Saturday, November 15, 2014

Book Reviews: Auraria; Waycross and Winter, both by Tim Westover

I'd put the cover of the book on here, but it hasn't been made yet.  Tim Westover is a Medical Software designer and IT consultant who plays the banjo, has one of those daughters who makes every conversation a "Facebookable" one, and hikes across Georgia and elsewhere looking for the ruins of our recent past.  He finds the rubble of mills and walls covered over by vines and pine straw, the abandoned wooden sheds, the majestic waterfalls appearing out of nowhere and flowing down to make great rivers and lakes.  And he write stories. His first novel, Auraria, was an episodic romp into the supernatural world of the Appalachian Mountains. Briefly, Holtzclaw, a real estate developer in the pre-modern days (early 1900's? there's not really a date given, nor is it needed), is sent by his boss in Milledgeville to the area around modern day Dahlonega, Georgia where a resort town was to be constructed.  There he proceeds to buy up land from the residents, and finds them very odd, almost Alice In Wonderland-ish.  Ghosts play pianos and remain in the houses with their still living husbands, fish are caught out of thin air, and giant turtles sleep for eternity inside the mountains.  It is a wonderful book that I highly recommend, as it's the kind of book that I enjoy.  The plot isn't really the most important thing; rather, it's the experience of existing with Holtzclaw in this strange and wonderful world.  Is the book perfect? No, as I talked about in my review on Amazon, but it was a book that I enjoyed reading. Knowing the author, and going to one of his books signings (at Charis Books Atlanta, in which, sadly, the only audience was me and the people that worked there), puts me in a unique position of being friend and reader, in which reviews are read by the author.
So, when Tim announced he had finished his second novel, Waycross and Winter, at least, a good rough draft, he wanted those of us on his Facebook page to read it and help edit, give suggestions, give impressions. I downloaded it onto my Kobo and took it to work with me so I could read during my lunch breaks.  The interesting thing about reading a book that hasn't been fully completed, with every i crossed and every t dotted, is that it changes the way you read the book. Are you reading it as an editor, looking for grammatical mistakes? Or as a reader, absorbing the text and reading for context? 

I think that in reading the book, I became a book surfer.  If I hit a rock or a large wave, and I fall of my board, I'll become an editor and go investigate the rock.  I told Tim, among other things while reading the book [the block quotes are mine, edited from prior messages to Tim]: 

