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REVIEWING

The Night Strangers

by Chris Bohjalian


Crown Publishers | 2011 | 375 pages | $25.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau


author chris bohjalian

Ghosts in Vermont


Ghost stories have a great appeal to many.  I am amongst the many who enjoy unreliable narrators and characters in books that can be seen through multiple lenses. The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian, is a rich collection of either demonic or just plain kooky and eccentric side characters, and a protagonist who has apparently flipped his lid.

Bohjalian has made a career of writing books of topical interest. His novel Midwives, was an Oprah selection and made him a “best-selling author.”  And for good measure, the book was riveting.  He writes books about alternative medicine (midwifery), violence (often related to gun violence), the occult, herbalists, and people living on the margins.  Sometimes these topics merge in a compelling narrative.  But Bohjalian can sometimes be an uneven writer, with some clunkers mixed in with his better works.  Some of his novels hold up to the sometimes overly dramatic events, while the weight of his topics seem to suffocate others.  Midwives (perhaps his best known book) is—as countless people have pointed out—a “read-late-into-the-night,” book about a home birth gone awry.  The questions Bohjalian poses in this book about the responsibilities of our caregivers and what we expect from them (seamless childbirth, in this case, though in our hearts we know this is impossible) is fascinating.

My favorite Bohjalian book, however, is The Double Bind.  This book relies on the delicate balance between what is revealed in the narration and what is hidden or encrypted.  The main character in The Double Bind has suffered an unfixable trauma—she has been raped while riding her bike in the woods—and consequently has created a world for herself based on glass and mirrors, a world that can shatter at any time.  The reader magically gets under the spell that is woven and becomes a part of this tangled, confusing narrative.     

Other books that haven’t worked so well include Before You Know Kindness, which deals with the issue of gun control, and oftentimes feels contrived.  Although Bohjalian writes of horrific events, he often has an understated, almost mundane way of approaching the topic.  This combination—huge, life changing events (often violent) and ho-hum voices-- doesn’t always work well.  Bohjalian is not a subtle writer.

Which brings us to The Night Strangers.  Some of the flaws of The Night Strangers have to do with the complexity of what Bohjalian is trying to do—create a book that is startling, readable, realistic, and frightening all at the same time; and some of the successes of the book are similar to the successes of his previous books.

Like The Double Bind, The Night Strangers’ protagonist is a likable character—an average sort—who falls into madness.  There’s something frightening, yet thrilling, about witnessing the crumbling of a narrator’s psyche.  I can think of no one who does this more masterfully than Poe.  In his famous “The Tell Tale Heart,” the narrator is bothered by the look in an elderly man’s eye.  He eventually murders this fellow.  Like Poe, Bohjalian creates tension in this story that is truly remarkable.

Similarly, the decline of the main character, Chip, in The Night Strangers is told in an understated way. Chip Linton is a pilot whose plane crashes into Lake Champlain, in Vermont.  Unlike the true-life heroic accomplishment of Sully Sullenberger, who landed his plane safely on the Hudson River, only a handful of the passengers aboard Chip’s flight survive.  Thirty-nine passengers die, a number that becomes significant.  Unable to continue to exist in the world, and choked with grief (though the tragedy was not technically his fault—he ran into a flock of birds), Chip, his wife Emily, and their two twin daughters, Hallie and Garnet, move their family to Bethel, Vermont to begin their life anew.  Little do they know what awaits them in the tiny town surrounded by majestic mountains.

From the moment they arrive, they realize that something is askew.  Not only is the house they purchased puzzling, with its strange room arrangements and hidden staircases, but they soon realize the town is oddly full of female herbalists.  These ladies who are named after herbs and plants—Reseeda, Holly, Anise—fill their greenhouses with lush plants flown in from exotic locals.

It’s not particularly threatening at first, simply peculiar, until the family realizes that the women may be practicing a more menacing type of witchcraft and they may need the blood of a young twin (either Garnet or Hallie) to complete a potent tincture.

In the meantime, Chip has found a sealed-off door in the corner of the dirt floor cellar.  The small door is sealed with thirty-nine bolts (coincidentally, the same number as the passengers who died aboard the plane).  Compelled to open the door, Chip acts like a madman laboring over the door with an axe until he finally cuts through.  When he opens the door he is greeted by ghosts from the flight—including a young girl named Ashley, with a Dora the Explorer backpack and her father, Ethan.

Ashley’s body is disfigured and bloody, as are the other ghosts.  In between two worlds and smelling of the muddy lake water that suffocated her, Ashley seems to want one thing: friends.  Because Chip feels so guilty about causing her death, he feels that he should somehow provide her with playmates.  As he becomes more and more unhinged, he imagines killing his own daughters so the ghost girl will have friends, his mantra being She deserves friends.  Do what it takes.  

So the twins are at the mercy of the both the witches in Bethel (indeed, they do practice human sacrifice in order to concoct potions that will allow them to live forever) and their own father.  Bohjalian does a splendid job describing the pre-teen girls.  First there is Hallie, the more confident twin, and with a more outgoing personality; and then there is Garnet, a girl with startling red hair and a shyer disposition.

Both girls feel burdened by their father’s tragic flight, yet they also show the resilience of most kids—they just want to get on with their lives.  Bohjalian shows them in the greenhouse playing with their American Girl dolls and hanging out with a friend.  He gives them just enough grit and truth to make the reader care about them.  It is also clear that they are absolutely adored by their father.

