12 June 2020

VALENTINE: Hard times in a hard place

It is rare to discover a page-turning plot told in mesmerizing language, and featuring a cast of haunting true-to-life characters. And, although set in west Texas in the 70s, relevant to all that ails us, still.


This is VALENTINE, remarkably a first novel by a gifted writer. 


From page one, you will not believe the power of the prose – colorful descriptions of a landscape that make you feel the dry brush against your skin and the scent of oil in your nose. And, a cast of characters who pop off the page. Honestly, this book is powerful.


The set up reminded me of another terrific novel, published last year: DISAPPEARING EARTH, by Julie Philips. Both begin with a horrific event, in this case a violent assault against an adolescent Mexican girl, and spend the rest of the novel revealing the reverberations through the lives of the women residents. In this book, all the women, and children, live on one street, and they watch out for each other and/or judge each other – unwed mothers, widows, women who give up and leave, daughters tending to fathers or longing for mothers, and one woman who stands up for the raped girl, all struggling to overcome misogyny and racism and make sense of their lives, and their futures.


Ginny will remember pushing her daughter’s fine brown hair out of her eyes, the smell of oatmeal and Ivory soap, the chocolate on her chin from the Valentine’s candy she’s been eating all morning, and the shine on her cheeks from the suntain lotion Ginny swiped across her face before they left the house. Ginny’s hand trembles and she thinks, Take her. Make it work somehow. But Debra Ann scoots away, saying, Quit it. Because to her, this is still like any other Sunday morning and her mother might be nagging her about any of the usual things. To her, even Ginny’s tears have become old hat.


The Viet Nam war hovers over the story, contributing to the layers of fear and instability that permeate this town, maybe many during those years, including broken war veterans who suffer and/or implode, usually at the expense of their women and children.


When they get home, all their problems will still be there. They will still be a young man and a young woman with the worst war of their lives just a few years behind them, with worries and fears and a little girl to feed and love. They will fight over money and sex, and whose turn it is to mow the yard, wash the dishes, pay the bills. In a few years, Corrine will threaten to tear it all down when she falls in love with the social studies teacher, and a few years after that, Potter will do something similar. And each time they will grit their teeth and wait to love each other again, and when they do, it will be a wonder.


Wetmore’s ability to see into the heart of her characters and reflect so profoundly on the human condition, and what ails us all, reminds me of Marilyn Robinson, one of the modern masters [and one of Wetmore’s teachers at Iowa Writers Workshop.] She often comments on what will come after we leave the story, making the few months of the novel seem like she has visited a generation and beyond.


26 April 2020

Scheherazade in Palestine.

Colum McCann Spins Another Gorgeous Novel.

The great Colum McCann
“Apeirogon” which means a shape of infinite sides, is based on the true story of a Palestinian and Israeli who forged an unusual friendship in the hopes of peace in the region. Both men lost their daughters to terrorism. Fodder enough for good fiction in a place where division and hostility prevail.

What makes the novel mesmerizing is the telling. McCann has written 1001 snippets – some a couple of pages, others only one line – and includes fascinating factoids as far afield as how birds and bats were once used as weapons [birds are a constant metaphor, reflecting, I suspect, on flight as freedom, and the cover is adorned with doves]. Also how certain words, like mayday, came to be, how Israeli irrigation tunnels were dug by the same Sandhogs [immigrants and freed slaves] who dug NYC subway tunnels, how Einstein and Freud commiserated over the rise of fascism or Francoise Mitterand’s favorite meal.

Fascinations embedded into the tapestry of two family tragedies and a shared determination to advocate for unity.

It’s a WOW work of fiction. To my mind, Pulitzer prize-worthy, but not for everyone. This novel requires a commitment to reading all 1001 passages, as each thread and every image has meaning. 

A homespun set of photographs complement the telling. 

