Monthly Archives: October 2012

Spotlight on A Working Theory Of Love by Scott Hutchins

 

I am about to begin reading A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins.

About the book:

“Settled back into the San Francisco singles scene following the implosion of his young marriage just months after the honeymoon, Neill Bassett is going through the motions. His carefully modulated routine, however, is soon disrupted in ways he can’t dismiss with his usual nonchalance.

When Neill’s father committed suicide ten years ago, he left behind thousands of pages of secret journals, journals that are stunning in their detail, and, it must be said, their complete banality. But their spectacularly quotidian details, were exactly what artificial intelligence company Amiante Systems was looking for, and Neill was able to parlay them into a job, despite a useless degree in business marketing and absolutely no experience in computer science. He has spent the last two years inputting the diaries into what everyone hopes will become the world’s first sentient computer. Essentially, he has been giving it language—using his father’s words. Alarming to Neill—if not to the other employees of Amiante—the experiment seems to be working. The computer actually appears to be gaining awareness and, most disconcerting of all, has started asking questions about Neill’s childhood.

Amid this psychological turmoil, Neill meets Rachel. She was meant to be a one-night stand, but Neill is unexpectedly taken with her and the possibilities she holds. At the same time, he remains preoccupied by unresolved feelings for his ex-wife, who has a talent for appearing at the most unlikely and unfortunate times. When Neill discovers a missing year in the diaries—a year that must hold some secret to his parents’ marriage and perhaps even his father’s suicide—everything Neill thought he knew about his past comes into question, and every move forward feels impossible to make.

With a lightness of touch that belies pitch-perfect emotional control, Scott Hutchins takes us on an odyssey of love, grief, and reconciliation that shows us how, once we let go of the idea that we’re trapped by our own sad histories—our childhoods, our bad decisions, our miscommunications with those we love—we have the chance to truly be free. A Working Theory of Love marks the electrifying debut of a prodigious new talent.”

About the author:

“Scott Hutchins is a former Truman Capote fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University, where he currently teaches. His work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Five Chapters, The Owls, The Rumpus, The New York Times, San Francisco Magazine and Esquire. It has also been–strangely–set to music. He’s the recipient of two Hopwood awards and the Andrea Beauchamp prize in short fiction. In 2006 and 2010, He was an artist-in-residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris.”

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Book Review: Black Crow White Lie by Candi Sary

Black Crow White Lie by Candi Sary (Casperian Books; 162 pages; $13.50).

                In her debut Black Crow White Lie, a semifinalist for the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, Candi Sary proves she is a talented new literary voice.  Her coming-of-agetale explores adolescence and identity.  With authentic prose and a compelling plot, Black Crow White Lie is engaging, entertaining, and highly readable.

Twelve-year-old Carson Calley lives in Hollywood motels with his unstable, alcoholic mother and roams the streets.  The two have a close bond, despite her frequent inebriation.  She tells him stories of their past lives.

“We were Indians—California Indians.  This pale skin,” Sary writes, “was once native brown.  And these legs of yours were once big and strong so that you could run after deer and shoot them with your arrows, and then bring the meat back to me.”

From a very young age, his mother told him he was destined for greatness, just as he was in his previous life.  “You were the treasure of our tribe…You were destined to be the great medicine man, the great healer who would take away all the pain and disease and suffering of our people.”  In that life, though, his destiny was brutally cut short when he was killed.

After thousands of years, Carson’s mother explains, the two spirits are reunited as mother and son.  His mother is convinced that Carson has a purpose.  “You have finally come back to fulfill your destiny.  Carson…you are the great healer of our time.”

Carson does have healing powers.  When his mother is sick, he lays his hands on her and feels “tiny stars gather” in his hands.  After a few minutes, she is well again.  Carson does seem to have a very rare gift.  Yet, Carson cannot cure his own loneliness.

