Toward the end of Setting the Family Free by Eric D. Goodman, one of the main characters thinks about what has to be done to “end this bloody twenty hours, thereby closing the darkest ordeal of his life,” but he can’t bring himself to do it. The fact that he is so conflicted is indicative of the many opposing threads that Goodman weaves together to create suspense and compassion in this tale of the escape of dozens of exotic animals from a homemade zoo in Chillicothe, Ohio. It’s a compelling story told by a skillful, adventurous writer.
The novel opens with a series of comments about animals from famous people as well as fictional characters who play leading roles in the story that’s about to unfold. Following the comments is a transcript of the local evening news broadcast in Chillicothe, so right away the reader knows that this story isn’t going to be told like most other novels. A traditional narrative doesn’t appear until the third chapter, but by that time the reader has a sense of the tone and scope of the story. By using this unusual technique in various parts of the novel, Goodman shows the events happening in a larger context without spending too much time on long discussions or back stories.
He also shows his penchant for unusual storytelling by including several chapters from the point of view of the animals who have escaped. The unexpected narrator isn’t new for Goodman—he told his novel Womb: A Novel in Utero from the point of view of an unborn fetus—and he excels at making the animals in this novel believable and sometimes sympathetic. Being immersed in the thoughts of a lion or a bear is fascinating.
But people are the ones who make the novel most engaging, especially Sammy Johnson, the owner of the exotic-animal zoo. When the sheriff and his deputies arrive at the Johnson home after being summoned by neighbors, they discover Sammy’s body in the animal warehouse, largely eaten by the animals. Many of the animals are gone, and the ones that remain can’t be contained because the sides of the cages have been cut. The question that provides the driving force of the story is why? Why did Sammy let the animals loose? If the animals loved Sammy as much as his wife says they did, why did they eat him?
Like a good breadcrumb trail, Goodman drops possible answers along the way, but often the answers only lead to more questions. And meanwhile the animals are roaming about, looking for food, and finding people to be the easiest source of meat. Goodman doesn’t shy away from the horror of facing a hungry lion, tiger, or bear, which keeps the tension taut from page to page. At times it’s the reality of an attack: “I knew I was dead . . . . but my husband kept yelling for me to resist . . . . So I did—I started cramming my fingers into its nose and eyes and beating its face.”
And other times it’s the anticipation: “He knows we’re here . . . . He could smell us long before we could see him. And he can hear us whispering. The idea isn’t to sneak up on him. It’s to make sure he doesn’t see us as a threat.”
Throughout the 20-hour search, relationships among the characters develop and change, some on the spot and some from the past as revealed by comments and remembrances. At one point, Sammy’s wife, Marielle, seems more distraught about the murdered animals than her dead husband, although she and Sammy were married for nearly 30 years. Relationships among the men hunting and killing the escaped animals also change, as must be the case among comrades battling intense danger.
In several places the hunt is compared to war, which plays a role in the story. Sammy spent two years in the Vietnam War, causing some people to speculate he was never the same after that and his experience may have affected his decisions at the end of his life. Maybe Setting the Family Free is really about war and the things it causes veterans to do even after they come home. Maybe it’s about learning to kill. When the deputy sheriff first sees the two tigers that killed a neighbor’s horses, he doesn’t shoot them. Later, he wonders why he didn’t.
Maybe it’s about choosing the right side in times of conflict. The animals didn’t ask to be let loose. But once they were free, they needed to eat, so they did it in the only way they knew how. Maybe it’s about the risks of being different. Nobody except Sammy had an exotic zoo that large.
Maybe it’s about all of the above, or maybe it’s just a good story about some dangerous animals that got loose, the people who loved them, and the people who hunted them down. I advise you to read it for yourself and see what you think. No doubt it will broaden your perspective on the meaning of family, freedom, and fear.
We are in the heart of summer, which has always been prime reading time. What else is a lazy summer day made for, if not lounging with a good book, perhaps in between a splash in the pool and a quick nap? Here are two recent reads that I’m recommending you tuck into your beach bag: a debut essay collection and a thriller with heart and compelling characters. They could not be more different from each other, and I found them both compulsively readable.
BE WITH ME ALWAYS: ESSAYS
Randon Billings Noble
University of Nebraska Press
The cover of this debut collection of essays is arresting: it features an image of a heart that’s constructed of a lovely combination of deep red embroidery and beading. But it’s not the stylized heart of a Valentine; it’s a human heart, much as you’d find if you cut open your chest, complete with part of the aorta and pulmonary artery.
That image helps to convey some of the author’s sensibility, which is that of a clear-eyed pragmatist wrestling with a romantic. In “A Pill to Cure Love,” author Randon Billings Noble dissects the chemical composition of Tylenol—vinegar, ammonia, and tar—to consider whether that will do the trick. She tracks the end of a serious affair against the relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
In “Assemblage,” she discusses the story of Frankenstein along side the story of her pregnancy with twins, and interjects the origins of selected words, such as incarnate. She notes crisply, “There’s always a little carnage in creation.”
Noble plays with words and their meanings throughout her essays, fascinated by the evolution in meaning, use, and nuance. In “Widow Fantasies,” we learn that “[t]he Russian word for solitude means ‘being with everybody’”, and that fantasy is from the Greek meaning literally “a making visible.” The essay “Camouflet” wends its way through a discussion of being en flanant—strolling anonymously through city streets, aimless but observant—to explaining this French slang term, the origin of camouflage, as meaning “a whiff of smoke in the face.”
Literature also plays a significant role in Noble’s essays. In “Striking,” she counts off twenty observations of herself in relation to Wuthering Heights, noting, “There are twenty matches in a book,” and the reader can practically hear her striking each one and letting it burn down. In “69 Inches of Thread, Scarlet and Otherwise,” she uses connections among Sherlock Holmes, word origins, and her own experience to stitch together ways of finding and revealing truth.
As to revealing truths, she does not shy away from sharing raw and sometimes surprising stories. I believe that many expectant mothers feel some level of dread at what is transpiring and yet to come, but are reluctant—for obvious reasons—to share those thoughts. Here, Noble tells us, “the weight of what I am carrying presses me down and down . . . I fear that they will eat me up. I fear that my life is already over.” And in the era of #MeToo, Noble, rather than having an ugly tale to tell of being wrestled into submission, confesses to regretting ducking out of the embrace of a high school boy who had plans for her on a pool table.
Essays are the non-fiction equivalent of short stories, which may explain their current popularity in our time-pressed lives. Each essay here stands on its own, so you can enjoy one whenever you have a few moments, but taken together, the collection builds layers of depth and perspective that make the sum greater than the parts. You’ll want these essays to be with you always—at least until you finish reading every one.
E. A. Aymar
Down & Out Books
I’ll admit to feeling a level of concern when I heard that author E. A. Aymar was researching sex trafficking for an upcoming novel. The last thing we need, I thought at the time, is another book that lovingly details the torture and sexual abuse of women, seemingly inviting the reader to enjoy the experience along with the perpetrator. (This is exactly the reason I stopped watching Criminal Minds around Season 3.)
Thus, I’m relieved to say that Aymar has done an admirable job of avoiding that trap with The Unrepentant, handling a difficult subject with sensitivity while delivering a taut, character-driven thriller.
Army vet Mace Peterson is stumbling through the nighttime Baltimore woods after an argument with his lawyer ex-wife, Eve, when he comes upon 18-year-old Charlotte Reyes, bound at the wrists and being pulled out of the trunk of a car by two men, one carrying an ax. After Mace crashes in to break up the impending murder, Charlotte takes the lead in getting the two of them out of the immediate jam.
Thus begins a classic cat and mouse chase story, with the good guys running and the bad guys forever closing in, mixed in with a solid revenge tale worthy of any of the Death Wish movies. The abuse that Charlotte has suffered at the hands of these men — and those before them — drives her desire for vengeance, and, on the surface at least, leaves her unrepentant.
Mace serves as a contrast to Charlotte; he is haunted by the memory of the one Iraqi he killed, even though his actions saved American lives. He believes that there is something inherently wrong with the use of lethal force.
Charlotte — or Carlota, as she was to her Mexican mother, in her previous, happier life in California — collects a supporting team that includes both Mace and Eve, who needs to be convinced not to involve the police, and Dory, a woman who has dedicated her life to helping victims of abuse, particularly sex trafficking.
On the side of the bad guys, there are the four who were holding Charlotte chained in a Baltimore basement — one a cop who was among the three taking nightly turns raping her — the two assigned to eliminate her when she started fighting back, and the one who employs them all, Barnes, whose brutality is as dispassionate as it is boundless.
I read this entire novel in one long sitting. The chapters are short, sometimes less than a page, to shift among the different characters and locales. Aymar’s pacing alternates between adrenaline-pumping chase and fight scenes, and quieter moments that give the reader time to take a breath, and to give the characters time to develop. Particularly effective is having Charlotte tell her own story to Mace, Eve, and Dory, and she is matter-of-fact in her account.
Well-selected details add depth to the story. For example, we learn that both Charlotte and Eve’s mothers worked in libraries, and both women grew up knowing the love of a committed parent. It helps to underscore the vagaries of fate and simple bad luck that place Charlotte in Barnes’ path; there but for the grace of God . . .
Given the current headlines about wealthy sex traffickers being protected by a legal system that dismisses or ignores the victims, Unrepentant helps to paint an unflinching portrait of what many continue to think of as a victimless crime. Pretty Woman this is not.
Aymar has provided a compelling hero in Charlotte, a young woman who, through no fault of her own, has everything taken from her. She makes us wonder the extent that we — in her place — would find ourselves equally unrepentant.
We recently exhibited our books at the Lancaster Community Library in Kilmarnock, VA, and I traded books with other vendors there. As I usually do, I signed my book to Abbot Lee Granoff, author of Crowns of Gold with the line, “Enjoy the adventure.” Later, I read the note he wrote in signing his book to me. “Enjoy the adventure.” Great minds, etc. I’ll print a review of his book later.
I also traded books with Ann Eichenmuller, whose book, Kind Lies, features a woman who lives alone on a sailboat at a marina on the Rappahannock River. It is a mystery. The book I gave her was my psychological suspense novel called The Two-Sided Set-Up, in which my protagonist lives alone on a trawler at a marina on the Rappahannock.
