Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton completed by Marion Mainwaring

Penguin Books, 1993

This is not a new book, having been published in 1993 and serialized for a dazzling PBS Masterpiece Theatre in 1995. However,I came to it only recently after renting the DVD for a second viewing and learning the novel on which it was based, about a group of Nouveau Riches Americans in the 1870s who take England by storm, was by one of my favorite authors Edith Wharton, though it remained incomplete at Wharton's death in 1937 and was finished by Marion Mainwaring–-a Wharton scholar and writer––and published posthumously.

The ethical question of posthumous publication has long been debated among writers and scholars, and is all the more significant when the work is not just in first draft, but incomplete. According to the "Afterword" Wharton's literary executor, Gaillard Lapsley, first published the incomplete (through Chapter XXIX) work in 1938 with only "'certain verbal emendations required by sense or consistency'." Mainwaring added another 27(!) chapters and made "a few other... changes" in the Lapsley version "when it seemed that Wharton would have revised to avoid repetitiousness, and when she referred to a race in terms repellent to modern readers." Wharton had drawn up a synopsis and outlined the novel, though the written chapters apparently "departed from it in significant respects almost as soon as she began work."

Despite the high praise in the blurbs, mostly saying how Mainwaring maintained the Wharton voice or transitioned seamlessly, I would respectfully disagree. Missing in Mainwaring's style are the ornate, almost Baroque, sentences, and, oddly, for a work with a more upbeat ending, it lacks the tongue-in-cheek observations on society that characterize Wharton's more tragic novels. In addition, many of the chapters added by Mainwaring comprise multiple scenes written in small chunks, many no more than a paragraph long. Before reading the "Afterword" I assumed these had been a part Wharton's original draft that Mainwaring chose not to "fill in." But apparently that was not the case. Mainwaring also departs from the great beauty of Wharton's understated love scenes, with the one major love scene reading like something more suited to a Harlequin Romance.

The Buccaneers is one of those rare cases where I found the TV rendition actually better than the novel it was based on. The three-part Masterpiece series focuses on all the American girls who, due to a lack of pedigree, are scorned by New York's Gilded Age society and make up for it by marrying into aristocratic but impoverished English families. The novel as completed by Mainwaring focuses almost exclusively on Annabelle Tintagel (nee St. George)––whom I found, in many ways, the least interesting character––and seems out of sync with the plural title.

As novels go, in general, this wasn't a bad read. As Edith Wharton novels go, I found it lacking and disappointing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow by Donald McRae

This book was provided free of charge through Amazon Vine

I knew more about Clarence Darrow's famous cases––defending Leopold and Loeb, The Scopes Trial, and the Sweets––than I did about the man. Though growing up in a family that was pro-union with an immigrant grandfather who supported the Communist party, was an atheist, and nearly arrested during the Palmer Raids , I had a vague sense of who Darrow was and what he stood for. Still, I probably wouldn't have considered this book had it not been available to me through the Amazon Vine program.

Overall I'm glad I did decide to try it. While I generally prefer my biographies (though this is really only a partial biography dealing with the end of Darrow's life) a little more straight forward and less inclined toward the dramatic, when dealing with an individual I might not normally read about, a slightly lighter treatment makes for an easier read. Former South African Donald McRae did an excellent job of researching, and his dramatic touch perhaps was necessary when dealing with a figure who depended so much on drama to win his cases.

At first I wasn't too keen on references to Darrow's love life with Mary Field Parton, his almost life-long mistress, mostly through her diary entries, especially as she wasn't present for any of the main events. Yet they did serve to provide insights into Darrow's character. On the other hand, telling so much from her point of view left me wondering whether she was his "one and only" or as Darrow's wife Ruby obviously thought, one of many or someone who insinuated herself into his life for personal gain. A little more about Ruby Darrow––who, after all, was there for most of the trials––other than how she appeared through his mistress's eyes, might have provided more balance.

