The Dangerous Life of an Art History Major

Unbecoming

By Rebecca Scherm

Rebecca Scherm has written an intricately plotted thriller that compels readers forward with curiosity about how Grace ended up exiling herself to Paris, and how she transformed herself from a Tennessee girl who wanted to please the boy and his family that she loved into a young woman who betrayed them as she turned into a pretty good, though neurotic, art thief, specifically of jewelry. It’s as much plot-driven as it is a very good psychological character study (with interesting insight into jewelry and the counterfeiting of it), both admirably accomplished and polished for a first novel.

Grace and Riley grow up together in the small town of Garland, where his family has some prominence and her family leaves her wanting. In her young teen life, she sets herself to beguiling Riley into loving her as much as she loves him and all that comes with him. She’s so successful that she even gets her own room in his house, where she is treated nearly as a daughter, particularly by his mother. More, Riley falls deeply and inseparably in love with her, seemingly what she wants.

Riley fashions himself into a painter, but of limited horizons, satisfied to chronicle the buildings of Garland, not as commentary on small-town life, but purely representational. An art student herself, his ambitions, or lack of them, disappoint Grace. While her romantic attraction to him remains solid, her passion strays.

Riley has two best buddies, Alls and Greg. Eventually, Riley, the buds, and Grace room together in a shared house. Student poor, with Riley and Grace conversant in art, and an old, artifact-filled estate, the Wynne House, practically next door, they hatch a plot to rob the place. Grace subtly takes over as the ringleader, based on the knowledge she picked up while employed in New York City, and from this springs the ever-growing tentacles of duplicity that reach to Prague and Paris.

Paris is where we find Grace at the opening of the novel, working in a jewelry restoration shop, using the name Julie. Naturally, in a world with a foundation of lies and deception, the shop is more a den of thieves. Grace, as Julie, has fled there after romantic and robbery fiascos in Garland, and an even harsher incident in Prague, seeking distance and anonymity for fear the boys will find her after they finish their prison terms. How all this transpired, how Grace changed from a girl who wanted love to a femme-fatale nervous all the time, and how she forges a life of crime, well, that’s the fun of the novel. w/c

For Those Who Enjoy Melancholy Stories

The Sunken Cathedral

By Kate Walbert

How to describe Walbert’s short novel of interlaced lives of people living in New York City under the pall of sad memories and impending doom? Something like being confined to a single room in gloaming caused by an unending rain storm seems about right. This isn’t to say the novel isn’t good, for it is in its own special way; it is to say the novel is not for everybody and certainly not for those who like a soupçon of joy in what they read.

Walbert opens with three elderly women–Helen, Simone, and Marie–seeking to occupy their time and share by participating in a painting class led by the disheveled and not very successful artist Sid Morris. In time, readers meet Elizabeth, a renter in Marie’s brownstone burdened with an incubus from her childhood, and her husband and teenage son. Later, along come the leaders of Progressive K-8, the school Elizabeth’s son attends, and then Jules, son of Marie, and his partner Larry. Periodically, readers also learn about the women’s deceased husbands and their lives together, much of this related in extensive footnotes. Not really ancillary to the stories but integral to understanding the melancholy of the women’s lives, these are an unusual and interesting but not always welcome way to expand upon the backstories of the characters. Death and longing play a large part in the stories, as does the fear of destructive natural forces.

In case you’re wondering, the title refers to the inspiration for Helen’s painting in Sid’s class, Claude Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie piano prelude, an impressionistic piece attempting to evoke the sense of the legend of the mythical city of Ys built off the coast of Brittany by King Gradlon. He built it for his daughter Dahut who ultimately opened the gates to flooding in a besotted fit of possession by the devil himself and destroyed it.

