Thursday, March 31, 2011

Heart-Shaped Box / by Joe Hill

Judas "Jude" Coyne lives on a farm in an especially isolated part of upstate New York where to pass the time he collects various macabre paraphenelia. An actual noose from a 19th century hanging, witch confessionals, a cookbook for cannibals, books of spells and many other assorted knick-knacks offer the aging death-metal rocker (a musician successful enough to afford said items) an interesting hobby, and a personal side-item his cult of goth fans seem to like. He doesn't believe in any of it of course. It's just good publicity.

But then he finds something really unique. Nothing in his current collection seems as odd and off-the-wall as his latest discovery--a ghost for sale on the Internet. It's such an odd proposition and a genuinely candid advert that Jude can't help but outbid everyone for the chance to own the ghost of a recently deceased man from Florida. For a thousand dollars, Jude becomes the proud owner of a dead man's suit fitted within a heart-shaped box, delivered only hours after the purchase is made. Jude isn't concerned. He's spent a lifetime coping with a brutally harsh childhood where memories and personal demons of an abusive father, a man he hasn't seen for 20 years who now lies on his deathbed in Louisiana. Also haunting him are the metaphorical ghosts of lovers and old girlfriends he's deliberately hurt and abandoned, of the bandmates he betrayed and the remaining family members he's cut ties with. But what happens when those supposedly 'dead' memories start paying visits?

Stephen King's second son Joe Hill (pen name for Joseph King) has his father's eye for the macabre and his own talent to boot him instantly into the upper echelon of horror fiction writers. Heart-shaped Box is a chilling, intense book reverberating at different levels, taking the reader on a journey of love, hate and despair, subtly displaying how memories can be distorted, burdens can be shared and how, sometimes, the dead really do tell their own tales. What's more, it manages to thread the needle of terror and the paranormal through the reality hole and make what's happening seem perfectly believable. (FIC HILL)

Monday, March 28, 2011

To Serve Them All My Days by R.F. Delderfield

The title of this book got my attention. It has a romantic ring to it, and giving it more emotional impetus is the picture on the front of the small boys at play, with a teacher looking on intently, giving his undivided attention. R.F. Delderfield wrote many books, starting after World War I. He was committed to writing 4,000 words a day when he died in 1972, of lung cancer, at age 60.

The critics have tended to give him a go-by throughout his career, as a good “craftsman” and “storyteller” but not much more than that. One critic spoke of Delderfield’s stories as a kind of fantasy, stories that are too good to be true.

“To Serve Them All My Days” is the story of a young Welshman who returns “shell-shocked” from three years of serving in World War I - he was literally hit by a shell that buried him alive and killed all the other soldiers around him. A wise doctor in England sends him to Devon to apply for a teaching job, to have the benefit of the upland air and quietude. The Welshman, David Powlett-Jones, feels himself a poor candidate for the job, in light of his shattered nerves and raw vulnerability. But the headmaster has seen his ex-charges go off and fill the trenches, and then fill the casualty lists, so he has a natural sympathy for Powlett-Jones’ situation. Instead of pretending not to notice David’s shaking hands, he shows him the photos of those other boys who saw conflict so early in life, and didn’t come back. In true British form, the headmaster doesn’t dwell on it, and eagerly flings the window open (to give David a minute to control his emotion), quizzing the students below who are filing back from a cricket match. All is camaraderie, and common sense, and caring. This is where Powlett-Jones has come to rest, and this is where he will mend and rise to fight again, but in a better cause, perhaps.

Delderfield has a good feeling for pace, and for personalities. But he mostly keeps our interest by having Powlett-Jones follow his intuition, based on sympathy, to crack the difficult “nuts” - as those students present themselves. He does make a lot out of class and what people are brought up to, so that his critics can argue that a lot of his assumptions don’t apply any more. Does anyone know what a gentleman is these days, or what the heart of a father entails? At best, Delderfield is passionate on these topics, and if their elucidation are all the laurels he can rest on, people may keep reading him for some time to come.

