**spoiler alert** A Man Called Ove: This Thing Called Love
Fredrik Backman, only thirty-three years old. You'll be surprised at his wisdom.
Love. I b**spoiler alert** A Man Called Ove: This Thing Called Love
Fredrik Backman, only thirty-three years old. You'll be surprised at his wisdom.
Love. I believe in it. In all it's forms. Pure, impure, fleeting, found, lost, unrequited. I am a master of love unrequited.
But I am absolutely stunned by A Man Called Ove written by Fredrik Backman. Only thirty-three years old. A former forklift driver. Read it. Perhaps you will love it (as in the impersonal sense, see below) as I did.)
Love. We yearn for it. Crave it. Give much for it. Think we have found it. Are often wrong that we have. It is one of life's great mysteries. Subject of the great works of literature, art, film.
Romeo & Juliet, Dicksee
Subject of very poor literature, art, film.
WHAT? You've NEVER had to say you were SORRY????
Just what is it, after all?
An Exercise in Cynicism
Flipping through the dictionary. AH! Yes! Very simple...See?
love ləv/Submit noun 1. an intense feeling of deep affection. "babies fill parents with intense feelings of love" synonyms: deep affection, fondness, tenderness, warmth, intimacy, attachment, endearment; More antonyms: hatred a deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone. "it was love at first sight" synonyms: become infatuated with, give/lose one's heart to; More a personified figure of love, often represented as Cupid. noun: Love a great interest and pleasure in something. "his love for football" synonyms: liking of/for, enjoyment of, appreciation of/for, taste for, delight for/in, relish of, passion for, zeal for, appetite for, zest for, enthusiasm for, keenness for, fondness for, soft spot for, weakness for, bent for, proclivity for, inclination for, disposition for, partiality for, predilection for, penchant for "her love for fashion" affectionate greetings conveyed to someone on one's behalf. synonyms: best wishes, regards, good wishes, greetings, kind/kindest regards "my mother sends her love" a formula for ending an affectionate letter. "take care, lots of love, Judy" 2. a person or thing that one loves. "she was the love of his life" synonyms: beloved, loved one, love of one's life, dear, dearest, dear one, darling, sweetheart, sweet, angel, honey
BRITISH informal a friendly form of address. "it's all right, love" BRITISH informal used to express affectionate approval for someone. noun: a love "don't fret, there's a love" 3. (in tennis, squash, and some other sports) a score of zero; nil. "love fifteen" verb verb: love; 3rd person present: loves; past tense: loved; past participle: loved; gerund or present participle: loving 1. feel a deep romantic or sexual attachment to (someone). "do you love me?" synonyms: care very much for, feel deep affection for, hold very dear, adore, think the world of, be devoted to, dote on, idolize, worship
Well. Quite simple. I've experienced love in all those forms...but it all seems rather...unsatisfactory.
Let's take a more scientific approach! Clearly, a more thorough answer to be found. Much to choose from...biology, chemistry, neurology....
The inimitable Dr. Fisher, also known as the "Love Doc." *ahem*
There, now. I have your attention, I think? Good. It's quite simple. Love is a very mammalian instinct, a veritable hunger, a thirst. Basically three stages. Lust! The interplay of testosterone and estrogen.
Also known as the "Big Bang," "The Earth Moved," "La Petite Morte," INDEED.
Which leads to Attraction! Oh, the increased production of dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, which makes the heart beat faster, leads to loss of appetite,sleep, and an intense feeling of excitement. It's almost like the effect of amphetamine on the body!
Which leads to more...
Birds do it, bees do it, even Albert Einstein did it...
Hmmm...meth addicts have told me that meth gave them the best sex they ever had in their lives. Of course, that is why they continued to use it, in the elusive attempt to achieve that same experience. But back to the illuminating work of Dr. Fisher.
Unfortunately, the attraction phase only lasts for one to three years. Bummer. Which may account for the phrase, "The honeymoon is over." Or, "The bloom is off the rose." Or, "The new has worn off."
So we come to phase THREE...Attachment! *ahem* Here's the kicker. Now you're dependent on the chemicals oxytocin and vasopressin. Uhm...believed to be important in pair bonding, maternal behavior, and some initial research indicating that oxytocin may be helpful in producing orgasm in women. Men are still reliant on pills, etc.,etc.,etc. In other words, either you go the long road through parenting or mutual interests. Good luck.
Thus spake, not Zarathustra, but Robert Browning
An Exercise of the Heart, Cynics May Exit Now.
Ove, pronounced "Oveeh" is a most unlikely object of love. To the outside world he is a curmudgeonly man, unlikable, grumpy to the core, a stickler for rules and regulations which he will call anyone on at any opportunity. A stingy man who will argue over the cost of every item down to the bottom Kronor. He will park his Saab at a distance to save on the cost of parking. His home is a cold place, the radiators knobs turned down tight, again, a matter of thrift. He once had a good friend, Rune. However, they fell out. He really can't remember the source of it all now. But, he sees Rune responsible for the coup de'tat that removed him as president of the Home Owner's Association of their neighborhood, with Rune taking his place. He has not seen his old friend for years. Ove has no friends. He has no job. He has been forced into early retirement.
Ove sees little point in living. Once he had loved. He had been married. Sonja. Sonja to whom he was married for forty years. She died. No one sees Ove when he walks to the cemetery to speak to her, caressing the stone that marks her grave.
These two were really nothing alike. He was not a reader. She was. She loved Shakespeare. All books. She was a teacher. When they met he was only a night cleaner on the rail line. However he wanted to build houses. She told him he could be anything he wanted. He got his engineer's certificate. He became a builder of houses. He did not become a reader. But he built her beautiful bookshelves.
"People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had."
My God. To love that way.
And, as Ove would survey his empty house, still filled with all Sonja's things, he would think.
"You miss the strangest things when you lose someone. Little things. Smiles. The way she turned over in her sleep. Even repainting a room for her."
The love Ove had for Sonja was not a one directional thing. It flowed equally from her. Her girl friends did not understand it. No one who knew her understood it. Everyone told her she could do better for herself. This is what Sonja thought.
"But to Sonja, Ove was never dour and awkward and sharp-edged... He believed so strongly in things: justice, fair play and hard work and a world where right just had to be right...Not many men of his kind were made anymore...So she was holding on to this one."
Love transforms us. It is a wondrous thing. Love makes all things possible. The loss of it can make life meaningless. So it was for Ove. Is it any surprise that Ove would take his life to be reunited with Sonja? Not for me.
Of course, Ove must make all things right. Leave no mess. All things in order. Proper instructions regarding all the property. A hole drilled precisely in the center of the living room ceiling. The proper hook to hold the rope. The proper noose. Kick the stool over. It's done. But the damned rope breaks. Ove lives in a world of incompetents. Idiots. You can't even depend on someone to make a decent rope anymore!
And slowly something begins to happen. Pushy neighbors insist on violating his privacy. Borrowing tools. Good God. They have children. The woman is a foreigner. And pregnant as a goose! Her husband cannot even back a trailer! Her name is Parvaneh. From Iran? And her husband this IT consultant. He doesn't get up till 9, 10? What is the world coming to?
Each day there is some reason that Ove cannot kill himself. He must save some idiot from himself. It is not a good day to die. Sonja. I am sorry. I know I am late.
And on Ove's story goes. An insistent cat. A boy alienated from his father. A child who wants to be read a story. An old friend whom social services wants to take from his home and put into a "facility." A beautiful story of love that exceeds the personal to a much deeper level the Greeks would have called Agape. Outside one's self.
This is a remarkable odyssey of one man's life and his experience of love. Do not be surprised if you shed a few tears, or more than a few. It is not surprising this novel has sold a half million copies in Sweden. Nor that it is selling so well in America. And the good news? Backman's second novel will be published this year. Watch for it. Get it. Read it. There is nothing wrong with a writer insisting that life is beautiful when he does so as eloquently as Backman.