What enthralled me the most about this book, though, was the history.  Amazing that back in the 1920s this avowed atheist, Clarence Darrow, could have so much support in the press defending two obvious sociopaths and the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. In our more "modern" times hiring an atheist as your defense lawyer would be tantamount to flipping your own switch on the electric chair. I also remember learning about the Scopes trial in high school and thinking how lucky I was to be living in a time when Evolution could be taught freely. That was 1969.  We could definitely use more Clarence Darrows today––men and women not afraid to claim the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution.

All in all, a book worth reading.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Shades of Luz by John Gorman

This book was provided as a free review copy by the author.

John Gorman's first novel Shades of Luz is a fun read, though I must admit I'm a little surprised it found a publisher. That's not criticism. It's just that the book is hard to classify, and classification––or genre––seems to carry far too much weight with agents and publishers these day. Happily All Things That Matter Press must be somewhat more flexible.

Shades of Luz is part coming-of-age novel and part love story and even a bit surreal at times. Benny Fluke is a 29-year-old still living at home and working on his Master's thesis, the subject of which he keeps changing. He meets the elusive Luz while selling stuffed animals for a fake charity, and from then on she threads through the story, popping in and out of his life, encouraging him to move out of his parents' house, eventually sharing his apartment, but always hovering between friend and lover. The story is enlivened still more by some oddball and humorous minor characters and Benny's unusual workplace where he goes from overseeing the monkeys who pick stocks on a dartboard to championship thumb wrestling within the same company. And then there's that strange secret about Benny's Mom.

As a Baby Boomer I'm used to thinking of coming-of-age novels dealing with teens, but 29 is probably on target for the current coming-of-age generation. One thing that did confuse me a bit about the novel was the time period in which it was set. While much of it seemed current, Benny's workplace seemed a little futuristic, though maybe it was just meant to be fantastic. Whatever, it added interest and humor.

I "met" John Gorman when I accepted and edited Boba Fett Blues, my last official job with The Rose & Thorn. So I wasn't surprised that Gorman is at his best in those scenes that reminisce on childhood and adolescence.

Here's wishing John Gorman success with Luz and all future endeavors.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

A review copy was provided free under the Amazon Vine program

This is the first novel I've read by Lorrie Moore, though I'm a big fan of her short fiction, particularly "People Like That..." the story that deservedly seems to get mentioned in every workshop I attend. So I was looking forward to this, but I ended up very disappointed.

The novel is loosely about a young woman, Tassie, in her sophomore year at a college in a small Wisconsin town. The time is 2001, beginning just after September 11, which I imagine was supposed to have some significance, but I don't know what, as the story could have taken place any time in the last eight years. Tassie goes to classes––though seemingly not very often for someone who is a good student––works as caregiver to an adopted biracial child, visits her boyfriend––sometimes alone, sometimes with said child––and spends a lot of time alone in her apartment playing her base guitar. If that doesn't sound very interesting, well, it really isn't.

Moore's snarky observations and internal dialogue work great in small doses, but when they take up the majority of 321 pages, the style becomes very waring. The characters she interacts with––though interact is not really the right word, because most of the dialogue is inside Tassie's head––are far from cliche. So far, in fact, that they are all enigmas, including Tassie herself, and not one is developed fully enough. The few events are only tenuously connected, if at all (see my zine writer post on soap opera writing), and, frankly, unbelievable. Since they all clump at the end of the book, I'll give only one away. That's when Tassie works with her farmer dad over the summer, dressing in a bird costume and running ahead of his combine to scare the mice out of the fields. She does this willingly and even drives into town on her motor scooter one day, still wearing the costume. And what happened when she arrived? We don't know. It isn't part of the story. From this you might get the idea there is something surreal or symbolic about this work, but the style just doesn't fit with that.

I read a recent interview where Moore said she enjoys studying the way people talk. That's obvious here when she writes about the support group her employer, Sarah Brink, holds every Wednesday for adoptive parents of black and biracial children. Bits of their conversation are overheard by Tassie as she babysits the kids on the third floor. Yes, they are self-congratulatory, self-absorbed, and totally clueless. Those points come across in the first few lines, but not only does it continue for pages––including those typical inside jokes that realistically get repeated ad infinitum––but Moore covers several of these gatherings.

