George R.R. Martin’s world captures readers
Readers, be forewarned. If you willingly enter the fanciful world of George R. R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire: A Game of Thrones, you may find yourself “enchanted” like some hapless knight in Arthurian legend. In other words, you will spend a significant part of your life, wandering enthralled through dark forests, frozen wastes and burning deserts — all inhabited by extraordinary creatures, mad kings and a host of doomed and deeply flawed characters, all vying for your attention. Can you afford the investment of time?
Dropping into the continent of Westros with its unstable weather, exotic flora and fauna and the medieval splendor of a land wrecked by seven warring kingdoms resembles being transported to an alien planet. Indeed, that may be the case since it quickly becomes obvious that Westros is not our Earth. Strange flowers bloom in well-tended gardens; terrifying creatures called direwolves and shadow cats move in the dark forest; and a mythical races, called the white-walkers and the “Others,” live in the vast darkness beyond a 600-foot-high wall of ice to the north.
Yet, this strange land has familiar qualities. The peasants spend considerable time in taverns, drinking beer and consuming soups that contain commonplace vegetables like cabbage, okra, pumpkin and tomatoes. The nobility drink rare wines and feast on steak and venison much like the royal courts of France and England during medieval times. In effect, this exotic world blends the pageantry of a 15th century court; the sultry eroticism of Arabian Nights and the ancient, pre-Arthurian mythology of the Mabinogion with a marvelous wrapping of magic and fantasy — all woven into a unique, blood-stained tapestry. In other words, Songs of Ice and Fire is the folklore and ancient tales of Planet Earth “enhanced” by George R. R. Martin’s imagination.
Like the ancient tales of England and Scotland, Westros contains the ruins of an ancient civilization called the “Age of Heroes.” However, the broken columns and abandoned cities of Westros are thousands of years old and the old myths speak of fanciful creatures: children of the forest, the walking dead and dragons who blended their blood with that of ancient kings. In addition, ominous and prophetic tales talk of the coming of a hundred-year winter which will destroy most of the world. In the kingdom of Winterfell, an oft-repeated mantra is “Winter is Coming.” When animals and people begin to migrate south and half-mythical birds called “snow snipes” appear in growing numbers, the kingdoms of Westros begin to hoard supplies and watch the sky with anxiety.
This sense of impending doom serves as a backdrop for a half-dozen plots, each of which has the complexity of a Shakespearean tragedy. The governing House of Stark in Winterfell (a northern city) has strong traditional ties with the House of Baratheon located in the southern city, Kings Landing. In addition, Lord Eddard Stark, acquires the title, “The King’s Hand,” which empowers him to act on behalf of King Richard Baratheon. Since the King has a weakness for hunting, drinking and sleeping with whores, Eddard spends much of his time in King’s Landing conducting “affairs of state” and council meetings. During this period, Eddard learns that Queen Cersei (House Lannister) is involved in a secret plot to make the heirs to the throne her children, who are all products of an incestuous affair with her brother Jaime Lannister.
Gradually, Eddard learns that King Baratheon’s court is totally corrupt and the plotting and intrigue extends to all of the Seven Kingdoms — all of which have governing families that have their own agendas. Before Eddard can alert King Richard of his wife’s plot, he finds himself imprisoned and branded a traitor to the throne. Among other ill-fated members of the Stark family are Eddard’s wife, Lady Catelyn (House Tully) and the entire family.
In time, the intricate web of treachery and deceit brings ruin and/or imprisonment to most of the Starks: The two daughters, Sansa and Arya, are trapped in King’s Landing. (Sansa is betrowed to the vicious and unstable Prince Joffrey). Seven-year-old Brandon stumbles on the incestuous Queen and her brother and is thrown from a lofty bedroom window — a fall that leaves him paralyzed and suffering from amnesia.
When 14-year-old Robb learns that his father has been declared a traitor, he raises an army and with Lady Catelyn’s assistance marches on King’s Landing. Eddward’s illegitimate son, Jon Snow abandons Winterfell and joins the Black Brothers, an army of highly disciplined soldiers who are sworn to defend Winterfell against the forces of evil that live beyond the northern Wall. As the Starks struggle to survive in the cauldron of intrigue, other kingdoms begin to take actions that are designed to destroy or sustain Winterfell and King’s Landing. Each decisive action (assassinations, covert invasions, secret treaties) resemble a deadly chess game.
No review of A Game of Thrones would be complete without the mention of Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf who is called “The Imp,” and the exotic Princess Daenerys and her brother, Viserys, who claim to be descendants of the ancient House Targaryens called themselves “Blood of the Dragon.” Among the cast of characters, Tyrion is the ultimate outsider — a man who compensates for his physical deformities by his wit and a shrewd ability to understand the motives of others, especially his arrogant and treacherous brother, Jamie. However, Princess Daenerys harbors a secret desire for vengeance which involves “waking the dragons” and marching on kingdoms of Winterfell and King’s Landing ... her ancient enemies.
These complexities of plot may be this bloody saga’s most bewildering characteristic. Readers may find themselves re-reading chapters in order to keep track of kingdoms and blood feuds. However, George R. R. Martin’s powerful and beautifully crafted narrative holds our attention. While it may be difficult to summarize the tangled threads of intrigue which involve several hundred characters, this fantasy shimmers with memorable scenes and characters. For example, the presence of the dire-wolves, six pups raised by the Stark children, acquire an eerie presence as they pad silently behind their charges, guarding them against ever-present threat. The descriptions of feasts, jousts, warfare, and a good bit of sweaty sex is done with graphic detail. The painfully detailed descriptions of clothing and armor is especially noteworthy.
A Game of Thrones has a number of strong themes that focus on women in crisis; the presence of a religion thought to be destroyed, but which still exists in the natural world where “the old gods and the new” are dormant, but vitally alive.
A final comment on the HBO series based on Game of Thrones. It is magnificent. Perfectly cast and stunningly photographed, this series is undoubtedly the best program on current television. As for that oft-repeated concern, “Is it as good as the book?”.... Yes, it is. In fact, in some instances, it surpasses the book. And this is just the beginning! There are eight books to go.
A Game of Thrones, Book One by George R. R. Martin. Bantam Books, 1997. 726 pages.
