Magazine Review: Haute Dish Spring 2016

Magazine Review: Haute Dish Spring 2016 edited by Debby Dathe

This pun-titled periodical is the thrice-yearly organ of Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  It features the artistic (mostly photography) and literary talents of the students there.  This issue is thin compared to most college literary magazines I’ve seen, and the written contributions short–the longest doesn’t quite make four pages.

Haute Dish Spring 2016

Of the photographs, the one I enjoyed most is Debby Dathe’s “Apprehension”, showing a steep wooded staircase from a kitten’s point of view.  Another good one is “Tulip” by Jeremiah Grafsgaard, a dew-sprinkled tulip blossom about to open; this is placed directly opposite the prose piece “Iselder” by Alyssa Kuglin, which is about recovering from trauma and has tulip imagery.  The juxtaposition of these two pieces is easily the best editorial decision in the issue.

“The Student Body” by Debby Dathe (again!) struck a nerve with its tale of being chosen last in gym class.  But my favorite of the prose pieces was “Evidence” by Gina Nelson, about a person being coached through how to make a screenshot,,,for disturbing reasons.  There’s some poetry too, none of which stood out for me.

This magazine will be of most interest to students and alumni of MSU, and perhaps their family.  But collectors who take the long view might consider these sorts of things as investments should one of the authors represented hit the big time so that their early student work becomes valuable.

Book Review: The Transplanted

Book Review: The Transplanted by John Bodnar

This volume, written in the 1980s, is a survey of patterns of immigration into urban areas of the United States between 1830-1930 (approximately.)    It covers those who came to stay, those who just came to get a nest egg to improve life in their home country, and those who intended to go back but just never got around to it.  Mr. Bodnar was and still is a professor of history at Indiana University.

The Transplanted

The general theme of this book seems to be “it’s complicated.”  The immigrant experience was not uniform, with their reactions and outcomes varying considerably depending on their initial motivations for emigration, the areas they came from, their initial social class and starting capital, and what part of America they ended up in.  Trying to fit the immigrants into a single narrative that fits a particular philosophy doesn’t really work, according to Professor Bodnar.

It’s pretty dry stuff, starting with a chapter on the countries immigrants came from and focusing on when various regions had their largest numbers go.  This isn’t a book for the casual reader.

The most interesting chapter for me was on religion and how their faiths both influenced how immigrants adapted to American life, and were forced to adapt themselves.  Often there were clashes between those who felt they were (ethnicity) first, (religion) second, and those (especially religious leaders) who felt the reverse.  One example was Slovak immigrants who were suspicious of their priests and ministers who preached in favor of Hungarian rule of the homeland.  (It was later confirmed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire did indeed pay off religious leaders to spout pro-Hungarian propaganda in the U.S.)

Another conflict that often came up was between the urge to embrace Americanization and blend into their new society, and the fear of losing the unique cultural elements of their homeland or religious beliefs.  This often led to a preference for parochial or ethnicity-based schools rather than putting children into the public school system.

There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index, as well as a handful of black-and-white pictures.

Again, this isn’t a book for the casual reader, but is best suited for college students and up who are doing serious research on the subject of immigration.  For most people, I’d recommend one of the many fine memoirs of immigrant families available at your local library.

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 Introduction by Lizzy Attree

The Caine Prize is awarded to a short story written by an African author (which primarily means one born in Africa–all the authors in this volume are from Sub-Saharan Africa), published in English in the last five years and submitted for consideration.  This volume contains the five stories that were shortlisted for the prize in 2013, plus twelve more written at a workshop sponsored by the Caine Prize.

A Memory This Size

The collection leads off with the 2013 winner, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin.  A group of Nigerian immigrants attend a tent revival in Texas.  A great faith healer is scheduled to appear, but will there be a miracle tonight, and what form will it take?  I found this to be rather a blah story, but I am not one of the judges for the contest and don’t know what criteria they based the decision on.  Nigerians dominate this volume, with four of the five shortlisted stories and several of the workshop ones as well.

