Washington Independent Review of Books
A Look Ahead: 7/23/17
July 23rd, 2017, 02:30 AM

Monday: In her monthly column, Long Story Short, Tara Laskowski talks about the special hell of bookworms buying a new house.

Tuesday: An interview with Sarah Dunn, author of The Arrangement: A Novel.

Wednesday: July’s Poetry Exemplars by Grace Cavalieri.

Thursday: A review of Blame: A Thriller by Jeff Abbott.

Friday: A review of American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution by A. Roger Ekirch.

Saturday: The Week in Reviews.

Get the scoop on all our upcoming book reviews, author interviews, and features! Click here to sign up for the Independent’s free biweekly e-newsletter. And follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. And if you’d like to advertise with us, click here.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
The Atlas of Forgotten Places: A Novel
July 23rd, 2017, 02:30 AM

In late 2008 and early 2009, years before the Western world became caught up in the horror of young schoolgirls kidnapped and enslaved by Boko Haram militants in northern Nigeria, nearly 200 children were abducted in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

These children were pawns in a cross-border fight between Ugandan rebels, known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and military forces from Uganda, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Into this real-life volatile conflict walks character Lily Bennett, a young American woman volunteering for an aid agency in Uganda. Her subsequent disappearance in the weeks before these abductions, and an ensuing series of deadly attacks by the LRA known as the Christmas massacres, unites three individuals in a dangerous mission.

Rippling with political and emotional tension, The Atlas of Forgotten Places takes us along this harrowing journey.

Lily’s aunt, Sabine Hardt, an aid worker with years of experience throughout the African continent, is burned out and jaded. Despairing of ever making a difference, Sabine abandons her work in Africa and returns to her native Germany, where she works at an animal shelter. But when Lily’s stepfather sends word Lily was not on her scheduled flight home, Sabine doesn’t hesitate to return to the very place where she feared she lost her soul.

Back in Uganda, Sabine encounters Christoph, a Swiss anthropologist, and his research assistant, Rose Akulu, and enlists their aid in her search for her niece. Rose’s story becomes entwined with Sabine’s, for she, too, is searching for the disappeared — her lover, Ocen.

Rose’s composed exterior belies the war in her heart: she has a past with the Lord’s Resistance Army she cannot speak of, a past that has all but ostracized her from her community. Her physical scars cause others to look away in horror; her emotional scars may never heal.

As the three follow the few traces Lily left behind, the possible reasons for her disappearance begin to emerge and none offers the searchers hope. Was she following the illegal ivory trade exploited by the LRA to fund their resistance activities? Had she crossed the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is unlikely anyone on a rescue mission will be allowed to go? And in Rose’s secret agony — when it becomes clear that Lily and Ocen disappeared together — lives the question: Were Lily and Rose’s lover more than friends?

The Atlas of Forgotten Places is riveting in plot and profound in portrait. Author Jenny D. Williams has created characters the reader will bond with immediately and a narrative that grips the imagination with a vital quest across the boundaries of countries and of the heart.

This is an extraordinary debut, written with a masterful sense of plot and pacing and a keen understanding of the thorny world of western intervention in the developing world. Her prose calls to mind the exquisite Francesca Marciano — another contemporary Western writer with personal experience in Africa — with its clarity, precision, and beauty.

Readers of Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love or White Dog Fell from the Sky by Eleanor Morse will add The Atlas of Forgotten Places to their canon of modern literature about Africa that explores culture beyond artificial political borders and expands our understanding of a continent.

Eight years after the kidnapping of the children in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the International Criminal Court began hearing arguments against one of the LRA’s senior commanders charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. According to the New York Times, “The United Nations estimates that between 1987 and 2012, the Lord’s Resistance Army killed more than 100,000 people, kidnapped between 60,000 and 100,000 children and forced more than 2.5 million people to flee their homes in Uganda, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic.”

The Atlas of Forgotten Places takes us to a place and into a conflict that few in the comfortable Western world know of or understand, and holds us fast with a stunning combination of intrigue and despair, redemption and love.

Julie Christine Johnson is the award-winning author of In Another Life (Sourcebooks, February 2016) and the forthcoming The Crows of Beara (Ashland Creek Press, September 2017). She is also the author of numerous short stories and essays. Julie currently resides in Port Townsend, WA, where she leads writing workshops, is a freelance fiction editor, and manages the tasting rooms for one of Washington State’s newest wineries.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
The House at Bishopsgate: A Novel
July 22nd, 2017, 02:30 AM

Katie Hickman’s new novel, The House at Bishopsgate, follows the life of Paul Pindar and his wife, Celia, who have just relocated to London in 1611 after spending several years in Syria.

While the two love each other dearly, a traumatic event early in their marriage has caused a rift; Paul has never lain with Celia as man and wife in the entirety of their seven-year union.

As the two try to repair their marriage at Paul’s Bishopsgate home in London, the valuable, mysterious Sultan Blue diamond in their possession, an overbearing widow insinuates herself into — and soon takes over — the household. Her odd, disturbing hold on the couple begins to loosen only when an old friend of Celia’s, Annetta, comes to visit.

Annetta, a former nun and survivor of the plague, immediately recognizes and labels the widow as an enemy. Working with Paul, she manages to unravel the dark mystery surrounding this woman, including the widow’s interest in the diamond’s alleged dark magic.  

Hickman’s writing is deft, each scene crafted with love and attention to detail. The novel becomes an experience, a total immersion in 17th-century London. In nearly every chapter, the author portrays the atmosphere, surroundings, and even minor objects (such as the desk in which Paul hides the infamous diamond) in a manner that transports the reader.

Hickman also displays her talent for the craft by fleshing out each character, even if they appear only briefly. This skill is quite impressive as the novel is chockfull of various people, from servants to royals. They all feel impressively real.

Despite the sharp writing, however, the novel has a few major problems that are difficult to overlook. A lot seems to be happening in the story, but none of it happens very fast, requiring far too much patience from the reader. The novel could have been tighter had a deft editor slashed 200 or so pages.

While the descriptions of the furniture, homes, and streets of London are a pleasure to read, they soon become tedious and irritating. For instance, one entire chapter is devoted to the types of jewels and furniture the Pindars own. The verbosity of such sections is frustrating, especially as they do little to flesh out characters or move the plot forward.

Furthermore, while the numerous characters are intriguing, the novel gives far too much of their backstory. In one particular chapter, a long stretch is devoted to Annetta’s love interest imagining a conversation with her. The scene is a waste of precious pages and unnecessarily halts the momentum of the plot.

Hickman’s book has much to appreciate, but it will appeal more to lovers of historical fiction than to anyone intrigued by the “mysterious” properties of the diamond. Regardless, all readers would have benefited from a much shorter and more tightly written novel.        

Fatima Azam is working on her Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Maryland while also teaching English writing and literature. She resides in Maryland, where she is working on her fifth novel. She loves words almost as much as chocolate pastries.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
The Week in Reviews: 7/22/17
July 22nd, 2017, 02:30 AM

The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family’s Quest to Bring Him Home by Sally Mott Freeman (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Paul D. Pearlstein. “The tale is a kaleidoscope of her family’s involvement in the war, the battles in the Pacific, and the civilian and military politics of that time. All interesting material, but the overall result feels rather disjointed. Freeman’s attempt to create suspense by withholding details of Burton’s fate until the book’s end also seems contrived and ineffective.” 

Only the Dead Know Brooklyn: A Novel by Chris Vola (Thomas Dunne Books). Reviewed by Philip K. Jason. “Here’s my problem. I sense an enormous talent here. I admire Vola’s ambition and his vision. I just can’t find my way into a reading experience that holds my interest and propels me forward. Of course I read the entire book, but I rarely found myself wishing to turn the page or enter the next chapter. Over and over, I felt myself being pushed out. I sincerely hope that Chris Vola’s other readers enjoy a different kind of experience. It could be that I am simply the wrong reader for this book. But maybe not.”

The Forgotten Girl: A Novel by Rio Youers (St. Martin’s Press). Reviewed by Peter Pollak. “What places The Forgotten Girl a step ahead of the average thriller is the way Youers undergirds the supernatural with plausibility. He makes us believe there really are people with the sort of abilities Harvey’s evil mentor possesses, then weaves a story that’s more about the protagonist’s drive to overcome his pacifist outlook than his own psychic deficiencies.”

Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Tom Glenn. “Overall, Raven Rock is a satisfying read, especially for a student of U.S. governmental history. My only real criticism is the title for including the words: ‘While the Rest of Us Die.’ First of all, the prospect of protecting some 320 million people during a nuclear holocaust is hopelessly unrealistic and was never the intent of those designing the continuity-of-government strategy. Second, the book never addresses the feasibility or desirability of such an effort. I suspect, having been through melees with publishers over titles, that Simon & Schuster altered Graff’s original title.”

The Origins of Cool in Postwar America by Joel Dinerstein (University of Chicago Press). Reviewed by Paula Novash. “In his examination of what we mean when we characterize a person as cool and how and why this concept emerged, Dinerstein, an English professor at Tulane University, engagingly illuminates the complex origins of the word and how its early icons responded to create the image and persona we recognize today.”

Everybody’s Son: A Novel by Thrity Umrigar (Harper). Reviewed by Alice Stephens. “Though the author keeps the pages turning, she bludgeons the reader with her message, leaching tension from the narrative and turning her characters into paint-by-number caricatures. The reader is not permitted to reach her own conclusions, but is force-fed the repetitive messages of racial injustice, white privilege, and the imperative of biological ties. By insisting on doing the thinking for her readers, the author detracts from an absorbing and entertaining story, and the schmaltzy ending takes the novel into ‘Hallmark Channel Special’ territory.”

Echoes of Valhalla: The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas by Jon Karl Helgason; translated by Jane Appleton (Reaktion Books). Reviewed by Solveig Eggerz. “Helgason’s study will please readers thoroughly familiar with the saga characters and edda poems in their original appearance in Icelandic medieval literature. While some purists may resent the modern transformations of these sources, Helgason sees the constant adaptation not so much as a destruction of the original versions, but more as a signal to readers to consult the source, stating that the contemporary adaptations ‘are instrumental in promoting the eddas and sagas internationally.’”

Don’t miss another excellent book review, author interview, or feature! Click here to sign up for the Independent’s free biweekly e-newsletter. And follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. And if you’d like to advertise with us, click here.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
Echoes of Valhalla: The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas
July 21st, 2017, 02:30 AM

In Echoes of Valhalla, Jon Karl Helgason, a professor of Icelandic and comparative cultural studies at the University of Iceland, follows the trail of 12th-century Icelandic literature and Norse gods, heroes, and heroines like Gunnar, Hallgerður, and Leifur Eiriksson as they appear in contemporary books, comics, plays, films, and even videogames.