I'd like to end on a positive note, but I honestly didn't find one good thing about this book . At the same time, during the entire reading I was very sympathetic toward Moore as an author. The lay reader who doesn't follow the publishing business often thinks known writers "get away" with bad books because of their name recognition. But writers who excel at the short story are often pressured into producing novels for both financial and career reasons. Short stories sold separately don't pay very well, and big publishers won't accept collections without the promise of a novel. I always keep that in mind when one of my favorite short story writers produces another novel. In this case, I'm guessing Moore's heart wasn't in it. So she did the best she could.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Howard Dean's Prescription for Real Healthcare Reform

Written with Igor Volsky and Faiz Shakir

A review copy was provided free by the Amazon Vine program, however the biggest influence on this review was my party affiliation, strong support of healthcare reform, and my great admiration for Dr. Howard Dean.

I thought I was a little smarter than the average bear when it came to understanding healthcare reform, since I worked in employee benefits for more than 10 years in the 70s and 80s when cost-containment (but not yet issues of denied coverage) had just become a major issue. However, I still learned quite a bit from Dr. Dean's book about the past history of healthcare reform, what is included in Obama's plan, and what other countries do. I highlighted huge portions to quote for healthcare reform blog.

Though obviously put together quickly, including a few typos and awkward sentences, it is still quite interesting and easy to read. At the same time, I'd say it is as objective as it needs to be in this fight that has turned into a shouting match. When opponents of reform are spouting outright lies--which they are--there isn't room for much deference. On the other hand, what some are touting as a plan from the far left, actually pays great homage to our free enterprise system. Dean repeats over and over that Americans wouldn't accept a plan without choice, though I'm not so sure that is true.

However, as originally a strong advocate of single payer, I was amazed to learn that most of the countries providing universal healthcare are not single payer but a system of competing private plans with guaranteed coverage and community rating with most either providing some form of public option for those who can't afford private coverage or a mandate on what private insurers can charge. As I can't see anyone in this country accepting regulation of what a private insurer can charge as premiums, the public option now appears to me as the most reasonable way to go.

I was a little vague on how much of what Dean outlines is actually part of the Obama reform plan and how much is what he, Dr. Dean, would like to see. But there's no doubt that, as a physician and former governor who successfully reformed Vermont's healthcare system, he is knowledgeable on the subject and his ideas should be considered seriously.

Even if you think you already know where you stand on this subject, I suggest you read this book. It could change your mind.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

I looked up Thomas Savage's books on Amazon after reading about him in the Winter 2008 issue of Montana, the Magazine of Western History. Born in Dillon, Montana and publishing 13 novels between 1944 and 1988, Savage is rarely listed among contemporary western writers like Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, or Larry McMurtry, possibly because only a few of his books take place in the west, and he didn't begin writing until he'd settled in New England. He also had a certain cosmopolitan flamboyance at odds with the stereotypical western personality. Consequently, thinking I'd discovered a "forgotten" writer––or one Montana had rediscovered for me––I was surprised when the edition I ordered turned out to have been reissued in 2001 and had an afterward by Annie Proulx. Though it's not a surprise that Proulx would have been drawn to the subject matter of repressed homosexuality in the cowboy west. This time the novel was written in the 60s and takes place in the 20s.

The Power of the Dog is a most unusual novel. One thing I enjoy about most Western writers, both contemporary and those from the past like Willa Cather, is the way the western landscape becomes a character in itself. This is not so much the case with this novel. Nor would I say the writing is particularly stand out. What does stand out, though, in this novel where a grown man and a young boy eventually turn into two opposing forces battling for supremacy, is the psychological depth of the characters, their contrasting personalities, and the scheming and plotting, handled so deftly that it did not seem at all over-the-top. And while, on my zine writer blog, I often warn new writers to avoid a "twist" at the end, this one worked well.

