Literary Fiction & Short Story Collections

NORMAN LOCK (The American Novels series #3)
Bellevue Literary Press
available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In his third book of The American Novels series, Norman Lock recounts the story of a young Philadelphian, Edward Fenzil, who, in the winter of 1844, falls under the sway of two luminaries of the nineteenth-century grotesque imagination: Thomas Dent Mütter, a surgeon and collector of medical “curiosities,” and Edgar Allan Poe. As Fenzil struggles against the powerful wills that would usurp his identity, including that of his own malevolent doppelgänger, he loses his mind and his story to another.


My Review: I’ve read other reviews in the book-blogosphere that were, shall we say, indicative of a certain disappointment in the blogger’s experience reading The Port-Wine Stain. I am not among these bloggers. I liked the book. In fact, I liked it the best of The American Novels cycle that Bellevue Literary Press will be publishing through 2018. I asked their publicist for all of them published so far, since I was that curious about Lock’s aims. When they arrived (thanks again!), I started from book 1, The Boy in His Winter, which wasn’t a favorite of mine; American Meteor, second in the cycle, which definitely was a favorite of mine; so now, by book three, I think I might have absorbed a sense of purpose and a trust in Lock’s craftsmanship and artistry that others might not have the advantage of possessing.

Or maybe I just have really good taste. This book was shivery-good.
He knocked absurdly on the skull like a man impatient for a door to open. His eyes glazed over. He appeared to be in the grasp of something beyond the reach of ordinary mortals.
“Time is slowing,” he said in a leaden voice. “Each moment grows and fattens like a drop of rain on a window sash, waiting to fall.”
That’s Poe upon visiting our invented narrator, Mr. Edward Fenzil, aged nineteen and of ignoble stock, who has been gifted with a leg-up in the world by becoming bone-keeper in Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter’s medical school. Does it feel over-the-top to you? Then forevermore don’t read Poe himself! As Edward dusts skulls, Dr. Mütter gives him what amount to private lectures. It was required that he clean the operating theater after surgeries, but he was also always within reach of the great man, could pose questions, and assist the doctor with his researches on different scientific subjects.

Dr. Mütter also encourages a closeness between Edward and Edgar, saying the friendship will benefit Edward by allowing him to observe closely the workings of “the pathological mind.” But in any meddling mentor’s files there are innumerable cases like this, where the intent and the result are at opposite poles. Edgar is a man of the world, a gentleman, and overawes young Edward. It wouldn’t have been difficult, considering Edward’s youth and (in the time period) it wouldn’t be any surprise for a lower-class lad to be unfamiliar with any gentility or mannerliness.

Poe’s proffered friendship has a profound impact on Edward in so many ways. As Edgar introduces Edward to every strange corner of the city of Philadelphia, he (deliberately?) changes the young man forever:
While I knew him, he made me see—Poe did; made me understand that, unlike a bodily organ, the soul desires, even wills, its own continuance. It can be said to be the seat of will and desire and, even in its necrotic state, the root of evil. ... A Sunday school lesson or one of Cotton Mather's gaudy rants that helped to kindle the Salem bonfires is nearer to the truth of it than a fable by Poe, Hawthorne, or Melville. Evil's a malignancy beyond the skill and scalpel of {doctors} to heal or extirpate.
I’m in sympathy with this view, and would be converted to it after learning one of Poe’s lessons for Edward. In order to become a member of Poe’s Thanatopsis Society, Edward is subjected to an appalling initiation ritual involving the young man proving he is worthy of ritual transformation into a death god. Needless to say, Edward is traumatized by the nature of the initiation. So was I when I read it. The tone of the novel becomes decidedly darker after this event, matching the mental agitation of the narrator telling his story some thirty-five years and the Civil War between him and it.

No, I’m not going to reveal the ritual. Suffice it to say that anyone familiar with Poe’s stories will recognize it and feel the same horrified, claustrophobic feelings they had when it they first encountered it. You’ll know when you get there. After the traumatized Edward runs out of the Thanatopsis Club, vowing never to return, he seeks comfort in a local whorehouse, only his second visit and experience of sex. He describes it to Moran in disturbing detail, offering details that would elicit a “TMI! TMI!” from most people, myself included. But rely on Lock to stir you up, rile your easily offended inner maiden auntie:
Ravished is a nice word found in sentimental novel. Between us, Moran, the word that stuck in my mind like shit to the bottom of a shoe was fucked.
And there it is. Why I have come to enjoy so much reading Norman Lock’s writing. It is never all one thing, one note, one temperament of that note. I value this highly because I see so many earnestly presented stories chipped and chipped and finally cracked into a pile of who-cares-dust. Offend me, anger me, and I might or might not pick up another of your books; bore me and we’re done here, this conversation is over.

Meanwhile back in Philadelphia, Edgar realizes he has taken a step much too far by subjecting Edward to what he did. Edward has spent the intervening time vowing never, never, never, so as all the adults in the room know, Edward’s still infatuated with Poe and all he knows, does, and represents. Their make-up meeting, encouraged by Dr. Mütter himself which guarantees it will occur, seems to show Edward that Edgar is genuinely regretful:
“Forgive me,” Poe repeated earnestly.
I nodded coldly. I was not above acting like a child; I was hardly more than one.
“I want you to have this,” he said, fishing a gold watch and chain from his pocket. He took a step toward me. I stood my ground. He closed the distance between us, the timepiece in his hand. “It belonged to my father, David Poe—not John Allan, who fostered me but would not adopt me. My real father was David Poe, Jr., the actor. It's said that he abandoned my mother and me. It's a lie. He died--too young: He was only twenty-seven.”

I accepted his gift. It felt substantial in my hand. In spite of myself, I was pleased to have it.
The tone of this scene is so like that of a couple making up after a fight that I had to pause and remind myself that this isn’t an erotic relationship. It was a time when, however, male friendships were much more intensely conducted than today.

The darkest turn the friendship is ever to take comes not long after the earnest apology Edgar offers, and again at a meeting of the Thanatopsis Club. Edgar has been subtly preparing us, Edward included, for a genuine and unnerving crisis. Each of his acts before this has been explainable, but this one is simply and purely cruel, evil and cruel. The concept of the doppelgänger is a bit unnerving, to be sure: A person unrelated to yourself whose appearance, and sometimes behavior, is as close as possible without being identical twins. Placed in the hands of an unscrupulous man, knowledge of another person’s doppelgänger’s whereabouts can lead to nasty mischief. Edgar having found Edward’s doppelgänger in the form of a hanged murderer, whose likeness to Edward is marred only by a port-wine stain.

Here begins Edward’s descent from nervous wreck to madman. Edgar and everyone around him will not let Edward’s fearful brain slow down for so much as a moment, playing tricks and (in Poe’s case) writing a story about an unfortunate young man named Edward who fancies he has a port-wine stain, which spreads and spreads, and...the story is incomplete. He steals the story in a fit of rage, and bewails ever having laid eyes upon Edgar Allan Poe. Edward’s unbalanced state sinks further as Edgar shows his genuine lack of human kindness by treating Edward’s fears of the port-wine stain merely as evidence of his theft and guilt.

It is a profoundly painful ending for the book, resolving Edward’s story as confinement to the best possible care in a madhouse paid for by Dr. Mütter; released after six months, returning to his former position; his medical degree paid for, as a gift, by the Good Doctor; service as a field surgeon in the Civil War; finally, after a long life, tending the needs of a few established patients such as Walt Whitman, whose impression upon Stephen Moran in American Meteor was so very intense and is the link between Dr. Edward Fenzil and his audience Moran that is at the heart of Lock’s choice of narrative style.

Dr. Fenzil thanks Moran for listening to him ramble, and for ignoring his disfigurement by the port-wine stain he carries as a reminder of a toxic friendship of long ago.

THE BEGGAR MAID: Stories of Flo and Rose

Vintage Books
$16.00 trade paperback, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In this series of interweaving stories, Munro recreates the evolving bond between two women in the course of almost forty years. One is Flo, practical, suspicious of other people's airs, at times dismayingly vulgar. The other is Rose, Flo's stepdaughter, a clumsy, shy girl who somehow leaves the small town she grew up in to achieve her own equivocal success in the larger world.

My Review: I hate Flo, and dislike Rose, and can think of no possible reason for anyone to read more than the Pearl Rule requires or the first three stories, whichever comes first in your edition.

Lovely, lovely sentences telling deadly little quotidian stories about dreary, slatternly people. Not recommended to the point of active discouragement.

Well, now that Munro's won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for the year 2013, it's time to explain my response to these stories.

I am no fan of Woman. I had a mentally ill mother, older sisters of extraordinary unkindness (they would disagree with this last), and a host of relationships with women that didn't meet my needs.

I don't like Woman Writers for this reason. I find their Womanness makes me itch. I recently had a strongly negative response to Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl because it played the Uniquely Woman card to unpaint the main character from a corner. That Flynn didn't mean this to be any kind, sort, or form of exoneration of the character did not, in the end, make the smallest difference to me.

Munro's women, in this book, are so estrogen-soaked that the miasma caused my male-pattern baldness to kick up a notch. They are lower class, they strive to be middle-brow, and they are thoroughly miasmically humidly Womanly.

I, as a reader, find this unpleasant, and even the sheer breathtaking crystalline perfection of Munro's writing can't make me want to spend time with these Women.

I like Tillie Olsen ("I Stand Here Ironing" is a story only a woman could tell and I can honestly say it's a top-ten story on my life list). I like Annie Proulx. I like the woman writers whose woman characters aren't Mouthpieces.

So congratulations Ms. Munro on your win. Goodness knows your career deserves recognition. And huzzah Canada for your first "born and bred" Literature winner.

But can we please dim down a notch?

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Reagan Arthur Books
$25.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 2.75* of five

The Publisher Says: A remarkable literary debut -- shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize! The unflinching and powerful story of a young girl's journey out of Zimbabwe and to America.

Darling is only ten years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo's belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad.

But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America's famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few. NoViolet Bulawayo's debut calls to mind the great storytellers of displacement and arrival who have come before her-from Junot Diaz to Zadie Smith to J.M. Coetzee-while she tells a vivid, raw story all her own.

My Review: Okay.

Someone please, I implore you, please sit down in front of me, where I can see your lips and hear your words, and in short, simple, declarative sentences, please please oh please explain to me how the Booker people could NOT shortlist [TransAtlantic], an amazing novel by an amazing writer, but CAN shortlist a novel with this in it:
I don't like going to church because I don't really see why I have to sit in the hot sun on that mountain and listen to boring songs and meaningless prayers and strange verses when I could be doing important things with my friends. Plus, last time I went, that crazy Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro shook me and shook me until I vomited pink things. I thought I was going to die a real death. Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro was trying to get the spirit inside me out; they say I am possessed because they say my grandfather isn't properly buried because the white people killed him during the war for feeding and hiding the terrorists who were trying to get our country back because the white people had stolen it.
Gosh, never heard that before. Never thought of telling a story about an African country's poverty from the PoV of a child before. Why no, it's just unique and unprecedented.

And it's not like it's ever been done before, even Dave Eggers (not a favorite of mine) did it in [What is the What], and then there's [Say You're One of Them]...but what is that objection falling from your lips, those are BOYS telling their stories, not GIRLS telling theirs?

Which is it, all experience is human, or gender creates a special and different relationship to the world? Both cannot be true. Think carefully before answering that question, because one answer makes a chink in the armor protecting a very very very touchy equality argument....

But each experience of the world is unique! All should be celebrated! Uh huh. So you'll be buying a Joyce Meyer book about how she survived incestuous sexual abuse by the healing grace of gawd through Jeebus. Oh no? Too white-church-lady conservative, all because a Man helped her find resolution and a measure of peace because a girl can't do it herself?

What happened to all experiences being celebrated?

The above roughly encapsulates a call-and-response session I had with a fan of the book. She (naturally) stated I was behaving in a sexist manner and implied, with dark tones of voice, that I was probably a racist too, because I don't think this is a particularly good book, and *certainly* don't think it's Booker-worthy.

This is not a long book, and it's not, regardless of the cover, the title page, and the sales bunf, a novel. It's interlinked short stories that share a background. The author has used a rather flat, matter-of-fact tone to deliver her stories, and that's just fine for a story in a collection. It's wearing as hell when it's the ONLY tone used. It does not lend itself easily to a smooth, page-turning read. It required of me that I expend mental effort to stay engaged for the ~10-12pp the story lasted.

