Wednesday, April 15, 2015

You Will Never Find Me by Robert Wilson (Europa World Noir)

I was so disappointed with this novel. I normally love Europa Edition's World Noir series, and I've read every single one of Wilson's novels, so I was primed for a great read. Which this was not. I am going to try and explain but it's tough to describe some of the issues with it:

1. Mercy and Charles are back, and while both are complicated individuals, they act with a distinct aloofness that even extends to their daughter. When she runs away, they don't seem realistic in their actions.

2. All the remaining characters are either all bad or all good: no moral ambiguities. El Osito is evil, yet, but not much more than that. The other cops, the inevitable Russian connections, the drug dealers and the fences are all just one-dimensional and don't change at all during the book. This makes for very little tension.

3. The plot is ALL over the place geographically, which is fine, but the connections between places seem tenuous. No one misses a plane, everything runs smoothly, surely Wilson knows that never happens. No one runs out of cash, everyone meets up as planned, there's not a single wrinkle in anyone's plans.

4. Besides the Columbian drug dealers and the UK dealers making a deal (with surprisingly financial savvy even for the lower tier sellers), we have a Russian side plot that makes no sense at all. Wilson is trying to drag in the poisoned Russian spy from real life into the novel and it's too much. A side kidnapping serves no purpose to the main story of the daughter running away. Maybe it was to appear complex, but it seems like when a novel has an open spot many authors toss in a Russian and a execution to make it appear topical. Instead, it was a yawn. The entire Russian portion of this did not further the plot at all.  Additionally, the behavior of the father of this other kidnapping is just off-the-hook: he truly calls the shots and makes the police look ridiculous. HE was interesting, the rest were laughable.

5. Peripheral characters like Esme and Isabel and the Spanish detective were interesting but unexplored. I suspect the Spaniard may appear in his own series in the future.

6. Hugely emotional moments regarding life or death matters are treated with an "okay, then"reaction rather than real human behaviors.

7. Without spoilers, I have to say the final scene was completely ridiculous. It made me laugh it was so implausible and yes, corny. To the point of cheesy. It suddenly felt like a Hugh Grant movie ending.

8. Finally, most people who have watched any crime show on television know the rules: always look behind you, never leave an assumed dead body with a weapon nearby, and never stop to chat while being chased.  Yet most of the characters commit these silly mistakes repeatedly.  Gah!

Aside from this, Wilson's other novels are FAR superior.

Review copy received from Europa Editions.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Adeline by Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is trying to recreate the days leading up to Virginia Woolf's suicide, when she put stones in her pockets and waded into the Thames. To do this Vincent had to get into the mind-set of Woolf, to put herself in her position in relation to her husband, her house, her memories, et al. At first I was intrigued. Woolf never had an easy life, and people were much tougher then.

What got to me was once in Woolf's mind, I didn't really want to stay there. I'm not sure how much of this is imaginary thought process is based on fact, surely some is. But for the most part, assuming to understand someone's mind, especially someone who clearly has a mental illness, is problematic. The author does reference bits and pieces of Woolf's work (she's clearly done her homework), but much of it felt generic. Generic depression symptoms, when depression really is never generic. To be frank, I got bored. I realize this was fiction, a novel that isn't supposed to be real. Yet the premise has to connect somehow with real life, or why read it? I'm not sure it could stand apart as a novel of any woman, it's clearly tied to Woolf. Yet taking that liberty means we have to assume it's somewhat accurate.

In some scenes, she takes perhaps a five-minute action and extends it into ten or more pages of Woolf's thought processes.  Intriguing to consider, but it makes for a very slow read that doesn't feel cohesive because such little actions are expanding upon so greatly. 

I did notice that some parts are written much in the same style as Woolf's work, as if her thought process was exactly the same as Mrs. Dalloway, for example. (The flowers, the flowers!) But Dalloway was a character, not Woolf herself. Right? I can't picture all of Woolf's women characters being a version of herself, as they were all so unique. Except that one in To the Lighthouse who annoyed the heck out of me.

I normally quote lines in my reviews that I think are engaging or telling to the style. I found none to mark in the book that struck me as exceptional, except for a few zzzzz's scattered about.

In any case, for a Woolf devotee, this might be a delicious way to curl up and imagine more.  Maybe it's guilt: as a teenager I was forbidden to read Sylvia Plath OR Virginia Woolf by my mom. 

Review copy provided by Amazon Vine.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bettyville by George Hodgman

"Nor is she sentimental. Inside a silver locket she has worn for years, a gift from my father, are the stock photographs of strangers it came with."Inside those two sentences George Hodgman has created an instant picture of his mother, Elizabeth. A writer, he's returned home to care for Betty as she begins that slow, desperate decline. To say she's eccentric isn't enough, so Hodgwell shows us via the visual. To say she's a spitfire doesn't even begin to describe her....she's a tortured soul who he finds moaning in anxiety in the afternoons but cracking jokes at dawn. The disparity between the humor and loneliness is familiar. But her loneliness is not one to be solved but to be reckoned with...just because he's come to town isn't going to change her nor the course of that lonely path.

Hodgman's own life is fascinating; how he interacts with her in her rural Missouri, far from his home in New York, is a testament to family duty combined with family love. Even while that family love may not be of the Hallmark movie-style. Small town life sounds really good in this, described faithfully, even in his loathing of Walmart.  I really liked how Hodgman describes events and people,  especially in this setting, and especially of his mother:

"By the time my mother realized that she was smart or saw she had the kind of looks that open doors, she had already closed too many to go back."

I loved that line. As a writer and a reader, it's perfect. Many, many like them appear in this book.

Between their conversations and recognition of themselves in each other, they find a new closeness different from his early years as an only child. Burnishing that relationship is a landscape many of us can't relate to: rural hills, church suppers, and the existence of "bric a brac". The times they drive together are poignant. On one eventful night, they accidentally hit a deer whom Hodgman describes as "... deranged. It hated its life",  while driving fast in the dark to get her to a bathroom. "This is a woman who can treat the transmission of a common cold as a tragic twist of fate, but crash into a creature who you fear is Bambi's papa and you will encounter a soldier prepared the storms of Normandy."

And yet, despite her decline, it's not terribly sad.

Oh, actually it is. It is sad. The loneliness she feels that he expresses is piercing. With a parent in the same position (and being a caregiver child myself), I ache at some of the familiar scenes. I read it fairly soon after reading "The Long Goodbye" by Meghan O'Rourke, another gorgeous and thoughtful memoir of the loss of a mother. Both underline the very seed of our lives, the child grieving the parent, occurring often long before their actual death.

