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The Carrion Birds: A Novel - Urban Waite UPDATED 3/27/13 - Interview with Author Urban Waite - below review

No Country for Old Middle-Aged Men

Ray Lamar was a drug enforcer, a killer, but ten years ago it went bad, with the Juarez cartel, a rival to his boss, killing his wife and severely damaging his son in a hit-and-run. Ray had left, feeling unable to care for his son, but now he is back, and dreaming of living a legitimate life he has taken on one last job from his old gangster employer, Memo.
Ray had wanted this for so long and never known how to do it, something so simple, a visit to see his son, a new life away from the violence of the last ten years.
He wants the payoff from this to tide him over until he can get established, and go legit. The job is supposed to be simple, a heist, yank some H from a truck, at least that was what he was told, but Ray smells a rat. There is more to this assignment than he was told. Blood is spilled and everything goes to hell from there.

[While reading the book, I kept seeing the face of Brooklyn-born Esai Morales as Ray]
description

Ray's cousin, Tomas Herrera, had been the sheriff of Coronado, NM. But before Ray left, while he was still trying to find and punish the cartel people who had taken out his family, he asked Tomas to look into a local cartel employee, a woman. She wound up dead. Tomas wound up an ex-sheriff. That's a lot to take, even if Tomas always did love and admire his older cousin. How Tom and Ray deal with each other is one of the many fine elements in this excellent novel.

[I see the face of Demian Bichir for Tom]
description

When Tomas was kicked out of office, he was replaced with a young deputy, a woman he had trained, and liked, Edna Kelly. The mayor wants her to keep Tom away from any sort of police-related activities, but the guy knows his stuff, and she could use the help. That they might have at one point been more than friends adds a level of tension, even though they have moved on.

The baddie in town is Dario Campo. He's the guy who owns a bar in town that does not seem to do a lot of business, but is, somehow, always open. Dario arranges for the transportation of imported product. It is his transport that Ray was sent to heist. Dario is no simple black hat. There is another deep-background baddie, but we will not address him here.

There are enough supporting players to matter but the unheralded co-star is the town of Coronado, New Mexico. In the same way that Jennifer Haigh writes stories that tell the tale of Bakerton, PA (See Baker Towers and News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories), Waite writes about the slow death of a town. The oil that lit up the local economy years back has been pumped. We see yet another local well lay off it's entire crew. The mayor struggles to keep the town from disintegrating entirely, desperate to keep bad news quiet, much as Mayor Vaughn urged Chief Brody to keep things on the down-low on Amity Island back in the 70s. How many oil towns in the southwest have seen their flames go out as the petro was drained and replaced with a whole lotta nuthin'. It is not just the lives of the main characters that are at stake.

I am at a decided disadvantage here as TCB is my introduction to Waite. Those with exposure to his earlier works will be better able to comment on his actual oeuvre. I gather this one has a lot in common with his last one, but you will have to check other reviewers for consideration of the changes, or consistencies from one book to the next. But we do know that Waite admires some writers and works in particular. He said in a 2011 interview with Powells', I really like Cormac McCarthy though I think it might show too much in my writing. He mentions Blood Meridien as one of his favorite five books. So we can look for the town to get painted red, and it ain't Christmas. Another item that popped to mind was the film There Will Be Blood. It has the obvious relevance of considerable violence in the West, although TWWB had much more to do with oil. In There will be Blood, Daniel Plainview's need for family is foiled when his adopted son, deaf, cannot hear and learn from him. In The Carrion Birds, Ray, who desperately wants to have a normal life after having wandered in the desert for many years, is faced with a son who was damaged as a child and can neither speak no hear. There will be no happy family ending for him. Unlike Plainview, our guy does not see himself as god-like, but his need for vengeance resonates with Plainview's.

There is a lot in here about greed, revenge and hoping for that which lies beyond reach. In addition to Ray's dream, Tom would like to be sheriff again. And they are not alone in their unlikely desires. We can count on the baddies for greed, and Ray will provides all the revenge we will ever need, both ten years in the past and in the today of the story. Will justice ever be enforced? Can it be? What constitutes justice anyway?

On finishing this book, I had a feeling that it was somehow Shakespearean, more than a western, more than a noir, but had substance that I was feeling, but was unable to articulate. I claim no special knowledge of Shakespeare. Like most of us, I have seen many plays and films, and have read many books that either were Willy's original plays or updated interpretations, but my familiarity is non-academic, of the garden-variety sort. So, I did what anyone in 2013 facing a shortage of knowledge might do, I headed for my internet machine to see what I could see. What I came up with was an ancient (100 yrs old more or less) text by an Oxford don that goes into the details of what it is that constititutes Shakespearean tragedy. I began listing elements, criteria and hoped to be able to come to a firm conclusion based on those. The result? Ah, there's the rub. While many of the elements do fit nicely into this novel, there are others that have to be squeezed in like a stepsister foot into a glass slipper. I am including that list here, but have tucked it under the cover of a spoiler notice, recognizing that it is a sidetrip not everyone will want to take. In order to consider whether the story does or does not conform, one must look at elements that will give far too much away. I have provided spoiler protection within the spoiler to spare those readers who opt to indulge. The book in question is Shakespearean Tragedy - Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lean and Macbethby one A.C. Bradley, an erstwhile professor of poetry at Oxford. The book is available for free thanks to the Gutenberg project. Clicking on the above title will take you there.
Some material is more spoilerish than others, so I have added sub-spoilers, just in case you wandered here in error.

1 - it is pre-eminently the story of one person, the 'hero,'
Check - this is Ray's story, and while others figure in significantly, primarily Tom, it remains Ray's story


2 - The story leads up to, and includes, the death of the hero - check


3 - The suffering and calamity are, moreover, exceptional - check
Wife killed, child damaged for life, father tortured and killed

4 - exceptional suffering and calamity, then, affecting the hero, and—we must now add—generally extending far and wide beyond him, so as to make the whole scene a scene of woe - check - there is a significant body count

5 - They befall a conspicuous person. Here we hit a soft spot. Ray has been away for ten years, so does not quality as locally conspicuous, although everyone there seems to know him from his earlier time in the town

6 - actions beget others, and these others beget others again, until this series of inter-connected deeds leads by an apparently inevitable sequence to a catastrophe - check - the calamities that befall are a product of human action, not the heavy hand of fate or the almighty

7 - the conflict may quite naturally be conceived as lying between two persons, of whom the hero is one; or, more fully, as lying between two parties or groups, in one of which the hero is the leading figure - well duh-uh, conflict assumes opposing parties

8 - here is an outward conflict of persons and groups, there is also a conflict of forces in the hero's soul - check - Ray enters the scene hoping that he can ultimately walk away from the criminal life, but struggles to decide whether to remain and seek vengeance or leave

9 - They are exceptional beings - in Ray's case one might argue that his skill in combat, his history as a special forces soldier, is what raises him above the ordinary, but in Shakespeare's tragedies his primary tragic character was a political leader, a royal, someone very clearly in the public eye, so elevating Ray to that level is a significant stretch - no check

However, the royal/leader character represents in a way the potential demise of an entire comunity, embodies that in fact. While Ray lacks that sort of societal standing, the town is, in fact endangered by his actions. Those actions may be only a part of the longer demise of the community, but that his actions tie in to the town's peril might (in a sneaky way) raise Ray up a notch into that "Exceptional being" category, just barely, with a bit of wishful thinking.

10 - In the circumstances where we see the hero placed, his tragic trait, which is also his greatness, is fatal to him - check - his skill in combat, that which makes him special, also allows him to seek large scale vengeance, which forces the authorities to come after him

11 - the Elizabethan drama was almost wholly secular - check
There is no meaningful reference to god as an actor here

Oh, and Willy the Shake tragedies take place in five acts. Ditto TCB, which is spread over five chapters.

One could go on in this vein for some time, but I will spare you further such contemplations. Suffice it to say that, with some reluctance, I am persuaded that Ray's journey qualifies as of the Shakespearean tragic sort. I encourage you to check Bradley's very interesting free book, if the subject pulls you.

The title, The Carrion Birds, seems quite well suited to the story. It is the town that is dying and sundry characters have been picking at the likely corpse for some time. Drug dealers are prime among these, but they are not the only ones. Another view might be that carrion birds are harbingers of death
The thought of death still circling him, as it always did, as it always did, high up like a vulture on the wind.
While it is tempting to settle on this, it is worth bearing in mind that this book was published in the UK under the title Dead if I Don't. I do not know why this change was made, and whether it was the author's idea or not, but I think the newer title is definitely a better fit.

Bottom line, this is a powerful read, with engaging characters, in all shades of gray, complicated matters under consideration, and a forward momentum that will keep you turning the pages. Dig in.

========================URBAN SPEAKS

After the review was posted, Urban sent a note of thanks. I followed up with some questions, and the author very graciously offered thoughtful responses. He has OK'd the use of his words here. I inquired into why the title was changed from the UK version.
The title change was a decision I made after it was pointed out to me that all of the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris start off with "Dead." So, since my book was quite a bit different from those I wanted something different for a title. The Carrion Birds title was the pick that I went with here in the US.
I asked if I was barking up the wrong tree re the whole Shakespeare thing:
To be truthful I hadn't thought about the Shakespeare connection until you brought it up. But that's not to say it isn't a large part of The Carrion Birds. The origins for much of what I write are usually a bit chaotic and hard to place. My writing just kind of "pops to mind" for lack of a better term. And it's only after reflecting a bit on it that I start to get a feel for the origins.

I remembered re-reading Macbeth in the course of a night during a break I was taking from the novel. I was a little out of it and I was trying to find a way back into The Carrion Birds and something in there must have clicked for me. I had also been reading James Dickey's To the White Sea and there is a definite sense of tragedy (or tragic karma depending on how you look at it) in that book. Plus a very early draft of TCB dealt with a sort of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid kind of feel. All that paying for your sins stuff. Which plays pretty well in TCB.

I should also say that a lot of my education in college came down to how many Shakespeare lit classes I could take, as well as all the electives I could fit in with film classes on Hitchcock. I like to say that Graham Greene has always been the biggest influence on how I put a novel together, but thinking on it now I'm starting to realize when I first came to the daunting task of putting a large work together, I fell back on my knowledge of plays and films.

With this in mind I'm arguing for Ray as a sort of "exceptional being." He's the son of one of the richest, former oilmen in the valley and in that way he is a sort of royal in the small scale of this community. So perhaps I was channeling some Shakespeare after all.
I asked if had any thoughts on casting:
As for casting, that's one loaded question for me. I like your choices. Definitely two actors I would get behind in a heartbeat. But personally I try not to think on it too much. I worry I might start seeing those faces when I jump in on some bit of writing. And it might change how I lay out my characters or what decisions or actions I want them to accomplish. It's just better for me if I don't get too close with them. Who knows when I'll have to kill them off...
Had he considered leaving Memo to his dark devices instead of the fate he wrote for him?
He's such a bastard of a character. I feel like left to his own devices he would have ended up the way he does no matter what happens. So I guess I could have let him be, but what fun would that have been?
Finally, what's coming up?
I try to get in at least five pages a day on the next project. And that project being a sequel to my first novel, The Terror of Living, makes the stress just that much higher. I loved my first novel and to be working on a sequel to it is exciting but also horrifying. I want what I'm writing now to outdistance what I've written before. I want each new project to be better than the last and so coming back to these characters I guess I just want to do them justice in the most badass way I can.
Thanks so much to Urban for offering real quantities of his time, and I guess I really should get cracking on his prior novel.

=====================================LINKS

2011 interview with the author - from Powell's

Author's site

Author's Facebook site

A free short story by the author on Simon and Schuster's site

The Shakespearean lectures book noted in the review
The Silent Land - Graham Joyce
True silence. The freezing of all sounds. It wasn’t possible in the modern world, to listen to the sound of true silence. Perhaps not even in the ancient world, either: there was wind in the desert; insects in the depths of the forest; wave activity in the middle of the ocean. Nature did not tolerate silence. Only death accepted silence; and there was silence here.
In The Silent World, Graham Joyce’s eighteenth book and 2011 World Fantasy Award and British Fantasy Award nominee, a young couple, Zoe and Jake, on a skiing holiday in the Pyrenees, are caught in an avalanche. Jake frees himself and digs Zoe out. But when they make their way back to their hotel, on the outskirts of Saint-Bernard-en-Haut near the French-Spanish border, everyone is gone, from the slopes, from the hotel, from the town.

It does not take long to figure out the main underlying situation here. The author certainly offers plenty of clues. Thankfully, the characters in the story realize it as well in short order, and the rest is figuring out the details, the significance of the sundry events that occur, the meaning of symbols that appear, the messages that intrude into the bubble, the finer points of their dilemma, and how things will turn out for the couple.

