Category Archives: Literary Fiction

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

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…he started out with his eyes firmly on the guiding star, his feet planted on the path, but that’s the thing about the life you walk—you start out pointed true North, but you vary one degree off, it doesn’t matter for maybe one year, five years, but as the years stack up you’re just walking farther and farther away from where you started out to go, you don’t even know you’re lost until you’re so far from your original destination you can’t even see it anymore – Don Winslow

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown – Henry IV Part 2 – W. Shakespeare

After eighteen years in the NYPD, Detective Sergeant Denny Malone has good cause for unease. The de facto king of Manhattan North has seen considerable upheaval in his kingdom. He may be, effectively, the head of this select unit, charged with going after gangs, drugs, and guns. “Da Force” may have unusually free rein to do as they see fit to accomplish their goals. But a turf war between competing providers of recreational pharmaceuticals is growing increasingly kinetic, with one of the combatants looking to purchase a considerable supply of death-dealing hardware. Not OK. The captain is pressing for a high-publicity bust. There is also the perennial political dance one must perform to keep the brass at One Police Plaza and the political suits from interfering with business as usual. Of course, what passes for business as usual might not look all that good splashed across the front pages of the local tabloids.

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Don Winslow – image from Milanonera.com

Bribery may be the grease that keeps the wheels of civilization turning, but it leaves a lot of cops with very dirty hands. Denny is no saint, and no Serpico. He may mean well for the community he is charged with protecting, but his methods often lack the soft gleam of legality. We first meet him as he arrives in federal lockup. The novel then goes back to show how he got there. Slippery slope stuff. See the greased wheels above.

The street stays with you.
It sinks into your pores and then your blood.
And into your soul? Malone asks himself. You gonna blame that on the street too?
Some of it, yeah.
You’ve been breathing corruption since you put on the shield, Malone thinks. Like you breathed in death that day in September. Corruption isn’t just in the city’s air, it’s in its DNA, yours too.
Yeah, blame it on the city, blame it on New York.
Blame it on the Job,
It’s too easy, it stops you from asking yourself the hard question.
How did you get here?
Like anyplace else.
A step at a time.

Lines are crossed here with the frequency of runners reaching the end of the NYC marathon. Early on, Denny and his crew take out a major distributor, whack the principal, and skim off a significant portion of the captured product, a bit of an extra retirement fund. Some people are a tad upset by this. It’s not exactly much of a secret, though, and there are those who would like to see Denny being saluted by the entire force in Dress Blues and white gloves while someone plays Taps.

One of the great powers of this novel is the perspective offered on diverse forms of human behavior. Is Denny a brute for roughing up a guy who beat up a kid? Definitely outside the law, but are his actions effective? Denny really does care about the people in his kingdom. He cuts slack when possible, and brutalizes when it is called for. But the law seems a lot more of a recommendation than an absolute.

Winslow offers a close up look at a dark element of police culture. How does being on the take work? Who gets what? How is money distributed? Who is it ok to accept bribes from? What is allowed that would otherwise be justiceable? And why do the cops here consider it ok? He offers as well a moving look at the human relationships that make up police life, the code of honor, the power of partnership, the requirement that all members of the team partake of the ill-gotten, if only as a means of self-protection, the wives who turn a blind eye to where that extra cash may have originated, and what their breadwinner may be up to when the crew parties hard, up to a point anyway. The interaction between the police and people in their area is rich with real affection, as well as the expected cynicism. Some of these scenes are stunningly moving, tissue worthy.

How about the relationship between cops and the local criminal element? You might be reminded of those cartoons in which Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote punch a time clock, go at it, then clock out at the end of the day, friends. The cops and criminals often seem cut from the same cloth, although the baddest of the bad guys are certainly much worse than the worst of the cops. And the bullets really kill. Winslow does not spare the one-percent, either, in his look at layers of amorality.

Don Winslow is a seasoned writer at the pinnacle of his craft.

