Tag Archives: Dale Neal

The Book I Read: Works Unfinished, Finishing the Appalachian Book of the Dead, and a Prayer for October

Listen to the Podcast version of this blog entry here!

True confession: I often abandon books before I finish them. Sometimes I go back, sometimes I never do. The reasons for the abandonment vary–but rarely, is it because I am disinterested. Only a couple of times have I ever stopped reading because I thought the book was awful. I’m not going to talk about those books. I’m staking out a philosophical stand here, in this podcast, that I’m really not interested in slagging on books. So, most often, I will stop reading a book because I have been distracted by another reading, wooed away, if you will, by something more tantalizing and shiny (and likely, less challenging). Often, I am interrupted by the beginning of the school year, and here we are–when there are so many other responsibilities in preparation and in keeping the ball in the air for September and October. I just run out of time for recreational reading of any kind. Sometimes I will abandon a book simply because I have bit off more than I could chew. I’ve chosen something ambitious or difficult. I have read IN Finnegans Wake, for example, but I have never even attempted to go from cover to cover. In a similar vein, I think I tried Ulysses four or five times–each time I’d go back to the beginning and start all over again, get about as far as I got the last time, and then give up again. I am proud to say, that one year I did finally read all the way through the great Joyce novel. I felt pretty good about that, even though I knew that I understood it poorly–knew more from things I had read about it than I did from the actual reading of it. It’s on my bucket list to read again; Finnegans Wake, too, is a book that I would like to tackle before I die–just so that I could say that I did it. No–I’m sure it would be more than that. I don’t think I read ever simply for bragging rights. Although, that would not be nearly as bad as bragging about not reading. I hate to hear people speak about getting all the way through school without reading a book from cover to cover as if it’s some great accomplishment. Just stab me in the heart, why don’t ya.

Two of my favorite books I’ve never finished are The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I think I got maybe 100 pages or so into Melville’s masterpiece on a couple different occasions, and it was a simple lack of stamina or commitment that stopped me–much of it I found absolutely engaging and astonishingly MODERN. I really loved it. Ishmael and Queequeg and Ahab–just fascinating characters. Someday soon I will return to those guys. Writing it, or saying it out loud like this, I think, makes it more likely to become a reality. What is that pattern? Thoughts become words become actions. This is how things happen. I spoke about the Thomas Mann novel very briefly in my last episode, and I think it is, in this time and moment, a book that I must come back to–like right about now. It’s a pandemic novel, for crying out loud. And I think I will experiment. I put that novel down a year ago. Instead of what I have done with Ulysses and Moby Dick, that is, every time I pick it up I go back to the beginning, Sisyphus-like, and start again, I think what I’ll do this time is just simply review passages that I’ve marked, jar the old memory banks, and begin exactly where I left off a year ago, about 230 pages into a 700 page tome. It won’t be that hard. I did leave behind a series of reflections on my progress–an experiment with the ubiquitous “reaction video”–that petered out after about 4 episodes.

. . . So, while I am diving back into–or climbing back onto–The Magic Mountain, I have finished Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal. So let’s talk about that. In the last episode I introduced you to the main characters, an aging couple recently married (Cal, the retired commodities trader and his younger wife, Joy, the pottery artist, formerly a physical therapist), Ainsley, a young bohemian woman practicing Tibetan Buddhism, and Doyle, the superstitious and handy caretaker of the abandoned Camp Bee Tree for girls–all of them living in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains–pretty isolated save for each other’s strange company. However, there may or may not be an escaped convict–a psychopathic murderer, no less, hiding in the woods. When Ainsley, our Buddhist yurt dweller, who has recently shaved off her dreadlocks and is completely bald, starts feeding a visiting coyote, can we be sure it’s the coyote and not the convict that’s taking the food she leaves out? And who or what is killing Joy’s barn cats? Are these folks in danger? So that’s part of the drama, always percolating, but just beneath the surface. If you were to call this novel a “thriller,” you’d be on to something–but you wouldn’t be capturing the essence of this thing–which is, to my understanding, realistic, literary fiction–and I say literary for two reasons. One, the writing is exquisite, beautiful, finely crafted. And the characterization is deep. It seems to me, a standard kind of horror story or thriller novel turns mostly on plot–what’s gonna happen next. While literary fiction often turns on character. Who are these people? What makes them tick? And why do I care so much? What am I learning? How have I been confronted with new ideas? While you’re likely to be entertained by a popular thriller, you’re more likely to be CHANGED by literary fiction. That’s what we have here with Dale Neal’s novel.