This is why it is difficult to make the leap and believe that Chip would actually harm his daughters.  I recognize that there are predecessors for this sort of thing—the family man who becomes a murderer in The Shining and of course the narrator in the afore-mentioned “The Tell Tale Heart,” from the The Edgar Allan Poe Reader. But maybe we are too close to Chip to believe in his actual meltdown. 

In one scene, Chip is holding a knife and comes close to slashing his daughters.  This sickening scene is almost unbelievable.  Bohjalian uses the second person whenever he comes to Chip’s point-of-view, then switches the narration back to third person when a different character is evoked.  This technique is a bit jarring in the text, especially when Chip becomes more and more unstable. 

In fact, as the book progressed there were more and more scenes that seemed too over-the-top and heading towards kitsch with the reeling savagery of a B horror movie.  For example, Chip’s very sane psychiatrist is murdered by one of the members of the coven.  A placid lawyer is suddenly wielding a knife and murdering his victim in a most horrific way on a rainy night by the side of the highway.  And later, the book becomes all-too-frantic with an exorcism, as well as a witchcraft ceremony occurring on the same night.  Although cinematic, this converging of ghosts, human sacrifice, and child abuse seemed a bit contrived.

Likewise, the ending of The Night Strangers is awkward, though I was indeed surprised by it.  Bohjalian often has endings that pull the rug out from beneath you. 

Sometimes I’ve found this strange and delightful; in this case, it seemed too far from the original story, although one can appreciate what Bohjalian is attempting to do.  He plays with the ghost story genre in this book craftily and it has a lot to recommend it.  After reading the book, I was inspired to re-read “The Tell Tale Heart,” for it seemed that much of The Night Strangers borrowed from that story. Once again I found the story beautifully unsettling, and will always love to be horrified.




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REVIEWING

Lost Memory of Skin

by Russell Banks


Harper Collins | 2011

Reviewed by Emily Rosen


russell banks

This book may go down as Russell Banks’ best-to-date.  It is hefty in size, concepts and ambivalence, and although it is hardly to be labeled a book of “action,” one gets the sense that stuff is happening on each page.         Banks plows into the heart and guts of his characters with a word palette that is meticulous in detail, color, composition and dimension, so that by the time his canvas is complete, three “D” people walk out of his pages in full flesh with their thoughts, feelings and contradictions spread across their bodies in clear signage. Lost Memory of Skin is a remarkable blend of character and social issues.

The novel is essentially about losers who are not what they seem to be. The protagonist calls himself “The Kid.” He is a 22-year old skinny convicted sex offender whose personality “had no specialty.”

He must wear an ankle locator for the ten years of his probation, and must never “locate” any closer than 2500 feet from where children might reasonably be expected to assemble. He therefore winds up living under “The Causeway,” in fictitious Calusa, (Miami?) living among a motley group of other banished-from-society sex offenders. He is obsessively caring of his beloved 30 foot, full grown pet iguana, “Iggy.”

Along comes “The Professor,” an obese, “three times fat,” sociologist bent on studying the habits and lives of this segment of underworld society. He hooks up with “The Kid” in a kind of arrangement wherein the kid agrees to “be studied.”

In a discussion with his wife, Gloria, (“Glory-Glory-Hallelujah”) the professor tries to explain the psychology of sex offenders: “We cast them aside. We treat them like pariahs, when in fact we should be studying them up close … as if they were fellow human beings who have reverted to being … gorillas, and whose genetic identity with us … can teach us what we ourselves are capable of becoming … if we don’t reverse the social elements that caused them to abandon a particularly useful set of sexual taboos in the first place.”

The professor is lofty, if not entirely credible, and in his eagerness to uncover the elements of character that converge into producing a full fledged sex offender, his reliance on pornography could well be a clue into his own inner being.

There is a strong section of relevance to the reality that “texting” has overtaken our language, wherein The Kid’s email messages illuminate the naked truth of its escalating distortion.

The Kid is unsophisticated and compassionate, searching for connectivity, yet wary of human contact, uneducated but uncannily perceptive, perhaps even smart, except for the time he was stupid enough to get caught in a sting while considering the possibility of having sex with a minor.  

As the second part of the book unfolds, Banks switches from character to plot and teases us with a bit of mystery shrouded in Socratic philosophy, and an endless, repetitive dissection of the old search for  “truth.”

After a major hurricane has caused The Kid to evacuate from his Causeway Home, he retreats to the Panzacola Swamp, (The Everglades?) where he finds temporary paradise as he navigates a rented houseboat into the solitude of the glades and feels a strong affinity with the local birds and swamp animals.  Graphic and accurately historic in his descriptions of the area, Banks calls forth some of the works of renowned Everglades activist, Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

The first page of the book quotes Metamorphoses: “Now I am ready to tell how bodies change,” which is a hint as to the book’s title.

Lost Memory of Skin should have ended several pages before it actually did, and knowing how writers tend to fall in love with their words, I am surprised that Banks’ editor didn’t slash some of the redundancies, but they are well worth slogging through to savor true craftsmanship.




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REVIEWING

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life

by Charles J. Shields


Henry Hol | 513 pages | $34.50

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong


author

What do you do when you find out that the author of one of the greatest works of American literature ever written was not the kindest of fellows?

