The book is entitled The Paris Bookseller. The author, Kerri Maher. It’s a rather insipid, if accurate title, I think, for a novel about the literary event of the twentieth century. I’ve had my struggles handling this epic novel. Its obvious excellence often outdistances my understanding. As for its successor, Finnegan’s Wake, I confess bewilderment. A terrible thing for an English major to say, I suppose, but that’s the way it is. On the other hand, I’ve been enthralled with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man from the first moment I touched it, so I do have some creds. However, of the effort it took to bring Ulysses to readers, I was close to completely ignorant. I knew it ran into censors and legal challenges and that there was enormous opposition to its publication, but I had no idea. I thank Kerri Maher for this engaging, painful, exciting, and often heart-rending tale.

Though Joyce and Ulysses are seemingly at the heart of the story, the novel is multilayered. It opens with young Sylvia Beach and her first visit as an adult to Paris in post WWI. She hasn’t been there since her family had spent some time there when she was a young girl, but in her heart she never left. She’s smart, well-read, and eager for adventure. She’s also a lesbian. This was a heady mixture for someone from sex-repressed America and who was of a revolutionary frame of mind and ready for adventure and romance.

She soon fell in with the literary crowd that frequented the left bank of the era. Hemingway, Dos Passos, Joyce, and a flock of others became her everyday companions. The atmosphere was bilingual, and she soon became enamored of the notion that she might do well to open a bookstore that catered to the English-speaking crowd that was part of the literary mix. Thus was born Shakespeare and Company, sponsored largely by Adrenne Monnier, who was Sylvia’s lover and the owner of a French bookstore that was already famous among the literati.

All well and good, but what about the Ulysses connection? It happened this way: In the midst of composing his epic, Joyce was having a hard time finding a publisher. He and Sylvia had become close friends as well as colleagues by this time. So, Adrienne and Sylvia cooked up a scheme whereby Sylvia would publish this work by a man they loved who wrote the prose they thought would reshape English literature.

We all know the result of their labors, but if you’re as ignorant as I was, what it took to reach the result is astounding. Thus, the layers I spoke of came into play. Sexism, selfishness, betrayal, misogyny, and greed all became characters in the ugly and thrilling drama that unfolded over many years. The book was finally published in 1922. By that time a pirated edition had emerged, which cut into sales and royalties. In the U.S., the case went all the way to the supreme court despite the fact that the book had appeared in various versions all over the world.

I’ll leave it to you to read the book and discover how Sylvia Beach, the original publisher, editor, and mentor of Joyce and his work fared amid all this sturm und drang. If not for her endurance and sensitivity, the story of Ulysses would likely have ended quite differently. Cream rises to the top? Don’t believe it. Not automatically. It needs a lot of help. Thank goodness, in this case, it got what it needed. Of course, the effect on other writers and readers that succeeded the 1922 group is incalculable. And, despite it all, Sylvia lived a rich and relatively long life. When she died 1n 1962 at the age of seventy five, she was still in Paris, still the proprietor of Shakespeare and Company, still unheralded in comparison to all that every reader and writer owes her right down to present day.



John Wilkes Booth is perhaps the most famous assassin in history, certainly the most theatrical. His killing of Abraham Lincoln in the Ford Theater on April 14, 1865, not only marked the downfall of one of the most important and well-known men since, say, Julius Caesar, but changed the course of a nation.

As author Karen Joy Fowler asserts in her afterword, so much has been written about the event and its perpetrator that there is no need to add to his individual legend or further lionize the murderer by focusing on his story alone. She has chosen instead to zero in on the Booth family and to tell the tale of Wilkes’ (A stage name he gave himself for a time) people. it was a tough challenge. “How to write a book about john Wilkes a book without centering on John Wilkes. It was a is something I grappled with on nearly every page.” To my mind she succeeds superbly.

In the pages of we get Booth get tales of those who knew him, nurtured him, reviled him from his 1838 birth to the day he committed one of history’s most notorious crimes. And beyond. She tells the tale vividly and powerfully. There are plenty of stories connected with the wild personalities of the Booth family without putting John in the foreground. In fact, she puts him largely in the wings, which creates a wonderful suspense for the reader. When will the main character in this drama appear to perform his horrible deed? He steps out for an episode or two, then disappears for a while, then he repeats the process.


Booth’s family was large, complex, and chaotic. He was considered illegitimate because his father was a bigamist, having married in England, then again in America, without bothering with a divorce. Despite his unsavory past, father Junius was a renowned Shakespearean actor. He was so revered that Walt Whitman wrote “there are no more actors” as part of a post-mortem tribute. In addition to his on-stage fame, Junius was a dominating personality who held sway over his family even considering his many and extended touring/performing absences. His fame was such that his sons all aspired to match his accomplishments. Only one, Edwin, managed to make a theatrical name for himself. The others, including John Wilkes, attained mainly the pater’s reputation for carousing and whoring and drinking (This last was common to the whole lot of them.) Still, lacking though he might have been as an actor, John was handsome and magnetic. Attach those qualities to his father’s famous name, he managed to garner many stage engagements and make a bit of a name for himself. It was that notoriety that contributed to his ability to walk into Ford Theater and past the (rather lackluster) security precautions and fire a bullet straight into the president’s brain.