Dusting off a few worthwhile volumes
Spring-cleaning remains a ritual in many households. We throw open windows, rid closets, shelves, and drawers of unwanted items — books, papers, video cassettes, sweaters that haven’t seen daylight in 10 years, Aunt Matilda’s time-blighted photographs of zinnias — wash everything from curtains to cars, and finally settle down with the perfume of ammonia and Windex gilding the air.
In my own case, spring-cleaning also includes clearing the left side of my desk of books awaiting review. Here a hillock of volumes, read with varying levels of enjoyment, have gathered dust these last few months, awaiting their turn in this column. Without further ado, I present to you three different books that may deserve your attention.
Jim Harrison’s The Great Leader (ISBN 978-0-8021-1970-4, $24) contains many of the trademarks of Harrison’s other novels: a style that pulls the reader through the story, a hero with many flaws balanced with good intentions, a concern with philosophy, religion, food, liquor, and sex. Detective Sanderson, Harrison’s hero, divorced, frequently drunk, recently retired from the Michigan state police, spends much of his retirement and the novel chasing down a creator of religious cults while at the same time reminiscing about his past. He follows this culprit, the Great Leader, from Michigan to Arizona and then to Nebraska, all the while recollecting his adolescence, his life with his wife, various sexual encounters, and his love of nature and the outdoors.
What Harrison does best here — and his other novels — is to write poetic paragraphs stuffed full of philosophy, poetic diction, and entertaining asides. A random examination of The Great Leader yields paragraphs like this one:
“He hit the radio off button when someone on NPR used the word turd iconic. He used to keep track of these obtuse Orwellian nuggets. A few years ago it was the relentless use of the word closure that raised his ire and then with Iraq the silly term embedded … Pundits reflected his idea that everyone in America gets to make themselves up whole cloth, and also the hideously mistaken idea that talking is thinking.”
Where The Great Leader, Sanderson, and Jim Harrison fall flat on their collective face is in their ideas of sex. Older men — and here I mean men over 55 — do indeed dream of the affections of women, especially younger women, but it is doubtful that younger women cast themselves as frivolously and as frequently at older men as women do at Sanderson. This retired detective has little to recommend him to the younger lovers; he is dull, stuck in the past, aged, lacking in looks and money. Yet women ranging from his teenage neighbor, Mona, to various waitresses all seem to take a shine to him. The novelist’s infatuation with this topic — younger women and their involvement with old guys like Sanderson — borders on the obsessive, so that even the most dilatory reader must wonder whether Harrison is sketching from life or indulging in his own maudlin fantasies.
In Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fanny Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook (ISBN 9781-4013-2322-6, $25.99), Chris Kimball, founder of Cook’s Illustrated and host of America’s Test Kitchens and Cook’s Country, sets out to make a gourmet meal using recipes from what was once America’s most popular cookbook. The problems with such a re-creation are multiple — finding the right ingredients, using the same equipment, deciding whom to invite to the meal — but Kimball’s greatest difficulty lies in the fact that the recipes from Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book too frequently turn out to be second rate, poor cousins to their French counterparts of that age and cousins several times removed from our own culinary specialties. Several times, forced to choose between following Farmer’s mundane recipes or his own good instincts and superior knowledge of food, Kimball finds himself playing variations on Farmer’s work and criticizing her cooking skills.
Far more interesting than the recipes here is Kimball’s investigation into the food and manners of late nineteenth century Boston. From him we learn the intricacies of cooking on a wood stove, the growth of various farmer’s markets in Boston, and the life of a cook in a Victorian household. We discover that the Victorians, unlike modern epicures, disliked the odor of cooking foods and so built their kitchens at the rear of the house; that Boston by 1896 was a shopper’s paradise for cooks, “a vastly better and more convenient place … than Boston today;” that jellies and gelatin dishes played a far greater part in meals of the time than today. Kimball’s historical sense and mastery of details provide an engaging account of Boston social life and entertainment.
For anyone interested in either cooking or the social history of nineteenth century America, Fannie’s Last Supper is a feast in its own right.
Though poetry has lost its shine in the age of twitter and tweet, verse remains the blood and heart of literature. Great verse retains the power to steel our nerves, to open our souls, to sing to us like Eliot’s mermaids. April was National Poetry Month, but it’s never too late to crack open that dusty Norton Anthology or to search out poems old and new on the internet.
On my desk is a copy of A Poem A Day, edited by Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery. Most mornings I forget to read from it, but when I do remember to seek out that day’s poem, I am reminded once again of the vigor of the English language and the beauty of carefully selected words and forms. Many writers can walk, and some can run, but the great poets open their arms and invite us to dance.
‘Raylan’ is business as usual for Leonard
Like a growing number of FX addicts, I have become a devoted fan of “Justified” (Timothy Olyphant and Sylva’s own Nick Searcy) that airs each Tuesday night at 10 p.m. This fast-moving, smart-talking, funny and violent show represents the culmination (or harmonious convergence) of several remarkable talents: a short story entitled “Fire in the Hole” by Elmore Leonard (which became the basis for the FX series, “Justified”) and the marvelous nuanced acting of Oliphant, who stepped into the custom-made boots of U. S. Marshall Raylan Givens like he was born to play this part.
“Justified” is that rare thing, the merging of Elmore Leonard’s talent for writing dialogue that sizzles and pops like frying bacon, and Olyphant’s uncanny talent for becoming a Kentucky-bred Federal agent who has acquired a reputation for being a little too quick to provoke “violent confrontations.”
Raylan is that rare thing, a novel spawned by a successful television show that is based on an original short story by the same author. Of course, most readers know about this “crime/fiction” writer who has a legendary talent for writing screenplays: Consider this partial list: Valdez is Coming; Hombre; The Moonshine Wars; The Bounty Hunters; Gold Coast; Kill Shot. Leonard’s versatility is astonishing. Frequently, his dialogue is filled with double entendres and “inside jokes”.... like when a character in an episode of of “Justified” picks up the phone during a tension-filled moments, hangs up and turns to tell a crowd of well-armed listeners, “Valdez is Coming.”
