Childress Turns Up Southern Heat and Humor in “Georgia Bottoms”

Cover ImageLooking for scandal and a splash of sass? Then you must meet Ms. Georgia Bottoms of Six Points, Alabama. Mark Childress, author of One Mississippi and Crazy in Alabama, turns up that sultry southern heat in his latest novel featuring one larger-than-life heroine in one tiny, mixed-up town.

Having fallen a touch on hard times, Georgia Bottoms has turned to the business of “entertaining” gentlemen to keep up appearances and hold her rather unorthodox family together. Scheduling an elaborate six-night rotation with the high and mighty men of Six Points, Ms. Bottoms is a sexual whirlwind with a straighten-your-skirts practicality.

Childress does a fantastic job of playing up the eccentricities of the southern women he loves so much. Georgia is a laugh-riot as she attempts to keep her hair coiffed and her outrageous secrets in check.

“For some reason I really enjoy exploring southern women; they are the most fascinating creatures on earth,” shared Childress on NPR’s Weekend Edition. “Southern women are different than everybody else… and I love to explore that mind.”

Smart and downright hilarious, Georgia Bottoms is a great call for a quick, witty read. If you’re feeling a bit stressed or overwhelmed, slip off your heels, paint your toes, pour yourself a chilled glass of lemonade and head on down to Six Points.

* Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Bohjalian Shoots to Thrill With ‘The Night Strangers’

Cover ImageYes, it’s October, and inevitably with it’s arrival comes the dark urban legends and tales that tingle our spines and goose-up our flesh. Publishers find readers more receptive to the bizarre, and therefore seize the month to release their edgier titles.

I’m not one for the horror genre, so I must say that Chris Bohjalian caught me completely off guard with his latest release, The Night Strangers. I’ve read enough of Bohjalian’s titles to know that when I pick one off the shelf I’m guaranteed a couple hundred pages of laid-back drama that easily entertain.

The Night Strangers, however, is a deviation from typical Chris Bohjalian book fare. Tagged as a psychological thriller, The Night Strangers calls on the supernatural to assist in the graphic retelling of pilot Chip Linton’s crash and his post-traumatic spiral into madness.

According to Bohjalian’s site, The Night Strangers “is a ghost story inspired by a door in his basement and Sully Sullenberger’s successful ditching of an Airbus in the Hudson.” The aforementioned door – and other eerie setting points – are well mapped in Night Strangers and are essential to the story’s creepy-factor. And Sullenberger? He haunts only in his competence and skill as a pilot who was able to stick an incredible landing.

Initially I had a hard time getting into the book. Picking around for strong literary passages and historical depth left me wanting, but I realized, that’s not what this story is about. Rather, it’s a let-yourself-go ghost story written to gun the imagination and scare the hell out of you.

And it does.

I’m a bit of a chicken, but I think The Night Strangers will spook even the hard-core. Once you buy into the exceedingly “super” aspect of Bohjalian’s “supernatural” plot line, you’ll find this book – spurting blood, spirits, and all – a hide-your-eyes, movie theater kind of read.

Chris Bohjalian is the author of fourteen books, most of which take place in his beloved Vermont. While he’s an enthusiastic storyteller, Bohjalian won’t rock your world from a profound literary standpoint. However, if you’re looking for escapism with sound characters and a well-laced storyline, he’s a sure bet. As for The Night Strangers? Toss it on your list for a rainy-day, but you might not want to read it at home all alone…

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Related Links

– Review: Miami Herald review of The Night Strangers

Mitchell Zuckoff Brings ‘Lost in Shangri-La’ to Grosse Pointe War Memorial

Cover ImageSeveral noted military attacks took place as part of World War II combat on May 13, 1945. However, on that very same day there also occurred a more anonymous incident of devastation that has, until now, slipped historians and the world at large.

Author and journalist Mitchell Zuckoff  has plucked a diamond of a story out of the remaining rubble of World War II history with his vivid account of the crash of the Gremlin Special. Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II draws on remarkable interviews, journal entries, diaries and photographs to recount the astonishing tale of three plane crash survivors and their unlikely jungle rescue.

