The Wounded Muse by Robert Delaney, out Oct 1, 2018

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Four men caught between truth and intrigue collide in Robert Delaney’s riveting debut novel, The Wounded Muse.

Jake, an American journalist, helps Qiang, a Chinese documentary maker, film the deconstruction and renovation in Beijing during the lead up to the 2008 Olympics.  Meanwhile, teenage Dawei meets middle aged Zhihong in Macau, where both men follow dreams of being in the movie industry. Jake and Qiang’s friends and family come together when Chinese police detain Qiang for the threat they suspect his documentary presents.  Jake is also pulled into a rift between Dawei and Zhihong, now in Beijing, over a movie script. All four men must decide what battle is ultimately worth the fight.

The book creates dynamic tension by jumping back and forth in time.  Beginning in 2006, the plot drifts to various points in the near and distant past, building up the back stories of Jake, Qiang, Dawei and Zhihong.  Toward the climax, the episodes jump back and forth from 2005 and 2007, as Qiang is captured and Dawei and Zhihong struggle to fulfill their dreams.  The action really picks up at the end, during the final desperate days, April 19-24, 2007, before Qiang’s potential release. The highly orchestrated timing of the novel reflects the cunning planning the characters enact to live out their plans and goals.  The effect is a complicated plot in the good hands of well developed, intelligent characters.

The external and internal settings of the novel bring out its luscious and complex themes.  In addition to sensational descriptions of Beijing bars, street corners, and apartments, the novel also delves into the nooks and crannies of the human heart.  All four of the main characters are gay men, each with his own challenges to love, but not without an ample supply of vividly portrayed sexual pleasure. The messy personal interplay mirrors political collusion the men are up against.  The tumultuous cityscapes are the perfect backdrop for the rocky relationships the novel explores.

The various threads – the narratives Qiang follows in his documentary, as well as the news Jake covers, the overall political landscape in China, and the private lives of Dawei and Zhihong – are, at points, hard to keep track of.  A few cumbersome sentences in the beginning of the book confuse matters. The language becomes more streamlined at the end, when the action is more streamlined, too.

The Wounded Muse pairs corruption with profound friendship to create a blood-thirsty political thriller that’s also a tender love story.  Find the book on Amazon

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Inside the Gate: Sigrid Undset’s Life atBjerkebaek by Nan Bentzen Skille

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Nan Bentzen Skille’s intimate biography of Sigrid Undset, Inside the Gate, crafts a dignified picture of the Norwegian Nobel Prize winner within her own property.

Undset first comes to Bjerkebaek, in Lillehammer, her father’s ancestral land, in 1919, to escape Oslo and a dissolving marriage.  She eventually buys the property and enlarges it to include two homes, out buildings and a luscious garden. Her status as a prestigious writer and critic of Nazi Germany force her to flee to America during WWII.  After the war, she comes back eager to help restore Norway and her home.

The organized layout of the book, it’s intimate details, and its focus on close family and friends clearly reinforce the central themes in Uorganizedndset’s publications.

Primarily chronological, and written in a casual tone, the book is easy to read.  Information is neatly categorized under chapter headings, mirroring Undset’s well managed way of commanding her many endeavors.  At its height, Bjerkebaek was more like a patrician household (although under “Mistress” rule) or a manicured garden than a dwelling in a small town; everything and everyone had its rightful place.  In the spirit of Carl Linné, whom Undset admired, the book’s orderly layout conveys her intention to unearth the telos at work in her plots, how people are drawn by a destiny or sense of purpose.  

The author draws from news articles, letters, photos and Unset’s publications to cull her information.  Undset’s niche is historical novels. Her father, an archeologist, passed on to her a love of the documenting, as well as dramatizing, the past.  One of the most delightful aspects of the read is the use of Undset’s accounting books. Learning what is bought and sold, and when, the book imagines the ins and outs of daily life.  This biography pays tribute to Undset’s passion and skill for research in its anecdotal contents.

The book shows Undest’s devotion to those around her in its focus on key players at Bjerkebaek.  She would not have been able to work without Mathea Mortenstuen, housekeeper, nanny and friend. She gets a whole chapter to herself, as do her kids and her Catholic community.  Undset’s devotion comes at a cost, however; her Catholicism and her out-spoken diatribes against the Nazis put her at risk of losing the Nobel prize. The book sheds light on the consequences of her “fight for all you hold dear” attitude for her household, and on all those depending on her.

