Thursday, March 28, 2013

Internal News: 3-28-13



Greetings, all! Let us do a roundup of where I've written things lately that haven't been here. First up...

At Persephone Magazine:



Wow, that was a lot of P-Mag updating.

Here are some recent Notes From Elsewhere at Word Riot:




And Finally! Little Fiction's Listerature Vol. 2 has story from yours truly called "Rust."

I think that's it! If I did these roundups more often, I might actually remember everything more easily. Until next time...

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division
by Peter Hook

Rock bios used to be one of the main types of books I read and the first section of the bookstore I would visit. After awhile, I grew tired of the poorly-written ones — accounts that were either overly fawning without introspection, or maybe they were inaccurate, or perhaps they held too much of a grudge. One's music taste is highly personal, and it bothers me to see someone do a poor job with material that I love. Still, there are great music-related books out there, and certain subject matter is always going to get my attention. For instance, Just Kids by Patti Smith goes above and beyond (though it's not strictly about music), and I quite enjoyed Willie Nelson's recent Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die. It seems that the better music biographies are written by those who lived through their subject matter, but that's not always a sure bet either. Music and memoir meet at a difficult intersection, is all I'm trying to say.

Rock from the North of England is one of those subjects that consistently holds my interest, which is no surprise to anyone who has paid any attention to my writing. Upon discovering Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, I knew it was a book I needed to read. Peter Hook, bassist for Joy Division and New Order, has produced a satisfying, insightful account of the formation of Joy Division up until singer Ian Curtis' suicide. 33 years have passed since Curtis hanged himself, and perhaps those decades have provided an adequate amount of time to gain some perspective. Hook writes in a relatively grudge-free and informal way, and ghostwriters (if one is to read between the lines in the acknowledgments) further flesh out the timeline in italicized paragraphs between sections.

I am not begrudging the use of a ghostwriter or two, to be clear. Musicians are not always natural prose writers, but that shouldn't prevent them from telling their story. It is merely the difference in writing styles that alerted me to an additional writing presence. Consider this paragraph:

On May 29, 1977, at the Electric Circus, the band played their first-ever gig, supporting Penetration and the Buzzcocks. Tony Wilson was in the audience, as well as Paul Morely, who by this time was writing for NME and was impressed by Warsaw's “twinkling evil charm.” “The bass player had a moustache,” he later wrote. “I like them and will like them more in six months' time.” Photographer Kevin Cummins was also there, as well as Steve Shy of local fanzine Shy Talk; John the Postman, who led the crowd in a rendition of “Louie Louie” at the end of the night; and punk poet John Cooper Clarke, who performed after Warsaw.

Warsaw, by the way, was one of Joy Division's previous names, after they'd changed it from Stiff Kittens. Now, read the account of the same evening written by Peter Hook:

Anyway back to our first gig. Clueless or not, we got set up. The changing rooms were in the old projection rooms. (Not that we ever changed clothes as such — in fact, we used to look down on bands who did. I bet those bands on the Alex James program “change” … ) I remember we walked down the steps to the stage, and Ian saying, “We're not Stiff Kittens. We're Warsaw,” and that was it — we were off — and I can't remember a thing more about it because I was so frightened. When we came off we felt we'd done okay and there was a lot of relief that we'd got through it, that first step of playing in front of people. Because it's the weirdest sensation: I mean, I find it pretty weird even when I do it now, to be honest …

The writing styles are quite different, aren't they? Most of the book is indeed in Hook's voice, but I think it's all right to include the information he can't remember, rather than having him pretend that he can. We go on and on about honesty in memoir, so why not let another writer help you research? Yes, it's a bit strange when it's your own life, but compared to the absence of that information, can the reader really complain?

Another way the book provides additional detail is through press clippings and commentary from audience members who were present at some of the old shows, who now frequent joydiv.org's message board — a site whose layout looks unchanged from its 1998 origins. Still, fair play to the die-hards, and fair play for consulting with an unofficial site because there is something to be said for having an outside view.