Kind Lies is another in Ann’s Lies mystery series. She also writes award-winning marine articles which have appeared in All at Sea, Chesapeake Style, and Chesapeake Bay Magazine, earning her three consecutive Boating Writers International Awards. I found her book engaging and compelling, especially since I, too, once lived on a boat and am familiar with the creeks and rivers of the Chesapeake.
In Kind Lies, the protagonist, Sandra Beck, receives a disturbing phone call from a former colleague asking for help. Sandra travels to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to find out what’s going on. She meets the husband and the three young children and learns that the woman she came to help, Elizabeth Bryson, is lost and missing after a boating disaster.
Sandi is driven by guilt to find out what happened and realizes she has fallen in love with Elizabeth’s husband Michael. As she learns about Elizabeth’s life, she is drawn into a web of lies that erode her belief in the woman she once knew. Each new clue brings her closer to a truth that threatens the grieving family and the man she loves.
The book is a page-turner that will carry you along with Sandi Beck on to an explosive finale.
Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko opens with this sentence: “History has failed us, but no matter.” While Lee’s emphasis in the novel is aimed squarely on the “us” in that sentence, I was captivated by the history she explores, largely because my knowledge of it was sorely lacking.
Pachinko begins in Yeongdo, Korea, in 1910, the year the country was annexed by the Empire of Japan after years of war and intimidation. During the occupation that followed, Japan took over Korea’s labor and land and waged war on its culture. Japanese families were given land in Korea, where they chopped down trees by the millions and planted non-native species. Korean workers were forced to work in Japan and its other colonies.
Meanwhile, after seizing treasures of Korean art history and culture, the Japanese government used them to promote itself as a civilizing and modern force. Consequently, textbooks, museums, and other icons of learning spread the idea of Korea as backwards and primitive compared with Japan, a view of the Korean people that became rooted among Japanese and even among some Koreans.
In 1939, Koreans were pressured by Japanese authorities to change their names to Japanese names. Since people without Japanese names were not recognized by the colonial bureaucracy, more than 80 percent of all Koreans complied with the order.
The plight of the Korean people, particularly the common people, during the occupation, as well as World War II, the Cold War, and the Korean War, inspired Lee to write Pachinko. The novel follows four generations of the same family through the hardships, heartaches, discrimination, and occasional joys of living in Korea and Japan from 1910 until 1989. In an interview included with the paperback edition, Lee says that history often fails to represent everyone because poor and middle-class men and almost all women usually leave no written evidence of their lives. To research Pachinko, she interviewed many Korean-Japanese to gather their oral histories.
As I read about Lee’s fictional characters, all of whom are interesting and endearing, I had more questions about the historical events that shaped their lives. I knew about the dividing of Korea between the Soviet Union and the United States after World War II, but I wondered why Japan wasn’t divided as well. Perusing several websites taught me that the Soviet Union didn’t declare war on Japan until the final weeks of the conflict, whereas the United States had done most of the fighting there. Also, U.S. President Harry Truman thought that Japan would be easier to administer if the United States was the only occupying power.
The Soviets did receive some parts of the Japanese Empire, however. They were given the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island, which Japan had taken from the Russians in 1905.
Toward the end of Pachinko, one of the characters questions why German-Americans weren’t placed in internment camps in the United States during World War II as the Japanese-Americans were. Since her companion doesn’t give her an answer, I was back to the internet to find out. I learned that German-Americans were interned on an individual basis rather than as a group. Although the War Department considered removing ethnic Germans and ethnic Italians from the east and west coasts, it didn’t follow through, mainly because of the numbers of people involved. According to Wikipedia, a total of 11,507 people of German ancestry were interned during the war, compared with 110,000 to 120,000 Japanese-Americans held in internment camps.
I would say that Lee reached and exceeded her goal of creating Pachinko to bring attention to the ways common people lived through this time of catastrophe, including wars, displacements, changing ideas, and other historic events. Her intimate revelations of her characters’ lives bring a reality to those events that the usual broad descriptions can’t. And she sparked a curiosity in me, for which I am grateful.
These days many of us are glued to the news as conflicts near and far are reported with up to the minute details. Can you imagine then how it must have felt to residents of Dubno in Soviet occupied Poland in June 1941 to hear rumors that Germany was about to invade? Jewish families in particular had few if any choices to assure their survival. In one family a young man decided to ride his bicycle to a near-by town to learn what he could. For Wolf Kogul that was the beginning of years struggling to survive war, tragic loss and future guilt.
Each story of that time adds concrete knowledge of those terrible years, bringing the truth of specificity that history books can only generalize about. How each story is told therefore becomes a test for the author. For many survivors, it means reliving the trauma, remembering details they worked hard to forget. For the children of survivors other obstacles arise. How to tell the story with the authenticity it requires and yet make it accessible.
Morey Kogul passed that test in Running Breathless (2018). He has made his father’s story authentic backed by documentation and yet accessible by the unique approach of converting his father’s taped recollections into a historical novel. Here is my interview with Kogul about the book.
PGP: Your decision to write your father’s story as a first person “novel” represents a novel approach to telling a Holocaust/WW II story. How did you come to that decision?
MK: I wanted the reader to feel as though my father was relaying his experience personally to him/her. Re-telling my father’s memoir in first person removes the barrier of a third party voice and keeps the connection between my father and the reader close. This also creates the added effect of allowing the reader to visualize my father’s experience as he relives it—making the reader feel as though s/he is alongside him through his journey.
PGP: Your “novel” approach makes the story accessible to readers who might not pick up a typical narrative account. How has Running Breathless been received by readers?
MK: Extremely well. The feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Readers enjoy the fast pace and intensity of the story as well as the personal connection they feel with my father.
PGP: How long did it take you to write Running Breathless and what was the most difficult part of the project?
MK: I wrote the memoir from August – December 2016, but collected my father’s story nearly 26 years ago. Over the years, I experimented with writing various sections of the book, but ultimately committed to writing the book in August 2016.
Emotionally, the most difficult part of the project was listening to my father unburden guilt and pain that he suppressed for decades. As for the literary challenge, I grappled with telling the story first or third person, and ultimately took the riskier option to give the reader a more authentic experience.
PGP: You make a point of telling readers you did extensive research to back up the notes you got from your father. What was the motivation behind this research effort?
MK: The research serves several uses. First, corroborating my father’s account with the historical record further validates his testimony; I am proud that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reviewed my father’s story and included the book as part of their reference library. Second, selectively footnoted research adds literary gravity to the story; a reference to the devastation that followed my father’s escape from a particular town demonstrates how perilously close he came to perishing in the war. Finally, the references prompt further research and education. Readers have informed me that they were unaware of some of the facts and explored the Eastern Front further.
PGP: One reason your father’s story is so unique is that it takes place on the less covered eastern front of the war. What obstacles did you encounter researching the events related to that side of the conflict?
MK: Thankfully, Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have extensive collections that made this research manageable. While not nearly as voluminous as Western Front or Pacific Theater accounts, I felt I was able to identify enough evidence to support my father’s story.
PGP: One of the strengths of your book is your clean writing style. Has the success of Running Breathless inspired you to further writing projects?
MK: I appreciate the compliment. I truly enjoyed the process of writing this book: identifying someone with a compelling true life story; interview and research the subject; and then write a memoir in first person. I would gladly write another book that “gives voice to the voiceless.”
Writing alternative history offers an author extra challenges beyond the normal ones presented by any other kind of historical fiction. The accepted history has to be well known in order for the reader to understand what is different and to be able to appreciate the author’s exploration of that alternative. An example of a popular alternative history in the U.S. is to imagine the results if the South had won the Civil War. Even so, the author must be a diligent researcher and make clear and crucial choices about which facts remain the same and which are turned on their heads.
Zach Powers, whose debut novel, First Cosmic Velocity, is out from G. P. Putnam this August, meets these challenges head-on. Powers’ topic is the Soviet space program of the 1950s and ‘60s, a subject that older readers will remember with painful clarity as a blow to American pride when the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957 and beat us into space. Later, Yuri Gagarin completed the first manned orbit of the earth in 1961, making him a worldwide phenomenon and catching the U.S. flat-footed once again.
In Powers’ alternative history, the Soviets still beat us into space, sending multiple manned missions up. The problem, for the program and the cosmonauts, is that no one knows how to bring them back down again.
The story shifts between two time periods: the story’s present day, in 1964, and 1950 in Ukraine, during a brutal, widespread drought and famine. Powers reveals the bones of his story in small steps, starting with an inspired opening: “Nadya had been the twin who was supposed to die. But she lived, and it was her sister, the other Nadya, who’d departed.”
This Nadya is watching the launch of the latest spacecraft along with the Chief Designer, the man responsible for the design of the Vostok capsule, the one that is incapable of surviving re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
In the capsule is Leonid; in fact, he is one of two Leonids. The other Leonid is secreted in a bunker in the same complex, his presence—indeed his very existence—known only to a small handful of people. To the rest of the space program and the CCCP at large, including Premier Kruschev, there is only one Leonid, as to them there was and is only one Nadya.
Yes, the Soviet engineering answer to a persistently non-performing heat shield is: twins. One trains for spaceflight, the other trains to be the gracious, charming hero to the Soviet people upon their “return” from space.
The plan certainly has limitations. Besides demanding extensive and strenuous secrecy measures and lots of set-dressing—for example, the need to pre-position a blackened, battered re-entry capsule that the unwitting recovery team drives out to collect, along with its triumphant cosmonaut—it’s impossible to manage all the variables, such as when the space-trained Nadya breaks her leg two days before the first launch, and the charm-schooled Nadya is pressed into service to take her place in the capsule.
Of the more dangerous of those variables is Ignatius, the professional propagandist assigned to the space program who materializes at inconvenient times and is clearly putting two and two together. The question is what she will do with the information once she has it.
The emotional heart of the story is laid out in the flashbacks to 1950 in Bohdan, Ukraine where the two Leonids (we never learn their given names) are being raised by their stern but devoted grandmother, who tells them the heroic stories of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, for whom their tiny, failing village is named.
