The Denver Post YourHub publishes my book reviews approximately once a month.  Following are a few that have appeared; I change them from time to time.  My editor Steve shows great interest in the reviews and they are now longer and often include more personal comments, thanks to his encouragement.  My goal in writing the reviews is to encourage readers to go get the book and read it for themselves.

Life Drawing a Complex Picture of Love, Marriage

            In the history of literature, many if not most female fictional characters, especially main characters, are sympathetic and sweet.  But in Robin Black’s Life Drawing, Augusta Edelman is hardly the usual feminine, delicate female character.  She is a painter, her hair is a mess and her clothes are spotted with acryclics and oils –  and she is human – boy, is she human.

Gus loves Owen – but she is as realistic as she is intense.  “By forty, is there anyone who hasn’t had to recognize that happiness, as understood by youth, is illusory?”  But love they do, she and Owen.  And despite their iconoclastic views of the institution (and others), they have gotten married.  Owen is a writer and due to the bequest of an aunt, they are able to live in a charming farmhouse away from the city and its demands for social interactions.  They like their meals at home together and find comfort in occasional eight-hour car trips to visit Owen’s parents.

The couple’s idyllic pastoral solitude is broken when recently separated Allison moves into the vacant house on the adjoining property.  Wearing a dress and lipstick, she comes over to introduce herself.  Gus and Owen discover Allison is escaping an abusive marriage and has decided to leave teaching and focus on painting – she wants to see where it takes her.  Allison shows warmth and an almost intrusive kindness.  Soon, her college age daughter Nora comes to visit and immediately notices Owen, who is struggling with his writing.  Nora visits frequently and tells him she has read his previous work.  In one scene, she sits on the couple’s old couch which is located in Owen’s writing space of the barn and gives Owen the right kind of praise that can only boost his ego.  Hey, she’s young, beautiful, adoringly into him, what could go wrong?

Gus has had an affair, and even though it’s over and has been confessed, feels it has caused a more tentative tone in her marriage to Owen.  He has forgiven Gus but when he discovers she has been in email contact with the man, Owen becomes emotionally shaky and unsure.  This makes him even more vulnerable to attention from sweet young thing Nora.  Gus feels threatened.  So while she is dealing with a father suffering from Alzheimer’s, the death six years ago of a beloved sister and ugly, resurfacing guilt over her own straying, she faces the threat of this interloper and the churning upset that goes with it.

Allison defends Nora, saying she wants to be a writer and identifies with Owen who encourages her.  Owen swears “nothing happened” and emphasizes to Gus that he is writing better because of Nora’s attention.  None of that soothes Gus who eventually confronts Nora.

The words she uses are basic, profane, ugly but she’s trying to save her marriage, trying to get back to the rhythm of the couple-only footing she trusted.  When Allison’s ex-husband discovers her whereabouts and shows up, violence erupts and life as Gus knows it will never be the same.

In Life Drawing, Robin Black draws a today-savvy picture of marriage and develops a prickly yet totally sympathetic main character.  Most readers will be able to identify with and appreciate both.  Black’s style is sharp and focused, details are clear and pertinent and this helps create interest and suspense.  Timely is an adverb that describes this work of contemporary fiction.  It’s readability is obvious from the very first sentence.

Robin Black is the author of the award-winning “If I Loved You, I would Tell You This,” a short story collection.  Both books are from Random House.  Robin Black lives in Pennsylvania.

A Small Indiscretion Tells a Powerful Woman’s Story

Annie Black creates artistic lighting fixtures, unusual pieces that hang suspended over a dining room table or provide as much colorful creativity as light to a room.  She is married to Jonathan, a good man with a solid heart, and they live in the bay area of California with a son and two daughters.  Annie’s life may seem normal, almost hum-drum but as she tells the reader, “It’s not always wise to assume that just because the surface of the world appears undisturbed, life is where you left it.”

A young woman appears out of nowhere and comes to work for Annie.  Emme – pronounced as a single syllable, like the letter – has a bohemian personality and doesn’t want to discuss her life but she is interested in Annie’s life, especially son Robbie.  Annie isn’t quite sure what to make of it but she needs help in the store and she ignores her unease.

