Every Boat Turns South – Review by Marc Schuster


every-boat-turns-southWhen protagonist Matt Younger returns home after years of being ostensibly lost at sea in J.P White’s debut novel, Every Boat Turns South, he does so ensconced in “the musty tang of things growing and rotting in the same catch.” The moment, needless to say, is pregnant with ambivalence, and the tension between past and future, life and death, hope and despair is one that White develops beautifully throughout this emotionally intelligent tale of high-seas adventure.

The novel is framed much like the classic Persian tale of One Thousand and One Nights. Rather than telling stories to keep himself alive, however, the protagonist is racing against the clock to make a full confession to his dying father; long regarded as the cause of his superstar brother’s death, Matt has been drifting for years, finding himself in one brand of trouble after another, with his nights usually ending up at the bottom of a bottle of a rum. Yet even as Matt flees from his past, the ghost of his brother is always nearby, haunting his every move. Hence the need for Matt’s confession: he wants to make a clean break with the past and start his life anew. Of course, such things are often easier said than done.

In addition to One Thousand and One Nights, Every Boat Turns South boasts a strong literary heritage. Hints of American classics ranging from Herman Melville to Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck saturate the novel, but perhaps the strongest connection I can make is to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, as the prodigal son returns home to make amends with his family only to be met with ongoing resistance. The big difference this time around, however, is that we finally get a chance to find out what the son was up to while he was gone, and Every Boat Turns South serves up the sin and misery in spades.

A gripping page-turner, Every Boat Turns South is the perfect antidote to the end-of-summer blahs. White’s gift for suspense is matched only by his lyrical facility with the language of the sea. Highly recommended.

Marc Schuster is the Associate Fiction Editor of Philadelphia Stories and the author of The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl.

Michelle Wittle On the Human Element

Michelle Wittle On

In a world in which news can reach us in a matter of mere seconds after it has occurred, I feel like we are missing out on the human element. When was the last time you honestly had a phone conversation with someone that lasted more than a minute?  Better yet, when was the last time you got a letter in the mail from a friend? With the Internet and email, we don’t need to rely on the post office or old Mr. Bell’s invention to send news quickly to one another. In a click, our baby’s new pictures or a web video of his or her first words can be sent. Our handy phones can do all the talking for us. Just the other day I was scrolling through my text messaging templates and I saw one that said, “I love you”. Now I don’t even have to take the extra five seconds it would take for me to type the words; I could just click a button or two and my message would be sent.

That knowledge makes me sick. How important do I think my life is that I can’t stop for a few seconds and text a loved one those words?

Furthermore, why couldn’t I just call and leave a message? Why do I have to text at all?

In a blog I wrote called, “Saving the Post Office One Post card at a Time” http://mwittle.wordpress.com/2009/08/08/saving-the-post-office-one-post-card-at-a-time/,  I discussed the importance of the post office and also the importance of getting personal mail. But I think with this blog, I need to take it one step more.

I fear we are becoming more and more dependent on machines to hold our memories and our most treasured items. For that, we need to be ashamed.

Computers crash and phones die. But what does last is the written word.

I can tell you that some of my most precious items are cards and letters I have gotten over time. One card that comes to my mind as I write this blog is one I got for my birthday a few years ago. On it was a purple stick figure of me and it said on the front, “Happy birthday to (there was then an arrow pointing to the purple stick figure)”. Inside the card held many of our private jokes that I could explain to you but it wouldn’t make sense and you would be bored, so I will spare you all of that.  But the reason I love this card so much is because it was created just for me by the giver. Hallmark couldn’t have created a better card.

The words that come from the heart mean the most. While it is true you can pour your heart and soul in an email, it doesn’t really have the full power you could get from writing it in your own hand.

So, I ask you all to consider this final thought. When you have something very personal to say to someone else, find the human element that works best for you. Some might want to talk on the phone, while others (myself included) may need to write the words out on paper. Send it off in the mail or hand it to the person; but make sure you take the time to give that extra human touch. Trust me, when that person needs you the most, all they will need to do is take out that letter or recall your voice. It will help far more than an email  or a text message.

