David Abrams, “Fobbit”

As relevant as right this minute, Fobbit rocks from start to finish. Written with an easy energy and a dry, wicked humor, Fobbit is an Iraqicized Catch-22. It’s that good. Maybe better.

Fobbit is light on its feet, all too accessible, and piercing in its humor and horror.

First published in 2012, there’s nothing about Fobbit that feels dated. I have a searing hunch the scenes are being replayed in Afghanistan right this minute.

The opening sucks you right in.

“They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow. Crack open their chests and in the space where their hearts should be beating with a warrior’s courage and selfless regard, you’d find a pale, gooey center. They cowered like rabbits in their cubicles, busied themselves with PowerPoint briefings to avoid the hazard of Baghdad’s bombs, and steadfastly clung white-knuckled to their desks at Forward Operating Base Triumph.”

We quickly meet the ‘Fobbitiest’ of these marshmallows. He is Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr., the heart of soul of this novel. “With his neat-pressed uniform, his lavender-vanilla body wash, and the dust collected around the barrel of his M16 rifle, he was the poster child for the stay-back-stay-safe soldier. The smell of something sweet radiated off his skin—as if he bathed in gingerbread.”

Gooding works in public relations. His job is to tell stories. His job is to tell a carefully managed version of the blood and mayhem out there beyond the marbled palace wall of the FOB, which once served as the home for Saddam Hussein. His job is to turn sucking chest wounds and dismemberments “into something palatable.”

Even better? “Something patriotic.” The war is being managed, for public consumption, through storytelling.

Fobbit, as others have pointed out, is a book consumed with words, tone, and getting the message right. Layers of bureaucracy, and grueling scrutiny, go into every syllable released to the big wide world, even if journalists beat them to the facts on the scene. Abrams, who served for twenty years in the U.S. Army and who was deployed to Iraq as part of a public relations team in 2005, takes us inside the surreal FOB bubble, where the soldiers can almost pretend they are home, with internet connections, entertainment, good food, air conditioning and occasional hookups (if you’re not opposed to a porta potty setting). And he takes us outside, too, to the war around Baghdad, the land of “Lose-Lose,” through the eyes of several other central characters including the forthright Lt. Col. Vic Duret, the poser Capt. Abe Shrinkle, and the bumbling Lt. Col. Eustace “Stacie” Harkleroad. (Shrinkle and Harkleroad, in particular, are surname choices worthy of Vonnegut or Dickens and demonstrate Abrams’ fine touch.)

This brilliant novel folds in diary entries, letters home, detailed press releases and telephone calls. Every exchange comes across like an opportunity alter—mostly, cushion—the harsh reality. Nobody gets hurt. Everything is okay. Fables, lies, tall tales. Sanitize, pasteurize, tone it down.

However, the war is very real. It’s out there. No matter the relative creature comforts inside the FOB cocoon, people die. Soldiers. Civilians. Terrorists. Superior officers, too. It’s no joke, however, when it comes time to deciding the name of the official 2,000th fatality. Abrams milks this benchmark moment for all the delicious irony he can squeeze out of it.

Harkleroad “prayed to God that Number Two Thousand wouldn’t be just another bland, run-of-the-mill death—blah-blah patrol struck an IED in the neighborhood of blah-blah, killing Private Joe Blah-Blah.”

When the death of the 2,000th doesn’t meet the necessary standards for glory, well, it’s yet another opportunity for “dexterously glossing over” the facts. The death in question hits particularly close to home, but the emotional fallout is about as deep as the PR problem (er, opportunity). Perhaps the word exercise, managing the story itself, provides what’s needed the most: denial about the random brutality of war.

Fobbit is satire, but how much of this novel is really a stretch? We hope the answer is “most” as we suspect the real answer might be “none.” And that’s the most frightening thing of all.

(Final note: I listened to Fobbit on audio and the narration by David Drummond was terrific. Highly recommended.)

 

Advertisements

Linda Keir, “Drowning with Others”

Drowning With Others, the second novel by the writing team of Keir Graff and Linda Joffe Hull, begins with the exhumation of former Glenlake Academy poetry teacher Dallas Walker from his grave, in this case a mud-covered metallic blue muscle car at the bottom of Lake Loomis. There’s not much left of Dallas. After all, it’s been 22 years since he went missing.

The discovery of the wreck in the murky water gives a new writing teacher an idea—to investigate the disappearance, to “shadow the police investigation, and, eventually, to tell the story of how this happened.”

Among the writing teacher’s students is Cassidy, who is in her senior year at Glenlake. Cassidy’s parents are Andi and Ian Copeland—who were classmates during Dallas Walker’s brief time on campus. Andi and Ian each have reason to suspect that—just maybe—that their spouse might have something to do with Dallas Walker’s watery fate. It’s a concern they could ignore, but not now that “the ghost of Dallas Walker had come howling out of the past to shatter two decades of tranquility.”

Plucking the car and the skeleton from the bottom of the lake sets in a motion a rich novel that puts reputations—and public image—at stake. Andi and Ian’s relationship got off to a somewhat rocky start at Glenlake Academy, in no small part due to Dallas Walker’s dalliance with Andi. Dallas was a bit of a wild man. He liked to be seen as a tough guy—but then vanished. Years later, Andi and Ian have what appears to be an all-American marriage and a lot to protect.

Drowning With Others—a great title for many reasons—flips back and forth across the decades and rotates points of view including Cassidy and both parents. Whole chapters are plucked from the daily school journals when Ian Copeland and Andi Bloom attended Glenlake in 1996. Journaling is a daily thing, it turns out, at Glenlake. (A good thing; lots of raw material to, um, exhume.) Andi is determined to ensure certain details of her Glenlake years remain buried. Ian wonders if his youthful jealousy left any obvious traces—and he wants to ensure that he doesn’t lose Andi again. Cassidy starts to earn writing teacher Wayne Kelly’s praise for being a “crack sleuth,” which can’t be good news for either Ian or Andi. There’s friend Georgina, who may have played a role in Walker’s demise, and a jaded and grizzled groundskeeper who has seen it all.