A white envelope arrives in the mail.  When Annie opens it, a photograph flutters onto the kitchen counter.  Annie is instantly transported back in time to a cold London winter when she was twenty, escaping a nowhere future in a bleak town “…that had not yet been connected to a sewer,” and took a job working for Malcolm Church who “had a strange way of talking, his head tucked into his neck and his eyes fixed in the empty space beyond as if something were suspended there, ripe fruit or a glimmer of light as if he were not quite brave enough, or perhaps too polite, to look a person in the eye.”

A framed photograph sits on Malcolm’s desk – Malcolm, his blond wife Louise and their small daughter Daisy, short for Marguerite.  The photo was taken by Patrick Ardghal with whom, as it turned out, Louise was having an affair.  Annie meets Patrick with “…his lean body and long legs and long, thin hands….narrow green eyes and dark, curly hair and marbled skin…full pink lips.”  When all four of them are thrown together in a number of social situations and Annie’s youth and “…sense of liberation and possibility” plus the intensity of sexual tensions lead to a complex intertwining of emotional and physical relationships that will have an effect on Annie’s life forever.

And twenty years later, the photo brings questions, questions that a trip back to London may help shed some light onto, questions that need some resolution.  Without too much difficulty, Annie locates Patrick. They spend time together, old passions must be explored and they fall into bed; Annie begins to unearth tiny details, incidents of timing, secrets of the past, of her youth – and of A Small Indiscretion.

Back home in California and grappling with marital issues, a jarring telephone calls tells Annie that her 20 year old son Robert Jonathan Gunnlaugsson –Robbie, home from Northwestern  – has been in a car accident and airlifted to the hospital south of San Francisco.  Robbie’s injuries are bad, so bad that Annie and Jonathan leave the little girls with her mother, tensely drive to the hospital and rent a room in a nearby motel; they want to spend every possible moment with their injured son.  But Robbie was supposed to be at home asleep –what beckoned him away from his cozy room, the safety of his family? There was a young woman in the car with Robbie – what happened to her?  Who was she really?  And just how long had she been in their lives?

Robbie’s injuries and his recovery and how the family handles it weigh on Annie’s heart – but they are not the only things on her mind.  As Robbie regains strength and Annie and Jonathan separate but still comfort each other and the little girls.  Annie tells the story, the story of those young days, of crossed wires, of lustful love and loss, with the tenderness of a mother, the understanding of a middle aged woman and, in an effort to save her marriage, a wife’s request for forgiveness of early explorations and transgressions.

“Has the memory been shaped by the waves of time, and by the history that has rushed against it since?  Of course it has.  What memories haven’t?”

A Small Indiscretion moves back and forth in time and is a woman’s journey of self-discovery and of identifying – and fighting for – what is most important in her life.   Oprah’s Bookclub 2.0 calls it “the literary equivalent of a day spa….just don’t underestimate the writing.”  The San Francisco Chronicle says, “The magic is accomplished so fast, so subtly that most readers hardly notice it.”

It is Jan Ellison’s first novel and soon be out in paperback.  It is available from Random House.  The author lives with her family in northern California.

Tumbledown is Built Up with Depth and Detail

              “I don’t actually like Mr. James Candler,” Karly said, making a pouty mouth and holding the expression while she took a bite of pizza.  Mick thinks Karly doesn’t like Mr. James Candler because he doesn’t flirt with her which is fine with Mick because he is in love with Karly.  But the truth is, Karly and Mick and the other young adults at the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Treatment Center don’t know their counselor, James Candler.  And the additional truth is that in the beginning of Tumbledown, he doesn’t know himself.

Candler drives a flashy sports car and lives in a huge house in prestigious Liberty Corners.  He has a fiancé who is soon returning from London and he’s about to be made director of the treatment center.  At the age of 33, he has the perfect life, right?  But there’s a scratchy feeling in Candler’s life.  And while he can help guide the troubled youth through discussion groups and open-ended questions, take them on field trips and handle their calls in the middle of the night, he has real trouble examining his own feelings.  For example, Candler and his Porsche get into a road rage incident causing the other car and driver to crash.  Instead of feeling guilt or a sense of involvement, he sails by the crash site, a smug look on his face, and cruises in to the parking lot at the center.

