Sunday, June 28, 2020

THE BRIGHTEST PLACE IN THE WORLD, facts made into fiction to tell The Truth

University of Nevada Press
$24.95 all editions, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Inspired by true events, The Brightest Place in the World traces the lives of four characters haunted by an industrial disaster. On an ordinary sunny morning in 2012, a series of explosions level a chemical plant on the outskirts of Las Vegas. The shock waves are felt as far away as Fremont Street. Homes and businesses suffer broken windows and caved-in roofs. Hundreds are injured, and eight employees of the plant are unaccounted for, presumed dead.

One of the missing is maintenance technician Andrew Huntley, a husband and father who is an orbital force in the novel as those who loved him grapple with his loss. Andrew’s best friend, Russell Martin—an anxiety-plagued bartender who calms his nerves with a steady inflow of weed—misses him more than he might a brother. Meanwhile Emma, Russell’s wife—a blackjack dealer at a downtown casino—tries to keep her years-long affair with Andrew hidden. Simon Addison, a manager at the plant who could have saved Andrew’s life, is afflicted by daily remorse, combined with a debilitating knowledge of his own cowardice. And then there’s Maddie, Andrew’s only child, a model high-school student whose response to the tragedy is to experiment with shoplifting and other deviant behavior.

Against the sordid backdrop of Las Vegas—and inspired by the PEPCON disaster of May 4, 1988—this engaging novel is a story of grief and regret, disloyalty and atonement, infatuation and love.


My Review
: When disaster occurs, sudden and unexpected and yet limited in scope, all those caught in its extent are changed. Almost all of us has had this experience. As one ages, it's a given that it's occurred more than once...and it never, ever gets easier or routinized. The emotional toll is different each time, and there are certain practical responses that kick in with habituation (eg, people always gotta eat, so bring a casserole). But the effect is always profound, transformative, and painful. (I've spoken to many people who've had happy calamities, eg childbirth, who express surprise at how much it hurts to alter one's life, habits, friend-circle.)

One fine day, Las Vegas, Nevada, is the epicenter of a small seismic event. There are seismometers that record the Richter-scale measurement (for us oldsters; younger folk will call it the moment magnitude measurement abbreviated Mw); but it takes a novelist to record the magnitude of the moments after the event. Author David Philip Mullins, associate professor of English at Omaha's Jesuit institution Creighton University, took that on and has done a fine job of showing how a deadly explosion cracks much more than land and buildings.

Andrew works for manager Simon at a chemical plant outside Las Vegas. The plant's aging; the community isn't enthusiastic about its presence at all—what was once the edge of town isn't anymore—and there are no corporate plans for moving it because, if the desert of a sparsely populated state isn't excited enough to have the jobs, what's a nicer place going to think? Heck, these ingrates are even iffy about the nearby marshmallow plant! (Who wants to live with the eternal scent of S'mores on the breeze? Yuck.) But Andrew has a wife, Juliet, and a high-school senior daughter, Maddie, to support. He goes to work; he worries about safety, sure, but groceries don't buy themselves. And his bestest bud ever, Russell, tends bar nearby, so he has a safe atmosphere to relax in before going home to his womenfolk.

Russell isn't quite there in the womenfolk department, having his One True Love, poker-dealing wife Emma to go home to but no kids. Not that she, or he, wants a kid. Russell is prey to anxiety and self-worth issues he medicates with (then still illegal) pot. He keeps himself to himself outside the bar, relying on Andrew and Emma to provide his social needs. He loves them both...he loves Maddie like a niece...he likes Juliet just fine. His life is, then, jogging along smoothly enough. And that's where Author Mullins places us in his first scene, this fine day we know is going to be all about change:
The glare of a mid-morning sun gives the interstate a kind of waxen luster that almost blinds him if he pays attention to it. An odor of exhaust permeates the atmosphere of his little sedan, charter buses and eighteen-wheelers making canyons of the lanes.
Beautiful evocation of an unlovely perfect that Russell is the one noticing. Because Russell is a man whose world explodes in so many ways when he hears a huge explosion, sees roiling smoke rising, from the driver's seat.

Maddie is in school when the explosion cracks her world wide open. She is called to the office, and some well-meaning Charlie Brown-trumpeting adults do what they can to inform her of her life, for real not for drama, being over. It does not compute. How could it? No one is prepared for death, not really, and still less a young woman with pressing life decisions...schools, make. Her well-loved father? There every day, and now you say he's what?
A chitalpa tree shaped like a tuning fork grows from a brick-edged plot in the concrete. Fat pink flowers droop from the branches, the petals like stockings hung to dry.
What a grieving young woman, suddenly not going to be her father's daughter anymore, will notice:
It's a Chitalpa tashkentensis, a drought-hardy blooming big shrub/small tree, and its pinkness does rather look like laundry left on the line to droop in the blasting, battering sunshine. I can see it standing out enough against the general dun-colored desert landscape and Las Vegas's stunted, dun-colored ordinary buildings to make it snag the eye of a deeply shocked and still numb young person.

