Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Heaven-Sent – Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

book cover

Sometimes the things we think are lost are only hidden, waiting to be rediscovered.

Anthony Doerr has written a masterpiece of a tale, connecting five characters, over hundreds of years through their relationship to a single book. Cloud Cuckoo Land is an ancient story written by Antonius Diogenes around the first century C.E. (Only in the novel. While the author is real, the book was made up.) It tells of a shepherd, Aethon, seeking a magical, heavenly place in the sky, the “Cloud Cuckoo Land” of the title. Each of the five characters are introduced to this story, and we see how it impacts their lives. Each has characteristics that set them apart. But all have lost, or lose, at least one parent.

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Anthony Doerr – image from Boise State Public Radio

We meet Konstance, 14, on an interstellar, generational ship, maybe the late 21st century, maybe the 22nd. She is laying out on the floor of a large room the scraps of pages that comprise the book. (Sometimes he [Doerr] would lay out all these micro chapters on the floor so he could see them and discover the resonances between characters across space and time. – from the NY Times interview) She was born on The Argos, and the plan is that she will not live long enough to reach the ship’s destination, but will grow to adulthood and raise a family there, passing down humanity’s culture so that someday, homo sapiens can rebuild on a new, unspoiled home world, Beta Oph2. Hopefully that planet will remain better off once people arrive. She is driven by her need to know, a boundless curiosity, and a willingness to think outside the ship.

Anna is an orphan. In 15th century Constantinople we follow her from age 7 to early adolescence. She and her older sister, Maria, work as seamstresses in the house of Nicholas Kalaphates. It is a Dickensian world of exploitation of diverse sorts. Anna is far too bright to be denied the world of words, and, once exposed to it, she pursues that world doggedly. On her travels through the city on errands she comes across a class of boys being taught Greek, The Odyssey, and attends, surreptitiously. The master agrees to teach her privately in return for modest items. Her literacy makes her a suspect to the adults around her, a criminal to others, and possibly a witch to the most ignorant, but leads her to a ruined library and eventually, to Aethon.

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The Imperial Library at Constantinople [in better days] – image from Novo Scriptorium

Omeir was born in 1439, like Anna, but with a cleft lip and palate. The superstitious country people in his home town believed him cursed, demonic even, so he is driven out of town, exiled to a remote part of what is now Bulgaria, where he does his best to remain out of sight, to be raised by his grandfather. But Omeir is a survivor. He becomes a marvel at the care of oxen, raising and training two to immense proportions. The team of three are remarkable workers. Downside is that the new sultan demands Omeir, now an adolescent, and his oxen serve in his army. He is planning to lay siege to Constantinople, a city with walls that have withstood such attacks for over eleven hundred years. Omeir will encounter Aethon later.

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The oldest surviving map of Constantinople, by Cristoforo Buondelmonti, dated to 1422. The fortifications of Constantinople and of Galata, at the northern shore of the Golden Horn, are prominently featured. – image from Wikipedia

Seymour does not fit in. He lives with his mother, who struggles to get by on low-wage jobs. Probably on the spectrum, he struggles with more than the usual travails of growing up. He cannot, for example, tolerate loud sound. He cannot or will not remain in his seat at school. The world overwhelms him and when the pressure of it builds too high, he screams, which is not conducive to a successful school life. A class library outing brings him into contact with a whole new world, when the librarian, Marian, (surely a nod to The Music Man) hooks him up with nature books. He finds comfort in the natural world, befriending a large, amenable owl, and reveling in walks in the woods adjacent to his home. We follow him from childhood into adolescence and into his development as an eco-warrior. Seymour is the avatar of Doerr’s concerns about environmental degradation, presenting a generational cri du coeur, however misguided in its application, about the destruction of a following generation’s natural heritage.

We see Zeno as a child. He realizes he is gay at an early age. But it is the 1940s in Idaho, and this is simply not allowed. He has to keep that part of himself hidden. We see him again as a POW during the Korean War, when he learns Greek, and as an octogenarian teacher. He lives in a small Idaho community, and is leading five students in a stage performance of Cloud Cuckoo Land, a book he translated from the Greek, well, from what bits remained of it.

As with All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, his characters here are young. (Not necessarily for the entire book, but for a good chunk) He says writing from a child’s perspective allows one to “to see more nakedly some of the things that we’ve elided or erased in our minds because of age.” (From the NYTimes interview). Each comes to the world with their own personal content, but also with a sense of wonder. Anna is amazed by the vast universe of story that can be reached through literacy. Seymour is dazzled by nature and nature books. Konstance is amazed by the things she can see, the places she can visit, the knowledge she can gain in the virtual library on the ship. Zeno also finds a refuge and a world of possibility in his local library. For Omeir, it is the tales his grandfather tells him when they’re out trapping grouse that capture his imagination.

While all the characters have their individual stories, Zeno and Seymour’s stories converge in today’s Lakeport, Idaho; (Doerr and family spend a lot of time in McCall, Idaho, a likely model for Lakeport) Anna and Omeir’s stories converge in the siege of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, and all their stories converge on the connection to that ancient book up through the somewhat near future of Konstance’s experience.

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Mural at the Turkish Military Museum of the scene outside the walls of Constantinople in 1453 – image from Europe Between East and West

It is these connections, these convergences, that provide the structure and core mystery of the book. How does this first century story find its way to fifteenth century Constantinople, to the world of today, and to the future in which Konstance lives? How is it preserved, by whom, and why? Asked about the spark for his focus on the preservation of literature, of culture, Doer said:

I’m getting close to 50. And though I still feel and behave like a kid most of the time, my eyesight is fading, I can apparently injure myself while sleeping and my little baby boys are suddenly big hairy-legged job-working car-driving high school kids. I’m realizing that everything—youth, hairlines, memories, civilizations—fades. And the amazing technology that is a printed book seems to be one of the few human inventions that has outlived whole human generations. What a privilege it is to open a book like The Iliad and summon tales that entertained people almost 3,000 years ago.

The folks doing most of the preserving are librarians of one sort or another. Each of the characters has a relationship with a librarian, Zeno and Seymour with the librarians in Lakeport, Idaho, Anna with scribes in Constantinople, Omeir with Anna, and Konstance with the AI controller of her ship.

I hope that my readers will be reminded that librarians serve as stewards of human memory—without librarians, we lose perhaps our most important windows into the human journey. – from the QBD interview

Part of his growing-up environment was spending a lot of time in libraries as his teacher mom often made use of them as a form of day care for Doerr and his brothers. It’s not like he minded. In fact, he even dedicated the book to librarians.

They were a place where I felt completely safe. And just the miracle of them, there’s something that – talk about peeling the scales off your eyes. Like, here’s the work of all these masters available to you for free. And you can take them home. – from the NPR interview

As with All the Light…, Doerr found inspirations for the elements of the book in diverse places. It was while researching the walls at Saint Malo for his prior book that he came across repeated references to the millennium-long impenetrability of the walls of Constantinople, and dug into that a lot deeper. He is also interested in how technology induces change. In All the Light… it was radio. Here it is gunpowder and advanced armaments in the 15th century, allowing a new level of violence in the assault on supposedly impervious walls. In the contemporary world it is the internet allowing in both a world of information and a cannonade of lies and manipulation. He sees the future as being driven by artificial intelligence.

One of the things that most stuck with me was the portrayal of reading, particularly the reading of material to others, as not only an act of kindness, of affection, but also be a source of healing, and certainly comfort. There are several times when characters read to other characters who are ill, to positive effect. We are a species that relies on stories to make sense of our world, and to inspire, to spark imagination. The story of Aethon inspires all the main characters to dream of more, to dream of better, to dream beyond realistic possibility.

Doerr enjoys tossing in a bit of classical reference spice. The ship Argos, of course, recalls Jason and his crew. Zeno is saved by a dog named Athena as Hercules was rescued by the goddess herself. There are plenty more of these.

I would keep an eye out for owl imagery, and roses come in for some repeated attention as well. Walls get special attention. The big one in Constantinople is the most obvious, but Konstance has physical walls of her own she needs to get through. Seymour tries breaching a physical wall, as Zeno tries to defend one. The notion of paradise permeates. The title alone refers to an unrealizable fantasy of heaven. It is the heaven that Aethon pursues. For Zeno it is a place where he can be accepted, loved, while being his true self. Seymour is lured by the promise of a sylvan environmentalist camp where he can embrace nature with others of like mind. A development in his beloved woods is called Eden’s Gate (close enough to make one think of Heaven’s Gate). He and his mother live on Arcady Lane. For Anna it is a dream of a better life outside the city.

How Doerr weaves all this together is a dazzling work of genius. He will leave you breathless, even as he shows you the construction of his multiple threads, bit by bit by bit.

“That’s the real joy,” Doerr said, “the visceral pleasure that comes from taking these stories, these lives, and intersecting them, braiding them.” – from the NY Times interview

Mirroring is employed extensively as the experiences of all five characters (and Aethon) repeat in one form or another for them all.

The book lists at 640 hardcover pages. Do not take this at face value. In terms of actual words, Cuckoo Land is about the same length as All the Light. There are many pages holding only titles or section headings. There is a lot of white space. That does not make this a fast read. It would still be around 500 pages if one stripped it down to word-count alone. But it is less daunting than the presenting length of 640 pages. Also, Doerr writes in small chunks. You can always use a spare minute or two to drop in on this book and still get through a chapter or five. There is a reason for this.

He had hit upon this approach for the most practical of reasons. As a parent, he couldn’t hope to get more than an hour or two of solid work done before having to attend to shuttling the boys to swim practice or some other activity. “I might have stumbled accidentally into that,” he said. – from the NY Times interview

While there are dark events that take place in this novel, the overall feel is one of optimism, of possibility, of persistence, and of the availability of beauty and hope to all, if only we can keep alive our connections to each other through time and place, keep alive hopes for a better place, for a better, meaningful life, and continue to dream impossible dreams. If you read nothing else this year, do yourself a favor and read Cloud Cuckoo Land, and be transported (no wings required) to a literary paradise by this book, which I hope will be read as long as there are people able to read. It is a heavenly book, and an immediate classic.

“Repository,” he finally says, “you know this word? A resting place. A text—a book—is a resting place for the memories of people who have lived before. A way for the memory to stay fixed after the soul has traveled on.”
His eyes open very widely then, as though he peers into a great darkness.
“But books, like people, die too. They die in fires or floods or in the mouths of worms or at the whims of tyrants. If they are not safeguarded, they go out of the world. And when a book goes out of the world, the memory dies a second death.”

Review posted – October 22, 2021

Publication dates
———-Hardcover – September 28, 2021
———-Trade paperback – September 27, 2022

I received an ARE of Cloud Cuckoo Land from Simon & Schuster, but I first learned of it from Cai at GR, who passed on my request to someone at S&S, who sent me an ARE and passed on my request to the person responsible for this e-galley, who ok’d that too. Thanks to all, and thanks to NetGalley for providing an e-ARE.

