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.

Taking a trip down dark, violent passages

This novel contains an endorsement from the late William Gay that tweaked my interest. I immediately bought the book. Gay says, “The Devil All the Time hits you like a telegram from Hell slid under your door at three o’clock in the morning.” Another review concluded that reading Pollock’s novel was like “reading Flannery O”Conner without the Catholicism.” What we have here, then, is the existential landscape of the “Southern Gothic” joined with the mindless brutality of “Natural Born Killers.” If you are a reader who looks for novels that are spiritually uplifting and are designed to reflect hope and redemptive themes, then you should avoid The Devil All the Time as if its pages were impregnated with the Ebola virus.

Pollock’s characters are often terrifying; other times, they possess a pathetic innocence ... the kind that renders them hapless victims. Here are some of his most arresting and memorable characters: The duo, Brother Roy Lafferty and Brother Theodore Daniels, spread the word of God in the Coal Creek Holiness Church Sanctified in Meade, Ohio (circa l950s). The Rev. Roy keeps the attention of his audience by throwing handfuls of poisonous spiders into the congregation.  Brother Theodore, confined to a wheelchair since he swallowed a dose of strychnine in one of the Rev’s Roy’s revivals, plays the guitar. Alarmed by a steady decrease in his congregation, the Rev. Roy decides to promote himself with a miracle ... raising the dead. Brother Theodore suggests that Roy should kill his new wife and “bring her back.” The Rev. Roy does just that ... or tries. The religious duo buries the dead girl and depart ... allegedly for Mexico.

Willard Russell, a psychologically scarred WWII veteran, returns to Meade after the war, marries and struggles to make a life for his wife and son, Arvin. When his wife gets cancer, Willard launches an impassioned appeal to God to save his wife. At first he conducts marathon praying sessions at a “prayer log” in the woods, but gradually he begins to bring sacrifices to the prayer log — rabbits, squirrels, butchered hunting dogs ... all of which he hangs on wooden crosses or from the branches of trees. When his wife’s condition grows worse, he decides to bring a human sacrifice to his prayer log and murders his landlord, an unpleasant, greedy lawyer (who has offered to give Willard his rented shack if Willard will kill the lawyer’s unfaithful wife and her lover).

When his wife dies, the distraught Willard decides to make the ultimate sacrifice, cuts his own throat and leaves behind a 9-year-old, Arvin, who becomes the central character in The Devil All the Time. When Arvin leads the local sheriff, Lee Bodecker, to the prayer log and his father’s body, the bewildered law officer stares at the decaying sacrifices hanging in the trees and asks the boy, “What the hell is this?”

“A prayer log,” says Arvin, “but it don’t work.”

Then there are Carl and Sandy, a grotesque couple who have a secret life as “self-styled serial murderers.” On weekends, they troll the side roads of surrounding states, looking for “models” ... young hitchhikers. Sandy is the “bait,” who seduces the young men; Carl is the photographer who records the encounter and then tortures and murders the victims. For Carl, all of this is controlled by some spiritual and/or religious force that directs him to his victims by secret signs and clues. During the week, the couple operates a tavern in Meade where Sandy’s brother is Sheriff Bodecker.

At this point, approximately one-third of the way into this surreal and hypnotic novel, when the narrative is acquiring the rocking speed of a souped-up roadster with a gutted muffler, it’s time to cease revealing the action and make a few observations on this novel’s merits. Instead of launching an all-out attack on the “shameful depiction of Southern degeneracy,” I feel constrained to note that this is a brilliant novel. In some ways it is similar to the cult film, “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” by Andrew Douglas, which presents the rural South as a place in which “Christ, mysticism, superstition and the yin-yang forces of the sacred and the profane combine, creating a delicate blend of the real and the unreal, the known and the unknown.”

For those who live in the rural south, especially in the impoverished and remote areas, there are only two choices. “Choose Jesus or choose hell.” Readers who are familiar with the geography will readily recognize Meade, Ohio, since it has hundreds of clones. “A little paper mill town ... that smelled like rotten eggs. Strangers complained about the stench, but the locals like to brag about the sweet smell of money.” As Pollock catalogs Meade’s recreational opportunities, which seem to be limited to attending church, visiting the funeral home or consuming a case of beer on the back porch, many readers may feel an eerie sense of the familiar. Pollock moves with confidence through swamps, “school bus-littered junkyards and off-the-highway bars where drugs, sex and Pentecostal passions freely mingle.”

This is the natural habitat of Pollock’s characters. They are shaped and molded by dark, immutable forces which compel them to either go on mystical quests or murderous rampages. It is a place where the devout and the demonic constantly intersect. Billboards and rustic signs proclaim “Jesus is Coming,” and the local denizens readily admit either a reverence for heaven or a fondness for hell.

