Monday, January 21, 2008

Wing Walking

One of the things I like most about visiting independent bookstores is that the people who work in them tend not only to be very knowledgeable about the content of their stores but also to be much more friendly than their counterparts in the big chains. Case in point, on a recent visit to The Readers’ Forum in Wayne, PA, I happened to overhear a customer ask my friend Ed Luoma if he had a children’s book that would help her explain diabetes to her non-diabetic grandchildren. Without missing a beat, Ed told her that he had the perfect book for her and led her straight to it. If that’s not expertise, I don’t know what is.

On a separate occasion, I was talking with Ed about the literary offerings of independent presses, and he recommended Wing Walking by Harry Groome (Connelly Press, 2007). I’d seen the book on his shelves as I perused the store on previous visits, but I always assumed it was from one of the bigger publishing houses. Subtle and understated, the light blue cover looks very much like that of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. Assured by Ed (whose own novel, Without Knowing It, is quite exceptional) that Wing Walking was a good read, I had no doubt that I was in for a treat.

Despite its title, Wing Walking is not about the airline industry. Rather, it’s about the pharmaceutical industry, and the title refers to the dangerous nature of attempting a corporate merger in the apparent snake pit that industry tends to be. Starting with the basic premise that there is no separating business concerns from personal relationships, the novel goes on to explore the myriad complications involved in attempting to juggle issues pertaining to family, friendship, profits, corporate responsibility, the concerns of shareholders and (in some cases) the national economy.

In a lesser writer’s hands, many of the issues touched upon in Wing Walking might make for a dull, textbook read, but Groome brings them to life vividly. His characters are strong, and their motives are complex: despite insisting that the balance sheet is all that matters, none of them can help succumbing to ego and giving into more personal urges as they simultaneously fend off hostile advances and plot to stab each other in the back. In many ways, this is the stuff of Shakespearean drama, and I must admit that I haven’t cared this much about the comings and goings of the obscenely rich since Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full.

At just over 200 pages, Wing Walking is a quick and engaging read, a perfect book to take along on a long flight or to pass the hours on a rainy afternoon. To purchase Wing Walking, visit The Readers’ Forum online at or in the flesh at 116 N. Wayne Avenue, Wayne, PA 19087. Alternately, visit the author at

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Tea House

Technically, I should be getting ready for the Spring semester. School starts in a few days, and there are lessons to plan, books to read, emails to send, and a myriad of other duties to take care of, but I just spent the better part of the day reading Paul Elwork's novel, The Tea House (Casperian Books, 2007). Admittedly, I knew the novel would be a page-turner not only because I've come to expect good things from Casperian, but also because I was fortunate enough to read an excerpt of The Tea House when Philadelphia Stories ran a special online Halloween edition in October. What I didn't realize when I picked up the book, however, was how thoroughly it would haunt me.

Reminiscent of The Prestige and The Illusionist, The Tea House is a coming of age story about a pair of twins named Emily and Michael who claim an uncanny ability to commune with those who have passed on. Yet as word of their alleged talent spreads, the twins begin to realize that the distance that separates childhood from maturity is as great as that which separates the living from the dead -- and that returning from either journey is impossible.

What's most at stake in The Tea House is the relationship between the past and the present. Time and again, Elwork takes great pains to remind us that the adults in Michael and Emily's lives believe in the twins' powers not so much because of the evidence presented to them, but because they want to believe. They want to believe in an afterlife. They want to believe that they will one day be reunited with their loved ones. They want to believe that the dead can forgive the living. But for all of their efforts to contact the dead, the living in The Tea House adamantly refuse to communicate with each other in a meaningful way.

One lesson that the twins learn about adulthood, then, is that it's easier to wallow in the past than to live in the present. We tell stories both to reconnect with the past and to tame it, to make it palatable. We also construct complicated alibis to make sense of life's big mysteries, to comfort ourselves in the face of overwhelming chaos. We want to be told that everything makes sense. Deep down (or not so deep down) we know that it doesn't, and The Tea House serves as a gentle reminder of a time when we all stood on the edge of adulthood, believing on one hand in the stories that brought order to the confusion and wishing on the other hand that those stories were true.

Overall, The Tea House is an enchanting, engaging read, and Paul Elwork is a sublimely sensitive storyteller with an ear for character and setting. If this novel is a sign of things to come, we can certainly expect to be both charmed and captivated by Elwork in the future.