The young mental health clients work in a factory setting where they earn money by folding boxes into odd shapes, depending on the contents.  Karly, Mick, Alonso and Maura are joined by Vex and each of them experiences odd folds in their own diagnosed condition – from “mentally impaired” to schizophrenic to expressions of anger.  But the young adults are all tender-hearted and stories of their affection for each other, their interaction at parties, their lives outside the center and the clear-eyed picture they have of each other goes a long way toward chronicling the progress in their own growth.

James Candler’s lifelong friend Billy Atlas shows up and the two couldn’t be more different.  Billy drives a dilapidated car, has just ended a three year career in a convenience store and wants to date a girl, “any girl.”  He is the vehicle for the reader to see deeper into Candler’s life and past.  He has lost his older brother, Pook, a sensitive artist, to suicide.  Candler puts Billy in charge of the therapeutic program and Candler begins to see that, like the clients he helps treat, he leads a tumbledown life full of unresolved issues.  He figures out that a big, empty house with an underwater mortgage, a fast car he doesn’t really like and even a beautiful, sexually-adventurous stalker who works in a lingerie store don’t always add up to a sum of contentment.  As the youths stumble through the days and make progress in their personal growth, Candler begins to identify his own challenges, begins to sharpen the vision he brings to his own life.

Robert Boswell’s seventh novel is rich with detail and a modern day expression of personal growth.  Best of all, it’s based on the author’s experience.

“I was a counselor before I was a writer, and those clients of mine haunted me for many years. Tumbledown is an attempt to do right by them, to tell a story that isn’t exactly their story and isn’t exactly my story but one that captures something of both. For ten years, I lived with these characters, trying hard to do justice to their lives,” he says.

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Long Man’s Story Reaches Into Lives and Hearts

             Amy Greene tells the story of a river “…the Cherokees who once lived on its shores had called it Long Man, with his head in the mountains and his feet in the lowlands.”  It’s long, this river and it not only runs through a part of the South but it runs through lives – generations of them.  And Greene’s novel Long Man builds on this image, this vision, this description of the river and the lives on its periphery.

The river and the creation in the mid-1930’s of the Tennessee Valley Authority is central but the story in this book is one of humans who live on the land, who love the land, who are passionate about the lives they live and about the rugged, untamed Appalachia that surrounds them.  Homes are built by hand, of existing materials and fruits and vegetables grow both wild and cultivated.  Fish are regularly pulled from the river and life is comfortable if not easy.

Annie Clyde Dodson was born in the hills and she and her husband James live there with their three year old daughter called Gracie.  Silver is Annie’s aunt, the sister to Annie’s deceased mother – but more than that she is a sort of guardian angel of the primitive area – one who shuns the intrusion of modern updates and the changes the new dam will bring.  She says she can see by the light of the sun and the light of the moon and what else would anyone want.  Annie is as connected to the land as Silver is and is passionate to hand it down to her own daughter, the next generation to live on the mountaintop farm.  Life is not easy – crops grow or fail depending on the weather, Annie scrubs her clothes on a washboard and no one has electricity and the ease-giving appliances that come with it.

When the TVA authorities begin to move residents to other locations so the project can go through, love of the land and the way of life become as sharply defined as an antique stone arrowhead.  Annie does not want to leave, even though James has gone to Detroit to find another life for them.  Annie defies the authorities, claiming she wants her daughter to see her dragged off in handcuffs rather than submit.

Amos grew up in the area but for years, he has drifted and made his way by riding the rails and scrounging or stealing.  He has few possessions and seems to shun commitment.  Yet, he returns to the area – at least for awhile – and to his mother Beulah – and to Silver who loves him.  Scruffy and one-eyed, Amos lives in the woods and when Gracie goes missing, he is the prime suspect.  The sheriff calls on the town’s remaining men to look for Gracie and tensions are everything.”  And currently in the town of Yuneetah, that means the dam.  Amos and his actions in the summer of 1936 will become a part of the history of the area.  Did he have anything to do with Gracie’s disappearance?  What will he do to try to stop the dam and how will that affect him?  And Silver who wants to halt progress – what will happen to her and her mountain-woman way of life?

