Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Treepedia by Joan Maloof (botany)


"every tree has its own stories to tell"--Joan Maloof

This is a lovely, cozy book with a simplicity that is disarming and deceiving. It's a smallish book which initially made me think it was going to only cover surface matters and not dig deep. I was wrong.  It is a small book but it is full of details that are largely unknown, with anecdotes that are fascinating.

For example, Johnny Appleseed.  Folk hero who planted apple trees. But do we know who he really was and why he planted? That information is found in the book, and he was quite clever because the planting had to do with claiming property rights.

It must be mentioned that the illustrations are gorgeous and subtle. Realistic.

I initially got this for my son who is a botanist but I enjoyed it myself very much. Informative in a way that makes you feel content, much like The Sound of the Wild Snail Eating.  

Of the trees mentioned and drawn, the Baobab is my favorite. It's unexpected qualities and strange appearance begged to be loved.

A lovely book that would make a great gift or just a peaceful present for yourself in an ugly time of history.

Special thanks to Princeton University Press for the review copy.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Horsemen of the Sands, by Leonid Yuzefovich (translated literature, Archipelago Books)


Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz.

This translated fiction novel combines two stories by Russian writer Yuzefovich.  Both are compelling, but "The Storm" is absolutely riveting and electric in its storytelling. 

What begins as a simple premise ends with a nightmarish scene of emotional pain and torture, with the author echoing in fiction the actual truth of the lives of many Russian children.

The Storm begins with a teacher relinquishing her class of fifth-graders to the expertise of a guest speaker, a man who ostensibly is there to teach the children about traffic safety. Surely, a dry and uninspiring prospect for the children.  However, as he begins he realizes to gain their attention he must create anecdotal events to push his message about safety. And, as any predator does, he seems to be able to suss out the weakest and most emotionally fragile students to use in his teaching.

These students are mystified and frantic as they try and figure out how he seems to know their weaknesses: one, a daughter of a drunkard, the other, a recent accident victim himself.  While he smiles and gesticulates, he is actually stabbing them with many pains.  Both try to flee the classroom. 

While this goes on, their teacher gets a needed break and leaves campus temporarily. Her outing goes poorly as she is faced with her own hypocrisy. Her sense of privilege is attacked.  A principal too lets his mind wander into dangerous territory. Even the school janitor experiences an epiphany of sorts while the children are suffering back in the classroom.

The weather becomes the driving force, as lightning and storm clouds gather figuratively and literally in the city.  Everything becomes off-kilter, yet the traffic instructor continues his attack. He is clever: nothing he says is really wrong or could be construed as emotional abuse.  But it's beyond his speech that his evil pathology lies.  Like a crocodile, he contently observes the children, eager to prey on someone weaker.

This story could stand alone in the novel.  However, the second story was far less compelling for me.  It is different in tone and style from The Storm. 

Horsemen of the Sands is complicated and wearying.  While it is of a Russian who invades Mongolia, and who uses Korean men as his guards, the narrative switches frequently leading to much confusion.  The landscape is described in artistic ways, but the interaction between characters leaves many questions and frustration.  I've read much in the way of Russian literature and this simply did not entice me.  I felt like I needed to know more history and crave less action.  Yet, the premise itself seems like it would be action-packed.  I could not follow the story enough to comment on it further.

A Change of Time by Ida Jessen (translated literature, Archipelago Books)

Translated from the Danish
by Martin Aitken

This novel seems spare at first, with dry journal entries from a recently widowed woman. However, about midway through, you see a shift and realize that "spare" is the last thing this book is. Instead, very subtle depth is created with the minimal expressions she uses to write about both her marriage and her newfound single life.

At first, I thought it was a character study of a marriage: an arrogant and aloof husband and his somewhat plain wife.  I learned about both of them through cautious comments and descriptions. However, it changes when Halloween approaches. On that date, the woman creates a story for the holiday (at first, the story is confusing out of context).  The story she tells is mysterious with suspense and confusion.  But after I read the Halloween story, I realized, she wrote it to be read. She wrote it for a reader. Thus, if the story was for a reader, was everything else intended for a potential reader as well?  And if so, does that mean her journal was less about chronicling her marriage and loss, or more about creating a narrative? Enter here the unreliable narrator: what exactly is true or false about what she is saying?

With that perspective, I started the book over. This time I focused on what was her opinion and what was fact, which can vary significantly. This made it even more complex and layered in depth.

It's important to watch the dates of the journal entries. They are significant.  Additionally, after the Halloween story she shares more details about her life before marriage.  And these details complicate the narrative further. The reader is bound to ask, why exactly did they get married?  What did she see in him?  What did he see in her? Neither of these questions are explicitly answered. Instead, we learn of another man who appears before and after her marriage. Two other men, actually.  Who is she, really?