Lost in Shangri-La literally takes off in Dutch New Guinea where two dozen officers, soldiers and Women’s Army Corp members (WAC’s) board the Gremlin Special, a C-47 transport plane. The flight isn’t a tactical military mission, but rather a morale-boosting joy ride into the lush, untouched hidden valley known as Shangri-La.

The reader knows what’s coming, but Zuckoff maintains a holding pattern of suspense as he lays out the tropical tangle of mountainous land below. Anticipation builds as the Gremlin’s passengers unwittingly jockey for prime seating and optimal views of the very gorge into which the plane will soon disappear – and disappear it does.

“The distance between the C-47 and the unforgiving terrain closed to zero. To the ear-splitting din of metal twisting, glass shattering, engines groaning, branches snapping, fuel igniting, bodies tumbling, lives ending, the Gremlin Special plunged through the trees and slammed into the jungle-covered mountainside.”

Lost in Shangri-La is a wonderfully readable account of the demise of the Gremlin Special, inner-tribal warfare, and World War II military history. Zuckoff doesn’t cease to fascinate as he touches on topics such as the WAC, Filipino forces, tactical rescue and indigenous peoples. Shangri-La doesn’t bog down with overdone detail, but rather offers the opportunity for insight and tender reflection on prophecy and contemporary contradictions long after you close the cover.

Mitchell Zuckoff will be bringing his fantastic story, Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II, to the Grosse Pointe War Memorial this Thursday, October 20, 2011 at 7:30pm. This event is presented by Wayne County Community College District and the Grosse Pointe Public Library. For more information, call 313.343.2075.

* Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

Related Links

The Ambiguous Charms of Zuckoff’s ‘Lost in Shangri-La

BookBrowse.com

The Ambiguous ‘Charms’ of Mitchell Zuckoff’s ‘Lost in Shangri-La’

Cover ImageAs a reader I often find myself wondering about little tangential topics, quirks, or details that cushion a story. As my eyes move over one page my thoughts might still be caught a few paragraphs back, roaming around with questions that itch for a little more info. What was that war all about? Does this tiny country really exist? How did the author manage to survive?

Charms candy was that little itch for me in Lost in Shangri-La. 

It seems that Tootsie Roll Industries would have little to do with Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La. However, Tootsie Roll Industries is the owner of Charms Candy; the very candy that provided the Gremlin Special’s crash survivors with enough sustenance to survive in the jungle.

“Breakfast was water and more Charms, still their only food on the third day after the crash,” writes Zuckoff. “They separated the candies by color, eating the red ones until they tired of them, moving on to yellow, and so on.”*

Due to the hardiness of Charms Candy under a variety of conditions, the candy became a standard part of American soldiers’ military issue around the time of World War II. The individually wrapped candy squares, made from sugar and corn syrup, came in an assortment of fruit flavors and were a staple of soldier rations.

The treat meant to sustain military forces, however, has taken on a more ominous tone in recent years. The Curse of Charms Candy is of unknown origin, but superstition claims that if a soldier eats, or even keeps the candy in their possession it brings bad luck.

In the article US Marines Ditch Their Unlucky Charms, one sergeant says, “Chew on a lemon Charm and you’re heading for a vehicle breakdown. Suck on a lime and it rains. Raspberry – for the highly superstitious – means death.”

Journalist Ashley Gilbertson of the New York Times found the same beliefs among forces in Afghanistan. “Never eat the Charms, the troops say; they’re unlucky. It’s just a superstition, of course – I’ve never met a soldier who could tell me why they were unlucky – but the G.I.’s take it seriously. I sometimes think that if I ever got separated from my unit in the field, I’d just follow a trail of discarded unopened Assorted Charms to find them again.”

You can link over to BookBrowse.com where you will my full review of Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La as well as thousands of reviews and intriguing sidebars.

* Taken from Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredibly Rescue Mission of World War II

-Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

Post by Megan Shaffer


Fallada Lives on in ‘Every Man Dies Alone’

Cover ImageAfter finishing Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, I needed some time to sit and really think about the book. In itself, the story is extremely powerful, but the fact that Fallada lived, breathed and navigated the ruthless currents of Nazi Germany brings a frightening credibility to the tension of this novel.