It may well be that many potential readers will be repulsed by the violence and otherworldly spirituality of The Devil All the Time. However, if a few thoughtful souls find a disturbing power in these stories of death and heartbreak, I would like to urge you to type this magical mantra into your Google: “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.”  Spend a little time with Andrew Douglas on YouTube in the company of Harry Crews, Tin Finger and a collection of deranged misfits who have looked into the core of their being and found both lyric beauty and terror.


The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. Doubleday, 2012. 251 pages.

A newfound power in 20 minutes a day

Twenty minutes a day.

In early January, writing in my book column for this paper, I made a New Year’s resolution to read 20 minutes a day from a bucket-list of books, heavy tomes which I’d laid aside in the corners of my mind to read but which seemed destined to go on collecting dust until I too became dust. After compiling what seemed a formidable list and a simple rule that allowed me to make up any missed sessions by week‘s end, I began reading Jane Austen’s Emma.

The time commitment was a crucial element in my project. Given my schedule, 30 minutes a day of unbroken reading from a classic was a daunting prospect. That daily half an hour would hang from me, I knew, like a convict’s chains. Fifteen minutes a day seemed weak and somehow formulaic, a quarter hour administered daily like medicine. No — 20 minutes a day struck me as a good compromise, a tough, viable, and worthy ambition.

The results? In the past two months, in addition to the magazines and books I read for pleasure, the books I read for review, and the books I read for the classes I teach, I have also read in their entirety Jane Austen’s Emma, Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy, and The New Testament’s Book of Acts and Pauline Epistles. Though I usually fit the reading into my schedule — I frequently accomplished my 20-minute stint while riding the elliptical at the local Y — I did miss some days but was diligent about making them up before the week’s end. (This past week was particularly difficult for work-related reasons, which means that I must in the next two days double my sessions).

And what have I learned from my reading? From the books themselves I have gained several insights. From Emma, which was the only book on the list which I had previously read, I learned first what I already knew, that I will never join that company of devotees who elevate Austen to the inner circle of literary gods. I admire her talents from afar, much as I admire certain saints, but am not enticed to devote to her more of my time or study. Yet I did find fascinating the comparison between her age and our own. Separated by less than two centuries, the world of Jane Austen seems as removed from ours as that of Caesar. Continually while I read the book, I would stack her era of leisurely hours, slow news, and careful courtship against our own harried, internet-driven, sex-drenched age, and would find myself envying Austen’s characters their more deliberate days.

From Boethius, the sixth century philosopher and politico who wrote his Consolations while imprisoned and awaiting execution, I studied again the old lesson of what matters in this world. A Christian and a philosopher, Boethius in Consolations engages in a dialogue with Lady Philosophy regarding the virtues, the ladder of wisdom, and the relationship between free will and predestination hooked me. The condemned man writes simply and in that catechetic dialogue practiced by the ancients, and I was able to follow his arguments until nearly the last, when he lost me on his explanation of free will and predestination. (Lady Philosophy kindly let me off the hook when she declared that God, who is outside of time, sees in a different way than humans do).

From Acts and the Pauline Letters, fragments of which I hear frequently at Mass, I came to realize how much a rebel St. Paul was. In Acts he is always just a step ahead of one mob or another, and in his letters he is constantly exhorting his followers to ignore the differences between the “circumcised” and the “uncircumcised,” and to pursue instead the “new way” as laid down by Christ. Paul fully lives up to his reputation for being harsh on matters of sex, and he strikes me as a man with whom a supper shared might not be the most laughter-filled evening of my life, but he is also clearly filled with the love of his new faith and eager to communicate its radical new way to those mired in old prejudices. (I also learned that the Bible remains loaded with a dynamite all its own. When reading it at the gym, I was aware several times of nervous glances from those exercising around me. “Uh oh,“ their faces said. “Another religious fanatic.“ Twice my reading roused brief conversations, not, unfortunately, with lovely women, but with one man who seemed permanently angry with God and with another who was truly as nuts as I undoubtedly appeared to the non-believers around me).

My greatest lesson came not from the books, however, but from the power of 20 minutes. I am a slow learner at times, but I have finally realized the value of a space of time, even 20 minutes, when set under the throne of discipline. Reading 20 minutes a day for two months has allowed me to absorb truths from a 19th century spinster, a sixth century philosopher, and a first century tentmaker. More importantly, my little experiment has shown me the power of applied time. Suddenly many things seem possible — not only for me but for others as well. Want to learn to tango? Twenty minutes a day for a couple of months will bring you onto the dance floor. Aikido? Twenty minutes a day will eventually find you king of the dojo. Cooking? Add twenty minutes to your culinary preparation each evening, and you can break away from those frozen pizzas and dull salads. From flower arranging to piano playing, from memorizing poetry to bumping up your math grades, from hitting three-pointers to deepening your prayer life: 20 minutes a day will do the trick.

And now — back to Dante and a trip like none I’ve ever taken.


The Consolations of Philosophy by Boethius translated by Richard Green. Prentice Hall; 1 edition, 1962. 160 pages.

