Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

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There are many words a woman in love longs to hear. “I’ll love you forever, darling,” and “Will it be a diamond this year?” are two fine examples. But young lovers take note: above all else, the phrase every girl truly wants to hear is, “Hi, this is Amy from Science Support; I’m dropping off some heads.”

You have all seen The Producers, right? The version with Zero or Nathan, in the cinema, on TV, on the stage, whatever. Those of you who have not…well…tsk, tsk, tsk, for shame, for shame. Well, there is one scene that pops to mind apropos this book. In the film, the producers of the title have put together a show that is designed to fail. The surprise is on them, though, when their engineered disaster turns out to be a hit. During intermission of the opening performance, to Max and Leo’s absolute horror, they overhear a man saying to his wife, “Honey, I never in a million years thought I’d ever love a show called Springtime For Hitler. One might be forgiven for having similar thoughts about Caitlin Doughty’s sparkling romp through the joys of mortuary science, Smoke Gets in your Eyes. If you were expecting a lifeless look at what most of us consider a dark subject, well, surprise, surprise.

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Yes we are, and dead-ender Caitlin is happy to help with the cleanup

Caitlin Doughty has cooked up a book that is part memoir, part guidebook through the world of what lies beyond, well, the earth-bound part, at least, and part advocacy for new ways of dealing with our remains. Doughty, a Hawaiian native, is a 6-foot Amazon pixie, bubbling over (like some of her clients?) with enthusiasm for the work of seeing people off on their final journey. Her glee is infectious, in a good way. The bulk of the tale is based on her experience working at WestWind Cremation and Burial in Oakland, California, her first gig in the field. She was 23, had had a fascination with death since she was a kid and this seemed a perfectly reasonable place in which to begin what she believed would be her career. Turned out she was right.

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Caitlin Doughty from her site

Smoke Gets in your Eyes is rich with information not only about contemporary mortuary practices, but on practices in other cultures and on how death was handled in the past. For example, embalming did not come into use in the USA until the Civil War, when the delay in getting the recently deceased from battlefield to home in a non-putrid form presented considerable difficulties. She also looks at the practice of seeing people off at home as opposed to institutional settings. There is a rich lode of intel in here about the origin of church and churchyard burials. I imagine churchgoers of the eras when such practices were still fresh might have been praying for a good stiff wind.

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No Kibby, no smoke monsters here

Doughty worked primarily in the cremation end of the biz, and offers many juicy details about this increasingly popular exit strategy. But mixing the factual material with her personal experience turns the burners up a notch.

The first time I peeked in on a cremating body felt outrageously transgressive, even though it was required by Westwind’s protocol. No matter how many heavy-metal album covers you’ve seen, how many Hieronymous Bosch prints of the tortures of Hell, or even the scene in Indiana Jones where the Nazi’s face melts off, you cannot be prepared to view a body being cremated. Seeing a flaming human skull is intense beyond your wildest flights of imagination.

Beyond her paying gig, Doughty has, for some time, been undertaking to run a blog on mortuary practice, The Order of the Good Death, with a focus on greener ways of returning our elements back to the source. (Would it be wrong to think of those who make use of green self disposal as the dearly de-potted?) One tidbit from this stream was meeting with a lady who has devised a death suit with mushroom spores, the better to extract toxins from a decomposing body. I was drooling over the potential for Troma films that might be made from this notion.

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No, not pizza

One of life’s great joys is to learn something new while being thoroughly entertained. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes offers a unique compendium of fascinating information about how death is handled, mostly in America. Doughty’s sense of humor is right up my alley. The book is LOL funny and not just occasionally. You may want to make sure you have swallowed your coffee before reading, lest it come flying out your nose. I was very much reminded of the infectious humor of Mary Roach or Margee Kerr . Doughty is also TED-talk smart. She takes on some very real issues in both the science and economics of death-dealing, offers well-informed critiques of how we handle death today, and suggests some alternatives.

If the last face you see is Caitlin Doughty’s something is very, very wrong. The face itself is lovely, but usually by the time she gets her mitts on you you should be seeing the pearly gates, that renowned steambath, or nothing at all. Preferably you can see Doughty in one of the many nifty short vids available on her site. You will learn something while being thoroughly charmed. Reading this book won’t kill you, even with laughter, but it will begin to prepare you to look at that event that lies out there, somewhere in the distance for all of us, and point you in a direction that is care and not fear based. If you enjoy learning and laughing Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is dead on.

Review posted – 12/11/15

Publication date – 10/15/2014 (hc) – 9/28/15 – TP

I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. Well, not really. I mean they specifically said that there was no obligation to produce a review, so there is no quid pro quo involved, but it does seem the right thing to do, don’tchya think?

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Instagram and FB pages

You MUST CHECK OUT vids on her site. My favorite is The Foreskin Wedding Ring of St Catherine . All right, I’m gonna stop you right there. Go ahead. I know you wanna ask. No? Fine. I’ll do it for you, but you know this is what you were asking yourself. “If she rubs it does it become a bracelet?” Ok? Are ya happy now? Sheesh!