Where Stephen King used enforced isolation in Under the Dome to look at how a town full of people expose their true selves, Joyce employs a similar external device to contemplate deeper existential concerns with a man and a woman standing in for you and me. Zoe and Jake are in a place where their basic needs are well taken care of, and some exotic ones as well.
“I asked if you thought we’re trapped here, or if we’ve been freed here.”
“Depends on which way you choose to see it.”
“Exactly. There isn’t a right answer, is there? It depends on how we choose to see it. If we choose to see it as if we’re trapped here then our situation is tragic. If we choose to see that we’ve been liberated here, then it’s the opposite.”
“Comic?”
“Comic isn’t the opposite of tragic.”
“No.”
“I mean to say. If we choose to see it the right way, we could have the most magical time here. You and me. Together and alone. We have warmth, shelter, food, the best wine, skiing on wonderful slopes together. It’s paradise: if we choose to accept it. If we choose to call it that.“
They face some crucial questions concerning who they are.
It was true that they had taken many skiing holidays together and after so many it did become difficult to distinguish some of them; but it disturbed her that he couldn’t remember any of it.
“Where has it gone, that holiday?” he said. “How come I can remember others but not that one? I mean, it’s not like my memory is a DVD that fell behind the cupboard. It’s just gone.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said.
“It damn well does matter. What are we if we’re not the sum of our memories?”
Are we more than the sum of our memories? Do we cease to be who we are/were if/when those memories fade? As someone with a rather unreliable internal hard drive, that is a question with resonance. Am I less myself today because bits of my experience have been sloughed off like dry skin? Are you less yourself? Later, worried about Jake’s fade, Zoe offers an alternative.
She was deeply worried about him, but she said, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because everything you can see or touch or hear or smell has a story attached to it; a story I can tell you. If you say bacon, I can tell you a story. If you say snow, I can tell you a dozen different stories. This is what we are: a collection of stories that we share, in common. This is what we are to each other.”
There is fun to be had with this book, and it is a fast read, particularly considering the core existential subject matter. What do the crows on the police car signify? How about the masked men that appear? Or the large black horses? This combination of serious content and surface gamesmanship made this a fascinating read. We may not spare a lot of time thinking about the things that Zoe and Jake confront but maybe we should, if only we could block out all that bloody noise.

Random items
I suppose one could look at the word Haut in the name of their town where Jane and Zoe stayed two ways. High-class, as in haute cuisine, and there is certainly some good life to be sampled where they are staying, or in the Germanic meaning of Haut, which is skin. In that case they were staying on the surface of things without penetrating to the meat. The St Bernard portion of the town name could relate, I suppose, to an ancient saint, but I prefer to think of it as having to do with rescue.

The author seems like a pretty interesting sort, a working class bloke from a mining family, he got a BA in 1977 and an MA in 1980. He worked as a youth officer, which I presume means some sort of social worker-cum-coach for a Youth organization for many years until he and his wife move to Greece, where he wrote his first novel, Dreamside. It sold, and he became a full time writer from that point. His reputation is as a writer of fantasy and speculative fiction, whatever that means. Here is an item from the Wikipedia page on Joyce that informs us a bit on how fantasy might have come naturally to him
"My grandmother was one of these old women who used to have dreams and visions and messages arriving. She would fall asleep in a chair, there would be a knock on the door, she would go to the door, someone strange would come to the door and deliver a message. And then she would wake up again in her chair. Now my mother and my aunties told me these stories over and over again. But they just lived with it side by side. They didn't fight it as in a fantasy or horror film. They didn't have to overcome it. It didn't get worse and worse and worse. They just accepted this mystery and then they cooked the dinner."
Lest one imagine a contemplative nerd, GJ still plays goal for the England Writers Football team.

============================LINKS
The Wikipedia page for GJ

Joyce’s own page
Angels in Stone - Tanja Kobasic The author asked me to review this book, and sent along a free copy for that purpose.

There are two stories in Tanja Kobasic’s Angels in Stone. The first is that of Claire Preston-Lockwood, an accomplished real estate broker, drop dead gorgeous, and cougarishly older than her studly hubby, Jonathan. Smitten when she met this diamond in the rough, she gave him an education, access to the finer things, and career opportunities, but she cannot give him the thing he most desires, a child. What’s a controlling sort to do? Turns out there is a way. All she has to do is sell her soul to Satan. She finds her hope in a voodoo priestess living in a dodgy neighborhood in the Bronx. And that is where the other piece of this story resides. Esperanca’s story goes back hundreds of years to the jungles of Brazil, and a ground war between the forces of Satan and God.

Claire was damaged as a child when her mother died in an auto accident. She has buried a secret about that event and it eats at her. It is fueled by her hatred of her father, whose infidelities she blames for her mother’s death. Claire shows occasional moment of humanity, but remains, for the most part, a stone cold bitch Angel. Her younger, and pure-hearted sister, Rebecca, was too young, or too innocent to have much recollection of their mother, and seems not to have been damaged by her loss.

The story here takes place in two time lines and with two very different looks and feels. Claire’s story is of her quest to keep her man, and she will do whatever it takes. It is contemporary, set in the high life of New York, where money flows like water and ethics are a sometime thing. Claire is not above the occasional blackmail to get what she wants. She is not a nice lady, and engenders little sympathy, from me, anyway. But the story picks up considerably once she encounters Esperanca.

Esperanca is a voodoo witch. She lives in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx, a high-density, primarily minority neighborhood, not nearly as appealing as it’s most famous former resident, Jennifer Lopez. The Canadian author lived there for a while and gives us an informed look-and-feel of the place. Not a prime vacation destination. Claire may be our preening bird of paradise, but Esperanca’s arrival is where the story takes wing. Not only does Espie offer a mechanism through which Claire connects with the real bad guys, but she is also the teller of a fascinating back story. The character of Esperanca makes this tale fly, like a great actor to whom your eyes are drawn in every scene. Hers is the most angelic element of the novel.

Get out your Google, Bing or search engine of choice. There will be names and places to look up, which is part of the fun of this book. Names taken from, or based on angels are rampant. Kobasic takes the back-story to Brazil and peers several hundred years into the past. You will visit coastal Bahia, heart-of-darkness Mato Grosso, and get a front row seat for some nasty good-vs-evil goings on. I found this to be the most engaging part of the book. It also took a bit more attention, as there are several instances in which the rules of engagement were a bit of a challenge to keep straight. Too much maybe, but not quite enough to ruin the adventure. There are some striking visuals here too, as long as you do not suffer from ophidophobia. Some dark scenes are, or should be, a bit too disturbing for sensitive or young readers.

The book is a bit uneven. There are passages that I quite liked.
“You’ve been a bad girl,” Esperanca said, with a lazy smile. “Got a lot of fuckage on you.”
“Fuckage?”
“What I’m getting at is that you fucked over a lot of people. Fuckage…like baggage. The depravity that you drag around with you like a ball and chain.”
But there is a bit too much telling, on top of showing. Kobasic has fun feathering her novel with bird imagery. My copy arrived with an actual black feather in it, a lovely, light-hearted touch. I hope that in subsequent volumes there is some more payload on the actual details of early missions in Brazil. I believe that is the plan.

If the battle between good and evil in its very primal state is your thing, you won’t go wrong with Angels in Stone. The author shows promise, and we expect her skill to continue developing as she works her way through this series.

This book is the first in a series. The second, Ashes in Stone, is due out later this year.

Posted 3/11/13
News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories - Jennifer Haigh The news is not always good.

Jennifer Haigh, clearly mining a favorite seam, manages to hit the motherlode again in her new tales of Bakerton, PA. Her 2005 novel, Baker Towers, painted a three-decade portrait of the small mining town, from 1944 into the 1970s, focusing on the lives of its residents, and most particularly, the five siblings of her fictional Novak family. In returning to Bakerton, Haigh brings back several of the characters from her earlier work, completing some unfinished stories of the family, and expanding her scope as well. There are plenty of faces, even beyond those of the Novaks, that will be familiar to readers of the earlier book. In News From Heaven Jennifer Haigh demonstrates once more the immense talent for which she has rightfully come to be known.

She has not been idle in the eight years since she introduced Bakerton, PA to the world. In 2008, The Condition , was released, an excellent a multi-generational family drama set in New England. In 2011, she produced the exquisite Faith, about a priest accused of sexually abusing a child. In that novel and in other work she showed a power that put her at the top level of contemporary fiction writers, and she just keeps on getting better. But, apparently, Haigh had been puttering with Bakerton tales ever since Baker Towers came out.
I didn’t, for a long time, imagine publishing them as a collection. I wrote them one at a time, in between novels or drafts of novels. And after about ten years of this, I realized that they belonged together in a book.
So in a way, despite moving from Pennsylvania to the Boston area, one could say that in News from Heaven, Jennifer Haigh returns to Bakerton. But in a very real sense she never left.

This is a book about longing, loneliness, about secrets, about wanting to flee the stifling confines not just of small town life but of responsibility and living with one’s choices. Maybe about pleading with fate. Yet it is also about the pull that our homes can have on our hearts. The stories are filled with yearnings, some met, many not. Disappointment shuffles through these stories. Secrets are revealed, often to dark effect. These are stories about change, in the world and in her characters.
…good fiction always begins with complex, well-developed characters, and to write those characters I have to know where they came from. I imagine them as children, their fears and frustrations, the rooms where they slept at night, and I find it all so interesting that I have to write about it. I have come to accept that — in my hands, anyway — every story becomes a family story.
As with Baker Towers, most of the action in the book takes place in Bakerton, with a few forays beyond, and the great majority of her characters are women. There are ten stories in the collection. All of them will make you feel. Four of the first five look upward, in their titles at least, while the latter five seem to look down. There are moments of awakening, moments of glorious freedom and possibility that shine through this sooty, declining place, lives that find meaning, whether real or faux, whether passing or permanent. But it seems that for most of the inhabitants, whether they remain in Bakerton or have sought greener pastures elsewhere, the news from on high is that they have to get by with what they can and not look for a paradise on earth. That said, Haigh’s writing is heaven-sent, her ability to portray real, breathing people is celestial and her talent for portraying place is rapturous.

It is not necessary to have read Baker Towers in order to appreciate the strength of the writing on display here, but it certainly helps to have done so in order to get the fullest picture of her players.

===============================THE STORIES

Beast and Birds opens the collection in the past. Sixteen-year-old Annie Lubicki is engaged to work in the household of an Upper West Side Manhattan Jewish family in the 1930s. The family has a son whose destiny it is to become a scholar. We are given a servant’s eye look at life in NYC as Annie experiences it on her first time away from home. On a weekend while the adults are away, Annie is charged with caring for the young man. He is unwell and cannot accompany his parents on their trip. He and Annie have developed a relationship that is nothing but sweet.
There are many words for what she’d felt as she watched him sleep, many words in many languages, but the one she knows is longing
Did they or didn’t they?

In Something Sweet, an ironic title, Haigh brings back teacher Viola Peale from BT. She is much taken with a student, a boy who has a natural way with girls, is a gifted salesman who also demonstrates a flair for decoration. He offers her a lemon drop. “It’s nice to have something sweet,” he says. Of course he incurs the wrath of those maybe not so smooth. During the summer visit of a young relation Viola is smitten with a hunky second cousin who is very wrong for her--In a trance of longing, Viola sat on the grass, hugging her knees to her chest--and her desire is harshly rewarded. The young student knows he will never be accepted in the town and looks for a way out. The sweetness here is of the bitter variety.

In Broken Star young Regina has a magical month in the summer of 1974, when her cool Aunt Melanie comes to stay with the family for a spell, and provides a wonderful assist during a time of growth and change. Gina thrives with Melanie’s encouragement but still has concerns about life, and her future, a girl born to a farming family, who is not all that interested in the land, a girl who fears getting stuck.
My uncles…were like all the men I knew then, soybean and dairy farmers who spoke rarely and then mainly about the weather. Yet unlikely as it seemed, I accepted that these men had the power to transform. My aunts had been pretty, lively girls—one stubborn, one mischievous, one coquettish, according to my mother—though somehow all three had matured into exactly the same woman: plump, cheerful, adept at pie making and counted cross-stitch, smelling of vanilla and Rose Milk hand lotion. That I would someday become that same woman terrified me. My only greater fear was that nobody would choose me, and I would become nothing.
Years later, after marrying, living abroad and having written a book, Regina learns a tragic secret about her aunt, and the cost of her own separateness.

A Place in the Sun continues the unfinished story of Sandy Novak from BT. Despite his charm, beauty and certain skills, Sandy has never managed to get or stay ahead. He seems always on the run and has a gambling compulsion. Still, he and his sister, Joyce, maintain some sort of a connection, even if that usually means her sending him money. Trying to straighten up he takes a job at a diner in North Hollywood
She had hired him off the street. Bleary, hungover, he’d wandered in for breakfast after an all-night card game. A sign in the window said HELP WANTED. Can you cook? Vera Gold asked.
He looked down at his greasy plate. Better than this? Sure. You bet.
It is not long before Sandy and statuesque, red-headed Vera are an item, to the chagrin of Vera’s much older husband. Of course this complicates Sandy’s relationship with a young Canadian cutie, who is looking for more from him that he is interested in giving.
”That’s where I used to work,” he said, pointing. The familiar sign filled him with an old longing, the looping S with its tall graceful curves

The Sands A PLACE IN THE SUN

“Is that where we’re going?”
For a moment he was tempted. The town had a short memory, and seven years had passed. Still he wouldn’t chance it. He’d been known there, known and recognized. Sandy from the Sands. It wasn’t worth the risk.
And across it all he ponders his family back east, and the odds of life taking a positive turn.

