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Monday, November 12, 2007

Book Review: "The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis"

Michael Pritchett’s debut novel, “The Melancholy Life of Capt. Lewis” has a Faulkner-esque quality; a dense, multi-layering of past and present; a gradual unfolding of plot and circumstances. Pritchett’s control of this technically difficult story-telling method is admirable.

When I started “Melancholy Life,” I was insecure about never having read a history of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Though for years I’ve had a copy of Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage,” I’ve yet to read it. At times I was tempted to put “Melancholy Fate” down, quickly read the Ambrose, and then start back up again. In the end, I let my ignorance of Lewis & Clark be a kind of litmus to how well-told “Melancholy Fate” would be. I had no preconceived notions, nothing to compare the story to.

As the title suggests, this is a story in which the two main characters, Meriwether Lewis and a contemporary character, Bill Lewis, both suffer from “melancholy,” that is, profound depressive episodes. The story see-saws back and forth between Capt. Lewis’ exploratory journey, and the present-day Bill, who is a high-school history teacher attempting to write a book about the historical Lewis. The parallels between the two Lewis’ is clear: depression to the point of insanity, difficulty in interpersonal relationships, attraction to unattainable women, same last name (there is no hint of them being related).

The historical details of the early Lewis narrative are sparse. Pritchett is more concerned with painting a kind of abstract of Lewis – what he might have been thinking and feeling, how these thoughts might have influenced his actions and words, as recorded by history and by his own extensive journals. During the present-day narratives, Bill fills in more historical details during many conversations with other characters. As the book progresses towards the historical Lewis’ inevitable(?) suicide (or was it a murder – that is a question Bill Lewis wrestles over), there is a mounting tension in the present, in which the reader wonders whether Bill, who is similar to Lewis is so many ways, will follow the same course. His emotional state is so convincingly miserable, even the reader wonders how he could possibly keep going on.

The psychological rendering of both main characters is excellent. Any reader who has had experience with depression will be able to strongly identify with them. However, while I was able to maintain sympathy for Meriwether throughout the story, there was a point where I just wanted to slap Bill and say, “Better living through chemistry, dude.” There is very little reference to medication or medical help for depression in general. Towards the beginning of the story, there is an incident that suggests Bill neglects his own medical care, which is troubling, because in this day and age, so much of what Meriwether would have been helpless against, Bill could have received help for. It could be that Bill’s neglect of his personal health (as also illustrated by a smoking habit) is a deliberate attempt to get inside the mind and experience of the historical Lewis, or perhaps he is just simply so depressed he doesn’t care. If the latter is Pritchett’s intent, it is masterfully done, if not terribly evident to the reader.

The book sets the reader up for a profound, end-of-the-story kind of redemption and revelation, and while I really think Pritchett is aiming for this – a glimmer of hope with which to leave the reader – I don’t really think he pulls it off. The readers lives so deeply inside the misery and insanity of both Lewis’ inner lives for so long, that it’s hard to come back from that place.

What I loved best about this book, was the historical drawing of Meriwether Lewis, the sense of exploring a new land for the very first time. The idea that in discovering something, in both the naming and measuring of it, its mystery – its beauty and purity – can be diminished. Meriwether and Bill both sense a kind of malevolence beneath the surface of this new country, this United States; it is suggested that the Enlightenment is a myth and a deception. It never happens because no one is ever actually “enlightened.” A current of social malevolence carries forward to the present age, where undertones of cruelty towards society’s weakest members – through the seemingly benign institutions of baseball and golf, for example – still exist.

“Melancholy Fate” leaves the uninitiated reader wanting to learn more about Lewis & Clark. Though not always an easy book to read, I recommend it, particularly for people interested in American history, or those who, like me, have had experience with depression.

Where this country started – nee, how it started – and where we’ve come… there is a thread there, a link that is worth studying and ruminating over. Pritchett is an admirable writer and I look forward to following his career.

Monday, November 05, 2007

My First "LibraryThing Early Reviewer" Book Review

About a year and a half ago, I joined LibraryThing, an online community for booklovers, on which to catalogue one's personal library. This is a fabulous website for me, because I now have all my books online; can meet other uncontrollable bibliophiles; meet published authors who also LibraryThing; and, perhaps best of all, get free books.

(My LibraryThing profile is here, if you want to see it:

Several months ago LT rolled out a new program called Early Reviewers. Using one of their many clever techie mathematical formulas, it was determined that based on my personal book collection, I might in fact be a good person to review newly released books. So, they emailed me (among about 199 others) to see if I would be interested in lotterying each month for a chance to “win” a book, which I would then be expected to read and review.

Well. You don’t have to ask me a thing like that twice. So, what follows is a review of my first book:

As both the mother of four young children, and an intermittent Sunday School teacher, I have often found myself at wit’s end while cooped up with antsy youngsters. Many are the times I have simply run out of curriculum or activities, while time slowly ticks until dismissal. Though I’m sure I must have played many games in my own youth, at these times, “Duck, Duck, Goose” is the only children’s game I can ever remember on the fly. For all these reasons, “101 Pep-Up Games for Children” by Allison Bartl is going to be an invaluable resource for me.

From the publisher: “The games are designed to handle a variety of sitatuions: whether you’re working indoors or outdoors, with small groups or entire classrooms, if you have 5 minutes or half an hour.” It’s really true, too.

Designed for children ages 4-11, this book is the ideal tool for various-sized groups of mixed age kids. In many cases, the games require absolutely no preparation or props, which for someone like me, is perfect. The book is well-organized, with easier games towards the beginning and more advanced games towards the end. Pre-defined symbols indicate what size group a game is best suited for, or other special requirements such as space to move or necessary props. Whimsical drawings are found on every page.

All of the games are specifically designed to release pent up energy, or to re-energize a listless group by moving the body. The description of each game is so straightforward and brief that I’m often left wondering, “Why couldn’t I think of that?” But the truth is, thinking of children’s games is not my strength, and that is why “101 Pep-Up Games for Children” is going to be such a fabulous tool.

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LibraryThing Early Reviewers

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