Known by Heart, Ellen Prentiss Campbell, Apprentice House Press, 185 pp, 2020.
Fans of Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s work—from her earlier short story collection Contents Under Pressure and novel The Bowl with Gold Seams—know that there is nothing showy about her writing. It is understated, unadorned, much as the Quaker philosophy that often forms a theme in her work. But that is not to say that it is simple.
Her latest story collection, Known By Heart, is filled with quiet, nuanced stories of memory and yearning, betrayal and reconciliation, resentment and forgiveness, rekindling and extinguishing love, heartbreak in all its forms. These are stories of quotidian life, universal and instantly recognizable, and still electric with possibilities and surprise.
Geography links many of the stories here, in the rural heart of Bedford, Pennsylvania, but there are other links as well, and the delicacy of the connections across a number of these stories is part of their delight, as they offer another look, the unspooling of a deeper story. Still, many end on an unresolved note, a question hanging in the air. Here, as in life, there are no easy answers.
In the title story, “Known by Heart,” Alan watches as his wife Grace draws farther and farther into dementia, and pushes back against his daughter Frances’s increasing pressure to accept outside help, sure that he can be everything that Grace needs. Campbell’s recounting of each step on the downward spiral echoes painfully of Alan and Grace’s shared loss, though one that only he is bearing.
When they visit their farm and she wanders away in the middle of the night, neighbors and volunteer firefighters look for her. “Alan wanted to go along but he was marooned on deck while others dove in the sea of dark forest, trolling for Grace. He rang the bell. It was all he could do.”
That story is followed by “Estates and Trust,” which focuses on Alan and Grace’s daughters, Frances and Kate, sisters locked in a lifelong battle for primacy within the family. One of the few things that their mother could remember as she slipped farther into dementia was her husband’s one affair from decades ago, an event that Kate now realizes interrupted her own budding relationship, ended before it properly began. “She . . . stared into the embers of her father’s last fire. Time was what she wanted back. Non-refundable, non-renewable time.”
The fraught relationship of sisters is plumbed again, even more painfully, in “Duets and Solos,” as is the horrors of aging in the modern world, both as caregiver and patient, in “Ruby.”
Here, Campbell continues sketching the vivid, chilling portrait of assisted living she began in the title story. First, there are the relatives. As Ruby’s widower husband Pete thinks of his niece, Sheila, “She meant well, but her anxious voice and hover, her eagerness to solve his problems (and solve her problem: Pete) wore him out.” And, as Pete’s friend Helen remarks, the residents and their caregivers are together in being beneath society’s notice: “We’re invisible because we’re old. They’re brown.”
Grief stalks many of these stories, most painfully in “A Long Time to be Gone,” which is coupled with its prelude, “Out of This World,” a snapshot of harried mother Bonnie and her own mother, a retired teacher, talking on the phone as they watch the historic launch of the space shuttle Challenger, followed immediately by its explosion. The next story finds Bonnie and her family on a normal, crazy Saturday morning, trying to collect up the two girls and the dog to get to the soccer game. And—as we all know it can—from one second to the next, life changes forever.
To say that something is known by heart is to imply that it has been repeated, over and over, to the point that it is done without thought. But to know something by heart also says that it is loved, that it brings a measure of joy. Even when they are describing heartbreak, these stories, with their deeply abiding humanity, bring that measure of joy.
Fallible by Kyle Bradford Jones is a memoir about the author’s struggle with mental illness, particularly during his grueling training as a physician. Dr. Jones is never cured of his anxiety and depression, which he describes as an invisible omnipresent “gargoyle” that waxes and wanes through about a decade of his life.
Early in his medical training, Dr. Jones notices that his symptoms of anxiety are exacerbated by the stresses of medical school. Even the road to acceptance into a program has been rough for the young man, who is married and whose wife is expecting their first child. In addition, the couple moves out of state, away from the support of both of their families. Fellow students in his medical program begin dropping out or developing mental disorders of their own. Dr. Jones’ wife, Becki, begins to suffer from isolation as she cares for their newborn in a government-subsidized apartment. The gargoyle that represents his illness is gaining traction.
