Sunday, September 26, 2010

Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell by Ellen Douglas

Ellen Douglas wrote eight novels when she published this memoir in 1998. As the dust jacket says, “Douglas is the pseudonym for Josephine Haxton, whose family roots extend back to the earliest days in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. These four tales describe her search for details of her ancestors. Sometimes she meets with talkative relatives who surprise her with some interesting information. Others stonewall her search, because she used the information from previous interviews in her novels and changed some important details.

This work should interest those who enjoy the historical aspects of fiction. Douglas talks about how she could use some people and incidents from her investigation in her next novel. Her meticulous search of records and memories of her family – and those who knew her family – adds a lot of weight to these tales. She readily admits when she will have to fill in gaps.

The most interesting of the four stories – “Julia and Nellie” – tells the history of her paternal grandmother, Nellie, and her friend, Julia, and a cousin, Dunbar (Dunny). Her prose has a soft and gentle quality – musical, enchanting, and absorbing. “I am sure now that I remember my grandmother and Julia—and Dunny, too—on the gallery at The Forest on a long, hot summer afternoon. I recall an embrace and then the two women in intimate, quiet conversation. I hear their soft voices, Julia’s pitched a shade lower than my grandmother’s, the voices, it seems to me now, of ghosts, alive only in my head and only for the time left to me to remember them. I remember the call and response of those voices as I might remember music—the oboe making room for the flute and then meditatively answering—and, like oboe and flute, they speak with deep emotion, but wordlessly.” (81)

One incident in particular eluded her best efforts to uncover details. In 1861, an unknown number of slaves were tortured and whipped, and some were executed, because of a plot to kill slave owners as soon as “Mr. Lincoln and his army” came to Mississippi. Several “gentlemen of the county” served as judges, jury, and executioners. No newspapers reported the event, no record of any burials exist. The only evidence Douglas uncovered involved lists of slaves “interviewed” about the plot.

I most definitely need to track down some of those novels. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 9/26/10

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Chef by Jaspreet Singh

Confusion best explains my feelings about this novel. Chef tells the story of Kip, a retired soldier in the Indian army, who served as a chef for General Kumar, a hero of the Wars between India and Pakistan. Kip is the son of a military hero, and Kumar named him as an apprentice cook to fast-track him to a military career as an officer. At first he learns from the General’s cook, Chef Kishen, but after Kishen’s suicide, he takes over General Kumar’s kitchen. Most of the story involves flashbacks. The novel opens fourteen years after Kip leaves the army. He recounts his memories as he travels by train to prepare a wedding feast for the daughter of General Kumar.

Food plays an integral role in this story – Jaspreet compares almost everything to ingredients, recipes, and dishes. Kishen and Kip find particular delight in adapting Indian, Pakistani, and foreign dishes to the tastes of Kumar and his staff. Jaspreet writes, “Most important things in our lives, like recipes, cannot be shared. They remain within us with a dash of this and a whiff of that and trouble our bones” (4). This pretty much sums up the novel, since Kip – and most of the characters -- carry secrets all over the map of the disputed territory of Kashmir.

It has always been my custom to circle words I do not know when I am reading. Then, when I come to a stopping point, I look them up and write the definition in the margin. I started doing this in Chef on the first page, but after a dozen pages or so, I gave this up.

If this novel has a flaw – one common among many “ethnic” novels – it is because of many, many terms completely unfamiliar to me. I could only work out a few from the context. I gathered most were ingredients and dishes peculiar to the Indian sub-continent and the area of the Kashmir/Pakistan border. Other than that, I had no idea how those ingredients fit into the story.

If I decide to read this novel again, I think I will try and find a dictionary of food for the Indian Sub-continent. (4 stars?)

--Chiron, 9/20/10

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Blind Descent by James M. Tabor

I heard about this book on NPR, and it sounded like another Wild Trees by Robert Preston (see my review here), but it did have a few differences. Tabor has an interesting subject about a place and activity I could never hope or want to experience. With my fear of heights and tight spaces, extreme cave diving and giant redwood climbing are definitely not for me.

Blind Descent tells the story of two teams of cave explorers searching for the deepest cave on earth. Tabor reminds us that the tallest mountains, both poles, and the deepest depths of the ocean have been explored, while the subterranean world presents an “eighth continent,” which remains virtually unexamined. He compares “cave divers” to all these great adventurers – Scott, Amundsen, Neil Armstrong, Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay.

The American team, led by Bill Stone, explores Cheve Cave in Mexico, while a Russian team, led by Alexander Klimchouk, tackles Krubera on the Arabika Mastiff in Georgia, the former Soviet Republic. These two men have diametrically opposite personalities, and both teams believe their respective caves are the deepest. The story starts slowly – spending a bit too many pages on the personality and relationships of Bill Stone, to my mind – but it does pick up once we get past all the quirks of the two team leaders.

These men and women face incredible obstacles – raging waters, strange microbes, falling rocks, water-filled “sumps” (flooded tunnels), and darkness for weeks at a time. Also, even minor injuries often prove fatal, because it might take days to return to the cave entrance. Furthermore, these two caves were in remote areas, so help was not nearby. Even if a rescue could be attempted, stretchers carrying injured cavers often don’t fit through small spaces and cracks in the cave walls.

James Tabor is not Robert Preston, who has experience writing for The New Yorker. This interesting story could benefit from some detailed drawings of some of the equipment they used to descend into these “super caves.” Preston supplies a few drawings of the giant trees.