If you are uncertain about making a final commitment to reading this book you might want a taste of the product first (That sounds sooooo wrong) Here is an article Doughty wrote about her first experience with death as a kid, from Fortnightjournal.com . There are several other Doughty articles on this site as well.

Another book sample can be found here , in The Atlantic

Doughty offers a nifty list of sites to use for dealing with death, your own (presumably, you know, before) or others.

Interview in Wired

You might want to check out one or more of the following
—–The Loved One
—–The American Way of Death
—– The American Way of Death Revisited
—–Six Feet Under

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Public Health, Reviews

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

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The Latest News and Articles from the Major Journals
Of The Civilized Word
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd Will Read a Compendium
From Selected Newspapers
At 8: 00 P.M. At The Broadway Playhouse

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is in his early 70s. He sports a shock of white hair as evidence, but possesses a commanding stature and presence that make him seem years younger. Kidd makes a living as an itinerant newsreader. He visits places far removed from civilization, in this instance northern Texas, and reads to the locals newspaper items from around the world. No internet in 1870. Just as the news today has to take care about stepping on toes, Kidd must employ a keen sense of the crowds who come to hear him for ten cents a pop, informing his decisions on what stories might delight and educate and which ones might prompt a riot. He has begun to find his life thin and sour, a bit spoiled. While making his rounds he is approached by Britt Johnson, a freighter (materials hauler), and his crew. Britt (who appears in other Jiles work) leads him to a ten-year-old girl. She is unnervingly still. I am astonished, he said. The child seems artificial as well as malign. And thus begins a beautiful friendship.

Johanna Leonberger had been abducted four years earlier, at age six, when a Kiowa raiding party slaughtered her parents and sister. She had been taken in by Turning Water and Three Spotted, regarding them as her real parents. She speaks Kiowa but no English. Her aunt and uncle had offered a considerable sum for her to be found and returned. Britt took care of the obtaining part, but a black man transporting a young white girl to southern Texas, where the end of slavery was not entirely accepted, seemed a risk too far. Kidd obliges and takes on the task of restoring the girl who calls herself Cicada to her biological family.

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Paulette Jiles – from Harper

This is a road trip of self-discovery, or some sort of discovery. Kidd slowly tries to gain Johanna’s trust, no mean feat, and see her safely home. There are challenges along the route, of course, brigands, morons, white slavers, unfriendly natural elements, the usual. What is magical here, and I do mean magical, is the growth in friendship between the old man and the young girl, as she slowly sees his kindness and wisdom and he sees her strength, intelligence and character. The language Jiles uses for expressing Johanna’s growing grasp of English is distilled delight.

The other great treasure to be found here is the portrait of a time and a place. A frontier with an actual front, during the transition from Native American control to ouster by Europeans. Jiles offers a compelling look at the challenges faced by the invading whites (hostile locals, for one), without turning a blind eye to the challenges faced by the dispossessed people. She also offers appreciation for the culture from which Johanna had been taken. Jiles uses a few methods to mark the trail the unlikely pair follows. Birds are used liberally, as are descriptions of local landscape and fauna. You are there. The color blue is applied frequently, but I do not know if that is for a particular purpose.

You’d better call United Van Lines. You will be moved. It was all I could do to keep from sobbing aloud on the G train on an autumnal (finally) early morning in November. Maybe I could pretend it was the cool air that raided the car whenever doors opened at each station that was making my eyes leak. Yeah, I’m gonna go with that. But for those of you short on ready excuses, you might want to finish this book at home. Tissue box locked and loaded.

So, not only is this book information-laden with period detail, not only is this book incredibly moving, but it is written with surpassing beauty and sensitivity. It is truly amazing that News of the World weighs in at only a little more than 200 pages, at a word count of about 56K. Don’t be fooled. This is definitely a case where size does not matter. I have no doubt that NotW will find its way onto 2016 top ten lists aplenty, meriting consideration for major awards, and deservedly so. For me, at least, this is the first GREAT book of the 2016. Don’t miss it!

Pub Date – 3/29/16 – As of January, 2016, the pub date for this book has been pushed back to the Fall. When I have a specific new date, I will post it here.

Review posted – 12/3/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

The author’s personal website

A Wiki page on the Kiowa

Jiles recommends The Captured by Scott Zesch for a closer look at the experience of returned captives/

An Aside – As with Sweet Girl and True Grit this book features an older man trying to help out a young girl. I am aware of no particular category for this, so will offer up a suggestion. SMYF, pronounced “smiff” (cockney for Smith?) for Senior Male Young Female. I know it might conjure inappropriate associations with other acronyms of a sexual nature, but it was the best I could come up with. Sometimes words fail me. I am open, very open, to something better. It wouldn’t take much. Help me out here, folks. Please. If there isn’t a better title for what is certainly a sub-genre of the road-of-self-discovery type, or the bildungsroman, I’m not an oversized Mic.

SMYF no more. With Sandra’s rec in comment #1, I am throwing my support behind OMYG, unless someone comes with something even better.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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He hesitated. Above him, an ear-splitting screech. He looked up to see three enormous crows, perched on the bare branches of one of the few trees that had already dropped its leaves. They were all squawking at once, as if they were arguing about his next move. Directly beneath, in the midst of the stark and barren branches and at the base of a forked limb, a mud-brown leafy mass. A nest. Jesus.