Dr. Jones’ struggles increase as he begins clinical rotations. During his surgical rotation, after his frustrated attending surgeon throws a scalpel at an orderly, he writes in the memoir, “I had not signed up for this, and I now feared that entering the world of medicine would cost me my soul.” Some of the behavior of other senior doctors that teach him as he graduates from medical school and works in his residency, stun him. He seriously questions his career choice.
Throughout the memoir, Dr. Jones repeatedly seeks help for his deteriorating mental state, but he doesn’t get complete satisfaction or respite from his encounters with various clinicians. The stigma of mental illness is greater among physicians than the general public; he even resorts to self-treatment at one point.
Fallible is important because, as Dr. Jones notes, physicians are three times more likely to develop a mental illness than the general public. They also die by suicide at a higher rate. Dr. Jones explores why this is so: Is it the broken United States health care system, or the erroneous attitude of patients and their families that physicians are gods, capable of curing anything?
Dr. Jones’ writing shines. He has a tremendous vocabulary and a concise style. His explanations of complex topics such as neurotransmitters, which cause some mental illnesses, are clear. His suggestions for fixing a broken medical system in the United States are well thought out.
Fallible is a must read for anyone considering a medical profession. It’s not for the faint of heart; Dr. Jones gets into specifics about the good, the bad, and the ugly of caring for patients while coping with his anxiety and depression.
The memoir was published by Black Rose Writing earlier this month and is available on Amazon.
MANIC WARS by Trina Ann Pion is a raw look at mental illness and how those who suffer from it are poorly treated even in a developed nation. This novel follows Christina Wars, who suffers from bipolar disorder, and her life over the span of about two months in Montreal, Canada. Ms. Pion inflects her own degrading experiences with mental illness and the health and justice systems into the novel. The story illuminates a world of unfairness and distrust to which these patients are subjected.
It is clear from Christina’s first hospitalization that the odds are stacked against her as she navigates the health system. Or, as the story unfolds, the health system dictates what happens to her. Although she’s brought to a hospital against her will, it is for the best because she wrecks her house and is acting irrationally, but she can’t even have a cigarette until she has hounded the staff there.
Also, she’s worried about her children and her future of studying at her university. Her ex-boyfriend Ricky is trying to control her and their children’s lives, and she can’t do anything about it when she’s locked up in a psych ward. Or are these fears part of her disorder? The reader and even Christina aren’t sure.
Next, after Christina is released from the hospital, her mania gets her into trouble again, and she returns. This time the police are involved, and the nightmare only worsens for the protagonist. She is brought back to the same hospital for a short while, but the attitudes of the staff toward her are much different. Why? After an appearance before a judge, Christina is moved to a jail wing for the criminally insane. The conditions can be best described as barbaric. Christina must protect herself from her fellow detainees, who have probably committed worse crimes than what she is charged with, and the manipulative guards during her internal battle with her disorder.
The bulk of the story follows Christina’s stay in this jail, as well as a hospital wing stay afterwards in a notorious prison for the mentally ill. Will she ever be released and go back home? That’s the main problem that Christina and the reader want resolved.
Overall, the story is realistic and debunks many myths surrounding mental illness. Christina is constantly afraid. She fears the doctors, the police, and the guards in the jail. Usually it is the public who are afraid of the mentally ill, be it that the mentally ill are supposed to be dangerous, but this first-person protagonist flips the script. She is constantly afraid that the police will shoot her dead in public, mentioning it throughout the novel. She fears her erratic thoughts will overcome her because she isn’t receiving the correct medicine regimen in jail. And she’s afraid the guards won’t care what happens to her while she’s under their watch. The reader is sympathetic to her plight because many of these fears are real and not part of her disorder.
Although the writing is well-done, the ending is abrupt and leaves the reader wondering what happens next. A sequel would fit in nicely to pick up this cliffhanger at its beginning.
MANIC WARS, published by Jaded Moon Publishing, was released earlier this month and is available on Amazon.
When next you find yourself with a few unplanned hours — a lazy Sunday and nothing on the calendar, perhaps — I recommend reaching for Tara Campbell’s Midnight at the Organporium or Tyrese Coleman’s How to Sit, two slender volumes, both of which offer the satisfaction of being consumable in a single sitting. The authors are both masters of the short form, packing freight and resonance into a small space. The books may be brief, but the stories they tell are indelible.
