Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#1 Lincoln in the Bardo (& a recap)

LincolnintheBardoThere are certain things you know you’re going to find when you sit down to read a George Saunders story.  It will be weird, funny, engaging, and surprisingly deep.  I expected no less from Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ first novel and I was not disappointed.

The book, which won the Man Booker Prize this year, uses a little-known but poignant episode from Abraham Lincoln’s life as a center around which to turn: Lincoln’s late night visit to a DC cemetery in the early part of the Civil War to visit the mausoleum where his young son, Willie, died.  From that point of connection with history, Saunders creates a universe of characters – ghosts who are watching and lamenting their own unresolved lives.

Lincoln is interesting, but it’s the ghosts who take center stage.  They are the ones who, like the dead in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, carry, in exaggerated form, the distortions of their lives, waiting until they can accept the peace that awaits them.  They cling to their past–not wanting to acknowledge their deaths, not wanting to let go of the ones they love, and not believing that the angels who visit can mean them anything but harm.

It’s haunting and beautiful and it’s my best read of 2017.  Click the link on the title above for my full review.

lysander-yuen-288916And now, to recap the Best Reads of 2017:

1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

2. Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders & the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

4. Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

5. The Crucifixion:Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

6. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

7. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

8. American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

9. Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James

10. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Other great reads:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer by Jason Micheli

All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Duane’s Depressed by Larry McMurtry

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Perhaps you’ll see in this Top Ten list the preoccupations of my reading life–what it means to inhabit a place, how it is that we live together and grow apart, and how a richer world inhabits this one.  Here’s to your good reading in 2018!

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#2 Work Like Any Other

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_It seems a shame not to award this book the top spot just because I got to it late.  Truthfully, it could still take the prize despite the fact that my self-imposed rules say that being published in 2017 adds a little weight to the scale.  Be that as it may, if you haven’t read Virginia Reeves’ 2016 novel Work Like Any Other, run, don’t walk to the local library or bookseller.

More than anything else, it is a celebration of the soul of place, which, of course, always earns stars in my book.  The narrative about the incarceration of Roscoe Martin in 1920s Alabama, his marriage, racial injustice in the prison system, and, (wait for it), rural electrification(!), moves along, but it’s the characters and the landscape that get into your blood.

That and Reeves’ incredible writing.  My interview with her was another of the highlights of my year.  Reeves is writing a new novel about Montana that is on my most-anticipated list for 2018.

My review of Work Like Any Other is accessible through the title link above.

Strong, Resilient, Independent – the Characters of Virginia Reeves – part 3 of 3

Work Like Any Other, Virginia Reeves’s debut novel, has some very memorable characters that are worth getting to know.  In previous segments of this interview we have talked about resiliency in strange times and the meaning of Alabama.  If you’ve read the book, you’ll enjoy this segment because we get down deeper into the characters that bring the book to life.  I began with a nod to the theme of electricity that pervades the book…


Virginia Reeves

So…I’ve got an electrical problem here at the house. Can you help me with it?

[laughs] No. My go-to on the question about electricity is that one of the pieces about writing that I really love is the research process and being able to try on so many different careers and livelihoods and passions and hobbies. I also did not know that Roscoe [the main character in the book] was an electrician for quite a while. I actually wrote most of the prison scenes before I knew what it was that Roscoe had done to get there.  Which seems really strange at this point because electricity literally flows through the whole book.  When I stumbled upon that I was like, “Of course, you have Yellow Mama [the prison’s electric chair] and we have the electrified lines around the prison and all linked together.  But I was just a little blind to it for a while.  That’s often the case when the truth is right before us.

I discovered the electricity much like Roscoe did: I found a book of Faraday lectures in an old used bookstore.  Faraday is this incredible kind of fortune or storyteller and really an entertainer.  He would have these huge lectures in which he would tell huge rooms full of people about the forces of nature and do demonstrations.  I just loved the language of the mechanics of electricity.  It’s actually very lyrical and beautiful.