With his mother out late with her married lover, Carson wanders around Hollywood.  Hollywood is the perfect setting for Black Crow White Lie.  In this setting, Sary is able to people her tale with some intriguing and unique characters, people you might not find if this story had been set elsewhere.  Looking for friendship, Carson stumbles into a head shop, where he meets its owner: an albino named Casper (no, that’s not his real name).  Casper is deaf in one ear.  After Carson heals Casper, the head shop owner talks the boy into practicing in a room in the back of the store.  He accepts.  Word spreads, and long lines wait outside to see the “Boy Healer.”

Carson also meets Faris, a tattoo artist.  Faris becomes a father figure for Carson, whose father is buried in Washington, D.C. in the “cemetery of heroes.”  It is Faris who gives Carson his first tattoo, a black crow, symbolizing a story about his deceased father.

With his mother in and out, Carson relies mostly on himself.  A huge weight is on his young shoulders.  Add the heartaches of first love to the mix, and it is easy to understand the fear and anger Carson sometimes feels.

Carson thinks he knows just who he is: a son, a friend, a caregiver, and a healer.  Yet a series of stunning revelations makes Carson question who he is and what he can do.  He undergoes a crisis of identity at such a tender age.  Can he really heal the sick?  Is he a fraud?  Has his mother been lying to him all these years?

Sary handles this all with tenderness and ease.  Carson is her most well-developed character, and he drives the story.  Yet Sary’s plot is deft and satisfying.  Her setting is apropos for her story.  I can’t wait to see more of Sary’s work.  Black Crow White Lie is an indication of a highly skilled storyteller with a bright future ahead of her.

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Book Review: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Little, Brown; 240 pages; $24.99).

                Few fiction authors have tackled the subject of the Iraq War; most of those have been published only within the past year: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Fobbit by David Abrams, and The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers.  All are written from a soldier’s perspective.  While Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Fobbit are satirical, The Yellow Birds is intense and somber.  Perhaps there is a reason for that; Powers was the only one to see real combat in Iraq.

Powers enlisted in the army when he was only 17, later serving as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2004 and 2005.  He knows firsthand the horrors of war, and that knowledge is what makes his book stand apart from the rest.  The Yellow Birds is achingly real and passionate.

“The [Iraq] war had tried its best to kill us all: man, woman, [and] child,” Powers writes in his powerful debut, The Yellow Birds.  “But it had killed fewer than a thousand soldiers like me and Murph.  Those numbers still meant something to us as what passed for fall began…We didn’t want to be the thousandth killed.  If we died later, then we died.  But let that number be someone else’s milestone.”

The Yellow Birds is written from the perspective of 21-year-old Private John Bartle.  Powers structures the novel back and forth through time in alternating chapters from 2003 to 2009.  He tells us early on that a main character dies and dies shockingly.  The many plot twists Powers employs makes this a truly compelling and intense read.

Bartle represents the countless numbers of American youth sent to far-flung places whose names they cannot even spell or pronounce correctly.  Far from home, these young men and women form bonds quickly.  Such is the case for Bartle and 18-year-old Private Daniel Murphy.

The two young recruits meet during basic training and quickly become friends.  Sergeant Sterling, barely older than Bartle at 24, tells Murph to stick close to Bartle.  “All right, little man,” he says, “I want you to get in Bartle’s back pocket and I want you to stay there.”  The bond is further sealed when Bartle promises Murph’s mother that he will look out for her son.  This vow will weigh heavily on Bartle as they fight in Iraq.

When Powers shifts the action once again to Iraq, he illustrates the deep emotional toll that the war has inflicted on the soldiers.  Bartle and Murph are brothers in arms, praying not to get killed, praying it is someone else.  They keep track of the casualty list as it slowly creeps upward toward 1,000: “We didn’t know the list was limitless.  We didn’t think beyond a thousand.  We never considered that we could be among the walking dead as well.”

There are two warzones in The Yellow Birds: the war in Iraq and the war at home, a fight just as tough as the real conflict.  When a soldier leaves Iraq, he truly trades one battle for another.  With Bartle, Powers explores the difficulty of readjusting to life as a civilian: “What now?” and “Instead of a slug, give her a hug.”

