Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Local Wonders
by Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser’s warm and gentle memoir—personal and filled with anecdotal stories, brings both the past and present into focus. Local Wonders made me want to visit Nebraska, see the places mentioned, and walk through farm fields.

Kooser is a master of metaphor—and the images he chooses are alive and informed—as well as intimate.

Here he describes a limestone quarry two miles from his house:
…"I like to go over there and sit for awhile in the dusty lap of time...I like the exposed layers of rock with their reliable order, thousands of years stacked on shelves like old court ledgers, the oldest on the bottom…seashells stuck between pages like bookmarks making passages in time.”

Kooser savors items his family used—the mere mention of his mother’s cutting board unleashes stories about his mother. He quotes Proust who has “…the taste of biscuit … take him back in time.”

His character sketches may be short, but the particular details give dimension to the figures. I think I’d recognize some of the people if I met them in person.

And since he’s sixty when he begins writing Local Wonders he does reflect on time and age.

We are always trying to find footing on the damp edge of the future, but to most of us, the dry sand of the past feels firmer under our sneakers.”

Take a Chance Challenge

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Face of the Naked Lady by Michael Rips

While this is portrayed as a memoir many of the incidents and characters appear as fictionalized—or if not fictive they are drawn larger then life. What makes this a throughly believable story is the search of a son for his father's identity. It is not as if Nick doesn't know his father—a conservative mid-western Republican father; however, when after his father's death Rips discovers several canvases his father painted—he wondered about the father he didn't know. The subject of the canvases— a nude black woman.

What follows goes back and forth in time and celebrates an array of eccentric events—a dead body falling through a ceiling, a man digging graves in a volcano—and some events that while humorous were lewd. Rips discovers that his grandparents ran a brothel and his father spent a good part of his youth being brought up in that brothel.

His father ran an eyeglass factory and many of the people he hired were eccentric and social misfits. And they—each and every one— were important to him.

Mixed in with the flamboyant characters and events Rips engages in a number of philosophical outpourings. It is Levinas whose thought captures his imagination. In fact there are times that Rips leaves his search to explicate Levinas's thoughts, but by the end of the book we understand that there is a connection.

Rips uses a Bearded Priest — "before becoming a Bearded Priest, he had raised bird dogs and before that worked in a lumberyard...Now he spent his time reading Emmanuel Levinas and fishing off a pier on Fourteenth Street."— to ponder consciousness and ethics.

The humor of the book, the blurring of the line between a documentary retelling of the story, the surreal landscape of events— and the philosophical writings create a stepping stone to a discovery about his father.

"We live at the edge of change, but refuse to see it, until something pulls us out the window or sucks us up a chute ..."

Take a Chance Challenge

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Separate From the World by P.L.Gaus

My understanding of Old Order Amish, gleaned from books and a short visit to Pennsylvania Amish country, doesn't prepare me to comprehend what it means to accept the mantle of its rules for living.

Not only is Separate From the World an interesting mystery, but it also explores the complex relationship between the " English" and the "Amish" as well as the difficulties of living under the yoke of being Amish.

Professor Michael Branden is approached by an Amish man who contends that his brother's death was not an accident. The fact that both brothers are dwarfs plays into a developing fraction within the Amish community.

While he us telling his story to the professor they are interrupted by a commotion outside. A young woman has fallen off a bell tower. It appears to be suicide.

Professor Branden and Pastor Cal as well as the Sheriff, Bruce Robertson, are all involved in the investigation of both deaths.It  soon becomes apparent that there is a link between these deaths.

At the same time there is a backdrop to this investigation. Some in the community have been involved in generic research conducted by university students. The Amish, because of intermarriage within the sect, are prone to several medical anomalies. The incidence of dwarfism is more pronounced in the Amish community.

One group of Amish wish to follow a leader who desires to have the community avail themselves of modern medicine. The presiding Bishop warns against those who depart from traditional Amish ways.

Gaus's knowledge of the Amish allows him to present the case for "English" medicine and the temptation that poses in  juxtaposition with the choices that the Amish make and their acceptances of those choices.

Mystery and Suspense Challenge

Monday, March 21, 2011

Interred With Their Bones by Katherine Carrell

Carrell's scholarly knowledge of Shakespeare—both the plays, sonnets, the intrigues involving his life and the veracity of his authorship informs this mystery.

