Tag Archives: RSR 2015

Spider in a Tree

spiderinatreeSusan Stinson
Small Beer Press ($16)

Based on the life of Protestant theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), Spider in a Tree is a novel firmly grounded in fact: the author has “infused the text” with material drawn from the writing of the preacher and his contemporaries. However, the story is not bogged down with historical detail and the psychological themes explored feel universal, making the book compelling. The characters have a complicated relationship with religion, the ruling force of their lives—to them, the spiritual is more real and important than the physical. Any contention over doctrine, even that which may seem trivial to the modern reader, is a life-or-death situation, and this drives much of the book’s action. The characters also hold conflicting feelings about their faith: spirituality sustains them through the mundane discomfort of colonial life, but the Puritan God is also illogical, angry, and prone to “toy with lives as he pleased without any relationship to sense or reason.” Edwards sees evidence of divine grace everywhere, but in a world “haunted by work and sin,” the characters fight to sublimate their bodies and the natural environment, and their culture is shaped by a belief in the uselessness of earthly pleasure and inevitability of mortality and judgement. This combination of “absence, presence, and consolation” motivates the complicated inner lives of these well-realized characters, whose psyches Stinson explores in empathetic and satisfying depth.

2015 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

American Cocktail: A “Colored Girl” in the World

americancocktailAnita Reynolds
With Howard Miller
Edited by George Hutchinson
Harvard University Press ($29.95)

Anita Thompson Dickinson Reynolds (1901-1980) was a multiracial expatriate with a Cocteauesque talent for being present at opportune historical moments and befriending people who would later become famous. This memoir begins in Reynolds’ hometown of Los Angeles (where she was a minor silent film star), then follows her travels in New York, North Africa, and Europe, which she fled during World War II, getting out mere days before the Nazis rolled into Paris. She knew many creative personages during the interwar period and relates anecdotes about Antonin Artaud, Carl Van Vechten, and Man Ray, to name a few. Although Reynolds is very likeable, readers might be bemused by her blithe attitude toward some issues—her white boyfriends fetishize her race and in Morocco she accepts temporary charge of a slave, which she likens to a “happy puppy.” However, she eventually embraces responsibility as a wartime nurse and develops a social conscience, negating some of the impetuousness of her narrative style and enriching the book. Like her personality, Reynold’s writing is conversational and impulsive; combined with the picaresque narrative, these traits make American Cocktail an excellent book to read on a trip.

2015 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

A Visit to Priapus and Other Stories

visittopriapusGlenway Wescott
Edited by Jerry Rosco
University of Wisconsin Press ($26.95)

Author Glenway Wescott (1901-1987) saw most of the major events of the twentieth century, and this collection of autobiographical stories and essays serves as “a truthful, chronological portrait” of the man and his time. The diverse topics range from stoic, stifled families in the Depression-era Midwest to postwar gay urban life; regardless of context, both fiction and nonfiction are saturated with a gentle, verbose melancholy and layered with meaning. Wescott’s work is also subtly informed by an awareness of sexuality, gender, and class issues, and sympathetic toward those that might be outsiders in terms of these elements. Although the stories have distinct plotlines, there is a lack of overt narrative tension—the protagonists spend much more time thinking than doing, and are often “irresolute as the dead in heaven, where there is nothing more to be resolved.” Wescott’s meandering, adjective- and aside-laden sentences invite the reader to get lost in the rhythm of the words, but will frustrate those looking for a conventionally event-driven tale. These pieces are concerned with the timeless tide of humanity—the characters lose something of themselves as they encounter the inexorable, shared experience of birth, reproduction, and mortality, yet the focus on their interior lives allows them to remain individuals. In thrall to the animal laws of sex and death, Wescott’s work is also a meditative affirmation of our mystic, fragile sentience.

2015 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews

The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood)

Tony Trigilio
BlazeVOX Books ($16)

complete dark shadowsThis is the first book in a projected multi-volume poem about the eponymous gothic soap opera, which author Tony Trigilio watched as a young child. The show “nurtured and sustained” the poet’s inner life before he could speak, and the “primal sensations” associated with these pre-lingual experiences make them ripe for poetic exploration. At its weakest, the poem dwells too much on the show’s stilted acting and unplanned calamities (which seem to define Dark Shadows as much as scripted events), lapsing into rote summary and striking a tone of ironic adult detachment that gets in the way of the book’s purported mission of “excavating childhood night terrors.” Thankfully, these moments are fairly few, and Trigilio skillfully incorporates his personal history into his exegesis of the series—a sort of autobiography by way of discussing the show. The reader empathizes with the poet’s childhood self as he discloses obsessions and family tragedies, uncovering nuggets of real horror and intense emotion in dozens of episodes of absurd storylines and histrionic dialogue. Overall, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) feels meditative, organic, and weighty far beyond what one would anticipate from a poem about a blooper-ridden ’60s TV show.

2015 Really Short Review. Return to Really Short Reviews