Category Archives: Fiction

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

book cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ron Rash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – 9/4/15

Publication date – 9/8/15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

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

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Jane Smiley – from The Guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published – 10/7/14

Review posted – 8/14/15

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

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

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

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

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God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Toni Morrison – from The LA Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – August 7, 2015

Publication date – April 21, 2015

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

Morrison’s Facebook page

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

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Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter

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The world stops for you when you’re pretty. That’s why women spend billions on crap for their faces. Their whole life, they’re the center of attention. People want to be around them just because they’re attractive. Their jokes are funnier. Their lives are better.

Well, there might be some downsides. Pretty Girls is a white-knuckle thriller that will keep you turning the pages long after you should really have gone to sleep. Do not read this while on a train. You will miss your stop.

The story is told from three alternating perspectives. Claire Scott, newly free of that nasty ankle-monitor, has a pretty good life. 38, in great shape, no kids, a studly, attentive hubby who makes much more than a decent living, cool digs. What’s not to like? After a celebratory dinner out, Paul wants to do the nasty in an adjacent alley, way out of character, but, whatever. But sorry, no nookie for you guys. An armed, tattooed criminal element sort robs them. Things go too far and Paul winds up on the sidewalk, tinting the pavement with considerable quantities of red, and the game is afoot. What Claire discovers in going through her late mate’s computer files after the funeral will rock her world.

Lydia Delgado’s life is somewhat different. Single mother, 41, struggling to get by, alienated from most of her family, runs a dog grooming business. Her past would not look very nice on a resume. She’d hit rock bottom a while back and lived there for a spell, with a pick and shovel. But these days she is respectable. Owns a dog-grooming business. Met her pretty nice bf in a 12-step program. Her teenage daughter is a peach. Lydia is on the wrong side of pudge these days, with an addiction to the sort of culinary drugs that come in crinkly bags at supermarkets. Life’s a bitch and then you diet. Lydia used to be a looker. Not surprising, really. Her sisters were easy on the eyes too, but one vanished when she was 19, never to be seen again, and the other one just saw her husband get killed.

Sam is a determined sort, bulldog with a bone. He never believed the official cop line that his Julia had simply run away. So he dedicated his life to finding out what had really happened to his eldest daughter. It cost him his marriage, and maybe even more. We see the progress of Sam’s investigation through his journals, from the time when he was on this quest. Claire and Lydia’s adventure takes place today.

The two sisters join forces to continue searching for the truth about Julia’s disappearance, and must face the consequences of Claire learning some very disturbing secrets about her husband.

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Karin Slaughter – from her FB pages

Karin Slaughter is not new to the best-seller lists, having sold more than 30 million copies of her crime books books in 32 languages. She was born in a small Georgia town and now lives in Atlanta, where Pretty Girls is set. Her books include six in the Grant County series and nine in the Will Trent series, set in Atlanta. She was working on another book entirely when the notion for this one occurred to her in dream, so she checked in with her publisher, put the planned book on the back burner and dove into this one.

There are several elements at work here. In a book of this sort, if you are not engaged by the characters, the rest does not much matter. Lydia certainly has had her troubles in the past, but she is pretty supportable now, finding her best self in this worst of times. Claire makes us wonder how she could have buried her head in the sand for so long, ignoring what look like warning signs to us. But in wondering, it is worth keeping in mind that we are all sand-dwellers, from the neck up at least. Maybe it is an innate and useful skill to be able to simply ignore warning signs of peril. If we recognize them then we might have to do something about them, which entails personal risk, of either physical or emotional harm. Most of the time most of us prefer to keep a lid on things. Thus we live to ignore another day. So it feels entirely credible that reasonable people can overlook behavior that might stand out to an external observer. Particularly in Claire’s case, as she has tried to keep her head down in most situations for most of her life. We can see her vulnerability, however cloaked it may have been, and can easily feel for her. In addition we see the characters develop over the course of the tale, Claire moving from passive to assertive and Lydia moving from nobody to a sort of anti-hero. Family dynamics plays a major part in the sisters’ struggle, both to find the truth and to find a way back to sisterhood across a very large distance. Check.

The story must be engaging. Will Claire and Lydia find out what really happened to their missing sister? Does Sam? Do we care? If you can’t empathize with this as a driving force, it must be because you are too busy torturing kittens. Check.

Pace must be maintained. Slaughter must have a metronome that is set for increasing tempo. Check.

