Review: North and Central by Bob Hartley

34748200We had a Zenith television when I was a kid. It was big, bigger than me. When we wanted to change the channel, we had to get up and turn the dial. When the plastic dial broke, or at least the part that connected it to the channel mechanism on the TV, then we superglued the broken bit of plastic back together. We used the dial until it broke, again. We superglued it again. This kept going on until the plastic dial couldn’t be repaired anymore. Then we just risked cutting our fingers against the sharp-edged plastic of the now-exposed channel changing mechanism. We pressed our fingers against it, twisted our wrists and changed the channel. There were only 13 stops on the dial, and only four stations: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. We made do and we kept that TV long after friends started to buy Sony Trinitrons. Eventually, we got something from Panasonic.

Bob Hartley’s second novel, North and Central (Tortoise Books, 240 pages, $16), is set in a Chicago bar whose clientele consisted mostly of Zenith factory workers and who, no doubt, would mock my use of “clientele” to describe them. “Drinkers,” perhaps, is better? “Strugglers,” perhaps, too, as Zenith is on the decline due to competition from Japan—the entire neighborhood is rough shape. Another name for those workers could be “Trump voters,” which is more about when I read the book than when it was written or its setting a few decades ago in the 1970s.

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Review: Following Tommy by Bob Hartley

15826921 Following Tommy by Bob Hartley is a gem of a book: hard, brilliant and valuable.

It tells the story of Jacky O’Day, a bookish teen who lives in a changing Irish neighborhood in 1962 Chicago with an alcoholic father and a troubled older brother, Tommy. All of them live in the devastating aftermath of the early death of the woman in their life, the clear-headed mother and wife who had kept the three on the straight and narrow.

Without her, Jacky follows Tommy into his forays of petty crimes, as if that is the only viable path through their hardscrabble world. When Tommy’s crimes grow more violent, though, Jacky begins to question their relationship and himself.

Hartley delves into questions of identity and race, and offers a dramatic portrait of how a specific kind of Chicago neighborhood operates, with and against the law.

Through it all, Hartley’s clear, concise prose remains unflinching and cutting at times.

The slim volume from the independent publisher Cervena Barva Press is highly recommended.

New poem: ‘Firefly’ in L’Éphémère Review

Thank you L’Éphémère Review for publishing my poem!

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Read the rest of the poem here: http://www.ephemerereview.com/michael-janairo

 

 

Martin Amis on life and writing

Martin Amis: “My life looked good on paper – where, in fact, almost all of it was being lived.”

― Martin Amis, Experience: A Memoir 

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Book review: Banana Yoshimoto’s ‘Hardboiled & Hard Luck’

The review originally appeared in September 2005 in the Albany Times Union.

99162475_amazoncom-hardboiled-hard-luck-booksSupernatural is a natural in ‘Hardboiled’

Banana Yoshimoto became a literary sensation in Japan with her first book, “Kitchen,” in 1987. Spare prose, novella-length stories and quirky characters combined to make difficult themes, such as sexual identity and death, easily accessible and emotionally involving.

Since then, her books have been translated around the world, but a typical reaction in the United States has been: “Who? Is that her real name?”

Banana Yoshimoto is the pen name for Mahoko Yoshimoto, which she chose because of the beauty of the banana flower. More importantly for American readers, her latest book, “Hardboiled & Hard Luck” (Grove Press; 150 pages; $21; translated by Michael Emmerich) , offers another chance to get to know this talented writer.

The novella “Hardboiled” presents a fascinating use of common tropes in Japanese literature: the power of nature and the presence of ghosts.

An unnamed narrator is hiking in the mountains and seems not to have any cares – or human connections. She believes relationships end not because of feelings, but because “periods in our lives end the way seasons change. That’s all there is to it. Human willpower can’t change that – which means, if you look at it another way, that we might as well enjoy ourselves until the day arrives.”

This attitude, however, doesn’t prevent her from encountering a lover – a woman who could see ghosts – she had left and who died in a mysterious fire a month after she had moved out. Odd things happen to the narrator at a shrine, in a noodle shop and at a hotel, and then she remembers it is the first anniversary of her former lover’s death.

Though “Hardboiled” is a ghost story, it isn’t a horror story. The dead appear as living people or in dreams, and the realms of the living and the dead interact in unexpected ways, with compassion, understanding and resolution.

The narrator of the second novella, “Hard Luck,” is also a young, unnamed woman. She recounts the unreal and heartbreaking period of time in which her family comes to terms with her sister’s vegetative state and impending death.

The narrator, a college student who has put her studies on hold, even calls it “a sacred time set aside for us survivors.” (That sentiment seems so much more appropriate than the media and political circus that surrounded Terri Schiavo, who died earlier this year.)

She finds herself in the midst of an odd flirtation with Sakai, the older brother of her sister’s fiance. The fiance, too grief-stricken to be at his intended’s bedside, has returned to his parents’ home a coward. Sakai takes his brother’s place at the hospital to preserve the family’s honor, it seems. But he later admits his interest in the narrator.

Sakai, a tai chi instructor in his early 40s, is otherworldy and oddly attuned to the narrator. Through their talks, she is finally able to cry. But she knows the budding relationship won’t go anywhere. She even describes him as “weird, and kind of a fraud … cold and unreasonably cheerful, and … no sense of responsibility.”

Yoshimoto’s power as a writer is evident here, with a straightforward description that works to reveal the characters of both Sakai and the narrator.

Throughout the story, strangeness, desire and humor are combined without ever once forgetting the brain-dead sister and the family’s grief. How the narrator sees her situation is also an appropriate description of the story: “And it struck me that if anything was a miracle, it was this: the lovely moments we experience during the small, almost imperceptible periods of relief. The instant the unbearable pain and tears faded away, and I saw with my own eyes how vast the workings of the universe were, I would feel my sister’s soul.”

With these two novellas, Yoshimoto again proves her fame is well deserved. She succeeds in showing the naturalness of the supernatural and in making the peculiar not only realistic, but also touching.

The deft translation by Emmerich (who previously translated Yoshimoto’s “Goodbye, Tsugumi” and “Asleep”) should help Yoshimoto gain a broader audience in the United States.