Joseph-Conrad_7284 Edward Garnett was something that no longer exists–a publisher’s “reader” (as opposed to an editor, a higher-ranking role back in the 19th century). Author Helen Smith has achieved an in-depth, nuanced study of this brilliant man in An Uncommon Reader, recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (no slouch of a publishing house itself). In that study, she presents a relationship between Joseph Conrad and Edward Garnett that argues for Conrad’s literary prowess existing in large part thanks to the shepherding and nurturing (literary hand holding and spiritual therapy) of Garnett.

We are inclined to remember Joseph Conrad as the great writer whose works spun out into Apocalypse Now and 23 other cinematic works, as the man of whom other writers have been painfully jealous. F. Scott Fitzgerland, for instance, proclaimed that he would rather have written Nostromo than any of his own works.

Did this same man from the Ukraine, who wrote in his third language and abandoned the sea because of poor health, actually depend on the publisher’s reader, Garnett, to tell him to go forth and write? Garnett slogged through, by his own estimation, roughly 700 manuscripts a year, for sundry publishers, evaluating and writing them up in terms of literary merits and financial promise (for publishers).

According to Smith,  it was Edward Garnett who convinced Conrad not to go back to sea. While admittedly Garnett knew his stuff, coming from a long line of book lovers (both father and grandfather worked at the British Museum,  in the manuscripts/books department), was he the one who shaped Conrad, giving him the courage and editorial advice necessary to write books to inspire the ages?

Conrad declared his dependency on Garnett more than once. Most shocking is the revelation of Conrad’s moodiness, which he blasted in Garnett’s direction by letter, and the attentive therapy required of Garnett to simply get Conrad to finish his second novel, An Outcast of the Islands. Not long after, Garnett met Conrad’s much younger fiancee, a woman who had no affinity for literature, after which Conrad embarked on a stillborn project titled The Sisters.

After a period of no communication with Garnett, his letters reveal the most contrite spirit turned in supplication to the man of letters. Conrad started “The Rescuer,” and wrote to Garnett, “I am ready to cut, slash, erase, destroy; spit, trample, jump, wipe my feet on that MS at a word from you. Only say where, how, when.” If Garnett did not answer that letter, it was because he had typhoid.

There can be little doubt that Edward Garnett was not paid for all the encouragment he sent to Conrad for The Rescuer, which he praised as “rather a new style for you–so crisp, so admirably firm . . . It is really extraordinary how real, how wonderfully actual and vivid your characters are in the midst of your poetry, your exquisite poetry . . .”.

Conrad would become needier still, complaining of “futile agony,” saying he had no ideas, having forgotten how to think or write.  The Rescuer–later The Rescue–proved a difficult book for Conrad to write, taking over 20 years.

Readers of Conrad know the names of the great titles that followed. The relationship between Garnett and Conrad is one that many a writer will envy. Is this the true formula for literary greatness? A self-sacrificing reader who believes, edits, and encourages? #AnUncommonReader#NetGalley


The LightAfter reading Cheeking My Meds and The Lady on the Rooftops by this same author, I did my utmost to connect for the simple reason that Francis Coco has the strongest literary voice I have come across in a long, long time. I would go so far as to say that the strength of her literary voice for me equals favorites discovered in the course of reviewing books put out by Virago, Faber & Faber and Farrar, Straus & Giroux for newspapers in the Saudi press while I lived in Saudi Arabia (almost 20 years).

To find an independently published author with such clear, strong messages and such an individual (engaging & entertaining) manner of narrating her stories has marked a happy moment in my literary life. I find her diligence in believing in herself and putting out her amazing books remarkable and admirable, an inspiration to other committed writers. She stands as a symbol of meaning in this new age of independent publishing–proof that talent will not stay silent.

Having spoken with the author several times, I am aware that the story presented in this book is based on a real occurrence. Coco (her pen name–she is in real life also a painter named Penni Goode Evans whose work can be found at artpickle dot com) has done a fine job of fashioning three characters with their own fictitious backgrounds and grafting what happened to her own family onto them.