Referring to the Icelandic sagas and eddas as “pre-texts,” Helgason describes how the traditional characters and plots have taken on a life of their own or been adapted to reflect contemporary conditions. Sometimes segments from the literature of hundreds of years ago appear simply because an author falls in love with a narrative or even a series of names. J.R.R. Tolkien derived the names of the dwarves in The Hobbit from Völuspá, a series of early eddic poems.

Perhaps the most popular character from the Norse mythology is Thor, the redheaded god of thunder, who loses his hammer, Mjölnir, to the giant Þrymr in the eddic poem “Þrymskviða.” The condition that Þrymr sets for returning the hammer to Thor is that he be given Freyja, the goddess of love, as a bride. Because Freyja refuses to be part of that bargain, Thor humiliates himself by dressing as a woman, thus tricking the giant into returning the hammer.

Despite the depiction of Thor as somewhat laughable in “Þrymskviða,” he develops into a superhero in various comic books, a force that repeatedly saves the day for the people who surround him. Helgason explains the attraction for authors and cartoonists of Thor as a hero: “Society struggles against the invasion of an evil force but before all is lost, the protagonist manages to restore law and order.”

Consider the 15-volume Danish comic-book series “Valhalla,” by Peter Madsen, based on characters from Nordic mythology and narratives found in the eddic poems. Yet Madsen adapts these medieval elements to contemporary Danish issues of the late 1970s, such as the theme of gender equality expressed in the story “Ulven er los,” based on one of Thor’s adventures from Nordic mythology.

Although stimulated by ancient stories, the adaptations often reflect historic struggles. In “The Shadow of Valhalla” comics, published in the magazine Boy Commandos, the Norse god Oðin calls Hitler “an upstart,” and Thor defeats the dictator with his hammer. Refuting the Nazis’ appropriation of Thor as the ideal of the Master Race, Oðin announces, “Valhalla is the Norse heaven...not German.”

Best known in this country are the tales of “The Mighty Thor” from Marvel Comics, which first appeared during the 1960s. During the Cold War, Marvel aimed Thor’s hammer not only at mythical enemies, but also at the Soviet Union.

More subtle has been the afterlife of Hallgerður, a colorful female figure from 12th-century Njálssaga, a story permeated with pagan and Christian beliefs. Hallgerður is the wife of the hero Gunnar, famous for denying her husband a lock of her hair with which to weave a string for his bow to defend himself against his enemies, thus causing his death.

Fascinated by this scene, the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen drew on Njálssaga as well as other sagas for his early work “Hærmændene paa Helgeland” (“The Warriors of Helgeland”). Other playwrights who drew on the character of Hallgerður include Gordon Bottomley, the author of “The Riding to Lithend,” and Thit Jensen. In her “Njal the Wise,” Jensen suggests that to become queen of Iceland is the goal of the character modeled on Hallgerður. Helgason even implies a link between Hallgerður and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.

Helgason’s study will please readers thoroughly familiar with the saga characters and edda poems in their original appearance in Icelandic medieval literature. While some purists may resent the modern transformations of these sources, Helgason sees the constant adaptation not so much as a destruction of the original versions, but more as a signal to readers to consult the source, stating that the contemporary adaptations “are instrumental in promoting the eddas and sagas internationally.”

Also, it seems, nationally. Citing his own schooling and his growing up in Reykjavik as having been steeped in these old stories and poems, Helgason expresses concern that today’s young people no longer consider Egill Skallagrimsson of Egilssaga and Njall Þorgeirsson of Njálssaga as real historic figures because the stories are no longer commonly read.

In fact, this reviewer recalls reading Egilssaga years ago in high school in Reykjavik. But today, there is a concern that the Icelandic language is disappearing. Helgason concludes that the relationship of Icelanders themselves to their own history is not that different from that of a foreign traveler encountering the old stories as “visitors to a strange past.”

This reader puts the book down not with disdain for the distortions of the old stories, but rather with gratitude for their “afterlife,” including in comic-book form, as a reminder of a great medieval literary tradition and, in fact, an encouragement to return to the source.

A native of Iceland, Solveig Eggerz is author of the novel Seal Woman, published in 2014 (Unbridled Books) and of the forthcoming One Fish at a Time. She teaches personal stories and memoir for the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
Meet Gina Cascone and Bree Williams Sheppard
July 20th, 2017, 02:30 AM

Come meet Gina Cascone and her daughter, Bryony (Bree) Williams Sheppard, when they drop by to sign copies of Around the World Right Now during their nationwide Around the Bookstores Tour! Gina and Bree’s mother-daughter collaboration resulted in a delightful multicultural travelogue that takes young readers through each of the 24 time zones. Around the World Right Now encourages children to travel the world and experience the many people, places, and things that exist on our planet...right now. In every minute of every hour of every day, something wonderful is happening around our world!

Free; no registration required. Books available for purchase at Curious Iguana. Visit curiousiguana.com for info.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
Between Obligation and Desire
July 20th, 2017, 02:30 AM

In June, I found myself at my first-ever writer’s retreat at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in tiny Interlochen, Michigan. A music camp since the early 20th century, Interlochen now also plays host to all types of artists, including writers.

There, I had the pleasure to meet and learn from Michigan-based author Desiree Cooper, who was leading the short-story seminar. Cooper’s 2016 debut, Know the Mother, is a collection of flash fiction (short-short stories). After hearing a craft talk that she gave, which drew from a recent essay of hers for Origins Journal called “Writing into the Blindness of Race,” I knew I needed to read her fiction. Once I did, I asked if I could interview her for the Independent.

Like my own, Cooper’s debut came rather later in life, her creative writing having taken a backseat to a career as a lawyer, journalist, and advocate for women’s reproductive rights, and been squeezed into the spaces between caregiving for children, then grandchildren, and now parents.

The theme of obligation overtaking dreams, desires, and even identity is strong in Know the Mother, no more so than in the title story. In the following interview, Cooper and I discussed that theme, as well as — both of us being debut authors of a certain age — understanding that time is not to be taken for granted.

Did you initially set out to develop a collection of stories that speak to a theme of caregiving/mothering, or did you simply find that you had a large body of work that took that path?

It took me 20 years to write this slim collection of stories. Being a mother and wife had everything to do with both the themes of the book and my laborious process. The conflict between the imposed role of caregiving and my life’s desire to be a writer has had me feeling creatively stifled, repressed, and unfulfilled most of my adult life. It’s no surprise to me that every time I sat down to write, my stories touched the theme of gender and the trade-offs women must make in order to be themselves.

Your story “Nocturne” explores the lifelong tension between obligation — even when it’s a loving obligation — and desire, which seems like something you’ve had to wrestle with. Do you have that sense of needing to make up for lost time?

That’s so funny. When I had a desktop computer, I had a Bible verse taped below the screen. I’m not particularly devout, but the verse was from Joel 2:25: “I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten.” I have a profound sense of lost time when it comes to my art. That verse spoke to my grief for all that I haven’t yet had the time or resources to write. I love the idea that somehow the reward for my commitment to family will be warp-speed productivity in the latter half of my life. If there is a God, that would be one of my prayers.

Unlike the main character in that story, who wanted to be a concert pianist, it’s never “too late” for a writer, is it? Don’t we get better with age?

I remember my friends happily telling me that Doris Lessing won a Nobel Prize in Literature at age 89. (Read: There’s still plenty of time for you!) But the idea made me furious. Are we as women really supposed to wait until old age to self-actualize — and be grateful for that? (This does not apply to Lessing, by the way, who was as prolific her whole life as she was profound.)

While writers may have a longer work life, it’s not true that they have all the time in the world, or even that they get better with age. I was in an accident in 2015 and have been recovering from a traumatic brain injury ever since. Rather than affecting my mobility, the accident has affected my facility with language and concentration. At the same time, I’m taking care of my parents — both in their 80s — who have memory issues. I can’t help but wonder how much longer I will be able write a cogent paragraph, even though, at 57, people will try to assure me that I’m still “young” (in writer years).

Tomorrow is not promised, no matter your age. At this point in my life, I feel a healthy urgency to get it done before it really is “too late.”

Do you feel like you’re winding down on having so many obligations and can now allow yourself more freedom to pursue the track you want?

Yes and no. The accident pulled me out of an intense professional and political life advocating for women’s reproductive rights. In some ways, it’s been a forced retirement, if only a temporary one.

But at the same time, my family obligations are only multiplying. My parents can no longer live alone, and I’ve had to leave my home of 30 years to move to Virginia to stay with them. My millennial children have not fully launched, and my two grandchildren need a vast amount of daily support from me. I often say that this isn’t the Sandwich Generation, it’s the Hero Sandwich Generation. The pull of caregiving has only gotten more powerful.

But there is a difference. I have learned to manage boundaries and guilt. Actually getting a book published has made a lifelong dream become tangible, and with that reality has come a commitment to myself to be more disciplined in my practice. I don’t know if it will mean another book. But it will most certainly mean that I will put my writing first.

How did your career choices affect your fiction?

While practicing banking and bankruptcy at a major Detroit law firm, I learned so much about privilege and money. The pressure of working at a corporate firm taught me how to assimilate information efficiently, digest it, and use it to make a point.

My longest professional stint has been as a journalist — mostly as a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, and also as a commentator for public radio. I wrote about gender, race, and child welfare, with a generous number of profiles sprinkled in. Journalism clearly taught me compression, so much so that when I had room to stretch as a fiction writer, I couldn’t. If there was no such thing as flash fiction, I would have had to invent it. 

My activism has been around women’s rights and reproductive freedom. As an activist, I’ve learned that storytelling is far more powerful than rhetoric. When I sat down to write fiction, I wanted to illuminate how the subtle forces of racism and sexism work in the most intimate spaces, influencing relationships and life choices. I have no interest in preaching. I only care about creating empathy.

Would you describe your going to law school as part of that sense of obligation, or was it what you truly wanted at the time?

Obligation. I was born to middle-class, striving parents and was part of the first generation out of the Civil Rights Movement. It was our job to walk through the doors that had been opened for us by those who marched, protested, and gave their lives. In that milieu, writing was not a job, it was a hobby.

