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Book Reviews

Book Reviews for Summer 2008

Chameleon Hours
By Elise Partridge (GRS’92) Fiction and Poetry (University of Chicago Press)

Partridge’s poems are sometimes based on images so imaginative they seem inevitable.  Having read “In the Barn,” I will always visualize frogs as sitting “. . . elbows-out,/inscrutable, a drowsy magistrate/hearing a plea . . .” Elsewhere the details, clean, precisely selected, require no such elaboration. ~Natalie Jacobson McCracken


Supermarket Scanner

At the grocery —
checkstand
pair of hands;
staring down,
. . .
schooled to please
customers shifting
foot to foot —
Good morning, ma’am!
Block of lard,
celery, cola —
barely twenty-one,
no time to scan
— a pack of gum,
debit card —
a human face,
no moment free
to ask the regular
how she is,
. . .
Six ears of corn —
worked here three years,
(her mother was
a checker, too)
— frozen pound cake —
no better jobs
except the mill.

The Dark Opens
By Miriam Levine (CAS’63, GRS’65) Fiction and Poetry (Autumn House Press)

In art class, “None of us is any good at getting a likeness except our teacher/whose work is technically perfect and lifeless.” Levine’s poetic technique is so good that it draws no attention away from her realistic scenes and thence from their meaning; a woman pregnant, not yet showing, sunbathes, “Anonymous and alone as I would not be for years,/I would run my hands over my darkening legs.” ~NJM

The Death of the Poem and Other Paragraphs
By Justin Courter (CAS’92) Fiction and Poetry (Main Street Rag)

Stream of semiconsciousness, surrealistic little prose poems that teeter at the edge of meaning, opening with “Can Poultry Matter?”

“There was a time in this country when grandpa would have poultry hour after dinner. We would all gather round and listen to poultry. People kept rows of poultry on shelves now fowled by television.” You get the idea. ~NJM

The Magic Flute: An Opera by Mozart
By Kyra Teis (STH’95) Fiction and Poetry (Star Bright Books)

Mozart’s opera becomes a fairytale in this adaptation, gorgeously and amusingly illustrated for the “bright-eyed six-year-old” Teis says she once was. ~NJM

Remember Love
By Jody Lisberger (GRS’91) Fiction and Poetry (Fleur-de-Lis Press)

“And yet you love him, she hears herself saying, hating how she feels caught between her love for herself and her love for him, feeling her confusion.” At the center of most of these spare, insightful stories are women confused by conflicting desires for love and for the courage to speak up in defense of their principles, from the woman thirty years into her second marriage, who wants her husband to get up off that chaise lounge on the patio and carry out a ladder for her, to the high school girl who finds a reckless, liberating physical freedom. ~NJM

A Tomb on the Periphery
By John Domini (CAS’74) Fiction and Poetry (Gival Press)

An ancient tomb near Naples, despoiled, by definition, by the arrival of archaeologists, is thereby open to the ravages of the cop rented to protect it, big-time mobsters, illegal immigrants perhaps looking only for a place to sleep, and freelance graverobbers like Fabbrizio, himself threatened by all the others. Just trying to make a dishonest living to support his ailing widowed mother and his brother (rendered useless by his Internet addiction), Fabbrizio’s efforts are further complicated by the demands of an American, high priestess of her own pseudomythology, and by the spirit of the girl whom the tomb was constructed to shelter. ~NJM

The Widening
By Carol Moldaw (GRS’86) Fiction and Poetry (Etruscan Press)

In 103 mostly one-page chapters, this first novel describes nearly as many erotic encounters, without the erotic details or much romance, as a young woman finds sex at first liberating, then increasingly random, enslaving, and demeaning. ~NJM

Crossing the Water: A Photographic Path to the Afro-Cuban Spirit World
By Anneke Wambaugh (CAS’78) and Claire Garoutte Nonfiction (Duke University Press)

Over five years, two young women became the “spiritual godchildren” of Santiago Castañeda Vera, a charismatic Cuban priest leading his religious family in a blend of African-based spirit religions with Catholic overtones. This is their account, in words and more than 150 striking, primarily black-and-white photos, of theologies, rituals, spirit possession, healing, and their own participation, always highly respectful and occasionally amused at situations they’ve gotten themselves into (including a shopping trip that gleaned floor fans, slightly damaged food, and a suitably large and handsome sacrificial goat, a malodorous beast who fortunately proved too big to fit in their rental car). ~NJM

Divide or Conquer: How Great Teams Turn Conflict into Strength
By Diana McLain Smith (CAS’73) Nonfiction (Portfolio/Penguin)

