They thought to use and shame me but I win out by nature, because a true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born.
Geek Love is an amazing boo
They thought to use and shame me but I win out by nature, because a true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born.
Geek Love is an amazing book, audacious, moving, beautiful, substantive, creepy, upsetting, tragic and dark.
So you think of yourself as different, an outsider, a freak in one way or another? Well, maybe you are, but your differences would likely fade were you to compare yourself to most of the characters in this best-selling novel from Katherine Dunn, so best-selling in fact that it has never been out of print. And, in addition to being a popular success, it was a critical one as well, earning a spot as a finalist for the 1989 National Book Award.
A word of warning (several, actually) for those who are familiar only with the contemporary meaning of the word “geek.” Before the word had its DNA mutated to mean “an expert,” particularly of the techie variety, before serious people proclaimed that the geeks will inherit the earth, the word referred specifically to carnival performers who engaged in the very un-nerdy practice of biting the heads off live chickens for paying audiences. Let's see a show of hands. How many of you folks out there, how many nerds in particular, would be interested in returning to etymological roots and getting your McNuggets started the old-fashioned way? Not many. But you, in the back, with your hand up? Do me a favor please and read some other review. Thanks. Of course this was not a problem for Crystal Lil. Somehow it did not freak her husband out that she got off on using her teeth to remove small heads from quivering bodies.
“When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”
Binewski’s Carnival Fabulon travels the Podunk USA circuit, offering pedestrian locals a peek at the extraordinary. The Binewski family will remind no one of Ozzie and Harriet. More the Addams family, sans the smirks. In fact, they may be the ones who put the nuclear in nuclear family. Frustrated by the frequent loss of carnival performers, Aloysius Binewski and his wife, Lilian Hinchcliff Binewski , (the Crystal Lil of the geek mention above) opt to craft their own, applying measured doses of sundry illegal substances, poisons, and radioisotopes to ensure that their progeny emerge special. The efforts that do not make it through to live birth, or who meet an unhappy end soon after their emergence, are displayed publicly in large glass jars. The survivors include Siamese twins, Iphigenia (Iphy) and Elektra (Elly), Arturo (Arty), the malevolent and megalomaniacal AquaBoy, Fortunato (Chick), who manifests telekinetic power, and Olympia (Oly), our narrator through this family saga. Oly relates the tale of the family to us as an adult. She makes a living as radio personality Hopalong McGurk, which is a good venue if you are a bald, albino dwarf with pink eyes, a sweet voice and a hump.
Reading this book you will forget the boy who lived under the stairs and latch on to the girl who lived under the sink. Oly’s needs are few, but a connection to family is chief among them. She is our insider, observing and reporting the goings on that seem normal to her, but maybe not so much to us. What is normal, anyway? To you and me, norms for the most part, average height, weight, a typical number of standard-issue limbs, no particular magical powers, we stroll the not very broad midway of the straight and narrow. But to Olympia Binewski, having a brother with flipper-shaped limbs, twins sharing one pair of legs, among sundry other parts, and a brother who can move matter with his mind, and a sense of place defined by the nearest road sign defines normal.
I was full-grown before I even set foot in a house without wheels. Of course I had been in stores, offices, fuel stations, barns, and warehouses. But I had never walked through the door of a place where people slept and ate and bathed and picked their noses, and, as the saying goes,”lived,” unless that place was three times longer than it was wide and came equipped with road shocks and tires.
When I first stood in such a house I was struck by its terrible solidity. The thing had concrete tentacles sunk into the earth, and a sprawling inefficiency. Everything was bigger than it needed to be and there were so many shadowed, dusty corners empty and wasted that I thought I would get lost if I stepped away from the door. That building wasn’t going anywhere despite an itchy sense that it was not entirely comfortable where it was.
Sometimes that family connection can be problematic. Oly is in love with her brother, Arty. AquaBoy is exceptionally bright and tuned in to what works on audiences. He expands his performance from a display of his unusual form to an interaction, as he finds success answering audience questions. He builds this into a very big deal
For a while, he answered only generic questions distilled from the scrawled bewilderments and griefs that piled up on the three-by-five cards. Then he stopped answering at all and just told them what he wanted them to hear. Testifying he called it.
And a cult is born, Arturism, in which the Admitted, seeking to find the peace that Arty has persuaded them he possesses, allow their bodies to be whittled a piece at a time.
Chick was thought to have been a dreaded norm when he arrived. Al and Lily decided that, as he was of no value to the show, the proper course was to leave him at a gas station. Turns out he has a special gift which manifests in the nick of time. He is absorbed into the family, and put to profitable use as soon as he is able to understand commands.
We follow the family as the children grow, and as will happen, sexuality swells the narrative mix. Complications ensue.
These are not exactly the nicest people, but Dunn offers nuanced portrayals of most of them. We never really find out why Boston Brahmin Lily chooses the low road, but we do see both the dark and the light sides of their children. Or in the case of Arty, the bright side illuminating his dark side. Oly is a sympathetic character and you will have little trouble appreciating her concerns, particularly when she is an adult. Her role, though, is primarily as an observer. Chick is like a wounded animal, who, despite his prodigious power, suffers as he feels the pain all around him. The twins have the same problems other twins experience, on steroids. There are a few outsiders who join the Fabulon, and offer a perspective other than Oly’s.
The narrative follows two time lines. The bulk is following the traveling Binewkis over a decade or so. The smaller narrative is Oly as an adult, living in a boarding house in which her mother and her daughter, Miranda, (a Tempest reference if ever there was one, resonant with the opening epigraph, taken from that play), reside. In that stream Mary Malley Lick is a wealthy heiress who professes a desire to liberate young women from the burden of being attractive so they can make their way in the world on their merits. Of course, the very large and not very attractive Ms Lick may be using her great wealth to take beauty away from those who have it, in a form of one-percenter jealousy. Oly takes an interest in her when Lick targets Miranda.
The tales of love, greed, power, envy, powerlessness and rage seem the stuff of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, particularly those centering around Arty. Hubris, abuse of power, fate and comeuppance are most definitely on display.
