Sunday, October 30, 2016

WATERS OF VERSAILLES, Kelly Robson's beguiling novella of fishes out of water

Free read online

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A charming novella of court intrigue in 1738 Versailles as a clever former soldier makes his fortune by introducing a modern water system (and toilets) to the ladies of the palace. He does this with magical help that he may not be able to control.

My Review: This is what fairy tales should do, make the world shimmer with magic and stir the reader's spirit to singing a song as right and true things displace the brummagem and the mundane.

Just go read it! Or step over to Amazon and get the Kindle edition.

IN THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND, essayist/novelist Hoagland's last novel


Arcade Publishing
$22.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Sixty years after the publication of his first novel, Cat Man, Edward Hoagland is publishing his twenty-fifth book at the age of eighty-three. This capstone novel, set in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, introduces Press, a stockbroker going blind. Press has lost his job and his wife and is trying to figure out his next move, holed up in his Vermont cabin surrounded by a hippie commune, drug runners, farmers-gone-bust, blood-thirsty auctioneers, and general ne’er-do-wells. Solace and purpose come from the unlikeliest sources as he learns to navigate his new landscape without sight. Hoagland himself is going blind, and through this evocative, unsentimental novel, we experience the world closing in around Press, the rising panic of uncertainty, the isolation of exile, the increasing dependence upon the kindness of strangers, and a whole new appreciation of the world just beyond sight.

My Review: First, read this:
Press tucked necessities into an overnight bag and climbed in, cane and all, not omitting his passport. "Gone fishing" was what they said here. The smell was of sandwiches and coffee, but he sniffed for clues of who the car had belonged to before. A lady, a plasterer? Chuck drove east toward New Hampshire with careless aplomb, like a man who might put fifty thousand miles on a car's odometer every year or two. Blindness curtained much of the beauty they were passing but not his sense that it was there. White spots checkered his vision. How did people manage blind from youth?

Let me assure you that there's nothing in that excerpt to spoil your read. The novelist's last publication, though he is still alive as of 2021. Poignant story, as Hoagland is himself going blind (on top of a life-long stammer). Interesting in a terrifying way that it's an historical novel set in the Nixon era. All the accustomed Hoagland phrase-making is there in full force: “The milking machines sounded tranquilizing, and there was the collegiality of seventy animal spirits thriving, warming the barn with cud-chewing, nose-snuffling, and sisterly mammalhood.”

Well worth the eyeblinks.

Friday, October 14, 2016

THE HEAVENLY TABLE, latest grit-lit tale of violent woe from Donald Ray Pollock


Doubleday & Co. (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$13.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: From Donald Ray Pollock, author of the highly acclaimed The Devil All the Time and Knockemstiff, comes a dark, gritty, electrifying (and, disturbingly, weirdly funny) new novel that will solidify his place among the best contemporary American authors.

It is 1917, in that sliver of border land that divides Georgia from Alabama. Dispossessed farmer Pearl Jewett ekes out a hardscrabble existence with his three young sons: Cane (the eldest; handsome; intelligent); Cob (short; heavy set; a bit slow); and Chimney (the youngest; thin; ill-tempered). Several hundred miles away in southern Ohio, a farmer by the name of Ellsworth Fiddler lives with his son, Eddie, and his wife, Eula. After Ellsworth is swindled out of his family’s entire fortune, his life is put on a surprising, unforgettable, and violent trajectory that will directly lead him to cross paths with the Jewetts. No good can come of it. Or can it?

In the gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy with a healthy dose of cinematic violence reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, the Jewetts and the Fiddlers will find their lives colliding in increasingly dark and horrific ways, placing Donald Ray Pollock firmly in the company of the genre’s literary masters.


My Review
: Pollock whipped out his ten-inch dick of the imagination and wailed on me again. Lots of n-word use, perfectly in keeping with the period but really uncomfortable to me.

What isn't uncomfortable, and this sounds weird, is the way Author Pollock puts the hurt on every-goddamned-body in this story. No one has it easy; no one catches a break; no one ever gets anything they don't pay double for. It's just like life: Poor folk pay, rich folk skate. And when the moment comes for someone to redress the imbalance, it's going to be hideously expensive to all who can least afford it.

So three bank-robbin' brothers? Two of 'em not too swift on the uptake? What's your bet, will any of 'em make it out alive? Read it and gasp.
As far back as he could remember, there hadn’t been a day when he wasn’t yearning for something he didn’t have. And that wore a man down after so many years, fighting that feeling day after day without any letup. Why couldn’t he ever be satisfied?

The fact is that there's never gonna be a day when these folks catch a break. Luckily they don't expect to...all that yearning does is beget yearning, until the day Cane (meditate upon the boy's name for a moment, appreciating the author's wicked sense of humor) rallies his newly-orphaned siblings around the notion of emulating their dime-novel hero's exploits to go whoring and bank-robbing (in that order). The truth is they get away with the bank robbing because they flat do not give a shit what happens. They were starving when they lived an "honest" life, so being in prison couldn't be any worse now could it? Food and shelter for free is fine when liberty = death.

