Saturday, May 28, 2016

AMERICAN METEOR by Norman Lock, 4 stars for Manifest Destiny taking one in the chops


Bellevue Literary Press
$15.95 trade paperback, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In this panoramic tale of Manifest Destiny, Stephen Moran comes of age with the young country that he crosses on the Union Pacific, just as the railroad unites the continent. Propelled westward from his Brooklyn neighborhood and the killing fields of the Civil War to the Battle of Little Big Horn, he befriends Walt Whitman, receives a medal from General Grant, becomes a bugler on President Lincoln’s funeral train, goes to work for railroad mogul Thomas Durant, apprentices with frontier photographer William Henry Jackson, and stalks General George Custer. When he comes face-to-face with Crazy Horse, his life will be spared but his dreams haunted for the rest of his days.

By turns elegiac and comic, American Meteor is a novel of adventure, ideas, and mourning: a unique vision of America’s fabulous and murderous history.

My Review: At some point in this brief, pithy book, I caught myself wondering why I was turning pages so fast, why I couldn’t wait to find the next golden moment described in lovely, burnished prose, when I knew how the story ended already. It’s not a mystery, it’s not a puzzle novel, it’s a meditation on the Manifest Destiny era. The myth of the poor lad who comes from nothing and nowhere to make a fortune is an oft-told tale. Lock’s spin on that is to have the traditional humble lad, this on named Stephen Moran, as protagonist:
While my father was out boozing, she'd read to me by the stub of a candle, a thread of soot twisting upwards from its pinched, meager flame. By her voice alone, she could raise up the old stories from the bones of their words and--lilting between shades of comedy and melodrama--turn the dreary space around me into a stage for my wildest imaginings.
And while she’s creating the world anew for her son, she’s also priming the pump for his life-long belief that there is fate even if there isn’t a god to be found, since all the old fairy tales involve come-uppances and just deserts.

Growing up in antebellum Brooklyn, harvesting oysters to sell for his own food, and working all the hours it’s possible to work leaves the narrator with a clear-sighted picture of his future. His childhood, if you can stretch a point and call it that, ended with mother’s death. Hard work, little pay, no future:
I had sucked on the tit of disillusionment and teethed on the bitter root of cynicism. I was on the way to the misanthropy that would sour me.
Intervention in this soul-killing, life-shortening grind is the cataclysm of the Civil War. Young Stephen Moran takes an escape route from worthless labor and attaches himself (at thirteen, he can’t really be said to join) to the Army. He becomes a bugler and loses an eye, but these events aren’t dwelt upon. Moran is more interested in analyzing “the sickness of the degenerate age in which I lie at night, listening to the boasts and grievances of the dead” for his audience, interested in the powerful figures of the age for their benign or malign impact on creating the age he’s lived though.

Looking back, reminiscing, nostalgically reliving moments of pleasure, momentous and public or quiet and quotidian, isn’t in Moran’s nature. He is leaching the poison of a life into his listener’s ears. He has seen but never made a difference to events that form the national mythology:
Even now, when I have time to consider what I've been and what I am, I doubt I comprehend my humanity, if I can claim so grand a word for my own morsel of life. I might as well be a meteor of a man, for all the difference I've made on earth.
The perspective of the aging on the course of life isn’t always so searingly honest, but it serves the narrative needs of the story for it to be so. I hope for all our sakes that such unflinching clarity becomes pandemic in our own degenerate, I’d even say diseased, age.

Back to the Civil War...Moran’s lost eye lands him in the hospital, where he’s visited by a familiar figure from his life in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Walt Whitman. As Whitman pauses beside the bed of our sixteen-year-old hero, they share a moment that will stay with Moran his whole subsequent life:
‘How old are you, son?' Whitman asked.
'Going on seventeen.'
'So young,' he said, stroking the back of my hand with his poem-stained fingers. 'How did you come to lose your eye?'
I told him the story of my heroism, with embellishments--told it so well, I was nearly persuaded of my exceptional character.
'You sacrificed what little you had to call your own for democracy, freedom, and human dignity. You gave an eye, half of man's greatest blessing, when rich men up north paid a small price to keep themselves and their sons from harm.'
With those few words, accompanied by a glance that seemed to measure the dimensions of my meager existence, Whitman made me see myself as a sacrifice on the altar of wealth, but a hero notwithstanding.
Receiving such a benediction from the “poem-stained fingers” (isn’t that a lovely phrase?) of America’s most revered poet? Oh my! And the effect of Moran’s story on Whitman leads to a momentous change in the fortunes of a no-longer-needed bugler from an ended war. Whitman remembers Moran, and mentions the tale of his heroism to General Grant. Grant summons the lad, gives him a Medal of Honor for sacrificing his eye, and gives him one of the signal honors available to any American soldier at the time: he is to be the bugler playing “Taps” at each stop of Lincoln’s funeral train as it wends its way from Washington to Springfield, Illinois, for the assassinated president’s ceremonial burial.
Moran has plenty of time to accustom himself to the smell of death, from battlefields to the decomposing president. He sleeps in the funeral car, an ostentatious gift from the railroad interests to the living president for his use in meeting with his generals in the field. (Lincoln scorned it, never used it, while alive.) It is usual to meditate on the dead princes of our world, and Moran is no exception:
What is a good man if not one who does not believe in himself to the exclusion of others? ... He was asked to bear what cannot be borne--what should not be borne. I hope never to be so tested, for I have it on the best authority that I will not bear it.
No ordinary person can bear the extreme pressure of the Presidency; Lincoln bore it in time of civil war. Moran is far from alone in his realization that his ordinariness is also an advantage. His life after the brief flash of fame will go on, unlike Lincoln’s. He will go on, traveling and meeting remarkable men, running from all women, all of which confirms his core belief:
For all my wanderings, I'm ordinary. I came to terms long ago with my littleness. A man is what he is--he can't rise so much as an inch above his shortcomings--Horatio Alger be damned!
It doesn’t matter that one rubs shoulders with the world’s history-makers, alive or dead. You are what you are, and that’s all there is to it. Heresy to think, still less speak aloud, in that time of Manifest Destiny’s ascendency. Moran rides in the Lincoln Parlor car as a steward to the paladins of the day. He watches the slaughter of buffalo in their millions. He sees mile-long swaths of prairie grass torched to amuse the grandees.
As horrible as he thinks all of that is, it brings Moran his life’s purpose: He becomes a photographer as the largesse of his railroad tycoon employer. He documents the progress of the railroad through the Indian country his government swore would be theirs in perpetuity. His mentor, famous wilderness photographer William Henry Jackson, makes photographs for the railroad tycoon as a means of financing the his true passion: recording the end of the people called the Ute, starved, shot, and left for disease to finish off. Jackson chose Moran as his assistant when Moran was learning basic photography from Jackson’s portrait-taking brother in Omaha. Jackson scorned this as much as he scorned the documentary whitewash he splashed on the railroad, an attitude that well suited Moran. It was Moran’s gift to watch genius work:
What was not possessed of the 'fat light'--an immanence that shed radiance over the world of gross matter--should be left to the portraitists of sausage-shaped ladies and their rich consorts.
It was also Moran’s fate to travel, in the teeth of the oncoming winter, with Jackson to photograph the Ute in their last days. As reluctant as Moran was, it provided him with the agreeable experience of first love with a Ute girl. What makes his experience endurable, though, and allows him to cling to the edge of life:
The negatives he did manage were made in the hour or two when the sun seemed to rally with a yellowy light reminiscent of an egg yolk; usually, it looked pale as a pearl on the steely blue or leaden sky above the snow-scrubbed lake. That's a purple passage fit for a novel but hardly descriptive of the actuality of that winter, which was almost past enduring.
Jackson’s art, his astonishing eye and precise technique, set a bar that Moran knows he can never reach, still less surpass. He is, however, urged on by the brush with greatness.

As Jackson heads off deeper into the wilderness, Moran heads to Fort Abraham Lincoln, there to attach himself to General George Armstrong Custer as personal photographer. He is mesmerized by the aura of Manifest Destiny shining from Custer’s brilliant golden locks. As he observes Custer more and more, and from an intimate viewpoint, Moran comes to loathe the man, as he already loathed the philosophy that he embodies:
At his request--a Custer request was a command impossible to refuse--I produced a series of prints for the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia: the general with Bloody Knife, his favorite Indian scout; with the Custers' pack of eighty dogs; with his junior officers, planning the destruction of the Lakota Sioux; with Libbie in the parlor of their quarters at the fort; and the general striking a pose that would become as recognizable as Napoléon's; arms folded across his chest, looking forward and slightly upward at his magnificent destiny.
The repugnance of the images makes my skin crawl. Lock’s clarity and transparency of prose has a way of allowing the underlying emotional state to reach me before I’m aware that what I’m reading is horrible, vicious, evil, full of the darkest smoke from hellfire. Moran, in whose mouth these utterances are placed, is himself invisible. He feels, as he’s said, his own smallness, and this is what makes him the perfect mouthpiece for Lock’s excoriation of our founding Western myths.