The Light falls under “true encounters with UFOs” although the author at no time in her story nor in her conversations with me has ever implied that she believes the light was an alien. Even today she cannot say for sure what it was, but one thing is for sure: it stays with her.

The effect of the paranormal on human beings is strong, for when we get some sort of physical proof that there is a world of the unseen, it throws us, particularly as Western civilization takes the unseen so little into account on a day-to-day basis. I personally have no trouble at all believing in the author’s encounter because of my own life in Saudi Arabia (Muslims believe in angels and jinn, the latter which may be good or evil, just like humans). I do not think I would want to experience what the character Max does, and what those with him also have the unnerving opportunities to encounter.

Coco’s voice is every bit as strong in The Light as it is in the stunning Cheeking My Meds or The Lady on the Rooftops (also based on real encounters), the first, a memoir and the second, a book for older children (and inquisitive adults). The difference in The Light is pages spent on metaphysical musing, of making the connection between the experience of a phenomenon in relation to everything one has known and lived through before. If we are put here on Earth by a Creator, and if most of us never encounter someone or something from another dimension, then what does it mean when someone does have that experience? That he or she will be laughed at and disbelieved goes without saying. That such blessed or unfortunate individuals would seek out each others’ company is as natural as joining a book club because you like to read.

The narrator, Paige, hangs out with Max and Angela. It is Max who seems to specifically have the gift of seeing what others don’t, but Angela and Paige, who are with him, see the Light as he does. Paige even sees the black dog. They, however, do not have the dreams. The impact on all three is major, but as varied as the individuals.

Anyone who has ever experienced something inexplicable will want to read this book, if only to rest assured that he or she is not alone.

footprints in timeHow can we be happy and know our purpose? Fahim Munshi has here assembled a collection of anecdotes and discoveries that offer nourishment to the spirit and inspiration to do good on earth. Footprints in Time offers anecdotes from the Islamic past and present, some of which I was familiar with, and others which I had never read before. The stories range from tales of the prophet Moses, Solomon, David and Muhammad, upon whom be peace, as well as “guided” caliphs, to 18th century Tipu Sultan, the sultan of Mysore, who ordered a 21-round gun salute to celebrate the United States’ 7th anniversary of independence. Particularly delightful is the retold story of Hana Ali, daughter of prizefighter Muhammad Ali as well as of the strange friendship between killer Mark Stroman and Rais Bhulyan.  On a shooting rampage of Muslims right after 9-11, Stroman shot Rais Bhulyan and blinded him in one eye. Many of these stories left me in tears. Fahim Munshi is clearly a contemplative writer and has read widely; I would venture to guess he is at times a mystic who cares so much about his fellow man that he has created this gift to the world. Shorts verses from the Quran, quotes from the likes of Malcolm X and bits of knowledge, like the discovery of an ancient city, weave together a book that will help the curious understand why Westerners have been attracted to Sufism and will help fellow Muslims remember the road to true and lasting happiness. Hint: forgiveness and doing good to others, no matter the creed, gender or ethnicity, offer the widest door. If one were to seek out a simple book offering the gems of Islamic wisdom, one would need to look no further than Footprints in Time.fahim munshi (Fahim Munshi is a four-time recipient of the ABCI award presented by the Association of Business Communicators of India. He also won the American Graphic Design GD-USA Magazine Award in 2013 for his portfolio “My Work is My Signature.”)

Anneewakee: One Boy's JourneyAnneewakee: One Boy’s Journey by Steve Salem Evans

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anneewakee by Steve Salem Evans is one of those charming/horrifying books that, had it been put out by a recognized publisher, would have been fodder for radio talk shows. After all, when the revelations of this punitive U.S. teen camp initially hit the air waves in the late 80s, before the advent of the Internet, it made headlines.

