Monday: A new installment of Meg Opperman’s monthly column, Write Side Up.
Tuesday: An interview with Elinor Lipman, author of On Turpentine Lane.
Wednesday: A review of Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River by David Owen.
Thursday: A review of Since We Fell: A Novel by Dennis Lehane.
Friday: A review of The President Will See You Now: My Stories and Lessons from Ronald Reagan's Final Years by Peggy Grande.
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The Leavers: A Novel by Lisa Ko (Algonquin Books). Reviewed by Alice Stephens. “Ko’s prose is captivating and vivid, but the story begins to sag under the accretion of minutely observed details and overloaded plot twists, many of which seem contrived and not particularly believable. The plot feels over-workshopped, as if the author’s vision became smudged with the fingerprints of too many well-meaning readers naïve about contemporary immigration (immigrants do not get only one phone call during their entire detention, for example) and adoption (it would take a lot longer than a year for a child to be declared abandoned by his parents and then formally adopted) procedures.”
Village: A Novel by Stanley Crawford (Leaf Storm Press). Reviewed by Clifford Garstang. “Despite the enormous cast and the many loose threads they create, Village is a charming story of resistance to oppression, both historical and contemporary. And it is easy to sympathize with the villagers’ suspicions of government intentions and with their many acts of rebellion large and small.”
Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way by Ryan White (Touchstone). Reviewed by Philip K. Jason. “The Jimmy Buffett songbook has taken its rightful place in the Great American Songbook, and White shows us how and why. ‘Escape to Margaritaville,’ Buffett’s stage musical that combines new songs with old favorites, is scheduled to open on Broadway in spring 2018. That show and this book should do much to secure the singer’s legacy.”
Before We Sleep: A Novel by Jeffrey Lent (Bloomsbury USA). Reviewed by Kristin H. Macomber. “One could argue that all good stories describe journeys of discovery, real or metaphorical. It’s a time-honored template that begins with a widening of horizons, and ends with both knowledge gained along the way and a newfound appreciation for where it all began. It’s a circle as old as time. Jeffrey Lent’s latest novel, Before We Sleep, is a worthy addition to the canon of journey fiction.”
How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci (Basic Books). Reviewed by Beth Kingsley. “A reader can be forgiven for asking, ‘Why would I want to be a Stoic?’ but How to Be a Stoic sets the record straight. It begins by distinguishing the way ‘stoic’ has come to be used in contemporary English from what its progenitors intended. Stoicism, as articulated by the ancients and practiced by modern adherents, ‘is not about suppressing or hiding emotion — rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good.’”
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BUSBOYS AND POETS & @BeltwaySlamDC Presents: the BELTWAY POETRY SLAM. DC's only Poetry Slam, Inc. certified slam event meets the last Tuesday of every month at Busboys and Poets' Brookland location.
At Busboys and Poets, 625 Monroe St., NE, Washington, DC. Click here for info.
Just as curling or fudged, rosy or doomed as our memories swirl through our minds, so Khaled Khalifa wraps us in a story of memories and their power in Aleppo. A mother and her ill-fated children personify the Syrian city as it slowly erodes into chaos and decay under the Assad regime. Memories and reality conflict as the characters encounter delusions of themselves and the world they’ve known.
Scenes of various moments in the lives of the family follow upon each other, not according to linear time, but in a dream-like chronology. Each character’s story plays on reality and their own perception of their life.
The life of Aleppo, and of those who govern it, meanwhile, parallels the arc of this family’s existence. An underlying theme surfaces: Does holding onto a city’s glorious past make it impossible to confront and deal with its current reality?
“He wished his memory could become a blank page so he could write his opinion of death, which, he was sure, was the only fact that made us into cowards; we fled from it so as not to have it before our eyes, to have to see it when it was so terrifyingly real,” Rashid, a son in the family, contemplates as he imagines his death from participating in a terrorist attack against American forces in Iraq.
He later abandons the attack and returns home conflicted about his reaction to facing death. “Everyone around me thought of the images of power which lead a person into a labyrinth of delusion. I thought that I was the opposite of everyone else in that I liked being happy.” Confronting memory and reality plays into each child’s life.
Sawson, Rashid’s beautiful but slowly aging sister, tries to revive a lost innocence that also parallels the city in which she lives. On her 30th birthday, the family attempts to revive their own connections to each other despite the city’s sloppily constructed housing for poor fellaheen, or people coming in from the countryside, crowding their home.
“For [the fellaheen], Aleppo still embodied a dream of wealth and urbanity even though three-quarters of it had turned into slums unfit for human habitation.”
Memories of an Aleppo of beauty and wealth also cloud the mother’s conception of her new reality partially demonstrated in an encounter with the narrator, her son, long after she’s lost her former status: “My mother looked at the swords hanging around my neck. To her, I looked like a beggar with my filthy clothes and ragged nails. I read in her eyes that I was straying from the path, a misstep that would destroy the ascendance of the house she depended on for protection from the hubbub of the street, and from men who smelled of pickled turnips.”
Their uncle, Nizar, a gay musician who spends time in jail for sodomy, searches for love and for success as a musician outside of Aleppo among artist communities. His life also unravels away from Aleppo, so much so, that his nephew, Rashid, doesn’t believe Nizar’s new reality is worthy of his uncle. “Reflecting on his weakness, [Rashid] explained to my mother in the midst of her hallucinations that the family she wished to hold onto was nothing more than a mirage, a delusion that had to end.”
The title of the novel seems to draw from Arabic idiomatic expressions regarding the futility of a kitchen without knives — just as those who live in Aleppo have allowed the disintegration of its greatness without doing something about it. A reference to the idiom seems to illustrate this point.
“[A man] set his wife and four children on fire, then committed suicide with a kitchen knife as he screamed at his neighbors, who were watching dispassionately, that dying in a fire was more honorable than waiting to starve. He asked them bitterly, ‘Are there no knives in the kitchens of this city?’”
The book won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. It’s a nuanced, sensual read which should leave the reader thinking about Aleppo’s future and whose hands (or knives) will shape it.
AA Bastian is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Maryland. She published an article about Egyptian women’s usage of social media during the Arab Spring, “Double Facebook Profile: Egyptian Women Online” at the Eurasia Review. She received an Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 75th Annual Writing Competition in the Memoirs/Personal Essay category for “Japanese Carp,” a critical look at her childhood as a military dependent in Okinawa.
Leaders will include writer SALLEY SHANNON, past president of the American Society of Journalists & Authors, and indie-published romance novelist MARYANN JORDAN, who makes well into six figures annually in royalties from her 25 books. Also, GARINE ISASSI, who used a hybrid publisher for her award-winning book, Start with the Backbeat; MELANIE S. HATTER, whose book, The Color of My Soul, was published locally by the Washington Writers Publishing House; publisher CRAIG SCHENNING of Maple Creek Media; and DEBBIE LANGE, owner of the Bethesda Publishing Group and co-owner, with agent Audrey Wolf, of New Publishing Partners.
WHEN: Saturday, June 17, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
WHERE: Garrett Park, MD, Town Hall
Click HERE to register now!
May 2017 EXEMPLARS of POETRY
Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri
Exit, Pursued by a Bear by Joseph Mills. Press 53. 71 pages.
Kafka’s Shadow by Judith Skillman Deerbooke Editions. 68 pages.
Said Not Said by Fred Marchant. Graywolf Press. 73 pages.
Quitter by Paula Cisewski. Diode Editions. 59 pages.
Fast by Jorie Graham HarperCollins/Ecco. 84 pages.
Pink Mist by Owen Sheers. Nan A.Talese/Doubleday. 83 pages.
Winters Come, Summers Gone, Selected Poems by Howard Moss, edited by J.D. McClatchey. Sheep Meadow Press. 197 pages.
Meadow Slasher by Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Black Ocean. 61 pages.
PLUS 6 other books of Poems, BEST OF MAY
& Best Periodical & Best Anthology
Exit, Pursued by a Bear by Joseph Mills. Press 53. 71 pages.
The reason every poet is a change agent is there are no two exactly alike. Poetry is the voice and the breath and it’s highly personal. Some poets tend toward originality. Others achieve it. And so we have Joseph Mills with a terrific idea. He titles each poem with a stage direction from Shakespeare. Here are some:
Exit Romeo, Enter Juliet
Exit at another door with the body of his son
Enter prince of Wales
[Exit the Bastard]
In the back of the book is a page with the source of each stage direction — this poet knows his Shakespeare. The poem’s themes spin off from their signposts to present-day references (Budweiser’s, delis, Google, Amazon boxes — and daily experiences) Oh wait, there’re also some classical poems. Altogether this book is original and fun with smart poeting. The poem “Kate” begins: “Before the banquet had even ended, someone had uploaded / her speech from an iphone, and it was being forwarded and /posted and linked…” The poem “Enter the King in his nightgown, alone” goes: “She doesn’t know why he seems familiar/until he launches into a soliloquy,/and she recognizes something in his voice./He works at Modern Ford across town,/and last year he had tried to sell her/a used Taurus…”
Apparently, the poetry stage always has room for new ideas. Mills creates a unique environment in each poem and sees what others cannot — because he is, well, Joseph Mills, and no one else is. The functionality of using theater allows heroic moments, edgy ones, and humorous ones — just as plays do; and each of his monographs is different from the other. The Bard connects it all and the titles for once make an important and vital part of the poem. The extra pop is that Mills happens to be a terrific writer — in fact he’s the book’s best human resource besides Shakespeare. I don’t want you to think there are poems that are not lyric, many times Mills has words dancing without losing the melody; other times he’s colloquial, narrative, improvisational. On a scale of 1 to 10 for this book? A definite 11. The blurbs on the back cover are actual quotes from Shakespeare’s characters: “…here’s the book I sought for so.” — Brutus.
Later she would have regretted the naked photos
and lascivious tweets. She would have looked
through yearbook pictures and shook her head
at the hair and clothing and posing, at the sequins,
at how oblivious she was to her own gawkiness,
at how she had thought she knew everything
of importance. Later. . .
but there is no later for her.
No stepping from a shower in front of a mirror
and thinking, My God, what happened to my ass?
No dressertop of expensive creams for her hands.
No nights sprawled on the couch with someone
who, despite her weight and wrinkles and gray,
feels for her in a way that beggars description.
No waking, stiff, together, morning after morning.
Kafka’s Shadow by Judith Skillman Deerbooke Editions. 68 pages.
I opened the book and thought I’d read one poem then pick it up for the morning — you know where this is going — I read and read and read. Biographical historians may know what Kafka did but only a poet can show how he felt. This is a record of sensibilities through every sensual gift a poet has. It occurred to me that perhaps no one likes his/her life’s work more than a poet does — how else could we receive such proportions of thought and emotion, changing our lives with craft and ideas. These poems are congenial pieces that get the soul of Kafka as a feeling-thinker. I can’t imagine what started Skillman on her search that resulted in such completeness. Why does one writer become obsessed with another? The closer Skillman comes to Kafka’s life the broader the scope and the more she arrays his humanity. In this world, we welcome a heart’s work about literary figures who might otherwise be unfathomable.
No anguish in the offering.
Hermann Kafka’s already lost two sons.
This third one’s not quite up to snuff.
Hermann tries with the old stories,
then the insults, table manners, rules.
Nothing eases the burden — Franz
will be unruly, wild, stubborn
in his refusal to take his place
in the family business.
No angst, and less suffering,
God’s will be done. Yes, let’s
sacrifice a boy who leaves
synagogue before the service is over.
What matter that letter,
sitting on the bedside table,
unread? The boy is as if dead already.