Essentially, Elmore Leonard is so pleased with the success of “Justified,” he has decided to write a new novel based on the further adventures of U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens. Raylan vibrates with energy, humor and tension. Take for example the episode that begins with Raylan discovering Angel Arena, a major drug dealer, floating in a hotel bathtub filled with blood, water and ice. Angel’s kidney’s have been removed and someone has closed the incision with a stapler.
Angel survives and the following day, he receives a ransom note that offers to return his kidney’s for $100,000. Before long, Raylan is caught up in one of the most bizarre cases of his career and the personalities are memorable: Dickie and Coover Crowe, two pot-head brothers (and old acquaintances of Raylan’s) who act as “procurers” for an Afro-American nurse named Layla and her con-artist lover, Cuba (pronounced Coo-ba) Franks. Since Layla has “assisted” in hundreds of kidney transplants at Harlan County’s stylish medical center, she is admirably qualified to remove the kidneys of wealthy victims. Coba and Layla are well on their way to becoming millionaires when Raylan shows up and the plot becomes both complicated and kinky.
Then there is Delroy Lewis, a drug-dealing gambler who has developed a profitable business involving topless dancers. The girls are all addicts who have been trained to rob banks and deliver the stolen funds to Delroy. The money rolls in and when any of the dancers become incompetent, Delroy simply shoots them and leaves their bodies in a vacant lot. They are easy to replace.
Ah, but there is one problem. Delroy has a serious grudge against Raylan Givens and fantasizes about engaging in a western style shootout. Since Delroy has a penchant for cross-dressing, he decides to set a trap in a gambling saloon where he will be disguised as a “statuesque beauty with a platinum wig” with a Smith .357 in his purse. The resulting “gunfight” manages to be tense, terrifying and hilarious.
Raylan is packed with characters that are vitally alive and some of them have become regulars on “Justified.” There is Boyd Crowder, a reluctant employee at the M-T Mining Company which is in the process of destroying the quality of life in Harlan County. As “security officer” for the mining company, Boyd has discovered that his duties include intimidation, bribery and accessory to murder. Carol Conlan, a brutal coal mine executive who has turned into a “Justified” regular, finally gets her due in Harlan when she is shotgunned by a miner’s widow in the local nursing home.
Of course, there is a priceless episode involed in Carol’s demise, but that is possibly this novel’s singular flaw. It possesses an intricate and tangled narrative with events so intertwined, it is nearly impossible to unravel one tale without releasing a half-dozen others. In order to put Carol Conlan’s personality and death in proper perspective, it is necessary to tell the story of Otis Culpepper, the old miner who has become an “inconvenience” to the M-T Mining Company — a problem that Conlan solved by simply shooting the old man. In addition, there is the story of Pervis Crowe, a rugged, old survivalist who sells and/or controls every illegal activity in Harlan County. In addition, there are a dozen marvelous characters who make a brief appearance and then vanish through the nearest exit .... like Jackie Nevada, a college girl/professional gambler who impresses Raylan by winning a million dollars.
Finally, Raylan acquires a pardner in this novel and hopefully, he is going to be around for a long time. He is a former white supremacist with swastika tats named Bill Nichols. Somewhere in his experiments with violence, Bill “saw the light” and became an uncompromising agent for justice. Raylan and Bill look and act like a matched set, and hopefully he will return often, giving us some fantastic dialogue as these two U. S. Marshalls compare notes on topics like divorce, moonshine, young women and killing people.
Raylan by Elmore Leonard. HarperCollins, 2012. 263 pages.
The tales of two Joyces
In The Guys in the Gang and Other Stories (ISBN 978-1-4697-7768-9, $20.95), James T. Joyce and James T. Joyce — that doubling-up is not a misprint — have shared, perhaps inadvertently, the secrets to a fulfilling life. Like a fine symphony, which often consists of four parts, all of them intertwined in some way, bound together by tone and motif, The Guys in the Gang offers four important ingredients for leading a full and worthy life: faith, family, friends, and fun.
Both of these men (they are distinguished in the book by reference to the streets, Ada and Carpenter, where they grew up. James “Ada” Joyce lives in Waynesville.) came of age in Irish-Catholic Chicago in the heady years following World War II. This was the era when the Catholic Church held sway over its parishioners in ways that today seem as strange as fins on cars and rotary dial phones. The nuns directed the parochial schools, the priests commanded the churches, and the monsignors and bishops ruled over them all.
Joyce and Joyce both suffered the usual abuses of parochial school — Brother Sloan, the religion teacher, would “simply flail away at you slapping, punching, and kicking” — and grew up in families in which faith was as familiar as the daily paper. “Ada” Joyce, for example, writes that his father turned off the television every day of Lent and that his mother, a leader in the large parish church, frequently said the rosary on the two-hour drive to her family’s farm. (One of the Mysteries of the Rosary is “The Agony in the Garden,” which Joyce’s friends, who traveled with him on these excursions, later renamed “The Agony in the Car.”)
Family, too, played a role in shaping these two men. Both men came out of strong families. Both men honor this bond by speaking highly of their parents, wives, children, and various relatives.
It is, however, the portraits of their friends and their mutual adventures that distinguishes The Guys in the Gang from similar memoirs. Through high school and into the years immediately following, both men belonged to the same gang of friends, guys who partied hard, worked at all sorts of after-school jobs, and indulged in their spare time in all sorts of pranks, some of them silly, some of them truly dangerous. These accounts make up some of the most humorous portions of the book. At one point, 16-year-old Jim “Ada” Joyce is driving his Dad’s new Olds 88 when one of the gang asked how fast the car could go.
“I put the accelerator to the floor and our heads snapped back. We went past 100 like it wasn’t there; 110 was gone and the max, 120, provided no obstacle.
“The speedometer was a circle with a yellow needle pointing to speed. The needled continued around the circle until it hit zero, completing 360 degrees. Then it went “twang,” popped off the spindle and came to rest at the bottom of the glass. A thin, plastic coated wire now appeared behind the numbers. I immediately slowed down and said, ‘Oh, s**t!’”
There are some great stories about the “gang,” and “Ada” Joyce has the eye for details and irony that will bring a smile to the reader’s face.