Moran makes his most life-changing decision while preparing to photograph the slaughter at Little Big Horn. In the run-up to this national tragedy Moran determines that it will be he who kills Custer, he who will stop this particular monster from causing more horrendous suffering, win or lose. The hubris of which Custer was guilty in his pursuit of the battle made Moran’s task, oddly, more difficult, as it led directly to the almost immediate destruction of his forces. Yet Moran manages to carry his self-imposed duty to its end: He shoots Custer in the temple, destroying the seat of his evil thoughts.

And at this moment, Moran (the only white survivor of the massacre) has the single most important meeting and takes the single most important photograph of his life. A figure bends over him, he thinks to finish him off. Instead Moran will lose the autonomy of his soul.

It is Crazy Horse who seeks Moran out. Crazy Horse, the seer whose prophecies began this branch of the war that will end at Wounded Knee, in bitterest defeat for the Native Americans. Crazy Horse gives Moran the “gift” of prophecy. Moran, in his turn, gives Crazy Horse the Medal of Honor he has come to despise. Prophecy is a gift that Crazy Horse gives him by the simple expedient of living on after his body dies in Moran’s mind. Crazy Horse as an intimate roommate? Sounds horrible, knowing the future and seeing its inevitability as Fate unfolds before your eyes:
A sour view of things, I grant you; but one borne out by the history of our age and of the age to come, when Trinity--not the Christians' but Oppenheimer's--will turn Alamogordo sand to glass. In the future, dead cities will molder behind rusting thorns no prince can ever penetrate; dirty bombs will engender tribes of lepers--not by germs, but by deadly atoms; and radioactive isotopes will be left to cool for an age or more, sealed in burial chambers with a pharaoh's curse.
As the reader shudders with the sense of doom, Moran’s listener is finally revealed to be his own doctor house-calling on him at the end of his life. All the years of his small life after the last brush with Manifest Destiny, Moran has never so much as whispered of his extraordinary dual nature and his fellow passenger.
He also tells the doctor that he has the only image of Crazy Horse on earth. His camera had fallen with him during battle and, against all odds, the glass plate did not break and the lens exposed Crazy Horse’s image. The doctor asks why wouldn’t you sell such an incredibly valuable image, the price would be astronomical. Sell?
Crazy Horse said, ‘Remember this moment well.’
‘I will,’ I said solemnly…
‘I’m going to spare your life so that you’ll never be free of me.’

Thursday, May 26, 2016

5 Georges Simenon "romans durs" (tough books) from NYRB Classics

5 Noir Reads by Georges Simenon Short Enough for the Train, Plane, or Automobile Ride

Most really serious mystery readers are familiar with Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret. The series ran for 75 books, after all, and from my experience with it you can pick up any one of them and go from there, with no loss of understanding. Mysteries are the traditional beach reads, and with Memorial Day fast approaching we’re all packing, packing, packing for that first taste of summer somewhere else.

But what about the ride, the flight, the train trip to Paradise? Beach books are already in the suitcase, and are generally too fat to be comfortable short-to-medium travel companions. Ereaders increase your options, of course, and this is the moment of escape! Start something vacation-y, something new, something really fresh.

Simenon was a really prolific writer--those 75 Maigret novels alone would guarantee that--of books in many genres. Among the least remembered of his output are his noir-tinged romans durs, or strong novels. The books are tight, compact, laser focused on an event that guarantees to blow the assumptions, the positions, even the lives of the characters sky-western crooked. There the reader sits, ordinarily with a dazed or even shocked expression, as the story unfolds in all its violent, sexy glory.

There was a lot of dismissive rhetoric around Simenon in critical circles largely because of his amazing rate of word production. Thankfully, all those critics are dead and New York Review Books has the good taste to reprint many of these short, intense novels. They’re great choices for the trip to summer’s pleasures, whether tree book or ebook.

The Widow, first published in 1942 during the German Occupation, was overshadowed by Albert Camus’ near-simultaneous publication of The Stranger. A young drifter, newly released from prison, moves in with a middle-aged widow for lack in either of them of a better idea. The farm that the widow inhabits is coveted by all and sundry, and the young drifter’s murderous past is held up to the widow as reason enough she should leave, move to town, go somewhere that others can see she doesn’t do dangerous and foolish things. Their familial worries are justified by the relationship quickly turning physical, and the inevitable young rival, her niece no less, for the young hired hand’s attention sets in motion a train of jealousy, lust, and rage that cracks open an entire village’s life. In 176 pages. Masterful.
$12.95 trade paper

Red Lights, first published in 1953 as American post-war consumer culture was really picking up speed. Simenon was inspired to write this indictment of the anomie inherent in an uncentered world. Steve is driving his wife Nancy from broiling New York City to much cooler Maine, where they will pick up their children from camp. The roads of 1953 were nothing like as direct as today’s (albeit overcrowded) interstates. The frustrations of the drive make Steve’s growing alcoholism act up, and Nancy’s angry contempt for Steve boil over to the point she walks away from the car, from Steve, from her life. When Steve gets them back on the road to Maine, he’s accompanied by Sid, an escaped convict. Steve expounds on his feelings about Nancy, forgetting that a criminal isn’t a good choice of confidant. A price must be paid for being a fool, and it only takes Simenon 160 pages to make Steve, Nancy, and probably Sid wish they’d never met. Looking away isn’t an option. But you’ll never be more grateful to be you than when Red Lights is over.
$14.00 trade paper

Monsieur Monde Vanishes was first published in 1945. The title is the story: An upper middle class man wakes one morning as usual, dresses, breakfasts, and is never seen again by his family. Word of him seeps back to Paris. He is debauching himself in the company of the lowest rank of people he can find, drinking, whoring, and giving himself the “good time” others have in earlier years. M Monde has been both sober and sober-sided too long, his obsession with venery--in French the phrase for this is nostalgie de la boue, or longing for the mud--must be released, rewarded, submerged in. The 192 pages of this book are loaded with a tension and a frustration that is gripping. And exhausting. And oddly rewarding, considering we’re watching someone a lot like us set out to rip his public face up.
$14.00 trade paper

The Strangers in the House, published in 1940, peculiarly predicts the development and tragedy of affluenza, or possibly shows the disorder’s constant appearance in history. Hector’s wife abandoned him eighteen years ago for another man. She left behind the couple’s only child, an infant daughter. It is the daughter, Nicole, who provides the strangers to inhabit the decaying manor that her sot of a father, mired in self-pitying self-inflicted misery, has paid no attention to. Apart from the study where he drinks, of course. His completely narcissistic existence is only and at last interrupted by the muffled sound of a gunshot somewhere inside. The events that follow in these 194 pages both startled and repelled me; the novel as a whole feels depressingly au courant.
$14.95 trade paper

Tropic Moon, first published in 1933, is one of Simenon’s trademark deep psychological novels. Joseph, a young, aimless well-to-do man decides he needs to tour France’s African colonies as a way to escape the anomie of being rich and privileged. His uncle, powerful and influential, gives him an introductory letter to the manager of his timber concession in Gabon. He also warns Joseph to beware of getting involved in any kind of partnership. Fatefully, Joseph meets Adèle, the native wife of a hotel owner.

Love will find a way to destroy you, as many have discovered, when you’re not ready for its demands. Joseph sinks into the colonial white “elite” crowd, indulging in their various revolting practices while sinking deep into an obsessive love for married, manipulative Adèle. When lethal crimes begin to happen, Joseph slips down deeper into the world’s most horrible criminal system: colonialism. His escape will never happen, we’re sure, and it seems less and less desirable as his character changes. Another book that makes vacation all the sweeter by comparison.
$12.95 trade paper

As you’re finishing your two hours (or more) of travel, any one of these novels should be finishing or just finished. Each has its own strange pleasures, and could only come from the pen of Belgium’s best-loved literary export. Don’t let the fact that they’re translated put you off. You’ll barely notice at first what will be transparent to you by journey’s end.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE by R.F. Dunham, a reverse/mirror version of our modern world


Kindle Edition
99¢s;, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In 732 A.D., the Frankish and Burgundian forces led by Charles Martel defeated an army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi and halted the Muslim advance into Christian Europe. At least, that's what happened in the world as you know it. Step into the world of The Other Side of Hope, where the world as you know it is turned on its head.

In this world, Martel was defeated and the Caliphate continued to spread across Europe until the entire continent was under its control. Christianity was eventually forced to flee west to a distant and dangerous new land. Without the support of European powers, these settlers found only conflict, poverty, and hardship. In the modern day, this world remains divided. The wealthy Muslim East and the poverty-stricken Christian West are constantly at odds. A single spark is all it takes to ignite fresh conflict and the cycle seems never-ending.

