Book Review: The Book of Neil

The Book of Neil

But for the kindness of my friend Meryl Zagarek (http://www.mzpr.com), it’s quite likely that I would have missed the release of Frank Turner Hollon’s latest novel, The Book of Neil (Publisher: MacAdam/Cage; On Sale: Nov. 16, 2012 ; Cost: $20.00). As a bit of reference, Mr. Hollon is a prolific author of children’s books and short stories, but one who also boasts two novels that have been turned into films (Barry Munday; and Blood and Circumstances, which is currently in production). I think it’s safe to say that Hollon’s novel will not be remembered for its prose, which is at times repetitive and understated. But the novel’s staying power is its exploration of a complex theological question, using an extremely minimalist writing style.

The theme of Hollon’s novel centers on the proposition of Christ’s return to earth in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Here’s how the press release describes Mr. Hollon’s work:

In The Book of Neil we are asked to consider what would happen if Jesus returned to earth in 2012, at a time when people are driven by consumption, self-indulgence, and a preoccupation with social media. Are we so cynical that Jesus would be dismissed as just another mentally ill street-preacher?

The idea is striking because the return of Jesus to Earth is one of the few aspects of Christian theology that mainstream Christianity tends not to debate. These days, our theological and moral disputes tend to include issues like determinism, theodicy, Biblical inerrancy, literalism, gay marriage, abortion and once upon a time questions about stem cell research and the like. But these issues are more on the periphery and clearly not central to the tenants of Christian faith itself (viz., Christ’s return to Earth).

So, what would it look like if Jesus came back to Earth, say, today? How would the event unfold? What would the reaction of believers be as opposed to the reaction of non-believers? Hollon’s novel offers readers his interpretation of the answer.

What’s obvious from the first page is that the work is no typical novel. Hollon’s writing style is minimalist to the point of distraction (more on this later). His characters are sketches of what characters should be. The details Hollon provides are sparse. Days bleed into one another without paying heed to the logical progression of time. In this way, Hollon’s work is not a cheap knock off from Joyce, focusing on the minutia of the day to day. Instead Hollon’s style keeps the focus on life’s panorama of the forest. The big picture accented by big themes. 

The first theme readers encounter is Hollon’s embrace of absurdism, which not only provides the justification for Hollon’s experiment but also paves the way for some of the other ideas explored in the work. Absurdism suggests that human efforts to divine meaning are absurd on their face because the exercise is impossible and doomed to fail. Absurdism’s implausibility of truth justifies the minimalist introduction to the work beginning on page 1 of the novel. There, Neil casually meets Jesus on the 14th hole of the local country club. After exchanging pleasantries, Jesus notes, “You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here.” Without waiting for an answer, Jesus replies:

“I’m playing golf,” He said. “A frustrating game. I don’t really have the patience for it, but I enjoy playing anyway.” p.11.

Aside from being a bit presumptuous, Jesus’ opening line in the work is rife with absurdity because of how mundane the introduction actually is. It’s a bit like an off-Broadway production of Seinfeld, a scene about nothing using next to nothing to make the point. Hollon’s early pages make the search for meaning futile because they take place on the blandest of all locales to which the Son of God could possibly return. To make the point even more pronounced, Hollon fills the mouth of God Incarnate with the same, tired clichés about golf uttered by every other hack with a set of clubs.

This absurdist framework creates a justification for everything that follows. Specifically, Hollon can continue his experiment because it is not a search for meaning. Rather it is an exercise in potentiality, an experiment illustrating what could be. There is no deeper truth to Hollon’s work because it is a hypothetical, and searching for the Truth in a hypothetical is folly because hypotheticals are by definition works of fiction. 

Of course, the book would be relatively short and uninteresting if page after page of the work recounted the folly of man’s search for meaning set amid scenarios and scenes that have never happened. Almost of necessity, Hollon’s embrace of the absurd requires him to explore the implications of his premise which is by far the more interesting exercise of the novel. This analysis begins with the simple observation that a world void of meaning presents a rather large opening for individuals (and ultimately society) to descend into nihilism. 

The book’s eponymous anti-hero Neil describes the matter as follows:  

It’s the never ending balance. On one side is the absolute knowledge that nothing whatsoever matters. There’s nothing any of us can do, nothing, that makes any difference at all. The world will continue to spin, time will continue to run, and each of us, every single one of us, will die, go back into the earth one way or another, and be forgotten in the blink of an eye.