Kate Stanley, whose thesis is on the Occult in Shakespeare, is directing Hamlet at the Globe theatre in London. When Professor Rosalind Howard, Kate's former mentor, arrives in London with a box which she says holds an important Shakespearian find she tells Kate that she wants her to help in uncovering the find.

She does not have an opportunity to tell kate anything else because a fire breaks out at the theatre. The date of the fire corresponds to the exact date that the original Globe Theater was consumed by fire. After the recent fire is extinguished Roz's body is found. That's the first death—however many more will follow.

Kate is convinced that Roz was murdered because of the box and she begins a long circuitous path to discover the answer. Along the way she is helped, or hindered, by a wide cast of characters. At various points during the narrative Kate isn't certain who is befriending her and who is doing the killing. The reader is also unsure.

The trail includes wild escapades across both England and the United States—all in search of answers. There are a number of discussions regarding the authorship of the plays and the different groups purporting to know who is the real author.

The reader needs to suspend disbelief when it comes to some of the scenes where they are either racing from place to place or miraculously assuming a new identity. The fact that some of these disguises appear with a nary a moment to spare does not take away from the suspense or fun.

Carrell engages the reader with the murders—each one aping murders found in one of the Shakespearian plays.

If you enjoy academic mysteries and want to be drawn into the many speculations revolving around the authorship of the plays you'll find this an intriguing read.

Mystery and Suspense Challenge

Friday, March 11, 2011

Reality Hunger by David Shields

When Reality Hunger was first published it stirred up a plethora of responses —everything from knighting David Shields as the savior of contemporary writing to naming him the devil incarnate who was tearing down the pillars of narrative and replacing it with a clever tapestry of smoke. To some he had sewn the Emperor's New Clothes —many people applauded what they saw while others said , "It's all a ruse." What it did create was dialogue or perhaps simply responses. The ability to do that is an art.

For the past few years I've been drawn to lyric essays where association and collage holds sway over a strict linear thread; however, not all lyric essays merit reading. In art before you can do a successful abstraction you need to learn how to draw, how to use perspective, and how to observe light and then to paint objects with that awareness.

Shields refers to Reality Hunger as a Manifesto. Perhaps it is an encyclical to the writing community. Shields proclaims his boredom with traditional novels, with plot. He asks his reader to read his book without looking at the sources at the end of the book. If you follow his advice it is a seamless read with marvelous quotable tidbits. I find myself quoting his lines which have been appropriated from a superfluity of sources.

I copied this down," The hybrid, shape-shifting, ambiguous nature of lyric essays makes a flowchart of our experiences of our world." and I wonder is that Wallace or D'Agatha. I can check it at another time.

This collage that Shields created is seamless—it flows with an energy that doesn't feel truncated or staccato. Everything fits neatly. He does say that he often needed to form the quote or cut some words. Isn't that what fiction writers do—create a form or shape for their narrative?

Some critics question what is real and what is fiction within this book, but when Shields was questioned about that he said that he wanted the reader to accept the facts as facts. Filling in the spaces between facts is done by many professions. The archeologist makes educated guesses from shards, the paleontologist who doesn't find all the bones engages in acts of reconstruction. Writing Bibical Midrash means filling in the spaces between the words. There is much left unsaid—the stories between the words or between the spaces. Lot's wife looks back and turns to a pillar of salt—what was she looking at and why did she risk taking one last look? That question warrants a response—
a midrash.

Shields wants "Reality" present in our written work, but not the faux reality we're surrounded by—reality television which is anything but real. He is bored by traditional novels, by writers that write voluminous texts. Novels do not interest him. He sees little in them that is real.

I love losing myself in a good piece of writing, in a novelist who creates characters that speak to me and engage me. I like plot driven novels—that create a place for me to enter and follow the steps of another.

But I also enjoyed this book. I didn't need to compare it to something that it wasn't. I envied his ability to quilt together so many ideas.

Shields makes you think—even those of us who love narrative. I also love lyric essays and collage. I'm fascinated with his appropriation of phrases, with his ability to subtract words and add others. With the way he melds together differing pieces— a crazy quilt of ideas. He goads writers to think. He even has the audacity to suggest that, "You make something of your limits."