The baddie must be truly scary, and up to some really awful stuff. You have no idea. Check

The hero/heroine(s) must face believable peril. Is it possible that one or more of our core three might come to harm of the terminal sort? You betcha. Check

A thriller is never without a bit of misdirection, a few fish-hooks hoisting red-herrings for us to consider. Yep. Get your scaling tools ready. Check.

And there is that old favorite, the twist. Let’s just say that Chubby Checker would be pleased. Check. Wait, what’s that? My advisors inform me that not everyone will appreciate my lame boomer refs, so, fine, whatever. For you kids out there, ok, rewind. Start over. Twists. Let’s just say that after reading this book, I was in need of a good neck brace. Ok? Sheesh.

Finally there is the issue of payload. That is the extra information one learns about the world in reading a work of fiction. I suppose there is a bit of that here. I have no idea if the awfulness that is depicted in Pretty Girls (aside from Paul’s questionable taste in décor and labeling) has a real-world basis. Although it does seem that if one can imagine a particularly grotesque form of depravity, there is probably someone, somewhere who is practicing it right now, and with so many folks on the planet, probably more than a few. So if the book is highlighting some actual form of human awfulness, then bad-a-bing. Check

Gripes. You knew there would have to be one or two. The title, Pretty Girls suggests that those on the 10 side of life are more at risk than those closer to the 1 end of things. The theme of prettiness is noted with frequency early on, in comments on the attractiveness of some and the unattractiveness of others. Slaughter seems interested in giving some serious thought to how people react to beauty and to how the beautiful react to the world. Certainly there is peril about for those blessed with pleasing countenances, whether it comes from a wicked witch or the ravages of time. She keeps up the mentions for a while, sometimes offering actual insight. But then it seems to fade, as if she had run out of things to say about prettiness, until it is brought back into the spotlight for a final bow or two. Like, oh, the title is Pretty Girls. I guess I should put something in here to give that some closure. It looked totally like an afterthought. I thought this could have been better handled, maybe spread out a bit more, maybe dig a bit more than skin deep. But that is a quibble. No one is going to read this book to get enlightened about beauty. My second gripe will have to be a bit clouded. I don’t want to spoil anything. I found the particular fixation of the baddie on the specific group that is targeted curious. Why did this person focus on these targets? I did not get that there was a particular reason why the baddie was so set on this particular subset of victims. Perhaps the significance of this is in the eye of the beholder? But no matter, really.

The bottom line here is that you will be ripping through this book, dying (well, almost) to see how things turn out. Pretty Girls is an outstanding thriller, a very engaging, entertaining, and disturbing read, and that is a beautiful thing.

Review posted – 7/31/15

Publication date – 9/29/15

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

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

How serial killers choose their victims

The Advantages of Being Beautiful
8 Scientifically Proven Reasons Life Is Better If You’re Beautiful – by Dina Spector in Business Insider
—A Smithsonian article on
How Much is Being Attractive Worth
– by Abigail Tucker
10 Pleasures and Pains of Being Beautiful by Dr Jeremy Dean on PsyBlog

A lovely audio interview with the author by Steve White of Literary Week. The sound levels are off a bit, his volume being too loud relative to hers, but it’s worth putting up with.

==============================================SONGS

Offering a bit of further discomfort, after reading this book you might find some of these listens a bit disturbing

Pretty Woman – Roy Orbison and friends

Oh You Pretty Things – David Bowie

PYT (Pretty Young Thing) – Michael Jackson

You’re Beautiful – James Blunt

You are so Beautiful– Joe Cocker

And the all time best stalker theme song – Every Breath You Take – The Police

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Filed under Fiction, Thriller

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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

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

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

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

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

So what are we to make of this?

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

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Harper Lee – from Smithsonian.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published – 7/14/15
Review – 7/24/15

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

Harpercollins has made a FaceBook page for GSaW

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

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

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

book cover

“Don’t you wonder sometimes,” Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say, a Quaker household—surely things would be different.”

Kate Atkinson, author of eight previous novels, including four Jackson Brodie crime books, has come up with a nifty notion for a story. Kill off your heroine, early and often, while offering a look at the history of England from 1910 to the 1960s. I would love to tell you more but an SUV appears to have run a red light at the corner, had a too close encounter with a very large truck and seems to be heading into this café…Gotta go. Damn!

Now, where were we, a review? Yes, I seem to recall something about that. More of a feeling really. So, England, 20th century, perils of Pauline, well in this case Ursula, little bear, of Fox Corner, the manse of a well-to-do sort, not Downton rich, but, you know, comfortable. She has a prat of an older brother and a decent elder sis, with a couple of brothers arriving later.

