The Ann Arbor Chronicle » book reviews it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A2: Local History Tue, 29 Jul 2014 04:02:01 +0000 Chronicle Staff A post in the Local in Ann Arbor blog reflects on the importance of historic buildings in creating a city’s sense of place. It includes a review of “Historic Ann Arbor,” a new book by local authors Susan Wineberg and Patrick McCauley: ”This book should be on the bookshelf of everyone who lives in Ann Arbor and values any sense of our history and architectural diversity. As Grace Shackman says in her introduction to the book, ‘Susan and Patrick’s love of Ann Arbor shines through every page.’” [Source]

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Column: Book Fare Sat, 14 Jul 2012 18:35:30 +0000 Domenica Trevor Natalie Jacobs was 35 when she died, suddenly, in January 2008.

Cover of "When Your Song Breaks the Silence"

Cover of "When Your Song Breaks the Silence."

She left behind a novel. And her parents, Stan and Judith Jacobs of Ann Arbor, have published it, in ebook form, as a memorial to her.

“When Your Song Breaks the Silence” is an elegantly imagined life of Austrian composer Franz Schubert, distinguished by an articulate sensitivity and meticulous research. The completed novel’s existence was a surprise to her parents – its subject was not.

When her daughter was 11 years old, Judith Jacobs writes on the website she created for the book, “she wrote a story about the composer as a young child trying myopically – Natalie was also very near-sighted – to interact with his family and surroundings.” A graduate of Community High School, Natalie majored in English literature at the University of Michigan and was still working with the Schubert theme in the mid-1990s; when Stan and Judith traveled to Vienna in 1995 they made a point to visit the house where he died (in 1828, at age 31).

“A lilac bush was in full bloom in front of the building,” Jacobs says. They took a photograph.

A Body of Work Discovered

Natalie continued to write after embracing the more practical art of midwifery, for which she was finishing training in Portland, Oregon, when she died of viral myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle – brought on by a case of flu.

After the Jacobses went to Portland to settle their daughter’s affairs, they gave Natalie’s computer to a friend of hers, who discovered on its hard drive a collection of Natalie’s writings. Among them was the novel.

From the opening chapter:

He is making what he hears into structures that he can understand: the sound of his mother’s voice, the tread of his father’s feet; the intricate melodies of words. Sounds beat down on him relentlessly, sometimes terrifying, sometimes soothing, but always present, even in the quietest room. He imagines he can hear the sounds that the grass in the courtyard makes as it grows. …

He comes to realize that sound is a language that he must learn in the same way that he must learn to read. These patterns mean something, they have secrets inside them. He is starting to understand. And meanwhile the patterns are everywhere: in the sounds of the priest giving Mass, in the sounds of his brother Ignaz practicing the piano, in the sounds of his mother’s murmured words of comfort after he wakes from a nightmare.

Shhh, Vögelein. Geh’ zu ruhe. Go to sleep, love.

I can’t.

It was clear to her, Judith Jacobs says, that the novel “had real possibilities.” A friend suggested she show it to Andrea Beauchamp, assistant director of the Hopwood Awards Program at UM. Beauchamp passed the manuscript along to writer and UM colleague Eileen Pollack (whose most recent book is the novel “Breaking and Entering”). First, though, she took the liberty of reading the manuscript herself; Beauchamp, Jacobs says, told her she “loved it, and cried at the end.”

“When Andrea and Judith first contacted me, I was reluctant to read the manuscript,” Pollack recalled in an e-mail. “I knew that Natalie was young when she died and that she had written the book on her own. In most such cases, the results are amateurish. If that turned out to be the case, how would I convey such a judgment to her parents without adding to their grief? On the other hand, as a parent, I could imagine what it would be like to be left with a child’s manuscript and want the work to reach a larger audience, to live on …. So you can understand how happy I was to discover that the novel was the work of a truly gifted writer.”

Pollack, says Jacobs, “really gave us confidence that we might be able to do something” with Natalie’s manuscript.

A Chapter Is Published

Her first step was to submit a chapter of the novel to about 30 literary magazines. Titled “An die Freude” (“To Joy”), it is Natalie’s retelling of the premiere of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 from the point of view of Schubert, who was in the audience in Vienna that May night in 1824. With Beethoven in view on stage, seated to one side of the orchestra, he absorbs the symphony’s opening measures:

Or had it begun? What was going on? There was just a pianissimo murmur of strings, open fifths, and Franz thought for a moment that there had been some sort of mistake and the orchestra was tuning again …. But then he realized what was happening. It was the primal moment, the chaos before creation, as the other instruments added descending cascades of open fifths, the simplest chords. Franz thought of God moving on the face of the waters, in darkness and silence. And then the music grew, expanded, exploded into a huge statement of the first theme that made him jump in his seat. Behold, the creation of the world!

From then on, he knew he was in the presence of something very wonderful, very new, altogether new. For in no other symphony had music remade the world. And the music around him rose and rose, blossoming into a million fantastic shapes, while he watched and listened, trying to understand even while the music transformed him into a vessel filled with sound, shaking with it …. He was drunk with it, and as it sang through his veins, he forgot it all: his failing body, his failing art, all gone, lost in this vast and wonderful ocean of sound.

He wished he could take it and pull it into himself, make the brilliance a part of himself. The idea of making something as wonderful as this was beyond his comprehension. How did the man do it? How could he possibly be holding this inside him? He looked so insignificant down there, hunched over his score, unaware of the glory all around him.

This is why he’s deaf, Franz thought. He’s been listening to God too much. The thought was absurd and would have made him smile had he not been grinning with elation already.

Many journals “ask for short stories or novel excerpts that can stand alone,” Jacobs found, “and this chapter filled the bill. … I was thinking in terms of finding an agent and a publisher and wanted to establish a track record to show that the work was publishable. There was also the wish to see something of hers in print in a decent magazine, of course, and publishing a chapter of the book might also bode well for publishing the whole thing.”

The Battered Suitcase, a print journal, accepted “An die Freude” by Natalie Jacobs and it appeared in the December 2010 issue. Now, Jacobs says, “people can read it online for all time. It’s too bad she wasn’t there to enjoy it.”

An Alternative: ePublishing

Meanwhile, Pollack had shown the manuscript to her literary agent. When she responded to Jacobs with “a lovely letter saying she liked it a great deal … but didn’t see what the market would be for it,” Jacobs began looking into alternatives.

She did some research into electronic publishing and found that it “looked very respectable.” But, “I had no idea how I would do it,” she says. And “in my online search for help in self-publishing, I learned that there seem to be as many books on the topic as there are actual self-published books.” “The Indie Author Guide: Self-Publishing Strategies Anyone Can Use,” by April L. Hamilton, would eventually become their “bible” for the project; Jacobs calls it “a very sensible, well-written guide – no hype.”

It was around that time that Stan Jacobs, an emeritus professor of atmospheric and oceanic science in the UM College of Engineering, was able to join more fully in the project. He’d read “An die Freude,” Judith says, “but that was really all.” It was three years before her husband could bring himself to read the entire novel: “It just made him too sad.”

Natalie Jacobs

Natalie Jacobs, whose novel "When Your Song Breaks the Silence" was published posthumously. (Photo courtesy of Stan and Judith Jacobs.)

Judith and Stan brought their individual strengths to editing Natalie’s manuscript. Judith was the copy editor; Stan did the fact checking. “It was astounding how much research she did,” Judith says. They checked several Schubert biographies – “it all tracked.” (And, as Pollack notes, “the portrait of Schubert and his contemporaries [is] utterly convincing without seeming too heavily researched.”)

Meanwhile, Stan Jacobs was formatting the manuscript for epublication.

“Judy wrote the description of the book required by the publisher and an afterword describing how it came into our possession,” Stan wrote in an email detailing the process. “She also wrote the front matter – the cover, the title page, the dedication page, and the copyright statement. I was responsible for casting the table of contents in the proper ebook form and for editing the manuscript to conform with ebook conventions.”

Sounding like the scientist he is, Stan advised that “provided that you read the publishers’ guidelines carefully, the process is straightforward.”

He prepared two versions of the manuscript for uploading, one for Amazon Kindle and one for Barnes & Noble’s Nook and other ebook readers. Then (after he “obsessively reread it another time to check for typos”), he used Calibre, the open-source ebook application, “to convert the file into the two most popular ebook formats, Mobi and EPub. I then checked the formatting using an Amazon Kindle and an iPod Touch for the Mobi and EPub versions, respectively.” After final checks of the book’s appearance and epublishing features, they sent it off to Amazon for Kindle and to Smashwords, the distributor for Nook and other ebook readers.