Ethan Lewis is a proud young Christian living in Tioga, the poorest district of the developing nation Lachlond. All he wants is to marry his fiancee and provide for his mother and younger siblings. The only problem is that his mother insists he can't do both. Not until his sister is married off and out of the house. Hamid Damir is an ambitious Muslim businessman from Istanbul, the financial center of the world. He's trying to build a prosperous and happy future for his family. But, after five years of marriage, his wife is beginning to realize that she has different ideas about what that future should look like.

Everything changes for both young men when the Brotherhood of the Sword, a Christian terrorist organization, launches a devastating attack on Istanbul. As the wrath of Turkey descends on Lachlond, Hamid and Ethan are pulled into a war that sets them on a collision course with the other side and may cost them everything. Will they find hope for a brighter future or be lost in the despair of intractable conflict?

My Review: As an alternative history lover, I was very excited when I was offered this title for review. A Muslim-dominated world and European Christians forced to flee ever westward? Yes, please!

As I read along, I found myself ticking off the factual basis for the fictional world's current story. As the checkmarks multiplied, I found I was losing enthusiasm for the read itself. (Given the nature of the plot, anything specific I say will be a spoiler.) Add into that some very pet-peevy copy-editing errors (eg, currier for courier in all but one reference) and I was becoming disheartened.

What saved this read for me was the ending. Considering how often I whinge about endings that fail or disappoint, that's pretty astounding. A very common first-novelist flub is to tie up the end of the story with a pretty little bow on its bottom, however incongruous that might be given what's come before. Dunham avoids this trap handily. There are consequences, dark and painful ones, for the actions the characters take. There are no winners, and all the way around, the book ends on a hopeful note that manages not to feel forced or fake or tacked on.

It's a very good bargain in the Kindle edition, as it will most certainly keep you tapping left to see who will "get it" (not in the Peckinpah sense!) next. This writer has promise, and with time and experience, will be a must-read one day soon.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

MARGARET THE FIRST by Danielle Dutton, 2016's six-stars-of-five read


$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 6* of five

The Publisher Says: Margaret the First dramatizes the life of Margaret Cavendish, the shy, gifted, and wildly unconventional 17th-century Duchess. The eccentric Margaret wrote and published volumes of poems, philosophy, feminist plays, and utopian science fiction at a time when “being a writer” was not an option open to women. As one of the Queen’s attendants and the daughter of prominent Royalists, she was exiled to France when King Charles I was overthrown. As the English Civil War raged on, Margaret met and married William Cavendish, who encouraged her writing and her desire for a career. After the War, her work earned her both fame and infamy in England: at the dawn of daily newspapers, she was “Mad Madge,” an original tabloid celebrity. Yet Margaret was also the first woman to be invited to the Royal Society of London—a mainstay of the Scientific Revolution—and the last for another two hundred years.

Margaret the First is very much a contemporary novel set in the past, rather than “historical fiction.” Written with lucid precision and sharp cuts through narrative time, it is a gorgeous and wholly new narrative approach to imagining the life of a historical woman.

My Review: Every year, there is one book...rarely are there two...that moves me so profoundly and give me so much reading joy that I need to give it the highest, best accolade I possess: This book broke the scale. This is the bar I'll be judging many other books by. We're pretty much done with the first half of 2016 and I was getting a bit restless for a sighting of the six-star book. I've read some excellent books this year, but until Danielle Dutton's publisher, Catapult, sent me this book at my request, none that would come close to the six stars level.
He tapped his hat for shade. A crow pecked near his feet. He was about to give it up, and then: 'Mad Madge!' someone cried in the street. 'Mad Madge!' someone repeated, as her black-and-silver carriage came roaring down the path. But the horses were forced to a stop, for the crowd had grown to a mob. 'I see her,' someone shouted. He saw her then, through the window glass--black stars, white cheeks. That night in his diary he wrote: 'The whole story of this lady is a romance, and everything she does.'
Pepys, on page four. Okay then, thinks I, we're on the way up from five stars on page four! The golden apple is Ms. Dutton's to lose.

She never lost it. Never came close.

The early days of Margaret Lucas's life were fairly typical of those for a girl of her station. She was from minor nobility, the county set as it would come to be called. She was odd even to her family, she was not meant to fit in anywhere, and she honestly seems never to have tried. It was her bad luck to be born at the time of the Civil War, and to a Royalist family. Her entire life she would deal with, be circumscribed by, defined by the Civil War and its long, long aftermath. Her youth was spent in various exiles, for example Paris, where the English Queen Henrietta Maria had Margaret as a very junior and unpopular lady-in-waiting:
"'I had rather be a meteor, single, alone.'

Plus Paris itself was noisome. Even with its glittering bridges and orangeries, even if the birthplace of ballet.

'I had rather been a meteor, than a star in a crowd.'"
How did a teenaged girl, in an era that discouraged all non-conformity and frequently punished female "rebelliousness," reach the strength of mind to think such thoughts and the strength of character to live her life according to that simple principle, so hard to do? It has to be something inborn. Anyone who has ever parented an infant knows that they arrive with personalities (blank slates my lily-white patootie!). What must Margaret's beloved mother have gone through, worrying about her willful young daughter so far away from her almost all their lives?

Mother needn't have worried too much. While at Queen Henrietta Maria's court, Margaret meets the widowed, exiled Marquess of Newcastle, a man more than twice her age with adult children. Ordinarily this would be unremarkable; Margaret isn't considered marriageable. The Marquess, however, disagrees; he falls in love with her very oddness and originality of mind. This is one amazingly lucky woman. The Queen, whose consent to such an alliance is necessary, doesn't stand in the way but expresses her amazement that such a bizarre match could take place.

Life as an aristocratic exile is precarious. Money is tight, sources of income lost, and only the Queen repaying a loan let the newlyweds enjoy a modestly comfortable exile in Antwerp (much cheaper than Paris!). All of Holland was then and is now quite cosmopolitan, so the new Marchioness is exposed to many, many new ideas, people she would never meet in Paris or London (Jews!), and she revels in it all with her loving and supportive husband:
One night, the Duarte girl sang poems set to music in a voice so clear I felt my soul rise up inside my ear. In a garden of clematis, with servants dressed like Gypsies placing candles in the trees, we assembled on the grass, between a Belgian wood and {the Duchess of Lorraine}'s glassy pond. In a pale orange gown I read two pieces I'd prepared...When the ladies clapped their approval in the dark, everything, to me, was suddenly bright and near.
How amazing for the shy Marchioness to read in public, how delicious to be applauded, how very different from any life she could reasonably have expected to have. And how perfect Dutton's prose is, representing such a magical moment. I was starry-eyed myownself when I read that passage.

Margaret's response to such an extraordinary life is to become even more extraordinary herself. She writes a book published under her own name, with her husband William's complete and excited support; encouraged by that and the kerfuffle she has caused in the educated world, she publishes a second and then third book. Writing has become a way of life, an addiction, a refuge and a podium both:
Still, Antwerp, the parties, my husband's talks--all of it fed my mind. I'd hardly set down my quill before I took it up again, writing stories unconnected--of a pimp, a virgin, a rogue--strung up like pearls on a thread. ... 'I am very ambitious, yet 'tis neither for Beauty, Wit, Titles, Wealth, or Power, but as they are steps to raise me to Fames Tower.'

O minor victory! O small delight! My star began to rise.
Anyone whose writing has caused others to respond strongly will know how the Marchioness feels.

And of course, this being the world ruled by evil-tempered gods, all good things come to an end. William and Margaret, in need of money to live and desiring the return of estates confiscated by the ended Republic, cash in on the Marchioness's fame and the restored King's interest in her outrageous persona. A fête in His Majesty's honor is held:
'An utter success,' her stepdaughters confided to Margaret as they prepared to take their leave. 'The handsome king! That spoof!' Still the rain persisted, and the bishop had lost his hat. Maids danced in and out. Where was the bishop's hat? Alone at the window, Margaret didn't hear. The reflection of the parlor was yellow and warm. She watched it empty out. Then, an interruption. A voice came at her side: 'What do you look at with such interest, Lady Cavendish?' What did she see in the glass? She saw the Marchioness of Newcastle. She saw the aging wife of an aged marquess, without even any children to dignify her life.
The Marchioness's interlocutor is one Richard Flecknoe, a young man barely known to her in Holland, and who becomes her playmate and teacher and arm-candy. William, bless him, voices faith in and approval of Margaret's friendship, canceling any scandal.

