Sunday, July 31, 2016

THE ENCELADUS CRISIS, or "Prepare For Your Emotional Heat-Death" by Michael J. Martinez, a Bad, Bad Man

(The Daedalus Series #2)
Night Shade Books
$7.99 mass market, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Lieutenant Commander Shaila Jain has been given the assignment of her dreams: the first manned mission to Saturn. But there’s competition and complications when she arrives aboard the survey ship Armstrong. The Chinese are vying for control of the critical moon Titan, and the moon Enceladus may harbor secrets deep under its icy crust. And back on Earth, Project DAEDALUS now seeks to defend against other dimensional incursions. But there are other players interested in opening the door between worlds . . . and they’re getting impatient.

For Thomas Weatherby, it’s been nineteen years since he was second lieutenant aboard HMS Daedalus. Now captain of the seventy-four-gun Fortitude, Weatherby helps destroy the French fleet at the Nile and must chase an escaped French ship from Egypt to Saturn, home of the enigmatic and increasingly unstable aliens who call themselves the Xan. Meanwhile, in Egypt, alchemist Andrew Finch has ingratiated himself with Napoleon’s forces . . . and finds the true, horrible reason why the French invaded Egypt in the first place.

The thrilling follow-up to The Daedalus Incident, The Enceladus Crisis continues Martinez’s Daedalus series with a combination of mystery, intrigue, and high adventure spanning two amazing dimensions.


My Review: This is a horrible book.

No, really. Don't let my star rating fool you, this is an evil, evil book. It kept me awake all night finishing it, and left me at an extremely important moment, and has the audacity to make me wait until I recover from breathless sleeplessness or sleepless breathlessness or near-lethal emotional read the rest of the story!

Michael J. Martinez, you are a bad, bad man.

How dare you rip Shaila apart like you did? I am outraged on her behalf, because I am convinced we'd be besties in real life and she's hurting after the awful thing you made her live through. Poor lamb. But she's not alone, oh no no no, there's Maria having her toenails ripped out (figuratively) by the whipsaw betrayals and losses you pile on her. Then, not satisfied with that, you go and arrange the big, scary horror-movie level betrayal behind her back! It's ungentlemanly. And Anne...! Words fail me at your turpitude towards Anne! I about had an attack every ten pages from the horrors inflicted on Anne. Weatherby, of course, all noble in his suffering, was the one you went easiest on, bounder that you are. He gets some hurt but really, not that much compared to the women's sufferings. Was that by design? These are some tough women and I know that they're getting close to the end of their tethers. Or if they're not, alchemy is at the root of it.

Not to mention alchemy, oh my gawd, the alchemists! The hubris, the vanity, the sheer muddleheadedness these men display with regard to their Great Work's powers and pitfalls. Immoderate, all of them, simply immoderate and most unseemly in their pursuit of their aims. And what badly chosen aims they are, to drive these foolish mortals to the extremes of stupidity you drive them to! I was astounded more than once that the ambitions of these men were so breathtakingly sweeping. Nothing short of modulating the future course of the human race, and us all unknowing and very unlikely to consent to it! Oh...and the scientists, add them to all the above, root and branch they're every bit as bad as the alchemists.

Except Finch, come to think on it. He's the one dashing around picking up the pieces after his attempts to stop the crisis from exploding fail. He really is the whitest hat in the whole bunch of 'em. That whole voice-of-reason vibe he's workin' is a godsend. (Nice touch, BTW, god in 2134 but God in 1798.) (Oh yeah, and that other cultural lift was really nice, you big damn hero-worshipper you.)

Plucking my heart-strings, playing me for a fool, yanking my chain like you did is, is, well I don't know exactly what it is but it isn't nice. Humanity's future is, in your view, bleak, and you make a convincingly real case for it based on events in today's papers. I suspect you're quite happy, in a ghoulish way, about the election playing out before our appalled eyes. Either outcome will bring your grim vision of the corpocracy bleeding the sheeple closer to reality. It is happening before our eyes and we're not looking the right places or seeing the right things or something, so there's not enough horsepower (yet) to drag us back from the brink.

That sound you hear? The loud one, clangclangclang? That's Michael J. Martinez, Major Meanie that he is, sounding the alarm for us all to wake up and look up from our TVs and computers and smartphones, look around, and take some bold action.


A WRINKLE IN TIME, Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 bestseller, is as revolutionary now as then

(this cover is for an out-of-print edition, but is still my favorite)

(The Time Quintet #1)
Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers
$24.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

"Wild nights are my glory," the unearthly stranger told them. "I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me be on my way. Speaking of way, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract."

Meg's father had been experimenting with this fifth dimension of time travel when he mysteriously disappeared. Now the time has come for Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace to rescue him. But can they outwit the forces of evil they will encounter on their heart-stopping journey through space?

This text is from the edition I encourage you to buy:

Fifty years ago, Madeleine L'Engle introduced the world to A Wrinkle in Time and the wonderful and unforgettable characters Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, and their friend Calvin O'Keefe. When the children learn that Mr. Murry has been captured by the Dark Thing, they time travel to Camazotz, where they must face the leader IT in the ultimate battle between good and evil—a journey that threatens their lives and our universe. A Newbery Award winner, A Wrinkle in Time is an iconic novel that continues to inspire millions of fans around the world. This special edition has been redesigned and includes an introduction by Katherine Paterson, an afterword by Madeleine L'Engle's granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis that includes photographs and memorabilia, the author's Newbery Medal acceptance speech, and other bonus materials.


Okay, it's an *April 2018* release but principle photography is over at least.

My Review: Meg Murry's daddy left home unexpectedly and without saying goodbye. The adored parent left behind an adolescent daughter, three sons, and a beautiful and smart wife. Meg cannot make herself get used to his absence and can't even pretend that she's not hurt by the town's opinion that he ran off leaving her mother. This, plus braces, wildly curly hair, an intelligence far greater than her contemporaries', and glasses, isolate the girl with her even weirder little brother Charles Wallace against their normal brothers and the rest of the world.

In time-honored tradition, these misfits are actually being prepared to fight the ultimate battle of Good Versus Evil, no pressure on the children no no no, and save their Daddy, not like it's gettin' piled even higher oh no! One fine day, Meg and Charles Wallace are called to their destiny by Mrs Which, Mrs Who, and Mrs Whatsit, the eccentric old ladies who prove to be avatars of interdimensional good beings with the agenda of making the Universe safe for goodness and happiness again.

The children are joined by fellow misfit Calvin, a popular boy athlete in their town whose hidden depths have tormented him all his life, in the quest to make the evil entity, a disembodied brain called "IT," that slowly takes over planets and compels all life thereon to submit to being in a group mind, erasing individuality and leaching away happiness.

This is a YA novel, so all turns out well, with Mr. Murry coming home and the children being brought home all safe and sound. But how they get home is very interesting: They travel via tesseract, a geometric figure that extends into a fifth dimension beyond spacetime. Mr. and Mrs. Murry have been researching this in their roles as scientists, and Mr. Murry has used the tesseract to get to the planet from which he's rescued. The Mrs Who/Which/Whatsit interdimensional beings use the tesseract to "tesser" or wrinkle the fabric of spacetime to get the children there as well.

Fascinating stuff for a Christian housewife to be writing about in 1960-1961! And make no mistake, the book is a very Christianity-infested Message about the perils of brains without hearts leading to Communistic group-think. Mrs. Murry, a capable scientist, stays home with the kiddos and makes dinner over Bunsen burners so she can keep working while she stays home to be a wife and mom. Ew.

And Meg, poor lamb, worries that she's not pretty enough because she needs braces and glasses and she's not all gorgeous like her mom is. Then Calvin, a popular boy and an athlete, shows hidden depths and falls for little Meg. So bells ring, doves coo, and hands are held, so all is well. Ew.

But it ain't Twilight, so I'm good with it. In fact, because I first read it before I was ten, I'm good with all of it. The stiff, unrealistic dialogue, the socially regressive and reprehensible messages, the religiosity...all get a benign half-smile and an indulgent wink.

Because sometimes you just need to know that someone out there believes that good CAN triumph over evil.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

THE GRAVITY OF THE AFFAIR, a precursor novella to the sailpunk space operas of the Known Worlds series

(The Daedalus Series #0.5)
Audible only
$5.95 or free with Audible sign-up

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Before his victory at the Nile.

Before his scandalous personal life made headlines.

Before he crushed the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar.

Before he died a martyr.

Horatio Nelson, England's greatest naval hero, assumed his first command, the 12-gun brig HMS Badger, at the tender age of 20. History tells us his first voyages as captain were unremarkable. Yet in the Known Worlds, where sailing ships ply the Void and the mystic science of alchemy works wonders, Nelson's first command goes quite differently. With his brashness and emotions untempered by experience, Nelson's rash actions as captain of the Badger threaten his heroic destiny.

The Gravity of the Affair is a novella set in the Known Worlds of The Daedalus Incident, with events that tie into the novel (though both works may be enjoyed independently of one another).


