Category Archives: Reviews

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

book cover

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!

description
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

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Fuzz by Mary Roach

book cover

…I…follow along behind a small group of conservation officers heading to the lawn outside. Their leather hiking boots squeak as they walk. “So she looks in her rearview mirror,” one is saying, and there’s a bear in the back seat earing popcorn.” When wildlife officers gather at a conference, the shop talk is outstanding. Last night I stepped onto the elevator as a man was saying, “Ever tase an elk?”

Mary Roach is up to her old tricks. A science writer now publishing her seventh book, Roach has written for many publications, including National Geographic, Wired, NY Times Magazine, and many more. She begins with a notion, then goes exploring. Roach tells Goodreads, in a book-recommendation piece, that she came across a potential story about cattle breeders staging deaths to commit insurance fraud. She even had a grand theft avocado story lined up, but the local Smokeys would not let her come along, which was a requisite. She shifted to wildlife.

I paid a visit to a woman at the National Wildlife Service forensics lab who had authored a paper on how to detect counterfeit “medicinal” tiger penises. – from the GR piece

Wait! What? (there is link to the study in EXTRA STUFF, of course) But again it was nogo accompanying the officers into the field. Really? Her presence would blow a National Wildlife Service raid on a market selling junk johnsons? It is pretty easy to come up with a descriptive for such unwarranted reticence. (Rhymes with sickish.) In any case, in her investigative travels, Mary came across a weird 1906 book about the prosecution and execution of animals and realized she had her hook. What if animals were the perpetrators of crimes instead of people? She breaks the book down into “criminal” categories, homicide, B&E, man-slaughter, larceny, even jaywalking, and off we go.

description
Mary Roach – image from Lapham’s Quarterly

First, and foremost, I need to let you know straight away that you will be laughing out loud at least every few pages. This is not an experience I have with any other writer, and yet have had it consistently with Mary Roach, across the several books of hers that I have read. Ditto here. Well, fine, your sense of humor may not be like mine, but Mary has the key to my funny-bone.

Her intro offers a stunning representation of just how stupid people have been when attempting to enforce laws on animals over the course of history. Python-worthy material, totally side-splitting, and jaw-dropping. Really, they actually did that? Yes, gentle reader, they totally did.

On June 26, 1659, a representative from five towns in a province in northern Italy initiated legal proceedings against caterpillars. The local specimens, went the complaint, were trespassing and pilfering from people’s gardens and orchards. A summons was issued and five copies made and nailed to trees in forests adjacent to each town. The caterpillars were ordered to appear in court…Of course no caterpillars appeared at the appointed time, but the case went forward anyway.

It goes on. Would have been tough making a charge stick anyway. They would have just blamed each other. It was that caterpillar, not me. I was nowhere near that orchard. And even if they were jailed they would have just flown out anyway. The law may be a ass, far too often, but sometimes it truly boggles the mind.

As usual, Mary interviews experts in all the areas she investigates. She begins her contemporary explorations with a gathering of Canadian Conservation officers (in the USA) getting Wildlife Human Attack Response Training or WHART. They don’t, but you go right on ahead and call it what it is, CSI-Wildlife – DUUUUUM-DA-DUM! Mary brings plenty of funny to her reporting, but a lot of it is simply laying out the facts and letting them make you laugh themselves. For example, the test manikins are named for brands of beer. Good one, eh? And there is that quote at the top of the review. You will also learn some real-world intel like the significance of a round versus a more oval drop of blood at a crime scene.

As usual with Mary, you will find yourself learning a whole bunch of information you never knew you wanted to know, like how to tell the difference between a bear and a cougar kill. (No, not that sort of cougar, the one with fur and claws, a mountain lion, Geez! and no, no, no, not that sort of bear, creatures of the Ursus genus, not those other large hairy beasts. Stop that right now!) She considers issues with elephants, leopards, cougars, bears, macaques, gulls, vultures and other birds, rats and mice, trees, and beans. Come again?

The lines here get a bit vague. It is not just animals that are the focus but some non-critter-based elements of nature as well. Sticking with critters for the moment, there are considerable challenges in managing the interface between people and animals. For instance, the vig that farm mice seem to extract from farmers regardless of what is done to get rid of them can turn peaceable crop-growers homicidal. Mary looks at the control methods that have been tried, and explores a promising, more laid-back approach.

Rats in the Vatican (which is an outstanding name for a band, just sayin’) present the challenge of managing the property while taking seriously the lead of Saint Francis of Assisi, an animal rights figure of long-standing, and a major inspiration for Pope, ya know, Francis. Mary talks to the guy in charge of this problem (I could not help but imagine Father Guido Sarducci, sorry), the Vatican Director of Gardens and Garbage, Rafael Torning. The considerable Vatican rat population has a taste for wires, and damages a lot of machinery. VG&G does what they can, trying to avoid using nasty chemicals. But even so, aren’t there ethical concerns? So, she talks with the house bioethicist, Father Carlo. Let’s just say that if you could count the number of angels on the head of a pin, Father Carlo could very nicely twist all of them into pretzels with his words.

description
A possible solution to half of the Vatican’s Gull-and-rats problem? – image from the Irish Sun

The Vatican has a considerable problem with herring gulls as well, thousands of ‘em. None of this Mary Poppins Feed the Birds nonsense. The feathered rabble that descend on Saint Peter’s seem more like the gathered horde in that Hitchcock movie. You will not come away from this book fond of gulls. I found her lapsed-Catholic’s tour of the Vatican to be worth many, many indulgences, rich as it was with fun details and ambience.

Chapters on elephants and leopards are particularly alarming.

…when a leopard stalks and kills more than three or four people, villagers consider it a demon. – [it, clearly, considers them takeout]

There was one historical case in which a single leopard killed over a hundred people. Mary travels with government and non-government people as they try to educate local populations in best practices for avoiding potential conflict. Not all leopard attacks are the same. You will learn the sorts. And not all attacking leopards are handled the same way. She looks at changes that have been at least partially implemented to try to reduce the carnage. (Indoor toilets, for example), and the challenges going forward in handling the problem, getting leopards to leave people alone.

description
Leopard – image from Wild Cats India

When it comes to elephants, Mary Roach knows her shit, literally. She reports on a Smithsonian project that measured daily defecation by an Indian elephant. A poop scooper will not do. Maybe a poop plow? 400 pounds, give or take, per diem. Elephants loom large as a danger, laying waste to crops, trampling fields and bulldozing buildings. People are sometimes accidentally trampled. Sometimes it is no accident, as when one elephant did a headstand on someone. A bull elephant in an elevated period of breeding excitement, called musth, is particularly aggressive and a mortal peril. She can also tell you about the effectiveness of small arms against big pachyderms. Keep your powder dry. Most bullets do little or no damage. Even a bit of armor-piercing ordnance intended for tanks needs a follow up to get the job done.

description
Indian elephant in musth – image from Wikipedia

Monkeys in India come in for a look. Macaques in particular, have made pests of themselves in urban areas, becoming aggressive thieves, to the point of violence, and even of extortion, as some will steal your phone, handing it back only when you pay the fee in food. Government officials struggle to come up with solutions, tough in a place where the monkey is a sacred animal. It is impossible to deliver directed doses of birth control without endangering other native wildlife, for example. Roach delivers a bleak portrait of official finger-pointing and inaction.

description
Street Monkeys in India – image from Outlook

While reporting on the damage done to area farms and people, and the impact of wildlife in places populated with humans, Roach does point out that a lot (all) of these conflicts result from people expanding into the native territory of dangerous or potentially pestiferous, animals.

