Index of Book Reviews Issues 1-50
Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk
by Tony DuShane
Soft Skull Press,
New York, 2010
What is it like to grow up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses? Tony DuShane came from just such a family so he knows exactly of what he speaks. And the answer would seem to be: about as hellish as what you would imagine it to be. Not that DuShane is being judgmental, he simply presents the facts as seen through the eyes of his teenage protagonist, Gabe, who, along with his small circle of Jehovah’s Witness teen friends, must spend much of his free time knocking on doors and ‘witnessing’ while trying to push the Watchtower into the hands of unreceptive residents. Easy to imagine his fear of knocking on a door where one of his classmates lives, especially if it’s a cute girl. Bad enough that he has to wear straight, nerdy clothing.
And then there is the matter of what they preach: that Armageddon is due to happen any day now and only Jehovah’s Witnesses will be spared. Gabe is smart in school and thinks about university, but that is frowned upon. An education is a waste of time, so is doing homework. What’s the point, his mother says, when Armageddon will be here before Gabe gets out of high school. Better to just do the work of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Which, by the way, does not allow women in top positions.
Gabe is not permitted to sit in on sex education class in school, which is bad enough, but long before sex even enters the picture, the most innocent social behavior has its repercussions. In junior high, Gabe has a crush on a fellow Jehovah’s Witness, Jasmine, who is already in high school. Since she seems out of reach (though he will pursue her again later), he turns his attention to her younger sister Camille who has the attraction of fancying him. One day he slips her a note: “Will you go steady with me?” Despite her feelings, Camille turns the note over to her parents who notify Gabe’s parents who nail him when he gets home. There is to be no dating until age 18 as it could “lead to fornication” and one could be kicked out of the congregation and “disfellowshipped.” This latter is very serious. If it occurs, no one who is a Jehovah’s Witness can speak to the excommunicated person unless they want to be disfellowshipped, too. To be reinstated into the congregation, it takes one year of going to three meetings a week, not talking to any of one’s friends “who ignore you anyway,” and writing a letter to the congregation stating how you’ve changed your ways.
It’s a rigid life, but DuShane imbues the narrative with much good humor. In a sad, albeit funny, exchange, Gabe once overhears a phone call to his dad, an elder in the church. The man calling confesses to Gabe’s dad that he has committed “sodomy” with his wife, a major sin. It turns out that this man had accidentally slipped his penis into the wrong hole during intercourse. The questioning begins: “How many times did you go in and out? . . . ” “I think about five.” “Did your wife enjoy it?” And so goes the grilling. This is the way of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Gabe’s father is one of the leading figures who helps decide the guilty party’s punishment.
Naturally, masturbation is a sin. Gabe is convinced that God is going to kill him at Armageddon for masturbating, but he is a teenage boy and can’t help but do what’s natural. He takes some solace over this from his Witness friend, Peter, who openly talks about having played with his penis “a couple of times.” Both boys scribble dirty words in the margins of their Watchtower and break rules, but Peter is the more daring of the two. He is constantly being punished by a mean stepfather who, among other things, locks Peter in the parental bedroom with nothing but a tape recorder and Bible drama tapes produced by the Watchtower Society.
Thank god one semi-“worldly” person is around for the boys to talk to, and this would be Gabe’s Uncle Jeff, who drops by Kingdom Hall now and again at his brother’s insistence, but is actually quite worldly in a real sense, having been in a jazz band and lived in Paris. Currently, he’s working construction and hires the two boys to help out. Jeff lives alone in an apartment over the mechanic’s garage where Gabe’s dad and granddad work, and the two boys hang around a lot. Later Gabe, with his parents’ permission, will get a key of his own to Jeff’s place, somewhere to hang out on his own. This will lead to problems, but while it lasts it is one of the few outlets the boys have to the world beyond the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The second half of the book picks up the action and is full of surprises. We follow Gabe through high school where other girls grab his attention, such as one he meets at a Jehovah’s Witness gathering at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, a huge week-long affair that pulls Witnesses together from all over and catches you up in the spirit of it all. Gabe may have broken some rules along the way, but this is the only belief system he has ever known. He sincerely believes he is doing God’s will, that he will be saved at Armageddon. What happens when cracks in the system appear? When his own family proves as dysfunctional as the next? When doubts set in?
I love this book for its excellent storytelling, for the clarity and effectiveness of the prose, for making me laugh, for causing me to gasp and to feel empathy for so many of the characters. Overall, I liked it for the exposé that it proves to be on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Anyone whoever doubted that the Jehovah’s Witnesses was a cult, will surely no longer doubt. Thank you, Tony DuShane, for pulling back the curtain, and for doing so with such good grace and humor. J.A.
