August 27, 2009 by Reader's Connection
Of all the novels in which a woman wakes in the middle of the night and finds a deer in her dining room, Michelle Huneven’s Jamesland is easily my favorite. And if you told me to name the most intense book of poems about bees, I would shout at you: “Nick Flynn’s Blind Huber!” You may think I’m creating categories in which there’s not much competition, but with or without my categories these works are in a league of their own; and I’m excited that their authors are coming to town.
Butler University’s Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series begins on September 9th. Once again Butler is presenting the city with a wonderful gift, or series of gifts. No admission is charged to hear these speakers.
Here’s the schedule for the fall. To see which of an author’s books are available at IMCPL, click on the box that lists the date of that author’s visit.
Wednesday, September 9
Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall
Though most of the book is a chronicle of his own struggles with the illness, Levy produces a remarkable list of famous victims–including Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud and Elvis Presley–quoting liberally from their accounts. The author produces a dynamic portrayal of the migraineurs’ world, an ominous alternative universe where the subtlest sight, sound, smell or innocent event can trigger an attack . . . Sufferers will empathize; most general readers will sympathize.An impressive meditation on a devastating affliction — Kirkus Reviews
In 1791, at a time when the nation’s leaders were fervently debating the contradiction of slavery in a newly independent nation, wealthy Virginia plantation owner Robert Carter III freed more than 450 slaves. It was to be the largest emancipation until the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln . . . Levy offers a fascinating look at one man’s redemption and his eventual lapse into historical obscurity despite his incredibly bold actions. — Booklist
Tuesday, September 15
Reilly Room, Atherton Union
Mosley leaves behind the Los Angeles setting of his Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones series (Devil in a Blue Dress, etc.) to introduce Leonid McGill, a New York City private detective, who promises to be as complex and rewarding a character as Mosley’s ever produced. McGill, a 53-year-old former boxer who’s still a fighter, finds out that putting his past life behind him isn’t easy when someone like Tony “The Suit” Towers expects you to do a job; when an Albany PI hires you to track down four men known only by their youthful street names; and when your 16-year-old son, Twill, is getting in over his head with a suicidal girl. McGill shares Easy’s knack for earning powerful friends by performing favors and has some of the toughness of Fearless, but he’s got his own dark secrets and hard-won philosophy. New York’s racial stew is different than Los Angeles’s, and Mosley stirs the pot and concocts a perfect milieu for an engaging new hero and an entertaining new series. — Publishers Weekly
Diablerie In this short, intense roman dur (or “serious novel”), Mosley probes the human condition through Ben Dibbuk, a black man whose name evokes the dybbuk of Jewish folklore. A 47-year-old computer programmer for a New York City bank, Dibbuk is married to Mona, the editor of a new cutting-edge magazine, Diablerie , which “can mean either mischievous or evil.” He has a daughter at NYU and a 21-year-old Russian mistress whose apartment and graduate school tuition he pays for. Then a woman he doesn’t remember threatens to shatter the shell Dibbuk has built to protect himself from his troubled, alcoholic past. When Dibbuk discovers Mona is having him investigated, he realizes he risks being charged for a murder he can’t remember but may have committed. As Dibbuk struggles to escape the emotional vacuum of his life, he may not be free to enjoy his reawakening. This is Mosley at his deepest and best, scratching away the faces we wear to reveal the person behind the masks. — Publishers Weekly
Wednesday, September 23
Reilly Room, Atherton Union
Graham’s oracular books run wide to accommodate her long lines, which span the planetary and the personal, deep time and the blink of a moment. Equally attentive to the thrumming world around us and the answering whir of consciousness within, Graham turns ontological in the midst of sensuous descriptions, then forthrightly confronts accelerating, plain-as-day, dire changes in the seas, the soils, and the weather. Dreams glide by like clouds, birds busy themselves, rain falls, a woman showers, temperatures rise, and rivers evaporate. Graham envisions the planet’s countless tiny beings burrowing, tunneling, and chewing, while humankind attempts to impose order on the tumult of creation, making art and armies and tombs. Her poetic persona watches life through a window, a stance emblematic of our limited perception, our fantasy of apartness and safety. In fire-breathing poems of testimony and surrender, Graham opens herself to beauty and loss. “The permanent is ebbing,” she writes, “the new Age of Extinctions is / now.” The future may not be ours. A bracing, valiant, and sublime collection. — Booklist
The title for Graham’s best book in at least a decade introduces several obsessions at once: it’s the code name for American plans on D-Day, a sign for the absence-or perhaps presence-of an omnipotent God, and a term for arrogant nations (the U.S. among them) who have forgotten, or never learned, the lessons of the Greatest Generation. Graham, who won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for The Dream of the Unified Field, pursues familiar metaphysical questions through the long lines and longer sentences of meditations such as “Upon Emergence”: “Have I that to which to devote my/ self? Have I devotion?”; a series of poems with the title “Praying” take the question to its ends, often ending up angry, guilty or shocked. One anecdotal poem depicts her trying and failing to feed a homeless man; a more abstract effort imagines “a horrible labyrinth, this/ history of ours. No/ opening.” Most striking of all are works closely tied to D-Day, to Normandy (where Graham now spends part of each year) and to servicemen’s own testimony, which casts contemporary fears into ironic relief: “Are you at war or at peace,” Graham asks, “or are war and peace/ playing their little game over your dead body?” The vague, notebook-like qualities of Graham’s last few efforts baffled some admirers, who will likely, and rightly, see these clear and powerful poems as a return to form. — Publishers Weekly
Tuesday, October 6
Krannert Room of Clowes Memorial Hall
Having loaded up the wife and kids in the minivan to travel from Milwaukee to the family farm, where his siblings are gathering to celebrate their parents’ fiftieth anniversary, Emil Czabeck embarks on a trip down a memory lane that is full of emotional potholes. Yet for the reader of Hribal’s raucous revisiting of family life in the last half of the last century, it is a trip that is as exhilarating as a ride on the most convoluted roller coaster. Wally and Susan Czabeck got married in the rose-colored glow of post-World War II America and began raising their family of seven kids in the burgeoning Chicago suburbs, only to realize that life at the end of the trolley line wasn’t as idyllic as advertised. A pie-eyed dreamer, Wally decamps even further afield, dragging the family to a rundown farm in rural Wisconsin, where he discovers there are dangers lurking in nature that this city boy never knew existed. Vividly atmospheric, irresistibly winsome, Hribal’s loving paean to the American dream is as comforting and familiar as the classic fifties-era sitcoms it richly evokes. — Booklist
Monday, October 19
Robertson Hall Johnson Room
Named for the great amphitheatre in Rome, Ford’s second collection of poetry reckons with the themes that iconic structure brings to mind: achievements of architecture and engineering, spectacles of violence, lost empires and forgotten gods. Opening with the author’s birth amidst the fall of Saigon and civil war in Beirut, the book travels backward and forward through historical destructions, biblical floods and Ford’s own firsthand account of the devastation of New Orleans by Katrina. Faced with the unstoppable storm and the rising waters, she writes: “We will be overcome by waters/ where I stand with my lanterns and cans,/ my useless preparations and provisions,/ with the God I loved, I hated, and you.” Considering the sum of all these ruins–the human achievement of which they are the shadow–the author continually reckons with meaning and interrogates her own faith; she pleads: “Something please tell me I’m wrong/ about impermanence,/ wrong there is no unbroken believable thing/ on this earth.” Moving through the Colosseum in Rome, to the Duomo in Florence, to the Louisiana Superdome, Ford shows impressive restraint in reconciling the vast accomplishments and devastations of history, creating an enduring collection of quiet and powerful elegies. — Publishers Weekly
The book’s three sections-“The First Gospel,” “The Stations of the Cross,” and “The Wake”-navigate the darker side of faith, including the abusive powers that can undermine it. The poet presents suffering from the viewpoint of the victim, who is frozen in the face of cruelty and for whom belief means moving beyond human constraints . . . Deposition, a term used to signify the removal of Christ from the cross as well as the legal concept of giving witness, is an apt metaphor for the difficult tasks of the survivor. — Library Journal
Wednesday, October 28
Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall
Alice Black, bartender and great-great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, wakes in the night to find a deer, real or imagined, in her dining room. She is later told that an experience like this can sometimes be part of “a general shift in the way a person sees the world.” The person who tells her this is (Alice’s description) “a tall, wild-eyed minister” named Helen Harland. Helen has problems of her own with her Unitarian Universalist congregation, who feel that she talks about God too much, that her sermons are too “woo-woo.” Pete Ross, who was once a husband, father and great chef, has come apart and is forced to live with his mother. Jamesland follows Alice & Helen & Pete as they, somewhat surprisingly, become great friends, and as they discover new ways of getting on in the world. For brevity’s sake I’m omitting references to the love affairs that any of the three is having, or wants to have.
When college professor Patsy MacLemoore comes to in the drunk tank of the Altadena sheriff’s department, she can’t remember what she’s done. All she knows is that she has been there before and vowed she’d never return. This time it turns out that Patsy has killed two Jehovah’s Witnesses, a mother and daughter, while driving on a suspended license. She’s sentenced to four years in prison, and her life is never the same. From the horrific noise and filth of prison life to her membership in AA to her eventual release and slow climb back to normalcy, Patsy struggles to come to terms with the repercussions of her drunken blackout. She meets and marries a much older man who is completely devoted to his work with AA; she attempts to atone to the man whose family she killed and agrees to pay for his son’s college education; and she throws herself into her teaching career with a newfound sense of purpose. Then she receives startling new information about the exact circumstances of the accident and must once again remake her life. Huneven turns complicated moral issues into utterly riveting reading in this beautifully written story of remorse and redemption. — Booklist
Wednesday, November 11
Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall
Some neighbor kids were eating supper on our porch last weekend, and one of them got a bee in his hair. He made the most of it, dashing down the steps and running along the sidewalk, calling out “I’m running!” I was reminded-okay, at the time, of course, I was just concerned for Judah, but when I thought about it later I was reminded–of my first encounter with Nick Flynn’s bee poems. I had come across a few of them in journals prior to the publication of Blind Huber, and they startled me, even if I didn’t jump up and run down the sidewalk.
Flynn’s mother was a suicide, his father a sometime convict and street person; and in his first collection of poems, Some Ether, Flynn had written about his painful family life. But Blind Huber, his second collection, somehow takes all of that confusion, all of those questions about human identity, about what we’re doing with our lives, and transfigures them. (François Huber, if you’re wondering about the title, was an 18th-century French beekeeper and student of bee-life.) You have questions about identity? Check out existence in the hive. You yearn to transcend your egotistical self, to connect more intimately with the world around you? “We pollinate the fields because we are the fields.”
Flynn returns to a more direct record of his family life with Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir. He tells us of his upbringing, and describes how his derelict father checks into a homeless shelter in Boston where Flynn is working–so the two men are back in each other’s lives, sort of. This is a strange, wonderfully written story.
My thanks go out again, as they do every year, to Butler University.