It’s a disorienting experience, one not so far from a storyline Vonnegut himself might have written: Everyman reader discovers that the Great Author in the sky is either ignoring his own system of morality or else willfully subverting it. Yet we might as well just shrug along with Billy Pilgrim and Vonnegut’s pantheon of confused men and say to ourselves: “So it goes.”

I suspect that Charles Shields was driven to the same conclusion while writing this first major biography of Kurt Vonnegut. As close to an authorized biography that we will ever get—Vonnegut sanctioned the project, met with the author twice, and then died abruptly after becoming tangled in his dog’s leash and falling down his front stairs one icy morning in April 2007—And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life moves from a tone of near veneration to “one of the most-influential writers of the twentieth century” to bemusement, and then almost hurt. How could a man who so famously implored of the human race, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind” have been so very unkind?

Of course, as Shields makes clear, Vonnegut’s life was no cakewalk. Born into a wealthy Indianapolis family on Armistice Day 1922, Vonnegut faced a distant father, an emotionally unstable mother and an older brother Bernard, whose scientific brilliance overshadowed the younger boy’s talents. When the family suffered financial losses during the Depression, the sudden slide toward the middle class precipitated a nervous breakdown for his mother, Edith Vonnegut, from which she never recovered. On Mother’s Day 1944, she committed suicide, only hours before Vonnegut arrived home on leave from the U.S. Army.

Shields’ detailed account of the author’s childhood deftly reveals not only the roots of his insecurity and yearning for community, but also, disturbingly, the huge wellspring of anger that lay within him. The liquid seam of bitterness that always runs beneath the surface of Vonnegut’s literature without ever exploding into a full geyser of fury, is often attributed to the author’s horrific experiences during World War II, but Shields’ biography indicates other currents at work as well.

The sections of And So It Goes that examine Vonnegut’s wartime experiences are some of the most fascinating of the book, and the included photos of Vonnegut in a POW camp and a Dresden basement filled with asphyxiated bodies after the firebombing of the city, pack a heavy accompanying punch. Although the biography shies away from sophisticated literary analysis, Shields carefully tracks the development of Slaughterhouse-Five from Vonnegut’s lived experience through the fifteen years that it took the author to write his story.

But the Vonnegut of Slaughterhouse-Five, however sincere and powerful, is also an image that the author himself, ever the consummate PR man, took care to cultivate. The Vonnegut of private life was a different man entirely, distant, capable of enormous cruelty, and, in Shields’ eyes, a “reluctant adult.”

Vonnegut’s betrayals of those who were nearest and dearest to him are difficult to read. His treatment of his wife, Jane, is particularly painful and often verges on emotional abuse. Similarly, it is hard to accept his behavior towards his longtime editor and semi-agent, Cornell classmate Knox Burger, who supported the author from the early days when Vonnegut was still struggling to place short stories in the slicks.

Shields drops the suggestion that Vonnegut’s dual personality and often inexplicably hurtful actions might have stemmed from post-traumatic stress disorder, but never fleshes out the idea, which is unfortunate. Jim Adams, Vonnegut’s nephew who was raised by Kurt and Jane after his parents’ untimely deaths in 1958, concluded, “I think he admired the idea of love, community, and family from a distance, but couldn’t deal with the complicated emotional elements they included.”

Ironically, although Vonnegut never ceased to lament his parents’ lack of emotional support, he himself was an often cold and selfish parent.

Ultimately, it is difficult to walk away from And So It Goes without a profound feeling of disillusionment. Shields seems to have an axe to grind, although his admiration of Vonnegut’s work is obvious, and his research for the biography prodigious. Notes and bibliographic material consume almost 75 pages, and although forbidden by Vonnegut’s son Mark to directly quote the contents of 258 letters, he carefully weaves their paraphrased content into his narrative.

So we’re left with that initial conundrum: what do you do if one of your literary touchstones turns out to be a not so likeable character? This problem might be easier to grapple with were Vonnegut not such a moralistic writer (with, Shields argues, a surprisingly conventional system of morality), conceiving the universe as irrational and cruel and human beings as either good and bumbling or evil. In light of this black-and-white outlook, it becomes difficult to accept Vonnegut’s moral admonitions—“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind!”—when his morality was often so very flawed or seems completely absent.

But at least we have his books. And in Vonnegut’s own words: “Whatever. So it goes.”




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REVIEWING

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

by Brian Kellow


Viking | 2011 | 419 pages | $27.95

Reviewed by Steven Paul Leiva


author brian kellow

Any filmgoer born after 1970 might well wonder why anyone would want to

write a biography of a film critic.  A film director?  Yes, certainly, anyone can understand detailing the life of a film director, especially one tapped into the pop culture zeitgeist.

A film actor? Of course it’s an actor’s job to be interesting, so a book about an actor’s life would, it is assumed, also be interesting. A film producer?  Well, maybe if he or she is sufficiently flamboyant and is widely covered by TMZ.

A screenwriter?  No, of course not, screenwriters are just creatures who do some scribbling on paper or tapping on a laptop before a cinematic dream is created, just as film critics are creatures who scribble a little bit on paper, or babble a little bit on TV upon the cinematic dream’s release.

But any filmgoer — especially a passionate filmgoer — who lived through the 1970s, will understand immediately why Brian Kellow has written his fine biography of the late Pauline Kael, famous (and infamous) in her time as the most influential film critic in America.

