Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace In Disgrace (Penguin Books, 220 pages), Professor David Lurie’s crisis begins with his foolishly taking advantage of one of his students, then proceeds to his inadequate response under enquiry. Gradually, the story’s emphasis on “disgrace” pervades the entire narrative. It extends to white dominance and native reprisal in South Africa, to cruelty with animals, and to self-obsession within the human community generally.

An early reference on page 2 to the final chorus of Oedipus Rex, “Call no man happy until he is dead,” joins the suggestion David Lurie is a Lucifer in an earthly darkness, the fallen angel. Oedipus of course is humbled through his arrogance and self-righteousness, so the allusion clearly applies. Professor Lurie resists from inside the wall of his pretensions as an academic and Romantic, as if he has some kind of right to “desire” in an honorable history descending from his study of Byron, who is simultaneously his hero. His unlearning will take a long time. Continue reading

Dismantle the Sun by Jim Snowden

Throughout most of our lives, we can ignore our fears about the threat of non-existence that yawns beyond the casket with as much reality as the non-existence out of which we came into our cradles. But when facing death, our own or that of a loved one, we feel compelled to review the idea of after life. Believers ratchet up their beliefs and atheists, like Hal in Jim Snowden’s Dismantle the Sun (Booktrope, 324 pages), hang tough.

According to conventional wisdom, atheists are imaginary creatures. No one (except other atheists) believes they exist, certainly not in the foxhole of impending death. This is why deathbed conversions are expected, even in the most “literary” of end-of-life novels, despite the fact that one of the accepted roles of a literary fiction author is to question how we make sense of our lives. If most novels have the same after-life-affirming answer, I wonder if these novelists are really asking themselves the question, or merely posing it rhetorically for the sake of a denouement. Every deathbed conversion, it seems to me, is another failure to actually question the meaning of life.

Snowden’s courageous refusal to backslide into belief for the sake of an emotionally “satisfying” ending makes him a strong contender for this year’s Dactyl Foundation Award for Literary Fiction (nominated by Paul Xylinides, see  review). If the award were given for lack of sentimentality alone, Snowden would win, hands down. The novel is about Hal Nickerson, a high school teacher in Michigan, whose wife Jodie is dying of cancer in the dead of a Great Lake winter. Defending his individuality, Hal largely resents others who try to console him with their own death stories: how accurate was it for them to mix their “pain with Hal’s, as if they and the rest of humanity were manufacturing some sort of agony hash? Surely every death had its own, flavor, its own texture and temperature.” Continue reading

Sea of Hooks by Lindsay Hill

seaofhooksLindsay Hill casts a magician’s spell across his Sea of Hooks (McPherson, 348 pages). On the surface his world is rendered in bright pixels of quivering light, while underneath a seamless narrative undercurrent pulls us into the mysterious depths of experience. For the reader willing to dive under, this journey is unforgettable.

Sea of Hooks is, on the one hand, a fiercely original Bildungsroman set in San Francisco in the 50’s and 60’s. Christopher is an overly imaginative boy, part Holden Caulfield and part Little Lame Prince, who lives in precarious affluence in a darkish Victorian on the edge of Pacific Heights. His delicate, high-strung mother is obsessed with Japanese culture and dead by suicide in the first paragraph. Dad works in finance on the Pacific Stock exchange, until he doesn’t anymore. There are prep schools, bridge games, Dickensian neighbors like the wise and wonderful Dr. Thorn; along with house fires, a very nasty tutor/pederast from Stanford, a trip to Bhutan and encounters with Buddhist monks. Hill’s rich prose makes us feel Christopher is someone we have always known, a boy who lives in a house we have been to, whose eccentric mother we’ve had tea with, whose city we are walking in. Continue reading

This Earth You’ll Come Back To by Barbara Roether

cover ideas.inddThis vivid, lyrical, character and place-based story (McPherson, 250 pages) begins with Rose Healy Koehner’s youngest daughter, Stephanie, searching a rural Ohio cemetery for Rose’s grave in 2008 while the deceased Rose watches from above and embarks on her life’s story told in the first person. The prickly, fondly contentious, mother-daughter relationship is apparent from the start in the underlying current of criticism that Rose levels at her daughter:

Course you couldn’t find it right away…You should have used the sense God gave you and asked your brother…Why you always insist on making things hard for yourself I’ll never know; but it’s just like you to take a simple errand and turn it into a full-blown crusader pilgrimage.

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writerDactyl Foundation’s Literary Fiction $1,000 Award:

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Emma Who Saved My Life by Wilton Barnhardt

emmaEvery once in a while a reviewer receives a book he puts on the shelf and just wishes it would go away. Emma Who Saved My Life (St Martin’s, 496 pages) is that kind of book.

Cursed with what is arguable the worst title ever given a novel ( and double-cursed with a depressingly ugly dust jacket), it had press releases that touted it with superlatives that would make Gore Vidal blush. It’s in the fist person and has one of those woesome post-adolescent narrators. Worse, it’s a first novel by a guy named Wilton who is at Oxford working on a doctoral thesis about Henry James. Continue reading

Isaac: A Modern Fable by Ivan G. Goldman

isaacHow should we suppose poor Isaac felt — son of a father all-too-willing to sacrifice him at the suggestion of some voice in his head? Christians are wont to overlook the obvious horror and absurdity of the Biblical tale. According to some (less awful) Jewish interpretations of events, it was perhaps Satan, as an agent of God, who spoke to Abraham, which would make more sense to those who imagine God to be not quite so sadistic.  Either way though, what kind of man would this traumatized son become?  In Isaac: A Modern Fable (Permanent, 223 pages), Ivan G. Goldman has arranged it so that Isaac, after the mishap at the altar, has been granted the gift of eternal youth. The identity of benefactor is not clear; the gift may be from Satan or from Jehovah. Isaac himself has never been able to decide, as his immortality and eternal youth often seem to him like a curse.

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