How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly
by Connie May Fowler
Grand Central Publishing,
We followed Mrs. Dalloway through a 24-hour period and learned all variety of things about her hidden springs of thought and daily action. Now comes Clarissa Dalloway’s 21st century counterpart, Clarissa Burden. Our modern gal, whom we also follow throughout the course of a day, does not begin by flower shopping for an evening dinner party in London circa 1923, but by tending her own flower garden in the lovely southern plantation home of Hope, Florida, which she shares with her South African artist husband, Iggy. The year is 2006.
They are a handsome couple—35-year-old Clarissa and her 51-year-old husband. And they are considerably well off, thanks to the sales of Clarissa’s two highly acclaimed, best-selling novels. But all is not well, not well at all. For one thing, Clarissa is suffering from a debilitating case of writer’s block; she fibs to her agent that it’s coming along, but in truth she cannot even begin. And then there’s hubby, who is fond of painting naked young models in the back yard (and lunching with them later) while all but dismissing his wife who is fearful of standing up to him.
We begin to understand why Clarissa defers to her husband and lets herself be so demeaned as we learn of her past: growing up poor in a trailer with a mean and verbally abusive mother who once told her, “You’re dead to me.” She has developed a highly imaginative fantasy life to help her cope, including death-scene scenarios involving her husband, which give her a momentary pick-up; and as for herself, she envisions a free fall from the Sears Tower; how it ends, she doesn’t know, but at least she can fly. And then there are the “ovarian shadow women” whose voices occasionally arise to cheer her on or mock, a sort of internal Greek chorus.
On this day, a man approaches her garden gate—“a short, muscular man, maybe her age, with bamboo-colored dreadlocks that ran past his waist”; missing his right arm, his teeth too white, his fingernails too long. “Can I help you?" she asks, to which he answers, “No, but I think I can help you. My name is Larry Dibble.” Clarissa remembers the southern superstition about the devil: when he takes human form he’s always missing a body part, and he asks for permission before coming onto your property. Not that she believes in such things, but . . . Larry Dibble is there to tell her that the big oak tree in her back yard is sick and needs to come down, and he’s the man for the job. She gives him a firm no. What Clarissa does not know is that Larry Dibble is a precocious, mischievous angel who has been sent to Hope for one last chance to gain his wings. Yes, it is the day of the summer solstice, and spirits are about!
Larry Dibble is a spirit incarnate, but he has seen what others cannot see: a crazy black man hacking away on the oak tree, and he’s been hacking away for two centuries no less. Inside is another ghost whom Clarissa senses as he rolls marbles: the ghost boy Heart Archer, son of the crazy black man under the tree. Heart’s beautiful mother, Olga Villada, the daughter of a Spanish flamenco guitarist, also inhabits the grand home. If Clarissa had read the dossier about the history of her house, which lies nearby, she would have known that Olga had designed the house which her husband built, and was quite intimately involved with it. Olga wants to help a woman in need—in addition to having her own motive—and so she defies ghost protocol by ‘moving’ the dossier closer to Clarissa.
Meantime, Clarissa has a tentative meeting with Leo Adams, a former student from a writers’ workshop, who rather fancied her, and is coming to nearby Tallahassee for a reading as he is now a writer himself - a rough equivalent of Mrs. Dalloway’s ex-suitor Peter. Clarissa wants to make the short trip to see him, but hubby has taken the car, so she is left with only a broken-down pickup full of garbage. But, on this day of days, she forges on, encountering all sorts of new people and places, including a ‘killing ground’ of female ghosts.
From here on, slowly but steadily, with the help of the spirit world, Clarissa finds her wings. And when a woman finds her wings and flies, it’s a joy to behold. Past mysteries are resolved, mental blocks unblocked, a new strong voice emerges, and all culminates in a raucously fantastic happening at “The All-American Dynamite Dwarf Carnival” which has come to town.
Connie May Fowler is a storyteller extraordinaire. You can feel the summer heat in the lazy southern town, catch the scent of roses, and empathize with Clarissa’s self-imposed entrapment by her husband. You want to say, “Come on, girl, stand up for yourself!” So in a sense the reader joins the chorus of the spirit world, which flits on the margins of the everyday . So powerful is Fowler’s narrative that you’re left to wonder just what passes unseen around us.