To The Stars looks at the town’s reaction to Sandy’s passing, with particular focus on Joyce, and her feelings about her own choices. Sandy was once a chauffeur to the stars but never managed to become a star himself.
She is thinking not of his death but of that earlier departure, his disappearance like a magic trick, as dizzying and complete. His manic and determined flight from Bakerton, from the family, from her…and yet Joyce could never leave them [her family], run off to California or to Africa, as her younger siblings have done. Freedom is, to her, unimaginable, as exotic as walking on the moon.
Thrift introduces Agnes Lubicki, a nurse who has lived her life in service to others and found herself with no way to have anything for herself. Until a man enters her life, and Agnes gives up everything for him. Is this what she’d been saving for?

In Favorite Son, Mitch Stanek, a studly jock, had been expected to coast to a career in professional sports. But something is amiss when he goes away to college on a full scholarship. We see him, back in Bakerton, married with kids, and out of work when Mine #11 shuts down, putting 900 out of work. Joyce Novak’s daughter, Rebecca, narrates the tale, and has special knowledge about Mitch, that tells us whether he was destined for fame, or not. It is in this story that we get the quote that births the collection’s title: The white flakes landed like news from heaven: notes from elsewhere, fallen from the stars.

The Bottom of Things introduces Ray Wojick, 52, back in town for his parents’ 50th anniversary party, with his pregnant second wife. Ray is looking to get to the bottom of things, his ultimate impact on his late brother’s fate, how his father was able to raise him, when he married a woman with a three-year old, how Ray’s first marriage came to be and came to end, his alienation from his children from that marriage, and how to cope once he learns what he needs to know.

Sunny Baker used to be a joyous kid, thus the name, but in What Remains we see what has become of her. When her parents were killed in a plane crash her life took a dark turn, and she never quite recovered. We see her through a series of relationships, each of which add more junk to her property and take a piece more out of what is left of her. The story is paralleled by the town wanting to attract construction of a new prison. Do the math.

Finally, Desiderata closes the book with Joyce Novak mourning the death of her husband, and remembering her dead son, and how he was lost. It also tells the tale of an inspirational teacher and a husband who had married a woman who did not or could not love him enough.
Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball's Longest Game - Dan Barry In the song Take Me Out to the Ballgame there is a particular line that comes into play here. Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack. I don’t care if I never get back. That sentiment was put to the test on April 18, 1981, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, when the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings played the longest game in professional baseball history. Given that the song is generally sung in the middle of the 7th inning, or after six and a half innings of play, the fans, had they been of a mind, could have sung the tune four more times before the game was finally concluded.

Dan Barry, a sports columnist for the New York Times, a guy who had lived in Pawtucket for four years, uses this singular game as a structure around which to build his depiction of minor league baseball, more particularly Triple-A level baseball, using the example here to stand in for the whole.

His approach is one that would give anyone with a generous dose of OCD a thrill. I did not keep track of the number of individuals who are mentioned and for whom Barry offers at least a little biographical info, but I expect it easily squirts past the defenders into triple digit territory. There is no index available for cheating and coming up with a credible number. Leave it that if a cat had wandered into the field during that game, Barry probably interviewed it, and I expect had he been able to identify the gulls that were in attendance, they would undoubtedly be pretty sick of him asking them about the game, and checking their eggs to find out if the unborn heard anything their feathered parental units might have mentioned about it. I do not mean this as a knock, but merely to offer a sense of Barry’s overall approach. It is reminiscent of an actual baseball field, a wide swath, covered in grass, only inches deep, but with particular parts that emerge, and form the more significant elements of his story, the mound, the bases. One or two deserve mention.

In one of the true rarities in baseball, the owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox sounds like he was a pretty decent guy. We learn about him lending a helping hand when the help really was for someone else and not just a roundabout way of helping himself. The best element was Barry’s look at Dave Koza, a career minor-leaguer who was known for his home runs, but whose major league career only had warning track power, a Crash Davis sort. Barry looks at Koza (really, someone must have nicknamed him “Lost”, but we never come across that here.) His story carries all the hope-and-dream elements that drive so many of these young men. Dave was the fellow who would get the game-winning hit in the bottom of the 33rd.

Barry gives us an illuminating look at the history of the stadium in which the game was played, tells us about the umpires, the ball boy, the intern, the security guard, the where-are-they-nows, the whole nine yards innings, or in this case thirty three. In a way it struck me as having something in common with rain delays, when hapless broadcasters (yes, he looks at those guys too) have to work extra hard to come up with material to cover the dead air between pitches. Barry certainly does work hard, and manages not only to fill in the blanks, I think he may have actually created some to give himself more time to fill.

If you are a baseball fan, this is a fun book. It is nice to know that Rich Gedman, Wade Boggs, Bruce Hurst, Cal Ripkin Jr,. Bobby Ojeda, and a few other eventual pros took part in the game, and that a game of such duration was ultimately made possible by a cut-and-paste failure in the updating of the league rule book. It is nice to learn of Bobby O’s role in sparking behavior that had once gotten a batboy ejected from a game. It is fun to hear that Mike Hargrove’s extended at-bat preparations earned him the moniker “The Human Rain Delay.” If you are not a baseball fan, Bottom of the 33rd offers a look at a piece of American culture that is as true today as it was over thirty years ago.

I can tell you from painful personal experience here in New York City that it is generally a bad idea to go to a ballgame in April. Hell, May and maybe even June, can feel like a wind-blown tundra in our stadiums. And farther north and east it must be even worse. It is no shock that only nineteen spectators made it through the entirety of the game. The book will take a lot less time to read than the game took to be played, and you will not be in danger of having bodily parts crystallize and drop off while you are completing it.

Bottom of the 33rd may not be a grand slam, but it is at least a hustle-triple. And it is definitely a good idea to Root, root, root for the home team.
Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign in Verse - Calvin Trillin Dogfight is a tale in verse of
twenty twelve's election
Barry O and Mittens' race
to make a strong connection
with voters all across the land
especially the swinger
who liked to play the field all day
to make attention linger

He offers up a host of rhymes
about the aspiration
Of those who burned to try to earn
the red-crew nomination
So many clowns, so little car
the up and down campaigns
The polls that changed the daily star
The paucity of brains

We have to thank the man who cranks
out poems by the week
The Nation magazine's his venue
should you care to seek
a steady dose of witty verse
and comments politique
For though it's so that there are many
poets who are willin'
The one who always gets it done
the author, Calvin Trillin.
Visitation Street - Ivy Pochoda UPDATED - 7/22/13 - added a link to today's NY times review

If Ivy Pochoda never writes another book, this one would be enough to keep her name on the lips of readers for decades to come. On a hot July night in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, (named, BTW, for the color of its soil and an erstwhile geographical point, not for the hook-shaped pier that juts out from it today) two fifteen-year-old girls, Val Marino and June Giotta, looking for a little fun, take a small raft out into the city’s upper bay.

View from Erie Basin 1

Only one returns, found unconscious under the pylons of a local pier.

Val's Landing From Valentino Pier

What happened?

There is danger in being in love. When we are in love we tend to lift up the things about our beloved that appeal, while minimizing, if we see at all, the things that do not. My feeling about Visitation Street reminds me of that. There is an air of ecstasy about it, as if I have found The One. And maybe there are flaws that I simply cannot see because of the overwhelming feeling of excitement that I experienced while reading this book. For what it’s worth, I have had this feeling several times in the last few years, with The Orchardist, Caribou Island, Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk, and Skippy Dies, to name a few. I have not felt any regret about declaring my love for them, and do not expect any regrets this time around. But just so’s ya know. Ahm in luuuuv. My wife understands.

This is a magnificent book, very reminiscent in power and achievement to Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. In fact the book is released under the imprint Dennis Lehane Books, and seeing how reminiscent it is of Mystic River that seems appropriate. Ivy Pochoda has achieved a stunning success in so many ways in Visitation Street that it is difficult to know where to begin. How about characters?

Pochoda clearly has a gift for portraying people. Val is struggling to remember what happened that night, and we feel her pain as she travels from forgetting to remembrance. Eighteen-year-old Acretius James, Cree, struggles to overcome the death of his Corrections Officer father, Marcus, and to find direction in his life. He spends a lot of his time on a beached boat left by his dad.

[Was this boat, seen on a pier off Beard Street, the inspiration for this?]
Boat on Land

Will he remain moored in the rubble of the past or find a way to sail forth? Jonathan Sprouse, a musician and music teacher at a local parochial school, and borderline alcoholic, has a lifetime of descent interrupted by an opportunity to do something worthwhile. He hears the world differently from you and me.
The wino’s voice catches Jonathan’s ear. It’s dissonant, all flats and sharps with no clear words.
and later
Nearly every day Jonathan tells Fadi about a piece of music that’s perfectly suited to the moment. Last week he said, “It’s an afternoon for Gershwin. Mostly sunny, a little snappy, but with a hint of rain.” And two evenings ago he asked. “Did you see the sunset? Only Philip Glass could write a sunset like that.”
Fadi is a bodega owner, invested in helping his community, and he works to try to unravel the mystery of what happened to Laura Palmer June Giotta. (and what is going on across the street from his shop with the owner of that place and the wino who seems always to be hanging out there?)

[Here is the real-world place that provided the model for Fadi’s]
Probably Fadi's Bodega

Finally, Ren is a mysterious protector who appears, seemingly out of nowhere, to watch over Cree and Val. (For those who are familiar, think the Super-Hoodie character in the British TV series, Misfits) Pochoda makes us care about every one of these people. She breathes life into them, giving us reasons to want them to succeed. We feel the love for these characters that their creator obviously does. But they are all, well, except for Fadi, damaged people, sinking, needing a life preserver of one sort or another. Val is a basket case after that night. Jonathan was born playing first violin and somehow finds himself at the back of the orchestra. Cree suffers from the loss of his father and Ren has a dark past that has defined much of his life. But they struggle to rise above the waves, and we cheer their efforts.

Next is the landscape, which, in this case, is the most significant character in the story. When SuperBitch Sandy raised the ocean's wrath in 2012, devastating large swaths of the East Coast, it was not the first time that Red Hook had been laid waste. The area had once been the primary entryway of grain to the nation. Large proportions of the nation's sugar was imported and refined in Red Hook, and a considerable swath of the metro area's beer was processed there. But the dock jobs moved to newer ports, the neighborhood was bisected when Robert Moses carved an elevated trench through it with the construction of the Gowanus Expressway, and the crack epidemic led Red Hook to be declared one of the worst neighborhoods in the nation in 1990. But Red Hook had been making a comeback. A new frou-frou supermarket has been built in a Civil War era waterfront building (it is referred to in the book as Local Harvest, but is in reality a Fairway. I have shopped there and it is fabulous, or at least it was before Sandy destroyed it. It reopened in March 2013) The story is set in 2006. There is now an IKEA in Red Hook, occupying what was an abandoned dockyard at the time of the story. On the next pier down was an abandoned sugar refinery, which was demolished in 2007, so don’t go looking.

access approved by Jake Dobkin of Gothamist
This image was found in Gothamist.com and permission was granted to use it here

A cruise ship terminal, imminent for most of the book, is opened by the end.

Queen Mary II
The Queen Mary II, at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal - 7/6/13

The change in the neighborhood is part of the world Pochoda describes. There is, by the way, a Visitation Place, on which is located a Visitation rectory.

Visitation and Van Brunt

We presume that the day care center at which the girls worked is there as well. There is a real Red Hook Gospel Tabernacle to match the one in the story. People were indeed killed in this neighborhood from drug-related gang violence, most notably a school principal who had walked out of his public school looking for one of his students, and took a stray round. In the Red Hook Houses, recently devastated by Sandy, reside some 8,000 people, in less than idyllic conditions. It is still a tough place.

So we have amazing characters and a spot-on depiction of a neighborhood in transition from drug center to the next cool place. Next comes plot. There is indeed a compelling mystery, and Pochoda is no less skilled at peeling back the layers in that than she is in revealing her characters, bit by bit. You will want to know what took place and Pochoda will let you know, in due time.

Next is the introduction of a dose of magical realism. Cree’s mother, Gloria, has the sight. Enough of a talent to spend countless days talking (visiting?) with her dead husband, while sitting on the memorial bench that had been erected to his memory. (This was inspired by the death of that public school principal. A school was named for him. Cree’s father must make do with the bench.) Enough of a talent that locals come to her for help in communicating with their dearly departed. That particular strand of DNA did not come to Cree, but his grandmother and his aunt also have the ability, and there may be another family member in line as well. After that night, Val sees and hears things. Is she losing her mind? She is not alone. How the people visited by these incomings handle the stress of it is a significant element of the tale as well. Is it real at all or merely the self-inflicted manifestation of guilt?

