Twelve Stars
Of 2011
In our General Index,
we give a silver star
to all books
we feel to be
especially meritorious.
Here are several
from the last few months.

§     §     §

The Hidden Legacy
Pierpaolo Mittica
(Trolley Books)
This book is subtitled The Hidden Legacy, but a better one might have been Chernobyl after Twenty Years. Mittica ventured into the contaminated area and took hundreds of black-and-white photographs ... among which the most devastating are the abandoned schoolrooms, kindergartens, hospitals, playgrounds, and, most ominously, shots from the Oncology Children's Hospital.

There are, too, disturbing pictures of old people who were forcibly moved to large cities like Minsk, could not survive there, and returned to their homes, despite the level of radioactivity.

Then there are photographs of "liquidation workers," those who are hired to tear down houses in contaminated areas. One of them says of his job, "We have always worked without protection, we don't even notice any longer. We got used to radioactivity and radioactivity got used to us, and anyway, we have to work to live, and this is how you work here."

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Stone in a Landslide
Maria Barbal
Laura McGloughlin
Paul Mitchell,

(Peirene Press)
There is little given here to tell us of Barbal's background and experience. Whatever it is, Stone in a Landslide is high art. Conxa is aging; her husband is dead, her children leaving. Her son takes her to live in Barcelona --- she who has scarcely ever left the rural Catalan countryside. "Barcelona," Maria says, "is everything at a set time. Before then, it's too early. After that, it's already too late."

    Barcelona is having the sky far away and the stars trembling.

And, in one of the few passages of self-reflection, she sees herself as a "slow old woman who didn't make a sound, carried her weight but who thought of herself as a bit of a halfwit."

    And who all of a sudden realized that at last death was on its way because she was over fifty and she didn't want anything now or in the future.
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Abbott Awaits
A Novel
Chris Bachelder
(Louisiana State University Press)
it is not all joy and perfection there in Ethan Frome's hometown. There is, too, an existentialist malaise, perhaps a deconstructionist one --- that makes Abbott wonder if he is in his right mind, is in the right marriage, is in the right world, even. "Regretfully, Abbott must also, throughout the day, construct and then dismantle the grandiose conviction that he is unappreciated, and this cycle of self-pity and self-reproach tends to be arduous and time-intensive." Abbott has been invited to a party somewhere, but he cannot attend, because

    he has to rise early with his daughter to play in the family room with buttons and beads for two or three hours. Some of the smaller buttons fit inside some of the larger ones, and quite a few of the beads are sparkly. It's just not something he can miss.

Even later in the day, he cannot swing by to visit the on-going party "because the afternoon and evening are completely booked."

    He needs to go outside to play with pinecones, which always ends up taking way longer than you anticipate. Then it will be time to go inside to get some maple syrup rubbed in his hair, at which point he'll be busy clenching his jaw and reminding himself over and over that stewardship is a privilege, that he lives an enviable life, that by any important measure he is a profoundly fortunate man.

This is one of those books that has me thinking that I shouldn't be writing a review, I should just be culling long passages to send out to you.

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The Highway
Of the Atom

Peter C. van Wyck
(McGill-Queen's University Press)
The Highway of the Atom isn't your typical tale of wise primitives coming in contact with greedy white folk ... although there are elements of that. It is not even primarily a discourse on radioactivity and an indigenous community now suffering with far more bodily ills as a result of that greed. Better, it is an exploration of responsibility ... such as, for example, who among us who is responsible for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It also treats the art of telling a story (there is a fine story here) and the place of accidents and the hazards of chance in our world. Also, there are elements of history: how history does (and doesn't) work; how to rewrite the past; what is to be done with leakage (of water; of cold; of radioactive materials).

There is the proper place of North in the mythology of those of us who live to the south; too, there is imagination, and the place of tales in the life of the Dene ... indeed, in all our lives.

There is Freud's notion: that the whole of mankind is potty. And, if the world is mad, what can we use as a bellwether to measure this madness? If we live in a world full of nut-cases, who is to define sanity? It is similar, says the writer, to the concept of "body count:" who is to do the counting?

