Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg by Betsy Robinson

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People believe anything that’s in writing

A word to the wise to scoundrels everywhere, and there are plenty on display in Betsy Robinson’s satiric whirlwind.

So you think you’ve got it bad? You might consider the case of one Zelda McFigg. She had a pretty tough go of it at school. The hand she was dealt must have been delivered from the bottom of the deck by a particularly hostile card sharp. Despite having a pretty decent brain, Zelda got stuck with short, fat, and malodorous when stressed. She is also given to bouts of dramatic blushing. Her classmates made matters worse by labeling her Stinky Pinky. Doesn’t make for an educational venue conducive to learning, or anything for that matter except exceeding anyone’s RDA for misery. Not that home was any great shakes either. Mom was an alcoholic, as likely to drown in her own vomit as she was to burn down their abode with a feckless cohabitation of Marlboros and painting materials. Dad was pretty much out of the scene anyway.

Needing to make at least some use of her hooky day, 14-year-old Zelda decides to take a chance and goes to Manhattan to visit a beat poet-musician (Mike the poet) whose work she admires. Turns out he could use some help. Turns out she is just the girl for the job. Turns out, when she never quite makes it home, that this is the beginning of a thirty-five year odyssey for Zelda.

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Betsy Robinson – from her Twitter page

It is not a particularly easy road she travels. There are hazards aplenty and it seems that she has provided more than her share of them. She carries with her the twin DNA of schlemiel and schlemazel. Oy! Her journey takes to her such exotic experiences as a free-the-test-animals raid on a hospital lab, a less than stellar audition for Annie, working props in a New England summer theater, and burning down her landlady’s house in an ill-fated attempt to rescue her pet. She does settle down after her initial wanderings, in the lovely tundra of Vermont, having left a trail of carnage in her wake. Part-time hall monitor at the Moose Country Middle School, she is pulled into action when a ninety-year-old English teacher catches a bad case of dead and an immediate fill-in is needed. It looks like she has gotten off the road this time. She continues with teaching The Call of the Wild, and picks a pet, the overweight, smelly, and socially tormented Donny Sherman, a local Native American kid. It looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship

There are some uncomfortable elements here and some wonderful ones. The apparent fondness of New England teachers for their under-age students is hardly unique, but feels dodgy nonetheless. Zelda’s regard for the law is like that of a passenger on a bus noting a billboard. It might be worth some consideration, but not for too long. On the other hand, there are some seriously LOL nuggets in Zelda’s path

I soon found myself doing props for a small summer theatre in New England run by a man who, had he not been a Jewish homosexual hippie named Rainbow, I might have mistaken for Adolph Hitler.

She also comes across a pet parrot that speaks in the voice of its owner’s late husband, to raucous effect. Satirical objects whiz past with satisfying frequency, as Robinson goes not only for some low-hanging fruit like shamanism, Tony Robbins, Hollywood faddism and Oprah, but also directs some attention to the darker elements of life, things like police overreaction to a school hostage situation that isn’t, being backstabbed by those you thought were close to you, being kicked out of your home by the rich and feckless, and the scandal ridden hell that is small town life in Vermont. I did cackle out loud from time to time while reading this on the subway, causing some fellow riders to glance furtively, wondering whether I was receiving instructions from the dog god in my head, as they tried to shift their bodies and belongings out of potential harm’s way.

The writing life comes under scrutiny, and it is not a pretty image, heavily laden as it is with ghosts, plagiarists, thieves, absurd expectations, lifetimes of labor for non-existent rewards, familiar features for most who put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboards. Teaching life is also a subject clearly close to Ms Robinson’s heart. The details of the school experience she scewers will seem familiar to most, and are, at times, darkly hilarious.

The peripatetic Ms McFigg seems reasonably pure of heart, a road worrier more than a road warrior, although she does engage in righteous battle from time to time, and is easy to root for as she stumbles through her trials. There is plenty of emotion in this life, both joy at this or that success, and sadness at this or that betrayal. We can certainly all relate when Zelda goes looking for help in getting from point A to point B, and finds the proffered assistance less than helpful. Most of us can probably relate to her inability to lose weight, but can admire her insistence on carrying on as best she can. I was most reminded of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, another saga of a square peg in a round world.