Carpenter Joyce, who became a Chicago fireman, reports more somberly on the fate of the neighborhood. Both Joyces grew up in the civil rights era and racial unrest, and Carpenter Joyce tells of the demise of the Saint Sabina parish when integration came to the neighborhood. As in cities across the nation, African-Americans moved into some urban neighborhoods, and whites moved out. Here Joyce gives us a first-hand look at “white flight” and its influence on this particular Chicago parish.
In the second half of their memoir, the Joyce duo gives us a brief record of their adult lives. “Ada” Joyce, who has already recounted his Army and Vietnam experiences in Pucker Factor 10 and his work as a psychoanalyst in Use Eagles If Necessary, focuses here on this work as a businessman, while “Carpenter” Joyce briefly gives an account of his life-long work with the Chicago fire department. Once again their reminiscences provide a good deal of humor while at the same time shining a light on certain aspects of human nature. This last part of the book also contains a number of memorable farewells to friends who have died.
What marks the book overall is its sense of esprit and fun. These are two men who have, by most measures, lived what society considers successful lives. In addition to earning a good living, each man has also faced various ordeals and emerged with a sense of amusement intact. Both have a knack for seeing the humorous side of difficult situations, a sense of the absurd which doubtless helped carry them far in life. It is their sense of fun and their recognition of the ridiculous that has carried them through life and carries the reader through the memoir.
The Guys in the Gang and Other Stories by James T. Joyce. iUniverse, 2012. 276 pages.
Light-hearted take on life’s last lingering years
I remember, I remember
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon
Nor brought too long a day;
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away.
This novel significantly affected this reviewer simply because I gradually developed a tremendous empathy with the protagonist, a woman who is close to the end of her life and spends much of her time “summing up.”
Could she have done better? Now, alone except for her aging dog, Rufus, she sits staring through her living room window, watching the familiar contours of her neighborhood vanish beneath the attack of the municipal bulldozers and jack hammers. The construction of a new water/sewer system has rendered her beloved neighborhood unrecognizable, filling the air with noise and dust.
All of her old friends are either dead or moved away and her life has been reduced to boring routines: washing the dishes, paying the bills, checking the mail. Emily needs a change.
When Arlene, her best (and only) friend keels over at the Eat ‘n Park, “two for one” breakfast buffet, Emily’s life becomes even more constricted.
Having become dependent on Arlene to drive her to the library, the grocery store and church, Emily is now forced to rely on taxis — an alternative that she soon abandons as both frustrating and expensive. Visiting Arlene in the hospital, Emily is relieved to learn that her friend had merely fainted because of low blood sugar (although she now has some dramatic stitches on her forehead).
Emily ponders her predicament. Arlene’s poor vision makes her a dangerous driver; also Emily finds that there are places that she wants to go alone: her husband’s grave, for example. Against the advice of family and friends, she buys a new car (a Subaru) and ventures out into the world again.
Although Emily, Alone is essentially a warm, and often humorous account of an elderly woman’s rational acceptance of her own mortality, Emily’s daily life has occasional moments that are heartbreaking and poignant. Certainly, she finds much to enjoy in life: the classical music station on her radio that continues to play her favorite Bach and Vivaldi; her garden and the annual return of flowers which she tends with a zealot’s devotion.
Then, there are the gratifying annual events: the spring flower show which she and Arlene attend each year; the museum, and a Van Goth exhibit; the new symphonic season with a Mozart program.
However, in counterpoint to this annual ritual, there are the “family events” — Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners; the yearly trip to a cabin called “Chautauqua” and the visits of children and grandchildren. All of these events are fraught with frustration and disappointments, such as an alienated daughter with a drinking problem; sons who seem reluctant to return home since they are married and have conflicting obligations...and the grandchildren who are bored by the whole affair.
Beneath it all runs Emily’s rueful acceptance that each event may be “the last time” she will see the people that she loves.
There is also this. As the seasons change, as winter gives way to spring (“This may be the last spring” thinks Emily), a goodly portion of Emily’s thoughts are colored by guilt, regret and anxiety. She remembers the thoughtless and cruel comments that she made to her own mother and finds contained in her own daughter’s arrogant and bitter pronouncements the same anger that had once been her own.
Like all mothers who find themselves alone, there are days when Emily has little to do except revisit old grievances and imagined slights from her family. The receiving and sending of Christmas cards becomes a daunting activity in which Emily equates a late (or never sent) card as indicative of a relative’s indifference.
Funerals of old friends acquire profound significance in terms of flowers, musical selections and seating. Emily carefully plans her own service. The writing of her will and the distribution of her estate becomes a topic for discussion with her children, who (thinks Emily) respond with indifference. Like most mothers, Emily suffers all of these imagined insults with stoic silence....until she is safely at home.
No doubt, many readers will find Emily to be an all-too-familiar figure, but they are also likely to admire her, as she drives her new car to destinations she had once thought beyond her reach. Her relationship with the delightful Rusty, her decrepit dog, is both tender and comical, since Emily keeps up a colorful monologue directed at the failing canine, filled with comical nick-names.
He is Doo-fus when he is awkward and Tubby when he gains weight. His owner worries that she may out live him, but dotes on him as though he were her child. She sympathizes with him regarding his bouts of flatulence, but admits that she has similar failings herself. Each day, when a rogue squirrel comes to raid the bird feeder, Emily opens the back door and urges Rusty to attack. “Sic ‘em, Rusty.” The squirrel is gone before Rusty gets to the feeder, but Emily always assures him, “You almost got him, that time!”
Her relationship with her “once-each-week” housekeeper, Betty, is often comical as they compare notes on food, relatives, dieting and politics. However, the best exchanges are between Emily and Arlene, who are two old friends that are totally mismatched. Arlene is a retired teacher, who loves soap operas and often distresses Emily with her love of pop music and bad art. Yet the two are devoted and familiar figures in their town, dining weekly at the Eat ‘n Park and shopping for blueberry muffins at Giant Eagle. Regardless of who is the chauffeur, they attend church, funerals and art shows together.
As Emily enjoys her new car, she seems to be gathering nerve for “a long drive.” In time, we learn that the destination is Emily’s hometown, Kersey, Penn., a place she had once vowed she would never see again. Perhaps it is the “summing up” of her life that prompts Emily to finally pack a pair of cosmos (potted flowers) into the Subaru and set out for a backwater town and an old cemetery where she will spend hours digging the dry baked dirt at her parent’s tombstones. It was something that needed to be done.