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

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

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Anthony Doerr: ‘Rather than write what I know, I write what I want to know’ by Anthony Cummins
—–CBS – Sunday Morning – Novelist Anthony Doerr on “Cloud Cuckoo Land” – with Lee Cowan – video – 7:49
—–NPR – Anthony Doerr On The Spark That Inspired ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ – audio – 8:26 – with Scott Simon – text of the interview is on the page as well
—–Seattle Times – Pulitzer winner Anthony Doerr discusses his new novel, the timeless power of books and more by Moira Macdonald
—–New York Times – For His Next Act, Anthony Doerr Wrote a Book About Everything by Gal Beckerman
—–Parade – Anthony Doerr Revels in the Uplifting Messages of Stories in His New Epic Cloud Cuckoo Land by Dillon Dodson
—–QBD Book Club: Cloud Cuckoo Land with Anthony Doerr with Victoria A. Carthew – video – 28:06

My review of Doerr’s prior novel
—–All the Light We Cannot See

Songs/Music
—–Les Miserables I Dreamed a Dream – Anne Hathaway
—–Man of La Mancha – The Impossible Dream – Richard Kiley at the Tony Awards
—–The Music Man – Madam Librarian
—–Edison Lighthouse – Love Grows Where my Rosemary Goes – Playing when Zeno is in London

Items of Interest from the author
—–audio excerpt – 0:58

Items of Interest
—–Interesting Literature – on the etymology of the phrase Cloud Cuckoo Land
Since the late nineteenth century, the phrase has been used more generally to refer to ‘a fanciful or ideal realm or domain’. Indeed, most of the time people use ‘cloud cuckoo land’ they do so without referencing the phrase back to Aristophanes; indeed, many people who use the phrase may well be unaware of the term’s origins in the work of ancient Greece’s greatest comic playwright.
—–Wiki on The Fall of Constantinople
—–Wiki on The Imperial Library of Constantinople
—–Generation Starship – thanks to Derus for the ref

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Filed under AI, Artificial Intelligence, Cli-Fi, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews, Sci-fi, Science Fiction

Beacon Hell – The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke

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He’s tall and rakish, with greasy black hair to his jaw, a tattoo of a panther on his neck, a missing front tooth. A grin.
“You’re Luna Stay?”
She frowns, confused by the shift to a smile. “Yes?”
He steps forward and eyes her coldly. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

2021 – Ok, so maybe not exactly a welcoming committee, with a sparkly, multi-colored sign at the local watering hole, all the residents in attendance, celebrating her return. But I guess it’ll have to do. It wasn’t Luna’s first time on the island of Lòn Haven. She had been there for a spell as a child, and, while her experience was memorable, it was relatively brief, and her exit had been fraught. Now, thirty years old, pregnant for the first time, she is not exactly eager to stick around. But she is there on a mission.

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C.J. (Carolyn Jess) Cooke – image from The University of Glasgow

1998 – Olivia Stay has just left her home in northern England, dragged her three daughters, Sapphire, Luna, and Clover, with her, and headed north on an hours-long drive to a remote island off the east coast of Scotland. She is an artist, with a commission to paint a mural on the inside of a 149-foot-tall lighthouse, which is in less-than-stellar condition. Her mysterious employer has left drawings for her of what he wants. She and the girls will be staying on the lighthouse property, in a small house, called a bothy. The lighthouse has an intriguing name.

“You’re staying at the Longing?” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Quite a history, that place.”
“I can see that,” I said, flicking through the leaflet, my eyes falling on an artist’s rendition of people being burned at the stake.
“Why’s it called the Longing?” Luna asked him.
“It’s named for the people who lost loved ones,” he said. “Sometimes they’d visit the site where the Longing was built and . . . pay their respects.”

…or something. The lost loved ones tended to be women murdered by the locals, accused of witchcraft and burned alive. The Longing was built directly over the place where the women had been kept and tortured, a broch, which is a circular castle-like structure, as much as two thousand years old. While there have been five major national bouts of witch-burnings in Scotland, the only witches likely to have been about were of the herbalist, rather than spell-casting sort. The ones with the matches provided the very human-sourced evil involved. The historical burning time of note here was 1662.

Olivia (Liv) is our first-person narrator for much of the book. Other chapters offer third-person POVs from Luna and Saffy. A second first-person account is historical. That one provides interceding chapters made up of passages from a book, left in the bothy, referred to as a grimoire. But it serves less as a source for studying the dark arts than it does as a memoir. Written by someone named Roberts, presumably an ancestor of Liv’s employer, it serves mostly as a fourth perspective, offering first-person exposition of historical events the book’s author lived through, events that inform the present.

We follow Liv as she is introduced to the island, and the local oddballs. (and wonder why she suddenly dropped everything and dragged her kids north several weeks ahead of the appointed time) But when she sees a small, almost feral-seeming white-haired child on the property, and the police do not seem to take her seriously, things get more interesting. Local lore has it that condemned witches, in league with the fae realm, created wildlings, copies of island children, who would appear out of nowhere, intent on wiping out family lines. Locals hold that any such beings must be killed ASAP. Then two of her daughters, Saffy and Clover, disappear.

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St Mary’s Lighthouse – the English lighthouse that provided inspiration for the Longing – image from Photographers Resource UK

In 2021, after twenty-two years of searching for her lost family, Luna is contacted. Her sister, Clover, has been found. But instead of being twenty-nine years old, Clover is still only seven. Is this child even her sister? Or could she be one of the wildlings Luna had heard about when she was a child on Lòn Haven? Her behavior certainly gives one cause for concern.

The story braids the four narratives, alternating Liv, Luna, Saffy, and the grimoire’s Mr Roberts, reporting of their experiences, and the times in which they are in the spotlight, offering nice chapter-ending cliff-hangers to sustain our interest from one strand to the next.

In an interview with The Nerd Daily, Cooke (who is married, with four children) was asked about her inspiration for the book.

I think it came from a range of places – I was thinking a lot (and still am) about how different it is to parent a teenager than it is to parent a baby, and yet the speed with which a baby seems to become a teenager feels like whiplash. So the story of Liv and her 15-year-old Sapphire in the book emerged from that thinking. When we moved to Scotland in 2019, I learned about the Scottish Witch Trials. I’m very interested in women’s lives, and this slice of history is very much concerned with what happened to women – and it also bears a huge relevance to the current moment. Gradually that thinking took shape. Lastly, I was invited to teach at the University of Iceland in 2019, and while I was there – and thinking a lot about the book and how I was going to incorporate all the various ideas I had – I came across 14th century spell books, which blew my mind. As I dug deeper into the history of magic and how it impacted women in particular, the story came out of the shadows.

The fraught relationship between 15yo Saffy and Liv will feel familiar, in tone, if not necessarily in the specific content of Saffy and Liv’s interaction. Cooke relied on her own teenage daughter for much of Saffy’s voice. Add to that the fact that Liv is a single mother, struggling to get by. Many of Liv’s struggles with parenting resonated, guilt versus responsibility versus coping with external limitations. Cooke offers, through the grimoire, a first-person look at the 1661/1662 witch-trial hysteria, providing a persuasive take on its causation, at least in this instance. The spell books notion gave Cooke the tool she needed for exploring the past.

I wanted everything for my children. But every single day I had to confront the glaring reality that I simply wasn’t able to provide the kind of life they deserved. And it crushed me.

There is a hint of prior, off-screen abuse in Liv’s background. This is likely a manifestation of Cooke’s experiences growing up in an abusive household in a council estate in Belfast during The Troubles. The up-front abuse here is in how power is used to protect those who have it from being held responsible for their actions, at the expense of the powerless, both past and present. And in how murderous impulses, combined with ignorance, under the mantle of religion, and official sanction, present a peril to any who do not conform, in any age.

There are elements of informational payload that help support the story. You will pick up a few bits of Scottish terminology, and even a bit of spice on magical symbology and local fairy lore. Cooke has some fun with triangles of various sorts. We get a you-are-there look at an actual historical time of madness. Cooke, in the interview from The Inside Flap, talks about how surprised she was when she moved to Scotland to find that there had been witch trials there, and that there were no memorials at all for the hundreds of people (not all were women) who had been killed.

There were parts of the book that gave me pause. I had trouble, for example, with the police releasing seven-year-old Clover to Luna, given that there was no way the two were the sisters they supposedly were in any normal time line. There seemed some contradiction in the overall take. Where does magic leave off and other factors enter into things? Could an evil-doer, for example, be stricken with an awful affliction at the hands of a spell-caster? And if so, then a scientific-ish explanation for later events seems undercut. What if that scientific-ish situation was created by magic? And round and round we go.

While not exactly a hair-raising read for me, (few are) I did find some scenes in the book pretty scary, less, maybe for the magical terror involved, but for the willingness of people to do terrible things in the name of insane beliefs, a terror we live with every day, and the fear any parent might feel when their child is in danger.

We can feel for Liv even as we might wonder at her judgment. She is clearly stressed beyond reason. And we can feel for Luna trying to solve this intricate puzzle, while taking on parental responsibility for her now-much-younger sib. The mysteries of the book will keep you turning the pages. In this fictional realm, are witches real? And if they are, did they really curse the island? And if they did, were fairy-generated wildlings a part of the plan? And if they were, was there an intent to end family lines? And what’s the deal with Clover showing up twenty-two years after vanishing?

One of life’s great joys is to begin reading a book expecting to be directed from Point A to Point Z with the familiar stops along the way, and then finding oneself in an entirely other alphabet. The Lighthouse Witches has the magic needed to make that trip possible. It is an enchanting read.

She turns her head from side to side, taking in the velvet expanse of the ocean on her left and the rocks and beach on her right. Ahead, surf furls into the bay. Something there catches her eye, and she wonders if it’s the basking shark, Basil, with his weird two fins. Something bobbing in the water. Seals, probably. Except it’s the wrong color. It’s pale.
She squints at the object. It’s about thirty feet away, moving on the waves. A cloud shifts from the moon and for a moment the light finds the object. It’s a face. A human face, its mouth open in a howl, someone in the water.

Review posted – October 8, 2021

Publication date – October 5, 2021

I received an eARC of The Lighthouse Witches from Berkley in return for casting one or two minor spells. Thanks to EK, and NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

From About the Author in the book
C. J. Cooke is an award-winning poet and novelist published in twenty-three languages. She teaches creative writing at the University of Glasgow, where she also researches the impact of motherhood on women’s writing and creative-writing interventions for mental health. Her previous novel is The Nesting.

She has been writing stories since she was seven years old.

Interviews
—– The Inside Flap Ep. 140 The Witching Hour Is Upon Us with C.J. Cooke – podcast = 1:30:00 – from about 30:00
—– The Nerd Daily – Q&A: C.J. Cooke, Author of ‘The Lighthouse Witches’ by Elise Dumpleton
—–Slider –
Episode 2 – Interview with author CJ Cooke – audio – 25:23

Wiki-ons and Other Items of Interest
—–bothy
—–Borromean Ring
—–broch
—–The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662
—–
grimoire
—–On Scottish faeries
—–St Mary’s Lighthouse
—–Cambridge University Press – The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662 – a miuch more detailed look at this abomination – by Brian P. Levack

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Reviews, Scotland, Thriller

One Horse Town – Horseman by Christina Henry

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Once, a long time ago, I’d stepped off the track close to the deep part of the forest. I remembered Sander going mad with anxiety, calling for me to come back, but I only wanted to know why nobody in the Hollow went any farther than that point. I hadn’t seen any witches, or goblins, or the Horseman. But I had heard someone, someone whispering my name, and I’d felt a touch on my shoulder, something cold as the wind that came in autumn. I’d wanted to run then, to sprint terrified back to the farm, but Sander was watching, so I’d quietly turned and stepped back on the track and the cold touch moved away from me.

Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, (there is a link to the full text of that in EXTRA STUFF) has been read by Americans since it was first published in 1819. What we remember most about it is the image of The Headless Horseman. There is some question about who this very un-pedestrian equestrian might be, a late Hessian, perhaps, whose cranium had had a close encounter with a cannonball, who was eager for revenge, and searched relentlessly for his lost noggin. Or maybe a canny wooer (one Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt) of a local lass looking to frighten the superstitious competition out of town with a bit of over-the-top theatrical horseplay. The story about the horseman had predated Brom and Ichabod vying for the hand (and property) of Katrina Van Tassel, so, was it a real ghost story or just a hugely successful prank?

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Christina Henry – image from her Goodreads page

In Christina Henry’s Horseman we are brought back to Irving’s one-horse town, Sleepy Hollow, two generations on. Brom and Katrina are grandparents now, managing their land, doing nicely with their farm. Brom remains a big man, both literally and figuratively, a powerful figure in local affairs, as well as someone still able to take on conflict kinetically when needed. Ben, our first-person narrator, Brom and Katrina’s fourteen-year-old grandchild, admires Brom completely, would like nothing more than to grow up to be as much like him as humanly possible.

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The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor, l858 – image from The Smithsonian American Art museum

Ben and a friend are playing in the woods one day when they hear a group of riders pass, Brom in the lead. Ben is desperate to see what’s up, even though the group is headed to a part of the woods that is considered way too spooky to venture into, with good reason.

