Thursday, October 18, 2018

Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 224 pgs, Pub Jan 1st 2000 by Picador USA (first published 1993), ISBN13: 9780312252564, Lit Awards: Whitbread Award for First Novel (1993)

This first novel by Cusk won the Whitbread Award for First Novel in 1993 and it seems worthy of that distinction. It is less tentative than we would have reason to expect though it depicts a just-new woman carrying a load of insecurities while trying to navigate a large city.

Ultimately Agnes manages to find her way outside the maze inside her own head, recognize the privilege of her upbringing, and to feel something for the difficulties of others, but it is a tough couple hundred pages until she gets there. It is not so much funny as pathetic, and that is because we recognize something of ourselves (and perhaps our children) in her.

I wish I’d had more time to concentrate on this novel, though the reason l didn’t is that I always found time to do something besides read it. Reading about Agnes was uncomfortable. Agnes (what a name!) was so unsure of herself it was painful. I do remember those years but do not miss them. It is a miracle we make it through, though Cusk puts in a couple reminders that some folks nearly don’t, and many don’t come through without damage.

We see the promise of Cusk in this novel in that her seemingly lightweight protagonist manages to discern the outlines of consequential existential questions— about the purpose of life— and this doesn’t change in her later work. Cusk is a heat-seeking missile for “the heart of the matter” and that is why readers eagerly seek out the next installment in how she describes what she has discovered.

Ultimately I was reading this novel at this time is for completionist reasons, but it also strangely dovetailed a major life moment. My oldest brother who’d had a major influence on my life trajectory died suddenly. Preparing his memorial service involved creating a short slideshow—he was a photographer and oceanographer, among other descriptors. He’d taken pictures of me beginning my travels overseas alone at the age of Cusk’s Agnes. Reading of Agnes’ mental circularities, uncertainties, and anxieties reminded me what I’d ditched as soon as I could.

I am having a look at all Cusk’s books to see how she got from here to her adaptation of Medea and the Outline trilogy. I have one novel left, The Temporary, before I will need to circle back to read her later work again. I admire her writing and think her work resonates, particularly for white women of a certain level of wealth, education, and age. That is not to say her later work doesn’t speak to universal experience—I think it does—but I wonder if the humor translates as well. She is easily in the ranks of America’s now dead male writers, Updike and Roth, whose work was claimed by a generation of white men of a certain level of wealth and education.

This early novel feels dated now: it was written twenty-five years ago. Reading about Agnes’s travails reminded me that young women today likely have different experiences with first sex, with boyfriends, girlfriends, even parents. Our relationships have been changed by cell phones and connectedness, and at the risk of seeming out of touch, I venture that the rate of change truly has speeded up. Perhaps everything we really need to learn can, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, be found in our own backyards after all. There is something to be said for getting a firm foundation in a more limited environment before being hit with the world, but perhaps those faced with choice early are better at navigating it. Whatever the case, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Below please find reviews of Cusk’s other work.

Saving Agnes, 1993
The Temporary, 1995 (not reviewed yet)
The Country Life, 1997
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother, 2002
The Lucky Ones, 2003
In the Fold, 2005
Arlington Park, 2006
The Bradshaw Variations, 2009
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy, 2009
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation, 2012
Outline, 2014
Medea, 2015
Transit, 2016
Kudos, 2018

Monday, October 15, 2018

Titans of History: The Giants who Made our World by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Paperback, 640 pgs, Pub: October 16th 2018 by Vintage (first published June 1st 2009), ISBN13: 9780525564461

This Vintage paperback original published this October is just the kind of thing people slaving away in their individual silos might like to read in snatches to put major figures in history in their proper perspective. I always wanted something like this when I was learning history: ordinarily we look individually at parts of the world. This book integrates history.

Each figure Montefiore chooses to introduce ordinarily gets a page or two. This is just enough to tell the major contributions of figures you may have only heard of but didn’t know why they were remembered. What was so interesting for me was that the history is chronological so we can see widely disparate events, discoveries, inventions with their contemporaneous personages elsewhere in the world, Walter Raleigh was roughly contemporaneous with Tokugawa Ieyasu and Akbar the Great.

In one memorable entry, Montefiore places the Borgias together: Pope Alexander VI and his children, Cesare and his sister Lucrezia. The details of this family are so gruesome—the face slowly destroyed by syphilis and covered with a golden mask—that we wonder their foothold lasted so long and the conditions of society that produced it. Rodrigo Borgia, who eventually called himself Pope Alexander VI, was reputed to be seductively charming in person but that hardly seems enough to sustain a reign of debauchery and vice. Montefiore gives a few clues which the interested reader might pursue to a more rigorous study.

Women, South Americans, and Black Africans get relatively short shrift, but then so have they through time. These are names we for the most part recognize already, giving us a few short details about the lives of each. Isaac Babel and Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov have back to back entries, Babel being noted for his Red Calvary stories relating the brutality of Lenin’s 1920 war on Poland. Yezhov is remembered for the frenzy of his arrests as a secret policeman under Stalin, anticipating the direction of the leader without explicit instructions. “He doesn’t know when to stop,” is how a colleague described him.

In the modern day, relatively few people are singled out, and those are mostly politicians or government leaders. JFK, Gorbachav, Elvis, Saddam Hussein, Muhammed Ali, Pol Pot, Thatcher…there are a few others, but the weighting is clear. In the end this book is grist for the mill. We can argue about what the author has chosen, but we would have to put together a series of arguments. It could be a fruitful endeavor for someone interested in how individuals shape events.

This is dinner party material. Random facts and random choices of famous figures within the range of possibilities can be interesting. The most damning bit would be that a page or two or even three for any major figure is not nearly enough space to explain that person or their effects. But if you just want to quickly understand what a person is known for, this could be a good choice. And it might be good for teens when paired with other work.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Deborah Levy

Hardcover, 144 pgs, Pub July 10th 2018 by Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN13: 9781635571912

Deborah Levy is a woman for our times. She is up to her neck in this moment, stewing like a teabag. One can imagine calming a stressed constituent by sitting her down and handing her a cup…a copy of Levy’s slim new book, a working autobiography, a quiet, private, assessing look at a life which tries to keep the love from leaking out.
“Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century.”
Levy is an adult. If she hasn’t seen it all, she seen plenty enough to make judgments. While she doesn’t “have it all together,” she is confident enough to know that is not always the most salient fact in a well-lived life.

I particularly appreciated the description of riding her e-bike to an appointment with the movie people on a rainy day. She wasn’t aware she had several wet leaves caught in her hair from pushing under the apple tree by her writing shed. The movie people want to make a film of one of her books. She tried to convince them she had a technique to present the past alongside the present without the use of flashbacks. She'd in fact learned it from watching favorite filmmakers.

Within this short memoir Levy treats us to several examples of her no-flashback technique. Each is ingenious, and would be an excellent challenge for students of writing. She is inventive enough to have thought of several ways.

The notion of mother is a meditation topic in this memoir. Levy is a mother, divorced now, with two teenaged girls. Her own mother dies during Levy's period of mourning for her old life, pre-divorce. Thus, she is doubly bereaved.
“We do not want mothers who gaze beyond us, longing to be elsewhere. We need her to be of this world, lively, capable, entirely present to our needs.”
She recognizes motherhood is some kind of impossible condition, open to fulfilling the needs of others while reneging on what one owes oneself.
“When our father does the things he needs to do in the world, we understand it is his due. If our mother does the things she needs to do in the world, we feel she has abandoned us. It is a miracle she survives our mixed messages, written in society’s most poisoned ink. It is enough to drive her mad.”
Just so.

Born in South Africa, Levy travelled to England as a young girl. Once Levy’s mother made a return visit to SA without her; her postcard back to Levy in England sounded to my ear more like sister than mother. The years fell away. She'd visited friends who supported her during the years of political turmoil during the transition form apartheid to democracy, of which she had been an active participant. Moments like these accordion lives—is this not an example of flashback without flashback?