Book tells the story of a young boy’s journey

Fifteen-year-old Charlie Thompson is always hungry. Luckily, he is blessed with a high metabolism rate, so the excessive amounts of junk food and Spagetti-Os that he consumes does not alter his weight. Charlie rationalizes that he wants to gain weight anyway, so he can play football, but there is considerable evidence that his hunger is caused by deeper needs: the need to be loved, valued, respected ... perhaps even given a safe home, companionship and a sense of security.

Essentially, Charlie is an abandoned child. After his mother left and never returned, Charlie’s life became increasingly unstable. His father, an irresponsible provider and womanizer, often left his son alone for long periods with a few dollars and no groceries. Despite his growing anxiety about his father long absences, Charlie treasures the few good memories of fishing trips and camping.

However, motivated by hunger and boredom, the boy finally finds his way to a dilapidated racetrack where he manages to find work cleaning stalls and grooming the horses. His employer is a repugnant man named Del Montgomery, and although he occasionally gives Charlie money, the amount is scant and unpredictable. Drunken, irritable and given to obscene diatribes against everything from women, horses and debtors, Del frequently abuses and demeans the boy.

When Charlie’s father is murdered by an irate husband (a huge Samoan), the frightened boy quickly becomes both desperate and paranoid. Without a home, he tries to live at the racetrack, hiding his meager belongings in the tack-room. He begins to steal groceries (mostly canned soup and bread) and develops a talent for stealing uneaten food left by customers in fast-food establishments. Although he is often caught, he manages to evade social workers. After Del discovers that he is living at the racetrack, he refuses to pay the boy. Becoming increasingly desperate, Charlie begins to break into local homes when the residents are at work. He takes food from the refrigerators, takes a shower, and after washing his clothes, he cleans the house and sneaks away.

In those brief moments when Charlie is warm and well fed, he often dreams about an aunt ... Margy Thompson, his father’s sister. In her visits to the home, she had taken a interest in Charlie, taking him to movies and buying him clothes. After a bitter argument with his father, she had never returned, but Charlie fantasized about her, dreaming that she lived alone somewhere in Wyoming and she would take him in and perhaps he would enroll in the local high school and play football. However, Charlie’s dreams are also haunted by nightmares of the huge Samoan who killed his father.

The heart of this marvelous novel concerns the relationship between Charlie and a quarter-horse named Lean on Pete. Although tending to dozens of horses, Charlie is drawn to the horse because he identifies with it.

Charlie quickly learns that race horses are only well-treated when they are winners. Lean on Me is a winner, but like Charlie, he is nervous and “easily spooked.” When Lean on Pete develops a nervous condition that could easily lead to his being killed ... like other unproductive horses that are not “earning their keep,” Charlie becomes obsessed with a plan for saving the horse. When Del orders the boy to load Lean on Me for a trip to track for another buyer,” Charlie does the only thing he can. He steals Lean on Me.

At this point, Lean on Pete becomes a “journey novel.” Charlie and his horse begin a trek from Portland to Rock Springs, Wyoming. It is a daunting trip, fraught with peril, and Charlie seems destined to encounter every cruel and unsavory aspect of being homeless. Predators abound, and long after this hapless horse has ceased to be Charlie’s responsibility, Charlie travels through deserts, slums, youth centers and the dark streets where he is often beaten, frequently frightened and always hungry.

Despite the fact that this gentle boy rarely encounters kindness and sympathy, it does happen. Strangers feed him, give him a place to sleep, and give him money. What is most significant about these “random acts of kindness,” is the fact that they exist at all. Charlie Thompson’s grim journey seems to be designed to make him a hardened criminal, for along the way, survival requires that he learn to lie, cheat and even bludgeon a psychotic attacker with a car jack. Time and time again, he encounters callous indifference and cruelty; yet when kindness is offered, he invariably accepts it with gratitude.

The author, Willy Vlautin, is being hailed as a new Steinbeck and/or a disciple of Ramond Carver. These comparisons are valid since Vlautin’s writing reflects the same compassion for the powerless — the people in American society who are defenseless. Vlautin is mindful of the tragic plight of the homeless, of abandoned children and abused women. There is some talk of making Lean on Pete required reading in those levels of society where Charlie Thompson’s brothers and sisters live. There are countless thousands who, unlike Charlie, do not have an Aunt Margy who will rescue them from those dark streets.

In conclusion, is should be noted that Lean on Pete contains a graphic description of Portland Meadows, a dilapidated racetrack in Oregon that refuses to close. Over the years, it has become a gathering place for the rejects of the racing world. Designed for 10,000 people, this track continues to operate with a regular audience of less than one thousand. There are over 1,000 horses at Portland Meadows, but they are not the pampered winners at other tracks.

