Category Archives: Literary Fiction

Oh, Yes! – Oh, William! by Elizabeth Strout

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Throughout my marriage to William, I had had the image—and this was true even when Catherine was alive, and more so after she died—so often I had the private image of William and me as Hansel and Gretel, two small kids lost in the woods looking for the breadcrumbs that could lead us home.
This may sound like it contradicts my saying that the only home I ever had was with William, but in my mind they are both true and oddly do not go against each other. I am not sure why this is true, but it is. I suppose because being with Hansel—even if we were lost in the woods—made me feel safe.

People are lonely, is my point here. Many people can’t say to those they know well what it is they feel they might want to say.

My Name is Lucy Barton (2016) had been a very successful novel for Elizabeth Strout. She had even written a followup, Anything is Possible, (2017) a collection of stories, in which Lucy visits her Mid-West relations after a prolonged absence. Laura Linney was starring in a one-woman show of the former. Strout was there for a rehearsal when Laura opined that maybe William, Lucy’s ex, had had an affair. A lightbulb went off for Strout and she realized that William had a story of his own. Thus was born Oh, William!

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Elizabeth Strout – image from Time magazine

She carried forward details about William from the prior books and built outward, or dug deeper, from there. There were some real-world elements of William’s tale. William’s father was a German POW, held in Maine, and his mother, the wife of a farmer who was using POW labor, fell in love with him and left her husband. The POW camp is a real place.

So my husband and I took a field trip. We went up there, we went to all the places that Lucy and William go on their own trip, and I took furious notes on everything I saw. And when we came back I settled down and wrote their story. – RandomHouse Book Club kit

Caveat Lector
You should know before diving in too far that, while I have read Strout’s Olive books, I have not read her prior Lucy Barton books. As Oh, William! is a third in that stack, this is not a trivial shortcoming. There are likely to be connections between this book and the prior two that I missed. But I have read up on those a bit, and acquired some gist. That said, I believe Oh, William! can be read, enjoyed and, hopefully, reviewed as a stand-alone. Just sayin’, cards on the table.

On the other hand, I felt very personally touched and engaged by the novel. I am of a common demographic with William, (we even share TWO names) and re-viewing the events of a lifetime is a natural hazard of this place in our existence. One thinks about the ages, the events, the people, the possibilities, the chances missed, and caught, the attempts that failed or succeeded, the misreads and the insights, the absence of understanding and the wise perceptions, maybe the bullets dodged, the awful relationships that never happened, the good ones that did, maybe the actual bullets that impacted elsewhere. In a way one might see this novel as a look back over William’s life from the point of his final days. A life examined. It could also be seen as the life of a relationship examined, the intersection of two trunks, Lucy and William, meeting, intertwining, then branching out in separate but linked directions.

In any such examination, whether of a life or relationship, it is natural, I believe, to wonder what might have been. Could we have performed better in the roles in which we were cast, or in which we had cast ourselves. To wonder why the director led us to this spot, to stage right instead of left, and always wondering at the playwright, and whether there was ever a script at all. This question of choices is one Strout takes on here. How much freedom of choice is there, actually, how much decision-making? William and Lucy talk about her decision to leave him.

I would like to know—I really would like to—when does a person actually choose anything? You tell me.”
I thought about this.
He continued, “Once every so often—at the very most—I think someone actually chooses something. Otherwise we’re following something—we don’t even know what it is but we follow it, Lucy. So, no. I don’t think you chose to leave.”
After a moment I asked, “Are you saying you don’t believe in free will?”
William put both hands to his head for a moment. “Oh stop with the free will crap,” he said. He kept walking back and forth as he spoke, and he pushed his hand through his white hair. “…I’m talking about choosing things. You know, I knew a guy who worked in the Obama administration, and he was there to help make choices. And he told me that very very few times did they actually have to make a choice. [
This was taken from a conversation Strout actually had with an Obama official, about how the decisions to be made were so obvious that there was little choosing required] And I always found that so interesting. Because it’s true. We just do—we just do, Lucy.”

And how might it be that so much of our lives is so constrained? A lot of that is based on where we began. Marx would call it class, and that is a very powerful force indeed. Strout digs into the specific roots of this for her characters. Lucy had grown up poor and miserable, (I have no memory of my mother ever touching any of her children except in violence.) and never felt entirely comfortable, persistently invisible even, (I have always thought that if there was a big corkboard and on that board was a pin for every person who ever lived, there would be no pin for me.) in the more middle-class world in which she lived with William, a parasitologist researcher (a nod to her father of the same profession) and teacher, despite her successful authorial career, despite living in a nice neighborhood in Manhattan, despite raising successful children. She is not the only major character haunted by an impoverished childhood. It is made quite clear that this other character had been severely damaged by that experience and that it had driven many life decisions.