There are some photos and artwork interspersed throughout the book, but the nearly 400 pages are text-heavy, which is great to see for a period of only a few years. The cover is also gorgeous — a black-on-black reproduction of the Unknown Pleasures album cover, fitted with a separate white band featuring a band photo and the book's title. The page edges are also dyed black. The web-sized image I have embedded here does not quite do it justice. It's just one more way that the book spends a lovely amount of attention to detail.

Okay, yes, yes — I've gone on about what the book looks like, who wrote it and other miscellany, but what of the actual content of the book itself? As I said before, 33 years have passed and have provided Hook with some perspective, and though he's the first to admit that he could be a wild, laddish-type, he is not angry about the same things anymore. One of the highlights for me was Hook's willingness to say, repeatedly, “He was right, and I was wrong.”

[Producer] Martin [Rushnet]'s big thing was still clarity. He always said that for a recording to have a lasting effect and impact it had to have clarity and separation. Now, remember: me and Barney [guitarist Bernard Sumner] still didn't like the sound of Unknown Pleasures. I mean, I suppose that by then we'd grudgingly accepted that it was a great album, and knew that part of that was due to the work Martin had done, but it still wasn't how we heard Joy Division. We wanted a harder, harsher, more metallic sound, like a group playing in a garage with metal walls, like the Stooges or Velvet Underground. He wanted us to sound like — how did he describe it? — adult gothic music or something. 
Well, he was right and we were wrong. Sorry, Martin, if you're up there. But it didn't stop us bitching at the time because he'd make us play the song then take it apart.

Barney went on to be in New Order too, and more than once, Hook references clashes of personality that they've had over the years, and how they've grown into different people. However, he does not belittle his former bandmate, nor does he go out of his way to speak poorly of him. There isn't a sense of trying to “get back at him,” and things like teasing him about bringing a sleeping bag along or hogging the space heater in freezing rooms are the same sort of teasing one would probably do to any bandmate.

I point this out — and this is certainly an aside unrelated to Unknown Pleasures, but bear with me — because this perspective and even-handedness is certainly not present in Tony McCarroll's book about his time in Oasis, in which he jabs at everything about Noel Gallagher, save his songwriting, while everyone else comes out mostly unscathed. There is a grudge, an attempt at trying to “prove” something, and reading this other Northern band account, I had to wonder, if we gave McCarroll another decade, would he not be quite so angry? Or am I comparing apples to oranges? Probably, but again, if you know my writing, everything music comes back to Noel Gallagher at some point — a quirk/narrow-focus of mine for which I make no apologies, but do openly acknowledge.

Perhaps death has a way of forcing perspective onto a person, even more so than time. Hook does an excellent job of talking about Ian's growing problems — marriage troubles, epilepsy, fatherhood while near-broke — without speculating too much. Ian Curtis began frequently having seizures during gigs, yet would often come back on stage when he'd “recovered.” The saddest lines in the entire book are when Hook talks about why the band did not slow down:

Guess what? We brought him round, he said he was all right, and we carried on. I should call the book that, shouldn't I? He Said He Was All Right So We Carried On.

How could they know what was coming? They couldn't, of course, and their success, while slow-building at first, had transformed into a marathon sprint.


With hindsight you can look back and say that he wasn't going to be right at any gig, whether in America or in outer space. Even so, the idea of canceling or rescheduling America never came up.
We were so excited about going, so wound up about it and desperate to do it. Ian, the fan of the Doors and Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and Burroughs, especially. I don't care what Genesis P-Orridge says, he was looking forward to going. I mean, we had so much going for us then. The word was getting out that we were a great group to see live. We had “Love Will Tear Us Apart” up our sleeve. We were on our way up. 
That's what always gets me about what he did. Sometimes you can see just why he did it, and it makes a kind of sense. 
Other times, it just makes no fucking sense at all.

I'm not going to parrot Joy Division's timeline or talk about the book in terms of a “plot.” As far as its place in the world of rock bios, I believe Peter Hook has written a book that is as honest as he can manage, and it's also a fitting tribute to his departed friend. If you want to know more about Joy Division, from a man who was in it, about everything from the formation, the songwriting, and the silliness that was also present in the process, read Unknown Pleasures.



