Hutchison’s well-landscaped ‘Butterfly Garden’ is nothing short of ugly

The Butterfly GardenThe Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The unimaginable happened. I found myself dining alone without anything to read. I considered shoving in ear buds to listen to an audiobook as I dined, although that seemed inappropriate for a number of reasons. First, I’d draped a white linen napkin across my lap and the bartender was wearing a black bow tie. Second, a writer worth her keyboard wouldn’t tune out the surrounding world when so many juicy stories are waiting to be overheard.

My mother, an avid reader who makes me appear illiterate, recommended “The Butterfly Garden” by Dot Hutchison, calling it an “interesting story with interesting characters.” When I questioned her lack of the word “good,” she said, “It’s well-written. Read it.”

Intrigued, I dropped a few of dollars on the fast-paced eBook about a man who collects butterflies for his garden. By collects, I mean he kidnaps them. By butterflies, I mean attractive, young women he tattoos with large, intricate wings. There is nothing the kidnapper, called the Gardener, won’t do for his beloved butterflies, including feeding and clothing them, providing literature for their reading pleasure, and honoring their requests for entertainment. Of course, the Gardner’s most notable “gift” is a stunningly landscaped garden in which his butterflies can frolic, yet never escape. He also sexually abuses them at will. Assisting the Gardner is his son, a stereotypical sadist who nonetheless is alarming.

Maya, a butterfly who takes her time doling out the details of her life before and during captivity, begins the tale in a FBI interrogation room. While the agents in charge of the case attempt to pry details from her faster than she’s willing to reveal them, the novel is anything but slow. It’s a page turner. Despite its gruesome storyline, I needed to know how Maya escaped the Gardner’s elaborate prison or if she was complicit in his terrifying enterprise.

In short, there’s nothing good about Hutchison’s vicious and heartbreaking “The Butterfly Garden.” Yet there’s no doubt the author cultivated a masterful plot fans of the genre will appreciate.

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‘A Gentleman in Moscow’. What is wit, wisdom and when finishing a novel makes you cry?

A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow” is not on my bookshelves. The novel sits on the table beside my favorite spot on the sofa alongside magazines, eyeglass cleaner, a pen and a pad of paper. In other words, the novel is close at hand, just in case. Unlike most of my books, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is not unmarred. At first careful not to break the spine, I considered underlining just one passage: “But imagining what might happen if one’s circumstance were different was the only sure route to madness.” Soon though, I found myself arrowing, circling, starring, and exclamation-pointing my way through Towles’ 30 plus-year account of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov’s life as an un-person.

However, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is much more than an epic the reader gets to “witness.” It is a guidebook revealing how we can learn to live without and within. Living without the comforts to which we are accustomed drives some to desperation or deep depression. For some, living within means remaining in a perpetual state of meditation where few complications arise or developing a shield that prevents others from beholding their humanity and vulnerability. It means selfishness. Yet, the Count is neither selfish, desperate nor depressed, at least not for long. Instead, he is resilience.

When Count Alexander—who refuses with great wit to repent from his crime of aristocracy—is sentenced to house arrest in a hotel across the street from the Kremlin or be shot, he discovers abundance in his limitations. He is at once profoundly touched by the complicated and sweetly simple lives of those around him and touching, with his thoughtful practicality and gentlemanly considerations.

Towles has with keen intelligence and humor crafted a character study of wisdom, courage and kindness. I’ve never been sadder to finish a novel, but I look forward to reading it again, and again.

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Ann Patchett’s ‘The Commonwealth’ covers decades, goes nowhere

CommonwealthCommonwealth by Ann Patchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unfortunately, besides crafting thoughtful characters and well-written sentences, there is little good in Ann Patchett’s latest novel. Starting in the mid 1960s, “The Commonwealth” covers five decades in the lives of the Keating and Cousins families.
I enjoyed the manner in which Patchett tells her epic tale and stuck with it hoping to come away with a satisfying finish. However, the few characters with sound judgement get little time in this book. An excess of alcohol at the opening christening party kicks off a slew of poor decisions, starting with the kiss that dissolves marriages, blends families, erects excuses for self-absorbed parents, and molds gun-toting, gin-drinking children. Lives go up in smoke and people die. In the end, nothing much is accomplished.

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Author Chris Cleave makes brave effort but misses the mark

Everyone Brave is ForgivenEveryone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If only everyone were witty in wartime. The characters in Chris Cleave’s latest novel “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” are far too clever for the novel’s good. Cleave is trying to tell many stories—the brutal efforts of the British to stave off starvation and Nazi invasion in Malta, education and duty in wartime, the fragile relationships between Mary and Hilda, Mary and her mother, Mary and her butler and Tom and Alistair and the little boy Zachary—and never delving deep enough.
The constant stiff upper lip and blithe humor just as the British are joining World War II and when the Nazis destroy much of London comes off as glib. Certainly, the author weaves a visual tapestry that makes London’s dismemberment come alive. However, the forced juxtaposition between white and black, privileged and working class—though an art restorer barely scrapes the surface of 1940s working class—feels condescending.

