Book Review: Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann

Letters to a Young Writer

by Colum McCann

HarperCollins, April 2017

This is a short book of writing advice by one of my favorite fiction writers, Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin, among many other books.  When someone whose work I admire as much as I do McCann’s offers writing advice, I’m going to listen.

The book collects a series of short writings on particular topics, many of which will be familiar to writers who have studied the craft.  Familiar or not, it occurs to me that the letters will serve as reminders of lessons that some of us may have forgotten.

The first is on a topic that I cover when I teach: There are no rules. “To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you better at some stage make something happen.” And so on. Another favorite is “Don’t Write What You Know.” This appears to contradict the old saw, “write what you know,” but McCann prefers this formulation: “Write toward what you don’t know.” (I heard the same advice years ago from Grace Paley, put only slightly differently: “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”)

There are over fifty of these letters, with topics such as “Read Aloud,” “How Old is the Young Writer?,” “Don’t be a Dick,” and “Read, Read, Read.” Having just spent three weeks researching my current project in Southeast Asia, I appreciated this one: “Research: Google Isn’t Deep Enough.”

There is some practical advice (Where should I write?) and some of a more philosophical nature (Why tell stories?), but the whole collection is a mini-course in creative writing that beginning writers, especially, will find invaluable. But I plan to keep the book nearby for rereading, as there is some advice here I can’t be told too often.

Los Angeles Review: Review of What the Zhang Boys Know

A pleasant surprise. The Los Angeles Review, which is a terrific journal published by Red Hen Press, posted a review by Ed Bennett of What the Zhang Boys Know.

Bennett writes:

Ultimately, What the Zhang Boys Know is a book about the many types of love we can experience. Simon and Wesley learn their love for their mother is not lost, although they must continue to seek it. Their neighbors illustrate more superficial forms of desire—for things and fleeting relationships, which change constantly. Garstang empathizes with all of them, refusing to take sides among the people who are trying to find a little Eden amid the rubble of urban development.

