Saturday, December 28, 2013

Up Yours! A vaudeville of a mystery, featuring Ted and Liv, the anti-Nick and Nora

Up Yours! by Howard Rosenberg introduces Ted and Liv, the anti-Nick and Nora

This book is a hoot, a vaudeville of a mystery featuring Ted and Liv, the anti-Nick and Nora.  They live in Friendly Lakes, a refuge away from the mayhem of Los Angeles, and the LA Times, where Ted was the bard of obituary writers, until one day the floss king, his Uncle Robert, died leaving him his fortune. At 55, Ted decided to put his cell phone in a filing cabinet for the slow life.  Yet there he is, at his proctologist, his Calvins' at his ankles, asked yet once more about his retirement plan, when Private Eye pops out.  His doctor, Brownie, immediately asks him to look into the matter of Sam Fine, a pharmacist, who may have a touch of Alzheimer’s and be writing bad prescriptions.  

When Fine, a non-swimmer, is found drowned in Friendly Lake, for not the first time in this novel, Ted realizes he’s an amateur out of his depth. Yet he goes forward, sharing strategy, pop-tarts and frozen burritos, with Liv, his downscale cook and “tomato.” There is also their cat George, who reduced an allergic suspect to a comatose state without even trying. 

By trial and error, self-correcting with thoughts of Chandler, Ted and Liv find their way and it’s not pretty. Their picture postcard community Friendly Lake is full of ambiguous characters. There’s the widow, Twinkle, a babe, thirty years younger than her husband, who seems almost too broken up. There’s Fine’s assistant, Betty, who knows some dirty business and tied with that revelation are the secrets of Curly the local newspaper dilettante, Vann the hot macho actor, and even the beautiful and reform-minded Mayor Molly. With their requisite and hapless cop, Tiles, they exceed everyone’s expectations, including those of the murderer. And when they unravel the mystery, justice is not served up by the law, but the great goddess Nemesis.

Especially fun in this madcap mystery, are Ted’s old obits, which appear before chapters and set the tone:

 “Her acclaimed memoir, ‘The B-Word and Me,’ recounted the 14 years she studied and interacted with brown bears in the northwestern United States. ‘“ It can be dangerous work,’ she wrote, “but I’ve never had a close call, not one bite, not one scratch. I have respect for these large and awesome creatures; I have no fear.’ She meant it. “Yet her allergy to another B-word— a less than large, less than awesome creature— proved fatal to famed naturalist Sarah Schnuster-Schnitsky at age 60. “On Friday, while caring for honeysuckle in her garden, she was fatally stung by a bee...”

I look forward to the next mystery in this series by Howard Rosenberg, Pulitzer Prize winner and, in fact, retiree from the LA Times.

SW




Friday, December 27, 2013

FINGERLESS is about a surprisingly normal transgender protagonist

FINGERLESS, a novel by Ian Donnell Arbuckle (Pelekinesis Press, January 12). is unlike many stories about transgender protagonists in that Lita’s life, in the small town in which she grew up, is surprisingly normal. Some distance from Spokane, where family values do count, along with civic virtues, Lita has a steady job transcribing medical reports. In fact, when she takes vacation time to officially come out as a female, her boss and co-workers are mostly supportive. At the worst, there's raised eyebrows that first week she’s back but people don’t want to be obvious. Lita’s highschool sweetheart, Shasta, comes to lunch with their 3-year old daughter, Jilly, and she could not be more supportive. Still, Lita’s introduced as Aunt Lita, as per their agreement to give her a normal life. Most amazing is that Lita’s father, who’s missing some fingers, obviously loves and respects her no matter what her gender! 

Lita’s world is in tumult over this normalcy, which is in contrast to the reality she’s facing as a transgender person—the emotional swings of the drugs, guilt and pain over letting down Shasta and Lita’s religious mother. But Lita is an admirable character. Like her father, whose job is to deal with emergencies, Lita steps up to crisis and there a few in this book. When Jilly goes missing in a snow storm, she looks funtil the girl is found, and takes Shasta’s anger at Lita’s acting like a father but not being one. Shasta and Lita had been a couple and though she knows she’s always been female in her identity, Jilly changes everything.

Curiously, when a guy who always had a crush on Lita, declares he came out, she rebuffs him that she’s a “lesbian” into women.  Yet being a transgender woman dooms her relationship with Shasta. And, as much as Lita identifies with women, she deals with a melt-down with Jilly on a car trip, as a man would, taking soiled clothes off, hosing her down, diapering and putting her back in her seat. It is a very funny trip, as he reverts to male mode, dealing with his wild toddler. At the same time, he’s traveling to Spokane, where his brother had been badly burned in a gang incident. Later, when a black-out caused by snowstorms imperils her town, she again steps up to help. Though upset her drugs won’t make it because of the interrupted mail, she lives without heat and light in her own place, but works with his father.

Despite emergencies and the pull of family, Lita is compelled to continue her painful course of changing her body to fit her sexual identity. And in that conundrum, lies the novel’s emotional core. Her mother has a hard time accepting that Lita cannot be a father and husband. And this reality is painful to Lita, who loves Shasta and Jilly. His pain is also because he’s in process, the change in gender is not a reality. In the surprising resolution of Lita’s conflict, initiated by her mother, you believe Lita will finally have an identity she can live with, inside and out. And, I wanted that for this person. A satisfying read.

SW

Sunday, December 15, 2013

ANVIL OF GOD is a desperately intense tale of the Dark Ages, where people lived by the law of the sword

J.Boyce Gleason’s ANVIL OF GOD, Book One of the Carolingian Chronicles, is a desperately intense tale of the Dark Ages, where people lived by the law of the sword

I grew up on Elizabeth Captive Princess but the genre of historical fiction, with the exception of Wolf Hall, has often seemed stilted to me in terms of emotional logic. ANVIL OF GOD is a happy discovery. J.Boyce Gleason creates a world of warring Christians and Pagans with great emotional sense. The motivations of the characters and the beliefs that shape their actions, are completely convincing and emotionally very intense. Boyce’s pagan world derives from Norse mythology and the rituals described are visceral, more about the aesthetics of sensual human interaction than supernatural, but he leaves that question open.  

The story is based on the history of Charles “the Hammer” Martel, Mayor of the Palace to the Merovingian kings. The scant facts leave a lot of room for invention.  Martel was a warlord, who saved Christianity by fighting the Saracens, who had spread from North Africa to France. He used his sword, and an alliance with the Church, to fight his way through France and Germany, which he unified. Charles married a Bavarian princess, whose uncle was a pagan Bavaria. He unified Europe under his authority, but died before he could take the throne. With his death, the three sons warred over territory and succession. The two eldest fought pagan rebels in the East, including their sister, who defied her father to marry a rebel lord.  The person held responsible for this was Sunnichild, Martel’s wife.   

