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The Green Age of Asher Witherow and Cranioklepty (thoughts)

March 18, 2010

I’m delighted to be today’s stop of the first Spotlight Series tour. This is a blogger-created event done to increase awareness of small presses (much like the Classics Circuit does for classic authors), and their first publisher is Unbridled Books. Before this, I’d read four novels published by Unbridled, and I’d enjoyed all of them! My library has quite a few of their books (over thirty; now that I’ve read a bit more about them, I wonder if part of that is their Colorado presence), and it took me awhile to decide which one I should review for the tour. They all sounded marvelous! ;) In the end, I resolved on a double feature: one novel and one nonfiction book. Unbridled is overwhelmingingly a fiction-focused publisher, so I was curious to see what they would do with nonfiction. Plus, I knew it was unlikely other participants would go for that, since most book bloggers aren’t that excited by nonfiction. Let’s begin with the fiction, shall we?

The Green Age of Asher Witherow by M. Allen Cunningham is set in a small coal mining town north of San Francisco in the late 1800s. The community is almost entirely Welsh immigrants, which I found interesting. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that featured Welsh Americans before! I also had no idea that coal mining was an industry in California, although thinking about it geologically, it does make sense. Anyway, the novel is about Asher Witherow’s experiences growing up there, as told by a much older Asher looking back on his childhood. I do enjoy narrative set-ups like this, since I think it allows the narrator more room for nostalgia and self-awareness, which works well in a bildungsroman. Cunningham’s writing style is wonderfully lyrical and evocative; he really brought alive for me the experience of being in the coal mines. Here’s Asher describing his experience as a breaker:

That place was a hive of boys inside. We sat on slats astride chutes and hunched over a dark current of coal and slag, snatching at it with bleeding hands. Dust stirred thick up to the rafter and the rock in the machine’s teeth creamed calamitously, like a dozen trains smashing into each other at full bore. The clamor blurred our vision and made us brace our limbs stiff. Our ears numbed, but still that jelly of sound went on tensing each wire and plank in our bodies. We bound our mouths with kerchiefs to screen the palpable air. We crammed our cheeks with tobacco to keep the dust out of our throats.

There’s also a pinch of the metaphysical to the storyline; from a boy who can see in the dark to a young minister whose missionary childhood in India has changed his spirituality to an older wise woman who goes out in every thunderstorm to collect rain-drenched sage. Cunningham does a great job with all of his characters, both major and minor…while they didn’t always feel precisely real, they did feel compelling. That unreal quality really worked for me, I think in part because children perceive people in a different way than adults. This isn’t precisely a happy novel; there’s a lot of death throughout the book. But it’s not an unrelentingly sad one either. For me, it felt like a look at what people can do, even in less than happy circumstances. I feel like I’m not reviewing this very well (I’m not feeling great, so my brain isn’t working at full capacity), but I was always excited to pick it back up and will be on the lookout for more of Cunningham’s work in the future. I think anyone who enjoys coming-of-age novels, unusual historical fiction, or evocative writing would enjoy this. The Green Age of Asher Witherow definitely lived up to my high expectations of a novel published by Unbridled. At this point, I feel confident reading any of their fiction, knowing that the writing will be lovely, the characters memorable, and the viewpoint fresh. My only complaint is that their backlist is overwhelmingly full of white authors. But I hope that in the future, they begin to branch out a bit more!

So, how does the nonfiction live up to the fiction? Well, after reading Cranioklepty by Colin Dickey, the best I can say is that Unbridled should stick to what it knows best. I think the title of the book is misleading, since cranioklepty was just an early name for phrenology. And the subtitle Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius is also misleading, since the book is much more diffuse in focus than that. I think that a lot of this lack of focus comes down to the fact that Dickey just didn’t have enough information for a full-length book. Cranioklepty is around 300 pages, but it feels really padded…I think the same stuff could have been discussed in a couple 20-page essays. This made me really impatient as a reader, since I felt like my time was being wasted reading things that didn’t matter. I also couldn’t really figure out the reason for the book’s existence…if it were a college paper, the professor would have written “What is your thesis?” in thick red ink at the top. It all just felt haphazard, which only works in nonfiction when the random facts are actually interesting. I think I’m going to cut this review short, since I don’t like being mean, but I can’t recommend it to people. I did like learning more about nineteenth century Vienna, and if anyone has any books to recommend on historical Vienna, I’d love to hear them! In the meantime, I do hope you check out Unbridled, but it might be best to focus on the novels they publish. ;)

