Archive for April, 2017

Benediction / Kent Haruf

During his lifetime, Kent Haruf published six novels and all of them present slices of life in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. In his first four novels it is difficult to identify the year, or even the exact decade in which the story takes place. Surprisingly, in Benediction, his fifth novel, there are numerous hints that the time period is shortly after 9/11. Even so, Haruf continues to focus primarily on the tiny (and occasionally major) changes in the lives of his characters in the insular world of Holt.

But even this remote community is not immune from the social changes taking place in America. There is a new minister who is upsetting his conservative congregation with his pacifist beliefs. A dying man is haunted by bittersweet memories of his estranged gay son. There is growing animosity between people on political issues. While these issues do play a small part in the book’s unfolding story, it is the day-to-day personal lives of three different families that Haruf masterfully presents in Benediction.

The novel centers on the family of Dad Lewis, an old man dying of cancer. He is considered an upright member of the community, but his strict beliefs have left him with a number of painful memories that are troubling him in his final days. His elderly wife is unable to care for him alone, and their daughter has returned from Denver to help support and nurse both parents. There are also family friends who rally around; a next-door neighbor and her eight year old granddaughter, and a widow of thirty years and her retired daughter who live on a farm outside of Holt.

Dad Lewis is an interesting character, and yet he is not someone I would call likable. It is the women who stand out in Benediction. I found myself admiring their strength and resiliency, and the bonds of friendship that unite them. There are several scenes in this novel so beautifully rendered that I found tears brimming in my eyes. One involves the women teaching the eight year old how to ride a bicycle. The other takes place on a hot summer day when the women and young girl decide to head out to the farm’s water tank for a swim, au naturel.

In all of his novels, Haruf captures the hopes and dreams that sustain life in a small town. For anyone who has appreciated his earlier novels, Benediction will not disappoint, even if the wider world does seem be intruding on the community. The author shows that, despite the travails and suffering that take place in Holt, it is the compassion and humanity of his characters that make the area worth visiting time after time.

After Rain / William Trevor

Published in 1996, After Rain is a collection of twelve short stories by the Irish author William Trevor. The title story deals with a woman who returns to a hotel in Venice that she visited yearly with her parents as a child. On this trip she was supposed to be accompanied by her boyfriend, but shortly beforehand he breaks off their relationship. It deals with the loneliness she feels revisiting the city alone, memories from past vacations there, and self-examination of what has brought her to this point in her life, a time when she expected to be visiting the city with her own children in tow.

Trevor is an economical writer, delivering in a handful of sentences what other writers struggle to condense into paragraphs. No matter how mundane the life he’s presenting, it is treated with respect and without editorial comment. These twelve stories all vary in theme and place, with a simplicity that belies the difficulty of creating such precise prose.

The story that stood out most to me was “Gilbert’s Mother,” in which a single mother fears that her mentally troubled adult son might be a serial killer. It chills, haunts, and provides no clear answer to whether her trepidation is justified. The longest tale, “Losing Ground,” visits the troubles in Northern Ireland and shows how political beliefs override even love for one’s own family members. “Marrying Damian” depicts a married couple struggling to accept their daughter’s love affair with a much older man, who just happens to be one of their best friends.

Trevor, who died in 2016, won numerous awards for the many novels, short stories, and plays he penned during his lifetime. But it is his short stories for which he will probably be best remembered, and After Rain’s finely crafted examples attest to a master at the peak of his craft.

One More Year : Stories / Sara Krasikov

Sara Krasikov’s first published stories appeared in The New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly. One More Year, her debut collection, was published in 2008. Krasikov was born in the Ukraine and grew up in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and in the United States. Her upbringing plays a central role in the eight stories in this book. All illuminate the lives of immigrants to the United States, individuals who have scattered from the collapse of the Soviet empire.

These stories feature flawed characters willing to do whatever it takes to survive and get ahead in their new home, legal niceties be damned. Some are more personal, such as “Maia In Yonkers.” It is a heart breaking story of a widow from Tbilisi who has moved to the United States and left her son behind. When she can finally afford to pay for him to come for a visit, he is only interested in the things she can buy him; he has come to view her as merely the person who sends him gifts from America. Each story highlights the difficulty of adjusting to life in this country, and yet when a protagonist does return to their home country, it ultimately feels like foreign ground to them.