Midnight at the Organporium
Aquaduct Press, 2019
I’ve met the real-life inspiration for Eugene, the overly protective houseplant that spills out of “New Growth,” one of eleven stories in Tara Campbell’s most recent collection. The real plant is named Maxine, and her sprawling vines, like those of her fictional alter ego, are taped up across the ceiling of her living room, reaching out, cascading — a green canopy in the interior landscape.
I’m pretty sure that’s where the resemblance to Eugene ends, but leave it to Campbell’s febrile imagination to consider the use to which those viney arms might be put. More than that, though, is how the author, in just a few quick strokes, shows us the fraught relationship between Misty and Joe, practically giving us their entire backstory in the simple sentence, “The edge in his voice told her to stay on the couch, out of his way.”
Campbell is the author of the novel TreeVolution, another view into vegetative revenge, and the story collection Circe’s Bicycle. The genius in so much of Campbell’s speculative and science fiction is how she simply takes a quarter turn on reality and presents it back to us, so fully recognizable — except. Or how she considers a fairy tale that needs just one more twist on the familiar tale.
Another story, “Speculum Crede,” riffs on the concept of how we see ourselves compared to how others see us, following that idea towards its logical conclusion, in a fever dream sort of way. And the title story, “Midnight at the Organporium,” transforms the sentiment, “I gave you my heart,” from the figurative to the literal.
Yet my favorite story in the collection is reality with no twist at all, just a painfully funny snippet of life unfiltered. “Aftermilk” offers us the harried fifteen minutes of breakfast time before the school bus pulls up, staggering under the weight of jaundiced advice from a divorced mother to her children.
She is an unwilling expert on how the course of your entire life really can turn on whether you’re just pretending to be able to afford the brand-name cereal. And her exegesis on the timing required to produce the perfect slice of buttered toast is both inspired and a fully realized metaphor for life.
How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays
Mason Jar Press, 2018
In the introductory note to this, her debut collection, author Tyrese Coleman considers the line between fact and fiction, especially when it comes to memoir, and whether any distinction really matters. As she observes, “memories contain their own truth regardless of how they are documented.”
Indeed, how we remember significant events in our lives — whether or not they are precisely accurate — materially affects both our view of the world and our relationships within it. Our perceptions are our own realities, and there is no argument to be made against that truth.
That’s what makes memoir not so very different from fiction. The line blurs, but the truth that the memories carry remains the same.
Each of these pieces has appeared elsewhere in some form; the collective force of putting them together results in a gut punch. Coursing through these stories of abuse and neglect, racism, anger, guilt, and regret, is also acceptance, forgiveness — of self and others — and the love that survives somehow, forged in the connective tissue of family.
Coleman’s writing is captivating in its variety, with form, voice, and tone varying widely from piece to piece, each capturing a glimpse of a life from different angles and focal points, collectively forming a nuanced portrait.
That portrait is of a talented girl and woman pulling herself out of family chaos, of overcoming the damage inflicted when those who are supposed to protect you betray you in ways both incidental and profound. Or at the very least are never able to grow up enough to realize they are supposed to be the responsible ones.
“Thoughts on My Ancestry.com DNA Results” is perhaps the most sweeping of the pieces, heartbreaking in its clear-eyed view of the forces that brought Coleman into being and that carry on through her.
Of her twin sons, one is darker than the rest of the family, and she sees already what a difference that will mean to him — how the doctor is impatient with him but gentle with his brother, how uneven is the attention paid by strangers. “One day . . . he will understand the luxury of his brother’s, his mother’s, his father’s light skin, and feel the lack of it sting his own.”
Coleman’s mother and grandmother are central figures throughout: infuriating women, self-absorbed, absent even when physically present, forceful in their wrong-headedness — and yet, theirs is a survivor’s strength that is passed down. “In the back room of her grandmother’s house, T learned how to escape,” she says in “How to Mourn”. That escape, as every writer knows, was through reading.
And perhaps through writing as well — the catharsis of working out on the page what isn’t possible to work out elsewhere. At any rate, the escape is such that Coleman dedicates this debut memoir, “To my family, especially my grandmother, whose smile I will always remember.”
