Review: Ohio

Ohio

Ohio, Stephen Markley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: Four characters, acquainted with each other in high school return to their home town in Ohio ten years after graduation on the same night, unbeknownst to each other, driven by various longings reflecting lives that turned out differently than they’d hoped.

There are two Ohios. There is the Ohio of big and middle-sized cities, most within the rustbelt, apart from Columbus and Cincinnati, struggling to re-make themselves. Then there is the rest of Ohio. After you subtract the first Ohio, there are about 75 counties, each with a county seat of five to thirty thousand or so people. This story could have taken place in any of them. The largest city in the county, a decent size high school, farmland and a few local industries that employ much of the town. Many were devastated in the Great Recession of 2008. Those who could have left. Or they enlisted, some returning physically and emotionally wounded, some returning in pine coffins. The towns struggle with the opioid epidemic that is ravaging the state. There is the wistful memory of what was, combined with a hopelessness.

That is the backdrop of Stephen Markley’s debut novel, and captures the lived reality of many in my home state, when you get beyond the Chamber of Commerce promotional materials. The disturbing thought as I read this account is that it is a narrative that extends far beyond Ohio, across our national landscape.

The story begins in 2007 with a memorial parade for Rick Brinklan, the son of New Canaan’s chief of police. A bereaved family. A former girlfriend who cannot speak. A former friend who fails to show up. Fast forward six years to a hot summer night in 2013. Four graduates from the local high school, unbeknownst to each other, return to the town the same night.

Bill Ashcraft, an increasingly radical political activist, carries a mysterious package to Kaylen Lynn, for a substantial payoff, Rick’s former girlfriend, who had slept with Bill as well. Stacey Moore, a lesbian and ecologically oriented student of literature returns to New Canaan in her search for Lisa Han, her first love, who broke off with her, and then mysteriously disappeared from her life, apart from a few communications, which oddly, tracked back to New Canaan. She meets Lisa’s mom and an old high school music teacher, but fails to find a clue to Lisa. Dan Eaton, having lost an eye after his third tour of duty, in Afghanistan, returns to see his old flame, Hailey Kowalczyk, now married. Tina Ross drives across the state, leaving the first man who really loved her to avenge herself for a high school sexual assault by Todd Beaufort and his football buddies.

Markley tells the stories of each separately, moving back and forth between high school episodes, subsequent life events, and the present of the summer of 2013. There are points they, and the others they knew who are still in New Canaan intersect. We begin to see that high school wasn’t simply “the best time of our lives” but for each, a darker time that marked their lives, even ten years later. Violence done in high school, known and unknown, comes full circle in violence. Idealism and patriotism dissolves into disillusion and anger and grief.

There is a movement between veneer and reality–the church upbringing and FCA Bible studies, and sexual exploration and violence; the Friday night lights of a powerhouse football teams and cheerleaders, and the horrible things done at unsupervised drinking parties, the betrayals of friends.

The book portrays a bleak view of the world evident in the last words of the book, as Bill and Stacey part after meeting once more, several months after the summer night of 2013:

” ‘Keep searching, Moore.’ He pulled away so he could look her in the eye. ‘Fight like hell. It’s the only thing I’ve ever truly believed. Always, always, always fight like hell.’

And they were gone, these infinitesimal creatures, walking the surface of time, trying and failing to articulate the dreams of ages, born and wandering across the lonesome heavens.”

Heaven for them is empty, dreams fail and die, and yet each of the four in some ways fights on. Danny cares for a wounded buddy, both on the battlefield and at home until he dies. Tina ends up in a prison ward, trying to find hope and forgiveness in the Bible studies she leads. Bill and Stacey keep searching. They make us ask why we keep hope alive in a seemingly hopeless world, why we dream and try to articulate those dreams.

And then there is the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance, resolved in the book, but not in this review. You just have to read this haunting, troubling, and powerful work. It both is and is not about Ohio. It is a reflection on the disjunction between the American dream and American reality, that a rising generation is struggling to make sense of, and with which the postcard towns of our American landscape are trying to come to terms.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: When Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl rent a duplex apartment from Elena Richardson, the matriarch of a successful Shaker Heights, Ohio family, it sets in motion a series of events, “little fires” that culminate in a fire that burns down the Richardson home, and transforms the lives of both families.