Otto Quangel is considered a simple man by all those around him. He quietly heads to the factory each morning, efficiently runs his lines, and methodically returns to his gray flat in the same manner. His wife Anna awaits, laying low and fretting in spades for the safety of his daily return.

Otto and Anna have lost their Germany. They are quiet people by nature, but speak sparingly due to the invisible eyes that are always watching. Neighbors are turning. People are hiding. Death and corruption are everywhere. Nazi rule has spread, and with it the trepidation and horror of rumored camps and prisons.

The strength of Every Man Dies Alone, however, lies not so much in the depiction of the torturous treatment and silencing at the hands of the Nazis, but rather in Fallada’s shrewd ability to convey the thrill of fear, and the enormity of risk, as the Quangel’s conspire to take a stand.

If you could muster the courage, how would you stand up to such a staunch and brutal regime? Would you mobilize a coup or a riot? Or would it be something more covert like an underground press or subversive leafleting? What if you were just an everyday man who could hide behind an everyday routine like Otto – would you take any action at all?

I would be cheating you of a magnificent read if I provided any plot spoilers. You should know that Every Man Dies Alone is based on the brave, true story of a couple who decided to resist, and in so doing, showed that the smallest of actions often provide incredible, unintended results. Through the deft skills of Hans Fallada, their small story resounds decades later.

Of Note: Hans Fallada (nee Rudolph Ditzen) wrote Every Man Dies Alone in a feverish twenty-four days, soon after the end of World War II and his release from a Nazi insane asylum. He did not live to see its publication.* Informative sections of Fallada and his life among the Nazi system is provided in the Melville House Publishing paperback version.

– Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

*taken from book jacket

Author Scott Sparling Lights it Up in ‘Wire To Wire’

Cover ImageScott Sparling is bringing his hip thriller Wire to Wire home to Michigan.

Sparling’s recent release is the wild, amped-up story of train-hopping Michael Slater, who tries to pull his life together after taking a live wire to the head while riding freight through Detroit.

Wire to Wire is a slick departure to the darker side of northern Michigan. Hardly Pure, Sparling offers up a bevy of vice hidden among the sweet, touristy towns that sprinkle the state’s map. Next to photo-ops and fudge shops, Sparling positions the seductive forces of money and sex which play out in Wire to Wire’s hazy shades, sharp dialogue, and escalating acts of violence.

Sparling will be making a number of Michigan appearances which kick-off this evening at Petosky’s McLean and Eakin as part of their Yellow Chair Series. If you are interested in meeting Sparling, he’ll be making stops at several Michigan indies and will be a bit closer to the Detroit metro area late next week. You can link here for a full schedule of upcoming Wire to Wire events.

In a recent email exchange, Mr. Sparling was kind enough to field questions about his new book, its evolution, and the fortunate score of publishing through Tin House.

Scott Sparling on Wire To Wire

Night Light Revue: Where did you grow up in Michigan?

Scott Sparling: I grew up in Jackson, Michigan. I lived in Ann Arbor briefly in the mid-1970’s. A good friend lives in Maple City, northwest of Traverse City. I’ve spent a lot of time there, in his cabin. My time there influenced the book quite a bit.

NLR: What city is Wire to Wire’s Wolverine based on? Was the setting based on actual areas in Michigan?

SS: There’s a real town called Wolverine, but the Wolverine in Wire to Wire is a fictionalized combination of Frankfort and Elberta. I’ve created a fictional version of Northern Michigan that is populated largely by people who are escaping reality. In real life, there are the same kinds of people up north as there are downstate. So you could say the values are fictional, but the geography is fairly accurate to Frankfort and Elberta.

NLR: The premise of Wire to Wire is so incredibly unique. Did you actually know someone who got hit in the head by an electrical wire?

SS: My mom once sent me a clipping about a similar train-powerline accident. It was a news story about high school kids who’d been drinking and climbed up on top of a moving boxcar as a lark. I was riding freights all around the country at the time, so I guess my mom sent me the clip as a kind of warning. In the news clipping, the boy who got hit by the power line was killed.

