Sunday, April 2, 2017

“How to Manage the Void”: A Review of Sharon Heath’s The History of My Body, The Fleur Trilogy, Book 1

(Deltona, FL: Thomas-Jacob Publishing, LLC, 2016), ISBN-13:  978-0-9979517-0-7
I am going to be up front here. I love this book, which is in large part due to its main character, Fleur Robins, daughter of an ultra-Conservative US Senator from Pennsylvania and an alcoholic mother who had Fleur as a teenager. Fleur is one of the most delightful, complex, and often contradictory child characters since Holden Caulfield in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Sheila Tubman in Judy Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great—two characters that had a profound impact on my childhood and, subsequently, my life.
Perhaps it is my own growing fascination with Complexity and Chaos Theory, but I have been noticing a recent trend in storytelling—be it novels, television, or (to a lesser extent) film—that comes into play with Sharon Heath’s approach. It began with the male anti-hero in television shows like The Leftovers and Walking Dead, who is flawed, isolated, and oftentimes just plain Wrong. That trend has now broadened and extended to not only female characters, but to entire families. I just finished watching the debut season of Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix. Not only are the relationships between spouses, parents and children, bosses and co-workers, neighbors, and so on incredibly Complex and always on the verge of or in the midst of Chaos, but these multi-level flaws create a much richer, deeper view of Life as We Know It than I think was ever possible before.
It is through this lens that I read Sharon Heath’s novel. Fleur is a study in Dichotomy. Her Nobel-level brilliance couples with a naivety that makes her the prey of the opposite sex; a brilliant vocabulary and a tendency to misinterpret what people are saying make for socially awkward instances and relationship troubles; a dynamic tension between the Private and Public drives her onward through her pre-teen and early teen years with a speed and recklessness fraught with peril and outsized Consequences.
Indeed, aren’t we all, in this post-post-Modern age of sound bites, tweets, and swiping left or right, struggling with the same? The connection between brilliance and lack of common sense; our struggles for True Communication in a world of digital shorthand and diminishing attention spans; of the Public and Private masks that we switch on and off with increasing rapidity; the lessons that come so fast while we are multi-tasking and trying desperately to problem solve on micro and macro scales—it all adds up to a life of Contradictions and Complexity.
This is the life of Fleur Robins. We know from the subtitle that the first book is part of a trilogy and that Fleur is talking to us, not from the present, but from the future.  This is a brilliant device on Heath’s part because we experience two points in time simultaneously—Fleur’s experiences (and they are myriad and at times cringe-worthy) and her later self’s recording them after the benefit of time, processing, and maturity.
Given that Fleur, mistaken for learning disabled when she was actually capable of groundbreaking discoveries in Quantum Mechanics when she was barely in double digits age-wise, is obsessed with questions of the Void and Time and Life and Death—questions that work in tandem with the events unfolding in the novel.
But Fleur is not on her own as far as the heavy lifting in all of this relentless Complexity and Chaos. There are her aforementioned parents, who have clear arcs of their own; Fleur’s grandparents; the domestic staff; and the classmates, teachers, and colleagues whom Fleur encounters on her accelerated journey through the educational system (which takes her from a loose version of home schooled to a school for the gifted and talented, to Stanford University).
Although I am tempted to reveal details of Fleur’s experiences, they are all so wonderfully delightful in their unfolding that I will instead keep my remarks general and focus on the overall themes the author employs. As indicated by my choice of title for this review, the Void is a central feature. Calling to mind the alchemical term nigredo, which is the starting material from which everything is created or, even better, a place of infinite possibility, I began to notice the myriad alchemy at work in The History of My Body. There are gardeners and cooks, and quantum physicists—masters of alchemy all. And the journeys of love and forgiveness the reader experiences are of course the heart and soul of alchemy—the transmutation of baser emotions into love. And the journey is difficult for everyone involved: It was hard to see Fleur’s starting condition of “she is too dim to be helped” morph into “she’s such a genius, she doesn’t need help” before continuing on to something resembling a healthy balance. In line with the quantum physics elements of the book, Fleur’s philosophy demonstrates an early working of a Theory of Everything—a rich landscape of overlapping, intertwining, complementary, and at times contradictory metaphors, thought-arcs, and theories Fleur is always apt to test with full fervor.
Heath must be commended—there is a thin, dangerous line for a novelist between such complexity being the beautiful quirk of main character and an indication of poor planning and execution by a writer unable to bring their broad worldview into manageable scope. It is clear that Heath has been purposeful and exacting. Like the best sit-com writers, she repeatedly sets up a “plant” that plays out more fully as the story it resides in reaches its crescendo, creating a “mini-explosion” of meaning of which Fleur would wholeheartedly approve.
Because of her inclination toward diving in head first and asking questions later, Fleur really does remind me of Holden and Sheila. And also of Michael from the hit sit-com The Office. As much as I loved and rooted for him (and precisely because of this connection) I cringed at least once an episode as his incomplete understanding of a situation or some mixed-up mathematics that altered the actual equation of his reality led him to embarrassing and hurtful moments. And Fleur has more than her share of all of these for a girl her age.
To paraphrase Fleur, stories were made to fill the void. Especially ones as richly written as this one. I look forward to continuing Fleur’s adventures when Book 2 comes out.