Get it over with, he mutters to the ass
who guides them along
the ancient path crevassed with ruins.
Said Not Said by Fred Marchant. Graywolf Press. 73 pages.
The writer is a laborer, and an experimenter: Marchant is as well, and an expressionistic storyteller. He lets language make weird combinations (in a good way) and yet they flow. He’s audacious (in a good way) as in the prose poems, “WOD–OR (Indo-European root for water)” poem “pollution” features sperm; “well well,” the vulva; “oil” Armenians; “gulf” mother’s bosom, yet it works because Marchant’s loyalty to language shakes it all out to metaphoric sense. Sometimes his poems feel like journeys of a dream or dreams of a journey but filled with life energy. That’s why they keep coming at us so strong (or bigly, as the president would say). Marchant invents himself every single poem making each word catapult and count.
Slits in nothingness are not very easy to paint.
a horn curved like a petal
layered into a flute,
the bone made to sing
what is hiding in the hollows.
my friend says
a poem is a column of air,
or a sorrow-flower,
a yellow-white star.
the brown earth listens
to what the red earth says,
angry clouds gather
like the Lord’s left hand.
after the killing
a search light
the color of bone
to sweep us clean.
Quitter by Paula Cisewski. Diode Editions. 59 pages.
Glamorous mysterious Paula Cisewski is in the present day but seems from another time — classical, still colloquial. She sweeps into a line with a level of emotion that moves with complexity. Her language singes with introspection and beautiful brooding. She’s like a stage presence processing space with each note — intensity and interior power beneath every important line — She had me at the beginning: “I’m afraid/that there is a prison/at the heart of everything…” and then she proceeds to break through it picking apart stimuli toward song. She’ll give you chills the way she delivers, like an opera singer singing the blues. I’m talking soul.
My Crow-Wife, Rene Descartes
I wanted awareness
and then my third eye popped out.
A crow was right on time to scavenge it. Hey! I said
feeling territorial. We’re married, Crow said, so
this eye is half mine. She popped out
her own third eye and exchanged
her inner vision for mine, as if two rings.
Then she swallowed the third eye
that had been mine, and I saw
her inside out. When she flew
away, something inside me
felt like a jetted seedling,
like it started being
Fast by Jorie Graham HarperCollins/Ecco. 84 pages.
You have to read this slowly. Even in an MRI machine Graham knows more words and thinks more thoughts than any volume on your desk. The book is about the human body and its medical surveillance — the way we must relinquish ourselves to those helping us, who we hope are pure and strong. This book is a passionate commitment to what houses the life force and how we’re to let it go. It’ heroic because no one delivers like Jorie Graham — relentlessly — line after line, chant-like prayer, interior epics. What I like best about Graham is that she never hides herself away in her language, although there’s a lot of it — and she never holds back. She doesn’t stop until we hear her. This instructs the reader that each emotional connection is true. The poem “With Mother In The Kitchen” is energized with dialogue, interior monologue, and narrative. It becomes all of us. Every one of us has the same mother in the same kitchen in this poem. Another poem that must be read is “Mother’s Hands Drawing Me.” In this five- page poem she moves like liquid gold down page after page, not structured, but channeled, held in performance with an emphatic ending:
. . .
afternoon, just slipping,
no one here to see this but me, told
loud in silence by arcs, contours,
swell of wind, billowing, fluent —
ink chalk charcoal — sweeps, spirals,
the river that goes
nowhere, that has survived the
astonishments and will never
venture close to that heat again, is
cool here, looking up at what,
looking back down, how is it
possible the world still exists, as it
begins to take form there, in the no
being, there is once then there is the
big vocabulary, loosed, like
a jay’s song thrown down when the
bird goes away, cold mornings,
hauling dawn away with it, leaving
grackle and crow in sun — they have
known what to find in the unmade
undrawn unseen unmarked and
dragged it into here — that it be
Pink Mist by Owen Sheers. Nan A.Talese/Doubleday. 83 pages.
Three young boys in Bristol grow up playing war, and when in their teens Arthur, Taff, and Hads — from dead-end jobs — go off to Afghanistan to fight a real one. They come home different men and this book is in their voices, dramatic literature in verse. If you can read without your eyes stinging, you have excellent armor. 'Put a face on war, ‘people always say, ‘put a face on collateral damage;’ and Owen Sheers does. The three women belonging to these men figure in the dialogue: a wife, a mother, a girlfriend who then become war victims as well.
Arthur, one day regrets drawing his buddies along with him to service.
Arthur: “But the seed was sown. /There in the Thekla’s hull, with the cider inside us, /and Massive on the system. /I didn’t say nothing to Hads right then, /but I knew, I did. /He would come to…Three boys off to Catterick./A suitcase each, a couple of cans./Off to war, like boys always have./Boarding a train, leaving home,/off to Catterick, to reap what I’d sown.”
Hads loses his legs.
Hads: “I still feel them sometimes. /I’ll wake and my ankle’ll be itching, /or I’ll need to scratch my toes. It’s frustrating, /cos I can’t do nothing can I? Just got to griz it out. /But yeah, my brain still thinks they’re there.”
His mother speaks of her son’s first tattoo, “That wasn’t Hads. But then, nor was this. A living lie –/This boy in the hospital bed,/dried blood below his ear,/the sheet going flat/a couple of feet too soon,/just nothing after his thighs….”
Arthur as narrator later speaks of Hads after the I.E.D explosion:
“ Every time./He lies there a moment, recovering in its wake,/his heart slowing, before moving on his side/to try and get some kind of rest./Let’s leave him now, as he curls up under the sheets,/or does what he can./Hads Gullet, twenty-one, half a tall man trying to sleep,/ holding what’s left of his legs to his chest,/as he tells himself,/on hearing his family come through the door,/that of the half of them gone and a half of them left,/it isn’t the cursed he should count, but the blessed.”
Arthur speaks of Taff who blew up civilians, maybe a child, like his own child: “Take this street he’s walking down now, /deserted, empty, Sunday-morning dead./Harmless./But all Taff’s feeling is the threat. /The echo of when a village went like this back there, /when the women and kids melted away. /That’s what he’s trying to keep at bay, /plugging in his headphones, /turning the volume right up… ”
Taff’s wife, Lisa speaks, of PTSD and what happened that night “Blue on Blue:” Taff was blown off a wall and broke his back in the fall.
Lisa: “’Friendly fire.’”/That’s the one still makes more sense to me. /Being hurt by those on your side, /by those meant to protect you, /those meant to love you...The drink, the shouting, the lives./The hand on my throat while I slept,/the reaching in panic for the bedside light./The boy you married/lying by your side but somewhere else –/shrinking, out of sight. “
Lisa: “Pink mist. That’s what they call it. /When one of your mates hasn’t just bought it, /but goes in a flash, from being there to not. /A direct hit. An I. E. D. An R. P. G. stuck in the gut./ However it happens you open your eyes/and that’s all they are./A fine spray of pink, a delicate mist/as if some genie has granted a wish…”
Arthur comes home for R&R but returns for just one more month, just 4 weeks, he tells Gwen — but for a roadside LDE he could not have foreseen.
Sheers’ research was with British fighters “The Blues.” I’m apologetic for ripping speeches from the pages, losing the arc, the complete control and flow of this playwright/poet. If horror can be illuminated by art, this book is its experience. In bringing things to life through death Sheers is a virtuoso. If you’re a vet; or a career military wife as I was, this book will break your heart. Only good art can. In all cases, it’s worthy of your best attention.
Winters Come, Summers Gone, Selected Poems by Howard Moss, edited by J.D. McClatchey. Sheep Meadow Press. 197 pages.
Most of us knew Howard Moss as editor of the New Yorker magazine. There were standing jokes about lots of boats in the poems at that time; and his own poems were sometimes featured. This editor’s taste was evident — beautifully structured poetry, often bucolic, always intelligent, conundrums, philosophical thought but never breaking from accepted form. He chose poems where he could see the mind’s work and understand the working of it. He had a distinct idea what makes a poem last and it certainly wasn’t deconstructed thought. Now we have a complete picture of the man in this handsome collection and we see his aesthetic nicely assembled. He’s Keatsian (read “A Winter Come”) he’s urbane: and — what was once considered necessary for writers of poems — he was a cultured man. Knowledgeable in letters, art and music, Moss knew something about love through these; and here we find the spirit of his poetry. J.D. McClatchy writes a thoughtful and detailed intro for Moss and it’s helpful. I liked finding McClatchy’s taste and choices more than anything else. Howard Moss is unlike many poets who discover who they are through writing: Moss seemed to know all along. A great and lasting strength remains.
In the smart room where Lennie lies,
French draperies are too silk for eyes
That like their hangings plain, like their ties
Thin-striped. Lennie will no more arise
And go now where the cocktail shakers shake
Their crystal energies and pianists fake
Some lovelorn valentines and, on the make,
Mirrored faces join, and part, and break.
And since those wretched limbs, not custom-made
But real, and common, in the last charade
Crumble into peace, who’s to parade
Up Fifth and down with all his tricks of trade?
The chandelier, the chiffonier, the waste
By-products of the golden calf, Good Taste,
Surround his body. To his Never-Faced-
Reality, gentleman, a final toast!
Damn it, he had good taste! That’s all he had.
He knew the nearly-good from the not-quite-bad.
Lennie wore the first vest made of plaid.
Lennie gave it up when it became of fad.
Goodbye, Lennie — fad, plaid, and Madras!
May artificial angel and high brass
Proclaim a high-fidelity Mass
When you step from, and into glass.
Meadow Slasher by Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Black Ocean. 61 pages.
Well there’s no information about the author because I’d love to find a context for this approach to poetry maybe by nationality, geography, inclination or occupation. This is a book-length poem. It’s not language poetry, it’s not constructivism, it’s not lyric, narrative, or any form known to me. Maybe something better — beguiling and mesmerizing — one line after another nonsequential and deliberately unconnected — and the phrases are pictorial, interesting and desperate in their continuance. I’m interested in why authors make certain decisions and I believe the drive here is feeling as image because that’s what excels — without reason. We don’t need a reason for emotion. Black Oceans is the press that lets poets do what they were born to do.
Up at Olive & Clark with tea but
Silver Soul is on & I’m back to it
covering my face with a book, scaring some strangers.
I don’t yield out for pity
just a question of what we look like to ourselves
from the bit of future
we’re lucky enough to endure.
So it’s night.
The shore’s lapping.
Heartbreak is having the prepositions
pulse with slashers too.
Others/BEST BOOKS LIST
Fifteen Seconds without Sorrow by Shim Bo-Seon. Translated by Chung Eun-Gwi and Brother Anthony of Taize. Parlor Press. 70 pages.
Treading on Footprints, I Head for the Future
They turn their backs first of all.
The dearest things
aimed their guns at memories.
Stay right where you are, guys.
If you want to live, die rather.
Disgusting, Sickening. Why
are things that are said to be eternal all like that?
I killed nine out of the ten longevity symbols,
I can’t remember which one was left.
Is it a former sweetheart or an ex-wife,
or my footprints left beside them both?
They disappear first of all.
The things I loved most
turned memories inside out and all was just pitch black,
I become uglier day by day.
I smell bad.
Treading on footprints, I head for the future.
Let’s live by the river, blistered feet!
Mean/Time by Grace Bauer. Univ. of New Mexico Press. 72 pages.
Make up your mind, we say
When we mean: choose. decide.
Makeup, we call the colors
some women wear to disguise
what they see as flaws.
(All the ads assure them
they have many worth hiding.)