Kael’s “time” spanned the years (1968 to 1991) when she was a film critic for The New Yorker, a magazine then and now of much cultural significance as well as entertaining cartoons. It was a time that saw a glorious culmination of the art form of the Twentieth Century turn into the birth of blockbuster entertainment — an art of sorts, but not one of which Kael totally approved.

Film, born as a hand crank curiosity at the end of the previous century, matured into a full fledged cinematic art form of dramatic and comedic mime in the 1920s, only to suffer the hiccup of sound, which, for a few years, locked down the camera and film’s artistic growth — but only for a few years.

Soon film found its feet again, especially in the New York banker backed but film loving and mogul ran Hollywood of the 1930s and 40s.  Then, in the 1950s, there arrived the shock of television, which sucked audiences home to make their own popcorn; also, the revelation of postwar foreign films that emerged to awaken, thrill, engage, and stimulate the filmic tastes of American filmgoers and future filmmakers.

In the 1960s and 70s the moguls were starting to fade away, like the good old soldiers they were, and the bankers and their marketing minions started to come into focus. But at the same time, the activist and rebellious spirit of the 60s combined with the influence of foreign films giving rise to a new breed of filmmakers that made eye-opening films; mind expanding and engaging films that made film’s glorious culmination in the 1970s.

Kael did not, at first, perceive this time as a culmination. Indeed, she had hoped it was a time that would bring a new birth of ongoing cinematic excellence, one that would not only entertain, but nurture audiences. Sadly, though, by the end of her professional life she realized that Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality, which had risen up and attacked like Bruce the shark from Jaws, was destined to take over American cinema, and that its future output would be far different from the cinema she had loved and which she now knew, sadly, had culminated during her years at The New Yorker.

Kellow, who is the features editor of Opera News and author of three previous biographies, was introduced to Kael’s film criticism at the Tillamook County Library in Oregon when he was a seventh grade student. He came across Kael’s second book of reviews and essays, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. One has to wonder if it was the title that drew this pre-teen to the book, expecting perhaps a James Bond adventure. There is no question, though, that it was the quality of Kael’s writing that kept him there.

He writes that “...her sentences had such drive and pulse and snap that they took complete hold of me...So I kept reading Pauline Kael quietly. This wasn’t diligent reading, like my progression through the novels of John Steinbeck. This was impassioned reading.”

Later, as a subscriber to The New Yorker, Kellow attended movies with “Pauline Kael” as his guide. A guide, not a guru; intellectual vistas were revealed to him by Kael’s guidance, but he didn’t always agree to go down her opinionated path.

In all cases, however, he was thrilled by her fine writing but more importantly, he was stimulated by her raw, almost unbounded enthusiasm for film.

These two points — Kael the fine writer and Kael the enthusiast — provide the spine to Kellow’s biography, keeping his admiration of Kael ramrod straight even as he adds the burdensome flesh of her quirks, her difficult personality, her befriending and angry de-friending of loving protégés who did, and then on occasion did not, measure up to her high standards.

Her ego demanded that she be the center of attention, and her needy domination as an only child, were among her other human frailties.

It is a measure of Kellow’s talent that despite learning of these personal faults, the reader still comes away sharing Kellow’s admiration of Kael’s not-easy achievement: becoming an artist in her reflections on an art.

Pauline Kael was born in California in 1919, and she was always intensely proud of coming from the American West. Despite being associated for years with The New Yorker, she never really considered herself a New Yorker, and certainly never an East Coast intellectual.

She spent her early years on a chicken ranch in the agricultural community of Petaluma, which had a large Jewish population. Her parents were secular Jews and Kael went beyond that by never really becoming even a cultural Jew — except in one detail: she early on developed and maintained throughout her life a thirst for knowledge and culture.  It was a thirst well quenched after the family moved to San Francisco, a city vibrant with such cosmopolitan treats as dance, theater, art — and most significantly, movies.

“The city was full of grand-scale picture palaces, and Pauline went as often as she could to the Fox, the Roxie, the Castro, and to the Paramount over in Oakland,” Kellow writes.   

One might have thought that Kael as a young girl watching movies during the Depression would have favored the musicals and comedies that tried to take the minds of the audience off their thin pocketbooks, but she displayed a strong individuality, not to mention a blessedly unladylike toughness that never left her. She preferred the rough gangster flicks turned out by Warner Bros., which “seemed committed to portraying the ways that American life had been altered by the Depression in what were Hollywood standards at the time -- realistic terms.”

“It was a mark of Kael’s later criticism that she continued to favor films that dealt with life as it is — messy, improvisational, full of shocks and detours and violence, yet always vital — as opposed to life as one might wish it to be.”

Kael enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley in 1936. Despite having a huge love of literature, she refused to become an English major, fearing it was a door that opened only onto a career as a teacher — the last thing she wanted to become.  Although Berkeley had a beautiful campus with a great atmosphere of learning, Kael never acclimated to academia.

When she wrote papers, she wanted to write them in colloquial English, injecting always her personal voice into her essays, a voice that shouted out her intense, no-holds-barred responses to literature, music, and art.  Her teachers were not happy about this, for the Academy demands a language of its own, and so Kael had battles to fight.  It must have been satisfying to her later in life that what academia did not like about her writing was loved by her readers, and was the source of her fame.

Kael never graduated, and in 1941, a few credits shy of a degree, she made her first trip to New York thinking that if it was indeed the Big Apple, then  she needed to be there. But she never really liked New York, nor most of the people she met in New York artistic circles, and after several years she returned to the West Coast, became the lover of the poet James Broughton, and gave birth to his child, who she named Gina James.

