David Gessner, “Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight”

This review was originally published by the Four Corners Free Press.

If you went to Fenceline Cider (Mancos, Colorado) n late June to hear David Gessner talk about his new book from Torrey House Press, Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight, you would know that Gessner has an active, free-flowing, and very curious mind.

Riffing on a variety of the themes in the book during the talk, Gessner came across as affable and self-effacing. He also read the opening paragraph of the book, which is a beauty:

“Sixteen years ago, when our daughter was just a baby, my wife and I took her on a trip to Walden Pond. As we approached the place where Henry David Thoreau’s cabin once stood, with my daughter riding up on my shoulders, I said to her, ‘That’s where the man lived who ruined your father’s life.’”

Henry David Thoreau influences every one of the 377 pages within Quiet Desperation. The subtitle, in fact, is Sheltering With Thoreau in the Age of Crisis. Thoreau is the touchstone for Gessner’s takes on lifestyles, consumption, politics, wealth, solitude, race, abolition, anarchy, civil disobedience (of course), climate, nature and just about any topic Gessner cares to wade into.

Gessner started writing this book as a pandemic project in March of 2020, just as the COVID-19 virus forced worldwide lockdowns. Like Thoreau, Gessner has a shack (albeit on coastal North Carolina). Like Thoreau, Gessner has a superb eye for nature—and detail. Like Thoreau, Gessner has an enviable ability to monitor his thoughts and convert them into crystalline, inviting prose.

The pandemic is cast here as a backdrop—further proof that the world is falling apart. Quiet Desperation could have been written without millions of people dying; there are plenty of other reasons for Gessner to ponder what humans have done to the planet or how humans have chosen to live together. He didn’t need a mass die-off to ponder the fate of grizzly bears in Montana or observing Bank Swallows on Cape Cod. The drama of the pandemic is a framework, a window to observe. Gessner is generous to include voices past and present—from Zak Podmore to Rick Bass, from Craig Childs to Wendell Berry.

Gessner weaves in memoir, too. We learn about his travels, his family, his friends, the houses where he’s lived and mistakes he’s made. We get the feeling that Gessner could travel to any state, find a place to sit quietly and watch a bird hunt for food, and jot down a brisk and breezy couple of thousand words on whatever news item he’d encountered that morning. We also get the feeling that Gessner could travel to any state, plug into his vast network of like-minded writers and researchers, and spend the evening tossing back a few beers in search of the next spark.

Gessner’s writing is touching, personal, inviting, and calm. Stop and observe, he suggests, and you will find some inner peace to counter all the chaos. But he also knows that the Thoreau model—retreating to the woods, dropping out of society—is hardly what’s needed now.

“The Thoreauvian strategy of doing with less, certainly helps but only on an individual, not global, scale,” writes Gessner. “There are times I feel overwhelmed by my impotence, my smallness, in the face of it. I have strategies to lift myself out of this sense of overwhelm, usually by some sort of activity, but what if all my efforts, all our efforts, can’t stop the darkness coming toward us? Maybe the most honest thing to do is to be with it, let it settle, not ignore it. That was the advice two other writers gave last night on the Zoom event I did with them. My contribution was to quote Isak Dinesen: ‘Write a little every day without hope or despair.’ That’s what I hold onto. Do my work, which is putting words on the page, while trying not to rise too high on hope or sink too low in despair. It isn’t easy.”

No, but David Gessner’s prose makes for easy reading and he delivers a serene and restorative worldview.

Kathy Valentine, “All I Ever Wanted”

Kathy Valentine is in the graffiti-covered toilet at The Whisky on Sunset Boulevard. It’s 1980. She’s there to see X (good call). Valentine bumps into fellow musician Charlotte Caffey and an invitation is extended—could Valentine fill in on bass for four upcoming gigs, two shows a night, around New Year’s Eve?

Valentine fibs—sure, she can do it.

Valentine is 21. But, as we soon find out reading the raw accounts in Valentine’s memoir All I Ever Wanted, she’s already got a wise old head. She’s not going to blow this chance. The morning after The Whisky encounter, Valentine borrows a bass—a small-bodied Fender Mustang—and gets to work learning the Go-Go’s material off a recording from one of their rehearsals.

“Making my way through the tape, one thing became clear through the distortion of the cassette player: the Go-Go’s had some really good songs,” she writes. “I hadn’t realized that in my limited exposure to the band. Each tune had a distinct personality and sound, all of them powered by great drumming and melodies. They blended punk, pop, surf, and rock like no one else.”

Onstage a few weeks later (back at The Whisky), it’s “near delirium … a rocket ship countdown.” 

It’s tempting to say, perhaps, something cliché such as “the rest is history.”

But what makes All I Ever Wanted so compelling is that Valentine starts the memoir with this less-than-glamourous chance meeting (having been in The Whisky bathrooms around that era, I have a rough idea) and then takes us back. The first solid 100 pages (about a third of the book) deal with Valentine’s bumpy, tumultuous youth in Austin. Valentine grew up fast. An abortion at 12 years old will do that. So will getting high with your mother. So will navigating life with one parent whose basic approach is less than laissez-faire. Valentine writes that she “instinctively became self-sufficient, not needing much tending to.” 

But music “had calibrated the imbalances of my life for as long as I could remember: listening to table jukeboxes, dancing the twist with my mom, singing along with bouncy bubblegum melodies.” And then she encountered the blues and a band called Cream.  “I definitely had no idea what ‘the sunshine of your love’ was, but I couldn’t wait to find out.”

