"In Matto's Realm" by Friedrich Glauser

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Brought out by Friedrich Glauser in Germany in 1936, “In Matto’s Realm” contains the story of Herr Studer, at one time a chief inspector, but now simply a detective sergeant, brought in to discover what happened to the missing director of an insane asylum. Told at a time when modernizing changes were coming to homes where the mentally ill and incapacitated were kept, this book straddles eras, and brings us a very human, flawed hero.

“Matto” is the spirit of mayhem, or madness, as imagined by one of the inmates of the institution. This inmate ascribes to “Matto” multi-colored webs of war and fate and red bouncing balls of revolution in a malicious global campaign. Given the events here, the inmate is surely onto something. Detective Sergeant Studer has been called in by the rather un-forthcoming acting director of a Swiss mental institution when the Director goes missing. The mystery has its requisite violence, hidden motives, and suspicious characters, but this is clearly the story of Studer and Laduner, the new director-presumptive. They joust over psychology and motivation, over how to treat people including each other, over the new ideas of “analysis” and “therapy.” Though the jousting is fairly low-key for such high stakes – three people die during the story. They keep secrets from each other, alternately support and undermine each other, and certain misunderstandings last beyond the end of the book.

Herr Glauser’s meat consists of his treatment of Studer as the détective manqué: Laduner has kept so many secrets that he makes it impossible for Studer to do his job. His understanding of how the minds of schizophrenics and neurotics grows, but he does become compelled eventually, by the mythos of Matto, the demon who makes all consciousness and life miserable. At one point, Dr. Laduner obliquely supports the demon’s existence when he says the success of radical political movements is really the revenge of the psychotic.

The real characters of “In Matto’s Realm” get off fairly easy, Studer included, since one young man dies virtually in custody. I didn’t quite get the neat conclusions we like to see in murder mysteries, although that’s probably partly me and partly the translation (by Mike Mitchell). It’s a well-paced mystery, with a touch of modern forensics; its treatment of psychological disorders seems logical and straightforward; but its conclusion left me non-plussed. Does Detective Studer accept or even believe Dr. Laduner’s explanation of events? Is the doctor ever called to account for obstruction? Does the doctor ever come to realize the true service Studer has rendered him? I feel tepid about this book but respectful of its author, a onetime inmate of mental institutions himself.

"The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region" by Tom Calarco

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In “The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region,” Tom Calarco painstakingly builds a weighty narrative of abolitionist fervor and illicit transportation of runaway slaves in Upstate New York in the 1830s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. It’s an illuminating and intriguing read.

Mr. Calarco shows how, against the backdrop of faith-based reform movements – suffrage, temperance, and abolition – the growth of abolitionist sentiment generated a very active clergy and legal community which helped runaways. He also recounts the additional hardships placed on coloreds – the accepted term at the time – which pervasive racial prejudice imposed.
I had never explored this subject before. Here are some of the aspects of the movement Mr. Calarco brought to light for me:
  • The abolitionists were divided among themselves: various factions favored a “whatever means necessary” approach to immediate abolition, while others thought such militant talk was dangerous and counterproductive. They did agree, however, that abolition should be immediate and universal. 
  • Abolitionists did not immediately split from the colonization movement (which favored relocation of blacks to Africa and support for their government there), but ultimately learned of the movement’s racial hatred and reactionary nature, and avowed their opposition. 
  • One odd aspect of the movement: its adherents were quite slow to pursue political action to achieve its ends, but this is perhaps because of the very long odds they faced in that arena.
Along the way, we get an up-close view of the stiff-backed and uncompromising John Brown, some of whose opinions even Frederick Douglass found objectionable; the frightening practice of kidnapping, by which slave hunters abducted free blacks and sold them into slavery; the insights of the intuitive and charismatic Sojourner Truth.

Mr. Calarco tells us the Underground Railroad story of Upstate, particularly eastern, New York State has been omitted from the history texts; well, now there is no longer any excuse for that. Closely researched and engagingly told, Mr. Calarco’s work very ably fills the gap for those of us lucky enough pick it up. Recommended.

