Foreword Reviews

Book of the Day Roundup October 21-25, 2019

Book of the Day Roundup images for Oct. 21-25, 2019

Divide Me by Zero

Book Cover
Lara Vapnyar
Tin House Books
Hardcover $24.95 (360pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

Katya Geller has been making her living as a writer for the past twelve years, all the more impressive because she’s a Russian immigrant writing in English. But making a living as a writer requires you to write, and now she’s stalled out. Faced with an impending deadline, she decides to write a comedy dark enough to bring tears—one that mirrors life. Lara Vapnyar’s novel Divide Me by Zero plunges into dark comedic territory with savage grace, following Katya as she traces her history and discovers her most important functional limit: her relationship with her mother.

In Soviet Russia, Katya’s mother wrote mathematics textbooks, and correlating math to the everyday was one of her gifts. From Katya’s earliest days, her world was structured by mathematical relationships. Now, faced with her mother’s mental and physical decline and the simultaneous dissolution of her various romantic relationships, Katya uses the notes for her mother’s final textbook as fodder for her novel.

Over the course of Vapnyar’s book, the philosophical mystery and resounding error of division by zero becomes an objective correlative to Katya’s life. The return to math’s structures provides an elegant framework for Katya to tally the sum of her life and for Vapnyar to embed the haunting, complex geometry of the central mother-daughter relationship.

As Katya’s marriage, old flame, and new beau all burn out in sync with her mother’s death, she confronts her arrested development, the effects of her compartmentalization, and the ways her mother’s bulwark shaped and stalled her. A novel that treats the emotional territory of adulthood with devastating aplomb, Divide Me by Zero grasps the event horizon of parent-child relationships and the reckonings that lie in wait when their fundamental structures pass on.


Below the Moon

Book Cover
Alexis Marie Chute
Spark Press
Softcover $16.95 (256pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

Alexis Marie Chute’s fantasy novel Below the Moon is as fast and bizarre as its prequel, with enough new elements to keep the imagination soaring.

Ella was supposed to be enjoying herself on a cruise before her inevitable death from cancer, but thanks to her grandpa Archie, she and a host of other survivors are stuck in the magical world of Jarr, where everything good is unraveling. More than just Ella are running out of time. In a desperate attempt to save both their worlds, humans and creatures alike must find a way to overcome their differences and fight against the looming darkness.

Told in alternating points of view, Below the Moon is refreshing. The constant shifts allow for different aspects of Chute’s fantastical world to be enjoyed. Each character brings new light to the story: Ella has an eye for detail, Archie is protective, and Luggie wrestles with conflicting loyalties. Characters from the previous book continue to contribute: Lady Sofia still provides comic relief; Nate, charm. Each individual has to figure out what they’ll fight for, and their continuing development is relatable and realistic, even when situations are anything but.

Fantastical elements are introduced with liberty, sometimes at such a rapid pace that it can be difficult to track what has just happened. Sudden plot twists, new rules, and strange enemies keep the story exciting, if somewhat hard to buy; there always seems to be a convenient magical solution available when things go wrong.

With never a dull moment, Below the Moon is an action-packed fantasy sure to excite and engage anyone willing to embrace its magic.

VIVIAN TURNBULL (October 17, 2019)

Panthera Tigris

Book Cover
Sylvain Alzial
Hélène Rajcak, illustrator
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
Hardcover $17.99 (32pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

Team up with a jungle-smart guide and a book-smart scholar as they search the forest for a certain striped carnivore, genus Panthera, species tigris. Leafy shades of detailed jungle greens and sketches worthy of a naturalist’s notebook are interspersed with brilliant royal orange accents as the guide learns stats and facts from the scholar’s encyclopedic knowledge; the guide has practical wisdom to share, too, if only the scholar would stop talking to listen.


The Scent of Buenos Aires

Book Cover
Hebe Uhart
Maureen Shaughnessy, translator
Softcover $24.00 (392pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

There’s something a little mysterious at work in Hebe Uhart’s The Scent of Buenos Aires, but it’s the ordinary mystery of other people. These thirty-eight short stories function like a panopticon, each dipping into one person’s purview and leaving after capturing the briefest impression. Poised somewhere between narrative and sense memory, Uhart’s lens looks into sundry lives and renders the act of surveillance both venal and holy.

Much like the people the collection is concerned with, these stories occupy an intermediary space. They are completely fulfilled in their individual arcs and interstitial within the greater picture they create. They don’t offer answers or even questions so much as momentary glimpses of the incidents that provoke both.

There’s a fascination with people in limbo: those who are outsiders and insiders all at once and those who are at a point of transition, whether it’s the large, wandering family in “Mister Ludo,” the man drawn into the orbit of another passenger on the bus in “The Old Man,” the student newly arrived in the city in “Boy in a Boarding House,” or the visiting scholars who are shepherded by a cynical university employee in “Events Organization.”

Shaughnessy’s translation is seamless at it transfers Uhart’s material into colloquial English, making it easy to fall into the rhythms of the characters’ lives and the coded emotions that idioms encapsulate.

The Scent of Buenos Aires is concerned with the social and communal, but with a wink and a nudge toward the ridiculous habits of people. Uhart suspects, loves, and laughs at each of her characters in equal measure because she knows that, when it comes to the array of human emotion and motivation, “one person’s freedom ends where another’s begins.”


The Twilight Man

Rod Serling and the Birth of Television

Book Cover
Koren Shadmi
Softcover $22.95 (168pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

The career of Rod Serling—the screenwriter, playwright, and television producer best known for creating The Twilight Zone—is traced in Koren Shadmi’s graphic novel The Twilight Man.

The young Serling, after proving his mettle as a US army paratrooper in World War II, suffered from what would today be called PTSD. Eventually, he gained entry into the world of scripting radio shows and had success with teleplays, establishing his reputation as a top writer. Trading on that reputation, he launched the anthology series The Twilight Zone, which became a classic of early television.

The strains of producing that show, along with his other television series, Night Gallery, weighed heavily on Serling, who constantly fought with television executives over censorship issues. Combined with his familiar cigarette habit, the stresses contributed to his premature death at age fifty.

Shadmi tells Serling’s story in a clever way, drawing on The Twilight Zone‘s format, trademark twists, and Serling’s own style as a narrator. The influences on Serling’s most famous works are made clear, including his amateur boxing career, his wartime experiences, and even a trip to Las Vegas. Discussions of the birth of television are limited to Serling’s career.

Shadmi’s art is expert at portraying Serling’s distinctive look, along with a number of key images from The Twilight Zone and Serling’s other work. These are strong visual reminders of the stories that cemented Serling’s legacy. The Twilight Man is an informative biography of a television pioneer.

PETER DABBENE (October 17, 2019)

Barbara Hodge

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