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Home with Henry – Review by Curtis Smith

At the age of 52, I adopted my first dog. I’d never been keen on being a pet owner. I enjoyed taking my walks when I wanted, enjoyed taking an overnight excursion without worrying about who would feed and pick up after my pet. But my son won me over, and we brought home a ten-pound mutt that carried his history as a stray in his limp and in the scars beneath his fur. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love, and now I wish I had known this part of my heart sooner.

In Home with Henry Anne Kaier explores the unique relationships we form with our pets. Her journey starts with a rescue made in the street, a stopping of traffic and a picking up of a cat she fears is dead. She takes the cat home and names him Henry. Their relationship isn’t easy—the cat is wild and frightened, and Kaier embarks on a quest to win its trust. Of course this takes time, and along the way Kaier learns one of life’s truest lessons—that often times, the things we reach out to save end up turning around and saving us.

Why would Kaier rescue such a creature? She knew what waited—the vet bills, the disturbance of routine, the looming territorial struggle between this interloper and the cat that was waiting for her at home. Such concerns pale in the mind of a compassionate soul, and what motivates one are the less tangible and nobler aspects of our kind. And perhaps Kaier was also urged on by other currents, ones she explores as we witness the developing relationship between her and Henry. Henry joins her at a meaningful juncture in her life. She’s a woman in her fifties, and she’s come to peace with the fact that her reality is different than the imagined notions of her childhood. Marriage, children, the dream house in the country—these will not be hers. Yet her life is rich—she has family and friends and a job, a house that might not be her ideal but which she makes both beautiful and a true home. Through her interactions with Henry, Kaier shows there are other avenues of connection waiting for us if we’re willing to open our eyes and seek. She shows us that love and caring can take many forms, and the nourishment they provide can make any life both sweeter and more meaningful.

An interesting current is also at play—Kaier lives near the Schuylkill, yet in her neighborhood, the river is hidden, hemmed in by the local architecture. Her wondering about the river and her eventual discovery of it form a pleasing tie with her developing relationship with Henry.

Home With Henry features lovely illustrations by Carol Chu, and it can be read in a single day. It’s more than a story about pet and owner. It’s a testament to the powers of love, the rewards of patience, and the triumph of trust.

Available October 15 from PS Books.

Curtis Smith is the author of eight books, including Witness, Truth or Something Like It, and Bad Monkey. Visit him on the web at CurtisJSmith.com.

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Why I Love Small Presses

Just a quick note on one of the many reasons why I love small presses.

A few days ago, my friend and publisher Martin Shepard of the Permanent Press sent me a few books he thought I might like. One of them was a novel that was published in 2007 and sold about 400 copies. A subsequent novel by the same author, Marty explained, only sold 140 copies. Yet Marty and his wife, Judith, decided to go ahead and publish a third novel by the same author. In Marty’s words, “Hey, if you like a writer, no reason to give him or her up just because sales are almost non-existent.”

As someone who’s spoken to a good number of editors and agents (and who reads extensively about the publishing industry), I can say with complete certainty that I’ve never heard anyone associated with a major publishing conglomerate say anything even close to what Marty said in his brief note. He publishes books because he loves them — and loves sharing their work with the world — not because they might make a buck or two.

To me, this is what the small press movement is all about.

A Year of Cats and Dogs

catsanddogsA Year of Cats and Dogs by Margaret Hawkins is a quirky yet emotionally engaging novel that dares to answer the eternal question: What happens when nothing happens? Fed up with her largely meaningless job as a “Keepsake Conceptualizer for Sentiments and Social Expressions” for a company that manufactures tasteless chatchkes, the novel’s protagonist, Maryanne, joins the ranks of the unemployed in an effort to rediscover some modicum of passion in her life. Yet even as Maryanne tries to get away from it all, life has other plans. Soon Maryanne finds herself working as a kind of “dog whisperer” for a local animal shelter and, as is often the case in real life, her relationship with the animals she loves allows her to reconnect with her own humanity. A witty and enchanting book, A Year of Cats and Dogs offers a refreshing perspective on life, death, and everything in between. Taking a break from her busy schedule, Margaret Hawkins recently took some time to chat with us about her book.

Tell us a little bit about A Year of Cats and Dogs. What is the novel about, and what inspired you to write it?