Now that is something, laddies and gentlewomen. In only 12pp, an author can make someone who has spent most of his life (48/54 years) reading and savoring many, many kinds of books by every conceivable terrestrial human phenotype feel the need to force his attention back to their work.

I certainly didn't hate the book, and I don't think the author should be put in the stocks thence to learn the error of her ways. I dislike the book, yes, but I commend the person who struggled to bring it forth and make it as good as she possibly could imagine it being, for doing the work, making the effort, creating an artwork that rings true in her ears.

I assume many agree with her. I am not one. I think it's a decent first book. I would pick up another book of NoViolet Bulawayo's to sample, if I happened across it. Contrast this with my response to that Purple Bruise and Yellow Sun woman Chimamanda What's-it: how fast can I run, how far can I hurl, how hard can I stomp the next and the previous books she's written.

But this isn't a particularly good book simply because it's not horrible. If you find my copy on the train, pick it up and idly leaf through. Maybe you'll like it, because goodness knows I didn't.

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$22.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.9* of five

The Publisher Says: There are two book descriptions, both good; this first is for the hardcover, published by MacAdam/Cage, that I read years ago:
Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel set in the fictional island of Nollop situated off the coast of South Carolina and home to the inventor of the pangram The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog. Now deceased, the islanders have erected a monument to honor their hero, but one day a tile with the letter �z� falls from the statue. The leaders interpret the falling tile as a message from beyond the grave and the letter is banned from use. On an island where the residents pride themselves on their love of language, this is seen as a tragedy. They are still reeling from the shock, when another tile falls and then another.... Mark Dunn takes us on a journey against time through the eyes of Ella Minnow Pea and her family as they race to find another phrase containing all the letters of the alphabet to save them from being unable to communicate. Eventually, the only letters remaining are LMNOP, when Ella finally discovers the phrase that will save their language.

The second is for Anchor's trade paper edition, which seems to me to give a better flavor of the book:
Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram,* “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere.

*pangram: a sentence or phrase that includes all the letters of the alphabet

My Review: Delight. Dialogue, description, the lot. It's fun to read the book because the story is so very absurd. Imagine an entire country that's established around the veneration of a weirdo who invented a sentence to exercise your typing skills with! And imagine further the populace of such a place, held in thrall to language, ruled by a council of puritans who do their damnedest to make sure the entire island respects the gift of the English the exclusion of all other considerations, personal, practical, political.

The book was published in 2001. That was, for those of failing memory, the year (in my never-humble opinion) Shrub Bush stole the presidential election for the first time. It was clear to anyone not conservative and/or christian that there was a bad set of rapids ahead, and a lot of it would turn on public and private discourse, its nature and its tenor. The novel foretold the increasing gag effect imposed from Above on reporting and discussing the various wars, the various and nefarious doings in and around the Oval Office, and on and on. Dunn could see it coming, and he pointed and hollered the best way he could, via a highbrow high-concept novel that would fly above heads and under radars.

I lapped it up like it was the dust on the mirror and began begging people I knew to read it, even buying several of them copies. (I had a good job in those days.) And to my increasing despair, not ONE of them so much as read it until poked; after reading it, not one of them was even lukewarm.

Ella and her family living like Anne Frank and her family, Ella making the discovery of a new pangram, Ella obeying the lipogrammatic tyranny of the Council in her letters to those who have left, escaped, the madness engulfing Nollop...this was sunshine and I was heliotropic in following it wherever it led. And not one soul to keep me company.

And now, eleven years on, someone reviews it, and I am all back in the fray. Please, do everyone involved a favor and get a copy so you can revel in the pleasures of an honorable woman telling a surreal, Dali-and-Kafka-have-a-baby kind of story and, in the end, revel with her in the joy of open and free speech.

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Vintage Books
$13.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In the story of the great lyric poet Simonides, Mary Renault brings alive a time in Greece when tyrants kept an unsteady rule and poetry, music, and royal patronage combined to produce a flowering of the arts.

Born into a stern farming family on the island of Keos, Simonides escapes his harsh childhood through a lucky apprenticeship with a renowned Ionian singer. As they travel through 5th century B.C. Greece, Simonides learns not only how to play the kithara and compose poetry, but also how to navigate the shifting alliances surrounding his rich patrons. He is witness to the Persian invasion of Ionia, to the decadent reign of the Samian pirate king Polykrates, and to the fall of the Pisistratids in the Athenian court. Along the way, he encounters artists, statesmen, athletes, thinkers, and lovers, including the likes of Pythagoras and Aischylos. Using the singer's unique perspective, Renault combines her vibrant imagination and her formidable knowledge of history to establish a sweeping, resilient vision of a golden century.

My Review: This book was a re-read, I feel sure, since I was hooked on her stuff in the Seventies...yet I felt curiously unfamiliar with the book. I recalled some scenes, such as Simonides returning from home to rejoin his master Kleobis in their Samian exile; I found a lot of the book to be less clear in my mind than most I've read before and choose to re-read.

I put this down to the fact that as I was reading it in 1978 or 1979, I was disappointed that the main character wasn't gay and wasn't even very excitingly drawn. (Can you tell I was a youth who loved the Alexander novels, The Bull from the Sea, The King Must Die, The Persian Boy? Especially The Persian Boy, quite salacious!)

But, in the end, as a fifty-year-old who's tastes have matured (ha), I liked this book quite a lot. It was a lovely tale of how the world has always judged others by their looks and not their deeds or talents. It presents itself as a harmless historical novel, and examines human nature minutely, unsparingly, and with what can only be called a jaundiced eye. Renault was clearly irritated at the follies of mankind. It shows in such lines as this, spoken by Simonides in his old age: "I have never desired young maids, preferrinig ripe fruit to green; maybe it is because I feared their laughter when I was a boy." (p262, Pantheon hardcover edition 1978)

Still scared of the masses. Still subject to the fears and foibles of youth. Wiser? Renault is too good a writer to make you take her view. She tells her story, and leaves you to take her meanings.

Sheer pleasure, friends, and all too seldom met, when a storyteller trusts you to read, and read again, and reach your own conclusions. Read it and conclude, and you won't be sorry.

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$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.95* of five

The Publisher Says: Frank--no ordinary sixteen-year-old--lives with his father outside a remote Scottish village. Their life is, to say the least, unconventional. Frank's mother abandoned them years ago: his elder brother Eric is confined to a psychiatric hospital; & his father measures out his eccentricities on an imperial scale. Frank has turned to strange acts of violence to vent his frustrations. In the bizarre daily rituals there is some solace. But when news comes of Eric's escape from the hospital Frank has to prepare the ground for his brother's inevitable return--an event that explodes the mysteries of the past & changes Frank utterly.

My Review: Much has been said in disgust and even anger about this polarizing book. Some have called for it to be banned. Others have written the equivalent of a silent finger-down-the-throat mime.

You are all entitled to your opinion. Here is mine: This book is brilliant. It will be remembered long long after the pleasant entertainments of the day are more forgotten than Restoration drama. (Hands up anyone who knows who Colley Cibber is. And don't front. Or use Wikipedia.)

I'm also an ardent partisan of Lolita, that deeply disturbing and very beautiful book by a pedophile about his pursuit of the perfect lover. I loved Mrs. Dalloway, the chilling, near-perfect narrative of a wealthy woman's desperation and crushing ennui.

So here's the deal: Frank, and his brother Eric, aren't role models, aren't people you'd want to be around, aren't amusing compadres for a jaunt along the path to the Banal Canal. They are, like Hum and Lo and Clarissa and Septimus, avatars (in the pre-Internet sense) of the raw, bleeding, agonic (unangled, in this use) purposelessness of life. They are the proof that salvation is a cruel ruse. These characters rip your fears from the base of your brain and move them, puppetlike, eerily masterful withal, into your worst nightmares.

And all without resorting to the supernatural.

Humanity comes off badly in this book. The truth of what made Frank the person he is will leave you more chilled than any silly evocation of a devil in a religious text. Frank's very being is an ambulatory evil act. But the reason for it, the motivating factor, is the absolute worst horror this book contains. All the animal-torture stuff is unpleasant, I agree. It's not as though it's lovingly and lingeringly described. And it pales in comparison to Frank's raison d'etre.

So yes, this book is strong meat. It's got deeply twisted characters enacting their damage before us, the safely removed audience. It's making a serious point about human nature. And it's doing all of that in quite beautifully wrought prose, without so much as one wasted word.

But it's essentially a warning to the reader: Don't go there. Don't do the pale, weak-kneed versions of the rage-and-hate fueled horrors inflicted on Frank, and even on Eric. Pay attention, be mindful of the many ways we as lazy moral actors condone the creation of Erics and Franks in our world.

Pay attention.

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AURTHORA: Celtic Prince
Troubador Publishing
$21.29 trade paper, available now (Kindle edition $5.99!)
Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: This novel, Aurthora, is based on the legendary British warrior. It takes place in the years immediately after the Romans leave Britain and describes a land undergoing massive change - with no leader and no army to defend its shores. Authorora is born of noble blood - his father is a fervent supporter of the King of a small Celtic tribe called the Iceni. The Iceni, themselves are part of a large coalition who must work together to protect themselves from the Angles, Saxons and Jutes - fierce warriors who have laid claim to the northern regions. Authorora is tutored in battle skills by a former Roman Legionnaire, Orius. His training is tested during raid of coastal camps, but his successes in battle quickly bring him to the attention of the Celtic Round Council and he is promoted to the command of the Celtic forces. Authorora must be a tactician, diplomat and politician to retain his position which is under threat by jealous commanders and other tribes who are desperate to seize control of the lands he must protect.

My Review: I received this historical novel TWO YEARS AGO in a publishers' giveaway, and I haven't written a review yet. I am a Bad Man.

To rectify that horrible behavior, I'm writing the review now. I read the book in 2011, and skimmed over it now to confirm what I remember to be the case: The writing is very heavy going. The story is wonderful.

This is Arthur without myth or legend, this is a man and a king and a warrior. Yes, he's the best at what he does. Yes, he's quick-witted and bold. But mostly he's well-trained and very well-prepared for what Fate hurls at him. Chaos is inevitable when empires take their foot off the neck of a resentful people. Look what's happened in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan any number of times.

Hughes makes you aware of his learning and erudition by presenting many too many details of military movements, equipment, and engagements. It's wearing. I find the same issue in many books about war. My criticism of [The Kindly Ones], which I admired but did not like, and of [Matterhorn], which I flat-out loved, is the same as of this book. I am not that intrigued by battle minutiae. But the flip-side of that is the amazing and immersive experience of barely post-Imperial Britannia that one gets from this book.

But, and this is the source of the three-star rating, the characters Declaim and Orate, they never speak or simply say stuff. An example from page 218:
"I have a message, Sire, from Aurthora Ambrosius, Commander of the High Town Guard and member of the Great Round Council," gasped the messenger to Neila Gilberto and his son.
Really? He gasped that little peroration to people who would or should know to whom he's referring if he simply says, "Message! Message from Aurthora!" Formality from someone who's been galloping to get a message to someone who badly needs the information the sender thought enough of to send in a hurry? No. Just no.

But then my eyes rivaled the totality of Earth's GPS satellites in their rolling orbits when, on page 349, the following Was Declaimed:
Boro Sigurd was the first to speak as Aurthora entered the inner section of the tent. "Aurthora! It is good to see you again. As you are no doubt aware, our Great King has not been well, but even so some decisions have bad to be made during this time.
Dear Goddesses, where do I begin. NO I DID NOT FORGET THE CLOSE QUOTE. Yes, it's the end of the expository speechification. It's even the end of the paragraph. But there is no close quote. So I put no close quote on. Any time the "As you know, Bob..." trope appears, I want to get out my ninja stars and polish up my flensing knife preparatory to making a trip to the editorial offices, there to perpetrate painful and condign revenge on the parties responsible for setting this, this Oration in type. I understand the battle had by an editor with an author who believes he is correct. There is a point where one says, "well, this is as good as it's gonna get" and passes the project to the production process.

THIS KIND OF DIALOGUE (in its loosest possible sense) IS NOT THERE YET. It clanks and it judders and it pops the reader right out of the narrative. Which, I believe I've mentioned before, is very involving.

After two years, I feel sure both publisher and author no longer even know to whom they sent copies for review. I'm not planning to draw it to their attention because I feel guilty about it. But the book is a good yarn, a worthy corrective to the immense body of myth on the subject of Arthur. And I can think of one person on Earth I'd hand it to and expect him to appreciate, though probably not love, it.