Just beyond the circle of men was a boy—or rather, what was left of a boy. He lay on his side, like a rag doll that’s been tossed in a corner by a careless child, one leg half-folded. A deep sadness welled up in me at the sight of him lying there, forgotten rubbish instead of a boy.
Something about this sight sent a shadow flitting through the back of my mind, the ghost of a thought, almost a memory. Then it disappeared before I could catch it… Both the head and hands seemed to have been removed inexpertly. There were ragged bits of flesh and muscle at the wrist, and I saw a protruding bit of broken spine dangling where Cristoffel’s head used to be.

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Image from ClassicBecky’s Brain Food

And the game is on. Had this bully of a teen been cut down by a violent spectre or was there a more flesh-laden killer on the loose? There is a second mystery, as well. What’s the deal with the “ghost of a thought, almost a memory” that Ben experiences while witness to the carnage? But wait, there’s more. There were mysteries left over from Washington Irving’s original story, such as was it a ghostly headless Hessian who had driven Ichabod Crane out of town, and what had actually happened to Crane after he fell off his horse and vanished?

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Image from Deviant Art – from Kanaru92

Irving makes a point of the superstitious bent of the locals in the Hollow.

…the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. – from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

A belief in the supernatural, justified or not, prompts the locals to believe the worst (including the W-word) about any they find outside the norm, as defined by their constricted minds. They see dark forces and conspiracies where none exist, well, probably. And seek to blame someone, usually someone perceived as different. I know that reminds me of mindless seekers after blame and conspiracy who roam the planet today, but maybe that’s just me. Feeding the blame-and-conspiracy machine, there is a gender identification seam that permeates as one of the characters contends with being seen one way, while feeling internally entirely other. Other is not an entirely ok thing to be in early nineteenth century small-town America.

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Image from Classic Becky Brain Food – by Jurei-Chan

Family has a lot to do with who we are, who we become, what we might be capable of, for good or ill. Ben’s love for Brom is manifest and a serious source of strength. Ben’s relationship with Katrina is more conflictual, yet with strong underpinnings. But what about other family? There is connection and help to be had in the household, with one of the staff providing a solid core of support. And what about community? Sander is clearly a bff, although not necessarily the best able to offer support in all circumstances. Ben does not seem to have much beyond that. Thus the need for Brom’s strength. Thankfully, Ben has internalized that, so has at least a chance to engage in battle without being entirely over-matched.

We trot along by Ben’s side as dangers present, whether it is obvious or not that they are perilous. Ben does get tingles about certain people, internal red flags of distrust. Are they valid or paranoid?

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Image from Deviant Art – by Ochreface

The book is not marketed as YA, but it felt like a YA title to me. Henry has written several books that take a new look at classic children’s stories, tending toward a younger readership. Most serious violence remains off screen, although we do get to see its aftermath. Profanity is absent. There is a piece in here about people, not all people, but some people, being susceptible to manipulation by an outside force encouraging the dark piece that resides deep within to come to the surface, to take over, even if only for a time. I had a problem with this, as it exempts some from having that bit. Certainly, some people are better than others, more ethical, more moral, kinder, smarter, more empathic, more honest, more responsible, but even the best of us harbors at least a sliver of darkness. This sort of not-quite black-and-white, but maybe charcoal-gray-and-white view of human potential for unpleasantness added to the YA feel. That said, there are a couple of tough physical battles and issues of sexual attraction and predation are raised, which gives it a bit more bite.

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Image from Art Abyss – by Gabriel Williams

In literature, The Woods is generally a symbol of the challenges facing young people on the cusp of adulthood. Ben’s adventures fit quite nicely into that, passing through the fires of challenge to reach maturity in a very different and interesting way. Ben, gifted with considerable horse sense, meets those trials head on. I found Ben’s playtime activities, though, a bit off for a child of fourteen, ten maybe. Perhaps Henry was looking to make the distance Ben travels from this to that seem longer than it really was.

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Image from Disney

But fret not. Though I am well past the YA demo I found this an engaging, fun, creative take on an old favorite. Ben is an appealing lead, struggling with the choices life presents, a dark horse to root for. There are adventures aplenty, head-scratcher mysteries to be solved, clues to be followed, warmth and family love to be appreciated, and a new, quite surprising interpretation of an old mystery. Is it scary? A bit. I am particularly immune to getting the creeps from books, and have a simple metric. Does anything in the book make the hair on my arms stand at attention? For what it’s worth, my pelt remained at ease. But it is clear that there is plenty of creepy material to be had in Horseman, and it is likely that many readers will get more of a frisson from those than might an old oater like me.

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Image from Sleepy Hollow wiki – from the film Headless Horseman

Horseman is a perfect read for the Halloween season. But you might not want to head off to a favorite outdoor reading spot if it is more than just a little way into the woods.

The dark silhouette seemed to unfold—no, unfurl, sinuous and soft—and I thought how can an animal stand like a man?
My breath seized inside my lungs because just for an instant I thought I saw eyes looking back at me, eyes that could not be there because no human was there, no human could possibly have eyes like that—eyes that glowed, eyes that pulled, eyes that seemed to be tugging on my soul, drawing it out through my mouth.

Review posted – October 1, 2021

Publication date – September 28, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Horseman from Berkley, via NetGalley in return for not losing my head writing a review.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Head on over and say Hi!

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

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

Items of Interest from the author
—–from her site – excerpt
—–from her site – Seven Short Stories

Items of Interest
—–Gutenberg – The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
—–Wiki on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
—–History.com – What Inspired ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? by Lesley Kennedy
—–Classic Becky’s Brain Food – Legends of the Headless Horseman – Sleepy Hollow’s topless performer was far from the first
—–One cannot possibly read the The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Horseman without recalling one of the greatest tabloid headlines of all time, of April 15, 1983, from the always-classy New York Post

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Songs/Music
—–Argent – Hold Your Head Up
—–Paul Anka – Put Your Head on My Shoulder
—–The Rollingstones – Wild Horses

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Reviews, YA and kids

The Hidden Palace (The Golem and the Jinni #2) by Helene Wecker

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If you have not yet read The Golem and the Jinni, stop! Right now! Go back. Read that, then we can talk about the sequel. Read it already? Great. Not yet? Ok, I’ll wait, but not for a thousand years, like some.

You’re back? Cool. Great book, right? So Chava, the golem of book #1 and Ahmad, the jinni of that tale, are a bit older, and a bit wiser. They are also a bit more rounded as characters. We’ll get to them in a bit.

The story begins with an extremely devout rabbi, Lev Altschul (very old school) on the Lower East Side (not the guy from the earlier book) He has come across some ancient texts, books with arcane knowledge. He is not the greatest parent in the world, a widower, much more devoted to his studies than his daughter, Kreindel. She is taken care of by, essentially, a committee of congregation members. But she loves her pop and wants to learn, wants to study. Of course, girls were not welcome to imbibe the texts that Jewish boys were encouraged to learn. She spies on lessons and picks up what she can. As it happens there is a pogrom underway in one of the usual places in Eastern Europe. The rabbi, with the help of those old books, can now do something about it. He determines to send to a rabbi in Lithuania a weapon that can be used to defend oppressed Jews there. He works day and night to construct a golem for them. It does seem that Wecker’s golems always run into transit issues. Instead of heading across the Atlantic, as planned, this one, Yossele, remains in New York, due to an untimely building fire. He awaits only wakening.

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Helene Wecker – image from Fantasy Book Cafe

Speaking of golems, Chava is trying her best to be as human as possible, given her natural limitations.

Q: When you thought about writing a golem character, did you think about other legends and myths about people being created out of inanimate matter? Adam from earth? The famous Golem of Prague, the greek myth of Prometheus, or Pygmalion? Frankenstein’s monster? Or even the idea of creating a modern robot? Did you want to write from those traditions or come up with something completely different?


A: I certainly wrote the Golem’s character with those legends and stories in mind. In fact, in early drafts she was much closer to something like the Golem of Prague. She had less emotion, and less insight into the emotions of others. But it became clear that that wouldn’t do for a main character. So I made her more empathic, more “human” in that sense, and I think that brought her closer to the androids and cyborgs of modern science fiction, like the replicants of Blade Runner and Star Trek’s Lt. Commander Data. But I think all these stories have the same sources at heart, and the same central question, of what happens when we create life that approaches human but isn’t quite. – from LitLovers interview re Book One

Despite being a magical clay being conjured by a spell, Chava still feels the compulsion to help others. And being telepathic allows her to have a pretty good idea of what folks feel, and need. Shutting out the onslaught of telepathic noise remains a challenge, but a much reduced one, as she has learned how to block a lot of it out, and she tries to stay away from overcrowded places. Concerned about people noticing her agelessness, after so long a time at the bakery, where she has been working since she arrived, Chava decides it is wise to move on. After completing a course of study at Teacher’s College, she finds an excellent gig at a Jewish orphanage in Manhattan, teaching cooking.

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Lt Commander Data of Star Trek NG – image from Wikipedia

Speaking of hot things, in Book One, Ahmad was mostly an elemental character, all fire and immediate gratification. Book Two shows a bad boy who can still bring the heat, but who has gained considerably more awareness, of himself, and of the world around him. He has grown a sense of decency, personal responsibility, and a need for purpose. He remains in business with Arbeely, the man who had released him from his thousand-year imprisonment in a flask. He molds iron with his bare hands. Business is good, booming even, so they expand to grander quarters, where Ahmad’s smoldering creative ambitions ignite to full blast.

Sleepless in Manhattan, Chava and Ahmad walk the streets and rooftops in the wee hours. They are best friends, committed to exclusivity with each other re the benefits of their connection. The young man enamored of Chava in Book One, her husband, is no more, killed off in that earlier tale. She is rightfully concerned about the downsides of having a husband or bf made of flesh and blood, and who might not live, ya know, forever, not to mention the risk of him discovering what she really is. Ahmad has sworn off humans, after the damage he did to Sophia Winston in the first book.

And, speaking of damaged heiresses, Sophia has been promoted to a top-tier character. She struggles to cope with the affliction that resulted from her getting jiggi with a jinni. I guess you could call it an STD, but not the usual sort. (Even had penicillin been invented, it would not have done the trick.) She cannot get warm. Sophia is convinced that only place where there is any hope of succor is the Middle East. She travels to many ancient sites, in a constant search for local experts in pharmacology able to concoct potions that alleviate her perpetual chill. (I suppose one might see in Sophia’s inability to douse her inner flames a symbol of her carrying the torch for someone. I wouldn’t. But some might.)

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Cleopatra’s Needle, was transported from Egypt and installed in Central Park in 1881 – image from Wikipedia

In case there were not enough magical beings wandering about, Wecker balances the scales, tipped by the weighty presence of Yossele, by adding one more. As it happens, Sophia encounters in her travels yet another fire being, a jinniyeh, Dima. It appears that the iron-bound jinni (Ahmad) is a character of legend in the jinni world. This female jinni has something special about her too, (I mean, aside from being a jinni, and going about her business unimpeded by attire) and is hoping to meet up with the only other jinni she has heard of who is also an outsider in their particular circle. She stands in contrast to Ahmad, presenting as the self-centered ball of fire he used to be.

Everybody wants something. Chava wants to be human; Ahmad wants a purpose; Sophia wants a cure; the jinniyeh wants a compatriot, maybe a partner. And in case that is not enough, Yossele wants to protect his master. Kreindel wants to study Hebrew and learn all that her father had learned. More? Remember Anna, a former workmate of Chava’s at the bakery? Chava had seriously put an end to Anna’s husband whaling on her, and subsequently helped Anna and her son, Toby. Anna is terrified of Chava and wants her to stay away. In this book, Toby is a fifteen-year-old Western Union messenger, who wants to know who his father is, and who that creep in his recurring dreams might be, and what the deal is with Chava and that Arab guy.

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Replicants from Blade Runner – image from NME

Wecker has seriously kicked up her game for this novel. There was plenty going in in the first book in terms of discussions about serious questions of religion and morality. That is no less the case in this one, with the exception that these characters are better drawn, more complex, and more interesting. They struggle with ethical dilemmas, and are challenged to make difficult decisions. There are some lovely interactions among them that will make you smile, maybe even recognize similar tete-a-tetes from your own experience.

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Pennsylvania Station – image from Traditional Building

This is not a ha ha funny book, but there are some elements of humor here and there. In a way it is a running joke that Ahmad, while working on a large construction, has continual problems keep the over-sized glass panels he has designed from smashing. Given that the primary ingredient in glass is sand, it seems fair to ask if Ahmad might be trying to build a literal sand-castle.