Even an ebook requires a cover. Judith Jacobs is an artist who makes digital fine-art prints. But she is not, she insists, “a graphic designer. So I tried to do something simple.” She researched cover designs at Barnes & Noble, collecting images of appealing book jackets. And she had an image of her own to work with: the photo taken in Vienna in 1995. “It looks the way the book sounds,” she says of the cover she created for her daughter’s book. “It suits both the style and the 19th-century subject matter.”

Natalie had not given her novel a name. “I felt very presumptuous, choosing a title for her book,” Judith Jacobs says, “but I thought Schubert would be OK.”

“When Your Song Breaks the Silence” is taken from the last stanza of “Der Einsame” (“The Hermit”), a poem by Karl Lappe put to music by Franz Schubert:

 Chirp on and on, dear cricket,

in my narrow and small hermitage.

I tolerate you gladly: you do not disturb me

when your song breaks the silence,

for then I am no longer so entirely alone.

The novel is available for Amazon Kindle. The Smashwords edition is now on the lists at Barnes and Noble Nook StoreApple iTunes Store, Kobo, and soon to come at Sony.

About the writer: Domenica Trevor lives in Ann Arbor – her columns are published periodically in The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our columnists and other contributors. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.

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Column: Book Fare Mon, 16 Apr 2012 19:45:27 +0000 Domenica Trevor Laurence Thomas isn’t the world’s best salesman. Really – trying to get this guy to talk about Third Wednesday, the literary journal he edits, was like pulling teeth. You’d think he was a poet or something.

Third Wednesday

Cover of the Winter 2012 edition of Third Wednesday, a literary journal edited by Laurence Thomas of Ypsilanti.

As it turns out, all you need to know about this well-kept secret can be found in its pages.

Thomas – who is a poet, as well as an essayist and a writer of fiction – was born in Ypsilanti 85 years ago. A Hopwood Award winner for essay and poetry at the University of Michigan in the early 1950s, he had a teaching career that took him as far as Uganda, Saudi Arabia and Costa Rica before he returned to his hometown, where he lives today. Third Wednesday was an outgrowth of a monthly poetry group and of his friendship with the late Dearborn Heights attorney and magistrate Michael J. Barney, who was also a published poet and founder of Gravity Presses (lest we all float away) Inc.

Barney, “a regular attendant” of the group, Thomas says, had begun publishing through Gravity Presses a local literary magazine called Now Here Nowhere. Only a handful of issues came out of the project before Barney became ill (he died of cancer in 2006). Third Wednesday picked up where Now Here Nowhere left off, Thomas says, and is in great part an homage to Barney’s memory.

From his home office, Thomas corrals the input of associate editors both local and far-flung (one of them lives in Tajikistan!) who review submissions of poetry, fiction and visual art to produce a quarterly collection. Third Wednesday casts a wider net than did its predecessor and draws submissions – “two or three a day,” Thomas says – from around the country as well as Michigan. The current issue – Winter 2012 – publishes poets from Ann Arbor to Sofia, Bulgaria.

Third Wednesday pays its contributors with a copy of the issue and a token honorarium: $3 to $5. Design editor Paul Kingston “insisted on paying a stipend,” Thomas says, “and he’s proved to be right. (Contributors) feel like professional writers when they receive the money. And some of them tear up the check – that helps us out.”

The journal sponsors an annual poetry contest; poet Philip Dacey judged this year’s entries, which are published in the current issue. The three winners – Chris Lord, Adella Blain and Phillip Sterling – all hail from Ann Arbor. Each issue of Third Wednesday includes a featured poet – sometimes well known (David Chorlton was featured in Fall 2011) but usually, Thomas says, “chosen from our contributors who show skills and ideas we want to promote.”

What do the editors look for? “It’s based on our studies of poetry, keeping up with what’s current,” Thomas says, “and looking for that tingle when we receive work that seems new, vibrant and beautiful.”

“We like publishing well-known names,” he says, “but our greater interest is in finding exciting work by those not yet established or with local reputations but not yet known nationwide.”

Along those lines is work from InsideOut Literary Arts Project, which also appears in every issue. The Wayne State University project places professional writers (many of them with roots in UM’s creative writing program) in Detroit public schools, where they lead workshops for students. Here, from Third Wednesday’s Fall 2011 issue, is a particularly fine example by an anonymous participant in a workshop for teen writers held at the Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park:

What it’s like to be a black gay man

(for those of you who aren’t)

It’s holding your tongue when you want to sing

It’s straightening your wrist

deepening your voice

It’s asking a man a question

xxxxxxwhile asking a different question

It’s a signal it’s a stop light

It’s a hustle, one drink too many

a puff of smoke

It is opening your mouth

xxxxxxand a purse falling out

It’s a street corner

xxxxxxIt’s a fix. It’s a prayer

to be held to be driven

xxxxxxto be rode

It’s finally an open door

xxxxxxWelcoming you in

xxxxxxWelcoming you out

You can get more information about Third Wednesday online, including submission guidelines. You won’t find the journal’s current work on the site, however. The most recent issue can be found in good, old-fashioned paper and ink: subscriptions are $30 a year and copies are sold at Nicola’s Books in the Westgate shopping center and WSG Gallery on Main Street (full disclosure: my husband is a member of the gallery).

Sold Everywhere But Borders

Cover of "Sold Everywhere But Borders" by Rebecca Van Der Jagt.

Upcoming Events

Rebecca Van Der Jagt had been on the job at the Borders bookstore in Ramsey, N.J., for one month when the word came down from corporate in July 2011: Liquidation. In “Sold Everywhere But Borders,” Van Der Jagt has written an employee’s account of the grim last days of a beloved bookstore. She’ll be in town to sign copies at Biggby’s Coffee on Liberty Street at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 21; an emotional gathering of the Borders diaspora is a pretty sure bet.

Author Christopher Paul Curtis will be at Nicola’s Books at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, April 26. His latest book for children, “The Mighty Miss Malone,” is based on a character his readers met in “Bud, Not Buddy,” Curtis’ widely acclaimed 2004 novel set in Depression-era Michigan. “Bud, Not Buddy” won the Coretta Scott King Award and a second Newbery Medal for Curtis; the first was for his 2000 debut novel, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963.”

The 35th annual Ann Arbor Antiquarian Book Fair is Sunday, May 20, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Michigan Union ballroom. A visit is well worth the $5 admission, which benefits UM’s William L. Clements Library.

Honors for Kasischke, Hoffman

Two works featured in this column have gone on to wider recognition in recent (and not so recent) months. In March, Laura Kasischke’s “Space, in Chains” was awarded the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Kasischke, a novelist and poet who lives in Chelsea, is a professor at UM’s MFA program in creative writing.

And back in November, Andrew J. Hoffman and his memoir “Builder’s Apprentice,” published by Huron River Press, were honored with a Connecticut Book Award. Hoffman is the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at UM’s Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

About the writer: Domenica Trevor lives in Ann Arbor and can generally be found reading on third Wednesdays. Her columns are published periodically in The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our columnists and other contributors. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.

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Column: Book Fare Sun, 23 Oct 2011 13:30:37 +0000 Domenica Trevor The upcoming trifecta of other-worldly holidays – Halloween, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day – are the perfect frame to showcase a pair of new literary treats from local authors. (A neat trick, no?)

Cover of "Ghost Writers"

Cover of "Ghost Writers"

“The Sin-Eater: A Breviary,” Thomas Lynch’s latest collection of poems from Paraclete Press, presents this world and the next according to Argyle, an insurance policy incarnate for unabsolved offenses and, Lynch writes, “the mouthpiece for my mixed religious feelings.”

“Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them,” part of the Made in Michigan Writers Series from Wayne State University Press, serves up a dozen ghost stories – some fiction, some true in their own way – from some of the state’s finest writers, many of them from the Ann Arbor area. Laura Kasischke (“Space, In Chains” and “The Raising”) and Keith Taylor, whose next poetry collection, “Marginalia for a Natural History,” comes out next month, are the editors as well as contributors.

Taylor, who teaches English at the University of Michigan, and “Ghost Writers” contributor Elizabeth Kostova (“The Historian,” “The Swan Thieves”) will read from the collection at Zingerman’s Roadhouse on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at the sixth annual Vampires’ Ball, a benefit for Food Gatherers. (Hunger. In Washtenaw County. In America. Sin? Horror story? This theme is definitely hanging together here.)

