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10-05-12: Joann Rose Leonard Reveals 'The Healer of Fox Hollow'

Rural Magic Realism

We like to think that we know our country and our world, that the boundaries are well understood and rarely crossed. But the word "boundary" itself suggests states we do not know; places and feeling where certainty is not possible. Where facts and certainty give way, stories begin. It is in stories that we travel through uncertainty; in stories we encompass not just the unknown but the unknowable. This is what happened, we say; make of it what you will.

There's plenty to make of what we will in Joann Rose Leonard's lovely, powerful and elegiac novel 'The Healer of Fox Hollow.' With a fine eye for both the details that create a world and a wide vision of the world itself, she creates a small part of the Smokey Mountains in the 1960's and turns it into a world of joy, love, wonder and terror. There's real grit in this story of Layla Tompkins, a mute healer who find her power as a child and comes of age in an age not so long ago that bears so many resemblances to the present. 'The Healer of Fox Hollow' is a perfect example of rural magic realism, where the limits of belief and possibility do not always match.

'The Healer of Fox Hollow' begins with you Layla at five, and takes us through the next fifteen years of her life. With careful writing and smart plotting, Leonard manages to give readers a story that combines a fast pace with a detailed and fully-realized world. Layla's father, Ed, is a pragmatic, likable man, not particularly comfortable with a young daughter who has a reputation for healing. On one side of the equation, there is Pastor Simpson, a snake-wielding soothsaying Christian; on the other, the skeptical Doc Fredericks, who handles the very real injuries of those who find themselves on the wrong side of unhappy snakes. Leonard's characters are complicated, detailed and self-contradictory; in other words, realistic. They're all compelling presences, even when it is clear that they do not have the best of intentions.

Leonard's real challenge here, one she meets admirably, is to create a plot out of a life. Her ability to manage stories both large and small is impressive in this insular world that she creates. There are many moments of tension and terror, and well as tenderness and joy. Leonard keeps these balanced with a smart arc and a nicely conceived story frame. In the stories within the story, she knows how to frame and block action so that the vents in the well-rendered landscape play out in our minds.

Plot, character, and the lovely language that create both are served well by the themes of knowledge, ignorance, certainty and doubt. Ultimately, this is a story of self-discovery and self-definition, of lives that do not fit between the lines. Layla, Ed, their lovers and friends, the people and the place of Fox Hollow, the story 𓴼 all of them are anchored in two worlds; one of faith and the ineffable, the other the life of every day. There's an inclination to think that we must choose one side or the other, that we must always be certain. 'The Healer of Fox Hollow' tells a compelling, intense story that dissolves certainty and erases boundaries. The act of reading, indeed, of healing, is a sort of journey towards a state of certainty that is ultimately, happily unattainable.

10-02-12: Ruth Rendell Finds 'A Fatal Inversion'

Reading as Memory

Editor's Note: Tad Williams and I recently discussed the impact of Ruth Rendell's Barbara Vine novels; 'A Fatal Inversion' is one of the most memorable books I have ever read. The memories of what I read are so vivid that they are indistinguishable from memories of my own experiences. I've slightly revised my original review. This is a book that offers an excellent example of why reading is such a powerful experience.

After Ruth Rendell turned the mystery world upside-down when she penned 'A Dark Adapted Eye' under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, nothing was ever the same. Rendell turned to the Vine pseudonym to write novels outside the style of her usual 'novels of suspense' or the Inspector Wexford mysteries. Those novels show a pretty wide range of style. The Vine novels actually manage to expand that range considerably, and they expand the range of the mystery genre as well.

When the inverted structure of Christopher Nolan's clever 'Memento' knocked audiences off their feet with it's disorienting time reversals, it was a cinematic original. But one need only look back to Rendell's Vine novels to see that the technique was not all that new. 'A Fatal Inversion' has much more going for it than an interesting technique of narrative construction. The sense of place, of immersion in a particular time and place is so strong in this novel that it actually overpowers the reader's own sense of time and place. It is a masterful piece of world building.

'A Fatal Inversion' will crystallize for any reader it's own particular place and time so clearly, so cleanly, that readers may experience it as a memory. As the readers return to the summer of 1976, to a country house in Suffolk in the suffocating heat, the layers of memory are shuffled as easily as a well-worn pack of cards.

