Traveling Mercies, by David Williams

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What’s the use of art or poetry when fools gamble with the future and destruction looms? Whether it’s fire or flood or Eliot’s whimper, words will not help us. Not then, but now perhaps there is still a chance to rouse those who are sedated and sleeping, to tear them from their flickering lights and make them look around and raise their voices.

These powerful poems do just that. Whether he’s writing about Tiwa children in New Mexico, murdered churchwomen in San Salvador, or his own family’s history in Lebanon, Williams gives us stories where compassion rides on controlled passion. Or, as he says in “Breath”: “The stunned drone of grief becomes the fierce,/tender undertone that bears up the world.”

It’s the tenderness that wins me over. Much of the power in these poems comes from the precise details and voices he summons to describe people, before releasing them into something larger. He describes a girl he taught who, before beginning to draw, closed her eyes and crossed her arms “and maybe went flying//to the mountain lake source of her river”.

Of his grandmother he says:

Half-blind seamstress, never learned
to read, except the Novena booklet,
holiday cards, supermarket ads,

she reads futures in coffee grounds,
and we gather round with our cups.

She’s afraid to look these days.
Too many deaths. Wait and see.
You’ll know when the time comes . . .

These poems are as relevant today as they were when this book was published almost twenty years ago. Williams shows us how the past lives on in us, writing about his grandfather on the mountain with his sheep listening to wolves. In another poem, he describes finding “. . . an apple tree/still bearing the fruit of the Levant” and says:

The body keeps faith with something
even stripping its own nerves.
A gesture, a glance, is passed on.
Blue shadows of Lebanese cedars

still move over us here . . .

He writes about old wrongs, tragedies that live on in us. I used to think that ridiculous until I found myself arguing about Glen Coe, surprised by my own passion over something that happened hundreds of years before I was born. True enough, it was my family after all. But then I remind myself that with the world grown so small, we must all be family now.

What would you say if right now you could, like Emily Dickinson, write a “Letter to the World”?

The Nutting Girl, by Fred DeVecca

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Alvin Toffler famously predicted in 1970’s Future Shock that coming generations would have many jobs in their lifetimes. Frank Raven can testify to that. A former monk, policeman, and private eye, these days he walks his dog, records bird songs, and runs a low-key movie theater in Shelburne Falls, a small town in Massachusetts, near the Vermont border.

His peace is disturbed by the arrival of a Hollywood film director and his crew, scouting locations for a new film featuring the mega-star Juliana Norcross. When the reckless Juliana goes missing, the film’s director Nick Mooney hires Raven to find her, which he does rather quickly, and then to protect her—primarily from herself. Then Juliana really disappears.

This debut mystery has a lot to recommend it. DeVecca takes these seemingly stock characters—a disillusioned, middle-aged detective; an arrogant, young director; and a wild, self-destructive actress—and brings them to life as unique individuals. He does this by bringing out emotions and aspects of them, contradictory and compelling. For example, Juliana instantaneously bonds with the Sarah, the teen-aged daughter of Raven’s new friend. Their friendship and mutual trust develops throughout the story.

Raven himself, in addition to listening to the birdsongs he’s recorded, is a morris dancer. Morris is a traditional performance dance from England whose popularity took off in the U.S. in last quarter of the 20th century when the handful of morris teams swelled to over a hundred. For me it was love at first sight that summer afternoon in 1975. I was taken by the simple elegance of the dance, the strength and grace it required. I went on to dance and perform morris for almost 40 years before retiring. (Full disclosure: I am slightly acquainted with the author through the morris community and have walked the streets of Shelburne Falls).

Morris dancers are mostly enthusiastic amateurs, for whom dancing is but one part of their lives. DeVecca’s description of Raven’s team practicing and then dancing the sun up on May Day adds distinctive color to the life of the town, as do his descriptions of the town itself, its famous Bridge of Flowers, and the Deerfield River.

After Juliana disappears and is given up for dead, Raven and Sarah continue to search for her and try to understand what happened on her last day. There are clues for the reader to untangle and ever-higher stakes to drive the story. As an editor, I would have made a few recommendations designed to tighten it up, but this is a very good first entry in what I hope will be a series of books about Raven and Shelburne Falls.

