Jenny Offill, “Weather”

In an interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Jenny Offill said her writing process and research includes something called “library roulette.” She described walking into a library (my words) and forcing herself to explore new territory. It’s an idea Offill has had for years. In a 2014 interview with Paris Review, she said:

“Oh, I collect facts and quotes when I can’t write, and I can’t write most of the time. I do a little chance operation sometimes where I flip through outdated reference books to see if anything will strike me as beautiful or momentous. Library roulette, I call it.”

Weather, Offill’s new novel, has that random feeling. Spin the wheel, you never know. Our narrator is Lizzie. She is a librarian—but not officially. She doesn’t have a “proper degree.” (Pedigree and status are an underlying theme throughout this novel.) Lizzie is helping Henry, her drug-addicted brother. She is interested in “prepper things.” Her husband Ben is Classics PhD and makes educational video games. Their son Eli is a first-grader in Brooklyn. Lizzie has a side gig answering emails from listeners of a podcast called “Hell and High Water” run by a former mentor. The email queries come from both sides of the debate. Lizzie and Ben consider various places to flee before doomsday arrives—and reading this book before the COVID-19/coronavirus crisis of March 2020 made it easy to think doomsday was nigh. Weather drips dread.

The information comes at us in fragments. Scraps. Tidbits. Shards. Glimpses. Lizzie’s thoughts. Lizzie’s interactions. Lizzie’s observations. Ideas whiz past. Quips. Jokes. Weather reads, at times, like a novel deconstructed. Looking for a big sweeping narrative with prose that makes you forget you’re reading? Look elsewhere. Offill expects readers to stitch bits together in their heads. Lizzie is droll, snarky, and keenly observant. Quite often there’s a laugh. Not always. That “library roulette” thing allows for the introduction of many juicy topics.

Lizzie is slouching toward full neurosis, but she wishes there was a plan to keep doomsday at bay. She’d like action. Lizzie is immersed in the day-to-day details of neighbors and schools and games and doctors and dentists and yet is also asked to contemplate End Times. How does one correlate with the other?

At the end of Weather is an otherwise blank page with a website with a somewhat cynical URL: http://www.obligatorynoteofhope.com.

Click and you find “Tips for Trying Times” (there are 45, including quotes from James Baldwin and Ernest Shackleton) and “People of Conscience” that profiles individuals who are taking action. There’s also a “Learn More and Get Involved” section.

“I always thought it was ridiculous to try and fight for social change when I couldn’t even get my own house in order,” writes an unidentified Offill on the website’s introduction.

Offill, one would conclude, is urging us to do what we can. At the very least, to think the right thoughts.

Lizzie:

“Young person worry: what if nothing I do matters?

Old person worry: what if everything I do does?”

And above husband Ben’s desk near the end of Weather—after “he did the math, all the math”—there’s a quote from Epictetus: You are not some disinterested bystander/Exert yourself.

There’s nothing unplanned or random about Weather’s main thrust. Every briskly-told interjection is crafted to suggest we might want to look in the mirror and ask, “whatcha doin?”

Katayoun Medhat, “The Quality of Mercy”

K is a cop.

His real name is Franz Kafka. But K didn’t stop using his full name because of odd looks. In fact, “he had chosen one of the few places left in the Western hemisphere—and possibly the Eastern too—where his name rang no bells, provoked no curiosity and drew no comments.”

We are in the fictional town of Milagro (loosely based on Cortez) in the fictional county of San Matteo (Montezuma) in southwestern Colorado in an unassuming and engaging mystery that is peppered with a fine, dry humor.

“It had taken years of God’s own citizenship, of enduring ‘Cathcarts’ and ‘Cuffcares’ and ‘Caffers,’ even ‘Cuthberts,’ to persuade K to finally let go of the conceit of identity and to begin introducing himself as ‘K, like M in James Bond.’ One of many steps on a slippery slope.”

The Quality of Mercy rides on K’s wry and self-deprecating insights, keen observations about life in and around Navajo Nation, and the steady, methodical pursuit of a killer.

The murder victim is found face down. “His arms were pressed straight down against his sides, his feet aligned, his toes touching the ground so that he looked as if he had been suspended swimming—as if his last act had been to dive in and swim into the dark and sheltered space, a nature-made crypt between rock and boulder.”

The first question is putting an ID to the dead man—and we get a taste of K’s gentle brand of fortitude, which often requires K to navigate lethargic fellow bureaucracies. Along the way, K often takes measure of the assistance being provided to the underclass or studying social strata—even among trailer parks. Medhat is not afraid to extend these observations, through K’s eyes. The result is frequently astute prose about living conditions, the functioning of government agencies, or the random nature of police work. In a long section about trailer parks, K observes that even “white trash” find a way to look down on others.

