Winner of Butler University’s Pressgang Prize, this collection examines the dangers and seductions of fantasy and lies.
Hardworking Appel (The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, 2014, etc.), an attorney, physician, bioethicist, essayist and fiction writer, published a strong story collection in Scouting for the Reaper (2014). Now, in the eight stories comprising this volume (some previously published in literary magazines), he offers an equally strong, striking follow-up. Many of the stories here involve characters being asked to participate in some kind of deception, ranging from children’s fibs to murder. In the title story, a travel guide identifies a family’s run-down bungalow as the cottage where Albert Einstein spent his Princeton summers. When tourists arrive, the narrator’s father puts up a blackboard with equations scribbled from a math textbook and starts charging money. But then an old woman shows up claiming to be Einstein’s niece—and claiming, therefore, ownership of the house. Bewilderingly, she succeeds: “That marked the end of Papa’s clever ideas.” In the superb “La Tristesse Des Hérissons,” Josh, the narrator, humors his girlfriend Adeline’s obsessive caretaking of a pet hedgehog, such as keeping quiet during sex lest “an errant moan…alarm our barbed roommate. Actually, the word she used wasn’t alarm. It was traumatize.” Expensive veterinarian and pet psychiatrist visits follow. Diagnosis: hedgehog depression. Treatments include complete darkness, so Josh light-proofs the apartment, “while Adeline tend[s] to the hedgehog in a rented darkroom at the Manhattan Institute of Photography.” Appel brilliantly contrasts Josh’s pungent wit about the situation’s absurdities with the couple’s real, mostly unspoken needs, conflicts and sad family histories. By the end, it’s clear Josh values the hedgehog, too, exactly for its prickly, stabbing neediness. “Paracosmos,” a very different story, shows a similar ambiguity about fantasy. A woman meets her daughter’s imaginary friend’s seemingly real father and has an affair with him. She doesn’t question his reality—why would she: “[W]hether Steve was the product of a coincidence or a hoax or a paranormal vortex, she did not want to lose him.”
Sharp, observant, darkly funny and deeply humane. Another winner from Appel.
Scharrer offers a riveting fictionalized biography of her great-aunt Flora Shaw, one of the first successful female journalists.
In the late 19th century, men dominated the world of journalism, and it was almost unheard-of for a woman to report from the field. Pioneering reporter Shaw, however, turned this world on its head by using her intelligence, wit, charm and bravery. Debut author Scharrer creatively reimagines Shaw’s trailblazing life by piecing together her biography and embellishing it with scintillating conversation and rich, vivid description. Shaw first made her mark as an author of children’s books, and this work carefully spells out her influences prior to her break into journalism. Early on, for example, she meets writer and social theorist John Ruskin, one of many thinkers who shaped her ideas on life. Yet, as she establishes herself, her own distinct philosophiesbecome quite clear. This book isn’t just about a writer coming of age, but also about her many breathtaking achievements. At first, the budding journalist was forced to write under the name of “F. Shaw,” as revealing her gender would have damaged her credibility with many London Times readers. She eventually used her full name in her byline, however, and she rose to become the newspaper’s “Colonial Editor” and one of the greatest (and highest-paid) female journalists of her time. Scharrer also observes that Shaw was involveddirectly in the Jameson Raid, a botched assault on the South African Republic of Transvaal led by the British statesman Leander Starr Jameson. The author expertly sets this scene: “Jameson sighed as he nervously slapped at the flies buzzing around him in his tent.” Readers will feel as though they’re getting a privileged, candid view of Jameson, and they’ll sense the tension and the heat of the landscape, as if they’ve been transported directly there. Scharrer’s prose is always sharp, elegant and controlled, much like the era it portrays. From the outset, it’s clear that this work is a carefully researched labor of love, and it dutifully fulfills the vital task of remembering a pioneer in women’s letters.
An entertaining, original take on counting from children’s book author and illustrator Bartlett (Tuba Lessons, 2009).
This counting lesson quirkily begins with “a Dog named Zero who lived in Hawaii for almost twenty years—but doesn’t live there anymore” and a nameless, “juicy red Apple” hanging tantalizingly high on a very tall tree. Little Zero, it seems, has a hankering for the yummy fruit, but how to reach it? On each succeeding page of this cumulative, giggle-inducing tale, assorted creatures (whose names happen to be One through Ten) arrive and offer to help Zero ascend high enough to pluck the apple by stacking themselves on top of one another. They raise the hungry dog higher and higher until success is in reach, and then, “out of the deep blue sky, a Bee named Charlie buzzed by…in the worst mood ever,” with predictable, tumble-down results. Never fear; the book ends happily for all (although the apple and bee might disagree); the apple, by unanimous consent, finally receives a very apt name. Bartlett’s humorous text, colorful pencil drawings and complementary book design propel this adventure forward with delightful silliness. The helpful, big-eyed creatures range from the ordinary (“A Chicken named One and a Pig named Two”) to the unexpected (“an Inch Worm named Ten…the strongest worm in the observable universe”). Another plus is the book’s smart use of vocabulary and clever wordplay; for example, a cow named Five and a bull named Six ask Zero, “If you can’t count on us, then moo can you count on?” Overall, this exercise in counting is a downright charmer.
Smart, witty text matched by fine design and illustrations make this kids’ book a tasty, offbeat treat.
Kogel documents the extensive stained glass of Michigan’s Grosse Pointe Memorial Church in her debut photography book.
Readers in this literate age may forget how important religious art was for centuries of parishioners, as it illustrated for them the stories and symbols of their faith and embodied the concepts they believed in. Stained glass is perhaps the most sublime example—a marriage of color and light that seems to emanate the very notion of grace. Grosse Pointe Memorial Church, a neo-Gothic Presbyterian church in a Detroit suburb, contains an array of translucent stained-glass windows created by the Willet Stained Glass and Decorating Company from the 1920s to the ’60s. Inspired by the storyboard windows of European churches, such as France’s Chartres Cathedral, the Willets led a revival of translucent stained glass, instead of using the opalescent glass that was popular at the time, and created narrative window pieces for many American churches. To move from window to window is to observe the theology and symbology of Christianity, from the Old Testament to the New, through the European Middle Ages and into the North American period. Presbyterian minister Kogel serves as both a photographer and historian, presenting brilliant full-color shots of the glasswork as well as accompanying information on relevant biblical passages and religious traditions. She shares the Willets’ passion for comprehensive narrative and their belief that religious art exists not simply to inspire and to awe, but also to teach. In addition to her own photographs, Kogel provides comparative examples from art history, as well as some of the original Willet drafts. The result is reminiscent of the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages: photography and text in equal parts, both in the service of communicating a religion’s central ideas. The details of each window piece, and the enthusiasm Kogel displays in celebrating them, will deepen readers’ appreciation for the work of all parties involved. Is the Grosse Pointe church the Sainte-Chapelle? No, but this book is a wonderful testament to a great achievement of American stained glass.
A striking volume of remarkable art and informative commentary.