Dementia and Haiku 

Our reviewers tackle haiku, hip-hop, burnt villages, senility, and decapitation.

My Father's Keeper
By Jonathan G. Silin
Beacon, $23.95

"The year I turned fifty I finally understood that my parents were dying. Not all at once, but slowly, by degrees." So begins Silin's portrait — subtitled "The Story of a Gay Son and His Aging Parents" — of his family's long and bitter slide into the land of the frail elderly, where "there is no cure and will be no cure for the multiple impacts of age." His father, a lifelong depressive rendered progressively speechless, demented, and half-blind over the course of the book, loathes his increasing dependency on his son, and Silin maintains his extraordinary compassion even as he finds himself the target of accusations and tantrums: "Both the past and the present are territories that my father no longer travels to. He judges me, and other caregivers, by what we can do for him. ... [I am] disappointed that he does not recognize my own efforts on his behalf, but he has nothing left to give." Silin achieves a rare balance between clarity and immediacy, universality and specificity, and this is a supreme work, a searingly precise investigation into the times when ambivalence must coexist with love. Timid readers might prefer Tuesdays with Morrie.
— Philip Huang

The Haiku Apprentice
By Abigail Friedman
Stone Bridge, $14.95

Never underestimate the potential of seventeen syllables. They zip past so fast. I can't come to the phone right now but please leave a message after the — boom. An American diplomat in Tokyo, fluent in Japanese, Friedman was employed by the Foreign Service to keep tabs on public reactions to news from nearby North Korea. Juggling political hot potatoes along with a busy home life, mother-of-three Friedman was startled when a stranger invited her to join his haiku group: "In my mind, Japanese haiku poets were either long dead or ... hidden away in the hills, practicing Zen." Attending suburban meetings, she discovered and joined — like "Alice in Wonderland ... as if I had fallen down a hole" — a subculture pursuing an art form that celebrates solitary epiphanies in a nation notorious for groupthink. Friedman is an appealing guide through an alternate Japan where modern people make poems about teacups and temples but also about skyscrapers and kidney surgery.
— Anneli Rufus

Bronx Biannual
Edited by Miles Marshall Lewis
Akashic, $14.95

Most so-called hip-hop books come off as dry academic treatises or lurid redemption-narratives awash in sex and violence and the never-ending hustle for street cred. Hip-hop literati can find a home here in this journal of urban fiction, journalism, poetry, and essays. East Bayite Adam Mansbach's "Risk, Taking" — the story of a white Connecticut B-boy taking his grandfather out to bomb trains in the '80s — is a solid piece just waiting for HBO to cut the check. As she investigates the Korean-dominated black-hair-care cartel in "Wigged Out," Bay Areaite Caille Millner ventures to the shady side of the salon. And Donnell Alexander's "Rhyme Scheme" is rich with wordplay and movement — but the stylus skips when musicians come into the mix. Mike Ladd's "Browsing" frustrates with promises it can't keep, and KRS-ONE's proselytizing polemic, "The Milk and the Meat," feels like listening to your older brother the day after he's found Jesus.
— D. Scot Miller

Nothing in the World
By Roy Kesey
Bullfight Media, $8

Josko is a Croatian lad who spends his days spearing fish on the tranquil Adriatic. When the Serbian army decides to invade, he is thrown into the horrors of 20th-century war. This bildungsroman traces a boy's coming of age in the midst of landmines, burnt villages, and decapitation. And at a slim 103 pages, it cuts to the chase, bringing us straight to the worst moments of the Balkan wars. Short parables at each of its section breaks add new twists to the narrative: quick, sobering vignettes of civilian elderly perishing under the ravages of the conflict. Yet for all its vivid detail, it falls just short of convincing. Battle-thrashed Josko quickly becomes a type; his big-war-meets-small-village story follows too predictable a pattern. It's a pity that this isn't a longer book, since Kesey obviously has a story to tell. But as is, a real and tragic war becomes a quick fable, fetishizing rural youth and death.

— Nicholas Casey

The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories
By Valerie Martin
Vintage, $13

Oh, those sexy troubled artists. Why, they make you want to hurl yourself off a roof, have an affair with your student who is fifteen years your junior, or get half naked with your sexy artist girlfriend in the shrubbery outside your colleague's house. This collection comprises five stories and a novella, each featuring a difficult artist who makes someone else's existence something of a living hell. The stories are mostly underwhelming, with fairly stock artists, obvious epiphanies, and weirdly stilted narrative. After a theater teacher sleeps with her student — he had made her swoon with his rendition of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy — we are asked: "Was she feeling flush with excitement ... because she had done something transgressive and gotten away with it?" Could be! Fortunately, the titular novella is a creepy, Southern Gothic-esque page-turner in which a modestly successful writer is visited, almost haunted, by a former writing classmate and flame. Here, Martin's prose finally manages to work in tandem with its melodrama rather than be compromised by it.

— Kim Hedges


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