But it goes beyond the idea of caregiving for a into a more intimate path of caring for ourselves.  Hodgman gives up a great deal to be with her, yet he also gains.  He sees the small town life from a different place than when he was a child.  Additionally, it touches on his struggles as a gay man whose parents don't really accept his identity.  Rather than anger, he reaches another point of acceptance tempered with disappointment. Who he is becomes the subject just as much as who Betty is.  The child not wanting to disappoint his parents, those of that older generation who prefer to avoid uncomfortable subjects, remains in the man who loves his mother for exactly who she is.  Even if she cannot fully accept who he is.  He's there for the long haul, regardless, as he says "I am staying not to cling on, but because sometime, at least once, everyone should see someone through. All the way home."

So, it's heartbreaking. You will need tissue. You will laugh. And you just might hope you get a chance to be there for someone, to be that "other piece" for someone when the puzzle is completely undone.  Most of all, you may find yourself marking up the book to highlight special quotes.

A few of these, just to illustrate his beautiful writing:

"People forced to live by conventions are always the first to enforce them. I think this applies to my mother. A practical investor, she bought stock in the usual choices because they ordinarily pay off without risk or pain. She never imagined they could betray her or that anyone close would break them.  Never a practical investor, I have always gone for the crazy horse."

"I think people who have always felt okay in the world will never understand those of us who haven't."

After I read this, I turned to the beginning to read it again. I've become an evangelizer for this memoir. My mother and husband have read it. My English professor has dibs on it next.  I am hoping it wins a National Book Award like Patti Smith did.  I hope it becomes as well known as Paul Auster's journals. I hope it gets a PEN award. Anything that will get people to read it and see that throughout love and loyalty is a simple connection to Little Debbies and a casserole left on the front porch.

If it interests you, the author's website features pictures of Betty, George's father, and some of the other family mentioned extensively in the book.  Oh, and pay attention to the cover: it features some little details mentioned in the book.

Review copy received from the Amazon Vine program.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Notes from Underground by Roger Scruton (Czech history, Communism, samizdat)

"...attempts at difference had the opposite effect to the one intended. For they emphasized that, in the midst of this randomness, you saw only the one identical expression: eyes staring into the distance, and lips held firmly shut as though against some pervasive infection Our people had collectively solved their shared problem, which was how to keep the mask in place, while showing that it is only a mask. People collaborated in the great deception, so as not to be deceived."

Scruton's book examines Prague life under the unrelenting pressure of communism, and it's desire to create sameness and eradicate personal opinions and choices.  Seen most in the world of literature, where writers were commonly arrested and jailed, sometimes executed, the lack of freedom of expression was so controlled as to prevent personal thoughts.  Just the idea of waving at someone insinuated a further connection, a nefarious plan under way.

The police were calculating and cold in their efforts to cool any uprisings by suppressing everything written, even harmless works of literature. In result, much more harmful (to Communism at least) works were perpetrated in secret in opposition to the force of evil. Dissident authors and writers wrote secretly, as their work (or even having it in possession) could land them into jail.  But they did not quit, and if anything, while its exposure may have been limited to the literary few, it probably saved them mentally.

The novel begins with a woman being arrested who was secretly known for copying dissident works into books. Her son involved, she takes all the blame and is jailed. Lost for what to do, he himself a writer as well, wanders the underground (both literally and figuratively) trying to figure out what to do.  Soon he meets an attractive woman who leads him on a path to produce his literature but with a theory: become famous in the outside world so much that Czech officials can't touch him without political repercussions.

But who is she, and what is her intentions?

"A curious thought entered my mind: that she had quite separate lives. The thought no sooner occurred than it became a knife of jealousy.  The girl who cultivated dissidents, what was exploring the world of the samizdat, who was in some strange way excited by the opportunity to recreate me as a hero and a martyr, was the holiday version of another being entirely."

Filled with beautiful and nuanced sentences, the novel contrasts the barbaric stomping out of words with the subtlety and pleasure of well-written prose. The author contrasts these so clearly that one can't help but feel the tension between the political forces at play and the hearts behind the written word.  It's not idealistic, some of the samizdat writers were jerks too, not to be trusted and often arrogant.  But their opposition, in whole, to the entire movement to destroy them only makes them more fascinating.

Scruton's writing is unusual.  A narrator who thinks wisely and yet makes naive assumptions, who loves and yet distrusts; a complicated man in every sense.

Advance review copy provided by Amazon.

Friday, January 30, 2015

As I Said by Lev Loseff (bilingual Russian edition)

