INTO THE FLAMES–HOW FIRES END

Literature and textbooks and movies are replete with stories of the victors, the defeated, and the victims of WWII. Most often they are morality plays that portray the Nazi’s as devils and the allies as angels. It’s gotten so I automatically turn off my entertainment response meter when I see a swastika on screen or see the word “Panzer” or “Sherman Tank” on the page. I know what I’m going to get. Except for an occasional twist like Inglorious Basterds,” the story arcs are virtually identical. And even then . . .

How Fires End is a welcome anomaly.   It avoids two cliche pitfalls. First, we don’t get black hat nazis v. white hat western allies. Then, although the community in question originates in Sicily, it blessedly proceeds with no Godfathers or Mafiosi. What blessings.

Instead,  Marco Rafala gives us a complex interfamily drama so filled with pain and contradiction and love that it’s often hard to imagine. In the  macro picture, we are in the midst of the allied invasion of Italy during the waning days of WWII. Those allies, the good guys, blanket the place with explosives indiscriminately, spreading “collateral damage” hither and yon. Some of the people they bomb joined with the axis powers commanded by Mussolini. Bad guys? Well, when the tanks roll in and tell  you to join up or you and your family die, what are you to do? Others, never in uniform, were peasants trying to get from one end of each day to the other without losing legs, arms, lives, family. The most poignant story, one which haunts both a major character and the reader throughout the story, is of two young boys, too young to know better, finding an unexploded shell in an orchard. You can guess what comes next.

All of these folks, as I said, come from the same region of Sicily and bring their prejudices and grudges (and boy, can they hold grudges) with them, which means on the micro level, there are ugly incidents here in the USA town that have little or nothing to do with war at large. By more than coincidence, the immigrants settle in the small community of Middletown, Connecticut. Middletown is perhaps best known as the home of Wesleyan University, an ivy league-like institution that one would think of as scholarly and sedate. Turns out it is an island among these blue collar Europeans who bring their tribal loyalties and feuds with them while they work in the fisheries and factories that surround the unaware scholars. Thus do the conflicts in town mirror those in the nation and world.

Not only is Rafala’s perspective refreshing, not only does it bring new insight into a history of which few of us are aware, but it is a tale skillfully and touchingly told. Plenty of pain. Plenty of love. A sea of malevolence and goodness and unintended consequences. You don’t get something like this often. Go out and read it. You’ll be the better for it.


AN ARC, AN ARC, MY KINGDOM FOR AN ARC

LAUREN GROLL

Now, I seldom, maybe almost never, talk much

about the arc of a story. Even books I don’t much care for have one, for good or ill, and I tend to concentrate on character story in terms of reader impact. But I recently read two novels in a row that are very disappointing in the arc department. Not a frequent happening. It’s sort of liking spotting a dodo bird, then realizing it’s a mirage. Normal approach would be to treat them separately, first one, then the other, but their deficiencies are to similar, I’d rather clutch them together in my hot little fist and toss them into the nearest bin together. Unfortunately, the printed page is by nature linear, so first comes Lauren Groff,  it says here, is a two-time national book award finalist. I assume her other works are far superior to The Matrix because I respect that particular award and would hate to think the quality has sunk to this novel. I bought it because it sounded fascinating, a 12th century tale about a middle daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who became a power-wielding nun and created a fascinating abbey shorn entirely of men. Sounds like a sure winner. Prose style is good. Characters are vivid. What could go wrong? Read on.

Hernan Diaz sets his In The Distance primarily in the American west in the gold rush era. Main character is Swedish, who is shipwrecked with his brother on the coast of South America (I think) and is saddled with the task of finding his brother, from whom he became separated in the wreck. Speaking no English, the only knowledge of his new-found land is that his brother was headed to New York, so he figures he should go there to connect. Not a bad setup, especially if, like me, you’re particularly interested in that time and place. See my novels, The Maxwell Vendetta, The Second Vendetta, Bonita, and the upcoming Swindle in Sawtooth Valley if you don’t believe me. I believe all three of these are far, far superior to either of the books I’m describing here.