So I dove into the study of electricity through Faraday and then did internet searches and questioning people and double-checking my ideas.  I retained it long enough to write the book but if you ask me anything about electricity right now I think that that file has been purged and opened up to the next thing that I need to learn.   So I guess I could not solve your electrical problem.  There was a moment where I maybe could have at least guessed, but no longer

Well, you are very convincing. That really surprises me because the theme of electrification really moves through that book.

Well, thank you.  Two of the recurring questions I’ve gotten are: Am I an electrician? and How much time have I spent in prison?  I say it is a testament to the art of writing fiction that I am not an electrician nor have I spent time in prison.

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Yeah, and you’re not a man and the other amazing thing about this book is how much you were able to get in our heads in a really deep way.  

Well thank you, thank you so much. I’m flattered by that. I feel like that’s the highest compliment.  As a writer I think the best stories come from character and this story started with Roscoe.  If I had stumbled upon a female that I would have been interested in I think I would have written her but we are chameleons as fiction writers and we take on the lives and voices of our different characters.  So I think of it as just an extension of that.

Then I also think I’ve always really connected with men.  As far as my personality goes, I’m part adolescent boy and 80 year old man mixed into a 38-year-old woman.

One of the things you said at the end of the book was that you developed the Marie character [Roscoe’s wife] because one of your students encouraged you to spend more time with her.  It was interesting watching my wife because, as she read the book, she had a much more negative reaction to Marie than I did.  She didn’t like Marie at all.  

Marie is the most hated, for sure, of all of the characters in this book and people are very divided on Marie.  Many book clubs have lots of conversations and people hate Marie, like really loathe her.  Actually, I think I should probably start taking notes but I would say that my male readers mostly have more compassion for her than my female readers.  I adore Marie and I see Marie as resilient survivor. I don’t agree with everything Marie has done and I don’t condone her behaviors across the board…she finagles a divorce from Roscoe when he was in no place to grant her one, so there’s dishonesty there…I don’t agree with all of her actions but I see Marie as a strong, resilient, independent woman in a time when strong, resilient, independent women were not the norm.  She needed to survive.  She needed to save her son.  She needed to save her farm.

Actually, this a place where it becomes more personal, because she was much harder to take in earlier drafts and someone asked, “Who is she? Who does she remind you of? Are you basing her on anyone?”


photo by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

It took that question make me realize that I was actually basing her largely on my grandmother who lived in Alabama and got me thinking about Alabama in the first place.  My grandmother is turning 90 in October. She’s a very strong, independent, resilient woman and has suffered many tragedies in her life and when faced with tragedy she looked it in the eye and put it aside and never returned.  When I was younger I saw that as a kind of a flaw.  I saw it as cold and distant and as I’ve aged I think I see it as just her coping mechanism.  It’s survival.  It’s the only way she knows how to move through tragedy and pain.  So I gave that trait to Marie and I see her actions not coming out of a place of malice necessarily.  I mean she’s definitely angry at times, but not out of cruelty and not out of any sort of meanness but out of a need to survive in the only way she knows how.

I think that’s true and, as I said in the review, I felt like some of your best writing was in the chapters where you were trying to flesh her out. I think I would’ve had a really negative reaction without those chapters, too, because the longer you stay in prison you wonder “Well, where is she and what’s going on?”

Exactly, and early drafts of the book were all from Roscoe’s point of view and he didn’t have any sense of what’s going on with Marie.  She existed only by her actions and that was where a trusted great reader said, “What do you think about spending a little time outside of prison and letting us know what’s happening and letting us get to know Marie a little bit so that we don’t just loathe her completely?” and that was very, very good advice.

I also liked the visions of Marie that Roscoe has that got him through in a way. I thought that was really insightful in the way that we use people to think—the way that we use the idea of people to get a us through.

Yeah that’s very well said. I love that idea that we conjure creations of people to help us through.

Alabama – The Character – my interview with Virginia Reeves continues – part 2 of 3

IMG_3258Can place be the primary character in a book?  You can make the case for that in Virginia Reeves’s debut novel, Work Like Any Other.  In the previous segment of this interview, we discussed maintaining hope in strange times.  In this segment we talk two great states – Alabama and Montana.

Tell me about Alabama because it’s as much of a character in your book—maybe the biggest character in your book.

