Heading Out to Wonderful

While reading Robert Goolrick’s novel, Heading Out to Wonderful, I hadheading out to wonderful to remind myself that the characters were not real, that the events were fictional.  My blood pressure spiked after becoming acquainted with a town full of people practically re-writing the Gospels for their own convenience.  Their smug stupidity about what constitutes culpability, sin, and their mirroring of Christians as a whole, drove me to madness.

Now their idiocy does come by honestly.  After climbing the 463 steps of the Duomo, the signature cathedral in Florence, Italy, this summer, the misinformation that has been passed down the chains of Christianity was painted as a huge billboard in the dome of the main sanctuary.  A twenty foot devil devoured naked, lustful sinners:  what a sight for illiterate parishioners seeking salvation.  The only problem with this horrifying warning of the consequences of carnal sin is that it is an illustration of fiction.  Presumably Dante’s visions, emblazoned on the ceiling by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari, are nowhere in the Bible.  As I traveled from Rome, then Florence and finally Venice, I could see through the paintings, the sculpture and general iconography that the birthplace of the Church was gilded with false depictions of God.  Is there a church on the planet that has shed itself from this errant path?  I do not know.

We, as Christians, spend a lot of time talking about sex.  Church leaders across denominations deliberate on sexual sins:  what’s OK, what’s not, with whom and when.  Jesus does have some strong words about adultery in Matthew 5:27-32, but I’m going to say that sex was not his main issue.  What was?  Money.  Forget the kum-ba-ya Jesus you were taught in Sunday School.  The real deal threw tantrums and flipped tables – Jesus had a clearly defined who-what-when-where-how platform on how to handle finances.

So when the characters of Heading Out to Wonderful  shun Charlie for seducing a young, unfortunately married young woman, I became physically ill.  Here is a young woman, a child, who was by all accounts bought into slavery by the repulsive Boaty, and all the town does is snicker.  When she dabbles outside this sham marriage (both questionably legal and definitely immoral) union, the town shakes a finger, then later abandons her lover when her situation and immaturity take over her reason.  The townspeople fail to recognize that they are collectively responsible for a much greater sin:  turning a blind eye to the evils of misspent money.

Now I’m sure Goolrick wasn’t intending to write a novel indicting Christian judgment.  Rather, his purpose was probably more to take an idyllic small town and juxtapose its simple beauty against the horrific ugliness of human behavior – and this he accomplishes with artistic mastery.  Nonetheless, my first reaction was to pause and reflect on what we all know already:  much more harm is possible with money than could ever be done by touch.

Heading Out to Wonderful

Robert Goolrick

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

2012

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THE PEOPLE OF FOREVER ARE NOT AFRAID

I am the shiksa of the family.  No, I don’t have blonde hair, nor do I have the stereotypical sex appeal, but I do function as the wrecking ball of my in-laws’ expectations for my husband.  For years, I clung to the notion that there should be this equality of demands.  My father-in-law was, prior to his conversion to Judaism, Christian.  He converted.  What was the big deal about our Christian home?  All choices for family religion are equal.  Right?  No, they are not.

What I am not is a member of the people of forever.  My Anglican roots conspicuously lack a history of attempted extermination, of slavery, of chronic anti-Semitism across millennia.  My ‘people’ have the stain of divorce as the crowning moment of religious identity.  Populating country clubs and ornate cathedrals across the genteel portions of the globe, ‘my people’ were never afraid.

So when reading THE PEOPLE OF FOREVER ARE NOT AFRAID, I could hear the nation of Israel echoing my in law’s reactions:  you have no perspective.  I represent the West, demanding equality in all things while Israel drums for equity.  No, the border control of Israel cannot remotely resemble those of the United States.  The Mexican army is not firing on its citizens disappearing into the Texas desert, and our Canadian neighbors at worst provide stiff competition for our entertainment industry.  Our religious zealots are swiftly pegged as crazy outliers; those in Israel’s region deliberately strive to uproot the nation’Images current existence.  Our military is all-volunteer, because it can be; Israel’s military cannot afford such Western luxuries.

Who is right in the Middle East?  Is there a ‘right’ side?  Who knows?  What I do know is that author Shani Boianjiu in THE PEOPLE OF FOREVER ARE NOT AFRAID demonstrates that I, or any member of the Western hemisphere, don’t have the perspective to answer these questions.  My daughter will go off to college: she might join a sorority, play in the school band or bury herself in the library with grad school aspirations.  The military life, while an option, is her choice and hers alone.  The daughters of Israel don’t have such choices.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid

Shani Boianjiu

Hogarth

September 2012

FOBBIT

As Americans, we have expectations and prejudices of how a war should be fought.  We draft these preconceived notions from our perceived history of long, but not forgotten wars.  The problem is, these notions are derived from movies, from propaganda, from glory stories passed down generations.  The fictionalization of the wartime lives of our alleged war heroes has been mistaken for fact.  In the era of instant communication, we can be nothing but let down by our heroes.