In other aspects, her descriptions of small-town life and neighbors and the nature of a schoolteacher are equally charming and yet mysterious.  Why is she not 'one of them'?  Do the townspeople know more about her than we do, as readers? Perhaps, as her story suggests that she's not telling us everything.  And that omission becomes a fascinating focal point.

I loved the minimalism of the story. It forced me to pay attention and use my imagination to fill in the gaps. I highly recommend this elegant story of love, loss, and keeping secrets.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Paris has lost a bright light. George Hodgman, author of Bettyville, dies

It's with tremendous sadness that I relate that George Hodgman, author of Bettyville and a lovely friend, has passed away.  After reviewing his book, we started corresponding and eventually he was helping me house hunt.  He knew just what houses I would like.  Ultimately, I didn't move to his state.

However, he was always around with a wry observation, a book recommendation, a bit of comfort when I was sad.  Which was quite often, in the past.  When my Dad was ailing he had suggestions and affirmations and, helpfully, explained the concept of "sun-downers" with dementia patients in a way I hadn't understood through other means.

I'm terribly saddened by this news.  He has done other great work for Vanity Fair, but Bettyville was artful and moving and graceful.

Here's the review again.  He leaves a lovely lab named Raj.


Washington Post obituary:

And for the record, Graydon Carter can go to hell.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Spring: Karl Ove Knausgaard (memoir)


Survival mode, a day at a time
{Disclosure: Depression is the major theme of this book and one that should never been minimized, stigmatized, or joked about. My review is not intended to make light of the subject, I suffer from PTSD and GAD myself. However, I've found humor, even the dark dry stuff one seldom owns up to, is THE survival skill. So hearing him describe the crises (many) without hearing sarcasm, self-pity, or a simple "piss off" feels unreal. Surviving decades of depression defies review, but the most vital key for me has been some form of humor. Read his book for his personal and painful explorations of family ties amid disaster, the pain suffered by loved ones of the depressed, and the adoration of a father for his children.]

Things I learned in Spring.
1. Karl is a very careful driver.
2. He is a very keen parent.
3. Karl makes up part of the 1%.
4. Karl's children are perfect.
5. Karl backs up his vehicle carefully at all times.
6. His family eats out often.
7. Despite his claim to writing, he appears to hang out at Gymboree, as he's obsessed with cute baby clothes.
8. If you ever have a secret to tell, do not tell Karl.
9. Karl likes to ruminate on countless subjects.
10. He ruminates when he drives carefully.
11. Karl pretends his children only watch 1 hour of tv per night.
12. Karl frequently washes dishes.
13. Karl doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks of him, except for his children and the assumption he is        not tidy.
14. Karl folds laundry into piles and sorts them. Dry laundry.
15. Karl dries the laundry first, after he does the dishes.
16. Karl dislikes pants.
17. Slobs (not him) can be stylish if endowed with a scarf tied properly, he feels.
18. Karl spends time in gardens, by plants, wherever he is. Looking at flowers. Feels things.
19. He likely would prop an azalea in the front seat, with seat belt, if it wouldn't cause a fuss.
20. Karl's face gets him money at foreign banks.
21. Karl's perfect children rarely argue.
22. Karl's family has all the pieces and the instructions sheet for a badminton set.
23. They play badminton. Often.
24. Karl is washing up the dishes again.
25. The wanker still smokes. It's when he feels.
26. The careful drive to Molma is lovely. Lots of feelings here.
27. Karl loves his family.
28. Karl's children are charming in a surreal way.
29. Karl seems tireless; is acknowledging a nap a crime?
30. Karl is loyal.
31. Karl wants you to know he's listening to Queens of the Stone Age.
32. Karl uses a radio. Still. Useful when drying up.
33. Karl drives so carefully he claims to see around corners in the villages.
34. Karl is not likely to adhere to HIPPA guidelines.
35. Karl would be interesting to eat a meal with. He'd either say nothing or talk the entire time. There is no in-between. It would be interesting either way.

See, at first I was taken aback of how he discloses subject matter so personal to another. Yet, I recall My Struggle (the series of them) did that very same thing. So after the shock, I was then sort of mentally dissing him because he cleans up good, too good, in his descriptions. He seems patient, reasonable, indefatigable, cheerful, a healthy eater (despite the smokes), and pretty much A-Ok. He actually doesn't describe anyone in less than affectionate terms. That bugged me. The Realist in me was muttering, "or so you say," over and over.