Reading the article in Montana, which should eventually become available online, one wonders if Savage didn't hide his own homosexuality behind a wife and children as so many did in those times and if this didn't provide the depth of insight into his characters. But while Phil and his step-nephew Peter dominate the story, all the characters are well developed down to the parents who really play only a minor roll.

This is the kind of book you are drawn to read in one sitting. It really pulls you in, and, when it becomes available, I highly recommend the Montana article Thomas Savage for greater insight into the author and his times.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Scribner May, 2009

A review copy was provided free by the Amazon Vine program.

I have not read Colm Toibin's other books––Blackwater Lightship or The Master––both of which were apparently shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but going by the reviews on Amazon, those who did read his other books, and enjoyed them, found Brooklyn to be a disappointment. I thought it a pleasant enough story, more akin to something your immigrant mother or grandmother might tell you, with the caveat that it all turned out for the best. Only, like a story Grandma might tell, the story of Eilis Lacey, who leaves her small town in post-WWII Ireland to find work in Brooklyn, lacked the depth and tension to hold my attention through 262 pages.

Having not read his other books, I can only speculate that part of Toibin's problem might have been taking on a female POV, though other male writers have done this quite well. Here Toibin seems to only skim the surface. He tells us what happened, but brings to it no depth of emotion. We meet a wide range of characters, especially in the bording house where Eilis lives, but we don't get to know any of them well, including Eilis herself. Threads are begun, then dropped, as when Eilis screws up the courage to approach her Jewish law professor, who turns out to be a Holocaust survivor. From the conversation I thought he might become a rival of Eilis's Italian boyfriend, but the man and the thread simply disappear. Same with when Eilis's boyfriend Tony reacts sadly to the story. I expected there would be something about Tony's war experiences, but, for all we know, neither Tony nor his older brother were in the war.

Which brings me to my second major criticism––much of this simply did not ring true. It is unlikely that Tony's Italian family, particularly his mother, would be so welcoming to his Irish girlfriend even if she did take the time to learn to twirl her spaghetti (I'm Italian, born in 1953, I know these things). It is even more unlikely that, in the 50s, a young Irish Catholic woman who gave into a night of passion with her boyfriend, would so easily have her guilt assuaged by one confession with an unusually open-minded priest and the fact that she wasn't pregnant.

All the tension comes in the last 30 pages or so, and I will say, at that point I kept reading to find out what Eilis would do. It made an interesting choice.

I certainly wouldn't say I disliked this book, but I can't say I liked it either––at least not enough to highly recommend it. However, if you like a simple, fairly happy tale––beach season is on it's way––this could definitely be read in one sitting.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tender Graces by Kathryn Magendie

Free review copy provided by the publisher.

In the tradition of To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Graces is a moving tale told through the unfiltered thoughts of a young girl. Unfortunately, Virginia Kate Carey and her siblings have no Atticus Finch to usher them through the ups and downs of childhood. As the adult Virginia Kate struggles to reconcile painfully conflicted feelings about her dead "Momma," the young Virginia Kate, "Seestor" as her brothers call her, tells the story of the confused, at times tormented, adults in her life, who often reverse rolls with their children. The only fairly steady figure is stepmother Rebekha, and even she is riddled with self-doubt and requires bolstering from VK at times.

Telling a story mostly from a child's point of view can be a challenge, but Magendie, deftly, never steps out of voice to engage in "author speak." From the cool mountains of her "holler" in West Virginia to hot, steamy Louisiana, she takes us with her wherever she goes, with sensory details that bring the story to life without weighing it down, and the ending, while I won't give it way, is just what the story calls for.

I don't know about blood, but I certainly know the sweat and tears that Kathryn Magendie put into her first novel and efforts to bring it to life for others to read. From this point on, I hope others will follow in short order.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dreams from the Monster Factory by Sunny Schwartz with David Boodell

Free review copy provided by the Amazon Vine Program

The description of this book on the flyleaf is a little misleading. It would have you believe that it is all about the RSVP (Resolve to Stop Violence Program) and ideas for reforming our abominable criminal justice system. (That last bit about the "abominable system" are my words and not part of the description.) It becomes that, eventually, but not until about 70+ pages of a 200-page book. Until then it is a memoir--haven't we had enough of those yet--told in the typical memoir style of infusing an otherwise fairly normal childhood with painful Freudian significance and centering on the memoirist as though Sunny Schwartz, alone, could see the failings of the criminal justice system she worked in. Even more irritating for me was the snarky style that nearly caused me to toss it in the trash more than a few times.

