The Penalty Area by Alain Gillot, trans. by Howard Curtis

When a grumpy soccer coach takes in his 13-year-old nephew, they’re both forced to grow, on and off the field.

penalty area

Quirky and heartwarming, Alain Gillot’s The Penalty Area introduces an eccentric soccer coach who finds unexpected happiness in the oddest places. Vincent Barteau retired from playing professionally after an injury, settling instead for coaching as a way to stay in the game. Coaching children was never the plan, but this job pays well enough. He is a loner, frustrated with the mediocre talent he has to work with. When his estranged sister shows up to deposit her 13-year-old son with him, Vincent is understandably annoyed–until he puts his nephew Léonard on the field and everything changes.

Léonard is a chess prodigy and all-around odd boy. He dislikes soccer for being “too simplistic.” It is only in deciphering plays, percentages and tactics that his exceptional intellect is engaged. Caring for Léonard exposes Vincent to new people and scenarios; the man dislikes change as much as the boy does, but in the new world that opens before them, possibilities abound. Léonard discovers soccer. Vincent discovers family and hope.

The Penalty Area handles material that could easily overindulge in sentiment, but Vincent’s awkward, exasperated approach to life and human flaws admits no foolishness. Howard Curtis translates from the French in occasionally stiff prose, which nonetheless suits the equally stiff narrator. Vincent’s voice offers the novel a disarming vulnerability; Léonard and Vincent’s exploration of new challenges feels fresh and endearing, even humorous. No love of sport is required to feel the genuine emotion pulsing from this story about making connections.


This review originally ran in the September 13, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 shots on goal.

personal update: on the road again

This post is a bit belated, I suppose: today is the day that Husband and I hit the road for another cross-country move! It’s been just a hair under two years since we moved from Houston to Bellingham, Washington, and now we are en route to a new home in the sweet little town of New Braunfels, Texas. Two people, two dogs and two bikes (and a big precious sculpture and a tent and sleeping bags and lots of books, etc.) in a truck, southbound.

this is two years ago in a U-Haul. but we probably look something like this. Husband says: "Truck-driving Mama and Dog as her copilot."

this is two years ago in a U-Haul. but we probably look something like this. Husband says: “Truck-driving Mama and Dog as her copilot.”

The great adventure continues, y’all.

More big news: in January I will be entering the low-residency Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at West Virginia Wesleyan College. (Read more about that program here.) This will bring big changes in my life, and is bound to bring some changes here at pagesofjulia. For one thing, I will be cutting my work for Shelf Awareness back drastically, until I get a grasp of what the school workload looks like. It saddens me to loosen ties with the Shelf, who I adore: this is far and away my favorite job I’ve ever had (although I think of the cancer hospital library fondly). It will be important to me to keep doing what work I can for them; but we’ll just have to see what that looks like.

I will almost certainly have to cut back on posting to this blog, too. I don’t yet know what that will look like. Maybe one book review a week would be a safe goal? I can continue with the occasional teaser and book beginning; but I don’t think the 5-day-a-week format will be realistic. I haven’t worked this out yet. If you have thoughts or feelings, I’d love to know them.

In the meantime, you can picture my little family visiting friends in Bend, Oregon; family in Durango, Colorado; doing some mountain biking; visiting some national parks; and moving into a rental home with a big backyard for the dogs. I will breathe deeply, and keep reading.

Posts will continue while I’m on the road, of course, and I’ll see your comments in a timely manner as ever.

Thanks for your support, friends.

The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult by Jerald Walker

This vivid, immersive memoir describes an innocent childhood in a terrifying religion.

world in flames

The Worldwide Church of God taught that the Great Tribulation would begin in 1972 and end three years later in a river of fire from which only the Chosen Ones would be saved. Jerald Walker grew up with these teachings looming over his head. In 1975, at the predicted end of the world, he would be 11 years old. In The World in Flames, Walker relates his unusual upbringing in Chicago as the sixth child of blind African American parents, in the black wing of a church that preached segregation as well as fire and brimstone.

Except for a brief prologue and epilogue offering a glimpse of the adult Walker, the whole of this fantastical true story is told from a child’s disarming perspective. Jerry is six when his memoir opens in 1970, and his days are filled with fear. Preoccupied with the coming events and concern for a friend who is not Chosen, he struggles to navigate family secrets, severe corporal punishment and a religion based on threats. As narrator, Jerry is matter-of-fact and innocent about the improbability of his home life. This narrative voice renders an incredible story accessible. Perhaps the most heartbreaking detail is Jerry’s guileless devotion to his church.

