rerun: Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors

Trying something new here, friendly readers. Without getting too far into it all, the last weeks have been a stressful time for me, for both personal and work-related reasons. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed, and I’m in danger of getting behind here at the blog. Of the irons in my fire, this is not one I really want adding to the stress. So, an experiment. On occasional blog-post-days, I’m going to rerun old content. We are nearly 12 years old here at pagesofjulia! My hope is that some newer readers may be exposed to reviews they’ve not seen before, and I get another chance to expose you to (or remind you of) some of my favorite books. If this is old news, obviously, skip it, as you please. (Bonus: I had fun going way back to look for reviews to rerun.) I’ll try to keep the editing of my original reviews to a minimum.

Naturally we’re beginning with one of my all-time favorites, Phil Connors’ brilliant first book, Fire Season. I first reviewed this book in May of 2011. You can also read my father’s review, and friend Tassava’s, of same.

Please enjoy.


This is an amazing book. The first sentences immediately grabbed me. Connors works summers in a teeny, tiny tower room way up in the sky in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, as a fire lookout. His job is to spot smoke and call it in for control or “management” of the fires. But his “field notes” tell so much more than the story of his career as a lookout. This is the story of his time alone in the Gila, and of the visitors he receives and the visits he pays back to town; it’s the story of his and his dog Alice’s interactions with nature. It’s the story of fire and smoke and the Forest Service’s management of fire. It’s a history of fire, of the Forest Service, of the Gila, of so very many aspects of our nation’s history, and the natural history of the southwest. Connors discusses the varied reactions the government has had to fire: the policy of fire suppression, consistently and in every case, versus the concept of “controlled” or “prescribed” burns, and the ongoing debates. He contemplates society, its benefits and our occasional desire to escape it. He discusses his unique model of marriage, in which he spends some five months a year living alone and mostly out of touch. He also relates ecological issues like fire as a natural control mechanism, erosion, and the preferences of flora and fauna. And more.

I found Fire Season astounding and important. There’s a zen-like balance in it. Connors is a rather balanced man, in that he still craves human contact; he’s not an entirely back-to-the-wild isolationist, nor does he fail to appreciate cold beer and a variety of media. But he achieves a special and rare state of commune with nature, too. His writing, for me, parallels this balance. He can wax philosophical, crafting lyrical, beautiful odes and hymns of reverence to nature, fire, and life; but he never gets overly wordy, tempering the poetry with (still beautifully written) narrative history.

Connors tells so many little stories I would love to pull out of this book and share as vignettes. For example, the story of Apache Chief Victorio’s last stand (that lasted over a year) in the vicinity of the lookout tower where Connors is stationed:

That September day in 1879, on the headwaters of Ghost Creek, marks a peculiar moment in America’s westward march: black soldiers, most of them former slaves or the sons of slaves, commanded by white officers, guided by Navajo scouts, hunting down Apaches to make the region safe for Anglo and Hispanic miners and ranchers. The melting pot set to boil.

Or the history of the smokejumpers, which I didn’t know before – the parachuting firefighters who pre-date paratroopers and taught them their trade. Or the tale of the Electric Cowboy. Or the story of the little fawn. I cried, mostly because I empathized. Really, it could be read as a series of anecdotes; but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The larger story is important, too. I even glimpsed traces of the training I’ve received in trail-building and (more broadly) land management.

The history, the lore, the anecdotes, the author’s relationship with nature, his relationship with his wife, the landscape of the Gila, the details about local species of bird, fish, and game… there are so many gems in this thoughtful, loving, lovely book. I am not doing it justice. It’s a very special book and I strongly recommend this to everyone, no matter who you are. But I especially recommend it if you are… a nature lover, a hiker, a dog lover, a government bureaucrat, a pyromaniac, an environmentalist, a city dweller, a romantic, a firefighter, a skydiver, a cribbage player, a whiskey drinker, a writer, a loner, a philosopher, a historian, a student, or a teacher.