Ian and Andi, now “moneyed prep school parents,” recall events from their Glenlake years, which included that “gulp” moment when Dallas Walker disappeared without explanation. And it all comes roaring back as Ian and Andi, during an alumni weekend visit, hear teacher Wayne Kelly’s describe the class project for the year.

“The evening had taken a left turn with Wayne Kelly’s ambush revelation,” thinks Ian, whose family contributions to the school go back to the days of the robber barons. “After four years of visiting as a parent, and two decades of sporadic returns for fund-raisers and class reunions, Ian had finally stopped holding his breath, thinking the subject of Dallas Williams had truly been laid to rest. And now, like a revenant form one of the poet’s own verses, he had come howling back to tranquil Glenlake to disturb the peace. If it were a Dallas Walker poem, the corpse would have pointed a smug finger at the dumb townsfolk and imparted a lesson about how they were all living their lives in fear.”

With the fast-changing points of view and leaps back and forth across the decades, Drowning With Others rocks right along. Tantalizing bits revealed from 1996 spice up our understanding of Ian’s and Andi’s choices now. The nifty plotting is a thing to admire. So is the variety of voices—adult Ian, youthful Ian, adult Andi, youthful Andi, and Cassidy.

Cassidy moves closer to capturing a more three-dimensional picture of her parents as teenagers (every parent who reads this should stop for a moment, ponder that concept—and then shudder to think) and then novel peels back layers involving class privilege, sexual predators, institutional wealth, and that very precious thing, reputation. The ending and the choices made, coupled with the powerful force of tradition, could launch a thousand book club battles. Drowning with Others is literate, smart, clever, and a joy to read.

++

More:

Linda Joffe Hull and Keir Graff discuss Drowning with Others on the Rocky Mountain Writer podcast.

 

Previous Q & A with Linda & Keir regarding The Swing of Things.

 

 

Michael Shaara, “For Love of the Game”

The great Mike Barnicle wrote, “That’s one of the great gifts of this, the greatest of all games, baseball: it allows you, still, to lose yourself in a dream, to feel and remember a season of life when summer never seemed to die and the assault of cynicism hasn’t begun to better optimism.”

And in his introduction to his father’s last novel, Jeff Shaara wrote, “What is it about baseball? … My father understood that baseball is a part of all of us, and will always be. He understood the purity of the game, the simple and the complex, and he understood that no matter how often the game changes, or how many records fall, we will still be there, still watching, for the love of the game.”

Summer. Optimism. Purity. Love. Dreams. You get all of it Michael Shaara’s For Love of the Game—a wistful, quick read about pitcher Billy Chapel. He’s aging. He knows it. The season is winding down. he’s on a bad team. There’s a growing weight to the season. Billy Chapel pitches for the last-place Hawks. He thinks about baseball but mostly because fans and hotel employees all ask him about it. Is he done signing that bucket of baseballs? You pitchin’ today? You okay?

But Billy’s mind is drifts to Carol, his lover of four years. Golden blonde. “Perfect” legs. “They were light to each other whatever the darkness.”

A sportswriter comes to his hotel room with bad news. He’s been traded. “They were going to hold it back until the season was over and not let you know till then. That’s only—a few days off. But they figured it was better not to break the news now. But when they let it loose, Billy, they won’t tell you first. Just as they do so often with … Willie Mays, fellas like that. The big boys they—can’t face. You’ll hear it on the news or read it in the paper, and that’s the first they expect you to know.”

Seventeen years with the same team and it’s over. Shaara’s style is deeply interior—often quick and clipped:

“Knew this day would come.
Did you?
Yep. But. Well.
It’s come.
Yep.
Chapel had seen this coming, knew it was coming, and had planned nothing, nothing at all.”

Carol, when she appears, has her own issues—she’s quitting her job and going home. Carol, who was married once and no longer thinks Billy needs him, is thinking of getting married again.

For Love of the Game builds toward Billy Chapel’s last turn on the mound for the Hawks and the action remains all in Billy Chapel’s head as he throws a stellar game and continues to alternatively reminisce, ponder his future, and grow increasingly worried about a pain in his arm.

“Pain only there, in the right arm. Better now. How much reserve? No way to know. From the back of the brain … a slow dark signal from deep down there, way back where the dreams formed and much of the work was done. There’s not enough left, Billy Boy, Billy Boy. They’re going to get you.”

(The ellipses are Shaara’s. For Love of the Game loves ellipses.)

Billy Chapel even contemplates his own dilemma in the context of The Old Man and The Sea—lone, wounded man on a singular, gallant, last-gasp mission. That Billy Chapel makes the Hemingway comparison (and not us readers) might be a little too on-the-nose, but For Love of the Game is an often poetic portrait of veteran pitcher, alone on the mound, playing a mystifying, beautiful sport.

Mark Pleiss, “April Warnings”

Slice-of-life and slice-of-quirky, April Warnings is a novel in the form of interconnected stories set in fictional Baxter County, Nebraska—which may or may not be “a point on a grid that helps navigate travel through space.”

Baxter County has cops, ranchers, priests, politicians, professors, a reporter, and many others. Most have “strange ways of understanding the world,” as the reporter notes. And some of that “understanding” includes matter-of-fact accounts of alien encounters.

The stories all take place as a tornado is bearing down on Baxter County, a force of nature that prompts a largely weary sense of familiarity. The local citizenry might read the clouds to forecast what’s coming. They might read the animal behavior. But they have all been trained on what to do when the dark clouds form. In the opening story, “Snipe Hunting,” the rituals and routines are presented in sometimes humorous detail as a young boy follows instructions from Dad in order to minimize the wind’s chances of transforming ordinary objects into dangerous projectiles.

