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BOOK REVIEW: Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball


On a Sunday morning in a Washington park, James Sim – loner and professional mnemonist (someone who can memorize large amounts of data) – is witness to the aftermath of a stabbing. With his dying breath, Thomas McHale tells James: “I was one of them, but I left, and they didn’t want me to leave. Have you seen the paper? Samedi? The conspirators? I was one of them…You must do it. You must expose them.” The “them” in question is a group of individuals who commit suicide in front of the White House, one each day, all bearing a message from Samedi of doom to come on the seventh day.

McHale leaves James with a few clues; however, he is loath to get involved until a chance encounter with a young woman spurs him to action. James sets off to follow the dead man’s clues and, in the process, ends up a prisoner in an asylum for liars. As he searches for truth amidst the lies, James struggles to find out who Samedi is and what will happen on the seventh day.

Samedi the Deafness
is the very strange novel from poet Jesse Ball. His language is terse yet lyrical, evoking a feeling that each word is carefully planned for and placed. “He looked at the napkin. He felt then that there were two of them in the room, he and the napkin, and that one of them would have to go. He crumpled up the napkin.” Even when dialogue is of little sense to the reader, each word is weighty:

“James drew from his pocket a book, drew from the book a pressed flower, and shook from the flower a bit of stone shaped like a crescent moon.

– Here it is, he said. I found it in the passage by the cellar.

They were both silent. Grieve took the stone.

– You mustn’t got there again, she said. You might meet me there, and then we would be through.

A dark name like a walking stick broken in anger.

– When I am out on the wind, said Grieve, I wear four arms and the trails of my dress consume me.

– Before you say any more, said James, say no more.

And so no more was said.”

As Ball states in an interview, “
is an investigation of lies and responsibility.” Despite this clear statement of intent, and the ease with which it reads, reality is quickly undermined in Samedi. This is a novel which will frustrate, confound and challenge readers, who will quickly feel as if they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, into a David Lynch film where political commentary is provided by Hunter S. Thompson.

This is not a comfortable read, just when the reader is sure they’ve understood what is happening, Ball flips the tables. He delights in misdirection. Not only is the main female character named Grieve, but many of the maids are named Grieve as well. Nothing in the verisylum is simple: characters’ dialogue can’t be trusted as this is an asylum for liars; the house is a veritable labyrinth with absurd rules of conduct; and it is often unclear which residents are patients and which are the staff. At times the confusion is such that readers may wonder if James is a patient of the asylum and early events are purely his delusions. Lies form the foundation of Samedi the Deafness – but can truth be found in the midst of deceit?

The character of Samedi has direct ties to “Baron Samedi,” the all-knowing loa of death from the Voodoo tradition, known for disruption, obscenity, debauchery. It should come as no surprise that Ball has chosen to take that disruptive influence for his work which undermines the very concept of the novel.

His underlining message is vital; readers who choose to fall into his dream world will find unexpected and important rewards hidden within.

Read a condensed review at Armchair Interviews.

Read the full review at Curled Up with a Good Book.

ISBN10: 0307278859
ISBN13: 9780307278852

Trade Paperback
304 Pages
Publisher: Vintage Original
Publication Date: September 4, 2007
Author Website:


BOOK REVIEW: Was She Pretty? by Leanne Shapton


In every relationship there are more than just two players, there are the specters looming in the background – the ghosts of past partners. This is the topic explored by Leanne Shapton in her debut Was She Pretty? This slender volume invites readers to explore the truths of modern love, their darkest fears and secret anxieties through her line drawings and prose.

Tracing a group of interconnected friends, the narrator outlines each ex with unemotional prose, capturing entire relationships in single lines: “Martin had never mentioned his hauntingly beautiful ex-girlfriend Carwai to Heidi.” Shapton’s spare prose leaves room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks based on their own experiences and emotional reaction. Don’t be surprised if she manages to conjure up ghosts from your own past.

The sparse narrative makes for a quick read but Shapton’s novel remains with the reader. She appears to suggest that jealousy refines a relationship, enhancing it – if the relationship survives. Our partners’ exes haunt us while at the same time we ourselves are exes. Was She Pretty? explores this engaging dichotomy, asking: what is it about exes that creates this love/hate relationship? While she offers no answers, the journey into one’s own psyche is a fascinating one.

ISBN10: 0374299269
ISBN13: 9780374299262

198 Pages
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Publication Date: November 7, 2006


BOOK REVIEW: Famous Writers School by Stephen Carter


Famous Writers School is the grandiose name of Wendell Newton’s correspondence writing school. He seeks his students through advertisements in the back pages of literary magazines and what his students don’t realize is that Wendell is utterly lacking in talent. A former editorial staff member of America’s Farmer, his school is made up of a collection of unusual students. Rio is a torch singer and Ph.D. candidate with a penchant for confessional writing; Linda Trane is a housewife who may just be a stalking Wendell; and Dan, the only talented one in the bunch whose work has the potential to be published, if Wendell doesn’t steal his novel first.

Famous Writers School: a Novel is the second novel of Steven Carter (author of I was Howard Hughes). A send-up of correspondence courses for would-be writers, Carter chronicles the correspondence between a teacher and his students. Composed in an epistolary manner, the novel is made up of advertisements for the school, the welcome package sent out to lure in students and the lessons Wendell sends to his students. As the novel progresses, the reader is introduced to each of the students through their personal statements and writing assignments.