Walker (Street Shadows) recounts his growth from wide-eyed child to hapless teen, and finally to skeptic, with immediacy and feeling and without offering judgments. His personal history verges on the absurd, but his telling of it is earnest and unadorned, never sensational. The World in Flames is a difficult story simply and gracefully told.


This review originally ran in the September 9, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 lines of scripture recited.

Globe On Screen presents The Merchant of Venice (2016)

I went to see Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice recently, as part of the Globe On Screen series (similar to NT Live, a live recording of a stage play in London).

merchant-of-venice

I don’t think it’s terribly arguable that this is Shakespeare’s most anti-Semitic play: it centers around Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who agrees to make a loan with “a pound of flesh” as the collateral. He then insists on taking his pound of flesh, even when the principal is offered back to him by the borrower’s friends. A court case ensues in which he is defeated and forced to surrender his wealth and convert to Christianity. This, it is implied, is a just ending. The other side of the plot involves a courtship that ends in (classic Shakespeare) a double wedding and a happily-ever-after for two playful couples. Oh, and a third couple: Shylock’s daughter elopes & converts herself to marry a Christian. Oh happy day.

It is a very fine play, with perfectly pitched wit and humor as well as a few memorable dramatic scenes, perhaps most famously Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. And it was beautifully performed, of course, by the Globe’s professional team. And yet… it’s hard to watch the nastiness that is inherent to the play itself. (There is some casual racism, in addition to the anti-Semitism, when the heiress expresses dismay at a suitor’s dark skin, and hopes for no more “of his complexion.”) As is so often the case with Shakespeare–himself a shadowy historical character, if you’ll excuse the pun–we wonder now what exactly he meant: arguments have been made that this play actually intends to draw attention to anti-Semitism so as to work against it. I think of The Taming of the Shrew, a play I read as sneakily feminist rather than the opposite. But The Merchant of Venice feels pretty hateful to me.

As my parents and I recognized, this production highlighted the religious conflict, especially through the physical performance of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, who speaks volumes with her facial expressions; and especially-especially in the final scene. Shakespeare’s text finishes with the lovers’ lighthearted, celebratory lines. But this stage production followed those lines with a painful scene in which Shylock is baptized while his daughter wails and mourns. It made me physically uncomfortable. Finishing on this note, rather than kissy-kissy, drives home the play’s more sober points.

So was Shakespeare merely using the material he knew, speaking in the slurs of his time? Was he a Jew-hater with an ax to grind? Or was he slyly hoping to point out the hypocrisies of anti-Semitism? Shylock is indeed an abused underdog: he lists the crimes committed against him, says he wishes only for fair treatment, points out that charging interest on loans is how he makes a living, and isn’t it his right? In these points he is sympathetic (in the sense that the reader/viewer naturally sympathizes with him). When Antonio defaults on the loan, his insistence on the pound of flesh is increasingly vindictive and unreasonable, especially when the principal loaned is offered to him again, then doubled. I remain unclear on how exactly the default occurs: were they just late getting the money back to him? Anyway. Shylock is less and less a likeable character as he rages on, demanding blood–although he does have a point about what the legal system owes him, and likewise, that he is only handing out the kind of treatment he’s received in the past.

If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge.

Still. Nobody likes him when he waves his knife around.

But then, upon legal defeat, the forced conversion really rankles with me. I was left unsettled by the whole business. The romance is nice, and the comic disguise-and-other-capers business between the lovers is as great as Shakespeare always is when it comes to that stuff. But I can’t sit right with the treatment of the Shylock character. How are we supposed to work with this kind of material today?

I don’t have the answer to that. I give this performance a good rating: it is a good play, well-produced. But it didn’t leave me sighing with pleasure.


Rating: 8 uncomfortable moments.

Teaser Tuesdays: Turkish Delight by Jan Wolkers, trans. by Sam Garrett

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Dutch author Jan Wolkers is considered one of his country’s greats, and his fifth novel Turks Fruit (in Dutch) was among his splashiest. Sam Garrett’s is the newest, but not the first, English translation.