This bilingual collection of the poems of Lev Loseff begins with a preemptory acknowledgement, by series editor Jean Boase-Beier, of the difficulties of translating poetry, especially when a reader has no knowledge of the original language and thus might miss subtleties that the poet intended. As Boase-Beier puts it:
We know that translated poetry is neither English poetry that has mysteriously arisen from a hidden foreign source, nor is it foreign poetry that has silently rewritten itself in English. We are more aware that translation lies at the heart of all our cultural exchange; without it, we must remain artistically and intellectually insular.
With this in mind, both Russian and English versions are here provided “side-by-side because translations do not displace the originals; they shed new light on them and are in turn themselves illuminated by the presence of their source poems.” And translator G. S. Smith shows a similar attention to detail and attitude that goes beyond mere words: Smith was actually able to translate much of Loseff’s personality in the poems, as the two collaborated over the translations over a period of several years and Loseff gave his approval to the resulting works. Loseff, an editor himself who has translated Joseph Brodsky, guided Smith in some areas with comments and suggestions, but his firmest request was that the poems be presented in reverse chronological order. It was Smith who chose the poems for the collection, selecting those that had the best prospects for accurate translation.
Yet another scholar, Barry P. Scherr, contributes an introduction to Loseff that gives some essential biographical information, making the poems that much more compelling. Loseff was part of what was casually called the “philological school” of Russian poets; intensely familiar with and influenced by traditional Russian literature, he refers to his country’s most famous writers (e.g. Pasternak, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin) in many of his own poems. Besides this cultural expertise, Scherr notes that Loseff is also a poet of observation, one whose emotion “arises from contemplating the world outside the poet, rather than the writer’s most intimate thoughts.” Yet Loseff does reveal himself on his terms, subtly, and G.E. Smith picks up on such nuances.
“At the Clinic” for example, will strike many readers viscerally (here’s the full poem):
The doctor mumbled things about my kidneys,
and looked away. I pitied this MD.
For life to me had burst its inhibitions,
and now flowed heatedly and easily.
Diploma on the wall. MD. His awkward silence.
Hand scribbling out a slanting recipe.
While I'm astonished by this easy lightness—
so easy had the news turned out to be!
What happened to the demons that beset me?
I'm breathing easily, not like before.
I'll go and let them have some blood for testing,
and give a bit more blood to sign this poem.
A great deal is revealed in the poetic subtext: “Burst” and the phrase “flowed heatedly” contrast with the idea of ease. In fact, Loseff uses variances of “easy” four times in the poem’s three stanzas. At the conclusion, there’s a play on words in regard to blood—using both “give” and “let”—that indicates a sense of surrender despite the lightness he’s just described. Curiously, Loseff initially speaks of the “doctor” delivering the news, only to repeatedly call him “MD” afterwards. The usage on the facing page in Russian also uses a different word for doctor after the first, which made me curious if there was an aural play on words here, as “MD” in English sounds like “empty.” Does the Russian word Loseff used, Врач, also hint at another meaning?
A poem that reaches into Russian literary history is “The Blood Washed Off. The Axe Dumped in the River,” which seems to make a clear reference to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. While Raskolnikov stashed the axe rather than dumping it in the Neva, Loseff contrasts this murderer’s obsession over guilt (felt even before the murder occurred) and cleanliness with contemporary criminals, who “abandon axe and empty bottles by the body, mumble / when questioned, not bother washing off the blood.”
Throughout the collection, Smith’s translation beautifully captures a duality to the meanings. A phrase like “the river’s molten-honey seethe” in a poem about the death of a commercial area easily reminds the reader of the river Lethe and the feeling of forgetfulness. The layers are uncovered by Smith but never fully revealed—keeping Loseff an enigmatic poet whose work is destined for further study.
Published by ARC Publications.
First published in Rain Taxi magazine, 2013

Thursday, January 29, 2015

All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld

I read Wyld's first book After the Fire,A Small Still Voice a few years ago and loved the suspense she creates.  Eager to read this, I was not disappointed.

The main character is a woman with a complicated past, but we are not presented with all the details right away.  Wyld doles out details and time periods slowly as the novel progresses.  We start with a woman working a lonely sheep ranch, and go through five distinct periods of her life that made her the isolated woman that she is now.  She's tough, she's vocal, and she has scars both emotionally and physically.

The push and pull of the book that creates the suspense is the way Jake (the protagonist, female) is drawn out.  Aside from her past and her avoidance of social interaction which instinctively tells us there may be a good reason for that, there is also a current problem on her ranch that also is tense.  There's devastation everywhere, and she's riding a wave of emotional locations from childhood memories to current fears.

Wyld populates the book with well-drawn characters, few of whom you'd actually like to meet.  A ghastly lot.  Then there's the surprise of finding a rain-soaked stranger standing in the path of her extremely isolated ranch.  He seems nice.  But given her interaction with the human race in the past, can she trust him?  Can he trust HER?

The suspense leaves you breathless (I know that's a cliche but in this case very much appropriate).  I kept reading faster to get more details about the "why" of what was going on, as well as the "who" that is making mysterious things happen. Dialogue is crisp and realistic, the location gorgeous but frightening.

This is a meditative reading experience, much in the style of Tim Winton's The Riders or Dirt Music.

Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston

The first thing I liked about this novel is the region: the Texas Gulf Coast. I read a lot and I seriously can't remember any taking place in this area that were fictional. The details Johnston uses to create this locale are many and effective: I could picture it all happening.

The first premise I felt was a bit weak: the missing child that is found. We've had Steven Stayner, Elizabeth Smart, and Jaycee Dugard, as well as those poor women kept captive for years by Ariel Castro. It's not something new, and through the invasive media we have an idea of how hard it is to adjust for these victims to be found and re-acclimated into their families. Emma Donohue's (fiction) book Room also went into the complexities of readjustment and shock and how happy endings are rare. So for this part, I felt like I would have been more impressed by some twist on the story we're hardly shocked by.

However, as the novel progresses, it becomes deeper. It takes into what we don't know, how families going through tragedy and despair do not remain static: change happens even when they feel their world has ended. They are constantly evolving through their crisis, just as their child is while in his situation. Sometimes we think time freezes in such a horrific time, but there are still groceries to buy, pets to be fed, laundry to do. And that's where this novel shines: getting to see the individual characters continue living (albeit with a broken heart) and trying to make sense of it all. And the guilt: the sense of responsibility as well as the guilt for ever feeling happy again. Johnston draws his characters so carefully you can actually picture them; you feel as if you know them. And along with knowing them, you anticipate what they will do. And may even get angry when they act the way you feel they shouldn't. See, I'm trying to avoid spoilers.

In avoiding spoilers, I have to say that these carefully crafted characters can be jerks too, and act completely insensitivity. Occasionally I yelled aloud at the characters, one in particular. Of course, there is no guidebook to the proper way to behave when a child goes missing or even when good fortune surprises us. And that is what makes this novel feel real. Shiny, happy people are only in REM songs. Resolution and closure are non-existent.

2015 Maritime Reading Challenge

2015 Maritime Reading Challenge
Andrew Wyeth

It's been ages since I've suggested a Reading Challenge, and this one is a bit personal.  First, I adore Andrew Wyeth art and have been slowing collecting a few pieces (reproductions, of course).  My favorites are his ocean and ship images(even decrepit ones like above). Actually, ESPECIALLY the old and decrepit ones.  

At the same time, I recently saw a PBS Special on Sting's new production on Broadway, The Last Ship.  I bought the soundtrack. I am a bit obsessed (of course, hearing an eight-year-old sing sea shanty songs from the backseat is fun too!).  About this same time I was reading Brian Doyle's novel The Plover that just knocked me out: top 5 of my forever book list easily.  

Lastly, I've been spending more time than usual at my local favorite gorgeous beach and there is something so mysterious and visceral about the waves and rocks that I have the ocean on my brain. This reminds me of advice from a sage poet when I shared a ocean poem with him: he basically said, don't bother, it's all been said, as everyone feels this way about the sea. So let's see what's been said before! Can any author or poet describe the atmosphere of the sea that matches our own?