A few choices, though, amp up the thrill and the drama: Neal’s decision to write a few chapters in the Coyote’s perspective as she appears to cross paths with the escaped convict, and his super creepy choice of giving chapters to the convict as well, delivered in second person no less, so that the reader in a sense becomes the bad guy in the story, the bad guy whose chapters are punctuated with instructions in italicized print, which, I’m guessing, are taken directly from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, instructions for passing through the various stages of the Bardo, the in-between, before emerging into the next life. Perhaps, the convict, lost in this in-between of the mysterious and wild Appalachian Mountains, is metaphorically in a kind of Bardo. Meanwhile, we spend a significant amount of time with our four main characters–we learn more and more about them as the novel progresses; questions we have about their pasts are answered–and in some cases, like the fate of Ainsley’s boyfriend Bernie, our assumptions from earlier in the novel are corrected. It turns out that each of these individuals, including our lurking boogie man, have these incredibly vivid and often tragic back stories. And while I call this novel realistic fiction–it’s full of ghosts. They may be psychological ghosts–but they are delivered by our narrator, in the point of view of the character of focus for each chapter, as if they were literal. In one of our convict’s chapters, he sees the smoking, charred–and still alive–body of the man he murdered in the very first chapter. He even hears him speak. But, you know, our convict, Angel, has been out there so long in the wilderness, surviving on what? on food left out for coyotes and on unsuspecting barn cats?–that he might be beginning to lose his mind.

And I must warn you, that the concluding chapters of Appalachian Book of the Dead contain a veritable mountain picnic basket of surprises, that to talk very specifically about anything else that follows, seems like treading in some dangerous spoiler waters. But here are some questions: Will Ainsley realize her dreams of revitalizing her family’s mountain camp for girls? What might be the consequences of her brief and torrid interest in the old man and his interest in her? Why does the old man, Cal, who has been sober for seven years, ask Doyle, the caretaker of Camp Bee Tree, if he can score him some moonshine? Where is that murderous escaped convict? Who belongs here? Who does not? The pinnacle of the action in this novel, oddly enough, takes place around a kind of campfire gathering of the four main characters as they sit by a firing kiln that Doyle has engineered and constructed for Joy’s crazy pottery art. It is, perhaps, the single longest scene in the entire work–plenty of time to build steam. It is an absolutely wild ride from that point on. And answers are forthcoming, I promise. There’s some mighty karmic justice at work here in the end of Neal’s novel. It’s a satisfying ending, not much is left dangling. Appalachian Book of the Dead is a novel that brings together a lovely philosophical swirl of competing beliefs and values, an incredibly wicked landscape, and deep, vivid, believable, fully fleshed out characterization. Two thumbs up. If I had some more thumbs, I’d put them up as well.

I’d like to close, as I have over the last few episodes, with another poem by a friend of mine. On a personal note here, we’ve had significant rain in Portland, Oregon over the last few days for the first time in months. It’s been a warm, dry, summer. Fires are raging all over, but for us this year, the smoke has not reached us. The rain was welcome–and even though it’s been warm, all the autumn pyrotechnics are in full throttle. Before the sky opened up with precipitation, it was raining leaves and acorns from our giant oak trees. In a month’s time we will be buried in them. So my friend David Ruekberg, from his book Hour of the Green Light, has written this poem for the fall, “October Prayer.” It also seems fitting here today for a number of reasons. I’ll leave that open ended for you, dear listener, to play around with. From David Ruekberg’s Hour of the Green Light:

October Prayer

If a grey sky can be indicative
of a life lived in the long echo
of the snap of umbilical cord

and a farewell to the self of pure love
floating in a green light near the origins
of particle and wave,

then let leaves high in the maple
turning to their first autumn orange
be messengers of messengers

from the tallest, most foriegn
angels that death is waiting
for your next accident

and, no matter how cautious
you are, you will only ever
catch one glimpse.

Let the call of crow bobbing
in the pines be the ungainly ugliness
in your life that you must accept,

and let the digging in the yard for grubs
be your digging–acrid food
of your often-rehearsed regrets.

Crow gives way to silence
in which you hear
another kind of stirring.

Perhaps skies stretching,
preparing rain, watering
the suffering earth.

David Ruekberg

As a fiction writer, or essayist, I love poetry and in particular the poet’s close attention to the sentence. I just think that the most exquisite sentences in the English language can be found in poetry–and prose writers of all stripes, and writers, generally, whether they are pros or beginners, would do well to study the sentences of poets. I mean, this is kind of a wonky thing to talk about, but I love that the first five stanzas of this poem form a single, beautiful sentence, the next two stanzas form a single sentence, and then the last two stanzas each form their own, short little sentences, haiku-like. So this poem just has a beautiful shape, a funnel shape, or a kind of leaf-falling shape. But holy cow, more importantly and more beautifully is what the poem says–what it says about birth and death, what it says about a kind of welcoming acceptance to everything, about what is possible to hear or to understand in silence.