The Sharpshooter Blues: Guns, Loving and Loss, a Half Bubble off Plumb
Slightly more than three years ago I founded a group On the Southern Literary TrThe Sharpshooter Blues: Guns, Loving and Loss, a Half Bubble off Plumb
Slightly more than three years ago I founded a group On the Southern Literary Trail. It is not a "moonlight and magnolias" site. Here readers choose works by iconic authors of Southern literature and new voices in what I call the Southern choir. Along the way, my fellow moderators and I added an alternative read, The Moderator's Choice, usually an author previously unread by the group. I chose The Sharpshooter Blues by Lewis Nordan for February, 2015, the "Trail's" introduction to the works of Lewis Nordan.
First Ed., Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, NC, 1995
“Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one...Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”― Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional ProseMystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
Lewis Nordan, b. August 23, 1939, Forest, MS; d. April 13, 2012, Pittsburgh, PA
I have loved the writing of Lewis Nordan since I discovered him on a summer trip to the crystal shores of the southern coastline of my home, Alabama, more than fifteen years ago. Having read all of his work since that time, I'm pretty sure that Nordan would appreciate that folks around these parts refer to that area as "The Redneck Riviera." He would also appreciate it because it is a place where it's not hard to find magic if you take a little time to look.
Nordan came to writing relatively late in life, not deciding to pursue it until age thirty-five. He graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, served a two year hitch in the Navy. Took a Masters Degree from Mississippi State and finally a PhD from Auburn University. Along the way he taught high school, was a college instructor, was a night watchman, an orderly in a hospital. Life didn't come easy. Two marriages. The first one failed. But it was his first wife who recognized his desire to write. He began with short fiction, was awarded the John Gould Fletcher Award for fiction in 1977 from the University of Arkansas. The hardest part of life was the death of two children, one at an early age, the other a suicide at the age of twenty.
Lewis Nordan was a likeable man. His friends called him "Buddy." All of his friends. He was a careful writer, constantly revising, getting the words right. He followed in Faulkner's footsteps creating his own little "postage stamp size piece of soil" as Faulkner called his Yoknapatawpha County. But Nordan's was Arrow Catcher, Mississippi.
Arrow Catcher came to life in his first collection of short stories printed by LSU Press in 1983, Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair. It was such a short print run, it is now a choice collector's item for the bibliophile. I can't touch it. Can't even come close.
Nordan returned to Arrowcatcher with his second collection of short fiction in 1986 with The All-Girl Football Team: Stories, again published by LSU Press. It is as equally rare as the first Arrow Catcher anthology.
Nordan said in an interview with Blake Mahler, "writers will find a little postage-stamp size plot of land, their spiritual geography and a handful of people that live there, and they will write those people’s stories over and over again.… I’ve just invented out of pain and joy a family and a place they live and have watched them move in love through that place.” Sounds a lot like Faulkner, doesn't he?
And on magic, we can't forget magic, this is what Buddy Nordan had to say: “Magic is the imagination” [something that} “seems to be both necessary and evil and destructive in these characters.” Comments made after Nordan had been signed by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, NC. The novel was immediately recognized with best fiction awards from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters and the Prize for Notable Fiction from the American Library Institute of Arts and Letters.
Lewis Nordan would go on to become a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas. From there, he would become the professor of Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh where he ended his professional career.
Nordan died of complications of pneumonia in 2012. His last work was [book:Boy with Loaded Gun: A Memoir|672273] published in 2007. In an interview conducted at the 2006 Faulkner Conference at the University of Mississippi, Nordan said he planned on returning to Arrow Catcher, Mississippi. I wish he had. But he never did. I miss the writing of Lewis Nordan. When you read him, if you read him, you will grow to miss him too.
The magic place I discovered Lewis Nordan was a little book shop, long gone. It was called Just Books. The owner's appearance was deceiving. Not who you would expect to carry the eclectic selections on the tables and shelves. She was elderly, quite prim, coiffure that perfect bluish white. Always dressed in a dark navy suit, crisp white blouse, hose, matching navy pumps. I never caught her name. However, I expected to see her at a tea celebrating an upcoming marriage, or at early church service on a Sunday morning. She dressed as though the temperature was a cool spring afternoon, not a humid summer afternoon, where the pavement was hot enough to burn the soles of your feet through your shoes.
This particular day I found first editions of Music of the Swamp, Lightning Song, and Wolf Whistle. I read the dust jackets. Perused the first chapter of each of the books. I was immediately lured into the world of Lewis Nordan. I was puzzled. Curious. I had never heard of him. The lady waited patiently at the register.
I took my purchases to the counter. Her voice was not that of an old woman. More of a siren's song. A southern siren, her tones soft and honeyed. "You have found something quite special. If you can believe in magic. Can you?"
"Why, I think I can."
"Tell me something you've seen that was magic."
"The lillies blooming in the Cahaba River. Trilliums on the forest floor. Scarlet Buckeye in flame along a back road in spring."
Cahaba Lillies in bloom, Cahaba River, June, 2009, photograph by the reviewer. The largest stand of these rare flowers in the world.
Red Trillium, Mount Cheaha, highest point in Alabama, mountain hiking trail, May, 2008
Scarlet Buckeye, April, 2008, outside Ashville, Alabama
"Oh, I think you and Buddy Nordan will get along just fine."
I have often wondered what became of her. She clearly knew her stock. And she knew Nordan's books.
I never got to meet Lewis Nordan. I hate that. I loved his books. I love this one. Welcome to Arrow Catcher, Mississippi. It does not exist. However, it stands in for the Mississippi town in which Lewis Nordan grew up, Itta Bena. Nordan laughingly said in an interview he wanted to title his memoirs, "Don't Cry for Me, Itta Bena." However, he refrained for fear that readers wouldn't know how to pronounce it. Yes, it rhymes with Argentina.
Were Nordan to be reading over my shoulder, he would tell me he doesn't like being compared to Flannery O'Connor. To him, her world is too stark, her characters too cold, and her God too harsh. Buddy Nordan believed that humans could save one another through their love. He acknowledged critics' comparison to O'Connor. Yet, he preferred to consider himself descended from Faulkner and a much closer relative of Eudora Welty.
So, what of The Sharpshooter Blues? Nordan's work is one of love, loss, and humanity. Yes. He is closely akin to Eudora Welty. However, freaks abound in this novel. They live in all his work. There is a great degree of the grotesque in Nordan's work.
Meet The Prince of Darkness, Arrow Catcher's mortician, resurrected from the Dead by Aunt Lily, the local Hoodoo Woman. The Prince can throw a funeral like nobody's business.
Then there's The Sharpshooter, Morgan, a trick shot artist. It's fitting he's the offspring of two circus workers who abandoned him, left him floating in the swamp around Arrow Catcher, to be retrieved and raised by a black woman, the same Aunt Lily who resurrected the Prince of Darkness from the Dead.
Preacher Roe likes to go down to the William Tell Grocery and take the sordid confessions of those like Leonard, who tries to resist the urge, but can't resist a tryst with the truckers down at the truck stop.
And down at the William Tell, the cashier is Hydro Raney, the hydrocephalic son of Mr. Raney, widowed since his wife died giving birth to Hydro.
Hydro and his father live in the fish house out in the swamp. There are no other houses there. Mr. Roy, the postman brings the mail by boat, once a week.
However, it is magic in the swamp. The trees are filled with parrots and monkeys. The water splashes with dolphin and porpoises. Hydro's father calls him "Peaches," "Honey," and loves him dearly.
It is a tale of father and sons. Those who clearly love one another. Those who seem to be completely detached.
It is a tale of husbands and wives. Those who clearly love one another. Those whose marriage is on the rocks.
There is definitely magic in Nordan's world. However, it goes beyond what we commonly know as magical realism. It seems more akin to the "Marvelous Real," a concept deeply ingrained in the works of Latin American authors. One thinks of the opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)
This is a world where love and death are separated by an instant. Where the grotesque lives beside the apparent normal. Where swift, unexpected violence alters life in a second.
What occurs in The Sharpshooter Blues is what happens when guns come out on a summer day and two "lovely young children" decide to rob the wrong grocery store. They run into a sharpshooter.