“”Inexpensive items assume unexpected identities during a tornado: putty
knives become throwing darts, ball bearings become birdshot, screwdrivers
become nails … Air compressors, power washers, and welding masks are placed in the truck, shut, and double-checked. I remember when a twister hit Sunnyside Trailer Park. It rained cats and dogs, barbecue grills, and oil filters. Our fields filled with sun lounges, bug tents, and used car batteries. The Gatsons lost their fat old tomcat, Biscuits, because they thought someone else had brought him in the house. A woman in Indie, a town several miles south of here, found him in a tree hissing at a spider.”

Mark Pleiss writes like a documentarian. The stories his characters tell each other—and themselves—are taken at face value. Stories wrap within stories. Characters and places pop up in one story and reappear later in another. Truck-driver turned police chief “Chief” plays the lead in three stories—“The Crime,” “The Cover-Up,” “The Showdown.”  There is an officer-involved shooting. There might be police corruption, or at least cops who prefer to keep the peace rather than stir up trouble. The mayor might enjoy a hit of coke. There is time travel, alien spaceships, and “Moon Cheese,” a reference to a rock that fell from the sky and might be a signal from “the other side.” There are many references to the rosary and more than a few mentions of space aliens and the curious formations outside of town, the ones with the perfect geometry and clean grid that just might be from outer space.

The story “Professor Williams” covers all the thematic bases. A tiresome and bureaucratic faculty meeting at the local college morphs into two professors in the tornado shelter and one tells the other about recent novels he’s read, including some with plots and themes that sound suspiciously like some “real-life” situations from the college itself. One of the novels being described is about a female professor who ends up at a bar and spots one of her students who is working on a formula that is “trying to describe the world, or at least the world outside our brains, but she tells him that it is impossible because he is using his brain to figure it out.” The professor’s fling with the student leads to her ouster from the school and she ends up writing novels, including a “heartbreaking story of a female professor who is unfairly accused of having a relationship with a student. And, of course, the character uses her frustration to begin a new career as a writer.”

Pleiss stirs all these themes and characters with affection. The pace is brisk and efficient—nine stories in 143 pages. The effect is an enchanting, three-dimensional portrait of a fascinating community. You get the feeling that re-readings would be richly rewarded.

Baxter County is both extremely insulated and open to every possibility under the sun. No matter what damage the tornado inflicts, the people of Baxter County will be there scratching their heads, musing about the unexplainable, and running to the shelters when their “special sensibility” tells them some things just can’t be understood. But is Baxter County all that unusual? Really? Don’t we all have—and need—strange ways of explaining the world?

Q & A # 77 – Stephanie Kane, “A Perfect Eye”

If there’s an award for Comeback Writer of the Year in Colorado, it would certainly go to Stephanie Kane, who returns this week with a new mystery after a lengthy hiatus.

A Perfect Eye launched on Sept. 1, and it introduces a new character–Denver Art Museum painting conservator Lily Sparks.

For those who aren’t familiar with her, Stephanie Kane is a lawyer and award-winning author of four crime novels. Born in Brooklyn, she came to Colorado as a freshman at CU. She owned and ran a karate studio in Boulder and is a second-degree black belt.

After graduating from law school, she was a corporate partner at a top Denver law firm before becoming a criminal defense attorney. She lives in Denver with her husband and two black cats.

Two earlier books, Extreme Indifference and Seeds Of Doubt were both Colorado Authors League Awards winners. Extreme Indifference also won the Colorado Book Award for Best Mystery.

Stephanie is also holding a launch event for A Perfect Eye at Tattered Cover (LoDo) on Thursday, Sept 5 at 7 p.m.

A full review follows this email Q & A with Stephanie, who is quite frank and open about the reasons she took a break. Stephanie’s story is as compelling as some of the books she writes.  Check it out.

++

Question: Before we get to A Perfect Eye, could you tell us about your hiatus from writing—or at least, publishing? Why did you stop and what drew you back—and how does it feel to be back? What have you been doing in the interim?

Stephanie Kane: Before I wrote crime novels, I taught karate and practiced law. I turned to writing to scratch an itch.

The impetus for each of my novels has been an experience or idea that bothered me, and the only way to work through it was to invent characters, put them in intolerable situations, and see where they came out. In 2005, three things made me put down my pen for what I thought was for good.

I’d published four crime novels: a stand-alone murder mystery called Quiet Time, and three legal thrillers starring dyslexic criminal defense lawyer Jackie Flowers. My second two-book contract was at its end, and my agent suggested switching to a new series heroine who was a fitness instructor. I could use my karate background, she said, and sprinkle fitness tips throughout the story. That made my decision to take a hiatus easy. Writing is hard enough; how could I write about something I didn’t care about?

In truth, I’d come to the end of the road with Jackie Flowers. The thing about Jackie was she was a better lawyer because she couldn’t read. The subtle and not-so-subtle pressure—internal and external—to ratchet up the stakes in each book by throwing worse and worse things at her was eating at me. I was becoming alienated not just from Jackie, but my own writing. But I wasn’t going to replace my dyslexic lawyer with a fitness instructor.

As I was trying to figure out what to do next, the second thing happened. A cold case detective from Arapahoe County e-mailed me. A witness in a 30-year-old murder case had read Quiet Time and came forward with a confession the killer had made. A grand jury was being empaneled to look into the case. Would I testify?

Quiet Time was inspired by one of those experiences I couldn’t shake: the brutal murder of a woman whose son I married in 1973. Back then, her husband (my father-in-law) was indicted; on the eve of trial, the charges were dropped. The case haunted me long after that marriage ended. Twenty years later I got the court record and fragments of the DA’s file. On them I based my highly fictionalized story. The cops never interviewed me in 1973. Now I told them what I knew. I didn’t realize it would suck up the next eight years of my life.

