"Fight No More: Stories" by Lydia Millet (W.W. Norton & Company, 2019)

Not a short story lover.  But there are some that tell a longer story episodically.  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is like this.  The chapters stand alone.

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I dove into Fight No More with the advice from a reviewer that this book of short stories (finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) was episodes in a longer story.  It was, sort of.  The writing is excellent.  I could see the characters and their situations.  But they did not engage me.  All the stories are dark, and all the characters have pain and suffering in their past lives: The Holocaust, familial rape, drugs/alcohol, internet porn.  Naturally this leads to pain and suffering in their present lives, though you do hope that Lexie and Jem escape.  Not likely.

If you like the short story genre, this book will be a good read.  For me, it was a good bedtime read because most stories are short.  Plots are not “resolved”, but neither is life.  These are well made YouTube videos: on and off.  Millet is a prolific writer and I’ll try one of her novels for comparison.  
 

“Reconstruction: A Concise History” by Allen C. Guelzo (Oxford University Press, 2018)

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“The twelve years that are the conventional designation of the Reconstruction period, from 1865 to 1877, teem with associations and developments that seem regrettable, if not simply baleful.”

Massive tomes have been written about the history of the Reconstruction.  Guelzo pockets it into 130 pages, if you choose to ignore the supplements.  It’s a wonder that the U.S. survived as a nation.  Guelzo’s narrative is concise, but not snappy—it’s a bit of a tough read because so much is crammed onto every page.  

The best predictor of the future is the past.  So, we read history, understanding it is one person’s interpretation of the past.  So much of what we see today flows from those 12 years of chaos.  Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice President proved to be the antithesis of Lincoln.  He was a Southerner from Tennessee.  His direct actions overrode Congress’s attempts to set up an orderly transition from war to productive peace.  Instead, former Confederate officers stepped into positions of power and eventually drove out the “Carpetbaggers” from the North.  Johnson was impeached in March 1877, but the measure did not pass.  In November, Ulysses S. Grant was elected, a flawed man with no political experience.

The Supreme Court took advantage of weak executive and legislative leadership, carving new powers for itself.  They became the arbiter of efforts to bring North and South together, more often driving them further apart.  In 1883, the overturned Sumner’s Civil Rights Bill, a deed not rectified until Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.

Though southern blacks were almost immediately elected to new legislative bodies in the South, they proved unable to formulate and negotiate favorable legislation.  They were too poorly educated and underfunded.  No charismatic leader arose from among them who could have led a more effective effort.  Slavery proved no training ground for politics.

Guelzo, in the end, endorsed the theory that the U.S. would have fared much better if the rebellious states had been held and managed by the victorious North until arrangements were made for the integration of the former slaves and the infrastructure rebuilt.  Instead, we proved true to our American need to “get it done” and left the South in shambles for both freed people and whites.

I was enlightened by Reconstruction.  It deserves a second read, but not for a while…


 

"Transit" by Rachel Cusk (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)

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How do you categorize a novel in which the protagonist mostly listens and observes the actions of others, not judgmentally, almost like a psychiatrist who has no control except her ability to stay or leave?

Transit episodically tells the tales of people who surround Faye, the protagonist, a writer.  The book opens with a spam email from an astrologer informing her that an important transit of the planets will save her from the feeling insignificant.

 "What the planets offer, she said, is nothing less than the chance to regain faith in the grandeur of the human: how much more dignity and honour, how much kindness and responsibility and respect, would we bring to our dealings with one another if we believed that each and every one of us had a cosmic importance?"

Faye purchases the chart, then proceeds to act insignificantly throughout the book.  Her encounters with her realtor, who helps her purchase a flat in London, her remodeler, her abusive neighbors below, her former lover, her fellow writers, her children, her cousin—all of whom seem to have some cosmic importance, reveal Faye’s Zelig-like ability to avoid confrontation, much less make an impression.  Her role is to allow them to reveal their stories, one chapter apiece.  

Transit is short and crisply written.  I enjoyed it and recommend it.  

