Friday, September 30, 2022

FEN, BOG and SWAMP: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis, short not sweet & RUNAWAY: Notes on the Myths That Made Me, memoir that missed its moment

FEN, BOG and SWAMP: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis

$26.99 hardcover, available now

One of LitHub's 38 Favorite Books of 2022!

NOMINATED FOR A 2022 NBCC AWARD IN NON-FICTION! Winners will be announced on 23 March 2023. More information here.

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: From Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx—whose novels are infused with her knowledge and deep concern for the earth—comes a riveting, revelatory history of our wetlands, their ecological role, and what their systematic destruction means for the planet.

A lifelong environmentalist, Annie Proulx brings her wide-ranging research and scholarship to the subject of wetlands and the vitally important yet little understood role they play in preserving the environment—by storing the carbon emissions that greatly contribute to climate change. Fens, bogs, swamps, and marine estuaries are the earth’s most desirable and dependable resources, and in four stunning parts, Proulx documents the long-misunderstood role of these wetlands in saving the planet.

Taking us on a fascinating journey through history, Proulx shows us the fens of 16th-century England to Canada’s Hudson Bay lowlands, Russia’s Great Vasyugan Mire, America’s Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, and the 19th-century explorers who began the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Along the way, she writes of the diseases spawned in the wetlands—the Ague, malaria, Marsh Fever—and the surprisingly significant role of peat in industrialization.

A sobering look at the degradation of wetlands over centuries and the serious ecological consequences, this is a stunningly important work and a rousing call to action by a writer whose passionate devotion to understanding and preserving the environment is on full and glorious display.


My Review
: First things first: Those title words aren't synonyms, exactly, so much as a family tree of naturally occurring wet places on Earth.

  • fens, fed by rivers and streams, usually deep, peat-forming, and supporting reeds and marsh grass

  • bogs, shallower water fed by rainfall, peat-forming, and supporting sphagnum mosses

  • swamps, a peat-making, shallow wetland with trees and shrubs

  • This information is important to fully understanding the scale and cost of wetland losses we've inflicted on the planet. Author Proulx (whose use of "yclept" in this book I note here with a big smile, as it's a favorite underused word of mine) is an experienced campaigner when it comes to putting English through its paces to evoke a sense of place and a perception of mood:
    The fen people of all periods knew the still water, infinite moods of cloud. They lived in reflections and moving reed shadows, poled through curtains of rain, gazed at the layered horizon, at curling waves that pummeled the land edge in storms.
    It can take ten thousand years for a bog to convert to peat but in only a few weeks a human on a peat cutter machine can strip a large area down to the primordial gravel.

    Nothing made by human minds is ever perfect. I'm glad the title gave Author Proulx, eighty-six at this writing, an opportunity to mourn publicly the fens of her Connecticut childhood. I was fascinated by the information about the vanished English fens. But the bogs came in for a cursory examination in comparison, seen mostly through the lens of bog bodies. I acknowledge the personal element of the fact that they're bodies probably gave more heft to the science of peat bogs that really needed to be presented. I found it a distraction, though, while others may think of it as an enhancement.

    It is with the swamps and bayous of my erstwhile stomping grounds, Southern Texas and its adjacent lowlands, that the short shrift became apparent. Houston and its urban sprawl could, and should, form a book of damning indictments of greed and stupidity. New Orleans was, for reasons I simply can't understand, rescued as a human habitation after the death of the many bayous and wetlands south of it resulted in its near expensive playground for rich people. Another book that should be written (again).

    But take away from any read the best, accept that not all of it was made with your taste in mind, and Author Proulx's essential message shines a harsh lime-light onto the instrumentalist Judeo-Christian worldview that's landed us in this awful mess:
    The attitude of looking at nature solely as something to be exploited—without cooperative thanks or appeasing sacrifices—is ingrained in western cultures.

    Our addiction to Being Right, to understanding the uses but not the purposes of this, our one and only planet, is killing us. And the death sentence has fallen on our generation. Lucky, lucky us we have Author Proulx to bear witness: "The waters tremble at our chutzpah and it seems we will not change."


    RUNAWAY: Notes on the Myths That Made Me

    Belt Publishing
    $29.00 hardcover, available now

    One of NPR's Best Books of 2022!

    Rating: 4* of five, all for the startlingly apt and pointed phrases about her mother

    The Publisher Says: From Erin Keane, editor in chief at Salon, comes a touching memoir about the search for truths in the stories families tell.

    In 1970, Erin Keane’s mother ran away from home for the first time. She was thirteen years old. Over the next several years, and under two assumed identities, she hitchhiked her way across America, experiencing freedom, hardship, and tragedy. At fifteen, she met a man in New York City and married him. He was thirty-six.

    Though a deft balance of journalistic digging, cultural criticism, and poetic reimagining, Keane pieces together the true story of her mother’s teenage years, questioning almost everything she’s been told about her parents and their relationship. Along the way, she also considers how pop culture has kept similar narratives alive in her. At stake are some of the most profound questions we can ask ourselves: What’s true? What gets remembered? Who gets to tell the stories that make us who we are?

    Whether it’s talking about painful family history, #MeToo, Star Wars, true crime forensics, or The Gilmore Girls, Runaway is an unforgettable look at all the different ways the stories we tell—both personal and pop cultural—create us.


    My Review
    : Memories are, by definition, the things that form us, the things we re-member our selves from. A memoir descends to us from French, mémoire, which can mean:

  • memory: "the ability to retain information or a representation of past experience, based on the mental processes of learning or encoding, retention across some interval of time, and retrieval or reactivation of the memory" (APA Dictionary of Psychology)

  • memorandum: "a short note designating something to be remembered, especially something to be done or acted upon in the future; reminder" (

  • store: "something that is stored or kept for future use. articles (as of food) accumulated for some specific object and drawn upon as needed : stock, supplies. something that is accumulated. a source from which things may be drawn as needed : a reserve fund" (Merriam-Webster)

  • mind: "broadly, all intellectual and psychological phenomena of an organism, encompassing motivational, affective, behavioral, perceptual, and cognitive systems; that is, the organized totality of an organism's mental and psychic processes and the structural and functional cognitive components on which they depend" (APA Dictionary of Psychology)

  • remembrance: "the act of remembering and showing respect for someone who has died or a past event" and/or "a memory of something that happened in the past" (Cambridge Dictionary)

  • dissertation: "a written essay, treatise, or disquisition" with special reference to scholarly use (Wordnik)

  • report: "an account or statement describing in detail an event, situation, or the like, usually as the result of observation, inquiry, etc." (

  • well as the sense Anglophones use it in; it's a word, in other words, for lots of things that mean "parts of a whole thing, or place to put those parts." Memories are like that, bits of a whole thing that often, when reassembled, aren't the thing itself. We can bless the French for allowing us the use of this multi-warheaded weapon of a word for reifying the brain's peculiar technology of making meaning from the electromagnetic stew we all swim in. Some of us more successfully than others, as Author Keane's researches into her family have vividly taught her.

    Had Author Keane's memoir, in any of those senses, of her life in pop-cultural mythic tones appeared two or even three years ago, it would be a triumph. As it is, it's a beautifully written memoir in the "store" or "report" sense, in the "place I've put fragments and pieces of things I want to remember and keep in some meaningful context." What it isn't is a successful book.

    You can take it from me that the author's chops as a phrase-smith are solid, impeccably pointed sentences darted into the hides of slow-moving shambolic man-things that ruined the lives of her mother, then her, with their thoughtless trampling solipsism. It's not the least bit arguable that this is a writer, and a journalist, of talent and training, of tenacity and fascinating insight.

    When she's talking about her mother, and her seriously screwed-up life.

    When she tries to connect this with her pop-culture fascinations, clearly re-evaluated in adulthood after #MeToo blew the blinders off the unwilling-to-see and forced them to look, look, at the cost their pretty little fantasy exacted. On everyone, really, since a damaged person does damage, too; but inarguably on women the most tellingly, the most vilely.

    What I can't make work in reading the piercingly honest redefinition of the author's life is why the John Ford/Woody Allen/et alii men are there. Yes, we know, they were ghastly people and treated women as playthings, they baked that attitude into their art, but...we know this. It's part of your mental furniture? Mine too. I swallowed it whole (though I never warmed to Woody Allen, too nebbishy for me). So did a few billion others. But you're talking about these men as though the betrayal of trust is fresh, without telling me why it *is* fresh for you, or putting into a time-context that would explain your palpable sense of betrayal.

