Procedures for Underground By Margaret Atwood

Procedures for Underground was Margaret Atwood’s fourth book of poetry; it remainsprocedures one of the relatively few early works of hers that has yet to be re-issued in its complete form.  Most readers—myself included—encountered poems from this collection in Atwood’s Selected Poems 1, which featured nineteen or so of Underground’s forty-four poems.

The title poem details a journey to the “underland”, where “the earth has a green sun/and the rivers flow backwards.”  Atwood avoids using the expected Greek underworld figures and themes here, inventing instead her own original mythology where the voyager encounters former friends “changed and dangerous” with messages that must be conveyed to those above ground.  This gift of border-crossing is ambivalent, as the poem indicates at its close: “Few will seek your help with love, none without fear.”  The majority of the poems in this collection relate similar crossings.  Atwood’s poetry has a strong narrative and visual component, drawing (sometimes projecting) the reader immediately into the fictional worlds she creates.  Several poems stage the idea of transcendent voyeurism, lending a cinematic quality to the writing that would translate well into short, stop-motion animated films.  Figures familiar from Atwood’s previous books are all here: drowned women, phantom siblings, shared dream scapes, estranged couples and distant family members, and the book as a whole boasts a haunting, somber beauty throughout.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)


The Major Ordeals of the Mind, and the Countless Minor Ones By Henri Michaux

major ordealsIn the 1950s, French writer/poet/artist Henri Michaux began experimenting with mescaline, LSD and hashish in an effort to understand the workings of the human mind.  An earlier book of his, Miserable Miracle, is an immediate journal of these experiments, while Major Ordeals is Michaux’s attempt to make sense of and draw conclusions from these experiences.  “Just as the stomach does not digest itself, just as it is essential that the stomach do no such thing, the mind is constructed in such a way that it cannot grasp itself, cannot directly, continuously grasp its own mechanism and action, having other matter to grasp,” he writes in the introductory chapter “The Marvelous Normal”.  The use of hallucinogenic drugs reveals this otherwise ungraspable “mechanism and action” to Michaux, and the majority of Major Ordeals is spent documenting the many vertiginous states that leave the author helpless.  Rather than the “expanded consciousness” motif that is the takeaway from Aldous Huxley’s similar The Doors of Perception, Michaux conveys instead a modest amazement at the amount of unconscious, fugitive labor the mind must perform for human beings to be able to engage in even the simplest tasks.  Because Michaux is a poet, the descriptions of the drugged states are so vivid that the reader experiences something like a contact derangement by simply engaging with the text. Huxley’s book may have launched a thousand visionary acid trips, but Michaux’s comes to grips with the inevitable philosophical hangover that awaits the traveler upon their return.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin

Marcus, fresh out of foster care following his mother’s untimely death, goes to live withgrief cottage his mother’s aunt Charlotte, a solitary sort who paints landscapes of the South Carolina island where she resides.

Marcus, despite his recent personal turmoil, is a dependable kid.  Being as his mother was a single working parent, he’s learned how to run a household, and this puts him in good stead with his great-aunt.  Although Charlotte keeps to herself, the two get along a fair amount, and Marcus learns to give her room, which in turn gives him plenty of time to sort out his island surroundings.  Two things of his interest are a clutch of loggerhead turtle eggs in the dunes next to Charlotte’s house, and a ruined house at the north end of the island that the locals call Grief Cottage, named because of a family who died there when Hurricane Hazel hit the island in 1954.

Marcus obsesses about the cottage, particularly after he first senses a presence there, and then more so when the ghost appears to him.  It’s in Marcus’s mind that the ghost is the teenage son of the family that perished, and identifying this family becomes his main goal.  That, and being the caregiver for Charlotte, who hurts herself during a fall.

Marcus, despite being a solitary type, and caring for one, finds that there are some things that he doesn’t have to shoulder alone.  He meets some unlikely wayfarers on his island journey of self-discovery, including the unforgettable Lachicotte Hayes, antique car restorer extraordinaire and Charlotte’s close friend, who becomes a stalwart supporter of Marcus, and Coral Upchurch, a wheelchair-bound ninety-five year old who knows more about Grief Cottage than the locally produced history books of the area.

Grief Cottage is a quietly written but lively novel.  There’s no sensationalism or mind-blowing action here, just an incisive pondering of bereavement and guilt, as told by an eleven-year old kid who’s seen too much for his lifetime.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch

love & gelatoIf you have ever had the urge to see Florence, Italy, but don’t have the time or resources to go, then read Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch. This young adult novel lets readers see the city through the eyes of a sixteen year old girl named Carolina (pronounced ‘Caro-leena’) Emerson.  The novel starts out a bit melancholy due to the loss of Lina’s mother, the famous photographer Hadley Emerson.  However, as a last request, Lina’s mother persuades Lina to leave her best friend, Addie, and her life in Seattle, to go live in Florence, Italy with the mysterious Howard Mercer. 

Lina stays with Howard in a unique home, where she meets Lorenzo “Ren” Farrara, Thomas Heath, and a few others who attend the international school she will also go to if she decides to stay.  These fun-loving natives introduce her to the city’s famous and not famous sights, such as the Duomo, and mansions galore.  The Duomo is a large cathedral that took 150 years to build and has a large dome on its top that tourists are free to climb and see.  All are explored by Lina in her hunt to discover the truth about her mother while dealing with a love triangle between her new close friend and the Italian adonis look-alike that she first fell for. 

