Hawaii Pacific Review: HPR 2010 Book Reviews

The Country of Lost Sons by Jeffrey Thomson

Parlor Press, 2004
ISBN: 1-93255-9-14-0
Reviewed by Fern Palabay

Jeffrey Thomson’s 2004 collection of poems, “The Country of Lost Sons” contemplates a world that, from time immemorial, has been filled with war, disease, and agony. Many of the pieces tangibly evoke the dread and foreboding that informs modern life while recalling Greek tragedies and Biblical stories of suffering. Yet, just as Thomson’s work illustrates that pain has and always will be a hallmark of the human experience, it speaks of those moments of joy and love that carry us all forward.

Thomson starts with a poem titled “Narrative,” which reminds the reader that “it all begins with story” whether it is told, as in ancient times, “around the fire” or read from “the book open on the table beside/a pitcher quivered with Calla lilies.” Quickly, the reader is introduced to Thomson’s skill in juxtaposing images: prehistoric cavemen huddled at night versus the civilized tranquility of leisurely reading in one’s living room both layered against the lilies, held in a vase like poisoned arrows at the ready. The final image of “Narrative” prepares the reader well for what follows. After having fallen through ice into black water, the speaker walks home, “clothes frozen into…a husk of ice and wind,” which preserve him from “the murderous world.”

Thomson’s poem, “Camera Obscura” lyrically photographs this murderous world:

We are left with the grotesque
of negatives—a bus blown apart,
torn metal scorched white
as petals, a galaxy of climbing roses
throttling the fence outside Celebici,
women weeping around blast furnaces
in Trepca, their faces bone black.  

The reader is left raw by the counterpoint of tender roses against the agony of ethnic cleansing during the Kosovo war. One cannot help but feel the futility of railing against such horrors is simply because savage death and pain not only still exist, but reach back so long ago. We cannot look away when Thomson describes how

Agammemnon turns
to watch his arm, his own
as yet unbloodied arm…
drive the knife into his daughter.

Despite this, Thomson finds hope. In “My Wife’s New Shoes,” his pregnant wife, with her shoes that hiss as she walks, moves through a world where fallen Douglas fir cones are “toothed” and dresses from the dry cleaners are “ghostly.” “My wife worries and holds her belly,” Thomson chants several times though the poem as if it were a charm. Indeed, his wife’s belly is a “tent of dreams” so that even though “the alders are gray and gaunt,” “bundles/of cherry blossoms hang a pink mist/against the dark water, where the snow/turns and turns and disappears.” One feels the soon-to-be-father’s ache for the justification of hope.

While the birth of a child should herald a more positive outlook, parenthood is continually fraught with worry.  In “The Country of Lost Sons,” Thomson’s title piece, Thomson has a dream where his baby son is “crushed beneath the wheels/of a flat panel van.” Upon waking, the reader feels that knife-edge where the horror of the nightmare meets the “gutty elation” Thomson feels at his child’s “continuing breath/the warm pucker of his soft mouth.” Harsh realities are ever present, and at the end of the poem, the ragged truth is revealed when Thomson tells us, “my son/is my elegy, waiting to be written.”

The longest piece of Thomson’s collection, “Goodnight Nobody,” is a set of eight prose poems that meditate upon childhood innocence and purity against the unforgiving setting of human existence. Of these, parts I and VII are most striking. In Part I, Thomson recalls hearing a story on National Public Radio about Serbian militiamen searching in Lasitica, Kosovo for the town beauty. They could not find her and “took a 13 year old instead.” Thomson is troubled. “It’s the ‘instead’ that gets” him. The “lucky one (with her striking green eyes and black hair” is “squirreled away,” while the “other one” is “an innuendo, an accusation fading.” The “other” “waits in the wet grass” in the hope of coming home, “but the hiss of that terrible word gives her up instead, its echo lingering.” Here, the reader is tortured both by the arbitrary exchanging of one child over another for some unknown, yet decidedly evil, purpose and how this favoring, this “instead,” is horrible not merely because one child was taken, but that the child who was taken was somehow deemed lesser than the intended victim.

In Part VII, Thomson recounts a play date during which his son, Julian, not yet a toddler, tackles a girl a year older than he and they fall, laughing. Unfortunately, the girl’s two-year old brother does not understand and screams “an intoxicating, wordless scream” for ten minutes as “he will not be calmed, his face an umber work.” Later, the screaming boy’s mother brings him back to apologize, “his sorry small and wet and barely healed.” During this vulnerable moment, Thomson’s son “leans in and with his tiny fist punches him, hard.” The reader is poignantly caught in Thomson’s concurrent paternal pride and chagrin at his baby’s aggression.

