Tag Archives: Lanie Tankard

Echoing a familial refrain

Khaled Hosseini’s third novel strikes universal chords.

A crowd mobbed Book People, Austin, for Hosseini's appearance.

A crowd mobbed BookPeople, Austin, Texas, for Hosseini’s recent appearance.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Riverhead Books  (Penguin Group ); 404 pp., $28.95 hardback. Also available in paperback (Bloomsbury Publishing), Kindle, Nook, Audible, audiobook CD, SoundCloud, iTunes, and large-print (Thorndike Press) editions.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

“…and the place echoed every word,

and when he said ‘Goodbye!’

Echo also said ‘Goodbye!’”

 —Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III (Trans. by A.S. Kline)

Hosseini CoverKhaled Hosseini took a risk in his third novel. He tried a different structure.

In his first published work, The Kite Runner, Hosseini followed one boy’s life and how it related to his childhood friendship with another boy named Hassan, portrayed through the voice of the protagonist named Amir.

In his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini focused initially on the individual stories of two women, Mariam and Laila, and then later on both as their paths crossed. I admired the fact that, being a male author, Hosseini had pulled off a convincing protagonist gender shift from his first book.

When I recently heard Hosseini discuss his third book, And the Mountains Echoed, he noted, “The structure of this novel was far more ambitious.” He addressed a packed crowd in Austin, Texas, at BookPeople, which was already mobbed an hour before Hosseini was scheduled.

“The heart of the book is about an act of separation—a relationship between a boy and his sister,” he told us, after reading an excerpt. “Splitting them affects who they become as adults,” as the boy has been “almost like a parent to her.”

Hosseini offered details about how he shaped the book.

“Like a giant oak tree, there’s a trunk to the novel that branches out with all the characters, and the geography of the settings as well. It gets wider as the book goes on,” he said. “It was the hardest book to write.”

And it was the hardest book to read, at least for me. As if traveling on the ancient Silk Road, many characters in Mountains Echoed take circuitous routes to their ultimate destinations—and so does the storytelling. These interwoven lives begin to resemble the stacked “spaghetti bowl” of an interstate highway with flyover ramps and exits.

Such a plot construction is not necessarily detrimental to a story, though, nor to one’s growth as a writer. Once again, I admire Hosseini for stretching himself rather than relying on the formulaic repetition of a style with which he’d become comfortable.

In Mountains Echoed, Hosseini constructs the metastories of an entire clan to examine their intersections. It becomes an interesting device for disentangling the relatives in a particular family of origin as they fan out across the globe. Hosseini investigates the genealogical ramifications of family connections. He scrutinizes various generations as if he were peeling back delicate paper-thin layers of phyllo from a wedge of baklava with tweezers.

Charting the novel’s cast

Lanie Tankard's aide-memoire—her cheat sheet for the novel.

Lanie Tankard’s aide-memoire—her cheat sheet for the novel.

I did have to chart my way through the book, however.  Early on, I had the fortunate premonition to start drafting a map to follow as I read. I wonder why the editor didn’t suggest inserting a family tree to assist the reader? Yet quite honestly, the lack of one did not deter me from being totally absorbed by this story, even though I did have to consult my hand-drawn legend from time to time to keep the characters straight.

Hosseini’s storytelling ability is nothing short of mesmerizing. He knows just when to stop with a particular strand, leaving the reader hungering for more detail. He puts your mind to work. As he told his Austin audience, “It’s a series of revelations and epiphanies for which the reader must connect the dots.”

While Hosseini set the story in specific countries, he grounded it in larger themes that cross borders and speak the language of the global family. He laid bare the fundamental elements of our common humanity.

Hosseini wrenched unexpected tears out of me in different sections, due not only to such universal refrains, but also because he assembled in the denouement a heartbreaking scenario similar to one I witnessed in my own family as well. Since I’ve never been fond of spoilers in reviews, I’ll not divulge the endgame of Mountains Echoed except to say it rang true.

Tears arising unbidden as I read usually alert me to the fact that I’m holding a compelling book in my hands—a “heads up” that I need to pay close attention to the illusion that I’m consuming a straightforward rendition of a simple tale.

Indeed, as some of Hosseini’s characters become Westernized in Mountains Echoed, I notice that an individualistic culture has slowly begun to muffle echoes of the earlier stages of their lives in a collectivistic society. The author writes with subtle strokes of his calligraphy brush to achieve this effect.

Perhaps such subtlety was intentional. After all, how clearly can we actually view an ancestor who lived several generations prior to our own and truly understand the choices made during that person’s sojourn on this planet?