My Review: I've already told y'all how much pleasure The Daedalus Incident (link above) gave me in reading. This charming side-novella gave me as much pleasure, really, just in a shorter and less fully realized way. Hence the slightly lower star rating.

An alchemically powered English space fleet, the rebellious colonists of the United States of Ganymede, Horatio Nelson's first command in jeopardy...we got it all in here, folks. The fun of reading about an Enlightenment England and its sprawl, only in space, can't be overstated. I loved the first exposure I had to the concept, and I'm not slowin' down on the luuuuv yet. Presenting Nelson as a 20-year-old in his first command was inspired of Mr. Martinez. Nelson's life-long impetuosity is very much in evidence here. Hewing very closely to the facts of Nelson's actual life gives a layer of amused discovery to reading the tale. Following Nelson around is even more fun when comparing the story here told to the fairly sketchy biography I carry in my head.

This sailpunk space opera series is great exercise for the imagination. Start here for FREE and see if the voyage is congenial to you. A little motion-sick disorientation is to be expected, and after all Admiral Nelson suffered from nasty mal-de-mer and HE won England's most important sea battle!

BRIGHTFELLOW by Rikki Ducornet is a deeply pleasurable summer read


Coffee House Press
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A feral boy comes of age on a campus decadent with starched sheets, sweating cocktails, and homemade jams. Stub is the cause of that missing sweater, the pie that disappeared off the cooling rack. Then Stub meets Billy, who takes him in, and Asthma, who enchants him, and all is found, then lost. A fragrant, voluptuous novel of imposture, misplaced affection, and the many ways we are both visible and invisible to one another.

My Review: Why do people read Rikki Ducornet's novels? That's not the beginning of a takedown. It's a question that, in the final analysis, will tell the reader why a certain reviewer is likely to highlight factors of equal importance to potential Ducornet reader and reviewer alike. It's sad that I feel the need to say this, but there is no right or wrong answer to the question; one looks for whatever one wishes, for whatever personal reason, and de gustibus et coloribus non disputandum est.

I'm always up for a trip to the effervescent fountain of Ducornet's verbal effusions. I love the simple, natural way she uses words to create images that less gifted writers can only envy. Her work is filled with glorious and gorgeous moments that are invisible to most people and all but the most fortunate muse-chasers:
Sometimes when the snow falls she says: How I love weather. And he loves her for it. Loves her for it so much his heart blooms like a tiger lily and he roars his happiness; he roars and runs about and his pleasure delights her. In these moments their friendship is secure, eternal, luminous; their friendship rings the hours. These words of hers give him hope; he too loves weather, the safety of seasons, each bringing a gift: snow, rain, sun, wind. But because he is a dreamy child, fall is his favorite. Perhaps it reflects the best moments of family life: days of color, of clement weather--and this before the first mornings of heavy fog; the first blizzard when the sky is wiped away and the sun dissolves in brine; the first ice storm, one of many, when he can hear the world outside shattering.
My favorite season is also fall, but never in a million years could I have conjured such a gorgeous litany of reasons it is so. And although my own difficult mother and I shared a love for the weather and the progress of seasons, I wouldn't have thought of this as cement for a friendship that would make her inevitable betrayal of the mother/child bond (after all this is Rikki Ducornet's novel we're talking about and this is her evergreen trope) all the sharper and more painful.

It's very clear that Ducornet grew up in Canton, New York, for some of her childhood. It's not a very interesting place despite the presence of St. Lawrence University, with SUNY-Plattsburgh nearby. It is, however, a place that would logically create a passion for nature in its natives. It seems to have imbued Ducornet and her writing with a sense of place that underpins even her most shatteringly painful life events, as foreshadowed here:
Along the Hudson River, the world goes on forever, unspooling, and just when you think you know it, something happens, the summer is snatched away by an ice storm, a blizzard dissolves the spring, there are moths in sudden numbers, an unprecedented migration of geese. Autumn arrives unparalleled in its beauty. The river gleams, there are shad and snapping turtles, quantities of water chestnuts, and under porches: copperheads.

If America has gods, this is where they dwell--under rocks, in the branches of trees, in ivy, skunkweed, the hearts of fish, the flight of geese. But--everyone says it--things no longer shine as they once did. Ever since the war, everything is dimmer.
Ever since we, the people, learned that there is no place far enough away to hide from the evils that frightened people will support for the frayed, flimsy illusion of security. Ever since the end of our collective childhood. How cruel that maturity, the loss of illusion, rips the gloss of the natural world away from us as well as the comforting lie that people are good and kind instead of behaving in good and kind ways when it suits them to. Yet the sense of the uniqueness of a place, once learned, is impossible to put aside or have torn from you. It is, I suppose, why exceptionally calm and generous people are called "grounded," since all of such people I've met have this inalienable sense of place. Come to think of it, they also have lost their illusions about the benignity of both nature and humanity. They've been Ducorneted.

Stub, our PoV character, has been Ducorneted. His childhood was scraped off him with a wood-rasp, leaving blood and exposed nerve endings. He's free, in other words. Like many people he finds freedom a little bewildering at first, and sets out to create something recognizable as a life in the most familiar environment he can find. The college, unnamed but full of rich, privileged kids, has dominated Stub's world since he can remember. Ducornet's description of the place makes it clear she's modeling it on Bard College where her father was a Professor after World War II. Stub's father was a maintenance man at the college, so after his father's death it feels natural to him to take up a stealth existence there. He feasts on the leavings of others, the rich kids' carelessly tossed aside possessions that they'll never miss. He eats what he can scrounge. He's an unseen part, but a part nonetheless, of the college's life. He sees everything and is affected by little of it, as he's never been part of such a normal world. Then comes the emotional entanglement that ends Stub's existence:
The first time he saw Asthma she was in a tree. He had already seen Blackie, a hot machine made of rivets and spinning gears, like a pressure cooker and a robot combined. She was like his own mother, always heating up and letting off steam. Asthma was better off in the tree than in the house.
And so is born the curiously asexual passion of a young man for a child. It's more than a little bit creepy.

It is also the event that fractures the shell of Stub's isolated hunter-gatherer existence. It necessitates a new identity, so Stub becomes "Charter Chase." He foregoes his wandering freedom and accepts the kind charity of an elderly retiree, Billy, who lives next door to Asthma and her horrid mother Blackie. He sings for his supper, taking as his score the work and life of a reclusive former professor and writer called Vanderloon. His youthful haunting of the college library had introduced Charter to Vanderloon and his bizarre life and works. The college possesses the entire archive of Vanderloon's career squirreled away, uncatalogued, in the library where no one is interested in it or ever consults it. Charter takes this as his identity for Billy's sake. He creates himself as a scholar of this unpopular writer, giving himself wide latitude to invent tales tailored to suit Billy's lonely old heart:
Vision is one thing, Vanderloon liked to say, and observation is another. When on Easter Island he had learned of the bird's superiority over the fish, he understood in a flash what informed the entire culture. He saw that the Easter Islanders were themselves like raptors, snapping away at one another until there was nothing left. Easter Island, he wrote in Rules of Rage, is the mirror of all that is wrong with a species that again and again snaps up the fish rather than attempt to understand it. Today Charter puzzles over this. He thinks he does not want to be either one. He wants to survive but not snap anybody up in the process. A hare is what he wants to be. The one that with a leap, disappears.
He will make sure that he gives value for value received, but there is no way for Charter to know what "forever" or even "sometimes" means in relationship to others. He is a raptor, denying his raptor's nature. It can't and won't last.

While it does, at least in reference to Billy, Charter's unique passion has a safe harbor. His window overlooks Asthma's bedroom, and he makes full use of his perch to view his obsession's object in all phases of her life, from quotidian tasks to wild fanciful play:
Asthma plucks [the crocodile] from the crowd [of toy animals] and sets him down in front of the bees.

"Tell the crocodile why you have come all this way to celebrate First Snow and stay here with us forever and ever!" The bees begin to buzz and to hum. (If you looked very closely, you would see that each carries a tiny musical instrument--a harmonica, zither, xylophone, castanets, and so on. One holds a baton.)

"Honey!" the bees sing. "Bee cake. Royal jelly!" The bees sing in harmony. Their music is prestissimo!
Nothing is more intoxicating that seeing a child at concentrated personal play. I'd guess that every parent has seen that deep, what-world? kind of play with the same wistful desire to experience it again, knowing that to insert oneself into the magic is to destroy it. Here's Charter, barely older than Asthma to jaded adult eyes, deeply engrossed in how deeply engrossed she is in a world of her own making. It's the most relatable part of Charter's verging-on-Lolita-level passion. It's completely understandable from that point of view, but still is a bit squicky.