On the other side, we wake up every morning and convince ourselves how important it is to provide for our children, bring the dog inside when it’s cold, mow the grass, pay the electric bill. And we ignore the irreconcilable differences between the two, the dichotomy. How can we not? Utter hopelessness is only a thought away, and the dogs are at the door. p.123

If we grant Hollon his absurdist introduction, then Neil’s summary of the matter is the natural result. Throughout the novel, various characters struggle to make sense of Jesus’ return, and invariably this forces them to evaluate the mundane and traumatic in their lives vis-à-vis the hope that life itself is not absurd and void of meaning. Much like he does in the New Testament, the figure of Jesus brings hope to individuals that takes them beyond the nihilistic conclusions of absurdism, and beyond the empty existentialism of crafting a subjective meaning from life’s routine.

Hollon uses this otherness of Jesus to advance the majority of his novel’s plot. Readers see stories of individuals demonstrating the effects of Jesus’ return on the micro-level. As the scenarios play out in the characters’ lives, this has the effect of rescuing hope from the clutches of the absurd in the novel. Some of the characters find hope and inspiration through Jesus’ return. Others are forced to confront whether they believe in an alternative to nihilism and the existential routine of truth as subjectivity. 

While the novel is rich in major themes and presents nearly all of them in a sophisticated manner, the emphasis on big picture has the effect of diminishing Hollon’s prose. This is not a novel to read if you long for the descriptions of Tolstoy or the punch of Hemingway. Hollon does not pretend to be anything other than what he is: a thoughtful writer, intrigued by the ideas of his work. But as a result some of his prose suffers. Portions of the novel are repetitive. Phrases, jokes, witticisms all make more appearances than necessary. And to be fair, most of the characters lack depth. We learn little of their backgrounds, aspirations, and even motivations in some instances. But this is deliberate. Prose, character development, and style are all sacrificed for Hollon’s experiment with big concepts. The novel is bold in this regard even though this quality could easily be off-putting to the casual reader. 

Still, it is Hollon’s boldness that makes the work a success. For all of its faults stylistically, Hollon’s insistence upon exploring big ideas more than makes up for the novel’s ultra-minimalist style. The question going forward will be whether Hollon’s hard work and focus on the forest will find success in a culture and readership that is increasingly more interested in the trees. 

Book Review: Judging a Book by Its Lover

Judging a Book by Its Lover

The press release billed Lauren Leto’s latest book Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere (Publisher: Harper Perennial; On Sale: October 2, 2012; Cost: $14.99) as a “hilarious and insightful take on contemporary book culture that both celebrates and mock’s literature’s biggest names and the people who read them.” Not being one too shy to mock the inane, I couldn’t help having my interest piqued by Ms. Leto’s work. 

The only problem was that I had never heard of Lauren Leto.

A search of the interwebs revealed that she is the co-founder of a website called http://www.textsfromlastnight.com/, which (surprise!) publishes the unfortunate text you wish you had never sent. Besides this, it is worth noting that Leto is also a recovering law student, having dropped out of Wayne State Law School to launch her much more successful ventures on the web. Given this background I couldn’t fault Leto for her life choices but I still didn’t understand what made her particularly qualified to offer “snarky but spot-on observations about books and the passionate conversations they generate,” let alone why the “memorable moments from her own adventures in reading” should be interesting enough to merit a book deal.

Alas, the press release and author bio offered no answers to my questions. Still, I soldiered on. Intrepid.

Judging a Book by Its Lover reads like a book title in want of content. To fill the void, Ms. Leto’s every musing about the world of books seems to make it into the text. Early in the book, Leto inevitably describes readers of Ayn Rand novels as “old-money preps” (p.17), while reducing readers of Che Guevara biographies as “quirky hipsters” (which actually sounds about right). I suppose this is an example of Leto’s “distinctive voice” and “sparkling wit” but really it seemed more like an exercise in cliché. Similar misfortunes occur in the chapters titled “Fan Letters” (p.66), where Leto “berates” fans of various authors for their fandom, and “Stereotyping People by Favorite Author” (p.112), where Leto describes, quite pithily, the type of people who read the authors she lists.

The remainder of the text includes cheeky vignettes on everything from the influence of children’s books on childhood development (Reading Green Eggs and Ham = awesome kids) (p.106), to the surprisingly moving account of the relationship Leto developed with her grandmother, which centered on a common love of the written word (p.262).  

Despite the relative non-sequitur nature of the essays, the best chapter of the book also comes from its longest chapter titled “How to Fake It.” Readers can be forgiven if the provocative title disappoints. The chapter actually outlines how to “casually discuss some of the most well-known classic and contemporary authors” without having read them (p.127).

For each author discussed, Leto provides a brief summary of the author’s life and influence, a description of the author’s major works, and a few points of detail about the author’s themes, writing style, etc. Of Dostoyevsky, Leto notes, “Dostoyevsky was exiled to Siberia by the czar because he’s a badass motherfucker.” She then recounts how Dostoyevsky was famously, nearly put to death by firing squad, only to receive a commuted sentence just before the execution was carried out. 