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Kate Atkinson – from The Telegraph

Life is full of decision points. Walk this way, survive, walk that way and splat. It begins early with Ursula, who is offed before her first breath the first time around. She gets a better deal on the next go, managing to remain with us into childhood, and so on. The structure seems to employ the backstitch a fair bit, starting Ursula up a few chronological paces before the deadly decision point. She seems to be born again more than an entire congregation of fundamentalist Christians, or, maybe more likely a band of Buddhists, as she seems to pick up a bit of wisdom, a bit of strength with each reincarnation. I counted 15 passings-on, but sure, I could have missed one or two. The lady must have G. Reaper on her autodial. What if I had done this instead of that? How might that have changed the outcomes? One can imagine the fun, and challenge an author experiences. Taking her main character, and plenty of secondary characters as well, in one direction then another, then another. It must mimic, to a degree, the authorial process. What if I do this to Ursula? What might happen? What if I point her in a different direction? And as for stuff happening, while it is usually pretty calm here, writing while on a bench in Prospect Park, I must admit I have never seen tentacles that size emerging from anywhere let alone the very modest Park Lake. The slurping sounds are getting rather loud. That sumbitch is faster than he looks…Gotta go. Damn!

So, I felt like sitting with some coffee but the local café just seemed, I don’t know, not what I wanted. Then I considered maybe heading over to the park to work on a review, but it looks like it might rain, so I think I’ll stick at home for now. Of course the desktop has been a bit dodgy of late, but no big whup. I will dip into the special Kona stash, brew up a nice cuppa and set to, shoes off, no shirt. Maybe a nice bagel with butter and strawberry preserves. Yummm! Review, yes, Atkinson, Ursula, do-overs. Oh yeah, it does call to mind a bit of Groundhog Day, although Phil the Weatherman knew early on that he was coming back each time. Not Ursula, although as time goes on she does develop a bit of a sixth sense about some things. And the other major difference here is that Life After Life takes on some heftier purpose than Phil getting the girl and becoming a better person. Ursula is faced with some immediate challenges, like evading a rapist, a girl-killer, those annoying Nazi bombs during the blitz, not falling out windows, you know, stuff. But she also must contend with moral choices, and larger scale. Not only figuring out what the right thing is to do and then deciding, for her life, but thinking about how events affect other people, the nation, maybe the world. What sort of life does she want to lead? How can she help the most people? What sort of person does she want to be? Can she make an impact beyond her immediate concerns? And within that context, others face similar choices. Ursula is not the only one with multiple exit scenes. There are plenty in the chorus of secondary characters who come and go, or should that be go and come back in varying iterations. What if so-and-so did A this time and B the next? How might that change things? This is part of the fun of the book. Not all the decisions are of the life-threatening variety, but they can seriously impact one’s life, other lives as well. Excuse me a moment, Nala, sweetie, off the desk please. I will be happy to scratch you. No, do not rub up against my coffee cup. Nala, DOWN, NOW! Too late, brown milky liquid splatters from the cup on the desk, rushing over the top of the desktop tower, which is sitting on the floor between desk and couch. I get up to fetch some paper towels. Nala’s tail is vertical as she scampers from the room. Maybe I should have worn slippers. I step away from the desk chair, contact enough wet to matter, and only feel it for moment when my body hair begins to ignite and my heart goes into highly charged spasms. I hear the beginning of a scream and then….sonuva..!

Seems a lovely morning for some reviewing. Rainy out? Well, not yet, but you can feel it coming. So, open a few windows. Sit at the desk. Well. Maybe not. Might be a bit too much breeze there. Maybe the couch for a change. Yeah, book, they killed Kenny. You bastards! England. Ursula. War.

I’d always meant it to be very focused on the Second World War, and I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to start in 1910, to get her born…I think that’s when the coming back again and again kicked in. And I was, on, oh, page 250 of the manuscript and still in the 1920s. I kept saying to people, “Yeah it’s a book about the war!” and then I’d think, it’s not a book about the war. I hadn’t realized how much I would get entangled in 1910-1939 as opposed to 1939-1945. – from Chatelaine interview

There have certainly been some wonderful novels in the last few years that play with structure. A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of the more dramatic of that sort. The rise of the novel comprised of linked stories has seen a boom in popularity. This year’s Welcome to Braggsville takes some chances with form as well. And so it is with Life After Life. While the notion of reincarnation is hardly new in fiction, how it is handled here is far beyond what we have seen before, a real risk-taking. And so effective.

