Tag Archives: books-of-the-year-2021

Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey

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Santi steps closer as she holds the light up to the gears. ‘Think we can fix it?’
Thora puts her weight to one of the gears and tries to shove it backwards. ‘No,’ she says, after a few seconds. ‘I’m afraid time has stopped.’
Santi tries to push the gear in the other direction. Giving up, he steps back. ‘I guess it has.’ He smiles at her sideways in the flickering light. ‘Welcome to forever.’
It’s a pretentious thing to say. But Thora has to admit that’s exactly how this feels: a moment taken out of time, with no beginning or end.

Imagine you are looking at the screen in a large cinema. There are blips in the image, fleeting, but present. As the film moves on to the next scene, there are more blips, holes in the image, with another image, another, pentimento film, going on behind the up-front film. Another scene on the big screen, with more blip, until the characters in the front film, look at each other and say, “did you see that?” As they slowly become more and more aware that there is something going on in the film behind them, they turn and watch, and their behavior in the front film changes, to take account of the new knowledge.

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Catriona Silvey – image from Harper Voyager – photo credit – Hazel Lee

That is what reading Meet Me in Another Life is like. Thora and Santi (Santiago) find themselves in Cologne. (neither is a native) They meet cute, at first, anyway. Until, oopsy, soon after they meet, tragedy. It takes only a short time to know that these two have a special bond, one that will persist through life after life, as one or the other is gone by the end of each of the eighteen chapters, to be reunited in the next. Their ages vary in each iteration. In a few they are the same age. In some, one or the other is older, a little, more than a little, or maybe a lot. Their positions of authority vary as well, parent/child, teacher/student, cop/trainee, patient/caretaker, if there is any such hierarchical relationship between them. They have varying personal relationships, with each other (bf/gf, married, prospects), or he with Heloise, she with Jules. But their passion for learning, for exploration, for science binds them together.

It is clear to us early on that there is a mystery to be solved. Why the recurring lives? Why the disparate ages, roles, and relationships? After a time, it becomes clear to Thora and Santi, too. They begin to realize that they have known each other and remember things from their former lives. Also, there are some consistencies, some places and characters that recur, unchanged.

Recurring elements (Santi’s cat, a tattoo on Thora’s wrist) first gain meaning through repetition, and then become touchstones, triggering inferences for the reader about how the characters have changed and where they might be headed. Once Santi and Thora realize they are trapped in a loop, they (along with the reader) must piece together the clues scattered through the narrative to figure out what might really be going on. – from the LitHub article

The notion that sparked the book is very down to earth. But these are two characters who are reaching for the stars, and Silvey’s solution was very fantasy/sci-fi-ish.

…the question was: can two people ever know each other completely? That led me to the idea of characters who meet again and again in different versions of their lives…I think of the book as an argument: Thora and Santi have very different attitudes to their situation, and that leads them to respond to it in different ways. – from the Deborah Kalb interview

There are obvious similarities to other works that deal in re-iteration. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (when Thora refers to herself as the Fox to Santi’s Wolf, is that a nod to that book?) uses the method in consideration of England in the first half or the 20th Century, and looking at the possible branches life might take were one to choose A instead of B, or B instead of C, giving the available choices a go until a desirable path forward is found. Thora, in particular, and Santi try this out, but it is not enough to solve the puzzle. Cloud Atlas is another novel offering common characters in diverse times (and places. This one is all in Cologne). Groundhog Day is the most famous cinematic rom-com loop and Andy Samberg’s Palm Springs gave it a similar go in 2020. 50 First Dates anyone? There is a clear romantic element in this one, too, as Thora and Santi are souls who are clearly meant to be together, (Yeah, I know, some might see them as merely tethered. But my take is that there is greater depth to their connection.) despite the fact that Thora is bisexual and has major hots for a woman, Jules, in many of the stories. Santi and Thora are a couple in others.

Their divergent perspectives offer a fascinating core to their discussions. He is religious, believes in God, an afterlife, and that there is a reason for being, maybe a mission even. Life should make sense. He thinks if he can figure out what God wants of him they can step outside their seemingly endless repetitions. She is an atheist and is having none of that. They talk about faith, determinism, eternity, and plenty more that raises this above the level of a simple entertainment.

Santi has always trusted in fate: that there is one way thing have to go. He isn’t literal enough to believe that the future is written in the stars—he’s doing a PhD in astronomy, after all—but his memories of other skies still unsettle him. The idea that there are other possible configurations for the universe, that God could be running them all in parallel, cuts against everything he believes. The only way he can reconcile what he remembers is to think that it’s a message, one he’s not yet ready to understand. He watches the world like a detective, like a poet, waiting for the meaning to come clear.

Santi’s faith seems more in fate than in the divine, given his inability to allow for a deity capable of managing multiple universes. But the faith he has, of whatever sort, is put to the test, repeatedly.

They struggle to know themselves, as much as they try to understand each other.

”This’ll never work, you know,” she says conversationally.
Santi frowns at her. “Who says?”
“All my exes. Most recently, my ex-girlfriend Jules. She told me when we broke up what my problem is.”
“What’s your problem?”
“I always want somewhere else. I’m never just—content to be where I am.”
He shrugs. “Neither am I.”
She gives him a look. ”What do you mean? You’re, like, Mr Serenity.”
A smile cracks his face. “That may be what it looks like on the outside. But inside, I’m always searching…We’re the same that way.”

As in any good mystery, there are plenty of clues sprinkled throughout the eighteen stories. Making sense of them is the challenge for us readers as much as it is for Thora and Santi. I was only partly successful at sussing out what was going on, even with keeping an excel sheet to track differences and commonalities among the stories. (Don’t judge me!) This is a good thing. Of course, you may be a lot smarter than me and figure it all out early on. That would be too bad. Not knowing, trying to figure it out from the clues provided, was part of the fun.

