Category Archives: books

Historic fiction selection

1) One novel does not belong, for at least three fairly obvious reasons

2) Two feature Frederick Douglass as a character

3) One makes Harriet Tubman a prominent character

4) Two books follow John Brown

5) Two take place during the Civil War

6) One makes Walt Whitman a primary character

7) One features larger-than-life slave catchers and takes place around the Chesapeake Bay

8) One novel goes to the Arctic and features balloon travel

9) One has a character who gives birth to her enslaver’s baby

10) Another has a main character who is his enslaver’s child

11) Two former enslaved characters travel to England

12) One freed slave sleeps with her female “employer” and becomes addicted to opium and is accused of murder

13) One story includes the beheading of Thomas Moore and stays close to the thoughts of Thomas Cromwell

14) One tracks a fugitive slave from South Carolina who escapes north and serves as scribe for the British during the Revolutionary War, earning her freedom

Sentinel trees

Oooh boy, am I in for a treat with the novel, “The Overstory,” by Richard Powers! Abandoned another piece of fiction in order to begin. Since that disqualifies me from airing any opinion about said abandoned book: My Lips are Sealed (but maybe I don’t like farce all that much?)

“The Overstory” is already blowing the top of my head off, in much the way that “Lincoln in the Bardo” did. Grace, Mo, Alden, Maureen, and Deb have all led me to it.

One of the prompts at the AWA writing retreat in August came from the opening page. I think you’ll swoon to read the lines, too:

The tree is saying things, in words before words.
It says: Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering.

When I find what I wrote, I’ll post it, even though as I recall it was a bit opaque. In the meantime, scroll down for a response to another prompt that mentions the 250+ year old copper beech that dwells next door.

I’ve probably photographed this tree more than any other feature of our built or natural landscape. It towers over the houses with a reach nothing short of spectacular. The trunk, muscular and sturdy, mediates between sky and earth, while beneath the soil? A downward fractalling mirror of the canopy, unseen and necessary.

A story I’m submitting to literary magazines describes it. My son featured it in a third grade project.

My neighbors steward the being with utmost care: cables strung for support, twice annual feedings.

Can you imagine all that this beech has witnessed? The household secrets, the stirring of war and war again, the native people who may have honored it and perhaps also drank at the spring which once (supposedly) offered cool respite nearby. People with pox, barn fires (our house and its charred beams), orphans and the enslaved, tavern owners and farmers (the Bartletts at the corner).

The Jacksons who built the house in the 1700’s witnessed the early, young days of the tree’s life. Maybe it was the tree that inspired one owner to bequeath the house to an illegitimate daughter. Such things were not done!

Ghosts have been noted. A smithy and a soldier hanging in a closet. Not here but next door.

This little untitled poem by me mentions the tree.

She flipped the french toast,
vanilla fumed, and twisted to
a morning made of thread
and diary, made of weeds along the
road — dandelion and chickweed —
and a sun that glared
hot mystery
through the copper beech.

This time of year leafery,
cotillion, cockswaddle, and
steak. We could be made
of spores and engineered
lumber, but find ache
and patchwork inside instead.

How his back moves
down the road. She, off
with the dog down another.
Was there no plan to map
the distances, to cloud
handshakes and rollovers
with sleep or with taking
out the trash?

And how about Yellow?
Primroses flat, then yarrow, regal.
Soon the pansies made of
sugar and sunlight bought by
the flat will land while the dog pulls
away, scents of cow dung
and denim rot irresistible.

She left the dowels at the store.
The quilt unhung for another
week. Made of forgetfulness,
inclined toward suspense, turning away
not gathering up, and a scold
or two.

If only the oceans lingered
near the driveway, instead
of maple tree detritus
and scum bubbles of tar.

Meanwhile, an unintended consequence of a rheumatologist’s advice last week to “be active like you were ten years ago,” led to bravado in the garden and a back with more pain than I’ve ever experienced. Chiropractor at three. PT beginning within the week. K even stayed home today because yesterday I could barely get up the stairs or into bed. I’m much better now.

In other news: it looks like I have enough people for my first writing class. I’m so excited!

What do you think of my name: “Page by Page?” It’s a little bit like Annie Lamont’s “Bird by Bird,” but not critically enough to foreclose my usage.

 

 

Pasta, piecing, and puzzling

Rabe, red onion, and peppers sautéed in bacon fat and garlic-infused olive oil served on gluten-free pasta with Asagio cheese. Not shown: a few crumbles of bacon to finish. Soooo delicious!

Meanwhile, piecing and puzzling. Both a little mindless. Reviewed a short story to submit around. It would be ideal to have SOMETHING published before manuscript is looked at. I took yesterday off from it completely and today: avoid, avoid, avoid. This happens. It’s one reason why I’m pretty convinced it’s better to work every day, even if only a little.

When I couldn’t sleep last night, I came downstairs and read. This is Mark Helprin’s newest book and given that he is one of my favorite novelists of all time, I’ve been surprised at how slow my engagement’s been. But now I’m in! It’s set in modern day Paris, no surprise, given the title.

Mini Book Reviews – July ’19

“The Sellout,” by Paul Beatty, is set in contemporary California. The main character, ‘the sellout,’ is a farmer and the son of a social scientist — a social scientist who ran BF Skinner-like experiments on him while growing up. Though critical of his father, the protagonist ends up setting up his own social experiments — primarily by re-introducing segregation into the unique and isolated section of LA where he lives (or the specter of it, anyway). Also he allows a friend of his father’s to become his slave (at his father’s friend’s weird insistence). Both sound and are improbable, but work within the context of the story. The ‘experiments’ become vehicles for the novel’s convoluted and challenging commentary on race.

It’s a wacky novel that sometimes made me laugh out loud, but I’ll admit to missing a lot of the references. Given that and how little I know about satire or black literature, I encourage you to read Kevin Young’s review for the New York Times, here.

Side Note One: You might be familiar with Kevin Young. He’s an award winning poet who PBS interviewed for the series, “The Great American Read.” I heard him read at an event in Concord, Mass. a few years back).

“Less” features a man in the downward spiral of mid-life crisis. Arthur Less is a mid-tier novelist concocting excuses to be out of the country to justify not attending his former lover’s wedding. To achieve his dodge, he takes up every half-assed international award ceremony and teaching gig that comes his way.

Much of the story tells of his travels and on a pragmatic level, we can relate to the realism and comedy of fretting about currency, passports and transport to and from airports. Interactions with his international hosts also provide comedic relief — particularly in Germany where Less, who considers himself competent in the language, fails miserably to communicate properly. Through the narrator we get to be privy to his botches.

Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that the book takes a surprise turn and ends up being, quite simply, a love story. I didn’t figure out who the narrator was until nearly the end. Also an interesting surprise.

Good read.

Side Note: This novel won the Pulitzer Prize, which I learned during an exchange between characters in this novel, is pronounced PULL-it-zer (and not PYULE-it-zer).

“Lake Success” features a NYC hedge fund manager who is also on the run. His astronomical financial success may or may not have been partially predicated on insider trading, so in addition to fleeing a life cratered with disappointment by a severely autistic son, he’s on the run from a subpoena. He buys himself a bus ticket south in the vain quest to hook up with his college lover in Texas. For reasons not entirely clear, he tosses his cell phone and credit cards into the trash early on, making a man formerly accustomed to serving $33,000/bottle Japanese whiskey so reliant on limited cash that he has to deny himself hot dogs at bus stations en route. Hardly the Kerouac-like trek he hoped for.

The combination of delusion and desperation make his journey read more like an exercise in understanding homelessness and destitution than an intelligent man’s quest for reform or meaning. A classic unreliable narrator. His attempts to relate to people across racial and economic divides come across as well-meaning but ultimately self-serving and trite.

The protagonist’s self-destructive choices weren’t the only cringe worthy aspects of this unlikeable character. Seeing people through his lens of the .1 % was really harsh as well. He takes pride, for instance, in having married a beautiful and well-credentialed woman whom he takes off the job market. Lots in here about what the hedge fund wife should or shouldn’t be, with variations for wives three and four. Ugh! The difference in status and wealth evidenced in his apartment building alone, reveals his world view — floor three, for instance, being occupied by the ‘merely affluent’ while the top floors are reserved for the really wealthy, like himself and Robert Murdoch.

The redemption comes, after many more ups and downs, and is particularly hard won.

A more complete run down of the plot and author can be found in the New York Times review: here.

Side Note One: One of the most interesting features of the novel is that it takes place in the run up to Trump’s election and describes the brutal aftermath as well, a story line that was simultaneously re-traumatizing and comforting somehow. It said: we really have been through something awful and it isn’t over yet.

Side Note Two: In my experience when meeting an autistic child, even without much knowledge or training, one can often guess which parent the disorder comes from. I’m not sure our character ever figures out that it’s him, but we do — his over-the-top studious way of teaching himself how to be friendly by practicing small talk in the mirror while at Princeton was one sign, the other was his weird attachment to a collection of beloved watches.