Book Review: An Irreverent Curiosity

March 24, 2010

An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town

By David Farley

Published July 9, 2009

Gotham Books

304 pp.

ISBN 1-592-40454-5

Reviewed March 24, 2010

Before picking up “An Irreverent Curiosity,” the only time I ever heard the foreskin of Jesus Christ mentioned was as a plot point in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel “Choke.” In the novel (and subsequent film), the main character Victor Mancini is faced with the looming death of his mother and decides he needs to learn more about his past, and as such has his mother’s doctor translate her Italian diary. The findings are stunning and sacrilegious: apparently at forty she offered to undergo a “miracle” fertility treatment, and was implanted with one of six embryos created by utilizing the foreskin’s genetic material.

Described as a religious relic stolen from a shoebox under a priest’s bed in Northern Italy, the history provided is fairly brief. “According to the Catholic Church, Jesus was reunited with the foreskin at his resurrection and ascension. According to the story of Saint Theresa of Avila, when Jesus appeared to her and took her as his bride, he used the foreskin as her wedding ring.”

Given Palahniuk’s tendency of exaggeration for effect (which I have personally witnessed drive patrons out of his readings to the joy of fans) I assumed this was a flight of fancy on his part, some offhand myth stretched to the nth degree. This made it all the more surprising to learn that the relic actually existed, actually was stolen, and to this day actually remains a legitimate mystery. In “An Irreverent Curiosity,” David Farley decided to see if he could find out the truth behind its disappearance – a journey full of as many characters and complications as the relic’s history.

Farley centers his search in Calcata, a small town in Italy where the relic took up residence from 1527 until 1983, at which point the above-mentioned shoebox vanished from under the nose of the local priest. Tracking down every conceivable lead he can find, he discovers more than a few roadblocks: the local residents aren’t interested in talking about it, so-called experts have only speculation or conspiracy theories and the church may still excommunicate people for even talking about it. As such, he has to try every source he can, moving from the Vatican library to village priests to Paris abbeys to wine cellars.

With travel writing credentials including the Washington Post and the New York Times, Farley certainly has an eye for the interesting details of a new environment – and this is an environment worth exploring, as Calcata would be an eccentricity even if it wasn’t for the foreskin. An isolated location, home to one of the last mostly untouched medieval villages in Italy, it is often viewed as a source of indefinable energy by residents – an energy that attracts artists, wanderers and those looking for somewhere out of the ordinary to live.

“People are not meant to live a normal kind of life here,” says a resident named Athon, who has a PhD in architecture and lives in a cave with crows – and she’s only mid-level eccentricity. Farley got to know a lot of these people while he was doing his research, and he dwells on them in detail: dancers, architects, chefs and drifters all join him in some form in his quest. The village is painted in a very positive light, certainly a quirkiness that would take some getting used to but a real sense of community once you and the town learn to get along.

Farley’s search also allows him to indulge his inner history buff, providing a very detailed look at the history of Christianity’s fascination with relics and the Church’s ambiguous relationship with the Holy Foreskin. He goes all the way back to ancient Rome and the Christians raiding ashes of burned saints, touching on the Constantine-inspired craze to own them and Calvin and Luther’s dismissal of the concept causing their star to fade. These obscure details are a fascinating read, with amusing tangents on how saints were the precursor to modern rock stars and how a boat could be built with all the wood claimed to be part of the True Cross.

If there’s a problem with “An Irreverent Curiosity,” it’s that these two sections – along with other Farley’s occasional personal anecdotes – never quite mesh together. Farley has written several articles about his time in Calcata in addition to the book, and he’s clearly more comfortable in the shorter format of a few hundred or thousand words. As a consequence, several details feel out of place or transitions somewhat strained, the tone frequently jumping from historian to conversationalist.

This certainly doesn’t mean it’s written poorly – it’s interesting and more than occasionally funny – but it does lack something in its engagement quality. In a book where the author is dropping themselves into a foreign land on some sort of quest, there needs to be either a deeper personal connection to journey (i.e. “The Ramen King and I”) or describe the setting in developed prosaic tones (i.e. “Honorable Bandit”). Farley doesn’t quite hit either, and when he tries to bring in more of his personal experiences – such as one chapter where he discusses his apparent learning disabilities in childhood and compares it to difficulty with Italian – there’s a definite sense of edges that need smoothing over.