Krasikov captures the hope and despair of immigrants trying make their way in a world where the rules have totally changed. They often resort to “age old” con games, simply to survive. These characters, despite their imperfections and follies, are presented in a sympathetic light. Even if they are tainted with a whiff of foreignness, they come across fully formed and recognizable as people worth caring about.

A Man Called Ove / Fredrik Backman

When Ove is first introduced in the opening chapter, he comes across as a cantankerous old sod; a neighbor you would want to avoid at all cost. And yet, as the centerpiece of this novel, he quickly begins to win the reader’s sympathy and respect. At age fifty-nine, he has just lost his job despite years of faithful service. Worse still, his adored wife Sonja, the woman he has loved since first setting eyes on her, has also recently died. If one overlooks his obsession with everyone abiding by rules of the Residents’ Association (which he helped to write), he is also the handyman one turns to when something is broken and needs to be fixed. He might grumble while doing so, but can always be counted upon when assistance is needed.

Heart-broken over the loss of his wife, Ove has decided to kill himself. And yet, every attempt he makes goes awry or is thwarted by a neighbor needing to ask a favor of him. The primary person who invades his life with the force of a hurricane is Parvaneh, a pregnant woman who has just moved in across the street along with her husband and two children. There is also a stray cat that appears and won’t leave him be, finally integrating itself as a member of the household despite Ove’s declaration that he can’t abide cats.

Heartwarming is the word that comes to mind when describing this novel. I was quickly drawn into Ove’s orbit. He might be a curmudgeon, but how can one not like someone with a heart of gold? A man of staunch principles, a believer in following strict routines; it makes for an enjoyable read to see how neighbors’ upset his apple cart, and in so doing, bring forth his better side. Backman wisely populates the novel with a good many other characters who win the reader’s respect. Parvaneh and Sonja (revealed in flashbacks) stand out, but there are others who add a welcomed complexity to the story.

The novel is not without faults. I did not find the book particularly well written. The author continually has Ove bellowing, even in situations where it is doubtful he would be doing so. I thought the cat in the story acted more like a dog than a feline. And a good many times, I felt Backman was trying too hard to tug at my heartstrings. And yet, the book works. Most readers will delight in spending time in Ove’s company.

Time Out

Recess is over
and school is back in session,
but the politicians
in Congress have been sent
to their rooms,
told there will be no legislation
passed today.
No devices or TV allowed.
Let them sit
and pout, bounce on the bed
and pronounce
aloud that it just isn’t fair,
declare to
their hearts’ content nobody
understands them.
Homework waits for when
they get bored;
chapters of history to read,
scientific facts
and mathematics to master.
Special interests
are not allowed to campaign
for dispensation.
There will be no coming out
until they finally
learn how to play with others.
Only a promise of
better behavior guarantees
their release.

A 1960 Christmas Gift

A filling station, garage,
restaurant and parking lot,
all combined into one;
what more could a boy wish
for as a Christmas gift.

Included in the box:
a mechanic, an attendant,
seven model cars,
with assorted accessories
and a tow truck, too.

Pumps on the bottom,
a roomy repair shop above,
and on the next level,
the painted faces of diners
enjoying their meal.

On top, striped lots
provided customers with
ample free parking,
connected to the ground
by a spiraling ramp.

An emblem of full
service America, a smiling
attendant ready to
fill ‘er up and check the oil
with the tip of his hat.

Our manifest destiny,
this oasis blithely pumping
unlimited gasoline,
the fuel of Eisenhower’s
brand new Interstate.

Indistinguishable

So this is what a life is finally reduced to,
with just enough in the box
to evenly distribute among the five of us.

Each of our hands ungloved for the rite.

I am reminded of how, earlier this morning,
a stiff wind rose
and swept the bent boughs bare of snow.

Sending that translucent curtain airborne.

The ghost of its former self, momentarily
hung in sunshine,
a tapestry quickly becoming unstitched.

Inaudible as these ashes cast into motion.

The sky now a pyre with sunset’s glow,
we turn and track
what only our imaginations can follow.

Indistinguishable from the chimney smoke.

Eventide / Kent Haruf

Kent Haruf, a native of Colorado, called that state home throughout most of his life. And as a writer, he followed the adage, “Write what you know.” All six of his published novels are set in the fictitious small town of Holt, Colorado. A sequel to Plainsong, Eventide was published in 2004. I read Plainsong last June, and was impressed with the author’s storytelling ability, as well as his skill in capturing the rhythms and complexities of small town life. In no way did Eventide disappoint the expectations that the first book raised.

In my review of Plainsong, I made specific mention of the McPheron brothers, two crusty bachelor farmers (with hearts of gold) who played a big role there. In Eventide, one of the brothers again plays a major role. But Haruf broadens the book’s scope to include a number of the “bit players” featured in the previous work and adds new members to the cast as well. I instantly felt at home as I stepped back into the streets of Holt. And once again, I delighted in Haruf’s ability to present his characters with such compassion and true-to-life precision.

On the page, Haruf presents a good sampling of Holt’s social strata. There are the outlying weather-beaten farmers, a woman with two children coping with an absent husband’s request for a divorce, a family on welfare with an abusive alcoholic uncle, a teacher and a social worker, as well as a sprinkling of side characters to fully populate this High Plains community.

The novel features both cruelty and kindness, but mostly it focuses on decent people and their abilities to cope, adapt, and heal from unexpected tragedy. For anyone who has lived in a small town, Haruf’s prose will ring true. Sadly, the author died in 2014 at age seventy-one due to interstitial lung disease. Fortunately for readers everywhere, Holt still lives and breathes on the pages of his novels.

The Warden. Barchester Towers / Anthony Trollope

The Warden and Barchester Towers are the first two novels in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series written by Anthony Trollope. This series would grow to six books published over the course of twelve years. All are set in the fictitious English county of Barsetshire and its cathedral town of Barchester. The series satirizes the dealings of the clergy and the gentry class in England during the eighteenth century. While religious matters are touched upon, Trollope concentrates mostly on the political maneuvering and backstabbing that takes place among and between both groups.

Published in 1855, The Warden’s main protagonist is Septimus Harding, the meek elderly warden of Hiram’s Hospital, an almshouse that shelters twelve aged men. All hell breaks loose when a zealous reformer, John Bold, launches a campaign to expose the generous salary Harding is paid as opposed to how little money is actually spent to feed and clothe the beadsmen. To complicate matters, Bold is romantically involved with Harding’s younger daughter, Eleanor. The campaign leads Harding to conclude that he cannot in good conscience continue to accept such a generous salary, and so he resigns his office. However, he is opposed in such a move by his son-in-law, the Archdeacon, and other Church of England officials who control the hospital’s funding. A simple tale, what makes the story special is observing an honorable man, Septimus Harding, caught in a tug of war between his desire to do the right thing and the pressure from his church superiors urging him to do otherwise.

Barchester Towers, the second book in the series, followed in 1857. While Harding does play a role in this novel, it is not the main one. Adding new characters to the mix, Trollope widens the story’s scope as he satirizes the battle taking place among the clergy in Barsetshire. On one side there are those who adhere to High Church doctrine, on the other the Evangelical wing. It also focuses on Harding’s daughter Eleanor, the now widowed Mrs. Bold who receives romantic interest from two clergymen, one High Church and the other Evangelical. This leads to numerous comical misunderstandings on the part of Eleanor’s family, as well as her suitors, who misinterpret which side and man she will choose.

These two novels make for an excellent introduction to Trollope’s literary output. Barchester Towers is generally thought to be the best book in the Chronicles series. I do recommend reading The Warden first. While not necessary for comprehending the second book in the series, it does a good job of setting up its backstory. In each, his characters show they are often more interested in living the good life rather than attending to their church members’ spiritual concerns. As these books humorously attest, there is political intrigue and petty infighting galore to be found in Barsetshire county.

A Voice Where None Exists

In Spring’s loud commotion,
underfoot, nymphal crickets know better than
to compete to be heard.
Apprenticed, they await the grace of wings.
Silent diners, contentedly
they leave complex harmonies to the others
as they grow and molt.
But come the first humid nights July brings,
a voiceless miracle occurs;
added into the mash-up of Summer’s chorus
there is the scrape of a chirp.
Apprenticed no longer, they soar into song.
As the rest of the orchestra
falls silent in August, the crickets’ serenade
fades from consciousness,
but not from dreams with September’s arrival.
After Summer’s choir has
been stilled by the chill, their sound persists:
A voice where none exists.