I majored in journalism as an undergraduate because that was the closest thing to a writing job. I went to law school because I knew I couldn’t live independently without more education. I was five years into law practice before I realized that I couldn’t thrive in a life devoid of creativity. I left to join the nonprofit sector, but it was 12 years before I landed in journalism as a columnist.

Do you consider one story in particular as serving as a climax of the collection?

I’m not sure I have a story that represents the climax of the collection. But the title story was the first that I wrote decades before my own mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It remains the axis of the stories: Women’s lives are so invisible and so overshadowed by the mantle of “mother,” that we really don’t ever learn who they really are.

In both “Reporting for Duty, 1959” — the story I was most haunted by — and “Home for the Holidays,” the car becomes a fraught space, a space that magnifies the everyday frustrations we all share, but then it also becomes an acute source of vulnerability for African Americans. Instead of representing freedom, a car trip is a gauntlet to be overcome, or even survived. Thoughts?

I didn’t realize until I’d finished the collection how many [of the stories] include a scene in the car. The car is iconic in American history but, for different reasons, in black history as well. It was a safe bubble in which black families could travel this country, as long as they stayed in the car and followed the rules of the road. It represented freedom as well as danger. To this day, the predominant reason for African-American tourism is to visit family (especially family reunions). There’s a reason for that.

In Detroit, it was the thing of lore for African-American auto workers to pile the family in their new American car and visit the folks down South. There was no greater pride! From a craft point of view, however, the car is perfect for flash fiction. It’s a setting of ready-made compression in terms of emotion, tension, and action. It also gives the story a temporal arc: something has to happen between leaving and arriving. 

My sense is that Michigan seems to have a particularly strong support network for writers. I often hear about Michigan writing programs, and obviously we met at Interlochen. Is that the experience that you’ve had — beyond, for example, having a publisher call out across the parking lot for you to send your manuscript even before you had one?

Yes! The whole reason that the publisher suspected that I was sitting on a horde of stories was because he heard me read at a number of community events. Detroit is crawling with creative energy, reading series, and writing groups, especially now. I find great collegiality and a significant amount of cross-pollination among Detroit writers (i.e., writers are crossing racial, gender, and geographic lines).

I was pushed to take my craft seriously while sitting at coffeehouse sessions with the Detroit poet, Vievee Francis. She took many writers under her wing and was personally responsible for preparing them to be professional. I can’t say enough about Wayne State University Press, whose Made in Michigan Writers Series has opened the doors to so many diverse voices, and Kresge Arts in Detroit, which has catapulted so many Detroit-area artists into the national limelight.

Read more from Desiree Cooper at descooper.com and follow her on Twitter at @descooper.

[Photo by Justin Milhouse.]

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle, and writes and reviews regularly for the Independent as well as the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
Everybody’s Son: A Novel
July 20th, 2017, 02:30 AM

Anton Vesper Coleman is, quite literally, a “golden” boy. That is the adjective author Thrity Umrigar uses repeatedly to describe the skin tone, eyes, and aura of the protagonist in her sixth novel, Everybody’s Son, in a not-so-subtle bid to portray him as a trophy son.

Anton is a replacement for an earlier son, the scion of a Yankee political family who died in a car accident while in high school. To ease his and his wife’s heartbreak, David Coleman, the state’s attorney general and son of a popular governor, brings 9-year-old Anton home as a foster child. His crack-addicted African-American mother had left him alone for a week, locked in their apartment in the projects during a heat wave, and is in jail awaiting sentencing on a child-endangerment charge.

Intelligent, athletic, quick to learn, and eager to please, Anton soon earns David’s love. However, Anton’s mother’s offense does not typically result in much jail time, so to keep Anton longer, David arranges for her to receive an unusually long sentence. Thus he embarks down a slippery slope that will return to haunt his family.

After his mother, under pressure from David, gives Anton up for adoption, the Colemans make him an official part of the family and, despite his skin tone, he becomes one of them: privileged, prep-school educated, ambitious, successful.

Like his father and grandfather before him, he attends Harvard, where he falls in love with an outspoken African-American woman who challenges him on his political beliefs: When they break up, she tells him, “I can’t decide if you’re the blackest white man I’ve ever met or the whitest black man.”

Her words arouse in Anton the cognitive dissonance inherent in the transracial adoptee experience, “a film of inauthenticity that clung to him. Black boy in a white school. Black boy with light skin and golden eyes who looked vaguely foreign…who dressed so preppy that the occasional black person he encountered in his rich neighborhood — maid, janitor, gardener — looked at him with puzzled eyes, trying to solve the riddle of him.”

But he represses his conflicted emotions, as he has been taught to do by his blueblood parents. Following in his father’s footsteps, he is elected attorney general, an Obama-like politician who transcends race. When his father suffers a career-ending heart attack, Anton runs to replace him as governor. But in the middle of a hectic, high-pressure campaign, he receives a letter from his birth mother and learns the ugly truth behind his adoption.

There are many flaws in the American adoption process that have been exposed by cases like that of Adam Crapser, Baby Veronica, or the boy who was sent back to Russia. But instead of exploring the weakness of American foster care and adoption policies, Umrigar chooses to use adoption as a vehicle to expose the arrogance of the white ruling class and the ongoing saga of black injustice.

At various points, Anton’s adoption is referred to as kidnapping and slavery, and David repeatedly asserts that he and his wife rescued, saved, and made a success of Anton. David employs the “broken windows theory” on Anton, refusing to let him accept failure, as when he employs some tough love to teach Anton how to ski.

Over and over again, David expects, and Anton readily delivers, gratitude and obedience for his life of ease and privilege. Over and over again, David scoffs at “the sanctity of the biological family unit.” Over and over again, the author asserts the supremacy of “the pull of blood.”

Though the author keeps the pages turning, she bludgeons the reader with her message, leaching tension from the narrative and turning her characters into paint-by-number caricatures. The reader is not permitted to reach her own conclusions, but is force-fed the repetitive messages of racial injustice, white privilege, and the imperative of biological ties. By insisting on doing the thinking for her readers, the author detracts from an absorbing and entertaining story, and the schmaltzy ending takes the novel into “Hallmark Channel Special” territory.

Alas, poor Anton is reduced to a trophy yet again, this time by his own well-meaning but misguided creator.

Alice Stephens is a transracial adoptee, but no trophy kid, and thanks her parents for not using the broken-windows method on her. She writes a regular column for the Independent, Alice in Wordland.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
The Origins of Cool in Postwar America
July 19th, 2017, 02:30 AM

What do we mean when we say someone is cool? The wealth of expressions that feature the word — cool beans, playing it cool, too cool for school, cool as a cucumber, a cool customer, to name just a few — usually imply a laidback attitude, someone who’s relaxed and confident with a touch of detachment.

A cool person understands who they are, projects it with confidence, and doesn’t really care much what we think about it.

But those who pioneered the emotionally controlled, individualistic sensibility we identify with cool had to navigate challenges associated with racism, homophobia, sexism, social conformity, and more.

In Joel Dinerstein’s The Origins of Cool in Postwar America, the author chronicles the evolving concept of cool in American culture in the two decades following World War II, as exemplified by groundbreaking artists from fields that include literature, jazz, film, and popular music.

In his examination of what we mean when we characterize a person as cool and how and why this concept emerged, Dinerstein, an English professor at Tulane University, engagingly illuminates the complex origins of the word and how its early icons responded to create the image and persona we recognize today.

According to Dinerstein, jazz saxophonist Lester Young first popularized the phrase “I’m cool” in the mid-1940s. “Given the racism of the Jim Crow era, Young meant something like ‘I’m keeping it together — in my psyche and spirit — amid oppressive social forces,’” he writes.

Styles and slang from the jazz subculture spread quickly, so “the word ‘cool’ was quickly adopted by writers and artists with an ear to both jazz and the street, such as Kerouac, Norman Mailer, and Leonard Bernstein.”  

Another Young fan who became the personification of loner/rebel cool is Clint Eastwood. As a teenager, he admired the soloing jazz artist who “creates spontaneous art on a blank aural canvas: this artistic practice imprinted Eastwood with a heroic ideal.” Eastwood’s notion of cool, according to film critic David Denby, “slightly aloof, giving only the central satisfaction and withholding everything else — is derived from those [jazz] musicians.”

Dinerstein goes on to explore many facets of cool via those who shaped the concept: Humphrey Bogart (“a symbol of the emotional costs of working through the instability and uncertainty of the sacrifices of the so-called Greatest Generation”); Billie Holiday (“Within her vocal artistry was pain and suffering, affirmation and survival: she gave the gift of dignity, acceptance, and freedom”); and the aforementioned Kerouac (“He was a seeker modeling a quest for spirituality through the creative process, literary practice, Buddhist methods, and African-American music”).  

Using theirs and others’ stories, he develops an ever-more-nuanced portrait of cool that progresses from film noir through Method acting and existentialism to rock ‘n’ roll, and features as examples Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, and James Dean, among others. There’s also a dissection of hip versus cool (Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are hip; Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll are cool) and a fascinating analysis of activist/author Lorraine Hansberry and her groundbreaking play, A Raisin in the Sun.

As the timeline advances, Dinerstein makes a case for the idea of cool pushing society forward into the cultural shifts of the 1960s: It was “a form of cultural politics necessary for the transition to social protest.”

He moves from Louis Armstrong’s stereotypical movie roles to independent films with interracial couples, and finally to the legacy heroic badasses, the Jason Bournes or Easy Rawlinses: “A solitary, cynical, lone wolf, familiar enough with his dark side and ethical anger to commit violently criminal acts on behalf of a nominally democratic system of justice.”

In the end, we have greater appreciation for the tremendous resilience and bravery of these pioneers as they navigate a compelling era — as well as the ways in which dramatic societal shifts demand that we all rise to the challenge. And gaining these insights from the thoughtful and entertaining analysis of a word is, well, cool.

Paula Novash writes and edits in disciplines that include neuroscience, philanthropy, and higher education. She can be reached at plnovash@gmail.com.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
On the Allure of Eros
July 19th, 2017, 02:30 AM

Plato’s Symposium (or Drinking Party) presents men of great importance discussing love as represented by the Greek god Eros. The book begins with an intro where clear thinking and good writing guide us to another reality, a text that’s readable, accessible, and enjoyable.  

In it, six notable men, including Socrates and Aristophanes, gather for a drinking spree. However, they’re all so hungover from the night before that they choose to exchange drinking for talk — taking turns arguing/exploring, one by one, a case for love, while defining themselves in the process.