“White trash remained the losers in life’s lottery … According to the core mantra of the limitless potential of individual achievement that was the American Dream, they had failed, pure and simple. They, or their forebears, had been too dumb, too feckless, too damn lazy to make it. They were squatters in God’s Own Country with a thwarted sense of entitlement, which was the most dangerous sense of entitlement. Still they were surrounded by dusky faces whom they felt they should rule over rather than having to live side by side with—folks who should surely have been deported or repatriated by now.”

Medhat’s extends dialogue, too. She is not toiling in the shadow of Elmore Leonard or Raymond Chandler, where noir conventions encourage terse, taut, clenched-jaw chatter. Medhat’s dialogue is breezy. And clever. As a reader, it’s easy to fall into Medhat’s flow and rhythms. She’s not afraid of side conversation to illuminate a character’s depth. The talk she captures on the page runs longer than most—and it works because the topic is interesting and the characters are distinct.

K has extended exchanges, in particular, with Robbie Begay, a tracker with the Redwater Navajo Tribal Police. The banter between K and Begay is amusing, such as discussing whether it’s okay to invoke Monty Python while being chased across the desert by meth lab operators. Medhat breaks the so-called “rules” of mystery writing to great, and refreshing, effect. (Note: Medhat, who holds a PhD in medical anthropology and who has spent lots of time in Navajo Nation, sprinkles in Navajo terms without explanation. There’s a handy glossary at the end, which I didn’t spot until I had finished the story.)

The story is mellow. K drives the investigation, no question about that. But he also gets lucky. (Which feels quite natural.)  Even before the finish, K realizes this case is not made for a nail-biting film. “Forget the purposefulness that reigned in the police procedurals so avidly consumed by the civilian public where cops inexorably zipped toward perps like ferromagnetic metal to magnet. You practically never saw how it really was, how everybody was just tiny dots in a vast landscape, with no pointers, no pointers at all. Where finding your perps was mostly about arbitrary strokes of luck. Right at this moment, from where he was sitting, the case looked about as likely to be solved as winning Powerball.”

K is a likable cop. He’s got heart. We know his name is Franz Kafka, even if nobody else really seems to care. But through K’s eyes we witness ample amounts of harsh reality side by side with plenty that is bizarre and surreal. Try Katayoun Medhat. You might just be drawn to her prose like ferromagnetic metal to magnet.

J. Michael Straczynski, “Becoming Superman”

Writers, read Becoming Superman.

If you plan to write, read Becoming Superman.

If you wrote once upon a time and decided to stop writing for one reason or another, yes, you’ve got the idea—read Becoming Superman.

It’s the story of a guy who went from utter poverty in New Jersey—and from a positively horrendous, abusive family upbringing—to a guy who wrote the pioneering sci-fi series Babylon 5, movies directed by Clint Eastwood, comic books, plays, graphic novels, novels, short fiction … and who also produced and directed television shows for the small screen and major motion pictures for the big one.

“The Changeling.” “World War Z.” “Sense8.”  “The Amazing Spider Man” for Marvel Comics. “Superman” for DC Comics. (To name a few.)  Bram Stoker Award. Huge Award. BAFTA Award. That guy.

The subtitle of Becoming Superman is My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood With Stops Along the Way at Murder, Madness, Mayhem, Movie Stars, Cults, Slums, Sociopaths, and War Crimes.

And that subtitle just begins to cover the many stops and interwoven threads of Straczynski’s inspiring story. The writing bug started when he had access to the Scholastic TAB series supplied through the Catholic Church. Swiping change from his father’s dresser, Straczynski bought the cheap books and discovered “something magical” about the reading process.

“I was stunned to realize it was possible to make up things that had never happened but which felt as if they’d happened. The church had tried to convince me that there was only truth and falsehood and nothing in between, but the nuns and priests were wrong; the story in front of me was false, but in the reading of it my heart accepted it as true. I turned over the book to reveal the writer’s name. I hadn’t previously paid much attention to the names on book covers, but by god somebody sat down and wrote that story.”

And thus begins a long, long journey of learning. Of trying. Of practicing. Even the opportunity to learn how to type—in high school—fit with the plan of becoming a writer. Straczynski took the course. Seriously. The number of stops, weigh stations, tests, knockdowns (literal and figurative) are too many to count. Breaks are few. The world’s message to Straczynski was simple—give up now—even as his deeply troubled family bounced around the country.