But while “An Irreverent Curiosity” may feel rocky in places, it never feels like more than the bumps during an interesting journey. It’s a book loaded with quirky characters and esoteric facts, useful for preparing for a northern Italy trip or writing a paper on some aspect of Christian history. Farley may not be able to turn up the relic, but with all the oddities that surround him, it’s yet another proof what matters is the journey over the destination.

Extra Credit:

For a taste of Farley’s writing on the subject, check out these articles from Slate that cover many of the better discussions from “An Irreverent Curiosity.”

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Poetry Review: Scary, No Scary

March 6, 2010

Scary, No Scary

By Zachary Schomburg

Published August 17, 2009

Black Ocean

80 pp.

ISBN 0-977-77099-0

Reviewed March 6, 2010

Zachary Schomburg’s Surrealist poems always seem best suited for night reading: a writing style that is dark and quiet, and speaks regularly about a particular kind of loneliness, the type that always seems to grip you hardest when you’re lying in bed. His critically acclaimed debut collection, “The Man Suit,” took that feeling into the dream world, full of playful and unhinged imagery, and now he’s gone deeper into the night with “Scary, No Scary.” These are poems which possess all the vivid “awake-ness” of a nightmare, where reality always seems most supple for molding and the extremes of our imaginations and fears don’t know whether to hug or punch each other.

Unlike “The Man Suit,” “Scary, No Scary” seems to follow one narrative, an attractive quality for non-poetry readers. All the poems are connected by an adolescent narrator over four parts, wandering through a dark and strange stretch of woods.  What he sees leans towards the absurd. People climb inside of wolves and they morph into beating hearts, hummingbird bones scatter across the page, and rivers fill up with lava and blood while jaguars gnaw hungrily on the horizon like it’s nothing but a bone. The images climb in and out of the poems as the book moves on, continually circling the narrator as he presses on in search of someone or something he can’t name in boats going nowhere.

Schomburg’s imagined landscape is decidedly post-apocalyptic, to the point that Verse‘s Timothy Henry casually alluded to “Scary, No Scary” as a more adventurous, psychedelic version of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” The holes Schomburg’s words carve for us offer glimpses into a completely unmapped, unregulated world – unregulated at least by human standards. Our reign over order and space is quite obviously over. When buildings appear, they crumble to the touch and are greedily replaced by a new kind of nature, which thrives wildly, almost grotesquely:

“The clouds were not shaped like clouds/ A tree was blooming with broken hummingbirds instead of leaves. / Instead of a sun, a slow explosion” (This Is What You Need to Know About the World, Pretend Son).

Lightness and darkness, our most basic symbols of time and the order that goes with it, are unpredictable, overwhelming the narrator as he moves through the mega fauna forest:

“I climb the trees / through 1000 rooms. / I look for you / in each of them / You’re a long shiny line” (Abandoned Hotel).

The narrator’s journey is made more difficult by the fact that people, like the weathered buildings, have been stripped of their humanity. Typical means of language have either been lost or forgotten, and there are no names or proper speech:

“Is this your beating heart I asked. She didn’t answer. She didn’t have a larynx. She didn’t even have a thorax. / She didn’t have anything. Not even arms or legs or a head. She / really wasn’t a woman as much as she was the space between dead leaves” (I Found A Beating Heart Half-Buried In The Woods).

What we lose, nature seems to gain. Trees are the ones who bleed. Our legacy is in danger:

“We have a daughter / who was never born. / She lives in the house we never built” (New Kind of Light).

A reader might wonder what exactly Schomburg is looking for in a desolate, post-apocalyptic setting, and what the speaker is looking for. This place quickly and easily strips the narrator and the language of the meaning it had in the world we know, leaving us to wonder what could possibly be left. But “Scary, No Scary” pushes the reader to find the surprise and poignancy in that nothingness. With the walls between them gone, horror and delight are bound to run close together.