Have you read a mystery set in a place familiar to you? Did that make it more interesting?

The Martian, by Andy Weir

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This novel opens with a punch as astronaut Mark Watney faces his own imminent death. Thinking him lost in a dust storm, his crewmates have taken off to return to Earth, leaving Watney stranded on Mars. In the best Robinson Crusoe tradition, he has to figure out how to survive in the harsh Martian environment until the next mission arrives—which won’t be for another four years.

One thing that lifts this story above the usual marooned-on-a-desert-island tale is Watney’s voice which we hear almost entirely through the entries he makes in his log. He’s smart and funny and never gives up. Faced with a problem, he thinks about it and comes up with a possible solution, and if that doesn’t work he comes up with another. His MacGyver-esque repurposing of the things around him is fascinating. Watney is clear about his failures and limitations; sharing a name with a famous brand of beer, he makes no bones about his status.

Actually, I was the very lowest ranked member of the crew. I would only be ‘in command’ if I were the only remaining person. What do you know? I’m in command.

As well as being a survival story, this is also a rescue thriller. Once NASA realises Watney is alive, teams of people swing into action to find a way, amongst the strictly limited options, to bring him home. As the clock ticks away, the stakes couldn’t be higher for this high-profile rescue. NASA and the U.S.’s international reputations are at risk, not to mention Watney’s life. Of almost equal concern to Watney himself is the potential loss of the precious research he’s been able to conduct while marooned on Mars.

I found the switch to NASA and a third-person point of view a bit of a wrench since it didn’t occur till well into the story. By then I was deeply focused on Watney. I never completely regained that depth of focus, but introducing people and tensions back home provided some interesting contrasts and enabled us to follow the rescue efforts in a way we wouldn’t have been able to do if the point of view had stayed solely with Watney.

One of the best things about this novel is the science. Watney’s situation is so dire and his voice so entertaining that his explanations of the science behind his creative solutions are fun to read. The part that I’m familiar with was certainly accurate and the rest plausible. I love the idea of him being saved by science. And—mystery devotee that I am—I loved that so much of the story was about solving problems. It added to the realism and the tension that not all his solutions worked. The way he picked himself up after every failure was admirable.

My one complaint was the lack of insight into Watney as a person. We learn nothing of his family or his life back on Earth, whether he has a girlfriend, likes football, or whatever. There is a vague reference at the very end to a couple on Earth worrying and awaiting news, whom I assume to be his parents, but we aren’t told. We get a little insight indirectly through his need for human contact, which recurs throughout the story. He doesn’t paint a face on a volleyball, but he does think of his crewmates as he apologetically uses their belongings.

Generally in a novel, we want interior story arc as well as an exterior story arc. However, that is actually less common for the scifi/suspense/thriller genres. Also, since what we are hearing are his work logs, he’s less likely to share his inner feelings (except by swearing now and then). Still, for me it made the book feel a bit dry sometimes, and I’d have gladly traded a few bits of science for some personal information.

One theme that comes through in this story is how much a single life matters. What is the worth of one person? Call me cynical, but I didn’t quite believe that the U.S. government would come up with billions of dollars and cripple future space programs to bring home one astronaut. I know how hard it is for NASA and other such agencies to get funding.

Still, it is a good case study for ethics classes. It is one of those wicked problems for which there is no easy answer. Like most people, my heart is moved when a child falls down a well or a hiker is lost in the wilderness. Yet I also consider the human and financial costs of rescue missions. I respect the military’s “Leave no soldier behind” ethos, but would rescuing Watney really be the best use of resources? As a former welfare mother who watched people I knew starve and suffer and die for no other reason than poverty—poor nutrition, substandard housing, lack of medical care—I can’t help thinking how many lives could be saved by those dollars. It is much easier for our hearts to be moved by the plight of one person than that of thousands of people.

The breakneck pace of this story does not allow more than a passing glance at these issues, but it is enough to conjure a larger meaning, a more significant framework that gets us thinking. It is enough to make this story more than just an action tale, more than just a thrill ride. Even if you’ve seen the film, it’s worth reading the book.