We kiss and make up,
which makes light
of any anger or betrayal
we felt but now realize
is not worth making too much of.
You made that up! We’ll say
of a story so good
we envy the maker
for the convincing lie
they have constructed and now
believe and live by
as if it really were
that way with the world
which makes up the minds
we are all made up by.
Where Is North by Alison Jarvis. Silverfish Review Press. 75 pages.
You were not the kind of man to take
coffee to your wife in bed every morning,
but if I asked, you would and it pleased me.
I didn’t do it often and I always thanked you
in a formal way like the kind of man you were.
One day before I realized I had stopped asking,
you said, I wish I could bring you coffee —
Still each morning you managed to make it,
leaning on counters for balance,
kitchen quiet except for the whistle
you need to cue yourself: Now move: One foot
in front of the other: this is the way
you do it. You tear open the bag
with your teeth.
Ampleforth’s Miscellany by Michael Karl Ritchie. Winter Goose Publishing. 73 pages.
The Floating Library
(1967) A documentary on the Public Library’s outreach to the Ohio River
community, especially during the flood season.
When public libraries sailed out to sea,
books shivered their spines at watery graves;
animals were a faint memory
in bestiaries bound by briny staves.
And none aboard went two by two, but roared
a plenitude of conflicting tall tales
for the Cornucopian ear of God
who snored atop Braille pillows force-wind gales.
From salt to salt the crew evolved a pearl
that pooled its evanescent skein of stars
and leapt an oyster’s tongue in onyx whorl
to dream from words the sounds that heal all scars.
For who knew where this raft of books would go
or which adults might find their inner child
within some scientific tract on snow
or some opulent Xanadu gone wild.
The Bloomsberries and Other Curiosities by Laurie Byro. Kelsay Books. 69 pages.
Whatever actually happened at Yang-ping’s house
during that winter, there were seasons before and after
in which nothing happened. Rowboats skiffled along
rain-washed river bottoms, rocky but not impassable.
There wasn’t always a drunken moon or salty stars
in a black bowl of sky. A heron followed the boat
seeking clues about the lady in the wide-brimmed hat,
a blue ribbon trailing at the wind like its mates feathers.
The tale of Scorpio slashed the wild sky. The woman
blinded by icy stars, could have been mistaken for all wizened
“Chinaman,” thousands of years old. The silent river spilled
no secrets about temptation or regret. The woman who navigated
these waters held a conference that could turn her boat around,
change to any direction. She planted her long legs solidly
on its wooden floor, a book open and faced down
beside her written by a man who traveled similar waters.
Many winters before, too many to record in a hand-painted chart,
Li Po paddled a river, his oars dripping stars.
Starlight & Error by Remica Bingham-Risher. Diode Editions. 73 pages.
The mouth holds
a scar that trails the temple
cheek and chin of a man
sometimes called father.
And when the man spoke
even in his right mind
my husband recalls
he’d rehash old warnings:
I told you, you were going to hate me
after the mother or child
climbed the mountain
of his frame settling
near enough destruction
to trace its inward part.
Rattle Volume 23, No 1, edited by Alan Fox. The Rattle Foundation. 91 pages.
4 p.m. Count, A Journal From Prison Camp Yankton (supported by the NEA), edited by Jim Reese. 246 pages.
Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” celebrating 40 years on-air. Her new poetry book is With (Somondoco Press 2016).
Review copies should be sent to:
Washington Independent Review of Books
7029 Ridge Road
Frederick, MD 21702
In seeking answers to life’s most important questions (“How should we handle life’s challenges and vicissitudes? How should we conduct ourselves in the world and treat others?”), Massimo Pigliucci has come to Stoicism, an ancient school of philosophy that offers insights into the human condition.
A reader can be forgiven for asking, “Why would I want to be a Stoic?” but How to Be a Stoic sets the record straight. It begins by distinguishing the way “stoic” has come to be used in contemporary English from what its progenitors intended. Stoicism, as articulated by the ancients and practiced by modern adherents, “is not about suppressing or hiding emotion — rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good.”
The volume is organized around Stoicism’s “three disciplines”: Desire (the idea of what is and is not proper to want; that is, distinguishing what is and is not in our power to effect); Action (how to behave in the world); and Assent (how to react to situations).
In closing, Pigliucci provides some practical spiritual exercises for those interested in exploring Stoicism further — exercises designed to make the Stoic way of thinking and behaving in everyday life become, eventually, second nature.
With explicit allusion to Dante’s choice of Virgil as his guide, Pigliucci takes the Stoic philosopher Epictetus as a guide to his exploration of Stoicism. Perhaps the conceit works better for a book structured as a literal journey, as is the Divine Comedy, but in this case, the occasional dialogue with Epictetus can be distracting.
His language, translated from ancient Greek, strikes modern ears as stilted. The reader cannot always be certain whether the author is relating an experience he had, or imagining an exchange with this fictional embodiment of Epictetus to tease out a point of contention. But this is by no means a fatal flaw, and other readers may find it less bothersome.
The modern approach to Stoicism has been developed by recent authors, and is rooted in both ancient texts and modern insights. Nonetheless, Stoicism shares themes and values with other philosophies and religions. Pigliucci argues for a closer look at the convergence of ideas and guiding principles via diverse cultures and ethical traditions. Further, “There is something very appealing to me, as a nonreligious person, in the idea of such an ecumenical philosophy, one that can share goals and at least some general attitudes with other major ethical traditions across the world.”
There is not, he emphasizes, any “fixed set of doctrines resembling anything like a religious catechism to go by.” Stoics do not even necessarily agree with one another on the existence of God. Rather, what matters to them is to “recognize that a decent human life is about the cultivation of one’s character and concern for other people.”
Because it is not constrained by ideological rigidity, Stoicism expressly allows for updates in light of new information. As we have learned more about human psychology, for instance, modern Stoics have been willing to revisit some of the concepts proposed by their ancient predecessors regarding what aspects of our own behavior are genuinely within our control. Insights from cognitive behavioral therapy have been incorporated into the modern practice. Although How to Be a Stoic examines ancient Greek proponents of the philosophy, it never presents the works as sacred or unquestionable.
How to Be a Stoic is highly readable, written in clear and accessible prose, and illuminated with anecdotes of both a personal and an historical nature. Although not a topical work by any means, many of the points resonate in light of contemporary events. Pigliucci acknowledges this without limiting the impact of his book to a specific contemporary political setting. If anything, this provides fodder for the argument that the Stoic principles have stood the test of time for good reason and are worth considering and engaging with.
Ultimately, Pigliucci urges that “adopting and adapting a philosophy of life to guide you is more important than whichever specific philosophy you end up choosing.” But he makes a persuasive case that Stoicism is worth a try, and offers concrete steps in that pursuit.
Beth Kingsley is a member of the boards of the National Capital Area Skeptics and Capital Fringe. In her day job, she is a lawyer for nonprofit organizations.
One could argue that all good stories describe journeys of discovery, real or metaphorical. It’s a time-honored template that begins with a widening of horizons, and ends with both knowledge gained along the way and a newfound appreciation for where it all began. It’s a circle as old as time.
Jeffrey Lent’s latest novel, Before We Sleep, is a worthy addition to the canon of journey fiction. His story begins with young Katey Snow, a bright girl on the edge of adulthood, armed with just enough cash from her summertime waitressing job to set out on an adventure before she goes to college.
Katey yearns to escape Ruth, her prim and critical schoolteacher mother, and Oliver, her sweet but oddly discombobulated WWII veteran father. She wants to venture away from the tiny village she knows too well, to both witness the dawning of an era that will define her generation and to dip her toe into an ocean she’s never seen.
But first and foremost, Katey is determined to track down a particular someone — the source of a stack of Christmas cards that her mother has kept hidden in a shoebox — whom she hopes will help her understand why she doesn’t fit in back at home.
And as so often happens on journeys, it’s the unexpected characters who young Katey meets along the way who provide significant wisdom and context. There’s a shopkeeper who points her to a cheap off-season motel and a good place to view the Atlantic, a wise health-food store proprietor who has ample time for philosophical musings, and a fellow youthful traveler who introduces Katey to a growing “back to the land” cooperative movement.
Sadly, there are also individuals in even the most utopian of communities who are inclined to say one thing and do the exact opposite. Katey, unfortunately, learns that lesson the hard way.
Like much of his previous fiction, Lent’s novel begins in northern New England, which he describes in elegant prose, both spare and vivid.
As the threads of the narrative emerge, both the timeline and the geography of Before We Sleep expand: first, with Katey’s circuitous route from the coast of Maine to the civil-rights-torn South of the 1960s, and second, in the alternating chapters devoted to Katey’s parents’ personal histories, starting with flashbacks to their Vermont ancestors, continuing through Oliver’s return from Europe plagued by memories he can neither share nor forget, and ending with a mother and father anxiously hoping for the return of their only child.
In this, his sixth work of fiction, Lent has seamlessly woven together an intimate family drama against a shifting social backdrop.
Rather than use the news of the day as historic shorthand to advance the plot, Lent’s rich narrative shifts gently back and forth between a world in flux, as seen through his young heroine’s fresh eyes, and a world steeped in her parents’ shared heartaches and damaged souls, “both close and forever distant.”
There’s a “Wizard of Oz” quality to the double-track narrative, as the chapters alternate between the parents’ recollections and their daughter’s search for truth in her life.
And just as L. Frank Baum told us, sometimes the desires we seek truly can be found in our own back yards, if we look hard enough. Even if what we desire is simply to find a new normal, and not a staged version of life put on for public consumption, a life where what might’ve been considered lowering one’s expectations provides a peacefulness that turns out to be entirely worth the trade.
In the end, Lent’s characters remind us that whether we travel far and wide or only grapple in our heads with the facts of our lives, we need to find our own truths.
There’s a lovingly described encounter toward the end of Before We Sleep, where Katey finally meets the person she’s pinned all her hopes on to explain the biggest question about her family.
It begins as an awkward pas-de-deux that challenges Katey’s worldview and leaves her feeling like she’s made a huge mistake, coming so far, expecting so much. All I can say is that the conversation the two finally circle around to — in which they discuss how one should choose a dog, and at what point in a young person’s life they can make such a commitment to another living creature — moved me to tears.
If I have any criticism of Lent’s extraordinary writing, it’s this: as much as I enjoyed every single word of this novel, it could have ended right there, with Katey, finally headed back home, pulling over to make a long-distance call to the couple who await it.
Kristin H. Macomber is a writer who lives in Cambridge, MA.
Three days after President Trump fired FBI director Jim Comey, George Will’s op-ed in the Washington Post was about…cultural appropriation. It’s not surprising that Will, long the foremost pedant for the intellectual wing of the hard right, chose to ignore the catastrophic moral failure of his party to confront accusations of Russian meddling in our elections, instead focusing his ire on the white right’s newest bogeyman, cultural appropriation.
I do feel Will’s pain (I’m a liberal and that’s what we do, much to the derision of people like Will). It must be terrifying to watch the slow but sure decline of a power that was your birthright, and to realize that one day you may actually be equal to everyone else under the law.
Naturally, Will invoked Lionel Shriver, who sparked a furor with a combative speech she delivered at the 2016 Brisbane Writer’s Festival, in which she claimed that criticism of the inauthenticity of some of her minority characters was an attempt to curtail her freedom to write what she wanted.
Will and Shriver insinuate that their constitutional rights are at stake because there have been protests against cafeteria food by university students, controversy over an art exhibit, and criticism of celebrities for making props of cultural traditions that are not their own.
