It’s been a quiet summer at this URL. Though I haven’t been writing here, I seem to be doing more writing than ever. My first priority is the book reviews and essays I’ve been contributing almost weekly to The Discarded Image—a site dedicated to conversations about belief-changing ideas. I’ve also been providing editorial leadership to a group blog at the digital agency where I spend my days writing for clients. And I’ve been doing some research and editorial work on a few book projects (my own and others’).
So this brief message is to say thanks to all of you who still drop in and leave a comment. I’m still reading and thinking and writing, and I have some good changes planned for this space in the near future. Watch for updates soon, and in the meantime, please do get involved in the discussion at The Discarded Image—I’d love to see you there!
Everybody loves a good Western. Saddles and saloons, cowboys and chorus girls, longhorns and lawmen, all dust covered and tasting of desperation. Few figures ride taller in these adventures than Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. But who was the real Dr. John Henry Holliday, and how did he come to be in Tombstone on that fateful day in 1881?
Mary Doria Russell rides to the rescue with Doc, a deeply felt and richly detailed novel that imaginatively fills in the gaps of Holliday’s known life. Russell replaces our two-dimensional icon of the slow-talkin’, fast-drawin’ gunslinger at the OK Corral with a thoroughly-realized Southern dentist—displaced, disgraced and disappointed—who found his greatest satisfaction in easing the pain of others even as he succumbed to his own. Rather than retelling the Tombstone story, she puts it in context, sets it up, by following Holliday from Georgia to Pennsylvania to Texas to Kansas, as he pursues first his career, then his health, and finally the closest thing he has to family.
Russell’s Doc is educated, arrogant, generous, showy, homesick, tender, self-sabotaging, with a tongue as sharp as his shot. Though he hangs out a shingle in rollicking Dodge City, he is too sick to work much of the time, so he makes his living—and his enemies–at the card tables. He survives by sheer force of will, supplemented by his fiery-tempered companion Kate Harony and his loyal friend Morgan Earp.
It’s his friendship with the big-hearted and energetic Morgan that eventually leads to a relationship of mutual respect with Morg’s big brother Wyatt. And though Doc and Wyatt differ in upbringings, resumes and politics, they both give their best to Dodge for the same reasons, reasons that will lead them out of Dodge and into Tombstone together.
Combining historical figures (like the Earp brothers and their stout-hearted women) with fictional characters (like Jau Dong-Sing, proprietor of China Joe’s Laundry and Baths), Russell breathes life into the dust and tumbleweed of Dodge. A character list distinguishing the historical from the fictional, a detailed author’s note describing her research, and a well-chosen epigraph—a quote from Hemingway about how “there is always a chance that such a work of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact”—pay respect to Holliday and Earp family history without apologizing for Russell’s empathetic imagination. And unlike many other treatments of Wyatt and Doc, she gives the women in their lives more face time, digging deeper into their struggles and motivations alongside the men.
As at home with Southern gentility as she is with the appetites of trail-riding cowboys, Russell has crafted an entertaining and plausible story about the man who came to be known in Western lore simply as “Doc.”
This review is cross-posted at The Discarded Image.
Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel The Snow Child begins with sharp, icy reality as we step out into the silent Alaskan wilderness with Mabel. An aging homesteader who can no longer abide the distance that childlessness and numbing work have built between herself and her husband Jack, she is ready to let the winter claim her. But it isn’t long before we, with Mabel, have caught the rusty flash of fur between the trees and found ourselves compelled to follow it into an alternate world of enchantment.
In this retelling of the Russian fairy tale, Jack and Mabel leave everything but their sorrows in Pennsylvania and start a new life in Alaska. But the long, dark winters reinforce their loneliness and disappointments, and the more they try to reach out for one another, the further they seem to drift apart. Then one evening, during a surprise snowfall, the couple find themselves delighting in the snow like a pair of children. Snow angels lead to snowmen, and soon they are fashioning a delicate little girl from snow and dressing her in a red scarf and mittens. Inexplicably, the next morning she is gone, and soon after they begin to have mysterious sightings of a wild girl and a fox in the forest. Cautiously, they coax her out. As she learns to trust them, they name her Faina, and a most unusual relationship begins.
But who is she, and where did she come from? Is she a lone survivor, as Jack believes, or the miracle Mabel insists?
