The short chapters of Kathleen Wakefield’s Snaketown read like a series of microscope slides. Ostensibly the story of a family’s search for a missing child, the novella also serves as a naturalist study of life in off-the-grid rural America. On every page, the author examines the relationship between setting and character, between the barren landscape of a largely abandoned mining town and its denizens, and, ultimately, between the world and humanity.

Snaketown begins with the disappearance of Caytas Buck, the youngest child of the Sibel clan, an allegedly inbred family scraping by on government handouts and odd jobs in their own little closed-in corner of the universe. “They seem confined within boundaries,” Wakefield writes of the Sibels in the precise diction of a sociologist or anthropologist, “as if on an island where only certain things grow, other things three-toed instead of five, winged instead of gilled, the Sibels moving within a range of their own isolation, their own limitations, the roads narrowing, the slant of the sun, their valley, their bend of the river, hogbacks, Mingus Mountain.” Even the disappearance of Caytas does little to bring the family out of their isolation as a mix of destitution, alcoholism, religion, and (curiously) pride keeps them from interacting with the outside world. Indeed, one thing that makes Snaketown so enchanting is Wakefield’s uncanny ability to move seamlessly from the perspective of the Sibels to that of outsiders, thus giving her readers a complex, layered vision of the family and its tragic relationship with the world at large.

To describe the novella solely as a naturalist study, however, is to do it somewhat of an injustice. While the first two-thirds of the book linger largely (and poetically) on the Sibels and their history in relation to Snaketown, the last third of the book sees the narrative morph into something of a page-turner, with the Sibels and the local sheriff racing against the clock and each other to discover what really happened to the missing Caytas. Blending hints of John Steinbeck and Deliverance, Snaketown is that rare gem of a book that is both poetic and gripping — not necessarily a “fun” read, but certainly thought-provoking, heart-felt, and compelling.

The Cigar Maker

As author Mark McGinty notes in the acknowledgments of his second novel, The Cigar Maker owes a stylistic debt to influences ranging from such literary luminaries as James Ellroy, Mario Puzo, and William Shakespeare to such epic film trilogies as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Lord of the Rings. Indeed, “epic” is perhaps the best word to describe this dense and moving novel, for it has both the multigenerational sweep of works like John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and the social awareness of John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy. All of this is to say that for his sophomore literary outing, McGinty has done nothing short of producing the great American novel.

Part of what makes The Cigar Maker both “great” and “American” is that the novel is steeped in the immigrant experience. Shortly after the sinking of the USS Maine, a young father named Salvador Ortiz moves his family from Cuba to the United States and goes to work making a living for himself as a cigar maker. The Florida city in which he finds himself, moreover, is a hotbed of political and criminal industry, and it isn’t long before Ortiz — who wants nothing more than to provide for his wife and children — becomes embroiled in the the town’s machinations. In this regard, The Cigar Maker also reads like a literary version of Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York with a Cuban flare. That is, it’s a historical tale of class struggle with a distinctly humane focus in that the story of the Ortiz family mirrors not only the story of American workers but the story of America itself.

None of this, of course, is to say that The Cigar Maker presents an overly rosy picture of the American dream. Ortiz struggles daily just to get by, and he endures more setbacks than triumphs throughout the novel. Yet he never gives up, and keeps fighting for the greater good because, more than anything, he is a man of great conscience — a rarity, perhaps, in the current postmodern literary landscape, but a breath of fresh air as well.

Though The Cigar Maker is largely a historical novel, the issues it touches upon are as relevant today as they were a century ago: labor relations, immigration, and the nation’s involvement in foreign wars chief among them. What’s especially striking about The Cigar Maker, however, is that it doesn’t treat these issues as discrete phenomena; rather, it explores the interconnectedness of all three. In so doing, the novel reminds us that although we are all in many ways beholden to the vast machinery of forces beyond our control, we are all, nonetheless, creatures of conscience and are all, thus, responsible for doing what we can to shape the world into the place we want it to be.

Painstakingly researched and lovingly crafted, The Cigar Maker is a serious and significant novel about the American experience. The writing is beautiful, the characters lively, and the settings awash with visceral historical detail. An excellent book on all counts.

A Journey Through Literary America

Journey-CoverI’ll start this review by admitting that I’m not the easiest guy in the world to shop for, and I really do feel bad for all of the people in my life who have to buy me gifts whenever my birthday or Christmas rolls around. The problem, if you can call it that, is that I’m just not into things. I am, however, a book lover, but this also raises a number of issues in the gift-giving arena–the biggest of which is that nobody (including myself half the time) knows which books I own or have read, and so nobody knows which books to give me. And, yes, there are always gift cards to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but these gifts, heartfelt and sincere though they may be, smack slightly of defeat. They say, “I wanted to get you something, but I didn’t know what, so I’ll let you figure it out for yourself.”

I say all of this because I’m sure I’m not the only person out there who’s hard to buy for. And I further suspect that all of these people who are, like me, hard to buy for have people who love them and who want to buy them something out of the ordinary whenever gift-giving season rolls around. But they (the people who love the people who are hard to buy for) can never find the right gift and will–at the last moment, when all hope is lost–always settle for giving yet another gift card each holiday season even though they’d much prefer to buy a gift from the heart that say, “Hey! I care about you, and I know you well enough to get you this wonderful gift!” To put it bluntly, I’m saying all of this because I know how hard it is to shop for book lovers. But no more–for A Journey Through Literary America by Thomas R. Hummel and Tamra L. Dempsey is, I daresay, the perfect gift for book lovers.

First, the book is, objectively speaking, aesthetically beautiful. Illustrated with page after glossy page of vibrant photographs, it explores the settings that inspired many of America’s most loved authors–from Washington Irving’s Castkills to Robinson Jeffers’ Big Sur and back to Toni Morrison’s Lorain, Ohio (and many, many other places in between). Yet the book is more than just a collection of pretty (or, more accurately, stunning) pictures. And it’s even more than just an examination of the specific places that had a profound effect on the literary output of certain authors. Rather, it’s a meditation on relationship between place and author, or, even more broadly, upon place and self, place and identity. This is no small feat, for it takes the authors we admire in the abstract and places them squarely in the real world. Seeing their homes, seeing their towns, seeing the streets they walked and the rolling vistas that inspired them makes the 26 authors examined in A Journey all the more real to me, all the more human.

Needless to say, this volume is both a treat and treasure. Informative as it is beautiful, it will make a wonderful addition to any library. And, if you’re looking for the perfect gift for the book lover in your life, look no further than A Journey Through Literary America.