Monday, June 27, 2016

The Glorious Heresies: A Book Review

There's prose and then there's the dense thicket of words that pricks like James Joyce. THE GLORIOUS HERESIES is more of the latter. But don't let the opening paragraphs put you off. Go on, read it again and again until the words make sense and you realize that Lisa McInerney can't help herself as she's an Irish storyteller and that's just how the sentences fall out of her head.

The novel is a tangle of narratives that are interconnected with cleverness that makes the reading an adventure. From Maureen who kills a shiftless intruder with a Holy Stone, to her son Jimmy the gangster who cleans up the mess, we next meet Tony Cusack the widowed drunk with six kids to feed, and soon thereafter it's Tony's son Ryan the drug dealer and the partner of the dead man, a prostitute who buys her drugs from Ryan. These disparate characters inhabit the poorest section of Cork where the death of the Celtic Tiger is keenly felt. Picture a novel set in the slums of an average American city like Cleveland, that is the sort of place that Ms. McInerney has chosen to present a group with nothing going for them and nothing to look forward to but more difficulty and hardship.

There is murder and a cover-up on one hand, and like ripples in a pond that cover-up touches on the entire cast of characters. Tony gets involved because he's the widowed father of six and desperate for any work that brings in a little money. Ryan is struggling to find his way, madly in love with his girlfriend but unable to build a solid relationship after surviving his dysfunctional father's regime. The cover-up leads to questions that threaten Jimmy, and if it sounds rather "In Bruges", this is a black comedy in that same vein.

The prose is light-hearted in its darkness, the situations devolving into near comedy with a hard edge. The horrors of the old Magdalene Laundries is touched upon by Maureen, who found herself pregnant as the system of incarceration was breaking down, but the resentment she harbours towards the Catholic Church is not unknown to those who have spoken to the women whose lives were destroyed. To understand Maureen's antipathy, you might want to read THE LEAVEN OF THE PHARISEES to gain some insight into how the Church shaped modern Ireland, and women like Maureen.

To enter THE GLORIOUS HERESIES is to enter the world of those who typically end up dead or incarcerated, the denizens of the bottom of the social ladder. The author provides touches of humanity that make for fully realized people, rather than uni-dimensional images of the downtrodden, hopeless masses. As a reader, you may come to care about what happens to them, and so you keep on reading to a conclusion on a high note.

Lisa McInerney has long written a blog that focuses on the very sort of people she has used to populate her first novel. Her experiences writing from Cork show up in her first novel, a book populated by the very sort of characters she portrays in the blog. The note of hope on which the story closes might be a bit of wishful thinking, artistic license, or something that's been seen in the dismal estate housing that Americans would recognize as housing projects, with the same sets of social problems. After all the misery, however, it's a satisfying ending.

My great-grandmother's adage, about being grateful we weren't from Cork because that's where all the poor people are, could be some kind of warning about what you'll encounter as you read THE BLORIOUS HERESIES.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, more so after I got deeper into it than the opening pages. That dense thicket of words was off-putting at first, but the voice is unique and worth the struggle.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Leaving Lucy Pear: A Book Review

A young Jewish women gives birth out of wedlock and chooses to leave her newborn under a pear tree, where she knows the hardscrabble Irish-Catholic pear stealers will find it. That infant is Lucy Pear, the one who gets left.

The novel is an intimate portrayal of human interactions, with narratives intertwined. After leaving the baby, Bea is expected to go back to her former life as if nothing happened, but nine years after abandoning the infant she is back to call on her elderly uncle who took her in when she was up the stick. The woman who found Lucy ends up as the uncle's nurse, brushing the edges of Bea's life, but each knows the secret of Lucy Pear and that secret hovers over the story.

Anna Solomon does a fine job of creating intersections that ramp up the tension as the reader wonders when Lucy Pear will realize that Bea is her birth mother. At the same time, she weaves a backdrop suited to the setting, with Emma looking at moonshining as a way to make a few dollars during Prohibition. There is tragedy that results from unintended consequences, pitting rich against poor at the same time as Sacco and Vanzetti stand trial at the height of the labor movement, plenty of little subplots to keep a reader's interest.

The ending falls off into literary fiction prettiness, filled with scenes of the future that the omniscient narrator assures us our characters don't yet know will happen, and finally the last chapter jumps into the present tense because, well, you know. Literary fiction.

There is no plumbing the depths of these characters. They float on the surface of the novel, somewhat shallow but entertaining in their diversity. In these modern times, you come to expect a stock gay character (Bea's husband) and an evil industrialist oppressing his workers and trying to bust the stonecutter union. Even Lucy is given the cross-dressing treatment, but it feels more like a girl disguising herself as a boy to live a more full life at a time when girls faced far more restrictions on their activities.

All in all, this was a pleasant read, the sort of book you get lost in and don't regret the time spent in the reading.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Good Agents Don't Spam Publishers

The submission requirements for Newcastlewest Books are quite simple and straightforward. We don't want nobody nobody sent. Manuscripts are considered by referral only. So it's clear that Faye Swetky of the Swetky Agency didn't bother to read the page on how to submit.

