Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Spoiler-free summary:
Subhash and Udayan Mitra, in their younger years, could pass as twins. Inseparable and mischievous, their boyhood in Calcutta is the essence of nostalgia. But as a political schism shakes India, the boys find themselves drifting apart. Despite the space and time between them, life's cruelties ensure that they remain hopelessly entangled - haunted by one another.

I listened to this on audiobook while driving to and from work. I think I would have liked it less if I had read it in print. I'm in this distractable, impatient phase; Nothing is intense enough, nothing is what I want it to be. I attribute this to being in a weird part of my life where I'm so in tune with my emotions that anything that's not biting, razor-sharp and real is disappointing. The Lowland ebbed and surged - flaring out into these beautiful, soul-wrenching scenes that made my chest hurt, and then falling away again into lulling, stagnant monotony.

Listening to this in the confines of my car ensured that I made it through those slower scenes, the long stretches of time in which no one really did anything. There was a lot of exposition in this book and I feel like I zoned out for long periods of time, forgetting to listen, but came back in time for some poignant, reverberating scene.

At times, I felt overwhelmed. This book spans decades and continents. There are political movements I've never heard of (and still don't really understand, despite being pivotal to the plot). There are complicated names and foreign holidays. However, when I think about it all now, from the ending, I feel somewhat underwhelmed; Despite all of these ranges and places, this book said something very small, though I'm not sure I could define it for you.

I've read a lot of reviews from people who weren't happy with the progression of the characters - who felt like no one evolved. I agree, it does seem like everyone fell into stasis after Udayan's death, but I liked this. I think this was the point. Like the Lowland, they were stagnant, resistant, unchanging until the world slowly overtook them.

I was feeling unsatisfied toward the end of the book, though I think we were meant to feel that way, but the last page brought me back, made me content.

Buy The Lowland today in a multitude of formats.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Zarina Zabrisky's Virtual Book Tour

This week, Book Puke is honored to be a part of Zarina Zabrisky's virtual book tour for A Cute Tombstone! There is still time to follow the tour - follow the link on the banner below.

In Zarina Zabrisky’s A CUTE TOMBSTONE, Lyn Minkin is a Russian woman who lives in the United States, but is alerted that her mother has passed away--in Russia. Lyn, whose full name in Russian is Polina Iosifovna, must go make plans for her mother’s--and her motherland’s--death.

Below is a discussion of Zarina Zabrisky’s article "Pussy Riot: The New Face of Avant Garde" and the connection between the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin's government. The Pussy Riot artists protested the same trend that Zabrisky show in A CUTE TOMBSTONE--only three years later, when the things crystallized. Now, two years after their protest, and five years after her story was written, the nation is brainfucked to idiocy and we are just looking back at how it had happened...

The funeral of Lyn’s mother coincides with a Russian national holiday: “Dying on April 30th was a terrible idea. Every year, Russian people start drinking excessive amounts of vodka on May 1st--the former Day of Solidarity with World Proletarian, the inheritance of Soviet times--and don’t stop until May 9th--the Day of Russian Victory in World War II. One set of my grandparents died in Holocaust, another in the Leningrad Siege. I like May 9th. I don’t like the drunken stupor that tales over the whole country for ten days--May 10th is a national hangover day--but it’s our tradition. We thrive on traditions.”

It is not only mother, but motherland, that has died. Zarina Zabrisky comments on the death of Russia through Lyn’s experiences: And some traditions are falsified--the memories of non-existent, the photoshopped idols, the phantoms of faith that simply was not there… “A new, freshly painted church--peaches and cream--reminded me of a giant glazed donut. It used to be a public bathhouse in the old times.” The Soviets banned religion. They turned churches into warehouses and gyms. The Cathedral of Our Saviour Christ where the Pussy Riot had their punk prayer, used to be an open air swimming pool.  It was heated and open even in freezing winters and looked like hell with all the steam and vapors coming from the water… Putin rebuilt it, along with many other churches. He knew very well that he needed more than the tradition of drinking.  In place of ideology he needed blind faith. 

The Autopsy Specialist in the morgue asks Lyn: “When is the church service?” She contemplates the differences in Russia, the changes that are being made to control the people: “This was the fourth time, I thought. Some things had changed. According to Karl Marx, religion was opium for people. So, in the Soviet Union, churches and warehouses became warehouses. Religion just didn’t exist.” In Russia that Lyn rediscovers, everyone is suddenly piously religious--from her ethnically Jewish uncle, a former atheist, to her childhood best friend, a fashionista and nouveau riche. The fear of God is the fear of authority. The fear of power.  All that has to be done, is to assign the former KGB officer to the Patriarch of the whole Russia and--voila!  Putin is god sent.  Vote for Putin, or you will burn in hell. 

