Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Broken Swan’s Neck: a new novel by David Kelly

The Broken Swan’s Neck.  David J. Kelly.  2013.  Peloria Press.

 swans-neck-pediment

Boy meets girl under nearly ideal circumstances.  The catch in this Southern love tale is a remarkable haunting.  What is remarkable is the strength and humanity of the main ghost, a grief stricken architect who is literally channeled by our architect protagonist.  The ghost, teasingly revealed in ever more fully realized form, is human enough to be convincing in the fiction, and surprising enough to remain slightly spooky.  This ghost story has some of the fine character analysis you would expect in a Henry James story, but also injects you into a strongly practical and contemporary world that captures your empathy.  The close identification serves to make the truly convincing ghost story all the more powerful in raising your hackles.  Before we meet the dead architect, we see his ill fated wife appear to the new owner of a historical Southern residence.  Miller, who has purchased the house not least in order to come to terms with his own architectural vision, is joined effortlessly and smoothly by Alicia, whose appearance in his life is nearly as implausible as the ghosts that start appearing to both of them.  Miller and Alicia use their shared visions to build a relationship, while solving the problem of the ghosts.

The history and motivations of the ghosts serve as a perfect foil both to the real life romance and to the crisis in vision Miller experiences with his work.  The male ghost makes physical alterations in his drawings and forces him to be braver in his projections of style.  The female ghost serves as the catalyst and eventually the emotional vortex that threatens the new relationship.  Even a hard headed cynic who thinks the ghosts are in the characters’ heads will appreciate the wonderful weavings of risk and reward that face Miller and Alicia. In the disbeliever’s interpretation, Miller works out his creative angst with a Doppelganger architect whose taste in style reflects and surpasses his own.  Alicia comes to terms with her classic Southern femininity by seeing it projected into the past doomed romance.  The story falls pat, but what of the ghosts?  The resolution is rich and nuanced.

The Broken Swan’s Neck presents a strongly believable contemporary setting.  Southern cities are really just big towns, and the old neighborhoods are enclaves of that town atmosphere.  This book puts you there, then melds old and new into a seamless story of both.  The numerous accurate and dryly witty local references are a delicious treat for any old Raleighites still out there.  The lasting impression of the book is the genuine plausibility of the slowly revealed ghostly presences, and Miller’s quiet conversion from doubter to believer.  This reader found himself growing to the idea of ghosts as Miller does.  Certainly they work very well in this story.  And in this day and age of ghoulish media excess, these ghosts aren’t creepy at all – just sad.  Maybe that’s the way they really are.

David J. Kelly is a Raleigh writer and publisher.    The Broken Swan’s Neck is available at Peloria Press.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

News & Observer’s Wake County Book Club review contest. 2003.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

John Dancy-Jones

newsobserver.com

 The protagonist in this book, a fireman whose job is to burn books, is a lost soul scarred by the harsh sociological nightmare of his future world. He is really the only character in the book: his wife and boss are ciphers representing, respectively, limp media addiction and ruthless macho power. Ray Bradbury never worried about being politically correct, and this short novel dates itself to the 1950’s in several ways while serving up a timeless message uniquely and strongly, well placed in the long lineage of twentieth century “Brave New Worlds.” It also accomplishes what all great science fiction must: an interesting and believable technical device (that marks it as SF) and enough literary and emotional content to make us want to read it. A diatribe on media, propaganda, and apathy, Fahrenheit 451 captures your mind and heart not with the fate of its hero but with the quality of its message: the freedom of ideas is an essential component of a fully human existence.

 

Before you can reach such lofty ideals, the story puts you in the suburb from Hell, where a robotic beast with infallible senses and poisonous needle teeth patrols the streets, sniffing out victims on the hit list of the invisible totalitarian government. Montag, the angst-filled fireman, cannot relate to his delusional, suicidal wife, nor to his genial but calculating boss. He does relate, however, to the victims of his work, and to the messianic teenager next door, who is the conscience of the book. From her he gets sensual but platonic infusions of radical thoughts. From his victims he gets books. The books he secretly obtains and hoards become wedges between himself and the carefully structured web of his existence. Montag never comes to terms with the people in his life – each relationship is cut away like bonds in a liberation. The growth and resolution in Montag is patterned with the insight given to the reader – the realization that is not the books as objects that are important – though they are the focus of the action. It is the ideas contained in the books that are such powerful agents of knowledge and self-awareness.

 

What is a perfect message for a young person coming of age in the 1960’s such as myself! We had our goals set by Sputnik, our values defined by flower children, our innocence robbed by Lee Harvey Oswald. Most science fiction was published by men, whose social mores seemed derived from the True and Argosy magazines found in my father’s den. Bradbury’s work had exactly that flavor – Rod Steiger played a wonderfully mysterious but unmistakably tough version of Rod Bradbury’s science fiction muse in “Illustrated Man.” But woven into the conventional science fiction is a sharp critique of humanity that applies more widely than any given set of technological evolutions or external novelties. The image of burning books becomes an unforgettable sign of universal malaise.

 

The fundamental optimism contained in the book involves the resolution of the plot (in case you haven’t read the book). Montag finally finds kindred spirits – railroad hoboes with Ph.D.s – and discovers that cultural knowledge is inherent and persistent in the human personality. A final SF device proposes that anyone who has read and loved a book has a recoverable memory of that book in his brain. “I’m The Book of Job,” he is greeted. “I am Plato’s Republic.” This was a fundamental lesson for me over three decades ago, being more enamored of books and libraries every year. I still love collecting books, but I understand their value. It is what’s inside our heads, not what ‘s printed on the page, that really holds the meaning. And meaning derives from plurality – from a rich multiplicity of images and possible meanings rather than the impoverished “reality shows” that society depends on in Fahrenheit 451. This book is a spookily accurate estimate of how low mass media might take us, and a reassuring good thought for the resilient spirits that want something better.

Amazon Book Reviews

Amazon Book Reviews

Field Guide to the Piedmont: The Natural Habitats of AmericaÕs Most Lived-in Region, From New York City to Montgomery, Alabama (Chapel Hill Books)

Field Guide to the Piedmont is a magnificent, vividly described journey through the Piedmont, a unique ecosystem which stretches from the Hudson River Palisades to the Georgia plateau. The theme of succession dominates and illuminates the book, while Godfrey’s literary descriptions of the landscapes reads like a Southern, landlocked Melville. I have used this book as my guide to understanding the ecology of where I live – a fundmental gift, and thank you, Michael Godfrey. I write about this at RaleighNaturalist.com. I highly recommend this book.