While I don’t think it’s possible to actually pull off the fake Leto describes, this chapter is interesting because it outlines the style, plots, influences and legacy of a number of well-known authors. Leto’s author summaries, list of major works, and details are all extremely useful for anyone looking to begin exploring a new author, or for anyone in need of a quick-and-dirty book summary. And in all due credit, the sheer number of authors Leto discusses is fairly exhaustive, certifying her as either a true bibliophile or a demented mooch of Wikipedia.

In fact, Leto’s summaries created a bit of a “To Be Read” (p.259) list for yours truly. Her descriptions of Charles Bukowski’s work sound tempting, particularly when she notes early on that “drinking while reading Bukowski is actually a requirement.” (p.33). Also, her chapter “Infinite Lies” (p.91) actually sparked an interest for me in the works of David Foster Wallace, specifically his book Infinite Jest. This is admittedly, in part, because Leto did not finish it. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.  

It’s not lost on me that I am being a bit hard on Lauren Leto, though no harder than she was on fans of Ayn Rand (p.66). But to set the record straight, Leto states forthrightly from the very beginning of the book, her admiration for the authors mentioned, and I have to return the same admiration for her. It’s easy to heckle creators from the cheap seats. It’s much more difficult to actually create something that others will want to read. 

It’s also not lost on me that I’m cracking wise about Leto in much the same way that she snarks about the authors discussed in her book. Of course, I do so with much less panache, much less fame, and a much smaller book deal (viz. none). Though I questioned her authority to opine, I can’t help but admit that I’m in a similar place – with even less authority to criticize books seeing as I’ve never written one. 

But as Leto notes, this is the essence of what reading inspires. We read to discuss, to connect with others, and to engage those who have read the same story, chapter and words as us. And once we begin this process we all become critics. Some readers are simply better at making their criticisms witty, and compiling enough of them together to make a book. And with that, here’s a hearty congrats to Lauren Leto. 

Judging a Book by Its Lover will be available to the public beginning October 2, 2012. Pre-order on Amazon here

Book Review: The Song of Achilles

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While I have not read The Iliad, I would like to think that Madeline Miller has done a great service to those like me, yearning for culture on a time crunch. Miller’s New York Times bestseller The Song of Achilles, recounts the tale of the Trojan Wars from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’ closest friend, rumored lover, perhaps both. Miller’s work has been praised as “wildly romantic,” “timeless,” and simply “beautiful,” among many other accolades. Not a bad go of things for a first novel.

When I began Ms. Miller’s work, I was skeptical at best. My studies of classical works were more or less relegated to the Bible as authorized by God and King James himself. The only classical literature I encountered during my college days was the Cohen brothers retelling of The Odyssey via the bard George Clooney.

My relative ignorance notwithstanding, I came away from Ms. Miller’s novel with a new appreciation for the ancient themes that make the novel an enduring part of our artistic and cultural fabric. In particular, Miller’s skillful treatment of love and loyalty both merit a brief mention, for these are the things that make merely another retelling of the Iliad a truly memorable event. 

The key theme that makes the novel work is the relationship Ms. Miller develops between Achilles and Patroclus. From the press release and a few of Patroclus’ descriptions early in the work, it was clear that the relationship would be a sexual one, rather than simply a deep platonic friendship. Typically, I recoil against such reinterpretations of ancient tales. Of late, society’s joie de vivre is to reinterpret nearly every literary relationships between men as gay. From David and Jonathan, to Achilles and Patroclus, to poor Bert and Ernie, men cannot simply be good friends these days. 

But in The Song of Achilles, Miller makes the schtick work. In fact, were it not for the same-sex relationship, the novel would lose a part of what makes it so compelling – the theme of love. Miller develops the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus quite true to life, in a way that any adolescent relationship develops, awkwardly. From Patroclus’ somewhat creepy leering at Achilles early in the novel (p.26), to the gratuitous comparisons that boys sometimes make in assessing how they have grown (p.94), to the couple’s clumsy first kiss (p.63), Miller finds a way to turn youthful innocence into budding desire without sacrificing the story’s progression.

To be clear, this is not an easy task. Contrast Miller’s skill with E.I. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, which is so outlandishly sensual that it makes the plot almost moot. Ms. Miller’s same-sex relationship works, because the novel is about much more than a physical relationship between two men. But the relationship is still essential because it establishes why these two characters’ devotion to one another seems to transcend the rational. 

In this way, the relationship in the novel must be sexual because love makes us do strange things out of loyalty toward those we love. We see this theme in the novel again and again. The first instance is actually a stirring example of disloyalty on the part of Patroclus’ father. Early in the novel, Patroclus accidentally kills a bully resulting in his prompt exile to Achilles’ Phthia. What’s telling about the father’s act of disloyalty is that rather than explore the facts of his son’s transgression, ensure him a fair trial, let alone show his son any compassion, Patroclus’ father sends him away without a thought. 