Then there is the matter of "archival absence" --- especially in reference to bombs and governments and innocent citizens (of the U.S., of Canada, of the world) exposed to bombs without their specific knowledge, anticipation, and permission.

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Train Dreams
Denis Johnson
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
It is this writing touching lightly on the beautiful horrible tales of life (being orphaned; finding love; losing love; getting balmy) that makes Train Dreams so compelling. Love and loss and death and lust, all tied into the glorious country in this great complex of the great Northwest, the land in which our story is nested ... the forests and rivers and mountains which had to be fought and laid in peace.

At the end of Grainier's story, he passes a theatre in Bonners Ferry showing a daring movie called Sins of Love (this is all pre-WWII) which sweeps him "through a disorienting fog of desire." "The filthiest demons of his nature beset him ... to inhale the fumes of sex, sin, pulchritude." (I had to look that one up: it means "physical comeliness." )

What might be comic or crude in another author's hands is, with Johnson's alchemy, turned pure. And Grainier will survive, tested as fully as Gilgamesh, or Dante, or Faust. He climbs into the mountain country, finds himself above Spruce Lake, "and now he looked down on it hundreds of feet below him, its flat surface as still and black as obsidian, engulfed in the shadow of surrounding cliffs, ringed with a double ring of evergreens and reflected evergreens ... Beyond, he saw the Canadian Rockies still sunlit, snow-peaked, a hundred miles away, as if the earth were in the midst of its creation, the mountains taking their substance out of the clouds."

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Jenny Erpenbeck
Susan Bernofsky,

(New Directions)
The beauty here is in the writing. This on the children playing: they "hide in the secret closet in her room under the coats and dresses or go to his house, where the television would be on even during the day, and watch the black and white cowboys galloping across a black and white plain and eventually their black and white falling down and dying."

Or, when one of the "subtenants" finds --- anonymous call --- that she has a sister, one that she has never known, so

    Any older woman sailing past her on a boat might be her sister. Or the madwoman who always pushes around an empty shopping cart in the nearby spa town, mumbling curses. A woman sitting in a café with a piece of cake. An energetic sixty-something seeking a non-smoking man in a classified ad, or else some scrawny old biddy in Berlin.

There are the asides, which are wonderful: "Happiness grows out of disorder, just as infinity grows out of the finite lake on which he is now turning his back."

    He and his wife spend their weekends in a toolshed, tie up their sailboat to a dock that doesn't belong to them, and are nonetheless, he would say, utterly and completely happy on this parcel of land that they have conditionally borrowed.
We said early on that the hero of this novel is a house, and its attendant land. In rereading these passages, we come to think that, rather, it may be the superb poetic language offered us by a gifted author.

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Lester Higata's
20th Century

Barbara Hamby
(University of Iowa)
Lester joined the army in 1942. He and his friends "were Americans, but they looked like the enemy. So the Army sent them to Italy."

    The blue of the Mediterranean was paler than the blue of the Pacific, as if the Romans and Greeks had diluted the color with the white of their bones.

We trail through the lives of Lester and Katherine and their inlaws and children until Lester meets with his father, who "looked pretty good for someone who'd been dead almost sixty years." This was Lester's clue, and ours, too, that his time was drawing nigh, "his life was about to end when he walked out on the lanai behind his house in Makiki and saw his long-dead father sitting in a lawn chair near his little greenhouse where Lester kept his orchids."

In the time I have been working on Lester Higata's 20th Century, I have not only fallen in love with Lester and Katherine and even his pruny old mother who never liked Katherine or anyone for that matter partly because of this reason: for the first time in my life I have been given the chance to live in the mix culture and life and beauty of Hawai'i and especially the language, a language with a hundred words for rain: "The rain was coming now in a fine mist. What was the word for this rain? What was the word for the sky of scudding clouds with stars glittering behind? What was the word for the rumbling that was coming across the ocean from Asia, a dark drumming that no one could hear but soon would tear holes in the sky and the earth?"