Each party guest becomes a storyteller in a battle of ideas colored by his own personality. The poet Agathon hosts the group with verbal glitter; he’s a bit of a showboat. Agathon praises Eros as “happiness,” a blend of goodness, wisdom, and beauty (of course connected to his own art).

Aristophanes, the comedic playwright, gives us a myth about the beginnings of humankind, how we are all part of one original embodiment (with the proper mix of body parts) until some of us are sliced as women-loving men; other “slices” turn women toward women and men toward men.

Another guest, Pausanias, speaks of the virtues and vices of boy-love according to custom and convention. Eryximachus, a physician, begins with the body, “the filling up and emptying out,” and then moves onto cosmic love. Each man’s a prism with his own belief system, talking as much about his own self-creation as the form love takes.

While the speakers consider love as an otherworldly force, as well as a human condition, what of the most common thought: Love as sexual union. Does it cause happiness? Or is it need that brings us back for more?

Socrates, with tales of his own enlightenment, turns arguments inside-out with logic and wit. Most delightful is the12-page question-session between Socrates and his magical teacher, Diotima, and also the five-page dialogue between Agathon and Socrates, where the latter refutes the former’s ecstatic claims that love is all good, beautiful, and noble, and bursts that balloon of mindless chatter using philosophic rhetoric. A fascinating interchange, step by step.

Poet W.S. Merwin says, “Translation is impossible and yet we do it.” Any translation is a reimagined text, no matter how faithful, but I have nothing with which to compare this. And so I'm left with my own sensibilities.

When I read, I don’t want to slog through the incomprehensible or unfathomable. This book is an antidote. It’s a colloquial and silky read. Since the topic is love, Eros is the subject of physical and exotic love — sexual desire. But the inquiry leads beyond primal origins to the sublime, connecting to the soul.

We wonder how the classics remain relevant in our society, with Twitter and electronic images substituting for authenticity; where intellectual health is thought to be medicine. And although I’m a reader, I also watch trash TV; I like hip-hop and rock ‘n’ roll; I know the names of all the celebs and their ex-husbands — and this book has been the most exciting and fulfilling time I’ve spent this summer.

There’s an old folk adage, “God don’t like ugly,” and that’s what these great men ponder. The opening words in the book tell us: “Its theme is Eros — erotic love, the all-consuming passion that has inspired countless poems, plays, novels, songs, operas, and…even movies.” So you will see how wonderful it is to wake up to new notions of old definitions.

The translation of Symposium by world-class philosopher Eva Brann and renowned scholars Peter Kalkavage and Eric Salem should be in every college classroom, and, with today’s turbo kids, perhaps high schools. The second part of the book is an essay commenting on the dramatic frame of each episode, the speeches, and the characters. There’s also a schematic “conjectural” drawing depicting where each symposium guest was located. Bonuses like this are also in the glossary and appendices.

I thought if a part of this book were memorable, I’d put a sticker on the page; and here’s a book now with a sticker on every page, and one I’ll keep on my bedside table to pick up and read anywhere it opens.

There’ll always be something to make me think about because excellent conversation is never boring; humor and high spirits are the hydraulics for Symposium, which is one of the most important texts in human history. And this particular edition is a good gateway drug to reading other classics.

Grace Cavalieri is founder of “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio, now recorded at the Library of Congress. She’s celebrating 40 years on the air. Her new book, a compendium of poems, plays, and interviews, is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publishers).

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die
July 18th, 2017, 02:30 AM

One of the oddities I face as a writer after 35 years in national security is stumbling across the names of people I knew in the business. Raven Rock regularly surprised me by referencing men I worked under during my spy days. Most prominent were William Odom and Robert McNamara. Author Garrett M. Graff’s rendering of them matches my memory.

But these names are among scores cited. Raven Rock is more of a reference work than a book for leisurely reading. The “selected” bibliography — which means that it doesn’t include every source used — is six pages, the index 23, and the “Notes” 81.

In addition, every few pages, the reader finds footnotes marked by an asterisk (*) or a dagger (†); these notes offer additional information rather than source data. The book also includes dozens of photos of the personalities involved and places described. It’s a long, detailed, and beautifully researched volume.

The text is a meticulous history, starting at the beginning of World War II, of the U.S. government’s efforts to assure “continuity of government.” That is, continuing governance during a war in which the seats of government and the people who govern are rendered inoperable. The most elaborate means of survival followed the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the USSR and involved mobile command platforms (airborne and seaborne), as well as hardened redoubts capable of withstanding first the atom bomb, then the hydrogen bomb.

The two principal safe retreats were Raven Rock, in Adams County, Pennsylvania, just north of the Maryland state line and not far from Camp David; and Mount Weather, 50 miles west of Washington, DC, in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Almost of equal importance was the Greenbrier, “One of the nation’s poshest and most storied mountain retreats,” in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, some 200 miles southwest of the capital. All three sites — and a variety of others — required digging deep into mountains to establish protection from a thermonuclear blast.

Equally important in the “continuity of government” scheme was the protection of “designated survivors,” presidential successors who could assume the highest office immediately if the incumbent were killed in an enemy blitzkrieg.

That meant assuring that a named successor would not attend events that might be subject to attack, such as a presidential address, a joint session of Congress, or a swearing-in of the president. The chosen successor, by the 1990s, “would receive a full Secret Service detail, and a White House aide would arrive with a copy of the Football in case the unthinkable happened and the ‘designated survivor’ needed to be ready to launch the nation’s nuclear weapons.”

The “Football” is “a little black bag” technically known as the “presidential emergency satchel.” It contains the means to launch nuclear weapons without delay. As Graff explains, “The modern version of the Football is less a satchel than a portable safe — a rugged aluminum briefcase, covered in black” that weighs 45 pounds. It goes everywhere with the president.

The history of the U.S. government’s struggle to be prepared to remain operational despite a calamitous strike includes all three branches, a plethora of agencies, and governmental bodies other than federal. Graff’s text is resplendent with code names and acronyms, and although the author carefully explains each the first time it occurs (and occasionally reminds the reader of the underlying meanings), I had considerable trouble remembering what stood for what.

After the breakup of the USSR (1989-1991), U.S. work on continuity-of-government waned, but the attacks of September 11, 2001, led to a redoubling of the effort. Much of that effort’s current status is heavily classified, so Graff is not able to provide much insight into the present-day arrangements.

Moreover, the text of the book was presumably completed before President Trump took office. Consequently, what he may be doing with respect to survival and presidential succession remains unknown. We do know that the Football, like his shadow, goes everywhere with him.

Overall, Raven Rock is a satisfying read, especially for a student of U.S. governmental history. My only real criticism is the title for including the words: “While the Rest of Us Die.” First of all, the prospect of protecting some 320 million people during a nuclear holocaust is hopelessly unrealistic and was never the intent of those designing the continuity-of-government strategy. Second, the book never addresses the feasibility or desirability of such an effort. I suspect, having been through melees with publishers over titles, that Simon & Schuster altered Graff’s original title.

One question still haunts me after reading Graff’s narrative: Did Ronald Reagan really seriously contemplate a first-strike nuclear assault against the Soviet Union? Press reports of the period hint broadly that he did. And nothing in Graff’s story either contradicts or confirms the possibility. I’m left to wonder.

That speculation leads to another thought. Throughout the history of the continuity-of-government operations, the wisdom and firm leadership of a variety of presidents and other statesmen have shaped plans and preparations. But we’ve never before had a president like Donald Trump. I can’t help but ponder what may be going on behind the scenes now.

[Editor’s note: Garrett M. Graff will read from and discuss Raven Rock at the National Archives in Washington, DC, at noon today. Click here for info.]

Tom Glenn’s most recent novel, Last of the Annamese, is set during the fall of Saigon which he survived. He spent 35 years in U.S. national security before becoming a full-time writer.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
An Interview with Mike Scalise
July 18th, 2017, 02:30 AM

In Mike Scalise’s memoir, The Brand New Catastrophe, illness is a competitive sport. His mother suffers from a chronic heart condition, which leaves her the undisputed “best sick person” in the family until Mike is felled by a ruptured brain tumor on the pituitary gland at age 24.

In the ensuing years, the two navigate their relationships with each other, their loved ones, and their medical communities. Hilarious and insightful, Mike’s prose takes us on a journey that ultimately demonstrates our ability to weave stories as a weapon with which to combat our own human frailty.

Mike and I met at George Mason University in a Creative Nonfiction MFA program. We recently reconnected when he was in DC for his book tour. The following is adapted from a conversation online.

When I read Brand New Catastrophe, I thought of Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, which examines how her ever-changing appearance due to reconstructive surgeries after cancer impacted her identity. How important was exploring that physical/psychological relationship in writing your memoir?

It's so nice you thought of Grealy. I really admire the way she situates her illness in Autobiography of a Face, exploring a kind of unique double-tension when it comes to appearance. Who am I to the people who see me? and Who am I to my own eyes? Both can prove very elusive in the wake of a body-shifting illness. I can't speak for what pulled Grealy toward that territory, but for me, it was a persistent sense that my body had slowly ambushed itself without me (or anyone) noticing.

It produced a very useless stew of guilt, frustration, and a feeling of nebulous betrayal that forever blurred the line between where a disease ends and a person begins. It was important to explore that in the book, especially because that visual duality remains such an unresolvable thing for me — and perhaps other diagnosed acromegalics, too.

I had the pleasure of hearing an early draft of the scene about your father sending you porn. (It was a very memorable part of our graduate reading.) Can you talk about how that that scene eventually became part of your memoir?

There are two answers to this question, one smart, and one true. The "smart answer": It's a behavior my father displayed in the wake of my diagnosis that unlocked surprising, essential aspects of both of our characters. The event you're talking about — after learning I had lost all my testosterone, my father emailed me weekly PowerPoint presentations loaded with pornography — first materialized in an essay I wrote in grad school, where you heard it. It contained too much info about my father's most revealing motivations that it was impossible, later, to leave it out of the memoir. From there, it was just a matter of making it fit.

That's the smart answer. The true answer is that if you have a father who emails you hardcore porn every Friday in the form a PowerPoint presentation, it is written in The Rules of the Modern Family Memoir that you must write about it. I would have been fired from writing if I didn't include it.

Illness often doesn’t have an end point, but a memoir needs a conclusion. At what point did you realize your book would finish with the scene it did?

I'll keep things as vague as possible as to not give too much away, but the answer to this is "as it happened." While writing, the book had been stalled at about the halfway point for reasons I couldn't figure out. The writing worked, and I knew that, but I couldn't see a way forward for a long time, which felt strange, considering the book is made up of events that happened to me.