>Book Review: Dispatches from the Peninsula by Chris Tharp


Chris Tharp
Signal 8 Press, 2011
I arrived in Seoul, South Korea, in early January, 1976, half a year after graduating from college. To say that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into would be an enormous understatement. But, to a large degree, that was the point. I had joined the Peace Corps—taking a leave from the graduate school program that was, at best, a feeble attempt to forestall real life. Like most Peace Corps Volunteers, I had mixed motives in signing up: I wanted to help people, sure; but I also wanted an adventure. I also didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I was buying time.
So we landed on a frigid morning, a group of twenty-five or so volunteers destined to work in “Higher Education English,” meaning that we would be teaching English as a Second Language to college students, most of whom were enrolled in English Education programs in their universities and colleges. Like my fellow volunteers, I knew no Korean, knew little about Korea, and had no teaching experience. Peace Corps remedied that with two months of intensive training—a full morning of Korean language studies in small groups (not to mention the language learning that occurred in the family homes that hosted us), and afternoons of lessons in both Korean culture and history and the rudiments of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). By the end of training, we were ready to head to our duty stations, in my case a provincial capital a hundred miles or so south of Seoul, into situations where there were no other foreigners and where English-speakers were few.
While the experience was not uniformly positive, those two years of Peace Corps service were extraordinary, and have shaped just about everything I have done since. They taught me about poverty, since Korea in the ´70s was still a very poor country. They taught me to cope with hardship. They also instilled me with an indelible fondness for Korea, and in the 35 years since I completed my service I have been back many times for business and pleasure, including a wonderful trip earlier this year with other former Peace Corps Volunteers.
So I was pleased when the opportunity came up recently to review Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea by an American English teacher in Korea. I relished the chance to share another American’s experience in Korea, updated by three decades. And for the most part I wasn’t disappointed. The writing is excellent, and the conversational tone is just right for this sort of memoir/travelogue. Plus, author Chris Tharp, as far as I can tell, gets the important stuff right—his digressions into Korean culture and history, his comments on contemporary politics and society, even his understanding of the Korean view of their country’s place in the world today, seem to me to be spot on, and are probably enlightening to readers who don’t know the country. It’s a fun read.
If there is disappointment here, it stems from the author’s limited experience in the country. Yes, he’s lived there six years, but he seems to have spent it almost entirely in Pusan (hanging out with other expats), with only brief forays into the surrounding countryside. His time spent with Koreans outside of the classroom seems to be confined to drinking sessions (or over-drinking sessions), which he seems to believe is the national pastime, and a succession of girlfriends. And there are omissions that I think might have presented a more complete picture of life in the Land of Morning Calm. Tharp says he doesn’t like visiting Buddhist Temples, but Buddhism has had an important impact on Korea, as have both animist religions and Christianity, both mentioned only in passing. Tharp addresses anti-Americanism but doesn’t discuss the role that the stationing of 30,000 American troops (42,000 when I lived there) on the peninsula has played in that sentiment. (In fairness, he does mention one incident involving an American soldier that inflamed public opinion, but the tensions run much deeper.) And while Tharp does talk about some regional rivalries in Korea, he doesn’t mention that these rivalries have their roots in the warring kingdoms that arose two thousand years ago, which also helps to put the separation of North and South Korea in context.
Tharp is part of what we might call the Anti-Peace Corps, the cadre of young native-English speakers drawn from all over the world who have descended on Korea to fill the demand for English teachers. In the ´70s, the Peace Corps met some of that demand at very little cost to the Koreans. But the Peace Corps left Korea in the ´80s—after the country reached middle-income status—and now the country can afford to hire people to come teach. Unlike Peace Corps Volunteers, these teachers generally receive no training—not in teaching techniques, not in Korean culture, and not in Korean language. With little preparation in cultural sensitivity, it is no surprise when these foreigners clash with their hosts, such as the numerous incidents Tharp recounts in Dispatches.
But I don’t mean to be overly harsh, and I readily admit that some of my criticism is the result of my nostalgia for a Korea that is these days hard to find. In fact, I enjoyed Dispatchesvery much, and appreciated Tharp’s growth over the period described in the book. In the sections covering his early days in the country, Tharp is condescending toward Koreans (in the tradition of Paul Theroux—a former Peace Corps Volunteer—who never met a local he couldn’t make fun of). But over time, it’s clear that Tharp’s affection for Korea and his understanding of the country have grown, so that in the later sections of the book the self-portrait is of a man who is much more in tune with his surroundings. I also was touched by Tharp’s account of the loss of both his mother and father while living abroad (which closely paralleled the deaths of both of my parents while I lived in Singapore in the ´80s and early ´90s), and the challenges of being so distant from family. I also could relate to Tharp’s experience in other ways, including his love of Korean food and his struggles with the Korean language.
If you’re considering teaching English abroad, of if you’re just interested in what life is like for a foreigner in Korea, read this book. 

>Book Review: Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet by Cameron Conaway