The external of the story is William’s discovery at age seventy-one that he has a half-sister he had never known about. William and Lucy had remained on friendly terms, despite their divorce and subsequent remarryings. William’s third wife has left him. Lucy is widowed. He asks her go to Maine with him to look into this never-suspected sibling. Although it seems a bit odd, Lucy agrees to go along. It gives them both opportunities to look back, not just on their own lives, but on the lives of William’s parents. Coming to this revelation so late in life raises an issue. Is it ever really possible to truly know anyone? Lucy had kept much of her early life hidden away. William’s mother, Catherine, a very large presence in their marriage, had done the same. William had kept plenty of secrets during their marriage, including multiple affairs. He covered his true feelings with a friendly façade, and Lucy loathed him for that. But Lucy had kept a part of herself turned away from him as well. Her family’s rejection of her marriage to William left a lasting scar. The externals of their trip reveal some buried truths, but this is a novel about internals, not physical action.

How does one cope with the challenges of dealing with other people, with those to whom we are closest? There is the challenge of knowing who they truly are in the first place. And then there is the challenge of letting our true selves be seen, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to trust others with our most delicate emotional parts. This is almost certainly universal. Who among us does not have at least one secret (and I would bet that most have more) that we keep hidden even from our closest friends, our lovers, our mates, parents, children, priests, shrinks, not to mention the police?

There was an amazing film released in 1973, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage. (Recently remade for HBO) It examines ten years of a union doomed to failure. The original was a revelation for me. My gf at the time urged me not to see it, concerned about the impact on my view of whatever-it-was we had. Oh, William! reminded me of that, less as a forensic analysis of a marital corpse, but as a broader view of a lifelong connection, in their marriage, and beyond it, a friendship. It looks at what went into building their marriage, at what kept it from being more than it was, and at the impact of William’s mother on their lives. Even after they split up, Lucy often says He is the only home I ever had.

One of the many triumphs of Oh, William! is how Strout offers up many small bits, pointing out the things about their interactions with each other that drove them crazy, that show without telling.

He stared at me, and then I realized he wasn’t really seeing me.
“Did you sleep?” I asked him, and he broke into a smile then, his mustache moving, and he said, “I did. How crazy is that? I slept like a baby.”
He did not ask about my sleep and I did not tell him.

The past is our inevitable root. We are not ents, that can simply follow our needs and drag ourselves away from where we sprouted. That past is inescapable, even if we can change our external circumstances, move up in the world, move away from the painful parts that formed us. But we live in the present, and the past often appears to the here-and-now in the form of ghosts, of one sort or another. When William and Lucy visit Fort Fairfield in Maine, it is truly a ghost town, barely even a town any more. Images they see in the local library conjure a long dead era. In a way their marriage, if not their friendship, is a spectral presence, long dead, although still hovering in the room.

I usually try to come up with something that did not sit well in a book, gripes of one sort or another, elements that might have been better. This time, really, I got nuthin’.

There is so much in this novel that is beautifully portrayed, insightful, wise, and moving. A penetrating portrait of two people and their half-century of connection, warts and all. Oh, William! is a masterwork by one of our greatest fiction writers, at the peak of her creative power. Oh, Elizabeth. You’ve done it again.

There have been a few times—and I mean recently—when I feel the curtain of my childhood descend around me once again. A terrible enclosure, a quiet horror: This is the feeling and it was my entire childhood, and it came back to me with a whoosh the other day. To remember so quietly, yet vividly, to have it re-presented to me in this way, the sense of doom I grew up with, knowing I could never leave that house (except to go to school, which meant the world to me, even though I had no friends there, but I was out of the house)—to have this come back to me presented a domain of dull and terrifying dreariness to me: There was no escape.
When I was young there was no escape, is what I am saying.