Ursula is a very engaging character. Each time she comes back, you want her to stick around. And even when she makes bad choices you will be rooting for her to fix those in the next round. Her sister Pamela seems as decent a sort as their brother Maurice seems insufferable, maybe a bit too insufferable. We get to see dimensions to Atkinson’s characters over the many iterations, learn something new about them, sometimes surprisingly so. I found it to be entirely engaging, and was always sad with Ursula went dark yet again. The book opens with her taking aim at the worst baddie of the 20th century and you will keep hoping she finds her way back to that place and completes the mission. Will she?

One of the most riveting and memorable elements in Life After Life is the description of London during the Blitz, on the ground, you-are-there, offering considerable nightmare material, and making it clear just how hardy the survivors must have been, and how fragile the hold on life, whichever iteration a person is in. The best part of the book, for me.

There are many uses of animal references here. Ursula means little bear, The family name, Todd, means Fox. A group of Nazi wives is referred to as a wolf pack. Actual foxes move in and out of the story, residents of Fox Corner, the Todd family home. A German is named Fuchs which also means fox. There are more. A warden during the Blitz is named Woolf. At one point, Atkinson offers a wink and a nod to readers as her characters discuss time travel questions. There is much consideration here of the role and rights of women in the first half of the 20th century, and the changes in mores that marked the era. The difference between love and gratitude when considering marriage is considered. The effect of World War I on the nation is noted as well, the loss of a generation of men in the war, and the loss of vast numbers from both genders from the Spanish flu. While florid passages do not characterize the novel, there are some wonderful descriptions. One of my favorites regards the night sky during the Blitz

“It’s almost like a painting, isn’t it?” Miss Woolf said.
“Of the Apocalypse maybe,” Ursula said. Against the backdrop of black night the fires that had been started burned in a huge variety of colors—scarlet and gold and orange, indigo and a sickly lemon. Occasionally vivid greens and blues would shoot up where something chemical had caught fire. Orange flames and thick black smoke roiled out of a warehouse…”
“It’s spectacular, isn’t it? Savage and strangely magnificent.

Yes it is.

Now that the task is done, I think I will bring in a glass of juice and have some of these lovely hard sourdough pretzels. Maybe catch something from the DVR. Always loved these pretzels, except, of course, when bits get stuck going down. Sometimes large bits, uh oh, a very large bit…trying to self-Heimlich, but no go, hitting my head on the edge of the coffee table as I stumble and fall while trying to stand up. Maybe if I can get some liquid in there it will soften it, but the noggin-knock and the inability to get any air makes decision-making a tough go. Damn!

Published – 5/2/13

Review Posted – 7/17/15

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

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

Interviews
—–Chatelaine by Alex Laws – this is a two-parter. The link to the second part is at the bottom of this one.

—–NPR – with Scott Simon

—–The Sydney Morning Herald by Linda Morris

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

book coverI read this one out of curiosity. Aware that it had been a huge market success, I wondered if it merited the sales. According to Riverhead, The Girl on the Train is, or was, the fastest-selling adult hardcover fiction debut ever. And that is a shame. With so many great books being published every year that do little or no business, for this one to have secured a first class ticket on the book-sales express can only be dispiriting to the good and great writers everywhere toiling away in third class on the oft-delayed local.

I do not mean to say that The Girl… is a bad book. Although I believe it to be seriously flawed, it is most definitely entertaining and will no doubt help hundreds of thousands of readers while away a few hours of their (our) lives, getting from this station to that. But if you want a psychological thriller that doesn’t disregard red signals you would do better to book a seat elsewhere.

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Paula Hawkins

Rachel Watson has had a tough go of it. When her hopes of having a baby with hubby Tom did not work out, she landed in a trough of post-hope depression, and self-medicated with a steady flow of what seemed happier spirits. It did not work out. Now, divorced and unemployed as a result of her drinking, growing larger and pastier by the day, Rachel rides the commuter train to London on weekday mornings, pretending she is still working, pretending she still has a life. The ride takes her past her old neighborhood, offering a nice, mood dampening view of a stretch of railroad-edge homes. She used to live in one of those, before her ex bought out her interest. A few places away from her former home there is a couple she sees most days. She imagines lives for them, nursing this fantasy for quite some time, until she learns that the woman has vanished, and the game is afoot.

The notion for the story occurred to Hawkins on her regular train ride in London some years back. She calls it “Rear-Window-ish,” noting that it is hardly unusual for train riders to be curious about the lives being lived in the houses they pass, and just as likely for those on the ground to wonder about those passing by.

