Book reviews

The Solace of Monsters

Dear Neighbors Northers,

Yes.  I know.  It’s been a while.  Months, in fact.  Work on novels continue.  Writing continues.  I find myself in a period of great editing and deep, cavernous story.  It takes events of seismic proportions to rouse me into posting.  One such recent event was reading Laurie Blauner’s The Solace of Monsters.  My apologies if I give away too much of the story in my review (below).  I hope it will not disincline you from reading Ms. Blauner’s novel.  If you read it, I would love to read your take on it here at Neighbors North.

the-solace-of-monstersSome books provide answers and facts and knowledge.  They leave the reader with a greater sense of “knowing.”  Laurie Blauner’s Solace of Monsters left me with a greater sense of “unknowing.”

Monsters is an updated Frankenstein story.  Mara, more specifically, Mara Five, is the monster.  Her creator is Father, a heart-broken mad scientist.

Mara is in a state of becoming.  She is young, on the cusp of womanhood.  Father is still tinkering, cramming her with parts and fixing them in place with Krazy Glue.

Mara learns about the world through reading.  She doesn’t watch television or listen to the radio.  She never goes outside.  Father locks her in her room when he is away at his job.  Sometimes memories of Mara’s past existences slip into her consciousness.

In the opening scene, the description of the bird on Mara’s dinner plate tingles with references to the living creature the bird once was—alive with muscle, blood, bone, and skin.

Mara hasn’t yet got a handle on her outsized strength.  In an early scene, when she wishes to show affection to Gloves, her feline companion, she overdoes the love and kills Gloves.

Gradually Mara learns why Father goes to such lengths to not only make her but perfect her.  She is the child Father lost.  The child Father cannot let go of.  The child he cannot release.

She submits to Father’s operations.  She doesn’t particularly like them.  She doesn’t like the long painful recovery period, but she wishes to please Father.

She keeps it a secret when she loses a toe.

She busts out of her locked room the morning after the dinner party with Greg, Father’s work colleague.  She makes her way to the basement, to Father’s laboratory.  Greg’s corpse is laid out on the operating table.  Father has already begun dissecting.

Mara’s veil of ignorance falls.  She flees.

A motorist takes her to the outskirts of a forest.  Others, offended by her appearance, wish to annihilate her.  Mara eludes her pursuers.  She finds shelter in a little church in the forest.  Teresa, the village laundress, takes her in.  In addition to washing others laundry, Teresa also keeps the church clean.   Mara receives a hostile welcome from Teresa’s little girl, Kat, who is surly and blind.

Mara’s adhesive bonds weaken.   Her decay accelerates.   She loses another toe, another tooth.  Part of her ear and an eyebrow fall off.

She hobbles to the city.  She is down to one kidney.  Her strength has begun to ebb.  She is more hideous-looking.

Prostitutes and other wayward people befriend her.  The normals turn away.

She has run-ins with doctors and police.  A doctor examining her excitedly alerts his colleagues.  He has never seen anyone with so much necrotic tissue.

She meets Father Bill.  He is a spirit-driven holy man, a redeemer and executioner.  He  restores sanctity by killing prostitutes.

Mara kills Bill and departs the city.  She journeys by bus back to Father in a state of great decrepitude.  She hides her ravaged face beneath a scarf.  She leans on a crutch.

She and Father fall into their old pattern of creator and clay.  Father guides her toward the operating table.  This time, when she falls under the narcotic’s spell, she understands exactly the meaning of the moaning and crying she hears coming from a distant room.

Solace left me with many questions.  How do we keep from becoming monsters? At what cost do we preserve ourselves, defend our territory, our right to exist? How much suffering and death do we allow to be done in our names? What are we willing to do and to have done to others so that we may be fixed and repaired?

What is the cost of sheltering with killers?

What do we wish to preserve of the dead? What is it we wish to remember? What do the “normals” see? What does the blind girl see? What does the lady pushing the shopping cart see?

And what of the self-proclaimed redeemers, such as Father Bill, such as Mara’s father? Is one any nastier than the other?  Both men long for the face of God to eternally shine on them.  Is that not what all of us, on some level, wish?

Lastly, what calculus allows Mara to return to Father’s operating table? Why doesn’t she choose the nobler path? Why doesn’t she lie down under a bed of leaves and wait for her decay to be complete? Would that be the nobler path?

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Book reviews

The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan

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Dear Neighbors Northers,

I simply couldn’t not blog about this exquisite read, The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan.  Probably I’m not doing it justice.  See for yourself.  Read Ploughmen and see what you think.  How will it speak to you?

Ex nihilo nihil est.”  The killer John Gload says he came across those words decades earlier, embroidered on a hotel pillow.  Sheriff’s deputy Valentine Millimaki thinks it must be Latin.  He is too wrung out from sleeplessness to think anything more.

The Ploughmen heaves up from the earth in cataclysms and cataracts.  In between are periods of exquisite quiet.  Zupan reveals a bleak, flat Montana of blowing sand and hot, rainless summers; cricket clouds, elusive bats, and circling, hungry gulls.  He uses language in a precise, unexaggerated way, without irony or hyperbole.

Ploughmen centers upon two orphaned farm boys, Valentine Millimaki and John Gload.  A note written in his mother’s elegant script instructed eight-year-old Millimaki to come to the shed.  There, he found his mother swaying cold from the rafters.  Gload waited out a snowstorm in a truck cab for his drunken father’s return.

Millimaki marries and has a cabin in the woods.  He becomes a sheriff’s deputy.  Gload earns his bread killing.  He bows before no god and follows no commandment other than his own.

The law catches up to Gload at age seventy-seven.  Millimaki is assigned the jail’s graveyard shift.  He is instructed to pay special attention to Gload.

Gload isn’t interested in escaping.  He’s neared the end of his row and fine with living out his days behind bars.  Still, in his own inimitable fashion, he would like to put some things right.

Neither guard nor prisoner is sleeping.  Millimaki is haunted by the dead—beginning with his mother and extending out to the hikers, loners, and drifters he tries to rescue but reaches too late.  His wife can no longer bear the sorrows dripping from him and walks out.

Gload’s sleeplessness isn’t due to regret for those whose lives he has snuffed out, but for his never-fulfilled boyhood wish of being a ploughman, a dream buried in a long ago snowstorm’s drifts.  He has another wish, too, but keeps Millimaki in the dark as to what it is.

The wind, ice, snow, and sun bleach, scar, bend, and disfigure.  The punishment men mete out seems almost trivial compared to what nature doles out in the harsh and beautiful land.

Ultimately, Millimaki puts things right for Gload, just as the old man wished.

Ex nihilo nihil est.  Nothing is created from nothing.  Was this the ultimate take away from Kim Zupan’s Ploughmen?

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A writer confesses

Writing with Bravery

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Don’t listen to the clown.  Write with bravery!

 

Hello Neighbors Northers,

Story generation continues on Emma Mulberry Whole Story.  No additional comments on that today.  Instead, I bring you another colleague’s conundrum.

The Literary Thriller writer alerted us that he wouldn’t be at group Monday.  The Thrillist was hammering out how to change chapter 1 so that all would like.

No.  Wrong! the Confessing Writer said. You can’t write that way! Wrong objective.  Writing with the objective to please all is death to your story.  Writing to please all is story killer numero Eins.  Trust yourself.  Stop listening to us.  Our cacophony of opinions will lead you in circles.

Don’t listen to us pelt you with our 2 cents, nickels, quarters, and Susan B. Anthony’s.  Step away from the Pub table.

We are all just frustrated novelists, poets, short story and screen play writers aching to be heard, raising our voices and opinions ever louder, “shoulding” your story to death.  We descend into nit picks as to whether your inciting incident is catchy and hooky enough.  Like we’re qualified! Half of us missed the whole inciting incident, whole cloth kit and caboodle.

Now we’re backtracking, muddying the ground, stepping all over ourselves, saying everything except what we should be saying, which is Oops! Our bad.  We were careless.  We read right over your exquisitely embedded line about the communication tower melting.  Instead of disqualifying ourselves from the pool of commentators, we blathered on.

Stop us.  Stop us now.  Say “enough.”  Banish us from your writing sanctuary.  Make us atone and prove ourselves worthy before you listen to one iota more of our advising.

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Urban Farming

Mushroom, Nut, and Prune Pie with Sweet Potato Crust

mushroom, nut, prune sweet potato pie

Co-hab and the Urban Farmer just finished dinner.  Neither one of them could stop at one slice of this incredibly delicious pie.  Both Co-hab and the Urban Farmer had two slices.  This dinner was stratospheres better than last night’s fare:  Progresso lentil soup topped with chopped up veggie dog and a side of the night before’s beet, apple, and carrot slaw.  Tonight’s dinner was ambrosiacal.  Even better, the pie is gluten-free!

Here’s the Urban Farmer’s method on how to prepare.

Filling: Sauté 2 large leeks (chopped and minus the green tops) , 3 c chopped crimini mushrooms, and 2 cloves garlic (minced).  Add to this ¾ c fine chopped walnuts, ¾ c fine chopped prunes, and 1 c cooked pinto beans.

Sweet Potato Crust: Microwave 3 large sweet potatoes, cut into largish chunks.  Remove skins.  Mash potatoes together with one stick butter.  Whip in one egg and ½ t salt ( less if using salted butter).

Assembling: Press about two-thirds of the sweet potato mixture on bottom and sides of a greased, 9 in. pie pan.   Add ½ the filling.  Sprinkle on ½ cup fine chopped or shredded mozzarella or equivalent cheese.  Add rest of filling.  Top with another ½ cup shredded or chopped mozz.  Spoon on rest of sweet potato crust.  Use spatula to press sweet potato crust out to edge of pie and to flatten the spooned out dabs.

Bake for 30 min in a 425 degree F. oven.

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The Cinderblocks

Vitamin H Deficiencies Among the Wahnknechts

 

flamingo jeep

If Armin Wahnknecht were alive today, would he be building art cars? Might the building of an art car lead to an increase in Vitamin H?

The writer is young.  She names places and characters after the ones she loves.  In some cases, she mashes their names together.

Armin Wahnknecht did that with his boat.  The boat was a home-made affair.  He christened it with the mashed-together names of his children: the Su-Ma-Ba-Ma, shorthand for Susanne-Marie-Barbara-Matt.

The bread truck work was slowly killing him.  Armin packaged and delivered bread for his father-in-law, the baker.  Breathing in all that flour brought on the asthma.

An Everett paper mill saved Armin.  There he found his niche, working in the great hall of clanking machinery and moving parts.

The happiness allotted to Armin and Anna, his wife, and the happiness they scrounged up in addition to that allotment are unknown.  Evidence suggests they suffered a deficit of Vitamin H.  Witness their children’s largely unhappy lives.  The children, whose names were immemorialized? im-moralized? Oh, yes,—memorialized—on the prow of Armin’s boat.

Armin could be counted on to summon laughter when recalling his youthful exploits.  But was this done merely to entertain the grandchildren? Was the laughter a cover for the Vitamin H deficiency?

Circumstances and events of Armin’s youth that might account for a diminished ability to manufacture Vitamin H:

  1. The alcoholic, largely absentee, father.  (Both these descriptors may be true, but one or both could be subjected to further, more rigorous, verification.  This is difficult.  Armin’s father and all those who knew him have been dead for several decades.  Written records are scant, perhaps non-existent.  All who remain at present are Armin’s children and his nieces and nephews.  The bulk of the nieces and nephews reside in far away Germany.  To ask what the real story was pertaining to Armin’s father is not a question well-suited for the Internet.  Skype would be more ideal, but with the exception of Susanne Fabian, who wholeheartedly embraces her role as family matriarch, Armin and Anna’s descendents haven’t kept in very good contact with the family’s German branch.)
  2. Food scarcity during Armin’s youth.
  3. Inadequate clothing. Certainly he lacked mittens in winter.  His coat may have had roomy pockets into which, at least occasionally, hot potatoes found their way.  This wouldn’t have happened often (the food scarcity thing) but perhaps, say, on Christmas.  A side note: family lore has it that Armin and his several siblings were often given an oven-heated brick at bed-time.
  4. A burdensome childhood. He went to work at a young age (second grade, third grade?) caring for a neighboring farmer’s children. Thenceforward, hands-on, muscle-exhausting, get-your-back-into-it, work-your-fingers-to-the-bone work was a given.  Is it sacrilegious to conjecture that for Armin, the virtue of work surpassed the virtue of honoring and loving God above all else, and that Armin’s conception of an anvil-hammering, metal-shaping, worker god reigned supreme?
  5. Other scars.

a.  War and the older brother who died in the war.

b.  Being mistaken for a corpse. During the influenza pandemic of 1918 he was tossed  in with the dead.

Let’s consider Anna, Armin’s wife.  On the surface, the circumstances of her youth were happier.  Her immigrant parents had established firm footholds in America prior to their nuptials and Anna’s entry into the world.  Indeed, the bride and groom were gifted with a set of silver by Anna’s mother’s employer.  These utensils are now in the caretakership of the family’s Twenty-first Century matriarch, Susanne.

To the best of our knowledge, Anna never went without food.  She didn’t know what it was to live in a country defeated in war.  She lacked Armin’s Lazarus experience.

But, we mustn’t overlook Anna’s sister, a nerve-addled woman with tumbleweed-dry hair; puckered, nicotine-stained mouth out of which complaints and deprecations flew; and a soft spot for cigarettes, cats, and chocolate-covered cherries.  She assaulted Armin and Anna’s many grandchildren with declarations such as: “I sleep on a mattress on the floor!” These declarations had a particularly deleterious effect on Armin and Anna’s impressionable grandchild Emma.  Young Emma felt responsible for the great aunt’s predicament.  She was glad her parents spared her visits to the great aunt’s home.  It was purported to be crowded with stacks of yellowing newspapers and Winston Cigarette boxes.  Several cats daintily and undaintily stepped through the detritus on their comings and goings to their dishes of Whiskas and the cat litter box.

The dent in the great aunt’s forehead was never fully explained.  It was said to be the result of an operation she’d had while in State care.  That, too, spoke of a Vitamin H deficiency.  Yet, the question remained, had the great aunt’s unhappiness been a germ within her from the start or had life experiences led her there?

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