In fact, you might say, Walbert’s novel is much like Debussy’s aural attempt, except Walbert’s is an impressionistic piece in words of lives in a city that will eventually sink into the ocean. It may work for some but certainly not all of us. w/c

The Outlaw’s Daughter Grows Up

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

By Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti merges two genres, coming of age and crime thriller, into a powerful tale of a daughter learning about her often absent outlaw father, then bonding with him, accepting him for the imperfect man he is, and discovering her own inner strength. Though filled with violence and plenty of death dealing, it ultimately finishes on a hopeful note, and stands as a testament to the goodness and love within even the most ruthless people.

The novel alternates between Loo, the daughter, growing up from age twelve to just shy of eighteen and the nomadic life of her father, an outlaw who freelances in crime. You have Loo and Hawley living together, learning about each other and Hawley’s criminal life centered around how he came to acquire eleven gunshot wounds. How he received these and curiosity about how he will get his last, the twelfth, plus how Loo will react when she discovers what Hawley really is, provide the propulsive drive of the novel.

Hawley has been a criminal nearly from the time he was a teen. He hooked up with Jove, an older man who claimed to be a doctor. Maybe he was, because he teaches Hawley quite a bit about field treating injuries, especially gunshot wounds. Hawley travels with a well stocked medical kit. Bad guys, after all, can’t just present themselves in emergency rooms. He and Jove see each other when they are working on a job for a kingpin named King. King deals in rare artifacts, which Hawley and Jove retrieve for him. When contractors steal from him, King dispatches Hawley and Jove to collect and mete out the criminal version of justice.

King’s a man who lurks in the shadows. Hawley meets him for the first time in a diner, where he also mets Lily, a memorable pairing. Eventually, he marries Lily. They have a baby, Louise, nicknamed Loo. Something terrible happens to Lily, reported back in her hometown as a drowning. This leaves Hawley with Loo. Hawley, though, has business to take care off, so he leaves Loo with Lily’s mom, Mabel Ridge, an eccentric and crusty character, in the coastal New England fishing town Lily grew up in. Hawley returns after four years and takes Loo back. With her, they traverse the country, dodging whatever Hawley believes wants to find them.

Finally, when Loo is older, they settle in the New England town. When she turns twelve, the start of the novel, he teaches her how to shoot. Let’s just say her upbringing bears not the remotest resemblance to that of Anne of Green Gables. She’s odd girl out at school, terrifically strong-willed, constantly rebellious, and sometimes given to violence. Marshall, a student in her school, develops a crush on her. When he kisses her, she responds by breaking his finger. He’s odd, too, and slowly they fit together.

Time passes and we readers she her relationship with Hawley change and deepen. We learn more about her mother, Lily, whom in spirit she bears a striking resemble to. And we feel a certain amount of tension, because it is quite clear Hawley lives an edgy life, waiting for something to happen, waiting for somebody to catch up with him. Then Jove reappears, surprising Hawley and Loo. And then we slid into a climax that calls on all the knowledge Loo has acquired, the astronomy she knows, what she’s learned about the ocean, and, of course, her shooting skills. The ending proves very cinematic.

While the novel contains copious amounts of crime and violence and the ending brings these together in the ultimate test of father-daughter bonding, it’s at its heart a story of girl growing and discovering herself and a father learning again how to love, this time his daughter. Tinti’s writing and mastery of criminal life, weapons, the outdoors, the sea, the sky, and human motivation will impress you, and are another reason to read the novel. w/c

Coming of Age in Crisis

The Girl Who Slept with God

By Val Brelinski

In Val Brelinski’s well done and often moving debut novel, readers see the world through the eyes of a girl (Jory) just reaching puberty (13 turning 14), raised with two sisters (little Frances and older Grace), in rural Idaho, as a member of a small evangelical church, by parents who eschew the modern world of the 1970s. As she comes of age, she has to deal with 17-year-old Grace’s return from a mission in Mexico pregnant and claiming it to be the work of God, with parents (Oren and Esther) in turmoil and at odds, and with an older man (Grip, in his 20s), of dubious background, who befriends her, a relationship not a few may find creepy (though Grip reveals himself to be a noble character).