The notion of ghosts is prominent here in Pochoda’s Red Hook. Certainly the death of Cree’s father is a spectre that continues to impact both his son and his widow. Jonathan carries with him the burden of a death as well. Val must cope with the death of her friend, and Ren not only has death-related memories that live on for him, but has seen the torment of many others.
There wasn’t a goddamned night on the inside when I wasn’t woken by somebody haunted by the person he dropped. Ghosts aren’t the dead. They’re those the dead left behind. Stay here long enough, you’ll become one of them—another ghost haunting the Hook.
Cree’s mother communes daily with her late husband. And the neighborhood itself echoes with the change from is to was:
As he crosses from this abandoned corner of the waterside back over to the Houses he becomes aware of the layers that form the Hook—the projects built over the frame houses, the pavement laid over the cobblestones, the lofts overtaking the factories, the grocery stores overlapping the warehouses. The new bars cannibalizing the old ones. The skeletons of forgotten buildings—the sugar refinery and the dry dock—surviving among the new concrete bunkers being passed off as luxury living. The living walk on top of the dead—the water front dead, the old mob dead, the drug war dead—everyone still there. A neighborhood of ghosts.
I expect that by including references to sundry locations that have now moved on to another realm, Pochoda is linking the deaths and births on the landscape with the more human ghosts that inhabit this world. All these incredible characters come to life in this book, even though they are walking through a place as haunted as any graveyard.

The final piece here is the power of Pochoda’s writing. Here is a sample.
The women grow grungier and sexier the later it gets. Soon they bear no resemblance to the morning commuters who will tuck themselves into bus shelters along Van Brunt on Monday, polished and brushed and reasonably presentable to the world outside Red Hook. Nighttime abrades them, tangles their hair and chips their nails. Colors their speech. At night, the hundreds of nights they’ve passed the same way begin to show, revealed in their hollowed cheeks and rapid speech. Jonathan wonders how long it takes for their costumes to become their clothes, their tattoos their birthmarks. When will they let the outside world slip away and forget to retrieve it?
Really, what could possibly be added to enhance that?

Ok, there have to be a few chinks in the armor here, somewhere, right? I looked pretty closely at the geography of the events, and it seemed a stretch. For example, did Jonathan really carry the unconscious Val eight blocks to Fadi’s? Well, he is a young guy, 28, 29, so yeah, I guess it is possible. There is no inpatient hospital in Red Hook, and I have not yet found out whether there was one there in 2006. But I continue to search. The four-corners location which includes Fadi’s bodega appears to be located not at the intersection of Visitation and Van Brunt, but a block away at Pioneer Street. These are small items, and I have no trouble with the author using a bit of elastic geography to support her story. Certainly “Visitation “works better than “Pioneer,” the actual name of the street where the bar and bodega intersect Van Brunt, particularly as characters here are visited, in one way or another.

This not a book you will want to begin before bedtime, as you may find yourself reading straight through and costing yourself a good chunk of a night’s sleep. We are in can’t-put-it-down territory here. And you might want to have a good cardiologist nearby when you finish reading this book. It’s gonna break your heart.

It’s no secret. I love this book. But I’m a modern guy and this is not an exclusive love. I am more than happy to share. Don’t let this one sink beneath the waves of your attention. Reach in and pull it out. This is simply an amazing book. You must read it.

===============================IVY SPEAKS
I exchanged a note or two with the author since posting the review and she very graciously responded, OK’ing the use of her words here. I asked, “Do the names of the characters have personal relevance? Why June, Val, Cree, Jonathan, Ren and so on?”
A writing teacher of mine once told me that names should be simple but also stand out. Cree (Acretius) is the name of a guy I met when I was 11. He was older (19), black, and represented a teenage world that I couldn't really imagine. It just stuck with me. Val was originally called Viv which seemed too old. Jonathan (based on someone named William who really looks like a Jonathan) was named for that reason and after a music teacher I had in high school.
It seemed to me that the neighborhood of Red Hook was supremely significant here. “Was it your intent to mirror the ghostliness of the human life in Red Hook with the architectural changes that have taken place between 2006 and now, IKEA in place of the crumbling dockyard, Fairway due but not yet arrived, razing of the sugar factory, et al, or was that a happy coincidence?”
I truly meant to capture the ghostliness of Red Hook…Red Hook was as much a character for me as any of the real live people. In my first draft I was writing about the neighborhood more than the people in it, which wasn't so hot in terms of plot.
And as for the specifics of place in Red Hook
I lived, as I mentioned on Pioneer and Van Brunt. The Greek's cafe was downstairs and Heba / Hafiz deli was across the street. There's a Catholic School on Summit and an abandoned one on Henry (I think) that I used as inspiration for St. Bernardette's. Though in all honestly, some of the interior of St. Bernardette's is based on my school, St. Ann's on Pierrepont St. However, the boat was on Lorraine St closer to the projects. How the hell did it get there? That was super strange. It's so far from the water. The Bait & Tackle most certainly is the Dockyard. In fact, I'll be doing a reading there this summer. I can't wait.
Red Hook Bait and Tackle 416
The Red Hook Bait & Tackle on Van Brunt and Pioneer

I wondered if she had been inspired by particular art work, as there is a lot of it adorning the public spaces in the neighborhood
I really made up all the artwork in the book --- Ren's murals etc. There's no basis in real Red Hook graffiti there. Maybe soon!
As for what is next for Ivy
I'm in LA now and it's getting harder and harder to write about Brooklyn. I am tooling around with a book set here. Wish me luck!
Best of luck, Ivy. Although with talent like hers, I doubt she will need much.

==============================EXTRA STUFF

Ivy Pochoda, a child phenom, and later professional squash player, is a Brooklyn native. She grew up in Cobble Hill, not far from Red Hook, and she lived in Red Hook for a time as well, until signs of gentrification gave her second thoughts. She lives in Los Angeles at present. It sounds like she is there to stay, which is very, very sad. :-(

After reading this book, you might want to keep up with Ivy, so here are links to her website and FB page .

Ok, I got a little funny in the head, (love will do that to a guy) trying to trace the movements of the characters here. Along those lines I employed Google and made a map that shows many of the locations identified in the book.

Keep in mind that several places cited in Visitation Street have changed or been replaced. The abandoned shipyard is now an IKEA. The abandoned sugar refinery has been razed. The bar on which the Dockyard is based, as we have learned, is the Red Hook Bait and Tackle Shop with maybe an idea or three from other local watering holes. (And there is a new liquor store nearby, named The Dockyard, that looks to be opening ‘ere long)

In addition to the images I splashed all over this review, there are more, on Flickr.com. Some relate to the book more than others, but all the shots in this set were taken in Red Hook.

================================UPDATES
3/30/13 - I came across this piece in the NY Times re what the Real Estate types, in a bit of the location renaming that is a plague here, are calling the "Columbia Waterfront District." Get over yourselves, people. It is still Red Hook. There are some nice shots in the linked slideshow though.

7/4/13 - You must check out a video on Ivy's site, in which she talks about Red Hook and some of her inspirations for elements of the novel.

7/11/13 - A lovely piece on Ivy in the LA Times

7/12/13 - A fun interview with Ivy in LA Weekly, focusing on bars and eateries - worth a look

Reviews and the like
VS received starred reviews from PW and Kirkus, was named as one of the summer's best by Gillian Flynn on Oprah's site, and received glowing reviews from Entertainment Weekly and The NY Times

description
7/14/13 reading at the Bait and Tackle - by Joe Angio
Baker Towers - Jennifer Haigh Baker Towers is a family saga set in the fictional mining town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania. It begins with the death of the Novak family head in 1944 (although there are references to events that happened before this) and ends in the 1970s, when the town has begun to fall into decline. Haigh tracks the lives of the Novak family through the intervening decades, chronicling the impact of change in American society on this small town, and its characters. There are five children in the Novak clan. When we first meet them, George, the oldest, is serving in the military; his youngest sibling, Lucy, is piping hot out of the oven. Haigh has a talent for giving each of these very different siblings a unique voice. Some have more stage time than others (a flaw she tries to address by tying up some loose ends in a later book); but those in the spotlight are shown clearly and to great effect.

Haigh brings to life diverse aspects of Bakerton life, from the drudgery of factory work to ethnic and religious divisions, from union elections to the plague of black lung, from young love to adult desires, from a wedding with old-world elements to a town dance that summons an image of the Kaaba in Mecca. Haigh looks beyond the town for a bit, describing the experience of single women in DC during the war, and one woman’s post-war experience in the military. But mostly she concentrates on changes in the town and in her characters as the outside world evolves and time marches on. Cars and telephones become ubiquitous. Presidents are elected; one is murdered. But to the citizens of Bakerton, and the Novak family, the world seems distant, an echo over a far hill. But no matter how insulated or isolated they are in this close-knit small town, change seeps into their lives, shaping them in unexpected ways. Haigh offers us temporal touchstones in each chapter, helping orient us in US history.

As might be expected in any tale of a small town, there is much here about longing, but not nearly so much about escape as one might expect. The yearning for fulfillment is at the center of her characters’ lives, along with the fear that this small place may never offer a way to satisfy wants and needs, and might even extinguish hope.
Bakerton did this to people: slowly, invisibly, it made them smaller, compressed by living where little was possible, and where the ceiling was very low.
Not only are opportunities limited in the world of work, the range of the possible in romance is likewise narrow:
It was, she reflected, a dangerous pastime, mooning over the handsome, clever men on the screen. It doomed you to disappointment; it made you expect too much. [She] had never been in love, but felt herself capable of it. She could love Fred Astaire or Clark Gable or Errol Flynn, an elegant, cultivated fellow who wore wonderful clothes and possessed all sorts of hidden talents, who sang and danced and even fought in a way that looked beautiful; who even when he drank was witty and articulate and gentle and wise. The harder job was loving what men really were—soldiers and miners, gruff and ignorant; louts who communicated mainly by cursing, who couldn’t tell you anything about life that you didn’t already know.
The strength of the novel, only Haigh’s second, is her characters. Male and female (well, mostly female), these people are made real. Their desires are made as clear to us as they are to themselves, and we feel an investment in how things turn out for them. Like moviegoers loudly telling the little girl in the horror movie not to go back for her dropped teddy bear. (No, no, don’t do that. He’ll get you!) Or cheering when something right wins out over the opposition of time. (You go, girl!)

Haigh was born and raised in the great metropolis of Barnsboro, PA, a mining town that provided the model for Bakerton. Her grandfathers were miners. I have a bit of an in-house expert to consult on this. My wife was born and raised in Wilkes-Barre, PA, a more easterly version of Bakerton, a place with street names like Carbon Lane and Anthracite Street, and public spaces like Coal Street Park and Miner’s Park. She tells me that when she read this book some years back she felt as if Haigh had been writing about her town. So we can take it from a local that Haigh nailed it.

One caveat is that there are a lot of characters in this book. While one might be tempted to keep track of them all, to do so might induce madness. Stick to keeping up with the Novaks.

Baker Towers opens with coal cars heading in to town and ends, decades later, with Amish buggies. New, plain residents have emerged, and while they begin to re-green the land, the history that lies beneath remains. Lives go on, or don’t. Directions change, or don’t. Hopes are realized and dreams are dashed. Love is found and squandered. There are satisfactions and regrets. As Haigh makes clear, where you are from may not determine what your life will be, but it has an indelible impact on the person you will ultimately become

PS – I must add that in a rare exception to my usual strictly solo practice, I called on my wife personal editor extraordinaire for some assistance after completing an almost-final cut, and feeling unsatisfied with the result. She deserves partial credit (but no blame) for the contents, as the final edit was mine alone.

PPS – Haigh, eight years after Baker Towers was published, wrote a follow up, News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories.
The Death of Bees - Lisa O'Donnell
What on earth is happening to the bees? They say it is an ecological disaster, an environmental holocaust. Every day I wonder what the blazes can be causing this abuse of our ecosystem. Chemicals I hear, pesticides. I don’t understand it, really I don’t. Our planet faces extinction and yet nobody seems to care. Am I afraid? You bet your bottom dollar I am.
The environment in which sisters Marnie and Nelly find themselves does indeed look poisoned beyond hope. How can anything survive? This is working class Glasgow and the girls are alone. The book opens with one of the better first paragraphs I have read.
Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.
Marnie’s little sister Helen, aka Nelly, has gone and done it. Put the pillow over her father, Gene’s, drugged out face and completed for him the self-destruction he had made his life work. He would abuse her and Marnie no more. Mom, Izzy, made another in a lifetime of awful decisions and headed off to the shack to add her name to the list of those who have gone before. Consider it addition by subtraction. No more need to worry about all potential food money going up noses, into veins or being poured from amber bottles. No more concern about other sorts of abuse, too. But if the authorities find out, the girls will be separated for sure, tossed back into foster care, with who knows what sorts. The solution? A quiet back-yard burial. Who is to take care of these two?
I suppose I’ve always taken care of us really. I was changing nappies at five years old and shopping at seven, cleaning and doing laundry as soon as I knew my way to the launderette and pushing Nelly about in her wee buggy when I was six. They used to call me wee Maw around the towers, that’s how useless Gene and Izzy were. They just never showed up for anything and it was always left to me and left to Nelly when she got old enough. They were never there for us, they were absent, at least now we know where they are.
Author Lisa O’Donnell grew up in public housing to very young parents. In an interview with Powell’s (link at bottom) she talks about the Thatcher-era environment in which she was raised. The primary inspiration for this story came from her days in Scotland, but they were reinforced when she saw similar horrors after she crossed the pond and was living in East LA, children put in charge of children, wastrel parents, childhood denied.