The second important act of loyalty comes when Achilles is sent on a sort of exile himself to train in the arts of war and life with the Centaur King Chiron (p.65). Despite the consequences of leaving the place of his exile, lacking in athletic prowess, and without appropriate equipment for the long trek to Mount Pelion, Patroclus departs the relative comforts of Phthia to join Achilles (p.68). Miller describes Patroclus’ devotion to Achilles as follows:

I could leave. The thought was sudden, arresting. I had come to the road meaning only to escape to the sea. But the path lay before me, and the mountains. And Achilles. My chest rose and fell rapidly, as if trying to keep pace with my thoughts. I had nothing that belonged to me, not a tunic, not a sandal; they were Peleus’ [Achilles’ father] all. I do not need to pack, even. (p.68).

And so, Patroclus leaves to find Achilles in the mountains without even a walking stick. I love my wife. I’m devoted and loyal to her. But given my penchant for climate control and wi-fi, I’ve never left our abode to go backpacking in the wilderness on her behalf. The simple lesson of Patroclus’ devotion is that Love begets loyalty and loyalty makes us do strange things. 

There are, of course, many more examples, but I would rather not spoil Ms. Miller’s retelling of them. The novel reads well, as all good novels should, and these two, enormous themes anchor the book in innumerable, infinitesimal ways, helping to bring the Greek myth back to the present.

It’s easy to think of acts of love. It is easy to think of acts of loyalty and disloyalty and to recall these thoughts from the annals of our mind. The memories are not always pleasant but they are there. What Ms. Miller does is to help us recall these themes that have helped to forge a civilization, thereby allowing us to reinterpret them in a manner that is as diverse and as subjective as the reader. A tremendous accomplishment. 

Book Review Coming Soon

Once again, I am indebted to my friends at HarperCollins for forwarding an interesting novel my way. I hope to have a review posted within the next week or so. 

Madeline Miller is a debut author and recent winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction (an award celebrating “excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world”). Not a bad go for a first time novelist.

To students of Greek Mythology (Anyone? Anyone?), Miller’s yarn will be a familiar one. The book, titled The Song of Achilles, is a retelling of the Iliad, which places a special emphasis on the relationship between Patroclus and his Achilles.

Some may recall that Patroclus was the exiled son of Menoetius. During his exile, Patroclus was raised by Chiron, King of the Centaurs – a king of savages according to Greek Mythology.  By contrast, Achilles was the “golden son” of King Peleus, his mother the Sea Goddess Thetis. The specific element Miller explores is how a relatively awkward “nobody” can strike up such a beautiful friendship with the “best of all the Greeks.”

In her own words, Miller writes:

I was fascinated by this man [Patroclus] whose loss had so devastated the great Achilles. I wanted to understand their connection, and why such an “ordinary” man matter so much.

Seeing as yours truly is perhaps the epitome of ordinary – the Joe Sixpack of Joe Sixpacks – I too am quite curious to see what conclusions Miller draws. As always, more to come.  

For those interested, The Song of Achilles is available in hardback on Amazon here. It will be released to the public in paperback form by Ecco/HarperCollins on August 28, 2012. 

Reconsidering Paris’s Judgment

The Judgment of Paris - Gore Vidal.jpg

I never knew much about Gore Vidal, spare his notable row at the 1968 Democratic National Convention with William F. Buckley, Jr., where Buckley threatened to “sock [Vidal] in the goddamn face.”

Here’s a moment of silence for the death of live TV

Naturally, when I heard that Mr. Vidal had himself gone the way of live television a few days ago, I was a bit ashamed that I had not read any of his works, although Buckley dismissed them forthrightly as “perverted, Hollywood-minded prose.” Even so, I decided to rectify the situation by making my way down to the local book seller where I found Mr. Vidal’s “The Judgment of Paris” above. 

Now, the premise of the book is intriguing in its own right. Vidal sought to add a personal take on the eponymous Greek myth – as opposed to, say, the eponymous website extolling the virtues of plus-sized models. At risk of boring you with too many details, the myth finds Paris judging a celestial beauty pageant between Hera (Queen of the Gods), Athena (Goddess of Wisdom), and Aphrodite (Goddess of Love/Pleasure). Each goddess employs her wiles upon young Paris, making the contest quite fierce indeed. The ultimate winner is Aphrodite who gifts Paris (a mere mortal Trojan) the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. The rest, as they say, is mythology. Helen of Sparta assumes the much more well-known name, Helen of Troy. Thus, begins the Trojan War. Homer writes The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Western Civilization is born. Of course, Western Civilization is subsequently destroyed by the Cohn Brothers’ retelling of The Odyssey in O Brother, Where Art Thou? but that’s a different matter. Call me the man of constant sorrow.