These lads form the backbone of the book but there is a lot of meat on the carcass. Take, for example, one Bovard the closet queer military man.
Trained in classics, he had entered the military with abnormally high expectations, but unfortunately, the men he had encountered so far were a far cry from the muscle-bound sackers of Troy or the disciplined defenders of Sparta that he had been infatuated with since the age of twelve. Still, even though the draftees had been a sore disappointment, both physically and mentally, he had quickly learned to deal with them. It was simply a matter of lowering one's standards to fit the circumstances. After all, how could one expect any of these poor, awkward, illiterate brutes to have even heard of Cicero or Tacitus when at least half of them had difficulty comprehending a simple order? In just a matter of days, he went from trying to form a Latin reading club to thinking that a lowly private who still had most of his teeth and could name the presidents was practically a paragon of good breeding and sophistication.

Just awful to imagine such potential going to waste...and waste is absolutely what's going to happen to (almost) everyone in this violent, terribly nihilistic book. Yes, there are survivors; no, they aren't unscathed; and one questions how long the survival will last when the fact is that there's a pandemic on its way! How many malnourished people survived the Spanish Influenza of 1918-1919?

That's the hell of it these seekers keep moving and searching, as they do the best they can (and sometimes that is just flat HORRIBLE and vile), the outside world in its utter indifference to them, to their hopes and dreams, is winding up for another punch in the gut. The closest read I can think of to this one, for me at least, is The Sisters Brothers which I wasn't at all fond of. What failed me there was what succeeds so well here: Author Pollock is a superb wordsmith and a talented tale-spinner. This redemptionless and violent world is of a piece with his other creations; the volume's been turned up to eleven, though.

If you've read Knockemstiff and/or The Devil All the Time, you already know what Author Pollock can do; now he's gon na show you what he's been holding in reserve for when he's trying to go proper bleak.

And yeah...he does exactly that. Totally worth the squirms and the winces for the way he pulls off a dénouement so condign you'll forget how gross the trip actually was.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

OCTOPUS!, an interesting read about a fascinating creature

OCTOPUS!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea

Current Books
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

I received an ARC from Current Books for review, but I don't remember why.

The Publisher Says: We eat, study, copy, and idealize the octopus. Yet this strange creature still eludes our understanding. With eight arms, three hearts, camouflaging skin, and a disarmingly intelligent look behind its eyes, it appears utterly alien. But octopuses have been captivating humans for as long as we’ve been catching them. Cultures have created octopus-centric creation myths, art, and, of course, cuisine. For all of our ancient fascination and modern research, however, we still haven’t been able to get a firm grasp on these slippery beasts.

Now journalist Katherine Harmon Courage dives into the fascinating underwater world of these mysterious cephalopods. From her transatlantic adventures to Spain and Greece, expeditions in the Caribbean and back to Brooklyn, she invites readers to experience the scientific discoveries, deep cultural ties, and delicious meals connected to the octopus.

Courage deftly interweaves personal narrative with interviews with leading octopus experts. She provides an entertaining yet informative romp through the world of these infinitely interesting creatures.

My Review: Anyone who's paid me the slightest bit of attention over the years knows I'm a fan of Tentacled Americans. They're delicious. They're delightfully ookie. They're probably the closest things I'll ever have to soul mates: They don't like their own kind, regard other species as prey or enemies, and possess a deeply misunderstood intelligence.

All I lack is six more arms.

And now Katherine Harmon, a writer for Scientific American who appears to have married into the coolest last name ever, writes a Mary Roach-esque monograph on the 'pus! Oh frabjous day callooh callay! I dived (!) into the book the instant the mailman shoved it into the door-slot.

What a dive that was. I landed in the sea-water off Vigo, Galicia, with the seasick Harmon Courage (love that new name!), thinking about the *a*maz*ing* octopus preparations prevalent in the region. The trip to Greece's Octotropolis Gythio was a drool-inducing litany of same-ol' same-ol' octopus preparation: wail on the dead body on the ever-present beach rocks, hurry home and boil it then saute the tentacles in olive oil and then make a tasty accompanying sauce. You can not go wrong doing this. It is never-fail deliciousness, with the added bonus of being nutritious and heart-healthy.

I'm drooling. Pardon me, need to clean the keyboard.

So for sixty pages, I existed in a haze of hunger and longing for some fresh octopus instead of the canned smoked stuff from Vigo. Page sixty-one began the lessons, or as a pal of mine says, "the eat-your-spinach part."

Fortunately, I enjoy "eating my spinach" and learning about stuff. The only television I'm really interested in is informational/educational stuff...if I'm going to do something I don't enjoy (sit still in front of a screen and stare fixedly), I'm at least going to get something memorable out of I trotted happily along in Harmon Courage's wake as she chatted up the scientists who study these fascinating creatures. The locations she gets herself sent to are anathema to me, being largely warm-water beachy places, locales I'd pay good money never to have to visit. But the scientists are opening an immense realm of knowledge by living and working there, and no one's making me do it, so here I sit in air-conditioned splendor reading about the fascinating conclusions from this research.

Modern life, for a first-worlder, is excellent.