This review originally ran before I instituted a rating system, but obviously –


Rating: 10 phobias.

Curing Season: Artifacts by Kristine Langley Mahler

These experimental essays about place, home and the failed effort to belong are closely tied to Eastern North Carolina, but will resonate everywhere.

Kristine Langley Mahler’s Curing Season: Artifacts is an essay collection selected for West Virginia University Press’s In Place series, which features strongly place-based literary nonfiction. In these often experimental essays, Mahler considers a brief but powerful part of her youth spent in eastern North Carolina: four years of preadolescence in which the young Mahler struggled with feeling that she didn’t belong. While this is arguably a universal preadolescent experience, Mahler’s story is indelibly linked to the community in which she lived, made and lost friends and attended school.

In Pitt County, N.C., the author encounters matters of race and class for the first time. The profitable sale of her family’s home in Oregon has enabled them to enter a prosperous suburb where her neighbors attend cotillion. White children, like Mahler, who go to public school are bussed into a majority-Black part of town as part of 1990s desegregation efforts. Her neighbors’ families seem to all rely on generational relationships to the place. She feels her outsider status at every turn. Also characterizing Mahler’s experience are difficult preadolescent friendships, including the “mean girl” type, and one relationship in particular: Mahler’s best friend Annie, long estranged and eventually deceased. By the end of Curing Season, the troubled, dead friend haunts the author as much as the place does.

While some essays use relatively straightforward narrative storytelling, others are fragmented, rely on images or borrow forms from other works. There are list essays and hermit crab essays based on dictionary entries and proposals for project fundings; Mahler explores astrology, references Joan Didion’s famous rational detachment and borrows lines from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and the local history Chronicles of Pitt County. “I grafted my history onto theirs; I twisted the lessons until I could wring out similarities between my past and theirs; I removed and imprinted my history on top of theirs until I could not tell the difference between their truth and mine.” In blending Mahler’s experiences with those of Pitt County, she digs into the very nature of truth and memory. The author of these formally inventive essays is forever circling both the specific place and the experience of feeling disconnected and othered. “I have returned a hundred times; I have never come home.” She remains preoccupied, even obsessed, decades after leaving, still trying to belong or gain a greater understanding of what didn’t work.

The title Curing Season: Artifacts refers to the tobacco-curing season in Pitt County and to both literal and figurative acts of excavation. Mahler’s investigative ponderings on belonging, displacement and a sense of home are both specific to place and universally familiar.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 stolen pins.

South of the Big Four by Don Kurtz

I bought this book years ago because it was called by Haven Kimmel “simply the finest novel ever written about the Midwest” (on her blog), and I’m finally getting to it. It is a very fine, bleak novel, set in 1990s Indiana. Thirty-year-old Arthur has returned home from Michigan after work ran out up there; now he’s camped out in his family’s abandoned farmhouse, on the edge of their former farm. We meet him at this moment, as he rigs lighting and heat, reencounters his brother and sister-in-law, and takes a job as hired hand to Gerry Maars, successful farmer and local big man in some complicated ways. Arthur is taciturn and simple in his tastes. He seems as surprised as perhaps the reader is, that he is so contented to run Gerry’s big machinery for him up and down the wintry fields at all hours and fall into bed tired for short spells in between. He also finds himself in a few damaging love affairs (least damaging to Arthur himself).

At well over 300 pages, South of the Big Four is a quiet novel in terms of plot. There are a number of events, but the overall impression is that of rhythmic, nearly numb repetition: the tractors go up and down the field; their parts break and are repaired or replaced; corn and beans are planted and harvested and sold and planted again. Gerry Maars is a fascinating character. City councilman, large personality, workaholic, self-aggrandizing and insecure, he casts a huge shadow and takes Arthur in completely, in ways that Arthur never quite articulates. The portrayal of north central Indiana is stark and desolate, and feels real enough to me (not that this is a region I know well at all). Its people are chapped and stark as well. No one in this story is happy. Remembering his 4-H steer, Arthur muses, “the last time I saw Sunshine he was frolicking his way out across that wide slaughterhouse holding pen, cantering and capering, glad to just finally be free.” That about captures the tone.

