Wednesday, November 13, 2019


My fears after reading Arkady Renko’s previous adventure have proven unfounded. I’d predicted that Tatiana, #8 in the Russian crime series featuring the intrepid “investigator of special cases,” would mark Renko’s valediction. Soon after I wrote those words I learned his creator, Martin Cruz Smith, was working on yet another episode, giving me a sliver of hope my forecast had been wrong. Had I Renko’s fortitude, stamina, and seemingly unlimited regenerative powers, I might have held my breath. But I knew he carried a bullet in his brain that could kill him instantly without warning, and considering the beatings, stabbings, being locked in a freezer and the exposure to lethal radiation he’d survived since we first met him in Gorky Park, the law of probability had to have his number in sight. At some point I would have no choice but bid him goodbye.

Well, it’s not this time. Not in #9, The Siberian Dilemma. That’s not to say he doesn’t have another close call. This time it’s being mauled by a bear on a Siberian tundra.

“‘Play dead or be dead,’ he recalls his father telling him as a youngster. ‘Lie flat on your stomach to protect your vital organs. Lace your hands over the back of your neck to cover the arteries there.’ It was a long time since Arkady had felt any reason to be thankful to his father. He rolled onto his stomach and covered his neck as instructed. The bear turned Arkady over. It mauled him and shook him like a rag doll. Play dead or be dead. Pain dug deep within him as if he was being torn from the inside out. Yellow teeth took his parka and flesh down to the bone of his arm, and he felt his right hand go numb and limp. The bear redoubled his attack, picking Arkady up, swinging him left and right, and dropping him. He tore the skin off part of Arkady’s forehead. Arkady heard the huffing and snuffling and smelled the rot of his breath. The bear wouldn’t quit. Arkady played dead. There was nothing else he could do. Eventually the beast would give up and leave him alone...”

It would be reasonable at this point to wonder how it is that a Moscow police investigator finds himself on a Siberian tundra being mauled within inches of his life by a very hungry brown bear. The answer, of course, is another of the complicated plots enmeshing the aging Renko, who remains at odds with his boss and who can never seem to resist tugging the capes of very powerful gangsters despite the virtual immunity they’ve attained from their friendship with Russia’s head gangster. In The Siberian Dilemma this would be Vladimir Putin, with the title “president,” and private properties including “ocean-cruising yachts...four estates with swimming pools, horse stables, tennis courts, and cascading waterfalls...and one with a separate house for ducks.

“In this manner, corruption was quantified and understood.” And sounds rather familiar to some of us, as well.

Renko’s mission to Irkutsk, known as the Paris of Siberia, is twofold. One is official and the other private. Zurin, the Moscow prosecutor who shares a mutual dislike with Renko, has ordered him to interrogate a prisoner who’s being held in a prison there charged with trying to kill Zurin himself. Renko’s private reason is to find his lover, Tatiana Petrovna, the fearless investigative reporter who slipped off to Irkutsk to interview one of the gangster oligarchs who has announced his intention to seek Putin’s job in the next national election.

“Anyone who challenges the Kremlin runs the risk of being murdered,” Tatiana’s boss, Sergei Obolensky, publisher of the news magazine Russia Now, tells Renko. If Tatiana’s with the oligarch then she, too, is a target, Renko know. He’s worried because she did not returned to Moscow when expected, and Renko has no way to communicate with her.

The ensemble cast includes Victor Orlof, Renko’s alcoholic detective/sidekick, who’s in the drunk tank when Renko leaves for Siberia. “They were partners in a peculiar business and he had come to count on Victor for what he felt was half his intelligence and most of his wit. Suddenly he had no one to take Victor’s place.” But a new sidekick kicks in by coincidence on the flight to Irkutsk. Rinchin Bolot, a friendly Irkutskian who introduces himself as a “factotum,” or man of many talents for hire. Renko hires him, making me a little nervous because for all we know Bolot is really working for someone else—Zurin the prosecutor or one of the two oligarchs who own most of Siberia. One of them is the man seeking to unseat Putin.