None of this matters if we do not care about our two leads. Not to worry. While both characters have qualities that raise them well above average, they often find themselves in everyman (and woman) situations and pedestrian lives. Their clear bond with each other is almost a third lead, so strongly does this come across. You will definitely be rooting for them to figure out how to get off what seems an eternal hamster wheel. The novel is as engaging and enjoyable as it is intellectually stimulating.

My only gripe, and it is minor, is that there seemed a bit too much exposition. There is nothing wrong with exposition, but the telling/showing seesaw felt a bit too heavy on one end at times.

Are Thora and Santi two star-crossed lovers or is their connection made in heaven? Only the stars (and the author) know for sure. Allow yourself to be delighted. There is plenty here that can generate that feeling. You may forget about this review, this book, for a while, but I am fairly certain the book, preferably, will turn up again in your life. Try your best. It will be worth your time. Remember.

If God’s test were easy, it would be meaningless.

Review posted – June 11, 2021

Publication date – April 27, 2021

If you are looking for a SUMMER BOOK, this is my rec – no-holds-barred, #1 fab beach read, or anywhere read.

The film rights have been optioned by Atlas Entertainment and Pilot Wave, with Gal Gadot to produce and star. I spotted much news coverage of this that was, IMHO, wrong-headed, in portraying the book as an LGBTQ sci-fi novel. Thora is indeed bi-sexual, with more story time with female than male partners, but that is sooooo not what this book is about. We do know that once Hollywood gets its claws on a novel, the end product can diverge dramatically (or even melodramatically) from the source material. This initial coverage is not encouraging. But then, many film-rights options are never exercised. So we, who favor hewing as closely as possible to written source material, are a long way from having to fret over this.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to the author’s personal, GR, and Twitter pages, and her academic site (Silvey has a PhD in language evolution, and has published numerous papers)

Interviews
—–Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb
—–The Royal Institution – Formatted Q/A – thin, but fun

Q/A

I asked Silvey a question on the Ask The Author part of her GR page, to which she offered a response in very short order.

Q – How did your research on the evolution of language manifest in MMiAL?

A – That’s an interesting question! My honest answer is “not really”… I did realise after writing the book that there is a linguistically informed way of thinking about time loops, and why they might be appealing to a reader – I wrote about that in an essay on LitHub: https://lithub.com/on-the-counterintu… But if my experience as a researcher influenced the book at all during the writing, it might be in the way Thora and Santi’s situation mirrors the strange, lonely-together rootlessness of academics – people who are usually foreigners in the place they’re living, brought together by shared passions, using English as a lingua franca but often talking past each other.

Songs/Music
—–Silvey’s Song list for Thora
—– Silvey’s Song list for Santi
—–What Silvey listened to on repeat while working on the book
———-Tom Rosenthal and dodie – Years Years Bears
———-The Mountain Goats – Love Love Love
———-Michael Stipe & Big Red Machine – No Time For Love Like Now

Items of Interest from the author
—–Silvey’s site – Excerpt – Chapter 1 – Welcome To Forever
—–Crimereads – Excerpt – Chapter 8 – 115 – We Are Here
—–Lithub – On the Counterintuitive Appeal of the Literary Time Loop – in this article, linked in Silvey’s Q/A response above, she explains very clearly how time loop narratives work in a literary framework. This is MUST READ material!

Items of Interest
—–Smithsonian – Félicette, the First Cat in Space, Finally Gets a Memorial – referenced in chapter 3, et al
—–Contact – referenced in chapter 7
—–I was intending to provide a link here to the Odysseum in Cologne, a science museum of note in the book, but their site is currently unavailable

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Sci-fi, Science Fiction, Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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Helene Wecker – image from Fantasy Book Cafe

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

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


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

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

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Lt Commander Data of Star Trek NG – image from Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Replicants from Blade Runner – image from NME

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

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Pennsylvania Station – image from Traditional Building

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

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

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

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The arch in Palmyra – image from Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – May 28, 2021

Publication date – June 8, 2021

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

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

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

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

My review of The Golem and the Jinni

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

Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour

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Like a bird flying repeatedly into a pane of glass, I kept seeking Heathcote. Each time I reached out for him, the crack yawned open just a little wider, until eventually. I hurtled straight through.

How do you let go of someone you never had?

Charlie Gilmour was living in southeast London when his partner’s sister came across an abandoned chick.

Magpies leave home far too soon—long before they can really fly or properly fend for themselves. For weeks after they fledge their nests, they’re dependent on their parents for sustenance, protection, and an education too. But this bird’s parents are nowhere to be seen. They’re nor feeding it, or watching it, or guarding it; no alarm calls sound as a large apex predator approaches with footfalls made heavy by steel-toed boots. It could be no accident that the bird is on the ground. If food was running short, a savage calculation may have been performed, showing that the only way to keep the family airborne was to jettison the runt.

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From infancy to adulthood – From Charlie’s eulogy for Heathcote –photos by Polly Sampson and Charlie

This small bird with a huge personality caught his attention. Charlie’s struggles to care for, to raise, this raucous magpie parallels his growth as a person, and his lifelong struggle to get to know the man who had abandoned him as a chick months-old baby, his father, a well-known poet, artist and playwright. Heathcote Williams, for a brief period in his life, had likewise nurtured a corvid, a jackdaw, bequeathed at a country fair by a pair selling pancakes, fulfilling
an old boyhood dream
Of having a jackdaw on your shoulder, like a pirate.
Whispering secrets in your ear

Charlie seizes on this connection when he discovered the poem his father had written about the experience.

