The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

Are all epic novels worth their weight? Not always, but this novel is worth every page. When I came to The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili, it was clear that it was long, but it didn’t feel like traditional historical fiction. It was something else. This book has been reviewed as a new lens to see the turbid relationship with Russia and Georgia. Some have discussed the brilliant weaving of time and space over generations, where favorite characters move from power to poverty, innocence to experience, and navigate the twentieth century in stunning twists of fate that not only break the human spirit, but also touch something personal. The “Red Century” as the books refers to the time frame has become concepts and vision that we only understand in terms of socialism, fascism, and communism. But this book makes these terrible and complicated social and historical elements and turns them into personal, emotional, and sometimes terribly tragic moments in a vast timeline. In an interview with the New York Times (April 2020), Haratischvili, “who writes in German, has said her book is personal rather than autobiographical.” And the book does one important thing — it shows how devastating it is to live in a social experiment that was constantly breaking off the rails.

The one thing that no one has really discussed in other reviews is that this is a story told from the vantage of women. There are men in the narrative and we see them clearly, but this novel is significant, personal and vivid because it is framed through the vision of the women of Georgia and Russia. The story line follows the most important characters as they evolve and shift through the generations. Not only does the story create a sense of idealism at the beginning but masterfully shows the interwoven stories, history, and vision of a family. This is a personal story, one filled with curses, breath-taking beauty, betrayal, war, addiction, faith, and loss. It feels like we are in an epic struggle with intimacy, with empathy, with looking at the next generation and being terrified or hopeful. It is a significant and brilliant refocus of history through the voices of women who endured the violence, the change, and the constant uncertainty of family, love and loss.

This book feels epic and long because it covers a vast amount of time. Every time I picked up the novel, I was quickly immersed back into the story of family fates. Haratischvili needs to bring intimacy and personal vision to her prose, but she also has to capture the big picture, the epic visions of what history was doing to this family and how they chose to move forward. The prose style isn’t a lesson in history and historical details of what it felt like. It is a different, personal narrative that feels modern, but doesn’t get bogged down in historical notes and ideas. Those changes in history are inherent in the characters as they navigate their lives, their desires, and their hopes to carry on. The writing style creates a devastating accumulating effect.

This book is highly recommended, not because we need another long novel about Russia, but we need a great novel about the life of women in Georgia woven over a century. You will not only long for these characters after the book, but you will long (with them) for a different time and fall into the dream like vision of history, place, love, and hope from these stunningly powerful women. This is a long novel, but time brilliant spent with such a vivid and beautiful story of one hundred years. 


Article Cited Below

The Hawkman – A Fairy Tale of the Great War

Jane Rosenberg LaForge
AmberJack Pub.
ISBN: 978-1944995676 (paperback)
280p
Released: June 5, 2018
The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War by Jane Rosenberg LaForge is a re-telling of several Grimm’s fairy tales against the backdrop of World War I.  As a fan of World War I literature, this captures the desperation of trench warfare, the aftermath of war, and what it means to live with those nightmares. But it is this reality, this darkness, this desperation that pushes up against how and why people tell stories. This is not merely a war novel, but the war is what triggers much of the action and ideas around this novel. Miss Eva Williams is an American school teacher that comes to a small English school to teach and hide from the world. Among the small and bucolic setting, everyone has been touched by the Great War. And among the edges is a man so damaged and lost that the villagers are afraid of who he is and what he may do. Miss Williams doesn’t commiserate with the villagers and the leaders, she takes him into her life. These two lost souls begin to rebuild a life together.

