Friday, April 4, 2014

Destiny intersects with passion in FALLOUT, an elegant,sexy,novel of 1970's London theater

Sadie Jones' FALLOUT (4/29, Harper Collins) begins with young Lucasz Kanowski in 1961 and ends with him in 1975, and, though the novel's set in London, it's not the swinging London of Carnaby Street but the insular theater world. FALLOUT is a backstage story of  young talented theater people with the will and personality to transform the London theater. How this group matures, as artists and human beings, learning about love, their potentials and limitations, reflects an era of tremendous social and political change.

Yet this novel is more about the personal that the political, which separates it from novels about the 60's and 70's, such as Charles Degleman's Gates of Eden, in which the two are intertwined. Leigh, the stage manager in FALLOUT, is shaped by Feminism in her responses to men and her fury at commercial "randy" material that degrades women. But what makes Jones' novel original is her focus on time and destiny; how they can intersect in ways we call  fate.  

In the beginning of FALLOUT she telescopes time to show young Lucasz on the day he breaks his mother out of an asylum, taking her to London to see paintings. He passes Nina Jacobs, who's dealing with her own mercurial mother, when she sees the boy with the strange woman wearing galoshes. In that uncanny moment, recognition passes between them. This emotional sense memory at a critical age, she's 11, he a year older, proves indelible.

That same sense of destiny grips Lucasz in 1968, on a rainy street, when he meets Paul Driscoll, a fledgling producer, and Leigh Radley, a Cleopatra-eyed, stage manager. Lost in his provincial town on their way to meet a local playwright, they stop Lucasz fordirections. Though he doesn't know them, he senses these people are his friends. And, when he hears them talk about theater, he feels he's come home.

FALLOUT  traces Lucasz's instinctual journey to London in search of his future. Amazingly, he finds Paul, moves into his apartment and the two decide to form a theater company. Leigh joins them, sharing their vision of  socially relevant plays, from coal miners to an adapatation of Kafka's Penal Colony. The producer and the secret playwright, who gets a job chucking trash, form an emotional triangle with Leigh. Though intensely attracted to Lucasz, she becomes the girlfriend of the "safer" Paul. For Lucasz, who survived a traumatic childhood, it feels good just to live with people he admires. Eventually, the trio have a hit play that's a critical success.

Parallel to their rise in the theater is that of Nina. The daughter of a bit part actress, always on the make for opportunities and men, which to her are often the same. Despite Nina's emotional fragility, she becomes an actress and is set on a path for success. But commercial theater is far from the search for meaning that drives Paul and Lucas' enterprise. And then she is mentored by a sleazy producer. Tony's almost a steriotype of the drug-taking, sexually excessive producer. Ambitious and driven, he's skilled at exploiting emotional vulnerability, as well as making money and building his prestige with the press. He rises in commercial theater, as does Nina, for whom he finds the perfect vehicle. She becomes a star but feels a prisoner in her marriage to this man.

When she and Lucasz again meet, he's a "hot" new  playwright and it's the attraction of sameness. Both are talented yet suffer emotional pain. Great passion is ignited that quickly threatens hard-won professional success, social status, and ultimately, their hold on sanity. What saves FALLOUT from romance cliches is how adept Jones is at showing kinds of ability and vulnerability. While Nina and Lucasz are similarly at risk, Paul and Leigh are better able to protect themselves. But their ability to "play it safe," becomes a different kind of pathology--a love more about service than affinity.

These nuances of character ring true and help with the authenticity of a familiar back stage story. Yes there's the ingenue that becomes a star but she's got an individual sensibility that makes you understand her strength and fear for her fragility. In Lucasz, the playwright, Sadie Jones creates a vision, that crosses Stoppard and Beckett and yet has a humor that goes with the character. Paul is also a person I might have met, a modest hard worker with a passion for his art form but he's so solidly middle-class you respect his values. Leigh is perhaps the most original creation. The daughter of a groundbreaking feminist, she must navigate between that ideology and the second class status of women, not just in theater but her era. Her tireless ingenuity, practical anger and uncompromising intelligence, make her transformation the one most unexpected and desired.

