Twelve Stars
Each month in our General Index
we give stars to those fiction or nonfiction titles
that have some special something
in the way of style, plot,
wit, or pizzazz.
Here are the dozen
of the most recent.

Visit Sunny Chernobyl
And Other Adventures in
The World's Most Polluted Places

Andrew Blackwell
A travel book should delight, amuse, please. It should not only make us want to follow in our author's footsteps, but make us want to be with the writer on his next journey. This is our pleasure in reading the travels of Mark Twain, perhaps the earliest and best of the perplexed (and amused) voyagers. Too there's Joshua Slocum and Jerome K. Jerome and S. J. Perelman whose Westward Ha! should be the standard by which all travel books are measured ... at least those willing to go the route of the exasperated traveler.

Blackwell is, like these, the Everyman of Far Journeys, slightly eccentric, at times devilish, often weary and heartbroken. A recent love affair gone wrong becomes one of the funny-sad threads that binds Blackwell's visits to Chernobyl, Alberta, Port Arthur and four other disastervilles.

Here he is in Guiyu, on the coast of China. This city is where many of the world's discarded burned-out ancient defunct computers are put out to pasture. Why here? Well, there's the obvious advantage of those who work for practically nothing. Then there is a laissez-faire local and national government in place, turning a blind eye to the poisons in the land, in the water, and most of all, floating about in the air (the factories and the city and the inhabitants are knee-deep in chemical smog).

He tells us that one of the reasons Guiyu gets all our washed-up computers is because of "the volume of empty shipping containers returning to China. Incredible amounts of manufactured goods are sent from China to the West in shipping containers, and since the conveyor belt must run both ways, sending freight back is cheap."

    The result is that we don't really buy our electronics from China after all. We just rent them and then send them back to be torn apart.

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Into the Night
Tales of Nocturnal
Wildlife Expeditions

Rick A. Adams,

(University Press of Colorado)
You can't go wrong with Into the Night. To show you what jokers biologists are, here's a sample from the very early pages of the chapter entitled "Volcanos and Fruit Bats: Fear and Loafing on Montserrat."

Scott C. Pedersen quotes from his old field notes, scientists' notebooks being like gold --- the nitty-gritty of their on-location work to prove their labors. These are preserved, sent off to grant-making organizations as well as the universities that give them time off to beer and loaf "in the field."

He reports,

    The first couple of pages present a remarkable multilayered tapestry, replete with coffee-cup rings; subsequent pages are partially laminated together by what appear to be sweat rings left behind by beer bottles (undoubtedly Carib lager --- the Beer of the Caribbean). Within the first few pages, I find a half dozen mosquito carcasses with blood and guts splayed around their mummified remains in bleak testament to their last moments and their last meal ... me, if memory serves. Several business cards, tax stamps, expired driver's licenses, and peeled-off beer labels are stapled haphazardly along the page margins --- the staples exhibiting a crusty patina of rust here and there. Today, my students tease me that my field notes resemble papier-mâché sculptures decorated with my unintelligible ink-blotchy Sanskrit. But my field notes are historic artifacts, testimony to my experience on Monsterrat.
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The Science of Herself
Karen Joy Fowler
(PM Press)
There is evidently a trend now for families to ship angry youngsters off to other countries to suffer through a siege of "tough love" ... which is supposed to straighten them out.

The girl Norah appears here in "The Pelican Bar." Fowler reveals that after being kidnapped (with the assistance of her family), she went through a year of deprivation, isolation, and verbal whippings (along with being tied face-down on cement floors for hours at a time) to get her to conform.

Fowler adds further detail of this torture in an interview that crops up half-way through this volume:

Q: The Pelican Bar is pretty scary. Where'd that idea come from? Quantánamo?

A: Definitely Quantánamo. Also Abu Ghraib. But even more directly, from the chain of overseas schools run by the World Wide Association of Speciality Programs and Schools ... I read online a statement that we shouldn't be surprised that Americans are OK with torturing foreign prisoners, because apparently we are OK with the torturing of American children, as long as it happens overseas. That statement was the seed of my story.