Hosseini’s characters speak truths we ought to know like the backs of our hands already, and yet we continuously require reminding. Some of these verities underscore the values of memoir writing, genealogy research, and meditation. Hosseini prompts us to realize that it’s important to know where you came from, because in doing so you may encounter a part of yourself that was lost.

Gail Lumet Buckley, daughter of Lena Horne, wrote in her memoir titled The Hornes: An American Family: “Family faces are magic mirrors. Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present, and future. We make discoveries about ourselves and them.”

Flawed characters thwarted in love

Yet Hosseini denies most if not all of the characters in Mountains Echoed such types of discoveries due to assorted acts of separation he writes into their lives. He sets up many types of love in his characters’ relationships, and then creates formidable barriers to their perpetuation. Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman once wrote about herself: “This packrat has learned that what the next generation will value most is not what we owned, but the evidence of who we were and the tales of how we loved. In the end, it’s the family stories that are worth the storage.” The fictional individuals who people the Mountains Echoed plot won’t have such an inheritance, though. That’s where the angst in this novel arises, and it’s powerfully strong.

Hosseini in Austin.

Hosseini in Austin.

“I really like flawed characters,” Hosseini told his Austin listeners. “They allow me the most to work with. All of us have things about ourselves that we don’t like at all. We can see our own flaws in them.”

He pointed out that the “evil stepmother” character, Parwana, “is the black sheep of her family“ but she “gets her day in the sun later in her own chapter.”

Fiction can be a potent tool. Authors who serve up their home countries via literature to the world can call attention to inequities, assist in cultural understanding, or play roles in uniting us. Consider such writers as Isabel Allende, Orhan Pamuk, or Chinua Achebe. And when a novelist writes about the assimilation of people from one culture into another culture, as such authors as Amy Tan or Junot Díaz or Jhumpa Lahiri have done, readers gain the perspectives of characters who have migrated from their native countries. In Mountains Echoed, Hosseini depicts the homelands of his characters (Afghanistan and Greece) as well as later adaptation to new countries (France and the United States), illustrating how Westernization has changed them.

What factors determine the impact of a literary contribution? Is it the words alone—or do timing, packaging, current news events, author talks explaining motivation and intent, and advance promotion each play a role? The Zeitgeist likely creates desire for certain subject matter. Once upon a time, journalists were taught the term Afghanistanism to avoid concentrating on issues in faraway places when problems in their own cities cried out for attention. Technology, transportation, and wars have both broadened our horizons and shrunk our world since that time, negating the term.

Hosseini mentioned the influence of the poet Rumi in his Austin talk, and he uses a wonderful Rumi quote as an epigraph in Mountains Echoed: 

Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
—Jelaluddin Rumi, 13th century

 He also alluded to music in reference to his third novel: “My intention was that each chapter raises the stakes for what has happened before, creating a synchronicity—like a lot of single instruments playing together to create a symphony.”

Hosseini seems to have blended music, poetry, and myth in Mountains Echoed. An echo in music has a resonance that amplifies the sound and makes it reverberate with the underlying meaning. It’s a nice metaphor for what Hosseini accomplishes in his new novel.

There are hints of the Echo and Narcissus myth as well, if one focuses on the ideas of separation and later deprivation of speech and garbling of the tongue, as Juno did to Echo. The separation in Mountains Echoed deprived the siblings of speech with one another, and the novel’s ending symbolizes garbled memories.

The echo motif also fits into the storyline of Mountains Echoed as a rhetorical device, which Hosseini employs in both a literal and a figurative sense. With the repeated refrains and themes, one could almost view the novel as a musical composition of lyrical poetry, with a chorus continuing to sing praises to the nuclear family unit in the midst of a long narrative ballad, ideas John Hollander discusses in his book The Figure of Echo.

Hollander uses the example of echo in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which indeed Afghanistan has become.

“The country is struggling with a lot of problems,” Hosseini said of his native land. “The big question is what will move into the vacuum when the US and NATO troops leave in 2014. There’s a lot of skepticism on the part of Afghans. Not many people in the West understand what the Afghans fear. The militia wars preceded the Taliban. Those were the darkest of the last thirty-two years. There’s a reason Afghanistan has been called ‘the graveyard of empires.’”

One audience member called out a heartfelt comment: “Thank you for teaching us about Afghanistan.”

