Never Look an American in the Eye:
Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the
Making of a Nigerian American.
By Okey Ndibe.
Oct. 2016. 224p. Soho, $25 (9781616957605). 823.
This memoir by the author of the novel
Foreign Gods, Inc. (2014) and the founding editor
of African Commentary is a moving and often
laugh-out-loud account of one man’s immigrant experience. There is a touching anecdote
about Ndibe’s attempt to find an African
American woman’s Nigerian father. There are
accounts of incidents that seem humorous only
in retrospect but were surely something very
different at the time, including Ndibe’s being mistaken for a bank robber. Less seriously,
there are stories about the author’s first name
being confused with the word okay, a misunderstanding that is the basis of many (perhaps
too many) jokes. Accounts of Ndibe’s meetings
and relationships with other writers, including
Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and John Edgar Wideman, will draw considerable interest,
but the most appealing aspect of this memoir
is the charming, comical, and occasionally eloquent way in which Ndibe captures his own
ingenuousness as a man arriving in a new place
and being unprepared for what he would find.
Something in the Blood: The Untold
Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who
By David J. Skal.
Oct. 2016. 672p. Norton/Liveright, $35 (9781631490101).
Bram Stoker is a world-famous writer about
whom most of us know almost nothing. Sure,
we know he wrote Dracula (1897), and we
probably know he took his inspiration from
the legend of Vlad the Impaler—but stop
right there. Skal, a historian of horror literature
and film, points out that apart from the name
“Dracula,” Stoker actually doesn’t seem to have
taken a whole lot from the Vlad legend; those
connections were forged afterward, by literary
commentators and wishful thinkers. In fact,
certain key elements of Dracula, including the
vampire’s sexual ambiguity, came from Stoker
himself; even the themes of blood and darkness appear to be drawn from Stoker’s own life
and the gruesome medical experimentation he
underwent. In writing about Stoker’s life, Skal
also writes about the time in which he lived, a
time in which shifting literary sensibilities and
the impending transition between centuries set
the stage for a new kind of dark horror novel
to launch a revolution. An engagingly written,
well-documented biography of a famous writer
we all think we know, even if we really don’t.
Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration,
Obsession, and the Writing Life.
By Joyce Carol Oates.
Sept. 2016. 416p. Ecco, $27.99 (9780062564504). 814.
Emily Dickinson is the source for the title of
Oates’ newest gathering of literary essays and
previously published reviews, the first since In
Rough Country (2010). The poet is also among
other cherished writers, along with Melville,
Thoreau, Henry James, George Eliot, Mary
Shelley, and E. L. Doctorow, whom Oates cites
in her opening essay, based on a lecture delivered
at the New York Public Library—“Is the Unin-
spired Life Worth Living?” In it she tells tales
of inspiration catalyzed by place, love, friends,
nightmares, and a longing for social justice.
Endlessly intrigued by the transformation of ex-
perience and feeling into imaginative literature,
Oates shares her own “motives” for writing, in-
cluding “commemoration,” “bearing witness,”
and “self-expression.” Her reviews blossom
into full-blown critical inquiries bright with
gleanings from her long, deep immersion in lit-
erature as she interprets such contemporaries as
Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, Margaret Drab-
ble, Paul Auster, Jerome Charyn, and Zadie
Smith. And how bracing it is when Oates de-
fines art, including the mysterious metaphor, as
the wellspring for meaning and our “collective
memory,” an enterprise essential, she argues, to
our very survival. —Donna Seaman
By Grace Bonner.
Sept. 2016. 63p. Four Way, paper, $15.95
The round lake, Bonner notes, is a Sumerian
theory of a universe spawned and surrounded
by water. As three eponymous poems suggest,
Round Lake is also an enigmatic New York
village. This amalgamation of the ancient and
modern, the extraordinary and mundane, the
divine and irreverent endlessly echoes across
each page of Bonner’s striking debut. In “
Landscape with Colossal Kouros,” for example, she
compares hulking, inscribed statues to the unmarked body of a lover. In “On the Origins of
Language,” she interweaves the Tower of Babel
and Siri, the voice of Apple. And in “Effortless
Traveler,” a light-reflecting window “move[s]
cathedrals down” an unsuspecting train passenger’s face. This is a landscape of loss, too, and of
water, furious and forgiving, of memories and
their ghosts. “Elegy” invokes Thetis, goddess
of water, while simultaneously simmering over
the gaping loss of a mother. “Song Traversing
a Tenebrous World” couples Christian mourning and Bonner’s distant sister. In a compelling
nod to H. D., Bonner’s “Falassarna” conjures
“hatche[d] butterflies.” This collection is a butterfly in itself, graceful, transformative, soaring.
Your Enzymes Are Calling the Ancients.
By Karen Donovan.
Oct. 2016. 112p. Persea, paper, $15.95
Coming 18 years after her first collection,
Donovan’s second book excavates the con-
nective web uniting all things metaphysical,
spiritual, and beautiful. Winner of the 2015
Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award, this
collection is broken into three distinct sec-
tions. The first, one long and segmented
poem titled “Parts List Counted in Ogham,”
is a 20-part work in which each portion is
tied to the ancient Irish alphabet known for
its use on the edges of tombstones. These
poems dig into soil and erupt with the deep
paradoxes of natural life. Rivers, quantum
theory, ribosomes, genomes, color charts:
these are the components of Donovan’s strik-
ing collection, and they move together like
the ebb and flow of a tide. Donovan expertly
crafts a cohesive book from so many seeming-
ly different parts of art and nature and weaves
them through the loom and perspective of
human experience. —Danielle Susi
Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.
By Artemis Joukowsky.
Sept. 2016. 272p. illus. Beacon, $26.95
Joukowsky teamed with Ken Burns to produce a new documentary for PBS based on
this account of his grandparents’ heroic rescue and relief efforts during WWII, about
which he knew nothing until he was in high
school. He chronicles the journey of Unitarian minister Waitstill Sharp and his wife,
Martha, from their suburban Massachusetts
home to war-torn Europe in 1939 and 1940.
Called upon by the American Unitarian Association to offer help, the couple left their
two young children behind and headed to
Czechoslovakia, arriving less than a month
before the Nazi takeover. Waitstill labored
to exchange currency for those attempting
to flee the country, while Martha bravely
shepherded a group of refugees out by train.
Eventually forced to leave Czechoslovakia,
the Sharps were persuaded to continue their
efforts in Vichy France, where they saved
countless lives by smuggling milk into the
country and 29 children out of it. A harrowing and ultimately inspirational tribute to a
brave couple. For the many WWII buffs and
those who will want to bolster their experience of the film. —Kristine Huntley
YA/C: The letters and immediacy of
the writing will give teens a sense of just
how difficult life was in Nazi-occupied
Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That
Shaped a First Lady.
By Susan Quinn.
Sept. 2016. 416p. Penguin, $30 (9781594205408).
New inquiries offer striking insights into
the complicated, often controversial relationships that inspired and sustained Franklin and
Eleanor Roosevelt, including Kathryn Smith’s
The Gatekeeper (2016), about Missy LeHand
and Franklin, and Patricia Bell-Scott’s The
Firebrand and the First Lady (2016),
portraying Pauli Murray and Eleanor. Quinn
(Furious Improvisation, 2008) now establishes
without equivocation the true, loving nature