The reality is that, given technology, wars are more administered than fought.  Many of our ‘heroes’ never leave relative security, never experience war as more than an extended discomfort in a foreign desert.  These so-called fobbits, the administrators of war from a forward operating base, lead wartime lives of tedium, experiencing pressure more from drafting a press release than from bullets, grenades or rockets.  For some, the pressure lies in maintaining the heroic image of the American war experience, despite the realities, the failures.

The first pass of David Abram’s FOBBIT left me screaming for a plot.  The meandering tale of a unit in Baghdad, Iraq provides more characterization than direction.  Like a rocket-propelled grenade whistling through the sky searching for its target, I was hit.  This is what deployment is like:  the long hours, the tedium, the routine, the occasional surge for a questionable goal.  Within these pages lies a very accurate depiction of the Iraqi War experience.

In mathematics, such associative precision in a function,  is called one-to-one correspondence.  FOBBIT reads as such a function.  My husband, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and former submarine officer, can assign a classmate or shipmate to every character in Fobbit.  Disturbingly, Abe Shrinkle, with his dangerous incompetence and inflated projection of self, was the easiest to identify.  I wonder if David Abrams’ former company-mates can identify themselves in his novel.

FOBBIT receives the nod of a soldier’s been-there-done-exactly-that.  Recall, relive or experience for the first time the in-country life of the American soldier.  The frustration to madness, the humor of the absurd, the every soldier experience:  it’s all there.

FOBBIT

David Abrams

Grove Atlantic, September 2012

Books in the Park? Really?

Seriously, Festevents?  Throwing a couple of stages up and giving out permits to food trucks does not a festival make.  Sadly, Books in the Park has gone the way of Waterside.  This event, once joyful and interactive was continually full of disappointment this year.

First of all, why the separate billing for Books in the Park and the Embrace the Culture Indie Music and Arts Festival?  — or was this intentional as Books in the Park was hardly Indie.  The Barnes and Noble clearance tent was clearly not in the spirit of supporting local authors.  Bargain books and 75% off commercialized craft kits screams, “I don’t have a mission statement.”  How embarrassing to have Skye Zentz, a local celebrity musician, playing the next generation of folk music adjacent a small field with unopened toys in a bucket – for the kids to play with?  My children were wondering if this was ok to break open the new plastic clamshell baseball glove packages.  No staff person was present to explain, no signage to direct.  What happened to the face painters, the giant bubble making display?  Placing the advertised food trucks exclusively on the other side of the Spirit of Norfolk pier additionally contributed to the anemic turnout to what could have been a signature event.

But the most important question of the day is:  Where were the books?  Where were the local writing groups, the local poetry societies?  A ballerina briefly appeared in costume to read for five minutes.  The field, once littered with small tents of writers was replaced with a horseshoe tent of self-published despair.  Sadly, this could have been these authors’ time to shine.  TaRhonda White, a motivated young African American woman was there with her book, The Will to Carry On, about succeeding beyond sports (we need her message).  Terry Jones-Brady, a Silver Nautilus Book Awards winner, spoke with me with such courage about her memoir, A Mosaic Heart:  Reshaping the Shards of a Shattered Life, in which she details the loss of her two girls to Cystic Fibrosis and her husband to suicide from the resultant despair.  Again, another message that needs to be heard. 

And speaking of shining, we have a local author with national billing (to include People Magazine and the New York Times), and she is placed behind an accordion player literally shackled with a galvanized chain to his tambourine.  Was this supposed to be literary irony? 

I’m at least heartened to hear that the crowd on the other side of the pier enjoyed their festival.  For shame, Festevents, for treating our local literary community like it is from the other side of the tracks.  Perhaps a short field trip to Richmond to see what real literary support looks like is in order.  My kids, ranging in ages from 5 to 13, agreed that this was a “Fail.”  Call me next year before you censor more of Books in the Park.

Today: Books in the Park

Move over Stockley Gardens, this book blogger wants something to read.  I need a break from wandering the library, trying to find something recent but not 50 Shades of Grey.  Goodreads reviews aren’t motivating me to pick up a book, either – there’s too much subterfuge in both one and five-star directions.  I want to meet the authors.  What was the passion behind this plot, that character, this dialogue.  This afternoon, I’ll be wandering around Norfolk’s downtown waterfront, taking in all of the books and potentially grilling (ahem, interviewing) authors for my next series of blog posts. 

From noon to 4, the literary world converges for the 5th annual Books in the Park.  While the billing of this event is confusing, these events appear listed under the larger Embrace the Culture: Indie Music and Arts Festival, I’ll be there nonetheless.  Find me sitting on a couch next to a stack of books and eating food truck fare. 