BookPeople showed a five-minute film before Hosseini spoke, highlighting the Khaled Hosseini Foundation he has set up. The author explained how his organization concentrates on helping all the homeless refugees returning to Afghanistan by finding shelter for them there.

Hosseini’s shift from a medical career

“I was a doctor in my former life,” Hosseini said in his Texas book discussion. “I wrote all my life though,” he said. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to write, but I didn’t think I was very good. I just did it for myself. I wrote Kite Runner, and then 9/11 happened. I felt the book would be distasteful at that time.” So he shelved it in the garage.

His wife ran across it “and made a bunch of notes on it.  She urged me to try to publish it later.” He noted that she majored in rhetoric at UC Berkeley, and is his editor and a lawyer.

“She’s edited every draft. She can’t come up with an answer as to where the story should go,” he said, adding that “the danger of having an ‘in-house’ editor is that you don’t get what you need to hear—you get what you want to hear. Although sometimes she writes things like ‘LOL. You can’t be serious.’ I go into a mini funk when she does that.”

He sent Kite Runner around, but “it got rejected a lot.” Finally an agent (who is now deceased) took him on and Kite Runner was published. “I thought maybe my cousins would read it,” he joked. “I was still a doctor then.”

So just how did the transition from medicine to literature occur?

“Three things happened to change me from a doctor to a full-time writer,” he said, and listed them: “(1) I began to notice people reading my book on airplanes. (2) All my patients wanted to take up the time during their office visits asking me to sign their copies of my book. (3) I found myself as the answer to a ‘Jeopardy’ question when I was watching the show on TV. So I thought maybe I could take a year or so off.” The health plan he worked for “didn’t allow time off, so I had to quit to write.”

Listening to Hosseini articulate tales from his own family made me realize he’s a natural-born narrator. And the Mountains Echoed is a paean to the importance of storytelling to strengthen family bonds. There is an African saying: “When an elder dies, it is as if an entire library has burned to the ground.”

Writer Madeleine L’Engle once underscored this leitmotif when she said: “If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them too. The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are. ”

Every one of Hosseini’s three novels has seemed stronger than its predecessor to me, so I await the fourth with great expectations.

Lanie & Grandma

 Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. (Photo of Lanie Tankard and her grandmother by Toni Fuller. Photos of Khaled Hosseini by Elaine F. Tankard)


Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, fiction, narrative, REVIEW, structure

Fiona Maazel on loneliness

A novel approach to the absurdities of mass desolation.

Lighted Globes x 

Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

Graywolf Press, 336 pp., $26.00.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story . . .

—John Steinbeck, to the Paris Review

Maazel novel

A Google search for the term lonely can yield 287,000,000 results in less than twenty seconds. A Facebook Community called “Loneliness” has close to 19,000 Likes, while over 15,000 Likes appear on a Facebook Interest page with the same title. It looks like Fiona Maazel really struck a chord with this literary theme in her second novel.

The cover, with its iconic backlit image of a concert crowd wave, pulls the reader right into the anomie awaiting inside the book. When a writer as proficient as Maazel collects intriguing ideas—such as global eavesdropping in the middle of the Pisgah National Forest, the juche idea of the spirit of self-reliance in the isolated nation of North Korea, the secret world of subterranean Cincinnati, the lure of cults, and the psychology of loneliness —and combines them all into a plot that is at the same time wildly comical and perceptively forlorn . . . well, you’ve got yourself a rollicking good read.

Some authors can make you laugh out loud. Others wrench tears right out of you. Maazel blends those two abilities in a startling yet subtle way—at least for me. While reading Woke Up Lonely, I would on occasion be aware of a riotous laugh heading straight up my throat, only to be met by an equally powerful lurch of my heart just before the hysterics breached my lips. The effect muted what was about to become a loud guffaw by curtailing the initiation of tears into a sharp intake of breath instead, infusing me with a unique sense of poignant hilarity. Maazel’s artistic skill in smudging the demarcation between comedy and angst left me shaking my head in admiration time and time again.

Her first novel, Last Last Chance, also touched upon disparate societal issues viewed from an absurdist eye with acuity. I would place Woke Up Lonely in a special fiction genre, however, possibly also comprised of Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.

The protagonist in Woke Up Lonely inspired opposing feelings in me as well. I found Thurlow Dan, known as Lo, at once both despicable and endearing. Lo is the founder of the Helix, a cult followed by throngs of lonely people. He, too, is aware of his emotional remoteness while missing his former wife, Esme, and their daughter, Ida. It’s been a decade since he saw them—and then suddenly he does.