By seventh grade, Valentine was “smoking pot like a pro” and skipping school and this might all sound sort of typical or predicable memoir fodder but Valentine writes with such candor and a cutting, self-effacing style that it elevates above ordinary fare. Such as post abortion:

“From then on, I had an unspoken mantra: got a problem? Deal with it. Expel it. Chop it off. Abort it and move on. It took me a long time to understand or cultivate compassion. The evidence of the abortion was there, on the bloody pad I had to wear, and my cramping uterus, in my desolated capacity for grace. But more than that, I had lost my childhood, vacuumed out with the zygote, and with that loss, my mom and I had become like a couple of girlfriends getting out of jam.”

Valentine carries this gutsy determination into her musical career—first with an Austin outfit called The Textones that relocated to Los Angeles, and then taking full advantage of her chance with the Go-Go’s as the New Year’s Eve fill-in stint turned into an offer to join the band full time. First album, first big tour, and soon Valentine is caught up in the dizzy swirl of rock and roll stardom. Valentine is frank about her relentless, insatiable intake of drugs and alcohol, the band fights large and small, hotel life, van life, fighting for redemption after a sophomore release fails to impress, and her relationship with Blondie drummer Clem Burke. In one harrowing scene, Valentine recounts being trapped by an intruder in her house—along with Carlene Carter and Charlie Sexton—and balances “terror, self-preservation, survival, and indecision.” By this point, we know Valentine well enough to know that the indecision won’t last long. 

Valentine is especially candid in discussing the split of the Go-Go’s cash, how a band that appears together on stage is truly five contractors whose income is inflated (or not) by songwriting credits. Valentine calls out unfairness where she sees it, including the surprise decision to shut the band down. Valentine is vulnerable enough to admit to envy when several of her bandmates’ careers blossom post Go-Go’s and she takes us through the business of going sober.

Valentine sneaks in terrific encounters with Keith Richards, The Police, Rod Stewart (that one’s a doozy), Bob Dylan, Lenny Kravitz, Dave Stewart and on and on. (Valentine is a female rocker Forrest Gump. Or maybe that’s just the way it is up there in the stratosphere.) For those who hung around L.A. in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, there are references to the Plugz and The Plimsouls and the aforementioned X. You get the feeling that Valentine had an effortless, easy way of making friends and expanding her network. 

In the end, Valentine puts you in the middle of one of the most influential bands—not just all-girl bands—of the 1980’s. As Valentine admits, the invite to join the Go-Go’s was a fluke that particular night at The Whisky. Or was it? From an early, early age Valentine had learned how a songs had the “potency” to deliver deep responses. Cream “opened a portal to an unexplored hidden self, making my heart ache with anticipation of what might be waiting to be discovered.” I

It’s not about hanging out with Kathy and the Go-Go’s that makes All I Ever Wanted rock. It’s hanging around all that desire.

Final note: I highly recommend the audio book version, which includes Valentine compositions between chapters. Definitely adds to the experience.

Patrick McGuinness, “Throw Me To The Wolves”

Almost indescribably rich and loaded with ideas, Throw Me to the Wolves is a flat-out gem.

It’s about the media and social media. It’s about rushing to judgment. It’s about language and culture, teachers and students, memory, the past and the future, the danger of half-truths, privilege, class, and (of course) who done it. And who didn’t.

Throw Me to the Wolves is based on the true story (according to an article in The Guardian) of the media feeding frenzy around the murder of Joanna Yeates, which prompted one of the largest police investigation ever undertaken in the Bristol area in 2010. The police initially suspected and arrested Yeates’ landlord, who lived nearby. He was subsequently released but was “vilified,” according to Wikipedia, in the press.

In Throw Me to the Wolves, the murder victim is Zalie Dyer. The innocent man—and we readers have a pretty good idea early on that everything is a little too perfect for the main suspect to have done it—is Michael Wolphram. The detective questioning Wolphram is Ander. And Ander, it turns out, is a substitute for the writer McGuinness, who as a student had taken classes from the mis-accused, real-life Christopher Jeffries.

After a breathtaking opening chapter in which McGuinness establishes the setting—the school, the bridge, the water, the English channel—we jump right into the investigation of Wolphram and conclusions have already been drawn.

“He speaks in long, fluent, perfect sentences. Gramatically flawless, he talks from an inner thesaurus where everything is tinged with something else, every colour seeping into the next. It’s like a posh paint catalogue: no black, no white, no red, no blue—just a sequence of in-betweens with double-barrelled names.”

Wolphram is also an eccentric. He’s a loner. He’s an intellectual and shy. And he’s got expensive tastes. Wolphram is a perfect candidate for a media “monstering.” (His surname means either ‘traveling wolf’ or ‘wolf raven.’ I mean, either way.) And the victim, Zalie, is also ripe for getting smeared by the media; right down to her dating profile—there are bikini shots and “holiday snaps of her with a drink, or dancing with a guy in Lanzarote.”

Ander recalls the teacher abuse he received back in Ghent from when Wolphram was his teacher. “One stroke of the blade was enough. You didn’t feel the pain until you saw the blood.” But Ander doesn’t reveal his connection to Wolphram to his cohorts. He doesn’t think it’s that big a deal. He doesn’t want to “cloud things up.” But we, of course, know it is—and Ander’s memories of the strict classroom environment form a big, and harrowing, chunk of the book.

In fact, Ander had been told to forget all that happened.

“Maybe that’s why, even decades later, he feels like he has been condemned to remembering, like a child Faust who cut a deal years ago to make the present bearable: in exchange for spending your childhood imagining a better future, the time will come when you have to hand that future over to your past and go back to live there. That was the pact.”

This is but one many riffs on the folds and wrinkles that connect past, present, and future. Ander’s transition from Belgian youth to English adult, especially how is mind processed language, is a recurring theme, too. 

Throw Me to the Wolves is full of asides and insights, often in the funny chat between Ander and the cynical detective Gary, who “doles out nicknames from his desk the way Adam named the animals in Genesis.”