Anyway, in Vidal’s novel, young Philip Warren is similarly positioned to choose between three women, each of whom in some way mirrors the virtues of the Greek goddesses above. The task proves to be quite the embarrassment of riches for so young a man. First, he is seduced by Regina the arm candy of a major politician who offers him a career in politics and the promise of power. His next encounter is with Sophia a burgeoning academic who catches Warren’s eye but never his lust, as wisdom herself has suffered at the hand of many a man throughout the ages. Finally, Warren meets Anna, yet another married woman, with whom he begins a smoldering affair. 

Vidal’s resolution of the myth is much less clear than the Greeks’ myth. But the one bit of writing that struck me was the quote from Warren toward the end of the novel as he grapples with the choices he has made over the past year: 

I find it demoralizing to realize that there is no such thing as future, only a long present…that all acts are essentially meaningless, except of course to one’s self. p.203.

It may seem strange but I find the obvious nihilism of Vidal’s character to be mildly comforting. To accept life’s transience is really a means by which one may simply live. And perhaps that’s Vidal’s point. Like Paris, we mortals have only this long present, so the best we can do is make a go of things incrementally. Long planning is a farce for there’s no guarantee of a tomorrow let alone tomorrows many years hence. Or as the Greek Goddess Nike might say, “just do it.”

In all, the story was an interesting spin on an ancient tale that all but solidified Vidal’s stature in my mind as a truly entertaining writer – his political views and literary predilections notwithstanding. 

Book Review: Malarky

Book Review  Malarky

The subject matter of Anakana Schofield’s Malarky is one that appeals to a very specific subset of readers. The novel presents an Irish farmwife’s perspective of marital infidelity and her struggle to accept her son’s homosexuality. Being neither an Irish farmwife, nor (thankfully) having ever been in a situation to deal with marital infidelity, suffice it to say, empathy was not something that abounded within me as I read the work. 

But what I can appreciate about Schofield’s novel is how her writing style adds structure and definition to the lead character’s stream of consciousness. The book itself is written non-linearly, in a series of twenty episodes. That is to say, each episode (or chapter) reads like an individual short story, as opposed to each chapter advancing a greater narrative. The disjointed nature of the book places even greater emphasis on Ms. Schofield’s writing abilities. A lesser writer would not hold a reader’s attention for long, but Schofield’s running narration of “Our Woman’s” thoughts makes for an entertaining, thought-provoking read that surpasses the novel’s lack of constancy. 

Regarding her peculiar format, Ms. Schofield explains away the method as an attempt at being truer to life: 

This structure serves to reflect the nature of a whole life and the act of remembering and to record the fact that we do not remember chronologically. We do not recall necessarily “in sequence,” so I find the chronological unrolling narrative to be a falsehood.

Anakana Schofield, Press Release: Malarky – A Novel in Episodes

Given the author’s caveat, it strikes me as misguided to attempt to analyze the work chronologically, as a book review typically would. To summarize the book would to be to write twenty, separate summaries of each episode – a particularly harrowing prospect for my own readers, I’m sure. I suspect it is a better use of time to provide some thoughts about the work thematically. As I read the novel, three important themes emerged from the twenty episodes, all related to the modern notion of relationship. Specifically, Ms. Schofield seems to communicate that friendships are transient, romantic relationships are often rooted in the transactional, and familial relationships are never very far removed from the lurking specter of grief.

The Transience of Friendships

Regarding the first point, Our Woman lives a relatively atomized existence. Her social circle consists of four or five friends, her husband, and her son. From this network of relationships, the novel traces the breakdown of Our Woman’s friendships following rumors of her husband’s affair, through the actual details of how her marriage became so stagnate as to render the affair unsurprising, and ultimately through Our Woman’s graphic discovery of her son’s sexual orientation. 

The result is that her friends make only fleeting, shallow appearances in the novel’s the episodes, rendering the characters less flesh and blood and more like the outlines and caricatures of people. It’s probably giving Schofield too much credit, but the sketch characters remind me of the Bible’s Book of Job where superficial friends berate Job only to lead him askance of God’s purposes in suffering. Similarly, in Malarky, the friends serve as distractions that prevent Our Woman from actually dealing with the various griefs that beset her. Because the friendships aren’t well-developed in the novel, Our Woman exists in a sort of void, forced to deal with her husband’s infidelity and the shock of her son’s sexual orientation without a support network. To wit, when she needs them most, her friends never appear.  