I found this book a wonderful read. Surprising depth of character, accidents of fate that feel like life, and emotional FALLOUT that heralds new maturity, make this a very satisfying novel. There's also lots of fun inside theater here for anyone who's had a creative life in the theater or just been a young artist.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Bridging the gap between past and present: GREAT EXPECTATIONS, LITTLE FAILURE and the DEATH OF BEES

In Dickens' GREAT EXPECTATIONS, the orphaned Pip has reconciled himself to a life at the forge, when he suddenly learns he has a fortune and is to become a gentleman. In LITTLE FAILURE, Gary Shteynart's memoir, Igor leaves his semi-invalid childhood in the Soviet Union and suddenly becomes Gary, a healthy school boy in the U.S.A. Two sisters, Marne and Nelly, hide their parents' bodies and suddenly are on their own, scrambling for survival in Glasgow, Scotland in DEATH OF BEES.

These are first-person narratives by bewildered children struggling to emotionally process the past, while trying to succeed in an unfathomable present. Bridging that gap is crucial. And when they fail, they fall into chasms of self-destruction. Pip dissipates his potential on a dandy's wardrobe, fine liquors, and elaborate suppers with actresses. Igor, who becomes Gary, since Igor is to Americans the name of a hunchback, finds himself a middle school pariah ridiculed as the Red Gerbil. But when he's accepted to Styvesant, a prestigious New York High School, he only aspires to the stoner crowd and becomes an alcoholic. Later, at Oberlin College, he's a scary falling down drunk. 15 year old Marne, who protects her sister, abandons herself to drugs, alcohol and sex with a married drug dealer.

Absurdity and writing save Gary, as well as a kind encouraging grandmother, Marne and Nelly's macabre humor is thin cover, until Lenny, an elderly neighbor, gives them a home. Similarly, though Pip rejects his brother-in-law, the simple but faithful blacksmith, the man's affection and offer of refuge is stabilizing. Though they find some adults who provide refuge, you still fear for these children. There lives are overwhelming and you don't know if they will be casualties or emerge from the abyss. What's eternal about these books is less the adult sop about the "resilience" of children, than their resourceful creativity. Even so, chance plays a role for these children to find a bridge out of a past created by crazy adults.

In GREAT EXPECTATIONS, the orphaned Pip, mistreated for years by his sister, also fears for his life because of a rough encounter with a desperate criminal. His future seems to have little promise of  his higher aspirations, the ideals in books he's been exposed to through Ms. Haversham, a wealthy spinster. Pip feels badly about not wanting to be a blacksmith but his fortune is used mostly to buy things and learn manners, the surface of a gentleman. Turning his back on the blacksmith leaves him adrift, without purpose. It's not until the identity of his benefactor is revealed and he loses his money that he finds a destiny. He leaps to the aid of the man and redeems himself.  In the end, Pip integrates the old values with a new self. He wins his old love and a path opens.

In LITTLE FAILURE Igor's Soviet Union is a place, where asthmatics get mustard plasters instead of inhalers and his parents' lives revolve around protecting him from attacks. Constantly, Igor fears suffocation. His parents joke about their "Little Failure," who cannot take a walk without risk of an ambulance. His father builds a ladder to the ceiling to help him overcome his fear of heights, but Igor remains afraid, especially of his father. When his father hits him, Igor rationalizes that it's how he shows his love. Red ears stinging, he retreats into fantasies of space travel in a rusty playground rocket or the noble Lenin of a statue. Then, supposedly for his future, Igor's parents give up their jobs, apartment, and beloved relatives to go to Queens, NY, where Gary is only shunned for his foreignness and poverty. Through his talent, writing a satirical novel, he goes from untouchable to creative, an identity he takes to the prestigious Styvesant high school. His parents believe his admittance, means he's launched into the Ivy League and a career as a lawyer. This justifies all their sacrifices. Yet Gary lets them down.