Amy Greene was born and raised in the foothills of East Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains which is most likely the reason she writes about the region and its people with such sensitivity and tenderness.  She lives in the area with her husband and two children.  She is also the author of the national best seller Bloodroot.

* * * *

  So Much Pretty Uncovers Ugly Stories

             Author Cara Hoffman dropped out of high school and went to live in Greece for awhile.  When she returned to the USA, she gave birth to her son and obviously brought back the Greek sense of tragic story.   Humans in her novel are not at the mercy of the fates so much but the classic sense of fury is soaked into the novel and even the name of the inflexible local family, Haytes, helps illustrate the tone of the story.

So Much Pretty is Hoffman’s first novel and it centers around a couple from New York City, both overworked doctors.  As the birth of their daughter Alice approaches, they move to Haeden, NY, where they are able to build a life that shelters her from consumerism.  Alice’s mother Claire even sews her daughter’s pants (“they’re orange with big pockets”) and some of the local kids make fun of them.  The town seems to tolerate rather than welcome the little family where the mother works in a clinic and the dad stays at home.  The family draws its circle large and includes friends and distant relatives.  “Blood relationships are weak relationships,” Claire tells Alice.  Mostly, Alice and her friend Theo live life freely and exploring nature and art helps Alice develop her own thinking.

The prominent local Haytes family farms but “the farmwork was rarely done by family members because the farm was a big corporation now…..It was a business.”  The milk they sell of course, sustains those who buy it.  But what are they doing to the land?  What are they doing to themselves?  “Farming was a hard and dangerous job, and over time, it had made them not care what anybody thought.”  What foul stench comes from the run-off pond?  Do they bear responsibility for the environment?  Is their last name a clue to the path of the story?

Vast numbers of young people leave Haeden (could Hoffman be making a play on the word Heaven?) for greener pastures.  “You just knew Haeden was a place that wouldn’t exist as soon as you left.  It barely existed while we were there.”  But not Wendy White.  Wendy’s family owned White Wall and she had grown up there and liked the town so she stayed on, waitressing at the local bar.  Handsome, wealthy Dale Haytes,  psychotic son of the prominent family, takes an interest in Wendy and they begin to date.  When Wendy disappears, her family and the whole town are horrified – how could this happen in a small, seemingly close knit community?  Alice’s sixth sense tells her Wendy is nearby but is she?  If so, why – for what purpose?

The story weaves and bobs and the reader has to keep track of details.  The presence of a young female reporter, Stacey, who gives voice to the concerns not only of the town but also of the larger environmental picture adds a strong but almost frightened, inexperienced voice to the story.  Stacey puts together bits and pieces of conversation and evaluates her own observations and begins to believe there is violence against women in rural America.  And after the discovery surrounding Wendy, does she stay on in the town?  Is the brutal nature of humanity and its self-centered actions too much for her?

            So Much Pretty‘s prose borders on poetry but good writing does not make it an easy book to read.  The format moves the story around and the time period covered is about a decade but the most difficult aspect is the sense of hope that turns to tragedy – a Greek configuration that makes this story shocking and unsettling in its this-could-happen-here realism.

Cara Hoffman’s journalism background probably helped prepare her to write fiction.  Lack of a high school diploma did not deter her from pursuing a Master of Fine Arts Degree.  She lives in New York City with her son.

 * * * *

After 100 Years, Mark Twain’s Autobiography Makes Fascinating Reading

John Milton Hay told Mark Twain that a man should write his autobiography in mid-life, at age 40.  Twain thought about it and at the age of 42, began to write the story of his life.  By that time, he had published journalistic articles as well as some of his best fiction – including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Much of his fiction was widely believed to be autobiographical.  The author gave credence to that belief when he was quoted as saying, “Yes, the truth is, my books are simply autobiographies.  I do not know that there is an incident in them which sets itself forth as having occurred in my personal experience which did not so occur.”