Vlautin’s description of this anachronism is painfully accurate for the Meadows embodies a generous number of denizens like Del Montgomery who treat their horses and employees with abuse and cruelty. Doubtless, there are jockeys and groomers as benighted as those in Lean on Pete. However, as the Steinbeck quote accompanying this review, that is not the total picture. Sometimes, beneath the rusty exterior, Charlie has brief encounters with human compassion.


Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin. Harper, 2010. 277 pages

How an enduring writer created himself

There are many reasons to love the writing of Ray Bradbury. His early short stories — science fiction “lite,” tales of his midwestern youth, accolades to writers like Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, Twilight Zone accounts of life in mid-twentieth century America — remain in print and still attract teenage readers outside schoolhouse hallways. His jeremiads in these stories against the modern mechanization of the soul remain fresh and lively even 50 years after they first appeared in print. His style, a sort of splashing of words onto paper — has an American writer ever enjoyed such a love affair with the exclamation point? — still entertains. Bradbury has said in numerous interviews that writers shouldn’t write unless it’s “fun,” a refreshing take since so many writers over the last hundred years have spoken of the difficulty and angst of writing, and this sense of fun comes to vivid life in Bradbury’s writing.

In the negative column is the fact that Bradbury’s stories and novels of the last 30 years are weakly plotted self-parodies. Most of these saw print because of the writer’s reputation rather than their worth. Any reader who has followed Bradbury can find the weakness in these more recent stories in their syntax alone: the thin paragraphs, the false excitement in some of the diction, the tired exclamations.

Yet the prose of the younger Bradbury still has a spring-like air about it, and it is this writer that Jonathan R. Eller examines in a new biography Becoming Ray Bradbury (ISBN 978-0-252-03629-3, $34.95). Fittingly published by the University of Illinois — Ray Bradbury spent his early youth in Waukegan, Illinois — this rich, dense account should appeal to a broad spectrum of Bradbury fans. Eller, a professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University and the cofounder of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, spent hundreds of hours interviewing Bradbury’s friends, other writers, his principal biographer, his wife Maggie (now deceased), his daughter Alexandra, and Ray Bradbury himself.

From these sources Eller has given us a fine look into the life, thoughts, and stories from his birth in 1920 to the 1950s. He shows us how the boy from Illinois who came of age in California created himself as a writer, following the advice of a dozen different mentors while reading himself into an education. Bradbury, like Hemingway, is an autodidact; he never had the money to go to a university, but instead worked after high school selling newspapers on a Los Angeles sidewalk while enrolling in that least-expensive of educational institutions: the public library. Eventually, after a period of trial-and-error, Bradbury realized that the richness of his own life — his love of fantasy and mystery, of dinosaurs and space travel, of great writers like Dickens, Shakespeare, Shaw, Hemingway, and Wolfe, his boyhood days in Illinois — was the palette from which he should paint his stories. He wrote daily in those years, building his stories from a variety of techniques like word association and creative mental play.

In describing how Bradbury refused to be categorized as a genre writer — in this case, of the “weird tale” — Eller sums up some of Bradbury’s approaches to work in the middle of Becoming Ray Bradbury. He writes that Bradbury was “… ignoring reductionist genre rules and traditions whenever they interfered with his own intuitive approach to writing. He continued to minimize the art of plotting, for his Muse worked best when the characters seemed to write their own stories. He would continue to use the loose framework of science fiction, or the weird tale, or even the occasional backdrop of noir crime, but he was writing about people rather than about science, or terror, or detection.”

Becoming Ray Bradbury should appeal not only to readers of Bradbury’s work, but to anyone interested in writers and writing. We can see in this book how a young man became a writer and how writing itself, with all its travail and uncertainty, can bring to its creator a great sense of joy.


In How Do You Kill 11 Million People: Why The Truth Matters More Than You Think (ISBN 978-0-8499-4835-0, $14.99), Andy Andrews, author of The Noticer and The Traveler’s Gift, has written what amounts to an essay published in the form of a book. This is a small volume of only 80 pages, and the word count per page runs to less than half of that found in most books.

Despite its brevity, however, How Do You Kill 11 Million People? — the title refers to those murdered by the Nazis, not only the Jews, but the other millions of people thrown into concentration camps for their beliefs — serves as a sobering reminder about the value of truth in our personal and public lives. Reminding us of Hitler’s remark in Mein Kampf, that “The great masses of people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one,” Andrews then asks the question: What happens to a society in which truth is absent?

We live now in a society in which truth may not be absent (though a good many people, perhaps a majority, deny its existence), but in which it can be so covered up by information, conflicting points of views, and outright deceptions, that it might as well be absent. Our politicians and many in our “news” media deliberately mislead us, but what is worse, we often allow them to do so. We expect to be deceived, and like the readers of the newspaper Pravda (“The Truth”) in Soviet Russia, we find ourselves having to read between the lines to dig out the real truth behind a government policy or some story on the six o’clock news.