    Some wounds aren't best explored too often because the sympathy of the audience goes from victim to monster. This is a tipping point to be avoided at all costs with the #MeToo men. Keep beating the drum, and it will reverberate on you more strongly than the intended audience.

    Anyway...very much a book of halves, one half excellent and the other...not.

    Thursday, September 29, 2022

    MY BROTHER: A Novel, Scandinavian grimdark not-fantasy with a sting in its tail

    MY BROTHER: A Novel
    (tr. Anna Paterson)
    Pushkin Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
    $14.95 trade paper, available now

    Rating: 4* of five

    The Publisher Says: A Swedish publishing phenomenon: a literary noir of extraordinary power follows the discovery of a young woman’s body in the long grass behind the sawmill...

    Which part of the story is not for telling?

    Jana Kippo has returned to Smalånger to see her twin brother, Bror, still living in the small family farmhouse in the remote north of Sweden.

    Within the isolated community, secrets and lies have grown silently, undisturbed for years.

    Following the discovery of a young woman's body in the long grass behind the sawmill, the siblings, hooked by a childhood steeped in darkness, need to break free.

    But the truth cannot be found in other people's stories. The question is: can it be found anywhere?


    My Review
    : First, read this:
    We were born just a few minutes apart and are alike in many ways. Especially in how we look. We are thin and gingery, with straggly unpigmented hair. We are so bleakly unremarkable that nobody used to remember either of us as somebody. Only as the twins.


    So the police were looking into her death I said.
    Of course they did. What did you expect. A dead woman found in the grass near the sawmill and it turns out she has slept with most of the married men in the village. And a number of others as well. On top of that one of the suspects is a convicted murderer.
    Who I asked. Me of course he said.

    You're now familiar with the author's voice in this, the first of three novels set it the Arctic Swedish town of Smalånger, where Bror and Jana are from...Jana has left...Bror hasn't bothered, he can drink himself to death in the comfort of what was the family's home. With, now, the company of his twin, as she chooses to come back to, to, help? Anyway, bear witness if not accelerate the crash. To keep herself in food (Bror worries about booze, nothing else) she starts working for the local social services department, which she calls smalångerhomecareservices, thus making herself useful while getting fully up on the local gossip from the people she works with and the ones she's helping to survive whatever time is left to them in a modicum of physical comfort. No one in Smalånger lives in psychic comfort, she discovers early, and often.

    My idea of what I was in for was too weak-kneed. I thought I'd get something dark, but not my-eyes-my-poor-eyes dark! A woman suffers a dreadful childhood; returns to the scene of the crime to be there with the brother ("Bror" is Swedish for "brother"; unlike Jana, he has no personal name) whose life was stalled, stopped, and never had any particular reason to start it again. He drifts aimlessley, but reasonably harmlessly...yes, he sleeps with his best friend's wife, but it's not like he was the only one who did; he's drinking himself to death, sure, but when the woman he loved but who was murdered by person or persons unknown, what else is there to do except hang out with her widower and drink?

    No, not chuckle one in this book. But there are two more in Swedish and I need to read them now!

    What the heck? I need to read them? Yes, while I wouldn't have predicted that I'd get invested in this Nordic grimdark saga of terrible, sad, claustrophobic life in a tiny, remote, and dark (physically) place, that is exactly what happened. What more there is to learn I want to learn it.

    It's that kind of a read, y'all. You won't leave the same as you entered.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2022

    THE PACHINKO PARLOR, 2nd novel from Korean French author about Japanese colonialism ***SPOILERS***

    (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)
    Open Letter (non-affiliate Amazon link)
    $16.95 trade paper, available now

    Rating: 4.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: The days are beginning to draw in. The sky is dark by seven in the evening. I lie on the floor and gaze out of the window. Women’s calves, men’s shoes, heels trodden down by the weight of bodies borne for too long.

    It is summer in Tokyo. Claire finds herself dividing her time between tutoring twelve-year-old Mieko, in an apartment in an abandoned hotel, and lying on the floor at her grandparents: daydreaming, playing Tetris and listening to the sounds from the street above. The heat rises; the days slip by.

    The plan is for Claire to visit Korea with her grandparents. They fled the civil war there over fifty years ago, along with thousands of others, and haven’t been back since. When they first arrived in Japan, they opened Shiny, a pachinko parlor. Shiny is still open, drawing people in with its bright, flashing lights and promises of good fortune. And as Mieko and Claire gradually bond, a tender relationship growing, Mieko’s determination to visit the pachinko parlor builds.

    The Pachinko Parlor is a nuanced and beguiling exploration of identity and otherness, unspoken histories, and the loneliness you can feel amongst family. Crisp and enigmatic, Shua Dusapin’s writing glows with intelligence.


    My Review
    : I'm aware of two things about this read, two very strong responses that wouldn't be elicited by any other read I've encountered this year: 1) Food looms very, very large in my experience of a story. This book, it's Claire and her inability to enjoy any food she encounters in Japan. 2) Author Shua Dusapin builds very intricate clockworks of interdependent imagery to support her stories of women without pleasure in the worlds they're in. The recurring fish-object images in this book join Winter in Sokcho's cold, echoing spaces. I mean, when a child's desire to act on the world is performed in explicit imitation of a cleaner fish, and a train pulling into a station summons from its immensity and speed the idea of a fish in Claire, our main character, then the author's going about her business with a degree of bravura that demands to be noted. As to whether it worked, I cannot say. I noticed it...I never thought of not noticing it...but derived nothing but the most facile conclusions from its obviousness. Me, or the choice? A case is readily made for either.

    Claire's visit to her Korean grandparents, whose lives have taken them to batten on the economic lifeblood of their erstwhile colonizers, is Claire has little knowledge of Korean to offer in her attempts to connect with them. None of them deign to speak Japanese among themselves. So, to skirt around the grandparental reticence with their native language (a reticence they did not demonstrate with Claire's Swiss boyfriend, she notes) and still manage to communicate, they use English. Another colonial associated in Korea with the US...another occupying power, though perhaps more palatable (!) because it's used by the Japanese's modern overlords.

    Pachinko earns profits for her Korean grandparents...the only legal way for Japanese to gamble, or Koreans to earn...Japan making an apology for its colonial past? Or simply making it obvious who the vampires sucking the country's vice income into themselves are. Both...either...not for nothing is Japan's food disagreeable to Claire. Its artifice (a description of a raspberry atop a dessert was so revolting I had to put the book down:
    I look down at my tart. A single raspberry glistens atop a lump of whipped cream. Compact and rubbery-looking. I pick up my knife, cut the tart into sections and start eating. It tastes fatty. I spit it out into my napkin. The raspberry stares up at me, still intact, coated in a film of jelly. made something lush and luscious sound so unheathily slimy!) is removed from nature, is devoid of dirt or even signs of human hands in its preparation...something very Japanese about that. And Claire's not having it inside her, not willingly anyway.

    Mieko serves as Claire's out, her means of contributing something to this life she's temporarily trapped in (it's a visit, not an emigration!) and unhappily isolated within. Mieko is a young Japanese girl whose mother hires Claire to teach French. (Which is odd, given the mother's fluency...permaybehaps seeking a genuinely French accent? from a Swiss Korean?) Mieko's, um, a little odd. Her ordinary-kid desires, eg going to theme parks or eating, are all as not-Japanese as is Claire's role in her life of teaching her a European language. Mieko is for Claire, unsurprisingly, the friend whose strangeness meets one's own in silent weirdo communion.

    Claire's main failing as a character is simply that she is so passive. She drifts, she causes nothing to happen...teaching Mieko French and acting as her escort to theme parks aren't things Claire causes or even proposes...and, in the end, her presence changes nothing. The grandparents she's there to visit aren't communicative, make no demands and accept no role in the granddaughter who came around the world to enable a much-mooted visit to Korea for them's life while she's there. The visit itself, a "return" to a country that the grandparents left before there was a North or a South or an American- or Chinese-backed state, is...inconclusive. Did it happen? We aren't vouchsafed that information...Claire's climbing a gangway, thinking her grandparents are behind her...and they aren't.