...society turns into a travesty.  Everyone participates.  Those in power stage its own elaborate absurd spectacle.  According to Ekaterina Samutsevich, another Pussy Riot artist, "Putin, in need of more persuasive, transcendental guarantees of his long tenure at the pinnacle of power" uses "the aesthetic of the Orthodox religion... historically associated with the heyday of Imperial Russia, where power came not from earthly manifestations such as democratic elections and civil society, but from God Himself."  Putin’s former KGB colleague Gundyayev becomes the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church and announces Putin "a gift from God." The Cathedral of Christ the Savior is now used as a "flashy backdrop for the politics of the security forces, the main source of power in Russia," along with the glass cage and barking dogs of the trial room.

The Pussy Riot artists take their turn performing their "punk prayer" in front of the same "flashy backdrop” of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Their act has a feel of parody: the element unacceptable to the Russian Orthodox officials.

Both shock and laughter shake the observer from his or her comfort zone and suddenly reveal the absurdity of religious zeal with its kneeling, maniac bowing, and pagan throws of holy fools.  The illusion of sacred ritual is broken. The comfort of habit is exploded, revealing its mechanics devoid of magic.
Says Tolokonnikova: "We were looking for genuineness and simplicity and we found them in the holy foolishness of our punk performances. Passion, openness and naivety are superior to hypocrisy, cunning and a contrived decency that conceals crimes. The state’s leaders stand with saintly expressions in church but, in their deceit, their sins are far greater than ours." 

Taking the translation the "punk prayer" art language a step further: The prayer is performed at the altar, banned for women in the Russian Orthodox Church.  The staging is meant to draw attention to the role of women in Putin's Russia.

By covering the face and emphasizing the female body shape, Pussy Riot minimizes a woman to her gender, reduces her to genitals.  Russian women have been traditionally reduced to sex objects. The Pussy Riot artists drive this role to absurdity, objectifying a woman to the extreme.

The first part of the band name highlights the concept.  In the best tradition of avant-garde art, Pussy Riot creates the first shock by "slapping the face of the public taste."  Speaking about sex and body parts related to sex was a taboo for generations of Soviet citizens. Breaking these taboos is highly arousing.  The sexual excitement is perceived as wrong and punishable.  So even saying the name of the band-- "Pussy Riot"--is punishable as it is arousing.
The symbolic "pussy" of Pussy Riot is a protesting vagina.  This is the most dangerous type. In a totalitarian state, vaginas are state property. Women are food, sex and children providers.  They generate and raise new human material, cannon fodder, the new fuel for the state.  Slaves produce slaves.  Hence a conforming woman is the foundation of a totalitarian state.

"Pussy Riot" creates a major threat.  The "mother" rebels against the existing power--"fathers" of all sorts, tsars, Lenin, Stalin, Putin--the patriarchal Russian state.  A non-conforming "pussy" can not be a "mother."

Zarina Zabrisky is the author of two short story collections, IRON and A CUTE TOMBSTONE (Epic Rites Press), and a novel WE, MONSTERS (Numina Press).  Zabrisky's work has appeared in over thirty literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Hong Kong, and Nepal. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a recipient of 2013 Acker Award. Read more about the author at You can purchase A CUTE TOMBSTONE here! 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

**Approximately a billion spoilers are contained below**

I'm not going to summarize this one. I probably shouldn't even write a review for this book; It's been reviewed over 700,000 times on Goodreads, so I most likely have nothing exciting to contribute to the conversation. It's also not a new book, but it is enjoying a resurgence due to the movie coming out this week. And finally, it's YA, which, while I have no one specific qualm with the genre, is something I honestly just can't get into and is something I do not want to get into the habit of reviewing. Despite all of this, I still wanted to say something about this novel. I think secretly, in my prepubescent heart (why is my heart prepubescent?), I kind of just want to talk to someone about this book, and perhaps cry a little.

Let's start with the things I didn't like about this book, and knew I wouldn't like about this book.

Hazel and Augustus are pretentious. Really pretentious. Sometimes they're pretentious in fun, cute ways that make you happy that they're too smart to handle themselves without letting it seep all over, but most of the time you're wondering how these people exist and how no one ever told them to just shut the hell up, cancer or not. Hazel was worse than Gus, probably because she was less "socialized" since she had been out of school for so long. If you can justify something horrible about a character due to something that actually happened in the book, does it make them less horrible? I'm not sure. I just didn't like her as much as I felt like I was supposed to. She was Juno, without the things that made you like Juno.

