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Miss Me When I'm Gone

By Philip Stephens

Reviewed By Michael Carey

Philip Stephens, an award winning poet and author of the poetry collection, The Determined Days, once said, “At their best, short stories contain the germ of a novel, and there’s no reason poems can’t do that as well.” The stories told in his acclaimed poetry seem to have developed, grown, and flourished in his first novel, Miss Me When I’m Gone.

Stephens presents to the reader the beautifully described image of the declining town of Apogee, Missouri and its surroundings, speckled with colorful and amusing characters that add levity even as they propel the story.

Miss Me When I’m Gone centers on the Harper family.  Their youngest son, Cyrus, is a folk musician without recent success. A review pinned up on the freezer box in his childhood home describes his style of music as well as the emotional weight he carries: 

“The songs of Cyrus Harper are dreamscapes where people stuck in dismal lives stay stuck, where misfortune strikes, and supernatural forms appear. Characters haunted by the past keep turning to face what plagues them, though what they confront are their own grave, which they see have not been kept clean. The songs are tinny and gritty, as if cobbled from Child ballads, country blues, and mail-order instruments. Mostly, they are grim. It is a wonder this singer-song writer can get out of bed in the morning.”

He is called home to see his waning mother, Ruth, before she passes by his brother Isaac, a pragmatic, yet envious, realtor,. As we learn more about Cyrus, we discover he is bitter, stubborn, and haunted by the past. He still searches for his long-lost sister, Saro, dreams of his first love, and watches the decline of the folk music he grew up with, all the while burying his grief in the bottom of a whiskey glass.

Cyrus has sought after his sister for years, searching for the sound that he feels will complete him. Stephens’ metered revelations about the Harper’s past shows there is more to Saro, to her relationship with Cyrus, and to the faceted history of their family. They are a haunted family. The choices Ruth and her husband, Ott make, plague their children. The music within Ruth’s soul, which she tries to deny, manifests itself physically, and ignoring her destiny troubles her to the grave.

Cyrus learns and revisits more of the past than he would want, thinking, “…the past lay like land on the far side of a bridge you crossed over many times until the bridge collapsed and you could not tell which side you were on.” But with all this knowledge, as he is forced to face himself, his mother’s ghosts, and the road before him, which side of the bridge will he end up on?

When he returns to Apogee, Cyrus is greeted at home by Sheriff Darby, his closest friend.  Darby pulls strings and throws around his position to procure Cyrus a paying gig at a bawdy club, where he meets Newbern, a knowledgeable DJ, who can relate to the life and struggles Cyrus faces.

Meanwhile, the story of a scarred, aging young woman, Margaret Bowman (or Delilah, or Eve, or any of the women she claims to be) runs parallel to Cyrus’ journey. She is on the run, trying to get to her daughter. She has travelled far and was getting very close until she found trouble in the woods around Apogee. Accosted by horny high school football players, hunted by an aged hick militia, followed by the town’s deaf-mute, Randy, and fighting off injury and the elements, Margaret’s story is both troubling and uplifting.

Margaret and Cyrus are on opposite sides of the figurative abandoned tracks that run into Apogee. One has been running to the past physically but away from it mentally. The other moves far from the past but keeps it firmly in mind. It’s a rare story that can touch the reader uniquely, despite it’s unique content. Stephens displays a skill that all writers strive for---the ability to accurately portray the human condition. Hope and hopelessness, fear and courage, and care and neglect run simultaneously in each character, illustrating the duel nature of man.

A musician himself, Stephens takes you into the world of folk music in such a way that you find yourself wishing to hear the songs and experience the culture from which Cyrus learned to play the fiddle for yourself. He has created a gripping novel, and even when the story slows down, the minor characters and, at times, nature itself, are called on to carry the story. Stephens has written a novel that illuminates the slow decline and degradation of Middle America, a topic he clearly feels passionately about. The heavy subject matter and overtones are supported with action, suspense, and personal journeys you don’t want to miss. I recommend Miss Me When I’m Gone to anyone who is unafraid of facing an honest story that takes you deep into the world of struggling musicians, desperate mothers, meth addicts, sinful preachers, and an array of successes and failures that make up the realistic characters Stephens has created.