We read on, only to discover more and more instances of the collapse of time. Levy has indeed given us several ways to view history rather than through a distancing lens.

Perhaps my favorite moment of many which worked beautifully was a description of finding something in a store that would suit her mother--but shortly after her mother’s death. She temporarily forgot the death part and brought the item to the counter to purchase. When her mind suddenly kicked into the present from the past, she cried out Oh No No No No and ran from the store.
“At that moment, I came too close to understanding the way Hamlet speaks Shakespeare’s most sorrowful words. I mean, not just the actual words, but how he might sound when he says them.”
These moments come rarely in a lifetime. When they do, we must mark the insight.

I loved this slim volume so full of someone else. Levy is just interesting.

Postscipt: Levy mentions Nadine Gordimer in one description of her mother and I am reminded I’d never understood, or perhaps never had the patience to understand, Gordimer’s writing. She reminds me this may be a good time for me to experience her again.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Lucky Ones by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 240 pgs, Pub April 7th 2003 by Fourth Estate (first published 2003), ISBN13: 9781857029123

I feel a bit slapped around by this novel, published in 2003, the year after Cusk's bombshell of a memoir about motherhood, A Life’s Work, had such a mixed reception. Not only do her chapters read as individual, difficult-to-reconcile stories, the sentiment is painful to read. She is not funny: if one laughs, she remarked in an interview, the power is lost. Women and men living together in anything but married bliss: it’s instructive, relatable, hardly comforting.

The angles from which Cusk approaches these stories are not immediately clarifying. I wondered why we were reading about couples or their friends. The view of an older mother whose daughter is living a life outside of the mother’s experience seemed false for much of the chapter, as though she did not capture the older woman’s essence and mechanism: that which makes her tick. Eventually we see something, but we do not feel warm to this armored woman, battling her demons.

Who says a novel has to unroll its delights promiscuously for anyone to partake? The novel is a serious attempt to take on issues of critical meaning to people involved in relationships, perhaps even same-sex relationships, because the dynamic is often the same. After all, most people are still buying a “pig in a poke” when they marry in the sense they often do not know well the person with whom they intend live, and in any case, the relationship changes with the addition of children to the equation.

Cusk of course captures the despair of married women everywhere trying to fit their personalities, skills, and unique abilities into what can feel like the straightjacket of marriage and childcare. But we must now, in this time of #MeToo, acknowledge the point of view of the husband who, no matter what kind of man he was taught to be, also finds himself aghast at the weight of responsibility suddenly thrust upon him when he achieves his majority and marries.

But Cusk wrote this in the olden days: in something like fifteen years we are finally talking broadly, openly, and seriously about the rights of women in the workplace but also about the definition of masculinity, male privilege, and patriarchy. All this openness could be shut down tomorrow, as many have predicted the backlash will come, but the very things that Cusk is talking about so clearly is exactly what we should be internalizing in order to emerge healthy.

Transitions between chapters can be clunky and uncomfortable in direction, but Cusk at her worst is still better than most at their best. The first chapter is set in a women’s prison, and had some startling overlap with Rachel Kushner’s Booker-shortlisted novel this year, The Mars Room, a story of inattentive public defenders and tragic consequences. The very next chapter dropped us in the middle of a winter ski vacation in Switzerland for young professionals just beginning to construct and/or deconstruct their lives.

She works her themes, the moment young women, old women, rich women, poor women, talented women, and educated women clearly see their social predicament. The male partners of these women are not as finely drawn. The character of Martin in “The Way You Do It” could almost be a precursor for her narrator occupying negative space in the Outline trilogy, though she’d not even conceived of the notion then. Victor, the husband of the red-haired Serena, dies of a wasting disease. Colin refuses to speak, having succumbed to an affair, and Mr. Daley complains impotently late in life that his wife had “stolen his soul.”

But Vanessa in “Matters of Life and Death” says her desire for self- expression was thwarted, not by her actual circumstances, but by her fear of what might be. This theme recurs in later novels—a painter cannot paint nor a writer write for the distraction of everyday. The “enemy was not her husband; it was the capacity in herself, of which she was aware, for finding her husband unsatisfactory.”

Also recurring in other novels is Cusk’s tendency to have someone look upon the physical characteristics of a house as proof of something in the character of its inhabitants. She may be pointing to a common tendency in many of us to judge people by the splendor—or not—of their homes. Unfortunately, one cannot simply buy a life, only a lifestyle.

There is a party in this novel, which by now should strike readers with dread at what is to come. Suffice it to say, a great deal of blood is spilled and the circumstances are unclear: there had been an argument shortly before. The outcome is as unsettling as the months preceding the event.

Even in the novels that received less attention and critical praise, Cusk is working hard at expression. One I particularly liked was
“Colin digested Vanessa’s remark with the expression of a dog realising that what he had thought was a stick was in fact a bone.”
Cusk moves on to revisit and refine these themes in her later work but we can see these in-between books are critical parts of her oeuvre, the building blocks for what is to come.

Below please find reviews of Cusk’s other work.

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

Hardcover, 304 pgs, Pub July 2nd 2015 by William Collins (HarperCollins UK), ISBN13: 9780007554836), Lit Awards: Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Memoir & Autobiography (2015)

I listened to this remarkable story, read by Josie Dunn and published by HarperCollins Publishers UK, with a degree of disbelief. Certain parts of the story agree with what I’d learned already about the lives of North Koreans, the general trend of their escapes, and their orientation in South Korea as refugees. The author was young, seventeen, when she decided to cross the frozen Yalu in winter and go see her relatives in Shenyang, China.

She’d had no idea where Shenyang was—that I actually could believe. And as a privileged (for North Korea) teen, she was accustomed to getting her way or being ignored. Certainly maps were not easily found, just as they weren’t in China, either, thirty years ago. The period in this book covers approximately 2000-2012, a period when Hyeonseo Lee spent ten years in China working then flew to South Korea to request asylum.

Her own path to freedom was relatively smooth; she’d learned to be wary of revealing much about herself from childhood and was not easily deceived. Being young and attractive gave her the benefit of the doubt in China, but she wasn’t able to escape every attempt to corral her into exploitative jobs. She lived on her wits and managed, eventually, to eventually pass as Chinese-Korean. With this identity she was able to procure a passport (and a new name). She lived in China ten years.

I don’t want to spoil the adventure for those who aren’t familiar with her story, but it is a doozy. Her family in North Korea had a good songbun (status or name) which they exploited to bring goods in from outside the country. An uncle actually sold heroin. Her mother brought in all manner of household goods and occasionally methamphetamines! Hyeonseo’s brother began doing much the same illicit and illegal import work, bribing border guards, etc. after Hyeonseo left. Apparently her departure was officially overlooked, perhaps as the result of a bribe.

The story rings true, and she’s told it so many times by now that there are all kinds of suggestive chapter endings which propel one to turn to the next chapter. Apparently Ms. Lee met with President Trump with some other defectors in the White House in January 2018 before the president’s departure to Singapore to meet Kim Jong Un. She has given many talks about her experience and that of her family, including a TED talk I have posted below.

This is a defector story you probably haven’t heard, and you might want to see what everyone is so excited about.

Below please find a 12-minute TED talk by Hyeonsan Lee:

Friday, September 14, 2018

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Paperback, 89 pgs, Pub April 5th 2016 by Copper Canyon Press, ISBN 155659495X, Lit Awards: T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry (2018), Forward Prize for Best First Collection (2017), Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry (2017), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Poetry (2016)

Published in 2016, this is Ocean Vuong’s first full collection. We will never know how a boy emerges, so young, with a talent so great. A poem chosen at random lights deep, protected nodes in our brain and attaches to our viscera. We recognize his work as surely as we appreciate a painting, or a piece of music. He appears a conduit, not a creator.

