This week’s other featured books, “True Teryn,” by S.G. Blaise, “Above the Bejeweled City,” by Jon Davis, “Slim Confessions,” by Sarah Minor and “Drama Queen,” by Frank Billingsley, can be found by scrolling down below this post, or by clicking the author’s name on our Authors page.
THE BOOK: Watkins Glen
PUBLISHED IN: June 2021
THE AUTHOR: Eleanor Lerman
THE EDITOR: Paul Berk
THE PUBLISHER: Mayapple Press http://mayapplepress.com/
SUMMARY: As members of the wild, wandering generation raised on rebellion find ourselves growing older, who do we now understand ourselves to be? Revolution may be in our souls but our lives are now affected by illness, financial concerns, careers that may not have panned out as expected, and a diminishing pathway leading through the years ahead.
Watkins Glen is the story of a sister (Susan) in her sixties who finds herself taking care of her estranged older brother (Mark) who has Alzheimer’s. They are the children of a father who worked in his brothers’ upholstery factory for most of the year but in the summers, escaped with his family to Watkins Glen, where he was the best outlaw drag racer in a town that primarily caters to high-end road racing sponsored by NASCAR and the like. After a life spent in New York City, Susan has moved back to Watkins Glen where she takes her brother to live—temporarily, she thinks. In the throes of his illness, Mark has developed a rare but well-known symptom of dementia called Acquired Artist Syndrome, whereby people who have never even thought about painting suddenly become obsessed with the art. Once Mark gets to Watkins Glen, he becomes possessed by the idea that there is a Loch-Ness like monster living in nearby Seneca Lake and he begins painting the creature. When a stormy season brings mudslides and floods to the region, Mark develops a new obsession—the fear that dredgers brought in to clear the lake after the deluge are a danger to the lake monster, and he wanders around the lake, looking for the lost and possibly injured creature that his sister knows does not exist. And yet, of course, she knows that in a way, he absolutely does.
Dealing with Mark isn’t Susan’s only problem: the ecological damage to the region brings rising water bills that may make it impossible for her to stay in her rented home. And when Mark, beset by the increasing confusion brought on by his illness, walks off with a little girl that he mistakes for his sister when she was a child, there is a real possibility that Susan won’t be able to save him from the consequences of this otherwise harmless outing into the past. What she decides to do mirrors the decisions that many people have to make as they get older: give up, give in, or use the strength of love, memory and imagination to find a way to carry on.
THE BACK STORY: This book is my fifth novel in the past ten years or so, and continues my exploration of the theme underlying all my work—including decades of award-winning collections of poetry—which is how to look beyond the human horizon to glimpse the forces of time and fate, and who knows what else, that steer our lives in one direction or another. I’ve written about sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, as well as cults, aliens, mysterious radio waves, ancient dogs and African tribes who know more about the stars than modern-day astronomers. While set in the very down-to-earth here and now, Watkins Glen also leads its characters far past the boundaries of the world they thought they understood. For good or ill—or perhaps both—they were wrong.
WHY THIS TITLE?: “Watkins Glen” is both the name of the town where the story is set but it’s also a metaphor for idea of “townies” and “visitors,” a phenomenon known, for instance, for residents of sea-side towns that are invaded by tourists each summer. Watkins Glen in New York State is the site of famous car races, include NASCAR-sponsored events and the Watkins Glen Grand Prix. During racing season, the town is packed with tourists; the main characters in the story actually live in a smaller, nearby (fictional) town called Glen Downey and thus are affected by the main business of Watkins Glen but actually live apart from it, just as they feel that their lives are lived apart from what they perceive as “normal” for most other men and women. This is particularly true of Mark, one of the main characters, who has Alzheimer’s and for his sister, Susan, who has to decide whether or not to become his caretaker. Given that context, she is well aware that her decision will affect the course of her life, as well.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? I think there are several audiences for Watkins Glen. To begin with, it seems to resonate with people who are caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients, though to be honest, I wasn’t thinking of that group of readers when I wrote the book. For me, the disease was symbolic of facing the struggle of aging and losing strength in both body and mind so that you have to make decisions about how to soldier on as best you can as time goes by. And, I was thinking of the members of my generation—old hippies who thought we were going to start a social and cultural revolution that would bring joy and justice and a safe, happy life to people all over the world. Well, boy were we wrong! So, Mark and Susan’s challenges are a way of my working out a scaled down version of feeling responsible for world peace: since that didn’t pan out, at least we can read along as this brother and sister come to both separate and shared decisions of how they will achieve some version of peace in their own troubled lives.