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"Touch" by Alexi Zentner

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In Alexi Zentner’s atmospheric “Touch,” grandfather Jeannot returns to the village deep in the Canadian North woods when young Stephen nears his eleventh birthday, and begins to tell stories. Jeannot founded the village when the dog he was walking overland with got too tired to go on, and settled down to sleep. The stories he tells Stephen flow from two traditions, the tall tale and the fairy tale. They do not spare the frank and deadly detail, nor the outrageous misbehavior, nor the vengeance served cold.

Stephen’s birth comes at a time when he’s too young for World War I and too old for World War II. Thus can his grandfather have founded a boom town in the harsh and unforgiving Canadian taiga. But can the other things his grandfather tells him be true? He says he has encountered a number of evil spirits in the forest and survived them. He survived a winter in a sawmill with his pregnant wife when the snow started in mid-fall and only let up in July. What he did to survive the winter there, and the ghastly retribution flowing from it forms the crux of the story.

Mr. Zentner in his debut shows strong promise in handling the geography of the primeval forest and of the larger-than-life characters that populate this story. The fairy tale aspect is never far from the surface narrative, and pops up at unexpected times. The stories are told by the characters, whose presence we barely notice. It could be Grandpa Jeannot telling the story to Stephen, or Stephen telling the stories in turn to his daughters. All these features of the story tell of Mr. Zentner’s skill and ambition in his first novel. Both are considerable.

An atmospheric story with extreme conditions of snow, river, forest, and fire, and extreme conditions of human survival, which bring out the best and worst in the human beings and the non-human beings, “Touch” presses deeply into our memories and consciousnesses. The style is perfect for the subject matter, and suspending our disbelief rewards us generously here. Take it up if you’re ready for a good, well-told fantasy.

"Cost" by Roxana Robinson

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Early in Roxana Robinson’s “Cost” we learn of Edward Lambert that he enjoyed finding fault, it made him feel competent and sure of himself, useful. Finding what was wrong with a certain situation, person, or idea put him in control, and made him superior. We feel for his grown daughter, Julia, a New York artist and college professor, and understand why his presence at her Maine summer home puts her on edge, and makes her resent him.

In this realistic, perfectly-paced novel, Ms. Robinson presents the tragic story of loss accompanying the deadly heroin habit of Julia’s son Jack, which wraps the family up in his inexorable downward spiral. It starts with Edward. He has sailed through his life as a distinguished brain surgeon; he loves the prestige and the notoriety, and the power this gives him; he has developed a powerful ego. He sees himself as a virtuous standard, a member of an extremely exclusive society, but very late in life his wife’s fading faculties trigger worry and memories that begin to tell him and us a different tale. The leucotomies, the enforced surgeries on mental patients, the use of humans as little more than experimental subjects, these all come back to him, and as the trying events of his grandson’s drug habit proceed beyond his control, he begins to understand his own failing facilities, and wonders if he really was as fine an individual as he liked to believe.

This story recounts the unbearable cost of the young man’s heroin addiction, in terms of heartbreak and financial capital, and it may cost him his life if he can’t kick it. However, there’s another cost running through this plainly- and effectively-told tale. The toxicity flowing from Edward, the embittered and estranged patriarch, generates coldness and distance in his offspring. His two daughters, Julia and Harriet, barely speak, and their brother in nowhere to be found at this time of family crisis (he lives on the opposite coast). This negativity and mistrust lead directly to Jack’s addiction. His suffering is the cost of the way this family behaves; he needs to be emotionally elsewhere, not part of this family.

“Cost” thus holds up the unfeeling Lambert family for our review, at odds, unloving, ultimately ineffective in dealing with its youngest member’s crisis. The author seamlessly shifts points of view, so that we get internal dialogs from all major characters. These are perfect. They guide us through the treacherous waters of this family strife, and we end understanding all. Ms. Robinson’s powerful novel exposes this fractured family at its worst time; it is artfully, thoroughly done, and so harrowingly real. A serious, excellent, and thought-provoking piece.