In her struggle to survive as a single mother, her one constant source of pleasure was going to the movies — and talking about them afterwards.  On one such occasion, in a Berkeley coffee house while sitting with a friend, she was overheard by Peter D. Martin, who had recently launched the magazine, City Lights, which was devoted to film commentary.

“Martin,” Kellow notes, “was intrigued by the stream of articulate, independent opinions he heard Pauline expressing, and he asked her if she would like to review the new Chaplin picture, Limelight, for City Lights.” 

It was the beginning of what became, as Kellow’s subtitle ironically notes, a life in the dark. Ironic, because Kael became famous for bringing light to the consideration of motion pictures not only as art form, but as a force shaped by, and indeed starting to shape, our culture. 

Fame was still years away, though, giving her life a long first act, and it wasn’t until she was forty-eight that she became a film critic for The New Yorker.  In between she was a programmer for the Cinema Guild, a legendary Berkeley revival house, and a struggling freelance writer of incisive essays for publications both obscure and mainstream, which were gathered into her first book, I Lost it at the Movies. It sold 150,000 copies, and not just because of the double entendre title.

Soon after its publication, and possibly spurred on by its success, she moved back to New York because “...she would in a sense be going back a star.”

There she continued to freelance, eventually finding her first steady employment as a film critic for McCall’s Magazine. It was not a good fit, and she and the magazine soon parted, but later, in 1968, after a short stint with The New Republic (also not a good fit), The New Yorker soon became one.  The magazine’s editor in chief, William Shawn, allowed Kael as much space as she needed to write her often long essays/reviews, and he allowed her to write them in her very personal voice: subjective, opinionated, and wide-ranging.

From this point on, much of Kellow’s biography is a chronicle of Kael’s time at The New Yorker, mainly through a consideration of her reviews of films and filmmakers, championing some enthusiastically (over enthusiastically, some readers felt), and condemning others aggressively, even hurtfully. 

Kael was not a half-measures kind of person; she did not equivocate in her opinions and she did not believe in being objective when it came to art, even popular art.

In chronicling Kael’s reviews, Kellow also chronicles the films of this time, especially the films of the 1970s, such as Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, M.A.S.H., The Godfather, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Last Tango in Paris, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and other films that brought changes to the art, and engendered excitement among filmgoers, many of whom were reading Kael religiously.

This is no small contribution to the value of Kellow’s book.

Brian Kellow has provided a proper assessment of the importance of Pauline Kael to this period of film history. Our current era consists of Hollywood blockbusters, tent-pole, 3-D, mega-entertainments with heroes both super or just super good-looking, and an era in which major universities have film schools, and film studies courses that exist not just to provide easy-A’s. If Kellow’s book can find a readership among the denizens of both Hollywood and academia, then it is a book of great importance and one that will not be soon forgotten.




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REVIEWING

The Whip

by Karen Kondazian


Hansen Publishing Company | 289 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford


karen kondazian

One thing I really like about this job is that I get to discover promising new talent far outside of the world of agents, New York publishers, academics, and establishment book reviewers.

Karen Kondazian’s debut novel, The Whip, is in that category. Her well-written work, based on a true story, displays all the confidence of a seasoned novelist. I didn’t detect one false note.

The Whip was inspired by the true story of a woman, Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst (1812-1879), who lived most of her extraordinary life as a man in the old west.

As a young woman in Rhode Island, she fell in love with a runaway slave and had his child, which brought about unforgivable human cruelty.

The destruction of Charlotte’s family is detailed with horrendous details.

She then journeyed to California, dressed as a man, to track the person who instigated the slaughter of her family, someone from the orphanage. that she once considered almost a brother

Charley became a renowned stagecoach driver for Wells Fargo (A Whip). She killed a famous outlaw, had a secret love affair, and lived with a housekeeper who, unaware of her true sex, fell in love with her.

Charley was the first woman to vote in America in 1868 (as a man).

This true story gives first time author Kondazian, an actress with over 50 television and film credits, much to work with.

Charley’s story begins in Boston in 1812, when, as a newly born baby, she is placed on the steps of an orphanage. Her mother gives a hearty knock on the door and then quickly flees.

Charlotte’s “Charley” adventure has just begun, and what a great adventure it turned out to be. Charlotte often found herself at odds with the powers at The Home (the orphanage), comforted only, from early childhood, by another orphan, years older than she, Lee Colton, who would eventually become her hated nemesis.

Because of her willfulness, she was assigned to live and work in the stalls with the horses, managed by an older black man named Jonas. He treats her with kindness, and imparts much wisdom to her, becoming the closest thing she has had to a father.

Most importantly, he taught her how to deal with horses.

She takes his last name, Parkhurst, after he dies.

***

Anyone who has lived in the West will recognize the DNA traces of the fact that it was “Go West, young man,” not young woman.

When Charlotte first arrived in Sacramento in 1849 disguised as a man, ”she was taken aback by the dozens of barks, brigs, and schooners along the docks. They created a forest of masts…their cables looped around tree trunks and roots. The street was choked with stagecoaches and wagons, disgorging passengers, the passengers running for the boats. Men of every shape, color, and constitution were there—swearing, spitting, sweating, and shoving.

“Later, Charley would learn their names: Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, Basques, Croats. She noticed that there were no women of any shape or color.”

