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Hill of Dreams

Hill of Dreams - Arthur Machen
"Literature," he re-enunciated in his mind," is the sensuous art of causing exquisite impressions by means of words."

And by that standard we may rule this a fine if somewhat strained (re: re-enunciated) work of literature by an early 20th century writer ruled a master of fantasy and horror by H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, two authors I enjoy in occasional binge doses and admire.

More specifically it's a lush lit-goth story and frightening fever dream about the trials and tribulations of writing literature, or more precisely about being a failed writer of literature. Beware the muse. A fantastically dense but brief enough read to do in a day, and thank god I did not have to drag it out or I may have slit my wrists, as there happens to be on my computer desktop a folder formerly called "epic" recently renamed "epic fail." You could call this a timely introduction to Machen, and may, as I did, learn more about him at http://www.litgothic.com/Authors/machen.html

And now for some Eckhart Tolle.
Red Cloud's Folk: A History of the Oglala Sioux Indians - George E. Hyde, Royal B. Hassrick

Originally published in 1937, this is a frank account and fascinating read, ahead of its time in scholarship and perspective.

Hyde is fascinating as well. A stickler for facts, he was relentless in gathering them and beholden to no one, a mostly self-taught scholar intent on sorting out many mixed-up details of frontier history. Though almost deaf and partially blind, not much escaped him. He readily saw through false fronts, had an ear for prevarication, and mostly by way of a wry sense of humor maintained an even keel.

Every history is an interpretation of evidence, and Hyde's is not flawless. But he did an admirable job of pointing out mistakes and falsehoods that had accrued in interpretations of frontier history thus far, specifically those involving the Oglala Sioux. In other words he was a revisionist, revision being essential as more information and more takes on the information become available, and given his plain and thorough presentation, even the newly incriminated found it almost impossible to argue that he wasn't being fair.

Much has come along since Hyde offered his take on things; there are better and more thorough accounts of Red Cloud and the Oglala, but I consider this still well worth the read and am sharing the following as an example and enticement.

"The plains tribes were friendly in 1862 and judicious handling would have kept them so, but the Indian Office officials were asleep, and there was nothing judicious in the conduct of the military men who were in control of the West. Major General S.R. Curtis, who commanded the troops on the Platte and Arkansas rivers, was a pompous man who knew nothing about Indians but imagined himself an authority on the subject. Brigadier General James Craig, who commanded the Overland Road on the Platte in 1862, knew nothing about Indians when he came West and made no attempt to learn. Brigadier General Robert B. Mitchell, who succeeded Craig on the Overland, was a good-hearted, easy-going man, but he did not understand Indians and frankly said so. Lieutenant Colonel H.M. Chivington of the First Colorado Cavalry was a frontier product of the best Indian-hating type. He looked on the Indians as wild beasts to be hustled out of the way of progress and to be killed if they resisted. Lieutenant Colonel William O. Collins, who commanded the Eleventh Ohio Cavalry along the North Platte, was by far the best commander in the plains in 1863. He knew nothing of Indians when he came out, but he learned quickly; he honestly desired peace, made friends with the principal chiefs and never missed an opportunity to learn more of the tribes, their location, numbers and disposition. Just when he was equipped to do splendid service he was relieved of command and ordered East. The ignorance of some of the superior officers was really amazing." (p. 103)
The Island of Second Sight - Albert Vigoleis Thelen

Between pages 270 and 337 he lost me. What had been promising, charming and intriguing felt contrived and became tedious. There are brilliant passages, but he could've used an editor as well as a translator. Patience might pay off eventually, but it'll take more than I can muster. No doubt this is just the right read for some, but 730 pages is more than I'm willing to do for a book I've ceased to care about.

Trains and Lovers: A Novel - Alexander McCall Smith A lovely summer read about being in love. Romantic, intelligent, and just disturbing enough to maintain the interest of those bored by anything too plainly or predictably sentimental. It commences with a train ride from Edinburgh to London, and it is

the story of four people, all strangers to one another, who met on that train, and of how love touched their lives in very different ways. Love is nothing out of the ordinary, even if we think it is; even if we idealise it, celebrate it in poetry, sentimentalise it in coy valentines. Love happens to just about everyone; it is like measles or the diseases of childhood; it is as predictable as the losing of milk teeth, or the breaking of a boy's voice. It may visit us at any time, in our youth but also when we are much older and believe we are beyond its reach; but we are not.

