Heaven’s Prisoners (Burke)

It’s always nice to visit Louisiana and Burke has an eye, ear, and taste for detail. And the mystery is nicely complicated by the fact that our hero, Dave Robicheaux, works where he grew up. Relationships are complicated. But strip away those pieces, and there’s not much here that’s new or even that interesting. Robicheaux is a Vietnam Vet with an alcohol problem and a dead father. He works best when he works alone. Women, African-Americans, and even children are props here. A child, so important at the beginning, is used for convenience and ignored otherwise. The women love him. He’s tough, quick with a one-liner, and underneath it all, has a heart of gold. He’s a rogue cop but gets away with it because of his charm.

I like the messiness of the story – plot lines (that are often the more interesting ones) are opened and not closed. But mostly this story is atmosphere. I’ll return to Burke when I need another trip to Louisiana.


The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq (Blasin, trans. by Wright)

It is good that there is literature from Iraq that is being translated into English. It will humanize the place for those of us in the United States, allow us to discover it in a way that the news does not. A similar thing happened when the vastly overrated The Kite Runner came out. It’s not, particularly in the end, an especially good book. Its popularity, I think, reflected more of our need to understand the people and place in greater depth than what we were reading and seeing in the headlines.

Blasin’s first few stories did not work for me. They seemed like they were influenced by Quentin Tarantino – absurd violence for its own sake, even for comic effect. I was hooked by the fourth story, “An Army Newspaper.” It is here that Blasin moves into the somewhat surreal. “The Hole” is wonderful as is “The Madman of Freedom Square,” but it is “The Iraqi Christ,” even with the burden of that title, that is the absolute knock-out blow.

The U.S. is everywhere here and nowhere. War is always a character, but rarely a central one, and I think that works for Blasin.

I look forward to what comes from Blasin or from Iraq next.

Light Years (Salter)

What an astonishing, thoughtful, sad and sensual book.

I know Salter, from his collection, Dusk & Other Stories, as a master of sentences. They are here as well. But given the longer form of a novel, Salter shows himself to be a master of characterization as well. Though not completely and perhaps far from sympathetic, we are invited into the lives of a somewhat self-absorbed and privileged couple as they move through their years, together and apart. There is wisdom here, about marriage, about parenting and about growing old. At first I would stop intermittently to note a sparkling sentence or something I found true, but eventually I just held onto the pencil full-time.

There are two’s a-plenty here. Two protagonists who each live two lives while they are married and while (sorry, a bit of a spoiler here, though not a surprise) they are apart. There are two daughters, two continents, the city and the country, etc.. Viri and Nedra live a life divided. They both agree that “[t]here are really two kinds of life. There is. . .the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see” (24). But it is not about happiness for happiness is elusive and Nedra, the female protagonist, ultimately scoffs at the notion; instead, she wants to be free, which she describes as a kind of “self-conquest” (264). She studies life. She collects. She reads biographies of great lives. Speaking of her and these biographies (in the case, one of Kandinsky), Salter offers: “The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?” (161). Ultimately, time passes. “Life,” she realizes, “divides itself with scars like the rings contained within a tree. How close together the early ones seem, time compacts them, twenty years become indistinguishable, one from another” (170). [Note, here and in other excerpts, the use of commas, the absence of conjunctions.] She becomes tired of two-ness. She tells a friend, “I’m tired of looking on both sides of things” (171). Nedra sums herself up when she says, “The only thing I’m afraid of are the words ‘ordinary life'” (174). She gets old and realizes that “[t]he story continues, but we’re no longer the main characters” (245). Both she and Viri equate being known with a recognition of their existence. They are both selfish, and Viri learns this. He realizes that “[w]e  preserve ourselves as if that were important, and always at the expense of others. We hoard ourselves. We succeed if they fail, we are wise if they are foolish, and we go onward, clutching, until there is no one – we are left with no companion save God. In whom we don’t believe. Who we know does not exist” (296). He gets old as well. They both “live too long” (299), but not as long as the trees (303):

In the turning of seasons they would be green again, these great trees. Their dead branches would be snapped away, their limbs would quicken and fill. They would again, in addition to their beauty, to the roof they made beneath the sky, to their whispering, their slow, inarticulate sounds, the riches they poured down, they would, besides all this, give scale to everything, a true scale, reassuring, wise. We do not live as long, we do not know as much.

“Silence is,” Salter writes, “mysterious, but stories fill us like the sun. They are fragments in which reflections lie like broken pieces; collect them and a greater shape begins to form, the story of stories appears” (65-66). This describes Salter’s writing as well. This story is broken, which is not to say modern, but the perspectives, places and even the verb tenses shift. And together they make the story of stories. And this story, “[i]t happens in an instant. It is all one long day, one endless afternoon, friends leave, we stand on the shore” (308).