Thomson’s final poem in the collection, “An Elegy for the Living in Early Spring,” contrasts the emerging life of spring “when skunk cabbage unfurls,” a “hawk hunts a lean snowshoe,” and a “hare’s body pumps like a heart” against the discovery that a friend, David, has tested positive for what is, ostensibly, HIV. Thomson tells us that initially, David

held on to anger, stalked through rooms
of denial then abruptly he was gone,

caught a plane to Paris where he drank
cheap wine, pissed in the Seine
and bought beers for young blond boys

he wanted to kiss full on the mouth.

David continued his travels, going to Thailand, Leningrad, Bangkok and Pakistan, until he finally

arrived home telling stories,
gaunt and tan as autumn,
years older.

The bittersweet denouement comes when Thomson finally takes his leave of David at dawn, whose “mottled face” he kisses and walks home, with Venus (the planet associated with love, beauty and fertility) “large and clean/on the Western horizon.” The beautifully rendered message that the cycle of birth and death continues seemingly without noticing David’s passion for living even as he is dying.

Thomson’s The Country of Lost Sons is often mournfully pessimistic in its inexorably violent imagery, but the voice that emerges is one of cautiously triumphant hope. It is fitting that we move through the stories of Thomson’s poems, watching with the eyes of a soon-to-be parent who worries about bringing forth a child during such harsh times, then struggling simultaneously, once his son is born, to make peace with and shield his son from the world’s ugly imperfections. With his collection’s last piece, an elegy for a friend diagnosed with a terminal disease, Thomson leads us to the revelation that sometimes it is death itself that can bring us to a place of faith in life, and that perhaps, like his friend, we should shed our protective husks. The Country of Lost Sons is a perfect read for all who despair about the overwhelming prevalence of evil in today’s society yet continue in an obstinate search for grace.

Far Afield by Scott Brown

Red Hen Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59709-424-5
Reviewed by James Calvey

The island of Momo-Jima cannot be found in any traditional sense. You cannot book a flight or find it in an atlas. Even if you somehow managed to get there, its fictional inhabitants would be certain you had been waylaid.  However, this small, tropic, South Pacific island serves as the staging ground for Scott Brown’s brilliant political farce Far Afield.

Far Afield is an enormously entertaining novel that exposes our media’s preoccupation with vacuous stories and recycled messages while telling a character-driven tale of loneliness and rediscovery. Brown capably brings the familiar into the absurd while juggling real emotion and motivation with the ridiculous plots and plans of the island’s inhabitants.

Far Afield follows freelance journalist Benjamin Inoue as he is increasingly wrapped up in the eccentric little island’s presidential election while attempting a 12-day vacation. He is not certain why he is in Momo-Jima, but came because he needed to get away from the real world.  Weeks earlier, he had discovered a dead man in his apartment building, a dead man who was a victim to an ill-fated foray into the world of cross dressing and auto-erotic asphyxiation.  This jarring discovery of a man who died such an ignoble death deeply rattles Ben and forces him to contemplate death, his legacy, the nature of humiliation, and his own alienation. 

Brown uses the image of a dead man in a short dress dangling from the ceiling to express the absurd horror that is life. He is capable of making the disturbing funny by allowing us to see the world through Ben’s eyes. Ben is an everyman who contends that a good journalist must be able to view others without obstructing the natural flow of human thought and interaction. Naturally, this belief makes him a perfect looking glass into the world of Moma-Jiman politics.

Throughout the novel, Brown paints a picture of a world that is appealing despite its flaws. The island-nation of Momo-Jima is a fitting backdrop for this world. It is an unremarkable island that has been used as a diplomatic bargaining chip throughout its colonial history.  Eventually it ended up in the hands of the French who gave it independence against the wishes of its government and inhabitants. Ever since then, the people of Momo-Jima have been trying different schemes to stand out as a tourist destination in the South Pacific. At one point in the island’s history the residents dyed the beach pink as a publicity stunt, but all it managed to do was attract sea gulls.