Leo checked the time and started walking.

When Leo Plumb, 46, and very unhappily married, enjoying the benefits of booze, cocaine, and Welbutrin, picks up 19-year-old waitress, Matilda Rodriguez, at a wedding, it’s business as usual. But the joys of the moment come to a crashing halt when the Porsche in which Leo is spiriting her away, the car in which she is putting her hand to good use, is T-boned by an SUV, and Matilda is seriously injured. It’s gonna take mucho dinero to put the lid on this one.

I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first? Good news? OK. The good news, for Leo anyway, is that there is a considerable family inheritance left by his late father, which can be raided for emergencies. Staying out of jail counts, so how much should we make this check out for? The bad news is that the inheritance was intended for four siblings and Leo’s indiscretion has slashed the total considerably. They are very interested in knowing when Leo is going to re-feather the nest he had just raided like a raccoon in the night.

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Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney – From her Twitter pages

Leo Tolstoy famously said All happy families resemble each other, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The Plumb family is unhappy in diverse ways. Sweeney measures their depths. The family refers to their inheritance as The Nest, and their relationship to it, with Leo’s raiding of it, constitutes the core around which this family tale is woven. His charm and skill at manipulation will not be enough to get Leo out of this mess. He may have bought his way out of a jail sentence, but he still needs to come up with some serious cash to make The Nest whole again. He hasn’t exactly been working in the many years since he sold his on-line media business. And there is his bitch of a trophy wife to keep up. She is very fond of spending.

The Plumbs, despite their father’s financial success, are not wildly wealthy. Melody, nearing 40, is a suburban housewife, struggling to make ends meet in a place where she is very much on the lower economic rungs. She has twin daughters on the verge of college and could really use the money she has been expecting. Beatrice had some success as a writer years ago, but it has been a long time since she produced any writing of quality. She lives in an Upper West Side apartment , a love nest given to her by a late lover, which ain’t nuthin’, especially in NYC, but it’s not like she can sit home and clip coupons either. She has remained in a low-end job long after she should have grown to something more. Finally, Jack has been in a couple with Walter for many years. He runs an antiques shop that specializes in losing money. Walter is the breadwinner of the pair, but Jack would like to be depositing instead of constantly withdrawing. He is in debt up to his eyeballs. The potential absence of his bailout money from The Nest is a blow, so when a shady opportunity presents itself, he has to decide where he is willing to draw the line..

In this ensemble cast, we follow the siblings, along with a smattering of others, through their travails, and see them come to grips, or not, with the possible loss of a nest egg they had all been counting on for a long time. The issues they face are not merely how to cope with a cash flow shortfall. Sweeney has larger targets in her sights. The characters here are faced with moral choices. How would you have managed, given the situation? How would any of us? It is certainly the case, for all but the most blessed (and we hate them) that our hopes and dreams for this or that, whether a relationship, a career direction, parenthood, something, go all to hell. Sometimes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Which is nice if you are fond of aphorisms. Sometimes, what doesn’t kill us leaves us frightened, damaged, and scarred. (I mean, they don’t call it Post Traumatic Stress Improvement, do they?) Sometimes it can open a door to a new appreciation, offer a new path, uncover an unseen possibility. Or it closes all available doors, locks the windows and drops a match on a kerosene covered floor. I’m just sayin’. Two paths, at least for each of the sibs. Which will they take? What sorts of people do they want to be? And how will they emerge, battered or better?

In addition to the choices having to do with facing up to identity crises, and coping with losses real or theoretical, there are some other items here that are very well handled. Sweeney has painted a portrait of some elements of NYC at a particular place and time. These include a bit of a look at the local literary scene, whether one is doing well or struggling, in on the dot.com or killed by it, mean Glitterary Girl or faded sparkle. Authors, wannabes, publishers of paper and on-line magazines, trip through the pages. Some are more about appearance than substance.

She’d been hiding in a corner of Celia’s enormous living room, pretending to examine the bookshelves, which were full of what she thought of as “fake” books—the books were real enough but if Celia Baxter had read Thomas Pynchon or Samuel Beckett or even all—any!—of the Philip Roths and Saul Bellows lined in a row, she’d eat her mittens. In a far upper corner of the bookcase, she noticed a lurid purple book spine, a celebrity weight-loss book. Ha. That was more like it. She stood on tiptoe, slid the book out, and examined the well-thumbed, stained pages. She returned it to shelf front and center, between Mythologies and Cloud Atlas.

There is a walk through several places in the city, each offering a taste. The Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, a brownstone in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, a bit of Central Park, a Westchester suburb. 9/11 is a part of the story as well, as is, although to a lesser degree, the insanity that is the NY real estate market.

The Nest is, ultimately, about stepping off the edge of safety into the air, and either finding out you can fly or flapping uselessly to a sudden end. And, of course, considering whether or not to simply hitch a ride on a passing pigeon.