Someone who has experienced a sudden and unexpected loss will recognize the pattern of fixating on a trivial, familiar object, something that grounds you in the present; then Maddie does something else predictable but that will always catch others by surprise. She responds to the authority figures urging her to stay there, to stay safe in their minds, by rebelling. She knows she should stay put but she can't. She has to move, so she aims herself at the place that's changed the most. Home.

Home means Mom, Juliet, the widow. And the house. The ravaged house that they quite clearly can't live in for a while. Can they even conceive of what it will take to fix the house? Let alone their lives, their new and now forever changed lives–plural. One of the first things to go when a parent dies is the older child's existing relationship to the surviving parent. It simply evaporates. It sometimes takes a minute for the parties to realize that it's evaporated, though:
Crunching glass as she circled the living room in her heels, her mother raved about the explosions in a manner that seemed to belong to an actress from one of the old movies they always show on AMC and Showtime: Meryl Streep or Glenn Close.
Feeling old yet? Old movies with Glenn Close? Wait, what? Old movies have Bette Davis in them, not the divine Miss Close or Miss Streep! *sigh* But that's the least of the changes wrought by this day, the opening of the age gulf. Juliet, a closet smoker, offers Maddie a cigarette from her frozen-food-concealed stash.

BAD JULIET. NO NO NO! This awful misjudgment will, in the end, cause some repercussions that no one could've foreseen....

But families come in flavors, the biological and the logical. Russell, let us not forget, is grieving his all-but-brother Andrew. He and Emma go to eat after the spiffy obsequies of Andrew's bodyless memorial, as Juliet has neither house to host, nor inclination to feed, the attendees of Andrew's service. Andrew was the one responsible for Emma noticing Russell in the first place! He was so central to Russell's happiness with his low-friction life. He asked Emma for her number at Andrew's behest...he and Emma included Andrew in their bar-centered socializing, far less often Juliet...are y'all's alarm bells ringing yet? Mine were...and here's Emma speaking to Russell about Andrew's death over their post-service meal:
"How can a person go away forever? Here and then not here—it doesn't compute."
"I know," Russell says.
"None of it makes any sense."
"None of it does."
"I just wish..."
"What," he says.
"It's like he vanished. It defies...I don't know. Logic. No warning, no nothing. It's so crazy to me."
Tearful bewilderment over your husband's bestie's death? C'mon! Everybody knows what time it is now! Except poor Russell. He's miffed she's hogging the spotlight that rightfully is his over his (he thinks) greater loss. Oh Russell...
And there's also the pink Victoria's Secret slip Russell once came across while looking in her closet for a spare hangar—he's never seen her wear it. She's rarely in the mood for sex anyway, and when she is, or pretends to be, she puts forth a bored, lazy effort that fills him with shame and makes the whole thing reek of an obligation.
DUDE!! There is as of that instant NO excuse for not being sure that you're not her main squeeze, just her husband. And c'mon, you have to know who is. It's too painful to admit to yourself? Good gawd, man, what's worse: Knowing but not saying, or saying and ending things? The crisis is reached and Russell, happily hazy superannuated bartender Russell, has to jump. Which way?

But strangest of all is the case of Manager Simon. His secret is revealed early in the book. It explains, but doesn't excuse, a lot of the truly skeevy shit he pulls...but I ain't a-tellin'. His life is farther along its trajectory than the other characters' lives are.
Simon thinks with sadness of {his two college-student children's} recent entry into adulthood, youth fluttering behind them like a shirt taken off on a windy beach.
An image that captivates me. And a very sad thing to experience as a parent; also exhilarating, liberating, terrifying on so many levels. (One thing no one tells you about adulthood is that you never, ever have an unmixed emotion after it really kicks in.) His managerhood, his whole career, is sloughing off like skin from a nasty burn. He feels so awful about his character as it's been revealed to him. He makes a concerted effort to Do Something positive, helpful, kind. Juliet's house is a disaster! Her yardwork needs doing...I'll go do it. And while I'm at it, I'll just...improve...the landscaping....

