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Spring/Summer 1996, Volume 13.2

Book Reviews

 

Arranged Marriages, Reviewed by Bishnupriya Ghosh
A Paleontologist's Notebook
, Reviewed by Jeffrey G. Eaton
Aftermath: An Anthology of Post-Vietnam Fiction, Reviewed by Joseph T. Cox
Deep Red: Poems, Reviewed by MaryJan Munger

 

 

Arranged Marriages, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. New York: Doubleday, 1995, 320 pp., $21.00 (cloth).

Reviewed by Bishnupriya Ghosh, Dept. of English, Utah State University

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's debut collection of short stories, Arranged Marriages, presents the Indian immigrant experience in the United States. Born and educated in Calcutta, India, Divakaruni came to the United States to pursue a master's degree, and now teaches at Foothill College, California. A writer who has published three volumes of poems (Dark Like the River, The Reason for Nasturtiums, and Black Candle), as well as being a volunteer for MAITRI (an organization addressing the needs of the South Asian women), Divakaruni articulates a politics of South Asian immigrant identity through a new poetical prose.

All the stories depict women's experiences and are loosely constructed around marriage: we move from a girl's observation of her parents' marriage, to the perspectives of brides, wives, lovers, mothers and widows. Divakaruni closely explores the web-like effect marriage has on other aspects of women's lives—on careers, relations between friends and lovers, and sexual expression.

As Hamid Naficy (1993) tells us (with reference to the Iranian immigrant community), immigrants often occupy an imagined realm between their home and that of host cultures. Woven through the accounts of births, deaths, marriages, divorces, love affairs, motherhood and widowhood is the experience of displacement with its twin fetters of loss and return. Sometimes one loses a mother or lover; sometimes a cultural value or tradition. But always one seems to live in a liminal zone which references a prior/erased life that recasts the present in radically different terms. In "Ultrasound," a woman experiences pregnancy and childbirth in tandem with her friend's difficulties with infertility, marital problems, and the "tragedy" of giving birth to a daughter in India. In "Meeting Mrinal," the woman fantasizes a whole existence to fulfill the expectations of her college friend, Mrinal. While in these two cases India is an imagined elsewhere, reality (in the shape of visitors, telephone calls, and financial needs) disrupts the Americanized lifestyles in other stories. In "Doors," the visit from Raj, the protagonist's brother-in-law, brings Indian conventions of hospitality and communal living into a small apartment in Berkeley and almost destroys a marriage; in "The Word Love," the protagonist's mother's disapproval of "living together," traveling in chilly silences over telephone wires all the way from India, destroys the daughter's college love affair.

>Loss and return. Painful as they may seem, Divakaruni offers us a way of dealing with the cultural disjunctures brought about by immigration. First, Divakaruni provides her women a continuous history of the self by foregrounding their repeated returns to India through the filters of imagination and memory. And second, unlike writers, such as Bharati Mukherjee, who seem to privilege the present place (America) over the past milieu (India), Divakaruni's America is not a land where dreams are made. Rather it is a place where one is simply faced with a new set of situation—sisolation, increased sexual freedom, interactions at the workplace, professional roles—which require a revisioning of the self, a new kind of Indianness which will texture the emergent multi-ethnic America.

The point is made evident in the choice of the title: arranged marriages always seem to exemplify the "sad plight" of "third world" women. But these expectations set up in the Western reader's mind are undercut by Divakaruni's pantheon of feisty women and her clear-eyed realism about both Indian and American contests. There is no simple divide: that India equals confining traditions and America equals drifting traditionlessness. Traditions, as historical practices that express human values, exist in both India and America: for instance, opening one's home to relatives and living in an extended family are Indian traditions; drinking with good cheer in celebration or dating conventions are American ones. All traditions, however, become oppressive when codified into rigid practice. It is with this rigidity that Divakaruni takes issue, for values need to be reshaped given the demands of new situations. Thus her women protagonists negotiate—they pick, choose, mold, and refashion with care and anxiety—practices that best reflect their changing values in the strange but exciting immigrant spheres of existence.

