Monthly Archives: May 2018

SILVER SPARROW: a novel

ALGONQUIN BOOKS | 2012
340 pages
FICTION : AFRICAN-AMERICAN | COMING-OF-AGE
REVIEW SOURCE: PERSONAL COPY

★★★☆☆

James Witherspoon is an “accidental” bigamist. He didn’t  plan on his mistress becoming pregnant. But she did. (As a matter of fact, he didn’t intend for his wife to become pregnant at age 14 either, but she did.) And now he does his best to provide time and money to both families; just not equally, and the disadvantaged family knows it.

His wife, Laverne, operates a hair salon in their home and the place becomes a daily hub of neighborhood gossip and commentary. But one thing that Laverne, and her daughter, Chaurisse, never discuss with their customers is James’ second family. They are oblivious to his duplicitous life and he wants to keep it that way at all cost.

James supports both families with his successful limousine company assisted by his life-long friend and business partner, Raleigh.  “Uncle” Raleigh slips in and out of both families suggesting normalcy but under the circumstances, nothing is normal. The only other person to know of James’ secret life is Willie Mae, Gwen’s best friend and a weekly visitor to Laverne’s beauty salon.

Gwen lives with the hope that James will leave Laverne, but while she waits, she resents his “real family” and makes darn sure that Dana doesn’t feel second best – but of course she does. With Willie Mae’s help, Gwen is able to follow the goings-on in the Witherspoon family to make sure that Dana never is short-shrifted in favor of the “first daughter”.

Over the ensuing years, Gwen becomes more and more bitter about sharing James and tires of hearing about Laverne. She and Dana begin to take devious side trips to spy on the “first family”. Dana wonders what it is like to have her father 24 hours a day. Why would a father have two families at the same time? Which family – which daughter  – does he love the most? She feels like a sparrow whose survival relies on sharing crumbs that fall from the nest of the favored.

Dana’s narrates the first part of the book and is the stronger voice.  The second half is narrated by Chaurisse. It is an interesting contrast in points of view. This bifurcated life works well for 17 years but the wheels start coming off the bus when Dana and Chaurisse accidentally meet at a science fair. Inspired by Gwen’s jealousy, Dana sets out to revenge her mother by befriending Chaurisse. Slowly over time, the two girls become real friends. Dana is careful to stage their contacts to avoid her father and not to arouse Chaurisse’s suspicions.

James Witherspoon’s life explodes the  same night Chaurisse’s car has a flat tire on the way to a party. Chaurisse does what any daughter would do – she calls her father to come help her.  The problem? Dana is riding shotgun. The gig is up.

The two worlds collide and the fallout warps each player as they find their place on the new chessboard. In the end, James and Laverne reconcile and plan a recommitment ceremony. Gwen never gets over the loss of James’ affection and remains a sour and bitter woman the rest of her life.

With her mother all but lost to her, Dana is left wondering if she has lost her father as well and confronts him:

Don’t you love me?

It’s not about loving people, he said. You have to go home now, I have made my choice, just like you made your choice when you went bothering Chaurisse. You almost took my whole life away from me.

What did you think was going to happen? Did he think that I could live my entire life tucked away a dirty photograph? I’m your daughter.

Everyone knows that now, James said. That’s what you wanted. You got it.

But don’t give up on either the young girls, they are stronger than you think. Wait until you meet their grandmother, Bunny. And the romp through 1980s Atlanta is a delight. In the end, you aren’t sure who should have been the grown-up in the story – James, Laverne, Raleigh, Gwen . . .

A good read.

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THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS:

THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS:
the extraordinary story of the last true hermit

The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives,
but they are tangled over giant boulders with dead-fall everywhere
like pick-up sticks. There are no trails. . ..

[A]t dark the place seems impenetrable.
This is when the hermit moves.
He shoulders his backpack and his bag of break-in tools,
and sets out from camp.

Opening Paragraph : Stranger in the Woods.

 

Michael Finkel
Alfred A. Knopf | 2017
227 pages
Non-Fiction | Biography | Maine
Review Source : Personal Copy
★★★★☆

 

In 1986, 20-year-old Christopher Knight walked off his job (installing security alarm systems) for no apparent reason. With little preparation, he got in his new Subaru Brat and drove aimlessly south; away from his home state of Maine. When he never came home, his family matter-of-factly assumed he was off finding himself somewhere. In 27 years, they never contacted the authorities to report their son missing.

Much like Forrest Gump on his infamous walk to nowhere-in-particular, Christopher grew tired of aimlessly wandering and headed back to Maine. Reaching his hometown, Knight drove right past his parent’s house without stopping and kept on driving until the dirt road he chose ended. Tossing the keys on the dashboard, he walked into the woods and was not seen for 27 years. But his presence was felt. 

For 27 years, the circle of cabins surrounding North Pond endured strange burglaries. Mattresses disappeared; others lost clothing, food, batteries, radios, books, grills, propane tanks et all. . . For some homeowners, the home invasions were a mere inconvenience. For others, having been burglarized over 50 times, their vacation homes were a source of anxiety and insecurity.