The third thing was the defense made Quiet Time the center of its case. Because my novel was inspired by a true crime in which I was a witness, they subpoenaed all my drafts and notes. Claiming the book was nonfiction, they argued each draft was a separate factual statement they could use to impeach my testimony at trial. Ultimately an excellent lawyer of my own—assisted by an English Lit prof—convinced the judge that all fiction originates in life, but that doesn’t make it fact. But subpoenaing my written thoughts took a toll. My hiatus became permanent until 2013, when my former father-in-law put a shotgun to his head and fired.

What drew me back to writing was a story I wanted to tell: that one.

Question: What was the hardest thing about diving back into the field?

Stephanie Kane: Two things: how much the field had changed, and how much I’d changed. Writing is a muscle; if you stop using it, it atrophies. And not only were there fewer bookstores and publishers, gurus with secrets to writing bestsellers were everywhere. Not only did I have to get back into the groove, I had to fight the insecurities this new wave of experts induced. Being impressionable (and desperate), I initially found the algorithms seductive. But there’s no algorithm to scratching an itch. Common sense and why I write took over, and I embraced the hard work of writing again.

Question: Either you were an art history major or a successful art forgery expert on the side, but A Perfect Eye relies on lots of inside knowledge of the art world and the Denver Art Museum. How’d did you go about the research for this one?

Stephanie Kane: I’m a research junkie. I read everything I could find about art forgers and Gustave Caillebotte, and treatises on Impressionism, art conservation and painting technique. I went to lectures and shows at museums, interviewed art curators, conservators and docents, and visited conservation labs.

Question: Is Lily Sparks modeled after a specific person? How did you go about developing her character? And what did you learn from your previous protagonists, specifically Jackie Flowers, as you shaped your new one?

Stephanie Kane: I’m drawn to characters like Jackie who see the world through a different lens. Paintings conservator Lily Sparks was trained in the art of observation by her father and raised to believe she has a “perfect eye”. But every gift or trait has a downside. Being hyper-observant can blind you to the meaning of what’s right under your nose.

Lily was actually inspired by a real person, Amy Herman. Herman is an art historian who wrote Visual Intelligence. She trains med students, FBI agents, cops and lawyers in the art of perception: how to improve their diagnostic and investigatory skills by studying paintings in museums. I thought that was a pretty cool skill set for a detective.

Question: Why Caillebotte? Dumb follow-up: is Seven a real Caillebotte?

Stephanie Kane: Because I write to explore what bothers me—in A Perfect Eye, who gets to call himself an artist, the desire for recognition, and the relationship between truth and art—it never occurred to me not to use a real painter in my story. I picked Caillebotte because I love Impressionists, and I was drawn to his backstory.

Caillebotte was trained as a lawyer but bucked his wealthy father by becoming an artist. Critics savaged him, and even his peers found him eccentric. He never achieved the acclaim of Degas, Renoir or Monet, but he secured their legacy by buying their paintings and willing his collection to the French state. He also had a lover who had two personas and went by two different names.

I did invent Seven, however. When Caillebotte retreated to an estate outside Paris to lick his wounds, he painted six landscapes of the countryside. Why not a seventh? One ploy forgers use is to invent a new, “lost” painting which appears to belong to a series the real artist painted. Then they go back and seed the record with tantalizing hints that the painting’s out there waiting to be found. That’s what the forger in A Perfect Eye does.

Question: There are some nifty twists in A Perfect Eye. Do you plot this all out ahead of time or just start writing? Has that process changed since book one?

Stephanie Kane: I’m an outliner, not a pantser. That said, I use my outlines as a guide, not a destination. In the heat of writing, the best thing that can happen is abandoning them. If you get stuck, they’re an old friend to whom you can return.

My outlining process has evolved, but not by much. After being away from writing for so long, when I came back to it I questioned everything about my process. My outlines felt clunky and outdated, and nobody seemed to be talking about subtext or beats. But when I abandoned my model, the scenes in my new manuscript lost the crisp cause-and-effect that my outlines had demanded. I returned to the old way but streamlined it. I guess what I’ve learned is to be open to new ways but to respect my own process. Outlining is one step in the process. The way you outline or write is an expression of how you think.

As for plot twists, they’re a moving target. I made changes to A Perfect Eye right up to the pub date. When it was in galleys, I switched the order of certain chapters to hone the suspense. That required other changes too, but I was glad I did it. Once it’s in print it’s too late.

Question: Several chapters are from the antagonist’s point of view; how did you get inside the head of a forger?

Stephanie Kane: I did a lot of research on art crimes and forgers. Forgers are fascinating because the really good ones aren’t in it for the money. They do it to prove the experts wrong. Therein lies their downfall: once they succeed they want recognition, to have their cake and eat it too. The true irony is that what they create isn’t art. It’s an imitation. Without a real painter to copy, they are nobody. They also tend to meet bad ends.

I settled on a forger for my antagonist, but I wanted a real one to inspire him and bring him to life. Eric Hebborn was a forger who hit all the marks.

A British painter who trained at the Royal Academy of the Arts, Hebborn forged Old Master paintings. He sought revenge against the art world because critics called his own works “derivative”, “labored” and “self-conscious”. His rationale was people believe what they want to believe. He was so arrogant he wrote The Art Forger’s Handbook, a manual for forgers. In 1996, shortly before it was published, Hebborn was attacked and killed on a street in Rome. His murder is still unsolved.

I bought and read Hebborn’s book. His tricks of the trade include modern recipes for period-authentic pigments and ink. Hebborn loved to talk about himself, and to go deeper into his head, I watched him being interviewed at length on You Tube. Listening to him gave me his grandiosity and rhythm. He passed the audition for my antagonist’s part with flying colors.

Question: In your excellent Writer’s Digest piece about using “reality” as inspiration for stories, you talk about the spectrum of good and evil, that “good” is relative. How did you decide where to place the imperfect Lily on this spectrum and how did you develop her list of, let’s say, transgressions?