 

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A Paleontologist's Notebook by Susan Smith Nash. (Introduction by David Matlin). Barrytown, New York: Left Hand Books, 1995, 65 pp., $9.00 (paper).

Reviewed by Jeffrey G. Eaton, Dept. of Geosciences, Weber State University

As a paleontologist, I had mixed feelings about being asked to review a book of poetry entitled A Paleontologist's Notebook. I feared that, at some distant time in my past (perhaps the Precambrian), neurons and synapses once dedicated to literature and poetry had atrophied from years of reading and writing drab, descriptive, uninspirational scientific literature. This fear indeed was well founded. It is hard to rise from the bland stylistic collective of scientific writing to less fettered prose. I was also concerned that a book of verse tying paleontology to its title might be a shallow effort intended to ride the current tidal wave of dinosaur popularity, or perhaps it contained the preachings of an overzealous dinosaur groupie. In this collection of poems, field notes, sketches, and photographs, there was certainly no basis for these latter concerns.

Susan Smith Nash has borrowed the alienating language of paleontology and geology—extinction, tectonics, diagenesis, speciation, pteridophytes—to create remarkable metaphors for our own cultural, personal, and sexual dysfunction. The borrowed language, along with its aura, is ripe in allusions to the foreign, distant, strange, incomprehensible—and, in Nash's hand, are transformed to the personal and immediate. From "Early Land Plants: Psilophyton Dawsonii and Protollepidodendron Sacaryanum," we see this transformation:

Darwin as pervasive as Sylvia Plath
Galapogos bees could sting me
until I awaken no longer wanting to dial
your number, just hang up after 3 rings—
if you happen to answer
I'll have nothing to say

Samples of her overly neat field notes included in the book do not betray the ferocity of her words. The fields notes are like those of a student that might be suspected of lacking all but academic perceptions —neat and clean with nice drawings. But clearly words are Susan Smith Nash's excavating tool which she deftly uses to slice and dissect the overburden that encrusts the human experience and soul.

A Paleontologist's Notebook is divided into three sections. The first, "Speciation," is a series of poems (from which the above lines are taken) mostly connected by the paleontology metaphor. The middle section of the book, "Migration," is a series of short poetic essays about Susan Smith Nash's experiences in Bolivia which provide a sense of contrast to "my lonely, grief-stricken, loss-ridden Oklahoma home" (from "Chola Notebook"). These lovely pieces convey both her intellectual and sensory perception of Bolivia as a place, its people and culture, combined with the almost inevitable self-realization that accompanies such a passion. From "Burying Trilobites," we reflect with her:

It was simply amazing how quickly the effects of mercy,
compassion, and eternal forgiveness wear off. It was much
easier to keep Mary an abstraction, or simply an artesanía,
albeit a cultural one, to be consumed selfishly whenever one
is in the mood for convenient catharsis.

In the final section of the book, "Mass Extinction," the paleontological metaphor persists as the poems become both more intensely personal and painful. Nash's own and remarkable take on the world is, in language currently prevalent in geology, almost catastrophic. From "Inside the Zip-Up Grape Ape," we share her sense of alienation:

—it's not easy to lie flat on my back,
legs open to genderless creature hovering over my
breasts & you wonder why I can't relax; how can I say this;
I can't visualize your face, it's only the face of another
that I see, one with your voice, but not entombed in this
hideous disguise; compare rates of extinction nearly
impossible the ribs give it all away; we're not really the
same species at all are we?

Regardless of the geologic-paleontologic metaphors, A Paleontologist's Notebook is recommended reading for all who have an interest in recent poetry and prose. An occasional glance at a geological dictionary might be helpful for the uninitiated, but even without this reference source Nash's skillfully crafted words will convey her universal message.