Elena Richardson, matriarch of a seemingly perfect and successful family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, sleeps in one Saturday to awaken to a house on fire–little fires started in the center of each of the beds in the house. Elena, the keeper of rules in a community of rules watches the house burn down as her “perfect” children and husband gather–all except Izzy, who always pushed against the rules and is no where to be found. It is Izzy who set the fires, and has fled. How did all this happen?

The little fires begin when Mia Warren and her high school daughter Pearl rent a duplex apartment Elena owns. The two of them have lived a gypsy life, living only long enough in any one community for Mia to compose a series of photographs, the sales of which, along with odd jobs provide enough for them to live on, before they pack what fits into their VW Rabbit and move on. But this time they hope to stay.

Little fires. Elena’s son Moody is curious and meets Pearl and instantly falls in love and draws Pearl into the affluent life of the family with older brother Trip, and sisters Lexie and Izzy.

Little fires. Elena visits the duplex and sees Mia’s art–photographs altered or with other objects superimposed that she sends to a New York dealer. Hearing Mia works at a Chinese restaurant to make ends meet, she invites Mia to clean and cook in exchange for the rent in what seems a noble gesture of supporting the arts.

Little fires. Izzy is suspended for standing up to a bullying music teacher, and opens up to Mia, who asks, “what are you going to do?” opening up possibilities Izzy has never thought of before. Izzy begins assisting Mia in her work.

Little fires. Lexie and Izzy see a photograph of a younger Mia holding an infant (Pearl) in the Cleveland Museum of Art by a famous New York photographer, Pauline Hawthorne. They talk Mrs. Richardson, who is a reporter for a local newspaper, to investigate the back story. In the process, she uncovers secrets Mia has kept even from her own daughter.

Little fires. Mia figures out that the Asian-American baby who is a ward of the state that the McCullough’s, close and childless friends of the Richardsons, want to adopt, is the baby her co-worker at the Chinese restaurant, Bebe, left at a fire station when she had been abandoned and in post-partum despair. Mia lets this information slip, leading to a custody case that is all over the press, and that divides the community, and fires Elena’s resentment of Mia, who seems to represent everything Elena is not, and perhaps turned away from for her successful, rule-abiding existence.

Little fires. Pearl and Trip become involved, as much at Pearl’s initiative as Trip’s, destroying Moody’s friendship with Pearl. Pearl helps Lexie get an abortion, even letting Lexie substitute Pearl’s name on the patient record, and then brings Lexie home to be cared for by Mia afterwards.

Little fires that in the end lead to the setting of little fires that burn down the house. At one point Mia talks with Izzy about how, like prairie fires, “you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over.” The fire that destroys brings new life to the prairie. The question is, will it do the same for all the people caught up in these little fires? What will Mia do about the secrets of her past that have been uncovered? And what will Elena do, seeing the destruction of her perfect life by her wayward daughter?

I was drawn to this book because the author grew up in and writes about Shaker Heights. We lived for nine years in its poorer, blue collar neighbor down the road, Maple Heights. I knew many of the places about which she wrote, ate at some of the restaurants, shopped at Shaker Square and occasionally at Heinen’s, and admired the ambiance we couldn’t touch. We knew about some of the rules. Her portrait of this earliest of model suburbs rang true.

As I read, I was drawn into this book with its interesting portrayal of people trying to do good, to keep the rules, to find and make homes and do good work, to make their way in life, and the catalytic moments when it all goes awry. I once had a friend who observed that the American dream is killing us. This book suggests how our suburban dreams may kill us, how the ideal life of successful spouses, kids in good schools groomed for Ivy League admissions, and how a life of following the rules, a life both socially conscious and socially tone deaf may destroy something of what makes us and others unique.

 

Review: Hillbilly Elegy

hillbilly-elegy

Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance. New York: Harper, 2016.

Summary: A memoir of growing up in a troubled family from the hill country of Kentucky in Middletown, Ohio, exploring why so many in the working class are struggling, and what made the difference for the author.