    What makes me not-best-pleased about that ending, that tunnel Claire's climbing to visit a place she's not been to, she's there to allow others to experience before they the fact that it does nothing like an ending to resolve the family's generational hurts. It's a story about a disintegrating family's stop at a roadside attraction on its way somewhere and suddenly the stop's over but not everyone's in the car.

    It is, in other words, a bit too much like Winter in Sokcho to be ignored. That tale's very French-feeling plot of plotlessness as families unite around the goal of making everyone feel as miserable as possible worked because it was the author's introduction to the Anglophone reading world. It's no less beautifully wrapped in sentences here, the imagery is lovely,'s not my first trip to the well.

    I am glad I read this story. I am eager to see what else the author has in mind for me to read in future. I hope it will ring more than a change of scenery on the story next time. Once was enough; twice a bit troublesome; no more now, if you please.

    Monday, September 26, 2022

    THE SLEEPING CAR PORTER, Black Queer Canadian historical novel & CABIN COMMOTION, a fun romantic read


    Coach House Books
    $17.95 (US) trade paper, available now

    CONGRATULATIONS to Coach House Books & Suzette Mayr for THE SLEEPING CAR PORTER, a #queer #Black & #Canadian (got my almost-5* #BookRecommendation here: being THE WINNER OF THE 2022 Giller Prize! Watch the shining moment here.

    The author's search for models among people who don't necessarily want to be used as models, from Lit Hub.

    Rating: 4.75* of five

    The Publisher Says: When a mudslide strands a train, Baxter, a queer Black sleeping car porter, must contend with the perils of white passengers, ghosts, and his secret love affair

    The Sleeping Car Porter brings to life an important part of Black history in North America, from the perspective of a queer man living in a culture that renders him invisible in two ways. Affecting, imaginative, and visceral enough that you’ll feel the rocking of the train, The Sleeping Car Porter is a stunning accomplishment.

    Baxter’s name isn’t George. But it’s 1929, and Baxter is lucky enough, as a Black man, to have a job as a sleeping car porter on a train that crisscrosses the country. So when the passengers call him George, he has to just smile and nod and act invisible. What he really wants is to go to dentistry school, but he’ll have to save up a lot of nickel and dime tips to get there, so he puts up with “George.”

    On this particular trip out west, the passengers are more unruly than usual, especially when the train is stalled for two extra days; their secrets start to leak out and blur with the sleep-deprivation hallucinations Baxter is having. When he finds a naughty postcard of two queer men, Baxter’s memories and longings are reawakened; keeping it puts his job in peril, but he can’t part with the postcard or his thoughts of Edwin Drew, Porter Instructor.


    My Review
    : The burden of racism lands without rhyme or reason. In no way does R.T. Baxter, dentist in training, want to believe he needs to be "George" to the oblivious white people his job as a porter on this particular cross-Canada trip from Montreal to Vancouver. They call him George anyway; he knows better than to correct them. And he knows that he's retaining a degree of his selfhood by allowing them to use a name that isn't connected to his self. It's not his self the oblivious don't see. It's not his self the crude jeer at, demean, demand from. It's George, the porter.

    The beginning of the book makes you, a twenty-first century reader, ill with the shame of being a witness to a man's humiliation at the whims of people no better and mostly significantly worse than he is. There's a repugnant attempt at sexual assault; there's a nasty trick played regarding a tip; most of all, Baxter...George, w-bombed by one of the continent's most repulsive specimens of whiteness. And you're only on your first leg of the trip, Reader! BaxterGeorge is so very not on his first, fourth, fifteenth even. And the hits keep comin' with the company's Bartlebys announcing he has new demerits. New ways to risk losing this job that could, if he just makes himself stick the landing enough...enough more...times, get him closer to the goal of becoming a dentist.

    What transpires in this 1929-set tale of oblivious, privileged people behaving as badly as they are capable of without tipping too far into actual malice...even their obliviousness is used to shield them from the reality of those who serve them! seen through the stream of Baxter's desperately fatigued consciousness. His never-ending round of service isn't met with thanks, gratitude, or praise; just with demands for more. His brain serves up the memories of men he's cared for, he's served in the manner he's happy to serve them. He can't always connect the "reality" outside himself with the needs and wants of the young man he really is. He doesn't have a second to himself to dive back into The Scarab from Jupiter, for heaven's sake, even though a landslide trapped them...train-them, keep up! a pass and the Egyptologists are just finding out where on Jupiter they've been taken by their captors. Esme, little newly orphaned scrap of flesh that attached itself to him to escape a Gorgonops of a granny, won't let him go long enough to keep Pulp and Paper, those pompous bombastic business travelers, keep them from complaining about his unconscionable lack of information as to why the railroad allowed their train to be delayed by an Act of God, and then there's Mad Mary making all the sorts of noises as only his conductor-queen self can about Baxter also watching over Templeton's sleepers-only car...but in Baxter's car the Doctor's having A Crisis over his David, his colleague David, being arrested and, well, couldn't know...stay?

    It's a sadly unchanging situation. People who, themselves, want and need are instead wanted and needed at, and only the right ones get those needs met. What Baxter gives up in his one wild and precious life is meant to be an investment in a better personal as well as social tomorrow as a dentist caring for needful peoples' teeth. What happens to him in the meantime is the out-of-body experience of sleep deprivation, the absolute and utter abnegation of meeting the needs of people who can't so much as bother to learn, still less use, your name, the all-consuming pandering demanded by those whose lives are built on shoals of "I PAID FOR THIS" without ever seeing the vast deeps of suffering the shoals stand in.

    Capitalism is cruel, and the comfortably fixed for money like it that way. There's nothing wrong with the system, says the pale faces and pink gums of the privileged. Look, I tipped George, didn't I?

    Simultaneously moving, infuriating, beautiful, and deadly, this is a superb choice for the Giller Prize.



    non-affiliate Amazon link
    $4.99 available now

    Rating: 3.75* of five

    The Publisher Says: High-paid escort Marcus graduates college and he’s ready to leave The Manor. Working for pimp Kalepo for four years, Marcus believes there’s no way out without paying a fatal price. When Kalepo ends Marcus’s apartment lease and moves him into his home as his full time escort without his permission, Marcus leaves California on a train to New York City and a bus to a rented Vermont cabin for one month to hide from Kalepo and to think about his future.

    Playboy Blaze is the son of Sal Bossio, a New York City Italian mobster. His father orders him to his Vermont cabin for one month while he settles mob business. Blaze hires a rent boy for one month, but unexpected events occur and he finds himself alone in Vermont. When he reaches his cabin, he finds a stranger sleeping in his bed. The gorgeous gingered-haired man could be a hitman sent by his father’s enemies.

    Two lonely men solve the cabin commotion by sharing the only bed in the cabin during their sex fest, saving hidden pasts and tough decisions until the month ends.


    My Review
    : One of those "join my mailing list, get a free book," come-ons that worked out just fine. It's a meet-cute, with a slutty edge to it, kind of story about how hard it is to break the habits of a lifetime's training and trust people, talk to people, who stay long enough to listen to you.

    Marcus's parents aren't. They left him with a nasty uncle whose rage at him for being a faggot (a word we see a lot in this short book) led to his living the life of a highly paid escort. I mean, it's good to earn your keep by using the weapon that got you chucked out, right? Talk about lemonade from lemons!

    The life of a seriously pricey escort isn't materially deprived. Marcus still feels abandoned, feels rejected, and then feels everything in the world reorient itself when he meets Blaze (and Blaze's anger issues). Blaze's dad is a mafioso, and is perfectly aware that his son's a hothead who gives men head. Yeah, so? My son, my priority, not you and your stupid issues.

    Well, it's a romance, you know we're gettin' our HEA. You also know we're gettin' our drawers warmed up, some smexytimes and a little helping of spanking kink along the way. These guys don't waste a lot of time fully clothed. Their sex wasn't fresh or new to me, but it wasn't rote or mechanical. I believed these two characters would have this sex. And I believed they'd have these exact, precise miscommunication problems, one prideful and arrogant (Blaze) and the other wary and untrusting (Marcus). What I didn't expect was that Blaze's Pop would adopt Marcus with such tenderness. He genuinely sounds pissed off when Blaze acts the dickhead and drives Marcus away. He even gives Marcus the plan to make Blaze pay for it by igniting his jealousy via a fake date!

