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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “The Comet Seekers” a novel by Helen Sedgwick

November 18, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-11-18 at 2.54.47 PMby Alexandra Bowie

Some people stay home and find the world; others must travel the world to find their way home. Roisin and Francois, two of the central characters in Helen Sedgwick’s eerie and satisfying novel “The Comet Seekers” meet far from home at a research camp in the Antarctic; she’s an astronomer and he’s a chef.

Roisin, who’s Irish, has spent her life studying the sky; as a child and adolescent she taught her cousin Liam to watch and map the sky whenever a comet appeared, so they could see its movement. Liam, whose mother died long ago, is tied to his isolated Irish farm by his promise to his father to help keep it going. Roisin pursues her studies in Hawaii, New York, and various places in Europe. But Liam draws Roisin back periodically, and at one point she gives up a fellowship in Bayeux, returns to Ireland and stays for a year. We know before she does that Roisin is one of the travellers. We watch her come to understand that truth about herself in a sensitive and beautifully written, very brief, scene: Roisin’s mother asks a question whose answer shows Roisin which love she’s willing to sacrifice.

Francois is from Bayeux; as Sedgwick puts it, from two channels away from Roisin’s village in southern Ireland. He’s a few years younger than Roisin, and was brought up by his mother, Severine. Even as a child Francois encouraged his mother to travel – one year they went to Edinburgh, where they ventured out to see a comet and met up with a group of astronomers bent on the same errand. But that’s the only trip they ever take, because Severine is held to Bayeux by her family – an extended family of ghosts who keep her company – who cannot find her if she travels far from home.

It’s a measure of the power of Sedgwick’s concept and writing that the reader believes entirely in the existence of these ghosts. Each family member may choose whether to introduce the ghosts to the next generation or not, and, for Severine, it’s an agonizing choice. The ghosts range from Severine’s mother and grandmother, to more ancient family members. There are Brigitte, a near-contemporary of Joan of Arc, whose skin and dress flicker like flames, and Aelfgyva, who appears in the Bayeux tapestry (as does, yes, Halley’s comet). Severine both wants Francois to believe her and to see the world. Francois worries that she’s succumbing to early-onset dementia. The ghosts appear for reasons of their own.

“The Comet Seekers” is broad geographically and temporally, with each era marked by the appearance of a comet and its earth-bound viewers. Sedgwick handles her themes of travel, home, enduring love, and family with a delicate sensibility that keeps the reader on edge and provides an ending that is both satisfying and, for Roisin and Francois, delicately ambiguous.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter at @abowie917.

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Events, Kids, News

Transit Museum’s Train Show at Grand Central, November 14-February 26

November 18, 2016

If you’re passing through Grand Central, take a moment and stop at the Transit Museum’s Grand Central Annex (and shop) to see the 15th Annual Holiday Train Show. This year’s model trains will travel a 34-foot long O gauge model track, travelling between Grand Central and the North Pole.

You can watch a video from the 2012 show here.

The Annex is open 8 AM – 8 PM Monday-Friday, and 10 AM – 6 PM Saturday and Sunday; closed major holidays and for special events.

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Books

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Before the Fall” a novel by Noah Hawley

November 11, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-11-11 at 12.32.23 PMby Alexandra Bowie

A private plane en route from Martha’s Vineyard to Teterboro falls into the ocean one calm but foggy summer evening. All but two of the eleven passengers and crew – they include the head of a news network, David Bateman, and a financial titan – are killed. The unlikely survivors are Scott Burroughs, a painter whom David’s wife Maggie befriended, and JJ Bateman, aged four. Scott swims through the night, towing JJ, until they reach safety on a Montauk beach. (Hawley writes, “A walleyed fisherman drives them to the hospital.”)

What happened to the plane, and how the various people trying to figure it out interact, occlude, and cooperate with each other, make up the rest of the novel. “Before the Fall” is a thriller, and Noah Hawley metes out details sparely, allowing the tension to build: if the novel weren’t about a plane crash it would be the perfect book for a long flight. Maybe it is anyway, because in addition “Before the Fall” is a meditation on modern life, and our habit of interpreting our own and others’ lives through various media.

