Muir Woods or Bust by Ian Woollen

Pack up your past, look toward an uncertain future, and get ready to face your biggest fears!  Join Gil Moss, PhD, LMFT, LMHC, marriage and family therapist, coiner of a new diagnosis: Eco Mood Disorder, and his travel companion, Doyle Wentworth, a washed up actor from the movie Yosemite Yahoos, as they head from Indiana to California for Yosemite Yahoo revival auditions, and to hunt down Benny, who stole Gil’s fortune, among other harebrained reasons.  Gil’s computer-hacking son, Chum, is also California bound, along with Amanda, fellow gamer and whose dissertation committee Gil advises.  After proposing a new video game to investors, these two young lovers hope to meet up with Gil and Doyle, assumed to be romping around the Muir Woods, yet another reason Gil agrees to accompany Doyle to California.  

California offers a new perspective for these characters, all on the cusp of major change.  “Of course, he’d heard about the scale of the redwoods, but it meant nothing until he was among them, the Babel-size trunks catapulting his mind up to the stratospheric limbs, creating an out-of-body view of his puny self, an overview of all our puny schemes, including his and Amanda’s and his mother’s vaulted crusades and his father’s bleeding heart narratives.” (174).  Part zany road (and air and rail) trip, part social commentary, part family drama, part ghost story (Gil talks to his late wife, an Earth Liberation Front operative), readers experience not a dull moment during Woollen’s jam-packed second novel.  It’s really three books in one, as Chum’s video game plot and Gil’s Muir memoir feature in the narrative.  And it’s ours, too, as Woollen invites us to take an inner journey with him and his cast.  We won’t return the same.  buy the book on Amazon

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Review of Anhua Gao’s To the Edge of the Sky, followed by an interview with the author

Anhua Gao dreams of visiting England, the edge of the sky, since her mother, a respected and beloved Communist party leader, points it out to her on a map in 1959, when she and the New China both turn ten.  Her dream confuses her, however, since she’s taught to beware of the West’s “bullets coated with sugar,” its bourgeois ways that tempt youth away from revolutionary ideals.  Like her mother and father, both Party officials, she loves British literature (despite Communist rules, her father is buried in a Western suit) and finds it hard to reconcile the life described in her books with the picture Mao paints of the West, where capitalist bullies treat workers like dogs.  She’s taught life in China is the best in all the world.

Anhua Gao’s life, as she narrates it, is a prism of Chinese Communist contradictions.  Her story is not anti-Communist nor anti-Chinese, rather, a straightforward, chronological account of her history set in a larger context.  Her parents model the ideals of Communism — hard work, education, equality and honor among them — but as she grows older, she watches these ideals crushed beneath Mao’s rigid regime.  His Great Leap Forward results in famine.  Then, for the sake of “openness,” he asks citizens to speak out, only to root out dissidents.  When he dies, his wife begins the 5.16 Campaign to dig out more counter revolutionary elements.  What begins as a class struggle becomes class elimination, with no room for anyone other than the “winning” side.

Despite her hard work, good marks in school and loyalty to China, Anhua Gao finally falls prey to the persecution.  She watches many family members and friends betrayed first.  One injustice piled on another, she is all the more determined to use her English skills and get to Britain at any cost.  Hers is not simply an escape story;  this is also the tale of finding friendship and dedication, solidarity and hope that can’t be destroyed no matter the political circumstances.  author blog

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1.  Did you talk about your book with friends and family before writing?
Before I wrote the book, I did not share my writings with friends and family. I was inspired by Jung Chang — author of Wild Swans to write my life story.
2. Have you been back to China since moving?  What’s changed?
I go back to China almost every year. Economically China has made big progress and the cities all look very modern. But politically not much change: China is still a Maoist country, the Party has strong controle of people’s thoughts, writings and talks, major international websites such as facebook, twitter, google, yahoo etc. are blocked from Chinese people so that the Chinese people do not know what is really happening in the outside world. The media is strict to the Party line, people’s right is very low.
3. Are you still writing?
Yes, I am still writing and have finished two more books, but not yet published. I have my own blog in China’s sina website with a high rating of visiting number of the people over 2.4 million.  I have written over 50 articles and put them into my blog.
4. I enjoyed your linear, straightforward style – who are your influences?
I highly admire two very famouse writers, one is the great English writer Charle Dickins, another one is Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans and Mao – The Unknown Story. She is my best friend in Britain and most trustworthy person.