Perhaps the real value to this thin little slip of a book are the questions asked in the Reader’s Guide at the end. These questions and the ease with which the book can be read make it an ideal tool for book clubs, the classroom, and political discussions. To begin to reflect on these questions of what truth means to us, what lies we ourselves have told and why, and what steps might be taken to bring truth to the fore in the public square, is to begin looking at ourselves and our present difficulties in a new light.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Book delves into a dark corner of our world

Thursday. Throughout this anguished and gripping tale, this day of the week, Thursday” is usually italicized, suggesting that it has some special (and possibly sinister) significance. Specifically, it is the day that Eva Khatchadourian’s son, Kevin (two days shy of his 16th birthday) will kill 11 people. Taking the form of an epistolary novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin consists of a series of letters written by Eva to her “estranged” husband, Franklin. In essence, these letters represent Eva’s painful attempts to discover the reasons for her son’s decision to murder nine of his classmates and two adults. It is a daunting task.

By turns witty, arrogant, defiant and defensive, Eva records the details of her life in an attempt to find clues ... something that answers the provocative question, why? Where did it begin? Why did her morose and inverted son plan and stage a massacre in a school gymnasium? As she slowly sifts the chronology of her life ... the details of her marriage, revisiting every major and minor conflict, she searches for the flaw that led to disaster.

As Eva recounts her successful career as writer of a travel book series entitled “A Wing and a Prayer” — books which provided guidance to “economically disadvantaged travelers” — Eva recalls the factors attending her decision to have a baby: how she became increasingly aware of her biological clock (she is in her late 30s) and develops a devious scheme to have a baby despite Franklin’s ambivalence about parenthood. However, since they are wealthy, both would-be parents are confident that they can provide an exceptionally stable environment for a child. Eva plans Kevin’s birth as carefully as she orchestrates and markets her travel books.

However, there are disquieting factors from the beginning. Kevin rejects his mother’s breast and will only accept formula. Eventually, he also rejects toilet training and wears diapers (which he soils at an alarming rate) until he is nearly 6. Babysitters and care-takers quit. Daycare teachers complain of Kevin’s “asocial behavior,” and though he resists learning to talk, he perfects an irritating ability to “mimic” his mother’s speech in a sing-song voice — “Nah, neh, nah, nah, Neh, naw ...”— a talent that she suspects is a calculated attempt to anger her. Distressed by Kevin’s listless manner and his growing hostility to others, Eva begins to wonder if it is possible for a child to actually resent being born. Certainly, there seems to be little in life that pleases the sullen boy. By the time he begins school, he has already developed a bored and indifferent response to all attempts to elicit his interest: “Whatever,” he says, giving the response of the jaded and bored teenager.

Gradually, Eva realizes that instead of suffering from “attention deficient” or any of a host of mental impairments, Kevin is very intelligent. In addition, his indifference to his school, family, clothing and music is genuine. Ruefully, Eva notes that she had her son tested for Downs Syndrome, but “did not have him tested for malice, spiteful indifference, or for congenital meanness.” In time, it becomes evident that Kevin sees the world as “pointless,” viewing it with either hostility or repugnance.

However, he has an ominous fascination for the rash of school shootings that are happening with alarming frequency. He becomes a kind of authority on each incident. He can list all of the “vital statistics” — age of shooter, number of victims, choice of weapons, etc. — smugly noting that he is contemptuous of suicides and killers who leave elaborate notes. Kevin prefers motives that are “unknown, hidden and/or mysterious.”

In conjunction with Kevin’s growing antipathy for the world around him, Eva is alarmed by a series of “accidents” and disturbing events in which her son may have played a part. Kevin’s sister is blinded in one eye as a result of a suspicious accident; an unknown person plants incriminating evidence in the lockers of popular students, evidenced that suggests that they are budding terrorists or racists. Kevin acquires a “friend” who appears to be as maladjusted as he is, and the two boys create a plot that involves accusing a teacher of sexual improprieties; the local police show up inquiring about an alleged “prank.” Someone is dropping rocks and bricks from an overpass onto motorists.

Unfortunately, Eva’s growing distress is not shared by Franklin. What she sees as danger signals, Franklin sees as the robust vitality of a growing boy. When Eva confronts Kevin, Franklin invariably springs to his defense and assumes the role of a tolerant father who encourages his son’s interest in hunting by buying him an assortment of weapons ... including a crossbow. Franklin also promotes a series of father-son activities such as camping and visiting historic sites … including Vietnam. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of this relationship is the growing evidence that Kevin despises his father and will create a special punishment for him.

As the fateful date approaches — April 8, 1999 — Eva becomes increasingly anxious. Later, she will recall in detail the last family breakfast. Especially noteworthy is Kevin’s remark about his mother’s affectionate goodbye to Celia, the sweet and timid daughter. “Sure you don’t want to say goodbye to Celia one more time?” In the years to come, she will wonder if Kevin was hinting about the unthinkable acts that were to come.