Think he might be overstating anything? Poke around a bit online for other reviews of the book from those who knew Joe in his youth; if anything, apparently, Joe understated the brutality of his upbringing. It’s harrowing and occasionally quite violent stuff. Straczynski’s father was a booze-fueled drunk who was prone to beating young Joe. His grandfather was a con man. His mother was institutionalized more than once. On and on.

Interwoven throughout Becoming Superman is the story of Straczynski sorting truth from fiction in his family’s past, including a monster secret involving Nazis. The conclusion of this story thread is as gripping as anything else in the book. Straczynski’s research into his family’s history—and his father’s “twisted pathology”—could have been a riveting memoir all on its own. Raised by a guy who took responsibility for none of his own actions, it’s remarkable that Straczynski grew up to a be a guy who held himself accountable over and over for his own failures—and overcame them each time and continued to move up the ladder of success.

Becoming Superman, appropriately titled for a host of reasons, takes a warts-and-all approach. Straczynski takes a hard look in the mirror. He knew he developed a reputation for being difficult guy to work with, yet it’s hard not to begrudge him his standards and it’s impossible not admire his ability to hop from project to project, genre to genre, and medium to medium.

It’s determination. “I believe that if we love something and have even an inch of aptitude, we can become successful at it because our love for the work will sustain us through the hard times required to get good enough at it to earn a living. It may not be the best possible living, you may not be able to afford a yacht, and from time to time you may find yourself teetering at the edge of the abyss, but wouldn’t you rather make a thin living doing what you love than a slightly better living doing something you hate?

Think you have a hard time finding a half-hour to work on your novel? Think you’re not in the mood? The lighting isn’t quite right? You’re not feeling it? You need the perfect condition and X number of free hours to even think about writing?

Yeah, read Becoming Superman.

And think again.

 

 

 

Q & A #80 – Maddy Butcher with Dr. Steve Peters, “Horse Head-Brain Science & Other Insights”

Last fall I attended a talk at the Mancos Public Library to hear a presentation of a new book, Horse Head.

I thought it would be a good to read a book on horse behavior, given that the protagonist of my mystery series, Allison Coil, is around horses. A lot. I didn’t really need a reason, though. Horses are cool and kind of mysterious, too. I’ve done plenty of riding, but never really “got” horses.

Maddy Butcher’s presentation was enticing. So was the book (a full review follows). I’m fortunate to say that my wife and I have become friends with Maddy, who is practically a neighbor here in Mancos. She is also the founder and director of the Best Horse Practices Summit. Yeah, she knows horses.

Maddy Butcher was born and raised in Maine. She grew up riding the woods and fields of Harpswell Neck and beyond. She graduated from Brown University with a BA in Biology. Maddy worked for nearly two decades as a free-lance reporter for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications covering sports, travel, business, front page, and investigative work.

Maddy was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book, and other horse-related things, via email.

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Question: Could you give us a general idea of how you came to your insights about horses, how they think? Was there a moment when a light went off? Were you first taught in an entirely different way about horses and how they process the world?

Maddy Butcher: Last question first: Oh, I definitely grew up with a different idea of horses and riders. My early influences were my mom and grandmother and English riding. There was a lot more contact from my hands (English riders tend to hold reins more tightly – an oversimplification, but still accurate.) And my mom liked to anthropomorphize a lot.

But I had a lucky opportunity when I was 12 and offered the task of taking care of a neighbor’s pony when the owner went to college. Honey and I rode trails constantly, mostly bareback. I came off about once a ride. Honey would wait until she felt my body relax a bit and then would dump me in the dew, on the pretense of shying as some imagined concern. She’d trot a few strides, look back, and wait for me to get back on. She was a marvelous companion and teacher.

There were several light-bulb moments over the years. One was when I visited with Dr. Steve Peters, who was lecturing about horse brain science. His explanations of things like dopamine releases and brain wiring around stress provided a huge “Ah-ha” moment for me. All the things I was seeing peripherally suddenly made sense and moved to the forefront in my perception of horses and horse-rider communication.

I’d say another light-bulb moment was simply my evolution of naïve country girl to someone with a solid understanding of biology, the scientific method, and a journalist’s natural skepticism and curiosity. I believe in the ideology of doubt and I’m especially interested in trying to represent what might be the horse’s perspective and best interests.

Question: Can you explain the horse-human connection? What is it about this peculiar bond that is so fascinating? On so many levels, as you mention, it doesn’t really make sense.