It’s not only Will and Shriver clanging the alarm bells; this perceived threat is a favorite preoccupation of the right, whose feverish logic leads them to envision a world where white people will be denied the right to eat taco salads, do yoga, or play mah-jongg.
Such is the hysteria that some writers are hesitant to write characters outside of their own race for fear of being accused of exploitation. It just so happens that the last three novels I read offer valuable insights in how to write characters of different ethnicities. The formula is fairly simple: do the research; treat characters with respect and compassion; and portray flesh and blood people, not stereotypes and plot props.
Bea, the protagonist of Sadeqa Johnson’s And Then There Was Me, has a white Dominican mother and an African-American father. Her parents are not married, and Bea is raised by her mother, Irma, who speaks Spanish, cooks locrio de salami, and bugs her daughter to wear sunscreen so she doesn’t become cocolo like her father. Despite being the mistress of a married man, she is a devout Catholic who attends Mass and sends her daughter to parochial school. The author portrays her as neither a saint nor a sinner, but as a woman who retains the principles and prejudices of her Dominican upbringing while doing her best as a single mother to her black American daughter. In order to ensure the cultural details and Spanish dialogue were accurate, Johnson hired a Hispanic editor to review her work.
Suzanne Feldman’s thought-provoking and poignant Absalom’s Daughters tells the story of Cassie, the daughter of a black woman and a white man during a time when there was no such thing as being biracial. She embarks upon a picaresque journey through the Jim Crow South with her white half-sister, Judith. Theirs is no Huck-Jim relationship, but a partnership between equals. In fact, Cassie is by far the more thoughtful and intelligent of the two, and can read while Judith is illiterate. To maintain the accuracy of her Southern dialects, Feldman consulted the works of Zora Neale Hurston, who was an anthropologist as well as one of the most significant novelists of her time.
TreeVolution, an inventive and fast-paced eco-thriller by (fellow Independent columnist) Tara Campbell, features Charlie, a member of the fictional Palalla tribe, loosely based on the Yakama Nation of Washington state. While Charlie fits a stereotype because he has a drinking problem, he is also your typical lost young man who, after a series of mistakes, finds himself at a crossroads. The extensive list of resources in the back of the book attests to the author’s meticulous research into Yakama history, resulting in a respectful and honest depiction of what it is to be Native American today.
These are but a few of many examples of authors who successfully write characters outside the color lines. Other of my favorites are Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
It is only recently that a critical mass of minorities has rebelled against the white gaze. Some whites are still trying to come to grips with losing the Civil War. The gaining, or the waning, of a voice can result in obnoxious overzealousness. Such is the messy reality of democratic discourse.
Instead of attacking the outcry against cultural appropriation, Will, Shriver, and their cohorts should take a good, long look at our nation’s history. Then maybe they will realize that their manufactured outrage is a hollow distraction from the efforts to disenfranchise minorities that are ongoing even today. But then again, as the timing of Will’s op-ed indicates, distraction is probably their intent.
Alice Stephens’ column, Alice in Wordland, appears monthly in the Independent.
This busy, engaging biography embeds and locates Jimmy Buffett in the fascinating world of the U.S. music industry. Through and around his portrait of Buffett, author Ryan White explores performance spaces, recording studios, key towns in the landscape of American music, life on the road, the culture of fandom, and the unlikely, long career of a true industry oddball.
White examines how the production and promotion of musical recordings and performances works — when it does work. We meet the unsung, the hangers-on, the deal-makers, the suppliers of accommodations for touring performers, the souvenir collectors, and the tycoons.
Buffett’s career of almost 50 years would have been hard to predict at the beginning. Not a trained musician, he kept most of his compositions relatively simple. His performances were part singing and playing songs (often unaccompanied) and part improvised chatter.
Record labels barely tolerated him, mainly because he just didn’t fit into the categories that ran hot and cold over the decades. He wasn’t quite country or rock ‘n’ roll or blues or folk or anything else. His uniqueness gave marketers headaches.
He only really made it to the top of the heap once — with “Margaritaville” — but that once was the culmination of steady, purposeful work and a rare kind of self-knowledge. In turn, his biggest hit and an unexpected degree of business acumen gave rise to an industry that brought in millions, not only through concert tickets and record sales, but also through merchandising, restaurants, resorts, and branded “lifestyle products.”
Buffett developed a persona fashioned by his own needs and interests. He worked hard at looking like he didn’t work hard, and he grew to fit the disguise.
White breaks all this down into pieces. For the most part, his narrative style seems improvisational — scattershot information, names, places, song titles, and applause lines. It is not linear, but the writing echoes, somehow, the seemingly haphazard way that Buffett’s life has unfolded.
White’s chapters rarely create page-turning suspense. Vignettes accumulate and add layer upon layer to the evolving portrait of an artist whose greatest success was the creation of the indispensable “Jimmy Buffett” identity. This was not so much a process of calculation or inertia, but of taking his own pulse and that of his audiences. Some risk-taking here and there, but not too much.
While the iconography of Buffett includes sunshine, tequila, Parrotheads, Key West, the Bahamas, flipflops, and the softer narcotics, it spins off a host of other influences — primarily the music scene encountered in such large and small environs as Nashville, Muscle Shoals, Austin, Mobile, Biloxi, and New Orleans.
The individuals with whom Buffett worked and played receive a great deal of White’s attention. He interviewed just about anyone available to be interviewed. This allows him to shed direct light on Buffett. However, White reaches further, allowing the contours of their own lives to explain, in part, how they blended (or bled) into Buffett’s and to some degree helped shape him — or at least shape his career.
Among the more interesting of these people is longtime Floridian Tom Corcoran, a mystery writer, photographer, publisher, screenwriter, and Buffett intimate who co-wrote a couple of Buffett’s songs. White learned a lot from Corcoran, especially about Key West and Buffett’s connection to that seductive island. Likewise, businessman John Cohlan figures large as Buffett’s partner in the various Margaritaville enterprises. These are just a couple members of a sizeable cast of characters, the side-men (and women) in Buffett’s life.
And that’s without considering the supporting musicians who played with Buffett, especially those in his deliciously named Coral Reefer Band.
The Jimmy Buffett songbook has taken its rightful place in the Great American Songbook, and White shows us how and why. “Escape to Margaritaville,” Buffett’s stage musical that combines new songs with old favorites, is scheduled to open on Broadway in spring 2018. That show and this book should do much to secure the singer’s legacy.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of 20 books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom. His reviews appear in a wide variety of regional and national publications.
A Busboys and Poetry event! On this night, American sign language users and viewers from all corners of life will come together to recite a poem, song, short skit or jokes. Come out and enjoy the wonderful environment while you eat, get your drink on and socialize. Great for those learning American sign language. Hosted by Fred Beam.
At Busboys and Poets, 1025 5th St., NW, Washington, DC. Click here for info.
My nightstand holds three old books propping up a small lamp, so I’ll extend the metaphor to my whole apartment, where books are waiting for me on chairs, tables, and sometimes even under cats.
The book I’m obsessed with right now is Marlena by Julie Buntin. It’s so well written, so deeply imagined and exquisitely realized, it’s hard to believe it’s a debut novel. Buntin explores the agonizing and sublime bond of an all-consuming teenage friendship, and the scars that such a friendship can leave. There are few universals in this world, but the agony of teenage longing and boredom is one of them. Buntin relays that adolescent distress with such grace and intelligence, such empathy, that the reader aches for the characters — and for herself. An exquisite novel by a rare talent.
I have an entire shelf in my bookcase devoted to Alice Munro, and the books are stacked two-deep. I recently read Friend of My Youth, which I seem to revisit every year. All Alice Munro stories unlash the sticky knot of female relationships, and in Friend of My Youth, those bonds concern a mother and daughter, two sisters, and, of course, friends. (There’s a theme emerging here…) The characters in this story are gorgeously messy and imperfect. And because Munro implicates everyone and judges no one, you can’t read it the same way twice.
Extraordinary Adventures by Daniel Wallace. I feel like I’m cheating, as this is a book that I acquired and edited while I was at St. Martin’s Press, but it’s much on my mind and I like to talk about it every chance I get. This novel tells the story of the world’s most ordinary man and his search for love, but there’s nothing ordinary about it. Edsel Bronfman, the protagonist, is a sad sack if ever there was one. In a world where everything is rated and reviewed and commented on, where everything needs to be “the best,” this bruised little man is my hero. He lives that life of quiet desperation we’re all warned about, and he’s gracious and damaged, as in fact we all are. The book for everyone who believes in second chances, Extraordinary Adventures will break your heart…and then put it back together again.
Brenda Copeland is a transplanted Canadian who has lived in New York City for over 20 years. A book editor and teacher — she teaches editing at NYU — Brenda lives in Washington Heights and is never without cheese. Follow her on Twitter at @BrendaCopeland.
The intersection of the personal and the political, the bonds of friendship among black women, and the stresses on and resilience of the black family are all frequent players in Marita Golden’s fiction and nonfiction. Themes, she believes, that are as individual as they are shared. “I write from the center of my experience as a black woman,” says Golden, “and I know that story speaks to everyone and is universal.”
Golden’s new novel, The Wide Circumference of Love, further explores the communal experience with an unflinching portrait that the impact of Alzheimer’s disease has on an African-American family. Yet with tendrils that touch so many — from those afflicted to those caring for them — Alzheimer’s is an unending cruelty that extends far beyond the printed page.
Here, Golden tells the story of the Tate family and opens on the day that Diane Tate brings her 68-year-old husband, Gregory, diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, to live in a memory-care facility. The Wide Circumference of Love is the story of the profound impact of Gregory’s disease on Diane and her grown children, as well as on Gregory himself. Ultimately, as Gregory’s memory fades, Diane and her children must reexamine their connection to the man he once was — and learn to love the man he now is.
Golden’s writing is as poetic as it is heartbreaking. Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison has said: "It is always heartening to see women step up to the writer's table. When the results are as adroit and affecting as Marita Golden's work, it is more than satisfying — it is a cause for celebration." Co-founder of the Hurston Wright Foundation, an organization that is a resource for African-American writers and annually recognizes the best of that year’s writing, Golden is the author of 16 works of fiction and nonfiction and a recipient of numerous awards.
How did you discover the link between Alzheimer’s and the African-American community?
I was researching the novel and was about two years into the project when I discovered the statistic that African Americans are twice as likely to develop AD [Alzheimer’s disease] as whites. The much higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity all basically over time kill brain cells, which is a part of AD and how it develops. Hispanics also have a very high instance. Currently, every 66 seconds, a brain develops AD, and two-thirds of those brains belong to women. All this means that African-American women are especially vulnerable to the disease. By 2050, 40 percent of all cases of AD in the U.S. could be African Americans and, after that, Hispanics
You spent four years researching the book. What did you do to gather your content?
I spent time in a memory-care unit in Greenbelt, MD, watching how AD residents were cared for. I talked with them. I talked with their families and the professionals who cared for them. I read numerous books written by caregivers, as well as read all the research I could get my hands on.
You are a writer of both nonfiction and fiction. What about this project led you to choose a fictional telling?
The inspiration to write the novel came to me unbidden. I had written about a hundred pages of another novel and then hit a wall and put it aside. A few weeks later, I found myself writing a novel about an African-American family confronted with the disease. Once I found the twice-as-likely statistic, I decided to write a reported piece for the Washington Post Magazine — a story that will be published in June. I am happy that I was able to tell the story in two very different genres.
What most surprised you while researching and writing the book?