There are really two primary preoccupations of mine involved in this book. One of course is this concept of the cult, and the how-come of that. And the other was the long debate of nature vs. nurture. So those two things linked and seemed to be in an odd way part and parcel of each other, I guess.
We are asked to look at questions about the definition of normalcy. Most of the time in literature the freaks want to be like everyone else. Here the norms seem to pine for freakishness. Dunn offers a fascinating comparison between the oddness of the Arturists and what society considers appropriate.
It’s interesting that when these individuals choose—and it is their choice always—to endure voluntary amputation for their own personal benefit, society professes itself shocked and disapproving. Yet this same society respects the concept that any individual should risk total annihilation in war, subject to the judgment of any superior officer at all and for purposes ranging from a promotion for the lieutenant to higher profits for the bullet company. Hell, they don’t just respect that idea, they flat expect it. And they’ll shoot your ass if you don‘t go along with it.
At what point does cultishness, do the needs of the pack, become the norm?
In addition to the startling tale of the Binewskis, Dunn demonstrates a particularly powerful and poetic command of language. Here is a small sample:
The sky above Molalla was aching blue but I walked from Arty’s tent to our van in the same air I’d sucked all my life. It was a Binewski blend of lube, grease, dust, popcorn, and hot sugar. We made that air and we carried it with us. The Fabulon’s light was the same in Arkansas as in Idaho—the patented electric dance step of the Binewskis. We made it. Like the mucoid nubbin that spins a shell called “oyster,” we Binewskis wove a midway shelter called “carnival.”
There is plenty more where that came from. There is also serious structural craft on display, as Dunn, in this modern fable, wields parallelism deftly, particularly as applied to how people are formed and changed, and the diverse motivations, self and external, involved in the formation of who we are and what we are capable of, for good and ill. There is a particularly poignant look at innocence in childhood vs adulthood.
Appropriately for a book that concerns freakishness, Geek Love is notable for its packaging. Quick, name five books that are renowned for their covers. Right. Dead air, that’s what I thought. Ok, Ok, Gatsby, and we all have personal favorites, but how many are really different, and universally regarded as groundbreaking? The Knopf wolfhound on the bound edge of the original hard-cover printing somehow sports five instead of the usual four limbs. And the letters used in the cover title are all mutations. It was considered pretty daring cover art for the time.
One of the inspirations for the story took place in Portland, Oregon. The International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park is home to a wide variety of rose variations. Dunn wondered how it might play out if people were applying genetic control to making people, not in some sort of Aryan quest for perfection, but in trying to design for different. She was also inspired, if the word can be used here, by the awfulness of Jim Jones, and puts some of Jones’s words into Arty’s mouth. Dunn is from Kansas, originally, but her family moved around a fair bit when she was a kid. She has lived in several European countries, having her son in Ireland, but lives in Portland now, where she has become a renowned writer on boxing.
As for film plans for Geek Love, rights have been sold and sold again, but now reside permanently with Warner Brothers, who may or may not ever get around to producing it.
Geek Love has been continuously in print since its’ 1989 release. In fact she earned more money from it in the last year than she ever had before. The author was given a contract for a second novel, for a sum well into six figures. But the book has yet to appear. Perhaps it is in a glass jar somewhere.
You don’t have to be a teenager or twenty-something to appreciate the pull of Geek Love. It is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read, and I am well on my way to geezerhood. Reading Geek Love may not alter your DNA, give you unusual physical characteristics or make sleeping under the kitchen sink seem appealing. But it will definitely alter your view of what is possible in literature, will make you think about some core subjects in ways that might not have occurred before and will make you perk up whenever you spot one or more of the many references to it that pop up in our culture from time to time, like a travelling carnival. It may be too out there for some readers, but I suggest that if it feels that way to you, take an excursion and go out there to see this amazing show. It is one of the best freakin’ books ever.
The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?
Marie Laure LeBlanc is a teen who had gone blind at age 6. She and her father, Daniel, fled Paris ahead of the German invasion, arriving in the ancient walled port city of Saint Malo in northwest France to stay with M-L’s great uncle, Etienne. His PTSD from WW I had kept him indoors for two decades. They bring with them a large and infamous diamond, to save it from the Nazis. Daniel had made a scale model of their neighborhood in Paris to help young Marie Laure learn her away around, and repeats the project in Saint Malo, which is eventually occupied by the German army.
Werner and Jutta Pfennig are raised in a German orphanage after their father is killed in the local mine. Werner has a gift for electronics, and is sent to a special school where, despite the many horrors of the experience, his talent is nurtured. He develops technology for locating radio sources, and is rushed into the Wehrmacht to apply his skill in the war. His assignment brings him to Saint Malo, where his path and Marie Laure’s intersect.
There are three primary time streams here, 1944 as the Allies are assaulting the German-held town, 1940-44, as we follow the progress of Werner and Marie Laure to their intersection, and the 1930s. We see the boy and the girl as children, and are presented with mirrored events in their young lives that will define in large measure the years to follow. Werner and Jutta are mesmerized by a French radio broadcast, a respite from the anti-Semitic propaganda the government is broadcasting. The Professor in the French broadcast offers lectures on science, and inspires Werner to dream of a life beyond the orphanage.
Open your eyes, concluded the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever, and then a piano comes on, playing a lonely song that sounds to Werner like a golden boat traveling a dark river, a progression of harmonies that transfigures Zollverein: the houses turned to mist, the mines filled in, the smokestacks fallen, an ancient sea spilling through the streets, and the air streaming with possibility.
As her father is the head locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, Marie Laure has the run of the place. She spends a lot of time with a professor there, learning everything she can about shells, mollusks and snails.
Dr. Geffard teaches her the names of shells--Lambis lambis, Cypraea moneta, Lophiotoma acuta--and lets her feel the spines and apertures and whorls of each in turn. He explains the branches of marine evolution and the sequences of the geologic periods; on her best days, she glimpses the limitless span of millennia behind her: millions of years, tens of millions of years.
Both Werner and Marie Laure are enriched by teachers and books as they grow. No nuclear families here. Marie Laure’s mother died in childbirth. The Pfennig children lost their remaining parent when father was killed in the mine.