Even seemingly small things take Bartle back to Iraq.  “The yelp of dogs echoing out from where they rolled in wet garbage in the shadow of the Shamash Gate,” Powers writes.  “If I heard the caw of ugly crows swing down from the power line that they adorned in black simplicity, the caw might strike in perfect harmony with the memory of the sound of falling mortars, and I, at home now, might brace for the impact….”

How to turn off that kill-or-be-killed mentality that all soldiers must have to survive is a recurring theme in The Yellow Birds.  The things Bartle saw and did haunt him.  Through his character, Powers allows us to see the high cost of war for both combat veterans and their families.  Because they think no one else understands, many vets turn to violence, alcohol, and even suicide.  In Powers’ hands, the many struggles of vets come to life.

With The Yellow Birds, Powers does something Abrams and Fountain could not.  He turns the brutal language of war into something lyrical.  “The war tried to kill us in the spring,” the author writes.  “As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns.  We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers.”  While Bartle and his fellow soldiers slept, “the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.  When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark.  While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation.  It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.”

Powers was nominated for a National Book Award in Fiction for The Yellow Birds; however, Louise Erdrich took home the award for The Round House.  The Yellow Birds is unlike other Iraq War novels.  Powers actually fought in combat so he knows his stuff.  This is fiction, but there are kernels of truth within these pages.  He drives home the point that the War in Iraq has irrevocably changed a whole generation and our country will not ever be the same.

The Yellow Birds is penetrating, poignant, and deeply personal for Powers.  I can’t stop thinking about Bartle and Murph.  This is the debut of the year.

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Spotlight on Black Crow White Lie by Candi Sary

I am reading a unique coming-of-age tale by a very promising new literary voice: Black Crow White Lie by Candi Sary.

 

From the jacket copy:

“Carson Calley grew up living in Hollywood motels with his fortune-telling mother, who is full of stories about their former lives together and prophesies about this future.

We were Indians—California Indians.  This pale skin was once native brown.  And these legs of yours were once big and strong so that you could run after deer and shoot them with your arrows, and then bring the meat back to me.  You were destined to be the great medicine man, the great healer who would take away all the pain and disease and suffering of our people.

Believing his mother’s yarns, Carson becomes a healer, with the people of Hollywood waiting in long lines to see him, but a purpose built on lies and exaggerations can’t last…or can it?”

About Candi Sary:

 

“Candi Sary graduated from UC Irvine.  She has been a finalist in several writing competitions.  Black Crow White Lie was a top six finalist in the 2009 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and a semifinalist for the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.  Publishers Weekly, in its review of the manuscript for that contest, called it an “…engaging coming-of-age manuscript,” and also said, “This is a praiseworthy, poignant work.

Candi lives in coastal California with her husband and two children.”

Follow her on Twitter @CandiSary

Author Website

Please check back soon to read my review.

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Spotlight on The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds has been heralded as “a war novel written by a veteran of Iraq, The Yellow Birds is the harrowing story of two soldiers trying to stay alive in the most unforgiving of landscapes.” (from the jacket copy)

 

Recently, Powers was nominated for a National Book Award in fiction for his debut.

I am about to begin reading this novel. The following comes from the jacket copy:

“‘The war tried to kill us in the spring,’ begins this breathtaking account of friendship and loss.  In Al Tafar, Iraq, twenty-one-year-old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy cling to life as their platoon launches a bloody battle for the city.  In the endless days that follow, the two young soldiers do everything to protect each other from the forces that press in on every side: the insurgents, physical fatigue, and the mental stress that comes from constant danger.

Bound together since basic training, when their tough-as-nails sergeant ordered Bartle to watch over Murphy, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for.  As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him, and Bartle takes impossible actions.

With profound emotional insight, especially into the effects of a distant war on mothers and families at home, The Yellow Birds captures the almost unimaginable costs of war in language that is precise and truthful.  It is destined to become a classic.

Kevin Powers joined the army at the age of seventeen and served as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2004 and 2005. He graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2008 and is a Michener Fellow in Poetry at the University of Texas at Austin.”