Stephanie Kane: Lily is definitely on the good end of the spectrum. She also had to be at least as flawed as the antagonist, not just to create her character arc but to force her to up her game. If she had her act together from the beginning, why read the book? As for her transgressions, let’s just say certain members of my family might recognize some of them.

Question: What’s next?

Stephanie Kane: Another Lily Sparks adventure, this time involving 20th century American realist painter Edward Hopper. His work gives me the creeps.

++

More: Stephanie Kane’s website.

++

REVIEW:

Lily Sparks, the Conservator of Paintings at the Denver Art Museum, never gets tired of gazing at Fields of the Gennevilliers Plain, a painting by Gustave Caillebotte. The painting had been lost for more than a century. Lily likes the “light cloud canopy” under which Caillebotte painted. She likes the sense of drama in the piece, including the figure of man in a brimmed hat hurrying home.

The painting is also known as Seven. To Lily Sparks it “reminded her that nature was fickle and Eden an illusion. That in the blink of an eye, what she thought she knew could vanish and all she held dear could be lost.”

By chapter three of A Perfect Eye, Lily Sparks’ eye is taking in a much less appealing sight—the murdered body of the museum’s chief benefactor, George Kurtz. (Seven, in fact, was hanging in the Kurtz Building.) Still, Sparks’ attention to detail isn’t affected. Squeamish? Not Lily.

“Propped on an upholstered chair against a wall papered in celadon silk with gold leaves, Kurtz stared imperiously. His head was intact, and his thinning silver hair was parted at the side and darkened and slicked with brilliantine … From the chest down he was riven in two.”

As she studies the scene, Lily asks for the lights to be dimmed and the fan turned off—too distracting. She is taking in every scrap of information. The cops are done. Lily wants to linger and study. She can’t get the image out of her head. Later, she remembers the “geometric slashes and pointillist pricks, intestines dabbed on a green silk wall patterned with leaves.”

Stephanie Kane’s latest mystery-thriller takes us behind the scenes of the Denver Art Museum to follow a character who has such keen visual sensibilities that she is known for her ability to spot a forgery, even one with “impeccable” provenance. Kane’s rich portrait of Lily’s unique talent is detailed and fascinating, particularly as she walks us through Lily’s evaluation of a Degas.

“Lily touched the canvas gently, mindful of her oath: First do no harm. Surgeons buried their mistakes; conservators hung them on the wall. Early in her career, she’d exorcised any vestige of a cavalier nature. Now she never picked anything up without first assessing how it was constructed and should be handled.”

Lily’s long-ago boyfriend is FBI agent Paul Riley, who still sparks (yes) some interest. He must be persuaded about Lily’s theory. And, then, Lily sees something in Seven. Those shapes. The patterns from the murder. It’s a sterling moment, observation as realization. (Caillebotte was an impressionist, a contemporary of Monet and Degas; Seven is Kane’s imagination. A Perfect Eye includes plenty of interesting tidbits of Caillebotte appreciation.)

Floating around Lily Sparks’ personal life are her widowed father Harry, co-workers, and a docent trainee, a “provisional” in museum lingo, named Nick. A Perfect Eye has a nifty cast of quality suspects, all viewed by Lily with the same eye she gives everything. She lives by a mantra—avoid subjectivity, stick to what you can see, quantify intangibles, focus. Kane also takes us inside the point of view of a truly vile forger, whose attention to detail might only be matched by someone who is talented enough to be a conservator of paintings.

But it’s Lily Sparks who drives the story. Her smarts, her keen eye. Even with the killer cornered, she’s cool enough to notice that the brushstrokes on a painting are decent, but lifeless. Lily Sparks is no copy. She’s the real deal.

++

 

Louis L’Amour and Beau L’Amour, “No Traveller Returns”

“What was it made a man go to sea? What made a man leave everything behind and drift away across the world, bound for nowhere to anywhere?”

At times full of human longing and literary romanticism, at other times bruising and tragic, No Traveller Returns is an interesting read on many levels. We are on board the Pacific crossing of the SS Lichenfield, carrying eighty thousand barrels of highly explosive naphtha.

The book, as son Beau L’Amour reveals in a detailed and well-written preface, was the first novel-length work written by his father, Louis. “The first indication that Dad was working on this book is in a journal entry from June 9, 1938,” writes Beau. At the time Louis was promoting his semi-autobiographical stories based on his world travels. Louis wanted to be known as a “self-educated yet blue-collar adventurer.”

But those stories didn’t sell at the time; the 300 million books would come later.

As a publishing project and as a story, No Traveller Returns is fascinating. Beau writes (in an equally frank and fascinating afterword) that he felt like “an archaeologist excavating then rebuilding the ruins of an ancient city.” Whatever work Beau did, it’s seamlessly woven into his father’s original fabric.

Reading this might be a matter of setting expectations. No Traveller Returns is a steady story of rough men, their working conditions, their reasons for shipping out, the grudges and feuds among them—all contrasted with the sometimes poetic descriptions of the sea.

“The night was a symphony of velvet darkness in which millions of stars swung their tiny lanterns overhead. Not a gleam was in sight that might have been another ship, but miles behind and to the north a Matson passenger liner was bound away from San Francisco to Tahiti.”

Short chapters, entries from “The Private Log of John Harlan, Second Mate,” interject various observations about the ship’s the mission. Each of Harlan’s sections set up chapters devoted to various characters—Able Seaman Pete Brouwer, Ordinary Seaman David Jones, Fireman Fritz Schuman and so on.  There are stories within stories—shore leave brawls, women left behind, debts owed, scores to settle.

Harlan is an observer of human nature. “Sometimes, it seems, the greatest possibilities for drama are disguised beneath the most unexpected exteriors, and one never knows when circumstance is going to lift some apparently inferior person to almost heroic stature.” (A reasonable bit of foreshadowing right there.)

