Cementville by Paulette Livers

cementvilleCementville by Paulette Livers

This is a touching story about a community that suffers a terrible tragedy–several of its young men serving in the National Guard are killed in a single battle in the Vietnam War. As the book opens, the townspeople are waiting for the arrival of the bodies to begin the devastating of process of burying the dead.

Like Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, the story of the tragedy’s aftermath is told from the point of view of several of the mourners–family members, classmates, friends–with the overall effect that this is the community’s point of view and the town’s story. While I confess that I was sometimes confused by these multiple points of view, it does have the desired effect. The title of the book is, after all, the town’s name, so in retrospect it seems entirely appropriate.

It’s an engaging read about a dark subject.

Forgetting English by Midge Raymond

forgetting englishForgetting English by Midge Raymond

This is another book I read last year but didn’t have time to write about. This story collection won The Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, but before the prize sponsor, Eastern Washington University Press, could publish the book, they folded. (The prize is now sponsored by Willow Springs Books.) But somehow, the author was put in touch with Press 53, and they brought the book out in 2011. It’s a terrific collection. (You can buy the book directly from Press 53 by going here.)

These are my kind of stories, set all over the world. “First Sunday,” the book’s opening story, takes place in Tonga where one of the characters has served as a Peace Corps Volunteer (another reason the story appeals to me). “Translation Memory” is set in Japan. “The Road to Hana” takes place in Hawaii. Taiwan is the setting for the title story, “Forgetting English.” “Rest of the World” follows its main character from San Francisco to Taipei to Tokyo. “Under Limestone Cliffs” takes the reader to Thailand, “Beyond the Kopjes” goes to Tanzania, “Lost Art” lands in Australia, and “Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean” brings us back to Hawaii.

But it was the collection’s third story, “The Ecstatic Cry,” that first brought the book to my attention. In 2014 I was putting together an anthology, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, also published by Press 53, and received the story from Midge as a submission to consider. I loved it. The story is set in Antarctica and involves a romance between two researchers who are stationed there. “The Ecstatic Cry” is now the opening story in Everywhere Stories.

It should also be noted that Midge has gone on to write a novel about the main character in that story, and My Last Continent will be coming out soon from Simon & Schuster.

2015 Reading: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

coatesBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Justifiably, this book won the 2015 National Book Award for non-fiction. In my estimation, this is one of the most important books published in recent memory.

While African Americans will probably find this all too familiar, it is important for white Americans to try, at least, to understand what black Americans, especially men, go through every single day in this country. How can we ever understand the privilege we have unless we are aware of its opposite.

Coates, a terrific writer, lays it all out for us, with plenty of examples of what it’s really like for a black man in America. The story is told in the form of a letter to his son, and acknowledges that the world has already changed somewhat. I found this to be a hopeful note, a suggestion that things are getting better. But others with whom I have discussed the book (my bookclub, Reading Liberally, read it for our December meeting), saw that differently.

It’s an important book. Read it.

2015 Reading: The Glimpse Traveler by Marianne Boruch

glimpsetravellerThe Glimpse Traveler (Break Away Books) by Marianne Boruch

I read this travel memoir a couple of months ago (hence the “2015 Reading” label) and thoroughly enjoyed it. The structure is simple. In the late ’60s, Marianne Boruch left Illinois with a couple of friends for Spring Break, with the notion of hitchhiking to California. The husband of Boruch’s female friend had recently died, and so the trip became something of a spiritual quest, looking for clues about him.

That quest led the two women–the guy went his separate way on the West Coast–to Esalen, a commune, a cult-ish group north of San Francisco, and some Yuppie friends of the husband who lived in the city. The trip is something of a collage of the period, and it’s amazing they were able to do so much (for so little money) during that one break from school.

Marianne Boruch is now an established poet (she teaches at Purdue) whom I met in October at the Indiana Authors celebrations, where she won the National Authors Award. Here is a brief video interview with her:

2015 Reading: Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets by Jacob M. Appel

miracles and conundrumsMiracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets by Jacob M. Appel

I had previously reviewed Appel’s novel, The Biology of Luck, in Prime Number Magazine, so I was pleased to receive a copy of his latest story collection.