Avid readers of Boris Pasternak will recognize the riff on a scene from Doctor Zhivago as the novel begins. Thomas Hardy aficionados may pick up on another from Tess of the d’Urbervilles at the book’s end.

The author employs a technique for revealing Esme’s backstory by having the character number the pages of a speech she’s preparing about her early life. Unbeknownst to Lo, Esme’s job has involved spying on her former husband. One of their most hilarious scenes together takes place in a limo driving through Pyongyang, DPRK, told at different points in the novel as each of them experienced it. Esme’s disguised professional vantage point over the years has allowed her to protect him covertly as she became aware that she still cared for him. Then Lo throws her a curveball by taking her agents hostage. These four spies are vividly drawn quirky characters with mind-boggling individual story lines of their own.

In explaining the reasons why people behave in unusual ways, social psychologist Elliot Aronson noted his “first law” in The Social Animal, published in 1972 and now in its 11th edition: “People who do crazy things are not necessarily crazy.”

Later, in his 2010 memoir Not By Chance Alone: My Life As a Social Psychologist, Aronson wrote: ““In this society most of us glide through life protecting ourselves; in effect, each of us wears a behavioral suit of armor, to minimize how much other people can hurt us. But sometimes we become so successful at hiding our true feelings from others that we hide our feelings from ourselves as well.”

Woke Up Lonely strikes me as a literary exploration of these very ideas. Maazel juxtaposes ribald incidents next to analytical explanations of how loneliness differs from anxiety and depression with a deft and sure hand. She draws attention to the distinctive features of individualism and collectivism within a society as they relate to loneliness.

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo, coauthor of Loneliness, has spoken widely about such concepts. Cacioppo stresses that loneliness is not a bad thing because it compels us to form connections. “Loneliness is a cue to us to reconnect, like a prompt,” he says. “Individualism is celebrated in our culture. The underlying collective is not recognized.” According to Cacioppo, the symptoms of loneliness are: “(1) You don’t have a confidant who confirms who you are. (2) You don’t have a collective identity, a social identity.”

And that’s right where Thurlow Dan’s Helix cult snags so many lonely people in Maazel’s novel. I was briefly confused a couple times amid shifts from first to third person and in the description of several characters, but never did they mar the framework or flow of this modern tragedy with its intelligently subtle humor. Maazel masterfully couches editorial observations about our culture within the dialogue of her creatively sketched characters. On page after page, I thought in bemused wonder, “How did she ever dream up these folks?”

I picked up some insights when I heard Maazel speak recently at the New Fiction Confab in Austin, Texas.

“I write because I enjoy it,” she said. “I don’t know how to do anything else but fiction writing. It’s lucky if you get to do what you love.”

She doesn’t hold stock in the old adage “Write what you know.”

“Write what you can learn about,” she said. “It teaches you about your inner life. If you’re a person who finds it difficult to confront your inner life, writing is a way to do it.”

She advised writers to “be available to the world around you. It teaches you. I use no headphones or iTunes. I use the subway to be a keen observer. Let the stories come to you. Refract them through your own consciousness.”

Afterward, I asked her how many drafts she wrote of Woke Up Lonely before it was published.

“Oh, about forty-six,” she replied seriously. “There’s no ‘would-be’ about being a writer. You’re either a writer or you’re not.”

Fiona Maazel is definitely a writer.

ChezZee x

Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.



Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, experimental, fiction, REVIEW

Junot Díaz: Voice of a genius

Holding up a mirror to society through narrative.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

Riverhead Books, 213 pp., $26.95.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

“I stand in for the absolute silence in our communities.”—Junot Díaz

September 25, 2012, speaking at BookPeople in Austin, Texas
(Photo by Elaine F. Tankard)

Will Junot Díaz add the National Book Award to his shelf of literary prizes? He’s one of five fiction finalists for the honor to be announced on November 14. Díaz has already scooped up so many awards, however, that he’s a star even if he doesn’t win tonight.  The event will be streamed live beginning around 7:15 p.m. at www.nationalbook.org, so invite some friends over for an awards party and cheer on your favorite author.

I heard Junot Díaz in Austin, Texas, on the recent tour for his latest book, This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories. A few days later, his creativity was given literary license by the MacArthur Foundation, whose website notes the organization is “committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” Every year, it awards fellowships of $500,000 each with “no strings attached,” often referred to as genius grants.