NLR: The book feels so indie with its curling smoke, flickering tapes, and dark churning Michigan waters. It all seems to unspool to a killer backbeat that sort of pulses in the back of the brain as it reads. Was that your intention? Did you listen to music to pump you up while you were writing?

SS: Early on I used to listen to Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum while I wrote. The drum cuts have a beat but no real melody and you can listen to them for hours. I used to play drums, and some of the cadence and rhythms of the prose are influenced by that in places – or at least it seems that way to me. Later I started listening to more trancy-stuff, particularly Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, while I was writing. During the final edit, I listened to Jon Dee Graham and Alejandro Escoveda.

NLR: Did any particular movies, writers or books influence Wire to Wire?

SS: Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone was a big influence, as well as his earlier book, A Hall of Mirrors. Those books are probably the reason I write in third person. I also tried to learn from the way Stone moves his story forward with very little exposition. Since this is my first book, almost everything I read influenced it.

NLR: The glue-huffing, if that’s the right term, is so dark. Is that where you find parts of forgotten Michigan? Does that reflect the Michigan you know?

SS: The term “huffing” didn’t come into general use until later – so it’s the correct term now, but not during the time of the book. The glue-sniffing doesn’t have anything to do with my view of Michigan. Lane’s using it as a way to dissolve her past. If she were a different character, she’d be drinking or taking drugs.

NLR: I definitely picked up an anti-capitalism vibe in Wire to Wire. An extreme dislike of capitalism and its environmental crush come through loud and clear with both the Whispering Sands complex and the ruination of the legend of Sleeping Bear. Was Wire a message to the masses in the guise of a thriller novel? Was there any political intent on your part?

SS: All the characters in Wire to Wire have difficulty with money and sex. I tried to write about money and sex as if they were elemental forces like fire and water. Fire (or electricity) and water make our lives better when we keep them under control. When they jump channels, they flood us out or burn down the house. At various points during W2W, both money and sex jump their channels, and become forces of destruction for individual characters. Harp doesn’t think of it that analytically though – he simply sees the damage money can cause when it’s out of control, and that shapes his view. Considering the Wall Street meltdown and greed of recent years, it seems like a reasonable take on things.

NLR: Two of my favorite things in the book, oddly, were the sort of yin and yang of the gritty, skull-powdered Tru Balance knife calmed by the soft snapping of fingers by Slater’s ears. Where did you come up with these devices?

SS: Like a lot of the novel, those are little moments stolen from real life and converted into story. When my son was learning to snap his fingers, he walked around the house snapping them constantly. It seemed like an interesting bit of business, and I gave it to Slater. I’m not sure where the hidden handle on the knife came from. I’ve seen scenes in movies where a hero picks up a gun and can tell whether it’s loaded by the weight. That might have influenced my thinking.

NLR: How, with the utmost curiosity, did your research this book?

SS: My friend and I rode freight trains all over Michigan, and later, all over the country and across Canada. Most of the freight sequences in the book stem from trips we really took. By the late 1980’s, I was no longer riding trains much, but I was spending a lot of time in Northern Michigan. I stayed in my friend’s house in Maple City for six weeks one summer, taking notes all the time, reading the weekly newspaper, listening to his stories. Beyond that, it’s invented. I never sniffed glue or tried speed. I can’t throw a knife.

NLR: How long did it take you to write Wire to Wire? Was it difficult to translate the mental version onto paper?

SS: It took 20 years and it was insanely difficult, only because I’m a slow learner. And I did a lot of other things along the way, like raise a family. The first finished version was done in 1991. I got that draft to Jim Harrison and he said he liked it. He actually passed it along to his agent, but the agent didn’t think it could be sold. After that I just kept re-writing. There was another finished version in 1996, and another in 2001 and so on. I just kept working on it until a publisher finally bought it.

NLR: Wire to Wire is a totally different read and exquisitely dirty. Did you choose Tin House to push the book? How did you find your publisher or did your publisher find you?