We've received a second submission from her this month. It's apparent that she throws submissions out there to see if any stick. Not exactly the mark of an agent who is working for her client, targeting those publishers most likely to want what she is offering.

Her client Dawn Turzio has written a book about New York fire fighter wives, apparently, and the query came to our office where we specialize in books with an Irish influence. Historical fiction in particular, although our CITY THAT WORKS imprint was set up to publish works set in the Chicago area where the Irish have historically supported the auld sod. So clearly there's no link between a modern work of fiction set in New York City, but Faye Swetky didn't let that small detail stop her.

And I am sure that  author Dawn Turzio, with all her credentials, has faith in her agent and expects Ms. Swetky to find her a publisher.

I hope that Ms. Turzio is not paying for the service. If she had done some research and used Google to its full potential, she would have found a thread on the discussion forum at in which things are pretty much laid out about how this agent is an agent in name only.If she knew in advance, you would hope that she would have avoided what is sure to be disappointment when nothing comes of the blanket submissions.

Did Ms. Turzio go the traditional route of finding an agent, writing up a query and utilizing beta readers to vet that query? Did she search the internet to find out how to query, for that matter?

There is so much information out there for budding authors that it's almost staggering, but querying is a definite process with its own set of rules and formats. It's work, yes, and frustrating beyond measure, but there are no shortcuts to getting published. Literary agents can't take shortcuts either, and send out queries at random in the hope they get lucky, like the blind squirrel finding a nut.

And speaking of squirrels, you know that if you feed one it will just keep coming around. With that in mind, I won't be replying to Ms. Swetky's missive. It only encourages her to send more, and our submission requirements are simple but stringent. If you aren't recommended to us, we won't consider the manuscript. We are a niche publisher with very particular needs, a very narrow focus.

No matter how brilliant F.D.N Wives might be, it doesn't meet any of our requirements.

Sorry, Ms. Turzio. But you really should find yourself a good agent who can get your book into the hands of a publisher who is looking for mainstream, contemporary women's fiction.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

This Is Why There Is An Obesity Epidemic

You don't have to hunt down your meal anymore. You don't have to expend calories to acquire more. Watch one of those survivalist TV shows and you'll notice that every contestant loses weight when there isn't a 24-hour McDonald's nearby. Getting something to eat was not all that easy when man first appeared on the planet. Now, it's too easy.

And it isn't as if McDonald's puny burgers are the biggest offenders. Ray Kroc may have started things off, but the burger has ballooned into a trendy venue for culinary expression. The calories just follow right along with the chef's creativity.

After a day of desk-jockeying, you head out for dinner and there's no hunting or gathering involved, short of walking the aisles of the grocery store to scrounge up some grub. No chasing after animals with your spear in these modern times. The protein you crave is right there in a tidy styrofoam tray, shrink wrapped and chilled for freshness.

What if you don't have time to cook, or you want to enjoy a meal that someone else has prepared?

Again, you don't have to hunt down anything. Maybe you walk a block or two from the parking spot, but you aren't exactly burning up the calories you took in at lunch. You grow weary as you traverse the concrete plains of Chicago, but there up ahead is the beacon, the sign that tells you a burger is just up ahead. Unlike the prey of the hunter, this one isn't going to run away when you get close to it. The restaurant just sits there, inviting you in.

If your feet take you to M Burger, you won't be thinking about calories but about taste and flavor and juicy beef between two slices of, between two other sandwiches!

This is why there is an obesity epidemic. When people think it's a good idea to serve a sandwich made with other sandwiches, there's no hope for coronary arteries or shrinking waistlines.

Who had the idea to take a fried meat patty and combine it with a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches? Someone who didn't like the way the cheese merged with the beef on their cheeseburger?

Was it the same person who felt that the beef wasn't enough, but a nice crispy-fried chicken cutlet would really set things off?

The secret, off-menu creation that has enough calories to fuel a family of five for a week consists of a burger with chicken and of course you have to throw on a couple of slices of bacon, not to forget the slice of cheese that goes on because everyone loves a cheeseburger unless you're keeping kosher (see also 'hold the bacon'). Take all that, and put it between two grilled cheese sandwiches, and you have the Barnyard Burger, Roman style.

It isn't all bad, of course. There's lettuce on the pile of protein and fat. That's a vegetable, if you're more of a carnivore than you realized.

And it is delicious.

That's why we're getting fat. We have access to food that tastes really, really, really good, but we don't have to make any effort to get it. What's the solution? Food that's bland, unpalatable and unattractive, perhaps with some foul odors thrown in.

It's that, or run a few miles and pretend you're hunting buffalo on the open prairie before sitting down to a Barnyard Burger. Just don't make it a habit. Your heart will thank you. Your taste buds? Not so happy with the deprivation..