Maddy Butcher:  Nope. Can’t explain it.

Just kidding. Although here’s my point – most folks who really get into horses will, after thousands of rides and decades of experience, still be mesmerized and lacking words when asked to ‘explain the horse-human connection.’

What’s in it for humans:

The possibility of developing a relationship of increasing abilities and connection.

The potential satisfaction of riding a thousand-pound animal with control, partnership, and grace.

The feel of a warm, fuzzy muzzle and that wondrous smell of sweat, poop, and general horseness.

What’s in it for horses:

Food, shelter, overall comfort?

Question: The positive power of being around horses seems, at this point, obvious. Equine therapy, etc. Can you describe a little bit when you knew you would make horses a significant part of your life?

Maddy Butcher:  Well, as a kid, I was sure I’d be a horse vet. I went to college thinking that that would be my route. But then there was the little problem of barely passing chemistry and realizing I really, really liked the world of newspaper journalism. So instead of flailing around in pre-vet courses, I got a job at the Providence Journal, in the sports department before I even graduated from college. I was smitten with the challenges of translating action into letters on paper as well as the excitement and pressure of performing on deadline.

Anyway, in adulthood, I only dabbled in horse-related activities until I bought a property that had enough land to afford a horse. I was in my 40’s. Since then, I’ve gotten increasingly into having horses in my life. The dedication grew more when I operated 24 Carrot Horse Care, a horse-sitting business I started when I moved back to Maine, and then founded NickerNews (my first website) in 2008 and started reporting on horse topics.

In 2020, I have four horses (two projects and two stalwarts) and direct a horse conference, so I guess you could say things have mushroomed a bit.

Question: Can you tell us why you started the Best Horse Practices Summit? How much out there, that you see, is not-best practices? Do we have a long way to go in terms of how horses are treated?

Maddy Butcher:  I sometimes call the conference the Silver Lining Summit. I’d just gotten home after staffing a booth for Cayuse Communications at the Equine Affaire, in Massachusetts. To put it bluntly, I saw a whole lot of bling and bullshit and very little that served the horse. Accordingly, there were a whole lot of people who were buying (literally and figuratively) the nonsense offered.

How ‘bout we offer something horses would appreciate?

That’s how the Summit was founded, with, of course, a whole bunch of support from my circle of friends and colleagues, like Dr. Steve Peters, Dr. Sheryl King, Amy Skinner, Warwick Schiller, and many others.

Yes, we have a long way to go. I like to think of the possible evolution of horse owners’ mindsets as one conversation or one article at a time. I like to think of my work as planting seeds. I’m not interested in converts. I’m interested in cultivating a space where folks can be open to new ideas, be vulnerable and okay about having things wrong in the past, be engaged and invested in offering a better deal for their horses as they move forward. We’re all works in progress.

Question: If you could wave a wand and change one thing about how horses are cared for across horse country today, what would it be?

Maddy Butcher: Let horses be horses. They want freedom, friends, and forage. They don’t want to be in stalls. They don’t want to be fed a bunch of grain. They want to move. I also think they are happier if they have a job. If you don’t have a job (like working cows), then you can invent jobs (like herding chickens or going to get the mail from your mail box, etc. etc).

Two of Maddy’s horses – Barry (left) and Pep.

Question: Care to weigh in on the wild horse controversy? You’ve got a great interview in the book with New York Times reporter David Philipps. It’s clearly a complicated issue. What would you do?

Maddy Butcher: First of all, let’s all agree that wild horses in the US are feral horses. They have been turned out from domestic life over time. Sure, some may have been turned out a long time ago. But many have been turned out as unwanted ranch horses over recent generations. I saw a horse in a Delta, Utah, holding facility that bore an uncanny resemblance to a Haflinger. DNA testing shows that many wild horses have quarter horse blood. If they weren’t so darned pretty and iconic, this conversation would be a lot easier. That said…

  1. Vastly increase the PZP darting program for each Herd Management Area.
  2. I’m simply not convinced that a long life in a holding facility is the best outcome for these horses. Have you seen them? They aren’t happy. By my observations, I’d say many are under constant, constant stress. I’d be in favor of slaughtering those three-strike horses in long-term holding facilities. (The current horse-slaughter situation in the US is kind of at a political bottle neck, making horse processing almost impossible. But don’t think that horses aren’t being slaughtered! The very same horses that could be slaughtered in a relatively humane and regulated fashion are instead shipped to Canada or Mexico. Most endure a brutal, marathon trip in a possum-bellied, sardine-canned trailer, to then be slaughtered in a sketchy, some-would-say-inhuman fashion.)
  3. Increase the chances that herd populations can be brought to a more sustainable level through natural elements. For instance, let’s stop hunting mountain lions so more of them can prey on horses.