It has been described as a toothache, a madness, a divine intoxication, metaphors that reflect the disturbing effect it has on our lives. It may bring surprise, joy, despair and occasionally perfect happiness. But for each person who is made happy by love, there will be many for whom it turns out to be cause for regret . . . The heart has more than its fair share of ghosts, and these ghosts may be love, in any of its many forms. p. 3-4

It's a quick read but the story lingers, the sensation, as you'd expect, being much like reclining into the gentle rhythm of a cross-country train ride, in my case accompanied by headphones and song. I don't listen to music while reading, but immediately upon finishing this I wanted to hear the following -- Diana Krall's take on Joni Mitchell's A Case of You, which perhaps tells you more about the kind of book this is than anything else I can say.


Ghosts of Georgetown

Ghosts of Georgetown - Elizabeth Robertson Huntsinger
"It is not known for certain why this county has so many hauntings, but several theories exist . . . Not only is Georgetown County located next to the ocean, it is virtually filled with waters of the rivers that flow through its moist and fertile fields. In the last two-and-a-half centuries many individuals have died suddenly and unexpectedly here . . . The immeasurably wealthy 17th and 18th century planters, and their progeny, were known for extraordinarily dynamic personal traits and tremendous strength of will. Georgetown County rice barons and their children were often quite obsessive and possessive, and these long-gone personalities account for many of the hauntings in the region."

Georgetown, SC, population 10,000, is one of the most charming and surreal towns I've had the pleasure of visiting. The tourist literature readies you for a historic harbor-town gem, but approaching the Highway 17 bridge from Charleston the idyllic landscape of marshland and pine forest is rudely usurped by the startling and massive industrial sprawl of International Paper. It banks the horizon almost as far as the eye can see.

Along one side of the Georgetown Harbor walkway are upscale townhomes, shops, and boat slips; on the other, across the narrow bay, it's all hulking metal and dead trees.

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By 1730 Georgetown was a thriving port and plantation community, primarily exporting rice and indigo. The Civil War and some early 20th century hurricanes brought a brutal end to that. Fishing and "lumbering" ensued, followed by "papering" in 1937. Most of the old rice plantations have been restored as (nonworking) private estates, open to the public once a year during a spring tour sponsored by the Women of Prince George and Winyah Episcopal Church.

The harbor walkway fronts downtown, where the charming and surreal juxtapositions continue. On the colonial main street, which includes a fine indie bookstore and maritime museum, they were having an Italian film festival at The Strand. Driving out of town, the colonial storefronts give way to seedier establishments with 1940s flair, such as a vintage cigar shop where a gathering of tatoo-ed bikers greeted me in the parking lot where I stopped to take pictures, but not of them because they asked me nicely not to.

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I suspect (but failed to find out) that this once was the route to Miss Hazel's Sunset Lodge, a renowned bordello that opened for business about the same time as International Paper, when hundreds of young men came to Georgetown seeking work and play. But the working class found it to be out of their league when Miss Hazel went after big money. Her story is among my favorite ghost tales.

"After World War II, Miss Hazel's bordello established a reputation as a frolicsome diversion for the affluent. Doctors, lawyers, state and local officials and many other professionals made up most of her clientele . . . The heyday came to an abrupt end several days before Christmas in 1969 when Sheriff Woodrow Carter decreed that it must close. The order was so sudden that the girls had only a matter or hours to collect their belongings and leave. No one knows what precipitated this blunt ending of an era, but one thing was definite -- Sunset Lodge was no longer in business."

Miss Hazel, an old woman, was left destitute, and she was pissed. Friends bought the building, turned it into apartments, and provided one for her and her maid. She swore she'd never leave and evidently did not, not even in death. It eventually became the home of the Marsh family, who routinely heard or spied her wandering about and occasionally found items she had moved, as if to re-assert her authority. The Marshes didn't mind -- no ill will seemed intended, not against them. As for the sheriff, he is said to have had no end of trouble, and was spooked enough by Hazel's wrath not to go near the place again. It burned down in 1993 and, sadly, Miss Hazel has not been heard from since.