Well, I was not prepared to hear as many stories as I did of caregivers who were spiritually transformed by the experience of caring for their loved one. There is, of course, anger, fear, confusion, a sense of being overwhelmed, but I also found that the most effective caregivers knew how to care for themselves physically and mentally and were able to see the big picture of what was happening. They appreciated and recognized that their loved one, while diminished cognitively, was often enhanced spiritually and emotionally, and even through the fog of AD were often present in the moment with and for them in ways they had never experienced before. Often these people felt enlarged by supporting their parents or sibling or mate at this time of transition.
Is your fictional family based on one particular family you met, or a composite of many?
It’s completely imagined but, of course, some of the stories families shared found a way into the novel.
Did the research and writing process make you more or less afraid that you’d face your own particular decline due to Alzheimer’s?
I now feel that AD is just another way that we die. It has unique aspects that are especially cruel, such as the enormous emotional and financial burden on the family that can last for years, and, in a sense, the person with AD dies twice. But it made me think deep and long and hard about how I want to live and how I want to die, how important it is to plan for illness and to talk with my grown children about all this. I now care less about whether someone will care for me than who I can care for. I trust that I have lived a life that has assured my angels are working overtime.
[Editor's note: Marita Golden is a member of the Independent's board of directors.]
Cathy Alter’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Washingtonian, TheAtlantic.com, the New York Times, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the author of Virgin Territory, Up for Renewal, and CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.
True to its name, Stanley Crawford’s new novel, Village, is set in the isolated village of San Marcos, New Mexico, population 763, and is told from the points of view of 20 or so residents. The characters face various personal crises, but together, in the last decade of the 20th century, they are threatened with what may be the ultimate challenge: the loss of their water.
The composite narrative spans a single day, beginning with a “Dawn” prologue, pausing for a “Noon” reflection, and ending with “Sleep,” three omniscient sections that establish the arid landscape and trace the flow of the village’s scarce water through the all-important acequias, or irrigation ditches.
Other than the village itself, if there is a central character in the book, it is Porter Clapp, a paranoid hippie holdover who long ago mistakenly burned his Social Security card instead of his Draft Card during an antiwar protest at Berkeley. Since then, believing he has committed a crime, Porter has lived what he hopes is an under-the-radar existence — without a license, credit cards, bank accounts, etc. He and his partner, Stephanie, have sought refuge in remote San Marcos.
Although Porter stands out as an Anglo in a largely Hispanic community, he feels at home: “He felt safe. They couldn’t type him. They wouldn’t judge him for his tangled graying blond hair, always too long, or for his clothes that were never quite clean and never new, for his and Stephanie’s constant financial worries and their too-old station wagon and his lack of a regular job.” Like the locals, he and Stephanie are barely getting by.
When Porter learns that a town meeting with a government official has been called for that night, ostensibly about water rights, he worries that he’s finally been discovered. “He gasped for air. Official notices all affected him the same way. Each one was a sign that the outside world was moving closer, staking its claim.”
The villagers go about their day, each anticipating the meeting in his or her own way. Stephanie’s frustration with Porter bubbles over. She has a run-in with Onésimo Moro, the laidback owner of the only grocery store in the village. Isabel Moro, his watchful wife, worries about the growing unpaid accounts of the store’s customers.
Lázaro Quintana, keeper of San Marcos’ largest acequia, spends the day following the flow of water through the ditch, noticing and clearing debris. Young Zip Zepeda Jr.’s preparations for a date are disturbed when his father, the town’s undertaker, needs him to pick up the body of the village’s oldest resident. Len and Carrie Mott, with grandiose schemes of expanding their landscaping business, make plans to fulfill an order in Santa Fe, some two hours away.
As appealing as these colorful characters are, they seem to serve primarily as a delay tactic, a device to fill the day until the novel’s climactic action: the meeting. Does Stephanie’s renewed energy after a quick trip into the city really matter? Does Mrs. Moro’s discovery in the home of Abundio Moro matter? Is it important that some village teens have discovered a way to order porn through the mail, or that the postmaster, who reads everyone’s mail, watches their movies before he delivers them?
Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter is also a story of a community, one reeling from a tragic school-bus accident. But in contrast to the over-population of Village, Banks tells his tale through an economical four points of view, those perspectives being sufficient to represent the community. A large number of voices dilutes the narrative and impedes the forward momentum of Crawford’s novel.
Eventually, the day has worn on and Porter attends the meeting, sure that he will be unmasked before his neighbors. Others in the village have more realistic concerns about the gathering, as they’ve witnessed the government gradually chipping away at their rights.
Mr. Molinas, the postmaster, makes the point to the representative of the State Water Office: “‘You don’t know, do you, that this was all once the Anastasio Moro Land Grant, do you, by the King of Spain who signed the original papers, you can find them in the state archives, you don’t know that, do you?’ This he said with a sweeping gesture of both arms toward the roof and presumably the heavens themselves. ‘All, everything, todo, used to be ours.’” But, he complains, the state took the land grants. The railroad cut down all the trees. The government levied taxes. And now they’ve come for the water.
Despite the enormous cast and the many loose threads they create, Village is a charming story of resistance to oppression, both historical and contemporary. And it is easy to sympathize with the villagers’ suspicions of government intentions and with their many acts of rebellion large and small.
Clifford Garstang is author of the novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, winner of the 2013 Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction, and a story collection, In an Uncharted Country. He is also the editor of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, Volumes I and II, anthologies of stories set around the world.
3: Creatures, Crimes, and __________, or C3, is a multi-genre conference for writers of mystery, suspense, thriller, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal, etc.
7: DCJCC features ______ literature in October.
9: DC conference for all things comics.
10: This community just north of DC holds its annual festival in April.
11: Sponsored by the Library of Congress, right here in DC.
12: WSFA gives sci-fi and fantasy aficionados a place to gather in October.
13: Which local university invites you to Fall for the Book?
1: Things heat up at the Washington _______ Writers' annual retreat in April.
2: Capitol Hill's bookfest in May.
3: Conversations and ___________ happen with Barrelhouse every April.
4: Montgomery County's offering to the lit-fest world.
5: The other name for the Independent's own Washington Writers Conference?
6: This International Day of the Book happens in Maryland in April.
8: BSFS presents this sci-fi and fantasy conference in May, hon.
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Deming Guo has a good life. Though he lives in a crowded apartment — five people crammed into a one-bedroom in the Bronx — and the adults in his life sometimes leave him home without adult supervision while working long shifts at physically taxing low-wage jobs, he is a carefree fifth-grader who has the complete love and support of his Chinese mother, Polly.
But one day, Polly does not return from work and, within a year, Deming has become Daniel Wilkerson, the adopted son of Peter and Kay, white professors at a liberal arts college in Upstate New York.
Alternating between the point of view of Peilan/Polly and Deming/Daniel, Lisa Ko’s debut novel and winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize, The Leavers, tells the story of an undocumented immigrant and her American-born son, whose lives are upended by the vagaries of America’s cruel immigration policies.
After Polly’s disappearance, her roommates try to look after Deming, but with no money and no word from his mother, they eventually give him over to the state, which quickly finds him a “forever home.”
As one of the very few minorities in his new hometown, Daniel must deal with issues of abandonment, alienation, and subtle racism. In college, he develops a nasty online-gambling habit that causes him to flunk out of school, lose a good friend, and relinquish what little self-confidence he had. Unmoored, he moves to New York City to break into the music business, but his self-loathing keeps on getting in the way.
Meanwhile, 10 years after disappearing from Deming’s life, Polly resides in Fuzhou, China. Married to a successful businessman, she is a top executive at an English-language school, with a glamorous life of travel, sumptuous banquets, and abundant material comfort. How did she get there? What happened in the decade since Deming last saw her?
The chapters toggle back and forth between Daniel’s story and Polly’s, which is the more compelling narrative. She tells of her hardscrabble, rural childhood in a China emerging into capitalism, her impregnation by a man she does not wish to marry, her decision to flee to America, and the perils and sacrifices she must endure as an undocumented worker.
Ko poignantly captures the dual identities inherent in both the immigrant and adoptee experiences. Upon her arrival in America, Peilan becomes Polly. “So it was Polly, not Peilan, who was doing thirteen-hour shifts in a garment factory, the same work Peilan had done in China except for eight times more money, and it was Polly who paid too much rent for a sleeping bag on the floor.”
Daniel wonders where Daniel had been when he was Deming, and where Deming is now that he is Daniel, concluding, “Daniel had lay dormant in Deming until adolescence, and now Deming was a hairball tumor jammed deep in Daniel’s gut.”
Every adoptee and immigrant imagines the alternative life they could have had if they had been raised by their birth mother or been adopted into another family, or had stayed in their country of origin or immigrated to a different country. One’s fate is not preordained, but ruled by chance and circumstance, and every life story is but one incident away from an alternative narrative.
Before they are separated, Deming and Polly play a game of doppelgängers, picking out people who look just like them, “another version of us…like a best friend but better; like a brother, a cleaved self.” Daniel goes to the apartment he once lived in with his mother, hoping to catch a glimpse of Deming and Polly going about their old lives.
Ko’s prose is captivating and vivid, but the story begins to sag under the accretion of minutely observed details and overloaded plot twists, many of which seem contrived and not particularly believable. The plot feels over-workshopped, as if the author’s vision became smudged with the fingerprints of too many well-meaning readers naïve about contemporary immigration (immigrants do not get only one phone call during their entire detention, for example) and adoption (it would take a lot longer than a year for a child to be declared abandoned by his parents and then formally adopted) procedures.
The crescendo to the climax swells too loud and too long, and the story is unable to sustain the suspense. While Polly’s first-person narrative is compelling, Daniel’s story is told in the third-person and is not as vibrant or convincing, resulting in a portrait of a transracial adoptee that is disappointingly clichéd, right down to the clueless white parents who berate him for his ingratitude.
Readers, however, are rewarded with a powerful ending that avoids sappy statements about the mystical connection between mothers and children and the meaning of home. Instead, The Leavers makes it refreshingly clear that family is not a matter of biological destiny but of human connection, and home is wherever you are.
Alice Stephens’ column, Alice in Wordland, appears monthly in the Independent.
Join us in welcoming local author Nicole Kelleher as she launches The Queen's Dance, Book Two in the Aurelian Guard series!
Cathmara, at the northern tip of the Aurelian Territory, produces strong men who make for great warriors. Trian is one such man. But he is helpless against the customs that pressure him to wed, and even more helpless against the natural charms of Claire, a proud daughter from the destroyed house of Chevring. Claire has no interest in exercising her feminine wiles on Trian, or any man for that matter. She focuses on restoring the good standing of her homeland, through its proud tradition of breeding warhorses.
The two fall into easy attraction, as Trian teaches Claire the techniques he has learned as a soldier, and she teaches him ways of communing with nature and horses. They are ambushed, though, and in fighting for her safety, Trian is beaten nearly to death, and Claire is kidnapped.
To return home, Claire will need to cross the most treacherous parts of the kingdom, from the merciless desert to cities where spies listen to every whisper. She must ally herself with the women from the Temple of the Fenrhi, a society at war with itself, but possessing powers beyond what Claire comprehends, until she too realizes that her powers reach much further, making her a valuable, and dangerous, weapon.
Battles do not stop for lovers, and war is brewing in Aurelia. If she will ever see Trian again, Claire will have to overcome the most dangerous challenge of her life. To save a kingdom, though, Claire may have to sacrifice her heart.
At One More Page Books, 2200 N. Westmoreland St., Arlington, VA. Click here for info.