Scary Stories

The standout in “Ghost Writers” is “Not Even Lions and Tigers,” Steve Amick’s wryly funny tale of enforcer Harry Bennett driven mad by the “haints” of strikers and organizers he bloodied in the service of Henry Ford (though, he’d insist to his disappointed ma, “he was in his office for most of it”). As he exhibited so well in his novel “Nothing But a Smile,” Amick is just great at nailing place and period with the energizing element of utterly authentic speech. His Bennett flings off sentences studded with gems like “whorebath,” “hoohaw” and “cooked up the wheeze” (translation: authored the joke). Plus, we get some local history: Harry Bennett, born on Ann Arbor’s Wall Street; stepson of an early member of UM’s engineering faculty; a frustrated artist who raised Wyandotte chickens on his Geddesburg estate. Now you know.

With “Ghost Anecdote,” Kasischke again gives us a story of a bad-ish girl, a dead mom and suburban vice and again leaves us marveling at her lethal skill with the lightning-bolt detail (and, again, imagining she would have been a blast to cut class with in high school). Nicholas Delbanco’s “Pier Road” offers a meditation on what vanishes from a place and what remains: “What are we haunted by, and why?”

Anne-Marie Oomen’s “Bitchathane” introduces us to “spider ghosts,” via the red-haired narrator’s Aunt Toots and in the Upper Peninsula, where women in steel-toed boots do construction work alongside their husbands, have their hearts broken and, sometimes, pieced back together in a tight package of revenge. And this captivating story introduces me to Oomen’s wonderful voice, and will lead me to check out her latest collection of essays, “An American Map” (from Wayne State University Press, 2010).

Scary stuff aside, it’s fun just to do some Michigan sightseeing in the pages of “Ghost Writers.” Greenfield Village. Harbor Springs. At the Detroit Institute of Arts, the up-north high school teacher in Taylor’s “The Man at the Edge” encounters Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry panels – they “all looked as if they pictured disembodied organs of the female reproductive system.” And it’s the place – Michigan – as much as the theme of haunting, of a present given deeper meaning by an undead past – that makes this collection worth the read.

Cover of "The Sin-Eater"

Cover of "The Sin-Eater"

“The ghosts in Michigan, perhaps like ghosts everywhere, seem to stay close to home,” the editors observe in the preface. And to this Taylor’s daughter, Faith, gets off a good one: “‘Well, good for the ghosts! At least they still call it home.’”

The Sacred and Profane

The next generation adds a special dimension as well to “The Sin-Eater.” To accompany “a couple dozen poems, a couple dozen lines each,” are a couple dozen truly fine photographs taken in Ireland by Michael Lynch, the poet’s son. (Another son, Sean, contributes a watercolor.)

Both Milford, Michigan, and Moveen in County Clare are home to Lynch, in whose magnificent “Walking Papers” Argyle made his first appearance. As with “Ghost Writers,” place and the dicey transition to an afterlife are central themes in “The Sin-Eater.” It is medieval (in sensibility if not in time) Ireland, where for a loaf of bread, a bowl of beer and six pence Argyle will squat beside a laid-out corpse, “eating sins and giving souls their blessed rest.” Like any working stiff, there are gigs he prefers more than others:

Maybe steady work with nuns whose vices

were rumored to go down like tapioca.

But no, those clever ladies lived forever

and for all their charities would starve the man

who counted for his feed on their transgressions.

No, most of Argyle’s work comes from rank-and-file sinners, whose resentful mourners may suspect a racket but will cover all the bases nevertheless. And he catches it from both sides. In “Argyle in Carrigaholt,” the “grinning” sin-eater gets chewed out by a prelate “famous for / the loud abhorrence that he preached against / adherence to the ancient superstitions.” But Argyle harbors his own contempt for those “who do a brisk trade in indulgences / and tithes and votive lamps and requiems.”

Cruelty toward the defenseless turns his stomach, and more than once he finds himself in profound solidarity with wronged innocents who succumb to the deadly sin of despair and are denied “requiem or rosary.” This refusal of official mercy is at the heart of two of the collection’s most powerful poems: “Argyle’s Ejaculations” and “He Posits Certain Mysteries.”

The father’s words and the sons’ images create a haunting whole. “The Sin-Eater” is a beautiful work of art.

About the writer: Domenica Trevor lives in Ann Arbor and can be scary when she sets her mind to it. Her columns are published periodically in The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our columnists and other contributors. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.

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Column: Book Fare Sat, 26 Feb 2011 14:06:21 +0000 Domenica Trevor A chief function of the book review “industry” is to give new books a sales push – the “latest” is the point. But today, let’s hear it for the backlist – otherwise known as those books you took note of months (or years) ago and intended to read, or brought home, placed on the shelf and have noted with good intentions ever since.

Book cover for "The Ugliest House in the World"

Book cover for "The Ugliest House in the World" by Peter Ho Davies.

Two works of fiction by University of Michigan creative writing teacher Peter Ho Davies spent way too much time on my “gotta get to” list. And “The Welsh Girl” (2007) and “The Ugliest House in the World” (1997) were fine company when I finally claimed for them a couple of snowy weeks in February.

“The Ugliest House in the World” (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin) is a collection of deftly composed short stories that are tragic, comic and often a dead-on blend of the two. They take us from colonial southern Africa to anti-colonial Kuala Lumpur, from Wales to – hilariously – Welsh-speaking Patagonia. (“Butch should have known it would come to this when the Kid started shooting ostriches again.”) And while we know things won’t end well for the British in Natal, the officers’ dining-table tales of heroism in the face of Zulu savagery are a ripping good time.

Davies’ tragicomic pitch is perfect in “The Silver Screen.” Meetings of the central committee of the Fourteenth Branch of the Kuala Lumpur Communist Party also serve as life-study sessions for Lee, an aspiring local artist who paints posters to advertise Hollywood films (the operator of the local movie theater is a comrade):

There was an unwritten law that during meetings Lee would be ignored, while the serious business of world communism was conducted. Yet on certain evenings – the night that Lee was sketching his poster of Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, for instance – the communists would argue longer and more passionately, with more sweeping strokes of the hand, their heads held higher and their brows creased deeper.

On the other hand, no one would look up from his food the night that Lee was trying to get a likeness of Sydney Greenstreet. They all held their bowls of rice that much closer to their lips and waved their chopsticks before their faces as they talked.

The branch is eventually ordered into the jungle to join the fight against British occupation, and Lee finds himself with the platoon, documenting the drama with his sketchbook and pencil.

There is little to relieve the poignant sorrow in some of the stories. In “Union,” striking Welsh quarrymen struggle to hold their families together and to hold out against the English mine owners who employ starvation and Cornishmen as strikebreakers. In the title story and “I Don’t Know, What Do You Think?” Davies is stealthy in sliding a revelation in here, slipping the tissue off another there, until he’s laid the full, sad state of affairs before you.

He exhibits an unsentimental compassion for human frailty, and there are recurring allusions to what ordinary people risk when they choose to claim simple pleasures. And his narratives are marked by quick bursts of horror – a new lamb is untangled from fence wire, but not before it has lost an eye to a patient crow; a machete-wielding rebel commander gives a fearful villager a swift lesson in the paramount importance of the present moment; a dragoon sergeant crushes a defiant Welshman’s fists with a rifle butt: “The sound of breaking bone could be heard all the way down High Street.”

Book cover for "The Welsh Girl"

Book cover for "The Welsh Girl," by Peter Ho Davies.

The centrality and illusoriness of ethnic identity is the unifying theme of Davies’ work (little accident – he was born in Britain to a Welsh father and Chinese mother) and at the heart of “The Welsh Girl.” Outside a village in the hills of North Wales, unwelcome English soldiers have finished a camp that is to house German prisoners seized after D-Day. Many of the villagers are indifferent or feign to be – the English are the real enemy – but the foreigners behind the fence are irresistible to the boys in the village.

Jim, a child evacuee from the Blitz, at first calls them “nasties.” One prisoner in particular – Karsten, whose “smattering” of English gives him the power to choose whether his unit will surrender or burn – fascinates Esther, the Welsh girl of the title and the literal embodiment of cultural ambiguity. A parallel story – that of a German refugee whose language skills are of use in the British interrogation of the captive Rudolf Hess – adds another layer of profound complexity to Davies’ novel, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

“The Welsh Girl” is a remarkable meditation on nationalism as both the impetus to destructive power and a bunker for the powerless. When is a sense of place a curse instead of a comfort? What kind of powers do captives hold? What happens to innocents caught on the fence?