And that’s enough said in general about these two tales. Obviously, their settings are disparate, but what they have in common are the distinct lack of what I refer to in the title of this article. Aristotle (How often do I quote him? Once again, seldom.) said a well-told tale needs a beginning, middle and an end. The arc. Not to be pedantic about it. I can point to plenty of stories whose progression are not exactly clean. The Sound and The Fury is one sometimes-baffling example. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is anything but linear. In the volumes under consideration, we have beginnings, certainly. Perhaps we have middles, but I don’t think you can have an ending unless there’s an ending. Matrix has no end except that the main character (at last!) dies, demonstrating nothing except perhaps that all human works–male or female–are pretty much in vain by the end. Beyond that statement, which doesn’t require hours of reading to arrive at. I admit to not quite finishing In the Distance, and I don’t usually quit on a book. Being an author myself, I feel disloyal laying aside the best efforts of another toiler in the literary vineyards. But once again, the main character trundles along from one crisis to another without much sense of progress. Does he reunite with his brother? That’s probably where the book is headed, but I don’t much know nor care.

As for this piece? At least it is now coming to a stop. You judge whether the stop qualifies as an ending.

HERNAN DIAZ

 


HEART OF FIRE– MAZIE HIRONO’S BURNING MEMOIR

“What the fuck happened?” Not a quote I expected to find in a memoir from a petite, modest, and soft-spoken Asian lady. Said lady, Senator Mazie Hirono, was explaining to Hillary Clinton what she thought was missing from the title Clinton’s recent memoir of the 2016 elections entitled What Happened? It’s a moment that typifies both the spirit and the evolution of this shrewd and fiery Hawaiian as she battled her way from her poverty-filled and a non-English-speaking childhood to a seat in the U.S. Senate, sitting among the highest elected officials in the land.

Hirono’s parents labored in the cane and pineapple fields of Hawaii in conditions that approached slavery. Her father made things worse with his drinking and philandering. It was a situation scripted for failure. What happened, indeed? I have a friend who contends that if you want to change a culture and economy, forget about the men. Support and educate the women. That’s where strength of the family, and by extension, the society, lies. Hirono’s mother proves the point. I won’t catalogue the times and ways that she saved that family. How? Certainly not with a $200 million gift from daddy. Daddy was mostly absent and drunk. In fact, there was no money at all most of the time. So little that one of the children had to live apart from the rest in his earliest years, and everyone paid a high price for the separation. That circumstance fostered her all-out assault on Trump’s child separation policy. But Hirono’s story does raise in my mind an even bigger question. How do you go from a semi-literate Japanese speaker toiling in the fields, married to a useless and even destructive husband, to an English language typesetter and raise and educate three kids at the same time? Read Heart of Fire and find out. However, if you’re like me, even after reading the story you might still wonder how such a thing is possible.

But I guess the how of it is not as important as the fact of it, and the fact is that one of the strongest and most authentic voices for compassion and liberty in the country is one we can hear and treasure regularly in print and on the small screen. From her finding ways to change the lives of her constituents to her skill in helping shepherd the Affordable Care Act through congress, her story is one that defines the idea of public service. Public service, not self-service. She became one of Trump’s fiercest critics not because she wanted to make headlines but because she was one of his “others.” A woman, first of all. A woman whose family were immigrants. A woman who knows from personal experience what it means to be poor with all the demonic forces of a hostile society arrayed against you and yours and still come out on top.

Mazie Hirono

 Heart of Fire is an astounding story, and once you read it, you’ll understand the title and it will give you hope.


TREKKING THE MIND, HEART, AND LANDSCAPE OF INDIA

I think I can safely assert that you’ll never read another book like this one. Unlikely bedfellows such as philosophy, religion, and adventure seldom sit down at the same high-altitude table as they do in Ways and Weighing, all the while sharing legends, prayers, and traveling tales fit to take the breath and challenge mind and heart.

Martin, a New York native, taught university-level philosophy and was on his way to a tenure track job when he headed to India and got so wrapped up in it all that he never returned. Why? Well this passage is one example of the philosophical bent of his mind:

…it is tempting to consider decisions not as mental events but as doings performed prior to . . .the ‘intended’ act. . . . Does buying an airplane ticket constitute an action that commences the trip, part of the trip itself, or is it the decision to go on the trip? . . . these matters are fixed retrospectively. Only after the trip, does it become evident when the trip began and what constituted the the decision to embark. . .

Such musings, which are both personal and academic/philosophic recur throughout the narrative and provide the foundation for  this splendid and unique memoir. Noval’s story includes exhausting “trekking” (in his case often closer to mountain climbing) over some of the highest and most rigorous landscape in the world. The scenery itself is worth the read, but when interspersed with the history and insights of Hindu history and religion Noval provides, it becomes a three-dimensional journey like no other. I think a passage from the book itself shows how fluidly Noval slips back and forth from the physical experience of trekking to the mental experience of meditating upon it.

