“Call Me by Your Name”

Last night, I watched “Call Me by Your Name” and found my reaction was surprisingly uneven. I’d love to know what other viewers thought about the film. Please comment! The first issue was the rudeness as displayed by Oliver, arriving and crashing on the bed, skipping dinner on his first night with a new family (and other times), and his overall thoughtless and unlikable behavior. Whether the filmmaker/writer was trying to portray an arrogant American dropped into a sophisticated household or to set up the character’s later change into a more sensitive man, I had trouble feeling any sympathy for Oliver and–other than he looked like a handsome god–couldn’t believe that Elio would fall for him, except in a very plastic way, which didn’t seem to fit Elio’s deep personality. This was a big hurdle to get over, one I never quite managed. The father’s conversations with his son also grated. Why was he whining about never having the same kind of love (as Oliver and Elio) in his life when it seemed that he and his wife were quite close and a great couple? Felt a little like the father-son dialogues were an opportunity to moralize and “tell” us some of the movie’s themes in case we were too dim to figure them out. Give me the depth and complexity of “Brokeback Mountain” any day. While I applaud the subtle and beautiful nature of the film, it needed to begin with the Oliver character less obnoxious so we didn’t have to travel so far to get into the relationship.

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“The New Valley” by Josh Weil

The New Valley is an extremely impressive collection of three novellas, the first two more akin to each other, but the third, “Sarverville Remains,” is one of the best pieces I’ve read this year. Told in the voice of a “diminished” young man, it is brilliantly written, with a plot that circles around until the story is fully told. Maintaining the style of Geoffrey, the story’s narrator, must have been a difficult task but is seamlessly handled by Weil. The first two novellas are also very fine and more classically approached. As reviewed, this author’s style, settings, and moods share similarities with Kent Haruf and Annie Proulx. Highly recommended. Available in paperback.

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“Beautiful Gravity” by Martin Hyatt

Beautiful Gravity: A Novel

by Martin Hyatt

Antibookclub, 2016

 

“They say towns like this don’t exist anymore, but I know that they do because I live here. Noxington is one of those towns where the big stores that sell everything…have yet to be built.” The opening lines of the first chapter lay out a small, hardscrabble Louisiana town where thirty-six-year-old Boz Matthews lives, not completely by choice, but because when he attempts to leave, he feels sick. He is trapped by his anxieties and loneliness, his awareness of his homosexuality, and his feelings of responsibility to his grandfather, who took him in after his mother walked into his family’s burning home and died. As Boz says about himself: “…no matter who I am with or how many people I am around, I never feel like I’m truly with anyone but me.” Boz escapes his claustrophobic existence by watching movies, listening to music, and fantasizing, until his friend Meg, who is chronically suicidal, returns after discharge from a mental hospital. Then, a glamorous, world-worn singer, Catty, arrives with Kyle, an ex-boxer. The four eventually form a fluid nuclear family of sorts, in which each shifts from heterosexuality to homosexuality in a rotation that fulfills unspoken deep needs. Hyatt handles this flexibility with smooth skill, applying an almost post-gay mentality in which his characters exist as themselves rather than as figures with fixed sexualities, a new trend in contemporary literature that should be applauded. Each person is treated with respect and sympathy by the author, an attitude that reflects his own humanity. He has also created a contained physical world for this novel, one more reminiscent of an intimate theater piece, despite the astutely observed backdrop of Noxington. Most action takes place in the diner, where Boz works, and his room above the diner; the tightly enfolding setting seems to amplify the intensity of the relationships.

Although the location is extremely different, there are some similarities between Hyatt’s novel and the work of the South African writer, Damon Galgut, who usually features an outsider, a young man wandering in search of something he can’t define. The characters in Beautiful Gravity have all united in one place, however, but the narrator evinces much of the same quiet, tragic solitariness, the quest for meaning and self-understanding. Throughout, Hyatt’s writing is fresh and accomplished, with numerous memorable lines that sizzle with simple and piercing honesty. Boz provides this telling analysis about himself: “Most of us in towns like this stay put. Besides, it’s the only thing I know how to do well. I am excellent at staying.” And as Meg says to Boz, “Your being alive and my desire for death are the only things that make me happy.” Or, as Boz says about his grandfather: “You can’t just leave someone that takes you at a time when there is nothing about you worth having.”