The question is just who is the sharpshooter and why is he singing the blues?
No, I've already told you about Morgan, the trick shot. He shot a cantaloupe off Hydro's head. Then he invited Hydro to shoot one off of his.
Morgan's got the blues. He's been putting the wood to Doctor McNaughton's wife, Ruthie. Even the Doctor knows it and has become rather detached over the whole idea. However, Ruthie may be done with Morgan. Morgan may have a death wish and hopes Hydro just puts him out of his misery. But Hydro turns out to be a crackshot, too. Morgan's still got the love sick blues.
When the two lovely children robbers all dressed in black come rob the William Tell Grocery, they end up dead for their trouble. Morgan ends up in jail.
Young Louis McNaughton says Morgan did it. But did he?
Hydro disappears. Why?
Can the McNaughton marriage be saved?
Will Louis ever feel acknowledged by his own father?
How come "Having a pal with a firearm is a blessing?"
What's up with all these parrots?
Where did all these porpoises come from all the way from the Gulf?
This is a novel that will enchant you. Nordan will make you laugh. He will make you cry. As one of my great reader friends, Diane Barnes, Co-Moderator on "The Trail" said, "Start a sentence with laughter and end with tears." Buddy Nordan will leave you with the belief that love does save us. Forgiveness frees us. And, no, we are not meant to be alone. That is, if you have the ability to look for the possibility of magic in this world. It's not just in Arrow Catcher, Mississippi. All those folks that strike you being a half bubble off plumb? They're not all that different than you and me. Nordan will make you squirm. But life is a little easier when you can laugh at yourself and know when to cry with your neighbors.
Lewis Nordan on the Marvelous Real:
The idea of the "marvelous realist" strikes me as exactly right, better than "magical realism," for sure.... The idea of just plugging in magical elements to reality is not what I do; it is a way of seeing reality, which is completely different, it is from the inside rather than from the outside.... When I look at the world, I can understand what other people are seeing, but I am seeing something else at the same time....It is entirely a matter of vision, and that vision can be described as comic, or can be described as grotesque, or otherworldly.... When somebody says, "What does this mean, and how can this be?" I just have to say, maybe this world is not the real world, maybe this is another planet, maybe this is some other dimension of life that we can't see clearly. Because for me it is as real as anything, though I understand that they [the stories] do not actually happen in this world.' See: An Interview with Lewis Nordan, Russell Ingram and Mark Ledbetter, Missouri Review Volume 20, Issue 1 (1997): pp73-89.
Lewis Nordan and Parrots: It just so happens that Lewis Nordan liked parrots. When Thomas Bjerre interviewed Nordan at his home in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 2001, he noticed a number of Parrot prints on the walls and commented on them. Rather glibly, Nordan answered, "I really like parrots." See: Interview with Lewis Nordan, at his home in Pittsburgh, May 19, 2001, Thomas Bjerre, Mississippi Quarterly Summer 2001, Vol. 54 Issue 3, p365.
Of course, parrots and their ancestors and relatives in the United States are not that rare. Five and a half million years ago, what we know as the Carolina Parakeet made famous in Audobon's Print ranged from the southernmost point of the North America to what is today's New England. They became extinct in 1918 as a result of man's gradual deforestation of the east coast.
The last Carolina Parakeet died in a Cincinnati Zoo in 1918.
Print by Audobon
A species of parrot is native to the mountains of Arizona. Another is native to Louisiana.
Porpoises in the Mississippi Rivers? No, Nordan's trolley didn't slip the tracks. The presence of Porpoises and Dolphins in inland Mississippi Rivers are routinely studied by Mississippi scientists. See Writing in the Caribbean with a Mississippian Accent: Lewis Nordan and the Magical Grotesque,MANUEL BRONCANO,University of León, Spain, Mississippi Quarterly. Fall 2007, Vol. 60 Issue 4, p661-675.
What's the significance of guns in The Sharpshooter Blues Lewis Nordan Speaks!
"Guns are a metaphor for power, and sometimes power is expressed just in a hoop or a shout or a celebratory yell. And that's in a way what shooting a gun is. It's yahoo. bang-bang! oh-boy ain't life great. I'd hate to see that statement taken out of context, but in fact that is a part of what the people in The Sharpshooter Blues are doing; they're saying life is great and these gunshots are a kind of shouting. (view spoiler)[So when Hydro kills people and does the opposite of what I and I think Hydro and all others believe about guns the shock is terrible. (hide spoiler)] Not only have I done this thing but I have betrayed the whole idea of guns as something celebratory."
See: Interview with Lewis Nordan, at his home in Pittsburgh, May 19, 2001, Thomas Bjerre, Mississippi Quarterly Summer 2001, Vol. 54 Issue 3, p370-371.
Some of my fellow readers have questioned whether Nordan takes on America's fascination with the gun culture. In this and other comments within this review, Nordan flatly states he confronted the issue of gun violence and its consequences.
Darkness Visible: When the Question is Whether Life is Worth Living
William Styron, (June 11, 1925 – November 1, 2006)
"Dying is easy. Comed
Darkness Visible: When the Question is Whether Life is Worth Living
William Styron, (June 11, 1925 – November 1, 2006)
"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.--Edmund Kean, (4 November 1787 – 15 May 1833), celebrated Shakespearean actor
Preamble-January 18, 2015
It is 1:20am cst. My thoughts swirl over the important content of Styron's brief memoir originally delivered as a lecture in Baltimore, 1989. The information contained in this little volume is too important to trust to hastily dashed off thoughts, without the benefit of careful consideration. So a night's sleep is called for. And, truthfully, to consider how much of myself I choose to reveal within my review of Styron's story. For much of what he has to say, also applies to me, as it does to many among us. Yet, I am not unaware of the stigma brought about by confession. My inclination is truthfulness leads more to seek help. I did. It has made all the difference. For I emerged from darkness, once again to see the stars. There is much joy in the night sky, but a terrible loneliness in the dark, without even a match to strike to hold to a candle's wick.
The Heart of the Matter-January 25, 2015
It has taken considerably more time than one night of good sleep to bring myself to write an adequate review of Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. For I did not stop with this brief but brilliant account by William Styron. I continued on to with Reading My Father by his youngest daughter, Alexandra Styron, an absorbing, intimate memoir detailing what it was like to be William Styron's daughter in good times and in bad. The bad included not only the time Styron so articulately described in this work, but in his continuing battle clinical depression. His battle did not end with the publication of Darkness Visible in 1990. Rather, Styron was revisited by "the black dog," the "dark river," "the abyss," a number of times before his death in 2006. No, Styron did not die by his own hand. He endured cancer of the mouth, and died of complications from pneumonia. A review of Reading My Father will follow at some point, hopefully in the very near future. As I type, a copy of William Styron, A Life by his biographer James L.W. West III is at the right corner of my desk. Yes, I am making a study of Styron's life and his works, a number of which I have read at this time, but not all of them. Many, some published posthumously have a great bearing on Styron's life view, his state of mind during some of the most difficult points in his life.
There was something else I had to give considerable thought to before writing this review. I indicated that in my "hastily dashed off thoughts" now appearing in what I have called the Preamble to the main body of this review. Those of you who have read my reviews know that I have often included personal details of my life. This will be the most personal review I have ever written. Not only will you read of Styron's thoughts on the nature of depression, but you will learn of mine, something that I struggled to hide for many years, quite successfully, until, I, too, slid off the edge of the world in much the same fashion as did Styron. It is not so much that confession is good for the soul, but that with each voice speaking about the debilitating anguish of depression, perhaps those who do not understand it will not view those who suffer from it weak human beings, would be shirkers of responsibility, or simply spineless beings. Styron did much to dispell that stigma. However, many people who share those misconceptions, quite frankly do not read William Styron. I have come to wonder if they read much of anything. I also have a few things to say about the pharmaceutical industry and the manner in which they pitch their products in endless streams of mindless commercials.