Fiction writers try to take universal experience and shape it into specific actions and feelings from authentic characters. In his latest novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues, author Philip Cioffari accomplishes this task in spades.
On the surface, If Anyone Asks is the story of one night in the life of Joey “Hunt” Hunter. It’s a big night for him—both his 18th birthday and prom night at his high school. Self-conscious and unsure, he worries about impressing his prom date, the love of his life, Debby Ann. What he doesn’t realize—or maybe he does—is that he can’t impress her because her heart belongs to Sal, head of a local gang called the Brandos.
After the fiasco of the prom and rejection from Debby Ann, Hunt embarks on an exploration of bars and eateries in the Bronx, hoping to still wring some magic out of the night. Accompanying him is his friend, Johnnie Jay, a boy who, unlike Hunt, can lose himself in the moment and occasionally experience contentment. Also with them are Hunt’s memories of his little brother, Toby, who was killed in an accident for which Hunt blames himself.
As Hunt moves through the night, the universality of his experiences builds. With Debby Ann, he longs for something that is real but that he can’t have. At the prom and at several of the bars he sees a flutter of light that surrounds a girl in a blue dress who disappears into the crowd before he can get close to her. Now he’s plagued with a longing for what may not be real or defined, but he still can’t have it. Through everything he feels like something is missing, something is right beyond his reach.
In contrast to Hunt is another friend, Augie, a street-wise 10-year-old who seems to have already seen it all in his short life and accepts everything for what it is. He never seems to be waiting for something or expecting anything.
In addition to longing, Hunt is faced with fear, again both certain and vague. Friends tell him that Sal, who’s also known as the Butcher, is out to get him because of his attention to Debby Ann. Since he’s seen Sal and the Brandos out on the streets since the prom, he knows he’s likely doomed. But there’s a larger threat sweeping through the streets that night. Rumors are circulating that the Golden Guineas, the most feared gang in the Bronx, are coming to start a gang war. No one knows exactly if they will come or when, just probably sometime before dawn.
More than once during this long night, Hunt is reminded of Toby. Between bar visits, he presses Johnnie Jay to go with him to Toby’s grave. Staring at Toby’s tombstone, Hunt again says the accident was his fault, but Johnnie Jay contradicts him. “Do you ever think that maybe this was pre-ordained?” he asks, raising universal questions of destiny and free will. “Maybe it’s part of the plan. Each of us is given our own special pain to carry.”
Eventually Hunt is faced with challenges that demand courage he isn’t sure he has. In a classic coming-of-age experience, he has to look within himself to find out. And by his side is the ever-unflappable Augie.
If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues is not a long novel, yet it feels rich and full. Its pages are packed with action, yearning, fear, and as the title says, heartbreak, all squeezed into one teenager’s efforts to get through one night in his life. There are also insights, questions, and discoveries, and the spark that makes it all worthwhile—hope.
This compelling memoir spans the author’s childhood and young adult years. Most of the story takes place in India and touches on the cut-throat competition among students to enter preferred schools that eventually lead to a university education. The author delves into the pressure that his parents exerted on him to get the grades as a child to enter into one of these schools.
In one Droplet, or chapter, Mr. Nair describes how his father wakes him up at 4:30 am every weekday when he is still in a non-preferred public school to study before getting ready for school. Unfortunately, the author isn’t as keen as his father about school and rebels against him in several instances.
While in his university, Mr. Nair’s troubles continue when senior students haze him and his junior classmates; these incidents are more serious than hazing in the United States. The author finds himself in dangerous situations on more than one occasion and relies on his ingenuity to escape.
Despite suffering in his native India to reach the preferred schools and eventually a university, Mr. Nair maintains his sense of humor throughout the memoir. There are moments of lightheartedness among his classmates and him even though the pressure that the parents put on their children to perform in school is pervasive. In another Droplet, Mr. Nair and his peers do battle with wads of paper, which they hurl at each other with rubber bands when adult supervision is somewhat relaxed in their school. This battle is a release from the constant pressure to get the necessary grades, and is a bonding experience with his classmates.