You’ll find the strengths of the novel in Brelinski’s gently melodic tone, upon which you’ll find yourself drifting, as if on the Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” (Pure Moods, Vol. I), and the change in Jory, both in her maturation, her personal strength, and the world beyond her church and insular religious school. In other words, this is a novel not so much about the mystical, which you might expect from the title, but one grounded firmly in the experiences of families dealing with crises and young women grappling with their new roles as young, social women. Read with this in mind and you’ll find it an impressive first effort. w/c

Do You Believe in Cheater Love?

The Arrangement

By Sarah Dunn

Hand it to Sarah Dunn. She knows how to grab your attention and hold it, whether you are on a beach or flying to one. The Arrangement deals in fantasy, the fantasy some couples may have after five, ten years of marriage, and kids, and responsibilities. What would it be like to shuck all that, to feel like a newly minted twenty-something, to be truly and passionately (as in sexually passionate) in love? Here’s one version, courtesy of Dunn, albeit laced with a strong cautionary. People, it seems, have other emotions in addition to love and these can be ugly and rear their heads to make the whole affair rather unpleasant.

Owen and Lucy have been married a while. They have traded their life in Brooklyn for the bucolic, and more affordable, life in Beekman, NY (ah, yes, know it well; went to Sylvan Lake, next door to Beekman, to swim as a youth). They try hard to have a child, eventually go the IVF route. Wyatt, their son, appears to be autistic and quite a handful. You can appreciate how the couple might like to have a break from the daily, trying routine. At a patio dinner with friends from the city, they learn about a married couple, gay men with children, who are experimenting with a six-month arrangement, complete with rules, allowing each to seek sex elsewhere.

It isn’t long before Owen and Lucy decide to give it a try. Owen hooks up first and quickly with Izzy, who turns possessive and hounding. Lucy’s friend Sally Bang, the only really interesting name in the book, puts Lucy in touch with a divorced acquaintance, Ben. He turns out to be something of an emotional dream. Owen is harassed; Lucy is in love. (Male readers may ask why Owen gets the nut and Lucy the bliss? Duh, how dense you are, sir.) You’ll never guess? You guessed, the landing is hard for both and their marriage.

Dunn tosses in a couple of other stories that only tangentially link to the main plot. There’s the kindergarten teacher, Mr. Lowell, who decides to transform into Mrs. Lowell. Consequences follow, but many readers will wonder where the heck do you even find a male kindergarten teacher? The other concerns billionaire Gordon Allen and his wife, his fourth, a former cocktail waitress, whom he married spontaneously, so quick that he plumb forgot to have her sign a prenup. Talk about fantasy! Perhaps there are lessons in these tangents? The Lowell’s marriage appears to not just survive the change but flourish, whereas Gordon’s does what you’d expect, except for something of a novel reason.

Not to be too hard on the novel, because Dunn never intended it to be deathless prose, it’s perfect for the summer. It moves as quick as a summer thunderstorm. It often is hilarious, at least in the first half. And for those with thoughts of straying, of testing if the grass is indeed greener on the other side, of harboring any ideas of a similar arrangement, it is a kernel of reality. w/c

Love a Good Literary Conspiracy?

The Night Ocean

By Paul La Farge

Paul La Farge conjures up a myth regarding the sexual life of weird science writer H. P. Lovecraft.  In best metafiction style, he makes it feel so real that you find yourself wondering and then searching for a copy of the supposed “Erotonomicon,” purported to be Lovecraft’s own account of his love life, particularly his relationship with Robert Barlow, author and anthropologist, when Barlow was a thirteen-year-old boy.

To further the ruse, La Farge has even created a webpage for the reissuing of the volume by fictitious Black Hour Books. Further, he festooned the book with dozens of real science fiction and fantasy writers, most still well known within the genre, and footnotes, all of which lends further veracity to the tale. It’s all quite masterfully done, and educational to boot.