I used to go to college on the District line,” she said. “It goes very, very slowly and you can look into people’s houses. I did idly wonder about what you would do if you saw an act of violence or something suspicious. It’s quite normal, everyone is curious about other people’s lives.” – from an article in the Standard

This irregular Watson will not make anyone forget the investigative Doctor, let alone his illustrious partner, but Rachel feels compelled to find out whatever she can, using the knowledge she has gleaned from her daily observations. We expect our investigators these days to be a bit down on their luck, and to throw back maybe more than their share of amber liquid. But Rachel Watson doesn’t have a drinking problem, she has a drinking catastrophe. How is she to figure out whither the missing lady has gone, or perhaps who made her go missing, how is she to judge whether the lady’s anger-management-challenged husband, the other man she saw at her place, or someone else might be somehow involved, if her drinking causes her to have more blackouts than London during the blitz.

The tale is told in staggered chronology, from three perspectives. Rachel’s, the missing person’s, and Anna’s, she being the woman with whom Rachel’s ex cheated while he was still with Rachel, and whom he subsequently married. Or she said, she said, and then she said. The timelines converge at the end. Most sections are divided into sub headings of morning, evening, afternoon, that sort. It makes for many short passages, good, appropriately, for reading on a train.

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This is an example of the S stock used on the District line Hawkins once rode

The pace of the tale is quick, clickety-clacking along without exceeding posted limits, advancing nicely to the big climax. Truthfulness comes in for some attention, as it seems everyone has something to hide. If you are looking for likeable characters, you might try the Hogwarts Express. The folks here tote enough baggage to merit their own cars. I suppose Rachel is sympathetic, but seems almost as much an agent of her misery as a victim. Making her pathetic and annoying was, I expect, a way to make her real, make her sympathetic, and that works, to a point.

Will Rachel find out what happened with the missing woman? Will her ex take out an order of protection against her, as she keeps calling and showing up at his place? Is the missing person merely missing? or worse? Can Rachel stay sober long enough to figure anything out? You might very well care. Clearly, judging by sales, many do. But, while I did, a little, I felt pushed away by this book. I felt cheated, as an actual audience member, as if riding on a disoriented express. I do understand that the unreliable narrator is simply a story-telling mechanism and that Rachel falls into the Madman classification within that, but when she changes her story about a significant piece of information the story went off the rails for me. So, while there is plenty to enjoy about The Girl on the Train, while there is plenty of tension-release-repeat, and while many readers are bound to be transported by the story, relating to or rooting for one or more characters at least some of the time, the one thing a reader demands from an author is honesty, and when trust is lost so is the benefit of the several hours we spend together. The locomotive was transformed, for me, into a hand-car trapped in a siding. It’s elementary.

Review posted – 7/10/15

Publication date – 1/13/15

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

While this may be the first novel by Paula Hawkins, it is not the first novel that Paula Hawkins wrote, or published. She got work writing chick-lit under the name Amy Silver, an experience that she says was great training. Hawkins, born and raised in Zimbabwe, was 17 when her family moved to London. She had wanted to be a foreign correspondent like her father, but decided that war zones were just too scary. Check the Guardian piece if you are interested in getting more info on the author.

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

Excellent intel in this piece in The Guardian

Here is the article from the Standard cited in the review, ‘My District line commute inspired bestselling thriller,’ says London author Paula Hawkins ,

An interview with the author in Entertainment Weekly The Girl on the Train author Paula Hawkins talks about her next thriller, by Clark Collis

A few great train reads. Now don’t bug me about the brevity of this. I know there are only a gazillion. Do feel free, however to add your favorite train books in the comments. I will be happy to add those to this list if you like. I have not gotten around to installing links for all of these, but I expect you guys can manage

4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie’s
Murder on the Orient Express by AC
Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal, Edith Pargeter
The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, or several other train books by this author
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead – recommended for inclusion by Dianne

Not to be outdone, train tunes

Casey Jones – this version by Allan Hirsch
Folsom Prison Blues (I hear that train a’comin) – Johnny Cash
I’ve Been Working on the Railroad – Pete Seeger
Last Train to Clarkesville – The Monkees
Last Train to Lhasa – Banco de Gaia – recommended by Rand
Locomotive Breath – Jethro Tull – the vid is cadged together, but this is what it should sound like
Midnight Train to Georgia – Gladys Knight
MTA – The Kingston Trio
Take the A-Train – Duke Ellington
The Train Song – a bit of silliness from Armstrong and Miller

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Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

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And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.