Fowler tells the story with wit and great narrative skill, delivering telling descriptions that reveal both character and condition with eloquence and economy. Of a relative’s family’s unwelcome appearance at the Booth doorway, she writes:

Mother opens the door and lets them all into the house. The seven strange children have runny noses and blistered feet. Drops of rain are beaded on their greasy hair and streaking their cheeks. They smell awful.

Or take this description of one of John Wilkes sister’s reaction to the news of their father’s bigamy:

The way Rosalie sees it, pretty much everyone in London was abandoning their wives to run away with their sweethearts around the time that father met Mother. It seems to have been quite the fad. Sodom and Gomorrah with tea.

The Booth family was bred primarily, though not exclusively, in Maryland, close to those who were fierce advocates of slavery. Even though Maryland never officially joined the confederacy, there was no lack of enthusiasm for secession among the populace. John Wilkes was among the those who saw slavery as a benign institution which benefited both Negroes and whites and was very nearly the most important institution on which American was founded. Given those beliefs and his attraction toward dramatic and extremist notions, it was in hindsight nearly inevitable that he would enter into the kind of conspiracy that he joined on that April night. The rest of the Booths were loyal to their brother and son, but none of them held the fervent attachment to what became known as the “Lost Cause.” They were much more devoted to art and family than to politics.

It is that nearly apolitical tendency among the Booths that makes Fowler’s account of what led to John Wilkes’ great crime special. He became a radical not by any single political or social conviction, but by virtue of the political environment that surrounded him and of his his volatile personality. He never could stand to be ignored or bested and he always considered himself destined to do something great for which he would always be remembered.

He succeeded, of course. And Fowler succeeded as well in her aim “to write a book about john Wilkes a book without centering on John Wilkes.”



In the afterword to her recent novel, The Sentence, Louise Erdrich makes a number of reading recommendations. I’ve started working my way through the list. The first was The Hatak Witches a And now, here comes Brian Evenson’s The Father of Lies. Jesus labeled Satan that way in the gospel of John, so you’d expect the novel to have a religious bent to it, and boy would you be right.

Evenson has structured the book in a fascinating way, ping-ponging back and forth among letters, delusions, therapy sessions, and savagery. Sometimes you feel you are in the hands of a novelist telling a story. Other times, you are in the mind of the protagonist in what you might call his “right mind” state. Then again, you are witness to the “right mind” state which turns out to be delusional. Sounds confusing? Yes. ExceptEvenson keeps us all straight somehow.

The aforementioned protagonist is named Fochs (pronounced “Fucks.”), who is a recently appointed provost of a religion or church order called The Blood of the Lamb. The adherents are called “Bloodites.” The opening pages focus on an exchange of letters between various church officials that leave the reader with bits of information but wanting more. There is mention of “The Fochs matter” without mentioning who Fochs might be or what the “matter” might consist of. The officials are insistent that the affair, whatever it is, be concluded immediately and kept under wraps. As the communications proceed, we are introduced to to a therapist who has been employed to help our provost rid himself of disturbing thoughts. Highly unreligious and immoral thoughts. The prime directive of the Bloodites is obedience. The male director commands the provosts, the provosts, all male, who have families, command their wives and children. Question the father or the director? Not done. Excommunication is the price to be paid for disobedience, and no one wants that.

As the therapy proceeds, the line between our provost’s disturbing dreams and reality begin to blur. Our therapist begins to wonder when fantasy ends and reality ends. It also becomes harder and harder for our provost to separate imagination from reality for himself. I’ll stop with synopsis here to avoid spoiling things. However, I think it’s worthwhile to look at the themes.

At the core of Evenson’s story here are the dangers of hierarchy and authoritarianism. If the central concern of an organization is to maintain control and image, if that, indeed, is the central morality, nothing else matters much. Since there’s no admitting that the object is power for power’s sake, the power is assigned to guess who? Hint. Name starts with a “g”. A capital “G”. So what happens when our provost and his cohorts become wrapped up in those assumptions and rules? It’s quite predictable, and it mirrors the institutions of our daily lives. We don’t protect the innocent and punish the guilty so much as protect our institutions and punish the whistleblowers. It took me about thirty seconds to think of a couple of such incidents. Maybe it will take you longer. Maybe two minutes, but you can do it. Go ahead. If you have a problem, turn back to The Father of Lies. The answer is right there.


Anyone even slightly familiar with my historical novels will recognize that Jeffrey Staley’s Gum Moon falls right into the times and locations of my brightest interest and knowledge. The novel’s action is set in San Francisco and covers a time period from 1898 to about 1909. Of the multitude of incidents and stories the novel contains, the pivotal happening is the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Before that, Staley drops into a Chinatown world of incredible horror and brutality.