§     §     §

There at the beginning, Lester is leaving us, leaving his family, leaving as he follows his father through the door, "into the rain, the house disappeared along with the roads and all the buildings."

    He was moving through the jungle that had covered O'ahu before it had that name, when wild boar roamed the underbrush, and red and yellow plumed birds glided in the treetops ... He felt the music of the universe vibrating in him, the rain washing over him, washing the years away ... It was all gone, and he moved through the green land with its fishing pools, kheiau, and taro fields, the world opening up, timeless and relaxed as a saxophone solo by a broken man, whose voice was too sweet for this world.

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from unwritten histories
Eugenijus Ališanka
H. L. Hix, Translator
Whoever translates poetry must have the soul of a poet. Wooden, rote reworking of the words just don't do it. H. L. Hix must have the right stuff because from unwritten histories is a lulu. The Lithuanian original is there face-en-face, but trying to read Lithuanian is no easier for most of us I would imagine than getting the baby to shut up his noise. Even if Hix is making it up whole-cloth, whatever it is is a kick in the pants. The run-ons, and the images ... often like little haikus:

    Sometimes I see the gap
    between your life and my death
    where there is room enough for both
    especially in january...


    so much space for the wind tears dry before you start crying trees
    are naked already the end of october


    the warm day just as exceptional
    chernobyl's sharp sun seeps into
    the calves of young girls...

This last with the understated ghostliness of it all, the horror of Chernobyl just barely touched on.

Even the titles in from unwritten histories turn out to be mini-verse. One of them goes, "it's no secret that I have good friends in latvia sometimes I write them letters but I always forget to mail them like this time." The poems float about like that, balloons filled with helium (and sometimes exquisite fragrances) ... floating about as our thoughts float about.

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Baghdad Sketches
Journeys through Iraq
Freya Stark
(Tauris Parke Paperback)
She was another of those indomitable English women who came of age during the days when the sun never set on the colonial lands of Great Britain. She was certainly not interested in staying at home, getting married, tending a garden in Sussex.

Instead, she had became mesmerized with what we then called "The Orient." Starting in 1927, she traveled through the Middle East, often alone, often depending on the good will and kindness of strangers. Baghdad Sketches takes us into Iraq, with side trips to Najd, Yezidi, 'Ain Sifneh, Samarra, Tekrit, and finally Kuwait ... a country she adored.

The chapter "The Kuwait Journey" is one of the most winning in the book, with three typical Freya Stark touches. First, each chapter begins with a soupçon of philosophy. In this case, it's "People who live by a riverside have always two pleasures to command: they can look both upstream and down."

Then there is always, hidden in the text somewhere, what one can think of as a throwaway. Something that on its own would be alarming, disturbing, disgraceful. But because our narrator is singularly nonjudgmental, it can arrive with surprise, and it disappears as quickly. This on the pearl divers in Kuwait:

    The figures that move about are mostly clothed in white or black, with a touch of red for the head or the sleeve: and a black African face as often as not, since slavery flourishes, if not so much from new importations as from old slave families who multiply, and provide half the pearl divers.

Then, a tiny bomb at the very end of the paragraph: "In Kuwait one can buy a black baby for twenty rupees."

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The Bestiary
Or, Procession of Orpheus
Guillaume Apollinaire
X. J. Kennedy, Translator

(Johns Hopkins University Press)
Outside these homely verses, there are Dufy's woodcuts. They are thick, gorgeous, perfectly enclosed, sinuous and whimsical. The book design is obviously a work of love ... leisurely, exquisite. Poems set on the left-hand side; woodcuts are centered to the right, the whole being bound with lavish care.

We've been entranced over the years with the works of X. J. Kennedy, and, outside of merely translating, we detect his fine hand in this fine morsel. It's a book to love, a treasure-trove for people who care too much for great woodcuts, plus cats, dolphins, doves, and rabbits --- not to say grasshoppers, flies or fleas ("Fleas --- friends, even lovers, / How cruel are those who suck / Our blood in loving us, and those / Best loved are out of luck.")