Full Disclosure: !t Books sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

#12

This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

This post now also appears on Persephone Magazine.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch

Dora: A Headcase
by Lidia Yuknavitch
(Introduction by Chuck Palahniuk)


A Declaration: Lidia Yuknavitch has done more for “the body as art form” than anyone in recent memory. (Maybe that's not accurate, but I feel that way, so let's roll with it.) Her memoir, The Chronology of Water, is all about her own body, the brutal beauty in what can happen to a body, and her novel, Dora: A Headcase, explores similar sensations. She dedicates the book to “every teen who ever got treated like something was wrong with them when really they were opening the portal for all of us.” What we need, this books seems to say, is to feel like we are heard.

Dora is the story of Ida, a modern version of Sigmund Freud's case study of a teenage girl. Ida Bauer was her real name, and Dora, her pseudonym. The controversial study was published in 1905. Yuknavitch takes the character of Ida/Dora and tells the story from her point-of-view. She wears a Dora the Explorer backpack, wishes her mother wasn't so pharmacologically distant, that her father wasn't sleeping with the neighbor, Mrs. K, and that Mr. K hadn't hit on her when she was 14. Or maybe does like that he did, for the power she felt she had over him. She's not entirely sure. But probably, she wishes he hadn't.

You know what? Seventeen is no place to be. You want to get out, you want to shake off a self like an old dead skin. You want to take how things are and chuck it like a rock. You pierce your face or tattoo your skin — anything to feel something beyond the numb of home. You invent clothes other people think are garbage. You get high. You meddle with sexuality. You stuff your ears with earbuds blasting music so loud it's beyond hearing, it's just the throb and heat and slam and pound and scream of bodies on the edge of adult. You text your head off. You guerrilla film. We live through sound and light — through our technologies. With our parents' zombie life dope arsenal at our fingertips.
I'm not a criminal. 
I'm just a daughter. I'm not sick. 
I.  
Just. 
Need. 
Out.

Sometimes, Ida/Dora loses her voice. Even if she wanted it to, no sound comes. Her father sends her to a psychologist — “Sig” or “Siggy,” she calls him. “If anyone ever tells you that going to see a shrink is therapy? Tell them to suck a fart out of your sweet asshole. It's not therapy,” she says. “It's epic Greek drama. You gotta study up. You got to bring game.” She says a lot of things that are exaggerated, just to get him riled and scribbling more notes.

She has a group of close friends, and she's constantly recording sounds (including Sig) and making video footage. She and her friends always have some project going, and they always have drugs to share. They are kind and steadfast to one another. “We share bodies. We make art attacks.” Mostly, she is face-hot-brain-melt-in-love with her friend Obsidian.

Obsidian with the blackest long hair in ever falling in lines over her right eye. My desire. I vibrate, but it isn't my cellphone. 
Oh, and yours truly. Dora the Explorer. Pathetic virgin with a hot hard one for a girl with the name of a black glass stone.

Her main mother-figure in life, outside of her blood-related one, is Marlene, a woman who only works as a biological man, a TSA agent at the airport. Marlene has old books, knows four languages, and calls her “Lambskotelet.” “She laughs and laughs — a deep throaty Rwandan one,” Dora says. “If you've never heard a Rwandan laugh, you are missing something mega-cool.”

When Lidia Yuknavitch writes about women, queer characters, and other minorities and fringe people, I never feel like she's doing it in a “Look how diverse I am!” self-congratulatory way. Dora and her friends, I know these people. They are of this world and stunning and interesting. They have so many plans, and they find their limiting circumstances irritating. They make do — they try to find the cracks in those “normal” foundations. They are also builders, and I love that.

I also love how Dora's body is not skirted from view just because she is 17. Think about when you were 17. Your own desire, your roughness and your secrets were not hidden from your own view. And this, being Dora's story, is not going to try and make that realness more palatable for your so-far-from-17 sensibilities. And it's okay. Just because this is a young person and a real body that knows the relief of a good piss does not mean it's all about sex. In fact, that's part of the point. Sig tries to bring sexuality into everything, and Dora says to him, “Jeez Sig, can you even make a sentence without your own cock in it?”

I imagine that there are many references to Freud and Jung (yes, he makes an appearance too), the real ones, if I already knew more about them. I'm sure this book is quite fun for the psych student. However, with my basic knowledge of the two and very little about the real case itself, I absolutely loved this book. It's one of those that I wanted to gobble up, and I read it quickly while on vacation in, of all places, Disney World. What would Freud and Jung make of that?