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The Warmth of Other Suns—The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

by Isabel Wilkerson

Random House | 2010 | 620 pages | $30.00

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

There was a time, around a decade or so ago, that I was delighted and looked forward to reading one of Isabel Wilkerson’s articles in the New York Times.  Not only would the topic be of abiding interest, her skillful writing always managed to take it to another level of appreciation and insight.   Everything about her taste, her style, her way with words, rang with conviction and authority.

Clearly, I was addicted and then came the withdrawal symptoms when I discovered she was no longer at the paper, leaving me with no idea of why or wherefore she had gone.

Holding her heavy tome—and I mean heavy in weight and wisdom—it is evident where she’s been, and if this isn’t selected for one of the top literary awards there is no justice in the universe and the rest of us struggling writers may as well dismiss any notion of arriving at one of those coveted plateaus.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration or too highfalutin to call this book Wilkerson’s magnum opus, though she expresses every indication of greater promise.  In short, Warmth of Other Suns is an extraordinary achievement and more than an engrossing response to historian James Gregory’s charge that there was no “comprehensive treatment of the century long story of black migration.”

For those of you who have had the privilege of reading some of her shorter pieces, this is more of the same.   Epic is a word in the book’s subtitle and it’s perfectly fitting because she has deftly and completely captured the narrative elements of creative nonfiction with absolutely scintillating episodes.   She presents an ever arresting point of view, descriptive language, freshly inventive metaphors, extensive character development, and tantalizingly instructive anecdotes, all of which blend into morsels of unforgettable lessons and incomparable teaching moments.

I thought I knew a lot about the travels and travails of the blues people during the several migrations from the southern badlands, but Wilkerson provides another vista of comprehension, something that in her distillation of facts and figures transcends, but pays respect to, the harrowing legacies of the slave narratives, the autobiographies of Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, and J.W.C. Pennington, “the fugitive blacksmith.”

Her riff on the picking of cotton is a tour de force and you can practically feel the prickly cups holding the fluffy bolls.   Here, Wilkerson recalls the ineffectiveness of Ida Mae Gladney—one of the three people she follows across time and space—in the cotton fields.  “She had never been able to pick a hundred pounds,” Wilkerson wrote.  “One hundred was the magic number.  It was the benchmark for payment when day pickers took to the field, fifty cents for a hundred pounds of cotton in the 1920s, the gold standard of cotton picking.  It was like picking a hundred pounds of feathers, a hundred pounds of dust.”

Later, to bring the snapshot of cotton picking into full focus, she notes, “It took some seventy bolls to make a single pound of cotton, which meant Ida Mae would have to pick seven thousand bolls to reach a hundred pounds.”  No matter the circumstance or event, Wilkerson illuminates them with brilliant back-stories obviously limned from the 1200 interviews she conducted.

But it’s her relentless pursuit of the journeys of her protagonists, Ida Mae, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster that is the scaffold over which she stretches her broad tapestry of African American history and the seemingly endless migration.   Getting to their destinations is spelled out with often gripping details, and there were times—given the riveting adventures they endured—that you didn’t want them to arrive too soon.

Foster’s drive to California, which anticipated many of the other migrants from Monroe, Louisiana, most notably basketball immortal Bill Russell and Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton, is an exhaustive, yet exhilarating experience.   Driving alone and deep into the western night with no idea where he was going, you tremble with him as he speeds from the menace of Jim Crow, knowing full well that he couldn’t outrace racism.

As Wilkerson recounts, the trails beyond the Mason and Dixon Line followed the Mississippi River, for those destined for Chicago, Detroit and other parts of the Midwest; went westward to California, as the families of Russell and Newton traversed; or up the eastern seaboard for those migrants whose final terminal was in the nation’s capital, Baltimore, New York, New Jersey, or Virginia, as Wilkerson’s family had ventured.

Reading the book reminded me of my mother’s flight from Alabama with two sons in tow.   Wilkerson’s vivid descriptions of the various trains from the South put me back again on the Illinois Central on our way to the Motor City, slicing boldly through the black velvet night.  I am sure many readers will say amen to similar scenes as their forefathers and foremothers sought roads and rivers in search of the so-called Promised Land.