One of the poems in this collection has a title referencing a Mark Rothko painting. Glancing at it, we know immediately why he pairs it with these words.
Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown, 1952)

The TV said the planes have hit the buildings.
& I said Yes because you asked me
to stay. Maybe we pray on our knees because god
only listens when we're this close
to the devil. There is so much I want to tell you.
How my greatest accolade was to walk
across the Brooklyn Bridge
& not think of flight. How we live like water: wetting
a new tongue with no telling
what we've been through. They say the sky is blue
but I know it's black seen through too much distance.
You will always remember what you were doing
when it hurts the most. There is so much
I need to tell you--but I only earned
one life & I took nothing. Nothing. Like a pair of teeth
at the end. The TV kept saying The planes...
The planes...
& I stood waiting in the room
made of broken mockingbirds. Their wings throbbing
into four blurred walls. & you were there.
You were the window.
Rothko's Blue, Green, and Brown, 1952
It was the phrase How we live like water: wetting a new tongue with no telling what we've been through. That phrase stopped me.

In an interview with The Guardian, Vuong says “life is always more complicated than the headlines allow; poetry comes in when the news is not enough.” Vuong won awards for this collection, and gained recognition. He now is an associate professor in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and writing a novel.

In an interview with Lit Hub Vuong explains
“I’m writing a novel composed of woven inter-genre fragments. To me, a book made entirely out of unbridged fractures feels most faithful to the physical and psychological displacement I experience as a human being. I’m interested in a novel that consciously rejects the notion that something has to be whole in order to tell a complete story. I also want to interrogate the arbitrary measurements of a “successful” literary work, particularly as it relates to canonical Western values. For example, we traditionally privilege congruency and balance in fiction, we want our themes linked, our conflicts “resolved,” and our plots “ironed out.” But when one arrives at the page through colonized, plundered, and erased histories and diasporas, to write a smooth and cohesive novel is to ultimately write a lie.”
 Vuong brings with him the possibility of a vision that is articulate enough to share, brave enough to bolster. It's a kind of blessing, a grace note we don't really deserve, his voice.

Vuong’s poetry is available as an ebook from many libraries. He is what we call a ‘literary light.’

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Snap by Belinda Bauer

Hardcover, 352 pgs, Pub July 3rd 2018 by Atlantic Monthly Press (first published May 17th 2018), ISBN13: 9780802127747), URL, Lit Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2018)

There are many wonderful novels long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, but I wouldn’t be sad if the award went to Belinda Bauer for her latest crime novel. Crime is a new category for the Man Booker along with graphic novels, of which Sabrina made the list.

In this novel, Bauer manages to sneak up behind us and deliver a perfectly horrible crime that resounds in the minds of young married couples. And she unveils DCI Marvel, a man with the DNA of every crusty and flawed investigator who works on instinct. I immediately thought of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel, surely a man after Marvel's own heart.

Bauer has exquisite instincts and timing as a crime writer. Even if this book hadn’t been chosen to represent her work, some of her earlier books would have done as well. But this novel is fuller, somehow, with the figure of Marvel and the hopelessly earnest Reynolds, who manages to get everything wrong all the time.

A pregnant woman seeking a call box on the motorway leaves her three children in her stranded vehicle and sets off on foot. After more than an hour, the children are wondering what could have become of her. She’d said it was too dangerous to follow her, but that is what the kids did, only to find an empty call box, the phone off the hook.

Bauer has always had the uncanny ability to put us in the mind of a child, and here she has three to work with. The police release the children to the father who finds himself overwhelmed with his new responsibilities.

Writing an excellent crime thriller is certainly as hard as writing any other wonderful piece of literature, and it seems to me that Bauer has succeeded admirably here. A Goodreads group I follow, The Mookse & the Gripes, posts a discussion in which there is hardly a voice crediting Bauer with creating something unique and complex. I disagree.

Bauer makes her skill look easy, but I’ve read hundreds of crime novels and finding new ways to present a terrifying mystery without boring people who read hundreds of crime novels is not an easy job. It has something to do with characterizations, recognizing what it is in ordinary humans that brings out our capacity for murder, and a sufficiently complex mystery. In this solve, readers are invited to decipher a unique code, and agonize how this story is going to end without someone new getting done.

I listened to this terrific story, marvelously read by Andrew Wincott and available on hoopla®, produced by Dreamscape Media, LLC.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub Jan 9th 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2006), ISBN13: 9780374100803, Lit Awards: Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction Shortlist (2007)

What makes Cusk such a relevant and important writer are the many themes running through her books also run through our own lives. She is holding a conversation with us about what we face as human beings in a changing world, leading us as though we are in a library literary club. The questions she raises are as difficult as life itself but it is not necessary we respond straight away. She’d prefer we went home first and think about what she has written.

Years ago I attended an early conference on Women in Literature. One of the books we discussed that day was Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs. The main character was a young girl who expressed her moment of her independence and discovery by climbing an enormous fir tree. Despite having been a sporty tomgirl all my life to that point, I said I found it difficult to conceive that a girl/woman would express her independence by such an act.

A grizzled white male emeritus professor there to make sure these women didn’t foment revolution scoffed “What else would she do? Bake a cake?” At that time I was sufficiently young to be embarrassed. I attempted to appease him with “no, no, of course not” while my cohort, older and more articulate women than I, quickly took up the gauntlet.

I recount this story because in fact, baking a cake—being in the kitchen at least—is exactly how the women in Cusk’s world discover the cracks in their lives and begin to assert their independence.

The final scene in this book is a dinner party, something Cusk reimagined and expanded upon in a later book Transit, the second of a trilogy of books using a new type of narrative structure. Readers are sure never to want to go to another dinner party in their lives after reading the bush fires these turn out to be.

The action in this book looks into the lives of several couples as they navigate one particular Friday. We are not surprised to see the strains between couples, and we aren’t really surprised to see the nosy attention paid to the kitchen expansion of one mother who'd invited a few moms for morning coffee after dropping the kids off at school. Other moms going in a group with their little ones to shop for clothes at a local mall are a chorus of catty compliments and confused despair. The day expands from there, breaking off to capture Solange, pregnant with her fourth, who rents out a bedroom to local foreign students.

Perhaps the best set piece is a description of the actual Arlington Park in the manner of Bruegel the Elder: each park visitor is painted in their individuality and their intent, even dogs, and we revel in the mad color and symphonic chaos of it. The choice of actors, the wash of rain on the pavement, the sound of crying children, barking dogs, running feet, shrieking teens—this is the fullness of Cusk.

Cusk does have something to say about marital love but mostly we watch, poleaxed, while these unappealing folks strain to live well in their comfortable distant suburb two hours west of London. Money and stature hasn’t really given them any special grace, but is a sort of blind into which they stumble, surprised to discover the payoff always was illusion, like the fronts of Arlington Park houses compared with the back. What they’d needed for the good life had been with them always; it had just needed to be excavated, nurtured, cherished.

In the final scene we go deep into the mind of the dinner party hostess, Christine Lanham. Events unfurl from her perspective, but the wine in her glass flows too freely for readers to lean too heavily on her say-so. Important questions are posed but left for the reader to answer. The characters in Christine’s world sound a lot like the ones in our own. Standing back and looking on might give us the perspective we need to be able to think…about all of it.

An interview with Cusk by NewYorker staff writer Alexandra Schwartz about Kudos has been published by Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux. Below please find reviews of Cusk’s other work.

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Amity and Prosperity by Eliza Griswold

Hardcover, 336 pags, Pub June 12th 2018 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN13: 9780374103118

This scientific and legal drama recounts the harrowing ordeal of several families suffering terribly from toxic chemicals leaching from storage pools of fracking waste into their drinking water and into the air in western Pennsylvania. New Yorker staff writer and journalist Eliza Griswold has excellent instincts for a story and she has honed her skills so that unwieldy real life is put into a clear timeline; we not only understand, we are desperate to learn the outcome.