Beautiful Gravity is a blend of bleak realism and uplifting transcendence, of despondency and hopefulness, told tenderly by the narrator. Because of the outstanding success of this novel, Martin Hyatt’s next work will undoubtedly garner major publishing interest. I look forward to reading it!—Laury A. Egan, author of The Outcast Oracle and, forthcoming, Fabulous! An Opera Buffa

https://www.amazon.com/Beautiful-Gravity-Novel-Martin-Hyatt/dp/0997592303/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503937764&sr=1-1&keywords=beautiful+gravity

 

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Review: I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody by Sinan Antoon

I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody

by Sinan Antoon

City Lights Publishers, 2007

“Pentimento” is a fine descriptor for Sinan Antoon’s layered novella, one that incorporates a young student’s gritty and terrifying incarceration, poetic and beautifully rendered romantic memories, and recollections on life under Saddam Hussein’s harsh totalitarian regime. The text whirls between joy, humor, sadness, horror, and fear; dipping in and out of what the protagonist is experiencing or has experienced; blurring the lines between past, present, reality, dreams, and hallucinations. The evocative first line: “Two clouds kissed silently in the Baghdad sky” soon collides with the line uttered by a member of the secret police: “If you move again, I swear to God I’ll crush your teeth.” This is a rhapsody to the author’s country as it once was, to the proud spirit of the Iraqi people, yet it is also a cry of profound grief, as Antoon has witnessed his nation being trampled by dictators and its riches plundered. The work is powerful and complex, authentic and honest, a devastating warning. –Laury A. Egan

 

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A Swirling, Deftly Written Collection

The Jungle Around Us: Stories by Anne Raeff

2016, University of Georgia Press – Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Stories

These stories are beguiling in their quiet simplicity, but, as one proceeds through the collection, they gather mass, until, at the book’s end, the reader marvels at their accumulative weight. Raeff achieves this, all the while maintaining a light elegance in her prose; she is that rare writer, a humble one, who keeps her head down and hides her power, or attempts to do so, yet her brilliance shines through. She draws her characters with deftness, interconnecting many of them throughout the book, which is why, perhaps, it feels that the author keeps cracking open doors to show a bigger picture than the one within the pages. Indeed, each story seems to contain a novella or a novel within, as if the text had been gently whittled down. Though Raeff is expert at this short length, it would be wonderful to have these stories expanded into longer works.

Due to the interweaving of some characters, the collection eddies in our consciousness, as, one by one, we meet the protagonists and then move on to another set of people, only to return to the original characters again. This swirling effect is increased by their heady dislocation into humid jungles, literally and psychically, and then their escape into the cool, colorless cities of New York or Leningrad. The extreme contrasts inherent in these environments are augmented by the peculiar displacement of the characters and their families—most are of Jewish/Middle-European heritage, who have escaped Nazi Germany. These transplants seem incompatible in their new locations, places such as Bolivia, yet they often find unexpected solace and self-awareness there.

This collection should be read twice in order to draw the strings more tightly between stories with repeated characters and also to experience the nuanced themes more fully–Laury A. Egan, author of Fog and Other Stories and Fabulous! (forthcoming, November)

 

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“After the Parade” by Lori Ostlund