Also back in Moscow is Zhenya Zurin, the orphan chess-wiz Renko had befriended as a child and then mentored him as he might an adopted son. A threat of Zhenya’s “disappearing” is used to pressure Renko once he’s in Irkutsk and is given an extra-curricular “assignment.”

As to his own safety, Renko uses a line we’ve heard from him before, this time when Victor’s sister tells him how impressed she is that he stood his ground when an angry bear charged at him in the zoo she directs. Someone had released the bear and its mate, and Renko disabled it with a gun that fired narcotic cartridges. It was, she says, “As if you didn’t care.”

His response, which relates to the bullet lodged in his brain, “That’s my secret weapon.”

Recovering from his mauling in Siberia, the prospect of death occupies his mind with more perspective. “Arkady had never wondered or worried too much about his legacy, such as it was.” we are told. “He had never felt the need to leave his mark on the world, either through achievement or progeny.

There were those who’d be sorry to see him gone and those who’d be delighted. Given the identity of those in both camps, the latter was, in its own way, as much a compliment as the former.”

The book’s title appears as a riddle regarding a person’s choices when either of two options will almost surely be fatal. In explaining it, Renko uses the analogy of a man who falls through the ice on a lake. “If he pulls himself out of the water onto the ice, he’ll freeze to death in seconds, a minute at most. If he stays in the water, he’ll die of hypothermia in five…

The lesson is it’s better to take action than be passive...better to fight than to surrender, even if you know you’re going to die.”

As usual in the Renko series I found the setting to be ferociously realistic. This authenticity, I learned at the end of The Siberian Dilemma, did not come from reading travel guides. In his acknowledgments the author tells us how he prepared for this Renko adventure.

He thanks Luisa Smith, “my invaluable travel companion with a magic camera...Don Sanders for his help in making the Siberian trip happen...Arkady Persov from Irkutsk generously entertained us while showing us his city and the natural wonders of Lake Baikal...Lyuba Vinogradova has been my brilliant translator and research assistant for more than twenty years. She traveled from Mozambique to Siberia to be part of the team. Finally, there is Andrew Nurnberg, my loyal friend and agent for almost forty years. He has traveled with me on research trips to Siberia, Moscow, Tver, Berlin, and Havana and always kept his sense of humor. These friends buoy me up and keep me on my feet.

And let me add my gratitude, as well.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, November 7, 2019

EASY ERRORS – Steven F. Havill

Were I to consider becoming a police officer I doubt I could find better and more interesting training literature than Steven Havill's Posada County mystery series. I'm confident saying this after reading only one of the nearly two dozen in the series because Easy Errors just might be the only manual a would-be cop—or any cop--would need.
Its narrative architecture is pure meticulous procedural, from the precision of coded radio chatter to a ruptured bag of Cheetos found at the scene of a fatal road accident to the gathering and testing of evidence and preserving its chain of custody, and ultimately to the strategy of presenting witnesses to a grand jury.
The birth of this case is audio witnessed by Posada County (New Mexico) Undersheriff Bill Gastner, an upper-middle-aged widower who’s home alone and has just settled in to read page 107 in Peterson’s History of the Single-Shot Cartridge Rifle in the United States Military. The time is 9:17 p.m on a Wednesday in early June.
“What drew my attention to the clock this evening was the distant shriek of tires tearing rubber and the loud, dull whump that followed. Two lesser contacts and a final ground shaker followed. Whump, then bang, blang, BAM. Just like that, with a pulse or two between each concussion. The clock jerked to 9:18.”
Well, that sure as hell drew my attention, too, but not to the clock, and at least I could sit and follow the action from my recliner while poor old, overweight, out-of-shape Bill Gastner struggles out of the deep, cozy pocket of his “leather reading chair,” telephones dispatch and coordinates a response by the scant available deputies, then tootles off in car 310, his decrepit county-issued Crown Vic, to where he correctly presumes the wump, bang, blang and BAM had occurred. And there the plot quickly deepens into tragedy and thickens in implications. Three dead teens--one thrown from the SUV and crushed when it rolled onto him and the other two trapped in the wreckage but clearly lifeless as well. Gastner immediately recognizes the SUV as owned by the county’s assistant district attorney, and soon determines it was being driven by the ADA’s only son. The other two victims are siblings of the county’s new rookie deputy who’s been out riding with a patrol deputy and arrives at the scene determined to do his duty over his boss’s objections and despite the horrific personal loss he encounters.
At this point I’ve swallowed the hook and am in the creel, even as I begin to lose patience with the tedious use of ten-code radio signals and the excruciatingly painstaking collection and commenting on the minutia of debris, such as the “ruptured Cheetos bag,” any or all of which could prove significant in learning what might have caused the crash to happen. Having covered police departments and courts for decades, I understand how this staggering number of seemingly incidental fragments can make or break a criminal or liability case in a trial, and put juries, news reporters, and judges to sleep as lawyers wrangle for hours over the evidentiary relevance of a clothing fiber or single hair, and at times I found myself skimming over pages of these descriptions. But it was also part of what kept me scrolling through the novel on my laptop’s Kindle app. I knew I was in the hands of a professional, a cop who knew what was important and, through Gastner, was closely monitoring and advising his rookie in the fundamentals of solid police work.
I waited until finishing the novel before looking up author Steven Havill to see where he had gotten his police and court experience, as he also presents his courtroom scenes as realistically as any I have read by real lawyers and judges. Here is what I found in Havill’s brief Wiki bio:
Havill lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife Kathleen, a writer and artist. A dedicated high school teacher of biology and English by day.” 
Steven Havill