The style of writing is engaging because the author addresses the reader directly throughout the story, thereby creating an intimacy with the reader that other authors don’t achieve. In the Droplet that explains the hazing by his college senior colleagues, Mr. Nair begins, “Previous chapters I have traced a little about my college days and how seniors played the part. I will offer you a glimpse of our college days here.” This “introduction” serves to entice the reader to continue on with the Droplet and empathize with the author about his experiences.
Droplets is a quick read but offers valuable insights into life. The author rebels against his parents, but as an adult living abroad he comes to be very fond of them. His parents, in turn, are angry when Mr. Nair rebels against them, but as elderly parents they remind the author with humor about those times. These experiences point to the intense relationship between parents and their children, and how it evolves over time.
Droplets by Ajay Nair is available on Amazon and Black Rose Writing’s website, among other outlets.
The Five Wishes of Mr. Murray McBride by Joe Siple is a heart-warming story about a former Chicago Cubs player, Murray McBride, a hundred-year-old man who has recently lost his wife. With few friends and only a grandson as family, the old timer has lost the will to live until he meets the fragile Jason Cashman, a ten-year-old struggling with a failing heart.
The presentation of Murray grabs the reader from the start. The lonely man visits his internist, who understands Murray’s predicament and suggests he visit the hospital to comfort a sick young boy. This boy turns out to be Jason. Murray has a medical condition, too. He must faithfully take his medicine to prevent fluid from entering his lungs and a certain death. He even contemplates not taking his pill before he meets Jason.
The two characters bond immediately, and when Murray finds a list of five wishes that Jason desires before the child dies, the former baseball star is determined to help Jason accomplish his wishes.
The rest of the story chronicles the adventures of Murray and Jason as they seek to fulfill Jason’s wishes. It isn’t until the end that Murray’s five wishes become apparent.
This novel displays the importance of having something to live for. Without wishes and Jason, Murray seems aimless and hopeless, even to the point of committing suicide by not taking his pill. As Jason and Murray’s bond becomes stronger, Murray learns to be thankful for what he has, namely a remaining relative in Chance, his grandson, and a long life lived to the fullest. Yes, the old man has regrets, but in the course of his relationship with Jason, he learns to forgive himself for his mistakes.
Congratulations to Joe Siple on a well-thought-out and touching novel. It has won many awards and is available on Black Rose Writing’s website, among other outlets including Amazon.
Recently I got an ad from The New York Review of Books featuring “headstrong women” paraphernalia in their Readers Catalog (pillow covers, tea sets, necklaces, that kind of thing). They meant “headstrong women” of literature such as Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Gertrude Stein—women who took their lives into their own hands, I suppose.
Because I had just finished Herman Wouk’s novel Marjorie Morningstar, that email got me thinking about “headstrong” female protagonists. I can’t really say that Marjorie is headstrong. In the end she turns out to be quite conventional, at least externally, ultimately the poignant and ephemeral embodiment of a young man’s fantasy.
What on earth does headstrong mean anyway?
Still, Marjorie is in many ways a woman with a mind of her own, or at least a mind we got to see in depth in the novel. Does that make her “headstrong”? Perhaps what people call “headstrong” in women is a quality simply known as independence, or integrity, in men. In women such qualities often take on a more pejorative tone, connoting stubbornness and defiance. This is a connotation that only subtle subversives (aka readers of the New York Review) would sardonically regard as a virtue worth posting on, say, a tea set.
I prefer to think of “headstrong” as meaning memorably and complicatedly independent–at least if we are going to glorify it. Using this definition, one would hope that all protagonists of any gender, particularly any worth writing about, however, would be headstrong.
Definitions aside Marjorie is indeed headstrong, i.e., a memorably strong and complex woman, to the point that when I closed the book I started thinking about other headstrong female protagonists. Many of these women are also eponymous: Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre. Another favorite of mine, not eponymous but equally headstrong, is Becky Sharp In Vanity Fair. I even wrote one of my college application essays about her.
Who is your favorite “headstrong woman” in literature?
All this made me curious if other readers had favorites among the “headstrong” women of literature. Or, more to the point, if they had favorite female protagonists memorable for their fierce independence, passion, and dedication.