TV is one, and Bateman’s network’s star anchor, Bill Cunningham, stays on the air for hours once the plane disappears, mining all the conceivable news in a toxic speculative brew flavored by the nuggets of information as they slowly become available: two bodies are recovered; the wreckage is found. Bill’s interests aren’t entirely benign; we know very early that he has a history of using all available means – legal, dodgy, and illegal – to obtain information.

Scott is one of those people who doesn’t own a smartphone, has no online presence, and still uses a landline. He’s a recovering alcoholic who hasn’t had an exhibit in years, though he’s on the plane because an art dealer, to whom he’s mailed some slides, is interested in his work. He didn’t intend to be a hero, but he did want to survive. Scott goes to ground after the crash to avoid interviews; what he views as a casual friendship with Maggie Bateman, David’s wife and JJ’s mother, is the subject of relentless comment and insinuation. Hawley’s description of Scott as he comes to terms with the way Bill Cunningham, on TV, describes a life he barely recognizes, is among the most effective in the novel.

Another contrast, for Scott and for most readers, is the luxury in which the Batemans live – the townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the house on Martha’s Vineyard. Cars. The luxury of the private plane. The large number of people whose jobs make the Batemans’ lives easier. The private security staff who monitored the Bateman’s movements. When Scott briefly experiences similar luxury – his hideout is the spare Greenwich Village apartment of a wealthy young woman – he’s grateful but can’t quite settle in comfortably.

Scott relives many of his actions as the novel unfolds, thinking about the choice he made at each point; this construct allows Scott to wish for alternative outcomes and gives Hawley scope to play with time. It’s not called trauma, but Scott’s memories are traumatic. “Life is a series of decisions and reactions,” Hawley writes. “It is the things you do and the things that are done to you. And then it is over.” With a meticulous, well-paced reveal that traces every person’s path to that plane, Hawley’s novel is a compelling and complex achievement.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917

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Books

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God”

November 7, 2016

Alexandra Bowie’s review of “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God” by Juliana Barbassa, is posted on PassBlue. You can read it here.

Inside the Vidigal favela.

Photo by Alexandra Bowie

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Books

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “How to be a Tudor: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Tudor Life” by Ruth Goodman

October 28, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-10-28 at 11.20.34 AMby Alexandra Bowie

The Tudors lived and ruled 500 years ago and more, yet they still capture our imaginations. Perhaps it’s the continuing universality of Shakespeare’s plays, and partly, perhaps, the distant echo of the much-married Henry VIII. The Tudors remain with us, perhaps not in our day-to-day lives, but deep in the substrate of the culture around us. Ruth Goodman, a cultural and social historian who has spent her career trying to understand ordinary Tudor life, writes, “I am both constantly delighted with the ‘otherness’ of Tudor thinking and beguiled by the echoes that have slipped through into modern life, from the belief that redheads have hot tempers to the order in which we eat our meals, with starters, mains and desserts to follow.” Her book, structured through an ordinary day, is an attempt to understand the “practicalities, thoughts and difficulties” of these forebears.

The population of England was small, around 4,000,000 in 1603, and mostly rural; London, which housed half the entire urban population, had approximately 200,000 residents that year. Most were yeomen, who owned their farms, husbandmen, who rented theirs, and laborers, who owned almost nothing and had to work for others. Days were long and governed by, well, daylight – in the summer, many people were up at dawn. Goodman’s structure means that early on she describes the beds in which people slept (the good ones were four-posters whose hangings protected the sleeper from drafts and the noise of other sleepers), the houses that held those beds (mostly two-rooms) and the contents of the mattresses.