Louis and Addie are both getting on, in their 70s, Louis having lost his wife a year back, Addie a widow for some time. Both are lonely and could do with some company. While they have known each other for a long time, they have never been close. Acquaintances more than friends. Until Addie suggests that it would be a great help, given her trouble sleeping, if Louis would consent to sleep with her, not hide-the-salami sleep together, but sleep, and talk, in the same bed, overnight, companionship. Louis decides to give it a try.

Addie and Louis slowly begin to share their histories. The biddies of Holt, male and female, are taken aback, of course, at the presumed impropriety, as if, once elderly and alone, it was somehow sinful to still want to have a life. There are scenes in which they each are put on the spot and made to defend themselves to snickering locals about their arrangement. Feel free to cheer. Fueling his unhappiness with permanent rage about his childhood, Addie’s son, Gene, in particular, cannot tolerate his mother and Louis being together, projecting into it his fantasy that Louis is in the relationship to somehow swindle Addie out of her money. Problems ensue.

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Kent Haruf – 1943-2014

A consistent focus in Haruf’s novels is the unconventional family, whether of elderly brothers taking in a pregnant girl, or grandparents taking care of an eight-year old. Well, that may not be all that unconventional these days, but it still ain’t Ozzie and Harriet. In this one, Addie’s son, Gene, has his hands full with problems at home, so sends his son, Jamie, to stay with Addie for a stretch of summer. Addie, Louis and Jamie form a very close relationship. There are moving sequences of outings and bonding moments that exude love and comfort, a contrast to the difficult relationships experienced between closer blood relations and spouses. Another Haruf concern is loneliness, at all ages. It is not only the raison d’etre of Louis and Addie’s arrangement, but is considered in relation to their former marital relationships. The loneliness of others comes in for some attention as well. Connections from generation to generation are considered. There are causes and effects, but life carries on. Haruf said, in relation to Benediction

in the very next house, there is this 8-year-old girl who is the representative of hope and promise and youth and joy. And so what I am wanting people to feel is that the beginning and the ending in all of our lives are set side-by-side. They are not distinct from one another.

The same could very well be applied here, connecting the lives of folks at both ends of their mortality. Haruf had been hoping to get to the January 2015 premier of the Denver Center production of a theater version of his novel Benediction.

The cast is much reduced in Our Souls at Night relative to that of his prior novels. The focus is on the two main characters, with Jamie in a large supporting role, and remains there for the entirety. Of course their history brings in other players, but most remain off-stage or pop by for cameos. Addie and Louis tell their stories to each other each in bed at night. It is a simple and effective mechanism for looking at two lives, their effect on others and others’ effects on them. Haruf used spare language, this, then that. If his writing were a font, it would be sans serif. And he is a master of showing instead of telling. After a rage-inducing encounter, At home he went out to the garden and hoed for an hour, hard, almost violently…. After a difficult scene, Haruf does not tell us how Louis feels. There was a woman on the elevator, she looked at his face once and looked away.

His symbolism is also simple, and effective. The title refers not only to the time of day when Louis and Addie share their lives. It reminds us that time is short. A discussion about a nest of baby mice speaks to unpredictability.

In an interview Haruf did with John Moore for The Denver Center, he talks about his use of references to his own work in the novel:

Kent Haruf: … I will tell you there is a reference to the play Benediction in this new book. It’s something these two old people have a little comment about.

John Moore: That’s part of the fun of reading of your stories. Even in Benediction, which features all new characters, there are those small references that reward those people who have been with you from the beginning.

Kent Haruf: It does. And it was a chance for me to have a little fun. Exactly as you say, people who know these other stories will immediately recognize what I am talking about.

He sets his tale in Holt, Colorado, a place that will be familiar to readers of his earlier work. In another meta moment, his characters refer to the location in reference to seeing a play of a Kent Haruf story! (not Benediction) as a way of letting readers know about his usual locale

he took the physical details from Holt, the place names of the streets and what the country looks like and the location of things, but it’s not this town. And it’s not anybody in this town. All that’s made up.

Well, of course Holt is fictitious but Haruf is making sure readers do not assign the place entirely to a single real location. I guess he wanted to clear that up before he left us.

as a writer, I want to be thought of as somebody who had a very small talent but worked as best he could at using that talent. I want to think that I have written as close to the bone as I could. By that I mean that I was trying to get down to the fundamental, irreducible structure of life, and of our lives with one another. – from the Denver Center interview

I would disagree about the dimensions of his talent, but there is no question that Kent Haruf has offered the readers a world-view that may be bare bones in its form, but which is glorious in its realization.