This novel weaves stories. It is the function of the book, the story, the plot… everything. It is worth mentioning that LaForge brings about a compelling and often beautiful style of storytelling to the page. Her stylistic voice here is what makes this novel so compelling and profound. The style reaches beyond the well-crafted characters, the woven stories, and the stunning pace of this novel. It makes sense that a poet is a better weaver for so many intangible parts and pieces. In Kate Berhnheimer’s introduction to Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, she discusses how “fairy tales offer both wildly familiar and familiar wild terrain.” But more importantly, she considers the significance of how these fairy tales reflect back something of ourselves. “It is to look at the act of looking at ourselves inside stories, to regard the tradition and the stereotype of female reflection on self. In this, there is a power for all sorts of readers.” In many ways, LaForge is doing this within the nested stories and concepts of The Hawkman. She is restoring story, frame, morals, and piecing together the shattered ideas that are missing. That is where the innovative, creative, and visionary style does so much of the work. Miss Williams becomes the one who creates change, shifts perceptions of the world, and grounds all the fragments that seem to swirl around this novel. She isn’t the Scheherazade (the teller of the stories), but she is the force that makes all these stories possible. She is the curator of all things possible and impossible in this world.
A possible function of writing a novel is to explain how we might save ourselves with a story. In The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War by Jane Rosenberg LaForge, it is clear that these forces of reality, tales, and visionary things are not just important for the art of fiction, but crafted with haunting and beautiful effect. But it takes more than a fabulist, it takes more than a novelist. It takes a poet. The Hawkman is a stunning vision of the blurred lines between the darkest realities and the most beautiful stories, all spinning in a whirlwind of narrative, hope, and loss.
A brief retelling of this book doesn’t shed light on the beauty and the scope of this novel. It is something that you have to accumulate as a reader. The nested stories, the characters, the function of the novel itself, all serve to restore the belief that we are narrative, we need a beginning, a middle, and an end. LaForge does this through poetry, stories, and her lyrical style. Miss Williams in the novel says, “Stories should not have to be cruel.” They can be sad, they can be devastating, and they can be beautiful, but they don’t “have to be cruel.” This novel brings narrative together with a lyrical style to rebuild the lives of people who are separately and desperately fragmented. The result is this beautiful novel that is built on the tradition of fairy tales but refined in poetry and prose in a way that is vivid, inspiring, and human. Excellent, poetic, and literary in story, style, and vision. 
Cited in Review
Bernheimer, Kate, ed. Mirror, mirror on the wall: Women writers explore their favorite fairy tales. Anchor, 1998.

Book Review: Paris in the Present Tense

Mark Helprin
Overlook Press / 2017

  • ISBN: 978-1468314762

400 Pages


It has been awhile since a novel has changed the way I think about the novel. But Paris in the Present Tense is a lyrical novel that has empowered my faith in the contemporary novel. Let’s face it, it has been awhile since A Winter’s Tale, when we first fell into the world of Helprin’s prose and imagination, and while this book isn’t as mystical, it is formidable in his prose and his storytelling.

This novel follows the life an aged cello player named Jules Lacour a cellist and teacher who is facing the end of his days and his life in Paris. And while there is intrigue, mystery, and all the plot points that have grown tired in contemporary fiction, this novel rises above all those expectations. Part of it is the nature of this older, wise protagonist and his vision of the world. But it also sits in the root of Helprin’s prose and his ability to position you in the most complex moments of life and find more than just plot point, but more.

Jules is an older protagonist who is eccentric in some ways and contemporary in others. He is suspiciously healthy and can still run, swim, and row. His routines are simple, but his life complex and fraught with pitfalls. He lives as a renter on an estate, and he has a life that has shaped his romantic and often practical vision of the world. His life proves that things like love can still fill our lives through intimacy, music, longing, and fate. It is modern in terms of the world that Jules lives in, but it is also worldly in the connections to the past – through music, personal history, and dynamics of all those relationships accumulated over the years. There were times when the use of more flashbacks may have focused a few more things, but that isn’t the point of this book. What we missed is left for the reader to contemplate.

In terms of the prose writing, it is exceptional. Helprin’s writing is vivid and so well balanced. As I mentioned, this book is about a lot of plot points that (if I wrote them here) sound trite and typical of a thriller novel. But this novel doesn’t run on the answers to plotted questions. This novel is threaded with an emotional quality that comes from Helprin’s prose.