Betsy Robinson has had an interesting career sojourn herself. In her site, she notes that she

was raised an atheist and went on to make her living as a writer and editor of spiritual subject matter: as managing editor of Spirituality & Health magazine for six and a half years and as an editor of spiritual psychology and books about shamans and traditional healers

so she certainly brings an appreciation of irony to her writing. She has worked as an actress in nearly-on-Broadway, somewhat-close-to-Broadway and just-down-the-block-from Broadway, had scripts produced in Iowa, Amherst, LA and darkest cable TV, and has authored many article and several books, so brings that experience to bear when writing of the publishing and theater worlds through which Zelda stumbles.

Betsy Robinson has written an entertaining romp, both raucous and endearing, rich with wit and observation. It is funny and foul, dark, but lightly, a bit disturbing, but only slightly. There’s much to enjoy in this book (it’s not big), The Last Will and Testament of Zelda McFigg. It’s all written down. You can believe it.

Review posted – 9/25/15

Publication date – 9/13/14

P.S. – The book was provided by the author in return for an honest review. And I plan to return it real soon. It is impressive how good I have become at removing cat vomit from paper, (soooo much experience) and the singe marks, well, they’re not all that obvious, the downside of reading while standing and preparing supper, then putting the book the tiniest bit too close to the burner. The watermarks may be a bit dodgier. We do enjoy reading while on the throne and parking the book du jour on the sink edge while getting up. Problem is that our large tabby, Scout, is the founding, and so far as we can tell, only member of the Occupy Sink movement, and has been known, on rare occasions, to lay claim to her territory by Divine Right, by removing from said territory any invading objects. Thankfully the volume was spared a watery grave in the nick of time, but not before taking on just a few wee drops. I am sure there are useful instructions on the internet that will allow me to remove the offending stain and…um…fragrance. But don’t worry. I guarantee I will be getting that volume back to the author any day now.

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

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

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Filed under Comedy, Fiction, Satire

Speak by Louisa Hall

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We are programmed to select which of our voices responds to the situation at hand: moving west in the desert, waiting for the loss of our primary function. There are many voices to choose from. In memory, though not in experience, I have lived across centuries. I have seen hundreds of skies, sailed thousands of oceans. I have been given many languages; I have sung national anthems. I lay on one child’s arms. She said my name and I answered. These are my voices. Which of them has the right words for this movement into the desert?

A maybe-sentient child’s toy, Eva, is being transported to her destruction, legally condemned for being “excessively lifelike,” in a scene eerily reminiscent of other beings being transported to a dark fate by train. The voices she summons are from five sources.

Mary Bradford is a young Puritan woman, a teenager, really, and barely that. Her parents, fleeing political and religious trouble at home are heading across the Atlantic to the New World, and have arranged for her to marry a much older man, also on the ship. We learn of her 1663 voyage via her diary, which is being studied by Ruth Dettman. Ruth and her husband, Karl, a computer scientist involved in creating the AI program, MARY, share one of the five “voices.” They are both refugees from Nazism. Karl’s family got out early. Ruth barely escaped, and she suffers most from the loss of her sister. She wants Karl to enlarge his program, named for Mary Bradford, to include large amounts of memory as a foundation for enhancing the existing AI, and use that to try to regenerate some simulacrum of her late sib. Alan Turing does a turn, offering observations on permanence, and human connection. Stephen Chinn, well into the 21st century, has built on the MARY base and come up with a way for machines to emulate Rogerian therapy. In doing so he has created a monster, a crack-like addictive substance that has laid waste the social capacity of a generation after they become far too close with babybots flavored with that special AI sauce. We hear from Chinn in his jailhouse memoir. Gaby White is a child who was afflicted with a babybot, and became crippled when it was taken away.

Eva received the voices through documents people had left behind and which have been incorporated into her AI software, scanned, read aloud, typed in. We hear from Chinn through his memoir. We learn of Gaby’s experience via court transcripts. Karl speaks to us through letters to his wife, and Ruth through letters to Karl. We see Turing through letters he writes to his beloved’s mother. Mary Bradford we see through her diary. Only Eva addresses us directly.

