Monthly Archives: August 2015

Book Acquired Recently: Joanne Epp’s Crossings

Epp, Joanne. Crossings. Winnipeg: St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, 2012.

I recently read Epp’s new poetry collection Eigenheim and loved it, and in looking at her website I discovered that she has also published a chapbook, Crossings, which I bought immediately. The book itself is lovely, with a hand-printed cover and hand-stitched binding. It is numbered as copy 64 of 100. I also like that it was published by a church because I think that reading poetry is one of the best ways to get to the sacred. I am sad that Mennonite churches have not realized this yet, and thus that Epp had to publish with an Anglican church instead.

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André Swartley’s Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl

André Swartley’s 2012 novel Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl won a 2013 Dante Rossetti award for Young Adult (YA) Fiction, and with good reason. It is an engaging story about some important issues not only within the Mennonite community, but within American society at large (throughout this piece I treat the novel explicitly as Mennonite fiction because Swartley is a Mennonite and the book has Mennonite characters, and there is a dearth of annoying “this is who Mennonites are and what they believe” explanations that one finds in some Mennonite fiction [the tiny bit of this that we get is that Mennonites are pacifists, but this explanation is very basic; there is no theological discussion of why Mennonites are pacifists, or that some early Anabaptists weren’t pacifists, and so on], so it seems that Mennonite readers are the book’s intended audience). The book straddles that nebulous line between “Young Adult” fiction and what I suppose one could call grown-up fiction; it’s like John Green for the MYF set (which I mean as a compliment: John Green is fantastic). I am not a fan of the concept of the YA genre (i.e., the books themselves are not the problem, but how they are categorized is) in general because I don’t think it takes teenage readers seriously enough and because oftentimes it seems like it’s only defined by the age of its characters, but whether Swartley intends the book to be YA or not, it’s worth reading by both teens and adults (and perhaps especially adults with teenagers) alike.

Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl is the story of the title character and his classmate from a fictional Mennonite high school in Iowa (perhaps modeled off of Iowa Mennonite School in Kalona), Autumn Springer, as they begin a summer of voluntary service in Germany. Hijinks ensue, there are some compelling action movie-type action scenes as well as some compelling emotional scenes, and the growth that the two main characters go through feels earned and plausible.

Although they do not begin the book as friends, Leon and Autumn develop an immediate kinship with each other as “outcasts” (29). NOTE: THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SOME MILD SPOILERS. Leon is one because he is a stereotypical nerd (which I don’t mean negatively, as I am also one), and Autumn is one because she is the star of a pornographic website that has made her a millionaire (however, N.B., she is not the “fantasy girl” of the title, though in some ways the title fits her character as well). This fact is what makes Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl a refreshing and important addition to the corpus of Mennonite fiction, and especially U.S. Mennonite fiction, which is in general less racy than that from north of the border. Leon’s struggle to confront his own sexism is a journey that many more Mennonites, both men and women, need to take (and the book does a good job describing the double-standard paradox of men [including Mennonite men] simultaneously consuming pornography while condemning the models in it as “sluts” [e.g., 95]), and Autumn’s refusal to feel sorry for her actions and continued lack of shame about her body is an essential corrective to traditional Mennonite/societal attitudes toward the physical in general and the erotic in particular. The novel’s discussion of disability is another element that has received too little attention in Mennonite literature. END OF SPOILER ALERT.

The novel contains a few deficiencies, mostly of a factual nature. People from Lancaster, Pennsylvania do not say “yous [sic]” like some people do in other parts of the state (33). The idea of one of the American characters, Hat, being allowed to teach soccer to German children old enough to be playing on “varsity” and “junior varsity” teams is highly implausible (36). It is likewise implausible that Leon, who has suffered from extreme chronic arthritis for two years, would not have tried acupuncture before it is introduced to him in the book. We are given the explanation that his mother felt it was too “unorthodox” for him to try (156), but this explanation comes too late in the narrative and does not seem to fit with her willingness to let him play video games constantly (in other words, she is your basic mainstream, reasonably worldly Mennonite, and while there is certainly some distrust of nontraditional medicine in this group I do not think it would be enough to justify how heartless she comes off as being for denying Leon acupuncture after either he or a doctor first suggests it). Finally, the novel’s ending is much, much too neat (this is often the case in Young Adult fiction, but still), which is frustrating because one of the book’s strengths is its tackling of issues with no easy answers, but then the easy answers occur anyway.

However, despite these few issues Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl is well worth reading. The characters and the issues they deal with are compelling enough that the fact there is a sequel coming out this October is a welcome one.

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Books Acquired Recently

It has been a good summer for book collecting, as the number of volumes on my “to read” shelf now is much larger than it was at the beginning of the summer. My latest batch comes mostly from a recent visit to the Strand, but I also received Lankevich’s and Lepore’s books as gifts from a friend, and bought Shawl and Campbell’s collection on because Samuel R. Delany is one of my research interests.

Charyn, Jerome. Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories. New York: Liveright, 2015.

I have not encountered Charyn’s work before, but as a native of the Bronx I am always on the lookout for good fiction about it, and Bitter Bronx‘s blurb (well-written blurbs are so important, and so rare) makes it sound like the stories are well-rooted in their place, which is a literary theme I have been studying recently.

Clowes, Daniel. Ghost World. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 1998.

I have been wanting to read this graphic novel since I saw the film version, and have considered buying it on a number of occasions, but other books always took precedence. However, there was a stack of them at the Strand on one of the second floor tables at a discounted price ($13.49 as opposed to the $14.99 cover price), and I decided it was time.

cummings, e.e. Erotic Poems. Ed. George James Firmage. New York: Liveright, 2010.

I enjoy cummings’s work, in large part because of its frankness about the body, thus when I came across this slim volume it was too tempting to resist. It also includes some of cummings’s erotic drawings.

Lankevich, George J. New York City: A Short History. New York: New York UP, 2002.

Despite being a native of New York City and somewhat of a history buff I know relatively little about the city’s history. I am about two-thirds through the book and it is quite good thus far. It was first published in 1998 and then an expanded version was published in 2002 after 9/11. However, the pre-9/11 chapters were not revised, and there are several instances where other significant events in the city’s history happened on September 11 (laws being signed, and so on), and it is fascinating to read these passages that make no comment on how significant that date would later become. It is also interesting to wonder about the timing of these seemingly coincidental occurrences. It reminds me of the occult concept of ley lines. Are there such a thing as ley dates?

Lepore, Jill. The Secret History of Wonder Woman. New York: Vintage, 2015.

I enjoy Lepore’s writing for the New Yorker, and Wonder Woman is my favorite superhero, so I was quite excited to receive this book.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Beautiful You. 2014. New York: Anchor, 2015.

When Palahniuk is on, his fiction is brilliant, and when he is off, it is gimmicky and mediocre, so I’m always a little nervous to acquire one of his books, but the blurb on this one was intriguing enough (it is about sex toys) to convince me to buy it.

Shawl, Nisi, and Bill Campbell, eds. Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany. Greenbelt: Rosarium, 2015.

This festschrift for Delany includes both essays and fiction, which is an appropriate mixture considering the diversity of his own oeuvre.

Warner, Sylvia Townsend. Summer Will Show. 1936. New York: New York Review, 2009.

I have been wanting to read this novel since reading about it in a feminist literature course back in 2004, and have often searched for it in used bookstores to no avail. I happily discovered this NYRB edition on one of the fiction tables at the back of the Strand (I actually gasped aloud when I saw it). This is what I love about the Strand: while I always find excellent books that I wasn’t looking for, I always also seem to find a book that I am looking for in a way that feels like it was put right there for me to find it.


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