"Haunt", Poems by Ryan Meyer, Amazon 2018

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Teraphilia means love of a monster.  Ryan Meyer likely enjoys this condition and writes poems to the monster under his bed that he wished would come out and play.  In Dear Demon, he concludes,

“Crawl out from under my bedframe
Whenever you feel safe enough.
There’s no need to feel afraid:
I won’t bite.”

And in The Boogeyman Lives, Meyer tears down our image of this ogre and ends with,

“Most of all, he isn’t human, he isn’t
A metaphor for your Earthly fears.
He is much, much more than that.
He does in fact wait for you,
Underneath your bed.”

Embracing the macabre, Ryan makes every poem a slice of the dark side, the unknown and unknowable, leaving us closer to the subject but still in the dark.  Because this is where the fun is for those who enjoy the unearthly.  The poems, written in free verse, lend themselves to reading aloud, some even conjure up a group around a campfire, anticipating a good scare.

Meyer’s descriptions conjured memories for me.  The Gusts of a Tempest brought back the pond on the farm.

“This silence grew louder during
Our pause, settling around us like silt
At the bottom of a pond…”

Anyone who ever walked in pond muck never forgets--and to compare silence to the silken terror that envelopes your feet and legs gives it such strength.  In He Looked Like Me, we “shrug off anxieties...like a rain poncho”.  In Sour, a woman “lets her inhibitions slide down the surface of the bar”.  The poems are full of graphic word-images.

I am not a poet, nor a student of poetry, so cannot critique the literary qualities of Haunt.  But I am a reader and enjoyed most every poem, thinking of where they could live again as a Halloween greeting card, or paired with an illustration or as the inspiration for a film.  Some of the poems will haunt me.

"Nora Webster", a novel by Colm Tóibín (Scribner, 2014)

Irish novels tend to be a bit melancholy, with the local environment heavily influencing the characters.  Not so much Dublin, but the small towns are like hives—closely quartered, each knowing the others’ business.

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Thus, Nora Webster begins her life as a middle-aged widow, two children grown and two still at home.  The story has no big climax, just the natural ups and downs of growing children, helpful family and friends, and a town that knows everything you do.  Lack of privacy is Nora’s angst.  When her husband was alive, she shadowed her life under his, with perfect contentment.  Now, she is visible, a person of interest.  

Skillfully woven in the background is the beginning of the Irish “troubles”.  Catholics in Northern Ireland are beginning to march, demanding more representation and the cessation of British oppression.  It’s clear that politics plays an important, but underlying role.

Tóibín does nothing to glamorize the lives of his characters.  It’s the late 60’s, and Nora does not even have a telephone, an early reveal about her personality.  But few complain about this, even though they become involved in relaying messages and substituting for phone booths.  The community cares.  And Nora develops a single life on her terms, both private and public.

The book is 375 pages that flew by.  The writing is so solid, the characters so grounded and the plot, though not surprising, pulls you along.  Highly recommended for a gentle summer read.
 

"Physical Festival" Chicago 2018

This is our fourth year of attending the festival.  Some pieces burned brighter, some exploded.

 Demons of PTSD

Demons of PTSD

Nobody’s Home by Theatre Temoin & Grafted Code Theatre (U.K., U.S.)

We hear so much about PTSD – could it really be as bad as painted?  Granted, there must be degrees, but this 50-minute piece featuring two performers as returned-vet husband and at-home, pregnant, wife, delivers intensity of feeling with a gut punch. Click here for Amy Munice's review on Picture This Post.

 

 Eric Davis, The Red Bastard

Eric Davis, The Red Bastard

The Red Bastard: Lie with Me (New York)

"Body and Motion Theater" defines the buffoon, "a character living at the fringe of society, daring to say what others won’t. Many times the one to tell us a painful truth while the rest prefer to live in a lie."