With Arthur as first-person narrator and protagonist, this is very much a book about the male experience; women are sexual partners and helpmeets. The perspective felt limited to me. It’s certainly a beautifully written book, and one that kept pulling me back: I was magnetized by its hypnotic pulse, “back and forth across an empty winter field.” It holds wisdom. But also not much beauty, or hope, and nary a likeable character. Rather, what it offers is perseverence. “The better, it seemed, in an ever more impatient world, to venture on anyway–unheralded and unprofitable; mortal, but still unaccountably alive.” I was not left feeling uplifted – and that’s not something I generally require of a book, but I felt the absence here of… something. A very fine novel, indeed. If I figure out what I’m missing, I’ll let you know.


Rating: 7 farm magazines.

Boys Come First by Aaron Foley

Three gay, Black, millennial men in Detroit face romantic, professional and existential challenges together in this deeply engaging novel about the importance of friendship.

With Boys Come First, Aaron Foley (How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass) offers a delightful novel about romantic and career ambitions, friendship and the particular charms of and challenges faced by gay Black millennial men in Detroit. Chapters alternate perspectives among a lovable trio of friends.

Readers first meet Dominick as he departs New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen in a fluster: the start-up advertising firm he’d taken a chance on has just failed, immediately before he walked in on his boyfriend of eight years with another man. Dom flees home to Detroit to lick his wounds and reconnect with his old friend Troy. Troy teaches sixth grade at a charter school, eschewing his father’s considerable wealth in favor of giving back to the community, but he’s frustrated in his relationship with a domineering boyfriend, and the school’s charter is now under threat. Feeling a little stagnant, Troy has just picked up a mild-to-moderate cocaine habit. Meanwhile, Troy’s college friend Remy has styled himself as “Mr. Detroit,” a real estate prodigy and local celebrity: outwardly successful, but struggling to find meaningful connection with a partner who wants more than sex. (Remy oozes style, so it suits his character that his chapters are the only ones written in first person.) Remy likes sex, no mistake–each of the friends does, but each is also in search of something more meaningful.

Dom and Remy hit it off, and the boys’ club is complete. With group texts and happy hours around town, they support each other through messy hookups via dating app, professional disappointments and workplace microaggressions, heartbreaks and more. That is, until Remy’s latest development opportunity conflicts with Troy’s local advocacy. In Dom’s mind, “when you’re Black, gay, and thirtysomething, time always feels like it’s running out,” and these men feel both in-common and individual pressures to which any reader can relate.

Boys Come First is rich in flavor and detail, benefiting from Remy’s comprehensive knowledge of Motor City neighborhoods, Troy’s hyperlocal concerns for his school and Dom’s perspective as he returns from afar. The changing demographics of contemporary Detroit, by class but most pointedly by race, are front and center. Foley’s novel shows range, with its fun, silly and pathos-filled handling of the love-and-sex storylines, serious commentary on social issues and an endearing representation of sincere (if troubled) friendships. Unforgettable characters, madcap fun and mishaps converge in this sweet and, finally, aspirational story.


This review originally ran in the March 15, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 glasses of Lambrusco.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do. Men and women assign value to brick and mortar, link their identities to mortgages paid on time. On frigid winter nights, young mothers walk their fussy babies from room to room, learning where the rooms catch drafts and where the floorboards creak. In the warm damp of summer, fathers sit on porches, sometimes worried and often tired but comforted by the fact that a roof is up there providing shelter. Children smudge up walls with dirty handprints, find nooks to hide their particular treasure, or hide themselves if need be. We live and die in houses, dream of getting back to houses, take great care in considering who will inherit the houses when we’re gone.