The conventional wisdom is that most of the migrants were motivated to leave the South because of the devastation of the cotton farms, many of them ravaged by the boll-weevil.   For Wilkerson, the menace of the boll-weevil is not a primary factor, because thousands left locations where cotton was not king, but nightriders and the Ku Klux Klan were in abundance.   She lists a number of reasons why the migrants chose to seek their fortune elsewhere, including following relatives, getting better wages and earning a better living, or just sick and tired of the South.

In the twenties, she reports, nearly a million blacks departed from the South, almost double those who had fled during World War I.  “It did not stop in the thirties, when, despite the Depression, 480,000 managed to leave,” Wilkerson continued.  World War II, she noted, brought the fastest flow of black people out of the South in history, when nearly 1.6 million left during the 1940s.  “Another 1.4 million followed in the 1950s…and another million in the 1960s, when, because of the barefaced violence during the South’s desperate last stand against civil rights, it was actually more treacherous to leave certain precincts of the rural South than perhaps at any time since slavery.”

Warmth of Other Suns, a phrase she lifted from Richard Wright, is so richly textured with black history and culture that with each turn of the page there’s more astonishing information, more factoids and patches of politics, economics, and anthropology that is part Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington. 

Indeed, the book is loaded with literary magic, laced with engaging bromides, and sniffs of tall tales and folklore, but more than anything it’s blessed with a writer who has thoroughly investigated the byways and highways of the migrations from the South, who has read the literature and winnowed the spice, and whose family and life mirrors the paths she has trekked.

I’ll say it one more time, if this isn’t a winner or nominated for the top prizes in nonfiction, I’ll eat this review.   And I’ll do it, Ms. Wilkerson, without the benefit of asafetida.

Herb Boyd


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Trials of Zion

by Alan M. Dershowitz

Grand Central Publishing/Hachette | 340 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Alan M. Dershowitz is an amazing man, by anyone’s standards. and he has nothing to prove to anyone.  He’s one of the best known criminal and civil liberties lawyers and a staunch defender of Israel, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and author of hundreds of articles and 30 books.  According to the biography on his website, he has “written, taught and lectured about history, philosophy, psychology, literature, mathematics, theology, music, sports – and even delicatessens.”  A Renaissance man, in short.

But why does Dershowitz feel the need to pen a thriller?  To draw on his unique insights into the legalities at issue in the Mideast, to dramatize the troubled history and unclear paths to resolution?  To pave the way for a movie based on this book, as his book on the Claus van Bulow trial, Reversal of Fortune, succeeded in doing? I found a partial answer in the interview he gave to Hachette’s blogtalkradio on October 8th

.  Writers and lawyers, he says, have the same abilities: “Every lawyer has to know how to tell a story, present a narrative.”   Yes, but a good thriller, like a good wine, has many more elements mixed in: suspense, captivating characters capable of heroics, thematic development, unusual point of view.  He does a respectable job of it, in certain lights, but not one truthfully that would score more than a “4” in a blind tasting.

He sets his tale in Israel in the not-too-distant future (G-d forbid!) and populates the novel with movie star quality characters: Rendi, an enigmatic, exotic-looking, ex-CIA wife (Angelina Jolie?); Emma, your typical recent college grad: bright, fearless but still only half out of the nest (Nathalie Portman?); Habash, the enigmatic, exotic-looking modern-day Omar Sharif, a Christian Arab (Robert Pattinson?); and finally, Abe, the author’s stand-in, world-famous Jewish lawyer and family man (Paul Giamatti?).

The opening scene is terrific, the best thing about the novel, and I won’t spoil it here.  The plot then rolls along with a few twists and turns.  Dershowitz weaves in bits of history with the present action (acts of terrorism, courtroom dramas, criminal investigations).  We even get a love story of sorts between Emma and Habash – dare they?  Daren’t they?  One problem is that the characters are a bit tame.  Emma turns weepy and clingy just when it’s time for her to put on a Wonder Woman costume and do something heroic, or at least grown-up!  She’s a hotshot law school graduate yet she manages to get herself in trouble just in time to be rescued by Daddy.  She has a crush on her Arab boss but hardly seems to give thought to the repercussions, context, or future of such an affair.