Child abuse leads to troubled adolescence when no responsible party intervenes. We might think of considerate relatives, licensed authorities or even teachers filling that latter role, but until today, teens often get the brunt of blame. Steve Salem Evans and his little sister (with cerebral palsy) had to navigate an alcoholic mother who was as likely to be found dead drunk naked on the floor of their house as in any coherent state. The creepy next-door neighbor sexually violated the author as a child, yet chapter one tells the story of an American male teen tricked by his willing uncle and mother into a labor camp that could as easily have been located in communist Russia.

Evans’ time in total isolation, in a dark cell, begins—and its legitimacy is court ordered. While festering with little-to-no human contact (and definitely no kindness), he worries about his little sister and starts hearing things, seeing things. Without music, reading material, school, light, anything at all, the boy might as well have been an enemy of the state.
We don’t treat dogs this way. The name of this hell hole is Evaluation and Observation (E & O), and the man who receives Evans nearly kills him by strangulation.

The author does a marvelous job of demonstrating, through reflection and gripping story line, what boys in this facility endured. His sincerity and humility shine as he admits that some boys may have benefited from the Anneewakee Boys’ Wilderness Camp, for it obviously changed over the years and in the type of staff it had. That it was out of the public eye and censure gave those counselors great leeway—for good or evil. Personal philosophies dictated the approach of each counselor.

Henry is thrown into E & O after Evans has been there about 80 days. The author talks to the other boy through a vent. Henry has been committed by his father, on the first time Henry smoked pot and was caught doing it. They form a deep bond and keep each other from going stark raving mad. Once beaten into submission (for Evans, literally), the boys are allowed to join camps outdoors in total wilderness where they learn to live on their wits, working sun up to sun down until they vomit and bleed. Punishments defy imagination.

The trauma endured by Evans was worsened by the marked lack of concern by his mother, who, despite coming from a well-to-do family, never sent clothes or food like the other parents. The reader cannot help wondering how we in society live without noticing the pain of others, especially of the young. Nonetheless, despite deprivations and the presence of psychotically ill members like Marcus (a danger to everyone), Evans makes some amazing friendships, acquires patience in his despair, and realizes he is learning to survive. There are some moments of bonding with nature that will resonate with the reader—a kind of mercy delivered by God and Life itself, not man.

Although girls were at Anneewakee, this is a boy’s story, focusing on the experience of boys and their interests. Evans and his buddies get to meet some girls from another part of Anneewakee at a dance (!), and the author includes certain sexual experiences, but with the kind of measured hindsight that implies there is a difference between floozies and nice girls, and a sadness to girls (or female adults) who give themselves away easily. As in the instance of Henry, the experiences do not create the kind of solid platform of love that lead to stability in later life.

This is a gripping story and it begs many questions, the most prominent of which is whether we care about what happens to our young people. While Americans draw the line around their private space, how much does the happiness of the child next door count? Anneewakee is a testimony to haunting authors’ voices, telling important stories, that respected mainstream publishers have failed to pick up.

Steve Evans

Steve Salem Evans

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The Butchering Art:
Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine
By Lindsey Fitzharris
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