We, Robot: Skywalker's Hand, Blade Runners, Iron Man, Slutbots and How Fiction Became Fact / by Mark Stephen Meadows

So it seems that we're not that far from an all out war between humans and robots. For author, inventor and all-around robot lover Mark Stephen Meadows, this is not a question of if, but when. "It's as if we're building a new slave class", he says in his introduction to a book which can't help but attract the inner tech junkie in everyone. Meadows tempers his excitement in the follow-up passages, admitting that he doesn't actually know what will happen, "they are just my own science fictions" (p.9). What he is 100% certain of is that we will all be affected by robots. Automation itself and artifictial intelligence can already be seen everywhere. Governments and militaries the world over have already instituted automated weaponry and aircrcaft and at the moment the U.S. Defense Department has introduced the BigDog, a wildebeest-resembling quadruped robot, with highly sophisticated sensory perception, that is well into the test phase. You can see it in action here.

So just how close to becoming reality are our favorite science fiction robots? And what might be the real-life consequences of their existence? Actually we're not that far off, depending on our own willingness to substitute technology for human capability. The book, well-stocked with glossy photos and images and enhanced by the author's own giddy sense of childlike wonder, takes a look at some of the more intriguing developments as the author sets off across the globe to find cutting-edge robotics and automated technology in places like France, Japan and New Zealand. In Japan, human replicas and androids are on their way as is the case with Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro of Kyoto, whose self-resembling and self-imitating android, called Geminoid, contains sensory neurons which mirror the doctor's movements precisely. Here in the United States where robot maids, not unlike Rosie off The Jetsons, are being fiddled with and actual robot companions are already on the market, the excitement is building.  What will we see in the coming decade? Everything from Terminator-esque hybrid drones to automated assisted living robots and modules for helping the disabled. Even though the author is infatuated with his subject to the point of sensationalizing his overall topic, the We, Robot is great fun, showing how science fiction, technology and ethical components of humanity are all integrated as the next phase of innovation gets in gear. (791.43656 MEADOWS)

That Thing Around Your Neck / by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In America, a young Nigerian girl woman finds the emotional gulf growing between herself and her American boyfriend when she tries to explain to him the reason she still wears her traditional neckpiece. Elsewhere, a privileged Nigerian-American college student becomes embroiled in a bloody turf war when he's enticed into the gangland underworld while back home in Nigeria, a woman bystander is caught in the middle of a Lagos street riot. When a smart young Nigerian immigrant girl goes to live with relatives in Maine, her first impression is the striking convenience of everyday things of which all Americans seem to enjoy. Family meals full of food from the native country make her think how good life really is until an incident involving her uncle shows her just how "give-and-take" America can be.

At only 31, Nigerian author Adichie has already had quite a career. Her recent novel Half of a Yellow Sun met with worldwide acclaim and several of the same short stories in this, her most recent outing, have appeared in the The New Yorker. In That Thing Around Your Neck, Some characters are visited by ghosts while others are haunted by the memory (and ongoing reality) of war in their midst. Still others find out just what it takes to make it as an immigrant. Stories surround mostly young people living America and Nigeria (Fifty years following the country's independence and things continue to 'fall apart'), dwelling on the sacrifices made, promises kept (or broken) and the largely problematic confrontations which some have dealing with just how they fit in. Each story's observations illuminate the culture roles in the lives of so many of the world's immigrants. (FIC ADICHIE)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion / by Ford Madox Ford

English author Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) was actually born as Ford Hermann Hueffer. And though his surname bore a characteristically German tinge owing to the shared nationality of his father, writer Francis Hueffer, Ford was actually descended from a long line of noted British aristocrats including his maternal grandfather, the renowned painter Ford Madox Brown, whose middle name the writer would formally adopt in 1919. A man who did as much to promote the literary careers of his contemporaries as his own--his journals The English Review and Transatlantic Review were vitally instrumental in the development of early 20th century literature--Ford was a writer who wrote a great deal but achieved success sparingly such as with his 1915 book The Good Soldier, repeatedly named as one of the best novels of all time. Dealing with the damning consequences of infidelity and falsehood which befall two Progressive Era couples, it has been characterized as an ironic commentary on the author's own philandering lifestyle during the period.