A colorful biography that reads like a novel, Inside the Gate is a glimpse into an author whose relevance goes beyond the pages she writes.  Find the book on Amazon

Farther Along by Donald Harington

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The title of Donald Harington’s 2008 novel, taken from an old shape note hymn, “Farther Along,” is played out by a harmonica, hair-comb-and-tissue, french horn and dulcimer in quirky, cacophonous outsider liaisons and philosophical contexts.

First, a solo: Bluff-dweller, or, comb-and-tissue player, leaves his Boston position as lead curator at a Restoration Foundation after his wife divorces him.  Outside an abandoned Ozark town he, along with his dog and his liquor, makes a cave his home.

A duet: The post mistress of the town, with the voice of a harmonica, talks to herself, or, rather, a French horn sounding Kind speaks to and through her, revealing her history and the history of the town to the Bluff-dweller.

Finally, a quartet: The Bluff-dweller, having almost died, is revived under the care of The Woman (post mistress) and a beautiful visiting historian, second to the first of the town bearing the same name – Elizabeth Cunningham.  She plays dulcimer.

Harington embodies his characters in complex first person.  Bluff-dweller’s friend and moonshine provider is multiplied by his fingers, to whom he converses, each with his or her own name and personality.  Bluff-dweller finds this neither odd nor distracting, having only himself, a dog, and a stuffed woman-doll for company. The Woman’s voice is not only her own, but belongs equally to Kind, as well as to their instruments.  Elizabeth Cunningham’s voice comes through in letters to her dear friend back at the university where they teach. These characters, together and separately, complete each other’s sentences and stories, and thereby rounding out one another’s lives.  This is a novel about loneliness cradled in harmony with similarly kooky singularities.

The tone of the book croons and haunts a mix of mountain music and jazz.  All the characters are highly sexual, yearning and groping for attention in their own ways.  The women seduce toward the past, persuading men to keep memory alive, while the men drive ever forward.  Instead of working against each other, this tension results in a tantalizing irony: farther along all will become clear, all will be understood, AND it never ends.  The past keeps informing the present and the future keeping pulling it all along. The point is the lyrical movement, not the destination.

Farther Along, in the middle of a loose series written by Harington over a 40 year span, dances its way into our subconscious, playing with limits and categories and delighting from beginning to “end.”         Read more about it on Goodreads

Rice Girls by Emily Kim

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To the Korean influences on our current culture – K pop, Korean barbeque, martial arts, to name a few – Emily Kim, in her new novel Rice Girls, adds the power of rice.  Featuring two Korean sisters trying to make it in L.A., it celebrates the family bonds and individual grit that give them “rice power.”

Sallee (Mehee) Lee’s has successfully repressed memories of living in poverty under Korea’s military dictatorship in the 1980s until her sister Jinhee’s presence in her L.A. apartment brings to the surface her past as well as her present nightmares.  Cocktail waitressing and auditioning for movies, she supports Jinhee in addition to her laborer/screenwriting fiance. As pressures mount, Sallee will either drown under it all or overcome her obstacles.

Written in the first person from Salle’s perspective, the style is laid back, conversational.  The short novel flows quickly and is hard to put down. Past and present episodes deftly dovetail each other, making a balanced and insightful composition.  

The characters are anything but cardboard; none is good or bad and all are colorful and well developed.  Morally questionable characters, like Sallee’s female, single neighbor’s who make money off the American soldiers living in their Korean neighborhood, have generous hearts, as do the soldiers themselves.  The movie men in L.A., albeit ambitious and hardworking, take advantage of women as a matter of course. Sallee’s Korean male friends stand out as heros, as do she and Jinhee, who bounce back from numerous setbacks.  

Through their girlish antics and streetwise strategies, Sallee and Jinhee model bravery and love not only for other Korean women but to all attempting to live our dreams.  Rice power is stick-to-it-iveness and hearty-ness, sweet and filling: universal values.  Find the book on Amazon

Loner by Hildur Sif Thorarensen

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Despite its title, Loner, Hildur Sif Thorarensen’s first novel in a planned Oslo Mysteries series, is full of unlikely pairings and teamwork devoted to solving a series of complex murder cases.

The plot starts as a jumble of seemingly unconnected scenes: a man collapses in an Oslo neighborhood, Alexander, a criminal psychiatrist, moves back to Oslo from the States to be near his ailing mother, a mentally ill woman visits the Tromsø police about her missing daughter, a girl wakes up in a cabin in the woods outside Norway’s capital and two missionaries proselytize at an apartment.  As suspenseful and tantalizing as detective work, the pieces come together bit by bit, through unexpected twists and turns.