Prove me wrong! Try it out and come tell me how you loved it.

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Oneworld Classics
$11.66 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: In [Hadji Murat], Tolstoy recounts the extraordinary meeting of two polarized cultures--the refined, Europeanized court of the Russian tsar and the fierce Muslim chieftains of the Chechen hills. This brilliant, culturally resonant fiction was written towards the end of Tolstoy's life, but the conflict it describes has obvious, ironic parallels with current affairs today.

It is 1852, and Hadji Murat, one of the most feared mountain chiefs, is the scourge of the Russian army. When he comes to surrender, the Russians are delighted. Or have they naively welcomed a double-agent into their midst? With its sardonic portraits--from the inscrutable Hadji Murat to the fat and bumbling tsar--Tolstoy's story is an astute and witty commentary on the nature of political relations and states at war. Leo Tolstoy is one of the world's greatest writers. Best known for his brilliantly crafted epic novels [War and Peace] and [Anna Karenina], he used his works to address the problems of Russian society, politics, and traditions.

My Review: Flat prose exposing the bones of a story better told in the Wikipedia entry on Hadji Murad, the historical Avar leader.

The story was among Tolstoy's papers at his death. Louise Shanks Maude, the wife of Tolstoy's good friend and primary translator of non-fiction Aylmer Maude, included Hadji Murad in their 21-volume Oxford University Press edition of the Collected Works of Tolstoy. The Maudes were Fenians, communal-living enthusiasts, and both came from English families firmly rooted in Russia. This constellation of characteristics made them uniquely sympathetic to Tolstoy's rather unusual social views.

Louise Maude did no service to Tolstoy's memory by publishing this story after Tolstoy's death. His own attitude towards the work, based on his correspondence, seems to have focused more on finishing it and with it putting a flourish on his life-long argument with the deterministic world he saw about him. Tragedy being inevitable, Tolstoy takes the historical tale of Hadji Murad (known to him from his service to Russia in the Caucasus) and presents an honorable man's desperate struggle to escape the inescapable fate awaiting him: Death in the attempt to save his beloved family from death, which they will suffer anyway because of his foredoomed death attempting to save them from death.

How Russian.

There's a very involving tale here. What there isn't is a novel or novella of any satisfying substance. The story as it's published reads more like notes towards a novel. The action and the characters are crudely carved from Tolstoy's accustomed fine marble, but lack any fine detail and indeed are only partially revealed; most of the work needed to create a memorable character is left to the imagination of the reader. That it can be done at all is down to the artist's eye for good materials that Tolstoy possessed, refined by a long lifetime's work.

What a pity that its audience isn't legally confined to Tolstoy scholars.

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Random House
$27.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.85* of five

The Book Description: National Book Award-winning novelist Colum McCann delivers his most ambitious and beautiful novel yet, tying together a series of narratives that span 150 years and two continents in an outstanding act of literary bravura.

In 1845 a black American slave lands in Ireland to champion ideas of democracy and freedom, only to find a famine unfurling at his feet. In 1919, two brave young airmen emerge from the carnage of World War One to pilot the very first transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to the west of Ireland. And in 1998 an American senator criss-crosses the ocean in search of a lasting Irish peace. Bearing witness to these history-making moments of Frederick Douglass, John Alcock and "Teddy" Brown, and George Mitchell, and braiding the story together into one epic tale, are four generations of women from a matriarchal clan, beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan. In this story of dark and light, men and women, history and past, fiction and fact, National Book Award-winning novelist Colum McCann delivers a tour de force that is his most spectacular achievement to date.

My Review: This is an ambitious book indeed. McCann refines storytelling techniques he used in Let the Great World Spin, and layers in more complexity than he created in that National Book Award-winner. For that reason alone, I'd give him high marks.

But as a work of social commentary on Ireland, on its colonial past and its enraged present, the book comes alive. Without ever leaving his focus on the personal lives of people, he limns the results of the struggle of his homeland to be its ownself. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, is in Ireland to raise money for Abolition in the USA. Isn't that a nice cause for turn-about, with the IRA raising money in the USA for its militancy?

Webb took him out onto the verandah by the elbow and said: But Frederick, you cannot bite the hand that feeds.

The stars collandered the Wexford night. He knew Webb was right. There would always be an alignment. There were so many sides to every horizon. He could only choose one. No single mind could hold it all at once. Truth, justice, reality, contradiction. Misunderstandings could arise. He had one cause only. He must cleave to it.

He paced the verandah. A cold wind whipped off the water.
The water, the recurring use of the water, the wind off the water, being in the water, all of it the Atlantic, all of it marking transformation and immersion in the moment of transformation for each character...that's lovely.

The toughness and surivorhood of Ireland's women is a major part of the story. So is the deep-seated need of the Irish to Be Irish.

She stood at the window. It was her one hundred twenty-eighth day of watching men die. They came down the road in wagons pulled by horses. She had never seen such a bath of killing before. The wheels screeched. The line of wagons stretched down the path, into the trees. The trees themselves stretched off into the war.

She came down the stairs, through the open doors, into the wide heat...The men had exhausted their shouts. They were left with small whimperings, tiny gasps of pain...One soldier wore sergeant's stripes on his sleeve, and a gold harp stitched on his lapel. An Irishman. She had tended to so many of them.
So is the quixotic character of men, pushing boundaries that separate them (in their minds) from Glory. (The transAtlantic flight of the very male in its pointless bravado, and in its gauntlet-flinging results of commonplace transAtlantic air travel.)

It was that time of the century when the idea of a gentleman had almost become a myth. The Great War had concussed the world. The unbearable news of sixteen million deaths rolled off the great metal drums of the newspapers. Europe was a crucible of bones.
That's plain old-fashioned beautiful phrase-making.

But in the end, the story large and small is about the strength of women to carry on. The struggles of men against the futility of their existence, a mere accident of evolution's need to stir the pot to keep the soup of life boiling merrily instead of burning irretrievably, are as ever and as always propped up, supported, allowed to exist, by women, evolution's one essential ingredient, carriers of whatever life the planet holds and makers of whatever future the men leave alone in their ceaseless tinkering.

The tap of his cane on the floor. The clank of the water pipes. She is wary of making too much of a fuss. Doesn't want to embarrass him, but he's certainly slowing up these weathers. What she dreads is a thump on the floor, or a falling against the banisters, or worse still a tumble down the stairs. She climbs the stairs before {he} emerges from the bathroom. A quick wrench of worry when there is no sound, but he emerges with a slightly bewildered look on his face. He has left a little shaving foam on the side of his chin, and his shirt is haphazardly buttoned.

...The ancient days of the Grand Opera House, the Hippodrome, the Curzon, the Albert Memorial Clock. The two of them out tripping the light fantastic. So young then. The smell of his tweeds. The Turkish tobacco he used to favor. The charity balls in Belfast, her gown rustling on the steps, {her husband} beside her, bow-tied, brilliantined, tipsy.
Worry for the present...nostalgia for the past...awareness of the short horizon of the future. She will bear it all. He will be borne to his bourn-side bier on the shoulders of this woman.

And the wonder of it goes on.

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Richard Blanchard

Livingston Press
$16.95 trade paper, available 20 May 2013

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Care Giver leads us through a kaleidoscope of events as a failing old man pens unmailed letters to his lost love from a nursing home bed. A caring paperboy aids the man for a passage to his promised land, and becomes the unexpected inheritor of the man’s hallowed highlands. As the boy seeks to build his own life on those gifted lands, he too is haunted by visions of a lost soul, and finally makes ready for his own deliverance in the high peaks.

This strange story unfolds as we consider the man’s letters, the boy’s writings, and the photos and clippings all found among the boy’s belongings. If you’ve ever been troubled by someone’s incurable suffering, then read Care Giver. It is at once a testament to forbidden mercies and to the power of enduring faith. For me, it rings of the utter truth.

My Review: In the emerging literary genre of dementia fiction, this short novel stands out for its brutal, unsparing honesty of presentation. In alternating sections, too short to be chapters, Bob Brown's stream-of-consciousness narration of his deteriorating grasp on his own mind juxtaposes with the short, sibylline utterances of John Fulton, a kind-hearted and shy young paperboy who becomes the living anchor of Bob's world.

Bob writes letters, from his addled 81-year-old brain, to his long-lost love Margo Jones. The more letters he writes to her, the more we are treated to a ringside seat in the spectacle of a mind's disappearance. The mixture of times present and past is complete and the distinction, for Bob, is gone; for us, the strands of meaning are tightly twined and are mutually supportive narratives, often seeming to merge like hairs in the plaits of a braid: Tightly spaced, closely woven, touching all down their lengths, forming one constructed object and still made up of discrete parts. The book emphasizes this joined-but-separate quality of narrative with the two men's voices alternating and with the liberal use of photos throughout the book.

John, the boy who brings Bob his paper, is a shy kid of seventeen when he meets the old man. He's like all young people in that all things come back to himself in reference. He's a good man, though, because he spares moments of his life to spend with the slowly disappearing Bob. He listens. He asks questions, engages with the person before him. John straightens pillows and leaves the elder to sleep when he's been drugged and never flags in offering his precious gift of attention.

The beauty of writing this book from the PoV of the dying man and his care giver, his giver of caring beyond the physical, is wondrous. The end of the story is already known, the end is the ending...and the ending is a lovely thing. Only Bob speaks...we see the photos he cherishes enough to will them to his young best friend...we hear his letters, last ones ever, to his Margo....

This book is a lonely and frightened and confused old man's orison to the lost god of love.

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Gordon Lish says of Care Giver:

"I'm sold. I'm so sold I read this book four times before--trembling, trembling--sitting myself down to write this comment. You want to know what the business of the mind is going to be as the body declines into its notorious bankruptcy? Like this, like Care Giver, like the stuff in the braided sentences that constitute the telling of Blanchard's true story. Oh, and the person in the pic on page six?--that's the object of desire for you, perfect and, of course, lost, yet never the least lost."


James Hamilton-Paterson
Europa Editions
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Gerald Samper, an effete English snob, has his own private hilltop in Tuscany, where he wiles away his time working as a ghostwriter for celebrities and inventing wholly original culinary concoctions-including ice cream made with garlic and the bitter, herb-based liqueur of the book's title. Gerald's idyll is shattered by the arrival of Marta, on the run from a crime-riddled former Soviet republic. A series of hilarious misunderstandings brings this odd couple into ever closer and more disastrous proximity.

James Hamilton-Paterson's first novel, Gerontius, won the Whitbread Award. He is an acclaimed author of nonfiction books, including Seven-Tenths, Three Miles Down, and Playing with Water, He currently lives in Italy.

My Review: Cooking With Fernet Branca is part of oddball publisher Europa Editions's sinister plot to make Murrikins like me aware of the strange and sinister world of lit'rachoor published beyond our shores. Muriel Barbery owes her Murrikin presence to them, too. We all know how *that* turned out....

Well, before moving any farther along in this review process, let me send out the call: Does anyone know how to get hold of (wicked double entendre optional) actor John Barrowman? You know, Captain Jack Harkness of Torchwood fame? He is literally missing the key to Murrikin stardom by not reading, optioning, and making this book into a movie. It suits every single national prejudice we have: Eastern Europeans as sinister lawbreaking peasants who eat strangely shaped, colored, and named things and call them foods (like Twinkies, Cheetos, and Mountain Dew are *normal*); Englishmen as dudis (you'll have to read the book for that translation) who do eccentric off-the-wall things with food that are repulsively named and gruesomely concocted (spotted dick? bubble-and-squeak?); and Italians as supercilious effete cognoscenti of world culture, who possess the strangest *need* for vulgarity.

The characters in this hilarious romp are the most dysfunctional group of misfits and ignoramuses and stereotypes ever deployed by an English-language author. They do predictable things, yet Hamilton-Paterson's deftly ironic, cruelly flensing eye and word processor cause readerly glee instead of readerly ennui to ensue. The whole bizarre crew...the lumpenproletariat ex-Soviet composer, the Italian superdirector long past his prime, the English snob who refers to Tuscany's glory as "Chiantishire" and "Tuscminster"...gyrates and shudders and clumps towards a completely foreseeable climactic explosion (heeheehee). And all the time, snarking and judging and learning to depend on each other. In the end, the end is nigh for all the established relationships and the dim, Fernet Branca-hangover-hazed outlines of the new configurations are, well, the English say it best...dire.

Read it. Really, do. And I dare you not to laugh at these idiots! Don't be put off by the sheer hideousness of the American edition's cover, in all its shades-of-purple garish grisliness. The charm of reading the book is that one needn't look at that...that...illustration...on the cover, but inflict it on those not yet In The Know enough to be reading it themselves.