These Nepali porters are the most elegant of walkers. You wouldn’t think it, in their half-worn-out sneakers or rubber beach thongs  with hundred pound loads of Coca Cola or beer bottle cases on their backs, . . . yet every step is a paradigm of efficiency, precision, grace, and elegance. . . . Mountain people[s’] lives are studies in elegance–in the way a mathematical proof may be elegant: pared down to  perfection.

Ways and Weighings is thus a memoir chock full of physical experience infused with a moral and spiritual perspective that makes it almost a religious experience in itself.

At the risk of sounding a bit like a commercial, I feel compelled to mention that my wife and I participated in a  in one of these Noval-led tours. Not at the physically rigorous level described in the memoir, but still challenging and educational and, yes, thrilling, nevertheless. Martin and wife Carol still lead these treks. Read Ways and Weighings (before, after or during your travels. It matters not.) Your mind and life will be the richer for it. https://www.novalandtours.com/india-tours.html

MARTIN NOVAL

 


IT’S THE MARS ROOM–ANYTHING GOES

I passed on reading The Mars Room some time back when the synopsis pointed toward what I suspected was an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Orange Is The New Black. However, my granddaughter brought it to our (safe) covid retreat over July 4, so it fell into my lap, so to speak, so I dived in, so to speak.

Turns out my original assessment was about half right. It’s definitely a women-behind-bars narrative with plenty of gruesome details and sex galore. But it’s also a sort of coming-of-age novel with a thing or two to say about the dilemmas of kids without support or stable families. There is also, of course, the matter of the criminal mind per se, but protagonist Roma doesn’t quite make the grade in that category, which makes her a more sympathetic character than she would otherwise be.

Roma Hall grew up wild on the streets of San Francisco thanks to a neglectful mom and a splendid imagination for getting into trouble without getting caught. The Mars Room itself is a San Francisco strip club/lap dancing establishment way down on any scale of trashiness. Roma sees it as a perfect fit for her random lifestyle because for Roma 1) grinding is easier than talking, 2) nobody gives a shit when or if you report for work, 3) the money is better than minimum-wage burger-flipping or cosmetic-hawking alternatives. She ends up in the clink because she kills a stalker who fastens on to her in The Mars Room.

I recently finished The New Jim Crow. Roma is white, but, having been enlightened somewhat by Jim Crow I can see that bad as it is for people of color, the horrors visited upon Roma in our criminal injustice system are equal-opportunity events.

The key element is that no one in the system wants to go to the trouble of putting people on trial–too expensive and time-consuming, especially for overworked, burned-out public defenders. Plus, in the category of sympathetic defendant in the courtroom, Roma is lousy bet. A stripper (not a prostitute, but try to convince a jury of that when her history comes out.) whose brand is so tainted that the best she can hope for is to use a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty. The result? two consecutive life terms plus some extra. Some bargain.

Once behind bars, basically forever, she falls into all the devious manipulations open to her. She’s pretty smart, plenty streetwise, and managed to graduate high school. Thus, she develops a relationship with a tutor who is basically there to help people get GED’s and is  happy to find someone who can actually read even though she had no use for the GED (or any other certificate, really)

Roma uses this relationship to good effect. I might not have found convincing the extent she is able to lead this guy around by the nose had I not recalled a recent incident in an upstate New York prison in which two convicts (murderers, no less) manipulated an employee in the prison laundry into aiding and abetting their escape. It was, I believe, their abetter’s inability or unwillingness to procure a getaway vehicle that spelled doom to that attempt; but they were loose for a week or two.

RACHEL KUSHNER

For Roma, their conversations are at first, a relief from the normal prison routine. More important, she is later desperate to get news of the son she left behind. All she is able to find out is that the state has taken away all her parental rights. Officially, she will never get news of, let alone access to, her child. However, she hopes the tutor will somehow at least find out some details about the boy’s situation. The tutor teases her and himself into thinking that might be possible.

This thread continues as part of the suspense-narrative structure throughout the book, and Kushner makes excellent dramatic use of it to build some suspense in a situation in which the possibilities for change are enormously limited. Without doing a total spoiler, I will say that Roma’s intelligence and ingenuity help her create circumstances that make for a suspenseful and thrilling end.

The Mars Room is, as it turns out, though not the book of the year, a better read by far than I expected.