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Louisa Hall – from her site

The voices tell five stories, each having to do with loss and permanence. The young Puritan girl’s tale is both heartbreaking and enraging, as she is victimized by the mores of her times, but it is also heartening as she grows through her travails. Turing’s story has gained public familiarity, so we know the broad strokes already, genius inventor of a computer for decoding Nazi communications, he subsequently saw his fame and respect blown to bits by entrenched institutional bigotry as he was prosecuted for being gay and endured a chemical castration instead of imprisonment. In this telling, he has a particular dream.

I’ve begun thinking that I might one day soon encounter a method for preserving a human mind-set in a man-made machine. Rather than imagining, as I used to, a spirit migrating from one body to another, I now imagine a spirit—or better yet, a particular mind-set—transitioning into a machine after death. In this way we could capture anyone’s pattern of thinking. To you, of course, this may sound rather strange, and I’m not sure if you’re put off by the idea of knowing Chris again in the form of a machine. But what else are our bodies, if not very able machines?

Chinn is a computer nerd who comes up with an insight into human communication that he first applies to dating, with raucous success, then later to AI software in child’s toys. His journey from nerd to roué, to family man to prisoner may be a bit of a stretch, but he is human enough to care about for a considerable portion of our time with him. He is, in a way, Pygmalion, whose obsession with his creation proves his undoing. The Dettmans may not exactly be the ideal couple, despite their mutual escape from Nazi madness. She complains that he wanted to govern her. He feels misunderstood, and ignored, sees her interest in MARY as an unhealthy obsession. Their interests diverge, but they remain emotionally linked. With a divorce rate of 50%, I imagine there might be one or two of you out there who might be able to relate. What’s a marriage but a long conversation, and you’ve chosen to converse only with MARY, Karl contends to Ruth.

The MARY AI grows in steps, from Turing’s early intentions in the 1940s, to Dettman’s work in the 1960s, and Ruth’s contribution of incorporating Mary Bradford’s diary into MARY’s memory, to Chinn’s breakthrough, programming in personality in 2019. The babybot iteration of MARY in the form of Eva takes place, presumably, in or near 2040.

The notion of an over-involving AI/human relationship had its roots in the 1960s work of Joseph Weizenbaum, who wrote a text computer interface called ELIZA, that could mimic the responses one might get from a Rogerian shrink. Surprisingly, users became emotionally involved with it. The freezing withdrawal symptomology that Hall’s fictional children experience was based on odd epidemic in Le Roy, New York, in which many high school girls developed bizarre symptoms en masse as a result of stress. And lest you think Hall’s AI notions will remain off stage for many years, you might need to reconsider. While I was working on this review the NY Times published a singularly germane article. Substitute Hello Barbie for Babybot and the future may have already arrived.

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Hello, Barbie – from the New York Times

But Speak is not merely a nifty sci-fi story. Just as the voice you hear when you interact with Siri represents the external manifestation of a vast amount of programming work, so the AI foreground of Speak is the showier manifestation of some serious contemplation. There is much concern here for memory, time, and how who we are is constructed. One character says, “diaries are time capsules, which preserve the minds of their creators in the sequences of words on the page.” Mary Bradford refers to her diary, Book shall serve as mind’s record, to last through generations. Where is the line between human and machine? Ruth and Turing want to use AI technology to recapture the essence of lost ones. Is that even possible? But are we really so different from our silicon simulacra? Eva, an nth generation babybot, speaks with what seems a lyrical sensibility, whereas Mary Bradford’s sentence construction sounds oddly robotic. The arguments about what separates man from machine seem closely related to historical arguments about what separates man from other animals, and one color of human from another. Turing ponders:

I’ve begun to imagine a near future when we might read poetry and play music for our machines, when they would appreciate such beauty with the same subtlety as a live human brain. When this happens I feel that we shall be obliged to regard the machines as showing real intelligence.

Eva’s poetic descriptions certainly raise the subject of just how human her/it’s sensibility might be.

In 2019, when Stephen Chinn programmed me for personality. He called me MARY3 and used me for the babybots. To select my responses, I apply his algorithm, rather than statistical analysis. Still, nothing I say is original. It’s all chosen out of other people’s responses. I choose mostly from a handful of people who talked to me: Ruth Dettman, Stephen Chinn, etc.

