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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Louise Penny

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

There was a world out there. A world filled with beauty and love, and goodness. And cruelty and killers, and vile acts contemplated and being committed at this very moment.

-- Louise Penny, The Long Way Home

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review: 'Commonwealth'

By Ann Patchett
Literary fiction
September 2016
ISBN: 978-0062491794

A young assistant DA, in mid-20th century Los Angeles, wants to avoid going home to a house full of his wife and children, so he grabs a bottle of gin and pops uninvited into a christening party for a cop's second child. His gin and freshly squeezed juice, thanks to an orange tree in the backyard, lead to dancing and an unexpected kiss or two.

The party's aftermath includes new marriages and the bringing together of six stepchildren, four girls and two boys. They spent summers together in Virginia with a parent and step-parent, forging on as a group of individuals who find ways to get along and still be themselves. Their adventures exist in a world separated from the grown-ups who forced them together.

They are forced into independence when, for example, one mother disappears for the afternoon by hiding in the car, running the air conditioning and laying down in the back seat. (She realizes that since she's parked in the carport she won't be killing herself.) Or there is the time their parents sequester themselves in one motel room until 2 p.m. while the children hike over to a lake after breaking into the family car to take another fresh bottle of gin and the father's gun. The youngest, Albie, is a constantly moving whirl who drives the others crazy. The oldest boy, Cal, is allergic to bee stings so he carries Benadryl. The kids give Albie "breath mints" that are really the Benadryl, and when he sleeps they play, explore and have adventures without his interference.

The children come to two realizations. The first:

The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.

The other realization:

They had done everything they had ever wanted to do, they had had the most wonderful day, and no one even knew they were gone.

It was like that for the rest of the summer. It was like that every summer the six of them were together. Not that the days were always fun, most of them weren't, but they did things, real things, and they never got caught.

In Ann Patchett's luminous new novel, Commonwealth, the children grow up, find loves and lives of their own, and remember their past. Patchett has a way of making the normal things in life, such as a neighborhood party in which the grown-ups become tipsy, the stuff of legend, the kind of story that helps define a family for itself.

That's befitting considering what happens with one of the children. Franny, the baby whose christening was celebrated, is a reader. She loves losing herself in books and is one of those naturally kind people who can consider the needs of others. Working as a cocktail waitress in a fancy Chicago hotel after law school doesn't click for her, Franny meets an author whose work she has adored. He is one of those older Eastern authors who lives on liquor and the adoration of young women. Leo Posen also is the kind of writer who appropriates what other people tell him. He calls Franny his muse. His novel, Commonwealth, extrapolated from the stories she tells him of those shared childhood summers, becomes a huge bestseller.

Franny feels used after she had been having the time of her life. This becomes even more true when they "escape" to the summer house of a famous actress who wants a role in the film that will surely be made of this novel, and houseguests descend, and one sibling shows up unexpectedly.

As with many contemporary novels, describing the basic outline of the story makes it sound dire. But it's not that kind of story. The older they grow, the more supportive they are, not out of guilt or obligation, but because that's who they are. And they are supportive across the generations and blending of families.

There are some twists, one major tragedy and a lot of redemption. There is an interesting twist on Chekhov's admonition to writers about what happens when a certain object is introduced in a story. The last sentence of the novel, belonging to Franny, is a delight. Most of the characters have endearing moments, but Franny is a special character. She's pretty much become my grown-up Jo March.

Patchett knows how to make the mundane real and magical. There is one point where magic realism comes in, but it is used to bring peace and solace, which are the hallmarks of the final third of the novel. In other hands, some characters would have blamed others or themselves for things that happened. But these are characters who know that life is to be lived, for its own sake.

©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Ann Patchett

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

Had she done something with her life no one would be asking her to make them cappuccino, and had she done something with her life she would be perfectly happy to make them cappuccino, because it would not be her job.

-- Ann Patchett, Comonwealth

Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: 'Another Brooklyn'

Another Brooklyn
By Jacqueline Woodson
Literary fiction
August 2016
ISBN: 978-0062359988

We opened our mouths and let the stories that had been burned nearly to ash in our bellies finally live outside of us.

In Another Brooklyn, YA author and poet Jackie Woodson has written a novel of memories, a narrative with poetic sensibilities, a story of fighting to belong to a brother, a group of three other girls, a father, and a mother who lost her grip in the world when her own brother died fighting in Vietnam.