Across the fence lives an old man, Lennie, still mourning the loss of his soul mate of forty years. That boy from whom he sought temporary comfort in the park was not as old as he claimed and now Lennie must endure vandals spray-painting his property and enduring the shame of being on a sex offender list.

Actual parents do not come across very well in O’Donnell’s world. Teacher sorts are a mixed lot and the state agents base their actions on formulae instead of reality. O’Donnell paints a very bleak portrait of working class life in Glasgow. The girls have been damaged by their upbringing. Marnie helps a local drug dealer and relieves her stress with shagging. Nelly insulates herself from the world by speaking in a queenly manner. She plays the violin beautifully but completely freaks out when encountering reminders of her precarious state.

Will the girls be able to keep their ruse going long enough for Marnie to reach 16, when the state will consider her an adult and allow her to legally take care of Nelly?

When the girls’ long-absent grandfather pops into the picture, looking to atone for a lifetime of being a bloody horror, things get even more complicated. He may mean well right now, but born-again or not, this is the guy who had a hand in creating one of those awful parents. His sobriety is not to be presumed, and there is a history of abandonment and violence to boot.

Marnie’s friends add to the pile of woe, coping with their own missing family members, and travails of one sort and another.

There is enough sadness here to fill a cemetery, but there is sweetness to come.

As dark as things appear, a glimmer of light shines through. Lennie is not only no sexual predator, he is just a lonely man with a need to care, and care he does, slowly taking the girls in, offering them the sort of loving home life they had never experienced from their biological parents.

There is plenty of tension in this book. Will Lennie’s dog, Bobby, succeed in his relentless mission, trying to dig up the buried remains? This bit does seem rather clichéd. Can Grandpa be trusted? Will the drug dealer kill them trying to retrieve money owed him by a dead parent?

I know, I know, it sounds pretty dark. And a lot of it certainly is, but there is such warmth in this book, such humanity, such caring, that you will be cheering by the end. Can Lennie’s light shine these girls past the darkness? And there is redemption from another quarter, as Marnie provides the vehicle for a baddie to tuck away his stinger.

These are teenagers and that means coming of age. The sisters in O’Donnell’s tale begin at somewhat extreme ends and move towards each other over the course of the story. Marnie, world weary at fifteen, with the help of people who actually care about her, despite some self-destructive behavior, begins to find her inner softness, her inner vulnerability, her inner child. The decidedly odd Nelly matures, moving from being a very dependent child to someone with much more appreciation for the world and her place in it.

There are multiple, alternating narrators here. Lennie talks to his dead love, Joseph. Marnie and Nelly narrate their sections as well, and speak in distinct and appropriate voices. O’Donnell is a screenwriter, so has a keen ear for dialogue.

There are some rough edges here. Nellly is described early on as a Harry Potter fanatic, but nothing much is made of it after that mention. The girls manage some significant work in places where it is surprising that their labors go undetected. O’Donnell relies too much on coincidence in constructing her climax. Would this or that person really have shown up where and when they do? Nevertheless the beauty here is in how two damaged, abandoned girls can be welcomed, nurtured, and allowed a real home and how a lonely soul can provide it, constructing the family they all desperately need. There is plenty of redemption to go around in this dark place. I was reminded a bit of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, another tale that casts love and hope against an intensely bleak background, the better to draw our attention to the light. The Death of Bees may not be a perfect book but does celebrate the triumph of hope over despair, and it is certain to generate a lot of buzz.


========================LINKS

There are a few interviews I came across that add to one's appreciation of this book.

USA today from December 2012

NPR from January 5, 2013

http://www.powells.com/blog/interviews/lisa-odonnell-the-powells-com-interview-by-jill/">Powell's
The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien Updated - July 10, 2013 - new link at bottom

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
Books exist in time and place and our experience of them is affected by the specific time and place in which we encounter them. Sometimes an uplifting or inspiring book can change the path of a life that has wandered onto a wrong course. Sometimes a book, discovered early on, can form part of the foundation of who we are. Or, discovered late, can offer insight into the journey we have taken to date. Sometimes a book is just a book. But not The Hobbit. Not for me. In January, 2013, I pulled out my forty-year old copy in anticipation of seeing the recently released Peter Jackson film. It is a substantial book, heavy, not only with its inherent mass, but for the weight of associations, the sediment of time. The book itself is a special hard-cover edition published in 1973, leather bound, in a slipcase, the booty of new love from that era. The book, while victim to some internal binding cracks (aren't we all?) is still in decent shape, unlike that long-vanquished relationship. Not surprising. I had read the story six times and been there and back again with this particular volume five.

The Hobbit had first come to my attention in 1965 or '66. I was then a high school underclassman, and my eyes were drawn to it at a school book fair. That was probably the ideal age, for me anyway, to gain an introduction to Tolkien. Not too far along into adolescence and an appreciation of the reality of the world to have completely tarnished my capacity for child-like wonder. That is what one must bring to a reading of this book, openness and innocence. Tolkien was a step sidewise for me, as I was a fan of the science fiction of that and prior eras. It was also, of course, a gateway drug for the grander addiction of LOTR, still my favorite read of all time.

One might think that looking at this book again with old, weary fresh eyes might lend new insight. After all, I have read literally thousands of books since, and have picked up at least a little critical capacity. And yes, there are things I notice now that perhaps skipped past back then. Of course that begs a specification of which back then one considers. While I first read the book as a high-schooler, I read it again when I was gifted with this beautiful volume, in my twenties. That makes two readings. But there would be more. I well recall reading the book aloud while sitting in a chair by my son's bed. And yes, each of the major characters was delivered with a distinct voice. I went as deep as I could for Gandalf. I vaguely recall giving the dwarves a Scottish burr. Bilbo was definitely a tenor. My Gollum was remarkably like the sound of the one created by Andy Serkisssssss. (patting self on back).

Of course, my son was not the last to arrive at the gathering. Some years later there was a daughter, and more bedside theater. It was a bit more of a struggle then. Life was rather hectic. Nerves were often frayed. Sleep was in short supply. And there were far too many times when my eyes closed before those of my little gingersnap. But reading it that fourth time, one couldn't help but notice the absence of any significant females. Who might my little girl relate to here? It is certainly possible for folks to identify with characters of another gender, but the stark absence of representatives of the female persuasion did stand out. Somehow I managed to keep my eyes open long enough to get through the volume.

But the party was not yet complete. There would be one more arrival, and one more opportunity to sit on or near a daughter's bed and read aloud, sometimes to an upturned, eager face, sometimes to a riot of ringlets as she settled. My capacity for consciousness remained an issue. By then, my voice had also suffered a bit with the years, the reward for too many cigarettes, too much yelling, too much ballpark whistling, and the usual demise of age, so it took a fair bit more effort and strain than reading it aloud had done previously. I am pretty certain I made it through that third time aloud. Truthfully, I am not 100% certain that I did.
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You probably know the story, or the broad strokes anyway. In the quiet rural village of Hobbiton Across the Water, in a land called Middle Earth, an unpresupposing everyman, Bilbo Baggins, lives a quiet existence. He has a smidgen of wanderlust in him, the genetic gift of ancestors on the Took branch of his family tree, but he is mostly content to enjoy hearty meals and a good pipe. One day, Gandalf, a lordly, father-figure wizard Bilbo has known for many years, comes a-calling and Bilbo's life is upended. Gandalf is helping a group of dwarves who are on a quest. Led by Thorin Oakenshield, a dwarf king, they aim to return to their home, inside the Lonely Mountain, somehow rid the place of Smaug, the dragon who has taken up residence, and regain the land and incredible treasure that is rightfully theirs. Gandalf has recommended that Bilbo accompany the group, as a burglar. Bilbo, of course, has never burgled a thing in his life, and is horrified by the prospect. But, heeding his Tookish side, Bilbo joins the dwarves and the adventure is on.

One need not go far to see this as a journey of self-discovery, as Bilbo finds that there is more to him than even he realized. This raises one question for me. How did Gandalf know that Bilbo would be the right hobbit for the job? Bilbo faces many challenges and I betray no secrets for any who have not just arrived on this planet by reporting that Bilbo's dragons, real and symbolic, are ultimately slain and he returns home a new, and somewhat notorious hobbit. Bilbo serves well as the everyman, someone who is quite modest about his capacities, but who rises to meet the challenges that present, acting in spite of his fear and not in the absence of it. He is someone we can easily care and root for.

Elements abound of youthful adventure yarns, treasure, a map to the treasure, a secret entrance that requires solving a riddle to gain entry, a spooky forest, foolishness and greed among those in charge, a huge battle, and, ultimately, good sense triumphing over evil and stupidity. Oh, yeah, there is something in there as well about a secret, powerful ring that can make it’s wearer invisible. Sorry, no damsels in distress.

(Rivendell remains a pretty special place. If I am ever fortunate enough to be able to retire, I think I would like to spend my final days there, whether the vision seen by Tolkien or the Maxfield Parrish take as seen in the LOTR films.)
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There are magical beings aplenty here. Hobbits, of course, and the wizard and dwarves we meet immediately. A shape shifting Beorn assists the party but remains quite frightening. There are trolls, giant spiders, giants, goblins, were-wolf sorts called wargs, talking eagles, a communicative, if murderous dragon, elves of both the helpful and difficult sorts, and a few men, as well. Then there is Gollum.

IMHO, Bilbo is not the most interesting character in Tolkien's world. Arguably there is a lot more going on with Gollum, an erstwhile hobbit riven by the internal conflict of love and hate, corrupted, but not without a salvageable soul. While he is given considerably more ink in the LOTR story, it is in The Hobbit that we meet him for the first time. He is the single least YA element in this classic yarn, one of the things that elevates this book from the field and makes it a classic.

The Hobbit was written before Tolkien's ambitious Lord of the Rings. While there are many references to classic lore, the bottom line is that this is a YA book. It is easy to read, and to read aloud, (something that is not the case with LOTR. I know.) and is clearly intended for readers far younger than I am today. It remains a fun read, even on the sixth (or so, I may have dipped in again somewhere along the line) time through. Were I reading it today for the first time, I would probably give it four stars. But as, for me, it bears the weighty treasure of memory, I must keep it at five. If you are reading this for the first time as an adult, or an antique, the impact is likely to be different for you. If you are a younger sort, of the adolescent or pre-adolescent persuasion, particularly if you are a boy, it might become an invaluable part of your life. Maybe one day you can sit by your child's or grandchild's bedside and be the person who reads these words to them for the first time, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" and begin the adventure again. To see the glowing young eyes as the tale unfolds is nothing less than absolutely precious.

PS – I would check out the review offered by GR pal Ted. He includes in his review outstanding, informative and very entertaining excerpts and comments re info on The Hobbit from JRRT's son Christopher.

==============================EXTRA STUFF

Here is a lovely article on JRRT, from Smithsonian Magazine, January 2002

Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life - Evan Hughes
Beginning my Studies

BEGINNING my studies, the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact, consciousness—these forms—the power of motion,
The least insect or animal—the senses—eyesight—love;
The first step, I say, aw’d me and pleas’d me so much,
I have hardly gone, and hardly wish’d to go, any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time, to sing it in extatic songs.
It is an easy, and perhaps a dangerous thing to indulge in this joyful vice of Walt Whitman’s, in which he captures the ecstasy inherent in the new. That would be new to the observer, for the most part, as the thing learned, the newness experienced, had usually lain in wait for that discoverer, possibly still glistening from birth, but more likely in wait an untold age. Easy, because it pleases the eye, the soul, the imagination, to learn, to see the new and to see the familiar, anew. The danger is the highwayman of piqued interest, robbing our currency of attention and diverting it down myriad unexpected paths. Literary Brooklyn, as it must, begins with Walt Whitman, a literary lion king, with the mane to prove it.

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It offers glimpses of some of the many who have put pen or pencil to paper, or converted their notions into reality via keyboards, mechanical and electronic. The organization is chronological, and offers the side benefit of a look at the history of the place. Many more are excluded than are to be found here. But that is the nature of the creatively fertile land that has again become, arguably, the literary capital of the country.

You might drop in on "> Bartleby’s if you do not have handy a copy of Leaves of Grass, perhaps the greatest indie-publishing effort ever. It is a touchstone for this collection of essays. Whitman presumed to speak for the multitudes, the common men and women of his time and into the future. Evan Hughes notes how the authors he subsequently profiles reflect the common people of their times.

The list is, of course, a who’s who, even for those of us who managed to get through our education with only minimal inconvenience from English/Literature classes. The primary focus is on the 20th century. Whitman, of course, anchors the 19th, and the 21st is offered some consideration as well. There are thirteen chapters in all. You may recognize some of these names from chapter headings: Henry Miller, Thomas Wolfe, Bernard Malamud, Richard Wright, Truman Capote, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Pete Hamill and Paul Auster. At least these were the ones known to me. There are others whose names, if not necessarily their work, was new. Their stories are definitely worth the time to stop and loiter.
“In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn.”
Thus opens William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, and it tells the tale of why many of us have settled here.