The author, in a video on his site, talks about the three pieces of inspiration that provided the superstructure for the novel. While 80 feet below ground in a NYC subway, a fellow passenger was griping about the loss of cell service. Doerr appreciates the beautiful miracle that is modern communications. At the start of the book I wanted to try to capture the magic of hearing the voice of a stranger in a little device in your home because for the history of humanity, that was a strange thing. I started with a boy trapped somewhere and a girl reading a story. A year later he was on a book tour in France and saw Saint Malo for the first time. Walking around this beautiful seaside town, a walled fortress, the beautiful channel, the green water of the channel breaking against the walls and I told my editor, “look how old this is. This medieval town’s so pretty.” He said, “actually, this town was almost entirely destroyed in 1944, by your country, by American bombs.” So I started researching a lot about the city of Saint Malo immediately and knew that was the setting. That was where the boy would be trapped, listening to the radio. The third piece arrived when Doerr learned that when the Germans invaded, the French hid not only their artistic treasures but their important natural history and gemological holdings as well.
The story is told primarily in alternating Marie Laure’s and Werner’s experiences. But there is a third stream as well, that of Sgt Major Reinhold von Rumpel, a gem appraiser drafted by the Reich to examine the jewels captured by the military and collect the best for a special collection. He becomes obsessed with finding the Sea of Flames, the near mythic diamond Daniel LeBlanc had hidden away. He is pretty much the prototypical evil Nazi, completely corrupt, greedy, cruel, as close to a stick-figure characterization as there is in the book. But his evil-doing provides the danger needed to move the story forward.
There may not be words sufficient to exclaim just how magnificent an accomplishment this book is. Amazing, spectacular, incredible, moving, engaging, emotional, gripping, celestial, soulful, and bloody fracking brilliant might give some indication. There is so much going on here. One can read it for the story alone and come away satisfied. But there is such amazing craft on display that the book rewards a closer reading. In addition to a deft application of mirroring in the experiences of Werner and Marie Laure, Doerr brings a poet’s sense of imagery and magic.
Marie-Laure’s experience of the world is filled with shell, snail, and mollusk experiences and references. Some are simple. During a time of intense stress, she must live like the snails, moment to moment, centimeter to centimeter. In a moment of hopeful reflection, these tiny wet beings straining calcium from the water and spinning it into polished dreams on their backs—it is enough. More than enough. You will find many more scattered about like you-know-what on a beach.
I knew early on that I wanted her to be interested in shells. I'm standing here at the ocean right now. I've always been so interested in both the visual beauty of mollusks and the tactile feel of them. As a kid, I collected them all the time. That really imbued both "The Shell Collector" and Marie with, Why does the natural world bother to be so beautiful? For me, that's really embodied in seashells. I knew early on that I wanted her to find a path to pursue her interest in shells. I think that fits — I hope that fits — with visual impairment, using your fingers to identify them and admire them. - from the Powell’s review
Werner’s snowy white hair alone might stand in for the entirety of the visible spectrum. (although it is described as “a color that is the absence of color.”) The dreaded prospect of being forced to work in the mines in a literally coal-black environment, the very antithesis of light, offers motivation for Werner to find another path, and coal itself offers a balance for that other form of carbon that drives Marie Laure’s father out of Paris, the one that embodies light. While black and white are often used in describing Werner’s environment, the broader spectrum figures large in his descriptions.
Werner liked to crouch in his dormer and imagine radio waves like mile-long harp strings, bending and vibrating over Zollverein, flying through forests, through cities, through walls. At midnight he and Jutta prowl the ionosphere, searching for that lavish, penetrating voice. When they find it, Werner feels as if he has been launched into a different existence, a secret place where great discoveries are possible, where an orphan from a coal town can solve some vital mystery hidden in the physical world.
A nice additional touch is Marie Laure’s reading of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It permeates the tale as her reading echoes events and tensions in the real world of the story.
Also avian imagery is a frequent, soulful presence. A particularly moving moment is when a damaged character is reminded of a long-lost friend (or maybe a long-remembered fear?) by the presence of a particular bird associated with that friend and the time when they knew each other.
There are substantive issues addressed in this National Book Award finalist. Moral choices must be made about how to respond when darkness seeks to extinguish the light. There are powerful instances in which different characters withdraw into their shells in response to evil, but others in which they rage against the night with their actions. Thoughtful characters question the morality of their actions, as dark-siders plunge into the moral abyss. Sometimes the plunge is steep and immediate, but for others it is made clear that innocence can be corrupted, bit by bit. The major characters, and a few of the secondary ones, are very well drawn. You will most definitely care what happens to them.
As for gripes, few and far between. There is a tendency at times to tell rather than show. Marie Laure may be too good. That’s about it. There are sure to be some who find this story too emotional. I am not among them.
Just as Werner perceives or imagines he perceives an invisible world of radiowaves, All the Light We Cannot See enriches the reader with a spectrum of imagery, of meaning, of feeling. You may need eyes to read the page, ears to hear if listening to an audio version, or sensitive, educated fingers to read a Braille volume (please tell me this book has been published in Braille), but the waves with which Doerr has constructed his masterwork will permeate your reading experience. They may not be entirely apparent to your senses the first time you read this book. They are there. Whether you see, hear or touch them, or miss them entirely, they are there, and they will fill you. All the Light We Cannot See is a dazzling novel. When you read it, you will see.
Definitely check out Doerr’s site. And if you are wondering what he had in mind, specifically, with the title:
It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility. - from Doerr’s site
What matters in prison is not who you are but what you want to become. This is the place of true imagination.
Rene Denfeld, the author of The Enchant
What matters in prison is not who you are but what you want to become. This is the place of true imagination.
Rene Denfeld, the author of The Enchanted has the heart of a warrior and the soul of a poet. She has written a novel about identity, understanding, the roots of crime, the reality of prison life, the possibility for redemption, and the ability of people to use imagination to rise beyond the purely material to the transcendent. There are three primary and several very strongly written secondary characters whose stories are interwoven.
In the death row of a stone prison somewhere in America, a nameless inmate, entombed in a lightless dungeon, has constructed a fantastical appreciation for the world he inhabits, bringing a glorious light into his Stygian darkness.