Q: If you weren't a writer what would you be, as in do?

A: I would go on anthropological digs and find amazing pottery shards. I would study cave paintings and also elephants in the wild. I would restore old books, damaged by weather and fire. I would sail around the world. I would be such a valuable member of society that you would hardly recognize me.

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Janette Jenkins
(Europa Editions)
When, years ago, we were reviewing Alberto Moravia's A Woman of Rome, we wrote,"Moravia knows the heart of women as acutely as a Flaubert or a Tolstoi. As with Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Memoirs of a Geisha, one wonders how a man --- I almost said 'a mere man' --- can penetrate, and penetrate so deeply, the heart of woman."

    It's not mere knowledge. The author has incorporated in his world the soul of women, he has become woman --- and in this transformation, he makes Adriana such that we, too, become her. At the same time, the men he creates are [equally] perfect. We should think of Moravia as a chess master, one who not only plays beautifully, but carves the various pieces as well: Gino the small-time thief and chauffeur, Sonzogno the hood, with his "muscles of steel," Giacomo the intellectual student revolutionary, Astarita the police official. All of them are swept up by this whore, all reacting to her in a different way, all smitten by her, all destroyed by her.

In the same way, Jenkins has managed to get inside this seventy-year old dandy with a mix of humor and pathos. She presents us with a self-abusing harsh old goat, dying (he knows), funny (he knows), a sob-sister (he knows). It's not a cowardly Coward; more, it's one that we would all have loved to have known.

Since that is impossible, we're lucky in Firefly to have the second best thing; to be able to sit in the same room with Noël, along with the sighs and gruff laughter and night-terrors. This shameless old man who is (he knows) to leave us soon enough, but who, Noël being Noël, can leave us with such memories, such memories.

And always, there's the great, comic back-and-forth with this young, rougish, all-too-wise young Jamaican Patrice, soon to be leaving for England, moving on. And so he'll ask the questions that the rest of us, in the presence of Sir Noël, would probably never have the heart (nor the daring) to utter. It begins with Noël asking about Patrice's cousin:

    "Won't his family miss him?"

    "His mama will be weeping and howling," says Patrice, "but the mamas of his five children will be singing and dancing. He is not a good father, Mr. Coward, he has no interest in his boys, only in his music."

    "He has five sons?"

    "Five that he knows of."

    "I thought he looked particularly fertile."

    "You never wanted children, Mr. Coward?"

    "Not for a second."

    "You have loved a woman, Boss?" he asks, with a roguish glint in his eye. "Not once? Not ever?"

    Noël laughs. "If you mean have I ever had sex with a woman, the answer is no. It would, I imagine, be like sleeping with a porpoise. Have I ever loved a woman? Perhaps."

    Patrice leans back, the basket wobbling as he drapes his arms across the window frame like a cormorant resting its wings. "So you are a definite homosexual, Boss?"

    "I like to give them a hand."

    "This part of the island is full of men who love men."

    "Does it bother you?"

    "Of course not." He shrugs. "Why should it?"

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A Short Tale of Shame
Angel Igov
Angela Rodel, Translator

(Open Letter)
Throughout A Short Tale of Shame, you will find lots of shame and no little hubris (which, we are told, is closely associated with shame). "Croesus had claimed that he was the happiest person in the world," our narrator explains. So the gods intervened,

    Croesus ... lost his son, who had been killed accidentally by a friend of his, his wife had committed suicide out of grief and now there he was, the former ruler of a collapsed empire, about to be roasted at the stake by foreigners.

There's shame and hubris and a great deal more here. Love and friendship and death: all the key elements of life so cleverly hidden that one at first thinks that it really is no more than another on-the-road novel. But after coming back to it again, and again, several times, we find that it is more, far more than that. The run-on sentences, the stream of consciousness (part Joyce, part Beckett, part Proust).

