A North Carolina marvel

Bob Moyer has visited my territory, reviewing a new novel set in coastal North Carolina. I’m glad he did. I’m eager to read this one myself. Now if we could just get Bob to come visit these marshes in person…

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING. By Delia Owens. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 384 pages.

Delia Owens did not write a North Carolina novel; she created a North Carolina marvel. She has dovetailed into a single book a coming of age novel, superb nature writing, a love story, a survival tale, a murder mystery and a courtroom drama, all set in the coastal marsh of North Carolina.

Out yonder, where ships crash “like paper hats,” an abusive man, damaged by World War II, moves his family into a ramshackle cabin. One by one, the family escapes, leaving the youngest child, Kya, alone with him. She survives “…like a minnow. Just keep out of the way, don’t let him see you, dart from sunspots to shadows.”  When Kya is only 10, he disappears as well, leaving her where the crawdads sing, “…far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.”  Avoiding authorities “like a minnow,” she learns “…wonders and real-life knowledge she would’ve never learned in school— “The marsh became her mother.”

Into this world enters a boy, Tate, who encounters her just as her body shows “…inklings and foothills of womanhood.”  He provides her companionship she has never known, and the ability to read. During the time they spend together, her reading articulates what she carries in her blood and bones — the forces behind the deceptive flicker of fireflies that devour their own, the disguises that inferior males take on to prey on females and how a mother can leave her children.

Tate leaves her as well, but she has more than knowledge from her reading as solace — she has poetry to manifest her solitude. Quotes from Emily Dickinson, Galway Kinnell, and a woman named Amanda Hamilton punctuate the text. “I didn’t know a sentence could be so full,” she gasps when she first reads a poem. Indeed, the same can be said of the author’s writing. She fills the pages with lyrical phrasing:  “Death’s crude pluck, as always, stealing the show; “He whispered his hands against her inner thighs;” “I know feathers,” Kya says to Tate.

At the center of the book lies a murder that colors the narrative as it moves back and forth from the investigation and Kya’s backstory. Colors, informs, but does not distract — it is only a piece of the questions Kya encounters in her exploration of how “Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive way back yonder.”  The culminating courtroom drama develops with exceptional tension, leading a character to burst out when the verdict arrives: “Would somebody read it to us!”

What happens in the conclusion may not surprise you, but how it happens will. Most likely, it will send you back to re-read sections of the book, to savor in a new light what already was remarkable. Where The Crawdads Sing is a fine place to visit, and then reflect.

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Hope for our times

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ALMOST EVERYTHING: Notes on Hope. By Anne Lamott. Read by the author. Penguin Audio. 3½ hours; 3 CDs. $34.

This little book from Anne Lamott is great medicine when things seem bleak and life is getting you down.

I popped the audio version into my car’s CD player one day not long ago when the news was full of horrible, hate-inspired violence and the airwaves were bristling with alarmist political ads. OK, Anne Lamott, I thought: See if you can give me any reason to hope.

She did.

I had never read anything by Lamott, who is a novelist as well the author of books that might be called spiritual or inspirational. My sister had talked about liking her books, but I didn’t really know much about her.

I’m also wary of self-help, shallow popular religion and feel-good pep talks.

I need not have worried. For the many people who are already fans of Anne Lamott, I’ll just point out that this brief book, written for the era of Trump in America, is here, offering a much-needed dose of what Lamott has to offer.

For others who might have missed her, I’ll say this book will not only cheer you, it will also make you want to go find some of her earlier works.

Anne Lamott recorded the audio version herself, so listening to it is a lot like having an enjoyable conversation with a friend – a lively, irreverent, funny friend who seems to have many of the same anxieties, insecurities and doubts that I do, but who finds reasons to keep going – with a zest for life – nonetheless.

Like a lunchtime conversation, this book jumps from subject to subject and doesn’t deal with any of them in great depth. You leave the table feeling much better, but it’s hard to pinpoint any one, profound thing she said that made a difference.

Lamott says she set out to write down all that she’s learned that’s worth passing on to her grandson.

One thing she’s obviously learned is that “hurt, loss and disaster” are common in life.  Definitely no holier-than-thou Christian, she speaks frankly and often with wry humor about her own troubled past and shortcomings. But a believing, churchgoing Christian she is, even if a left-wing, latter-day hippie who recognizes that not everyone’s idea of God – or whatever supreme force there might be – is the same.

In her very personal, honest, peripatetic musings, she touches on all sorts of topics: body image and eating disorders; family dynamics, birth order and the ways we never outgrow our childhood selves; the futility of trying to “fix” other people…. The anxieties she was grappling with as she wrote included a devastating fire in California, where she lives, and her fear each morning that she would learn upon waking that the U.S. had bombed North Korea.

“All truth really is paradox,” she writes. Her stories show us that life is full of change, so when things seem bleak, that’s all the more reason to keep going. She also reminds us that there are nuggets of hope and happiness even when things are bad. Acknowledging  that much in life is  hard, she offers not the brand of faith that promises if you just pray enough, everything will go your way, but the faith that says life is worth living despite very real problems and disappointments. She finds joy in teaching the diverse children in her Sunday school class and in visiting the church garden with an elderly friend.

When I finished Almost Everything, I found myself not only more hopeful but also wishing I could visit with Lamott again in a week or so. I’ll have to look for some of her earlier books. Meanwhile, remembering her stories about how doing something nice for someone is good for the soul, I ordered a copy of this new book to be delivered to the sister who’s been telling me about Anne Lamott for years.

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Spenser: The magic continues

Bob Moyer takes a look at the latest Spenser novel and finds it worthy of the tradition.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

ROBERT B. PARKER’S OLD BLACK MAGIC (SPENSER). By Ace Atkins. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 336 pages. $27.

Spenser, the singularly named Boston P.I., shares both a name and a proclivity for poetic expression with the 16th century poet, first name Edmund.  Spenser’s been quoting and quipping ever since he replied to a beefy guy’s threats in The Godswulf Manuscript, “Be still my heart.”

In this latest book, when a gangster’s lawyer tells him he has to meet the boss in a particular place, Spenser replies, “I’m so excited.  I just don’t know what to wear.” The caustic comments have been consistent through 47 books.  What hasn’t been consistent is the author – Robert B. Parker wrote the first one, Ace Atkins the last one.  Atkins was anointed by the Parker estate to keep the franchise going upon Parker’s demise, and he’s done a remarkable job. Spenser still keeps in topnotch shape at his favorite gym, and stops just shy of being bulletproof.  He continues to prowl renowned Beantown dining spots, and he cooks the occasional gourmet meal for his main squeeze, Susan.  The two of them, as always, steam up the pages, but all the sex, keeping with tradition, happens between chapters.  Best of all, Atkins and Parker both belong to the Elmore Leonard Don’t-Write-the-Words-People-Don’t-Read School of Writing.  A Spenser novel sails right along.

In Old Black Magic, Parker is approached by a respected detective at death’s door.  Twenty years ago, an El Greco painting was stolen from the Winthrop Museum, a fictional museum modeled after Boston’s Gardiner Museum, where a similar heist took place.  It appears the painting has resurfaced.  As a favor, Spenser, who considers a Kane’s donut from nearby Saugus a work of art, takes the case.  He moves into the milieu of art world highlifes and underworld lowlifes searching for the painting.  Just when he thinks he’s located it, it disappears. Spenser spends the rest of the story playing a game of Mafia musical chairs, assisted by new crony Vinnie, a good bad guy.  With his help Spenser takes on the bad bad guys, cracking wise and skulls while quoting Shakespeare along the way.

It’s the Shakespeare quotes that mark Atkins’ mastery. They come with the same reflexive skill as the quips, throwing light from another time and temperament upon the mortal coil Spenser moves in.  No one, particularly Spenser, comments upon his penchant — except Susan.  And she nails it when she points out that no other detective quotes the Bard with such abandon.  It’s one of the things that appeal to her.

And to us, after all these years.  Cry havoc, and unleash the next book!

 

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Murders and miracles

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

HOLY GHOST. By John Sandford. Penguin Audio. 10 hours; 8 CDs. Read by Eric Conger. $40. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Virgil Flowers from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is back in one of his best novels yet.

The setting is Wheatfield, Minn., a tiny, middle-of-nowhere town that’s withering away. But then a precocious (in more ways than one) teenage boy and the town’s mayor (nobody else wants the job) come up with a plan to put Wheatfield on the map and turn it into a lucrative tourist mecca.

When an apparition of the Virgin Mary appears at the local Catholic church, with the apparition caught on more than one cellphone, guaranteeing instant fame on social media, things begin to look up.

The town folk, including the teenage genius and the mayor, are raking in money from the excited pilgrims who trek to Wheatfield. Things are great, right?

But then the shootings start… At first, people from out of town waiting for the evening church service are shot, but not fatally, apparently at random. Virgil is called in, but he’s having trouble even figuring out where the shots are coming from. Then the shooter gets more accurate, and a loved and respected local widow is killed.

As the situation worsens, Virgil faces a truly puzzling challenge. In a town with many hunters, where more people than not are pretty good with a gun, it’s hard to narrow down the suspects. And what could be the motive? Maybe it’s just a crazy person with no motive, but Virgil doesn’t really think so.

Sandford’s Virgil Flowers series is thoroughly enjoyable. The books are police procedurals that are heavy on the mystery and the thought processes. Sure, there’s danger at times – in this book, one of Virgil’s associates gets hit by a hunting arrow – but this is not the sort of crime novel with some violent every few pages.

Virgil is thoroughly likable, if a little quirky. He does what he needs to, but he’s no super hero. The settings, in Minnesota’s small towns, farms and wild areas, are interesting, and Wheatfield has a full complement of characters with eccentricities – and secrets that just might add up to a motive.

But  when Virgil thinks he might have things figured out, he begins to worry that the murderer might just get away with it.

The audio version, read by Eric Conger, who’s a veteran with Sanford’s books, is a delight. No doubt the print version is equally enjoyable.

 

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Richard Russo, times two

I don’t know when Bob Moyer finds time to read and  review books when he’s always traveling, playing pétanque and writing haiku, but I’m glad he does.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE DESTINY THIEF:  Essays on Writing, Writers and Life. By Richard Russo. Knopf. 194 pages.

Two for one.

That’s what you get in this collection of essays: two Richard Russos.

The first Richard Russo is the one most people know and love, the critically and commercially successful writer of Empire Falls and Nobody’s Fool. He’s an entertaining guy who openly professes “It’s life’s comedy I feel most compelled to share.”  His material this time is his own life, as he mines it for some smiles and a couple of guffaws. He was not the best writer in his MFA program, and he resisted as long as he could his material — small-town, upstate New York, where he came from.

While sharing some of the stuff he thinks is humorous, he even uses a line from a well-known movie to make his point, and make us laugh (no spoiler here!). He’s a parent, and he gives the commencement address at his daughter’s college, where he reads out RUSSO’S RULES OF LIFE. #3: “Have children. After what you’ve put your parents through, you deserve children of your own.”  He gives us a down-to-earth perspective on his career by explaining how, as he earned more money through his writing, he moved from writing in the basement to a room on the second floor, with a view.

It’s in this room where we meet the second Richard Russo, the astute commentator on art and writing. He moves us into this room, as he moves us into his past, to let us see what he sees. The window overlooks a tombstone leaning against a tree, an object that came with the house. One day, as the upstairs bathroom is being redone, a commode appears next to the tombstone. And he does what a writer should do —he pauses to look at it, and then shows us why that’s funny.

In another lengthy essay, he uses his grandfather’s involvement with the glove makers’ guild back in upstate New York, and then with the unions, to help him illustrate his own experience as a successful writer. Also a member of both a guild and a union, he illuminates the difference between art and craft, which he then extends to a contrast between print writers and e-writers who print only digitally. His arguments are at once well crafted — and artful.

He includes two essays calling our attention to the finer points of Dickens and Mark Twain, in case we missed them, and a lengthy piece extolling the virtues of “omniscience” in narration. This is the barefaced second Richard Russo, and if you came to the book expecting just the first one, you may find this a bit of a slog. But if you just like Richard Russo, period, you will enjoy every minute of this small volume.

 

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The American dream – or nightmare?

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LAKE SUCCESS. By Gary Shteyngart. Random House Audio. 13 ½ hours; 11 CDs. Read by Arthur Morey and Soneela Nankani. $40. Also available in print from Random House.

Barry Cohen is a hedge-fund manager who oversees $2.4 billion in assets and lives the pampered, extravagant life of the .01 percent in a posh Manhattan apartment with his wife, Seema, and their young son.

He’s also a narcissistic, clueless social cripple who has to devise and rehearse “friend moves” to be able to interact with other people. Lately, things in what appears to be his charmed existence haven’t been going so well. He can’t deal with his son’s diagnosis of being on the severe end of the autism spectrum. “Troubled” is too mild a word for his relationship with his wife, Seema. His fund is bleeding money, and the SEC investigation he’s facing could land him in prison.

So, after a particularly confrontational scene with his son, wife and their nanny, Barry flees, on a Greyhound bus. He plans to see America and re-connect with his college sweetheart, despite the fact that he has not been in touch with her for years and really knows very little about her. But then, he knows little about anyone, including himself.

Seema is a first-generation American who, by all appearances, has it made: She has a law degree, even though she doesn’t use it because she’s a hedge-fund wife with millions of dollars at her fingertips. She’s also stressed about their son’s diagnosis and his prospects, but she deals with her worries in a very different way than Barry does. And she’s bored, lonely and wondering about what her life has become. When Barry vanishes, she doesn’t much care.

Gary Shteyngart, who immigrated with his Russian Jewish family to the United States as a child, is known for his satirical novels. Lake Success is largely satirical, and it’s funny, even comic, in places. But it’s also poignant and almost heartbreaking at times.

In writing about Barry’s Greyhound trek across the United States, Shteyngart has rich material for satirizing not only the life of a woefully out-of-touch billionaire mogul of finance but also the very idea of the road trip, which has become so iconic in American literature.

Barry’s “friend moves” tend not to work so well with the people he encounters on the bus, but he revels in the whole idea nonetheless. More often than not, the people he envisions himself helping do more to help him. And the ideas he dreams up for helping, say, poor inner-city kids, or the young black woman from Jackson, Miss., with whom he has a one-night stand, are absurd. Yet the  largely disastrous trip becomes his most cherished memory and oft-told tale.

Seema, meanwhile, is dealing with her own problems in a not particularly successful way. She’s done what she was supposed to do in life, but it hasn’t worked out as promised.

The backdrop to all this is the 2016 election, the perfect mirror for Barry’s excesses and moral confusion.

Barry, whose first step on the success ladder was to go to Princeton, loves the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald; he calls his hedge fund This Side of Capital. Part of Shteyngart’s genius is to make Barry self-consciously aware of parallels with literature as he sees himself having achieved the American Dream and embarking on a cross-country adventure to find his better self.

One of the ironies of the story is that in many ways, Barry’s autistic son becomes more empathetic and better able to deal with social interaction than Barry is.

This is a tale for our times, a sometimes funny, often sad, always insightful look at what America really is.

The audio version, read by Arthur Morey when told from Barry’s point of view and Soneela Nankani for Seema’s, works well. The narrators give us the story straight and let the satire do its job.

 

 

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Dancing to a different beat

I love most of Anne Tyler’s novels, but Bob Moyer thinks her books appeal to the bourgeoisie. He even singles me, his editor, out as part of that bourgeois fan club.

My response would be, so what? I like Anne Tyler’s writing because yes, she writes about ordinary people, and in the end, there may not be a huge surprise, but there are so many small surprises along the way. She shows us that ordinary people are not really so ordinary, or perhaps a better way to say it is that each ordinary person is full of his other own flaws, quirks and eccentricities. Tyler is particularly good at conveying those eccentricities, with humor and sometimes pathos.

Bob is right that most of the men in Tyler’s latest novel are not particularly sympathetic, but that’s certainly not the case in all her books.

At any rate, below is Bob’s review of Clock Dance.

And, for contrast, here’s a link to my review that ran in the Greensboro News & Record. https://tinyurl.com/y7to65xk

Read the book and see what you think.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

CLOCK DANCE. By Anne Tyler. Knopf. 292 pages. $26.95.

It’s not hard to understand why Anne Tyler’s books are so popular. Her writing reads effortlessly, which suggests she puts a lot of effort into making it that way. She also writes with great empathy and detail about ordinary people doing ordinary things, and that’s extraordinary

Clock Dance stands up as an excellent example of her work. Willa Drake leads a life common for women in the mid 20th century, quitting college to get married and have a family, giving up the possibility of being the linguist she showed talent for. She does finish the degree, but ends up teaching public school. She loses one husband but picks up another one much like the other one. Like a gifted child, she knows what everyone – except herself – wants, and she gives it to them.

Until the phone rings one day. It’s a desperate neighbor of her son’s ex-girlfriend, calling because the girlfriend has been shot, and the woman can’t care for the daughter, she found this number on the wall, could Willa come help?  On a whim, she does.

That puts Willa on a plane to Baltimore, familiar Tyler territory, and on a path to what the book jacket describes as “self-discovery.”  Tyler drops her into a familiar cast of characters, both vivid, endearing, and so recognizable—the gangly kid down the street in the stocking cap, the retired doctor who still sees patients at home but keeps losing his cat, the precocious daughter who mothers her mother more than her mother mothers her. There’s nothing not to appreciate, if not like, about the neighborhood. The only characters not sympathetic here are the males, who fit the definition of straw men if ever there were any in a novel. Not perversely patriarchal, they nevertheless represent the forces that have dominated Willa’s life. Therefore, it is no surprise when Willa’s “self-discovery” leads to a change in her life, as she decides to dance through the hours, not move quietly through them.

That lack of suspense brings up an argument sometimes put forth about Tyler’s work — it’s good, not great. The focus on the ordinary leaves her open to the pedestrian argument, and, indeed, she gives her bourgeois audience what they want. As Jean-Paul Sartre said about the French bourgeois theater, the bourgeoisie pays to see themselves on the stage. As described before, she does that well, and the bourgeoisie (including my editor) loves Tyler. Unfortunately, Sartre’s other lament about the bourgeois theater applies here—it’s like watching an arrow hit a target you know it was headed for all the while.

Although Willa changes, it’s not a surprise, or transformation. If that is not a requirement in your reading, Clock Dance should satisfy you. No one writes an Anne Tyler novel better than Anne Tyler. Only time will tell if her work endures.

 

 

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Saving the world, once again

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

SHADOW TYRANTS. By Clive Cussler and Boyd Morrison. Penguin Audio. Read by Scott Brick. 11 hours; 9 CDs. $45. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

This latest in the Oregon Files books by Clive Cussler and Boyd Morrison offers, in addition to the usual action and drama, food for thought: Are computers – and especially artificial intelligence – good or bad for humankind?

As fans of this Cussler series (one of many) know, Juan Cabrillo and the rest of his secret “Corporation” roam the seas on the Oregon, a high-tech research ship disguised as a decrepit tramp freighter, ready to help the U.S. government  when the government can’t officially get involved in some tricky situation.

Things get interesting and dangerous quickly when the Corporation gets in the middle of a struggle between two factions of the Nine Unknown Men, a powerful, secretive group dating back nearly 2,000 years to an emperor in India who came to see the error of his ruthless ways.

To keep any one person from becoming too powerful, the emperor divided essential knowledge among nine men.

Through the generations, these men and their chosen descendants have passed on those secrets, and they have gathered from time to time for meetings. The descendants of the nine have become wealthy and powerful, each using his special knowledge to build an empire in some related field.

Just as the majority of them are joining forces in a way that goes against all the intentions of the ancient emperor, at least one of them is bent on making sure their plans don’t come to fruition.

Unfortunately, both factions turn  out to have ideas that the Corporation believes could be devastating for the fate of the world. Would it be worse to have a supercomputer powerful enough to take over the world, or worse to have satellites that can wipe out technology as we know it?

With teams heading out in various directions, the Corporation’s members find themselves in a variety of perilous situations as they try to save the world.

Scott Brick does his usual outstanding job of reading the fast-paced book, keeping the suspense strong in a matter-of-fact sort of way.

And as usual, Clive Cussler and company deliver a well-crafted, imaginative, entertaining story.

 

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Not easy reading – but important

Tom Dillon, a veteran journalist, reviews two books that offer serious food for thought – one an investigative examination of Donald Trump’s business dealings with Russia, and the other a primer on dealing with tyranny.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

TRUMP/RUSSIA: A DEFINITIVE HISTORY.By Seth Hettena. Melville House. 254 pages, $27.99.

ON TYRANNY: TWENTY LESSONS FROM THE TWENTIETH CENTURY.By Timothy Snyder. Tim Duggan Books. 127 pages, $8.99 paperback

There are no two ways about it. These books are going to make some people really angry. Others are going to be skeptical, and still others will dismiss them entirely – whether they take the time to read them or not.

Trump/Russia, in the classic mode of good investigative journalism, is an exhaustive survey of Donald Trump’s business career and the overseas alliances that he developed during it. It’s not easy reading. There are so many characters and offshoots and subplots that one might think he is, with Alice, down some sort of rabbit-hole.

There’s much about Donald Trump’s casino failures in the 1990s and how “dark sources” – Russian money – brought about decades of deal-making with people all over the world, some above-board and many others not.

Indeed, along with Vladimir Putin, the Russian “mafiya” – they spell it with a “y” – is a big part of this book. Seth Hettena quotes one unnamed researcher here as saying, “Whenever you’re offered a lot of money, better save some for legal fees.” It’s advice well taken. There’s much more about underworld figures who took up residence in New York’s Trump Tower.

Along the way, the stories range from Paul Manafort’s grooming of a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician to remove his rough edges to the throwing of the ice-skating competition at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. That was the result of collusion between Russian and French judges.

Then there’s the attempt of an Azerbaijani real estate mogul to promote the career of a little-talented singer through the 2013 Miss Universe pageant – in a chapter titled “Mister Universe.” Trump tweeted, “Do you think Putin will be going to the Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow? If so, will he become my new best friend?” Putin apparently didn’t go.

Hettena is a long-time investigative reporter for The Associated Press who earlier wrote Feasting on the Spoils: The Life and Times of Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham, History’s Most Corrupt Congressman. For this book, he has talked to many people and perused an exhaustive list of documents and both published and unpublished reports.

The publisher calls the book “an expansive and essential primer to the Trump/Russia scandal.” And it’s a worthy read with good notes. Hettena, citing past investigations such as Bill Clinton’s Whitewater and Richard Nixon’s Watergate, predicts the Trump/Russia controversy is going to be around for quite a while.

The second book is a small – 126 pages – expansion of what was originally a Facebook post. In the book, which you can probably read in less than an hour, Yale University historian Timothy Snyder observes that Americans today “are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the Twentieth Century.”

“Our one advantage today is that we might learn from their experience,” he says, and he posts 20 lessons, along with commentary. No. 1 is “Do not obey in advance. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.” No. 2 is “Defend institutions,” and No. 3 is “Beware the one-party state.”

There’s not enough space here to list all 20 lessons, but some important ones are No. 6, “Be wary of paramilitaries,” or No. 10, “Believe in truth,” or numbers 15 and 16, “Contribute to good causes” and “Learn from peers in other countries.”

Snyder’s last three lessons are perhaps the most touchingly heart-rending in the book.

“Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.” (Remember Sept. 11.)

“Be a patriot. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come.”

“Be as courageous as you can.” Snyder concludes, as part of that last lesson, “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”

  • Tom Dillon is a retired newspaperman who lives in Winston-Salem.

 

 

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Not your fun-filled Florida

Bob Moyer finds that there’s much lurking below the surface in Lauren Groff’s view of Florida – and most of it is menacing.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

FLORIDA. By Lauren Groff. Riverhead Books. 275 pages. $27.

Florida’s gonna get you.

According to Laura Groff, that is. Her Florida is not the glowing, fun-filled home of orange juice and theme parks. Instead, the inhabitants of her vivid stories about the Sunshine State face danger and disaster at every turn. The snakes in her house at the edge of the swamp drive the mother “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”” to abandon her son. In “Snake Stories,” Groff warns us “Walk outside in Florida, and a snake will be watching you…” A mother doesn’t come back from a boat trip to get her little girls on an island off the coast, and they lead a feral life in “Dogs Go Wolf.” During a hurricane-force storm, the narrator’s chickens in “Eyewall” are blown apart, and a book with her name in it ends up in Georgia. Threats abound in Groff’s world.

It’s not just the outside world that threatens here. If the state of Florida doesn’t get you, the Florida state of mind will. Groff’s genius — this book will stick with you long after you finish it — is the inner world that parallels these external threats. Her husband, her father and a boyfriend, all dead, come to visit the narrator of “Eyewall,” leading her to conclude “Houses contain us; who can say what we contain?” The sinkhole at the corner of the house in “The Flower Hunters” doesn’t loom nearly as large as the black hole of anxiety that opens up before the narrator, as she alienates friends and neglects her children. The mother in “Ghosts and Empties” has become “a woman who yells,” and because she doesn’t want to be a woman who yells, “whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces,” she goes walking every night through the streets, to quiet her demons and dazzle us with her observations. Other mothers bring their anxiety into play alongside their desperate love, like the one in “The Midnight Zone” who declares,  “I would not make dinner, I would not keep schedules, …never ever,” but tries “…to push my love for my sons into them where their bodies were touching my own skin.”

It’s the mother in “Yport,” the longest story, who makes the clearest statement about what goes on underneath the surface of these stories. She leaves Florida for France, supposedly to research Maupassant, but she reveals the real reason early in the story:  “Surely, her bad pet dread would never think to look for her here.”  But it does. It arrives amidst dozens of empty wine bottles, and her bored son, “…something terrible but she can’t look at it, she needs to look away, if she looks at it, it will come even closer to her…she can’t let it, all alone in this cold place with two small boys to care for.”

Some have criticized these stories for being so bleak and lacking hope and resolution. Yes. Groff’s Florida is not a place to live, but it’s a great place to visit. You’ll see things you’ve never seen before, and remember them for a long time.

 

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