This book caught my attention for a number of reasons. J.D. Vance is an Ohio author. He is a graduate of The Ohio State University, as is my son who is the same age as the author. And a number of reviewers have said this book explains the appeal of Donald Trump. I was interested for another reason. As those who follow my “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” posts know, I grew up in a working class, rust belt town as well. On the opening page, he writes, “You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” That sentence could have been written about my home town.

At the same time, Vance comes from a distinctive sub-culture, the Scots-Irish hillbilly culture of eastern Kentucky, as opposed to the eastern and southern European roots of many of the people in Youngstown, although we had our share of hillbillies who had made their way north to work in the mills. Vance takes much of the first part of this book to describe his family roots–the scrappy, fiercely independent and fiercely loyal to family character of these people who would take a chain saw to someone who insulted their mother, sacrifice to no end for children and grandchildren, and fight like cats and dogs with each other. We learn of his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, estranged from each other, but who turn a corner when they see how their fighting destroyed their daughter, Vance’s mother, who struggled with alcohol and opiate addiction, lived with a series of men, creating an increasingly unstable home environment for Vance. He describes himself at the edge of the abyss, with declining grades and beginning to abuse substances. He recounts his mother’s episodes of violence, and then the utterly heartfelt apologies, with nothing changing.

The turning point came when his mother came to him to provide her with a urine sample so she could keep her job. He writes:

 “I exploded. I told Mom that if she wanted clean piss, she should stop f***ing up her life and get it from her own bladder. I told Mamaw that enabling Mom made it worse and that if she had put her foot down thirty years earlier, then maybe Mom wouldn’t be begging her son for clean piss.”

From then on, he lived with Mamaw, and describes how life improved. She insisted he study hard and in her own rough way insisted he contribute to the household, do his chores, all, with the hope that he would have a better life. After graduation, he realized that he still didn’t know entirely how to do that, and deferred college to serve in the Marines. Not only did they teach him what he was capable of physically, pushing him harder than he’d ever been pushed; they taught him life skills like balancing a checkbook and handling money. He learned to stop listening to the voices that said, “you aren’t good enough”, the pervasive hopelessness of the working class culture he’d come from. He ended up handling media relations for his base, and receiving a commendation.

He used veterans benefits to go to Ohio State, finished in two years, and gained admittance to Yale Law School. For the first time, he came to understand the importance of social capital. After his first “interview week” he observes:

“That week of interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don’t flood the job market with résumés, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network. They email a friend of a friend to make sure their name gets the look it deserves. They have their uncles call old college buddies. They have their school’s career service office set up interviews months in advance on their behalf. They have parents tell them how to dress, what to say, and whom to schmooze.”

A law professor provides him with some of her social capital, and something more, advice at a crucial point putting the focus on a budding relationship rather than a clerkship that really didn’t matter to his ambitions.

The conclusion of the book faces the stark realities of coming back to Middletown, now bereft of its steel plant, its people struggling with not only making it in lower income jobs, but opiate addiction, families in turmoil and more. These are the “left behind” working class to whom Trump appeals. Yet one gets the sense in reading Vance that he doesn’t think Trump, or any politician, can solve their problems, because the unstable lives they’ve chosen, or in the case of children, been thrust into, won’t enable and equip them to keep any jobs that may be gained. It is a crisis of spirit and hope. Vance thinks ultimately that this is a culture which needs to find its own answers, needs to come up with its own Mamaws and Papaws, and culture-renewing institutions. In contrast to other-worldly, insular fundamentalist churches and dysfunctional families, he asks:

“Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?”

Vance’s book actually gives us hope. Truth was, he didn’t need a lot of social capital to make the difference. A tough old grandmother who provided stability and structure and expectations that he could make something of himself was enough, at least to get him on the right course. That may seem over-simplistic. And it won’t help everyone. It didn’t help Vance’s mother. But it makes the point that the critical capital in any community is not the capital poured in by public and private means, but the capital of the people who live there, and whether they have the spiritual resources of hope to believe their own choices matter.