Harlan is also keenly aware of the strange fact that mankind even exists at all. He has plenty of time at sea to ponder and add pages to the ship’s log.

“For instance, a very slight change in atmospheric conditions or a difference of a few degrees of temperature, and we might no longer exist. A plague resulting from those new conditions, or any of a multitude of other things, might severely alter our development. Man tries to learn all the rules, tries to build walls about himself to withstand the elements and the forces of his own civilization, and to protect himself form all the danger, yet three is so little that can be done.”

The contemplative scenes are balanced with fistfights, drinking, brawling, scheming; men squaring up old grudges, etcetera.

As the ship’s course continues there are hints of the looming danger of the cargo, the risk in the holds below like the collective dark subconsciousness of the crew.  A brief mention of a seemingly minor collision with a dockside crane in Liverpool—could it be important? When Able Seaman Dennis McGuire senses that first “potato vine of aromatics, a tendril of hydrocarbons,” we have a pretty good hunch of what’s coming and the title of the book also suggests how this all might end.

Kudos to Beau L’Amour for the careful extraction of this relic from the stash of his late father’s works—and for bringing it to light. (No Traveller Returns is one in a series of books under the banner Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures. One volume of collected works came out in 2017, another is due this coming November.)

No Traveller is beautifully produced with detailed drawings of the ship, a glossary, and the fascinating preface and afterword that bookend the story itself. It’s easy to see what drew Louis to write about the sea—likely the same pull that drew Melville and Conrad, too. The story won’t be confused with an action-packed thriller, but there is decided undertow that pulls you right along.

Four stars for the story, five for the yeoman’s publishing effort.

Q & A #76 – Chuck Greaves, “Church of the Graveyard Saints”

Church of the Graveyard Saints, the sixth novel from Cortez writer Chuck Greaves, is literary fiction with a thread of modern day romance and a mystery-thriller finish.

It’s also an up-close look at a unique corner of Colorado–one that Chuck clearly knows well.

And, finally, it’s also a compelling tale of the ongoing clash between big energy and environmentalists in the Four Corners region.

Chuck was kind enough to stop by the blog–that is, answer a few questions by email (below).

The book launches from Torrey House Press next month. My full review is online at the New York Journal of Books.

Publisher’s Weekly has already chimed in, declaring Church of the Graveyard Saints “a lyrical, vivid tour of the West.”

Chuck writes both mystery fiction (as Chuck Greaves) and literary fiction (as C. Joseph Greaves).

He has been a finalist for most of the major awards in crime fiction including the Shamus, Macavity, Lefty, and Audie, as well as the New Mexico-Arizona, Oklahoma, and Colorado Book Awards. Chuck’s previous novels include Hard Twisted and Tom & Lucky (both from Bloomsbury), the latter a Wall Street Journal “Best Books of 2015” selection and finalist for the 2016 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

Special alert to the Four Corners Region: Church of the Graveyard Saints will be in bookstores on September 17, 2019 and will launch the inaugural “Four Corners/One Book” regional community-wide reading program later that month. Watch for community-wide events in Cortez, Moab, Montrose, Dolores, Mancos, and Ignacio. Chuck will also be at Maria’s Bookshop in downtown Durango for a book launch event on Tuesday, Sept. 10 at 6:30 p.m.

++

Question: What was the moment of inspiration for Church of the Graveyard Saints?

Chuck Greaves: There were several.  The first was a generalized desire to write about the Four Corners area, where I’ve been living for seven years now.  The second was an experience I’d had as a young man returning from college and seeing my old hometown through different eyes.  The third was an article I read, I believe in The New Yorker, about a psychological phenomenon called Attachment Theory which posits a close correlation between early-life maternal interaction and the stability of later-life relationships.  Lastly was my concern for the environment generally, and for the Southwest’s environment in particular.  The four somehow melded, by that mysterious process of auctorial alchemy, into a story of a young environmentalist returning to her small hometown in the Four Corners to confront the father who’d raised her, the boyfriend with whom she’d parted badly, and the oil & gas interests threatening her family’s ranching heritage.

Question:  Do you think, and I have a hunch I’m leading the witness, that the general public realizes the impact—both the visual impact and the less obvious environmental impacts—from the pressures of energy development? Do you think attitudes around Cortez are changing? Is there growing awareness that the Four Corners has been a “national energy sacrifice zone” since the Nixon administration?

Chuck Greaves: Objection sustained.  I think there’s a rather large disconnect in this country between those for whom environmental conservation is an issue of paramount importance and those for whom economic prosperity – or in many cases, economic survival – trumps whatever less immediate negatives they’re willing to acknowledge.  It’s not just Cortez, of course, or the Four Corners, or the American Southwest – those just happen to be where this particular story is set.  I think the arc of history is bending toward a greater and greater concern for the environment, and that concern manifests itself differently in different locales.  Here the salient issues include public lands cattle grazing, methane emissions, oil & gas extraction, and drought.  All are issues I touch upon in Church of the Graveyard Saints.

Question: Was there anyone in particular who inspired Addie Decker—someone torn between home and away? Have you encountered locals who believe all the good opportunities are outside the Four Corners region?

Chuck Greaves: One thing that surprises me about the Four Corners is the relative dearth of young families moving here to take advantage of the gorgeous landscapes, the recreational opportunities, the affordable housing, the low cost of living, etc.  I’ve often remarked that I’d have loved to have grown up in a town like Cortez with a brand-new high school, a great Rec Center, endless ball fields, basketball and tennis and volleyball courts, an Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool, and hiking and biking trails everywhere.  And yet the population seems to be aging, and I suppose that’s attributable to the limited career opportunities outside of farming, ranching, and (for now at least) the extractive industries.  So the answer is no, Addie is not modeled after any particular person, but rather embodies my idea of how a smart, ambitious young woman would respond to growing up in a town like Cortez, and how she might view the town differently after being away for a while.