But then it clicked. It was a gift to his daughter, a memoir of a time, a day, that cannot be easily explained. It was a recreation of history. Why muss it up with tantrums, impatient driving (he's careful, you know), the ugly moods of kids, the self-loathing and constant analysis of past misfortune and current fame? Why NOT make it really lovely, like a postcard from a trip that was terrible but that you wished was better? Does it matter? Given the subject matter, I totally realize the brilliance of this move by Karl. Because he's not writing for the world, he's writing for her. This so that she doesn't have to grow up to only go back to long careful drives with the music on while ruminating on her origin story. She will anyway, but this should soften the blow. Because the pure parental love is there, not just by caregiving but by genuine affection. Like, he's choosing this life and that it wasn't bad luck.

One thing I really liked was how he relays to the reader how much time he spends talking to that voice in his head, and that he was in his teens before he figured out everyone had that begrudging, nasty, repulsive voice in their heads. I immediately thought of how I was quite old before I realized it too, like in my 30s. I just felt like I had a helpful but bad angel on one shoulder constantly crapping on my life. Then I read Diego da Silva's novel, I Hadn't Understood, and his fictional character (one of the most beloved of my reading life) is constantly arguing with that voice. And it was freedom. Now I could tell that voice to bugger off (or try to) because it was universal. How did I get so old without knowing the universal truth that we are all wondering about something and it's never, "how could I do that less well, next time?" Da Silva's novel, FYI, is amazing. Totally different vibe than this; this is far more serious and da Silva's guy was just a lovely idiot.

In all, I can't say I enjoyed the book. I would recommend it, but reading each page was more suspenseful than Hitchcock and all that suspense is tiring, and I felt it was somewhat manipulative on Karl's part. I will likely read Summer.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Impossibly Small Spaces by Lisa C. Taylor (Arlen House)

“...it isn’t fair that one species can exploit another and that sometimes even when I want to, I can’t protect those who need it most”.

A universal sentiment to be sure, but the angle Lisa C. Taylor takes in this collection of short stories is defining who most needs that protection.  Stepping back from a more traditional world view, Taylor demonstrates in Impossibly Small Spaces that it is a tiny corner of our most private self that is most at risk.  How that secret self gets protected, and what defines safety, is the core of the stories that take a fresh perspective on what we do when the unpredictable occurs.

I had read her previous book, Growing a New Tail, a few years ago. I was knocked out by how she painted characters in absolutely ordinary situations who dealt with both the mundane and the ugly in their own unique way. The flip side to this new collection is that it is the situations that are nothing ordinary, and the character reactions are complicated.  Self-preservation by denial and running from grief is a tactic these characters find necessary. They aren’t making grand gestures of expansive good works to society. Rather, they are in survival mode, which can take many forms, some of which are no good at all.

In one story, two strangers awaiting a plane arrival briefly acknowledge each other before the worst news crashes in on them. They don’t react as if in a Hallmark happy-ending movie plot.  Their next actions are spontaneous, slightly insane, poorly thought out, and terribly real.  It’s that kick of the reality of what they do that drives many of the stories:  no one prepares us for crisis, so no one can say we are doing it wrong.

Many of the stories have the basis of strangers in pairs trying to navigate a crisis. One woman needs a date for a wedding, but finds that getting one means revealing her most fragile secret. Another character creates secrets to hide his own reality, but loses himself so deeply in falsehoods that nothing is real for him anymore.

In a moment of self-reflection, he considers a fish tank: “Did [the fish] have the consciousness to know he was in a prison or did every body of water feel the same?”  The reader senses that the alternate reality he’s created is probably more prison than safety, even though he has no intention of escape.

Throughout the stories, which stand alone and are not linked, Taylor’s insightful character studies mean they are not easily forgotten.  Weeks after I first read it, I remembered certain characters with a sort of wistful, “what if” thought as to their survival skill. It was as if I’d read a newspaper article about real people.

“A life with this much colour requires a mute button.”  That mute button is the key to finding the impossibly small spaces that let us survive whatever happens. Taylor’s stories are rich and complex, and entirely unforgettable.

Review copy provided by Arlen House Press.

Review by L. R.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Break Every String -- Poetry by Joshua Michael Stewart

In his new book, Break Every String, Joshua Michael Stewart rides shotgun on a trip through the back roads of a small town called Everywhere.  Imagine him sitting there, unfolding an old, worn map of the region—so old that it feels like chamois—and featuring all the tired places encompassed there.  He may point to a lake, a school, abandoned wells, and homes stuffed with stories.  In his own measured pace, he’ll tell you about those places and why their significance goes far beyond the map could ever show.  This isn’t topography or simple street intersections, this map is a history of a person, a family, and pain.

Stewart doesn’t overshare. He’s subtle with his explanations, and doesn’t quite tell you the whole story. He leaves you with more questions than answers.  But the search, the listening, is the treasure of these poems. Epic stories are told, spanning several poems. And then there are simple phrases, stunning in what they reveal.