And sometimes, the phrasing of his writing just stops you. He writes “That kept me alive. For you, they would say it was trauma, but I wouldn’t. I’d say it was simpler, that like everyone else you have a paradise you long to restore, but your paradise is also hell. Although getting back is dark and dangerous, you won’t be deterred. Love draws you back. You can’t escape.” The push and pull of ideas and words is a constant tension. Helprin is constantly playing with opposites – or in this book lyrical dynamics. Paradise is compared with hell. Trauma isn’t real unless there is something to lose. And it becomes this kind of vision of pushing and pulling words apart that makes this book feel less a plotted thriller and more like an epic love story.

During a war flashback, Helprin used his descriptive art to describe the sounds of troops moving. This is relevant because music, sounds, and shaping music is thematic to the novel. “The sounds of arrival and departure were always the same: straps slapping against metal, engines starting, tripods folding, the slides and bolts of weapons exercised after oiling, commands shouted, and upon leaving, the blast of a whistle followed by the revving of engines as the vehicles rolled off.” One of the hardest parts of writing about music is that the novel lacks the ability to hear music directly. And writers then have to spend time describing the nature of the music without hearing it. While this novel deals with the essence of music, it doesn’t stumble with long expositions about music, in fact – like his description, he turns troop movements, thunderstorms, and cafes into music that inspires the sounds of the music.

This novel is based on the later years of an older man – a many with years of experience and vision. When his daughter thinks he is getting senile because he can’t remember the name of a film, he argues, “You learn to see with your emotions and feel with your reason. If at its end the life you’re living takes on the attributes of art, it doesn’t matter if you’ve forgotten where you put your reading glasses.”

This novel is a very human, a very stunning testament to the complexities of living a full and meaningful life. Even with the best intentions, the world has different plans. This novel is about hope, love, and value in our personal history. It is a rare idea so elegantly placed in a contemporary novel.

"Suppose We See It Like This…."

One of the most useful tools in writing is constantly writing to the muse. I’ve always been one to write a journal — strictly on the concepts of the writing and what is moving around in my head. And while that sometimes distracts the writing process, it is important to map out some of the flow to capture it and make it useful later. Snapshots of the mind can help shape and form longer projects and ideas. 

From my writing journal, I’ve been able to ask questions (existential and practical)  about writing, thoughts, and visions of long-term projects (typically novels).  This ability to speak on the page is a meandering that I find indispensable. It is a conversation with the writing, and it is there that I’ve established my personal ethics and values in writing and thinking. My journal isn’t a treaty on thought – but a vault of my own creation. I use it to remember books, write reviews, try out poetry, and even explore my own dreams. But it is always with the value that it connects to another part of my thinking. That is why my journal exists and that is how I prefer to use it. I can always write in my journal. There is no writer’s block because it is merely snapshots not meant for anything more than building ideas. 

When I was reading I Heard Voices in my Head by Helen Vender in the New York Review Of Books (2/23/17), I was slapped in the face with a reminder of why process thinking is important to me. She explains, 

“In truth, what a meditative poem contributes to the history of consciousness is a reenactment in real time of the volatile inner life of a human being. Such a poem [refering to The Preludes by Wordsworth] does not present itself as plot or character portrayal or argument, but rather (in I. A. Richard’s theory) as a hypothesis: “Suppose we see it like this.” The poet’s proposed hypothesis change “minute by minute,” and include waverings, self-contradictions, repudiations, aspirations, and doubts; they are not offered as a philosophical system.” 

This awoke something in me. As I mentioned above, I don’t write in my journal to create a treaty of thought – it really isn’t that formal, but to record the visions I see now, to compare them to the visions in the future. Keeping this record is both validating and useful as it grows outside of your mind, freeing this space for other connections. It helps that I can also keyword search it on the computer if I need to find something from the past.   