Much  is expected of him but he's got the burden of being a "Little Failure." Gary succumbs to despair more times than he can stand. Only when he backtracks, does he begin to understand failure and make a bridge to the success he will become. In the end of LITTLE FAILURE, he returns with his parents to visit the former Soviet Union. He realizes who he was, as well as how his Americanized parents look younger, healthier than their Russian counterparts. He, as well as his parents, achieved lives they could not have anticipated.

In THE DEATH OF BEES, Marne and Nelly's parents are wildly dysfunctional. Home is a dirty trash-filled falling apart house. The sisters do not mourn parents, who neglected and abused them. Marne gives Nelly her cornflakes and coke and sees her off to school, where she also goes--after digging holes, transporting volatile bodies, planting graves, and figuring out cover stories. Marne worries about Nelly, who found their mother hanging in the garage. Nelly with her love of Bette Davis and sometimes offensive theatricality was already odd. Yet Nelly's got an uncommon talent for the violin. As Marne cynically observes, school authorities trot her out to look good, but no one hires a teacher to advance her.

Authorities in this book only make life worse. Marne doesn't want herself and Nelly split up in foster care. At 16, she can legally raise Marne, but must hold it together until then. Her father a drug addict and dealer, was always unreliable. Mother, constantly high, spent their food money on drugs and booze. Much of this has been observed by Lennie, who is supposed to be a gay "perv" but provides a wholesome alternative to their hideous home. He plays duets with Nelly and worries about Marne's behavior, though academically she gets top scores without studying. Her ability is fortunate, when her parent's welfare checks stop coming and she has to take jobs. First there's her work for the local drug dealer in his ice cream truck. Then she cleans house for a former teacher, an immigrant forced to flee his war-torn country. But her efforts come to little, when Lennie dies and a horrific grandfather surfaces. He gets custody and, worse yet, only wants Nelly.

Marne's powers of improvisation seem stymied, until Lenny's aid reaches beyond his grave to provide them a sanctuary at the beach. Marne is given a respite to reconcile her parent's demise and figure out how she and Nelly will carry on. The girls begin with dead parents but are given Lenny's legacy, the conscious act of making a gracious life; creating music, food, and living up to the best in you, regardless of what others think. Lenny, who was a gay man, not a perv, showed them that love has ethics. You end THE DEATH OF BEES believing they are already fulfilling his prophecy.

This may be a fictional ending but it does happen in real-life. A look at Igor's real-life triumph as the American novelist, Gary, and you see that ability can triumph. Circumstances are not necessarily fate. But while a character can be forged in crisis, many people get lost in dark emotions. Sometimes they make a new path. That's why these books seemed similar. Perhaps classics, like GREAT EXPECTATION, are narratives that follow an eternal pattern and make it visible. When life reinvents that pattern, some fictions reinvent life.



Friday, February 21, 2014

Western classics that bend gender: The Great God Bird, True Grit, and The Luck of Roaring Camp

In James McBride's THE GREAT GOD BIRD, which won the 2013 National Book Award, Henry is a slave boy doing errands in his father's barbership, owned by their hard working master. It's 1857, a contentious time in the West between Slavers and Free Staters. Henry's adventures begin, when the Abolitionist John Brown rises up from his father's barber chair with a rifle. His target isn't Henry's father but his master. But, as happens with the best of intentions, Henry's father dies, collateral damage.

Brown has freed Henry, which means he gets to join the freedom fighters, a ragtag "army" who live on the land. It's chance that Brown mistakes Henry for a girl, and gives him a dress. It's just odd that he hands him a linty old onion. When Henry eats the disgusting thing, figuring he's supposed to, he has no idea he's eaten Brown's good luck charm. Known as the "onion" after that, he becomes its replacement.