Question: Now is your chance to pass along some music tips – cowboy-related, horse-related, anything!

Maddy Butcher:  Haha. Thanks, Mark! I’m just back from the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada:

An American Forrest (Forrest Van Tuyl); Wylie and the Wild West; J Roddy Walston; Kendrick Lamar (He rhymed ‘terrorist’ with ‘asparagus’? How hilarious is that?); A-Wa (blame the Tiny Desk concert); and many, many others.

Local loves include Stillhouse Junkies and Farmington Hill.

Question: Same thing for great horse books—fiction or non.

Maddy Butcher: Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand; Where Rivers Change Direction, by Mark Spragg. There are others. I just can’t think of them now. Get back to me, will you?

Question: What are you working on next?

Maddy Butcher: Now that my kids have flown the coop, I get to work more and more on projects I feel passionately about. Lucky me! Aside from the Summit and work for Cayuse Communications, I have a book project and an event project. Stay tuned!

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More:

Cayuse Communications

Cayuse Communications on Facebook

Sign up for Nicker News

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REVIEW:

“Horses are not people. We know this is true. But attend any horse event, enter any tack shop, open any horse magazine, and you’ll come away thinking otherwise.”

So begins Horse Head—Brain Science & Other Insights by Maddy Butcher (with Dr. Steve Peters), a book that asks us to stop anthropomorphizing the hell out of the horse and to start seeing and understanding this animal on its own terms.

“We make horse actions personal and emotionally complex,” writes Butcher. “He likes kisses. He needs his breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Look, he’s nodding ‘yes.’ We’re friends. He loves me! It’s fun but it’s wrong. Of course, horses DO have feelings, motivations, and goals. But from a scientific point of view, they’re much more basic than ours. They want to move. They want to forage. They want to rest. They want to be with other horses.”

Loaded with insights into brain science, Horse Head takes off from there, exploring all aspects of horse behavior and horse mentality. Butcher, the founder and director of the Best Horse Practices Summit, writes with a smooth and clear-eyed style.

Butcher covers neuroscience, vision, how horses learn, and she offers up a variety of best practices insights, from understanding horse pain (results drawn from an interesting, to the say the least, study), ownership, care, hay, hoof abscesses, and dentistry. Power tools for cleaning horse teeth? Maybe not a great idea. Butcher grounds her insights in research or quotes experts and studies throughout.

The last third of Horse Head offers a smorgasbord of essays, reflections, and interviews. In more than a few instances, Butcher gets up close and personal in relevant and revealing stories from her own experiences with human- and horse-related relationships. There are tales from horse rides, an interview with New York Times reporter David Phillips on the difficult issue of managing the wild horse population, and you’ll meet a straight-talking burro named Wise Ass Wallace.

Butcher closes with a thoughtful essay, “Beasts of Being,” that urges riders and handlers to be in the moment and very “present” around horses. “Engaging with horses for any prolonged period of time becomes an earned partnership. With horses, we learn about respect, trust, consistency, and boundaries,” she writes. “It’s very much a two-way deal and, therefore, it’s more valuable. It’s a relationship that’s harder to obtain and maintain than one with a dog or a cat.”

Packed with scientific nuggets, and laced with a gentle humor, Horse Head makes a convincing case that horses should be understood as the creatures they are—not something we want them to be.

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Kate Weinberg, “The Truants”

A review of The Truants, by Kate Weinberg, for The New York Journal of Books.

 

Ted Chiang, “Exhalation”

The opening story in this collection, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” is fanciful and fun. As Ted Chiang describes in his (very helpful) author’s notes, he wanted to try and write a time-travel story without the well-worn question of whether the past could be changed. Chiang wanted to write a story where the inability to change the past “wasn’t necessarily a cause for sadness.” So “Merchant” comes across as lighthearted and whimsical with its stories-within-story structure and its exotic setting.

The stories continue with heady themes wrapped in sometimes quirky, trippy story vehicles.

“Exhalation” was drawn from one short story by Philip K. Dick and an essay by Roger Penrose about entropy. “What’s Expected Of Us” riffs off the idea that you could die simply by hearing or seeing something. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” grapples with the notion that artificial intelligence should be (or can be) raised and nurtured as humans. About “Lifecycle,” Chiang tells us, “I’ve read stories in which people argue that AIs deserve legal rights, but in focusing on the big philosophical question, there’s a mundane reality that these stories gloss over.”