Friday, January 20, 2017

“Of Redemption and Forgiveness”: A Review of Smoky Zeidel’s Redeeming Grace

 (Deltona, FL: Thomas-Jacob Publishing, LLC, 2017), ISBN-13:  978-0-9979517-1-4
By Joey Madia
Some writers have a gift that sets them well above the rest. Being a teacher of writing as well as an author, Zeidel deftly augments her natural talent for storytelling with sharply drawn characters, tight plots, seamlessly woven research, and a high level of symmetry and macro/micro structure.
            I was first introduced to her work several years ago, when I received The Storyteller’s Bracelet for review. I was very taken with the mythological nature of the Native American–based tale she told, so it was with great pleasure that I received this special release.
            Engaging the dogmatic/religious more than the mythological, Redeeming Grace centers on a family’s ongoing struggles following the separate deaths of two children and their mother in late 1920s rural Maryland.
            The title character, the oldest daughter of a hardcore minister named Luther, marries a somewhat older man, Otto Singer, to get her and her sister away from Luther’s physically and emotionally abusive ways. His grief has poisoned his mind and instead of being the kind-hearted family man and well-respected religious figure of years passed he has become an abusive mis-interpreter of the Bible.
            But all is not well as Grace and her sister Miriam move in with Otto and his brain-damaged brother Henry, because, as good a man as he is, Otto holds a terrible, terrible secret.
            With descriptions of Depression-era America that rival those of John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, and Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel, and a subtle but inescapable resemblance to George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men in the relationship between the two brothers, Redeeming Grace examines the foundations of family and cautions that the ways in which we interpret the Word of God and the stories of the Bible can be as destructive as they are uplifting.
            Perhaps the greatest compliment that I can pay to this well-told tale is that I could not put it down during the final third of the book despite surpassing my allotted reading time on three consecutive days. I found myself genuinely rooting for redemption, vindication, and forgiveness and Zeidel ratcheted up the tension in the most delightful of ways.

            If you are looking for a well-crafted, insistently paced story with good old-fashioned humanity and complex characters, I highly recommend Redeeming Grace. In an age of CGI and blockbuster building-bashing, both on screen and in our literature, it’s all the more necessary for us to engage with books like this.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

“Past Lives Matter”: A Review of Giving Voice to Dawn, written and illustrated by L. S. Gribko