I agree. I think setting is character. My current book is set in Montana and Montana is very much a character in it.  I’ve been visiting Alabama since I was 8.  My grandparents retired there from Colorado but they don’t live where this book is set—they retired to the little tail of Alabama there on the Gulf Coast.  My grandmother lives in the same house she moved to 30 years ago, so I’ve been returning to this one place almost every year for 30 years and I started writing stories about the kind of retirement covenant-restricted community where my grandmother lived. Those are hit and miss some might see the light of day someday, but they’re not great.

I took a history writing class when I was at the Michener Center [at the University of Texas] with the intention of beefing up those stories and fleshing out.  I had my personal observations but then just digging in to the history of the state, the first thing that I pulled off the shelf in the UT library was a study of convicts who had been released on parole and their rates of recidivism based upon all these different character traits. The rules were counterintuitive when I started to look into them because they were like: if you were married and had kids you were more likely to commit another time.  If you had a genius level IQ you were more likely.  If you had a skill or trade you were more likely.

I just made a list of all those different traits and that list became Roscoe. I knew I had a convict in Alabama around the 20s and 30s when the study had been published and so that led me to Kilby Prison.  As a fiction writer, I think stumbling upon a place like Kilby prison in the historic record is a gold mine.

You asked a great question in your email about ‘Does Alabama kind of represent America, does the story kind of ripple out to have bigger implications for our country?’ and my short answer to that is ‘yes.’  And my expanded one is: my fascination with Alabama is that I think it is a very rich state and it really holds a lot of our beauty—a lot of really incredible things about the culture of America from cooking to music to camaraderie and agriculture and all of those different pieces.  And then it also holds some of our ugliest elements as well from slavery and segregation and convict leasing.

3104631813_ae2bf4786a_zSo Kilby was this institution that was built to incarcerate but it was very progressive for its day and had all of these elements: the farm and the cotton mill and the wood shop and the library and the chapel.  It was built with this mission of rehabilitation and also was, of course, overrun with injustice and violence. Ironically, for an institution built with an eye toward rehabilitating, it also housed the state’s first electric chair.  So there was this crazy dichotomy between ‘we are going to rehabilitate you or assume that there’s no chance for rehabilitation and execute you.’  To have all of that in one place felt incredibly powerful and exploring the historic record of Kilby became a complete fascination for me.  It’s amazing how much you can uncover.  I found the original blueprint for the prison and the original architectural plans and the original pitch to the legislature for why it should be built.

All the sensual detail in there is what made the book so rich, too. I assume that’s drawn on your own experience of Alabama?

A lot of it is. I have this memory of visiting my grandparents maybe in fourth grade with my sister.  They let us walk to the clubhouse and there was a pool right by the gate and it being  nighttime and being cloaked with that humidity and sounds and just this feeling and the smells.  I have those points of reference of just feeling Alabama around me.  Then I also worked with the native Alabama plant guide next to my desk so that I was like, “I know what I’m feeling but I don’t know what the plant is” so there was a lot of crosschecking as well.

dktSzDu1_400x400You say you’re working on a book about Montana.  Is there anything more you can say about that?

I can, yes. It will come out from Scribner again.  It will be a little while. It’s called The Behaviorist and follows a behavioral psychologist in the 60s and 70s at the height of de-institutionalization and mostly set at the Boulder River School and Hospital for the Developmentally Disabled.  My doctor comes there and is the superintendent who is hired to essentially right all of these horrific wrongs.  This is the moment where mental institutions and hospitals across the nation are being exposed for their horrific conditions and he’s brought in to right those wrongs and also oversee and help facilitate de-institutionalization.

It’s very much an exploration of the tension between how you can be a really great doctor but possibly not a great father or not a very good husband.  So there’s a lot I’m returning to—there’s definitely a little bit of a troubled marriage involved, there’s an institution involved again.  But there’s a different story set very much in my home just at a different time.  So I don’t need the native guides because I do know the plants and animals of Montana.  Montana itself is very much a character like Alabama was a main character. Then it’s just passion and love for this place that pulls him.  He brings his family here because he has fallen in love with the place that is Montana and so that plays a part as well.

Great. Well, it’s on my list. 

This interview concludes with a discussion of characters in Work Like Any Other.