 

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Aftermath: An Anthology of Post-Vietnam Fiction edited by Donald Anderson. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995, 272 pp., $25.00 (cloth), $12.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Joseph T. Cox, Department of English, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York

The ongoing recording and re-envisioning of the Vietnam War has replaced the geographical Vietnam with that of Nam, an Americanized zone of consciousness that excludes, among others, the experiences of women veterans and the Vietnamese people. Aftermath, Donald Anderson's collection of post-Vietnam fiction, adds width and depth to this stream of Americanized Vietnam consciousness. Where many Vietnam war anthologies simply compile representative genre or try to tie selections together with a single psycho-social theme—for example, reflections on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experiences—Aftermath presents fiction exceptional not only for the range, complexity, and power of the emotions represented but also for the unquestionable quality of its writing. This sampling of stories about "what we must live with after any fought war" is simply the essential collection of the best fiction written about the human consequences of the Vietnam war.

As Anderson tells us, they are stories about "memory and love and resentment and loss and disbelief and defiance and humiliation and earnestness and blame and shame and blood and sacrifice and courage and sorrow. These are stories that, even if set in a past, seem to be written in an urgent and immortal present" (xxxi). It is fiction relentless in its exploration of the memories and consciousness of the casualties of Vietnam: the veterans, their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, friends and lovers. Four of the authors (James Park Sloan, Tim O'Brien, Tobias Wolff, and Robert Olen Butler) served in Vietnam, and the remaining ten writers (Barry Hannah, Louise Erdrich, John Gardner, Maxine Kumin, Lynne Hanley, Robley Wilson, Donald Anderson, Stephanie Vaughn, Thom Jones, and Robert Stone) experienced the war on the home front. Together they reveal the emotional aftermath of what editor Donald Anderson describes so well with a strategic apostrophe, "the ranging consequences of U.S. involvement in Vietnam's war."

In "The Missing Person," Maxine Kumin vividly explores the sense of loss experienced by an abandoned mother of a Vietnam MIA. Her son Jay, who is afraid of heights, disappears while flying in a helicopter two months after he arrives in country. The poetry Kumin finds in everyday images recreates the emotional trauma of accidental death and loss. "When an only child leaves you—she cannot yet say dies—the air comes out of the basketball, the tire flattens, your own lungs threaten to crumple" (111). When her husband suddenly and mysteriously disappears from her side in the busy city—perhaps with the wife of their MIA son—Kumin's heroine finds herself at a local precinct house that evokes a sense of her son's imagined captivity. The busy American city and the foreign land that claimed her son become one landscape of directionless anxiety, but through her search for her missing husband, Kumin's heroine finally finds, in the process, a serenity that enables her to go on. She comes to terms with the death of her son and discovers the will to endure. Her heroine's final acceptance of the missing people in her life resolves Kumin's story but leaves the readers to confront that inexplicable sense of loss that is inevitably a part of the aftermath of war.

Anderson has selected the best stories by the best writers of the period, and the result is an anthology of such literary merit that it is easy to see its applications beyond the pure pleasure of reading it. A scholar who needs, for example, an assortment of the most moving examples of war's impact on the society can pick from Robley Wilson's "Despair" or Stephanie Vaughn's "Kid MacArthur." A writing teacher who wants to teach narrative techniques can go to Barry Hannah's "Testimony of Pilot" or Thom Jones' "The Pugilist at Rest." Most important, however, is how Aftermath provides anyone interested in exploring the complicated consequences of America's most traumatic war clear insight into human dimensions often ignored in other writing about Vietnam.

Aftermath belongs in the required reading of those interested in exploring the Vietnam chapter in American history and of those interested in reviewing the art of fiction. But, most importantly, it is a collection of stories that will profoundly influence how its readers interpret the present. In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien tells us that "Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are." Because the stories in Aftermath help us remember how we got to where we are, they may help us avoid repeating those mistakes of the past.

 

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Deep Red: Poems by Rawdon Tomlinson. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995, 98 pp., $19.95 (cloth), $10.95 (paper).