And seriously...John Barrowman needs to know about this. Pass it on!

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Peter Heller

Alfred A. Knopf
$24.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CRAPALACHIA: A Biography of a Place
Scott McClanahan

Two Dollar Radio
$16 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: When Scott McClanahan was fourteen he went to live with his Grandma Ruby and his Uncle Nathan, who suffered from cerebral palsy. Crapalachia is a portrait of these formative years, coming-of-age in rural West Virginia.

Peopled by colorful characters and their quirky stories, Crapalachia interweaves oral folklore and area history, providing an ambitious and powerful snapshot of overlooked Americana.

My Review: Memoir...I remember...that's what makes this book so damn good, Scott remembers and he tells us that he remembers, wants us to remember with him. I've never lived in West Virginia, I've only driven through it in my expensive car and thought, "ye gods and little fishes, is this for real?!" and pressed a little harder on the gas to get the fuck out of there. I've never even spent a night there. I drove an extra hour out of my comfort zone (6 hours behind the wheel is enough for me) so I wouldn't have to.

But I remember with Scott McClanahan. I'm 20 years older than he is. I've lived the entirety of my life in upper-middle-class assurance of comfort and joy. When I haven't had any money, I've had friends and loved ones and even random strangers who shared with me. And it never, ever looked like the pictures Scott paints in my head.

It's beautiful, this picture, these pictures, but it's not pretty. It's warty and cold and shaped funny. But oh how much there is to celebrate in the life of a kid who knows where home is and what his family is made of and scoops up the mud he's standing on to make something new of something old.

She hobbled along some more and I walked behind her.
She said: "This is the grave I wanted to see. This is the grave."
I asked: "Whose grave is it?"
I walked in front of the stone and I saw it was her grave. It was the grave of Ruby Irene McClanahan, born 1917 died...
Then there was a blank space--the space where they would put the date of her death.
She touched the shiny stone and explained...her really good deal on the tombstone. She told me I should start saving. It was a good investment.

The tales of this Crapalachian boy are muddled and mixed, of course, as all memories are, and as honest as they are, they aren't always factual. In the appendix to the book, Scott tells us the places he knows he mashed things up and rearranged them, since after all he was writing a story and stories have their own needs. But he never violates, not once in this book, the one Commandment of Memoir: Condescend not, lest ye be caught and pilloried. (See: James Frey.)

I wouldn't write about how people stared at {Uncle Nathan} when I pushed him down the road. They stared and shook their heads....
I knew I would never write about Nathan's light-blue eyes--eyes as blue as Christmas tree lights.
I knew I would never write about his soft heart. The softest heart I have ever known.

I knew he believed in something that none of us ever do anymore. He believed in the nastiest word in the world. He believed in KINDNESS. Please tell me you remember kindness. Please tell me you remember kindness and joy, you cool motherfuckers.

Why read some thirtysomething kid's memoirs? What kind of philosophical point can someone that young make? I wonder, is it even necessary to make a point? Can it be enough to read a book like this, about a young life seen from middle age (can't be much under 35, this kid, and that's spang in the middle of life), and eat the textures and smell the regrets of someone new to the idea that The End applies to him, too? He has children, he tells us so. He tells us that he went from place to place in the world leaving dirt from West Virginia there, giving the dirt to strangers and leaving it in the soil of New York City and Seattle and suchlike. So his children, no matter their wanderings, would have something of their, his, his grandmother's home waiting.

I don't know that I believe him.

"Oh lordie, I'm feeling horrible," she said. Then she clutched her chest. "I'm having chest pains." I kissed her cheek and I said, "I'll see you next week." She told me my grandfather Elgie used to have nightmares begging for the whistle to stop.
She wasn't dying.
She was lonely.

So I left and I heard Ruby shouting again, "Oh lordie, I'm dying." I didn't turn back. I wasn't sure we were even born yet. We were all inside of a giant mother right then and we were waiting to be born. Just like tomorrow, at dawn, we will be held in the arms of a giant mother. We will find warmth and maybe even war there.

I want us all to be ready.

Ready? We're none of us ready, ever. As his kids grow up he'll find that out.

And then there's the story of the little girl and the locket. It's near the end of the book, it's a memory from adulthood. It made me cry for a half-hour, angry and hurting and so so sad, helpless in the face of a world we've made with action, inaction, consent, and indifference (driving faster to escape someone else's reality ring a bell?).

But hey, Scott? I remember. I'm with you.

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Sloan Wilson

Da Capo Press
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Here is the story of Tom and Betsy Rath, a young couple with everthing going for them: three healthy children, a nice home, a steady income. They have every reason to be happy, but for some reason they are not. Like so many young men of the day, Tom finds himself caught up in the corporate rat race - what he encounters there propels him on a voyage of self-discovery that will turn his world inside out.

At once a searing indictment of corporate culture, a story of a young man confronting his past and future with honesty, and a testament to the enduring power of family, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a deeply rewarding novel about the importance of taking responsibility for one's own life.

My Review: 1955. That is, if you're math-challenged, 58 years ago, and the year that Simon & Schuster published this book. So Wilson was writing it in, it's safe to say, 1953 (60 years ago). And this is what Wilson said:

Money, I need money, {Tom} thought. If they don't build a new public shcool, I should be able to afford a private school. I should get everything but money out of my head and really do a job for Hopkins. I ought to be at work now....
Money, Tom thought. The housing project could make money, but it depends on re-zoning, and Bernstein says we shouldn't ask for that until they vote on a new school.
A new school, he thought---so much depends on that! ... I should work for a new school, and I should work harder for Hopkins, and I should be making plans for our housing project. Where did I ever get the idea that life is supposed to be anything but work? A man's work should be his pleasure---I shouldn't expect anything more.

Tom Rath has just been to see the overcrowded public school his daughters have to attend because, unlike his own father, he can't afford to put them in a private school. He muses on these thoughts while waiting for a late commuter train into the city, where he will take on a lowly personal assistant's position and, in the process, displace a number of female employees from their physical space.

Sixty years since Wilson was penning these words, and not that much has changed. Now, of course, it could easily be a mom having these platform reveries, because we've been sold the bill of goods that nannies and au pairs are plenty good enough to raise the kids we've had but don't feel like raising even if it means NOT having a home theater, six DVR-equipped TVs, and each kid with an unshared Xbox. If mom's better at business, dad, YOU stay home and raise those people you engendered. Read to them, make them a snack after carpool, help with their homework. Hiring out parenthood sorta makes it pointless, doesn't it?


Me and my rants.

Wilson's book analyzes the sources of Tom's inner discontent as disconnection and materialism. I agree. The alarm bell sounded by this, and by the 1956 movie, went unheeded despite the fact that both were hugely popular and successful in their own spheres. (The movie was as good as the book, for once.)

At every turn, MONEY the getting and spending of, obsesses and defines Tom. His wealthy grandmother is being cared for by a greedy granny-nanny, and the hijinks appertaining thereto are most instructive for today's audience. Tom's boss, the venal and piggish Hopkins, plays out before Tom's increasingly revolted gaze his own probable future of alienated kid (extra probable because his three are TV obsessed brats), estranged wife, and grasping mistress(es). Then things get complicated when a wartime indiscretion with an Italian lass provides a surprise to Tom's unsuspecting wife.

Wilson wrote of his own time. Change the props, update the clothes, and make it about Betsy the wife, and nothing much has changed.

I'm sad about that. So much needless hurt caused in this world from sheer, wasteful greed for MORE when there's more than enough right in front of these hungry-souled people.

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Patrick deWitt

$24.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn't share his brother's appetite for whiskey and killing, he's never known anything else. But their prey isn't an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm's gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living-and whom he does it for.

With The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable comic tour de force. Filled with a remarkable cast of characters-losers, cheaters, and ne'er-do-wells from all stripes of life-and told by a complex and compelling narrator, it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humor, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love.

My Review: Achilles and Patroclus in the Old West. Brothers whose adult lives are spent murdering in the service of a venal master, the Commodore, without question or conscience. Eli Sisters, in this story, awakes to conscience, and as is inevitably the case, disaster, ruination, and tragedy ensue.

Pleasant way to wile away the hours. Some anachronisms niggled at me. I thought the storytelling voice was charming.

That's it, really. Nothing world-shaking. A very nicely made novel about people I'd cross the street to avoid in real life. If television is too unspeakably grim and Nabokov is too much work, this'll pass the time.

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Zsuzsi Gartner

Pintail Books
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: From an emerging master of short fiction and one of Canada's most distinctive voices, a collection of stories as heartbreaking as those of Lorrie Moore and as hilariously off-kilter as something out of McSweeney's.

In Better Living through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner delivers a powerful second dose of the lacerating satire that marked her acclaimed debut, All the Anxious Girls on Earth, but with even greater depth and darker humour. Whether she casts her eye on evolution and modern manhood when an upscale cul-de-sac is thrown into chaos after a redneck moves into the neighbourhood, international adoption, war photography, real estate, the movie industry, motivational speakers, or terrorism, Gartner filets the righteous and the ridiculous with dexterity in equal, glorious measure. These stories ruthlessly expose our most secret desires, and allow us to snort with laughter at the grotesque world we'd live in if we all got what we wanted.

Angels crash land, lovers speak IKEA, a mountain swallows tony West Coast properties, and a killer stalks the great motivational speakers of North America.

These stories ruthlessly expose our covert fears and fathomless desires and allow us to snort with laughter—while grieving at the grotesque world we’d live in if we all got what we wanted.

My Review: When reviewing collections, it's hard to know what to say about them whole and entire unless they're linked stories. With a group of stories like this book is, it's easiest and, IMO, best to adopt what I've called “The Bryce Method” in honor of an online friend who introduced me to the technique: A summary opinion, plus a short line or a quote from each story, together with a rating for the story. So as my summary opinion, I offer this: Please don't try so hard, Ms. Gartner, you have real and delicious talent when you don't reach quite so far for the laugh/wince/frown combo.

The stories in book order:

“Summer of the Flesh Eater” is a Lord of the Flies-esque tale of men behaving badly. I re-read that book already, it wasn't a success, and it isn't here either. 3 stars, all for the women's characterizations.

“Once, We Were Swedes” is almost perfect, a surreal and sweet tale of a couple growing apart and growing old in their separate ways, losing and somehow not understanding the loss of their once-intense connection to each other. The idea of IKEA product names being a loving, erotic language is hilarious to me, which is probably why I give it 4.5 stars.

“Floating Like a Goat” is the midnight letter that you write in your head, the one that exorcises the demon-strength rage and hate that you feel over some small thing. Anna writes this letter to Shayala Subramanium, her daughter Georgia's kindergarten art teacher, after getting the word from “Miss S.” that Georgia is “failing to meet expectations” in art class. Funny, pungent, familiar. 3.875 stars, that last eighth of a star for the Dobbie (of Harry Potter fame) reference.

“Investment Results May Vary” juxtaposes the lives of Honey Fortunata, overachieving shady real-estate lady and Filipina stereotype, with kidnapper and superannuated slacker Nina, in a strange little tale of ecological vengeance on the overprivileged. Unsuccessful. 2 stars.

“The Adopted Chinese Daughters' Rebellion” refines the author's disdain for the white, overprivileged, left-leaning elite who adopt the unwanted girls from China and then attempt to raise them with Chinese cultural referents to a new, diamond-bladed sharp edge. I think Gartner is a major practitioner of “snarktire,” a kind of steroidally enhanced satire with an extra-curled lip. 3 stars for chutzpah.

“What Are We Doing Here?” chronicles the terrible date that a hipster-chick-wannabe has with a middlescent (over 40) semi-famous photographer of woman intellectuals of A Certain Age. She thinks it's a party he's invited her to; he's made steaks and baked potatoes. Her little world is unbearably unimportant, and his unbearably self-important. It doesn't go well. It does, however, go a long way to making the divide between the generations and the genders snap into sharp focus. 3.5 stars.

“Someone is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of Amerika” pits a mom-type motivational speaker of deeply digressive dullness against the rainforest of western Canada, while in the company of a teenaged son, his twenty-something girlfriend, and some miscellaneous bores. Footnotes can be fun; they aren't, here. 2.5 stars.

“Mister Kakami” sends up The Film Industry, which is a little bit expected from a Vancouverite, much as it would be for an Angeleno. Pseudo-kudos for not forgetting to use the anti-Semitic stock character, The Jewish Producer. 2.5 stars.