It is, I'm sad to say, a misfire.
He doesn't peep in her windows at night—nothing like that. He doesn't own any binoculars, and he's never taken a photo of her. Simon gets no sexual pleasure from spying on Juliet. He isn't a criminal or a pervert.
–followed by–
"Stay," Juliet says, looking at him now. "Please."
Okay...I get that she's wildly flailing for solid ground after her entire existence is savaged by disaster. But she's just poured richly merited contumely on his head while *sitting*down*to*coffee* with him...we're already stretching my credulity a bit too far...but then she asks him to stay when he's prepared to do the right thing at last and leave her alone?!?

So. There it is...alone. Is that enough to explain this lunatic, irresponsible behavior?

This is a seriously squicky moment, and I was losing my sense of trust in Author Mullins. Another troubling, though seriously less so, event comes as Russell essentially carries off his minor not-really-niece for an impromptu camping trip a good way away from Vegas. (I'm shouting at the screen at this point, "CALL YOUR MOTHER YOU SIMPLETON! EVEN IF YOUR IDIOT FAKE-UNCLE'S TOO HIGH TO DO IT!" Luckily, Russell isn't that stupid and leaves Juliet a message or I'd've chucked this book at the wall.) At least nothing heinous can happen while they're together.

Juliet has such a rough road in this story, trouble from every angle. Dead husband, adolescent daughter going through some serious problems, family issues with Russell (the cops? really?), and for goodness sake this whole Simon thing! But here's the problem, Juliet: You're your own worst enemy. Like everyone else in the world, right? And what Juliet gets herself up to is the most gigantically reactive response to death a person can have. It's *almost* too much, but I know from experience how very real it is.

Author Mullins is a debut novelist, though no stranger to writing. His first book, Greetings from Below, won the 2009 Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction and was published by Sarabande Books in the US, Salt Publishing in the Commonwealth countries after winning the 2010 International Walter Scott Prize for Short Stories. His stories, then, have attracted attention and praise; stories operate on a different emotional logic than do novels. It is that sense of mismatched logic that is the source of my missing half-star rating. The novel I've reviewed is unquestionably a novel and the writing is high quality. I'm still left, however, with some lingering longings, some unmet needs for novel characters to develop. This isn't a family saga, so I wasn't hoping for the history of the participants. This isn't a Bildungsroman, so I wasn't expecting a central PoV character to Develop and Change. But as a novel of relationships and their mutability under pressure, I wanted the people to make their choices and cause their changes.

Even in the aftermath of a catastrophe, choices and changes can be occasions for characters to take control, exercise agency, and the people we follow around Las Vegas and environs are curiously acted upon and not acting. This is completely understandable in the first half of the book, as the ripples of the disaster propagate. It is increasingly troublesome for me as the novel progresses.

The point of going on this trip is to see sights you haven't before so I will leave the ending to your private reading. I've given you samples of the phrases I was particularly fond of. The vague wanting I experienced for more directed action is not remotely enough to have me encourage you skip the read! In fact, I encourage you to do the deed, buy the book, and ride the shockwave of this explosion. It is a rewarding experience.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

THE DEVIL IN AMERICA, one of Kai Ashante Williams's deep & disturbing novellas

KAI ASHANTE WILSON free online or 99¢ Kindle edition

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Scant years after the Civil War, a mysterious family confronts the legacy that has pursued them across centuries, out of slavery, and finally to the idyllic peace of the town of Rosetree. The shattering consequences of this confrontation echo backwards and forwards in time, even to the present day.

My Review: This 2014 novelette by the author of A Taste of Honey and The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps was nominated for a Nebula Award, a Locus Award, a Shirley Jackson Award, and a World Fantasy Award. I see why. What isn't as readily imaginable is why it didn't sweep them all...
Ma’am might be a challenge to love sometimes, but respect came easy.
He was a father who loved his daughter, but he was a husband first and foremost. I’m a terrible thirsty man, Pa had said once, and your mama is my only cool glass of water in this world.
Tell me that this isn't top-quality phrasemaking, beautifully economical characterization, pitch-perfect explication of the story's reality.