I am extremely proud to be a Brooklynite, and would be even were the place not so rich in history. I came here in 1980, for the same reason most of these writers did, those who were not raised here, anyway, namely Manhattan was prohibitively expensive. Although it is not the case today that Brooklyn rent is manageable, at least in neighborhoods closer to Manhattan, (I know mine isn’t, and I do not live in one of those frou-frou neighborhoods you might have heard of) the cost of buying or renting a place in Manhattan is enough to induce a cardiac event or a sudden compulsion to either rob banks or, less dramatically, reverse Horace Greeley’s (another transplant to NYC, although not Brooklyn) advice and “go east.” Jimmy McMillan would have been right in any era.

(Here is a brief summary of my sojourn from Manhattan to Brooklyn, but really, who cares? So, I am tucking it under a spoiler rug. It is not really a spoiler, just some self-indulgence.)I began my less than global journey in Da Bronx, with a considerable stay in 1970s Manhattan during my twenties. The Upper West Side then was less economically daunting than it is now. My block, 81st Street, featured Davey’s Tavern, notable for the reliable accumulation of pimp-mobiles lined up on the block. One time some friends and I followed a trail of blood from Davey’s into Central Park only a few blocks east before coming to our senses and returning to our less thrill-seeking lives. The other end of the block featured an SRO of low repute, supposedly owned, at least in part, by one of New York’s senators. I paid a hundred bucks a month for a room in someone else’s apartment while working nights at the Post Office and going to school by day. I loved living in Manhattan. I went to college and studied for my masters there. It was possible to walk across Central Park from home to grad school, and back again, if the weather was agreeable. The American Museum of Natural History was a block away. Lincoln Center was a manageable walk south. When my then girlfriend and I moved in together in 1976, it was to a modern one bedroom apartment in the mid-70s between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. But it was also a time of rapid change. Even though Brooklyn was considered the boonies to many of us living in “the city,” landlords were paying torches to clear their properties. The West Side of Manhattan had already been undergoing massive redevelopment and the push was on. Unless one was in one of the higher-paying lines of work, it became difficult, and ultimately impossible, to remain. For what it would have cost us to hang on to our one-bedroom when it was time to renew our lease, we were steered by an interested family member to a relatively massive three bedroom rental in Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace neighborhood. Gentrification was pushing us to that outer borough. Married now, and knowing that we would be starting a family, reality set in. There really was no choice. As it was for so many before us, we had to adapt to economic reality.

While Hughes does dip into earlier times (The Revolutionary War “Battle of Long Island” took place in Brooklyn, only a few miles from home. Abolitionist activity in the mid 19th century was significant) mostly he tracks some of the development of Brooklyn over a century or so with each piece of his story, showing how the writing of each particular era reflects what was going on at that time. From Whitman’s pre-bridge days, when Brooklyn was its own city, through the construction of one of the true marvels of its time, The Brooklyn Bridge, in 1883, through 1898, when Brooklyn merged with and became subsumed under New York City (in what many called the “Great Mistake of 1898”). He touches on the boom era of the 20s, the Depression, World War II and its aftermath, (Brooklyn Navy Yard ring a bell?) suburbanization and the national abandonment of cities in the 50s, and not just by the Dodgers, a bit of the decline of the city in the 60s and 70s, and then the revival from the 80s onward. He even takes note of the more recent real estate gentrification, and the blossoming of Brooklyn, again, as an artistic and literary capital.

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There does seem to have been a particular concentration of talent in the neighborhood known as Brooklyn Heights. A few of the writers find themselves in digs that were once inhabited by the Roeblings, the family responsible for constructing the bridge. Generations touch each other in such ways. The Heights is economically inaccessible to all but the well-to-do and has been for a long time. But there have been times when less fearsomely expensive accommodations could be found at the fringes of the neighborhood, particularly as one neared the water and descended from the high ground to the lower. Where today there is a lovely park along the water, in days of yore, it was more of a working port, with the associations one could expect with places maritime, boarding houses, rowdy drinking establishments, houses of ill repute, crime. Mother’s milk for the adventurous wordsmith.

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[Despite having lived in NYC all my life, and having lived in Brooklyn for over thirty years, I have never, ever heard anyone use this word/expression anywhere outside a commercial or other prepared media.]

By the time Richard Wright moved into a particular Brooklyn Heights house in 1942, the place had already “been home to a rotating ensemble cast of writers and other artists for two years. During that span it hosted not only nightly dinner parties of a kind but frequent all-night parties where the guest list doubled as a Who’s Who of twentieth-century creative and intellectual life.” At one point a group of writers shared this place, which had become known as the ”February House” for the number of residents who had birthdays then. You might recognize some of these names, Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), W.H. Auden (at the time one of the most famous poets in the world), Gypsy Rose Lee (“I wasn’t naked. I was completely covered by a blue spotlight”), who was writing a novel, Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky), in addition to several of Thomas Mann’s children. The social set included Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland, Kurt Weill, and Lotte Lenya, among others, and a few blocks away Truman Capote was working on his magnum opus, In Cold Blood. Not exactly the stuff of a caricatured, “toid avenue ‘n toidy toid street” accent fame.

The changes to Brooklyn have been considerable. Completion of the bridge was a dramatic leap, allowing access to many more people, increasing demand for housing and other services, and allowing folks to live in relatively inexpensive Brooklyn, while working in Manhattan. Connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan by subway was another great jump in integrating the two cities. For each period, Hughes offers one or several writers, and for more recent times, creative sorts in areas outside the purely written word.

There are many images that will stay with you from this reading. Richard Wright sitting on a bench in Fort Greene park, with pad and pen, (There is a bench there now, dedicated to him) Hart Crane looking through his apartment windows towards the bridge built by Roeblings, who had worked in that very apartment, Gypsy Rose Lee joining a small group of writers sharing a place in the Hts and shaking things up, William Styron hearing the noise of lovemaking upstairs in his Flatbush rooming house, an introduction to the character of Sophie he would write about decades later, Norman Mailer sitting down to eat with his mother every week over the years as he blusters, and occasionally stabs his way through six marriages, a very large Thomas Wolfe pecking away at his typewriter, generating avalanches of paper in his minimally appointed living space.

The books cited in this modest volume could fill a lifetime with superb reading. The bibliography would serve well for required reading for a PhD or three. There is a lot going on here and a lot has gone on before, with or without tiny hats, irony and attitude.

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Betty Smith, brought up in Williamsburg, wrote, in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, about how life persists, and even thrives in a seemingly difficult place. Maurice Sendak, a Brooklyn born and raised child of immigrants, in Where the Wild Things Are, tells us, “That very night in Max’s room a forest grew...and the walls became the world all around.” And so it is with Brooklyn. It can be difficult to tell the forest from the trees. There are rather a lot of them reaching for the sky here these days, even with the loss from Sandy, a rare unwelcome immigrant, as more and more creative sorts take up residence in New York City’s most populous borough, not only writers but film-makers, musicians, visual artists, dancers. Evan Hughes has offered a framework in which to try to get a handle on how Brooklyn has changed over the decades and on how the premiere literature that has been written and/or was inspired here reflects those changes. It remains to be seen what artistic wonders will emerge in the years to come, but if history is any guide, there will be continuity of greatness with the past, likely to be achieved, ironically, by considering the lives of the ordinary.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more
curious to me than you suppose;
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in
my meditations, than you might suppose

From Crossing Brooklyn Ferry - W. Whitman
P.S.

There is a map at the beginning of the book. It shows the borough, with numbered dots, each number associated with a writer, most writers having more than one entry. If you get the urge, this would help organize any tour you might care to make.

Our most famous film star, one of the most popular film characters of all time, was born under Ebbett’s field, Bug Bunny. And Brooklyn has produced or housed a plentiful supply of other performing artists. Barbra Streisand, Lauren Bacall, Mel Brooks, Neil Diamond, Mae West, Harvey Keitel, Woody Guthrie, Jackie Gleason, Howard Cosell, Mel Brooks, and Steve Buscemi, to name a few. To see a larger selection, you might try here .

==================================LINKS
A literary map of Brooklyn – this is amazing

Fuhgedaboudit sign

A nifty Currier and Ives image of Brooklyn

NY Times review by Dwight Garner

California Literary Review

Famous Brooklynites – there are more than a few


Fever - Mary Beth Keane UPDATED - 8/8/13 - see link at bottom

Before you start reading let’s see those hands. Both sides please. You call that clean? Are you kidding me? I’ve seen cleaner hands in mud wrestling. Try using soap this time, and I don’t want to see anything but skin under those fingernails. Go ahead. I’ll wait. (A very large foot tap, tap, taps. Eyes rise to scan the ceiling. A puff of exasperation is emitted…waiting) Let’s see. Both sides. All right. I guess that will have to do. Sit down. Go ahead.
In the East River, between Queens and the Bronx, and within sight of the largest penal colony in the world, Riker’s Island, lie two tiny islands, South Brother and North Brother. These siblings are currently owned by the New York City Parks Department, and are preserved as a wildlife sanctuary. North Brother now sports a handful of decaying buildings. One must receive special permission to visit, as there is very real concern about the possibility of visitors plunging through rotted out structures. It was famous in its time as a bar-less cage for one particular bird, Mary Mallon, more widely known as Typhoid Mary. Fever is Mary Beth Keane’s novelization of the life of Ms. Mallon, or at least the part of it that gained some notoriety in early 20th century New York City.

Although Mary did not suffer from typhoid fever herself, at some unknown point early in her life her body began producing the Salmonella typhi bacterium responsible for the disease, and she would have that dark passenger for the rest of her life. It is likely, a virtual certainty in fact, that she was exposed to the disease at some point, even though she reported never having had it. She was the first person identified as an asymptomatic carrier. In the hubbub surrounding Mary’s detention, legal challenges and impact on the health of those around her, local newspapers slapped the name Typhoid Mary on her and it stuck. These days is it applied to any who spread a disease without themselves suffering from it.
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Keane opens with Mary being carted away by the Department of Health, itself created in response to the waves of epidemics that followed the Civil War. We look forward and behind from here. Mary was an Irish immigrant, arriving in the US at age 14. It would appear that she brought with her more than just an eagerness to work and some skill as a cook. Her first job was as a laundress, but she found herself handling cooking duties when the usual cook became ill. Over the years, Mary acquired a reputation as a pretty good cook, but it also happened that dozens of people for whom Mary prepared food became ill and some died. She worked in many households, and while not everyone with whom she came into contact became infected, enough did for her to come to the attention of a Doctor George Soper, a sanitary engineer.

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When a family for whom Mary had been working in Oyster Bay, Long Island, became ill en masse the owner of the property, concerned about the impact of a health scare on his potential rental income, brought in Soper as a consultant to get to the bottom of the infection. He was not a medical doctor but more of a public health specialist.

While typhoid fever had been around forever, epidemiology was a relatively new science. In fact Soper had graduated from Columbia’s School of Mines and was trained as an engineer to look for sources of environmental contamination, usually some sort of pollution. The novel presents him as a nemesis for Mary, an avenging angel she is constantly seeking to evade.

Keane’s focus is on Mary, though, and we follow her travails, working as a cook, for families in and outside the city, frequently leaving after the households succumb to disease, struggling with guilt over her impact on people, struggling also to retain her freedom. We see her first quarantine, her subsequent release and, later, her return to incarceration. Here she is in 1910.

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Keane fleshes out Mary’s life with a look at her boyfriend, a German immigrant and alcoholic, named Alfred, a few friends, and the people with whom she worked and resided. This offers Keane a window through which we can see New York City at the turn of the 20th century. This local and historical view is one of the best things about the book. Keane rings a bell here and there for significant events of the day. One is the Titanic disaster, with Mary feeling badly not only for the souls lost and those damaged at sea, but the poor bastards working the docks who would have to handle the incoming remains. This concern with the working class experience permeates the book. We see a very tough time, with people living in extremely crowded, and often unsanitary conditions, having to put up with the restrictions on financial advancement that are a product of the absence of unions, having to cope, with no societal help, with disasters like the death of a breadwinner. One jaw-dropping scene showed how the Department of Health produced vaccines. The most chilling, for this native New Yorker, was a portrayal of the Triangle Fire that offered a vision that would be repeated on a grander scale almost a hundred years later. Very moving stuff.

In addition to economic issues of the working class, Keane raises the very real issue of civil rights. When is it ok for the state to deprive someone of their freedom if that person has committed no crime? Mary’s first quarantine was a clear case of preventive detention. Was the Department of Health in the right in imprisoning Mary? What about other asymptomatic carriers? A male breadwinner in upstate New York was released after only two weeks. Why was Mary singled out for such harsh treatment when others with the same issue were allowed their freedom?

How much of her incarceration had to do with Mary being female, a poor immigrant and a member of a despised ethnic group? How much did it have to do with her uppityness unwillingness to automatically kowtow to public officials? Consider what might happen today to, say, a Mexican immigrant cook in Arizona, were one to present the same issue. On the other hand, if Mary had responded more calmly when confronted by the authorities and held to her promise to find employment in something other than food preparation, might she have been able to retain her freedom? Did she know the effect she was having on those around her? Did she care? Keane offers some views on that.