Read Dora, and if you haven't already, read The Chronology of Water. Your brain and your heart will thank you.



Full Disclosure: Hawthorne Books provided this e-book for review. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

#11

This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Before The Poison by Peter Robinson


Before The Poison
by Peter Robinson

Over the past year or so, I've been sucked into non-American crime, spy, and mystery stories, though more in my Netflix-provided series binging, and a little less so in my reading. MI-5/Spooks, Prime Suspect, Wallander (both Swedish and English versions), and a smattering of other similar shows have filled my time while I wait for new episodes of Doctor Who (March 30!). So even though my usual reading habits fall into that vaguely defined genre of “literary fiction,” I've decided to occasionally venture out into other word neighborhoods, this time with British mystery writer Peter Robinson.

Before The Poison is the story of Chris Lowndes, a well-off film score composer who has just returned to England after the death of his wife. He's lived in the States for twenty-five years, and he feels like he needs a change and the space to work on some non-film related music. Just outside a small Yorkshire town, he buys an old mansion, Kilnsgate House. The remoteness of it feels both fitting and unsettling, even more so when he discovers that a man was supposedly murdered there fifty years before.

Grace Fox was tried and hanged for poisoning her doctor husband, Ernest, despite there being only circumstantial evidence for her guilt. This story, for a number of reasons, makes Chris curious about what really might have happened, and finding out becomes a project for him. Is it a distraction from his grief? Yes. Is he okay with that? For now. However, the strange feelings he's having about Grace Fox's case and his wife are leaving him unable to get a good night's rest.


I knew there was no point in lying there. I had to do something, make some tea, watch a movie, anything.

As I finally stumbled toward the stairs, I noticed that the door to the bedroom opposite mine, the guest room, was slightly ajar. I could have sworn I had closed it after my tour of the house, and I hadn't been back there since. Puzzled, I wandered over and gave it a gentle push.

I couldn't be certain that I saw it, but just for a moment I thought I glimpsed a figure reflected in the wardrobe mirror. I knew it couldn't be me because the angle was all wrong. It wasn't a frightening figure. In fact, I had the impression that it was a beautiful woman in a long satin nightgown. She was standing still, as if deep in thought, or shock, staring at something, then suddenly she dashed away, simply disappeared.

It was all over in a split second, and when I tried to piece it all together afterward, I decided it must have been a carry-over from my dream. There were shadows in the old house. 

Chris' family and friends are a bit concerned for him, how this visit into the past seems to eat up a lot of his time, but for the most part they let him run with it. He begins talking with some of the locals, a few of whom are old enough to have known Grace Fox while she was still alive, and he also looks into books and newspaper articles published about the trial.

Instead of making Chris relay all this information to us, Robinson instead writes chapters that are from those research materials, and it provides an alternative viewpoint from a man who can't quite make up his mind about whether Grace actually did murder her husband. At one point, we get to read diary excerpts from Grace herself, with the means by which they are acquired not revealed until later in the book. During World War II, Grace was a nurse stationed on a boat headed to Asia, a position that began rather quietly before the war escalated in that corner of the world.


Monday, January 12, 1942
I heard that Kuala Lumpur fell yesterday. It can only be a matter of time now. Guns facing the sea are not much use when the enemy invades by land, which everyone said could never be done. We can turn them around, of course, but everyone says they are no use in this kind of battle. We would only end up shelling ourselves. The talk among all the European women in the Raffles Hotel and the Cricket Club is whether to stay or go. They are frightened, and they would like to leave Singapore before it falls into the hands of the Japanese, but they do not want to leave their husbands and be perceived as cowards or deserters. The news coming out of Hong Kong is deeply disturbing. We hear of medical staff and patients alike being tortured and killed, sisters subjected to the most degrading ordeals. It seems the Japanese have no respect for the Red Cross, for medical staff, for the wounded, or for women. Major Schofield told me they did not sign the Geneva Convention, so they do not play by our rules.