Easter, the belovèd daughter and last child of Wilbur and Hazel Mae, is twelve. She knows so much and still so little about the world. She is a prime target for the Others, the unseen ones she calls angels:
‘The Devil’ in Africa had been capricious, a trickster, and if cruel, only insomuch as bored young children, amoral and at loose ends, may be cruel: seeking merely to provoke an interesting event at any cost, to cause some disruption of the tedious status quo. For the Devil in America, however, malice itself was the end, and temptation a means only to destroy.
"The Devil" has agents or thralls or subjects, how would I know being the materialist meat-sack I am, but Easter knows:
And this whirligig thing’um, right here, was exactly what kept all the angels hereabouts leashed, year after year, to chase away pests, bring up water from deep underground when too little rain fell, or dry the extra drops in thin air when it rained too much.
When Easter listens to these angels, poor little lamb, she causes havoc on a scale her life is too short to know represents the normal state of humanity, that is to say struggle and striving. But the little love is so sorry for her mistake that she takes on a debt that can never be repaid. And that is when the world starts to set her up for the worst fall. Ma'am, she knows what "The Devil" is all about and she does what she can to make her Easter aware that something you don't, can't, comprehend fully is always the source of your troubles in life:
Ma’am. The white man’s gonna see that colored man can’t count, Ma’am, and cheat him out of all his money.

That’s right he is, Easter! And I promise you it ain’t no other outcome! Walk up in that bank just as rich as you please—but you gon’ walk out with no shoes, and owing the shirt on your back! Old Africa magic’s the same way, but worse, Easter, cause it ain’t money we got, me and you—all my babies had—and my own mama, and the grandfather they brung over on the slave ship. It’s life. It’s life and death, not money. Not play-stuff. But, listen here—we don’t know our numbers no more, Easter. See what I’m saying? That oldtime wisdom from over there, what we used to know in the Africa land, is all gone now. And, Easter, you just can’t walk up into the spirits’ bank not knowing your numbers. You rich, girl. You got gold in your pockets, and I know it’s burning a hole. I know cause it burnt me, it burnt your brother. But I pray you listen to me, baby child, when I say—you walk up in that bank, they gon’ take a heap whole lot more than just your money.
And take the payment Easter owes he does, this fine vile Devil we made for ourselves. The end of all good things seems to be slaughter, murder, lynching cruelty...and the pious and the safe say Never again...this time we mean it...never again.

Or next time...maybe the one after that.

But no, there's always a next time and never a never again. We don't learn because it wouldn't be near as much fun if we couldn't kill an anymore.

So Humanity goes on its violent, vile way, down and down.

Pay your buck or just go read the story on Either way you'll come away sure that Humanity (racist white "humanity" most especially) isn't pretty and maybe it's a good thing our time as "masters" is nearly done.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020


The 2020 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing published in 2019 will be announced quite soon (see below). I will quote from the website's potted history of the prize, which is now in its twentieth year.
The Caine Prize – often described as Africa’s leading literary award – is granted annually for African creative writing. It is named after the late Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker plc and Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years.

The 21 countries represented in this year’s eligible submissions are: Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The Prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer published in English (indicative length 3,000 to 10,000 words). An African writer is taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, or who is a national of an African country, or has a parent who is African by birth or nationality.
Each writer shortlisted for the 2019 Caine Prize will be awarded £500, and the winner will receive a £10,000 prize. The twentieth winner of the Caine Prize will be announced at an award dinner on Monday, 8 July 2020, at Senate House, University of London, in partnership with SOAS and with the support of the Centre for African Studies. This date was announced after the COVID-19 lockdown knocked the originally scheduled date out of consideration, and is as of now still the planned event time. (For the curious, I reviewed the 2015 Prize shortlist because Lesley Nneka Arimah's story "What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky" appeared on it; then later her story collection because it is fiery hot beautiful writing.)

All five writers whose work will be honored are listed here. Links to the Prize-eligible stories are the titles of the reviews below. As is my habit, I've used the Bryce Method to organize the presentation of my individual reviews.

Irenosen Okijie's 2019 collection, Nudibranch, published by Dialogue Books in November 2019, and was listed by The Guardian on its Must Read Books in 2019 list.

Grace Jones introduces Sidra, or what's left of her, a Martinican impersonator whose life is a series of events arranged by enigmatic broker Hassan. Her externally flawless presentation of the Divine Grace on the night Author Okijie writes about is at a film producer's party, a celebration of whatever people like him hire impersonators like Sidra to decorate. Her entrance, escorted by "Marilyn Monroe," causes some stir:
She smiled at this part of what was essentially a ceremony, a performance. This part always felt
good. The bodies leaned in, clutching their wine glasses. The draughtsman appeared behind them holding two yellow-handled screwdrivers. There were tongues in the wine flutes, floating, then curling mid-scream, sinking to the bottom. Sidra closed her eyes momentarily as the humming in her brain
began. She disappeared into her role: Grace Jones.
Nothing perfect is truly flawless, though. The surface shine covers a roiling sea of powerful and impossible memories and dreams. Does Sidra see dead people, or is Miss Grace Jones giving her the grace of externalizing her agony?