Charleston Ghosts

Charleston Ghosts - Margaret Rhett Martin Originally published in 1963, found this weekend at Charleston's Market Street Market, and finished inside of 3 hours, and who better to tell Charleston ghost stories than the (then) Miss Rhett from the Misses Sass School for Girls. Charleston is my favorite Southern city and South Carolina has the best Southern ghosts.
Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls - David Sedaris Listened to the audiobook while driving to and from South Carolina and it was like having a great traveling companion along to keep me entertained. Hearing Sedaris is probably better than just reading him. It's all about voice with him, in more ways than one. Between Sedaris and the songs shuffling on my IPod while driving my fun rental Dodge Charger I got not at all sleepy.
Akee Tree: A Descendant's Quest for His Slave Ancestors on the Eskridge Plantations - Stephen Hanks


NOTE: After a long conversation with Stephen Hanks last night, I am reposting this review and shamelessly soliciting attention for the book, which is a remarkable work of genealogy and American history. During last night's conversation, I learned the identity of my great grandfather and other ancestors (all the way back to Col. George Eskridge), all the result of Stephen's research.

"I felt the most frustration during my interviews with Eskridge family members when they would ask me how I was related and to which branch of the family I belonged . . . “Well, Eliza’s surname was Eskridge, but her son William changed his surname to Hanks, which name he borrowed from the plantation overseer, who in turn took Eliza and her children . . .” It was a complicated explanation to say the least. That is the legacy that slavery has bestowed on her victims – disruption of generational family lines which virtually destroyed connections to African ancestral lines of black Americans." p. 139

Interesting that Col. George Eskridge (d.1735), the first Eskridge in America, was brought against his will from Lancaster, England, as an indentured servant to a Virginia planter, whom he served for a grueling 8 years. He then went back to England, completed a law degree, returned to Virginia, and among other things was elected to the House of Burgesses and owned 62 slaves. He also became guardian of a girl named Mary Ball, who grew up to be the mother of America’s first president, whom she named after her guardian. George Eskridge’s grandson Richard (b. 1775) would own a Mississippi plantation and have a town named after him. According to my father, we are related to the “town” Eskridges, with whom his father’s side of the family (also known as the poor side) had a falling out.

"The day had come for me to start finding slave owner Richard Eskridge’s living descendants, if indeed there were any. As I dialed the county historian’s phone number I was as nervous as could be since I didn’t quite know how to word my request. Of all the books I had read about genealogy, none of them had addressed the etiquette required for contacting descendants of the very slave master who owned your great-grandfather. Owned. I still took issue with that word. How could a living human being be owned by another?" p. 75

I happened upon this book while exploring my branch of the Eskridge family tree, and it proved to be so much more than just personally interesting. It is personal, deeply personal, but it’s also a fascinating case study in American history. I was a history major, and while reading Hanks’ meticulously researched account (completed over several years on his own initiative) I was struck by how little I was taught about slavery -- the social, political, economic and every other sort of effects, because in fact it has affected everything to do with being American. In college my focus was American history, but what I could have told you about slavery was next to nothing – a quick sweep of generalizations, a handful of profiles, but no more than a superficial understanding of its pervasive influence. Maybe things have changed in the 30 years since I got my degree but mostly I’m self-taught on the subject, and Hanks has added much to my education, and I’m not the only one. Oprah contacted him about his Winfrey family findings.

How you recount all the begats of a genealogy without lapsing into tedium or losing the reader along the way I don’t know, especially given the frustrations of piecing together an African-American genealogy, but Hanks did it. Whether I was following the methodical steps of his research or navigating the many detours I felt involved, like I’d joined him on his journey, was sharing in the frustrations and discoveries. Yes, it has to do with the Eskridge relationship, but I believe I’d feel as involved regardless, because, as noted, he has written a fascinating case study in American history, of how we as Americans are related.