Surviving Strange Days: My Interview with Virginia Reeves begins – part 1 of 3


Virginia Reeves

One of my favorite books of this year has been Work Like Any Other, a debut novel by novelist Virginia Reeves.  My review can be found here.  The novel is a poignant tale of a man who is imprisoned for tapping into the new electrical lines crossing rural 1920s Alabama, an action that leads to an accidental death.  If you’ve read the book you will be interested in Reeve’s reflections on the book in the next two segments of this interview.  Even if you haven’t, I think you’ll enjoy her thoughts about America in these strange days…

One of the things that I have been fascinated with all my life, but particularly now, is just what rural life looks like and how it’s changing and trying to understand it more. Recently I’ve come to find that, especially in this strange political time we’re in when all the normal languages are breaking down, books like yours and literature and poetry are the most helpful things for me at the moment. 

Well I think that that’s wonderful. I love literature. I appreciate all of that and feel very similar—kind of reeling in the after-effects or aftershocks of the election and really feeling like you need to go back to the great works of literature that have sustained me through the years and find all of the good in our country and in the rural parts of our country and remember those pieces of literature at this very strange political time.

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_When you look at rural life, what do you see as the big themes in the places that you’re writing about?

Yeah that’s a great question.  One of the criticisms that I have fielded about the book is that it’s revisionist history and that there would never be this white landowner, Marie’s father, who was so progressive in his thinking about race.  I was on a panel with a historian from, I think he was from, the University of Alabama.  We were on the same panel at this beautiful festival outside of Paris and somebody in the audience asked him, because he was an historian and I was a fiction writer, “Do you think Virginia’s book is revisionist?”

He said, “I think it’s plausible because it’s a book about people and no matter where and when you find people they’re capable of anything. They’re capable of greatness.  They’re capable of ugliness.  They’re capable of kindness and horror and injustice.”

I loved that answer and I have to believe that.  I believe that now, in the wake of this election, that it becomes really tempting to generalize and say our country is full of misguided people who elected this particular man to run our country but we are still individuals capable of everything that humanity is capable of.

I think especially rural areas get generalized. That’s very much said about Alabama. I like the idea that there are always going to be exceptions to the rule.  You’re always going to find people who share your viewpoint or don’t.  You’re going to find people you completely disagree with or who have a completely different set of morals.  You’re going to find them in cities, you’re gonna find them in the country.  You’re going to find them everywhere.

So I think that would be an overarching idea of mine as far as hoping to push our generalizations a little bit and to get people to question those first impulses and our desires to categorize people as all one type.  We see that in Montana. Montana is such a rural state and we have less than a million people. I think we’re the third biggest state in the country and have less than a million people.  I visited so many tiny towns in Montana that are so rich and vibrant and full of beautiful people and surprising people. So, don’t judge but just sew another layer to our observations.

IMG_6592Your characters in the book, especially Roscoe [the main character], are so resilient and so many terrible things happen to them.  But the feeling that I’m left with at the end of the book is not that he’s been defeated by all this but that somehow he’s found a way to keep going.  He’s found the things around him to keep going and he’s able to see the things that will keep him going. I guess that’s my hope for the country but do you see that as well? I’m thinking of that essay where you say we’ll eventually rally around a new course, do you feel that way?

I have to hope so. I think I have moments where I feel pretty defeated and the news cycle is devastating for the most part. But I have to. On the very personal and regional level I just keep seeing this incredible work that people are doing and I have to believe in humanity. I have to believe that we will rally and even when I disagree with the actions of our government, I look around me and I see so many people, individuals who are doing great things.

I think part of Roscoe’s ability to move on and survive everything he went through were these moments, these data points of kindness.  They feel so small, but it’s like the librarian [in the book] acknowledging his literacy and acknowledging that he has a mind that is an expansive mind and moments with the chaplain and moments with Taylor [the warden], the gift of the dog.  Those feel so minor in the moment possibly but I think if we can recognize those moments of kindness and generosity in others then that’s what buoys us and moves us through.

“On the very personal and regional level I just keep seeing this incredible work that people are doing and I have to believe in humanity.”