Octopus skin is near-miraculous in its mimetic ability. Octopus brains are only barely beginning to be studied but are already causes for fascinating discoveries. Octopus bodies are marvels of efficiency, and inspiring research into imitative robotic design.

Wondrous stuff, and that's not even half of the scientific amazement. How does a delicious creature without a shell avoid being din-din for every hungry thing in the sea? We've all heard about the ink-squirting defense, we've all heard of the prodigies of camouflage, but who knew that the wriggly ones could emit a *sound* that distracts vibration-sensitive predators? How? From WHERE?! Still being studied, stay tuned....

All of the above is my yodel of praise and my warble of enticement for you to dash out and buy a copy of this informative, enjoyable book. But the attentive reader will note that my rating is under four stars, while my enthusiasm is (I hope) evident. My rating might then seem ungenerous.

I feel bad about it, but I have to be a little ungenerous. The first sixty pages, with recipes and culinary enticements, do not fit comfortably with the science and research bits in the second part. The transition is handled as smoothly as it can be, but still isn't comfortable, because the nature of the book changes completely at that point. Harmon Courage's amusing, light touch doesn't change. She has a bit less to work with in humor terms. Not to say that, all of a sudden, we're in a textbook. It's simply a change from chatty, dinner-table food discussion, to after-dinner talk with slides and charts. Both are pleasurable, but in very different ways.

I want to be clear: This book gave me a lot of pleasure to read. I immersed myself in the lore and the science and the witty banter like they were a warm, salty bath, easing my literary aches and pains from reading so much forgettable snack-food in search of a good reader's meal. I got what I wanted from this read, and I suspect that any fan of light, amusing, informative reads will as well.

But like an octopus, I'm sensitive to the subtle shifts in my natural medium. Octopus blood is copper-based, which is why the darlings bleed blue. It's a less robust base for oxygen transmission than mammailan iron, and renders the octopus very vulnerable to changes in the ocean's acidity...too far outside its comfort zone, and the octopus dies. The climate change issues we've wished on the world include acidifying oceans.

The problem isn't a disaster, like the mismatch within the book isn't a disaster. But it's there, and it's something that needs mentioning, so that it might be cured for the future.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

MUSIC OF THE SWAMP, a beautiful yet abjectly sad story about a painful subject familiar to all too many


Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Lewis Nordan’s fiction invents its own world—always populated by madly heroic misfits. In Music of the Swamp, he focuses his magic and imagination on a boy’s utterly helpless love for his utterly hopeless father—a man who attracts bad luck like a magnet. Nordan evokes ten-year-old Sugar Mecklin’s world with dazzling clarity: the smells, the tastes, and most surely the sounds of life in this peculiar, somewhat bizarre, Delta town. Sugar discovers that what his daddy says is true: “The Delta is filled up with death”; but he also finds an endless supply of hope.


My Review
: This book was such a joy to find, to get from the publisher, to has been a perfect experience. It's the twentieth anniversary of the original edition, so I suppose the publisher of all Nordan's work saw a need to fulfill. They've brought out Wolf Whistle and Lightning Song, so why stop now?
Daddy said, "It's funny how you end up somewhere, and then that's your life."

The sheer gorgeousness of the book's prose is no surprise to anyone already familiar with Author Nordan's work. Sugar, our kid narrator, isn't the artificial kind of kid that infests family stories. He's got the fire of a smart, frustrated kid, one who understands just enough to know he's not getting all the story. In the 1950s Mississippi Delta, there's more subtext than anywhere outside Japan.

Above all else, though, is the subject matter...the drunken daddy whose life has kicked him in the balls one too many times...the wearied, nibbled-at soul of a man who didn't get far and couldn't see where else to go. There's a good reason he doesn't really connect with anyone in his family. It's not one you'll find out early in the tales (these are braided stories telling a novel-sized plot) and, when you do find it out, you won't entirely understand the why of some things. I'll say this for Author Nordan's choice here: If these are lightly fictionalized autobiographical sketches there's a darn good reason he drew that veil.
A thousand times, when the train slowed or stopped, I thought of jumping off. I wanted to die in a ditch. I wanted to disappear. I wanted a different history and geography. In rhythm with the wheels I said I want I want I want I want I stayed on the train.

The whole of a person's life is set in childhood, much though we resist that knowledge. The way Sugar loved his Daddy and was not loved in return is the way his own family will turn out. Anyone who's had that kind of family pattern blast its way through our own lives recognizes the unstoppable force of Family History. It takes intentionality, focus, powerful motivation, and a pile of luck to keep the past from repeating itself.
The sound of the rain was without thunder. It was as constant as the feeling of loss that suddenly I felt inside me, that now I knew had been with me all along, a familiar part of me since the beginning of memory.

I would recommend this book to anyone who feels hemmed in, pecked at, torn, or simply needs a respite from daily life. The book is pretty much a perfect meditation on the cost of living an unexamined life!
I wish this story ended more happily than it actually does. All this happened a long time ago, and now I'm middle-aged and have been going to Don't Drink meetings for a good long while myself. There is a good deal of wreckage in my own past, a family I hurt in the same way my father hurt me, and the same way his father hurt him. I tore my children up as fine as cat's hair, you might say.