Clarissa Dalloway’s world seemed to indicate the strength and weakness of an entire post-WWI civilization. Clarissa Burden’s world is more about the female spirit, ending on a much more optimistic note, but historical past wrongs are brought to light, and the current state of affairs made clear. While watching TV footage on CNN, it is said of Clarissa:
The war in Iraq—the casualties, the lies, the misery delivered on the wings of ineptitude, the casual quagmire of it all—infuriated her, and she wondered why Americans, herself included, hadn’t taken to the streets, demanding an end to an immoral war. It was as if the entire world, in the early years of a new century, had given up believing in higher callings. Peace, love, and understanding felt like quaint ideas proffered by a naive people.
This could have come straight from her older namesake. But if Clarissa Burden can learn to fly, can not a nation rise as well? There is this new young senator Clarissa has seen speak on TV, a Barack Obama. She likes what he has to say. And let us not forget the name of her hometown: Hope. In light of current difficulties it may be hard to cling to, but many of us do. And Clarissa Burden reminds us that the worst of circumstances can change. J.A.
So Much for That
by Lionel Shriver
Want to read a good cancer novel?! Yeah, right. This latest by Shriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin; The Post-Birthday World) hardly carries a theme that will help it jump off the bookshelf, but for those who dare, it has its rewards.
Shep Knacker (yes, there is a play on his surname near the end) is a married man with two kids, one still in high school, who is not unhappy with his family, but dissatisfied with life in general. Since he first began working, he’s had one dream: to make enough money to retire to a third-world country where it’s possible to live on a few dollars a day. Wife Glynis shared this dream with him early on and the two traveled each year to research countries as possible future locations. But then came the kids and time dragged on. Glynis has long given up on this youthful idea of an “Afterlife,” as they called it, but not Shep. Middle-aged and still resolute, he sold his profitable handyman business for a large profit in preparation for the grand move, and “temporarily” went to work for the new boss, a dumb slacker ex-employer of his who happened to come into some money for the purchase. Who would have thought he’d still be working there eight years on?
When he can take it no longer, he purchases three one-way tickets to the island of Pembra, off the coast of Tanzania, where he had once gone as a kid with his missionary father. He presents the tickets to his wife. He wants her and his son to come along but if they don’t, he’s going anyway in one week’s time. And he means it.
But then Glynis drops a bomb: she has cancer, has just been diagnosed, and it’s a nasty cancer caused by asbestos. Surgery will be needed, and chemo, the works. And that means health insurance will be required (this is the U.S. after all), and that means Shep cannot quit his job or he would lose the insurance. The dream of the Afterlife is quashed again.
So begins the battle against Glynis’s cancer which takes up through the rest of the book. The new owner of Shep’s business has gone for a particularly cheap health care plan, which doesn’t help. Fortunately, Shep has all that money he saved for the Afterlife, but little by little it begins to dwindle. He can hardly make sense of the bills, they pour in so fast.
For anyone outside the U.S. it is hard to understand a health care system comprised solely of private insurance companies whose main goal is to make money; thus, a huge amount of the services rendered and medications prescribed are not covered, or if so, carry a “deductible.” A long term chronic illness such as cancer can bankrupt a family in no time. (The recent passing of the Health Reform Care bill is a first step at correcting this horrid system, but would have little to no effect on a case like this one.) Shriver shows, without telling, just how devastating the system can be. That is clearly a point she wishes to emphasize, but there is much more going on in this novel.
Shriver’s main objective is to strip away all the hypocrisy, the outright lying, and false hope that surround the sick and dying. The doctors themselves are one target. Shep comes to abhor the use of military metaphor that Glynis’s doctor spouts, referring to the “battle” and the “fight” that the patient must engage in as he urges them not to “surrender.” “To lose the fight” makes a patient feel as if they did something wrong, as if it’s their fault. To die is to fuck up somehow.
And then there is the character of Glynis: it’s not surprising, knowing Shriver, that Glynis is not a likable character. No box of Kleenex is needed in reading this novel. In fact, the sicker she gets, the more we dislike her. Shep does everything for his wife—gives enemas, cleans her bottom, cooks, cleans—and gets nothing in return that is obvious to see. She even tries to blame him for exposing her to asbestos through some product he might have used in his business. She is a selfish woman who cannot stop railing against the unfairness of it all. On the other hand, she is bluntly honest, and this is most welcome and refreshing, a characteristic which seems to greatly appeal to Shep, who does not see Glynis as the bitch we see. Who decreed that the dying one must cheer everyone else up anyway? Is that not a false little show in itself? Glynis faces everything head-on except for the self-deception, encouraged by the medical profession, that her chances of recovery are within reach.