The story sounds more sobering than it is, although surely painful in parts. Also heart-wrenching and mind-bending. McCann is a writer of unusual excellence. [If you haven’t read his National Book Award winning “Let the Great World Spin” I recommend highly, and its protagonist, the high wire walker Phillipe Petit, makes an appearance here as well.]

The first 500 sections lead up to an intermezzo in which the protagonists, Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, speak directly. From there, 500 additional short passages dwindle down. Plus one. And every one, even though occasionally repetitive, plays an important role in telling the tale.

This is a rare glimpse into the lives lived in this region – an ancient spiritual people devastated by politics and greed. Also an inspiring view of two men who might have retaliated or allowed anger to define them, who chose peace instead.

And oh, the storytelling, the prose and the fascinating information. Consider these, but a few of the many examples.

They seemed the most unlikely of friends, even beyond the obvious, one being Israeli, the other Palestinian. They had met first in the Everest Hotel. On a Thursday. It was that time of the evening when Beit Jala willed itself to cool down: the land breathed, the sun dipped, the birds rose, the hills took on a sudden burst of dark green.

Riot, from the Old French, rioter: to dispute, to quarrel, to engage in argument. Riote: noise, debate, disorder, rash action. Also, perhaps, from the Latin reguire, meaning to roar.

On the day of judgment, in Muslim tradition, it is said that a fine wire rope will be stung from the top of the Haram al-Sharif wall on the west to the summit of the Mount of Olives in the east where Christ and Muhammad will both sit in judgment. The righteous will be preserved by angels and they will cross quickly, but the wicked will fall headlong into the valley.

The reason a falcon is hooded is exactly the reason a falconer is not: the birds can see so well that they would most likely be distracted by other prey much further away. The falconer hoods the bird and waits. He wants the falcon to only see what he sees.

In Jewish tradition it is forbidden to throw away writings invoking the name of God. Prayer books. Scrolls. Encyclopedias. Garments. Tefillin straps. Even pamphlets or cartoon books. Instead of being destroyed, the texts are interred in a genizah, a burial place for the written word.

Released last month in hardcover and for e-readers. These days, local book stores will deliver online orders and they need our support. Libraries, mostly closed, offer e-reading downloads.  

A masterful and profound work of fiction in which to immerse yourself while social distancing. Stay safe and stay well. 

01 April 2020

Go somewhere without leaving home.

Anthologies are a great way to go
So, we’re stuck at home. Better safe than sorry. Some are home schooling, bravo to all of you. Some are working from home, good job. Others are out providing essential services, thank you.

We've got streaming stations, too many TV stations and On-Demand. I suspect, we’re adding items to our Watch Lists as fast as the virus is spreading. We need things to look forward to.

And, of course, you are listening to the news. More sobering by the day. How long will this last? There is only one answer: too long.

Unless you are a genuine recluse, it’s a hard time. Even a loner enjoys occasional socialization. I can write all day, but I prefer writing at a café. I miss lunch with friends and dinner out with the boyfriend. Small sacrifices, yes, but we all feel the pinch. Many of us are taking walks or bike rides, maintaining social distance, please. Nevertheless, the days are long, and the stress level is high.

Whatever your circumstance, we are living in strange times. Even your elders, like me, have never experienced anything quite like this. Not in this country. Uncertainty is the tie that binds right now, across the globe.

Reading [and music] are the great equalizers, beyond social media or blogs or Internet news. They have their place, of course, but they tend to fuel the fires of anxiety. If we are to stay sane, and support our immune systems, which suffer under stress, read fiction. Whatever your favorite genre, read. Get out of your head. Away from what ails us. 
Some of my very favorite collections

Although we have too much time on our hands, our attention spans are justifiably under assault, so I recommend short stories. There are a zillion of them in print and online and in a matter of minutes, maybe a half an hour, you might ground yourself in what truly matters.