As a kid, I was lucky. We camped by the ocean each summer.  I confess that for far too long, I used to see the distant ocean oil-rigs lit up at night beyond the Channel Islands and thought that they were drive-in theaters on Hawaii.  Yep, smart kid.  It was at this beach, Refugio, west of Santa Barbara, that I first read Island of the Blue Dolphins, a true-story from Scott O'Dell that is a childhood classic now and that has set me (and a gazillion other kids)on a course for saltwater romanticism.

In my obsession with Andrew Wyeth I discovered his father had illustrated and edited Sea Story Collections.  Incidentally, the entire Wyeth family apparently are outrageously gifted artists.  Sadly, my family just creates long-term grudges!

So, it's still January, it's early, so it still counts!  Jump in!  Instructions below:  ***

2015 Maritime Reading Challenge

Any titles related to the sea or ships (both commercial and military), in any time period, in any region.  Nonfiction is fine, poetry is great, fiction is better! Classics like Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, etc are obvious choices.  We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen is a recent title that is amazing, related to Danish seafaring. The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye is another such title focused on Lake Superior.  Another surprise is the book Longitude: by Dave Sobel, a nonfiction look at how men figured out how to navigate by longitude and not just latitude.

The Pilothouse Chart company lists these titles (some are mentioned above)in their top 10 of nautical fiction:  (
  • Grey Seas Under by Farley Mowat
  • Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (I could not get through this book....)
  • Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brien
  • Spartina by John Casey
  • The Sea Wolf by Jack London
  • The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
  • Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling
  • The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes (out of print but still possible to find)
Entirely imaginary titles for completing parts of the Challenge:

  • Captain: read five books and list them on this Challenge entry page (see tab above for link)
  • First mate: four books
  • Navigator:  three books
  • Cabin boy: two books, and the knowledge that "In cases of shipwreck or starvation from prolonged be-calming, they are the first to be eaten by higher-ranking crewmates. (International Fellowship of Royal Privateers website)

***Any mention of the ghastly "Pirates of the ..." movie series constitutes an immediate expulsion from the Challenge for obvious reasons.  But, please feel welcome to mention a film or series or even exhibition related to the maritime world and maybe someone else can enjoy it too.

Sign in with name, means of contact, location by country, and goal in the comments section below.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin

If you are in your 40s, you probably remember the end of the Cold War quite well.  Before that, the Soviet Union was portrayed by the media (and pretty close to reality) as a brutal enemy, a bastion of Communism, with hints of the Siberian Gulags that preceded it.  We had the Doomsday Clock and WWIII was always present.  We even had school practice drills in case of nuclear war (yes, getting under a desk was deemed sufficient protection).  Younger than that, you may not realize how different the Soviet era was from present day Russia, although Putin seems to be taking it a step backward.

In any case, from Glasnost to when smaller nations broke free from the USSR and gained independence, many changes took place that leaves the actual Soviet era somewhat forgotten. And nothing is drier than reading about it in an old history book.  Breshnev and Gorbachav are almost caricatures today.

A better way to read the history is through this memoir.  Lev Golinkin is like David Sedaris, funny and irreverent, with an amused eye that reveals the smaller details that ultimately mean the most in understanding the history.  He recounts, from his adopted American perspective, how it was that he came to America and why he wanted to go back.

He grew up in the Ukraine and it's helpful to see, given this last year's actions with Russia and the Ukraine, how timely his writing is.  I felt like I got a better understanding of the people and the place and why there is a difference between a Ukrainian citizen versus a Russian one.

Many people helped Golinkin escape to America, and his appreciation for them is great. It's wonderful to think he wanted to revisit them to thank them and also to better understand where he came from.  As a Russian Jew, his story has another dimension given the prejudice to the Jews by many.

Russia has always been my favorite place to read about, and this ranks with other books about the period (some of which are fiction but still reveal much about the land and history and peoples).  Vasily Grossman's "Everything Flows", Martin Amis' "House of Meetings" and Rasskazy, a collection of Russian stories, can really fill out your knowledge of Russia.  With this memoir, you get even more from the latter period that is often ignored in favor of the Gulag era.

Just for kicks, the books of Andrew Kurkov, "Death and the Penguin" and "Penguin Lost", as well as "The Case of the General's Thumb" also deal with Ukrainian lore but in a crime novel genre.

Russian Tattoo by Elena Gorokhova

Elena Gorokhova's A Mountain of Crumbs was a riveting memoir (given to me by a dear friend who knows and shares my obsession for all things Russia), but this next installment is much more interesting.  In the USSR, teaching and living in communal housing, she meets an American man (there studying) who somehow, randomly, decides to offer to marry her so she can immigrate to the US. The randomness of it is strange, as there doesn't appear to be much in the way of romance.  It's not that she's a bad catch, he was clearly lucky to get her. But his attitude was that this was his "good deed for the day", and while they did get a bit acquainted there, it was clear this was not in his eyes a real marriage. His loss, but her gain: he's kind of a jerk.

Brought to the US, she is immediately confused.  Particularly by him, who has a steady girlfriend and job but seems oblivious (especially in that he saw the USSR and how she had lived) to her settling in a new country. Nothing is the same.  And he takes for granted that she will simply learn as she goes.  He even hassles her a bit about not fitting in or trying hard enough.

It's not so much the big cultural issues or that she's not smart: she's fiercely intelligent and he's actually pretty dumb.  But it's the little things: ordering at a restaurant, buying shoes (what size?), and paying with cash that confuses her and makes him think she's  not trying hard enough.  She gets a job in a steakhouse which is a world's difference from what she was used to: the endless side dish options and salad dressing choices (!!) all confuse her but she manages to make sense of it after time.

In the meantime, he's moved her back into his mom's house and basically cut her off.  Fortunately, his mother is kind and patient, but slow to understand the depth of cultural dissonance Elena is experiencing.  Nevermind that she misses her family too, and they can't possibly conceive of how unsteady her new existence has become.  How do you tell loved ones who have to share a kitchen with stinky neighbors that you can't understand the idea behind endless beverage refills?  

From there it takes off into how her new life blooms when she realizes she only has herself as a resource and she has to move forward, at the same time missing her family.  Inspiring, especially when you think you have a rough life.  I think it was the little details that were the most touching to me, as she genuinely has no one to rely on who can understand her exact predicament.  It's cliche to say she's stuck between two worlds but she truly was.

I can't wait to read her next memoir!

The Walk Home by Rachel Seiffert

Family.  The most complicated and difficult and rewarding of relationships.  This is an exploration of an unconventional family in an unconventional place: Northern Ireland after the Troubles.  A time when people still have their battle lines drawn even if years have passed. Where a simple marching band is not a simple marching band, at least when it has to do with the Orange Walk.