I was surprised that there were parts of the book dedicated to non-creature natural perils. The material is interesting, but thematically it felt a bit off the central topic.

There is much surprise information (well, for me anyway) about “danger trees,” those fully grown trees that have come to the end of their lives, at least in terms of growing. They still serve as useful woodland citizens by providing places in which creatures can nest, wood in which bugs can live, biomaterials that will be absorbed back into the woods. This is all good, but there is still one problem. The rotting tops of these gentle souls can come crashing down on passers-by, unaware of the peril. The approach that is taken, by woodland managers makes one wonder whether it is better to yell “Timber” or “Fire in the Hole!”

description
Decay throughout this tree makes it too hazardous to fell with a saw. It was felled with one bundle of fireline explosives taped to the side of the tree – image and text from the US Forest Service

There is an element in this book that you should be aware of. The disposal of animals considered pests. This is of particular relevance in places where invasive species have arrived and laid waste to significant segments of the local fauna, and/or flora. Not all of these are the usual suspects, stowaway rats wiping out bird populations with their fondness for eggs, brown snakes, ditto and far too many others, often foolishly introduced by people attempting to counteract an earlier invasives problem. Some of the invaders are adorable and not on your likely list of things that MUST BE EXTERMINATED NOW. Mary looks at the techniques attempted (usually failed) and on the thought that goes into trying to make a creature’s passing as quick as possible. You might want to skip that chapter (14). Many of my daily companions are on that list and, although I did read it all, it was disquieting at times. Just lettin’ ya know. I hope this does not turn you off the book if you are otherwise interested.

She does focus on ways in which people can live in coexistence with nature. This includes a greater understanding of the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome, and a workable approach for reducing roadway carnage.

description
Deer in the headlights – image from Bryans Blog

I have issues with the titling of the book. The raised-patch addition to the hardcover jacket goes very nicely with the patches my wife and I picked up at many US National Parks. Mary might have called it Nature Gone Wild, but that was already taken. Naming it Fuzz, though, (maintaining the tradition of single-syllable Mary Roach book titles) does make it seem like it is about the police-type officials who are charged with coping when forces of nature interfere with people. Although there were indeed some badged officials in her stable of interviewees and guides through these fascinating worlds, she spoke as often with people who were researchers or administrators, and the stories were about the problems, not so much the law enforcers. Many may be related to parks here and there. Some were employed by wildlife services, but it just did not sit well with me. Her reporting is as much about a wider view of the issues as it is about the direct, Book-em, Danno “crimes” supposedly perpetrated on people by the furry or feathered set. So, I will not shy away from this. When it comes to actually describing what the book is about the title is decidedly fuzzy. There. I did it, and I am not sorry. Well, ok, maybe a little. Not that I can come up with anything better, just whining.

That done, it is clear that wherever Mary Roach shines her light there will be surprises, there will be new knowledge, and there will be smiles, lots and lots of smiles, covered with copious quantities of laughter. Follow along behind Mary as she opens some closed doors, peeks into some hidden corners, and pesters defenseless officials to find fascinating, wondrous real-world material. Even despite that one grim chapter, I found myself reacting as I always do to a Mary Roach book, laughing out loud, often, very, very often. There is a definite joy in trailing after Mary as she shines her very bright light into unseen corners and calls back “Hey guys, come see what I found!” If you have enjoyed her books before, this one should do quite nicely. There is nothing fuzzy about that at all.

Feeding animals, as we know, is the quickest path to conflict. The promise of food motivates normally human-shy animals to take a risk. The risk-taking is rewarded, and the behavior escalates. Shyness becomes fearlessness, and fearlessness becomes aggression. If you don’t hand over the food you are carrying, the monkey will grab it. If you try to hold onto it, or push the animal away…it may slap you. Or bite you. The Times of India put the number of monkey bites reported by Delhi hospitals in 2018 at 950. [When your teenager makes off with your car, just remember that it all began when they were small, and you made the mistake of offering them food]

Review posted – October 29, 2021

Publication date – September 21, 2021

I received this book from Barnes & Noble in return for cold, hard cash

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

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages

Interviews
—– Mary Roach Discusses Craft & Humor in Science Writing With the Northwest Science Writers Association with Hannah Weinberger and Ashley Braun of Northwest Science Writers Association – video – 1:05:08 – Covers her entire career
—–Commonwealth Club – Mary Roach’s Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law – with Kara Platoni – audio – 1:04:44 – a lot of fascinating material in this one – more focused on this book
—–Bookpage – Mary Roach – Hot on the trail of nature’s outlaws by Alice Cary
—–Goodreads – Mary Roach’s Highly Unusual True Crime Recommendations

Other Mary Roach books we have enjoyed
—–2016 – Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
—–2013 – Gulp
—–2010 – Packing for Mars
—–2006 – Spook
—–2004 – Stiff

Items of Interest
—–National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory – Distinguishing Real Vs Fake Tiger Penises – Where it all began for Mary re this book – You know you’re curious – yes, there are illustrations
—–The Guardian – Vultures who came to stay bring year of acid vomit and toxic feces to small town by Adam Gabbatt – Geez, talk about pests!
—–NY Times – Indians Feed the Monkeys, Which Bite the Hand by Gardiner Harris

Songs/Music
—–Mary Poppins – Feed the Birds – Julie Andrews

Scrabble Words – from the book, to weaponize against family and friends in the game
–—-frass – insect excreta – white powder that appears on trees (Not a birch! Please do not lean there.)
—–kerf – space left by a saw-blade cut in a tree (not necessarily by a man wearing a leather mask)
—–kronism – the eating of one’s offspring (named for Saturn. Did not work out well for him, though)
—–musth – a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. (from Wiki) (aka Friday night?)