The Burgas Affair by Ellis Shuman, followed by an interview with the author

On July 18, 2012, a deadly explosive planted on a tourist bus at Burgas Airport killed five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver.  In Ellis Shuman’s fictional account of this actual tragedy, Ayala, an Israeli data analyst and Boyko, a Bulgarian detective, pair up in a multinational investigation of the attack.  While Ayala and her Israeli colleagues suspect Hezbollah, Boyko’s team isn’t so sure.  Ayala and Boyko travel all over Bulgaria tracking leads and learning to enjoy each other’s company much more than they thought they would at first.  As their trust grows, they divulge their darkest secrets to one another.  These secrets turn out to be more than just skeletons in the closet, rather, present day threats.  

Beginning with an enigmatic prologue featuring an unnamed woman strapped into a ticking bomb-jacket, each scene is packed with suspense.  Layers of intrigue build to a fever pitch when Ayala and Boyko meet their nemeses – and confront each other.  When he isn’t describing terrorism and crime, Shuman fills out the story with lush and complex Bulgarian and Israeli scenery and culture.  In real life, the case has never been solved.  I’ll leave it to you readers to discover how Shuman handles the ending.  Given his penchant for dramatic tension, don’t expect a predictable conclusion.  

author site

Have you always been a writer?

I’ve been writing ever since I was a child. My father, who was a journalist, inspired me to write and I grew up with the dream of becoming an author. Over the years I wrote many novels, but those manuscripts are sitting in a drawer somewhere. These days I divide my time between writing non-fiction (book reviews, travel reports), and fiction.

 

How does your time on the kibbutz and working in the hotel industry, as well as internet writing, influence your work?

They say that writers should write about what they know. My experiences living on a kibbutz led to my writing a short story collection about kibbutz life. My experiences living in Bulgaria for two years let to my writing two novels set in Bulgaria. I have yet to write a novel about the hotel industry, but that may come one day.

 

Has this second novel come easier than the first (and your short story collection)?

I have learned quite a bit since I wrote those earlier books. My writing has improved, I believe, as well as my editing skills. I hope my storytelling abilities have also improved over the years but I guess that is up to readers to decide.

 

Why did you choose self-publishing over a more “traditional” venue?

Actually, my novel The Burgas Affair was first traditionally published! It was published in 2016 in Bulgarian (I attended the book signing in Sofia!) and it is now only being published in its original English for the first time. I decided to self-publish it for two reasons. First, I was not successful finding a publisher to take on the book, but also, I wanted more control over the marketing of the book. I have a lot of hard work ahead, but I up for the challenge.

 

Any plans for another book?

My next book is already written. Well, the first draft is written. I will soon begin the process of editing and revising. It will take quite some time before the new manuscript will be ready to be published.

Man and Horse: The Long Ride Across America by John Egenes

 

If the journey, not the destination, is the point, as it is for John Egenes, then I won’t spoil much by telling you that riding Gizmo, his horse, into the Atlantic at the end of their cross country trip is anti-climactic.  John had already imagined it even before he started out; what matters is the dream fulfilled.  In 1974, Egenes set out from Southern California to Virginia Beach by horse.  He had a little over $100, a general route, a lot of curiosity and perseverance to follow it.  He gets away with a lot that’s no longer possible due to population growth and increased regulation.  But even with fewer restrictions, luck and (mostly) open terrain to find his way (relatively) unimpeded, he considers this a “Calvinist ride,” where patience and trust are their own rewards.  In Calvinist doctrine, happiness is earned the hard way.  John’s journey isn’t about accumulating stories or fame or to say that he conquered something, but to become who he is.  When it’s over, the becoming has just begun.