Law enforcement authorities, for over 25 years, tried every trick in their arsenal to identify the burglar and failed. Finally, employing a highly technical bug devised by Homeland Security, Game Warden Terry Hughes hit pay-dirt. April 4, 2013, alerted by an alarm in the middle of the night from Pine Tree Camp, a day camp for the disabled, Christopher Knight was found “shopping” in the camp kitchen.

As his story unfolded during interrogation, authorities questioned the veracity of this bizarre man in the clunky old-fashioned glasses. They were to change their opinion as Knight led them through a tangled wilderness to his well camouflaged camp.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy
Game Wardens, State Police and Somerset County
Sheriff’s deputies hike
into Christopher Knight’s camp site.

 

As he languished in prison awaiting his day in court, everyone in the “civilized” world wanted to know how he survived the harsh Maine winters, what he did to fill each day, and why he chose to isolate himself from humanity. But Christopher Knight was not a man to share his inner thoughts and actions. After receiving over 500 requests from journalists for an interview, he responded to only one. Something in Michael Finkel’s handwritten letter spoke to Knight. Asked why he thought Knight was willing to meet with him, Finkel replied:

I believe that Knight realized he might be endlessly hounded to tell his story, and that if he told it once, and allowed it to be made public, he might be able to have more privacy going forward.

And what a story he revealed, piece by reluctantly chewed piece. Never revealing more than the bare facts; keeping his inner thoughts to himself. Desperate to feed the curious just enough to release him to a life of seclusion once more; if not in the deep woods, at least in the privacy of his family.

Knight doesn’t consider himself a hermit. He hated the word. He still needed the instruments of civilization to sustain him and to achieve his perfect world void of germs, people, and the great cacophony of society in general. He was known as a child to be a “genius”, a voracious reader, honest and someone who preferred his own company. Probably the hardest part of his solitary life was the requirement to break his own moral code. He must steal to survive. He never tries to hide the fact that he was a thief.

I don’t want people trying to justify my bad behavior in an attempt not to sully what they admire in me. Take the whole package, good and bad. Judge me on that. Don’t cherry pick.

To the arm-chair adventurers, Knight’s ability to survive 27 harsh Maine winters without once lighting a fire seemed mystical. To those more concerned about his felonious talents, he represented less a hero and more a mild Ted “Unibomber” Kaczynski bringing distress to the local community and costing years of tax dollars in the effort to capture him.

When Christopher had shared all he was going to share with Finkel, he told him is was time to leave him alone. And he did.

At times, Finkel strays away from Knight to expound on reasons for solitary isolation. He questions why some human beings choose to exclude themselves from the “pack”. In our current technology oriented world of Facebook, Twitter, and Texting, there is an effort to avoid isolation and self-reflection. There’s a monstrous market in self-help books, each flaunting the idea that they can help find what’s missing in your life. It is no wonder that people are attracted to someone who wholeheartedly rejects their world.

“I think that most of us feel like something is missing from our lives. And I wondered then if Knight’s journey was to seek it. But life isn’t about searching endlessly to find what’s missing. It’s about learning to live with the missing parts.”

I found myself, a person who treasures her quiet life on a small Georgia mountain, thinking, at what length would I go if I wanted to isolate myself from the rest of the world, never even hearing my own voice. My answer, not very far.

I need friends, smiles, conversation, a campfire and a hot bath.

You are going to either love the book or hate it. Either way, you should read it.

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TO THE WHITE SEA: a novel

 

★★★☆☆

 

MARCH 18, 1945
TOKYO, JAPAN

We are going to bring it to him, the Colonel said with satisfaction.
Fire. This is what you’ve got to look forward to.
This is what he’s got to look forward to.
Tokyo is going to remember us.

black quotation-mark.jpgWe were close to the bomb line… there was that tension you always feel…when the time comes close to drop. Major Sorbo circles us…and I could see two fires [below us]…where we had hit the city.

The next thing was not fire, though later I realized…had fire in it…The inside of the plane had exploded…Then the nose went down, and I knew we were completely gone; everyone on the flight deck was probably dead. The first thing [I felt] was the cold. There’d been a loud pop, a crack like a rifle, and I was sure I had been hit…the chute was open. [As I floated closer to the ground], the smoke came past me. [I landed and thought], I am now in the land of my enemy.     (Sergeant Muldrow, B-29 Tailgunner)

Like every good bibliophile, I cannot pass a stack of books at a garage sale without stopping. I was surprised and intrigued to find To The White Sea by James Dickey. I knew about Deliverance but I didn’t realize that he wrote other novels; he usually hung out in the library in the 20th Century American poetry section.

The book is a one-man show. Sergeant Muldrow’s story in the opening chapters felt a little stilted as we were given his “Naked and Afraid” background in specific detail. The man has survived on his wits and skills since early childhood with only his “Jeremiah Johnson” father for company in the harsh Brooks Range of Alaska. He operated under one theory – trust no one -ever. Expect the worst to happen any second and always be prepared.