The most wonderful enchanted things happen here—the most enchanted things you can imagine. I want to tell you while I still have time, before they close the black curtain and I take my final bow.
In reading, he has the freedom his external circumstances preclude. And he interprets his surroundings through a magical lens. The rumblings of tectonic activity become golden horses racing underground. He sees small men with hammers in the walls (a particularly Lovecraftian notion) and flibber-gibbets, beings who feed on the warmth of death itself. He visualizes his very sweat rising to join the atmosphere and raining down on China. He is also able to perceive feelings and needs in others, observing from his isolation, and offering a bit of narrator omniscience. That he is able to find enchantment in this darkest of situations is breathtaking. I was reminded, in a way, of Tolkien’s Gollum, the battle between the darkness and the light within a single being. But enchantment is not reserved for the inmate alone.
An investigator, known only as The Lady, is working on the case of a prisoner named York. After being on death row for twelve years, York had decided to abstain from any further appeals. The Lady had been hired by York’s attorneys to look into his case. We follow her as she unearths a horrific past that helps explain how York came to be where and who he is. She has a history of her own that informs her ability to relate to her clients. Once upon a time she needed a redoubt of her own.
What did she think about during those endless hours in the laurel hedge? As a child, she made an imaginary world so real that she could feel and taste it today. Sometimes she would imagine that she and her mom lived on a magical island where the trees dripped fruit. Other times they traveled all over the world, just the two of them, like the best of buddies. In all the stories her mom was whole and she was safe. When she left the laurel hedge, she would bend the thick green leaves back, to hide where she had been. And when she came back the next day, crawling with a sandwich she had made of stale bread with the mold cut off, and hardened peanut butter from the jar, the magic would be waiting for her.
She has enchantment in her adult life as well, while pursuing her investigation, as she is dazzled by some of the natural beauty she encounters.
A fallen priest tends to the spiritual needs of the inmates, but he guards a secret that he desperately needs to confess. While he offers what comfort he can to the inmates, who can really see him? Who can forgive him?
Much of this novel is about seeing and being seen, of crime, punishment and forgiveness. The Lady’s role is to see the prisoners, see their history, see what lies beneath the awful exterior. She is respected and admired, but not much seen herself. Many of the inmates and guards get by precisely because they succeed in remaining unseen. Prison is a dangerous place in which to be seen. Those who see might use that vision for dark purposes.
Denfeld lifts a wet rock to reveal the maggot-ridden structure of unofficial prison governance, the corruption and cruelty that permeates this world, even with a fair warden nominally in charge. Corrupt guards ally with brutish alpha inmates for their mutual gain. There is considerable detail about prison life, including such things as why metal food trays are used instead of plastic, how the bodies of the deceased are handled, what events are considered disruptive and what are considered ameliorative, and even some history of the prison, including reasons for elements of its design. She also looks through the eyes of the warden and the guards, offering keen insight.
The story lines include learning what The Lady discovers as she looks into York’s past, following the travails of a new, young, white-haired prisoner, seeing how corruption in the prison operates, and accumulating bits of the nameless prisoner’s story.
There are indeed monsters inside the stone walls, as there are monsters without, both drawn to the despoiling of innocence and beauty. But in this pit of ultimate despair, where all hope is lost, there is magic of another sort. Life may be harsh and death may be near, but welcoming the golden subterranean steeds, attending to the little men with hammers, imagining elements of one’s self traversing the planet, traveling along with the characters in a book, seeing, really seeing others, can lift one beyond the cares of the physical world.
Can there be redemption for the horrific crimes these condemned men have committed? Should they die for their crimes, whether they want to or not? Might it be a harsher punishment, even crueler, to keep them alive?
Denfeld has a considerable history. She is an investigator for death-row inmates, and thus the model for The Lady. Her knowledge of the prison world is well applied here. She wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine on the impact on children of being raised by cognitively impaired parents, a subject that is significant in the story. In addition, her 2007 book, All God’s Children informs her knowledge of the often violent world of street families, young criminals in particular. She is also an amateur boxer. I would not mess with her.
This is simply one of the most moving books I have ever read. Not only is the material heart-breaking, but the language Denfeld uses in her descriptions, the gentle magic of the imagination with which she imbues some of her characters is poetic and stunning.
I hear them, the fallen priest and the lady. Their footsteps sound like the soft hush of rain over the stone floors. They have been talking, low and soft, their voices sliding like a river current that stops outside my cell. When I hear them talk, I think of rain and water and crystal-clear rivers, and when I hear them pause, it is like a cascade of water over falls.
While there is enough darkness in The Enchanted to fill a good-size dungeon, it is the moments of light, the beauty of language and imagination, and the triumph of spirit that will cast a spell over you that will last until you shuffle off this mortal coil.
The trade paper edition of The Enchanted will be available 3/4/15
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 inIf 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.
Only one returns, found unconscious under the pylons of a local pier.
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?]
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
4/15/14 - Pub date for trade paperback
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. :-(
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.
Let’s state it up front. This is a GREAT book. Not a pretty good book with some nice qualities, but a powerful, beautiful, thoughtful and incredibly mLet’s state it up front. This is a GREAT book. Not a pretty good book with some nice qualities, but a powerful, beautiful, thoughtful and incredibly moving work of art that will be read for generations. The Orchardist is even more incredible for being a first novel, the best first I have read since Edgar Sawtelle. Yes, that good.
Talmadge had lived forty years in the orchard without any exceptional event happening to him, barring inclement weather or some horticultural phenomenon. Nothing to speak of in the human realm, really. And then this happened.
He had had a tough time of it. After the mining death of his father in 1857, when he was nine years old, his mother traveled with him and his sister, Elspeth, north and west until they found a suitable piece of land in what is now Washington State. There they set up a farm. Three years later mom passes, and Talmadge and his one-year-younger sister are left on their own to run it. Oh, and toss in a bout of smallpox that he manages to survive a few years later. A year after that, at the ripe old age of 17, his sister takes off. Some childhood. When we meet Talmadge he is well into middle age. One day while at the market with his produce, he spots two filthy teen-age girls stealing some of his apples and everything changes.