Díaz works out of his own immigrant experience. Born in the Dominican Republic, he was raised in New Jersey. The most well-known character in his writing has been a young man named Yunior de Las Casas, and Yunior lives again in most of the stories of this new book. Yunior’s voice is unique. It is arresting. It is angry. It’s vulgar and chauvinistic. At times, it’s laugh-out-loud humorous. It’s also eloquent.

Díaz assigned Yunior difficult duty in his books, asking Yunior to bear witness to horrific events in the history of the Dominican Republic while also serving as narrator for tales of immigrants in the United States. It’s a daunting task. Under the guise of womanizing, Yunior keeps an eagle eye on how the diaspora has scattered their culture across a new country, diluting and diminishing it in the process. Throughout the tales in this current tableau, Díaz has Yunior chronicle the treatment of his people by the citizens of this country. When one reads these stories of love and loss on a different level than one-to-one relationships, the pain of humanity is right there staring you in the face.

Díaz told the Austin audience, “Yunior is an incredibly useful metaphor for me to dive into the topic. He’s part of a larger project of a novel about race. Race is just a part of it.” Díaz referred to “all these silences we’ve built in,” adding “Yunior is an excellent character for me to use to get into them. He’s dead-on smart about what’s going on. He’s at the heart of what’s going on.”

A female character named Yasmin, however, upstages Yunior in the centerpiece story called “Otravida, Otravez.” Yasmin’s quiet rendition of her narrative is powerfully arresting, and moved me to tears. As Yunior did for Oscar Wao, Yasmin becomes the narrator for the tale of another woman named Anna Iris. Díaz hinted to his Austin listeners that he was thinking about developing the story of Anna Iris in future work. I hope he uses Yasmin’s voice to tell it, because her life is equally fascinating.

One yardstick for measuring a writer’s strength is the ability to develop more than a single voice. The appearance of Yasmin confirms Díaz is not all Yunior. And that’s important, because Yunior and other male characters dominate so many of the tales in this latest book that it took me a while to realize who was narrating “Otravida, Otravez.” When one reads the story as a stand-alone piece, as it appeared originally in the New Yorker in a slightly different form, that understanding is not tethered to the dominant characters in the other stories nearby.

Another yardstick could be the question: Do a writer’s characters grow and change? Yunior’s attitude toward women, first articulated in the 1997 collection of stories titled Drown, has matured through the 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao into a mellower and more reflective self-analysis in This Is How You Lose Her. Díaz employs contemporary references such as “Neuromancer dreams,” á la William Gibson, when Yunior realizes too late (as did Gibson’s Henry Dorsett Case) that he loved his former girlfriend only after she was gone.

A resilient oral tradition can reflect the history of a people in much the same way as songs. When you lose someone, there are varying feelings of loss, bereavement, defeat, forfeiture, and hurt. Anger is also a basic component of bereavement. One can sense these same emotions on the collective level about problems in society, and that is what it seems to me Díaz is trying to capture. Charles Dickens used literature to illustrate difficult societal conditions through marginalized characters. Writer William Saroyan cast an early spotlight on immigrant communities in America, creating scenes (particularly in his short stories) that surmount the confines of countries and portray broad themes applicable to all.

Junot Díaz advised his Texas gathering, “The agony of social conditions only diminishes when you’re helping someone else. If you have a broken ankle, help someone burned from head to toe.”

Díaz weeps for the loss of love as he explores our universal humanity in This Is How You Lose Her. Think about that title for a moment. Is the “her” possibly Lady Liberty herself? Perhaps Díaz penned an editorial in literary form, crying out, “Heads up, America.” As his character Yasmin observed, simply and quietly, “This is what I know: people’s hopes go on forever.”

Whether he wins the National Book Award or not, Junot Díaz is a magnificent writer.

 Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. 


Filed under emotion, fiction, REVIEW

Using myth to drive narrative

David Levithan wrote his new book for teens, but snagged adult imagination, too.

Every Day by David Levithan

Alfred A. Knopf/Random House Children’s Books, 336 pp., $16.99.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

In uncertain times, we cling to the power of myth.—Bill Moyers

 Archetypes of myth have undergirded many a tale enjoyed by readers of all ages. Certainly George Lukas understood the power of myth when he created Star Wars. Lukas was greatly influenced by Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces,  a phrase appropriately summing up David Levithan’s new book, Every Day.

Levithan blurs gender in his Teen novel, which is easily a crossover to the Young Adult genre with appeal to Adults.  He spins a tale of a shape-shifting teen called “A,” who meets a young woman named Rhiannon.

