On the first page of ALWAYS COMING HOME the author tells us that the tribe of the Kesh has never existed. The publisher helpfully labeled the front cover for us with the words “California Fiction.” On the back is a quote from a reviewer who tells us the book is a novel. All of this is necessary. Without it we might think that we were reading a true anthropological study of some as-yet-unknown, idealized Native American culture–that is, assuming the anthropologist writer has an unusually beautiful command of language.
I can, using tweezers, pick out a thread of plot for you, but it is only a small part of the book. Stone Telling, whose parents are of two different cultures, feels out of place among the Kesh. She goes to live with her father’s people. She returns to the Kesh with a daughter and becomes an essential member of the community. Actually, every Kesh is an essential member of their closely knit community. We meet many of them in ways that are evocative, but very brief, in their poetry and accounts of incidents in their lives. Combined with these are descriptions of the organization of their society, their activities and their relations with the outside world.
Ursula LeGuin spent many years devising this culture down to its finest detail, an extraordinary feat of imagination. To present us with the convincing aspects of the “study,” she will have turned to the work of her father, a respected– and genuine–anthropologist; and for the satisfaction of her own dreams she turned to some inner inspiration. The Kesh culture is so consistent, with such a seamless fluidity, that it appears to have grown on some other plane and found itself a congenial outlet in LeGuin. She and the readers who share her dream will find the Kesh Valley to be a soothing refuge. In fact I would not be surprised if some readers adopted her world to tell their own stories.
The contrast with the world outside the Kesh Valley jars. It is not only the culture clash that causes this, but the lack of dimension. The outside world is gradually revealed to be “the villain.” As her description goes, the people built a city and lost their souls. It does make an interesting story when one of the groups attempts to build airplanes and a military tank on this Earth depleted of fuel and metals, but it does not contribute to our understanding of humanity. The author has a clear agenda: her aversion to Western civilization. In her “outside world” she sees only trickery and destruction, with those who dare to be human trapped by an evil system.
Ursula LeGuin’s THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Science Fiction Novel of 1969. This novel also created a civilization, but was notable for its in-depth exploration of individual relationships. ALWAYS COMING HOME touches on individuals only as they are needed to help create her culture. Because of its uninvolved, observational approach toward members of the Valley, and its scholarly detail, this book requires a dedicated reader.
The concept of ALWAYS COMING HOME as a novel in scientific form is highly inventive. One reviewer referred to this book as “daring.” I would say that was too exciting a word; I would rather choose “brave,” considering the limited audience it is likely to have. Once I started reading, I would not have chosen to stop reading it, because there is always the possibility that some faultless phrase will momentarily open another door to a brightly lit dream world. I would not have chosen to read it in the first place, because I am neither an anthropology buff nor looking for a more natural lifestyle. Selected carefully, this reissue of a 1985 title will be the right book for the right reader.
The Month That Saved America
A beautiful Civil War history that reads like quality fiction. Winik’s research and presentation keep the reader turning the pages and experiencing Lee, Grant, and all else concerned, as never before. Enriching on every page, and the kind of history that just walks into your soul and takes root there. A momentous month in our past, and a momentous account of that month, in which many things could have gone many different ways from the way they turned out. A must read.
THE COLD SIX THOUSAND
Demon dog Ellroy’s first novel since AMERICAN TABLOID and a more than worthy sequel to that sprawling novel that dealt with American malaise. This one picks up with a roar and accelerates past all ideas of a finish line. Opening with the John Kennedy’s Dallas assassination, it culminates years later in the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. This one, as usual for Ellroy, bops, slams, hums, kicks, groans, shoots straight and then through you, and ends with one of the most vicious comeuppances ever in the world of fiction. If you follow the Ellroy river, this baby is a fine way to get wet and then some.
Little, Brown and Company
Far from having a life, Kate Paine doesn’t even want one. Only a year out of Harvard Law School, Kate is an associate with a prestigious law firm and has a resume of high profile cases that she has worked on. She takes great satisfaction in these things. Her dedication to her work is complete until the horrendous death of Madeleine Waters, a partner in the firm. Kate was working with Madeleine to defend a predatory magazine owner against sexual harassment charges, and Kate is now forced to question the choices she has been making.