On Darkness Visible as a work of Literature
William Styron wrote an extraordinary document. It draws on literary allusion after allusion. Note the very source of its title. Paradise Lost by John Milton. For its subject matter it is remarkably succinct, a mere ninety pages. It is remarkable for its clarity. Styron is remarkable for his revelation of his illness, it is the taking off the mask that those battling depression wear so well, for so long. Styron reveals his self medication with alcohol, perhaps an addiction, though he never calls it alcoholism. Yet he reveals that he frequently wrote under the influence of alcohol and could not do so without a fluent flow without the aid of alcohol. At the age of sixty, the mere taste of alcohol resulted in pure revulsion. He was devastated by insomnia night after night. He discloses that he was an auto-didact. He was a master at self-diagnosis. Before seeking psychiatric help he had pondered over the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, what I call the ultimate cookbook containing all the diagnostic recipes for disorders large and small for psychologists and psychiatrists. To further complicate matters, though Styron does not admit it in Darkness Visible Styron was a hypochondriac extraordinaire. We can thank daughter Alexandra for that information.
Styron cracked apart in 1985 on a trip to Paris to accept the Prix Mondial Cino Del Duca, awarded for his lifetime achievement in producing works reflecting on great humanism. The award was offered by the wife of his French Publisher. Del Duca had published Styron's first novel Lie Down in Darkness in 1953, and had published each of his ensuing works. It was to be a day of festivities. However, Styron had already sought an appointment with a psychiatrist in New York. The prize was $25,000.00. Immediately after the award was presented, Styron in an absolute panic, immobilized by anxiety, told Madame Del Duca he could not attend the luncheon being held in his behalf. Which drew an angry "Alors!" With arms thrown high. Styron, even in his frozen state, apologized, did recognize his gaffe and told her he had a problem psychiatrique and that he was sick. Apology accepted. Styron and his rock, wife Rose, suffered through the luncheon, Styron unable to choke down hardly a bite. A flight on the Concorde the next morning began a rigorous pyschiatric treatment. Ultimately hospitalization. Styron seriously contemplated suicide.
So. Some central thoughts from Darkness Visible, each of which I hold to be absolutely true, which I will interlace with my own confessions, the devil take the hindmost. The names of some of my principal players have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty, for there are both.
“Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self--to the mediating intellect--as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode, although the gloom, "the blues" which people go through occasionally and associate with the general hassle of everyday existence are of such prevalence that they do give many individuals a hint of the illness in its catastrophic form.” --William Styron
No words have come so close to describing what it feels like. "You're just down in the dumps. A little time, you'll feel better in no time." Time passes, there's no change. "This moodiness of yours is getting old. Snap out of it. Do you think it's pleasant being around you?" No, I didn't think it was. "If you're not happy here, go somewhere else. If you do, I'll take you for every cent you've got."
My first marriage. Twenty-six years. Many years were loveless. We had two children. When my son graduated from high school, I left work early one day, gathered clothes together, the kids came home to find me packing. I explained their mother and I couldn't get along anymore. It wasn't their fault. Nor was it their mother's. She was a good woman. I would never say a bad word about her.
The divorce took two years. My former wife fought all the way. I was an Assistant District Attorney. There was a limited pot of money. There would always be a limited amount of money. It took two lawyers to convince her of that. Even then, I gave her everything, keeping my books, records, fishing equipment, and camping equipment. Everyone leaves their own legacy. She alienated by children by blocking every phone number I had access to. The children in my photographs of them never grow older. My son married. I had told him when he and his wife had a child he would understand what it meant to be a father, perhaps we would be reconciled someday. We did for almost two years. His mother gave him fits, his wife told me. We are once again estranged. My daughter has never reconciled with me. She has a child I've never met. I was first told I was dealing with depression during my divorce.
One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes. And this results in a striking experience- one which I have called, borrowing military terminology, the situation of the walking wounded. For in virtually any other serious sickness, a patient who felt similar devastation would by lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting. His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained. However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations. There he must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship. He must try to utter small talk, and be responsive to questions, and knowingly nod and frown and, God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words.”-William Styron
I became an Assistant District Attorney in 1979. Several factors led to that. Two women who had cared for me as a child had been murdered. One by her husband. The other by her son. I had loved each of them. Later in law school, as a law clerk in the District Attorney's Office, two young men robbed a Mom and Pop grocery store. The father of two students with whom I had attended school throughout my life was murdered. His death changed their lives forever. I would become a righter of wrongs.
I have been one acquainted with the night. I have walked out in rain—and back in rain. I have outwalked the furthest city light. Robert Frost
Within six years I was a specialist in prosecuting child abuse. I was bestowed somehow with a high degree of empathy. It can be a gift and a curse. I became known as Mr. Mike. I had a unique ability to talk with children. I became known as Mr. Mike, first by children, then by police, social workers, and the name stuck. I was called in to interview very young children who had witnessed their fathers kill their mothers. I became a protector of mockingbirds.
The caseload was relentless. I was a man capable of great tenderness mixed with the ability to turn mean. I was described as a lawyer who had an uncanny ability to connect with a witness on the stand. I often worked late into the night in trial preparation. My former wife complained I cared about other people's children more than my own. She could not understand it when I told her I knew ours were protected but the others were not.
I was and remain haunted by the eyes of the dead, particularly the eyes of dead children. I have flashbacks at times.
What Styron said about being expected to smile,is true. I wore a mask. Exceptionally well. I was a cop's DA. My best lawyer friend resorted to a John Wayne phrase calling me "a man with a lot of hard bark on him." I could exchange gallows' humor jokes with the most jaded Homicide Investigator.
Although our office had an on-call system, Investigators usually called me. Frankly, I was very, very good at my job. I was a fine trial lawyer. I lost very few cases. I did lose control of my emotions more than once on closing argument before a jury and cried. I considered it a weakness even when the jury convicted.
During all my years as a prosecutor I lost count of the number of crime scenes I attended, the number of dead I saw, the number of autopsies I witnessed, the exhumation of a dead child I obtained an order for, and the subsequent re-autopsy.
I had no outlet to talk about my work. My former wife did not want to hear about it. "It was too depressing." Yes. I guess it was.
“When I was first aware that I had been laid low by the disease, I felt a need, among other things, to register a strong protest against the word "depression." Depression, most people know, used to be termed "melancholia," a word which appears in English as the year 1303 and crops up more than once in Chaucer, who in his usage seemed to be aware of its pathological nuances. "Melancholia" would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder, but it was usurped by a noun with a blank tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferent to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness.
It may be that the scientist generally held responsible for its currency in modern times, a Johns Hopkins Medical School faculty member justly venerated --the Swiss-born psychiatrist Adolf Meyer -- had a tin ear for the finer rhythms of English and therefore was unaware of the semantic damage he had inflicted for such a dreadful and raging disease. Nonetheless, for over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.” ― William Styron
Our pharmaceutical industry does nothing to indicate the seriousness of clinical depression. It's a simple as just adding a little pill to help the anti-depressant you're on. And all delivered in a seconds long cartoon commercial. What kind of message does that send to people who have never dealt with the condition, those who have just had the commonplace blues.
Looks serious, doesn't it?
And where are the men in those commercials? Alright, so the statistics show women report depression more than men. How about, women are more forthcoming and truthful in reporting depression. After all, that male ego is such an impediment to admitting to what is viewed as a weakness. Interesting that according to the American Foundation for Suicide in 2012 over 78% of suicides were committed by males while slightly over 21% were committed by females.
Since Darkness Visible
William Styron was repeatedly prescribed Halcion by more than one physician for his insomnia. Halcion was banned in Great Britain in 1991 on the basis of its connection to depression and possible suicidal behavior. The FDA still allows its prescription in the United States. The drug is currently the subject of litigation in various jurisdictions.
Considerable progress has been made in pharmacology for the treatment of clinical depression since Styron published Darkness Visible.
