By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
What is the nature of islands? Are they physical or metaphorical? States of being or states of mind? These questions reside at the heart of essayist Bill Holm’s magnificent meditation Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary (Milkweed Editions), a book that challenges us to rethink the barriers we erect, often unwittingly, to constrain our lives. Structured around visits to five geographic islands (including Iceland, where the Minnesota author now lives half the year), Eccentric Islands moves back and forth between isolation and community, identity and autonomy, to get at the way that all of us, no matter how connected, must ultimately stand alone. In the process, Holm frames a deeply personal mythology, where the most important island is the one within us, the interior island of imagination and soul.
One hundred sixty pages of prose carved as elegantly as the ornament on a ship‘s prow, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Herman Melville (Penguin‘s “Lives” series) counters Melville’s literary excesses with an economical meditation on his sad life with its slim rewards, and whets any reader‘s appetite for investigating ever more into the fabled epic of a ship stove by a whale.
Belgian author Jean Ray’s Malpertuis (Atlas Press), published in 1943, is a novel of terror, of horror, of the macabre. A damned priest who has come too close to the white-hot omniscience of Godhead unleashes evil in the form of resurrected Greek gods inhabiting taxidermic human bodies. These demiurges carry on a cosmic battle, shrouded in mystery and inclement darkness. The “God of the Cross,” as Jean Ray calls the Holy Father, is powerless to stop them. Worse, their evil is one of God‘s works. Superstition is buried deep in the foundations of religion; fear haunts the nocturnal shadows of sleep. Which leads to that ancient gnostic question, posed in the first century after Christ: How is it possible that this world is made in God’s image when it contains such suffering, such imperfection, such evil?
In a literary world largely populated by tales of the sex lives and family dramas of the all-encompassing middle class, few writers attempt in any but the most polite fashion to tackle the questions that have motivated the novelistic genre from the get-go. William T. Vollmann puts them on the very first page of The Royal Family (Viking): “How to die? How to live?” With a brilliance that only occasionally falters, he sketches out his answers through the lives of addicts and yuppies, lawyers and whores, in a daring novel about damnation and salvation and the cruel paths love paves to both.
The unaided eyeball will strain and complain while it reads Chris Ware‘s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon). It is worth the trip to the eye doctor, who will recommend bifocals (there are times when the text gets smaller than the condensed version of the OED), because Jimmy Corrigan is one of the great, innovative works of graphic literature of our time. Designed within an inch of its life, Chris Ware’s brainwork is complex and heart-wrenching.