Review posted – November 5, 2021

Publication date – October 19, 2021

I received an ARE of Oh, William! from Random House in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Elizabeth Strout: ‘I’ve thought about death every day since I was 10’ by Kate Kellaway
—–Time – Elizabeth Strout Knows We Can’t Escape the Past by Annabel Gutterman
—–Entertainment Weekly – Howe a literary conscious uncoupling and Laura Linney helped Elizabeth Strout write Oh, William! – by Seija Rankin
—–Bookpage – Elizabeth Strout: The heart and soul of an emotional spy by Alice Cary – for Anything is Possible
—–WBUR – Author Elizabeth Strout explores marriage, memory and class in ‘Oh William!’ – audio – 9:26

My reviews of other books by the author
—–2019 – Olive, Again
—–2008 – Olive Kitteridge

Items of Interest from the author
—–WBUR – excerpt
—–Random House – Book Club Kit
—–Literary Hub – excerpt

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Heaven-Sent – Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

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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

And Now, Presenting… – Performance Art by David Kranes

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I’m missing a dove, he tells me, a small water fountain…half an assistant.
I’ll keep my eyes out, I tell him. 

It’s that awful moment when any of us realize that why we began something is no longer why we’re doing it.

In his latest short story collection, literary lion David Kranes puts on quite the show. Performance Art offers up stories about people who perform in public. Nine of the stories in the collection were published between 1991 and 2015, with four new tales fleshing it out to a baker’s dozen. While offering some new material the collection serves more as an introduction to a powerful literary writer you may not know. Kranes is 84, and has been at this a long time. He writes in whatever vessel seems appropriate for the stories that occur to him, whether that is poety, plays, novels or short stories. Sometimes the stories migrate. One of the included tales here was the inspiration for a novel.

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David Kranes – image from Continuum

The external focus in this collection is performance, stage performance, for the most part, although the definition is somewhat fluid. The talents on display run quite a gamut, from a daredevil to a stand-up comic, from an actor to an escape artist, from a spokesperson for a weight-loss program to a magician, from a fire and glass eater to a master of sleight of hand, to a world-class photographer, to a carnival knife thrower, and a bit more.

There are some themes, images, and issues that run through, central among which is invisibility. People feeling unseen, maybe even being unseen.

Scott paces four rooms, each one of which, even when he’s in it, seems empty. (A Man Walks Into a Bar)

Nothing about me took up—space or anything else (Target Practice)


Ginger’s twenty-seven and has almost perfected invisibility. (The Weight-Loss Performance Artist)

I turned and moved away. Went. Didn’t stop. Didn’t look back. Instead: became invisible. Became a ghost anchored only by an abiding faith, finally, in the power of absence. (Escape Artist)

Painters permeate. Two of the lead characters paint, and painting is an element in several others. In Daredevil, a character is fascinated with Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death. Target Practice includes a character very into Turner. The Garden of Earthly Delights get some spotlight in Devouring Fire.

Celebrities drift or flash through the stories, and not in a particularly favorable way.

Several characters are faced with potentially life-changing opportunities. A painter has a chance to be a very in-demand actor. Another painter might have a chance to direct a film for a household name producer. A stage performer has a chance to revive a career long thought dead and buried. An obese woman is offered a huge sum to be the public face of weight loss. A drug addict is offered a chance to be the knife instead of the target.

The notion of next comes up. In Daredevil, pop offers useless advice to his son re next steps in life. In Target Practice a social services report on the narrator calls her directionless. (“I had no comprehension of next. I had no next moments; obviously no next month, no next week.”)

The stories are set in Vegas, mostly, the southwest, generically, Idaho a time or three. It is pretty clear that Kranes knows The Strip and Vegas like a local. He lives in Salt Lake City. I do not know if he ever lived in Vegas or maybe spent a lot of time there. Both seem likely.

There are a few tales that include bits of fantasy. Most do not. I would not categorize this as a fantasy collection, per se.

While the circumstances are sometimes extreme, there is still plenty to relate to. How many of us have felt unseen, invisible in the world, or maybe want to be. I can certainly relate to the latter. In my theatrical debut (It was Kindergarten I think) I was called on to walk to center stage and recite Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater. I managed to get the words out, but that was not all. By the time I exited stage left my pants had taken on an unwanted yellow tint. Invisibility cloak, please, NOW!!! And we have probably all felt the sting of feeling completely unseen by that boy or girl, man or woman whom we really, really want to see us.

Bottom line is that this collection may not feature all new material (that said, even the previously published stories were new to me) but it offers a splendid sample of a literary talent of great skill and power. David Kranes is a writer worth getting to know. This is top-tier, star-power material.

Review posted – 10/5/21

Publication date – 10/15/21

I received an e-galley from the University of Nevada Press through NetGalley, in return for a visible, performative review. Thanks.