He's chosen Asthma to be his Lolita and not the other faculty daughter living near both of them, called Pea Pod. Her mother is called Goldie, and seems to be perfectly suited to raise such an ordinary unremarkable little shrew. She is prone to fight with Asthma, to Charter's distress. Billy perceives all children as more or less interchangeable, since he's never been a father. They're merely noisy little savages. He has no idea how it hurts Charter to lump his precious Asthma in with a brat like Pea Pod. Why, even Pea Pod's own father has deeply mixed feelings about her (as well as the rest of his life):
Everything is so tiresome, so tedious. If only Pea Pod were an easier child to live with. And Goldie, too, is difficult. When they met he thought her handsome. He admired her heavy skeleton. She was clearly made to last. But now her size exhausts him. Living with Goldie is like living with a boa constrictor or a large piece of farm equipment. She's a tyrant, when you think of it, and when she sits down at the piano the world trembles.
The apple don't fall to far from the tree. Asthma has discovered Charter, as has Pea Pod, though without any joy such as Charter's presence and storytelling ability brings to Asthma. He spins sophisticated tales of wonder for her, amusing her with the concept of the queen of the beetles that live under a log in the front yard as "La Papesse," the Lady Pope, who is attended by courtier beetles bearing balls of cinnabar-infused beeswax to polish Her Holiness with. Shades of the relationship with Billy! Charter tells him equally fanciful tales that make about as much sense as this one. Because it is Charter telling it, the old man and the little girl who are loved by and in love with Charter accept the words, concepts, images he feeds them. Much like a reader and a writer, don't you think? As Pea Pod isn't fond of Charter, is even jealous of Charter's hold on Asthma, she doesn't stretch outside her ordinariness to play along.

It's in this passage that Charter receives a new identity, that of "Brightfellow," from his adored Asthma. It suits her image of him as a bright fellow, and it suits Brightfellow because he was given it by his Asthma:
Asthma. Asthma in the glass! A grain of sugar in his eye. Today she is leaping like a colt from the floor to her bed, bed to floor, floor to bed, then dashing through the house. Her feet are bare and her spare cotton dress billows like petals around her small frame. When he hears the front door slam he gets up to find and follow her. But when he hits the Circle she is simply in the front yard beside the beetle log, poking at it with a twig.

"So where are they, Brightfellow?" she asks.

"They live eventful lives."
And in his hands they do indeed. In her eyes, as in a sympathetic reader's, he is perfectly named Brightfellow.

In the end, and you know that it has to end, Brightfellow can't fool all the people all the time. His world on the Circle ends, but we are left with the clear knowledge that another begins for him. This is the source of my half-star hit on the story's rating. It's much of a Ducornetness with her other works, not that there's anything wrong with that!, but this ending simply feels incompatible with the rest of the book. It doesn't launch Brightfellow deeper into his strange inner world, nor does it drag him out of it. The event that wraps the story up is a set-up for more of the same. That doesn't really satisfy this reader. I am picky, I admit it, but I've seen La Ducornet pull much healthier rabbits out of her hat than this.

Still and all, still and all--this is a pleasure read and a perfect way to wile away a few hours on a hot summer afternoon.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A SCARLET PANSY, 84-year-old call for tolerance by emulation


Fordham University Press
$19.95 paper, available now

Rating: 4 quizzical stars of five

The Publisher Says: First published in 1932, A Scarlet Pansy is an extraordinarily vivid and richly textured depiction of American queer life in the early twentieth century, tracing the coming of age of androgynous Fay Etrange.

Born in small-town Pennsylvania and struggling with her difference, Fay eventually accepts her gender and sexual nonconformity and immerses herself in the fairy subculture of New York City.

A self-proclaimed "oncer" - never tricking with same man twice - she immerses herself in the nightclubs, theatres, and street life of the city, cavorting with kindred spirits including female impersonators, streetwalkers, and hustlers as well as other fairies and connoisseurs of rough trade.

While reveling in these exploits she becomes a successful banker and later attends medical school, where she receives training in obstetrics. There she also develops her life's ambition to find a cure for gonorrhea, a disease supposedly "fastened on mankind as a penalty for enjoying love."

A Scarlet Pansy stands apart from similar fiction of its time -- as well as the ensuing decades -- by celebrating rather than pathologizing its effeminate and sexually adventurous protagonist. In this edition, republished for the first time in its original unexpurgated form, Robert J. Corber examines the way in which it flew in the face of other literature of the time in its treatment of gender expression and same-sex desire. He places the novel squarely within its social and cultural context of a century ago while taking into account the book's checkered publication history as well as the question of the novel's unknown author.

Much more than cultural artifact, A Scarlet Pansy remains a uniquely delightful and penetrating work of literature, resonating as much with present-day culture as it is illuminating of our understanding of queer history, and challenging our notions of what makes a man a woman, and vice versa.


My Review: I am gobsmacked by several facts about this book: That it was *published* in 1932! and that it remains pretty much unique in literature as being told, unapologetically, from the PoV of a real flamer, a pansy, a nancy-boy...that is to say, an effeminate man. So much very, very much emphasis! placed in today's mainstreamed gay world on "passing" or being a "straight-acting" gay man! Our leaders are preaching tolerance, acceptance, inclusion, and the rank-and-file put up sex ads for "straight-acting" sex objects. What in the world does this convey except internalized homophobia? Is mainstreaming to blame for this? No. But believe you me, the disappearance of the gay ghetto, or at least its depopulation, is down to the mainstreaming efforts of the past 30 years. That makes the world a little bit *ironically quirked eyebrow* less safe for the effeminate men and the butch women in our community.

Fay Etrange would be no more welcome in a public panel on Gay Issues now than she would have been in a medical school lecture hall in the 19th century. Very much a queen, her passage through the world as presented by "Robert Scully" was a busy one, bestowing royal favors on a grateful American manhood:
This first meeting with a strange man was almost prophetic. For the rest of her life she was to meet his kind, wherever and whenever she travelled--always seeking her and the favors she could bestow.
This set-up makes sense to me, since I've never lacked for the company of "regular guys" in my own transit of gay life. It's been my design, willingly subscribed to by the parties of the second part, to educate and inform the unimaginative males of the USA of their other options. Sometimes the teachings took, sometimes not so much. But in all the attendant mishegas, I did my dead-level best not to make assumptions but let the situation teach me as much as it did him. Fay is the most unusual kind of character in non-romantic gay fiction, in that she practices this behavior as well. In a strange way it was a relief to me to have the intimate details of Fay's affairs left to the imagination. It's not that I'm squeamish, perish forbid!, but the fact that Fay isn't in first-person narration would make any detailed description of the various acts and positions feel peculiarly and unpleasantly prurient.

Fay arrives at this sort of thinking by attending to her own inner moral compass, and educating herself broadly though never at the expense of delving deeply into topics that fascinate her:
Electing to take religion as one of her college courses, she had obtained a wide knowledge of the teachings of the East. Practically all began with assumptions of infallibility, which, though unproven, the disciples then proceeded to teach as basic facts. Their leader, she found, ignored the selfish reasons which led them on and caused them to set aside reason and endeavor to inculcate blind faith. She had no faith. She could see no reason to have faith. She was happier without it. Nothing was explained ultimately; why accept puny, childish explanations?
Soul sister! I know from several deep conversations with my gay uncle, a sailor as it happens, that people aren't products of their times and stations unless they choose to be. Even in what we view as unenlightened, hag-ridden by gawd, times there were mental and even social non-conformists. The past is made up of once-living people; history is indeed (sometimes lamentably completely) his story; we're really not unique in our deepest selves as we're all human. This is always a welcome reminder for me, find it where I may.

Of course it's one thing to remember that people been people forever, that our own "unique" needs and desires are only unique in our limited experience:
The avenue seemed full of gay people these days, persons as happy as she. At intervals were stationed the mounted traffic police. Their splendid figures, their neat, well-fitting uniforms, their highly polished puttees protecting perfectly formed legs, the thigh outlined by pressure against the horse's side, all combined to make a picture which she found irresistibly appealing. She found herself looking for the mounted police. She formed preferences for one or the other. She thought of the Aztecs with their idea that men astride of horses were some kind of god,and she smiled to think that her poetic sense was interpreting these horsemen in the same light. She liked especially to view the officers from the back, the torso, the carriage, the outline of the leg all accentuated.
...hmmm? What was that? Oh sorry, I went to mental Bermuda for a moment there. Yes, well, do you need any further evidence that we're all sisters under the skin? Some details tweaked, or twerked, and this statement of admiring desire fits in the mind of any one of us bald bonobos. The slightly namby-pamby modern mantra "love is love" is a short and punchy reminder that we're all sexual creatures. Desire, love, need, any and all of these things, are organizing principles in our own little lives, and we're well advised to protect others in their exercise of them if we wish to be protected in our turn. I think this statement would be whole-heartedly seconded by Fay Letrange, and the pseudonymous "Robert Scully" who created her.

