You Can Go Home Again

The Black House, by Peter May

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The twentieth century saw many people leave the land of their roots for what seemed more opportunity in the growing, vital urban areas. And many of these discovered that this move didn’t allow new roots and a new culture; instead it left them emotionally adrift. Peter May embraces this idea by setting his story off the Scottish coast on the Isle of Lewis, where Gaelic is still spoken, where centuries of hunting on a speck of an isle constantly renew those who live on Lewis – and those who have returned there.

Edinburgh cop Fin McLeod is tasked with returning to Lewis, the place of his birth and early years, in order to assess whether a grisly murder on Lewis is in fact connected with a very similar murder in Edinburgh. The author’s rendering of this link, and the solving of the murder on Lewis, is handled in a somewhat slapdash manner, but the murders aren’t really his project in The Black House. Instead, it’s an examination of Fin’s roots on Lewis after an eighteen year absence, his renewed relationships with old friends—and an old lover. It betrays nothing to tell that the Isle of Lewis, despite bitter memories, which include a handful of deaths, reaches out to Fin, urges him home.

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May’s writing here casts a somber but deeply rendered mood over his story, reminding this reader of Dennis Lehane’s writing. His prose is often exquisite, his depictions of hunting birds on a forbidding isle named An Sqeir perfectly rendered. Reading May’s work here is an opportunity to immerse oneself in an ancient culture that struggles daily to remain pristine and yet vital.

My rating 17 of 20 stars

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Provoking, Informing, and Magazine Success

The Atlantic, March 2014

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In a world in which magazines are closing their doors daily, a few have found the key to success, and The Atlantic seems to have that key firmly in its grasp. What makes its mojo work, then? Simple – find a way to entertain as it informs, and do so in a fairly concise fashion.  Sometimes this involves provocation for the sake of provoking. We all remember what makes our blood boil, it seems, as in the case of Jonathan Rauch’s brief, “The Case for Corruption.”

Did you know that WalMart claims that nearly half its purchases are made on smart phones? Neither did Alexis Madrigal, in a quickie interview with WalMart’s Gibu Thomas.

James Parker tries to overlay today’s polarized political TV talk shows over the film, Network.  He has a point, I think, but it’s a strained one.

This issue takes on hockey, of all things (a sport I liken to professional wrestling), but as Chris Koentges depicts the sport in “The Puck Stops Here,” a Finnish promoter has transformed it from a brawl on ice to  international prestige.

Paul Bloom, in “The War On Reason,” rings my bell loudly by explaining that philosophy, the bedrock of Enlightenment reason, has drifted away from logic and reason into a physiological abyss. In this semi-philosophical world, reason seems devoid of  worth, but Bloom seems to hold out hope: our human need for moral values will trump this straying and bring reason back in new clothes.

I remember how the KA fraternity partied till they puked in my college days. Those well-oiled frat rats even killed a famous horse in the process. In the lead article, “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” Caitlin Flanagan tells us things are even worse, many frat peccadilloes now ending in court.

I’m a Southerner, despite all attempts to be a one-worlder, and I’m compelled to say that Ron Rash’s story “Where The Map Ends,” the story of two escaping slaves in the Civil War South, is the finest piece of short fiction I’ve seen in a magazine in a long while.

These are but my highlights in another fine issue of The Atlantic.

 

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Refined Feelings and Otherworldly Writing Locales

I’m starting to look on P&W with more than a touch of whimsy these days. Maybe that’s because I’ve grown as a writer, or maybe I’ve grown more ornery as I’ve aged. Still, much of what the mag has to offer  makes me smile crookedly where it used to inform. Of course, P&W is still a valuable magazine to students of writing as well as those just now jumping into writerly waters on their own.

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This issue of the mag has newsy things, and advice from agents and editors. It has an inspiring piece about three writers who darn near gave up on the craft – but didn’t.

Nate Pritts talks about the role of sentiment in writing – this in perhaps the most cynical of ages. Sentiment in his view is something he calls “refined feeling,” something that appears when we pare our feelings down to the point where they can have communicative expression.

And reading about Amy Einhorn is a breath of fresh air; here’s an editor who looks askance at MFA credentials. Who reads the manuscript first, rather than trying to parse one’s “platform.” Who believes in a writer’s unique voice.

But I have to ask, upon seeing the cover piece about writers who have to escape to Alaskan fijords to write, who have to go to Antartica, for crying out loud, why it’s so hard for these folks to write. Maybe they’re trying on the wrong profession. I certainly did, prior to finding the craft of writing.

There’s much more, as always, so if you subscribe, use the magazine to your best benefit. If you’re not and you have doubts about the various aspects of your own writing, it might make sense to check this fine magazine out.