Here’s a sample of McGuinness’ cool style like when Ander and Gary ring a doorbell.

“The doorbell is an electronic version of Big Ben, a big brassy chime, and from its echo we can already tell it’s a large hallway. Rich people take ages to answer their doors because they have further to come, and because, somewhere in their embedded class memory, there’s a servant doing it for them.”

When the tide turns—when Ander realizes, based on all he knows, that Wolphram is no murderer—Throw Me to the Wolves takes on a more traditional crime fiction vibe, but with McGuinness’ rich prose driving the day. A total winner from start to finish.

Liz Phair, “Horror Stories”

A “Gen X Patti Smith” as the back cover claims?

Not quite, not really—and the comparison seems forced. Unnecessary, too.

Horror Stories reads like a litany of vulnerable moments from a rock star’s travel journal—17 moments or situations when rock star Liz Phair got caught in a tough situation, didn’t always do the right thing, and is now taking the time to pass along pithy observations about life.

“Being in nature is a gift,” asserts Phair in a piece about being taught to surf by her therapist. 

“In a way, I guess, living with complexity is as simple as finding the proper altitude,” she writes after recounting a Car Door Vs. Scooter mishap on the streets of Shanghai. “If you don’t change where you’re flying, you’ll never reach the smoother air.”

“You have resources of strength inside you that you’re completely unaware of until you absolutely need them.” This comes after surviving a long slog through a blizzard in New York City. “Many generations of inherited survival skills still reside within you, thanks to the reproductive success of your ancestors.”

These cliché aphorisms are sticky sweet. They read like junior high school diary “insights” and deflate what are often engaging and colorful accounts. Giving birth. Navigating a New York City blackout. Discovering you’re trapped in a house being burglarized (a college moment that becomes a layered issue of race, class and entitlement).

Phair’s prose is plenty frank. No surprise, given her penchant for sexually explicit lyrics starting way back with “Exile in Guyville.” (And before.) The chapter “Labor of Love,” about giving birth to her son, includes a highly detailed and often amusing account of Phair’s relationship with her genitals. She writes about affairs, boyfriends, chasing men, and taking time to recover from a broken heart. Phair is fully aware of her rock star status and the privileges that go come with it. But there she is pushing a car out of a snowdrift or helping an old friend by carrying his artificial leg across the terminal at Heathrow Airport. Phair has a very relatable ability to worry—to conjure catastrophes ahead.

There is nothing in here about being a songwriter or her artistic process, and precious little about what it’s like to be on stage or playing in a band. But there are moments about balancing relationships (and family) with her career.

Phair’s piece about a former manager/producer with a big #MeToo problem finally unleashes a bit of justifiable fury.  “I’m tired of women having to call out men for their violence against us. Police your own damn selves. You do these awful things to us, and then it’s somehow our responsibility to get you to change. This is your problem to fix. I don’t want some media moment to spike and then fade away with the next news cycle. This is a massive and deeply entrenched bias. It’s not going to change quickly.”

And:

“Women deserve respect, independence, and equality, period. We’re not carpetbaggers piggybacking on the civilization you created. You made skyscrapers and bridges and rockets? Well, we made you.”

Credit to Phair for putting out an atypical memoir. Horror Stories has a nice tug all the way along. Wish she would have skipped all the tidy summaries and gone with a little more edge.

Francine Prose, “Blue Angel”

From the opening scene in Blue Angel, Ted Swenson is squirming from a self-imposed bit of foolishness. 

“The students stare at him, appalled. He can’t believe he said that. His pathetic stab at humor sounded precisely like what it was: a question he dreamed up and rehearsed as he walked across North Quad, past the gothic graystone cloisters, the Founders Chapel, the lovely two-hundred-year-old maples just starting to drop the orange leaves that lie so thickly on the cover of the Euston College viewbook.”

The question he posed to his class of writing students is whether there has been a recent spate of stories being produced about humans having sex with animals.

But soon Swenson is challenged by a student—what other stories? And Swenson “suddenly can’t recall. Maybe it was some other years, another class completely. He’s been having too many moments like this: a door slams shut behind him and his mind disappears. Is this early Alzheimer’s? He’s only forty-seven. Only forty-seven. What happened in the heartbeat since he was his students’ age?”

We’re in Vermont at a hip school where students are expected to call their professors by their first names. “But some kids can’t make themselves say Ted, the scholarship students like Carlos (who does an end run around it by calling him Coach), the Vermont farm kids like Jonelle, the black students like Carlis and Makeesha, the ones least likely to be charmed by his jokey threats. Euston hardly has any students like that, but this fall, for some reason, they’re all in Swenson’s class.”

One student hasn’t said anything, five weeks into the school year. Until, finally, Angela Argo utters, “I think it sucks” about one student’s story. Angela, thinks Swenson, is a “special pain in the ass.” Angela has facial piercings and a ring on every finger. But the “special pain in the ass,” it turns out, also holds a certain allure. She can write! And Ted Swenson, who coasting on one novel published years ago and who is making barely perceptible progress on a new one, is taken. Angela is soon “occupying more than her share of territory in his mind.”

Soon, Angela is sharing a draft of her first novel with Swenson and soon there are meetings in his office, and then a trip to the big city of Burlington to help Angela buy a computer, and before you know it, Swenson is keeping secrets from his wife, and we all kind of have a hunch where this is going, don’t we?

The squirming Ted Swenson, who feels uncomfortable in nearly every scene in Blue Angel, is soon going to squirm even more. The question is whether he can find an escape, some relief—whether the gothic graystone institution will offer him mercy.

This sentence includes a mild spoiler, but let’s just say that when you combine ‘gothic,’ ‘graystone’ and ‘cloisters’ in your description of an institution, it’s unlikely that the current college powers that be will relax their standards for behavior between faculty and students, even as they sharpen the guillotine.

