Book Review: “Bedrock Faith” by Eric Charles May

Bedrock Faith

Chicago, as the saying goes, is a city of neighborhoods. Parkland, which Eric Charles May has created and populated for his debut novel out now from Akashic Books, seems like a good one.

Parkland is located on the nether-regions of Chicago’s South Side, so far from the Loop that it’s bordered on two sides by towns that are actually suburbs. Parkland has the reputation of being Chicagoland’s oldest all-black community. It’s a middle-class stronghold where pride of ownership abounds. Mr. May paints a vivid picture of brightly-colored houses, wide lawns, clean streets, and a shopping district that exudes charm from a bygone era.

Eric Charles May

Bedrock Faith takes place mostly on one Parkland block, which Mr. May peoples with a lively cast of mostly older characters who have lived in Parkland since the sixties and seventies: goodhearted widow Mrs. Motley, voluptuous beauty Erma Smedley, block club president Mr. Davenport, the local busybody Mrs. Hicks, and 26th Ward Alderman Vernon Paiger.

The one blight on the block is the run-down two-flat occupied by Mrs. Reeves, whose alcoholic husband died of a heart attack two decades ago, and whose son Stew Pot terrorized the neighborhood during his teenage years before being imprisoned for the burglary and sexual assault of a North Side white woman.

The inciting incident in Bedrock Faith is Stew Pot’s return to Parkland. In prison, Stew Pot has become a disciple of an Albino preacher named Brother Crown. He’s walking in “The Light,” and his new mission is to make sure that his neighbors don’t stray from Jesus’ teachings. Clearly, hijinks will ensue. Upon his return, the unbalanced Stew Pot goes on an “apology tour” of the block. In his teenage years, Stew Pot was a true menace, and he has seriously wronged many of his neighbors. He burned down Mrs. Motley’s garage, Erma blames him for the death of her beloved aunt, and he may or may not be Reggie’s father.

One morning, Stew Pot arrives on Mrs. Motley’s doorstep asking to borrow a Bible, and she can’t refuse him. After that, they become something like friends, or mentor and mentee, at least in Stew Pot’s eyes. Next, Stew Pot wins Erma over by shoveling her sidewalk. Up until this point in the novel, Stew Pot seems like a lost puppy dog, or an overgrown child. But things take a turn when he becomes infatuated and follows Erma to the North Side. He observes her leaving a restaurant and is shocked to find that her date is a woman.

After that, Stew Pot attempts to set himself up as something like the moral center in Parkland. He sets up camp outside Erma’s house, denounces her as a “Lesbianite,” and doesn’t have too much trouble running her out of town. In the ensuing months, Stew Pot sets his sites on each of his neighbors, one after the other. First, Stew Pot takes umbrage with Mrs. Hicks’ “Christmas in July” celebration by shooting out her Christmas lights with a BB gun, and when Mrs. Hicks attempts to confront him she becomes so terrified by Stew Pot’s pit bull “John the Baptist” that she takes a long detour home when walking her own dog. The July weather causes her to have a heat stroke, and she eventually dies. Mr. Davenport is the next neighbor who tries to stand up to Stew Pot, but he is promptly exposed as an adulterer whose daughter is looking forward to college so that she can go out drinking unsupervised and sleep with whomever she wants. The Davenports promptly leave town in shame. Even Mrs. Motley and Mr. McTeer come under Stew Pot’s scrutiny because he suspects that their relationship is “improper.”

Eventually, all of Parkland unites against Stew Pot. Poor “John the Baptist” is run over in the street. Stew Pot’s front lawn is the scene of an angry protest, and someone even attempts to burn the Reeves’ house down. All of this eventually pushes Stew Pot over the edge.

