Short Takes

Todd Komarnicki

Famine

Arcade

FAMINE COMES AT a perfect time to cash in on the zeitgeist of paranormal phenomenon. Even if its only metaphysical activity is the ghostly presence of an emotionally crippled teen, this story about the need for human interaction in the increasingly hostile Big City (the Big Apple, in this case) gives the rigors of daily survival an almost otherwordly feel. Death is palpable throughout.

A filmmaker currently working on two projects, Todd Komarnicki marks his second novel with the spare, clipped style of a screenplay. Detective Bell, one of the two first-person narrators of the story, investigates the curious death, due to malnutrition, of a young man in one of Manhattan's posher neighborhoods. In alternating chapters, the dead Daniel Rowan plays second narrator, leading the reader to clues of the crime while detailing his family's neglect and distancing after the death of his younger brother. Komarnicki weaves the two lives together with stark grace as middle-aged Bell, struggling with his own emotional starvation and troubled family life, increasingly identifies with Rowan.

Defining Bell, the author paints a cold but vulnerable portrait: "Mothers murder children. Priests rob banks. Wrists slit. Bombs shred. This comforts him. The chaos. He needs it. Keeps him above the believers, the ones who call 911, seeking answers... And he comes by, whispers to widows, takes down statements like recipes, all the time calmed by new evidence of the random. He is a satisfied man."

Famine creates a world similar in its overall sense of alienation to the 21st-century Los Angeles of Blade Runner. And like that film's replicants, this story's pivotal character, Emma (the prime suspect in her husband's uncanny death), is an unearthly spirit of a young woman. It's her devotion to and control over the victim that gives this tale its ghostly edge. (Matt Keppel)

Claudia Casper

The Reconstruction

St. Martin's Press

WHEN SUFFERING AN emotional loss, the physical world seem irrelevant; you throw rocks at birds and curse the blue skies, although in the end it must be admitted that neither the birds nor the skies are to blame. Margaret, the hero of Claudia Casper's The Reconstruction, does things common to the newly divorced: She sleeps for hours on end, forgets to pay bills, fails to keep appointments, and stops seeing her friends. But instead of withdrawing to dwell on the "relationship," on her "emotions," and on what it means to have loved and lost ("Better never to have lost at all. Loss was bigger than love."), she obsesses with increasing intensity on what it is to be a physical body.

Asked by the science museum's Chief of Exhibits to build a full body reconstruction of a female Australopithecus afarensis for the Hall of Human Origins, Margaret replaces all social contact with live humans for physical contact with bones--of humans, chimpanzees, and the Australopithecus afarensis. Margaret's husband, a doctor, had long before lost his ability to appreciate the physicality of his wife ("When he looked at people, their whole biological history rose before his eyes, from the bloody mess of their birth to the morbid sweet smell of their infirmity")--so Margaret already has sympathy for spirits trapped within flesh and bones. By the time our droll hero has finished the reconstruction, both she and the reader are revived and happy to have gotten through the ordeal without much psychotherapy and to have, both literally and figuratively, constructed a female with a past filled with infinite possibilities. (Amanda Ferguson)

Nancy Mairs

Waist High In the World:
Life Among the Nondisabled

Beacon Press

HAVING NAVIGATED THE world from her wheelchair seat for the past decade, Mairs considered calling this essay collection Cock High in the World, but then thought better of it: wrong lyrical ring. The humorous musings that salt these writings have enough odd rings, though--by good-girl standards--to put off more timid readers. In signature style, Mairs shucks the do-good, PC-hushed tones "normals" use when talking about physical handicaps, especially those that leave a woman's body as twisted as severe multiple sclerosis has left hers. Enough of the vacuous "people with differing abilities" niceties: Mairs is a cripple with a ruined nervous system, four feet high on the landscape, taking no prisoners.

The best of these 10 essays is "Body in Trouble," in which Mairs takes issue with the mind/body dichotomy. "Conceptualize the body," she was advised once, some years back. Whose body? A physical or an abstract one? This one I'm in or some other, ideal one? "The body in trouble, becoming both a warier and a humbler creature," she writes, "is more apt to experience herself all of a piece: a biochemical dynamo cranking out consciousness much as it generates platelets, feces, or reproductive cells." The split dissolves as, in her case, does the separation of her body from the mechanized equipment and the series of intricate maneuvers required to wheel it out the door and into the public realm.

But this is no pity party. Mairs argues not only for consideration (navigable public bathroom stalls, for instance) but a greater regard for handicapped people in a society that tends to dismiss and exile them as useless. She rips on the growing practice of aborting fetuses with "deformities," and the ever-more-popular notion of physician-assisted suicides as a means to rid the healthy masses of deteriorating bodies. Get with it on public transportation, grab bars, ramps, and phones, she writes, and get rid of the tired perception of cripples as out of the sexual running, worthy only of fear or condescension--or as true-grit troopers chinning up to bear their loathsome lives. In all, Waist High is a refreshingly bold take on the blind spots the nondisabled cultivate, rendering those with MS invisible. (Josie Rawson)

Julia Alvarez

¡Yo!