A blackbird in crosshairs, singing.

For example, the women of this town, this history.  They are tender, murderous, hateful, or simply invisible.  A brother is alluded to many times, Frank, and his story is told in broken shards that perfectly represents his jagged life.  Frank fights addiction, a broken family, a stint in jail—all working as parallels with the life of the man Stewart describes.  It’s not necessarily autobiographical, but rather a complex amalgamation of character studies.  You never quite know the whole story.

A large part of Stewart’s poems feature letters from mother to son, keeping him posted about the “other” brother. The inference is clear: the other son occupies her thoughts; the broken bird getting more attention than the one in flight with wings aloft.  The pain this inflicts is never mentioned only surmised.  And one that finds our narrator at a loss with his own worth.

            You haven’t had the blues
            Until your mother drunk-dials
            Your number at two o’clock
            In the afternoon and leaves
            A message for your brother
            Who’s been dead since 2007.

Coltrane and Brubeck serve as tonics in this town that maybe should be called Nowhere.  A place where Stewart asks, “What’s the narrative in a still life or a landscape?”

Some moments are universal but no less profound:

            When someone leaves
            Your life, you’re left with a story
            You’ll fetch from your minds library

            When sleep eludes you and you sit
            In the quiet of the kitchen, surrounded
            By the dark and empty rooms of self.

And at times, the contemplation takes a troubled, introspective turn:

            I’m not interested in last words,
            But in final thoughts. Do you love
            The most the one you think of last?

The most intense poem of the collection hits me hard each time I read it. I actually have it pinned to a wallI Wanted to Be a Blue Jay or Wear a Flowered Apron tears me up.  It’s almost the perfect poem, except that I don’t want to accept that the perfect poem has already been written. Much like Ginsberg’s Supermarket in California, it has so much dimension and depth that one could get lost in all the allusions and meanings, as well as get smacked by the simple reality of the words.  Take it straight or read something into it: in either case, it’s brilliant.
poet Joshua Michael Stewart
In it, the unknown narrator reflects on a previous suicide attempt, many years before.  He finds himself in the woods near his home,

            Blue jays flew in and out of the pines.
            I delighted at their squawking—thought of tenement 
            Airing laundry on fire escapes. 
            I wanted to climb the branches for the same reason.

But then, he remembers his father, the things that the flawed man did for the flawed son that were absolutely perfect.  And he waits to be found by that same man. One who he now shares a meal with, realizing what it must have been like for his father to set out the long-ago morning, looking for a son and not knowing what he would find.

            …he takes us back
            To that morning behind the shed, looking at me
            As if I’m a jig-saw puzzle and he’s lost the picture.
            I didn’t take into account that he’d blame himself,
            That, with or without death, guilt would haunt him.

            …nothing rests between us except for our folded 

Stewart’s poems reference jazz as a poultice to old-fashioned heartbreak.  Springsteen gets a nod as does many cultural references unique to rural places that time has left behind. Is it Everywhere? Is it Nowhere? That part of the map is rubbed out.  No matter, the reality is it's Anytown.

Special thanks to Hedgerow Books for the Review Copy.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

GUILTY OF GENOCIDE: Radovan Karadžić, The Butcher's Trail by Julian Borger

After five years of legal fighting, the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague has convicted Radovan Karadžić of 10 of the 11 war crimes he was charged with.  He got a 40 year sentence.

Wait. What?  Forty years? For the massacre of somewhere between 6,000 to 8,000 men and boys in his efforts to ethnically cleanse the Balkans?  Sure, he'll die in prison. But even a token sentencing of 6,000 years of prison would feel more appropriate.

You won't find this on CNN today, or much of anywhere. The Guardian carried the article below, but it was one of the few outlets that did. The media has a short-term memory problem.

 The Guardian's article on Radovan Karadzic today (link)

Today is hugely significant, as it took five years and the research of thousands and testimony of hundreds to both catch him and convict him.  People who knew better than to forget the horrors he imposed on humankind kept the investigation moving forward.

The story of his manhunt is found in Julian Borger's new book, The Butcher's Trail: The Secret History of the Balkan Manhunt for Europe's Most-Wanted War Criminals.  Borger works for the Guardian as well, and lends his gravitas to the novel-like story of the investigation of three of the worst war criminals in our time.  Ratko Mladic, Slobodan Milosevic, and Karadzic all participated in the brutality unforgotten by citizens of the the region.

Milosevic's lawyer was quoted in the book, "I thought [to] myself that Milosevic, Karadzic, and Mladic should all have committed suicide. They would have gone into history. Thousands of people died for them, and if you are sending people's children to their death, you should know how to leave yourself" (Borger 223).