In Alyssa Palombo’s first novel, The Violinist of Venice, she tells the story of the composer Antonio Vivaldi and his secret, wealthy mistress, Adriana d’Amato. Her second, The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, examines a different kind of artist — painter Sandro Botticelli — and his beautiful but married muse for “The Birth of Venus,” Simonetta Vespucci.
Palombo is clearly enamored with not just Italy and the arts, but also with passion and forbidden love.
The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence promises all the ingredients to entice readers: a stunningly beautiful young woman who inspires love and desire; the famous Medici family; 15th-century Florence; and the Renaissance painter Botticelli.
One of the wealthiest cities in the world at that time, Florence dominated trade and finance. Lorenzo de’ Medici — and his father and grandfather before him — were great patrons of the arts as well as the city’s most influential citizens and financiers. The 15th century spawned artistic, humanistic, technological, and scientific developments known as the Renaissance that are still honored today.
Simonetta is a beautiful woman who, early in the story, weds Marco Vespucci. She was an only child, defined by her beauty since birth, and Simonetta’s parents are anxious to marry her off to a wealthy man who can provide a good life for their daughter and the necessary dowry for their later years.
The Florentine Vespucci not only fits the bill, but is friends with both Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici.
Palombo portrays Florence as a city of great art, intellect, and decadence, its wealthy citizens somewhat at odds with strict, moralistic Catholic teachings.
At first, Simonetta is thrilled with her new life as Marco’s wife and enjoys being the center of attention at the Florentine court. Early in the story, she is drawn to a painting done by Sandro Botticelli and, later, when he asks to paint her, she convinces her husband to agree.
All her life, Simonetta has been told that “beauty was a weapon, a tool, a source of power — sometimes the only one available to a woman.” As the novel unfolds, Simonetta questions her value and how others see her.
Is “such beauty a gift or a curse?” Is beauty “the means to an end”? “What is it about beauty…which makes men think they have the right to desire you?” “This was what beauty was good for. To create a masterpiece.”
While the novel has some powerful moments, particularly at the end, it is weighed down with too much description and too many paragraphs full of Simonetta’s thoughts and reflections. Occasionally, dialogue jars the reader with phrasing that seems too modern, and the prose is too extravagant.
As historical fiction, the story is not immersive enough. The author misses the opportunity to reveal the history surrounding the Medici family and its banking prowess, the political situation of the time, the rich traditions of life in Florence, and more of the artistic world of the Renaissance.
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, Time and Regret, was published by Lake Union in August 2016. Mary’s other novels, Lies Told in Silence and Unravelled, are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play, and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, or on her website, www.mktod.com.
Much of the new science fiction seems intent on affirming that science is NOT fiction. Earlier generations of sci-fi writers envisioned what science could do for us if we used it properly, while the current generation is painting a harrowing picture of what will happen if we ignore science.
I went through what I considered a “childish” phase of science fiction at an early age, reading the canon of classic authors — Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, and the others (who admittedly had some dark visions of their own). Then I abandoned it for decades until lured back recently by the plethora of new science fiction.
There is a pronounced dystopian element to the new works, with mankind often reduced to primitive survival circumstances after an environmental catastrophe, a viral pandemic, or some other type of disaster.
The other novelty is that these books are unabashedly literary. If the literary thriller has long since become a recognized genre, it has to be acknowledged that many of the new visions of the future have nothing to do with the pulp fiction of previous sci-fi eras.
The New York Times Book Review, while it sometimes seems ponderous and cliquish, has been alert to this trend. Last month, it put Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, a global-warming dystopia, on its front page, and a week later carried a review of Borne by Jeff VanderMeer (who cliquishly wrote the glowing review of Yuknavitch’s book), a freakishly dystopian vision. Omar El Akkad’s American War, about a U.S. riven into a new civil war, gets the much-envied double header of reviews both in the Sunday supplement and the daily paper.
Robinson is an accomplished sci-fi writer, winner of numerous awards in the genre, and, for him, the flooding of lower Manhattan in the wake of climate change is simply the backdrop to turning New York into a Venice of sorts, with canals and skywalks and other adaptations to a life sunk in the water.
Some reviewers see in this new book a Robinson hallmark that they identify as the author’s aspirations, not for dystopia, but for utopia, though the chances of achieving it are slim. The point is to do something now to forestall the worst aspects of what is certain to come if we don’t act to create a better, more responsible society.
Walkaway is also hoping to find utopia, according to no less an authority than the author. In an article in Wired entitled “Disasters Don’t Have to End in Dystopia,” Doctorow seeks to show how his book about climate disaster, rampant inequality, and corporate dominance still has room for hope.
“Here’s how you can recognize a dystopia,” Doctorow writes in the article. “It’s a science fiction story in which disaster is followed by brutal, mindless violence.” Then he continues: “Here’s how you make a dystopia: Convince people that when disaster strikes, their neighbors are their enemies, not their mutual saviors and responsibilities.”
The question posed by the “walkaways,” who leave mainstream society but don’t suffer from scarcity because of technological advances, is whether our better instincts can overcome this selfish reaction.
“Stories of futures in which disaster strikes and we rise to the occasion are a vaccine against the virus of mistrust,” is the way Doctorow puts it.
At a time when political turbulence had made classic dystopias like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale bestsellers once again, it’s useful to have strong literary statements that even in the direst of circumstances, we still have choices.
The term “loan sharks” is derived from the predatory practices of those denizens of the sea. Given that, I fully expected Loan Sharks: The Birth of Predatory Lending to be a blood-soaked tale of bookies, leg-breakers, and mobsters.
Instead, I got an exhaustive and well-researched history of the banking and lending practices of some of America’s most renowned citizens and corporations. The bookies, leg-breakers, and mobsters come out looking pretty good in comparison.
The author of Loan Sharks is Charles R. Geisst, a former investment banker who is currently the Ambassador Charles A. Gargano Professor of Finance at Manhattan College. Geisst, who has penned 19 other books, including Collateral Damaged and Beggar Thy Neighbor: A History of Usury and Debt, knows his subject.
Advertised as “the fascinating history of America’s undeclared and ill-defined war on usury and loan sharking from the late nineteenth century through the Great Depression,” Loan Sharks reminds me of some of the declared, but just as ill-defined, American wars on, say, poverty and cancer. The result was, of course, just as successful.
People have been lending money to each other since money was invented. The advent of coins — cash (or whatever else was smaller than a goat) — that could be used to purchase something made loans a lot easier. The first person who asked for interest on a loan has been lost to history. I suspect he was murdered. In fact, the term “money lender” has long had a nasty ring to it. Jesus threw a bunch of them out of the temple.
But that did not deter future money lenders, who came to be known as bankers. Now, banking is a necessary endeavor, but there have always been abuses, so governments since antiquity have tried to set limits on how much interest could be charged.
In ancient Rome, it was 12 percent. Late payers were presumably thrown to the lions. In Elizabethan England, the top interest rate was 6 percent That makes the English seem reasonable, but one must remember that this was during an era when stealing a loaf of bread got you hanged.
What about the United States? Well, since colonial times, the rate in various jurisdictions has ranged from 4 to 40 percent. That last figure is not a typo. The U.S. has a history of making it very easy to borrow money and almost impossible to pay it back. That has proven to be a burden that falls disproportionately on small borrowers.
Geist quotes Mark Twain: “If a man owes a bank a dollar and cannot pay, he has a problem. If a man owes it a million and cannot pay, the bank has a problem.” Some of our most distinguished citizens have borrowed so much money that they couldn’t meet their interest payments and either declared bankruptcy or threatened to drag down their lenders if the loan terms weren’t moderated.
Such people are not thrown to the lions. They are elected president.
Geisst makes it clear that the usury laws that tried to limit how much interest a lender could charge in the United States were doomed to fail. As the economy expanded, the need for easy money quickly made any interest-rate limits obsolete. Gangsters easily found their way around such laws, and so-called legitimate bankers made sure they were not put at a disadvantage.
The comparison between “gangsters” and “bankers” may be harsh, but is not really pejorative when you consider that what was once considered usurious loansharking in this country is now common practice.
With some exceptions made for societal reasons (school loans and the like), the free market now decides what interest rates you will pay. That’s why someone with great credit may pay 21 percent to a bank for a credit card when the bank only offers 1 percent on the money in its savings accounts. The difference allegedly makes up for the money the bank loses on its bad debts.
I say “allegedly” because it doesn’t make sense to me. Why should we pay for the money a bank loses on a bad loan to a casino operator? (See “president,” above.)
Snore alert: Loan Shark is not the easiest of reads, especially since Geisst spends much of his time explaining how the banking and financial systems have developed, and regularly collapsed, since the Civil War. But there are gems to be found even among sleep-inducing chapters.
I particularly liked his explanation of how American banks helped impose onerous interest rates on German reparations after World War I. As the distinguished British economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out before quitting the Allies’ reparations committee in disgust, the terms of the payment plan would mean that Germany could never meet its obligations and would wind up in hock for more than it originally owed. That sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?
In America, such practices usually led to foreclosure. Elsewhere, to World War II.
Geisst basically points out that “loan sharking” and usury are the inevitable result of the American system of doing business. Capitalism at its best — and worst. He suggests one solution to mitigate the worst aspect: Since rigid limits on interest rates have been shown not to work, perhaps there should be adjustable limits so people would not be stuck with predatory loans they have no chance of paying back.
As Geisst notes, Albert Einstein reportedly said that doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results was the definition of insanity.
Lawrence De Maria, once a Pulitzer-nominated New York Times reporter, has written more than a dozen thriller and mysteries on Amazon.com. The only thing he lends is advice, which is rarely taken. His most recent thriller, Shadow of the Black Womb, is available at ST. AUSTIN’S PRESS (BOOKS BY DE MARIA).
The Gaithersburg Book Festival is a celebration of the written word and its power to enrich the human experience. Our mission is to foster an interest in reading, writing and literary conversation.
Since its inception in 2010, the festival has quickly become one of the nation’s top literary events, attracting hundreds of award-winning and best-selling authors, poets and songwriters from across the country to its quaint, park-like setting in the heart of Olde Towne Gaithersburg.
The event was conceived and introduced by Gaithersburg Mayor (then council member) Jud Ashman, with the support of the mayor and City Council and the Cultural Arts Advisory Committee. The festival is produced by a core committee comprised of city staff and a dedicated group of volunteers who donate their time and talent.
Funded in part by generous sponsors and supported by the City of Gaithersburg, the festival offers programming for all ages, is free to attend and is open to everyone. (Be sure to stop by the Independent's table right in front of city hall! We'll be raffling off free books!)
Click here for more info.
I have never read a book like this, or even thought that one could exist. Maybe that’s because Buddy Hackett never wrote his autobiography.
From concept to execution (was it imagined whole or did the squeamishly discomfiting tale emerge in waves that startled the author?), in A Horse Walks into a Bar, David Grossman has created a hard, fast, and bumpy ride through the deserts of Israel and the soul.
Call it a 10-car pileup masquerading as a man’s life. At the wheel and in the spotlight: a half-tummler/half-nebbish comic weirdo named Doveleh Greenstein.
Dov, just like Grossman, along with Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, holds a mighty corner in the triangle of revered Israeli novelists. Select another three — Navah Semel, say, and two more female writers from “the Land” — lay their triangles upside down upon Grossman’s, and you’ve got a literary Star of David.
Dov is a standup comic, the punchline to his own pathetic life as he pounds himself in the face onstage, breaking his glasses and drawing blood between Catskills schtick and Freudian complaint.