What book do you recommend reading in addition to seeing the film on which it’s based?

Note #1: Thank you to my Book Dissection Group for much of the insight included in this blog post. Opinions are my own, of course.

Note #2: Originally I included more examples of the humor, but I’ve deleted them so as not to ruin the punchlines for you. Read the book!

The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

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In this new (2016) book from Julian Barnes, we enter the world of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. After a brief prologue, we find ourselves next to the lift in his apartment building, a small suitcase at his feet. He debates bringing a chair from the apartment, but he’s too nervous to sit and anyway, “it would look decidedly eccentric, sitting down to wait for the lift.”

The year is 1936 and Shostakovich in undergoing the first of three “conversations with power” that will alter the course of his career, his life, and his self-respect. When we learn why he is waiting by the lift, we understand that the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Life for an artist under Stalin is a series of compromises. One could choose the heroic gesture, but probably only get one chance since it inevitably would lead to imprisonment and/or death. In a series of exquisitely calibrated musings, Shostakovich ponders cowardice and compromise, and his interactions with the powerful. We follow rabbit trails into his past and present, but always his thoughts center around his music. I want to go back and look more closely at how Barnes has constructed this story so effectively.

Shostakovich is trying to navigate a narrow path that will enable him to continue composing what he wants without getting himself and his family killed. This is not an easy task since those in power define not only what is good art but also the actual purpose of art.

The book is structured in three parts, corresponding to his three encounters with the head of the Soviet state, each twelve years apart. I was particularly struck by the inside view of what life is like under a tyrant. Sadly, this seems to be a preview of things to come in the U.S. and what is already happening in countries like Hungary.

I relished the inside view of this man who is quite ordinary and quite remarkable at the same time. I am endlessly fascinated by what it means to live a good life, what choices and compromises we are faced with and how we negotiate them. Shostakovich criticises others, second-guesses himself, wonders what music he might have written if he hadn’t been constrained by the Soviet state. He counts over his awards half-heartedly, turning his thoughts more often to his defenses and failures.

All his life he had relied on irony. He imagined that the trait had been born in the usual place: in the gap between how we imagine, or suppose, or hope life will turn out, and the way it actually does.

In addition to considering the difficulty of leading a good life, Shostakovich also imagines what it is like to be one of the sycophants sucking up to Stalin or the tyrant himself. He declares that Shakespeare’s plays are no longer relevant: “for all that he was unparalleled in depicting tyrants knee-deep in blood, Shakespeare was a little naive. Because his monsters had doubts, bad dreams, pangs of conscience, guilt.” Shostakovich doubts that his tormenters ever see “the spirits of the dead rising to reproach them.”

As readers of this blog can probably deduce, Barnes is one of my favorite writers. I bought this book without even looking to see what it was about; I knew if it was by him I would be intrigued and challenged and ultimately changed. I have been, it’s true. And also chilled by this look at what seems to be coming to my country and too many others.

What books have you read about trying to work as an artist under a dictatorship?

Dodgers, by Bill Beverly

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This debut novel takes us into the world of East, a sixteen-year-old lookout for a drug gang in the Boxes, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. At first the story seems like the usual Wire replica, so much so that I hesitated to go on. But than Beverly takes us on a deep dive into the persona East has constructed for himself. This young man who “had never been a child” is good at his job, moving people along, tracking his crew. Yet there is much more to him.

He spent his days watching, keeping things from happening, and sometimes he could see things coming . . . Sometimes this watching wound East up. It was never finished . . .

Days began sharp and tuned themselves sharper, until about the time it was over, the world made a quivering sound, like a black string humming. He could barely stand to be near things.

After a massive police raid, East is sent across country with three other members of the crew on a task assigned by the head of the gang. They are going to Wisconsin to take out a witness in a case against their gang. They outfit themselves in Dodgers gear because, as one of the boys says, white people love baseball and will think them harmless. I like the title, with its echo of Dickens’ Artful Dodger.

The road trip is the best part of the book for me. Filtered through the awareness of a boy who has never been outside his neighborhood before, mountains and diners and even other drivers become something mysterious and alien. That the boy is black and negotiating in a world of white people (other than those who buy drugs) for the first time makes his journey more striking.