John writes like I picture him riding, at a gentle trot.  He punctuates his stories from the trail with stories of his childhood and some philosophical musings.  The pace is steady, with time for reflection.  He says it was work to spend time on the journey, to wile away hours when he or Gizmo weren’t moving.  He sought after this kind of freedom, in solitude, in a disconnection from society.  Nonetheless, he discovers he’s never alone.  In the wilderness, he says, one is never alone.  And, he always has Gizmo.  Caring for Gizmo gives him purpose and teaches him how much Gizmo gives back.  Just as the many people he encounters on the trip are mostly interested in Gizmo, so too, this book is a tribute to his faithful, stalwart companion.  John’s book is entertaining and inspiring.  It makes me want to take stock as he does, looking back and looking forward; what have I come from, where am I going, and who is with me?  No matter the answer, the point is in the asking.     author site

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

“Why Hailsham at all?… It’s a good question for you to ask,” Madame asks Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, the three main characters in this 2017 Nobel Prize winning novel.  From their childhood together at Hailsham, an exclusive center for children in Britain, making art and writing poetry, to adulthood spent in and out of donation centers, they wonder with each other what it’s all worth, what they have become, to each other and to the world.  Despite how the world might perceive them, and we don’t get much of the world’s perspective, they go on building up their memories and following the courses set out for them. “The memories I value most, I don’t see them ever fading,” says Kathy.  Kathy and her friends rarely ask why they have the experiences they do, as Madame suggests, but instead allow their experiences to matter.

Garrison Keillor disagrees with the Nobel committee’s choice of this book because it’s humorless and not entertaining.  True, its tone is serious, but the outlook is not dismal.  It could be categorized as dystopian and far fetched, but it tells a truth about the human spirit.  With British reserve, it describes a group who refuses to be mere victims.  It reminds me of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, that orphan turned revered old gentleman returning to his roots with an unarticulated yearning that’s both naive and heroic.  Similarly, Kazuo Ishiguro’s characters don’t protest their lot in life so much as feel it in precious moments triggered by a cassette tape or a drawing or an umbrella or a game of pretend.  This isn’t a depressing book, rather, it’s about how we capture our deepest sensations, which sometimes hurts.  Perhaps Keillor lacks the subtlety to recognize entertainment in the form of inner search and not dazzling output.  Keillor accuses the Swedes of one-up-ing us with their intellect and stoicism; I think the joke’s on Keillor.  Where the Swedes detect delicacy and charm, he sees only boredom, and that says more about him than Kazuo Ishiguro’s pastorale yet probing work.    

Today is Scavenger Girl release day! Below is an excerpt from Book One, The Season of Atchem, which I reviewed back in June.