 All by herself, she sets feminism back half a century.

  Habash sadly seems to be really, really boring, a bachelor whose life is set in stone at a young age, and someone who’s not given much to do once Daddy shows up.  Rendi is daring – we sense she could run rings around Abe and the others, but her murky past and former lovers make us wonder about her truthfulness and reliability.  Abe?  Well, what do you expect?  He’s our middle-aged hero who outsmarts everyone except his tactics don’t seem amazing enough to sustain the story!  Curiously, he seems unmotivated to investigate his wife’s past liaisons and their possible impact on the present situation. 

All in all, the story’s not thrilling enough for a thriller.  By the end, Abe (a/k/a Dershowitz), concerned, as a good Jewish father should be, with the welfare of his wife and daughter, seems in a great rush to fly home to safety and get away from all this Mideast mishegas.  Dershowitz, terminates his tale telling in a very abrupt manner.   He’s had his courtroom scenes and he wants to go home now.  Loose ends abound but no one seems to notice.  Emma, now that she’s finally gotten the attention of Habash, suddenly decides she can’t limit herself to one guy and runs off.  In best Nancy Drew fashion, she wonders what her next adventure will be (oh no, a sequel?)!  The ending of the story in no way matches the intensity of the beginning and leaves the reader asking, “That’s it???”

So what are we left with?  Theme: It’s complicated (in the Mideast).  Tangled past.  Hard to know whom to trust.  Two state solution = doomed?  Style: Dershowitz writes clearly, the book is well edited, and has some page turning quality. . . But like some wine that’s been poorly stored, there are too many pieces of dried out cork floating in the glass.

A word to the author: Again, why bother, Alan?  There’s others can do a much better job of it, and only you can do the kinds of things you do.

And to John Grisham: no need to comb Craigslist for a day job just yet. . .

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The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe

by J. Randy Taraborrelli

Grand Central Publishing | New York, NY, 2009 | 526 pages | $15.99

Reviewed by Jane M. McCabe

    Marilyn Monroe came from ordinary if somewhat odd people. Born on June 1, 1926, in the charity ward of Los Angeles General Hospital, she was the illegitimate daughter of Gladys Monroe, a woman whose mental instability was such that by the age of three, Norma Jean, as she was called, was placed in the foster home of Ida and Wayne Bolender, where she remained until she was nine years old.

   She was befriended by a friend of her mother’s, Grace McKee, who took custody of her. When Grace remarried she felt she had no choice but to place Norma Jean in an orphanage. It was Grace who saw her potential for show business and encouraged her to become an actress.

   Despite the phenomenon that Marilyn became and notwithstanding her extraordinary career in show business, her life was marred by tragedy, drug addiction and the kind of insecurity a person feels when abandoned at an early age. Both her grandmother and mother were mentally ill; her mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and spent most of her life in mental institutions. Both were given to hearing voices. Marilyn feared that this, too, would be her fate. For all her fame and adulation, she didn’t seem to enjoy much personal happiness.

   Sometimes I think it’s possible to learn more about history through reading biography than by reading history, for a good biography is like a window, a bird’s eye view, if you will, into the place where, and the times in which the person lived. Jan Swafford’s biography of Johannes Brahms is a window into 19th Century Venetian society. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s biography, American Prometheus, the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, not only chronicles the life of the brilliant American physicist who headed the United States’ effort to produce the atom bomb, but of his betrayal by the United States government in the 1950’s when the country was gripped by a fear of communism and anyone thought to be associated with it.

   As much as Taraborrelli’s recent biography reveals about Marilyn and the American film industry of the 1950’s and 1960’s, it also gives unflattering portraits of some of the people who dominated that era—the Kennedy’s, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller (Marilyn’s second and third husbands, respectively) but more about them later. It also reflects how psychotherapy was practiced during that time.

   In the wake of Sigmund Freud’s founding of psychoanalysis, and his promulgation of the Oedipal and hysteria theories, the 1950’s psychiatry proved to be a respectable field of medicine. Marilyn was one of a number of famous people who underwent years of psychoanalysis with somewhat dubious, perhaps even destructive, results. In her case, endless discussions of the traumas that had marred her childhood only furthered her confusion and anxiety. Since then, long-term psychoanalysis has ceased to be a common practice, replaced instead by short-term therapy and prescription medications.