And while he’s a veteran of the laughs game — a 57-year-old well-practiced in telling jokes of the “a horse walks into a bar” variety (only more vulgar) — Dov has chosen this night to share the sad and troubling story of his life.
“Wait patiently, my friends, because this is a story that, honest to God, I have never told in a show,” says Dov at a club in Netanya, the Israeli equivalent of Akron. “Never told it to a single person, and tonight it’s going to happen.”
But people don’t pay good money to hear what you can get for a buck at a 12-step meeting. They want laughs at the end of a hard week. If their funny bone is not tickled, they grumble and leave. Which is what Dov’s audience does, in twos and threes, with each recounting of his childhood humiliations.
By the end of the show (and the end of the book), only a handful of people remains: a female dwarf who knew the comic in childhood as “a good boy,” the narrator (a retired judge named Avishai Lazar who briefly hung out with Dov decades ago), a waitress, and one or two others who cannot bring themselves to walk out.
Grossman’s most impressive feat in this novel, his 11th, is a kind of neatly turned double-play. For while Dov’s performance sags beneath a labyrinth of digressions, the novel remains independent — at times buoyantly so — of those same digressions which are the book.
In the middle of Dov’s alleged “act,” someone in the crowd shouts down a disgruntled heckler: “Let him tell his story already!”
A slight child beaten by his father; an intelligent child devoted to his mother, unable to un-see the scars on her wrists — the place of the pulse — where a doctor saved her life with stitches but could not save her from herself. Nor could Dov, no matter how many living-room shows he put on for her.
“The boy,” says the little person who knew him in childhood, “who walked on his hands.”
How to keep your old man from thrashing you?
Walk on your hands.
What to do when he beats you for walking on your hands?
You’ve got to hear it from Dov; hear it from Grossman. For if the D.G. of the story is supposed to be the D.G. who wrote the story, the pair seems to share but one quality: pain, that dependable staple of comedy.
In 2006, Grossman’s 20-year-old son Uri — a staff sergeant in the Israeli army — was killed when his tank was hit by Hezbollah missiles while on patrol in the Lebanese village of Hirbet K’seif.
Is it funny “ha-ha” you want, or funny “strange”? How about the zinger that keeps you up at night measuring the distance between “what” and “what if”? Less than two days after Uri Grossman was killed, Israel and Hezbollah called a cease-fire. The young man had three months left to complete his service.
In “Quadrophenia,” the Who’s 1973 double-album about an English teenager — a “mod” in the fashion of early-1960s Britain — the protagonist demands with the first chord of the opera: “Can you see the real me?”
Thus does A Horse Walks into a Bar begin, when Dov calls Lazar a week or two before the Netanya gig and invites him to the show. They have not seen one another since summer camp, so long ago that the judge has trouble placing the caller. And even more difficulty trying to fathom a motive for the invitation.
“I want you to see me,” Dov says. “And tell me what you see.”
Not the dare of “Can you?” But the plea of “I want you.”
Recently widowed and stuck in an ongoing grief almost three years old, Lazar begs off. And with good reason.
Because, in the end, what Lazar sees is himself. As will you, no matter what side of the bully pulpit you were on — in front, behind, or watching from the sidelines, wishing you were invisible — all those years ago.
Rafael Alvarez writes from Baltimore. His new collection of short stories, Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown, will be released in the fall of 2017. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura McBride’s second novel, ‘Round Midnight, weaves together four very different women — June, Coral, Honorata, and Engracia — each connected in different ways to a midcentury nightclub in Las Vegas. McBride has achieved the difficult feat of keeping her book fast-paced while realizing her characters’ complex and nuanced emotions.
This novel revolves around four compelling women. Can you tell us about how you came to inhabit their lives, and they yours?
Inhabit is an apt word. The very first instant in which I became aware of this novel was while listening to a terrific retro act in a rundown Las Vegas nightclub. The setting was bleak — the casino was about to be imploded, the room smelled, the chairs were ripped — but the show: wow. And it was this contrast — the magic that the entertainers created with the audience in that unprepossessing space — which popped June Stein into my head, and from there, the story grew.
I like to imagine my characters fully before I commit them to paper. Honorata is someone I have been thinking about for nearly three decades. Engracia was a character in a novel I decided not to finish. Coral grew up in the writing of this book; I didn’t know she would appear until she did. I didn’t set out to write a novel about four women, about four women of these identities. I followed the strand of an inspiration — a nightclub act, June Stein — and I wove in the people June might encounter over a long life in one city.
‘Round Midnight interweaves seemingly separate stories in multiple sections. In that interweaving, it shares some structural similarities with your debut novel, We Are Called to Rise. Could you talk about your process and how you manage so many separate stories?
I don’t think of the two books as structurally similar. We Are Called to Rise is told in alternating first-person voices and takes place over eight months, while ’Round Midnight is told in the third person and spans 60 years. But the lives of the characters do interweave, and that interweaving is a fundamental quality of the plot, of the narrative suspense that pulls a reader forward.
Constructing that plot is a complicated mental task, and it brings me a pleasure akin to what I feel when tackling a well-made crossword puzzle or making my way in a foreign language. In ’Round Midnight, I was thinking about a small nightclub as a space that linked these disparate women together, and so I was deliberately playing with ideas about coincidence and connection. That was a trick — like managing the subjunctive voice in French — but fascinating, too. I had to persuade the reader to accept improbabilities without disbelieving them. There’s nothing easier than moving one’s plot forward with an unlikely coincidence — and few things I hate more as a reader — so it was a challenge to play at the edge of disaster, to risk an error I dislike for the thrill of getting it right.
‘Round Midnight is set in Las Vegas, your home. How do you think of place and what kind of research did you do to give us a flavor for midcentury Vegas?
’Round Midnight is a story that spans all of Las Vegas’ modern existence, and it is dependent on the sort of characters who kicked off the city’s growth, but I wasn’t particularly focused on telling a Vegas story in this novel; I wasn’t trying to capture an essence of the place. That said, setting is generally an important quality of a work for me. And in this story, which is partly a rumination on time and place and how they link individuals together, setting has a thematic role too.
As for getting the past right, I do what I call a “novelist’s research.” I drift around, listening to people and reading things that catch my attention — both in person and online — and I don’t take notes. I let everything that strikes me roll about in my mind, risking that I’ll forget a central detail. I’m going for tone, for mood, for the telling incident. If I get caught up in being accurate, my imagination sputters, I check myself, I become afraid of the artistic leap.
This is not to say that I don’t value accuracy and truth. I do. I teach academic research to my students. But accuracy and historical fact are something different from what I am doing. For me, writing creatively feels dangerous — the risks to my private self are large — so I try not to scare myself more by adding in an academic’s responsibilities.
You’ve had a career teaching college-level and adult students. How has that affected your writing?
I’m so lucky. I teach at a large community college, with a high percentage of first-generation, minority, and low-income students. It’s a privilege. I’ve toyed with the idea of setting a novel in a college, or at least having a character who works in one, because the environment is so interesting and the possibilities for dramatic action so large. But mostly, I try to protect the teaching relationship I have with students by not letting my author life impinge on their experience.
Still, the things I’ve learned from my students, the amazing stories they have shared with me about their lives, have shaped my understanding of the world. People deal with a lot of pain, and often we expect them to buck up and take care of business — I expect this from my students, too — but it’s grounding to remember just what anyone standing next to you in a line might have experienced in this life.
Teaching first-year writing has also made me a better writer. Like everything else, a lot of success is just doing the work, nose to the grindstone; exhorting my students to do this, year after year, has taught me a few things about persistence and commitment, too.
I’ve watched your fiction career with great interest. You were well established in a teaching career when your debut novel came out. Tell us how starting a new life as an author has affected you.
I wrote We Are Called to Rise when I was 50 years old. I didn’t expect to get published, and I didn’t worry about it. I had long before given up the dream of “being a writer.” And then, bam, just like that, I was one. Not just a writer, but a published writer, with a phenomenal editor and a wonderful publishing house. And that turns my world upside-down. Because I didn’t think it was possible. And if it is possible, then what else is possible? How much of my life-learned cynicism should I unravel? How much hope dare I feel?
I’m kinder than I was (which isn’t so terribly kind…) because I feel touched by the gods.
I’d call your book a page-turner. Did you intend it to be so? What makes a page-turner?
Yes, I wanted it to be a page turner. I think a novel should be, if one wants regular people — with jobs and kids and lives — to read it. My stories are complex. I ask the reader to wait a long time for the plot to come together, but I try to soften the blow by making that reader curious about what’s on the next page or in the next chapter.
I have had some wonderful reading experiences that are not like this — times I wondered if the writer had any idea I existed, or just imagined himself important enough to take my time without payment — and then had the unexpected but exhilarating pleasure of the whole thing coming together on the very last page, or perhaps the subtler pleasure of seeing that a good story can be built without consideration for suspense.
Writing such books is a meritorious challenge, but it’s not what I’m doing, it’s not what motivates me. I write for my readers’ pleasure. My definition of pleasure might not be the one a reader expects — it might involve complicated feelings and contradictions and grief — but it is still pleasure I am after.
As for how to write a page-turner? For whatever my advice is worth, I think it’s about keeping the reader in mind, not letting that reader dictate my story — wag her finger at my choices or my language or whom I chose to forgive — but thinking about her, about what might draw her in, about what she might wonder, about who in the story moves her.
I can imagine readers absorbing your book in one way post-election, and in an altogether different way had the election gone differently. Certainly, your book was written before this election. Can you comment on that?
I’m not sure I have a way to think about the book pre- and post-election. I wrote most of it in 2015, and while I was already interested in the presidential election, I didn’t imagine how it would turn out. More to the point, I wasn’t thinking about the election when writing.
I live in a place that was hard hit by the recession and has not yet fully recovered. I work with many economically challenged people. And I have had the opportunity to travel the country talking about the issues raised in We Are Called to Rise: immigrants, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, our child-advocacy systems. So I was certainly aware that we Americans were not listening to each other very well, and that the parts of the country which had recovered from the recession could feel quite insufferable to the parts of the country that had not. It goes both ways, of course. The effort made by those who work in local, state, and federal government is disparaged in ways that are offensive. The antipathy directed at innocent people is appalling.
The fears that come with being economically imperiled (as opposed to being economically motivated) are not good for people. The hate that has spewed with that fear, and the hate with which those fears have been dismissed in return, is a uniquely sad moment. I’m proud to be American, and yet, we seem to be such fierce people: so quick to accuse and blame and reject, or perhaps attracted to those who would have us be that way. I wish we would listen to better angels; we would be a different people if we did. When I am speaking publicly, I sometimes talk about my own effort to make a daily practice of hating a little less and loving a little more, of fearing less and caring more.
And there’s the influence of my mom, who taught me that a novel was just as good a place to get the truth as anywhere else.
What’s next for you? Another novel in the works?
Of course! I have it full in my head, though perhaps I am getting a little bored with the story. It’s all about finding a space of time in which to get started, to get the thing rolling, and then it will be a matter of showing up and doing the work. I am a reliably hard worker, so for now, all I need is an opening break.
Martha Anne Toll’s nonfiction has appeared in the Millions, NPR, Heck, [PANK], the Nervous Breakdown, Tin House blog, Bloom, Narrative, and the Washington Independent Review of Books; her fiction in Slush Pile Magazine, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Yale’s Letters Journal, Poetica E Magazine, Referential Magazine, Inkapture Magazine, and Wild. Her novel in process, represented by the Einstein Literary Agency, was shortlisted for the 2016 Mary Rinehart Roberts fiction prize. She directs a social-justice foundation focused on preventing and ending homelessness and abolishing the death penalty. Please visit her at marthaannetoll.com and tweet to her at @marthaannetoll.