Perhaps it is only with this final act of acknowledging her origins, that Emily can return home to sit quietly in a window above her garden, with a glass of wine and the music of Albinoni and Vivaldi playing softly. Her obligations and duties have all been fulfilled now. Nothing to do now but wait.
Emily, Alone by Stewart O’nan. Penguin Books, 2011. 255 pages.
Homegrown poet spreads her wings
Rose McLarney grew up in rural Western North Carolina, where she continues to live on an old mountain farm. Daughter to a somewhat legendary biologist who founded the international conservation organization ANAI, she is a female reflection (a generation or two removed) of Kentucky farmer/poet Wendell Berry.
Her work poems have the pith, the profundity, the probing of Berry’s, and yet she is very much her own muse, making a new poetry that ever since her appearance on the Western North Carolina scene a few years back has raised the bar for all other poets who have taken note of her range of subject matter and her crafting of the language. Since then, she has gone on to earn an MFA degree from Warren Wilson’s Program for Writers and now teaches writing at the college. Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Orion, New England Review, Asheville Poetry Review, and others. She has been awarded various poetry prizes and teaching fellowships and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In recent years she has worked locally with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project based in Asheville. Clearly, with this first book, Rose McLarney has arrived.
I remember those early Asheville appearances and thinking that she, of all the young poets testing their wings alongside older “birds” at various literary events, would make her mark. And she hasn’t disappointed. In fact, she has taken the dictum of William Carlos Williams’s “ideas/images only in things” and catapulted that idiom into a new poetic stratosphere. To use her own metaphor, one could say that “some years there are apples.“ And in 2012, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains is a ripe, juicy apple indeed.
“The (Southern Appalachian) hills stabbed with sumac” have been Rose McLarney’s home for her whole young life. And her knowledge of the place shows in her observations and metaphors regarding nature and simple farm life. As she says, “It makes you want to cross your arms to stop the machines.” And her first book, here, is a reflection of her commitment to the rural landscape and lifestyle to which she is wed — from the striking head-on view of horses plowing on the front cover to the poems inside that are sparse and present on the page.
In essence, the 45 poems in this book are love poems. In some ways, it’s a book of love poems to nature, rural farm life, and to some lucky man. With a stern matter-of-fact tenderness, these poems, at times, take your breath away.
As if writing on old wormy chestnut boards rather than paper, in the poem “Poet” McLarney compares a poet to a dog with cataracts. Similarly, and in much the same way as her image of “buffalo stabbing their horns into rolls of hay,” McLarney addresses her subject matter — crafting her metaphors with stabbingly rich, romantic detail. Always referencing her own life experience and the places and people she knows best, McLarney conjures lines such as these from the poem “Covenant:” I’ll choose a love, as I choose my home,/an old white farmhouse, not far from where I grew up.
From my own life lived here in these same mountains, I recognize much of what she describes. Yet her lithe and facile descriptions are better than my memory. But it’s not enough to just generalize or pontificate about this young poet’s proficiency. McLarney is a young poet who is not, like so many of her peers, a master of the obvious, but who is a miner of cleverly coy emotions disguised as words. Here, amongst high hills, hellbenders and heartbreak, is a woman emerging — like Venus from a shell — into the physical world of work which is poetry.
When the calf dies, he buries it
with the tractor. He is sorry,
but there are vultures.
Afterward, the mother
bellows at the tractor,
suspicious of the steel bucket
that brings her hay.
And I think most of how I love him
when I sleep alone, and lie awake,
imagining how tractors overturn,
and animals are angered –
what could keep him away.
What’s most noted are the cold body,
the cold machine, and the place left empty,
though the field is daily filled
with a herd of thousand-pound animals
seeking shade from the sun under willows
and steaming in the rain. [pg.26]
In this poem and in the one titled “Where I Will Live,” nowhere is McLarney more on target regarding the love poem theme in this collection. Again, here in the final stanzas of the poem, she reminds me of Wendell Berry.
So people could try to grow
on the good land, he says, they built
in the hardest places.
I bought the farm. I’m moving in
to the house, beyond the barn,
on stonier ground. He’s come to help me
feel at home.
But McLarney is not a one-dimensional writer. She has many tricks up her sleeve, and many voices. In the long three-section, five-poem poem “Before Me,” she takes on the voice of an old mountain woman from previous generations who is living secluded in a hollow on a mountain farm. In looking back on these past generations, she returns to her own voice in heartfelt humility in the poem “Disclaimer” to say:
It’s the talk of people past
though I am an inexact student, unfaithful
to the details.
I think they would forgive me
for what I do with words,
like a new girl, who can only
sign her name with an X.
In what may be her signature poem in this collection (“Epilogue”) and like the wise old women in that poem, I truly enjoyed “setting a spell” with these poems that “make a magic of slowness” [pg.70] here amidst “the always broken plates of mountains.”
Rose McLarney will be at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva on Friday, April 13 at 7 p.m. to read from her new collection The Always Broken Plates of Mountains.
The Always Broken Plates of Mountains by Rose McLarney. Four Way Books, 2012. 70 pages.
Thomas Crowe is the author of the non-fiction books Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods and The End of Eden: Writings of an Environmental Activist, and a recent collection of poems placed in the Southern Appalachian mountains titled Crack Light. He lives along the Tuckasegee River in Western North Carolina.
Rash creates new genre of mountain western
Just when we all thought that Ron Rash had taken his Southern Appalachian noir novels to the limit with Serena, he comes back with not only a topper, but creates a new fiction genre in the process. Rash’s new novel, The Cove, like his previous fiction, is set in the mountains of Western North Carolina. In this case, he’s taking his readers over the mountain from Haywood County to Madison County in and around the town of Mars Hill. While this story is a “mountain mystery” and a page-turner in the vein of his latest novel and his recent short stories, it is written in a softer tone, a slower pace. In fact, it’s a love story that is all about timing and the intricate details from which a good yarn is spun.