Question: Church of the Graveyard Saints touches on (digs into, really) so many issues with the connection between people and the land and also between people and their government, both local and national. From the Bundy standoff to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation, what’s it going to take to get back to a rational dialogue about managing land in the west?

Chuck Greaves: Call me Pollyanna, but I think it’s happening.  Farmers and ranchers can be – and in many cases are – among the very best stewards of the land on which their livelihoods depend, and will adopt best practices as and when conditions require.  Of course there are always extremists and general bad apples on both sides of the fence, and that’s another theme explored in the book.

Question: What was it like to write so specifically about a canyon and area you know well?

Chuck Greaves: Well, it required a heck of a lot less research than, for example, writing about Depression-era New York, which I did in Tom & Lucky, my last novel.

Question: Your thoughts on writing a variety of kinds of novels? You have written literary fiction, historical fiction, and the whole Jack MacTaggart mystery series. How do you decide what to write next and what are the pros and cons (if any) of variety?

Chuck Greaves: I prefer writing in the first person – it comes more naturally, and I think I’m better at it.  So the MacTaggart novels are relatively easy for me.  The limitation, of course, is telling an entire story through a single POV character, which doesn’t always work for my more ambitious novels.  In Church of the Graveyard Saints, for example, I have four POV characters – Addie, Bradley, Logan, and Colt – each very different in their ages, educations, and worldviews.  Would I be happy just writing, say, mystery fiction?  I doubt it, which is why I’ve tried to mix it up.  Next up, for example, is MacTaggart No. 4, which I’m around 250 pages into and loving where it’s headed.  After that . . . who can say?

Question:  Tell us about “Four Corners/One Book” and how it came about.

Chuck Greaves: I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to public libraries, starting with the one in Levittown, NY, where I grew up.  As a newly-minted lawyer in Pasadena, CA, I founded the Pasadena Public Library Foundation in 1982, and served for 20 years on its board of directors, including five as its president.  During that time we raised over $4M for the Pasadena public library system.  I also served on the selection committee for Pasadena’s inaugural “One City, One Story” community-wide reading program in 2002, an idea I very much wanted to import to Cortez.  Kathy Berg, a librarian in Cortez, loved her galley copy of Church of the Graveyard Saints and proposed using it to launch a city-wide program.  From there the concept grew like Topsy, with five other cities and public libraries – Dolores, Mancos, Montrose, Moab, and Ignacio – signing on.  And so “Four Corners/One Book” – a vehicle for building community through the shared experience of story – was born.  If I don’t screw it up, my hope is to see the program continue for many years to come.

++

Chuck Greaves’ website.

 

Lisa Halliday, “Asymmetry”

Read Asymmetry for the humor and lightness in “Folly,” the first half, and read this for the frustrating governmental craziness in “Madness,” the second half. Or read this for the curious remembrances of Ezra Blazer, the famous writer in “Folly,” who shows up in the third half (really a kind of coda to the rest of the book) to fill in the gaps of how he became the crusty but lovable elder artist as he selects his favorite all-time desert island discs for a BBC radio program.

Alice—Ezra calls her Mary Alice—is the focus of “Folly.” She is twenty-five. Ezra is much older; he has already won “multiple Pulitzer Prizes.” (Halliday based the “Folly” section on her own affair with a much older Philip Roth.) Alice and Ezra meet on a New York City park bench. “Alice knew who he was—she’d known the moment he sat down, turning her cheeks watermelon pink—but in her astonishment, she could only continue staring, like a studious little garden gnome, at the impassable pages that lay open on her lap. They might as well have been made of concrete.”

Their love affair starts quickly. (If anything, the brisk pace of “Folly” is anything but impassable; it starts like a fighter jet.) For Alice, It’s possible that living in the shadow of Ezra Blazer’s fame will make it harder for her to become a writer. Life with Ezra becomes its own wonderland—he sends her on many searches, in fact—but the May-December relationship leaves Alice wondering about the artistic mark she’ll leave. Ezra has everything figured out—the best doctors, the best Little Scarlet preserves, the best clothing stores, the best deli, the best Chinese Food. But the interplay between them is caring, funny, and touching.

Ezra has a series of old-age aches and pains, even as he continues to write. She gets an abortion. They go to concerts, watch a classic American League Championship series between the Red Sox and The Yankees, and have lovers’ quarrels, too. When she expresses an interest in writing about war and world affairs, he has advice. “Forget about world affairs. World affairs can take care of themselves.”

Alice’s tart reply: “They aren’t doing a very good job of it.”

Ezra wants her to write about those close to her, like her father. Alice doesn’t think the subject is important enough. Alice imagines writing about those she doesn’t know so well, like the Muslim hot dog vendor. Ezra is relentlessly prolific. She imagines that crushing Ezra’s skull might free her own creativity—even as she carefully tends to his ailments, including an extended stay in the hospital. Alice wonders “really rather seriously whether a former choirgirl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of a Muslim man.”

And “Madness,” the second book/novella, is about a Muslim man—but no hot dog vendor. Amar Jaafari is an economist. He’s the son of Iraqi Kurdish immigrants. We are suddenly in the business of “world affairs,” but in a kind of microcosmic/bureaucratic way because Amar is in an awful kind of purgatory, detained at Heathrow Airport on his way to Iraq. His talented, piano-playing brother has vanished. He needs to go through Heathrow, from L.A., to get there.

We are reading Alice’s writing. (Well, Halliday’s—in a remarkable shift of tone, style, and theme.) The fact that this is, in fact, Alice’s work isn’t fully revealed until Ezra Blazer references it in part three, “Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs.”

Ezra is telling the BBC radio host about his occasional bouts of depression when he reveals: “A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots on our own. It’s a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with the author, but in fact is a kind of provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.”