Romance as Transaction

The notion of relationship is further muddied in Malarky through Schofield’s treatment of marriage and romantic attachments. Malarky approaches romantic attachment from a transactional perspective, not unlike many other contemporary works of literature and cinema. For example, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey approaches the relationship between lead characters Christian and Anastasia as a literal contract of consent before the novel delves into the erotic content for which it has become so well-known (not that I would admit to reading it). Similarly, the PBS series Downton Abbey revolves entirely around the transactional nature of marriage and the question of arcane British inheritance rights. In the show, lovers and would-be lovers are constantly haunted by the question of whether they are genuinely interested in on another or simply ‘in it’ for the money.

Given the tired motif of romance as transaction, it was difficult to see what Schofield would add to our collective understanding of the concept in general. Rather than taking readers back into the actual process of relationship as transaction (à la Downton Abbey), Schofield’s work offers a surprising glimpse into the analysis – viz., Schofield offers us a look inside the mind of a woman that is morally torn by the reality and prospect of marital infidelity.

At risk of giving too much away, readers learn early on that Our Woman’s husband has had an affair. What boggles Our Woman’s mind is less the affair itself, than what the proverbial other woman would possibly see in her husband. Schofield writes:

There’s so little to recommend him. And yet a woman has taken him and he has taken this woman and there’s nothing for it, she must investigate the very bones of this transaction. p.45

Our Woman’s revelation is that her marriage had become so routine and lifeless that her husband’s affair is more intriguing than disturbing. The conclusion is a sad one in many respects, but the lack of moral outrage presents an interesting dilemma as Our Woman weighs the actual costs and benefits of whether to have her own affair in return.  

Family and Grief

Finally, Ms. Schofield’s work explores the concept of family through her relationships with her husband, and son. It is, of course, telling that both men die early on in the novel. In fact, page one communicates the fact that Our Woman is a widow. But the bigger point Schofield makes through the disclosure of infidelity and the details of Our Woman’s marriage is that the familial bond between husband and wife and already expired for quite some time, long before infidelity was even entered into the equation. Schofield makes the point particularly well as she recounts a conversation between Our Woman and her husband before the two fall asleep: 

There was a brief lapse in time between them when she settled into bed that night beside Himself. He stared at the ceiling as thought his eyes are searching for a new planet to rest on, betraying an allergy to the current one. p.57.

The excerpt communicates the husband’s (aka, Himself) obvious desire to be ‘anywhere but here’, as the saying goes. But Schofield’s writing treats the moment as an instance of lament rather than anger. In this subtle way, she transforms one of the book’s major ideas, viz., infidelity, into a synonym for grief. As readers continue in the story, the transition of infidelity into grief becomes even more stark. Schofield’s bold point is that few things in life are more tragic than a couple sharing a bed, while being veritable light years apart. 

Schofield’s exploration of Our Woman’s son’s death makes a similar point about grief but in a much more conventional manner. Toward the end of the work, Schofield describes conversations that Our Woman has with “Grief” regarding the death of her son Jimmy – from the inside of a mental ward, no less. Jimmy has long since passed away when Our Woman reveals to Grief that she has conversations with him on a regular basis: 

– Jimmy and I had an understanding. And in that understanding he wanted me to tell people only when I was ready. 

– And how did you know about this? 

– We’ve talked about it, I said. Defeated. 

– Do you talk to him regularly?

– As a Matter of fact I do…that was how my husband put me inside the hospital. p.151.

Schofield’s wit makes it difficult not to laugh at Our Woman’s conclusion, despite the gallows humor of the situation. But the not-so-subtle point Schofield makes about Jimmy’s death is that Grief has become too difficult for Our Woman to bear. The remainder of the novel chronicles Our Woman’s downward spiral, and the interesting gaggle of friends she seems to make during her stay in the mental hospital. This aspect of the novel isn’t particularly original in form. Yet, Schofield’s writing as excerpted above does an admirable job of rescuing it from the realm of cliché. To put matters differently, Schofield’s writing is so entertaining as to beg one’s pardon for the overdone theme. 

In all, I was pleasantly surprised by Ms. Schofield’s work. The novel used fairly conventional topics to make relatively unique and modern points about our understanding of relationship. Though the structure was a bit difficult to follow, the format was effective in redirecting my attention to Schofield’s writing. For those seeking a simple summer read, the work is certainly no beach read. But given the current state of trade fiction, that’s definitely a good thing.

Coming Soon…

Book Review  Malarky

Apologies for a long delayed post. When my friends at Biblioasis first approached me about doing a review of Anakana Shofield’s latest work Malarky, I had no idea that a busy travel schedule would suddenly bloom in the midst of my formerly uneventful summer. 

Not to worry though.

I am happy to say that the book review of Malarky is in the works, on pace for release over the weekend. If you are so inclined, please stay tuned for my thoughts on this unique bit of Canadian/Irish fiction.