Part of the fun of Far Afield comes from the casual way in which Ben reveals tidbits of Momo-Jima’s history. For example, the entire nation was once conned by a geologist, who caused a frenzied land grab after he fraudulently told the people of Momo-Jima that the ground under the capital city was rich with precious gems. At another point the government contemplated wrangling an iceberg and tugging it to Momo-Jima to in an effort to break into the bottled water industry. It is through these reveals that the reader is able to understand the mindsets of the inhabitants Momo- Jima and easily follow Ben’s journey without having to suspend too much disbelief.

Shortly after arriving in Momo-Jima, Ben is arrested for failing to pay his hotel bill up front and finds himself encouraged (under threat of being jailed indefinitely) to be the campaign manager for Presidential Candidate Trevor MacGower. He becomes increasingly more important to the island’s political future as more Momo-Jiman power players begin to take notice of Ben and his usefulness. Ben reluctantly finds himself manipulating the public’s thought while struggling not to be manipulated himself. Along the way he learns more about himself and even finds love with Momo-Jima’s top journalist.

Brown ably pieces together a world that is at once fresh and familiar. The dirty pink beaches subtly compliment the wheeling and dealings of backroom politics. Each character is driven by motivations that are so absurd they have to be real. For example, Trevor’s main opposition is his brother Stanley, who is only running because his grandmother’s will specifies that her inheritance will not be released until one of her line becomes President of the tiny Island. He desperately wants to lose to Trevor so that he can finally leave Momo-Jima and resettle in Scotland. Ben simply wants to be left alone, but shortly after being drafted into Trevor’s campaign becomes committed to seeing the job through. Ben’s campaign strategy is a simple one. He recognizes that Trevor’s idealism and predilection toward taking a stance on an issue is more of a hindrance than anything. To win, Trevor simply must spout empty rhetoric about patriotism and leadership.

Throughout the novel Brown subtly comments on the nature of discourse in today’s election driven political media coverage. The success of Ben’s empty rhetoric campaign strategy is not surprising or unlikely as it is at once recognizable as the preferred campaign strategy for today’s candidates. As Ben courts the media for Trevor he also begins to court a local reporter, Sono Bando, reflecting today’s love relationship between the media and political campaigns.

By placing it in a world that is so spatially distant from our own, Brown allows the reader to view our political system from a distance and to see the absurdity in what we take for granted.  Far Afield would be unbelievable if it wasn’t so familiar. If you could find Momo-Jima on a map I suspect it wouldn’t be found in the South Pacific at all. No, I imagine it would be nestled somewhere between Virginia and Maryland after all.

Three Ships to Moji by Felix E. Goodson

Red Hen Press, 2004
ISBN: 1-888996-77-3
Reviewed by Stephanie DeMello  

Three Ships to Moji is a vivid recollection of American prisoners-of-war and their journey of transfer from the Philippines to Moji, Japan. Written by Felix E. Goodson, this story provides ornate details of life as a P.O.W and the challenges faced during the hectic times of World War II. Goodson, a P.O.W himself, provides powerful images and descriptions which allow the reader to follow the story in an almost day-by-day, blow-by-blow account. The novel touches on the heavy themes of death and the human instinct for survival coupled with the question of whether the quality of life at the time made life worth living at all. These dilemmas keep the reader engaged as the storyline, like life itself, changes in the blink of an eye.

We are introduced to eighteen-year-old Orlando “Lonnie” Ray Wilson, the story’s main character, whose greatest aspiration is to experience the warmth of a woman. However, as time passes and the war marches on, we see the change in this character from naiveté and innocence to one centered in primal values that cause him to stop at nothing to survive. Lonnie evolves from a place of dependence and need for companionship to that of self-reliance and at some points isolation. His haughtiness as a youth fuels his unrelenting will to live, a determination not even his closest friends could find within themselves. The reader experiences the journey with Lonnie and all the highs and lows along the way. The story is filled with other colorful characters with whom Lonnie shares his struggle. These characters incorporate their own (granted unbelievable) stories of life as a civilian before the war in which even the reader becomes immersed. These sub-stories give a greater depth to the novel and demonstrate Goodson’s talent for great storytelling.

The novel presents the reader with unnerving scenarios of close calls and near-death experiences that can only be found in war stories.  The reader follows the American soldiers after the invasion of the Philippines by the Japanese; the men continue to look to the sky for any sign of help on the way until the gut-wrenching announcement is made over the radio: surrender to the Japanese. The reader is given scenes at the prison in central Manila where the soldiers are kept before transportation to the ships. We see as the soldiers pass the time by losing what few meals they have in poker, idling around the compound, and digging for worms –the only source of protein in a daily meal. All these are favorable circumstances compared to what’s coming: from here, the trip to Moji begins. Not only are the men in danger of dehydration and starvation along the way, but ultimately of being sunk by friendly fire. The grueling trip to Moji leaves the reader thankful for every drop of water to drink, every grain of rice in their bellies, and the warmth of the clothing on their backs.