Why I'm Still Here
I fell off the edge of the earth twice. Call it a crack up. Call it a nervous break down. Throughout my life I have been consumed by the fear of failure. Formerly the Director of a Not for Profit Corporation, I was placed under a degree of stress I was incapable of handling. I had long been associated with the program as a board member. The President of the Board had succeeded in removing two Directors preceding my taking the position. When that President initiated the same tactics against me, I became frozen by anxiety, incapable of focus, unable to function. Men closely identify themselves with their work. The loss of what they do is essentially the same as the loss of their identity. That was the case for me. Did I consider whether life was worth living anymore? Yes, I did. Clinical Depression is a chemical imbalance. Restoration to health requires a combination of psychological therapy and psychiatric pharmacology. I was fortunate to find the right combination.
I entered a second stage of crisis after being my mother's care giver during her final illness. It was a long hard death for her. I very unrealistically thought I could help save her life. I lived in a state of denial. She finally was hospitalized in intensive care for a month. The end was inevitable. The morning she died, I found myself lost once again. What was left for me to do. An adjustment of my medications was necessary. Within two months, I had found myself once again.
Each time I considered life wasn't worth the living, one thing kept me from taking the final step. It was the same thing that kept Styron alive. For him, it was the effect it would have had on his family. For me, it was the effect it would have had on my mother and my wife, the lovely woman with whom I found happiness relatively late in life. The second time, my wife. I have seen too many people devastated by the suicide of a loved one. But it took the right help to make me remember that. The help is there.
A child may ask, 'What is the world's story about?' And a grown man or woman may wonder, 'What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we're at it, what's the story about?'
I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too -- in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite changes we might impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well -- or ill?
John Steinbeck, Chapter 34, East of Eden, 1952
I originally posted an abbreviated review of this novel on January 14, 2014. Fourteen of my friends liked it. And I appreciate that. However, I got to thinking about it, this novel and the man who wrote it. I initially rated One Foot in Eden Three Stars. Why? Because I had read Rash's novel Serena before this one. Bottom line, I penalized Mr. Rash because he had become a better writer since he had written this book. Then that quote from Steinbeck kind of rolled over me, as it has many times. Mr. Rash, you did well. Those three stars are now four. And my good friend, Diane, is sighing, thinking, "This is going to be a long one." Well, not too long.
When I was a child I asked that question, "What is the world's story about?" We all do. Haven't you? Through the years I have lived I have come to believe Steinbeck was right. "A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well -- or ill?" That's hard truth.
It comes down to making a lot of choices, right or wrong, well or ill. Then there are those times when you just don't have a choice. Nothing's in your control. Like who you are, what you look like, where you were born. Your mother and your father made you, put you here. Somebody raises you. Maybe your mother and your father, maybe not. You do what you do with what you've got, where you are.
I think Rash read East of Eden. More than once. Because this is a novel about people caught in a web of good and evil. It's about the choices they make, the things that haunt them, and the questions a child grows to ask.
It is August, 1952. Oconee County, South Carolina. Oconee comes from the Cherokee word "Ae-quo-nee" meaning "land beside the water." Soon the land around Jocassee will be under water, flooded by South Carolina Power to generate hydroelectric energy. Every mother's son and daughter will be driven off the land their families have held since the 1700s. Even their dead will be dug up and moved above the flood plane. It will become a place lost forever. The people who live there have no choice.
Botanist Andre Michaux discovers the very rare Oconee Bell Flowers in 1788 at Jocassee at the head of the Keowee River. Today, it's at the head of Jocassee Gorge at Devil's Inn State Park, SC.
Holland Winchester will not live to see his home flooded. He will be murdered. Or, is it murder? Is it a maelstrom of uncontrollable emotions that explode into violence leaving a child to be born who will someday grow to ask "Where is my father?"
Or, is it sometimes better to let the dead bury the dead? Jocassee after the waters rose.
Is there the possibility of forgiveness? Ron Rash will have you thinking about it. For a long time.
Here's what I had previously said. I don't always get it right the first time.
January 14, 2015
Review to Follow: Very, very briefly: I actually picked up my reading at page fifty of One Foot in Eden a few minutes after midnight this morning. The pages whipped by in a swirl of carefully constructed multiple narrators. This is the first novel by Ron Rash. In a rare situation for me, I had read later works by Rash. Generally, I read an author from their initial novel and watch their writing develop. Had I begun my reading of Rash's novels with this intriguing read, I would have been incredibly impressed. However, having read Serena, a novel produced by Rash at the peak of his power as a writer with even more promise to come with yet a forthcoming novel, One Foot in Eden emerges as a bit rough around the edges. Rash fills out this compelling read with the elements of a crime novel, what has come to be known as Grit Lit, and the eerie nature of supernatural presence, a classic Southern Gothic ingredient. As Salieri blithely dismissed Mozart's music being comprised of "too many notes," Rash may have combined too many ingredients in a compelling read that is uneven in spots, trying to fit into all possible subgenres of contemporary Southern fiction. That three stars surprises me. To be fair, let's kick it up a notch to 3.5.
A more detailed review should follow. For Rash admirers, this is a must read. The sense of place is incredibly done. Rash knows the hills of South Carolina, its people, and strikes to the heart of the destruction of community and environment by the creation of damned reservoirs, covering once living residences of whole communities and leaving areas filled with tradition and heritage lost forever. This is one that lingers in the mind. And will leave the reader haunted on multiple levels.
January 16, 2015
There, now. I'm sorry, Mr. Rash. Some of those hastily scripted notes ring a little hollow to me now. Thank you Mr. Steinbeck....more
Until You Are Dead, Dead, Dead: Resurrection in the Blues
Special thanks to University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Ms. for making this available thrUntil You Are Dead, Dead, Dead: Resurrection in the Blues
Special thanks to University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Ms. for making this available through netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Six members of the L.S. Earll family were brutally murdered in Calcasieu Parrish, Louisiana, in February, 1902. On August 14, 1903, Albert Edwin Batson was executed in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the Court Seat for the Parrish. He was twenty-two years old. He was hung from the gallows. He shouted "Goodbye" as the trapdoor opened beneath him. Sheriff John Perkins pulled the lever. It was his first time to execute a man. The knot wasn't quite right. The fall didn't snap Batson's neck. He dangled, twisted, and choked. It took him twenty minutes to die.
Albert Edwin Batson, 1881-1903
It was easier to hang a man in 1903. Quicker, too. Batson had been the handy man on the Earll place. They were rice farmers who had moved to Louisiana from Michigan to live a wealthier life. And they had. L.S. Earll had banked $700.00 from his rice harvest. L.S. had his own home on the farm he shared with his wife and three of his children. His son, Ward, lived in his own home located a short distance away. Both L.S. and Ward had a goodly amount of livestock on the place, too.
Batson was tried twice and convicted twice. Sentenced to death twice. He had two lawyers appointed to represent him. Well known lawyers. Of course, criminal law wasn't their specialty. They were better at drawing up a deed, a contract, or drafting a will. They did a good job, though. They got their young client's case reversed on appeal after the first conviction on an evidentiary ruling. They launched a review by the Pardon Board to have their client's sentence commuted to life in prison after the second conviction. Two out of three members of the review committee thought the evidence was too flimsy to hang a man. But the third member was from Calcasieu Parrish. His people thought a hanging was due. His opinion carried the day with the Governor and Albert swung. Until he was dead, dead, dead.
It was a sensational two trials. The murders were ghoulish. Gory. Bloody. Six members of one family wiped out. Bludgeoned. Blasted with a shotgun. Throats slashed ear to ear. The trials brought reporters from around the country.
As always, once somebody swings, life goes on. People forget. Everybody seems to have forgotten Batson. In 1910 a fire burned down most of Lake Charles, including the Courthouse, taking whatever records of Batson's cases had ever existed. Nobody knows what happened to the records at the appellate level. They were just gone.
But cases like Batson's have a way of coming back. In the 1930s, the WPA had projects all over America, putting people to work. The Lomax brothers were in Louisiana collecting folksongs. Their collected works are in the Library of Congress today. In 1934 they met Stavin' Chain, the performing name for a blues musician, Wilson Jones, a black man with a black string band. Those bands don't exist much anymore. The Lomax brothers recorded a number of songs played and sung by them. One was the Batson Ballad. It had thirty-five verses. The refrain was, "Mama, I didn't done the crime."