“We Come in Peace”--angel/aliens narrate their time inhabiting human teenagers. The very least amusing story in the collection, and pretty much a damn good thing it was followed by the best. 2 stars.

“Better Living Through Plastic Explosives” is scintillating, a lovely rumination on middle age, gardening, memory, motherhood, and the bitter, angry darkness that can swallow the soul of someone who “settles” in life. Also? Funny as hell. 4.75 stars

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Richard Beard

Europa Editions
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Brimming with wit and humor, Lazarus Is Dead transcends genres as it recounts the story of a great friendship lost and re-found.

In the gospels Jesus is described as having only one friend, and when this friend dies, Jesus does something that he does nowhere else in the Bible. He weeps. Novelist Richard Beard begins here. Mixing Biblical sources, historical detail, fascinating references to music, art, and writers as diverse as Kahlil Gibran and Norman Mailer, and abundant reserves of creative invention, Beard gives us his astonishing and amusing take on the greatest story ever told about second chances.

As children, Lazarus and Jesus were thick as thieves. But following a mysterious event, their friendship dwindled in early adulthood. One man struck out and became a flamboyant and successful businessman, the other stayed behind to learn a trade, and ultimately to find his calling in an unprecedented mix of spirituality and revolutionary zeal. Lazarus Is Dead is set during the final period in each man’s life—or, to be more precise, each man’s first life. Both know the end is near and, though they’re loath to admit it, they long for reconciliation. For that to happen they will need to find reasons to believe in each other before time runs out.

My Review: *Europa Editions sent me an ARC for review.*

Lazarus has always bothered me. In the times of my life when learning about the holey babble was a survival mechanism, I was always verschmeckeled by the point of bringing the dead guy back and then just dropping the storyline like the actor got a better part somewhere else. Okay! Cool! Back among the living, and...and...?

Looks like Beard had much the same response. He did something about it. (Well, I did too, but kicking christianity to the curb wasn't Beard's response.) He imagined the story again, from the top, and made sense of it without deviating from the biblical account. He added to the biblical account, but didn't change what was there.

And you know what? This is a good damn book, because it's based on a damn good story. Is it gut-bustingly, raucous-guffawingly funny?'s sly and witty and erudite, like a joke Voltaire would tell, not one Adam Sandler would tell. The pleasure of reading the book is in savoring, not in slurping it up.

Beard's not one to waste time on explanation, though, so if you're interested in getting the maximum amount of smirk per page, read this with Wikipedia open and look up things you don't know about. I promise you Beard didn't do that, but you're reading the book where he had to think it up and write it. His is a heavier burden. You get to skate on the surface.

But what a surface. Lazarus...the dead man walking...the holy zombie, my father called him to the screeching fury of my mother. Is there a better story in the bible? Well, apart from the rape and incest bits. They're all over the place, just open 'er up and start skimming. He rose from the dead! How cool is that! Beard's imagining of it is pretty cool, and very human. How many writers would think to have the resurrected guy take a bath, and smell his breath to be sure it's not stinky? Human details like this make the story one to savor.

And as a teaser, pay attention to how the chapters are numbered. There's a game in there. These are sixteen well-spent dollars for you who will buy the book.

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WIDOW: Stories
Michelle Latiolais

Bellevue Literary Press
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

�In prose shimmering with intelligence and compassion, Michelle Latiolais dissects the essentials of everyday life to find the heartbeat within.—Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones

Widow is a hymn to reverence, simultaneously heartbroken and celebratory. Michelle Latiolais has given us the rarest item, a splendidly articulated masterpiece. —William Kittredge

�In this luminous collection of stories, the gifted Michelle Latiolais writes of loss in all its surprising manifestations. Widow is a devastation and a wonder.—Christine Schutt

�There is something mysterious about this book, as there always is in the writing that matters most. It eludes explanation. It illumines terrifying realities. Only because these pages seem nakedly willing to take the imprint of every emotion, no matter how ugly, do they possess this great beauty. —Elizabeth Tallent

The stories of Widow conjure the nuances of inner sensations as if hitting the notes of a song, deftly played across human memory. These meditations bravely explore the physiology of grief through a masterful interweaving of tender insight and unflinching detail—reminding us that the inner life is best understood through the medium of storytelling. Among these stories of loss are interwoven other tales, creating a bridge to the ineffable pleasures and follies of life before the catastrophe. Throughout this collection, Latiolais captures the longing, humor, and strange grace that accompany life’s most transformative chapters.

Michelle Latiolais is the author of Widow: Stories, a New York Times Editor's Choice selection, and two previous novels, including [A Proper Knowledge], also published by Bellevue Literary Press. She is the recipient of the Gold Medal for Fiction from the Commonwealth Club of California and an English professor and co-director of the Programs in Writing at the University of California at Irvine.

My Review: “The Bryce Method” is named in honor of an online friend who introduced me to the technique, is a summary opinion, plus a short line or a quote from each story, together with a rating for the story.

It's a hard thing to write about grief and the grieving process. It's not a blank, featureless, trackless waste as is depression; grief is a living thing, a changing thing, as the death-in-life of depression is not. Latiolais observes the grief of her characters as they cannot: from the end, the outside, the culmination of a process. Nothing is the same, no one gets better, and no punches are pulled; but the blank and purposeless state of living through grief is, indirectly, shown from its end and thus from a place of hope. No. You will never be the same person. Yes, you will (after the pointless suffering of grieving) have to work hard to invent a new self. But you can, you can indeed...and that's the best message to give someone in this heap of pain and pile of misery.

"Widow" is first up, the title story, and a beautiful expression of the utterly disorienting loss of a mate:
Wandering is better than place sometimes, than home, than destination. Sometimes she can eke out the idea that wandering is possibility, chance, serendipity--he might be there, that place she didn't think to look, hadn't worked hard enough to find....
p10, paper edition

She has been surprised by grief, its constancy, its immediacy, its unrelenting physical pain.
p13, paper edition

Marianne Wiggins says it best in a novel of hers: To love someone is to agree to die twice in a lifetime, to outlive nothing. What happens when one outlives a spouse is a shelf-life, gourd-like existence, dumb fleshy pumps...
p19, paper edition

Beautiful. True, speaking from my own experience as an AIDS widower of some 21 years. And yet marvelously unassuming and unshrill. I love it more for that. 5 stars

"The Long Table" examines the wreckage that an unhappy life flounders through to get to the simplest and most ordinary pleasures. 3.5 stars

"Boys" takes a grown-up couple to a male strip club, the man's idea of a treat for his lady-love; she experiences the last thing she expected, a meditative trip over the territory of motherhood. 3.5 stars

"Tattoo" packs a lot into a page and a half. A daughter remembers cruel words, a woman examines a man while he's unaware, two people communicate from glass-divided spaces. Gulfs that engulf...3 stars

"Pink" takes a woman who has lost a man into the strange world of a teacup and saucer exhibit, where she meditates on vaginas, labia, churches, and death. Very odd, and oddly affecting. 4 stars

"Place" accompanies a middle-aged widow early in her grieving to a church service for and by revolting little rich dweebs, a place she has come to feel something, anything, a mite of a bit of a corner of connection to people.

...she imagines her body curled in the narrow monk's bed, knees to chin, her own irrefutable geography, but she sees the blood of her futile heart seeping out over her chest and arms and legs, flooding across the rough wooden floor, down the narrow wooden stairs and out into the old soil of the garden. No roses, no, she does not even ask to make roses, just dissolution; most any night she asks just for that.
pp47-48, paper edition

For all her culture's attention to the physical, it seemingly has little to salve the creatural anguish of losing someone else's body, their touch, their heat, their oceanic heart...she doesn't want another body, she wants the body she loved, the forceps scar across his cheek that she traced with her hand, his penis, its elegant sweep to the side, the preternaturally soft skin. One wants what one has loved, not the idea of love.
pp53-54, paper edition

After contemplating the "moral" lesson of the story of Job, she leaves the church without speaking to or connecting with anyone save a fellow lost soul who looks longingly on her departure from the company of fools. 4.5 stars

"The Moon" is a strobe-lit vision of the solitary future of a young woman in a featureless present. 3.5 stars

"Crazy" limns the searing moment when one knows that one's dear and beloved spouse is being unfaithful. 4 stars

"Involution" accompanies a young woman to the chocolatier where she buys marzipan angels. Why, I don't know, and what's more I don't care. 2.5 stars

"Caduceus" is best summed up in this quote: "She wished it were evening now, wished for the great relief of the calendar inking itself out, of day done and night coming, of ice cubes knocking about in a glass beneath the whisky spilling in, that fine brown affirmation of need."

Yuh-huh. 3.5 stars

"Thorns" takes an awkward, intelligent woman on a coffee date with a very average man, and leaves her there. Nuclear waste is vitrified, and Dale Chihuly invoked. In most collections this would be a stand-out; here, 3 stars

"Gut" made me laugh out loud several times. It's the only self-narrated story, and it's not about grief or loss but rather about the odd and chancy ways life offers us bliss. A biological anthropologist marries an artist and printmaker, develops some daring ideas about how the human brain evolved after we learned to cook our food, and whisks her--despite her deep misgivings and repeated attempts to foist the gift onto someone else--to the jungles of Uganda to eat a chimpanzee diet for 8 hours a day. Straight. No breaks.

Let me put it this way: Constipation was not a problem, but pooping while you ate was just not the kind of multitasking I was up to.
p104, paper edition

After an attack of wind at being overfed on fruit leads to an amorous escapade and a subsequent request from her husband that she eat living termites off a stick he fetches from under their cot:

...I looked into his blue eyes and they seemed as kind and loving and serious as ever. The acid came into my throat and I started to cry, deep throbs coming up out of my chest--the thought of divorce was so painful.
p 107, paper edition

Fortunately for their marriage, it's a gag, and this marriage is saved. A lark, a pleasure, a light and airy trip into Before instead of a voyage into After as the others are. 4 stars

"Hoarding" plumbs the depths of frustration at being the unfunny partner of the dead life of the party. Bargaining with the gods to bring people to her door, preparing for ungiven parties and unreceived invitations with cupboards and pantries stuffed with goodies, falling flat in pursuit of connections outside her reach, she knows how much was taken from her but can't stop grabbing something, anything, the next thing, to fill the hole. 4.5 stars

"The Legal Case" brings a horrible, horrifying truth about law into sharp focus: You can't legislate decency or goodness, and human depravity finds a way to escape boundaries every time. 3.5 stars

"Breathe" is a riff on "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen, a young woman ironing the table linens and doing the laundry and thinking of the man sleeping in her bed, the grandmother burned in a forest fire, the revolting source of nylon, and then going to a bed she's too tired to care about. 3.5 stars

"Burqa" thinks of invisibility, of being just that bit too old and too over it to be relevant, even to one's child; a divorced woman living in a one-bedroom California apartment, how grisly a thought is that. Slight, in the end. 3 stars

"Damned Spot" doesn't feel like a story, so I don't class it as such. The author tells of her dear Bull Terrier named Damned Spot (she and her husband are bookish people, the joke appealed), and his journey through her marriage to its end, and his own death shortly afterwards. It's a moving story to a dog-lover, and a very sad end-of-life tale; but more than any other thing, it's a simple and direct and very clear statement of life's greatest need: To give and receive love. Absent that, there is no life, merely existence, and that is not and will never be enough. 5 stars

Hunt it up. Spend the fifteen bucks, less from giant soul-killing corporations. This is some excellent story-telling.

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Karen Russell

Alfred A. Knopf
$26.00 hardcover, available now

The Publisher Says: The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline—think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades—and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the World of Darkness.

Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve year old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.

My Review: The Bigtree family, two-generation swamp folks, have reached the end of their useful lives as purveyors of alligator wrestling and mild amusements to the tourists of fictional Loomis County, in the Ten Thousand Islands. Chief Sam Bigtree loses his wife Hilola, and after that the will to make his living there in the swamps with his three children, 17-year-old Kiwi, 16-year-old Osceola, and 10-year-old Ava. The book follows the misadventures of Ava, who is left alone on the island with the older, but seemigly tetched, Osceola, a girl who believes with all her heart that she is in touch with the spirit world, and specifically with a dead teenaged dredgeman from the 1930s called Louis Thanksgiving. Ava, older in spirit than Ossie, pokes fun at her sister's new beau the ghost. Things turn scary when Ossie, in the grips of what she insists is a spirit possession, abandons Ava and sets out for some Calusa Indian mounds which are locally believed to be a gateway to the underworld. Kiwi, meantime, has gone to "the mainland" (a place of fear and derision to the Bigtrees one and all) to work at the competing theme park. His journey from odd man out to local hero with self-confidence is about 1/3 of the book, told from third person limited PoV. Ava's hunt for Ossie through the swamp country, as aided by a tall, skinny stranger called the Bird Man, is the bulk of the book, told in first person as a flashback. What happens to Ava in the swamp is terrifying, what with the belief she has of traveling a spirit landscape into the Underworld in search of Ossie. What happens to Ossie on a similar journey is harrowing when we finally hear it from her mouth. All is finally put right in this weird and fractured family, the deus ex machina unfolding its long and shining arm to bring forth happiness and contentment. Of a very mitigated sort.

