The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák

This novel of love, grief and the cycles of life veils its profundity in deceptively simple everyday events.
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Andrew Krivák (The Sojourn) paints indelibly rich scenes and relationships with The Signal Flame, an astonishing novel set in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains. A strong tie to that setting is one of the elements that binds together a community and a family struggling with loss and continued life.

The people in Dardan mourn patriarch Jozef Vinich. He is survived by his daughter, Hannah, and her son Bo; these three generations have been touched by war. Jozef lost fingers in World War I; Hannah’s husband survived World War II but returned in ignominy, a deserter later killed in a hunting accident; and Bo’s younger brother, Sam, has been missing in action in Vietnam for some months. As they grieve for Jozef and Sam, Hannah and Bo must also navigate a lingering feud with another local family, the management of a business and a farm, a natural disaster and a legacy Sam has left behind.

The town of Dardan and its inhabitants are eloquently portrayed, both in the everyday and exceptional. Krivák’s writing is beautiful, luscious but never overwrought; he recalls Norman Maclean in the understated loveliness and clarity of both language and meaning. He imbues his story with methodical pacing, a strong sense of place and a perfectly expressed sense of the quotidian: The Signal Flame takes place between Easter and Christmas of 1972, but encompasses a world of human experience. This is an extraordinary novel to be savored.


This review originally ran in the February 10, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 9 letters.

bonus cross-post: can you help? at definingplace.com

Friends, this week’s bonus post is just to send you over to another project I’ve been working on. My birth/place page is seeking contributors. Please take a look and see if you can help out. Thank you! And back to your Tuesday.

book beginnings on Friday: The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Participants share the first line or two of the book we are currently reading and comment on any first impressions inspired by that first line.

A new novel for the weekend.

the-signal-flame

A fire in the great stone fireplace was as constant in the house as the lengthening days when Easter was early and spring was late. But on the morning after his grandfather died, Bo Konar took the logs and the log rack in the living room out to the barn, swept the bricks clean of ash, and dusted the andirons so that they looked like thin faceless centaurs of black.

These are good, if not simple, opening sentences. I lingered over the first one, its concept of the constancy of lengthening days when… there’s a lot to take in there. The second is much simpler, concrete and physical: logs, log rack, barn, bricks, ash, andirons–and then that fine simile, the faceless centaurs of black, which seem so appropriate to the grief we are witnessing. In just these two sentences, I felt like I was in the hands of a skilled writer with a story I would care about. So far, this is so.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Monsters in Appalachia: Stories by Sheryl Monks

Short stories defined by their location offer a complex Appalachia filled with both light and dark.

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Monsters in Appalachia presents the short stories of Sheryl Monks in a collection that ranges over a region but offers a cohesive vision. United by their sense of place, these stories are compassionate and impassioned, often disturbing and filled with energy.

The dangers of coal mining strike the young and the experienced alike. A 14-year-old girl is encouraged by her mother and aunt to pursue men, but resists. A man searches for a dog he believes holds the key to better luck. An exchange at a small-town grocery drives home class inequalities and double standards. Factory workers consider devising on-the-job accidents to collect disability. And in the final, titular story, an old man hunts and captures monsters while his wife prays for punishment for the couple’s sins.

The monsters are in fact many and various, figurative and surreally literal. Monks’s characters are plagued by poverty, abuse, limited education and a shortage of resources and options–upholding some of the stereotypes of Appalachia–but in their choices, they prove more than their typecasts. Dialect and place-specific details establish settings like the mountains of West Virginia, where a panicked mother “can’t spot a single star for the heavy swag of tree branches that flank the road as it winds itself around the mountain.” A stern, moody atmosphere is one of Monks’s strengths, although there are points of light in this dark collection. Monsters in Appalachia is often painful but always authentic, both muscular and sensitive.


This review originally ran in the November 15, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 serpents.

Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk: An Illustrated Guide by Josh Katz

Regional linguistic patterns in the U.S. are explained with intelligence, whimsy and visual aids.

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In December 2013, the New York Times published an online dialect quiz that became the paper’s most-viewed page. Times graphics editor Josh Katz expands that quiz’s contents and the powerful response it elicited with Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk: An Illustrated Guide.

This large-format book organizes United States dialect patterns by subject matter: how we live, what we eat, where we go and more. Two-page color-shaded maps visually communicate regional usages, like the predilection for “rummage sale” in southeastern Wisconsin, over “garage sale” and “yard sale.” Maps and text zoom in for unusual local outliers, like Pittsburgh’s distinctive use of “yins” for the plural “you.” Katz notes the rare case where gender is predictive of usage (women are more likely than men to say “bless you,” or anything at all, when someone sneezes) as well as the “linguistic fault line running from Texas up through Arkansas, then tracking the Ohio River… toward the Mason-Dixon line,” credited to white settlers’ expansion patterns. Besides seriously investigating the questions of sneaker vs. tennis shoe, doodle bug vs. roly-poly, semi vs. 18-wheeler and more, Katz clearly enjoys his subject: especially amusing are the “How to Pretend You’re From…” sections. For Nebraska, you might pick up some “pickles” at the store–not pickled cucumbers, but a form of legal gambling.