Just as people forgot about Albert Edwin Batson, folks seem to have forgotten about the Lomax brothers and Stavin' Chain, and the Batson Ballad. Strange, though. These things have a way of coming back.
In 2008, an Englishman interested in American Folksongs, contacted Danielle Miller a librarian at the Genealogical and Historical Library for Calcasieu Parrish in Lake Charles wanting to know more about the Batson Ballad. Miller started digging. She found enough information to discover the song was based on a real event. She dug further and found enough information to make her wonder about the ballad's refrain. What if Batson "didn't done the crime?"
At the time of Batson's trials there were no rules on jury selection in a capital murder case. No limits. The District Attorney could pack twelve men on a jury who were committed to hanging a man on circumstantial evidence alone. That didn't cease to be the case until the United States Supreme Court rendered its opinion in Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968). 1968? Yep.
Now, don't go thinking that this is a book for lawyers because I put up that fancy dancin' legal citation up there. This is a bone chilling read. It will appeal to lovers of historical fiction as well as non-fiction. This is one that will make the short hairs stand up at the back of your neck. Poor Albert Edwin Batson. Two juries couldn't see past their own noses. The sentencing judge screamed out "Until you are dead, dead, dead," at his first pronouncement. The second time, perhaps having been a bit more circumspect in watching the flimsy evidence unfold, that's the reason spectators had to lean forward to hear him whisper the same words.
In the end, the outcome was the same for Batson. He was truly dead, dead, dead. Funny thing. The sheriff that hung him? He said that young man never looked like a killer to him. You know? He just may have been right. It's enough to make you think about your opinion on capital punishment. Even a grizzled old retired career prosecutor. Like me.
READ THIS BOOK.
Wilson Jones, "Stavin' Chain", 1934
Listen to Stavin' Chain sing the Batson Ballad. For those curious, a stavin' chain is a tool used to bind the staves of a barrel together until the metal band is applied to hold the pieces together.
The universally applied rule for the use of circumstantial evidence is that it is perfectly admissible as long as it points to the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt. If it is explainable by any other reasonable hypothesis, it is the jury's duty to acquit. One Earll son survived the blood bath on the Earll farm. Fred Earll claimed he lived in Iowa. No existing record indicates a person by that name was a resident of Iowa at the time the six members of the Earll family were killed. Just food for thought. ...more
Blanche on the Lam, Barbary Neely, First Ed., St. Martin's Press, New York, New York, 1992
Barbara Neely, Social Activist, and Author, born 1941, Lebanon, Pennsylvania
Still hoping to find an employer willing to pay for a full service domestic instead of the bunch of so-called genteel Southern white women for whom she currently did day work. Most of them seemed to think she ought to be delighted to swab their toilets and trash cans for a pittance."
Blanche White, a savvy and independent black woman finds herself in Farleigh, North Carolina, living with her mother and the two children she had promised her sister, Valerie, dying of breast cancer, she would raise and see to their well being. It's not an easy life.
This is not the life Blanche had planned for herself. She never intended on marrying. Children weren't in the picture. A practical woman, she knew her services as a full time domestic were valuable. Up north, in New York, she had earned a good living. But that was before her sister died and she made a promise she was committed to keep.
About Farleigh, North Carolina. I didn't find it on the North Carolina map. Perhaps Ms. Neely changed the location to protect the guilty. However, other North Carolina locations are bantered about without concern. For Neely's purposes, the name suffices, establishing Blanche the domestic, a resident of the South, whose importance is of little note to the white citizens of the community, authoritarian, social or otherwise.
Farleigh was still a country town, for all its pretensions. The folks who lived here and had money, even the really wealthy ones, thought they were still living slavery days, when a black woman was greateful for the chance to work indoors. Even at the going rate in Farleigh she'd found no black people in town who could afford her--not that working for black people ensured good treatment, sad to say.
Things really turn sour for Blanche when she's arrested on warrants for bad checks. Checks she wrote for groceries to support her niece and nephew, counting on her employers making good on her payday. However her employers decided to take a powder, uhm, vacation, to Topsail Beach, or some other likely vacation spot.
Blanche ends up before a Judge who got up on the wrong side of the bed, mistakenly reads her record, and becomes indignant to find her before the Court a fourth time. Thirty days in jail, plus restitution. It crosses one's mind how anyone makes restitution while incarcerated.
Blanche panics. Away from her children, yes, she's come to look on them as her own, for thirty days? The County's liable to come calling and her children will be in the State Foster Care system. At the first opportunity when a brouhaha breaks out in the courtroom, Blanche goes on the lam.
That's when things get interesting. Blanche was scheduled to take a placement through an employment service. What better way to go into hiding working for wealthy white folks. And Blanche only thought she was in trouble.
One Cranberry Way. A week long job. Time to figure out how to handle this check problem. Get a lawyer. That's what she should have done.
The occupants of One Cranberry Way are the Carter family. Aunt Emmaline is the family matriarch. Who would have thought it? She parlayed a $50,000.00 inheritance from her late husband into a fortune in the stock market. Do we need a reminder that money is the root of many evils?
Niece Grace's parents are dead. She's a likely heir upon Emmaline's death. She is married to Everett, a villain from the point of being introduced into the cast of characters. Grace is his second wife. His first was murdered. Having a cast iron alibi, Everett, reaps the benefit of wife One's legacy. But that money is gone.
The other likely heir is Mumsfield, cousin to Grace. Mumsfield is the most sympathetic character in the novel. With a diagnosis of Mosaic Mongolism, Mumsfield functions quiet highly. Derided constantly by Everett, Mumsfield is drawn to Blanche who treats him kindly.
Blanche intuitively recognizes that Everett and Grace mean to gain Aunt Emmaline's estate. If appointed Mumsfield's guardians, Emmaline's fortune is at their disposal.
Blanche and Mumsfield share a kind of invisibility in the Carter household. A black domestic and an adolescent deemed incapable of understanding the manipulations of Aunt Emmaline going on underneath their noses are things that Everett and Grace are confident will not be unraveled before the money is safely in their hands.
However, events take a turn toward violence. Everett and the Sheriff apparently are at odds of serious import to one another. Blanche overhears a sharp interchange between the two. The following morning, the radio news carries the story that the Sheriff committed suicide the previous night, driving his car over O'man's bluff.
Old Nate, the long time Carter gardener, drops by the kitchen to talk to Blanche over a cup of coffee.
"Hear about the Sheriff?" He asked her without a 'Hello' or 'How are you?' He didn't even wait for Blanche to answer. 'Shame, ain't it?' he added. But the huge grin that turned his face intho that of a much younger, more carefree man didn't match his words. It was probably events like the sheriff's death that got her slave ancestors a reputation for being happy, childlike, and able to grin in the face of the worst disaster. She could just see some old slaver trying to find a reason why the slaves did a jig when the overseer died.
But Blanche knows there are things better ignored.
It would be better to forget about the sheriff's visits, his conversations with Everett, and the limousine rolling silently down the drive that shouldn't be a problem. She had plenty of experience not seeing what went on in her customer's homes, like black eyes, specks of white powder left on silver backed mirrors, cufflinks with the wrong initials under the bed, and prescriptions for herpes. She was particularly good at not seeing anything that might be dangerous or illegal. But as good as she was at being blind, there were certain things she couldn't overlook.
However, the sheriff is only the first to go. The body count increases. Will Blanche herself leave her job safely? And what about Mumsfield? Who's to take care of him. Or will she "be murdered over some white people's shit that didn't have a damned thing to do with him?" It would be easier to skip town and head to Boston, lose herself back up North. Send for the kids when it was safe. But things just happen to fast.