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Washington Square Park – circa 1907 – image from NY Public Library

Speaking of palaces, not all are hidden. The newly opened Pennsylvania Station, a glorious structure, is seen as a kind of palatial caravansery, a roadside inn for travelers from all over, where information was exchanged and commerce was conducted. It is a favorite spot for Ahmad on his urban peregrinations. He does not tell Chava about it, however, which makes Penn Station a bit of a hidden palace for him. Enough, certainly to merit being shown on the cover of the book. The ancient city of Palmyra, which we visit in Sophia’s wanderings, had once been a center of trade, and had a caravansary, but was mostly a ruin at the time of her visit. Palatial buildings are not the only old-world structures that echo in early 20th century Manhattan. The famous arch in Washington Square Park, erected in 1895, which was featured on the cover of The Golem and the Jinni, is reminiscent of the famous arch of Palmyra. The Greenwich Village arch is encountered again in Book Two. Cleopatra’s Needle, a two-hundred-ton obelisk, originally built in Egypt in the 15th century, was transported to Central Park in 1881. Sophia’s father visits it often.

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The arch in Palmyra – image from Wikipedia

There are many historical touchstones, as the book begins in 1900 and ends with the approach of World War I. Wecker notes the completion of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, the 911 of its time, with mass casualties, and people jumping from the top three floors of the ten-story Asch building to keep from being burned alive. We hear news of the start of World War I in Europe, come across the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and see the Arab community in lower Manhattan’s Little Syria neighborhood beginning its move to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

We also see some of the anachronistic social and legal norms of the time. Kreindel is not allowed to study what Yeshiva boys can. Chava is not allowed to own property. Women walking alone at night are considered suspect. So the women in Wecker’s stories have to be extra strong.

I don’t think I set out to deliberately showcase strong women, but I did consciously work to give every female character her due. I was very aware that I couldn’t be lazy about the women in my book, that the Victorian setting and the “fairytale” aspects might pull me toward more stereotypically weak or flat female characters if I wasn’t careful. At the same time, I couldn’t be anachronistic; I had to be true to the constraints that women lived with in that era. In the end, I became very interested in how they lived with those constraints, how they either chafed against them or found a (perhaps uneasy) peace and a certain amount of self-expression despite them. – from the Fantasy Literature interview in 2013

Secrecy is a theme that permeates. Chava thinks Ahmad would prefer having a jinniyeh to her, but cannot bring herself to ask him. He is hiding from her what he has learned about a huge sacrifice Arbeely had made for him. Kreindel lies about her age, and is hiding the fact that there is a golem under her control in Manhattan. (For my money, Kreindel is the most intriguing character in the novel, a child with limited tools forced to cope with life and death decisions, in an often hostile environment. She generates both admiration for her tough-as-nails exterior and empathy for her suffering.) Sophia is hiding her need for a special potion. Dima hides from her kind what her special characteristic is. In addition to hiding from humans what she actually is, Chava keeps Riverside Park and the streets she walks by day secret from Ahmad, as he keeps Penn Station secret from her. Ahmad is working on a huge project in his building that he will not let anyone see. I suppose one might see each of these characters as their own walking, talking hidden palaces.

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The Williamsburg Bridge under construction circa 1900-1906 – image from the Library of Congress via Untappedcities.com

The whole Golem/Jinni duology (so far) might have gone in a very different direction. Wecker talks about how it all got started in a lovely interview with the blogger Lady Grey, who has, in fact, been a friend of Wecker’s since childhood. It was during her MFA program that Wecker ran into a problem. She had wanted to write a book of linked stories, family tales of cultural background and immigration. Wecker is Jewish and her husband is Arab-American. She was impressed by how similar their family stories were, and wanted to highlight that.

You don’t pay all that money for them to be nice to you. They’re gonna tell you what they think. I was having this conversation with a friend of mine, Amanda, who was in my workshop with me. She gave me probably the best tough love conversation I’ve had in my life. She said, “Helene, can I ask you a question? Why are you writing like this?” I said “What do you mean, writing like what?” She said, “Ok, you’re doing these very Raymond Carver, very realist short stories. Very MFA model. But that’s not who you are. I’ve been to your apartment. I’ve seen your bookshelves. I know what a nerd you are. And you are always talking in class about injecting the genre into literature, and busting down the barriers and bringing magic into stories and that’s what you groove on. So why are you not doing that?” I honestly had never thought of that. She had taken my head and whipped it around to where I needed to be looking at. You know I’m still like “But that’s not…these stories…don’t…with the,…that, no.“ She said “ok, look. The next thing I see from you in the workshop, I want it to be about your family, but I want it to be magical.” I was like, “Ok…well that’s my marching orders. I’m going to do what she said. I went home and sat and thought about it. It was, literally, two hours later I had the rough outline for what would be The Golem and the Jinni.” – from the Lady Grey interview

It has been eight years since The Golem and the Jinni was published. Why did it take so long to wrote Volume Two? When her first novel was published, Wecker had a one-year-old. That child is now nine and a second has joined the family. Go ahead, try writing a novel with a baby, then giving birth to another, then having small children to take care of, even if you are sharing the duties with your mate. Piece of cake, right? Her editor was pretty understanding, at one point even telling her that if she was not ok with what she had written so far, to take another YEAR! So, supportive beyond belief.

I was lucky, and The Golem and the Jinni was successful enough that, before long, I could start thinking seriously about selling my next book. Readers seemed interested in a sequel; my publisher, too, liked the concept. I had a few vague ideas for other, non-Golem-and-Jinni books, but none of them were clamoring to be told. I was now mother to a two-year-old, with a baby on the way. I was turning forty, and I was tired. The first book had taken me seven years to write. I really, really didn’t want to do that again. Write a sequel, said my weary brain. It’s got to be easier than starting over from the beginning. – from the Fantasy Café interview

I guess that may have provided the needed direction, but her real -world constraints remained, and the work took much longer than hoped. I have seen no affirmation that a third Golem/Jinni book is planned. A third book is expected from Wecker, but there is no certainty that it will be another Golem/Jinni novel. In the interview with Lady Grey, Wecker talks about having a slew of material that was cut from this book. It sounded to me like she was contemplating a volume of stories that could accompany her two novels. But the ending of this one presents several hooks that could be developed into a third novel. I know which direction I hope she takes.

My gripes are minimal. While there is some humor in the book, it could have done with a bit more. The larger concern is that, even with some elements resolved, there are some in need of further exploration, and, in the absence of a third novel in the series, the ending leaves one hanging. While I would place a cautious wager on the series being made into a true trilogy, it is far from a certainty that this will happen, so far as I know.

Her lead characters are complex, and sustain our interest; their wants and challenges are clear; the secondary characters work well to support the narrative stream; Wecker offers an insightful portrait of a place and time; the action keeps us flipping the pages, eager to see what happens next; there are intelligent and emotional discussions about real-world concerns and moral issues; and there are sane outcomes offered to the challenges the characters experience. Ultimately, as will become clear when you read this book, it was worth the extra time it took for The Hidden Palace to find the light of day. It is as intelligent, engaging, and delightful a read as you could possibly wish for. Helene Wecker is a gifted weaver of tales, a fabulous, magical story-teller, and she is only getting better.

Review first posted – May 28, 2021

Publication dates
———-Hardcover – June 8, 2021
———-Trade paperback – June 7 ,2022

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

—–Library Love Fest – An Interview with Helene Wecker, Author of THE HIDDEN PALACE – with Chris Connolly – audio – 36:21
—–Fantasy Literature – Marion chats with Helene Wecker by Marion Deeds – this one is from 2013, and deals directly with the first Golem/Jinni book, but the content of the interview is still very informative for readers of the current book
—–LitLovers – An Interview with Helene Wecker
—–Discovering Magic with Helene Wecker – audio – 42:19 – with Lady Grey – they were friends since grade school – Trek nerds

Items of Interest from the author
—–Fantasy Café – Women in SF&F Month: Helene Wecker – on her challenges in writing The Hidden Palace
—–Jewish Book Council – Excerpt

Items of Interest
—–Odessa pogrom of 1905
—–Wiki on Palmyra
—–The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
—–The Hotel Earle
—–Penn Station

My review of The Golem and the Jinni

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, New York City

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

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…now I knew there were so many ways to get hung from a cross—a mother’s love for you morphing into something incomprehensible. A dress ghosted in another generation’s dreams. A history of fire and ash and loss. Legacy.

Melody is sixteen, having her coming out party in her home, her grandparents home, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. We are introduced to her father, her grandparents, her bff, her world. She has chosen for her entrance music something that draws a line between her generation and those that came before, Prince’s Darling Nikki. The guests are thankful that the lyrics have been omitted. [you can see them at the end of EXTRA STUFF]. But it is the connections across generational lines that are at the core of Jacqueline Woodson’s latest novel. How the past persists through time, molding, if not totally defining us, informing our options, our choices, our possibilities, the impact of legacy.

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Jacqueline Woodson – image from the New York Times

Red at the Bone is a short book with a long view. (I have had people say, “I’ve read that in a day” and I’m like, “Yo, it took me four years to write that. Go back and read it again.” – from the Shondaland interview) It is not just about race and legacy, but about class, about parenting, about coming of age, about the making and unmaking of families.

Look closely. It’s the spring of 2001 and I am finally sixteen. How many hundreds of ancestors knew a moment like this? Before the narrative of their lives changed once again forever, there was Bach and Ellington, Monk and Ma Rainey, Hooker and Holiday. Before the world as they knew it ended, they stepped out in heels with straightening-comb burns on their ears, gartered stockings, and lipstick for the first time.

Iris found motherhood too soon, was fifteen when she became pregnant with Melody. Buh-bye Catholic school. Buh-bye coming out party. And when her parents were unwilling to endure their neighbors’ scorn, buh-bye neighborhood. It’s tough to be a proper, upstanding family, respected by all, when the sin is so public, and the forgiveness element of their Catholic community is so overwhelmed by the urge to finger-point and shame.

Class informs who we choose and the roads we take through our lives. Although paths may cross, as we head in diverging directions we can wave to each other for a while, but eventually, mostly, we lose sight of those who have traveled too far on that other bye-way. The baby-daddy, Aubrey, steps up, but, really, Iris does not think he is a long-term commitment she wants to make. She has been raised middle-class, and Aubrey’s background, ambitions, and interests do not measure up.

When she looked into her future, she saw college and some fancy job somewhere where she dressed cute and drank good wine at a restaurant after work. There were always candles in her future—candlelit tables and bathtubs and bedrooms. She didn’t see Aubrey there.

Her decision impacts her daughter, who grows up largely motherless, a mirror to her father, who had grown up fatherless, although without the resources his daughter has from her mother’s parents.

One impact of history is how the Tulsa Massacre, specifically, cascades down through the generations, driving family members to achieve, and to zealously protect what they have gained, ever knowledgeable that everything might be taken from them at any time. (Melody is named for her great-grandmother, who suffered in the Tulsa Massacre.)

Every day since she was a baby, I’ve told Iris the story. How they came with intention. How the only thing they wanted was to see us gone. Our money gone. Our shops and schools and libraries—everything—just good and gone. And even though it happened twenty years before I was even a thought, I carry it. I carry the goneness. Iris carries the goneness. And watching her walk down those stairs, I know now that my grandbaby carries the goneness too.

The goneness finds a contemporary echo when a family member is killed in the 9/11 attack, a space that cannot be filled. Goneness appears in other forms, when Iris leaves her Catholic school, and, later, heads off to college.

Music permeates the novel, from Melody’s name (and the person who had inspired it) to the atmosphere of various locales, from Po’Boy’s recollections to Aubrey’s parentage, from Melody’s coming out song to Iris’s college playlist. Who among us does not have music associated with the events of our life?

Most good novels offer a bit of reflection on the narrative process. The person-as-a-story here reminded me of Ocean Vuong writing about our life experience as language in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

…as we dance, I am not Melody who is sixteen. I am not my parents’ once illegitimate daughter—I am a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story. Remembered.

