Friday, January 30, 2015
Thursday, January 29, 2015
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.
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.
- 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)
- 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)
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
“…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.
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
"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.
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 http://www.utexas.edu/news/2011/08/01/pennebaker_word_choice/)
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
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:
Monday, December 3, 2012
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?
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.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
|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.
Another worthy mention is that this version lists useful websites for further research, notably The Poetry International Web Net (http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/home/index/en) 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
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison, from Algonquin Books (hardback):
Thursday, November 8, 2012
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?...it’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.