Author Kondazian got it right, because in 1849, the year Charley landed in Northern California after a harrowing, four month journey through land and sea, there were only 49 women in the entire city of San Francisco out of a population of 48,000.

This fact, often published in local newspapers, became a running joke among my friends in San Francisco who knew the history of this city in which we lived.

It’s easy to see why this beautiful jewel of a city by The Bay went on to become the gay capital of America, if not the world.

***

The fighting over the few available women for the Euro-American settlers still resonates loudly out West to this very day.

***

I have often been accused of never meeting a book I didn’t like. But try The Whip on, nevertheless, despite me. I think you will get as caught up in it as I was. This is classic Americana.




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REVIEWING

Harlem Renaissance: Five Novels of the 1920s

Edited by Rafia Zafar


The Library of America | 867 pages | $35.00

Reviewed byLoretta H. Campbell


author rafia zafar

Neither Black Nor Proud

My color shrouds me in…” (from “The Shroud of Color,” a poem by Countee Cullen) is in the foreword to Wallace Thurman’s novel, The Blacker the Berry. If being black is a living death, then being dark skinned is the hell that comes after death, according to this work. The book exposes one of the most traumatizing secrets of the African Diaspora—colorism. Tragically, this pigmentation fixation is the only disease/remnant of slavery that is fully embraced and often celebrated by people of African descent around the world. It is a known fact that Thurman himself battled his peers in the Harlem Renaissance because of their insistence that the light-skinned should lead the race.

     The heroine of the novel, Emma Lou, is dark-skinned. Her father Joe Morgan was dark-skinned and abandoned his wife and child during Emma Lou’s infancy. Thurman intimates that Joe did so to escape the prejudice of his spouse and her family. The girl’s mother clearly has no affection for Emma Lou.

“She had been certain that it [the baby] would be a luscious admixture, a golden brown with all its mother’s desirable facial features and its mother’s hair. But she hadn’t reckoned with nature’s perversity…” The mother often hid her daughter away when company came to visit.

     Because Emma Lou comes from a middle-class background, she never wants for material comforts. However, her relatives shun her, and she has no friends in her home town. Despite the emotional lack in her life, she excels in school and goes away to college.

     Here Thurman excoriates the infected “blue vein” policy of so many black sororities. When neither Emma Lou nor her one college friend Grace, also dark-skinned, is pledged for a sorority, Grace explains, “Because you are not high brown or half white.” The “half white” specification is significant. The book outlines how important it was to many descendants of slaves to whiten up the race. The closer they were to looking like “massa,” the better they were as human beings, they proclaimed.

    Emma Lou’s journey to self-acceptance leads her to Harlem and eventually a career. It also leads her to more emotional abuse and masochism. In many ways, this book is autobiographical. Thurman was dark-skinned and very likely suffered the same bigotry as his novel’s character.

    Yet there is a fearlessness in this book that is completely absent in the other four of the volume. Thurman lets the secret out. Though all of these books are well written, none of them takes that step. In fact, three of them bemoan the fate of the tragic mulatto. 

    In her novel, Quicksand, Nella Larsen sees two classes of Black people. There is the 5% of light-skinned ones. These are the ones with innate privileges and recent white ancestors. Then there are the darker ones. They can neither pass nor make a living, according to Helga Crane, the novel’s protagonist. Helga is the daughter of a white mother and a black father.  She has definite opinions about the way black women should dress. “Bright colors are vulgar”---“Black, gray, brown, and navy blue are the most becoming colors for colored”—“Dark complected people shouldn’t wear yellow, or green or red.” 

     We meet her as she is deciding to leave her job as a teacher in an all-black college in the South. The college, in her experience, simply serves to teach Black people to accept the injustice of racism. Because she has no intention of supporting the school’s legacy, she quits. However, Helga is not as concerned with the treatment of the students as she is with having a life of ease and beauty, or so she says.

     On the train to Chicago, she describes in sickening detail the Jim Crow of public transportation. “A man, a white man, strode through the packed car and spat twice, once in the exact centre of the dingy door panel, and once into the receptacle which held the drinking water.” The author doesn’t bother to say that the conductor did nothing about this. There is mention of the filth on the floor and the decrepit seats. Helga begs for and gets a sleeping compartment away from the filth and the other black people.

     From this point on, Larsen builds the reasons for Helga’s need to escape into white society. Helga comes into some money, and soon after, she moves to Denmark to live with her white relatives.

     “This, then, was where she belonged. This was her proper setting. She felt consoled at last for the spiritual wounds of the past.”  Larsen lets Helga and the reader live in this fantasy world for a little while. Then there is a harsh but predictable reality. The story’s title has a stinging irony at its conclusion.

    The paradox of Plum Bum, written by Jessie Redmon Fauset, revolves around a long-suffering “mulatto” named Angela Murray. Angela is light-skinned enough to be mistaken for white and begins passing as one as a child. Although she is often exposed for doing this, she continues. As an adult, she is determined to make a living as a painter.

     She sees whiteness as a passport to fame and fortune in her chosen career. For a time, she is correct. Once Angela meets a wealthy white man, she shuns her darker skinned sister.

    “I beg your pardon, but isn’t this Mrs. Henrietta Jones?”…Really you have the advantage of me. No. I’m not Mrs. Jones.” The denial traumatizes the younger sister, and dehumanizes Angela.