    Anyway, a free treat for signing up on Author Brina's newsletter list made this a just-fine Sunday afternoon-passing story of young, horny hotties finding out early that the family you give yourself is worth fighting for.

    Sunday, September 25, 2022

    September 2022's Burgoine Reviews & Pearl Rule Reviews

    Author 'Nathan Burgoine posted this simple, direct method of not getting paralyzed by the prospect of having to write reviews. The Three-Sentence Review is, as he notes, very helpful and also simple to achieve. I get completely unmanned at the idea of saying something trenchant about each book I read, when there often just isn't that much to I can use this structure to say what I think is the most important idea I took away from the read and not try to dig for more.

    Think about using it yourselves!


    Husband Material (London Calling, #2) by Alexis Hall

    Rating: 2.5* of five, rounded up because I'm soft-headed

    The Publisher Says: Wanted:

    One (very real) husband

    Nowhere near perfect but desperately trying his best

    In BOYFRIEND MATERIAL, Luc and Oliver met, pretended to fall in love, fell in love for real, dealt with heartbreak and disappointment and family and friends…and somehow figured out a way to make it work. Now it seems like everyone around them is getting married, and Luc’s feeling the social pressure to propose. But it’ll take more than four weddings, a funeral, and a bowl full of special curry to get these two from I don’t know what I’m doing to I do.

    Good thing Oliver is such perfect HUSBAND MATERIAL.

    This Summer 2022, you’re invited to the event(s) of the season.


    My Review
    : Mean-spirited instead of snarky; cruel instead of incisively observed; slightly distasteful because the men aren't even in the same language family, let alone on the same page of the same book. (The Moomin references and the jigsaw scene probably got both whole stars.)

    It had a tough act to follow, it's true. I expected much more from Boyfriend Material's sequel. But the only scene that had the same touch as that book was when Luc and Bridget talk through his options before the last chapter.

    Saddens me to find the heart of Luc and Oliver's strange brew missing.


    David and Goliath: Fantasy M/M Spider Erotic Romance by Edie Montreux

    Rating: 3.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: This story was originally written for a defunct submission call. This is your chance to read the story for free! Please join my newsletter, confirm your email address, and on the follow-up email, select the fantasy romance option as your reward when signing up for my newsletter!


    My Review
    : Spider sex? What I knew about the topic was 1) I'm SOOOOO glad I'm not a spider 2) Charlotte's Web.

    I know more now.


    Well, what I *can* say is that my w-bomb aversion has reached capable-of-detonation heat. I can deal with a spider fucking a man. I can even see what that could do for someone's libidinous lexile activity, though not mine.

    But FOUR EYES W-VERBING is an image that will give me nightmares for months!

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    A Dance of Cranes (Birder Murder Mystery #6) by Steve Burrows

    Rating: 3.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: A trail of murder leads Domenic Jejeune across a vast continent.

    Newly estranged from his girlfriend, Inspector Domenic Jejeune returns to Canada, where he soon receives news that his brother has gone missing in Wood Buffalo National Park while conducting field research on Whooping Cranes. Jejeune immediately heads out West to try to find him.

    Meanwhile, back in the U.K., Jejeune’s plan to protect his ex-girlfriend from a dangerous adversary has failed, and she has also gone missing. In Jejeune’s absence, it falls to his trusty sergeant, Danny Maik, to track her down. But there is far more to the situation than either of them anticipated. And time is running out for all of them.


    My Review
    : The sixth book in an ongoing series, this entry has two things I enjoy...Canadian setting, birding events...and two things I really don' dynamics that are absurd and coercive, and a woman-in-jeopardy driving the plot.

    Domenic's brother Damien is TSTL and has needed rescuing a LOT in the series. This time he simply does not take reasonable precautions! He does careless things a lot and Domenic always scrapes up the mess. Why? No excuse works for this frequency of use. Not for this reader, anyway.

    Lindy, who is notionally Domenic's ex at this point, gets kidnapped, and that is of course a huge deal...but she's back in the UK not in Canada so Domenic isn't involved in the search...but of course is upset by it. This is called "fridging" in the comics genre, and it makes me nutso.

    This explains my under-four-star rating, and honestly the wide-open place the book stops felt like a cheat not an ending, so permaybehaps I won't be among the crowds moving on to book seven.

    Oneworld Publications will cheerfully accept your $4.99 in exchange for access to a Kindle edition. The series is very interesting, or I wouldn't've been reviewing #6!


    Celebrity Werewolf by Andrew Wallace

    Rating: 3.75* of five

    The Publisher Says: Sally Wisniewski (21) was jogging in a park in Kent when she was attacked by John Fonting (37), who had been stalking her for a year. Fonting was interrupted in his attempts to rip off Wisniewski’s clothes by ‘this massive grey thing that was like a gorilla, but taller and more pointy’. The creature hurled Fonting against a tree, incapacitating him.

    Ms Wisniewski said of her rescuer, “His voice was very deep and posh, and his eyes were sad and kind of lovely.”

    Fonting, released on bail, said: “Frankly I think immigration is totally out of control if they’re letting werewolves in. I mean, how’s he going to get a job?”

    Suave, sophisticated, erudite and charming, Gig Danvers seems too good to be true. He appears from nowhere and sets about promoting humanitarian causes and revolutionising science, using his growing influence for the good of all humankind; but are the cynics right to be cautious? Is there a darker side to this enigmatic benefactor? One that is more in keeping with his status as the CELEBRITY WEREWOLF?

    Andrew Wallace masterfully blends horror with high concept science fiction, in a short novel of first contact that is both moving and funny, yet plumbs the darkness of the human soul. The result is a story of surprises, wonder, and of hope.


    My Review
    : Much fun to be had in this silly romp. The deeper, and darker, meanings are perfectly possible to ignore if you just want a slightly absurd, very suave novella to pass some time; but the entire exercise, taken as a whole, is a tale of primal conflict.

    The titular celebrity werewolf winks into existence with no prior memories. So why would he have earned himself a truly determined nemesis? And what does it say about the world that a genuinely generous and other-directed guy is so easily and repeatedly foiled by a profit-driven and selfish turd?

    And how cynical am I that I found this so unremarkable as not to question it even once until I'd finished the whole read?

    NewCon Press offers Kindle editions (non-affiliate Amazon link) for $4.49.


    The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan by Rafia Zakaria

    Rating: 4* of five

    The Publisher Says: For a brief moment on December 27, 2007, life came to a standstill in Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto, the country’s former prime minister and the first woman ever to lead a Muslim country, had been assassinated at a political rally just outside Islamabad. Back in Karachi—Bhutto’s birthplace and Pakistan’s other great metropolis—Rafia Zakaria’s family was suffering through a crisis of its own: her Uncle Sohail, the man who had brought shame upon the family, was near death. In that moment these twin catastrophes—one political and public, the other secret and intensely personal—briefly converged.

    Zakaria uses that moment to begin her intimate exploration of the country of her birth. Her Muslim-Indian family immigrated to Pakistan from Bombay in 1962, escaping the precarious state in which the Muslim population in India found itself following the Partition. For them, Pakistan represented enormous promise. And for some time, Zakaria’s family prospered and the city prospered. But in the 1980s, Pakistan’s military dictators began an Islamization campaign designed to legitimate their rule—a campaign that particularly affected women’s freedom and safety. The political became personal when her aunt Amina’s husband, Sohail, did the unthinkable and took a second wife, a humiliating and painful betrayal of kin and custom that shook the foundation of Zakaria’s family but was permitted under the country’s new laws. The young Rafia grows up in the shadow of Amina’s shame and fury, while the world outside her home turns ever more chaotic and violent as the opportunities available to post-Partition immigrants are dramatically curtailed and terrorism sows its seeds in Karachi.

    Telling the parallel stories of Amina’s polygamous marriage and Pakistan’s hopes and betrayals, The Upstairs Wife is an intimate exploration of the disjunction between exalted dreams and complicated realities.


    My Review
    : I read this book in a dazed state, slightly revolted that a man *can* take a second wife without ridding himself of the first one; utterly stunned that the first wife, unconsulted and apparently not so much as considered in this life-altering decision, has no recourse; and appalled at religion's foul, slimy fingers choking yet another country's people into darkness and despair.