Family, home, and sense of place. Pathos and humor. What’s not to love? This is a Great American Novel, telling the story of one prodigious family over generations, and in it the story of a city and more: the Turners’ Detroit is the story of the Great Migration, of racism and striving. Francis Turner came up from Alabama to Detroit in 1944, to be later joined by his wife Viola and first son, Charles or Cha-Cha. From there, from one rental house to another, the family grew, purchasing the house on Yarrow Street in 1951, where they would raise thirteen children, whose ages span 23 years. Readers meet these character briefly in 1958 and then spend much of the book’s space in 2008, as a widowed Viola weakens in Cha-Cha’s home and the old house on Yarrow falls into decay (and, if you remember 2008, there will be financial repercussions). The timeline jumps around: The Turner House is most concerned with 2008 and the final disposition of the title house (and its matriarch), but to tell that story, we have to flash back. Not all thirteen of the siblings get equal time, of course; the eldest, Cha-Cha, and the youngest, Lelah, play large roles, as do patriarch and matriarch, and a few others along the way, including partners.

There is a bit of a mystery at this story’s heart, too: Cha-Cha saw a haint in the Turner house when he was just a boy, and in his 60s he sees it again, while driving an 18-wheeler for work, which ends his career. His efforts to resolve this haint – its reality or unreality, its meaning – drives much of the book’s plot, serving as the main conflict in the 2008 timeline, although readers gradually become aware of how tenuous the family’s very existence was in the 1944 timeline as well. And Lelah is fighting demons of her own – as are all thirteen siblings, presumably, as are all of us. It’s an expansive story like that.

One man’s haunting is another man’s hallowed guest.

There is humor as well as pain, and many truths about families and homes, especially large families. One sideplot, which is both heartwrenching and funny, involves a minor character whose curiosity about big families causes her to make some spectacular missteps. As an outsider to large families myself, I sympathize, and I enjoyed this glimpse into a big, warm, loving, dysfunctional, unwieldy example.

He felt like a hostage in his own house. He saw now that these parties were larger than him and Tina, and even Viola. That his family could go on party prepping in Cha-Cha’s house when his home life was an obvious wreck indicated of a lack of respect. This was what happened when an open-door policy–something Cha and Tina had prided themselves on–ran amok. When mi casa es su casa was taken literally. His house had become an extension of the Brotherly Banquet Hall of their youths, except his siblings slept here too, and paid no security deposit for damage. In exchange, Turners thought their presence was expression of love enough; that they’d booked flights and crossed state lines to invade Cha-Cha’s space was supposed to be some sort of gift to him. It felt more like an ambush.

You know I have a special weakness for literature that tackles our relationships to places. Detroit is not a city I know well, but this version certainly felt fully formed to me; I didn’t look up street names but these are real places as far as I’m concerned, and that’s good enough. The importance of home, of connection to place and (sometimes) to the walls of one place in particular is very much a part of my worldview.

This book is about families and relationships, about connections to the past, about mysticism, about race and housing discrimination and Detroit and the Great Migration and the United States, about the significance of place and home. It is beautifully written and entirely absorbing; none of these characters is without flaws, but the narrative oozes with empathy through it all. It’s a masterpiece.


Rating: 8 hot links.

The Late Show by Michael Connelly (audio)

We have another mediocre showing from Connelly here, I’m afraid. This one is a departure from the Bosch series: The Late Show features Detective Renee Ballard, who is also a renegade anti-establishment figure who gets shit on by the LAPD, but with an added woman-in-a-man’s-world angle. (She is also younger.) I was once more a little indifferent as to plot for most of the novel, but I was pleased with some significant twists and reveals in the final denouement, so that was nice. The narrator again felt awfully wooden – what is up with this trend? And why are there so few contractions? (I am instead of I’m, can not instead of can’t) …Connelly’s writing feels consistently awkward over the last many books. I wonder, is it him or is it me? I keep meaning to go back and read some early Bosch (in print!) and investigate this question, whether Connelly’s writing has become less good or I have become harder to please. But devoting that time feels like asking a lot at this point.