A startling fact was relayed in the foreword: "Two civilians were killed for every three soldiers who died in battle. The whole conflict was characterized by random brutality.  Psychopaths were made masters of the life and death or their former neighbors" (Borger xxv).

From the Guardian, source beneath:----------------------------------

Number of dead or disappeared by ethnicity in the 1992-95 Bosnian war
Dead or disappeared, thousands

Other ethnicities

Guardian graphic | Source: Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo------------------------------

Milosevic died in his cell during the proceedings, and Mladic is yet to be tried.  

Borger's book is imminently readable, but the horrors it contains are hard to take. Most of the time  he focuses not on the actual violent acts but instead the spy chase to catch these men, the secret intelligence gathering, and the operatives who put themselves at risk to try and right the wrongs of Yugoslavia's past. It might make a good film were it not so horrifyingly true.
author Julian Borger

I remember one account (not from this book): these brutal men would order a family executed because one of their men had gone missing. Everyone was buried up to their necks in the ground in a small grouping, still alive. The dirt and mud were pressed around them: there was no escape.  How long they lived is unknown before their defenseless heads were attacked by animals and vermin. What kind of conversation does one have with their child in that situation, when death is imminent? How would they look into each other's eyes as the time passed?  Can a worse death be imagined?

Borger's book was just released in January and is one way to honor victims by not forgetting what happened these not-so-many years past.  So while CNN is talking Trump or Kardashian, the real news is the conviction of this hideous man. I didn't want to show his picture but it's the only one I could find where he looks scared. Scared is good.  This was when he was actually sentenced today. 

Special thanks to Jessica Greer of Other Press for the Advance Review Copy.

Those who follow my blog know that my heart is somewhat attached to this area of Europe. An excellent book about the history of Croatia was written by Tony Fabijancic in his book, Croatia: Travels in an Undiscovered Country. Fabijancic also wrote Bosnia: In the Footsteps of Gavrilo Princip. Both shed enlightenment on the loveliness of most ofthe people alternating with the horror of genocide committed by others.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Best of 2015: my little list

BEST OF 2015;

This year was tough. I was reading a wider variety of books related to school and work and less fiction.  But the books I chose for this list were ones that I didn't just like, but that knocked me out entirely.  Beyond great fiction, they have the added element of making one think.  Like a self-help book wrapped up in a great story.

My best books of 2015:  Outside of Eyrie and Bettyville, my absolute favorites, the rest are in no particular order.

Bettyville by George Hodgman:

This memoir speaks to so many levels of my life.  Maybe it's a personal connection, or just a great memoir inspired by an amazing woman. When she died earlier this year, I wept.  She was badass and tender in a subtle way. George Hodgman manages to bring out all her dimensions in a funny and emotional life story.  It is not just a picture of her and her history, but of community and friendship and the perils of caregiving. Hodgman combines heart with brutal honesty.  This is the book I recommend to everyone.

Eyrie by Tim Winton:

It's weird to fall in love with a fictional character. But this angst-filled and lost man is read as someone you just want to care for and love.  He's lost in a world determined to shut him out because of an industrial cover-up.  His relationships with family and old friends determine the man he has become.  He's awful, selfish, sweet, and totally lost.  Endearing is an understatement.

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance by Jonathan Evison:

Evison writes about an intriguing woman, and leaves you a little lost when you realize how he plays with your emotions so simply by his fantastic writing.  She's sad. Lonely. She's evil. Intolerable. Tortured. Sweet again.  The push and pull between one's hopes and one's realities makes this hard to put down, especially as nothing is predictable.  And despite her often-strange and sometimes irritating persona, he doesn't take the cheap shot to simply make her a joke.


Burning Down George Orwell's House by Andrew Ervin:

A literary fiction title filled with humor and wisdom: an intriguing combination.   Seeing the production of whisky with all its varieties as a metaphor for one's life is brilliant.  Especially great if you are into Orwell himself, as the research and anecdotes are fascinating.


The Point of Vanishing by Howard Axelrod:

Perhaps it is a personal dream of mine, but Axelrod takes a personal tragedy and chooses to embrace a life alone to rediscover his own identity and to create a life outside the boundaries of his upwardly-mobile path to success.  Painful, honest, brilliant. Review forthcoming.

Growing a New Tail by Lisa . Taylor

This collection of short stories paints pictures of women, men, children and neighborhoods in a way that is brutally honest and entirely sympathetic. The characters she paints are the invisible members of society that face momentous battles all alone, with no fanfare for their successes nor tears for their losses.  Review forthcoming.

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke:
This memoir details O'Rourke's last year with her mother who died of cancer.  Rather than focus on the pain and ugliness, O'Rourke's book is a celebration of an amazing woman and also a portrait of a family in loss and confusion.  It made me cry as I read it with thoughts of my own mother.  It is honest without a saccharine sweet ending.