Offering some new material since the famous quiz and elucidating the original, Speaking American is a fascinating survey of U.S. dialects as well as a fun, humorous exploration of a nation.


This review originally ran in the November 4, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 potato bugs.

selections from Cascadia: The Life and Breath of the World ed. by Frank Stewart & Trevor Carolan

cascadiaI just read a few pieces from this collection, so I won’t finish with a final rating, but I think it’s recommendable overall for readers interested in a sense of place in this place in particular; nature & ecology; First Nations peoples; or Emily Carr.

The table of contents is organized by category: essays, oratory, poetry, memoir. Unusually, the order of the table of contents is not the same as the order in the book itself. I picked out a few things I wanted to read: essays “In the Shadow of Red Cedar” by Wade Davis, “Reinhabitation” by Gary Snyder, and “Nature’s Apprentice” by Rex Weyler; Barry Lopez’s fiction “In the Great Bend of the Souris River”; and all three pieces of memoir, “The Laughing One: Word Sketches from Klee Wyck” by Emily Carr, “The Sasquatch at Home” by Eden Robinson, and “Lew Welch: An Appreciation” by Maxine Hong Kingston. Emily Carr’s sketches appear throughout, illustrating not only her own writing but all of Cascadia.

The work of Barry Lopez and Maxine Hong Kingston were among my favorites; Eden Robinson’s story about her mother and Elvis was curious and enjoyable. But by far the standout for me was Emily Carr, a woman I know best from a work of fiction: Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover. I marveled here at her skill with words as well as pencil and paintbrush. She recounts experiences as a teen visiting a mission school and other native communities, and the wisdom and humor as well as observations she expresses are impressive. I marked several startling phrases.

The house was of wood, unpainted. There were no blinds or curtains. It looked, as we paddled up to it, as it if were stuffed with black.

It must have hurt the Indians dreadfully to have the things they had always believed trampled on and torn from their hugging. Down deep we all hug something. The great forest hugs its silence. The sea and the air hug the spilled cries of sea-birds. The forest hugs only silence; its birds and even its beasts are mute.

The old man sawed as if aeons of time were before him, and as if all the years behind him had been leisurely and all the years in front of him would be equally so. There was strength still in his back and limbs but his teeth were all worn to the gums. The shock of hair that fell to his shoulders was grizzled. Life had sweetened the old man. He was luscious with time like the end berries of the strawberry season.

Luscious with time like a strawberry. I tell you. And this woman is famous for her paintings! (Etc.)

From Barry Lopez’s story, in which the narrator pours his passion into working with wood, reading wood, and using that work to read his world, comes a metaphor:

Nothing solid, I learned, can ever be built without shims.

I’ve just taken a quick overview of what this book has to offer; but I can see that it addresses the politics, history, cultures and ecology of the region of Cascadia (“a great arc from Southeast Alaska to Cape Mendocino, California”) through a variety of lenses and voices. And with some lovely words in between.

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

A vibrant, emotive coming-of-age novel explores friendship and its pitfalls in a changing world.

another brooklyn

Another Brooklyn is Jacqueline Woodson’s (Brown Girl Dreaming) first adult novel in 20 years. Powerfully moving and lyrical, it demonstrates her expertise beyond the children’s and young adult literature for which she is known.

“For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet.” This first line presents the powerful narrative voice of August, an adult reminiscing about her Brooklyn upbringing. Chapter 2 flashes back to the summer of 1973, when she was eight years old, and the novel follows chronologically from there. August and her little brother, recently relocated from Tennessee following a murky family tragedy, adjust slowly to city life. August watches a group of three girlfriends from her painted-shut, third-floor apartment window; she longs to be with them and eventually integrates herself, building an intensely close foursome. The girls share the mysteries, miseries and conquests of puberty–though their fate is hinted at by the opening chapter.

Another Brooklyn visits iconic moments in culture and history: damaged Vietnam veterans, white residents fleeing Brooklyn, the influence of the Nation of Islam in the neighborhood and in August’s single-parent household, the city-wide blackout of 1977. The city offers hope to four beautiful, talented, intelligent girls, and threatens them with men in dark alleys and the limiting judgments of others. Afros, cornrows and hijabs mark fashions in time. But despite these vibrant, evocative framing elements, this is essentially a coming-of-age story in which a child comes to face the hard edges of reality, both particular and universal. Woodson’s eye for detail and ear for poetry result in a novel both brief and profound.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 pickled pig’s feet.
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