It is nearly impossible to imagine this kind of deceit and coercion happening today in ‘sacrifice zones’ around the country. After all, it is written in Pennsylvania’s own constitution that
“The people have a right to clear air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit for all the people.”
Residents who survived—many of their farm animals did not—had to leave their newly worthless property because the water was not fit to drink nor the air fit to breathe. This is the story of how these families fought the state and federal agencies (EPA, DEP) charged with protecting them; Range Resources, the company responsible for the fracking work; the companies responsible for testing blood and water for chemical components causing the damage; their own neighbors; and the political leadership including the governor in Pennsylvania who instituted Act 13, giving zoning overrides to fracking companies.

When their lawyers, John Smith and his wife Kendra, finally argued a case about the pollution before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in October 2012, two years after they began researching the cases, the lawyers were afraid the conservative judge known to side frequently with Republican politicians would throw out the challenge to Act 13. [Pennsylvania is known today as the poster child for such severe political gerrymandering that Republicans in state and national government far outweigh their Democratic challengers.] State governor Tom Corbett didn’t want “to send a negative message to job creators and families who depend on the energy industry.” Corbett was voted out in 2015.

Speaking of families who depend on the energy industry, the neighbors of these folks who had been so wrongly done by sometimes begrudged the families their lawsuits since it might lessen their opportunity to sell the rights to whatever gas or right-of-way lay beneath their own land. This is a horror story that is difficult to tear one’s eyes from.
“[Range Resources] tried to appeal to those who stood to make money with an unusual letter writing campaign. One mass mailing was addressed to a fictitious ‘Mr. and Mrs. Joe Schmo at 10 Cash-Strapped Lane.’ It urged residents to bring pressure on their local officials to allow companies wide latitude to drill where they needed to, or there’d be no gas, and ‘no gas means no royalties.’”
The royalties, by the way, weren’t very impressive to someone who was going to lose their health, possibly members of their family, their livelihood, their land, their house, their way of life. This was farmland, so most of people discussed here in detail had barns, large animals, etc. This says nothing of the downstream pollution of the groundwater. People can drill on their own property, but not if it affects their neighbor.

Fracking waste is toxic, but much of the time so is what fracking dredges up from deep earth pockets holding Pleistocene-era bacteria and ocean salts. No one wants this waste. Range Resources paid Alan Shipman to truck away waste that didn’t fit in the holding ponds. Shipman was convicted in 2011 of mixing the fracking solutions with less lethal waste so technically it would fall under less stringent guidelines for placement and then he dumped it illegally into public waterways.

A few local public officials thought some of the difficulties lay in the corruption of government by money flowing from the gas companies to people in political office who thereafter tended to cater to those business interests. Even Obama changed his tune from “no fracking” during his campaign, to “gas is good” during his term. Some individuals argue that despite some pollution, gas extraction has made the U.S. practically energy independent, moving the U.S. from importing two-thirds of it’s oil needs to one-fifth. A degree of pollution here may prevent global ocean rise because gas is less carbon-emitting, etc, etc.

To all of this could be argued that the costs of gas are not adequately taken into account by companies operating by deceit. Have the companies pay the real costs and then go find investors. They will, and we will be protected. If gas is judged to be “just too expensive,” we may need to rethink the way we do business or the way we live.

One final note is a very short discussion Griswold adds about the Tragedy of the Commons. I’d never heard of this concept, so I quote her here at length:
“Economists describe the Tragedy of the Commons like this: cattle herders sharing a pasture will inevitably place the needs of their cows above the needs of others’, adding cow after cow and taking more than their share of the common grass. This ‘free rider’ takes advantage of the commons, and consumes it until it’s gone. This, the argument goes, is human nature, which sets individual gain over collective good. Traditionally, the Tragedy of the Commons has supported the case for individual property rights: since it’s impossible for people to act together to protect commonly held assets, we might as well carve up those assets and leave individuals to look after their own. But what if the commons did not need to end in tragedy? What if people were able to work out effective practices of sharing the commons and transmit those traditions to their descendants? Elinor Ostrom, a professor of political science at Indiana University, argued that the solution to the Tragedy of the Commons for the twenty-first century lies in common sense. Sharing has succeeded in the past and could succeed in the future. Ostrom was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for this work. She died in 2012.”
This is a terrific, propulsive, horrifying, and important read you are not going to want to miss.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Politics of Resentment by Katherine J. Cramer

Paperback, 225 pgs, Pub Mar 23rd 2016 by University of Chicago Press, ISBN13: 9780226349114, Series: Chicago Studies in American Politics

The subtitle of this academic study is “Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin & the Rise of Scott Walker.” Professor Katherine Cramer visited rural groups in extra-urban parts of Wisconsin for five years to see how people perceived the government in Madison and if it was serving their needs.

What she uncovered is a vast resentment of country folk towards their urban counterparts: rural dwellers believed their tax dollars were siphoned off to pay for government employees in the cities who in turn created regulations which strangled enjoyment of country life, e.g., fishing and hunting, among other things.

Cramer warns those of us whose opinions differ not to consider rural inhabitants ignorant, but to consider they have perceptions upon which their opinions are formed and these perceptions are formed as a result of their rural residency. I am tempted to apply the very strictures several of her interviewees use throughout her period of study: if I believe it, true or not, doesn’t that make it valid?

I thought country people were to be admired for their down-home values and common sense. If you could only get a copy of this book to read one of the final sets of reactions to the recall vote of Walker in 2012 which Cramer painfully transcribed, starting about page 196, it is the short course to understanding the rest of the book.

This was a difficult book for me to read because it was so infuriating. The country folk she spoke with met in small groups, one of which was a group of businessmen who met every day in the middle of the morning for a game of dice--'just for an hour or so,' they defended it.

I’m sorry, but anyone who then tells me that they do not consider other people know the meaning of hard work sounds positively ludicrous. I’m not here to judge them, and couldn’t care less what they do with the most productive hours of the day, but they really shouldn’t be pointing any fingers.

It turns out from my reading of these “meetings” is that people sit around and voluably winge for an hour or so, complaining about this and that, what they don’t have and what they wish they did have. Taxes come in for a large percentage of the discussion points and since I come from a state known for high taxes, Taxachusetts, I am wondering what on earth their property taxes could be that they so cramp their style, what with all that “hard work” they keep on about.

The groups internally trade inaccuracies and then promulgate them around town. It is terribly frustrating to hear them talk about how the government (Fish & Game) might come in and look in their freezers for all the fish they stocked there, proof of their illegal overfishing. No, I don’t understand, even after reading these five years of interviews, what these people want. They want less regulation they say, even saying they’d prefer drunk driving and pollution controls be rolled back.

I give Professor Cramer credit for being able to stick it out. She was prepared when the state went belly-up for old Scott Walker, enemy No. 1 of public employee unions. Some of the comments about how there were people being paid excessive overtime sounds much like what I read in the Boston Globe this week, with some public employees making hundreds of thousands of dollars in excessive overtime charges.

It happens. It doesn’t happen everywhere and it doesn’t happen all the time. (It happens, I might add, with people who think they are smart when they are not.) The crime has been exposed, the people will pay it back and then go to jail. That doesn’t mean we have to throw out the system we set up to ensure fairness. Cramer concludes her study with these ideas that sound remarkably familiar in today’s political commentary:
“One can view as misinformation or ignorance the perceptions among rural folks that they are victims of distributive injustice, but the conclusion that people vote the way they do because they are stupid is itself pretty shallow. It overlooks that much of political understanding is not about facts; it is about how we see those facts.”
Indeed. Well, these folks may not be stupid, but they are sure acting like it. Rural consciousness indeed. If you don’t go looking for the truth, you may not stumble upon it.