======================================THE STORIES
The Daredevil’s Son (2010) – imagine your father was Evel Knievel. Imagine he was dead set on you following him in the family business. Imagine you have the body, the build, and the looks. Then imagine you have zero interest in doing that.

“So then, you don’t want to be like…do what your father does?” people asked.
“No, because my father scares people,” Lucas Jr said.

There is a lot here that resonates with Kranes’s life. He grew up in the Boston area, his father a big-shot surgeon at one of the biggest hospitals in the city. He even enrolled in pre-med, but knew it was not for him. Later even tried Yale Law School. Ditto. Dinners at home would feature Nobel Prize winners (as guests, not on the menu). The bar seemed too high, the pressure too intense to succeed, to perform at that level, at things that did not appeal to him all that much. He headed west instead, opting to follow his own inclinations, not those of his father.

The Stand-up Phobic (2015)
Ethan Fallon feels compelled to perform on stage.
The language of the story mimics the sort of stream-of-consciousness that Robin Williams might have launched into in a moment or that George Carlin might have scripted. It is about words, words, words, and associations, free or otherwise There is a manic aspect to Ethan. It is presented as an interview between Ethan and…someone. You feel bad for the guy, with all this verbal churn going on in his head, and only the stage as a venue for relief.

Ethan’s hair is an air show and he’s sweating. Every performance lately seems a conspiracy-theorist’s nightmare. Any room he’s booked into is slack-jawed and oversized and swallows him. Like a bad Jonah dream. Like having a three-day booking at the Whale. AT THE HOUSE OF RIBS. YEAH! PUT Y0UR HANDS TOGETHER—WON’T YOU, PLEASE—for our own sackcloth and ashes! Ethan Fallon!

A Man Walks Into A Bar (2012)
Scott Elias, a dealer (cards, not drugs) and painter, is approached by two men in a Vegas bar. They mistake him for a well-known actor, but offer him a screen test because they like his presence. They see something in him. So Scott is carted off to appear in the film, sorry, project, they are producing, and life gets crazy from there. But is this the life he wants? He has a roomie, a young man, Tory, also a painter, who had been injured in an auto mishap. It is more of a ward and sponsor relationship, not a sexual one. Tory’s paintings reflect Scott’s inner battle.

Escape Artist (2002)
From birth, Lou has been getting out of things. The need comes with some innate capacity. But there are others who would do well to escape unwanted circumstances, yet lack the native tools and even when they learn the learnable skills, opt for the safety of captivity to the freedom of escape. This story includes a bit about escaping the East Coast, and doctor father, which echoes the author’s relationship with his father.

When I was two, a nurse locked me in a closet under a pile of coats. I got out. When I was six, three bullies tethered me with clothesline, filled my mouth with detergent. I escaped, spat the detergent into the sunlight. It turned green in the bright air, hardened into a nugget of turquoise.
At two, six, I had no words, no plan, only knew my need: lift. Rise, break out, court the insane of the world—if that’s what it took.

When the Magician Calls
Daniel Lawrence, or maybe Lawrence Daniel, has tracked Sheila down. (There is a reference in another story to a Sheila who had been at least partly mislaid by a fading magician) He seems to think Sheila will remember him. Sounds like they had had a prior connection. He would like to help her fully disappear from her current, somewhat imprisoned life. Maybe he can conjure a bit of magic, although it may not be his true calling. My stage-self hungers for standing-room-only. Mostly, though. I feel like some kind of bulked tortoise, lumbering to the sea.

Target Practice
The female narrator seems to have almost died too many times to be a coincidence as a kid. Became a target when she got older, for a Sunday school teacher, for boys with an interest and for needles. But when she meets a carnival knife thrower (and former MLB pitcher) she learns, ironically, how not to be a target, but to be the knife, her survival no longer an unexpected miracle.

The Warren Beatty Project (1991)
Ethan Weise has had a bit of success with his painting, sold canvasses to some famous people. He is working on a series of Edward-Hopper-type paintings, set outdoors. Once, he worked as a “visual consultant” with a student at the American Film Institute. And then, one day, Warren Beatty calls, wanting him to direct a project for him. LaLa Land beckons, limo-driven and low on artistic merit, rich with industry glitterati and the suggestion of connection and work, while short on actual delivery. While his girlfriend pulls him in a different direction. Will he gain notice, or remain largely unseen? Is this project the stuff dreams are made of, or something else?