     It is almost fitting that the new boyfriend is a racist who has black people thrown out of restaurants. He goes into rants about the “darkies” who leave the South in search of jobs and social equality. In his view, which he expresses to Angela regularly, Black folks have one place—under the heel of people like him.

     It becomes obvious that he would kill Angela if he found out she’s black. Fauset shies away from this revelation, however. As a result, the story lacks depth. She describes her book as “a novel without a moral.” That might not be true. The moral seems to be pass if you can, as soon as you can.

     There is no interest in subterfuge in Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem.Jake, the novel’s protagonist, is a working class Black man who is proud of who he is. Stationed in Europe during WWI, he deserts the army because he doesn’t like the way black soldiers are discriminated against. From there he (like all the protagonists in this volume) ends up in Harlem.

“Harlem for mine!” cried Jake. “I was crazy thinkin’ I was happy over heah. …O, boy! Harlem for mine!”

     McKay’s use of slang and dialect makes the novel vibrant and realistic. His Harlem has nightclubs and after-hours joints. There are dice players, whores, pimps, and violence. Jazz babies rule. Yet McKay makes some serious political points.

     When Jake is asked to be a scab during a strike of a predominantly white union, he explains why he refuses: “Nope, I won’t scab, but I ain’t a joiner kind of fellah.” Still Jake knows that racism is alive and well in unions too. “When I longshored in Philly I was a good union man. But when I made New York I done finds out that they gived the colored mens the worser piers and holds the bes’n a them foh the Irishmen.”

     Unlike the other characters in these novels, Jake is not judgmental. He is upfront in his views and his friends include gay and straight, criminal and non-criminal, the literate and the illiterate.

     Throughout the novel, he is looking for a woman that he had a brief liaison with. He doesn’t know her name, but he’s sure he’ll find her again in Harlem. He lives by his own set of ethics. Though his friends try to encourage him to be kept by women, Jake refuses to let a woman support him. He never criticizes his friends for doing drugs. His motto is he’ll try any drug once, and once only.

     By all accounts, the grittiness of the book offended McKay’s peers. They thought he degraded Black folks by depicting the ugly side of (their) perfect Harlem.

     Without fear or favor, Jean Toomer’s novel Caneoffers several vignettes on Black life. The work includes poems, stream of consciousness pieces, and short stories. Here too, is violence. White men kidnap and rape black women and insanity abounds.

    In one story, “Box Seat,” a man seems deeply constrained while pursuing the woman he loves. Toomer implies that her refusal of him leads him to what is either a psychotic break or a religious experience during a Sunday worship service. 

     “JESUS WAS ONCE A LEPER?” he shouts. The man’s behavior is so frightening that the woman can’t wait to get away from him.

     The word cane appears numerous times throughout this book. It becomes a symbol of Black people continually being cut, broken, or consumed.

     The theme of complexion prejudice is repeated here, too. In “Bona and Paul,” college students go on a double date. The dark-skinned black man seems to be modeled on Paul Robeson. He is bright, an accomplished athlete and a natural leader. Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand the flirting cues of his girlfriend.

     More than hints are dropped in the tragic “Blood-Burning Moon.” This is the nightmare story of a black woman spurning the advances of a white man in a southern town.

     Toomer covers a lot of territory in Cane. He touches on racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. The poems are existentialistic while the short stories are hard-hitting and earthy.

     It’s as if he’s leading the reader through a penny arcade, inviting a brief glimpse at sights on either side of the aisle.

    In some ways that is what this volume does. All of the writers examine the collective psyche of Black people. Admittedly, this huge unlimited consciousness has been warped and shaped by slavery, racism, and colorism. All of these isms, though not as present as they were in the 1920s, still inform our lives.

 When major pop stars destroy their skin and hair to appear white, something has gone horribly wrong in the Black community. In some ways, Black people in the 21st century still see their skin as grave clothes, as Cullen suggests. Only now, with the new technology, we bleach out the color and are “reborn” as white.




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REVIEWING

Contesting Histories: German and Jewish Americans
and the Legacy of the Holocaust

by Michael Schuldiner


Texas Tech University Press | 2010 | 255 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber


author

The Evil That Men Do


My friend Elaine’s mother, a German Jew, came to America in 1936, just a few years before the entire Jewish population of her village was deported.  About 15 years ago, Elaine began visiting her mother’s birthplace, Breisach, to participate in an effort to educate young Germans about their lost population of Jews, Judaic culture, the basic tenets of the religion. 

The Germans, she tells me, are very eager to learn and Elaine derives great satisfaction from being involved in this outreach. I have wondered why she chooses to invest in these young Germans when perhaps she could be working instead with victims of the Nazis. 

But Schuldiner’s book, Contesting Histories, has opened up a new perspective on the best ways to move forward.

In a remarkably even-handed tone, Schuldiner examines the positions of both German Americans and Jewish Americans on the Holocaust, America’s involvement in the war, the internment of German Americans during the war, the establishment of a holocaust museum on the Washington mall, Reagan’s visit to a military cemetery at Bitburg, and finally the culpability of Nazi soldiers.

Chair of the English department at the University of Akron, and Holocaust scholar, he clearly states what side he’s on – he was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, he is the son of Polish survivors and the grandson of victims – but makes it clear that, as a scholar, he is interested in looking at all the evidence and rejecting any easy answers.

Schuldiner was appalled in 1979 to hear his then students at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks assert that a) the Jews deserved the Holocaust, b) the Holocaust either did not happen or was not that bad, c) anybody would have acted like the Nazis in those circumstances, d) the Nazis are vilified only because they lost the war, and e) Stalin was worse than HItler.