You may want to bone up a bit on Irish History, specifically the Troubles circa 1970, that "Ulster" is what Ireland used to be called, that the North is Protestant and the actual region of Ireland is mainly Catholic. That England has supported Northern Ireland to the result of the IRA and resistance that affected ALL parts of Ireland.  That bombings that took place were not always by the IRA, and that England bears it's share of responsibility for the senseless deaths of many and actually staged bombings themselves to attribute to the IRA.  I actually never understood much of it until I took a semester of Irish Studies in college (and was so frustrated that I couldn't find Ulster on the map of Ireland, oy!).  In any case, some may get confused at the drama that exists, so if you can spare a moment to Google it or go to the Wiki page, you'll be rewarded. The book is worth the effort!

Into this mess is the family of Lindsey and Graham, a pair of newlyweds with a somewhat supportive family, making their new home on the planning "scheme" that is being built (basically a tenement section).  It seems that early on, no one trusts each other enough to talk about the most basic of family events (such as a birth).  Thus, few in the family even understand the long-standing rifts that they are now a part of.  This is just the individual immediate families, the further in distance, the worse it becomes, because distant family is never truly distant when it comes to history and emotions, and hard feelings always exist.  Seeing a youthful child Stevie grow up is touching as you can tell his parents are Lindsey and Graham are decent folk.  But the complexities of the past taint their future.

I like that the author Seiffert grasps all the subtle distinctions of family, even the appeal of those we can't stand.  There's almost a mystery quality to it, while this is certainly not a crime or mystery novel. It's just mesmerizing how much is unresolved in one family and how assumptions and rumors ruin it for generations.

This would be a great movie, and of course, I must cast Liam Neeson somewhere.  I believe that is a law.

Wolf Winter by Cecelia Ekback

One of my favorite books ever is "Growth of the Soil" by Knut Hamsun, and I kept thinking of it as I read this novel.  Much of the region of the Lapland is similar, as are the descriptions of the earth, soil, sky, and water.  Ekback makes a strong presence as she is careful to "show" and not simply tell the reader what the story is about.  At one point she describes how sometimes the light outside is painful to observe and bodes ill: I could really sense what she meant.

For example, early on we learn of the husband of the main character.  There's nothing outwardly said in the description to make us think he's weak and somewhat lazy....just her choice of dialogue and scenes make it apparent instantly.  I really liked the character Maija, and she feels very real as she arrives at this new land with her helpless husband, trying to make a new life while a murderer is on the loose.  Characters are introduced individually, with time given to evaluate them by their actions and dialogue, almost to create a familiarity with them, which makes the mystery much more complicated.  Complicated because we've become almost attached to each character because of the personal attention given to each one.  In shorter words, there's no obvious villain that sometimes is easily picked out of a narrative.

The priest, "Olof", as she nicknames him ("oaf"to me) is a perplexing character early on and one of the forces that drives the story in a way that is new and unique.  I had a love/hate relationship with him as he's in many scenes and even when he's doing something good or beneficial, he's annoying.  Another big revelation was how the Church worked in this time period, where the concept of "it's who you know" being hammered in with details of corruption and omission.  I also liked how Maija's pragmatic character clashes with Olof's self-righteous performances.

You can't help but feel a bit of a chill while reading this; perhaps it would be best read at the beach as I think the Swedish location, high in the hills, is probably never warm.

DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves by James Nestor

Alternative title: Smart People Who Do Astonishingly Scary Things

Before you start reading this book, head on over to Youtube and look up freediving. Seeing it will help you understand just how insane this new experience (hobby, sport, death wish??) is, and you'll be drawn into the unheard of (to me) world under the sea that goes beyond singing mermaids, cute clown fish, and the Titanic (the general oceanic knowledge most of us share).

First off, the thing that grabs you is the anecdotes about the early days of freediving and scuba diving. There are funny ones and grim ones and gross ones. But James Nestor, the author, doesn't just relate fish tales (sorry) but makes it meaningful You can look at the book from several angles, and freediving is just one facet of it.

First is the sport itself and the many ways humans have tried to get beneath the sea, how far they've gotten, and what the actual technique is for record-setting dives. On his initial experience of seeing freedivers, the first thing he does is call his mother. She tells him to do better research rather than report such nonsense. That little bit just set the tone for me: inspired, amusing, but pragmatic. His voice as an author is pleasant, never lecturing too much or flooding raw data but explaining the context. Sure, if there's a gross anecdote to tell, it's in here, and these keep you on your toes (sort of like car wrecks at races).

Second is the "why" factor, what secrets does the deep sea hold for scientists and research and ultimately humans? How much do we really know about its unplumbed depths? Not much, it appears. He explains just what is being done now and what could be discovered. The scale of the ocean is beyond our understanding as we take for granted just how much water covers the earth without considering what is within it in terms of species and formations.

Part of why I sort of loved this was that I read it at the community pool while my son had swim lessons. Something about being by the water made it real, and of course, I had to go swim for pennies in the 12 foot area to see how long I could hold my breath. Not long. Certainly not hundreds of feet like those in the book. And obviously, the local pool has no sharks.

I think the curiosity of humans and their quest for the unknown is a fascinating subject. Could it be we know more about the moon than under the sea just a few miles out? Seeing all these different researchers pursue their studies, even when the effects or results are only likely to be relevant years from now, maybe long after their natural lifespan, is intriguing. It's almost a higher calling, this pursuit of knowledge for the gain of future generations. Perhaps the names in this book will become as famous as Curie or Pasteur or Cousteau.

Some nonfiction works are either too light or way too deep, with the writer either trying to be glib and dumb down the subject, or show how many references they can cite and leave you lost. This balances both well, not an easy thing to do and not always easy to find as a reader. If you are a fan of Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City) or Bill Streever (Cold: Adventures int he World's Frozen Places), you will probably enjoy this.

Watch Me Go, new fiction from Mark Wisniewski

“…when you really want something and almost get it but then don’t—like when you lose a bet on a long shot by a nose—you taste both success and failure at the same time, and as a result, you feel nothing.”
One of the characters in Mark Wisniewski’s novel, Watch Me Go, contemplates this sense of nothingness as he attempts to put a value on the life he’s lived, realizing that much of it was out of his control and what he did know was lies. Moving on from that point becomes a painful lesson in balancing courage with tradition.