Boyce fills-in the blanks. ANVIL OF GOD begins in 741 with Sunnichild, the closet pagan, waiting for the return of her lord. Sunni loves Charles but is shrewd enough to eavesdrop on his conversation with his Church advisor, Boniface, and Carloman, his eldest son. It’s a matter of insurance. Though Sunni managed affairs of state while her husband was away and could predict his stance on issues, she needs to know what was on the table. At stake is the future of her son Gripho, an arrogant impulsive boy of 14.  Sunni’s concern is practical. Carloman, unlike his father who used the Church, is so devout he’s controlled by Boniface.

When Sunni learns Charles is dying, she prepares herself for what must come. When Charles announces his succession plan to divide the kingdom among his three sons, with the choice middle territory for Gripho, neither Carloman and Pippin, the adult sons, nor the lords Charles asks for loyalty, are happy. After the funeral, Sunni leaves for the safety of Laon in France.  Though Charles didn’t persecute pagans, she fears Carloman will not be so lenient. Her secret weapon is Charles’ 18 year old daughter, Hiltrude.  Trained as a warrior and equal to men, Trudi, seeks out Sunni in despair over her father’s intention to marry her off for political advantage. Sunni helps her by teaching her lore to prepare for a ritual of female sexual power. Later, Trudi flees the palace to avoid a forced marriage.

The women in ANVIL OF GOD are strong behind the scenes forces, with chapters alternating between Trudi’s journey and the frenzied fighting, as Carloman lays siege to the castle, where Sunni found refuge, Pippin seeks escape for her and Gripho and a cessation of Carloman’s slaughter, and Gripho sabotages himself, piling up ill-considered deeds. The pace is intense and desperate and the outcome uncertain. In this epic tale, the characters of each brother, and how their beliefs influence them, have huge consequences for themselves and the people of their father’s empire.  And, in the end, Trudi, grows larger than life. Like a Norse Goddess, she fights a horrendous battle worthy of the legendary Charles, The Hammer.  I cannot wait to pick up this epic in Volume Two of the Carolingian Chronicles. Sample chapters at: 
AnvilofGod.com 



SW

Monday, November 18, 2013

F*ck Art (Let's Dance): An Artist’s Memoir by Sally Eckhoff (Water Street Press)
Sally Echoff spent ten years, beginning in1977, living on East10th street in New York's Alphabet City, when this area was a no-man’s land; a mecca for drugs and crime, as well as storefront galleries and punk bands. In F*ck Art (Let’s Dance), she describes her life as an East Village artist, a young woman working to make meaningful art, pay her rent, and be noticed in the “scene,” a creative vortex of talent and desire. With humor and compassion, F*ck Art pays homage to the NewYorkers (locals, natives and transplants), who joined in this ecstatic moment in time.  For along with the improbable rise in prices for East Village art in the go-go 80’s, came inflation of real estate—and the end of the era.

F*ck Art (Let’s Dance) began with Echoff's upbringing in a Long Island suburb. Her mother, whose family owned a paint manufacturing business, channeled her talents into homemaking.  Her father, a formal Naval Officer, was an inventor and owner of a paint company. Young Sally got his great affection for pigments and solvents and admired how her grandmother put paint on canvas. And, as the family was always painting their house, she came to enjoy brushwork. There was also the influence of her family’s dress-up trips to New York art museums sweetened with treats. Add nature and her family’s horses, and Sally’s was an idyllic childhood, except for the fact that her parents, Christian Scientists, were unpopular. Families thought them different, though for Sally just assumed that her parents weren't so concerned about injury and illness, Though, as an adult, she considered that her native optimism might be a reflection of her parents’ beliefs. If faith was all you had to combat disease, you had to have a lot of it.

More interested in riding horses, Sally was awakened to art as a way of seeing life, a kind of filter for reality, by Gypsy Bill, her high school art teacher. She was also awakened to sex with Pablo, her first love. Together they also explored pool hopping and skinny dipping, until they got caught.  But Sally was always an equal in adventure, not Pablo’s reflector. They were twin mirrors of curiosity and ambition. That sense of equality with men characterized Eckhoff’s memoir. Not so coincidentally, she related that t was her mother, who had pointed out a Time Magazine article on CBGB’s. Sally got the idea she wanted her to go to New York, 

In 1977, young women artists living on their own were still uncommon. More typical were the “pretty girl” muses of talented boyfriends, who camouflaged their own artistic ambitions for that more acceptable role. Sally only stayed with Pablo, when she first came to New York, until she found an apartment. And they were again equals in pursuit of interesting art. She was delighted, when he shows her hidden paintings by Robert Cobescott and H.C.Westermann, great painters outside the usual canon of moderb art.  

Eventually, weeks of Village Voice ads led to the apartment on E.10th street with its severely slanted floors and the bathtub in the kitchen. Sally decided it was perfect and forked over the money she made from the sale of her beloved horse. Part of her enthusiasm was the cheap rent, though she had to pay an expensive “fixture fee” to get it. Also ignored was the serious danger from violent criminals, not to mention junkies and bums, who resided across the street in Thompkin’s Square Park. But while Echoff had reason to be scared, She relished her freedom and space to make art. But first she had to survive in this alien urban life.

In F*ck Art (Let’s Dance) Sally Eckhoff figured she was off to a great start, despite the fact she had no marketable skills. With the divine grace of “the fool” in the Tarot deck, she landed a job as a receptionist in a Soho antique gallery, where she once greeted a young Robert Maplethorpe with “Shit” painted on his jacket. Then, survival in hand, she oriented herself to her new neighborhood, cheap pierogis at Polish restaurants and the “Hole in the Wall,” bar,run by a family that also lived there. Best for survival in Sally’s skill set was her ability to make instant friends, such as the Rasta street musician, who sold Jamaican tapes, the Hells Angel, who ruled 9th street, and others, who increased her comfort level.

Some of these encounters worked less well, like the elderly sculptor at the Met, who asked her assistance with his wheelchair, and "copped a feel" when she bent over. A more felicitous chance meeting led to her friendship with Chip, a musician/artist with whom Sally later formed a band that played at CBGB’s. Sally met McNulty, an electrician in the filmmaking industry, after an opening on a Soho street. Then there Ed, an uptown lawyer with downtown tastes. Both were her escorts in evenings of openings and art parties. There was also handsome smooth-talking Terence, the first man to break her heart.  