Then someone I trust said, "Well, maybe you haven't lived the end yet," which was right. But it also turned me into this horrible life vampire, searching every day for hints of what might wrap up the book. So, when that opportunity came, I was mentally ready and had been seeing reflections of the book's threads and themes in my day-to-day life for many, many months. And then, these curious symmetries began to emerge. That's the best way I can put it without spoiling anything.

Your book has landed on lists for best memoirs about illness, healthcare, and mommy issues, but my favorite thread is the one about the power of storytelling. Could you talk about how that trope shaped your work?

It's funny you use the term "shaped," because that's exactly what happened. I had a draft of disconnected anecdotes, and I liked them, but I couldn't bring them all together for some reason. There was no binding element, or at least one that worked for the story I aimed to tell. I felt very lost. So I went back to the very first thing I wrote about my tumor — this acerbic, meta, how-to manual about socially navigating a medical catastrophe. It wasn't good writing, but it had this confidence that I no longer possessed. A kind of certainty that seems only possible in the fog of youth.

So I took one line from it — "Telling a good catastrophe anecdote means becoming a maestro of sympathy" — and started to use that voice to build these "lessons" about how to tell disaster stories. It provided that perspective and backbone to the book that I had been looking for. It also allowed me to put that kind of confidence on trial and structure the book as a firm interrogation to figure out where it went, and why.

What is next for you, writing wise? 

A ton of stuff, mostly fictional. I'm happily juggling a bunch of projects, none of them about brain tumors or hormones. It’s exciting.

Wendy Besel Hahn’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Sojourners, Redivider, and elsewhere. She lives in Reston, VA, and is working on a memoir about growing up non-Mormon in Utah.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
The Forgotten Girl: A Novel
July 17th, 2017, 02:30 AM

In this era of genre splitting, there are pluses and minuses to being labeled a “supernatural thriller.” On Amazon, for example, there are six times fewer books listed in this category than “suspense thrillers.” There are even more books in “supernatural science fiction” and “supernatural mysteries.”

Yet, with this diminished competition, one assumes, comes a greater opportunity to gain readers; in the case of Rio Youers’ new supernatural thriller, The Forgotten Girl, I’m guessing anyone who picks it up will be glad they did.

Don’t let the “S” word put you off. While some characters have mystical abilities, the novel’s protagonist-narrator, Harvey Anderson, does not. It’s his willingness to accept that such an ability exists while ignoring his own paranormal shortcomings that generates the story’s drama and makes us root for the hero.

Anderson describes himself as a 21st-century hippie. He tells us in chapter one that he avoids confrontations and has “zero capacity for violence.” Of course, we can guess he’s going to face plenty of both…and soon.

When eight thugs kidnap and beat Harvey before explaining what they’re after, we’re anxious to find out what’s going on. Then, when he discovers he’s lost all memory of the woman he supposedly lived with for the past five years, we know he’s going to try to find her, even though he has reason to expect confrontations and violence as his quest’s likely companions.

The author describes The Forgotten Girl as a 20-year dream, and the novel offers all the elements thriller readers enjoy: gut-wrenching suspense, really bad bad guys, an intrepid protagonist, and even a love story.

What places The Forgotten Girl a step ahead of the average thriller is the way Youers undergirds the supernatural with plausibility. He makes us believe there really are people with the sort of abilities Harvey’s evil mentor possesses, then weaves a story that’s more about the protagonist’s drive to overcome his pacifist outlook than his own psychic deficiencies.

Unlike some thrillers that race along at Mach 5 so the reader doesn’t have time to look too closely at their house-of-cards premises, Girl takes us deep into Harvey’s mind as he wrestles with the implications of his lost girlfriend and what those searching for her will do to find her. This ratchets up the tension and keeps us turning page after page until the satisfying and logical, but nevertheless surprising, conclusion.

Youers offers some wonderful turns of phrase, such as “eyes like hands” and “my tiny superhero cape.” I do have to quibble with the occasional misstep, such as Harvey’s doing Ashtanga yoga right after eating breakfast or recognizing, in a photo, a specific kind of sauce stain on an apron.

Still, my objections are few and minor when compared to the pluses of the rollercoaster ride Youers takes us on. Whether you’re into the supernatural or not, if you like thrillers, you won’t want to miss this one.

Peter G. Pollak is the author of five self-published thrillers. Prior to retiring to write fiction, he was a journalist, educator, and entrepreneur.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
Tragic Beauty
July 17th, 2017, 02:30 AM

“To realise one’s nature perfectly — that is what each of us is here for.” So says Lord Henry Wotton to Dorian Gray and Basil Hallwood. The three men are gathered at Basil’s studio where he is painting a portrait of the young and impressionable Dorian. Lord Henry (called Harry) is an old friend of Basil’s, and he has taken a dark interest in Basil’s handsome subject.

As Basil paints Dorian’s portrait, his deep affection for the beautiful young man sifts into the work. At the same moment, Harry, a hedonistic dandy, bewitches Dorian with his slick moral inversions: “Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification.”  

It’s in this triadically charged atmosphere — filial, homoerotic, metaphysical — where Basil and Harry give rise to the terribly delicious persona of Dorian Gray through their respective feelings of love and desire.

Dorian’s beauty, once interpreted by Basil and realized by Dorian himself, becomes a living artform. Under Harry’s growing influence, Dorian prioritizes style and pleasure and jettisons conventional ethics in favor of excess.

Which begs the question: Just whose “nature” does Dorian realize? The values he lives out belong to Harry, and it’s Basil’s admiration that Dorian uses to fuel his conquests. In short, Dorian Gray is corrupted by his makers.

With each tragic act Dorian initiates (e.g., the suicide of his love interest, Sibyl Vane, and the subsequent ruin of many men and women), the portrait of Dorian grows increasingly ugly, while he himself remains young and unchanged over the course of nearly two decades.  

The ever-available lesson about being one’s self is at play in The Picture of Dorian Gray, as is a conventional moral fable, assuming one doesn’t read too closely.

Author Oscar Wilde, who was Roman Catholic in sensation long before he was Roman Catholic in proclamation, uses this philosophical book to examine his own “trinities.” First, how the alchemy of love, desire, and self-consciousness can forge a persona; second, a thorough-going and complex look at the connections between art, life, and the soul.

Early in Dorian’s courtship with Sibyl, he invites Harry to see one of her plays. “She spiritualises them,” Dorian tells Harry, describing Sibyl’s acting as pure artistry. But when Sibyl falls deeply in love with Dorian, all the passion is drained from her performance; life has a deleterious effect on her art.

Basil is another character who is described as a true artist, and, indeed, he dies near his painting, minutes after gazing upon the soul of Dorian Gray. Harry, on the other hand, is the only central character in the book who isn’t destroyed by his own art. His artistic instinct takes the form of witty conversation, a construct that enmeshes itself in life instead of going to war with it. Fitting, because despite his unnerving aphorisms, Harry is the most conservative character, and, for his cowardice, the only one to survive.

Dorian’s art is his everlasting beauty. Unlike the other characters, he doesn’t have to work to sustain or develop his talent. As a result, his art becomes a solipsistic thing in and of itself, discharged and renewed through the pleasures he indulges.

The lengthy orgy of senses Dorian engages in — perfume-making and silk-bound books, not to mention frequent visits to drug houses and other establishments of ill-repute — is paid for via the ongoing erosion of his soul, which decays in real time within the confines of its picture frame.

That Dorian is given a literal vista into the spirit world confirms for him the soul’s existence. “The soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought, and sold, and bartered away. It can be poisoned or made perfect. There is a soul in each of us.”

Basil’s dead body, slumped over in a chair and void of its animating principle, is referred to by Dorian as a “thing.” When Dorian tries to destroy his own soul by attacking the painting, he absorbs at once his accumulated sins, thus restoring the portrait to its perfect condition with one cataclysmic thrust.

Wilde countered the attacks on his work by including a commandment-style preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. He preaches proper interpretation of his book — a risky move because writers seldom see the full extent of what they’ve created. He writes, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.” And “the morality of art consists of perfect use of an imperfect medium.”

Wilde’s contradictory attempts to convert readers to an amoral ethic of art only underscores the extent to which Judeo-Christian values had closed in around him. As with Harry’s moral subversions, opposition is not transcendence but a type of reinforcement. Whatever Wilde’s views on artistic philosophy, it’s an Old Testament version of justice that prevails at the end of this story.

“Each of us has heaven and hell in him,” says Dorian Gray. Perhaps he realized his true nature after all. 

Dorothy Reno is a senior review editor and classics columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her short fiction has been published in literary journals in Canada and the United States. She lives in Tbilisi, (former republic of) Georgia. If you would like to share your thoughts on The Picture of Dorian Gray, please respond in the comments section of this article. Dorothy hopes you’ll join her in reading The Golden Dog, a Canadian classic which will be the subject of her next column in September.                              

 Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!       
Meet David Daley
July 17th, 2017, 02:30 AM

Lauded as a “compelling” (The New Yorker) and “eye-opening tour of a process that many Americans never see” (Washington Post), David Daley’s Ratf**ked documents the effort of Republican legislators and political operatives to hack American democracy through an audacious redistricting plan called REDMAP. Since the revolutionary election of Barack Obama, a group of GOP strategists has devised a way to flood state races with a gold rush of dark money, made possible by Citizens United, in order to completely reshape Congress — and our democracy itself. “Sobering and convincing” (New York Review of Books), Ratf**ked shows how this program has radically altered America’s electoral map and created a firewall in the House, insulating the Republican party and its wealthy donors from popular democracy.

David Daley is the editor in chief of Salon and the Digital Media Fellow for the Wilson Center for Humanities and the Arts and the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

At Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC. Click here for info.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
Only the Dead Know Brooklyn: A Novel
July 16th, 2017, 02:30 AM

I’ve been looking for another reader-friendly vampire story ever since I came across Susan Hubbard’s The Season of Risks, the third installment of her Ethical Vampire series seven years ago.

Assessing that YA novel, I wrote about “the special appeal of the vampire craze to young adults. Who feels more like an outsider than a thoughtful teenager? Who feels more unsettled than someone going through a sequence of identity adjustments?”

Chris Vola’s Only the Dead Know Brooklyn, aimed at a somewhat older audience than Hubbard’s, has many virtues. His descriptions of vampire hunger, physical and weaponized battles, degrees of pain, supernatural healing, secret hiding places, and Brooklyn and Manhattan neighborhoods are memorable (though I wish they weren’t).

