- January 19, 2012
Snapshots showcases short reviews of recently published fiction and non-fiction.
Would you like to start the new year with Ntozake Shange? Reviewer Abdul Ali describes her confessional as “a one-woman show set to a jazz band with percussive instruments.” We also review a “light, airy and easy to read” collection of short stories and two novels that will transport you to very different times, places and characters.
Lost in Language & Sound is a rare confessional: a one-woman show set to a jazz band with percussive instruments. In this three-part collection, the theater legend Ntozake Shange articulates a particular alienation that stems from being an artist, a woman and a black woman artist growing up in a segregated America and negotiating an identity around stark divides of gender and race. There’s no doubting that she’s in her element when it comes to language: her images are razor-sharp, specific and always edifying. Refreshingly, this collection doesn’t present a “hindsight is 20/20” message but, instead, a hard-earned discovery. Each essay probes a range of unrests, from the existential to decades of seeing a therapist to writing a letter posthumously to her father to talking about the commodification of women’s genitalia. At times, the unconventional syntax can be dizzying. I found myself wanting the author to give it straight, but quickly realized that unconventional syntax is part of Shange’s aesthetic. She’s interested not in mimicking the bourgeois male aesthetic but in revolting against it, replacing it with an aesthetic that’s more particular to natural speech, thus making it accessible to the masses. She writes: “If I consult either Freud or Fanon, my sense of home is problematic.” Although it isn’t clear if the poet ever feels at home in the world, through art she certainly makes a fierce attempt. For this reason Lost in Language & Sound is remarkable for its testament of the power of art. Shange concludes her book evoking the power of poetry, describing it as “like love songs to a people, like a personal serenade from an absolute stranger who took my heart. That’s when I knew I could say, ‘I want to do that.’ ”
Guy Vanderhaeghe’s latest novel completes an informal western trilogy. The love story between Wesley Case, a former member of the Northwest Mounted Police, and Ada Tarr, a widow, is set against troubled times in the late 19th-century when the American government unleashed one of its final assaults against Indians. The writing crackles like a campfire lit by the envoy, Case, during one of his horseback journeys between the Canadian and American border outposts. Vanderhaeghe’s characters, ranging from historical figures such as Sitting Bull to fictional ones, become living, breathing people you know. However, the tapestry of images often overpowers, and I longed for less description and swifter action. What’s memorable is a clear and surprising view of a lost era. For instance, how can you shake off the image of Sitting Bull, the most important Indian chief of his time, being paraded around the Midwest, his infected eyes covered by a pair of donated goggles, eating several bowls of ice cream at one sitting and on one occasion being asked: “Which of those beauties is the Slightly Recumbent Gentleman Cow?”
An actor turns spy, stepping from the silver screen to track down enough stolen nuclear warheads to destroy the world. Ty Hunter is everyone’s fantasy ― discovered by a Hollywood director while recovering at a military hospital, cast in a film that propelled him to stardom, and now the number one actor in the world. He has “a reason to be anywhere, everywhere,” which will help him get close to the suspected thieves, billionaire Ian Santal and his protégé, diplomat Philip Frost. Who else but an actor could use an invitation to see the Queen of England to conduct espionage? Hunter matches wits with the charismatic Frost, who used his role on a decertification team to steal the warheads. Frost is a delightfully evil villain, scheming his way into more power, leaving a trail of bodies and prostitutes. And, bad for Hunter, Frost has the girl, Isabella Cavell. With the warheads arriving in Gibraltar, and the United States unable to locate them, Hunter must seek her help and use a little spy tech to stop Frost. Can he get the girl and save the world before it’s too late? The story looks like a fun romp, but leading man Hunter isn’t up to being the star and may have readers throwing popcorn at the screen … er, book.
Thomas Balázs’ stories are light, airy and easy to read. A girl gets her first menstrual period. A doorknob salesman explores the caves of Juarez. A student tries to blackmail his professor over issues of homosexuality and the professor turns the tables. There are funny moments and the writing is smooth and often clever, but these tales do not delve deep. The title story, for example, is about a young man in a psychiatric hospital who meets Rose, “a mellow sleepy girl, always warm to the touch like a kitten waking from a nap.” Their relationship progresses outside the hospital and it contains the potential for tragedy, or at least deep sadness. But despite occasional suicidal impulses, everything flows smoothly to a happy conclusion that left me unmoved. I was once reminded by writing teacher that “people don’t like to read nice; it puts them to sleep.” Balázs stories are mostly nice: Nothing bad happens to these characters, and it is much to the author’s credit that we remain interested in them, in spite of that. But I couldn’t help feeling that these stories will not stick with me for long. A good diverting read for the beach, refreshingly unpretentious, but nothing to engage one’s deeper feelings.