be tragic mistakes.

Mavis remarks to Halley that life is a compromise between necessity and desire. It's a simple and obvious truth, but, in his first novel, Yancey refreshes it with insight and vigor. Harold Parker writes from Gallatin, Tennessee.

In 1961, Halley Martin returns to Homeland, Florida, from prison, after doing 20 years of hard time. His arrival nearly coincides with a fire that destroys the home of Preacher Ned Jeffries, who is severely burned in the blaze. These two events in Richard Yancey's impressive debut novel aren't actually linked, but the men are. […]

For all who care to linger, the pleasures of the written word are on ample display in Frederick Busch's new novel, A Memory of War. A prolific and acclaimed writer with more than two dozens books to his credit, Busch offers a challenge to readers, but one well worth the effort.

As the novel opens in 1985, the seemingly unflappable existence of psychologist Alex Lescziak is disrupted when a man named William Kessler declares that Alex is his brother. Apparently Alex's Jewish mother had an affair with a German prisoner of war during World War II. Skeptical yet troubled, Alex winds up at the New York Public Library, poring over old newspapers. Thus he initiates the process of re-examining his past, summoning forth memories and conjuring up unfamiliar images of his parents.

The Lescziaks, Polish ŽmigrŽs, settled in Great Britain before moving on to the U.S. Sylvia Lescziak and her husband, Januscz, performed necessary but menial tasks in support of the Allied effort. Perhaps Sylvia had desires her husband could not fulfill. Enter Otto Kessler.

Frederick Busch portrays this wartime romance exclusively through Alex's imagination. Even so, the affair has amazing clarity and depth. Alex, however, remains a somewhat elusive figure, nearly overshadowed by his mother's more elaborate tale. His unhappiness at a failing marriage and guilt over an ongoing affair with a patient (Nella) is apparent; what's behind his dilemma isn't so clear.

As A Memory of War progresses, its story is fleshed out, and the issues at stake are put into relief. Latent tensions between Sylvia and Januscz rise to the surface; an element of suspense is introduced, as a search for the now missing Nella intensifies; and Alex musters sufficient resolve to make a last overture to his wife, Liz, and to offer Kessler a few well-chosen words of advice.

A Memory of War is not a book leavened by humor or easy resolutions; it may strike some as just plain depressing. For those readers hardy enough to stick around, the reward comes in the usual ways: prose that shimmers and a sensibility that respects the difficulty of devising a happy, sustainable life in or out of wartime. Harold Parker writes from Gallatin, Tennessee.

For all who care to linger, the pleasures of the written word are on ample display in Frederick Busch's new novel, A Memory of War. A prolific and acclaimed writer with more than two dozens books to his credit, Busch offers a challenge to readers, but one well worth the effort. As the novel opens […]

In his new novel, Roland Merullo returns to familiar territory. Revere Beach, north of Boston, has already been the subject of his recent memoir, Revere Beach Elegy, and another novel. His latest work, In Revere, In Those Days, stands on its own as an honest and eloquent coming-of-age story.

Anthony Benedetto, a portrait painter with a fairly comfortable lifestyle, looks back at the saving of his soul. It began in the 1960s, during his preteen years, following the shocking deaths of both his parents in a plane crash. Anthony, or Tonio, was rescued by the devoted love of his large Italian-American family. A good student, Tonio eventually enrolls at Phillips Exeter Academy. The prep school environment provides the staging ground for a subtle break from his Revere roots. Tonio's path also diverges sharply from that of his beloved (and beautiful) cousin Rosalie. Ultimately, for Tonio, seeds are sown for lessons that will comprise his salvation.

Two figures stand out in this boy's life. Anthony's grandpa Dom, for instance, is an orderly man whose outward demeanor conceals a long-held source of pain. By sharing a measure of it with his grandson, he fortifies him, in effect, by the magnitude and honesty of the gesture. Uncle Peter, Rosalie's father and a failed boxer, chases one big score after another to elevate the Benedetto family out of the reach of humiliation. Roland Merullo's characters struggle with their sense of place in a wider world. And they can't quite fathom the nature of pain and suffering in their lives. That some like Tonio's grandma Lia, a gentle Zen master in disguise still manage to go on, to internalize the lessons of grief, is Merullo's great achievement.

The narrative hews a bit too closely to a rites-of-passage framework (including, for example, Tonio's loss of his virginity to an older woman). Nevertheless, In Revere, In Those Days remains a thoughtful meditation on the process of overcoming personal tragedy and on the imperative to trust, once again, in the possibility of hope.

In his new novel, Roland Merullo returns to familiar territory. Revere Beach, north of Boston, has already been the subject of his recent memoir, Revere Beach Elegy, and another novel. His latest work, In Revere, In Those Days, stands on its own as an honest and eloquent coming-of-age story. Anthony Benedetto, a portrait painter with […]

<B>Nick Tosches' Middle Age rant</B> Nick Tosches' new novel arrives amid a bit of a stir. There's apparently some concern that <B>In the Hand of Dante</B> might be too profane or sordid (or confusing) for many readers.

While the novel is profane, it isn't overly so. And, it does require forbearance especially given its author's seeming faith in mysteries. The flaws lie elsewhere. Although Tosches may strive for honesty and a lack of affectation, he just can't help showing off.

One of the novel's two stories is set in the Middle Ages, focusing on a spiritual quest by the poet Dante. The other not as lofty occurs in the present and follows the personal travails of the aptly named Nick Tosches," a writer (and thief). Tosches joins a Mob scheme to steal and sell the reputed original manuscript of <I>The Divine Comedy.</I> These two tales alternate and, obviously, are meant to enhance one another. This they do, occasionally. Still, some sections, focusing especially on Dante or his wife, Gemma, are too remote to be accessible; reading them is like enduring a classroom lecture.

The present-day plot eventually involves murder, thefts and dishonor among thieves. Dante's story amounts more to talk than action, as he engages in frequent dialogues with an elderly mystic. As Dante's tutelage burrows deeper into the terrain of religious issues (including, say, the meanings of certain numbers or an explication of symbols), Tosches displays his gift for research. Readers should know these pages are replete with foreign phrases in Latin, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew and Greek. Be aware, too, that there's little context, and no source notes, for guidance.

Nick Tosches known for acclaimed biographies of Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis appears to be a writer who, ironically, distrusts writing ( artful whoredom") <I>and</I> publishing (which he denounces here at length). He insists this work is <I>not</I> a book, but a testament." Simplicity is his creed.

In his latest book, unfortunately, Tosches' ambition has seemingly gotten the better of him. His grand design glosses over a surprisingly unfulfilling narrative, and his prose polished but dense sometimes leaves the reader more confused than enlightened. <I>Harold Parker writes from Gallatin, Tennessee.</I>

<B>Nick Tosches' Middle Age rant</B> Nick Tosches' new novel arrives amid a bit of a stir. There's apparently some concern that <B>In the Hand of Dante</B> might be too profane or sordid (or confusing) for many readers. While the novel is profane, it isn't overly so. And, it does require forbearance especially given its author's […]

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