Intolerance, a pre-teen’s struggle to deal with her mother’s schizophrenia and the dark world of a mystical Afro-Caribbean religion. These are some of the themes explored in three well-received debut novels from City College of New York English department faculty members.
The books, “LIE” (St. Martin’s Griffin) by adjunct Caroline Bock; “Visitation Rites” (Diversion Press) by Pamela Laskin, Director, Poetry Outreach Program; and “Outside the Bones,” (Arte Publico Press) by Associate Professor Lyn Di Iorio, have earned rave reviews from critics. The three authors will have a joint public reading 7:30 p.m. Thursday, December 1, at the Perch Bar and Café, 365 Fifth Ave., in Brookyn’s Park Slope neighborhood.
The official launch of “Outside the Bones” October 24 at Barnes & Noble on 82nd and Broadway drew over 200 people that staff said was the largest turnout for such an event at the chain’s Upper West Side flagship store.
“Mystery Scene,” which describes itself as the “oldest, largest and most authoritative guide to the crime fiction genre,” called Professor Di Iorio’s 202-page novel “a weirdly compelling, funny, sexy, and deeply strange tale of a Nuyorican practitioner of Palo Monte, a Caribbean form of magic with African roots…(Lyn Di Iorio) has taken the crime story to a strange and mysterious new place.”
Writer Catherine E. McKinley described it as “Toni Morrison meets Alexander McCall Smith on Manhattan’s Upper West Side,” and Cristina García, the famous author of “Dreaming in Cuban,” said that “Outside the Bones” is an equal parts mixture of the supernatural and sass.
Narrated by Fina Mata, its hilariously loud, street-toughened, but ultimately tender-hearted, heroine, “Outside the Bones” is the first English-language novel to examine the mysterious and sensuously dark world of Palo Monte.
Professor Di Iorio, a native of Puerto Rico and Upper West Side resident who teaches Caribbean literature and creative writing at City College and The CUNY Graduate Center, took four years to write the book.
“It’s about a woman who’s strong, but she’s also insecure, and that insecurity is driven by her ambivalence about her family history in Puerto Rico,” said Professor Di Iorio, a Harvard graduate who holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Stanford and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. “She goes through a spiritual transformation and begins to understand the social relationships in Puerto Rico and New York. Much of Fina’s understanding is propelled by her powerful encounter with a Palo Monte spirit or ghost who is on her own journey of discovery.”
The outcome is a highly entertaining, often humorous read that the New York Daily News” noted “has aspects of a mystery novel and a gothic ghost story.”
“LIE” and “Visitation Rites,” both written for young adults, were both inspired by real events.
As a manuscript, “LIE” earned Ms. Bock, a 2011 graduate of CCNY’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, the English Department’s Writing for Young Adults Award. As a novel, it has been hailed as “unusual and important,” in a starred Kirkus Review; “gripping,” in a starred Library Journal review; “suspenseful and thought-provoking,” in a starred Booklist review and “smart … painfully believable,” in a starred Publishers Weekly review.
The 224-page book is a riveting tale about the aftermath of an ugly incident in a small Long Island community riven with intolerance and ethnic hatred.
“It was inspired by real events – a horrible hate crime against Hispanics perpetrated by teens,” said Ms. Bock. In November 2008, a group of youths attacked two Ecuadorean immigrants in Patchogue, killing one.
A resident of Old Bethpage, N.Y., she returned to CCNY in 2007 to finish her graduate degree 18 years after she left to pursue a career as a cable TV executive with Bravo and Independent Film Channel, a network she helped launch.
Ms. Bock developed her original short story into a book in a novel workshop taught by Professor Linsey Abrams, director of the MFA Creative Writing Program. The result was a topical, thought-provoking book with a unique narrative style. She uses ten voices to tell her story.
Ms. Bock’s mentor for the book was Pamela Laskin, a lecturer in the City College English department, whose 118-page debut novel, “Visitation Rites” had a similar genesis.
An award-winning poet and short story writer with several children’s books to her name, Ms. Laskin had written a short story loosely based on her childhood experiences dealing with schizophrenia in her family.
“It started off as a story published in a magazine, and then I expanded it into a novel; I realized that there was so much more real and imagined that could be added to the story,” she said.
“Visitation Rites” is a contemporary coming of age story set in Queens and Brooklyn. Its 12-year-old heroine harbors the secret of her mentally ill mother. This secret impacts on the friendships she makes when she moves to a new neighborhood with her father and stepmother.
“… Laskin’s writing is brave and honest, which sets “Visitation Rites” apart as a standout young adult novel and leaves readers craving more…beautifully written,” said K.T. Mitchell in “The Adirondack Review.”
“…Both heart-wrenching and filled with hope,” notes author Suzanne Weyn.
Ms. Laskin conceded that writing the novel was indeed extremely emotional, but the process was therapeutic. “It helped me to unload and come to terms with my experiences.”
It also helped her send a priceless message to young people that you don’t have to be secretive. And she reinforced that message in October with the publication of “My Life in Shoes” (World Audience, Inc.) a nonfiction account of her experiences as a child of a schizophrenic mother.
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“Outside the Bones”
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