Our Souls at Night, his sixth novel, is the last book we will ever have from Kent Haruf. It is hopeful without being saccharine. Sharing love as darkness approaches may be one of love’s highest forms, offering no short term trade for a probably unrealistic long-term promise. It makes the sharing sweeter, in a way. I got the sense, without digging into specifics, that one thing Haruf was doing here was stopping off at some favorite spots in Holt for a final goodbye. Holt will remain available for generations of readers. Haruf passed away in November, 2014 at the age of 71. He will be missed.

Review posted – 6/26/15
Publication date – 5/16/15

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

Here is the complete Denver Center interview

In an interview with Robert Birnbaum for the Identity Theory site,

In the Reader’s Guide of Random House’s page for the book, Haruf talks about how he worked:

The idea for the book has been floating around in my mind for quite a while. Now that I know I have, you know—a limited time—it was important to me to try to make good use of that time. So I went out there every day. Typically, I have always had a story pretty well plotted out before I start writing. This time I knew generally where the story was going, but I didn’t know very many of the details. So as it happened, I went out every day trusting myself to be able to add to the story each day. So I essentially wrote a new short chapter of the book every day. I’ve never had that experience before. I don’t want to get too fancy about it, but it was like something else was working to help me get this done. Call it a muse or spiritual guidance, I don’t know. All I know is that the trust I had in being able to write every day was helpful.”

There is more info to be had on Haruf from wikipedia and Barnes and Noble

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Love May Fail by Matthew Quick

book cover Matthew Quick deals in damage control, from the very nervous Pat Peoples in Silver Linings Playbook to the probably autistic Bartholomew Neil in The Good Luck of Right Now, to a crate of bruised produce in his latest novel, Love May Fail. Portia Kane made a bad choice when she was younger, going for what glittered instead of substance, in her case her writerly yearnings. After confronting her cheating pornographer hubby, Ken (not a doll) in flagrante with another chicklet half her age, Portia manages not to fire her Colt 45, but, instead, heads back home, leaving her terminally damaged marriage in Florida. This being a Matthew Quick novel, home is his usual literary stomping ground, the Philadelphia area, Oaklyn, NJ specifically, which happens to be the town where Quick grew up. Portia moves in with mom who lives with some damage of her own. She is an agoraphobic hoarder with, I am sure, a rainbow of maladies identifiable in the DSM. Will taking care of mom, who, though her belfry is overstuffed, exudes unconditional love for her daughter, help Portia heal herself and get back on her true path?

About that path. Through a chance encounter with a nun, Portia finds a goal for herself. In high school, she had been one of the fortunates who got what her inspirational English teacher, Mister Vernon, had to offer. He had opened her up to creativity, writing and literature. But after suffering a large personal trauma, Vernon has shut himself away in a remote location. Portia makes it her mission to save Mister Vernon, and return him to his calling.

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Matthew Quick

Quick has had a bit of exposure to people with trouble. In his 2013 interview with GoodReads, we learn that he had spent a year trying to help teenagers diagnosed with autism. He had other MH involvement too:

…I worked in neuro health lockdown unit as well, primarily with people who had suffered traumatic brain injuries. We always noticed when we’d get new staff, we’d watch ‘em the first day, and if they laughed on the first day, not at the people we were working with, but at the absurdity of the situation of our day-to-day. If they laughed in a good friendly way, we knew they’d be back the next day. And a lot of times if they didn’t laugh, a lot of times they wouldn’t come back again. They would just quit, after one day.

He looks a lot at existential issues in Love May Fail. Mister Vernon has a dog named Albert Camus, with whom he discusses the absurdity of life. Crazy things happen. There is an appreciation for the need of humor even, or maybe particularly, in dark times and circumstances. He has also spent some time at the front of a classroom, and this informs the novel as well.

Q populates his tales with appropriately quirky characters. The mom does not, IMHO, get enough screen time, but is interesting, in a coot-ish sort of way. Portia reconnects with an old friend from school, someone with a history of drug use. The friend’s five-year-old does Van Halen tribute performances at a local bar. Portia also encounters a saintly nun, a crusty mother superior, a good man who had always had been smitten with her, and a very irascible and troubled former teacher. Saving Mister Vernon will be a challenge. But with the support Portia builds around her, can she break through and get it done?