Yet Sally's social life did not pay the rent. About the time the antiques place figured out she had but one decent outfit, she realized she needed a better job. A friend suggested typesetting and she learned on the job, perfecting her skills on the all night “lobster shift.” Because typesetting paid decently and jobs were plentiful, Echoff was finally able to buy art supplies, clothes, and pursue her real calling.  A painting was chosen by a gallery in Soho, she attended Alice Neel's art lecture, and received a scholarship to Skowhegan, the famous artists’ retreat, where meals are tactfully left at the studio door. There she took up with talented Brian of the perfectly planed face and Sharmelle, a beautiful blonde woman painter from Chicago. The three painted in shacks in pastures, away from aggressive cows, went carousing on the town and enjoyed the luxuries of time and quiet.   

When Sally returned to the grind of drumming up jobs and resumed her life of painting, parties and clubs, she's part of the action but also a spectator. What makes the memoir surprising is her wry perspective on the tumultuous “scene.” She got into tight spandex pants to play at CBGB, but acknowledged her limited musical skills and the fact women weren’t expected to be able to play. She goes to Max’s Kansas City and saw it had become irrelevant without Warhol’s crowd. Sally is also smart enough to sidestep Warhol’s infamous factory, but talks to the genuinely charming Basquiat, before his drug addiction. 

A major coup, was when she was accepted for a studio at PS 122, the school converted to free art space. She talked of how when a studio mate objected to Keith Haring's painting with gay sex, it was taken down. But she spends far more time on the dancer artist, angular Irene. A great strength of this book is that there’s little time spent on famous people. They are part of the moving backdrop. The  real action is where the lives of people she cared about unfold. Irene's mystical sensibility is haunting, along with the fact the reader will not have heard of her—that Irene had seen to that.      

How Sally Echoff transformed herself into a serious artist is the journey of  F*ck Art so her process is central to this memoir. She well described the skull deranging task of portraying how light came through her window, as snow was just about to fall. The purity she sought in her art, seemed to aim at transcendent states of nature and feeling, And her painting became a refuge and inspiration. While she painted the city out her window, she would, lose herself in the work. There was also the less ethereal struggle between  personal vision and trends, usually based on a dealer or curator’s themes. It was enormously frustrating to figure out how to paint what was considered salable or evaluate what work might fit outside criteria. For instance, the theme of the landmark Times Square Show was drugs and junkies. When her paintings didn't  fit, Echoff made a satirical box that did get into the show, a fact celebrated at her workplace, the Village Voice, where she was a type setter and later a reviewer.

Sally’s search for spiritual transcendence took forms other than art. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote about the search for transcendence leading to its “substitute” anesthesia. Similarly, Sally’s East Village art world began to resemble Baudelaire’s in Paris. Clubs and parties on Ecstasy weren’t far off from opium dens and orgies in the country. Lives can fatally unravel, when the need for transcendence takes this direction.  Though this happened around her, Sally’s honesty saved her. One wild weekend in Long Island, she realizes she had become what she most despised. While amid the exquisite beauty of nature, she was stoned out of her mind. Nature originally called her to what was magical in life. No artificial state was necessary to the experience.
  
As Sally came to her senses, the Tompkins’ Square Park riots of the late 80’s erupted. The East Village of poverty, eccentricity, cheap rent and ethnic food, musicians and artists, was transformed by real estate interests. When her tenement valued at millions, refused services, as bloated water bugs floated by, Sally packed up and left. She and New York were undergoing yet another transformation.

Like the Dylan Thomas poem, Sally Eckhoff’s artist life led her to fall in a gutter, looking up at the stars. But she also saw her work sell out to a museum in Florida. Though Sally, always honest, says most of it was later returned, she experienced her art as a hot commodity. After she traded New York for Philadelphia, she seemed to have become of all things, a mature artist. We have her to thank for this wise and entertaining social history. F*ck Art (Let's Dance) is personal in focus, specific to time and place and universal in its quest.

S.W.



Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Lowlands by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf)

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Lowlands, Gauri, Subhash, and Udayan, form a triangle of love, politics and circumstance in an India unfamiliar to many westerners. It’s part of Lahiri's art that you warm to her fondness for a familiar place and people, an idyll of domesticity and the comfort of tradition. Of course it’s a set-up for the wrenching unthinkable change to come.  But she’s such pleasant company you are willing to go where she takes you. Her words describing a huge crowd, a bird singing, a young woman in a sari or rooftop view, are perfect miniatures of a moment in flight to the next. Yet, what seem inconsequential, passing, adds up. They are the substance of a huge generational shift that begins with two brothers growing up in the 1960’s in the outskirts of an Indian city. 

Cautious Subhash, the older by 15 months, shares a small room with Udayan, his unpredictable brother. Though he's dutiful, wanting to pleases his parents, he finds it unfair that no matter how he works to achieve their ideal, they favor his rebellious brother. Still the brothers are each other's best friend with a common curiosity and ingeniousness (which once inspired them to build a wireless radio), though Udayan leads with Subhash following. So it was Udayan, who came up with the idea of breaking into an exclusive Country Club. But when they were caught, Subhash took the beating. Udayan never forgot the policeman who ignored his pleading to stop.

The boys' father, a government clerk, saved for decades to buy the house near the near the Lowlands, nature's respite from the city. The wild marsh, where the boys play, is also a meeting place of rich and poor that changes with India's culture. The father built his house with the expectation that his sons will live there with their families. Their first hurdle was to excel in their studies, so when they get the highest grades in their exams for college, he proudly felt they were on their way. Udayan chose Chemistry, Subhash physics and their lives diverged in more significant ways. While Subhash was dedicated to his books, Udayan attended meetings of student groups and became enthralled with Karl Marx.

Then Udayan made secret trips at night, referred to friends his brother didn't  know and lectured from political tracts. Subhash feared Udayan, with his high emotion, and rash personality, could easily be led astray. And he did become entranced by a charismatic political movement, rejecting government, property, arranged marriage, and, ultimately, the careful life their father had made to keep them safe and comfortable.

Soon only Subhash slept at night and did chores. He took his degree in chemistry but like many of his generation, discovered he was over-educated, prepared for nonexistent jobs. Inexplicably,Udayan was happy with a low-level job teaching mathematics. When Subhash learned of police round-ups of students, he feared for Udayan but knew he could do nothing. Subhash then decided he would take a scholarship for a Master's in Marine Biology in Massachusetts. He would get his degree and return. 

Though his adjustment to New England weather, strange food and a profound sense of aloneness was difficult, he persisted. Subhash received a few letters from his brother about his job and new girlfriend, but not a word of politics. Subhash wondered if he’d given them up, though Udayan cautioned him to burn the correspondence. Subhash had his American life; he fell in love with a married woman, and went on to a doctorate with little thought of return. He missed nothing but the once close friendship with his brother. When he learned of Udayan's marriage, he wistfully wondered about the girl who had taken his place in his brother's affections..  