Once in a dress, Henry's quick to realize the practical advantages. In his frontier, a black male is both valuable property and perpetually endangered by his inhuman status. Rebellious slaves are literally fed to the hogs. But who takes account of a poor slave girl? She's worthless, a girl and a servant, yet as Henrietta, the Onion, experiences less hardship than the men. She doesn't have to lift heavy things. She gets food and bed, if available, and, in John Brown's camp, she's the carrier of the higher virtues of civilization, as well as a noble example of the Black Race.

Of course, the Onion's reality is that she wants to be safe, have food and as much comfort as she can get. And though she knows the Old Man is "off his biscuit," a crazy religious fanatic, she can't help admiring someone so dedicated to a cause not his own. As Onion sees it, most of the slaves are looking after themselves, they don't want to fight Brown's war, when survival is so tenuous. She marvels at Brown's expectations but then states that most white men just see what they want to see. This is why she thinks Brown is able to deceive himself that she's a girl, when it's obvious, at least to most of the Black folk she meets, that Onion is a boy and maybe a "sissie."

Freedom is not what it's cracked up to be. With Brown, Onion is always hungry, and ducks violent gun battles. She believes she did better, when she was captured by a rebel and given to a brothel, where she lived as a maid. Though Onion talks of wanting to sneak off north and live as a free male, her female identity allows her to escape rebels, slave-owners and certain punishment. She's usually glad when Brown's sons rescue her and return her to their camp. And though she keeps wanting the crazy Old Man to see through her ruse, she's glad to be useful to his cause, as spy, go-between, fundraiser, watchdog.

Her disguise allows her to see through the poses of Frederick Douglas, though Harriet Tubman sees through Onion's and yet respects her as a person. It isn't until the end of the book, in Onion's 14th year, that she gets a sense of herself beyond the roles she plays. As the fate of  Harper's Ferry closes in on Brown's crusade to Free the Slaves, she has a transcendent moment. She understands the Old Man saw her all along.

I found The Great God Bird to be true to the history it depicts and 2013. Explorations of gender, identity, and moral imperative are major preoccupations of our time. TRUE GRIT does the same thing for 1968, when it was written by Charles Portis. Mattie Ross, an independent, strong-willed "spinster" recounts the adventures of her 14 year old self in the frontier of 1873. She's a female child, who has to impersonate a strong adult male to catch the drifter, who robbed and killed her father. In this brutal unpredictable man ruled frontier, she must be two steps ahead of  those that would take advantage of her youth and sex.

She's tough enough to best an unscrupulous horse trader, and hire the most violent U.S. Marshall she can find. She wants Rooster, because he has "true grit." Though he tries to ditch her, she keeps coming back until together they track her father's killer to the infamous "Lucky" Ned Pepper gang. A Texas Ranger, LeBoeuf interjects himself into their mission, since he is also after the drifter. Mattie insists on equality. She suffers the same physical hardships, displays the same desperate all-out courage, and wins the admiration of Rooster and eventually the Ranger.When Mattie finally finds her quarry, it almost costs her her life. She gets her reward, but retribution/justice proves a more elusive goal.

This could be a parable for 1968. When TRUE GRIT was written, feminism was barely begun. "Coeds" were as unusual as women who made a living outside of the secretarial pool. What a great time to write a character like Mattie Ross. The dangers of her frontier are less from the elements than the brutality of the life created by men. And her motive is not just revenge but to make her family whole. To do this, and perhaps get the needed reward money, she must be as tough as any man. But Mattie Ross has a sense of justice like a frontier Diana and both Rooster and the Ranger, are awed by her strength. Grown up, she becomes a banker whose money is power. Men are inspired to court her, but she chooses to live her life without one. Mattie's independence is iconic.    