Ballard is appealing in some ways but doesn’t quite feel fully fleshed. She has interesting relationships with other cops, and an interesting backstory, referring to various traumas; but all of this feels told and not shown. I kept feeling like I was waiting for the story to ramp up, but instead it ended.

Maybe one more experiment with this formerly beloved author before I give up, with deep regrets.


Rating: 6 and a half black buttons.

The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson

I know Crystal Wilkinson mostly by reputation; I’ve read a few of the stories from her well-regarded collection Blackberries, Blackberries, and listened to her reading her lovely essay “Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts,” here. The Birds of Opulence is her second novel, set in the fictional small town of Opulence, Kentucky. It focuses on a handful of women (and the odd man or two), over a few generations: mostly the Goode and Brown family, and their adjacents.

It opens with these lines:

Imagine a tree, a bird in the tree, the hills, the creek, a possum, the dog chasing the possum. Imagine yourself a woman who gathers stories in her apron.

Isn’t that brilliant? In this chapter, a baby is delivered in a squash field, and the story is told by that baby.

The birds of the title are sprinkled throughout as a throughline, something to watch for; sometimes they are women or girls themselves, sometimes just bystanders or witnesses. They also offer something to the titles of chapters: “The Known Bird,” “Wild Birds on Easter Sunday.” Sometimes these chapter titles are like short prose poems unto themselves: “Warming of Old Bones. New Ways. That Hurting Place.” Wilkinson is a decidedly lyric writer with a gift for resonant lines:

A feeling seeped into Mama Minnie’s bones, a feeling like the return of everything lost. Old-time people from across the waters gathered all around her. She put her bony hand on her hip. Every yesterday converged.

The clamor of her own house grows as faint as secrets while she lets her mind ride the night.

Her mind follows the worn path back to the beginning, and she’s only a little surprised that at this moment she can only think in small disconnected spurts, like an old movie reel spinning: a blue sweater, the smell of pine, a large bird’s nest.

Come to think of it, I think I see myself again attracted to lists, as in that last example.

Chapters also refer to the character(s) whose perspective will be featured, so we move from Mama Minnie (a matriarch and rather a seer) through the generations and to neighbors as well… One or two chapters feel more town-focused than character-focused. “Dinner on the Grounds” in particular reminds me of that story I’ve written about before, “Appalachian Swan Song” by Jon Corcoran, for its unusual first-person-plural point of view. This chapter doesn’t actually take the ‘we’ voice, but has the same feeling of a communal gaze. (I wonder if I sense something common between Wilkinson and Corcoran that is Appalachian in nature.) Finally, chapters are also headed under years: the book moves from 1962 to 1995.

Lovely, lyrical writing and evocation of place and culture are the biggest wins here, but the characters and their interlocking relationships, the trouble in those relationships, feel like they will stay with me for some time. Wilkinson is channeling something that feels a little otherworldly here.


Rating: 8 little black bugs flying at the corners of her eyes.

The Crossing by Michael Connelly (audio)

The first, good news is that this one went over better than my last Connelly effort, Two Kinds of Truth. I found the plot absorbing throughout. I repeat my criticism of Titus Welliver’s narration, though – I’d forgotten until I reread that earlier review, but I again find him uninflected or occasionally putting the emphasis in what feels like the wrong place in a phrase or sentence. I like him onscreen but not here.