   Due to her insecurities, Marilyn became overly dependent on those to whom she turned for help, whether it was her initial acting coach, Natasha Lytess, or her later coach, Paula Strasberg, the daughter of the famous Lee Strasberg, who established the “method” school of acting. When on the set, she often felt as though she couldn’t say her lines without her coach there.

   If one knows anything about the danger of transference between a therapist and his patient, one has to wonder about Marilyn’s relationship with her psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, and might find it bizarre that he encouraged her to live at his home (so that she would have a feeling of family).

Marilyn was not only exceptionally beautiful and extremely sexy; for the most part, she was also a kind-hearted and likeable person, someone who genuinely loved her mother despite her deficiencies (she consistently paid for her mother’s hospitalizations), her half-sister Bernice, and her friends. Yet she still felt alone and abandoned.

   Early in her career, she discovered that medications could help her sleep, quell the voices in her head and allay her anxieties. As time went on, she became more and more dependent on them. If she couldn’t get the medications she sought from one doctor she would go to another, and if denied again, she would buy them in Tijuana.

   Of her three husbands, only the second two merit discussion here. In 1952, when Marilyn was 26 years old and her career as a film star was ascending, she began dating the famous baseball player, Joe DiMaggio. The irony here is that Joe was not only Italian, but also the son of Sicilian immigrants. She could have hardly found a man with a more macho sensibility, and someone who wanted his woman to stay at home, bear children, cook and clean. By the end of the summer, he asked her to give up her career for him. She refused. Marilyn may have been weak and vulnerable, but she wasn’t stupid and she wanted to be a star more than anything.

   On January 14th, 1954 this mismatched couple, for whom the sexual attraction was intense, married in a civil ceremony in San Francisco. As much as they loved each other, their marriage was made unhappy by Joe’s demands and even violence, so that by October, Marilyn petitioned for divorce.

   One might think Arthur Miller, in contrast, would understand the importance of her career and therefore make a better husband to her, but such was not the case. They married in 1956. Miller was perhaps the greatest of American playwrights—I consider Death of a Salesman the greatest American play, a poignant commentary on the ugliness of the capitalist system. As a husband to gentle, vulnerable Marilyn he was something of a cold fish, seemingly lacking in the empathy she needed. At times he was even cruel. He picked on her a lot and by 1961 they, too, were divorced.

   As it turned out, Joe DiMaggio came back into Marilyn’s life when she was incarcerated in the mental ward of Payne Whitney in New York City. She was beside herself and was allowed to make one call. So she called Joe at the motel room where he was staying in Florida. He showed up at Payne Whitney that very night and demanded that Marilyn be released in his custody. This cemented their friendship but they did not become involved again romantically.

   Pat Kennedy Lawford, sister to JFK and Bobby Kennedy and the wife of Peter Lawford, became one of Marilyn’s best friends. Pat was drawn to the glamour and glitz that was Marilyn’s, whereas Marilyn longed for the security and financial stability enjoyed by Pat. The Lawford’s owned a home on the Santa Monica beach where they often entertained.

   In July 1960, Pat invited Marilyn to be present when her brother, John F. Kennedy, accepted the Democratic nomination for president. Through Pat, Marilyn met and dated both Bobby and JFK. Though the drugs she was taking had pretty much taken over by then, JFK may have precipitated her ultimate downfall. She only spent a couple of nights with him, but she fell in love. His rejection of her may have been the final abandonment which precipitated the overdose of drugs that killed her.

   On May 19th, 1962, a birthday party was thrown for JFK at Madison Square Garden, an event attended by many celebrities, including Marilyn Monroe. Engraved in our national memory is that of Marilyn, dressed in a white sequined dress that looked as though she had been poured into it, singing, “Happy birthday, Mr. President” to JFK. In less than three months she would be dead.

   I do not believe that Marilyn was murdered by the Kennedy’s, or anyone else. By the time she died, on August 4th, 1962, she was taking enough drugs to kill a horse.