Season of Atchem An Excerpt After breakfast and the standard controlled argument among the men of the family, it was decided that Calish, Father, and I would go to the river and Marsh would stay with my mother as they each continued to regain their strength. “Are you sure you’ll be safe on your own if I go with them, Mother?” I worried. “Yes, of course. I doubt there is much here that would capture your interest for another day. You should enjoy the light while it’s here.” I was so excited to go to the river that I almost forgot my gown. “Isn’t that the reason you’re going?” Father inquired. “Yes, it was, I mean, it is.” I grabbed my crumpled dress from the yard and shoved it into my pack. I don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed a walk to the river as much as I did today. It was so nice to get out of the house. What made it comforting was knowing my mother was alive and Marsh was getting stronger. I didn’t want to think too much about tomorrow. I wanted to enjoy what was happening now. I’m sure someday soon we’d go back to the river, living out our days the way our lives used to be. There was even talk about taking the ox to the river in the next day or two. At least, that was the plan. It was always good to have a plan, but flexibility always proved helpful in case the plan didn’t pan out. When we arrived at the river, Calish warned me, “I doubt that dress will wash clean. Go see what’s being offered and let me know what you need.” Grateful for the suggestion, I set my dress next to his pack and wandered among the sunbathing Citizens. Some were here simply because it was a beautiful day; others were here to trade, even though trading with Scavengers was prohibited. I walked timidly past them, eyeing the piles many had laid out next to their blankets. Of all the wares, there was only one white gown, and it was far too small. I bowed to the couple on the blanket and inquired, “Does this belong to anyone?” “I think I saw them leave five hours ago,” the woman replied in code. I picked it up and turned it inside out. If the seams were big enough, I could let it out or sew in a panel to make it fit me. “It’s not going to fit you.” The woman smirked. It’s not worth five fish, either. Finding nothing better, I walked back to Calish. “Any luck?” he asked, holding the fishing line between his teeth as he tied his fly to the end of it. “Five fish for a child’s gown.” I crinkled my nose. He spit out the line. “What? Do they have any idea how long that’ll take? It’s a shame they can’t try their hand at this to see how difficult hooking one is.” He shook his head, insulted by the offer. “I’m glad the gods gave us rights to the river, not them. I wonder if they would have made the law if they knew fish tasted so good.” “I’m going to see what I can do with this one.” I shook the dress out. Its condition had not improved; in fact, it was worse than I remembered. “You head upriver. I’ll tie off.” He chuckled. Those who were poor enough and experienced with the river knew this strategy well. If I lost hold of the garment, Calish would, or at least attempt to, retrieve it. The rope would prove its worth if he had to go deep into the river to fetch the gown; it would be the only thing keeping him from being washed down the river with it. My brother gave me the nod that he was set and cast his line in the water. I dipped my dress in the water several times, wringing it out and re-dipping until all the loose soil made its way out of the garment. As I had feared, the clay of the ground had dyed the fabric in several places, and the dress seemed dirty even though I’d done my best to clean it. It was a warm day, and I was certainly ripe, so I decided to sit in the water and wash as I continued to work the stains. I wasn’t able to get undressed there in the shallow of the river in front of everyone, but I didn’t have a need to. Even fully clothed, the water granted me a newness that a wet rag never would. I was not concerned about walking home in wet clothes. It was “unbecoming of a young woman,” as my father would say. I knew we’d be there all night until I had dry clothes. Either I’d dry out, or I would have new clothes. Calish would make sure of it. I saw him turn to check on me as I emerged from the water, slicking my hair away from my face. I smiled at him; he blushed and shook his head. He knew he would have to catch more than he’d intended for the day if I were to have dry clothes tonight, but he didn’t seem to mind. Crouching shoulder deep in the water, I swayed the dress left and right beneath the surface as if we were dancing. She was an ugly, twirling girl who thought she was beautiful. “Poor thing, you’ll never catch a boy’s medallion wearing that hideous thing, but you keep on trying,” I encouraged the tattered and stained dress. “Una? Is that you?” I turned to see Blue standing on the shore. I shot upright, embarrassed to be wading around in the river like some stinky fish playing with my clothes. “Oh, hi, Blue,” I said, and then I remembered my manners. “Crap!” I stood up, the river at my waist. “Forgive me, I meant, hello, sir.” I bowed. When I stood up, I was taken prisoner by his captivating eyes, but he wasn’t taken by mine. They were focused a bit lower. I glanced down and noticed that my white, long shirt was clinging to my breasts, and my wardrobe proved to hide nothing about them. I may as well have been naked! I immediately folded my arms across my chest in humility and lowered myself in the river to avoid his stare. “Oh, no! I mean, my fault, my fault entirely.” He refocused his attention beyond the treetops on the other side of the river. His nervousness made me smile. Or maybe I smiled because I had exposed myself, not on purpose of course, but exposed myself all the same. My father had an issue with my hair pulled up; he most certainly would have an earful to say about this! “What are you doing here?” I broke the silence. “My grandmother wanted some fish.” He glanced down at me and saw I was proper. Well, more appropriate for conversation anyway. “She suggested I come to the river to see if any Scavengers, I mean, fish were left behind.” He captured my gaze. He was finely dressed for a farmer boy. He was in light tan shorts and wore a dark indigo, short-sleeved shirt that must have been chosen to complement his eyes. The collar was turned up in the back to protect his neck from the sun, as was commonplace for the farming community. “Calish can get one for you.” “Oh, no, I wouldn’t want to impose, I’ll find something.” He swept his foot over the sod nervously. “Well, you’ll have better luck on the riverbank than in the grass,” I quipped. My gods! Did I just say that? “You’re probably right. What is that in your hand?” “Oh, this. It’s my Atchem gown,” I said with a shrug of my shoulder. I was embarrassed but played it off well. “I thought they were supposed to be white.” “Yeah—” I held up the soiled gown “—I’ve heard that. I guess I’ll stand out in the crowd this year,” I mumbled. “I’m sure you stand out every year.” I knew I was blushing. “Uh, thanks, sir.” “Please don’t call me ‘sir,’ it makes me feel old. I haven’t even had my Coining yet. You can call me ‘sir’ after