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

Walt Whitman

A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line."

Joseph Conrad

Reality Hunger succeeds by prodding, by getting critics to agree, disagree, disregard, or stamp it as the new manifesto. There's a part of me that thinks that Shields is having a great deal of fun playing a part—both totally sincere and totally delighted with shaking up the establishment.

Personally, I'm glad I read Reality Hunger, but there's no need to swallow it whole or dismiss it. It's like a banquet—some dishes are delectable, others pale in comparison, and some are downright uneatable.

I think it has prodded me to try to spread out and try some new things, but not to replace the narrative—but to add some new shapes and forms.

Take a Chance Challenge

Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

Mix a young woman, Meg, whose husband Martin died in the war, her present fiancé, Gregory, and add a scheme to find a treasure and you have the basic plot.

Martin had, before his death, told some men in his platoon that there was a treasure buried in his old family home on the French coast. One of the men, a rather unscrupulous individual, Jack Havoc, hatches a plan while he is in prison— his aim is to find the treasure.

Add a score of colorful minor criminals, Albert Campion's decidedly good uncle Canon Avril, and a plot that includes the kidnapping of Gregory, a murder, and a connection between the Canon and Havoc and his mother. For good measure stir in the ingredients of good and evil, gallantry and jealousy and you have a plot worthy of Masterpiece Theatre.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Monday, March 7, 2011

Gone by Mo Hayder

Several years ago I read one of Mo Hayder's earlier books and found that her explicit descriptions of crimes edged close to my over the top barometer. That's not the case in her recent book— Gone.

Because I hadn't read the two previous detective Jack Caffery and police diver sergeant Flea Marley books I appreciated it when Mo Hayder brought the reader up to date about key events in the previous two books.

In Gone Hayder creates a suspect who steals cars, but these aren't empty cars. In each car there is a child. Within a short period of time two girls are abducted this way. Hayder builds up the suspense while she also gives the reader some insight into the families of the missing girls. The suspense mounts as the police seem unable to get inside the mind of the person responsible.

Caffery , as well as teams of police are searching everywhere. Flea meanwhile is convinced that the tunnels and a buried canal are relevant. Hayder does a remarkable job describing the search in those tunnels. One can almost feel the sludge and smell the fetid air.

Both Caffery and Marley are aided in their search by two "people" outside of the pale of reality. Caffery's Walking Man—who some critics think is his alter ego—goads him into thinking outside of the box. Marley hears the voice of the deceased father.

They both seek to find a pattern which eludes them. Mo Hayder builds the story and the suspense until things fall into place. It's a riveting story with an unexpected ending. What I especially enjoyed was Hayder's characters—major and minor. their stories added to this polce procedural.

Mystery and Suspense Challenge

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

In our world some wounds are obvious, many more are hidden. In Brockmeier's book all wounds—both external and internal, physical and emotional are obvious by their illuminated glow.

The book starts when Carol Ann Page cuts her thumb when trying to cut threaded tape wrapped around a package. The cut at first seems minor but eventually requires surgery. While in the hospital she first notices that the wound glows. But she is not the only one—all over the world wounds send out a glowing light.

An individual can stand anywhere and observe the pain and the sickness.

In a recent essay in the Writer's Chronicle Brockmeier is noted as being a master of the grand metaphor.

One thread carried throughout the book is the peregrinations of a journal that belonged to a woman killed in a traffic accident. The journal contains a compilation of daily love notes — notes from her husband. He left her a love note a day and she copied them into her journal. Carol Ann Page shares the hospital room with this dying woman who tells her to take the journal.

That starts a series of stories—all connected in some way to the journal and the love notes. Six people have contact with the writings—Carol Ann, a widowed photographer, a mute boy, a solitary missionary, a writer, and a mentally ill homeless man.

From Jacob Appel's essay in The Writer's Chronicle:
"...implicit in Brockmeier's metaphors is the suggestion that human beings have the capacity to adjust to whatever extraordinary often improbable circumstances that fate throws their way."

Early on Brockemeier poses this question: " Were we outlived by our pain? How long did it cling to the world?"

The Illumination has staying power. It can't be put down and forgotten. It's a book to discuss, a book to ponder, and a book to reread —not only for its ideas, but for its writing.

Take a Chance Challenge—Staff Member's Choice