Talmadge is a man who has lived most of his life alone. With the arrival of these girls he sees a chance to have what he always wanted, a family. But they are toting more than just hunger and the bulges in their young bellies. The girls had had a particularly difficult youth, orphaned very young, ill used after, and their fear makes it difficult for them to accept Talmadge as someone they can trust. They take up residence on his land. He takes care of them as much as they will allow. When the man from whom they are fleeing arrives, events take a very dark turn.
The core story of the novel is Talmadge’s struggle to save one of these runaways from the darkness both without and within, what he gains, loses, experiences and learns. You will love him. He is a good, good man, trying his very best in extremely trying circumstances. He will spend the rest of his life trying to do right by the young lives that have been placed into his hands, despite their resistance. Maybe in doing this Talmadge is doing what he hoped someone would have done for his long-vanished sister. One of his charges travels a similar path, searching always for that connection to her lost one.
He has two amazing friends. Clee is a mute Nez Perce who Talmadge has known since arriving, and Caroline Middey is a local healer, a sort of big sister for him. The depiction of Talmadge’s friendships with Clee and Caroline is rich and incredibly moving. Coplin has made many of her subsidiary characters come alive.
The text is sewn with descriptions of small pieces of this verdant and sometimes harsh world. These passages glow, capturing the vibrant beauty of the land, the affection the residents have for it and the depth of their connection. Coplin has a gift for description. You can feel the warm sun on your skin, the breeze brushing past your cheek as it ripples fields of grass
He did not articulate is as such, but he thought of the land as holding his sister—her living form, or her remains. He would keep it for her, then, untouched. All that space would conjure her, if not her physical form, then an apparition: she might visit him in dreams, and tell him what had gone wrong, why she had left him. Where did she exist if not on earth—was there such a place?—and did he want to know about it, if it existed? What was a place if not earthbound. His mind balked. He was giving her earth, to feed her in that place that was without it. An endless gift, a gesture that seemed right: and it need never be reciprocated, for it was a gift to himself as well, to be surrounded by land, by silence, and always—but how could this be, after so much time?—by the hope that she might step out of the trees, a woman now, but strangely the same, and reclaim her position in that place.
The land itself is family. There are other manifestations of this connection between people and nature. The Nez Perce deal in horses and one of the girls becomes enamored of these animals the way Talmadge is bound to his orchard, seeing in the horses the same presence of a lost loved one that Talmadge sees in his land.
Coplin, whose parents owned orchards in the Wenatchee County where her novel is set, knows of what she describes
In my family, which is somewhat nontraditional (some of us are related by blood, some not) there is a history of domestic violence, and sexual and substance abuse. When I was growing up, only some of this was known to me—I sensed it without understanding what it was—but what was immediately before me, what was right in front of my face was the immense beauty of the landscape—orchards, wheat fields, forests—and people who did not hurt me, but loved me very much and were affectionate and kind. These elements—a child’s half knowledge of a painful family past, and sensitivity to the physical landscape—formed the book.
There is such sadness here. We feel with Talmadge the loss of his sister, and it is hard not to choke up even when recalling this, long after having read the book. There is also the fire of hope that Talmadge guards, nurtures, that offers light by which to steer his course. He travels a hard road to find what he wants, needs, to give what he can, what he must. You cannot read this book without coming to feel for this man, and to admire the skill, and clearly love, with which he has been crafted.
I thought of The Old Man and the Sea, except in this case the fish the old man is trying to bring home is a lost soul of a young woman, who is in danger of being consumed before he can get her to port. Coplin, though, says that her models were Faulkner and Toni Morrison. I leave it to those better versed than I to go into detail on those comparisons.
There is beautiful mirroring in use here. Talmadge is searching for some peace, denied him as a child, while the young woman he wants to help is searching for a peace of her own, so long denied her by the guilt she feels for a decision taken when she was still young. Both Talmadge and his charge keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves. A scene in which horses are broken reminds a runaway of how people were broken in her earlier experience. Silences pervade in this remote place. Talmadge’s mother had preferred quiet to almost anything, and Talmadge acquired the trait. Clee, of course, does not actually speak at all, and we learn that Elspeth had difficulty speaking as well. The two runaways also speak little.
There is an existential theme that permeates. Where does one’s self leave off and everything else begin?
There was no wilderness to lose oneself inside. She touched her face in the dark: she had her self. But then, she thought, her self was nothing. She was nothing.
A gentle wind, a kind of sighing, moved over the earth; and for a moment he felt as if his body had evaporated
when she was alone, when she was working, it was as if she forgot about herself. It seemed strange to state it this way but it was as if she had no outline, no body, even though the work was very physical. Where did her mind go? Her mind was steeped in the task at hand. At such times she felt a depth of kinship with the earth…
There are events that take place towards the back end of this tale that some readers might find a bit of a stretch. Would this person go that far to achieve the desired end? Maybe, maybe not. But it did not detract from the whole for me.
The Orchardist is not just a moving portrait of a remarkable man, but a look at how people relate to place. Not so long ago, I walked with my youngest through a particular stretch of Greenwich Village recalling events from a lifetime ago. This happened here. That happened there. An event took place in that building on the corner that changed my life. This is where I first set eyes on… I did this and such there. I told her that these streets and buildings held ghosts that called to me, “remember,” connections I cannot imagine abandoning for another locale. I get this connection to land, even if my orchard consists of wood and concrete structures and city streets rather than sylvan swaths, and bears a spectral fruit that only I can consume. I imagine most of us have similar experiences, history and place entwined in memory, sealed in, and maybe emerging from a particular patch of earth. Talmadge’s attachment is probably much more intense than many of ours, but it will resonate, I expect, for most. The Orchardist tells a sometimes harsh and more times beautiful story. You will care. Definitely have some tissues at the ready. This is a great one and you will not want to miss it.
Skippy Dies is a work of genius. Where else could you combine a coming-of-age tale with string theory, ancient Celtic mythology with fart humor, consiSkippy Dies is a work of genius. Where else could you combine a coming-of-age tale with string theory, ancient Celtic mythology with fart humor, consideration of cultural forgetfulness with Druid drug dealers (say that five times fast), a look at adulthood as a continuation of adolescence with better tools but less hope, substance abuse of sundry sorts, from doughnuts to diet pills, from weed to heroin and cocaine, from sexual predation to the hormonal cravings of early adolescence to self-cutting? It may sound like too much but it all hangs together in its own entire and discrete dimension. Did I say that I laughed out loud many, many times? Did I say that I loved, loved, loved this book?