Jane Lampton Clemens and John Marshall Clemens left Tennessee in the mid-1830s and Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born November 11, 1835, in what he called “the almost invisible village of Florida (near Hannibal), Missouri.”  His birth coincided with the appearance of Halley’s Comet, an incident which his mother often said foretold Clemens’ greatness.  Clemens spent a happy youth playing with siblings and cousins in Hannibal and apprenticed as a printer and then became a journalist.  From that beginning, he went on to assume the nom de plume Mark Twain and write essays, personal opinion pieces, novels, short stories and hundred of letters.

For nearly 35 years, Clemens worked on his autobiography, writing it out longhand, and was adamant that it not be published until 100 years after his death. In writing the story of his life, Clemens said, “I should confine myself to my own actual experiences (to invent would be to fail) and I would name everybody’s actual name and locality and describe his character and actions unsparingly.”  No wonder he didn’t want his autobiography published in his lifetime and the lifetimes of his contemporaries.

In February of 1870, Clemens married Olivia Langdon who had refused his first two proposals.  It was a happy marriage and Livy – as he called her – worked for women’s rights and social equality.  She influenced Clemens and he became an ardent supporter of abolition and emancipation, women’s rights, civil rights for black and Asians and eventually, even Native Americans.  The couple had four children – their son Langdon died at the age of 22 months and daughter Suzy who also showed a talent for writing, died in 1896.  Olivia died in 1906 and Clemens grieved the loss for the remainder of his life.  Daughter Jean died in 1909 and only daughter Clara survived.

On April 21, 1910, the day after Halley’s Comet had made its appearance, Clemens died.  Even though he preferred cremation, Clara oversaw her father’s burial and ordered the tombstone that reads Mark Twain, which marks the gravesite in his wife’s family plot in the Woodlawn Cemetery of Elmira, NY.

In November 2010, the University of California published his autobiography. The Autobiography of Mark Twain as edited by Harriet Elinor Smith of the Mark Twain Project (headquartered at Berkeley), came out in mid-2012.  The 736 page Volume I is amazing for its inclusions.  Speculation is that Twain’s salty language and outspoken opinions as well as his friendships with political figures like President Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. Grant, Secretary of State John Hay and Robert S. Brookings; artists and scientists including Helen Keller and Booker T. Washington; and financial giants such as Ferdinand Ward and Henry Rogers caused him to demand the delayed publication.  Now, after 100 years, his viewpoints and language give the reader a lively, rounded sense of this prodigious writer as a colorful man who loved his family and had an opinion on everything.  The actual autobiography begins on p. 201 and it is fascinating reading.

Clemens and his family were well traveled and he spends pages describing the rented Villa di Quarto in Italy.  They visited Germany where he picked up some of the language.  He also became interested in Joan of Arc and thirteen pages of his edited work on the subject are included.  Sixteen pages of photographs of show Clemens, his parents, his boyhood home in Hannibal, and his wife and children.  The book’s cover photo is of an older Clemens and photographer William Vander Weyde is quoted as giving instructions to the subject – “There – don’t move – stay just as you are…a good pose!  Looks just as if you’d been interrupted, & wanted to use language!”

Two more printed volumes of Clemens’ autobiography are scheduled for publication and will be available at Mark Twain Project Online (MTPO). This will include his “Closing Words of My Autobiography,” a manuscript which includes his thoughts about the death of his youngest daughter, Jean.  No timeline is given for release but fans of this man whom William Faulkner called “the father of American literature” will no doubt be ready to read every word when Volumes II and III hit the bookstores.

* * * *

Victor Lavalle Writes Tender Stories on Tough Topics

   Pepper is a big man and a hero in his own mind but his efforts to help his friend Mary result in a scuffle.  The Devil in Silver finds Pepper bound over NewHydeHospital for a 72-hour watch.  The psychiatric ward medications have him feeling weak and puny as a runt puppy.  The morning shift nurse handed him Haldol and lithium, which he swallowed under her supervision, and immediately Pepper’s strong legs felt like they were slogging through thick, wet cement.  His mind spread out putty-style and lost its sharpness.  Even Pepper’s fingers were affected and picking up a fork to feed himself required Herculean effort and focus.  Roommate Coffee shakes Pepper down for a quarter to make a phone call to the President and when Pepper protests it’s a useless effort, their angry words attract the nurse’s attention.