I'm glad I didn't, because it eventually became the story of the development, implementation, and relative success rate of RSVP, which represents a holistic approach to violent crime that includes bringing perps and victims together and getting violent criminals to accept responsibility for their actions. The second half of the book--over which I am guessing Sunny Schwartz had more control than her co-author--is totally different, told in a calmer, more mature voice and giving credit where credit is due, to all he people who helped develop the program, get it off the ground and keep it running. Still some of the most important points are lost, such as that the program is only running in two places in the country, funding is a constant struggle, and it isn't getting nearly the recognition it deserves.

I have enough writer friends trying to get books published that I won't blame Ms. Schwartz for these problems. I can just imagine her agent/editor telling her how no one wants a book about prison reform, but memoirs are selling like hot cakes, and then assigning a co-author to turn the book into this unfortunate hybrid. In fact, I can think of lots of people interested in a book about the RSVP program such as the 100 or so people with whom I volunteer teaching decision-making skills to inmates, as well as judges, lawyers, law enforcement and corrections officers, and anyone else connected with the criminal justice system. However, not only is it asking a lot of busy people to weed through all the extraneous preliminaries, it would be awkward for a professional to suggest this to staff when it includes far more about things like the author's love life than most readers would need or want to know.

Still, if you have a professional or human interest in our criminal justice system; if you, like me, feel it is failing and badly in need of innovative ideas; and if you are willing to pay full price for what amounts to half a book (or, better yet can get it from your library), then you will benefit from Dreams from the Monster Factory.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise

Provided free from Amazon Vine.

This book is apparently the third in a series. The first two, Covenant with Black America and The Covenant in Action were aimed at the African-American community (of which I am not a member). This third--and final?--in the series is aimed at a larger audience, I'm assuming because we now have an African-American president who is accountable to all of us. The book tells real-life stories in areas of concern like health care, education, the economy, etc.; sets out various possible solutions; then provides a checklist for how each player--including we individuals--can be held accountable.

I chose this book because I have enjoyed Tavis Smiley's work on NPR, I do believe in citizen involvement and have my own ideas how each of these situations needs to be handled, and because I had my doubts as to whether candidate Obama's rhetoric on change would translate to President Obama's action plan.

I was disappointed, but to be fair, it had a lot to do with the timing of my reading. First, in the midst of this severe economic downturn, tragic tales like people losing their medical insurance elicited not my usual empathy, but a panicking fear about my own situation. Second, I didn't see any of the authors' solutions being particularly workable. Third, I wasn't sure I saw the point in listing the ways that, say, insurance companies should be held accountable when I'm betting their CEOs aren't even reading the book, and fourth, the list of things individuals could do were pretty much the same as they've always been--call your Congressman, vote, get involved. Nice when you are talking about saving the park down the street from development, but paltry in light of the issues we face today. Also, as of now I'm pretty pleased with Obama's action plan and his no BS style of putting it forward. The man's feet haven't been removed from the fire once since election day, and I think it's time to stop questioning his every move.

As recently as last year, with more hope in the economy and less hope in our elected officials than I now have, I might have found this book motivating and uplifting. Reading it now, I actually found it somewhat depressing.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Three Books on American Indians, Land Loss, and the IRA

In its February 24, 2009 decision on Carcieri v Salazar the Supreme Court decided that the word "now" in the Indian Reorganization Act means the year 1934 when the Act was passed.

The term "Indian" as used in this Act shall include all persons of Indian
descent who are members of any recognized Indian tribe now under Federal
jurisdiction, and all person who are descendants of such members who were, on
June 1, 1934...