He then couches all this in a mystery concerning a freelance writer, Charlie Willett, who writes a book claiming that Barlow did not commit suicide in 1951 (which he did, of course; La Farge even includes a copy of his death certificate in the novel text, but who wants to believe truth when fantasy is so much more appealing?). In Charlie’s telling, Barlow authored the “Erotonomicon,” which he explains in his book titled “The Book of the Law of Love.” When, after enjoying considerable notoriety, Charlie’s book is exposed as completely wrong. In despair, he kills himself. It’s left to his wife Marina Willett, a psychiatrist, to discover who wrote the “Erotonomicon” and for what purpose.

Here’s where the whole affair gets even more delicious. Enter L. C. Spinks, whom Marina hunts down in Parry Sound, Ontario (yes, a real town). Is the “Erotonomicon” real and witten by Barlow? L. C. Spinks tell his story, the real origin of the “Erotonomicon.” Wait, though, is it real? Is Spinks who he professes to be? Time for yet another unraveling of fact and fiction.

Here’s the thing about The Night Ocean: the fiction about Lovecraft, about the “Erotonomicon,” even about L. C. Spink’s version of how it “truly” came about, all of it proves much more satisfying than the reality revealed at the end. And what are you, the reader, left with at the end? Well, engaged as you become in myth and make-believe, in the concoction of fibs and big lies, you begin to understand the attraction that conspiracies hold for even the most rational among us.  For don’t we all just hate loose ends and voids, not to mention uncomfortable and unsatisfying reality? The experience of The Night Ocean (incidentally, the title of a story filled with a subtext of sexual longing written by Lovecraft and Barlow in the time they shared), in addition to being quite a story, helps us understand the attraction.

(Please note that La Farge’s little subterfuge with Black Hour Books can be maddening. If you are curious, click on Black Hour Books.) w/c

A Book Much Mentioned, Little Read Now

Looking Backward (1888)

By Edward Bellamy

You don’t have to wonder what the author would make of the year 2000 he had so much hope for. While the technological whiz-bang, cleaner environment (by comparison), plentiful food (for many more but not all), and public education (though of varying and spotty quality) would have been familiar, by a degree, to what he’d foreseen, those advancements of most importance to him would certainly rank as major disappointments. Efficient business operations and capital deployment, concentration of wealth, judicious and fair governance, full employment, equitable pay, an intelligent and very polite populace, absence of crime, plenty of leisure time, and sundry other items, while better than in the latter 19th century, remain wanting. But, then, Bellamy imagined a utopia, an alliance of men and women, that by the very nature of humans seems nearly (as hope always exists) impossible. Or, as the editor of the Boston Transcript of his day opined might occur 75 centuries from his time. Which, you would suppose, is to say, “Never.”

If you’ve never read Looking Backward, you’ll want to for a couple of reasons. It has proven to be an influential book, practically spawning an entire publishing industry of both satire and serious commentary and fiction. Politically, it also exerted influence, with readers forming Nationalist Clubs and adding foundation to the People’s Party, better known as the Populist Party. And it must touch some part of our national soul for it has never been out of print, managing to find new readers in successive generations of thinkers, or perhaps dreamers.

But be forewarned before picking up a copy. Bellamy wrote Looking Backward as a fantasy novel. However, reading tastes of the 19th and 21st centuries are vastly different. By today’s standards, the writing strikes one as cumbersome, dense, and turgid. The plot, if you can call it that, is paper thin, and the suspenseful element is so obvious a YA reader would groan. So, none of this is why you would read the book. You read it for the political and economic philosophy laid out systematically by the author. As you read, questions arise and you raise objections, and as if Bellamy were beside you, lo and behold he answers them. In his rendering, Bellamy makes the 19th century system, which is still pretty much what we have today, seem quite awful, and the solution, a highly organized socialistic state, admittedly just a notch or two away from a fascist regime, appealing in a bland sort of way.

In short, guaranteed to water the eyes of the already doe-eyed as it inflames the ire of Ayn Rand warriors. Perhaps this is why it remains in print: it moves people. So, give it a look and you can say you’ve read, if it ever comes up in conversation. w/c