There are many moments in this book that reach deep. In a favorite of these, Aubrey remembers the pedestrian things he liked in his peripatetic single-parent childhood, a Whitman-esque litany of physical experience, capped with an image of fleeting, unsurpassed beauty, and desperate longing that well mirrors his love for Iris, and is absolutely heart-wrenching.

The stories within the novel are told from several alternating perspectives, Melody, Aubrey and Iris getting the most time, and Iris’s parents, Sabe and Po’Boy, getting some screen time as well. We see Iris and Aubrey as teens and adults, and are given a look at Aubrey’s childhood as well. Sabe and Po’Boy provide a contemporary perspective, but a connection back to their young adulthood too.

Woodson’s caution to the fast-reader to go back and try again is advice well worth heeding. Red at the Bone is a tapestry, with larger images, created with threads that are woven in and out, and drawn together to form a glorious whole. You will see on second, third, or further readings flickers here that reflect events from there, see the threads that had gone unnoticed on prior readings. It is a magnificent book, remarkably compact, but so, so rich. Surely one of the best books of 2019.

Review posted – December 27, 2019

Publication date – September 17, 2019

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

My review of Woodson’s prior novel, Another Brooklyn

Interviews – Video/audio
—–The Daily Show – Trevor Noah
—————Print
—–Longreads – “We’re All Still Cooking…Still Raw at the Core”: An Interview with Jacqueline Woodson – by Adam Morgan
—–NPR – Weekend Edition – History And Race In America In ‘Red At The Bone’ – by Scott Simon
—–Shondaland – Jacqueline Woodson Will Not Be Put in a Box – by Britni Danielle

Items of Interest
—–NPR – Jacqueline Woodson: What Is The Hidden Power Of Slow Reading?
—–Wiki – The Tulsa Race Massacre
—–Rollingstone – The Tulsa Massacre Warns Us Not to Trust History to Judge Trump on Impeachment – by Jamil Smith
—–The Party – by Paul Lawrence Dunbar – read by Karen Wilson
—–Sojourner Truth’s seminal speech – Ain’t I a Woman?

Songs – both from the book and her stated playlist from the Longreads interview
—–Prince – Darling Nikki
—–Eva Cassidy – Songbird
—–EmmyLou Harris – Don’t Leave Nobody But the Baby
—–J. Cole – Young, Dumb, and Broke
—–Etta James – I’d Rather Go Blind
—–Erroll Garner – Fly Me to the Moon
—–Erroll Garner – Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time
—–The Chi Lites – Have You Seen Her?
—–Boy George – That’s the Way
—–5th Dimenion – Stoned Soul Picnic
—–Phoebe Snow – Poetry Man

Darling Nikki
Prince
I knew a girl named Nikki I guess you could say she was a sex fiend,
I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine,
She said how’d you like to waste some time and I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind.
She took me to her castle and I just couldn’t believe my eyes,
She had so many devices everything that money could buy,
She said “sign your name on the dotted line.” The lights went out and Nikki started to grind.
Nikki
The castle started spinning or maybe it wa my brain.
I can’t tell you what she did to me but my body will never be the same.
Awe, her lovin will kick your behind, she’ll show you no mercy
But she’ll sure ‘nough, sure ‘nough show you how to grind
Come on Nikki
I woke up the next morning, Nikki wasn’t there.
I looked all…
Sometimes the world’s a storm.
One day soon the storm will pass
And all will be bright and peaceful.
Fearlessly bathe in the,
Purple rain
Source: LyricFind

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

Shamus Dust by Janet Roger

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It wasn’t complicated. Not more than an early morning call from a City grandee, a nurse who came across her neighbor dead or dying before dawn on Christmas Day, and the dead neighbor’s latchkeys in my hand. That and the voice that always whispers in my ear, soft as telling a rosary, that for every reason I might think I have for mixing in a murder, there are ten better reasons to walk away. I crossed the angle of the court, fitted one of the keys in its lock and gave it a quarter turn. As for the voice that whispers, I hear it every time I step uninvited into an unlit room. The trick is not to let it start a conversation.”

April is not the cruelest month, not by a long shot. That would be October, when I drown my annual sorrows with the hope that next year, for sure, my beloved Metropolitans will not only make the playoffs, but go all the way. It is salved by the orgasmic visual and tactile experience that is Autumn in Northeastern USA, particularly after yet another too hot, overlong summer. But then, it is spoiled in turn as retailers insist on pushing their Christmas season earlier and earlier into the year. It used to be that they held off until Santa climbed off his Macy’s float and began renting lap space for cash. But no, they have pushed it back, past Halloween, past Columbus Day, to the beginning of October, and they may even have snuck past that to late September when I was otherwise engaged. A blot on humanity, this. How long can it be before the Christmas advertising begins right after Independence Day? Bad words are used in abundance, if not at particularly high volume, more muttering really. Greed, filthy lucre and all that. Not that I have anything against filthy lucre, per se, other than its insistent avoidance of my wallet and financial accounts. But I may have to rethink all this. It appears that Santa found his way to my chimney in OCTOBER! Not that I spotted him scrambling down. That would not have ended well for him, as, while we do have a chimney, there is no actual outlet inside the house. He might have missed subsequent deliveries, and the aroma might have become noticeable, but it was clear that he had me in mind this year, and early. It has been a while since I read a terrific Christmas book. And this one wasn’t even wrapped in a bow, with reflective or joyously seasonal paper.

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Janet Roger – image from Dorset Book Detective

It was friend request. Not the first one I had received from an author. In fact, they are a bit of a problem in the dark business of book-reviewing, so much so that I had put a line in my profile intended to ward off author review requests. This one had the smarts to not bug me for an opinion. We exchanged a few friendly messages. You might like to check this website. Oh yeah, well You might want to check out This short story, and on it went, until a page from her book got around my virtual chain-link guard dogs, finding its way to my bloodshot eyes. It was the sort of book you catch a glimpse of, and your knees start to wobble. The edges of your mouth start to head toward your eyes. I knew there was no antidote to a virus like this. I had been successfully dosed. “Consider me seduced,” I wrote. “Can I get a review copy?” She didn’t play coy, but accommodated straight away. I like that in an author. Her people would be sending one my way faster than a copy editor strikes out a repetitive “the.” Wondering how easy this might turn out to be, I pushed my luck. Not everyone goes for extra stuff like this, but she seemed game, so I went ahead and asked. “How about an e-book, too?” And scored! No sooner did I download the book than I had to, just had to start reading. Even though my usual preference is for ink on dead trees, there was nothing for it. The heart wants what the heart wants, and boy, did my heart want.

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The streetlamp hung off a half-timber gatehouse in the middle of a row of storefronts with offices over, there to light the gatehouse arch and a path running through it to a churchyard beyond. – image from A London Inheritance

Some books you rush through, even some good books. But this one, for me, was a slow read. Not in the sense of too dense to take in all at once. More in the way of wanting the pleasure to last. Wanting to squeeze the most out of the reading experience, and enjoying the sensations. I am sure most of us have had those experiences when there is sensate joy to be had and the best way is slow and steady, not wham-bam and I’m outta here. There is enough juice, enough fun in this one to let you linger a good long while, sustaining a peak of interest, a long plateau, with frissons of thrill along the way. Taking one’s time encourages close attention, which is significant in keeping up with all that is going on. Roger does not waste a lot of time on irrelevant side-trips. It helps, also, if you like noir, if Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and writers of the sort satisfy that particular need. It helps if you like to smile. We all got needs.

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The church had a square over a doorway framed in checkerboard stonework. An iron-studded door stood half-open on the porch (entrance), a police officer hunched in its shadow. – image from A London Inheritance

Newman (no, Seinfeld fans. Picture that guy and lose the mood entirely.) is our mononymous PI, halfway, I guess, between the fully named Philip Marlowe and Hammett’s nameless Continental Op, a Yank, late of an insurance investigation gig, long-time resident and practitioner in The City of London. The specificity is intentional. Greater London, these days, is over 700 square miles. In 1947 it was half that, give or take. The City of London, the Wall-Street-ian financial capital, is one square mile, inside the original Roman walls. Chandler had LA, Hammett had San Francisco. Newman has the CoL. Definitely easier to jog in a day. Although under the circumstances it would be tougher than one might assume. 1947 London is enduring one of the coldest winters ever, and all that snow, a special and long-lasting delivery from a Siberian weather system, and right at the beginning of the Cold War. (Maybe a pre-emptive attack?) An intentional counterpoint to the heat of the City of Angels. It is a time of shortages, food, fuel, soap, and most things needed to live, power outages, rationing, the fruits of victory no doubt, without the consolation of heroism. Somehow the well-to-do manage to find supplies denied the little people. He gets a call at an odd hour, on Christmas morning. Seems a Councilor, for whom he has never before worked, needs him to check out a crime scene, deliver some keys to a detective there, then report back. When the detective is not to be found, Newman starts pulling on the thread that we will spend the next few hundred pages unravelling. (Like carefully opening a tightly wrapped Christmas gift?) Deader in the lobby (called a porch here) of an old church. (On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a dead fellow in a lobby) Candle still burning in the usual place inside. A nurse from nearby St Bart’s hospital had called it in.

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The post-War CoL with a fluffy blanket – image from Roger’s site

Newman, tasked with delivering keys (not seasonally wrapped) to a detective at the site, but said detective having departed the scene, opts instead to use said keys, to the vic’s apartment. What he finds there gets the gears moving, and the game is afoot. No sooner have you dialed M for murder than the bodies start piling up like plowed snow, and Newman has to wonder if his own client has culpability. The questions pile up even faster. How long, for example, was the nurse inside the church before the pre-dawn shot to the head outside, and why didn’t she hear it?

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Snowy London – image from the author’s site

Vice is front and center, as people with tastes that were considered a major no-no at the time are being blackmailed. But there is so much more going on. Of course, it may seem like very little to the locals, who have just endured the devastation of much of their city by our friends in Germany. Early Cold War London was rich with grift, corruption, ambition, and rubble. The City of London was considerably flattened. And, as has been made all too clear in the states, real estate development attracts the worst of the worst in human nature. Speaking of which, there is plenty of human nature on display here, indulging in all sorts of unpleasantness from garden-variety assault, to domestic violence, marital infidelity, a touch of human trafficking, police corruption, prostitution, blackmail, a dose of substance abuse, and enough backstabbing to justify proposing it as an Olympic sport.

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Raymond Chandler – image from LA Taco

So what about our leading man? We can expect our PI to keep a supply of spirits close to hand, and Newman does not disappoint. We can expect that there will be times when he dives a bit too far into that bottle. Newman does not disappoint. We can expect that our PI is a tough guy, able to deliver as well as take a punch, or absorb blows from whatever sorts of objects may come into contact with his carcass. Newman does indeed uphold a knight errant code by approaching a deserving sort with an appropriate measure of violence, foolishly hoping to preclude further criminality. But he seems mostly on the receiving end, which is par for the course. We expect our knight-errant PI to have his heart in the right place, to do his best to look out for those who are least able to look out for themselves. Newman does not disappoint. We expect our PI to be dogged, continuing his quest even after it has become clear that such pursuit puts him in mortal peril. We expect that he can neither be bought off nor frightened away. Newman does not disappoint. We can expect that he is not really in it for the money, but that should some filthy lucre find its way to him, he will find a holy purpose for it. Newman does not disappoint. We expect our PI to be able to temper his moral urges with recognition of unfortunate realities. Newman does not disappoint.

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Rubble around St Paul’s – image from Independent News

Rogers has a gift for crafting her supporting cast, the nurse who reported finding the body, the dodgy Councilor, his lush-ous daughter, his maybe dodgier lawyer, crooked cops, and on and on. Newman’s contacts are not exactly Burke’s Peerage (social-register to us Yanks) sorts, but are a delight, a barber, a sometime street-walker, a femme fatale of a doctor, whose side-job is pure fun, the mysterious mustachioed man who keeps turning up and then disappearing, abusive families, a cleric of questionable morality. This is joy, pure Christmas joy, but, like the best Christmas presents, this one can be enjoyed at any time of year. I do suggest, however, that you keep a digital or paper pad handy for tracking character names, particularly if you are reading the print version. There are more than a couple, and it would not do to be wondering who this is or trying to remember where you came across that one before. It is definitely worth the effort. Much easier, of course, in the e-book, where one can search at will. And there is no mistaking that the women in this tale are crucial to the events that transpire, with multiple facets, and sharp edges to match their softer curves.