Cramer's research wasn't wasted, though it made me plenty steamed. Clearly these folks had opinions, but those opinions, I believe, could be changed if someone actually engaged them with a few factoids. The mere fact they did not run Cramer out of town on a rail means they just want to be listened some point, there is no reason to presume they wouldn't listen to someone else with a good argument.

Also, the fact they were meeting at all and were, to however small a degree, interested in local goings on, e.g., regulations, taxes, etc. means they are fertile ground for new ideas. They can at least conceive of public policy. Give them the kit & caboodle of figuring out fairness & I think we would be surprised if those old progressive notions don't come floating to the surface.

What politicians and educators have to do is get out more--go to the hinterland and bring a few good ideas, some failed policies, and a few debunked lies to show side-by-side. I think there is possibility that these folks will rise to the challenge, now that we know they have nothing but perceptions to back up their feelings of resentment. They obviously like getting together to talk things out. Give 'em the numbers--and, by the way, give us their numbers!

Cramer did not give us the actual facts re taxes, etc. That would have helped us to figure out if these folks just can't do math or if they actually have grievance. She did mention something about the cost of sewer (which in my town is calculated as twice the price of water). There, for a family of two, the bill was something in the vicinity of $53/month. The majority of folks have incomes of $11K/yr. This is income, mind you, not including savings or property. If those country folk had a look at what city folk with that kind of income had to deal with, they might not be so full of anger.

Here is an excerpt of Coleen Marlo reading the audiobook:

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Country Life by Rachel Cusk

Audiobook, Pub Oct 1st 2014 by Recorded Books, Inc.; Hardcover, 341 pgs, Pub Jan 1st 1999 by Picador USA (first published June 20th 1997) ISBN13: 9780312198480, Lit Awards: Somerset Maugham Award (1998)

This novel is a fantastically successful parody of a Eighteenth Century novel in which a young woman encounters all sorts of terrors in her first solo foray into the wilds of the country in Sussex. I had the advantage of listening to this novel, brilliantly read by Jenny Sterlin, produced by Recorded Books, but I like to think I would have picked up on the melodrama even if I’d read it.

As an undergraduate reading 18thC literature, I was tasked in one demanding class to “write an paper in the style” of one of the authors we studied that term. This novel by Cusk would be a brilliant fulfillment of that requirement. One would swear one were reading a modern Gothic romance in the style of our very earliest novels like Weiland; or The Transformation by Charles Brockton Brown, written in 1798 or Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein.

All the intrigue, drama, and fear of a young woman’s fancy are amply on display: creaking floorboards, the dangers of walking in the country on public footpaths, leering oversexed male acquaintances, dwarfish figures whose intent, whether good or bad, is undetermined. Stella is simply overtaken with every possible obstacle to living well in Sussex at Franchise Farm, a large, ancient, impressive farming estate owned in perpetuity by the Maddens. Stella has been engaged to be a companion to the Matthew Madden, a teenaged handicapped scion of the family.

Cusk works over our sympathies in this novel so that every couple pages we are changing allegiances with the characters. The story has a darker heart than we’re prepared for by all the ridiculous drama of Stella’s first days at Franchise Farm, but this is meant to be discovered after several hours with the characters, so i won’t reveal it here. Suffice it to say that the overblown prose and extraordinary dilemmas faced by our narrator contrast in a comic way with the utter ordinariness of the rest of the characters, all of whom find themselves watching Stella with some degree of alarm and surprise as she settles in.

I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a novel as much, it being so completely unexpected, truly hilarious and absurd, with our heroine, through no intent of her own, ending up several days completely blotto on stolen vodka. The teenaged charge Matthew bears some responsibility for taking advantage of his much-older companion, never having seen someone with as little control or suitability for her position as the lovely Stella. As his mother says volubly, “He’s not retarded, Stella, he’s just disabled.” And very clever and interested he is, too, in all that goes on around him. For once he sees someone nearly as helpless as he is, and he rises to the challenge.

The finish is heartfelt and warm, and we discover that Stella is indeed suited to her position, and in fact we want more of her stumbling ways since she manages to bring out the best in everyone. We have been aghast at the blunt language and contentious attitudes of many of the folks we meet. But they can recognize vulnerability when they see it and do not crush those suffering from it.

I am particularly thrilled to read a novel that describes—and asks us to imagine—what life might actually be like for someone disabled. The group meetings Matthew must attend outside of his school hours are truly horrifying—all authoritarian control and insistence on talking about one’s feelings. Matthew is often overlooked and not appreciated for what he can do well.

Every novel I have read by Cusk is very different from its predecessors but equally funny. Her work is not losing its charm, no matter that I have read nearly all her oeuvre at once. I am even more convinced of my earlier assessment—certainly that Cusk is my favorite living author, but also that she is one of the greats working today. She is especially relevant in a world in which sexual relations have entered the stage of “let’s put it all on the table, dear.”

Reviews of Cusk's other books:
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Paperback, 311 pgs, Pub Aug 10th 2017 by JM Originals, ISBN13: 9781473660540, Lit Awards: Man Booker Prize Shortlist (2017), Dylan Thomas Prize Nominee for Longlist (2018), Women's Prize for Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2018), RSL Ondaatje Prize Nominee for Shortlist (2018)

In hindsight, the resonance of this dark and fierce debut on the stage of world literature should have been the warning bell that #MeToo movement was about to extract its penalty. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017, this novel’s strengths are in describing a natural world that seems almost untouched in its primitiveness, a world that one would swear were long gone.

A family of father, daughter, and son build their own dwelling on land passed on by a long-dead wife and mother. A wealthy landowner nearby likewise claims the land but recognizes the family from when the mother lived there. A convoluted agreement is worked out whereby the wealthy man deeds the land to the family in return for fealty.

The story is old as Moses but were for modern day appliances and tools, we’d not know the exploitation continues so blatantly today. Mozley brilliantly describes the bump and thrum of life on a working woodlot which yields most of the family’s needs for game and heat. The father, a very large man, earned a living early on by bare-knuckle fighting for cash. He was cool-minded and strong; he always won.

The daughter and son were seen as strange among the townspeople who knew of them. They were self-sufficient and proud, and did not attend any local school, though they were of an age to do so. The boy was slight in frame and lovely in countenance; the girl became a tall and strapping and arresting-looking woman. It is said the son took after the mother. We learn that the daughter takes after the father.

This was a very good choice for the international fiction prize, evoking as it does the history of the Celtic Britons, the earliest known settlers of the region in 4th Century B.C. The epigraph itself, a quote by Ted Hughes, speaks of Elmet as "the last independent Celtic kingdom in England...a sanctuary for refugees from the law." The story itself is rich and complete, the bullying nature of wealthy landowners charted throughout the ages. Insular and suspicious townsfolk make an appearance, as does a singular woman who lives alone in the hills.

A fight scene near the end of the book registers viscerally. The momentum and brutality derived from that moment electrifies our experience through the end, the final scenes almost changing the nature of the novel despite the foreshadowing given earlier. This may be why Mozley added the italicized chapters earlier on--to warn us of great changes to come. Perhaps ideally these wouldn't be necessary, but then the sense of time and distance and distress of the narration wouldn't be as clear.

There are so many intriguing aspects of this novel one is tempted to cut Mozley some slack if some fulsome descriptions might be considered extraneous to the thrust of the action. The character of Vivien, for instance, may have been developed somewhat beyond her remit. Considering the vast talent arrayed for the award last year, it is difficult to expect a debut would have prevailed against such talented entries as Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which did end up taking home the prize. But this was, without a doubt, a very strong debut indeed.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

In the Fold by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 262 pgs, Pub Oct 1st 2005 by Little Brown and Company (first published September 2005), ISBN13: 9780316058278, Lit Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2005)

This book, like so many of those by Cusk, interrogates the nature of ‘artist’ and ‘art,’ but also the nature of marriage and personal fulfillment, of love and desire. Unlike any of Cusk’s novels, the main character is a man, which complicates the interpretation for so many who draw a straight line from narrator to author. This work, which might seem a puff piece by anyone else, is difficult, thorny, a nervous system of connections that raises questions about how we should live.