With this realization comes a further revelation of the commonality of human experience, that of the honest and fearless and searching moral inventory. Know yourself as you really are, not as you and others would like you to be (or insist that you are):
"Perhaps it's natural to them; what is natural to them may not be natural to another. Imagine them married. What would their offspring be? Probably even more erratic. Perhaps they are fulfilling their destiny by not marrying. Did you ever consider that? I often think that people who do not wish to have children should not be criticized, for brobably there is some basic instinct which prompts them not to be parents. Perhaps they are really not fit to be parents."
Amen! That this conversation was put into the mouth of a person created by a Victorian writer, and set in the very earliest years of the twentieth century, was a small shock of surprised recognition to me. I've always kicked hard against the Cult of the Mother, the ascription to all females, ladies, womyn, uterus-havers of an innate and all-powerful desire to give birth to and nurture young. I applaud those with the self-knowledge to say "no, thanks" and the strength to stick to it. It isn't easy to swim against the tide, which makes most of us leery of doing it. How much more difficult, we think, it must have been for those poor benighted children who came before us! Stuff and nonsense. Reading this transgressive book from the past is listening to a voice shouting reason and reasonability. That it feels as transgressive today as it would have 84 years ago is more a statement of human nature's irreducible commonness throughout history: Bow to the Vox Populi, speak only the Norma Loquendi, or be marked out as Strange. But don't kid yourself that it was harder, easier, whatever then or now.
"You are sure you mean bliss?"

"Yes, an island or some place where we could all live or go to easily whenever we pleased and do all the things we wish to do without thought of the narrow-mindedness of others."

"You are asking too much. Oh, for the Isle of Crete! You are wishing a return to the good old Pagai times when all honor was paid even to prostitutes."

"No, not asking too much, just asking for a natural morality, a thing which varies with each bird, beast, and human and for which due allowance is not made in lawmaking."
We all long for Paradise. Some are willing to allow others into it with them. I like those of the latter opinion the best of all.

It seems as if the world considers a climate of tolerance to be asking too much these days as well as in those days. I don't need to give examples of events springing from the external pressure imposed by intolerance, or of the personal price paid by those subjected to it. I'm equally sure I don't need to give examples of those expressing their internal conflicts by mismatched rhetoric and inner monologue. I think this passage pretty much sums up the disconnect:
The professor would describe all sorts of aberrant types, their prominent, wild eyes, their too thick or too narrow chests or hips and their too thin or too heavy leg muscles; he would illustrate the swagger of the feminine type and the mincing short-stepped swaying gait of the masculine, the fluttering, so called; he would tell of their nocturnal amusements and occupations, and when he had finished he had so enthused his entire class that they were ready to go down town and start a laboratory course at once.
Heteronormative locker-room raillery, complete with ill-willed imitation, as medical school education. Charming. The response of the students isn't unusual, which is in and of itself unusual. Things really have changed little if this passage still speaks to the ordinary experience of the different. But then again, compared to fifty years ago, the intolerance of such a scenario is worth remarking on because it isn't simply the "oh well" resignation of the narrator but his sharp-eyed attention to the eagerness of the audience to go find some action for themselves that's a ray of hope. Soon dashed, of course, as is the way of things in an imperfect world:
"Have a sense of humor. Remember, Gawd must have his little jokes on the human species."

"I feel bitter, bitter against the half-men who make our laws. Come on, let's legislate against the tides too."

"Be practical," suggested Miss Bull-Mawgan. "The only recourse is to see that every ecclesiastical student is properly seduced, and thus liberalized. The pulpit, after all, makes the laws in this country."
I'm happy that I live in a state where marriage equality is law. I am sad to live in a world where that equality of access to the law's protections, duties, and rights is so controversial that such a protection is necessary. I can barely imagine what the gay men of 100 years ago would think of such a protection! Impossible dream! And now that it's a given in some places I wonder how it was ever not. The scary monsters are out in the open, and whaddaya know! They're the neighbors.

Not everyone is comfortable with that. The neighbors are supposed to be much like us, after all, that's why we elect to live in certain places and not others. I can see that. After all, not everyone can hold up their end in the stereotypically gay witty, dirty badinage:
"Aunty Beach-Bütsch, control yourself! I shall lend him out to friends and near relations. We are coming back in two years."

"And I shall have drunk myself to death by that time," wailed old Aunty Beach-Bütsch. "But Mason, we shall be friends to the end."

Another opportunity for Miss Savoy. "Which end? I didn't know you loved Mason so much, Aunty Beach-Bütsch!"

"Love him? I love every inch of him, from the ends of his hairs to the tips of his toenails. Why I love his very guts!"

"That's a very vulgar but adequate description of the depths of your passion, Aunty Beach-Bütsch!"
Need I mention that the female monikers are hung on males? Mason, on the other hand, is a man, and a newly married one, being bartered off by his blushing bride Marjorie, née Dike, as she is known from that moment on. It sounds like ordinary conversation to me, but the people I tried it out on were flustered and taken aback. No wonder straight people fear the gays buying the house next door! They speak Camp, and there's nothing scarier than having the neighbors speak a different language from yours, right?

But in the end, we all succumb to a common malady, that of falling in love. She's been a "oncer," a one-fuck-and-bye bye gal, since her earliest years. But that changes because the pressures of going to war, being under fire, trying to do her duty as a doctor in service of men shattered by modern munitions. It's grueling work, most often sad in its outcomes; watching a generation of men vanish before her eyes makes Fay susceptible to a sentimental attachment that she would have rejected only a short time before. Her medical studies having taken her to Berlin, her first true love is a German officer; after his tragic death in her arms, Fay falls head over heels for a soldier boy on his way to the front in France's trenches.
His body was sweet and clean smelling. As she finished [massaging his dislocated shoulder], Fay bent and gently kissed him on the neck, that part where the skin is so soft abd sensitive, midway between the angle of the jaw and the hair line at the back of the neck. He opened his eyes, startled, then smiled as he murmured, "Oh! It's you. That's all right." He folded his arms about her, bringing her head close to his, then like a contented child sank into a deep sleep. His clean body odor gave her keenest delight. She hesitated to attempt to alter their relationship, and possibly lose him entirely. He had accepted her as a pal, that she would be.
Some variation on this sentiment is familiar to everyone who is an adult. It's amazing to me that anyone could grudge this simple rapture to another soul. Because that's what homophobia is, denial of the commonality of the experience of love, loving, cherishing someone for their inner being while reveling in the sensory pleasures of their outer being. How is that a good thing in anyone's mind? Shouldn't we all be promoting anything, anything at all, that can stitch us tighter into the social contract of being alive and a player in the world's arena?

Here's an eighty-four-year-old reminder that this should indeed be our goal. How amazing to find such validation for a "modern" world-view here. It's also a bit sad to need this reminder in the twenty-first century. We are all as Heaven made us, the Confucian quip goes. Let's aspire to be that commonsensical in our dealings with the Others who make up our entire world.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

THE DOG STARS is beautifully written. Maybe too beautifully. It's a Very Writerly novel.


Vintage Contemporaries
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five


The Publisher Says: A riveting, powerful novel about a pilot living in a world filled with loss—and what he is willing to risk to rediscover, against all odds, connection, love, and grace.

Hig survived the flu that killed everyone he knows. His wife is gone, his friends are dead, he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, his only neighbor a gun-toting misanthrope. In his 1956 Cessna, Hig flies the perimeter of the airfield or sneaks off to the mountains to fish and to pretend that things are the way they used to be. But when a random transmission somehow beams through his radio, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life—something like his old life—exists beyond the airport. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return—not enough fuel to get him home—following the trail of the static-broken voice on the radio. But what he encounters and what he must face—in the people he meets, and in himself—is both better and worse than anything he could have hoped for.

Narrated by a man who is part warrior and part dreamer, a hunter with a great shot and a heart that refuses to harden, The Dog Stars is both savagely funny and achingly sad, a breathtaking story about what it means to be human.

My Review: I've tried and I've tried to think of a nice way to say that I don't like Iowa Writer's Workshop stuff because it's always Very Writerly. I was, as you see, unsuccessful. It's always full of good lines, it's always got charming or beautiful or moving imagery and characters with flaws and sometimes even dialogue with some zest.

But it's always Very Writerly. Thick and heavy and nutritious like spelt or brown rice. Sulphur molasses in gluten-free muffins. Serious and Good For You.

I hate that. Sorry, Mr. Heller, but that's you all over.

I like dystopias and post-apocalyptic stories, since I am the least chirpily optimistic person walking on Planet Earth. I want them to make sense, however, and not be rehashes of zombie munch-fests. This one makes sense. The pandemic that collapses the population? Totally buy that. The evil/vile behavior of the humans afterwards? Totally buy that. (Actually, from what I see, we haven't waited for an apocalypse to behave like scum to each other. But I digress.) The source of the dog Jasper's jerky treats? Brilliant, and also very frugal.

I like the story, too, up to the point where Hig, our pilot main character, flies off and Finds Himself. I know, I know, all characters must go through stuff and change as a result of it to make a novel really interesting. But the fact that Hig goes off'n gits him a woman is a little over the top. It's artificial feeling, like something inside Heller (or an editor outside Heller) said "there's no hope! give the poor bastard hope!"

It was, in my humble opinion, a wrong turn. The story up to then was an interesting, stream-of-consciousness exploration of an average joe who, inexplicably, survived the Apocalypse and kept on moving, breathing, numb from loss and scared, but real. And then, suddenly, he gets A Message and has to move move move to find the source! And he finds him a gal! Who knows, maybe that little impotence problem will clear up, they'll have a family....