I didn't like Isaac. I'm not sure what his role was supposed to be. To offer a subjective view of Hazel and Gus? To foreshadow brokenheartedness? To be some heavy-handed metaphor about the blindness of humanity? I just couldn't figure it out. He introduces Hazel and Gus, and then proceeds to be mostly boring for the rest of the novel.

I thought the book drawled on a little longer than necessary after Gus's death. I wanted some ambiguity. I wanted to be angry.

I guess I disliked less about this book than I thought I did.

So what I liked were the descriptions of Amsterdam, Hazels' dedication to An Imperial Affliction and how she still loves the book even though the author is a horrible person.

John Green is a very good writer. He makes the most vague, strange things sound simple and true. However, he is also very good at catchphrases and literary one-liners, which make for nice gifs and phone case designs and t-shirts and - let me just say that this man knew what he was doing.

But what I liked most, even though it's a little pretentious, is this:
"I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward the consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed." I shared that line with someone who I care about and who I don't want to think I read YA, so I had to preface it with, "So, this is embarrassing, but, I'm reading this chicklit book and..." I almost feel bad for presenting it that way (almost).

Honestly, if I had read (or listened to - I listened to this book on CD in my car) this book at any other time, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed it as much. But I am particularly vulnerable right now, and this edged itself right in. I think I'm at a point where, after some relationships that were so sad that I can't even really think about them, I kind of just want to be loved, and to have someone to appreciate things with. Hazel and Gus were good at appreciating things together. For all of their snark and pessimism, they liked the things they liked. Their love was simple, even though their predicament was not.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Bonnie ZoBell's Virtual Book Tour

I am incredibly excited to be the next stop on Bonnie ZoBell's virtual book tour! Thank you for visiting BookPuke and be sure to follow the rest of the tour through June 6th!

Follow Along With Bonnie’s Virtual Book Tour Using the Link on the Banner!

Synopsis: What Happened Here delivers a wildly different cast of characters living on the same block in North Park, San Diego, site of the PSA Flight 182 crash in 1978. The crash is history, but its legacy seeps in the stories of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, bringing grief, anxiety, and rebellion to the surface and eventually assists in burning clean the lives of those who live in the shadow of disaster. Amidst the pathos of contemporary life, humor flits through these stories like the macaws that have taken to the trees of North Park. The birds ensure that there’s never a dull moment in the neighborhood, and their outrageous colors and noisome squawks serve as constant reminds of regrowth.

You can purchase What Happened Here using this link

Grab the Lapels blogger Melanie Page interviews author Bonnie ZoBell about the setting and characters in her new collection, What Happened Here:

Melanie: To me, the setting is so important to this collection. What are your feelings?

Bonnie:  Setting is always extremely important to me in all my work, and I love to read about it in other people’s fiction, too. The locale and the ambience have so much to do with the characters and who they are—their belief systems, what life is like for them, morals, what other people around them are like. To me, setting tells worlds.

In What Happened Here, I mean for North Park to become a character in its own right. I don’t know whether any of those characters would be the same if they didn’t come from sun-drenched, desert-like, casual North Park. When I read a good setting in someone else’s book, it makes me feel like I’m in the scene, too, and one of the characters.

Melanie:  As I was reading the title story, I felt the 30th anniversary of the PSA crash paralleled the depression and anxiety of John beautifully. There’s quite a bit of tension in this story! Why is John so sensitive to the crash?

Bonnie: John is bipolar and deeply depressed. It's not logical why people feel depression, or at least I don't believe it is. The more we find out about the disease—and we've learned so much about mental health problems over the last fifty years it's incredible—the more we're finding out how much of this is chemical and hereditary, as I try to suggest in the novella. Only 73 years ago, Rosemary Kennedy was given a (failed) partial lobotomy for what was later deemed by most as some as form of depression. The first antidepressant wasn't invented until 1958. I have chronic depression, for which I'm very well treated, but when I had my first bout in college, the theory was you should snap out of it, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, stop feeling sorry for yourself.

I try to show both John's mania and his depression. His problem is that medications aren't working on him. There are something like 30% of patients who are unresponsive to medication. He could be imagining that the coming of the 30th anniversary of the crash is paralleling his own descent into depression. He may have unintentionally talked himself into this. For whatever reason, he firmly believes it's true.

John probably really does feel the sense of loss of the people who died during the crash thirty years ago more deeply than anyone else in the neighborhood. He's in a hyper-sensitized state and feels everything acutely. All the talk of the crash really could be making him feel increasingly depressed.