My only reservation about the novel’s resolution is that I thought throughout that Stew was basically a very immature man who was looking for peace. Taken at face value, though, the end of the novel indicates that this was a story about a psychopath all along, which, while entertaining, might not be quite as interesting as the novel I thought I was reading for the first 400 pages. But maybe immaturity and psychopathy aren’t quite mutually exclusive, and maybe there’s a sly political statement embedded in Stew Pot’s fate. In the end, the book’s last few chapters are touching and unforgettable even without the scene-stealing Stew Pot, and the novel’s final, lasting images are of Parkland itself, which is certainly Mr. May’s finest creation. Bedrock Faith is an entertaining and heartfelt novel, and it provides an important look at at a side of Chicago that is under-represented in today’s literary fiction.

Interested in reading Bedrock Faith? Come on in to your East Cleveland Public Library, where it’s shelved in the Black Heritage Fiction section with the new arrivals. And while you’re at the library, feel free to stop by the reference desk and talk to Travis, who’s always eager to point you in the direction of a great read.

Book Review: “Every Boy Should Have a Man” by Preston L. Allen

allen boy Preston_L_Allen

I think the best way to decide whether Preston L. Allen’s new novel Every Boy Should Have a Man might be for you is just to state what it is. It’s a fairly straightforward speculative novel depicting a world where humans are no longer the world’s dominant species. In the novel, some evolutionary wire got crossed somewhere, and we’ve ended up with humans and “oafs.” Oafs are basically humans that are thirteen feet tall, sometimes taller. In this new world, humans are the oafs’ pets. Sometimes, if the oafs get hungry, the humans become food.

Every Boy Should Have a Man begins when the “boy” of the title, an oaf named Zloty, finds a “man,” a human male, on his walk home from school and adopts him as a pet, in much the same way that a human boy might adopt a dog. The man the boy finds is a “talking man.” “Talking mans” are a luxury only the wealthy can afford, and the boy is poor. One day the boy is out walking his man, and a confrontation happens. Boy and man are spotted by the mayor’s wife. One of her many mans has run away from home, and she accuses the boy of stealing his new pet. The boy is heartbroken, and the man goes to live with the mayor’s wife. The next day the boy comes home from school to find a young female man, along this a note from his father: “Every boy should have a man.”

The story of this novel then, is the story of the boy and his new female man. The story eventually branches off to follow the boy’s man’s daughter. But rather than spoil the novel’s plot, I’ll state a few more facts. It turns out that the world of the oafs is separated by our world by a very tall staircase that ascends from the peak of a mountain in our world to the bottom of a cave in the world of the oafs. The reason we discover this is that a human named Jack, as in Jack and the Beanstalk, “adventurer, giant-killer and scholar” eventually enters the story. Also of note is that in the world of the oafs, gold is plentiful, and is used to weave clothes and make musical instruments, among other things. Thus, since Jack is able to move back and forth between both worlds, he is a wealthy man.

The jacket copy here promises “echoes of Margaret Atwood,” which must mean that this book is supposed to remind us of The Handmaid’s Tale. And the two books do have some very basic similarities. But The Handmaid’s Tale feels drawn from real-world trends, notably a kind of mid-1980s push-back against the women’s liberation movement that lasted from the late ’60s through the ’70s. Atwood’s female subjugation fantasy is horrifying, but what draws us in is and propels the plot is the idea that with a few false steps our real world could easily become something like the world Atwood is describing.

handmaids-tale-cover

In the end, that’s what’s missing from Every Boy Should Have a Man. When I picked up this book, I was expecting allegory, but if the book is an allegory I couldn’t decipher it. For the first half of this novel, I thought the moral of the story might have something to do with humans and our relationship to dogs, something to do with the immorality of pet ownership. It speaks to Allen’s skill, and to the hypnotic notes he hit in the first hundred pages of this novel, that I was willing to follow him into such a story. Alas, those themes never really materialize. 

In an interview that Allen did at The Rumpus just after this book released, he was asked what inspired the story. In Allen’s response to the question, he said he tries to stick to the Write What You Know dictum. “So what do I know? Gambling, Evangelical Christianity, and in this novel, a world in which humans are divided into two species. The big and the small, the powerful and the powerless, the great and the not so great, the haves and the have nots, those who oppress and those who are oppressed.” That’s a pretty good summary of what I was expecting from this novel–riffs on slavery, civil rights, class, poverty and the like. I wasn’t sure those riffs existed, but you might want to pick up this compulsively readable little book for yourself and see what’s there. 