We would not expect a 26-year-old girl with problems of her own to turn into a prodigy detective, and Kate does not. She is out of her depth; we know it better than she does, and can sympathize. In EQUIVOCAL DEATH we accompany Kate through the discovery of murder and lesser crimes as she learns what is behind the many facades in the firm. The reader gets to be the detective, building a profile of the multiple killer and comparing it to the many facts provided with apparent spontaneity in the narrative.
Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of this book is that the red herrings are so temptingly fat and juicy. We experience the thoughts of the killer and each of the major suspects, and one by one eliminate the red herrings. This is a suspenseful and interesting challenge throughout most of the book. However, I finally ended up eliminating the true killer on the basis of some information he/she really ought to have had but didn’t. It wasn’t satisfying to excuse the lapse by blaming it on his/her mental state, so in spite of the thrilling chase I had taken through the pages, I found the solution disappointing in the end.
This is not to discourage the prospective reader, however. Right from the beginning scene, a tactile and visual experience that has claws, this book got a grip on me. There is a tightrope vitality that kept me speeding through the pages. I was so reluctant to lay it down that I carried the book into the kitchen at cooking time, to be able to hold onto it longer. Kate’s associates are all either enjoyable or intriguing. Kate’s mental journey is so realistic and fast-paced that EQUIVOCAL DEATH is almost a psychological thriller. The visits we make into the head of the murderer are chilling, and we explore the thoughts of the main victim extensively as we look for the roots of the crimes. There is little attempt to acquaint us with detective forensics; our reasoning is meant to be psychological.
This debut novel leaves no question that author Amy Gutman is well acquainted with the stresses and demands of the world of big attorney firms. Gutman is a former attorney herself, with an impressive record of intellectual achievement, and her legal and evidential reasoning is one of the interesting facets of EQUIVOCAL DEATH. Blurb writers have been comparing Amy Gutman to John Grisham, but because of my personal taste for feeling what I read, I would far rather read another Amy Gutman than another John Grisham.
DAUGHTER OF A ROGUE
Stephanie Lynn Hilpert.
Cover illustration by Mike Jones.
Green Bean Press
Poetry Chapbook 30 pages
$5 check made out to
Green Bean Press, PO Box 237,
This is a beautifully evocative, heartfelt chapbook about Stephanie’s struggle to find her homeless, mentally ill dad. She shot some footage of him that aired on MTV Unfiltered in 1999. The chapbook is one long poem written out one word per line on a 33 line column like Jesus’ cross. The words are graceful, dignified, poetic, stark, haunting and beautiful. The cumulative effect is devastating. The last few pages read:
“If I pray hard enough will you come out of your cave and howl at the moon I will catch your call like a shooting star it shoots through this young spirit like an arrow wolf man I am your moon I am wolf girl mentally ill homeless people roam like wild buffalo and I am your moon Dad I am wolf girl I’d like my pain to be a feather floating in the wind unattached from bird I’d like my soul to be a four-legged beast courageously roaming the world loneliness is worse than a wolf’s teeth tearing at the flesh of its prey so violently cruel yet as calm as vague stars in the distant dark it is here I see you in every mentally ill drug addicted homeless man who crosses my path but most of all I see you in every father walking and holding his little girl’s hand the way you once held mine it is here without faith wolves enter my mind like wilderness feed on thoughts like prey and they drink from my spirit as if she were a water hole but my God I want to know you will you taste me am I pure enough if I remind you of mangos will you taste me again could I be as pure as a mango seems sweet and fleshy against your tongue too.”
Twilight-Distribution informs that there’s something provocative, almost incestuous about that last line of wanting her father to taste her tongue. Rather, she is expressing her wanting him to feel her pain. I was very moved by this powerful chapbook. A breeze to read, but it stays in the mind long after.
Houghton Mifflin, 2001
Fiction, Short Stories
Eclectic songwriter Steve Earle makes his strong debut in the world of fiction with this collection of short stories. His range is wide and heartfelt and works on many levels. His subjects range from Texas musicians trying to find a place called home to Vietnamese officers dying of cancer looking for a quicker, honorable death. There is even room for a quiet yet haunting look at an aging radical feminist in Europe exploring her past through a young American. And then there is my favorite, “The Red Suitcase” about how a man used to his routine is disturbingly changed forever by the lack of experience of a new deputy in town. These stories are accessible, radiate the human condition, and are a welcome debut to the fiction dance floor from an artist who has proven his storytelling ability in the music genre.