Her entries only get worse, and everyone who knew her after the war says that she never talked about her time there, and that she sometimes seemed to have a sense of profound melancholy about her, though she was a very nice person.

Chris Lowndes is a likeable, understandable enough guy, though perhaps because he's a fifty-ish man with money, a little too much time is spent talking about what fine things he's bought himself, or why expense isn't a concern for his travels. A little of that is okay, but after several repeated mentions of his income or belongings, I thought, Enough, dude. We get it. There's also a small romantic subplot that maybe some readers might find a bit extraneous, but I thought it was a reasonable enough reaction for a man who is quite lonely and in a new environment.

The conclusion of the book is not necessarily surprising, though maybe some of the individual details are. It's not one of those mysteries that one reads to feel a sense of satisfaction at sussing out the puzzle before the narrator does. For the most part, I was just as back-and-forth about Grace Fox's guilt as Chris is, but without the side of grief.

Though I enjoyed Before The Poison quite a lot, I wouldn't say that it made me super-excited to immediately seek out Peter Robinson's other work. I know he has a long-running mysteries series called Inspector Banks, and maybe at some point I will look into it. However, this was a good jaunt into the mystery genre territory, and those looking to do the same will also likely find Before The Poison to be a good read.



Full Disclosure: William Morrow sent me this book. I thank them, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

#10
This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.




Monday, March 11, 2013

The Body's Question by Tracy K. Smith

The Body's Question
by Tracy K. Smith

After reading Tracy K. Smith's Pulitzer-winning Life on Mars, I wondered if I would love her other work just as much. The answer? Yes, ecstatically so. Her first collection of poetry, The Body's Question, published in 2003, is gorgeous. Smith writes poems I want to bed down into and stay. While Mars had a space and alienation theme, Question revels in the close-to-home and the sensation of lying beside one another. “The body is memory,” she writes in “Joy.” 

In the introduction, Kevin Young talks about how much appetite — for the body, for language, for connection — runs through Smith's poems, then goes on to quote “Self-Portrait as the Letter Y:”

You are pure appetite. I am pure 
Appetite. You are a phantom 
In that far-off city where daylight 
Climbs cathedral walls, stone by stolen stone. 
I am invisible here, like I like it. 
The language you taught me rolls 
From your mouth into mine 
The way kids will pass smoke 
Between them. 

That love for language is present throughout. Of course, we should expect that a poet loves language, but there is something different in the way that she writes about it. It isn't “Oh, look at how much smarter I am about language,” but rather like, “The scale of language out there in the world, isn't it so wonderful?”

When he comes, Mario asks 
Oiste la lluvia? and it sounds so perfect 
I ask him to say it again. Oiste la lluvia? 
For rain so sudden it is love, 
Hunger in a foreign language. 
Rain that bathed the mangroves, 
Coconut orchard, the clay earth 
Where Mario lay his Reina Isabel 
Blessed ghost child 
When her body let go its frail soul. 
  • from “Niña Fantasma”

Do you hear the rain? Rain is the foreign language here, not the español. I really enjoyed the México undercurrent, the stories and dedications for the men she has met. They are not only border-crossing stories, but stories of the dancing, the music, and “Where we left the girls we married” (“Gospel: Manuel”).

What really got me though were the poems where she is no longer directly connected to that world. The longing and wallowing in memory felt so true: “We were souls together once” (“Shadow Poem”). Smith writes so well about the late-night thoughts and scribblings that writers do, and how private it feels, how we feel strange about having someone lie so near while we do it. These words are not yet ready for anything but my own eyes and heart, we think. And even then...

It's not that the lonely memories mean that writers do not value their present situation, it's that retrospect and nostalgia are powerful intoxicants. Distance and language help us understand. The present? Well, it's still too present. Give us a week, a year, a decade — then maybe we'll make sense of it. Good and bad.

I am looking for my best words. 
Willful things 
That feint and dart. 
If I find them, I will understand 
The hunger that stirs us, 
That settles like a weight 
Pushing us 
Into that vivid dark. 
  • from “The Machinery of Evening”

I loved every poem in The Body's Question, and I will want to read it again and again, to better understand and live within Tracy K. Smith's words. Something within her work feels more open than other poets, though maybe I only think that because it's a matter of my body and her body being tuned to the same frequency. To anti-intellectualize it, I borrow that oft-said Tumblr phrase: I know that feel, man. I know that feel.