Though the GREAT GOD BIRD and TRUE GRIT are set in about the same historic time, the frontiers they depict have distinctly different elements. Yet they both seem descended from Bret Harte's THE LUCK OF ROARING CAMP, written in 1862 about "gold rush" roughnecks of 1850 in an all male mining town. The "feminine side" of these hardscrabble men comes out after the death of Sal, a Cherokee prostitute, in childbirth. The men call her son "Luck." Stumpy, a notorious bigamist becomes a nursemaid. The hardened Kentuck is so touched, when the baby grips his finger, he washes daily. The town is painted white, spruced up, they pool funds to buy only the best baby clothes. Yet in this brutal frontier, anything can happen and does, but it's caused by nature not man. The dirty rough drunken brutality of these men is skin-deep. It's nothing compared with the devastating flood that costs Kentuck his life, while trying to save the Luck. Nature in this classic is more random and volatile than the emotions of human beings.

The Luck of Roaring Camp has been called sentimental. If life was brutal and short on the frontier, Harte celebrated what was human and of worth, even in the roughest men. When the story was first published, there was outrage that he would portray a prostitute in a positive light. Her death, giving birth as the lone female in a mining camp, was considered shocking. Too bad the tender feelings of these gold miners toward the infant was condescended to in more cynical times. Time for Hollywood to redo that one.


Monday, January 20, 2014

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P echo the Ratpack, retro modern to me.

This novel centers on well-educated young people, mostly in the publishing industry, engaged in the age-old ritual of making their place in the Uber urban testing ground of  New York City. The narrator, Nathaniel P, is now at the top of the heap. His novel, which earned him a good advance, is about to be published, and he's on the preferred list of authors for the magazines of his dreams. Yet personal happiness has evaded Nathaniel. His serially disappointing love life provides the plot of the somewhat satirical THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P by Adelle Waldman (Henry Holt & Co.).  Nathaniel, who is concerned but not overly so, realizes he cares far more about his status as a writer/intellectual in the publishing pecking order. Not being with a girl he likes is more about inconvenience than angst. It's the hardship of having to meet and flirt with new women on the possibility they will have sex with him.

Nathaniel is an unreliable narrator of his love affairs, though he does try  to make sense of what went wrong. It's a matter of  the protective blinders he wears. Predictably his post mortems lay the blame on the inadequacies of  his women. He knows he has shortcomings, he's modern with post feminist values, yet he knows no one could stay with these women. In truth, his egocentricity and lack of accountability appear a throwback to Ratpack era male stereotypes. Like the free and charming user of women in Frank Sinatra's Pal Joey, or the shallow guy looking for love in Sondheim's Company, or the Fosse type choreographer in "All That Jazz." Nathaniel excuses himself because he's a "reasonable man" who loves women.

When this stereotype thinks sentimentally of women they've loved, they extol the period of discovery and infatuation and moan about the inevitable emotional stickiness that ruins the affair. Caddish? This was supposed to be the essential man, so endearing in his looks, personality or talent that women wanted him anyway. I never pitied Nate's solitary narcissism, he was mostly happy with himself, but I did root for his glimmers of conscience and wonder why the women in his life wanted the guy. Made me think of "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered."

Whether the author intends this as satirical or not, she appears to be sending up this cliched male in the context of our era. This man, who supposedly respects women, is merciless in his appraisal of female looks,brains, and potential for success. He also expresses a misogynist's disgust for female vulnerability. Graceless, pedantic, with less talent than drive,  I had a hard time understanding Nathaniel's attractions without reading a page of his deathless prose. You get a pretentious title of an essay but nothing else.

When you read Byron's Don Juan, you can see why Byron fascinated women, a kind of male fatale. And you might pity their exercise of female masochism, though it doesn't excuse Byron's legendary bad behavior. Nathaniel P never reaches a level of literary intensity, though we are to understand he saves his true passion for the page. Perhaps Nathaniel P is a thinking woman's romance novel, because the romance is mostly in the thoughts of the woman he's involved with. They each fill in his blanks, erring in assuming they are in a "relationship," when the man's primary object is himself. His designated woman is a reflector of that object. There is no mutual relationship to nourish.

Since his affairs are external, Nathaniel reacts negatively to the unfortunate revelations of his partners' emotional "clay feet." Display of vulnerability or insecurity lessens their value in his estimate. And, as he withdraws and belittles them, they sink further. As the novel begins, Nathaniel, on his way to his ex-girlfriend Elisa's dinner party, runs into Juliet with whom he conceived a child that was aborted. Nathan's late and has no time to talk to Juliet. When he dismisses her and she calls him a name, he doesn't get why she's upset. He paid for the abortion, stayed with her and made the day reasonably pleasant. Just because he never contacted her afterward (why give her false hope?) is no reason for her to treat him like that.

Willful opacity or convenient emotional ignorance continues at the party, where he is warmly greeted by beautiful Elisa, the stylish daughter of a well-known professor who works at a famous magazine. Though he lived with her for months, in the end he found her needy and immature. After the dinner, he also deems her pathetic for not yet being over him. At her party he's attracted to, yet doesn't pursue a range of women, from model-like editorial assistants, to smart and attractive Hannah, who writes for a health blog and has her own unfinished book proposal. All these women know about the book he sold, and so, through Nate's eyes, are interested in him because his status has risen.

The people Nate respects are his male friends, and Aurit, his one female friend, who has never been attracted to him.  Because his friends are all witty, intelligent and perceptive, he feels at home with them and likes the competitive sport of  intellectual exchange. He also likes that because they know his background, as the child of Jewish Romanian immigrants, he can displays his vulnerability--the sense of inferiority he can't quite shake. Though Nate went to Harvard, he's not been successful in his parents' eyes. His career choice disappointed these people, who sacrificed for him. But now they accept his success. When you realize Nathaniel is on a personal search for what's of value, you think he might yet grow up enough to have a relationship between equals. And, when he's being honest with himself, this is what he fantasizes about.

Hannah seems a good candidate. She's from a down-to-earth Ohio family and her writing career has made her an odd bird. Nate's taken with her wit and intellectual challenge, as well as her basic honesty. Hannah is on target, when she says he only likes a woman, until he knows she likes him. His sense of inferiority is such, that it's the old cliche that she becomes less valuable. A dime-store shrink would agree Nathaniel has serious "intimacy" issues. And when poor Hannah, like those before, wants more emotionally than he can give, he brutally distances himself. The crux of this novel of character is that while Nate admires Hannah's essential honesty, and knows he lacks it, he again makes her not his equal in a nonrelationship.

And like Elisa before her, strong, independent Hannah becomes more and more undone; self-doubtful, despairing, wondering what she did wrong, focusing on her lacks, and not pursuing her career. In fact, Nate's women do well once they are out of their one-sided relationship with him. And in the end, though Nate misses Hannah's rare understanding, he finds happiness with a successful writer of  women's novels, who, most importantly doesn't plumb depths. Rather than seeking meaningful exchanges in conversation with his friends, or topping them, like Hannah, she performs for their admiration. Nate's perfect complement, this woman equals his self-absorption and he can never be sure of her.

Nathaniel P is a woman's cautionary tale, not just of men to be avoided but of the kind of traps women set for themselves. While juggling the pressure of jobs and standards for external achievement, all too often modern women have a similar set of expectations for a relationship. Literature is a kind of prop here for the impossible emotional depths these women may expect from men, especially one like Nathaniel P. He's the kind of error women make in ironically "aspiring" to men of talent.

There's a long list of such men, sometimes called "geniuses." Though a Picasso or Byron might plumb the depths of a woman's essence on a canvas or a page, they use life--their affairs--as emotional resources for art. While there never seems to be a shortage of women trying to love such men, it is insanity to think that the emotional depths they may find together will be there in a committed relationship. Too often such women, like Picasso's ex, Francoise Gilot, find their commitment to life after becoming a shadow of themselves with a talented man..

Though only 229 pages, this is not a slight novel but a sly one that is more than it seems. Adelle Waldman might want to read Willa Cather's My Mortal Enemy for the female inverse of Nathaniel P.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, December 27, 2013

FINGERLESS is about a surprisingly normal transgender protagonist

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

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

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

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


Sunday, December 15, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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