Archive for May, 2018

In Case We Die / Danny Bland

In Case We Die is the debut novel by Danny Bland, a veteran Seattle musician and road manager for a number of West Coast bands (Dave Alvin, The Knitters, and The Gutter Twins).  Active in the grunge rock scene of the early-90s, he puts this knowledge to good use in a book that describes its drug fueled culture.

Bland’s two main characters are a couple, both heroin addicts, Charlie Hyatt and Carrie Finch.  Finch is a classically trained musician who made a name for herself as a child prodigy.  However, now a young adult and schizophrenic, she has abandoned classical music for Seattle’s rock underground.  Charlie is doing his best to help Carrie cope with the suicidal demons in her head.  But Charlie is damaged goods as well, working in a sleazy porn shop to feed an addiction that he cannot afford.

In the book’s opening section, Bland does a marvelous job of capturing what life is like for this couple, portraying them with great empathy.  But he does not try to sugar coat the dark sides of their addictions.  Charlie is the story’s narrator, and his warm personality quickly wins the reader’s sympathy.  After such a strong start, there is an abrupt plot twist that feels totally out of place.  Charlie gets involved with another woman, also an addict, and the two of them pull off several bank robberies.  And just as suddenly, this side story is dropped, leaving me to wonder why it was necessary in the first place.

The story gets back on track when Charlie finally seeks out treatment, and later begins work as an aide in a rehab facility.  Again, Bland succeeds in showing that for the recovering addict, it is always one day at a time.  Alas, in the novel’s concluding chapter there is another plot twist that struck me as gratuitous, detracting from the story as a whole.

Published in 2014, In Case We Die will certainly appeal to anyone interested in the grunge music underground.  The book is often compelling, and Bland does show talent as a writer.  It is a shame he felt the need to throw in scenes that seem to be there merely to add unnecessary drama.  For me, it served to detract from such a true to life story.  If there is a second book in Bland, and if he is able to avoid such pitfalls, it will pay dividends on the positives he frequently exhibits here.

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November

Meager daylight.
Naked boulevard trees.
Dormant lawns
now rusty with leaves.
Underfoot,
littered sidewalks crunch.
Capitulating
to the cold’s willful wind,
dusk hardens.
Night pontificates with
a raspy voice.
Shortcuts seem haunted
with the dark
pursuing you homeward.
Unexpectedly,
there is a flurry of flakes.
Snow?  No!
Merely an ashy blizzard
from chimneys.
White flags surrendering
to the inevitable.

Bats

Opening their mysterious wings
after dark,
these shadows take to the air.
No louder than
a brush stroked across canvas,
an ebony smear
that instantly dries to invisibility.
Ghosts guided by
sense and sound rather than sight.
Their essence
distilled to a magnificent hunger.
When moon
opens the eye to sky’s expanse,
we sit, rapt,
witness to their performance.
A conducting
wind’s brood, their orchestra is
a wing’s whisper.
Defying silence’s loud presence,
like tendrils, they
choreograph the night’s sky.
In the cacophony
of radar, dance becomes song.

How To Be Both / Ali Smith

Some novels are harder to explain than read.  Such is the case with How To Be Both.  From its opening page, Smith’s dazzling wordplay hits the reader like a tsunami.  The author does not play by the usual rules here; there are no proper paragraphs, periods are used sparingly, and the plot resembles jumbled puzzle pieces, difficult to assemble.  But what at first blush appears to be incomprehensible, proves to be a strength rather than a detriment.  Smith makes the infinite scope of this work feel intimate and fascinating.

This novel is two stories woven into one, with themes seamlessly overlapping.  Both deal with the power of art and how the dead continue to haunt the living, with the main characters in each dealing with sexual and gender ambiguities.  And that only scratches the surface of a novel that effortlessly combines the Renaissance period of the 1400s with modern day life,  blending both into a singular tale.  In doing so, Smith shows that our emotional and creative needs have remained the same over time.

The story opens with a 15th-century artist, Francesco del Corsa, being yanked back into consciousness to observe a grieving 16-year-old girl in contemporary England.  The scene is set in a museum where she is studying one his paintings.  Francesco has no idea why he has returned in a ghost-like state, but he assumes he is in some kind of “purgatorium.”  When the girl leaves the building, he realizes, for reasons unknown, he is bound to follow her.  In the second section of the book, we learn that this young girl is grieving the death of her mother, and that his artistic work represents a shared bond between mother and daughter.

This is the second novel I’ve read by Smith, and in both she presents the business of life as a messy affair.  Her characters grapple with needs, wants, and conflicting emotions.  Smith’s stories are never one dimensional; rather, they brim with the joys, sorrows, and the mysterious glory of human existence.  How To Be Both was justly a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.  As I wrote, some novels are harder to explain than read.  This clever story contains discrete meanings open to interpretation.  Readers are left to form their own conclusions.  But most will come away impressed with this ingenious work of art.

Muse And Thrush

When my muse opens her mouth
the world does not swell like dawn busily
orchestrating the jagged pieces
of landscape into a seamless whole as it
fills a thrush’s throat with song.
Rather, it is the sound of quiet coming into
tune that she grandly presents,
the possibility of an undiscovered note
awaiting nurture to blossom.
Her gift is the presentation of an absence,
where hours pass without being
hours, seconds linger like a July sunset.
Surprised to find a melody
dancing, that flower blooming in no time
at all, awareness returns
to take full credit for what my muse and
a thrush have already envisioned.

Howard’s End / E. M. Forster

First published in 1910, Howard’s End is the author’s attempt to encapsulate the social codes of conduct and the blending of cultures in turn-of-the-century England.  To do so, Forster revolves his story around three very different families.  The Wilcoxes are rich capitalists who represent a replacement for a fading aristocracy.  Brash, and sure of their wealth through commerce, they represent the new ruling elite.  The Schlegel siblings (Margaret, Helen, and Tibby) have inherited their wealth, and their interests center around the arts and the ability of culture to be an uplifting force in society.  Then there are the Basts, an impoverished young couple from a lower-class background.

While Forster focuses his attention on the Schlegel family, especially Margaret, he cleverly weaves together a plot that shows the intersecting clash of differing layers of society.  To do so, he centers the story around a country home owned by the Wilcoxes, called Howard’s End.  Even though the author favors the beliefs of the Schlegel’s, he presents a sympathetic character study of the individuals in all three families.

Decades ago, I saw the film adaptation of this novel starring Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, Anthony Hopkins, and Samuel West.  And while I was captivated by the movie, little of the plot remained embedded in my memory.  That is why reading the source material is so important.  Since one spends so much more time reading a novel than viewing a film adaptation, the details of the story’s plot are now much more likely to be remembered.

For those who have only seen the movie, I urge them to crack open this novel.  It insightfully provides a portrait of English life during the post-Victorian era in England.  Exploring its social, economic, and philosophical backgrounds, Forster’s marvelous prose brings to life the problems and conditions of social life that still haunt our culture today.

The Power And The Glory / Graham Greene

In the mid-1920s, a number of Mexican states were under the rule of radical secularist governments.  Their policies were anti-Catholic and anti-clerical.  This led to the destruction of many churches and the killing of priests who refused to renounce their faith.  Much of the violence was carried out by a paramilitary organization called the Red Shirts.  Not only strongly anti-religious, they were also opposed to the drinking of alcohol.

While not going into the politics or history of this anti-clerical purge, Graham Greene sets his 1940 novel, The Power and the Glory, in a Mexican state during this time period where all the churches have been shuttered or destroyed.  He focuses on a nameless “whisky priest” who is on the run, trying to escape into another state before being captured by the pursuing government authorities.  

Even though he has refused to surrender and give up the priesthood, this priest is not a saintly figure.  He relies on a steady dose of alcohol to fuel his courage.  And his faith is shaky at best.  In the recent past he has had sex with a woman and fathered a son.  In their pursuit of him, the government forces have taken hostages from the villages he has passed through.  When the inhabitants refuse to betray the priest, many of the hostages are killed in retribution.  

And yet despite the priest’s questionable adherence to his vows, when escape across the border is presented to him, he turns back to provide aid to a criminal seeking forgiveness on his death bed.  He does so knowing this will most certainly result in his being captured and killed.  In doing so, he assumes the cross of his own Calvary, becoming a priest who, despite his sinful nature, “acquires a real holiness.”

Greene does a marvelous job of capturing the brutal heat and poverty of the unnamed Mexican state he describes.  Even more so, he presents the priest’s doubts and fears as he wrestles with conflicting emotions.   Throughout, he questions why he refuses to renounce his priesthood, knowing innocent civilians are being killed because of his refusal to do so.  He is clearly no saint, and yet events dictate that he must become one.

The Power and the Glory ranks as one of Greene’s most respected novels.  And yet it is a book that few people today have read.  This is a shame because the story is captivating due to its brutal honesty.  It shows a man wrestling with questions of faith and a desperate desire to stay alive.  The book is so true to life that readers may feel that they, too, donned this whisky priest’s worn shoes on his convoluted flight to redemption.