“Initially it was just meant to be a light-hearted story about this magpie that came to live with me, roosted in my hair, shat all over my clothes and stole my house keys. When my biological father died, though, it became a much, much more complicated story. Honestly, I really didn’t know what the book was about until I was quite far into the writing process.” – From the Vanity Fair interview

Williams was quite a character, a merry prankster, a Peter Pan sort, grandly creative but not the best at responsibility, able to charm all those around him, doing magic tricks, persuading people that he really was there for them, while never really being able to handle the demands or needs of the people who needed him most, leaving domestic carnage in his wake. Charlie had never really understood why, one day, he suddenly just got up and flew the coop on him and his mother, Polly Samson. This memoir tracks Charlie’s quest to make sense of the father he never really knew.

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Charlie Gilmour and his beloved magpie Benzene – image from Vanity Fair – photo by Sarah Lee

Charlie lucked out in the parent department in another way. When Mom remarried, it was to David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame. None of David’s music career is addressed here. But he is shown as a stand-up guy, a supportive, understanding, and loving father who takes Charlie under his wing by adopting him.

Absent fathers are hardly uncommon. In 97 percent of single parent families, it’s the mother who ends up taking responsibility for the kids. The child’s impulse to seek them out is just as widespread: psychiatrists call it “father hunger”. I was lucky: I was adopted, and the man who became my dad is both a brilliant man and a brilliant parent. But the longing to know your maker is something that lives on. – from the Public reading Room piece

We follow the growth of Charlie along with Benzene. It is made clear early on that a magpie presents both challenges and delights that are uncommon in human-critter relations. Tales of bird behavior that might have one pulling out hair in clumps (which might actually be useful, as the bird stores food in Charlie’s hair) are told with warmth, and, frequently, hilarity. My favorite of these occurs when Benzene is under the sway of a nesting instinct, having settled on the top of the fridge as a place on which to construct her DIY nest. At a birthday party for her:

My dad strums her a song; my younger sister reads a poem; and a family friend, a venerable literary academic named John, unwillingly provides the sex appeal. This rather reserved man of letters is too polite to do anything but quote Shakespeare as Benzene places her birthday bluebottles and beetles lovingly up his sleeve and tugs the hem of his trousers insistently nestward.

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Heathcote Williams planning one of the Windsor free festivals in his Westbourne Park squat, London, in 1974 – Image from his obit in the Guardian – Photo by Richard Adams

Charlie’s nesting life is also under development. After he marries his partner and they talk about growing their family, he must confront his fears of being a parent himself. Nature vs nurture. Will he be the absentee his biological father was, or the rock-solid mensch of a parent he lucked into in David Gilmour? Clearly a concern that requires some resolution before going ahead and fertilizing an egg. The issue extends to a question of mental illness. Heathcote had been ill-behaved enough to get institutionalized. It was certainly the case that his behavior often crossed the line from eccentric to certifiable. Did Charlie inherit his father’s proclivities? Is genetics destiny? Charlie had committed some behavioral excesses of his own, consuming vast quantities of illegal substances, which fueled some extremely bad behavior. This landed him on the front pages of the local tabloids, swinging from a beloved and respected war memorial during a protest, and then in prison.

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Charlie with David Gilmour – image from The Guardian – photo by Sarah Lee

Charlie takes us through the attempts he made for many years to connect with Heathcote, but his father offered only teases of interest, always managing to disappear before Charlie could latch on, a hurtful bit of legerdemain.

In addition to the title, the names, which largely focus on feather development, given to the five parts of the book, set the tone. All the expected imagery is used throughout, including fledging to nest-building, to mating behavior, to molting, egg-laying and so on. It could easily have been overdone, but I found it charming. In rooting about in Heathcote’s history Charlie offers us, in addition to his personal tale, some of Heathcote’s outrageous adventures from back in the day. Charlie’s personal growth as a person adds heft.

I was reminded of a few other memoirs. In Hollywood Park, musician and writer Mikel Jollett tries, a lot more successfully than Charlie, to connect with his missing father, confronting issues of nature vs nurture. Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk looks at her training a goshawk as a coping mechanism to help in grieving for and remaining connected to her late father, similar in feathery subject matter, although it is quite a different book. Alan Cumming, in Not My Father’s Son, looks at the damage his father had done to him, trying to figure out how this mercurial man had become so cruel, as Charlie tries to figure out how his mercurial, if not overtly cruel, father had become so nurturing-phobic. John Grogan’s Marley and Me looks at the difficulties of caring for a difficult pet, and the corresponding rewards.

It is not necessary to love the memoirist to enjoy their book, but that is not an issue here. Charlie behaved rather poorly, both as a child and an early twenty-something, but learned his lesson, grew up, straightened out, and became a likable, decent sort, a very good writer who is very well able to communicate the struggles through which he has grown. It is easy to root for him to get to the bottom of what made Heathcote tick, and to find a way to make peace with what their minimal relationship had been. His writing is accessible, warm, moving, and at times LOL funny. You will need a few tissues at the ready by the end. Just for padding your roost, of course.

In the Archive, the sour smell of mold is somehow even more overpowering than it was at Port Eliot, as if the material is rebelling against the light. At the end of each day I come away filthy, sneezing, and feeling lousy—but I keep going back for more. I need this. My approach is far from methodical. I attack the body of words and images like a carrion bird, looking for the wound that will yield to my prying beak, the original injury that unravels the man. I peel back layers of skin, pick over the bones, snip my way to the heart of the matter. A patchwork biography begins to emerge; a rough story told in scavenged scraps. It feels almost like stealing, like robbing the grave, except it’s not the treasure that interests me. Heathcote’s glories get hardly a glance. It’s the traumas I’m searching for. Answers to those same old questions. Why does a person disappear? What makes a man run from his child? Why was Heathcote so afraid of family? What forces guided that nocturnal flight in Spring so many years ago?