Neely knows how to spin a yarn. This is not your conventional mystery. Rather, Neely relies on building characterization of the main players in this tale of a family divided by its greed for the family fortune. The dialog is sharp. Blanche is a refreshingly savvy investigator, though a reluctant one. Interwoven into a well plotted story is a starkly honest portrayal of black anger in the face of a heritage of white oppression.
It's no spoiler that Blanche survives. This is the beginning of a series. Neely's debut drew the attention it deserved. The Agatha Award for Best First Novel, 1992. The Andrew Award for Best First Novel, 1993. And the Macavity Award for Best First Novel, 1993.
The novel's ending may leave some readers conflicted. Be warned. I won't reveal anything more than to quote the old saw, "Two wrongs don't make a right." I leave it to the reader to determine how the conclusion of this novel strikes them.Blanche on the Lam: A Blanche White Mystery
To state there is no racial divide in our country would be specious at best. Neely clearly establishes the suspicion with which the races warily eye one another. There's an infinite degree of sadness that this divide seemingly has no end.
This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.
-T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, 1925
Emily St. John Mandel, born 1979, Comox Canada
Station Eleven, First Ed., Pan Macmillan, London, UK, 2014
The night civilization collapsed Arthur Leander missed it. He was performing in his final role as King Lear on stage in Toronto, Canada. During the performance he clutched his chest, collapsed, and died. He was only fifty-one. A paramedic in the audience, Jeevan Chaudhary, attempts to perform CPR to no avail.
On stage is eight year old Kirsten Raymonde, an actress playing one of Lear's three daughters as a child. Leander had questioned what children were doing in a production of Lear earlier. Kirsten liked Arthur. He had given her two comic books. Chapters One and Two of Station Eleven. She will keep them with her always.
The Collapse is just hours away. A flight from the Georgian Republic is scheduled to land at Toronto International. The passengers carry the Georgian Flu strain. The incubation period is incredibly quick. By the time their plane touches ground, all will be taken to a Toronto Emergency Room.
An Emergency Room physician calls Jeevan Chaudhary, warning him to get out of the city. The incubation period is two to three hours. Nothing will stop this flu. Already medical staff are falling ill.
“Jeevan was crushed by a sudden certainty that this was it, that this illness that Hua was describing was going to be the divide between a before and an after, a line drawn through his life.b>
The Georgian Flu is an efficient killer. The mortality rate is 96.6%. Attempts to evacuate are futile. The world as we know it ceases to exist.
First the televised news broadcasts end. Sometimes there's a blank station signal. At others, static. No radio stations can be received. Cell phones no longer operate. The internet is gone.
It's the truly inconsequential things that are noticed first.
“No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.”
But the longer the collapse the more tenuous life becomes. A young girl runs screaming through an airport terminal asking anyone for Effexor. She is in withdrawal.
“No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite.”
After three years, any fuel not used has become stale. No engine will crank. Lines of empty useless vehicles line the highways.
There is no Canada, no United States. There are no borders, no boundaries. In places there are no laws. No mercy. It is difficult to determine whether people are human or feral beasts.
Civilization exists in isolated pockets. Little conclaves of people along the shores of the great lakes. Along these shores travels three caravans of musicians and actors. They comprise "The Traveling Symphony." Their personal identities are not so important as their positions in the symphony. They are known as the Conductor, the Clarinet, the Tuba, the Second Guitar. It is twenty years after the collapse. Among the players is Kirsten Raymonde, on stage when Arthur Leander collapsed and died of a heart attack. She still carries the Station Eleven Comic Books.
“All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.”
The Symphony toured those little pockets of civilization performing Shakespeare one evening and musical concerts on the next. It was those things the survivors of the collapse appreciated. The towns' reception of the Symphony was good for its members, too.
“SOMETIMES THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night.”
It is at this point that Emily St. John Mandel creates something marvelous by departing from the typical post-apocalyptic milieu. That is precisely what disappoints some readers of this novel. For this is no typical post-apocalyptic novel. Mandel takes us much deeper into questions of human nature and questions of responsibility, the consequences of our acts and our failure to act. Some of what we take for granted as a normal part of today's society is enough to make you squirm. Did I really do that? Maybe I should have? See clearly, Lear.
Intertwined with the story of the Collapse Mandel leads us through the life of Arthur Leander from his days in Toronto as a student actor when he became friends with free-spirited Clark, who wore his head half shaved, the other half died in some outrageous color. Clark was openly, happily gay. And Arthur freely danced with him in Toronto bars.
We watch Arthur's climb to fame as an actor. He marries Miranda, a girl from his home town in Western Canada. She is involved in an abusive relationship with an artist, Pablo, who has sold paintings for big money. However, the money is gone and so is Pablo's muse. Miranda becomes Arthur's rescue. Miranda, too, is an artist. Their marriage seems the perfect match. Arthur's roles grow more and more prestigious. Miranda is engaged in a graphic arts project, a novel, Station Eleven. Miranda shuns the spotlight in which Arthur is required to shine. Their lives do not belong to them. Arthur is pursued by the paparazzi, one of whom happens to be Jeevan Chaudray.
Miranda and Arthur's marriage calls to mind the ancient myth of Hero and Leander. Although Miranda is no Hero, she paints one. And, for this purpose, we shall call Arthur Leander. Leander in the beginning gladly swam the Hellespont to be with Miranda. However, this Leander finds Hero no longer holds her lamp aloft for him and he looks elsewhere. It is a sad commentary on marriage. One repeated all too often these days.
Arthur will leave Miranda for Carol, whose beauty as an actress is renowned in Hollywood. They will have a child, Tyler.
Arthur's eye will stray to a third wife, with Carol taking son Tyler to Israel, where Arthur seldom sees him.
When Arthur takes the stage for his final performance as King Lear, the third marriage has failed and he's involved in a dalliance with the young child wrangler attending to Kirsten and her two child co-stars.
During the course of the years Miranda completes the first two chapters of Station Eleven. She gives two sets of her work to Arthur. Arthur has decided he has too many possessions. He's in the process of giving things away. Ironically one set goes to Kirsten, the other to Tyler. Each will cling to those copies. But each will interpret them far differently.
Not only does Arthur Leander play Lear, a mad King who needs to see more clearly, he is a modern Leander who attempted to swim the Hellespont once too often. As Christopher Marlowe wrote:
Some swore he was a maid in man's attire, For in his looks were all that men desire, A pleasant smiling cheek, a speaking eye, A brow for love to banquet royally; And such as knew he was a man, would say, "Leander, thou art made for amorous play. Why art thou not in love, and loved of all? Though thou be fair, yet be not thine own thrall."
Hero and Leander, 1598
Miranda is informed of Leander's death while she is on assignment half way across the world, before the lines go dead. Old friend Clark and second wife Carol end up in an airport in Severn City. We follow Jeevan through his struggle to survive. Tyler is with Mother Carol in that airport. Kirsten and the Symphony are headed to Severn City. Their lives will diverge, converge, and intermingle throughout the course of the novel. Their connection with one another becomes a mystery set in a post-apolyptic background. Who lives? Who dies? Intriguing? Absolutely.
Within any post-apocalyptic novel, one expects the strong to overcome the weak. Mandel does not depart from this part of the formula. As the Symphony comes to St. Deborah by the Sea, on the shores of one of the great lakes, they encounter a town overtaken by a religious cult led by "The Prophet." This fanatic believes that he and his followers have been saved for a purpose. Any who do not follow him are a part of darkness, unworthy of being saved. When the Symphony departs the town, they unknowingly carry with them a stowaway, a young girl named Aubrey, underage, whom the Prophet has claimed as another wife.
What the Prophet perceives as the Symphony's kidnapping of his bride leads to a climactic chase and confrontation between good and evil.
Station Eleven is a must read. Rightly chosen as a finalist for the National Book Award, this novel is the most engaging read I've encountered in 2014. Five Stars. Unquestionably.