Ultimately, however, the novel is not reader-friendly. This is too bad, because Vola has an amazing eye for detail, a dazzling imagination, and a provocative premise.

Vola plumbs the scales of curiosity, motivation, and satisfaction as he contrasts vampire immortals with mere mortals who wittingly or unwittingly come into relationships with the vampires, usually as donors.

He imagines vampire viruses that circumscribe the geographical range of vampire existence. Members of the Brooklyn tribe, like 128-year-old central character Ryan Driggs, can only thrive (if that’s what vampires do) in Brooklyn.

Before he was “turned” into a vampire, Ryan was dying of lung cancer. If he returns to human mortality, he returns to that fatal condition.

Vola also imagines an ongoing war between the Brooklyn tribe and the Manhattan tribe, a war in which Ryan’s human girlfriend, Jennifer, is kidnapped. Ryan’s search for Jennifer, and for his ultimate identity and destiny, leads him to taking extreme risks, crossing borders of all kinds.

The author provides a large cast of supporting characters. Betrayal is such a major theme in this book that it is often hard for Ryan, let alone the reader, to know whom to trust. The most intriguing female character is Nicki, at once alluring and lethal. Paling in comparison are Vanessa, Arianna, Natalia, and Fiona — a bland quartet of sonically matched walk-ons.

The male characters are more sharply individualized, mainly in terms of their places in the hierarchies of blood and power and historical significance with which Ryan must contend. But, still, it’s hard to care about them. In fact, through too much of the book, it’s hard to care about Ryan.

The characters seem stuck in a kind of prolonged adolescence, whether they are immortals or donors. Even a willingness to sacrifice for others comes across with less force than one might expect. With respect to the immortals, perhaps the possibility of eternal life makes growing up irrelevant.

Enriching the paranormal flavor of Only the Dead Know Brooklyn is the quest for eight artifacts endowed with devastating energy. These statues, bearing jaguar iconography, are valued as the keys to dominance. Vola provides rich passages evoking that power and the thrill of using it.

The eternals are involved in various kinds of collusion with government officials and criminals bound in unsteady and unholy alliances based on…I’m not sure what. Let’s say the desire for power.

Once again, I just don’t care. That’s the problem.

For all his skill, perhaps because of it, Chris Vola overwrites. His descriptions and explanations go on too long, losing focus and solidity as they expand. While much of the novel’s dialogue has force, it is too obviously exposition in disguise.

Here’s my problem. I sense an enormous talent here. I admire Vola’s ambition and his vision. I just can’t find my way into a reading experience that holds my interest and propels me forward. Of course I read the entire book, but I rarely found myself wishing to turn the page or enter the next chapter. Over and over, I felt myself being pushed out.

I sincerely hope that Chris Vola’s other readers enjoy a different kind of experience. It could be that I am simply the wrong reader for this book. But maybe not.

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.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family’s Quest to Bring Him Home
July 15th, 2017, 02:30 AM

The Jersey Brothers is both a history book and a memoir. Author Sally Mott Freeman’s main theme is her attempt to learn what happened to her uncle Burton in the Pacific Theater during WWII. Using short, interspersed chapters of family, military history, and related topics, she also highlights the wartime careers of her uncles.

Burton Cross, along with his two older half-brothers, Bill (Freeman’s father) and Benny Mott, served as naval officers during the war. As a favor to their doting mother, the brothers attempted to protect Burton by getting him a non-combat assignment in the Philippines. They succeeded, but Burton was eventually captured by the Japanese after the surrender of the Philippines and never returned home.

Burton and his injured fellow naval officers and sailors were abandoned in Manila after General Douglas MacArthur surrendered and escaped from the Philippines. MacArthur rescued only his injured Army soldiers, intentionally leaving behind the remaining hospitalized Navy personnel to fend for themselves.

The POWs were brutalized by the Japanese. The author describes the prison life and cruel treatment they endured. Escapes were rare. If captured, both the escapees and the remaining POWs were severely punished. A few POWs did escape with the help of anti-Japanese guerilla forces. Some got back to headquarters in Australia and then to America.

These survivors gave detailed testimony describing the inhumane treatment they endured. Unfortunately, the material was so graphic that the military concealed the information until it was finally leaked and published in the New York Times. The POWs’ report was read aloud by General George Marshall at the Allies’ 1943 Quebec Conference to urge the British to increase their support for the war in the Pacific. Unfortunately, it came too late for Burton and his fellow prisoners.

As Freeman recounts, plans to rescue the POWs were made but were frustrated and delayed by rival egos and bureaucrats at MacArthur’s headquarters. After extensive discussion and preparation, the rescue plans were scuttled because the prisoners had been moved by the Japanese.

The author’s naval family ties are clear. She relates the internecine rivalries between the Navy and the Army commands in the Pacific. MacArthur is described as a no-holds-barred, tone-deaf, egotistical hindrance when it came to following orders from anyone or cooperating with the Navy. (It’s ironic, then, that the MacArthur Memorial Archives are located in the Navy town of Norfolk, VA.)

Much of the book is also a paean to the author’s father, Bill Mott. As a Naval Academy graduate during the Depression, he was not offered a commission upon graduation. Instead, he worked in the U.S. Patent Office and attended law school at night. After finally receiving a commission as a reserve officer, he went on active duty. Bill had a successful first assignment in intelligence working in the White House Map Room.

In the White House, Bill had direct dealings with Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and most of the top military brass. Feeling guilty about this safe assignment, he applied for sea duty to get into the “real” war.

Despite the reluctance of Roosevelt to let him leave, Bill was assigned to the flagship USS Rocky Mount as a military lawyer and intelligence specialist. There, he was involved in the planning and invasion of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He stayed in service after the war and ultimately retired as a rear admiral and chief of the Navy JAG.

The eldest Mott brother, Benny, was immersed in some of the most ferocious naval battles in the Pacific. He was a skilled gunnery officer responsible for the Sky Deck on the USS Enterprise during the Battle of Midway. At Midway, the battle group experienced relentless attacks by the Japanese air force and ships.

At the end of the three-day engagement, the U.S. had won an extraordinary victory, having sunk four Japanese carriers and a heavy cruiser. Bill and other gunnery personnel shot down over 300 enemy aircraft. However, the fight was also extremely costly to the American fleet and their aircraft. The USS Enterprise was severely damaged but was able to limp back to Pearl Harbor.

The author spent an extraordinary 10 years researching The Jersey Brothers. She traveled around the world reviewing records and interviewing POW survivors of the Japanese camps. Unfortunately, too many “irresistible” facts and stories from her extensive research muddy the flow of the book.

The tale is a kaleidoscope of her family’s involvement in the war, the battles in the Pacific, and the civilian and military politics of that time. All interesting material, but the overall result feels rather disjointed. Freeman’s attempt to create suspense by withholding details of Burton’s fate until the book’s end also seems contrived and ineffective.  

This book has some wonderful military history and wartime material, but it could’ve used a slashing red pencil and a substantial reorganization.

Paul D. Pearlstein is a retired lawyer and aspiring writer.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
So Much Blue: A Novel
July 14th, 2017, 02:30 AM

In So Much Blue, our narrator, Kevin Pace, is an aging artist who has been working on a painting, an enormous canvas covered in shades of blue, which he keeps secret from his wife, his children, and his best friend, Richard.

As he recounts three pivotal stages of his life, the reasons for his covert art reveal themselves, and Kevin must come to terms with the consequences of his decisions and how they fuel or hinder his art.

The novel leaps between three time-periods: 1979, where Kevin and Richard travel to El Salvador in search of Richard’s troubled brother; 10 years ago, in Paris, where Kevin meets a young seductress in a café; and the present day, where Kevin struggles to keep his marriage together after his daughter confides in him her own secrets.

The three narrative threads feel disparate at the novel’s beginning, with little in common beyond their shared narrator, but they slowly begin to coalesce and inform each other, revealing and clarifying what makes Kevin tick, and what motivates him to conceal his masterpiece.

The 1979 sections feel the most urgent because of Richard’s lost brother. It’s the plotline with the most obvious stakes.

As artist and academic, respectively, Kevin and Richard are in way over their heads in a country on the verge of civil war. How will they find a missing person here when they can hardly speak the language? They have few leads and zero clues.

It’s when they recruit the help of a private investigator known as The Bummer — a hard-drinking, hard-cursing Vietnam vet who compulsively takes brief naps — the novel strikes its highest comedy. The Bummer intimidates the other men with his short temper and crassness, but they quickly begin to wonder if he’s as competent at finding missing persons as he proclaims.

The Paris sections are charged with the familiar trope of an impending extramarital affair. Kevin has traveled to the French city for work, alone and far from his wife and kids (of course). When he meets Victoire, the recognizable beats of the infidelity narrative might appear hackneyed if not for Kevin’s hyper-self-awareness and self-deprecation.

This awareness makes for an ironic, tragicomic exploration of what happens when a person realizes he has become a living cliché. Kevin knows how all of this looks, but that doesn’t change his behavior, only his self-image (worse) and level of guilt (higher). Like in the 1979 sections, his interiority is at odds not just with his surroundings, but also his own decisions. There is humor, but never without a leftover tang of sorrow.

The present-day sections further complicate the other plots by suggesting that Kevin has been damaged by his past: he obsessively works on a single massive painting, and yet he keeps it hidden from the people closest to him. His marriage is on the rocks, and his relationship with his children lacks warmth.

When his daughter comes to him with a secret, Kevin’s precarious familial dynamics are put to the test, forcing him to confront his past in El Salvador and Paris.

All three plotlines are markedly distinct, and this makes for a vertiginous reading experience — the stark jumps are, at first, difficult to keep up with. But the contrast creates a delightful suspense: We know Kevin gets out of these jams, but we don’t yet know how.

The book spirals around one resigned artist and his unique inner world, but the way his histories fold into one another, firing off unexpected connections and revelations, appeals to the universal human experience.

Author Everett writes with wit and precision. His sentences have the whimsical acrobatics of Michael Chabon, but their restraint and caution recall Denis Johnson. That is not to say that Everett isn’t his own writer, because, in fact, his distinct narrative voice is part of why So Much Blue is such a fun page-turner.

As the narrator, Kevin gets the best lines. He speaks with a voice sharpened for linguistic battle, even in chitchat. For example, he regularly reports his realizations in this fashion: “I was reminded by listening to myself that my charm, what charm there was, lay in my utter lack of charm.”