And then (you know what's coming, right?) William and Margaret leave their precarious London existence for the newly returned Cavendish estates near Colchester. As soon as things begin to go smoothly.... But the most wonderful thing happens while they are there: Margaret's long-missing crates of writings, her "modest closet plays," arrive and are printed at last:
She was reading Francis Godwin's Man in the Moone--its man was borne into space in a carriage drawn by swans--when she heard the sound of wheels upon the gravel. Two boxes from Martin & Allestyre were set down on the drive. 'My modest closet plays,' she said. She nearly ran down the stairs--for the recovery of her wayward crates that spring and the preparation of her plays for publication had rekindled inside Margaret a flame she'd feared had gone out. ... But now, in turning the pages, she grew concerned and then incensed: 'reins' where she had written 'veins,' 'exterior' when she had clearly meant 'interior.' The sun went down. The room grew dim. ... 'Before the printer ruined it,' she cried, 'my book was good!'

'Could it be,' {her husband} asked, soaking his bread in {lamb's} blood, 'that you were yourself the cause of this misfortune?'
An autodidact, Margaret's spelling is, ummm, idiosyncratic; a passionate writing addict, she's always rushing through her work to begin something new. In spite of her resentment of William's criticism, she goes to work to fix the book's problems as he advises.

As life goes on, as she grows older in body, she grows more and more powerful in her mind and fearless in her imagination:
On the fifth night of this solitude, she falls asleep with a candle burning and dreams herself a mermaid with a thick and golden tail, a crown of shimmering conch shells, then awakens with a start. Whether the ship hit something or something hit the ship, another change has come. The ship is dying; she can feel it slipping away. She waits beneath the blanket for icy water to greet her. But instead of the sea, it's a bear that opens the door.

A great white bear up on its hind legs steps across the threshold.

'Good morning,' he says, and reaches out a paw.
The writing of a seventeenth-century woman, elderly by the standards of the day. This is simply glorious imagination, simply astonishing to realize it is over 350 years old. This childless woman, forgotten by our modern world and only "famous if you know who she is," would be delighted to be brought to vivid life again by Danielle Dutton. How can I be sure of that?
Off come her skirts and petticoats, her lace cuffs and collar, her shoes and whalebone stay, until she lies on her side in nothing but a cotton shift and endless strands of pearls. Dust hangs in a crack of light between red velvet drapes, like stars.

Her dreams are glimpses, bewildered--celestial charts, oceanic swells, massive, moving bodies of water, the heavens as heavenly liquid, familiar whirlpools, the universe as a ship lost at sea--but the ship she imagines arrived safely, years ago, loaded with their possessions.
Show me a writer, past or present, who would not beam joyfully at being so unclothed, so beautifully described, so wonderfully and comprehensively understood.

It is Dutton's gift to write beautifully. It is also her gift to find the perfect publisher for her work. The cover is glorious; the design of the book is lovely, and completely transparent to anyone not looking for it; it is, in short, an author's dream of a book. Equally it is a publisher's dream to publish a novel about a now-obscure woman dead for centuries about which a jaded old reviewer (ie, me) can, completely without reservation or reluctance, say that this book is:
Yet how hard it is to point to a moment. To say: there, in that moment, I changed.

Monday, May 23, 2016



Book*hug/A Boondoggle Book
$10.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: From multidisciplinary artist and author Jacob Wren comes a small book of big ideas. Originally produced as a 'Boondoggle Book' limited edition specifically for the first Authors for Indies Day in Toronto, this small and delightful book is a must-have for fans of the author of POLYAMOROUS LOVE SONG (named one of the top 100 books of 2014 by The Globe and Mail). IF OUR WEALTH IS CRIMINAL THEN LET'S LIVE WITH THE CRIMINAL JOY OF PIRATES collects two short stories and an essay by Jacob Wren. In the first story, 'The Infiltrator, ' certain ongoing, rarely mentioned, difficulties for the activist Left are explored with unlikely candour. In 'Four Letters from an Ongoing Series, ' the postal service becomes an unwitting accomplice to the gatekeepers of potential culture. Finally, in the essay 'Like a Priest Who Has Lost Faith, ' questions of art and emptiness shift focus in relation to the agency that at all times surrounds us.

My Review: As always with story collections, I'll offer specific comments on the stories themselves and finish up with some wise (or wise-ass) summing up. Without further ado, I deploy the Bryce Method's time-tested techniques:

The Infiltrator is either the shortest récit I've ever seen or it's a short story with the same intimate effect as a récit because we never get out of our nameless narrator's head. It's more effective at greater length, in my opinion, but there is nothing wrong with the story's story. It's fascinating to look at an agent provocateur's strange mental state. The money? The cause? I can't imagine. The narrator's account of his actions are without emotional responses; the narrator records the emotions of the people she or he is manipulating without attempting to respond to them personally. Curiously, I found this more telling of the narrator's character than any more noisy declaration could have. This is an amoral person. This is the bad seed your mother warned you about. 4 stars

Four Letters from an Ongoing Series details the dreary, pointless existence (it's not in any way describable as a life) of an aspiring writer. From information within the frame of the story, he sounds like a white, middling-aged bore who has never escaped the analysis paralysis that a liberal arts education can put some people in:
I hate it when I feel like a man. It is probably even worse when I don't, since those are times when I am coasting through territory where my privilege is even more invisible to me than usual.
Self awareness? Or narcissistic navel-gazing? Both in some degree?

His manuscript, one assumes the same one each time, is rejected by four presses. Each letter he receives is more explicit about why they aren't publishing it. Midway through this painful process of absorbing so much rejection, he ruminates on the very business he's trying to enter:
Will literature last forever or is it practically already a thing of the past? And how do we even define literature, since without some definition it is barely possible to judge the field's relative health or disrepair. Are my overly refined tastes--predelictions and preferences I've spent most of a lifetime overly refining--the most useful criteria or do they pertain only to my personal idiosyncrasies? Would it be better to have something more generalized, a canon most might agree upon, or would this very canon simply be a dampening force, pushing down the lid, creating conventions through consensus both more consensual and more conventional?
If he writes the way he thinks, no wonder his manuscript bounces back to him so often. Yeah, all of that blahblahblah is true and valid. But outside an academic journal or a classroom this is some seriously dreary verbiage.

The last rejection letter is a rant of epic proportions, ordering the narrator to go out and live, to get his head out of his butt and maybe then he'd have something other than his pathetic life to write about. However good this order is, what a difference it might have made...human nature wins. 3.5 stars

Like a Priest Who Has Lost Faith: Notes on art, meaning, emptiness and spirituality really doesn't need more explanation than the instruction "read that title again and reflect carefully on how it can relate to the subtitle" and this paragraph from the text:
I wonder if the framework within which most contemporary art attempts to generate meaning is analogous to the 'never been modern' framework that {Bruno} Latour criticizes {in his major work, We Have Never Been Modern}. Art is a world that separates, continuously playing the divisions against one another in ways that are often contradictory: good art against bad art, art against everything else, political art against commerce, etc. The gallery is the place for art, but it is also a way of removing art from the rest of life.

Has Wren lost faith in the idea of modernity? The art exhibition that elicited this essay from him was called 'Animism,' a group of works in multiple media by artist Anselm Francke. Wren tells us he didn't actually see the exhibition, only read the catalogue; how amazing must this show have been to make a very intelligent man dig so deeply into his psyche and gift us with this revealing, delicious meditation on humanity and our endless search for meaning.

I read this book, slim but deep, in an hour of happy immersion. It's been my introduction to Jacob Wren, and to BookThug's very, very interesting publishing program. Apart from two pet peeves (stationAry instead of stationEry; it's instead of its), this is a tight and involving package of words. It's going to be even more fun for me to read Wren's novels now. I am looking forward to it, and I suspect many other readers will be right there with me. 5 stars

Saturday, May 21, 2016

THE CHESSMEN, third Lewis Trilogy mystery from Peter May

(Lewis Trilogy #3)
Quercus (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$6.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five



Fin Macleod, now head of security on a privately owned Lewis estate, is charged with investigating a spate of illegal game-hunting taking place on the island.


This mission reunites him with Whistler Macaskill - a local poacher, Fin's teenage intimate, and possessor of a long-buried secret.


But when this reunion takes a violent, sinister turn and Fin puts together the fractured pieces of the past, he realizes that revealing the truth could destroy the future.

My Review: The series is complete. My relief is genuine.

I'll find something to say in due course.


Peter May cut his storytelling teeth in Scottish television, creating two prime time drama series and script-editing a third. He is very clearly Scottish, choosing an unfamiliar and unforgiving setting for this series: The Hebrides, no less than Ann Cleeves's more famous Shetland TV and book series, is globally known for its distilled essence of Scottishness. No smart author who wasn't Scottish would dare to do this.