If you have a favorite, please share her name with me and explain why you think she’s “headstrong,” You can reach me via the comments section below, the contact form on my website, my Twitter account (@terraziporyn), or the Late Last Night Books Facebook page. I’ll share the results in next month’s blog.
Meanwhile I’m off to order that tea set.
Laurel Leff, Buried by the Times (Cambridge, 2005)
One of the unfortunate casualties of the media’s war on Donald Trump and his ‘fake news’ response is a clear-eyed assessment of the extent to which outside factors influence what newspapers choose to print or not print. As a case in point, consider Laurel Leff’s thorough analysis of the New York Times coverage (or lack thereof) of the Nazi’s murderous campaign against the Jews of Europe. Leff exposes the Times’ intentional downplaying of what was happening out of a fear of being criticized for playing favorites due to the fact that the Times’ owner and publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was Jewish.
Sulzberger was a proponent of the idea that Judaism was a religion and not the cornerstone of a people, a nation. He was opposed to Zionism, the movement that sought to re-populate the land where Jews had once lived as a separate nation, and he was opposed to any references in the Times that might be seen as special pleading for the Jews of Europe. Thus, an editorial about the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto did not mention those murdered were Jews.
Leff catalogs in news story by story and news bureau by news bureau the extent to which the Times either did not report on events, downplayed the extent to which Jews were the target of Germany’s policies, or buried references to Jews on the inside pages or at the bottom of stories.
An argument has been made that the Times coverage can be explained in part due to the fact that the world had never seen the like of Hitler’s war on the Jewish people. Yet, the policy of mass extermination was only implemented after a decade-long campaign that included policies targeting Jews specifically. The Times’ reporters had plenty of opportunity to get the story––events such as Kristallnacht––when mobs were encouraged to attack Jews and Jewish businesses, or the ad hoc exterminations carried out by a special branch of the German army called the Einsatzgruppen which traveled across German occupied Eastern Europe lining Jews up next to pits and mowing them down. The facts were known, but the Times elected to minimize their significance.
A second criticism, offered in a review published in the Times own book review section, implied that lives would not have been saved had the Times been more forthcoming about the extent of the problem. Does that mean a newspaper should not report a murder or horrible plane accident since it’s too late to save the victims? Of course not. Whether lives would have been saved had the Times’ reporting been more balanced is not the point. They deliberately withheld information the public deserved to know.
Sulzberger found various reasons to justify the Times’ failure to report the extent of the Nazi’s singling out the Jewish people for extermination. He along with the Roosevelt administration believed calling attention to what we today called the Holocaust would dampen the enthusiasm of the American people for fighting the war. Although Sulzberger did work to rescue a few members of his own family, he rejected involvement in large-scale attempts to save Jews as Jews.
What comes through in Leff’s analysis of the Times bureaus was how a policy from the top gets implemented in the hiring and management of reporters, in the handling of reports submitted by bureau reporters, and in decisions about where stories are placed in the paper.
The New York Times has been for more than a century the leading newspaper in the country––the paper looked to by millions as the source of “all the news that’s fit to print.” Leff’s history takes the lid off and shows us how newspapers are not unlike other social institutions. Lacking sufficient oversight they can become unbalanced, biased and swayed by self-interest. Fear that being more vocal about the plight of the Jews would affect revenue was clearly a concern. Leff demonstrates that newspapers can claim they practice objective journalism while violating the precepts of that ethnic on a daily basis. Readers beware.
HAIL MARY, which will be published on May 7, 2020 by Black Rose Writing, is the sequel to EQUAL AND OPPOSITE REACTIONS by Patti Liszkay. This entertaining novel is a romantic comedy set in present-day Philadelphia.
The colorful characters are a bona fide mixture of what makes up the population in this city. Silvio, the blue-collar plumber from Northeast Philly, Darren, a white-collar real estate agent living in the fancy suburb of New Conshohocken, and Angelo, a questionable, foul-mouthed business owner, are a sample. Liszkay does her native city justice through these characters’ portrayal because they match the city’s grit, new money, bluntness, and corruption. They mirror the blue-collar grit and bluntness in the famous movie, Rocky, but also the new wave of professionals living in the city and its suburbs these days. And, of course, every major city has its share of corruption.