None of it would mean a lick if the characters were merely raucous chicks, lobbying for the next worm. Sweeney has put together more of an aviary, with each main member of her ensemble fully feathered and flight-worthy. Even a teen-age twin must consider separating from the intense co-nesting of sisterhood, and finding her own flight path. While not all the main characters are people you would care to know, they are all fully realized. Hell, even some of the secondary characters are presented in 3D. Their motivations and actions make sense, whether you agree or not with their decisions. There is nuance and depth even to the more morally challenged. I expect that you will find situations and/or conditions in here that resonate with challenges and decisions you have faced in your own life. The economic downturn has hit many of us, even if we need not look to our own reckless personal behavior as a cause. No need to wonder how most of us will behave when faced with some of the problems raised here. We have already adjusted our expectations. But there is value in seeing how others react.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s last book was slightly different from this one, Country Living Easy Transformations: Kitchen With this book. Sweeney takes a step into the open air of literary accomplishment. She has spread her wings and caught a rising thermal. The Nest has not only succeeded in feathering Sweeney’s nest quite nicely, it offers a smart, funny, engaging, and insightful read that will accommodate your peepers quite nicely, and is sure to settle comfortably in many top ten nests lists when those finally begin appearing.

Review posted – 11/27/17

Publication date – 3/22/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, New York City, Reviews

The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson

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I was born blue.
If my mother hadn’t pushed me out quick as a cat, I would have been born dead and even bluer; her cord was wrapped tight around my neck. She looked at my little blue lips, my blue toes and baby fingers, and she named me after Kali, Kali Jai.

So begins the story of Kali Jai, whose grandmother accidentally-on-purpose misheard the instructions KJ’s mother gave her before they locked her back up in juvie, and filled out a birth certificate with the name Paula Jane Vauss instead. Sounds the same, right?

Turns out Paula Jane/Kali Jai had things to be blue about. Life with Mom, for instance. While Kai (aka Karen Vauss) was a loving parent, she had a difficult time with sticking, meandering through serial relationships of varying intensity, Kali by her side. She may have been the inventor of the Go Bag, or at the very least a skilled expert in its use. And if Kali had grown attached to the man in their lives, so sorry, buh-bye, gotta go, see ya later. Off into the wild blue yonder until the next guy comes along. A tough situation for a kid.

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Joshilyn Jackson – from BookTrib.com

Jackson writes of family and faith in her novels, and has a particular fondness for adolescent females.
What a gift, a character whose frontal lobe has not finished developing! Teenagers don’t fully see the consequences of their actions. That’s Christmas for a novelist who likes blowing things up—both relationships and buildings—as much as I do. – from the Writer Unboxed interview

We meet Kali all grown up as she recalls her childhood. She is a fierce warrior of a divorce lawyer, who may seem, at times, to have more than two weapon-wielding arms, and a skirt made of human parts. Of course, Mom had described Kali in a more positive light. “Kali destroys only to renew, to restore justice. Kali brings fresh starts.” The fresh starts Paula/Kali seems most interested in bringing entail a divorce decree and a substantial fee. But there is a large gap in Kali’s life. She is doing well financially, so sends her mother money every month, but that is the extent of their relationship. What happened? The journey that follows is a fabulous story of a grown woman realizing, to her surprise, that she actually wants and needs family, and seeing hers come together, out of a clear blue sky, one orphan at a time.

I’m very interested in the concept of how you make home, how you get it, and how you fight for it, and how you keep it. – from Public Libraries on line interview

In fact much of The Opposite of Everyone is about the coming together and breaking apart of families, about the yearning for home, whatever or wherever that may be, the lengths to which people might go to get that for themselves and how they cope with disappointment when the hope is unfulfilled.

The tale takes place in two time lines. The first is now, in which we see Paula as a professional, on occasion a basket case, unattached, and uninterested in becoming attached, content in her divorce gladiator life. But when her last check to Mom comes back, with a cryptic message attached, it is a bolt from the blue. Where is Kai? Why did she send back the check? What the hell does her message mean? Kali does a bit of digging, a fair bit of thinking, and opts to enlist the assistance of her usual PI, true-blue Zach Birdwine, erstwhile lover, and contributor of emotional complication to her life.

The other timeline is adolescent Kali. We get a look at her time in a group home, while mom was in jail again, showing how she survives, the friends and enemies she makes, the lessons she learns, and bits of the magic of her relationship with Kai. A third narrative thread concerns Paula’s work, dealing with divorce clients and nemeses.

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The many-armed goddess – from FineArtAmerica.com

The conjoining of Southern storytelling and Indian culture is unusual and effective. It came from a very concrete place.

Three years ago, I started taking classes at Decatur Hot Yoga from the beautiful and excessively bendy Astrid Santana. She often begins class by telling a classic Hindu god pantheon story, but her sentence structure and word choices and even some images come out of the southern oral tradition. It is an odd and compelling blend. Because of Astrid I started dreaming the stories, and then I began reading them. Paula and Kali intersected in my head, and the novel took a sharp turn east.