But the problem is that the Hebrides form an atmospheric backdrop for a personal saga of surpassing ordinariness. The gross-out food-gathering antics of the Hebrideans in The Blackhouse aren't integral to the murder, they're the handy means for it. The Lewis Man came off better than The Blackhouse because it was a universal plot far more compelling than the first one, but again the Hebrides could as easily have been the Balearics or the Cyclades.

Now, at the end of the trail, we're confronted with a murder that frankly makes no sense, a murder that makes all the sense in the world, a death that's explained in as bloodless (in the bad sense) a way as any in detective fiction, and a hit that my shoulders have been hunched in anticipation of since the middle of The Lewis Man.

I'm not one for book reports, so go read the synopsis and some more spoilery reviews to glean some insights into which might be what. I'm here to tell you that this wasn't a satisfying three-book read. But, the Gotcha! Gang is now crouched above their keyboards waiting to snort in derision, you read them! Yep. I did. I got the series from Quercus and, even though it takes me forever to get around to reviews these days, I still honor my commitments.

The end result of my reading isn't the sense of time wasted so much as time misused. The author has storytelling chops. He deploys the expected tropes in the usual order and does so against the background of a culturally unique place without, as Cleeves does, allowing us a deeper-than-guidebook sense of the ways and means of these isolated folks. I would be howling to the stars about these books if I'd felt the crimes had originated organically in Hebridean soil. The author's ability to make a story one wants to follow isn't in question. The main character is a homecoming middle-aged ball of grief and rage, so that's familiar. He isn't anyone we haven't met before, but he's well developed enough for that not to be a major concern.

In the end, I'm not sure what to tell you. If Scotland is a fascination of yours and you're a murder-mystery addict, ie if you're me, yeah sure read away. Don't expect a peak experience. If you're a tartan noir person, and why the hell wouldn't you be?, these will occupy summer beach hours adequately. Even refreshingly, given that there isn't a single warm day in any of the texts.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

ALLEGHENY FRONT, the 2016 Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction winner

This was my first monthly short-story collection review for late, lamented site, The Oak Wheel. Since May is National Short Story Month, a few other favorites might appear as well. Sarabande Books and Matthew Neill Null collaborated to produce a beautiful book, and a beautiful literary work. Lydia Millet deserves our thanks for selecting ALLEGHENY FRONT as the 2016 Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction.


Sarabande Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Most Anticipated Books of 2016, The Millions
Top Summer Books 2016, Publisher's Weekly

Set in the author's homeland of West Virginia, this panoramic collection of stories traces the people and animals who live in precarious balance in the mountains of Appalachia over a span of two hundred years, in a disappearing rural world. With omniscient narration, rich detail, and lyrical prose, Matthew Neill Null brings his landscape and characters vividly to life.
"Allegheny Front has few sentimental trappings. . . . Men's stubbornness is a rock face, in these intelligent and unpretentious stories, their anger a crown fire, their occasional tenderness a rill. . . . It remains at a distance from judgment, at a remove from easy definitions, unspooling a lucid and often painful history of appetite, exploitation, and bereavement."—Lydia Millet, from the introduction

My Review: As I always do with short-story collections, I’ll move from story to story, offer up a smidgen of opinion, and some relevant quotes. At the end, I will try to sum up my overall response to the collection, and what I see as its particular merits. My online friend Bryce taught me how much more useful and meaningful a review of a diverse collection is in this format, so I call it “the Bryce Method.” And so, without further ado and from the top:

Something You Can’t Live Without demonstrates that people have always been people, time and place and customs and morals aside. We’re pretty much alike, thanks to evolutionary hard-wiring, and unique in how we go about performing our pre-programmed stunts in the world.
When a young man called Cartwright inherits an older man’s job of commission selling farming implements to the hardscrabble farmers of West Virginia, he also inherits a diary of local knowledge that makes him a darn near perfect salesman in the eyes of his bosses. He rides his two-horse wagon all over beautiful 1901 West Virginia, summer days not excepted:
He swabbed his face with his tie. Soon, the sun burned off the fog and hoisted itself in the sky. 'Horses, it's hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock. I tell you that much.'
He took another little drink. Bottle-flies turned their emerald backs in the sun. Young monarchs gathered to tongue the green horseshit and clap their wings.
It sounds idyllic to modern city-dwellers, or at least it does to this one. For Cartwright, it’s hot and he has to unload...that is, sell for a fair expensive plow. He is at the end of his stock, the end of the road, and the end of his rope until he meets the McBride twins, whom he can only tell apart because one has nine fingers. He lapses into salesmanship the way a preacher does into droning tones, and the boys take him to meet their father.
Cartwright, like all good salesmen, can smell money, and this farm lacks the perfume. The McBrides try the plow out, like the ease of it, and begin to bargain; Cartwright demurs and demands cash. However, there are always exceptions to this hard-and-fast company rule, especially when the family reveals a secret: A fossilized cave bear sits partially entombed in a cave nearby! Think of the money it’s worth! Buying fossils was a common practice at the time, just as it is now in China. Cartwright’s greed clobbers his good sense, and he and the nine-fingered twin set out to the cave to see the bear. It’s there, all right, face sticking out into the cave’s emptiness, waiting to be released at last:
Cartwright grooved the chisel's tooth into the base of the skull, where the spine would fuse, and lifted the hammer. The chisel jumped in his hand and half the skull turned to silt. It cascaded down the rock wall with the faintest sigh. The {nine-fingered} boy let out a string of oaths so profane, so unparalleled, that surely they'd been inspired by a hell so near.
Cartwright was glad to have a hammer in hand.
And let the lesson be this simple: Never con a con-man. One of you ends up dead.

Mates pits one fine old man, honorable as the day is long, against the forces of change no one can really expect or plan for. He is simple in the elegant Japanese or Amish sense. His is a worldview that he absorbed unchallenged and passed to his sons as best he could. It fell on deaf ears and racing hearts, all testosterone fueled and ambition driven. These young men, and their almost-foreign wives, could never see a stream unless the ambled into it by accident; they certainly couldn’t or wouldn’t ever see it as Sull does:
Sull imagined wild brook trout, cold and firm in the fast, healthy current, buried in the water like ingots of precious metal. They hold fast to the bank, laurel-green with bellies of coal-fire. Wilder colors than you'd dare imagine on your own. Stock had destroyed the run--to be truthful, {his family} had--and silky mud rose off the bottom in slow veils where the Angus dropped their hooves. Do rivers have ghosts? Do trout swim in the air?
Sull has a finely developed sense of place and of his place in that world. His musings and sensitivities cover the heart of a farmer more used to bad luck than good. When a predator starts raiding his winter larder of Rockingham hens, Sull thinks it’s a fox. Logical, since foxes are common in West Virginia and long storied as hen-stealers. Even leg-traps won’t catch this clever bastard!

Because he’s an eagle. A bald eagle, to be precise, and Sull does what any chicken-and-dumplings lovin’ farmer does to a predator stealing the chicken: He shoots the damn thing. Nails it to the barn, too, as a message to any other bald eagle puttering around and thinking Rockingham sounds good for dinner tonight.

And then the kerfuffle begins in earnest. Increasingly senior bird-and-turtle sheriffs...that is, game wardens...all life-long friends of Sull and his family, come around to remind him it’s a federal crime to shoot, kill, snatch, or harm any bald eagle, and the penalties are no joke. When Sull gives in to their well-intentioned but much resented interference, the she-eagle exacts her price for her widowhood in Rockingham raiding. Exactly as he knew she, or another eagle, would. The slow burn of the cheated farmer begins:
For a long while, he sat on the steps and sharpened the chain-saw blade with a round file, dipping it in bar-and-chain oil and raking it over each tooth with sleek, grating sounds. He lost himself in the rhythm of the labor. A victory over tears is a small thing, but it was his. The sky went from indigo to blackness, and he saw nothing ominous in it, nothing but cold stars wheeling in their course, a course determined by the same firm hand he hoped was guiding his own. But satellites, too, crossed the sky in sly, winking arcs. Sull knew that. He could not let himself be confounded. He went inside, to sleep beside his wife.
The eagle’s nest, now obviously a barren one, is in an old red oak tree. Farmers don’t like to cut down red oaks, they provide acorns to nourish pigs (and people if the winter’s bad enough). But there she is, fat and full of his Rockinghams.

Down goes the oak. Down comes the nest. And revenge? Revenge, if you’ve never noticed, never ends.

Natural Resources is a quick recap of the Circle of Anthropocene Destruction. It’s too short to be more than a mouthful, but contains this sparkly gem:
But the earth turns, and old ways are reexamined. The insurance companies say there are so many deer, so many wrecks. They have algorithms on their side. Kill more deer. Let all the predators live.
Gauley Season begins with this perfect atmospheric, informative paragraph:
Labor Day. We could hear their bellow and grind from the Route 19 overpass. Below, the river gleamed like a flaw in metal. Leaving the parking lot behind, we billy-goated down the fisherman's trail, one by one, the way all mountain people do. Loud clumps of bees clustered in the fireweed and boneset, and the trail underfoot crunched with cans, condom wrappers, worm containers. A half-buried coal bucket rose from the dirt with a galvanized grin. The laurel hell wove itself into a tunnel, hazy with gnats. There, a busted railroad spike. The smell of river water filled our noses.
Honestly, I’d feel I’d done right by you if that’s all I told you about the story. This is my choice for chef d'oeuvre.