Most of all, artful writing that tells an enthralling tale (of a simple journey) with complicated people (we are all complicated), but in a style that at the end, can devolve into pure poetry. About, for example, a sleeping house,

    ln the house, the windows are sleeping, the furniture is sleeping, the refrigerator is sleeping, a plug dangling from its shoulder. The doors are sleeping: beautiful, solid, heavy doors. Krustev is sleeping, hung on the wall, his wife is sleeping on one side of him, his daughter on the other, they are sleeping with open eyes, smiling amid the garden outside. The empty bottles jammed into the black bag in the hallway are sleeping. The air conditioner. The Lawnmower. The dirty dishes piled in the dishwasher. The slippers, collapsed from exhaustion, are sleeping in indecent poses. Sssssleep . . . The only ones standing guard are the tiny lights of the alarm system and a few inexperienced spiders, who have stretched their webs in various corners of various rooms, stalking their puny prey without an inkling of one another's existence...
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Monkey Mind
A Memoir of Anxiety
Daniel Smith
(Simon & Schuster)
His shrink told him to figure out what's going on in his head just before he headed down the tunnel on his way to full-blown panic. He tells us that his psychologist's idea of a way out "was not as simple or straightforward an assignment as it may seem. Not only did attending to my own thoughts sound dangerously akin to, say, petting scorpions, the idea that those thoughts preceded the feeling of anxiety contradicted everything I knew about how my anxiety and mind operated."

    The exercise itself was salutary; it was invigorating to put the self-obsession of anxiety to sanctioned clinical use ... The more attention I paid to the mechanics of my anxiety the more I began to notice an aspect of my mind I'd never noticed before --- a sort of subconscious chatter, just beneath the surface of awareness, that was always going, always yammering, always commentating, like a little newscaster perched on my frontal lobes.

"And this newscaster, it turned out, was not the kind of person you'd want to sit next to at a dinner party. He was very pessimistic, my mental homunculus. If there was even a slim chance that a situation could end in calamity, he'd toss it up on the teleprompter and treat it like news."

Smith's book is a jim-dandy bit of writing. It is droll, jokey in a way that most self-eviscerating books are not. It definitely could be helpful to those poor souls who are about to join our dismal confraternity. Because a few moments looking through Google's offerings when you type in "panic attack" are very grim, items sure to depress you beyond all reason.

But when you pick up Monkey Mind, you will find, on the very first page, the author telling us that his shrink "had a beard and moustache the color of ripe mangoes." When he wasn't listening to neurotics like Smith he was boning up on his next week's on-stage presence in the local community theatre.

    As opening night for The Secret Garden approached, he trimmed his beard progressively thinner while he grew his moustache thick, extending it down along the sides of his mouth. Smith reveals,

"It was like getting counseling from General Custer."

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Civil Wars
David Slavitt
(Louisiana State University Press)
Civil Wars is good stuff, can even be captious. This on treating tinnitus:

    There are cures but they are experimental and involve, some of them, shock therapy. Life is shock therapy enough. Better than such drastic measures, I could simply persuade myself that this is a good thing. After awhile, the tinnitus can seem to be the noise that time makes. There is no time except the interval between events, which requires consciousness to notice.

The intervals. Buddhists tell us that enlightenment doesn't come thorough observing the thoughts paddling about in our minds, but rather, by observing, and observing carefully, the space between thoughts.

And, yes, the poet advises us that "Life is shock therapy enough."

Slavitt is an artist, equally comfortable in telling of ancient wars, translating ancient poets, giving us his take on Tisiphone (one of the furies; he may be smitten with her, as we all may be, because of the lovely sound of her lovely name, ti-SIH-fo-knee). Slavitt can also be a bit of a punster. For instance, with the poem titled "Salida de Emergencia" which, for the Spanish-language impaired, might be read as "Emergency Salad." (It really means "Emergency Exit.")

