Have Words–Will Write 'Em

On Books, Writers, Most Things Written, Including My Light Verse.

Archive for September, 2011

I Review “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin”

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There’s unbeloved Arlen Specter: “kindly as a rent collector”; Mitt Romney: “quick to shed his moderate regalia,” may be “lacking genitalia”; and John Boehner: “Others in the party are insaner.”

Trillin’s the Garrison Keillor of New York City,
Often urbane, charming, and witty.
He’ll make you giggle in a hurry
But the feller’s really just from Missouri.

You can read my September 11 Star Tribune review by clicking the image below.

You can buy Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin at Barnes & Noble.

Written by Joe Peschel

September 11th, 2011 at 11:00 am

More on Robert Bausch’s “In the Fall They Come Back”

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Robert Bausch is an award-winning writer who’s written and traditionally published seven books. His newest novel, In the Fall They Come Back, is as good as the best novels I’ve reviewed or just read in quite a while, and that includes a couple of major prize winners.

Photo by Tim Bausch

Based on a true story, In the Fall They Come Back is Ben Jameson’s narrative, a sort of fictive memoir, of his time teaching at Glenn Acres, a small private prep school in Virginia. It’s a quiet story about a teacher’s relationship with his students. There’s Leslie, beautiful and dangerous, a femme fatale everyone warns Ben about; Suzanne, who is mysteriously damaged and mute; and George, who’s physically beaten at home and bullied by the kids at school. Ben fights with and placates abusive parents, bucks the school system, and soon faces sexual misconduct charges.

Ben tells his story with the benefit that a few years of contemplation and wisdom provide. He’s in law school as he recounts those two years of not just teaching, but “about caring a little too much; or maybe about not caring enough” about his disparate and desperate teenage students. It’s his benevolence for his students that undoes Ben and ultimately destroys one of the three students he attempts to save. Bausch does a masterful job as storyteller seamlessly moving from the mid- to late-1980s, in this wise and profoundly heartrending novel.

It’s 1985 when Ben, who’s recently finished graduate school, takes a job teaching English at Glenn Acres. He has no intention of being a professional teacher; instead he’s taken the job with the idea of eventually going to law school, but he’s happy to get the job. Ben has his 120-130 students write business letters, book reports, and personal narratives. Mrs. Creighton, the head mistress, also requires that Ben’s students keep daily journals and fold over the pages that no one will read. The catch: Ben must read everything on the folded pages. To satisfy Mrs. Creighton, Ben agrees to tell the white lie to his students. For a while, he goes through the motions of being a decent teacher. But soon, he aspires to be better than the sort of mediocre teacher he encountered when he was in school and considers making teaching his life-long work. He adopts a mentor, Professor Bible, but eventually, Ben goes far outside the bounds of Bible’s advice. He finds himself becoming more involved in the lives of his students and near assaulted by an angry parent. His girlfriend Annie says he has a “Christ Complex”: trying to fix everything and solve the problems of his students.

Bausch depicts Ben not only as wonderful but flawed teacher, but as an amazing human being. Bausch’s novel is steeped in realism—you won’t find any post-modernist techniques here, only subtle artistry from a brilliant writer who so cares about his characters that he depicts them, especially the students, succinctly, vividly and often poetically. Leslie is not just beautiful: Bausch writes about “her fine hair almost the color of a daisy’s eye, swaying in the fall breezes.” Suzanne is not just plain-looking and shy, but has “stringy hair that hung in front of her like a bright red waterfall, and she never took her eyes off the floor in front of her.” Bausch is a marvelous artist and storyteller as proven in his first novel On the Way Home (1982), and again in A Hole in the Earth (2000) and Out of Season (2005). In the Fall They Come Back,  an indie-published book, is destined to be considered among his best work.

You can buy In the Fall They Come Back at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

This is a longer version of my August 28 review in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

–Joe Peschel

Written by Joe Peschel

September 7th, 2011 at 9:44 am

I Review Hisham Matar’s “Anatomy of a Disappearance”

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Raised early on in Libya and Egypt, novelist Hisham Matar is an American-born Libyan writer who now lives in London. In 1979, Matar’s father was kidnapped and imprisoned by the Gadhafi regime and hasn’t been seen since. Matar’s first novel, In the Country of Men, (2006) dealt with a nine-year old child’s perspective on atrocities committed by the Libyan government: kidnappings, torture, public executions. The book, semi-autobiographical, was short-listed for the Mann Booker prize and was a fiction finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle’s award.

Matar’s second and newest novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, also parallels the author’s life; it speaks, again, of loss and longing in a story that is at once poetic and mysterious.

Nuri el Alfi (age fourteen through his mid-twenties) narrates this tale of his father’s disappearance at the hands of a tyrannical unnamed Arab regime. Father, Kamal Pasha el-Alfi, was a former minister in the overthrown government and the executed king’s closest advisor. The current regime sees him as a “backward traitor, ” though he’s “done nothing but call for the freedom of his people.”

It’s 1972, around the Christmas holidays. Nuri and his twenty-eight-year-old paramour of a stepmother, Mona, are in a restaurant in Montreux, Switzerland, when she reads the news that Nuri’s father has been abducted in Geneva. Soon, Mona, young Nuri, the family lawyer Hass, and the police begin a search for Father. The search is fruitless, but Nuri tries to remain hopeful, even while he’s away in boarding school.

Nuri was raised primarily by the maid Naima, who loves him like a son. Nuri returns that love. His love for Father is more complicated. He not only loves Father, a confident and elegant man who followed his own law, he wants to be him. His need for his father is intense: Nuri’s whole capacity for hope and longing are directed at his missing father.  Sometimes, though, Nuri isn’t occupied by discovering what happened to Father; he’s obsessed by the physical need to be near him. He imagines detecting a whiff of Father from the man’s watch; he smells Father’s “musky warm skin, ” ) though the man is absent. Nuri’s sexual relationship with Mona complicates but doesn’t diminish his love for Father.

Culpability, failure, and regret consume Nuri. “I felt guilty too, as I continue to feel today, at having lost him, at not knowing how to find him or take his place. Every day I let my father down.”

Later, at twenty-four and out of graduate school, Nuri tries again to track down Father. He pursues old leads, tracks down Hass, witnesses, and household servants, especially Naima. Some of those leads reveal an astonishing view of Father’s private life; others manifest insights into Nuri’s own. A heartfelt mystery of a novel, trenchant and poetic at just the right times, Anatomy is a topical and excellent follow-up to In the Country of Men.

You can buy Anatomy of a Disappearance at Barnes & Noble.

Written by Joe Peschel

September 1st, 2011 at 9:37 am