Melanie: John definitely sounds like a complex character. Was there a character who made you frustrated or angry?
Bonnie:  I can’t think of too many times my characters have made me frustrated or mad. Oh, maybe occasionally frustrated, like Susan’s father in “Uncle Rempt.” He’s a really uptight kind of guy who lives in Aloha, Washington. Whereas his male balding pattern looks like the stripes of a jail cell, his brother Rempt, who’s a much looser and quirkier kind of guy, has a balding pattern that looks like a Yin Yang symbol. Susan’s father only finally let’s her move out of the house when she’s a senior in college and then only to the dorms of her Catholic college. From there, she’s so enamored by her Uncle Rempt’s free spirit, she sneaks over to his new shop without telling her father every chance she gets and helps her uncle sell rock crystals known for their spiritual and healing powers.

A part of me would like to shake Susan’s father’s shoulders and say, “Get a life, man!” This uptight stuff makes our existence nothing but a big prison cell. You’ve got to let your guard down sometimes, have a little fun, allow your kids to cut loose a bit. But exasperating as he is, I don’t feel anger towards Susan’s dad because he’s human. These are feelings of protectiveness he exhibits—he can never let down his guard with Susan because he loves her and doesn’t want anything bad to happen to her. I don’t believe feelings can be right or wrong. He wouldn’t be real if he weren’t fallible. I might not choose to be friends with him in real life, but if writers don’t like their characters, something’s wrong. Our job is to find the core humanity in those we bring to life to help readers and ourselves to not be so alone, to understand the moral implications of our actions instead of lashing out. If I don’t like one of my characters, then I think I’m not going deeply enough in trying to understand his or her psychology.

Melanie:  There are a lot of ghosts in these stories, especially the novella. What is your intent with that?

Bonnie:  I did end up writing more about ghosts than I planned to, but I also had, well, if not a good time with them, at least an informative time with them. There are the ghosts of the bodies who died during the crash, which the current neighbors need to deal with...or not deal with. If you live in a house where people died, it’s probably a good idea to sort it out in your mind just a little bit.

As I wrote about how different characters came to terms with the crash, I found myself asking in each case whether that particular person felt his or her house seemed haunted by the spirits or welcomed by them, or whether that character seemed not to acknowledge any spirits at all. Their perceptions are all a little different and help define who they are. I also came to terms with how there was a whole different type of specter floating through the tales that were equally haunting and disturbing. A number of my characters have had troubled pasts with parents or siblings or unfortunate situations (PTSD) and are having difficulties leaving those phantoms behind. In essence, the folks are being tormented because of unresolved issues. I guess I’m of the belief that we all have some ghosts kicking around in our pasts. Who we are or how happy we allow ourselves to be is largely about how peacefully we’re able to either leave these shadows behind or live peacefully with them, instead of allowing them to continue tormenting us day in and day out.

Melanie: Overall, there are a lot of characters in this collection! Was it hard working with all of them? Were there any struggles in updating the reader on what a character is doing when the focus of the story is not his or hers?

Bonnie:  The stories were actually written over a thirty-year period, so mostly I wasn’t working on all of them at the same time. Sometimes I do have a few stories or a story and a novel or a flash I’m writing simultaneously, and as I started shaping this collection, I was working on several What Happened Here stories together because I wanted to add them to make the book more cohesive. When I began to actually organize the collection as a whole, I did have to be careful about what had happened with various characters in previous stories before I had them running through the next one. Especially Sean, the missing surfer, who gets talked about in a lot of the stories following "Sea Life," I had to keep very close track of.

What I finally did was type up a big chart, listing all the stories, what point of view each was in, a summary of what happened, whether the story ended happily or sadly, and what other characters from other stories did when they ran through tales not their own. I had to do this with the macaws, too, who show up throughout the book. I didn't want them to be doing the same thing every time, and I also didn't want all the characters' reactions to the macaws to be the same.

Melanie: Do you hope readers will take away a message from this collection? 

Bonnie:  I wouldn’t want readers to feel as if they’d been hit over the head with a message, though I’d like to think the book has some meaning. Mostly, I want people to feel they’ve experienced what it might be like to live as someone else—don’t we sort of crave that, in a voyeuristic way, wanting to know what makes other people tick, how they get through their days, how they cope with the same kinds of problems and moral issues we have? I hope readers might come away thinking it’s worth fighting against fate when it delivers catastrophes, that we have some control over how our lives turn out.

Bonnie ZoBell’s chapbook The Whack-Job Girls was released by Monkey Puzzle Press in March 2013. She has received an NEA fellowship in fiction, the Capricorn Novel Award, A PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, the Los Angeles Review nominated one of her stories for a Pushcart Award, a place on Wigleaf’s Top 50, and a story published by Storyglossia was named as a notable story in story South’s Million Writers Award.  After receiving an MFA from Columbia on fellowship, she has been teaching at San Diego Mesa College where she is a Creative Writing Coordinator.