What would you do if your world fell apart while your husband was rocketing to the moon?  Share your thoughts in person with Norfolk’s own, Lydia Netzer, author of the to-the-moon-and-back love story Shine Shine Shine.  This stunning debut novel has been featured as People Magazine’s People Pick, an Amazon Pick for the Summer and listed on the Indie Next List for August.  Netzer will be available to discuss her thoughts on robots, motherhood and her recent New York Times Op Ed “The Man in the Moon” detailing why we should travel to Mars (hint:  it’s better than flush toilets and the printing press).

Goodreads: I’m Just Not That Into You

At first glance, Goodreads seemed like a great guy for a long-term relationship.  He was always there for me.  He was always saying, “You’re so pretty,” and “You’re so smart.”  Mom and friends swooned.  What more could I want from the man who said, “You’ll always be my five-star.”  Sure, his drunk friends would occasionally troll and sneer, “She’s not all that,” but he was quick to roll eyes and clamor to my defense.  After a while, it became a line.  It became clear I wasn’t the only five-star in his life.  It is time to shelve this relationship and start reading from a new relationship book.

The truth is, I wanted a man who took a stand.  A Highlander, there can be only one, stand.  I wanted a man who would say, “You are my one and only five-star.”  His mom could be a four-star gal, and all of his ex-girlfriends could be at most two-stars.  His five-star must be relegated to the best, the brightest, the Olympic-gold-world-record-holder.  For my man, he could only give out one five- star review.  I was done, done with the, “All women are five-stars,” kind of guy.  It might be good for dating to dole out five-star reviews to every participant, but it ain’t good for marriage.  I’m talking long term, someone I can grow old with. 

So, Goodreads, I’m just not that into you.  Your cover is great, and your lines are smooth as silk, but you lack character.  Only I don’t have a way of telling you that.  I’d give you five stars for your calculated plot and impeccable selection of setting for our dates, but your character development is one-star.  If I add these measures and divide by three (11/3), you average a 3.6 – a number still not low enough to express how I feel about you.  Here you look just slightly above average.  Any future girlfriend has to sift through a lot of text to put this number in perspective.  I want her to know what a scumbag you are, how you lured me with your appearance, your sweet talk, how you’re no better than Alec d’Urberville. You’re just another Dimmesdale, or Willoughby or Heathcliff.

I’ve moved on.  I’ve got a new rating system.  One that allows me to say, “That Alex Shakar, he has a great story line, but he keeps a really cluttered house”  or, “Thanks, Chuck Palahniuk, for ruining the mega-store bathroom setting for me.”  I’ve got more than one set of star ratings, because my five-star man has to be five stars on looks, substance AND direction.    My five-star man is one of a kind.

We Bury the Landscape

I probably would not have picked this book on my own.  The author contacted me via Matt Bell’s website link to my blog, and I felt a certain obligation to reciprocate for the blog promotion.  The word microfiction carried with it the baggage of experimental and therefore unknown, undefineable.  The topic itself, though, touched upon a personal interest – each micro-essay narrates a Surrealist painting.  I could wander around art museums for my entire existence, so beginning to read Kristine Ong Muslim’s writing was easy.  Completing the book, however, was not.

I struggled with connecting the pieces (a total of 100) and even more so with reading comprehension.  I read a set of the painting-mini-novels and could not recall the first…or the third…or the last.  Bumbling through the first fifty or so writings, I said to myself, “Each of these pieces is fascinating in and amongst themselves, but they are not in any way connected beyond the art period.”  Then it hit me:  I did not know how to read microfiction.  I was reading We Bury the Landscape as a novel.  It is not a novel.

Remember those school field trips to a museum where forty or so of you fourth graders were shepherded, more like shoved, like reluctant cattle through innumerable art galleries, one right after another.  The docent droned on like the teacher in Peanuts, and all you can remember is the Egyptian sarcophagus, because, seriously, how could you miss it?  That’s what reading microfiction like a novel is like.  As the pages speed by, the ideas become words, devolve to letters, then to lines and curves.  The content loses its meaning.

A few months ago, I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as a solo visitor.  I was free to waft in and out of the galleries and delay at will.  As I stared into Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the swirls of the moon began a hypnotic rotation.  The scale of Monet’s Water Lilies gave the illusion of merging with the water as I stood in front of its three expansive panels.  I could even hear the overlapping jazz riffs while gazing into Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie.  Microfiction must be approached in the same way a fulfilling museum visit should be:  each piece must be given time.  

We Bury the Landscape narrates the frustrations, the rejections and the angst of the Post-World War I art world.  Hear the stream of consciousness, the free associations, the nightmares, the dreams.  Hear them one by one.  Writing a book to cycle on the shelf, off the shelf for a lifetime, Muslim offers a gallery.  Sit in this gallery for a while.  Cling to the words and watch them swirl.  See and hear their music.

We Bury the Landscape

Kristine Ong Muslim

Queen’s Ferry Press  2012