As the famine worsens, Russian soldiers arrive by train to commandeer everything valuable or edible; that is when an officer takes note of the twins. It is at the point that there is truly nothing edible left to be scavenged that the next train arrives, carrying the father of the Soviet space program, Konstantin Tsiolkovski (placed here by the magic of alternative history, since he died in 1935), to take the twins for the greater glory of the Motherland.
None of the main characters here are evil or monstrous, merely trapped into the roles they’ve been assigned. In fact, most of them, in their own way, are deeply humane. The Chief Designer in particular, already bearing ugly scars from the gulag, strains under the weight of his guilt even as he continues to add to it.
Woven into the story are some magical elements that add to its other-worldly feel, such as “a possibly immortal dog,” as Powers recently noted in a discussion about the book, and a voice from space from someone who could not conceivably be there.
This is an eloquent and deeply felt narrative, the power of which builds steadily as the story unfolds. Powers’ first book, a short story collection called Gravity Changes, was the winner of the BOA Short Fiction prize, and was included in The Washington Post’s 2017 “A Summer Book List Like No Other.” Expect First Cosmic Velocity to garner significant attention of its own.
I’ve been a fan of the writing of Tayari Jones since I read her novel Silver Sparrow several years ago, so I approached her new novel, An American Marriage, with a great deal of happy anticipation. I was not disappointed. But then numerous awards organizations can’t be wrong. Among the many honors An American Marriage has won since its publication in 2018 are Oprah’s Book Club selection, nomination by the American Booksellers Association for the 2019 Indies Choice Book of the Year Award, selection for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist, and selection as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times book prize.
All of these groups had various reasons for honoring An American Marriage, but for me the joy of reading the novel sprang from two main sources: Jones’s fresh approach to what could have been a hackneyed story and the beautiful simplicity of her writing.
The sentences Jones constructs are not overly long or complex; they flow to a reasonable length with the perfect combination of words to carry the reader smoothly along. They also contain original similes perfect for the characters. For example, “My affection for her is etched onto my body like the Milky Way birthmark scoring my shoulder blades.”
The story in An American Marriage concerns a young professional black man named Roy, who is sent to prison for a rape he didn’t commit. Last November I was privileged to attend a presentation Jones gave about the novel, in which she acknowledged that one of her goals in writing this story was to give back to society by drawing attention to some of the shortcomings of the prison system in America. But she opens up the story by focusing well beyond Roy’s prison experience to explore the effects the prison time has on Roy, his wife Celestial, and their friend Andre.
During the five years Roy is incarcerated, the relationships among these three people change dramatically. Because Roy’s in prison, Celestial and he decide to abort her pregnancy. Then, as a professional doll maker, Celestial creates a black baby doll that looks like Roy and dresses him in a prison uniform to make a statement. When the doll wins a contest at the National Portrait Museum, Roy finds out about it and is hurt that she didn’t tell him. Throughout these and other difficult circumstances, Andre is there to support Celestial. As time passes, Roy and Celestial’s relationship weakens, while she grows closer to Andre.
Jones explores these developments and their emotional impact on the players involved in a remarkable group of letters between Celestial and Roy. It’s a simple, yet highly effective, way to reveal how deeply each of them is suffering—and sets the stage for the final blow when Celestial writes to tell Roy she no longer wants to be his wife.
Before she can take any action to dissolve the marriage, Roy’s lawyer works a miracle, and he’s released from prison. This development puts Roy, Celestial, and Andre in a dilemma. Roy, after spending years incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, wants nothing more than to be reunited with his wife. Andre, after admitting he’s been in love with Celestial since they were children, wants nothing more than to spend the rest of his life with her. And Celestial, while she loves Andre, is uncertain what she should do.
The moral ambiguity of the situation, Jones said at the meeting in November, provided a key element of the novel. More than one character is right, but they disagree. The book’s individualized chapter structure gives Jones an opportunity to explore each character’s understandings, misunderstandings, and inner conflicts, which she does with brilliant insight. As the story progresses, the reader’s allegiances shift like a frequently diverted stream.
Another aspect of An American Marriage that captured my interest, because I explore the same idea in my novel Surface and Shadow, is society’s understanding of gender. Roy, especially, has very fixed beliefs about who he should be as a man, and once he’s in prison, he thinks all those characteristics have been taken away from him. He has to figure out what he still has to give to society. Celestial is also boxed in by expectations of who she should be as a woman and a wife.
I knew from reading Silver Sparrow that Jones has a gift for developing and revealing complex characters through direct lyrical language, but she takes her gift to a higher level in An American Marriage. I can’t wait to see what her next novel brings.
P.D. James, The Black Tower (1975)
I hadn’t read a P.D. James novel in some years, but came across this one and I’m glad I read it. For those who are not familiar with her, James’ reputation was stellar. (Her dates are 1920-2014.) On the front cover Time Magazine is quoted as calling her “The reigning mistress of murder.” Two British papers are quoted on the back describing The Black Tower “a masterpiece” and James is labelled the “greatest contemporary writer of classic crime.”
James wrote a series of fourteen crime novels featuring a reserved male detective by the name of Adam Dalgliesh. He’s the opposite of James Bond. He uses deduction, perseverance and a dedication to an often thankless job to ferret out the criminal.
There’s no need for me to go into the story of this novel other than to say it’s the fifth in the series. She also wrote an autobiography that describes how in her forties James began her writing career overcoming the chauvinism of the literary establishment to be taken seriously as a novelist.
James was a master in her use of the English language. Soon after starting the novel, I had to find an index card to jot down words I needed to look up. She, however, is not pedantic. Her command of the language allows her to find the precise word for the job. Her descriptions could put to shame many of those who claim to write literary fiction. She not only paints the picture, but gives it depth and feeling.
Readers identify with Dalgliesh because he’s not a super hero and yet he has the qualities of character we all would like to be told we possess. On top of her protagonist and her wonderful writing, James’ plotting is also first rate. As the stories are written from Dalgliesh’ point of view, we know what he knows. Yet at the end we discover he’s made more of the facts that we did.
The only thing I might warn readers about is James’ pacing is a little slow for the modern mystery genre. She’s not Elmore Leonard, Baldacci or the modern writers who think the reader must be kept on the edge of one’s seat from first page to the last. You have to be ready to enjoy the views, sounds and smells. You have to be willing to listen to the characters while looking for clues. You have to be engaged to enjoy these stories to their fullest. Reading James is beneficial for writers as well as readers. She offers a model of a craftsperson who has mastered all the elements of her trade. Fortunately, once the guardians of the printed word got over their parochialism, they recognized genius where it existed. James’ works are easy to find. Libraries and used book stores must have plenty.
I’ve had the good fortune recently to read two upcoming releases, both debuts, that explore the unintended and sometimes darker consequences of pursuing the American dream. In a serendipitous contrast, one does that exploration as a comedy and the other as a tragedy.
White Elephant, by Julie Langsdorf
March 26, 2019 from Ecco (Harper Collins)
You know you’re doing something right when the New York Times designates your debut novel as one of the “Twelve Novels to Watch for in March,” as that paper did for Julie Langsdorf’s White Elephant, a dark comedy of first-world problems in quaint and fraught suburbia. Langsdorf skillfully skewers the dark, secret hearts behind the outward show of social respectability and neighborly fellowship.
In the quiet, leafy-green town of Willard Park, just outside of Washington, D.C., battle lines are being drawn between the residents who truly love their tiny, charming Sears Craftsman cottages, and those who perhaps wouldn’t mind tearing theirs down and replacing them with a plus-sized faux bungalow featuring smart technology and a wine cellar.
The chief combatants are Ted Miller, who brought his wife and daughter to live in the small house he grew up in with his parents and developmentally challenged brother, and Nick Cox, a developer who has moved his family from South Carolina, leaving behind a history of building code violations.
Nick has constructed a taste-challenged castle for his family on one side of the Millers, and is hoping to find a buyer for the vast, debt-laden monstrosity he is building on the other, the neighborhood’s titular white elephant. The battle is fully joined when Nick, going overboard with the chainsaw, cuts down the red maple Ted planted when daughter Jillian was born.
Each man thinks he’s fighting for the American dream: Ted for the tree-lined town square and the annual Halloween parade and Christmas tree lighting, Nick for everyone to possess their own self-contained wonderland, which he will gladly custom-build. As he sees it, “Those little houses made everyone want to go outside instead of staying in. What good was a house that made you want to leave it?”
In the middle is Ted’s wife Allison, who fantasizes about Ted and Nick fighting a duel, with her as the prize to the man left standing. Which dream wins: Tree-hugger Ted or Cut-‘em-down Nick? As the neighborhood increasingly divides over a proposed building moratorium, things get ugly, and the veneer of community cracks to reveal dark streaks of pettiness and discontent.
Langsdorf delivers a darkly funny, trenchant view into the self-absorbed of suburbia, who perhaps believed themselves to be more special than they are, or have too late discovered that what they thought they wanted—especially when it comes to spouses, and possibly children—isn’t it. These are adults who haven’t quite figured out how to grow up.
In this well-heeled neighborhood, the only one who seems truly happy is Ted’s unflappable brother Terrance, who can teach us a thing or two about noticing and embracing what we have, rather than forever searching for more, different, or better.
Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim
April 16, 2019 from Sarah Crichton Books (FSG)
“My husband asked me to lie,” says Young Yoo in the first sentence of this courtroom drama set in small-town America, a fitting opening in almost every way. Though we hear many points of view throughout Miracle Creek, Young is the moral center of this story that examines the many lies we tell ourselves and others, and the lasting damage those lies wreak.
Also fitting, Young is the only character who speaks to us in first person, and only here in the beginning, to describe “The Incident” that sets up the murder trial that unfolds through the rest of the story.
In tiny Miracle Creek, Virginia, Young and her husband Pak own Miracle Submarine, a pressurized chamber used to deliver pure oxygen to clients on the theory that it helps to treat a variety of conditions, primarily autism and other developmental issues. The central question is: who set the fire at the submarine that killed a young boy and a mother of five, and wounded several others, including Pak and the Yoos’ daughter Mary?
Author Angie Kim draws on her experience as a trial lawyer to weave an engrossing plot in which victims and witnesses tell their stories, with greater or lesser degrees of truthfulness, while the prosecutor pursues his “airtight” case of first-degree murder against Elizabeth Ward for starting the fire that killed her son Henry and best friend Kitt. The prosecutor appears to have a strong case, until Elizabeth’s defense lawyer starts to punch holes in his theory of the crime, and draw attention to Pak as another possible suspect, whom she suggests wanted the insurance money.