Three of the five shortlisted stories have a heavy Africa-America connection, to the point that Chinelo Okparanta’s story is actually titled “America.”  A schoolteacher who wishes to join her lover there uses the Gulf oil spill as a wedge to try to convince the immigration people to give her a green card.   There’s an interesting ending in which the protagonist remembers hearing a folktale similar to ‘Jack the Giant-Killer” except that it stops short of the “ever after” with no explanation of what happens past a certain point.

The title story, “A Memory This Size” by Elnathan John concerns a man mourning for his brother, who died years ago, and yet he cannot let go.

There are common themes in these stories, most of which are “slice of life” tales:  government corruption, marital infidelity and environmental destruction.

There are a couple of stories that move into the “magical realism” camp (that is, fantasy, but not called that so critics can treat it as actual literature.)  The better one is “Howl” by Rotimi Babatunde, about a dog named Jack who may or may not have the extraordinary powers the villagers think, but is certainly not a normal dog.  “Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile” by Stanley Onjezani Kenani, however, has the best title in this volume.  That story is about a fishing village threatened by oil developers, and the sacrifice one man makes to save their way of life.

I also enjoyed “Stuck” by Davina Kawuma, told in a series of emails by a young woman who is tempted to have an affair.  One final email changes everything.

My least favorite story was “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist.  This tale of a man who returns to Sierra Leone after many years in America, thinking he will be a big man thanks to his money, was too predictable and made me cringe rather than care.

That said, I am glad I took the chance to read this book and learn what some African writers are doing.  There are thirteen volumes of Caine Prize stories published; check your inter-library loan system for any one of them.

I should also mention that there is some disturbing subject matter, and would best suited for college age and up.

Book Review: The Land of Dreams

Book Review: The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

Lance Hansen has not dreamed in seven years.   A divorced Forest Service police officer on the North Shore of Lake Superior, most of his days are spent chasing illegal fishing and people camping in the wrong places.  He thinks that the latter will be his main problem one June day, but when he investigates the crime scene, one camper is covered in blood, and the other horribly murdered.

The Land of Dreams

This is the first book in Norwegian crime writer Vidar Sundstøl’s “Minnesota Trilogy”, translated by Tiina Nunnally.   I should warn you right away that this is a true trilogy, and most of the mysteries introduced in this volume are not fully resolved in it.

Lance is a history buff, expert in the Cook County area’s people and events–he realizes this is the first murder within living memory in the area, and this allows the author to use the background material he gathered while himself living on the North Shore.   During a check of his archives, Lance realizes that a disappearance a century ago might be connected to an  old family story he had not realized must have taken place at the same time.

The current murder investigation is out of Lance Hansen’s hands, however.  Since it took place on federal land, the FBI has been called in, as well as a guest detective from Norway, Eirik Nyland.  The investigators soon learn that the Norwegian tourists were lovers, but is their homosexuality a motive for murder, or just a complication to the investigation?  (This book was written before Minnesota legalized gay marriage.)

While many details of life on the North Shore ring true, and the translation works well (absent one or two word choices I would have done differently), it is really obvious that the book was written for a Scandinavian audience, as there’s a lengthy passage dedicated to explaining just where Lake Superior actually is.

The Norwegian immigrant experience and Ojibwe/Chippewa /Ashinabe lore are woven into the story’s fabric, important to Lance’s storyline if nothing else.

This book has a leisurely pace, and more impatient readers may want to give it a miss as it ambles from scene to scene and the characters spend a lot of time looking at Lake Superior and thinking.  There may be some supernatural events, or Lance may simply be hallucinating–that’s one of the mysteries that is not resolved here.

The ending is disturbing to me in a way few books are, and I am very interested in finding out what happens.

Recommended to fans of Nordic crime stories, and residents of Minnesota.

Book Review: Jewish Noir

Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia

Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people.  So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes.  (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)

Jewish Noir

The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner.   A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan.  The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed.  The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.

Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not.  “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English.  It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged.  Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.

As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust.  “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer.  But the crocodile gets greedy.

There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories.  Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors.  Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.