Politicians peddle panaceas. I’ve watched them do it in my home town. But the people who have made a difference and created bright spots don’t look to politicians but to God, themselves, and each other, and then put their backs to the hard work of providing role models for kids, and to rebuilding, a neighborhood and a business at a time. I appreciate Vance for naming the illusions to which politicians pander, the realities that defy political solutions, and what made the difference for him–the tough old grandma, the drill sergeant, the law professor, who took the time to provide structure, and counsel, and affirmation. Could it be that it is just that simple, and just that hard?

Ohioana Library: Ohio Writers, Ohio Subjects

ohioanaWhat do Sherwood Anderson, Anthony Doerr, Wil Haygood, Toni Morrison, Louis Bromfield, Arthur Schlesinger, David Webber, and James Thurber all have in common? They are all Ohio authors. What about David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin? They’ve written on Ohio subjects (the Wright brothers, and William Howard Taft respectively). And all of their works can be found in the Ohioana Library, located just north of downtown Columbus, sharing a building with the State Library of Ohio and the Columbus campus of the Kent State University School of Library and Information Science.

Until my wife called my attention to an interview with current director of the Ohioana Library, David Weaver, I had not known such a thing exists. Yet the Ohioana has been around since 1929, founded by Martha Kinney Cooper, who at the time was Ohio’s first lady. It was established to gather a collection of books and other materials written by Ohioans or about Ohio. Currently there are over 45,000 books, 10,000 pieces of sheet music and 20,000 files of biographical materials on Ohio authors. Sheet music? One of the most famous pieces, at least for died-in-the scarlet and gray wool Buckeyes is Frank Crumit’s Buckeye Battle Cry, written in 1919. Materials do not circulate but are accessible for research use by the general public.

The Ohioana doesn’t simply preserve the works of Ohio writers, artists, and musicians. It also is dedicated to promoting these works. There are two principle means by which they do this. One is the Ohioana Quarterly, which highlights and reviews new books added to the library and features literary events throughout Ohio. All members receive a copy but back issues can be accessed in .pdf format online.

The other way the library promotes Ohio authors and artists are through the Ohioana Book Awards, annually recognizing outstanding literary accomplishments in poetry, juvenile and young adult literature, fiction, non-fiction, and works by non-Ohio authors on Ohio subjects.

Last of all, The Ohio Library sponsors the Ohioana Book Festival in the spring of each year. The next Festival is scheduled for April 23, 2016 at the Sheraton Columbus Hotel on Capitol Square. There are seminars on various literary subjects and genres throughout the day, chances to meet a number of Ohio authors, children’s activities, food trucks (!) and of course, books!

As a native Ohioan, I would argue that our state has a rich but often under-estimated cultural heritage. The mix of urban and rural communities, of peoples from so many different ethnic heritages, the vibrant support of the arts throughout the state, and cutting edge library systems in many communities fosters a rich cultural life, and I believe a vibrant cadre of writers and artists past and present.  So it was a delight to learn about the great work the Ohioana Library is doing to preserve and promote our Ohio literary heritage.

I hope I can get down to meet the folks doing this work soon. Look for a follow-up on this one!

 

 

Review: Old Man’s War

old mans war“Growing old isn’t for sissies.” Usually this is the complaint of those who simultaneously battle the bureaucracy that doles out benefits to elders and struggle with a body that served well for decades until reflexes slow, joints ache, teeth crack, and a myriad of other things start going wrong. Meanwhile there are other losses–meaningful work, and sometimes those nearest to one that you’ve shared a life with.

Imagine signing up to be in the infantry at age 75. If enlistment came with the promise of a rejuvenated body and you are facing the battles and losses I’ve described, you might just enlist–even if you’ve no clue what lies ahead. This is the premise of John Scalzi’s first science fiction novel and the first of a four part series based on this premise.

John Perry and his wife Kathy both agreed to sign on at age 65. Only Kathy didn’t make it. At 75, the enlistment age in the Colonial Defense Force, John is inducted, which means leaving Earth never to return. He will fight to defend colonists from Earth on distant planets. And so begins a journey of discovering a cosmos he could never imagine, and that what you can’t imagine could kill you before you knew what hit you.