Suddenly, he learned his brother was dead and his parents wanted him home. With his Americanized eyes, Subhash became painfully aware of the rigid provincialism of his parents. Gauri, his brother’s widow, lived as an outcast in his parents' house. His mother was unforgiving of this girl she didn’t pick and blamed her for his brother’s ruination. The fact she was pregnant didn't soften his parents' attitude. They placed her in a small room away from them. And when Subhash imagined her grief and decided to share his own, his mother couldn't imagine he spoke with her--while he could not imagine his parents’ cruelty. He was further enraged, when he learned of their plan to raised the baby and send Gauri to her relatives. 

“She only cares for books,” his mother said dismissively. Yet Subhash realized it was her scholarly nature, along with her natural beauty, that attracted Uduayan. Subhash offered to marry her, take her to America, where they could raise the child and she could pursue her studies. Subhash had both a wish to honor his brother and an attraction to Gauri. Despite how upset his  parent were, that both sons married the unacceptable girl, Subhash fled with his bride. Escape meant not just leaving India, but the horrific secret of Udayan's end. 

That secret and Gauri’s trauma are sublimated in the American model of a normal family life. They created a fiction that was both refuge and  curse. And in The Lowlands, emotional  inheritance is a serious factor in destiny. Motherhood did prove difficult for Gauri, because of her inclination to solitary scholarship. And with her grief she was not able to love the brother, who resembled the one she had lost. Subhash could not take his brother’s place but was in the hopeless position of trying. 

The most satisfying relationship in this novel is Subhash's with Bela, his daughter. He is a natural parent, who shares his love of the ocean and knowledge of undersea life. The exchanges between father and daughter were honest, affectionate and funny. But poor Subhash always fears the day she will learn he's not her biological father. Tension accelerated, when Subhash and Bela go to India and his mother points to a picture of Udayan and told  Bella it was her father. .

When they returned, they discover Gauri had fled to California and a position as a philosophy instructor. With a brief note to Subhash, none for Bela, and no contact information,she walked out on her 14 year old daughter. This rejection haunted Bela, who distanced herself from Subhash, dropped friends,so neglected schoolwork that they suggested a psychologist.

Eventually, she improved and grew up to resembles Subhash in her love of nature and Udayan in her active physical pursuits. She studied agriculture, but rejected her parents' academic paths. Instead, Bela became an itinerant farmer, who worked on farms, in natural foods co-ops, and lived with groups in squats. Her situations were always temporary.  Subhash is never sure when she will visit. She just showed up. 

Then she came for a longer time, after he retired,and he learned Bela was pregnant. Subhash made her the offer to return home and, at the same time, he found a woman who cared for him. When he thought of marrying, he tracked down Gauri. She didn't care about his request to sell their house in India, but the idea of a divorce disturbed her. Gauri, who had been happy in her life without emotional ties, wanted to see Subhash and Bella. She decided to bring the papers to him.

What happened when she goes to the house and Subhash is not there, the climactic meeting with Bela, is what must happen. The secrets that had been kept Bella's whole life are revealed. You get the sense a kind of wholeness will  eventually occur for this family of bridged cultures. That the new generation will make their own traditions, in the America that became their own. 

This family saga was intensely moving, not least because of the delicate way Lahiri paints shades of emotion. She traces their sources; how they are linked to weather, landscapes, the creatures of ocean, air, and food. Subtlely, she reveals the mystery of how love can occur in real life, apart from the expectations of people. She also demonstrates how emotion, time, and physical events weave the texture we recognize as human life. Like The Lowlands, which are trashed and then land-filled, you see that nothing is untouched by this process. Choice can mean, whether to stay broken or find completeness like the life of the ocean or the food of the fields. 

SW 








Saturday, October 12, 2013

Disguise and revelation in Caroline Beasley-Baker's poetry collection For LACK of DIAMOND YEARS

I read through these short poems a couple times and slyly, through the layers of her forms in this varied collection, I began to get meanings. Form is something Beasley-Baker enjoys and her free-verse employs counting forms Haiku and the Elfchen, minimalist versions of John Cage’s mesostic forms, as well as poems based on colors and that borrow from traditional American songs. (According to Wikopedia an Elfchen is “an 11 word poem in a specific format” and a mesostic poem is “such that a vertical phrase intersects lines of horizontal text.”) 

Many of these poems have a weight of the past and its tension with a present that challenges or threatens to erase it. There are sweet children’s songs that jar with adult perceptions. In one poem a bride is left at the altar and she cries, when the groom refers to 27 cans of peaches—feeling the loss of “errant desire.”  Leonora Carrington was a singular surrealist painter and poet and Beasley is also a painter. There is something about the feel of her poems, the play of disguise and revelation, that remind me of Carrington’s imagery in her paintings. Both have a subtext of cosmic loss.  

Here are two poems from LACK OF DIAMONDS that resonated with me. But the collection is so rich and varied, others might equally appeal at another time.

dead/yet still our neurons fire back hello
i don’t know a lot about death —
not a promising start for a poem. i do know
when my father died his pendulum clock
did stop on the odd minute — twelve/twenty-seven
— and i found meaning and comfort in that ceasing
moment — in that . . . what?
                    the breath
between living and my imagining

of . . . what? and — as the years pass — i do know my sympathy
for who he was accumulates —
i consider his pain as i grow into him year by year
                    . . . i reinvent his promise
— mend all that was broken.



repair/the prodigal self
do you remember?
he’s just left you — no last minute reprieve.
there you are in Sausalito —
in the middle of the restaurant parking lot —
sitting on your suitcase ­— crying:

a 20-year-old’s respectable
                    sturm und drang . . .

          what could he be thinking?

i reach through my memory and touch you —
blond girl in your short/short dress ­— those ex-pensive shoes . . .
          look at us now.

here we are —
busy codifying all of that heartbreak/joy —
skirting order and the drift of words.
i know you can see — his way-too-blue eyes/
that cleft chin can’t disguise his feckless nature.

have you even one thing of worth in common?

you almost know you can’t re-make his mind —
be gracious —
          his gut (if not his head) is clear:

return the ring/let him go . . .
wear that yellow dress you have tucked away.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

We Are Water by Wally Lamb, a touching novel that will leave few unmoved, November, Harper Collins

Wally Lamb is according to his publisher, "The #1 New York Times bestselling master whose works have touched millions." I did not read "She's Come Undone" or any of his others. WE ARE WATER (November, Harper Collins) is my first encounter with Lamb's work. The novel kept reminding me of Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." In that classic, the story was also told in alternating chapters so you get a range of  perspectives. There are also psychological mysteries--awful secrets--at the heart of that book, which propel family members to their fate. Both authors have lyrical writing styles. Though Lamb hasn't the cadences of the south, he has the same poetry of nature with man and against him.