In a book where the saying “timing is everything,” proves to be providential, Rash has written a lovely, sensitive tale. Who would have thought that on the tails of Serena, the Duke of Dark Tales would have, could have gone in this direction? In The Cove his “new” tone of language and the storyline are consistent throughout, including the symbolically imaginative Hawthorne-like naming of his characters: Laurel Shelton (a reversal of Shelton Laurel), Ledbetter, Weatherbee, Bettingfield, Lingefelt, Lusk. And first names: Doak, Slidell, Tillman, Boyce, Jubel. This is an Appalachian chorus line of characters who add their own patinas to this portrait/landscape painting of a World War I version of Romeo & Juliet.
A young woman (Laurel) isolated in a remote cove that is “nothing but shadow land” on the outskirts of Mars Hill who is considered by local townsfolk to be a witch — due largely to the cove’s history as being “cursed” and because of a peculiar birthmark on her skin — comes across a drifter camped out on the family land. With a haunting flute melody, like the birdsong of a Carolina parakeet, wafting through the woods from up along a rock outcropping above the family farm, she goes to search out the music’s source. (Rash later describes the stranger’s flute music: “It wasn’t so much a soaring sound but something on the song’s surface, like a water strider skimming over a creek pool.”)
While Rash drags out the meeting of the two main characters with a tantalizingly deft touch, when the two finally do meet it is love at first sight — at least for Laurel, whose prospects for marriage and a helpmate to keep up the old mountain farm are near to nonexistent. The drifter turns out to be an escapee from a World War I internment camp for German prisoners in Hot Springs, which is something that Laurel and her brother don’t find out until the end of the book when Rash shifts gears — after a long courtship between Laurel and the flute-playing stranger —and the book becomes “a mountain western” complete with a local saloon, posses and search parties, lawmen and lunkheads, and of course the corn liquor.
In the telling of The Cove’s story, Rash’s language is purer, more poetic. His “touch” is softer, more finely honed. Using local language and a lusciously restrained libido, Rash’s telling is reminiscently Shakespearean. “He’s already tallied my gone hand against me,” Laurel’s brother Hank says, explaining to himself his future father-in-law’s attitude concerning his upcoming marriage. “I’d as lief not have him beading its barrel on me,” says Hank later in the book, referring to the stranger who has been brought from the woods into their cabin after nearly being stung to death by yellow jackets with “the welts on his neck and chest arguing at least as much poison as a copperhead bite.” “I need to get the daubing off you. They’ve drawn what poison they will. Besides, like Hank said, you don’t want to be mistook for a bobcat,” Laurel says to the stranger when he finally comes to consciousness and finds himself inside the Shelton cabin.
When it is revealed that the stranger is mute, Laurel remarks: “Not being able to talk … I’d think it could make you feel a lavish of aloneness.” In this literary-littered telling of a familiar tale, there’s even a lovely nod to our local-boy-made-good Thomas Wolfe when Rash slips Wolfe’s father into the storyline. One of the book’s main characters, Chauncey Feith, wanders into Wolfe’s tombstone and monument business building and carries on a conversation where reality and fiction overlap like parallel universes.
… as he walked toward Grant’s Pharmacy, Chauncey noticed the two-story brick building with W.O. Wolfe Tombstones and Monuments painted on the storefront … Someone coughed inside the shop and a few moments later an old man, tall and gaunt, stooped through the open doorway, his hands and leather apron smudged with white dust. “W.O. Wolfe at your service, sir,” the stonecutter said, and made a slight bow. “How may I assist you?” “Do you make monuments of real people?” “I do,” the older man replied, “although, as you can see, more often creatures of the celestial realm.” “And why is that?” Chauncey asked. “Perhaps they wish an image of what they aspire to be instead of what they are,” the stonecutter replied. “The better angels of our nature, corporal as well as spiritual. I can assure you, young squire, from my own humbling experience, that as we grow infirm and life’s pleasures pale we long to free ourselves from these sad declining vessels. But enough of such dispiriting parlance. An old man’s morbid reckonings are not usually the concerns of youth, nor should they be.” The stonecutter paused, licked the tip of his thumb and rubbed it on his apron, allowed a wan smile.
In the book’s suspenseful and nail-biting conclusion, the timing in actions and events in the last 20 pages give new meaning to the word “irony” with the Romeo and Juliet-like Shakespearean ending stretching minutes into what seem like hours and with mere seconds making all the difference in the world. Ron Rash, in this book and with this ending, has become a master clock-maker. With impeccable timing, meticulous craftsmanship, and flawless design, he has given us yet another mountain classic. One which, to the squeamish, will be much more palatable, perhaps, than previous books. One can only imagine what Ron Rash will come up with next as part of the traveling magic show that he conjures with each new book.
Forgotten but not gone — emphasizing grammar
Fifteen years ago, when I was the temporary teacher of Latin at Tuscola High School in Waynesville, I was discussing different uses for the dative case when one of my brighter sophomores — he entered the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics the following year — raised his hand and plaintively said, “Mr. Minick, we haven’t really studied grammar since the fourth grade. Could you explain what you mean by an indirect object?”
Few teachers — or students, for that matter — would disagree that grammar and writing take a seat at the back of the academic bus these days. To study more than the basics of grammar — ”A noun is a person, place, or thing” — requires patience from the teacher and demands repetition and memorization from the student while good writing requires a massive amount of work from both. Ask any English or history teacher who still centers a class on writing about the weekends, and you will find a teacher who spends more than a few hours correcting papers.
We live in the age of communication, of email, twitter, and texting, yet as a number of online sites attest, poor communication skills in writing and grammar cost us hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and badly composed sentences result in missed meetings, mangled orders, mistaken shipments, and bad service.
Sometimes our failure to communicate costs more than money. A love letter composed by the semi-literate can ruin a match made in heaven. A badly written police report can bring a murderer’s freedom. Our military leaders and medical personnel are acutely aware that a word misused or a comma misplaced can bring about disaster and death. (This problem is not new. In his last communication to his subordinate, Captain Benteen, Gen. George Armstrong Custer of Little Bighorn fame sent a terse, confusing note which was delivered by a man who barely spoke English. Custer and his men may have ended up massacred because the general didn’t take an extra two minutes to put together a coherent summons).