Thanks for reading, friends. Coming up next: I think we have to return to The Magic Mountain. Cheers!

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The Book I Read: Choices! More Books of the Dead! Climbing the Mountain! and the Freakout Commencement

For this entry in The Book I Read series (which is also a podcast, by the way), I am writing about, not what I’ve read, but what I’ve started to read, AND, what I’ve tried reading and then abandoned. I had these ideas that I might get well into one of those things, or well into the beginnings of both of those things in the effort to, you know, make a CHOICE about what to tackle next—and in that effort I appear to have been successful! And then finally I’d like to conclude with a bit of a freak out, a freak out over the beginning of the new school year of fully in-person teaching and learning in the midst of that part of our current plague we’re calling the delta variant spread of COVID-19.

First, about book choices: 

I am fortunate, in that I do not have to go very far to find titles. For the longest time—well, now, more than half of my life, I have been a habitual and chronic book buyer and book collector. I am guilty, as so many of us are, I think, of buying more books than I can read—embarrassingly so, maybe more books than I will be able to read in my lifetime. Nevertheless, there are books in every room of the house. I even have a tiny little traveling library in the teardrop trailer I take camping. So the list of books to read is almost always immediately accessible to me. But making the choice of what to tackle next has always been a struggle. With a limited amount of discretionary reading time—the choice must be the right one. That’s a lot of pressure. So, I forgive myself when I start a book but can’t, for whatever reason, finish it. 

So how do I choose the next book to read? For all of my academic life—or my schooling life, I was just told what to read—and lucky for me, that did not kill reading. As an adult, if you’re like me, we have lists—either ones that we write or ones that we catalogue in our brains. My list is categorized like this: books I want to read because I think I SHOULD (classics and such), books I want to read because I know I would be interested (books about subjects I dig or books by writers I already love). Then there are those books recommended or gifted, which are on the list out of a sense, as I’ve said before, of obligation, yeah, but also because I trust the gift giver. Last, but not least, there are books written by friends of mine. My community of Warren Wilson MFA alumni has produced an embarrassment of literary riches, some of which, in previous episodes, I have shared with you. I’m going to start there today by talking about the novel Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal. If you happened to read the last entry, or listen in on episode three of the podcast, you might catch a pattern here. Another factor in the choosing the next book might be a kind of thread I’m following—in this case, with Lincoln in the Bardo and Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog—I am following a kind of Tibetan Buddhist thread. This novel’s title makes an explicit allusion to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and I have heard Dale Neal speak of his novel as a kind of Southern Buddhist thriller. And it is that—in flying colors. 

I think I wanna do something crazy. Maybe even two crazy things. First, I’m going to talk about this book IN PROGRESS. I confess right out of the gate that I am a little less than halfway through Appalachian Book of the Dead. I am liberating myself from the notion that I can only talk about books that I’ve finished. That’s a crazy notion. But this is a book, I know, already, that I will absolutely finish, but today, I can only talk about my experience of the first hundred and twenty-five pages. And I’d like to begin by talking about the beginning—the opening. Some readers are dependent upon a strong hook from the start—while other readers are more forgiving and patient. I tend to be patient—more so with classics—but in this case, with Neal’s novel, patience is absolutely unnecessary. To prove my case (here’s the second crazy thing), I’m going to read out loud the first page of Appalachian Book of the Dead. 

To hear the reading, please visit the podcast, otherwise, the next paragraph will make less sense.

Holy shit. That was my first reaction. And I think I had exactly the same reaction when I heard the author read this out loud once. Holy shit. First of all, to begin a novel with a murder and car-jacking—openings to novels don’t come any bolder than that—but the sheer drama of the scene is far less striking than some of the other moves here. First of all, Peabody is fully characterized. Here’s a character we will never see again—who dies on the first page a violent and gruesome death—and yet, we know a whole bunch about him—his age, what he did for a living, his favorite sports team, his favorite snack, his religion, and something, too, beyond that, of his worldview—“he never even considered the prospect of such pure meanness”—it’s a master class in the fiction writing adage that says that no matter how minor the character, some fleshing out of that character is crucial to creating a believable fictional world, to suck the reader in to the “fictive dream.” And on top of that, in a single page, before killing him off, through those details, Neal has created a character that we care something about.  We’re horrified at his death, not just because it stirs up the creepy icky, but because he seems like a good guy. 

Okay—to begin with, Neal has opened the novel with the criminal and murderous spree of two escaped convicts, who, in short order, are forced to leave their stolen vehicle behind and flee on foot into the wilderness of the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains—into or around a small wilderness town called Yonah, where all our main characters live. Now, one of these criminals is immediately caught in the manhunt—but the other, the decidedly more dangerous one, the one that represents “pure meanness,” the one with the tattoo of the naked lady in the clutches of a demon—this guy seemingly disappears into the landscape.