I stared at that for a bit, thinking huh? A high school teacher? There must be more! And maybe there is, but to find it I shall check a little deeper into this mystery police expert’s background. If anything new turns up I’ll include it in my review of Havill’s next Posada County novel, which most likely will not be the series debut, Heartshot. It was blogging buddy Tracy K of Bitter Tea and Mystery, whose review of Heartshot sold me on the series. When I finished Easy Errors and went back to Tracy’s review I nearly leaped out of my recliner when I read how this first of the series opens:
...a car full of teens, running from a stop by Deputy Torrez, goes airborne into a rocky outcrop, killing all five kids and revealing a package of cocaine under the seat,” Tracy quotes from the book’s blurb. “Has someone brought big-time crime to the county? [Gastner] is now dealing with grieving parents–one of whom starts packing a gun...”
Okay, some of you might have allowed a little gasp reading this, seeing the similarity between the openings—teens killed in car crash. I gasped, too, with the added oomph of seeing that Deputy Torrez had been chasing the car that crashed. Torrez is the rookie in Easy Errors who discovers his brother and sister dead in that crash, and spends the rest of the novel learning the ropes from Gastner on the importance of strictly adhering to procedure in gathering evidence and following where it might lead. Thus the title Easy Errors, which points to the dangers of straying from procedure. I already knew how Torrez came to be a rookie in Easy Errors, when some twenty-three books prior he is already a patrol deputy. Here’s how Havill explains it in his foreword to Easy Errors:
The Posadas Mysteries have been around for more than twenty-five years, and at one point several years ago, after many titles in the series, a reader asked if I would write the story covering the day that Estelle Reyes-Guzman joined the Posadas County Sheriff’s Department. That’s how the prequel One Perfect Shot came to be. Chronologically, that prequel’s action happens two or three years before the adventures in Heartshot.… the book that started the series back in 1991. ‘How about [Torrez’s] history?’ was the next question. Well, why not? Prequels are fun to write, so how about a pre-prequel? Easy Errors is the result of that exercise.”
Tracy K didn’t mention finding the narrative bogged down by plodding procedure, as I did with Easy Errors, so maybe that was partly—or mainly--because of the plot’s instructional aspect. I haven’t said much of the characterizations, but they were so well depicted, so lifelike and natural, they bring a feeling of authenticity to the book. They’re a little dull, too, just like real people.
“‘I appreciate your initiative, Robert,’ Gastner tells the rookie, gently admonishing him for exhibiting something of a lone-wolf attitude. ‘Don’t get me wrong on that score. But as you’re aware, this is a quasi-military outfit…uniforms, chain of command, all those sorts of things. When you’re taking a department vehicle, dispatch needs to know where you’re going. Don’t just surprise us. If we need you, or the vehicle, we need to know how to contact you.’”
I’m pretty sure at this point Deputy Torrez, a man of few words, answered the undersheriff, “Ten-four, Sir.”