"This is the saddest story I have ever heard." So the reader is told by John Dowell who proceeds to tell of the tragedy which befell him and his friends in the space of nine years. In 1904, the John and his wife Florence are incredibly rich Americans who've arrived at the pleasant town of Nauheim in Germany to help heal Florence's "weak heart" through a series of prescribed spa treatments and thermal baths. By chance they form an acquaintance with the Ashburnhams, an Edwardian English couple who are also at the spa to the seek treatment for a heart ailment, that of Edward the husband. Also a decorated Army officer, a captain whose served in countries like India and South Africa, Edward seems the quintissential English gentleman and makes quite the impression on both John and Florence with his stoic bearing and seemingly implacable demeanor, always the courteous, courtly escort with Florence and an accommodating whiskey drinker and cardplayer with John. Over the preceding summers as John tells it--the couples parted ways in the intervening seasons, the Dowells touring the continent and the Ashburnhams back to their Surrey estate--the friendship between the two couples grew immensely, their fondness for one another remaining all the way up until one night when Florence's "weak heart" gave way and she died.

John Dowell's arrival at the Ashburnham's home in England, following a series of letters requesting that he visit, abruptly turns everything on its head as he's brought to the gripping truth which erases all of his his existing preconceptions on the past few years. Related to him by Leonora, and told in pieces interspersed throughout the narrative, is the infidelity of Florence and Capt. Ashburnham, the pair's torrid love affair being carried on right under his nose. Even more arresting is that Leonora knew (had always known) about Edward's string of illicit love affairs, his hopeless inability to remain faithful to his wife and Leonora's hellish lifestyle of basically having to be complicit in the ordeal--the couple's wealth was basically bankrupted by Edward's notably desperate liasons with a steady stream of needy lovers. Edward's affairs, his past and present have offset a plethora of miseries. Florence's death, not unlike that of Maisie Maiden, another spa attendant who'd been led on by Edward, was in fact a suicide. In truth, nothing was ever wrong with Florences' heart. She'd only fabricated the condition to get John to take her away from her own past which included her own series of scandalous affairs. The illuminated truth is not only something to which the past has suffered, it is now something that will have lasting reverberations and immediate repurcussions on a disillusioned John for the remainder of his life.

Ford actually based The Good Soldier on his own life; at the time he'd made a complete mess of his existing marriage through extramarital dalliances with more than a few "family acquaintances". What's so great about the story though is the way it reflects a culture at large just prior to the earth-shattering trauma of World War I. It is indeed a grim vision of things to come for a world at the brink. The posh, comfortable lives of the Dowells and the Ashburnhams have seemingly everything going for them. Neither want for anything and each couple embues the standard of aristocratic distinction, Capt. Ashburnham especially resplendant as the dashing officer, the "good soldier", and Florence the darling product of a blue-blooded New England family, a shining example of American capitalism, ingenuity and good breeding. And yet everything is crumbling before their eyes; the very core of the British Empire is corrupt and the backbone of the American Protestant system, its Calvinist work ethic and Puritan foundation, is a fraudulent hypocrisy. As Dowell, as unreliable a narrator (a device Ford uses to perfection) as their ever was, puts it, "It is a queer and fantastic world . . . Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men's lives like the lives of us good people — like the lives of the Ashburnhams, of the Dowells, of the Ruffords — broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies? Who the devil knows?" (FIC FORD)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Zombie, Ohio: A Tale of The Undead / by Scott Kenemore

Peter Mellor, a philosophy professor at a small Ohio college, suddenly dies in a car accident while driving home one night. Only he isn't really dead. He's been "reborn" as a zombie, an oddly intelligent one at that, in a world having undergone a zombie apocalypse. While this new world is firmly infested with the living dead roaming creation and eager to feed off those still yet undead, Peter is actually one of the few (maybe the only one) who can comingle with both the hoards of lurching ghouls and the enclaves of "normies" who are eager to protect their lives at any cost. Despite suffering from severe headaches and bouts with amnesia, what's clearly evident to Peter is the the rapidly devolution of society as a whole.