 

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Wellbeing Economics

Harper’s Magazine, February 2014

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I’m a little late with this issue of Harper’s Magazine, but here goes another magazine review week:

Okay, readers, what trumps economics in your personal life, in your family’s? Well, I’m not here to play guessing games, so let me tell you my answer: the wellbeing that comes from good, sound economics – in my checking account and personal investments, in my family’s, in the state and nation’s and, these days, in the world’s equivalents.

We don’t get encouragement in those veins very often today; we are, as Thomas Frank writes in this issue, scared numb by those who want to be our political daddies. And as Jeff Madrick writes in similar fashion. If you don’t believe this is a sticking point in macroeconomics, read Jeff Madrick’s roundtable discussion with several graybeards of the western world.

With whom do the naysayers and talking heads, the ones who seem often to hold us hostage to unreasoned arguments, have in common on the social level? Stalkers, as Sam Knight writes in his report, “A God More Powerful Than I.” Here, in one man’s unfortunate life, we see stalking and its eco-political equivalents played out as mental disease, as obsessive compulsion.

This idea is carried forward in David Means’ skillful story, “The Mighty Shannon,” the story of a married couple, each involved in affairs they can’t untangle, even with the help of marriage counseling. It’s only in their later years, their child grown, that they are able to sit back and watch the river flow, to laugh at their foibles.

This seems to be pandemic these days; we look to only the moment (instant gratification isn’t fast enough), to the minutiae of life. Does this come from  a couple of generations of us living and reliving our formative years? Perhaps. Maybe, then, it’s time for even the graybeards among us to watch the river flow.

 

 

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Papa Hemingway Rebuts

Coffee With Hemingway, by Kirk Curnutt

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Ever dream about a little face time with one of your favorite celebrities? Streisand, perhaps? Sinatra? Elvis? Bono? Would such a meet-up edify, or would it disappoint?

I’ve never thought that I’d enjoy such an encounter with my favorite writer, but in Curnutt’s imaginative hands, the story reveals much of what Hemingway was about. To be sure, he’s abrasive here, and he’s constantly toying with words and names as he holds court. What’s revealed here? I’ll list just a few bon mots:

 

“The only writing that’s any good is what you make up, out of your imagination. That’s what makes things ring true. Good writing has truths that aren’t necessarily facts.”

 

“(Expatriation) teaches you dislocation, which sharpens the memory and makes you able to recall details you take for granted when you’re in the actual place you’re writing about.”

 

“…journalism is a racket. It puts a dollar value on your words that’s destructive.”

 

This small book, containing a brief read, distills Papa’s attitude toward life and writing quite well, and any reader or writer would find it well worth the hour or so it would take to read.

 

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

 

 

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Irony and Complexity

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The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

As is my case with most books, I warmed up to this one slowly. My warming, however, became only tepid with The Orphan Master’s Son. I like stories, you see, and defined characters within such stories. That makes me an odd fit for postmodern literature, something I’ve posted on ad nauseum. This book of that ilk branches and wanders, flitting from character to vignette randomly, much as one might experience in a dream. There is a semblance of coherent story here, so I’ll take a shot at synopsizing it;

Pak Jun Do’s father is the ruling influence of a North Korean orphanage, and the boy’s mother has been spirited away to entertain high placed personages in Pyongyang, leaving Jun Do an orphan of sorts. He eventually finds himself in the role of kidnapper for North Korea’s high-ups. In such a country it’s best to blend in, to be all but invisible, but Jun Do’s role makes this impossible, and he continually finds himself skirting torture and death. Somewhere deep in this life he encounters a North Korean-type starlet, named Sun Moon, who has been conned away from Kim Jong Il to be the mistress of yet another muckety-muck. Jun Do falls for the wryly named Sun Moon, who sets a host of characters on a path to free her from the Dear Leader.

If this sounds like an overly complicated story – or perhaps no story at all – then you have a sense of what postmodern literature has to offer.

Two things tie Johnson’s novel into a semblance of coherence: first, it depicts the difficulties of living under such a regime. Second, it contrasts that form of society and life with that of the U.S., and it does so wryly, with irony of the highest order. The manner in which the author approaches writing this novel set in this particular culture is, I think, the reason it won the Pulitzer.

Johnson seems to have little regard for reader comfort in structuring this novel, even down to the insertion of dialogue tags in his sentences, and he apparently feels no need to lead the reader from vignette to vignette. His project here is perhaps overly ambitious, and I doubt he could have accomplished in a novel all he wished to without wandering about in this manner.

My rating: 15 of 20 stars.

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The Age of the iPod is Over/The Verge

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Time and technology march on, leaving us with drawers full of antiquated gadgets. Still, this is important news for readers and book marketers. The world is all about mobility now, mobile devices that can do more and more. Soon you’ll be able to read books, watch streaming TV and movies, in your car (don’t do this if you’re driving), read books, listen to audio books – all on a single, chosen mobile device.

The Verge

 

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