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Clearwater vision – from sofc.org

There are events that might be seen as miraculous in Love May Fail. Q refers to a supposed Virgin Mary sighting on the side of an office building in Clearwater. This was a real event, in which people flocked to the place to see and maybe pray to a manifestation of the Virgin. It probably wouldn’t be the strangest thing to have happened in Florida. Maybe she was looking for a condo. Deitific manipulations are applied to make sure that this or that person shows up in a particular place at a certain time. A weepily sad demise recalls the angel Clarence, from It’s a Wonderful Life. And the five-year-old’s stage performance is probably miraculous as well, although in a different way.

The journey of the story is Portia trying to resurrect her old teacher’s career, but also to let herself be born into a better, truer life. I suppose there is a point being made here about divine intervention bringing people together, with the expected nods to personal responsibility and making the most of the opportunities that come ones way, however those link-ups might have been arranged. But, while allowing for the vagaries of free choice, it does seem that there is a pretty powerful director to the events that take place in Love May Fail. Deus ex machina, sans the ex machina piece. Hey, the guy is allowed. It is his story. But it seemed to me that there was too much very specific divine intervention to sustain a willing suspension of disbelief.

Love May Fail is an interesting, engaging story with a typical cast of Q-characters. I performed the mandatory eye-rolls when I felt the divine intervention lines had been crossed, but I still enjoyed the book. Love May Fail is not Quick’s best work, and it is not so engaging as his prior effort, The Good Luck of Right Now, but still, it’s a Matthew Quick novel, so you can expect a positive outlook, likeable characters and a huge, warm heart. You could do worse for a beach outing or a flight. And if you are flying, be sure to pay attention to that nun seated next to you.

You should be warned, however. Do not read this in a public place, unless you are ok with the world seeing you go all wet-face. If you do not blubber on reading a particular scene near the very end of this book, I will officially revoke your Member of the Human Race card. I’m just sayin’.

Review posted – 6/19/15

Publication date – 6/16/15

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

Film rights have been optioned by Sony

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

There is a lot of interesting material about Quick in this interview with Dr Jo Anne White . Q talks about coping with depression, working with autistic teens, the importance of laughter, and there is a nice segment in which he talks about teaching. The interview was done around the time his last novel was released, but is still relevant.

Here is the interview Quick did with Goodreads in May, 2013

This vid shows folks gathering at the Virgin Mary appearance in Clearwater, Florida

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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

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After a hiatus of several centuries since it was actively practiced, magic is back in early 19th century England. Susanna Clarke has created an alternate, magical history, in which England had once been divided between north and south, and a temporal and a fairy kingdom. Stuffy intellectuals satisfy themselves with studying the writings of the past, forming debating societies. But in 1807 a person emerges who dares to actually practice magic.

Mr Norrell is an arrogant fellow, convinced not only that he is the only decent practical magician in England, but that it would be best if he were the only one allowed to practice at all. He proceeds to play politics to sustain, increase and legitimize his monopoly. The emergence of a second practical magician presents a challenge, solved in the short term by taking on Jonathan Strange as a student.

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Eddie Marsden as Mr Norrell – from AMC networks

Both magicians want to use their talent for the good of their country, and perform amusing and not so amusing spells on the French enemy. Ultimately they are faced with the growing emergence of a real, powerful, underlying magical realm. It intrudes on their lives and forces them to confront darkness while trying to master the unsuspected reality.

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Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange

The book has a wonderful pretext, and the tale is told in a straight style, with more than a few touches of humor. It offers a look at how the new use the machinery of government to create a sinecure, how a need to impress can lead to corruption. It is fun to read, but does take quite a long time, and has sections in which it drags. It should probably have been shorter by a hundred or two hundred pages.

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Marc Warren as “The Gentleman”

Meanderings are many. In short, or long, it was enjoyable, and is recommended, but not to the highest degree. Several award committees disagreed, holding it in significantly higher esteem. JS&MN was not only long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, it was short-listed for several other awards and won, among others, the World Fantasy award for best novel, the British Book Award for best newcomer of the Year, and the Hugo Award.

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Susanna Clarke – from Minnesota public radio

The TV adaptation was shown beginning (in the USA anyway) in June 2015

Review posted – 10/29/2008

Updated and Reposted – 6/19/15

Publication date – 9/30/2004

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

I found no personal site for Clarke, nor, FB nor Twitter. Bloomsbury has put up a Facebook page for the book

A particularly nifty site organizes people, placesl et al, from the book. If you get heavily into the book, this is a must-have resource

A nice, soft article on the author visiting the production set

A 2004 interview with Clarke on the SF site

A 2005 interview on Bookslut

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