Turtle Point Press: 76 pp., $10 paper
Memory without self-pity, regret or despair: Who ever heard of such a thing? Could it be that we find ourselves in some post-post-Freudian land where explanations are unnecessary and blame is irrelevant? That’s how Susan Barnes writes about an Alaskan childhood in “Earthquake.”
The novella fairly hums with creation: beavers, blue jays, grizzlies, tadpoles and crows. There’s a kind of childish violence: of crushing frogs and throwing cats in a lake. The landscape is bigger than life, certainly bigger than anything in Massachusetts, where the young narrator moves with her sister and father after her parents divorce (two younger sisters stay with her mother). “In Alaska all things are large. You can notice it by moving to Massachusetts and comparing blueberries, squirrels, rhubarb, blue jays or anything else that moves or grows. Blueberries in Massachusetts looked like something was wrong. I felt like I was eating sad food for a long time, like runts of the litter.”
Barnes, a painter whose work is exhibited in museums across the country, knows just what to include and what to leave out. She knows how to create an ending so seamless it’s almost a beginning. As for the divorce, well, the child mostly remembers the green couch her parents sat on when they told her.
My Colombian War
A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind
Henry Holt: 304 pp., $26
In 1977, at age 15, Silvana Paternostro left Colombia, moving with her family to Detroit. Twenty years later, she became fascinated with stories told in the news and elsewhere about the country she left behind, tales of landowners, guerrillas, paramilitaries guarding landowners’ property and drug lords (like Pablo Escobar, who was killed in 1993).
She didn’t understand even the rudimentary geography of her birthplace, much less its politics, but she was skeptical of the stories spinning out of Washington. She became a journalist, went back to Colombia in 2002 and became a helper for Wall Street Journal reporters. She met photographer Stephen Ferry, and they set out to get the “real” story on drug trafficking in Colombia. All the while, she felt like a “bad Colombian” for airing her country’s dirty laundry.
Gradually, as she writes in “My Colombian War,” details of her almost forgotten childhood (in a place where someone was kidnapped every three minutes) came back. “It did not work out between us,” she writes of her mother country. “I am ready to take down the map just like I have taken down photographs of those with whom I once shared the possibility of romance. I’m ready to step out again, with a new identity.”
Lions at Lamb House
Edwin M. Yoder Jr.
Europa Editions: 256 pp., $14.95 paper
It’s hard not to be fascinated by Henry James and Edith Wharton; their dazzling conversations, letters and lives. Add Sigmund Freud to their charmed circle at James’ Lamb House in Rye, Sussex, in the late English summer of 1908, and you have a novel reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse.” Characters circle, reflecting one another’s brilliance and this point in history, before the World Wars.
Doctoral student Horace Briscoe is there, writing his dissertation on James’ life and work. When Freud, at the suggestion of James’ worried brother, William, offers to psychoanalyze Henry, Briscoe learns more about the great man than he dreamed possible. William is concerned that his brother’s “autumnal floridity” and “fabulous impenetrability” mask a deeper problem, which, it turns out, they do. From the moment Freud steps off the train, Edwin M. Yoder Jr. transports the reader. He has fun watching James (on the couch) trying to outsmart “the Viennese sage” in his lascivious quest for James’ “secret alcove.”