Lamb's water metaphors, throughout WE ARE WATER, begin with an unpredictable flood, which parallels the all encompassing doom in "As I Lay Dying." Both books draw you into their emotional vortex. But while Faulkner can be painful to read, Lamb's novel is pleasurable. Incredible compassion for his characters softens their suffering for us and his voice has a gentle redemptive beauty. Redemption also figures in the Faulkner novel, though its haunted with despair, bone dry and unrelenting. But when redemption finally arrives, there's a purity to that classic that's incomparable.

Sin and redemption are subliminal themes in WE ARE WATER. On the surface, it's about the problems of the Oh family, a not completely atypical 21st century American family. Father Orion, a psychologist, is of Italian and Chinese descent. His wife, Annie, is Irish, and their children have the Irish temper, the Italian soulfulness, and the hidden pain of both parents. Submerged are Orion's rejection by his Chinese father and Annie's rage from a lifetime of secrets, which erupts in cataclysmic art. It's Annie, who sets the plot in motion when she decides to marry her lover, Viveca, the art dealer who made her career. Their impending gay wedding churns up emotion that can no longer be contained. The security of home and family that anchored all is agitated in the finale of the 27 year marriage. The adult children; Ariane, whose life was dictated by a strong social conscience, Andrew, a born again Christian in the military, and Marissa, the beauty, hanging onto the reef of her acting career, are fragile flotsam swamped by the parental tidal wave.

The family's crisis and search for understanding is framed within a historical mystery that involves their town in the 1960's and the shack in back of their comfortable rock-hewn Connecticut home. The mystery of the shack concerns what happened to two African American brothers, one also an outsider artist, and possible retribution. This past, and its connection to the Oh family home, sharply intersects with the future of the family in the conclusion of this novel.

In WE ARE WATER the "sins" of the parents are responsible for the problems of the children. But we also come to understand the roots of the parents' suffering. Like a modern morality play, blame is shared and shouldered as the characters are forced to redefine themselves. I like how water also becomes a metaphor for the plight of human beings--the disasters, natural and human, that we cannot control.  The novel shows how our "life" evolves from how we live it; whether consciously or not. Nemesis rarely happens in real life as simple cause and effect, why this novel rings true. The characters have free will but there is also destiny. When the two intersect, the new path is life's mystery. This is the sense of wonder in WE ARE WATER.

Lamb has enormous feeling for his flawed people and their courage, especially Orion whose life's mission is to make sense of it. The novel is far less compassionate about true evil, when it surfaces in the guise of a Klansman and a pedophile. The understanding is still there but harsher on the characters' weaknesses. I am unsure if that's a fault. It is consistent with the morality play aspect of the novel.

My problem with WE ARE WATER is that I felt the historical frame didn't mesh with the family drama. While I was drawn into the emotions of fully realized dimensional characters, the link to the historical story was elusive. It bobbed around but seemed unclear. This is a small flaw in the success of WE ARE WATER. It's a touching novel that will leave few unmoved and probably earn Lamb more followers.

SW

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

FLAMETHROWER takes on art, privilege, love, and revolution with a courage as rare in literature as in life

FLAMETHROWER by Rachel Kushner (Simon & Schuster)

The heroine of Rachel Kushner’s FLAMETHROWER is not unlike the young woman in Joan Didion’s Play it Like It Lays. Both are truth seekers, curious about how to find their way in capricious professional worlds, are unflinching observers with spot-on perceptions, and have more on their minds than men. But while Didion's heroine has a similar integrity, she hasn't the sense of risk and physical courage that makes Reno an epic heroine.

When Reno, an art school grad from Nevada, sells her cherished Valero motorcycle for money to go to New York, she’s pushing destiny. She's ridden motorcycles since 14, is comfortable with speed and the desolate highway but has risked the familiar for a Mott Street walk up, in a city where she's completely alone. Her response is to film the neighborhood so she's got a comfort zone in alien New York.

Then one night in a Chelsea Bar she allows herself to be picked up by denizens of the art world. Quietly playing the naive young blonde, Reno takes in the self-protective non-sequieturs of art world chit-chat.The people are intriguing, and though their exhanges are off putting, Reno sifts what’s authentic from fabricated imagery, and, when she can safely, she inserts her real thoughts. Ronnie, an artist, who uses found headlines for social commentary, suspects Reno's got more going on than her role as reflector. But even her name, given to her that night, is where she comes from. 

Raised poor in the trailer park back roads of the West, Reno becomes an insider’s outsider, an observer of the moneyed art world, who retreats into her uncomfortable role as young beauty. But as Ronnie notes, her sweet face has a suspect gap in her front teeth. His friend and rival, Sandro, becomes aware of Reno, when he sees her going to her job at a film stock house. He pursues her and she becomes (and plays) the lovely novice to Sandro’s successful older artist. Still Reno's constantly studying. While she appreciates the perfectly constructed metal boxes that made Sandro a famous minimalist artist, she also sees connection between the mechanistic production of his art and the role he rejects—an heir to the Valero fortune. Her distancing only recedes once she believes he understands her and appreciates her developing art. Inspired by the earthworks artist, Robert Smithson, she makes patterns in snow and documents them but wants to deepen her tracks. Reno, who grew up respecting risk, believes it's intrinsic to all serious art.

FLAMETHROWER contrasts Reno's journey from novice to player with the evolution of the Valero family fortune. Young Valero develops an early fascination with a German motorcycle and his experiences during WWII, including the crazy asbestos dressed "flamethrowers" in his division, cement both his desire to make his own inventions and a ruthlessness at taking what he wants, which becomes his way of doing business. To understand the origins of this aristocratic family and its fate, you travel through Fascism and the role of industrialists in post war Italy, to the radical Italy of the early 1970's.

There's a class war in Italy between the major industrialists, who control the economy, and the working poor, the Red Brigades, and the student movement. In a parallel in New York, Reno is at an intersection of working class origins and privilege. Though she moves into Sandro’s loft and his art scene, she keeps her job and her friendship with Giddle, a one-time aspiring Warhol actress, who loses herself in the role and reality of being a greasy spoon waitress. Giddle’s a kind of warning of what could happen to Reno if she loses her moral compass.

Instead, Reno gives herself a challenge. She will enter the racing competition at the Nevada Salt Flats and document her tracks on the earth—her passage. Ronnie helps her obtain a state of the art Valero motorcycle from Sandro and she rides to Reno. But her quest is so dangerous she’s warned by a truck driver, “You won’t look so good in a body bag.”