Seabrook College, serving as our societal microcosm, is a six-year school in more-or-less contemporary Ireland, before larcenous corporate entities got all their wishes and left Ireland with an empty pot and no gold at all. Daniel “Skippy” Juster, who does indeed die in an opening scene, is a charming 14-year old with a hankering for a sweet thing named Lori. That is short for Lorelie, so break out your Vah-gner. Howard “The Coward” Fallon, a young teacher in a bad relationship, pines for an alluring substitute named Aurelie, which, I guess, makes her a golden variation on the theme. Can Skippy and/or Howard keep from being dashed on the rocks? The imagery of classical sirens resounds throughout the novel.
Ruprecht is Skippy’s genius, overweight roommate. He is very interested in string theory, particularly the notion of a possible eleventh dimension (don’t ask) and concocts experiments to test out his theories. That loud noise you hear might be Ruprecht attempting to transport matter into an alternate dimension. He has tales to tell about his parents, supposedly lost while kayaking in the Amazon. He plays the French Horn as well, and may be a bit too wedded to his analyses.
Carl is a troubled Columbine candidate, with a toxic home life and a host of friends one would definitely call the wrong sort. He deals drugs to students, and may sample the product a bit too much. He was obsessed with Lori before Skippy came along. Uh oh.
There is also a large cast of wise-cracking boys (mostly) who will definitely tickle your funny bone with their very witty, pun-soaked and profane banter, and creative nicknames for each other and adults as well. (My personal faves were “Pere Vert” for Father Green on the adult side and Kevin “What’s” Wong for student entries) Their conversations and their concerns make them very real, even if we do not spend a lot of time with most of them. For all you boys out there, Skippy offers plenty of scatological humor, although, being a very-over-age adolescent, there can never be quite enough for me. :-) Murray has a keen ear for the rhythm, tone and degrees of snarkiness these kids exude, leading one to think that either he recalls extremely well his time at the actual school on which Seabrook is based, or part of him never graduated.
The story opens with Skippy’s demise, then works up to that event from the past. Skippy has a lot to deal with. His swim coach is after him to shape up, for, among other reasons, Skippy is a natural in the pool. He is slack-jawed at the sight of Lori and struggles to establish a relationship with her, all the while being tormented by his romantic rival, the ominous, thuggish and maybe addled Carl. Add to that a mother dying of cancer and a father who can spare him no attention. Have a nice life. Oh, sorry. Once up to Skippy’s passing, the story continues, looking at how both teens and adults cope.
I was blown away by this book. I loved the characters, the story was compelling and the payload was considerable. I hated to put the thing down, or in this case, for the battery to run out, as I was reading it on a Nook. There is quite a bit of paralleling here about various sorts of dimensions that exist in close proximity to each other spatially or chronologically. There is a consideration of the Irish role in World War I and the subsequent national attitude about that, as well as how events in one’s personal past can define history on an individual basis, even if they might be somewhat misremembered, whether by design or not. Failure and redemption coexist nicely here. Growth and stasis as well. There is a look into string theory, which is a pretty neat trick, ancient religions and alternate dimensions occupy close turf as well.
A school filled with rambunctious teenaged-boys would be incomplete without the predictable evil principal. He remains a cardboard figure here, acting as the designated uber-schmuck to all around him. Think Dean Wormer from Animal House. He also personifies, beyond his cartoonish darkness, a more meaningful bleakness, voicing certain beliefs that most reasonable people would find troubling. There is also a very Snape-like priest, with a dark secret of his own, wandering the halls.
You will love Skippy and his bright-light roommate Ruprecht. Murray even gives us reasons to care about some of the unpleasant and damaged people who appear. You will laugh and you will cry. And you will never be able to think of Frost’s The Road Not Taken the same way again. With Skippy Dies Murray has proven, for any who might doubt it, that there is plenty of room for uproarious laughter in a work of great literature. Skippy Dies? I don’t think so. Skippy will live forever.
A young boy is awakened from his Christmas Eve rest by a train that magically appears just outside his home. Ignoring the demands of stranger-danger,A young boy is awakened from his Christmas Eve rest by a train that magically appears just outside his home. Ignoring the demands of stranger-danger, the boy climbs aboard, finding the car filled with other youngsters. They are treated to goodies while en route to the north pole where Santa is to offer the first gift of Christmas to one of the passengers in a town-square ceremony attended by all the elves as well as the transported youngsters. Our hero is selected, and when asked what he would like, opts for a single bell from Santa's sleigh.
I knew that I could have any gift I could imagine. But the thing I wanted most for Christmas was not inside Santa’s giant bag. What I wanted more than anything was one silver bell from Santa’s sleigh. When I asked, Santa smiled. Then he gave me a hug and told an elf to cut a bell from a reindeer’s harness. The elf tossed it up to Santa. He stood, holding the bell high above him, and called out, “The first gift of Christmas!”
This is one of the all time great magical stories, with stunning illustrations. I read this to my kids every year on Christmas Eve since the late 1980s. While they have long outgrown that tradition, on the odd occasions when I pick it up again, it never fails to bring tears to my eyes. The illustrations are incredible and the message of youthful hope symbolized by the bell resonates.
When they char my final remains, this is one of the books I want to go into the ashes with me. ...more
Caribou Island is a masterpiece. Set in the remote bleakness of water-soaked, small town Alaska, this is a tale of desperation, failure, of man-versuCaribou Island is a masterpiece. Set in the remote bleakness of water-soaked, small town Alaska, this is a tale of desperation, failure, of man-versus-nature but also of man so arrogant and self-involved, so removed from reality that he does not bother to properly prepare for the battle. Some hope is gleaned, some battles are won, but the war seen here is a dark, suffocating presence.
Alaska felt like the end of the world, a place of exile. Those who couldn’t fit anywhere else came here, and if they couldn't cling to anything here, they just fell off the edge. These tiny towns in a great expanse, enclaves of despair.