Well, philosophically, the novel is about death and change and how change is a kind of death.  It’s also about cycles and opposites – life and death, cats and dogs, action and inaction, yin and yang – the old “ to everything there is a season” idea. Hence the cover.

But in concrete terms it’s also about love and relationships and animals and what they teach us.  I was living with a dog and a cat when I wrote it and I was fascinated to observe them and just blown away by how smart and dignified and mysterious and affectionate they were. I wanted to explore ideas around that.   Animals really do communicate – it’s interesting to me to consider how.

I guess my animals inspired me to write the book.  I had the first sentence in mind for some time and finally I wrote it down and kept going, to see what would happen.

What drew you to the character of Maryanne?

I wanted her to be sympathetic but also kind of a mess, a comic foil and blank slate for everything that was going on around her.  She’s ineffectual and frozen, emotionally, and it makes her a bit of an unreliable narrator.  Of course I agree with a lot of things she says but sometimes she’s a little off and needs to rethink things.  When she tells her sister not to call her feckless that’s when we know for sure she’s feckless. I wanted to work with a character that had a lot to learn.

Listening is a major theme in the novel, and a lot of the listening that Maryanne learns how to do occurs against the backdrop of her interest in Eastern culture — as exemplified by her reliance on the I Ching for guidance. Do you see a connection between listening and Eastern culture in general (and the I Ching specifically)? Conversely, do you see listening as a lost art in the Western world?

Yes, the book is about listening   – that’s a really good point though I didn’t think of it as such until you said so. But it is.  Maryanne goes into self-imposed isolation in which she’s waiting or listening for answers.  Of course that is the Eastern way, not to be aggressive.  It’s kind of funny though because while she’s trying to clear away all the noise and clutter in her life to hear subtle messages from animals and from beyond and from her dead mother and from the I Ching and other religious systems she is at the same time adding to the din by writing these corny pounding rhymes that crash on the ear.  My hope is that finally she learns to be quiet and listen to her own heart a little bit.

On one hand, A Year of Cats and Dogs is ostensibly about “doing nothing,” yet for someone who’s doing nothing, Maryanne ends up doing an awful lot with her life. Do you think it’s possible to do nothing, or does life always seek us out and, in effect, force us to do something?

There is no such thing as doing nothing as long as you have a mind.  Maryanne leads a rich inner life even if she doesn’t get a lot done in the world at first.  Life always seeks us out but I think it’s important sometimes to withdraw a little and pay attention to what feels authentic rather than just keeping busy.  Once she does that she knows what else to do.

Death is also a strong presence throughout your novel, and for the most part, Maryanne is fairly comfortable with the subject. For you, what is the relationship between life and death? How do they give each other meaning?

Of course death is an inevitable part of life though some people feel there is no such thing as death, just change. I’m interested that you think Maryanne is comfortable with death.  I guess she is because this is the work she chooses but I still wanted the reader to understand how painful all these losses are for her – her relationship, her job, her father, her dog Bob, even her house – I just didn’t want to describe that.  I wanted her grief to be so deep as to be inexpressible. It’s why she’s so frozen.  I wanted to pull a curtain over her grief and give her some privacy rather than show her ranting and raving.  Her losses make me sad.  There are parts of this book I don’t reread because they make me too sad.

I’m curious about your decision to include recipes in the book. There’s something very communal about the idea of different readers sitting down to enjoy not just your book but some of the dishes that you describe. As a writer, why did you include the recipes, and have you actually made all of them?

I love the idea of readers sitting down to share the book by making the recipes – I would love it if that happened though they should feel free to change them to suit themselves. Of course I’ve made them!  Most of these are things I make a lot, but I’ve made all of them at least twice.  The measurements are approximations though – I don’t usually measure.  And the recipes are supposed to be vague, to reflect Maryanne’s state of mind. I guess I always had a fantasy about being a food writer but I have no qualifications so this is my sneaky way of doing that and then I thought it would be interesting to include the thoughts of the cook, all the tangential and inappropriate things people think about while they’re cooking.

Your author bio mentions that you’ve worked as an art critic. How has your work in this field informed your literary aesthetic?

I think I look for the same things in art that I look for in writing – honesty, form, ideas, beauty, humor, a kind of tenderness or handmade quality, a willingness to take risks and break rules but then make up news ones and adhere to them.  Probably though the main thing I’ve taken from writing about art for years has been the discipline to write to word count on a deadline every week.