The Weight-Loss Performance Artist (2008)
Ginger is 5’5” and 340 pounds. Two men approach her to take part in a project. They have a weight-loss program called PoundSolve that offers tailored meals to subscribers, and software that can project what someone will look like after reaching certain weight-loss benchmarks. They would like Ginger to be their spokesperson, and will pay her $4k per pound for every sixteen ounces she takes off. It a pretty good deal from where she sits. Ginger’s twenty-seven and has almost perfected invisibility. As she moves up to translucent, and even apparent, life changes in many ways. The question is how she will cope and whether the changes are all welcome.

My Life as a Thief
The narrator here is unnamed. His father is a doctor, working at Mass General (where Kranes’s father worked). He started doing magic at eleven, with a kit his dad bought him. Turns out to be a gateway drug to ever more professional levels of magic. His life as a thief begins when he is thirteen, teamed up with Arthur Foley, a pal, whose father happens to be a criminal. Turns out having a talent for making things disappear offers a direct path to shoplifting. They move on from there.

Devouring Fire—An Interview
Robbie, a young reporter, has a chance to interview an entertainment legend, Anthony Aquila, 89 years young and still scary. Anthony is renowned for his ability to eat both fire and glass.
There is a fun interaction between the two of them, as Anthony totally intimidates the young man, but also sees the potential in him.

I’ll confess here: I was drawn to his image. It was like one I’d seen in my History of Religions course at State; he was an ascetic. A kind of harp with skin. Bare feet. Ribs like a rack of lamb. Deep hollow cavernous eyes. You could almost hear his echos echo. Shabby, torn clothes. I got the sense that whatever he did, at the same time he could stand back and watch himself doing it.

The Resurrection of Ernie Fingers
The Downtown Palace in Vegas seems to be doing everything right, post Covid, yet the players are not showing up. The place needs something

We need an attraction,”Dickie Rice, the GM, said to Tony Padre, Head of Marketing. “We need crowds fighting to get in. We do that and who we offer, what we offer will sell itself.”
Tony Padre agreed, “Attraction! Absolutely! But what? Who?”

They bring a legend back. Ernie Fingers is a fill-the-place-entertaining performer, but he has been out of the business for a while and has gotten way too familiar with a particular brand of hooch. Can Ernie be brought back to his old form? Ernie ha a special ability, though, and his skills may be fading.

The Photojournalism Project (1996)
Melissa Probert is a gifted, very much-in-demand international freelance photographer. Her work has been shown in major national museums. Hunt is a painter, working on a project making tempura images of roadside memorials. They had a thing once but have remained friends. Melissa calls Hunt to help her with a special project, a book. She wants to make a photo history of a binge drunk, her own, she having a history of such antics, sans lens. Hunt and Leah, his wife? gf? have an ongoing conversation while he is at Melissa’s multi-day drunk re what and how he sees and her forbearance of his friends. In offering a stage for the unseen, is Melissa making Leah vanish from Hunt’s life?

The Fish Magician (1997)
Malcolm volunteers from the audience at The Monte Carlo in Vegas to participate in magician Lance Burton’s show. He steps into a Lucite box on the stage and in short order is vanished…well…transported, to Idaho it would appear. Oopsy. And the aging magician cannot recall where he’d sent Malcolm. Some time later his wife, Ginger, alarmed at her husband’s sudden disappearance, and failure to reappear, hires an investigator to find out just WTF happened. This is a fun tale in which the investigator is a psychic former NFL player who dreams of doing standup. The story was the basis for Kranes’s 2018 novel Abracadabra.

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

Kranes does not maintain an on-line presence, as far as I can tell.

Here is a profile of him in Mapping Literary Utah

Interview
—–Radiowest – The Legend’s Daughter – by Doug Fabrizio – audio – 52:04 – even though it was recorded eight years ago I found this interview very illuminating re this collection

Songs/Music
—–Arthur Rubinstein – Chopin’s Nocturne in E-Flat – From Ernie Fingers

Items of Interest from the author
—–short story from this collection – The Daredevil’s Son
—–short story – A Figure in a Window
—–a one-act play – Infrastructures

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews, Short Stories

Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

book cover

He pictured the 24-7 tree herself: a monster, grown even wider now than the twenty-four feet, seven inches that originally earned her the name, three hundred seventy feet high, the tallest of the scruff of old-growth redwoods left along the top of 24-7 Ridge. He’d circled that tree every morning for the last thirty-five years, figuring the best way to fall her, but it had always been just a story he’d told himself, like his father before him, and his granddad before that. Someday, Rich remembered his father saying. As a boy, it had seemed possible, though generations of Gundersens had died with the word on their breath.