And when he gets stuck in a conversation with a Yale professor of English about whether or not painting is a language:

“He said something about art not being able to write its own grammar, but rather betrays it in its invention. My response to this was cognac. And when I was good and drunk, I said, ‘A painting is not meant to signify, but to show.’ When I saw him on his heels from my first salvo of nonsense I finished him off with ‘The semantic function of a painting is not a criterion of its aesthetic quality.’ The hit was complete. Had I been a real mafioso I would have slept with his wife.”

Percival Everett has written almost 30 books, a robust body of work by any measure. If So Much Blue is any indication of where he is headed, there very well could be 30 more in the offing. He’s got a great sense of timing, punchy dialogue, engaging characters, and incisive sentences. I will read whatever he writes. You should, too, starting with this one.

Nathan Blanchard is an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. His work has appeared in the Missouri Review, decomP, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. He was the runner-up in the comedy category for the 2016 Miller Audio Prize.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
Summer Sundays with Monica Hesse
July 14th, 2017, 02:30 AM

Join Curious Iguana for Summer Sundays, a series of author talks and book signings presented in partnership with Frederick County Public Libraries.

About the author:

Monica Hesse is a features writer for The Washington Post and the author of Girl in the Blue Coat, a young adult novel set in Nazi-era Amsterdam. She was a finalist for a Livingston Award in local reporting and the James Beard Award in humor. Her newest book, American Fire (Liveright, $26.95,) released July 11th.

About the book:

Five months. 67 counts of arson. Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse heads to Accomack County on the Eastern Shore of Virginia to follow the trial of Charlie Smith. Over two years of reporting, Hesse uncovered the motives of Smith, a recovering addict, and his struggling accomplice, girlfriend Tonya Bundick. In depicting their tumultuous relationship, Hesse literarily resurrects a once-thriving coastal community and its distressed inhabitants, decimated by a punishing economy and increasingly terrified by a string of inexplicable crimes. Garnering comparisons to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Dreamland by Sam Quinones, American Fire re-creates the anguished nights this quiet county lit up in flames and incorporates the long-overlooked history of arson in the United States.

Event is free and open to the public; no registration required. Books will be available for purchase and signing at event.

At the C. Burr Artz Public Library, 110 E. Patrick St., Frederick, MD. Click here for info.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
Bedtime Stories: July 2017
July 14th, 2017, 02:30 AM

Tim Wendel:

In difficult times, a familiar voice can make all the difference. So with the country being pulled apart at the seams, my nightstand has become populated not only with new works but several old favorites, as well.

Many of Alan Furst’s books are set in Europe on the eve of World War II. I’m currently reading The Polish Officer, where the backdrop is Warsaw soon after the city falls to Hitler’s Wehrmacht. It’s up to Captain Alexander de Milja to transport the nation’s gold reserve to safety. As Furst did so well in Kingdom of Shadows, Dark Voyage, and Night Soldiers, his stories are about everyday people buffeted by forces much larger than themselves. Invariably, they demonstrate more heroism and compassion than the generals, presidents, or prime ministers.

In the fall, I’ll be teaching a course at Johns Hopkins about prize-winning books in science and culture. That gives me the excuse to check out Monica Hesse’s amazing American Fire and Elizabeth Kolbert’s thought-provoking The Sixth Extinction. Yet right now I’m rereading another favorite, Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel. For me, it remains one of the cornerstones of creative nonfiction.

Richard Peabody, the longtime editor of Gargoyle, is a DC institution and an amazing writer and poet, too. The Richard Peabody Reader came out in 2015 and it has been on my nightstand ever since.

A friend who teaches high school English once gave me Baseball: A Literary Anthology, edited by Nicholas Dawidoff. With everyone from Ring Lardner and Red Smith to Richard Ford and Philip Roth along for the ride, it’s become the perfect tonic for a season when no lead is safe with the Washington Nationals’ bullpen.

Several years ago, my son moved to the West Coast, and when I miss him, I take up Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco. Part walking tour, part rambling history, Kamiya takes the reader from Coit Tower to Land’s End in the magical city that I once called home, too. Each chapter stands on its own, offering vivid descriptions and insights about a particular part of San Francisco. Most of the entries are only a half-dozen pages or so, and after I finish reading another, I’ll close my eyes and picture my son walking along those same streets or riding a trolley car to the stars. For a moment, I am alongside him again.

A writer-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University, Tim Wendel is the author of 13 books, including Summer of ’68, High Heat, and Castro’s Curveball: A Novel. His stories have appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic, Gargoyle, Washingtonian, GQ, and Esquire. His new book, Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors and the Quest to Cure Childhood Leukemia, will be out early next year. 

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
A Novel Undertaking
July 13th, 2017, 02:30 AM

When I first contemplated writing novels, I was very insecure.

It wasn’t because I couldn’t write. After all, I had written hundreds (maybe thousands) of articles for various newspapers (including the New York Times), won journalism awards, and even was featured in a couple of anthologies.

As a two-fingered typist (which I still am), I could knock off a thousand words or more lickety-split that rarely needed much editing before they were published. It didn’t matter if I was using an IBM Selectric (remember those?) or a computer, I could write a story if I had the facts. I’m not bragging. That’s just the way it was. Believe me, I wish I could hit a golf ball with such facility.

But I knew that writing fiction would be different.

(Now is the time for all the snarky remarks about how working for the Times is good training for writing fiction. That’s not true, but get it out of your system if it makes you feel better.)

So, I did what many nervous nascent novelists do. I started reading various books on writing by famous and not-so-famous authors of both fiction and nonfiction.

The “not-so” books were generally written by folks out to make a quick buck. They had titles like How to Write a Bestseller in Seven Days, or How to Write a Bestseller in the Shower, or How I Made a Million Dollars Writing Amazon E-Books. I didn’t spend a lot of money on these. Many I got from the library. Those that sold for 99 cents on Amazon now reside in my Kindle. Believe it or not, some of the advice was good, particularly on how to promote books.

But the books I found most useful were by those by authors I admire. I actually bought the print versions, which should tell you something. I won’t go into detail on any of them in this column (but will in later ones). In no particular order, they are:

How to Write by Richard Rhodes. Rhodes supported his family and put two kids through college writing magazine articles (for Playboy, Rolling Stone, and the like) before becoming famous for his books, including The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which won the Pulitzer Prize and is the most interesting history of physics I’ve ever read. Rhodes is such a craftsman, I read it twice.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing. Basically, a series of letters, divided by chapters according to subject, that Hemingway wrote to editors, other writers, family, and friends in which he explained his philosophy of writing and commented, sometimes very candidly, on the writing of others. The New Yorker just did a nice piece on Hemingway, arguing that while he has fallen out of favor, he probably shouldn’t have. His naysayers claim he was overrated. At his best, he proved they are.

The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates. The New York Times said: “Who better than Joyce Carol Oates to explicate the craft of writing?” I agree, even if I had to look up the meaning of “explicate.”

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. When you write 30 worldwide bestsellers, attention must be paid. Worth it just to learn of King’s struggles to get published.

The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing by Norman Mailer. Why spooky? Mailer says: “There is no routine of an office to keep you going, only the blank page each morning, and you never know where your words are coming from, those divine words.” I’m not a big Mailer fan, but truer words have never been written. His discussion of first person versus third person is also great.

On Literature by Umberto Eco. Novelist, critic, philosopher, semiotician, and university professor Eco, who died last year, is most famous for The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery set in an Italian abbey in 1372. Great book and great movie (starring, of all people, James Bond; I mean, Sean Connery, as Brother William of Baskerville who arrives from England to investigate). On Literature is a collection of Eco’s essays and lectures. Translated from Italian, it proves that there is no language barrier to great writing. (And, yes, I also looked up “semiotician”; it means someone who’s an expert on “signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior.”)

I also have several other books on writing, some of which have collected the thoughts of many writers. I will save those for future columns, as well.

Lawrence De Maria, once a Pulitzer-nominated New York Times reporter, has just released his 17th self-published novel, Shadow of the Black Womb, an Alton Rhode mystery, on Amazon.com. His books are available at ST. AUSTIN’S PRESS (BOOKS BY DE MARIA). He is now thinking about writing How to Write a Bestseller While Three-Putting.    

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness
July 13th, 2017, 02:30 AM

Think how unhappy we would be if happiness were so easy to find. Would the classic romantic comedy formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back ever have been so popular? Would the Pharrell Williams song “Happy” ever have been a hit? And would Paula Poundstone ever have graced us with her new book, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness?

Poundstone, the longtime stand-up comic and frequent panelist on NPR’s weekly comedy quiz “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” is certainly well qualified to go on this search. Not only did she have to rebuild her personal life, but she also had to rebuild her career following legal troubles and a six-month stint in rehab for alcoholism in 2001.

It’s hard not to root for Poundstone. She’s funny, observant, and sentimental as she spends seven years conducting a variety of experiments to find a small amount of happiness, known as a “hep,” or a lot of happiness, known as a “balou.” In case you’re wondering, those terms are in honor of her old cats Hepcat and Balou.

The experiments may be unscientific, but each chapter is filled with terms — like quantitative and qualitative — that make Poundstone sound like she has a Ph.D. in scientific humor. Additional scientific terms range from field notes, analysis, and procedure to variables, environment, and conclusion.

Poundstone begins her book with the “Get Fit” experiment, which ostensibly centers around her effort to get physically fit by taking taekwondo lessons. One of her first qualitative observations is that “the door to the taekwondo studio seemed much heavier on the way out.”

But we learn quite a bit more in the book’s first chapter. Poundstone introduces us to her three adopted children: Toshia, who has cerebral palsy, Alley, and Thomas E. In fact, throughout the book, Poundstone speaks lovingly of their achievements, foibles, and tolerance of her.

For instance, during her “Get Earthy” experiment, Poundstone quips that she thinks “sometimes I’m annoying to Toshia.” In the experiment, Poundstone takes her daughter on a backpacking trip in the Angeles National Forest, though everyone she discusses it with thinks she’s nuts, no doubt because of Toshia’s physical challenges.

Of course, they survive. And we even find out that “after you pee like a man, you don’t ask for directions.”

Other experiments in The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness may not involve as much exercise, but they offer plenty of opportunities for Poundstone to stretch her comedic view of herself and the world.

Consider the “Get Warm and Fuzzy” experiment. Poundstone says she’s longing for real connection, so she goes in search of hugs — without having read anything about the “etiquette of hugging.” One of the first observations she makes before taking a flight with her son Thomas E. is that “TSA agents don’t like hugging.” In today’s world, Poundstone is fortunate she doesn’t face even more legal trouble.

