Review: ‘The Man Without a Shadow’ by Joyce Carol Oates

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The Man Without a ShadowThe Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a brief illness destroys Elihu Hoopes’ short-term memory, he becomes frozen in time. Long term, he thinks he’s still the age he was when he became ill. Short term, he lives in the now of 70-second bursts of knowledge about what he’s doing and who he’s with. What he’s doing is living with a relative and coming to the university for testing intended to advance scientific knowledge about memory loss. This knowledge will help everyone but Elihu because he will probably never get any better.

In many ways, this novel reads like nonfiction with short scenes depicting the psychological testing Hoopes undergoes almost daily. As the novel proceeds, we learn more about the brilliant young researcher Margot Sharpe who begins work at the lab while working on her degree. She stays on. She becomes three-dimensional to the reader, but–we might speculate–one-dimensional to herself. And that one dimension appears to be an obsession with her “patient.”

The novel’s short scenes, with Oates’ typical reliance on up-close detail, tend to mimic Hoopes’ periods of contiguous present-day memory. As a person with a continuing existence, other characters (and the reader) know more about his life than he does–except for the past which for him is always yesterday. He sees others aging but is not aware he is aging.

As one reads, one suspects Sharpe’s life is in danger of losing it’s wholeness. She’s becoming famous for her brilliance as a researcher while becoming more single minded in her devotion to Hoopes. She questions not only the ethics of the testing, but also her own ethics wherein her feelings for Hoopes begin to look like a one-sided fantasy which has a history for her but not for him. He seems to have some consciousness of her over time even though she has to introduce herself every time she sees him–even if she leaves the room for a minute.

The opening lines of the novel tell you where all this is going:

“Notes on Amnesia Project ‘E.H.’ (1965-1996).
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“She meets him, she falls in love. He forgets her.
“At last, she says good-bye to him, thirty-one years after they’ve first met. On his deathbed, he has forgotten her.”

It’s a bumpy ride. Some readers will get lost with the repetition of the testing scenes, while others might find their eyes glazing with the titles of the scholarly papers that arise out of what Sharpe and her colleagues learn. Others will enjoy the exploration of Hoopes’ and Sharpe’s loneliness and how their fragmented lives fit together, and then they don’t, and then fit together, and then they don’t, rather like a jigsaw puzzle in a windstorm.

With diligence, and an ability to live only within the present moment while reading, readers will discover this book has something profound to offer them.

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–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of paranormal, magical realism, and contemporary fantasy.

Florida: it’s like living in an asylum and loving it

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“The deal with Florida is the charlatans and lunatics and Snapchat-famous plastic surgeons. It is the Ponzi schemes, the byzantine corruption, the evangelical fervor and the consenting-adult depravity. It is the seasonless climate. The lack of historical consciousness. The way in which this nation’s unctuous elements tend to trickle down as if Florida were the grease trap under America’s George Foreman grill.” – Kent Russell in a tongue-in-cheek review of the book “What Makes Florida So Weird”

Shug, I’m not a Florida native. That means I’m not allowed to psychoanalyze the state, as Kent Russell says natives are inclined to do. I will say that time has ground away some of the state’s weirdness, the alligator wrestling and jungle petting zoos that once lined major tourist arteries from the Georgia border to Key West like dead skunk roadkill.

gatorgirlSad to say, most of the real jungles and pristine beaches have been paved over by the grease trap of a million condos and bikini-clad bodies per square foot enjoying nature in a former natural setting. I know this will offend some people, but when I saw what was happening to the sunshine in the sunshine state as a kid, I frankly hoped a badass hurricane would clear away all the crap in the peninsula part of the state like a giant flush in a huge toilet so that “we” could start over.

God knows, Mother Nature has tried, but there’s more work to be done before the seas rise and the state slides down into the Bermuda Triangle with the missing ships, squadrons of military aircraft, and maybe Atlantis. Word is, Atlantis sank because its movers and shakers abused their power. By the time I graduated from college and left home, I thought Florida would go that route, compliments of rogue developers more prevalent than palmetto bugs and equally able to slither away out of the light.

When my fiance came down to Florida to meet the family, she decided one afternoon while we were tip-toeing through the alligators at a nearby wildlife refuge that we were crazy. “What about those gators?” she asked. “No worries, Sugar, they’re in the swap and we’re here on the road through the swamp.” That made her feel about as safe as a can of tuna in a room full of cats.