While I metaphorically (and maybe someday, physically) shove this book into your hands, know that I am sincere.


Full Disclosure: Graywolf Press sent me this book. I thank them, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

#8
This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

Friday, March 8, 2013

It's Fine By Me by Per Petterson


It's Fine By Me
by Per Petterson
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

Although this is Per Petterson's first novel, it was only published in the US last year. It's Fine By Me is the slim story of teenage Audun Sletten and his complicated relationships with his absent father, his mother, and his best friend, Arvid. He and Arvid are growing up in working class Oslo, and both aspire to some form of greatness, even though they are unsure by what means to get there.

One afternoon, Audun thinks he spots his father walking down the street, and the idea of his presence both unnerves and angers him. He is the ghost of a difficult past, one that makes a teenager cultivate a hardened exterior. However much Audun wants to believe in something, like his friend with his steadfast politics, it bothers him that he has nothing but the desire to move on.

I am tired. I still have homework to do and a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach tells me something at school is not going the right way. What I do, I do well enough. What I hear, I remember and understand, I am not an idiot, but it's as if the rest of my class has taken off on some journey they forgot to tell me about, as if there is a secret pact between teachers and students that does not include me. They know something I do not, and that's how it's been for a long time now.

Like Petterson's later novel, I Curse The River of Time, Audun's story is one of loneliness, while also making the larger point that so many of everyone's stories are about loneliness. Inarticulate sadness. Audun's mother mourns for her lost eldest child, Egil. Audun's older sister, Kari, has already moved away and lives with a possibly abusive boyfriend. With half a year of school left, Audun doesn't want to be like everyone else, but he thinks he wants to be a writer, maybe like Jack London, who he and Arvid like to read.

Petterson's writing has a difficult beauty. He can describe both scenery and mental turmoil in true ways that do not necessarily romanticize the details — even if the characters believe they are giving us the rose-tinted view.

I have not forgotten the cornfields in autumn, or Lake Aurtjern in July or the apple tree outside my window, and all I had to do was reach out and pick an apple, or the long gravel road where Siri Skirt used to walk and show her bottom for two ten øre coins, and she wasn't wearing anything underneath, and once I was allowed to walk round twice while she held her skirt up under her chin; or the rafting holiday on Lake Hurdal. My father forced me to come with him, and made me pull up a pike that scared me witless, and when I refused, he hit me in the face, and then I hammered a nail into my foot, and we were forced to go home.

Petterson also appears quite fond of exploring memory and the act of becoming consumed by it. These characters do not succumb to memory; they make the active decision to let their thoughts take hold. They want to figure out what these memories mean, and how their past has made them who they are. At times, Audun realizes he's been living mainly in his own head at the expense of his personal relationships, but he's unsure if he cares.

Both It's Fine By Me and I Curse the River of Time are light on plot, but they are wholly interesting as character pieces. I've really enjoyed both, and they make me want to read Petterson's other (perhaps more famous) novel, Out Stealing Horses. When it comes to exploring melancholy, he's one of the best.


Full Disclosure: Graywolf Press sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them, and will continue to be fair with my reviews.

#7

This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Winter's Night by Valerio Massimo Manfredi


A Winter's Night
by Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Translated from the Italian by Christine Feddersen Manfredi

“Told in the tradition of country folktales,” A Winter's Night's jacket copy reads. For some readers, I imagine that might be a deterrent, and if it is, resist your resistance. This expansive, multi-generational novel set in the first half of twentieth century Italy is as enjoyable as it is lovely. Manfredi gathers a lot of history into 400 pages, and while it's not exactly a quick read, Night never feels like a slog either — even if the characters themselves wonder when they might escape certain slog-like points in their lives.

The Bruni family work a farm in the Padan Plain, and their barn has long been a place where travelers can stay for a night or several, where the kitchen can always scrounge up a little bit extra, and the stories have always been free-flowing. There are nine Bruni children born to Clerice and Callisto — seven boys, two girls — Gaetano, Armando, Raffaele (aka “Floti”), Checco, Savino, Dante, Fredo, Maria, and Rosina. For the most part, the women are not expected to work the wheat fields as they are on other villages' farms, but come harvest time, everyone helps out in all the ways that they can. It also during this time that the Bruni's hospitality shines.