Threed Press, 2011
Cameron Conaway is a poet (a book and a chapbook forthcoming in 2012 from Salmon Poetry and Finishing Line Press) and was, for a time, a cage-fighting mixed-martial artist. He is also the sensitive son of an abusive father. And that triple-threat combination has resulted in this suspenseful, inspiring memoir that is partly a guide to health and nutrition and partly encouragement for all who might find solace in literature for the challenges that life presents.
Conaway’s story is, in some ways, familiar. When he was a kid, his father, as Conaway portrays him, was an angry man–intolerant, often verbally and sometimes physically abusive. Divorce was inevitable, but that seemed to make things worse for Conaway, who was perpetually torn by his admiration for his father (an accomplished martial artist) and hatred for the way his father often treated him. Despite the mistreatment, Conaway craved his father’s approval, and that craving pushed him to succeed. The family situation came to a head when Conaway tried to protect his younger sister from their father’s abuse; that clash ended their relationship.
How Conaway then channels his conflicted emotions is the real story here—he turns in a big way to physical training and sports. Fond of basketball, his height keeps him from getting the playing time he desires in organized ball, and yet pick-up games on the playground provide valuable lessons about competition, adversity, and battles against opponents often much larger. Eventually he discovers martial arts—his father’s discipline—but takes it a step further. Instead of the less practical versions of the sport, he would focus on real fighting: “The art of [Brazilian Jiu Jitsu] gave me the confidence that I could not only protect myself and those close to me, but gently kick the shit out of somebody if need be.” This growing confidence, not surprisingly, has implications for other aspects of his life.
In college, he discovered both academic discipline—his advice here is especially worth noting—and poetry. His first poetry teacher exposed him to the practice of observation—seeing both the forest AND the trees—and he was hooked: “The way I loved [Brazilian Jiu Jitsu], I loved poetry. The goal of poetry seemed to be to show new ideas and perspectives that broadened and deepened human understanding of each other and the world.”
So, while also working as many hours as he can in order to support himself, he pursues both poetry and mixed martial arts (he adds other styles to BJJ in order to have as many tools at his disposal as possible) in a big way. He participates in cage fights (traveling to Ohio, because the practice is illegal in Pennsylvania), and in the book the descriptions of these fights are as suspenseful and exciting as any I’ve read. He also earns a spot in a top MFA program to further develop his creative writing skills, and begins to teach in order to share his love of both MMA and poetry. Along the way, despite the commitment problems you might expect in someone from his background, he falls in love.
It’s truly an inspiring story, highly readable (Conaway includes some of his own poetry that reflects both his family life and his pursuit of martial arts), and I whole-heartedly recommend it to all readers.
But that’s not the only reason I wanted to write this review. Conaway has been working on this memoir for some time, and he landed a publishing contract with a major publisher in the field of martial arts. He was thrilled, as anyone would be. The book progressed through production and was scheduled for publication. And then the publisher pulled it from their list because of a threatened lawsuit—one that they knew they could win, but didn’t want to spend the money to fight. After exploring his options, Conaway has gone ahead with the book—a typically gutsy move—and I’m proud to support his effort.