The observation period is extended indefinitely, “for your own good” Pepper is told, and soon Pepper is restrained, bound to his bed.  His back hurts and his shoulder is sore but the worst humiliation is being forced to use a bedpan.  After three days, his body is numb and Pepper’s mind wanders.  But one night, as Pepper lies in a drug-induced sleep, he is awakened by a terrifying creature with disgusting breath and a shaggy head like a bison.  It towers over Pepper and breathes its evil stench onto him.

“It’s the devil,” Pepper whispers later to Coffee.

But is the sulphur-smelling, drooling grotesque character real?  Or does it perhaps represent the sad state of care for the mentally ill?  Author Victor LaValle doesn’t shy away from spotlighting neglect in the system.  As if the novel’s story were not alarm-bell-ringing enough, LaValle interweaves facts about mental health in the Manhattan area, but keep in mind it could be your town.

He talks about Esmin Green, age 49, who died after collapsing in a psychiatric emergency room where she received no attention.  He talks about Randolph Maddix, a schizophrenic in a private home for the mentally ill who was often left alone to suffer seizures and who had been dead for 12 hours when an aide finally found him.  LaValle gets the reader’s attention but does that mean change will happen?  Will his spotlighting of the weaknesses in the care system for the mentally ill bring about sympathy, recognition and maybe change?

LaValle says, “I wrote this novel in a kind of fever, the characters and the setting and the story rose around me like a flood. I wanted the reader to have that same sense of being nearly overwhelmed only to realize, near the end, she wasn’t being drowned but swept to a higher shore.”  In parts of the USA, the mentally ill and lower income are often poorly served.  If society rises to meet the needs of the mentally and physically ailing, humanity should congratulate itself on reaching that higher shore.

Back at home, Nabisase visits Ledric, now hospitalized and Anthony disapproves.  Anthony goes to work for a cleaning company that takes only cash and Ishkabibble is upset when Anthony presents him with horror movie plots instead of a promised novel.  Through the chaos, Anthony remains polite, which sometimes causes its own confusion.              “Don’t believe it when you hear that everyone mistreats the mentally ill and that they always have.  Compassion smashes up against confusion, unease.  The pile up makes messy scenes.”

Ishkabibble publishes Anthony’s book and when Grandma calls it nonsense, Anthony says “…I hit her.”  Glass shatters and Nabisase picks up a pair of scissors.  Soon emergency vehicles arrive.  “Not all families should stay together,” Ledric comforts Anthony.

Through the upheaval and craziness, Anthony remains achingly raw and genuine.  Hope prevails and he sees himself “…. a grown man in my fine purple suit.  My black shoes fit me snugly.”

LaValle’s electrifying prose does just that and guarantees the reader won’t soon forget the chaos, the color, the day-to-day confusion and madness that mark the lives of these characters.

Train Dreams – Magical Storytelling of Gritty Real Life

Denis Johnson is not a man of many words.  In fact, he uses words sparsely and the words he chooses to put into print, whether in his short stories or novels, are perfectly chosen to convey a mood, an atmosphere, a feeling of the rawness and grittiness of life; words that wrap the reader with an uneasy sense of what it’s like to be there.

In Train Dreams, Johnson drops the reader into the life of Robert Grainier, a railroad worker during the summer of 1917.  World War I had begun in April of 1917 and the railroad system in America proved to be inadequate to serve the war effort.  Suddenly, railroad expansion was underway and there were jobs for everyone, including a “Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stories of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.”  The worker was to be thrown from a trestle into the river but the man escaped them and dropped “beam to beam like a circus artist.”  Once the man is out of sight, Grainier leaves the scene and stops to pick up sarsaparilla for his wife and infant daughter Kate.