A great, great book. Well-written and wise. Up there with one of my favorites, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.



The Songs of the Kings (Unsworth)

This retelling of the Iphigeneia in Aulis myth is remarkable. Unsworth unpacks the operatic plot of the story and makes it human. Here are familiar names – Odysseus, Achilles, Agamemnon, etc. – but here they fully human. They have motives, flaws and humor. Consequently, there are no heroes here; nor are there any innocents. I can’t say much about the plot without becoming entangled in spoilers, but Unsworth, as he always does, brought me completely into the world that was at times both familiar and frightening.

He succeeds on another level here with such precision that I was compelled to check the publication date (2003). This is, I think, the most political of the Unsworth novels I’ve encountered. A weak leader, interested in pomp and circumstance, is manipulated by those around him whose interests are far from political or patriotic; they are, instead, financial. It is, in this story that may also be considered a parable, about who tells the better story (here represented by The Singer). In case it’s not clear yet, I think Unsworth returned to one of the oldest myths in order to comment on the myth makers who created a story in order to start the Second Gulf War. A loose coalition of the self-interested lets slip the dogs of war and much blood ensues. And, like Calchas the diviner, we should have seen it coming.

Historical, current, and true. Another great Unsworth novel.

Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets (Pilkey)

The American Library Association just released their list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books for 2013 (http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10#2013) and, once again, the Captain Underpants series topped the list. So, between that ranking and the fact that our son loves them, I had to read one.

Aside from the grouchy old me wanting Pilkey to spell things right, I thought the book was fine. I laughed out loud once and grinned a few times. The illustrations are great, and I like the idea of an Invention Convention.

Most importantly, children read them. And re-read them.

The Empathy Exams (Jamison)

Mary Karr, no stranger to excellent non-fiction writing herself, has a blurb on the cover on this collection of essays. She says, “This riveting book will make you a better human.” She’s right on both counts. As a book of essays, as any kind of essays, it is remarkably riveting. I was absolutely hooked. And it will go high up on the list of books that have changed the way I see the world which will, I hope, make me a better person.

The notion of empathy is an elusive one, so Jamison is wise to start “The Empathy Exams.” For $13.50 an hour, Jamison volunteers to be a mock patient in order to evaluate the empathy of prospective doctors. Item #31 on her evaluation asks her to what extent the doctor-in-training “voiced empathy for my situation / problem” (5). This allows Jamison to set the terms for her collection. What is empathy? And what is it that we empathize with?

The essays are consistently excellent and, well, riveting. Jamison weaves strands of stories (including her own) together in order to explore the meaning of pain and empathy in the world. After a first reading, I think “Pain Tours (II)” is my favorite. In it, Jamison starts with the life (and pain) of Frida Kahlo to explore the role of observers like Joan Didion and herself. And she realizes (154):

Irony is easier than hopeless silence but braver than flight. The problem is that sometimes your finger shakes as you gesture, there is no point to point to, and maybe you can’t point anywhere – or at least not at anything visible.

Reflecting on her time in Bolivia, Jamison offers this (155):

I look back at my notes: canned salad and powdered pumpkins. I have trouble remembering the point. Metonymy shrugs its shoulders. So does metaphor. The white space between details overwhelms whatever significance they were supposed to bear, whatever pleasure they were meant to provide.

In her final essay, a brilliant and necessary manifesto, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Jamison asks (191):

How much do we choose to feel anything? The answer, I think, is nothing satisfying – we do, and we don’t. But hating on cutters insists desperately upon our capacity for choice. People want to believe in self-improvement – it’s an American ethos, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps – and here we have the equivalent of affective downward mobility: cutting as a failure to feel better, as deliberately going on a kind of sympathetic welfare – taking some shortcut to the street creed of pain without actually feeling it.

Before you get lost in the surgical and provocative insights, note the writing – not a wasted or wrongly chosen word. These essays are compact.

I’m not sure I’ve done this book justice. Perhaps I’ll come back and edit this. I’ve noticed that I want to hold on to this book, to keep it close to me. I will share some of the essays with my students in order to return to them myself. There’s an urgency about this book. It’s the kind of guide we need that will never be found in the self-help section. To live up to it would be to live completely. I can only hope.

Bad Kitty Gets a Bath (Bruel)

When I saw my son reading and re-reading and re-reading this book and then he turned his bookshelves into a library, I figured I should, literally and figuratively, check this one out.

What an odd little book. There’s very little story. It’s more of a funny how-to book, in this case, how to give a cat a bath. I’m not sure what fascinates our son quite so much, but he’s reading, so I’m happy.

The artwork is great, too.


“Very funny.” ~ Zoë