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Briefly Noted - August 26, 2015

Quick-to-Read Reviews

Vol. 4 Issue 4. August 26, 2015. Ed. Paul Clark.

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst | Reviewed by Dirk van Nouhuys

Hemingway on a Bike by Eric Freeze | Reviewed by Ryan Borchers

Bird from Africa by Viola AlloReviewed by Ryler Dustin

Alan Hollinghurst. The Stranger's Child. Vintage International, 2012.

The theme of The Stranger’s Child is the social position and self-image of gay men, particularly literary gay men, in England from 1913 to 2008. Sections spaced 10 or 20 years apart make up the novel. A charismatic, titled, middling poet who is mainly a closeted gay man is the principal character of the first section. The tension in this section comes from his effect on the people around him. He dies in WWI in the interval before the second section. Each succeeding section illustrates a changed standing of gay men. 

Hollinghurst is a fine wordsmith; his prose is shapely and illuminating. As usual, he is exquisitely witty, reminding me of Oscar Wilde, alive to people's sensitivity to one another's moves in large social situations. While he writes about parties as well as anyone, he isn’t as good at describing just two people are interacting, unless they are body to body.

In my mind I compared this book to three novels that self-consciously cover a long stretch of time. First is Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, where the characters are defined by a ruling passion and remain consistent, as their society remains static. Their consistency in the face of time and events is a moving human image. Second is Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where the characters are similar to Murasaki's, but the action of time forces the protagonist and the reader to peel the layers of deceit that ornament and hide the characters, and in the process the reader witnesses changes to society. Third is Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle, which questions whether people living in different times, in an essentially static society, really remain the same people.

In Hollinghurst society changes in a way that allows the gay characters to be more themselves. At the same time the past recedes into a fog of misunderstanding, making the comfort of the present an uneasy one at best. –Dirk van Nouhuys

Eric Freeze. Hemingway on a Bike. University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

Eric Freeze’s Hemingway on a Bike is a book of odds and ends, a hodgepodge collection of essays with an author who is unafraid to explore his interests. And Freeze certainly has a wide variety of interests, including Star Trek, competitive sprinting, and the Brigham Young University honor code’s policy in regards to men’s facial hair.

Freeze has a knack for drawing connections between strangely disparate elements. In “Bolt,” for example, Freeze writes about how competitive sprinting, nuts and bolts at the hardware store, and a sudden flight from life’s hardships all have the word “bolt” in common. These connections might leave some readers asking “So what?” while leaving others delighted with their irreverence. Another essay strikes a similar chord: in “Foosball Champion of the World” Freeze hunts down a table made by one of the world’s premier foosball table manufacturers. The struggle as presented lacks urgency and just doesn’t seem to matter, which might beg another question: "Why should it?" 

However, Freeze is not a one trick pony. In certain moments he escapes the trap of irreverence and provides the reader with true intimacy. In the aforementioned “Bolt,” an older woman tearfully confesses her desire to have a sexual relationship with Freeze while he is serving a Mormon mission. The final essay, entitled “On Intimacy,” is a series of vignettes in which Freeze’s acquaintances tell him some pretty deep, dark secrets. These moments, however, are few and far between. When you read Freeze you can't help but get the feeling the author would rather tell you about his hobbies than show you his soul. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? The answer probably depends on how irreverent your sensibilities are. –Ryan Borchers

Viola Allo. Bird from Africa. Akashic Books, 2015.

Viola Allo’s Bird from Africa is a subtly musical book grounded in a refreshing conviction in the human voice. In “Sit With Me,” Allo channels her grandmother to express this conviction: “If you are wise, what you must do is speak well. / Talk to people as we are talking now…” Allo deftly crafts her music from accessible speech that bridges the gap between speaker and reader. Even as musical momentum builds in poems like “Muddy Shoes,” it never threatens to hedge out human warmth:

I arrive in Maryland, and
the mud is still on my shoes.
I notice this, one afternoon,
on a walk through Germantown.
I know I will not wash my shoes,
filthy from my summer in Camaroon.
The mud stays where it is.

Allo is deeply aware of the fractures that run through her hometown of Bamenda and all of post-colonial Camaroon, and offers her words as a salve, testifying to a deeper level of interconnectedness and co-mingling. In fact, these poems over brim with Allo’s luscious and humane vision of inter-penetrability, a fluid interplay between individual and community, body and earth. In “Young Bride in Bamenda,” a bride’s sweat falls into a pot of plantain stew so that when the family eats, “the whole world / feels full.” Even in moments of intense conflict—like when the speaker exchanges blows with her father—there is a profound sensitivity to our mutual vulnerability and an underlying, courageous sense that this might offer redemption. These are powerful songs, “soothing / the earth, carved up, engraved with bodies,” in which “we hum together beside a bed of flowers” (“Bodies, Flowerbeds”). –Ryler Dustin

Dirk van Nouhuys is a native of Berkeley with a BA from Stanford in Creative Writing and an MA from Columbia in Contemporary LIterature. Ryan Borchers is a 28-year-old writer studying to earn his MFA at Creighton University. His work has been published in tommagazine, The Cynic Online Magazine, Wordhaus and Maple Street Press's "Here Come the Irish." Ryler Dustin earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and is a current PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He has represented his native Seattle on the final stage of the Individual World Poetry Slam and his poetry appears in New South, The Porland Review, and elsewhere..