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, October 31, 2019


The subtitle of Parallel Play is Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s. I put it down here in the text so it wouldn’t spoil the energy of the main title with something seemingly less mysterious. The irony, tho, is the real mystery: Asperger’s.”

Asperger’s syndrome, as it is commonly known, wasn’t recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1994, yet this neurological anomaly had been identified fifty years earlier by the Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger, who wrote of the relatively mild form of autism, “For success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.” Dr. Asperger’s vision for this benefit evidently did not extend to the more mundane human endeavors, such as business or evangelism, where we now find it mentioned in connection with two prominent individuals. Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish environmental activist, and Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook. Thunberg proudly refers to her Asperger’s as “my gift.” While comics taking him to task for his politics have mocked Zuckerberg’s Aspergian-like mannerisms, the social media magnate has not addressed them publicly. If in fact he is “on the spectrum,” as insiders refer to the myriad degrees of autism, perhaps he does not know it. Such was the case for two other highly successful individuals, both who’d had no idea they met Dr. Asperger’s diagnostic symptoms until well into adulthood.

John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye, was forty when a friend gave him a copy of Asperger’s Syndrome, by Tony Attwood. “I picked it up. Warily. 'What the hell is this?'” He started reading, and recognized himself in the list of symptoms. These included problems with body language such as eye-to-eye contact, appropriate facial expressions, postures, and gestures, and a lack of emotional interaction with others. He’d already struggled through a tortured childhood and adolescence to find success through technology, which led him to become the special effects genius behind KISS, the rock band known for it’s stunning pyrotechnics on stage. He progressed from there to the corporate world where he helped design some of the first video games and talking toys.
Tim Page

Tim Page made it to age forty-five wondering why he was so different from others—brilliantly intelligent but incompetent socially. Three years earlier he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism as chief classical music critic of The Washington Post. Now, depressed after failing at a senior administrative job with the St. Louis Symphony, he sought professional help.

“One psychiatrist concluded that I was bipolar and put me on lithium, which did nothing but make me feel weirdly outsized, as though my body stretched up miles from the ground, like a Giacometti figure. Another doctor suggested a new anti-anxiety medication, which I duly added to the clutter of bottles by my bedside. And then, after a series of family consultations, a New York psychologist named Keith Westerfield surprised me first with a thoughtful explanation and then with a formal diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome.”

He read a book of essays on Asperger’s then, and “felt as though I had stumbled upon my secret biography. Here it all was— the computer-like retention, the physical awkwardness, the difficulties with peers and lovers, the need for routine and repetition, the narrow, specialized interests...had they created a developmental disorder just for me? I was forty-five years old when I learned that I wasn’t alone”...something that had tortured him especially as a child, which he describes as “an excruciating awareness of my own strangeness.”

Attempts to relieve his anxieties then included glucose-tolerance tests, anti-seizure medications, electro-encephalograms, “and an occasional Mogadon tablet to shut me down at night.”

On the positive side his mind was phenomenal. He recalls memorizing entire books, including “vast sections” of an encyclopedia merely by skimming the pages. Despite feeling socially incompetent, he persisted, gradually learning to interpret social cues and respond appropriately in conversation with strangers.

There still is no cure for Asperger’s, nor are “Aspies,” as we (yeah, me, too) call ourselves, likely to wish a trade-off—our gift for “normalcy.”

Overstimulation of any sort remains a positive horror,” Page tells us, “and I am most content either alone, with people I have known a long time, or with the occasional new friend I make and love instantly, as though we were born together.”

He can’t bear to make eye contact when speaking of things that arouse deep emotions. “Moreover, although I’ve had a prescription for eyeglasses for the past twenty years, I’m most comfortable not wearing them...I rarely wear my glasses now, for they make me aware of too much. All of a sudden, it feels as though I’ve been cast into a world of strangers, all staring at me, so clear and so close that I’m flooded by the intimacy.”