Shader by Daniel Nester:

This memoir hit me like a rock. All of my teenage years distilled into one book. Memories of songs, trends, and the confusion of adolescence all boiled down into one honest portrayal of a suburban family facing divorce, poverty, and New Jersey.  Certain scenes are like snapshots of teenage memories that are apparently universal. One winces as they remember.

All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld:

Suspenseful is the only way to describe this non-linear fictional title that is frightening on so many levels.  Childhood pain and abuse coupled with the aftereffects of a life chosen to be lived alone.  The protagonist is a tough woman with secrets that are never fully revealed.  You will not put this down.


Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski:

Horse racing in Saratoga Springs takes on a sinister air as winners and losers are not defined by winning.  At the same time, an urban black man has to make a difficult decision based on the bad judgment of others.  Wisniewski combines both storylines together for a fast-paced and intriguing examination of greed and betrayal.



Ada Limon's Bright Dead Things is poetry for anyone with heart.  Her pictures translated into verse are as easy to envision as a photograph. Brilliant, subtle, simple.  Review forthcoming.

New discoveries for 2015: 

Patrick Modiano's work was given to me by means of three novels. All are fantastic, moody and deep. I didn't pick a favorite as they are too complex to distill that way. Discomfiting is a bitter description.  

For television, check out the BBC's crime show, River, as well as Peaky Blinders and Call the Midwife.

Monday, November 30, 2015

After the Circus by Patrick Modiano -fiction in translation-Mark Polizzotti translator

Previously published in the New York Journal of Books, November 30, 2015
Review by Amy Henry

With age usually comes wisdom, and when waxing nostalgic, one usually sees the significance of youthful events in a new and understanding light. However, for our protagonist in Patrick Modiano’s new novel, After the Circus, it appears that even the passage of time has left him confused about the time when he was just reaching adulthood, alone in Paris.
author Patrick Modiano

Modiano’s writing is minimal in the extreme: He doesn’t share pages of descriptions of landscape or weather or clothing styles or significant architecture of the city of lights. Even night and day are hardly distinguished. The main character Jean is hardly described at all in terms of appearance or mannerisms. His new companion, Gisele, is noted tangibly only by the mention of her raincoat and skirt and sweater. Beyond that, nearly every supporting character is without distinguishing marks.
Perhaps the minimalism is to focus on the story’s plot, which also is quite minimal. A tight story arc gives the novel its focus, and it’s entirely intentional. Modiano’s lack of specificity creates a fog or haze over the city of Paris as its characters move and act below. And writing as he does from the viewpoint of an older man looking back, the lapses in memory (from choice or age) are entirely appropriate.
While lacking much description, he does give the novel a mood. A sense of foreboding that is at odds with the simplicity of many early scenes. The mood pervades, however, as day and night and meal after meal in nameless restaurants demonstrates the couple’s idle and unfocused path. Dark streets are traversed repeatedly, lending a sort of symbolism to their future.
translator Mark Polizzotti

Of note is Modiano’s little trick for springing unexpected revelations on the reader. For example, on their first night together, Jean roles over in the bed they were sleeping in.  At first the reader is led to believe they shared it platonically. But he notes that she is nude beneath her raincoat. And the story proceeds. As a reader, the reaction is, “Wait! What was that? Were they intimate and thus she was nude? Did she remove her clothes to sleep? Or, (more significantly) had she been nude underneath her raincoat all day long? During the police questioning?” It’s a small detail that impacts the story a great deal, and Modiano doesn’t feel obligated to explain.  As the novel progresses, you begin to wonder if Jean even knows that answer.
The plot itself is simple: a young man, newly freed from parental control is living temporarily on his own (with an oft-missing caretaker) after his parents move to Switzerland. He’s under age and bored. We first meet him being questioned by the police because his name was found in a suspicious address book. He has no answers for their ambiguous questions. After he leaves, a woman enters and is similarly questioned, but out of his earshot. When she leaves, he meets up with her at a café, and after she asks the dangerous question, “Will you do me a favor?” they somehow become inseparable, based on their shared police experience and nothing more.
She’s slightly older but appears years wiser and often takes notice of his naiveté with merely a look or a long pause. Silent mostly, they spend the next few days sharing his old apartment, walking the dog, and eating out quietly. Their conversations are minimal and one can’t help but wonder where their attraction lies. 
Soon, she introduces him to some friends, older businessmen, and Jean admires the attention they show him. He feels they are benevolent and ready to assist his exciting new future. Jean’s sense of self-absorption is noticeable, perhaps from his sheltered youth, convincing him everyone is looking out for his best interests. 
Again, the reader feels exasperation, wanting him to realize more has to be going on around him. Older Jean, looking back, expresses this: “If I could go back in time and return to that room, I would change the bulb. But in brighter light, the whole thing might well dissolve.”
Gisele shields him from any ugliness (often leaving him in the car with the dog), and now in love, they decide to move to Rome after one last favor for her friends. So kind her friends are! They’ve provided them with cash for the move and even that car! Again, just for a brief favor. Jean only begins to sense, as they pack for Rome, that something may be amiss. It’d be a good time for his parents to advise him, yet they’re gone. The question then jars the reader: Why exactly did his parents move in the first place? 
Time is a tricky player in this novel: Jean lives and makes decisions in present time, his older self is observing backward in memory, and then older Jean actually returns to the places and haunts that clouded his mind so many years ago. Clarity is never fully attained, lost in that same fog and mist that romanticized Paris and served to confuse young Jean years before.