Jackson was asked once what genre the though her work fit into.”Weirdo Fiction with a Shot of Southern Gothic Influence for Smart People Who Can Catch the Nuances but Who Like Narrative Drive, and Who Have a Sense of Humor but Who Are Willing to Go Down to Dark Places. Upside: Accurate. Downsides: Long. Hard to market,” she said. That sounds about right.

Kali Jai first appeared, as Paula, in Jackson’s prior novel, Someone Else’s Love Story, but there is no plot-line linkage between the books to keep one from reading them independently. She is a wonderful character. Jackson shows how she came to be the person she is without making the faux pas of telling. While a somewhat feral divorce attorney might not sound like someone you would want to want to spend time with, don’t be fooled. There is a heart there, damaged, scarred, protected, but with chinks, openings, vulnerabilities. You will care about Paula/Kali, and be moved by her life and circumstances. Jackson’s weaving in of Kai’s story-telling and iconography is nothing less than magical. The Opposite of Everything is everything you could want in a book, engaging characters, who grow with time and experience, conflicts with resolutions that make sense (and don’t arrive out of the blue), concern over this peril and that, thematic substance, and some insight into elements of real life that are probably outside your experience. This is a read that may cause you to reach for the tissues by the end, but will leave you feeling anything but blue.

Review Posted – 11/20/15

Publication – 2/16/16

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Note: The original title of the book was Nobody’s Nothing and that title still remains in some of the linked pages, as of the day this review was posted.

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, FB and PInterest pages

Interviews
—– Writer Unboxed
—–Public Libraries Online
—–MyShelf.Com

Reviews of other Jackson work
—–Someone Else’s Love Story

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Sweet Girl by Travis Mulhauser

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I could see the baby was shrieking, but its cries were buried by the wind. The snow blew in sideways, edged across the floor and dusted the baby’s cheeks with frost. The baby’s eyes darted in a side-to-side panic as it reached up with trembling hands and searched for something to grasp.
I ran toward it.

16 year old Percy James had gone looking for her missing mother, yet again, and both hoped and feared she might find her at the home of Shelton Potter, local source for substances of the illegal sort. Shelton was not exactly the brightest light wherever he happened to be. And he had a propensity to violence. Even did time for hospitalizing a fellow bar patron who committed the social faux pas of calling him “jughead.” Shelton was the tiniest bit sensitive about the size of his admittedly triple-X cranium. Shelton and his gf were on the far side of conscious, so Percy had a look about. Mom was not to be found, but the thought of that baby freezing to death while druggies dozed was too much, so Percy did the right thing, and snatched the infant from the jaws of an icy death. Yeah, I guess she could have, you know, shut the window. But the dead, decaying dog in the house and the state of its adult inhabitants made moving the child to a safe location a no-brainer. And so begins our tale.

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Travis Mulhauser – from his GR page

You might want to dress warmly when you settle in to read Sweet Girl. A sweater at least. Make sure the windows are closed tight, and bring out a throw to toss over your feet and legs. And it probably wouldn’t hurt to have a cup with steaming liquid in it near at hand, enhanced or not.
It was the burning kind of cold. A tear had opened in my lip and I put my tongue to it and tasted the salty, pooling blood. There was already a throb and tingle in my toes and the air torched my lungs just to breathe it. I looked back after a minute and could not see the pinewoods or tell the falling snow in the fields from what was wind-thrown.

Travis Milhauser should know. He grew up there, in Petoskey, a booming metropolis of about 6,000 souls, up about where the fingernail of your ring-finger might be if it were inside the Michigan mitten, and hadn’t gone black and fallen off. He does not live there any longer, but it is damned clear that he remembers how it feels. His ability to portray and sustain the feeling of bloody-fracking-freezing is one of the strengths of Sweet Girl. He is equally adept at communicating a feeling of isolation. Not only are the places where his characters live often at the fringes of what passes for civilization, the characters themselves contend with the remoteness of their existence. You might want to encourage a loved one to sit and read with you, or invite a pet to hang out by your side or on your lap for a bit.

I would leave out the back and head straight for Portis’s place. My truck was just as far away from the farmhouse as the cabin, and all of it uphill. If Shelton or the girl bothered to notice the baby was gone they’d fire up the sleds and the truck and head right for the road I’d come in on. No, the best thing was to go and get Portis. Have him drive us to the hospital in his Dakota.

Another powerful element inSweet Girl Mulhauser’s portrayal of the relationship between Percy and the man to whom she turns for help. If the name Portis rings a bell, it is worth recalling that it was author Charles Portis who wrote a great American novel called True Grit. Young Percy James, like Mattie Ross before her, turns to an older, somewhat dodgy, but trustworthy man to help her with her situation. Portis Dale is the closest thing she has to a father, he having been a much loved one-time cohabitant with her mother for several years. He has had issues with substances himself, mostly of the brown liquid variety, and is not exactly someone you would describe as squeaky clean. But their bond is strong. And while Rooster Cogburn’s motivations may have been at least monetary before developing into something else, this Portis has no financial skin in the game. The conversation between the two crackles, as Percy, while only 16, is a hard 16, having had to cope with her meth-head mother for years and does not shy away from going head-to-head with her champion.