>Book Review: To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal


Little Brown, 2011
I couldn’t put it down. Seriously. I’ve never resorted to that cliché before, I don’t think, but in this case it’s true. I’m traveling abroad right now and brought the book with me. I began it on the plane, continued reading in the airport lounge during a layover, and kept at it in my French hotel despite being seriously exhausted. But I needed to know what became of these people, Judith and Willy.
The book begins with a brief, unnecessary prologue. But after that it’s flawless. Judith Toomey Whitman, a film editor in L.A., finds that her life has “swerved” for no reason that she can identify. But it’s not that hard to understand, really: she’s forced to get rid of something that’s meaningful to her, and the act of doing so brings back intense memories of her teenage years and her first love, Willy Blunt. Because her marriage of long standing seems to have hit a rough spot, she’s vulnerable to the feelings that these memories resurrect, and so it’s also not surprising that she embarks on a quest to find out what happened to Willy. From a novelist’s point of view, the cause of Judith’s “swerve” is the same catalyst that sets this book in motion, and keeps the plot stirring for over 400 pages.
Although a compelling read, it’s quiet and lyrical. It’s also one for which place is enormously important. While Judith now lives in L.A., as a girl she lived with her father in a small town in Nebraska, and Willy, who was her first boyfriend, introduced her to that landscape in a way her father could not. When she left Willy and moved to California for college, she’s abandoned this landscape and gotten as far away from it as possible. But because of the feelings for the land that Willy instilled in her, it’s inevitable that she returns. (Perhaps that Prologue is there for that reason–to give the reader a glimpse of that return.)
Structurally, the book is complex. In the first paragraph we learn that Judith has survived this “swerve” that her life has taken, so there is the sense that the narrator is looking back at the events of the novel with a little distance. But Judith herself is reliving the events of her teenage years, and the narrative shifts back and forth between the present and the past in Part One, settles entirely into the past for Part Two, and jumps to the convergence of past and present for Part Three. The characters are wonderfully complex, as well. Judith, who in her work enjoys the subtle manipulation of time that is possible in film, also views her own life as a movie, and identifies as she’s living it scenes that will comprise her movie. She’s smart, but she’s not a great mother to her daughter Camille, probably because her own mother wasn’t part of her teen years. And when her life “swerves,” her work declines, and so does her home life. Willy is flawed, too. We see him mostly as a teenager, one who is diligent and honest, with great imagination and romantic flair, but with a temper and limited ambition, at least until he understands the seriousness of his relationship with Judith. There are other great characters in the book, too, although we don’t see any others in such depth. Judith’s father, a college professor, is charming, but harbors secrets. Her mother, as she ages, seems to regress, abandoning inhibitions in a way that Judith finds embarrassing. Malcolm, Judith’s husband, isn’t quite as well-rounded as the others, but he, too, can be charming, and incredibly patient.
One other aspect of the book that’s notable is its heavy use of allusion to literature, film, and song. Judith, the daughter of a literature teacher, has read a great deal, and the heroines of many of the books she’s read present themselves to her as life lessons. Of course Judith is in the movie business, and as a girl living with her father saw many movies with him. And songs—one particular song that is a mystery for most of the book—also play an important role, even contributing the book’s title.
In the end, the reader has the sense that Judith has it all wrong about her life’s “swerve.” That really happened years ago when she left Willy behind to go to Stanford, a place where he had no chance of fitting in—that’s when the movie of her life went off the rails. And what keeps the reader going is the hope that the latest “swerve” is going to bring her back to Nebraska and Willy.
Read this one. I’m sure you’ll like it. I’m now a Tom McNeal fan and will be looking for his other novels.

