AQ13 Summer 2015 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte
Einde verhaal/End of Story by Philibert Schogt, Arbeiderspers, ISBN 978-90-295-3903-6, 2015, 344 pages.
Poor Advice by Lou Gaglia. Spring Up Mountain Press, ISBN 978-0-9863490-0-3, 2015, 216 pages.
The Best Women’s Travel Writing (vol. 10) edited by Lavinia Spalding. Travelers Tales, ISBN 978-1-60952-098-4, 2014, 305 pages.
This issue includes reviews of three books which I feel are guaranteed to provide AQ’s readers with enjoyable summer reading. The first is a novel, Einde verhaal/End of Story by Amsterdam’s Anglo-Dutch writer, Philibert Schogt. The second, Poor Advice, a collection of short stories by American writer, Lou Gaglia, and the third, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 10, a collection of women’s travel essays, edited by Lavinia Spalding.
Einde verhaal/End of Story is Schogt’s fifth novel, (the fourth published by the Arbeiderspers). It is the bilingual story of John or Johan Butler, an emigre Dutch-Canadian translator who lives in a little village just north of Amsterdam who is about to retire until he receives one last, controversial and potentially dangerous assignment. Butler, who has lived in the Netherlands for the last 20 years, receives the assignment to publish Tobey Quinn, a famous American novelist’s latest nover of the same title into Dutch. Since this novel contains a passage in which the God takes part in a celestial talent contest with Charles Darwin and the devil and loses, however, Quinn, Quinn’s publisher and ultimately Butler all receive death threats from a fundamentalist, Christian preacher—End of Story—end of you!” John/Johan Butler, nonetheless, translates the first chapter and when things heat up, travels back to Canada to his parents holiday camp, Butler’s Hideaway, near Algonquin Park for his own safety, to meet Quinn and to confront his Dutch-Canandian background which he abandoned twenty years previously when he decided to move to the Netherlands temporarily with his girlfriend Cindy for a year. After one year became two and two years two decades and John/Johan fell in love with and impregnated his publisher’s assistant for whom he was doing translation work, John/Johan’s stay finally became permanent.
But death threats and infidelity are just minor parts of this novel which is really about growing up bi-lingual and the type of cerebral and thus emotional attachment conflicts it creates. The protagonist is not one person but two—John in English and Johann in Dutch. And the novel is written in two languages—English to tell mostly John’s point of view and Dutch to reveal Johan’s. In addition, in the more epistolary English sense, John’s English part is told in the first person, whilst Johan’s more emotionally reserved Dutch part is told in the third person. As a result of this, the two parts of the story are not parallel. John tells much more about his sexual exploits on a secluded Canadian island with his high school girl friend who accompanies him to the Netherlands for 20 years, than his Dutch alter-ego ever does. Johan is also much more in love with his 20 year younger wife, his two daughters and his idyllic life in the village of Holysloot just North of Amsterdam, its back garden draped in apple blossoms, than his alter-ego John who writes his memoirs whilst Johan sleeps and who wants to return to Canada. It’s the death threat that finally tips the scales and enables John to drag Johan back to Canada to encounter the country where “they” both grew up which is now both familiar and foreign due to their 20 year absence. John/Johan also encounters many surprises towards the end of this story, which I will not give away, but which sustains the narrative suspense to the novel’s end.
This is a novel most bi- or polylingual writers, readers and artists will enjoy since its explains the cerebral bifurcation and emotional difficulties encountered by people raised in more than one culture and belonging wholly to none.
Lou Gaglia’s Poor Advice is a collection of humorous, entertaining short stories, set mostly in one of New York’s Italian-American neighbourhoods but occasionally branching out into other alternative settings. Due to his not-completely dependable narrators lack of education, however, they don’t always grasp the situations in which they find themselves. For example, the narrator in the title story goes to the opera alone after not being able to get up enough courage to ask a waitress out. He describes the interval of the opera as “half time” how he had trouble staying awake until:
Mimi went into one of those viscous coughing jags hacking up a storm while everyone, except the horses, looked on worried. Before she knew it, she was in bed dying, and the writer was bent over her, not even minding she was coughing in his face—a sure sign of true love when a girl can cough in a guy’s face and he doesn’t even flinch or get pissed.
