Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Autumn in Carthage

by Christopher Zenos
CreateSpace     2014
319 pages     Fiction
The Shortlist

A strange novel of time travel, madness, and love. Nathan Price is a professor at the University of Chicago. A friend named Jamie has disappeared, and no one has heard from him. Strangely Nathan finds his name in a letter from the time of the Salem Witch Trials. Connected with that is the mention of a small town in Wisconsin named Carthage. Nathan, with an available sabbatical, decides to go to Carthage and see if he can root out the mystery and find Jamie. In Carthage, however, nothing is as it seems and the mystery, the time travel, the madness and the love all converge to change his life forever.

Autumn in Carthage takes some getting used to. It is a book you haven't read before. It wavers between the trite and the profound. Sometimes the reader just feels lost in the words and the imagery, but there is enough plot that the reader just keeps reading, trying to figure it all out. Sometimes the reader feels that there is too much going on with too many characters, back stories, and mental illness, but again, the reader just keeps reading, trying to figure it all out.

The fun part of the book for me was knowing exactly where Nathan was in Chicago, since my son and his family spent 6 years a couple of blocks from the University of Chicago campus. I also know northern Wisconsin well, so it was fun to read about it, although I've never been to Carthage, and I would guess that most Wisconsinites haven't been there either.

It's worth a try for readers who like mysteries, time travel, and love stories. 

One last word: Christopher Zenos is a pseudonym. He has written for several blogs explaining himself and his book. I took his explanation from Sheila Deeth's blog.

"Autumn in Carthage emerged from two sets of interests. First, since I’m a hopeless romantic, it is very much a love story. Well, more than one, in point of fact. Both the male and female protagonists are people with enormous burdens, broken by life. The entire plot revolves around their journey to each other, and the sanctuary they have the potential to build together.

Second, this book was written at the intersection of “hard” SciFi and historical romance. So…what does that mean? Well, it takes both an analytic and a descriptive approach to humanity’s trajectory. The descriptive part came easily. I’ve always been a history buff—playing truant from work to sink into online material on the emergence of social structure in Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, the Late Bronze Age Collapse due to the arrival of the Sea Peoples, or the exploits of the Hapsburg tercios. Much of the action, then, occurs against the backdrop of Colonial America and King William’s War, itself part of the worldwide struggle against the Sun King. The conflict strongly influenced the emergence of the colonies that were to become America, as well as that of French Canada. On a larger scale, it was a time of cataclysmic change, when the old religious and civic orders were giving way to a more “rational” one, and unprecedented links were being forged between Europe and the civilizations of Asia and Africa. The Salem Witch Trials—the microcosm within which the historical action occurs—unfolded within that macrocosm, a fact that is often overlooked. 

But while these descriptive parts coalesce into subplots, the analytic theme pervades the narrative. Simply put, the book is a vehicle to explore the social nature of time. And this is where “hard” SciFi comes in—specifically, the classic works of Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. I remember the first time I read Dune—the original, the classic, not the shallower works that followed. There’s this crucial scene early in the novel where young Paul Atreides, the future Mentat Emperor, lost in the unforgiving deserts of Arrakis, first glimpses time itself—the probabilistic course of human events—and understands his role in its evolution. The conception of history as a structured-but-stochastic process that could be predicted and shaped fascinated me. And, of course, like every other nerdy kid on the planet, I’d read and reread Asimov’s Foundation series. This book is partly about fleshing out the vision of time nascent in his notion of “psychohistory,” or the mathematics of human social process.

In the years since Herbert and Asimov wrote, we social scientists have learnt much about how history flows and is structured by human institutions, how temporal nodes emerge and are utilized by informed actors, and what an authentic mathematics of social evolution could look like. Hence the intertwining in this novel of historical events—thirteenth century eastern Europe, Germany during the Holocaust, seventeenth century Salem—with chaos theory and computational social science.

To summarize, then, the book falls squarely within the boundaries of genre fiction—but of the more cerebral kind. At the same time, it is rawly human, plumbing the murky depths of human experience to layer emotional flesh over the cognitive bones. It is about flawed individuals making difficult choices under immense pressures—and the outcomes, both beautiful and terrible, of those decisions. Above all, it narrates one man’s physical and spiritual journey through a difficult lifescape toward serenity. It is that human dimension, ultimately, that I hope readers will respond to. "

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Weight of Blood

by Laura McHugh
Spiegel & Gray     2014
300 p.      Fiction

Sometimes family can be your salvation. Sometimes family can be your undoing. McHugh explores both in the coming-of-age murder mystery, The Weight of Blood. Set in small-town Missouri, the story focuses on a teenager named Lucy who is reeling from the discovery of the chopped-up body of her friend, Cheri who had been missing for a year. Cheri's body was found stuffed in a tree across from Lucy's family store, run by her uncle Crete. Lucy's own mother, Lila, had disappeared from the community when Lucy was a baby, and as Lucy sets out to figure out what happened to Cheri, she also hopes that she may come to some conclusions about what happened to her mother as well.

It is the secrets that gives the story life—the weight of blood—as it were. Lucy has been an innocent bystander to secrets that have haunted her family since before she was born. Even her much loved father, Carl, has secrets he is keeping from Lucy. He is also burdened with secrets about his brother Crete whose money-making ventures are just plain evil and whose secrets threaten the family's stability, indeed its very existence.