The first chapter is “Day 5994,” which makes A about age sixteen and a half as the book begins. Each day, A inhabits a new body of a person the same age living in the same general vicinity of Maryland towns. The disorder with which A has always struggled is neither medical nor psychological, but rather A’s natural state. A has no control over this condition, involuntarily moving to a new body at midnight. Each night A effectively dies, yet is reborn the next morning as a different person during the forty days and forty nights of the story.

Genders oscillate, races change, sizes vary, religions alter, personalities fluctuate — yet through each body, A’s voice remains compassionately constant. Levithan fashions a fledgling superhero as A tries desperately to understand powers as yet undiscovered, dwelling in a state assumed to be fate while avoiding attachments to his fly-by-night companions.

And then — ah, well, love changes everything when A falls head over heels for a girl named Rhiannon. Writer Mark Vernon has noted, “falling in love is archetypal for human beings.”

And as singer-songwriter Stevie Nicks wrote in the lyrics of her tune Rhiannon: “Dreams unwind. Love’s a state of mind.” In her gorgeously haunting melody, first recorded by Fleetwood Mac, Nicks gave voice to ancient Welsh and Celtic lore about a shape-shifting woman named Rhiannon, wondering “Will you ever win…”?

Levithan’s Rhiannon embodies several archetypes of the ancient Rhiannon myth. In Mabinogion lore, Pwyll loves Rhiannon, and together they fend off her unwanted suitor. Rhiannon is punished at some point in the old saga, and forced to inhabit various beings such as a horse. The Rhiannon of the modern-day novel Every Day cannot change shape, however. In Levithan’s tale, it’s the genderless A who does, while trying to pull Rhiannon away from her boyfriend, Justin.

The traditional Rhiannon myth has inspired at least one adventure game as well, called “Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches.”  Noel Bruton, one of the game developers, says, “The Mabinogion is to Wales as the Arthurian legends are to England.”

In Every Day, Levithan has refashioned certain of the aged story elements with a fresh twist. Thus, A has to work hard to convince Rhiannon that all these different people she begins encountering are actually the same individual inside. No matter which body A inhabits, A is never indifferent to the feelings of that person, responding with empathy to various situations in their lives. Learning to look past outward appearances is not a bad lesson for readers of any age, and Levithan employs both humor and creativity to highlight his theme. The book would be an excellent basis for discussion groups on such contemporary issues as sexual identity, race, body size, bullying, religious preferences, cultural differences, and suicide prevention.

Readers might begin to wonder what present-day lore will be recounted by our descendants to their children ages and ages and ages from now. “It will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find,” Campbell wrote, when looking at myth. Shakespeare made use of it, as did Ursula K. Le Guin, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien in their fictional worlds — in addition to more recent series such as Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling) and The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins). Levithan, in fact, was editor for the Hunger Games trilogy at Scholastic Press.

In Levithan’s Every Day, the archetypal Shapeshifter Hero figure has a strong morality, a task, and ultimately an antagonist named Reverend Poole, who could be either an enemy—or a friend come to help.

A’s hero costume is each day’s new body, which effectively cloaks A’s secret identity. A wears no distinctive identification letter, as have other superheroes like Wonder Woman and Superman. Nathaniel Hawthorne, of course, had already latched onto the concept of the letter “A” worn on the chest in The Scarlet Letter.

Levithan has brought ancient myth to bear on contemporary life in a narrative exploring love within the ephemera of our existence. He fuses wit and pathos. It’s a tale well told. While certain sentences are eloquent, the novel is basically modern folklore rendered simply, creating a pull on the imagination. I’m not a Young Adult, but Levithan definitely kept me reading. He’s an inventive author.

Will Every Day become a movie? Levithan collaborated with Rachel Cohn to write the novel Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist, on which the 2008 romantic comedy film of the same name was based.

I long to know the backstory. Perhaps there will be a sequel explaining A’s origins. Who are A’s parents? Why is the mysterious Poole so interested in A? Are there really others like A? If so, will A ever find them? Perhaps there’s more to this tale than Levithan’s letting on in Every Day.

Certainly anyone who has a story to tell could draw lessons on how to use the power of myth from reading this book.

 Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.




Filed under evolutionary psychology, narrative, REVIEW

The Silent Voice

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice                      by Terry Tempest Williams                                                                                       New York: Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

“Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.”

— Susan Sontag, The Aesthetics of Silence (1967)

Williams seeks her mother’s voice, and hears so much more.

What do blank pages mean? Do they have a voice?

Terry Tempest Williams explores that conundrum in her latest book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice.