Davies, who is on the faculty of the MFA program in creative writing at UM, says he is at work on a novel and a new collection of stories, “but they’re a couple of years away as yet.” In the meantime, delve into Davies’ backlist. And after you finish “The Welsh Girl,” check out “Deleted Scenes” in the Odds, Ends & Outtakes section of Davies’ website. Yes, there’s more.

The Steads at Nicola’s Books

Ann Arbor’s Erin Stead, who won the 2010 Caldecott Award for her illustrations in “A Sick Day for Amos McGee,” will visit Nicola’s Books with her husband, Philip, the book’s author, at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 8. The store is located in the Westgate Shopping Center, at the corner of Jackson and Maple. And check out a very charming profile of the couple in February’s Ann Arbor Observer.

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Column: Book Fare Sat, 29 Jan 2011 12:52:48 +0000 Domenica Trevor Where’s a medieval village when you need one?

You know – that place where everyone knows where everyone else lives and everybody knows everybody else’s business and, no matter how insipid or irrelevant, has an idiotic opinion on it all, one generally borne of grinding frustration, depthless boredom and a general, yawning poverty of the spirit …

Frances and Joseph Gies

A photo of Frances and Joseph Gies, from their book "Life in a Medieval Village."

No. I do not need to get on Facebook.

But maybe somebody out there who is plugged into this dynamic global engine of online communal solidarity-ishness can take a break from investigating what your fifth-grade gym teacher had for breakfast and help us out here.

The mystery opens a few days after Christmas, when my husband and brother-in-law drop me at the Borders in Peoria, Ill., on the way to relive their childhood at a matinee screening of “Tron: Legacy.” Browsing the history section, I come across a paperback edition of “Life in a Medieval Village,” by Frances and Joseph Gies, and settle into an armchair.

And there I learn, from the back cover, that the Gieses “live on a lake near Ann Arbor, Michigan.” And there’s this dear photo of an elderly pair who appear to be Grandma and Grandpa circa 1948, but they’re also two scholars who’ve spent their lives together researching and writing almost two dozen books about life in the Middle Ages. How cool is that?

Thus intrigued, this MA in history delves into meaty research the very day we get home after the holidays. And what do I learn from Wikipedia? That Mr. Gies, University of Michigan class of 1939, passed away on April 6, 2006, and, with Frances, “collaborated on a number of books” that “are respected amongst historians and archeologists.”

So the opportunity has passed to talk to this gentleman about the prodigious work of a lifetime. But all is not lost. So it is on to the Ann Arbor District Library to collect two armloads of the Gieses’ books in hardback, including “Life in a Medieval Village”:

The modern village is place where its inhabitants live, but not necessarily or even probably where they work. The medieval village, in contrast, was the primary community to which its people belonged for all life’s purposes. There they lived, there they labored, there they socialized, loved, married, brewed and drank ale, sinned, went to church, paid fines, had children in and out of wedlock, borrowed and lent money, tools, and grain, quarreled and fought, and got sick and died.

Tack on “paid dearly to eat sandwiches at Zingerman’s and waste many a fine fall afternoon at Michigan Stadium” and that pretty much sums up Ann Arbor in 2011, no?

Of course not. People come and go so quickly here – as did the Gieses, a progression of book flaps informs us. In 1974, when “Life in a Medieval Castle” was published, they lived in the Chicago suburb of Barrington. When “Women in the Middle Ages” came out in 1978, they had moved in Oakton, Va. The parents of three and grandparents of three more were living on that lake near Ann Arbor when HarperPerennial brought out the paperback edition of “Life in a Medieval Village” in 1991. “Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel” followed in 1994; “A Medieval Family” was published in 1998. Local obituary records show that Mr. Gies was in his 90s when he died in Maine in April 2006.

Then, as always when you’re sleepless at 3 a.m., inspiration seizes you: The go-to guy here has to be über-townie Geoff Larcom, formerly of The Ann Arbor News and now a media guy for Eastern Michigan University. My erstwhile colleague, who is on a first-name basis with every single person in the world born after the Spanish-American War who ever lived in Ann Arbor, can tell me all about the Gieses.

Or not. All Geoff can do is helpfully point out a typo in my e-mail and otherwise show off. As far as he knows,

The only Gies (not Giesn) were the late Tom and Thelma Gies. He was a prominent business prof for U-M. Died about 20 years ago, and Thelma recently. Lovely couple, but likely not related to Frances and Joseph. Tom and Thelma’s son, Chris, has a son named TJ that [sic] works for The Pistons.

When he finds out what TJ had for breakfast on Thursday, Geoff will no doubt fill me in. (In that same e-mail, Geoff told me he was wearing a “grey shirt with black-themed tie” – I did inquire – but here’s a word to the media relations folks at EMU: Don’t be fooled. In a newsroom bulging with competition, Geoffy was the sartorial eyesore. The mere memory of that taxi-yellow shirt with the red golf tie can still bring on the dry heaves.)

If Geoff can’t help, maybe the rest of the world can. So now I’m scattering this on the cyberwaters: Whither Frances Gies?

The Latest Fuss over Huck Finn

The instantly notorious “Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition” officially hits the bookstores on Tuesday. This is the version “edited” by Auburn University’s Alan Gribben to banish the word “nigger” and replace it with the word “slave.” Gribben says his intent is to secure the novel’s place on school reading lists. Much airtime and print space was given over to outrage. But how many of us merely rolled our eyes when we heard the news?

However well-intentioned, this latest attempt to “cope” with the racially offensive language that makes Twain’s great novel a routine target for censors on school boards is a silly one. But it will take its place in the continuing and decidedly un-silly debate over how to teach “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Here’s my take: The “S” word describes an abomination that many Americans honestly view as a mere bygone. The history of slavery in the United States is quite a bit more. The “N” word is an abomination that many Americans would prefer be gone from the language. It won’t – and it shouldn’t be gone from Twain’s imperfect masterpiece. And to “cleanse” the novel of it is as dishonest and ultimately pointless as taking to the House floor to recite a Constitution cleansed of the Founders’ tally of one slave as three-fifths of a person.

But in a New York Times op-ed piece (“Send Huck Finn to College,” Jan. 16, 2011), short-story writer Lorrie Moore introduces something new to this old fight. Speaking from what she calls “a mother’s perspective,” Moore argues that “‘Huckleberry Finn’ is not an appropriate introduction to serious literature” and that it fails as a tool for encouraging young people – including “the young black American male of today” – to read great literature. So, Moore suggests, why not wait to teach it at the university level, “where the students have more experience with racial attitudes and literature”?

While she doesn’t fully address the controversy – if “Huckleberry Finn” isn’t part of the curriculum, it should still be on the shelves in whatever middle and high school libraries still exist these days – Moore makes important points.

I’m not speaking from a mother’s perspective or a teacher’s perspective. I’m speaking from the perspective of another reader who deeply admires this great novel – complete with its ending, which reduces drama to farce. “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” ends with boys’ play – Tom Sawyer appears on the scene and persuades Huck to make an “adventure” out of rescuing the again-captive Jim – perhaps because to end it with Huck and Jim triumphing on their own would have been farce in another form.

Huck Finn first appears in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” – which, Twain wrote, “is not a boy’s book at all. … It is only written for adults.” With “Huckleberry Finn,” these two books about boys have been twinned and maybe shouldn’t be. I gave copies of both to my nephew for his ninth birthday last summer. While I hoped he’d be able to enjoy Tom now, I assumed Huck would sit on his shelf, hopefully for “later.” While “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is a story for children and for adults, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is not a “boy’s book.”

Local Poets Get National Play

Thomas Lynch of Milford, Mich. – a small town north of Ann Arbor – introduces Argyle the sin-eater in four poems that appear in the February issue of Poetry magazine. All that’s to admire about Lynch’s work is on display as he takes us to Ireland and explores to the pace of a beating heart his themes of death, faith, love and – here in “He Posits Certain Mysteries” – mercy, after a suicide:

… Argyle refused their shilling coin

and helped them build a box and dig a grave.

“Your boy’s no profligate or prodigal,”

he said, “only a wounded pilgrim like us all ….”

Lynch’s “The Sin-eater: A Breviary,” upcoming from Paraclete Press, has us looking forward to autumn. [Editor's note: Lynch's latest collection of poetry, "Walking Papers," was reviewed in the October 2010 Book Fare column.]