Whereas most fiction floats atop a watery base of prose, Vann’s characters and story sit amidst a thick stew of imagery. His writing has the density, the economy of a short story. No event occurs that does not contribute to the underlying momentum, or to enhancing our understanding of the characters or their actions. Salmon thrashing about on the deck of a boat echo how his characters struggle to survive the travails of their lives. One even dreams of himself underwater with the hooked fish. The Alaskan environment is as much a character as the characters themselves. While it can be a beautiful landscape, and that is noted more than once, it is mostly harsh here, offering chill wind, rain, snow, cold, the harshness of the venue reflecting the harshness of the characters’ emotional states.
The water was no longer turquoise. A dark, dark blue today, with blackness in it, a clarity, no glacial silt suspended. Irene didn't know it could change so completely in even a day. A different lake now. Another metaphor for itself, each new version refuting all previous.
Vann’s language is as unadorned as a block of Hubbard ice, reminding me of Cormac McCarthy, particularly in his frequent verb-free sentence constructions.
The primary actors in Caribou Island are a late-middle-aged couple, Gary and Irene. Gary is impulsive, controlling, a bully and a coward, who cannot ever see himself as being in the wrong. He wants to test his mettle by constructing a cabin on the shore of remote Caribou Island. Another character thinks about sailing a ship around the world, thus conjuring Robert Stone and Outerbridge Reach. Gary’s wife, Irene, desperately trying to save her marriage, reluctantly agrees to help, despite knowing that constructing this cabin is only another in a long history of follies. Their daughter, Rhoda, is a veterinarian’s assistant. She lives with, and expects to marry Jim, a dentist, who is going through a mid-life crisis. A sociopathic man-user rips through the scenery, leaving a trail of destruction, and a few minor characters are given lines. But their actions serve primarily to highlight the larger issues. Looming over all is Irene’s memory from age ten, when she found her mother, hanging.
What effect must that have had on such a young person? Vann ought to know. His own father took his life when Vann was thirteen. Irene carries that memory on her back like Jesus stumbling toward Calvary. Given Vann’s prior work, one must wonder if one or more of his characters will find their way to a similar a dark end.
But there is a route. There are reasons, challenges, revelations, lies, contemplations. Abandonment and isolation are prime here. Vann casts a laser light on how people manage to see past each other, how they miss chances to connect. He looks at how fear, whether of failure, or of being alone, can help cause the very things we most want to avoid. Even the sociopath is running from something. Vann shows how people can make each other invisible, whether consciously or not, and do so at their peril, and how their externalizing of internal issues and images impacts those around them. Are we doomed to repeat the crimes of our parents? Of our parents’ parents? Of forebears beyond counting?
The subject matter may be tough, but the journey is incredibly rich, the main characters well realized, the craft impressive. You will find yourself thinking about scenes from this book long after you have moved on to your next read. Vann is the real deal, and this is top notch literature. Climb into your leaky boat, brave the icy wind and squall-driven waves slapping at the sides of your craft and head over to Caribou Island . It is a memorable sojourn. And if this is not recognized as one of the best books of 2011, I will eat my copy.
I decided to reread this in anticipation of seeing the film.
Watchmen is one of the all-time great graphic novels. Someone is killing the costumed adveI decided to reread this in anticipation of seeing the film.
Watchmen is one of the all-time great graphic novels. Someone is killing the costumed adventurers and the very dark Rorschach, our guiding Virgil into this Inferno, is trying to get to the bottom of it. Watchmen deals in multiple time lines, from the early days of the 40’s 50’s and 60’s when the superheroes were welcomed and appreciated, to the 70’s when laws were passed to limit their legitimacy, to the current day, the 80’s here. Moore has constructed an alternate history, one in which Nixon remains president for a third term, one in which the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan continues on in to Pakistan and threatens nuclear war with the USA. These are not exactly the nicest superheroes. Rorschach is a psycho, a bloody vigilante, fierce, damaged, with a need for vengeance that often exceeds what is absolutely necessary. The Comedian is a nihilist who has committed an unspeakable crime against one of the other superheroes, as well as plenty of crimes against the non-hero community. Doctor Manhattan, the only character with super powers, and boy o boy what super powers, may not even care about the survivability of humanity any more.
So what is this all about? One central concern is action versus inaction. Faced with a world approaching the brink of nuclear annihilation, is it better to act or not act? If one is to act, how far can one go to save the earth? Acting in the service of larger causes has implications. Doc Manhattan and the Comedian are shown engaging in bloody carnage in an alternate Viet Nam war. Is murder in the service of country ok? If it is ok in war, how about in preventing war? And why couldn’t Doc Manhattan use his powers to transport the enemy into contained spaces instead of obliterating them?
Is Moore a fan of the right-wing or a critic? My take is the latter. On the surface we hear Rorschach droning on about the moral depravity of the city a la Travis Bickel, while practicing his own form of depravity on any who get in his way. The right-wing, rabble-rousing newspaper in the book certainly has plenty of parallels in our world. I do not think he was flattering in his view of them. Moore was writing in response, I believe, to Thatcherism, when creatures like Maggie and Reagan were seen as heroes by their fans, to the detriment of most of us. I read that Moore set Watchmen in an alternate reality so as not to turn off Reaganistas. Who is watching the leaders? And who is watching the watchers?
If these are the heroes we get, who needs heroes? Unlike the dominantly rose-tinted superheroes of the past, the Watchmen heroes are far past flawed. What actually do these characters value? Doc Manhattan struggles even with the notion of valuing the continuation of the human race. The Comedian thinks that life is a big, bloody joke, G. Gordon Liddy with a special outfit, and Rorschach sees filth everywhere. Unlike most superhero tales, this one lacks a super-villain. So the heroes have to deal with less simplistic challenges. It takes more to be a superhero than merely the ability to beat up the baddie. They have to use their brains, figure things out, struggle with very difficult moral choices.
One annoyance here was that I felt the females in the story tend to serve as plot devices for the development of the male characters rather than as fully realized characters in their own right.