3 Comments

Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature

Heaven-Sent – Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

book cover

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

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

description
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.

description
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.

description
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.

description
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 date – September 28, 2021

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

2 Comments

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

And Now, Presenting…

book cover

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.

description
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

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews, Short Stories

Beacon Hell

book cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – October 8, 2021

Publication date – October 5, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 Comments

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

One Horse Town

book cover

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

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

description
Christina Henry – image from her Goodreads page

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

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

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

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

description
Image from ClassicBecky’s Brain Food

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

description
Image from Deviant Art – from Kanaru92

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

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

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

description
Image from Classic Becky Brain Food – by Jurei-Chan

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

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

description
Image from Deviant Art – by Ochreface

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

description
Image from Art Abyss – by Gabriel Williams

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

description
Image from Disney

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

description
Image from Sleepy Hollow wiki – from the film Headless Horseman

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

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

Review posted – October 1, 2021

Publication date – September 28, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

description

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

Leave a comment

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

Digging Into History

book cover

When I first learned that Raiders of the Lost Ark, my favorite movie, might have been based on an actual archaeological expedition, I felt like my face was melting off. – from The Untold Story… article

Before he was the Police Commissioner stuck having to deal with Jack the Ripper, (who was at first, BTW, called, much less memorably, “Leather Apron”) Captain Charles Warren, a Royal Engineer, spent parts of several years near Jerusalem doing archaeological work for the British Crown, digging out some ancient tunnels, and laying the groundwork for explorations to come. About thirty years later, a Finnish scholar believes he has found a code in the Book of Ezekiel that addresses some of the tunnels Warren had excavated. Dr. Valter Juvelius’s code-breaker, he says, points the way to the secret location of the Ark of the Covenant.

description
Brad Ricca – image from Amazon

Of course, today this guy would be one of a thousand cranks flogging his wares on the internet, generating eye-rolls, and maybe trying for a spot on Shark Tank. But in 1909 he was taken seriously and was embraced by a group of men willing to spend some of their considerable excess cash on an adventure, and look to their wealthy friends and associates to provide the rest of the needed funding. They formed a group called J.M.P.V.F. Syndicate, for their initials, but referred to it as The Syndicate (nothing sinister there), hoping to find the Ark, reputed to have properties that allowed one to communicate directly with God. Whether it provided an early version of the iPhone, a Star Trek communicator, an eight-ball, a metal can with a very, very long string attached, or no comms-capacity at all, they estimated it to be worth hundreds of millions of pounds, or something on the order of twenty three billion dollars in today’s money. Adigging they will go.

description
Charles Warren in Palestine, 1867 – image from The History Reader

We follow the progress of the digs over several years, noting the discoveries that were made, and the challenges the participants faced. Some very Indy-ish adventures are included. The point of this book is not to tease you about the location of the Ark. Ok, maybe it is, a bit, but rest assured that if the Ark had been found and the author had figured out where it is, I seriously doubt he would be telling us. He would be living VERY LARGE somewhere, and who knows, maybe having daily chats with you-know-who. (Sup, G?)

True Raiders is my love letter to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but also to the conspiracy-minded genre of eighties properties like In Search Of, Amazing Stories, and Holy Blood, Holy Grail…I…want to ask real questions about the intersections between fact, story, and truth. Did Monty really go after the Ark? Yes, he did. What did he find? That answer is more complicated. – from The Untold Story… article

description
Monty Parker – image from Wiki

If you picked up this book without having examined the flap copy or inspected the cover too closely, you could easily mistake it for a novel. Ricca has taken liberties, fleshing out the structure of known events with bountiful interpretation. It makes for a smoother and more engaging read than a mere recitation of facts might allow. I was reminded of the shows aired on The History Channel in which actors portray historical events. Ricca does it with panache. A sample:

Ava Lowle Willing Astor was in a mood. She reclined back on her chair and paged through the Times to take her mind off things. She pushed through the headlines to the society pages, to look for the names of people she knew and parties she had attended—and those she had ruthlessly avoided. The Sunday-morning light was streaming through her high windows. Her daughter Alice was around, somewhere.
“Alice!” she yelled out sharply, in no particular direction but loud. There was no answer. She was probably trying on her jewelry again. Ava made a face.

description
Ava Lowle Willing Astor – image from Wikipedia

Ava and Monty flirt. But it seems she is here more for social context, and to offer a take on what challenges were faced by uber-rich women with more independence than was thought proper at the time. There are few women playing a significant role in this story. One is Bertha Vester, a Chicago-born local, brought to Jerusalem as a child. She became a towering figure in Jerusalem, internationally renowned for her charitable work with children of all faiths, through the organization her father had established, The American Colony. She was also a major source for Parker, connecting him to local experts able to help in the dig. And offering him the benefit of her knowledge of area history, including Charles Warren’s work.

description
Bertha Spafford, (later Vester) age 19, in 1896. – image from IsabellaAlden.com

In the Notes that follows the text of the tale, Ricca says:

Rather than a history, this is a history of the story. Chapters are grouped into parts that are based on the point-of-view of the person or source used.

That is true enough. Monty Parker’s expedition was the one looking hard for the Ark, but Warren’s work thirty years before had done the initial digging, and the de-coding by Dr. Juvelius provided the actual spark. The stories merge when Parker is helped by Bertha Vester to connect with Warren’s work, and with local archaeological experts.

description
Valter Juvelius (left) around 1909–1911 in the Siloam tunnel.

There are personalities aplenty on display here. Ricca gives us some individual histories, although nothing that might smack of a stand-alone biography. Some of the characters were involved in newspaper headlines or related notoriety. Ava Lowle Willing Astor was involved in a front-page divorce from John Jacob Astor IV, who would later sail on the maiden voyage of an ill-starred ship, prior to her involvement with the expedition. As noted earlier, Charles Warren had the misfortune of being the Police Commissioner when Jack the Ripper was cutting his way through London. Monty and his pals gained notoriety of an unwanted sort after one of their (certainly unauthorized) digs. Their hasty retreat was an international incident, garnering coverage in the New York Times, and generating mass outrage among the locals in Jerusalem.

description
NY Times headline about Parker absconding

…on May 14, 1911, The New York Times ran a story titled “Mysterious Bags Taken from Mosque.” In it, the expedition is described as having worked for two years just “to reach that one spot.” And though the article asserts that “what they really found no one knows,” it notes that the expedition “told different persons that they are ‘very satisfied.’” The article claims that four or five men, including Parker, Duff, and Wilson, invaded the Haram at midnight, having gained entrance by bribery, and that they lifted up a heavy stone, entered a cavern, and “took away two bags.” Before they left on their white yacht from Jaffa, they had a cup of tea. The caretaker they had bribed was in jail and suffered a further indignation: his great beard and mustache had been shaved off in public.
The same story also printed a conversation between a “very liberal” Moslem man of Jerusalem and an Englishman:
“Suppose that some Moslems entered Westminster Abbey and deliberately carried away treasure from some secret underground vault?” asked the Moslem. “What would happen?”
“War,” said the Englishman.

The book raises questions of where found relics belong, not, ultimately, showing Monty and his partners in the kindest light. Part of that portrayal is to show the self-regard of the upper crust, presuming that their privileged upbringing carried with it not just an inflated sense of entitlement, but an enhanced level of self-regard as being of strong, moral character.

Juvelius was relieved. He knew that one would have to have mediocre intelligence to think they could milk secrets from an English gentleman.