This book captivates from beginning to end, and exposes the reader to new places without so much as leaving the bedroom.  It also provides insight to the mind of a sixteen year old trying to balance a new life, a social life, and maintaining her old life all in one.

(Amanda Sanson, Central Library)


The Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers

The Queen of Katwe is the true story of Phiona, a Ugandan girl from Katwe, one of thequeen of Katwe world’s most dreadful slums.  Amazingly, despite her desperate poverty, she learns chess well enough to represent her country in international chess Olympiads.

As the book begins, Phiona and her family often have only one meal a day.  Since the slum is in a swamp, the floor of their shack is frequently deep in water.  There are no free schools in the area, and since Phiona’s mother has almost no money to pay for tuition, Phiona has had very little education.

When Phiona is nine years old, she sees a man teaching a group of boys how to play a game – chess – that she’s never seen.  Those who come to learn chess get a bowl of porridge each day.  She wants to learn – and to fill her empty stomach.  She proves to have a talent for chess, as well as great determination.  Within a few years, Phiona is winning games in international competitions and discovering such wonders as airplanes and flush toilets!  She also receives a scholarship to return to school.  The money that Phiona receives from this book and from a movie contract makes it possible for her family to move from the slum and into a home that is free from flooding.

This inspirational tale is fascinating, even to people – like me – who don’t play chess.

The movie based on this book won awards from the African-American Film Critics Association and from the Women Film Critics Circle.  It stars David Olelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and Madina Nalwanga.

The book’s author lives in Chapel Hill.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

victoriaIf you saw the Masterpiece presentation “Victoria” on PBS, as I did, I recommend that you also read this novel by the series’ screenwriter.  I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read it, since I already knew the story, but the novel, which gives deeper insights into the characters, fascinated me as much as the TV series did.

Most of us think of Queen Victoria as an elderly woman, but as this novel opens, she is a teenager, under the control of her mother and her mother’s adviser.  She sleeps on a cot near her mother’s bed and has never been alone in a room with a man.  Her mother does not even approve of her going up or down stairs without holding her governess’ hand.  She has learned that protesting is useless; all she can do is wait until her seriously ill uncle, the king, dies.  If she has reached her 18th birthday by the time of his death, she will be queen – no regency required – and able to make decisions for herself.

That day comes, and she declares her independence by using her middle name, Victoria, instead of the name that she’s used since birth.  As a young, inexperienced queen, she makes mistakes and learns that not all of her subjects like her.  In fact, some consider her emotionally unstable and too inexperienced to rule.  However, the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, takes her under his wing, tutoring her in the role she must play.  Her relationship with this politician, old enough to be her father, becomes personal enough for some people to call her “Mrs. Melbourne.”

Then her cousin Albert comes from his home in Germany for a visit.  Will they marry, as their families think they should?  Victoria is determined that this will not happen; she met Albert three years earlier and declared him to be boring.  Reading about their visit will prove to be anything but boring, no matter how much or how little you know about Victoria’s life!

Goodwin, who has a history degree from Cambridge, has done extensive research and bases much of Victoria on the young queen’s diaries.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Weight of This World by David Joy

Aiden McCall, orphaned at age twelve, is soon taken in by his buddy Thad Broom, andweight the two grow up inseparable, albeit in an unusual circumstance.  They live in a trailer down the hill from Thad’s mother’s house.  Thad basically got kicked out by his stepfather, and he fends for himself.  His mother is distant to him.

Flash forward to when the two are twenty-four.  Thad has finished a tour of duty in Afghanistan; he’s a damaged soul with a messed up back and too many memories of the front.  Aiden has spent most of his young adulthood committing petty crimes and riding the pre-recession building boom in their corner of western North Carolina.  Of course, the jobs are largely gone, and Aiden and Thad eke it out filching copper from the shells of unfinished houses and doing an occasional drug deal.

A chance visit with their local meth dealer finds our two friends witnessing a horrible accident that leaves them with a serious stash and more money than either have seen in years.

For Aiden, this windfall, ill-fortuned as it is for some, is the ticket out of their dead-end town.  If only it were this easy.  As it is, Thad has the gift of gab when he’s on a meth bender, so too many other people become interested in what the two have.

Interwoven with Aiden and Thad’s stories is that of April, Thad’s mother, who still has the house up the hill and has her own dreams of leaving.  She has always carried an internal burden that has kept her cold to her son.  It’s ironic that she and Aiden have been intimate since before Thad got back from the army.  The two men are still the best of friends, but this affair is certainly a friction point.

The Weight of This World is hardcore grit lit, a tale of woe in which nothing is a clear-cut choice.  Our heroes, as they were, are beat-up and doomed people who wish for better things than fate is willing to give them.  I found the book a sad but well-written read.

This is the second novel by David Joy; read his first (Where All Light Tends to Go).  It’s perhaps even grittier than this one.

Fans of Daniel Woodrell and Ron Rash – take note.

(William Hicks, Information Services)