Blue Angel puts Ted Swenson in a torture chamber—self-inflicted torture as he parses every decision leading up to the awkward few minutes in Angela Argo’s dorm room and as he must attempt to discern the differences and distinctions between the reality of his actions versus the fictional accounts in Angela’s work-in-progress.

To make matters more interesting—and therefore more torturous—a dark cloud hovers around the Ted-Angela connection because it could have been transactional—did Ted Swenson agree to bring Angela’s novel to his agent in New York in exchange for some favors? Unfortunately for Swenson, appearances are everything.

This is only the surface of a novel with a raft of colorful characters—fellow faculty who admire Swenson, fellow faculty who despise him, college leadership, Swenson’s wife, Swenson’s college-age daughter Ruby, and all of Swenson’s wannabe writer students. Some of the scenes with the students are very, very funny. Prose’s dialogue is terrific.

The title of Francine Prose’s novel is a direct reference to the Marlene Diedrich movie (1930) of the same name, in which a professor falls for a nightclub singer. The movie is amply referenced in the pages here. The interwoven fabric of Swenson’s family history, and how much he used to inform his one novel to date, and Angela Argo’s fiction, which may or may not be based on her version of her upbringing, is tightly wound, especially after Swenson publicly adopts the title of Angela’s work in progress as one of his own.

In an article for The Paris Review, spurred by the film adaptation of the novel (“Submission,” starring Stanley Tucci), Francine Prose underscored what made the novel so interesting, whether we feel pity for Swenson as we see his desire run headlong into outright manipulation.

Warning, mild spoilers in Prose’s comments:

“Part of what still engages me about this story, and what makes it now seem riskier than ever, is that the female character—younger, more vulnerable—is the one who has the agency. She is the one who turns out to be in control, and who determines the way things proceed. This version of the familiar professor-student narrative is so rarely mentioned that it is likely to provoke a hostile reaction. But are we saying that these situations never exist? That woman are always the hapless innocents? Yes, Harvey Weinstein’s behavior was reprehensible. Yes, female students have been raped, pawed, bullied, and blackmailed into sex by their professors and mentors. But does that mean that we have a moral obligation to only create and consume art that follows those scripts?”

No, Francine, we do not.

++

Final note: The movie version is scene-by-scene faithful to the book, but it falls oddly flat. No movie could capture the deep interior space that Prose creates for the hapless Ted Swenson.

Brendan O’Neill, “Meet Mr Sticks”

One of my claims to fame is that I had the opportunity to interview Rory Gallagher twice—the first time after a show at The Ambassador in St. Louis in 1974 and the second time in his hotel room in Los Angeles in 1978 as he was getting ready for a show at the Starwood Club. The interviews were a thrill, to get a chance to ask a few questions of the remarkable Irish guitarist, one of most dynamic and energetic performers I’ve ever seen.

When Rory opened for Rush at McNichols Arena in Denver in 1982, I worked my way backstage to say hello to Rory. (I had no business pretending he cared.)

Donal (Rory’s brother) remembered me and kindly let me into the backstage room. I didn’t stay long. Now, after reading Meet Mr Sticks, I wish I had also gone over to chat with Brendan O’Neill, who was Rory’s fourth drummer and just settling into a good run with the band. The guy has got some stories to tell—and tells them very well.

But know one thing—Meet Mr Sticks is no Rory Gallagher tell-all. Not hardly. In fact, if anything, Rory is underplayed. Rory gets even less space in the pages than his cut-off face gets on the cover. And that’s fine. Meet Mr Sticks is O’Neill’s music-loving memoir of youth, coming of age, and maturing into a drummer who goes from scrappy Belfast gigs to touring arenas and clubs around the world. 

Born in Belfast in 1951, O’Neill gives us a gritty portrait of his warts-and-all upbringing. Meet Mr Sticks is a story of survival—and utter love for music, beginning with The Beatles.

O’Neill’s first drum was a Gigster snare drum his mother bought him for 30 bob. He used cardboard boxes for tom toms and his foot on the floor for the bass drum. He used sailcloth for the head. It sounded terrible, but O’Neill said he got hours of pleasure from it. He clearly had an ear for music.

“I hadn’t realized it at the time, but The Beatles were playing less rock and roll and more rock with great melody. For example, if you listen to Chuck Berry’s original version of ‘Rock and Roll Music’ with the great Willie Dixon on base and Freddie Below on drums, it has more of a rockabilly swing feel. They don’t come any better in that genre. The drumming, however, has a jazz effect. Whereas Ringo gives The Beatles version a driving 16th feel, played on the high hat with a real stomp. Even as a kid, I felt that difference.”

From an early age, O’Neill played a variety of bands and knew the scene inside and out, all while balancing, at first, the idea of a “real” job as an airframe fitter working on the Skyvan aircraft. He also navigates early relationships, family struggles, and The Troubles themselves. It wasn’t easy being a band running around Belfast—and down to Dublin, too—when there’s a civil war underway. The Troubles are dangerous—and deadly. O’Neill’s deep love of music made decisions about work and family difficult.

Belfast was clearly a rich musical breeding ground and a frequent stop for English and Scottish up-and-comers. All sorts of musicians make appearances on these pages—from Van Morrison to Mark Knopfler to the guys from Thin Lizzy.

Rory Gallagher lurks in the background for much of the book, but that’s not the case for Gerry McAvoy, Rory’s longtime bass player. O’Neill and McAvoy were in bands together before McAvoy got scooped up by Rory—a full decade before O’Neill. O’Neill’s friendship with McAvoy—and O’Neill seemed to have a large circle of good friends—finally pays off. When the opportunity comes, it’s not a slam-dunk. Rory made such decisions about bandmates with a fair amount of deliberation.  