Both the undead and the yet undead share a common trait of decomposition and depravity--the zombies already the embodiment of mindless parasites and the increasingly violent humans, having adopted a bloodlust of their own in loosely organized cells of militia and para-military cloisters, largely unsympathetic as beings of mass paranoia with hair-trigger mentalities. Peter soon learns that though he can still reason coherently with his former colleagues and friends, he's nonetheless hunted and preyed upon as "one of them" and must hide out to protect himself. And even though he's immune to the ravenous insanity of his zombie brethren, he finds that he's constantly having to suppress a growing addiction to the increasingly more appetizing gooey stuff inside people's heads. As if that weren't enough, Peter's also come to the conclusion that his car accident death may not have been entirely accidental and his resulting strange "afterlife" may have more to it than just a zany twist.

In a coy and intriguing take on the zombie genre and a book which may soon be seen, in some form, on the big screen, author Scott Kenemore looks at more than just what makes us alive or dead, but what in fact makes us human and, moreover, to what capacity can supposed fully rational being become mindless beasts. What is first a very humorous take on the currently en vogue horror genre, maintaining a tongue-in-cheek comedic appeal throughout its narrative, Zombie, Ohio is an innovative look at the realm of existence and the nature of conscious reality. After all, it's not staying alive which is the thing at stake in the zombie mode, but staying dead as well. (FIC KENEMORE)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

King Lear / a graphic novel by Gareth Hinds; based on the play by William Shakespeare

For anyone who's ever been scared off by Shakespeare's plays (and accompanying film adaptations) owing to the difficult language barrier, there are now a variety of simply related, and surprisingly adept graphic-format versions which have steadily emerged over the past few years. Gareth Hinds, author and artist behind the successful Beowulf long form comic book (YP FIC HINDS), has now applied his hand to one of the great bard's tragic masterpieces. Hinds' caretaking of King Lear is refreshingly lucid and manageable, effortlessly eliciting Shakespeare's searing tale of ambition and defiance tempered by the passing of generations and family loyalty.

Clever with both the pen and the brush, the author displays both an artist's skill and a knack for getting the most out of what the play tries to say, his watercolored texture subtly producing the pained expressions of Lear, his creeping madness, and the individuality of his three daughters all plagued by fortune. All the while an odiously developing maelstrom develops in the heavens above, culminating with a brilliantly evocative conclusion. Even in abridged form with accompanying footnotes, the language is still a bit of a barrier but the reader can better get a handle on the breadth of the content, the meat of the moral conundrum and the depth of emotion as its drawn across the page in brisk though never understated fashion. While Lear is his most recently published work, Hinds other graphic adaptations of classic literature available include The Odyssey and The Merchant of Venice. (822.33 SHAKESPE)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Winter Garden / by Kristin Hannah

Grown-up daughters Nina and Meredith Witson might have had their differences in the past, but when a sudden heart attack leads there father to a slow death and their mother into a grief-stricken mania, they're forced to work together to see things through. Nina, the eldest, is a globetrotting photojournalist whose hardly in one place long enough to forge an address is suddenly at odds to reconnect with her struggling mother. Meredith, who's never really left the nest, is the one who must try and impose some resolution to the situation while trying to keep from resenting her flightly sister. All their lives, both girls have tried to please their mother to no avail. A Russian immigrant whose coldness has always seemed to alienate everyone but the girls' father, Anya and her daughters have a hard time getting along without him until a strange revelation in the form of an old country fable significantly improves things.

Kristin Hannah is a good writer who's penned some solid novels in recent years but this isn't one of her best. While all three women are complex in their own ways with family relationships and each's personal difficulties are practical and easy to relate to, there's a sense that the situation is a bit contrived. The tool of the Russian folk tale, the oral recitation of which by Anya is the deathbed wish of the girls' father, seems somewhat overly sentimental, especially since the story in question isn't particularly exceptional in any revelatory way. Readers will like the dynamic between the two sisters, both the episodes from their childhood and there heated arguments over their mother's welfare at present, and the figure of Anya (not a very believable character) becomes more likeable as time passes. Overall the story's not a bad one. It's just some of the details surrounding the characters and their motivations are a little sketchy. (FIC HANNAH)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Lilies of the Field by William E. Barrett