SS: A friend told me Tin House would like the book. But I’d heard things like that before, and I forgot about it. About six months went by, and then I ran into my friend again. She asked me what Tin House thought of the manuscript. I had to admit that I’d completely forgotten about her advice. So she gave it to them. I call this story The Miracle of My Incompetence, because Tin House has been tremendous to work with. Tony Perez, who edited the book, helped me tremendously with structure and narrative flow. From my point of view, it’s been a perfect match. Obviously, I owe my friend a lot.

* Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Ann Patchett’s ‘State of Wonder’ Certain to Leave You Wondering

Cover ImageWe’ve come to expect big things from bestselling author Ann Patchett. As winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for her international beauty Bel Canto back in 2002, Patchett unwittingly raised her literary bar and cleared the way for a large and loyal fan base.

Highlighted by the success of Bel Canto, Patchett has amassed a reliable readership and now publishes to eager, outstretched hands. With five praised novels to her name and one currently situated on several prominent reading lists, Patchett has been slow to disappoint. In her latest novel State of Wonder, however, Patchett just might find devotees a touch disenchanted.

Patchett’s State of Wonder boldly tackles the snarled, cacophonous wilds of the Amazonian jungle. Yet for all of the novel’s shimmering flora, pulsating hues, masticating insects, shrieking monkeys and tribal ululations, why are we left hearing only crickets?

State of Wonder starts out strong despite its floppy premise. The introduction of key characters and plot lines instantly hook and anticipation builds at the first hint of scandal. Like the exhilarating, paced ascent of a roller coaster readying for the ride, readers sense big thrills to come. Alas, as the setting switches from the midwest to Brazil, State of Wonder peters out at the perch and clambers down into a disjointed tale of outlandish proportion.

“It’s not that I don’t have any idea; it’s that I sometimes have too many ideas,” shared Patchett in a recent Tin House interview, and this is no doubt the troubling case in State of Wonder. Bioethics, biracialism, corporate greed and cultural integrity are but a few of the many story threads that still remain slack at the conclusion of Patchett’s work.

Despite the medicinal treasures that potentially abound in the Amazonian underbrush, Patchett overplays the topic in State of Wonder and takes it a bit too far. “Science came in for the first time with Run,” Patchett tells Tin House, “and then it just kind of blew up into something a lot bigger in State of Wonder… .”

Well put. An author can only take their audience so far before they run the risk of losing them in their own imaginative flight. By the time Patchett has Marina eating bark off the trees and the Lakashi tribe swabbing their private parts for the sake of modern science, it’s fairly safe to say that Patchett has left her readers staring into space.

That said, Patchett does have a gift for beautiful prose and her depth of character and relationship are at times palpable. In addition, the lush, layered descriptions of the Amazon and its foreboding tributaries are striking. In all fairness, State of Wonder offers significant literary style if not grace.

It’s possible that I might be in my own camp on this one, though it wouldn’t be the first time. State of Wonder  was just released on June 7th and is steadily climbing the charts and garnering written raves. Not only does State of Wonder grace the current cover of BookPage, but it’s also a June 2011 Indie Next List selection and was recently featured on The Diane Rehm Show. If you’ve read State of Wonder, NLR would love to know what you think.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Related Links

New York Times book review

Ellen Airgood’s ‘South of Superior’ Seduces With Rustic Charm

Cover ImageEllen Airgood is an unlikely author. Clocking outrageous hours as a waitress and baker at the small diner she owns with her husband in Grand Marais, Michigan, it’s a wonder she has a second to write up anything other than a customer’s tab.

Airgood, however, is clearly as resourceful as the colorful characters who appear in her lyrical new novel South of Superior (Riverhead).  Released just last week, South of Superior is shaping up to be that perfect summer read. While its charms hold particular appeal for those who reside in Michigan, Airgood’s debut will easily translate to any reader looking for a wise, warm tale of love, life and friendship.

“Celebrating community and a hardscrabble way of life, South of Superior brilliantly captures what it’s like to live in a place that’s remote and lonely, yet enlivening and vital…” states Riverhead. “Filled with people who take great joy in the simple things and who recognize the deep reward in caring for others, it’s the kind of place – and story – that grabs hold of the soul and doesn’t let go.”