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Photography skills translate to the operating room… minus the camera

Rachel Holland

Holland

Rachel Holland met her husband on a photo shoot. She also met Hillary Clinton, Kid Rock, Eminem and Roger Penske.

During her nearly 20 years as a photographer, “I got to meet a lot of interesting people and got to go places people don’t normally have access to. You get into manufacturing facilities and see how things get made. I got to travel to Germany and Japan and Brazil on photo shoots. It was a lot of work, but exciting. I was a photographer. That was my identity.”

Eventually though, the business model changed and her once-stimulating career began feeling a lot like labor, prompting her to refocus her efforts elsewhere. Now, the 50-year-old is struggling with identity issues.

Holland’s “love affair” with photography began in high school after her father, then stationed on an Army base in Germany, gifted her with an old Voigtländer camera.

However, she also liked science. So she entered the pre-med program at Wayne State University in Detroit. That didn’t last.

“The idea of photography kept creeping back up and I applied to CCS (now called the College for Creative Studies) and got a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in commercial photography.” She learned the ropes in college and left to start her own business.

Her career started as a generalist, doing industrial and automotive photography, some for AutoWeek, eventually gravitating toward shooting people. “To get the bigger jobs, you have to specialize,” Holland says. “I started commercial portraiture, graphic and traditional composition along with some lifestyle things as well. And I would get hired by magazines and ad agencies.”

Popular Science, Self, The Source, Motor Trend, Discovery Channel, Chevrolet, Campbell Ewald and Owens Corning are among her list of former clients. The best part of each job was getting in the zone and losing herself in the work.

“You can be going and going and look at the clock and hours have gone by. It gets you in that creative flow state and you get energized by,” she says.

Holland had a particular love for working with film. “There’s something magical about trying to capture something in your own way and trying to see how it works out,” she says. “I loved working in a dark room and the chemistry of getting a special effect.”

Everybody’s an “expert”

The advent of digital photography changed everything.

“There were a lot more steps in getting images to the client. A lot of retouching and the nature of what I was doing changed as well,” Holland says, her voice rising. “Clients started wanting video too, which has a different skill set.”

Digital photography made breaking into the business simpler, which was great for novices. Not so for many professional photographers. Holland says, “Prices started coming down because a lot of advanced amateurs were OK with making something for $50 or $100. There was a real science to film. You had to know how to light things. Now you just push a button and it takes a lot of the skill away. It’s become more of a commodity.”

The changes were making Holland uncomfortable about her long-term future. “What if I’m 60 and I just can’t make a living at it?” she asks. “It’s the same thing with web designers and graphic designers. People will do their own work even if it’s terrible rather than hiring professionals to do it.”

Switching lenses for better outcomes

Rather than let her career fizzle out, Holland went to Plan B. She would get a second degree as a fall back.

When a friend mentioned forensic photography, saying there were jobs for nurses as death investigators and photographers, Holland took an internship at the Medical Examiners Office in Wayne County. “I thought that would be really cool,” she says. “I could take nursing as my second degree with a specialty in forensic photography.”

Now Holland is an operating room nurse at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. “I think I have an attraction to it because it runs very much like a photo shoot,” she says.

She explains that like a photo shoot, surgeries have a beginning, middle and end, along with a team. The hospital team is comprised of a surgeon, techs, nurses, anesthesiologist, and so on while an ad photo shoot might need an art director, creative director, buyer, make-up person…

“I like the interaction with the team. I like the immediacy and the pressure. The operating room is the same way. You have to get them in, get them done and get them out. The less time in the operating room the better outcome for the patient.”

Whether a photo team or surgical team, you have to advise without overstepping your boundaries. A photographer is advocating for the client. Her role now is to advocate for the patient, who is at risk for injuries and infection.

“I make sure no one unintentionally does anything incorrectly. I plan for the worst and hope for the best. It’s pretty cool. There’s a lot to it.”

While Holland enjoys what she does, she doesn’t yet identify with the title of nurse. On off days, she tries to be creative by experimenting with painting and taking photos, for herself.

“If the business hadn’t changed, I’d still be doing it,” she admits. “It’s disappointing. I used to say, ‘I am a commercial photographer. I shoot images of people for ad agencies and magazines.’ It was an ice breaker. Now I say, ‘I am nurse’ and people say, ‘Oh.’”



IDENTITY: A SERIES

Scott Norman wearing a uniform and holding a gun in "The Wars of Other Men" by Mike Zawacki.Story 1: Two artists uncomfortable with the “actor” label share their views on identity because they are both so much more.

Story 2: Authors Colson Whitehead, who’s black, and Jodi Picoult, who is white, address notions of identity in “The Underground Railroad” and “Small Great Things,” painfully convincing novels focused on race and racial injustice.

Paintings by Jay AsquiniStory 3: Years after suffering a debilitating accident, a photographer finds new passion.

Story 4 Life not production makes an artist.