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Guest Book Reviews: Holladay
August 20, 2009 - 11:20am

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I'm pleased to bring you today the second installment of reviews by Katya Cummins, who will be reviewing books from university presses here monthly. If you're a publisher or author and would like Katya to consider reviewing your book for a general audience, please contact me at Oronte.Churm@InsideHigherEd.com.

***

The Quick-Change Artist. Cary Holladay. Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 2006. Hardcover $28.95, paperback $16.95.

Cary Holladay’s The Quick Change-Artist presents thirteen short stories that center around the community of Glen Allen, Virginia, in various times, ranging from the post-bellum south to the early- to mid-1900s. Historical figures such as Captain John Cussons, a Confederate scout, and Robert E. Lee, along with invented characters, populate the town’s rolling hills, an old hotel, and train-tracks.

In "The Peacock," a girl accompanies her mother as she seeks marriage advice from ancient-year-old, Lila, who never leaves her room in the unused hotel. In "Heaven," young Barlow tells the story of Lady Wisdom, the horse who can predict the fates of Civil War soldiers. "Biggest and the Best" follows Eric, who's excited over his father's purchase of an old skating-rink. Like Eric, we are intrigued over the mystery of the real estate agent's dead twin, and, through Eric, watch as his father suffers through the after-affects of a failed marriage. Holladay's adult narrators tell stories through the filter of their childhood experiences, which allows Holladay to use a child's world as a backdrop for adult experiences such as self-discovery, civil rights, and of marriages torn apart by affairs, grief, drunken obsessions, and infertility.

Holladay's prose and her character' s idiosyncrasies complement one another: In the title story, it's easy to feel sympathy as Vangie searches for security, moving from one possessive male to another. Similarly it's easy to laugh at one wife's silly attempt to undermine her husband's job as a sheriff ("Used to be, when I heard of a jailbreak, I took a wrapped sandwich and a dollar bill to the end of my driveway and left them on the road.") or relate to another wife's sudden forlorn assertion that "being crazy is fashionable."

The vividness of the prose is especially evident in her description of characters. In the "Blue Monkey," the narrator calls her daughter's friends "the blue vine girls," because "they have tattoos of barbed wire around their wrists and ankles, like garlands of navy-blue flowers." Of Pearly Wainwright, a character in "Iron Road," Holladay writes: "He rarely spoke, and had the abilities of a child." Holladay reinforces this statement by connecting it to an image: "His hair and skin were paper-white, and his fuzzy ball of hair reminded Brandy of a dandelion gone to seed." Striking images often extend a particular sentiment. An unhappy man notices in a pond "an undulating snake—a live rope, a black whip." In "Syrup and Feather," a wife, unable to bear her own children, thinks of a dead child: "That was how it was in the Bible, the damsel not dead but sleeping."

Holladay’s characters often exhibit an undercurrent of frankness. They’re people who play parts, but they know that, admit to it, and even like the power that accompanies the roles. Above all, they’re believable in the trials they undergo. The book explores a variety of emotions, articulates those explorations in original ways, and does something vital: It entertains.

***

Testaments: Two Novellas of Emigrations and Exile. Danuta Mostwin. Translated by Marta Erdman and Nina Dyke. Ohio University/Swallow Press, 2005. Hardcover $34.95, paperback $14.95.

In the preface to this book, John J. Bukowczyk, the series editor of Polish and Polish-American Studies of Ohio University Press writes:

…Danuta Mostwin is both an accomplished scholar and well-published novelist whose fiction hitherto has remained untranslated [and is] known almost exclusively to Polish-language readers in the United States and in her native Poland. The English translations of the two novellas presented here…represent the first complete works made accessible to the English-speaking public.

The book looks at Polish-American immigrants who live in limbo between two worlds, and “The Last Will of Blaise Twardorwski” tells the story of two such immigrants: the title's namesake, Blazek Twardowski, and Jan Wieniawski. Twardowski left his native Poland as a young man and lives estranged from other immigrants in New York's Polish-American district. New to the district, Wieniawski opens a postal service that sends letters and packages to Poland.

Discontented with America, Wieniawski mistrusts and is mistrusted by the other immigrants who live in the neighborhood. "He always stressed the fact that he was a political émigré,” Mostwin writes, "crushed by an evil whim of fate and forced to vegetate on Broad Street, of no use to either the old country or the new."

The two men meet when Twardowski, illiterate and friendless, asks Wieniawski to read and help respond to a letter from his niece. More letters pour in, Twardowski becomes Wieniawski's frequent guest, and the two men form a tentative friendship. Both become emotionally entangled in the letters' descriptive scenes of Polish farm life and the financial turmoil of Twardowski's relatives. Wanting to ensure his substantial savings aren’t seized by the "vooltures"—the state—when he dies, Twardowski asks Wieniawski to write a will on his behalf. Wieniawski watches as Twardowski struggles to decide whether to give his estate to the Polish family he's never met or to an American family he hardly knows.

Joanna Rostropowicz Clark introduces Testaments with an overview of Danuta Mostwin's fiction. Though Clark's essay focuses on the issue of identity, she pauses to comment on Mostwin's slightly detached style of narration. "Her first novel, Dom starej lady (The House of the Old Lady), " Clark writes, "is narrated from the perspective of a participating observer, in a voice that accommodates both irony and compassion, a style that would become her artistic trademark."

"Jocasta," the second novella in this collection, also uses this trademark style. An anonymous first-person narrator follows Henryka de Chatin as she sheds her Polish life and starts again in the United States. Suffering from schizophrenia and haunted by memories of World War II, Henryka has difficulties reconciling the fact that her son, Jan, is married to Greta, a woman of German descent, and she schemes to break apart the marriage. Using two first-person narrators, one taking over from the other, allows Mostwin to illustrate the discrepancies between Henryka's past and present beliefs, and to show what it’s like to be stranded between two countries.

This device provides an emotional distance from Henryka, whose inability to detach from the past retards her (and Jan's) ability to move forward. When Jan is critically injured in a car accident both are forced to re-evaluate where they belong.

As Thomas J. Napierkowski writes, "The publication in English of these two novellas by Danuta Mostwin opens a new chapter in the history of literature of the United States and in the appreciation of Polish-American Literature."

 

 

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