The book opens with this quote from Martin Luther King: I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. The telling is an invitation to do that by way of a journey commencing in colonial Virginia and leading to the Ivory Coast, with stops along the way in South Carolina, Mississippi, Kansas and Oregon.

Just figuring it all out is so remarkable that to also share it so clearly and well seems like a bonus. I am grateful and delighted that Stephen Hanks took time to do so and I'm honored to have made this connection. Highly recommended.

Working South: Paintings and Sketches by Mary Whyte

Working South: Paintings and Sketches by Mary Whyte - Mary Whyte, Martha Severens
"I started to make a list of the professions that were vanishing. People losing or having lost their employment included mill workers, tobacco farmers, elevator operators, shrimpers and oystermen. My friends and family added to the list while reminiscing about the past . . . For the most part many people I came to know have since adapted to different jobs or reinvented themselves, adjusting to a new world of changes. Many shrimp-boat builders now refurbish houseboats, tobacco farmers are growing organic vegetables, and sponge divers give scenic boat tours. Life has become improvisatory art . . . This series of paintings is a contemporary story told in watercolors."

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Fine Just the Way it Is - Annie Proulx I love volume one of her Wyoming stories almost this much but not quite, because of Them Old Cowboy Songs, perhaps the sweetest short story I know. It is the love story of newlywed pioneers Archie and Rose, who in 1885 staked out a homestead where the Little Weed comes rattling down from the Sierra Madre, water named not for miniature and obnoxious flora but for P.H. Weed, a gold seeker who had starved near its source.

I say sweetest not because there's a thing sentimental about it, though much is dear, as when a drink of water or a deep kiss becomes precious as gold and saves you. The foreboding of the bit about "starving near the source" sets the tone, and the telling that follows is like music perfectly played, fitting for a story in which the leading man, Archie, had a singing voice that once heard was never forgotten . . . sad and flat and without ornamentation, it expressed things felt but unsayable.

It seems much of what Proulx says so well in this story should be unsayable, but in lone words and the composition entire she nails it, pitch perfect, whether the result is laughter or tears or disgust, and I experienced all inside of 35 pages. The romance especially charmed.

One summer evening, their bed spread on the floor among the chips and splinters in the half-finished cabin, they fell to kissing. Rose, in some kind of transport began to bite her kisses, lickings and sharp nips along his neck, shoulder, in the musky crevice between his arm and torso, his nipples, until she felt him shaking and looked up to see his eyes closed, tears in his lashes, face contorted in a grimace. "Oh, Archie, I didn't mean to hurt . . ." "You did not," he groaned. "It's. I ain't never been. Loved. I just can't hardly stand it." And he began to blubber "feel like I been shot," pulling her into his arms . . .

Moments of bliss being all the more dear amidst the unrelenting hardships, but I'll give nothing else away.

The other stories in this and the first volume are damn near as good and involving, such that the transition from her Wyoming lives back to my own never occurred without pause and stumbling and the hope of returning.

volume 1, Close Range: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/169940758
volume 2, Bad Dirt: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/619273482

Bad Dirt - Annie Proulx
The drop to three stars from the five I gave volumes one and three in this series of Wyoming stories diminishes my regard for Proulx not a bit, we all have our ups and downs. Here the writing rallied only once, or perhaps I should say rallied me only once, during the reading of Man Crawling Out of Trees. The rest was mostly OK but overall left me feeling I'd encountered her on an off day, out of sorts, or perhaps just distracted, but it happens, nobody's perfect. On now to volume three, my favorite.

Down Bohicket Road: An Artist's Journey. Paintings and Sketches by Mary Whyte. With Excerpts from Alfreda's World

Down Bohicket Road: An Artist's Journey. Paintings and Sketches by Mary Whyte. With Excerpts from Alfreda's World. - Mary Whyte, Angela D. Mack “There is a 12-mile road on Johns Island in South Carolina that makes its way toward the ocean, and under a full moon it turns the color of an oyster shell. The road passes beneath the shadows of giant oak limbs as thick as barrels and past swayback produce stands and small wooden churches. Beyond the trees the ribbon of a creek lies in cut lengths behind the rectangular shapes of trailer homes and sheds, before it turns west to join the river. Both the road and the creek are called Bohicket. This is the road my husband and I took so many winters ago when we came south to find a new beginning. It is the road that led me to the place I now call home.”