Percy has seen maybe too much of the cold underside of life for someone her age. She is a strong female character, no one’s notion of a flighty teen, pining after some boy. She has her vulnerabilities but has a solid core that guides her through. It is very easy to see in Percy an echo of another working class teen facing dire circumstances, 17-year-old Ree Dolly of Winter’s Bone. Percy is as well-realized.

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J-Law as Ree Dolly – Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross – from LA Times

Of course getting baby Jenna to safety would be difficult enough, given the impending blizzard. But when Shelton comes to and finds the baby gone, he calls in his troops to beat the bushes. Uh-oh

Another strength in Sweet Girl is the portrayal of the culture, or at least a part of it, in the land of the great water. With industry having mostly packed up, the folks left behind have to make do somehow, and tending to the better-off sorts who have been buying up the shorefront for summer vacations is not quite enough. A lively drug trade involves not only the locals, but new Michiganders, from south of the Rio Grande. Who are all these people and how do they live? You get a sense.

While it would have been no trick to have made the thugs cartoonish (ok, a couple of them are, and there a few of comedic moments that might fuel an occasional outburst of “what a schmuck!”), Shelton, while intellectually and morally challenged, is shown to have a third dimension. You could even feel sorry for him at times. As for Percy’s mama, where the hell is she? Can Percy save her if she finds her? Is she worth saving? What does the future hold for Percy? Does she even have a future? Can Percy even save herself?

I had few gripes in reading this book. But one thing that irked was that a significant event that occurs between Portis and one of his thugs is reported to Percy by Portis after the fact. It really should have been shown on stage instead of off. I suppose there are some who will see the connections between this book, True Grit and Winter’s Bone and bemoan any similarities. I did not feel that way. Every tale that pairs a woman-child with a much older man is not the same story. The richness of the characterizations makes this one sing. The accomplished creation of the north Michigan environment as a character as important as Percy or Portis, lends heft to the work.

While the horrors of the world of drug abuse are quite chilling, and while the world in which this battle plays out is numbingly cold, and darkly isolated, Sweet Girl is an incredibly warm read, one that appreciates and communicates both innocence and courage. You will love Percy and Portis and feel engaged in their battles with dark forces, natural and hominid. How sweet it is.

Review posted – 11/13/2015

Publication Date – 2/2/2016

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, and Twitter pages

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

book coverI will be writing, have been writing, or have already written (depending on when you see this. Time is strange here on GR) a review of Welcome to Night Vale. But until/when/after I do (or until you return from whatever time stream you are in to read this, or move ahead into another one) I can offer one definite bit of advice. Listen to a few of the Night Vale podcasts. If they float your boat, or, lacking water, elevate you at least several inches off the ground for a period of about twenty minutes, you will love this book. Proceed directly to the beginning of the actual review.

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====================================NOT ENCHANTED?
If you find the podcasts uninteresting, really, did you touch one of the pink flamingos? Something is wrong. OK, Ok, I know there are some folks who will not be enchanted by the Night Vale podcasts. This book is probably not for you. But if you go to the local library, you are sure to find something more to your liking. Hurry, go now. You might want to stop by and visit the dog park on your way. Be sure to say hi to the friendly figures in the hoods. Y’all take care now, and return directly to the section titled “Not Enchanted?”

=======================================ACTUAL REVIEW

It is a friendly desert community, where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.

Whew! I’m so glad we got rid of those people.

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A Cecil Baldwin sandwich with the authors in the role of bread

In July, 2013, Welcome to Night Vale became the most downloaded podcast on iTunes. It all began in 2012, a twice-a-month podcast that is Lake Wobegon by way of David Lynch, Lovecraft, told in the form of a community radio newscast.

It was started completely as a hobby,” Fink begins, when asked about how the podcast has gotten to this point. “Y’know, my friends and I, it was just something we enjoyed doing. Our entire goal, when we started it, was that maybe someday there’d be a few people who weren’t friends or family listening to it. We certainly had no goals beyond that, other than to enjoy making it.” – from interview in The Arcade

It is read by Cecil Baldwin who shares a first name with his fictional manifestation, Cecil Palmer, the radio broadcaster. The podcast is weird, creepy fun, rich with non-sequiturs and reasons to be afraid, many reasons. Cecil’s steady tones make it seem practically normal.

I’ve always been fascinated by conspiracy theories. And also, to a lesser extent fascinated by the Southwest desert. Fascinating things probably happen there on a regular basis. So I came up with this idea of a town in that desert where all conspiracy theories were real. – From Jackie Lyden’s 2013 NPR interview with the authors

And whether it was a result of a desire for expression in a new medium, an action taken in compliance with an order from one of the hooded figures in the dog park, or an angel in old woman Josie’s house, Fink and Craynor have committed their world to print.