Review posted – February 19, 2021

Publication date – January 5, 2021

I received an ARE of this book from Scribner in return for an honest review. No feathering of nests was involved. Thanks, folks.

And thanks to MC for bringing this to my attention. You know who you are.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Interviews
—–The One Show – The One Show: Elton John meets Charlie Gilmour
—–David Gilmour: ‘I’ve been bonded to Charlie since he was three. We were incensed by the injustice’ – Charlie and David Gilmour on their relationship and history
—–Bookpage – Charlie Gilmour: From feathers to fatherhood by Alice Cary
—–Vanity Fair – Birds of a Feather. Interview with Charlie Gilmour by Chiara Nardelli Nonino

Songs/Music
—–Donovan – The Magpie
—–The Beatles – Blackbird

Items of Interest from the author
—–Vogue – What Raising a Magpie Taught Me About My Famous, Troubled Father
—–Waterstones – a promo vid for the book – 1:52
—–5×15 Stories – Featherhood – a story about birds and fathers
—–The Guardian – ‘One spring morning my dad vanished’: the son of poet Heathcote Williams looks back
—–Public Reading Rooms – Heathcote Williams: Eulogy to the Dad I never knew
—– Charlie’s articles for Vice

Items of Interest
—–BBC – My Unusual Life | The Man Who Lives With a Magpie – a short doc on Charlie
—–Wiki on Pin feathers
—–The Guardian – David Gilmour: ‘I’ve been bonded to Charlie since he was three. We were incensed by the injustice’
—–Straight Up Herman – an arts journal blog – Being Kept by a Jackdaw – Heathcote Williams’ poem

Other memoirs of interest
—–Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett
—–H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
—–Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming
—–Marley and Me by John Grogan

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Science and Nature

Land by Simon Winchester

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This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. – from Chief Sealth’s letter to President Pierce on a treaty giving much of what is now Washington state over for white settlement

What are the three most important things in real estate? All together now, “Location, location, location.” Simon Winchester, in his usual way, has offered us a grand tour of land, and thus real estate on our planet. Note the subtitle, How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World). This is not the broker’s walk-through in which the good elements are highlighted while the less appealing aspects are minimized or ignored. It may be that location is the most important property of land, but there are other features that are worth knowing too. Things like How much land is there? How do we know? How was it measured, by whom, and why? Is the amount of land fixed? Can it increase or decrease? Can land be made unusable? Where is everything? Who can make use of it? Is land inherently public, for (reasonable) use by all? Was it ever? How did it come to be private? How do different cultures think about land? Why is land divided up the way it is, into public and private, into parcels of particular size? Who gets to own land, and who is relegated to merely renting it? Winchester has answers.

Land is the defining characteristic of every nation. Our (the USA’s) national anthem, for example, goes “O’er the land of the free” not o’er the pond, lake, river or fjord of the free, (and no, Norway’s anthem makes no specific mention of fjords), not the sweet air of the free, not the great views of the free (although “spacious skies” and “purple mountain majesties” from our other national anthem, America the Beautiful, comes close), but the land. Check your nation of choice for common ground re this. (Click for a list of anthems) The word “land” figures prominently. Although I suggest you check out the Algerian lyrics. Dude, switch to decaf. The war is over.

Land is seminal in human culture as well as national history. For many of us in the West, our very origin story begins with a landlord-tenant dispute. “If we owned the garden instead of renting it, Adam, I could have eaten the goddam apple and it would have been nobody’s business but my own. And we wouldn’t have to put up with the creepy landlord spying on us all the time, or his freaky feathered bouncer. The guy should get a hobby, make some friends or something.”

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Simon Winchester at home in his study in the Berkshires – image from The Berkshire Eagle – Photo: Andrew Blechman

This is the eighth Winchester I have read, of his fifteen non-fiction books (so, plenty left to get to) and they have all been engaging, informative, and charming. He read Geology at Oxford, so, has a particular soft spot for explaining how physical things on our planet came to be where they are, how they changed over time, and why they exist in the forms they have taken on. You might be interested in the Atlantic Ocean, maybe the Pacific? Winchester has written a book on each. How about looking at the creation of the world’s first geological map, or maybe why Krakatoa blew its top. He is also interested in tracing back how we know what we know, (or, um, history) as a crucial element of understanding things as they are now, and how they came to be. The Perfectionists looks at how industrial standardization developed, and how machine tolerances improved to the point where they are beyond the control of flesh and blood humans. In The Professor and the Madman he looks at how the Oxford English Dictionary was made. The third element in Winchester’s trifecta of interest is people, often odd personalities who played pivotal roles in the development of technical and intellectual advances, thus expanding and deepening human understanding of the world.

I think what I’ve done is to get obscure figures from history and tell the stories like I’ve told you about Mister Penck and his maps, Mister Struve and his survey, Mister Radcliffe and his line, and turn them into what they truly are, which is heroic, forgotten figures from history….I just become fascinated by these characters. – from the Kinukinaya interview

There are plenty of interesting sorts in Land. Maybe none of the folks noted here are quite so interesting as the institutionalized murderer in The Professor and the Madman, but they are still a colorful crew, and it is clear Winchester had fun writing about them. They include Cornelius Lely, who built the 20-mile-long Barrier Dam in The Netherlands, which turned the Zuider Zee into vast tracts of arable land, Gina Rinehart, the world’s largest private landholder, not someone who has contributed nearly so much to the store of human knowledge as she has to conservative politicians, and Friedrich Wilhelm Georg von Struve, who spent forty years measuring a meridian for the tsar of Russia. There are many more, of both the benign and dark variety.