12 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2010 11:27 am

    Too bad about Cranioklepty – it’s such a fantastic word, & a seemingly fascinating subject. But the fiction sounds good, and I love the idea of spotlighting small presses. It takes a good deal of restraint to write about underage coal-mining lyrically & in a way that’s not just depressing…sounds like Cunningham does a decent job!

  2. March 18, 2010 11:51 am

    I love the sound of The Green Age, I’ll have to get that :D

    I was looking at the list on the Spotlight Series webpage and there was one I recognised – The Pirate’s Daughter. I read that, ooh, last year? year before I think. I had to check my review for the publisher – and it is Unbridled Books! It was recommended to me by someone I used to work with who got all her books from her best friend, who happens to be the actor Bill Nighy. Plus it was fun cause Errol Flinn is a fellow Tasmanian! (His dad was a professor and moved to Hobart to teach at the university.)

    Canada has some great small presses. I used to work for one, when I first moved to Canada – they published Joseph Boyden’s first book (he who wrote Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce with Penguin, which were hugely popular).

  3. March 18, 2010 12:24 pm

    The Green Age… sounds like a book I would really like but think I’ll pass on the non-fiction.
    Problem is the Unbridled books are only available in hardback here and expensive. I could only find one in the library, The Pirate’s Daughter………maybe I should have a word with them and suggest they purchase more.

    Enjoyed your reviews.

  4. March 18, 2010 1:06 pm

    Sorry, I am struggling to visualise a little bit of Wales being lifted and put down again in San Fransciso. I have never heard of Welsh Americans either. I suppose you had an influx from all over our country at the time. I come from a family of coal miners, with my uncle being one of the last. I actually got to go down a pit for a tour and it was very scaring and claustraphobic.

  5. March 18, 2010 1:23 pm

    The Green Age does sound fantastic – I don’t think I’ve ever read any books featuring Welsh-Americans either.

  6. fleurfisher permalink
    March 18, 2010 3:08 pm

    I do like the sound of The Green Age of Asher Witherow, and I haven’t read anything about Welsh emigrants before. I’ll see if I can find any books about it from Wales. I would have loved to be part of this tour, but the books are expensive here and I couldn’t find anything in my library. So I shall be watching reviews and, I’m sure, adding a few more titles to my wishlist.

  7. March 18, 2010 8:28 pm

    Well, that sucks, how disappointing the non-fiction choice was. The novel you chose, The Green Age of Asher Witherow sounds totally awesome. I’ll have to see if my library has it.

  8. March 20, 2010 2:15 pm

    The Green Age of Asher Windslow sounds really good! I used to do some research related to mining, so I’m definitely interested… Sorry Cranioklepty was a disappointment for you.

  9. booksandmusings permalink
    March 23, 2010 3:27 am

    I like your header picture. Think its very innovative. Happy reading and writing.

  10. March 23, 2010 6:43 am

    The Green Age sounds excellent! Those quotes you pasted does feel very lyrical and beautiful! Have to keep an eye out for it!

  11. March 26, 2010 1:04 pm

    I share your enthusiasm for The Green Age of Asher Witherow, which I read and reviewed (at NewPages) when the novel first appeared on the market. I am also enthusiastic about your blog, which I just discovered and have added to my blog rolls at _Novels, Stories, and More_. I’ll check back often. Meanwhile, regards from the Gulf coast.

  12. March 28, 2010 1:35 am

    That’s too bad, I thought Cranioklepty looked interesting – guess won’t be reading it! (I read quite a bit of Non-Fiction… )

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