Barrett was an advertising executive before he became an established writer. His works linger on some twenty years after his death, one book in particular, The Lilies of the Field, partly because of its successful 1963 movie adaptation, directed by Ralph Nelson and starring Sidney Poitier, who won an Oscar for his performance.
Published in 1962, the book depicts a short period in the life of one Homer Smith, a young black American travelling the American West after his discharge from the Army in Fort Lewis, Washington. Accustomed to working his way while travelling and sleeping in his well-equipped station wagon, Smith stops at a farm where he sees women at work but no men.
There are no men because they are nuns, from somewhere in East Germany, who somehow “escaped” Communist rule. Dirt poor, they have work for Smith (whom they call “Schmidt”) but no wages to pay him. Barrett paints Smith as a man with an observant and meditative character, who can get angry at the chief nun for her bossiness, but is sensitive to their plight. They share their food with him and treat him as an equal, showing him a respect and friendliness he doesn’t receive from white Americans. How Smith is unwillingly enrolled in their mission is the crux of the story, interspersed with small meditations that Barrett is good at: on human nature, about work, about music - about the rhythms of labor and of life.
Sidney Poitier (or the movie director), made Smith more invested in himself, in what he was getting from his time with the nuns. In contrast, Barrett's Homer sees the timelessness of each day, how in the end life rolls on and names and deeds can be forgotten. What lasts is the endeavor, the thing that was built and is carried on by other human hands.

(photo from 1963 United Artists film starring Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala, from website accessed 3/17/11)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

10 best American poems?

Jay Parini recently posted an article to The Guardian's book blog listing his picks for the 10 best American poems of all time. Yes, The Guardian is a British paper, and yes the task of picking only 10 poems for this list seems a bit of a fool's errand, but the list is definitely worth a look, if only for the opportunity to review some classic poems you probably haven't read since you were last in an English lit class. The list includes links to the text of the poems. Click here to check the list of poems, and here to learn more about Jay Parini. April is National Poetry Month, so this is a good time of the year to be compiling your own list of favorite poems.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Ties That Bind / by Phillip Margolin

After graduating from American University, Washington D.C. in 1965, Phillip Margolin joined the Peace Corps in Liberia where for two years he assisted with the ongoing humanitarian aid in West Africa. Following that, he attended law school at NYU, actually teaching junior high school in the South Bronx to support himself, and eventually earned his degree in 1970. He then moved to Oregon to work as aid to the Portland district attorney and subsequently, from 1972 to 1996, worked as a private practice lawyer specializing in criminal defense cases both at the trial and appellate level where he covered over 25 homicides, several of which involved the death penalty. A steady stream of legal thrillers, appearing since 1978, have made Margolin well-known in crime fiction circles where his Amanda Jaffe novels have been among his most popular.

Portland lawyer Amanda Jaffe's still recovering from her latest high-stakes trial, one which threatened not only her career but her life, when she's asked to defend Jon Dupre, a known drug dealer and pimp now accused of murdering a U.S. Senator. The case seems a slam dunk for the prosecution. Not only is Dupre accused of murdering a the Senator, but he was also witnessed stabbing and killing his former defense attorney right in the jailhouse! Dupre ardently claims his innocence. He says he's being framed for the murder of the senator and that jailhouse incident was self-defense, statements no one but Amanda can begin to believe and even she has her reservations. There is one thing which lines up with Dupre's story: scratch wounds and bruises on his arms and chest giving some credibility to the self-defense plea. But why would Dupre's own attorney, a man trying to defend him against charges of another murder, try to kill him?

Things aren't quite what they seem. In fact, they're more treacherous than Amanda could've ever imagined. As Amanda starts to dig further into the incident involving Dupre's former lawyer, a connection starts to unravel between her client's case, issues surrounding Dupre's escort service in particular, and some of the city's highest ranking officials. Some of these high-powered elite are ones Amanda has crossed paths with, and in some cases, are people she currently works with. The deeper in she wades, the more she comes to realize that these men in high places will do anything to protect themselves, their reputations and their way of life. Finding justice for Jon Dupre won't be easy, but Amanda's used to the odds being against her and steadily plows ahead, putting herself and her client in harm's way at every turn.