The novel begins with two completely opposite characters and their point of intersection. A white teenage girl fleeing from a gossipy small town contrasts with an older black man who hauls junk for a living. Right away, our stereotypes are shaken, as we find Jan and Deesh in a small visitor’s room in jail, where Deesh denies having killed anyone and Jan assures him she knows that already.

From there, we are thrown into a revolving tale leading up to that day in the jail. Poor and ill-treated, Jan and her mother move to the ranch of a longtime family friend, one who promises to help them recover from the death of Jan’s father. Meanwhile, Deesh and his friends dispose of a sealed metal drum in exchange for a large sum of money, well aware that it likely contains a corpse. Both Jan and Deesh start out in desperation for a new life, a fresh start.

Jan’s new location is in a small town that links nearly every resident to horse racing, whether as owners or gamblers. She proceeds to dream of becoming a jockey, despite the shady activities of nearly everyone she meets. She meets the handsome son of an owner and for a while it appears that her fresh start is guaranteed, and she gets her first chance to race in a secret practice run.

“And sure, winning felt good, very, very good, but a victory in a horse race takes very little time, a very small fraction of your life. And then there ends up being the whole rest of your life, where you feel caught in this tangle of beauty and ugliness.”

Deesh, meanwhile, has more money in hand than ever before, but before he gets a chance to start that clean slate, he too gets sidelined by the criminal actions of another and next he’s on the run. Soon he has to make decisions far bigger than just his own survival.

“There is only this world of beautiful and ugly things, and I, a runaway brother casting into water smoothing down this world, am still one of them.”

From these points the novel develops a breakneck pace as each narrates what surprises they encounter and their instinctual reactions. Having both narrate the story in the first-person allows the reader to really get into, not just the story, but their intentions and assumptions. We can see why they do what they do, not because an omniscient narrator tells us, but because they tell us in their own words. This device adds to the suspense and intensity because, when events occur, we feel their reactions just as strongly as they do.

Numerous themes run through the novel, most notably that of fatherhood. We see fathers who live with emotional distance to their children, fathers who are dead, and those that are simply lost to a culture of missing dads. None of these absences are static: each character throughout contemplates this loss in their life and often weighs their decisions with an imaginary glance at their fathers, asking “what if”. This theme is intriguing because it parallels the perplexity of why good intentions often go bad, and why good people become tragically lost. The difference in ages between Deesh and Jan reveal this is a lifelong pondering.

Wisniewski also has an apparent gift for describing place and incorporating those details into the story, almost becoming part of the plot itself. The Pennsylvania forest, Saratoga Springs, and other small towns are described in a way that captures both abandonment and isolation, failure and success. These mimic the layers of the novel.

Other characters are similarly well-developed, most notably Gabe, the kidnapped-elderly-heart-patient-philosopher, who almost steals the show with his humorous (and profound) musings on women, life, and the Theory of The Big One.

I jumped at the chance to review this as I had read a Wisniewski novel years ago, Show Up, Look Good, that knocked me out with its dry wit and astonishing twists. However, this novel is far different, with similar shocking twists but a deeper look at human interactions.

It challenges stereotypes in a time that desperately needs those misconceptions addressed: we live in a post-Ferguson landscape that needs a complete rewiring of how we look at race as well as our assumptions about guilt and innocence. This might be a bit hard to take for some; it definitely challenged my belief system at times. But that further illustrates how often mindless choices are made, and how mindful choices can be misunderstood.

Highly recommended!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

I Kiss Your Hands Many Times, nonfiction from Marianne Szegedy-Maszak

Hearts, Souls, and Wars in Hungary

"Over wine, steeped in Budapest, feeling close, I asked my parents what their romance had been like.  They exchanged quick looks....But for once my father took charge. Smiling, he reached for another piece of bread and said with the sealed air of finality, "My dear, that is none of your business."

The title of this book grabbed me, the implied sense of surprise and gratitude captured in a simple act.  But there's nothing simple about the family history of the author.

Fortunately,  daughter and author Marianne Szegedy-Maszak  makes it her business and with interviews and family documents reveals the momentous love story that spanned decades and stayed alive despite the Holocaust, long absences, mental issues, and a loss of class station.  Szegedy-Maszak describes how the Holocaust separated them, but what I found more interesting was the period they experienced leading up to the Holocaust.  The family's lifestyle and activities, and how devastated their lives became was severe and particularly focused on their Hungarian origin.  Their Jewish heritage also doomed them and the details of what they went through are hard to read.  Especially because this is non-fiction....supported by names and dates. Fictionalized accounts of this time period are many but they don't compare.  She describes her discoveries as a "gossamer sliver of time, that dividing line between one way of looking at the world and another."  

While they survive, their family is not the same.  Stripped of their wealth, unsure even of their identities (and all the facets of identity that we know about ourselves), they rebuild.  They succeed, even if that meant for some suspenseful reading.  Someone compared it to The Hare with the Amber Eyes, a history of a well-known Jewish family torn up by the same time period but focusing on the collection of netsuke curated by a descendant.  The similarity is apt but this feels more personable, more gut-wrenching while the other seemed to border on being polite rather than describe the violence (still well worth reading).

The book also encompasses the political and financial impact of the aftermath of the Holocaust and strengthening the Hungarian nation, with politics in the US and large amounts of money changing hands to try and assure a future beyond those of individuals.

Published by Spiegel & Grau

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

My Next Purchase: Salon's Laura Miller recommends "How Not to Be Wrong: What the Literary World Can Learn From Math"

So there's this:

Laura Miller at Salon has pointed out two inspiring new books that have jumped the line to the top of my wishlist of summer books.  I'm sure I'll get to The Goldfinch sometime...

First, How Not to Be Wrong: What the Literary World Can Learn From Math, by Jordan Ellenberg is discussed at length, and at one point Miller quotes Ellenberg's observation that a simple word choice can make all the difference and how it matters mathematically (not just as a variation of lexicon).

"Ellenberg pauses, for example, to fantasize about going back in time to “the dawn of statistical nomenclature” so he could persuade statisticians to use the term “statistically noticeable” instead of “statistically significant.” “Mathematics has a funny relationship to the English language,” he writes, and here’s a prime example. In statistics “significant” does not indicate that a result is “important” or “meaningful,” only that it is at least a little bit off what we would expect from pure chance. Such a finding should be viewed as no more than “a clue, suggesting a promising place to focus your research energy.” Only when well-designed experiments consistently deliver the same finding can we start to treat it as a fact."