But Grainier’s life, like so many lives during that time of rapid change in the northwest, is as rocky and uneven as the ground on which the rail lines are laid by the workers.  After a wildfire takes the lives of his little family, Grainier yearned “to be around other such massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going.”  He followed work to Washington State in 1920 and saved enough money to buy some land in Bonners Ferry.  A cabin eighteen by eighteen followed, all constructed by his hand, and gradually Grainier’s life became more and more focused on nature and its mysteries.  Early-orphaned and widowed in his late 30’s, Grainier receded into a hermit’s life, touched by Native American lore and wolf-based folk myths.  Night clouded his senses and often he believed he had seen visions, even encountered a wolf-girl who might have been his long dead and sorely missed daughter.

Johnson moves Grainier through horse-drawn carriages, airplane rides, even an almost-sighting of Elvis, and into the unsettled dream world where visions twist up out of the campfire smoke.  Telling part of this country’s history through the main character’s life is done in a tiny snapshot – the book is only 116 pages – and Johnson’s achievement is that he leaves the reader with a sense of sorrow, lonesomeness and a life that ended but might have been not quite completed.

Train Dreams was nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  No agreement could be reached by the judging panel who read over three hundred books, and for the first time since 1977, no prize was awarded.  Stories of heroin usage, abortions and bar fights make up Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson’s 1992 book of linked short stories.  His novel, Tree of Smoke, recounts the Vietnam era and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007.  Johnson is an elusive figure and it is possible that no interview with him has ever been granted.  It doesn’t matter.  The words he puts on paper are genuine as raw diamonds and just as sharp-edged; we know who he is and what he sees and that’s gift enough.

* * * *

Touch Piles Family Stories as Deep as Snow

“I thought of all the stories he had told me of my grandmother, of himself. Of Sawgamet.  I thought of the fires, the snow, the woods.”  And so the novel Touch tells us these stories, stories that fall upon the reader as gently and softly as snow, stories of generations of one family, stories that convey to us the beauty, the wonder, the joys and losses that mark the human condition.

Located on the river, Sawgamet is a village discovered and founded by the narrator’s grandfather, French speaking Jeannot, as he panned for gold.  Other fortune seekers came, “many from Quesnellemouthe or further east.” They stayed and built a town – a town with an Anglican church, stores, a school, a brothel.   Jeannot and the miners and shopkeepers and ministers fell in love, married.  Babies were born.  The search for gold was abandoned while lumber was cleared – “gold offered rewards but cutting trees offered certainty,” – and houses were built.  A child fell through the ice and a father jumped to try to save her and both of them remain frozen beneath the ice, hands not quite touching.  “Memories are another way to raise the dead,” the narrator tells us.  And readers who know loss, nod in response and agreement.

The villagers lived close to the land and Nature and the flow of her seasons, impacted the lives of all.  Late fall offered clear skies and a melancholy sun signaling the return of winter.  Snow falls late.  “ …it stopped snowing that year, in July.”  And sometimes snowfalls so deep that husband and wife must chop a hole in the roof to find a way out, marked winter.  Ice crackled and shattered with the sound of glass as spring approached.  Thawing brought trickling runoff that swelled into creeks where a man could drown.  And through it all, life continued.  Families carried on, persisted, and beat back adversity to prosper, regenerate, thrive – and tell their stories.

And through the telling of the family saga, details like the mahahas embroider the fabric of everyday life.  “They’re kind of a snow demon.  They tickle you until all your breath is gone.  Leave you dead, but with a smile,”  Jeannot tells his granddaughter and the shimmering thread of thrill and mystery is woven, along with those of hardship and survival, into yet another generation.

Alexi Zentner is a Canadian/American writer and a graduate of Cornell.  His short stories have garnered prizes and praise.  His novel Touch is a story of love, endurance, joy and grief; in short, it is a story of family life.  Zentner uses the overarching theme of nature and natural occurrences and writes about them with a gentleness and gracefulness that often belies the harsh reality of fact.  He writes of snow and cold so beautifully that I felt my hands chill.   Read Touch this summer.  The story of deep-piled snow and icy cold, of family and love, gentleness and understanding will warm your heart.


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