“The real timber’s gone,” Lark said. “What’s left, ten percent, including the parks? Two thousand years to grow a forest, a hundred years to fall it. No plague like man.”

It’s 1977 in Klamath, California. Redwood country. Rich Gunderson has rolled the dice. He staked all the money he and his wife, Colleen, have been saving to buy a once-in-a-lifetime piece of property, the 24-7, over seven hundred acres of old growth forest, ripe for logging. But he needs the Sanderson Timber Co., which he has been working for all his life, to build a road close enough to it that he can get the logs out. It seems likely to happen, given that Sanderson is currently logging adjacent parcels. But when a skull is found, all work is halted until it can be determined whether the logging will be allowed to continue. A halt could mean the difference between making back his investment and having land of his own, a place on which he and his family can live, with a nice bit of cash beside, and losing everything.

The pilot had followed the coastline, turning inland at Diving Board Rock. It was Rich’s first and only ¬bird’s-eye view of his life: the small green house with its white shutters set back on the bluff at the foot of Bald Hill, the cedar-¬shingle tank shed. The plane’s ¬engine noise buzzed inside his chest, a hundred McCulloch chainsaws revving at once. They’d flown over 24-7 Ridge, the big tree herself lit by an errant ray of sun, glowing orange, bright as a torch, and, for an instant, Rich had caught a glimmer of the inholding’s potential—an island of private land in a sea of company forest. They’d flown over the dark waves of big pumpkins in Damnation Grove—redwoods older than the United States of America, saplings when Christ was born. Then came the patchwork of clear-cuts, like mange on a dog, timber felled and bucked and debarked, trucked to the mill, sawed into lumber, sent off to the kilns to be dried. The pilot had flipped a switch and spray had drifted out behind them in a long pennant—taste of chlorine, whiff of diesel—Rich’s heart soaring.

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Ash Davidson – Image from the Grand Canyon Trust

He and Colleen have suffered some serious losses already. They have a five-year-old son, Chub, who is about to start Kindergarten. But they had hoped for a larger brood. Colleen, only thirty-four, has just suffered her eighth miscarriage. Rich does not want for them to go through that again, so is keeping his distance, frustrating Colleen, who is eager to keep trying.

He does not keep his distance from this land, however. Carrying on the tradition of his father and grandfather before him, Rich is a high climber, a particularly perilous specialty in an already dangerous line of work. He is very fortunate to have lasted longer than his forebears, surviving into his fifties. Bunyonesque at over six feet six inches, Rich is a gentle giant, determined to take care of his family. But how he can go about doing that is becoming complicated. He remembers his father taking him up to the 24-7, and pointing out the biggest, (There she is. Twenty-four feet, seven inches across. Someday, you and me are going to fall that tree.) a lifetime ago, when his father had just turned thirty.

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A high rigger – using just his rope and spiked boots, he must climb the tree sawing off tree limbs as he goes – image and descriptive text from the Washington Historical Society

Colleen works as a midwife. Hers are not the only reproductive anomalies in the area. Miscarriages are rampant, as are birth defects. One woman she had been helping gave birth to a baby that was anencephalic. In the Library Journal interview, Davidson talks about her inspiration for the book.

My family lived in Klamath, California, where the book is set. My parents weren’t loggers—my mom taught school, my dad did carpentry work. But they did rely on a nearby creek for drinking water, similar to Rich and Colleen’s setup in the book, and became so concerned about herbicide contamination in that creek that they stopped drinking from our tap. Still today, not one of us does. I was three when we left Klamath, but I grew up hearing stories about our life there. I’d always wondered: what were those herbicides? – from the Shelf Awareness interview

Daniel Bywater was raised locally. An erstwhile classmate and an old flame of Colleen’s, he is back in the area, doing a postdoc in fisheries biology, testing the water to see what might be causing the significant reduction in fish life. It is pretty clear that the cause is the toxic chemicals that Sanderson sprays relentlessly in the area, making sure the logging roads do not get overgrown, and access to the to-be-logged trees is uninhibited. With the prompt of Daniel, Colleen begins to see that the environment in which she lives may be a factor in her difficulties carrying a baby to term. The Gundersons get their water directly from Damnation Creek.