Poundstone tries another method of transportation during her “Get Rolling” experiment. She rents a Lamborghini, despite admitting she’s thousands of dollars in debt. Why? Toshia gets an apartment and Alley leaves for college in Oregon and Poundstone needs to do something drastic to find happiness.

It doesn’t happen.

Driving down Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills with the top down provokes a few words that are unprintable in this review. If that isn’t enough, Poundstone discovers that “rich people must not have a lot of cats. There’s hardly any trunk space in a Lamborghini.” The discovery follows a trip to the grocery store for cat food.

Speaking of cats, Poundstone claims to have more than a dozen. And they’re featured in the “Get Purring” experiment. Poundstone says they’d be even more lovable “if they stood in one place when they threw up.” That’s the bad news. She also believes the cats give her home a “kind of comedic baseline.” And that’s good news for us. 

Give Poundstone credit, as well. She’s not afraid to dive feet-first into her experiments. Take the “Get Up and Dance” chapter, where she tries swing dancing. Even though she claims to feel like an idiot a lot, she concludes that dance lessons provide her with “several heps of happiness.” Let’s hope, as promised, she plans to continue.

Poundstone’s happiness journey finds her trying to get organized — twice. The second time around, she hires a professional organizer to help her get rid of stuff. (Spoiler alert: It’s not easy.) Poundstone also volunteers at a nursing home with her dog, who turns out to be a rock star.

Another chapter has Poundstone, who’s far from tech-savvy, deciding to become computer literate. Make way for a website, laptop, desktop, iPhone, and Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, and YouTube accounts.

It’s not all positive.

“If Sir Isaac Newton had employed a computer,” Poundstone says, “he would never have noticed apples falling, and we’d still be wondering why we can’t jump higher.”

So, what ultimately makes Poundstone happy?

Without giving away too much of her secret for finding a few “heps” and “balous,” it requires just one thing: engagement. And luckily, as she says, “No dolphins were harmed in the process.”

Thank goodness. Because that gives us a chance to laugh without feeling guilty.

Steve Orr Media founder Steve Orr is an award-winning broadcaster who helps clients become more effective speakers, as well as create and produce podcasts.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
Teresa Bruce in Conversation with Sarah Wildman
July 12th, 2017, 02:30 AM
Teresa Bruce is an award-winning screenwriter, PBS documentary filmmaker, and TEDx speaker. Her published books include IBPA's best memoir of 2014: The Other Mother: A Rememoir and the narrative for Transfer of Grace: Images of the Lowcountry.

Sarah Wildman is the author of Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. A New Republic alum, before Vox, you mostly saw her work in the New York Times, the New Yorker online, Slate, Washingtonian and the Washington Post.

This event is free to attend with no reservation required. Seating is available on a first come, first served basis.

Upshur Street Books, 827 Upshur Street, NW, Washington, DC. Click here for info. 

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
Pitch WHAT?
July 12th, 2017, 02:30 AM

This August, for the sixth time since 2012, hundreds of writers will be anxiously checking their Twitter feeds for more than just cat videos. They’ll be looking for any hint that they’ve been chosen.

The drama, of course, is half the fun of Pitch Wars, an annual mentoring contest run by author Brenda Drake. Writers aspiring to publication submit their query letter and first chapter of a novel or memoir, and the contest’s mentors each select one mentee to harangue through a two-month-long revision period.

The other half of the fun has nothing to do with “winning.” So why all the stress-tweeting?

In short, statistics. There are over 100 mentors, divided into age categories based on the type of manuscript they want to mentor: middle grade, young adult, or adult (including “new adult”). On July 19th, each mentor will post a wish list identifying the types of books he or she is interested in, ranging from literary fiction to romance to horror.

The submission window opens August 2nd. Writers pick four mentors to submit to, then they send off their art and start fretting over the competition. Pitch Wars is a nonprofit endeavor, so it’s free to apply, but for a donation to support operating expenses, writers can apply to an additional two mentors, for a total of six entries.

During August, mentors read submissions and agonize over which mentee to select. Some mentors might tweet out hints, while others go into Twitter hibernation (hence the anxious Twitter stalking). Finally, on August 24th, mentors announce their selections.

Once the happy and sad tears have abated, mentors send out the dreaded edit letters to their mentees.

The ball then bounces into the mentees’ court. Mentees often suffer through grueling revisions, which might include eliminating plotlines, switching from third-person point-of-view to first, or tightening up a character arc.

In November, mentees post their newly revised pitches (a 50-word blurb describing the novel’s hook) and first 250 words for literary agents to ogle over and request in the Pitch Wars showcase.

Each year, dozens of mentees end up signing with an agent after the showcase, and a good number of them go on to sell their books. Last year’s class of mentees already has a handful of impressive book deals, and there are surely more to come.

But publishing-success glitter aside, Pitch Wars’ greatest accomplishment is the writing community it builds. Mentors are writers who are a little further along in their careers than the applicants — mentors have usually signed with agents, published books, or edited professionally — and they donate their time to guide a less-experienced writer through the revision trenches.

The mentee hopefuls, as they’re called in Pitch Wars Land, often band together to commiserate, bite their nails, and swap writing samples for critique. Mentors and mentees chat about writing craft on the Twitter hashtag #PitchWars, and sometimes mentors will provide feedback to the applicants they didn’t select.

Trying to get published is like buying fistfuls of long-odds lottery tickets. Submit a story, scratch off a ticket. Email a query to a literary agent, check the Keno numbers. Most of the time, the ticket goes in the trash with no returns. Rejections come and go with no explanation.

Pitch Wars is the rare contest where even the participants who do not “win” can still benefit. There are some public critiques (for those writers who volunteer), and people are constantly swapping ideas about how to write better. The camaraderie and enthusiasm for learning are what set this contest apart.

And there are the gifs.

So, writers, it’s nearly August. Do you have a finished novel or memoir manuscript? If so, step in line, get yourself a lottery ticket. Join in the conversation. Why not?

(For more information on Pitch Wars, check out Brenda’s page, mentor Dan Koboldt’s statistics from last year’s round, or any of the many mentors’ blogs.)

Carrie Callaghan is a senior editor with the Washington Independent Review of Books. This is her second year mentoring Pitch Wars, and she’s thrilled to be back at it. Her fiction has appeared in Silk Road, Floodwall, the MacGuffin, the Mulberry Fork Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Maryland with her family and two cats. Find her on the Internet on Twitter at @carriecallaghan or at www.carriecallaghan.com.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
The Shark Club: A Novel
July 12th, 2017, 02:30 AM

Here is a book that commands its readers to sit above the tide line, toes idly excavating sand divots, beneath an umbrella throwing deep shade under a cloudless blue sky. The sun-drenched Florida locale is so strong that if you’re not somewhere comparable, your longing will make it tough to concentrate.

This ultimate beach read is the debut novel of Ann Kidd Taylor, daughter of acclaimed novelist Sue Monk Kidd. The two previously collaborated on a bestselling memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates, in which young Ann ponders her direction in life. Apparently, her direction is to go into the family business.

It’s not a bad choice. The Shark Club is a beach read with a brain, anchored as it is in its first-person narrator, Dr. Maeve Donnelly. Maeve is a marine biologist who specializes in sharks, and who spends as much time as possible pursuing their research the world over. Maeve has loved sharks from the time she was bitten and nearly killed by one — coincidentally, seconds after her first kiss with her first love, Daniel.

Maeve’s backstory is related through a combination of straight-up exposition and occasionally a more nuanced revisiting of crucial episodes. Before the shark incident, at age 6, Maeve and her twin brother, Robin, were suddenly orphaned when their parents’ small plane crashed in the Everglades.

Since then, they have lived with their grandmother Perri in the literary-themed hotel she owns on an island off Florida’s Gulf Coast. Daniel, three years older, befriended them both soon after they arrived. He is a kindred damaged spirit since his father simply up and left one day, abandoning Daniel and his mother.

Taylor has good impulses, but she needs to give this story more room to breathe and let things play out organically. Her tendency to tell rather than show speeds the narrative along but stymies our ability — or desire — to invest in the characters. The formative things that happen to these people feel more like convenient plot points than critical elements that shape who they become.

The most fully realized character here, the one that Taylor gets pitch perfect in three dimensions, is Hazel, Daniel’s 6-year-old daughter — and the overt reason Daniel and Maeve are no longer together. Silly, serious, and completely unselfconscious in that way of young children who haven’t yet been molded into conformity, she is the rare child character for whom the term “precocious” isn’t code for “irritating.” Hazel is a fan of prehistoric sea creatures and carries around a dinosaur messenger bag filled with supplies for whatever adventure she’s currently on.

She and Maeve meet on the beach just as Maeve arrives home again to the Hotel of the Muses for a few months in between a long research stint in Bimini and an upcoming trip to Mozambique to study whale sharks. Just as she was leaving Bimini, Maeve struck up a nascent romance with fellow researcher Nicholas.

It only takes a few minutes for Maeve to realize that she’s talking to Daniel’s daughter, the product of a fling that Daniel had while Maeve was away on her first big research trip — a trip that caused her to postpone their wedding.

After learning of his dalliance and impending fatherhood, she cancels the wedding and never speaks to him again. But here is Hazel, and with her, Daniel, now an acclaimed local chef running the hotel’s restaurant. He’s moved them back in with his own mother now that Hazel’s mother has — honestly? — recently died.

In with all of this, Maeve discovers that someone is running a local shark-finning operation, the horrifying and illegal practice of catching sharks, slicing off their dorsal fins and tails, and throwing them back in the water to die in order to supply the black-market demand for shark-fin soup.

And last, Maeve’s brother, Robin, a charming ne’er-do-well who’s been a failed writer for years, has a book contract. Only Maeve doesn’t clue into why Robin is so gravely insistent that she read the novel he’s written.

Taylor gives her characters significant baggage, but provides only cursory follow-through in illustrating what it means to them. She needs to signal to her readers that at least she understands that Maeve and Daniel (or, for that matter, Maeve and Robin) in their 30s have no greater capacity or willingness to hold an adult conversation than they did seven years earlier, and that perhaps this is one of the common effects of their shared abandonment. It’s only in considering Hazel that they demonstrate real maturity.

Perhaps it’s not fair to demand that level of depth; after all, this is vacation reading, and Taylor absolutely knows how to keep the pages turning. It simply feels that with a little more investment, she could have delivered a whole cast of believable, well-rounded characters to go along with her young star.

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle, and writes and reviews regularly for the Independent as well as the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!