In light of this ruling I thought it might be appropriate mention some good books on the subject of how American Indian land was lost in the first place and how the IRA worked to reverse the tide.

In 1887 the Dawes Act divided Indian Reservations into individual allotments with the purpose of ending the very unAmerican custom of holding land in common and turning Indians into farmers. Another convenient consequence was to open un-allotted land to sale outside the tribe. The allotments were to be held in trust by the Federal Government for a specified period, after which they would become fee lands that could be sold by the individual owners. One purpose of the Indian Reorganization Act (part of FDR's New Deal) was to end the hemorrhaging of Indian land being sold for subsistence or, especially during the Depression, lost for taxes.

An excellent book on the history and effects of the IRA is The Nations Within, the Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty. Under the IRA, provisions were made for the Secretary of the Interior or Congress to take land into trust for American Indian tribes. Since 1934, according to the NCAI website Interior has taken about 9 million acres into trust, accounting for only about 10% of the total lands lost between the Dawes Act and the IRA. Now the Supreme Court has ruled that the Secretary's ability to take land into trust applies only to tribes federally recognized as of 1934.

But as any school kid knows, most Indian land was already lost before The Dawes Act. Some Eastern tribes have been on reservations for over 300 years. Others like the Lenape who started in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, were constantly pushed west until they ended in Oklahoma, which, for a time, was supposed to remain Indian Country until it too was opened to settlement. So how did the Indians come to lose all that land?

A common misconception is that Indian land was lost through conquest, but that isn't really accurate. Conquest by Law tells the history of Johnson v M'Intosh, the land tenure case that was the first of the Supreme Court decisions known as the Marshall Trilogy that formed the basis for American Indian Law. How the Indians Lost Their Land tells how, "between the early seventeenth century and the early twentieth century almost all the land in the present-day United States was transferred from American Indians to non-Indians."

Some of what you read here may be surprising.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ablutions, Notes for a Novel

Publication Date: February 18, 2009

Provided free from Amazon Vine
Given the major cutbacks among the big publishing houses and the tendency over the past decade or so to go with the promise of commercial success, I am very surprised that Ablutions by Patrick deWitt found a publisher outside the small presses. That isn't a criticism. It's just that the style is somewhat experimental and the author's prior publishing credits––three in all––were not exactly in top-tier literary journals.

"Notes for a Novel" is an accurate description of what is mostly vignettes centered around the life of an alcoholic and substance abusing bartender working at a well-known but now seedy Hollywood bar. That format along with the second person point of view (you), which I can enjoy in short pieces but often find tedious in a novel, had me convinced I'd hate this. Instead it pulled me in, so much so that I felt so creepy-crawly and grimy I wanted to take a shower, but I couldn't put it down. Scary to think––but no doubt true––that so many people drive our highways with that much booze and narcotics in their systems. And not to give anything away, but I hope the first thing this guy did with his money was visit a good dentist.

I can imagine the author struggling to shape all these notes into a compelling novel, then giving up and deciding to just work at threading them together. The result is something masterful that would have come off rather prosaic had he stuck to a standard form. Ablutions has the potential to become one of those breakout word-of-mouth novels like A Confederacy of Dunces, only happily the author is still with us to enjoy the praise.

At 163 pages, Ablutions is a one-nighter if you can handle the intensity, but however long you take, it's well worth your time.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Valeria's Last Stand

Provided free from Amazon Vine

Valeria's Last Stand
by Marc Fitton is the lighthearted tale of a Hungarian town reluctantly moving into the 21st century before even catching up with the 20th. The term lighthearted, here, should not be confused with insignificant or throw-away. It is light in the style of Italo Calvino who uses humor to point out the foibles of society.

Zivatar is the town history ignored–no bombings during WWII, no tanks rolling through during the 1956 Revolution. The current older population looks back wistfully on Communism, not as dogma, but as a convenience that would have provided security in their old age. Now the mayor––once a loyal party member, now an ardent capitalisit––is determined to drag his small town into the future, building a train station and constantly courting foreign investors with the promise of new factories and jobs. In a town where everyone is still either a farmer, a shopkeeper, or a craftsman, where everyone travels on foot or on bicycles, the mayor takes his Mercedes to travel just down the block.