Well, I can’t do that. I have to tell you that the story is a tragic and horrible accident on the Gauley River’s latest service to mankind, rafting the rapids in the summer when the Army Corps of Engineers allow the nearest dam to spill close to the natural flow sacrificed when rural electrification came to this slice of back-country. Kelly Bischoff, survivor of several kinds of employment changes as the resources being extracted from the wealth and welter of West Virginia change, end up starting the first rafting adventure company owned by a local and hiring locals only. After Kelly loses control of a raft full of tourists, good fortune smiles his way one last time as only two people die: a teen girl and her father. The rest of his life, of course, is a hell of regret and understated suspicion:
{T}hen he whispered something that turned Reed pale and bloodless--and that Reed wouldn't tell about until years later. 'You're the one lied about Meadow Creek,' Kelly said. 'Lied about finding her. Why would you do that to me?'
We left him there as the drawknife of dusk peeled back the world.
A man like Kelly, a local success brought low by an accident, well you can just imagine the stories folks whisper. Even Kelly tells a tale about the accident that shocks the socks off his listeners. As you’d expect, a well-known man deprived of his’s worse than actual physical death, and it’s shared out among all the mountaineers and rafters to come.

Telemetry is a moment in the arc of a woman’s life when her decisions, her loyalties, and her sense of place all collide. Kathryn Tennant leads a field team of biologists for a pleasant camping trip near a trout stream. I mean, a field assignment to study movement patterns among the trout via insertion into the fish of a tracking device. She’s at the end of her degree studies; her mom is still here, the reason she stayed in West Virginia for school; her previous years of field work have given her confidence in her data and data-gathering techniques. Her findings will hold up, her work will back up an informative and necessary finding if trout, recreational fishing’s basic fish, are to thrive here. Most anywhere, in fact; she is a real scientist making real contributions to the world. She has been on this trajectory for some time:
{W}hy did she go into the field? A twinge of pleasure, of knowledge. Her dad would pull over to the side of a bridge, and they would watch from above, before he slipped down the bank to catch them. She was charmed by the motions of trout. How they take their forms from the pressures of another world, the cold forge of water. Their drift, their mystery, the way they turn and let the current take them, take them, with passive grace. They turn again, tumbling like leaves, then straighten with mouths pointing upstream, to better sip a mayfly, to root up nymphs, to watch for the flash of a heron's bill. The current always trues them, like compass needles. When she watches them, she feels wise.
And for this year’s fieldwork, the insurance year, she has two male companions, Michael and Gary, who are doing their own researches in the riparian biome. That she is sleeping with Michael when Gary wants her too doesn’t make things easy for her; add in the arrival of Nedermeyer, an apparent survivalist and his daughter Shelly across the meadow and tensions spread like kudzu vines. Shelly has sticky fingers. Nedermeyer probably has PTSD. Their tent looks like a Civil War holdover.

Without much ever being said, the two groups begin to hang out. Proximity counts for a lot in a place this remote:
The boulderfields, the spaces empty of people--a lonesomeness city-dwellers could never comprehend. Sometimes it seems like you know animals more intimately than people. Beaver heads cutting wake in the water, bear shit jeweled with seeds, deer quenching themselves in the river's cool. Her family has lived here for three hundred years. But the place is wretchedly poor and backward and may never be right.
A Fourth of July celebration gone horribly wrong proves to Kathryn that she is that saddest of people, the one who loses home from gaining perspective. She is a reluctantly eager exile, the inevitable result of all her choices that were made all unknowing of the price coming due.

The Island in the Gorge of the Great River is a ten or twelve acre scrap of isolation where “the county” sends people to die. Given the date we’re provided for this event, 1890, it’s pretty safe to assume the disease being fought is tuberculosis. Local boys, as boys always have, taunt and torment anyone who comes to the island’s near shore. John Drew, our PoV character, sees and falls for a young girl whose response to him (only him) is saucy and flirtatious. John is obsessed, haunts the shore, and when he no longer sees the lassie or she runs off home, he trudges to the family home:
He returned to Pinch, waiting for the mine whistle to break the day into pieces. When it did, the miners surfaced with empty lunch buckets, leaving the portal, walking the narrow main drag with its bank, post office, and commissary. They found their own company shacks in straggling rows three deep, each one identical, with the same stovepipe, same curl of smoke, same yellow dog lazing in a bare yard. its tail beginning to wag.
John’s father, a very good man, comes home from the mines and makes his best attempts to instill values into his son. While John listens, he retains his obsession with the girl on the island of death. It comes to the point that John attempts, in a rickety canoe he’s never handled before, to find his young love. It goes, as you’d expect, horribly wrong:
He sees the lights of heaven, but they are as pale and indistinct and more than a little disappointing: Fayetteville, with its new row of gaslights on the river road. … {H}e can’t go home to face his mother and father, where they mattock small graves from a hillside, and that is a kind of death. He has a sliver of ice. Home is not for him. He lies breathing. He is rushing on.
Is he less dead because he’s breathing? John Drew, given nineteenth-century communications, is unlikely to see or speak to anyone from Pinch ever again. He is launched into a future he will navigate without guides or help.

Rocking Stone is the shortest piece in the collection, the lightest in weight, the least in meaning for my eyes. An unmarried great-uncle takes delight in the children of his nephew’s home, leading them around the woods on their few acres, teaching them mountain lore and playing silly jokes and games with them. When a habitual joke backfires in a horrible way, the family dynamic is forever shifted.

For all of me, the old coot got what was coming to him for playing practical jokes on little girls. Definitely my least favorite story.

The Slow Lean of Time follows the adventures and misadventures of Sarsen, an experienced log drover, and his latest charity case, a drover-wannabe called Henry who was supposed to come with his cousin to learn log-droving.

Henry’s only seventeen, a boy really, and leaving his home to walk to the Gauley River logging head doesn’t keep him from appreciating the river’s life and death struggles:
An awful, heartbroken cackling from the reeds behind. A vortex formed. A hole in the water. Into this, tufts of feathers disappeared. Turning, Henry saw the fish inhale two ducklings. The others broke into the main river and were swept downstream, their mother with them. The thrashing fish threw water like a canoe blade. Gills flared as it wolfed them down. Henry looked about, frantic, but no one else was there to see, no one to assure him it was true.
Almost the first person he meets, though he’s looking for his cousin, is the loud, powerful senior log-drover Sarsen, a mountain of muscle and experience. Henry, a scrawny kid to look at but not without muscle power of his own, is in awe of Sarsen and willingly follows his instructions on droving. When the day’s down-time begins, Sarsen is still the center of Henry’s world:
He lifted the thrashing muskellunge, held it up for the world to see, and let the thrash go out of its body in a final, lurking shudder. He had pierced it through, a third of the way behind its head. Pale out of the water, all dull greenish-bronze and insipid vermiculations, except for reddish fins that reminded Henry of his mother's hard tack candy. It had the teeth of a nasty little dog. Sarsen slid its body down off the staff, leaving a watery braid of blood. Off the pike, its wound seemed to close. He lifted it by the tail and hollered.

Sarsen could do anything.
What Sarsen can’t do is prevent tragedy, change, unhappiness, and the inevitable relegation of the used-up veteran of jobs that don’t exist to that horrible non-position of “character.” He tells his stories, tends his bar, and waits and waits for a chance to make right on his long-ago tragic callousness. When it arrives, Sarsen--a big spirit and bold heart to the last--takes his power into his hands and makes his fate.

In the Second District traces the fall of a family from power, the death of a way of life, and the many ropes that tie a community together, sometimes too tightly. Bear hunting is now a very controversial subject. Those unaffected by bears’ clever and destructive survival tactics, like destroying garbage cans and eating the family dog, want the creatures left to thrive in their old homeland. People living there take a very different view, needless to say. Not only does their hunting bond fathers and sons, making them part of a fraternity of hunters, but it brings in significant money from the Chinese. A bear’s gall bladder is a valued aphrodisiac in Eastern medicine in general, and that means of course that trade in them is illegal. Then again, so is public drunkenness.

Poor old dog is going to die anyway, most likely, since a cornered bear doesn’t mind who or what it swats to death in an attempt to be free.

As the Second District’s customs change, its needs must get met in other ways. A Senator’s son becomes a small-town shady lawyer. A Senator’s grandson becomes a Methodist preacher. And the other side of their family, gained by marriage, commit senseless and violent crimes, get sent to the penitentiary: the future of a collapsed economy’s leavings, toxic as mine waste.