The complexity of self-rumination is a gift unto itself and that journal has been fascinating to me in that I can release these ideas. If I come back to specific ideas – then perhaps they need to find a place in a story or become part of a character. That being said, Wordsworth’s relationship with Coleridge was also something that has always been connective. Coleridge was one of the masters of documenting his creative vitality in his journal, letting small fragments and parts eventually turn into his famous poetry. It is this awesome creative power that inspires me to see the worth in this idea that Wordsworth (in The Preludes). Seeing Wordsworth as someone who is considering the very nature of who he is through query and poetry, it is very connective to the ideas that Coleridge put fourth. In fact, one of the most influential quotes that changed my understanding of literature was the inscription at the beginning of The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner by a philosopher named Thomas Burnet. It reads: 

“I readily believe that there are more invisible than visible Natures in the universe. But who will explain for us the family of all those beings, and the ranks and the relations and distinguishing features and functions of each? What do they do? What places do they inhabit? The human mind has always sought the knowledge of these things, but never attained it. Meanwhile I do not deny that it is helpful sometimes to contemplate in the mind, as on a tablet, the image of a greater and better world, lest the intellect, habituated to the pretty things of daily life, narrow itself and sinly wholly into trivial thoughts. But at the same time we must be watchful for the truth and keep a sense of proportion, so that we may distinguish the certain from the uncertain, day from night.” Adapted from Coleridge from Thomas Burnet, Archaelogiae Philosohicae (1692).*

This becomes the vision of the writer, thinker, and the creative mind. Your job is to see the unseeable. And then admit that to paper at all costs. While that may seem heroic – perhaps that is exactly what it should be, a call to define truth as something more than just what you know as fact – but something we desire, something we hope for, something that only fiction and prose can create. We don’t need fact to create truth. We need a vision of “a greater and better world” even at the cost of losing some of our current world. It is sacrifice, it is purposeful, and it is the life of a creative thinker. Poets, prose writers and even visual artists should understand this important connection, even if it is unattainable — it is still vastly and completely worth the writing down the ideas and words that will change you. It will shine light on the darkness. And we can ask that question, “suppose we see it like this” with thrilling and beautiful hope that someone will be willing to “see it like this,” and will carry it forward.  


*Abrams, M. H. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York, NY: Norton, 1993

Poetry Review / Body Politic by Rich Murphy

Body Politic 
by Rich Murphy 
Prolific Press Inc. / 2016 
ISBN: 978-1632750846

Language and politics have a symbiotic relationship in strange and creative ways. George Orwell knew this when he wrote about the language of politics and what that language does for our society. In Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, he spoke about dead metaphors, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. The obfuscation of the real meaning and intention of politic actions are deliberately intertwined in language meant to confuse or misdirect. There was a time when I thought George W. Bush had an issue with language, and then came the Trump leadership with Tweets and strange jargon that means nothing from the leadership. Orwell mentions in his treatise that meaningless words are confusing and dangerous and “words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows the hearer to think it means something quite different.” And he goes on to give the example of, “Marshal Petain was true patriot.” Sounds like rhetoric I heard last month.


The reason I bring up Orwell at all is Rich Murphy’s Body Politic, a book of poetry, challenged me to refine my understanding of language and poetry and how it applies to politics. This is a complex and extremely well-crafted book of poetry that makes politics and social issues its spearhead. But the immersion into his work is poetically complex – and his use of political elements is done with visionary intricacies that surprise and reveal new ways of considering the ideas of politics in terms of lyrical language.

There is a sense of possession and vision in these poems. And reading more and more, you sense that it isn’t the political statement that needs your undivided attention, but how the poet reveals the ambiguity of that political establishment. As a reader, you can stop listening to the political messages, and begin to hear the complexity of languages that hurls the words further along. All that sounds ambiguous, but it can all be cleared up with a few phrases. In the poem Subaltern Grief, you begin to see how the writing process and the words become metaphors for political action.

Each letter here will never touch a veil

nor will a thought lift a woman

from the shadows and shroud.

The irony persists, however,

language waits for the voice

stitched to body, woven alone.

Language not only weaves into the political ideas, but it is a constant connection between the truth, deception, social class, and failures in our political system. Like Orwell’s warnings, words are encumbered by truth, as if they are a “voice stitched to a body, woven alone.”