Speed and spectacle typified British surgery in the first half of the 19th century. The operating theater no doubt got its name from the audience it drew from curious laypeople right off the streets although naturally the first rows and floor area were crowded with medical students. A surgeon might not be able to operate until he had enough space. Frustrated audience in the back rows yelled, “Heads, heads!” when people in front obscured their view.
We forget the major impacts that our understanding—of science, medicine and technology, for instance—have had on culture. The Butchering Art reminds the reader that even such details as how people got hurt, how they endured large tumors over years of growth or operations for the same, and what they believed did and did not cause illness have radically altered. We would be shocked at what people argued about over the dinner table and at staff meetings!
Just before the mid-19th century, “Hospitalism” was a coined phrase understood to refer to the increase of infection and suppuration brought on by “the big four” killers in hospitals: gangrene, septicemia, “pyemia” (development of pus-filled abscesses) and erysipelas (a streptococcus infection of the skin, i.e. St. Anthony’s Fire).
Those in the medical field knew that hospitalism was a highly likely recurring event at large urban hospitals but they did not know why. Because infections were so prevalent in big hospitals, some doctors were proponents of patients being treated in their own homes or at the doctors’ offices. Understandably, however, it was easier for doctors to perform surgeries and for nurses to watch over patients in big hospitals, but within those confines, medical staff argued about how contagion spread, giving rise to two groups—“contagionists” and “anti-contagionists.”
Contagionists believed in contagion that went from person to person. Contagionists had an assortment of theories, including invisible bullets of disease. Anti-contagionists indignantly pointed to the squalor of the living conditions of the poor as well as the disgusting state of streets in large urban areas (London) Miasma was blamed for the spread of disease.
Set against this background of ideas comes Joseph Lister, upon whose life Lindsey Fitzharris brings her own microscope study upon the life of Joseph Lister, the British surgeon of Quaker background who was noted (and knighted) for his studies and promotion of antiseptic surgery and sterilization. However, in The Butchering Art, the author begins with Robert Liston, who was noted for his speed and dexterity, if not for the survival rate of patients (poor at best) due to the fact that no one yet understood how infection occurred. Since there was nothing to render the patient unconscious either, the best surgeons were fast. Liston, Fitzharris tells us, “could remove a leg in less than thirty seconds.” Speed had its drawbacks, as when Listen sliced off the testicle along with the leg being amputated.
Joseph Lister, as it happens, was witness to Liston’s use of ether, giving rise to the claim that patients would not suffer pain during surgery. There was still nothing yet that could prevent their falling prey to infection, which was expected. Pus was part of the healing process, but the healing process often led to death.
This fascinating book held me in its grip. Fitzharris does a wonderful job of coloring in the concepts of the culture, depicting the smells and images of England and Scotland, all while demonstrating that there was both wondrous good and nearly insurmountable ego involved in the medical profession—and either trait could kill a person as easily as cure. How a surgeon like Lister ever got the rest of the medical field to listen, (for there is hardly any profession less proud than that of surgeons) when the principles he applied saved lives  put others in his shadow, is a true marvel. #TheButchering Art #NetGalley @fsgbooksProfessional Reader

Res007 copy-7Available on Amazon Kindle and Nook.

Cheeking My Meds by Francis Coco
Published February 20, 2017
Available in paperback or as an Amazon/Nook ebook

41kVH7cQymLHow our parents treat us when we are young shapes our worlds and morale. Francis Coco visits this theme in her astonishing revelations of an adolescent girl—herself—committed in the 1980s to a psychiatric hospital for teenagers. Her voice is fresh and endearing; she wears her heart on her sleeve and describes the truth without flinching.

Love for daddy springs out of the first paragraphs, raw and true. She describes “Gordon’s” coolness and looks for ways to please him. But not every father would jump to commit his daughter to a psychiatric ward on the recommendation of a single therapist. What’s going on?

Francis Coco knows how to hold the reader. The story never stalls. Every kid she meets at the hospital is described without malice or nastiness. Why, we wonder, would Gordon put his nice kid here? The bag handed to Francis, full of tangled clothing thrown in by Veronica, the woman who lives with Gordon and Francis on his houseboat, feels like a lead.

Hospital rules bar breakfast, but staff is kind enough to give the girl drugs. We are off to a galloping start. When the first reason for Francis’s commitment is revealed—something any sane teenager might do—we start to wonder why people have children.

Adults who cannot cope with their emotions and desires and who have children anyway may abuse or neglect them. If the children react or run away, they get a free pass to a psychiatric ward. There, they get drugs.

What makes this a perky, funny, and delightful read is the author’s clear, strong voice. The narrator, Francis, has the cynical brilliance of a latter-day female Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye). Cheeking My Meds is a reference to hiding medication somewhere in the mouth rather than swallowing—and a brilliant metaphor for what adults must learn to do with insults/injury if they want a healthy emotional life. Oh, the irony!

This enthralling book has had two covers! Both work for me. 35120844