Watercolor, as Whyte notes, is very unforgiving. Unlike oil or acrylic, the paint rarely allows the covering of a mistake; you make a mistake you start over. It's transparent in more ways than one and not well-suited to realism. It takes a master watercolorist to paint that way, and Whyte is one.

I am driving to the islands soon and discovered her while perusing books about the South Carolina coast, and now I really can't wait. You'll find her online at http://marywhyte.com/
Understories - Tim Horvath I hope at some point to prove capable of writing a review that does this justice but for now I'm too wowed. The stories are a fascinating mix of intimate realism and ingenious imaginings, some fully realized, others little more than vignettes, all well written. I envy the ability to write such varied stories that wind up feeling of a piece as a collection, and can't think of another one quite like this. The blend of the personally accessible and ideologically complex is Horvath's own, though Guy Davenport, Alice Munro, and Kurt Vonnegut occasionally came to mind, which puts him in good company.

There's a wildly speculative, subtly satirical, and sometimes laugh-outloud funny series of "Urban Planning case studies," my favorite of those being the one about Ganzoneer and . . .
. . . the comic futility that attends any attempt to walk there, due to the elasticity of her streets, walls and sidewalks, which send the newcomer flailing and sprawling . . .Sure, Ganzoneer isn't what most would consider graceful. Once one acclimates to her peculiar genus of motion, though, she harbors no shortage of loveliness; it wouldn't occur to her long-term residents to demean her with 'jiggles,' nor compare her to a beached cetacean. No, you are far more likely to hear them remarking on her sublime way of yielding to the slightest air current, the sensuousness of her rippling, the jaunt and jounce she lends to the most ordinary stroll.

My very favorites of all are more realistic, personal, and somewhat troubling, but also magical: The Discipline of Shadows and The Understory, the latter in part because I have a thing for trees.

From The Discipline of Shadows:
Who didn't skip beside his shadow, marveling at it as an emperor might his lands or a peasant his erection, this view of the augmented self offering up just a whiff of omnipotence? But just when we thought it gave us boundless control, our shadow evaded us, hiding itself inside another or going its own way (priming us early for love)? Like any boy or girl, I chased mine up and down hills and on sunbaked pavements till I came rumbling, breathless, to my knees.

From The Understory:

One day, he discovers the Epilobium sp., whose stem will eventually turn red and offer up a white flower. A library visit reveals that this is common in Finland, close enough to Germany to make him tremble. On another occasion, he stumbles onto blackberry plants. And best of all is the common cinquefoil, the glorious yellow flower he decides he'll pin in Sara's hair. He crouches with the guidebook near the ground before picking one, squinting and rubbing for the slight serration that will distinguish it from imposter weeds. The day he plucks that flower, he decides to write Heidegger.

What a pleasure to have met this author on Goodreads, and I look forward to following his literary career.

Tatlin! - Guy Davenport And now for something completely different . . . Davenport’s style is entirely his own and a wonder, from the crystal clear to the cryptically ornamental, and he writes it all with apparent ease and talent. This is my first go at his fiction, and it is extraordinary, a collection of stories predicated upon many historical or mythical characters and iconic events – Kafka and the aeroplanes at Brescia, Tatlin and Lenin, Herakleitos and Knaps -- and I especially loved the soaring stories about flight.

Occasionally he digresses in long lists, but even so the language could not help but shine, e.g., Stitch the holpstay of righteousness assailed by ill temper, misanthropy, stupidity, ugliness, neuralgia, the hump, migraine, boils, gripe, catarrh, the squint, clubfoot and warts, a hale old elverkingish god; Nyssus the affrit of ebullience, the scuppernong and yeast, crowblack of hair and eye with a hat of leaves and leopardpelt mantle; Harpoon Jones larvapapa of Erewhon, first man, inventor of the boomerang, calendar and handshake . . . And so on. Talent and shine aren’t enough to make a story, however, and his fiction often reads more like essay, understandable coming from a master of that form. As in his essays the allusions and cross-referencing never end, and perhaps someone better read than I would find more story in the literary collages.