Every Boy Should have a Man is available via Clevenet, so reserve it there and come on down to the library to pick it up. The Handmaid’s Tale is available on audiobook, as an e-book, or in good old fashioned print. Both of these books are sure to inspire much good conversation, so read them with a friend, or swing by the reference desk when you’re done reading, where your faithful correspondent Travis Fortney is always happy to talk about books. 

Neighborhood Happenings: Auditions at the East Cleveland Theater

 m for murder

Are you a secret thespian? How about your son or daughter? Or zany old aunt Milly? If so, you’d better get over to the East Cleveland Theater TONIGHT between 7-9 P.M. or TOMORROW at that same time, because auditions are going on for “Dial ‘M’ for Murder”, the popular stage play on which the motion picture directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Grace Kelly was based.

m for murder 2


And on your way back from the audition, be sure to stop by the library. “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” is available in our catalog in both DVD and Blu Ray formats. We’ve also got the entire Hitchcock oeuvre, and biographies galore of your favorite actors of screen and stage.  Swing over to the reference desk and we’ll be more than happy to put it any or all of these items on hold for you.

Calling all Bards of East Cleveland!

Put the East Cleveland Public Library’s new Creative Writing Workshop on your calendars now!

Creative Writing Flyer

Tuesday, September 9th, 6:00 PM, at the library. We’re hoping to build a supportive and dynamic group of writers, and we’re going to have a lots of fun. Email Travis Forntey at travis.fortney@ecpl.lib.oh.us with any questions about the group, or stop by the reference desk!  

From our Shelves: “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers

There’s a long stream-of-consciousness passage toward the middle of former soldier Kevin Powers’ haunting, disturbing and downright gorgeous debut novel about the Iraq War that acts as something of a thesis. “…really, cowardice got you into this mess,” says his narrator, 21-year-old John Bartle, speaking about himself in the second person, “because you wanted to be a man and people made fun of you in the cafeteria and hallways in high school because you liked to read books and poems sometimes and they’d call you fag and really deep down you know you went because you wanted to be a man…”

Kevin Powers yellow birds

The unsettling sentence that quotation comes from is more than a page long. The Yellow Birds takes the form of a fractured narrative, taking place both during before and after the war, hurtling toward and away from the traumatic event at the book’s center, and in the passage in question Bartle is back home in Virginia and reflecting. In the war, his friend Murph has died, and the circumstances surrounding his death have pushed Bartle to the brink, where he will either come to terms with the legal and psychological consequences of his actions, or let those actions define and destroy him forever.

I chose that passage to highlight for a few reasons. First, it states very simply what The Yellow Birds is. It’s a novel about a poet–an awkward, smart, artsy kid who loved books–who enlisted in the Army at seventeen, witnessed the horrors of war, and returned to tell the tale. The second reason I chose that passage is that it’s far from perfect. It’s hard not to get lost in a page-long sentence, and hard not to question whether there wasn’t a more concise and to-the-point way to express the emotions driving the prose. That’s the way The Yellow Birds as a whole is, too. It has its flaws–it moves at a very meandering pace, and Powers sometimes seems to get a bit lost in longer passages, giving the words themselves the run of the show and drawing too much attention to the writing–but to get stuck on these imperfections is to miss the point. The fact is, this sharp little novel’s existence is something of a miracle, and I don’t believe that’s overstating it.

