Thursday, January 24, 2013

Reviews from The Book Beast - the week's hot reads

Calling Dr. Laura
By Nicole J. Georges
A bracing debut from a promising graphic novelist that deals with abuse, forgiveness, and family secrets.

“Calling Dr. Laura” by Nicole J. Georges. 288 pp. Mariner. US$17.

Calling Dr. Laura, a “graphic memoir” marking the debut of Nicole J. Georges, is reminiscent of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home in its honest self-analysis, but displays a damaged kind of humor all its own. The story bounces back and forth between the female narrator’s own misadventures in love (with women), and those of her mother’s years before (with men), seen from the eyes of the narrator in her childhood. As she finds herself more and more adrift in her life, she revisits episodes of dysfunction to find the root cause of her trouble so that she may escape from them as well. The most sundering of these episodes, and the one that drives the narrative of her adult life, is her discovery that her mother had been lying for years about the death of her father. In her quest for the truth, her mother’s lies show themselves to be even more monstrous. Georges might have a blindness that is so often frustratingly exhibited in the choices of the abused, and it appears she might be incapable of doing what she knows needs to be done. This kind of familial strife is sometimes the stuff of over-drama, but the reader is made to care so much for the narrator that they will be borne along effortlessly. Be prepared to read it in one sitting.

Alone on the Ice
By David Roberts
A riveting account of Australian Douglas Mawson’s exploration of Antarctica and his indomitable will to survive.

“Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration” by David Roberts. 368 pp. W.W. Norton.US$28.

Surely the first name that will come to mind when discussing doomed expeditions during the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” is Ernest Shackleton, but in Alone on the Ice, historian David Roberts recounts the overlooked story of Australian explorer Douglas Mawson and his 1913 scientific mission to Antarctica. It was an odyssey of human trial and triumph every bit as incredible as that of Shackleton’s. The story is as much horror as adventure, with Mawson’s companions one by one falling away, including the sled dogs (which turn into rations), until he alone is left to battle the elements and the despair of his own soul. Roberts, drawing skillfully on the journals of the explorers, does an excellent job of placing the reader inside the head of the men and showing what towering resolve it must have taken to push onward, especially during the incredible climax: Mawson, his friends dead and his body on the brink of defeat, dangles on his harness line in the air of a yawning crevasse, 14 feet below the surface. Here, twisting on the line, he is brought to the absolute brink of his own mortality. With this riveting account, Roberts has done a service to the histories of exploration and human resilience.

Granta 122
By John Freeman (editor)
A collection of fiction from proven masters and exciting newcomers.

“Granta 122” by John Freeman (editor). 264 pp. Grove Press. US$17.

A literary magazine achieves its most effective expression when the stories within are curated rather than simply collected. In Granta 122, the theme is treachery; not only the way that events in the world can conspire against us but also how easy it is for us to betray ourselves. Karen Russell (Swamplandia!) contributes “The New Veterans,” a story of a massage therapist who, while working with an Iraq War veteran covered in tattoos depicting the death of a squad mate, discovers that her ability to heal may be more profound than even she knew. Ben Marcus’s (The Flame Alphabet) story “The Loyalty Protocol” echoes both Don Delillo and George Saunders: while a town runs fascistic evacuation drills in expectation of some kind of apocalypse reminiscent of the Airborne Toxic Event of White Noise, a man wonders what exactly he has to evacuate from, as the lights go off around him. And a dazzling debut entitled “Safety Catch” from newcomer Lauren Wilkinson sweeps over years and continents, following a young woman who dreams of entering the shadow world of espionage only to find that, once initiated, she may never be able to leave. These stories and others, stitched together between well-chosen art and a brilliant and heartbreaking photo essay by Darcy Padilla, offer a package that’s as aesthetically pleasing as intellectually exciting.

More reviews at The Book Beast

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