The prosecutor appears to have a strong case, until Elizabeth’s defense lawyer starts to punch holes in his theory of the crime, and draw attention to Pak as another possible suspect, whom she suggests wanted the insurance money.
Pak has already sacrificed family unity to pursue the American dream for Mary, by sending her and Young from Seoul to Baltimore while he stays behind, waiting to join them. In the intervening four years, Young is forced to work seven days a week, leaving Mary entirely on her own to navigate a foreign language and culture amid the brutal rituals of high school. Young suffers from the irreparable damage to her family even before the fire; in the aftermath, she wonders what else her husband might be willing to sacrifice in his implacable focus on achieving a dream that to her now feels like a nightmare.
This is a surprisingly deeply felt story in which we spend intimate time with mothers of severely disabled children, all trying to do their best through exhaustion, isolation, judgmental outsiders, and the dark thoughts that they dare not voice. Theresa — the mother of one of Miracle Submarine’s patients, sixteen-year-old Rosa, who was struck with cerebral palsy as a young girl and can no longer walk or talk — thinks, “Having a special-needs child didn’t just change you; it transmuted you, transported you to a parallel world with an altered gravitational axis.”
The author also draws on her background as an adolescent immigrant to offer a nuanced sense of the many layers of dislocation that come with moving to a new country, which Pak and Mary both think of as an unwelcome change in the very person that they used to be. Pak considers, “it was inevitable for immigrants to become child versions of themselves, stripped of their verbal fluency and, with it, a layer of their competency and maturity . . . In Korean, he was an authoritative man, educated and worthy of respect. In English, he was a deaf, mute idiot, unsure, nervous, and inept.”
Kim expertly keeps us guessing as to which character did what, and who was ultimately responsible, since there are many here with secrets they don’t want exposed. She delivers a taut and compelling story that earns the note of hopefulness on which it ends.
Aminatta Forna, Happiness (2018)
Happiness is a story of subtle changes. Aminatta Forna’s protagonists, an African psychiatrist specializing in trauma and an American naturalist, meet by accident on a bridge in London. Coincidence repeats and a relationship is built over a relatively short time period of time based on open-mindedness, shared natures, and eventually physical attraction, but what is this story about? Forna seeks to keep us interested in the slow evolution of these characters’ relationship by weaving each person’s past in with present events––which include the search for a lost child, dealing with the needs of a former lover institutionalized for dementia, and being tuned into a city populated by foreign nationals, foxes and escaped pet birds.
At one point, the psychiatrist, whose name is Attila, suggests happiness might be found in a village in Cuba which is cut off from that island’s poor infrastructure. Even if that were true––and I don’t think spending almost every waking moment trying to survive can be described as happiness, I believe Forna recognizes it’s not a realistic option. She’s asking whether happiness can be found in the middle of a world where people take out their anxieties on animals and people who look different. Her answer seems to be yes, which is encouraging. Happiness is attainable she seems to be saying by challenging convention––the psychiatrist does so in the book’s final pages––and by adapting. Animals seem better at this than humans, but humans can do it.
Forna is an award-winning author. Her mastery of the language is one of the joys of reading the story, as is her ability to keep us engaged. It helps if one is interested in psychiatry and ecology, but even if those subjects aren’t on the top of your list, Forna doesn’t shove either down the reader’s gullet. I found Attila’s critique of his profession more interesting than Jean’s battle with fox hunters, in part because it has more universal applications and because that I’m not certain whether the problem of foxes in London is real, and if so, whether, as Jean, the American, suggests, it exists elsewhere. We have coyotes––another animal that plays a part in Happiness––in the Adirondacks where I summer, but I’ve never heard of them killing family pets in Albany.
It took a while for me to “get into” Happiness, but toward the end I was less hesitant about picking it up. Some readers will be turned off by the opening chapters. Stick with it, is my recommendation. You may find you’re happy you did.
As author Carrie Callaghan recounted last year in this space, she stumbled upon Judith Leyster’s self-portrait at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and, “I stopped and stared.” The portrait is an arresting image of the first woman to earn a place among the masters in Haarlem’s artists’ guild in what is now the Netherlands. Judith Leyster’s legacy was forgotten soon after her death in 1660—her paintings ascribed to other artists—until she was rediscovered again in the late 19th century.
Leyster’s is a story that simply begs to be told, and Callaghan comes through for her readers in this luminous debut.
In the United Provinces of the early 1600s, the merchant class had begun to amass a bit of disposable income and thus had the ability to purchase works of art to adorn their houses. As the book opens, Judith is struggling to gain her independence and establish her own workshop — demonstrating a willingness to work around restrictive guild rules in order to position herself — under a palpable sense that time is running short. The field of artists in the town of Haarlem has become crowded in response to the demand for paintings, and Judith is not the only artist concerned that the market is close to saturation.
While the story deals with Judith’s obstacles as a woman in the fully male-dominated art world, that is not its focus, and in fact Judith quickly discovers that being accepted as a master is almost the least of her challenges. In order to succeed as an artist, she has to set up a workshop, convince apprentices to work for a woman, and compete for sales and commissions as a relative unknown against the established masters.
As she is working through these challenges, she stumbles into a bit of intrigue. A shady character commissions her to paint a portrait of a beloved local character who later ends up dead. At the same time, linseed oil, which is crucial in creating the paints that artists use, is mysteriously growing scarce, driving prices to astronomical levels.
Judith remains single-minded in her drive to become established, but that focus plays havoc with her personal relationships, driving a wedge between herself and her troubled younger brother, Abraham, and her fellow painter and friend, Maria. Judith considers that her friends “confused her fixedness of purpose with selfishness”, but eventually she needs to consider the point at which she has crossed that line.
The book’s depth and texture emerge from Callaghan’s deft channeling of the world as perceived through the eyes of an artist, in observations such as, “A puddle next to a tailor’s shop transformed the white cloth hanging from his display into silver melted upon the earth.” Watching a woman with whom she has a legal dispute, Judith considers how she might capture a sense of the emotions playing below the surface of the woman’s face. Callaghan even frames Judith’s consideration of marriage within her artist’s sensibilities. “Men and marriage were like a greedy black pigment, transforming whatever they touched into their own hue. Judith did not want to disappear into a coupling, no matter how pleasant.”
But indeed Judith did eventually marry a fellow artist, taking on more of the management and less of the creative side of the business. Judith Leyster’s name and talent may have been forgotten for more than two centuries, but author Carrie Callaghan has done a brilliant job in shining a light of her own onto this intriguing artist.
A good novel delves deep into the psyches of its characters while also telling a story that’s intriguing enough to keep the reader turning pages. The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson succeeds on both fronts by weaving three different types of stories about the same people into a seamless whole.
First, The Bookshop of Yesterdays is an adventure story developed through a clever scavenger hunt. For the first twelve years of her life, Miranda Brooks spends happy hours following the clues to scavenger hunts designed by her Uncle Billy. Then, after a hunt that leads Miranda to the puppy she’s always wanted but her mother refuses to let her keep, Uncle Billy disappears, and she doesn’t hear from him again until just before his death 16 years later.
The message Miranda receives is a copy of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which arrives in the mail with no sender’s name, but with two clues that Miranda recognizes as coming from Billy. The clues compel her to return from Philadelphia, where she currently lives, to Billy’s bookshop in California, to start on this last scavenger hunt. What she doesn’t know is that the hunt will take her to physical places, but it will also take her deep into her family’s past and introduce her to people she never knew existed. As a middle-school history teacher, Miranda reveres history and its significance for present-day life, a reverence that permeates the entire novel.
One notable aspect of Meyerson’s writing is the ease with which she slips into scenes from the past and then back into the present. It’s a challenge for most writers, and she does it repeatedly and well.
Secondly, The Bookshop of Yesterdays is a love story about different kinds of relationships, especially the one between Miranda and her mother. Several days before the fiasco with the puppy, Billy misses Miranda’s birthday party and then shows up at her house at 3:00 a.m. From the top of the stairs, Miranda hears her mother yelling at Billy with anger and curse words she’s never heard from her mother before. She’s certain the problem is more than Billy’s missing the party, especially when her mother removes photos of Billy from their living room and Billy disappears. She knows Billy and her mother have always been close siblings and doesn’t understand what’s happened between them.
This incident and the rejection of the dog lead Miranda to say things to her mother that she’s never said before, the first step in the fracturing of their relationship. When she returns home to follow the clues from The Tempest, her mother refuses to accompany her to Billy’s funeral and is disturbed that Billy has left the bookshop to Miranda in his will. Again, Miranda doesn’t understand, but she begins to sense that her mother is hiding information about the family.
Although she and her mother have remained close through the years, Miranda always sensed her mother was followed by a shadow that she thought was caused by her mother’s aborted dreams of being a singer. Now she suspects it has something to do with Billy. When the clues lead Miranda to the father of Billy’s long-dead wife, her mother pleads with her not to talk to the man, which makes Miranda more determined to do it. But what bothers her most is that her mother won’t tell her what’s going on.
The third type of story weaved into The Bookshop of Yesterdays is a homage to literature. Meyerson shows great respect for the power of literature and the influence it can have on people’s lives. The first clue comes to Miranda in The Tempest, which is revealed to be a significant parallel for the story. Subsequent clues come from a variety of novels, including Jane Eyre, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Frankenstein, Fear of Flying, Persuasion, The Grapes of Wrath, and Bridge to Terabithia, and in each book the clue is singularly appropriate for a particular stage of Miranda’s journey. Meyerson’s ability to find the perfect quote in each situation is impressive.
As a whole, The Bookshop of Yesterdays is intellectually challenging (just try to figure out what all the clues mean) and emotionally engaging, with characters who resonate and resolutions that are satisfying in more than one aspect. It’s the story of a family torn apart and then taking the first steps to put itself back together again.
Back in the day, most undergraduates took at least one English literature course. Sometimes it was Shakespeare, 19th century English novelists, or the American Transcendentalists. I took a modern novel course in which we read James Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Remembrance of Things Past, and several others––a heavy load for a one semester course. The key lesson in all of these courses is that while it’s possible to read solely for enjoyment additional layers of understanding are available when you analyze and compare each work with others by the same author as well as books by other writers.