Harry Bosch has been retired from the LAPD for a few months, having been pushed out against his will; his half-brother and lawyer Mickey Haller is suing the Department on his behalf, so the blood is generally bad. (To place us in time, Bosch’s daughter Maddie is finishing her senior year of high school and getting ready to go off to Chapman for college.) Haller then asks Bosch to do some investigation work for a client who Haller is sure is innocent of the murder he’s accused of. Bosch has a strong reaction to the idea: working for the defense would be crossing a line. Defense = bad. (I easily believe that many officers feel this way, so I don’t doubt the realism, but it rankles. The whole point of the adversarial court system is to push back against all charges, forcing their proof, and protecting against false convictions. No one is served by law enforcement’s insistence that it never ever gets anything wrong [even leaving aside purposeful wrongdoing].) Bosch does come around to the idea: if this accused client is innocent, that means there’s a murderer out there roaming free. This activates his sense of justice; plus he’s gotten pretty bored with his motorcycle rebuild project. We all know Bosch needs to be crime-solving. So he agrees to just take a look at the case for Haller. And we’re off and running.

For a little added plot interest and complication, the novel mostly follows Bosch, but also switches over to the bad guys here and there, so the reader has more information than he does (although far from all), which is a fun narrative device.

I like that the title has several meanings within the story. The narrator makes reference to a crossing between murder victim and murderer, where events get set in motion; a crossing over from public heterosexual lifestyle to same-sex relations; and the crossing over that most troubles Bosch throughout this story, as he moves into investigative work for the defense. There are a number of other crossing-the-line references, which might even be considered heavy-handed – I again feel that Connelly flirts with over-explaining – but in the case of the title’s role I ended up appreciating the multiple connections.

There’s something just a little stilted about the dialog and characters here, like Bosch’s (and I think Haller’s) avoidance of contractions, but I’m not even certain how much is Connelly and how much is Welliver. There was again a bit much explaining, especially between Haller and Bosch. I understand that it’s a trick, as the writer, to let your reader in on need-to-know information without having your (expert) characters explain in dialog. I just didn’t remember Connelly being as clumsy about it as I find him here.

That’s nit-picking, though. The plot and intrigue was sufficient to keep me engaged and generally distracted from minor quibbles. Neither Connelly’s best nor his worst work; a perfectly serviceable listen.


Rating: 7 references to Walmart.

The Searcher by Tana French (audio)

Tana French never disappoints. This 2020 novel (her latest to date) reminded me quite a bit of her second book, The Likeness (2008), which is still my favorite, I think. In line with all her work, The Searcher boasts intriguing characters with shadowy pasts; a very strong sense of place; and some of the most atmospheric writing I know. What most reminded me of The Likeness was a general, foreboding suspicion about the people around our protagonist, a low-level nagging sense that we’re not sure who everyone is really and what their motivations might be.

It’s still set in Ireland, now in a rural area of tiny villages, but in a departure from her past work, French’s protagonist is American. Cal Hooper is a recently retired detective from the Chicago Police Department, trying to renovate the dilapidated little farmhouse he bought from afar, not too hopeful of making new friends but amenable to the gifted-in-gab locals like his new neighbor Mart. He talks to his adult daughter about once a week. He misses his ex-wife. The reader has to wait to find out what these dim shapes, back in the States, exactly mean to Cal. Meanwhile, he’s getting cautiously adjusted to no longer looking over his shoulder for crime all the time, but somebody’s definitely been watching him – aside from the rooks in the tree out back, whom he rather appreciates – and it’s creeping him out. His peeping tom turns out to be a 13-year-old kid named Trey. What does Trey want, exactly? It will take Cal a certain amount of interview skills to find out. And what he discovers threatens to launch him back into the kind of crime investigation he’d hoped to leave behind.

There are many layers to absorb here. In its handling of gender, The Searcher subtly offers commentary or at least food for thought; the tensions of changing times in a rural setting (technology, employment options, young people moving away, the urban/rural divide, options by gender) are a minor but important focus. Moral ambiguities and the importance of having a “code” feature throughout – other reviewers have placed this novel at least partly within the Western genre. Another slight but important thread deals with police brutality and race in the United States, too, for currency. I appreciated the natural world as… more than backdrop. Events play out against a natural world that can be cruel but only in the ways of nature, with parallels that inform the human dramas. Those rooks, which (tellingly) open the book, provide a keystone for Cal’s experiences. Finally, this rural Ireland made me think repeatedly of small-town Appalachia where I’ve settled. And of course many Scots and Irish settled in Appalachia, so it’s not too strange to think of cultural threads crossing over. But it felt a bit uncanny, and comforting.

