Book Review: The Fire and the Veil, by Sophia Martin

Tortured psychic and high school French teacher Veronica Barry is back! As of just last week, Sophia Martin’s The Fire and the Veil is available on Amazon. A few things have changed since the last book, The River and the Roses. Veronica has a new boyfriend, and no car. Her best friend’s daughter has changed schools, and is now one of Veronica’s students…

But what hasn’t changed is the recurring, internal struggle of a psychic, and the deep empathy Veronica has for those she has visions about. The psychic’s condition is further explored in Fire on the subject of powerlessness. Veronica understandably gets frustrated with the duality of having urgent information, and being unable to disclose it without revealing her second sight. There are situations where it would be so much easier if she could just tell someone straight up what kind of trouble others are in instead of piecing together limited external evidence to justify actions that need to be taken. Save for the very few who know about and accept Veronica’s gift, laying out the facts as she knows them is not an option for Veronica, even when people are in pain.

Veronica’s internal dilemmas and monologues are something I was pleased to see carry over from the first book. I like other things about Fire, too. I like smooth, accessible flow of the narrative. I like Veronica’s dreams. I like the bits of exposure to other cultures (that alone is worth the read). I like the best friend Melanie, who is always available for pancakes and solidarity…

I do not like it when characters “out” other characters without their consent. It lowered my opinion of the one who did the “outing,” but not enough to smash the like-ability of the character altogether. Coming out of the closet was for the closeted person to do, not for anyone else to do for them. I don’t care if nobody ended up with targets on their backs or became an object of scorn because of it. It’s their news to tell.

For those who are liable to have a similar reaction: it’s also worth mentioning that this “outing” is only a small portion of the book, and therefore will only hurt for a minute. It is also a part of the story. Because of this, I can appreciate how it made me feel differently about the certain character. It made them all the more human.

So, if you like being transported to a place where teachers play a lot of hooky without the administration asking about the influx in sub-calls, and if you like a good psychic murder mystery, I advise you to take a look at The Fire and the Veil. To the readers who haven’t read River: don’t worry about getting lost. All the information from the first book that’s needed to get through the second is explained at the beginning of chapter one. It will feel like explaining, but there’s enough show-not-tell to save the recap from being the snoozefest it could have been.

To check out Sophia Martin’s blog, click here.


A Legacy of Question Marks

(not part of the October 2010 set)
On a Monday morning in October 2010, physical education students running laps at Walnut Creek Intermediate School rounded the baseball field to be greeted by the face of an old man tagged on the backstop. “I am Maligmus,” the words on the top and the bottom of the stencil said, “The Seer of Dreams.”

The face was not unique to WCI. Maligmus was tagged at a handful of locations in the downtown area. Because the image was public, its audience was broad. The graffiti’s size varied, as well as the captions. The one on the floor of a staircase landing in a parking garage near the movie theater said, “It's not worth it.” The same words accompanied another, on the Iron Horse Trail near Las Lomas High School.

Sunday morning, a man stopped to ponder one behind Safeway, which said, “I used to be young.” The man asked a passing teenager, “What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know,” he answered.

The teenager was seventeen-year-old Gavin Powell. Gavin had been up late the night before with his friend Matt Miller, and a lookout, toting supplies and spreading Malgimus around Walnut Creek. However, such activity is illegal (surprise!), and the fruits of their labor, after being photographed and chronicled by the WCPD, were painted over by municipal authorities. The life of that crop of the old man’s face was short, like its creators.’

The tall, concrete walls of the canal that cuts through Walnut Creek bear legitimately spray painted warnings to, “Stay out / Stay alive.” Gavin and Matt underestimated the merit of these signs when, on February 19, 2011, they got in a raft on the rainiest day of the year and consequentially drowned. Two days later, the front page of the Contra Costa Times featured a large photo of emergency workers carrying a tarp, heavy with corpse, away from where they found Matt, and a headline announcing the recovery of both bodies.

Which made a lot of people sad. Parents of adolescents suffered momentary paralysis upon hearing the news, because, as one woman from my prayer group put it, “That’s what teenagers do.” The painful coupling of an admirable, adventurous spirit unhampered by the anxiety of death, with the brutal lack of common sense wasn’t lost on most. A spell of shared grief descended on the high school; much worse spells onto those who knew them best.

The deaths’ untimeliness sped up and amplified gestures of symbolic immortality. There was a handsomely attended candlelight walk (400+ people), and also handsomely attended memorial services. An outdoor classroom was built in their honor about a year later. Hikers can find their names inscribed on a plaque on a bench in Shell Ridge Open Space.

Maligmus, in silent memory of the artists responsible, didn’t have any names attached; this was no graffiti equivalent to a plaque on a bench. And that’s okay. “This [Maligmus] was not something intended for artistic accolades,” said Aidan Herrick,* Gavin’s best friend. “It was done as a statement and was a work for the people. They [Gavin and Matt] would have been content if no one knew.” About the original artists’ interpretations, Aidan said, “Maligmus was meant more than anything to reflect the things in the viewer’s life, things that they felt were burdens, and the old man and the ‘it’s not worth’ it played into it by showing the result of worrying, in a way.”

