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Archive for April, 2013

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So I am sitting in this graceless bar in St. Louis and fall into conversation with two disgruntled, recently fired hospitality workers from a casino that cruises the Mississippi; however, since then I have learned there are no casino boats on the Mississippi that go out more than two hours.  It could be my conversationalists were over stressed by the demands of their jobs, or they were stoned the entire time they were employed.  I don’t think it matters as their tale is a good one.

After Alice Munro published Dear Life, the Canadian government reached an agreement with her; they would give her a travel fellowship anywhere in or outside of Canada, if they were no longer under any obligation to give her another award or banquet.  She was miffed, but took it.  She then emailed her Facebook friend Benjamin Alire Saenz who had just seen Everything Begins & Ends At The Kentucky Club published, and offered to take him along for free.  He agreed; and then she discovered the Mississippi cruise was more expensive than she could have imagined, especially since she wanted to keep some money set aside for gambling.  They decided to bunk together to save money.

They boarded in St. Louis, bound for New Orleans, and were immediately bummed out: no gambling or night club atmosphere, only eating, napping, and elder chatter.  By noon of the first day they were not even to Cape Girardeau before they were exhausted from trying to one-up each other in literary name dropping, and retreated to drinking Bloody Marys.  By four in the afternoon they reached an understanding; Alice would only talk about Alice, and Benjamin would only talk about Ben.  From that point on, my hospitality friends say they learned a great deal.

The characters in Alice’s short stories are particled of the same stuff as is the landscape and weather.  No matter if they live in country isolation or urban anonymity they are natives of her Lake Huron.  In some way each story deals with departure and finality, isolation and insufficient affection, the pallor of love.  There is not a lot of sunshine in these stories, nor do they seem to be about life today.  The reader’s experience is rather like buying a forgotten title in a yard sale and reading it straight through while it retains its abandoned odor.

The characters in Ben’s short stories are urban and cross cultural in their anger, depression, and desperate search for identity and love.  Wherever the Mexican and American cultures and flesh meet in full contact, there is the border between El Paso and Juarez, the home turf for his stories.  The contemporary devils of drugs, homophobia, street violence, and shattered families make the stories dark and brooding in an in your face style.

The mystique of the Kentucky Club, like the magnetic pull of the Canadian vista, belong more to the authors than to the Canadians and border residences or people who by chance pass through.  They are literary dots on the map of life.  Unless the reader goes there with the authors, he will never find them.

The Mississippi cruise ended for them, not in New Orleans, but in Memphis.  Alice and Ben debarked to see Graceland and never returned.  They eventually called the cruise line and paid to have the autographed copies of their most recent book shipped home, and told the cruise line to give their clothes and toiletries to whomever would take them.

A friend, who knows either author better than I, may take issue with some details; but I am not uneasy in writing I believe every word of the story as I recall it.  Read both books and you may very well be of the same opinion.  Charles Marlin

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In What Else Do You Want?, author J. V. Miller offers a beautifully written, deeply felt, loving portrait of the lives of an immigrant Ruthenian (you have the internet, look it up!) family in America.  They are working-class, living in a small mill town on New York’s south-central border.  The book begins in the early 1960s with Joe and Ann and their three pre-teen sons living in a small apartment in the house owned by Ann’s parents, who live in the basement.  Yellowed linoleum and threadbare upholstery suggest the decor.

The sons were born two years apart.  Joey is the oldest and suffers a learning disability which marks him forever as being “different.”  Johnny is the middle son and, I should point out, the principal narrator of the book.  Michael is the youngest.  Their mother depressingly shuffles around the house in fuzzy pink bunny slippers, struggling to endure the numbing, unending demands of daily housework.

In the book’s opening two chapters, the young boys submit to the family’s rituals, routinely prodded, corrected, and scolded by their elders.  They find relief in verbally jabbing one another, (though Joey, impaired, less so) generating rude noises and offering an occasional shot to the ribs.  An incredibly funny scene in this chapter has the boys washing the family’s car, a Chevy Biscayne, under the strict supervision of their father, while the boys’ grandfather looks on as an added layer of criticism.  Out of nowhere, success in turning on and off a lawn spigot becomes a defining testy and, for the reader, stuff of comedy.

The book’s third chapter takes place a decade or so later.  By this time John is a college student and has been offered a plane ticket to visit his mother’s brothers George and John in California.  It is a college break at the school John has been attending in upstate New York.  To John, seeing Los Angeles and visiting these uncles seems a better deal than hanging out at a deserted campus or returning home for an awkward visit with his insular parents.  In no way could John anticipate the oddity of all that follows on this trip, the kind of stuff that happens but grows more remarkable on reflection with the passage of time.

The book’s fourth chapter takes place the following year when George is seriously ill and John’s grandmother flies to California to visit him in the hospital.  There are a few funny moments in this chapter but the deeper content is the mother/grandmother dreamily pondering the passage of time, reliving briefly sweet memories of her late husband and, ultimately, weighing whether coming to America had ended up a cruel joke, a colossal mistake.

The final two chapters of What Else Do You Want? include a chapter in which John, now in his mid-40s, joins his brother Joe and two of Joe’s “special” friends to attend a minor league hockey game, (Joe states “We’re playing the Utica Devils Nick, and you know them Devils can be pretty devilish Nick.”) and a chapter in verse form where John and his wife call John’s father, now 80, to announce a visit coming three weeks hence.  The father immediately focuses on the details of the breakfast buffet he plans to take them to: “I’ve got a coupon good till the twenty-sixth; a dollar off on each breakfast.”  Many of you who have dealt with elderly relatives will be able to relate.

In the end, I am pleased to say I enjoyed reading this book.  I liked the structure of  doling out its few stories like selected pages from a family photo album.  Finally, while I enjoyed the humorous scenes and characters, what I valued more was how each of the individuals were treasured fo who they were, loved and valued as part of the fabric of family, at times childishly amusing in their own way, but ultimately treated with great tenderness and respect.  Seeing a family with such appreciation is a special gift.  Greg Ramsey

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