Arts & Culture

Book Reviews: March 2014

Wondrous Beauty by Carol Berkin, Medusa’s Daughter by Jonathon Scott Fuqua/Steven Parke and His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon

Wondrous Beauty

Carol Berkin (Knpof)

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte—or Betsy, as she was called—was a
Baltimore legend and international celebrity, a sort-of
turn-of-the-19th-century It Girl. Born to a wealthy local family in
1785, she (as this book’s title suggests) was a beauty, attracting many
prospective suitors, including the brother of Napoleon. Betsy wed Jerome
Bonaparte and gave birth to his son, infuriating her powerful
brother-in-law, who sabotaged the marriage. In some ways, that’s the
least interesting part of the story, as Betsy deals with the fallout
from this fairy tale gone wrong for the rest of her life. Berkin, the
author of such books as Civil War Wives and Revolutionary Mothers,
doesn’t see Betsy as a victim but, refreshingly, as a complicated and
strong woman far ahead of her time.

Medusa’s Daughter

Jonathon Scott Fuqua/Steven Parke (Red GiantEntertainment)

Fuqua and Parke—local YA author and photographer/illustrator,
respectively—have collaborated on this ambitious project, publishing
Medusa’s Daughter simultaneously as a novel, graphic novel, and
children’s book. That way, they can appeal to all reading levels and
perhaps even encourage upward mobility by hooking kids into the story
and getting them to migrate to the next level, which is more complex and
difficult. Still, the graphic novel is at the heart of this trilogy,
with Fuqua’s compelling story about a teenage girl working a carny
sideshow after seemingly being abandoned by her parents. Illustrated by
Parke’s photographs, rather than drawn panels, it has a cinematic
quality that enhances the narrative sweep. It is eerily beautiful and
memorable, the sort of thing that could lead readers not just to the
other volumes, but also to the Greek myth that informs Fuqua’s story.

His Wife Leaves Him

Stephen Dixon (Fantagraphics Books)

Stephen Dixon tends to get labeled as a writer’s writer. No less an
authority than Jonathan Lethem claims to “return again and again to his
stories for writerly inspiration,” and many critics seem to believe that
Dixon’s uncommon fiction, with its digressions from narrative norms,
appeals mostly to fellow scribes. But Dixon, who taught writing at
Hopkins for years, is actually a reader’s writer in that his work piques
curiosity and then explores various emotions and responses to satisfy
it. Here, the curiosity begins with the title, which implies infidelity
and impermanence, but the stakes are considerably higher for Dixon’s
protagonist, Martin, whose wife dies after a lengthy illness. Martin
struggles with that irrevocable reality, examining and reexamining it
through a series of internal monologues, detailed recollections, and
imagined scenarios that reward careful reading.