>Review of Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks


Lost Memory of Skin
Russell Banks
Ecco, September 27, 2011
As difficult as it is to have sympathy for this novel’s main character—the Kid is a porn addict and convicted sex offender—it isn’t at all difficult to become thoroughly caught up in the memorable story that revolves around him. After all, there’s talk of pirates and buried treasure, there’s a hurricane, there’s a secret agent (or double agent), and there’s an adventure in a Florida swamp. What’s not to like? Along the way, there’s a discourse on knowledge and truth, on believing and knowing, and on the reinvention of self.
As with Banks’s previous work, this book takes some inspiration from another great work of literature. The Rule of the Bone borrowed from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Cloudsplitter bears some resemblance to Moby Dick. Banks had Shakespeare’s The Tempest in mind for The Darling. And here there are numerous echoes of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, including a less-than-admirable protagonist, a drowned father-figure, life on a river, and the ultimate determination to make a go of an independent, better life.
Let’s get the crime over with first. The Kid—whose problems all seem to stem from having a lousy mother, naturally—was convicted of soliciting sex with a minor. He didn’t actually have sex with her, but he certainly had reason to know she was only 14, and he certainly intended to commit the act (having arrived at her home with condoms, lube, and a porn DVD). There’s no attempt either on Banks’s part or the Kid’s to defend his conviction as entrapment or a legal mistake, and the Kid knows that what he did was stupid. As a result of the conviction, after serving time in jail, he’s on parole for 10 years, wearing an ankle-trace, and must stay away from children and any place where children might congregate. Which in the Florida county where he lives, because of the distribution of schools and parks, means one of only three places: at the airport, in the swamp, or under the Causeway. So he’s living in a tent under the Causeway with a bunch of other sex offenders, along with the Kid’s pet iguana, Iggy, in a settlement of homeless sex offenders. A police raid of the camp sets all the residents in motion, including the Kid.
At about the same time, the Kid meets “the Professor,” another extraordinary character who isn’t exactly likeable. He’s huge—tall, morbidly obese, bearded—and is a sociologist who studies homelessness. While the Kid’s story is fairly straightforward, albeit repulsive, the Professor’s is more convoluted. He is a certified genius who may or may not have deep dark secrets—he recalls a time when he was a government informant planted in student radical groups—and the reader, like the Kid, spends most of the book wondering what his motives might be for helping the Kid out.
While the Kid is too simple to lie, at least for very long (late in the book he admits that he’s glad the truth has come out about him because he has a hard time keeping track of the lies), the Professor is as unreliable as they come. He says he is who he says he is—now—but at the same time he reveals his undercover and deceptive past to the Kid, a confession that puts in doubt everything he claims to be true. In the end, the Kid concludes that the truth isn’t as important as what you choose to believe.
Amusingly, he reaches this conclusion with the help of a late-arriving character called the Writer. At that moment, the Kid is living on a houseboat in the swamp, but when he sees the Writer in the local store he realizes the man looks like someone he recognizes: “Now that the Kid notices him he thinks the guy looks like the famous writer Ernest Hemingway whose books the Kid has never read of course but he’s seen his picture in magazines and on TV even though he’s pretty sure the writer’s been dead for a long time.” What’s amusing about this is that Banks himself bears a resemblance to Hemingway, and so it’s not hard to imagine that he’s written himself into the end of the book as a way of bringing the story to its close.
The book is also, in some sense, about lost innocence. Despite his felony conviction, the Kid is technically a virgin. Early in the book he acquires a Bible, which he begins reading for lack of anything to take its place, and learns again the story of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, and the snake. At the book’s end, he’s been to the garden—the swamp—and he’s seen the snake—an enormous Burmese python. And it’s not someplace he wants to stay.
While Lost Memory of Skin won’t appeal to some readers because of its subject matter, it’s a solid, compelling novel that is every bit as morally complex as Banks’s previous books, including Cloudsplitter, the deeply conflicted story of the abolitionist John Brown. And it is because of the subject matter, and the remarkable characters Banks has created, that this book might be his most memorable.

>Book Review: Eddie’s War, by Carol Fisher Saller


What a pleasure this was to read! Eddie’s War is aimed at young readers (age 10 and up), and so it doesn’t offer all the complexities of plot, language, and character that books for adults often have, but that doesn’t diminish the pleasurable experience of reading about charming young Eddie and the tribulations of growing up in Ellisville, Illinois on the eve of World War II.
Eddie is the younger son of Wynton and May Carl, who live on a farm in Central Illinois not far from the farm of Wynton’s parents. A smart boy, Eddie begins reading the newspapers in the town library and befriends Jozef Mirga, an older man who is looking for news about his home town in Poland. Soon Eddie is following closely the events in Europe and learns about the Nazis and their conquests. He is outraged, and advocates for America’s entry into the war: “Why shouldn’t we fight? We help our neighbors—it’s the same, right?” Others aren’t so sure, and wonder if the risk is worth it.
But when Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, the doubt is gone, and local boys volunteer to fight, including Thomas, Eddie’s older brother. Saller portrays Thomas as a nearly ideal older brother, and Eddie’s love and admiration are demonstrated in his letters and also in his fears for Thomas’s safety, heightened when another local boy is killed at Normandy. The war has other impacts in Ellisville, too. Eddie’s budding romance with Sarah Mulberry is disrupted when he sees her kissing Private Deylon Reevy as he’s about to ship out. And Jozef Mirga—a gypsy whose family in Poland is at risk—comes under suspicion when there is a mysterious fire.
These aren’t the only challenges Eddie has to deal with—he stumbles upon a family secret, for example, that helps him understand his father and grandfather’s relationship—and Saller has done a masterful job of weaving all of these threads into a remarkable tapestry.
The book is told in a series of very short stories written in verse, each with its own title and date, many of which could stand alone, but also fit seamlessly into the whole. And while the book is definitely fiction, Saller discloses on her website that many of the short stories were inspired by her own father’s diary from that era, and from letters that he wrote to his older brother at war.
A great deal of this book’s warmth derives from the character of Eddie himself. He’s a good kid—respectful to his elders, kind to old Jozef, a lover of animals (except snakes)—and his sensibilities and good instincts evolve over the course of the book. Early on he has a conversation with his brother’s friend Gabe: “I read about this guy over t’ Henry County, busted a killer out of jail, hung him from a tree.” Eddie doesn’t understand the fuss, since the killer would have been hanged anyway, but Gabe teaches him about justice and the rule of law, a lesson that stays with Eddie when old Jozef is arrested.
This is a great young people’s book that all of us can enjoy.