What does the title mean? Does it mean in the arms [fold] of the family, in the fold of female genitalia as in birth, or in the fold of a letter, opened, to discover something dreadful has come to pass? For each of these suggestions there is some support in the book.

Our narrator, Michael, and Adam Hanbury lived next door to one another at school. Adam’s sister Caris invites Michael to her eighteenth birthday party at the family pile—a farm overlooking the sea—called Egypt. The family is large and constantly in motion. Someone is always saying or doing something to provoke another.

Michael is accepted and admired by the family, drawing him in. The moment catches in his imagination as though in a photograph, illuminating the potential in family relationships. He is experiencing a stumble in his own marriage some years later, but when he once again visits the Hanburys in Egypt, he does not feel the love.

I love watching Cusk navigate the male imagination. She is restrained: she tries not to step outside the lines into “that definitely wouldn’t be so” territory. But perhaps even more fascinating is her look at the female imagination. Michael’s wife Rebecca recently had a child. She is struggling with her ‘art’…she is a painter who paints very little indeed. She instead takes a job in an art gallery and seems to find her niche. She is confident, smooth, successful. Except that she is unhappy with her faithful husband, new child, lovely home, fulfilling job.

Throughout the novel are seeded mentions of gruesome murders of one spouse by another that happened in history. The houses of Rebecca’s parents are a factor in how Michael perceived them…he has an allergic reaction to their moral ambivalence: not only did they have no interest in being virtuous, “they concerned themselves with domineering feats of patronage and ostentatious magnanimity.”

Rebecca is trying to escape her parents’ life but is their daughter, after all. She wanted a child, but that child Hamish would become Michael’s responsibility
“like the pets people buy their tender, clamorous children; children who then harden, as though the giving, the giving in, were proof in itself that in order to survive and succeed in the world, you must be more callous and changeable than those who were so easily talked into accessing to your desires.”
This novel, as a novel, has some difficulties, but Cusk’s perceptions and humor are intriguing enough to carry us over any rough spots. In fact, it may be her very perceptions that make this ride bumpy. We spend lots of time reconciling her vision of who these people are and almost miss the car crash of a marriage breakup unfolding in slow motion before our eyes.

So what is this book about? It involves what people do to one another, even while professing love. We have to make sure to “ask questions” of our partners, of ourselves, to get to the heart of our feelings. The book is about family, how damaging it can be while appearing to provide succor, and how difficult, if not impossible, to break free. Always, the self-examination, the questions we ask ourselves, are key to some degree of autonomy.

For those familiar with the story, I wonder why we only got a glimpse of Beverly, the one figure in the book who appeared autonomous.
“Beverly was the healthiest human I had ever laid eyes on. She was twenty-five or so, and she looked as I imagined people were meant to look. Her broad brown body was distinctly female and yet there was nothing slender or shiny about her. She was like a piece of oak. Her hair was light matte brown and curly and her eyes were bright, friendly lozenges of green. I didn’t think she was married, I imagined her associating with a menagerie of animals, like a girl in a children’s story.”
We cannot call Beverly a goddess, unless she is one type of goddess while the youthful Caris is another. Beverly might be the goddess of fertility while Caris is the goddess of desire. The older Caris has become disillusioned and vengeful, quite like Greek goddesses of old, and the shifting nature of the Hanbury family has something tragic in its outlines.

The dogs that terrorize Vivian in her own home might be the multi-headed dog Cerebus, who guarded the Gates of Hell to keep the dead [Vivian] from leaving. In the end, she kills the dogs and escapes.

This novel feels more a tragedy than other Cusk novels I have read. Those other novels, by some lightness of attitude, made us feel a kind of camaraderie with the human condition. We do not want camaraderie with these people. We do not want to be them. It is more a warning Cusk is giving us. Question everything.

Reviews of Cusk's other books:
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother by Rachel Cusk

Paperback, 224 pgs, Pub Mar 1st 2003 by St. Martins Press-3pl (first published 2002), ISBN13: 9780312311308

This work was initially published in 2002, and fifteen years later we learn that it had a rocky reception. Womenkind may indeed be split into two irreconcilable halves because I have no idea what could incense people about this book: I laughed through it, and when I wasn’t laughing, I was marking her passages to relate later, so clearly did they capture the ambiguity we feel between love and distress at being so loved and/or needed ourselves.

This memoir of the circumstance surrounding the conception, birth, and first years of a child’s life is really a tight series of essays. Cusk manages to capture moments that illuminate the despair mothers can feel when they discover the true disorientation that comes with bringing the baby home—feelings like cotton wool has supplanted one’s brain and that one cannot find the wherewithal to make a plan—the whole exhaustion of it.

No one really prepared her for the sense of having one’s life hijacked—she admits she’d jumped right over references to children or infants in the writing of those she’d enjoyed before. The children part wasn’t relevant and didn’t matter—a little like me when as a teen I skipped the foreign names in any book I read. I would note the first letter of the name and gauge the length of the word by blurring my eyes. I could distinguish individuals by something distinctive the author had shared about them, so why even bother to learn to pronounce their names?

Cusk’s own story is different than everyone else’s: her daughter “sucks well,” sucking for hours at a time, giving her a short break before starting up again. The nurses she consulted all considered this to be good news, generously praising mother and child for being able to move onto the next phase, bottle-feeding, whenever she had spare hours to sterilize the equipment and make up the formula—or pump and freeze her own milk to put in sterilized bottles.

With motherhood, Cusk has discovered her presence “has accrued a material value, as if I had been fitted with a taxi meter.” There was never any slack, no “lubricant empty hours” in which nothing is planned or paid for. When interviewing babysitters, sometimes she might find herself giving overly-detailed instructions about every aspect of her daughter’s care, as though the caregiver could in some way understand “what it was like to be me.”

A very funny but telling paragraph or two is given over to describing a scene she happened upon one night on a television documentary in which a pampered American housewife admits she would prefer her child get less attention from her South American nanny rather than have the nanny care for the American children as though they were her own: “I’m like, you know, put her down, she knows how to sit in the hot tub!” A hot tub. A baby.

Towards the end of this memoir is a chapter entitled “Don’t Forget to Scream!” about the family’s move to a university town. Mother appears to miss her London life in the way she had missed it when she had the baby. The baby is a toddler now, and when invited to the local play group housed in a church hall, she is manhandled by the other children. Mother could see that successful mothering ventures contained a measure of military organization:
“…conscription to the world of orthodox parenthood demands all the self-abnegation, the surrender to conformity, the relish for the institutional, that the term implies…Here the restaurants had high chairs and changing facilities, the buses wide doors and recesses for prams.”
The chaos of living among those outside the …hood cannot be found here in the privileged, patriarchal enclave of the university town where everyone asks, “What does your husband do?”

Cusk is out of step, gloriously, and can tell us what we look like, those of us who haven’t stepped back long enough to think about it. The mothers in the university town are older than she is—far older, some grey-haired and pregnant-bellied. This societal change she notes casually but is an observation that should make us sit up and think. Practically everything she says makes me think, which is why I think any one of these chapters would work well as essays—a short sharp strike across the noggin.

The language she employs to describe a year of sleeplessness recalls young men on the front lines in war.
“The muddled nights began to attain an insomniac clarity. My insides grew gritty, my nerves sharp…I no longer slept in the intervals, but merely rested silently like some legendary figure, itinerant, doughty and far from home. The reservoir of sleep I had accumulated through my life had run dry. I was living off air and adrenalin. Mercury ran through my veins."