The Ozark community is also a character in the novel. In some ways, it is like small town America. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody shares the community's secrets at the same time that they gossip about them. Strangers are worthy of suspicion, and weird community members are sheltered. Lucy's mother was never accepted by the community, so Lucy tends to be viewed with suspicion, even though her father's family have always been prominent community members. The story is told from several points of view, chief among them Lucy and Lila. Because of the way Lila tells her story, we know more about Lila than Lucy does, although there are some startling similarities between their lives. Lucy keeps a journal with one entry being "Things I Know About My Mother."

 Lucy has the foolhardy bravery of a teenager, but she misses some of the clues that are right before her eyes, including those about her dear father and more importantly her evil uncle Crete. The reader pretty  much knows what is going to happen, but we are compelled to keep reading because of the skillfully written narration and tight characterization. One reviewer says, "McHugh is an artful, efficient writer who tells her story in vicious blows." 

It all ends a little too quickly, and things get wrapped up a little too neatly—which is often the case in murder mysteries. Even if we know how it's going to end, the ride is good enough to keep going.
While I was reading this, a 7-year-old cold case murder in a nearby small town was being solved—a crime not that dissimilar to the murders in The Weight of Blood. And the man finally arrested for the murder of the 11-year-old girl in Constantine, Michigan was a man very close to the family. Apparently, this kind of murder case doesn't just happen in the Ozarks.

Read The Weight of Blood. It's gritty but it's worth it.
Laura McHugh's website:

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Craft Beer Revolution

by Stephen Hindy
Palgrave Macmillan     2014
272 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

I chuckled when the publisher sent me a copy of The Craft Beer Revolution because of all my family, I know the least about beer, and frankly have just developed a bit of a taste for beer in my old age..

Stephen Hindy is the owner of Brooklyn Brewery, and his book tells the story of how he and a group of other brewers have transformed the beer industry. Craft beers are now being made all over the country. Even the major companies are now making craft brews as well as their traditional mass-marketed beers.

The Craft Brew Revolution is well written and well documented.  It would be an awesome Father's Day present for your favorite beer connoisseur.

My major disappointment was that he didn't tell the story of Larry Bell, our local brewer, who began the craft brew movement in Michigan and the Midwest with Bell's Beer. Quite honestly, the biggest event of the year in Kalamazoo happens in March when Bell's releases their Oberon. It's a huge downtown party! We have another big brewing coming building a complex in downtown Kalamazoo--Arcadia Ales, which is headquartered in Battle Creek Michigan.  

I gave my copy to my niece's husband who is the brew master at the Livery, a brew pub in Benton Harbor Michigan. He will put it to much better use than I can, novice that I am. If you are interested in Michigan Beer, here is an article by John Gonzales and his search for the best Michigan brewery.


Breweries mentioned:
Bell's Brewery.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Still Life with Bread Crumbs

by Anna Quindlen
 Random House   2014
272 pages     Fiction

Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen is a comfortable book--or maybe I just think that because I am slightly older than the protagonist Rebecca Winter and my life experience parallels hers in some ways. Or maybe it's comfortable because the author writes in the third person, and we can read about Rebecca while remaining slightly detached. Or maybe it's because it is a "romantic comedy of manners," as one reviewer calls it, and the reader can enjoy it in bits and pieces.

Well, no matter. Still Life with Bread Crumbs is a delightful read. Rebecca Winter has been a hugely successful photographer, but she has rested on her laurels for too long, and the royalties for her most famous photograph "Still Life with Bread Crumbs" have virtually dried up. She rents a small cottage in upstate New York so that she can lease her New York apartment for a huge sum of money which she needs to pay for nursing home care for her mother and rent for her father's apartment. But life in the country is lonely, and at first she hardly knows what to do with herself. As she slowly adapts to her surroundings, she finds her creativity returning and she is able to produce some of the best work of her career.

This is a book about moving on, and most women who have lived for 60 plus years know how to move on because of parents dying and children leaving. I suppose that is why it is so easy to identify with Rebecca. On the other hand, part of Rebecca is having a hard time moving on--the part that had an unfortunate marriage and a failed career. That part needs the break and the solitude the cottage in the woods affords. As the book nears the end, Rebecca finds that her body has rebounded as has her mind and her creativity--enough so that the sojourn in the country becomes her life's choice. Rebecca's thought process: "when she really thought about it, she realized she'd been becoming different people for as long as she could remember but had never really noticed."

Still Life with Bread Crumbs is funny in many places particularly in the clever and obvious foreshadowing, the flashbacks, and the delightful chapter titles. The NPR reviewer says that Quindlen has her "finger firmly planted on the pulse of her generation." In an interview, Quindlen says,  "I got the jump on reinvention some time ago, actually. I reinvented myself as a mother in my 30s and as a novelist in my 40s. But I never say never. I think one of the most wonderful things about how much longer we all live now is that people feel free to mix it up, to have a third or fourth act in life." 

I am trying to figure out which act I am in. Perhaps just moving out of the third and into the fourth.