As the men ate, the gleaners went to work, each one with a sack in hand, picking up the ears left behind by the thresher or fallen from the wagons carrying the sheaves.
Clerice always took care that the permission to glean was only given to those who really needed it: the wives of men who were unemployed, or of drunkards who were only good at getting them pregnant. Clerice would always think of the women and, more than to Almighty God, she'd pray to the Madonna, because Our Lady had worried and suffered and she had lost a son and she knew what it meant. Clerice knew what a hard lot women had in life and — as honest and religious as she was — when she heard talk about this woman or that one on the bottom of some dry canal wrapped around some worker or day laborer, she'd say: good for her, at least she's enjoying something.

That worry at the idea of losing a son soon becomes more realistic as World War I gets underway and all sons but the youngest are soon called up to serve. As the war drags on, even the youngest son is drafted. News of each other is intermittent and often late enough to be possibly inaccurate. The difficult time between the two world wars sees Floti becoming frustrated with the burgeoning fascist movement in Italy, and soon he is running for local elections and running into trouble with the political opposition. This, and the notification of inheritance from one of Clerice's relatives, is where the usually ironclad family unit begins to weaken. When each child begins to marry and have (and lose) children, there are too many opinions to consider, and each loss makes it more difficult to carry on as usual.

Floti himself had slowly become convinced that he could not stand and watch as the rights of men who worked from morning till night were systematically trampled upon. The loss of his wife had pushed him even further into politics, in no small part because it took his mind off her. He decided to run for councilor in the local elections, even though Clerice begged him not to, not to get mixed up in things, because only trouble could come from it.

By World War II, we are thrust more so in the lives of Clerice's grandchildren, mostly the boys who go on to fight. The conflicting feelings of sympathizing with those fighting Hitler, all while their Italian land is being pummeled by those forces, is an interesting perspective not often seen in WWII literature. At least, outside of Italy, I reckon, which is why publishing translations of this sort is so important.

Manfredi does an excellent job of corralling all these different family members' stories, although because there are so many people to keep in mind and so many decades pass, I sometimes had difficulty remembering who belonged to who. His ability to set the scene — the tranquility of a warm fire, the brutality of war — is outstanding and immersing. The folktale nature of the story works because it is like the familial stories handed down generation after generation, as though they are being told right now in a barn much like the Bruni's. It's a great way to frame these periods of history, and if one has even a passing interest in these moments, I do recommend reading A Winter's Night.


Full Disclosure: Europa Editions sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

#6

This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Internal News 3-3-13



Greetings, Friends and Romans. I've been on vacation and out of the internet loop for awhile, but I do have some posts to share. Here's what I've been writing elsewhere:


  • It's supposed to be anonymous, but I have a bit o'writing over at The Love Letter Collection.
  • 30 Years of Music: 1994: Ani DiFranco, Beastie Boys, Bush, Gloria Estefan, Jeff Buckley, Green Day, Madonna, Nine Inch Nails, Oasis, Portishead, The Stone Roses, Soundgarden, TLC, Tori Amos, and Weezer.
  • 30 Years of Music: 1995: Janet and Michael, 2Pac and Dre, Alanis, Bjork, Jewel, Elastica, Garbage, Lisa Loeb, Oasis, Paul Weller, Poe, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, The Presidents of the United States of America, The Verve
  • 30 Years of Music: 1996: Bush, Beck, Counting Crows, David Gray, Fiona Apple, Jamiroquai, Republica, Sneaker Pimps, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Sublime, Stone Temple Pilots, The Prodigy, The Cardigans, The Wallflowers, Tori Amos
  • My reviews of Kansas City Noir and 100 Love Sonnets now also appear on P-Mag.
  • I get cranky about internet-related body-shaming when it comes to Girls and Identity Theif.


No new Notes From Elsewhere because I was a big slacker in that department before I left town, but I'll be making up for it this week.

Coming soon, I'll have a new story at Little Fiction. Until next time....