In “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” is a quick blip of a story—an entire entry “From the catalog accompanying the exhibition Little Defective Adults—Attitudes Toward Children from 1700 to 1950, Museum of Psychology, Akron, Ohio.” This story features a “teaching engine” that is “envisioned it not as a replacement for human instruction but as a laborsaving device to be used by schoolteachers and governesses.”

In “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” two separate but unrelated characters explore revolutionary, technological concepts. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to remember everything that ever happened, this one is for you.

“The Great Silence” is a few quick pages about parrots. The story touches on anthropomorphism, technology, and the connection between the human and nonhuman worlds.

I could see the ideas behind “Omphalos” without Chiang’s notes. How old is the Earth? How do we know? What if “God” did create everything around us a few thousand years ago? And “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” features characters who can use a special prism to tap parallel universes.

The issue with all these stories, with a few exceptions, is that they lack strong characters. At least, that is, in a traditional sense. As a whole, these stories are cool to the touch. Some read more like essays. The word “clinical” kept coming to mind. The ideas are powerful, the characters are forgettable. I never forgot I was reading. The story-telling is mostly a matter-of-fact style. If The New York Times identified Exhalation as one of the top ten books of 2019, maybe I’m missing something.

I nearly bailed on the whole collection during “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” due to its sheer length and repetitive issues. But I was glad to have pushed through to find “The Truth of Fact” and “Omphalos.”

Exhalation is heady. Readers may want to read the author’s note before reading the story, to get an in-depth sense of what lies ahead. I would love to see Chiang take his ideas and team up with a writer who can weave them into the life of three-dimensional, empathetic characters. Others have mentioned the TV series “Black Mirror” as a point of comparison for Chiang’s remarkable imagination. It’s easy to wish for writers and directors of episodes like “San Junipero” or “The Entire History of You” finding a way to give these stories some real characters to drive them.

Q & A #79 – Christopher Bartley, “A Season Past”

Christopher Bartley is back.

His new book is A Season Past.

That title sounds like it could belong to one of his noir gangster novels about Ross Duncan (there are eight), but it’s not.

It’s a trilogy of stories – two novellas and one short piece – about men returning from war. The first piece is set decades after the Civil War, but heavily informed by it. The second is set immediately after World War II. And the third is set in the modern day but haunted by Vietnam. My review for the New York Journal of Books is posted here.

Spoiler: I liked it. A lot. It’s worthy of comparisons to Tim O’Brien or Kevin Powers.

A Season Past is the confluence of a sharp writer and a powerful subject – the impact of war on returning soldiers. Bartley is well-versed in the topic, as the Q & A below makes clear.  A recent study Bartley conducted on U.S. Army suicides going back to 1819 drew wide attention. As Bartley’s answers reveal, he’s given this topic a lot of thought. And analysis.

As soldiers today are deployed to the Middle East – and as the U.S. enters Year #19 of the War in Afghanistan (Year 19!) – A Season Past asks whether we understand all the costs of war, including the fallout on the home front.

Thanks to Christopher Bartley for taking the time to answer these questions.

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Question: Can you walk us through the process of putting these three pieces together? Was the theme something you had in mind at first and then you found the stories to go with it? Or did you have these stories in mind and then realized there was an underlying connection?

Christopher Bartley: I wrote the first novella (A Season Past) in the early 1990s and it sat unseen in my computer files for decades.  In about 2015 my agent, Sonia Land, asked me if I had any unpublished work that might be worth revisiting, so I shared it with her and she loved it.  However, it was too short to publish on its own, so I pulled out a short story written in 2009 (Apache Tears).  Then a few years ago I wrote another novella (The Cold Ardennes) to serve as a bridge between them.  I didn’t put much thought to the thematic connection between them.  The middle story just flowed.

Question: I know it might sound like an obvious question, but do those of us who have never seen combat have any idea how soldiers can be haunted by what they’ve seen—and done? Do we have any idea what it’s like to struggle mentally to return to regular life?

Christopher Bartley: No.  For better and for worse, most of us in industrialized countries have little experience with violence and death.  For the most part, we no longer kill our own meat, die at home, prepare our dead, or defend our homes and communities from invaders.  We outsource all of that now.  The men and women who serve as our law enforcement, fire fighters, first responders, emergency room medical providers, and military have little cultural preparation anymore.  When most people think of war, they think of what they have seen in video games and movies.  But I’m pretty sure that real life combat does not occur in slow motion with inspiring music playing.  Also, we have shed the rituals and processes that humans have used for thousands of years to help their returning warriors reintegrate.