    What I thought I would read was a memoir tied explicitly to historical developments in Pakistan's life as a country. Instead the author's family's turmoils were centered, and the times in which they occurred...a war in 1962 was the impetus for her family to up sticks from their Bombay home, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination signaled darker political days but her aunt's betrayal bit deeper...were the depressingly appropriate backdrop for the erosion of their collective happiness.

    What this read lacked in propulsive plotting it more than made up for in food for fruitful mulling and turning and examining in one's mind. Most definitely a pleasure to have encountered this unique angle on the Rights of Woman honored in the breach not the observance.

    Beacon Press offers Kindle editions (non-affiliate Amazon link) for $13.99.


    Tehran at Twilight by Salar Abdoh

    Rating: 4* of five

    The Publisher Says: The year is 2008. Reza Malek's life is modest but manageable—he lives in a small apartment in Harlem, teaches "creative reportage" at a local university, and is relieved to be far from the blood and turmoil of Iraq and Afghanistan where he worked as a reporter, interpreter, and sometime lover for a superstar journalist who has long since moved on to more remarkable men.

    After a terse phone call from his best friend in Iran, Sina Vafa, Reza reluctantly returns to Tehran. Once there, he finds far more than he bargained for: the city is on the edge of revolution; his friend Sina is embroiled with Shia militants; his missing mother, who was alleged to have run off with a lover before the revolution, is alive and well—while his own life is in danger.

    Against a backdrop of corrupt clerics, shady fixers, political repression, and the ever-present threat of violence, Abdoh offers a telling glimpse into contemporary Tehran, and spins a compelling morality tale of identity and exile, the bonds of friendship, and the limits of loyalty.


    My Review
    : The politics of a thriller...evil done by good people, bad ones not so much redeemed as explained, Systems always, always regressing to the mean...the pace of a literary novel...we open in New York where a college professor begins speaking...and the domestic concerns of "women's fiction" as family, both born and made, center the action of the entire story.

    When Professor Reza, an American emigrant, hears from his childhood friend Sina with an urgent request to return to Iran, he dithers briefly but acquiesces. This sets in motion family reunions, with Reza's long-lost mother; endings for others, Sina's mother suffers a shocking (to me) betrayal; and the end of a lot of comfortable lives in service of rooting through the mucky, sinful past for nuggets of Truth.

    No Honor is to be found, though. Nothing comes out of the past unsullied. Reza, leaving New York and a comfortable life, bargained a lot away for the chance to find a few brummagem gauds that I wouldn't dignify with the name "facts," simply "data points."

    An incontrovertible fact I *did* glean, and felt richer for knowing, was the existence of a sizable Polish refugee community in Tehran. They fled the USSR (for obvious reasons) and fetched up in this distant place, welcomed and settled. I was deeply heartened by their lifetime's-worth of respite in a place I don't associate with refuge. Or generosity of spirit.

    What the read offered to me was a set of characters I recognized, and could invest in; a series of interwoven stories (except the Polish refugees one, that doesn't fit well) that resonate with and enhance each other; and a biittersweet ending that, like actual life, isn't tidy but is fruitful.

    Akashic Books offers Kindle editions (non-affiliate Amazon link) for $2.99.


    Love and Other Ways of Dying: Essays by Michael Paterniti

    Rating: 4* of five

    The Publisher Says: In this moving, lyrical, and ultimately uplifting collection of essays, Michael Paterniti turns a keen eye on the full range of human experience, introducing us to an unforgettable cast of everyday people. In the seventeen wide-ranging essays collected for the first time in Love and Other Ways of Dying, he brings his full literary powers to bear, pondering happiness and grief, memory and the redemptive power of human connection.

    In the remote Ukranian countryside, Paterniti picks apples (and faces mortality) with a real-life giant; in Nanjing, China, he confronts a distraught jumper on a suicide bridge; in Dodge City, Kansas, he takes up residence at a roadside hotel and sees, firsthand, the ways in which the racial divide turns neighbor against neighbor. In each instance, Paterniti illuminates the full spectrum of human experience, introducing us to unforgettable everyday people and bygone legends, exploring the big ideas and emotions that move us. Paterniti reenacts François Mitterrand’s last meal in a rustic dining room in France and drives across America with Albert Einstein’s brain in the trunk of his rental car, floating in a Tupperware container. He delves with heartbreaking detail into the aftermath of a plane crash off the coast of Nova Scotia, an earthquake in Haiti, and a tsunami in Japan—and, in searing swirls of language, unearths the complicated, hidden truths these moments of extremity teach us about our ability to endure, and to love.

    Michael Paterniti has spent the past two decades grappling with some of our most powerful subjects and incomprehensible events, taking an unflinching point of view that seeks to edify as it resists easy answers. At every turn, his work attempts to make sense of both love and loss, and leaves us with a profound sense of what it means to be human. As he writes in the Introduction to this book, “The more we examine the grooves and scars of this life, the more free and complete we become.”


    My Review
    : You expect essays to be inward-gazing, thought-provoking exercises in the acquisition of knowledge. What that often entails is also a certain claustrophobia, a kind of psychic noli me tangere above-it-all-ness. Author Paterniti avoids this fatally separate sense of insulation with the evergreen tactic of humor...but also of, in most of his essays, compassion. He tells us his stories without making either himself the star or himself the omniscient narrator of the foolish doings of Them.

    It's a deft trick to pull off, this being part of, apart from, moved by yet not moving, the action and actors of daily life in many different places. Ukrainian farm life, Chinese urban life, US long-haul travel...all without leaving scars or enemies behind you. Quite a trick to sustain and more impressive to pull off as a career.

    Obviously things are quite different in all the places and parts that Paterniti wrote about fifteen-plus years ago. In a certain sense I felt I was reading histories given the vantage point post-COVID and post-Ukrainian invasion. When the collection of previously published work first appeared in 2015, reading these essays was less evocative of a distant and receding past. Revisiting the collection from today's greatly altered worldscape made it feel disturbingly disconnected from our just seven years, the world of the late 1990s and early 2000s went from recent events to receding history!

    The inflection points of recent times have been that powerful. I had not fully realized this until I read "The American Hero (in Four Acts)" from 1998 and thinking, "this is a different world entirely." While I found that a surprising reflection, it wasn't entirely unexpected. Essays are, by their nature, prone to the reader having the sense of them being artifacts of a moment in time. None of these essays are so personal as to make them timeless; nor are they about politics as practiced at the time they were written, or they would simply be irrelevant and/or uninteresting. Paterniti's essays touched, moved, and even amused me inside their own frame of reference. A high-satisfaction reading experience.

    The Kindle edition (non-affiliate Amazon link) is $12.99.


    This space is dedicated to Nancy Pearl's Rule of 50, or "the Pearl Rule" as I've always called it. After realizing five times in December 2021 alone that I'd already Pearl-Ruled a book I picked up on a whim, I realized how close my Half-heimer's is getting to the full-on article. Hence my decision to track my Pearls!

    As she says:
    People frequently ask me how many pages they should give a book before they give up on it. In response to that question, I came up with my “rule of fifty,” which is based on the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books. If you’re fifty years of age or younger, give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100—the result is the number of pages you should read before making your decision to stay with it or quit.

    So this space will be each month's listing of Pearl-Ruled books. Earlier Pearl-Rule posts will be linked below the current month's crop.


    September 2022 came and went without any books being Pearl Ruled! I am amazed, and not a little delighted, that this was the case.

    Friday, September 16, 2022

    MISS ICELAND, exploring the reality of how much society has changed ***SPOILERS***

    (tr. Brian FitzGibbon)
    Black Cat (non-affiliate Amazon link)
    $10.99 Kindle edition, available now

    Rating: 4.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: Iceland in the 1960s. Hekla is a budding female novelist who was born in the remote district of Dalir. After packing her few belongings, including James Joyces's Ulysses and a Remington typewriter, she heads for Reykjavik with a manuscript buried in her bags. There, she intends to become a writer. Sharing an apartment with her childhood and queer friend Jón John, Hekla comes to learn that she will have to stand alone in a small male dominated community that would rather see her win a pageant than be a professional artist. As the two friends find themselves increasingly on the outside, their bond shapes and strengthens them artistically in the most moving of ways.