The novel begins as the remains of a child are excavated from a pet cemetery on the grounds of the Wyvis Hall. They date from the summer of 1976, the summer that Adam Verne-Smith and his friends lived there, in an upscale version of the free-love communes that grew like weeds in the summer fields. Vine masterfully evokes the days of anyone's lost post-college youth, the heat of the summers, the ultimately evasive climactic, meaningful moment that remains hidden dense shade and blinding sunlight. She slides her characters in and out of relationships in the present day and in the re-constructed past. The writing is so powerful and so strong, most readers won't immediately realize that they are reading a mystery.

However, as with all mysteries, 'A Fatal Inversion' heads towards a revelation. What Rendell as Vine does so well is misdirect the reader, to suck the reader into the characters' heads and the characters' lives without the reader realizing that this is being done. Don't expect a fast-paced tension-laced thriller. 'A Fatal Inversion' sneaks up the reader, and even if you know that something is coming, most readers won't know where it is coming from.

Somewhere out beyond Wyvis hall there is a real world that is waiting for all the characters in 'A Fatal Inversion'. It's waiting for the reader as well. But it will have to wait, for Rendell has just one more thing that she'd like you to see. When she's wearing the Vine face, Ruth Rendell is no more writing mystery than was Emily Bronte when she penned 'Wuthering Heights'.

10-01-12: D. T. Max is Haunted by 'Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story'

David Foster Wallace Writ Well

Books are so tangible, so material. The words are fixed to paper. How then, do books, and those who write them, take on such import in our lives? In the process of reading, the words are transformed into something analogous to memory. And in those moments, we can become the characters in the books, we can experience the world through their eyes and the eyes of the author as well.

Some writers strike us, and David Foster Wallace was one them. From 'The Broom of the System' through 'The Pale King,' Wallace offered his readers life as he lived it for them, as he re-imagined it for them. The intensity was palpable; and ultimately, too great for Wallace himself to sustain. In 2008, he committed suicide. In his books, he lives forever.

In 'Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace,' D. T. Max offers us exactly what we need now that Wallace himself is no longer here; Wallace's story, straight up, no chaser. Economical, emotional, grief-inducing, and gripping from the first word to the last, 'Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story' offers a powerful vision of and from within the mind of David Foster Wallace. How can we not, ultimately, find joy in this work? Max, presented with all the stuff of Wallace's life, has cut away all but what we need to know. He gives us the story of a man who told stories that became a part of our lives and changed us.

Economy and a straightforward approach are the watchwords of this finely written biography. Max starts with a birth, ends with a death, and between the two, we find the story of a life that matters very much. Wallace's life and his fiction are so dense that there is a lot to unpack, so the trick is to pare away the excesses that Wallace himself might find interesting and worth of sentences that will change your life. Max takes a very different approach from Wallace's fiction to Wallace's life. There is an almost Dickensian feel to this story, a gritty, intense and hyper-real look at mid-Western, middle class Americana; but shot through with the flashes of brilliance, and madness Wallace himself experienced.

Wallace transformed his own life and experiences in his many novels, particularly 'Infinite Jest.' Max does a superb job of showing the man who was capable of such writing without succumbing to the temptation to imitate that writing. Instead, he takes a carefully detailed, sculpted approach to the work. 'Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story' is, like many biographies these days, written like a novel and has the feel of a novel; but not a David Foster Wallace novel. It is very much the creation of D. T. Max, who gives us a very low-key rendition of a high-energy life.

Wallace, as we see him here, was clearly a troubled child who grew — slowly — into a troubled young man. Even as he was displaying the brilliance that would result in 'Infinite Jest' in college, he was breaking down and being hospitalized. To his credit, Max does not always paint a pretty picture of the man who has become something of an idol. Wallace was wracked with insecurity (and to a degree, with good reason), and his brilliance was just as often a curse as it was a blessing. Max manages to find the story through-line in the real events of Wallace's life and offers readers a yearning, aching perspective on his life as imagined in his work. His words do no less bring us the world of David Foster Wallace with the casual poignancy of the truth.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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