Book Briefs: Four Works of Fiction & Nonfiction from the American Southwest – #bookreview

A Texas Jubilee: Thirteen Stories from the Lone Star State
James Ward Lee
(TCU Press – paperback, Kindle)

James Ward Lee, former English department chairman at the University of North Texas, has earned his membership in the Texas Literary Hall of Fame the hard way. He has written numerous books, short stories and other well-received works.

A Texas Jubilee, his entertaining and absorbing new short story collection, focuses on life in fictitious Bodark Springs, a small East Texas town, in the 1930s and 1940s.

The interconnected stories often have colorful characters, richly detailed local conflicts, and troubling events such as the arrival of an aged man claiming to be Jesse James and the occasional appearance of a bike messenger who delivers World War II death-notice telegrams. One of the best stories, “A Blue and Gray Christmas,” reflects on a grandmother’s early childhood memories of the Civil War.

Unsolved Mysteries of the Old West
W.C. Jameson
(Taylor Trade - paperback, Kindle)

Many of  writer and treasure hunter W.C. Jameson’s books and articles have entertained readers who love “the Old West and a good mystery.” This second edition contains 21 “baffling” tales that still stir up people’s imaginations and sometimes continue a few disputes.

One of the best of the “unsolved mysteries” in Jameson’s book involves an alien spacecraft that may–or may not–have crashed north of Fort Worth, Texas, in 1897, in the tiny town of Aurora.

On the Edge: Water, Immigration and Politics in the Southwest
Char Miller
(Trinity University Press – paperback, Kindle)

The American Southwest is a hotbed of water-supply controversies and immigration disputes, plus sharp political clashes over how to deal with both major issues.

In On the Edge, former Trinity University history professor Char Miller’s taut, insightful essays zero in on “the American Southwest, a region I have known, loved and misunderstood.” He reflects on San Antonio and Los Angeles and what is happening to “the borderlands that stretch between them.”

He puts special emphasis on sustainability and “the environmental pressures, judicial struggles, social injustices, and economic disparities that have troubled the communities I have resided in.”

Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence
Edited by Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso
(Arte Publico Press - paperback)

Mexico’s gruesome narcotics wars and heightened U.S. border security efforts have disrupted many economic, cultural and personal ties between the American Southwest and Mexico.

This  eye-opening book’s 12 bilingual essays highlight key losses, including the casual ease with which tourists used to cross the border. One writer notes: “The typical American tourist (including Mexican Americans) had no passport; it wasn’t needed. They often did not plan ahead. People walked or drove across the border at El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, San Diego/Tijuana and…Nogales/Nogales…and found a vibrant restaurant with delicious food and even better music. This happenstance border crossing allowed for adventures and exploring for the day….”

While some of the essays are dispiriting, hope also emerges within this important collection.

Si Dunn

Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Apricot Jam and Other Stories’ – #bookreview #fiction #Russia – updated

Apricot Jam and Other Stories
By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
(Counterpoint, $28.00)

A major literary work is now available for readers who relish the works of modern Russian writers, particularly the ones who rebelled against communism’s restrictive censorship and social, legal and economic rigidities and achieved international acclaim during the final decades of the Soviet Union.

Apricot Jam and Other Stories,  an engrossing collection of eight short stories by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, has been published by Berkeley, Calif.-based Counterpoint.

Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, primarily on the strength of three novels, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, In The First Circle (better known as The First Circle), and Cancer Ward. These books shone glaring, shocking spotlights on the Gulag, a USSR government agency that operated a brutal, sprawling system of forced labor camps for political prisoners, criminals and others who ran afoul of  Soviet laws, officials, informants and secret police.

Significantly, the eight short stories in this 352-page collection are making their first appearance in English. They were initially published in Russia in 1994, after Solzhenitsyn ended years of exile in the West and returned to his native land. He died in 2008.

The title story provides an excellent example of the unusual “binary” writing style that Solzhenitsyn employed in these eight works of short fiction. In “Apricot Jam,” the son of a kulak (a relatively affluent peasant) has almost lost everything in his life except the memories of the apricot jam his mother used to make for him before communism and collective agriculture destroyed his family and his farm. He is now nearly starving to death while serving internal exile and doing hard labor in a distant town. In desperation, he writes a letter to a famous Russian writer who has published a book touting that the “meaning of life is labor in a communist society.”  He humbly begs the famous writer to send him a food parcel, because he is working hard to try to stay alive, yet now nearing death from lack of nourishment.

In the second part of the “Apricot Jam” story, the exile’s letter has arrived at the famous writer’s elegant dacha outside Moscow. There, the famous writer entertains a professor of cinema, as well as a neighbor, the head of the literary department in the State Publishing House, a man who “held the reins of the whole of literature in his hands….”