Roger Clark’s performance on this audio edition wound up feeling perfectly pitched, although it took me a while to get used to the American accent when I was expecting an Irish one, based on past experience with French. I think Clark performed the accents well all around. There was a brief howdy-partner backwoods bit that felt put upon to me, but I’m ascribing that momentary awkwardness to French and not Clark. I still love her work in this format.

This novel has lots to sink into for the discerning reader. And there’s a compelling plot regarding young Trey and the mystery Cal finds himself roped into, and all the fine work of suspense and mood that French does best. If this isn’t her finest novel yet, it’s right up there, and more multifaceted than most mysteries. Strongly recommend.


Rating: 8 rabbits.

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore (audio)

This audiobook, also part of my cross-country travels, was a birthday gift from my mom. Thanks, Mom!

Valentine is a powerful novel. It’s set in Odessa, Texas in 1976: a central West Texas oil town in a harsh environment filled with hard-edged, struggling people. The setting is definitely part of the appeal, as I know Odessa a little and its region a little better, and Elizabeth Wetmore’s striking writing about place I found very affecting and authentic. Mostly, this place comes across as rough, stark, unbeautiful; but a close read will reveal appreciation for the natural world and the people who find something to love in it. These characters are really well done, too. Chapters shift between the points of view of a number of them, with a firmer focus on three or four. All are women: men are only viewed through their eyes. As a woman, in a world of books historically over-focused on men, I appreciated this, too.

Let me get in a content warning before we go too much further: the event the book opens with, which is also the event that the entire narrative centers around, is a brutal and violent rape. It’s described in what I’d call moderate detail, which is plenty disturbing. Readers for whom this may present a problem should avoid the whole thing.

This rape and its aftermath affects all our characters in various ways. Even those who are initially unsympathetic become three-dimensional and complicated when they get their own chapters, in that way that I love: all people are complex, no one all good or bad, no perfect heroes or villains. I love a complication like nothing else. There is even a brief – failed – attempt to understand the perpetrator of the rape; that impulse and its failure both feel real and right to me.

Gloria, or Glory, Ramirez rightfully opens and closes the book. Fourteen years old, the US-born child of an undocumented Mexican immigrant mother, Glory’s life brings race and racism into the story. Valentine is centrally concerned with women’s lives and violence against women, but this layer is important and (of course) related. Then there is Mary Rose Whitehead, young mother of a young daughter, drawn into Glory’s life by circumstance. She rebels against many of the structures of the world around her, in ways that we applaud, but this is no fairy tale, so she will not necessarily triumph. Next comes Corrine Shepard, an older woman, recently widowed and handling her grief with booze, cigarettes and not giving two sh*ts what you think about any of it, which serves her well, to a point. I think of these three women as the core, although there are probably other interpretations – I haven’t counted chapters. Again, there are others who get less spotlight but make important contributions: I’m thinking of the bartender/babysitter/waitress we get to hear from near the very end.

This book covers so much. Race and racism and immigration, women’s lives and violence against women, economics patterns and the dire straits it puts all kinds of people in; the cultural and ecological milieu of a particular place, in a particular time, including what it looks like for an oil boom to hit a town like Odessa, which my friends who live in the region today tell me about: it sounds like it looks awfully the same after more than 40 years. Valentine‘s contents contain a lot of ugliness, brutality, violence, hate, tragedy: beware. But it’s also a beautifully rendered novel. And I appreciate its glimpses of beauty even in Odessa in 1976. It’s masterful, in other words. I’m very impressed, and I’ll be thinking about these characters for a long time.

Thanks again, Mom. Good pick.


Rating: 8 pistols in purses.
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