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A Central Line underground train entering Epping Station, during heavy snowfall at the height of 1947’s freeze – image from The Daily Mail

The best element of the book for me was the noir patois. There is a rhythm to noir writing, particular to Chandler’s, and Roger has captured it amazingly well. The reason I stretched out my reading of this book was that every time I sat down to take in a few more chapters, I could count on reading at least one passage, often more, that simply made me smile. I cannot recall smiling so much while reading a book. Passages like the one at the top of this review, and more:

Newman on his clientele: Sometimes they glided in, languid and exquisite, leading complicated lives they needed to make less expensive. Others came high-strung, hesitating before they stepped inside, looked downhill at a police station and uphill at a church and decided they were in their kind of neighborhood after all. But some were just plain scared, and looking up and down the hill was no help because police were a part of their problem and their problem was way beyond prayer. So they leaned on the buzzer, waited to be invited inside, and took the customer chair as if they’d found the last seat in a lifeboat.

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Newman’s first impression of a key character: She was five feet and a half of deep-cherry redhead pressed against the door edge, fitted in a costume with a soft chalk stripe. Eyes wide-set, a crimp in her chin and a mouth that made the fall of dark-red hair look incidental. We lingered on her entrance just long enough to consider what else she might add to a winter morning. Then she touched at a silk flower pinned high on her shoulder, gave me the look that says Welcome is for doormats and murmured through close, even teeth, “Take your hat off, I’ll call my husband.” She turned on her heel and took the rustle with her.

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On the resilience of conflict:
The figure in the armchair… peered in the doorway where I stood, then puckered and spat on the smoking coals. “War’s over, Yank.”
“It’s never over, Mr. Voigt. It only moves someplace else.”

This is why I loved this book. Of course, it is not the only reason. Another wonderful experience of reading this book was the opportunity to crank up the Google machine and look up all the places that were referenced. I spent an undergrad semester in London a lifetime ago, have been there two other times, and visit regularly via British TV programmes. I am quite fond of the place, so it was a labor of love to dive in whenever a street, shop, or location was named.

Roger’s love for noir shines through. She tips her cap to many who have gone before. There are a few references I caught. A character named Hamnet could only have been inspired by one writer. The Carne Organization, of The Long Goodbye, trots across a page or two. (And may offer a link to a planned sequel, The Gumshoe’s Freestyle) Casablanca get a mention, as do George Raft and Bulldog Drummond. Robert Mitchum is noted in a wardrobe reference, and I am sure there a gazillion more that true noir nerds will pick up on in volume.

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A London bus that had to be dug out of a snowdrift in 1947 – image from The Daily Mail

Sit back and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy this ride, as you cheer Newman on. No reindeer required. Maybe you’ll take a month, like I did. Maybe you’ll rip through it like a Siberian wind through cheap fabric. Dress warm, or turn up the heat. Shamus Dust is like pixie dust for readers. Magic in abundance, and, while it addresses some of the darker sides of humanity in a trying time, it offers up a seemingly endless supply of smiles. If Santa offered such gifts up every year, I might not mind the holiday being pushed up quite so early.

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Two women delivering milk in Northampton by sledge during the harsh winter of 1947 – image from The Daily Mail

To this European raised in the first Cold War, those Eisenhower Americans seemed effortlessly pragmatic, tough, resilient, smart and subversive (not to say cool!). When absolutely necessary they even seemed to tote a moral compass. Shamus Dust puts one of them center-stage, and bangs a drum for qualities I was drawn to then and still am: to a certain uprightness, an insolence that’s at home with doubts, and a dry acceptance that the best of film noir had it right; that in the end it’s not about how you can win, but only how you can lose more slowly. – the author – from her site

Review first posted – November 15, 2019

Publication date – October 28, 2019

As noted above, I received a copy (two really) of Shamus Dust from the author in return for a fair review. Of course, she did promise that those particular photos would never see the light of day, and I am holding her to that.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages
Definitely check out her personal site. It is a cornucopia of wonderfulness.

You might also check out Roger’s blog on GR. There are lots of neat extra bits there.

Interviews
—–Messy Business – Books, Writing, Stuff – Interview with Janet Roger, author of Shamus Dust – by Jason Beech – check out the wonderful bit on the derivation of the word Shamus
—–The Writing Desk – Special Guest Interview with Author Janet Roger – by Tony Riches
—–The Dorset Book Detective – Janet Roger Interview: “What really got under my skin was Marlowe’s voice guiding me around the next street corner”
—–In Reference to Murder – The Origin Story of Shamus Dust – by BV Lawson

Items of Interest
—–Stories of London – a nice summary of planning the city over an extended period.
—–In case you are interested in what private eyes drink, you can knock this one back in a single swallow – Gentlemen, Name Your Poison – Drinkers, Stinkers and Occasional Tipplers
—–markvoganweather.com – A LOOK BACK: Winter of 1946-47 – by Vogan
—– Audio excerpts – two chapters – from Roger’s site
—–Raymond Chandler – The Simple Art of Murder – definitely check out this essay by the master
—–Janet Roger – The Noir Zone – on what the author’s ability to write in such a Chandler-esque style was built on – on the site KillerNashville.com
—–For a bit of seasonal fluff in a Chandler-esque vein, you might enjoy my short story The Short Goodbye

Music
—–Frank Sinatra – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
—–Hall & Oates – Private Eyes – with lyrics

Added Material
—–December 6, 2019 – Roger added an entry on her site re the pub (The Tipperary) on the street floor of the building where Newman lives. Fun detail. Check it out.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mystery, Noir

Circe by Madeline Miller

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Men, can’t live with ‘em, can’t turn ‘em all into swine.

What do you mean turn them into swine? From her earliest application of her new found transformative skills it is suggested that what Circe turns her unfortunate guests into has more to do with their innermost nature than Circe’s selection of a target form. (The strength of those flowers lay in their sap, which could transform any creature to its truest self.) Clearly her sty residents had an oinky predisposition. And I am sure that there are many who had started the transformation long before landing on her island.

Whaddya call the large sty Circe filled with erstwhile men? A good start.

Ok. You had to know this would be part of the deal for this review. So, now that I have gotten it out of my system, (it is out, right?) we can proceed.

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

It was a word that Barbara Bush might have had in mind when she described Geraldine Ferraro, her husband’s opponent for the Vice Presidency, in 1984. “”I can’t say it, but it rhymes with ‘rich,'” she said, later insisting that the word in question did not begin with a “b,” but a “w.” Sure, whatever. But in this case, I suppose both might apply. Circe is indeed the first witch in western literature. And many a sailing crew might have had unkind things to say about her.

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Madeline Miller – image from The Times

Our primary introduction to Circe (which we pronounce as Sir-Sea, and even Miller goes along with this, so people don’t throw things at her. But for how it might be pronounced in Greek, you know, the proper way, you might check out this link. Put that down, there will be no throwing of things in this review!) was that wondrous classic of Western literature, The Odyssey. Given how many times this and its companion volume, The Iliad, have been reworked through the ages, it is no surprise that there have been many variations on the stories they told. Circe’s story has seen its share of re-imaginings as well. But Miller tries to stick fairly close to the Homeric version. Be warned, though, some license was taken, and other sources inspired the work as well. But it is from Homer that we get the primary association we have with her name, the magical transmutation of men into pigs.

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George Romney’s 1782 portrait of Emma Hamilton as Circe – image from wikipedia

We follow the life of our Ur-witch from birth to whatever. She did not start out with much by way of godly powers. Her mother, Perse, daughter of the sea-god Oceanos, was a nymph, and her father was Helios, the sun god. Despite the lofty position of Pop’s place in things, Circe was just a nymph, on the low end of the godly powers scale. This did not help in the family to which she had been born. Not one of her parents’ favorites, she was blessed with neither power nor beauty, had a very ungod-like human-level voice, and her sibs were not exactly the nicest. Kinda tough to keep up when daddy is the actual bloody sun.

Years pass, and one day she comes across a mortal fisherman. He seems pretty nice, someone she can talk to. She’d like to take it to the next stage, so she lays low, listens in on family gatherings, and picks up intel on substances that might be used to effect powerful and advantageous changes. She asks her grandmother, Tethys, (very Lannisterish wife AND SISTER to Oceanos) to transform him into a god for her, but Granny throws her out, alarmed when her granddaughter mentions this pharmakos stuff she had been looking into. Left to her own devices she tries this out on her bf, making him into his truest self. It does not end the way she’d hoped. (Pearls before you-know-what.) Not the last bad experience she would have with a man.

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Levy’s 1889 Circe – image from wikipedia (is that a foot soldier?)

Her relationships with men are actually not all bad. Daddy is singularly unfeeling, and can be pretty dim for such a bright bulb, and her brothers are far less than wonderful, but there is some good in her sibling connections as well. She has a warm interaction with a titan, Prometheus, which is a net positive. Later, she has an interesting relationship with Hermes, who is not to be trusted, but who offers some helpful guidance. And then there are the mortals, Daedalus (the master artist, the Michelangelo, the Leonardo da Vinci of his era), Jason, of Argonaut fame, Odysseus, who you may have heard of, and more. There were dark encounters as well, and thus the whole turning-men-into-pigs thing.

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Brewer’s 1892 Circe and Her Swine – image from Wikipedia

Miller has had a passion for the classics since she was eight, when her mother read her the Iliad and began taking her to Egyptian and Greek exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It made her a nerdy classmate but was a boon when she got to college and was able to find peers who shared her love of the ancient tales. It was this passion that led her to write her first novel, The Song of Achilles, a reimagining of Achilles relationship with his lover, Patroclus, a delight of a book, a Times bestseller, and winner of the Orange prize. It took her ten years to write her first novel, about seven for this one and the gestation period for number three remains to be seen. She is weighing whether to base it on Shakespeare’s The Tempest or Virgil’s Aeneid. If past is portent, it will be the latter, and should be ready by about 2025.

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Ulysses and Circe, Angelica Kauffmann, 1786. – image from Miller’s site

The central, driving force in the story is Circe becoming her fullest possible self. (I suppose one might say she made a silk purse from a sow’s ear. I wouldn’t, but some might.)

This is the story of a woman finding her power and, as part of that, finding her voice. She starts out really unable to say what she thinks and by the end of the book, she’s able to live life on her terms and say what she thinks and what she feels. – from the Bookriot interview

Most gods are awful sorts, vain, selfish, greedy, careless of the harm they do to others. Circe actually has better inclinations. For instance, when Prometheus is being tortured by the titans for the crime of giving fire to humans, Circe alone is kind to him, bringing him nectar, and talking with him when no one else offers him anything but anger and scorn. She is curious about mortals, and asks him about them, going so far as to cut herself to experience a bit of humanity.

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Carracci’s c. 1590 Ulysses and Circe in the Farnese Palace – image from Wikipedia

Livestock comes in for some attention outside the sty. Turns out Circe’s father has a thing for a well-turned fetlock, so maybe she comes by her affinity for animals of all sorts, albeit in a very different way, quite naturally. Her island is rich with diverse fauna, including some close companions most of us would flee. An early version of Doctor Doolittle?

Scholars have debated whether Circe’s pet lions are supposed to be transformed men, or merely tamed beasts. In my novel, I chose to make them actual animals, because I wanted to honor Circe’s connection to Eastern and Anatolian goddesses like Cybele. Such goddesses also had power over fierce animals, and are known by the title Potnia Theron, Mistress of the Beasts.