In the posh dacha, the men also enjoy some apricot jam, but it is just one minor trapping amid the surrounding opulence as they speak in praise of Comrade Stalin, socialist realism, and how “Creating an art of world significance–that is the task of the writer today.” The apricot jam briefly figures into their discussion as a symbol for a type of  “amber transparency” that “should be present in literary language, as well.” 

Soon, the famous writer mentions the unusual letter he has received from the exiled, starving worker. And, as they discuss its text, their final analysis of it is devastating.

In the story “The New Generation,” a principled and disciplined engineering professor finally gives in to pleadings by a failing student and hands him a passing grade. The professor is, after all, under orders to “make allowances” for the students now being sent to him from factories, some of whom would be “better off making pots and pans” rather than being forced to become engineers.

 Two years later, in the second part of the story’s binary structure, the engineering professor is arrested, and his interrogator from the GPU (the State Political Directorate) is none other than the failing student who had talked him into a passing grade. The ex-student cannot undo the professor’s arrest, yet he can and does, as a sort of return favor, offer him three grim choices of fates. 

Solzhenitsyn served with distinction as a captain in the Red Army during World War II, but was arrested after he wrote a letter that included disparaging remarks about Josef Stalin’s leadership of the war effort. The writer spent the next eight years in Soviet labor camps and another three years in internal exile.

Much of his fiction in Apricot Jam and Other Stories draws its creative spark from his grim wartime and Gulag experiences. Yet some of the stories also deal with post-Soviet issues in the times of Yeltsin and Gorbachev. For example, in the concluding story, “Fracture Points,” characters face the difficulty of trying to adapt to new freedoms and new economic structures at a time when “[t]he word ‘privatize’ was as frightening as a sea monster.”

If you have never before read any Solzhenitsyn, Apricot Jam and Other Stories can be a good introduction that may inspire you to also delve into his earlier works of fiction, particularly the ones that brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature 41 years ago.

This new book, translated by “TK” and published by Counterpoint, demonstrates once again why Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn continues to deserve his ranking as one of the world’s great writers.

 – Si Dunn

#

Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Apricot Jam and Other Stories’ – #bookreview

Apricot Jam and Other Stories
By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
(Counterpoint, $28.00)

A major literary work is now available for readers who relish the works of modern Russian writers, particularly the ones who rebelled against communism’s restrictive censorship and social, legal and economic rigidities and achieved international acclaim during the final decades of the Soviet Union.

Apricot Jam and Other Stories,  an engrossing collection of eight short stories by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is now available from Berkeley, Calif.-based Counterpoint.

Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, primarily on the strength of three novels, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, In The First Circle (better known as The First Circle), and Cancer Ward. These books shone glaring, shocking spotlights on the Gulag, a USSR government agency that operated a brutal, sprawling system of forced labor camps for political prisoners, criminals and others who ran afoul of  Soviet laws, officials, informants and secret police.

Significantly, the eight short stories in this 352-page collection are making their first appearance in English. They were initially published in Russia in 1994, after Solzhenitsyn ended years of exile in the West and returned to his native land. He died in 2008.

The title story provides an excellent example of the unusual “binary” writing style that Solzhenitsyn employed in these eight works of short fiction. In “Apricot Jam,” the son of a kulak (a relatively affluent peasant) has almost lost everything in his life except the memories of the apricot jam his mother used to make for him before communism and collective agriculture destroyed his family and his farm. He is now nearly starving to death while serving internal exile and doing hard labor in a distant town. In desperation, he writes a letter to a famous Russian writer who has published a book touting that the “meaning of life is labor in a communist society.”  He humbly begs the famous writer to send him a food parcel, because he is working hard to try to stay alive, yet now nearing death from lack of nourishment.

In the second part of the “Apricot Jam” story, the exile’s letter has arrived at the famous writer’s elegant dacha outside Moscow. There, the famous writer entertains a professor of cinema, as well as a neighbor, the head of the literary department in the State Publishing House, a man who “held the reins of the whole of literature in his hands….”

In the posh dacha, the men also enjoy some apricot jam, but it is just one minor trapping amid the surrounding opulence as they speak in praise of Comrade Stalin, socialist realism, and how “Creating an art of world significance–that is the task of the writer today.” The apricot jam briefly figures into their discussion as a symbol for a type of  “amber transparency” that “should be present in literary language, as well.” 

Soon, the famous writer mentions the unusual letter he has received from the exiled, starving worker. And, as they discuss its text, their final analysis of it is devastating.