    My Review
    : It's always been true that, to be a success, a woman must do twice as much and can expect half the reward a man would get for the same labor. Hekla, cursed with both attractiveness and intelligence in a smugly patriarchal culture, learns that to be a writer who is taken seriously while also being a pretty female is a Sisyphean task. The 1960s were not yet times of change in Iceland....

    Hekla's ambitions lure her away from her rural home and, when she arrives in Reykjavík, her efforts are...Herculean. Yes, lots of mythology referred to here, and honestly it's only down to the fact that there isn't a better metaphor for what she is required to expend. Jón John, her gay BFF, preceded her to Reykjavík because if there's a worse thing to be in rural Iceland than a smart, ambitious, pretty woman, it's a queer man. They take up residence together while he does the kind of labor he can find, gets laid when someone's horny and their wife isn't willing, and ponders with her why they should be reduced to such crummy exigencies for getting mere crumbs of what they really want.

    I was ready to give the book five stars until I got to the ending. What happened there, I fear, was me smacking my nose on the sad, true realization that Jón John's deeply ingrained homophobia will, in fact, be the death of him; and that Hekla, in accepting a very terrible and unfair life for herself, has resigned herself to the way the world is. Is this how the book should end? Yes, I can certainly see that it would make the most sense for it to end as it has. I still wanted, on an emotional level, to feel the striving I'd seen the characters enact pay off. I expected Surtsey to come roaring up faster than it did and give the characters new, hot, fire-powered land to live their new, hot, fire-powered lives on.
    “Men are born poets. By the time of their confirmation, they’ve taken on the inescapable role of being geniuses. It doesn’t matter whether they write books or not. Women, on the other hand, grapple with puberty and have babies, which prevents them from being able to write.”

    No, not for humans as fully, honestly drawn as these humans were, to be given a fairy-tale ending. They got reality. It felt like a cheat; it wasn't, of course, but it felt like one. I will say that the emotional core of the book is sadness and that was not the source of my half-star docking. It was the changes Jón John and Hekla made not amounting to an improvement of their lives. It could have; it seemed to me that, once the Faustian bargain of marriage was struck between them, they could've used that energy to propel themselves to happier endings. But the core of sadness was too powerful. The end of the story is, in this book, really and truly an end. Hekla's book being published? A major achievement! And it's all her ex-boyfriend Starkadur's because otherwise, without his man's name on it, the book won't *get* published. Miss Iceland was beautifully, poignantly sad all the way through. But when a story has one note, it's hard to maintain one's taste for that, and only that, note.
    The skylight has misted up in the night, a white patina of snow has formed on the windowsill. I drape {Starkadur}'s sweater over me, move into the kitchen to get a cloth to wipe it up. A trail of sleet streams down the glass, I traced it with my finger. Apart from the squawk of seagulls, a desolate stillness reigns over Skolavordustigur.

    Understand your journey, don't undertake it if you're not in the mood for exactly that journey. If you are, this will repay your attention with exquisitely lovely, painfully honest images and you'll be honestly unable to see for sad tears that won't quite fall.

    Thursday, September 15, 2022


    (tr. Rosalind Harvey)
    And Other Stories
    $17.95 trade paper, available now

    Rating: 4.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: Juan Pablo Villalobos’s fifth novel adopts a gentle, fable-like tone, approaching the problem of racism from the perspective that any position as idiotic as xenophobia can only be fought with sheer absurdity.

    In an unnamed city, colonised by an unnamed world power, an immigrant named Gastón makes his living selling exotic vegetables to eateries around the city. He has a dog called Kitten, who’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and a good friend called Max, who’s in a deep depression after being forced to close his restaurant. Meanwhile, Max’s son, Pol, a scientist away on a scientific expedition into the Arctic, can offer little support.

    Faced with these dispiriting problems, Gastón begins a quest, or rather three: he must search for someone to put his dog to sleep humanely; he must find a space in which to open a new restaurant with Max; and he must look into the truth behind the news being sent back by Pol: that human life may be the by-product of an ancient alien attempt at colonisation . . . and that those aliens might intend to make a return visit.


    My Review
    : Alien invasion! Gastón's shared son, Pol, is freaking right out (wouldn't we all!) as he tries to get through Max, his depressed father's, fog what? Gastón, his other father, isn't quite sure what to do about Max's decline into dissociation from his failing business and crumbling participation with the world. But is Gastón sure he believes Pol? Aliens from space made us humans what we are?

    Add to the stress of trying to prop up Max, comprehend the influx of aliens from Earth (...or are they...?) and what that means for his and Max's attempts to survive as feeders of the people via growing and cooking food, his quest to find someone he trusts to give Kitten (his aging, ill dog) a good death. This is entirely a story of the humanity of all people, regardless of where they come from or how they define themselves.

    A casual reader might see the Asian stereotyping, with mentions of slanting eyes etc etc as endorsing this world-view. I don't think that is accurate, or fair. It seems to me that every step of the story's progress is made in the harsh light of Judgment. No one here, from Gastón (whose exploits we're following closely, as the third-person narrator advises us early on) on down, is spared an unflattering shadow.

    As is the norm for Author Villalobos, there is stuff to shock and offend those prone to such histrionics. Avoid the read, then, if you're not prepared to look closely at your own responses to the events unfolding here. I myownself think it's another, less raucous but more reflective, take-down of the structures and maintainers of Power as it's used in the twenty-first century end-stage capitalist world.


    (tr. Rosalind Harvey)
    FSG Originals
    $5.99 Kindle edition, available now

    Rating: 4.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: It’s the eighties in Lagos de Moreno—a town where there are more cows than people, and more priests than cows—and a poor family struggles to overcome the bizarre dangers of living in Mexico. The father, a high school civics teacher, insists on practicing and teaching the art of the insult, while the mother prepares hundreds of quesadillas to serve to their numerous progeny: Aristotle, Orestes, Archilochus, Callimachus, Electra, Castor, and Pollux. Confined to their home, the family bears witness to the revolt against the Institutional Revolutionary Party and their umpteenth electoral fraud. This political upheaval is only the beginning of son Orestes’s adventures and his uproarious crusade against the boredom of rustic life and the tyranny of his older brother.

    Both profoundly moving and wildly funny, Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Quesadillas is a satiric masterpiece, chock-full of inseminated cows, Polish immigrants, religious pilgrims, alien spacecraft, psychedelic watermelons, and many, many “your mama” insults.


    My Review
    : I do not think there is another author alive who can make such a painfully, angrily critical book about inequality so damned funny. Foul-mouthed Oreste blasts your wimpy Norteño eyes with some deeply "offensive" cursing, swearing, and blasphemy.

    I, of course, loved it.

    You need to be warned, though, lest you fall into one of those performative swoons that are so absurd and typical of the US readers. Lots and lots and lots of pearl-clutching fun to be had, of course, howling about your delicate sensibilities! But you can't claim to be blindsided. I'm telling you clearly, now, before you pick it up, that this teenager's mouth is not going to sound good to you.

    To me, it was a welcome return to honest, gut-deep youthful outrage at the hideous, genuinely offensive to proper sensibility calibration, social crimes and thefts. Nothing in this flensingly honest shout of outrage should shock you more than the cruelty, the sheer shocking indifference, of the economic elites.

    I encourage the easily-offended pearl-clutching fools to read it because it will offend them. They need offending.


    (tr. Daniel Hahn)
    And Other Stories
    $17.95 trade paper, available now

    Rating: 4.25* of five

    The Publisher Says: The author of Down the Rabbit Hole delivers a hilarious and prize-winning tale of immigrants, students and gangsters in Barcelona

    “I don’t expect anyone to believe me,” warns the narrator of this novel, a Mexican student called Juan Pablo Villalobos. He is about to fly to Barcelona on a scholarship, when he’s kidnapped in a bookshop and whisked away by thugs to a basement. The gangsters are threatening his cousin – a wannabe entrepreneur known to some as “Projects” and to others as “dickhead” – who is gagged and tied to a chair. The thugs say Juan Pablo must work for them. His mission? To bring Laia, a Mexican student in Barcelona and the daughter of a corrupt politician, to fall in love with him. He accepts, albeit unwillingly, and albeit after the crime boss has forced him at gunpoint into a discussion on the limits of humour in literature.