Last night I had the strangest dream I ever dreamed before I dreamed the world had all agreed To put an en
Silent Night in No Man's Land: Christmas, 1914
Last night I had the strangest dream I ever dreamed before I dreamed the world had all agreed To put an end to war I dreamed I saw a mighty room The room was filled with men And the paper they were signing said They'd never fight again
And when the papers all were signed And a million copies made They all joined hands and bowed their heads And grateful prayers were prayed And the people in the streets below Were dancing round and round And guns and swords and uniforms Were scattered on the ground
Last night I had the strangest dream I ever dreamed before I dreamed the world had all agreed To put an end to war
Ed McCurdy, 1950
Christmas Day, Flanders, 1914
Where have all the flowers gone? Long time passing Where have all the flowers gone? Long time ago-Pete Seger, 1955
There are no poppies blooming in Flanders' fields. It is winter. The ground has been churned to mud. Perhaps the last time anyone saw the poppies bloom was before the great war began in August, before the leave began to turn. When there were still trees.
Where have all the soldiers gone? Long time passing Where have all the soldiers gone?
It is nearing Christmas, 1914. Since the great war began a million soldiers have died. When will they ever learn? The generals, the Field Marshalls. Once again, the deadly efficiency of new weapons has overcome the outmoded tactics of previous wars. The soldiers on the front lines pay the price. Generals and Field Marshalls die in bed. It does not seem they ever learn. They do not pay the price.
I am seventeen. About to graduate High School. We have our Senior Banquet. I wear a blue blazer, pink shirt, white trousers, white bucks. I am thin, too thin, perhaps. The class song is "Those were the days." Mary Hopkins voice hauntingly floats over us all. We all sing with her.
Once upon a time there was a tavern Where we used to raise a glass or two Remember how we laughed away the hours And dreamed of all the great things we would do
Those were the days my friend We thought they'd never end We'd sing and dance forever and a day We'd live the life we choose We'd fight and never lose For we were young and sure to have our way. La la la la...
I thought I would do great things. I would become a history professor. I had scholarships to the University of Alabama. If I didn't get drafted and sent to Vietnam.
We didn't think much about it. It hadn't touched us much. Jennifer's brother was shot down, flying a Phantom F-4. We didn't know why she went screaming down the halls when the principal called her out of class till later.
That business about the tavern. I had sneaked some Strawberry Hill out in the country. Didn't smoke. Had a 1963 Olds Rocket 88 with a big back seat. Never got past second base. But it was sweet. Someday. Maybe, if I didn't get shipped home in a box. We did have student deferments.
What if they gave a war and nobody came? Why then the war would come to you!-Bertolt Brecht, 1930
Although Weintraub is a historian down to his toes, he has written a moving account of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Weintraub leaves the reader reeling with a series of evolving and ever more powerful emotions as he unveils this riveting history. The truce comes alive through the words of those who were there. The truce lives in the letters and diaries of Englishmen, Scots, Germans.
This is a tale of sadness and hope. The men who recount these strange days in the midst of war are able to recognize the humanity in one another that exists no matter one's language, origin, or government. It is all the more amazing because it occurred almost sua sponte, as the result of the actions of the men in the trenches, of their own volition, something that sent shudders up the ranks of authority to the centers of their governments.
Christmas Eve, 1914
The Garwhal Rifles, a Regiment of Indian troops, noticed a line of lights appearing atop the German trenches across from them. They were the candles on Christmas trees. Earlier one of their number had written home, "It is more than horror, it is the end of the world." Though they did not have Christmas trees, the Indians thought the lights reminiscent of their Diwali, the "Festival of Lights." Strange, but there was a peacefulness about it all. In their Diwali, it was a time of forgiveness, new beginnings, and a time for the exchanging of gifts. For a short time, they would see all this happen.
"Thus, Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time...I told them we didn't want to shoot on the Second Day of Christmas, either."--from the diary of Kurt Zemisch, 134th Saxons
"I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. ... I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. ... I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. ... The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck."
Signs appeared above the trenches on both sides of the lines. "Merry Christmas." Carols were sung. Troops poured out of the trenches and met in No Man's Land. They shook hands. Exchanged souvenirs, gifts, newspapers. The rain that had turned everything to mire had stopped. It turned cold and clear. There was a hard freeze. War took a holiday.
Christmas Day, 1914
It continued the next day. Christmas day. In different ways. Some units helped one another bury their dead. In other areas, men continued to mingle freely, exchanging gifts. There were seemingly incredible small world moments, an Englishman recognizing his former German barber who had been called home to serve the Fatherland. Regimental histories recorded soccer matches occurring in No Man's Land.
Footers, English and German, play the game
Boxing Day, The Second Day of Christmas, 1914
The truce remained in full force, though the upper echelons were beginning to rumble.
"Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a 'dug-out' (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn't it?"-Private Henry Williamson, Age 19, London Rifle Brigade
German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment and British soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment meet in no man's land, December 26, Boxing Day, 1914
Letters, uncensored at the time, were sent home. The letters were forwarded to newspapers where they were reprinted. The Christmas truce became public news.
Might the "Truce" be the beginning of the end of the war? It might have been. But, as we know, it was not. Strict orders were passed down from the highest command of all powers that any form of fraternization would be strictly disciplined. Any soldier found in possession of material belonging to another power was subject to punishment.
Not all soldiers and officers at the front during the Christmas truce of 1914 approved of it. No one should be surprised that the young Adolph Hitler did not. Hitler, a Corporal, had been awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class by Kaiser Wilhelm personally. In Mein Kampf, Hitler described the occasion as the happiest day in his life. Regarding the "Truce," Hitler said, "Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honor left at all?"
By New Year's, 1915, the Christmas truce was effectively over. It would continue until November 11, 1918. The death toll of combatants was four-thousand-six-hundred per day.
August 31, 1970
Well, come on generals, let's move fast; Your big chance has come at last. Now you can go out and get those reds 'Cause the only good commie is the one that's dead And you know that peace can only be won When we've blown 'em all to kingdom come-Country Joe McDonald, 1965
I turned eighteen on August 31, after I graduated from high school. My grandfather told me we had somewhere to go that morning. "Where," I asked. We were having coffee at the kitchen table. He shook his pack of Camel unfiltereds in my direction. His signal he had something to say. I took the cigarette that popped out the end of the pack, pecked an end of it on the placemat to pack the tobacco down and lit it with my Zippo.
"Well, Son, first we're gonna get you a haircut."
"I've been working. All summer. Like you wanted."
"Yes, you have. Stuck it out. All the men say you worked hard."
"So, what's up?" I knew what was up.
"You get your draft card today. Not going down there like a hippie."
It was the only fight we ever had. I got my hair cut. Got my draft card. Was always opposed to the war. My hair grew back and over my collar. I joined the Student Mobilization Committee. There's a yellowing photograph of me on the cover of the college paper on the steps of the old Student Union during a protest. I'm with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. A curious mix, some thought. But I was never against the soldiers.
As to the Class of Seventy, in due time, the war began to touch it. The lonely ones. The outcasts. The guys on the top row at the pep rallies. The ones on the smoking court. The fellows that didn't give a flip about their grades that took the vocational courses because they never planned to go to college. No deferments for them. First to go. Their names are on the wall in D.C. and on the monument downtown in front of the Courthouse.
Me? I was a fortunate son. Even though I was no Senator's son. I did not become a history professor, but a lawyer. I remain a student of history.
When will we ever learn? Probably never. But we can hope.
Why not Five Stars?
It's a beautiful read. One that will haunt the reader, linger in the memory long after the final page is turned. BUT...Weintraub engages in a lengthy chapter, "What if?" This chapter dulls the impact of the narrative that precedes it. It is an exercise in alternative history. What if a peace had been reached as a result of the Christmas Truce? While such exercises can fuel many a speculative conversation, we can hypothesize from now till death do us part. Would a Germany reaching a peace that left it in substantially all of the territory it occupied have prevented the Third Reich? We'll simply never know. The acts of those who were participants in the Christmas Truce should not be diminished by an anticlimactic exercise in speculation.
So....4.5 Stars. Highly recommended.
For a Magnificent Film about the Christmas Truce, I highly recommend "Joyeux Noel" which my wife and I watch each year.