Williams is author of the classic Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. That thoughtful memoir of grief detailed the effects of radioactive fallout from a nuclear weapons test site in Nevada on her large Mormon family in Utah. Her mother, and many in her clan, developed cancer after the fallout drifted their way. Williams wrote of her mother’s death in Refuge.

Now, in When Women Were Birds, her mother appears again.

“I’m leaving you all my journals,” she tells Williams from her deathbed, asking her daughter not to look at them until after she’s gone. On the next full moon, a month after her mother dies, Williams decides the time is right to read the journals.

“They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors.”

As she begins to open the volumes though, Williams sees they are all blank—page after page of deafening silence. What was her mother trying to say?

Noise pollution has made it increasingly difficult to find even one square inch of silence  on our planet, although a spot in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park is designed to do just that. Yet these empty journals are not quite the silence Williams expected to find in her mother’s absence.

“Silence” is defined as quietness: not speaking—either intentionally or through suppression. “Voice,” on the other hand, usually refers to a sound made using vocal organs, or to singing. It can also mean an expressed opinion, or the right to state that opinion. “Voice” is speaking.

Williams wonders whether a person needs to write in order to have a voice. Then, in fifty-four brief chapters, she mulls over the answer. Williams begins to consider the blank page almost as a glass filled halfway with water. Does one call it half full or half empty? She ponders whether her mother meant for her to fill in the blanks, so she starts to write in the journals herself.

“Empty pages become possibilities,” she realizes.

Williams has often combined thoughts on nature and writing. In another book, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, Williams wrote of the significance of the desert as a landscape of minimalism.

“I want to write my way from the margins to the center,” she said there, and included an entire chapter on why she writes.

Whenever Williams contemplates the act of writing, she imparts a legacy to other writers—those who string together letters to form words and then place them alongside one another to give shape to thoughts that, when viewed en masse, cause something called a “book” to develop.

When Women Were Birds is not a book only for writers though, nor even one gender. In typical Williams fashion, the book is about so much more.

Author Margaret Atwood once said, “Powerlessness and silence go together.” As Williams contemplates voice, or the lack thereof, she offers a stellar reflection on politics, poetry, and power—as well as nature, art, music, love, creation, mother-daughter relationships, truth and imagination, birth and death . . . confrontation of mortality.

She works in Wallace Stevens, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Walser, and many other creative thinkers. She realizes “words fail us.”

Terry Tempest Williams uses her mother’s empty journals to hear her mother’s voice. What she listens to resounds far more eloquently than if each page had been filled to the margins.

“A mother speaks to her children through the generations,” she sees, and the stirring narrative Williams imagines will echo for a long time to come.

• • •

Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. 


Filed under memoir, REVIEW

Review: P.F. Kluge’s ‘Master Blaster’

Guest Review By Lanie Tankard

The Master Blaster by P.F. Kluge. Overlook Press/Peter Mayer, 304 pp.

When fiction and nonfiction meet up, consideration of the resulting technique can be enlightening for anyone working in words. Journalist P.F. Kluge, writer in residence at Kenyon College, has combined in an intriguing way these two seemingly polar opposites in his new novel about an island.

Island. That word usually conjures up the image of a palm-fronded speck surrounded by water—tranquil and carefree. In The Master Blaster, however, Kluge paints a different portrait of one island: Saipan, capital of the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Combining personal experience with superb writing, he constructs a shrewd plot set on an often-overlooked but increasingly significant location.

Many of Kluge’s previous ten books were set on Pacific islands. In his eleventh work, Kluge crafts a tale of three US visitors who arrive on the same plane—a professor, a travel writer, and an entrepreneur—plus a laborer from Bangladesh. (The travel writer, George Griffin, had roles in two of Kluge’s earlier novels and bears a strong resemblance to the author, perhaps existing as a verbal avatar.)  Each character embodies an outside force affecting Saipan: education, tourism, economic development, and cheap labor/immigration. To this cast, Kluge adds the Master Blaster, a secret town crier using the Internet to publicize wrongdoings on the island.

Reminiscent of the noir genre, the novel in its cynicism suggests danger around the next corner. And violence is definitely there, despite the beauty that’s a backdrop for the bleakness. Yet the entire tale is rendered with vitality and ingenious humor.

Chapters alternate voices, with preceding events outlined from a new angle by the next character. This technique moves the storyline along in an appealing way. Kluge weaves in history, geography, botany, anthropology, and biology as stories within a story.