Without warning, a need to escape can demand that we flee, and we do.

In order to fit in, Aspies must learn to act, and Page describes various celebrities, mostly entertainers, who served as role models for poses and mannerisms. Yet, he maintains, the acting itself is sincere. “The fact that my understanding of affection, comradeship, and human empathy has been hard-won rather than hardwired from the start does not make those feelings less genuine.” Nonetheless intimacy has continued to give him problems.

At twenty-nine he married his best friend, “a brilliant and intuitive woman, someone I admired and cared for and to whom I felt and feel enormous loyalty. But my capacity for intimacy was then very limited and the marriage lingered but couldn’t last. Our best moments were the births--gory, violent, and spectacularly beautiful—of our three sons, when I held on to one of her legs, mopped her brow, gave whatever comfort I could, and eventually cried for joy as a brand-new child was laid on her belly. How I pity my father—and his father and most Western fathers back to the beginning of the modern world—so long excluded from these astounding communions!”

Much later, after his Asperger’s diagnosis, he fell in love, which, he says, astonished him. The marriage lasted four years. He describes it as bliss:

“I had never imagined sustained contentment, and certainly not in the company of another person. Yet here it was: even making the bed together in the morning, an act that had hitherto struck me as Sisyphean, took on meaning, as the prelude to another gloriously ordinary day, to be followed by tea, the newspapers, a couple of hours of work, and then lunch in the neighborhood. While it lasted, everything was enhanced; the only thing I can compare it to is that moment when The Wizard of Oz turns from black and white into color.”

He says he resisted the relationship as long as he could, worried that “if I let her in, what could I ever do if she went away? But I found myself invaded, physically and emotionally, and, for the first time in my life, I was ready for it. Thereafter, I considered any day not spent with her a day diminished. I was no longer a scared kid being taken to bed but a full and eager partner, and I lived for several years in a constant state of amazed and grateful surprise…

“And then, suddenly and without warning, she had to leave and she was too regretful or too solitary or maybe simply too compassionate to tell me why. And I became a crazy man, so stunned and shocked that I felt mortally wounded. I’d finally found a mate— somebody I liked, loved, respected, admired, and lusted for all at once. Now I was alone again. I couldn’t comprehend what had happened, and whenever I believed it, even for a moment, the pain was unbearable.”

Then came the familiar stuff of heart-broke country songs...

Neither of his two marriages are listed on his Wiki bio page, which tells us he is currently Visiting Scholar in Residence at Oberlin College.

“Aspies are predetermined individualists,” he concludes in Parallel Play, “people both condemned and liberated to live in our own worlds--but, after a while, if we can summon up the courage, we stop apologizing for it.”

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, October 24, 2019

LIBRA – Don DeLillo

This is not a book review, contrary to its appearance and what you may have been expecting. I will explain shortly why I cannot review Libra by Don DeLillo, and I will give you links to bonafide reviews of the novel by two people vastly better versed in DeLillo and skilled in reviewing any literature than I. And I would advise reading them before embarking on the book itself. Fair warning.

What I hope to do here is to help  those who have yet to read Libra, to prepare them for the invasion of voices. For as you read along you will find these voices, so real and so familiar and yet so alien, camped in your head mingling with your voices, yours and their multiple voices, each struggling for dominance, theirs insinuating with such uncomfortable intimacy you will begin to squirm, worrying, wondering how come they are hanging around and how long do they plan to stay. For me thus far they continue to haunt, especially at night, several days after I’ve read the book. The most persistent are the single voice of Nicholas Branch and several belonging to the man we know as Lee Harvey Oswald, the name which, oddly, Oswald had used so seldom he barely recognized it when he and the world heard it interminably mouthed and broadcast soon after those seven November seconds in Dallas that changed everything.

Branch, for me the most psychologically accessible character in the novel, appears infrequently in a CIA-provided office addition to his house, where he labors alone sifting through literally tons of material and writing the secret official history of the assassination for the Agency. His reflections are ours in confronting a mystery, which, despite every available tendril of even remotely plausible evidence and state-of-art analysis, remained as distant then—Libra was published in 1988--as it does today and most likely ever shall.