We Need to Talk about Kevin will probably become a celebrated and hotly-debated book in the coming months. The fact that there is already a movie version in the theaters, featuring the brilliant actress Tilda Swinton, suggests that Hollywood is mindful of the fact that both the film and the book may prove to be “significant.” Eva, faced with the decision of hiring a lawyer to defend Kevin, observes that “We live in a time where lawyers see trials as games, not morality plays.” She is right, of course, when she continues, “We live in a country that does not discriminate between fame and infamy.”

A number of critics are comparing We Need to Talk about Kevin to works such as Rosemary’s Baby, and admittedly, I was reminded of a Ray Bradbury short story, “The Little Assassin” and a marvelous book by William March (circa 1950s), The Bad Seed. However, Lionel Shriver’s novel is no mere “spook” tale. Although it is a disquieting novel with a “Grand Guignol” ending, there is more here than a momentary scare. It poses a provocative question: why are these massacres happening? Is there a hidden cord, a motif that bounds them together? Is it, as Shriver suggests, a desperate yearning to become “special” in some way in a world where they feel both purposeless ... and anonymous?


We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Harper Perennial 2012. 500 pages.

Some novels requires a certain tolerance

Recently I watched several early episodes of “Blue Bloods,” a fine television series centered on a New York family with a tradition of law enforcement. The father is the New York City Police commissioner, his father is a retired policemen, and his children include a detective, an assistant district attorney, a rookie cop, and a policeman killed on duty. The series is justly touted for its realism regarding both police work and family dynamics. Yet in one of these episodes, the detective participates in a raid; he runs alone up a fire escape to enter through the window of an apartment while an entire contingent of fellow officers breaks through the front door. In all the episodes I’ve seen so far, the commissioner, a widower, is dating a television reporter, but still wears what definitely appears to be a wedding band on his left hand.

Questions: why is the detective running up the fire escape without backup? And why does the commissioner’s lover ignore the wedding band?

Hollywood often gives us movies or television shows in which coincidence is not justified, logic is sacrificed for emotion, and plot and character motivation is as flimsy as a doublewide in a tornado. Style trumps story, drama and excitement run roughshod over reason. Sometimes the magic works, and we are tricked against our better judgment into accepting certain premises, but just as often the curtain blows aside and we see the man working the controls. The magic ends, and we are left with a piece of creaky, irritating machinery.

Unfortunately, these same defects appear in some of the novels we may read.

In Carol Goodman’s The Ghost Orchid, set in an artist’s colony in upstate New York, the story grips the reader from the first page. The narrator of this Gothic tale, Ellis Brooks, is at work on her first novel. Goodman has a genuine talent for creating believable female protagonists, and through Ellis we come to know the other members of the colony: the renowned novelist Nat Loomis; the landscape architect David Fox; the eccentric and lovable poet Zalman Bronsky; the brooding biographer Bethesda Graham.

As in her outstanding first novel, The Lake of Dead Languages, Goodman displays a generous talent for creating tension, both among the characters and in the mystic elements — ghosts, mediums, a past-haunted present — surrounding the Bosco estate. The reader becomes caught up in the lives of the artists as they struggle to unravel the mysteries of the estate with its secret rooms, underground tunnels, mysterious sculptures, and living secrets.

About three quarters of the way through the novel, however, Ellis’ ability to “read” the other characters and to summon up the estate’s dark past become tiresome rather than intriguing. Worse, the connections of the other characters to the estate — by genealogical descent, by a past of which they are unaware — finally become too unreal to be viable. Worse still, for a reader skeptical about séances, poltergeists, and other supernatural phenomena, the last few pages of The Ghost Orchid become a tremendous cheat. The characters suddenly turn to cardboard, the plot to air, and the reader leaves the book feeling slightly ridiculous for having devoted several hours of breath and effort to so awful a contraption.

In The Affair: A Jack Reacher Novel, Lee Childs takes us back to 1997 when Reacher is still working as a special investigator in the Army. Sent to Mississippi to look into the murders of young women near an Army base serving as headquarters for secret missions in the Middle East, Reacher falls for the town’s sheriff, ex-Marine Elizabeth Devereux. Between bouts in the bedroom the two of them try to track down the killers. The Affair is vintage Reacher: finely-tuned dialogue, beautiful women who want to take Reacher to the sheets, Reacher’s own eccentricities (even here, while in the Army, he buys his clothing at thrift shops and throws away his old clothes rather than washing them and using them again).

From my reading of earlier Reacher novels, I had already learned that I needed to suspend certain conventional ideas regarding plot. In one novel, for example, Childs has Reacher randomly get off the bus in a small town. Before the novel is finished and the bodies are stacked higher than the bus, Reacher discovers his brother, a special agent, dead in the town’s morgue. To enjoy the novel, then, means that we must overlook the fact that the odds of this occurrence are spectacularly high.