But here’s the thing. When one moves into the state, one usually starts out sane. But things happen. Maybe it’s the water or too much sun or a million mosquitoes per square foot no matter how many times Mother Nature tries to blow them out to sea. Nobody knows because the people who’ve been there long enough to judge are no longer competent to judge.  With more data, people could get out before they’re involuntarily committed.

Looking back on it all–chasing stingrays, sinking speed boats, teasing copperheads, crawling into dark caves, camping in the piney woods, getting addicted to boiled peanuts, dining on bait fish–I truly think the large blue welcome signs on I-75 and I-10, need to say “No exit,” meaning once you drive into paradise almost lost,  you become lost and can’t leave. You won’t know any better.

If you figure out how to leave, you’ll miss it fierce. If you’re a writer, you write about it. If not, you’ll look at your summer vacation  slides on an old Carousel projector and tell people that in those days, you had it bad and that wasn’t good. Of course, if you’re an FSU Seminoles fan, you’ll still hate the U of F Gators while you watch every game on ESPN. You’ll watch folks boarding of their windows with plywood on the Weather Channel during hurricane season, and you’ll remember the good old days when you road out all the storms because you didn’t know any better.

(Fact of life: people buy new plywood every year when the first big storm approaches because they threw it all away last year, thinking they wouldn’t need it again. If this isn’t a clue to something or other, I don’t know what is.)

Here’s a tip. If you’re planning a Florida vacation, keep it short because if you stay there long enough to start believing the Swamp Booger is read–maybe even in your closet–then you’ve gone native, lost in the swamp, so to speak.

–Malcolm

In a continuing search for sanity, former Florida resident Malcolm R, Campbell is the author of the following stories and novels set in Florida: “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” “Visiting Aunt Ruby,” “Carrying Snakes Into Eden,” “Cora’s Crossing,” “Moonlight and Ghosts,” “Snakebit,” “Dream of Crows,” “College Avenue,” “Emily’s Stories,” and “The Land Between the Rivers.” Learn more on his Amazon page.

 

 

Review: ‘The Paper Magician’

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The Paper Magician (The Paper Magician Trilogy, #1)The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book just doesn’t work, though it has an interesting (and brave) main character as well as an inventive premise. A young woman graduates at the top of her class at magic school, is apprenticed against her hopes and dreams to a magician named Emory Thane who does magic with sheets of paper, and before she can learn more than a few basics is suddenly thrust into a battle with a master magician who hates her new mentor.

The problem is simply this: a vast portion of the book is taken up with a very lengthy vision sequence in which most of the elements are symbolic, old memories, wishes and dreams which the reader has no way of understanding or relating to. This is rather like reading a long drug trip experience with characters one doesn’t yet know well enough to understand most of the imaginary stuff, much less how (or if) it connects to the plot.

Secondly, since the protagonist, Creony Twill, has only learned a few minor paper folding techniques, the idea she can defeat the master magician who dislikes Thane is about as believable as, say, Harry Potter going up against Voldemort after who days at Hogwarts while on LSD.

The characters and story have a lot of promise, but the vision/imagination trip is not well anchored and just seems to float out there in space where nothing is real and nothing seems to matter. Even fantasies must be plausible.

Malcolm

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Writing based on the slings and arrows of outrageous childhood

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“I see shame as part of a process of becoming free: to create or, yes, to love. These sometimes have to be fundamental acts of disobedience to one’s upbringing or conditioned view of the world. In other words, one can feel ashamed of what one’s doing while at the same time knowing it’s the correct thing to do. I don’t doubt that, for me, part of the satisfaction in the act of writing is that it violates numerous taboos of my childhood that still weigh heavily on me. In the moment of writing, I can be free of them.”

– Rachel Cusk (“Outline,” “Transit”), in her Interview in BOMB

“One learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence,” Canadian author Robertson Davies said. That is not only true of those cursed to write, but often serves as the reason they write and what they write about.

tabooThe taboos of childhood come in all shapes, sizes, colors and strengths. Some are merely household rules which seem odd, unfair or simply different than the household rules of one’s friends. They twist into the more grotesque shapes of poverty and abuse and every sacred truth that becomes a lie through the epiphanies of growing up. They are the political and social injustices we see through young eyes and the corruptions we feel to the marrow of young bones.

For Rachel Cusk, they are the seeds of the stories we will write, and we can thank our lucky stars that writing is the manner in which we learn to be free of them rather than everything ill begotten from drugs to terrorism. What the psychoanalyst’s couch cannot cure, our fiction finally harvests the strange fruit of those tainted seeds sown long ago.