A serial killer is at large in the relatively peaceful country, but humor keeps the spirit of the book buoyant.  Alexander is a quirky, clumsy main character into video games and travel. In contrast to his elegant and reserved partner, Julia, he blurts and sputters and makes people laugh.  Their colleagues Eric and Hercules are also opposites: one brawny and brash, the other gay and proper. They manage to get along as well as Abbott and Costello. The police force finds itself investigating martial arts masters, Jehovah Witnesses, Wiccans, and archers in their chase for the the psychopathic killer, leading to entertainingly awkward encounters between different strata of society.

Translated from Norwegian, the language is at times stilted or unexpected.  Phrases like “he… saunters toward the kitchen in an awkward sort of dancing step,” and “he leans up against a stack of outer garments” might be worded differently by a native speaker, adding to the overall effect of the book – to enter a completely foreign realm, be it a criminal mind, a counter culture or the masterful puzzle of a murder mystery.  

Alongside the chilling tactics of the elusive murderer, Thorarensen’s crime thriller is a funny cliffhanger that belongs in the ranks of other well known Nordic Noir books of late.  

 

Phat’s Chance for Buddah in Houston (Or, How I spent my Summer Vacation) by Virginia Arthur

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Phat’s Chance is a quick summer read packed with adventure, friendship and growing up.

It is a story within a story.  Newly minted Master of Physics, Galen Calcoun, is about to embark on a new chapter.  He revisits some of his best, but also most troubling, memories, about his Uncle Phat’s disappearance a few years earlier.  The summer he turns 16, his Uncle Mike, aka Phat, invites him on a road trip spanning Ohio to Texas, from which only Galen returns.  The trip affects everything that happens afterwards.

As a flashback, the story is more than just summer antics; it is about Galen’s and his uncle’s parallel transformations.  Described in straightforward and informal prose befitting a teenage author, Galen and his uncle are peas in a pod: nerdy, book-loving, not the most attractive, and at the mercy of a large and gregarious family.  They seek each other out against teasing cousins and practically-minded adults. On their own together, they make mistakes only they can fix, learning what it takes to stand up for themselves and go after their dreams, however fanciful.

Phat’s fancy sports car, Ruby, seems incongruous with his dumpy appearance, but his mysterious, quirky, albeit noble actions come to fit the car’s “cool” status.  After tornadoes, drunken rages in an stranger’s barn and accidents with another stranger’s fence, Galen and Uncle Phat manage to endear themselves to folks they meet across middle America.  Their trip is two weeks of non-stop movement worth a lifetime of unpacking.

The book is a comic coming of age story lined with history, great literature, and a tender portrait of familial love.

 

  

 

Census by Jesse Ball

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“A census taker must above all attempt, and even long for, blankness.”  Jesse Ball’s Census is a beautiful rendering of this letting-go process.

A memorial about Ball’s own Down syndrome brother, he fictionalizes his account to accentuate his caretaker role.  The narrator is a father caring for his Down syndrome son during his last days.  A recent widower, the father receives a fatal diagnosis himself.  The father-narrator signs up as a census taker, fulfilling a dream he and his wife had always had to take their son traveling across the country.

The plot is simply a journey – a journey to nowhere.  The story is a collection of anecdotes about the people who accept and refuse the census taker and his son, as well as the narrator’s memories.  As they reach the farthest corners of the country, the fewer people they meet. The landscape becomes more rugged, remote. The chapters shorten, the chapter headings (letters demarking the regions, A-Z), take up most of the page.  The journey turns inward. The people the census taker observed and marked now account for him.

As they interact, the people from all the districts in the land reveal the personalities of the narrator, his son and wife.  Many people love to play with the son, sharing cookies as well as chores and games with him. He brings out the best and worst in people.  In his reactions to those he marks for the census, the narrator comes across as a diligent worker. A retired surgeon, he is exacting and capable.  He is also wry and curmudgeonly. Which is why his wife loves him. She is a famous clown many citizens remember from live and televised performances.  She is the quintessential observer and imitator. Her husband challenges her skills. The threesome is an endearing and quirky beacon of love across boundaries, even the boundary between life and death.  Shackled in the “freedom of burden,” the narrator begins to inhabit his wife’s memory in his availability to the people he meets, and to his son.

The cormorant bird plays a key role in the text.  The narrator muses on them through a book written by Mutter, a cosmopolitan woman politician and writer.  This author and her devotion to the bird carry something of the narrator’s own darkly humorous passion.

An absurdist memoir, Census stands out as a whimsical, glorious and tender tribute to the work of openness and caring.