“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories.  A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.

The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch.  (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.)  No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.

It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.

Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.

 

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 18: All We Cannot Alter

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 18: All We Cannot Alter edited by Mary François Rockcastle.

This is the latest volume of Hamline University’s annual literary magazine, which I picked up at the Rain Taxi Book Festival.  The subtitle comes from one of the poems in this issue, “Is This What Poets Do?” by Elizabeth Oness.  Thus the theme is effectively what cannot be changed, and what people do about that.

Water~Stone Review #18

The poetry is all that modern stuff I don’t understand and thus cannot evaluate the quality of.  One might well ask why I keep reading literary magazines, as they inevitably go heavy on the modern poetry.  I don’t have a good answer for that.   “Suckling” by Jenna Le does have some interesting pink milk imagery, and “SS Eastland Capsizes in the Chicago River, 1914″ by Renny Golden tells a fairly coherent story.  “Frank’s Nursery and Crafts” by Bao Phi is a tale of bad customer service possibly exacerbated by racial prejudice, and would have worked about as well in prose as far as I can tell.

The interview by Katrina Vandenberg and Taylor (Doc) Burkhard is also about poetry, as the subject is Detroit wordsmith and slam artist Jamaal May.  He talks about how he structured his first book.

From the fiction section, worth noting is “Duotone Portrait of a Dragonfly” by R.T. Jamison.  It’s the story of a brief affair between a Japanese art student and an American otaku (fan of Japanese pop culture), interspersed with marks used in traditional print-making.  “As You Are Now” by Jeff P. Jones is a story set during a zombie apocalypse from the point of view of a zombie that has lost the ability to interpret its senses.  It’s only able to feel alive again when it is eating the living, but that soon passes.

The best of the “creative non-fiction” category is Paul van Dyke’s “Goomey and Aflow”.  An Iraq War veteran and a Somali refugee bond over their experiences as soldiers and names that are unpleasant enough no one will bother to insult you further.  They may be beaten down, but not permanently.  “The Café Book” by Charisse Coleman imitates the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon with lists and random thoughts.

The photography section is random and nothing particularly stands out.  There’s also a longish essay on “Mood Rooms” which is apparently cut down from an even longer piece.  It’s so-so.

There are two book review columns, one of which is all modern poetry books and largely impenetrable to me.  The other one is supposedly about books of essays, but half of the books discussed are actually more modern poetry, which I think is a cheat.

This volume is a good way to get a broad view of what the Midwestern literary community is up to, and if you are into modern poetry, I think you will enjoy it much more than I did.  I should also note that the 2016 volume is accepting submissions through December; aspiring writers might want to give it a shot.

 

Book Review: Herblock’s Here and Now

Book Review: Herblock’s Here and Now by Herbert Block

Shortly after reviewing Herblock at Large, I discovered this volume in the local used book store.  It was published in 1955, and contains many of Mr. Block’s political cartoons from the early 1950s.

Herblock's Here and Now

This included his Pulitzer-winning Joseph McCarthy work; Herblock appears to have actually coined the word “McCarthyism” for the witch hunt-like anti-Communist grandstanding so popular at the time.  Mr. Block was pleased to be able to speak of the senator’s career in the past tense.

There is quite a bit more prose here than in the 1980s volume, helpful as I am less familiar with the period.  Some prominent figures who feature in multiple cartoons are lost in the mists of history now, remembered perhaps only by their hometowns.   President Eisenhower comes in for quite a bit of ribbing, but his treatment is gentle compared to that of Vice President Nixon, who is depicted as crawling out of a sewer.

The John Q. Public figure is seen quite frequently in these Fifties cartoons, a short, bespectacled fellow who is much put upon.  He seems to have vanished by the 1980s, replaced by more varied civilians.   Also a frequent visitor to the editorial page is Atomic War, a stylized atomic bomb wearing the helmet of Ares.  He’s usually grinning menacingly, always ready to threaten.

Of resonance to today’s situation are the cartoons on the refugee crisis, thousands still displaced after World War Two, and the U.S. only allowing in a trickle–and under great suspicion at that.