We don't tend to honor our poets' memories. If we did, we would be setting off fireworks this spring for Robert Lowell’s centennial. Lowell, who died of a heart attack in a New York taxicab 40 years ago, was a monumental presence brooding over midcentury American poetry. His work was knotty, ironic, and self-involved. He swept up all the prizes — some of them twice — in the course of his 30-odd-year career.
As the psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison documents in Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character (Knopf), Lowell suffered calamitously from manic-depressive disorder. Back in the Fifties, before there were effective treatments to stabilize mood and manage the terrible effects of mania, Lowell’s psychotic breaks were huge, terrifying affairs that would last months and frequently landed him in the hospital for extended stays. (It is easy to lose count of the number of times he was hospitalized in the 1950s alone.)
His depressions were, by definition, less dramatic, but no less debilitating. The repetitive and drearily predictable cycle of mania and depression played hell on his friendships, his marriages, and all his human commitments. But not on his productivity.
Jamison, who is a leading clinical expert on manic-depressive illness as well as an eloquent advocate for its sufferers, goes to some pains to show that bipolar disorder correlates quite closely with creativity. Mania disinhibits the mind. It makes the synapses pop with associations. Manic patients see connections where others don’t. And to the extent that poetry — at least as Lowell understood it — is based on metaphor and simile, mania can be spectacularly poetic.
The same does not hold for the depressive troughs of the disorder. Nevertheless, Lowell found a way to put these to good use, too. Lowell was a great reviser, and his poems could easily run through 30 or more versions.
This back-and-forth became the rhythm of his career: In the early throes of mania, Lowell would write reams of poetry, and in the depths of the subsequent depression, he would rewrite. Between the early 1940s and 1977, Lowell published 11 books of poetry and several plays, not to mention articles, reviews, and the other flotsam of a literary life. His Collected Poems weighs in at over 900 pages.
This is an impressive legacy, but, truth be told, Jamison doesn't really care about the poetry. Rather, her book is a paean to his character, not his writing. It stands as a memorial to Lowell’s steadfast resolve in the face of illness.
Comparing him to one of his forebears, a Civil War hero, Jamison indulges in some rather high-toned praise: “Robert Lowell knew civic valor. Sixteen times and more he had been down on his knees in madness…Sixteen times and more he had gotten up. He had gone back to his work, entered back into life…Lowell’s life, as his daughter observed, was a messy one, difficult for him and for those who knew him. But it was lived with iron, and often with grace.” In other words, it took courage to be Robert Lowell.
There is indeed something admirable about Lowell’s battered resilience, but there is also something a bit overwrought about this quotation and about Jamison’s defense of her hero. Jamison wants her book to supplant Ian Hamilton's mean-spirited 1982 biography of the poet. So, their face-off comes down to this: Hamilton has little sympathy for the severity of Lowell’s illness, and Jamison has nothing but sympathy. Her book abounds with compassion for its subject. She doles out forgiveness wherever she goes.
While her approach serves as a much-needed antidote to Hamilton’s crabbiness, Jamison's defense-at-all-costs leads her to take a peculiar position for a psychiatrist. In order to counter the charge that Lowell’s madness was nothing but weakness of will, she treats the poet’s disorder as an external force, a fate that is visited on him by vengeful genes. In the end, Jamison does not quite accept that his manic-depressive illness was an integral part of Lowell's identity.
That said, my real complaint about Jamison’s always intelligent and sometimes moving book is that she never makes a case for the poetry as poetry. While she quotes his work at length, she uses it as evidence for something else, as if all those complicated and finely wrought poems were raw, psychic data. They most assuredly are not.
And a case really does need to be made for Lowell’s poetry these days. It has fallen almost completely out of fashion. The peculiarities of his work — the density of his allusions and associations, his high moral seriousness, his autobiographical insistence, his unrepentantly literary style — no longer resonate. They seem to hail from an incomprehensible, now distant past.
Is it possible to make Lowell sing a century after his birth? That appears to be the task of Katie Peterson's new and generous selection of Lowell’s work, New Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). In her introduction, Peterson tries to allay her readers’ mistrust of Lowell’s undeniable social privilege. Privilege, of course, has become a near-fatal charge for a poet in our time, and Lowell — the well-heeled, male, heterosexual scion of one of Boston’s oldest families — was undoubtedly privileged. Of course, he was aware — often painfully — of his advantages.
A number of his poems trade on his name and his family’s history, only to take that name and that history to task. More to the point, Lowell felt that his privilege entailed a deep moral obligation and, as a result, he was eloquent to the point of obsession in his criticism of corruption, racism, and empire. Both his grandeur and his grandiosity rest on his tendency to see history as both his milieu and his responsibility.
Peterson’s selection does not really present this Lowell — the poet of history. Rather, like Jamison, she prefers to cast him as a poet of personal courage and psychological resilience. Peterson's Lowell is a man who is just trying to get through the day. As she says, “He doesn’t simply live — he lives through.”
This is a stylish and remarkably contemporary version of both Lowell and the role of poetry. While it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the craggy eminences of Lord Weary’s Castle (1947) or for the sheer sweep of history in History (1973), it does give due weight to Lowell’s best and most influential books: Life Studies (1959) and For the Union Dead (1964). It allows us to see the way Lowell can weave together the personal, the national, and the moral in a delicate skein of mood.
Lowell was a great poet of mood. It was his particular gift (when the magic worked) to pretend that the particularities of his emotional state were, in fact, an index of how it stood with the world itself. Sometimes, this led to poems of great despair. In other places, Lowell really did show himself to be the gritty poet that Jamison and Peterson champion. We can see this fortitude in his most famous poem, “Skunk Hour.”
"Skunk Hour" is frequently remembered for the melodrama of its quotation from Paradise Lost (“I, myself am Hell”) and its moments of gothic creepiness, but to dwell on these moments is to miss the point.
The poem is a portrait of corruption. The poem’s claim that “[t]he season’s ill” does not apply to the Maine seaside town that has fallen on hard times or to the poet who is going crazy, but to both at the same time and, we must assume, for the same reason. The world just feels wrong and it feels wrong because it somehow is wrong. (“Skunk Hour” is the final poem in Life Studies. The rest of the book shows in some detail just how things have gone awry.)
"Skunk Hour" establishes that the poet's ill will is of a piece with a general social malaise. Then it dismisses the gothic tones in which Lowell has draped the whole affair. The poet, standing on his steps, looking down on a family of skunks parading up Main Street, realizes that he has been making the wrong connection. Yes, his mind is wrong and yes, the world is wrong, but that doesn’t mean that he has to take despair as the last word.
The end of the poem is devoted to that family of skunks as they root around in the garbage. Lowell lends them a comic, commendable self-sufficiency, even a certain nobility. The mother skunk, “drops her ostrich tail/and will not scare.”
Ostriches, of course, are the watchword for fear. So when the mother skunk drops her tail, she is engaging in a willed and willful act of courage. She refuses to be afraid. “Skunk Hour” thus offers the poet a choice. He can either be scared or not. The poem does not show him making the choice, but rather ends at that instant where he sees that choice is possible.
This is the Lowell of New Selected Poems — a man living against the clock and weighing his options. He writes about time, not history, and he cuts an engaging figure. He composes poignant, adult love poems. He does well with kids. He is thus a more personal poet than the one I remember from earlier selections of his work.
Here, then, is a dilemma. What would the book have looked like if the selections had been made after the last election? Lowell was always a strongly political poet. A newer New Selected Poems would probably give more space to the prophetic, thundering, historical Lowell, that is, to the man who marched on the Pentagon and was a friend of Robert Kennedy. (To be fair, his elegy for Kennedy is included in Peterson’s selection.)
But Peterson couldn’t have seen what was coming, and we have to be happy with the book she has given us. Her Lowell is a poet we can certainly live with. He is definitely one we should celebrate.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University. His most recent book, Reading Uncreative Writing, is due out later this year.
May is Short Story Month, otherwise known as a great excuse for me to talk about my love of flash fiction. Flash fictions are short-short stories. They usually run 1,000 words or less and are driven by language, detail, and rhythm. I’ve been the editor of the online flash-fiction journal SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010 and have read thousands of flash stories. I’ve fallen madly in love with the form, and you should, too.
There are several things that make flash fiction wonderful. They are often experimental and fun, playing around with form and style and language in a way that’s delightful to read. They are filled with tiny epiphanies and moments, those small changes and shifts that make up a lifetime.
They are also brief, which means you can consume an entire world and emotional experience while waiting for your bus to arrive or your tea to brew. (SmokeLong gets its name from a Chinese term that suggests stories should only take as long to read as it takes to smoke a cigarette.)
You can, of course, read a ton of amazing flash fiction in the many online journals publishing today. But the real delight is finding a book-length collection of flash that allows you to absorb the way good flash fictions can play off one another and create something even larger and more beautiful.
Here are some of my favorite collections of flash. If you are new to the form, these would be great books to check out. But don’t blame me if you get all starry-eyed about the form — I did warn you.
Truck Dance by Jeff Landon (Matter Press). Jeff Landon is one of my favorite writers of flash fiction because he makes it look so effortless. You’ll love this tiny collection of tiny stories about men with good intentions who often flounder and sometimes fail. One of my favorites here is “Five Fat Men in a Hot Tub” (originally published in SmokeLong Quarterly), which combines humor with a poignancy that will stab you in the gut.
Whiskey, Etc. by Sherrie Flick (Queen's Ferry Press). The places are familiar here. They are warm homes, waking quietly in the dawn. They are dark bars, back yards, your favorite diner. Flick's writing always makes me feel like I've settled under a warm blanket and someone's cooking a delicious bread in the next room. Her writing is frank and her details are always splendid, but there is of course a sense of danger or loss brewing underneath these cozy spaces. I'm always in awe of the way these stories, even the tiniest ones, feel so complete.
Superman on the Roof by Lex Williford (Rose Metal Press). If you like your flash linked — that is, each story works to create a larger narrative — then be sure to snag this novella-in-flash from Rose Metal Press. RMP, known for its amazing hybrid books, hosts a chapbook contest each year, and Williford's wonderful book was the winner in 2016. The flash fictions here follow a young man as he and his family deal with the illness and death of his little brother. In just 56 pages, Williford is able to create a world and an emotional arc that makes you feel like you’ve just read a long novel.
The Best Small Fictions anthology series, edited by Tara Masih (Braddock Avenue Books). Now in its fourth year, BSF is quickly becoming the gold standard for capturing the best of flash writing out there. Each book in the series features about 50 flash fictions published during the previous calendar year, selected by a rotating guest editor (past selecting editors have been Robert Olen Butler, Stuart Dybek, and Amy Hempel). If you want a good cross-sectional survey of the best places to read short-short fiction, these books are the place to get that.
Sudden Fiction Latino edited by Robert Shapard, James Thomas, and Ray Gonzalez (W.W. Norton). The Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction series in general are worth adding to your shelf for the sheer amount of amazing talent that graces their pages. I select Sudden Fiction Latino in particular for two reasons: one because it’s probably a lesser-known edition of the series and deserves more exposure, and two because there’s a story I read in it that has stuck with me for many years. The anthology is filled with vibrant flash writing from Latin American and U.S. Latino writers, and the stand-out story for me was “The White Girl” by Luis Alberto Urrea. You can read it online at the Barcelona Review, but when you fall in love, go ahead and order the anthology for more, more, more.