A few decades ago the Frederick Ungar Publishing Company launched a line of books about genre authors called Recognitions. The series on Detective and Suspense novels included works on Raymond Chandler, P.D. James, Dorothy Sayers, and others. Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, and other science fiction writers were covered in a second series. Both series featured titles focusing on specific aspects of genre fiction, such as “Critical Encounters: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction” by Dick Riley and “The Murder Mystique: Crime Writers on Their Art” by Lucy Freeman.
While each volume in this series was designed to further readers’ enjoyment of genre fiction, they can also be valuable reads for authors. Probing how these accomplished authors did their craft can’t but help a writer see how to improve his/her writing. That brings me to the study of Dashiell Hammett by Dennis Dooley.
Do readers of mystery fiction today know or appreciate the role Hammett played in advancing the detective novel from the armchair analyst to the engaged P.I. whose personal interactions with both clients and suspects played a major role in his stories? Starting with his short stories, which featured the nameless detective known as the Continental Op through the protagonists of his five novels, Hammett’s detectives struggled with temptations of the flesh not to mention the danger into which they placed themselves in order to do a job. The resulting tension kept the reader in doubt as to whether justice would in the end be served.
The best known of Hammett’s detectives is Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon, a story that was made into a radio adaptation and three movies. The 1941 movie starting Humphrey Bogart is seen as the archetype of film noir. Hammett’s spare third person narrative, which omitted any description of Spade’s motives or thoughts, launched the ‘hard boiled’ writing style featured by many successors and epitomized in the Dragnet TV series by Detective Joe Friday’s line, “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”
Hammett’s portrait of Sam Spade is unlikely to work for today’s readers who want to know the hero’s every thought. Yet there’s a justification for his approach. It forces the reader to judge the character’s motivation based on what he says and does. In the end, isn’t what someone does what truly counts?
By taking us through Hammett’s evolution as a mystery writer, Dooley helps us not only see Hammett’s role in advancing the mystery genre but also helps us understand the cultural milieu of post-World War One America. His detectives had to balance the requirements of the job against their personal standards of justice at a time when the country was living through the bifurcated world of the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition. Hammett’s detectives often worked cases for greedy capitalists who hired a detective agency to cover up the consequences of crimes committed against their own families or associates. With social authority at a minimum, the detective was the last barrier to a lawless world where money and power held sway, and the little guy didn’t have a chance.
To truly understand Hammett and the times, Dooley convincingly explains, one needs to read his short stories, which started to appear in pulp fiction magazines in 1922. Featuring the nameless detective, these stories got at the essence of a society that had lost its moorings. Inserting details from his own career working for the Pinkerton Agency, Hammett’s stories brought an authenticity to the genre that had been lacking and eventually increased readers’ demand for his style of writing.
As the demand for his fiction increased, he produced five novels in a short time period. The first two featured the Continental Op, who Hammett portrayed as an average person––short, frumpy and not particularly good-looking––in contrast to the heroes of most mystery fiction at the time. Beginning with The Maltese Falcon, he created three very different protagonists: Spade, the rootless “poker player at life,” Ned Beaumont, the gambler protagonist of The Glass Key, and Nick Charles, the retired detective of The Thin Man.
Each protagonist portrayed the evolution of Hammett’s view of the world, beginning with Spade playing the odds, Beaumont showing loyalty where it was not deserved, and Charles who tried to distance himself from his past life, echoing perhaps Hammett’s own career path. What’s left in a society dominated by corruption and greed, Hammett seems to be saying, but the sole individual doing his job despite the odds, knowing chance’s role in his success.
Today’s mystery readers demand authenticity, which means we want our heroes to be human, possessing average ability, but above average determination and grit. Dooley reminds us that it was Dashiell Hammett who began that trend, and is therefore still worth reading.
For those interested in probing Hammett’s early short stories, there’s The Continental Op (1975); his later stories have been collected in The Big Knockover (1972).
I’ve written before (in Two Ways to Write a Novel, parts I and II, in this column) about a non-cinematic kind of novel, one which tells more than shows, that prioritises interiority and language over action and dialogue. Colm Toibin’s novel The Master (2004) about Henry James, strikes me as one that exemplifies that approach. In any case, how could you make James’s life dramatic? He had no openly sexual relationships. He lived through the Civil War, and two of his brothers fought in it, but he declined to do so. He travelled in Europe and knew many famous figures, but was apparently so discreet and reticent by nature that he seldom quarrelled or even disagreed with anyone. In fact, his life seems to have consisted mainly in observing the lives of others, and using those observations as grist for his fictional mill. But how could anyone make a novel out of such unpromising material?
Toibin does not set out by establishing his protagonist’s over-arching desire, as writers are instructed they must (in creative writing programs, and by agents and editors) in order to drive the plot. Instead we first encounter Henry James on a trip to Ireland, where he is a guest of English aristocrats, and meets a manservant named Hammond whom he finds himself getting fond of, in ways that aren’t completely clear. Nothing sexual happens between the two, and yet there is an apparent tension between the two that certainly seems erotic, in a very Victorian, repressed way. Later in the novel, James meets a young American sculptor in Rome, Hendrik Andersen, and the erotic tension is stronger still. And yet, although Toibin is interested in exploring his subject’s homosexuality, in the most subtle and understated (almost Victorian) way imaginable, this is not the focus of the novel. More important, really, are Henry’s relationships with women: his sister Alice, a young intellectual woman he knows as a young man, Minnie Temple, and later with the American novelist Constance Fenimoore Woolson. With all of these James had close relationships, intellectually, and Toibin implies that both Temple and Fenimoore Woolson may have expected more of him. But mostly, Toibin is interested in how these relationships inspired James’s stories and novels. In fact the whole novel is a speculative reconstruction of Henry James’s inner and creative life. Although it’s not explicitly stated, it’s not going too far to suggest that the richness of the inner life is the result of the poverty of the outer. Toibin’s novel is thus a study in introversion and its benefits for the artist.
Maybe this sounds boring–it’s hard to imagine how Toibin might have spun his story in a query letter, although no doubt he didn’t need to, as he was already an established writer in 2004–but in fact the novel is fascinating, as a psychological study, for the evocation of the period, and as an investigation of the founts of creativity. What it isn’t, is a story. And Toibin admits that he is no storyteller. Is that a weakness? For many people–most people in the publishing industry nowadays, I think–it would be. And yet Toibin is one of the most consistently successful of contemporary literary fiction writers, so maybe the reading public, or a substantial portion of it, is more subtle, more intelligent, and more profound, than most agents and editors seem to think. I would like to see more novels that take the kind of risks that The Master does.
The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a young slave, who escapes a Georgia plantation hoping to hop a ride to freedom on the Underground Railroad. What she discovers is that freedom’s journey has many obstacles. At the end of the story, after suffering psychological and physical harm along the way, we find her continuing her flight still hoping to reach freedom’s promised land.
This novel is an allegory of sorts. It begins offering a harsh portrait of life under slavery; but when Cora leaves the plantation, she moves into an imagined world, still harsh, meant it seems to teach the reader about the dangers of placing one’s hopes on whites.
Cora is transported north, as the title implies, on the Underground Railroad. Only in Whitehead’s fictional world, it is a real railroad with tracks, trains, and conductors. The reader might ask why doesn’t he reproduce the actual system? One answer might be because the journey he creates takes Cora to fictional places.
Cora’s journey takes her to several states where whites seem to be competing to see who can devise the most pernicious use of former slaves. In one state, they are allowed to live without chains and overseers, but for the purpose of cleansing them of rebelliousness by sterilization; in another state, no blacks may remain inside the state’s borders and those who are caught are hung in weekly celebrations. The culminating insult to Cora’s hopes, however, comes in the closing chapters when she lands on a prosperous farm run by freeborn and runaway blacks in the free state of Indiana. This turns out to be another false way station, however, when the farm’s occupants, except for Cora, are decimated by its white neighbors.
Cora seems to embody Whitehead’s personal quest for liberty from the ravages of slavery. Of course, he can only imagine what slavery was like just as I can only imagine what my relatives experienced in the Shoah (the Holocaust). In creating an artificial underground railroad leading to fictional destinations in order to highlight the complicity of whites in keeping blacks down, however, hasn’t he undermined his description of slavery in the early chapters? Can that portrait be accurate if the world after her escape is totally artificial?
The novel is presented in twelve sections. Not all are contiguous in time or place, which works with the exception of one section––entitled “Stevens”––five and a half pages devoted to an entirely separate topic––the practice of grave robbing in the north to provide cadavers for medical schools. In this section, the characters, including a would-be doctor, focus their efforts on robbing the last resting place of blacks. One has to assume Whitehead read something that documented this practice and concluded it needed to see the light of day despite the fact this section has little connection to the rest of the story.
While overall well-written, there were too many times when I had to re-read paragraphs where he jumps around in time and viewpoint. Yet, there is also much to praise in his writing. His characters are unique, his descriptions fresh, and the dialogue is griping.
The danger of Whitehead’s fictional treatment of slavery and the system of people who risked their lives to transport escaped slaves north to freedom is that some people will take it as historically accurate. Rather he treats slavery from the contemporary perspective as a function of white racism rather than how it actually existed as an institution in which people, white and black, were trapped not as a result of hate or “racism,” but rather out of historical, social and economic necessity.
There are almost no good “white” people in The Underground Railroad. There are a few who participate in the railroad, but they are both peculiar and too weak to stop the whites who made it their life’s work to capture runaways.
I haven’t read any of Whitehead’s other works, but based on this novel, I have to conclude that his awards and high recognition are based on his choice of subject matter and the fact that he rubs slavery in the face of the citizens of that nation where the offspring of African slaves have risen the highest. White guilt is easy to exploit these days.
People who are interested in the real story of slavery and its aftermath can find plenty of histories. Certainly histories can be distorted by writers’ biases, but histories are subject to professional review and as such, errors of fact, omissions, and overemphasis are usually brought to light. Fiction is treated through a different lens. Does it seem plausible? Does it fit how I wish things were or are? Fiction can offer a different kind of truth, but should not be taken to represent what actually happened.