So I feel that in my novel helping my characters and on a personal note I see that around me.  After the election I was a little bit like, “OK, the world’s ending.”  I was a little dramatic when the election first came down and now I go, “OK, we take solace in the people around us and in what they give and their kindness and their generosity and compassion.”

Part 2

Serving Time in Alabama: A Review of Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

IMG_3258Breathe in rural Alabama circa 1925.  Take deep breaths, “great lungfuls of the scent-tinged air—grass and cornstalks and peanut plants, mulch and dung and mule hide” (159).  Feel the heat of July.  “This low sun turns every lick of water to steam, even the fresh-pumped drinks in our mess-issued bottles.  The sun bakes those metal canteens, boiling the liquid inside, and we chase our thirst with water so hot it burns our tongues” (167).

Are you here yet?  Good.  Settle in.  There’s a long prison sentence to serve.  Regrets aplenty to mull over.  Deaths to mourn: for an electrocuted man, for future children unborn.  Righteous indignation over injustices on simmer: for black men leased out by the state to work in deadly coal mines, for prisoners maimed and abused.

But even in the swelter there are graces aplenty.  A wrench of warblers will chirp outside the window.  A hound named Maggie will curl against your legs in the night when you are reduced to sleeping on the floor of an abandoned cottage.  Canned peaches spiced with clove and cinnamon will appear on your table.  There is beauty here and, beyond any expectation, a resilient capacity for tenderness.

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_In Work Like Any Other, Virginia Reeves has written a gentle debut novel about difficult things.  It is a small novel in that it brings us into close proximity with one man, Roscoe T. Martin, and the incident that leads to his long incarceration at Kilby Prison.  A man fascinated with the newfound power of electrification, Martin tries to wire his way out of the dark cloud that is engulfing his marriage and the farm that he has been given by his father-in-law.

With the help of Wilson, an African-American man who has been faithfully working the property for years, Martin taps into the new Alabama Power lines crossing the property, an act, that despite its illegality, brings light to the house, productivity to the thresher, and new life to his previously distant wife, Marie, and their young son, Gerald.  When a power company worker stumbles upon the tap line and is electrocuted, Martin and Wilson are sent away.  Martin to Kilby and Wilson to the coal mines as a leased-out prisoner.

Roscoe’s perspective dominates the central part of the book as he deals with the indignities of prison life and the isolation from his wife and son.  Marie doesn’t respond to his letters or visit him, and we, along with Roscoe, aren’t sure why, until her voice finally appears some chapters into his prison term.

Time shifts as Reeves remembers how their relationship began.  Then, as his physical condition deteriorates, a young version of Marie begins to appear as an apparition that offers him unreliable counsel.  He worries as well about Wilson’s fate.  When he is finally released he is a broken man, sent home to try and uncover a future.

Marie’s sense of moral outrage at Roscoe’s act seems a bit overblown and her late 20th century sensibilities about race relations seem a little anachronistic.  She is not as fully-drawn as Roscoe, but the sections where we do get a chance to glimpse her inner life are among the best-written parts of this book.  To wit, this passage which captures the conflict she is feeling:


Virginia Reeves, photo by Suzanne Koett

Marie missed her father.  She missed Roscoe, too, but only in isolated scenes—there along the Coosa River where they would walk, an afternoon here in the farmhouse in their shared bed, the kitchen of their village house, infant Gerald in his arms.  When she thought of him whole, though, she cringed.  As a whole man—full up of his past and his choices and his actions—she wanted nothing to do with him.  (85)

What is this book about?  The possibility and miracle of love.  The seduction and wonder of technology.  The history of Alabama prisons.  The social divisions and structures that infest our closest relationships.  The things that break us down and the hope that binds us together.  The deep longings that assure our endurance.  The mad ways marriage partners wound one another and the way reconciliation works and doesn’t between them.

Yes, all that.  But it is as much about the earthy fragrance and ambient noises of Alabama.  That which transcends is as particular and miraculous as a breath of mulch and dung and mule hide.  Reeves takes us there.

(And shout out to Deborah Lewis for sending me here, to this book.)

Work Like Any Other: A Novel

by Virginia Reeves

Scribner, 2016

262 pages