The characters and conversations – and there is a lot of dialogue – sometimes felt stilted, as if being coerced into theme. But they also provided some of the most natural, vivid and engaging scenarios I’ve read, so I guess what I’m saying is that it was an uneven read, but that may just be me, and regardless: 5 stars.

What most startled and impressed was the sensuality, whether he was writing about philosophy or nature or art or sex. The latter figures heavily into almost everything and culminates in the final story, The Dawn in Erewhon, which features the actual and metaphorical journeys of assorted and insatiably sexual threesomes, and it is by turns the most clear and cryptic of all.

Davenport is so intellectual that I wasn’t expecting such intimate and lush explorations, then again, I’m recalling the detail and beauty of his essays and how intimate his personal essays are, so perhaps not such a surprise after all.

Here are a few excerpts to give you a taste.

From Tatlin!: Tatlin is a professor of Ceramics at the Institute of Silicates. He is also a painter, an engineer, a theoretician. He designs many things. Furniture and clothing, utensils of all sorts, a whole new style of art. Buildings, monuments. And the flying machine. There are two sailors looking at it and grinning. A woman in flat shoes, a decorated woman wearing the Order of Lenin, Second Class, Hero of the People, is looking at it. She has pursed her lips. She has leaned forward an inch. She holds her elbows. Lenin’s face on an eight-foot poster stares through the flying machine.

From The Aeroplanes at Brescia: Otto had been born into the new world, conversant with numbers and their enviable harmonies and with the curiously hollow thought of Ernst Mach and Avenarius, whose minds were like those of the Milesians and Ephesians of antiquity, bright as an ax, elemental as leaves, and as plain as a box. This new thought was naked and innocent; the world would wound it in time. And Max, too, had his visions in this wild innocence. A suburb in Jaffa had just a few months ago been named Tel Aviv, and Zionists were said to be speaking Hebrew there. Max dreamed of a Jewish state, irrigated, green, electrical, wise.

From Robot: Estreguil was all dirty gold and inexplicably strange to look at. His hair was the brown of syrup, with eddies of rust spiraling in and out of whorls of bright brass. His eyes were honey, his face apricot and wild pale rose over the cheeks. He had been to Paris, however, and had seen real Germans on the streets, had heard them pound on their drums. Coencas had only seen the bombers. Agnel didn’t know what he had seen.

From Herakleitos: We are lived: the world breathes for us, hears for us, pulses through us heartbeat, eyesight, chill of wonder and fear, sleep and waking. The body is a grave with machinery for keeping us alive. And yet we live, too, in will and desire, in transparent intellect. It was the genius of the Greeks to sort out the two halves of things, to see that our bodies are of the earth, kin to seeds and the animals, made of ocean, rain, wind and rock, while our minds are alive in a different way. The eye’s response to light is probably analogous to the stomach’s response to wine and barley, but of so subtler a fineness as to count as a different process . . . A voluptuous, spry music charmed through the olives. Fingers on lips, Herakleitos stole forward, drawing Knaps by the wrist. In the stoa Selena was playing the barbitos. Tmolos danced before her, his eyes closed.

From 1830: Time is but the bringing and the taking away of sudden beauty as brief as the day of the moth. It is in the autumn, per amica silentia lunae, that she returns, when country churches are as quiet as unmanned ships drifting toward the poles. The pure flame of the lamp trembles and goes blue. The mirrors are strange with moonlight from the stairwell, the log is white, and shoals of wind wash about the house, the tides of time.