When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land. — Desmond Tutu

There are surprising connections made, such as the relationship between the invention of barbed wire and America’s appetite for beef. Or the link between the growth of commercial aviation and the development of World Aeronautical Charts, well maybe not so surprising, that. But that such things did not exist prior to people flying the friendly skies reminds us just how recent so much of the foundation of today’s world truly is. I suppose it also might not count as surprising, but John Maynard Keynes had an interesting solution to the problem of landed gentry, euthanasia.

Winchester details many of the outrages that have been inflicted, in the name of seizing land, on indigenous people across the planet, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA figuring large in these. But there are also plenty of other people who have been expelled from their homes, livelihoods, and history by the forces of greed across the planet. These include immigrants to the USA whose land was stolen while they were illegally incarcerated, and farmers who were dispossessed by land-owners seeking to maximize the profitability of their holdings, via the Enclosure and Clearance laws passed in England and Scotland. Then there are the perennial turf battles, like those in Ireland and the Middle East.

Gripes are, per usual with any Winchester book, minimal. He writes about the role, historical, current, and potential, that trusts have, had, and might have for the preservation of land from destructive exploitation. Yet, in doing so, there was no mention of The Nature Conservancy. Their motto could be (it isn’t) We save land the old-fashioned way. We buy it. It has over a million members (yes, I am) and has protected about 120 million acres of land. It definitely merited a shoutout here. Another part of the book tells of the annihilation of bison from the American west. The critters are referred to as multi-ton. Like the mythical eight hundred pound gorilla which grows only to about 400 pounds at most, bison max out at roughly 2,000 pounds, or a single ton, which still leaves them as the largest land mammal in North America.

Like any good geologist, or writer, Simon Winchester enjoys digging. And we are all the lucky recipients of the informational nuggets he unearths. He is a master story-teller, and if you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself at a party with him, or find a chance to see him speak publicly, just pull up a seat and listen. You won’t be sorry.

So, I can tell from the looks on your faces that this one would be a perfect fit for you, particularly if you are planning to start a library soon. Do you think you’d like to make an offer on the book? There are other potential buyers stopping by this afternoon, and I would hate for you to miss out. It won’t stay on the shelves very long. Take my card and give me a ring when you make up your mind, ok. But I can assure you that, whether your preferences for land are LaLa, Never, Sugar, Holy, Promised, Wonder, Native, or Rover, when you check out Simon Winchester’s latest book, you will be a Land lover.

We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1948)

I could say that Winchester covered a lot of ground in this book, but really who would write such a thing? I suppose one might say that he planted a flag on his subject matter and claimed it for his own, and if you don’t like it, you can get the hell off his lawn. Not me. Nope. Nosiree.

Review first posted – February 5, 2021

Publication dates
———-January 19, 2021 – hardcover
———-January 18, 2022- trade paperback

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

A nice overview of Winchester’s professional life can be found here

Interviews
—–Kinokuniya USA – Interview with Simon Winchester on ‘Land’ – video – 30:03 – by Raphael – This is wonderful. The interview is a lot like SW’s books, one fascinating story follows another follows another.
—–RNZ – Simon Winchester: how land ownership shaped the modern world by Kim Hill – text extract plus audio interview – 48:24
—–The Book Club – Simon Winchester: Land – audio – 42:46

Songs/Music
—–Woody Guthrie – This Land is Your Land
—–The Lion King – This Land
—– LaLa Land – soundtrack

Reviews of other Simon Winchester books we have read:
—–2018 – The Perfectionists
—–2015 – Pacific
—–2010 – Atlantic
—–2008 – The Man Who Loved China
—–2005 – Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
—–2001 – The Map That Changed the World
—–1998 – The Professor and the Madman

Items of Interest – by Winchester
—–From 2013 – Simon Winchester at TEDxEast re his book The Men Who United the States – There is an interesting morsel here about 11 minutes in on an important Jeffersonian decision having to do with land ownership
—–American Scholar – Experience Everything

Items of Interest
—– Citizen Simon: Author, journalist, OBE, sage of Sandisfield by Andrew D. Blechman – Posted on September 9, 2018
—–International Map of the World
—–The Nature Conservancy

An extra bit. I had intended to incorporate the following into the body of the review, but just felt off about that. Nevertheless I do hold with the notion expressed, so here it is, tucked away at the bottom:

I was taken with a particular instance of the horrors that accompanied land grabs in the expanding USA, as having resonance with today, with Donald Trump as the embodiment of that carnage. Whereas the racist yahoos of the 19th century westward expansion delighted in slaughtering bison from a moving train, in order to deny the native residents a living and to make it easier to clear them from desired land, so Trump has spent his time in the limelight, and in power, blasting away at the things that are central to our culture, to our values, so that he could deny us our cultural and legal core, as he seized all he could grab for himself and those like him.

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Filed under American history, England, History, Non-fiction, World History

The Center of Everything by Jamie Harrison

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Good mothers were rarities, the center of everything.