But in The Affair, about midway through the story, I came to the final end of tolerance for Jack Reacher and his creator. Here Reacher has talked with a young black man, the brother of one of the murder victims, and has encouraged him to join the Army. The young man goes to the nearby post to enlist, but is shot dead by a group of vigilantes guarding the property. Reacher tracks these men down, discovers why they have been stationed around the post, then shoots one of them in cold blood and tells the others to haul the body away and never return.

It was on that page that I closed the book and promised myself never again to read one of these novels. Here we have a military policeman murdering a citizen and then casually telling his two buddies to take the body away. There are apparently no consequences for this killing; I didn’t read any farther into the book, but the other Reacher novels still depict our man running around the country single-handedly killing platoons of bad guys and eradicating evil. The sheer numbing stupidity of such a plot twist, and all the other unbelievable situations in this book and others in the series, have finally brought me back to my senses.

The appropriately titled The Affair brought an end to my own affair with these books. Unlike the traditional breakup line, however, I will say in ending our relationship: “It’s not me. It’s you.”


The Affair: A Jack Reacher Novel by Lee Childs. Delacorte Press , 2011. 416 pages.

Well-crafted stories about the dark side of life

Several months ago, I reviewed Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, and received an unusual number of responses from readers. In general, the responses were positive. However, there were a few readers who found Woodrell’s description of Appalachian (Ozark) culture distorted and misguided. However, others defended Woodrell’s descriptions of Appalachian life in Winter’s Bone as painfully accurate.  A few spoke with some bitterness about their experiences as “newcomers.”  At length, the whole debate wound down, but it is by no means resolved.

Now comes a new work by Woodrell, a collection of twelve short stories entitled The Outlaw Album. Like many fans of this author, I had thought that Winter’s Bone, despite the bleakness of Ree Dolly’s life, contained a powerful redemptive theme — one that suggested that this teenager would not only survive, but would become the means of saving her family. In effect, there was something innate in Ree Dolly’s genes that would sustain her. She would find a way to keep the land and protect her brothers.

Well, there is nothing in The Outlaw Album that speaks of redemption. These beautifully crafted short stories nestle together like 12 black pearls in a velvet-lined box ... luminous, lethal and uncompromisingly dark. The themes are familiar ones: a conflict with a new neighbor that turns into a murder; a wheel-chair bound serial killer; a campground manager who finds himself in a deadly conflict with a marauding gang; a storeowner, grieving for his missing daughter, and becoming increasingly paranoid as the years pass, wondering if his daughter’s killer is one of his customers. Then, there is the man who sets fire to a real estate development in an attempt to return the land to the way it looked before the developers came. On and on, these spare, dark tales unwind ... each a testament to the infinite variations in the nature of evil. Is it inherited or imported?  Is it a random virus or a judgment?

The protagonist of “Black Step,” an Iraqi veteran who has decided to re-enlist, relates the tragic aftermath of his father’s suicide and how his ailing mother painted the back-step black because it was stained with his father’s blood. After a life-time of raising livestock, the Girard farm is failing and is surrounded by new homes and real estate developments. Before leaving, the Iraqi veteran notes that the farm and the family cemetery appears to be sinking out of sight and observes that he “likes graves that disappear.”

“Night Stand” is possibly the most frightening story in this collection. It is narrated by a man named Pelham, who awakes one night to find a naked man standing by his bed growling. Seizing a knife, Pelham stabs the man to death. Belatedly, Pelham learns that the dead man was an ex-Marine (like Pelham). Eventually he comes to feel that he has been manipulated by a deranged man who wanted to commit suicide. In his search to find why the dead man “selected” him, Pelham befriends the victim’s father. As a consequence, both learn a heartbreaking truth.

“Two Things” proves to be possibly the most despairing story in this collection. Essentially, it defines a meeting between a social worker and the father of a boy named Cecil who is up for parole. The social worker has brought a scrapbook filled with Cecil’s “creative works” ... poems and drawings that allegedly bear witness to Cecil’s innate creative talent. The social worker wants the father to speak on behalf of his son, but she learns that Cecil’s family no longer feels that he can be redeemed. The father says, “He ain’t getting no more poems off of us.”

“The Horse in Our History” attempts to reconcile all of the contradictory folklore in a small Texas town regarding a legendary horse, a black jockey and a Afro-American prostitute named Dyna Flo. Was there an historic race? Was the dead man found by the railroad tracks the jockey? Did the town die because Dyna Flo was ostracized? Was Bleu the name of the horse or the owner?  Is it possible that the horse never existed and the fabulous tale told by the town folks is merely a desperate effort to keep the past alive by making it colorful?

“Woe to Live On” recounts the history of Coleman Younger, an enigmatic outlaw who rode with Quantrill’s Raiders and participated in some of the most horrifying atrocities of the Civil War. Coleman’s biographer, a man named Roedel, attempts to “honor” Younger and his vicious companions by carving driftwood images — a process that he describes as a means “whereby the large is rendered small.” As Roedel whittles and talks about the life of Coleman Younger, we learn that Roedel was a party to some of the war’s most shameful events, including mass executions and scalpings.