Language alone is not the sole motivation for the poetry in this book and as the reader moves through this collection, they become aware of something more than politics – something we miss in the news cycle, something not inherent in stump speeches and promises. In the poetry is the morality and humanity that is intentionally excised from politics. And it is here that Murphy draws in the meaning of words and emotions, the meaning of living, while politics grinds over our inner soul.

Book Review – A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing: Stories by Tim Weed

A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing: Stories by Tim Weed. Green Writers Press. 2017. 978-0-9974528-7-7 ($24.95) Hardcover.
Diving into this collection of short stories by writer and travel expert Tim Weed, you might want to pack your bags and roam the continent in search of great harrowing adventures. And in some ways, this collection delivers on that. But embedded in these narratives, is a deeper longing, a desperate, and sometimes frustrating relationship, between his protagonist’s fraught desires, fears, and dreams. The depth of emotions reveal subtle, dynamic, and often stunning revelations.  
In stories like “Tower Eight,” “Mouth of the Tropics,” “Diamondback Mountain,” and “Keepers,” Weed moves the physical world to the forefront where nature, mountains, fish, weather conditions, and the reality of nature itself become antagonistic. These stories echo the Hemingway tradition of fronting raw power and natural uncertainty as a means to test a character’s fate. This can end in a lesson learned or life lost. But his complexity is not limited to this “surviving nature” theme.
Tim Weed’s balance of emotional connection and physical space is always true to the lyrical sense of his prose. At times, the physical locations: Cuba, Grenada, Colorado, the slopes of New Hampshire, Spain, Italy, all play roles in the narratives that balance the emotional depth to the physicality of these locations. Each story hinges on a moment where physical space and emotional connection criss-cross. In “Diamondback Mountain,” a field guide who has fallen for a movie actress finds himself caught up in such emotions it feels like it materializes into a great collapse of his life on the side of the mountain.
“At first he is frantic, but he can’t move more than a twitch, and gradually a feeling of serenity washes over him. When he thinks about it, he’s known for a while that this or something like it was coming. In a way, the pressure of the snow is soothing.”
The balance between falling in love with an actress and the collapse of any kind of his dreams come down on him, catching him in a balance between the physical world and the metaphorical realm that Weed strikes. “Six Feet under the Prairie” connects to the physical and emotional conflict of utility linemen working on the open prairie, fraught with two men at odds with one another, while mourning the loss of the open wilderness for that of suburban development. This harsh and sometimes majestic landscape is constantly fluctuating between a lyrical lesson and a very real and hard-won place in the world.
Beyond the natural battles and the lyrical vision of his prose, Weed is at his best when he is pushing the edge of obsessions. His stories connect when we feel the misguided love, the vision of beauty, and the hope that love will follow from one continent to another. In “A Winter Break in Rome, the narrator (Justin) is obsessed with Kate, another student on winter break in Europe. In the hopes of connecting romantically with her, Justin gets into a fight with local Italian boys and he is beaten for his troubles. In the aftermath, missing a few teeth, there is a deeply moving moment where Justin asks Kate to join him in Greece for the remainder of the trip. Instead of giving him an answer, she says, “Crete should be beautiful this time of year. Also Mykonos. You should definitely go there.” And the dream of being together is dashed in one allusive phrase. His physical beating and now his emotional loss cohabitate across the table. It is desperate, sad, and classically romantic.
A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing is more than a collection of adventure stories. It is a significant and moving collection of ideas, snapshots, and visions that leave a lasting impression. Tim Weed’s masterful approach to the opposing forces of his character (nature and emotions) always reveals well-crafted moving stories. It is clear that his experience as a travel expert, educator, and writer has honed his craft to transcend adventure writing to an emotional experience that is timely and deeply moving. Never predictable, this collection is a must for travelers, adventure seekers, and anyone who cares to examine the depth of his varied and flawed characters. Tim Weed is the author of the historical fiction novel Will Poole’s Island (2014) and is available in e-book and print format.