Sometimes the beauty of the written word can make you stop, pause, sigh deeply, and appreciate the moment. I am fortunate to have been able to read and report on many top tier works of fiction. It remains a singular joy to come across written passages that bring me near to tears with their sheer power and beauty. Here is the beginning of the novel, the beginning of what brought on my overwrought response:

When Polly was a child, and thought like a child, the world was a fluid place. People came and went and never looked the same from month to month, or year to year. They shifted bodies and voices—a family friend shaved a beard, a great-aunt shriveled into illness, a doctor grew taller—and it would take time to find them, to recognize them. Polly studied faces, she wondered, she undid the disguise. But sometimes people she loved disappeared entirely, curling off like smoke. Her father, Merle, told her that her mind was like a forest, and the trees inside were her people, each leaf or needle a memory. Her mother, Jane, said that memories were the way a person tried to turn a life into a story, and Papa, Polly’s great-grandfather, said that there was a story about everything. He would tell them something long and strange to explain the existence of tigers or caves or trees, but then he’d say, Well, the Greeks said the same thing, or the Finns; the Athabascans, the Etruscans, the Utes, Days were an Aztec snake swallowing its tail, water came from a Celtic goddess’s eyes, thunder was a deadly fart from a Bantu in the sky.

See what I mean? The issues noted in the passage presage the stories and memory issues to come. The way a child thinks? Check. People looking different from one time to another? Check. Needing time to recognize faces beneath disguises? Check. People disappearing? Sadly, check. Memory as a way of turning lived experience into story? Check. Cultures, and people coming up with tales to explain observed events? Check.

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Jamie Harrison – image from her site

We meet Polly Schuster (nee Berrigan) as an adult, 42, having recently suffered a serious injury, hit by a car while bike-riding. She has a considerable scar on her skull from the needed repairs. The damage to her brain has left her something other than what she had been up until then. She has become forgetful, can drift off sometimes while with other people, but mostly she now has issues with memory. With her great-aunt Maude coming to town to celebrate her 90th birthday, there is a flurry of preparations (stories told, photographs and artifacts of earlier times unearthed) that summon memories for Polly. But can she rely on those recollections? What we have here is an unwillingly unreliable narrator.

The novel is told in (mostly) two times, the present (2002) in Montana, and 1968, when Polly was eight years old and her family lived on Long Island, with dramatic events in 1968 leading up to what she calls “The End of the World” and “The Beginning of the World,” in that order. The 2002 world is ordered by Maude’s arrival, but also by an alarming event.

Water here is less the usual symbol of rebirth than of death. Two boating incidents a lifetime apart. Were they accidents, or something else? This being Montana, a river runs through the story. Ariel, a young woman the Schusters had hired as a sitter for their two children, has gone missing, kayaking on the Yellowstone River too early in the season, (The Yellowstone runs rough this time of year. Someone dying on the river was not unusual. It was easier when it was a tourist, but far too often it was a local, like Ariel.) she has vanished. Her riverine companion, Graham, a person of questionable character and veracity, survived. He is widely suspected of having a hand in Ariel’s fate, whatever that turns out to be. Was she the victim of simple misfortune, or something worse? Where is she? What about the man Polly had found dead on the beach back in 1968? What was the deal with that? There are other incidents involving water, including a woman who drowns, trapped underwater after an accident, a plane crashing into a lake, another body found on a beach, and a woman attempts suicide by walking into the sea.

Polly’s great-grandmother Dee told her once that there were three kinds of dreams—not the passing filaments, the sorted trash from the day, but the ones that came back, over and over—about three kinds of things: wishes or desires, loss or being lost, and fear. All her life, Polly thought these categories felt true, and lately, they came to her in combination.

What are memories, but the distilled media and emotional resonance of events we have experienced? Yet, our abilities as children to understand what those events are, or mean is far from complete, our ability to form coherent, accurate recollections remains incomplete. Thus, magical thinking. Three-year-old Polly believed that when people died they went somewhere else, disguised. So, when Jane and Merle moved to NYC she thought they were looking for her late grandfather and aunt. Four-year-old Helen, Polly’s daughter in 2002, looks under rocks for the missing Ariel, fearing she may have melted. Seven and eight-year-old Polly tries to make some sense of the bodies found on Long Island beaches in successive summers. Then tries to remember, from adulthood, with a damaged brain, what it was that had actually happened.

There are plenty of identifiable links to the author’s life. Here are a few. Living in Montana is the most obvious. But other residences noted in the novel reflect Harrison’s experience as well. Her parents lived in Long Island when she was small, as did Polly’s. Both Harrison and her husband, and Polly and Ned moved from New York to Montana. When Harrison moved, she and her husband lived with well-known painter and writer, Russell Chatham, thus, perhaps a bit of inspiration for the painter character, Rita. Although, I expect her exposure to Chatham was a lot less dramatic than Polly’s is to Rita. Born in the same year as Polly, Harrison grew up in an accomplished, artistic family. Her father, Jim Harrison, was the author of Legends of the Fall, among other works. A-list writers were part of her growing up experience. Papa reflects this, renowned for his study of story and culture, a Joseph Campbell sort. Livingston, MT, where Harrison lives, is, notoriously, home, at least part-time, to a host of Hollywood A-listers. Notorious because the wealthy Californians did an excellent job of bidding up the price of local land and housing, to the point that many locals who might want to stick around have been priced out. The western invaders are represented, at least somewhat, by Drake Aasgard, an actor of note, who employs Polly to screen scripts for him.

Those good mothers, noted in the quote at the top, and the title of the book, are far from ubiquitous, and so, are special when they turn up. But it seemed to me that the title could, as easily, be referring to family, or even memory, as the center of everything. My only gripe about the book is that the mysteries seemed at times to drift maybe a bit too far back from the amazing description of the concrete lives of the central characters. Tap, tap, tap. This is all very interesting, but I want to know what happened to…

There are mysteries to be solved, sans PI. Polly drifts out of reality at times, struggling to discern what is, or was real. The story is told both from adult Polly’s perspective and from her as a child. This is pulled off quite well, believable in both cases.