Not be confused with The Beastmaster

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Circe and Odysseus. Allessandro Allori, 1560 – image from Miller’s site

While she has her darker side (she does change her nymph love-rival Scylla into a beast of epic proportions, which gets her sent to her room, or in this case, island, and there is that pig thing again) she is also a welcoming hostess on her isle of exile, Aiaia. (Which sounds to me like the palindromic beginning of a lament, Aiaiaiaiaiaiaia, which might feel a bit more familiar with a minor transformation, to oy-oy-oy-oy-oy-oy-oy-oy). I mean, she runs a pretty nifty BnB, with free-roaming wild animals, of both the barnyard and terrifying sort, a steady flow of wayward nymphs sent there by desperate parents in hopes that Circe might transform them into less troublesome progeny, a table with a seemingly bottomless supply of food and drink. And she is more than willing to offer special services to world-class mortals, among others. I mean, after that little misunderstanding with Odysseus about his men, (Pigs? What pigs? What could you possibly mean? Oh, you mean those pigs. Oopsy. How careless of me.) she not only invites everyone to stay for a prolonged vacay, but shacks up with the peripatetic one, offers him instructions on reaching the underworld, suggests ways to get past Scylla and Charybdis, and probably packs bag lunches for him and his crew. She is not all bad.

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Barker’s 1889 Circe – image from Wikipedia

Circe struggles with the mortals-vs-immortals tension. Her mortal voice makes her less frightening to the short-lived ones, allowing her to establish actual relationships with them that a more boombox-voice-level deity might not be able to manage. Of course, it is still quite limiting that even the youngest of her mortal love interests would wither and die while she remained the same age pretty much forever. Knowing that you will see any man you love die is a definite limiting factor. Yet, she manages. She certainly recognizes what a psycho crew the immortals are, even her immediate family, and respects that mortals who gain fame do so by the sweat of their brow or extreme cunning, (even if it is to dark purpose) not their questionable godly DNA. Reinforcing this is her front row seat to the real-housewives tension between the erstwhile global rulers, the Titans, and the relatively new champions of everything there is, the Olympians. I mean, perpetual torture, thunderbolts, ongoing seditious plots, the nurturing of monsters, wholesale slaughter of mortals? She knows a thing or two, because she’s seen a thing or two.

My thoughts about [Circe as caregiver] really start with the gods, who in Greek myth are horrendous creatures. Selfish, totally invested only in their own desires, and unable to really care for anyone but themselves. Circe has this impulse from the beginning to care for other people. She has this initial encounter with Prometheus where she comes across another god who seems to understand that and also who triggers that impulse in her. I wanted to write about what it’s like when you to want to try to be a good person, but you have absolutely no models for that. How do you construct a moral view coming from a completely immoral family? – from Bookriot interview

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Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus – by John William Waterhouse – 1891 – image from Wikimedia

Of course, there is a pretty straight line between the sort of MCP hogwash Circe had to endure in the wayback and recent events that have been getting so much attention of late

“I wasn’t trying to write Circe’s story in a modern way… I was just trying to be true to her experience in the ancient world.”
“It was a very eerie experience. I would put the book away and check the news. The top story was literally the same issue I had just been writing about — sexual assault, abuse, men refusing to allow women to have any power … I was drawn to the mystery of her character — why is she turning men into pigs?”
– from The Times interview

There are plenty of classical connections peppered throughout Circe’s tale. Jason and Medea (niece) pop by for a spell. She is summoned to assist in the birthing of the minotaur (nephew) to her seriously nasty sister. She is part of Scylla’s origin story, interacts with Prometheus (cousin), gives shit to Athena, even heads into the briny deep to take a meeting with a huge sea creature (no, not the Kraaken). Hangs with Penelope (her bf’s wife) and Telemachus (bf’s son), and spends a lot of time with Hermes. She definitely had a life, many even, particularly for someone who was ostracized to live on an island.

For Circe, I would say the Odyssey was my primary touch-stone in the sense that that’s where I started building the character. I take character clues directly from Homer’s text, both large and small. I mentioned her mortal-like voice. The lions. The pigs. And then when I get to the Odysseus episode in the book, I follow Homer obviously very closely… – from the BookRiot interview

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“Circea”, #38 in Boccaccio’s c. 1365 De Claris Mulieribus, a catalogue of famous women, from a 1474 edition – image from wikipedia

In terms of sources, I used texts from all over the ancient world and a few from the more modern world as well. For Circe herself, I drew inspiration from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Vergil’s Aeneid, the lost epic Telegony (which survives only in summary) and myths of the Anatolian goddess Cybele. For other characters, I was inspired by the Iliad, of course, the tragedies (specifically the Oresteia, Medea and Philoctetes), Vergil’s Aeneid again, Tennyson’s Ulysses and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Alert readers may note a few small pieces of Shakespeare’s Ulysses in my Odysseus! – from Refinery29 interview

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Circe – by Lorenzo Garbieri – image From Maicar Greek Mythology Link

Madeline Miller’s Circe is not a lovelorn, lonely heart desperate for connection in her isolation, but a multi-faceted character (not actually a human being, though), with inner seams of the dark and light sort, with family issues that might seem familiar in feel, if not in external content, with sins on her soul, but a desire to do good, and with a curiosity about the world. She may not have been the brightest light in the house of Helios, but she glowed with an inner strength, a capacity for mercy, an appreciation for genius, beauty and talent, and a fondness for pork. This is the epic story of a life lived to the fullest. Circe is an explorer, a lover, a destroyer, and can be a very angry goddess. This transformative figure is our doorway to a very accessible look at the Greek tales which lie at the root of so much of our culture. If you have a decent grounding in western mythology this will offer a delightful refresher. If you do not, it can offer a delightful introduction, and will no doubt spark a desire to root about for more. Madeline Miller may not have a wand with special powers, or transmogrifying potions at her command, but she demonstrates here a power to transform mere readers into fans. Circe is a fabulous read! You will go hog wild for it. Can you pass the hot dogs? That’s All Folks

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The Sorceress Circe, oil painting by Dosso Dossi, c. 1530; in the Borghese Gallery, RomeSCALA/Art Resource, New York – image from Britannica

Review first posted – 4/27/2018

Publication date – 4/10/2018

December 2018 – Circe wins the 2018 Goodreads Choice Award for favorite Fantasy novel of the year

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!

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

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

Interviews
—– BookPage – April 10, 2018 – Madeline Miller – The season of the witch – by Trisha Ping
—–Bookriot – April 19, 2018 – Writing of Gods and Mortals: A Madeline Miller Interview – by Nikki Vanry
—–The Times – April 5, 2018 – The Magazine Interview: Madeline Miller, author of this summer’s must-read novel, Circe, on seeing history through women’s eyes – by Helena de Bertodano

NY Times – April 6, 2018 – A lovely profile from the NY Times – Circe, a Vilified Witch From Classical Mythology, Gets Her Own Epic – by Alexandra Alter

My review of The Song of Achilles

The Odyssey on Gutenberg

A very nifty, brief, and entertaining summary of The Odyssey can be found on Schmoop.com.

A fitting piece of music from Studio Killers

Reading Group Guide from Catapult

==========================================STUFFING

A wonderful piece from Allan Ishac at Medium, on the Russia investigation. – Mueller Tells Staff: “This Swine Is Mine”

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President Trump is ready for slaughter, according to people inside Robert Mueller’s office. (Credit: wemeantwell.com and imgur.com) – from above article. (turned out Mueller was hamstrung in what he could investigate, among other issues)

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News of the World by Paulette Jiles

book cover

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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Some Luck by Jane Smiley

book coverThere are so many elements to Some Luck, long-listed for the 2014 National Book Award, that wherever your interests may lie, there is much here from which to choose. Take your pick—a Pulitzer-winning author going for a triple in the late innings, finishing up her goal of writing novels in all forms. Take your pick—a look at 34 years of a planned hundred year scan of the USA through the eyes of a Midwest family, winning, engaging characters, seen from birth to whatever, good, bad and pffft, where’d that one go? Take your pick—a look at the changes in farming, over the decades, the impact of events like the Depression and massive drought on people you care about. Take your pick—the impact of the end of World War I on the breadbasket, a sniper’s eye view of World War II, the chilly beginning of the Cold War. Take your pick– the searing summer heat that killed many, the biting snow-bound winter that stole the heat from every extremity. Take your pick– an infant’s eye view of learning to speak, a teenager’s look at awakening sexuality, an older man looking back on his life. Take your pick—the newness and revolution of cars, tractors, hybrid plants, new fertilizer, the tales brought from the old country, often told in foreign tongues. Take your pick—a bad boy with talent, brains and looks, a steadfast young man taking the old ways of farming and mixing them with the new to make a life and a future, a smart young woman heading to the big city and getting involved with very un-farm-like political interests. Take your pick—shopping for a religion while looking for answers to the sorrows of existence, shopping for political help when no financial seems forthcoming from the nation. Take your pick—love is found, lost, found again, couples struggle through ups and downs, the charring of fate and time, the questions that arise, the doubts, the certainties. Take your pick.

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Jane Smiley – from The Guardian

Jane Smiley, born in Los Angeles, and raised in a suburb of St. Louis, MO, and now a California resident, spent twenty four years of her life planted in the farm-belt. It’s not heaven, it’s the University of Iowa. Smitten with the place, she stayed on after completing her MFA and PhD, and taught at Iowa State for fifteen growing seasons years, yielding bumper crops that include a short story, Lily, that earned her an O Henry award, a script for an episode of the TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets, a novella, The Age of Grief, that was made into a film in 2002, a Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Thousand Acres, a YA series on horses, a couple of biographies, a volume that looks at the novel through history, twelve adult novels with this one, and a slew of other work beside. Whatever Smiley is using for her literary fertilizer, can you send me several hundred pound bags? Looking to rotate her offerings, she decided early on that she wanted to write novels in every literary genre, tragedy, comedy, romance and epic. With Some Luck she has produced the first volume in that classic form, in this case The Last Hundred Years Trilogy. The second volume, Early Warning, was released in April of 2015. The third volume, Golden Age goes on sale October 20, and will look a little bit into the future. This first part looks at the growth of the United States from an agricultural, second tier power, to the dominant military and economic power in the world following World War II.

When I thought about where exactly I wanted to set it, I considered that the most important aspect of any culture is where they get their food — how they think of their food, what their food means to them. So I decided to go back to farming – from Little Village Magazine interview

She plants her story in 1920, Denby Iowa. Walter Langdon, 25, and his wife Rosanna have just started their lives together, on their own farm. Baby Frank has recently arrived.

“I feel like it’s going back to the center and saying, ‘OK, things come from here. This is where the roots are.’ … If we start the family living in Iowa, then they’re gonna go lots and lots and lots of places.” -from the NPR interview

And, over the course of thirty four years the farm will be a touchstone, a place to which the various members of the clan return, for reasons happy and sad.

The book consists of thirty four chapters, one for each of the years from 1920 through 1953. Each chapter touches on things that are going on in the world, and how they affect the Langdon clan. From the affect on milk prices as Europe recovers from The Great War, through the boom times of the 20s, the Depression, World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War. With such a large canvas Smiley can look at some of the details that might not stand out in a broad overview, things like the move from livestock to tractors, how the spread of the automobile affects a farm family, changes in how crops are bred. Some of the details of farm life are chilling indeed, a woman giving birth alone in a farm house because no one can hear her calls for help over the driving wind, brown from the pump signaling the end of available water during a severe drought, the loss of a child to a random accident. Another death from a cause that would be easily treatable today.