In the story “The New Generation,” a principled and disciplined engineering professor finally gives in to pleadings by a failing student and hands him a passing grade. The professor is, after all, under orders to “make allowances” for the students now being sent to him from factories, some of whom would be “better off making pots and pans” rather than being forced to become engineers.

 Two years later, in the second part of the story’s binary structure, the engineering professor is arrested, and his interrogator from the GPU (the State Political Directorate) is none other than the failing student who had talked him into a passing grade. The ex-student cannot undo the professor’s arrest, yet he can and does, as a sort of return favor, offer him three grim choices of fates. 

Solzhenitsyn served with distinction as a captain in the Red Army during World War II, but was arrested after he wrote a letter that included disparaging remarks about Josef Stalin’s leadership of the war effort. The writer spent the next eight years in Soviet labor camps and another three years in internal exile.

Much of his fiction in Apricot Jam and Other Stories draws its creative spark from his grim wartime and Gulag experiences. Yet some of the stories also deal with post-Soviet issues in the times of Yeltsin and Gorbachev. For example, in the concluding story, “Fracture Points,” characters face the difficulty of trying to adapt to new freedoms and new economic structures at a time when “[t]he word ‘privatize’ was as frightening as a sea monster.”

If you have never before read any Solzhenitsyn, Apricot Jam and Other Stories can be a good introduction that may inspire you to also delve into his earlier works of fiction, particularly the ones that brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature 41 years ago.

This new book, translated by “TK” and published by Counterpoint, demonstrates once again why Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn continues to deserve his ranking as one of the world’s great writers.

 – Si Dunn

#

Faking It in the School for Tricksters

School for Tricksters: A Novel in Stories
By Chris Gavaler
(SMU Press, $23.95)

Amazon Link: http://amzn.to/fjgemh

Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School remains a controversial chapter in U.S. history, more than 90 years after the school was shut down and converted to a military hospital. Later, it became the site of the U.S. Army’s War College.

The Carlisle campus is the central location in author and playwright Chris Gavaler’s engaging new novel, School for Tricksters, set in the early 1900s. The book was published recently by Dallas-based Southern Methodist University (SMU) Press.

Between 1879 and 1918, nearly 12,000 Native American children from more than a hundred tribes were sent to Carlisle for “education.” The campus followed strict military rules, and its administrators and teachers were supposed to try to strip away Native American cultures, customs, languages and religions. Students took Caucasian names and followed customs and religions of white Americans. They wore contemporary clothing when not wearing Carlisle uniforms.

Carlisle soon became the model for other Indian boarding schools sponsored by the U.S. government. The schools also became places where orphanages and parents sometimes dumped children who, in reality, had little or no tribal blood. This is the circumstance for several characters in School for Tricksters.

“You know how much white trash we got in here?” the school’s head disciplinarian, Mr. Henderson, asks Sylvester Long, a new arrival from North Carolina, just after Sylvester gives him a fake Cherokee name instead of his real name. “Kids with barely any Indian blood. Trying to steal an education from the government.”

Henderson, in Gavaler’s tale, is unaware that Sylvester has white and African-American relatives, as well as Native American blood, and is the son of a black janitor. In the early 1900s, having any black heritage at all is grounds for immediate expulsion from Carlisle.

Another new student, Iva Miller, arrives from the Oklahoma Territory believing she is part Cherokee or possibly Shawnee, whatever her father told the orphanage when he abandoned her. In truth, she has no Indian roots.

School for Tricksters becomes an engrossing coming-of-age story as Sylvester and Iva forge new identities built on falsehoods, while others around them also try to build new lives or maintain careers, sometimes with help from lies, deceptions or corruption. One of the book’s underlying themes is that we are all tricksters to some degree, at some point in our lives.

Significantly, the book’s main characters are real people used fictionally. Along with Sylvester and Iva, they include: Jim Thorpe, Carlisle’s stellar Sac and Fox football player who won gold medals at the 1912 Olympics; William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, a Carlisle athlete of questioned heritage who achieved college and professional gridiron coaching greatness; Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, Carlisle’s athletic coach who became a national sports icon; and Marianne Moore, a Carlisle typing teacher who became one of America’s leading poets.

Chris Gavaler’s fiction is drawn from extensive factual research and interviews. Also, each chapter is a separate short story that provides different perspectives of key characters as they adjust to Carlisle and Caucasian-dominated culture.

The real Iva Miller became Jim Thorpe’s first wife while he was a major-league baseball player. The real Sylvester Long achieved fame as a journalist, author and actor known as “Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance.” His tribal claims, however, eventually were disproved, and his 1932 death was ruled suicide.

Despite its underlying grimness, School for Tricksters is refreshingly unusual fiction. It also is another stark reminder of how Native Americans have been treated, feted, mistreated and exploited.

Si Dunn

#