Unfortunately, one must re-live those slings and arrows to bring them to life in a story. Doing so is like choosing a nightmare over a good night’s sleep. But the process is very cleansing and the weight of the world, or at least one’s past, becomes noticeably lighter and happier once the mystery behind the writer’s life and work is finally understood.

The results need not be heavy, depressing books. They might be mainstream, commercial romances and thrillers. Sometimes they’re page-turning yarns with exciting plots and an unobtrusive message (or no message at all). Yes, they’re also comedies and satires, and even poetry so sweet and dear that no one sees the vinegar within the words. Perhaps they only hint at the taboos they cast out, and that can be a fine thing.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman” that came about through banishing devils that were held close for half a century.

 

Writers, who’s your fashion icon?

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Flavorwire has a regular feature called “Sweetest Debut” in which they interview emerging authors to “find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.”

On February 15, they featured Teresa Messineo (“The Fire By Night”), on February 14, the column’s author, Sarah Seltzer, talked to Ethel Rohan (“The Weight of Him”), and on February 9, the focus was Kathleen Kent (“The Dime”).  The interviews begin with the question: What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

fashionOkay, fair enough, “elevator pitch” is today’s jargon for a short, logline kind of statement that quickly explains a novel without getting boring. The point is, you’re in an elevator and have just moments to speak. If the whole “elevator pitch” thing has value, it teaches authors to get to the point, whether they’re trying to sway an editor, movie producer, or a reader.

I’ll stipulate that Flavorwire is a pop culture magazine. The column is, no doubt, supposed to make writers human, to dredge up fun facts about them that everyday folks (e.g., non writers) will find absolutely fascinating. That said, I stumbled when I saw that the column’s guests were being asked to name their fashion icon as well as the name of the TV show they “binge watch” when they’re not writing.

Since these are emerging authors, they’re a lot closer to being everyday folks than, say, the Hollywood celebrities who try to pretend like they’re regular people even though they own two or three houses with a combined value of $50 million. After all, most debut authors haven’t had a chance to get filthy rich and start acting, well, uppity.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m not really drawn to an author who has a fashion icon. I don’t even like the term “binge watching,” because it sounds like a slovenly thing to do. Worse yet, since the authors being interviewed are younger than I am, they’re listening to music and watching television shows I’ve never heard of. One of them did say The Great Gatsby is overrated, and so I crossed her off my list immediately, though I was pleased she mentioned a book that wasn’t about the rise and fall of the little black dress.

I don’t know how long “The Sweetest Debut” has been running because, the columns I saw didn’t interest me enough to drag me back to past months. I did hope to see a man interviewed to find out if he would get a different set of questions, I dunno, something stereo-typically masculine like “What fashion model do you wish you were having sex with?” or “Who’s the most famous NFL quarterback you beat up back in a high school PE class?”

I’m not saying the column is asking “women’s questions,” but I’m suspicious.

Could be, I’m just out of touch. If they interview me (fat chance), I’ll tell them my fashion icon is Levi Strauss and that I binge watch old episodes of “Walker Texas Ranger.” Actually, I watch Masterpiece Theater, but I have a feeling that answer might get edited out for lack of, well, popular flavor.

As for fan-fiction fantasies, Flavorwire, you’ve got to be kidding.

–Malcolm

 

 

Briefly Noted: ‘Hoodoo Food!’ with conjure cook-off winners

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Some of the best recipes often come out of special cookbooks published by church groups, friends of the library committees, clubs, and historical societies. The recipes in Hoodoo Food! The Best of the Conjure Cook-Off and Rootwork Recipe Round-Up are no exception.

hoodoofoodNot only are the book’s recipes solid and well-thought-out by traditional cooking standards, they’re grouped by type, that is to say, the conjure category where they’ll provide extra blessings and benefits:

  • New Year’s Luck
  • Money Matters
  • Affairs of the Heart
  • Enemy Tricks
  • Dreams and Divination

The book was published in 2014 by the Ladies Auxiliary of California’s Missionary Independent Spiritual Church and includes the first-, second- and third-place winners of  conjure cook-offs held between 2010 and 2013.

In addition to the handy categories, the recipes’ ingredients include parenthetical notations showing their conjure benefits. As a fan of Hoppin’ John, I see that the New Year’s Luck recipe notes that the beans, diced bacon, spicy sausage, and red onion are great for luck, that the rice helps with prosperity and fertility, and that the spices help with protection.