Sidra doesn't know. I don't either. But I do know when a door to a different, richer, more intensely alive place opens. It does in these eighteen PDF pages.

Jowhor Ile's 2016 debut novel And After Many Days earned a 4.5-star rating from me. His Prize-eligible story reviewed here appeared first in The Sewanee Review.

Fisherman's Stew joins Nimi and Benji in the midst of their long-rehearsed body ballet, never mind that Benji has, well, died:
If it was a crack in her mind that had let Benji back into the world, she thought, then her intention was to keep the crack open, widen it. Her plan was to visit the evening market, and then make stew. She knew that if you love a person and they love you back, you can cook for them something that ensures they find their way to you, should they be lost.
Beautiful, and true, and the way Nimi constructs her world she spends not one unnecessary second questioning what her gift from beyond the grave will cost her. She will put utazi in her yam stew. She will bring Benji to her with the ineluctable, powerful fact of her love. As I would expect from Author Ile, it is very beautiful.

Chikodili Emelumadu is a UK-born Nigerian writer with a previous Caine Prize nomination, a slew of story publications in Apex Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, as well as several anthologies, and received the inaugural (2019) Curtis Brown First Novel prize (£3000 and representation by literary legends Curtis Brown is a great prize!) for the as-yet-unreleased Dazzling.

What to do when your child brings home a Mami Wata I really don't think I can explain this bit of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell-esque surreality as well as simply showing you a portion of the text that made me pause, utterly convinced that I was reading an Official Government Document from a different reality:
In the case of a malevolent Mami (MMW) or Papi Wata (MPW), people have been known to simply let them expire. This is a clear breach of ethics. Please administer the prerequisite treatment and dial your local Interspecies Department (ID) for further advice on removing the Mami Wata
from your home, should you so desire.
Be advised that this does not always work and further action might be required. Your ID councillor will be able to provide you with help on this.
If you do not wish them to remain and would like to attempt a forceful ejection of an MMW or MPW from your home, see the section titled ‘Forceful Ejection of a Mami or Papi Wata from Your Home,’ in this booklet.9

9Be advised that a hypothesis has been posited and is currently undergoing some research as to Mami Watas and a manipulation of elements, and phenomena connected to water, even when such events may not occur in or around any body of water. These include but are not limited to: rain, rainstorms and hurricanes. See Sharknado film research by Levin, Thunder, NY, for further study and possible effects of this psycho-kinetic phenomenon.

It was only after googling "local Interspecies Department Long Island" that I was truly convinced I hadn't world-walked in my sleep.

Erica Sugo Anyadike is a Kenya-based Tanzanian television and film writer whose outings into short-story writing reflect her very visual sensibility. Her story in this year's prize pool was also shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

How to Marry An African President explores the power dynamic between African men and their wives. It's never ever good to be a woman, is it? To be forced to use wiles and stratagems to get ahead...never to be powerful except by reflection. To love someone is secondary to advancing your illusion...but a powerful, narcotic, beautiful illusion.
Poison him and as you rightly assumed - a resulting quiet will ensue, no-one will dare criticise you any longer. He’ll survive but you knew he would. Out in the open, you’ll commiserate, calling for the would-be murderer to be brought to justice. But behind closed doors, you’ll claim a victory amongst your confidants. Your adversary will understand war-craft and opt for self-imposed exile.

In the end, it will not be enough.
In the end, what "enough" a valid concept? Is the War Between the Sexes a place that "enough" should even be used?

Rémy Ngamije was born in Rwanda but is based in Namibia, where he is the founding publisher of Doek! (the country's first literary magazine). His first novel, The Eternal Audience of One, is coming soon in English (what with the Plague, we don't expect firm dates just now) from Scout Press/Simon & Schuster. His stories and photographs have appeared in every imaginable stripe of arts venue. This story was first published in The Johannesburg Review of Books, but look at his réumé! Remy The Quill

The Neighbourhood Watch follows Elias and his squad of scavengers as they do the rounds of the Central Business District of Windhoek (Namibia's capital city), its various outlying districts, to locate something—anything—of value and use to them in their reduced-to-nothingness circumstances. Their relationships, their identities, their entire essences are Now, are Today, are stripped of past and future:
The two men regarded each other as equals, both outcast by their former allegiances. Lazarus never volunteered information about his prison stint. Elias never asked. Everyone brought a past to the street and the present was always hungry. The street snacked on those who regretted, those who dreamt of a tomorrow that still required today to be survived.