Well, now. Where to begin. Lushness and loveliness of language? Yes, there is that. Resonant Hero's Journey to the Gates of Hell, complete with safe return? Check. Obligatory abuse of women and children by older men? Sadly, that's here too, though God knows I wish it wasn't.

This is a first novel by a talented writer. I am sorry to say that it relies a little too much on currently fsahionable tropes to merit a good rating. I am sick unto death of novels by women that use adult males as bogeymen, from neglectful father to deceitful and abusive "helper." Stop it. It's boring. And, in case any of you women writers want to think outside your comfort zone for a second, what message is this sending to the girls in the world? Be afraid of men? And to the boys, you are intrinsically bad and evil and not to be trusted by women? Are these little details not immediately obvious to you, and if not, why not?

But the book in question is, as noted above, lush and lovely of language. Its phrases are smooth and silken in my mental ear. Its images are beautifully crafted. Its mythic structure is nicely handled, though I could have done completely without the whole Kiwi thing. One hopes that Karen Russell will see past this lazy co-opting of trendy shibboleths and create something as beautifully thought out as it is written.

Should you read this book? Yeah, well, they're your eyes, blink 'em at whatever makes you happy. Me, I'd go to the liberry to get the book, not shell out most of $30 to procure it.

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Bonnie Jo Campbell

W.W. Norton
$25.95 hardcover, available now

Pearl Ruled (p82)

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Bonnie Jo Campbell has created an unforgettable heroine in sixteen-year-old Margo Crane, a beauty whose unflinching gaze and uncanny ability with a rifle have not made her life any easier. After the violent death of her father, in which she is complicit, Margo takes to the Stark River in her boat, with only a few supplies and a biography of Annie Oakley, in search of her vanished mother. But the river, Margo's childhood paradise, is a dangerous place for a young woman traveling alone, and she must be strong to survive, using her knowledge of the natural world and her ability to look unsparingly into the hearts of those around her. Her river odyssey through rural Michigan becomes a defining journey, one that leads her beyond self-preservation and to the decision of what price she is willing to pay for her choices.

My Review: Oh heavy, heavy sigh. I cannot make myself read more of this beautifully crafted book. Campbell's trademark gorgeous sentences are not enough to propel me any further into the life of sixteen-year-old Margo Crane. I don't want to read about Margo's consensual sexual adventures with an adult man.

I just don't.

But let me tell you what's right with this book: The writing. Oh. Oh. Campbell is describing a harsh and unjust world in words that make me vibrate like a tuning fork that's just found its note. Campbell's descriptions of Michigan make me ache to see it for myself. Her deft, cruel characterizations are inarguably fine...nice, in the original sense of the word...I don't want to use the word "precise" because that conjures the spectre of Henry James, and that scares people off, but precise they are.

I hate like poison that the beauty of the book, its lovely wideness and its supremely inviting lushness, are closed to me by my own shuddering disgust for teenaged girls and heterosexual congress. But that, I fear, is where I am and what I feel.

DO NOT TAKE THIS AS A WARN-OFF!! I recommend to the straight people who like gorgeous writing and coming-of-age stories that this book rise to the top of the pile immediately! If it's your first try at a Bonnie Jo Campbell book, so much the better, and so much the more exciting for you. She is a talent to be savored and supported with book purchases.

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Tom Franklin

William Morrow
$24.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: one grudging star of five

The Publisher Says: Tom Franklin's narrative power and flair for characterization have been compared to the likes of Harper Lee, Flannery O'Connor, Elmore Leonard, and Cormac McCarthy.

Now the Edgar Award-winning author returns with his most accomplished and resonant novel so far; an atmospheric drama set in rural Mississippi. In the late 1970s, Larry Ott and Silas "32" Jones were boyhood pals. Their worlds were as different as night and day: Larry, the child of lower-middle-class white parents, and Silas, the son of a poor, single black mother. Yet for a few months the boys stepped outside of their circumstances and shared a special bond. But then tragedy struck: Larry took a girl on a date to a drive-in movie, and she was never heard from again. She was never found and Larry never confessed, but all eyes rested on him as the culprit. The incident shook the county—and perhaps Silas most of all. His friendship with Larry was broken, and then Silas left town.

More than twenty years have passed. Larry, a mechanic, lives a solitary existence, never able to rise above the whispers of suspicion. Silas has returned as a constable. He and Larry have no reason to cross paths until another girl disappears and Larry is blamed again. And now the two men who once called each other friend are forced to confront the past they've buried and ignored for decades.

My Review: Tedious sentences telling a tired old story in an unfresh way.
Carolyn twisted his head harder, and Larry pushed at her arm but she had his hair and he told himself not to cry. Then she slammed his head down, hard, onto his desk. Everybody laughed so she did it again.

He stole a sideways look and saw her face. He'd never been that angry. He didn't think he had the ability to summon such anger, or the right. With her other hand Carolyn grabbed his arm and twisted it so he fell out of his desk, The Shining landing beside him on the floor.

This fight is important. I could not possibly, even upon making an effort, be less interested; also, the stupid and incredible (in the original sense) stuff about the kid thinking those thoughts while a girl is beating his head against the desk just finished off my willingness to go any further into the story I already didn't like.

From the publisher's puffery above, I'd be in a suin' mood if I was Elmore Leonard, Harper Lee, or Flannery O'Connor's executor. This ramshackle bloviation is nowhere in the same territory those monadnocks occupy.

Plus I do not ever wish to read the word "nigger" again. I was raised by a mama who smacked me when I said it as a four-year-old. "Daddy says it!" I protested. "If you can't learn to be better than your daddy, you won't be much in this life."

Maybe I'm not much in this life. But I don't use that word or its horrible ilk. And I don't hang with people who do, even in books.

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AMERICAN SALVAGE (Made in Michigan Writers Series)
Bonnie Jo Campbell
Wayne State University Press
$19.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.6* of five

The Publisher Says: American Salvage is rich with local color and peopled with rural characters who love and hate extravagantly. They know how to fix cars and washing machines, how to shoot and clean game, and how to cook up methamphetamine, but they have not figured out how to prosper in the twenty-first century. Through the complex inner lives of working-class characters, Bonnie Jo Campbell illustrates the desperation of post-industrial America, where wildlife, jobs, and whole ways of life go extinct and the people have no choice but to live off what is left behind.

My Review: Solid craftsmanship, a fearless imagination, and a complete lack of corrosive, cynical piety and pity make this collection of short stories exceptionally enjoyable.

I share nothing with these characters except the right to trial by jury, and yet I was enrapt by them. I loved "The Solutions to Brian's Problem" the best, since I never expect to see a male PoV on abuse by women. This book is seething with the rage of characters whose lives turned out bad, as in the TV series "Breaking Bad," and are flat-out irredeemably broken. This same territory was trodden by Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed from the factual was revolting to read that book, it hurt me in ways I can't recover from, but Bonnie Jo Campbell has brought home to me the true emotional cost of indifference.

I don't thank her for that.

But I do recommend the book highly.

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Donald Ray Pollock

Anchor Books
$15.00 trade paperback, available now

Rating: 4.8* of five

The Publisher Says: “Take a man from Ohio who's worked blue collar, send him for an M.F.A., and set him loose. From the acclaimed author of Knockemstiff—called “powerful, remarkable, exceptional” by the Los Angeles Times—comes a dark and riveting vision of America that delivers literary excitement in the highest degree. 

In The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock has written a novel that marries the twisted intensity of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers with the religious and Gothic over­tones of Flannery O’Connor at her most haunting. 

Set in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia, The Devil All the Time follows a cast of compelling and bizarre characters from the end of World War II to the 1960s. There’s Willard Russell, tormented veteran of the carnage in the South Pacific, who can’t save his beautiful wife, Charlotte, from an agonizing death by cancer no matter how much sacrifi­cial blood he pours on his “prayer log.” There’s Carl and Sandy Henderson, a husband-and-wife team of serial kill­ers, who troll America’s highways searching for suitable models to photograph and exterminate. There’s the spider-handling preacher Roy and his crippled virtuoso-guitar-playing sidekick, Theodore, running from the law. And caught in the middle of all this is Arvin Eugene Russell, Willard and Charlotte’s orphaned son, who grows up to be a good but also violent man in his own right. 

Donald Ray Pollock braids his plotlines into a taut narrative that will leave readers astonished and deeply moved. With his first novel, he proves himself a master storyteller in the grittiest and most uncompromising American grain.”

My Review: This is Donald Ray Pollock's first novel. After being mauled and kicked by Knockemstiff, his short-story collection, I was chomping at the bit for this book to come in to my village library. Today was my first wholly peaceful day, and what better thing to do with a peaceful day than to read about the broken and forgotten members of Murrikin society?

So I got on the Greyhound for Knockemstiff, garlic around my neck and an illegal assault rifle perched in the seat beside me, scared stiff that one of these Hill Williams was gonna start some shit with the fancy New Yorker getting' off the bus.

Funnily enough, that's exactly what happened. Knockemstiff and, if you feel the need to bleach your eyeballs and you want to scream, cry, and unswallow on average once a page, this isn't the book for you. It's not that worse things happen in it, although some do happen that made me scream, cry, and unswallow, it's that this novel is unremittingly grim and a lot less easy to stop reading than a story collection is.

I started this book around 4pm. It's now 3am. I paused long enough to eat some cucumber and tomato salad and a wedge of watermelon around 10pm, and I think I piddled around midnight...but that was with the book propped open on the tank top. I'll mop the floor tomorrow...errrmmm, later today.

Pollock is the kind of writer Hemingway wanted to be. Simple, elegantly shod, carefully manicured sentences whip out their truncheons and, never mind the flying blood, wail on the innocent reader's brain-box. Dazed, in pounding agony from the grinding of severely fractured bone plates in the readerly skull, eyes absorb and record and flinch away from the matter-of-fact violence. It's not played for gore or shock. Pollock just...writes it the way it was in his head.

Mother of all the gods. That sentence scares me shitless.

The stories that make up the braids of the novel are, in themselves, good novellas. Put together, though, the effect is overkill. Oh dear. Bad choice of words. It's one bridge too far into horrorville. The last thirty or so pages, while well written, just didn't keep up the pace of revelation. In every other part of the book, there was a blood clot coming loose and causing fresh damage as the characters got closer to the inevitable I kept moving...and then, well, some of that sense of howcanhetopthis zomg he did it got lost.

And now I will be turning on the Snarkinator. Those whose tastes are for tomes lit'ry which ahhhr evah sew reefahayned, please seek the exits.

Pollock got an MFA. I find MFA writers are all much of a muchness to me. A bit like opening a box of dried dates hoping for something other than a sugar coma, permaybehaps a peppermint or a Red Hot secreted in amongst the sticky soft sweetness. I have my list of offenders, but I've puked on them elsewhere, so I'll leave it at Paul Auster Jeffrey Eugenides Jonathan Franzen Dave Eggers Jonathan Safran Foer et alii, none of whose books I can tell apart from the authors's various ouevres without a look at the spine or title page. Yes yes, nice sentence, lovely image, I'm sorry was something supposed to move me here, to reach across the gap between our brains and change me? Cause it sure as pork rinds didn't. And it never does, all the mooin' and carryin'-on y'all groupies do aside.

And the last, well, last six or so chapters of this novel? They're the first time I felt Pollock's MFA intrude into his writing. He's still got more potency in his keyboarding fingers than those boys. I knock off a whoppin' tenth of a star from perfect because of that. It's a little like complaining that the blowjob didn't last long enough (I don't have any idea what the equivalent is for women, sorry ladies but I am just not anxious to know either). Describe the worst sex you ever had: It was marvelous, as the old joke goes.