Under Money Matters, who can resist “Valentina’s Hot Money-Draw Texas Chili” even if they already have plenty of money? The recipe is filled with ingredients for protection, pleasure, gold, blessings, and love luck. If you want more love luck, then feast your taste-buds on the treats listed under Affairs of the Heart, including “Love Honey” and “Ashta Special For Romance and Seduction.” This is the book’s largest category.

When you’re ready for more than a good night’s sleep, I like the “Astral Travel Tea” in Dreams and Divination, and suspect that the roasted dandelion root is a key ingredient here. Of course, good food is good food, and that applies to recipes like “Haters Be Gone Hot Wings” even if everybody loves you, and “Red Eye Gravy to Keep Your Man Working” even if he’s already busy.

You’ll notice as you read the book, you’ll find words of wisdom in the header at the top of every page. My favorites are “Men may come and men may go … but pie goes on for ever” and “The most dangerous food is a wedding cake.”

With this 96-page cookbook, you’ll eat well, live long, and prosper. Of course I can’t guarantee any of that, but it’s worth a try if you like having fun in the kitchen.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Conjure Woman’s Cat.

 

 

Jock Stewart’s Writing Prompts for ‘Dummies’

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My name’s Jock Stewart and I’ve taken over this blog with a guest post for writers who can’t do squat without a writing prompt. Frankly, as a newspaper reporter, I’ve discovered that the best writing prompt in the world comes when the editor says something like, “Hey, Stewart, a dogshit truck tipped over at the corner of Fifth and Main. Write me a front page story without using the word ‘shit’ or making any jokes.”

I know it’s not politically correct to use the word “Dummies.” First, I don’t care. Second, the word adds spunk to the title of this post. Third, I put it in quotes and that means it’s tongue in cheek.

Here are your prompts:

  1. writerpromptsA reporter at a small-town newspaper learns that a dogshit truck tipped over at the corner of Fifth and Main. When he arrives, the truck driver screams, “It’s a Commie plot” before a one-armed man pushes him into a porta-potty that mysteriously slides down hill into the river. When the reporter tells the police what happened, they laugh, and say he’s acting like a fugitive. Possible title: IN A WORLD OF IT
  2. Bob and Monique are kissing on the front porch of Monique’s house after a rather successful date on lovers lane when the porch light goes out. “Oh hell,” shouts Monique, “Daddy’s caught us.” When Bob investigates rather than running like a bat our of hell, he discovers Daddy leaning stone cold dead against the wall in the front hallway with his fingers on the light switch. The police tell Bob he’s a fugitive. Possible title: THE LIGHT THAT FAILED
  3. A man who fell asleep twenty years ago while making out on lover’s lane, wakes up today to discover he’s a father and has five or more kids running around loose acting like he’s a no-account drunk that can’t do any better than sleep his life away in an old Buick on an overgrown road. When he asks, “Who’s your mama,” none of the kids know. Possible title: GETTING LUCKY
  4. A woman who got hit on the head by a baseball from a nearby semi-pro game, gets amnesia and can’t remember the address if the brothel where she believes she was working just a short time ago. The team manager, who claims he can get to first base whenever he wants to, tells the woman she’s not “the type” to be a lady of the evening and is more likely a preacher’s kid. Now she doesn’t know whether to fish or cut bait. Possible title: GET THEE TO A NUNNERY
  5. Two men walk into an abandoned house where absolutely nothing happens. Possible title: BEING AND NOTHINGNESS
  6. An owl and a pussy-Cat go to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat. Even though they have money, honey and a five pound note, they hit an iceberg and while the boat is sinking have a dream about Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and a nude scene involving a valuable necklace.  When they’re rescued, police force them to eat mince and slices of quince with a runcible spoon while interrogating them about a jewelry store heist. Possible title: HEARTLESS OF THE OCEAN
  7. Vladimir and Estragon go to a train station to kill a man named Godot, but they can’t find him. They decide the whole mess they’ve gotten themselves into is Carl Jung’s fault and so they start waiting for him. After a while a lady who calls herself Mrs. Freud tells them they’re both crazy. They’re so pissed at her, they offer her an exploding cigar. Possible title: SHOULD A GENTLEMEN OFFER A LADY A TIPARILLO?
  8. A guy has a dream that he’s a robot from the future who’s been sent back in time to kill himself before he can kill himself and change a future that couldn’t possible happen if he’s successful. The police waste lots of bullets without hitting anything. His first act is to decide whether it’s live or it’s Memorex. Possible title: INDETERMINATE

Eight is enough, don’t you think?

–Jock Stewart, Special Investigative Reporter