Another participant, Robin Duff, let on to Rudyard Kipling that he was responsible for raping local virgins in Jerusalem. Maybe not quite the highest moral character.

description
Father Louis-Hughes Vincent

There is a far-too-lengthy where-are-they-now series of chapters at the back of the book that might have been more alluring in a longer work, one that had offered more beforehand about the people involved, made us more interested in their stories. It makes sense in the overall intent, but seemed too large a tail for a creature of this size.

description
(the unfortunately named) Warren’s Shaft – image from Wikimedia

You will learn some interesting intel reading True Raiders, such as where the Indy writers got the notion of that gigantic boulder rolling through a tunnel, a possible origin for a Scandinavian deity, and how George Lucas decided on the Ark as the target of Indiana Jones’s first great quest. It seems possible that Monty Parker was one of many real-world models for the fictitious Indy. The location of the Ark should surely spark some interest of the did-they-or-didn’t-they find it sort. You will see the sort of competition Parker faced while attempting to find the Ark, from both the rich and powerful billionaire sorts and more local interests. Ava Astor has some interesting whoo-whoo experiences, unrelated to Monty’s dig. Ricca offers a sense of adventure in a real-world story, however embellished the details might be. He brings actual archaeological knowledge along, showing the significance of the finds made by both the Warren and Parker digs, gives us a look at some of the social mores and activities of the times, and loads it all up with a wonderful sense of fun, allowing readers to wonder, Would I have done this or that if offered the chance? No fedora, leather jacket, or whip needed. True Raiders is definitely worth exploring. No snakes involved.

description
Fake, but fabulous Raider – image from Mental Floss

Review posted – September 21, 2021

Publication date – September 24, 2021

I received an e-ARE of True Raiders from St. Martins through NetGalley in return for doing some digging. Thanks.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads

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

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

Interview
—–Constant Wonder – Searching for the Ark of the Covenant – by Markus Smith – audio – 40:34

Items of Interest from the author
—–Excerpt from The History Reader – True Raiders: Charles Warren
—–The Untold Story of the Expedition to Find the Legendary Ark of the Covenant

I try not to think about it too much, but I think I spent a great many lonely years earning a doctorate solely because of Raiders. I may not have been lost in Egyptian tombs or navigated ancient mazes, but I have found lost documents and have taught for many years out of cramped offices that resembled utility closets. And it was all great. But I never thought it would lead me to the Ark. Somewhere, I was disappointed not only that it hadn’t, but that I had foolishly believed it would.


Then I learned about Monty Parker.

Items of Interest (Wikions?)
—–Wiki on Charles Warren
—–Wiki on Monty Parker
—–Wiki on Cyril Foley
—–Wiki on Book of Ezekial
—– Library of Congress – The Bertha Vester diaries
—–World History Encyclopedia – The Moabite Stone [Mesha Stele] by William Brown
—– Wiki on Ava Lowle Willing Astor by Mark Meredith

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Being There

book cover

We think of wilderness as an absence of sound, movement and event. We rent our rural cottages ‘for a bit of peace and quiet.’ That shows how switched off we are. A country walk should be a deafening, threatening, frantic, exhausting cacophony.


If today’s shorn, burned, poisoned apology for wilderness should do that to us, just think what the real wild, if it still existed, would do. It’d be like taking an industrial cocktail of speed, heroin and LSD and dancing through a club that’s playing the Mozart Requiem to the beat of the Grateful Dead, expecting every moment to have your belly unzipped by a cave bear.

All humans are Sheherazades: we die each morning if we don’t have a good story to tell, and the good ones are all old.

Up for a bit of time travel? No, no, no, not in the sci-fi sense of physically transporting to another era. But in the mostly imaginary sense of picturing oneself in a prior age. Well, maybe more than just picturing, maybe picturing with the addition of some visceral experience. Charles Foster has written about what life is like for otters, badgers, foxes, deer and swifts, by living like them for a time. He wrote about those experiences in his book, Being a Beast. He wonders, here, how experiencing life as a Paleolithic and a Neolithic person can inform our current understanding of ourselves.

I thought that, if I knew where I came from, that might shed some light on what I am…It’s a prolonged thought experiment and non-thought experiment, set in woods, waves, moorlands, schools, abattoirs, wattle-and-daub huts, hospitals, rivers, cemeteries, caves, farms, kitchens, the bodies of crows, museums, breaches, laboratories, medieval dining halls, Basque eating houses, fox-hunts, temples, deserted Middle Eastern cities and shaman’s caravans.

description
Charles Foster – image from Oxford University

His journey begins with (and he spends the largest portion of the book on) the Upper Paleolithic (U-P) era, aka the Late Stone Age, from 50,000 to 12,000 years ago, when we became, behaviorally, modern humans. Foster is quite a fan of the period, seeing it as some sort of romantic heyday for humanity, one in which we were more fully attuned with the environments in which we lived, able to use our senses to their capacity, instead of getting by with the vastly circumscribed functionality we have today.

Interested in the birth of human consciousness, he puts himself, and his 12 yo son, Tom, not only into the mindset of late Paleolithic humans, but into their lives. He and Tom live wild in Derbyshire, doing their best to ignore the sounds of passing traffic, while living on roadkill (well, I guess they do not entirely ignore traffic) and the bounty of the woods. They deal with hunger, the need for shelter, and work on becoming attuned to their new old world.

We’re not making the wood into our image: projecting ourselves onto it. It’s making us. If we let it.

In one stretch Foster fasts for eight days, which helps bring on a hallucinatory state (intentionally). Shamanism is a major cultural element in the U-P portrait he paints. It is clearly not his first trip. He recalls an out-of-body experience he had while in hospital, the sort where one is looking down from the ceiling at one’s physical body, seeing this as of a cloth with a broader capacity for human experience. He relates this also to the cave paintings of the era, seeing them, possibly, as the end-product of shamanic tripping. This section of the book transported me back to the 1960s and the probably apocryphal books of Carlos Castaneda.

Social grooming was important to ancestors of our species. But, with our enlarged brains able to handle, maybe, a community of 150 people, grooming became too cost-intensive.

To maintain a group that size strictly by grooming, we’d have to groom for about 43% percent of our time, which would be deadly. Something else had to make up for the shortfall, and other things have. We have developed a number of other endorphin-releasing, bond-forming strategies that don’t involve touching [social distancing?]. They are…laughter, wordless singing/dancing, language and ritual/religion/story.

It sure gives the expression rubbed me the wrong way some added heft.

He has theories about religion, communication, and social organization that permeate this exploration. He posits, for example, that late Paleo man was able to communicate with a language unlike our own, a more full-body form of expression, maybe some long-lost form of charades. There is an ancient language, thought to have been used by Neanderthals, called HMMM, or holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, and memetic communication. It is likely that some of this carried forward. And makes one wonder just how far back the roots go to contemporary languages that incorporate more rather than less musicality, more rather than less tonality, and more rather than less bodily support for spoken words.

He writes about a time when everything, not just people, were seen as having a soul, some inner self that exists separately, although living within a body, a tree, a hare, a blade of grass. This sort of worldview makes it a lot tougher to hunt for reasons that did not involve survival. And makes understandable rituals in many cultures in which forgiveness is begged when an animal is killed. This becomes much more of a thing when one feels in tune with one’s surroundings, an experience Foster reports as being quite real in his Derbyshire adventure. This tells him that Paleo man was better able to sense, to be aware of his surroundings than almost any modern human can.