Polly continues to struggle throughout. Some mysteries are resolved. Some questions remain, but the greatest strength of the novel, in addition to her celestial command of language, is Harrison’s vivid, detailed portrayal of an extended family, a community of the related and connected. Polly may be the lead, but this is an ensemble cast, with many interesting characters, who gain our attention in different ways. The rich detail Harrison offers gives very real texture to the characters’ lives. Both time settings are given close looks and we can see what the characters see, feel what they feel. There are characters aplenty striding through, many of whom would merit their own full-length tales. Papa and Dee’s household in the 60s was warm, raucous, and exciting. These people will certainly grab and hold your interest. There is magic aplenty in this book, and not in a fantasy way, although Polly does have some experiences that could easily have gone there.

The Center of Everything is a triumph, evocative writing, wonderful characters, smart consideration of how story functions in the world, as well as in literature, a 3D-immersive portrayal of a family, and a few mysteries as well. This novel should be at the center of your reading plans this winter, if you can remember.

Childhood is a green knot, hiding places and suspended time. It is the speed she can run through grass, the heat of the air, the fear of pissing her pants on the school bus, the difficulty of returning someone’s gaze, a bright object in the sand, the way a good moment can slide to bad.

Review posted – January 29, 2021

Publication date – January 12, 2021

I received a copy of this book from Counterpoint in exchange for an honest review. At least I think that was the deal. I can’t quite seem to recall.

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

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

Interviews
—–Lithub – Jamie Harrison on Finding Her Way to the Writer’s Life in the American West by Thomas McGuane (an old family friend)
—–David Abrams Books – My First Time: Jamie Harrison – for The Widow Nash, but some materials here are relevant

Items of Interest
—–Lapham’s Quarterly – Once Upon Time – the four oldest Fairy Tales
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An image of it – Jamie says, in a facebook posting of this, “This is fun; I played around with these shifts in my new book.” One of the characters studies how stories change over eons, culture to culture.
—–Wiki on Jim Harrison, Jaime’s father, renowned poet, and author of Legends of the Fall – he was a professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island in 1965-66

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A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

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Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another. – the opening of The Iliad by Homer

I’m not sure I could have made it more obvious, but he hasn’t understood at all. I’m not offering him the story of one woman during the Trojan War, I’m offering him the story of all the women in the war. Well, most of them (I haven’t decided about Helen yet. She gets on my nerves.). I’m giving him the chance to see the war from both ends: how it was caused and how its consequences played out. Epic in scale and subject matter.

Calliope, Homer’s presumed muse, keeps trying to get him to tell the broader tale, not just the one about the men and their battles and intrigues. But he insists on a singular, male-oriented view of the Troy story (Ilios is Greek for Troy). That is the only one we have gotten, well, from him, anyway. Other classical writers have offered some different perspectives, Euripedes in particular.

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Natalie Haynes – Image from her site – photo credit: Dan Mersh

We have all read it, (you did do the assigned reading in school right?) or certainly at least heard about it. The Iliad, by Homer, is the most widely read epic poem ever. The action centers on the leaders and the combatants, with a healthy dose of less-than-divine gods and goddesses, and adventure aplenty. It is rather light, though, on the stories about the impact of this lengthy war on women. Whudduwe? Chopped livah?

So, Natalie Haynes offers a retelling of the story of Troy from the perspective of its female characters, the story she imagines Calliope might have been pressing on her reluctant client. And the Odyssey as well, as we trail Odysseus through some of his dodgy travails.

The drama of war is not always found on the battlefield. It’s in the build-up, the aftermath, the margins. Where the women are waiting. – Haynes – from The Observer article

Beware Greeks bearing gifts.

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Trojan Horse – image from ThoughtCo.com

Just like today, the lives of regular people in Greek mythology are made miserable by the feckless, selfish, ignorant actions of the people in charge. And those on high are not shy about using others, other gods, lower-level gods, demi-gods, and mere mortals to implement their dark desires. For example, Gaia, mother of Titans (take that, Daenerys) is maybe a bit more like Joan Crawford (Earth-Mommy dearest?) in this telling, or a very unhappy landlady. (banging on the ceiling with a broom handle?)

Mankind was just so impossibly heavy. There were so many of them and they showed no sign of halting their endless reproduction. Stop, she wanted to cry out, please stop. You cannot all fit on the space between the oceans…you must stop, so that I can rest beneath your ever-increasing weight.

Zeusy, Sweetie, can you help me out here? And what better way to take off a bit of excess earthly poundage than a lengthy and particularly bloody war. Sure, Gai, no prob. And thus, with the eager assistance of a cast of the greedy, prideful, bloodthirsty, short-sighted, dumb, and just plain foolish, we get a decade-long war, short on forward movement but long on casualties, and stories.

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Cassandra in front of the burning city of Troy – by Evelyn De Morgan – from Wikimedia

We follow a cast of mostly female characters as they endure or succumb to the horrors of war, politics and religion. Hecabe, Priam’s widow is a central core among the captive wives and daughters of the defeated Trojans, holding the group together as they ponder and plan for their fates in the hands of their captors. They cope with their treatment by the Greek victors. Some names will be familiar. Others, less so. You have probably heard of Cassandra. And certainly you know of Hector, but not his widow Andromache. They face moral choices no less than their y-chromosome counterparts. When and how to resist, when and how to go along. Finding ways to seek justice, revenge, or freedom. Banding together. Even the hated Helen is given a turn. Their lives, and deaths are no less heroic, despite a lower body count.

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Penthesilea – image from Total War Saga: Troy

Non-Trojan women get a perspective as well. You may have heard of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, but maybe not of Penthesilea, an amazing Amazonian character, Xena, or Wonder Woman, sans the tech. Leading her force into battle, looking to take on Achilles himself. You go, girl. Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, gets some recognition for the atrocities she has endured, not just the one for which she has received a dark reputation.