“Still Life,” a jewel by the University of Michigan’s Linda Gregerson, was set in an impressive two-page facing spread in the Nov. 29 issue of The New Yorker. And in December, Poetry featured “The Selvage” by Gregerson and a pair of poems by Charles Baxter, whose novel “The Feast of Love” secures him as a permanent local in my book, even if he did decamp for Minnesota. Baxter’s weavings of music and memory are shot with metallic threads of pain in both “Please Marry Me” and “Some Instances.” December was “The Q&A Issue,” and the brief discussions with the poets that follow each work are a real treat.

Local Readings

Deborah Rodriguez, author of the 2007 memoir and book club favorite “Kabul Beauty School,” reads from new novel “A Cup of Friendship” on Saturday, Jan. 29, at 3 p.m. at Nicola’s Books.

University of Michigan’s Nicholas Delbanco reads from “Lastingness: The Art of Old Age,” at the downtown Borders on East Liberty at 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 31, and at Nicola’s Books at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 8. You might have heard Delbanco talking about late-life creativity on NPR’s “All Things Considered” on Jan. 21 (or read Brooke Allen’s tetchy take on the book and its writer in the Jan. 23 New York Times Book Review). While some artists run out of gas as they run out of years, Delbanco observes, others develop a sharper focus and a deeper intensity in the liberation found in work as its own purpose. Good news for the really, really late bloomers among us.

The UM English Department’s Zell Visiting Writers Series brings National Book Award finalists Mary Gaitskill and Carl Phillips to town next month. Gaitskill, a novelist and UM grad, reads on Thursday, Feb. 10; poet Phillips appears a week later, on Feb. 17. UM grads Suzanne Hancock, a poet, and fiction writer Valerie Laken (“Dream House”) will also read, on Thursday, Feb. 24. The Zell events start at 5:10 p.m. at the UM Museum of Art’s Helmut Stern Auditorium.

About the writer: Domenica Trevor lives in Ann Arbor and sort of enjoys being tetchy, from time to time. Her reviews for The Ann Arbor Chronicle appear on the last Saturday of each month.

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Column: Book Fare Sat, 28 Aug 2010 15:04:26 +0000 Domenica Trevor My book group reconstituted itself a few months ago after a hiatus prompted by serious illness, family problems, the acute burdens of employment and unemployment and a number of other upheavals among us. When we reunited it was with some new members, and our first meeting was largely spent getting to know one another and catching up. Essential to that, of course, was what each of us had been reading lately.

Stack of books

These books are not being considered as picks for the author's book club. But no doubt they've been read by someone, somewhere.

“Olive Kitteridge,” Anne mentioned. “It was just wonderful.” Eilisha’s eyes lit up: “Oh, yes!” Linda had adored it, too. And they were off – celebrating a shared delight at Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of connected short stories and at the gratifications of shared delight, newly discovered.

One of the purposes of this column, which is approaching its first anniversary, is to re-create some of that pleasure – with the emphasis on sharing. NPR has a feature called “You Must Read This,” which these days has sounded a bit too pushy to my neurotic ear: No, I mustn’t. And get off my case. Lately I’ve tended to get a little uptight even when the most dear and trusted friend insists on lending me a book she’s just finished because she just knows I’ll just love it. Chances are I will. But I’m already in the middle of two other books and that’s yet another one joining the mountain of reading I don’t have time to get to and you wouldn’t believe all the crap I have to do today let alone this week and this month and for how many years can I keep this unread book before you start to hate me?

So, no pressure! But I’d like to share some of the reading that kept The Chronicle’s Book Fare columnist sane and fundamentally optimistic during a tough stretch.

Now, I don’t read in search of lessons, inspiring examples, reality checks. While “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” might be good medicine in reminding us that a) Nazi occupation will trump most of life’s hardships and b) human affection can ease pain, those are two big duhs and if you’re looking for something therapeutic, try prescription drugs. I liked this book, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, a) for its epistolary structure and b) because I’ve never been to Guernsey.

When I fall into a good book, what catches me is the reappearance of proof that another mind and body out there can create a world convincing enough to let me live there for a while instead of the real one, and that if this can still happen, it’s worth it to keep turning the pages.

Cover of "Fine Just the Way It Is"

Cover of "Fine Just the Way It Is" by Annie Proulx

In fact, most of what I enjoyed this past year – and in most years, if I think of it – was way short on uplift and way long on grim. That must be why Annie Proulx is such a favorite. Is anyone better at reminding us of the essential pointlessness of existence, that suffering is usually solitary and almost never redemptive? Plus, she’s great at using words and phrases that send you happily to the dictionary. (Ever heard of a “gambling snap?”)

But the best story in “Fine Just The Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3” is, while dark, laugh-out-loud funny from the very first sentence: Satan, who has a secretary named Duane Fork, returns from an interior design expo in Milan with a burning desire to redecorate Hell.

Dexter resident Travis Holland set his marvel of a first novel, “The Archivist’s Story,” in late-1930s Stalinist Moscow: bleak, bleak, bleak. What keeps Pavel Dubrov going? A compulsion to protect the purloined pages of Isaac Babel’s final manuscripts from destruction.

Everything’s Better in Sweden, Right?

And there was Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy. Murder, violence against women, abuse of power, corporate and political corruption. Yum, yum, yum. For the nine of you out there who haven’t read “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” here’s some counterintuitive but really smart advice from my husband: See the movie first, then read the book. Truly – knowing the ending doesn’t dim the pleasure of the read, and the films are fun enough but can’t possibly contain the novels’ complexities; in a sense, the film is a briefing for the broader story. And the fine casting of the Swedish films (“Dragon” and “Fire” are out and “Hornet” is on the way) won’t pollute your imagination.

But what to say about the stingingly misplaced apostrophe in the title of the third volume? We probably shouldn’t go there. But it’s a safe guess that the last working copy editor on the planet was fired by Knopf right before publication.

Cover of Astrid Lindgren's "Pippi Longstocking"

A number of reviewers noted the similarities between the oddly resourceful Lisbeth Salander and another Swedish literary heroine who refuses to be pushed around. But most of those reviewers clearly hadn’t read the Pippi Longstocking books and depicted her at best as a harmless juvenile delinquent with uncommon strength (and her very own horse). Still, they led me to re-visit, for the kazillionth time and the pure pleasure of it, the Pippi trilogy: “Pippi Longstocking,” “Pippi Goes On Board” and “Pippi in the South Seas.”

Those of us who have envied and adored Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim’s Daughter Longstocking, daughter of Captain Efraim Longstocking, formerly Terror of the Sea and Now a Cannibal King, need no reminding that a better role model doesn’t exist.

At the thoroughly excellent age of 9, Pippi lives by herself in a big old house with a suitcase full of gold pieces and does precisely as she pleases, day after day. In what can be interpreted as either the guilelessness of childhood or superbly instructive displays of masterful passive aggression, she lets officious grown-ups know where to stick their unwelcome concern (and, as often as not, with no hard feelings on either side). Astrid Lindgren and her translators gave Pippi the comic timing of Groucho Marx and the sensibility of the loving and generous Harpo. She’s a magnificent wiseass, a gloriously gifted liar and her own boss.

Musts to Avoid

I’d here I’d like to offer my version of “You Must Not Read This.” Three things I avoided during the past year:

1. Books about the death of books. The subject is either depressing or absurd. And the fact that the publishing industry keeps putting out books about the death of books is depressingly absurd. No exceptions. (And while you’re at it, please shut up about Kindle.) This is not to say that the digital library lacks essentials:, for your local news; Doonesbury for your daily laugh; and Mark Trail for your recommended daily allowance of animal-based melodrama.

2. Vampire books aimed at teenage girls. The exception to this? If you’re a teenage girl (which can be depressing and/or absurd) and vampire books are all you’ll read (depressing and absurd). Absolutely no exception for mothers of teenage girls (ditto and ditto on both counts).

3. Dystopian novels. We all lead busy, busy lives. And every morning we roll out of bed to confront the increasingly absurd and depressing 21st century. So reading about horrifyingly screwed-up worlds is, at the very least, an inefficient use of time. One exception: “In A Perfect World,” by Chelsea resident Laura Kasischke. The heroine, Jiselle, possesses irresistibly comforting decency and pluck – and her teenage stepdaughter is a hoot. And I haven’t read the dystopian vampire novel “The Passage,” by Justin Cronin, but this one sounds like it might be fun. Apparently, any hope for a humane future depends on a 6-year-old girl – a rational and cheering prospect, no?