Foster has a go at the Neolithic as well, trying to see what the shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture was like, and offers consideration of the longer-term impacts on humanity that emanated from that change. This is much less involved and involving, but does include some very interesting observations on how agriculture revolutionized the relationship people had with their environment.

…the first evidence of sedentary communities comes from around 11,000 years ago. We see the first evidence of domesticated plants and animals at about the same time. Yet, it is not for another 7,000 years that there are settled villages, relying on domesticated plants or fixed fields. For 7,000 years, that is, our own model of human life, which we like to assume would have been irresistibly attractive to the poor benighted caveman, was resisted or ignored, just as it is by more modern hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers only become like us at the end of a whip. Our life is a last resort for the creatures that we really are.

He notes that even when farming took root, many of those newly minted farmers continued living as hunter-gatherers for part of the year.

He finishes up with a glance at the contemporary. More of a screed really. He notes that phonetic writing severed the connection our languages have with the reality they seek to portray. Pre-phonetic languages tend to be more onomatopoeic, the sounds more closely reflecting the underlying reality. He sees our modern brains as functioning mostly as valves, channeling all available sensation through a narrow pipeline, while leaving behind an entire world of possible human experience that we are no longer equipped to handle. To that extent we all have super-powers, of potential awareness, anyway, that lie waiting for someone to open the right valve, presuming they have not been corroded into inutility by disuse. He tells of meeting a French woman in Thailand whose near-death experience left her passively able to disrupt electronic mechanisms. She could not, for example, use ATMs. They would always malfunction around her.

He takes a run at what is usually seen to indicate “modern” humanity.

I’ve come to wonder whether symbolism is all it’s cracked up to be, and in particular whether its use really is the great watershed separating us from everything else that had gone before.

He argues that trackers, for example, can abstract from natural clues the stories behind them, and those existed long before so-called “modern man.”

He calls in outside authorities from time to time to fill in gaps. These extra bits always add fascinating pieces of information. For example,

Later I wrote in panic to biologist David Haskell, an expert on birdsong, begging him to reassure me that music is ‘chronologically and neurologically prior to language.’ It surely is, he replied. ‘It seems that preceding both is bodily motion: the sound-controlling centers of the brain are derived from the same parts of the embryo as the limb motor system, so all vocal expression grows from the roots that might be called dance or, less loftily, shuffling about.

Foster is that most common of writers, a veterinarian and a lawyer. Wait, what? Sadly, there is no telling in here (it is present in his Wiki page, though) of how he managed to train for these seemingly unrelated careers. (I can certainly envision a scenario, though, in which we hear lawyer Foster proclaiming to the court, “My client could not possibly be guilty of this crime, your honor. The forensic evidence at the scene clearly shows that the act was committed by an American badger, while my client, as anyone can see, is a Eurasian badger.”) It certainly seems clear, though, from his diatribes against modernity, where his heart is. In the visceral, physical work of dealing with animals, which lends itself to the intellectual stimulation of a truer, and deeper connection with nature.

The first time (and one of the only times) I felt useful was shoveling cow shit in a Peak District farm when I was ten. It had a dignity that piano lessons, cub scouts, arithmetic and even amateur taxidermy did not. What I was detecting was that humans acquire their significance from relationship, that relationships with non-humans were vital and that clearing up someone’s dung is a good way of establishing relationships.

In that case, I am far more useful in the world than I ever dreamed.

GRIPES
Foster can be off-putting, particularly to those us with no love of hunting, opening as he does with I first ate a live mammal on a Scottish hill. (Well, as least it wasn’t haggis.) I can well imagine many readers slamming the book shut at that point and moving on to something else. Will this be a paean to a manly killing impulse? Thankfully, not really, although there are some uncomfortable moments re the hunting of living creatures.

Sometimes he puts things out that are at the very least questionable, and at the worst, silly. Our intuition is older, wiser and more reliable than our underused, atrophied senses. Really? Based on what data? So, making decisions by feelz alone is the way to go? Maybe I should swap my accountant for an inveterate gambler?

He sometimes betrays an unconscious unkindness in the cloak of humor:

The last thing I ate was a hedgehog. That was nine days ago. From the taste of them, hedgehogs must start decomposing even when they’re alive and in their prime. This one’s still down there somewhere, and my burps smell like a maggot farm. I regret it’s death under the wheels of a cattle truck far more than its parents or children possibly do.

I doubt it.

One stylistic element that permeates is seeing an imaginary Paleo man, X, and his son. Supposedly these might be Foster and Tom in an earlier era. It has some artistic appeal, but I did not think it added much overall.

All that said, the overall take here is that this is high-octane fuel for the brain, however valved-up ours may be. Foster raises many incredibly fascinating subjects from the origins of religion, language, our native capabilities to how global revolutions have molded us into the homo sap of the 21st century. This is a stunning wakeup call for any minds that might have drifted off into the intellectual somnolence of contemporary life. There are simply so many ideas bouncing off the walls in this book that one might fear that they could reach a critical mass and do some damage. It is worth the risk. If you care at all about understanding humanity, our place in the world, and how we got here, skipping Being a Human would be…well…inhuman. It is an absolute must-read.

We try to learn the liturgy: the way to do things properly; the way to avoid offending the fastidious, prescriptive and vengeful guardians of the place. Everything matters. We watch the rain fall on one leaf, trace the course of the water under a stone, and then we go back to the leaf and watch the next drop. We try to know the stamens with the visual resolution of a bumblebee and the snail slime with the nose of a bankvole and the leaf pennants on the tree masts with the cold eyes of kites.

Review posted – 9/17/21

Publication date – 8/31/21

I received an ARE of Being a Human from Metropolitan Books in return for a modern era review. Thanks, Maia.

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

Links to the author’s personal, and Twitter pages

By my count this is Foster’s 39th book

Foster’s bio on Wiki

Charles Foster (born 1962) is an English writer, traveller, veterinarian, taxidermist, barrister and philosopher. He is known for his books and articles on Natural History, travel (particularly in Africa and the Middle East), theology, law and medical ethics. He is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. He says of his own books: ‘Ultimately they are all presumptuous and unsuccessful attempts to answer the questions ‘who or what are we?’, and ‘what on earth are we doing here?’