A former Peace Corps volunteer on Saipan, he was part of a 1960s “mass media program” in what was then the United Nations Trust Territory of Micronesia, administered by the United States after World War II. Saipan was first colonized by Spain, which sold the island to Germany, which lost it to Japan in World War I.

The UN trusteeship of the “sea of small islands” dissolved in varying degrees among the six Micronesian districts about forty years after it began. CNMI elected its first delegate to the US House of Representatives in 2008, who was reelected in 2010. Delegates do not vote in the full House, but can vote in committees.

US presidential candidates now pick up convention delegates from CNMI. Familiar names like Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay both made headlines concerning Saipan. CNMI’s immigration policy came under scrutiny, but has undergone transformation. Many closets around the world, however, likely still hold garments made in former sweatshops there. (Check your labels.) Kluge weaves all these issues and more into The Master Blaster, a book closer to true life than one could ever imagine.

Many readers might have difficulty locating the novel’s setting on a globe—even his publisher, as the dust jacket places the story in “the wide expanse of the South Pacific.”  Saipan couldn’t be more NXNW. The far-flung nature of these North Pacific islands has always been a difficulty for Micronesia. If you mashed all 2,000+ of them together like Play-Doh, you’d end up with a landmass smaller than the smallest US state of Rhode Island, yet they’re strewn like marbles across a vast ocean area larger than the continental United States.

Novelist, journalist, Kenyon prof

Kluge arrived in Micronesia shortly after the US Department of the Interior and the military opened the shutters. For twenty-five years after WW II, the atolls and lagoons sat untouched, the detritus of war rusting in the backyards of people who had long called the islands “home.” Anyone who was there in those early years left profoundly affected for life by the experience.

The title of the novel seems to pay homage to Stevie Wonder’s plea for peace in his song “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” from Hotter Than July: “They want us to join their fighting, But our answer today, Is to let all our worries, Like the breeze through our fingers slip away. . . . We’re in the middle of the makin’s of the master blaster jammin’.” Two of the biggest blasters ever, Fat Man and Little Boy, flew to Japan from Tinian, Saipan’s neighbor. Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, was the site of atomic weapons tests.

The Master Blaster of Kluge’s novel is modeled after an actual blogger. Giving the website would be taking away part of the fun of traveling deeper and deeper into the Google labyrinth after reading the book to figure out just what’s going on. The Blaster is a social conscience.

Yet Kluge spares neither side in this morality play. His intelligent fusion of narrators from past literature about islands and colonies is splendid. Using a disembodied voice speaking offstage via the Internet, Kluge’s Master Blaster resembles the Remittance Man from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, as well as the anonymous narrator in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and both the Master and the narrator in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae.

The title plays on film as well. In the third Mad Max movie, Beyond Thunderdrome, Master Blaster is two people: tiny Master carried by his large bodyguard, Blaster. The name draws symbolism even from sports. “Master Blaster” is the nickname of Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, batsman superhero. Such references are relevant to Kluge’s thesis.

Saipan is part of America, yet the distance from Saipan to Shanghai is one-third the distance from Saipan to Seattle. Kluge’s characters portray the location confusion, offering astute commentary through dialogue. One asks, “’It is America? This place?’” Another observes Saipan is “not real America,” while someone else says, “It’s a small place. It’s far away. Nobody cares.”

Readers sense themes: “A place belongs to people who love it….Could they go back to what they were?…Our history belongs to outsiders….The whole world comes here and we go nowhere….But there was no stopping America.”

Kluge returns to a powerful and poetic precept he published as editor of the Micronesian Reporter way back in 1969: “…it occurred to me that America’s opportunity to do right in the Trust Territory is immense, but if it should be impossible to do right there exists another possibility almost as great: not to do wrong.” He has held fast to this tenet over the years in various works, expressing perhaps its most clever articulation here. Even poor editing and proofreading couldn’t mar The Master Blaster. It’s an ingenious novel with global lessons.

George Gordon, Lord Byron, may have said it best in his poem Don Juan:

‘Tis strange,—but true; for truth is always strange;

Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,

How much would novels gain by the exchange!

How differently the world would men behold!

How oft would vice and virtue places change!

The new world would be nothing to the old,

If some Columbus of the moral seas

Would show mankind their souls’ antipodes.

 Plus, reading The Master Blaster is simply lots of fun. Figuring out how Kluge injected journalistic literature with humor to create biting editorial commentary just might make you approach your keyboard with a whole new frame of mind.

Kudos to Kluge!

Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. Tankard has taught English in Micronesia.




Filed under fiction, journalism, REVIEW