Margolin's is a decent writer and his story is enough to keep the reader interested, building the drama through enough twists, turns and scandals to push the protagonist and to the limit. But while the premise itself, a big city prostitution ring servicing the high-powered elite, is a good jumping off point but aspects of the story lack continuity. The characters, even Amanda, come off a bit awkward and it might take readers a little too long too become familiar with all of the story's various players, both the big shots and the small fries, none of whom are especially well-developed. Plus the book as a whole might even have been better without a few of the sidestories. Other than that Ties That Bind is an entertaining, fast read, and though nothing memorable, it's definitely enough of a thrill ride to satisfy fans of John Grisham, Steve Martini or Scott Turow. (FIC MARGOLIN)

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Meadow by James Galvin

James Galvin is a poet as well as a writer of fiction. He wrote The Meadow in 1992. It’s about people who live on or near a meadow in Wyoming that is high up in the mountains. Galvin traces the history of these few families over a few generations, up to the present time. Although The Meadow is a work of fiction, Galvin grew up in northern Colorado and is familiar with these kinds of people. He is the mostly unseen narrator, who slips into the story only occasionally and gives very little background about himself, although we figure out that he is a neighbor of these families, and so knows them well.

The characters work the land, fight the elements, raise animals and build the houses and barns they need, staking out their identity in the wilderness. And wilderness it is…filled with bears and wolves and snow that practically swallows them up every winter. The book is a celebration of craftsmanship; of our ability to work with materials and energy and have the patience to make things that are as precise as any machine can turn out. The main character, Lyle Van Waning, ends up living there for over fifty years. Others in his family have died through war, madness, and natural causes. You have to feel respect for Lyle, since he has weathered the time and seasons, and has gained a harmony with his tools and how he works.

Yet the ingenuity and beauty of their workmanship, in the end, is an occasion of wonderment at the futility of it all in the face of time. Lyle, at his life’s end, is bemused by all this work he did, and how he’s left with so little. His mom and siblings gone, and his health too, so that he can’t even walk out to the fences he built. If you have lived in the country, you will recognize the slow wit and quiet humor that people cultivate who live a distance apart, with hills and ice, mud, and other challenges that they live with, occupying most of their time.

Galvin wants to say something about the earth’s permanence, and how transitory all our work and our passions are in the end, except for the effect we have on each other. In this way, Galvin’s quiet witness is what matters in The Meadow – someone to show us how they lived and what they created.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating / by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

After her hectic though seemingly fulfilling life is put on hold by a strange and utterly overpowering illness, a stricken Elisabeth Tova Bailey found herself not only bedridden but incapable of even the most basic tasks. The disorder, loosely identified as complications to her autonomic nervous system, left Bailey with hardly the strength to roll over much less sit up in bed. "It was all I could do to get through each moment, and each moment felt like an endless hour . . ." (p. 6). Things went on like this until a friend brought around a peculiar  present: a woodland snail dug up from a garden. From her bedside, Bailey, with little else to do, began to monitor the only slightly more stationary life of the small creature inside its terrarium, gradually becoming intimately familiar with the oddly fascinating world of her new neighbor.

As the days, weeks and months passed, Bailey became enraptured by the movements, maneuvers and eating habits of her gastropod companion, noting how its steady diet of mushrooms and mold made for some startlingly loud eating habits and subtly discovering the captivating serenity of the creature's plodding yet purposeful approach to life. Quite literally, the snail's pace proved to be a perfect fit for Bailey's deeply diminished status, her awareness and consciousness of the creature's world soon making her aware of how much the human world was throwing her off. "I found myself preoccupied with the energy level of my visitors . . .whereas the energy of my human visitors wore me out, the snail inspired me" (p. 37). With scientific data and curious factoids fitted right in to the narrative (some snails are actually hermaphrodites), the author of this candid little book, one fitting nicely into a part memoir/part biology niche, shows us how much we are really missing when we forget to slow ourselves down and observe the astonishing beauty of the natural world.  (594.38 BAILEY)