>Book Review: The Moral Lives of Animals, by Dale Peterson


The Moral Lives of Animals

Bloomsbury Press (2011)
Having read some recent animal behavior books (such as Temple Grandin’s Animals Make Us Human), I expected this one to be something like those. And it is, in a way, but it’s far more, because the author, Dale Peterson, clearly has in mind homo sapiens as one of the animals he’s talking about. Furthermore, while he’s exploring particular aspects of moral behavior in humans and other large mammals, he really seems to be aiming toward a moral conclusion that mostly applies only to humans.
Because whales are the subject of some of Peterson’s observations, it’s appropriate that he uses the great novel Moby Dick as something of a guide through his subject. He even presents quotations from the book as epigrams to each chapter. (My favorite of these might be the one he uses for the Authority chapter: “Whales in the sea God’s voice obey.”) Of course, Ahab and the other characters from the novel—although they are fictional—provide additional fodder for the discussion of human moral principles.
The book is organized into four parts, each answering a question about morality: Where Does Morality Come From? (In which we learn that there are two kinds of morality—rules and attachments.) What Is Morality? (The Rules.) What is Morality? (The Attachments.) Where is Morality Going?
He begins by noting the linguistic differences in how animals and humans are referred to, and relating that to different ways of viewing animals. The First Way, he suggests, is that “animal minds [are] intelligent entities constructed in humanoid form. The Second Way, which he attributes to Descartes, is that animals have no reason and are essentially “machines made by nature. But there’s a Third Way, associated with Charles Darwin, which follows from the shared evolutionary history among many species, which he believed extended to a mental continuity and even something approaching morality in animals other than humans.
He then proceeds to examine what the moral rules are—for animals as well as humans—when considering Authority, Violence, Sex, Possession, and Communication, followed by the moral attachments—Cooperation, Kindness, Duality, Flexibility, and Peace. In each case, in addition to understanding where the concepts come from for humans, Peterson gives numerous examples of studies of various “intelligent” animals such as whales, elephants, and chimps, as well as anecdotes about the behavior of his own dogs. We learn, then, about authority hierarchies among various animals, particularly violent behavior and its consequences, rules associated with sex and ownership, and the means of communication. We also learn that some species exhibit cooperation and kindness.
Near the end of the book, Peterson explores duality—the differences, or arguable differences, between males and females, between primary references to rules-based morality or attachments-based morality. Differences take many forms, too. Male and female elephants communicate differently, for example. There is a vast size difference between male and female elephants, also, and an even bigger difference between male and female whales. (And yet female spotted hyenas are larger than the males.) These differences contribute to different behaviors. On a related subject, Peterson explores flexibility, and one fascinating study is the evolutionary differences between chimpanzees and bonobos. These apes were the same species 2.5 Million years ago, but for reasons that we don’t know two groups became geographically separated and had limited interaction thereafter. Consequently, their evolutionary paths diverged. One of the differences that arose is that while the chimps remained patriarchal, bonobos developed into mostly matriarchal groups, and that seems to explain a number of behavioral differences between these two closely related species today.
The final chapter of the book takes the story in a surprising direction. It isn’t at this point about the behavior of whales and elephants, but about the war that humans have been carrying out against animals for some time, with the result that most mammals of North America larger than 90 lbs.—about 40 species—became extinct in the late Pleistocene epoch (at the time humans emerged). The same was true in South America and Australia. Elephants fared better because human populations in Africa and Southern Asia were relatively low, but that relative safety came to an end when humans acquired rifles. In the last 30 years alone, the world elephant population has been cut in half.
Peterson imagines human contact with life forms from other planets, which, given the vast numbers of such planets, is increasingly likely. But he’s not optimistic about the results. “If we reached them before they reached us, we would do so probably because we’re technologically more advanced than they. If that’s the case, what indicates that we’ll treat them any differently from the way we’ve treated every other creature with sentience already here on this planet. . . And if the extraterrestrials should reach us first because they’re technologically more advanced than we, what in our experience suggests that their high intelligence and great technology would be accompanied by great wisdom and kindness or would automatically promote high sympathy for another species?” And so, he suggests, “the best hope we have is to demonstrate with our own example that, given time, we can achieve a greater wisdom about ourselves and our relationship with the rest of the natural world down here, on this planet.”
That’s the Peace he’s talking about. It’s a somewhat surprising direction for the book to have taken, but I believe that’s basically the author’s point. And while he doesn’t posit an inter-species golden rule, that’s the basic lesson I take from the book: Do unto other species as you would have other species do unto us.   