 Reading is a flowing motion, like swimming in the ocean (no, I'm not trying to rhyme...), and the ebb and flow of words are essential to a text, be it a book or a blog.  I was reading along fine, understanding the character of Waycross, and more importantly, the writing style, as something I would read in a 19th century Gothic book by Stevenson or Shelley (both of which wrote about doctors). And then, on page 3 of the text in my Kobo, I came upon the phrase "conscience wasting my time." I fell flat on my face.  The wave struck me and I got water in my nose.  I know what you mean, but a reader, especially not one familiar with 1800's literature, is going to feel it as a jolt away from the book. [I include this as an illustration of how being a reader and being an editor are different when reading. Tim changed the wording afterwards.] 
 The book tells the story of Aubrey Waycross, a doctor in the early 1800's Georgia, who travels from Savannah to the wild frontier town of Lawrenceville, Georgia to begin a practice.  For those who know the Atlanta area, you know right away that Lawrenceville is in Gwinnett County, near Discover Mills, and Sugarloaf Parkway, and all the modern day everythings that are suburban Atlanta.  But in this time, it was a town far away from anything resembling a city. Once there, he finds that people's medical needs are served by quack salesmen, like those who sell bottles of fizzy drinks that are now found in every vending machine in the nation. They are also helped by old wives' tales, the trial and error of herbal remedies, and, of course, witches. And so, with the righteous indignation of a Doctor fresh out of medical school, Waycross goes up to the house of the Winter Sisters to give them a piece of his mind. It's here that the story really starts, and I stopped worrying about editing, as the flow of that ocean became calm and peaceful.
Speaking of flow, the story starts on his trip to the Winters' residence, especially with the episode with the pigeons.  I could feel you exhale as the character came alive, fleshed out.  Before hand he was a stick figure, a stereotype of a haughty, over confidant doctor in the early years of this nation.  At this point, he becomes human, and I have enjoyed the story since then.  [Since finishing the book,  I realized why the doctor was who he is. Characters change, grow, as a book progresses. You grow to care about Waycross, especially when he grows to care about other people.]
The main problem I had with the story was the usage of so much human excrement when talking about the doctor's procedures on patients.  Of course, in these days, draining blood to calm humors, and using enemas as a way of draining toxins out of people were among the most common ways to cure people of whatever illnesses they might have.  The fact that I was reading while eating made me, admittedly, skim through some of these sections.  I did the same thing when reading Martel's Life of Pi, when he was talking about his waste in terms of his dietary condition while lost at sea.  And I mentioned that to Tim, and he wanted to know if he should take some of it out.  I thought about it for a long while, and actually finished the book before replying back.
I think the main problem with the excremental parts of the story is that I usually read while I'm eating.  But I don't want you to change that just because of my reading habits.  Orson Scott Card included quite a lot of vomiting in his book Lost Boys (which has nothing to do with Peter Pan or Vampires), but he was using it for a symbol of the real or physical world vs. the supernatural. It shows that both Sarah and Aubrey are rooted in the real world, at least, for the time that Aubrey was more interested in what the classic doctors said than the herbal and mental parts the Winter Sisters practiced.  There are strong reasons for leaving those parts completely as they are, but the opposite deals not with the story, but with the readers.  The people that read your book, are they going to stop reading it when they get to Sarah's story, or when cutting off the farmer's arm? The answer should be a simple one. You are the author, it is your creation.  God didn't leave out the gross parts of this Earth because he thought we might not like it. Pat Conroy could have left out the rape scene in Prince of Tides, would have saved a whole lot of challenging by conservative mothers wanting to ban books, but he didn't, because that was part of the story. 
When I finished the book, I began to see the layers of the story, the reasons for the rabid "creature" in the woods, the actions of the doctor when dealing with the supernatural, and when dealing with matters of his own mind and heart.  I questioned the existence of characters, wondering if they were just people in Waycross' mind... It was very satisfying, to see a story more compact than Tim's first novel, one that could be read and interpreted in different ways.

The other thing I enjoyed about the book was the literary references and the usage of themes that have been used in the greatest of literary works.  Aubrey Waycross is, in the context of the novel, part Dr. Faustus (Marlowe or Goethe), part J. Alfred Prufrock (Eliot), and part Candide (Voltaire). Now, this probably has to do with my own reading history, as for most people, you bring into a book the experiences of your life, and it helps to shape what you read. But in these cases, it's true.  It was refreshing to read something that, with a turn of a phrase, it connects you with a work, a twinge of recognition.  I won't give examples, because that would ruin the fun.

I look forward to the time when this book becomes available to the public, when I can hold the actual book in my hands.  I echo the dream of the author, to see Tim Westover's books on a bookshelf at Barnes and Noble, be able to pull it off the shelf, read the dust cover or description, and feel the book calling to me.  Or better yet, to have a bookstore worker be able to recommend the book to readers with the passionate zeal that I know they have (because I have it, too.) Amazon just can't do that, no matter how many reviews are below the price.

 Shelftalker review: Dr. Aubrey Waycross travels to the frontier town of Lawrenceville, Georgia to set up a practice, meeting quack medicine salesmen, flocks of pigeons, and the Winter Sisters. In layers of complexity, with scenes both graphic and hauntingly beautiful, Tim Westover blends the supernatural with the historical in a unique way. Readers of either will be right at home, and any reader will be pleasantly surprised.

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