The obvious comparison to be drawn here is Ernest Hemingway’s war novels and, intentionally or not, Powers invokes Hemingway again and again in these pages. But this is much more than facsimile. Powers allows himself a structure that it’s hard to imagine Hemingway using, includes sentences that Hemingway would likely have cut for being too flowery, and gives his narrator the freedom to slip into stream-of-consciousness. It’s brutal, unflinching, and beautiful. We all have our opinions about Hemingway, but one point that can’t be argued is that the man was a worker. He believed in his writing as art, and he strove for the eternal. He slaved over his sentences. Here is Powers describing a firefight:

hemingway arms hemingway bells

Noctiluca, I thought, Ceratium, as the tracers began to show themselves sifted in twilight, two words learned on a school field trip to the tidewaters of Virginia that appeared as I was shooting at the man, paying no attention then to the strange connections made inside my mind, the small storms of electricity that cause them to rise and then submerge, then rise again. A fleeting thought of a young girl beside me on a dock, back there the twilight coming on, the crack of tracers as I shot and shot again, the man crawling from his weapon until he stopped and his blood trickled down the river in its final ebbing tide, brief as bioluminescence.”

By taking as much care with his sentences as Hemingway (or Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford, Marilynne Robinson) and aiming to create something eternal, Powers has made a profound statement: our present America is worth this obsessive devotion to detail, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are worth the work it takes to express something so complex as art, and its heroes, the young men and women fighting it, deserve to be elevated in the same way that Hemingway elevated the heroes of his wars.

This book made me sad that Powers had to fight in this war, but very happy that he was there to bear witness and bring this story back with him. It also made me feel patriotic, proud of the tradition of American letters, and proud to be participating as a reader.

The Yellow Birds by Richard Powers is shelved in East Cleveland Public Library’s fiction section under “P”. Come on by library, stop by the reference desk, and I’ll be happy to show you where it is. 

Review of The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

ImageHave you ever read a book that left you scratching your head and wondering what the heck you just read when you finish it? That happened to me last night. I devoured The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell in a matter of days.

The Other Typist was set in 1925, Prohibition-era New York City. Rose Baker, an orphan who was raised by nuns, is a typist in a police precinct. She transcribes confessions given by criminals. She is conservative and plays by the rules. Until Odalie starts working at the precinct, too. Rose quickly becomes obsessed with the daring Odalie, with her bobbed hair and seemingly never-ending supply of cash. Odalie outfits Rose in short dresses, takes her to underground speakeasies, and convinces her to dabble in some illegal behaviors. In the end, Rose has to decide just how far she’s willing to go to keep her friendship with Odalie. Or does she?

I’m a huge fan of unreliable narrators. I’ve always liked not being sure if the narrator is being truthful. But I think Rose is the most unreliable narrator ever. I have some theories about Rose and how the book ended, but I don’t want to spoil anything. All I’ll say is that I haven’t stopped thinking about the ending of the book since last night!

Here’s a list of some of my favorite books featuring unreliable narrators:

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gillman

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

Town Hall Meeting at East Cleveland Public Library: Impact of Ohio House Bill 59

Image

TOWN HALL MEETING AT EAST CLEVELAND PUBLIC LIBRARY
IMPACT OF OHIO HOUSE BILL 59

Monday, August 5, 2013
Greg L. Reese Performing Arts Center

THE EVENT:
East Cleveland Public Library encourages the citizens of East Cleveland to attend a Town Hall Meeting, which addresses issues from Ohio House Bill 59, the State of Ohio’s Main Operating Budget for fiscal year 2014 and 2015. Refreshments will be served.

SPEAKERS:

  • Senator Nina Turner (D): Ohio Senate District 25
  • Representative Sandra Williams (D): Ohio House District 11
  • Representative Armond Budish (D): Ohio House District 8
  • Special Guest Moderator Reverend Leah C.K. Lewis

FOCUS OF DISCUSSION:

  • Cuts of Ohio’s School Funding: Including Funding for Higher Education
  • Abolishment of Women’s Rights: Including Provisions Restricting Women’s Access to Adequate Healthcare
  • Increases in Sales and Property Taxes
  • The Elimination of Funding for Job Opportunities and Workforce Training

REGISTRATION:

  • On site registration and sign-in will take place from 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm
  • Pre-registration is available at www.ecpl.lib.oh.us
  • The Debra Ann November Learning Center will be open to the community for the viewing of the Icabod Flewellen African Art Collection

Please plan to attend!