Finally, there’s some debate in A Year of Cats and Dogs as to whether life has a plot. What’s your opinion on the issue?

I guess I was trying to figure that out when I wrote this.  It’s really a question of whether there’s intelligent design.  Do we have a purpose? A destiny? Does it matter what we do?   In my darker moments I’m afraid not but mostly I believe yes life has a plot.   It certainly is full of surprises though and I like not knowing the ending.

The Dead Husband

Dead-HusbandUp until recently, I wasn’t aware that cozy mysteries existed. Apparently, “cozy” denotes a mystery that frequently involves a bloodless crime, takes place in a small town, and is solved by an amateur sleuth. Murder She Wrote is generally cited as the best-known example of the genre, but RJ Brown’s latest novel, The Dead Husband, also serves as a wonderful example. In line with the specs of this novel, the mystery begins when the protagonist, Sally Collier, discovers a corpse in the garden of a house she’s cleaning. The corpse is intact, so no blood. Additionally, the mystery takes place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, so it meets the “small town” criteria, too. And, finally, the sleuth has a day job: she’s a char woman (i.e., a house cleaner) — a profession chronicled by none other than Charles Dickens, so the novel not only meets all three criteria for a cozy mystery, but it also has somewhat of a classy literary pedigree.

What really brings this mystery to life is the characterization of char woman-cum-detective Sally Collier. The character lives and breathes on the page, and Brown conjures her so naturally that one can almost hear the narrator’s cockney accent (at least, that’s how I heard it!) as Sally goes about the business of trying to solve her first murder mystery. Indeed, sitting down with The Dead Husband is, I would imagine, just like sitting down with Sally herself. Sure, she has a tendency to ramble, but that’s what we love about her, and that’s what makes the narrative–and, needless to say, Brown’s writing style–so much fun. All in all, The Dead Husband is a lovely book, and I can say without exaggeration that it’s the best cozy mystery I’ve ever read.

The Yoke of the Horde

Yoke of the HordeWhen David Prior‘s The Yoke of the Horde came across my desk, I thought, “Great. Yet another novel about a man who believes he’s the reincarnation of Genghis Khan and who returns home from his efforts at freeing Tibet only to find that his wife has shacked up with a man who probably believes that pro-wrestling is real and which (the novel, I mean) features a cast of characters including a disgruntled weather man, a CEO obsessed with building the perfect putting green in his office, and a chef living in exile due to the economic and gustatory perversions of Jacques Chirac.” Talk about obvious! Talk about cliche! Talk about retreading ground that’s been trodden upon dozens and dozens of times already. But I’m a bit of a softy, so I gave the book a shot, and… I was pleasantly surprised. The Yoke of the Horde, it turns out, is not just another in a long line of books featuring the reincarnation of the founder of the Mongol empire. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is the definitive book on the subject!

Throughout the novel, Prior introduces us to a host of memorable (if somewhat bizarre) characters. Chief among these is Rosco Rochlitz, the aforementioned reincarnation of Genghis Kahn. After a failed attempt at freeing Tibet, Rosco returns home to find his wife in love with another man. With nowhere else to go, Rosco moves back into the one-room apartment he used to share with his wife, who enlists the aid of a largely silent neighbor known only as Tom to settle the dispute over who gets to sleep where in the apartment (among other things). Complicating matters is the fact that Tom has just been promoted from a number-cruncher to a greens keeper of an indoor golf course in his boss’s office, and the local weatherman is predicting the storm of the millennium. And when a wayward boyscout troop and a lost cache of illicit pornography get thrown into the mix, things really start to get interesting.

Overall, Prior’s novel is very funny, even if the prose is somewhat dense at times. Throughout the proceedings, the author takes aim at everything from Kantian philosophy to reality television (and everything in between). His writing style is somewhat of an amalgam of Thomas Pynchon and George Saunders, though his heavy reliance on chunks of dialogue to move the narrative forward also suggests William Gaddis. Ultimately, The Yoke of the Horde is a diamond in the rough. Complete with typos and minor inconsistencies, the novel reads like a true underground masterpiece–written on the fly, off the cuff, and in close proximity to any other parts of his trousers the author could find. Worth a read if you’re into any of the writers I mention above, The Yoke of the Horde is a wild, funny novel.