>Review of Shanghai Dancing by Brian Castro


Shanghai Dancing by Brian Castro
Kaya Press, 2009

As lyrical as a book can get, this one will be a tough read for some. The beautiful prose is dense and hard to follow in places, and the meandering plot sometimes seems to get lost—or to lose the reader. But perseverance is rewarded.
In its scope, the book reminds me of a The Book of Fathers, the Miklós Vámos book I reviewed here last year.  Both books are family sagas that sprawl over a few centuries. But while Vámos’s story is chronological and more or less straightforward, this one jumps around in time and is anything but straightforward.
The focus is on António Castro, the child of Jasmine Wing, third wife of Arnaldo Castro. The family is a mix of Chinese, English, and Portuguese, and the story takes place primarily in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macau, with detours to Brazil, Japan, Australia, and England.
Even the point of view of this book is complicated. It seems to begin in second person (which is really first person, since there can only be a “you” if there is first an “I”): “Winter had descended on Shanghai. There was no real hope of finding tomatoes. You went looking anyway. It was a cure of sorts. No, not the tomatoes, but the search.” And then the “I” does reveal itself—he’s the current generation of the family, looking to solve some family mysteries.
We learn that the narrator was born in Shanghai, but: “It wasn’t long before I was sent away. I survived forty years in Australia. My mind was never right. Time went by. Then I got the urge to return to China. To those rising and falling cities, now and then uncovered by the tide of memory. To pursue the emptiness of things disappearing all around.” And so he’s back in Shanghai on a journey of exploration, beginning by trying to track his father down. (I loved this section, as I’ve spent some time in Shanghai and have been in the Peace Hotel, where the narrator stays.) He also meets Carmen Wu, who will feature throughout. Through old photographs—reproduced in the book—the narrator explores the pre-war Shanghai of his father.
Then he’s in Hong Kong, where his father moved after the war. (I loved this part, too. He stays in Chungking Mansion, which is the dump on Nathan Road I stayed in as a backpacking tourist in 1978.) And so he explores the exploits of his father and his mother’s brothers, one of whom as become a wealthy real estate and shipping tycoon. There he meets a cousin, Cindy Ling, born after he was sent to Australia.
After an interesting detour in which the reader learns the story of his grandmother’s arrival in China from England and he contemplates travel to England in order to learn more about her, there is a curious switch back into second person. In one paragraph we’re in first (“What had happened in China would have to be pieced together, and I would begin at the Liverpool YMCA . . .”) and after a space break we’re in second for the journey to England: “Now you know why you found it so easy as well, travelling light without knitted brows and chafing hands . . . You think more about her in that Shanghai winter . . . You sit on your grandmother’s heavily bandaged knees.” But upon arrival, we shift back: “At Heathrow they asked my name . . .”
This switch isn’t just a mistake, obviously. The author clearly had a reason. Is there a sense that the narrator is, in a way, a split personality? That he feels disconnected from his grandmother? Clearly the distance in time—it’s been at least 40 years—suggests this is the case. But there seems to be more at work here. This narrator isn’t sure who he is, or he isn’t sure who anyone is, really. And so it isn’t surprising that he occasionally steps outside of himself (this about his grandmother isn’t the last time the shift into second person happens). It’s an intriguing technique.
He returns to Hong Kong and accumulates more information about the family—connections to Macau Triads, to the Nagasaki Martyrs of the 17th Century, to secret children, to stashes of inexplicable Chinese calligraphy that might or might not hold the key . . .
It gets more and more complicated and leads to a thrilling climax. Quite a book. It’s a fascinating, imaginative retelling of the history of Southern China, filled with characters who are both unfamiliar and unforgettable. I’m looking for more books by Brian Castro.

