If You Fall…Get Back Up!


Rise + Hustle, by Mike Whitfield

I’m no longer concerned with the oddities of commercial writing. Besides all the postmodern variations on story structure and purpose, I’ve reviewed a novel to be used for (other) business purposes, so I don’t blush at all to review Rise + Hustle, Mike Whitfield’s book about the promise and pitfalls involved in getting in shape. 

Disclosure: I’m a client of Mike’s, and I can attest to the difficulty of restoring strength and stamina following back-to-back heart and knee surgery as well as the success of Mike’s approach.

This isn’t a “how-to” book, although that’s in there, and it’s not a specific methodology; instead it’s a strategy toward life, toward efficiency in coping with life’s mundane details, toward finding your purpose in life, and (of course) getting in shape and losing weight. Mike accomplishes this by giving the reader page after page of advice and exhortations, each page a new and different vignette, each a bit of advice to be absorbed, not in the moment of reading, but over time in seeing the smarts behind Mike’s pages of modern day aphorisms. 


His prose here isn’t literary, nor did Mike intend it to be. But his seasoning is here, as is the wisdom in turning the usual training manual upside down. Mike filters all this through his strong Christian faith, but were you to skip over those and deal only with the secular angle of his work and advice, the results, I think, would be the same or better as time wears on.

To sum up Rise + Hustle, 

1 – (how to) be efficient in dealing with life’s onerous responsibilities

2 – in life, take the long view toward success, toward “finding your bliss.”

3 – when you’re discouraged, persist. 

4 – In any journey, look for Mike’s “woosh” effect.

Of course, making such a list is easy; the trick is putting these four elements (and perhaps others) into effect. That’s where Mike and his fine book come in. 

My Rating: 17 of 20 stars


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More on Sing, Unburied, Sing



There’s a larger sense of story that preoccupies Jesmyn Ward in this book, and that’s the history of our United States, which has forever shouted freedom and equality from the rooftops while living quite another reality. History flies at ten thousand feet, some say, while personal life flies much closer to the ground. Ward is wise, since her historical story is more implied than overt, to have stuck so much closer to the Southern soil and the lives of her characters, relying on a Faulknerian-style of prose to carry both astute readers and critics to the final page. Perhaps her non-story story is a statement to elbow into America’s version of postmodern literature, or perhaps it’s an attempt to lay bare, in ways no other modern American writer seems capable of, the personalities and plights of poor Southern blacks and whites in ways more applicable to early twenty-first century life. Ward, besides being a fluent novelist, is an academic, so I’ll have to go with my first inclination, perhaps. But this story-less tendency among insightful, talented writers such as  the uber-talented Ward has and, I think always will, strike me as a trifle lazy.  

That said, her characters are damned real. They vacillate, the pose, they live moment by moment in her paraphrasing of their lives. They search for dignity, but they do it the hard way by doing what they damned well please – and inconsistently at that. I’m big on equally adept dialogue, and hers is a small disappointment here, but her narrative carries the day for this, her National Book Award winning novel.


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Every Journey Ends at Home


Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

In the South, perhaps more than any other part of these United States, wealth determines both a family’s worth and their protection from harm. And in the South the way that truism affects  blacks hasn’t changed. The prize-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing is another of Ward’s with the poorer people of rural Mississippi, following her astute Salvage The Bones. While the earlier was essentially a story of Mississippi blacks, this one melds poor white culture into the mix.

Leonie is black and the father of her two children, Jojo and Michaela, is assumed to be white. The father, Michael has been in the Mississippi penitentiary, Parchman, a typically brutal and nasty Southern slammer. Leonie and the kids travel with Misty, a friend of Leonie’s, to see Michael upon his release, and the adults promptly get high. The rest of the story, if there really is one, is about their return to their ever-so-humble home. It’s a book astutely written about the modern South, its failures and implied successes, and should be read by those from all locales if they truly want to understand this region of the US of A.


My rating: 16 of 20 stars


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Alone In A Bitter World


Savage Country, by Robert Olmstead

Olmstead’s title here says all that’s relevant here, but indulge me in a few details. Michael Coughlin has lost his family and wandered off the white man’s reservation into existential territory. He meets Elizabeth, his brother’s widowed wife, whom the brother has left destitute. There’s a strain of Americana in which it’s sought to make joy from sorrow, wealth from poverty, and Michael and Elizabeth head into the untapped American prairie hopeful of gaining such new life from buffalo hunting. Olmstead offers but a single sentence of awareness concerning the part the couple play in all but sending the American buffalo into extinction, the Native American plains culture along with it. 

Thus there’s little story here. As the pages turn, Olmstead follows suit with the likes of Charles Frazier and his Cold Mountain in allowing the couple and their retinue to experience the prairie expanse, the buffalo butchering, Indian brutality, racism, murder, extreme weather, and the most brutal of robberies. At book’s end, Michael and Elizabeth gain a workable attachment to one another, but lose all else. 

The project of Savage Country is to portray the plains, hence Earth, as indifferent to all life. So indifferent in fact as to not just indulge but encourage life as joyless loss. Of soul. Of material wealth. Of humanity’s connections to one another. 

