Archive for December, 2016

Scrapbook

Only the good times are documented.
Birthday parties.
Reunions with the family tree intact.
Picnics at the lake.
A continuous parade of new additions,
cousins, friends,
nieces and nephews, all crowding
into the frame.
Christmas morning with everyone still
in pajamas.
Life’s tragedies and disappointments
banished off-page.
Sudden absences never explained.
In grainy
black and white, then in living color,
a fairytale
where we smiled happily ever after.
The highlights of
a lifetime so quickly thumbed through.

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Harry, Revised / Mark Sarvas

Harry Rent is a radiologist nearing mid-life, and his world has just been turned upside down with the unexpected death of his wife. However, his reaction is not a typical one for a grieving widower. On the way to his wife’s funeral, Harry first stops at a cafe where he finds himself attracted to Molly, a waitress who works there. Even though he loved his wife, her death leaves him wondering why he feels lost and cut adrift rather than distraught.

For all of his life Harry has been absent-minded, a bumbler who often does the wrong thing despite the best of intentions. He also fears that his much richer wife has always been embarrassed of him (based on a comment he once overheard her make to her parents). With her death, he begins to read The Count Of Monte Cristo and decides to follow the example of the book’s protagonist, Edmond Dantés. Rather than remain timid and misguided, he will change to become decisive, a force to be reckoned with. This entangles him in a web of lies, as he attempts to win the attention and affection of Molly by being someone other than his true self.

In the second half of the book Harry is forced by events to be honest not only with Molly, but with himself. This allows him to finally confront memories from his married life and admit past mistakes. In doing so, he also finds the tears to grieve the loss of his wife. Harry is an overgrown boy who finally matures to become a decent human being.

Harry reminded me of the Elwin Cross character in Want Not (see my previous review). Both men are good hearted and well-intentioned; it is just that life keeps going wrong all around them. Mark Sarvas, like Jonathan Miles (the author of Want Not), knows how to create compelling characters. Both write prose that is accessible, funny, and rich with human pathos. Harry Rent might not seem likable at first glance, but by the novel’s end he has earned the reader’s respect. Harry, Revised is a heartwarming story, with a flawed main character who redeems himself when he gives up trying to impress.

Farm Futures

Out of habit, he listens on the radio
to the Ag Report

Never mind that he moved into town
three winters back

Though there are no cows or barn to
hurry him outdoors

The arrival of dawn finds him restless
and already dressed

His rural vista had presented woods
and pasture

Now, only assigned parking hardens
in morning’s light

Even a litany of farm futures provides
no consolation

What made him prosperous is gone
despite the profit

Want Not / Jonathan Miles

I recently read Jonathan Miles’ debut novel, Dear American Airlines, which so impressed me that I sought out his next (and most recent) work of fiction, Want Not. What I loved about his first book was how the author excelled at creating a character that rang so true to life, and his ability to humorously present a story while not sacrificing its seriousness. All of these qualities are on full display as well in Want Not, where he expands the focus from one character to many.

While billed as a novel, Want Not is actually three interweaving novellas. One story centers around a young “freegan” couple living off the grid in New York City. Even though they live in a squat and dumpster-dive for food, it is not because poverty has driven them to do so. Rather, they see it as form of protest against the waste generated by modern society. The second centers around a self-made debt collecting magnate, his wife who lost her first husband in the 9/11 attack, and her teenage daughter who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome. They live surrounded by possessions, and yet, a lack of communication has isolated each of them in separate silos with their secrets and unexpressed longings.

The third story is my favorite, thanks to its main character, Elwin Cross. Overweight (obese actually), he is a linguist who, at mid-life, finds himself in the dissolution of his marriage while dealing with a father who is losing his battle against Alzheimer’s. Cross is not your usual leading man in books, but he is a true star here and won my heart immediately. The three stories could easily stand on their own, however, they do subtly intersect in the book’s final sections.

The thread that ties all three stories is the issue of human excess and the detritus of past lives that the characters are burdened with. Each is haunted by a hunger that possessions can never sate. If this sounds grim, rest assured these stories are a pleasure to read. Miles is a gifted satirist, able to draw out the comedy of contemporary life and all its ironies. Yet he is a romantic at heart, and he never makes fun of his characters. My only complaint is the book’s inconclusive ending left me wanting more. But that only goes to show how involved I’d become in the lives presented in Want Not. I will certainly be keeping my eye out for the next work Jonathan Miles shares with the world.

Brewing Instructions

A proper cup
of black tea on a cold
winter morning
begins with an extra
scoop of leaves
crushed and allowed
to percolate.

Caffeine’s jolt
shouldn’t be spiced
sugared nor
muddied with a splash
of milk that
will hurry the heat
to dissipate.

Steep well
until that bitter brew
is opaque as
the night preceding it
and be sure to
serve blisteringly hot
to resuscitate.

Squire Haggard’s Journal / Michael Green

“Dec. 11: Rain. Mortalities: the Back, 4; the Bones, 3; the Bowels, 5; By Own Hand, 1.”

Amos Haggard is a Gentleman who owns a debt-ridden estate in rural Britain. He is also a drunkard, a gambler who cheats every chance he gets, a person who constantly kicks/expectorates on/or fires his pistols at poachers, dissenters and foreigners. If you haven’t guessed, Squire Haggard’s Journal, covering the years 1777 and 1778, is a parody of a gentleman’s diary. Michael Green, with tongue firmly in cheek, delightfully brings to life this time period, warts and all, with no consideration for political correctness.

“May 13: Thunder. Mortalities: Restriction of The Fluid, 2; Removal of the Stone, 1. In addition Amos Nettlebed was jumping up and down on the grave of Thos. Cartwright (who died owg. him sixpence) when he slipped and fell and broke his skull and is not like to live.”

Bawdy is the operative word here. Squire Haggard spends a good part of his time carousing with prostitutes or chasing after servant girls. While he is crass, cruel, and a person one would not want to encounter in real life, his escapades and debauched behavior makes for hilarious reading. Riddled with debt and often fleeing from creditors or other Gentlemen that he has insulted, Haggard is quite adept at getting himself in and out of trouble.

“Oct. 1: Drizzle. Jas Sudwell died from The Exploding Palpitations. He owed me sixpence. This morning an earthquake occurred. On awakening, I sat up to throw away a bottle of port I was clutching when to my astonishment the whole room began to vibrate and reel round…It was some time before the earthquake ceased, yet nobody else in the house perceived it. Such are the mysteries of Nature.”

Squire Haggard first appeared in a regular column in the Daily Telegraph in the 1960s and was so popular that his exploits were eventually adapted for British TV in 1990. Squire Haggard’s Journal appeared in book form in 1975 and was updated with new content twenty-five years later. For anyone who appreciates silly British humor, this journal will delight and satisfy. Most of Haggard’s diary entries open with a weather report, followed by a list of the deaths in the community and the cause. But mainly the focus is on his growing debt, gambling, politics, and laments about having to occasionally travel when sober. Reading this romp is a guilty pleasure from beginning to end.

The Bird Feeder

Here in the dusk, clutching
the top step of a ladder, I have only one hand
gloved against the cold.
The other fumbles to unclip the bag and pry
loose the feeder’s top.
With the ground below hardened into concrete,
its grass won’t soften my fall.
For weeks, I’ve meant to make this climb
but procrastinated, refusing
to accept the evidence of autumn’s demise.
Now tonight’s forecast
has prompted my precarious balancing act.
As I grip a slippery rung,
in need of a third hand, half of what I pour
simply sows the yard.
Stopping to brush birdseed from my jacket,
flakes melt into the fabric.
In a white broadcast, the wind has begun to
plant winter’s snowbanks.