Apollinaire almost got his friend Picasso to illustrate the original edition (one sketch is included in the frontispiece). Thank the muses that the artist opted out. Picasso's animals shown here feel protean, stunted, uninspired. Dufy's cuts on the other hand are gorgeous, make the whole worth it, make life worth it. Fleas, jellyfish, carp, whales and all.

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Barrio Boy
40th Anniversary Edition
Ernesto Galarza
(University of Notre Dame Press)
Barrio Boy is bright and cheerful and funny and wistful ... filled with paradoxes and full of its own momentum and merriment: how great it was spending your childhood in the wilds of Jalcocotán, what adventures were to be had in the streets of Tepíc, what Matzatlán looked like a century ago, what it was like to come to the United States where people laughed too loudly and had big feet and long red noses and ate these repulsive things called "sandwiches," and how, poor Americans, they didn't have mercados where people put their wares out on the ground and come from pueblos with a stream down in the arroyo where --- you could tell people --- you battled the crocodiles.

When Galazara arrived in America, he went to school where Miss Ryan took him aside daily to tutor him on the peculiarities of the English language, so that, for him,

    The main reason I was graduated with honors from the first grade was that I had fallen in love with Miss Ryan. Her radiant, no-nonsense character made us either afraid not to love her or love her so we would not be afraid, I am not sure which.

"Keeping an eye on the class through the open door she read with me about sheep in the meadow and a frightened chicken going to see the king, coaching me out of my phonetic ruts into words like pasture, bow-wow-wow, hay, and pretty, which to my Mexican ear and eye had so many unnecessary sounds and letters."

    It was as if in that closet we were both discovering together the secrets of the English language and grieving together over the tragedies of Bo-Peep.
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A Great Notion

Ken Kesey
Tom Stechschulle,

(Recorded Books)
Notion is a ravishingly good book, and this disc version does it justice. Kesey died in 2003, and the obit writers said things like

    The story involves an Oregon family of loggers who cut and procure trees for a local mill in opposition to striking, unionized workers...

Well, yes, but that's like saying that The Old Man and the Sea is a how-to-do-it guide on fishing in the tropics. Notion is more than a Northwest strike tale: it's an epic, family members locked in classic family battles, with each other or with the gods (or both), like something out of Ovid or the Mahabarata or Æschylus.

Brother (or half-brother) sleeping with mother, another brother (step-son) vowing to avenge this, complete with tricks, deceit, attempted murder, suicide ... and enough hate to take it all through to another generation. It's Lake Woebegone with nuts; it's Our Town acted out, with verve and passion (and blue language) on the Oregon Pacific coast in the bizarre house that Henry built on the river, a Sisyphean structure than never seems to get finished; when Henry finally dies, Hank takes over the job.

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Learn World Calligraphy
Discover African, Arabic, Chinese, Ethiopic, Greek,
Hebrew, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian,
Russian, Thai, Tibetan Calligraphy, and Beyond

Margaret Shepherd
(Watson Guptill)
You come to realize, after a brief visit to Calligraphy, that Shepherd is not here to teach you any of these languages, certainly not how to read or write the sinographs of the oldest language in the world, Chinese. (That would require us to learn some 3,000 - 4,000 characters.)

Instead, what the author is eager for us to do is far more beguiling: she wants us to see high art in the script of Japan or Morocco or Armenia. She'll even teach us how to hold the pen, how to shape the letter, how to use the calligraphy brush.

"The brush stays upright," she explains: "Your wrist can flex less when you sit, stand, or kneel higher than your writing surface to write larger letters. Whatever your position, your forearm should not rest on the paper."

Each page here is a riot of color, of lettering, of exquisite design, a rich mix of Roman with that of, say, Mongolian. She first defines the character of it:

    Mongolian, unlike any other alphabetic script in the world, is written and read vertically. Its eighteen consonants and five vowel signs join each other to spell out sounds; as in Arabic script, they take different shapes at the beginning, middle or end of a word.

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