Published by Yale University Press
A Margellos World Letters title

Sunday, October 18, 2015

All the Things We Never Knew by Sheila Hamilton (memoir, mental health)

First published in the NY Journal of Books
October 18, 2015

Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness
Review by Amy Henry

Sheila Hamilton and her daughter Sophie suffered unimaginably and yet found their way to wholeness again. Both were entirely upended by the behavior and suicide of their husband and father, David. What they endured is unspeakable. Not having a safe base for living in an already conflicted world truly tests the human spirit.
Not only did David commit suicide, there was a protracted hunt for his body after he left the city behind with his intentions fairly clear to those who knew him. It was winter, and his family couldn’t help but imagine him out in the cold, alone. Eventually he was found, and it was said he finally discovered his peace after he killed himself; however, that peace wasn’t extant for his wife and daughter: Not only did he not leave a note, but he left them heavily in debt.
This family deserves empathy and understanding, but parts of this memoir are very difficult to understand. Not to underestimate someone’s pain, but questions arise as to the premise of the book and the idea that he was dead “within six weeks of a formal diagnosis of bipolar disorder.” Formal is the key word here, because it’s clear from the onset that David was suffering from a mental disorder for a very long time.
It’s important to note that Sheila Hamilton is a noted radio and TV personality in the Portland area, highly successful in a cutthroat business. From childhood to the height of her career, she was successful precisely because she knew people and reflected a sweet and happy personality that her fans found relatable. She is a smart cookie.
Therefore, reading her describe her courtship and early marriage to David is terribly confusing. From their initial meeting at a coffee shop, David seemed too good to be true. He had some quirks, which is something all of us have to own up to. But their relationship was fraught with periods of unusual behavior on his part. Long disappearances, secretiveness, and constant personal disorganization despite a successful business were troubling events. Interactions with his own father were not of the warm and fuzzy nature.
It wasn’t long before he was cheating on her (she found out) and even taking his child on his rendezvous with women. Asking one of the child-care providers on a date was less than shocking. He had a penchant for escapism. At times, as well, he would become extremely irate and irrational over the noise of cars on a distant street. It’s clear he was troubled, and reading it makes you wonder why his family did not seek help sooner. 
This is why the premise of his sickness being discovered “only six weeks” before his death is inaccurate: His family was enduring his pain along with him for much longer. Years. This presentation adds a certain scare tactic to the memoir, as it asks readers to consider mental issues as something that can come on rapidly, without warning. Yet the details shared are themselves revealing as to how long he suffered and how some forms of intervention may have helped. 
Hamilton is from a large family in Utah, and has no doubt spent time with hundreds of friends, coworkers, and acquaintances in her life. She had to know what rational behavior was and what wasn’t. How could Hamilton, given her knowledge of people, not see it? She cannot be blamed in any way, of course, as David was the one who was sick and put her through countless incidents of infidelity and pain. Was it the stigma of mental health problems that made it difficult to broach the subject or was she in denial, given his tremendous talent and charm?
Sheila Hamilton -Portland's pride
She clearly had a close relationship with her daughter and was able to provide stability and certain life luxuries that may have made it easier for Sophie to endure what may have seemed odd in her young mind. Perhaps focusing on Sophie helped Hamilton avoid the more painful thoughts of David and her helplessness in dealing with him.
In any case, Hamilton ends most of the chapters with an informative page on mental health statistics and traits so that readers may see what she didn’t. One of them, entitled “The Escape Theory of Suicide” is especially interesting. In it, one psychologist noted that “most people who kill themselves actually lived better-than-average lives” but created “unreasonable standards for happiness.” This statistic is prefaced with the shocking detail that men commit four out of every five suicides in the U.S.
The memoir ends with numerous resources for those with questions to investigate. The array of organizations designed to help different sorts of people with varying sorts of mental health issues is a positive step in helping to decrease the horrific statistics. Hamilton is a brave woman to come forward with her story and potentially help other families.
Special thanks to Seal Press for the Review Copy. 
 If someone you know is suffering from behavior you may think is troubling, contact your local mental health resources or MentalHealth.gov, NAMI.org, or SAMHSA.gov.  Each provides an easy anonymous means to get help and have questions answered.  Also, never forget the power of meeting with a regular family physician to rule out medical problems. Pursue any means to get help for your loved ones before it is too late.  Don't let the stigma or embarrassment hold you back.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Quicksand by Steve Toltz (fiction)