Padlock Mystery Press Mystery
KEY DECEPTIONS opens cheerfully in a Guild meeting with two tradeswomen tolerantly watching the wrangling of their fellow guild members. However by the end of the first chapter, we discover that Avisa Baglatoni, her relatives and friends are sitting on a powder keg without knowing it, all except Avisa who herself has laid the fuse. She has secretly taken a Jewish boy as apprentice in the locksmithing trade, a crime punishable by death.
Avisa is a fortunate widow because her husband taught her his trade before he died in the accident that left her lame, and she can therefore support herself. Her enviable independence sets her somewhat apart in the community. She is very close to her in-laws, who in turn love her apprentice Bernardo like a son. Avisa’s best friend is Luisa, the only other female member of the guild, whose ugliness hides a delicate silversmith’s skill and a generous heart. Avisa is unfortunate in her choice of enemies: Ippolito, the mayor’s son whose dishonorable advances she has rejected, has vowed to revenge himself by destroying everyone she loves.
The fuse in Avisa’s powder keg is lit by the theft of a hoard of silver from Duke Henri Bentivoglio. The town’s instant solution is to burn down the Jewish ghetto. Running to warn the Jewish community, Bernardo puts himself in danger of exposure, and sure enough, he is conveniently seen by Ippolito, who now has his weapon. Avisa, her friends and associates, must avert destruction by recovering the silver for the Duke.
The cozy has come to the Italian Renaissance– with certain adjustments to make allowance for poisoning, pogroms, and routine betrayal. On the one hand is the loyal, supportive group of Avisa and her friends and the accounts of their daily lives, and on the other hand is the comfortable sense of authenticity as Avisa plies her trade. A woman journeyman can’t have been common in the trades, especially as a smith, but Cooper explains Avisa’s circumstances and connections well enough to be completely believable. The reader is also given eyes in the Duke’s palace, the determined Dorotea, whose anomalous position as lady-in-waiting and painter-in-training leads her into escapades that would never have been tolerated in a court lady, so that this one character is only marginally believable.
KEY DECEPTIONS is not meant to be a source for learning history. Although the Bentivoglio family did rule Bologna in 1489, the author has replaced the ruler of that time, the tyrant Giuseppi Bentivoglio, with the more amenable Henri. She does weave into her story the current threat posed by France and has obviously done research on armor and weapons as well as the rules governing the Guilds.
It took me a few chapters before I began to feel that the author was speaking to adult readers. KEY DECEPTIONS will pose no severe challenges to readers new to the historical mystery genre; however it was not long before I stopped being distracted by simple thought lines and plunged into the story. Previously, ME Cooper has published true crime and contemporary cozy mysteries. She has now written the opening books of two historical mystery series simultaneously, the other to be set in the American Civil War. I am told, tantalizingly, that UNCIVIL DEATH has quite a different tone from KEY DECEPTIONS. KEY is perfectly cast for a lazy afternoon. Discover more about the new releases in metal music.
PULLING THE DEVIL’S KINGDOM DOWN
The Salvation Army in Victorian Britain
Pamela J. Walker
University of California
Any mention of the Salvation Army usually conjures images of thrift shops and uniformed bell ringers at Christmas time. Pamela J. Walker plots the origin of the species with her meticulously researched PULLING THE DEVIL’S KINGDOM DOWN: The Salvation Army in Victorian Britain (UC Press). She details how William and Catherine Booth brought a streamlined path to salvation and a new social order to urban working class people in England, then to Continental Europe, and finally to America. Ms. Walker relies on numerous written testimonials, member biographies, newspapers and the determined scholarship of many others.The bulky 29 page bibliography runs the gamut from the Army’s own “War Cry” to the Times Literary Supplement. The Army even made some of their own films.
In 1865, the jumping off point for the Booth’s East London Christian Mission was a combination of the Protestant ethic of individual religious experience and the “have you heard the good news?” strategy of evangelism by itinerant preachers. They combined those ideas with the power of instant salvation. They believed that once the sinner could physically feel the presence of the Holy Spirit he would be saved. The catch was that they had to testify in front of a congregation and to convert everyone they knew; it was sort of like a cross between a twelve step program and a ponzi scheme, but it worked. The Mission grew so rapidly that by 1879 the military format was adopted to help control the enormous numbers of converts and the Salvation Army was born.