Airgood resides in Grand Marais, which sits on the Lake Superior shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and provides the setting for South of Superior. Known as the “Yoop” from those south of the Mackinac Bridge, the UP is nothing short of majestic and remains somewhat of a mystery for those who reside outside of its breathtaking borders. In South of Superior, Airgood grants a glimpse into the rustic lives of those who have called the peninsula home for generations and captivates with its rugged beauty.

Airgood will be appearing at several northern Michigan bookstores for signings of South of Superior over the summer. You can link to Airgood’s appearances here but as always, call venues before heading out the door.

* Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Rosamund Lupton’s Eerie ‘Sister’ Makes Her Way to the States

Cover ImageIf pacing is the literary equivalent of peeking through fingers at the movies, get ready to make serious tracks with Rosamund Lupton’s hypnotic thriller, Sister. Even if you don’t consider yourself a reader of the mystery genre, Lupton’s edgy novel is an absolute stunner with hooks on all fronts for any literary appetite.

It’s not surprising that author Lupton, who studied English Literature at Cambridge University, was a script-writer for film and television as well. Sister confidently holds elements of Lupton’s former experience, and steadily unspools in eerie sequences of shadow-flecked shots and fractured plays of light. While Lupton’s slick yet elegant prose kicks up the backbeat of anticipation, it also deftly feeds the very humanistic plot that thrums at the heart of Sister.

“With ‘Sister,’ Lupton… enters the highly charged ring where the best psychological detective writers spar, her hands raised in a victory clench,” Liesl Schillinger raves in her NYT review (spoilers). “She encircles her story with electrified ropes: new developments continually jolt her readers, which doesn’t stop them from eagerly – and a little sadistically – awaiting the impact of the next blow… . Lupton builds suspense not only around the causes and details of her story’s brutal denouement, but also around the personalities and motivations of those who lunge and duck.”

Piatkus published Lupton’s Sister (as a paperback) to high acclaim in the UK last September and Crown Publishing Group subsequently snagged the rights to the first US edition. Crown rightfully expects Lupton’s novel Sister to be a hot seller and will release it in hardcover this Tuesday, June 7th.

Publicity is ramping up on other fronts as well. Rosamund Lupton was recently interviewed on NPR’s  The Diane Rehm Show, where she discussed her novel and it’s recent release in the United States. In addition, Sister was chosen as an Indie Next pick for June and selected by The Oprah Magazine as a July ‘Reading Room’ selection.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Related

– Rosamund Lupton’s second book Afterwards will be released in the UK by Piatkus on  June 9th, 2011.

Heffernan Offers Humor, Allusions, and Exotic Locales ‘At the Bureau of Divine Music’

Cover ImagePoets Michael Heffernan and Thomas Lynch are teaming up for a few appearances in northern Michigan this week. The dynamic literary duo will kick off their Notable Books Tour on Monday, May 16th, 2011, at Petosky’s McLean & Eakin as part of their Yellow Chair Series, followed by several other stops dotting the northern part of the state.

While I happen to love poetry, honesty forces me to admit that I’m not the most able when it comes to its interpretation. Therefore, I have happily turned to fellow blogger Maggie Lane (Poem Elf)* to share her views on Michael Heffernan’s latest work, At the Bureau of Divine Music. Heffernan’s book was published in March and is part of the Wayne State University Press’ stunning Made in Michigan Writers Series.

At the Bureau of Divine Music by Michael Heffernan

– review by Maggie Lane

If one morning travel guru Rick Steves woke up bitten, in spite of the mosquito netting on his hammock, by the poetry bug, and upon finding himself unable to write a single sentence of his usual clear and cheerful prose, decided to give over to his new muse, what he’d write might sound like this:

Never fail to go as far from home

as you can find the means to get

or even

. . . I had to move,

at least to put new things in front of me

if not to make another kind of home

if home was what I wanted in the first place

The lines are from Michael Heffernan’s new collection At the Bureau of Divine Music. Heffernan, like Steves, is a world traveler, a restless spirit for whom “home” is not a refuge but a place which must be left behind.  The urge to inhabit new spots on the ever-alluring space-time continuum is too great for Heffernan to stick in one locale or even one gender for long in this entrancing new collection of poems.