A good memoir, well-told. The Athens concert fiasco is worth reading the whole book—and imagining a street-savvy kid from Belfast winding up in such a, well, explosive situation.

Sure, the pages with Rory are the chief allure. But what does it take to be a musician who gets to back a star of such high caliber? Nothing new here—hard work, dedication, passion, and taking your chances when they come. But O’Neill makes for an engaging narrator of the rock and roll dream. 

Pam Houston and Amy Irvine, “Air Mail”

It began as a nifty idea for Orion Magazine in late March of 2020 as the nation entered the first wave of stay-at-home orders in response to the growing pandemic. “Every week under lockdown, we eavesdrop on curious pairs of authors, scientists, and artists, listening in on their emails, texts, and phone calls as they redefine their relationships from afar,” described the introduction for the series, dubbed “Together Apart.”

First up were Amy Irvine (Trespass, Desert Cabal) and Pam Houston (Deep Creek, Cowboys Are My Weakness). The pair of stellar, earth-conscious writers had never met. Their letters, which started on March 28 and ended on May 7, are now available in Air Mail—Letters of Politics, Pandemics, and Place from Torrey House Press. The 163 pages—11 letters each way—offer brisk, tantalizing exchanges that bristle with energy, ideas, and insights that range from personal to regional to global.

“In a culture defined by Twitter and the twenty-four hour news cycle, writing letters felt like ritual—intimate, ancient—two barn owls calling to each other across a starry sky,” they write in the joint introduction. “Our letters became a life raft of clarity in days filled with increasing numbers of the dead and the incessant dismantling of our government from within. In them, we could rage and cry, hold each other up, and talk ourselves back into agency, back into hope, back into action.”

The exchanges—which do read like old-fashioned, stamped-envelope letters—capture the surreal time. Air Mail is far more than an epistolary time capsule, however. It’s two writers connecting, digging deep, and generating sparks. The letters are at times whimsical, funny, biting, angry, colorful, and touching.

In the opening missive, Houston acknowledges that their “sheltering in place” situations are hardly typical, with wilderness right out the front doors for each of them. “I’ve been thinking about the wildlands that get more use than ours, that grapple with a constant onslaught of people, and are suddenly emptied out,” she writes. “I picture the animals whispering to one another, Do you think they are all dead down there? Then I picture them all linking arms and dancing around the campfire.”

They share stories and thoughts about no-mask encounters with strangers, encounters with bears and elk, the ongoing flood of weird messaging out of Washington, D.C., the looming election, personal health details, abusive parents, previous boyfriends, current partners, each other’s books, other writers, dreams, medicines, gun safety, and the future of the planet.

“COVID is but a coming attraction for what the climactic catastrophe has in store for us,” writes Houston. “And now we know how utterly unprepared we are to meet whatever Mother Earth might serve up once she decides once and for all to shake her most determined parasite off her back. The decision to master the Earth instead of love her was made long ago by the same sort of men who are using COVID as an excuse to steal even more from her. And yet it is hard not to notice how happy she is without us out there, how blue the sky, how shimmery the trees.”

Irvine, in one powerful entry, writes about fear. Both Amy and her daughter Ruby deal with medical issues that require inhalers, so she’s keenly concerned about the airborne virus and the potential damage to their lungs.

There is rage. There is love. There is bitterness. There is hope.

We eavesdroppers do what we do best. We listen. And marvel at the ability of Pam Houston to Amy Irvine to express themselves—in the moment—with such visceral, engaging ideas and words.   

(This review was published originally by the Four Corners Free Press in Cortez, Colorado.)

Francis Spufford, “Golden Hill”

The book Golden Hill starts with a sentence that is either 178 or 180 words long (sorry, not going to count again) and you might want to take a deep breath before wading in because—and you might know this just from glancing at the first few lines—there is no sign of a period on the first page and there are lots of these—em dashes; five on the first page alone—and we know we’re on a boat coming into New York and there is a Mr. Smith peering ahead to the “small mound of a city” through the “November gloom” and then there is a reference to Tietjes Slip and you might find yourself stopping in the middle of this first sentence—as long as a coal train snaking off to the horizon, no vanishing point in sight—to head to Mr. Google to discover the slip was located in lower Manhattan and anyway Mr. Smith notes that the dusk is “as cold and damp and dim as November can afford” (a great line) and soon you realize that you have fallen into Francis Spufford’s considerable skills with language and you think, even though this is historical fiction and it’s not really your thing, what the heck.

There are a couple of normal-length sentences after that opening doozy. (One of those sentences is fully within parentheses.) And then we launch back into another word-jam sucker that tells us we are now on Manhattan soil and Mr. Smith is in a hurry, “skidding over fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port” on his way to the a “counting house” and demands, with a minute left to go in the business day, to speak to the owner, Mr. Lovell. Mr. Smith has a bill drawn upon Mr. Lovell’s correspondents in London and he wants to cash it in.

Mr. Smith is told to come back in the morning and that any amount over ten-pound sterling will be a problem, because cash is scarce. Mr. Smith, it turns out, is accommodating. And colorful. “It is for a greater amount. A far greater. And I am come to you now, hot-foot from the cold sea, salt still on me, dirty as a dog fresh from a duck-pond, not for payment, but to do you the courtesy of a long notice.”  

The bill is for one thousand pounds—not a measly ten.  In fact, “one thousand seven-hundred and thirty-eight pounds, fifteen shillings and fourpence, New York money.”

Just what is New York money becomes one of the running motifs of the book—it turns out that “money” is exceedingly fungible concept. But Mr. Smith’s arrival and the size of his considerable bill generate a buzz of rumors in the city/village (then, in 1746, with a population of just 7,000). 