The transition back to civilian life is a difficult process.  Imagine giving up the life you have now, everything you have practiced and learned, to be relocated to another world.  This other world seems similar – it includes many of the same people and relies on a similar language – but the culture is different, expectations are different, there is no shared mission, your prior skills don’t easily translate into a meaningful vocation, and the society you find yourself does not truly understand or relate to what you used to do.

All that said, we need to be careful not to assume life-long pathology is the outcome for those who serve.  While some combatants struggle with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and substance abuse, most do not.  The vast majority live good lives and are productive members of our society.

Question: Why these three specific settings?

Christopher Bartley

Christopher Bartley: Like my prior writing, these are American stories – fictional stories about the kind of people who lived in these times and have shaped the character of America.  The Civil War, WWII, and Vietnam War were seminal events in our history, though my stories focus not on the wars themselves, but how individual men and women related to their world after their war was over.

Question: Could you fill us in a little bit on your background and what gives you these insights about veterans who come home from war? Were you ever in the military?

Christopher Bartley: I have never served in the military.  When I was six my father served in Vietnam as a physician in the Air Force; when I was ten I was fascinated by great grandfather who told me about his experiences in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, including the battle of San Juan Hill; and as an adolescent my parents raised me within the Quaker faith.  When I turned 18 I had to decide whether I would register for the draft or claim conscious objector status.  I registered for the draft.

Since obtaining a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1992 I have devoted my “day job” to helping both veterans and activity military personnel.  From 1992-2006 I was a psychologist working in a VA medical center and conducting research; since 2006 I’ve continued to conduct research and do private consulting.  On the research side, I have over 300 scientific publications (under my real name: B. Christopher Frueh), including a recent study of U.S. Army suicides going back to 1819 that was published in JAMA Network Open this past December.  My coauthors on that were actual historians.  Over the past 28 years I have done a good bit of contract work with the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense.

Over the past decade most of my private consulting, much of it pro bono, has been with the special forces community: Army special forces, Navy SEALS, including many from the Tier One units.  Some of my closest, most intimate friends now are men who have spent virtually their entire adult lives at war, often with 10-15 combat deployments and literally hundreds of missions.  Put another way, I’ve known men who served at the Battle of San Juan Hill (1898), carried out the UBL mission (2011), and almost everything in between.

Question: How much research was involved—the Civil War incidents that weigh on Coltrane? The World War II incidents that haunt the narrator of the “The Cold Ardennes?”

Christopher Bartley: I didn’t need to do much specific research for these stories because I have read widely about American military history.  I have more Civil War books on the shelf in my office than I have psychology books.  I enjoy developing stories around American historical events and periods that I know well.

Question: One obvious comparison is that in “A Season Past,” the trouble comes to Coltrane. He’s protecting his land. In “A Cold Ardennes,” the narrator clearly knows the trouble he’s getting into—and has plenty of opportunity to back out and/or back away from a very public crime in the heart of his Texas town. Was this a contrast you wanted to make?

Christopher Bartley: I don’t think trouble comes to anyone.  We only find it or create it ourselves.

Question: You made a conscious choice not to name the narrator of “The Cold Ardennes.” Several times the narrator is given the chance to introduce himself to a character but, no detail is given. What was your thinking about approaching it this way?

Christopher Bartley: He’s a nameless, anonymous GI returning from the European theater at the end of WWII.  Most of them were nameless, anonymous, but collectively they managed to do something absolutely incredible.

Question: You’ve got eight Ross Duncan novels under your belt (if I’m counting correctly)? How did it feel to write something completely different (even if Ross might have been right at home in the scenes toward the end of “The Cold Ardennes”)?

Christopher Bartley: The hardest part was getting away from the voice of Ross Duncan.  I missed Duncan, so after I finished this book, I wrote another Duncan novel, which I hope will be published in Spring 2020.

Question: What are you working on next?

Christopher Bartley: Always another Ross Duncan novel, a couple of books that I’m writing with buddies of mine from the special forces community – including one about violence and killing, and the ninth edition of a graduate textbook on adult psychopathology.  And also of course, The Great American Novel!

++

Previously reviewed:

Sleep Not, My Child

 

 

 

Unto The Daughters of Men

 

 

 

Naked Shall I Return

(Link includes previous Q & A)

 

2019: Top Books

Highlights from reading in 2019. The order is irrelevant. These are from titles I read last year, not necessarily published in 2019.