That's not the same book I started reading, and I don't much like that book.

But in good conscience, I can't tell you it's a bad book. It's a pretty good book that could've been a really, really good book. It takes the subverbal vocalizations of its main character and puts them front-and-center, makes the style the point, makes the point the pleasure of reading. I just have this one little problem with the whole enterprise: It feels to me like it's been overthought, overwrought, and overworked. All down to that workshoppy aesthetic, and that happyendingitis that comes from thinking about the audience and not the story.

Well, so. Three and a half stars for the good, good phrases Mr. Heller has made and the promise of that first half. It will do.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

WANTED: ELEVATOR MAN, Joseph G. Peterson's words of comfort for modern young men


Switchgrass Books (dist. Cornell University Press) (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$14.00 trade paper or Kindle editions, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Balladeer of the city’s broken and forgotten men, Joseph G. Peterson looks for inspiration in urban side streets and alleys, where crooked schemes are hatched, where lives end violently, and where pretty much everyone is up to no good. Depicting the lives of people who have woefully lost their way in the world—criminals and victims, the unemployed and unemployable, the neglected and the indigent, the lonely and the alone—Peterson nonetheless brings a poet’s touch to his work, which is redolent with allegory, allusion, and Nabokovian wordplay. His last novel, Beautiful Piece, garnered praise from across the literary spectrum. Enter Wanted: Elevator Man, his powerful and ambitious new novel and the story of Eliot Barnes Jr., a man at the end of his proverbial rope.

Haunted by the larger-than-life shadow of his father, a scientist who may have helped develop the atomic bomb, twenty-nine-year-old Eliot Barnes, Jr., is an apple that’s fallen far from the tree. Saddled with a useless degree in literature, caged in a rundown apartment he can’t afford, and embittered by his failure to live up to the future’s promise, Barnes, who dreams of a corner office—an aerie roost high above the city, working with the higher-ups—begrudgingly accepts a job as an elevator man in a downtown Chicago skyscraper. Thus begins a profound but comedic meditation on failure in this life, how one comes to terms with not achieving one’s dreams, the nature and origin of such dreams, and, fittingly, the meaning of the American dream itself.

As unflinching as Nelson Algren and as romantic as Saul Bellow, Peterson’s novel boasts wildly surreal plot twists and a lethal wit that frequently erupts into full-on hilarity. Wanted: Elevator Man is the perfect tale for learning to cope with diminished expectations in these dark and desperate times.

My Review: The role of the young man in our society has changed so much since my childhood, I need books like this one to help me get with their programming. Eliot Barnes, raised in a deeply rural place (Iowa) by a distant and frequently incomprehensible mother, survives a childhood that only seems weird in the rear-view mirror. That’s the way of things, isn’t it? He and his mother live alone in the quiet of a place with corn stalks for neighbors, tending a garden surrounding the small and dark home his mother clings to.

Barnes is increasingly fixated on getting out of Iowa, out of isolation, and never ceases to encourage his mother to do the same. She can’t, she mumbles, he’s in school, she has a job (which she hates), why bother anyway...this litany doesn’t escape Barnes’s attention. Since she hates the owner of the real-estate place where she is a secretary, and returns home railing against them for not recognizing her potential to bring sales up and make something of the place, why doesn’t she use her knowledge and set up a competitive shop? Barnes as a child can see this, can encourage it, but can’t get past his mother’s angry, bitter resignation, her masochistic reveling in her squashed potential.

Off like a shot to go to college in a “major institution” (it’s always referred to that way, never by name, and we have to infer that it’s in or near Chicago because that’s where the story takes place), where the tall, gaunt kid Barnes turns into the tall, gaunt misfit Barnes. His useless degree from the major institution hasn’t even made him suitable for a waiter’s job: He’s been fired from seven so far. So down deep inside, even as he’s chronically behind on his student loans and rent, he feels as if he’s obscurely letting himself down, failing failing over and over again. His upstairs neighbor, Tom, was a locomotive engineer, and keeps Barnes company occasionally. He even brings Barnes the bizarre solution to his “what shall I do with my life?” angst: An ad, a want ad, a large-type headline WANTED: ELEVATOR MAN with an address in the Loop to apply at. Mia, Barnes’s ex-girlfriend and only other human being who calls or calls on him, doesn’t want him to sink to being a laborer. Nonetheless, with big plans fueled by Mia as to how he’ll use his elevator man job to pitch his talents to the big shots, he applies for and gets the job. The troubles and dream-shattering begin from the moment he sets on the bus:
The bus was crowded, standing room only, and he clung apelike from a bar that hung down from the ceiling. It was humiliating to be packed in with all these people; it reminded him of a cattle car or worse, a sardine can, or worse...but what could be worse than this?
After all, he has a degree from a major institution and will soon be in a corner office! But that moment in the bus sees Barnes thrown off the bus physically, face first, and required to walk to his new job at 154 South LaSalle Street. There the day begins with a woman trapped in an elevator. Coneybeare, his boss, leads the gaunt and out of shape Barnes up the stairs to the floor two above the stuck elevator. They pause to smoke:
Coneybeare didn't put his cigarette out. He merely let it slip from between his long fingers, and it fell down the space between the stairs. Barnes watched, dismayed at the distance, as the red ember disappeared in the darkness, and then, like Coneybeare, he did the same, dropping his cigarette and counting one one thousand, two one thousand, as it fell, a disappearing red dot in the darkness below.
Anxiety over his first-day baptism by fire, a stuck woman screaming her lungs out, getting roped into rappelling gear for the first time in his life, and getting all sorts of dire “advice” from Coneybeare about the dangerous wiring, the irreplaceable Art Deco pieces on the elevator car’s roof, and he jumps before he can’t even move. Naturally he lands on the dangerous wiring, breaks the irreplaceable Art Deco pieces, and falls into the car with the screaming woman, trailing a live electrical wire.

What else could go wrong? The elevator, swinging around in the shaft, starts to fall twenty-eight or so stories! The formerly screaming woman now changes behavior utterly and becomes a ministering angel to the wounded, scared Barnes:
He felt entombed and stifled and desperately craved oxygen. He vainly raised the question: Why have you forsaken me?

'Call my mother,' he yelled. He had meant to say: I'm dying. Please call a priest.

The shadowy Presence, who had been in a panic, rushed over to him and, disregarding the fact that it was live, pushed the cable aside.

'You're alive,' the Presence said in breathless tones. 'Mamma's here to help.'

The elevator continued to descend, creating a vacuum. Barnes gasped for breath.

'Breathe in, breathe out,' the Presence urged. She tapped his pulse rapidly with two fingers. 'Come on, you can do it. One, two, three. Breathe in. Mamma's here to help.' ... In his delirium he thought that indeed his mother was here to help. However, in all of Barnes's twenty-nine years of so-called living, his mother had never come so comfortingly close as this.
As this is the closest Barnes has been to a female person in some time, he’s understandably flustered and confused. He allows himself to be cradled, soothed, bathing in the luxurious ease of motherly gynergy. And as soon as the elevator stops, the doors whoosh open and the Presence departs at top speed, pausing only to give him a card with her name, Marie, and a phone number on it; on the back of the card is the mantra she used to soothe Barnes after he fell the two floors and crashed through the roof: ‘Love you.’

It’s human nature to crave more of things that make them feel secure, loved, coddled. Barnes is no exception. Although his first day on the job was, by anyone’s standards, a total clusterfuck, he emerges from the elevator in a haze of poignant happiness. His boss has newfound respect for the toughness of a man who will risk death and still calm a passenger down from screaming, and survive the experience not needing an ambulance or a resignation letter. Barnes is a man transformed, and Coneybeare treats him as such, making sure he has a properly fitting uniform, a steady stream of praise for the amazing work Barnes begins to do and do with great pride.

But there is still the matter of Marie, of the gorgeous enveloping aura of lovingkindness Barnes experienced. He wants to call her, he needs to hear her voice and feel her presence and bask once more in the numinous cloud of joy she enfolded him in with her arms. But Barnes is still a putz, a Jell-o-spined mass of neuroses and fears, so he puts it off. Finally, though, the self-help pamphlets Tom’s been giving him kick in:
To have luck and fail to act on it is tantamount to not having luck at all. In fact, it was worse. Barnes thought back to his self-help manuals. They all proclaimed with compelling force the necessity of recognizing opportunity then seizing it when it struck.
He can’t just not carpe diem, he’ll lose the last minuscule dot of self-respect he possesses.
Barnes looked at her card once again. He held it in his hand. He scrutinized it for a watermark--but there wasn't even that. Just her name, her number, and that strange mantra: 'love you.’
Several awkward call attempts later, Marie appears in Barnes’s apartment late one night to have the longest conversation he ever has with her. He stares into her grey-flecked-with-blue eyes. He answers questions he’s stopped asking himself because Marie--the Presence--asks them. He exposes his entire unimpressive body to her, at her urging, and feels no shame in his vulnerable nudity.