Whitehead’s Underground Railroad never existed. Whether it serves as an object lesson in white/black relations each reader must decide for his or herself.
One of the great joys of participating in the D.C. area writing community is getting to know so many of the exceptionally talented authors who call the area home. An added bonus is learning some of the backstory behind their work, including what it took to bring to publication. Here are two books from D.C. writers that were just released in October.
This collection of flash fiction and longer stories, many of which are inter-related, is fully, deliciously unexpected. From the first tiny but densely meaningful story, “The Understanding”, and the second, “O, Tomato,” which reads like prose poetry, it doesn’t take long to catch the rhythm of the stories and a sense of direction, and to realize that what remains unstated carries as much weight as what is on the page.
The collective effect of the brief flashes of character, location, time frame, and subject is as though someone is flipping through their old photo album to tell you the stories behind a few favorite or crucial pictures.
Through shifting voices and viewpoints, we get to know Murray, Louise, and at least a couple of their four children — along with a cast of other characters — and to understand the event that has permanently wrenched apart their family.
The core of the stories here are autobiographical, which we only know because the author shares a name with the eldest child; Bock maintains a humane but unsentimental perspective, and displays a wry sense of humor throughout. Her eye for the telling detail allows her to pack entire stories into a few words. Louise’s early adventures when she first meets Murray are some of the most developed stories; if the flash pieces are photographs, these stories are the films.
Not all the stories in Carry Her Home are related, and it may take readers a moment to process those — primarily in Part IV and the coda — that are not part of the ongoing narrative. Take that extra moment.
Bock is the author of two YA books, Lie and Before My Eyes. To bring this story collection into print, she won the fiction category of her publisher’s annual contest: the Washington Writers Publishing House is a volunteer cooperative that publishes one poetry collection and one book-length work of fiction by writers in the DC area each year; previous winners are then responsible for selecting and shepherding through the next cadre of contest winners. (Coincidentally, I also reviewed last year’s fiction winner.)
Author Alice Stephens may not be extremely famous yet, but she is adopted, and her debut novel arose from a simple, jarring fact: virtually no story about adoption, fiction or non, is told from the point of view of the adoptee. Famous Adopted People — whose Korean-born, US-adopted protagonist, Lisa Pearl, is self-aware and self-sabotaging, funny, flawed, and frustrating — fills that void with wit, smarts, and attitude to spare.
Lisa explains in scathing terms all the messages adopted children absorb over time, reminding them of how “unnatural” they are: “You know that moment in every sitcom when one of the characters is told that he is adopted? The goggled eyes, the boinggg of the sound track, the mirthful guffaws from the audience as the unthinkable horror of the accusation sinks in. It’s all a ploy, of course. The character is never adopted—the writers would never be so cruel.”
She also explains how she and her friend Mindy — BFFs since eight years old at Korean Kamp, with whom she collects examples of famous adopted people — have adapted differently. While Mindy excelled, Lisa was the poster child for rebellion, a habit that has followed her into adulthood. As the book opens in South Korea, Lisa has run from her teaching job in Japan just ahead of a scandal, and Mindy is kicking Lisa to the curb for getting drunk, doing drugs, and staying out all night right before Mindy is set to meet her birth mother.
Cut loose on her own in South Korea with no place to stay and little money, Lisa bumps into her hook-up from the previous night, Harrison, who is also the guy from MotherFinders, the agency that tries to reconnect children with their birth mothers. Lisa has no interest in finding her birth mother, but Harrison is surprisingly insistent. An odd date and a doctored drink later, Lisa finds herself in surreal trouble in one of the most isolated spots on Earth — North Korea.
The backstory on bringing Adopted into print is one that should give would-be authors hope: her agent submitted the manuscript to 40 publishers with no takers. As current events involving North Korea, and its young, unpredictable leader, took up more news cycles, Stephens’ book took on a certain urgency. When she — without her agent — submitted it to indie publisher The Unnamed Press, her book was plucked from the slush pile for publication.
It’s a fittingly surprising provenance for this out-of-the-ordinary exploration of identity, family, loyalty, and home. Alice Stephens blows up the narrative of angelic adoption stories to give us one that is far from pretty but much more true.
If you lived in the D.C. Metro Area in October, 2002, you remember the terror you felt as the Beltway Snipers killed people randomly on the street, in a store, filling gas, loading groceries into a car—17 killed in all with 10 wounded. I was afraid, as we all were, to walk from my car to my house or anywhere else. If you were at the gas pump, you stooped to hide behind your car. You ran zigzaggedly into a store, kept your kids home from school, and prayed you wouldn’t be the next victim.
So this month I had the pleasure of being a panelist at the Mechanicsburg, PA, Mystery Book Shop. I sat next to David Reichenbaugh, also a panelist and author of In Pursuit: The Hunt for the Beltway Snipers. Dave served as the criminal intelligence operations commander for the Maryland State Police and as the commanding officer at the scene during the Beltway snipers’ capture in Myersville, MD. I found him an enthusiastic, pleasant, entertaining, and knowledgeable fellow panelist. He didn’t talk “copspeak” and he never once called me “ma’am.” Of course, I bought his book.
And what a read it is. I couldn’t put it down till the last page. This is a behind the scenes, first-person account, from day one to the capture and ultimate fate of two psychopaths, written by a man who was a leader in the local, multistate and FBI search across three states for the killers. The account conveys the frustrations, anger, and helplessness felt by the police officers with each murder. Everyone involved worked long hours, sometimes around the clock, in a race to prevent another killing.
The investigation involved organizing and coordinating the efforts of local police units, the state police, and the FBI despite territorial claims and ego interference The investigators had to deal with the media, too, scrambling after every scrap of information, insisting on more, giving the killers media attention, and offering media time to any self-proclaimed authority to second-guess what the investigators were doing.
As killing after killing occurred, the investigators realized they needed software that linked the various databases kept by the different departments. Computer programmers were hired to streamline and digitize the data collected.
Profilers were used who concluded that the killer was a white man working alone. The killers turned out to be a black man and a black teenager working together. After each killing, witnesses said they saw a white van with two men drive away. The killers’ car was actually a blue Caprice, but the witnesses’ reports of a white van put investigators on the wrong track for weeks.
The author writes in a straightforward, highly readable style, and he doesn’t use “copspeak.” He expresses the rage and fear and frustration he felt as the investigators explored one blind alley after the next. He does give full credit to the other organizations and people involved in the investigation. I found his account fascinating and highly recommend In Pursuit – The Hunt for the Beltway Snipers by David Reichenbaugh.
I also recommend the Mechanicsburg Mystery Book Shop in Mechanicsburg, PA. This is a well-organized, neatly arranged shop with pleasant staff.
Imbolo Mbue’s novel Behold the Dreamers has been on my mind as I’ve read about the thousands of migrants from Central America walking the long miles toward the United States. The fictional story about Jenda Jonga, an immigrant from Cameroon, could be the story of so many people who see America as the promised land. One of America’s central myths is that of the poor immigrant who amasses riches. Mbue’s take on it is powerful and original.
Mbue herself is the embodiment of the immigrant success story. In 1998, an aunt sponsored her to come from her native Cameroon to study at Rutgers University. She went on to get a master’s degree from Columbia University. Behold the Dreamers, her debut novel, landed a million-dollar advance.
Jende Jonga, the book’s protagonist, came to New York with a temporary visa and grand hopes to get a green card and live the American dream. When we meet him in 2007, he is going to Lehman Brothers, the financial services firm in New York, to interview to be a chauffeur for Clark Edwards.
The interview is a make-or-break moment for Jonga, so he goes to great pains to impress Edwards. He visits a volunteer career counselor at a library to write his first-ever résumé, he dresses in a suit—the green double-breasted pinstripe suit he wore when he came to America and a clip-on tie—and he prepares for the questions with the help of his wife and Google. The search engine reveals that “Tell me about yourself” is asked at every job interview.
Immediately we readers see the contrast between the job hunter and employer. Edwards is a busy man, typing into his Blackberry during the interview, while Jonga is sweating with anxiety and trying not to show his desperation. The interview concludes with Edwards telling him, “If you hope to further your career, you’ll get a better suit. Black, blue, or gray. And a real tie.” Jonga assures him that he will, though there is almost no way he can afford one. Needless to say, he gets the job.
The economic and cultural divide is at the heart of the story. On the one side there is the Jonga family—Jende, Neni, his wife, their son, Lioni, and later a baby daughter—and on the other, Clark and Cindy Edwards and their children, Vince, a law school student, and Mighty, a nine year old.
The Jongas live in a cockroach-infested Harlem apartment they illegally sublet for $500 a month. The Edwardses’ apartment is “millions of dollars more beautiful than their sunless one-bedroom apartment,” Jonga tells his wife after his first day at work. “ One could see the whole city through the window in their living room.”
Over the kitchen table, Jende and Neni look ahead to what they could do with his $35,000 salary and her $10,000 income as a home-health aide. “After we pay your taxes and my school fees and rent and send money back home and everything else, we can still save like three or four hundred dollars a month,” she says. Within seven or ten years, Neni would have a degree in pharmacy, and their future would be assured.
But we readers know what the Jongas don’t. While they’re enjoying their newfound riches, the financial crisis of 2008 is brewing with impending repercussions for them and the Edwards family.
Other tensions are playing out as well. Jonga’s immigration lawyer convinces him to seek asylum by claiming his father-in-law in Cameroon would kill him if he returned. That plan doesn’t look hopeful. Neni goes to work for Cindy Edwards at their vacation home and sees a side of her that is hidden from others. That revelation creates a bond, which, without giving away too much, does not always hold. The Edwards’ older son, a student at Columbia Law School, becomes close to Jende and confides that he rejects his parents’ wealth and aspirations that he become a lawyer and that he plans to move to India.
Mbue describes both families with great sensitivity. She explores the relationships within each family as well as the two families’ affection for each other. The Jonga and Edwards are complex people, not innocent Africans come to America or heartless Wall Street villains. We know the financial crash will come and create tensions, but we can’t foresee what will happen. Mbue has a deft hand.
In June 2017 Oprah Winfrey selected Behold the Dreamers for her book club, saying, “It’s got everything that’s grabbing the headlines in America right now. It’s about race and class, the economy, culture, immigration of the danger of the us-versus-them mentality.” That’s still true.