From there it’s on to floor coverings because, as Goodman writes, at the beginning of the Tudor period many people didn’t have a bed, and simply slept on the floor. “This is not quite as grim as it sounds…[m]any homes still used loose rushes in a deep layer as a floor covering, which removed the necessity for furniture.” This worked well, because Goodman adds, most houses had open hearths without chimneys – meaning the higher up you were, the more smoke surrounded you. It made sense to live life “beneath the smoke layer” on a floor that is “warm, dry and comfortable to sit and sleep upon.” Open to any page of this entertaining book and you’ll learn something interesting and perhaps relevant: how to make and starch a ruff. How often people changed their clothes (every day, when it came to undergarments). What it means to have cross-garters, and why those garters were needed in the first place. Why the alternating loops for the lace fastenings of a dress meant that a woman could fasten them herself.

Part of the charm of “How to be a Tudor” is that Goodman has used many of the items she discusses and tried out various housekeeping techniques. She once lived with six inches of rush floors for six months – not for sleeping, but for sitting, walking, standing, working. There’d been cooking, eating and drinking, and a hen had moved in. It was a bit messy, she reports, but not at the bottom – there the rushes had broken down a bit, but were not moldy or mildewed or slimy.

Goodman carries on in this vein throughout the day, discussing meals, cookery, education, work, games and clothing, among other topics. Dancing was a popular and public activity, and she reports on at least one person who danced across country. Then as now there was the possibility of take-out meals, and every household knew how to brew its own ale. The book ends with night-time, bedtime and, well, sex and sexual practices.

“How to Be a Tudor” is meticulously researched (primary sources include wills and surviving books) and beautifully, lovingly written. It’s fun, immensely readable, and explains all kinds of things you’ve seen in movies and on the stage (remember those codpieces in ‘Wolf Hall’?). To think that Tudor lives were not as complex as ours is to live in an anachronism; the beauty of this book springs from its author’s refusal to regard the Tudor years’ daily tasks and preoccupations as any less meaningful than our own. Read “How to Be a Tudor” and you’ll learn a lot about the world you live in.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Books

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “High Dive” A Novel by Jonathan Lee

October 21, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 10.56.11 AMby Alexandra Bowie

Dan, a young Irishman, an electrician by trade, stays in a hotel in Brighton. He violates his instructions to remain unmemorable and flirts with the young woman behind the desk, who, we learn, is the daughter of the hotel’s Assistant Manager. Then he checks out of the hotel, and she takes up with another young man. A few months later a bomb explodes in the hotel. Sometimes life leaves a lacuna, perhaps one of little consequence to the world but large enough for a novelist to slip through. In 1984, the Irish Republican Army placed a time delay bomb in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where Margaret Thatcher, then the British Prime Minister, was staying during the Tory conference. The bomb exploded, and she was unhurt, though five people were killed. Eventually Patrick Magee was convicted of murder and other charges. That’s the story Jonathan Lee builds from in his new novel “High Dive.” Lee states in an Author’s Note that the trial evidence suggested there might have been a second bomber. If there was, he or she has never been found. It’s from this possibility that Lee has constructed his novel.

The novel opens with Dan’s 1978 initiation into a paramilitary wing of IRA, a group he’s longed to join so that he can improve life for Catholics like himself, a minority in Northern Ireland. His father died after being hit in the head during a march, and two of his acquaintances were killed by British soldiers. Dan’s secret life is dangerous and not particularly fulfilling. In his open life Dan lives with his mother, in one of the few Catholic households on their street. He’s an electrician, and twitchy, emotionally: tempers are frayed and threats have been directed at him and his mother, and that’s before Dan gets to his feelings of guilt and anxiety about having built and placed several bombs that detonated.

Lee also follows a completely different family in Brighton, that of Phillip Finch, called Moose, the assistant general manager of the Grand Hotel, and his daughter, Freya. Freya has just finished school with very high marks on her university entrance exams, but she prefers not to apply, drifting through a year during which she swims and works the hotel’s front desk. Moose hopes for more for his daughter. He was a champion athlete in his youth, playing football and cricket, swimming, ultimately taking up diving. The goal was to make the Olympics. Now his ambitions have narrowed and he would consider any promotion an achievement. Moose wants Mrs. Thatcher’s stay to go well, and he wants to catch the attention of the PM, and he believes that a successful visit will mean promotion for him.

