A "failed" novel by Edgar Allen Poe which turned out to have had a tremendous impact on American writers was the starting point for a book by one of three nationally significant authors featured in the Poison Pen Reading Series this month. . Not long ago, Mat Johnson, a faculty member at the University of Houston, read from his Katrina comic book "Dark Rain."
His new book "Pym" released at the start of the month, takes as its starting point the perplexing and disjointed "Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket," by Poe which influenced authors Herman Melville and H.P. Lovecraft among others.
Johnson's novel shines a spotlight on the fantastical racial problems of the original work, which features a lost race of duplicitous black creatures somewhere beyond the icy Antarctic. Johnson's narrator is a recently fired literature professor who has discovered a corroborating account of Pym's trek, so he launches a naval expedition to seek out the mythical land of Tsalal for himself with an all-black crew. The book is more than an adventure story, employing satire, social criticism, and lunatic humor.
The next two readers at Poison Pen are reading from new memoirs only a few years after debuting with books of short fiction. Deb Olin Unferth's "Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War" looks at her younger self's poorly reasoned and unprincipled journey into the violent Central Americas of the 1980s, tagging chastely along with her fiancé George, who espouses that sort of uncompromising and doomed religious and political rhetoric so favored by the young. Unferth's plain style and emotional distance serve this story well, allowing for some frank observations of her former self's behavior and her confused motivations. "Mostly," she writes, "I did not have fun."
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Her subject emerged from a PhD dissertation in Cultural Studies, but ends up as a narrative of the meeting and marriage of her Irish-Catholic mother and Sindhi-Indian father, as well her own bi-racial identity in America and abroad. While the book is noted for its lyricism and thoughtful meditations on complex concepts, there is a pretty good spoiler-free preview through a playlist the book , ranging from Woody Guthrie to a little Punjabi Bhangra that Vaswani has devised.
Try not to make this reading more difficult than it has to be for Viswani: "The hardest part about writing nonfiction," she says "has been reading it in public-standing up at a podium, looking out at the crowd, and thinking, 'They know this is true because I just said so!' You feel naked, or like there's a booger peeking out of one nostril or something."
The Reading Series starts at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 31. For more information, call 713-527-9929 or visit www.poisonpenreadingseries.com. Free.