These are nine worthy stories, and at least two of them could make really good movies on very small budgets. Lydia Millet, whose task it was to select the 2016 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, served us the reading public very very well in making this choice. Beautiful prose and a native’s irreplaceable eye for home ground combine to create a wonderful reading experience. This is a fine entry into the genre of grit lit. Lives as rough as moonshine going down the wrong pipe, as blasted as a meth lab accident become tough, challenging art in Null’s gifted hands.

Monday, May 9, 2016

THE BOY IN HIS WINTER: An American Novel by Norman Lock

THE BOY IN HIS WINTER: An American Novel
Norman Lock

Bellevue Literary Press
$14.95 paperback, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

Repurposing great works of literature, famous characters from same, and/or dead authors in modern ways and to modern ends is almost overdone as a phenomenon. Really, writers. Stop it.

I said "almost overdone" because, if I know publishing at all, they will collectively ride this hobby-horse's hooves entirely off. There are a few of these cultural appropriations that are enjoyable, of course, it's statistically impossible that such a gigantic amount of work won't produce a shining light now and then. I think of Catherynne Valente's Russian fairy-tale reinterpretation of Baba Yaga in Deathless and grin all over my face. So the tap will continue to drip even after the shower's over. It ain't over yet, though.

It's in that silver river-shine light that I approached The Boy in His Winter. Is this another misappropriation or maladaptation of a novel that's been entwined into the USA's sense of itself? Happily, no...but.

I love author Lock's prose (my copy of the book has 10 Book Darts marking especially lovely passages or especially telling insights). It slides easy, inviting toes to dangle or shoulders to float, gently rocking.
To ennoble is to diminish by robbing people of their complexity, their completeness, of their humanity, which is always clouded by what gets stirred up at the bottom.
That these complex and honeyed words are put in crude, ill-bred Huck Finn's mouth works because we're told from the get-go that he's an old man now and telling his story to an unnamed, depersonalized amanuensis. And I wonder, since the novel's frame is 2077, if that amanuensis isn't some form of AI, which might also account for the fact that Huck (now called Albert, or Al, since rejoining normal time after Katrina) always addresses the unseen being as if responding to questions. Much like a good writer's-amanuensis software would program it to do: "Comes complete with wandering-thought alert and long-silence breaker!"

That I'm conjecturing this, since I wasn't told or shown it in any way, is a source of my itchy lack of satisfaction with the book as a whole. Huck and Jim get on their stolen raft in 1835 and float, magically out of time's reach, until certain points in history, national and personal. I can go there. I can love the trip. My disbelief is suspended from the moment I open this kind of book. But when all the author does with my suspended disbelief is take advantage of it so as not to have to work at explaining his authorial choices...well, pop goes the weasel and here I am with my teeth in my mouth wondering what I was thinking when I started this sentence:
The raft was seized, with a noise like needles knitting, and we were hemmed in for winter -- river and the old channel's oxbow lake having frozen solid. By now, we guessed we were not two ordinary river must have been the river that was extraordinary: a marvel that protected us by the same mysterious action that had given a common horse wings and changed a woman into a laurel tree.
I read the author's mind (always a dangerous act) to hear, "I'll make a classical allusion to magical transformations and maybe they'll glide on by the Hows and gaze lovingly at the Whys." Now, don't mistake me, I'm not asking Lock to invent some hard-SF gobbledygook that doesn't belong in this book. What I'm left wanting is a Why that has the power to cause Huck to introspect all through the book, to meditate on the nature of his and Jim's unique experience and how it's made him who and what he is.
{Y}ou make do with what you're given, and I've spent a good many years learning to write fine-sounding sentences so that I can hide behind them. It's the way of the hermit crab, with nothing to recommend it but the pretty shell it annexes for its own.
Don't know about you, but I could use more of this beautiful revelation and on many more topics. Again, I stress that I don't want the book to be something it isn't, some Guide To Life or some kind of Aliens Messed With My Tachyon Bodyspace. I love the concept as it's written. But it isn't doing enough of what it does so well to merit the full five stars I begin by giving every book I am seduced into picking up.

Bellevue Literary Press is to be commended for publishing this life-intersecting-science story in such a beautiful, well-crafted package. Norman Lock is Norman Lock, and doesn't need the likes of me to praise his talent, demonstrated so amply so very often in a long career. (May 2014)

Yet I wanted more than I got of the sweetness he gave.

Monday, May 2, 2016

VERTIGO by Joanna Walsh, a rare, perfect view inside another being's head


Dorothy, a publishing project
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Walsh’s penetrating short story collection evokes the titular feeling of dizziness. “I sense no anchorage,” the narrator says in the title story, “I will pitch forward, outward and upward.” It’s a statement true of both the writing and the women in it; all share a detached tone, as if speaking from the end of a tunnel, and what one character describes as “uncontrol,” lives lived in language more than action. This continuity of tone often makes it difficult to tell where one narrative drops off and another begins, as the stories are linked loosely together in flashes of syntax, which read like poetry and sometimes retreat into italicized, third-person meditations. Any navigational difficulties are worthwhile, as Walsh is an inventive, honest writer. In her world, objects may be closer and far more intricate than they appear; these stories offer a compelling pitch into the inner life.

My Review: These fourteen linked microfictions are the only way I've ever found directly inside a woman's head. I know feminists who claim women and men can't *really* understand each other--was recently snipped from the life of a proponent of this theory--but I suspect Joanna Walsh would disagree, as she is a feminist who has written the kind of récit that I just treasure when I find. It is very much needed in this polarized world. An eloquent voice breathing thoughts directly into the noösphere, allowing them their own life and retaining their unique identity because of that freedom. Probably does more for the small amount of understanding there is in the world by this simple, impossibly difficult act.

As always, I'll take you story by story using quotes and trying to catch some shadow of my feelings for each story. My online friend Bryce taught me this way of reviewing collections, so I call it "the Bryce Method" in his honor.

Fin de Collection leads with a strong series of crises: an Englishwoman in Paris, perhaps to buy a red dress in celebration of leaving her husband. As I'd expect, the decision and experience lead to, well, a good hard inventory:
There is something about my face in the mirrors that catch it. Even at a distance it will never be right again, not even to a casual glance. Beauty: it's the upkeep that costs, that's what Balzac said, not the initial investment.
It was here that I knew I could trust Walsh, that I was in good hands.

*During the off-months for the visitors, which are the on-months for the oysters, are the oysters packed in ice or tinned, and shipped to Paris?

*During the off-months for the visitors, which are the on-months for the oysters, do the serving staff shuck shells?
*During the off-months for the visitors, which are the on-months for the oysters, are the restaurant, and the oysters, abandoned, and the staff laid off?
I tagged this quote "worst date ever" and "just shoot him already". I have never, in all my life, thought so deeply about oysters while on a date. Poor woman! What a bore.

Vertigo is a return through time to family vacations of yore, a seeming moment of happiness in what was starting to feel like a doom-laden life:
We sit in the ruin, each reading a book, or three of us read out of four. Three different voices speak to us. We have taught the children to read again this week. Here, where there is no voice, apart from ours, they are desperate for any other. They will even sing to themselves, sometimes. The boy whistles. He makes his voice croak. He sings the same thing again, but breathing in. A bird echoes the first notes of Vivaldi.
But happiness is, for all we are taught to and desperately want to believe, internal and a matter of self-discipline:
The third person. There was no sign of this happiness on the outside, she knew. She was bored by this happiness that seemed out of place, impatient to get rid of it. The feeling was less pleasurable than she had imagined it might have been, less well-defined, and when she felt along its strings she found it was not easily traced or attached to the objects she thought it might have been attached to. Perhaps it was not attached to anything at all.
Losing control of the wanderings of her mind, our narratrix returns to the single solid truth that she knows: She is not happy with her life. And her thoughts are drawn there by the lodestone of dissatisfaction.

Young Mothers loses the sense of self that we spend decades building in the simple fact of motherhood. Walsh makes the point that we're born of our children, "Connor's mum or Casey's mum but never Juliet, or Nell, or Amanda," that everything inside mum is focused on Connor or Casey. And then, being Joanna, Walsh throws in this single-sentence paragraph that makes a simple ordinary observation much more profound and not a little scary:
Then we had to remember how to play.
That had to hurt, writing that sentence with its many levels.

The Children's Ward needs no more explanation than the title and this quote:
How long before the parts of my body realized, independently, that something was wrong and arrived, severally, at panic? Panic is a still thing. I have felt it before: each limb nerve organ coming into extreme alert unrelated to any other, ready for action, but who knows what action, as there is no action that could help here.