Check out all that text on the cover: this is indeed a feisty and erotic novel. (I love that they’re advertising Kirkus’s not-so-complimentary words.)

turkish delight

That’s why I felt this teaser was so perfect.

It was because of the ominous thunderstorm and the way the lightning kept illuminating the garden with bright flashes that, for a fraction of a second, showed you every detail of all those separate trees you’d never noticed before. As though the director was pulling out all the stops in some melodramatic B-movie.

Similarly, Wolkers could be said to pull out all the stops, and engage in melodrama; but once you’ve accepted that that’s the style of this work, I think there is much to be said for its artistic merits, and you can’t argue with its passion. Just… not for the squeamish.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Harvard Review, number 46 (2014)

My resolution to read a lit journal every Tuesday has gone a little bumpily so far. It’s a busy life. But I try!

harvard-review-46The Harvard Review is one of the fatter lit journals I’ve got on the shelf, at 236 pages, so I took a survey of its contents rather than reading every word. I made sure not to miss any essays or visual art; and I read the longish short story (they’re calling it a novella) by Ann Pancake.

I started with the editor’s note at the front, which I appreciated for its brevity and content – Christina Thompson is not an editor who runs on to hear her own words. She noted the odd synchronicity of two essay submissions (both included in this issue) that visit the fish collection at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology; likewise two essays about psychoanalysis; the pleasure of publishing young writers; Pancake’s novella; and the departure of the Review‘s managing editor.

Among my favorite pieces was one of the ichthyological essays, “Remembering That Life” by Hannah Hindley, a braided essay circling the short life of a goldfish named Ishmael and a larger tragedy in the author’s world. I loved how widely it ranged, and yet how cohesive it finished. Next, Karen E. Bender’s “Two Entrances,” about her decades-long relationship with her psychoanalyst, sort of entranced me: it’s about that relationship and the services rendered, and about the questions we ask of relationships generally, I think. I enjoyed the window into Bender’s difficulties with anxiety as well as the interpersonal issues. I am always drawn to stories about people relating to people.

The partner piece to Bender’s, perhaps (though not intended as such by either writer), is Eli Mandel’s “Analysand,” also about his psychoanalysis, which however goes rather differently; the patient (or analysand) has a very different set of problems, related to how he expresses himself or recognizes himself, and that comes through in this written piece in a clever way.

Adam Fuss’s visual arts submissions, his ‘photograms,’ were intriguing to me, and I think came out the best of all the visual art in this issue (subjective!) in black-and-white. There were definitely some paintings that I think were probably poorly served by black-and-white; I wonder if the artists were aware… I am always on thin ice when considering visual arts, so, grains of salt. But I enjoyed studying Fuss’s work.

And finally, best for last: Ann Pancake’s long short story “In Such Light” was absolutely captivating, and my favorite of this issue (with Bender’s essay in second place). I’ve only heard of Ann Pancake recently, from my new writing friends at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Her writing is solidly rooted in her place, which is West Virginia. This story follows Janie, who is struggling with the transition from high school to college, dissatisfied with her small-town life, and unsure about where to place her dreams. I love the details of life in her place, and the difficulties and rewards of her close relationship with mentally disabled Uncle Bobby. The story is tense throughout, and completely immersive; I felt like I was coming up for air at the end. What a talent.

Pancake’s story was perhaps the only thing I read (and I didn’t read the whole journal) that didn’t feel rooted in Harvard and its region. So one observation about the Harvard Review is that it has a moderate-to-strong regional focus, but not exclusively. That said, you may have to be Ann Pancake to break out of the East Coast thing.

Great reading, no question.


Rating: 8 themed pairs.

book beginnings on Friday: Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants Led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South by Adrienne Berard

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

I am of course intrigued by what the back of this book calls a “vital, hidden chapter of America’s past.”

water tossing boulders

Water Tossing Boulders concerns a Chinese immigrant family in Mississippi, where the children were denied public education in 1924. It begins:

As with all rumors, the stories grew over time, in the long months between June and September, when the air is so thick that gossip is all that circulates. The new students wouldn’t bathe. They didn’t have money to buy books. They didn’t care about learning. They had so many brothers and sisters, their mothers didn’t even know their names.

I guess I’m fascinated to see how a tragic but familiar story of Southern segregation and separate-but-equal schooling applies to a community we don’t normally associate with that story. Stick around.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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