Their conversation, in brief, gives Barnes the calm assurance of self-worth to take control of more and more of his life. He redoubles his efforts at making the elevator man position one of pride and usefulness, despite the big shots who ride the things every day sparing him not a glance or a thought...until they’re stuck, of course, and it’s Barnes who saves them and keeps their secrets when they poop their expensive suits in terror of the dark, of death. As humans will, the harder he works, the more his mind is free to range over the cosmos (ie, his life). He wonders more and more about his strange, distant, angry mother, and the shadowy father he never met and has been told the obvious lie that the man was a nuclear scientist who died of radiation poisoning. Maybe if he was twenty years older…. But Barnes once, while attending the major institution, made a trip to Nevada to see if he could find this man, a grave, any information about him. This leads Barnes to an encounter with an aged Japanese internee, an Issei woman (born in Japan), with whom he has a tea party and listens to her story:
Several died the day the bomb was dropped. Some lived six months after the explosion but died anyway. They were all lost. It was so long ago, young man. To you it is a history story. To me it is my life.
A stranger, remember, completely unknown to him before and after their one meeting, told him more truth about herself than his mother had in his entire life. It is a painful moment, to say the least.

Barnes had cleared the house where he grew up when his mother couldn’t take care of herself any longer. Her eventual death was explained to Barnes as a case of Life Fatigue. She just died, to be plain about it. What he kept as souvenirs of the life his mother led wa minimal, but includes a shoebox full of poetry...mediocre...and one letter (bombshell).

His father wrote to his mother, a young husband’s lament at being far away when his wife gave birth to a son, Eliot Barnes, Junior, while he was away working in the Texas City, Texas, oil refinery.

Junior. That was news. Texas. Oilman. Junior’s head is reeling.

But then Eliot found a newspaper clipping dating from his birth year about a fatal explosion in a Texas City refinery, leaving 15 dead. One of them, since his mother underlined the death toll, was his father. So much of his mother’s private pain, never shared and never even hinted at, snaps into focus for Eliot:
Perhaps that's what she caught, not Life Fatigue but just grief over a broken heart--and the bitterness that comes with being cheated too early of something true--like a young husband's love.
The chains come off Eliot Barnes, Junior, freeing him at long last to move beyond the considerable pleasure of doing his elevator man job well to the next phase of living a good life, doing good things for people just because those things need doing. He thinks back to the self-help pamphlets his neighbor Tom gave him, how very much they helped Eliot break out of his depression, and how he wants to pay that forward. The doorman, Freddy, listens to Eliot talking about his plans, and ends up helping make these pamphlets, adding a certain something to them Eliot doesn’t have:
He was friendly as a warm bowl of soup. An affable guy, he always had a dimpled smile on his face and lived life unplagued by want.
The perfect pair to make a difference in others’ lives. And they do, with the clandestine nighttime gift of these pamphlets to all 3,000-plus workers in the building. People walk by reading them as Eliot polishes the Art Deco brass and Freddy opens the door, never knowing these are the men who created the words helping them through their turmoils. The preface to this pamphlet is one of Eliot’s mother’s poems:
An ear of corn
Is yet an ear
Reminding you not merely to hear
But to listen!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

BAD THINGS HAPPEN 5-star story collection full review post


$19.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: The characters in Bad Things Happen—professors, janitors, webcam models, small-time criminals—are between things. Between jobs and marriages, states of sobriety, joy and anguish; between who they are and who they want to be. Kris Bertin's unforgettable debut introduces us to people at the tenuous moment before everything in their lives changes, for better or worse.

My Review: This is a first collection for Canadian writer Bertin. It represents the fruits of seven years’ life-effort in ten stories. He was well-published in prestigious venues before this book was collected. Comme d’habitude, we’ll go story-by-story with my pearls of wisdom delivered thereunto, aka the Bryce Method:

Bad Things Happen can best be summed up by this quote, spoken by a mid-thirties studmuffin to a sixteen-year-old girl (Dee) with a crush on him:
It’s people. He exhaled. People live everywhere you go, and everywhere you go, people are the same. There’s just more or less of them. … I just prefer less, he said.

Dee had broken into his house a short time before, with her instigator friend Tan, and seen what a Technicolor horror show he lived in. It began the process of disillusioning her about the starched, hunky guy her fantasies had centered on. Welcome to reality, kid. And the next bad thing that happens, well, let’s say it was absolutely no surprise but it was terrifying to any parent of a daughter. 5 stars

Make Your Move is a four-part choose your own adventure of different possible futures for a man with the grimmest past you can think of. He gets into his work limo, and then the fun begins, as the author travels the roads not taken. It’s amazing how much pain Bertin can pack into the one solid evening of driving the kind of people who rent limos around and about, to bars, to Wendy’s drive-through, to a snot-nosed kid’s house where his hot mom is worried about him. In the end it’s eight castles and a few fish. 4.5 stars

The Narrow Passage is a perfect movie outline. It’s the working life of Richard, soon to be a father, and Gene, a man whose maturity has been spent picking up garbage in a rural-to-village stretch of Canada. Does anybody remember the show The X Files and its scariest, weirdest episode, the one called “Home?” This story is a cross between it and the movie Deliverance. It kept me awake half a night, poor bastard Richard making a grim discovery:
He seemed to always have a dull headache that stayed with him so long everything seemed grey and strange, like he was in a dream. He felt empty and drained, like a shadow of himself cast on a wall. It was in this state, early in the morning, that he tipped over a steel drum with his work gloves and saw it:
Two beach towels, decorated with the California Raisins, soaked through with blood.
… The towels were balled up, and after he grabbed them, something fell out in the snow and landed with a thick kind of wetness. They were at {their worst pick-up}.
A girl’s nightie, green with lace trim, dark and wet.
The blood looked fresh and red and only a bit of it gone brown, because it was partially frozen. Not even in a bag, but tossed in overtop of one, almost casually. Like it was meant to be there.

The horrors of the rural Narrows of the story’s title are those endemic to any poverty-stricken area; but this particular stop, the lowlifes whose garbage heap Richard and Gene collect without comment or complaint per Gene’s worried instructions, is fast becoming the stuff of Richard’s nightmares. (Mine too. Maybe it comes with the name?) By the story’s end, we’re all ready for the storm to break and when it does, well, it’s just not what you would ever want to know happens in the civilized world. By far the best story in the collection. 5 stars

Girl on Fire Escape sizzles and pops with the energy of a twentysomething guy’s need for sex and connection in any way, shape, or form. Our screw-up of a narrator is working the dish pit in a big city restaurant at night, and washing windows of commercial buildings with a friend in the daytime. His friend is dating a young woman who works as a cam model, which distresses him but it’s a good living. Through this connection our narrator meets and fucks and then steals money with another cam model, a woman with a c-section scar and a very distinctive and beautiful tattoo on her chest. These two lost souls don’t so much connect as they fall into a mutual orbit around the center of gravity that is loneliness. By the end of the story, they’re either going to be Sailor and Lula or Rick and Ilsa. 4.5 stars

Is Alive and Can Move helped me understand my alcoholic roommate much better. It’s the inner monologue of a young-ish survivor of acute alcohol abuse that’s left him with alcohol-induced dementia. He hallucinates reality, an odd concept but one that keeps the story on the move. It’s heartbreaking to realize that, without strict adherence to a routine and a diet of real food and a regimen of medication, people in that stage of brain damage simply don’t function. Bertin, to his great credit, never loses sight of his character’s human dignity, and still tells the tale of the hallucinated reality the narrator lives in with unnerving candor. Doing so without either falling into preach mode or judgment mode is quite a feat. 4.5 stars

Crater Arms did not make one whit of sense to me. I read it three times and came away from each reading without a single clue what I was supposed to get from the experience, and what I actually got was bubkes. Like life. And so it goes. 3.5 stars

Everywhere Money couldn’t make me like the phone scammer narrating it, but I did come away with the idea that money meant less to him than accomplishing something, doing something that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’m like that as well, a task-oriented kind of being. But phone scammers are ambulatory shit-piles. We meet Tan, from “Bad Things Happen”, again in this story, and she’s as fucked up as anyone could wish her to be. Her criminal career is well-established, apparently, as she’s working at stealing numbers (slang for credit card and personal data to access the line of credit) from big ballers at a private club to her boyfriend’s sad little phone scammer gig. This world that Bertin’s busily creating for us isn’t one we’d like to live in ourselves, is it? Too much criminality. Too little compassion. But sadly very real. 4.5 stars

The Story Here sounds really familiar to me. A genuinely and frighteningly dysfunctional family has an impromptu family reunion at the narrator’s house. As the only daughter of the three children, the mother of two and wife of one suddenly has her despised serial monogamist/adulterer father on her couch, her typical sibling rival older brother arriving with his new fiancée for family approval, her former stepmother banging on the door demanding to see the cheating old coot who is leaving her, and to top it all off the forest around her house is being leveled and blasted for new development. No wonder she dreams of the end of the world:
I learned to think of the dream not as something that comes to me, but as something that I have. An organ that inflates when my head is on the pillow, fills up the chambers of my mind, and takes over the last hour before my alarm goes off.
In the dream, there’s no comet or atom bomb or alien invaders. No catalyst, just a mindset that we’re all in. It’s just the end and everyone knows it. The only thing that gives it away is how the other people are acting. Cars are clogging the streets, guys with huge crucifixes and torches and Bibles and robes are on the sidewalk, or even on my lawn, and everyone else is just going crazy, screaming or crying or pleading with the sky like something’s listening up there. A lot of people on their knees.