From The Dawn in Erewhon: They sprawled happily in a dazzle of meadowlight, wagering nuzzles and touches to see what might happen. Kaatje’s fingertips grazed Adrian’s chest, circling the nipples with tickles, skimming the blond rill from sternum to navel, navel to shag. Adrian edged a spider of fingers up her thighs, walked them across her tummy, over each breast, hopped them down to bounce on her cunt, skittering them back to skip on her nose. Peerke giggled and crowed. Kaatje gave Adrian a dab of a kiss on the cock. Peerke was all eyes and merry fidgets . . . Noon glittered on every leaf, brilliant vertical light.
What I Loved - Siri Hustvedt
Every story we tell about ourselves can only be told in the past tense. It winds backward from where we now stand, no longer the actors in the story but its spectators who have chosen to speak. The trail behind us is sometimes marked by stones like the ones Hansel first left behind him. Other times the path is gone, because the birds flew down and ate up all the crumbs at sunrise.

Equal parts memoir, novel of ideas, and psychological thriller, the story opens in 1975 and spans 25 years of friendship between two artsy and academic Manhattan families.

The relationships commence when narrator and art historian, Leo, meets Bill, a painter whose work fascinates. The first third of the book involves much character exposition and ruminating about art and artists, some of which I briefly snoozed or skimmed through.

An unexpected death opens the next third and woke me right up.

The last third I could not put down, and I was occasionally so creeped out that I began questioning what I think I know about those I love most.

It’s not spoiling anything to say there’s a murder. Oddly on a night when I stayed up very late reading about it, my husband was dreaming about a serial killer working his way through our family. He, my husband, looked awful at breakfast, worn out. When I asked what was wrong he said, “I just had the worst dream I’ve ever had in my life.” The worst part being all the screaming of those he could hear dying but could not get to. And I said, "Who was the killer?” And he said, “Someone we knew.” And I said, “Who?” And he said, “I don't know, but I knew it was someone we knew, and I was going crazy trying to find out.”

The scenario being even more dreadful when, like Leo the narrator, you suspect that the killer is a family member. To avoid spoilers, I'll leave out the names.

I knew that by some definition both --- and --- were insane, examples of an indifference many regard as monstrous and unnatural; but in fact they weren’t unique and their actions were recognizably human. Equating horror with the inhuman has always struck me as convenient but fallacious, if only because I was born into a century that should have ended such talk for good. For me, the lamp became the sign not of the inhuman but of the all-too-human, the lapse or break that occurs in people when empathy is gone, when others aren’t a part of us anymore but are turned into things. There is genuine irony in the fact that my empathy for --- vanished at the moment when I understood that he had not a shred of that quality in himself.

This book is all about empathy -- its variations and qualities and how they make all the difference in all kinds of relationships. The more I read the more I appreciated and enjoyed Hustvedt’s talent for deftly navigating the complexities, from the routine to the catastrophic, with what proved to be an irresistible mix of nuance and drama. Yes, I briefly snoozed, but she more than made up for that by seducing and startling and occasionally moving me to tears, such that I'm granting 5 stars.

As soon as I opened the volume (of da Vinci drawings) the letters spilled out. I read and rested, read and rested, nearly panting from the strain but hungry for the next word . . . Do you remember when you told me I had beautiful knees? I never liked my knees. In fact, I thought they were ugly. But your eyes have rehabilitated them. Whether I see you again or not, I’m going to live out my life with these two beautiful knees. The letters were full of little thoughts like that one, but she also wrote: It’s important now to tell you that I love you. I held back because I was a coward. But I’m yelling it now. And even if I lose you, I’ll always say to myself – I had that. I had him, and it was delirious and sacred and sweet. And if you let me, I’ll always dote on your whole odd, savage, painting self.

Ultimately it is our salvation, that kind of finding and seeing and declaring and doting. By such gestures we redeem each other.

The letters are among the talismans, icons, incantations that over time become Leo's shields of meaning and muses of memory without which, he intimately tells us, there’s no surviving when the game flirts with terror and moves me so close to the edge that I have a sensation of falling . . . and in the speed of the fall lose myself in something formless but deafening . . . like entering a scream, being a scream.

The Baffler No. 22

The Baffler No. 22 - John Summers,  Evgeny Morozov,  David Graeber,  Thomas Frank,  Heather Havrilesky,  Anne Elizabeth Moore,  Christian Lorentzen,  Hussein Ibish,  Chris Bray Outstanding reading. Fresh perspectives. Odd topics. Worth subscribing. The poetry didn't do much for me but otherwise I read and savored every word.