Powers knows war, and this could just take home a National Book Award in fiction.

 

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Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round House by Louise Erdrich (Harper; 336 pages; $26.99).

Louise Erdrich’s new novel The Round House is quite a departure from her previous novels.  Typically, Erdrich writes from multiple perspectives, with each narrative contributing a little window into a larger world.  She switches gears with The Round House, winner of a 2012 National Book Award in fiction.  Joe Coutts, her primary narrator and an Ojibwe Indian, recalls a horrific crime that occurred when he was thirteen.  A cacophony of voices is unnecessary in The Round House; Joe drives Erdrich’s story, and his voice speaks volumes.

Like Erdrich’s previous works, The Round House is set on a North Dakota Indian reservation.  Erdrich is part Chippewa, and problems facing Native American communities mean a great deal to her, as they should to us all.  In The Round House, she once again tackles difficult subjects, such as violence against women, crime, and, most glaringly, the injustice of the law.  Unlike her other books, The Round House features an unforgettable young boy on the cusp of adulthood, who transfixes us with his strong, intimate narrative.

Erdrich sets her story in the spring of 1988.  Joe’s mother, Geraldine, is badly beaten and raped.  To the consternation of Joe and his father, Bazil, a judge, Geraldine is reluctant to tell what happened or even where the crime occurred.  Father and son are further dismayed when Geraldine retreats from them and spends her days in bed, eating little and saying nothing.  Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she is a shell of her former self.

Bazil begins investigating the rape and enlists Joe’s aid.  The boy is more than eager to help his father find the culprit.  Bazil knows that he shouldn’t put so much pressure on a boy of 13; he knows he has told Joe too much.  It is too late, however.  Joe is already fixated.

“I wanna get him,” Joe tells his friends Cappy, Angus, and Zack.  Joe wants to avenge his mother and watch the culprit burn.  His love for her is so bright and fierce that he seeks to kill his mother’s rapist.  “Mom, listen,” he tells her.  “I’m going to find him and I’m going to burn him.  I’m going to kill him for you.”

You’d think Joe would not have to make this promise.  You’d think the police would investigate, find the accused, and prosecute him.  It’s not that simple on an Indian reservation, where jurisdiction is key.

Geradline was raped in the round house, a sacred space to the Ojibwe Indians, where they practiced religious ceremonies.  And there lies the conundrum.  An Indian did not commit the crime; a white man is to blame, a man who loathes Indians.  A crime was committed, but “on what land?  Was it tribal land?  Fee land?  White property?  State?  We can’t prosecute if we don’t know which laws apply.”

It seems the rapist violated Geraldine in this sacred space deliberately.  He knew what he was doing and where he was doing it.  In all likelihood, he will not be charged with anything.

Joe cannot let that happen and will use any means necessary to get his revenge.  He will enlist his friends; he will sift through his father’s old case files; he will seek advice from his grandfather; he will garner information from the twin sister of the accused.  If the law is unjust, then Joe will seek his own vigilante justice.

The Round House is part coming-of-age story and part crime novel.  Erdrich uses humor and pop culture to show how Joe and his friends are obsessed with Star Wars, Star Trek, and girls.  The boys are so close that they would do anything for each other.  Their closeness reflects the tight-knit community they call home, where everybody knows everybody and where everyone looks out for everyone else.  Whatever happens, they will insulate the boys from reprisal.  In a sense, when Geraldine is raped and beaten, the whole town is violated.

Since Joe looks back on these events from an adult viewpoint, he is able to view the crime from two perspectives simultaneously: child and adult.  Joe puts an adult spin on things whenever he can, yet Erdrich manages to capture how the crime shattered his innocence and stole his childhood.  The offense against Geraldine turns Joe into a man.  The crime affected Joe so much that he went on to study law; eventually, Joe becomes a lawyer.  He can tell the story then from a son’s eye, yet with a lawyer’s keen focus.