The reader doesn’t have to be from Philadelphia or know extensively about the city to enjoy Liszkay’s writing. Her humor and entertaining plotting make the story unique. Her transitions from one point of view to another are smooth, and the suspense of what will happen to the main character, Trysta, an attractive mother of four, remains until the end. The vocabulary is varied and impressive, too. Secondary characters aside from the ones already mentioned such as Mr. Tilley, the compassionate lawyer representing Silvio’s custody battle, Sally, Silvio’s loyal girlfriend, and Dr. Cavanni, Trysta’s therapist, are nice additions.
The reader is advised to read the first novel, EQUAL AND OPPOSITE REACTIONS, to understand the beginning of HAIL MARY. It would be difficult to pick up the second novel and understand the characters and plot straight off. Both novels are quick reads, though, and HAIL MARY gives a satisfying end to the duo.
Perhaps, like me, you’re one of those people who, finding yourself in a crowd, looks around and wonders at the individual lives of each of the people surrounding you. The tattooed barista with half-shaved/half-purple hair, the guy with the sweat-stained underarms staring into the lingerie store display, the middle-aged business man shouting into his phone as though this were still 2005.
Hard as it is to imagine, all of these people have their own history, their own movie in which they star, their own universe in which they are the omnipotent point of view.
Well, Nathan Leslie imagines it. In Hurry Up and Relax—Leslie’s tenth book, coming out in October, the winner of the Washington Writers Publishing House 2019 Fiction Award—his darkly comedic eye takes in the refugees from the real estate bubble, the hostages of the gig economy, the Facebook stalkers, the Internet gamers trapped on the couch in permanent twilight.
His characters are over-educated and under-performing, ill-prepared to participate in real life. They are able to text at blinding speed but incapable of holding a job or fixing a leaky faucet. Leslie finds them in their hidden warrens and offers up their stories in closely observed detail.
In the title story, Paulie, tightly wound but hoping to take some vacay so he can hurry up and relax, is also “underwater. He bought at the height of the market, the bubbliest part of the bubble. He can never sell, not until it’s paid off twenty-three years from now.” It’s called a mortgage—death pledge—for a reason.
In “Drop”, the miserable narrator ticks off the days of living in a motel after he and his wife lose their house, after he loses his job—but at least they are out from under their mortgage. Stuffing envelopes at one cent per, he longs to take back the days of excess, the $680 dinner out just because they could. Now their friends (her friends) are the other motel residents, similar victims of the downturn: “She was a lawyer a few years back. He was an accountant. Now they do spot temp work, when they can get it.”
There’s a similar cast of characters in “Lithing Blooker Cracken” (doesn’t every horny busker con man make up his own language?), a small society of folks dumpster diving for their meals, anchored by Gus, the trust-fund guy who eats from the garbage out of a sense of guilt.
The narrator of “Rule the Day” spends evenings hanging out with his kickball buddies, nights playing Demon Warrior, and days sleeping, occasionally interrupted by his three girlfriends with whom he rarely has the energy to have sex. “Gretchen’s throaty voice is intertwining with Candi’s quasi-squeak like some kind of estrogen-y DNA staircase—all bad news for me.”
In spite of it all, many of Leslie’s characters still find a bit of poetry in themselves. The tollbooth attendant of “Exact Change” considers the folks who roll through his lane. Of one driver’s car he notes, “The dashboard is sticky with dust and residue. Even the change he hands me is grimy, as if a volcano spewed ash inside his car . . . I swear, filth seems to chuff off in the wind as he drives off.” Of the woman who inquires after his state of salvation, he says, “She has one of those perfect moral smiles, as if she was blessed by Jesus himself yesterday morning.”
Two of these stories feature Internet stalkers, and the creepiest in the collection is “K”, in which a lonely man constructs an elaborate fantasy relationship with a young woman who has simply been unlucky enough to wait on him at the pet store where she works. It’s unsettling because it’s a bit too realistic in its portrayal; this is how young women end up getting murdered.
Oddly, the two most hopeful stories for me are ones that depict fathers with their daughters—“The Collector” and, yes, “Shit Flower”—for the simple reason that both men are working to do the best job they can for their children. In the world of Leslie’s ill-equipped characters, that practically makes them superheroes.
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.