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Going underground: meet the man who lived as an animal – re Being a Beast by Simon Hattenston
—–New Books Network – Defined by Relationship by Howard Burton – audio – 1h 30m

Items of Interest from the author
—–Emergence Magazine – Against Nature Writing – on language as a barrier to understanding
—–Shortform – Charles Foster’s Top Book Recommendations

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Bear Grylls – a British adventurer – mentioned in Part 1 as an example of someone more interested in the technology of survival than the point of it (p 62 in my ARE)
—–Wiki on Yggdrasil – mentioned in Part 1 – humorously (p 85)
—–Wiki on the Upper Paleolithic
—–Dartmouth Department of Music – a review of a book positing that Neanderthals used musicality in their communications Review Feature – The Singing Neanderthals:
the Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen – Foster addresses this in this discussion of the origins of human language
—–Wiki on Carlos Castaneda
—–Discover Magazine – Paleomythic: How People Really Lived During the Stone Age By Marlene Zuk Like it says – an interesting read

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

Sweet and Sour

book cover

It didn’t come easily to me. I had to work at it. But if I learned one thing from Mom, it’s that it was usually worth it being the sweet girl.

“When you die, can I have your skin?” she asked calmly, tracing a finger over my face, before getting up and walking out of the room, leaving me so afraid that I couldn’t move.

Paloma Evans is 30 years old, living in San Francisco. She had been adopted at age 12 out of a Sri Lankan orphanage, the Little Miracles Girls Home. Recently cut off from her parental funds, she engages in dodgy on-line behavior to make a buck, (One of her creepy clients appears to be stalking her) and had to take in a room-mate to help with the insane San Francisco rental costs. But the roomie, an Indian immigrant, learned her big secret, and is blackmailing her, which is bad enough. Arriving home after a few too many, she finds him dead in her kitchen. It gets worse. Chased out of her own apartment by the presumed killer, a seemingly spectral figure, she heads for the stairwell. But fingers close on her neck before she can escape. She wakes up hours later, in the stairway, a scolding neighbor barking at her, presuming she had passed out, drunk…again.

description
Amanda Jayatissa – image from Artra Magazine

Before she can figure out how to deal, the cops arrive. She tells them what she had seen, but when they look through the apartment, the body is gone. The detective does not believe her, and his skepticism is understandable. Paloma is a blackout drunk, unable to recall events that took place, actions she undertook during her blacked-out hours. She really has no idea what happened to the guy, but does remember that she had fled her apartment, looking around after discovering the body, and was chased out of the place by a ghost from her past.

Paloma may be an adult, but, despite years of therapy, she has carried from childhood a powerful belief in an old-country ghostly being called Mohini, (think the freaky girl who emerges from The Ring in desperate need of a makeover, dressed in white). Seeing that terrifying presence in her apartment just after discovering her roommate’s body reinforces her belief. Losing hours after fleeing her apartment does not help. So what’s going on?

Mohini is my favorite ghost story. She is one of the most famous urban legends here in Sri Lanka, a stereotypical woman in white…It’s a story that is very special to me. It’s a story we grew up whispering to each other around the candle in the night. I have actually dressed up as Mohini…to scare my cousins…It was hilarious. I knew that I needed to include this ghost story element into the book…It was the story that defined a lot of the scary stories of my childhood. – from the Books and Boba interview

The tale takes place in two timelines, alternating chapters, today, presumably 2018, give or take, as Covid is not yet a thing, and 2000, also give or take, when Paloma was a 12yo orphan in Sri Lanka. We follow her story there, her friendships, her interests, her hopes. The home is not a bad place, those in charge are a relatively benign pair, but on occasion the girls are given a class with the terrible, the horrible, the most feared Sister Cynthia, a sadistic witch of a person, who delights in physically harming the girls and threatening them with eternal damnation. (zero stars in RateMyTeachers) She is, unfortunately, in charge of Saint Margaret’s Home for Girls, the place where those who are not adopted will be sent after they age out of Miracles, a terrifying prospect. The Evanses are a wealthy American couple, supporters of the orphanage, and many other charities. They are looking to buy adopt a child. The girls at the orphanage are all prepped for when potential adopting parents stop by for a look-see, orphanage management trying its best to make a good impression, get one of their girls adopted, and hopefully gain some extra financial support and good press from the adopters.

Paloma and Lihini are besties at Miracles. Physically similar, fair-skinned, similar in height, build and overall looks. They sleep together often, in the comforting child-like sense, not that other one. We see how their relationship evolves with each chapter back in Sri Lanka. As only one child will be selected, there is understandable tension between them.

Today, give or take, Paloma is frantic. She goes to stay at her parents’ suburban house, as they are away, and remaining at the scene of the crime seems unwise. Was she hallucinating? This is not entirely impossible as she had been warned by her therapist that drinking on top of her new meds could do really bad things to her. But did we mention that Paloma is a blackout drunk? Paloma goes all Miss Marple trying to figure out what happened to her roomie, and why. Then the mysteries start to breed. A neighbor of her parents vanishes mysteriously, and who is that strange woman who seems to be spying on her?

The story is plenty fun enough on its own merits. But there is more going on here. Racial elements permeate. Lihini and Paloma stand out a bit from the rest of the girls because of their relatively fair skin, seen as an advantage for those hoping to be taken in by a westerner. There is a wonderful scene in a restaurant bathroom in which Paloma is mistaken for another Asian women by a somewhat inebriated white woman, an experience Jayatissa has had, and which many people she knows have had. It is not the only moment in the book in which someone is unable to tell two people of color apart. Toss in discussions with other POCs about stereotypes applied to South Asians. Her shrink, Nina, whom she likes, is raucously white, dressing in white, her office decorated all in white, and it is shocking when Paloma sees her wearing anything with color.

She kept all her pristine white files inside a pristine white filing cabinet, in a corner of her pristine white office. When I say pristine, I mean surgical-level clean. When I say white, I mean eyeball-searing, detergent-commercial white. She even asked her clients to take their shoes off so they wouldn’t mess up the spotless shag carpet. And it always smelled like freshly laundered sheets. She probably had an air freshener tucked behind the couch or something, because there was never any laundry in sight.

Gender and madness permeates. The book opens with Paloma about to lose it, dealing with a bank employee who is not quite up to speed with the institution’s processes.

I was suffering from the worst case of writers’ block, and to say my mood was bleak would be an understatement. And then I had a really annoying experience with a customer service associate at my bank, where I found myself wanting to scream and shout and make a scene, but of course I didn’t. I kept it together, like most of us are trained to do, went into a coffee shop, where I pulled out a notebook and a piece of paper and really let that customer service associate have it. I guess you could say that’s how Paloma came about. – from The Big Thrill interview

Difficult women are often presumed to be nuts, and many have learned to couch their displeasure under a polite veneer. Paloma does that in the book. In fact, while one might think of her as foul-mouthed, the profanity in her internal monologue remains unspoken. This is not to say that Paloma is not abrasive and does not need considerable therapy. She certainly is and she certainly does. Orphanage girls must cope with potential. sexual predation, always knowing that they will be called liars or delusional if they report abuse. And there is the trauma of losing children that can drive women mad with grief. Also the danger of internalizing it when people keep telling her she is losing her mind.