Shep’s father is another case; he’s now in a private nursing home, which cost a bundle and which of course Shep pays for, always being the family member to pay. The halls smell of urine and it doesn’t look like the patients are being treated as they should. Might not a public nursing home do at least as good a job? But no, one is made to feel like the uncaring offspring to go that route. More expensive means better, right? Means you care more. Shep’s sister, for her part, is a classic freeloader who has a history of hitting Shep up for money, reminding me vaguely of Tony Soprano’s sis, only worse.
As if a dying wife and father isn’t enough, we have a third soon-to-be-deceased character. She’s the daughter of Shep’s co-worker and best friend, Jackson, whose story forms a secondary thread in the novel. Seventeen-year-old Flicka has a rare genetic degenerative disease (familial dysautonomia) that will take her life at an early age. She is facially deformed, walks like a “spastic,” and must feed herself through a tube in her stomach. Flicka is another painfully honest character, who can certainly be trying, although we don’t dislike her. There is nothing false about Flicka.
Jackson and his beautiful wife cope with this frightful situation quite well, but serious problems arise when Jackson, without his wife’s knowledge, seeks a medical treatment of his own which will have dire consequences.
How this all plays out will keep you turning the pages, fast. Shriver’s prose is sharp and intelligent; her characterizations insightful. I have a hesitation with the denouement, but dare not give anything away. Though I feel there is something slightly “off” at the core of this novel, I appreciate above all the balls it took to roll with this theme of illness and dying, about as popular in the publishing world as another holocaust novel, and her ability to do so with a clear, hard edge and little empathy for anyone besides Shep. She tells it straight. Another writer could not have pulled it off, but that’s the marvel of Lionel Shriver: she does. J.A.
Searching for Suzi,
a flash novel, by Nancy Stohlman
Monkey Puzzle Press,
Boulder, Colorado, 2009
What happens to a young girl whose mother encourages her to enter beauty pageants as she herself had done, and whose father’s advises her at age 14: “If you want to keep a man, learn to swallow”? Whose parents were swingers until her mum found Jesus. Whose dad continued the open sex with the neighbor lady until she moved away and he took flight himself, leaving his daughter a note saying she hadn’t been much of a daughter. She becomes a stripper, that’s what, at age 16. And works the trade for the next four years.
This is “Natalie,” which was her stage name and is the only name we know her by. She now has a Masters degree, is in her mid-thirties, married, the respectable wife of a research scientist, mother of two children, and living a comfortable life in St. Louis. She has reoccurring dreams about strip clubs, however, and one particularly vivid dream about a stripper named Suzi Cooper—her first female lover—throws her out of her life of domestic conventionality and on the road in a quest to find Suzi. Not that she and Suzi had been that close; in fact, Suzi was rather trashy and stole from her, and the lovemaking had been more like fooling around. It’d been a passing thing 14 years ago. But for reasons that are not easy to articulate, the quest is on.
We follow Natalie back to Omaha where she grew up, and to a series of clubs—the Sugar Lounge, the Red Umbrella, Dick’s Yum Yum Club, the Love Shack—where she picks up on the old smells, “that mixture of cigarettes and perfume, designer fragrances with slogans like ‘If you like Giorgio, you’ll love EXCITE’”; while she quite comfortably handles herself at the bar, knowledgeable in strip-club protocol, not blinking an eye at the outrageously overpriced drinks, even game for buying a drink for one of the strippers when approached. Because they’re just doing their job. She knows.
She views the stage from the other side now, judging the dancers— “young and stiff,” she sees one; “mesmerizing,” she thinks of another, who flashes a glittery beaver. Some “Stripper Tips” are thrown in along the way as well as “Dance Moves,” and the reader gets a real feel for the seedy atmosphere where men pay to look, and for the chaos of the backstage dressing room, "the counter covered with abandoned curling irons crusted with brown hairspray, eyeshadow and blush ground into the Formica." Our narrator throws out mixed feelings about the scene: on the one hand, she can view it with some disdain (“another hour of your life wasted, thrown like pocket change to the sidewalk”), but she also knows the power it can give a woman (“Never, in any other aspect of your life, have you felt so uninhibited.”). It’s what you make it, this world of stripping.
The narrative switches from first to second to third person, from present to past and in between, but there is an immediacy to it all that keeps one turning the pages, 87 in all. We could call it a novella, or as the author prefers, a flash novel, but by whatever name this is a great romp into the world of stripping. Page by page our plucky narrator reveals more of herself until the perfect ending lays it all bare. J.A.
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