His voice is a touchstone, reminding us that while what we are reading is fiction the story’s roots are not, and that those earlier voices are the ones making the mystery that seems to unravel itself now, but only in the imagination. It is there the voices haunt. Not so much with what they say, but with the atmosphere, the bleakness from what we know is coming, that covers every thought and word and movement of these tragic ghosts that can never rest. They spoke to DeLillo, and he brings them to us.

I thought I would be haunted by this story and these characters for some time to come,” he tells us in an interview, “and that turned out to be true. Libra will have a lingering effect on me partly because I became so deeply involved in the story and partly because the story doesn’t have an end out here in the world beyond the book—new theories, new suspects and new documents keep turning up. It will never end. And there’s no reason it should end. At the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary one newspaper titled its story about the assassination ‘The Day America Went Crazy.’ About the same time I became aware of three rock groups—or maybe two rock groups and a folk group—touring at the same time: the Oswalds, the Jack Rubies, and the Dead Kennedys.”

Libra summoned dark nuances from my interior archive and added mummified flesh to the bones of shock I’d begun stashing away starting with the visual of an Air Force officer running toward us in Philadelphia where we’d deplaned temporarily to allow refueling on our passage from basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. to Fort Devens, Mass. for specialty schooling. I don’t remember which voice broke the news, the officer’s or one of ours, that JFK had been shot. And this was all anyone knew until our flight ended at Worcester, Mass. and the bus conveying us to Devens stopped in a Boston suburb in response to the first experience I’ve ever had with a newsboy on a street corner shouting, “Extra!!” He came aboard, and we bought all of his papers. The headline screamed that our president was dead. After three or four paragraphs, containing little more than this, the story went on, backgrounding Kennedy’s visit and noting what was planned for him the following day. Most if not all of those collector’s editions remained on the floor when less than an hour later we zombied off the bus at our new duty station. I fell ill almost immediately, and was still sweating away a fever in a barracks bunk when someone announced that Oswald had just been shot. I remember weeping on and off, but, characteristically for me, not for the significance of what had happened, but from the mournfully comic Peter, Paul and Mary tune, popular then, which triggers bathos in me to this day whenever the wailing strains of Stewball chance to reach my aging ears.

Were I to hear that damned song right now, a long untapped well of salty hysteria just might spew forth and short out my laptop’s circuitry, bringing this shifty effort to chase old ghosts back into the deep night to a halt.

On the positive side, while the DeLillo novel, thought at the time to be his darkest and most complex, flushed out one of the darkest corners of my psyche’s hidden vault, perhaps Libra helped me get a handle with reasonable clarity on what I’d truly never wanted to be so starkly reminded of again.

And in doing so it also enabled me to banish what I now see was an inexcusably irrational refusal to read anything by this master of story, sentence, character, dialogue, and frightening insight. I won’t even try to go there, other than to suggest now, tongue half in cheek, that maybe some metaphysical caution was in play keeping my sensibility pristine, safe from this wizard of thunderous letters, until I was ready. My father’s flight instructor, after the usual series of takeoffs and landings in the little Piper Cub he eventually credited with saving his sanity, stepped out and onto the ground. “She’s yours, Lloyd,” my dad said Luke Altschwager told him, “Take her up.” He soloed then, my dad, thank the heavens, saving his family’s sanity as well. My thanks to Fictionaut’s Chris Okum for somehow managing to persuade me to face my own uncertainty and take this leap out of my DeLillo denial zone.

At the start here I promised you links to a what a couple of professional wordsmiths had to say about this, for me, life-changing masterpiece. Here’s Anne Tyler’s marvelous review in The New York Times. And this essay, written more recently by Troy Jollimore for the National Book Critics Circle, should accompany assigned reading of Libra in any college lit course.

And here...oh, what the hell: Stewball

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

DANCING IN SANTA FE – Beate Sigriddaughter

Beate Sigriddaughter dances with breathtaking grace and daring across the pages of her latest offering, a slim volume of fourteen exquisite poems she's given the beguiling title, Dancing in Santa Fe.