That was the first thing Elias told Lazarus: the street has no future, there is only today. And today you need food. Today you need shelter. Today you need to take care of today.
This is the ultimate privilege check: Do you think about yesterday? If you can, if you do, you are rich by the world's standards. "Things were better when..." is something that can not be uttered absent the astounding, insufferable luxury of privilege. The people down the ladder who hold onto the idea of yesterday, to the blind unjust world's tomorrow, are the ones to pity as they quest for lost, or misplaced, privilege:
‘They are too proud to be like us,’ Elias says. ‘But they are the ones going home hungry every day.’

‘Pride is poor food,’ Lazarus says.
Pride feeds no mouth, and a well-fed soul in a starving body loses pride quickly. It is all the uglier for being ripped away instead of laid down or tossed aside. But Pride, my friends, is a slithering sneaking bastard, and patient with it. Pride finds the chink, Pride says, "just this once...just today..."

And we all buy the lie in the end.

Monday, June 22, 2020

A GAZELLE ATE MY HOMEWORK is three hours of laughs and snorts and tears...and SCREW people who think immigrants are dangerous!

A GAZELLE ATE MY HOMEWORK: A Journey from Ivory Coast to America, from African to Black, and from Undocumented to Doctor (with side trips into several religions and assorted misadventures)

Thorntree Press
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Sick of living in the shadows of a corrupt post-colonial Ivory Coast, intrepid gazelle hunter Habib Fanny schemes to see the opulence of America for himself, with naught but rudimentary raft-making skills and his trusty spear to aid him.

Well...that’s one version of the story, at least. In truth, Fanny’s story takes him on an adventure across continents, around dangerous political intrigue, into the depths of poverty, and through the complicated systems that provide him with a medical education. His journey to become an American is beset not by lions and man-eating sharks, but rather by persistent internal questions, which he attacks with the same rigor he brings to his schooling. What does it mean to be a Muslim, a Christian, an agnostic, or possibly, maybe, an atheist? What does it mean to be African in America, but not yet Black? And how on earth do you deal with the dating scene?

As he navigates the shifting waters of cultural identity, he’s forced to confront his own colonialist prejudices. Habib Fanny—that’s Doctor Habib Fanny, M.D., actually—doesn’t find gold-paved streets in America, but with humor and curiosity, he finds a path all his own.


My Review
: There are some people who defy the odds. There are a few more people who defy categorization. There are ever more people who defy Authority. (Thank goodness for that, especially at this moment in history.)

But there are not that many who do all three, in a foreign language, while a teenager, in a broken family and without a peer group's support. In fact, here he is: Habib Fanny (pronounced fahNEE), M.D.
A unicorn or a phoenix or both...a person of rare and astounding strength, depths of talent for caring and knack for survival turbocharged by burning in the crucible of adolescence while learning a new culture, and now he is using all his accumulated knowledge and wisdom to help suffering people recover from their ills and ailments.

It is worth mentioning that Dr. Fanny is an example of the kind of person whose visa will now be denied by presidential order, though it will not impact the good doctor himself. Just the many people across the world whose rosy view of our country, much like Author Fanny's view growing up, leads them to try to get here, to learn from our remaining great institutions and to give back the expertise they gain from our educational system.

However, be that as it may (and I wish to hell it wasn't), there's a book to review and here I go.

Habib Fanny was never going to have it easy in Detroit. His name, his Africanness, and his absolute ignorance of hoops and the NFL were going to present hurdles to socializing with the young men and women whose skin color, from a white outsiders point of view, should've made this socialization a conquest for him. Not so much...he's got nothing in common with the dead-enders, being intelligent and ambitious, and the stars aren't looking for cultural exchange so much as cultural escape.

So this formerly upper-middle class good student, now an impoverished immigrant son of a single mother, reinvents himself with humor (see the title of his book) and a reservoir of strength that is enviable and awe-inspiring and humbling. Seriously, my fellow Americans, is this person and the hundreds of thousands who are like him around the world, someone we want to support excluding from joining the American Experiment? A man who works his way through medical school while still answering without rancor others' jibes and insults about his heritage, his skin color? In his place, I'd've booked it back to Ivory Coast.

Yet in addition to writing this book as an adult, Author Fanny has taken on medical practice in a new state, during a pandemic, while still mentoring his nieces and nephews into the life of the mind (he talks them into reading!), while *also* answering random strangers' questions on Quora and having a spiritual awakening.

Are you in love with him yet? If not, I fear you are dead inside. Here's a snippet of conversation responding to a Quora user's query about how he is doing in this difficult time:
I’m a loner. I’ve always been. My little sister is 7 years younger. The sibling closest to me in age is 6 years older. I played by myself a lot as a kid. I still do. But by moving to a city where I hardly knew anyone, and in the middle of a pandemic requiring physical distancing, I may have signed up for more solitude than even I can handle. And yet it must be handled. And so it will.
Author Habib Fanny, M.D., theydies and gentlethem. I urge you to read the heck out of his hilarious and touching memoir...with a side trip into capsule modern African be sure he knows how very much he is loved and valued for his own unique self.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

THE BEQUEST, an Enlightenment Epilogue; a delight in every way

SEASONS PASS: An Enlightenment Story
(Enlightenment #3.5)
see below for availability

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Note: Seasons Pass was written as a bonus story for readers and is intended to be read after the full trilogy - it contains spoilers for book 3. As of 2020 this is no longer available on vendor sites - it is exclusively available to newsletter subscribers as is The Bequest, an epilogue story featuring the same characters (the link to her newsletter is below)

It's April 1822 and two years have passed since Lord Murdo Balfour was last in Edinburgh; two years since he met low-born lawyer, David Lauriston. Back then, Lauriston's naïve idealism and self-loathing provoked Murdo's scorn, yet Murdo has not been able to forget him.

When Murdo is asked by his father to return to Edinburgh for the King's forthcoming Scottish visit, his memories of his last time in the city are stirred up again. Frustrated by his inability to forget Lauriston, he decides to seek refuge in an anonymous encounter at Kit Redford's discreet establishment. But will Murdo find the oblivion he seeks at Kit's, or something else entirely?

My Review: I really understand why Murdo feels as deeply for David as he does after reading this story. The cold heartlessness of sex without love repels some as it consumes others. Murdo, who needs warmth to counterbalance the cold and calculating upbringing he endured, would find David's uncompromising centeredness utterly irresistible, and David's priggishness comforting. I hadn't really understood that until I read this.

And as to reading Unnatural...without having read this, the entire story would've taken me too long to immerse myself within and I'd've lost the thread early on. I recommend reading the story in its proper chronological place inside the series.


THE BEQUEST: An Enlightenment Epilogue
(Enlightenment #3.6)
see below for availability

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: David Lauriston and Lord Murdo Balfour have been living happily together for three years at the Laverock estate in Perthshire. But when some unexpected news arrives, Murdo must confront old demons he thought he’d put behind him forever.

This story will be exclusively available to my newsletter.

Rating: Adult for extensive nudity and detailed onscreen love scenes; also contains significant crude humor/language, some substance use, passionate kissing, and moderate profanity (TBH I didn't notice profanity, but then I wouldn't)

My Review: I'll be honest...I toyed with a single star rating for this because Author Chambers said of David and Murdo: "...if I was going to give them one last story..."

I nearly unswallowed at the awful betrayal I felt at the cold, emotionless, efficient disembowelling I was undergoing at the hands of someone I've come to enjoy and admire as an artist, a talespinner, and an all-around Good Egg.



So, well, you see that I didn't succumb to my more Marquess-esque impulses. I thoroughly approve of the Laverock scenes, the lovely domestic intimacy paired with the men's still-fresh joy in each others' many charms and quirks. Yes, I know that fifteen years on they'll crab at each other for the things they swoon at today; it's inevitable; but it seems to me that these are friends and companions who had the unfathomable good fortune to fall in love, to discover the unique delight of sexual intimacy with someone who matters to you, who has keys to the doors you didn't put in and don't want to think about too often.

Murdo needs something only David has ever offered him: Compassion. His wretch of a father used Murdo in his schemes to get and hold power, no thought for how Murdo would feel about it. David needs something Murdo and only Murdo possesses: Devotion. Unlike a certain scumbag from David's past, Murdo will not present himself as apart from, above, David. Even when situationally he is required to introduce David as his "man of business," it is genuinely against his own wishes and out of respect for David's damaged trust in the goodwill of the world. Lord Murdoch doesn't need it; David Lauriston, risen to a station far below Murdo's, always will. And Murdo understands, behaves in the way that will serve his man's needs first.

If that is not true love, I do not know what is.

So this last *sob* story in the men's love story concerns the commonest crisis to enter any son's life: His father's death. And the fallout of a parent's death is always complex. Murdo's father has left him, the second son and the greatest disappointment of his life, a bequest. It changes everything and that is all I can say without the Spoiler Stasi descending upon me with their tazers and truncheons at the ready. It is very much worth signing up for Author Chambers's newsletter to procure, though honestly don't get near unless you've read the entire series.

I have to clutch at a straw here: There's a very good story waiting in Avesbury and Reid's, erm, well, encounter. And I can see no reasonable excuse for Author Chambers to avoid putting David and Murdo in that story.