Mountains stood before them, above them like in LA. But in the Boxes, the mountains were only a thing, like a wall or a tree, a sun-baked ridge above the valley full of everything. Here the ground was nearly empty of buildings and the mountains were like people, huddled figures, blue and grey and while. So high. They were unmoving stone. But they tore East’s eyes from the boys in the van and the unidentifiable people motoring up the same road.

The interplay between the four boys, one of them East’s little brother, is fascinating too. However, the story peters out about halfway through, and the climax seems contrived. Some others in my book club disagreed about the climax, saying it was as shocking as the raid at the beginning, making it a suitable bookend.

Although East himself doesn’t seem to change much in the course of the book, our understanding of him deepens. He proves to be a truly original character, innocent and honorable in some ways, he can also be harsh and ruthless. It’s hard not to care about this young man as he tries to find a place for himself in the world.

Some members of my book club found the dialect hard to read. I was grateful that I’d gotten it as audio book. I find that I don’t have a lot of patience for reading dialect. I had to abandon one of our book club books a few years ago that was set in Ireland. It was just too hard to read.

As you can see from the excerpts above, the writing is amazing. A little more attention to story structure would have made this an outstanding novel.

Can you recommend a novel about a road trip (other than Kerouac’s books)?

Deep South, by Nevada Barr

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Looking to change up her life, Ranger Anna Pigeon accepts a promotion that takes her away from her beloved Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado to the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi. Driving deep into the tangled darkness, Anna finds her car sliding off the road. Then she learns that the directions she’d been following, provided by one of the rangers who will be working for her, had sent her down a little-used road that led nowhere. Is it a prank? Or something more ominous?

Anna struggles to adjust to her new role as chief in a culture where women are not expected to hold positions of authority. At the same time, the culture calls for men—even teenaged boys—to be respectful towards women. Anna stumbles across a group of Civil War re-enactors, a good introduction to Faulkner’s home state, the man who famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Then she stumbles upon a particularly gruesome murder and it is up to her to solve it.

I’ve long been a fan of Barr’s series, that takes Pigeon to national parks around the country. I’d read this book a dozen years ago, but have been rereading—or rather listening to—the whole series. I’ve been on the road a lot the last few months, and these books make the miles fly by. It also seemed appropriate to reread these books starting last year, which was the 100th birthday of the U.S. National Park Service.

I remember hearing Barr speak, I think in 1998. She said that when she decided to write a mystery, she took a handful of her favorite mysteries and spent a long time studying and deconstructing them. Her process obviously worked well, because her first Anna Pigeon mystery, Track of the Cat, was a bestseller as have been the rest in the series.

As I’ve mentioned before, writers often debate about process. Is it better to plot out your story before starting to write or just start writing (known as “pantsing”, as in writing by the seat of your pants)? The answer is yes. Whatever works for you. And writers sometimes find that their process changes with each new writing project.

Another debate centers around training. Is it better to start by getting an MFA in creative writing or study the many craft books available? Or is it better to follow Barr’s path of reading intensively as a writer, studying books that have worked? Again, there are many paths to your goal. I don’t have an MFA, but I’ve taken a few workshops. I’ve learned a great deal from writing craft books as well as from reading as a writer (the original concept for this blog).

Perhaps most valuable of all has been engaging in critique groups. This involves not just reading a variety of work and having to think critically about it, but also hearing how other people think and react to the same work.

A friend recently said that she’d stopped reading Barr’s mysteries because they got too violent. I see what she means. As I’m proceeding through the series, it is not the violence of the murder, which is expected, but the violence Anna Pigeon encounters that strikes me.

Still, I love the descriptions of the parks, the complex characters both new and repeated, and Anna herself with all her doubts and strengths. She continues to hold my interest. And Barr does suspense well, so well that I find myself at the end of a roadtrip that seems to have taken no time at all.

Which national park–in the U.S. or another country–is your favorite?

Visions International, No.95, Spring 2017, edited by Bradley R. Strahan

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I first stumbled across this poetry magazine over a dozen years ago at the Baltimore Book Festival. What I love about it is the second word in the title. Visions solicits and publishes poems from all over the world. Strahan even travels to search out new poets.