There was one element of this book that I thought presented a golden opportunity that was missed. The story of Dr Soper, love him or hate him, had the potential for presenting a much deeper look at the times. Epidemiology was new and Soper was at the forefront. Coping with illness via construction had come into its own in the 19th century and had yielded impressive results. The creation or improvement of sewer and water systems had reduced mortality considerably. The Board of Health in NYC had only been in existence since 1866, an attempt to address increasing urban mortality. Soper functioned as a private investigator and increasing his presence here might have afforded a richer look at urban environmental changes and health care realities and policy issues of the era.

That said, Keane has written an illuminating portrait of a time and place, has raised issues concerning civil liberties, labor rights, class and ethnic bias, and has given every parent a bit more ammunition for use on soap-challenged children. Fever may not be the hottest book of the year, but if you enjoy historical fiction and are at all interested in the history of medicine, public health or New York City, it is pretty infectious.

============================EXTRA STUFF

In A Visit to Typhoid Mary’s Domain, a New York Times reporter ventures across the water to see what the island is like today

Beyond Typhoid Mary: The Origins of Public Health at Columbia and in the City by David Rosner, is a fascinating look at the history of public health.

In case you are interested in an unusual vacation destination, here is the NYC Parks map of North Brother Island

For a look at Mary in her later years

Try here for an excellent series of short articles about Mary

================================UPDATES

3/21/13 - I just learned that Fever made the Indie Next list for March

8/8/13 - GR friend Jaye sent along a wonderful link so a site called The Kingston Lounge. This particular part of it contains a lot of photos of North Brother in it's more or less current state, that being abandoned and protected as a bird sanctuary. The photos are way cool, and creepy, the fodder of ghost, zombie, or post apocalypse cinema.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President - Candice Millard If most people were to be asked today what they thought of Garfield, they would most likely offer an answer about a cartoon cat, and not the 20th president of the United States, the president who served only 200 days in office, the second president to be assassinated, and one of our great losses as a nation.

Candice Millard, the dishy author of The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, here follows the paths of two men, the ill-fated president, James A Garfield, and the man who would see to his end, Charles Guiteau.

No political conspiracies were involved, at least not outside the delusions of an addled mind. While the assassin did have political views they were likelier to be the same as those of his target than anywhere in opposition. No, he was your basic nutter, who convinced himself that God wanted him to take out the president. While clearly disturbed, Guiteau had an interesting past. His mother died when he was 7 and he was raised by his father, a religious fanatic, and follower of John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the utopian Oneida commune in upstate New York. This cultish group favored free love, which they called “complex marriage,” among other things. Charles did not have a lot of success with the ladies, even at Oneida, which must have really stung. They practiced a form of self (really group) criticism that would gain favor with a later communal program, Mao Te Tung’s.
Although the commune promised the pleasures of complex marriage, to Guiteau’s frustration, “The Community women,” one of Oneida’s members would later admit, “did not extend love and confidence toward him.” In fact, so thorough was his rejection among women that they nicknamed him “Charles Gitout.” He bitterly complained that, while at the commune, he was “practically a Shaker.”
He worked as a lawyer (which at the time did not require a law degree) and a preacher and had a rather permanent and cavalier attitude toward paying his bills. I guess in that way he was a harbinger of Republicans of a later era. Guiteau was in DC seeking a political appointment from the president, just compensation, in his mind, for the assistance he had given to the campaign. He had suffered delusions of grandeur for a long time. His own family had sought to have him put away. But the slippery bastard fled before they could complete his committal.

Garfield’s was a classic American success story. His parents were farmers, working land-grant turf. But dad passed away when James was still a boy. Through hard work and recognition of his native brilliance by enough people who had the means to help, Garfield managed to get an excellent education. His oratorical skills were state of the art for his time. He was elected to the state legislature and soon thereafter put into the national Congress, with hardly any effort at all on his part. This accidental president never sought that office either. In fact, he attended the 1880 Republican convention to give the nominating speech for his fellow Ohioan, John Sherman. But after dozens of ballots, with no hope of any of the major candidates winning enough votes to get the nomination, delegates began looking for an alternative. And thus was James A Garfield nominated for president by his party.

Speaking of which, the Republican Party of 1880 was rather different from the GOP of today. Garfield had been anti-slavery, as had his party.
For freed slaves, an impoverished and, until recently, almost entirely powerless segment of the population, Garfield represented freedom and progress, but also, and perhaps more importantly, dignity. As president, he demanded for black men nothing less than what they wanted desperately for themselves—complete and unconditional equality, born not of regret but respect.
Today’s party could probably be counted on to insist that property rights trump all and turn away any attempt to get rid of such a peculiar institution. So Garfield was a pretty good guy, remarkably, considering that the Civil War had ended less than 16 years prior, acceptable to both the South and the North, a brilliant, Renaissance man.

Millard offers not only a window into the personal and political history of Garfield, a literal log-cabin Republican, we also get a look at the time. One element is further confirmation re what a fetid swamp DC was (well, it remains a fetid swamp these days, but for other reasons), a place where rats roamed at will but if I step out of the way, they seem happy to dash past. in the White House, (yes, yes, I know, sometimes they are just so easy that even I, who know no shame, have to pass, but you are free to select the party you dislike and fill in the blanks) and clouds of mosquitoes blotted out the sun. Ok, that last may be a slight exaggeration, but the gist remains. It was a biologically unhealthy place. The toxicity of DC and the White House in particular figures rather largely into the story of how James A Garfield met his end.

In addition to the intersecting lines of Garfield and Guiteau, a little extra attention is directed toward a young Scottish inventor, a fellow whose chief concern was helping the hearing impaired. He had, not long before, brought to market a remarkable new device. This made for an interesting time for him. Once the world realized just what he had created, thieves, swindlers and worst of all, lawyers, came after him like a wolf pack on the trail of an injured deer. How much time must one dedicate to defending oneself in court in order to retain control of that which you, yourself created? Lots, and it was making him miserable. Still, he had a thing for inventing. When he heard of the attack on Garfield he hastened to his lab to work on a device that would, hopefully, locate the bullet inside the president’s body, without having to open him up first, a sort of early metal detector. We speak, of course, of Alexander Graham Bell, a young man still. His efforts merit considerable attention and entail a lot of drama. Actually, considering that we are all well aware of the outcome, it is rather remarkable how much dramatic tension there is in this non-fiction account.

We get a look at the medical sorts who dove in when the president was shot, some reasonable, and some determined to place their own interests above the health of Garfield. We get to see yet another example of the arrogance of power leading to a dark end when it chooses to ignore scientific advances in the fact-based world. And we get to see some of the places where the leading edge of medical thought and technology were struggling for recognition. Joseph Lister had revolutionized European medical practices with his insistence on antiseptic environments for medical care. But those who insisted on local exceptionalism preferred to leave their patient in environments we would probably describe today as filthy, and saw nothing wrong with poking their fingers into open wounds. Garfield, ultimately, suffered an iatrogenic death. The bullets did not kill him. His doctors did. Sadly medical care is the third leading cause of death in the USA today, so some things have not changed all that much.

Re government, Millard fills us in on some of the political game-playing of the time, and how it was used to generate governmental stasis. There is much here that resonates, and that reminds us how far we have come in some ways, and how little we have grown in others. I contemplated making a table showing 1880 vs 2013, and doing the comparison (and contrast) more graphically, but I will leave that for other reviewers. I merely note that such a list could indeed be constructed.

One interesting point made here is that both Guiteau and Garfield felt themselves to have been touched by God. Both had faced death while aboard ships and both felt that they had been spared by the Almighty for some greater purpose. It seems unlikely that they were both right.

History books need not be dull. The best give us a sense of a time and a place, let us see some of the personalities afoot in that world, look into how things came to be the way they were and how events of that time have echoed down to us today. A good popular history book makes us stop, rub our chins and mutter to no one in particular, “I did not know that.” On all counts, Candice Millard has succeeded. While the subject is not exactly laugh-riot material, if you love to learn, it will make you smile. It has made others smile as well. Destiny was awarded a PEN award for research nonfiction, and an Edgar Award for best Fact Crime book of 2011.

And it is quite filling. If you are of a cartoonish persuasion, you might even think of it as lasagna for the brain.

For another consideration of this book, you could do worse than to check out Jeffrey Keeten’s excellent review
To Have and Have Not (Scribner Classics) - Ernest Hemingway This is not at all the Nazi romp of Bogie and Bacall fame. There might be some external similarities, but they seem fleeting. If you put your lips together to whistle here, the likelihood would be that it would be to warn someone that the police were coming. Life can be tough in The Conch Republic.

Harry Morgan is a hard man in a hard time. He owns and operates his own fishing boat, out of Key West, catering to those who Have and want an ocean-going adventure. When Harry is stiffed out of almost three weeks of costs by a boorish client, he immediately becomes a Have Not, is faced with some tough choices, and agrees to transport some illegal Chinese immigrants in from Cuba, a mere 90 miles away. He will go on to smuggle more materials and people over the course of the story.

Desperation is a frequent visitor on these remote shores. Harry is far from alone in feeling the impact of the Depression. One shipmate is a drunk who has seen the last of his good days. A sometimes hire is desperately trying to catch a job anywhere, just to feed his family. The illegals Harry transports are as desperate as working class illegals often are. Even one of the women here is shown in some detail contemplating her grim prospects after her husband has died.

One group with whom Harry has dealings is Cuban revolutionaries. Harry, echoing Hemingway, offers a bit of support for their desires, their ideals, but faced with the reality of their actions, he sees beneath the plating to something a bit less glittery. There are crooks aplenty afloat here, whether a corrupt lawyer, a murderous coyote, a tax cheat, a welcher, and the odd homicidal revolutionary. Come visit.

The book has the feel of something that was thrown together, or at least done in jumps. Turns out that is indeed the case. The first chunk was originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1934 under the title “One Trip Across.” Part Two of the book first appears in Esquire, February 1936, as “The Tradesman’s Return.” The narration voice varies, from Harry’s to an omniscient narrator, to the voice of sundry others later in the book. This is not necessarily a problem, but does make things feel a bit disjointed. Contributing to this is that, while the travails of Harry Morgan occupy most of the novel, he vanishes for a considerable swath towards the end, and our focus turns to several have characters, only a few of whom we have met before.

Hemingway offers us a look at the sorts of desperation these haves experience. A wealthy grain trader rues a decision made in greed some years back, as the feds circle. A ne’er do well trust fund kid is a kid no more, his holdings have been hit hard by the Wall Street crash and the sorts of banking criminality that have become far too familiar, so he has to do what he has to do to keep up at least the veneer of wealth.
“The eternal jackpot. I’m playing a machine now that doesn’t give jackpots anymore. Only tonight I just happened to think about it. Usually I don’t think about it."
Harry had risked his life to provide for his family, but the haves seem at a loss when faced with a loss of workless income.
the money on which it was not worth while for him to live was one hundred and seventy dollars more a month than the fisherman Albert Tracy had been supporting his family on…
One particular wanderer in here is Richard Gordon, a character clearly intended as a Hemingway stand-in, a writer of renown in a troubled marriage, something Ernest knew a little something about. There is a local married lady who “collects writers as well as their books,” disdaining a husband who may be impotent.

Overall, there is a dark caste here. Part of that is the times, the Depression, when it was tough to bask in the glow of much of anything. It makes sense that the characters Hemingway portrays reflect the struggles of the era. While he clearly has little sympathy for the haves, he hardly paints the have nots with halos. There is plenty of hardship, and plenty of corruption to go around.

I have not read much Hemingway, so lack the sort of insights one might acquire from a broader and deeper reading of his work. Man testing his mettle vs the world is one we know about though and that is present in abundance here. Harry is screwed by the world so does what he has to do, which includes considerable physical risk. Others prostrate themselves in other ways to get what they need. Are they any less active in taking on the world? Or is it only that it is their methods that differ? Things do not work out all that great for Harry. Maybe there are better approaches to his problem. Then, maybe there are not, and the world just sucks. The world shown here certainly fits into the trope “Life’s a bitch and then you die. Have a nice day.”

Is this great literature? I am open to being corrected and I did think more of it before getting down to actually writing, but I would say “nah.” Interesting certainly, bleak, but too much a Frankenstein beast, parts cadged together, however expertly, that make for a less than successful merger.

To Read or Read Not? I would take the plunge. It might illuminate themes and other specifics in Hemingway's later works, while providing a dark look at a dark time. You never can tell when a dark time might come around.


PS - it is impossible, even though the character Harry Morgan bears no physical resemblance to Bogart, to keep that voice and delivery out of one's head while reading this.
The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway UPDATE - 1/5/13 - at bottom

It is intimidating to offer a truly critical look at such a classic, so we will ease into it with a few images.

The GOP has offered us a ready-made item to begin this list, and yes, I know that John Stewart already snagged this one and threw it back.
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I turned up a visual art concept that fits in, for a restaurant based on EH themes:description

Although I did not sit for this photo, the resemblance is indeed strikingdescription

And, of course
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The Old Man and the Cee Lo.