Happy Endings

The last time our book group got together it was to discuss “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. The language (translated from French) is beautiful, but some of us lost patience early on with the whiny protagonists. Paloma is a 12-year-old whose exquisite contempt for the boneheads and phonies who constitute her family and her neighbors in an elegant Parisian apartment building is secretly shared by Renee, the concierge and stealth intellectual, until a new resident shows them how to cut humanity – themselves, most importantly – a break.

“Olive Kitteridge” – whose title character is by no stretch whiny – came up in our discussion of “Hedgehog.” Won by the rapture displayed by my fellow clubbers, I started the book and have too been swept away. So far Olive is mostly a real bitch, but I anticipate that by the end I will have been persuaded to cut her a break.

On the nonfiction front, I’m tackling “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Among the cool tidbits to surface so far: “[T]he Afghan city of Kandahar is called by a disguised version of the name which Alexander and his admirers gave to a scatter of cities across his conquests: Alexandria.” (Kandahar. Alexandria. Try them out on the tongue. Yes sirree.) And believe it or not: About 100 years after the birth of Christ, a steam engine was invented in Alexandria, Egypt – and used as a toy! When the bully British showed up some 1,600 years later with some of those (only way bigger), you can’t help but imagine at least a few hugely frustrated Egyptians. Sounds a little like an Annie Proulx story, doesn’t it?

The sucker is 1,161 pages long in hardcover and I’m on 47, so check this space a year from now. I’ll let you know how it turns out, with spoiler alerts.

About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor and would rather talk about books than almost anything else, especially at her book club gatherings.

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Column: Book Fare Sat, 30 Jan 2010 13:45:04 +0000 Domenica Trevor

Cover for Margaret Fuchs Singer's memoir.

When a member of my book group recommended Margaret Fuchs Singer’s recently published “Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter’s Reckoning,” I assumed the longtime Ann Arbor resident’s contribution to the literature of America’s red-diaper babies would be another account of growing up with a parent who joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, became disillusioned but still refused to inform on former comrades – and suffered for it.

I got it wrong.

Singer’s father, Herbert Fuchs, cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee. He informed. He named names. He told the whole truth – about a profound commitment and a profound mistake – and suffered for it.

His family, of course, suffered for it, too.

Singer’s story opens on a June evening in 1955, when she was 13 and her father, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., reveals to his son and daughter that their parents had been members of the Communist Party – and that he expected to be subpoenaed soon by HUAC.

The news stuns her:

“… My father might as well have told us that he and my mother were convicted felons. Or terminally ill. … What I had learned about Communism I had learned from the media, which reflected our government’s conviction that Communists were the ultimate enemy of the American people, an evil threat to the free world, a force determined to infiltrate our cities and take over the minds and lives of innocent Americans, just like me.”

Committed Communists

Singer’s parents were labor lawyers in New York City who saw in the Communist Party in the 1930s an organization committed, in Fuchs’ words, to “social reform, opposition to fascism, fighting against unemployment and bigotry.” And like many other well-educated, left-wing intellectuals, they were drawn to Washington by the possibilities of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Frances and Herbert found jobs in the federal government: she with the Bureau of Labor Statistics and, later, the War Production Board; he went from a Senate staff position to the National Labor Relations Board, where he led a secret unit of employees who were party members. Singer’s parents joined another party group in Denver after Fuchs relocated there to work at the National War Labor Board. But by the end of the war he had grown disillusioned with the CPUSA and, after returning with his family to Washington, left the party in 1946.

Nine years after that, Fuchs was subpoenaed by HUAC. Using her father’s journals, Singer lays bare his anguish and examines the complex factors that went into his decision to cooperate. And she shares the overwhelming anxiety, loneliness and shame that consumed her as her father’s past became not only front-page news but the talk, albeit hushed, of the neighborhood. Decades later, Singer learned of the “neighbor-to-neighbor calls cautioning the parents of our friends not to let their sons and daughters associate any longer with ‘those Fuchs children.’”

Her father’s troubles added to the sense of being an outsider in a community, Singer writes, “where my parents’ liberal views stood out as strange, where houses a block from ours were closed to Jews, and where jeering boys called me ‘Jew girl’ as I walked home from school.”

Cause Célèbre

The hard left shunned Fuchs. From the crank right came nasty, anonymous phone calls to the family home. And American University fired him – mere days after a memo from AU President Hurst R. Anderson proclaimed that it “would be beneath the dignity of the institution” to do anything but support an “intelligent, loyal and devoted teacher” who made “a serious mistake in his past, which he has recognized and declared.”

Fuchs’ dismissal and AU’s refusal to reconsider became a cause célèbre among anti-Communist mainstream liberals. The Association of American Law Schools and the American Association of University Professors recommended AU’s censure. Even William F. Buckley’s brand new National Review chimed in, criticizing the persecution of a witness who had assisted with what the magazine saw, of course, as vital work by HUAC.

“Every time you turn,” Singer said, in an interview, of the dizzying complexity of the affair, “there’s another way of looking at it.”

With assistance from HUAC Chairman Francis Walter, Fuchs eventually found work on the staff of then-House Judiciary Chairman Emanuel Celler, where he remained until his retirement. In the intervening years, Singer’s parents rebuilt a life that included meaningful work and friendships as well as travel and other comforts of middle-class American life.

“It ended, and we just closed it off,” she said.

But the emotional fallout remained. Singer writes that the anxiety present in her household even before her parents’ past became known stayed with her, leaving her with a “crippling, amorphous fear that affected my personal and professional life.”

And “the shame that they were Communists … and then shame that they named names…,” she said, “it lasted our whole life.”

‘Resolving the Trauma’

“I was not destined to write,” Singer said. In high school, she tried to put her family’s experience into words for a class project and “bombed utterly. Couldn’t get any of the feeling, any of the emotion.”

Author Margaret Fuchs Singer, next to a display that includes her memoir at the downtown Borders store on East Liberty. As of Thursday, the store had sold 45 copies of the book. (Photo by The Chronicle)

Author Margaret Fuchs Singer, next to a display that includes her memoir at the downtown Borders store on East Liberty. As of Thursday, the store had sold 45 copies of the book, “Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter’s Reckoning." She'll be holding a reading there on Feb. 9. (Photo by The Chronicle)

It would be decades before the possibility resurfaced. “It was at the point at which my parents died,” she said, “and I started to read.” She started with “Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir,” by red-diaper baby Carl Bernstein, “and then the need to write just really overwhelmed me.”

What resulted is what Singer calls “a memoir informed by research” whose principal aims were “resolving the trauma” and laying out the full story for the next generation.

“I really had a need to tell my children and my two nieces as best I could, as truthfully as I could, what happened,” she said. “Because I really didn’t think anybody else was going to dig up all that stuff.”

It took guts to write this book. Singer not only returned to a painful youth in order to bare “the family secret,” but in her reading and the study of her parents’ papers discovered and investigated another, darker possibility: could her mother – perhaps knowingly – have spied for the Soviet Union?

“The fact is, the American Communist Party was a group of very enthusiastic people who had goals that were as good as they could be,” Singer said. “They worked very, very hard for their country, they weren’t disloyal, they thought that the Soviet Union represented a hope for the future of working people, racial relations, anti-fascism.

“At the same time, I am now convinced, without any question, the Soviet Union had as a goal to get help in the U.S. getting information.” The CPUSA, she says, was “the obvious” tool to get that job done.

Singer believes her mother would have understood the motives behind “Legacy of a False Promise.”

“The family secret really wasn’t doing me any good,” she said. “And I don’t subscribe to keeping family secrets when you don’t have to. I actually experienced freeing myself of the shame by writing the book. And she would have approved of that.”

Of her father’s approval, she is less certain.

Early in the book she recalls his warning: “’I don’t know what will happen, and I must ask you not to discuss this with anyone.’” For decades the words and the fear remained with her. Her father was a private person, Singer said, and “a man who was basically a very decent human being: ethical, conscientious, hardworking, very bright, who was human. And in some ways his greatest strengths were also his flaws; it’s a tragic story.

“But I think it comes across as a portrayal of a man who is really a good man. That’s what I think. Without actually being self-serving about it, without making excuses. If I did that, then I think that that’s a good thing.”

More From an Interview With Margaret Singer

A recent show of support: On Jan. 19 at Nicola’s Books, a big turnout – at least 50, Singer believes – of friends, family, colleagues and others bearing congratulations left her “geeked.”