One of the very interesting aspects of this engaging novel is that for all his commitment to the Provos Dan is not a killer. He gets no pleasure from the bloodshed, which, as a bombmaker, he rarely sees. His story makes a nice contrast with that of Moose – who, in other circumstances, might have followed a different path. In middle age, despite his ambivalence, Moose can see some benefits to the Tories’ 1980s slash, burn and privatise approach to governing.

The background issues are complex, as are the characters’ response to them. Lee says, describing Moose’s train of thought, “a couple of years ago it was impossible to sack bone-idle staff. They used to wave their union cards and grin, speak without respect.” The serious themes don’t prevent Lee from having some fun with life behind the scenes at a very grand hotel: employees take naps in guest rooms, but on the floor so that a made-up bed does not have to be smoothed. Moose contrasts the careful front of house decor with the beat up corridors and dark spaces of the service areas, and Freya watches the tricks the doormen and bellhops use to generate tips.

Dan, Freya and Moose come together not at the climax of the novel, but earlier, during Dan’s visit. This makes structural sense: for all their different temperaments and places in life, each of the three main characters has lost track of the big picture. Yet each has a role to play in the history of their times, and each is tested, Moose and Freya by the bombing of the hotel, and Dan by the firebombing of his house: one is not a hero. “High Dive” is a thoughtful novel about growing up, about commitment to a cause, and about the costs of committing – or not. Read it for its fully credible depiction of stresses and tensions of the Thatcher years, and the completely understandable actions its compelling and likeable characters take in response.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Books, Brooklyn Bugle, News

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Meet the Regulars: People of Brooklyn and the Places They Love” by Joshua D

October 14, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 11.47.50 AM

by Alexandra Bowie

The urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg has written about the Third Place – gathering spots like bars, coffee shops, and general stores, and how important they are to making communities vibrant. Without them, people are either at work or tucked up in private at home – and have no place to meet, talk, relax, drink, write, reflect and allow grassroots politics to develop. In his book “Meet the Regulars” Joshua D. Fischer, a writer for the blog Bedford + Bowery, has culled and collected his posts. Fischer profiles a range of people – some famous, some not – in their favorite places, mostly bars, but also yoga studios, Melody Lanes, Brooklyn Strategist and Brooklyn Bridge Park. The selection of places is heavily weighted towards Williamsburg and Greenpoint, and the age of the regulars tends toward people in their twenties, with the occasional appearance of a somewhat older person.

All the same, there’s a lot of diversity here: Ellen Stagg, a straight photographer who hangs out at the strip club Pumps because “the girls in the neighborhood probably feel cool and safe to dance here;” Joey Green, a gay African-American whose stepfather was white, who likes Metropolitan because it’s completely non-judgmental; Ariel Pellman, who likes the Steampunk bar Way Station, who’s photographed in a corset. Fischer quotes her:

I do waist training, which means I wear [a corset] on a regular basis and can cinch my waist to a very small size. I am wearing a bustle. So the whole thing is very reminiscent of steampunk themes. This being a steampunk bar, I wanted to wear something fun.

If Fischer asked her why she thinks it’s fun to wear articles of clothing that exaggerate old-fashioned (not to say ancient) ideas of the ideal female form, he doesn’t report it. But the theme of exploration of different selves and different lives emerges in this and other interviews. Life as a young adult – whether in a new place or not – is hard, and the stories people tell in their interviews often circle around their discoveries of themselves as they figure out who they are. It’s not just navel-gazing: these New Yorkers will shape the city’s future.

The second theme that emerges, as might be expected in such a book based in Brooklyn, is gentrification: the artistic (and yes, even the artisanal) ferment that started here and has drawn many people has been wonderful, but it’s carried a cost. To his credit, Fischer both allows the theme to emerge from the interviews he’s elected to include, and addresses it head on, in one of the topical essays (“Are these the best places in Brooklyn?”, “I hate the future”) that break up the stream of interviews.