 

FICTION

1. The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

2. Heaven My Home by Attica Locke

3. The Chain by Adrian McKinty

4. The Warehouse by Rob Hart

5. A Season Past by Christopher Bartley (review to come)

6. Fobbit by David Abrams

7. Drowning With Others by Linda Keir

8. A Perfect Eye by Stephanie Kane

9. Church of the Graveyard Saints by Chuck Greaves

10. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

11. The Dead Girl in 2A by Carter Wilson

12. Bad Axe County by John Galligan

13. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

14, Low Country Blood by Sue Hinkin

15. If The Ice Had Held by Wendy J. Fox

16. A Deadly Divide by Ausma Zehanat Khan

17. Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosley

NON-FICTION

1. Girl to City by Amy Rigby

2. The MVP Machine by Ben Lindbergh & Travis Sawchik

3. K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches by Tyler Kepner

4. Power Ball by Rob Neyer

5. The Storm on our Shores by Mark Obmascik

6. Sandy Koufax – A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy

7. Ninety Percent Mental by Bob Tewksbury

Laila Lalami, “The Other Americans”

The details are all, well, so normal. American.

After hearing the news of her father’s death, Nora Guerraoui rushes home from Oakland to her family home in the Mojave desert. She drives “in the foggy darkness that cloaked almond groves and orange orchards.” At home, her heels tap the travertine floor. There’s a copy of Reader’s Digest and a photo frame askew in the hallway.

“It seemed to me then that my father was still with us—in the half-empty packet of Marlboros on the windowsill, the frayed slippers under the coffee table, the tooth marks on the pencil that stuck out from the book of crossword puzzles.”

Almond groves. Reader’s Digest. Marlboros. Crossword puzzles.

Nora’s father is Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant. Driss ran a restaurant—corn hash, fried cheese sticks. It’s called The Pantry. Driss was killed in a hit-and-run accident at a dangerous intersection. Already the police want to know if Driss had money troubles or if he used drugs or gambled. Did he have enemies?

Nora stares out across the street at a neighbor deflating a giant Easter bunny “that had sat for weeks in his front yard, gathering dust. It stared back with grotesque eyes as its white ears collapsed under his shoes.”

The Other Americans isn’t only Nora’s story. The Other Americans is narrated by many, well, American voices. There’s young cop and Iraq war vet, Jeremy Gorecki, who was high school friends with Nora. Efraín, a Mexican immigrant and eyewitness who has good reasons not to report what he saw.  We hear from Maryam, Driss’s widow and Nora’s mother. And we hear from Detective Erica Coleman, too. And others including Nora’s sister Salma and A.J., who runs a bowling alley, and A.J.’s father.  Driss comes alive, too, to fill in gaps and to share his hopes and plans. The voices are distinct and sharply drawn. They are all told first-person. The chapters are brisk. The effect is a kind of pixelated narration. The pieces slowly gain focus. And edge. Humanity oozes from every pore.

The Other Americans is part police procedural. There is the question of who hit Driss. But Lalani is interested in the chorus around the accident—and the connective threads among them. One of the hallway photos in the Guerrauoi home is of the high school jazz band, which included Jeremy. “It occurred to me I had never been inside her house before,” thinks Jeremy, “and yet for ten years my likeness had waited for me on that wall.” Immigration is a theme but Lalani doesn’t beat readers over the head with it. Everyone arrived in the Mojave from somewhere else. (Everybody might be on the way somewhere else as well.)

Lalani plays it straight. The overall tone is cool, borderline dispassionate. Everyone gets their due. Thinks A.J.: “It’s funny, everyone goes on and on about celebrating diverse cultures, but the minute you bring up white culture, the oh-so-enlightened liberals turn on you and call you names. Someone sent a letter to the editor calling me a racist, which is what they call anyone who’s a straight white man these days. Everyone else can be proud of their heritage, but not me?”

Hopes and dreams contrast with basic human desire for safety and stability. Jeremy pursues long-lingering feelings for Nora. And Nora, who had dreams of becoming a composer, adjusts her expectations in the wake of her father’s death. There are secrets. Jeremy tries to protect Nora from his less open-minded friends—and fails. Lalani’s background details are all-American touches—dog shows, video games, call-in advice on the radio, job promotions, so on. Not everyone is what they seem. A random moment leads to resolution in the hit-and-run case and Nora gains new perspective on her own upbringing in the U.S.A.  The Other Americans is powerful, believable, grounded, and keen-eyed. And what of the other? Well, in America, that word covers a lot of ground.

Amy Rigby, “Girl to City”

My review of Amy Rigby’s Girl to City for the New York Journal of Books is posted here.