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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday Sentence: Patrick Modiano

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further context or commentary:
(He) suddenly recalled a passage from the memoirs of a French philosopher. She had been shocked by what a woman had said during the war: "After all, the war doesn't alter my relationship with a blade of grass." She probably reckoned that this woman was frivolous or indifferent. But for him, Daragane, the phrase had another meaning: in periods of disaster or mental anxiety, all you need do is look for a fixed point in order to keep your balance and not topple overboard. Your gaze alights on a blade of grass, a tree, the petals of a flower, as though you were clinging on to a buoy.

-- So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: 'The Turner House'

The Turner House
By Angela Flournoy
Literary fiction
April 2015
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0544303164

Home is a powerful symbol. At its best, home stands for haven, that safe place where someone loves you regardless of what has happened, because you belong there.

That’s the kind of home The Turner House has been for the family of 13 brothers and sisters, raised in a Yarrow Street home in Detroit in Angela Flournoy’s debut novel. For more than 50 years, through the rise and fall of working class Detroit, the Turners have known love in that house and gone on to raise their own families.

Their truck-driving father Francis has died and now their matriarch, Viola, has had to move in with the oldest son and his wife after suffering strokes. The Turner house is now one of those abandoned houses on Detroit’s east side. The debt on it is far more than what anyone will pay for it after the era of predatory loans hit the Turners, like many of their neighbors.

Being it’s a large family, not all the siblings are in the same situation or the same mindset. Some think of ways they could scrounge up enough money to pay what the bank wants to short-sell the house for. Others scheme to see if someone they know will pay the bank so they can have the house.

The youngest, Lelah, has just been evicted from her apartment. She has a serious gambling addiction and was fired after borrowing from fellow employees and complaining when she was sexually harassed. Babysitting her grandson is a way to stay out of the casino and a place to be daytime, but it’s not 24 hours and she’s not on the best of terms with her daughter. She has no other place to go except home, sneaking into the old home at night.

Being able to go home meant a lot to her when her marriage fell apart and she took her baby to her parents’ house:

Even before moving home for good, she’d seen that staying in the Midwest had its rewards, the most significant being that Brianne received Francis Turner’s blessing. A blessing from Francis did not have a spiritual connotation in any formal sense. It meant that Francis would get to know your child in a way that wasn’t possible for everyone in his ever-expanding line. In the final years of his life, Francis spent most days on the back porch, eyeing his tomato patch with good-natured suspicion, listening to his teams lose on the radio, and smoking his pipe. He did these things, and he held Brianne. Right against his chest. Francis had nothing cute or remotely entertaining to offer babies, he didn’t say anything to them at all. Instead he gave them his heartbeat. Put their little heads on his chest and went about his day. Even the fussiest babies seemed to know better than to cut short their time with Francis via undue crying or excessive pooping. Lelah would stand in the back doorway and watch Brianne sleeping against Francis, his large hand holding her up by the butt, and think she could stand a few more years of being close by. How many babies had he held just like that since Cha-Cha was born, using only his heartbeat as conversation?

There is a moment at the end of the book that underlays Lelah’s memory. It’s one of those heart-warming moments that isn’t forced, but which means more because it’s true.

The oldest, Cha-Cha, has always felt responsible and really knows how to fuss with finesse. Saving the family home is so important to him. So is taking care of his mother. And depending on his wife to make the huge family gatherings go off without a hitch. A truck driver delivering loads of new cars, Cha-Cha ran his truck off the road one night. It wasn’t fatigue. He saw the haint that he hadn’t seen since he was a child. And now he’s got to go to a company psychiatrist to talk about it.

As the oldest and youngest deal with their problems, they reach out to family and family won’t leave them alone. This is one of the strengths of Flournoy’s novel. Although the largest family I know has only six siblings, the dynamics are the same as depicted here. The love and logistics are palpable. Flournoy handles a huge cast -- and yes, jumps back and forth in time -- and never once is the reader confused about who, what or when.

Siblings appear to be on the verge of making the worst mistakes they could. None of them, however, go through what Francis did when he came up to Detroit after his military service looking for work, leaving Viola and his oldest back home in the South. Some of what happens to Francis is due to the times, but he is the true patriarch of the family when he exhibits pride that controls how he makes his decisions. It’s something that many of his children struggle with as well. But Flournoy shows not only that pride masquerading as self-righteousness can get a person in trouble, pride also can be a source of strength to make it through hard times and persevere.

Just as Flournoy is able to work with so many characters, she also is able to convey what matters about so many elements -- post-war Detroit job hunting, today’s unemployment lines, casinos, pawnshops, haints, family, siblings, children, past debts, making payments that aren’t just money, making retribution, making do, doing better, dreams, schemes, addition, healing, honesty in confrontations about old and new hurts, forgiveness and fresh starts.

Everything revolves around each other and their house:

Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do. Men and women assign value to brick and mortar, link their identities to mortgages paid on time. On frigid winter nights, young mothers walk their fussy babies from room to room, learning where the rooms catch drafts and where the floorboards creak. In the warm damp of summer, fathers sit on porches, sometimes worried and often tired but comforted by the fact that a roof is up there providing shelter. Children smudge up walls with dirty handprints, find nooks to hide their particular treasure, or hide themselves if need be. We live and die in houses, dream of getting back to houses, take great care in considering who will inherit the houses when we’re gone.