An omniscient narrator gives us both a bird’s eye view and close-ups as needed. We often get to look through the eyes of her characters, even from early childhood. Frank creeping around as an infant is precious, particularly when he heads to his favorite hiding place, and more alarming when he is an adult, in the military. There are plenty of Langdons to go around, the prime group, father Walter, mother Rosanna, and each of their kids get time in the spotlight, but to the extent that there is a primary here, it is Frank. He is far from perfect, but he is perfectly engaging. You really, really want to know what he is doing, where he is going, and what is in store for him. Smiley’s writing style is straightforward, dare we say Mid-Western? This is a very effective approach, quietly but steadily advancing the story. She does let loose with some dazzlers from time to time. The paragraph with which I opened this review is an homage to one of those, a Thanksgiving celebration late in the book. I am including the entirety of that bit under a spoiler tag, (red-colored text here) mostly because of its length, but there might be a detail or two in there that would be actually spoilerish, so you might want to skip it until you have read the book. Caveat lector.;Rosanna could not have said that she enjoyed making Thanksgiving dinner for twenty-three people (a turkey, a standing rib roast, and a duck that Granny Mary brought; ten pounds of mashed potatoes, and that not enough, five pies; sweet potatoes; more stuffing than could be stuffed; all the Brussels sprouts left in the garden, though they were good after the frost). She could not say that Lilian had control of those children, who were underfoot every time you took a step, though they were good-natured, to be sure. Henry scrutinized the dishes of food as though he were being asked to partake of roadkill, at least until the pies were served, and Claire burst into tears for no reason at all, but when they all had their plates in front of them, and a few deep breaths were taken, and first Andrea, and then Granny Elizabeth, and then Eloise said, “This looks delicious,” she began to have a strange feeling. She should have sat down—Joe, who was sitting beside her, moved her chair in a bit—but she didn’t want to sit down, or eat, at all (what with tasting everything she wasn’t hungry) she just wanted to stand there and look at them as they passed the two gravy boats and began to cut their food. It couldn’t have happened, she thought. They couldn’t have survived so many strange events. Take your pick—the birth of Henry in that room over there, with the wind howling and the dirt blowing in and her barely able to find a rag to wipe the baby’s mouth and nose. Take your pick—all of them nearly dying of the heat that summer of ’36. Take your pick—Joey falling out of the hayloft, Frankie driving the car to Usherton, Frankie disappearing into the Italian Campaign. Frankie, for Heaven’s sake, living in a tent all through college. Take your pick—Walter falling into the well (yes, she had gotten that out of him one day during the way when he said, “Remember when I fell into the well?” and she said, “What in the world are you talking about?” and he blushed like a girl) Take your pick—Granny Mary with her cancer, but still walking around. Take your pick—Lilian running off with a stranger who turned out to be a clown, but a lovable one, and nice-looking, and weren’t Timmy and Debbie just darling? Normally Rosanna took credit for everything good and bad (her eye flicked to the doorway, the very spot where Mary Elizabeth had slipped; it might be happening right this minute, that’s how vivid it was) but now she thought, this was too much. She could not have created this moment, these lovely faces, these candles flickering, the flash of the silverware, the fragrance of the food hanging over the table, the heads turning this way and that, the voices murmuring and laughing. She looked at Walter, who was so far away from her, all the way at the other end of the table, having a laugh with Andrea, who had a beautiful suit on, navy blue with a tiny waist and white collar and cuffs. As if on cue, Walter turned from Andrea and looked at Rosanna, and they agreed in that instant something had created itself from nothing—a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious. Rosanna wrapped her arms around herself for a moment and sat down. There are others bits of writerly sparkle and well-honed craft in the book.

I suppose if I have any gripes with the book it is that I wanted to spend more time with this or that character at this or that period of their life, a hazard in any book that takes in so much real estate and so many characters over so many years.

There are sixty six years to go in the remaining two volumes of Smiley’s trilogy. With any luck at all I won’t miss a single one.

Published – 10/7/14

Review posted – 8/14/15

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

Links to the author’s web site, FB page and Huff-Po blog

INTERVIEWS – Take your pick
—–NPR – NPR with Lynn Neary
—–The New York Times – by Charles McGrath
—–Bookpage – by Alden Mudge
—–The Millions – by Michael Bourne
—–The Little Village Magazine – by Mallory Hellman
—–Authorlink – by Anna Roins

My review of Smiley Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Thousand Acres

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

book cover Atticus Finch as racist. There it is. Tough to swallow, isn’t it? Atticus Finch, the embodiment of decency, brought to life in To Kill a Mockingbird, widely considered one of the greatest novels in American literature, magnificently brought to cinematic life by Gregory Peck in the film, defender of the powerless, dispenser of wisdom, a hero to generations of readers and movie-goers, spouting opinions that do or should make most folks cringe. Here are a few samples:

…You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word ‘backward’ don’t you?

…If the scales were tipped over, what would you have? The county won’t keep a full board of registrars, because if the Negro vote edged out the white you’d have Negroes in every county office—

…I’d like my state to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP, which knows next to nothing about its business and cares less.

…do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?

So what are we to make of this?

First, let’s step back from the this version versus that one controversy and consider the book on its own. Jean Louise Finch (JLF) is returning to her home town for the fifth time since moving from Maycomb, Alabama to New York City. She sees the place where she grew up more clearly this time than she ever had before. She professes, based on her experience of having been brought up with exposure to all sorts, and having never been overtly taught to be a racist, to be someone who is color blind. That makes her unique in Maycomb, as everyone else has been very much aware of color all their lives. What comes as the biggest shock for JLF is seeing that her sainted father, a man everybody loves, and other people she cares for, despite their positive qualities, hold views that are shocking. JLF struggles to come to terms with this realization. The crux of the story is how she deals with this. While she is already physically an adult, Jean Louise must cope with coming-of-age truths. She realizes that when it comes to her appreciation for the people of Maycomb, dad included, she has been, as Jem describes in Mockingbird, “a caterpillar wrapped in a cocoon.” The watchman of the title is taken from a biblical quotation, (Isaiah 21:6), and refers to conscience. JLF tries to reconcile her conscience with what she now sees, and realizes had been present all along. She is anguished by her internal conflict. With amazing memories of her childhood in this town, it is a huge part of who she is. In facing the possibility of rejecting her father and the place in which she became the person she is, she is faced with rejecting a part of herself and that is the core conflict of the story.

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Harper Lee – from Smithsonian.com

Set in a time when Brown vs the Board of Education had recently and unalterably changed the legal and social landscape, many in the South perceived changes mandated by that decision as nothing less than another war of northern aggression. One of the biggest strengths of the book is how it communicates the locals’ feelings about and arguments against Civil Rights, and particularly the activities of the NAACP. There is real insight here into the local psyche, from a true local. Another strength of the book is the clear voice of JLF, Scout as a kid, particularly in her recollections of a glowing childhood. The voice of Scout will take you by the hand and lead you through. It is the same voice that appears in Mockingbird, warm, familiar and welcome. I enjoyed JLF’s relationship with her uncle Jack, a character absent from Mockingbird. Jack offers a perspective that is definitely homegrown, but is also decorated with the baubles and gewgaws of an advanced education and unusual interests. The affection between JLF and Jack is palpable. Her interaction with Henry, a friend since childhood, was kludgy. There are moments of real connection between the JLF and the young man who wants to marry her, but so much of their conversation is peppered with excessive use of “honey” and “sweet” that it was distracting from the content of the interaction. It felt forced. The scenes in which JLF confronts Atticus are powerful and even upsetting, but she lays into him without even asking what was up. I do recognize that many people, and particularly the young, jump to conclusions, but I wondered whether Scout, who is portrayed as a pretty bright person, would really be so close minded as to form an opinion, particularly so strong an opinion, based on unexamined evidence.

There is also some wonderful, and playful use of language, although the content reflects some of the very not 2015-politically-correct zeitgeist of the era. There are also beautiful passages that reflect the attachment Harper Lee, through her avatar, feels to her native soil.

The political views on display are appalling, paternalistic, racist, sexist, homophobic, and do reflect the attitudes of the time and place depicted, I expect. But it galls to have characters portray their dark views as accepted wisdom and have far too much of that accepted by a character who should know better.

In short, as a stand-alone there is much to like here, including some strong characters, a wonderful feel for place and a willingness to take on serious and controversial subject matter, but there are plenty of flaws as well. Go Set a Watchman is no classic.

Of course Go Set a Watchman would not have become the literary event of 2015 had it not shared DNA with a novel widely regarded as one of the best American novels ever written, To Kill a Mockingbird. And just in case you are newly arrived on our planet, perhaps are recently thawed out from an extended cryogenic holiday, or have just come to after a nasty crack on the head in 1960, Mockingbird recounts, through the eyes of the grown-up Scout, a time when she was six years old and her father, Atticus Finch, was called on to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. It offers a view of a golden childhood and a principled father taking on the bigotry of a deep South town in service of justice and decency. If you have not yet read it, go, scoot, scram, take a hike, go find a copy, and come back when you are done.

Ok, read it? Good. There has certainly been a lively reaction to Go Set a Watchman. Would that reaction have been different if there had never been a Mockingbird baseline against which to compare this version of Atticus? That is something we can never know. But it is helpful to think of To Kill a Mockingbird as the second and final version of Nelle Harper Lee’s (Yes, Harper is her middle name) seminal novel. Go Set a Watchman was Mockingbird 1.0. Harper Lee sold her book to the publisher JB Lippincott in 1957. But it was deemed not ready for prime time. I do not know the specifics of what editorial direction Lee was given by her editor, Tay Hohoff, other than to focus on the time of Jean Louise’s childhood. Racism is taken on very powerfully in 1.0. There is less telling and more showing in Mockingbird. The childhood recollections here, while wonderful, do not occupy as much of the stage as they do in version 2.0, but you can certainly see how an editor might laser in on those as strengths to magnify when trying to improve the book. And if one is then going to re-set the primary stage to the time of Scout’s childhood, it makes sense to make Atticus more purely heroic. In fact Mockingbird was intended to have been titled Atticus.

There is danger, of course, that this original depiction of Atticus will forever tarnish the gleaming ideal of a man we admire so from Mockingbird. Why splash racist graffiti over a cherished icon? Actually the racist element was there from the start, in this 1.0 version. It is instructive to see how Atticus evolved in the writer’s molding from the crusty first version to the graceful, fine character that illuminates Lee’s ultimate masterpiece.

There is no need to overstate Atticus’s racism in Watchman. In reviews and commentary some elements have been taken out of context and misrepresented. The KKK thing, for example. Atticus states that his purpose in joining was to find out who was behind the masks, not to further the organization’s agenda. Another item pertains to a racist screed handed out by a lunatic and found by JLF in her father’s home. Atticus agrees that the author is a nut, and that he had been granted the right to speak at the town council, as any other nut might have. Atticus does not subscribe to the views in the pamphlet. He subscribes to enough, though, to cause all who know where his character ends up in version 2.0, to take a large step back. You can get a taste of that in the quotes at the top of this review. It continues on, with nastiness about the NAACP, legalistic hogwash about SCOTUS violating the 10th Amendment, a general sense of feeling under assault by outside forces, and a paternalistic notion that all would be just fine if those northern rabble-rousers would just let Negro advancement proceed at a more measured pace. This is crucial, I believe, to one of the strengths of Watchman. While the views held by the residents of Maycomb, as represented by Atticus, Henry and others, may not receive a universal welcome in 2015, I believe they do fairly represent the beliefs of most educated southern whites during this era. The book might have been instructive to northerners, had it been released in its original form, as to the nature of the strident opposition the civil rights movement faced. As such, Watchman offers a valuable guide to a time and place, where even folks most at the time would consider pretty decent, like Atticus, maintained views that, while they remain widespread among some segments of our population today, are now generally seen as abhorrent.

There are other interesting elements that come from a consideration of the novels set side by side. What remains? What is lost? The courthouse where Scout watches Atticus heroically defend Tom Robinson in Mockingbird is a real place in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s birthplace. In Watchman it is a scene of horror as Jean Louise sees a racist propound his views in a public forum in which her father and friend are principal players. Calpurnia, the Finch housekeeper in Mockingbird plays a major role in Watchman as well. In one particularly chilling scene, Jean Louise, who had seen Cal as a nurturing force her entire life, now wonders if Cal ever really cared for her or, instead, saw her only through a racial lens. Dill, her avatar for childhood pal Truman Capote, is present in both novels, but Boo Radley was added in Mockingbird. Henry is gone from Mockingbird. JLF’s brother, Jem, a major character in Mockingbird, is much less of a presence in Watchman.

Go Set a Watchman may occupy a place in the shadow of what was to come, but it does offer insight into the author, her take on the world in the late 1950s, and into her characters. As a blood relation to one of the greatest books in American literature, it is most definitely worth reading.

Published – 7/14/15
Review – 7/24/15

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

Harpercollins has made a FaceBook page for GSaW

Robert McCrum’s review in The Guardian is quite informative – Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee review – a literary curiosity

A Charles Leerhsen article in the June 2010 Smithsonian is also worth a look – Harper Lee’s Novel Achievement

A nice bit of extra intel on Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor in this article by Emma Cueto on Bustle.com, Harper Lee’s First Editor, Tay Hohoff, Had A Lot To Do With Creating ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, So Here’s What You Should Know About Her
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