Here is a simple and classic example of the importance of grammar. “Let’s eat, Grandma” is a straight-shooting sentence. We are hungry and wish to eat, and we want to encourage Grandma to do likewise. If we drop the comma, however, we proclaim “Let’s eat Grandma.” (You few young people who are reading this column on grammar should here be cautioned against dining on your elders. Historically, you and the younger set are regarded as much more tasty. See Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.)
Fortunately, remedies for our grammatical dysfunctions abound. There are scores of grammar guides in print today. In recent years, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation made the best-seller lists in Great Britain and the United States. With her witty stickler’s guide to the use of the apostrophe, the dash, and other marks of punctuation, Truss helped kick off our current interest in language and its usage by making readers more aware of the importance of grammar and the rules of writing. For a more classic, though by no means comprehensive, examination of such issues, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style remains a central authority on usage.
The various editions of Writer’s Inc., employed in many of our schools, offers perhaps the most for the money in terms of grammar and usage. This book is accessible to students from middle school through college and would also make a fine addition to any office or home in which questions of grammar and punctuation recur. The examples used are clear and to the point. In addition, the book includes guides to writing various types of letters and emails, essays and papers, a strong glossary of literary terms, and a dozen other useful topics.
Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students (ISBN 978-0-8050-8943-1, $19.99) is the new kid on the language block. Fogarty is the creator the online Grammar Girl, whose Quick and Dirty Tips on grammar have attracted the attention of millions seeking answers on everything from using commas in clauses to the test of when to use a colon. Though designed for students — Aardvark and Squiggly the Snail, Fogarty’s signature characters, appear in most of the examples — Grammar Girl’s Ultimate Writing Guide should appeal to a wide audience. The index is complete — I tested it by looking up the usage of “anymore,” and found a clear explanation — and the author follows a logical progression in her presentation, going from the basic definitions of the parts of speech to the writing of papers. For a student going into high school or college, for a secretary who runs smack into grammatical thickets, and for anyone interested in a witty, practical approach to our language, Grammar Girl’s Writing Guide should prove a valuable tool.
Stephen Hunter’s Soft Target (978-1-4391-3870-0, $26.99), which continues the Bob Lee Swagger story, this time with progeny Ray Cruz trapped in Minnesota’s America, the Mall with a group of terrorists bent on killing as many Christmas shoppers as it can take with them, lacks some of the punch and depth of the earlier Swagger novels. Parts of the novel — this is becoming a trademark in the suspense genre — don’t even make a whole lot of sense. Why, for example, would a local imam team up with a young psychotic from white suburbia? How could this crazy white nihilist get the devotees of Allah to follow him?
Readers of Hunter’s stories probably won’t care too much about these questions. The mayhem of the fighting and the expertise shown by Hunter in regard to weapons and tactics will doubtless blind many of his fans to the weakness of the story. Soft Target does offer one additional virtue. The weakness of the police chief in the story serves as a reminder that to placate terrorists and to wave the olive branch of appeasement is simply to ask for more terror.
Nature shines in Morgan poetry collection
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
— “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake
The stanza above, from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” serves as an apt introduction to Robert Morgan’s latest collection of poetry. Here, the reader will find a catalog of vivid images from the natural world: a spider’s web spangled with dew drops; mountain pools pierced by sun beams; a wind-blown thistle and the husk of a jar fly — all transformed by Morgan’s elegant words — words which have the power to render these images “numinous” (possessing a religious or spiritual quality).
In conjunction with Morgan’s skill in capturing vibrant images is his ability to describe those images with magical language. For example, the title of this collection, Terroir, is a word (French in origin) used to denote the special characteristics that geography, geology and climate bestow upon crops and/or produce. Just as the quality of a vintage wine may be determined by the combined effects of a particular region’s rivers, the mineral content of the soil and the length of the growing season, Morgan suggests a parallel in the natural world of Appalachia. In effect, the inhabitants of the coves and ridges of the Southern Highlands are what they are because of the same factors. We (and all living things) are molded and shaped by the same forces that might render/produce something original ... a rare wine with its unique taste or a mountain family, surviving against all odds and steeped in tradition.
Terroir contains a number of recurring themes: rituals, folk beliefs, superstitions and the subtle and orderly design of the natural world.
“October Crossing” celebrates the annual orange and black, woolly worm migration which, in mountain folklore will determine how hard the winter will be. However, in Morgan’s imaginative description, this events merges with classical mythology. The woolly worms migration must cross a highway “like a hard Styx or Jordan” to reach the refuge of the woods. In “Apple Howling,” there is a comparison of the Anglo-Saxon “come forth” ritual in apple orchards (beseeching the trees to produce a generous crop), to the “come, butter, come” incantations that my own grandmother chanted to transform clabbered milk to butter. “Singing to the Corn” recounts yet another ritual to encourage fertility and “Immune” celebrates an old superstition about going barefoot in the first snowfall as a means of preventing winter ailments.
Beneath all of these poems, like a quiet, but ever-present stream, is a series of affirmative verses regarding Nature’s “silent design.” “Loaves and Fishes” celebrates the slow decay of a deer on the highway, noting the process by which every bit of flesh “is sorted, hauled/ away by scavenging coyotes,/ by maggots, worms, bacteria, /each bite sent to its proper place/ to feed the needy multitudes.” “Translation” finds a striking example of rebirth in the way that trees die “and lean into the arms/ of neighbors” where they gradually disintegrate and “... eed the the roots/ of soaring youth.”
There are also frequent allusions to Nature’s tendency to “mimic” cosmic design. For example, the sprouts of potatoes struggling toward the light in “Homesickness” resembles genetic memory struggling “across the gulf of history.” In another poem, In “Country of the Sun,” Morgan finds a poignant parallel in the struggles of a neighbor stricken with an eye cancer who moves down a road in the sunlight of a spring day with the same yearning towards the light. In “The Big One,” the explosion of seeds from a winter thistle resembles that outward rush of matter that created the universe. Again, in “Lone Eagle,” the fall of snow flakes in a pine forest suggests “a ticker tape parade” witnessed by “snow bird, mouse and solo wren.” The spiraling flight of sulfur butterflies in “Convocation,” suggest the “swing and rise” of planets and “far quasar.”