Thanks to Angela Flournoy, the fictional Turners have a legacy of a home that is far more than a house. It is also a haven for a reader. No wonder this novel is a National Book Award finalist.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sunday Sentence: 'The Lost Landscape'

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further context or commentary:

What is fleeting and transient in time, no doubt soon forgotten by adults, or rendered inconsequential in their lives, may burrow deep into the child-witness's soul ...

-- Joyce Carol Oates, The Lost Landscape

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sunday Sentence: Salman Rushdie

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further context or commentary:

A man who expected the worst. Also, a superstitious man, a crosser of fingers, who knew, for example, that in America wicked spirits lived in trees so it was necessary to knock on wood to drive them out, whereas British tree spirits (he was an admirer of the British countryside) were friendly creatures so one touched wood to get the benefit of their benevolence.

-- Salman Rushdie, Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Review: 'Gone Crazy in Alabama'

Gone Crazy in Alabama
By Rita Williams-Garcia
Middle Grade Historical Fiction
April 2015
ISBN: 978-0062215871

Sisters Delphine, Vonetta and Fern continue their journey through African-American experiences of the 1960s in Gone Crazy in Alabama, in a satisfying and entertaining novel that continues their individual journeys as well as that of the nation.

In the first book, One Crazy Summer, the girls left their Brooklyn home to spend time with their mother, a poet and free spirit living in Berkley. Back home for P.S. Stay Eleven, they tried to reconnect with family, even as that family grew, while seeing that the protest movement did not find fruitful ground in their grandmother’s heart.

In this third novel, the girls go to Alabama to visit their grandmother while their father and his new wife await the birth of a new child. There are old connections to rekindle with cousins. Their grandmother and her half-sister speak of each other every day and live within a stone’s throw, but don’t speak to each other. The moon landing is nearing (and fears the older generation has of this event recall what my own elders maintained about the effect on the planet). Delphine and Vonetta try to find ways to assert their own independence in kinship with their mother while still loving the rest of their family, while Delphine is especially struck by the Jim Crow hierarchy of the rural South.

When a possible tragedy looms, the girls and the rest of the family find ways to support each other they may not have tried earlier.

All three books are wonderfully fun and smart books about sisters. The differences in the three parts of the United States is woven into the stories in marvelous fashion, especially the contrast to being in Alabama compared to Brooklyn. The historical settings of the books bring back those days to readers who were there and will introduce them to those who need to know what happened before they came along in an entertaining fashion.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Review: 'Extraordinary Means'

Extraordinary Means
By Robyn Schneider
YA Realistic Fiction
May 2015
Katherine Tegen Books
ISBN: 978-0062217165

Lane has put himself on the fast track during his high school career -- AP, power electives, creating clubs that will look good on his Stanford application. That life is rudely interrupted when he goes to a most exclusive private school, one where homework is frowned upon, eating as much as possible is encouraged and getting tired or excited is the last thing that should happen.

The school is only for teens with a highly contagious form of TB. They are prisoners, waiting to see if they survive or die.

Lane rejects that. He continues to see his sojourn at the bucolic setting as an enforced holding pattern and continues to exert himself in studies. Meanwhile, at the table of kids who appear to shine over the rest, he recognizes a girl from summer camp a few years ago.

Sadie recognizes Lane as well, and she doesn’t want anything to do with the boy who caused her greatest humiliation. That's especially true now that she has come into her own. She is no longer one of the awkward kids, the kids who don’t fit in. She is thriving, finding ways to break the rules and stand up to authority.

In a story that outdoes The Fault in Our Stars for strong character voice, drama and humor that do not feel manipulative, Extraordinary Means is a most welcome novel for lovers of contemporary YA fiction.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and republished with permission

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Review: 'None of the Above'

None of the Above
By I.W. Gregorio
YA Realistic Fiction
April 2015
Balzer + Bray
ISBN: 978-00623335319

Things are going well for Kristin during her senior year -- she has two solid friends, a dreamy boyfriend, is interested in life and school, and she runs. She and her father are coping with her mother's death from cancer several years ago.

Then she discovers everything she knew about herself is not what she thought, and everything changes.

When she and her longtime boyfriend finally try to have sex, it's painful. Kristin is smart enough to go to a doctor to see what's wrong. She's surprised to discover she's intersex, with organs of both genders.

So at an age when most people are discovering themselves, Kristin is doing so, but starting from scratch. Everything she has thought about herself she now questions.

So do other people when the entire school finds out.

Debut author Gregorio, who is a doctor, handles Kristin's situation with kindness and from more than one angle. Regular teen complications of finding the right boy, dealing with scorn and discovering who you can really rely on are woven into the novel seamlessly.

Because Gregorio writes honestly about sexual matters, but with great taste, this is on the older end of YA fiction. But it is a novel I have recommended for every high school library.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted by permission