Several classic novels are mentioned, among them Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Oliver Twist, and, most significantly, Wuthering Heights, all present in the orphanage library, the last being Paloma’s favorite. (Mrs. Evans was going to be my Catherine. She was going to save me.). Unsurprisingly, most have to do with orphans. (Wish she had found a way to fit in a reference to The Pirates of Penzance, as well) Thematically, there are concerns from those books that are reflected here. Sister Cynthia certainly represents a Dickensian nightmare of orphanage management. The girls in these are hassled in other ways by people at an orphanage or a placement. There are other elements of contemporary orphanage life that echo the perils of being parentless in the 19th century, including the timeless emotional pain of losing, or being left by, biological parents.

At first glance, My Sweet Girl offers us an unreliable narrator in the mold of The Girl on the Train’s Rachel Watson, another troubled soul with a drinking problem. Both generally fall into The Madman sort in the classification system to be found here. But Jayatissa takes the unreliable narrator a step further, so that there are times when you are not even certain who the narrator is, let alone the veracity of her reporting.

Unrelated Random thoughts
There is an Agatha Christie, Poirot-ish feel to the story when the facts are laid out near the end.

The preparation the school does with the orphans for the visit by the Evanses reminded me of young women in Austen novels gussying up for the arrival of potential suitors, or going to a meat-market ball.

In addition to the rage at the clerk scene that opens the book, there are other elements taken from the author’s life, some noted above. She named a character for her younger brother, Gavin.

GRIPES
We never get enough of a feel for Paloma’s actual life with the Evanses. She seems not particularly fond of them at age 30. How did that come to be? This could have used more. I had issues with how the POV was handled. It was a bit like one of those time travel stories in which it becomes impossible to keep track of who is where and when. The guilt Paloma experiences is way out of line with what she had actually done. That was a stretch for me.

SUMMARY
Nevertheless, My Sweet Girl is a fun, fast-paced thriller that will encourage you not to drink to excess and be more discriminating in selecting possible roommates. It may offer ideas for how to monetize some used clothing, and offer a perspective on how people perceive people who do not look like they do. It will maybe give you a few chills, and make your head spin like Reagan MacNeil (without the pea soup), with the twistiness of the finale. And you might be forgiven, if, when you get to the end, you feel an urge to hold up your bowl and say, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

…things that don’t feel real during the day have a way of sliding into bed with you at night.

Review posted – September 10, 2021

Publication date – September 14, 2021

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads

I received an e-ARC of this book from Elisha Katz of Berkley Books in return for an honest review. But then, I may have that wrong. I had imbibed a bit more than usual the day the offer came in, and I was quite distracted by finding that unexpected body in the basement, so…maybe it was her. I am beginning to wonder. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

Jayatissa was brought up in Sri Lanka, graduated from Mills College in California, moved to the UK, and now lives in Sri Lanka. She is a corporate trainer and an entrepreneur, with a chain of cookie stores. My Sweet Girl is her second novel. Her first was The Other One, released under the name Amanda Jay.

Interviews
—–Books & Boba – on Player FM – audio – #150 – Author Chat with Amanda Jayatissa by Reera Yoo and Marvin Yueh – audio – 51 minutes
The interviewers claim to have read the book but misidentify where half the book takes place. They also keep saying that it is a debut novel. It is not. Nevertheless, there is a lot of good information in here. Roll your eyes and give a listen.
—–The Big Thrill – When Nightmares Follow You Halfway Around the World by Neil Nyren
—–News line – Award winning author Amanda Jayatissa speaks of her experiences – video – 28:50 – this is from 2018 re her first novel, The Other One, with too much focus on her experience winning an award, but there is other intel in here that makes it worthwhile

Items of Interest from the author
—–Excerpt – From Penguin Random House
—–The Nerd Daily – another excerpt

Items of Interest
—–Amaya resorts and spas – Sri Lankan Folklore:Mohini
—–Gutenberg – Wuthering Heights full text
—–Gutenberg – Anne of Green Gables full text
—–Gutenberg – Oliver Twist full text

2 Comments

Filed under Reviews

He Lied, She Lied

book cover

We’ve tried date nights, and marriage counseling, but spending more time together isn’t always the same as spending less time apart. You can’t get this close to a cliff edge without seeing the rocks at the bottom, and even if my husband doesn’t know the full story, he knows that this weekend is a last attempt to mend what got broken.
What he doesn’t know, is that if things don’t go according to plan, only one of us will be going home.

Nothing like having a positive attitude when you’re trying to salvage a troubled marriage.

description
Alice Feeney – image from BBC

I reached a significant benchmark in my marriage while reading this book, a twentieth (china) wedding anniversary. It was the second time, for me. (I am nothing if not tenacious.) So, I appreciate the marital issues that arise in this wonderful thriller. (Sorry, no thriller material in either of my marriages, well, none that I will admit to in court. And no, my wife and I have no weekends planned for some remote snowy locale.) Adam and Amelia are trying to save theirs. (marriage, not thriller). A winter weekend away to a remote part of Scotland. Do or die. He is a successful screenwriter. She works at the Battersea Dogs Home. (Does that make Adam a rescue?)

We’re both pretty good at keeping up appearances and I find people see what they want to see. But behind closed doors, things have been wrong with Mr. and Mrs. Wright for a long time.

All right, this is getting way too close for comfort. (see first marriage noted above) The mutual discomfort in their marriage is clear, to the reader, anyway, but there are mitigating circumstances.

Adam has a neurological glitch called prosopagnosia, which means he cannot see distinguishing features on faces, including his own.

Face blindness makes it tough to deal in a very social world, if one cannot differentiate friend from foe, or lover from casual acquaintance. But, as is the case for many people with unusual qualities, he has learned to compensate. The sound of a voice, a personal scent, individual physical movements. Enough so that he found someone willing, eager even, to marry him.

Adam’s great personal screenplay is Rock Paper Scissors. It won him early acclaim (at 21) but never got made, despite repeated attempts. Now, he adapts novels by other writers, and is good at it, makes a nice living. The Rock Paper Scissors motif repeats from time to time. The notion of the story is incorporated into the structure of the novel. The game is played, sometimes with very serious stakes.

Blackwater Chapel is remote, in the Scottish Highlands (zero bars), quite beautiful landscape thereabouts, on Blackwater Loch. It is indeed a renovated place of worship. The power is not the most reliable, particularly in dire weather. Amelia had won the weekend away in a contest at work. It may not be the best of all possible times for such a visit, an eight-hour drive from London, Amelia doing ALL the driving in her Morris Minor. A tin-can antique on four wheels, is what Adam calls it. While they are there, a huge winter storm seals them in. Travel would be far too risky in the old car. They are quite effectively isolated.

Isolated, yes, but, well, maybe not entirely alone. A supposed housekeeper leaves a few notes for them. Maybe she is the person living in the only other structure within miles, a thatched cottage. There is a flock of local sheep to offer some light scares and barriers. And, of course there is Bob, their giant black lab. (Asked in an interview which of her characters she would choose if she was about to be stranded on a deserted island, Feeney did not hesitate. Bob, she said. Maybe that is because Bob, the author’s creation, so much resembles her real-life black lab, down to their mutual fear of feathers.) But is that it? There have been rumors of odd doings at the chapel, with unseen things calling the name of the more corporeal sorts who show up on the premises. And doors have an odd way of becoming locked or unlocked. There is plenty more of this sort. Mysterious sounds. Evocative scratches on walls. It is definitely a spooky joint. Enjoy!