To read an excerpt of the The Tea House, click here: Excerpt from The Tea House.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Two by Flann O'Brien

When two people who have never met mention an obscure Irish author to a third person in the space of two weeks, the third person, who, in this case, happens to be me, may well have a tendency to become curious about the obscure Irish author and pick up a couple of his books. In this case, the obscure Irish author was Flann O'Brien, and I have Dana Resente and Sheldon Brivic to thank for suggesting him to me, though "thank" may not be the exact word I'm looking for. Perhaps I should simply hold them responsible.

The first work I read by O'Brien was his posthumously published The Third Policeman. Shelly Brivic recommended it, but Dana Resente warned me against it. Clearly, I had no choice but to find out for myself whether or not this was a good read. As it turns out, they were both right. The Third Policeman is definitely not for everyone; the plot is fairly nonsensical and revolves around a dead man's quest to come to terms with his own death (more or less). Throughout the proceedings, O'Brien's whimsical flights of fancy prove alternately ingenious and maddening. On one hand, there's a fairly lengthy (if slightly veiled) meditation on the folly of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn": where Keats would have us believe that unheard melodies are sweeter than their audible counterparts, O'Brien takes the conceit to such ridiculous extremes that the reader has no choice but to believe that the sharpest needle is that which never touches the skin. Then there's the elevator ride to eternity where one can find one's weight in gold but can never take it home. And, of course, there's also the danger of becoming one with one's bicycle. A truly bizarre book, The Third Policeman is part David Lynch, part James Joyce and part Bob Dylan (in a John Wesley Harding/"Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" kind of way). Worth a glance if you're into the absurd.

The Poor Mouth is not quite as absurd as The Third Policeman, but it's equally funny. In this one, O'Brien takes aim at all of the tropes (or perhaps "cliches" is a better term) of Irish literature. His Ireland is the land of unhappy children, leaky schools, angry headmasters, and pigs who get mistaken for storytellers. As a satirist par excellence, O'Brien is well aware of the fact that he's dealing in cliches, as evidenced by his narrator's observation that every home in the town of Corkadoragh is populated by "one man, at least, called the Gambler," a worn old man who rises only occasionally from his chimney-corner bed to "tell stories of the bad times," and "a comely lassie named Nuala or Babby or Mabel or Rosie." Yet as much as he pokes fun at the tropes of his native culture, the author never shies away from them. Indeed, he embraces and revels in these old cultural saws, and it's his unembarrassed love for the oft-repeated stories of his youth that drive The Poor Mouth forward and make it an enjoyable read.

There's certainly plenty to be said for Flann O'Brien (whose real name, by the way, was Brian O'Nolan), and I can see why my Irish-scholar friends speak so highly of him. He's funny, smart and crazy. At the same time, though, his more esoteric works like The Third Policeman require a bit of patience, and full appreciation of his more "traditional" works like The Poor Mouth may require a fairly firm grounding in Irish culture. An interesting author, but perhaps an acquired taste.

Available from The Dalkey Archive.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Mouth of the Lion

I never really understood what literary types meant by "gritty" until I read Mouth of the Lion by Lily Richards (Casperian, 2006). Gritty is going along for the ride as James, the novel’s narrator, mixes up a batch of methamphetamine and injects it into his arm. Gritty is watching helplessly while Luka, the narrator’s brother, injects himself repeatedly with the same drug in order to prove that he’s attained godhood. Gritty is feeling your stomach turn each time James’s telephone rings because you know the news won’t be good.

Yet the grit in Mouth of the Lion isn’t just there for its own sake, and Richards doesn’t simply revel in gut-wrenching, meticulous detail for the sheer fun of it. Instead, Mouth of the Lion expertly blends grit with heart, and the novel’s focus on the ties that bind offers a deeply moving and complex investigation of familial love. As James struggles to manage his relationship with Luka, he also comes to realize that he can’t save Luka on his own and that he needs the wider network of his estranged brothers to come to grips with the past that drove the family apart.

Ultimately, Mouth of the Lion is about honestly dealing with the past. Fairly early in the novel, Luka proclaims that we all make our own gods and that we make the gods we deserve. This formulation, however, is perhaps too simplistic, too moralistic. While the novel certainly makes a case for the notion that we all make our own gods, it also interrogates the second half of Luka’s dictum thoroughly. We don’t necessarily make the gods we deserve, this interrogation suggests; rather, we make the gods that circumstances demand. We make the gods that allow us to make sense of the world, to make sense out of chaos. We make the gods that allow us to get by.

Gritty, heartfelt and intelligent, Mouth of the Lion is the first offering from Casperian Books. Other titles in the Casperian catalogue include Paul Elwork’s The Tea House and A.F. Rutzy’s promising End Credits. Definitely a publisher worth a second (and third!) glance.

Visit Casperian Books at