Rents in Williamsburg and Greenpoint have shot up in the last 15 years, and Williamsburg is now home to an Apple store and a Whole Foods, not to mention a series of tall waterside apartment buildings. There’s little space to operate in what Fischer calls “the spirit of what made Williamsburg ‘cool’”; those joints are now opening further east, in Bushwick and Brownsville. That means that residents in those neighborhoods have also been displaced – yet at the same time, as Fischer points out, you can’t blame store and homeowners who are offered millions for their properties.

It’s a complicated cycle, and Fischer’s subjects are as caught up in it as the people who preceded and will follow them. Fischer quotes Eddie Cedeno, half-Cuban, half-Ecuadorean, who owns a coffee shop in Bushwick. Cedeno acknowledges that his neighbors are skeptical, but he wants new businesses to open up even though his neighbors – the ones he’s squeezing out – remind him of his parents. Fischer asks whether gentrification is OK when it’s an independent business, not a chain; when it’s necessity, not luxury – though of course one person’s daily cup of coffee is another’s luxury. He hopes that development will be followed by services. The reader hopes that as they settle into adult life, his subjects will use the networks they’ve developed in their third places to organize, vote, and even run for office, to be sure the people are heard.

If you want to read an earlier view of gentrification in Brooklyn, read “A Meaningful Life” by L.J. Davis (reviewed here). Let us know your thoughts about how things have changed, or even your favorite Brooklyn hangout, in the comments.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren

September 30, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-09-30 at 2.43.50 PMby Alexandra Bowie

Hope Jahren’s memoir “Lab Girl” abounds in a sense of place, both Jahren’s lab, where many of her stories are set, and some spectacular outdoor settings. Jahren is a geobiologist who studies plant behaviors as measured by the amount of carbon and other elements in their structures, and her fieldwork takes place all over the globe. (You can see a fantastic set of pictures here.) You may think you’re entering a description of a charmed life, but not so fast.

In “Roots and Leaves,” the first of three sections, Jahren describes her background and early life. Jahren grew up in Minnesota. Her great-grandparents migrated from Norway, and Jahren grew up in a Scandinavian culture where people didn’t talk much to each other over “vast emotional distances . . . forged early and reinforced daily.” Her three brothers are much older and “it was not unusual for us to go days and without finding anything to say to each other.” Jahren never met several of her mother’s many siblings, even though some lived in the same town. Jahren’s explains:

It must be a survival skill left over from the old Viking days, when long silences were required to prevent unnecessary homicides during the long, dark winters when quarters were close and supplies were dwindling.”

A self-deprecating tone punctuated with lacerating insights runs through the book. Jahren’s early training in English literature shows in her magnificent writing. She intersperses longer chapters about her life with shorter ones explaining an aspect of plant biology that then provides a metaphor. Jahren, for instance, sets off her description of the function of leaves – she describes them as an idea, “a vague genetic pattern with nearly endless room for improvisation” – against her recounting of her first major scientific find. Jahren’s thesis work was on hackberry trees, whose “berry is as hard as a rock–mainly because it is a rock.” Figuring out why that is so, and what building blocks it uses were the challenge. Once Jahren isolated the mineral she booked time in an x-ray diffraction lab to see if she could identify it.

In lesser hands what happened next might have been a self-aggrandizing story of triumph. Jahren begins with the observation: “I looked forward to my analyses with the same happy anticipation one brings to a baseball game: anything might happen, but it will probably take a long time.” Jahren made her discovery, and then some. It’s typical of the honesty of the book is that her real discovery that day was about herself:

In solving this mystery I had also proved something, at least to myself, and I finally knew what real research would feel like. But as satisfying as it was, it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.

In the second section, “Wood and Knots,” Jahren uses one hilarious but occasionally death-defying adventure after another to portray the long years of teaching and research as she established herself. There’s sexism and doubt among more senior scientists, but there’s also the developing relationship with her devoted lab partner, Bill. Jahren moved from California, where she did her graduate work, to Atlanta and then to Johns Hopkins to teach, scavenging equipment from the labs of retiring scientists and keeping it going thanks to Bill’s ingenuity and mechanical skills. It’s a tale of resourcefulness and making do, of field studies with students in tow and a great deal of hard work leavened with a great sense of humor.