Book Review: The Cottage at Glass Beach


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Heather Barbieri’s The Cottage at Glass Beach is admittedly not the typical book that makes it way on to my desk. Committing the unpardonable sin of judging a book by its cover, the dust jacket clearly shows a young woman traipsing along the beach, starfish well in hand. Given the title, it’s easy to dismiss the work as a cliché and move on to other reads.

The book’s description also doesn’t help to pique the reader’s interest. The opening lines read as follows:

Married to the youngest attorney general in Massachusetts State history, Nora Cunningham is a picture-perfect political wife and a doting mother. But her carefully constructed life falls to pieces when she, along with the rest of the world, learns of the infidelity of her husband, Malcom.

I’m sure that writing cover descriptions is a challenging gig, but the summary reads like the re-run of a Lifetime, made-for-TV movie. This does a serious disservice to the novel and what actually makes it special.

The real contribution makes Barbieri makes in her new book is the way she captures the relationship between mothers and daughters in clear, unvarnished prose. This honesty allows her to provide a modern insight into a particular dynamic of literature that has more or less lain dormant since the era of Victorian literature.

One example comes early in the novel, as main character Nora Cunningham evacuates her family to Glass Beach. Eldest daughter Ella is clearly a Daddy’s girl who blames her mother for driving him away. Youngest daughter Annie is an open mind, as free of judgments as her sister is filled with them, and a bit too young to fully understand her parents’ separation. As the three set out to explore the island, Ella scorns the main village Portakinny as “Portapotty,” and repeatedly echoes her hopes to return to Boston. This makes Ella a constant source of negativity for Nora, yet it is easy to sympathize with the little girl’s frustration. The scandal besetting her parents has had incalculable effects on Ella, both personally and socially, leaving her confused, not knowing whom to trust.

Ella’s reticence to embrace the island and her parents’ circumstance creates a palpable stress for her mother Nora who is genuinely torn about the future of her marriage. Whenever questions about the future arise, Nora’s reply is the universally recognized phrase of non-commitment, “we’ll see.” But Barbieri’s prose demonstrates that the answer is a pained utterance for Nora who acutely realizes how disingenuous the words are. The fact is, Nora is just as lost as Ella and the whole point of coming to Burke’s Island is to discover some insight that will shed light on what is to come.

This notion of deliberate self discovery gives Nora a dimension of strength that makes her character extremely dynamic. The storyline is that Nora is lost, trying to make sense of her life, but the story itself is more about how Nora holds it together for her girls and learns about herself in the process.

Nora’s love interest in the book makes this sense of strength even more pronounced. Even as she struggles to sort out her feelings toward her estranged husband, Nora is also left to grapple with how she feels toward a new man in her life. Again, this could easily become a cliché, but Barbieri’s writing frames the situation as the simple reality that relationships are messy – particularly when a partner’s infidelity is at issue. In Nora, readers see the concurrent facts that old habits of love die hard, while the human need for intimacy never completely vanishes.

The mother/daughter theme is further reflected in Nora’s relationship with her Aunt Maire. Nora’s own mother has passed away at some point in her early childhood, a matter that also becomes an integral aspect of the plot. But her aunt acts a subtle mother figure for Nora over the course of the novel. Over blueberry pie, wine, and walks in the garden, Aunt Maire provides arms-length advice to Nora about her situation and the mysterious death of her mother – all while commending a keen sense of love toward Nora when she sorely needs it.

I suppose the themes above may not resonate for all readers. This is true for any novel. But for those seeking to get lost this summer and reconsider life’s priorities, Barbieri’s voice is clear and inviting. Whatever the book lacks in plot, it makes up for in character development and introspection in spades.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

May Book Review: The Cottage at Glass Beach

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According to my friends at HarperCollins, Heather Barbieri’s latest novel, The Cottage at Glass Beach is poised to become one of the sleeper hits of the summer.

The story chronicles the life of heroine Nora Cunningham, the spurned wife of a cheating Massachusetts Attorney General and the frazzled mother of two daughters. As Nora attempts to pick up the pieces of an otherwise broken existence, a mysterious, almost mythical being enters her life, providing both comfort and challenge as she confronts the demons of her past.

According to the author:

The overriding message is that it is possible to navigate life’s uncharted waters and find our own happiness.

Barbieri’s novel will be available beginning May 15th, 2012. Preorders can be made here. I hope to have my review posted some time before then.

As always, stay tuned…

Book Review: A Silence of Mockingbirds – The Memoir of a Murder

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For reasons having nothing to do with the author’s more than capable abilities, Karen Spears Zacharias’ new book A Silence of Mockingbirds ($16.50, MacAdam/Cage Publishing 2012) was an extremely difficult book to read and an even more difficult book to review. Zacharias’ work chronicles the true yet sordid tale of an innocent little girl named Karla “Karly” Sheehan.

