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Joel Aurora

Ignoring Grief to Our Own Peril: Q&A with ‘American Masculine’ Author Shann Ray

Shann Ray (photo by Vanessa Kay)

Shann Ray is a writer, researcher, and professor whose first collection of stories, American Masculine (Graywolf Press; 192 pages), won the 2010 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize.

Almost all of the collection’s stories take the dramatic Montana landscape as their backdrop, and almost all of the stories deal with men struggling to make sense of such perennial themes as death, infidelity, addiction, and abusive fathers. Ray, who lives in Spokane, Washington, with his wife and three daughters, writes with an unflinching honesty, and his work remains empathetic and lyrical regardless of the subject, be it the expansive Montana sky or the brutal anguish of a broken man.

The following interview with Ray was conducted via email.

ZYZZYVA: You teach “leadership and forgiveness studies” at Gonzaga University. Can you explain what that is?

Ray: I teach in a doctoral program in leadership where scholars from the U.S. and around the world gather to encounter what the Jesuits call the Magis, the idea that among many good things the ultimate good must be discerned and acted upon, and that cura personalis, or education of the whole person (heart, mind, and spirit), informs the interior life of all humanity. Leadership is the study of personal, organizational, and global influence.

My own research is in leadership and forgiveness studies, a nexus where the personal and the global meet (see Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity, my forthcoming book from Rowman & Littlefield). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa comes to mind, as well as People Power I and II in the Philippines, the reconciliation ceremonies at the site of the Big Hole Massacre in northwest Montana, and the work of people like bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Common research findings in forgiveness studies today show people with higher forgiveness capacity experience less depression, less anxiety, less heart disease, greater emotional well-being, and the potential for a stronger immune system. The great poet Kahlil Gibran echoed this sentiment by saying “the strong of soul forgive.” A very courageous statement by him, especially when you consider the gravity of the losses we encounter in his book The Broken Wings.

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And You Shall Know Patrick deWitt’s Western by the Trail of Dead

Early on in Patrick deWitt’s new novel, The Sisters Brothers (Ecco/HarperCollins; 328 pages), a grotesque old woman strings beads onto a piece of wire as the book’s titular brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, watch from across the room. Having taken refuge in her eerie cabin, they are repulsed by the “long gray hairs quivering from her chin” and the way her dented skull “caves in like an old piece of fruit.”

When the brothers awake the next morning, the witch has left, but the beads have been fixed above the cabin door. Determining them to be an evil spell, Eli and Charlie decide to flee through a window to avoid passing underneath the curse. But then Eli is forced to run under the beads to save his horse from an attacking bear – an unsubtle bit of foreshadowing that nevertheless leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling over what’s to come.

Although the scene goes largely unacknowledged again for the rest of the narrative, the witch’s curse looms over this often darkly hilarious novel, which follows the brothers along their voyage from Oregon City to San Francisco during the height of the California Gold Rush. A pair of hit men living on the fringes of the new frontier, Eli and Charlie have been hired to find and kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a man who has committed some unknown wrong against the brothers’ mysterious boss, the Commodore. Just as the evil beads would portend, the journey is filled with misadventure.

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Alexander Yates: Mashing Up the Loud and the Quiet, and the Beauty of ‘Gagamba’

There is an optical phenomenon that occurs when the moon is at its fullest (or nearly so) in which bright circular spots appear atop a lunar halo.  These “moondogs” give off a little color of their own, but their main source of light stems from the moon’s luminescence.  They do not stray far from the edges of the moon’s glow.

Alexander Yates’s new novel, “Moondogs,” is titled after this piece of celestial minutiae, and the naming is apt. The book’s multiple story lines linger around the same, somewhat otherworldly event: the abduction of a wealthy American businessman by a pair of amateur thugs and a malicious rooster.  From there, the plot lines run parallel and then bisect; startling revelations are unveiled; and supernatural powers abound as the tale hurls toward a boiling climax.  A geopolitical romp through crowded, sweltering Manila, “Moondogs” is an electrifying bit of pulp fiction whose beauty lies in the excitement of its more fantastical elements and in the winking self-awareness of its own absurdity. Continue reading

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Fancy Takes Flight in ‘Stamboul’

In The Oracle of Stamboul (Harpers; 304 pages), a flock of hoopoes (the Eurasian bird known for its colorful, showy Mohawk) watches over Elenora, the story’s heroine. The birds, which coat “the town like frosting” upon Elenora’s birth, are the initial hint that something supernatural – perhaps even prophetic – is afoot in Michael David Lukas’s ultimately winning first novel. Continue reading

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