After the Parade

by Lori Ostlund

2015, Scribner/Simon & Schuster

The image of the parade in the book’s title seems profoundly significant, both in terms of the plot’s before and after this event, a demarcation in young Aaron Englund’s history, but it is also an apt symbol for an activity that must be watched from the sidelines. In many ways, Lori Ostlund’s narrator is primarily an observer, less of a participant or instigator in his own life. While this type of outsider, an almost passive character, can create an empty center in a book, in this case, the author encourages us to see Aaron and his world more acutely, to perceive the sensitivities he observes; to forego violent action, fast pace, and superficiality, qualities that have become the norm in much of contemporary fiction. Ostlund’s tale is haunting and subtle like snow falling against a winter white sky, yet there is drama and trauma throughout, pointing up the story and adding depth and poignancy and movement. The writing is fresh, frequently beautiful, with observations that are profound, sometimes wry, usually kind and gentle, reflecting Aaron’s personality: “He had always liked sleeping in cars, waking up in a different place. It was the closest he came to understanding the passage of time.” Or: “Once people thought they knew you, it was almost impossible to change yourself.” This is a character who notices that an old woman “on many nights…watched for him from her kitchen window and then hurried out with a jar she could not open.” This a man who cares about others, even strangers.

Although Aaron is gay, this is not a gay novel any more than a story about a straight narrator is a heterosexual work; instead, this is a human book, a unselfconsciously wrought bridge between the two orientations, constructed by the author with the assumption that we all live on an interconnected continuum, even if some us—like Aaron—feel a little lost and unmoored.

We need more books like After the Parade, which eschew labels and boundaries; books written for everyone rather than for a specific, narrow readership; books that challenge us to perceive more deeply, with greater depth. Aaron’s road to understanding himself, his history and relationships, is a multi-layered, complex story, yet one that is tightly woven, a moving parade worthy of applause.—Laury A. Egan, author of The Outcast Oracle

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Featured: Susan Gabriel, author of The Secret Sense of Wildflower
As part of the Authors’ Virtual Tour, I am delighted to showcase Susan Gabriel, whose book, The Secret Sense of Wildflower, I read with pleasure. The book has earned notable recognition, most importantly from Kirkus Reviews, where it received a starred review and inclusion in their prestigious “Best Books of 2012.”

“A quietly powerful story, at times harrowing but ultimately a joy to read…Astute observations and wonderfully turned phrases, with nary a cliché to be found. She could be an adolescent Scout Finch…A quietly powerful story, at times harrowing but ultimately a joy to read.”—Kirkus Reviews

“…An eloquent and moving tale chock-filled with themes of inner strength, family and love that will resonate with teenagers and adults alike.”—Maya Fleischmann, IndieReader.com

The Secret Sense of Wildflower is southern historical fiction. It is about a girl coming-of-age who faces danger, death, and new life in 1940s Appalachia, whose life has been shaped around the recent death of her beloved father in a sawmill accident. While her mother hardens in her grief, Wildflower and her three sisters must cope with their loss themselves, as well as with the demands of daily survival. When Johnny Monroe, the town’s teenage ne’er-do-well, sets his sights on Wildflower, she must draw on the strength of her relations, both living and dead, to deal with his threat.

Ultimately, it is a story about courage, about honoring your “secret sense” and about resilience.

Susan writes about the inspiration for the book:

“Thirteen years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and heard a voice say: There are two things I’m afraid of. One is dying young. The other is Johnny Monroe. Does mental illness run in my family? Did this voice come from a dream? Was it a product of a writer’s imagination? Had one of my dead relatives come home with me after a recent visit to the family cemetery? Who knows. But any fiction writer will tell you that if you can get the “voice” of the main character in your book, it is a gift. So I followed that voice. I got up at four in the morning and began to write the story of Louisa May “Wildflower” McAllister.”

About Susan Gabriel:

Over a decade ago, Susan Gabriel gave up her successful psychotherapy practice in Charleston, South Carolina, to simplify her life and pursue writing. She writes with passion, humor, and insight about Southerners, as well as a wide variety of other ordinary, odd, and interesting characters, young and old. She lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Website (and for autographed copies): http://www.susangabriel.com

S. Gabriel portraitWILDFLOWER_FA-196x300
Buy the book (paperback and eBook formats):
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
ibooks/itunes
Google Play
Audible

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