From the Bible to fairy tales to Sherlock Holmes, stories fortify connections more than divides. You may prefer the traditionalists – Hawthorne and Hemingway, Fitzgerald or O’Connor. Or the early modern masters, like Grace Paley and Ann Beattie. 

Thanks to The New Yorker [one of the only commercial magazines still publishing short stories] you can peruse the archives and read stories by greats like E. L. Doctorow and Alice Munro, or grand Irish storytellers, like William Trevor and Edna O’Brien. More recently, you’ll find the phenomenal Lauren Groff and Paul Yoon.

Some of my favorites, Mary Gordon and Tessa Hadley, layer stories like cake. Award-winning novels have been strung together like pearls with short stories by Elizabeth Strout, Jennifer Egan and Bernadine Evaristo, just as James Joyce did in his day.

Reading a short story first thing in the morning softens the edges of harsh news. At bedtime, the most poignant tale makes for sweeter dreams than our current reality.

There are many stories published online in literary e-zines and also many short story podcasts. I prefer The New Yorker Fiction or The Writer’s Voice – listening is like sitting by the fireside. Audible and Kindle offer some stories for free. Soothes the soul. Oh how we need that now.

BTW, although the OC Library system, like others across the country, is shuttered, there are several digital systems available and most local bookstores are taking online orders. They need our support. 

A gold mine of short reading awaits. Stay safe, stay well. 

12 March 2020

Two Gems: Weather and ArtForum

Jenny Offill
The original and unusual novel, Department of Speculation, reviewed here in 2014, was Jenny Offill’s breakthrough book, written in short takes that reveal contemporary lives and challenges. Her latest novel, Weather, which deals abstractly with the climate crisis, is told in the same format and has received glowing reviews. I agree.

The protagonist, a promising graduate student trapped by her brother’s addiction, goes to work answering mail for a Q&A podcast, and ends up dealing with the most neurotic and fearful among us, from whom she too learns a few things, but which begins to unravel her core equanimity. In the end, a human life, and human psyche, is as unpredictable as weather, despite meteorologists who suggest otherwise – as variable and as fragile as the planet.

This little book is a book that demands underlined passages and scribbles in the margins. So much info and insight. I was consistently shaking my head in wonder at her wisdom, not to mention her cleverly crafted prose. It’s a gem, truly, and I suggest you read at least twice, or at least very slowly. A post-modern novel as sharply observed as Bronté in her time.

Sylvia tells the audience that the only reason we think humans are the height of evolution is that we have chosen to privilege certain things above other things. For example, if we privileged the sense of smell, dogs would be deemed more evolved. After all, they have about three hundred million olfactory receptors in their noses compared to our six million. If we privileged longevity, it would be bristlecone pines which can live for several thousand years. And you could make a case that banana slugs are sexcually superior to us. They are hermaphrodites who mate up to three times a day.

Cesar Aira
Artforum, by César Aira, at first sight looks like an art gallery catalog, but without images, and is a novella based on an Argentinian intellectual’s obsession with Artforum magazine. Not so much the reading of them as the collecting of them. He gathers them, obsessively, into his arms and into his home for posterity, and goes to great lengths to protect them from the elements, although, in the end, nothing can be protected perfectly. Any book lover understands the compulsion to pile and shelve books. As essential as the reading.

This small gem is an incredibly simple concept: from chapter to chapter, a life is revealed through his search for current and past editions and the people he encounters along the way. Quirky and delightful, what seems like interrelated stories combine to exemplify one man who, in this seemingly small passion, finds an opportunity to fill the spaces between an otherwise predictably linear existence.

Leaving aside such subtleties, or digging deeper into them, the craziness of buying all of them resided in the excess of pleasure, or at least, gratification. I had had a stroke of luck, there they were in my avid hands, as incredible as they were undeniable, material, tangible. We always count on having strokes of luck, but on a different and fluctuating plane in time, not in the present. Now it was the present. The present and Artforum that expressed it now coincided. That was enough to make me slightly giddy with incredulity.