Online boredom, guilt, long can it take to reach a decision to terminate the non-functional life we all live with someone, somewhere in our past or present?

Claustrophobia is that hideous moment of not-belonging in a place and with a family we once knew and valued:
There are so many of you, and you are still just the way I thought I'd grow up, with all that was enviably grown-up about you: the lace tops with modesty inserts, and the spangles as if for nights out, the stiff hair, the cardigans grown over with a fungus of secondary sexual characteristics--bristling with embroidery and drooping with labial frills.
Gynergy overdose! Fetch this poor sufferer the energy to move, act, leave!
The washing up liquid smells of sweeties. It tells me that it is ginger and peach. It smells of something we should still be eating. This seems wrong: it should smell of something after, whatever it is that comes after.
What comes after the realization that you don't fit? I've never known. Maybe bury yourself:
There is no bottom to the cake. I'm digging through the kind of soil that supports rhododendrons: it's that dark.
Have a vague hope that somehow something beautiful will come from poisonous sweet love.

The Big Black Snake is, I'm sorry to say, completely inscrutable to me. Whatever collective thought process Walsh wants to make a point about (I think) went sailing over my head, an arrow shot at a different target.

And After... ruminates on ideal futures/pasts/alternatives in the wake of a loss or an ending. Based on tone, I'd slot this in chronological step with "The Children's Ward." Here's why:
Let there be children and old people but few whose occupation is neither hope nor memory. Let there have been immigration at some point: enough to fill the convenience stores, the foreign restaurants, but let it be forgotten. Let the children be all in school, a breath held in, released at 3 o'clock across the park. Let the town's rhythm be unquestioned. Let me be single: no children, no family. Let me not fit in.
That bleak grey view of a colorful world feels exactly like grief over losing a child.

Half the World Over a peripatetic period in the divorced woman's life, New York City to Paris, leaves her surprised at anyone's vigor and adventurous spirit:
I am tired and drunk and still hungry. He is full of steak and Coca-Cola and, presumably, energy: enough energy to cross the road and walk up the steps inside the tower of the cathedral, which I have never entered.
And miles to go before I sleep....

Summer Story measures the depth of self-loathing involved in being someone's back-up and realizing you'll never have any other place to be: "Finally I saw him last night at a party and he ignored me until at last he took me aside and said he was sort of seeing someone else, and I said, s'okay and he shrugged and said, that's how it goes, and I shrugged and said that's how it goes." Many a summer has been wasted by many a person over just such a non-event that manages to swallow one's entire self-esteem.

New Year's Day you *know* ex-sex is just not a good idea, but I don't know anyone who hasn't, at some moment, done the tangle-foot tango with the previous incumbent. Why?
You made yourself small on top of me, and I held myself still while you told me about the lovers you'd had while we were together. I held myself carefully because if I showed any reaction you would stop telling me. And then I would know no more than before.
As we dance to the masochism tango, I can hear Tom Lehrer singing his silly parody clear as day.

Relativity captures the awful insecurity that comes from being in the so-called sandwich generation, comparing one's self to mum's expectations and falling short, and daughter's needs and falling short:
The bus stops and out get the sort of people who travel by bus between cities: students, old people--mainly women--and the middle-aged who cannot afford the train and who have never grown old enough to drive. Out we get, and away we go, the young, the old, and the failed girls.
Dismal view of one's life.

Drowning a swim, actual or metaphorical, across the water: "How have I lived those times you left? In abeyance. I thought it would be freedom, without you: it is not." Is it wise to ask this sort of question mid-swim? I'm leaning towards a no on that one.
Despite everything, we are good people, who can hardly live in this world that continues almost entirely at our expense. The best thing is to keep on moving arms and legs, and watch the waves, almost as though moving forward. In this way, despair turns quickly over to happiness, and back to despair again. And, if you reach the beach, walk back across it like everything is fine, toward your family who would not like to see the abyss you have just swum over.

I am left now, at the end of my voyeuristic time in a woman's head, no wiser than I was before about the essential question of the possibility of men and women understanding each other. I am heartened to learn that I have a companion in cluelessness. I would encourage all of you to read this slender and superb and revealing collection. Never was that word better applied to any book: This is a collection, Joanna Walsh and her narratrix are collections, I think we're all of us collections of all we touch. Add this faultless and fearless narrative to the collection that's you.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

FRA KEELER, a novel to be savored slowly and completely


Dorothy, a publishing project
$16 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Fiction. A man purchases a house, the house of Fra Keeler, moves in, and begins investigating the circumstances of the latter's death. Yet the investigation quickly turns inward, and the reality it seeks to unravel seems only to grow more strange, as the narrator pursues not leads but lines of thought, most often to hideous conclusions.
BLURBS: "Obsessive. Surreal. Darkly comic. Chilling."--Robert Coover (!!!!!)
"Obsessive/delightful, FRA KEELER subtly elaborates on life's details, its ordinary lunacies. Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi's observations are droll and often hilarious. Her novel's incidents pile up and on, tilting and shifting under the weight of language's bizarre disturbances. FRA KEELER is wonderfully imaginative, the work of a terrific young writer."--Lynne Tillman
"Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is the descendent of writers as brilliant and disparate as Max Frisch, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Per Petterson. FRA KEELER is a compelling and humorously associative meditation on how 'one lives against one's dying, ' and how that living will be in contra-distinction to all that explains that death on paper after its fact. Would that more book groups read books of this complexity and intelligence; discussion would reach on into the wee hours!"--Michelle Latiolais
"In FRA KEELER a mind churns on itself, while reality--if it is reality--comes rushing at it with a strange stutter, everything a bit lost, a bit off, and ready to be ground up further by the uncertain perception of the narrator. This is a book by turns funny and strange, but always entertaining."--Brian Evenson

My Review: You will never see an endcap at your local Buns and Nubile featuring, or even including, this weird little bagatelle. It won't be piled in pyramids at the Costco. I'd even be surprised if it was among the Staff Picks at BookPeople, Austin's excellent indie megastore.

It's too weird to be a commercial force. It's a short work, so it's not likely to be used by the hoity-toity to display their Good Taste and Erudition. (Cloud Atlas, 1Q84, I'm lookin' at you.) So who will buy and read this book?

Beats me all hollow, and I suspect the reason it was published by small-but-mighty Dorothy, a publishing project, is right there. Who's the audience for this piece? Me? I got it from one of my rich county's libraries. (I am consistently astounded and delighted by the sheer variety and quantity of oddball stuff at least ONE library in the county system will buy. Often two or three. It's a pleasure to hit the catalog and request a weirdo book like this one, and three days later go and fetch it.) I don't know if I'd have the courage to pick it up if I hadn't read some reviews, if it came to my wallet opening.

But back to this weird little item. It's an interesting way to tell a mystery story via the stream of consciousness of a fractured identity apparently having occasional psychotic breaks. The mailman's hand turns into a lobster, the previous owner of a home has a magically shifting death certificate from two widely separated countries in Europe where it would seem we are not, the dust on the skylight comes in for some heavy narrative scrutiny....

Doesn't that sound like a corking way to spend an afternoon?

Strangely enough it is. Van der Vliet Oloomi—now it's time for me to confess that I got this book at all because the author's name makes me laugh until my sides hurt, and I love saying it out loud to unsuspecting housies, the dog, the librarian even and I go out of my way to avoid talking to the sourpusses at my library—is a young Iranian-American MFA-havin' writer whose sinuous sentences are a pleasure to slither alongside, and a more surprising and unexpected compliment I have yet to give.

ROBERT COOVER yes that's right ROBERT COOVER, he who created the uberbrilliant book The Public Burning which if you haven't read don't confess your turpitude to me just go fix it by reading it, praises the book! A writer I had never heard of compares Van der Vliet Oloomi (heh) to Max Frisch...I can't even pronounce “Latiolais” and had never heard of her either, so I ordered up her collection of short fiction Widow: Stories and must say that I owe Van der Vliet Oloomi a huge debt of gratitude for introducing me to this terrific talent...he of the awful, misogynistic novel Montauk and the impenetrably ironic, archly “comic” I Am Not Stiller, which would cause me personally to go find this Latiolais person and belt her one if it were MY book she was insulting that way.

So the blurbs kinda-sorta made me do it. Tillman, Evenson, okay okay I'll read it I'll read it already. And I'm glad that I did, because now I'll be on the lookout for whatever Van der Vliet Oloomi comes out with next. She's got something to say. That makes her interesting to me. I hope to you, too.

But $16? I know that it's not that much money in the cosmic scheme of things, but as I'm not made of money (I appear to be made of anti-money judging by my bank balance which I don't have as I don't have enough money to keep in a bank according to the banks), I would not have made a purchase. Should I recommend that you make the purchase?

Yes. Yes, I should; rare is the discovery of a unique voice. The pleasures that await you within are worth the investment.