    Part campus novel, part gangster thriller, I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is Villalobos at his best, exuberantly foul-mouthed and intellectually agile. This hugely entertaining novel, the winner of Spain’s prestigious Herralde Prize, makes light work of difficult subjects – immigration, corruption, family loyalty and love – in a story where the bad guys aren’t as expected…and nor is anyone else.


    My Review
    : I did not know how I was going to review this latest satirical, bitter-as-bile delight from Juan Pablo Villalobos. Now I not only don't have to review it, I wouldn't dare. Robert Rea of estimable literary magazine The Southwest Review has already done everything I wanted to do, only he did it better. You can't see me, but I am vibrating with a Day-Glo orange jealous ragey hatred after reading that...that....

    If you liked THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES by Roberto Bolaño (here unsubtly parodied and lovingly honored), or any of Villalobos's previous books (QUESADILLAS {review above} or DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE for example), you should rush to the Kindle and download this gem or get the paperbook from your favorite bookery. Wherever you source it, y'all literary readers will most likely never feel a moment's regret that you read it.

    Monday, September 12, 2022

    LESSONS, Ian McEwan's curiously emotionless Bildungsroman ***SPOILERS***


    Alfred A. Knopf
    $30.00 hardcover, available now

    Trade Paperback Edition $18.00|available July 25, 2023

    One of NPR's Best Books of 2022!

    Rating: 3.75* of five

    The Publisher Says: From the best-selling author of Atonement and Saturday comes the epic and intimate story of one man's life across generations and historical upheavals. From the Suez Crisis to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall to the current pandemic, Roland Baines sometimes rides with the tide of history, but more often struggles against it.

    When the world is still counting the cost of the Second World War and the Iron Curtain has closed, eleven-year-old Roland Baines's life is turned upside down. Two thousand miles from his mother's protective love, stranded at an unusual boarding school, his vulnerability attracts piano teacher Miss Miriam Cornell, leaving scars as well as a memory of love that will never fade.

    Now, when his wife vanishes, leaving him alone with his tiny son, Roland is forced to confront the reality of his restless existence. As the radiation from Chernobyl spreads across Europe, he begins a search for answers that looks deep into his family history and will last for the rest of his life.

    Haunted by lost opportunities, Roland seeks solace through every possible means—music, literature, friends, sex, politics, and, finally, love cut tragically short, then love ultimately redeemed. His journey raises important questions for us all. Can we take full charge of the course of our lives without causing damage to others? How do global events beyond our control shape our lives and our memories? And what can we really learn from the traumas of the past?

    Epic, mesmerizing, and deeply humane, Lessons is a chronicle for our times—a powerful meditation on history and humanity through the prism of one man's lifetime.


    My Review
    : Sometimes gambling on a less-than-loved writer's work, when it's a story one really resonates with, pays off; other times, not so much. This experience, after my deep dislike of Solar and Atonement yet genuine appreciation for The Children Act, split the difference.

    It's not news to regulars here that I was sexually abused by my ephebeophile mother when young. Quite recently I read The Kingdoms, an alternate history novel by Natasha Pulley, which contained a truly astonishing scene of unwanted intimacy between a man (the victim) and his wife (the violator) that, for the very first time ever in my experience of reading, contained the truth of coercive heterosex where the man's the coerced partner. It was...healing...for me to see that on the page. It gave me the inner resources to request this book back in June.

    Lessons is out now, and I recommend it to you as a good, solid novel of reckoning with emotional damage across a lifetime.

    What about that equivocal waffle above? Well. Now. Author McEwan hasn't suddenly burst forth from a chrysalis and become a wildly passionate and gloriously sensuous prose stylist. He's still a man of his age and class. He's not built for flights of fancy or even particularly emotionally available prose stylings. It's one of the main reasons I haven't become a fanboy of his. But, and this is where I sound weird to my own inner ears, when there's a story to tell that *needs* to be kept buttoned up, he's the writer to do it. That was completely evident in The Children Act, another flat and affectless person's attempt to contextualize the wildly ungovernable emotions of others as they rampage through her (in that case) carefully designed lifestyle. It's the technique that was needed to tell this story and, blessedly, Author McEwan used it.

    What happens to young Roland isn't all that unusual. I know we, as a culture, like to think men are perpetrators and women are victims, but this has never been true. It's time we faced up to it in the post-#MeToo moments. It isn't at all surprising to me that the pace of this story varies as much as it does. The youthful disasters are the ones that set the stage, often act as the pattern, for the hurts and buffets of the future. The manner of Author McEwan's telling of the different stories was quite clearly meant to reflect this. Where something happens for the first time, it is given narrative weight; when it comes around again, it gets less of it. I approve, if that needs saying, of this strategy.

    No one is immune to the stresses and strains of The World as it runs amok and periodically threatens to kill us all. This life, Roland's years on this planet, contains all of my own years on it. I was at different stages of life than Roland, of course, being two decades younger; but the fact is I was formed by the same things Roland was. It felt to me as though Roland trudged and slogged a lot of his life away. Given the emotional damage he carries with him, that was perfectly logical to me. It wasn't, however, a chucklefest. When you're going to take me on a five hundred-plus page trip inside one man's skull, I as a reader would like some lightening of the shadows, say with humor. Author McEwan doesn't offer that to us; this is something to be aware of in deciding whether you'd like to read the book.

    Many other early readers seem to have a problem with Alissa, the wife who abandons Roland with their infant son to become a writer. I'm entirely unsure what the heck the problem they have with that subplot is. It's not like it can't happen, since it's something Doris Lessing (eg) actually did. I myownself wasn't in the least surprised that Roland would marry someone who could calmly walk away from messy emotional realities in order to serve her own needs. Like calls to like, after all.

    The one moment I felt Author McEwan really rather overplayed his emotionless hand had to do with the Chernobyl felt, in its handling, like something was finally just off in the manner of his weaving the event into the story. But honestly, as said above, this book is telling a story about the reverberations of an emotional cripple's awkward flailings, and nobody I can think of could do it better than Ian McEwan has done.

    Wednesday, September 7, 2022

    THE PORTABLE VEBLEN, family drama played for laughs & MY NAME IS WILL, Shakespeare as countercultural rebel...twice & THE READER, Guilt! GUILT!


    The Penguin Press
    $17.00 trade paper, available now

    Rating: 3.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: The Portable Veblen is a dazzlingly original novel that’s as big-hearted as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Set in and around Palo Alto, amid the culture clash of new money and old (antiestablishment) values, and with the specter of our current wars looming across its pages, The Portable Veblen is an unforgettable look at the way we live now. A young couple on the brink of marriage—the charming Veblen and her fiancé Paul, a brilliant neurologist—find their engagement in danger of collapse. Along the way they weather everything from each other’s dysfunctional families, to the attentions of a seductive pharmaceutical heiress, to an intimate tête-à-tête with a very charismatic squirrel.

    Veblen (named after the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”) is one of the most refreshing heroines in recent fiction. Not quite liberated from the burdens of her hypochondriac, narcissistic mother and her institutionalized father, Veblen is an amateur translator and “freelance self”; in other words, she’s adrift. Meanwhile, Paul—the product of good hippies who were bad parents—finds his ambition soaring. His medical research has led to the development of a device to help minimize battlefield brain trauma—an invention that gets him swept up in a high-stakes deal with the Department of Defense, a Bizarro World that McKenzie satirizes with granular specificity.

    As Paul is swept up by the promise of fame and fortune, Veblen heroically keeps the peace between all the damaged parties involved in their upcoming wedding, until she finds herself falling for someone—or something—else. Throughout, Elizabeth McKenzie asks: Where do our families end and we begin? How do we stay true to our ideals? And what is that squirrel really thinking? Replete with deadpan photos and sly appendices, The Portable Veblen is at once an honest inquiry into what we look for in love and an electrifying reading experience.


    My Review
    : A debut novel that, for its subject, takes on greed, Othering, and intergenerational family toxicity. While Author McKenzie published stories before this book appeared in 2016, the appearance of the novel was warbled delightedly about by Jeff VanderMeer, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Karen Joy Fowler. Reviews from the New York, and Los Angeles, and Seattle Timeses, the Boston Globe, Library Journal and Kirkus and NPR...several programs!...was longlisted for a National Book get the idea, it was down as The Next Big Deal.