A former instructor of dance, and recent poet laureate of Silver City, New Mexico, Sigriddaughter is known for her sparing use of words with a precision so sly nuances can slip unnoticed into the most alert sensibility before revealing their connections to a greater yet not unfamiliar choreography.

Her poetry is widely celebrated for championing women in historically patriarchal cultures. She dedicated her previous collection, Xanthippe and her Friends, to Socrates’s wife, known for pouring the contents of a chamber pot over the great philosopher’s brilliant, balding, bilious head. But while we modern men (excluding me) are likely as deserving of such excremental scorn from the women in our lives as was no doubt the father of western philosophy, Dancing in Santa Fe carries not so much as a figurative whiff of ordure nor does it boast of boots made for walking all over anyone. What Sigriddaughter’s poems do bring is the occasional well-placed blade through the heart, and an invitation for sober reflection on the lack of progress my gender has made over the centuries in its appreciation of hers.

She's hidden from your benevolent contempt in the moss of morning dew. You thought I was going to eat her? – from The Dragon’s Tale

She’s a princess. The dragon has taken her away and hidden her “from your strange world of corsets and obedience...from your male fantasies.” It’s the last poem in Dancing in Santa Fe. The first one plays on a fairytale, The Seven Ravens, about a king who turns his sons into ravens because one of them made a mistake at their sister’s christening. When the girl learned of this she went looking for her brothers. She found them locked in a mountain, but had to cut off her little finger to use as a key to unlock the door. All ends happily, but the last stanza injects this thought: “...if seven girls were cursed because of one son, it wouldn't even be noticed. It happens all the time.” I sat silently, staring at the page awhile.

Why...a dreadful burden handed down,

one generation to the next?

Scheherazade, the legendary murderous Persian sultan’s bride who won his “love” by telling him 1,001 stories, one per night, comes in for lyrical questioning in the poem named for her. The sultan, enraged because his queen had been unfaithful, was killing one virgin per night. Then along came Scheherazade, who distracted him with her tales.

The poet asks her, “Did you save us all or merely raise the bar?” Pause to ponder, and then, “I cannot imagine the cost of making nice with the entitled predator like that.”

But the poet is ambivalent. Neither can she imagine the cost of “not making nice when the cold sword is already drawn.”

I wasn't—the war—born yet

is never over.

from the title poem, Dancing in Santa Fe, in which the poet gives us glimpses of a soul struggling to affirm life--how beautiful you are, world, with jewels in the juniper moments after rain. When will I be allowed to touch your beauty and keep it alive?--while “the enemy within just laughs.”

These two forces entwine and grapple continually throughout the poems, as if locked in a deadly tango—affirmation under assault by near crippling dread.

an unspeakable filter on this gorgeous world.

There’s physical dancing in Dancing in Santa Fe: One evening with Chico at the Skylight they “jelled,” and it was wonderful. Then there was Gabriel, who danced okay, but they had a country in common. “Gabriel, all I could ever do is honor your pain.” Her words reach beyond this moment, beyond Gabriel, gathering passion: “I want to honor you, life, by living with joy. The enemy within just laughs. Those others, they just wanted to live, never mind joy…

Who, not born German, can possibly comprehend the guilt I am condemned to feel for sins I haven't committed? It is an unspeakable filter on this gorgeous world.

I haven’t danced much since.”

Her appeal for help in undoing “the curse that keeps me uneasy in this shimmering world,” is answered only by the wind in an ancient juniper telling her, “this is the task that has been given to you.”

The “enemy within” is daunting. Yet, “once you learn to dance you never forget.”

In her search for deliverance from this yin/yang dilemma she looks at the Hindu concept of nirvana, which, she tells us, “I don't trust this. I never have,” calling it a “withering of all...just self-effacing consent.”

Isn’t that like suicide?”

In Wandering Night Notes she returns to what she knows, and enjoys.

I pray for courage to dance
my anger now, my fear, my dreams,
and dance my hunger loudly.

        What is the point of limping through
this superfluous life? Why not
make it a pleasure for each other?

Teach me your scratchy ropes.
I will learn. I will climb. I will love.