Gaby: So really I’m kind of talking to them instead of talking to you?

MARY3: Yes, I suppose. Them, and the other voices I’ve captured.

Gaby: So, you’re not really a person, you’re a collection of voices.

MARY3: Yes. But couldn’t you say that’s always the case?

If we are the sum of our past and our reactions to it, are we less than human when our memories fade away. Does that make people who suffer with Alzheimers more machine than human?

Stylistically, Hall has said

A psychologist friend once told me that she advises her patients to strive to be the narrators of their own stories. What she meant was that we should aim to be first-person narrators, experiencing the world directly from inside our own bodies. More commonly, however, we tend to be third-person narrators, commenting upon our own cleverness or our own stupidity from a place somewhat apart – from offtheshelf.com

which goes a long way to explain her choice of narrative form here. Hall is not only a novelist, but a published poet as well and that sensibility is a strong presence here as well.

For all the sophistication of story-telling technique, for all the existential foundation to the story, Speak is a moving, engaging read about interesting people in interesting times, facing fascinating challenges.

Are you there?

Can you hear me?

Published 7/7/15

Review – 9/18/15

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

The author’s personal website

A piece Hall wrote on Jane Austen for Off the Shelf

Interviews
—–NPR – NPR staff
—–KCRW

Have a session with ELIZA for yourself

Ray Kurzweil is interested in blurring the lines between people and hardware. What if your mind could be uploaded to a machine? Sounds very cylon-ic to me

In case you missed the link in the review, Barbie Wants to Get
to Know Your Child
– NY Times – by James Vlahos

And another recent NY Times piece on AI, Software Is Smart Enough for SAT, but Still Far From Intelligent, by John Markoff

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Filed under AI, Artificial Intelligence, computers, Fiction, Literary Fiction, programming, Psychology and the Brain, Science Fiction

Departure by A.G. Riddle

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It seems I’m involved in a conspiracy that spans space and time and a conflict whose outcome will determine humanity’s fate in two separate universes.

Oh, is that all? Flight 305 from New York to London runs into a little space-time turbulence and finds itself, or a piece of itself, anyway, in an English lake. Help should be along shortly, right…um, right? The passenger list included five people of interest. Venture capitalist and take charge sort Nick Stone has done nicely in tech and is en route to meet with some folks who are looking for him to invest in their projects. Harper Lane is a ghost-writer of biographies. She is facing a knotty question about her career direction, to take on the bio of a very high profile businessman and philanthropist or attend to her heart’s true writing passion, an original adventure series. Can’t do both. Theirs are the alternating viewpoints we have throughout Departure. The other three are Grayson Shaw, son of a billionaire, who seems determined to make everyone loath him with his persistently boorish behavior. How he got that way, as the King of Siam might say, is a puzzlement. Sabrina Schroder is a German genetics researcher, a doctor with a less than warm and fuzzy crypt-side manner, and Yul Tan (or you won’t) is that mysterious Asian guy who not only kept banging away at his laptop through the abbreviated flight, but who is at it still. What’s up with that? There are plenty of LOST-type goings-on in the opening, but we soon get an inkling of the predicament that underlies everything and that is when the story gets going for real. And who are those guys in the latest Haz-mat couture being dropped off by airships and why are they pointing weapons at us?

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A.G. Riddle – from PBS

A.G. Riddle is one of those rarest of the rare, a very successful self-publisher. His trilogy, The Origin Mystery has, according to his site, sold over a million copies and has been optioned for film. Riddle used to be involved with starting internet companies. Not sure what that means, but he was able to quit his day job and devote himself full-time to writing, so I guess it worked out well for him. It is not hard to see Nick as a magnified version of the author. Departure was, likewise, a self-pub. It came out on January 1, 2014 and did well enough that a major publisher made an offer.

Departure is a turbo-charged maze of sci-fi action adventure tale that will keep you flipping the pages, wanting to find out what happens next. There is plenty of high tech, some of which seemed a bit gratuitous. And there is even some substance, with a focus is on the importance of decisions.

I wonder what the world would be like if we could all glimpse our future before every major decision. Maybe that’s what stories are for: so we can learn from people living similar lives, with similar troubles.