It’s a small magazine, around 30 pages, but it packs a punch. This issue includes the work of poets from Slovenia, Dominican Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Chile, Macedonia, Iran, Mexico, Canada, and the U.S.

Their homes are identified in the table of contents but not on the poems themselves. As a result, when I read the poems, I’m struck more with the universal elements than with trying to see aspects of another culture.

One of the things I like about this magazine is that the translators are credited equally with the original poets. I tried my hand at translation a few years ago. Before that, I’d always been grateful to have translations so I could read work that would otherwise be inaccessible to me. However, it seemed wrong for a translator to tamper too much with the original work.

Once I tried to do it myself, though, I changed my mind. I wanted to capture the music of the original, the sound as well as the sense. I wanted to hint at the nuances in the other language, the connotations and associations. It was hard. And I admit I couldn’t resist making it a little bit my own. Since then I have much more respect for the work translators do.

Each issue also has a featured poet, with several pages devoted to their work. In this issue the featured poet is J.S. Absher of Raleigh, NC. One of his poems, “The Past and Time to Come”, starts with a cow grazing in a meadow and moves through the lovely names of their four stomachs into a scene where a salesman is philosophising about time in a bar. Sounds odd perhaps, but the juxtaposition works.

Visions is closing in on its 100th issue, so they must be doing something right. Check it out.

Where do you encounter poetry? In song lyrics or books? In magazines or blogs?

By Cook or By Crook: A Five-Ingredient Mystery, by Maya Corrigan

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Mysteries are a genre in themselves, and there are numerous sub-genres. You can pick up a police procedural or a hard-boiled mystery. You might find a legal thriller, a paranormal, or a historical mystery. An extremely popular sub-genre is cozies, the sort of classic mysteries written by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, where the puzzle is the important component and the grisly details are mostly off-stage.

This 2014 mystery is the first in a series and is both a cozy and a cooking mystery. Val has moved back to Bayport, a town on the Chesapeake Bay, ostensibly to persuade her grandfather to fix up and sell his large, old house and move to a retirement community. In reality, she’s hoping to make a new life for herself after a horrific car accident put an end to her career promoting cookbooks in New York City.

But there are plenty of snares for the uninitiated in a small town. Val is invited to the home of a new friend from the tennis club and finds her dead. Val gets ensnared in trying to solve the murder because the prime suspect is her cousin. Her investigation forces her to question her first impressions of the people she’s met in Bayport.

She herself becomes threatened when an SUV runs her off the road and there are mysterious sounds in the night. Some among the police suggest that it is just her imagination, but Val isn’t so sure.

I wanted a pleasant story to distract me during a challenging week and found it here, along with a few details of living on the Chesapeake Bay which is always nostalgic for me, but especially so just now.

The cooking aspect is quite fun, too, as Val tries to teach her grandfather to cook. As a bonus, several recipes are included in the book, one of which is for crab cakes. Well, like most Marylanders I have my own recipe for them, one that my mother jealously guarded, even if she did get it off an Old Bay tin.

I enjoyed the story, given the requirements I came in with. Yes, some of the clues were a bit broad, and I wished Val would have stood up for herself a bit more, but those are minor quibbles compared with the amiable diversion it gave me. The description of the town’s alliances and associations—and especially of teaching someone to eat hard crabs—were great fun.

What mystery sub-genres do you enjoy?

Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon

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Chabon has become one of my favorite writers, ever since my book club persuaded me to pick up Kavalier & Clay. I like his essays even more than his novels. Their mix of personal experience, political and cultural trends, self-deprecating humor, and startling insight is fascinating. I find myself nodding in recognition as I read each one and am always moved by the time I get to the end.

In this 2009 collection, he delivers a multi-faceted portrait of a man, his dreams and fears, his joys and regrets. Many of the short pieces start from his experience as a father, as he questions what he himself has experienced as a brother, son and husband, and how that can inform his dealings with his sons and daughters.