   JKF was a notorious womanizer who often entertained women in the White House when Jackie was away. I cannot help contrasting the complicity of the White House staff then to the televised senate investigations Bill Clinton was subjected to because of his furtive, unrewarding liaison with Monica Lewinsky thirty years later, surely an indication of how prurient our society has become.

   Our fascination with Marilyn has diminished little since she died 48 years ago. Just as there are plenty of Elvis look-alikes but only one Elvis, so there have been plenty of look-alikes but only one Marilyn. No other actress possesses her combination of vulnerability, gorgeous looks and sex appeal. No other woman has ever been as photogenic nor had as many men fall in love with her as Marilyn Monroe. She is as much an American icon as Coca Cola and Mickey Mouse. No other actress had a sadder life.

   Marilyn’s mother outlived her by 40 years. Both Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller lived to ripe, old ages, DiMaggio dying at 85 in 1999, and Miller at 89 in 2002. Miller married a year after his divorce from Marilyn, but DiMaggio never remarried.

Jane M McCabe is a writer and painter who recently opened an art gallery in Taft, California. >

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by Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 2010 | 562 pages | $28.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

     Weird, isn’t it?  You’re reading Jonathan’s Franzen’s new novel Freedom, kicking into a pleasant reading groove, when you start to recognize yourself--specifically the way you talk—in the main character, Patty.  Scary.  Especially when you begin to understand why Patty talks this way, using slang and the word “weird” to undercut what others are saying and to convey everything from lethargy to anger.   “Weird” isn’t the correct word to use at all, it’s a misnomer in fact, but using the word only fuels Patty’s disdain for those around her (“they wanted sociopathic, they wanted passive-aggressive, they wanted bad.  They needed Patty to select one of these epithets and join them in applying it to Carol Monaghan, but Patty was incapable of going past “weird”).

     She’s maddening to be around and she knows it, but she flaunts her disregard by sealing herself up in a self-imposed cocoon of loneliness.  She doesn’t trust the caffeine-fueled righteousness of the suburban women around her, nor does she  trust the sides of the political “right” and “left.”  Yet we love her.  Or at least Franzen loves her because she’s complicated and because she’s stuck.  Because she says “weird” instead of saying what is required of a successful mother living in the suburbs.

   This deep distrust of pat emotions begins with Patty’s awkward relationship to her parents, Joyce and Ray Emerson, life-long Democrats who sacrifice their child’s well being for their beliefs.  They want artsy-fartsy, left-leaning offspring like Patty’s sister, Abby, but instead, in Patty, they end up with a jock.  Patty’s a basketball star, a tall and lean machine.  Although she excels at her sport, her parents consider her basketball prowess freakish (and call her coach “freakish,” mocking her as a lesbian, though her parents pretend to be open-minded liberals). 

    Her father is a lawyer, a “touchy-feely” Democrat, if you will, who is actually a racist.  He disparages the people he so “admirably” offers pro-bono services to.  Similarly, Patty’s mom is simply hungry for publicity when she runs for office.  When Patty tearfully tells her parents that she was raped, her parents believe her, yet don’t want her to press charges because they are friends with the young rapist’s parents. 

    Rather than speaking bluntly, what they want to say is, Patty, suck it up because your rapist’s parents can help your mother get elected—they have mind-numbing conversations with Patty to persuade her not to go to the police.  For this Patty hates them. And then you, as a reader—do you hate them, as well?

   It’s impossible to hate one person in the book without hating them all.  If you were to hate Patty’s parents, then you would have to hate Patty, too, and her husband, Walter, and Richard, the musician-lover who is a border-line sell-out, and then you’d have to hate Jessica, the daughter, and Joey, the son.  Oh, you could easily hate Joey most of all—he’s such a creep at times--but you don’t.  Somehow Franzen manages to make you care about all of them.

   Joey is so maddening and egocentric that you just want to shout at him through the book.  During his first few weeks of college, 9/11 occurs. Although he knows what’s happening—he views the towers collapse on TV—he goes to class anyway and is surprised that what has happened has changed everything.  He doesn’t want change, he wants a mellow college experience and sees 9/11 as a personal affront to his comfort. 

