"Can we ever really kill a myth?" author Matthew Gavin Frank asks in Preparing the Ghost. "Even though the giant squid has long been proved actual, the beast retains the mythological narrative, can't shake its sea-monster designation. The legend lives on."
It's the idea of myths and legends that is explored in Frank's newest book. Yes, the cover sports a subtitle, "An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer." And yes, the book starts out in a typical linear narrative with an introduction of Reverend Moses Harvey, an amateur naturalist in the 1870s who is obsessed with the Giant Squid. Indeed, as readers, we even get to see his captured squid in a black-and-white photograph that is found at the very start of the book. (The picture, somehow, reminds me of the monsters in the old monster movies of the 50s and 60s -- even though the picture was taken decades before).
Still readers venturing into Preparing the Ghost should be prepared. This is not a linear narrative or a typical biography. Instead, Frank weaves myth, science, history, and even personal memoir throughout Harvey's story. Indeed, there are even glimpses of Frank's own research process, including his efforts to find out more information about Harvey and his family and the very landscape that helped to capture the myth of the giant squid. Yet, even though the author wanders, he always returns to Harvey's story and the mysterious squid. Any reader who sticks with the author's meanderings will be treated to intriguing history, interesting mythology and strong lyrical writing -- and most of all stories that will grab a hold of you and not let go.
Sorta, I guess, like the suckers of a Giant Squid.
One of the characters in Laura Long's book, Out of Peel Tree, says this about those who leave West Virginia: "Wanting to leave is part of being a West-by-god Virginian. Even our state song is about leaving and pining to come back."
And indeed, this seems to be the motto of all the characters in Long's first novel, which, in many ways, reads like a collection of short stories instead of a plot told in linear form. In this work, we learn about a woman who finds out her husband's secret past, a reckless, (and in many ways, desperate) teenage runaway who plans a new life far away from her home, and a teenage boy who pines away for a girl who doesn't love him back. Connected loosely by family ties and the landscape of their home of rural West Virginia, the characters' stories are also very much their own, and it's hard not to long for more of their lives than what is conveyed in these pages.
Long has a rich, lyrical voice, and she avoids many of the clichés' often found in Appalachian literature by focusing on the language of music -- indeed, in spite of the characters' scattered and often rough lives, music seems to sing from the pages. And it's this song that makes this slim novel a beautiful read!
In many ways, I am more of a reader than a writer. This page will serve as a home for my informal reviews of what I've been reading.