The Round House illustrates how a senseless crime can forever change a town, a community, a family, and a young man.  Lives are overturned, and relationships are altered.  Yet a boy discovers the power of friendship and understands the meaning of giving one’s word.  That same youth becomes a man in this tale and finds his life’s calling– to seek justice even in the unlikeliest of places.  Erdrich instinctively knows when it takes a chorus to tell a story and when only one voice is needed.

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Hilary Mantel Wins 2012 Man Booker Prize

Hilary Mantel wins 2012 Man Booker Prize

The following information is taken from the official Man Booker Prize website:

16 October 2012

The whittling has finished. The judges of this year’s Man Booker Prize started with a daunting 145 novels and have winnowed, sifted, culled, and in some cases hurled, until there was only one left: Hilary Mantel‘s Bring up the Bodies.

Hers is a story unique in Man Booker history. She becomes only the third author, after Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee, to win the prize twice, which puts her in the empyrean. But she is also the first to win with a sequel (Wolf Hall won in 2009) and the first to win with such a brief interlude between books. Her resuscitation of Thomas Crowell – and with him the historical novel – is one of the great achievements of modern literature. There is the last volume of her trilogy still to come so her Man Booker tale may yet have a further chapter.

The writing will have to wait a bit though. She may have won before but the torrent of media interest will still knock her back as if she’s been hit by a wave. In 2009 she confessed to feeling as though she were “flying through the air”, well, she’s soaring again. When she lands she won’t have time to think and she will talk into microphones until her throat is sore. It comes with the territory: everyone wants a bit of the Man Booker winner.

It has been a long and uniquely intense journey not just for her but for everyone associated with the prize. For the judges it has meant nine months of work, worry and pleasure. Their choices have been scrutinised and criticised and their thoughts and penchants imagined. They will have read the shortlisted books at least three times. They will await the public’s verdict on their choice with sang froid mixed with curiosity. They needn’t be worried, Bring Up the Bodies has had near universal praise from critics and reading public alike.

The shortlisted authors meanwhile have felt the hot brightness of the media spotlight on them since July when the long-list was first announced. They can breathe out now. For Hilary Mantel all those middle-of-the-night moments when she had to tell herself not to think of what it would be like to win again, not to jinx herself, can stop.

Indeed, spare a thought for the shortlisted authors; they will have had a day unlike any other they have known. How do you take your mind off the fact that in a matter of hours you might be the winner of arguably the world’s most high-profile literary prize? Of course it is an honour and validation to be shortlisted but they will have known that at 11.30 this morning the judges closed the door of a room somewhere in London – possibly near to where they themselves were standing/shopping/chomping their nails – and settled down to decide their future. They will have wondered what that group literary holy men and women, like the conclave of cardinals in the Sistine Chapel choosing a new Pope, were talking about and wondered whether the puff of white smoke that finally emerged was for them. They may be writers but they’re only human.

The nerves will have continued all through the prize dinner, even a phalanx of loved ones, publisher and agent can’t keep them away. They chatted amicably, a drink – but perhaps just the one – to steady the beating heart. I doubt they tasted their food. Who would have wanted to be them as Sir Peter Stothard took to the rostrum and opened his mouth to enunciate the first syllable of the winner’s name? She may qualify as an old hand but Hilary Mantel confessed that her nerves this time round were infinitely worse than in 2009.

This is not the end of the process, however. For Hilary Mantel it is the moment of coronation before she confronts the wider horizons that have suddenly opened up before her. For the other shortlisted authors who came so agonisingly close they have the knowledge that every publisher in the land will bite their hand off for the chance to publish their next book and that, whatever they write, they will have a wide and eager audience. Their names are now known to readers who may have had no idea of them only a few months ago.

Perhaps the real object of envy is not the winner – she thoroughly deserves her triumph – but the readers who have yet to open Bring Up the Bodies. They have just won a prize too.

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I hereby confess I have not read Bring Up the Bodies or even Wolf Hall.  I started Wolf Hall last night.

Are you a Mantel fan?  If so, what do you like about her storytelling?

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