Copyright 1955 by Herbert Block.
Copyright 1955 by Herbert Block.

The Soviet Union was considered a huge threat, and so was covered in detail as well–but Herblock reminds us that he has no inside information, so his depictions may be highly misleading as to what was actually going on inside the U.S.S.R.  There’s also some commentary on the U.S. habit of  supporting dictators and other unpleasant people in the name of containing Communism–this would come home to roost many times in the coming decades.

There’s surprisingly little on the civil rights struggle, only mentioned as part of a broader concern for American’s freedoms under the Constitution.

This one will probably be a bit harder to find, but highly recommended for fans of editorial cartooning, and those wanting a window into the early 1950s.

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind edited by Franklin Foer

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes will be made in the final edition.  (Specifically, a second introduction by Leon Wieseltier–an index may also be forthcoming.)

Insurrections of the Mind

The New Republic magazine has its centenary anniversary this year, so a collected volume of some of the many interesting articles that ran in the magazine is an expected celebration.  For many years, the New Republic (so named because there was already a Republic magazine at the time) has been the home of many of the leading voices of liberal political philosophy.  But in addition to politics, it covers art and cultural events as well.

After an introduction which explains the history of the magazine, its ups and downs (Stephen Glass is cited as a mistake, and his writing is not represented), the remainder of the book is essays grouped by decade.  From “The Duty of Harsh Criticism” by Rebecca West to “The Idea of Ideas” by Leon Wieseltier, this book is jam-packed with thought-provoking work.

I especially liked the afore-mentioned Rebecca West piece (I am a reviewer, after all), “Progress and Poverty” by Edmund Wilson, which contrasts the opening of the Empire State Building with a ruined man’s suicide,”Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, in which you can see some of the ideas that went into 1984, and”Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” by Andrew Sullivan, which is what it sounds like.

Not every writer represented here saw the future clearly–some of them guessed very wrong about the issues and people they wrote about.  But all of them are worth at least checking out.

“But Scott,” you say, “I am not a liberal.  What is there for me in such a book?”  I recommend the essays “The Corruption of Liberalism” by Lewis Mumford, “The Liberal’s Dilemma” by Daniel P. Moynihan and “The Great Carter Mystery” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  Liberals are not above raking each other over the coals, after all.

The book is due on shelves by the end of September 2014.  i recommend it to former readers of the New Republic (current readers should already be aware of it), 20th Century history students, the politically-minded, and those who enjoy a good essay.

TV Review: The Man Behind the Badge

TV Review: The Man Behind the Badge

It’s back to the big box set of old TV shows with this anthology series that ran 1953-55, with Charles Bickford as the host.  This one is interesting because it didn’t concentrate on one law enforcement agency or type of crime, instead featuring public servants of all kinds.

The Man Behind the Badge

The stories are based on actual events, with all names except that of the civil servant himself changed to protect the innocent.  My DVD had six episodes:

  • “The Case of the Dying Past”  A district attorney for a small city in Vermont receives anonymous complaints that a harness shop owner is engaging in loan sharking.   When he investigates, the shop owner engages in a rant about how people these days don’t appreciate hard work and craftsmanship, like this here horsewhip.  They’re lazy whiners who want handouts.  Not that he’s admitting to the loan sharking.  Before the DA can find enough evidence to move ahead, the loan shark is murdered and the DA must solve the crime.  Notable for the first suspect telling what appears to be a cock and bull story, but is actually true.
  • “The Case of the Priceless Passport”  Foreign nationals have been entering the United States with really good fake American passports.  Two men from the immigration service go undercover in Mexico to track down the forgers.  Some tense scenes in an abandoned warehouse, and particularly good performances by the villains’ actors.   An interesting time capsule from when Mexicans weren’t the people we were worried about coming in from Mexico.
  • “The Case of the Capital Crime”  Security guards at a department store in Washington, D.C. are murdered during a robbery.  The police detective assigned to the case is able to determine the killer must have worked at the store within the last six months and be over six feet tall.   That narrows the list of suspects considerably, but actually catching the killer is another matter.  The case is resolved when an act of kindness by the detective has an unexpected dividend.
  • “The Case of the Hot Stock”  A man from the Bureau of Securities based in Lincoln, Nebraska, tracks down a conman who selling fake oil well ownership certificates.  This one was very painful to watch, as most of the episode was dedicated to the conman romancing a lonely spinster to take her money.  The government man is finally moved to crush her romantic dreams by the most direct demonstration of the criminal’s perfidy he can manage.
  • “The Case of the Hunted Hobo”  Young couples are being robbed on Chicago’s Lover’s Lane.  After one victim gives a important clue to where the robber hides, a police officer goes undercover as a hobo to track him down.  Aaron Spelling(!) has a bit part as a Lover’s Lane Romeo.
  • “The Case of Operation Sabotage”  A B-47 Aircraft Commander at a base near Riverside, California notices some odd behavior on the part of one of his crew’s wife.  As there’s a big training mission coming up, tensions are heightened, and he’s not sure if there’s really something going on or if she’s naturally curious.  The episode touches a bit on the strain military secrecy can cause in a marriage, and there’s a huge twist at the end.

Some nice writing and the variety of public servants profiled make this an interesting find.  Some episodes are online.

Comic Book Review: The Shadow Hero

Comic Book Review: The Shadow Hero Story by Gene Luen Yang, Art by Sonny Liew

It is the 1930s, and Hank Chu lives in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Incendio.  He wants a simple, quiet life, working with his father in the family grocery store.  Hank’s mother, on the other hand, has bigger plans.  She’s learned about this new phenomenon called “superheroes” and sees no reason why a Chinese-American kid couldn’t be one.  Specifically Hank.

The Shadow Hero

Despite Hank’s reluctance, his mother drags him into a quest to become a costumed superhero, the Golden Man of Bravery.  It doesn’t work out that well.  But in the wake of tragedy, Hank discovers that he has an amazing legacy after all,  and a new purpose in life.  It’s possible that the Green Turtle may be able to do some good after all.

This book came about because Gene Luen Yang, creator of Boxers & Saints, learned about an obscure Golden Age comic book character named the Green Turtle.  An artist named Chu Hing created him as a feature for Blazing Comics.  The short-lived series had a number of peculiarities to it.  Although the Green Turtle operated in China against the Japanese invaders, and had Chinese elements to his costume, it was implied he wasn’t from China.  His face was never fully seen, either turned away from the reader, or covered by something.  And the Green Turtle kept promising to reveal how he became a costumed hero, but was always interrupted.

This created suspicion among comics scholars that Chu Hing intended for the Green Turtle to be of Chinese ancestry, but was not allowed to make this overt by his company’s editorial policy.  Sadly, Chu Hing died in obscurity long before anyone thought to ask.

So, in a feat worthy of Roy Thomas, Gene Luen Yang decided to take the fragments of information available, and weave them into a tale of America’s first Chinese-American superhero.

A great deal of humor and sadness is woven into the action.  A major theme of the story is that appearances can be deceptive.  Hank’s father is not a coward,  Red Center is not a helpless maiden, Ten Grand is not a vaudeville version of Fu Manchu, and a naked face can be the best mask of all.  Hank’s mother moves the early part of the story with her tendency to judge by appearances, and her yearning for more than the disappointments her life has offered.

Hank himself must learn how to be a hero; powers and martial arts training help, and so does motivation, but in the end he must choose wisely and justly to be a true hero.

Racism, both overt and unintentional, is a recurring problem in the setting.  Even Green Turtle’s police contact, Detective Lawful, is not as free of prejudice as he’d like to be.  There’s also some crude sexual references, so parents may want to screen the book before allowing readers below junior high or so to read it  Certainly they will want to talk to their children about inappropriate language and behavior modeled by some of the characters.

That said, this is a worthy addition to the ranks of still rare Asian-American superheroic fiction.  I highly recommend it to comics fans looking for something a little different.

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