I really can’t think of better way to embody the line between such high, seemingly contradictory emotions than a teenager. Everyone is childlike in the book. When the narrator meets a group of men, they speak in a language of nonsense, full of “Na na na na kya kya kya” (A Horrible Flood of Love).

It strikes me that at this particular stage of life an adolescent might just as well find the “normal” world equally as terrifying and electrifying as this post-apocalyptic one. A teenager is a being at once both decaying and growing in strange, new ways, caught between instinct and civilization, and naturally isolated by such in-betweenness. However, the teenager’s behavior, even in a world that is supposedly turned upside down, remains predictable in some ways a reader will recognize.  He’s impulsive, wide-eyed, unsure, and hell-bent on getting some.

“I’ll show you the cave / where all the bats comes from. / You’ll show me that place / between your knees / where my hand goes” (The Pond)

Even if the world is “an old parade unhinging,” where not even sex can produce any kind of life, the narrator’s efforts sentiments and search remains powerful.

“When the bats / break / from the mouth of / the cave / hold on tight / to my waist.”

The genius I find in Schomburg’s particular brand of surrealism is that his images soar up and out of some lost galaxy of imagination that seems so unreachable, and yet, you will still feel touched in familiar places. This book is everything I remember about being in the woods as a kid. A rustle of leaves was never a deer. A brief wave of a tree was never just hello. The third section, entitled Histories, which is on its most obvious level is an exercise in the logic of reality, seems to speak also about memory. Schomburg offers us images inside of a house and then immediately takes them away.

“I sit in a chair / There is no chair” (The Chandelier Age).

It reminded me of seeing, for the first time in a long time, a house you once lived in. Until you go inside, you are under the delusion that it will be exactly as it was. It’s as jarring as it is funny to imagine a person moving around a house and trying to go through with their routine, only to be repeatedly unable to do it.

“Scary, No Scary,” takes everything we know and dangles it over a black hole, and then it pushes us to where “you just keep falling / right there/ at it’s infinite lip” (The Black Hole). Hummingbirds and jaguars and boats all fall into the hole, but as the book continues they all come out the other side. The book’s scenarios put us in awe of ourselves, of our persistence for love and connections, and then, just as suddenly, we are embarrassed by ourselves, by our ability to just as easily devour and draw blood in the name of such desires.

Schomburg is a playful mastermind. He wants us to find our own sense of rebirth from nothingness, where “Everything I plant/I bury” (Look Through the Complex Eye and See 1000 of Everything). You will leave this book completely tenderized, in both the hand-touching and the slab-of-meat-pulverized sense of the word.

Extra Credit:


Book Review: Dawn of the Dreadfuls

March 3, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls

By Steve Hockensmith

Published March 20, 2010

Quirk Books

320 pp.

ISBN 1-594-74454-8

Reviewed: March 3, 2010

Since “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” first reared its well-groomed, brain-scooped head in the world of literature, I’ve paid particular attention to it on this blog chiefly because I find the idea fascinating and full of potential. Pastiches and reinventions of classic literature are certainly not a new invention, but Quirk Books’ mash-ups have been the first to really attract mainstream attention, with the trick of introducing a monstrous extreme but keeping the core plot and language intact. It also helps that the first two installments in the series have been strong starters, blending the Victorian conventions of its source material with gore and horror for perfectly phrased comic effect.

Now, while the Quirk Classics series is exploring new authorial territory with the upcoming “Android Karenina,” it seems they can’t stay away from Jane Austen and have offered up a surprising new entry that eschews the mash-up aspect all together. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls” is the first work to not be based on original text, written as a prequel to the original “PPZ” mapping how its characters acquired the skills they showed in the original. Doing so evinces a major confidence in the idea, and indeed such a work will be the nascent genre’s test: can it stand on its own legs, or will it crawl around like a zombie torso who has parted ways with them?