Goodson does an extraordinary job blurring the lines between friend and enemy as comrade can easily turn to foe when fighting to stay alive. Rational men warp into maniacs: fighting for food, stealing items from one another for trade--even resorting to taking from the dead. The irony of having to watch one’s back from one’s fellow American soldier presents a twisted psychological viewpoint of the war that is striking in this story. Another curious aspect of the story is the dynamics between captor and captive. They seem to share a love-hate relationship, the Japanese occasionally giving a cigarette for a P.O.W soldier to smoke, or exchanging goods for extra water. This unique relationship develops into one of unspoken understanding during the voyage, because both parties are in danger of starvation and of being bombed by the Americans.

Three Ships to Moji is a powerful retelling of one of the most compelling stories of World War II. Goodson gives the reader first-hand details of events, along with vivid characters and the intriguing relationship between the Japanese and their prisoners. The story relays to the reader the power of human will in conditions of extreme duress and that death is no respecter of persons, neither captor nor captive. Three Ships to Moji meets the reader on aesthetic as well as psychological and emotional levels making it a great read for not just history buffs, but anyone seeking a gripping story about life, death and war.

Raptured: The Final Daze of the Late, Great Planet Earth by Earl Lee

See Sharp Press, 2007
ISBN: 1884365426 (pbk.)
Reviewed by Meagan Burgad

Earl Lee’s Raptured: The Final Daze of the Late Great Planet Earth is the first in a series of novels in the Kiss My Left Behind series, a parody of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s popular Left Behind series. Lee takes aim at religious fundamentalists and our previous political administration. Lee’s novel varies from the plot of Left Behind only when absolutely necessary which adds to the satirical value of the novel. Through his use of sharp wit Lee is able to make poignant observations that leave readers thinking long after they have stopped laughing.

The novel begins with pilot Ramrod Steele contemplating having an affair with stewardess Hadshe Dunhim. The story focuses on Ramrod and his family as well as reporter Mark Doody, a naïve reporter with more luck than smarts. The two men face different challenges, although they both deal with the End of Days. Ramrod believes his wife and son have been taken in the Rapture; in actuality she has left him in favor of the Holy Land: Branson, Missouri. Doody follows a lead to Texrectumstan in search of the Anti-Christ, Dubyah the Younger, a man who bears a striking resemblance to our former president.

Lee’s ability to make light of serious situations makes the book hard to put down. A Christian escort service and the Bar-B-Qued Angelic Wings food court are just a few of the things Lee has dreamt up in a universe where Evangelists run wild and idiocracy is king. Relying heavily on satire to tell his story, Cloye Steele, Ramrod’s daughter, is a refreshing voice of reason in this humorous tale. Too rational to blame the Rapture for her mother and brother’s disappearance, Cloye is the only character in the novel who has the sense to look into the real reason for her family members vanishing act. By giving Cloye the gift of rational thought, the reader can see how ludicrous those around her seem in comparison.

The author not only pokes fun at religion but also at our former political administration. Lee describes the Anti-Christ, Dubyah the Younger, as a dictator and recovering coke addict. One of the funnier moments in the book happens when Dubyah shoots a gun in a ceremonial Texrectumstan  who can’t hold a gun without shooting himself in the head. When Dubyah is elected dictator of Texrectumstan he takes the stage like a “trained seal” bumbling through his speech as he thanks his “smarter brother, Jebbulah” and promises to recognize “all men are created equal . . . While at the same time we recognize some people are more equal than others.” One can almost hear the sarcasm dripping from Lee’s pen as he describes Dubyah as a “Fearless Leader.” One of the most humourus moments in the book happens while Dubyah takes part in a ceremonial celebration in Texrectumstan and manages to accidently shoot himself.

The novel ends with Ramrod returning to work for the first time after the loss of his wife and son. While some readers may find the final scene anticlimactic, its open ending leaves room for the series to continue, much like the original Left Behind series. Although Lee’s novel tackles serious issues such as religion and politics, he does so in such a way that is not only informative but also entertaining. Anyone interested in a witty satire will thoroughly enjoy this novel. And if you don’t you can kiss Earl Lee’s Left Behind.