One side trip meant a 7-hour detour to visit Monkey Jungle, a site near Miami that had been advertised on roadside billboards. The trip is recounted in detail (the long drive, the campout in the Monkey Jungle parking lot complete with police investigation). Once they got inside, the parallels were unmistakable:

Monkey Jungle was indeed a doppelganger for my lab . . . Three Java macaques that had been straining their brains over some problem that they could neither solve nor abandon propelled themselves toward us, supposing that we somehow represented an answer. A white-handed gibbon was draped limply across our walkway, either asleep or dead or someplace in between. Two small squirrel monkeys seemed to be trapped in their own private Samuel Beckett play, caught in a web made of equal parts dependence and loathing. In ironic proximity, two other squirrel monkeys were getting along very, very well by the looks of it.

There’s more – the eternal quest for funds, space, equipment, stability, students, and the continued development of the relationship with Bill. In the final section, “Flowers and Fruit,” Jahren talks about her life once she’s established herself and her lab. She married and had a child and she and her husband moved their family to Hawaii. Bill moved, too. Jahren returns again and again to her varied work with plants, and includes a plea to plant trees to preserve what we can of our environment. She explains that once a tree “exceeds the limitations of its environment, it loses all. And this is why you must trim a tree periodically in order to preserve it. Because–as Marge Piercy first said–both life and love are like butter and do not keep: they both have to be made fresh every day.

A good book about science that’s also wildly entertaining can be hard to come by. Don’t wait to read this one, and do let us know your favorite anecdote in the comments.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Books

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “All Set for Black, Thanks: A New Look at Mourning” by Miriam Weinstein

September 23, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-09-23 at 8.07.37 AMby Alexandra Bowie

We live in a society that has given up strict rituals. As a result, we’ve had a joyous explosion of life-affirming rites in our favorite locations, but it also means that we may have lost something, especially when it comes to death. Not so much our own deaths, but those of the people we love (if we are fortunate enough to survive them). As Miriam Weinstein puts it in what can only be described as a hilarious how-to book about the hard work of mourning, “[W]e will remake our lives without our beloved ones, our supports, our buddies, again and again. . . Even if it is ‘expected,’ when it happens, it hits us over the head like a mallet blow. Sure, some things help, but not always the things we expect.”

In earlier times, we might have had strict rituals to fall back on, and Weinstein describes some of them: funeral traditions that require burial within 24 hours of death; embalming for a wake with an open casket. In our multicultural society we don’t have a shared way of grief. Some people have funerals, ending at the grave side; others have memorial services days, weeks or even months after the death. We no longer announce we’re in mourning by our clothing.

What to do when the old rites and rituals may not be followed? In Weinstein’s case, what seems to help most is humor, and it’s our good fortune that she’s decided to explore mourning experiences in brief chapters that cover topics such as burial or cremation, flowers and candles when a celebrity has died, how much stuff to take when you’re in a position to take it (not much), and the experience of grieving.

Weinstein opens with a chapter on what to wear to a funeral. Looking good, she argues, “can make you feel good, and feeling good can make you look good” adding that such obvious truths can be forgotten in times of extremis. She winds up with a story about a woman who nursed a dear friend through a final illness “and then missed the actual moment of death because she was in the mall, buying something to wear to her funeral.” Better to have something in your closet, and navy, gray, or black will all do. It should be comfortable and appropriate for the weather, Weinstein adds – and then proceeds to adjust the advice for funerals in Florida (where few people wear black, even to a funeral). Weinstein adds a quick exegesis on Victorian mourning costumes and ends the chapter with a couple of paragraphs about what to do with the outfit once you’ve worn it to a funeral that’s a gut-wrenching life-changer.