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Redwoods – image from homestratosphere.com

The conflict is set. Sanderson, eager to fend off any attempts to prevent them from clear-cutting the lands they control, versus those concerned with the health and safety of the people living and working in the area, and the carnage being wreaked on the local eco-system. The company is not above using bribery, blackballing, physical intimidation, and worse to control the allowable debate.

People are struggling. Deer Creek has dried up. It is probably wise to head indoors when the far-too-frequent company chopper passes overhead spraying something that smells of chlorine. Folks live in single-wides or rent houses they used to own, now property of the government on a 25 year lease, after they were eminent-domained for parkland. Pay has been shifted from production based to a daily rate. Not an idyllic existence

It would be an easy thing to present the company as pure evil (well, it pretty much is here, so scratch that), and the locals who support cutting-uber-alles as ignorant rubes. Some are, and there are those who are willfully ignorant, and willing to go to dark extremes to protect their personal fortunes, but Davidson has offered instead a very close look at the crux of the conflict. Can you really expect people who, for generations, have known only one way of living, to welcome outsiders telling them that they can no longer continue to work the jobs they have worked for decades, to live the way they have been forever? Even if that way of life is harming them (it is), that harm may not be felt immediately. No one except the company owners and upper managers are living well. It is a hard-scrabble existence, even for the fully employed. The loss of that small income would be harsh and sudden. And there is no certainty that other means of getting by will magically appear. For good or ill, people’s livelihoods are tied to the survival of the timber company. To damage that is to imperil them all. In showing the perspective of the people residing in the affected area, Davidson treats the issues she raises in a serious, nuanced, and respectful manner.

”Ask any of these guys. You won’t find a guy that loves the woods more than a logger. You scratch a logger, you better believe you’ll find an ‘enviro-mentalist’ underneath. But the difference between us and these people is we live here. We hunt. We fish. We camp out. They’ll go back where they came from, but we’ll wake up right here tomorrow. This is home. Timber puts food on our tables, clothes on our kids’ backs. You know, a redwood tree is a hard thing to kill. You cut it down, it sends up a shoot. Even fire doesn’t kill it. Those big pumpkins up in the grove, they’re old. Ready to keel over and rot. You might as well set a pile of money on fire and make us watch.”

It is clear that, even though he is in the business of removing trees from the landscape, that Rich does have a feel for, a love of the land. He often brings his son out into the woods to show him the woods, the topography, the beauty of their home. Rich wants to make sure he passes on what he can while he can. A charming element of this is when Rich teaches his son to use his hand as a map of their area. I could not help but think of Rich as a Fess-Parker-as-Davy-Crockett-or-Daniel-Boone sort, substantial, serious. But also kind and educable, interested in doing right by his family. This creates an internal conflict for him. Protect his family by seeing to it that the land he bought gets logged, and thus ensure their financial future, or consider that maybe Colleen is right to be concerned about the perils to them all of Sanderson’s spraying.

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Image from Santa Cruz Land Trust

It is not spraying alone that is problematic. Hillsides, denuded of the plant life that held firmly onto the ground, lose their ability to absorb the considerable rain that falls in the area, and their ability to remain in place. It has got to be tough to remain connected to the land if the very land itself is washing away.

Colleen suffers additional misery to that of enduring multiple miscarriages from the fact that her sister, Enid, seems to get pregnant at the drop of a condom. Enid uncrosses her legs for two minutes and a baby pops out.

There is imagery aplenty to help things along. The huge lighthouse of a redwood has already been mentioned as a symbol of both permanence and possibility. Rich endures a bad tooth for much of the novel, maybe a conscience, or growing awareness that needs tending to. A dog which has had its vocal cords cut by a heartless owner surely stands in for silencing alarms of impending danger in the wider world. Showing the multigenerational element of the community reminded me of judging the age of a tree by the number of rings, but I am pretty sure that is just my projection.