Her long-term support system: Singer and fellow authors Susan Morales (two as-yet unpublished novels, “Mornings One Winter” and “A Barroom View of Love”) and Brenda Meisels (the self-published “Family at Booknook”) have met every two weeks for the past 10 years to share feedback on manuscripts-in-progress. “It is so gratifying,” she said, to have “no doubt about their being in your camp and respecting you and your ability to write.”

The meaning of tenacity: Singer says she wrote about 90 query letters in her effort to find an agent and a publisher for “Legacy of a False Promise.” She realized early on that a university press would be the best option, and working with the editors at The University of Alabama Press turned out to be an “absolutely fabulous experience.”

A legacy of McCarthyism at the University of Michigan: The UM Senate’s annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom. In 1954, UM suspended three members of the faculty (it later reinstated one of them) for refusing to testify in front of a group from HUAC who were visiting the campus. The senate established the lecture, named in honor of the targeted faculty, in 1990 and passed a resolution criticizing “the failure of the university community to protect the values of intellectual freedom.”

A “fellow traveler”: Journalist Kati Marton took a literary journey similar to Singer’s. “Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America” (Simon & Schuster, 2009) is Marton’s examination of the lives her journalist parents in Communist Hungary and the consequences of their choices for their two daughters. Singer said she drew up her courage and sent Marton an e-mail “listing the ways I related to the book; I felt a kinship to her.” Marton replied moments later: “I’m going out now to get your book,” she wrote; “thank you for your kind words about mine.”

Margaret Fuchs Singer will read from “Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter’s Reckoning” on Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 7 p.m. at Borders Books, 612 E. Liberty St. in Ann Arbor.

About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor.

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Column: Book Fare Sat, 31 Oct 2009 10:01:48 +0000 Domenica Trevor Domenica Trevor

Domenica Trevor

Start with some quick history: Josef Stalin’s campaign in the late 1930s to consolidate his control of the Communist Party spun into a terror that counted both old Bolsheviks and a new generation of party faithful among its victims. The leadership of the Red Army was decimated. Intellectuals were seized and interrogated and, like so many others under torture, falsely denounced others.

Inevitably, the masses caught on to the madness; pointing the finger at a neighbor could suddenly open up that three-room apartment next door. By the time the rampage was reined in, some 1.5 million people had been arrested and imprisoned; half again as many were executed or perished in the gulag.

Fast forward to the present: You’re a 29-year-old with an MFA, in Moscow to do research for your first novel. Lev Mendelevich Gurvich, himself caught up in the purges, has welcomed you into his apartment and has agreed to tell you his story. Gurvich, in his 90s but still with a sharp mind, had in the 1930s been editor of the literary magazine of the Komsomol, the Communist youth movement of the U.S.S.R. He was arrested, interrogated, sent to a labor camp.

You tell him about your novel, the story of a disgraced teacher of literature who now works as an “archivist” at Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka prison. Pavel Dubrov’s guilt and sorrow threaten to deaden him into numbness until a brief, official encounter with the prisoner Isaac Babel stirs him to rescue the condemned writer’s last manuscript from the prison’s furnace. Pavel smuggles it out of Lubyanka under his coat.

I met Babel, this survivor of the gulag tells you. I was at Stalin’s rallies; yes, I heard Stalin speak. But at one point the old man stops to ask, pointedly if not unkindly: Who are you to write this book?

“I wasn’t insulted,” Travis Holland says. “It was a question I asked myself.”

A more than fair question. But Holland’s answer, “The Archivist’s Story,” proved that his audacity was matched by his gifts.

Published by Dial Press in 2007 and issued in paperback the following year, the novel has been translated into at least a dozen languages and its author has collected as many honors. “The Archivist’s Story” was nominated for the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (its company on the shortlist for 2009 included Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer-winning “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”). Holland won the 2007 Cabell First Novelist Award from Virginia Commonwealth University; his novel won a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award and Publisher’s Weekly named it a Best Book of 2007. London-based Financial Times named it a Best Book of 2007; it was a Guardian Readers’ Pick as well.

Book cover of "The Archivist's Story" by Travis Holland.

The acclaim has been “immensely gratifying,” says the University of Michigan graduate, who lives with his wife and children in Dexter. “Nothing in my background had ever prepared me.”

Holland grew up in a working-class Georgia family; his parents, who separated when he was small, had “a high regard” for writers. His father, the son of a sharecropper, earned a living as an electrician but “was always writing – working in his little yellow notebooks,” Holland says.

“He’d always talk about writers as working men,” Holland said of their conversations about books and authors: “‘What about this Steinbeck guy, Dad?’ ‘Oh yeah, he’s a working man. He’s a good guy.’ ‘What about Mailer?’ I’d say. ‘Aw, screw him.’”

The ethic took root. “Writing is about sitting down and doing your work,” he says. “It’s not about talking about it.” And he describes spending his 20s writing “almost in virtual silence.”

“I was fortunate enough to have some teachers and some people encourage me quite a bit, but for the most part I would work years on stories and maybe they got published or maybe they didn’t. And if they got published, I didn’t really meet anyone who’d read them.”

Now, Holland says, “that connection has been made – that connection I write about in “The Archivist’s Story,” with Pavel and the things he reads. I really feel that way when I read something. … It’s one voice speaking and, in this case, it’s my voice. So that wonderful connection with the reader – it’s amazing.”

Pavel’s job title is ironic: This archivist’s task, essentially, is to destroy books – to silence memory, to erase the past. He comes to Lubyanka after being dismissed from an academy for taking part in falsely denouncing a colleague who has later committed suicide. At the prison, Pavel’s sudden, reckless act must certainly arise from an impulse to atone, to keep alive a voice that connects past, present and future. He sees the essential value of preserving one man’s experience.

Rescuing Babel’s last story is “the ultimate act of self-disregard, for principle,” Holland says. “I mean, giving your life for a story? For an idea?”

“The Archivist’s Story” is “my homage to all writers,” he says, “everything I’ve ever read and loved and that has stayed with me.”

Travis Holland, reading from his yet-untitled new novel at an Oct. 22 University of Michigan Zell Visiting Writers Series event.

Travis Holland, reading from his yet-untitled new novel at an Oct. 22 University of Michigan Zell Visiting Writers Series event.

Holland is deep at work on his second novel, as yet untitled – or, at least, he isn’t giving it away yet. He read from it Oct. 22 at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, as part of the UM Zell Visiting Writers Series. “With luck, maybe in the spring,” he says, it will be ready for his publisher.

Set 40 years in the future with flashbacks to the present, the story is told from the perspective of a woman who as a teenager survived an apocalyptic plague. She flees to a grand house on a lake with the privileged family that employs her father as a handyman; they’re retreating to an idyll presumably to wait for the end.

“She’s now looking back at that time,” Holland says. “And it’s a lot about the strange contrast between that beautiful lake and her experiences at the lake and what was going on outside.”

Holland says his inspiration came in part from his reading of Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” in which a group of nobles who have fled the Black Death decide to tell themselves magnificent tales as a diversion from the horror.

Holland says he was captivated by Boccaccio’s introduction to “The Decameron,” where the scene is set in a Florence gripped by mass death.

In some cases the wealthy, taking along servants to fetch back the necessities of life, “left the city and went to the countryside, surrounded themselves by beauty and – I thought this was interesting,” Holland says, “told their servants that no matter where you go, what you see, bring back none of this to us. We do not want to hear about it. That stuck with me, that you could live in this splendor while you thought the world might be ending outside.”

In his new novel, Holland says, the central character must confront a future whose very existence she hadn’t anticipated. “‘We lived through this thing that we thought was going to take all the choices out of our hands,’” she realizes, “‘and now we have to live the rest of our lives.’”

“It’s a lot about the stories we tell ourselves about the end,” Holland says of his work in progress. “Why are we human beings fixated on stories of the apocalypse? Why are we always thinking that our generation is at the very edge of time? Because if you go back in history, you look back to the Middle Ages … they thought that this was the end of time. If you go back to the year 1000, they thought that was the end of time. And if you look nowadays, we have this upsurge in apocalyptic stories” – from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” to Laura Kasischke’s just published “In A Perfect World.

“Human beings are aware of the fact that one day things will end,” Holland observes. “In a strange way, I think, we tell ourselves these stories as a kind of comfort …, almost like going through a haunted house, and at the end you get to walk out.”

Nicholas Delbanco, UM English professor and chair of the Hopwood Award committee

Nicholas Delbanco – UM English professor, chair of the Hopwood Award committee and director of the MFA creative writing program – at the Oct. 22 reading by Travis Holland.