He can even go on, merrily, about his deadbeat cousin, always wanting money for his inventions, ones which would make us all rich, going on trying to hustle up money, and no one believed him anymore, thinking him just another leech, until "having at last thought up / something that really could work?"

    The revolving door / is, when it's open, closed, and closed when it's open.
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A Chronicle of Jazz
Mervyn Cooke
Cooke says that improvisation differentiates jazz from classical music, but he's obviously ignoring the fact that Purcell, Handel, Telemann and their contemporaries expected those performing their sonatas and organ pieces to doodle around with the notes written on the page, to interpolate and add their own riffs, to play around. It was 18th Century jazz. Cooke also suggests that in its very rhythm jazz is distinctive, but he obviously hasn't sat through a concert of Bach's English and French suites drawn directly from dances of the country folk. With some musicians, it can inspire a foot-tapping audience. For some of us, anyway. Classical music can do that.
When most of us think of jazz, we recall whatever it was we were doing whenever we (and it) finally got together. I recall listening to Charlie Parker in person at a joint on West 52nd Street in Manhattan in 1949 (or thereabouts), but I was less interested in his music --- which I found to be rather messy --- than I was in the fact that I could get served whiskey out there in public, despite my being sixteen at the time. The music was incidental, and the glass in the shot glasses was so thick that I had to work through quite a few of them to begin to get dizzy. As in Gillespie. The smoke and the noise were overwhelming, but so was our joy at being liberated from whatever it was we thought that was running our lives.

Our early favorites of jazz from those years has to include Fats Waller's songs with their mordant humor, like "Your Feet's Too Big." Which starts out in pure narrative,

    Who's that walkin' round here?
    Sounds like baby patter ...
    Baby elephant patter; thats what I calls it.


    Up in Harlem at a table for two.
    There were four of us,
    Me, your big feet ... and you.

    From your ankles up, I'd say you sure are sweet...
    From there down; there's just too much feet! Yes, your feets too big
    Don't want ya, 'cause ya feets too big
    Can't use ya, 'cause ya feets too big
    I really hate ya, 'cause ya feets too big...

It ends up, his voice fading, again in narrative:

    Your pedal extremities really are obnoxious ... one never knows, do one?

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Hawthorn & Child
Keith Ridgway
(New Directions)
Ridgway's stories, even parts of them, can be quite riveting. Some can be quite disgusting, too. In one suicide (there are several sprinkled around here and there) Rivers' ex bakes herself atop her stove in the process of hanging herself. The scene makes both Hawthorn and Child want to vomit. Me too. Then,

    Child went through drawers. Hawthorn wandered back downstairs. She was still there. Still slumped on the worktop like a failed cake.

    There was a gap in the coming and going. Hawthorn was alone with her. He took out his phone and took some photographs. Seven. He took seven photographs.

Hawthorn has a lover who works as a referee in the top sports venues of Europe. (His lover also sees ghosts. Sometimes when he is refereeing, he sees ghosts who are not necessarily in the game. This compromises his referreeing some.)

Hawthorn sends one of the failed-cake photographs to this ghost-seeing lover. They break up. It gets very odd out there in Ridgway-land.

There's another vomit-inducing story that might have been thrown in there so we can stop thinking too highly of this tricky, even endearing author. I'd give it a strong second in the revolting-detail sweepstakes, just behind the droopy cake on the counter. A guy on vacation in the Canaries craps in a swimming pool. He then tries to drown himself in the same crappy pool. Other bathers jump in the pool to save him(!), have a hard time getting him to let go of the bars so he can surface. We find ourselves hoping that they --- or the writer, please --- would just leave him there.

A third case of narrative over-kill comes with a guy named Moss who seems to be ready to murder a baby by tossing her over the banisters in front of Child. (At least we think that's what happening. With Ridgway, you can never be too sure of the facts. You just have to make do. Like with detectives, you just have to explicate.)