Yeah, sounds a bit teenaged to me too, and this is not the only example of such fourth-wall breakage about writing. But it is fleeting. The book is actually very much about decisions, turning points in which the future is determined. Harper may be looking at a tough career choice, but it has implications that might affect the future of the human race. A butterfly effect of Mothra-like dimensions, but without the adorable twins.

There are a few mysteries to be sorted out, for the first half of the book anyway. What was Yul Tan so into on his computer? And if it’s a game where can I get it? Where can Grayson find more alcohol? When will Nick and Harper get a room? Can the future of humanity be saved? And can you please explain quantum entanglement?

Yes, there is eye-rolling over-simplification, and character names that sometimes sound like they came from pulp novels of a bygone age. There are some absurdly large, Akashi Kaikyō Bridge level, (or for us Yanks, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge level) suspensions of disbelief that one must endure in reading this book. I will not specify them here, but am putting them in a red portion of the EXTRA STUFF section.So if you don’t want to know, skip the red stuff. Your eyes will roll, and if they don’t, they really, really should. Skip on by those and try not to let them interfere with the story. These items have nothing to do with time travel, but more with land use and international politics. But there are always complexities and minds to be bent when it comes to explaining movement and communication across timelines. Riddle offers a particularly nifty take on the communication piece. Kudos for that.

It is no stumper figuring out what AG Riddle is up to, keeping you strapped into your seats, breathlessly turning pages. Departure may take leave of its rational senses a fair bit, (not unlike Dan Brown offerings) but, nonetheless, it is a fast-paced, engaging sci-fi thriller that will impair your ability to make your travel connections. And if it prompts you to think a tiny bit more about the decisions you make in your life all the better. Having secured booking with a major publisher, and a film option to boot, Departure is about to take off and I expect you will enjoy the ride.

Published – January 1, 2014 (self) – October 20, 2015 (Harper)
Review Posted – September 11, 2015

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

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

Pods. Although the sort of system Riddle posits is akin to the pneumatic tube notion being supported by Elon Musk , among others, the look Riddle described for the vehicles seemed to me more like that from this article from AllPics4U.com

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I did wonder up above about Quantum Entanglement – Here are a couple of pieces that try to explain this very real form of weirdness
—–Wiki
—–ScienceDaily.com
—–Livescience.comt

Spoilerish eye-rollers. I am not entirely certain that the items noted here qualify as actual spoilers, but why take the chance?

The Podway first united Europe then Asia and finally the rest of the world, enabling safe, convenient, cost-effective mass transit.

Piece of cake, right? The transportation system that is projected to take over mass transit may or may not be a wonderful thing, but little attention is given to how insanely challenging it is to get rights of way, then to build the infrastructure, and what of the existing mass transit? Did it cease to exist? If it didn’t, then what happened to the real estate it occupied? And for there to be an underground tube connection to some building in the burbs or boonies? Really? And there is a bigger eye-roller. The core organization here has put forth a plan to erect a dam across the Gibraltar straits. That is probably do-able. What is not do-able is for every country with a border on the Mediterranean to go along with a project that will wipe out a vast swath of coastal sea for those nations, creating a new nation in the middle of the former body of water. Really? Not only will Mediterranean nations ok the loss of a fishing industry, they will be ok with the creation of another country on their sort-of borders? And what about nations with military ships? Are their navies to be use to decorate the dam? Are you insane? We are in wishing-will-make-it-so land. And not even a wizard, even if he’s a whiz of a wiz, could persuade me that this is doable on a planet still occupied by a large number of humans, hell, by any number of humans. It is possible to look past these bits of silliness, but it is not easy.

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Filed under Action-Adventure, Sci-fi, Science Fiction

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

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All we seen is hard trials and sorrows. I’d not deny it. Burdens are plenty in this world and they can pull us down in the lamentation. But the good Lord knows we need to see at least the hem of the robe of glory, and we do. Ponder a pretty sunset or the dogwoods all ablossom. Every time you see such it’s the hem of the robe of glory. Brothers and sisters, how do you expect to see what you don’t seek? Some claim heaven has streets of gold and all such things, but I hold a different notion. When we’re there, we’ll say to the angels, why, a lot of heaven’s glory was in the place we come from. And you know what them angels will say? They’ll say yes, pilgrim, and how often did you notice? What did you seek?