Malone drives past the Wahi diner and the mural of a raven on 155th. Past the church of the Intercession, but it’s too late for Intercession, past Trinity Cemetery and the Apollo Pharmacy, the Big Brother Barber shop, Hamilton Fruits and Vegetables and all the small gods of place, the personal shrines, the markers of his life on these streets that he loves like a husband loves a cheating wife, a father loves a wayward son.

There are wonderful nuggets of law enforcement intel in here. Like the notion of testilying. Or what is considered proper attire for a day on the stand. How about special celebratory nights for a crew? The upside of EMTs not taking a Hippocratic oath. Rules for note-taking on the job. How 9/11 saved the mob. Planning your crimes so they cross as many precinct boundaries as possible, increasing the likelihood that a paperwork snafu will botch a prosecution. On tribes within the force.

Winslow has a Damon Runyon-esque ear for character names. My favorites were a CI named Nasty Ass, and another the cops call Oh No, Henry, and a linguist’s appreciation for the local patois. Or maybe that would be another well-known teller of tales. (I think Dickens is one of the progenitors of noir fiction, writing as he did about the criminal underclass.) He peppers the novel with delicious small side-stories. Tales told in a bar by guys who have been spinning yarns for a lifetime. They give us occasional breathers from the breakneck pace.

He takes on topics that will resonate, from Blue on Black violence, and the resulting reactions, to how the jails are functioning as de facto mental hospitals and detox centers. From a consideration of God and the Church (Denny is not a fan) to the impact of the job on people’s lives. Denny recalls his father. He was a cop on these streets, coming home in the morning after a graveyard shift with murder in his eyes, death in his nose and an icicle in his heart that never melted and eventually killed him. From how cops cope with the daily horrors to how the crime numbers are cooked to support whatever preconceived outcome was desired. On the Iron Pipeline, the route on which legal guns from Texas, Arizona, Alabama and the Carolinas become illegal guns in NYC. The politics of police tactics and voting. The hatred and respect the cops have for the best defense lawyers. Their relationship with reporters. You trust a reporter like you trust a dog. You got a bone in your hand, you’re feeding him, you’re good. Your hand’s empty, don’t turn your back. You either feed the media or it eats you.

Denny may be dirty, but you will be dashing along with him and hoping for the best. Maybe this whole situation can be fixed. He is a rich, multi-faceted character, and you will most definitely care what happens to him. Think Popeye (Gene Hackman) of The French Connection, or Lieutenant Matt Wozniak (Ray Liotta) on the wonderful TV show Shades of Blue.

You might want to secure your seat belt and make sure that your Kevlar is all where is it is supposed to be. This is a non-stop, rock’em, sock’em high-speed chase of a novel, a dizzying dash through an underworld of cops, criminals, and those caught in the middle, screeching stops, and doubling backs, hard lefts, harder rights, and Saturn V level acceleration. Once you catch your breath after finishing the final pages I expect you’ll find yourself realizing just what a treat it has been. The Force is not just a great cop book, it is a great book, period, a Shakespearean tragedy of high ideals brought low, with one of the great cop characters of all time. The Force is an instant classic.

Review posted – February 24, 2017

Publication date – June 20, 2017

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

Don Winslow has written many books. Some have been made into films. I have read none of them, so can offer no real insight into what carried forward from his prior work, or where new notions or techniques may have come into play. I read this totally as a stand-alone.

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

This page has many links to related interviews and materials

An article by Winslow in Esquire – EL CHAPO AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE HEROIN CRISIS

Interviews
—– Litsack
—–Hi. My name is Don Winslow, and I’m a writing addict – by John Wilkins for the San Diego Union Tribune

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

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

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

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

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

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Paulette Jiles – from Harper

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – 12/3/15

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

The author’s personal website

A Wiki page on the Kiowa

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

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

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

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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

Leo checked the time and started walking.