I think sometimes we assume that working in an industry like logging is a choice easily substituted with another choice, but there is real grief in letting go of a good job that has defined you. Damnation Spring is set forty years ago, but we see parallels in industry today. There are plenty of reasons why a coal miner in West Virginia can’t just pick up and move west to work on a solar farm. When your whole life is in a place, the idea of uprooting it is so overwhelming, it’s understandable that dying in the life you know might be preferable to starting over. – from the Library Journal interview

There are also a larger perspectives one can see here. We can see in the microcosm of a small community what a larger society might look like when there is only one dominant political and economic power source, and it acts in its own interest regardless of the harm it does to all around it, and having no respect for the truth. This is what happens when there is power without accountability. Davidson shows how behavior ripples outward, from industry to community to family to individuals. The feckless, short-term profit-motive of Sanderson Timber forces the community to come to grips (or not) with the ecological and personally biological impacts of its work, which manifests in public (and secretive) behavior, pushing families into hard choices, and impacting individual lives. There is also the larger echo of events over four decades back (and more) impacting the world today. How much carbon in the atmosphere, for example, is not being sequestered because of clear-cutting? How many species of animal and plant life are being exterminated because of short term profit motives? And there is the immediate contemporary echo of so much of the planet still being plundered instead of managed, harvested, and renewed.

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A 2006 mudslide in Northern California – image from DCBS News

The story is told from the alternating perspectives, Rich, Colleen and Chub.

Damnation Spring started out as a first-person novel in Rich’s voice. But I kept running into walls–things he couldn’t know or wouldn’t notice. Even after I added Colleen, they were both so quiet. I needed Chub. He’s curious. He’s lower to the ground. He’s five at the beginning of the book. I’d worked as a nanny, so I had some experience with children that age. They’re observant, but not judgmental, and still fully alive to the magic of the world, from birds’ nests to Bigfoot. – from the Shelf Awareness interview

This works well to offer a rounded take on the action of the story.

Davidson spent the first three years of her life in Klamath, not of a logging family. Mom was a teacher, dad a carpenter. But they used a nearby creek for drinking water, like Rich and Colleen in the novel. Her parents became concerned about chemicals in the water, so stopped using it. Davidson heard about this later on, but retained curiosity about the experience. The story grew from that to wondering about how families and a whole community might respond when their homes, their communities became unsafe to live in.

Gripes
Throughout the course of the book we are given relentless examples of the horrors being inflicted on people, fauna, and flora, in addition to the huge reproductive issues. Beehives are obliterated, diseased deer stumble through the woods, nosebleeds are ubiquitous. This can get overbearing, as if we are being beaten over the head with it all, over and over and over. Yes, yes. Everything is being poisoned. Do we really need twenty more examples? Got it.

The story-telling is effective. We see the characters and how their relationships with each other work. It is dense with detail, but maybe too much detail, enough so that it makes it, sometimes, tough to see the forest for the trees, and sometimes a slog to read.

There is a response Rich has late in the book to something Colleen does that had me thinking of the real-life Daniel Boone. I understand the possibility of his response, but found it a bit of a stretch to accept in the 20th century, in the culture which is portrayed. He might have reached the destination to which he arrives, but it would have been with considerably more weeping and gnashing of teeth. In this case, maybe, a bit more detail would have been warranted.

Overall, though, Damnation Spring is a powerful example of eco-lit, a humanity-based look at crimes against nature, featuring strongly-drawn characters that you can care about, dastardly doings enough to keep the action moving, some payload on the dynamics within a stressed logging community, and more on the impact of chemical spraying and clear-cutting. The book is printed on recycled paper, but you might feel more comfortable giving the trees a break and reading this one as an e-book.

You can bury us, but you can’t keep us from digging our way out.

Review first posted – July 30, 2021

Publication dates
———-Hard cover – August 3, 2021
———-Trade paperback – May 3, 2022

I received an ARE of Damnation Spring from Scribner, of Simon & Schuster, in return for some seedlings and fertile soil. Thanks to ZC at S&S for providing, Cai at GR for cluing me in to this book, and NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

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

Interviews
—–Shelf Awareness – Ash Davidson: Living and Dying on Timber bny Samantha Zaboski
—–Library Journal – Debut Author Ash Davidson Discusses Her Epic, Immersive Novel Damnation Spring – this was sponsored by Simon & Schuster

Books this one made me think of
—–Annie Proulx – Barkskins – a historical novel, a saga, showing the logging of North America since the 17th century
—–Richard Preston – The Wild Trees – non-fic about tree-climbers, with a lot of interesting intel on the earth’s wooden giants

Song/Music
—–Johnny Cash – My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You from “November 6 – Colleen” chapter

Items of Interest
—–Coast Redwood Ecology and Management
—–Nashville Review – August 1, 2016 – Higher Ground
—–Book Club Guide

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Filed under Cli-Fi, Fiction, Literary Fiction

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

book cover
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

book cover

…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

book cover

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.

========================================

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.

========================================

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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Filed under Fantasy, Feminism, Fiction, Historical Fiction, 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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