Through careful scholarship and study, he began to see that these attitudes were, in part, promulgated by the mainstream German American press and not just neo-Nazi groups or Holocaust deniers.  Motivations ranged from dealing with shame and guilt to fear of discrimination to out-and-out anti-Semitism.  He observed that efforts to trivialize, normalize or relativize the Holocaust  - “There have been worse horrors” -  are encouraged by hate groups and not conducive to moving forward in our relationship with our present day ally, the democratic republic of Germany.

He understands that it is wrong and not helpful to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, that we need another paradigm to preserve peace.

A little known fact Schuldiner explores in detail is the internment of thousands of Germans and German Americans in America during the war.  Though far from being country clubs, these camps seemed to have had more amenities than many people had in their homes at the time, and could in no way be compared to concentration camps in Europe, and yet engendered lasting feelings among the German Americans of having been wronged. 

He does not seem to feel that internment was the wrong thing to do as the German community (25% of the population) felt divided in their loyalties and certainly was not eager to go to war against their relatives.  Yet he recognizes that this was in fact anti-German discrimination and explains lingering resentment. 

Likewise, anything that commemorates the Holocaust – movies, museums, events – brings up defensiveness and often aggressive countermoves from the German American community who feel they have suffered too, they too are victims.  Over and over he implies in Contesting Histories the importance of understanding where the opposing parties are coming from.

In one of the most fascinating sections of the book, Schuldiner takes a look at the scholarship and historic arguments to determine whether Nazis were just “ordinary citizens.” Would most of us would have acted in similar fashion if we found ourselves in the same context?  He goes through each argument presented by the warring Holocaust historians, Christopher Browning in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland and Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

He discovers that the soldiers in Poland’s police battalion were not in fact coerced into killing and suffered no repercussions if they refused to participate.  The majority took part in gruesome killing actions, possibly motivated more by peer pressure and the need to conform than anything else.

Ultimately, Schuldiner places blame for the Holocaust on centuries of deeply imbedded anti-Semitism on the part of the Germans, who were in the habit of blaming 1 % of the population, the Jews, for all their troubles, and of considering the Jews as less than human.  He argues for acknowledging the truth of what happened, the evil, and then teaching the sacredness of life, “that we are all essentially good, so that when the times call for it, we are prepared to perform the heroic.”

Back to Elaine and Breisach and a rapprochement between Germans and Jews that Schuldiner would surely applaud : “What drew me in originally was an invitation by the then mayor to all of the survivors he could find around the world to participate in a weekend of commemoration and the dedication of the place where the synagogue had stood. That was the catalyst for a group of Germans there to ‘do more’ and try and give to the survivors as well as the survivor's and non-survivors families, the home, the beloved childhood home that they had lost, dedicated to restoring the memory of their former life and of those who lived in Breisach for centuries, helping the entirely non-Jewish community there to understand that history, and giving people the opportunity to dialogue with one another, which is tremendously important.”




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REVIEWING

The Third Reich

by Roberto Bolaño


Read by: Simon Vance


Macmillan Audio | 2011 | Running time: 10 hours | 8 CDs | $39.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey


author roberto bolano

Roberto Bolaño was a poet novelist, or rather a novelist poet, who has received great posthumous praise and recognition. The Third Reich is one of his early attempts at a novel found among his papers after his death. Being unfamiliar with his later and award winning novels, or any of his work, frankly, I'm pleased to say that Bolaño shows great skill at weaving story and attracting the listener into the worlds he creates.

The Third Reich is an intriguing account of Udo Berger and his girlfriend, Ingeborg's, first holiday together. Udo is the German champion of Third Reich, a World War II strategy game. They are vacationing in the Costa Brava region of Spain on the Mediterranean, a childhood vacation spot for Udo's family. However, he is there to work on Third Reich strategies as well as to write a game-changing Third Reich article even as he spends this intimate time with Ingeborg.

The story is told through the writings in Udo's journal, a tool that he is using to improve his writing skills. The first person point of view allows the listener/reader to get to know Udo and even empathize with him as the story goes on. We feel the struggle he goes through: wanting to work on his game and spend time with his girlfriend, while failing to do either with much success.

When Udo and Ingeborg start hanging around with another young German couple and some of the locals, the vacation slowly slips from Udo. Moreover, when the other German man disappears, Udo finds himself alone in Spain waiting for the body to show up. With the tourist season ending, the atmosphere in the town changes, growing darker, almost menacing, with the coming rainy season.

Without Ingeborg around, Udo engages the mysterious paddleboat vendor, El Quemado, in a game of Third Reich. As the game goes on, he refuses to return to Germany until he has defeated El Quemado, and as the world around them starts to mimic the game they play, Udo becomes paranoid, feeling that the stakes of the game have been raised.

Roberto Bolaño engages the listener with an incredibly personal account of his character's experiences. I surrendered to Bolaño's authority and knowledge and found the stages of Udo's journey fascinating. Simon Vance delivers a great reading performance, but, as is common in audio books, some of the dialogue runs together in the narration. It is understandable enough to line out though.

My only critique is that, for me, the climax of the story fell short of the powerful buildup. That statement is meant to compliment the story as much as express my disappointment. I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing The Third Reich, my first exposure to the late Roberto Bolaño, and wouldn't hesitate to dive into more of his work.



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