Hands icy, so numb it's hard to steer, Reno’s a smarter Steve McQueen, calculating the consequences of speed. But when she crashes in FLAMETHROWER, not just on the course but later in her constructed life, she takes time to find the next step. Reno rises from the wreckage of the Salt Flats, yet when she goes with Sandro to the lavish Valero family estate, she's vanquished. The cruel matriarch treats her as another disposable American girlfriend. And when she realizes Sandro may really be playing her, she flees without money and his protection to Rome’s radical underground. The odyssey through Italy’s revolutionary movement, is a study of the uprising's roots in ruthless business practices, and the dire consequences to Italy's industrialists. Reno also observes the hypocrisy of radicals, who film a pregnant homeless girl. They offer her their beds, instead of one of her own.

Reno's life of privilege is gone but she's an outsider to the radicals, the blonde with the American passport. Then she's asked to help the one individual she respects, who provided her with escape. It's a great risk for a dubious reward, and Reno knows she’s being used, but the decision is completely her own. 

As a commentator on America's elite art world--successful artists and the patrons and galleries that pursue them; Italian aristocrats and revolutionaries--Reno’s got uncommon sense. She gets the sophisticated sensibility of the rich, their duplicity and pain. She also understands the desperation of the poor, using what and who are available. Her reality is a prism of perspectives with compassion for suffering (she’s had her own share). Yet, like any epic hero, Reno stands apart. She’s proven herself to her chief critic, herself. And her status in the art world has also shifted. Ronnie talks of her looking different but better. And she’s able to laugh, thinking of her previous blindspot--the girl she was before.

“Where are the serious women writers?” Hiding in plain sight, I think. Novels of similar ambition by male writers, seem to more easily receive accolades of “genius.” While I’m not fond of that word, this is an enormously significant novel. It signals a moment in time, when notions of women's worth, were turned inside out, along with class, the purpose of art, and the role of love in women's lives. Reno's courage is as rare in literature as in life. 

SW

Monday, July 29, 2013

Tomorrowland, a fantastic yet familiar world, where shiny promises of fulfillment fall flat, age disappoints and love is not exactly the answer

Tomorrowland by Joseph Bates (Curbside Splendor/Chicago, September 10th)

The highly inventive stories in this debut collection address a fantastic yet familiar world, where shiny promises of fulfillment fall flat, age disappoints and love is not exactly the answer. Yet these bizarre stories are funny in the best humanist tradition. Imagine if Tolstoy set The Death of Ivan Ilyich in The Twilight Zone and you have an idea of Tomorrowland.

The narrator of the title story, who inspects an eerie Eisenhower era “home of the future”, is old enough to remember the kitsch of this future world, once thought to be so much better than today, and appreciate the irony of the contrast with his actual life--what time steals and what remains. Mirrorverse is a hilarious tale of a guy who wants desperately to make it with his ex-wife and what happens when he’s given a device that turns his TV into a parallel universe.

Yankees Burn Atlanta, Boardwalk Elvis, and Future Me, all explore the Tomorrowland of their protagonists’ youth and their landing places today. The Yankees Burn Atlanta is about a middle aged man in crisis, who fulfills a lifelong dream to become a professional baseball player. And Boardwalk Elvis is the reverse, a middle-aged man who’s been living his fantasy every day, finally experiences reality he’s avoided. Future Me is the most cosmic story, since it’s told by a man who meets his future selves, one a derelict, and joins with them to avoid the waste of his life. Infinity takes on new meaning as the permutations of his selves move back in time.

Bearing A Cross and Guilt City are in a way parables about the madness of extremes in ideals--religious dogma and a man’s crusade to pay for his wrongs. There’s the lackadaisical town which elects an out of control religious zealot and the guy who takes on the physical weight of a guilty conscience, after he turns his backyard into a rent-free city. 
Both are aspects of the same craziness and while it’s satirical, like Sinclair’s It Can’t Happen Here, it’s also completely frightening.


Joseph Bates is not just looking to be clever.  He’s looking at the space in consciousness, where a person experiences their own inanity and self-pity disappears (if not fear and desperation). His characters have awe for life's mystery, minus the shortcomings of humans and their often less than intelligent design. 

SW

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a new kind of classic

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani (Penguin)

A pleasure of  The Yonahlosee Riding Camp for Girls is the incredibly astute and almost painfully ironic perceptions of the fifteen-year-old narrator, Thea Altwell. She's entering exile, at the beginning of the novel, as her father drives her from the moist wilds of Florida to the dry mountains of North Carolina. Thea mourns her home and dreads the unknown Camp. Emotionally, she's a mess, filled with guilt and shame. All she knows is her childhood with her happy family in their beautiful home is gone and it’s her fault. She's being punished, her mother's angry and disappointed that Thea's not a "right" girl. She doesn’t believe her father will leave her, until he does. Then she's profoundly alone in a cabin with strange girls.

Thea has never before left her insular world in rural Florida. She and her beloved twin brother, Sam, were even tutored at home by their father. While both fear nothing in the natural world, Sam is reticent about people and Thea finds herself cautious. Yonahlossee is alien terrain. She studies the habits, values, and attitudes of the southern society girls, who make up the camp. Thea also assesses the counselors, including the handsome Headmaster and his wife, who knows Thea's mother and more about Thea than she likes. Self-conscious, Thea keeps to herself and finds solace in riding, though she mourns her pony at home. 

Expecting to leave at camp's end, Thea is furious, when she learns her father paid for the school year. She's  also contemptuous about Yonahlossee's teaching them to be "ladies" over offering math and science. Desperately missing her family with no word from her twin, Thea becomes very ill. Unexpectedly, Sissie, a popular girl, visits her in the infirmary. This is surprised to learn she considers herself a friend. Through Sissie's regard, Thea's sense of self-worth rises. Sissie likes Thea's wit and that as a Floridian, she doesn't fit the southern status norms.  

Thea realizes that she likes Yonahlossee, as her peers come to respect her for being smart in her studies and skilled at riding. One of the top three riders, she gets assigned a specific horse. Her mare is highly intelligent and nervous, qualities Thea grows to appreciate for how they can be used as assets in  performance. And as she discovers her horse, she also learns about her own qualities that can be positive or negative.

Interwoven with the story of Thea adapting to Yonahlosee, is the one about the tragedy she struggles to understand. The other girls heard she had “trouble with a boy.” They can't guess at the intensity of her sexual initiation through her cousin and she avoids talk. But they note her odd disinterest in a dance and a handsome boy. For Thea passion means loss--her brother's silence and her cousin, who may be hurt. But when Sissie wants her to cover for her meeting a boy, Thea agrees. She knows discovery means expulsion. If she can help Sissie avoid shame, all the better. 

Though a wounded soul, Thea comes to like being "one of the girls," enjoying the crisp uniforms and quaint traditions. But she is also aware that the Depression has entered Yonahlossee's bubble. Girls once rich disappear. Thea’s father is a doctor and they have “citrus” money but her cousin's family is impoverished, as are the Appalachian servant girls. Thea blames her mother for having kept her so sheltered from reality.. 