What can I say? She makes me laugh, she makes me think. Her writing electrifies me. Reading Cusk novels and memoirs back to back is pure indulgence. Below please find reviews of Cusk's other work in order:

In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Jackrabbit Smile & Edge of Dark Water by Joe Lansdale

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub March 27th 2018 by Mulholland Books, ISBN13: 9780316311588, Series: Hap and Leonard #12

The Hal & Leonard series is full up with crazy male bravado and vulnerability, pressing hard on our moral, sexual, and racial understanding until we squeeze out a guffaw and decide to fall for these guys sitting on our faces. These two take on challenges others would let fall into a fast-flowing river, and now that the series has become a regular gig on Sundance Channel as an Original Series, starring America’s own brilliant, tough-seeming, and comedic Michael Kenneth Williams and British star James Purefoy, hopefully Joe Lansdale will get more airtime .

Lansdale barrels ahead riding roughshod over anyone who hasn’t updated their hard drive with new information about the lives of gays, trans, and people of color. No more excuses will be made for those faltering on the road to total acceptance of these folks living in America. Lansdale doesn’t make any bones about it, just assumes the bad guys are the unreformed who ‘haven’t quite gotten there yet.’ There is damage being done daily to the psyches of ordinary folk with extraordinary skills who have to put up with crippling prejudice.

This fast-paced addition to the series addresses white supremacy head on: WHITE IS RIGHT is emblazoned on the T-shirt of a young man seeking the investigative services of Hap & Leonard, not knowing Leonard can be rattlesnake mean to those who disparage him for his color...or any old thing he might take it in his mind to do. This is the book #12 in the series so Lansdale doesn’t spend much time explaining the two main characters. The chapters are short and speedy, racing to a gruesome dĂ©nouement that features a hog farm, some mean twins, and a jackrabbit smile.

This is the kind of book one can read in a day, relaxedly, since it is mainly composed of dialogue and a few hard whacks of a rifle butt. But it will put you in a good mood since the bad guys get theirs and the good guys, well, they may not ever get paid, but think of what they’re doing for the planet! I ❤️ Joe Lansdale.

Hardcover, 292 pgs, Pub Mar 27th 2012 by Mulholland Books, ISBN13: 9780316188432

Is there a more prolific writer of Westerns than Joe Lansdale? Endlessly inventive, Lansdale has both a series featuring Hap & Leonard, and a slew of standalones in which he shares the way even good people can get themselves in a bad way in a world with evil in it.

In this standalone novel, published in 2012 by Mulholland Books, 16-year-old Sue Ellen is narrating. She lives in a small southern town and has two friends her age: a white gay boy named Terry who is reluctant to let anyone know his inclinations, and Jinx, a black girl friend since childhood. Lansdale is so natural in his use of skin color that he can teach us things we never knew we needed to know.

Sue Ellen, Terry, and Jinx discover the town’s beauty, May Lynn, killed and submerged in the river, tied by the ankle with wire attached to a sewing machine. None of the grown men in the town seem to want to pursue the matter, but merely shove the body in a casket and cover up the evidence. We get a bad feeling, but mostly we sense any sixteen-year-olds ought to pack up & leave that place, so when the kids decide that’s what they’re going to do, we’re onboard.

They’re floating, by the way, on a wooden raft, and along the way they pick up more than one who decides to go with them. Seems like practically everyone who knows their plans—to go to Hollywood—wants to go with them, if not the whole way, at least far enough to get out of town. There’s a posse of folks, more than one, following behind, looking for them, so it gets hectic and dangerous and the hangers-on fall off, one by one.

Lansdale always seems to get the tone right, however, and when there is a chance for evil to thrive he makes us question whether or not that’s the way we want things to play out. After all this is kind of a crime novel, kind of a police procedural, kind of a mystery, but it’s got heart…more heart than we’ve come to expect of the genre. I like the way people think and make choices that seem fair and right and good.

Lansdale himself is really kind of a standalone guy. As far as I know there isn’t anyone else doing this kind of crossover writing with lessons on race, human nature, and on right and wrong. It is never sappy, often funny, and always deeply thoughtful. He is not religious: “I got misery enough in my life without adding religion to it,” says a character in one of his later novels. The language he uses is country, and can be extremely descriptive, if not entirely proper: “Expectations is a little like fat birds—it’s better to kill them in case they flew away” or “certain feelings rose to the surface like dead carp.”

The Hap & Leonard series has been made into a TV series starring Michael Kenneth Williams and James Purefoy. It is a rich stew of southern storytelling, darkened by reality but leavened with laughter. I don’t think I need to state how difficult it is to create new characters, new language, and new situations every year (sometimes more than once a year? is it possible?) and hit the bell each time. I’m a fan.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub May 26th 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN13: 9780374184032

One has to ask oneself why we read memoirs of travels. Wouldn’t it be better to just take off on our own, not knowing of other people’s troubles or joys in case we are fearful or disappointed? But Rachel Cusk reminds us why we read other people’s tales: she is observant, and terribly funny. Tales of her trips make ours resonant with laughter, too. How did we first manage when confronted with grocery stores without anything we would consider food in them?

Oh yes, training one’s palate until we recognize what is so special about food, in this case, in Italy. The simplicity of it. We meet the brusque-seeming, loud and insistent butcher, the tennis-playing hotelier who smokes incessantly, and the “four Englishwomen [on the train] their own laps full of purchases from Florence boutiques…returning to their rental villa in the hills….They seem to have outlived the world of men, of marriage and motherhood and children. They laugh hilariously at anything any one of them says. They are a third sex, these happy materialists.”

One of the best afternoon’s amusements is listening to Cusk detail the paintings she comes upon in her travels; endless pictures of Madonna and any number of versions of the Child. She gives the backstory of Raphael, his adoration of the work of Michelangelo, and his death at the early age of thirty-seven. The observations she makes about the “congested alleyway toward the Piazza della Signoria, where a riot of of cafĂ© terraces and horse-drawn tourist carriages and pavement hawkers selling African jewelry is underway.” How much has this scene changed in millennia of Italian history? Or has it always been just like this, where people
“push and shove rudely, trying to get what they want…I have seen a fifteenth-century painting of the Piazza della Signoria, where children play and the burghers of Florence stroll and chat in its spacious spaces, while the monk Savonarola is burned at the stake in the background outside the Palazzo Vecchio. Here and there peasants carry bundles of twigs, to put on the fire.”
So few are the antiquities that people from the world over wait in long, snaking lines, “an overgrown humanity trying to fit into the narrow, beautiful past, like a person in corpulent middle age trying to squeeze in to a slender garment from their youth.” It takes one’s breath away, the clarity with which Cusk writes, reminding us of what we may have once observed but could not convey.

The Catholics have a large presence in Italy, the Basilica di San Francesco lending credence to “the giantism of Catholic architecture…which harmonize unexpectedly with the iconography of late capitalism…the airport terminal…and the shopping mall.” Cusk takes the stuffing out of adults who use “Christianity as a tool, a moralizing weapon they had fashioned in their own subconscious…the strange, dark chasm of repression and subjectivity…judgment lay down there…flowing like a black river.” Do I need to say Catholic school growing up in England was a less than satisfactory experience?

This is the book I would give a friend to explain why I love the work of Cusk so. How can one not appreciate the quiet way she inserts her family into an unfamiliar world and does not spare herself nor anyone else the sharpness of her observations. The family moves over a period of months, down the Italian coast, just south of Naples.

The last day of their southern journey, the ‘bottom’ of their vacation, they are denied a trip to Capri by boatman strike. Instead they boat to Positano where father, mother, and two children paid fifteen Euros each to lie on the beach. Beside them were young American newlyweds in white bathers, ‘groomed as gods” but timid and self-conscious. Cusk wishes she had a Raphael to paint them for her, and I do, too.