Oh lord, The Red Bastard did just that.  He  leads the audience down his seductive path until we all admit we are liars.  After all, who really has read all the verbiage in the multiple "terms and conditions" which we agree to on a computer program or website? As he licks his fingers in tasty enjoyment of our admissions, we can’t wait to see him hoist another of us on his petard. 

Eric Davis's performances are sold out year after year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  No wonder, we laughed and laughed, even as he revealed our willingness to lie, lie, lie.

In the second half of the performance, Davis sheds his red garb and we lose the enchantment of theater to not-so-funny improv with several audience members.   Next time, just more buffooning, please.

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Drunken Half-Angel featuring Michael Montenegro of Chicago

Short vignettes feature a local genius of physical theater, Michael Montenegro.  I loved the masks and puppetry, but found it disjointed.  Here's Nate Hall's review from Picture This Post.

 

The Other by Gael Le Cornec (Brazil/France)

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Hers is a story of immigration, separation, loss and insanity.  The narrative is woven by shadow puppets, a doll that represents an abandoned child used as a puppet , and narration by Le Cornec.  The story is powerful.  If we were not reading about this every day, the performance might have more impact. For me, it was difficult to become involved when stories of children ripped from their parents are in our headlines every day.  I'm jaded to this tragedy. 

Shadow puppets are a difficult medium, requiring precise coordination between the lighting designer, the puppeteer and the large or small puppets.  In this instance, the puppets seemed to be designed to appear childish and unfinished--like they might have been torn out of paper in a detention camp.  The puppets became the medium to tell about beating and probably rapes suffered at the hands of the guards. further distancing reality.  Unfortunately, the shadow puppet sequences were laced with technical problems, which distracted everyone.  A talented performer, but the execution was spoiled.

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Little Soldier Productions (Spain/UK)

 Don Quixote runs down a windmill.

Don Quixote runs down a windmill.

Can you squeeze the whole of Don Quixote into an hour performance?  Well, these three talented performers, accompanied by a Spanish guitarist (For no apparent reason, except that she plays a good classical guitar.) attempt to capture the essence of the masterpiece in silly scenes, mostly on a small platform stage.  They are acrobats as well as actors, and use their bodies to become horses, houses, whores, heros.  But it's likely that, like me, they never read the book.

The setup is a good excuse for lots of romping fun, including an audience-involving pillow fight.  Aside from some good laughs, the magic did not happen for me.  But my sister-in-law has studied Don Quixote, and she loved this much abbreviated version.  I couldn't even make it through the Cliff Notes of Don Quixote.   Perhaps it played better in Spain or the UK where the Don is required reading.  

Onward to 2019 and more physical theater.

The Road to Little Dribbing: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson, (Doubleday, 2015)

Crammed with things you’ll enjoy as he travels from Bognor Regis in the South to Cape Wrath in the North of Scotland.  Bill Bryson is funny.  Not what you would expect from a Des Moines, Iowa native who spent most of his adult life in the U.K., much of it in senior copy and editing positions with the The Times and The Independent.  It must have been galling for the British reporters to take direction from an American.

Bryson returns to his strongest theme in Little Dribbing—the joys of travel among the annoying idiosyncrasies of his adopted country.  Unlike Paul Theroux, who makes you not want to visit the countries about which he entertainingly writes, Bryson revels in the beauty of the UK, the ignorance of British clerks, and the unique history of minor lay-bys that dot his island's highways and byways. 

I’ve read most every book of Bryson’s—he’s that kind of writer.  Not one who produces series thrillers or mysteries, but one from whom you will effortlessly learn in beautifully written prose.  And, if you want to take on a 500-page science education (A must for those of us educated 50 years ago by the RSCJ’s.), A Short History of Nearly Everything is a must read.  Also suggest that you read Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island prior to Little Dribbing

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Book Reviews - a Winter Collection

Five Skies by Ron Carlson, (Penguin, 2008

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The beautiful skies of the high plateau in Southern Idaho are the tableau against which Carlson draws this compact tale of three lonely men who come together to construct a reality TV set.  Each has a difficult background:  Darwin, death of a spouse; Art, death of a brother and Ronnie, petty criminal.  The opportunity of a summer job with good pay brings them to the Idaho plateau where they establish camp and a work rhythm.  The set reveals as it is built, without much focus on the production itself.  The focus is on the development of trust, friendship and grief.  Highly recommended.