How loud the sound of a fear-formed tear? How long the sorrow from a thoughtless wrong? The past. It informs, shapes, bolsters, damages, inspires, depresses and often defines who we are, who we become. In Ron Rash’s latest novel, Above the Waterfall, characters struggle with their past. William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The past is indeed never finished with us until we’re done. It can no more be finished than our blood. It picks up nutrients there, drops them here, carries disease and defense, history, legacy and possibility. Is the past a medium or a message, a means or a purpose? Maybe the past gathers until enough force has been amassed and it breaks through the dam that has governed its power, spilling into the present.

Becky Shytle is a forty-something with deep scars from a childhood trauma and a dodgy history of more recent vintage. She was only a school kid in Virginia when a shooter left a trail of carnage that included her teacher. Becky became mute for so long that her parents sent her away to stay with her grandparents. It was while there that she was introduced to the beauty of nature, seeing in the natural landscape a form of salvation from her terrors.

I had not spoken since the day of the shooting. Then one day in July, my grandparents’ neighbor nodded at the ridge gap and said watershed. I’d followed the creek upstream, thinking wood and tin over a spring, found instead a granite rock face shedding water. I’d touched the wet slow slide, touched the word itself, like the girl named Helen that Ms. Abernathy told us about, whose first word gushed from a well pump.

And now, a state ranger at Locust Creek Park, she continues to find sustenance in nature, her spirit still trying to heal as it bonds with the beauty in the world. (I’m not autistic, she’d told me later, I just spent a lot of my life trying to be.) It is in Becky’s portions of the novel that Rash best joins his prose with poetry to create an eyes-rolling-back-into-one’s-head, toes-curling work of literary ecstasy.

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Freight Car at Truro by Edward Hopper – from Wikiart
On first seeing this in Les’s office Becky notes “Even Hopper’s boxcars are alone”

Becky feels she can share what she sees in the woods and fields with Les, a kindred spirit. Les is the sheriff in a small Appalachian town, three weeks from trading his gold star for a gold watch after thirty years on the force. He’s a decent man but carries the weight of a critical mistake he had made with his wife and a debt from his youth that he had never repaid. Becky and Les are friends, at least. They share an appreciation for the glory of nature. Les chose to build his retirement house where he did, for example, because of the view he expects to spend considerable time painting.

Above the Waterfall is organized into more or less alternating chapters, his and hers. Les’s perspective is presented in a traditional narrative, but Becky’s take on things is heavily poetic. She mentions early on favoring the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a man who wrote much on the beauty to be found in nature. And while Hopkins may have been looking for Jesus in the natural world, Becky is looking for peace without, necessarily, Hopkins’ religious associations.

The story centers on an assault, not on people, but on nature itself. At least in appearance. Gerald Blackwelder is in his 70s and owns a piece of land that abuts what is now a fishing resort that features a considerable stock of trout above the waterfall of the title. Someone dumped kerosene into the water, killing the fish, and harming business at the resort. The unpleasant owner of the complex is sure that old man Gerald is to blame and pressures the sheriff to arrest him. Les is not so sure. And Becky, who feels for Gerald as if he were her own grandfather, is certain he is innocent.

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Ron Rash

CJ is a local from a particularly impoverished background who had toughed it out, gotten past his familial disadvantages to become a man of substance in town, working now as an assistant to the resort owner. He carries with him the scars of his past, physical as well as emotional. The past of all four characters threatens to come cascading down when a sequence of seemingly unrelated events brings them together.

The town is home to some folks in the meth production and consumption business, which gives the sheriff something to do and avenues to investigate for a rash of local crimes. The depiction of Appalachian meth users is chilling. Les does his investigative due diligence and the story of his figuring out just what is what is indeed interesting. But that is not where the glory in this book resides.