High above Japan, the puffy clouds reminded Muldrow of arctic mountains in Alaska where everything is a sea of white. To survive in that environment requires camouflage; like the snowshoe rabbit, you must become invisible. As he escapes the burning plane and parachutes toward a fiery hell on the ground he faces certain death if captured, he has become the prey. Like the rabbit, he must adapt.

His first days on the ground were pure hell as he blended into the city’s fiery devastation; being a part of the exodus yet always aware of his status – the enemy. He takes account of the Army issued survival kit and finds a silk topo layout of Japan leading north to Hokkaido – cold, mountains, snow. He knows where he must go.

The middle chapters take Muldrow further and further away from Tokyo into the poverty stricken farmlands. As he gains confidence, he is transitioning into a solo predator. Like any beast of prey, he glides seamlessly through the countryside, always on the lookout, always prepared to kill to meet his immediate needs – clothing, food, shelter – always changing his outward appearance to match the locals. Never concerned, never giving a thought to the hapless souls lying dead in his wake.

To The White Sea is a dark story filled with graphic violence. As Muldrow enters isolated and wild land areas, he encounters kindred souls seeking solitude and a reclusive lifestyle. He spent time with them, learning new skills like sewing winter clothing from skins. But in the end, when their usefulness was exhausted, he dispassionately murdered them and moved on.

In the final pages, Muldrow, for the very first time, expresses the slightest bit of humanity and regret. He has made it to the white sea and made a friend of an old man. Together they live in a ramshackle shack hunting daily with the old man’s trained eagles. Life is good. . .until. The day he has expected all his life has arrived. The sounds outside confirm the hunt is over.

It was my time now. I laid my knife in the snow and stood up straight. They fired . . .and the whole ridge sparked and crackled. A bullet went through me but didn’t touch me. It was happening.. . .I made it to where I wanted to be. . . The snow came back .  . .and I will be everywhere in it from now on.

Was this suicide by soldier? Did he mean for death to find him under his own terms?

To The White Sea never garnered the support of Dickey’s first book, Deliverance. Overall, I found it impossible to connect to a man completely hollow of morality. His life is a devolution from civilized man to beast of prey; a dispassionate killer.

The intense descriptions of war and the depth of Muldrow’s inhumanity left me feeling ill. On the other hand, the beauty and silence of winter filled me with peace.

Read it if you are into the dark part of a man’s soul.

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MARY COIN: a novel

 

MARY COIN : a novel

Author: Marisa Silver
Blue Rider Press | 2013
322 pages
Fiction|Great Depression|Migrant Farmers
Personal copy
Rated: ★★★★★

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In 1936, Dorothea Lange,  a documentary photographer for the Farm Security Administration, threaded her way through a crude “Pea-Pickers Camp” in Nipomo, California. She noted an unfortunate overnight freeze had destroyed the pea crop leaving hundreds of migrant families without work. The forlorn workers faced yet another bleak turn in their lives. Suddenly in the midst of this tragic scene, Lange spotted Frances Owens Thompson surrounded by her children and nursing her youngest child. Her series of six photos of the Thompson mother and her young family, that included the now world-famous image entitled, “Migrant Mother” was the capstone of her Depression Era work and did more than any other to humanize the cost of the Great Depression.

Marisa Silver crafted Mary Coin based on this iconic photograph (shown on the book’s cover) useing many of the authentic facts of Frances Owens Thompson and Dorothea Lange’s lives. In this personalized piece of speculative fiction, Frances becomes Mary Coin and our photographer is known as Vera Dare. Our third main character, Walker Dodge, is a modern day inquisitive professor, who finds a copy of Migrant Mother tucked away secretively in his deceased father’s things. Silver tweaked the known facts and inserts Walker Dodge’s quest to discover his father’s secret in just the right way to create a triad of characters that slowly lead toward an answer.

We learn that no matter how powerful a photograph can be, it is nothing more than a split second of a person’s life freeze-framed for posterity. A single photograph does not reveal a person’s life; only a moment stolen from a full life.

By choosing to focus on each individual’s strengths and weakness amid the deplorable times. we see that, regardless of social status, filthy rich or dirt poor, everyone suffered and survived as best they could.

This is not a maudlin story; it is a tribute to the internal strengths we as humans possess. Mary would be the first to tell you that you just pick yourself up and move on when life slaps you down. Life is not fair and never will be. The past is gone and the future is ahead. A single moment, trapped on film, does not tell anything about a person who lives through the flood of seconds comprising one’s whole life.

Shortly before her death as an old woman. Mary enters a museum and sees herself in the famous photograph. Standing there, she hears someone say, “You can see it all in her face.”

What all? What do you see?

She was a ghost in the room. [Like all] the other ghosts in the photographs lining the walls. . .None of them had known that one day they would be hanging in this museum, a single moment of their lives frozen into an indelible past like an insult you can never take back.

Mary turned again to face the picture and saw her reflection in the glass… Two women named Mary Coin.

Highly recommended reading.

 

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