Probability and statistics and how numbers are manipulated makes for some tantalizing reading, and tying it into literature, as Ellenberg does in the book, is a brilliant angle.  Word choice is everything these days, from logic classes to what an advertiser is allowed to claim on a label.  Even more so, word choice is what allows the media to make vague accusations and still stay in business.

(Just for kicks, there's a related article from the University of Texas by Dr. James Pennebaker about what word choice says about us, our status and our honesty, entitled "Word Choice Detects Everything from Love to Lies to Leadership" at

Also mentioned in Miller's article is a similar book, The Improbability Principle (by David J. Hand) that is "simpler and sometimes clearer" and equally likely to be on my wishlist of new titles to read through the summer.  

These sound appealing in the sense that the Malcolm Gladwell books explained things so uniquely and accessibly and "scientific-y" (although those often left me with more questions than answers, and sometimes a feeling of nausea).  

Yes, I am a nerd.

See the link for Miller's article, which is featured as part of her regular columns at Salon:

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Europa World Noir Giveaway: Two New Crime Titles, Laidlaw and The Cemetery of Swallows

Thanks to Europa Editions, I have two finished copies of some new books in their series of World Noir.

From Scotland, they've reprinted William McIlvanney's Laidlaw, a classic in Scottish noir from the 1970's.  A murder must be solved despite close families that want to exert their own revenge aside from the investigation by the police.  This is part of a trilogy that features Laidlaw, a brooding detective that no one in the force likes.  Review coming soon, so read it now and offer me your two cents:

The other title is The Cemetery of Swallows by an author with the pseudonym Mallock.  Another series with another moody protagonist, this features a bizarre murder that crisscrosses the world.

To enter:  please leave a comment with your name and contact info.  On June 15th a random winner will be selected.  US only.  Both will be shipped via USPS once the winner is confirmed.  Enter now!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Kid's books for Gifting...and One Tech Toy

Taking a detour from poetry and fiction, here's some kid's books that have been a huge hit at our house lately...requested nightly, at times more than once.  And this are actually the kind you don't mind reading over and over.  Need a gift? These are vetted and approved by a picky kid...

First off, the all-time favorite for my five year old is Crustacean Vacation, by Brian Benoit,where a crabby family goes to the shore.  It's full of one-liners and clever lines, and not a single one fails to amuse.  What is Grandma up to?  What happens when little crabs (crablets) meet the infamous arcade game, the Claw? It's simple: "A gamewith a crane that both scuttles and grabs, Was plainly designed for the mind of a crab". Spoiler alert: as in real life, no one wins The Claw.

What about the Luge de DeLuge? The shark that runs that tattoo parlor?
Next is Scaredy Squirrel, a cute creature I met at the library (we ended up finding a stuffed animal plush version!) that has various stories to tell.  He deals with his rampant paranoia with checklists and worst-case scenarios, comforting himself with the fact that "when all else fails, panic".

My son enjoyed him so much that we looked for more by the same author, Melanie Watt.  We found Chester, an annoying and bossy cat that thinks he's an artist. He's clearly gunning for a Caldecott.

Watt also wrote You're Finally Here, that was so popular my son took it to Kindergarten for the class to read.  At this point, anything she writes appears to be a winner in our book.
An unexpected surprise was from Lane Smith, always a great author, but in a new snarky direction with It's A Book. Perfect for kids who like their techie gadgets and a parent will laugh at the hidden lesson.
Going on two years now, Shark Vs. Train by Chris Barton is still hugely popular.  It tells the story of two boys trying to determine who will win at any number of contests: shark or train?  Which would be the best ride at the fair? You decide.
Lastly, it's been on the blog before, but I adore any and all Dahlov Ipcar. These are the heirloom books I intend to keep forever. The latest is Stripes and Spots, employing her usual milky colors and dark backgrounds that look anything but childish. Our all-time favorite is The Cat at Night, followed by One Horse Farm.  Both are unique, elegant, and the most artistic of all kid's books out there.


Hopefully these can be helpful in finding some great books. I could make a list of lousy ones too but that'd get me in trouble.  Just avoid celebrity-related children's books (blurgh) or the tired old series that keep getting churned out ad nauseum.
Special thanks to Islandport Press for the Ipcar and Benoit books.  The rest were titles I purchased or borrowed from the library. 
One more thing: for the ultimate in kid fun, we bought my son a Leapfrog Explorer when he was four.  Now he has an LeapPad.  These are ideal for trips, quiet time, etc and he's even doing little kid algebra and it's helped his reading.  Check these out! The games are expensive but well worth the money! The LeapPad is only slightly more than the Explorer but does more, like a mini-Ipad. You can get them for around $80 with holiday sales. (Not a paid spokesperson!)


Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Fourth Edition

consider it a treasure map!

Slavko Mihalic, Aleksandar Petrov, and Ferida Durakovic may not be household names in the US, but if you’re a fan of global poetry, you may be delighted to discover their work.  Consider them treasures to find as you explore a new treasure map for poetry enthusiasts: The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics has released a new fourth edition.  The time that has passed since the third edition appeared  (in 1993) has meant dramatic changes in the political and geographical atmosphere, and this new edition explores a host of new names to research and discover.

Given that I prefer to focus on Eastern European and Russian literature, I decided to explore the entries for nations that didn’t even exist or were brand new entities when the third edition came out.  First, some general information about the book:  this is not an encyclopedic collection of poets.  There are no entries for Whitman or Dickinson or Ginsberg.  Rather, it focuses on the literary terms and styles of poetry, including sections for the poetry specific to certain nations and cultures. 

The sections on smaller, new nations are comprehensive and complete, containing a bit of the political scene but focusing more on the influences and poets before and after major crises occurred.
From Slovakia:  Mila Haugova, Jan Buzassy, and Daniel Hevier are listed as contemporary poets, and reference is made to a 2010 release “Six Slovak Poets” (available here: that promises to explore the seriousness and humor unique to the region. Yes, I must have it!

Slovenia:  Gregor Podlagar, Maja Vidmar, and Lucija Stupica.
Croatia:  Slavko Mihalic, Daniel Dragojevic, and Drago Stambuck

Bosnia:  Abdulah Sidran, whose poetry the editors remarked as “imbued with a sadness resulting from his perception of disharmony in the world.”  Given his locale, the exploration of this poet should be fascinating while likely tragic.  The editors state, “His poems give the impression of settling accounts with life.” Comparing his work to those of the same region but differing political bases should make for a fascinating study.  It would also be interesting to use the Encyclopedia to compare these contemporary poets with early 20th century poets in the same regions suffering other types of oppression.
Czech Republic:  Petr Borkovec writes about the “upheaval in Czech culture” that occurs with the disintegration of political lines while the peoples and culture remain in static.