Ezra declines to say Alice’s name on the radio but at that point, we know Alice penned “Madness,” that Alice penetrated the looking glass and imagined a life.

Suddenly, in Amar, we have a character who seems to relish his own emotional interiors and his family, where Alice eschewed any opportunity to reminisce or self-examine.

Amar is a man trapped by bureaucracy who himself must rely on his memories and imaginings to recall many thoughts about his family, as well as life in Iraq.

And we come full circle with mirrors and imagination when Amar recalls looking in a mirror near his brother’s new piano.

“I didn’t look like a man teeming with so much potential. One the contrary, in my eleven-year-old jeans, a week’s worth of stubble, and a fraying windbreaker from the Gap, I looked rather more like the embodiment of a line I would later read—something about the metaphysical claustrophobia and bleak fate of being always one person. A problem, I suppose, that is entirely up to our imaginations to solve. But then even someone who imagines for a living is forever bound up by the ultimate constraint: she can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes—she can even hold it such that she herself remains outside its frame, the better to de-narcissize the view—but there’s no getting around the fact that she’s always the one holding the mirror. And just because you can’t see yourself in a reflection doesn’t mean no one can.”

Back in “Folly,” Alice is seated in a jury pool when she observes a man whose laptop screen saver shows a photo of himself with someone of identical complexion and facial features, each wearing the same brand of windbreakers. Is that a direct reference to Amar in “Madness?” Well, at least, it’s the sign of a writer grabbing details from real life for her own storytelling purposes. The truth is all three stories are dotted with points you can connect—and have fun doing so. One could scour every paragraph of Asymmetry and race down hundreds of such rabbit holes, looking for such details to connect. The bolder strokes are obvious—music (lots of music) and war and mirrors; freedom and loneliness; and themes about artistic originality; and, yes, rabbit hole and wonderland references too. A book club could spend several meetings pulling Asymmetry apart. Writers? Much to ponder, especially about “the metaphysical claustrophobia and bleak fate of being always one person.”

A review in The New Yorker said this: Asymmetry is “a meditation on who we might be when the most obvious components of our identity—age, religion, ethnicity, gender—have been stripped away. The coda, which confirms with the lightest of touches that Amar sprang from Alice’s head, suggests that our inner lives hold more nuance than can be contained in the boxes we check on a census form.”

Like Amar’s census form—a man literally trapped by immigration bureaucracy, who has answered many technical questions about his identity, conjures the scope of his life through the sheer power of his memory and imagination. It’s a story written by Alice, who is demonstrating her own ability to imagine beyond her “claustrophobia” and empathize with a Muslim man.  And of course, it’s all a brilliant novel by Lisa Halliday, who seems to have no trouble looking squarely in the mirror.

Doug Glanville, “The Game From Where I Stand”

Doug Glanville’s The Game From Where I Stand offers a winning combination—a likable narrator and a mountain of colorful details about life off the field and inside the game of baseball.

Minor leagues. Opening days. Glove selection. Coaches. Stress. Anxiety. Relationships. Autographs. Game preparation. Contracts. Money. Retirement. Winter ball. Dealing with reporters. Spring training. Hitting. Traveling. I’m hard-pressed to think of a subject Glanville doesn’t cover and he does it all with an appealing style. What does it feel like to be a professional baseball player? Glanville puts the reader solidly in one player’s cleats.

Glanville, who has written columns for The New York Times and other outlets, comes across as likable and easy-going. Glanville played in the majors from 1996 to 2004, primarily with the Philadelphia Phillies. He also also had two stints with the Chicago Cubs and one year with the Texas Rangers. This book was published in 2010 and, well, my only wish is for a more current account that includes how a player views the heavy-duty use of analytics in the game today.

What Glanville does explore, however, seems relatively timeless—particularly the kinds of attitudes ball players develop in order to survive. Glanville did not take being a major leaguer for granted. He played worried. He played with the daily concern that either performance or injury might lead to being demoted or traded. “One team’s trash is another’s treasure,” writes Glanville “I can say I have been both, and either way you slice it, you can’t help but feel like property, even if only for a moment.”

Glanville thanks Jimmy Rollins, who was his protégé, for a poignant piece of advice: Do it afraid. “A healthy amount of fear can lead to great results, to people pushing themselves to the brink of their capabilities … Yes, baseball players are afraid. A player’s career is always a blink in a stare. I retired at the ripe old age of thirty-four following a season of sunflower seeds and only 162 at bats. I had been a starter the year before. In this game, change happens fast.”

Coming up behind every major leaguer is a new crop of players who are younger, faster, stranger (and don’t cost as much). “There is a tipping point in a player’s career where he goes from chasing the dream to running from a nightmare. At that point, ambition is replaced by anxiety; passion is replaced with survival. It is a downhill run, and it spares no one.”

Glanville makes it clear that being a major league baseball player requires living inside a bubble. Glanville is particularly blunt here about the focus and dedication required—as well as the fallout from that level of commitment. “No one keeps statistics for DFP (Depressed Former Players) or DAR (Divorces After Retirement), but I assure you they are plentiful … Behind the bluster and bravado, they are as uncertain and fragile as any other human beings.”

That’s the over-arching flavor of this account, a real human being living a life inside the game. Glanville’s details are terrific—like seeing Randy Johnson eating breakfast at iHOP or his warm-hearted tales from playing winter ball in Puerto Rico—and his reactions at every turn seem genuine. He’s not afraid to reveal how he misplayed a ball that could have kept a no-hitter intact, for instance, and he gives a thoughtful analysis of the whole Steve Bartman alleged interference debacle (Glanville was with the Cubs at the time).

Unlike so many others, Glanville did not become another DFP or DAR stat. He had a level head and open eyes about every phase of the game—and the same thing applied when it came time for Glanville to plan his post-career life (which from all accounts has been successful both in broadcasting and business). Like baseball itself, this book is very much about the game and, of course, it’s about everything else, too. Baseball is life.