No. Reason. At. All.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

JOE, the late, great Larry Brown's first masterwork in novel form


Algonquin Books
$15.95 paper, available now

Now only $1.99 on Kindle, so don't wait. (non-affiliate Amazon link)

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Joe Ransom is a hard-drinking ex-con pushing fifty who just won’t slow down—not in his pickup, not with a gun, and certainly not with women. Gary Jones estimates his own age to be about fifteen. Born luckless, he is the son of a hopeless, homeless wandering family, and he’s desperate for a way out. When their paths cross, Joe offers him a chance just as his own chances have dwindled to almost nothing. Together they follow a twisting map to redemption—or ruin.

Kirkus, back in 1991 when they hated everything, said this of the book: "...Brown...pares his prose close to the bone, stripping away the slightest hint of sociology or regional color. This is white trash, lumpen fiction with a vengeance, and a vision of angelic desolation."

My Review: Selected as the May 2020 Moderator's Choice in the On the Southern Literary Trail Goodreads group, this is the novel that solidified Larry Brown's place in Grit Lit/Hick Lit's pantheon. He was a major talent; his short stories will, I think, be anthologized and lionized for a long time to come. He started out as a writer known for them; and I think that, like Hemingway, they will be his lasting contribution to Southern Literature's grittier edge.

This is not to denigrate or diminish his accomplishment in this, his most successful novel:
The road lay long and black ahead of them and the heat was coming now through the thin soles of their shoes. There were young beans pushing up from the dry brown fields, tiny rows of green sprigs that stretched away in the distance.
You know where you are; you know who you're with; you're not going for a madeleine with Proust. This is poverty, this is heat, this is misery on an epic scale but never ever looked's witnessed, it's so real and so present that there is just not one doubt about its honesty. Heat and poverty are characters in this scene so cinematically framed. The people are, in fact, incidental if not ornamental. They exist as morality-play embodiments of Poverty, and they continue to do so throughout the book.

Is that a flaw? Is honest appraisal and presentation of reality ever a flaw?
“That boy,” he said. “I’ve done him ever favor I could. Some folks you can’t do nothing with. Just sorry. God knows I’ve done plenty of drinking and stuff in my time, but I be damn if I ever tried to cheat anybody out of any money.”
Is that a speech delivered to make an author's point, or is it the vox populi, the distilled belief of the Average Man that he is in fact average, the proper measure of a man's worth? It's certainly a refutation of the three-hundred-year-old moralism vox populi, vox dei! There is no god in this book, there is no numinous or immanent quality to anything. The landscape is hot, dry, miserable; the people are dumb, violent, miserable; the vox regis or deorum is notable only for its absence.

Also notably absent here are women's voices. They exist to bear children and beatings. They are adversaries to what low, animal joys men can find in sex (more akin to rape, in my opinion) and beer. Children are the punishment women inflict on men (as these men see it) for the fleeting pleasure of the rut. The idea of pleasure is, in general, absent from this world. It is a place where no one at all ever makes even a feint at a genuine smile.

What redeems this read from being a complete, utter, suicidal-depression-inducing downer? Joe Ransom. Drunken convict that he is, awful father that he may in fact be, to Gary Jones he is Jesus freshly down from the cross. Gary's sperm donor is a memorable...a matchless, actually...portrait of the kind of person I, in my damned close to infinite privilege, have never interacted with. He pimps out his prepubescent daughter. He does nothing of value to anyone, not even himself:
“She don’t like to be around anybody drinkin, don’t even like to smell it. I drink and I like to drink. That’s it.”
That's the least-offensive thing the man utters in this book. Probably in the whole of life. His son, his who-knows-how decent and good-souled son, makes him feel more worthless than he already does; not, however, as worthless as he actually is.

Gary goes to work for Joe on a county work crew. Joe, ex-con bad dad Joe, shines like a savior to him, modeling the astounding heights of not-stealing, of not-beating while being a man. Gary's life changes because he sees a possibility he never saw before. As events unfold, that possibility is embodied in a redemptive act of startling generosity, of genuine salvation.

And Joe chooses to save, not his own flesh and blood, but someone whose life trajectory makes Joe's own fucked-up life look like my wealth and privilege by comparison. If not for Larry Brown, I doubt I'd've made a second's time for these men.

Isn't this what fiction's meant to do? To make us, all of us really but especially the most shockingly privileged among us, pause and allow The Other to take unsentimental shape in our emotions?

Larry Brown did this to me, for me, and I am deeply grateful to him for it.