Feeney offers us plenty of atmospherics.

Adam was right, there are no ghosts or gargoyles, but the place definitely feels spooky. Everything is made of ancient-looking stone—the walls, the ceiling, the floor—and it’s so cold down here that I can see my breath. I count three rusted metal rings embedded in the wall, and do my best not to think about what they were used for.

A basement crypt, reached via trapdoor, has been converted to a wine cellar. Is vino the only spirit down there?

The light from the old-fashioned candlestick holder he is carrying casts ghostly shadows around the bedroom, so that now I feel like I’m in a Charles Dickens novel.

Much of the inspiration for the book derived from a visit Feeney made in 2018, to a creepy renovated chapel in Scotland, a visit that featured a “Beast from the East” snowstorm, and a mysterious face in a window. Some other personal items made it into the book. Feeney does her writing in a garden shed, a characteristic she bestowed on Adam. There was a discomfiting wardrobe in Feeney’s real-world chapel. She imagined secret stairs from there, which became the basement wine-cellar/crypt, accessible only via a trap door.

The book is told from alternating POVs, Adam’s and Amelia’s. It is from these that we know their marriage is in trouble. But wait, there’s more! A third character (fourth if you count Bob) is introduced about a quarter the way in, Robin, residing near the chapel. She is up to something. It seems that there is certainly madness there, but is there a method to match? Finally, there are wifely letters written on the annual wedding anniversary, but never given to Adam. These let us follow the history of his marriage through his wife’s eyes. They are introduced by a “word of the year” that sets the tone for the chapters to come. They also note the category of gift that is considered traditional for each year. (A partial list is in EXTRA STUFF) In each of these entries the gift, at least the sort of gift, is significant in the ensuing narrative.

There is a layer-by-layer unveiling of secrets, from both of them, which gives us a better look at who they truly are. (More of a He-Lied-She-Lied than the more traditional His-v-Hers perspectives.) Well, from all three, if we add Robin. Lots of excellent, very hairpin turn stuff. (Keep both hands on the wheel at all times) Maybe not as dangerous as riding the Do-Dodonpa, but wearing a neck-brace might not be a bad idea while reading towards the end. You may hear yourself utter more than a few “wait, what?s” There are some twists at the finale that seem inter-dimensional in their impact.

So, who is out to get whom? Is anyone, really? Are they both there to salvage their marriage or torpedo it? And what is making all the strangeness at the chapel happen? Is it really haunted? Will they both make it out alive? Will anyone? Will Adam’s screenplay ever get produced?

I do not really have any gripes with the book. It maybe asks us to suspend a bit too much disbelief, no biggie. But I take serious issue with the marketing, which I believe to be dishonest. I will not say what it is about this that is not true, or is unfairly misleading, but after you read the book, I urge you to take a close look at this. You will see for yourself. Having an unreliable narrator is one thing, but this seems a step too far to me. The ff is from Macmillan’s page for the book.

Things have been wrong with Mr and Mrs Wright for a long time. When Adam and Amelia win a weekend away to Scotland, it might be just what their marriage needs. Self-confessed workaholic and screenwriter Adam Wright has lived with face blindness his whole life. He can’t recognize friends or family, or even his own wife. 

Every anniversary the couple exchange traditional gifts–paper, cotton, pottery, tin–and each year Adam’s wife writes him a letter that she never lets him read. Until now. They both know this weekend will make or break their marriage, but they didn’t randomly win this trip. One of them is lying, and someone doesn’t want them to live happily ever after.

Ten years of marriage. Ten years of secrets. And an anniversary they will never forget.

Rock Paper Scissors is a delight of a read. Feeney does an excellent job of inserting hooks at chapter ends to make sure it is a challenge for you to either get up and do things that need doing, or turn off the light and go to sleep.

It seems like it would be a good idea to dress warmly when you read this. The cold of the Feeney’s fictional world might give you a chill. A hot toddy might be an appropriate accompanying refreshment, or maybe some Scotch whiskey. And make sure that neck brace is firmly in place when you are entering your final chunk of reading time. You will need it.

The first match I strike goes out almost instantly—it’s an old box.
I use the second to try and get my bearings, but I still can’t see the steps, and I’m struggling to get enough air into my lungs.
The third match I strike briefly illuminates part of the wall, and I notice all the scratch marks on the surface. It looks like someone, or something, once tried to claw their way out of here.
I try to stay calm, remember to breathe, but then the flame burns the tips of my fingers and I drop the final match on the floor.
Everything is black.
And then I hear it again. My name being whispered. Right behind me.
Amelia. Amelia. Amelia.
My breaths are too shallow, but I can’t control them and I think I’m going to faint. No matter what direction I look in, all I can see is darkness. Then I hear the sound of scratching.

Review posted – September 3, 2021

Publication date – September 7, 2021

I received a free ARC of Rock Paper Scissors from Macmillan in an exchange for an honest review, and the keys to my country retreat for a few days.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by. There are many more where this one came from.

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

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

Feeney was a journalist with the BBC for fifteen years, where she worked as a reporter, news editor, arts and entertainment producer, stealing time where she could to get in some original writing. Rock Paper Scissors is her fourth novel. She has been wildly successful.

As per Variety, the producer of The Crown will be transforming Rock Paper Scissors into a Netflix mini-series.

Interviews
—–Washington Independent – Author Q&A – An Interview with Alice Feeney by Adriana Delgado – from 2018 – on her planning and unreliable narrators
—–Bookbrowse – An interview with Alice Feeney by Elyse Dinh-McCrillis – from 2017 – short but has some nice backgr0und and personal elements

I work in my garden shed now with my cowriter, a giant black Labrador who is scared of feathers.

—–Mystery and Thriller Mavens – 8/30/2021 – Bestselling Author Alice Feeney Hosted by Sara DiVello – Video – 41:06

Unrelated aside
A scene in an old tower made me think of Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Anniversary Gifts – list from Hallmark
• 1st Anniversary: Paper
• 2nd Anniversary: Cotton
• 3rd Anniversary: Leather
• 4th Anniversary: Fruit or Flowers
• 5th Anniversary: Wood
• 6th Anniversary: Candy or Iron
• 7th Anniversary: Wool or Copper
• 8th Anniversary: Pottery or Bronze
• 9th Anniversary: Willow or Pottery
• 10th Anniversary: Tin or Aluminum
• 11th Anniversary: Steel
• 12th Anniversary: Silk or Linen
• 13th Anniversary: Lace
• 14th Anniversary: Gold Jewelry
• 15th Anniversary: Crystal
• 16th Anniversary: Coffee or Tea
• 17th Anniversary: Wine or Spirits
• 18th Anniversary: Appliances
• 19th Anniversary: Jade
• 20th Anniversary: China

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Reviews, Thriller