The idea of climbing mountains and diving these dangerous caves might appeal to some – but most definitely not me. The great mountaineer George Leigh Mallory said he climbed, “Because it’s there.” He attempted to scale Mt. Everest three times, and may or may not have reached the summit in 1924. He never came back from that attempt. I do not understand this sentiment, but thanks to Preston and Tabor, readers – even timid ones like me! -- can vicariously experience these great adventures. (4-1/2 stars)

--Chiron, 9/17/10

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

Some of the best fiction published these days comes from smaller presses. Although Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill is a subsidiary of Workman Publishing, it still seems like a small press to me. Their cutting edge fiction, with its thrills and surprises, is most definitely difficult to put down. Amazing arrays of interesting characters, together with masterful prose, have become hallmarks of Algonquin.

In The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Heidi W. Durrow has continued the Algonquin tradition of fine fiction with a mesmerizing story, dream-like at times, and made from equal parts of recollection and repression of horrific events. She has created a wonderful cast of intriguing and well-rounded characters. Each chapter is like a piece in the puzzle. Slowly, the reader makes the outline of the picture, and bit by bit, fills in all the blank spaces.

This novel won the Bellwether Prize. Barbara Kingsolver, who founded the Bellwether Prize for fiction in support of social change, writes on the website, “Fiction has a unique capacity to bring difficult issues to a broad readership on a personal level, creating empathy in a reader’s heart for the theoretical stranger. Its capacity for invoking moral and social responsibility is enormous. Throughout history, every movement toward a more peaceful and humane world has begun with those who imagined the possibilities. The Bellwether Prize seeks to support the imagination of humane possibilities.” Durrow richly deserves The Bellwether Prize.

Rachel’s mother, Mor, is a blue-eyed, blonde Danish woman, who met and married her father, Roger, a Black American soldier while he was stationed in Germany. Shortly after a divorce, Mor’s death occurs, and Rachel finds herself caught between two worlds. She leaves Chicago to live with her paternal Grandmother, Doris, who wrenches Rachel from the white world of Mor into a traditional African-American world.

Girl revolves around Rachel’s attempt to adjust to the changes in her life. She runs into conflicts everywhere – black girls tease her because of her blue eyes; white children tease her because of her hair. But she has friends, especially Brick, who witnessed the “accident” which took Mor’s life. He guards this secret until he can tell Rachel. His story – along with Rachel’s repressed memories – finish the tapestry of this tragic tale.

Brick travels across the country to find Rachel. He finally meets up with her in Portland, Oregon, and they become friends before she knows his real identity and what he knows. Durrow writes,

For weeks Brick wondered how to approach Rachel – how to tell the story he’d promised to tell. He often joined her for lunch with Jesse. They would each get a slice of pizza or a sandwich at the deli and then eat in Pioneer Courthouse Square watching people go by.

Rachel never talked about herself. When Brick asked her where she lived in Chicago, she said she couldn’t remember. The way she shut off – her eyes went blank; her voice went low – he knew Chicago wasn’t a memory she visited often. He would have to find the right moment to tell her the story he’d promised Roger he’d share. (211)

This first novel is so stunning, I can’t wait for Durrow’s next work. Who said books and the novel are dead? As long as Algonquin Press continues to discover new writers and turn out fiction of this quality, readers will have plenty to occupy themselves during those quiet moments when curling up with a book is the only remedy for what ails a body and a mind. Five stars

--Chiron, 9/7/10

Monday, September 06, 2010

Lust, Violence, Religion: Life in Historic Waco Compiled by Bradley T. Turner

When I arrived in Waco in August of 1993, I had only vague notions about the city that would become my home. I knew it was the home of Baylor University.

Bradley Turner has assembled a collection of essays which fills gaps in my knowledge of the colorful, amusing, and sometimes disturbing history of a town that became the thriving city it is today. Whether someone has spent an entire life here, or merely arrived last month, Lust, Violence, Religion will shed light on the evolution of Waco.

Organized around events and social institutions from prostitution to the story of the circuit riding preachers and the establishment of religious denominations, the full gamut of life on the Brazos becomes vividly clear. While the essays are a bit uneven, several of them really stand out. Numerous interesting “then and now” photos of locations mentioned in the text add to my interest in the stories.

The second essay, “Waco Undressed,” relates the story of the “oldest profession” legalized in the late 19th century in Waco. The red-light district on Second Street, dubbed the “Reservation,” thrived until 1917. Threats from the Army to close the new military base, Camp MacArthur, caused the city to shut down the sex-trade. Meticulous research of city records showed these businesses provided a substantial amount of income for the city barely fifty years young.

The most startling essay concerns William Brann, the founder and publisher of a local paper known as The Iconoclast. He began a war of words with Baylor University, which divided the city into factions. When it turned violent, several people, including Brann, died in the conflict.

The history of Cameron Park reveals the generosity of the Cameron family, who donated this peaceful and beautiful Waco landmark. It also uncovers a terrible side of Waco’s history during the Jim Crow era. African-American citizens were barred from using the park despite the fact that the Cameron family “stipulated that the land be used exclusively as a public park for the ‘pleasure of the people’ of Waco.”

The final essay on protests against the War in Viet Nam provide interesting contrasts to my own college years in the late 60s. The photos and essay on the tornado of 1953 only begin to hint at what must have been a terror-filled 35 minutes. Newspaper articles and ads show how the community came together in the cleanup after the storm.

However, the most powerful – and horrific – stories of early Waco relate shameful lynchings and murders, especially that of Jesse Washington in 1916. Some disturbing photos may not be suitable for all readers, but those pictures graphically demonstrate the inhumanity engendered by racial prejudice. The fact that Jesse Washington proved to be innocent adds a bitter conclusion to the essay.

All in all, Lust, Violence, Religion: Life in Historic Waco provides a more than worthwhile history of the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly of early Waco. 4 stars

--Chiron, 9/03/10