Set four years before “PPZ,” “Dawn of the Dreadfuls” sees the rise of the undead menace in Meryton when the recently deceased Mr. Ford has the bad manners to rise from his own casket. Mr. Bennett, a veteran of the last undead incursion through England, understands all too well what is to follow and vows his spirited daughters will be ready to meet it. Sweet Jane, headstrong Elizabeth, bookish Mary, flighty Kitty and childish Lydia – all five must to learn the mental and physical discipline to confront the “dreadfuls,” just as soon as they get over how this affects their prospects for a desirable marriage.

The Bennets are the only characters transplanted from the original Austen book, but the loss of Mr. Darcy and the other supporting cast isn’t the most glaring omission. “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” by virtue of not having any of Austen’s original text, betrays just how essential the talents of the original author were to its predecessors. Austen’s books were masterpieces for their intricately precise language and intricate romantic connections, and the first Quirk Classics worked because they kept that structure even while demonic chaos surrounded its events. It made for hilarious incongruity, where a woman could primly speak of a man’s intentions and bite into a ninja’s heart ten pages later.

But even in the capable hands of Steven Hockensmith (of the “Holmes on the Range” series) the loss of Austen leaves some noticeable cracks. Many of the jokes are more overt than they were in the first installment, with more visible reactions and more noticeable references to sex and violence. Characters old and new seem to feel in places like caricatures, relying more on readers’ established distaste for the original archetypes than development. The modernization shows, and one character even seems to break the fourth wall when commenting on the reluctance to use “the Zed word” in polite conversation:

“Oh, we can’t have that, can we? We can’t go around being impolite when we’re about to be overrun by reanimated cadavers! Egad—the English!”

In all honesty though, the fact that the book is moving away from its source material might be the best thing for it. Ever since “PPZ” came out, imitators have been glutting the market with derivative titles like “Mansfield Park and Mummies,” “Vampire Darcy’s Desire” and “Emma and the Werewolves,” making the genre feel more and more nauseating with each installment. By departing from the text, “Dawn of the Dreadfuls” is trying something new with the concept, telling a conventional zombie story in an unexpected setting, in the same vein as the “recorded attacks” section of Max Brooks’ “The Zombie Survival Guide.”

And when viewed in the light of an unconventional zombie incursion, “Dawn of the Dreadfuls” makes for a very engaging read. All the critical elements of a zombie scenario are there, almost more than they were in the original: the ignorance of the populace, deception of the government, science attempting to decipher the zombie menace, precautionary efforts that come to naught and a madness-inducing siege by the undead on a last stand location. When a zombie or zombies emerge, the panic of those who aren’t prepared and the discipline of those who are shows, and each encounter has the expected tension. The hilarious incongruity of the first book is preserved as well, in scenes such as the one where Elizabeth has her first dance with a chained zombie 20 feet away.

Austen’s original structure is missed, but her core surviving characters are not, as Hocksmith treats them with as much attention as their trainer teaching them balanced stances and sword techniques. All five of the Bennet girls go through a defined evolution, noticed by the characters in their growing physical abilities and by the reader as their spirits gain steel. We see society girls dealing with death, carving up what used to be their friends and neighbors at the same time they’re dealing with conflicting emotions toward rigid soldiers and eager scientists. Each comes to terms in their own way, and in the case of Jane and Elizabeth particularly they became the warriors of “PPZ:” still focused on the social norms of the time, but keenly aware of what the wrong choice in love leads to.

“Dawn of the Dreadfuls” may not be up on the same pillar as its mash-up sequel, but it still manages to come across as an inventive and engaging addition to the horde of nouveau zombie literature. In less capable hands such an effort might seem too close to fan fiction for comfort, but Hocksmith keeps his characters interesting and his interactions bloody, and from a zombie novel that’s the most essential element. I ended my “SSSM” review stating that I thought it was time for Quirk to move away from Austen, but I’d honestly like to see more entries in this spin-off Victorian/Romero world they’ve created – and for that reason alone, “Dawn of the Dreadfuls” does what it’s supposed to.

Extra Credit:

  • Quirk Classics is having a contest to coincide with the book’s release – follow the bouncing link and mention TLOTE to win ghoulish prizes!
  • Quirk is also continuing their trend of hilarious book trailers with this latest entry for “Dawn of the Dreadfuls.”