Reviewed by MaryJan Munger, Writer, Springville, Utah

The first poem of this collection, "Ancestors," is a particularly strong evocation of time and place. Exact language ("cows graze painted/Into the blue air"), telling detail ("dime cigars they hold spoofing") and sharp images ("a clothesline strung/Across gray space") combine to make a poem in which "Each thing is in its place." The writing throughout this collection is always better than competent, but the excellence of "Ancestors" and several other poems makes the reader wish for a shorter collection focused only on the best of this book.

The poems in Deep Red have been grouped into three sections. The first and third sections contain mostly "social" poems—poems that derive their force from a persona's interaction, or at least interview, with other people—while the center section holds primarily "nature" poems. Because these central pieces are intensely interior poems, they work to create a quiet center to the book. The effect of this organization is to generate a spiraling whirlpool or "a wheel spinning standing still" (last line of one of these central poems, "Splitting Wood"). The flow of the poems draws the reader through the world of childhood, with its swirl of ghosts and icons, into "the black hole" of introverted observation and meditation (last line of "The Cabin at Elk Falls"). With the last section, the reader is pulled back out into the world of people, but an adult world of marriage and children and responsibilities.

In general, the strongest poems belong to the first section. The most powerful of these all look back to the past, but are never sentimentally nostalgic. Sharp, believable detail make the reader see and recognize the scene. For example, in "Under the Hackberry," we see clothespinned above/the bed of irises,/sheets breathe in and out like sails/in the doldrums." This careful attention to the physical props in turn brings recognition of the spiritual event that underlies this poem, a single remembered moment of refuge, "as though a story was being told/which embraced everything/and everyone." Another poem that creates an emotional presence as it paints the scene is "Alta," written in the persona of an old woman. The dying fall of the lines (each line shorter than the one before it in the stanza), the heavy reliance on labial sounds, the drifting from thought to thought all work together, mirroring the interior language of memory and meditation.

Tomlinson's Easter poem works so well partly because in it he conflates the commercialization of a holy-day with the human cruelty that occasioned the Easter feast to begin with. Told in stark, unblinking lines, this poem lets the reader see the side of Easter that balances the lilies and white bunnies and colored ducks: "I took a stick/and poked out eyes; the other escaped/into the teeth of the dog./ Father whipped us with his alligator belt./Mother said it made her sick,/The ducks went to heaven." The poem "Creede, 1931" could well be used as a model of light-handed elegy. Tomlinson's touch is as deft in this poem as his grandfather's with the fishing fly. The ending lines of this poem, "I leave you there in the middle of your life,/in the middle of the river in light," land perfectly and precisely on the reader's mind—no wonder we rise to the lure of this poem. The last lines of "Ancestors" are also particularly fine. Everything about these two examples works as it ought: rhythm, cadence, image, diction.

It is the fineness and strength of his best poems that persuade the reader to want only them. What we have is certainly worth reading, but how much better if all the poems worked as effortlessly and as confidently as "Mr. Norwood" and "Letter in Middle Age to my Ex-Wife, Not Mailed," both in the final section of the collection. Like most of Tomlinson's best poems, these look back, revisioning the people who lived part of their lives alongside his own. In "Mr. Norwood," it is the father of a childhood friend who, with other ghosts, haunts the narrator's sleepless night, bearing some unreceivable message: "And I never send them away,/and they never know what /to say." The "Letter in Middle Age" describes the empty lot, now for sale, that used to be the site of the apartment where the narrator lived with his ex-wife. This is also the final poem of the collection, a poem that leaves its own ghosts in the reader's mind: "the concrete steps/Leading nowhere" and the tall fence strung around the empty lot "as though someone could deface dirt, with a sign/KEEP OUT (this emptiness is mine alone.)" A poem like this makes us glad to make a lie of that last: we recognize the loneliness as our own as well and are glad to have it shown to us again so clearly.

 

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