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

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

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Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney – From her Twitter pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – 11/27/15

Publication date – 3/22/15

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

Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

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

The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson

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

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

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

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Joshilyn Jackson – from BookTrib.com

Jackson writes of family and faith in her novels, and has a particular fondness for adolescent females.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The many-armed goddess – from FineArtAmerica.com

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

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

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

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

Review Posted – 11/20/15

Publication – 2/16/16

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Sweet Girl by Travis Mulhauser

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

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

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Travis Mulhauser – from his GR page

You might want to dress warmly when you settle in to read Sweet Girl. A sweater at least. Make sure the windows are closed tight, and bring out a throw to toss over your feet and legs. And it probably wouldn’t hurt to have a cup with steaming liquid in it near at hand, enhanced or not.

It was the burning kind of cold. A tear had opened in my lip and I put my tongue to it and tasted the salty, pooling blood. There was already a throb and tingle in my toes and the air torched my lungs just to breathe it. I looked back after a minute and could not see the pinewoods or tell the falling snow in the fields from what was wind-thrown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – 11/13/2015

Publication Date – 2/2/2016

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

Links to the author’s personal, and Twitter pages

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Speak by Louisa Hall

book cover

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

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

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

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

book cover

Louisa Hall – from her site

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

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

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

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

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

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Hello, Barbie – from the New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stylistically, Hall has said

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

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

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

Are you there?

Can you hear me?

Published 7/7/15

Review – 9/18/15

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

The author’s personal website

A piece Hall wrote on Jane Austen for Off the Shelf

Interviews
—–NPR – NPR staff
—–KCRW

Have a session with ELIZA for yourself

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

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

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

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

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

book cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ron Rash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – 9/4/15

Publication date – 9/8/15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction

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.

book cover

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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God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

book cover

No lonesome wandering child with a fishing pole passed by and glanced at the adults in the dusty gray car. But if one had, he or she might have noticed the pronounced smiles of the couple, how dreamy their eyes were, but would not care a bit what caused that shine of happiness.
A child. New life. Immune to evil or illness, protected from kidnap, beatings, rape, racism, insult, hurt, self-loathing, abandonment. Error-free. All goodness. Minus wrath.
So they believe.

The children in Toni Morrison’s novel can use all the help they can get, whether from God or some other source. Lula Ann Bridewell was not what her high-yellow parents had expected:

She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black…Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color…I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward, Lula Ann embarrassed me.

Toni Morrison said in an interview, “For me, the tar baby came to mean the black woman who can hold things together.” In this instance it is about a very black woman who cannot.

While she may be a successful cosmetics pro, beautiful, successful, rising in the world, we meet the adult Lula Ann, who has erased the rest of her name and now calls herself by the mononym “Bride,” as she is unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend, The One, Booker Starbern, who announces, “You’re not the woman I want,” before exiting to the percussive accompaniment of a slammed door. How this came to be, and Bride’s quest to figure out why it did, provide the foundation to which the rest of the narrative elements are added.

Bride has a bit of a tough go, as her appreciation for people and relationships is only skin deep. She tells of her Diet Coke-like sex life, “deceptively sweet minus nutrition.” She tries to blow off her dumping,

Well, anyway it was nothing like those double-page spreads in fashion magazines, you know, couples standing half-naked in surf, looking so fierce and downright mean, their sexuality like lightning and the sky going dark to show off the shine of their skin. I love those ads. But our affair didn’t even measure up to any old R-&-B song-some tune with a beat to generate fever.

but fails at that. In fact the departure of Booker sparks a physical demise for Bride, well, a magical-realist retreat that no one else seems to see, as she progressively devolves back to a child, losing her ear-piercings, pubic hair, weight, sense of taste, menstrual cycle and breasts.

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Toni Morrison – from The LA Times

Bride’s erstwhile, and very secretive bf, Booker, has issues of his own. (He especially liked her lack of interest in his personal life.) Where Bride is totally focused on the surface of things, Booker, who plays jazz, hides behind his intellect, applying himself to the study of the root of all evil, but never really freeing himself to become an entire person. He carries a burden of rage from his childhood that keeps him from being his own person. Only if Bride and Booker can build themselves up to actual three dimensional people, by looking beyond their own skins to consider the feelings of others, can they have any hope of anything more from life than ephemeral pleasures. Only then can they truly connect.

