LitKicks Reviews: May 2006

Fiction News Reviews Russian
We usually review a large proportion of indie publications, poetry chapbooks and the like, but today we're looking at three hardcover titles, all from large publishers. Here's a diverse set of new books that might interest you:

Come Back by Claire and Mia Fontaine

This memoir by Claire and Mia Fontaine tells a familiar story -- teenage bad attitude, growing pains, massive drug abuse, a painful recovery. What makes this book unique is the mother-daughter concept: Mia Fontaine is the book's topic, but she and her mother Claire take turns telling the tale. Claire opens the book with a harrowing tale of Mia's toddler-age sexual victimization by an eccentric hippie father. The first cut is the deepest, as Cat Stevens says, and her mother sees Mia's later traumas as a natural progression from this disturbing start.

The dual narrative format provides a fascinating study in contrasts, and the voices sharply outline the separate roles the mother and daughter play in this relationship. Claire seems to be bursting with a story to tell, and she's a skillful writer with a vivid style. But Mia's contributions tend to be short, gritty and stubbornly un-decorative. Claire seems more excited about Mia's recovery than Mia does, which seems to point to some larger truth about the nature of addiction recovery: it is a lifelong hard grind, and to the recovering addict the process rarely feels like joy.

Mia's description of her painful and invasive recovery regime forms the center of this book. The mother's story sometimes recalls a classic of this genre, And I Don't Want To Live This Life by Deborah Spungen, though Come Back happily ends differently. My one complaint is that some of the expressions of maternal love could be cut, and nobody should ever describe a scene where a beautiful child runs laughing with her family on the beach. But this flaw is easy to overlook ... Come Back is an honest and unusual book, and I would not be surprised if other families in crisis discover it to be helpful.

The Elagin Affair by Ivan Bunin

Ivan Bunin is a 20th Century Russian writer who endeavored during his lifetime to represent his country's tremendous literary tradition. He lived in exile in France after the Bolsheviks took power, remaining highly active and winning the Nobel Prize in 1933.

But Bunin's legacy is more literary than historic; this author intended to write like his great forebears, and so his stories are full of grand passions, violent philosophical arguments and sociological perversions. The best of his stories have been newly translated and published as The Elagin Affair.

In the title story a soldier murders the woman he dearly loves, and we slowly find out why. I am constantly reminded of the great tradition of Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Tolstoy ... almost to the point that I can't figure out where the tradition ends and Bunin begins. But Bunin's characters and plots are his own, and his original presentations made him more popular during his lifetime than he is now. This new book aims to correct that. If you're interested in Russian literature, this book has a place in your collection.

The Stars Above Veracruz by Barry Gifford

I wanted to love Barry Gifford's book of interlinked short stories, The Stars Above Veracruz. The author will always be in my good graces because of his work on Jack's Book, a classic oral history/biography of Jack Kerouac published back in 1978 when very few people cared about Kerouac. He also wrote the novel that became David Lynch's Wild At Heart, which is somewhat impressive, despite the fact that this is Lynch's worst movie.

I can't say I loved Gifford's new collection, but I did like it. His voice is crisp, his tall tales of colorful shady characters around the world are mercifully short, and I really like the way he ends each tale with a small koan-like poem. On the negative side, the author didn't seem to be trying very hard to write great literary fiction ... I sense an author who feels he has little to prove. I also have a problem with the fact that a mysterious character called Ropedancer seems to thread through various of these pieces. I don't like mysterious characters called Ropedancer anymore than I like laughing children running along the beach.

Each story is set in a different locale -- Romania, Buenos Aires, San Francisco -- and they often consist of small anecdotes told via overheard bits of conversation. In one story, a man is murdered by a romantic rival on a small tropical island, but few seem to mind, because "Nobody liked George Morgan". The amusing set pieces form some kind of Paul Bowles-esque worldly quilt, I guess, but I did wish for a greater thrust from somewhere within. Like the faint stars in the Veracruz sky, these stories may burn brightly somewhere, but they feel cool and distant from where I stand.

Want a Book?

The publicist for Come Back sent me two copies by mistake (I'm noticing that publicists tend to do this). Would you like to read this book? Be the first to email me your mailing address and it's yours (we'll throw in a copy of LitKicks Action Poetry too).[UPDATE: the prize has been claimed, and is on it's way to the Guangdong province in China.]
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