    What can one do when faced with a jerk like this?  He marries one woman, doesn’t tell anyone about it because he’s ashamed of her (but doesn’t even realize he’s ashamed of her), then he flies to a foreign country with some other gal, where he’s making negotiations to settle dirty truck parts to fuel the Iraq War.  Finally, he ends up with his hand in a toilet, searching among his feces for his wedding band.  It seems that Joey is heading right towards the toilet all along.  I was cringing when I read all this, yet I couldn’t stop reading the Joey parts.  It’s strangely engaging to read about someone so dizzyingly empty.  Yet, in the end, Joey comes off as not so bad—not by any miraculous turn-around, but rather because he doesn’t pretend to be anyone but himself all along.

   Then there is Walter, Joey’s Dad and Patty’s husband.  Walter may be the most sympathetic character in the book.  He longs for Patty when he’s first introduced to her from his cooler-than-thou, womanizer roommate, Richard.  Although Patty longs for Richard, through a series of events she ends up with the more even-keeled, deliberate Walter.  They make a life together—Walter adores her—but Patty’s mind is always elsewhere.  Eventually, Walter, an environmentalist, ends up working for an energy tycoon who wants him to set up a bird sanctuary, to save the Cerulean Warbler.  In order to do this, Walter compromises his beliefs by cutting down trees in West Virginia.  He’s attacked for his actions, yet he longs to do the right thing.

   When I lay this all out, it feels as if I’m writing about a grand soap opera and sometimes while I was reading the book it felt a bit like this.  Multiple generations are examined and the book alternates between characters, so you follow Patty for a while, then it sweeps to Richard, then to Joey, etc.  I could see a book group discussing the characters, ever arguing over whether they are “good” or “bad,” and in fact, Freedom is an Oprah Book Club pick, which, based on the shaky relationship between Franzen and Oprah, seems surprising.  His first book, The Corrections, was, and then was not, another Oprah pick.  

   Speaking of conversations—this book is packed with dialogue.  Dialogue is good.  Dialogue is also fun and I never thought I would say this, but in this book sometimes the dialogue can be overwhelming.  There are pages and pages of conversation.  The conversations mimic real, meandering conversations and the tone of the book rides a fine line between satire and realism.  There are plenty of places in the book where Franzen makes fun of our idiosyncrasies and haphazard, do-gooder instincts.  For example, Franzen seems to have great fun poking fun at Walter’s “population control”/music fest (there is a hilarious section where Walter and his cohorts are trying to decide what to call such a group), yet Freedom does not have the scathing quality of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, which shines an unmerciful light on the trappings of suburbia, nor does Franzen have David Sedaris’ light ironic touch, so the book lies somewhere between the two, balancing (sometimes uncomfortably) between styles.

   The writing is not lovely in and of itself—in fact, sometimes the sentences are stiff and awkward, but somehow the accumulation of this awkwardness amounts to loveliness.  I’m grateful for this.  So many writers purr out sentences as pretty and bland as a Pottery Barn catalogue.  But what’s the point if they’re not saying anything?  There’s so much crap and garbage in our world—well, at least when you read this book you might agree that there is—and Franzen is not afraid to tackle most of it. 

    He looks at the mess in Iraq, takes a special interest in the environment, talks about over-population, glumly suggests the music industry is nothing more than one big commercial, and even addresses our youth’s preoccupation with technology.  He takes a knife to his topics, skewering them and revealing all the tricks and deficiencies in our thinking about our country’s problems. 

            In spite of Franzen’s obvious virtuosity, there’s a rawness to this novel.  It’s certainly not for everyone.  Not everyone will want to read about Joey’s preoccupation with certain body parts or about Walter having what amounts to a nervous breakdown.  But there’s also an admirable bravery in the work.  Franzen doesn’t pussyfoot around.  He attacks the book like a sculptor working on his metal, tearing at his material with energy and zeal.  Freedom is a book with scabs on its knees and a raucous caw in its throat—not sublime or beautiful—but gutsy and full.

Sally Cobau is a writer, editor, and teacher.  She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with her husband and three young children.

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by China Mieville

Subterranean | October, 2010 | 935 words

Reviewed by Katherine Tomlinson

China Mieville's Kraken begins with the theft of a giant squid and the massive, formalin-filled tank where it was displayed at London's Darwin Centre.  The crime is so odd and so logistically complex—the dead squid was nearly nine meters long—that it baffles Billy Harrow, the curator of mollusks at the Centre and the man in charge of the crowd-pleasing exhibit, even more than it intrigues the police. 