But the first surprise is a strange and delightful one. Enlistees are not repaired and rejuvenated versions of their former selves, but in fact transferred into new green versions of themselves in the prime of life cloned from their genetic material with significant biological and robotic enhancements including an onboard computer wired into their brains, aptly named BrainPal. Of course these people quickly discover that they are sexual athletes with incredible endurance who are incapable of getting pregnant.

Things get serious quickly enough with a drill sergeant that fits all the stereotypes. Recruits are told that most of them will be dead in two years. Survival depends on recognizing what can kill you before it does, including in one instance an intelligent and malevolent slime. Somehow Perry manages to lead a squadron and gain Ruiz’ reluctant admiration, a recurring pattern as he exercises quick, out of the box thinking in devising a novel firing solution in a battle against the Consu and even manages to be the lone survivor (barely) at Coral when the Rraey succeed at destroying a whole force by being able to pinpoint where ships will appear when they come out of skip drive.

As he loses friends and survives by killing many others he encounters the war weariness and questions faced by every infantryman. But in his near death experience on Coral, he encounters something else when rescued by Special Forces, the mysterious “Ghost Brigades” who fight separately from the rest of the Colonial Defense Force. One of the rescuers has the reconstituted body of his wife Kathy. The intersection of these two lives will determine the outcome of the war with the Rraey, who have become their most dangerous enemy.

In a first novel, John Scalzi manages to combine the exploration of perennial themes such as the Faustian bargains we make to extend our lives, the justifications of war and the toll fighting takes on even the victors. Scalzi portrays the human race’s perpetual propensity to colonize, to take from others, and justify this as defense. He weds this to an imaginative exploration of the implications of biotechnological developments already foreshadowed in university labs. In a plot that literally jumps to parallel universes, Scalzi holds up a mirror that makes us take a look at our own “brave new world.”

Ohio Authors Who Write About Ohio

Image

 

In a post on Reading Choices I mention enjoying books on “place”.  What I sometimes wish is that there were more writers of the quality of Wendell Berry or Wallace Stegner who wrote about my home state of Ohio. Ohio is an interesting place for more than just its swing state politics. From the absolutely flat drained swampland of northwest Ohio to the Appalachian foothills of eastern Ohio, the state is topographically interesting–even without the dramatic features of mountains or oceans. It is culturally diverse from Little Italy in Cleveland to the Somali community in Columbus to Over the Rhine in Cincinnati. And then there is small town Ohio…

Small town Ohio has been the inspiration for some of  writers of place.  Helen Hooven Santmyer wrote her massive novel And the Ladies of the Club about four generations in a fictional small town based on her home town of Xenia. I haven’t read it, but it is one of the more striking examples of Ohioana. Another that I have read is Sherwood Anderson whose bleak Winesburg, Ohio chronicles a small town in northwest Ohio based on his boyhood in Clyde, Ohio.

Louis Bromfield was a best selling novelist from the 1920s to the 1940s. He eventually moved back to is hometown of Mansfield, Ohio and established a farm he named Malabar Farm. He wrote some of the first works about sustainable agriculture based on his experiences of trying to renew the worn out soils of this land. His books Pleasant Valley and Malabar Farm and From My Experience: The Pleasures and Miseries of Life on a Farm chronicle his love of the land and agricultural efforts. They precede by twenty years or more many of the ecological and sustainable agriculture books of the seventies, eighties and more recently.

One of my favorite Ohio writers who did write pieces about his (and my current) hometown was James Thurber. I first became acquainted with Thurber when William Windom visited our campus doing stage “readings” of Thurber in the years after his comedy series based on Thurber, My World and Welcome to It. His humorous essays which appeared in The New Yorker included humorous sketches of growing up in Columbus including “The Night the Bed Fell.”

A number of other highly recognized authors were raised or lived for some time in our state. A  list appears on WOSU’s Ohioana Authors site, which features audio clips about each of the listed authors, some of which I have linked to above. They include Arthur Schlesinger,Toni Morrison, poet Nikki Giovanni, Ohio historical fiction writer Allan Eckart and Nancy Drew mystery writer Mildred Benson (who my wife met when they both worked for The Toledo Blade).

Who are some of your favorite authors who come from your state or country?  Are there writers you like who write about place?