The Book of Wonders, the second collection of short stories by author Douglas Trevor, features nine humorous, smart, and absorbing works of fiction. His writing is crisp, witty, and deftly traverses the inner and outer landscapes of his characters and their situations.
One of the recurring threads woven throughout the stories is books – reading, writing, studying, touching, relishing, even defacing them. Many of the characters are academics, writers, librarians, scholars dealing with the written word and how it relates to the real world. My favorite story is “The Detroit Frankfurt School Discussion Group” which features Colin, a recently divorced professor at the University of Michigan where he teaches English composition and Theory of Critical Thought. Colin, blind-sighted by his divorce, is trying to remake his life by staying busy to avoid moping and strategically looking at ways to find a new girlfriend. He made a list of things to try: yoga, golf, Thai cooking, learning Russian, volunteering, and internet dating – all which proved to be hilariously disastrous. One night he is voluntarily kidnapped by a couple of blue-collar white teenage girls and a black man named Ty. Ty, who never applied to college, had obtained (aka stolen) and had been reading materials from Colin’s syllabus for his course on the Frankfurt School: Traditional and Critical Theory. The upshot of the Frankfurt School’s philosophy was that the marriage of political ideology and manufacturing capability prevalent in the Nazi regime left workers without a chance of improving their lot. The purpose of the “kidnap” was for Colin to make an appearance and speak to Ty’s Frankfurt School Discussion Group in Detroit. Ty’s reasoning for the group was this: if Detroit is going to rise again, be rebuilt, it is in the interest of the workers to do it right this time around. And what better way than to glean what could be learned from the Frankfurt School to shape the future of the Big D. And what better way to understand the Frankfurt School than to kidnap the professor. The meeting is held in an abandoned, dilapidated warehouse that used to be a book depository before it burned. There are books strewn everywhere, nibbled on by rats. Ty selected the location as a living metaphor: “Where do books end up? They end up rotting, turning to ash. Books are just things. You got to take the ideas that are in books and move them out into the world to make them matter. That’s the central message of the Frankfurt School.”
In the story “Sonnet 126”, Theo (another professor of literature and research) spends three to four days a week in the British Library in London depending on his teaching schedule. One day he comes across a discovery of a lifetime: two lost final lines to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 126 in the poet’s own handwriting. He sacrifices his opportunity for acclaim by bequeathing the discovery to another scholar: his ex-wife Fiona. He decides to abandon books altogether: “I think I want more than books for my life… I’m done with the business of old books, Fiona. I want to be done with it. Enough torture and torment.”
Myths are another recurring theme. According to the Greek myth, Endymion, a beautiful young shepherd sleeps with his eyes open, never ages and he and the moon, Selene, fall in love. In “Endymion” a present day beautiful Greek man named Damien Endymion picks up the overweight accountant Cynthia at her company’s happy hour at an Irish pub up the road from her office. She can’t believe someone so beautiful could be attracted to her. He says her rotundness reminds him of the moon. He sleeps with eyes open.
In the final story “Easy Writer”, Trevor’s use of myth takes on a Jungian treatment where a person’s life narrative resonates with a myth contained in the collective unconscious. The myth of Ceres by Ovid resounds with the autobiographical account by Charity, a writer (and again professor of literature). In her story instead of a descent into hell, it is a descent into the bowels of the Chicago slums – the pomegranates from the myth (forbidden, lest one be trapped forever in the underground) are transformed into heroin and the consequent addiction that steals Charity’s mother from her. The “reader”, Alex, grew up an economically privileged white kid in La Jolla but was overweight, uncool, and bullied. The myth and Charity’s story are translated in his subconscious as a story of abandonment by his father.
I highly recommend this collection. Trevor’s writing is impeccable and the themes erudite. The alienation and loneliness found in each story is poignant. The humor in the predicaments is non-whimsical – like funny in a sad, existential way.
Douglas Trevor works won the 2013 Balcones Fiction Prize, the 2005 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and a finalist for the 2006 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction. Doug lives in Ann Arbor, where he is the current Director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and a Professor of Renaissance Literature in the English Department at the University of Michigan.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, February 5. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, February 7 to discuss The Book of Wonders at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.