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We, as readers, seem to have a soft spot for this genre. I don’t know if there is a name for the type that this fits into, storytelling-wise, but if there is a short term for “A small town where something is…off,” this book would fit in there quite nicely. (I know it is far from wonderful, but I hereby nominate the word “Oddsville” for the genre, capital of the great state of Unease. All in favor?) There is a rich tradition of such writing. Rod Serling was a fan of this trope in his Twilight Zone writing (Where is Everybody? , Monsters are Due on Maple Street, People Are Alike All Over). Stephen King has made a career in them, Derry, Castle Rock, Jerusalem’s Lot…ad infinitum. TV has mined this heavy lode as well. In addition to Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, X-files, and god-knows how many more, there are some more recent shows that indulge, including Wayward Pines, the town of Hope in The Leftovers, Haven, Eureka, Royston Vasey from The League of Gentlemen. Small towns, it would appear, are in our literary, and certainly in our entertainment DNA. So the something-off-small-town of Night Vale should feel familiar. Of course this one is a bit more unusual than your typical Oddsville offering, being rather flamboyant in its strangeness, to the point of silliness at times.

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As for the story, Jackie Fierro has been 19 for many, many years (like some of us?). She runs the town pawn shop, and will accept pretty much anything. A mysterious man in a tan jacket, gives her a slip of paper with “KING CITY” written on it. Every time she tries to get rid of the thing, or even to put it down, it keeps coming back to her, which, as you might imagine, is alarming. So she goes in search of tan-jacket man but no one in town can seem to recall seeing him. Hmmm.

Diane Crayton is a single mom to a shape-shifting fifteen-year-old son (what parent of a teenager cannot relate?). Of late she has been seeing Josh’s long absent Y-chromosome source all over town. Josh has been showing an interest in tracking down his father, despite Diane’s attempts to dissuade him. Diane and Jackie’s quests, and Josh’s too, lead them in a direction that is as obvious as an MC Escher roadmap. Does an endpoint even exist?

Diane and Jackie are certainly likeable sorts, and their tale is intriguing, with plenty of challenges to face and mysteries to solve, but the real deal with Welcome to Night Vale consists of three things, location, location, location. Fink and Cranor are trying to re-create in book form the delightfully weird experience of their podcast world. The story seems secondary. The atmosphere is rich with intense strangeness. I found most of it delightful, a dry delivery masking outrageousness. Sometimes they try too hard, generating eye-rolling that has been made mandatory by the City Council. You really, really do not want to fight city hall here, particularly on days when human sacrifice is on the calendar. But it is good, weird fun most of the time. The authors must have had some bad experiences with librarians in their youth. Literary comeuppance is had.

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The locale includes, among other things, roads that lead nowhere, mysterious lights floating above the town, black helicopters, yes those black helicopters, a faceless old woman who lives, unseen, in someone’s house, a sentient house, a diner waitress who struggles with fruit bearing tree branches growing from her body, car salesmen who offer howlingly good deals, a woman who keeps reliving her life in a perpetual loop, a sentient patch of haze, angels named Erika, people who exist but when you try to recall them, you can’t. Wait, what was I talking about? I just bet that if someone opens a nightclub in NV, they name it Studio 51. The list goes on, plenty to keep your brain engaged and your funny bone tickled.

When you partake of the Night Vale Kool Aid, you will be joining a horde that has sprung up in impressive numbers. There are fan sites galore, with artwork, fan fiction, and a host of ways in which what remains of your consciousness can be further shaved and fed to the glow-cloud. I have included some links to those in the usual place.

You have never read anything like this before. Unless, of course you are in a time loop and are living your life over and over and over. This means you, Sheila. Yes, I know you have read this book many times, all for the first time. OK, happy? But for the rest of us…

Fink and Cranor’s sense of humor is definitely not for everyone. But if you check your kitchen cabinets and find that your supply of weird is running a little low, I suggest heading over to Night Vale. They are running a special and you won’t want to miss out.

PS – more volumes are planned. Be sure to keep up with your local community newscast for further details.

Review Posted – 11/6/15

Published – 10/20/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s, well to Night Vale’s main, Twitter and FB pages

You can download individual podcasts here

Interviews
—–Early Influences – The Arcade
——Stephen Colbert appearance, including a reading of the Community Calendar
—–Jackie Lyden’s NPR interview with the authors – Welcome to Night Vale: Watch out for the tarantulas

Some fan sites
—–The Shape from Grove Park
—–Fuck Yeah Night Vale
—–A Softer Night Vale

A Night Vale Wiki
The actual Wikipedia entry for Night Vale

A fun vid from the Idea Channel that links Night Vale to HP Lovecraft – How Does Night Vale Confront Us With the Unknown?

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Filed under Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Noir, Reviews

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall

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Give yourself to the Dark Side. It is the only way you can save your friends. – D. Vader

Lisa Randall, a Harvard Science professor, member of the National Academy of Sciences, named one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time Magazine in 2007, and author of three previous books, likes to think big. She also likes to think small. Her areas of expertise are particle physics and cosmology, which certainly covers a range. The big look she offers here is a cosmological take on not only how it came to pass that a large incoming did in the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, but why such decimations of life on Earth arrive with some (on a cosmological scale) regularity. Her explanation has to do with dark matter. It makes for an interesting tale, and offers an excellent example of how the scientific method (how Daniel Day Louis might play Louis Pasteur?) approaches problem-solving. It is a fascinating read that is at times wondrously accessible and at others like trying to bat away a swarm of meteoroids.