Valeria is an old spinster, once jilted, who afterward never enjoyed life and became the town hag, until love presents itself in the form of the town's Potter. The Potter, a widow, has had a short fling with the pub-owner, Ibolya, herself somewhat disillusioned with life and love. None of these characters is young any longer, yet, like the town, they teeter on the brink of change, at times lured by its promise; at times recoiling in fear.

Marc Fenton is Editor of the Chattahoochee Review, and anyone who has read the short fiction that appears there may, as I was, be somewhat surprised at his writing style. However, it is definitely a pleasant surprise and one I would highly recommend.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Running Alone in photographs: A Novel by Robert Mirabal

I have followed Robert Mirabal's music for years now. I saw both he and bother Patrick (see below) in concert. I'd read Robert's poem, "They Survive" in Po'pay: Leader of the First American Revolution. Now Robert Mirabal has written a novel, Running Alone in photographs, that reads like a combination of his music and poetry.

Reyes Kristina Wind is a young American Indian Woman from Santa Teresa Pueblo in New Mexico, an artist who lives for her music and travels the world on a quest for something she can't quite name and from which alcohol and drugs will not provide escape. She never knew her father––a vet whose soul was destroyed in Vietnam––hardly knows her mother––who spent most of her life searching after her lost love––but she has an advantage over many of the other Pueblo youth she knows. She was raised by traditional grandparents who taught her to love the land and the things that grow in it.

The entire novel is framed in a few hours of Reyes' memories after returning to Santa Teresa for her grandmother's funeral. One imagines that Santa Teresa serves as a stand-in for Mirabal's home of Taos––once a haven for artists, then hippies, and now a tourist attraction––and Reyes, at times, serves as Mirabal's alter ego providing that much more depth and truth to the story.

This is a very interior novel, but in the tradition of American Indian writing that explores connections with the natural world that surrounds us. Anyone who has read my blogs knows I love Native American literature for the beautiful language and imagery that seems to come naturally to a culture with a story-telling tradition. Mirabal's prose is no exception. There were just a few spots where he seemed to fall into stream of consciousness, and in those few instances I had trouble picking up the thread. However, over all, this is a beautiful story told in beautiful prose and I am looking forward to reading more from Robert Mirabal if he can miraculously find the time in his busy career.

Couldn't resist adding these photos. Below I pose with Patick Mirabal in 2007 (I'm on the right and I've lost a few pounds since then).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Nothing Right

Provided free from Amazon Vine
Okay, then, this collection makes a great follow-up to my post about stories that appear in The New Yorker because the stories in this collection that didn't appear in that magazine should have. Antonya Nelson's work here typifies that group of elite literary writers these days who appear to write more for each other than for a larger audience. One imagines that the main characters in these stories are almost all either thinly disguised versions of the author or people from the circles in which she travels.

Just about every character here is middle class, hovering somewhere around 40, divorced or cheating or being cheated on or all three. The surrounding cast of characters may vary slightly in that the kids may be older or younger, well-behaved or delinquent, the lover's age might vary, but the main character appears over and over in a slightly––very slightly––different play.

Within this circle of writers I refer to above, cheating is such a matter of course that no motive need be given and only the slightest lip service is paid to guilt or angst. Husbands are, of course, non-descript beings who don't know how to "give". Supposedly mature women fall in and out of love like adolescents and regularly follow strange men to their homes or apartments without the slightest thought of ending up a naked corpse in a ditch somewhere.

The characters here are so frustratingly flat they remind me of Barbie dolls. You can buy Mermaid Barbie or Native American Barbie or Beach Barbie, but really they are all the same doll only wearing different clothes. That's the way these stories left me feeling.

To summarize, if you are one of those who reads The New Yorker each month waiting to see what new gem of literary fiction will be included, this collection is for you. If you are like me and puzzle most months over what, exactly, is supposed to make those stories so great, then give this one a pass.