When Stephen King writes a blurb for a novel, readers take notice. When a book is reviewed in the New York Times Book Review section, readers take notice. Let’s look at how Elizabeth Brundage’s fourth novel, All Things Cease to Appear, which was published in 2016, is being received by the reading public.
All Things has earned over 7,000 ratings and 1,000 reviews on Goodreads. That is very good, yet the book scores only 3.72 (out of 5)––not what one might expect. On Amazon, it does a little better with a 4.1 score, but from only 300 reviews.
What are the chief objections to the novel among Amazon and Goodreads reviewers? First, and least important in my opinion, is that she does away with quotation marks. Some people find that disconcerting. I do not, as this is not the first novel I’ve read where the author does that. With only a couple of exceptions I was able to distinguish when someone was speaking out loud and when they were thinking to themselves without having to re-read a sentence.
The second most frequent criticism focused on the ending. I agree that Brundage did not tie up all the loose ends and in fact created a few that I felt were unnecessary, such as the divorce of the detective investing the murder that drives the story. I also was not entirely thrilled with how she handled the demise of the book’s antagonist, George Clare. I would have liked to see justice of another sort. It’s not that I believe evil people always get their just deserts, but in this case there was enough collateral damage that might have come home to roost. Then she preserves for twenty-five years important family possessions––letters and photos––in the house where the murder took place despite the fact that it had been rented from time to time. More about the ending below.
Another factor that may have hurt the novel’s ratings is the publisher’s insistence in calling it a literary thriller. I write thrillers and this shouldn’t be confused with the works in that genre. It doesn’t possess the structure of a thriller although she includes some elements, such as the impact a deranged individual has on a community, that are true of thrillers.
Attempting perhaps to attract readers by labeling All Things a thriller may have earned the book extra sales, but it also disappointed readers who know their thrillers.
Some readers also felt the story was slow to develop; others thought it bogged down in the middle. Here’s my take.
Brundage is all about characters. What happens is secondary. Murders occur all the time, but what she cares about are the people involved in this one. How did someone reach the point where he was capable of murder? What was the victim’s role in her demise? How did people view the perpetrator and the victim before the murder? How did the murder affect the community?
To tell a story that is unique, that gives us insights into our world, Brundage must get to know her characters intimately, then reveal them to us by following them through their daily lives and portraying the circumstances that lead inevitably to conflict. This cannot be rushed. We need to see these people in their environment, how they interact with the natural world, with the institutions of society, and with each other. She wants us to see not just the primary characters—the murderer and his victim, but others whose lives they touched. She has to do so in part to make us believe in these characters, to believe they are capable of what they do and don’t do, and in this she succeeds.
Having accomplished her goal, however, she must also resolve the story or readers will end up throwing their copies in the fireplace. Her ending, which I’m not going to describe, is creative, but it must be done in a way that is consistent with the author’s outlook. Hence the loose ends and the poetic, but not totally just, demise of the antagonist and the tying together of the two characters who can be labeled good people.
Novels like this one cannot be written during NoNoWriMo (November Novel Writing Month). It must take a lot out of a writer to write about a good person being murdered by her husband, a man who skillfully pretends to be someone he’s not. One doesn’t do this for fun. Nor can we say this kind of novel has lessons about life to teach us. Just the opposite since the emphasis is on the uniqueness of these characters at this time in this environment.
In a recent interview, Brundage was quoted as saying “my work tends to unravel some sort of mysterious knot.” In All Things she succeeds in unraveling who the murderer was at heart and how circumstances led him to kill two people and maim a third. I would give her 5 stars for the skill at which she accomplishes that task and for keeping me involved in the story to the final page. In Brundage’s case how we label her books is less important than the pleasure we get from reading them.
In a review I wrote in 2013 of Brundage’s three earlier novels, I concluded, “There’s much to praise in these novels. Even where she comes up short, Brundage pushes the boundaries of modern culture, asking her characters to confront the implications of their decisions and behavior. Few writers achieve those heights. Let’s see who she goes after next.” I feel Brundage has evolved in a positive direction, moving away from an issues agenda to portraying characters lives in such depth that we not only feel we know them, but accept their behavior as inevitable. Let’s see who she dissects next.
“This is a work of genius, a metaphor-studded treasure chest filled with wisdom for anyone willing to go look,” says author and entrepreneur Seth Godin of David Leddick’s little gem I’m Not for Everyone. Neither Are You. A few chapter-ette titles will give you the idea. “There is no lasting comfort in a safe landing. Better to stay in flight…and embrace impermanence.” “In confrontation, never answer the way people expect you to.” “He was a man and I like that in a person.” (Leddick is gay, remember.) “He doesn’t want to give up everybody for somebody.” This chapter-ette begins by saying, “This applies more to men than to women. And not just gay men.” “A child says nothing matters, but it takes an adult to say it doesn’t matter that nothing matters.” And consider this quote from one chapter-ette: “The language you speak has much to do with your personality. You should really have more than one to understand who you are and who you can be.”
I am sometimes asked to speak on historical research for writers because of my two historical novels, Shadow of the Rock and In Rembrandt’s Shadow. I visited libraries and special collections, traveled to sites in Florida, St. Thomas, Morocco, and Gibraltar, consulted maps and long out-of-print books, and interviewed historians and others to collect the information I needed. It was quite an adventure.
So I pay attention to the resources used in offbeat research and not necessarily by academics. Recently, a slim book called Finding the Little Klondyke Gold Mine: Grandpa’s Last Nugget by John Cox Williams crossed my desk. It’s the author’s story of searching for and finding his grandfather’s gold mine. He started with a vague memory of his mother showing him a nugget from the mine. She didn’t say that it was in Nova Scotia or even that it was in Canada, but the author decided to try to find the mine, and the book is the story of how he actually located it, then the trek he took with his grandson to visit the site. He wrote it for his family, but he includes step by step descriptions of how he found the mine, making it a handy research tool for us writers as well.
Speaking of gold and research, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kindler, first published in 1998, became a bestseller and is still available. It’s what I consider a manual on how to locate, claim, and salvage the gold aboard a sunken ship. It goes beyond that to the legal issues involved as well. It’s the story of the sinking of the SS Central America,
I’ve never been eager to see movies based on books, mostly because they never live up to the original, but I’m willing to make an exception when Emma Thompson is the star. That’s how I found myself at a showing this week of The Children Act, an almost-excellent film based on the novel of that name by Ian McEwan.
The film and the book both come to life in the opening scenes. We meet Fiona, a British High Court judge in the Family Division, wrestling with multiple cases that defy easily solutions, even as she’s confronted with a crisis in her marriage. Her husband of 35 years, frustrated by Fiona’s lack of interest in sex, has just demanded that she let him have an affair with a younger woman. At fifty-nine, he insists on one last chance at passion, and if Fiona won’t oblige, he’s already found someone who will. Feeling humiliated, betrayed, and afraid, Fiona naturally refuses. And when Jack packs a bag and leaves, she wastes no time in having the locks on the doors changed.
While this is playing out, Fiona is confronted with a harrowing case—whether Adam Henry, a Jehovah’s witness with leukemia, should be forced to undergo a blood transfusion that will likely save his life and possibly allow a full recovery. Adam wants to obey the tenets of his religion (and his parents) and refuse the transfusion, even though it will almost certainly mean a slow and painful death. But Adam is not old enough to make that decision on his own. He’s three months shy of eighteen, the age that would put him beyond the reach of The Children Act, a British law meant to safeguard the welfare of minors.
The case lands in Fiona’s courtroom, with the hospital warning that waiting more than 24 hours will severely reduce the chances of restoring Adam’s health. After hearing arguments from the doctors who want to treat Adam and the parents who do not, Fiona rushes to the hospital to meet Adam in hopes of determining for herself whether he is acting out of his own beliefs or because he’s been unduly influenced by the beliefs of his parents and church elders who have been visiting him daily in the hospital.
While the visit helps Fiona make her decision, it hardly puts an end to her dilemma. In fact, the repercussions, which fill the second half of the novel, present a new ethical dilemma. As in many of the cases that fill Fiona’s docket, doing the right thing is never easy and even in hindsight, it’s far from clear whether she made the right choice. I’ve always been a fan of ethical-dilemma novels (which is obviously why I write them), and while McEwan’s novel is much more than that, it was the ethical minefield he created that made it difficult for me to put The Children Act down.
The beauty of the novel is not just in the content, however. McEwan’s prose is nothing short of remarkable —strong, smooth, nuanced, with an elegance you won’t find in many courtroom dramas. There are moments when a reader might fear that the novel is about to take a polemical path, ridiculing religion and faith, but it never falls into that trap. The arguments and choices are presented with objectivity and tact, despite the emotional baggage they carry, and the reader is free to decide on his or her own whether Fiona does the right thing at several key points.
Much of that nuance is beautifully brought to the screen by Emma Thompson’s performance. Her face and subtle action can convey a mood and struggle that may take up paragraphs in the novel. Other actors in the film are less successful, particularly Stanley Tucci, whose depiction of a whiny, selfish husband doesn’t do justice to the more nuanced character in the novel who wants more from his marriage, both physically and emotionally.
McEwan wrote the screenplay for the movie and in most instances, he sticks closely to the dialogue and specifics of the novel. But there are two significant changes in the way the ending is revealed that I thought leaned too close to melodrama. I wonder whether those were forced on an unwilling McEwan. I can’t help but hope so.
If you have to choose one or the other, I strongly recommend the novel. But the movie is not a bad substitute. Or tackle them both and see if you agree.
I finished reading JL Carr’s novella (or novel, depending on your definition: it’s about 100 pages, probably 35,000 words) about two weeks ago, and have found myself thinking about it daily since. It’s not that usual for me to be so haunted by a book, so it’s prompted me to consider why. Some of you might not have read it but may be familiar with the 1987 film, which starred a very young Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh, as well as Natasha Richardson—an unusually sensitive, faithful adaptation, of considerable power, too.