Mabel recalls reading as a child a Russian fairy tale about a snow baby who comes to life. She goes so far as to write to her sister Ada, discretely asking if she remembers the book. Ada, enclosing the volume with her return letter, writes that she never put much stock in such things in her youth, but:
In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.
Have they found magic? Or are Jack and Mabel both wrong about Faina, and she is simply a figment of their loneliness and desires? And does it matter? The love they have for her—and the love for each other that her presence rekindles—is real. That real love is what thaws their resistance to the life-giving local community and sustains them when circumstances turn sad once again.
Ron Charles, in his otherwise admiring review in the Washington Post, notes that the book is overlong. Though a number of passages could be cut with no harm to the story—which is ultimately a simple one—Ivey’s writing is lovely and a pleasure to read. The wild beauty of Alaska emerges, one berry, one branch, and one river otter at a time, the landscape as much a character as Faina.
The world Ivey evokes is one of hope in desperation, community in isolation, tenderness in mutual pain. And the balance she achieves between reality and fantasy invites the reader to participate in the storytelling and consider with Ada whether perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.
This review is cross-posted at The Discarded Image, where I am fiction reviews editor.
Paris in the Jazz Age. A backdrop to art, literature, fashion, music, sparkling cocktails, catty society, public sexuality, political intrigue, and parties so lavish that the famous guests compete to be the entertainment. Rafaela Fano, American and seventeen, arrives in Paris not of her own will. But soon she is in love. The light, the architecture, the dresses—it’s thrillingly more than she anticipated when she was forcibly shipped off to marry a now-lost cousin. Doing what she must to stay and survive, she accepts anonymity in the glittering city—until she becomes the most famous model of artist Tamara de Lempicka.
The Last Nude, Ellis Avery’s second novel, re-imagines the relationship between the celebrated Art Deco artist and her most inspiring muse. Part One, and the bulk of the novel, is told from Rafaela’s point of view, sixteen years after they meet. She recounts their chance connection, Tamara’s offer to earn a little money modeling for her, the understated elegance of her apartment, the artistic discipline and brilliance she observes, and her own shock at being sexually aroused by this mysterious, self-possessed woman. Their passion is transferred to the canvas, where Tamara’s paintings of Rafaela win her recognition and a line of collectors. But their expectations are not shared. Rafaela recognizes, looking back, the naïveté of her youth, the clarifying lessons of first love and the seeds of the confidence she will live by later.
Part Two, much shorter and darker than the first, is Tamara’s story. It is decades later, and in her final days of decline she reflects on her achievements and her lost relationships. The structure is unusual; the shift in perspective is abrupt, and Rafaela’s story as told in the middle distance already feels complete. But then Tamara’s wandering memories—like light from an unexpected angle—reveal significant later encounters that changed the story, if her memory and her willful revisions can be trusted.
Avery’s writing is strikingly simple, spare sentences vibrating with the language of color and texture, occasionally flecked with French. The story is fiction, erotica, history. A handful of settings—Rafaela’s flat, Tamara’s apartment, an art gallery, a bridge on the Seine—evoke the intimacy of a stage. The cultural icons of the 1920s walk on and off; a few simply are mentioned in the wings. Some scenes are quiet tableaus, accompanied only by the flick of a paintbrush or the turn of a page, while others unfurl cinematically in silk and peacock feathers.
The Last Nude is a love story between two women, between an artist and her muse, between an artist’s skill and her admirers, and between a vivacious city at the end of era and her most memorable residents. It asks the unanswerable questions: What is the elusive quality that makes a painting art? How can a person’s essence be so completely depicted by another? How do the events of our past add up to a life? How do the hurts of our youth become sweet memories of age? And who would we be if we had never met the other?
Just a quick note to remind you that I’m doing some writing over at The Discarded Image, where the focus is “the hunt for belief changing ideas.” I generally cross-post my book reviews here so I can keep track of them in my archives, but there are other discussions there that I may forget to mention here.
The latest, from our Reviews in the Wild series, is a discussion about just how much we readers expect historical fiction to be based on “fact.” The questions were raised in a provocative review, published by the Guardian, of Anna Funder’s debut novel, All That I Am. Please do drop by and leave a comment with your perspective. And while you’re there, I hope you’ll take a moment to poke around and join in on any other conversations you find relevant.
That’s it for tonight. We now return you to your regularly scheduled reading!