 

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Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crises and the Fate of the West by Wlliam Drozdiak (W. W Norton & Company Ltd., 2017)

Taut read that covers a lot of territory—almost all of Europe.  In journalist style, Drozdiak delivers most pertinent 21st Century history about 13 European countries and Washington D.C.  How different it is today that at the close of the 20th Century when a united Europe seemed almost a certainty.  His thesis is that the rise of nationalism within the European countries has weakened the strength of numbers, threatens global trade, and leaves them weak and susceptible to Russian interference, if not takeover.  This is a good read if you follow U.S. and European current events and sometimes cannot figure out “the back story”.

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Elizabeth Bishop:  A Miracle for Breakfast by Megan Marshall, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

This is a new biography of Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979), one of the U.S.’s greatest poets.  She was born in Lowell, MA.  Her father died when she was one and her mother was committed to an asylum when she was five.  She was raised by her mother’s family in Nova Scotia, a time she recalls fondly.  Her father’s wealthy family brought her to U.S. for a boarding high school and Smith College.   Early on, she acknowledged she was lesbian and had lots of lady friends throughout school.  Her great love was an architect from Brazil, Lota de Macedo Soares.  Elizabeth lived off and on in Brazil for years, and the country influenced her writing.  Her actual literary output was small, but perfect—100 poems.  She won the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize and was U.S. Poet Laureate in 1959.

This biography is written by one of Bishop’s students at Harvard, so there are interesting insights into her professional life as well as her difficult, personal life.  If you are into poetry, this is a good read.

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The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey by Salman Rushdie (Picador, 1987)

A short book that I listened to in the car, it was Rushdie’s first non-fiction book.  It details his three-week visit to Nicaragua in 1979, while the Sandinistas were in power.  He was invited by an arts organization, and in a style reminiscent of Paul Theroux, does little to paint a pretty picture of what he finds.  On the one hand, life is better, more democratic (if that means better) for the mestizos and indios.  On the other, the Sandinistas were enjoying power and money much the same way that that powerful people do.  Ties were close with Cuba, and the U.S., supporting the Contras, was hated.  

At the end of the book, there is an Epilogue that Rushdie wrote in the 90’s when the book was republished.  That should be read first to really benefit from the content of the book.  It provides the perspective of time.  Eventually the sanctions imposed by the U.S. choked the Nicaraguan economy and the Sandinistas were democratically voted out of power.  A good little book if you like history in the Americas.

Phineas Finn: The Irish Member by Anthony Trollope, originally published as a serial October 1867 to May 1868 in St Paul's Magazine, London, England.  Read by Librovox.org.

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Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope were contemporaries in the U.K. literary world.  So why is Dickens a household name and most readers have not heard of Trollope?  Some say Dickens was a more creative writer, with memorable characters and a unique knack for portraying hardscrabble London and general misery.  Trollope is gentler, easier to read (for me).  Dickens is the fruit cake and Trollope the egg custard—both lovely, but in different ways.  Trollope’s 40 novels usually run in series, and there is enjoyment in tracing the characters who appear, downstage, front and center, then in another book, upstage, a marginal figure.  

Phineas Finn is part of Trollope’s Pallisar Series.  Finn is Irish, a unique hero in any mid-19th century British book.  It deals with both British parliamentary politics of the 1860's, including voting reform (secret ballot and eliminating rotten boroughs and Irish tenant-rights) and Finn's romances with women of fortune, which would secure his financial future.  The education and the romance are never heavy-handed.  These would be excellent books to read to children as my grandmother did for me with Dickens’s novels.  They are also good books for listening.  They are large and heavy to tote as print books; and, if you miss a paragraph or two on the recording, it’s no big thing.  Recommended