Particularly well done is “Dream Spot,” which relates the final episode in the life of a serial killer named Dalrymple and his female companion, Janet. Dalrymple specializes in the murder of hitch-hikers and unsuspecting motorists — that is until this final day when he finds a woman in a long coat standing on a lonely road, a woman who seems to be “predestined” to meet him here on this day.

The character Sleepy in the story “One United” enjoys his job of intimidating a farm family who are scheduled to testify in court. “Do I smell your barn burning?” asks Sleepy as he stands on the farmer’s porch. The frightened family realizes that if they speak out about some of the criminal acts carried out by the banks, they will lose their farm.

I found no stories that could be described as “uplifting and hopeful” in The Outlaw Album. Instead, I found 12 dark fables that provide proof that the world is going to hell. Like Cormac McCarthy, Woodrell not only sees evidence that the world is spiraling into chaos; he believes that we are long past a point where we could reverse the approaching apocalypse. It seems unlikely that there is a significant audience for a message like that.

The Outlaw Album is a paradox: dark and depressing, but beautifully crafted.


The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell. Little, Brown and Company, 2011. 168 pages

Jane Austen decoded for men

Of female writers who appeal the least to the young men in my seminars, Jane Austen surely holds first place. Many of these male students can relate to the work of Annie Dillard or Anne Tyler, and more than a few over the years have taken to Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, if only because of Heathcliff and the author’s magnificently wild prose, but none of these young men have evinced, at least publicly, any interest in becoming, as have so many women, members of the Austenite cult. Even I, though I have found on several readings great treasures in Pride and Prejudice, have in the past mostly taught Austen because the book so gratifies my female students.

In his new book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter (ISBN 978-1-59420-288-9, $25.95), William Deresciewicz offers a perspective that may allow men to regard Jane Austen as more than just the queen of “chick-lit.”

When Deresciewicz first introduces himself in this book, he is an immature and arrogant graduate student in literature who is forced to take a course featuring Jane Austen’s Emma, a story which at first seemed to “consist of nothing but chitchat among a group of commonplace characters in a country village.” Bored at first by Emma’s willful attempts to change the lives of those around her, Deresciewicz soon realized that Emma’s cruelty and her contempt for some of her familiars were a mirror image of his own feelings. Moreover, he understood that Austen had written about everyday things and people because “she wanted to show how important they really are.”

Emma led Deresciewicz deeper into Austen territory, first to Pride and Prejudice, and then to the others: Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility. He fell so in love with the long-deceased author that he soon decided to include her in his dissertation, and found himself immersed in her life, reading biographies and poring over her correspondence.

Deresiewicz divides A Jane Austen Education into chapters devoted to each of these novels. Skillfully weaving his own stories into his criticism of Austen’s stories, he shows us how her stories and characters affected him, making him a better man. From Emma, for example, he learns how to pay closer attention to the everyday events and people that touch his life, that it truly is the little things in life that count the most. From Pride and Prejudice, and the mistakes in judgment made by Elizabeth Bennett and her revelation regarding those mistakes, Deresiewicz realizes that he himself has often let his own prejudices blind him to reality. “She (Austen) wanted us,” Deresiewicz writes, “to override our emotions, which dwell within us and urge us to do what we want, and replace them with reason — with logic, with evidence, with objectivity — which stands outside us and doesn’t care what we want.”

A Jane Austen Education is also a tale of a young man not only becoming aware of his own flaws, but of learning how to love. Here an older professor helps Deresiewicz grapple with Austen and the lessons to be learned there. From Northanger Abbey the professor quotes Catherine, a central figure in the book: “I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.” The professor points out to Deresiewicz that Catherine had learned to love the hyacinth, and as another character tells her, “Who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose?…The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.” This, says the professor, is the central theme and lesson of Northanger Abbey.

From Sense and Sensibility Deresiewicz learns perhaps his most important lesson in the art of love, particularly as it relates to women. Austen lived at the beginning of the Romantic period, when feelings trumped reason, yet Austen herself came down firmly on the side of reason in regard to love. The head, according to Austen, trumps the heart — or at least equals it. This is not, on Austen’s part, a cold, calculating reason, but rather, a realization that we should fall in love with a person’s character more deeply than we account their looks, that “falling in love” is all too often temporary while to love someone is permanent. “Austen was not against romance,“ Deresiewicz writes. “She was against romantic mythology.“

The best love, Deresiewicz realizes from his reading of the novels, develops first in friendship, in familiarity, in an evaluation of the character of another, from which there emerges the attraction of real love. “And that was the most momentous revelation of all,” Deresiewicz writes. “Not only does your happiness depend upon your choice of mate, your very self depends upon it — your character, your soul.”


A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter by William Deresciewicz. Penguin Press HC, 2011. 272 pages

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