“We know that relationships matter, but not exactly why or how,” Smith writes, surely eliciting some knowing groans and “amens” from anyone who’s ever had to sit through a company team-building seminar. Smith eschews the typical leader-follower jargon for a deeper discussion of the daily give-and-take behind business successes and failures. Using case studies gleaned from her consulting experience, the scandal pages (Steve Jobs’s and John Sculley’s public fallout at Apple in the 1980s), and even American history (a fascinating breakdown of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address), Smith argues for a better understanding of the interpersonal and psychological factors that underlie the formal ties of business relationships. And she’s aware that it all sounds a little touchy-feely: originally trained as a family therapist, Smith isn’t afraid to paint warring CEOs and COOs or bickering department managers as the troubled couples they really are. ~Katie Koch

Insider’s Guide to Gum Disease, Orthodontics and Dentistry: What Is Not Taught in Dental School
By David C. DiBenedetto (SDM’80) Nonfiction (iUniverse)

If periodontal disease is caused by bacteria, as is commonly believed, why haven’t antibiotics sent it the way of, say, leprosy? Dentist DiBenedetto insists the real causes are poor dental health, and particularly, faulty jaw alignment, problems orthodontists could correct if only their training had not focused on cosmetics. He offers tooth-saving advice to dentists and researchers as well as to patients. ~NJM

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for Dummies
By Mark Goulston (MED’76) Nonfiction (Wiley Publishing)

“There is a road out of this terrible place,” a practicing clinical psychologist assures those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in introducing this easily accessed handbook, done up in the familiar large black-and-yellow Dummies format. He describes possible causes, symptoms, and treatments, particularly choosing and working with a therapist, to move from victim to survivor to thriver and how to help others, children and adults, recover and thrive. ~NJM

Santiago’s Children: What I Learned About Life at an Orphanage in Chile
By Steve Reifenberg (COM’86) Nonfiction (University of Texas Press)

Reifenberg’s memoir spans the two years he spent working at an orphanage in Santiago, Chile, in the early 1980s. While the politics and people are particular, his honest account of the transformative power — for better or worse — of humanitarian work is universal. There’s the postgraduate malaise, as his desire to make a difference clashes with the cold realities of his first job, that spurs Reifenberg to seek out the small orphanage. There are the usual do-gooder fantasies (Reifenberg begins the book with his failed attempt to start a family garden with the kids) tempered by an affected “objectivity, so stern and rational,” that disappears as he falls in love with his troubled charges and with the politically tumultuous country itself. And of course, to keep things light, there are fish-out-of-water anecdotes aplenty: first attempts at Spanish and soccer, the difficulties of shoe shopping as the town’s big-footed “gringo” oddity. Reifenberg’s prose — modest, sometimes cautionary, but ultimately optimistic — nails what it’s like to be young and idealistic in a foreign land, making it a perfect read for recent alums considering a similar path. ~Katie Koch

Stupid Wars: A Citizen’s Guide to Botched Putsches, Failed Coups, Inane Invasions & Ridiculous Revolutions
By Ed Strosser (CAS’86) and Michael Prince (CAS’86, LAW’89) Nonfiction (Collins)

The authors, who have been talking history together since they met in a BU undergraduate history class, describe with irreverent high humor wars and similar conflicts undertaken stupidly: the Bay of Pigs invasion, of course, and others, from the fall of the Roman Empire, when the Emperor Valens showed the Goths too much mercy, to the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, undertaken by “the cream of the [Soviet] mediocrities.” Then there was Russia’s war against Finland. In November 1939, Stalin sent out an army equipped with tanks, antitank guns, and plenty of communist propaganda, but without warm clothing, failing to note that Finland lacked roads that accommodated tanks, had no tanks itself, and was virtually icebound in winter, when temperatures drop to thirty below. Outmaneuvered by Finnish soldiers on skis, the Soviets fitted out some troops with skis and others with how-to-ski instructions. One Soviet unit was outfitted in tsarist-period uniforms swiped from a museum. For camouflage in the snow, the Finns sometimes covered themselves with sheets. Stalin expected it all to be over in two weeks. After more than four months and the loss of 250,000 men, the Soviets took the land they wanted. The Finns lost a tenth that number — proving, perhaps, that war itself is stupid. ~NJM

Under New England: The Story of New England’s Rocks and Fossils
By Charles Ferguson Barker (GRS’88) Nonfiction (University Press of New England)

“Heaven is under our feet, as well as over our heads,” naturalist Henry David Thoreau once wrote, and geologist Barker would certainly agree. Several such quotations from the region’s celebrated writers pop up throughout the book, as a testament to the unlikely inspiration found in studying New England’s rocky coastlines and wooded hills. The latest entry in Barker’s series of geology books, which he also illustrates, aims to evoke the same sense of wonder and curiosity for young readers. Imagine a fifth-grade science textbook, with bright, playful illustrations substituting for those boring step-by-step experiments. ~Katie Koch


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