Standard historical fiction? I’m not sure precisely what that is, but suffice it to say to Francis Spufford puts the emphasis on forward momentum and slips in the historical references in drips and drabs with ample doses of scenery—natch. After all, it’s not history to Mr. Smith—it’s very much now and of the moment and what Mr. Smith sees, even though the weather is miserable, is an appealing town that he compares favorably, at least at first, to London.

Mr. Smith meets Lovell’s daughters Tabitha and Flora. At a coffee shop, he encounters Septimus Oakeshott, secretary to the governor of New York. He has his purse stolen. He is saved from an angry mob at a bonfire. Septimus and Smith become friends and plan a production of Joseph Addison’s “Cato.” Flora and Tabitha take roles in the show and Smith develops a thing for Tabitha.  There are complications over the confirmation of Smith’s note and he is jailed and then released.  His entanglements in love and politics go sour and Mr. Smith is challenged to a duel with Septimus as his opponent and, well, by this point we have traveled up and down from the streets and back alleys to the highest inner circle of city politics. 

Throughout, there is a steady drumbeat of images of Smith watching a city organize itself—rites, religion, justice, art, and culture. Golden Hill is also about New York gaining its place in the world, asserting itself. Coming from the much larger and more established London, Smith is given plenty of opportunity for comparisons—all enhanced by Spufford’s entrancing descriptions.  

At the bonfire: “Smith, dizzy with sparks and smoke, lost the comfortable understanding of size he had brought with him from home, and the awe and fear of the New World broke in upon him. As if, till then, he had been inhabiting a little doll’s house, and misled by its neat veneers had mistaken it for the world, until with a splintering-crunch its sides and front were broken off, and it proved to be standing all alone in the forests of the night; inches high, among silent, huge, glimmering trees.”

But is this Smith’s story? An unidentified narrator occasionally rises above the fray for a comment or two and we are left to wonder—and keep wondering when Spufford gives us two teasing letters/codas that may or may not explain it all. Would a real writer, like Spufford, have asked readers to ride the surf of that first monster wave of words way back in the beginning of chapter one? Or might it have been the work of someone less, well, experienced?

Enjoy the language; enjoy the ride.

George Saunders, “A Swim in A Pond in the Rain”

Watch and listen as a master writer processes the great prose of others. Watch an analyst analyze. Have your mind blown about how much more was on the page, embedded in the words and artistic techniques, than you ever thought possible.

A Swim in A Pond in the Rain is a one-of-a-kind treat for writers and, heck, readers too. At least, readers who want to know why they enjoyed a story but who are also eager to understand more about its essence, soul and guts. George Saunders doesn’t only look at the brushstrokes of writing, but also at the choice of colors, the lighting, the shading, the angles, the macro impact and the micro artistry.

In A Swim in A Pond in the Rain, George Saunders, who teachers creative writing at Syracuse University, breaks down seven short stories by four Russian writers—Anton Chekhov (“In The Cart,” The Darling,” “Gooseberries”), Ivan Turgenev (“The Singers”), Leo Tolstoy (“Master and Man,” “Alyosha The Pot”) and Nikolai Gogal (“The Nose.”) Oh, and the full stories are included, too.

Saunders makes a convincing case that this batch of Russian writers were masters—and deserve every bit of scrupulous study we can bring to their work.

In the introduction, Saunders writes:

“We live, as you may have noticed, in a degraded era, bombarded by facile, shallow, agenda-laced, too rapidly disseminated information bursts. We’re about to spend some time in a realm where it is assumed that, as the great (twentieth-century) Russian short story master Isaac Babel put it, ‘no iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.’ We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions: How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it? How can we feel any peace when some people have everything and others have nothing?”

Saunders considers his approach to teaching “more vaudevillian than scholar.” He writes that the “basic drill” of the book is to read the story, “then turn your mind to the experience you’ve just had.” Saunders suggests that all reactions are valid, from annoyed to confused to tearing up. Such “forced acquaintance” with a story “will inform the swerves and instinctive moves that are so much a part of what writing actually is, from moment to moment.”

Saunders deploys this detailed approach in the lead story, Chekhov’s “In The Cart.”  We get a brief burst of text and then Saunders stops to take a look, for three-plus pages, at the first three paragraphs and the introduction of our main character Marya and the landscape—helping us understand Chekhov’s choices. (Specificity, people.)

This might feel like a forensic chef deconstructing twenty-five ingredients in a Mexican mole, but Saunders’ approach is savory and enticing. The story itself runs roughly 11 pages; Saunders’ engaging chatter and questioning about “The Cart” runs about 50 pages. Saunders sees clues and cues we might otherwise skim.

By the time he’s done parsing “In The Cart,” we see what Chekhov has accomplished, how Chekhov has improved our ability to empathize with Marya and see her in a new light as the story ends.

In his “Afterthought #1,” Saunders concedes that this “page at a time” approach is annoying. But it’s also instructive. “A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were. Criticism is not some inscrutable, mysterious process. It’s just a matter of (1) noticing ourselves responding to a work of art, moment by moment, and (2) getting better at articulating that response.”

Saunders is not recommending one approach to writing. In fact, the opposite. He wants writers to realize that they are in search of their own voice—not another writer’s. Saunders writes about trying to climb “Hemingway Mountain” only to realize that he could only hope to be an acolyte—nothing more. But Saunders discovered a “little shit hill” named “Saunders Mountain.” The key? It had his name on it. He encourages writers to go stand on their little “shit hill” and hope it will grow. Saunders’ example for this point is Turgenev’s “The Singers” and this analysis turns what is a tale full of backstory into a work of wonder.

All throughout A Swim in A Pond in the Rain, Saunders sprinkles in encouragement and ideas for writers, such as a powerful metaphor about keeping readers engaged.