My review of the book appears in Best New Fiction.

(And yes, I know I’ve labeled this post with “2015”–I read and reviewed the book in December.)

2015 Reading — Catching Up

In the first part of 2015 I did a decent job of keeping this journal about my reading, but as the year went on and I got busier, I failed. I recorded completed books in Goodreads, but I didn’t say anything about them here. I’d like to rectify that, so that this journal will be more or less complete. In the meantime, here’s a graphic representation of just some of my reading from 2015.

2015 Reading 1

2015 Reading 2 2015 Reading 3

2015 Reading: Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

13waysThirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

Without question, Colum McCann is one of my favorite writers. His novel Let the Great World Spin blew me away and made me question whether there was any point in continuing my own writing if I could never approach that level of greatness. I’ve also loved his other books, including Transatlantic, which in its way was equally impressive. (I also had the good fortune of meeting McCann and spending time with him at Washington & Lee University’s Tom Wolfe Seminar a couple of years ago; that experience only made me admire him more.)

So I was excited at the prospect of a new book, and Thirteen Ways of Looking does not disappoint. The book consists of four short stories, although the first one, “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” is novella length. That story has thirteen sections, incorporating each stanza of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” as an epigraph. It is, essentially, a murder mystery, as detectives examine all the evidence surrounding the death of a retired judge, Peter Mendelssohn. The various points of view, like the surveillance cameras that provide clues, give the reader many ways of looking at the incident, enough perhaps to solve the crime, and yet not enough to see everything. There are, it seems, more than thirteen ways of looking.

The second story, “What Time is it Now, Where You Are?” is wonderful, but a bit more ordinary. It begins in the mind of a writer on deadline who is struggling to write a short story for a New Year’s Eve themed publication. He settles on the story of a marine posted to Afghanistan, but as he writes, and as the character evolves and becomes more complicated, the writer has more and more questions. There are thirteen sections to this story as well, and in the last section the questions pour out. Writers will relate.

The third story is “Sh’khol,” a Hebrew word that means a parent who has lost a child. Rebecca and her son are at a cottage in Galway. Tomas is adopted–Rebecca’s marriage then ended–and he has developmental problems. Where does the thirteen come in? “Thirteen years old and there was already a whole history written in him.” The word “sh’khol” is in her mind when Tomas goes missing.

The final story, “Treaty,” is perhaps the most compelling (although I haven’t yet discovered its “thirteen”). Here a nun who was kidnapped and raped at the hands of a rightwing militiaman spots her torturer on a televised report of a peace conference being held in London. But there’s something wrong — he’s now representing the other side of conflict. Has he changed? She goes to London to find out.

These are remarkable stories of intense conflict that share something universal–a search for grace. How do we live in this world?

In an Author’s Note at the end of the book, McCann makes reference to a severe beating he endured in June of 2014 in the midst of working on these stories. It’s hard not to read the stories in light of that incident and his own reaction to it, which you can and should read about here in his Victim Impact Statement.

2 New Book Reviews

Issue73_Review_DavidPayne--element218 Issue73_Review_CurtisSmith--element218I recently read and reviewed two very different memoirs, both excellent.

The first is Barefoot to Avalon by David Payne. Novelist Payne’s brother was killed in an auto accident in 2000. Their relationship was complicated, and his brother’s death only added strain to the pressure Payne was already feeling. I describe the memoir as “breathless,” which is how I felt while I was reading it.

The second is Communion by Curtis Smith. I’ve read a number of books by Smith. This one is a wonderful follow-up to his last collection of essays. Both books are meditations on fatherhood, but in the new book Smith’s son is older and the challenges Smith and his wife face are different.

Check out the reviews if you have a chance. I can highly recommend both books.

2015 Reading: Driving the King by Ravi Howard

drivingthekingDriving the King: A Novel by Ravi Howard

I had the pleasure of hearing Ravi Howard read from and discuss this novel at the Virginia Festival of the Book earlier this year. It’s a very engaging book and I recommend it.

Read my review of Driving the King at Best New Fiction.