In “William and I”, he recalls his father’s distrust of intimacy and resulting distance, both physical and emotional—typical of most fathers in the mid-twentieth century. Chabon considers the low bar set for being a good father and the “monumental open-endedness of the job” of being a mother, a double standard where he is praised for grocery shopping with his baby while such things are routine expectations of mothers. In striving to hold himself to the same standard as a mother would be judged by, he recognises that he, like they, will “fail every day in my ambition to do the work, to make it count, to think ahead and hang in there through the tedium and really see, really feel, all the pitfalls that threaten my children.”

Many of the essays take him back to his own childhood. He delves into his boyhood in Columbia, Maryland, a planned community halfway between Baltimore and Washington and an amazing place to be a child, especially in its early days. In his earlier essay collection, Maps and Legends, Chabon describes the thrill of being in at the creation of something entirely new and the creative impulses the experience unleashed in him. Here he looks at relationships, such as in “The Splendors of Crap” where he treats us to his relationship with the Megginson family and the creative adventures they got up to, many based on Planet of the Apes.

In these short pieces, Chabon often teases out some of the sources of his writing. In “The Story of Our Story” he reminds us of Scheherazade’s sister who was the one who actually asked for a story each night. He then goes on to describe the moment his brother Steve was brought home from the hospital. At five, Chabon had experiences under his belt, “But it was not until that morning, in early September 1968, that my story truly began. Until my brother was born, I had no one to tell it to.”

Much of the joy I felt reading this collection came from the way Chabon takes common experiences and helps us see the depth and complexity within them. For example, in “Normal Time” he looks at the impulse to think of the chaos of daily life with its alarms and excursions as temporary, that things will get back to normal soon. There is some beautiful writing as he examines how time folds in on itself, much as each essay here does, before celebrating this life, this moment in all its glorious mess.

Even if you didn’t grow up, as I did, roaming the woods, reading comics, and watching Star Trek, you will find much to delight and intrigue you here.

Have you read an essay collection that enchanted and entertained you?

A Foreign Country, by Charles Cumming

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An au pair in Tunisia, involved in an affair with her employer, disappears leaving him heartbroken. Many years later, an elderly French couple on the vacation of a lifetime in Cairo are horribly murdered. Shortly after that, a man given the code name Holst is kidnapped off a Paris street.

While the reader is wondering how these In a seemingly unrelated incidents fit together, we are introduced to Thomas Kell.

A disgraced MI6 undercover agent, he has been out of work for eight months, mostly drinking and feeling sorry for himself when he gets a call from a former colleague. Jimmy Marquand brings Kell in from the cold in secret to find the newly appointed head of MI6 who has gone missing. Kell’s initial reluctance disappears when he learns that the person missing is Amelia Levene, someone he was close to.

This book is a great example of creating and maintaining suspense. Cumming demonstrates how to ask questions, answer some while asking more, and repeat again and again. This technique gives the reader moments of satisfaction along with a large helping of uncertainty. We are never completely satisfied until the end, when it all comes together in a tense burst of action.

Another brilliant aspect of this absorbing tale is the cast of characters Cumming assembles to assist—or challenge—Kell’s quest. In France, he is first put in touch with Bill and Barbara Knight, retired agents. The portrait of their marriage adds a touch of humor and wry recognition as first one and then the other show strengths and weaknesses through their actions and interactions with each other.

The team Kell puts together are also shown as full individuals, with their own quirks and background. Amelia herself is deftly portrayed as a woman who holds her secrets close. Her careful self-control makes her moments of revelation stand out. Even the villains of the piece and their henchmen are given full-length portraits. Having all these supporting characters fully characterised makes the story feel authentic. Even more importantly, ensuring we understand why they matter to our protagonist makes us interested in them.

One of the things that fascinated me was the characters’ relationship with their agencies. You would think that being part of a government bureaucratic organisation would be a binary matter: you either are or are not an employee. Yet many of these characters operate in a liminal area, balancing personal and professional motivations.

All in all, a good read. No surprise, since I’ve enjoyed other stories by this author. The immensely satisfactory ending gave me a rest from the ongoing suspense of today’s political situation. I look forward to checking out the later books in the Thomas Kell series.

What suspense novels have you enjoyed?