    But I forgot it existed. I read it in the dark year, and I came up dry on things to say about it.

    In having a clear-out, I found the ARC again. It's such a strange title that I remembered it straight away. How many people in 2022 recall who Thorstein Veblen was? Not a lot more, or fewer honestly, than did in 2016. It's an odd and slightly off-putting thing to first-name your main character. It does efficiently Other her from the get-go. I wasn't sure that I liked that. I remember thinking that it was a darn good thing that she was the sort of person who could, in all seriousness, ask “Do you think wishful thinking is a psychiatric condition?”

    So why did I resurrect this long-ago gift from a publisher who clearly never thought to hear from me about it again? Because, in flipping through it, I was caught by some unusually persuasive turns of phrase:
    She had once concluded everyone on earth was a servant to the previous generation—born from the body’s factory for entertainment and use. A life could be spent like an apology—to prove you had been worth it.
    Veblen espoused the Veblenian opinion that wanting a big house full of cheaply produced versions of so-called luxury items was the greatest soul-sucking trap of modern civilization, and that these copycat mansions away from the heart and soul of a city had ensnared their overmortgaged owners—yes, trapped and relocated them like pests.
    The sharing of simple meals and discussing the day's events, of waking up together with plans for the future, things that feel practically bacchanalian when you're used to being on your own.

    This is a writer speaking her truth. I love finding these moments. I think I left the book by the wayside because I couldn't, in the dark year, process the anticapitalist message as anything but the confirmation bias of my brain. In the decades of being steadily more and more radicalized by capitalism's failures of me, my chosen people, and the world my descendants will live in, I've resharpened that mental blade many times. This time I felt Author McKenzie's edge slash closer to me than before.

    Author McKenzie reserves her loudest klaxon, her angriest blast of Gabriel's horn, for we-the-consumers. The sneaky message under Veblen's dithering disconnectedness is there. It's not unique, nor even original, but it's heartfelt and it's eloquent...and she's correct:
    “I pledge allegiance, to the marketplace,
    of the United States of America. TM.
    And to the conglomerates, for which we shill,
    one nation under Exxon-Mobile/Halliburton/Boeing/Walmart,
    with litter and junk mail for all!”



    MY NAME IS WILL: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare

    Twelve (non-affiliate Amazon link)
    $1.99 Kindle edition, available now

    Rating: 3* of five

    The Publisher Says: A tale of two Shakespeares . . .

    Struggling UC Santa Cruz grad student Willie Shakespeare Greenberg is trying to write his thesis about the Bard. Kind of . . .

    Cut off by his father for laziness, and desperate for dough, Willie agrees to deliver a single giant, psychedelic mushroom to a mysterious collector, making himself an unwitting target in Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs.

    Meanwhile, would-be playwright (and oppressed Catholic) William Shakespeare is eighteen years old and stuck teaching Latin in the boondocks of Stratford-upon-Avon. The future Bard’s life is turned upside down when a stranger entrusts him with a sacred relic from Rome . . . This, at a time when adherents of the “Old Faith” are being hanged, drawn, and quartered as traitors.

    Seemingly separated in time and place, the lives of Willie and William begin to intersect in curious ways, from harrowing encounters with the law (and a few ex-girlfriends) to dubious experiments with mind-altering substances. Their misadventures could be dismissed as youthful folly. But wise or foolish, the bold choices they make will shape not only the “Shakespeare” each is destined to become . . . but the very course of history itself.


    My Review
    : Tediously moralistic look at how Society tames us by taking hostages.

    Heteronormative...shocking, I know...look at Will Shakespeare as horndog, transformed by Time (and parenthood) into...ya know what, if you like this kind of stuff you already know you like it. I don't much. Catholicism is a major vector for evil in this world, there's no denying that to anyone not an apologist; but Catholics ran the risk of horrible deaths in order to enact their fantasy of Religion. On the modern side, academia comes in for a lot of unkind "ribbing" that's meant to make one see that everyone is, at heart, a spoiled brat. These things are crumped together like they're somehow morally equivalent. They are not.

    But worst of all, from my personal point of view, is the fact that I had to agree with the author about something:
    Shakespeare, in some sense, helped create the modern man, didn't he, his influence is that pervasive. He held the mirror up to nature, but he also created that mirror: so the image he created is the very one we hold ourselves up to.

    Stop with the deification already, recognize that there was a man called Shakespeare who wrote a bunch of cool stuff and take the rose-colored glasses off, he did whatever he did in his personal life and we can not speak about it because we don't know. Guessing is misleading, because you're going to think he did what you'd've done. Maybe...maybe not.

    I didn't like it; I don't particularly recommend it; but it was not a waste of eyeblinks for that one excellent insight.


    (tr. Carol Brown Janeway)
    Vintage Books
    $16.00 trade paper, available now

    Rating: 3.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany.

    When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover—then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.


    My Review
    : Another read I fastened on as I got my Little Free Library bag ready to go. When I won this from, I think, a website now long gone's giveaway, I was under no obligation to review it. I didn't want ephebeophile mother's long, long, long shadow over my life, her dead hands on my emotional neck still tightening spasmodically should I dare for a moment to forget to be unhappy, gave me a terrible and utter avoidance complex for this story.
    Does everyone feel this way? When I was young, I was perpetually overconfident or insecure. Either I felt completely useless, unattractive, and worthless, or that I was pretty much a success, and everything I did was bound to succeed. When I was confident, I could overcome the hardest challenges. But all it took was the smallest setback for me to be sure that I was utterly worthless. Regaining my self-confidence had nothing to do with success...whether I experienced it as a failure or triumph was utterly dependent on my mood.
    Exploration! Exploring the past! We students in the camps seminar considered ourselves radical explorers. We tore open the windows and let in the air, the wind that finally whirled away the dust that society had permitted to settle over the horrors of the past. We made sure people could see. And we placed no reliance on legal scholarship. It was evident to us that there had to be convictions. It was just as evident as conviction of this or that camp guard or police enforcer was only the prelude. The generation that had been served by the guards and enforcers, or had done nothing to stop them, or had not banished them from its midst as it could have done after 1945, was in the dock, and we explored it, subjected it to trial by daylight, and condemned it to shame.

    There it is, the unvarnished solipsism of Surviving. The truth is we're all young Berg, we're all fucked-up Hanna. We can't make clean breaks with the past because the past is our inner self, our scaffolding. Young Berg learns this before Hanna puts him under the pressure and painful obligation of loving a broken thing.
    The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive. I understand this. Nonetheless, I sometimes find it hard to bear.

    And the tectonic pressures are too much for him to bear. They always are, he's not weak or defective. He's just...selfish:
    I didn't like the way I looked, the way I dressed and moved, what I achieved and what I felt I was worth. But there was so much energy in me, such belief that one day I'd be handsome and clever and superior and admired, such anticipation when I met new people and new situations. Is that what makes me sad? The eagerness and belief that filled me then and exacted a pledge from life that life could never fulfill? Sometimes I see the same eagerness and belief in the faces of children and teenagers and the sight brings back the same sadness I feel in remembering myself.

    One expects this in a boy. But young Berg will only ever be a boy. Hanna did that to him...Hanna enabled that in him.
    Sometimes the memory of happiness cannot stay true because it ended unhappily. Because happiness is only real if it lasts forever? Because things always end painfully if they contained pain, conscious or unconscious, all along? But what is unconscious, unrecognized pain?
    At first I wanted to write our story in order to be free of it. But the memories wouldn’t come back for that. Then I realized our story was slipping away from me and I wanted to recapture it by writing, but that didn’t coax up the memories either. For the last few years I’ve left our story alone. I’ve made peace with it. And it came back, detail by detail and in such a fully rounded fashion, with its own direction and its own sense of completion, that it no longer makes me sad. What a sad story, I thought for so long. Not that I now think it was happy. But I think it is true, and thus the question of whether it is sad or happy has no meaning whatever.

    And there, at the end of the book, was my source of discontent made plain to me: This entire louche passage in Berg's life...has not meaning whatever. Neither did the similar passage in my own life. They just...were...and they don't mean much to anyone but me.

    So why'd I read this again?