And move around he does, from a café in postwar Paris to boyhood days in Detroit to Russia to Macedonia to Shreveport to a place, perhaps imaginary, with the lovely name of Kittythorpe.  Always his imagination is flitting back to the past and jumping ahead to the future. Restlessness is a trait he shares with many of his characters, some of who appear in masterful dramatic monologues:  travelers, dreamers, unfaithful lovers, embezzlers, and a man who aspires to be the neighborhood Gaughin.

His travels, real or imaginary, pack his poems with references and asides that had me chasing to keep up.  The allusions in the poems can be challenging, but well worth every Google search. If you’re the type of person who thrills at a conversation with someone smarter and wittier than you, you’ll get charged up reading Heffernan.  And if you are also the type of person who’s fantasized about being married to a smarter, wittier person, here’s a little scenario for you from “Consecration of the House”:  Heffernan sits upstairs in his bubble bath, quite the Diogenes, thinking about big questions and quoting Yeats, and calls down answers to his wife’s crossword puzzle.  He calls down more information than she asks for, just because he knows it:

’It’s also the word for being as in L’Etre et le Neant by Jean-Paul Sartre.’

Pretentious, oh yes, but he’s playing a part and doesn’t take himself too seriously.  Clearly he knows that no man sitting in a bathtub can be judged as anything but silly.  The poem, through Heffernan’s deft maneuvering, becomes a meditation on the soul (on being, the crossword clue), and ends with an unforgettable image of Kennedy moments before his assassination.

Just how seamlessly Heffernan travels through time and moves from drollery to tragedy and from matters mundane to the metaphysical, is evident in a favorite poem of mine from the collection, “Morning Mail.”

The poet in his bathrobe, aimless and alone in the house on a Monday morning, gets a letter from a friend in Boston.  The friend asks for reasons to keep on living from those of his friends who took the time to soothe him where it hurt/in the exhausted tissues of the soul.  The poet, as he considers his friend’s pleading for reasons to be vertical, reclines on the couch, which is funny but also dark, as if his friend’s despair entices him to try on death himself.

Lying there he remembers an old lover, a woman in a café in France who would just as soon be back in Worcester.  They both seem to wonder why we were doing this, a phrase that connects the vignettes in the poem, but the couple continues the doomed relationship in long travels through the Balkans on ships and uncomfortable trains.  In Greece they watch three women in black dresses step into the sea.  Two of them are daughters bathing their blind mother, who is crying. The image is indelible to him and to the reader.

From the pain of this reverie he comes back to the present as the letter drops behind the couch.  The time had come to rise up and occur, he says.  (I’m going to store this line as a useful antidote to indolence.)   In typical fashion for writers, this resolve to action leads him to stare out the window.  There he watches three blackbirds on a neighbor’s roof.  The blackbirds become the three Greek women and then transform into black angels come to make him face uncomfortable truths.  Why are we doing this? they seem to ask as they tumble from the roof and swoop up again.  His friend’s existential question has reverberated through his past and through the past of the two women who forced their mother unseeing into the sea and now into his present.  Why are we doing this?  And once we realize the futility, how do we stay vertical, how do we stay aloft?

Heffernan’s humor, allusions, and exotic locales form a viewing platform from which he hopes to catch sight of the unseen.  His restless spirit seems always in search of permanence, which some would call, especially those with Heffernan’s Jesuit education, the divine.

Heffernan, a Detroit native, teaches poetry at the University of Arkansas and is the two-time recipient of the Pushcart Prize, among other awards.  At the Bureau of Divine Music is Heffernan’s ninth book and, as noted, part of the Made in Michigan Writers Series by Wayne State University Press.

– If you can’t make it to those readings, click here to listen to Garrison Keillor read “The Art of Self-Defense,” a poem from this volume set in Detroit.

*Maggie Lane lives and writes in Beverly Hills, Michigan where she hosts the blog site Poem Elf. You can find her at http://poemelf.wordpress.com.

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