Much of God Help the Child focuses on children, how they are treated, the long-term impact of that treatment, on themselves and on others. Childhood here is a particularly fraught state. Lula Ann (Bride) is almost shunned by her own mother, who won’t even allow her to call her “Mama,” insisting that she call her “Sweetness” instead, lest people on the street know for sure that someone that dark came from someone that light. As a child she witnesses an act of child abuse. Another character loses a relation to a child abuser, and encounters a school-yard flasher as an adult. Bride had falsely testified against an allegedly abusive teacher, done to gain at least some acceptance from her mother, so children are capable of inflicting harm as well as receiving it. Another child was prostituted by her mother, and a serial abuser, “the nicest man in the world,” is reported to have preyed on many. One might be inclined to wonder a bit at the Cabot Cove-like concentration of awfulness on display here, even if much of it is by reference.

Thematically, there is a lot in here about erasure, not only Bride’s Richard Matheson-reminiscent fairy tale reduction, some of it involving what appears to be a magic razor, Sweetness erasing Lula Ann as much as possible, Sofia, the convicted molester, doing her best to erase Bride from her life, as Bride had attempted to erase her guilt for what she had done, and it can be no accident that Bride is the designer of cosmetics, and even thinks about people in terms of how the right makeup can erase their flaws.

The pages are damp with mentions of precipitation. It rains on Bride the day after Booker leaves. Booker is rained on when he leaves a family gathering in a huff. A child of a prostitute is found while on the street in the rain, and rain moistens one of the most beautiful passages in the book, as Booker celebrates seeing his Galatea for the first time:

The sun still blazed so the raindrops falling from the baby-blue sky were like crystal breaking into specks of light on the pavement. He decided to play his trumpet alone in the rain anyway, knowing that no pedestrians would stop to listen; rather they closed umbrellas as they rushed down the stairs to the trains. Still in thrall to the sheer beauty of the girl he had seen, he put the trumpet to his lips. What emerged was music he had never played before. Low, muted tones held long, too long as the strains floated through drops of rain.

There are plenty more passages that ripple with poetic feeling. And there are some subsidiary characters who brighten up the scene. A fifty-something hippie couple seemed like magical forest dwellers, an epitome of innocence and goodness, with maybe a touch of Tom Bombadil and even Bjorn the Berserker. Booker’s aunt, Queen, is a delight, vivacious, colorful, and very interesting, worthy of an entire book just on her alone. The rescued daughter of a prostitute is fascinating as well.

God Help the Child is a rarity, in that it is a Toni Morrison novel set in the present. Her eleventh novel is a spare one, at 177 pages, similar in girth to Morrison’s previous novels, Home, which weighed in a very novella-like 147 pages and A Mercy, another slim volume, at 167 pages. Not that Morrison is given to producing tomes, but her books these days seem on the thin side. A larger frame might have allowed her a bit more space in which to give us a bit more. I am reminded, though, of Lincoln’s response when asked about the proper length of a man’s legs, he said “they ought to be long enough to reach from his body to the ground.” I expect that the proper size of a Toni Morrison story is the number of pages she needs to say what she has to say. She has said she is, “writing less in order to say more.” A little Toni Morrison goes a long way.

The author is in her 80s now. While God may have been asleep as the wheel when most of the children in this tale suffered what they suffered, maybe God can help the author, at something she is most definitely inclined to do, keep writing until her last breath, and help push that day far off into the future. In this way God will also be helping the reader .

You will need no assistance enjoying God Help the Child. While I would not rank it with her recognized classics, like Sula and Beloved, even a lesser Toni Morrison book is better than most of what is out there.

Review posted – August 7, 2015

Publication date – April 21, 2015

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

Morrison’s Facebook page

Interviews
GR interview by Catherine Elsworth
—Video interview at the 92nd Street Y
— NPR’s Fresh Air, with Terry Gross
The Paris Review – with Elissa Schappel

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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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