Underworld Tong bosses rule the day–and years. Opium and other drugs infuse the environment. The worst kind of prostitution is rampant. I mean “worst” in the sense of sex slavery among even the youngest of girls. They spend their lives in “cribs”– closet-sized rooms in basements and hovels entertaining customers at a dollar a shot. From previous reading, I know that until a San Francisco reform movement finally took hold in 1916, prostitution was not just a business, it was an industry. There were houses with 200 – 300 available women and girls. Young boys ran through the corridors in hopes of getting introduced to that legendary experience that fascinates most pubescent males. It was an atmosphere that would disgust all but the most lascivious. Unfortunately, there were–and are–plenty of those.

Fighting against all this during the time of the novel was a collection of religious organizations. Some were legitimate. They sought to rescue the sex slaves suffering in those cribs and to save them from a life of vice and squalor. Others were fake. Predators. Once they’d “rescued” their victims, these imposters bribed and manipulated their way into guardianship of the girls. Then they sold them on to other bosses or integrated them into their own “businesses.” Quite a racket.

Center to the story is a young three year old girl named Chun whose mother sold her to what she thought was a merciful white family because she couldn’t feed all her children. Chun finds her way to a Methodist orphanage dedicated to saving girls who are either in danger of becoming immersed in sex slavery or who are already there and need rescuing. Chun was one of the lucky ones. Life in the orphanage is not easy. There are whippings and harsh labor, but there is education and no rape. Chun even learns to play the piano.

She is, however, in danger of being pulled into the nether world by one of the fake rescuers. During her original “liberation,” the head of another organization manages to get his name on a document that makes him Chun’s guardian. The Methodist folks have possession of the girl, so there’s that. But the other guy has that paper. So, trouble. They go to court, represented pro bono by a lawyer who is romantically involved with one of the custodians. They are forced into court twice. The judge awards Chun’s custody to the Methodists, but does not void the bad guy’s guardianship. Then, when Chun is twelve, comes the earthquake.

The adults in the orphanage manage to shepherd their charges across the city, away from the fires and the wreckage of the building that had been their home. Next, the fires diminished, they trek miles back downtown to the recently-built ferry building, float their way to Berkeley across the bay, where accommodations await. All seems better. At least they survived.

According to the epilogue, many of the characters Staley introduces us to were actual people who lived beyond the cataclysm. For a while they seem to flourish and even thrive. But they still faced many difficulties. The racist attitudes and laws imposed on Asians not only in San Francisco, but nationwide pursued them relentlessly. Thus, Gum Moon is a combination of dream and nightmare. As a novel, it is a jewel of historical fiction. Grounded in real history, yet taking us simultaneously into the world of imagination. Few novels achieve both those things. It’s a rewarding and even inspiring tale. What more could a reader want?

Jeffrey L. Staley


I’m not quite sure how I stumbled across Devon Abbott Mihesuah’s The Hatak Witches. I’m glad I did, though I’m still not quite sure why. I seem to be browsing through a world of the paranormal lately. Check my post about Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence. or Sadie Jones’ The Uninvited Guests. Not only that, I am in the middle of another–Girl Gone Missing by Marcie R. Rendor. I guess I’m on an unintentional supernatural roll. So let’s get down to business.

We open as Monique Blue Hawk, a member of the Choctaw nation and chief detective of the police department in her small Oklahoma town, rises from her night’s slumber and takes off on a customary three-mile run. In the course of things, we learn that the three-miles is a short version of her normal morning mileage. She prefers five, but she’s short on time today. Today, once she gets her husband and son on the road, she takes off for a normal day’s work. From there on, complications ensue.

There’s been a murder at the local anthropological museum. One of two security guards is the victim.. The other one is missing. During the investigation, which involves a search of the premises, they find there’s a secret room in the museum, one to which only two of the employees have access. As the officers explore the secret room on their search for the missing guard, they find that it is filled floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes full of bones. Old bones found by various citizens over the years and donated to the museum on the chance that they contain Indian artifacts. They are doing their bit to help preserve their native heritage. Most of the artifacts , have yet to be catalogued or identified. As things proceed, we are faced with one of those riddles that populate conversations at some parties. There’s a room. No doors or windows. A person is imprisoned therein. Yet, he gets out. How does he do it?

At this point, it seems we are embarking on a rather conventional detective tale. However, mysteries accumulate and collide. There are incidents involving owls, which are shape shifters, plus other creatures best left to Ms. Mihesuah’s descriptions. Things get more and more dangerous and mysterious. We are soon in a world that is so full of the paranormal and supernatural that the ordinary world itself begins to seem part of the supernatural. Thus, a well-done murder mystery transforms itself into an absorbing fantasy taking place far outside the sphere of reality. Yet Ms. Mehesuah somehow keeps us grounded in reality at the same time that she transports us into another world altogether. Quite an accomplishment and entirely absorbing.

Ms. Mihesuah tells her tale with great skill, keeping at least this reader captivated the while, even while describing that which should have been completely unbelievable. The Hatak Witches is most unusual and most absorbing book. Don’t be scared. Hee, hee, hee.