Michelle Wittle On Newspapers?

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

What was once black and white and read all over seems to becoming a dying publishing form. As reported in February of this year, The Philadelphia Inquirer has gone bankrupted. This newspaper was once the biggest source of news for the Delaware Valley and even they are having problems paying their bills.

But I question why this would be happening?

I won’t speak on the economy or anything like that because while I do think it has something to do with the decay of newspaper; I think there is a bigger issue that we are missing.

Is it possible that we don’t need newspapers anymore?

All the up to the minute news can be accessed by our cell phones now. I learned that Michael Jackson died by going on a social networking site and not from the newspaper. Look at the help wanted ads. I don’t think they are so empty because there aren’t jobs; I think it is just cheaper to list online then pay to have it printed in the newspaper. I also just read an on line article that said newspapers are going to stop printing the movie times in the Arts and Entertainment section because people can not only get their movie time on their phones or the Internet, but they can buy their tickets from the same source as well.  Book reviews are all on line. Everything we once used a newspaper for is just a click away.

As a writer, this fact saddens me greatly.

I am all for saving trees. However, when I travel, I like to get the local newspaper and see what is going on. Some of my favorite memories from my travels are when I was grabbing the local paper, sitting in a café or a diner drinking tea and reading the local news.

I don’t want to take the time to sit on the Internet trying to find local news. I want to be out in the community and supporting them by purchasing their wares.

Also, I hate the Internet. It’s too big and I can never find what I am looking for. I hate wasting time scrolling through pages and pages of things generated by a search engine. In that respect, I am very old fashioned.

So then, what do we do with our failing newspapers? Are they something that is so archaic that we need to get rid of? If we do, then what is the next writing publication to go?

My mother used to say that you never know what you have until it is gone. Maybe all we need is to revamp our idea of a newspaper and what information it should give us on a daily basis. I think we can all agree there is something almost Zen-like about getting the morning newspaper, having your breakfast and just taking some time to read and relax before the business of the day begins. In this extremely go-go world, we need to find those small moments…those pockets of time…that we get to just stop and breathe.  Who wants to be hunched over the computer eating eggs and drinking coffee just to get the daily news?

Bartab – Review by Marc Schuster


bartabTowards the end of Cesca Janece Waterfield‘s evocative new novel in poems, Bartab: An After Hours Ballad, the poet offers us “True Story,” a piece that tellingly captures the essence of the book in a thousand words or less. Here, protagonist Evie stumbles home to her boyfriend after a long night of drinking, proud of herself for having gotten all of the previous night’s drinks for free. What she’s done to get those drinks, we’re never told, but we can draw our own conclusions based on the rest of the book. A self-described artisitc iconoclast who’s “so original” that she can’t make a living, Evie spends her days and nights self-medicating in a variety of different ways–booze, sex, and drugs chief among them. Yet she also yearns for a life of bourgeois simplicity, as demonstrated by her purchase (and subsequent loss) of a set of ivory-colored sheets with periwinkle dots. Her dream is to save some money, to buy a van, to make a home with her boyfriend, yet the real world keeps getting in the way. There are bills to pay and eviction notices to deny. Then there are the hazy memories of nights lost to Evie’s vices of choice, and the dream predictably, yet no less tragically, starts to dissolve. The narrator’s desperation is palpable as she repeats her tragic chorus at the conclusion of “True Story”: “I have no idea where those sheets got to.”

As a “novel in poems,” Bartab can do a lot of things that a traditional narrative can’t do. For one thing, the format allows Waterfield to create a pitch-perfect reproduction of the fragmentary nature of memory–particularly when large quantities of alcohol are involved. As the novel progresses, its poetic form allows Waterfield to take us from point A to point B without connecting all of the dots; that work is left to the reader in much the same way the work of connecting the blurred fragments of her life is left to Bartab‘s tragic protagonist. All of this is to say that the book’s form is perfectly suited to its content. Gritty, desperate, passionate, and heartfelt, Bartab is a must-read for the poet in all of us.

Marc Schuster is the Associate Fiction Editor for Philadelphia Stories. His debut novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl, was published earlier this year.