that, I guess.” “Oh? When is that?” “In ten days or so.” He squatted down to get closer to me. Wow, he was beautiful and sixteen, well, almost seventeen. Seventeen in ten days or so. “Well, that’s great timing. You’ll have your medallion before the Festival. Don’t spend it all at once.” I laughed at my own joke. “I’m not ready to make an offer to a girl yet. So I guess I’ll be saving it for another year.” “You’ll get earnings on your investment.” He cocked his head to the side. “What?” “You know, if you save your coin in the bank, you get more for it later, or so I’ve been told.” “Oh, it’s not that kind of coin.” “I know. I was kidding.” This was not getting any easier with Blue looking at me. I was getting more and more nervous by the moment. “Oh, yeah. Ha! That’s funny! Because it’s a ‘Coining.’” He finally seemed to relax, and so did I. Still crouched, he pulled out the grass in between his feet. “Do your brothers still have both of theirs?” “Scavengers don’t get a medallion. The men stay at home until they have to move into the hills.” “What about you?” “The girls, like me, um—” I fixed my posture “—girls like me are won at the Seller’s Stage, by some lucky, strange person.” I rolled my eyes. “Unless an arrangement is made, right?” He stopped pulling at the greenery. “I’m not sure arrangements can be made for Reclaimers.” My slouch returned. “Una, I didn’t mean to sound insensitive, please forgive me.” Blue reached out to touch my shoulder and lost his footing. I prepared to catch him, but he didn’t fall after all. “Oh, no!” I’d let go of my dress, and the river caught it. “My dress!” I lurched out for it, but instead of catching it, I fell face first into the water. I lifted my head and realized I was traveling behind it in the push of the current. I couldn’t stop! I caught glimpses of Blue running along the shore, but the river was a more formidable competitor. There was no way he’d catch me. “Calish! Help! Calish!” I cried out. He saw me coming and tore off his shirt, threw the rope over his shoulder, and jumped into the water. “Una, swim toward the shore!” “I can’t! Calish—” The water took me under. I fought and flailed to get to the air. “Cal—” Under again I went. I opened my eyes but was unable to tell the water’s surface from the riverbed. The rushing water had rolled me, and I lost all perception of up and down. My hair had tangled around my face, making it impossible to see. I moved most of it from my view, but all I saw were bubbles from the turning water. I thought for a moment I was swimming for the surface. I reached out only to feel my fingers scrape over the rocks. I tried to grab hold of one, but there was nothing to grip; they were all so smooth. The next thing I knew, someone stronger than the river caught me and held me tight in one arm. They thrust my head above the surface of the water. I gasped for air before finding myself under the water again. Whoever had me wrestled the river for the right to survive, and I clung to the strength that held me. Volaris, the god of the river, was not giving up easily. I took in a burst of air as often as my face felt it, but each time I was plunged back into the water too soon. A longer break for breath came, revealing Calish as my hero. He continued to fight the current and pulled us back to shore. We were now downstream of his fishing spot, the rope’s length pulled taut at his waist. With his final great effort, he lifted me out of the water and fell back exhausted on the sandbar. Still held in his arms, I landed on him, breaking my fall with his body. I lay there with my head on his heaving chest, coughing, but free to breathe, completely limp from the fading of the adrenaline rush. It all happened so fast but lasted far too long. The people around us applauded as if my drowning was scripted for their afternoon entertainment. Calish paid them no attention; he held me tight, trying to catch his breath. “Una! Are you all right?” Blue had arrived, notably winded, grabbing a pain in his right side. It took a moment before I was able to sit up, but when I did, I pulled my knees to my chest, remembering the view my shirt revealed. It was bad enough everyone saw what they had; they didn’t need to see anything else from me, or of me. Blue must have understood my positioning and fetched me a woman’s coat from one of the onlookers. As soon as he placed it around my shoulders, I pulled it closed around my front. Calish saw his gesture and stood up, water cascading off his chest. “That was incredible!” Blue held out his hand to properly congratulate Calish. Calish slicked the water from his hair, chest, and arms. “Thank you, sir.” He left Blue’s hand hanging, giving him a slight nod and nothing more. “I would hate to have seen what might have happened if you weren’t here.” He pulled back his hand, and it appeared that it fit better in the pocket of his nicely pressed shorts than hanging unmatched in the air. “Me too.” Calish continued his unwavering stare at the young farmer. “Well, um, I really should be going. That lady over there said this coat didn’t fit anymore, so I guess you can keep it.” Blue seemed to be getting more and more uncomfortable with every passing moment. “Well, Una, maybe our paths will cross again, someday.” “Thank you, sir.” I tried to stand. “Don’t; I’m fine. Well, goodbye then,” Blue said, giving a timid nod to Calish, who stood rigid at my side. I noticed Calish glaring at the finely dressed farm boy as he took my brother’s cue to leave. I hugged my knees a bit tighter as I watched him go. As I had suspected, I came home with new clothes, but not because we caught any fish. The onlookers made a pile next to me as I sat on the bank alone. I watched my brother cast his line into the river over and over again as he tried his best to hook something to trade. I could tell he wasn’t too keen on me having the coat Blue gave me, and my suspicion was confirmed when he tossed it into the grasses, giving me his shirt to wear instead. My father came up the bank as the sun was low in the sky. “What’s this clothes pile for?” “Pity,” my brother answered over his shoulder. My father seemed confused. “I fell in, and I guess people felt sorry for me. So, they left them here.” Father raised an eyebrow. “You fell in? In the river?” “I think farmer boy pushed her in,” Calish growled. “He did not, Calish! I lost my dress and tried to get it back.” “Don’t worry, I grabbed her; it was no big deal. She would have gotten herself to shore eventually. I helped her out of the water.” He pulled his line out of the water, evidently giving up on the river providing dinner tonight. “Not a big deal?” Father considered the pile next to me. “Well, I won’t accuse you two of lying, but pity piles don’t grow from little ordeals.” I picked up a skirt from the pile, pulled the cinching string to its tightest, and stuffed all the other articles of clothing inside. Next, I gathered a loose piece of it from each side of the hemmed end and tied them like a sack. Finally, I found a fallen branch from a nearby tree and stuck it up under the knot of the skirt. It took a little effort to hoist it onto my shoulder, and I carried it, with my skirt-bag hanging behind me.

Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton

 

Reviewing a memoir, more so than a novel, has to be done from the inside out.  That is, it can’t easily be judged against others in its class or genre like a novel because an individual story doesn’t easily fall into a category like that.  But, a memoir can be compared to itself.  Does the way it’s written reflect what it says?  Does the writing convey the author’s intent?  In this case, yes and yes.  Glennon Doyle Melton writes with as much conviction and heart as the life she describes.  The short story is: she becomes bulimic at pre-pubescence, an alcoholic and drug abuser in high school and college and becomes pregnant before she’s married, not long after graduation.  She becomes and becomes and becomes before really wondering who she is.  She decides to unbecome.  She gets sober, gets married and has a son.  She blogs her experience and people listen.  They want her to speak and write more, and she does.  She thinks she’s found her calling.  Then, her husband announces The News and she asks herself, again, who she is.  She thought she knew.  She thought she knew who her husband was.  He was her hero and he saved her from the mess of herself.  They set out to heal separately and together.  

Glennon or “G” as she’s known on her blog, Momastery, crystallizes her experiences in imagines; when she’s unsure of herself, she retreats and sends her “representative” in to experience for her.  “Underneath,” in books and words and breath and solitude it’s safe to feel.  She seeks out these spaces alone and with others.  Images help her get on top of her demons and learn to love.  At the end of the book, she tells her kids that truth is told in stories.  That’s the only time I find her contradicting herself.  When she starts teaching Sunday School, she doesn’t teach in story, but gets a little preachy, like she has it all figured out, even though she tells them she doesn’t, and that it’s okay not to know.  I lost confidence in her story-as-truth adage after that.