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A Novel
Jean Echenoz
Linda Coverdale, Translator

(The New Press)
1914 is a short, emphatic, powerful, straitened narrative ... a new war as seen through the eyes of five boys from the countryside. Their learning (and dying) curve is quick and spectacular. As the first few weeks stretch into December, the men begin to seek "the good wound:" anything that will permit them to take their leave of ticks, lice, mud, rat-filled trenches; the sour odor of gas, of unwashed bodies, the new-found scent of the dead.

One of the men is "buried anonymously in mud without anyone caring or noticing." Another gets gassed, goes blind. A third --- because of family connections --- joins the flyers, and soon enough dies in a blaze when the pilot is shot dead. Then, in the beginnings of the new Spring, Arcenel is sure he has found the solution. He wanders off back behind the French lines, gets further and further from the valley of death, "moved solely by the idea of ambling around a little while, abstracting for himself a moment from the horrific shit hole, not even hoping --- because not even thinking of it --- that his stroll would pass unnoticed."

But he was wrong. Three men on horseback catch up with him. "Arcenel should have remembered about them, the gendarmes, so hated were they in all the camps, almost as much if not more than the fellows across the way." Deserters were not given the benefit of trial, are dispatched quickly. A firing squad, some from his own company, look away from him before he is blindfolded, before he is shot.

Only Padioleau and Anthieme fare better. Padioleau returns home to learn to get around as best he can with a cane. But it was Anthime who, of all, may have suffered the most: he is found by a "tardy piece of shrapnel,"

    from who knows where and one wonders how, as clipped as a postscript: an iron fragment shaped like a polished Neolithic ax, as a large shard of glass. Without even a glance at the others, as if it were settling a personal score, it sped directly toward Anthime as he was getting to his feet and, willy-nilly, lopped off his right arm clean as a whistle, just below the shoulder.

"Five hours later, everybody at the field hospital congratulated Anthime, showing him how they envied him this 'good wound,' one of the best there was: serious, of course; crippling, but not more than many others, really, and coveted by all as one of those that ship you away forever from the front."

They do not speak of the years of phantom pain and shock that will haunt him for the rest of his days.

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Sex Is Forbidden
A Novel
Tim Parks
Sex Is Forbidden is a great study of the elephant of lust in the china-shop of the holy. It can bring back old memories to those of us who have on occasion tried a holy retreat. If someone I knew were going off for a session, I would make Sex Is Forbidden required reading. Not just because it makes its point by drawing such a precise portrait of the tempters and the tempted being pushed and pulled, but because the practice of Buddhism isn't a sand-box. There are masters up there sitting at the top of the heap that can drive you mad with their conundrums and pomposity. Sitting on your ass for hours at a time can be and often is a royal pain. Shutting up the mind is like grabbing soap in the bathtub.

And the rewards (even from a small investment of time) can be sensational. Author Parks knows the drill. We suspect he has been through it a few times himself.

Beth is all lust; but she is not untouched by the surroundings. This is our notorious flirt, in the kitchen, after a siege of meditation, getting ready to cook the vegetables: "I felt weirdly mesmerized looking at the dark broccoli heads and pale broccoli stalks."

    My breathing went softer and I was suddenly aware of it. I had the feeling I was seeing something that wasn't the broccoli really, even though, as Dasgupta would say, when you are looking at broccoli, you are looking at broccoli, nothing else.

The tension between the pious and impious is palpable; it drives the plot unceasingly. It's fun, and sometimes achingly funny. And some lines should be written out and hung on the refrigerator until they've gone yellowed and torn. Two of my personal favorites are,

    Sensual pleasure is like honey on a razor's edge.

And on "Vipassana vanity,"

    I would like to learn not to feel superior to everyone, though I don't suppose I ever will. Actually, I'm already thinking how superior I am, wanting not to feel superior. And how superior of me to have recognized this paradox. And to have admitted this stalemate. And so on and on.