Friday, March 4, 2011

The House Next Door / by Anne Rivers Siddons

Georgia native Anne Rivers Siddons has lived a distinctly "Southern" life. Born in 1936, she was raised in the shadow of the old South where culture and tradition often clashed with
the changing social landscape. Attending Auburn in the mid-1960's, she was active in her sorority and as a journalist where her prowess as a writer was first recognized when censorship issues arose over several of her student newspaper articles. Though perhaps most known today for her more contemporary domestic novels like Low Country, Islands, Sweetwater Creek & Off Season, Siddons earlier work has included horror fiction like her 1978 book The House Next Door, a thrilling ghost story of the truest order.


"People like us don't appear in People magazine."

Walter and Colquitt Kennedy are classic yuppies. In an upscale suburb of Atlanta, they live comfortable, purposely childless lives comprised of fulfilling professional careers and relaxing, indulgent weekends. A bit of a disappointment has come their way lately though: the vacant lot next door, which the Kennedys had always hoped would remain as such, is bought up and construction has already begun on a new home. The house, designed by up-and-coming architect Kim Dougherty, is, upon completion, one of the most extravagant homes in the city and soon attracts a buyer in the form of Anne and Woody Harralson. But things are uneasy right from the start when the young couple moves in, their housewarming party going totally wrong. Then, as time passes, things begin to get really spooky--and even deadly.

Siddons is a good writer, confident and easy to become engaged with. Her characters may be archetypes and her setting is definitely nothing too original, but her storyline develops in a truly unique way, the drama building right up until the very end. Having the protagonist be an indirect witness to the legitimately mortifying circumstances is something that works, the personage of Colquitt becoming more distraught in each segment--each new family to move in to the house--all the way up until the final act. Also, it's the manner in which the author evokes the gothic from the most unlikely surroundings. Though there's a sort of generic conventionality to both the home itself and the youthful vigor of the characters, the novel manages to carefully delve deeper into the layers of suburban ennui and expose the darker depths of the setting which are certainly present even in spite of any supernatural occurrences. The reader begins to feel, with decided unease, that it may not be just 'the house next door' which is haunted, but the very culture, the atmosphere and backdrop from which it's originated. (FIC SIDDONS)

Shannon: a poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition by Campbell McGrath

The award-winning poet Campbell McGrath writes about modern America. This narrative poem is about America, too, but a much older country, the America of 1805. Meriwether Lewis was chosen by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly acquired “Louisiana Territory”, 800,000 square miles of land starting in what is today northern Texas and extending north up to Canada. Lewis in turn chose William Clark to go with him and help lead their “Corps of Discovery”, a band of 27 U.S. soldiers.

From the journal kept by William Clark,we learn that one of their party, a George Shannon, was sent to recover two horses and did not rejoin the party for 16 days. The poem is Shannon’s thoughts and reflections during that time, as imagined by McGrath in the style of a journal.

Before the poem and after it, McGrath inserts the (real) journal entries of Clark that tell of Shannon’s disappearance. The entries are very businesslike in tone, with the information about Shannon appearing along with other topics, such as their communication with Indians, and the characteristics of the land – its minerals, plants, and animals. These facts betray no emotion and their style seem to discourage reflection, so they provide a contrast to how lifelike Shannon’s voice is, when we first hear it.

Shannon speaks as one from his time would speak, with measured phrases and a lack of contractions such as run over in our present day speech. He was an educated man, and the youngest of the Corps, about 17 years of age. The poem is deceptively simple, as Shannon finds the horses, starts to drive them back to the party, only to find day after day passing without sight of them, and finally losing all sign of their passage before him.

He was lost in present day Nebraska, journeying on the banks of the Missouri River. His words give us the beauty of the place, the wildness and the stark loneliness he experiences as his situation becomes more perilous. First leaving his companions in haste, he neglected to carry more bullets or provisions, and he nearly starves to death. McGrath gives us a full picture of this young man’s life, through his thoughts and recollections, and we experience with Shannon this wonderment of a world so vast, so open – so grand and yet impervious to us and to our plight.