In the Salvation Army there was “nothing between [you] and Jesus, no ritual, no clergy, no church.” Once you’d testified, you were saved. Brandishing the motto “Blood and Fire,” the Army cribbed any means necessary to gather people together. They rented music halls for their meetings, then copied music hall posters so perfectly that they were indistinguishable from the posters advertising the acts the Salvationists found so deplorable. They wrote religious lyrics to many popular songs. They soon boasted the novelty of women preachers. They would do just about anything to attract a crowd. Often the crowds would become unruly, but the Salvationists would simply bang the drum more vigorously and sing louder.The Church of England wasn’t thrilled with the Booths’ methods, but they had to concede that the Army was winning the battle on a front where they had failed.
Before they started the Mission in London, William’s demands as a preacher took him to many posts throughout England. During their lengthy separations, Catherine read avidly and redefined the position of women and the church. She believed that “blessings come from unexpected places” and set about writing a letter of protest arguing for equality against a sermon on women’s inferiority. Her lack of education limited her argument, but didn’t diminish the essential correctness that Christian experience is individual; it doesn’t differentiate by gender or any other means. And she had the scriptures to back her up. She started her preaching career in 1857, little knowing how her strides to the pulpit would echo down the century to the position of women in the social structure of today. The Army took women a step further by granting titles of rank, a position in the chain of command, the right to vote and hold office and, most importantly, the right to participate in decision making.
Ms. Walker limited her book to the origins of the Salvation Army in Victorian times. Even though this work is brimming with fascinating social, feminist and religious themes, Ms. Walker chose to set down the facts without a specific political agenda or a sense of humor. She builds a detailed, credible context for her research, but her otherwise commendable objectivity makes for an interesting, but ultimately bloodless read. The potential was there for her to give the material an entertaining twist, but, perhaps in keeping with her subject, she resisted the temptation. She left me with the urge to explore images of the Army in popular culture. In the Booth’s time, there were numerous satires and plays devoted to ridiculing the Army. The Hallelujah Lasses were a particularly popular target. Read something different about Art and History on the Silk Road.
George Bernard Shaw’s hilarious MAJOR BARBARA was my first stop. Shaw the socialist uses the Army as a foil to illustrate that all money is blood money. Barbara’s father Andrew Undershaft owns a cannon works. She and her father contrive to visit each other’s place of work. At the mission Mr. Undershaft shows Barbara that any funds they receive will be tainted because the members of society that keep the charities alive all earned their philanthropic prowess from industries the Army shuns. (His motto could be “Blood and Fire” as well, considering his line of work.) At her father’s cannon works Barbara concedes the argument to her father. She takes off her uniform but leaves the Army with her righteousness intact, figuring there are plenty of souls to be saved behind the gates at Undershaft and Lazarus.
In GUYS AND DOLLS, Joseph L. Mankiewicz adapted a story by Damon Runyan and set it to the music and the sharp, funny lyrics of Frank Loesser to concoct the perfect entertainment about sinners and saints. Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando), a sinner’s sinner in the eyes of the Army, spouting wonderful Runyanesque dialogue such as “On behalf of the former sinners of the future, I’d like to protest the closing of this mission,” falls for the saintly Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) when he takes her to Havana on a bet. He has already given her his marker for at least 12 souls to fill her her failing mission. He makes good on his marker by betting each one of the participants of Nathan Detroit’s (Frank Sinatra) floating crap game $1000 against their souls and wins them all, therefore “fighting fire with fire.” The group assembles at the mission and proceeds to testify. Do yourself a favor and find the DVD widescreen version of this gem.
In FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, my favorite of Harold Lloyd’s silent features, ultra wealthy J. Harold Manners (Lloyd) accidentally burns down the pushcart owned by a poor Missionary. He promptly writes a large check to pay the man off. The Missionary opens a mission in Harold’s name. When Harold reads of his inadvertent philanthropy in the newspaper, he storms down to the mission to have his name removed from the banner out front. After a brief contretemps over the banner with the missionary’s lovely daughter (Jobyna Ralston), he realizes he’s in love with her and promptly feels compelled to fill the mission with sinners. In one of Lloyd’s most brilliant set pieces, Harold races through the neighborhood provoking every thug he comes across until he has a mob of about thirty nogoodniks chasing him into the mission like the pied piper in glasses and a straw boater. In a jiffy, they’re all singing hymns and passing the hat.
As usual, Boy marries Girl, but not before Lloyd manages another wonderful set piece as he races across town to his beloved, who’s waiting patiently at the altar.
What is it about these missionary females that has men falling head over heels in love with them?