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02-29-12: Alex Gilvarry Reads ' From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant'

Fashion, Terrorism and Fashion Terrorism

Coming of age is a loaded phrase. It implies growth towards maturity over time. But the times that surround us as we struggle to find our identity can have as much impact on who we become as our core character traits.

The America that Boyet Hernandez finds as he arrives in 2002 looks pretty normal. He's a struggling twenty-something fashion designer who leaves the Philippines and lands in New York somewhere near the beginning of 'From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant,' a comic but intense and moving first novel by Alex Gilvarry. Post-9/11 America leaves its mark on Boy, who in the course of the novel becomes a man. As we immerse ourselves in Boy's life, it's possible to look back on our own lives and see how we all came of age in the years since that fateful attack. We all had some growing up to do — and we're not done yet.

Gilvarry is a crafty and smart writer who frames his bildungsroman of a man growing up in New York after the turn of the century with a dark political vision of the war on terror. We don't meet Boy until we've been told that the book we are reading is his memoir, plus "footnote annotations, the author's acknowledgements, the editor's afterward and a supplemental article included with permission," by Gil Johannessen. We're reading a book within a book when Gil begins by telling us how much he loves America. And that, by the way, he's known as the "fashion terrorist," who is currently writing what we read while cooling his heels in No Man's Land — Guantanamo Bay. The story that follows is told on two time tracks; from his arrival in the US to the point where he was arrested, and from the time he was asked to write his memoir until the book's present.

Gilvarry makes use of this complicated structure to — surprisingly — simplify his storytelling and give his tale a sense of page-turning tension. The bildungsroman of a young émigré from the Philippines who arrives with hopes of making his way in the world of New York high fashion is intercut with clips from Boy's imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay. As readers, we can hardly turn the pages fast enough to find out both what will happen to imprisoned Boy and how émigré Boy ended up in prison.

For readers such as myself, who not only find fashion uninteresting but actually somewhat repellent, Gilvarry manages to engage our sympathy and indeed delight us with Boy's voice. As he arrives, Boy is unabashedly naïve and callow, but his enthusiasm for his profession is contagious. Gilvarry's prose reveals Boy as an unreliable narrator who is so wrapped up in his work that he's oblivious to the world around him. Boy isn't stupid by any means. He's smart and somewhat catty, with a sarcastic wit. But he is focused on his goal to the exclusion of everything else, even relationships. Boy's true love is fashion, and Gilvarry's skill as a writer makes us like and respect Boy for this, to the point where we believe in Boy's innocence even as he writes from prison.

Gilvarry's book is often very funny, but he is able to drive to the plot to farcical levels without straining our credulity. We believe that Boy could have the ill-luck to end up working with an Irishman named Ben Laden, in part because Gilvarry knows how to precisely modulate his tone and make Boy's story poignant by making Boy's joie-de-vivre at finding his way in the world fashion real. As Gilvarry brings the twin plots together, readers will find that the coming-age-story has real momentum.

Part of the charm of the novel comes from the cast of characters. Gilvarry gives us just enough detail to believe in the made-up denizens of the faux-fashion world he creates; Olya, Boy's first model, Philip Tang, his mentor and competitor, and Michelle, his well-heeled girlfriend. On the No Man's Land side, we're shown a nicely toned-down vision of the worst we might imagine. By underplaying the politics, Gilvarry is able to make trenchant observations without seeming overbearing. But growing up in a democracy of immigrants haunted by a terrorist attack is clearly no piece of cake.

Ultimately, 'From the Memoirs...' manages to pack in quite a bit more than one might think possible in its brief 300 pages. It's a starter course in haute-couture fashion, and a well-written Bildungsroman, a term that Boy even uses to describe his fashion. It makes its political points without ever shouting, and it will make you laugh as well. The story-within-the-story is engaging, and that frame helps to add both structure and an entertaining perspective. Gilvarry might write about runway fashion, but his novel is clearly ready-to-wear.

02-28-12: Archive Reviews: Keith Donohue, 'Angels of Destruction'

Filling in the Blanks

Editor's note: If you enjoy Anne Rice, the chances are that you will enjoy Keith Donohue. He has a new novel out called 'Centuries of June.' This is a revierw of his previous novel. You can find my interview with him in 2009 here and my interview with him in 2006, about his novel 'The Stolen Child,' by following this link.

There's a disease called Charles Bonnet Syndrome that strikes those who have suffered from visual impairments due to old age, eye damage or macular degeneration. Because the brain is used to input, lots of input, from the optic nerves, once those nerves stop sending detailed, voluminous visual information, sufferers from Bonnet Syndrome will manufacture input in the form of complex and detailed hallucinations. Humans, it seems, have a natural need to fill the holes in their lives.

So what happens when humans lose a child? When a child runs away, never to return? Keith Donohue, who wrote 'The Stolen Child', offers readers a lush, multi-layered vision of the ineffable that fills in the lacunae left when child runs away in 'Angels of Destruction'. Donohue's vision is indeed a complex, beautiful written hallucination that wraps itself around the reader's heart with a feathery but chilling touch.

As the novel begins, Margaret Quinn is an old woman, a widower living alone in the chilly northeast. In the hour of the wolf, she awakens to hear a tap on her door. It's Norah, a nine-year old girl, seeking shelter — and providing shelter as well. It's been almost 30 years since Margaret's own daughter ran away. Margaret takes Norah in, and the world unravels around the reader.

Donohue is a masterful writer on a variety of levels. As Norah insinuates herself into Margaret's world, we explore not only the mystery of Norah herself, but that of Margaret and what transpired with her daughter, Erica. For Margaret, Norah is like the visions created by Bonnet Syndrome when vision itself departs. But just who she is and why she is in Margaret's world are fascinating mysteries that also need knowing, even if knowing may seem impossible.

The joy of Donohue's second novel is not simply in his clever and complex plotting but also in his impeccable prose. Every sentence is a dislocating vision, every word takes readers another step from reality as we know to the inner worlds of characters and an outer, larger world we cannot possibly comprehend. Donohue is in many ways the truest heir yet to the Lovecraftian imperative to suggest the outlines of the unreal and let the reader fill in the details. His sentences have an almost cruel, cold beauty and precision about them. His writing frees the unease at the heart of what we do not and cannot know or admit about ourselves. We lie to ourselves as easily as we lie to others. We create visions where there is nothing to see.

02-27-12: Anne Rice Presents 'The Wolf Gift'

Wolfen Liberation

The tropes of any genre can become traps; they can be limiting or liberating. Anne Rice finds liberation in 'The Wolf Gift,' a lush but tense re-invention of the werewolf for the 21st century. Gorgeous prose and rich characters give depth to a thought-provoking plot that is exciting and engaging. Rice brings all her strengths in perfect proportions to craft a ripping yarn that you'll be thinking about long after the final page is turned.

Reuben Golding is handsome, smart, wealthy, but lost in life. He's working as a reporter for a local newspaper, doing a puff piece about the sale of a decaying estate on the coast of Northern California. He's eager but full of self-doubt. He falls for Marchent Nideck, the elegant woman who has inherited the estate, while she is giving him a tour, but their visit to the estate ends in horror. Reuben survives and finds he's a changed man — literally.

Balance is the key to the power of 'The Wolf Gift.' Rice brings all of her considerable talents to play here, and ratchets them up to eleven in a seamless manner that manages to be lushly sensuous but excitingly tense. After a well-crafted romantic idyll that sets the scene, violence and terror intrude and are afterwards never far away. There are considerable pleasures to be found on a variety of levels that will appeal to a wide variety of readers. 'The Wolf Gift' might easily be Rice's best novel yet.

Rice creates a large cast of characters who are memorable and likeable. Reuben's friends and family, and the Nideck family, as well as those who are pulled into their world, have the prickly feel of people we might know or hope to know in real life. Rice is really on her game here, giving us enough details, but doing so in a manner that lets us fill in some blanks as well. The story is told from Reuben's perspective as he becomes something more than human, but it manages to make us feel that he is simply more human. The paradox at the heart of the novel pulls us on and we look forward to every page.

Rice calls her creature a "man wolf" because even though he turns into a beastly creature, he retains his human intelligence and character, augmented by the perceptions and strengths of the monster he becomes. This enables a wonderful turn of plot that lets Rice seamlessly mix notions of theological and spiritual fiction with elements of toe-tapping crime fiction. She's great at both and the supernatural synthesis is indeed super, since she manages to touch on the concepts of vigilantism, heroism and responsibility in the midst of phenomenally well-written set pieces. She's got a great imagination and her spin on this trope is unique.

For all the thought and characterization and literary references, all the lush prose and sensuous romance, 'The Wolf Gift' never loses sight of the fact that reading can and should be fun. We as readers often know more about Reuben's predicament than Reuben does, and Rice uses this to create tension. We want to see Reuben use his powers, and he indeed comes to do so, with results that neither the reader nor the character can guess. Rice is honest enough to take her own creation, and its consequences, seriously. We care — and think — about what's happening and why.

With 'The Wolf Gift,' Anne Rice offers readers the gift of literature — a novel that speaks to this age of this age in an ageless manner — that is as easy to enjoy as the many films it quotes, cites, and actually tops. Rice's writing reminds us of the power of prose as a special effect, that words can transform not just the thoughts and lives of characters, but those of readers as well.

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Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

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08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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