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Penelope – image from The Arts Desk – painting by John William Waterhouse

Penelope tells Odysseus’s story via letters, having heard of his doings from local bards, who clearly get great reception on their muse-links. So, Ody, the war’s over, dinner is getting cold, your son would like to meet you, what time do you think you’ll be home? There are several Penelope chapters, written as letters to her MIA hubs. Pretty funny stuff, looking at the adventures of Odysseus from the perspective of the ones left behind. Oh, so after you poked out the Polyphemus’s one eye and were sailing off into the distance, you felt it necessary to tell him your real name? Just what the hell is wrong with you? You knew that Poseidon was his father, right? Hope you enjoy that curse he dumped on you. Well, no wonder you got blown off course. How old are you?…Really, you took a side trip to Hades? What were you thinking? Shacked up with Circe for a year and that Orygian home-wrecker Calypso for seven FU@#ING YEARS!!! My patience is running a wee bit thin, husband. Her exasperation really comes through.

You were wedded to fame more than you were ever wedded to me. And certainly, your relationship with your own glory has been unceasing.

The men do not come off well, overall, Achilles is not just the greatest warrior who ever lived, but a feckless murder machine who sees no difference between taking on Trojan warriors on the battlefield and mowing down unarmed old men, women, and children from his horse. His bf, Patroclus, thinks a high body count is all that matters, regardless of type. Agamemnon, nominal leader of the Greek coalition army, is venal, pathetic, entitled and cowardly. Can he be impeached? Really, you are willing to slaughter one of your kids to get a fair wind for your ships just because some priest tells you so? Really? Dude, you deserve what you get.

What kind of man wore a bronze breastplate and a plumed helmet to return home? One who believed that his power was seated in his costume, she supposed. The red leather of his scabbard was very fine, studded with gold flecks. She did not recognize it, and realized this must be part of his share of the fabled wealth of Troy. To have killed her child for a decorated bit of animal skin. She could feel the contempt shaping her mouth into a sneer, and stopped herself. Now was not the time to lose control. That would happen later.

The gods are portrayed as their usual awful selves, which is no surprise. Power corrupts, and, apparently, makes you really stupid, too. While most of the women come to a bad end. This is not a spoiler, because you read the book, right? But some get in a few licks of their own, and a few even escape.

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Detail of painting The Muses Urania and Calliope by Simon Vouet, in which she holds a copy of the Odyssey – image from Wikimedia

There are many lessons from The Iliad that still pertain thousands of years after its writing. Antenor telling those in charge that the Trojan horse might, just possibly, be a ploy, and Cassandra cursed with knowing what lies ahead but never being acknowledged might, just possibly, remind some of the Trump administration’s response to the Covid crisis. And a Trojan willing to open the gates for an invading horde might certainly resonate with corrupt American legislators offering tours and even directions to a Capitol-invading mob in 2021. The classics are classic for a reason

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Clytemnestra and Agamemnon – Pierre-Narcisse Guerin (1774-1833) – Image from Greek Legends and Myths

To see or hear Haynes speak is to be instantly charmed, and better, educated and entertained. She is a gifted lecturer, bringing to her talks all the effervescence, delight, and enthusiasm she clearly brings to her fiction. She is an amazing writer, bringing the ancients to life for us in the 21st century. And her decade-plus career as a stand-up comedian clearly informs her work. While not LOL-funny here, her portrayal of Penelope’s remarkable forbearance certainly has a sharp comedic edge. Overall, Haynes has given voice to a side of the Trojan War that has been much overlooked. A Thousand Ships deserves to get millions of readers. It’s smart, entertaining take on a classic story is a new classic, all its own.

A war does not ignore the lives of half the people it touches. So why do we?

Review posted – January 22, 2021

Publication dates
———- May 2nd 2019 by Mantle (UK)
———–January 26, 2021 – Harper (USA)

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

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

Interviews
—–NPR – The Trojan Women — And Many More — Speak Up In ‘A Thousand Ships’ by Lulu Garcia-Navarro
—–Books on the Go – Ep 78: Interview with Natalie Haynes, ‘A Thousand Ships’ – with Anna Bailliekaras – audio – 36:43
—–The Guardian – Standups on why they quit comedy: ‘I have nightmares about having to do it again’ by Brian Logan – Haynes is one of several stand up comedians who talk about why they got out
—–Salon London – In conversation with ‘the Nation’s Great Muse’: Natalie Haynes – video – 1:04:13
—–Harrogate Literature Festival – mostly on Pandora’s Jar rather than A Thousand Ships, but wonderfully entertaining, and some outstanding and surprising information about Helen
—–The Guardian – Standups on why they quit comedy: ‘I have nightmares about having to do it again’ by Brian Logan – Haynes is one of several stand-up comedians who talk about why they got out

Items of Interest – by the author
—–Natalie Haynes: Troy Story – A. G. Leventis WCN Ancient Worlds Study Day 2019
You must watch this. You will not be sorry
—–Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics – BBC Radio 4 – A lecture series by Haynes – audio
—–The Observer – Helen of Troy: the Greek epics are not just about war – they’re about women
—–Decline and fall: what Donald Trump can learn from the Roman emperors
—–Troy Story – Heroes Gods and Amazons!

Items of Interest
—– Where Does the Phrase “Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts” Come From? By N.S. Gill
—–wiki on Calliope
—–wiki on Clytemnestra
—–Homer (no, wiseguy, not the one from The Simpsons) – The Iliad – full-text from Gutenberg

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