Cusk has a warmth in her writing for the magnificent, the ‘theatrical and sincere,’ the elaborate, the splendid Italians, and she tells us her children will always remember Italy as a place they want to live. Her husband gets no notice, and if we did not know she travelled in a family of four, we would not know he was there at all. This book was published in 2009, and three short years later her marriage lay in ruins. We see the beginning of that split here, methinks.

One feels quite as though one had done this journey, too, traveling along with sunburnt girls in the back of a car with the windows wide. The final week in a faded blue tent strike us as real as real can be—even with the call from the publisher saying the rights to publish her last book in South Korea allowed them the possibility of a glorious, comfortable night in a seaside resort with gold bathroom fixtures but an unused swimming pool and a beautifully-appointed restaurant in which no one ate.

‘Rewarding’ hardly seems adequate praise. I savor her work like Peruginas. Her writing is for me like one of those moments she describes whose effects will last forever…visually stunning, thought-provoking, delicious to remember. The summer feels lived.

Below please find reviews of Cusk's other works, in order:

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Bradshaw Variations: A Novel by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 240 pgs, Pub March 30th 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2009), ISBN13: 9780374100810

Moving backward through Cusk’s oeuvre I come to this novel featuring flawed suburbanites—couples whom Cusk, in the end, treats gingerly. There is no need to be cruel since we all suffer from some sort of imaginative lapse, whether or not be can recognize our own among those described here. One character is a woman often silent and dressed in black, standing watching, judging, and sometimes relating the action to readers. But she can wear blinkers in her own household, not recognizing how untethered and unsure her husband has become in his role, until he abandons part of it.

This is another of Cusk’s book that begins with a challenge, in this case, the question What is art? Readers will look forward to how this book relates to that question, repeated time and again throughout the narrative, just about the time the reader feels far removed from that promising interrogative start. And the final scene is another of Cusk’s remarkable, unforgettable bloodbaths which recall theatrical roots that seem to underpin much of Cusk’s work.

Three couples, the husbands all brothers, hold special delights for those tracing the effects a father might have on children and grandchildren, though the father, now an old man, is mostly just a memory.
“[Leo] has never heard his father raise his voice. There has been no need to raise it: it is in the leveling persistence that the violence is accomplished…it goes over everything and mechanically levels it, like a tank. It is benign, ruthless, unvarying…His voice has talked in Leo’s head about the world and its ways since he can remember.”
The father barely shows in person until that fateful last scene. We realize then that any failures or successes of the now-grown sons probably have little to do with the father after all this time. The range of the boys’ personalities prompt sniggers of recognition among those who have grown up with siblings, so used are we to the way the confident, the envious, and the spoilt interact.

We also get three different views of marriage, four, if you count the parents, still married after all these years. Howard and Claudia seem so unlikely until near the end when we see what holds them together. Leo and Susie limp along together, Leo relying on Susie to interface the world for him, despite her frequent tipping over into barely managing. Tonie has her own job, dresses in black, and generally stands aloof while her husband Thomas struggles with his own identity and sense of self-worth. Each brother is a little jealous of the others, except perhaps Howard, the entrepreneur. He sees the world for what it is and works with it.

This is a wonderful novel filled to overflowing with characterizations of people, of events, of passions, of depressions. We are not necessarily led anywhere—that is, it is essentially plotless, like a life is plotless. But it makes us recognize actions which will lead to an unhappy outcome, barring any intervention. It can be a mirror or a map, depending on where the reader finds him- or herself. It is beautifully deft and concise, the prose that brings us the struggles, joys, failures, and ambitions of the Bradshaws. And it features a dog and a piano and an adagio that tick-tocks like a clock. Time is relevant.

Below please find reviews of Cusk's other works, in order:

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Medea (Oberon Classics) by Rachel Cusk, Euripides

Kindle Edition, 96 pages, Pub Sept 30th 2015 by Oberon Books, ASIN: B015ZT58N4

Rachel Cusk was invited by London’s Almeida Theatre to write a new version of Euripides’s Medea. The new play is both thoroughly modern and bears the stamp of personality of this talented novelist and memoirist. That she fiercely loves her children, two boys, is apparent. She followed Euripides’s formula, creating a storyline which places the blame differently.

If you remember the story, Medea kills her sons when her unfaithful husband marries the young & well-tended daughter of Creon. Considering how difficult it would be for anyone to contemplate such an act, and considering Cusk was severely castigated by readers for her memoir about motherhood, A Life’s Work, Cusk manages to make her work, like Euripides's work, many things at the same time: strong, agonized, righteous, and tragic.

Commentaries on the original Greek play had different interpretations of Medea herself. One made her out to be a young lover who changed her view of her husband when she’d had children. The things that she liked about her husband when he was a young man annoy her when she’s older. When she learned he was unfaithful and was looking for something new, she poisoned his new wife and killed the husband and sons out of pique and revenge.

A more nuanced interpretation, suggests Medea pursued her ambitious middle-aged husband Jason hotly, helping him to secure the fleece of the Golden Ram and thus develop a reputation as one of the most daring heroes of Hellas. But Medea was an foreigner and when she returned to Jason's home with him, her combative and fiery alien nature grated on the conservative natives . She grew tiresome for Jason and he sought another, younger, wealthier alliance that would increase his standing. Then Medea sought revenge.

Cusk’s Medea has less backstory, though from the voices of the chorus (a group of mothers meeting while their kids playdate, and who cross paths picking up their children at the school gates), we learn that Medea is not liked. She’s smart, but no one really likes her writing, if they read it at all. She’s opinionated, which doesn’t work if one wants a marriage to run smoothly ("she asked for it"). She’s a “snooty cow” because she doesn’t always recognize the women in different settings, her mind on other things. Cusk slips in a Holocaust joke: “She gone very Belsen,” referring to how Medea has stopped eating. “It’s called the divorce diet.”

Meanwhile, Medea turns to the audience and makes her case:
“A bad thing has happened to me
You’re scared that if I name it, it might happen to you, too.
…Sleep, woman, sleep.
You won’t even feel it when he creeps to your side
and slits your throat.
What’s that you say? What about love?
Yes, you’re loving souls aren’t you?
You love the whole world,
You love your little hearts out.
It’s all right, you can hate me.
Go ahead, feel free.
It’s so much easier than hating yourselves.
Medea has other voices speaking with her, ones more intimate: the Tutor and the Nurse and the Cleaner. The Cleaner is clear-eyed and clear-spoken and shares what she learned from her mother: the best revenge is to be happy. Pretend if you don’t feel it. Women are good at pretending.

The eventual playing out of the story is unique yet retains the pain of the original. We hear Creon slyly telling Medea “You know, you look completely different when you smile” while she is in the midst of her life’s most curdling trial. “There’s the sourness again. The problem with you is you don’t know how to love…an unloving woman is a freak.”

The audience undoubtedly feels stress levels rising as the characters have interleaved speaking parts—talking over one another. If you’ve ever been witness to a disagreement, this is one…after another…after another. Any uncomfortableness we feel when Jason and Medea are speaking is relieved by Nurse, Tutor, and Cleaner pointing to the absurdities of male expectations. But the best joke goes to Aegeus, who will become Medea’s second husband.

Aegeus, speaking to a Medea distraught about the money Jason expects from the marriage says he understands Jason is about to get his needs “assuaged” by a wealthy heiress. This word comes as a surprise in the midst of conversation and surely would elicit a burst of laughter in any theatre. The word joke may only work in English, but its excessive formality and sound-similarity to “massage” is a perfect bomb.

Cusk’s originality in portraying the oldest stories of all—love and infidelity—continues to entrance. I am even more impressed now with her fictional trilogy Outline than I was before I read whatever I could of her work. This author is special. In a book talk at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., Cusk says a criterion to use when creating is that a work should be “useful.” Exactly. That’s why her work, her honesty, her humor, her willingness ‘to go there’ is so exciting. What she does keeps us alive.

Below please find reviews of Cusk's other works, in order:

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation