The Reserve, by Russell Banks

A couple of years ago, I read Banks’ The Darling, and loved it. So, recently, as I began to ache for good fiction again, I looked Banks’ work up to see what recent offerings he had, and I found The Reserve. This one is clearly a departure for the author, something of an experiment, I think, but still within his sensibility of sympathy for various versions of the world’s oppressed masses.
The story takes place in upper state New York, where Banks now lives, and is a dramatic rendering of rich folks who owned and vacationed in the scenic woods south of Lake Champlain in the 1930s, just as World War II loomed.
The plot centers about a well-to-do artist, Jordan Groves, his wife, Alicia, the beautiful but troubled daughter of a rich family, Vanessa Cole, and a local handyman Hubert St. Germain. I won’t delve too deeply into the plot, but there are twists and turns enough for the most experienced mystery reader. Of course, there’s sexual tension between Jordan and Vanessa, but this isn’t the story Banks intends here.
Banks uses Hubert St. Germain as a social counterpoint to these rich folks and their intrigues, who clearly cross the moral and legal line in trying to put a “proper” face on their doings. I suspect that Banks’ story was been built around one sentence Hubert speaks to Alicia (on page 224 of the hardback version, if you’re interested):
“For maybe the first time in my life since I was a kid, I don’t know if what I’ve done is right or wrong.”
The sensibility here is that in 1930s America, the have-nots look to the haves as exemplars of social morality. When Hubert becomes involved in the dark side of the Cole’s and Groves’ lives, his life’s moral foundation crumbles.
I wish Banks had built his story more forthrightly around this idea. Sadly, He seemed to flounder through most of the book in grasping this ethical point.
And here I have to comment on Banks’ writing style. It’s perfectly permissible for writers to experiment with style and structure, as Banks seems to do here. While as a reader I have my stylistic preferences, I’m always open, simply to what works. To my mind, what Banks does here doesn’t work. His narrative descriptions of the Reserve’s geography do justice to this gorgeous place, and he constantly poses insightful views of his characters, their complexities as persons. It’s how he does this that unsettles me. In the midst of dramatic scenes, he drops into narrative to explain the characters’ backgrounds, their motivations, rather than work them intimately into their actions in the scenes. And he tends to push setting depictions into the scenes. All this has the effect of making the characters seem more superficial than the author obviously intends. As a result, the book had the effect on this reader of a historical romance novel.


The Pillars Of The Earth, by Ken Follett

Everyone wants to grab the brass ring at some point in the life, and I think this book is Ken Follett's try at literary history. It's a somewhat engaging piece of history – a medieval stone mason – his family beset by various trials most of us would capitulate to. But through typical English pluck Tom the Mason manages to work on a magnificent cathedral. If Follett had let this much of his overlong book rule his word processor, the piece might have carried him toward the pantheon of the greats. But, alas, I think the author has overreached.
His book is some nine hundred pages long, but he fails to give us the feel of his history's panorama. He introduces us to some hundred characters, but we gain no sense of spectacle, only the play of petty minds behind the chip-chip of Tom's stone chisel.
Follett has been a successful – artful at times – master of the suspense thriller. We often forgive such genre writers their lack of writerly chops, because we buy the story. Sadly, the author, as he prepared to write this book, didn't take himself to the writer's woodshed, where he could've sharpened his game to true literary quality.
Perhaps my expectations were too high, but the story is often mired in soap opera messiness, the history and Tom's potentially great character lost in the verbiage. As a result, I had to take myself to the woodshed each day – in order to finish the book. In the end, I'm sorry I persevered.

The Invention of Air, by Steven Johnson

Science has been under attack for a while now. First, by the back-to-the-earth crowd of the Sixties. I remember one encounter between novelist James Michener and a campus radical of those heady days. The youth was excoriating science in general for everything from napalm to Teflon-lined skillets. Michener remarked that the lad was wearing glasses, which were a clear-cut boon to humanity, and a product of science as well. He asked the boy why he didn’t give up his glasses if he was so set against science. “Because I can’t fucking see!” came the exasperated reply.
And today we see religious groups – in similar fashion – kicking science aside because it gets in the way of their beliefs. Politicians use science, in the form of stem-cell research, among other things, as their whipping-boy. What must it have been like when science had little if any toe-hold on western civilization?
Steven Johnson wrote this book, I think, with that sort of question in mind. But he establishes Joseph Priestley – a backroom scientific experimenter and Protestant pastor – as the very willing lightning rod of science in the eighteenth century. Priestly delved wonderingly into the unknown makeup of air – its complexities, its paradoxes – isolating oxygen as a component of air in the bargain.
Johnson vividly depicts Priestley in English coffeehouses meeting with others of his kind to share their scientific frustrations as well as their discoveries. These casual meetings led eventually to the the establishment of the scientific method, and to the impelling of rational thought into politics and religion as well. And here is where Johnson sees Priestley braving the human elements to the greatest extent – the conservative religious types of his day burned his house down in a moment of less-than-rational rage against his groundbreaking thoughts on science, politics, and religion.
Priestley, a scientific colleague of Ben Franklin, eventually escaped Britain and came to the American Colonies, and became a confidante of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. While everyone else talked obliquely of science and rationality, so as to not upset the masses, Priestley held forth on his subject and its implications loudly, without fear.
Johnson’s prose here stutters and almost falls at times, but he’s taken on a monumental subject – one to which his two-hundred page book hardly does justice. Still, Priestley and the intoxication of discovery in those days can't be denied, and Johnson charts it ably enough to enthrall even the most jaded reader.