And, not a small consideration, is it me, or is it he? I could simply be grumping about this because the way things turn out isn't the way I want them to. But hang on! The ending, you'll recall I said above, is inevitable. And it is. The only ending this book could have. I liked it!

So maybe, just maybe, it's that bloody degree reefahayneeng the gasoline-and-pigshit essence of this wonderful book. I sure as all get-out hate that idea. I suspect it's true. But, and this is KEY, do NOT let this discourage you from visiting the bottom of the heap with Pollock. This is the real deal.

The real deal.

EDITED TO ADD 10/25/2012: The novel has won the Best Foreign Crime Novel prize in France!

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Andrew Geyer

Texas Texh University Press
$19.96 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Diverse in setting and broad in range, these award-winning stories all turn, in some way, on the passing of the rural Southwest Texas way of life and its stamp on those who leave there. Ranging from bare-bones narratives to magical realism and ever lush in regional particulars, the stories all center on a sense of place. Sharing a point of origin and a journey, their characters weave in and out of the stories, looking for new starts-for answers-and seeing the world through dry eyes. They explore exotic Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, and a dig site in Peru and make a voyage of discovery down the Amazon River. They lose faith in God and find it again in such unlikely places as a water lot in South Carolina. The displaced protagonists all search for something elusive, something lost, yet in Geyer's hands are yoked by a tension that is somehow always new and always compelling.

Famous blurbers: Andrew Geyer's earthy, edgy, colorful stories range from Texas to Peru, reflecting life's frustrations and occasional small triumphs.—Elmer Kelton
The contents...reads like the track listing of some Marty Robbins album-dusty and elegiac, but with that ten-dollar smile, that flash of white teeth under a hat brim. Even when the stories take you to South Carolina, or South America, still, it's Texas. The real one.—Stephen Graham Jones
The most important work of fiction to come out of the Southwest since Woman Hollering Creek.—Michael Hathaway

My Review: I am a native Californian. Lived there for a whopping six years, then made visits because my divorced parents couldn't bear to be in the same state. (Not that I think they were wrong...two people that negative and vicious in one state is too many.) I was yanked away from the world I knew to start life anew in Mercedes, a horrible little burg in farthest-possible South Texas...which, in the mid-Sixties, was an unbelievably stark contrast to wealthy urban/suburban Northern California: POOR PEOPLE! MEXICAN PEOPLE (Matamoros, Mexico is closer to Mercedes, Texas than is San Antonio or Laredo)! SPANISH!! EEEEEEEEK! Oh, and heat. Lots and lots of heat.

And ya know what? I hated the heat. I hated my mother, and sister. But I didn't hate horrible, podunk Mercedes near as much as I hated, and still hate, plush piss-elegant pointless Los Gatos, California. I liked the Mexican migrant kids, I LOVED barbacoa and breakfast tacos and quesadillas and refritos and enchiladas (to my mother's enduring horror). I liked Spanish...and for the first time in my life, I felt like there was something to this idea people called “home.” Cali? Never did fit. Haven't been there in 20 years, and am not at all sure I'll ever go back.

Fast forward from 1966 to 2004. I'm living in Austin at that time, my mother having died and left me her house there. I found this collection of sixteen stories, published by Texas Tech University Press, at BookPeople (Austin's excellent unchain book heaven), on a shelf marked “Staff Recommendations.” Since money wasn't a problem for me then, I bought it on a whim...what a whim.

Peru! The Amazon! Ranch country in South Texas! Powpowpow the book-bullets hit me, spun me, felt like fire as they got in under my skin and made me smell smells I'd forgotten I knew (caliche roads, anyone?) and think about the life I almost led in places I'd been and left behind.

But, and I know this is such a boring cliché to hear again and again, but it's the characters and their voices that pinned me to my chair and kept the pages turning. Andrew Geyer made, in this collection, a believer out of me, and I'll read all his books one day before I die. Every one of the stories has someone in it that I knew, or know, or am related to. I recognize them, their concerns, their attitudes and prejudices. I don't always like them, but I know them, somewhere in the calcium in my bones I know them and their life and their deep fear of change. Change, in this world, is Never Good. Here, from my very favorite story, “Trust Jesus,” is a succinct statement of why:

At 6:15 she was standing on her front porch watering gardenias and watching another line of thunderstorms split and go around her. The same thing happened almost every day. Some days they came so close all she could smell was the rain. The wind whipped up dust from the fields until it drove like buckshot into the shuddering mesquites, and Clara Nell started to pray. 'Jesus,' she whispered. 'Jesus, Jesus....' But the only thing that came out of the sky was her topsoil. Every day the wind took a little more, and it hadn't rained in almost a year.--p27, hardcover edition

As soon as the pattern of things changes, the certainties shift, the roots of survival are attacked. I forget this. I can't keep it in the forefront of my mind because I'm not this kind of person at heart, I'm a change-loving city-dweller by nature and design. Conservatism, which I regard as a character flaw to be rooted out and extinguished by all right-thinking people, has its roots here in this South Texas archetype tough ranch woman.

Andrew Geyer reminds me, in these stories, that nothing comes from nowhere...that people think and feel and believe what they do for reasons that make sense to them. That, in spite of my judgments, the world will always have these folks in it, and best to adjust to that immutable law of human nature.

This is why I read. To remind myself not to disappear up my own ass. People are different, not (only) wrongheaded. I hate being made to think, don't you?

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Kevin Powers

Little, Brown
$24.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: "The war tried to kill us in the spring," begins this breathtaking account of friendship and loss. In Al Tafar, Iraq, twenty-one-year old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy cling to life as their platoon launches a bloody battle for the city. In the endless days that follow, the two young soldiers do everything to protect each other from the forces that press in on every side: the insurgents, physical fatigue, and the mental stress that comes from constant danger.

Bound together since basic training when their tough-as-nails Sergeant ordered Bartle to watch over Murphy, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for. As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him and Bartle takes impossible actions.

With profound emotional insight, especially into the effects of a hidden war on mothers and families at home, THE YELLOW BIRDS is a groundbreaking novel about the costs of war that is destined to become a classic.

My Review: I do so wish publishers would stop using the phrase “destined to become a classic” because, even if I agree with them (in this case I do), it's so obviously a sales pitch that it's a turn off.

No one knows for sure what the future will consider a classic. No one in 1955 would've given The Lord of the Rings future-classic status. No one in 1851 would've known about Moby-Dick, it was such a flop! The Great Gatsby? Please! Out of print by 1940!

This book, fragmented like PTSD memories, written in deceptively simple sentences by a *shudder* poet of all things, earns my admiration for its beauty, its simplicity, its sheer raw emotional up-front-ness. It has these, and many other, things in common with books that have stood the test of time and become classics. It is a first novel; it is about a young man's journey into a unique hell of memory and the maze he travels even to imagine daylight guiding him out; it is, one strongly suspects based on the author's CV, a roman à clef. So far, so good, for the oddsmakers' guess it will become a classic; so did The Naked and the Dead, so did The Sun Also Rises, and so on. I think it will be a classic. I hope it will, and I offer this passage as support for my hope and conviction:

When we neared the orchard a flock of birds lit from its outer rows. They hadn't been there long. The branches shook with their absent weight and the birds circled above in the ruddy mackerel sky, where they made an artless semaphore. I was afraid. I smelled copper and cheap wine. The sun was up, but a half-moon hung low on the opposite horizon, cutting through the morning sky like a figure from a child's pull-tab book.

We were lined along the ditch up to our ankles in a soupy muck. It all seemed in that moment to be the conclusion of a poorly designed experiment in inevitability. Everything was in its proper place, waiting for a pause in time, for the source of all momentum to be stilled, so that what remained would be nothing more than detritus to be tallied up. The world was paper-thin as far as I could tell. And the world was the orchard, and the orchard was what came next. But none of that was true. I was only afraid of dying.”
(p115, US hardcover edition)

That, for me, is a lovely moment of mortal fear's hyperreality-inducing sensory twist. Never having been in war, I can't say it's what a soldier would feel, but having been afraid for my life from external causes, I can say that is the kind of sharp-edged seemingly odd clarity of perception that happened to me. The author was a soldier in Iraq. I suspect he saw and felt these exact things, and because he's *gag* an MFA-havin' poet, he remembered them with extreme precision.

Kevin Powers is One To Watch. If his book wins a National Book Award, which I strongly suspect it will, this could be the best novel we see from him. I hope it does, and I pray it doesn't, and I most urgently petition the Muses for his beautiful, beautiful talent to survive intact the horrors of commerce, where the agonies of war built a palace for him.

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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: A reimagining of the world-famous Indian epic, the Mahabharat—told from the point of view of an amazing woman.

Relevant to today’s war-torn world, The Palace of Illusions takes us back to a time that is half history, half myth, and wholly magical. Narrated by Panchaali, the wife of the legendary Pandavas brothers in the Mahabharat, the novel gives us a new interpretation of this ancient tale.

The novel traces the princess Panchaali's life, beginning with her birth in fire and following her spirited balancing act as a woman with five husbands who have been cheated out of their father’s kingdom. Panchaali is swept into their quest to reclaim their birthright, remaining at their side through years of exile and a terrible civil war involving all the important kings of India. Meanwhile, we never lose sight of her strategic duels with her mother-in-law, her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna, or her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands' most dangerous enemy. Panchaali is a fiery female redefining for us a world of warriors, gods, and the ever-manipulating hands of fate.

My Review: I'd give it six stars if I could.

Peak reading experiences come all too seldom in life. I think one knows it's a peak when it's almost too painful to endure that the book is ending, but almost too painful to endure to put it down and turn out the light. Then the book comes to you in your dreams, the characters and the situations work their magical way into your receptive dream-mind, and make not only waking hours painfully happy with the reading or anticipation of reading but the sleeping hours more vivid and more real and more alive than ever.

That's what happened to me as I read The Palace of Illusions. I've dreamed of its characters, I've lived vicariously its plot and its many eventful twists for a month of nights, and I truly can't express to you how much pleasure it's given me to do so. I wish for everyone that experience, if not with this book then with another, and soon. It makes a whole new level of appreciation come, or come back, to you when you come across one of these books.

I have had the life-changing experience twice before, and I still treasure those memories. I will treasure this one equally. I suppose the idea of the book, retelling a classic Indian foundational myth called Mahabharat from the point-of-view of a female character, is in keeping with today's popular trend of reimagining myths from all angles and stances. I certainly am aware that telling any Indian myth from a female point of view is a departure from the cultural norms of that society, and to be applauded for that reason alone; but what Divakaruni wrought in doing this is nothing short of creating a new foundation myth on the stones of the old one.

I think a woman who has five husbands wished on her as she comes into this world from a fiery column is worth hearing more about; so did Divakaruni; and thus the tale told here. The myth mentions her, but there is much room for more development. A little like Eve's untold story in Christian myth, and the odd absence of Hera stories as separate from Zeus and his philandering. Extraordinary men need extraordinary women, and simply not telling me-the-reader about them doesn't make them not exist; it merely hides them in deep and scary shadows until a woman with the right eyes comes along, sees the real story, and sets about telling it.

We are all of us readers the richer for Divakaruni's gift of this book to us. I do not, however, recommend it to all readers; I don't think its power is in its broad appeal but in its complete appeal. I suspect that some whose reading preferences are more aimed at comfort and at the satisfactions of reinforcement and reassurance would find this an unpleasant book to read. But I truly wish for each of you that you give it a try, let it at least make a start on working its beautiful enchantment on you. I hope it will be able to speak its way into your dreams the way it did mine.

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Josie Sigler

Livingston Press
$19.95 trade paper (unless you shop You-Know-Where), available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A dozen stories of the searing pain that being alive is for many of us. The horrors of war? Nothing compared to the horrors of hatred. The joys of sex? Nothing compared to the life sentence of parenthood, the misery of loss and abandonment that always follow.

Winner of the Tartt First Fiction Award, this collection of slices of life—sliced by blunt knives from still-living flesh—collects Sigler's bleak, clear-eyed visions of life in these United States for the first time in book form. Some stories appeared in the cream of the small magazine crop, such as Roanoke Review, Silk Road, and Copper Nickel, all of which represent the diametric opposite of Reader's Digest. Stories, my friends, are alive and well in the hands of writers like Sigler. They are still doing what the best stories have always done: Gone somewhere, done something, and made the reader experience the going and doing, and emerge changed from the trip.