First Published in the New York Journal of Books
October 12, 2015

He’s the last person you’d want to sit by on a bus. As a brother-in-law, he’d probably make you poke forks in your eyes at the family picnic. Probably the most self-absorbed and offensive character you’ll meet…so, why is he so appealing?

This is Aldo and he’s the gyre this novel seems to revolve around, dizzy and disjointed in a way filled with seriously witty lines and repellent acts. Aldo and Liam are long-time friends who’ve grown into adults left with little to take pride in, and a history of disappointment. Having both lost sisters to early deaths, they share a bond that makes you think that you’re headed for a poignant tale of friendship. Poignant, yes.  Wildly unpredictable?  That too.

At times it appears that the purpose of Aldo is a mirror to discover the nature of Liam, a fascinating character on his own. Liam is a writer who is so interested in authenticity for his characters that he attends the police academy to research police procedure. When his novel dies soon after, he ends up becoming a policeman to make his living. The irony of painful reality versus dreams.
research can be dangerous

When the story begins Aldo is in a wheelchair, and the two are bored in a bar in Australia. Regret swarms them. Liam’s police uniform chafes him mentally, and Aldo is bent on offending everyone. Liam decides that Aldo is his lost muse, and decides to return to writing: “to write about you is to troubleshoot the human spirit.”

For Aldo, a middle-class kid who is not graced with any advantages, life is a brutal game of catch-as-catch-can. Early in his teens he’s falsely accused of rape, and it alters his personality forever.  “Always democratic in his alliances, now he became friends with everybody…It was as if by surrounding himself with people, he was building airtight alibis for every minute he passed on earth.” His personality becomes a jarring combination of moral superiority and immoral and illegal business practices. Fond of himself, he assumes others loathe him.

Schemes abound, such as his idea to start a B&B&B (Brothel, Bed & Breakfast), as well as developing restaurants and films. Without much forethought, he reels in investors but delivers nothing. He becomes a legend in their region, a loser that seems to have a group of successful acquaintances who help bail him out, enabling him to continue to delude himself, when they aren’t beating him up. And there’s always Liam to come to the rescue.

But in his misery and joblessness, he has all the great lines. Of a stiff-mannered sketch artist, he said “he looked like he would have to be loved intravenously”. Of himself, he says he is “a sleeper angel waiting to be activated”. His acerbic presence in the first half of the novel is delightful.

Here’s where the narrative gets complicated. In a completely non-linear way, tossing most conventions aside, Toltz gets experimental. We are forced into leaving the storytelling for a long-winded section about Aldo’s fate. He’s facing trial and we have yet to understand what caused his disability. 

When he was a wise-ass blowhard with intriguing thoughts and observations, he was a sympathetic character. We liked him more than he liked himself (which was a lot!). His efforts to get the upper hand on his body are epic: he attempts surfing even if it means dragging his paralyzed body across the sand. But once the trial begins, and he’s given free rein to explain his life in his own voice (up to now we’ve had Liam narrating), he is simply a blowhard. 
Aldo's secret beach?

He tells astonishing stories and it’s clear that madness is a factor weighing into the outcome. Scenes in court seem like hallucinations. His reality is one of a hypnotic attraction to desperate women, suicidal (yet considerate) people, and a host of other repellent and obnoxious images.

Awkward dialogue take the place of much needed exposition and it becomes a confusing tangle of allegations, and the introspective ravings of a bore. This section, “The Madness of the Muse”, lives up to its title.

All said, the novel features tremendous wit and a juicy repartee with the two men. Liam is intriguing as a foil to Aldo: a straight man to his comedy.  By the conclusion, seeing that Aldo’s long-term influence on Liam actually makes Liam a better man is an irresistible concept.
This is not Aldo.  It's author Steve Toltz.

In the final pages, Aldo asks Liam about that book he was writing. Liam’s response: “It’s been hard...Really hard. I mean, I’ve been working around the clock to get down an accurate cross-section of your traumas, but it’s difficult to make an underdeveloped person into a well-rounded character. I think I’ve accurately depicted how you’re critical of others yet despairing of your own unceasing self-regard, and how you don’t think so much as secrete thought…The thing is, I want to make you real. Tangible.”

Review copy courtesy of Simon and Schuster. 
Released 9/15/15.