This book has been lauded in reviews and that’s understandable as long as one wishes to read cynically, without hope of being inspired to anything hopeful, or to refrain from  pointing toward answers to hard questions put to them. Sadly that apparently comprises a significant portion of the American readership. 

My rating: 14 of 20 stars

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The Informality of Maine


The State We’re In – Maine Stories, by Ann Beattie – – Some Analysis

This book is the last of a trilogy of short fiction collections meant to launch me into my own set of stories – upgraded, of course. It’s probably the most interesting, and the most banal, but I’ll get to that in a minute. 

There are many challenges to the short story; the primary one being the challenge of a limited number go words, usually no more than 5000 to 6000 words. So what tricks must short fiction writers have up their sleeves, what twists of technique may they avail themselves of to do the most within a limited number of words? 

I’m not going to list all that apply to Beattie, but I will gloss over some before getting to the tender literary meat. A writer can, of course, use a mixture of scenic dialogue and narrative to tell the tale and pull characters from the shadows. Beattie does this facilely. One can use writer’s actions and talk to both depict a culture and the uniqueness of place. Properly done, dialogue can tell the tale and give insight into the story’s characters. Beattie uses all these to reveal Maine as a place where its denizens are expected to act and think with rustic decorum. This creates a certain banality in dialogue, which Beattie handles deftly. Her characters’ actions and emotions relate an overarching state of mind that’s downright boring. Now to the tender meat.

So how are we to determine that depicting this banality is her intent and not just lazy writing? I offer a couple of citations to this point. On page 188 of the hardback version, in her story, “The Repurposed Barn,” a character, Raleigh refers to a Flannery O’Connor essay as “slightly witty, but she goes on and on about some peacock walking around in her front yard.” This is precisely the sort of nattering Beattie sets on her pages here. Writers have grown prone to information dumps in stories and novels, pandering to reader demand for and interest in trivial details they could get from non-fiction were they not reading something fictive. To the point, on page 191, after the usual plethora of extraneous but mildly interesting information about Maine:

  “The Queen Anne’s lace is blooming,” Bettina said…”They often have a little black insect in the center,” Bettina said. “”Did you know that?”

    “Did I know I was fucked? Jocelyn wondered, reforming the question. She lied about having noticed the flowers; she nodded yes, but Bettina rushed on, wanting to overwhelm everyone with how much information she had.”

To cement the technique, at least with this reader, she does the same thing with punctuation. On page 205 she writes,

“…Not what they feared…not what they said silent prayers hoping to ward off…but anything they wanted.” Jocelyn wasn’t sure about the three edits for punctuation, whatever they were called, but she’d tried a colon first and that didn’t look right.

All this is self awareness on the part of the storyteller (Beattie), one of the most sublime  tricks of postmodern writing when well done, reinforced in that Beattie presents all of it in her last story of this collection. Self awareness is certainly admirable, and devising such tricks can augment the writer’s chops if done skillfully. And one can appreciate the author’s talent and insight here, even if these stories don’t really make for an enjoyable read. 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars


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Seeing Maine From The Inside In


The State We’re In – Maine Stories, by Ann Beattie

Ann Beattie is known primarily for her short story collections. She’s won numerous awards, and her reputation in this short specialty of fiction is nearly unparalleled. What makes her work so? Let’s allow this collection to be an example. 

As I read her stories here, I was mystified, given Beattie’s reputation, at the lack of substance in her characters’ dialogue. Was Beattie living past her prime, coasting on reputation? No, as it turns out. The dialogue was written purposefully to demonstrate the overcautious interactions of Maine’s people, even within families, that creates the banality implied here.


Of particular interest are a couple of stories, the volume’s bookends, “What Magical Realism Would Be,” and “The Repurposed Barn.” In these and the in-between stories, Beattie seems to take delight in representing the banality of Maine’s people as a counterpoint to the often-rough-edged contemporary existence in the Eastern Seaboard megalopolises. Perhaps, she seems to be saying in the stories, the hard-bitten urban life would be a crash-and-burn affair without the gentler innocence of Maine’s rural ethos.

Tomorrow, I get to pick nits with one of these stories in particular.


My rating: 17 of 20 stars

Maine, short story collections, dialogue, narrative, information dumps, postmodern, punctuation


La Paz. One of the third world’s dynamic cities. Three million people high in the Andes – some 12,000 feet above sea level. Cabs race like dodge’em cars, not on New York streets, but on ragged asphalt, testimony to its impoverished past.

Now, modern architecture rises to compete with the mountains. Tower cranes turn their gawky necks to and fro as if marionettes orchestrating new life here.

Yesterday, a cab ride zigzagged through the old town like a caffeinated waterbug. Then suddenly a stop. To the left banner-bearing students protesting withdrawal of governmental funds from the nation’s colleges huddled, working up courage. To the right police in riot gear, an armored car to their rear sporting a water cannon. Fortunately the cab’s occupants escaped to a five-course meal.

Today has dawned somber and cloudy at 45 degrees, for winter is on us here. Another day of paradox promises, elevating life in Bolivia.