So we have a cast of characters: Cal, a retired tradesman, a recovering alcoholic, also recovering from a recent and serious heart surgery, a committed stoic and faithful adherent to the teachings of Marcus Aurelius, hoping soon to write a memoir; Joy, his recent and third wife, a craft potter who spearheaded the idea to move away from city life into this vast and wild landscape; Doyle, the caretaker of a now defunct nature camp for kids, and a young woman, Ainsley, who camped there as a kid, the child of the family that ran the place, returned now to start her life anew—living in a yurt in the woods of the run down property of the family camp. She’s a spiritual seeker, super earthy, dread-locked, still attempting to practice Tibetan Buddhism—having arrived without her longtime boyfriend and spiritual companion—estranged from her now. These are the major players—and the chapters that follow that horrific and gripping opening delve into to the somewhat broken lives of these characters—meanwhile, in the backdrop, as a kind of ominous echo—almost a haunting, is the spectre of this escaped convict. Where is he? Is he alive? Will any of our people encounter him? These are the big sort of plot questions—and Neal is taking his time with this. Some people might find that frustrating—but Neal has made us intimately familiar with these characters—they are flawed but likeable—and from my vantage point, super interesting. I do not mind hanging out with these people while this other darkness percolates in the background. How does the darkness percolate—let me show you. 

As the story progress, there are some really intriguing point of view moves. One chapter, a single page long, seems to be from the perspective of a coyote, a coyote that feels it’s being stalked. And a couple of other chapters seem to be about our evil guy—but Neal has made the super strange and wonderful choice of putting these chapters in second person! The escaped convict, ironically named Angel, is now YOU. Sometimes in the style of The Tibetan Book of the Dead—which, if I didn’t characterize it specifically enough in the last episode, are essentially a set of instructions for dead people about how to navigate the bardo! So creepy. So wonderful. “You have heard of the smokey mountains, but you did not believe in the haze of these hills.” Our narrator seems to be giving instructions to this “hungry ghost” through the bardo—putting us as readers eerily in his shoes—and then later Ainsley gives her lost boyfriend her own instructions through the in-between. 

I’m gonna step out on a limb here and say that the forests in the Appalachian Mountains, for all of these characters and for us, are serving as a metaphorical bardo—an in-between place—where we are all striving toward some kind of enlightenment into a new life. 

I am digging this novel. It is vivid, beautifully written—every sentence kicks ass, and, as I’ve said, I am all in. In the next entry in this series (while I promise there will be no spoilers) I will share with you a final reaction to Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal. 

I’d like to write next, briefly, very briefly, about a book I started reading last summer but did not finish—let me sort of paint the scene. The summer of 2020, at the height, (we thought) of our pandemic woes, preparing to go into the weirdest school year in the history of school years, and I sit down for an ambitious read of a classic novel whose praises had been sung up and down over and over by people I admire, the early 20th century German novel The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. This novel is about a lot of things—thematically, perhaps, the way we understand and experience TIME—but literally—this novel is about a pandemic! It takes place during the Tuberculosis Pandemic of the early twentieth century. I loved reading this book. I have taken an entire year away from it. It’s a tome—like 700 pages. But It keeps calling to me and I know that soon, I will be back. I mention it now to add some weight to that commitment. I didn’t know what it was about when I picked it up, but it is too perfect for this time, in this year of our plague, 2021.  

So, to conclude, I’m freaking out a little bit about the new school year—for a couple of reasons. First—you know—I’m going back to in-person instruction after 15 months of plague year teaching and learning at home. I spent the entire last school year relearning my job, finally getting somewhat good at it, and now I’ve got to unlearn a lot of that—revise everything I know one more time—in the transition back to business as usual—which, by the way, will not be business as usual. I’m fully masked. Kids are fully masked. Teachers and other school employees must be fully vaccinated—while the kids—as far as I know in this moment—not so much. Last spring, in what we called the Hybrid model, when we thought things had improved enough to offer the opportunity to any kid who was willing to come back into the building for a half day, I was back in the room with between about 15 and 20 students in each of 3 classes. This year, I will be back in the building with 6 periods of anywhere between 25 and 30 students in each. All the comfort last spring, of, at least, coming into contact with a relatively tiny student population will be null and void this year. So, with these conditions and the reality that vaccinated people are far from invulnerable, I admit there’s a little trepidation. The second freak-out (albeit a more minor type of freak out) has to do with the difficulty of continuing my podcast extra-curricular activities during the school year—especially with regard to talking about NEW books I’ve read. It may just be that I might just have to talk about something else!

We will see how this all turns out. Wish me the best. I hope you’ll stay with me for the ride.

 

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