Let’s start with a synopsis and statement of theme. It’s set in the summer of 1920, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, an area I know quite well, having spent a year there in my youth, when I was unemployed and forced to live with my mother. It’s an area of moors and fells, bleak in winter, but charming in summer: very rural, and by English standards, sparsely populated. Into this land, which at the time was almost untouched by motor traffic, come two men to work at a village church, both of them ex-soldiers in the recent Great War, and both suffering from what we now call PTSD, but which was then known as shell shock, and simply dismissed, usually, as weakness and whining. Both have been hired by the vicar in order to fulfil a bequest, which requires that efforts be made by an archaeologist to find a grave belonging to one of the dead person’s medieval ancestors, and that an artist or restorer try to recover what is believed to be a medieval wall painting, long since whitewashed over. The archaeologist, who it turns out has a rather shocking secret—one that was shocking in those days, at least—is named Moon; the artist (although he refuses to call himself that) is Birkin. Both men are penurious: Moon camps in a tent in the churchyard, while Birkin bivouacs, much to the vicar’s disapproval, in the belfry. Along the way, Birkin falls in love with Alice, the vicar’s wife. But if that were not impediment enough, we learn that Birkin too is married, although his wife has run off with someone else, more than once in fact. Still, in 1920 being legally married was taken seriously.
The unusually fine, hot summer turns out to be a chance for both men to recover from their horrific experiences in Flanders, as their work, which turns out to be unusually rewarding, proves redemptive. But of course there’s more to it than that. As Birkin slowly recuperates, he’s tempted by the young vicar’s wife, who seems far too lovely and gay (in the old sense of the word) for the embittered, irritable, insensitive Revd. J.G. Keach. So there’s a classic ethical quandary that drives the narrative (along with a certain amount of suspense considering what the men will uncover in the church). Will he or won’t he?
It may sound like a nostalgic work, and unquestionably it’s an elegy to an England now departed, which J.L. Carr, who was born in 1912, must have remembered. But the background, which we’re never allowed to forget, is the senseless slaughter of the trenches. This lends the story a depth and seriousness that it might otherwise not have had. Carr asks how traumatised men can hope to be integrated into society again, and what right they may have to seek their own happiness. He also asks—a question as pertinent today, or more so today than then—how we are linked to our ancestors, and what responsibilities we bear towards them. For these reasons, although by contemporary standards it’s an undramatic, contemplative work, and indeed one which wouldn’t find a publisher nowadays, because of its length, the little book has extraordinary power. In fact it was shortlisted for the Booker—William Golding won it, for Rites of Passage—and did win the Guardian Fiction Prize. (A glance at Booker winners around that time shows how far we have fallen since then.)
But back to why this very ‘slim volume’ has had such an impact on me. Apart from the themes I’ve indicated, which I consider important, and the clarity of the prose, which is admirable, I think it’s precisely because Carr doesn’t follow ‘the rules’ for a modern novel that it’s so engaging. We all know that a novel needs a protagonist with a clear, strong desire, for a start. Birkin’s only aim at the start of the book is to prolong his employment as long as possible. Then there has to be conflict—strong opposition to the fulfilment of the protagonist’s desires. In fact there are none, unless we except a certain amount of internal struggle. There should be crises, a climax, and constant drama—show don’t tell, and all the other rubbish students are taught on creative writing courses. But in fact the true masters of the art (who most often don’t have an academic title to prove it!) don’t necessarily follow those rules. This is something like a great Japanese novel in tone—like some of the works of Kawabata, for example, in which not much happens, but a great deal is suggested and implied, and, as with Japanese pictorial art, in which much is asked of the imagination of the viewer or reader.
It strikes me that maybe we should stop writing to the formulae that the creative writing professors (the bad ones!) and the money-grubbing agents and editors insist are the path to success. Maybe we should stop painting by numbers. If we were true to ourselves, as the modest J.L. Carr was, we might just start creating great art again, as few people are doing in these days of ever-increasing conformity in fiction.
Richard Russo is a star . . . in Bulgaria––to wit, a few years ago he was invited to their annual writers’ conference and when his flights got scrambled, he thought about saying sorry . . . until they told him he was the headliner. That’s what happens when you win a Pulitzer Prize. It also means publishers want books and are even willing to publish nine essays that barely hang together. Oh, by the way, Russo participated in the conference during which he meditated on the life of writers in a country where not long ago you had to remain silent lest you be imprisoned or worse for writing the wrong thing about the country’s rulers.
The Destiny Thief should be read by fiction writers, as well as by devoted Russo fans. The essays that will be of most interest to authors are the title essay, “The Destiny Thief,” as well as “Getting Good,” and “What Frogs Think: A Defense of Omnipotence.”
That Russo is also a star in the U.S. is an object lesson for writers. He wasn’t a child prodigy nor was he a top student at the University of Arizona where he earned a Ph.D. in American Literature and a MFA in fiction. His career began like many lit/MFA graduates, teaching intro classes at third-tier colleges to students who looked much like he did not too many years earlier––working class and battling mixed emotions about their abilities and ambitions.
That Russo found his rhythm and produced award-winning novels seems to have taken him by surprise; it also irked some of his fellow AU grads. Reflecting on his success, which required him to come to terms with his origins as the son of divorced parents in the same upstate New York mill-town that I emerged from several years earlier, Russo concludes that “writing isn’t easy. Most people who want to be writers end up abandoning the struggle.”
That Russo didn’t give up is testimony to how the need to write can subsume the pretensions that often go with ambition and the tendency some have of connecting one’s self-worth with career recognition. “And so,” he tells us, “with no one left to impress, not even myself, I began, finally, to write.”
Russo’s first ambition was to be a rock and roll star. In high school, he formed a band, played badly and eventually gave it up, but the experience was instructive. More so, his relationship with his grandfather, a skilled glove cutter, who taught him to value good work, as well as not to place oneself above one’s fellow man. When the glove industry replaced skilled craftsmen with machines, his grandfather refused to downgrade the care he put in his work and yet he supported the union movement that eventually displaced him.
Reflecting on his early experiences as a laborer and as an underpaid instructor, Russo supports collective action, but when it comes to writing fiction, he stands on the side of craft, harking back to the guild model where an apprentice worked along side a skilled craftsperson for years before he was entitled to call himself a master. In addition to putting in one’s hours, however, an artist needs to “slow down, observe, contemplate, court quiet, practice stillness.”
In “Getting Good,” Russo raises questions that proponents of self-publishing ought to consider––namely, whether the absence of gatekeepers who stand in the way of traditional publication is a good thing. Becoming good at the craft of writing fiction, Russo believes, requires would-be authors to have one’s work rejected because only out of rejection can come the dedication it takes to reach a high level of craft.
Beginning fiction writers often flounder on the question of point of view. Should my story be written from first person perspective? The drawback is everything known to the reader must come from the protagonist’s senses and thoughts. Should it be written in third person? That means the story can be told by more than one person, but the writer’s viewpoint must be intuited from what his/her characters say and do.
Once upon a time, most novels were written from an omniscient viewpoint. The writer, in effect, was another character, telling us what his characters saw, felt and thought, but adding his views as well. The narrator knows things none of his characters know and thus is able to provide history and detail that can only be revealed awkwardly in first person or third P.O.V. stories. Omniscience, Russo tells, us “favors writers who know things, who are confident of their knowledge and generous enough to want to share it.” Needless to say, Russo’s novels are written in omniscient viewpoint.
The other six essays in The Destiny Thief are of less value to writers, but nevertheless are worth reading for insight into Richard Russo’s life and career. They show the kind of man he is . . . apart from being a star. They include a piece on Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, one on Mark Twain’s non-fiction, a brief graduation address, his friendship with a transgendered person, and his trip to Bulgaria. All are worth reading.
Within the first few sentences of Waiting for Eden, readers realize they are in for something out of the ordinary when the first-person narrator says matter-of-factly, “I was sitting next to Eden and luckier than him when our Humvee hit a pressure plate, killing me and everybody else, him barely surviving.”
But out-of-the-ordinary has become the rule for the novels of Elliot Ackerman, author of the critically acclaimed debut Green on Blue, National Book Award finalist Dark at the Crossing, and now his latest, Eden, being released on September 25.
As a journalist, Ackerman was based for a number of years in Istanbul, starting in 2013, where he covered the Syrian Civil War. Among other publications, his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine, and his stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories. He is both a former White House Fellow and a Marine, and has served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.
Those tours of duty fully inform his novels, which are often bleak and claustrophobic, and still utterly compelling. What may seem remarkable for a U.S. Marine-turned-author is the level of empathy he displays for his subjects. The narrator in Green on Blue is a young Afghani soldier, Aziz, while the protagonist in Dark at the Crossing, Haris, is a native Iraqi and naturalized American working as a translator with U.S. troops in Iraq.
Now, in his latest, the narrator is a dead U.S. serviceman whose name we never learn. He is waiting for his best buddy, Eden Malcolm, “the most wounded man in the history of war,” to cross over to the other side and join him. But Eden, down to seventy pounds and no remaining limbs, improbably persists. His pregnant wife Mary does not leave his side for three years, even when her family and his beg her to let him go. She gives birth in the hospital’s maternity ward, and the baby spends her first years with them before finally going home with Mary’s mother.
A common theme in Ackerman’s novels is a sense of there being no choices, of the main characters almost lacking free will. The narrator posits that this story is all about the choice that Mary makes, but it doesn’t appear that Mary sees or believes there is a choice to be made. Nonetheless, she has called out her husband and their friend for looking at things exactly the same way.
She comments to the narrator, “It’s always have to with you all, as if you have no choice, as if you’ve conveniently forgotten you volunteered for all this . . . You ever think that once or even never was enough?”
In response, he tells her, “The first time, I wanted to go. Now I need to.”
Mary, though, is desperate to keep Eden from re-enlisting, and knows that he won’t go if she is pregnant. So she is doing her best to give him only one choice.
Waiting for Eden is a spare but tightly-packed novel. Most gripping — and, for me personally, hardest to read — are the times when the narrator takes us inside of Eden’s head, when he is awake but unable to communicate. I considered Ackerman’s earlier books to have a sense of claustrophobia, but Eden — with its portrayal of a man being trapped entirely inside his brain — offers a glimpse directly into hell.
One of Ackerman’s talents is his ability to ratchet up the tension in the smallest moments, when on the surface not much is happening, and he does that perhaps most expertly here. Each of the characters is waiting for something, even if they aren’t sure why. But at least they are waiting together.