Algonquin Books

BREAKING WITH CONVENTIONAL format, Julia Alvarez's third novel tells its title character's story via 16 short narratives from people she encounters--first as a small girl growing up in a wealthy, powerful family in the Dominican Republic; later as an immigrant, writer and teacher in the U.S. It's essentially the same story related in Alvarez's popular first work, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, told from a different perspective.

While the author's earlier works may have shed more light on Dominican culture and on what it's like for a family of political exiles to land on foreign shores, ¡Yo! probes the difficulties of straddling two such different realities. "The Suitor" is narrated by one of Yo's exes, the pot-smoking Deadhead Dexter Hayes, who follows her on a visit to the family compound in the Dominican Republic. Yo struggles to play by Dominican rules, introducing her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend to her extended family as a journalist from The Washington Post who has asked her to be his "guide" during the impending elections.

Dexter, however, is unable to navigate the chasm between what Yo's upper-crust family expects in terms of proper behavior and how they themselves really act. Yet in a later chapter, a more Americanized Yo breaks those rules herself, reaching out to a family servant whose life is collapsing.

The life story that unfolds here is supposedly autobiographical and, indeed, bears a striking resemblance to the life of Alvarez, who fled the Dominican Republic with her family at the age of 10 and currently teaches at Middlebury College. But the protagonist's voice is never revealed to the reader: Yo's life slowly develops a trajectory, but only through the differing narrators; she herself remains frustratingly distant. It's an ambitious structural device, but ultimately this novel's greatest failing. (Beth Hawkins)

Jack Blake

Comes The Millennium

St. Martin's Press

JACK BLAKE USES the end of the millennium to frame a lively discussion about anti-intellectualism, religious mania and hysteria in America. For Blake, the "end times" countdown speaks to not only our fascination with apocalypse, but to broader issues regarding race relations, intolerance, and political polarization. At times his extensive examinations into science, art, Christianity, homosexuality, utopias, evolution, crime, and violence (and many other un-light topics) are cumbersome and pedantic, but they also allow the author to make statements such as: "Those who cannot 'understand' abstract, non-literal or otherwise offensive art are really those who are uncomfortable in the absence of authority."

This book is full of simple, logical realities that support Blake's desire for a steady ship in a sea of insanity. Comes the Millennium is a defense of objectivism, rationality, and the human brain, yet Blake isn't just tooting his horn to make waves. Included in the book are chapters titled "What to Tell Your Children" and "Thinking Big/Acting Small," in which Blake rolls out endless lists of things one can do to keep a clear head in a volatile social and political climate. All in all, this is a noble effort, but I wonder if it can make a dent in that great American motto, "The Mob Rules." (Paul D. Dickinson)

Leslie Marmon Silko

Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit

Touchstone Paperback

CONJOINING THE PERSONAL and the political is always risky business for a writer, judging from how often the results are fraught with dogma and self-indulgence. Leslie Marmon Silko does it as well as anyone, for a couple of reasons: Her spare, plainspoken prose neatly counterbalances her passion; and her Native American upbringing and ancestry not only make the personal and political indivisible, but allow the spirituality and magic of nature to resonate through the mix.

As she explains in myriad autobiographical pieces that comprise about half of Yellow Woman's 22 essays, Silko grew up in an adobe house next door to her great-grandmother's place, and by age 11 was more comfortable riding a horse out in the Arizona wilderness than she was interacting with people. Seduced by ancestral storytelling, her understanding of the natural world has always been organically devoid of guile and fear. Through the stories, Silko discovered that the character and personality of local landmarks can be as vivid, and their activities as useful in devising parables and morals, as any human's. Along the way she learned that even rocks and stones have a kind of spirit, being on the same cycle of birth and dilapidation as plants and animals.

Silko's essays reinforce these beliefs by adopting the purposefully rambling and repetitious mode of storytelling; that she does this without sacrificing focus or concision is a feat that adds credibility to her outlook. In style and in substance, her profound adherence to her roots--and the resulting near-total alienation from prevailing political trends--gives luster to the times when she does stoop to rhetoric. In other words, support for the rebels of Chiapas (who are of Mayan descent), the betrayal by whitewashed tribal councils, and the tactics of the border patrol all acquire both a personal and historical context. And even in her rage, Silko makes it softly, effectively luminous. For those needing to know her before embarking on her lengthy masterpiece, The Almanac of the Dead, Yellow Woman is a worthy primer. (Britt Robson)

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