My Review: A tiller of literary soil broken generations ago by such realist-mythspinners as Erskine Caldwell and Carson McCullers, Sigler finds her angles and corners in a poverty-stricken stratum of America that grows steadily (according to the census). It makes her grim visions, so angry and so hopeless as to make one wish for literary cataracts, all the more important for those of us who can afford computers and have the education to know what to do with them, and with the books we come to this place to talk about, to read and heed. She's Donald Ray Pollock and Bonnie Jo Campbell's literary love-child. The boy in the trailer on the next lot is Wells Tower.

I have one cavil with the collection as a whole. The joke here is that the stories all involve particular car models, linking the tales with the decline and fall of the US auto industry. This feels forced to me, though I must admit that having a collection of stories organized around cars made my gearhead heart warm up. But in the end, the cars are integral to the stories about half the time, and integrated into a narrative spine not at all. It won't matter to most of y'all. It was only mildly disappointing to me.

Pay attention. Truths are told here, and we all benefit from that. Read Josie Sigler's work.

“Deep, Michigan (Caprice)”--what does it mean to be a misfit gayboy with friends who rape you? “Buddies” who abuse you? What does it mean not to have a place at any table? 4.5 stars

“My Last Horse (Mustang)”--a gift of healing horses marks one woman as different, and her life's work consumes her every moment. When love finds her, how can she make the compromises and adjustments love requires when lives are at stake? 5 stars

“Chicken (Comet)”--when there is no future, why pretend the present matters? 3 stars

“Woods (El Camino)”--what happens when one smart, determined young woman escapes grinding poverty, only to return when her Iraq war veteran brother finally dies? Can she find a way to fit the past into a future she wasn't allowed to dream of having? 4 stars

“Breakneck Road (Reliant)”--when a man walking home from the liquor store with his last dollar's worth of booze finds a baby in a box abandoned by the roadside, can he leave it to die? Is taking on a child when you can't find food money at the bottom of your bottle a ticket out of Hell, or a short trip to the grave? 4.5 stars

“The Johns (Chevelle Malibu)”--when your mother turns tricks for a living, what can possibly be the last straw that forces your childhood to end? 5 stars

“The Last Trees in River Rouge Weep for Carlotta Contadino (Galaxie)”--when you have nowhere to go, can you make home mean something by betraying your fellow bottom-dwellers to get what you want? 4 stars

“Even the Crocuses (Impala)”--when a good man bores you so bad that only a bad man will keep you afloat in your bottle, can you trust yourself not to give in and sink into the mud? 3 stars

“The Ride (Hog)”--what makes a good biker chick...toughness, or the fear that if you stop you'll never make it out? 3 stars

“Tether (Town & Country)”--what can a system designed to control and intimidate expect its victims to do if not rebel...even at the cost of their lives? 4 stars

“The Black Box (Falcon)”--the existential cry, “why?” answered with “why not?” 2.5 stars, weakest in the collection

“A Man is Not a Star (Silverado)”--what happens when a man, not very bright and not very educated, but a man with love and pride in his heart for all the things he's done to build a life for his wife and daughters, finds himself unwanted and unnecessary? One man's way out is unforgettable. But you'll want to. 5 stars, the star of this show.

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Joshua Mohr

Soft Skull Press
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: When his bicycle is intentionally run off the road by a neighbor's SUV, something snaps in Bob Coffen. Modern suburban life has been getting him down and this is the last straw. To avoid following in his own father’s missteps, Bob is suddenly desperate to reconnect with his wife and his distant, distracted children. And he's looking for any guidance he can get.

Bob Coffen soon learns that the wisest words come from the most unexpected places, from characters that are always more than what they appear to be: a magician/marriage counselor, a fast-food drive-thru attendant/phone-sex operator, and a janitor/guitarist of a French KISS cover band. Can these disparate voices inspire Bob to fight for his family? To fight for his place in the world?

A call-to-arms for those who have ever felt beaten down by life, Fight Song is a quest for happiness in a world in which we are increasingly losing control. It is the exciting new novel by one of the most surprising and original writers of his generation.

My Review: Have you ever wondered what would've happened if Updike and Cheever had mated while watching a Rock-and-Doris comedy on an acid trip, produced a son, and infused him with García Márquez's sense of the absurd? No? Don't bother, his name's Joshua Mohr and he'll table-dance for you at the bargain price of $16 (less if you don't mind doing business with soulless dream-killing conglomerates).

I hated Rabbit Angstrom because I felt too close to being him. I envied Falconer because I wanted to be more like him. Bob Coffen, in this book? I'd've pantsed him at every opportunity. Treated him as his noxiously virile, annoyingly macho neighbor Schumann treats him. Can't help it, doughy indeterminate blobs make me itchy under the balls and I need to victimize them. I'm a guy, sue me.

So why would I read a book told from his PoV, and give it more than a single grudging star? Well, back up there at the top of my review, I mentioned García Márquez. There's magic in here that I can't resist, there's an absurd brio to Bob's cluelessness and amorphousness, that calls to a corner of my sense of humor. It's the same corner where my ill-tempered glee at the plights of the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie lives. In fact, this is much like a Buñuel script made for HBO. Softer edges, more marshmallowy feel-goodness, but just as many quirked eyebrows and cut eyes. Bjorn the illusionist/marriage counselor is proof enough of that, but add in Bjorn's penchant for, well, punitive mesmerism (poor Schumann!) and his multiply unfaithful pansexual wife....

Okay, all that sounds like a rave. Why not four stars? Because I detest Bob's bologna-on-Wonder-bread acceptance of his grim ball-busting wife's Rightness and her power to determine what it is he should be. I am no supporter of heterosexual marriage, not a shock to regular readers. It's a giant mistake to pin your hopes for happiness on a being of a different species from your own. But to supinely accept her authority, as he does from beginning to end, goes against every single fiber in my being, whether in fiction or in fact. There goes a half-star. Another half-star for the workplace scenes, which I found tedious in the extreme and so far as I could tell made no difference to the plot. The last quarter comes off because the ending, while amusing, while magical, did nothing to resolve the basic conflict of Bob versus "Robert," the created, foisted-on-him identities from work or wife.

Those are my issues, then, one strictly personal and two rooted in the author's choices within the text. But on balance, unless there is some gigantic rock of resistance in you to the underdog-finds-happiness story, this telling of it will repay your eyeblinks.

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Madeline Miller

Ecco Press
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.

Achilles, 'best of all the Greeks', is everything Patroclus is not — strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess — and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative companionship gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother Thetis, a cruel and deathly pale sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

Fate is never far from the heels of Achilles. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned, everything they hold dear. And that, before he is ready, he will be forced to surrender his friend to the hands of Fate.

Profoundly moving and breathtakingly original, this rendering of the epic Trojan War is a dazzling feat of the imagination, a devastating love story, and an almighty battle between gods and kings, peace and glory, immortal fame and the human heart.

My Review: Here I am faced with a conundrum: What new thought can I give? This is The Iliad, told from Patroclus's point of view. Miller starts the story with Patroclus's memories of his father, King Menoitius, whose unloving, unforgiving horridness blighted Patroclus's childhood. When Patroclus causes the death of a bully who happens to be a powerful noble's son, the boy's family gives the king what he wants: An excuse to rid himself of unpromising Patroclus. He is exiled (a nine year old boy) to Phthia, and the court of King Peleus.

Father of Achilles. Born to the sea-nymph Thetis. Best of all the Greeks...Aristos each and every thing, yet mortal and so consigned to our world.

Patroclus and Achilles find each other, and Achilles chooses the unpromising boy to be his companion. Peleus says, when the choice is made, are you sure about this, son? This boy will add nothing to your lustre. Achilles responds, without rancor or boastfulness, “I don't need him to.” This being self-evident and inarguable, Peleus shrugs and life goes on. The boys spend a golden childhood as best friends, a golden adolescence as lovers, and, after being outed by Odysseus in Scyros where Thetis was trying to hide Achilles from the Trojan War where he is fated to die, a long (for the times) manhood as husbands. Everyone knows what time it is. No one says boo about it, except Thetis who LOATHES Patroclus because he's not good enough for her little boy. Who would dare? Achilles is a killing machine. He is the Aristos Achaion for a reason.

And now we rejoin the mainstream of The Iliad for the remainder of the plot, with only a slight change in angle of view.

I think I wrote three heart-felt appreciations of this book. It is strong, and beautiful, and passionate. It is tough, and cruel, and inevitably sad. It is tender, and loving, and generous. It is indeed the Song of Achilles, sung by Patroclus, and it is a fitting funerary offering to them both.

But let me get out of the story's way. It speaks for itself.

”I will go,” he said. “I will go to Troy.”
The rosy gleam of his lip, the fevered green of his eyes. There was not a line anywhere on his face, nothing creased or graying; all crisp. He was spring, golden and bright. Envious death would drink his blood, and grow young again.
He was watching me, his eyes as deep as earth.
“Will you come with me?” he asked.
The never-ending ache of love and sorrow. Perhaps in some other life I could have refused, could have torn my hair and screamed, and made him face his choice alone. But not in this one. He would sail to Troy and I would follow, even into death. “Yes,” I whipsered. “Yes.
Relief broke in his face, and he reached for me. I let him hold me, let him press us length to length so close that nothing might fit between us.
Tears came, and fell. Above us, the constellations spun and the moon paced her weary course. We lay stricken and sleepless as the hours passed.

I can't make any stronger a case for the book than this. I hope you will read it.

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Kat Meads

Livingston Press
$19.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4* of five


The Publisher Says: Nadezhda Krupskaya, Vladimir Lenin's comrade/wife, was an only child. Where she went, her mother went also. In Siberia and Europe, Lenin and the two Krupskayas shared close quarters: two- and three-room apartments.

Lenin obliged to live with an in-house, sharp-tongued critic, Nadya Krupskaya and Lenin trying to run a revolution while living with mom/mother-in-law, the daily rituals and domestic lives of subversives--fictionally promising territory.

For You, Madam Lenin covers pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and the Soviet experiment post-Lenin. Trotsky with his abundant hair, Stalin with his webbed feet, Lenin's lovely mistress Inessa Armand, and half-blind Fanny Kaplan, Lenin's would-be assassin, are all present and accounted for.

But the novel belongs to the two Krupskayas. In this version of events, the male triumvirate Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin doesn't outshine Russia's long line of tough, resilient, radical female luminaries.

My Review: I like historical novels, I'm interested in Russian history, and I'm completely in tune with the idea of a husband being the butt of womanly's such a common trope, after all. Mothers-in-law don't come much more beady-eyed and observant than Krupskaya Senior.

I don't know that I'd ever so much as given a second's thought to Lenin's domestic arrangements. If anything, I assumed pretty young cadres were at his beck and call. I can't say from my own original research how much of this novel was fictionalized, but I'd certainly say the *feeling* is convincing.

The narrative told from Matushka Krupskaya's point of view is, in fact, charming in its illusionlessness about Lenin's failings as a husband and as a leader. His susceptibility to a pretty Parisian piece, Inessa, surprises his mother-in-law not at all. She admits she thinks Inessa is a lovely, fun girl. But she remains her daughter's mother, so much so that she is Nadezhda's emotional ballast through the inevitable trials of being a famous man's wife. (This part I know to be fictional, as Krupskaya Senior died before the October Revolution.) What impact that has on the power couple, well, three is a crowd didn't become a cliché for no reason.

The other narrative voices, all anonymous omniscient and convenient, are there for the author to offer commentary on the events unfolding before the Krupskayas. It's handy from a plotting point of view, and the "interrogator" of history is at times amusing, but it feels a bot contrived. Krupskaya Senior is telling the story to some unnamed someone, us the readers; the omniscient narrator is too; then the interrogations by History of, for example, Marx's daughters is thrown in, and none of the scenes is terribly long...well, it's choppy out here on this Russian lake.

What sold me on the novel, concerns aside, is the delicate and ever-so-charming arabesque of a life Meads makes for the three women at the heart of things: Mother and confessor, critic and protector, sad survivor and acerbic battler; passionate advocate and wife, lover and beloved, widow and guardian of the flame; and soft, worshipful, accepting refuge for an aging man's sad and defeated needy heart. None of the three can be in any orbit except Lenin's, and in all their actions, they choose this course. They choose to be Lenin's womenfolk. Not because That's What Women Do. Because, first to last, each is committed to the vision of himself that Lenin shows her.

Tart, critical, practical, obsessive, and passionate. Not one of these women is ever less than herself in these pages. That's a lot to say for a trio of wildly different fictionalized people. I'm glad I read it.

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  1. It is a tad ridiculous that you cannot read a book with the word "nigger" in it. Good luck with Flannery O'Connor...


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