“This is an emotional read that shows a sibling relationship being recreated through a series of events that could not have been expected. Susan’s care for her brother is not something she anticipated, but she is there for him and works to keep him safe during his attempts to find and protect the sea monster. With this return to a place that they grew up in we see a sort of return to a time when they were a family. This is a powerful family focused read that those who life realistic fiction will enjoy.” –-The Nerdy Girl Express.
“It’s not often one gets to luxuriate in such beautiful prose. Watkins Glen examines the confusions of aging and regret, but also the compelling bonds of family and shared history, however complex and uncertain, and ultimately one of the pure joys life has to offer.” —Chris Knopf
AUTHOR PROFILE: In 1967, when I was a fifteen, I went into a drugstore in the desolate beach town where I lived. Just to pass the time, I looked through a rack of paperback books in the front of the store and by chance, came upon The Spice-Box of Earth, a collection of poetry by Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s name was familiar to me because his song, Suzanne, was often played on the radio. So I bought the book and read it on the bus ride home. I still remember the experience of reading that book—it was like coming upon the secrets of the universe. Until that time, I thought poetry was something that was written by people like Robert Browning, whose work I was forced to read in school but which had about zero relevance for the angry, drug-addled kid I was. By the time I stepped off that bus, however, it was like everything that had ever happened to me had been put into context. My mother had recently died; I was lonely, miserable and full of rage, but I had finally found the path that would lead me out of the darkness I was in and off into the rest of my life. I was a terrible student in school because I was too crazy and unreachable to let anybody teach me anything, but I knew that I could write, and with The Spice-Box of Earth, I had found someone who could teach me to write in modern language that could also be both beautiful and lyrical. In particular, the poem “Travel” affected me. Its last lines are:
Now I know why many men have stopped and wept. Halfway between the loves they leave and seek, And wondered if travel leads them anywhere— Horizons keep the soft line of your cheek, The windy sky’s a locket for your hair.
Reading that final stanza, I began to understand that the last line of a poem is the most important part of the whole structure. You can’t just let a poem trail off: it has to have a definitive ending, and it should be a real kicker. And I also understood something even deeper about how to end a poem: that you can, at the last minute, go off in a completely unexpected direction that is actually the essence of all the lines that preceded it. In effect, in “Travel,” it is as if all the stanzas that precede the windy sky’s a locket for your hair could be removed and that one line could serve as the whole poem. It’s magnificent and brilliantly done.
In the years since, I’ve had many ups and downs as a writer. I even stopped for a long time, but when I started again, I found that what I’d learned about reading Cohen’s poetry could help me read novels the way I’d read Spice-Box: as how-to manuals that not only told me stories but also provided instructions for the most complex elements of a book, such as how to construct a plot, to the most elemental, including how to punctuate dialogue. For that, I turned to John Cheever, Ann Beattie, John Updike, and others. I thank them all, but most of all, I remember Leonard Cohen with endless love and gratitude. Everything I write honors his name, and that includes all of my award-winning collections of poetry, short stories and novels. In the years since I read “Spice-Box,” I have been a National Book Award finalist, a recipient of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, winner of the Campbell Award for the 2016 best book of Science Fiction and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts for poetry and the New York Foundation for the Arts for fiction. My most recent novel, Watkins Glen (Mayapple Press) was published in June 2021.
SAMPLE: See Amazon page. http://www.amazon.com
WHERE TO BUY IT: http://www.mayapplepress.com
PRICE: See Amazon and/or Mayapple Press.