When the Headmaster’s wife goes on a fundraising trip and he’s left with his three young daughters,Thea offers to teach them to ride. She tells herself she wants to be close to a family but knows she really wants to be close to the Headmaster. The guy is married with little kids but an impassioned Thea elevates her crush to a seductive kiss. I found this hard to believe, considering her integrity. How did her shame at letting her passions get the best of her in the past, inspire her to do it again?  I also didn't believe this Headmaster would allow himself to be seduced but then that's me. 

Thea Altwalt’s erotic drive makes her a kind of reverse Scarlett O’Hara, who allowed her “head to rule her heart.” Considering Thea's era, when a girl could be “ruined” at 15, perhaps she felt the Headmaster was a safe grown-up? Maybe she wanted to rebel against  the negative judgments of her family at her doing what felt natural?  She does evolve enough to understand what's positive about her passion.

Despite these questions, I was glad her self-torture is relieved by the Headmaster, who says whatever happened to land her at the Camp was a “a chain of events,” not her evil nature. In this southern Gothic, Faulknerian theme, you want Thea to triumph over the whole mess laid on her. Yet the overheated romance didn't quite mesh for me with the very fine narrative of a girl’s coming of age. Kind of like National Velvet becomes Lolita, though this might just be me. A positive comparison is with Bonjour Triestess, the French classic of an older man helping a young girl gain a new sense of herself as a woman. 

The author does pull this off. But what hooked me was wanting to find out what this brave, smart, observant girl with her own mind had done that was so awful. Was it really about her having sex? You discover, as she does, that it’s less about her passions, the "ferocity" of her nature, then the way society censors free-thinking women. Thea and her  twin had lived like Adam and Eve in a Florida Eden before the Snake. Sam cannot forgive her his intense feelings of separation. Yet in the horrific aftermath, the parents kept him, not Thea.  

She's blamed for her desiring self, essential for competitive riding, yet not in her social world. Thea takes what she wants, whether its to secretly try the jewelry of a cabin mate or, at the most forbidden, the handsome Headmaster. Being "willful" is bad for girls but Thea doesn't actually care. By the end of The Yonnalaseee Riding Camp, she's grown into herself. What she wants is at her risk and she understands consequences. Thea also knows she can bear them better than Sissie. When she's finally caught, Thea finds a way to substitute herself. It's also a way home to see her brother. Society's verdicts mean little, when she has learned to be her own conscience. 

TheYonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a new kind of classic. Thea's coming of age fits our era with an eye for how we got here. It avoids nostalgia by looking at what's eternal in a girl's "coming of Age" story. The Beast that Beauty "tames" is actually her own animal nature. And in the classic The Little Mermaid, she is the one who pulls her prince out of the water--though she suffers for that. Yonahlossee is a National Velvet for our time, where the subtext of horses is more obviously sex. .  

SW

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Is Gatsby the Great American Novel or just a pretender? The timeless Flapper and Endless Love


Is GATSBY the Great American Novel or just a pretender?

“Whether it’s something that happened twenty years ago or only yesterday, I must start out with an emotion—one that’s close to me and that I can understand.”  F.Scott Fitzgerald

      This quote is key to Fitzgerald, a source of strength and criticism as a weakness-- especially in his rivalry with Hemingway.  I felt revisiting this novel was like reading a diary about a lost love— nostalgic, bitter-sweet, and touching.  A huge success in its era, GATSBY was later reviled as trivial, politically bankrupt , a celebration of rich people and their decadent life style.  Today of course, it’s assigned reading for schools, supposedly about class and money in America. But for that, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy may be the better novel. So why is this novel a classic?

       Let’s begin with Nick, the haunted narrator, struggling to come to terms with events he can’t quite understand. GATSBY is a novel haunted by the inexplicable and that theme repeats, like a novel designed as a symphony or an opera.  Gatsby is a man who lives in inexplicable luxury and no one knows the source of his wealth, whether it’s bootlegging or mysterious “drugstores.”  Though he doesn’t drink and is self-contained, he inexplicably throws huge wild parties.  Daisy and Tom are inexplicably married, though Tom’s a bulky man with rough talk and coarse excesses and Daisy’s a slight girl of delicate beauty and mannered nuance.  These three are the major chords, the triangle for reverberating themes of love and loss.  

        Opposing themes are Nick, the honest bond salesman and his relationship with Jordan, a beautiful tennis pro. Daisy’s childhood friend, Jordan is a tough athletic woman who likes controlling her game, on the court and off.  She’s “nobody’s fool” to Daisy’s dreamy attitudes.  The wary attraction-repulsion Nick feels for Jordan is a counterweight to Gatsby’s complete obsession with Daisy. Nicksomehow admires and fears for Gatsby’s complete abandonment. Yet, under the spell of Gatsby’s belief, he lets him use his house to meet Daisy for tea. As Gatsby cherishes his love as the highest value, Nick cherishes honesty.  So, he lends his integrity to the couple, but is uneasy.
  
      Nick’s aware of  Hazel, Tom’s “woman in New York..” Though it’s not "right" for married Daisy to renew her affair with Gatsby, Nick has seen how Tom carelessly flaunts his affair. He rationalizes there is something okay about Daisy meeting Gatsby, since but for the war they might have married.  Nick, the supposed realist, ignores the truth that Daisy didn’t wait for Gatsby but married a solid man of her class— in physical bulk and money. She even has a little girl,  with her neck and face shape.  

         Like Chekhov’s The Sea Gull or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, you get the fluttery movement of love in conflict with reality and fear there will be a price. GATSBY provides a crescendo of emotion, before the horrific, somehow inevitable fall. The brilliance of GATSBY isn't the plot but that like Nick, you become a believer in Gatsby’s dream.  That dream is echoed in the minor theme of Hazel, who lives out her fantasy that Tome will leave his wife and they will go away together.
  
         As Gatsby and Daisy are suited in temperament, Mabel and Tom possess animal “vitality.” Their enjoyment of money and sexual pleasure is low life, repellent to Nick, when he’s trapped in their “love nest” of a flat.  He much prefers Gatsby’s ethereal fantasies, to this dark underside of "love." In fact, Nick, who denies attachment, finds Gatsby’s yearnings, both foolish and admirable. In the beginning, he sees Gatsby on his lawn gazing at a green light on a dock. Later, he learns that's Daisy’s dock. He’s shocked, when he comes to realize that Gatsby’s aspirations; the handsome mansion, on the edge of nouveau riche, like his crafted appearance and manners, were all acquired to win Daisy’s love.  Even his parties were a hope she would wander in. 