Stress, anxiety, depression...all of the above...middle aged crisis...the narrator isn’t the first or the last person to feel that the world is ending when it’s more likely that she’s just unmercifully bored, frustrated, and trapped. And by the end of the story, I felt that any one of these characters would happily gnaw a limb off to escape the traps they set off every time any of them opens their mouth for any reason except to eat. 5 stars

The Eviction Process features a gay couple, criminals both, in the process of shutting down and revamping their former weed-growing operation house. This necessitates getting the formerly necessary associates to get out of the house along with the grow-lights and so on. Things go smoothly, too smoothly, on their first attempt; then it all falls to hell around them. The older man of the couple has an autistic son who has, apparently, no connection to anyone or anything in reality, and whose function seems to be to buzz, scream, click...our narrator, the younger man, can’t get through the profound disconnect between the child and reality, and the older man has a habit of beating people up, including his lover. As the situation reaches crisis point, there is a disaster that makes emotions run hot and dangerous, but violence is averted by the simulacrum of lovingkindness that glues the two men together. 5 stars

Your #1 Killer reunites us with our dishwashing drifter turned phone scammer as he slinks home to his mom in order to go crazy, get thoroughly drunk, play childhood games and generally cocoon himself in his addictions until, at last, the world around him snaps into focus again. It only does so as he begins a new career: Killing things. Pests, gophers, hornets, skunks, all in less-than-usual ways. His mother, like all mothers, wants him to be happy; he is a sullen stinking mess, which doesn’t make anyone happy. As his recovery of self-esteem gathers momentum, it’s finally in his head that his mother is a real person, is the undeserving recipient of his unkindness and therefore must be treated right at last. It’s the most hopeful story in the collection. It’s a good feeling to see this self-absorbed twit pull his socks up and get on with life in a strange, but workable manner. 4.75 stars

I think that might be the description of Bertin’s rough world in toto: Strange, but workable. Life doesn’t look the same at the bottom of the heap. It’s still life. There’s another day for each of these folks, another chance to make a difference if only to themselves. This is a terrific collection of quality work. Kris Bertin, I salute you, and am awaiting what comes next with happy anticipation.

Monday, July 18, 2016

THE EPIC OF ASKIA MOHAMMED, a poetic translation of an African foundational myth

(tr. Thomas A. Hale)
Indiana University Press
$14.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Askia Mohammed is the most famous leader in the history of the Songhay Empire, which reached its apogee during his reign in 1493-1528. Songhay, approximately halfway between the present-day cities of Timbuktu in Mali and Niamey in Niger, became a political force beginning in 1463, under the leadership of Sonni Ali Ber. By the time of his death in 1492, the foundation had been laid for the development under Askia Mohammed of a complex system of administration, a well-equipped army and navy, and a network of large government-owned farms. The present rendition of the epic was narrated by the griot (or jesere) Nouhou Malio over two evenings in Saga, a small town on the Niger River, two miles downstream from Niamey. The text is a word-for-word translation from Nouhou Malio's oral performance.

My Review: 1,602 lines of oral foundation myth. I was afraid to take it on, really, but was seduced by the sheer spoken beauty of it. And I can't stress "spoken" enough: Don't read this book, speak it!

As with any cultural record of a time and place unknown to me, and likely to most people raised in the USA, there was a learning curve to be surmounted before I could really understand the sounds I was making of the poetry. In fact, I found it most useful to read the line references in the Annotations section immediately after reading the Preface and the Introduction. These were all indispensable steps to appreciating the world that was unfolding before my mental eye. It's an astonishing fact that American students are simply not introduced to non-European information about Africa to this very day. I can't begin to fathom that, until I realize that the purpose of this is to make Africa "ours" by appropriation yet again.

The best way to push the veil of ignorance aside is always to read. Reading the foundation myths of a culture is a necessary step to becoming a well-educated person. This epic poem is a great piece of literature, and as such a great window into the West African world of the past thousand years. The fact that the Songhay Empire was a vast, sophisticated political unit and is unknown to most of us outside Africa is unnerving; that we have the nerve to place the people of Africa in the "developing nations" category is breathtakingly arrogant, given the gorgeous culture that unfolds in The Epic of Askia Mohammed. It is in no way acceptable to dismiss the Songhay Empire as "pre-European" since the Empire was formed and maintained without even a nod to European purposes and ruled through a sophisticated apparatus that owed no debt to any Eurpoean model or purpose. This culture was its own unique self. That shouldn't even need to be said, but the English-language references I've found to the Songhay Empire now that I know to look for them tend towards a tone of condescension and dismissal.

The reader, or performer, of this epic poem will quickly see the folly of that attitude. Translation is an imperfect art. The translator of The Epic of Askia Mohammed relied on many generous African colleagues to get it right. That the job was done well is most apparent as one speaks the phrases, finds the rhythms of the lines and the flow of the underlying dynastic narrative. It's a very good job, although I have no way to know for myself how faithful it is to the original epic. As with all translations, I'm left to glean accuracy and veracity from the feel, the texture, the sensation of the whole as I experience it first and latterly remember it. An imperfect gauge, yes, but it reads "excellent" to my eye and ear so I'm satisfied.

I am very grateful to Indiana University Press for sending me the review copy I requested. I appreciate the fact that I had the opportunity to experience this tale for myself, and I'd encourage you to do the same.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

DEAR RA...dear gawd!


Civil Coping Mechanisms (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$7.00 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5 shellshocked stars of five

The Publisher Says: Back in print in a newly revised and expanded edition, Dear Ra is an exhibition of an inimitable literary talent. The text therein is an assemblage of letters reminiscent of that daunting and delicate space where prose and poetry collide. Göransson’s cult-hit may in fact be a the sort of literary spell conjured from the ether to be as much your demise as your greatest dream. There are few genocides as important as the ones that reside in the human imagination.

My Review: What did I just read.

Seriously. What the hell did I just read.

315 consecutive and unpunctuated iterations of the phrase "take back your land" for one thing; a great number of non-sequiturs, eg "If Sir Phillip Sydney's Astrophil and Stella is about masturbation, then this poem is about imperialism." and:
Dear Ra,
Forgive me for telling you this: You need to lower your prices and open your windows. I have to go now. My grandfather is here and he wants attention.
for another. Poem? Poems? Stories, prose, what? I'm just going to call Dear Ra a text and have done with it.

Anyway, I'll tell you a secret: (apparently turn-of-the-century poets used and possibly still use "confessional" as an insult when describing the work of fellow poets, who knew) I bought this book because 1) I'm loopy about Swedish men and b) this cover is so beautiful and so perfect and so amazingly aesthetically aimed at my Sweet Spot that I want to have unprotected sex with it. Hey, that confessional moment felt good, here's another: I read this text twice, the first time with mounting irritation, the second imagining naked Alexander Skarsgård reading it to me, and that has made all the difference.

An immigrant's love letter to words, to how they feel in your mouth and your eyes, a soft critique of pretentious poetasters, a hard look at the obsessive nature of wordsmithing.

Would it be too much to ask you to go buy it? Funds are tight; poetry is like nostrils, your own are okay but other peoples' are kinda gross; but really, when you get to the root of the problem, admit it!, you just don't want to feel stupid because you don't "get it."

Poets, like Homer-era poets, were rappers. Everything they spoke they sang. Do that here. Or, if like me you're visual, make the sounds into movie frames or photos that could never really exist on film. But listen to me, I am the last person to say good things about poets or poetry, and I'd like to see dozens of you (I'm a realist and I know that's a major stretch goal) interact with this text and emerge from the bout knowing, securely and unshakeably knowing, that poetry does not defeat or demean or dismiss you. It demands you engage with it. Your ideas and your take-aways from it are completely your own, and owe nothing to the poet. You owe nothing to the poet. (You'll owe $15.95 to the bookseller and that's the end of the financial, moral, aesthetic, intellectual entanglement you have with others about the text, or really any writing, singing, painting, photographing.)

I've known the publisher for a goodly while on social media. I've read his own writing (The Fun We've Had is on my life-list of excellent books that changed me). I don't always like his stuff, published or written, but I admire his gonzo aesthetic and his willingness to Make Art in a world that would much rather you didn't thank you please even when I don't always love the results. Here's something I do love, always and in all ways, adventurous thinking living creating in every way. Far better to be wrong than safe. Be wrong with Civil Coping Mechanisms, buy and read this text, love it hate it be anything except bored!

Friday, July 15, 2016

THE DEVIL'S COMPANY, third Benjamin Weaver historical thriller

THE DEVIL'S COMPANY (Benjamin Weaver #3)

Random House
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The year is 1722. Ruffian for hire, ex-boxer, and master of disguise, Weaver finds himself caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse, pitted against Jerome Cobb, a wealthy and mysterious schemer who needs Weaver’s strength and guile for his own treacherous plans.