Serbia:  Novica Tadic and Aleksandar Petrov
Albania:  Dritero Agolli and Ismail Kadare (also known for his fiction).  Fun fact:  despite chaos in the region and the intellectual suppression of dictator Hoxha, “verse collections…account for more than 50% of literary output” (31). An astonishing amount, considering that an expert in poetics in the US, Maggie Balistreri, estimates about 2100 books of poetry are published in the US per year ( while according to Wiki (I know, sorry!) the remainder of published works runs well over 300,000.

Another worthy mention is that this version lists useful websites for further research, notably The Poetry International Web Net ( that allows you to search by country.
I think my only disappointment was that Belarus didn't have it's own entry, as it was combined with the Russian section, and that makes for the lack of mention of Valzhyna Mort, an amazing poet and ardent supporter of freedom in Belarus.
But, to it's credit, there's a great section on Flarf.
Special thanks to Casey LaVela for the Advance Review Copy.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Giveaway! Three Books, All New Releases!

It's been awhile, so how about a new giveaway?  These are all new releases to keep you busy through fall and winter.

The package:

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison, from Algonquin Books (hardback):
Next, The Island of Last Truth by Flavia Company, from Europa Editions (paperback):
Last, The Spy Lover by Kiana Davenport, from Thomas & Mercer (paperback):
Here's the deal:  be a follower of this blog (if not already) and enter by leaving a response in the comment box for this post.  Include name and some form of contact information.  If you want extra entries, Tweet or FB the post and include the URL in another comment on this same post.  A random winner (US ONLY) will be selected December 1, 2012 and have 72 hours to respond to my email.  After that, another winner will be chosen.  All three books are brand new and ready to ship.
Special thanks to publishers for sending extra copies!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Half in Shade, Judith Kitchen, Coffee House Press

originally published in "The Quivering Pen" 11/7/2012 with link

Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate 
By Judith Kitchen 
Coffee House Press 
Reviewed by Amy Henry 

I became aware of a kind of triangulation: me, the photograph, and its subject(s). From temporal advantage, I found I could supply what my subjects would never know—the future. I found myself in a kind of time warp in which I knew more than my subject, but less about my subject.  My interest was not in uncovering a hidden narrative, or in enhancing a known story, or in revealing a specific character.  I wanted to ponder how each individual life was/is framed by circumstance, how we are sometimes called to act, and sometimes to merely reflect.
Judith Kitchen is going to convince you to dump your digital camera in the nearest garbage bin and head to the attic in search of boxes of old photos.  Because while technology now permits us to take better photos and delete the unflattering ones, it has stripped us of a heritage found only in the outtakes, the unflattering depictions, and the failed photographs that never make it into the family album.  Her collection of essays, Half In Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, takes an intensive look at the intent behind 20th-century photography in general, with specific reflections on what any photo can tell us.  Hint: it’s usually more than we can “see.”  It makes us ask, before we click the shutter, what are we trying to preserve? 

Kitchen has researched scores of family photos and the notes attached to them, piecing together ideas both actual and fanciful about those depicted.  At times using a magnifying glass and at times using only her imagination, she studies the details of the photos that usually get lost, even if they are of someone we care deeply about. She notes that just the way someone folds their hands, or how their clothing is adjusted can be revealing about their character and life story. The placement of individuals within a group shot also can reveal friendships and feuds, and she seems to find the most telling of details in pictures that are considered the least important. 

Fortunately, she also shows us the photos that she dissects.  In one, “Double Exposure,” she studies a forgettable photograph of an old shop.  She goes beyond simply detailing the tin ceiling and phone booths in the back that a casual glance would miss. Instead, she notices the posture (one man had a bum leg), the status implied by a gold watch chain, and the contents of the cases.  Is it an apothecary?  Sure enough, it’s a drug store in Chicago in 1912.  Explaining what she knows about the characters in the picture, she then proceeds to play with the imagination…where is that man going, the one outside the door reflected in the glass, as he strides by on that sunny day?  Will he be in the War soon to commence? Kitchen can’t say, we can never know, and she leaves him to “disappear below the surface of the page.” 

The photographs and their notes, along with family diaries, are linked together by time as well.  Placing each person within their community and family, she also looks to place them in their geographical location in concert with the time period they were living.  This is most poignant in “Where They Came From, Where They Went,” leading us to contemplate her distant kin in Bavaria. A 1937 photograph shows a boy with his parents sitting formally at a table, fully facing the camera with frozen smiles. With the knowledge of what would soon come to pass in that region, Kitchen’s perspective on the photograph becomes a study of personalities more so than faces.  She notices details in what is on the table, how they are dressed, and what these tell us, before she then asks the reader the big question implied:
What will happen to them all?’s hard to decide if cousin Karl’s son is called Friedrich or Wilhelm. And what will it matter in a few short years when he will be called nothing at all, when there will be no one to call him? If he comes back, he will come back to a diminished thing…If he comes back, he will come with all he has seen clouding his eyes, carrying that lockstep method he’s learned to look away. If the camera catches him, it will catch the phantom of the man he might have been, staring emptily into a garden gone to seed.

Of course, it’s all conjecture…we have no idea what really happens.  But it leads us to ask, as she does, “What were their real lives? All the maybes hurl themselves at me.”  The “maybes” are investigated in this collection in a journalistic fashion, with as much research as to factual evidence as possible before Kitchen inserts her own speculation.  The overlapping of names and relations, expanding westward across the United States and back again, tells a story of both a family and a nation. 

Rather surprisingly, it can leave even the least nostalgic of readers wishing they had paid more attention.  The downside of film in the early years was that it was only for special occasions, so few photographs existed.  Then, when film photography became a household medium, everyone took gads of photos.  It often took many shots to ensure one would turn out, and many of the excess were left in boxes to deteriorate or get shuffled through family members (ironically, most people find them difficult to throw away, perhaps sensing value).  Kitchen believes that after an amount of time has passed, it’s these uncelebrated shots that are most telling. 

However, with today’s technology, digital photography seems more efficient, as it eliminates waste and offers editing options.  If desired, only the “ideal” shots are printed out.  Yet, ultimately, this editing capability can deprive us of the secret and flawed stories that may tell the most about the past we are intending to document.