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Dark Matter

As with most good communicators of science. Randall relies on metaphor, and some of hers are quite good. My favorite compared methods of detecting dark matter to detecting the presence of [insert name of your favorite A-list celebrity here]. You can tell that there is something going on, without actually having to see the celebrity, because you can see swarms, gaggles, pods and packs of paparazzi clumping around the object of their lenses as he/she/it walks/primps/flees down the street. Dark matter affects the things around it too, and it is by measuring those effects that we can tell it is there, even though it remains…you know…dark.

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Lisa Randall – from her Twitter pages

She addresses some cosmological questions and offers up the answers that the best current theories provide. One example is that the rotational velocity of stars should be sufficient to make them literally spin out of their galaxies, and yet they don’t. Something must be keeping them in place. Care to guess? There are more like this. They vary in Wow-Cool! levels. Randall takes us from a look at how we know dark matter is out there, and its characteristics, to an overview of our solar system. This is more interesting than a science class slide show of the 8 (or 9 if you are my age) planets circling around our sun. (Well, maybe I should say your sun, but I don’t really want to get into that) There is a lot of other material cruising around out there, and it is significant, as in Please, oh please, do not come crashing into our planet, pretty please.

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Path of the New Horizons spacecraft into the Kuiper Belt – from NASA

The Kuiper Belt, a group of clumped asteroids, not an award for the baddest Kuiper, and the Oort Cloud (not where Obchestvo Remeslenogo Truda keeps its data) for example, are parts of our solar system, and move through inter-stellar space along with the sun and planets.

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The Oort Cloud – From NASA

You might think of the sundry members of the Solar System as a family all stuffed into one very, very large car of the Wonder Wheel in Coney Island. Once everyone is in, the whole crew moves through space (or circle in this instance) as one. But what if there were another Wonder Wheel, one that was made, not of the dense ordinary matter, but of the much thinner dark sort. Let’s say that it is not vertical but does its spinning thing at an angle. And let’s say it intersected our Wonder Wheel at one point. And every so often, say every thirty some odd million years, the car our solar system is in intersects the material in that other Wonder Wheel. The result could be unpleasant. The big stuff would probably be ok, our sun, the planets, but some of the smaller bits, say rocks in the Oort cloud and Kuiper Belt, might get knocked out of their usual paths. And voila! Fireworks! Big incomings headed our way yet again.

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Well, that’s the scoop. I am not giving anything away by laying it out. The value of the book lies in showing how theories are examined, tested and accepted or discarded, the scientific method in action.

But I would not want to make you think the orbit you take while reading Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs is all clear sailing. There are incomings you have to contend with. It is always takes a bit more effort to absorb material when much of it is new to the reader, particularly when there are many new words, acronyms and concepts being thrown at you. I confess that there were points in reading this book when my eyes glazed over. It felt like I was reading a list in a foreign language. My mind went a bit dark in the chapter on how galaxies are born and in a couple of particle physics chapters near the end. On the other hand, enough of the early discussion of dark matter was utterly fascinating. When Randall writes of a second, post-Big-Bang expansion of the universe, it was news to me. I quite enjoyed the tour through our solar system, one that included parts we do not usually think of. And if you ever wondered about how three words are used, the answer is here. Meteors are what we see streaking across the sky. We call them meteoroids if they make it to the ground. (I hereby promise that no meteor will touch the Earth on my watch) In fact any alien object hitting Earth is a meteoroid. (Even Asgardians?) Meteorites are the detritus of meteoroid impact. There is a nifty piece on how we define what is and is not a planet, and some amazing intel on what unexpected materials asteroids and comets might have brought to the Earth over the history of our planet, and another piece on how craters are created. And did you know that there is a multi-national (as in countries not corporations) organization that was set up to watch the skies for the next big thing? These and more such nuggets make the journey with Randall worth the occasional eye-glaze.

And if you are worried about The Big One wiping us out, don’t. We will see to that ourselves long before a big rock does the job for us. The current rate of species extinction is comparable to the one that took place 250 million years ago, the Permian-Triassic extinction. In that one 90% of species were wiped out, including insects. There is always hope that we will, over a period of millions of years, figure out how to keep large floaters from making a mess of our earthly garden. With Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs Lisa Randall, by striving to gain greater understanding of how the universe works, is doing her bit to shine a light in the darkness.

Review posted – 10/30/15

Publication date – 10/27/15

=============================EXTRA STUFF
Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

NASA’s Site about the Kuiper Belt

In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences presented their results on asteroids and the threats they pose in a document entitled Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies

A nice article in the June 2013 Smithsonian – Lisa Randall’s Guide to the Galaxy

An interesting set of videos with Randall on BIG thoughts

Although the interview is for a different book, Randall’s Daily Show interviewwith Jon Stewart is fun and informative re things scientific.

Ditto, as Randall is interviewed by Tavis Smiley

A nifty set of videos on the hazards presented by asteroids

The Dark Song from The Lego Movie – It’s Awesome

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Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature