The Known World feels like a book that took a long time to write. The writing proceeds at a slow but churning pace. Jones meticulously ties each character to one another, to the land, to the curious circumstances of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. We are taught in school that slavery was a black and white affair, but Jones takes great pains to describe a human landscape where such distinctions are blurry: the most powerful man in Manchester County, William Robbins, dotes upon the two children he has fathered with his slave, Philomena; Oden, the Indian, exaggerates his cruelty towards blacks to maintain his tenuous superiority; and Henry Townsend, the gifted young black man at the center of this novel, acquires a plantation full of slaves from which discord flows, imperceptibly at first. The lesson is the messiness of slavery made real by the vivid lives of each character. Over the course of the novel, Jones sketches out each character, from birth to death, using deft flashbacks and flash-forwards that are scattered throughout like crumbs and give the book a marvelous depth. In this sense, the book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book ends before the Civil War begins, and so the triumph of good over evil is not allowed to mitigate the brutal picture of slavery that Jones paints. Perhaps because it was so assiduously researched, this novel feels like history and it feels like life. Here’s hoping that Jones’ next one doesn’t take ten years to write.
1. Joan Didion writes in her essay “The White Album” that the cultural paranoia known as “the Sixties” had ended — or rather been fulfilled — on August 9, 1969. That night, four members of Charles Manson’s “Family” broke into 10050 Cielo Drive and stabbed Sharon Tate Polanski, eight months pregnant, a total of sixteen times. Shortly after, as Paul Watkins and other members of the Manson Family watched a television report of the murders, somebody turned to him and said, “Wouldn’t it be somethin’ if old Charlie did that?” Paul Watkins had been just out of high school when he joined the Manson Family. He was a former class president with a handsome face, and a smile sweet enough to recruit young girls to the commune. After the Manson murders, Watkins would ultimately testify against Charles Manson. He would outlive the Sixties. He would become president of the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce, appear on CNN, raise two daughters. On his deathbed, he would tape a video for his daughters, beginning with, “Here I am, my girls. I want you to know how much I loved you. I want you to know who I was.” This is not the story his daughter Claire Vaye Watkins tells in “Ghost, Cowboys,” which opens her sweeping debut story collection Battleborn. Instead, “Ghost, Cowboys” explores the stories from Death Valley as a whole, in which her own family history plays only a small episode. The narrator begins her story in 1859, when a man named Charles Fuller builds a toll bridge that was to become Reno decades later. Then, the narrator flashes forward to 1941, when George Spahn converts his ranch into a lucrative movie set. And yet again to 1968, when a group of ten hitchhikers offer George to “help” with chores if he gives them permission to “camp out” in the empty set buildings. Two of those ten are the characters Charles Manson and Paul Watkins. At this point, the narrator reveals herself to be the writer’s fictional namesake. The character Claire Watkins lives alone in Reno after both her parents have passed. She lives a mostly stoned, humdrum life, save for the various movie producers who seek her out for her thoughts on a possible Manson movie. They take her out to dinner, and the dinners often go like this: “How are you?” they say. “I’m a receptionist,” I say. “Good,” they say, long and slow, nodding as though my being a receptionist has given them everything they came for. It isn’t a stretch to say that anyone familiar with the Manson Family legacy is also wondering how the daughter of Paul Watkins is doing. Battleborn is the answer to that question: she became a storyteller. 2. We tell ourselves stories in order to live. That line, which opens Didion’s essay “The White Album,” may very well serve as the epigraph for every story in Claire Vaye Watkins’ collection. The stories include a wild teenage girl who drives to Las Vegas with her best friend to find a group of collegiate boys to sleep with; a false prophet who lies to keep from losing his brother, an emaciated 49’er, to gold rush fever; a group of jaded hipsters who roam the deserted graveyards of Virginia City. Each of these stories, set in a different part of Nevada, feature vagrants — whether traveling to Nevada in search for gold, or attending an out-of-state college — and the shameful stories they tell to themselves and the people they love. As if Watkins’ prose embodies the desert landscape of Nevada itself, the stories are stony, unkind, and harsh, though never unattractive. And as I read through the collection, I kept asking myself why I didn’t find her stories unattractive. “Rondine Al Nido” confronts the reasons why one is drawn to the dark and the morbid. We’re first introduced to a couple who takes to candle-lit confessions in bed after sex. The man, a former social worker, tells her about the cases he’s seen: the father who made his son live under the floorboards of their porch, the snack bar employee who lured a retarded girl into the men’s bathroom with a lemonade. The woman, a typist, tells him about the terrible things she’s done: the tropical lizards she begged for, then abandoned in a field once she bored of them; the wretched, ring-wormed boy she asked to meet her for a kiss at the flagpole, and how she laughed when he actually showed up. Beneath these confessions runs a spiritual undertow — that salvific beauty can arise when brutality is brought to light. It’s the same masochistic quality I find in the female gothic writers that precede her, such as Flannery O’Connor, Mary Gaitskill, Alice Munro. Here, Watkins describes the couple with emotional acuity: It will be as though she’s finally found someone else willing to see the worst in the world...For the first time in her life, she will feel understood. While Watkins exposes her characters’ darker moments, she also indulges in the need for cinematic escapism. In “The Past Perfect,” a story previously excerpted in The Paris Review, Watkins tells of a twisted, tragic love triangle. The story opens with an underage Italian tourist who frequents a brothel as his missing friend starves to death in a desert. As he waits for results from the search teams, he falls in love with an escort, a former gymnast who plays up the “good girl” look amongst her bustier counterparts. Meanwhile, the brothel’s gay “madam” watches their relationship form as he’s unable to prune his own growing feelings for the Italian. All of this is rendered with references to film noir tropes, and the pacing is as entertaining as a Hollywood classic. Not every story is as gripping. “The Archivist” ultimately gets swallowed up by Battleborn’s more obvious showstoppers. “Wish You Were Here” could easily stand out in a different kind of collection, but following “The Past Perfect,” it feels off-beat. However, the collection does exhibit an ambitious diversity as a result. The final story “Graceland,” which in part explores the suicide of Watkins’ own mother, is quietly devastating in all the ways that “The Past Perfect” is flamboyant. All of her stories left me feeling purged and oddly cleansed, easily making Battleborn one of the strongest collections I’ve read in years.
My first image of California was the Salinas River valley, just south of Soledad, lush and green in the full peak of summer. This little grove is a rite of passage for millions of the county's eighth graders, standing on the river bank and listening to the gentle rustle of fauna in relative seclusion, as painted with John Steinbeck's brush in the opening scene of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck's strokes spread over all of California as an iconic vision, especially in the opening scene of the parabolic epic East of Eden: "From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer." But that is not California anymore, and in the 60 years since East of Eden's publication, the dense farmland has become something else. When writing about California, the land and Steinbeck hang as an overture, as family patriarch Bill Blair discovers in the opening of Ann Packer's new California epic, The Children's Crusade. He heads south, driving out of San Francisco, noting: “This king’s highway boasted car lots and supermarkets, nothing to fill Bill’s heart, but every so often a vista opened and included the sudden rise of yet more hills, some thickly forested, others the color of hay bales in autumn.” Bill, in his exhaustion as a young doctor, is searching for the last vestiges of Steinbeckian farmland, finally settling on a broad stretch in the Portola Valley with a large, lovely oak tree: He lay on the ground under the oak tree and looked up between its snaking branches at the bits of startling blue. He wanted to figure out a way to live under that sky without forgetting the other sky, halfway around the world, that for two years had seemed always gray and always to bear down on the land and sea, no matter the season and no matter the weather. From here, Packer launches her broad and pensive family epic of the Blairs: Bill and his wife, Penny, followed by their four children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James. As adults, the four Blair children are brought together again when they must decide whether or not to sell their childhood home and land, the one that their father had founded for them. By settling the Blairs in the Portola Valley, a mere 100 miles away from Soledad, the legacy of East of Eden is inescapable. East of Eden, lacking the social consciousness of Grapes of Wrath or the accessibility of Of Mice and Men, is possibly Steinbeck's most difficult work and relatively neglected -- despite the scope of its ambition and the author's own declaration of it as his magnum opus. The story follows the thinly veiled biblical tale of Adam Trask and his brother Charles, as well as Adam's sons, Caleb and Aron, as they rise and fall on their paradisiacal slice of the Salinas Valley and contend with Adam's wicked wife, Cathy. Steinbeck's work is rife with the toil of Genesis: men versus the hardscrabble, scarcely arable land, then men and women versus their temptation as women face the trials of Eve, and brothers' hands twitch over the jealousy of Cain. The inheritance of Steinbeck in Packer's multigenerational novel is strong and diffuse. The Blairs take their creation myth as seriously tied to their land, their house, and their oak tree, well before the advent of strip malls, subdivisions, and the rise of Silicon Valley mansions that narrow in their once green-and-brown landscape. In 1950, two years before East of Eden was published, farmers accounted for 12 percent of the labor force; in 2015, they only amount to one percent. With the evolution of farmland into Silicon Valley and the change from farming to an industrialized and urbanized workforce, the nature of conflict changes, too. Men no longer struggle against the land, toiling as Adam once did because of the bounty of Whole Foods down the road. For Packer's generations, the conflict has become a much more internal and introspective view of self. Packer's Blairs might find themselves much more at ease with Celeste Ng's Lees in Everything I Never Told You or Jonathan Franzen's Lamperts in The Corrections, where the percolated failings of the parents -- and the stress fractures of their marriage -- have reverberating effects throughout the lives of their children. If East of Eden represents an essential parable of American Genesis, then The Children's Crusade is the complication of that parable and its strict morality. As the land has grown, so has its people, their lives replete with a dinner table trauma of harsh words and youthful brawls and spoiled clothes that hang about their days like the scent of ozone before a storm. Bill is the kind, conflict-avoidant, and well-meaning patriarch whose axioms of "carry on" and "children deserve care" are interpreted by each of his children differently. Penny is the manic mother fraught with unassailable dreams of her own artistry. Robert is the duty-bound and approval-driven eldest son, Rebecca the thoughtful and calculating daughter, Ryan the overly loving and close-minded middle child, and James the damaged and tossed aside youngest of the family. Initially, the "crusade" of The Children's Crusade is a foolish list, made by the children, of activities that might please their mother and engender her doting love. These are certainly pithy descriptions compared to the deep, sprawling mental landscapes that each of the children explores in their joint desperation to understand the loss of their childhood home, land, and the weighty portent of their father's oak tree. The land means so much to the four of them because it’s where they have rooted their love and history, and in this singular love and necessity for the California earth, the Trasks and the Blairs are not so different. Each of the four siblings narrates a section of the novel as adults looking back, with interluding scenes from their communal upbringing. The psychological weight is heavy and palpable for each child, such as Robert, who followed in his father's footsteps as a doctor. Although Robert is well-established in his mid-40s, all of his decisions are weighed against his father's imagined approval of him and his work. Often, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, or James try to puzzle over their distant childhood memories in an attempt to piece together how they came to where they are in their lives. For the most troubled child, James, the turmoil of growing up focuses on his dire opposition to his mother, keying on one supremely traumatic moment surrounding his favorite stuffed animal that forms his "rocklike" opposition to her and results in them not speaking for more than a decade. For the Blairs, the land has been long conquered, leaving only the rolling hills of their own hearts and minds to plow through and build upon. Throughout The Children's Crusade, Packer lets emotion do the heavy lifting, leaving the writing itself to snake a methodical trail about the characters, such as when Bill is talking to Robert. “As he spoke, his face changed around his eyes and mouth, as if love lived in particular regions of the skin, and Robert felt his own face grow warm.” Packer's terse words ride high on this ripe emotion to the point of exhaustion, feeling each moment so deeply and fully on behalf of each child to the depth of minutiae. The story itself swings like a pendulum, with wandering interstitial and omniscient scenes of a summertime party, a family dinner, or a teenage birthday, filling in the thoughts of whichever family member is closest, even latching onto significant others, with such sudden leapfrogging that at times the cacophony of thoughts becomes oppressive. Between these are the children themselves, grown and worried adults now. In these passages, Packer shows the reach of her creation in the awful nuance of the fraught and doubtful adults in the fullness of their lives: Robert with his self-imposed mantel of pater familias, Rebecca with her thoughtful and oppressive problem-solving, Ryan with his burden of endless and unconditional love, and James with his rootless wanderlust -- all of it so painfully real and confessional. In East of Eden, Cathy is an evil and selfishly depraved soul set against her righteous and caring husband, and as a parable, it’s simply a moralizing black-and-white tale baked into the beauty of the Soledad River valley. Yet in The Children's Crusade, the shift between the children's monologue and the collective memory pushes the reader into the role of investigative psychoanalyst. Packer is most certainly aware of this, having one of the children, Rebecca, become an introspective psychiatrist whose memory and its distortion is a constant tease in her life, probing what might be real and whether it matters or not. Treading through the mottled family life of the Blairs, Packer pushes you to ask these questions: What is the motivation behind each memory or action? How have these scenes built Robert or Rebecca or Ryan or James into who he or she now is? Why might they be so broken? The Children's Crusade, at times, dips into heavy-handed moments, such as having a group of children sit around and discuss their "crusade" to bring their mother back into the fold, but if anything, the emotion and intent is genuine. For all the biblical Cain and Abel navel-gazing of East of Eden, the same hunger runs through Caleb's urgent desire for his father's love and approval. For both families, the crux of it is the dire attempt to fit together, with love as both the solvent and connective glue.
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Okay, everyone. Listen up - especially you men out there. There's a common feeling among casual readers that certain authors are untouchable by the male mind - books that are filled with flowery descriptions and love and all that crap. Books by Woolf, or by either of the Brontes. Or Austen. Or Hugo.Hugo. Victor Hugo, the man who, without knowing, created a Broadway play, a handful of movies, one of which starred Liam Neeson, and penned one of the best character names - Jean Valjean, a name that, to me, ranks up there with Oakland quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo as a classic in pronunciation. Victor Hugo, the man who posed for this awesome picture, a portrait that somehow symbolizes all that being a male author in the 1800s (and, on into the 1900s, of course) was all about - namely, drinking and hangovers.Sorry. What were we talking about? Oh - these novels, these books that have been for years embraced by literary women, leaving us men to grasp to more masculine works of fiction, forcing us to "settle" for Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. What are they all about? Why do these books seem to radiate such femininity? Am I the only person who feels this?As part of my ongoing quest to collect reading experiences like a child collecting bruises, I cracked open Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame and attempted to figure out what makes him so great. Sure, he had an amazing ability to write 600-page tomes, but was he actually something special? Did he deserve the romantic role he was put into - the writer who joined the ugly with the beautiful, the despondent with the wealthy?Well, yeah. He's good. For those of you who have read Hugo, you have to admit his ability to describe a scene is wonderful. For those who haven't, don't fret – it's not difficult to read a 600-page novel, not when you're absolutely positive you've lived its story before. That's what Hugo does, and it's an art that many don't always appreciate - including myself.Hunchback isn't about Esmeralda, the gypsy queen, or about Claude Frollo, an unsympathetic bishop, or even about Quasimodo, the hunchback himself. It's about the building. It's about the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It's about the scenes, and the story behind it, and the history it drives. What Hugo did in writing Hunchback was to create a story where location was king, where the protagonist was the building itself, whether it was under siege or simply biding its time.For the first 100 pages or so, very little happens plot-wise. Instead, Hugo spends the first sixth of the novel laying a foundation, describing every facet of the building, every road and every character, their motives, their feelings, their drives and fears. From here, the rest of the story nearly writes itself. You're sucked in. You have no choice in the matter, really, because after the first portion has described every detail of life in Quasimodo's Paris, you're part of the story, joined in exploit with the characters due to Hugo's ability to make everything seem real.Romantically, Hunchback isn't as obvious as one might think. Most of the relationships contained therein are either one-sided, gaining an almost "creepy stalker" quality, or are short-lived. In fact, the most romantic item in the book comes at the end, involves death, and is kind of gross. It's no wonder that the ending was sanitized for Disney audiences, much to the chagrin of true literary snobs.No, Hugo wasn't as pure or talented a writer as Dostoyevsky, or Flaubert, or even the aforementioned Austen. But he also doesn't deserve to be lumped in with the "girls like him because he's romantic" crowd. Instead, he should be recognized for what he did best - setting the scene, placing the reader into the story, and creating an entire world that can be touched, breathed, and lived in - even if only for a few hundred pages.Hi. My name is Corey. I'm male, and I've read Victor Hugo. And I enjoyed it.(All together, in unison:) Hi, Corey.Corey Vilhauer - Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, Aug, Sept, Oct, Nov
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