A Few More Thoughts On Bolaño and 2666

A person of the anonymous persuasion challenged me a few weeks ago to go deeper into 2666, the recently published tome by Roberto Bolaño. I've given it a lot of thought, and what passes before my inner viewing screen is something having to do with congruence and continuity.
2666 abounds with coincidences: people meet by chance, the meetings recur. One person becomes another. One person meets another in an upbeat circumstance, then again in an abysmal situation, hence both persons mirror one another's states – up and down. I could go on and on, as vaguely as this, but what we see here – at least through my sensibilities – is a blurring of individuality. Bolaño’s passage through these lives, though, is more often than not, one of crisis, travail, death threatened or consummated. Thus Bolaño sees this violence and hardship as random as the killings he so ably portrays, but not without a saving grace. But to achieve this grace, one must find a way to live beyond the individual life.
We all live limited lives – limited by circumstance, by ignorance and violence, even our physicality itself. But as we pass through the lives of others we pass on a little something of life and receive a little something of it in return. Little things, but things we'd never have the opportunity to grasp through individual effort alone.
Looking at Bolaño’s life, we see a person who has lived life to the hilt – albeit in often foolish and destructive ways. But he's taken the time – as writers will do – to chronicle his life in his writing: the many people he's been, the causes he's championed, the many people he's aligned himself with, the many places he's been, the different cultures experienced, the languages spoken.
I suspect that from Bolaño’s perspective, this sort of life adds up – if one is sufficiently AWARE – to a matrix, a composite, grander life, lived through interactions with others. But Bolaño’s a writer, an observer of life. How would one less innately AWARE come to such congruence with this grander sense of life? His view seems to be that personal trials elevate one's AWARENESS, one's sense of (a grander) self, not happiness and joy. Happiness and joy are the eventual rewards of facing trauma from a point of view apart from cause and effect's swirl.
So I think Bolaño has given us a map to use in navigating life – regardless of circumstance. The map's road is, for most, a difficult one, a road that most wouldn't take if offered the carrot and stick of it. But a road to something expansive, less limited, something we might only call fulfillment – for lack of any other term. This is not grandiosity I'm speaking of – instead, it's pragmatism, sort of learning how to make the proverbial purse from that poor sow's ear – stitch by tedious stitch.


Marketing For You
The latest issue of hitchnews, the newsletter, focuses on marketing and sales of your newly published book. Whether self-published or through the official biz, you have to market your own these days, and hitch makes a couple of worthwhile suggestions:
• Hire a biz school graduate student (or some likely equivalent) to promote your book. This person will probably need the money, has some academically-gained savvy regarding marketing, and may recognize this as resume material.
• Stephanie Chandler is the author of several books, and she gave us a lot of suggestions (some already stated above) on how to market your book at a low cost. “-Publish interesting articles along with an author bio that mentions your book and website. Find sites that reach your target audience and accept article submissions and submit your article as a free reprint (you can repurpose the same article dozens of times). You can also make your articles available for reprint through sites like and Be a guest on podcasts, teleseminars and Internet radio programs. The benefits are great: the host will promote you to their entire network, you will often get up to a full hour to talk about your book, and most programs archive the data on their websites indefinitely for ongoing exposure. Locate shows that reach your target audience through sites like,,, and”
And for your strategy planning, hitchnews has polled the ten most web-searched genres of 2008:
Science Fiction
Adult Reading Up For Fiction
If you’re a fiction writer, as I am, you’ll be doing hopeful handsprings at this news from The New York Times.
Proving that things always run in cycles, NYT reports from a NEA study that literary reading has risen some 3.5% since 2002. A similar rise over the next half-decade may put literary reading up to the level of the early eighties.
Crazyhorse – The Litmag – Fall 2008
It has to be hard choosing material for literary magazines. First, tons of manuscripts are flung over the various transoms. Then the judges have to pick between the styles, the increasingly good literary ideas. And, with double handfuls of good pieces, the staff has to find a way to narrow things down to a number of manuscripts that can be published within the magazine’s budget.
Crazyhorse seems to prefer to traffic in volumes – I say, volumes! – of poetry. And none of it’s bad. Still, the judges choose – wisely – to temper poesy with prose. First, short stories, then the more interesting of the non-fiction submitted.
In this, the fall 2008 issue of Crazyhorse, the keystone piece is one entitled “What Lies In Closets,” by Kat Meads. If I were to have a vote on Crazyhorse’s staff, I’d have placed this one at center stage, too. The piece is something of a biography – of Patty Hearst. For those who had their heads buried in bongs at the time, or for those young enough to say “Who cares?” about Sixties radicalism, Hearst was (is) a well-known publisher’s daughter.
She was kidnapped by a radical group and held. Oh, ransom was mentioned, but that’s not the interesting part of the story. An alleged victim of Stockholm Syndrome, she became Tania, a member of the bad guys’ gang. But I’ll cut the bio short there, or I’ll begin to rant myself, as Meads tends to do at times.
Meads sees Hearst here as I do – not as a victim, but as a rich kid playing at life, one who to this day remains insulated from one of real life’s most dramatic and celebrated dramas. The author’s text doesn’t flow – it leaps, hopscotches through Hearst’s story, yet manages to build dramatic tension as she goes.
Its ending let me down a bit with a short screed of sarcasm that the essay hardly needed. Still, this sort of writing is what litmags are all about: damn the torpedoes! Experiment, try new things! If you think it through well enough, the story or essay or poem will find a good literary home, and some blogger will take the time to praise it.