The earlier versions of what would become “The Archivist’s Story” were well received by Holland’s teachers and fellow students in the MFA program at UM. And with grant money from a Fred J. Meijer Fellowship in Creative Writing, he was able to spend the year after he finished the program revising the novel and doing research. This included two trips to Moscow, during which he was aided by a translator and his own study of the Russian language at UM.

With assistance from the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, Holland “was able to meet some men and women who had been through the purges, who had actually been sentenced to the camps, to the gulag,” he says. “They opened up their homes to me. … They were unfailingly courteous and helpful and welcoming. They would answer all my questions.”

And how did Holland answer the question posed to him, from the purge survivor Gurvich?

“I told him what got me into the story and how strongly I felt about it but, I said, ‘in the end, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this.’

“I think that every time you sit down to write a story or a poem or paint a picture – or whatever you’re doing as an artist – you’re bound to fail at some point. The idea that you have in your head, this dream you’ve been carrying around,” he says, “getting it out is always an act in some ways of failure because it never quite meets that ideal that you had. But I said, ‘with everything that I am I’m going to try. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this, but I will try to do this. I’ll try.’

“I think that’s one reason why I did so much research and one reason why I spent so much time on the book: It was that I didn’t want to fail, or I wanted to fail well if I failed.”

We should all hope he fails so exquisitely again.

More from an interview with Travis Holland:

On what he’s been reading: Alistair MacLeod’s “No Great Mischief,” Dan Chaon’s “Await Your Reply.” He mentions Alice McDermott’s “After This” as an “important book that I go back to.” And, “I want to go out and buy Lorrie Moore’s new book (“A Gate At The Stairs”).”

On friendships with writers he met at UM: “Elizabeth Kostova is still my go-to reader. I just read her new novel (“The Swan Thieves,” out in January from Little, Brown). … A big door-stoppper! With a lot of research and many narrative threads.”

What he learned working on his first novel: “There are a lot of people who love Isaac Babel.” (Look for “The Complete Works of Isaac Babel,” published in paperback in 2001 by W.W. Norton, at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor.)

His day job? For the past two years, Holland has led a creative writing course in conjunction with the Knight-Wallace Fellows Program for journalists at UM. (Babel is on the reading list.)

His next title? After tackling Stalin’s purges and an apocalyptic plague, Holland says he sees something along the lines of “Puppies, Flowers and More Puppies.”

About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor.

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Column: Book Fare Sun, 27 Sep 2009 14:13:19 +0000 Domenica Trevor Domenica Trevor

Domenica Trevor

Once upon a time there lived a pretty lady named Jiselle who was always a bridesmaid and never a bride. But one night she is swept off her feet by a handsome pilot with green eyes and a tragic past. He proposes! She says yes!

But the “happily ever after” part snags on a few complications. Her new husband spends way more time in flight than he does at home. He has three motherless kids, one of them a middle-schooler with the mother of all attitudes. Jiselle’s own mother has an attitude of her own, marked by a particular contempt for unreliable charmers and her own daughter’s pathetic naïveté.

Oh – and a deadly plague is sweeping the land.

“In A Perfect World” is a dystopian fairy tale by Chelsea novelist and poet Laura Kasischke, set in an America whose citizens have become global pariahs – shunned, quarantined and loathed as potential carriers of the gruesomely fatal Phoenix flu. A distant war drags on vaguely. The power grid fails for hours and then days, and then for good. The mysterious plague kills the rich and famous along with everybody else.

In the small Midwestern town of St. Sophia, “regular codes of conduct” give way to casual licentiousness. Fearless rats hang out in the drugstore parking lot like a gang of bored teenagers. The schools eventually close and so do the malls, and soon there’s no going to the office in the morning, either. The local newspaper manages to publish an occasional edition with feel-good items about the Boy Scouts; it has stopped running obituaries altogether.

High drama of the apocalyptic kind is scarce in this novel, hence much of its allure. As often in Kasischke’s fiction, including “The Life Before Her Eyes” (which a few years ago was made into a film starring Uma Thurman), creepy developments glide through the same door as the day’s ordinary doings. And as what Kasischke calls “a trickle of disasters” seeps in from the coasts, “In A Perfect World” becomes a tale of quiet, determined domesticity. Jiselle and the children plan trips to the increasingly barren grocery store, pass the evenings with games by candlelight and husband the firewood in anticipation of winter. Jiselle does what a mother must, and while the family unit contracts with death and despair it expands, too, nourished by a primal love swept clear of grudge and resentment by the demands of existential crisis. Life goes on, will go on.

Book cover for "In a Perfect World" by Laura

Book cover for "In A Perfect World" by Laura Kasischke.

Kasischke says she knew when she began her latest novel – it arrives in bookstores next week – that it would be “about motherhood … the primacy of the children and the family.” But like Jiselle, Kasischke ended up with a story unlike the one she’d initially envisioned. What finally emerged as “In A Perfect World,” she says, was a manuscript half the length of the original draft.

“Until I get really far into it and then start pruning things away I really don’t think it’s going to be a novel,” she says. “I always think, ‘well, this probably won’t work out.’” But when she has a novel in progress, “I always have something to think about. It’s like people who carry their knitting around with them. … I can be sitting in a meeting doing my knitting, and no one even knows.”

Her early research for “Perfect World” led Kasischke to plague histories and accounts of the Crusades. But only a few pages into the story, it is hard not to feel thrown back into the dark ages of George Bush the Second: “You think the Europeans have any sympathy for us?” Jiselle’s neighbor tells her; he has armed himself with a rifle and a year’s supply of water and advises her to do the same. “Ha! We burned that bridge, and all the other bridges are burning as we speak.” But political commentary wasn’t necessarily Kasischke’s intention.

“I think I had bird flu in mind, and I had wars and anti-American sentiment and that sort of thing,” she says of the time when the novel was taking shape. But she adds: “I don’t know that I feel like things have radically changed, as far as that sort of thing goes, since he’s out of office. I mean – now we’ve got the swine flu.”

Laura Kasischke

Author Laura Kasischke in her Angell Hall office at the University of Michigan.

Still, in the form of running communiqués from an ever-receding mass media, Kasischke wryly observes how American society makes sense and nonsense out of disaster. Trendy spirituality and other absurdities of popular culture initially rise to the challenge: A flourishing crop of gimmicky evangelists push atonement, silver-bullet nutrients, back-to-the-land movements or various forms of positive thinking. There’s something called the “Whale Prayer Project”; “New Amish” groups lay the blame on radiation from cellphones. Inevitably, as the panic mounts, mobs go after SUV drivers with baseball bats. And the market segment that rejects introspection is served, too: “If you don’t want to hear the bad news out there, folks,” a radio announcer shouts, “we’re just playing music and telling really stupid jokes!” We know it’s grim when only the roughest of raw staples remain on the supermarket shelves and the celebrity rags at the checkout are chillingly out of date.

This is Kasischke’s seventh novel. She teaches creative writing in the Residential College and the MFA program at the University of Michigan; before joining UM she taught writers at Washtenaw Community College. She has also written several books of poetry.

“Writing poetry,” Kasischke says, “is a high-energy thing that only happens once in a while.” But reading and writing it, she says, enhances the imagery in her prose. True – from “In A Perfect World,” here’s a description of hummingbirds outside the family’s cabin:

One night at dusk, there’d been masses of them swarming … glistening and iridescent and beating their wings in a supernatural blur. They zigzagged through the air around the house as if they were working together to sew an elaborate net, tying the house to the ground.

Kasischke remarks on what she calls the “really lively” community of performance poets when asked about the local literary scene. But, she adds, “we’re yet to see what happens now that Shaman Drum is gone. … It would be bad if the only writing community stuff that lasts now is at the university, because of course that excludes so many people.”

Kasischke is taking a break from teaching at UM this term; she received a Guggenheim fellowship that’s allowing her to complete a book of poems. And she’s working on another novel.

More from an interview with Laura Kasischke:

On “In A Perfect World”: “I knew I wanted it to have these fairy-tale elements. … I always see so many fairy tales as having a dark undercurrent, anyway.”

On why she writes: “I really do love it. It helps to get published and all, but if you’re looking for validation, all you have to do is look at the next bad review.”

Her favorite novels: She mentions Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome,” Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.”

What she’s been reading lately: “Await Your Reply,” by Ohio writer Dan Chaon, and “a lot of poetry in translation.”

On the literary community: “We’ll have to see if something takes the place of Shaman Drum, because I think that’s what brought a lot of people together.”

“In A Perfect World,” by Laura Kasischke, is being published in October by Harper Perennial.

About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor.

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