Sadly, Karly Sheehan’s tale would become the inspiration for Karly’s Law in the State of Oregon, which requires mandatory medical intervention in suspected child abuse cases where victims exhibit signs of suspicious physical injury. Ultimately, this is the end of Zacharias’ book. But this suggests that a tragedy had to occur before the powers that be reacted. And this reflection upon tragic events is what much of Zacharias’ book consists of.

From the outset, the author is quick to note her own affiliation with the story. Ms. Zacharias’ family at one point had a familial relationship with Karly’s mother Sarah – a figure that comes across almost as much a villain in the tale as the actual villain who would abuse poor Karly to death. This relationship makes it quite impossible for Zacharias to be objective. But this misses the point of Zacharias’ work. Her point is not to be objective, but to use the story to raise awareness about “the epidemic of child abuse in our nation.” And on this score, the memoir could not have delivered better. I mention the point about objectivity, because it is important to remember that not all works of non-fiction need to be told through an objective lens. There is certainly a role for the objective eye, but when the point of a piece is to advocate, objectivity inevitably yields to the story being told.  

The bulk of the work can be glibly typified as “somber” in tenor, but only insofar as readers know the outcome. Each detail of Karly’s life is lovingly presented. From Zacharias’ writing, it is clear that there were many moments in Karly’s life that were filled with love and with joy. Her account of Karly’s trip to Ireland to visit her father’s family comes readily to mind. But the final outcome of the account stalks even the happiest memories, ever lurking in the background of the book. Karly’s own presence in the memoir reminds me a bit of a delicate glass set precariously on the edge of a table. For but a moment all seems safe as Zacharias describes Karly’s sky blue eyes and whispy golden hair. Readers get every sense that she was a precious, perhaps precocious, little girl who was much beloved by the many people in her life. But knowing the outcome of the story, readers also understand that this cannot last. The glass on the edge of the table is doomed to shatter, and the result is that an innocent little girl must die. 

My choice of the word “must” is intentionally provocative. In addition to presenting the tragedy of Karly’s death, Zacharias consistently explores the broader public policy implications, directly addressing the question of whether Karly’s death was preventable. The villain in the book and the man ultimately convicted of Karly’s murder was her mother’s boyfriend Shawn Wesley Field. But equally complicit in the sad outcome is a system that failed to protect Karly at manifold turns. As Zacharias writes:

Karly’s death is not simply a tragedy – it’s an unforgivable shame.

It takes the complicity of a community, and a nation, to stand by in silence as a child is tortured to death. That ought to give us all nightmares of children weeping.

If there is a moral imperative to be gleaned from Zacharias’ work, this is it. And as the tale proceeds, the root of Zacharias’ anger becomes more clear. From a mother in denial, to the first child services inquiry filed by a worried daycare worker, to the shoddy follow-up investigation by Oregon’s Department of Human Services, to the failure of the Corvallis Police Department to have Karly’s physical symptoms examined by a doctor with expertise in child abuse cases, the list of should-haves in the book is depressingly long.

The trial of Shawn Wesley Field is also an interesting aspect of the story. While readers at this point will long for justice, what actually struck me most was the lack of state’s evidence available to convict Field, despite the fact that Karly was abused for such an extended period of time. The trial turned on pictures that Field had taken of Karly that were timestamped only a few minutes before she died. The photographs showed Karly battered, yet clearly alive, leading prosecutors to conclude that the blow which ultimately took her life had to have happened while she was in the clutches of Shawn Wesley Field before the paramedics and officers arrived

The lawyer in me recoils at hearing how such circumstantial evidence can connect a defendant to a crime. But this is true of a number of cases, and the inference made between the timestamped photo and the time at which paramedics and police arrived at Field’s house makes a lot of sense. What is most appalling is that in the two year span of abuse allegations, the best the State of Oregon had at trial were a few pictures. If there is a fortunate aspect of the tale, it may well be that so little evidence was sufficient to convince the jury of Shawn Wesley Field’s guilt. 

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the outcome of the trial really only hints at the title of Zacharias’ curiously titled book – although she addresses this directly toward the end. Mockingbirds are symbolic of people in society – we are a notoriously protective and obnoxious lot, always around, always causing some ruckus or another. Yet, in Karly’s case, when their alarm was needed most, the gaggle of people around her went silent and a little girl died. The natural question is “why.” Or whither the empty nest?

While it’s true that we can address the public policy questions of Karly’s case through changes in law, and we can encourage individuals to be more vigilant, particularly when it comes to the vulnerability of children, there are never answers to questions like these. We can no more “know” what drives individuals toward evil anymore than we can know what drives saints and martyrs toward the light. But I like the approach Zacharias suggests. We can cry together. We can learn together. And we can take every precaution to ensure that our children are protected.

I never knew Karly, but I have a hunch that protecting other kids would make her smile.