“The writer’s task is to place gas stations around the track so that the reader will keep reading and make it to the end of the story. What are those gas stations? Well, manifestations of writerly charm, basically. Anything that includes the reader to keep going. Bursts of honesty, wit, powerful language, humor; a pithy description of a thing in the world that makes us really see it, a swath of dialogue that pulls us through it via its internal rhythm—every sentence is a potential little gas station.”

That’s where the writer brings her or his unique voice to the page. And that’s where Saunders encourages writers to evaluate their own work with a relentless eye for what’s boring versus what’s brightening the page.

Not surprisingly, A Swim in A Pond in the Rain is never boring. Or didactic. It serves more as a fire-starter for those artistic impulses.

“God save us from manifestos, even mine,” writes Saunders at the end. “The closest thing to a method I have to offer is this: go forth and do what you please.”

Writers, I highly recommend “reading” this book on audio so you can hear Saunders’ playful tone as he thinks about the storytelling process. Yes, that playfulness comes through on the page, too. But you will laugh out loud as Saunders parses Gogol and you will sit back in awe as you realize you just got a master class from one of the best.

Personally, I don’t see why Saunders couldn’t make A Swim in A Pond in the Rain the beginning of a long, long series.

Tomas Alamilla & Mario Acevedo, “Luther, Wyoming”

Sheriff Nelson Cook is attempting to keep order out on the fringes of civilization in the nowhere, “flea speck” town of Luther, Wyoming. Sheriff Cook is about to come into a nifty little windfall. It’s dirty money. Bribe money. He’s paid to look the other way. He’s fine with the deal.  He could soon be wealthy.

Adam Sanchez, a Mexican-Comanche from the New Mexico Territories, had gone east to fight for the Union. But now he’s come west—to Luther—after leaving behind doe-eyed beauty Tess Buchanan. She’s the only daughter of a federal judge. Adam would change his ways for Tess. She’s the only one who could prompt a transformation, but she spurns him.

Cook and Sanchez know each other. Well. After the war, Cook and Adam “drifted from Pennsylvania and made a living selling things that didn’t belong to them.”

A grizzly-sized bad guy named Jesse rides into Luther and promptly kills the two brothers who had bribed Sheriff Cook. Jesse is arrested but suddenly Sheriff Cook—and Adam Sanchez—have all the stolen loot in the brothers’ possession.

Realizing that there might soon be others from Jesse’s gang coming to investigate what happened to their compadres and their loot, Cook deputizes Adam Sanchez. Cook sends for a judge to run a trial for Jesse who, after a fair amount of mayhem, is in jail. 

At this point, Luther, Wyoming is only buckling its armitas  There’s a robbery. A chase. There are crosses. Double-crosses. Explosions. A kidnapping. Deception. In Luther, the currency is trust but coins are scarce. Duplicity is a sport.

The judge who arrives to run the trial is the father of Tess Buchanan. Just to make things interesting for Adam Sanchez, Tess has come along, too. She can’t quite believe Adam’s upgrade from “wandering scoundrel to upstanding lawman … Tess remembered Adam was a bit of dandy even though he lived out of a saddlebag. Not surprisingly, as a keeper of the law with a permanent residence, he was well turned out. Pressed frock coat. Starched collar. Brushed hat. A recent haircut and shave. Polished sheriff’s star. For her part, Tess felt the sweat and grime of the journey from Cheyenne and imagined herself filthy as a horse blanket.”

Luther, Wyoming plops the reader in the saddle of a sprinting horse on page one and never lets up, as if the writers themselves were in full gallop as they drafted. Action. Reaction. And repeat. Written by Tomas Alamilla and Mario Acevedo, Luther, Wyoming has a Louis L’Amour throwback feel but it skews dark and violent at times with warped moments worthy of the Coen brothers or Cormac McCarthy. The writing is crisp and purposeful, with backstory dripped out like water rationed in a drought.

There’s collective frontier justice—a speedy trial and quick ramifications. And there’s heaps of individual, personal prosecution for a wide variety of affronts and crimes.  For Adam, the question is whether to follow his heart, amid so much bloody chaos, or listen to his head and wonder if he can manage a woman who seems so accustomed to death. Don’t forget. He’s a bit of a dandy. Will Andy go legit? Come all the way clean? Tailor-made for a gripping sequel.

Jeffrey Fleishman, “My Detective”

Straightforward concept, dynamite execution—My Detective is proof that it’s all in the telling. And characters.

Jeffrey Fleishman’s prose is poetic and poignant. The story alternates between a jaded homicide detective and a female killer who is in the process of dispatching a few male architects. Yes, as Barenaked Ladies will tell you, it’s all been done before. The first killing is right there in the opening two sentences. “I sneak up from behind, yank his chin, lift the knife. So fast.”  

Our killer is cocky. And confident. “What joy. I am in no hurry. I am strong. Deliberate. Precise as an equation.” She’s of Croatian descent, six-feet tall, and she’s got a chip on her shoulder because she has learned that “those who fit differently into the world were held to a crueler light.” It’s not the only chip on the shoulder of Dylan Cross. 

Our detective is Sam Carver—not a bad name for a novel full of knives. He’s carrying around plenty of darkness. Baggage Father stuff. We’re in a sharply-observed L.A. and some of the prose here echoes Raymond Chandler, but it’s not all clipped and staccato.

Carver quickly learns that Dylan’s first victim is a “rich schmuck architect” with political connections. “Proceed with caution,” he’s told by his boss.

L.A. plays a role, as mentioned. So do cities in general. Cities, developments, construction, architecture—“the bones, glass, and stone of our imaginations.” With all the architecture talk, this makes perfect sense.