Weaver is blackmailed into stealing documents from England’s most heavily guarded estate, the headquarters of the ruthless British East India Company, but the theft of corporate secrets is only the first move in a daring conspiracy within the eighteenth century’s most powerful corporation. To save his friends and family from Cobb’s reach, Weaver must infiltrate the Company, navigate its warring factions, and uncover a secret plot of corporate rivals, foreign spies, and government operatives. With millions of pounds and the security of the nation at stake, Weaver will find himself in a labyrinth of hidden agendas, daring enemies, and unexpected allies.

With the explosive action and scrupulous period research that are David Liss’s trademarks, The Devil’s Company, depicting the birth of the modern corporation, is the most impressive achievement yet from an author who continues to set ever higher standards for historical suspense.


My Review
: Seriously ugly jacket.

Book is, well, book is...really well plotted, filled with characters whose ideas and motivations I get and even support, and told in a very engaging way.

Liss's trademark business angle is very much in evidence in this book. It's set partially within the confines of the East India Company, and quite a lot of the action takes place around the various business concerns of the characters; all handled in such a way as to make it clear that this story arises from those concerns, driving each actor to his or her next action. It's enviable, the way Liss can see the story in the business and not just the business in the story.

I like this book. I like the hero. I like the way early capitalist London is presented to our senses, and how the author brings us along in our readerly sense of how the sleuth is going to develop across the series.

So why a mingy three-and-a-half?

Because: 1) Several people die, one of whom I know to be a real blow to the future of the series, and in each case the event with its aftermath is curiously flat. The sleuth's response is well-enough drawn, but it's not...the stakes aren't *there* for the (or this) reader. And the quite, quite startling aftermath of one quite important death is announced and left for later, while some very exciting other plot stuff happens.

See? I shouldn't be able to type that sentence without the Nasty Fairy whackin' me a good one, sayin' "too far, boy!" But his whackin' wand is not raised.

2) A surprise reveal late in the chase portion of the story falls sort of flat as well, and a character whose character we are given no reason to admire is revealed to be so amoral as to have—gasp, say it isn't so—slept with men and women both, and for profit! Wouldn't even cause an eyeblink if this were not a) the only time this concept has ever been brought up in the series, and b) a trait presented as somehow amplifying the character's extant perceived vileness.

Full marks for fairness: Benjamin, the sleuth and a self-described vigorously straight man (yawn) does some surprising soul-searching about his sodomitical revulsion. The whorehouse madam makes a pretty good case for the sodomites she serves being pretty much just like the rest of the world. And in the end, a straight man who doesn't write pure scary-o-types when discussing the more fluid borders of sexuality is more to be praised than not. It just doesn't sit right in this case.

3) The Love Interest. Oh god. We now reach the portion of our series where the sleuth must Fall In Love, and with a worthy adversary. Just once, one lousy time, I'd like to see a likable hero like Benjamin Weaver make it through an entire series without a Love Interest. I know it's what the market likes, but yeesh. I content myself with observing that she's a interesting character in her own right.

I like the sleuth, I like the series, and I will buy the next one. You should too.

Recommended for Anglomanes, for business buffs, and for puzzle people; historical fanciers will hyperventilate at some of Liss's more atmospheric passages; and international intrigue fans...stay tuned....

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

REMEMBER MY BEAUTIES, a concentrated dose of family drama and healing from Lynne Hugo's able pen


Switchgrass Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Imagine a hawk’s view of the magnificent bluegrass pastures of Kentucky horse country. Circle around the remnants of a breeding farm, four beautiful horses grazing just beyond the paddock. Inside the ramshackle house, a family is falling apart.

Hack, the patriarch breeder and trainer, is aged and blind, and his wife, Louetta, is confined by rheumatoid arthritis. Their daughter, Jewel, struggles to care for them and the horses while dealing with her own home and job—not to mention her lackluster second husband, Eddie, and Carley, her drug-addicted daughter. Many days, Jewel is only sure she loves the horses. But she holds it all together. Until her brother, Cal, shows up again. Jewel already has reason to hate Cal, and when he meets up with Carley, he throws the family into crisis—and gives Jewel reason to pick up a gun.

Every family has heartbreaks, failures, a black sheep or two. And some families end in tatters. But some stumble on the secret of survival: if the leader breaks down, others step up and step in. In this lyrical novel, when the inept, the addict, and the ex-con join to weave the family story back together, either the barn will burn to the ground or something bigger than any of them will emerge, shining with hope. Remember My Beauties grows large and wide as it reveals what may save us.

My Review: ***This review courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley***
Three and a half stars is a good rating, the Amazon Curve Effect notwithstanding. For a novel of simple aims and told in a gentle Southern accent, coming from this particular reviewer, it's terrific and to be cherished. I asked for this story more in the nature of an experiment, testing NetGalley and finding them easy to use; I still loathe reviewing things from the Kindle, but as it's rough to talk publishers out of tree books and not likely to get easier, I'm looking to get used to it. Also not to think of that last sentence fragment as capitulation, mere sucking it up.

Fraying family cords and broken ties that bind are familiar territory to me from my offline life. I've read a fair bit of "family fiction," almost all of it by female writers, and honestly it all blends into an even-hued much of a muchness after a short time. I didn't embark on this trip, then, expecting anything good to happen, and in fact would've been relieved if this had been utterly average, a 2.5-star read. It is decidedly better than that. This is a good book, well written, and is in its unspectacular way offering excellent value for time invested.

Lynne Hugo puts us in medias res as Jewel bustles about doing chores for her disabled mother and father. She has Jewel address us in the first person, always a warmer and more inviting voice than third person narration. It's clear that Jewel isn't doing anything she feels is unusual for the ingrates, but her patience is fraying at both ends as she navigates that uproarious good time that is called, with deceptive blandness, the sandwich generation. Oh yes, white bread and creamed tuna time, caring for and fretting over parents and children simultaneously. Whee. No, no, give me more, I can do this in my sleep, honestly I can. Sleep! Ha! Jewel's little girl is a teenaged drug addict living with her druggie boyfriend now he's out of jail. That should send seismic shudders up every parental spine.

Then comes the magnitude 10 quake. Jewel's mother's favorite child and only son returns to the nest to mooch off his parents now that the statute of limitations has run out on his most recent crime committed in the family's home state of Kentucky. Jewel's reason to hate him is personal and rattled my cage from the inside. It doesn't help matters any that her father, never known for being supportive or most of her life even sober enough to recognize Jewel, says his usual nothing in support of her angry ultimatum: He comes, I go. Her mother snorts mightily knowing that Jewel will back down and keep on doing everything for everyone else because the family horse farm would have to rid itself of the horses if she didn't do all their care herself. Her brother? Please! He wouldn't be likely to know which end was which unless the horse was actually in motion.

Yeah? Take this, Smuggsy McSmuggington: Jewel keeps her word. Gone. No help. Of course her word is only kept after the most vile, awful discovery a parent can make is made, but it is nonetheless kept.

And now the frayed edges of the family tapestry march inward, becoming frayed middles and even threatening to meet and unravel the whole mess. But the winds of outrage, rage, hurt, and embarrassment have a dual effect. They blow the threads from one end to the other of the tapestry, causing the most astonishing bits to knot together, even as they tatter and fray the fabric. The integrity of the tapestry as a newly re-formed whole holds through more betrayal, death, and reconciliation. It's true that what was once a Francis Bacon portrait now resembles a late-career Picasso, but it's holding and that holds everyone around the hearth up.

I'm going to stay coy about the nature of the explosions, winds, and quakes because it's a spoiler so awful to reveal that even I, no spoilerphobe, think it's a good idea to discover for the reader's own self. So there.

I have a few gripes, of course. One is the speed with which the family stump becomes a family shrub, if not a tree, by the end of the book. It's a feel-good ending, which I was expecting, but it's so blatantly telegraphed from the middle of the story on that I wanted to be irked. Never quite made it. Several plot twists had me curling my lip as it seemed to me that the author was aware of the blatancy and did her best to ameliorate the sense of anticlimax without going back to first principles and making the structure of the story more robust. That said, this isn't a tale you'd choose expecting William Gass or Rikki Ducornet to stare back from the page. It's art as catharsis, not art for art's sake. Catharsis it will deliver ably and amply. But I was also folksied out by the end of the (short) book:
There's more to people than history. There's more than they wear on their faces. Not everyone, most likely, but most.
It's trite and true. It's completely of a piece with the tone of the rest of the book. I was relaxed and lulled by this in the beginning, but it wore on me the more of it and the longer I read. If the book hadn't been edited to a smartly paced minimum I'd've Pearl Ruled it around p100.

I'll end by stressing again that this was not a chore to read, it was as pleasant a three and a half hours to spend in the throes of catharsis as any I've spent. If you aren't looking to uncork some family angst, though, this would not be my first choice for you to read.

But if you are, grab the tissues and hold on tight. We're heading into a canter through the nettles and it hurts so good.