Book Reviews: December 2012
On the Planet without Visa: Selected Poetry and Other Writings 1960–2012, Poetry by Sotère Torregian
Balance of Fragile Things, Fiction by Olivia Chadha
Harvitz, As to War: A Novel, Fiction by Ben Nadler
Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Fiction by Nayomi Munaweera
On the Planet without Visa: Selected Poetry and Other Writings 1960–2012
Poetry by Sotère Torregian
Coffee House Press, 2012
Reviewed by Vincent F.A. Golphin, Ph.D.
Sotère Torregian, the name and his works, might be unfamiliar to many poetry lovers, but Coffee House Press fills in much of what is not known with On the Planet without Visa: Selected Poetry and Other Writings 1960–2012. The writer who emerged through the second New York School of Poetry has been around a long time, a fact at which he marvels in his own “note” to the reader. Yet in this volume readers also see the publisher’s mission to push literature as a “vital art.” The self-described French Surrealist poet’s wordplay has an eclecticism that plays well in the 21st century.
His “Cada Dia Para Mi Campanero Ernesto Cardenal,” opens “Each morning at first light I wait amanecer /I wait for the words / (in French, Les Mots, in Spanish, Las Palabras, Arabic الكلمات/” The author drops French, Latin, and Arabic into his works written in English, along with sometimes cryptic references (several poems have footnotes), as if he were in a conversation with the reader. “I wait for the words to come / I know I am but the door for/ this entry or re-entry into the world / But without them I remain barren / I am like the prophet Jeremias / cast into the pit.”
On the Planet reminds readers that poets and their craft do not fade as easily as the movements into which they are divided. The poems are proof that experiments with words and image are like a journey in exile—without end.
Chadha picks, with the calculated tenacity of an archaeologist, at the social, economic, religious and geographical components of modern-day American life in her well-constructed debut novel, Balance of Fragile Things. By setting the events in an imagined upstate New York village, she allows her story to pay homage to the writers of the earliest American narratives that reflected the birth of the nation—Hawthorne, Thoreau, Hutchinson—yet her perspicacity reveals an America which would at present be unrecognizable by those pioneers. Chadha allows each of her characters’ perspectives to develop the setting, which is a character in its own right.
The geographical troubles of Cobalt, NY affect the Singh family’s life in various ways. The catalyst is a sinkhole which has appeared outside the gas station owned by patriarch Paul Singh. The road is closed and his business suffers. However, Paul refuses to accept economic defeat. He embarks on a clandestine search to understand the geographical makeup of Cobalt, yet his findings fail to provide complete answers. This occurs in concert with the ambition of his oldest child, Vic, to catalog indigenous butterflies. His observations of the natural world lead him literally and figuratively beneath the surface of his town. His discoveries there support his father’s research, although their inability to communicate provides a necessary tension to arise from the strained dynamic of their relationship. Paul’s Punjabi heritage clashes with American born Vic’s emerging sense of identity, blurring the traditional boundaries of father-son roles established by these two opposing cultures.
The mother-daughter relationship is also explored through the lens of Old World tradition—Maija is Latvian born, while Isabella is first generation American—juxtaposed with modern American culture. Chadha exploits the sense of sight and seeing in many ways to develop the plot. Not only do Maija and Isabella share the gift of seeing deeper into reality than most people, Vic and Paul’s exploration of the sinkholes and hidden underground caves show that individuals must be willing to stretch beyond their physical limitations to gain a deeper understanding of place. To further the examination of clashing cultures, the Singh family’s religion, Sikh, has physical traditions that clearly set them apart from Cobalt. Vic’s patka, or turban, makes him an easy target for bullies. And Paul’s adherence to religious laws that forbid cutting his hair and always wearing a larger turban, a pagri, incite rumors regarding their allegiances among members of the community when Paul’s tacit search for answers is discovered and threatened. The story is developed through eloquent prose and original, vivid details that leave the reader with a clear portrait of each character’s internal and external design. Like the earth itself, the layers of the narrative may seem simple and insignificant at first, but the chapters coalesce into a complete novel that is greater than the sum of its parts. The introduction of Paul’s father, Papaji (from India), and Majia’s mother, Oma (from Detroit, but originally from Latvia, which was decimated during World War II), add to the generational spectrum against which Vic and Isabella probe for meaning. Each character’s personal exploration of self reveals something about another member of the family. As they unknowingly answer one another’s questions, a greater picture of the community emerges, leaving readers with an unexpected, yet believable, revelation about life in America.
Harvitz, As To War follows young Sammy Harvitz through a series of self-initiations as he attempts to find his place in his family, in society, and most importantly, within himself.
In his first novel, writer Ben Nadler takes us along to watch as Sammy, a typical middle-class teen in New Jersey, avoids conflict with his father, numbs himself after the somewhat unexpected death of his mother, and navigates his way into his local punk community and the U.S. military, a surprising shift from his Jewish upbringing toward Christianity.
Nadler writes in such a way that the reader can sense an intolerable frustration under the surface of the story that leaves one wanting to help coax young Harvitz away from danger and into a reliable, loving community.
And seek a reliable, loving community, Sammy does.
Harvitz, ultimately, is the story of being lost and the lengths often journeyed to in order to escape loneliness, of coming face to face with one’s own sense of identity. It is also the story of coming of age in a time of war, set with the backdrop of the U.S. war against Iraq and its presence in the consciousness of youth during those first years of conflict. Instead of a story about fighting a battle on foreign soil with foreign enemies, however, the biggest battle in this story is the one that young Sammy struggles with internally.
Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors reads as part historical fiction, part magic realism, and part story of human tragedy and resilience. This tale of the twenty-five-year Sri Lankan civil war is relayed through the eyes of two women on opposing sides of the conflict; one from the Sinhalese majority and the other a minority Tamil. The novel has recently been long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize.
Unlike the darkness and dread common in most stories of war, Munaweera’s story incites a rich sense of childhood innocence and nostalgia while following the girls through their lives. The gorgeous prose used to describe secret hiding places, mango trees bursting with ripe fruit and the tender heartache of first love feels like walking through a lucid dream. The warm salt air drifting across the land from the Indian Ocean, aunties stirring chilies and lime into coconut milk, the sweat beads forming on flesh—it is delivered in a sensuousness so rich it can all be tasted with every turn of the page. Even the scenes of horror—and there are relatively few—are written in such a poetic voice that instead of closing the cover and walking away, the reader wants to dive deeper in discovering what other horrible beauty lies ahead for the young women of Sri Lanka.
And horrible beauty they do face: loss of friendship, lovers, family members, and, for one, even the loss of her homeland when her family flees for America.
Through every step along these separate, yet parallel journeys, Munaweera’s writing spins and weaves its way into the heart of a country torn in two, the personal, identity-bending experience of the immigrant experience and the human spirit as a champion over loss and decades of violence and bloodshed. Island of a Thousand Mirrors is gripping, astonishing and utterly gorgeous.