The theft of the squid they called "Archie" (for its scientific name Architeuthis dux) leaves Billy oddly disoriented, as if something about the squid's presence had been anchoring him and now he's drifting free. 

Chief Inspector Baron, whose interest in the squid is not scientific at all, enlists Billy's aid in solving the crime, which seems to be related to both the theft of an obscure 19th century journal and a rising tide of apocalyptic prophesies threatening to engulf the city.  Before long, Billy is dragged into a world he never suspected existed below the surface of the city and sent on a journey that could end with the end of everything or the beginning of something else.

Before everything comes to its spectacular conclusion, Billy will have met the love of his life, a group of squid-worshiping cultists and a squad of apocalypse-chasing cops that are exceedingly over-matched as the gods take back the city that has always been theirs.

China Mieville is a writer who defies categorization and this is a book that's not easy to pigeonhole.  What Mieville does is called "New Weird," but Kraken is so much more than these two simple words can convey—it's an urban fantasy married to a neo-noir sensibility that's served up with a strong sense of humor and geek pride.  Ultimately, it's just easiest to call this Mieville's latest book and leave classification to the librarians.

Billy is very much a reluctant hero who wishes he could just go home and go to bed until the whole event blows over.  Unlike his colleagues, who think the theft and the subsequent discovery of a murder is the most interesting thing that's happened in London since the turn of the century, Billy is simply troubled by the goings on. 

The only upside for him is the presence of the rude, but oddly alluring, PC Kath Collingwood.  Billy can't quite figure her out, but then, his whole world has been overturned.  Nothing is what it seems, and suddenly the city he lives in seems as alien to him as an outpost on Mars.

"The streets of London are synapses hard-wired for worship," one character explains to Billy as it becomes obvious that London is filled with literal gods who are rousing and rising and claiming their followers who adore their various deities with rites both odd and arcane.  London itself becomes a multi-dimensional grid where religious acts intersect with crime, and fantastical moments become mundane. 

Much as he did with The City and the City, Mieville creates a city that inhabits several overlapping dimensions and this metropolitan multiplicity allows for a variety of apocalypses to develop.  "It is," as one character says, "the ends of the world."  Or maybe not…

The fate of London—indeed the world—depends on the Londonmancers and the Angels of Memory and everybody else who joins the fray, which goes "meta" before Billy finds himself at sea—both literally and metaphorically, trying to commune with a cryptic god, a living Tattoo and a group of shape-shifting magical familiars (they prefer the term "magicked assistants") who have gone on strike. 

Tattoo, by the way, is one of the most chilling villains we've seen in a long while.  Fans of Vampire Hunter D may recognize him as a version of the parasitic face D and that's a reference that fits right into a story that riffs on everything from Star Trek to Charles Darwin.  Mieville is a literary writer working in genre fiction who is not afraid to appeal to genre fans even as he spins his fantastic tale.  (Think Neil Gaiman on crack.)

The characters are well drawn, especially Billy, who is our initially skeptical guide on this off-the-map tour of London.  He, in turn, is dragged toward enlightenment by his colleague Dane, who is pursuing his own destiny and encounter with the godhead.  Dane is a man of action in contrast to Billy's man of reaction and he's a bracing presence and one of the few characters who is (mostly) exactly what he appears to be.  The two women in the story—Saira the Londonmancer and Kath the cop—can both see the signs and portents that have appeared all over the city and in their individual ways and with their particular magic, they work toward a resolution of the crisis.

The genius of the narrative is that Mieville has anchored all the weird stuff with a perfectly routine police procedural where the police (and Billy) follow up leads and chase down clues and uncover information.  The cops who're investigating the theft of the squid and the scientific journal and the murder may not be ordinary cops, but the way the investigation plays out will be familiar to anyone who watches CSI.

Kraken is possibly Mieville's most accessible novel to date, despite the slip-streaming plot elements and his complete disregard for novelistic conventions. Readers will be delighted by the wordplay, enlightened by the research that informs the story and just plain entertained by the read.

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