There’s a helpful chapter on how to write and deliver a eulogy (give yourself as much time as possible, don’t worry about sounding dumb, and don’t ignore whatever elephant happens to be in the room). There’s a chapter on the post-cremation afterlife of the ashes. And there’s a chapter on how to find your way through the days and weeks and months after the death of a close family member. Weinstein says:

So the first thing you might want to do is to be kind to yourself. Help yourself over the immediate hump. And then help yourself over the next one. And the next one after that. Just don’t look for easy solutions. I had a very well-bred aunt who said, ‘Whenever you are thinking of saying bullshit, just say fantastic.’ So:

The five stages of grief are fantastic.

The arbitrary time markers around any sort of resolution of feelings are fantastic.

The idea that you will move forward in a straight line toward ‘resolution’ is fantastic….

All in all, it’s very sensible advice. There are a lot of jokes sprinkled throughout the text, and episodes that will resonate with readers differently. The old cliche says “it will make you laugh, it will make you cry.” “All Set for Black” does that, too, and readers may find themselves laughing through tears (be prepared for the odd looks if you happen to read the book on the subway). Not all readers will be comfortable with the irrepressibly irreverent tone of this book, and Weinstein’s voice occasionally cloys, but if you’re drawn to humor, it’s as good a guide as any I’ve seen to mourning.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com or reach me on Twitter @abowie917.

Miriam Weinstein is reading at the Stein Senior Center on Monday, November 7, 2016 at 1 pm.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “The Ecliptic” a novel by Benjamin Wood

September 16, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-09-16 at 10.40.35 AMby Alexandra Bowie

Portmantle – part artist’s colony, part refuge – the setting of Benjamin Wood’s novel “The Ecliptic,” is on an island in the Sea of Marmara, reachable only by ferry from Istanbul. It’s a dreamy place removed from the world, where artists and writers, architects and playwrights can go to finish work away from the cares and distractions of the world. Visitors give up passports, money, and their identities when they arrive. The Provost, a benign despot who runs the place on behalf of a foundation, provides meals, mail, and materials. Most visitors come, finish their projects, and leave after a celebratory reading or viewing. But there are a couple of long-stayers, and the character we know as Knell, the first-person narrator of Benjamin Wood’s novel, is one of them.

Knell and her three close companions, also long-stayers, don’t mix much with the transients, who come from all over the world. “It was our judgment that the duration of a stay at Portmantle was equivalent to the value of the work being done: if you were gone after one season, it was likely because your project could not sustain a greater period of gestation.” This cozy world is disrupted by the arrival of a very young man named Fullerton, who arrives cold, seasick, hostile, and possibly mad. The Provost has asked Knell and the other three long-stayers to help Fullerton settle in, but Fullterton throws off their attempts. (It’s a curiosity of Portmantle that the Provost assigns a pseudonym to all visitors.)

Knell is a painter, and has found a trove of glowing mushrooms that she dries and uses to tint her paint, searching for an elusive effect. Fullerton’s arrival has struck a chord, and after she finds him destroying his work she pieces it back together while narrating her own history: her upbringing in a working-class household in Glasgow, escape to art school, assistant to a painter, and success on her own terms, ending with a commission she can’t finish and the invitation to Portmantle. When Fullerton dies, Knell knows that it is time to leave, and decides that rather than leave openly, she’ll have to escape.

Wood describes life at Portmantle in great detail: the setting, the cottages, the meals, the staff, and the pace of the early part of the narrative is slow (the book is over 450 pages long). Things pick up markedly once Knell relates her history. Parts of “The Ecliptic” are very good, including Wood’s descriptions of Knell’s creative process and her thoughts. Wood has an effective way of capturing a character with a small quirk or gesture. Fullerton, for instance, after suggesting he’s giving away a pack of cigarettes to Quickman, an architect, throws what turns out to be an empty pack at him. Quickman, Knell tells us, “pulled out the foil lining and scrunched it in his fist. ‘I won’t lie: that’s a blow to morale.’ And the boy smiled at last.” Wood brings the various threads together into an entirely unforeseen (though the careful reader may pick up hints that Knell is not the most reliable of narrators) conclusion.

Alexandra Bowie is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @abowie917.

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