“I’m looking at long night,” thinks Carver. “Planes bound for LAX loop and glitter in winds high above the San Gabriels. Cranes rise in the west, and to the south, a gray black hangs over the 110 beyond Hawthorn and Compton Neighborhoods reach into one another and stretch through canyons toward the ocean, on and on, like the flash and tremor of a dream, and somewhere deep in the earth, a fault slips into a brokenness waiting to rise, nobody knows when.”

Carver discovers the victim was killed outside a hotel where he had been seeing a hooker. And Dylan Cross, we find out, has managed to hack Carver’s computer and enjoys watching and tracking him. He is “my detective.” She has followed Carver, with keen interest, ever since spotting a profile of Carver in the newspaper along with a photo taken inside the Bradbury Building. “I thought how beautiful they both were: the terra cotta and the brick, of course, with the intricate iron railings and the ceiling of light, as if you’d wandered into an old European train station; and my detective for his face, angled and lonesome, black hair, rumpled, and his caravan eyes which, I must say, looked right at me—not hard or distant, but as if he recognized me from some sweet past life.”

Fleishman slips in plenty of big ideas about architecture and its role in shaping lives and shaping cities—and gives Carver a chance to take a whack at Los Angeles building design. “Though it’s not my city, I have adopted it. And there are moments, especially at dusk, when the palms scratch against the last bits of sun, and a hard, clarifying coolness settles in and the winds gust from the canyons and the ocean cleansing and quieting as night falls when it leaves me spellbound. You can raise all the pretty buildings you want, but they will pale against what existed long before the first architect arrived. That is the sacred lie of LA: the belief that we can tame a cruel, unsparing paradise, a place not imagined for us but where we have nonetheless brought our strange, restless, unattainable dreams.”

As we expect, there is a final confrontation—beautifully choreographed—but perhaps not the usual finish. Not at all. This is not the world of neat endings. Highly original? Maybe not. Beautifully rendered? Most definitely. Memorable? Very.

Willy Vlautin, “The Night Always Comes”

A review of “The Night Always Comes,” by Willy Vlautin, for The New York Journal of Books.

R.J. Rubadeau, “Bound for Cape Horn”

A review of R.J. Rubadeau’s Bound for Cape Horn for the Four Corners Free Press.

John Gilstrap, “Crimson Phoenix”

A review of John Gilstrap’s Crimson Phoenix for the New York Journal of Books. Full review here.

Ayad Akhtar, “Homeland Elegies – A Novel”

Call it a memoir-novel mashup? Call it odd, unusual, witty, breezy, and different. Homeland Elegies is about Trump, about our sharply divided cultural and political landscape, about wealth, art, American opportunity, xenophobia, identity in a racist culture, and a dozen or so other topics.

Ayad Akhtar is the author. He’s written plays and novels. The book is about Ayad Akhtar, who writes plays and novels. The author is a son of Pakistani doctors, so is the character in the book/novel/story. The author has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a Muslim-American. And so has Ayad Akhtar in the book/novel/story.

And Homeland Elegies doesn’t read like a novel. It reads more like, well, a memoir. Like autobiography. My advice: enjoy the blur. I don’t know Ayad Akhtar’s life well enough to sort fact from fiction. But once you get into the flow it doesn’t really matter. What’s clear is Ayad Akhtar drew heavily from family and relationships and conversations with friends for his earlier plays and novels and he’s essentially doing the same thing here. 

Akhtar’s father is a heart specialist. (Now I’m recounting details from the “novel.”) He once treated Trump. His father is enamored with the stable genius. The father-son conversations are priceless and Akhtar tries to make sense of the appeal. “I think Father was looking for an image of just how much more his American self could contain than the Pakistani one he’d left behind. I think he wanted to know what the limits were. In America, you could have anything, right? Even the presidency? If an idiot like Trump could get hold of it, couldn’t you? Even if you didn’t want it?”

Akhtar’s not-a-memoir mingles essays and novelistic moments. It’s all in the context of Akhtar’s effort to examine himself. “Mark Twain doubted there was a writer yet born who could tell the truth about himself. You’ll have to make up your own mind about me.” 

There are stories of Akhtar’s relationships, the money behind modern medicine, gambling, anti-trust, and money, money, money rears its head at every turn—right down to a deconstruction of the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

“I run the risk of drawing too strong a conclusion here, but only because I’m trying to balance what I come to understand with what I still couldn’t see: that this most enduring of American Christmas tales, among the most popular of all American works of art, had already envisioned the nation we would become—impoverished, indebted, a place where our softer stewards had succumbed to the hard pinch of profit for its own sake, where our fates had been subsumed by the owners of property, where the American dream was suffering literal foreclosure, where even our most affective dilemmas could only find true resolution through the accumulation of cash. Not to see this picture of the country was, in fact, to choose not to see it.”

The pages of Homeland Elegies are chock full of these essay morsels; Akhtar flows seamlessly from story to observation to dialogue; there’s even a scene from a play. The scenes with the Muslim hedge fund manager are tasty. Allure, temptation, greed. Akhtar studies his heritage, he contemplates his essence as an American. Is he a sellout? Should he pine for his homeland? Is he pretending to feel what it means to be an American? Has he exploited his own heritage for art?

I’m going to quote Ron Charles in the Washington Post. His summary is far better than anything I could come up with:

“After years of trying to imagine he’s welcome here, he (Ayad Akhtar) finally forces himself ‘to stop pretending that I felt like an American.’ Ironically, by embracing that conflicted position, Ayad attains the success that is the American Dream. To mainstream white culture, he’s a Muslim willing to say what needs to be said; to some Muslims, he’s a self-loathing sellout who cashes in on ethnic stereotypes. That paradox runs like a wire through this book, which so poignantly expresses the loneliness of pining for one’s own homeland.”

Yeah, what he said.