One of the few that still remain.
For a brief time in summer 2011, Maligmus started mysteriously started popping up around town again, inviting more people to stop and wonder, “What does it mean?” This time the graffiti did not vary in size of caption. The head alone was roughly 35x25 inches, and every single one of them said, “It’s not worth it.” I asked around for others’ takes on the meaning of the old man. I couldn’t achieve the breadth that a more public audience could provide, but I purposefully asked a wide variety of people, including but not exclusive to a pastor, a preschool teacher, an engineer, a professor, and a few students of different disciplines.

Some thought it was a political statement. Other viewpoints contrasted; for example, the stubborn and enduring desire to keep living versus the pointlessness of going on once you’re “obsolete.”

A significant portion viewed Maligmus as a cautionary tale, a call to make good choices. Or that it could be the face of a man who invested his time and energy in something that didn’t work out in the end.

Although the cautionary tale response recurred, the majority of those I queried interpreted “it” to be “life.” This idea of life not being worth it provoked a few short, but strong answers: “Despair,” “Hopelessness,” “It’s too early in the morning…” One person even saw Maligmus as a man who was going to hell (no, it wasn’t the pastor who said that). I hope I’m not the only one who sees the irony of these carpe diem kids’ legacy being so strongly associated with despair.

Among those who had the “despair” interpretations were some who delivered passionate defenses that life is worth it. Retired dancer Jane Sullivan began her decree with, “In one word: wrong.” Jane said the face was that of a man who had made a choice to give up. One of the cheeriest people Sullivan knows is also one of the oldest. Although this person has plenty of things to gripe about, despite her problems and the excruciating pain she experiences on a daily basis, she make the courageous choice to greet life with a positive attitude.

Rene Salazar, animation major at Academy of Art University, had similar sentiments. He said that the face was one that “I may as well be wearing when I feel something isn’t worth my time and effort. It sends me the message: ‘If you are wearing this expression, do something else!’” However, Rene also “really like[s] this piece of art. It makes me not want to give up. It makes me not want to waste a minute of my life doing something my heart isn’t into. It’s holding up a mirror, and it’s up to me to be honest with myself and decide if that's an accurate portrayal of my reflection. I want to defy it.”

Strain Zero's Maligmus

* Aidan is the bassist and singer of Strain Zero, a local band who adopted Maligmus as a logo of sorts. So much ownership was taken that the aforementioned bassist took it upon himself to Photoshop the face, narrowing the head and making the features more “symmetrical.”


Book Review: The Space Between the Trees, by Katie Williams

In every college-level writing class I’ve taken, the professors have never waited for the second meeting to announce that fiction is a bunch of lies. I have also watched my share of TV specials about the stories of the Old Testament, in which most all the rabbis interviewed say that there is a difference between fact and truth. Long arguments about whether Moses led his people through the Red Sea or the Sea of Reeds are irrelevant when it comes to truth. Truth is the heart from which meaning beats.

Katie Williams’s novel, The Space Between The Trees, is told through the eyes of a teenage liar. Evie may not be a compulsive liar per se, or one psychologically divorced from fact-based reality, but lies nevertheless come out of Evie’s mouth as loose and easy as an exhale. Some are quick, one-line knee-jerks, as in the answering of a question. I was provoked to yell at the plucky, young heroine on two occasions when she demonstrated how she can lie herself into a corner with a single sentence. Some of her lies are longer: weaving the story of a social life to protect her mother from worry, or inventing episodes fraternization with a local hottie to prick the ears of a few of her peers.

Evie has undeniable expertise telling stories; applying character traits and sensory details from life to her untamed imagination. Since stories give meaning and pump life into truth, Evie, then, is in the right place at the right time when she witnesses the kind of thing that begs for truth. On a Sunday morning, Evie watched a pair of ambulance workers carry a body bag on a stretcher from the woods that border the otherwise quiet neighborhood where she delivers newspapers. The body was once that of fellow Chippewa High student Elizabeth “Zabet” McCabe, who was beaten to death the night before.

The stories Evie tells after Zabet’s murder will sound like truth to some, and just plain lies to others. An unspoken, mutual desire for meaning draws Evie together with the rebellious, cigarette-smoking best friend of the deceased, Hadley Smith. Each one has something the other wants; Evie has sensory details about Zabet’s death, and Hadley about Zabet’s life.

If you want to read about the adventures of an unlikely pair of teenage girls and how meaning-makers respond to untimely deaths, The Space Between The Trees is a solid investment of your time and money. The Kindle version is, of course, profoundly less expensive than the hardcover, however I would advocate purchasing the latter for the simple reason that it is one awesome cover. Williams herself said that when she first saw it, she genuinely thought, “I hope readers judge my book by its cover. I couldn’t believe how different it was, how gorgeous, how evocative.”

As far as what’s between the covers goes, Williams’s choice of adjectives hit the nail on the head. Space is 274 pages of “gorgeous and evocative” descriptive language. Evie may be an awkward character, but the narration is beautiful. If you’re anything like me, you might enjoy the unique and inventive metaphors, too, if you wake up on the right side of the bed…

Yes, the language overall never stops being beautiful. But the volume of metaphors is the worst I could drum up about the book. There’s nothing wrong with the word “like,” and there’s nothing wrong with the way it was used. It’s just the sheer volume. If you’re sleep deprived and/or your girlfriend just left you,* the excess of “likes” will be the first thing to grate your nerves. The same thing happened in Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (also a good investment of your time and money!), only, in the case of Elephants, it was to a greater degree.

* Please don’t use the “girlfriend just left you” example to make inferences about my personal life. It was just an example. Or, for the purposes of this post, I’ll call it a lie.