Another interesting story is the surrealist “Tony, the Mustache,” during which a moustache is persistently worried about being shaved off because his wearer’s girlfriend doesn’t like the way he looks.
Tony lived in constant apprehension. As a result, he was a very jumpy mustache. He had horrible nightmares a few times a week, sometimes more….Tony could be described as a nervous wreck of a mustache, though his master would only refer to him as “this stupid mustache,” which sometimes left Tony depressed for days.
This narrative is even more interesting because not only does this moustache have consciousness, but it is also is able to talk to other moustaches it passes on the street.
“You look a little down in the bristles, Tone.” Ray said.
“Thinking about being shaved again?”
“Look. I told you. Stop reading that Satre.”
“I can’t help it. Anthony’s reading Being and Nothingness.
“You don’t have to read it. Curl your hairs.”
Although, many of these stories are satirical and/or humorous such as “Orca (A Madcap Thriller)” a satire of Jaws and “Days of Wine and Pratfalls,” about a waitress who infects her boyfriend with her clumbsiness as she learns to be graceful by practicing yoga, some stories such as “Little Leagues” and “This is my Montauk” delve into serious subjects such as the long-term effects of bullying and drugs in their narrators’ neighbourhoods. Both of these stories, due to their realism and candor are worth the sum of all the humour and entertainment in this book. Poor Advice is a fine, well-balanced, collection of short stories and comes with “A Reader’s Guide,” which could facilitate discussion of this book in secondary and tertiary educational settings. It is certainly one that will not disappoint recreational or academic readers.
The last book for the summer that I would like to recommend is Lavinia Spaulding’s The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 10. I spent about a month reading one of these thirty-one travel vignettes each night before I went to sleep and enjoyed learning about travel and cultures from the Arctic “For the Sake of the Sin” (Norway) by Blare Braveman, and “Leader of the Pack” (Finland) by Peggy Orenstein to the tropics “Good is Coming” (India) by Angela Long, “Ashes over Havana” (Cuba) by Magda Montiel Davis and “Why did the American Cross the Road” (Vietnam) by Sarah Katin and the writers who describe the many countries in-between.
Many of these journeys are made by women with various goals in mind. Some are on errands, such as Davis in “Ashes over Havana,” where she first describes her frustration trying to get her father’s ashes back into the country he fled after the Cuba revolution and later trying to fulfill his wish to be strewn on the playing field of Havana’s baseball stadium. Due to the guards at the stadium’s entrance however, Magda decides to covertly deposit her father’s ashes outside of the stadium with an old friend, Ive, who has remained in Cuba since their childhood. Later at Havana’s seawall, she throws the last of her father’s ashes into the sea that separates Havana and Miami. But the ashes
…fly back inland, toward a pretty girl with brown skin kissing her boyfriend, a pretty brown girl now covered with my father’s ashes. Ive and I stare at each other. Ay, I say to the pretty brown girl’s boyfriend as he wipes the white off her face, her hair, her blouse, pernonanos. It’s O.K. he say, pronounced O-kah, the anti-imperalista, Revolutionary way…That’s O.K. I say….Dad’s happy going home with her tonight. He always liked brown-skinned girls best.
Other stories include accounts of women’s journeys made despite recent medical traumas or hardships and/or on-going disabilities. For example in “An Unwanted Guest” (Indonesia), Simone Girrindo describes not only the toll hiking through a Javan rainforest and a accidently stepping on a jelly fish took on her journey and her relationship, but also the added effect her chronic medical condition had on her own health and her relationship.
At home, my condition and his abilities had, somewhat magically, never been at odds, but here, the difference seemed stark and divisive. He belonged to the land of the healthy, where people move easily, their arms and legs vehicles that get them where they want to go. And I was on another island entirely, a place that, no matter how many times I circled it, offered no way off.
Many of the other stories in this collection describe women pushing themselves to their physical limits to discover and/or reclaim their bodies’ strength and resilience. This writing is also accompanied by a keen eye for the history and the culture of the people among which they are living. It is an excellent collection of travel essays, not only for women but also for men who want to share these women’s insights of their travels in different parts of the world.