I suppose am certain there are plenty more images one might lure into our net, but sticking to words for a bit, we will pass on the porn offering, The Old Man and the Semen. How about the moving tale of a Navy Construction veteran, The Old Man and the Seabees, or an obstetrical episode of Grey's Anatomy, The Old Man and the C-Section. Then there might be a psychological drama about a man with bipolar disorder, The Old Man and the See Saw, or a book about an elderly acupuncturist, The Old Man and the Chi. How about a Disney adventure in which Paul Hogan rescues a pinniped, yes, gentle reader, The Old Man and the Seal. Maybe a bit of Cuban self-affirmation, The Old Man and the Si. I could go on, of course, and probably will, at home, until my wife threatens to leave. The possibilities are rather endless. But the Geneva Conventions might be brought into play, and we can’t have that. Tackling such a review head on seems, somehow, wrong, like using paint by number to copy the Mona Lisa, carving the Pieta out of gigantic blocks of cheddar, writing a love poem for your beloved using MadLibs or Yes, the forces of righteousness sanity wanted this one deep-sixed:

…checking for skid marks on Ghandi’s dhoti. Ok, 12-year-old inner me is all giggly now. At some point, though, I guess you have to, you know, fish or cut bait.

I struggled mightily with this one, finding a hook, then having it pull away, grabbing hold of an idea and watching it disappear beneath waves of uncertainty. I tried waiting a while, resting between attempts, losing myself in other contemplations. Smiling a bit, but always hoping for something I could finally yank aboard. Notions of religious connections, Papa’s personal philosophy, and story-telling technique all pulled in diverse directions. As you will see, it was a not a simple contest. And I am not certain that what I ultimately caught is all that filling.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was not definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky.
So opens The Old Man and the Sea, the book, we hear tell, that convinced the Nobel committee to reel in EGH with the biggest literary hook of them all. Santiago is an old, unlucky, but skilled Cuban fisherman. He has an able assistant, the young Manolin. The lad is not a blood relation, but he sees a father figure in the old man, and he may be a younger reflection of the old man himself. Maybe Santiago sees himself in the young man and takes some strength from that. Like the best sort of father, he teaches the boy to fish rather than fishing for him. But Santiago’s ill fortune has marked him as someone to be avoided and Manolin’s parents have put the kibosh on their professional association. The old man is determined to salvage his reputation, and his honor, and bring in some money by going farther out than the other fishermen are willing to sail, in search of redemption. No herald calls him to action. No dramatic event sparks him to excessive risk. It is an internal challenge that powers his engines. But it is a quest nonetheless on which Santiago embarks.

Any time there are fish involved, one might presume a degree of soul saving. I do not know enough Hemingway to have a take on whether or not that figured here. I raise it only as a passing thought. But the second sentence of the book offers a hint. “In the first forty days…”clearly places Santiago’s travails alongside another person who spent forty days in a different barren environment. It was after being baptized that Jesus spent his time in the desert, preparing for what awaited. Is Santiago to be tested here? Will he be offered a route away from his difficult path?

The waters are becalmed. Nothing moves. A moment, then, for a digression. OK, let’s try some simple arithmetic, if Jesus, at age 30, spent 40 days in the desert, and Santiago has gone 84 days in his version of the desert, just how old is the old man? 63, according to my calculations. Possible. I do not recall seeing an actual age noted, so I am gonna go with that. I know you guys will let me know if an actual age is revealed somewhere and my squinty geezer eyes missed it. Done. I can feel a slight breeze beginning to flutter the sail.

Some sort of religion seems to flow through this fish tale. Not only are we sprinkled with forty-day references, but Santiago discusses sin. In his struggles he suffers physical damage in which some might see an echo of Calvary. But I think that is a stretch, personally. So, we have a bit of religion, and a quest. What is Santiago questing for? Redemption would fit in nicely. Having failed for a long time, he feels a need to redeem himself in the eyes of his community. Maybe not a religious thing, per se, but swimming in the same waters. And speaking of religion, water as a baptismal element is always a possibility, although somewhat diluted here, as Santiago makes his living on the water.

The old man is strong, skilled and determined. Maybe it is his character that is at issue. Maybe somehow, taking on this challenge is a way to prove to himself that he is truly a man. He goes about his business, and his fishing is his fate, maybe even his life. It is in how he handles himself when faced with this challenge that will show us the sort of person he is, a common Hemingway theme, and he does just that.

This is a very short novel, more, maybe, a novella or large short story. But it has the feel of a parable. There is definitely something going on here even if it keeps slipping out of my analytical net.

I was reminded of another well-known fish story, Moby Dick (really, allow a little literary license here people. Yes I know the whale is not a fish. Geez.). Whereas in that one, the fisherman, Ahab, sets himself against the whale, and therefore either fate or god, seeing a personal enemy, Santiago sees the fish as his brother, a fellow creature in the universe acting out his part. The challenge is always about oneself and not about the external enemy, or rival. In fact, the fish and Santiago are both victimized, together, by the sharks that feast on his catch.
Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is not one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behaviour and his great dignity.
One might be forgiven for seeing here a possible reference to catholic communion and the relative merit of so many of those who receive. Is the fish (a Christian symbol if there ever was one) meant to be Jesus or some other form of deity, as Moby was?

Could it be that Hemingway’s notion of religion is less Christian and more a sort of materialist (as in non-spiritual, not as in accumulating stuff) philosophy? Lacking the proper tackle for that I will leave such considerations to those who have spent more time than I trolling Hemingway’s waters.

The writing is mostly either third-person description or the old man’s internal, and sometimes spoken, dialogue. Regardless of the literary ambitions splashing about here, the story is about a very sympathetic character. Santiago is a man not only of physical strength, but moral character. He is not portrayed as a saint, but as a simple man, maybe even, in a way, an ideal man in his simplicity. He knows his place in the world, faces the challenges that world presents to him and using only his skill, intelligence, strength and determination, overcomes (or not). It is easy to climb on board as a Santiago supporter. He is a fellow who is very much a part of the world, even as he contemplates larger things.

The Old Man and the Sea is a small story, but it is a whale of a tale. If you have not fished these waters before, don’t let this be one of those that got away.

WB32


==============================UPDATES

1/5/13 - Jeffrey Keeten sent along this amazing link. Gary Wyatt had shared it with him. It will definitely make you smile

6/20/13 - I discovered that one of the images I used had vanished into the ether, so I substituted another
NOS4A2 - Joe Hill UPDATED - 4/29/13 - see link at bottom


Do You Fear What I Fear?

Christmas was one of the best things about being a kid. There is nothing quite like the anticipation leading up to Christmas morning. And even now, having achieved geezerhood, I am still a complete sucker for the big day. Every year a real tree, the lights, sorting through and selecting from the decades and decades of collected ornaments, the gifts, and hopefully a tree skirt free of cat vomit. I put on It’s a Wonderful Life, wife by my side, hopefully at least one of my now-grown kids at hand, and keep the tissues handy. I find it completely heartwarming. One must wonder, however, how Christmas might have been celebrated in the King household. I suppose it is possible that Dad left his darker impulses by his keyboard. Did they share hot chocolate like the rest of us, or maybe add bits of human flesh instead of marshmallows. Hot toddy made with blood from a guy named Todd? Brownies made with under-age Girl Scouts? Did their whipped cream scream? Well, probably not, but one must wonder.

NOS4A2, the author’s latest tale from the dark side, takes a beloved annual celebration and gives it the special family treatment. If you like your Christmas trees decorated with sparkling abominations, your Santa more by way of an oversized, but underfed mortician, and your Santa’s special elf a rapist psycho-killer, then this is the book you will want to find frightening off the other packages under your tree next Christmas.

Joseph Hillstrom King, under nom de scare Joe Hill, is a man who not only would be King, he already is one. He has been pretty busy the last few years, writing up a storm, 20th Century Ghosts, Heart-Shaped Box, and Horns, establishing himself as a respected, successful writer of horror fiction, picking up at least eleven literary awards to date. Although his career has been relatively brief, he has, with NOS4A2, grown up to a level where he can glare, eye-to-eye, with the best of contemporary horror writers, even that guy across the table at Christmas dinner.

NOS4A2 is a work of impressive creativity, and one that may give you many a sleepless night, so powerful are some of the images he has created. But the core of the book is Victoria McQueen, Vic, The Brat. And how fitting that a King makes his heroine a queen. Applying a familiar horror-tale trope, the young female hero, we are introduced to Vic as an eight-year-old. This kid loves her bike. But then she has good reason to. It takes her where she needs to go, whether that happens to be around the block or across a magically bespoke bridge that takes her across geography, wormhole style. It comes in handy when she desperately wants to locate, say, a lost necklace that figures in her parents latest screaming match, opening for her a personal Shorter Way Bridge to take her to the proper destination. It takes her home again, of course. But it exacts a toll. And the journey through it can be harrowing.

Countering this adorable heroine is Charlie Manx. Not so adorable. This definitely not so goodtime Charlie abducts children to his special place, Christmasland, taking advantage of their unhappiness to seduce them with a King-family version of Neverland. What if it were Christmas every day? Charlie’s number one supporter is Bing Partridge. Bing’s latest accomplishment was the murder of his parents, but not before engaging in unspeakable behavior of another sort. He may be dreaming of Christmas but it is more likely to be fright than white, and there are fouler things than partridges in the trees he favors. He lives, fittingly on Bloch Lane, named, we suspect, for the author of Psycho. Once teamed up with Charlie, he makes use of his access to a particular sort of gas, sevoflurane, to subdue his victims. The stuff smells like gingerbread.
Bing’s yard was full of tinfoil flowers, brightly colored and spinning in the morning sunlight. The house was a little pink cake of a place, with white trim and nodding lilies. It was a place where a kindly old woman would invite a child in for gingerbread cookies, lock him in a cage, fatten him for weeks, and finally stick him in the oven. It was the House of Sleep.
You won’t find Christmasland on any map, but it exists. Charley drives a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith. Not exactly a sleigh, but useful for transporting Charley and his goodies here and there. Actually, it is more a case of him bringing the children to his dubious gifts than it is of the gifts being brought to the children. Charlie has been snatching children for a long time. So we have the goodie and we have the baddies.

Vic becomes that most horrifying of nightmares, an adolescent. And in a fit of rage against her divorced parents goes looking for trouble. Before you can say “Feliz Navidead,” the Brat finds herself riding into a Charlie lair, the cutely named “Sleigh House.” A bleak house indeed, as you might guess, and Vic has to resort to some extreme measures to make good her escape. Of course, once she does she earns a permanent place on Charlie’s naughty list. One positive that comes out of this ordeal is that when Vic is fleeing Charlie she is picked up on the highway by a passing biker, the large, leather-clad Lou Carmody. Classic meet-cute and oh, someone is trying to kill me.

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It turns out that Vic and her nemesis are not the only ones with a certain gift. When Vic crosses her Shorter Way Bridge to the place of business of Maggie Leigh (second possible Psycho reference?) she meets another person with a special talent, one particularly suited to a librarian. It’s not heaven, though. It’s Iowa. Later Vic’s dad joins up and there is some help from beyond the grave as well. Team Charlie has a lot of young recruits, too. One might be forgiven at times for thinking that he might be giving new meaning to the term “cold calls” as he has his maybe-dead minions manning (would that be childing?) the phones to harass our hero.
“Everyone lives in two worlds,” Maggie said, speaking in an absent-minded way while she studied her letters. “There’s the real world, with all its annoying facts and rules. In the real world there are things that are true and things that aren’t. Mostly the real world s-s-s-suh-sucks. But everyone also lives in the world inside their own head. An inscape, a world of thought. In a world made of thought—in an inscape--every idea is a fact. Emotions are as real as gravity. Dreams are as powerful as history. Creative people, like writers, and Henry Rollins, spend a lot of their time hanging out in their thoughtworld. S-s-strong creatives, though, can use a knife to cut the stitches between the two worlds, can bring them together. Your bike. My tiles. Those are our knives.”
The King family seems to have figured out how to make us care for their heroes, and Hill has done a nice job of that here. Vic is sympathetic, not just for her courage and determination, but for her failings as well. And there is plenty of failing to go around here, but also generous doses of redemption.

And there is no shortage of action. It all builds to a very explosive climax. There are occasional bits of fun in here as well. Hill engages in a joke having to do with Checkhov’s gun that is sure to bring a smile. And he takes a cutesy swipe at Henry Rollins.

There are some soft spots as well. Charlie is a pretty bad sort. Not enough attention is addressed to looking at how he came to be that way. It might have helped make him more understandable, if not sympathetic, which is always more interesting than the straight up boogie man. Bing is boogie man enough, despite his less than imposing façade, his child-like insecurity. And what is it that gives certain objects their magical properties? Never addressed. Hill takes on the somewhat softball difference in value between happiness and fun, which certainly has relevance to our consumer culture, but is far from novel.

Still and all, this is top notch horror, signaling not necessarily that a King is born, but that one has arrived and is ready to ascend to the throne.

Happy Horrordays!

WB11


===================================EXTRA STUFF

Hill put up a nice promo vid for the book on his site

4/29/13 - The New York Times review by Janet Maslin