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My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones,
Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in
The World of Anti-Aging

Lauren Kessler
Kessler has written a peppy book on the billion dollar industry of Americans keeping young (and peppy) and sexy long after they should have been sent off to Geezerville or laid in the grave. What is original here over the thousand or so other titles on Staying Young is that Kessler elected to use her own body as the litmus.

Kessler is around sixty years old --- she refuses to tell us exactly --- and during the year of her study, she puts herself through a variety of special diets (including "superfoods), tried a variety of supplements, contemplated medical procedures, used a selection of "exotics," almost made it through the "complete raw food diet," did "detox." And, best of all, at least for the readers, she consulted dozens of "experts."

In the anti-geezer biz, there are two main types: the pushers who come to Las Vegas or Orlando and infest late-night television for the chance to sell us something. But attendees also include some of the best scientific geeks, solidly educated professionals who have real scientific studies to inform and enlighten. The key site for this sometimes comic dialectic is the semi-annual conference of the International Congress on Anti-Aging Medicine and Regenerative Biomedical Technologies. (The umbrella organization is known as A4M --- the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.)

Counterclockwise details the many options available to those of us who want to be young, lovely, sexy, and buxom again. We find that this pursuit of youth can at times be ridiculously silly, sometimes dangerous, often costly ... and certainly unnerving.

Take, for instance, the options available in going under the knife. Turning back the clock can involve "elective surgery, needles, cannulas, drains, silicone bags, autologous fat transfers, compression garments, scars, keloids, and the unhappy knowledge that you let vanity win a battle that can never be won."

The biggie is called "full body lift."

    This is the mother of all plastic surgeries, up to nine hours in the operating room with four or five surgeons, more than a dozen incisions, and, depending on whether it's performed at a doctor's surgical facility or in a hospital, an $18,000 to $40,000 price tag.

"The procedure removed extra skin and fat from the belly, hips, butt, back, arms, and outer and inner thighs ... [The doctor's] banter was unnervingly lighthearted as they recounted the one square yard of skin they have removed from a recent patient and the 10 feet of sutures that were necessary to sew the lady back together again."

Less invasive, and far more interesting for those of us who don't plan to see sixty-five again --- and are not fans of of being dissected before our number is up --- are the chapters on "superfoods," "detox," and "eating raw,"

Kessler does four weeks of a self-designed course of "superfoods" ... "the ones with big price tags from faraway places." Some she tries are:

  • goji berries from Mongolia ("oversized past-the-prime red-orange raisins");
  • açai berries from the Amazon ("purple, grapelike");
  • maca from Peru ("silty, wheat-colored powder");
  • chia seeds from Guatemala ("ever-so-slightly peppery and pleasant until they turn gluey in your mouth");
  • hemp seeds from Manitoba ("taste just like sunflower seeds");
  • kombucha ("a not distasteful carbonated, fermented drink rich in antioxidants").
She finds açai "bitter, sour, tart, not like any berry you'd want to eat." (To see if the bitterness will mix out, she sneaks some into her daughter's daily smoothie. "I am forbidden from ever again making a smoothie for her," she reports.)


    Before moving on to more pleasant topics, let me say a word about the spirulena powder I bought at the store: blech. That's the word. Spirulena is a microalgae, which is a nice way of saying pond scum. It smells like the green slime that grows just below the waterline on the pilings of old wharves.

Wheatgrass? It tastes like "liquid lawn."

Her favorite of the many superfoods she tries is bee pollen, which is often touted for more energy, enhanced immunity, and even possibly an anticanceroid. Kessler doesn't commit herself on any of these, but does find it pleasant, even addicting. She says it is "excellent sprinkled on Greek yogurt, and I salute the industrious bees for their great work, but I'm not banking on this stuff."

During her time in this part of her experiments she comes down with a sore throat and the sniffles --- she says she hasn't had a cold in three years. She then finishes the kombucha, munches on the goji berries and hemp seeds, and makes a cup of açai green tea. Two hours later her sniffles have gone. Her conclusion: "I can neither blame them for my momentary lapse of good health nor praise them for my quick recovery."

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