(Morgantown, WV:  Milkweed Rising, 2016). ISBN: 978-0-9978388-1-7
by Joey Madia
“I am a neophyte mystic…”
Thus opens the debut novel from L. S. Gribko. I hesitate to use the word novel, as this book is so much more. Its use of amalgam characters engaging in the Socratic method to explore the spiritual journey evokes Carlos Casteneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan and Dan Milman’s Way of the Peaceful Warrior while the vivid descriptions and level of research of the Civil War battlefields and leaders that form the core of the book would make both a historian like Bruce Catton and a novelist like Michael Shaara proud. It is part travelogue, part spiritual handbook, part Ted Andrew’s Animal Speak, and part family saga. That Gribko weaves it all together in such a way as to make a deeply moving page-turner that speaks to the Seeker in all of us is no small achievement.
As though the rich prose were not enough, Gribko fills the book with poems and illustrations that bring her words and encounters to life and give the reader a reflective pause from the at-times dense, descriptive action.
The book’s first person narrator (whom we find out near the end is named Ellie) is an archetype with which I have become quite familiar in my work with the small and independent press as both an editor and writer. She is someone who has had her fill of the shifting sands and endless compromises of the Corporate Life into which she and several other characters have bought and is at the threshold/precipice of committing to a more Artistic and Spiritual Life. Gribko’s array of characters create a continuum of attitudes, stories, and hopes that is so well represented that any reader, no matter his or her place on their own journey, can find someone with whom to identify.
Reminding me of Socrates in Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Ellie’s main guide is a mysterious figure named Mick that she talks to while she rides the Metro in and out of DC. Commuter trains are a sobering metaphor of those who, as Sting sings in “Synchronicity II” (pay attention to that title) are “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes/contestants in a suicidal race.” We can’t help but root for Ellie and her co-worker, Neil, as they throw off the chains and go in pursuit of answers to a series of questions their mystical experiences provide.
Once again showing Gribko’s depth of research, her narrator visits (and exquisitely describes) the National Museum of the American Indian. I had the pleasure of visiting there several years ago and Gribko took me right back. Her descriptions of the landscaping outside and the dome above the main entranceway call attention to how much care and detail went into honoring the elements and nature in the architectural design. This same descriptive flair is repeated when Ellie and Neil experience the National Portrait Gallery.
One of the strengths of Giving Voice to Dawn is how it operates on numerous levels at once, a point I touched on earlier. For instance, it can be read as an historical adventure, albeit with what could be called paranormal aspects. But Gribko opens the door for those skeptical of the “New Age” of spirituality by giving creed to the notion that all that the main characters experience can be chalked up to Imagination. This is in no way meant to give the power of Imagination short shrift—hence my use of the capital “I.” On the contrary, as Einstein told us: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world.” Imagination in this book goes even further, embracing the entire Universe. Without spoiling the surprises, it must be said that Gribko makes a great case for the importance of history and getting to know—beyond dates and dry facts—those leaders who shaped our country and our world. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s phenomenon of a musical Hamilton attests to this as well.
Perhaps the most challenging spiritual facet in the book is the notion of past lives. More and more research is being done in neuroscience and memory, and quantum physics makes a strong case for time being nonlinear and effect operating on cause as well as the other way around, but past lives are still largely a matter of faith. Regardless of where you stand, the experiences of the main characters as they visit the Antietam battlefield and its surrounding area are deeply profound and Gribko’s writing shines in these moments most brightly.
For those readers who pay attention to animal totems, Giving Voice to Dawn is full of references to especially our flying companions. There is excellent advice sprinkled throughout the book about paying attention to and interpreting the signs of animal totems, as well as the correlations between certain personality types (i.e., those of the prevalent military men and politicians that figure into the story) and their animal totems.
I mentioned Synchronicity when quoting Sting. Although it is nothing we learned in Literature class or in reading groups, the resonance of a book, especially one such as this, can be measured on some level by the amount of synchronicities it generates. Giving Voice to Dawn generated synchronicities for me on an almost daily basis. Its energy derives from a potent combination of Gribko’s research, writing skills, and ability to translate the spiritual into understandable, applicable examples and suggestions.
I believe that Giving Voice to Dawn could (and should) hold a place in the spiritual seeker’s library beside the books I mentioned in the opening and such best-sellers as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. It resonates with the messages of contemporary adept spiritual practitioners and lecturers such as Caroline Myss and the late Wayne Dyer, offering numerous pathways to enter its fields of wisdom no matter where you are on your journey.