        Searching for Gatsby's identity, Nick finds that for five years he has dedicated himself to this passion.  Meanwhile, Nick, who prides himself on his honesty, finds reason to reject Jordan for her “easy lies.” He can’t help disparaging her self-assurance. Spoiled, he thinks, easily bored, because Jordan, like him, is a loner without moorings.  A kind of society nomad, she goes from tournaments to parties, to other people’s houses. Always at her leisure, she’s never quite engaged. So in the end, when she tells him she is actually engaged to be married, he's in disbelief, without acknowledging his own failure to risk love.

           What Nick the realist does get, more than Gatsby, is that Daisy and Jordan, are “rich girls,” meaning they think much of themselves. Jordan’s proud independence is as much a pose as Daisy’s particular delicacy. When Gatsby asks Nick to invite Daisy (his cousin)  for tea, the event is the pinnacle of all Gatsby's  striving to deserve her—his castle in the air.  Nick surmises this, when he meets Gatsby’s “associate,” a man of dubious criminal activities. But this matters little to Nick, who wants Gatsby to win, when he grasps the depth of Gatsby’s love; the drive for him to acquire the appearance of aristocracy, money and taste. That   Gatsby’s high romance ends tragically for him, as does Mable’s, isn't a surprise. But this plot is not news.

           In the end, Nick wonders how such an ambitious talented man could end up with no real friend but himself?  How did his great unselfish love lead to his downfall?  When Nick attributes it to class and money, he's only partially accurate. He calls Tom and Daisy “careless” in the way of rich people that can do damage and retreat into their wealth and that's true. But it's not Fitzgerald's point. The larger theme he plays is the pathos in the inevitable shortcomings of human existence.  

            In a lifetime, a man shoots for the heavens, yet must eventually come to earth.  And love as transcendence, though hardly adequate, is something. Nick finally admits that at the end. When Jordan says she had cared for him, as a man who prided himself on honesty, he denies himself. Says he never did.
But he comes to know his own self-delusion and what it has cost him. 

             Fitzgerald's written a great American novel, though I don't think it's THE definitive one about our culture. His friend John  Dos Passos was a chronicler of class in his USA Trilogy. Fitzgerald wrote about the timeless flapper and endless love.

S.W.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Heart of Darkness in Ann Patchett's STATE OF WONDER



I like Ann Patchett's novels. I loved the Magician’s Assistant and enjoyed Bel Canto. What hooks me is the grand adventure and the incredible consciousness of her heroines. These women are hyper aware of their worlds and themselves. They have irony and real humor, along with a grit that is surprising and transformative. Marina Singh in State of Wonder is just such a creation.

Honest and skeptical by nature and her training as a scientist, Marina also possesses compassion for the flaws of human kind. Painfully aware of her own, she’s glad to have repetitive work in the lab of a pharmaceutical company and the friendship of her colleague, Anders. Like her, he’s a native Minnesotan, who enjoys his safe comfortable home. Why she’s surprised he agrees, when Mr. Fox, the CEO, asks him to go to the Amazon to find the elusive Dr. Swenson.  
.    
The only risk in Marina’s careful life is her affair with Mr.Fox, married and old enough to be her lost father. But her sense of  security is shattered by the unthinkable, Anders' death of a fever. In her perfunctory note, Dr. Swenson gaves no details and seemed annoyed by his visit. Wasn't she the person taking care of him, wonders Marina. Once Swenson’s student, she recalls the woman’s formidable work ethic and her intolerance of human failings. Even so, Marina finds her letter about Anders appalling. And the famous scientist, who's been developing a fertility drug for years, is completely unreachable. Mr. Fox does not even  know the location of her lab, though he needs to know about progress on the drug and to bring Swenson home. --Anders' original mission.

When Ander’s wife asks Marina to find out what happened, she considers going and is surprised that Mr. Fox is in agreement. But she packs with grave misgivings about her competency. While Swenson's student, she made one horrible mistake, which led to her changing fields. She doubts that even if Dr. Swenson doesn't recall her, she can fulfill Mr. Fox’s purposes. .

Throughout the grueling journey, Marina is haunted by a reoccurring childhood nightmare, inspired by an antimalarial drug. Also disorienting is the loss of her luggage, when she lands in Manaus. She never finds it but does eventually locate the young hippie couple, who live in Dr. Swenson’s apartment--the only people who know the location of her lab. But their job is to keep people away from Dr. Swenson.

So Marina’s quest becomes a waiting game. She hates the hot sticky rainy depressing town but becomes friends with the young woman. One night she insists on dressing Marina for the opera and there, in Dr. Swenson’s box, she finally meets the scientist. She also meets Easter, the uncanny deaf mute boy who serves Dr. Swenson. When Marina explains that her mission is for Anders' wife, Swenson tells her to go home. 

Instead, Marina gets into a pontoon to journey with Swenson into primeval darkness. Like Conrad’s narrator, her Kurtz takes her  into a living nightmare. And, while Easter steers the boat down the river, Marina learns of ways she can die; bugs that carry malaria, lethal snakes that unfurl themselves from trees, as well as the painted “former” cannibals they come upon, after an unexpected turn.. 

When they finally arrive among the bonfires of the native Lakoshi, this suitcase also disappears and the next morning, over her protests, the Lakoshi women remove her clothes. They put on a loose shift on her, a kind of maternity dress, and braid her hair. Marina has no choice but to “go native,” though her work in the lab provides the sanity of familiar routine. And her relationship with the brilliant Dr. Swenson begins to parallel  Conrad’s hero, when he finally gets to know Kurtz-- before he learns his madness.  

Marina adapts to a life of primal danger and at Dr. Swenson's urging, uses her early surgical training to help the Lakoshi. She comes to realize that Anders could easily have died of a fever and the Lakoshi might have removed his body. But such logic is not the proof she needs. Yet for Mr. Fox, the promise of the fertility drug is inescapably real. Aged Lakoshi women are pregnant. What’s a dream for some western women, the ability to get pregnant beyond forty, is daily life for the Lakoshi, who raise children in multigenerational families. There is also the mysterious source of fertility, a tree that also can produce a cure for malaria.

But Dr.Swenson, now a very pregnant septuagenarian, has resources to develop one drug.  A malaria drug for poor countries would not be Mr.Fox’s choice. And when he comes to find Marina, he is happy to see all around him evidence of fertility. He believes he has a miracle drug and happily leaves the jungle, expecting Marina to later follow.. But Marina must make a choice.She's earned the respect of her mentor, who sees her as her heir. And she's earned the reverence of the Lakoshi, who accept her into their tribal life. And there's the odd attraction of the tree...

Yet Marina also has a huge pull to go home. She's met her darkness and found a life beyond imaginings. . But, unexpectedly, there is nagging news and a heightened intuition of a fearful mission she must complete--for Anders. The result is truly wonderful. Unlike Conrad, Patchett’s horror brings redemption.

SW