Wendell’s relationship to each student is different and it is through this interaction that the reader gains some understanding of his character. He is full of frustrations and self-important opinions and, rather than being annoying, he is a sympathetic loser. Carter possesses an understanding of the type of ego that drives Wendell and has painted him vividly for readers.

From the beginning it is obvious that the relationship between Dan and Wendell will be adversarial. Dan has the talent Wendell longs for and is seeking editorial advice Wendell is in no way equipped to give. Carter has portrayed this relationship most clearly in Famous Writers School. The relationships between Wendell and his other two students, while explored in some depth, do not possess the same resonance.

During one of his lessons, Wendell states: “True subtlety in fiction requires more than pyrotechnics with language; it requires that every sentence deliver the punch that is appropriate for the story at that particular moment and that leads to its inevitable conclusion.” Carter’s novel contains subtlety, he deftly maneuvers his plot without exposing his hand too early and he manages the novel’s pacing with a master’s skill.

Unfortunately, his obvious delight in playing with the epistolary method of novel construction becomes tedious with time and the novel’s strongest points are those when Carter sets aside his agenda and presents Dan’s “novel” in a straightforward manner.

Wendell is a character who remains with the reader long after the final page is read. Since reading Famous Writers School, this reviewer often hears his voice echoed when reading a particularly pompous piece of writing. This then, is perhaps the greatest compliment to be paid a writer – the knowledge that his creation lives on in the minds of readers.

Read an excerpt of Famous Writers School here.

ISBN10: 1582433569
ISBN13: 9781582433561

256 Pages
Publisher: Counterpoint
Publication Date: October 2006


BOOK REVIEW: Remainder by Tom McCarthy


In Remainder, our narrator is a young Englishman traumatised by an accident which, while destroying his memory, has left him a very wealthy man. All he knows is something fell out of the sky and hit him, and someone very wealthy is willing to pay a lot of money to guarantee his silence about the event.

With no memories to tie him to the past and having remapped his brain to perform the most basic tasks, he obsessively tries to capture “real” moments – instances which feel fluid and natural rather than learned. He seeks the perfection achieved when he loses consciousness of and merges with his actions.

To help him achieve these moments of perfection, he spends his time and money obsessively reconstructing and re-enacting memories and situations from his past. He purchases a large building and hires actors to help match the setting to the remembered moment. When this fails to quench his thirst for authenticity, he starts reconstructing more and more violent events.

Tom McCarthy’s artistic eye is apparent in Remainder, translating into vividly described settings. The setting is as much a character as our nameless narrator. Readers are immersed in the setting which is invoked at such a visceral level that one feels the sunbeam warming one’s skin as the narrator lays in a sunbeam and smell the liver wafting through the ventilation system.

As McCarthy describes in an interview with ReadySteadyBook: “Trauma is intimately tied in with re-enactment: it brings about a compulsion to repeat…What excited me right from the crack-moment onwards was that the premise clearly had much wider implications: it was about history and time, simulation, questions of authenticity and, by extension, of our whole state of being-in-the-world. And it was about the world’s state of being-in-the-universe as well: the world, matter, this shard left over from some unnameably violent disaster – a remainder.”

While the conclusion of Remainder is unsurprising, how McCarthy reaches it is unique. This is not a novel in the traditional sense, and it is not remarkable that traditional publishers were unwilling to take it on. McCarthy’s work will make many readers uncomfortable; yet within the progression of the narrator’s obsession the world he presents is terrifyingly plausible.

ISBN10: 1846880157
ISBN13: 9781846880157

290 Pages
Publisher: Alma Books
Publication Date: September 2006


BOOK REVIEW: The List : A Love Story in 781 Chapters by Aneva Stout


We all work from lists: to do lists; the books you’d take with you to a desert island; the criteria for a perfect mate. In The List: a Love Story in 781 Chapters, Aneva Stout has taken the novel, distilled it to its essentials, and the result is this quirky novel of love, dating and the humour that can be found in male/female interactions.

258. You’ll write a poem for your lover.

259. Your lover will write a poem for you.

260. You’ll think he’s e.e. cummings.

261. He’ll play the guitar for you.

262. You’ll think there’s no end to the man’s talents.

263. He’ll get dressed in the morning.

264. You’ll think there’s no end to the man’s talents.

265. You’ll love the way he shaves.

266. You’ll love the way he eats.

267. You’ll love the way he drives.
a. This will be the first to go.

Stout has perfectly captured the heady rush of infatuation, where everything your boyfriend does is miraculous and perfect. The List caused numerous outbursts of laughter and two segments where I had to quickly call up a girlfriend to read her a funny bit and say, “isn’t that so true?”

This slender volume may be short on words but the veracity of what is there is sure to delight most women, who will find reflections of past relationships and themselves within its pages. By addressing the “chapters” to you, Stout has invited women to cast themselves as the heroine of this condensed tale.

I completed The List in just under an hour (including the time to call my friend twice) and, while it may not be the most original plot, it is a book that has already been passed to another girlfriend as a “must-read,” always the hallmark of an entertaining read. I expect to see its fuchsia cover on many beaches this summer for The List is the ultimate summer read.

Hint: If you think you might want to keep this for coffee-table reading, you may want to buy your girlfriend a copy of her own. You probably won’t get yours back – she’s sure to lend it to someone else.

Aneva Stout trained as a ballet dancer before attending Loyola University, where she studied writing. She is the mother of a teenage daughter and lives in Evanston, Illinois, where she works as a waitress. The List is her first novel.

The List: a Love Story in 781 Chapters by Aneva Stout
Workman Publishing

ISBN10: 0761142169
ISBN13: 9780761142164


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