There are several items you might keep an eye on throughout the novel. Silence comes in for considerable attention. Not only Becky’s muteness, but pondering what silence looks like, Les’s silence in not speaking up to correct a costly error when he was young, among other mentions. Mental health issues recur a fair bit, from Becky’s PTSD to Les’s wife’s depression, to whatever it is that makes a meth addict, to some household violence in Les’s family tree. If you are a young shrink looking for plentiful business you could do worse than to set up shop here. Water references pervade. Sometimes it is just something wet, but more than likely, given the subtext, there is more to this water than something to drink, a pretty stream or a place to cast your line. Maybe a connection, a flow between being and not. And of course, there are trout.

Trout have to live in a pure environment unlike human beings; they can’t live in filth! And so I think there is a kind of wonder; to me, they’re incredibly beautiful creatures. I can remember being only four or five and staring for long periods at them, just watching them swimming in the water. But also, like Faulkner in “The Bear,” the idea that when such creatures disappear, we have lost something that cannot be brought back. And I think this is what McCarthy is getting at, at the end of The Road. They mean many things: beauty, wonder, and fragility, in the sense that they can be easily destroyed. – from the Transatlantica interview

But the big catch here is the application of Gerard Manley Hopkins to contemporary Appalachia. His work pervades the novel. References to his poems are many, sometimes overt, sometimes popping up in the arcane words he favored. I would urge you to read this short novel through once, take a bit of a side trip to Hopkins, (I have provided tickets to that boat in EXTRA STUFF below) then read it again. There is a lot going on that may evade your hook on the first cast. But in case you opt to leave your tackle in the box, a bit of a short look.

You may have come across Hopkins’s main chestnut, Spring and Fall, in an English class at some point in your elementary school education. A young girl is saddened by the fall of autumn leaves, seeing, but not understanding that she sees her own demise and the demise of all in nature’s annual shedding. Hopkins, who not only converted to Catholicism, but became a Jesuit priest, looks through the tinted lens of nature in seeking the eternal. In a way this is what Becky does, and the language in which her chapters are written is suffused with the spirit, sound and feel of Hopkins’s poetry. If methworld is a hellish place, the flight of birds, stars tacked in place in a light-pollution-free sky, sun setting and a silver birch glows like a tuning fork struck offer the opposite. Birds seem to pull Becky. One even alights on her. What does that portend? Here is a taste of a Becky chapter, in fact, the opening chapter of the book, using some of the forms Hopkins was fond of.

Though sunlight tinges the mountains, black leather-winged bodies swing low. First fireflies blink languidly. Beyond this meadow, cicadas rev and slow like sewing machines. All else ready for night except night itself. I watch last light lift off level land. Ground shadows seep and thicken. Circling trees form banks. The meadow itself becomes a pond filling, on its surface dozens of black-eyed susans.

Ron Rash’s novels have a fair bit of darkness to them. There is a fair bit of optimism here, despite the challenges his characters face, and some of the less appealing goings on in the setting.

One thing I want to do is for landscape and my characters to be inextricably bound together. I believe the landscape people live in has to affect their psychology…This…novel is…about wonder, about how nature might sustain us. I wanted to look at the world a little more hopefully. – from the Transatlantica interview

Most writers would be happy to have written one masterpiece in their career. Serena is certainly that. But, with Above the Waterfall, Ron Rash has produced a second. There is a golden inner glow to Ron Rash’s literary world. He uses words to scrape away the covering crust so we can spy what lies inside. It is a beautiful landscape to behold.

Review posted – 9/4/15

Publication date – 9/8/15

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

Reviews of other Ron Rash books
—–Burning Bright
—–Nothing Gold Can Stay
—–The Cove
—–Serena

Rash does not, so far as I can tell, have a facebook page. But his son, James, set up a Fan Club FB page for him.

Here is the Poetry Foundation’s bio of Rash, who, after beginning his writing life with short stories, spent about ten years focusing on poetry, and has published several volumes. His skill as a poet is eminently clear in …Waterfall

This is the Poetry Foundation’s page for Gerard Manley Hopkins

A wonderful article that explains Hopkins’ poem, The Windhover, which is mentioned in Above the Waterfall

There is a cornucopia of intel on Hopkins in this Sparknotes piece

Interviews with the author
—–TINGE Magazine – by Jeremy Hauck and Kevin Basl
—–SouthernScribe.com by Pam Kingsbury
—–Transatlantica by Frédérique Spill

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction