Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Look What I Found: Beverly Gray and Connie Blair

Look What I Found is an occasional series on books I've hunted-and-gathered at garage sales, used bookstores, estate sales, and the occasional pilfering from a friend's bookshelf when his back is turned.  I have a particular fondness for U.S. novels written between 1896 and 1931. If I sniff a book and it makes me sneeze, I'm bound to fall in love.

Combing through the back room of the old lady’s house, picking through cardboard boxes of books that sighed puffs of dust, I felt like Nancy Drew.  Except that I was 48 years old, had a penis, and lacked a boyfriend named Ned waiting for me at the curb in his jalopy.  Other than that, I was 100 percent amateur detective, on the hunt for orphaned, abandoned, no-longer-loved books.  I would get to the bottom of this mystery—why nobody wanted these books on their shelves anymore—and, what’s more, I would rescue the victims of neglect.  I had philanthropic ideals.  I was like Nancy Drew out to save the whales.

I’d been to this house on Granite Street before.  It was like any number of perpetual “garage sales” that make monthly appearances in the Butte classified ads.  Folks in this town are so thrifty, they even recycle their garage sales.  Why buy a new sheet of price-tag stickers every four weeks when you can just keep the tables in place and pull the tarps off the caved-in boxes of cake decorating kits, Kenny Rogers cassette tapes and sad, ratty baby clothes which didn’t sell in June and probably won’t sell in July?  It’s all about garage-sale economics, buster.

The mistress of this house on Granite Street didn’t even live here.  Eleanor owned the early-20th-century house and used its rooms as a quasi-organized storage area for what had once been somebody’s family heirlooms. Every Saturday, she sold off pieces of past material lives for $1.25.  The tables laden with Christmas ornaments (angels missing a wing), ceramic poodle lamps, and stacks of LPs (Jim Reeves, anyone?) were laden with the litter from 1960s culture every month.  Same junk, different calendar page. 

I had been here several times before, helping my wife load our car with coffee tables, glass lamps (non-poodle), and ottomans leaking horsehair stuffing.  Each time we sneezed our way through the house, I inevitably made my way down the hall to a back room which was once a pantry or a small sitting room or perhaps some little boy’s bedroom.  It’s painted a yellow which once might have been named “Sunrise Ocher,” but which has since muddied to what could only be called “Baby Poop.”  Still, it’s the room which gets the best light and I’m always there at the time of day when the sunbeams are slanting through the windows, stirring the dust motes into full-on sparkle.

The room is dominated by a tower of cardboard boxes in the center of the room, ringed by an equally imposing fortress of boxes along the walls.  Inside those boxes are books, magazines and more than a few pellets of cockroach shit.  It’s hazardous to breathe in that room, but on this particular day, like a valiant Nancy Drew, I shrugged off the threat of lung-dust cancer and kept up the quest for new additions to my library.  I fanned through reams of TIME and Newsweek—the faces of Grace Kelly and Dwight D. Eisenhower flashing from the covers—and rifled through the stacks of mildewed Good Housekeeping and Western Horseman until I found what I was looking for: two vintage teenage mysteries, both with intact, barely-torn dustjackets.  Of course, I didn’t know I wanted them until I saw them, but that’s how this kind of treasure hunt plays out.  The books call to you from the fog of page-dust and you have no choice but to answer.

On this day, I heard Beverly Gray and Connie Blair calling my name.

If it’s not already obvious, I’ve always been a Nancy Drew kind of guy.  I knew of Cherry Ames by reputation (and, in my adult years, as the star of my R-rated nurse fantasies), but I never flirted with her or her friends Trixie Belden, Judy Bolton, and the Dana Girls.  I was singularly obsessed with Nancy (with occasional library check-outs of The Hardy Boys for sexual balance).

That’s why I was surprised and delighted to find two books featuring other girl detectives* in the back room of Eleanor’s house.  According to Wikipedia, the Beverly Gray books published between 1934 and 1955 "began as a series of school stories, and followed Beverly's progress through college, her various romances, and a career as a reporter before becoming strictly a mystery series."  The volume I found, Beverly Gray’s Island Mystery, was a later addition to the canon, published in 1952 shortly before Grosset and Dunlap canceled the series.  This site will give you more information on B.G., including the fact that the author, Clair Blank, wrote the first four books while she was still in high school (they were published one year after she graduated).  The plot, from what I could tell as I stood there sneezing sparkle-motes, concerned the mysterious** disappearance of Beverly’s friends from onboard a “graceful white yacht” in the South Pacific.  Another exotic locale!  Beverly’s bags are already packed and waiting by the front door.

Connie Blair seems to share Beverly’s taste in fashion and dependable men, not to mention her habit of always tripping into “puzzling circumstances.”  Written by Betsy Allen (the pen name of Betty Cavanna) and published by Grosset and Dunlap between 1948 and 1958, the Connie Blair books featured a heroine who, as a teenager, wins a position modeling clothes at an exclusive department store in Philadelphia.  In time, she gets a job as a secretary at an advertising firm and then works her way up to a more important position.  The mystery series was noted for its titles which always featured a color (sort of like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books, but without the bikinis….At least, I don’t think Connie ever wore a bikini).  So, we get The Clue in Blue, The Riddle in Red, Puzzle in Purple, and so on.  Ms. Cavanna also apparently liked alliteration.

The volume I picked up, The Green Island Mystery, is fifth in the series of twelve books.  Unfortunately, it features one of the more lackluster covers.  That blouse she's wearing is definitely "Baby Poop."

The story opens with Connie sailing for Bermuda on an all-expenses-paid trip by her new employer.  It is, we learn on page 1, “miraculous, incredible, breathtaking.”  Of course it is.  That’s why it’s so appealing to the land-locked 12-year-old girl reading the book while sitting in her musty parlor in Kansas City as her father slowly reads the latest issue of TIME, Dwight D. giving a serious Cold War stare from the front cover.  Juvenile detectives were just like us….only prettier, richer, and luckier.  We longed to ride in their jalopies, our skis piled in the backseat, as the highway wind whipped through our hair all the way to Sun Valley.

....Oh, sorry.  Maybe that was just my fantasy.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Deerstalkers aren’t without their critics.  In The Girl Sleuth, the Connie Blair books in particular come under fire from Bobbie Ann Mason for their sexism.  Mason writes: “The series stresses appearance, popularity, and femininity as an I.D. card for entry into the business world.”  She cites a couple of examples from The Yellow Warning and The Silver Secret:
She put a hand on his arm and looked at him in a way that would have melted a stronger man.
She tried to look especially appealing and demure, because she wanted to get her information in a hurry.

Okay, fine.  But in Connie’s defense, she’s only mirroring the domestic stereotypes Hollywood was dishing out during those post-war years.  Can you blame her if she tightened her sweaters or melted men with her eyes in order to help Jeff, an enthusiastic young archaeologist, find a mysterious little man with a limp and a missing finger and who may hold the key to untold historical treasure***?

I say let Connie, Beverly, Nancy, Cherry, and Trixie go about getting their men (and villains) in their own way in the context of their own times.  Who’s to say sixty years from now we won’t be criticized for the outlandish detective methods of a cowdog named Hank or a rabbit named Bunnicula?  I just hope the as-yet-unborn book collector standing in the dust motes of my house in 2071 will appreciate the junky lit for the treasure that it is.  Maybe he'll even stumble across my Nancy Drews and say to himself, "What the hell's a jalopy?"

*Of course, there are many other junior-detective series from the 1930s and 40s, as this wonderful site will tell you.
**What disappearance isn’t mysterious?
***The Secret of Black Cat Gulch

Monday, August 29, 2011

My First Time: Craig Lancaster

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Craig Lancaster, author of the novels 600 Hours of Edward and The Summer Son600 Hours of Edward, Lancaster's debut novel, was a 2009 Montana Honor Book and the 2010 High Plains Book Award winner for best first book.  He was born in Washington and raised in Texas.  His stepfather, Charles Clines, was a longtime sportswriter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a connection that led to Craig's career as a journalist, a profession he followed to a series of newspaper jobs across the country--Texas, Alaska, Kentucky, Ohio, Washington, California and, finally, Montana.  He currently lives in Billings where he works as an editor at The Billings Gazette.  Visit his website here.

My First Front Page

In the fall of 1988, I was 18 years old and a few weeks deep into what would prove to be an inglorious college experience, but I had hope: I had just been hired as a correspondent for one of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s outlying bureaus, where I’d cover sports and small-city government for the princely sum of $50 per story.  (My hope was that I could somehow manage five stories a week and $1,000 a month, which I figured would be all the money I’d ever need.  Clearly, I was well suited for the writing life early.  No expectation of riches.)

My arrival at the Northeast Tarrant County bureau coincided with a run to the 3A state championship football game by Southlake Carroll, one of the high schools in our coverage area.  These days, Carroll is one of the most celebrated football programs in the U.S. and one of the biggest schools in Texas, but 23 years ago, it was a smallish school in a semi-rural area.

The championship game against Navasota would be covered by a staff sports reporter, someone from the main office downtown.  But my editor, Jim Fuquay, who’d taken a chance on me despite my age, was able to snag me a small role in the coverage.  I would ride down to Waco on a bus chartered by Carroll boosters and parents and then work the stands for a color story on the town’s celebration of the mighty Dragons.  Jim told me before I left that he’d stuck his neck out considerably for me: “You’ll be on a tight deadline.  The editor downtown is worried you won’t be able to handle it.  I assured him you’ll do just fine."

For the first half, I sat with various clumps of Carroll fans and asked questions about the season and their allegiance to the team.  I talked to a woman, Sue Harston, who told me that her son-in-law and daughter had both won state titles at Carroll and that another victory would give her a fourth ring in her jewelry box.  I fixated on that as a possible hook for the story.  At halftime, I filed the bulk of the story on a Radio Shack TRS-80, leaving me only with the considerable task of providing a top and a conclusion at the end of the game.

Carroll won, 42-8, and sure enough, I had about a 15-minute window to get my story completed before deadline.  I called the editor in downtown Fort Worth, the one who’d worried that I would fold under the pressure, and dictated a few paragraphs for the top of the story and one for the bottom.  The conclusion:

"The magic did prevail.  And the fans shared in it--Darrell Russell’s 25-year wait ended and Sue Harston got her fourth ring."

"This is really nice, Craig,” the editor said.  “Good job.”  I’m not sure I’ve ever received praise from an editor that meant so much as that.

The next morning, I scrambled to find the paper and thumbed through it, looking for my story.  It wasn’t on Page 1A; the editors had gone with a color piece by Gil LeBreton, one of the paper’s star columnists.  My heart sank as I turned to the sports section and didn’t find it there, either.  Dejected, I went back to bed.

It wasn’t until hours later that I heard my mom’s excited voice.  “Craig, come look.”  I found her in the dining room.  There, on Page 1A, sat my story.  It was below the fold of the paper, a little three-inch sliver of type in the bottom left-hand corner of the page, but there it was.  I’d missed it on the first pass because it was a companion piece to LeBreton’s, with a tiny elliptical headline.  In my frantic search through the paper, I’d simply mistaken it for part of LeBreton’s story.

But it wasn’t.  It was mine.  Seeing it there, on the front page of a city newspaper, knowing what it had taken to write it, I felt incredible pride.

I’ve had similar thrills in this racket in the years since--holding my first novel was a particularly transcendental moment--but none of them have exceeded standing there in my parents’ dining room, holding ink-smudged newsprint and marveling at my name upon a little one-column stick of type.  As I write this, that front page sits to my left on my desk, and as I look at it, I’m 18 again, if only for a moment.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Soup and Salad: Pinning Down Dennis Lehane, When Cather Met Crane, Against Writers' Houses, In Favor of Library Cards, Balancing the Load of Too Many Books, Br'er Rabbit Stolen, Charles Dickens Gets a Statue, Hollywood vs. The Novelist, Bringing Raymond Carver to the Screen, Kissing Grace Paley, Siobhan Fallon's Touching Stories, Amber Tamblyn the Poet, E-Book Soundtracks

On today's menu:

1.  I'm not a fan of Dennis Lehane for the simple reason I've never read any of his novels, but this kick-ass interview with The Independent makes me want to clear off my desk and read Mystic River sooner rather than later.
      The more Lehane talks, the more complex and nuanced his story becomes. Like many of the characters in his books, he is not an easy man to pin down, occupying different worlds at the same time. Like fellow graduates of The Wire, George Pelecanos and Richard Price, is he a popular novelist with literary ambitions, or a literary novelist with populist ones? Mystic River was both a brilliantly plotted thriller and a state-of-the-nation address: among the base matter that Lehane transformed into narrative gold was child abuse, murder, mental illness, marital breakdown, vigilantism, urban poverty and inner-city gentrification.
      So, Lehane jokes about selling out one minute ("Fuck it. I want to make some money"), then talks earnestly about literature as a force for moral good the next: "I can do so much at a social level," he says of his fiction. "This is where the social novel went. It went into crime fiction.

2.  The Library of America's "Story of the Week" recently featured this excerpt from Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings, a "somewhat fictionalized account" in which a young Willa Cather meets an equally-young Stephen Crane just before the publication of The Red Badge of Courage:
This was the first man of letters I had ever met in the flesh, and when the young man announced who he was, I dropped into a chair behind the editor’s desk where I could stare at him without being too much in evidence.
Only a very youthful enthusiasm and a large propensity for hero worship could have found anything impressive in the young man who stood before the managing editor’s desk. He was thin to emaciation, his face was gaunt and unshaven, a thin dark moustache straggled on his upper lip, his black hair grew low on his forehead and was shaggy and unkempt. His grey clothes were much the worse for wear and fitted him so badly it seemed unlikely he had ever been measured for them. He wore a flannel shirt and a slovenly apology for a necktie, and his shoes were dusty and worn gray about the toes and were badly run over at the heel. I had seen many a tramp printer come up the Journal stairs to hunt a job, but never one who presented such a disreputable appearance as this story-maker man.  (Click here to read the entire story)

3.  April Bernard is no fan of turning writers' houses into literary shrines:
Here’s what I hate about Writers’ Houses: the basic mistakes. That art can be understood by examining the chewed pencils of the writer. That visiting such a house can substitute for reading the work. That real estate, including our own envious attachments to houses that are better, or cuter, or more inspiring than our own, is a worthy preoccupation. That writers can or should be sanctified. That private life, even of the dead, is ours to plunder.  (Click here to read the entire article)
Okay, fine.  But on the off-chance I hit it big someday, I'm keeping a few chewed pencils around here for posterity.  Just don't go torching the place when I'm dead and gone, m'kay?

4.  Steve Himmer (The Bee-Loud Glade) took his daughter to get her first library card and ran into a few roadblocks.  The experience caused him to reflect on trying to sell his novel to a teenager and how adults don't always know what's best for kids when it comes to choosing books.  He concludes, "It's a mistake to rarify reading and put books out of reach."  His essay at The Millions is quite good and may even move you to tears.

5.  Another essay at The Millions sounds awfully familiar:
Like many people who love to read, I exist in a paradoxical state of having both far too many books and far too few. I probably don’t have many more than the average literature lover of my age, but I live in a smallish apartment, and it often feels hazardously, almost maniacally overcrowded with books. A precarious obelisk of partially read paperbacks rises from my bedside table, coated in a thin film of dust. My shelves are all two rows deep, stuffed with a Tetris-like emphasis on space-optimization, and pretty much every horizontal surface holds some or other type of reading material. I haven’t read nearly all of these books (many of them I haven’t even made a serious attempt to get started on) but that doesn’t stop me from accumulating more at a rate that neither my income nor my living space can reasonably be expected to sustain.

6.   Somebody stole Br'er RabbitBut then he was found.  That is so NOT zip-a-dee-doo-dah.

7.  Speaking of statues, the UK is getting ready to erect its first monument in honor of Charles Dickens.  At first, I was like, "Whaaat?!  Britain doesn't have a Dickens statue?  I'm gobsmacked!"  But then I remembered the author wrote in his will: "I conjure my friends on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial, or testimonial whatever."  Now, as part of the upcoming bicentenniary of his birth, the city of Portsmouth will cast him in bronze sitting in a chair next to a pile of books "which are threatening to topple over."  Dickens descendants have given their blessing to the project, defending the decision to go against the will by saying, "He didn't want an ostentatious, over-the-top Victorian monument, but I think the fact that his work is so relevant and loved 200 years later--well, he would be absolutely tickled pink, and very touched that people want to commemorate him in this way."  This brings up the question I raised earlier about how to continue the legacy of writers after they're dead.  Should we honor their pre-death wishes and not erect a statue, or should we go ahead and do what we feel is best?  Publishing things like The Pale King, for instance.

8.  Even when they're alive, writers get screwed.  Here's a tale of Hollywood vs. Intellectual Property.

9.  But sometimes Hollywood gets it right.  Though I'm no longer a regular reader of Entertainment Weekly, I thought this was a great interview with Dan Rush, the director who married Will Ferrell and Raymond Carver on the screen with Everything Must Go.  I still haven't seen the movie based on Carver's short story "Why Don't You Dance?", but now I'm even more impressed by Rush's dedication to getting it right.
Did you take efforts to preserve some of Carver’s hallmarks — like the really naturalistic, mundane dialogue, the working class characters, the subtle humor that you could almost miss if you don’t read it out loud. 
It’s humor from pain, I would say. Certainly, there’s a theme of alcohol abuse in Carver’s work. That’s something that I think informs this character of Nick Halsey—that was always going to be one of the components. Also, I love how with Carver often not saying anything says a lot. I’m a big believer in nonverbal acting. I remember in “Why Don’t You Dance?”, there’s a line, the only reference to a wife: “nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed, nightstand and reading lamp on her side.” That line says so much. I don’t think a lot of his characters are oversharers until they’ve had alcohol. There’s a pride to them, and for me, Carver’s characters are always striving to make a change. “Victory,” for instance, may not be about actual victory, but it’s about the intention. Which I think is tricky from a cinematic standpoint, you know? Because there was never a clear catharsis, I think, in his stories. But I think they’re about people trying to make a better life for themselves.

10.  All Steve Brykman wanted was a kind word from Grace Paley.  And to kiss her full on the lips.

11.  At The Story Prize blog, Siobhan Fallon talks about why You Know When the Men Are Gone became a series of connected short stories rather than a novel:
The physical nature of stories, those multiple starts and stops, allowed me to leap over the time and distance of a deployment, that seemingly endless waiting both soldiers in Iraq and families in Fort Hood have to slog through during the twelve months they are apart. Each story shifts focus from one family or couple to another, and, in this episodic way, I felt like I was able to emphasize how every corner of the Army community—neighbors in the same housing building or total strangers from one side of the base to the other—was affected. Lives cross paths, but Fort Hood is a big place with more than 30,000 active duty soldiers alone; sometimes there is a shared apartment wall or a shared Humvee, but, like life, I didn't want too much overlap. I wanted to recreate the sense of separateness, the way people are always coming and going. Individual short stories could do this, each title stacked together tenuously in the Table of Contents but not merged together, the stories touching but never completely entwined.

12.  Amber Tamblyn is a poet.  Yes, that Amber Tamblyn.

13.  This could either be a neat idea or a horrible distraction:  "Booktrack, a start-up in New York, is planning to release e-books with soundtracks that play throughout the books, an experimental technology that its founders hope will change the way many novels are read."  (Click here to read the entire article)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

This, That, and The Other



I have never read any novels by John LeCarre, but these new cover designs from Penguin make me want to go out and buy the whole set.  See more covers here.


Literary sneakers give you the opportunity to walk all over The Scarlet Letter (above), The Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse Five, Romeo and Juliet, and more.  See the collection here.

The Other:

See more succinct cartoons by Tom Gauld here.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Friday Freebie: Safe From the Sea by Peter Geye

Congratulations to Martha Burzynski, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.

This week's book giveaway is Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye.  Released by Unbridled Books last year, Geye's novel will make its paperback debut in early September.  The publisher has generously offered to give one lucky reader of The Quivering Pen a hardbound edition of Safe From the Sea, a family saga which Bookslut called "a thing of beauty; a lesson in the ineffable power of story to take us out of ourselves and bring us to a place we never knew but recognize all the same."  Here's the publisher's blurb:
Set against the powerful lakeshore landscape of northern Minnesota, Safe from the Sea is a heartfelt novel in which a son returns home to reconnect with his estranged and dying father thirty-five years after the tragic wreck of a Great Lakes ore boat that the father only partially survived and that has divided them emotionally ever since. When his father for the first time finally tells the story of the horrific disaster he has carried with him so long, it leads the two men to reconsider each other. Meanwhile, Noah’s own struggle to make a life with an absent father has found its real reward in his relationship with his sagacious wife, Natalie, whose complications with infertility issues have marked her husband’s life in ways he only fully realizes as the reconciliation with his father takes shape.
Though I haven't had the chance to read Safe From the Sea, it's been on my ever-expanding, ever-evolving To-Be-Read pile since last year.  When a book gets as much universal good buzz as this one did, I sit up and take notice.  The opening lines of the first chapter are certainly promising and give some indication of how Geye makes the Great Lakes landscape not just a scenic backdrop, but a principal player in the story:
That morning Noah boarded a plane for Duluth. By seven o'clock he was driving a rental car down Mesaba Avenue. Between the intermittent swoosh of the windshield wipers he recognized the city he harbored in his memory. It lay below him smothered in fog, the downtown lights wheezing in mist. Though he could not see the lake in the distance, he knew it rested beyond the pall. Soon he pulled onto Superior Street. The manholes blowing steam might have been freeing ghosts.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of Safe From the Sea, all you have to do is answer this question:

According to his website, what are the three "b" jobs Peter Geye has held at one time or another in his life?

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Sept. 1--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 2.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reader, I Ate Him: The Gory Delights of The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

Meet Jake Marlowe.  He's a millionaire, a chain-smoker, a sex addict, and a man who likes a good tumbler of aged whiskey.  He's also a paranoiac, has a hair-trigger temper, and is a bit of a nihilist.

Did I mention he's a 200-year-old werewolf?

As The Last Werewolf opens, Marlowe is given the news by his human "handler" that the only other known member of his monster-species has just been assassinated.  "It's official," Harley said.  "They killed the Berliner two nights ago.  You're the last."

And with that, we're abruptly thrust into the alternate universe Glen Duncan creates in his novel.  The first dozen pages are a rocky start as The Last Werewolf gives us little time to sort out characters and circumstances, but by the time Jake shoots one of his would-be assassins on a rainy London street, we're fully on board for the ride, dodging silver bullets and replacing ripped-at-the-seams clothing every full moon.

Spanning three months, The Last Werewolf leads readers into dark, brooding alleys as Jake tries to stay one paw ahead of WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) and his nemesis Eric Grainer who has made it his career goal to kill the last known monster.  At times, the novel reads like an espionage thriller (complete with double agents and secret identities) from John Le Carre or Graham Greene, but sprinkled with a liberal dose of sex and violence.

The bedsheets-and-blood scenes are told with gusto and eye-averting detail.  Fair warning to readers with delicate sensibilities: Duncan never met an orifice or bodily fluid he didn't like.  The killing--or "feeding," as Jake puts it--is erotically charged and graphically described at every turn.
Yet here was the flesh that took my teeth in helpless succulence and the warm sour fountain of blood, the puncture moment that never gets old but stops being enough.

Jake has been around a long time and survived a tumultuous history ("I was in Europe when Nietzsche and Darwin between them got rid of God, and in the United States when Wall Street reduced the American Dream to a broken suitcase and a worn-out shoe"), so he can be forgiven for having a cold cynical attitude toward humanity. The Curse is "unencumbered by aesthetics or fair play," he says.  Eating people is just a coping mechanism for things like the Holocaust and Hiroshima.

To complicate matters, he's a sensitive werewolf, both emotionally and physically.  His nerves are like a million long hairs poking from his skin--he feels everything.  Duncan renders this hyperkinetic awareness in prose that has its roots in 19th-century Gothic literature.  Marlowe falls somewhere between the mute brutality of Frankenstein's monster and the refined elegance of Dracula--but with a twist of James Bond thrown into the mix.  The Last Werewolf is, at its bloody heart, a meditation on the nature of our society's violence and our moral obligations.  Jake Marlowe is a modern Boswell chronicling the Age of Horror.
There's a view that the only thing to do with atrocity is chronicle it. Facts, not feelings. Give us the dates and numbers but stay out of Hitler's head. That's all well and good when the chronicler is outside the atrocity. It won't wash when the chronicler is the atrocity.
Jake both man and monster, "a cocktail of contraries."  We can all relate, whether or not we howl at the moon once a month.

Duncan has crafted a novel that in its own way could transform paranormal literature for the better.  The Last Werewolf goes deep and metaphysical with frequent references to Kierkegaard and Freud, but remains entertaining enough at the Stephen King level.  Duncan's description of the inner wolf is so beautifully vivid that we'll never look at all those second-rate CGI shape-shifting scenes in movies the same way again:
In my dreams a small wolf slept inside me and it wasn't comfortable. It moved its heels and elbows and paws, struggled to make space between my lungs, stomach, bladder. Occasionally a scrabbling claw punctured something and I woke....I knew what it was dreaming. It was dreaming of being born. The form and scale of its occupancy shifted. Sometimes its legs were in my legs, its head in my head, its paws in my hands. Other times it was barely the size of a kitten, heartburn hot and fidgety under my sternum. I'd wake and for a moment feel my face changed, reach up to touch the muzzle that wasn't there.
If The Passage by Justin Cronin gave us the vampire novel we'd been waiting for, then Glen Duncan delivers the werewolf saga we deserve.  Okay, I'll say it: this is the kind of book that only comes around once in a blue moon.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

There's a Bobcat in My Back Yard: Designing the Perfect Reading Space

The garage had to go.

The garage was attached to our 1920’s Craftsman home in Butte, Montana and like a playground bully it dominated our back yard. It extended all the way to the alley, rudely dividing the lawn into two halves: right off our back door, a postage-stamp-size square of grass (which we never used because, frankly, who wants to sit on a yard no bigger than a sheet of toilet paper?) and another nicer, larger stretch of lawn on the other side (which we never used because, frankly, we didn’t want to take the long walk all the way around the house just to sit in that isolated spot of grass, either). So, down it had to come. One morning in June, we took a deep breath, crossed our fingers, then plunged forward with the Bobcat—mangling and chewing and crushing the old wooden structure. The garage had stood for 40 years but it came down in less than 40 minutes.
That's how my winning entry in a national Do-It-Yourself contest begins.  Earlier this summer, my wife and I (along with my daughter's boyfriend) undertook a backyard renovation project which involved tearing down the attached garage, building a deck in its place, then laying an entire yard's worth of sod.  Along the way, we also added a new cellar door, built a tool shed and installed a sprinkler system.  At times, it felt like we'd gotten into one of those eyes-bigger-than-our-muscles situations.  But we got the job done and still had half the summer left to enjoy the fruit of our labors (and when I say "we," I really mean my wife and my daughter's boyfriend since most of the time I was away at The Day Job or holed up in the basement pecking out final revisions on Fobbit).  When the dust settled and the new grass had started to sprout, my wife encouraged me to enter the One Project Closer contest, hoping our "sweat equity" would see at least a small return on our (their) investment.  To our surprise and delight, we won the weekly contest.

You can read the rest of the story about the garage demolition and deck construction at One Project Closer by clicking here.

From this.... this.

What my narrative doesn't tell you is that the new deck makes for a nice haven when I want to get away with a book and a cup of coffee or glass of wine, depending on the hour of the day.  In the past, I've found my "quiet place" on the front porch (distraction: the street traffic and the occasional rattle of a beer can tossed out the window) or in the butler's pantry which we've dubbed "the breakfast nook" (distraction: the psychobabble of Dr. Phil coming from the TV in my wife's office nearby).  So the backyard deck provides a nice curl-up-and-read location, especially when the morning sun breaks over the East Ridge and slants a glow across the page.

A peaceful morning with sunshine, coffee and The Last Werewolf

Soon, the snow will start blanketing us here in Butte and I'll have to retreat inside to the breakfast nook with its Dr. Phil soundtrack.  But for now, I'm happy with the pip-pip-pip of finches visiting the tree over my head as I soak up some of the year's best literature.  I know my wife thinks we built the deck for hosting outdoor parties and as a place where she can work on her seasonal tan; but for me, it makes for a nice plein air reading room.

What about you?  Where do you go to get lost in a book?

*     *     *     *

From the If-I-Can-Do-It-Anybody-Can Department: The One Project Closer Before and After contest is still open for entries.  Here's more information on how you can enter:

One Project Closer is running their fourth annual Before & After series in support of Habitat for Humanity. Every week for the entire summer OPC picks a winner and features their before & after story. All the winners walk away with a $50 gift card and have the chance to win the grand prize: an additional $150 gift card.

All entries must be a do-it-yourself project that was completed within the past year. Write a short story describing the project and email it to Some of the best submissions provide a clear how-to guide with captivating pictures so readers can easily follow along.

The Before & After series started in 2008 when One Project Closer decided to help raise support for Habitat for Humanity. Along with the gift card, OPC will make a $100 donation to Habitat in honor of that week's winner.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tuesday Tune: "Calamity Song" by The Decemberists

Despite the critical hoopla showered on The Decemberists' new album The King Is Dead, the folk-pop failed to move me.  The songs weren't bad and certainly they were sung with full-throated earnestness...and yet I felt short-changed.  I'd been expecting something on the order of Fleet Foxes or The Head and the Heart.  True to their name, The Decemberists left me chilly.


But then their video for "Calamity Song" made me sit up, take notice, and re-evaluate my bad attitude.

For starters, it's a slickly-produced and well-performed video with lead singer Colin Meloy showing some acting chops.  It tells a story and makes a moral point--which is the goal of art, isn't it?

However, the most important, interesting aspect of the "Calamity Song" video, and the reason it makes it to this book blog, is the nature of that story.  Hold on to your bandannas, boys and girls, because you're about to get a heaping wallop of David Foster Wallace this morning.  The Decemberists (Meloy in particular) decided to film a scene from Infinite Jest in tribute to the late writer.  As Meloy tells NPR's All Songs Considered blog:
I wrote "Calamity Song" shortly after I'd finished reading David Foster Wallace's epic Infinite Jest. The book didn't so much inspire the song itself, but Wallace's irreverent and brilliant humor definitely wound its way into the thing. And I had this funny idea that a good video for the song would be a re-creation of the Enfield Tennis Academy's round of Eschaton — basically, a global thermonuclear crisis re-created on a tennis court — that's played about a third of the way into the book. Thankfully, after having a good many people balk at the idea, I found a kindred spirit in Michael Schur, a man with an even greater enthusiasm for Wallace's work than my own. With much adoration and respect to this seminal, genius book, this is what we've come up with. I can only hope DFW would be proud.

Because he was such a complicated individual, it's hard to say whether or not Wallace would be proud, but there's no denying the appeal of the video to a larger audience--one which might be inspired to go check out IJ after watching "Calamity."  See for yourself:

P.S.  Did you catch the sly DFW reference with Jenny Conlee in the pink wig and headband?

P.S.S.  Further literary linkage: Colin Meloy is the brother of novelist and short story writer Maile Meloy (Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, Half in Love).  Their aunt Ellen was also a writer (Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild).

P.S.S.S.  Colin and Maile both have children's books coming out this year.  I'm less interested in Colin's Wildwood than I am in Maile's The Apothecary.  Here's the book trailer:

Monday, August 22, 2011

My First Time: Hardy Jones

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Hardy Jones, author of Every Bitter Thing.  Jones has had thirty works of fiction and nonfiction published in journals.  In 2001, his memoir manuscript People of the Good God was awarded a grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts.  His essay “Laotian New Year and Its Traditions” was the result of a research grant he was awarded by the Louisiana Division of the Arts Folklife Program’s “New Populations Project.”  The essay centers on the Laotian settlement of Lanexang village in New Iberia, Louisiana.  In 2009, his short story “Snow” was included in the Dogzplot Flash Fiction Anthology, and in 2010 Black Lawrence Press published his novel Every Bitter Thing.  Hardy is the Director of Creative Writing at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, where he lives with his wife the Thai author Natthinee Khot-asa Jones.

My First Short Story Which Became My First Novel

In the spring of 2001 my short story “A Butcher’s Friend” was published by The Jabberwock Review.  I call the piece a short story, but at that time it was the opening scene of what I hoped would one day become a novel, Every Bitter Thing.  While it took nine more months to write the original draft of the novel, that opening scene came out in one sitting.  I had been kicking around the opening line, “Dad was always friends with butchers,” in my head for about three years, and one afternoon, frustrated with something else that I was writing, I started a new file and typed out the sentence.  The rest of the scene came out in about forty-five minutes in one of the moments that writers live for: the characters, the setting, the actions, even the dialogue simply flowed out.  After such an auspicious start, I was unable to write for several weeks, and when I did return to the manuscript, I fluctuated between continuing with it as fiction or making it into a father/son memoir.  Once I had written fifty pages, I decided to go the route of fiction.  By releasing myself and the characters from what I perceived as the constraint of memoir, I was able, ironically, to be more truthful about the father’s bigotry and the protagonist’s sexual abuse by an older boy.

While the novel’s initial draft took nine months to complete, it took seven years of revising and submitting the manuscript before it was accepted for publication in April 2008 by Black Lawrence Press.  At that time, my wife and I were in the process of buying a house and I was tired of the numerous phone calls from banks and finance companies.  I was on the phone with a colleague when a beep let me know I had another call.  Assuming it was probably another loan officer trying to pressure us, I decided I wasn’t going to click over.  Luckily my colleague was more level headed and said I should take it; the call, he said, may be important.  He was correct.  It was Black Lawrence Press’ then Executive Editor Colleen Ryor saying that they had decided to accept Every Bitter Thing.  After all those years of work on the manuscript, I almost did not answer when opportunity called.

Colleen stepped down as Executive Editor to pursue a graduate degree and Diane Goettel assumed that position.  Working with Diane was the first time I had a lengthy relationship with an editor.  My previous experiences had been with magazine editors whose suggestions amounted to small changes such as cutting a sentence or switching a semicolon to a comma.  Like most writers, I had heard horror stories of editors demanding wholesale changes that ended up altering the author’s vision.  Diane requested changes, of course, but they were not across-the-board; instead, she improved the novel by tightening flabby passages and in the process, she captured and crystallized my vision of the characters and the book.

It was a long trip from a page and half story to completed manuscript to published novel, and once the book was in my hand, I was delighted that I had embarked on this journey and thankful for all of the help I had along the way.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

From the Cutting-Room Floor: Tabby Hoffman, the Taxidermied Cat

Here's another section from my novel about the Iraq War which didn't survive the latest round of revisions.  I liked this scene from Fobbit primarily because a less-embellished version of it actually took place during my year in Baghdad.  Like Specialist Cinnamon Carnicle, one of my co-workers frequently received unusual care packages from her "parental units" and, yes, one of them included a taxidermied pet.  Most of the other details have been liberally pretzeled into the shape of fiction.

*     *     *     *

After the marketplace suicide bomber, but before the evening update to the commanding general, the usual tedium settled back over the cubicles in task force headquarters.  So that's why it was a relief to see Specialist Kotch arrive with that day's mail call.

Not much for me—a letter from my parents and this month’s issue of Poets & Writers—but there was large box for Carnicle.  The return address was from Seattle—her parents—so we knew it promised to be a good one.  It was bound mummy-style with so much tape you could hardly see the cardboard underneath.  One side of the box was crushed and someone, the mother or a sister perhaps, had taken a green marker and drawn what appeared to be a lawn running around four sides of the box.  There were trees, flowers and a sun, too (all in green marker).

Kotch plopped the box down on Carnicle’s desk, said “Toodle-loo” then left like he was Santa Claus in combat fatigues.

Carnicle didn’t come on shift for another two hours, so Major Filipovich and I sat around staring at the box with its lawn-scape and played guessing games about the contents.  This was not the first care package Carnicle’s parents had sent and Major F. and I were already starting to drool because what she called her “parental units” always packed the box with candy.

“I’m thinking Pop Rocks,” Major Filipovich said, wiping his sleeve across his mouth.

“More like Laffy Taffy,” I said.

“If so, it’s probably all melted to shit by now.”

“Yeah, you’re right.  Damn.”

We stared at the box.

“What else you think?” he said.

“Books, for sure.”

"Oh, for sure.”

By this point, Carnicle had herself a pretty decent highbrow library, courtesy of her parents, back at her hooch: Jack Kerouac, Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a volume of essays by Carlyle, Locke and Ruskin, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  You can see what kind of people had raised her.

“There’s gotta be something else in there, though,” Major F. said.  “It’s too big for just candy and books.”

“Remember the little humpy-dog?  Maybe it’s something like that.”

“Oh man, one can only wish.”

A month ago, Carnicle’s parents had sent her one of those mechanical toys you buy as gag gifts—a battery-operated Chihuahua that started barking and pumping its pelvis whenever you clipped it to someone’s leg.  We all had great fun with that until the day the Chief of Staff happened to be walking by the Public Affairs cubicle.  He didn’t share our sense of humor.

Major Filipovich gave the new care package one more jiggle, then stood to leave, saying he had a mission over at Corps PAO to “liase” with our Public Affairs counterparts from the Marines and Air Force—a trip outside the wire which sounded like total bullcrap to me.  “Liaison” was probably officer code for “drinking beers in the Green Zone.”

This left me alone with Carnicle’s box.  For another hour, I pondered and guessed and made bets with myself concerning the contents.  Like I said, after the marketplace massacre, it was a slow day.  I checked the SMOG computer every ten minutes, as per Standard Operating Procedure, but there was nothing to raise anyone’s pulse: a few weapons caches discovered, a stray sniper’s bullet which did nothing but ricochet and send a concrete chip pinging off some sergeant’s helmet, a ribbon-cutting at a sewage treatment plant built by American engineers (the ceremony went off “without hostile incident”).  All pretty ho-hum stuff.

So, when Carnicle finally came on shift, M-16 clattering off her hip and dust puffing from her boots, I practically pounced on her, that’s how anxious I was to get inside the box.

“Whoa, cool your jets, Sar’nt.  Let me at least get my battle rattle stowed.”  She grumbled, but I could see she was just as excited to see what the parental units had sent from Seattle.

She pulled out her Leatherman and sliced through the four pounds of tape which held the cardboard together.  She pried back the flaps, looked inside, gasped, then smiled.  “You.  Have.  Gotta be.  Shitting me.”

“What?  What is it?”

“It’s Tabby Hoffman.”  She reached inside and pulled out an orange-and-cream cat taxidermied into a nose-to-tail sleeping curl.  “This is awesome.”

“A cat?  That’s what your parents mailed you?”

“Not just any cat.  This is Tabby Hoffman, a loyal and devoted member of the Carnicle family for eight years.  Until she ran out into the street in front of a UPS truck.”

“So, that’s the real thing, not just a gag gift you buy down at the mall?”

“Here, see for yourself.”  She tossed the thing across the room to me like it was a Frisbee and I clapped it between my hands.  It was indeed an actual cat, stiffened into a strangely content-looking death pose—cat-napping for eternity.  I turned it around to look at the face tucked against the tail.  One eye was closed, one eye was open.  “Is this how your cat liked to sleep?”

“No, that was something my parents thought would quote lend spiritual significance to an otherwise ordinary tchotchke unquote.  They were, like, reading The I Ching at the time, I think, and it had something to do with the Inner Eye or some shit like that.”

“Wow, your parents are….”

“Odd?  Yeah, you can go ahead and say it, Sar’nt.  I mean, shit, they named me and my sisters after spices.  Why wouldn’t they freeze-dry our beloved Tabby Hoffman for all eternity?”

I carefully gave the family pet back to Carnicle.  “How long has it been dead?”

“Gee, I don’t know.  Ten years, maybe?  At first, they kept him in the freezer.  Couldn’t bring themselves to bury him—‘commit Tabby to the soil,’ they said.  I was only 10 or 11 at the time, but I can remember them taking the bag out of the freezer at parties and passing him around so people could pet him.  They always put him back before he defrosted.  Except for this one time when they got a little too toasted on martinis and when they woke up the next day, there he was, all limp and soggy.  That’s when they did the whole taxidermy thing.”  She kissed Tabby on the nose.  “And he’s been hanging around ever since.  Haven’t you?  Yes, you have, you sweet mangy old thing.”

I just stared at Carnicle, more amazed by her sudden baby voice than I was by the family pet her parents had sent across the ocean.  Carnicle saw me looking, straightened, and coughed roughly.  “So, uh, anyway, that’s Tabby Hoffman.”

“Anything else in the box?”

She pulled out the usual stuff—hand lotion, fruit jerky, candy bars, and, yes, a book (predictably, The I Ching—I guess it was now some sort of owner’s manual for the cat).  “You want a Snickers, Sar’nt?”

“Sure, thanks.”  I caught the candy bar, unwrapped it, and took a large bite.  It tasted like formaldehyde.  I made a face and spit the glob into the nearest garbage can.

“So, what do you think I should do with Tabby?” Carnicle said.

I hawked and spit into the can.  “Whatever you want, Carnicle.”

“You know what I think?  I think we should put him on Colonel Harkleroad’s chair and when he comes in to work tomorrow he will absolutely shit his drawers.”

“Oh, yeah, har-har.”

“No, really.  I think that’s what we should do.  It’ll be loads of fun to see the look on his face.”

“It’s your career, Carnicle.  Do what you want.”  Right then, I just wanted to leave so I could get over to the chow hall and get the taste of taxidermied cat out of my mouth.  Which I did after briefing Carnicle for shift-change.  When I left, she was petting the cat and smiling into its one-eye-open face.

The next day, Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad did indeed shit a brick when he pulled out his desk chair and found a cat curled up like a puddle of melted orange ice cream.  He started to bluster and sputter, so I right away grabbed Tabby Hoffman and gave him back to Carnicle who’d been standing by in her battle rattle for half an hour, waiting for Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad to show up for the morning shift.  “I don’t think he thought it was as funny as you did.”

“The Old Man has no sense of humor.”

I leaned in close.  “Don’t let anyone else know I told you this, but I heard there was a terrible accident years ago and he had to have his humor gland surgically removed.”

Carnicle laughed.  “Nice one, Sar’nt.”  She slung her M-16 over her shoulder, tucked the cat under her other arm, and headed out to get her allotted seven hours of daytime sleep.  Though it went contrary to everything I’d always imagined about Carnicle, I could picture her sleeping in her hooch with one hand resting on the family pet which watched over her with one eye, guarding against enemy mortars crashing through the roof.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Hot Summer of Rage: Paradise Alley by Kevin Baker

Today is the birthday of novelist Kevin Baker, author of the "City of Fire" trilogy--Dreamland, Paradise Alley, Strivers Row--which transformed three distinct periods in New York City's history into vivid fiction.  E. L. Doctorow may bring the poetry, but Baker brings the muscle.  So, in honor of Baker's birthday, I thought I'd share an enthusiastic review I wrote of Paradise Alley nearly ten years ago for another website.

*     *     *     *

NEW YORK, July 13, 1863
(Received 2.30 p.m.)
Secretary of War.
        SIR: The riot has assumed serious proportions, and is entirely beyond the control of the police. [Police] Superintendent Kennedy is badly injured. So far the rioters have everything their own way. They are estimated at from 30,000 to 40,000. I am inclined to think from 2,000 to 3,000 are actually engaged. Appearances indicate an organized attempt to take advantage of the absence of military force.

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.  Thousands had smeared their blood all over the Gettysburg battlefield eleven days earlier.  A generation of men was quickly and surely being eradicated, leaving widows and children to fend for themselves in the cities and the plantations.  Then, to insult their injury, President Lincoln called for a draft—the National Conscription Act—which, among other things, allowed men to pay $300 to have a substitute go to war for them. At the time, $300 was a workingman's wages for an entire year.  And so, the rich could buy their way out of battle, while the rest—mainly Irish immigrants who had fled the Great Potato Famine in hopes of finding a better life in America—were forced to fight for the freedom of slaves who might one day come north and take their jobs. 

It was a hot summer of rage there in the mean streets of New York and other Union cities.  Riots erupted. Angry mobs assaulted blacks walking the streets and eventually burned down a black orphanage, ruling the city with violence until Union troops could be dispatched from the front lines to quash the rioters.  When the smoke cleared and the blood dried, the streets were littered with the dead—anywhere from two dozen to a thousand, depending on which source you reference. 

It was one of the ugliest moments in American history and chances are very good you never heard of it, no matter how well you paid attention in high school history class. 

Now Kevin Baker (Dreamland) has brought the riots to vivid, breathtaking life in his novel Paradise Alley. 

Baker has crafted perhaps the year’s most perfect historical novel—and these past twelve months have certainly seen a good harvest of historical fiction (The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles, The Navigator of New York by Wayne Johnston,  and The Seal Wife Kathryn Harrison, among others). 

But Paradise Alley is particularly perfect because it instructs, entertains and provokes in such a way that the seams of research never show. 

NEW YORK, July 13, 18639.30 p.m.
(Received 11.45 p.m.)

Secretary of War
        SIR: The situation is not improved since dark. The programme is diversified by small mobs chasing isolated negroes as hounds would chase a fox. I mention this to indicate to you that the spirit of mob is loose, and all parts of the city pervaded. The Tribune office has been attacked by a reconnoitering party, and partially sacked. A strong body of police repulsed the assailants, but another attack in force is threatened. The telegraph is especially sought for destruction. One office has been burned by the rioters, and several others compelled to close. The main office is shut, and the business transferred to Jersey City.  In brief, the city of New York is to-night at the mercy of a mob, whether organized or improvised, I am unable to say. As far as I can learn, the firemen and military companies sympathize too closely with the draft resistance movement to be relied upon for  extinguishment of fires or the restoration of order. It is to be hoped that to-morrow will open upon a brighter prospect than is promised to-night.

Baker centers Paradise Alley around three women: Ruth, who survived the potato famine only to marry first a psychopath, now escaped from prison and seeking revenge, then an ex-slave named Billy Dove, now trapped on the other side of the city by the mob; Ruth's prideful sister-in-law Deirdre who is waiting for her wounded husband to return from Gettysburg; and Maddy, a prostitute living in their neighborhood.  The women eventually unite in a couple of harrowing scenes which show early feminism in its bravest moments.  In time of war, Baker implies, it's the wives, mothers and daughters who must grow as tough as any infantry foot-soldier.  The male characters—Billy Dove, "Dangerous" Johnny Dolan, a Tribune reporter named Herbert Willis Robinson, and Deirdre's husband Tom—are memorable, but they don't get as much page-time as the women who must survive these three days of terror with pluck and determination. 

Paradise Alley has an eyewitness immediacy, as if, like his reporter character Herbert Willis Robinson, Baker is jotting down notes of events as they unfold in front of him.  This recalls to mind that great, short-lived TV series You Are There with Walter Cronkite.  Details of life in the 1860s envelope us, sentence by sentence, until we are fully immersed in a time warp (or, more precisely, time wrap).  This New York is “a city where herds of pigs still run loose in the streets.  Where stagecoach drivers race and whip each other along the avenues, and steam ferries race and collide and explode in the harbor.” 

Baker’s touch is firm, but unobtrusive.  It feels void of any fancy, writerly flourishes…and yet the book often soars and sings with both excruciating reality and exquisite poetry.  For instance, I’ve never given birth—only stood by my wife’s bedside as she gripped my hand during contractions, squeezing my fingers to a bony, bloody pulp—but this is as accurate a scene of childbirth as I’ve ever read:
It would not come out, whatever it was.  It preferred to stay inside and eat out her innards, grinding her backbone to powder.  She pushed and she pushed, but she could not dislodge it, and then she let herself sink down and that seemed to ease the pain.  Her senses going now, sinking back into her as well, so that she felt herself to be blind, and nearly deaf.  She could no longer see the women around her, could barely hear them calling on her to Push, and other such fantastical demands.

And try not to flinch during this Civil War moment:
The rifles along the stone wall flashed as if a match had been struck along the whole length of the line.  Every blue-coated soldier Tom could see ahead of him went down at once, as if they had fallen into a ditch.  He ducked his head involuntarily, and saw the ground beneath his feet moving, as if it were alive, and teeming with insects.  Realizing only later that what he was seeing was a hundred more reb balls and bullets, ripping through the mud and the sparse grass.

Baker often strays from the action of the draft riots with extended flashbacks of the Irish famine and Civil War battle scenes; but that’s okay, for what is history, after all, but memory?  Chapters alternate between characters and each has a particular point of view of the events (though only Robinson the reporter's is in first person).  Together, Baker has assembled them into a rich mosaic of sight, sound, smell and taste, one that amplifies and animates history in a way that textbooks never could. 

Baker paints on a large canvas, but when it comes down to it, this book is really about family and the dogged determination of its several members to reunite against all odds and for various reasons: some to love, some to kill.  Like the ripped-apart nation in the 1860s, the characters in Paradise Alley find ways to reconstruct their lives after the draft riots…but they will never be the same again.  And neither will readers who have taken the journey with them.

No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And binds the brain—a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.
Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads
Vacant as Libya. All is hushed near by.
Yet fitfully from far breaks a mixed surf
Of muffled sound, the atheist roar of riot.

—first lines of The House-Top. A Night Piece. July, 1863 by Herman Melville