Many of Morgan’s most affecting poems describe an embattled natural world where corrupting forces contaminate beauty. “Brownfield” describes a field filled with “industrial swill,” tatters of asbestos and rusting nails, styrofoam, grease and garbage bags; yet even here, Nature struggles stubbornly to reassert itself with a thriving patch of ironweed. In “Expulsion” Morgan compares humanity’s withdrawal from polluted tracts of land to the loss of Eden. We are forced to leave because our eyes are “swollen red” by a corrupting dust. Yet, even here, the stubborn persistence of “Poison Oak” demonstrates Nature’s survival instinct “that will cross a meadow” to claim a spot at the base of a tree.
My favorite poem in this collection is “Go Gentle,” a reasoned rebuff to the poet, Dylan Thomas who is remembered for his advice to the elderly: “rage against the dying of the light.” For Morgan, such a recommendation seems a bit melodramaic. After witnessing the death of relatives and friends, Morgan concludes that both those who watch and those who die “will plead for nothing but the right/ and gentle passage of the night.” There seems little point in delivering a death rant.
This is a gratifying collection. Although Robert Morgan is attracting national attention for his novels and historic biographies, I feel that his greatest strength lies in his poetry.
Terroir by Robert Morgan. Penguin Books, 2011. 95 pages.
Gossip and privacy in the modern world
Little Sally was eating lunch with her family when her parents ask her if she learned anything in Sunday School that morning. Sally nodded and smiled. "Teacher says we are to go forth and spread the gossip."
It seems these days that gossip has indeed become our gospel, though that word means specifically "good news," whereas good news in our day really amounts to no news at all. We much prefer the "bad news," the scandals, the foolish antics of our fellow beings, so long as we ourselves are omitted from the roll call.
Although countless authors down through the ages have issued admonitions against gossip and rumor-mongering — the Book of Proverbs, for example, bulges with warnings against those whose "lips talk of mischief" — gossip has not only retained its allure but has in the last century mushroomed from a cottage industry to a skyscraper whose shadow touches us all. Our intense interest in the self, our therapeutic age, and our revelry in revelation have combined with our technology — television and the internet for spreading the secrets of our celebrities, Facebook and Twitter for the rest of us — to create a near-perfect breeding ground for gossip. A host of websites and television shows exist solely to sift through the dirt in other peoples' lives, and so long as we ourselves are not among the unwashed, many of us find such muckraking a splendid source of entertainment.
Often the lives of family, friends and acquaintances provide an equivalent show, and we follow these particular dramas and comedies with the avidity of an opera buff. When we hear that Uncle Fred, a deacon in his church, is spending his money on women half his age or that our model of temperance, Aunt Agnes, has been arrested for driving NASCAR-style after a few too many martinis, we cluck our tongues at their peccadilloes and express our empathy even while we find ourselves secretly delighted to hear this latest bit of juicy news. "How awful," we say, and in the next breath ask: "And then what happened?"
In his newest book, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (ISBN 978-0-618-72194-8, $25), Joseph Epstein, one of the best American essayists of this or any other age, turns his discerning eye on gossip. He was attracted to this subject, he tells us, both because gossip can be a "species of truth ... beguiling truth" and because he himself has taken great pleasure in receiving gossip over his long lifetime.
These two-fold explanations for his interest in gossip lead to that fine blend of the personal and the public which is the hallmark of Epstein's writing. In the public sphere, Epstein ranges in his analysis from what he calls "the Great Gossips of the Western World," men like Suetonius, the Duc de Saint-Simon, Truman Capote, and women like Tina Brown and Barbara Walters, to the lesser-known gossip columnists of the last hundred years. One fascinating feature of his examination is the way in which these people achieved their fame from reporting the fame of others, how they "achieved celebrity by interviewing celebrity." His sketch of Barbara Walters, for example, an amusing mini-biography of praise and put-down, seems precisely on the mark. Epstein notes her fierce ambitions and her crassness, writing that "this vulgar streak, asking the questions that are on the mass mind, is her bread and caviar." Epstein ends his look at Walters by writing:
"Give Barbara her due: week after week, year after year, she has created gossip through the simple agency of asking the most tasteless questions of famous people, who were themselves tasteless enough to answer her. Not just anyone could have brought it off. Yet to her it all seems to have come so naturally."
To these portraits of famous gossips Epstein adds accounts of his own gossiping and the interest he takes in the foibles of his familiars. A university professor, once editor of The American Scholar and board member of the National Council of the National Endowments for the Arts, Epstein confesses that he has taken great pleasure in hearing gossip about the famous and the not-so-famous. In a section at the end of most of the book's chapters, titled "Diary," Epstein shares with us glimpses of his forays into tale-telling and rumors. He recounts a pleasant evening spent with Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne, then chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities; his encounters with Mortimer Adler; his accounts, gathered from others, of the eating habits of Orson Welles and the wit of playwright Lillian Hellman.
One story which Epstein includes has to do with his mother. She was an ebullient woman who, like her husband, "looked out at the world and saw only admirable or less than admirable behavior." Her father died when she was young by his own hand, a fact Epstein learned from his own father when his mother was dying. Not only had his mother never told Epstein about this episode, she had never told her husband either, who had learned of it from her sister. After reflecting on this silence from his mother's point of view, Epstein applauds the nobility of her silence:
"Why rehash it? What was to be gained? Nothing, evidently, that she could see. Reticence about the matter was more dignified, made more sense. And I find I love my mother all the more for her ability to live without the need to drag her sadness out into the open."
Epstein ends Gossip by wondering whether the rest of us have become too caught up in the ways of rumor. He points out gossip's negative effects on our national news and on our view of the world, and wonders whether our penchant for gossip has resulted in a dumbing down of cultural life. He concludes that gossip, which Matt Drudge calls "unedited information," is here to stay and that we will continue to indulge ourselves because we delight in the sordid and the strange.
Yet it is the story of Epstein's mother which sticks in the mind. Epstein is correct: there is a nobility to her silence. We can keep our secrets and the secrets of others. For those of us who aren't celebrities, who don't make a billion dollars a year or act in blockbuster movies, reticence is still an option. No one shoves a microphone at us, no one asks us revealing questions below the bright lights of a television studio, no one forces us to reveal confidences or spread rumors.
We have a choice. And for those who still value privacy, mum's the word.
Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit by Joseph Epstein. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 256 pages.