>Book Review: A Dog Named Slugger by Leigh Brill


A Dog Named Slugger
Leigh Brill
Bell Bridge Books, 2010
I suppose I’ve always been curious about service dogs. From an early age I was aware of seeing-eye dogs, the animals that help guide the blind. They’ve been around since at least the mid-16th Century (according to Wikipedia), but the use of service dogs by people with other disabilities is a relatively new phenomenon. No doubt because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which ensures access to public places by people with disabilities and explicitly protects the right of access with service animals, they’ve become much more common.
So I see them from time to time, but didn’t know much about them. As a dog lover, I welcomed the opportunity to take a look at Leigh Brill’s 2010 book, A Dog Named Slugger, about her long partnership with her service dog. It’s a charming story and answered many of the questions I had about the dogs—how do they behave when they’re “off duty”; what’s proper etiquette for a stranger’s interaction with the dogs; how often do people with disabilities encounter access problems with their dogs. The book is also written in plain language that will appeal to readers of all ages.
Leigh Brill has congenital cerebral palsy. Growing up, she tried to hide her condition and was embarrassed by it. But as she grew older and became more independent—going to college, working—hiding it was no longer an option. One day she met someone on her college campus who had a service dog, and that meeting changed her life. It wasn’t long before she applied to get one of her own and that led her to Slugger, a young yellow lab who had undergone service dog training. They were a perfect match and clicked almost immediately. Slugger could do things that I can’t imagine my own lab doing (because he hasn’t been properly trained): closing doors, turning lights on and off, retrieving dropped items, barking on command to call for help, sticking close by to provide support when his partner is walking, and much more.
Over the years, Brill and Slugger worked closely together, even as their lives changed. Brill, who has a Masters degree, began working in a community mental health center and also got married. Eventually she moved to a new home and a new job in a new city. But Slugger stayed with her through it all. The two of them frequently visited schools and gave demonstrations of how they interacted and what Slugger did to help Brill deal with her limitations.
One of the messages of the books is that a service dog is a working dog, but he’s also a dog. When his work clothes come off (he wears a harness and pack for carrying things), he’s off duty and just a dog. He likes to play and fetch and do all the things that dogs normally like to do. But when the uniform goes on, he’s all business and his concentration is focused on the needs of his partner.
If you happen to be a dog lover, you’ll probably get emotional, as I did, toward the end of the book when Slugger is helping to train his successor, Kenda, and is allowed to retire. Although the moment when Brill has to say goodbye to Slugger is heart-wrenching, we know that they both lived enriched lives thanks to their partnership.
This is a very fast read, recommended for young readers and adults, especially dog lovers and those curious about what life with a service dog would be like.
The author’s website is .