Watchmen is part Batman, part noir detective story, part cold war crisis of nerves. It represented a sea change in the presentation of graphic heroes, from a more innocent time in which good was good and bad was bad, for the most part, to one in which the distinctions are much less clear. Watchmen resonates on many levels and remains, on re-reading, a powerful tale. ...more
There are reasons why Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Beloved may be the biggest one. The structure is a ghost story about aThere are reasons why Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Beloved may be the biggest one. The structure is a ghost story about a woman who killed her own children rather than see them be dragged back from freedom to live a life of slavery, and how the guilt of that act comes back to haunt her. But the real payload here is a portrayal of the slave existence, how it seeps into every pore, affects every emotion, defines one’s world view, how one values education, how willing one can be to love another human being. It is a triumph, a masterwork by one of the world’s great writers, working so well at several levels.
Sethe is the main character. Having already sent her children ahead, this pregnant woman flees slavery in the south and takes up residence with her grandmother, Baby Suggs. But when a posse comes to bring her back, she kills her children rather than allow them to become slaves.
There is a lot here about identity, defining oneself in one’s own terms and not the owner’s for example. Also, there is commentary on the need for and value of community. Sethe’s daughter Denver never strays from their home, but when she finally does, she finds that there is help to be had. When Paul D is in need the community of free blacks is more than willing to help.
The story is based on a real case, on in which Margaret Garner (remembered in this book as the family name given to the less horrendous slave owners) in 1856 killed her children for the same reason.
Most men in this book are oppressors, but a few rise above. Mister Garner, although a slave owner, shows at least some signs of humanity. Paul D is the most developed male character, struggling with his fears and weaknesses, but in search of truth and peace.
Morrison utilizes expected literary devices like foreshadowing (an early image of a white-clad figure hovering over Sethe), flipping back and forth among several time lines, changing from third person to first, classic references (p 174 When the four horsemen came—schoolteacher, one nephew, one slave catcher and a sherrif—the hours on Bluestone Road was so quiet they thought they were too late.) to great effect.
More than just a great ghost story or an outstanding tale of slavery, Morrison has written a classic of 20th century American literature. It will be read forever. ...more
Rowling does a top-notch job of showing how young Harry copes with, endures the growing pains common to us all. It is the challenge of growing up as wRowling does a top-notch job of showing how young Harry copes with, endures the growing pains common to us all. It is the challenge of growing up as well as the more obvious contest that makes us care about Harry and the other characters who inhabit Rowling's magical world. Harry's quest for self-knowledge continues, he faces the expected dangers, and we are all treated to a front row seat to his adventure. ...more
And so it comes to a close, this amazing series, with a battle royal. Which of our most loved and most loathed characters will survive? Which side wilAnd so it comes to a close, this amazing series, with a battle royal. Which of our most loved and most loathed characters will survive? Which side will prevail? What secrets will be revealed in this final episode? The Harry Potter series is one of the triumphs not only of modern marketing but of contemporary literature. While the danger in any series exists that the joy of newness has rubbed off, Rowling keeps us interested by offering continued mystery, diversity, characters we can relate to and a palette of literary reference that gives resonance to her creation. You will cry at the end, but those tears may be because there will be no more Harry Potter books to read. ...more
The excellent series takes a step up and into a darker world as Harry must wonder if the escaped prisoner is coming for him, while coping with new, soThe excellent series takes a step up and into a darker world as Harry must wonder if the escaped prisoner is coming for him, while coping with new, soul-sucking opponents. Rowling continues to impress as both she and Harry mature....more
Rowling confirms that the first book was not a fluke. The Harry Potter series is the real deal, with compelling characters, action and adventure, multRowling confirms that the first book was not a fluke. The Harry Potter series is the real deal, with compelling characters, action and adventure, multi-dimensional characters you can love and hate, all wrapped up in a fascinating created world. ...more
This is where it all began, where we were introduced to Harry Potter, Rowling's magical world, a series of exciting adventures and the excellent charaThis is where it all began, where we were introduced to Harry Potter, Rowling's magical world, a series of exciting adventures and the excellent characters and environments she has given to English literature. It set the standard for contemporary fantasy. Rowling make full use of classic literary and mythological references, freeing herself from the confines of the merely topical, while giving it all a daring sense of newness. This series will live forever....more
The conclusion to my favorite series of all time. Will Frodo be able to complete his mission? Will such completion cost him his life? Can Middle EarthThe conclusion to my favorite series of all time. Will Frodo be able to complete his mission? Will such completion cost him his life? Can Middle Earth be saved? Ok. I know. You've seen the wonderful Peter Jackson films. But there is nothing like reading it for yourself. It is the difference in feeling between seeing it on TV and being there. Read the trilogy. Be there. You won't regret it. ...more
One of the great works of 20th century literature. I first tried this in high school, but was not able to get through on the first try. The second tryOne of the great works of 20th century literature. I first tried this in high school, but was not able to get through on the first try. The second try, in my early 20s was the charm. Frodo goes on a quest that take in issues of morality, friendship, one's responsibility towards others, facing one's fears, courage, danger. While depicting a global battle between good and evil, Tolkien puts a human (or hobbit-ish) face on that conflict. His themes are universal and his characters are very accessible. Frodo, Sam and Gandalf are heroes for the ages, and Gollum is what can happen when normal is corrupted by darkness. This is my favorite series, and taken together with the succeeding pair my favorite book of all time. I have read it at least five times, including aloud to my children. I hope to read it five more. ...more
Books exist in time and place and our experience of them is affected by the specific time and place in
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.
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.)
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 it bears the weighty treasure of memory and fond association, 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.
In comment #32, below, GR pal Rand added a link to a reading of the entire book by Nicol Williamson. It is just the thing for bedtime, yours or your child's. Adding it here was done with Rand's kind permission.
O’Brien is a gifted writer, and this is a powerful, beautifully written book. The structure is episodes, short stories. He begins with a piece about tO’Brien is a gifted writer, and this is a powerful, beautifully written book. The structure is episodes, short stories. He begins with a piece about the objects each of the characters is carrying. Then the stories go into each character in detail. The tales are of war, and are compelling. He also writes about writing and his observations are interesting. – Highly recommended.
P 40 …sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.
P 179 By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain. ...more