We learn early on that August, the grown narrator, still loves her brother, even though they live separate lives, separate realities. Riding the subway, August sees one of those three girls who were once as closer as sisters to her. She strides off the subway a stop early, even though that once close-girl, recognizable even in her womanhood, starts to greet August.

Where would we be now if we had known there was a melody to our madness?

This is the story of what happened to the girls. They cope with becoming young women even as they navigate a Brooklyn filled with heroin-addled Vietnam vets, dirty old men who would pay a quarter to look up their dresses and a prostitute with two young children who lives in the apartment below that shared by August, her brother and father.

For God so loved the world, their father would say, he gave his only begotten son. But what about the daughters, I wondered. What did God do with his daughters?

The girls each have dreams, although not every one will see hers come true. And here are boys, boys, who want to be men, boys who are enchanted by them, boys who make them want to sing and dance and perhaps become women. August and her brother, when they first move to Brookllyn from a failing Tennessee farm, watch the other three girls saunter down the street like they own the world. When school starts, she is adopted by the group.

What did you see in me? I'd ask years later. Who did you see standing there? You looked lost, Gigi whispered. Lost and beautiful. And hungry, Angela added. You looked so hungry.

As they grow and change, as their families let them down or build them up, the girls store memories of what they are living. Those memories, and the clouded ones August brought to Brooklyn with her. that eventually clear as she grows, form the core of this book.

Everywhere we looked, we saw the people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.

This is the first adult work Woodson has published in years. For adults readers, it would fit in well with her last book, the remarkable poetical memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming. But even without that earlier, award-winning book, Another Brooklyn paints a portrait of moments in time that shape the woman its narrator has become.

© All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and printed with permission

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Review: 'LaRose'

By Louise Erdrich
Literary fiction
May 2016
ISBN: 978-0062277022

Louise Erdrich is a grand chronicler of families. Her novels have featured parts of different families, connected tightly or just in passing, throughout different eras. In her latest novel, LaRose, the families are entwined because of tragedy and because of the deep need to belong.

Landreaux is married to Emmaline. Their youngest child is LaRose, a well-loved boy who has a family name, handed down each generation. Emmaline's half-sister, Nola, is married to Peter. They live nearby and have a son the same age as LaRose, named Dusty.

One day while out hunting, Landreaux accidentally shoots Dusty, who dies.

All four adults are berefit. Landreaux is cleared by the police but not by his own conscience. Wanting to make amends and perhaps hoping to be forgiven, Landreaux and Emmaline follow an old custom. They give LaRose to Nola and Peter to share.

The five-year-old spends part of his time with his birth family, including two teenage girls, an older brother and a boy who they have taken in. That boy, Hollis, is the son of Romeo, an old friend of Landreaux's. They are a loving bunch. The Ojibwe family work hard and take care of each other. 

Over at the other house, there is only Maggie. She is a teenager who is having to grow up very fast. She knows her mother Nola is having a horrific time coping, even more than her kind-hearted, white father, Peter.

Maggie finds it easy to be mean. When some of the loutish boys at her white school attack her, she goes right after them. It's an incident that will have repercussions throughout the novel. 

Repercussions carry the narrative. The way the characters all react to Dusty's death and LaRose's new situation living with both families, the way Romeo resents something that happened between him and Landreaux when they were boys, even the way Emmaline's ancestor, the original LaRose, lived, are not isolated incidents. As Erdrich writes about a character at one point:
The story would be around him for the rest of his life. He would move in the story. He couldn't change it.
That notion fits in well with the idea of belonging. Every character, even Father Travis, who has played a role in other Erdrich novels, tries to find a way to belong. It's not just a matter of fitting in, with the connotation of not being one's own true self. That's what happened to many Native Americans when they were sent to boarding schools to "kill the Indian, and save the man", as the founder of the horrific Carlisle school wrote.

One thing that was not killed in this story is the deeply spiritual side of the characters. From the original LaRose to the siblings of the LaRose in this story, which takes place in the run-up to the beginning of the Iraq War, souls and their journeys have their voices heard. The boarding school trauma and repercussions from various characters having been sent away to them are an important aspect of the story.

Just as in The Round House, when Erdrich weaved in the horrors of what white man laws have done to Native American women, boarding schools are an integral part of who the characters are.

The issues and their impact are serious in Erdrich's work. But she is not a dour novelist. There is much to celebrate in her work, and her characters are the kind to care about because of their joys as well as their sorrows. The spirit of LaRose, a boy wise beyond his years, graces this work even in the pages in which his character does not appear.

©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review: 'Homegoing"

By Yaa Gyasi
Literary fiction
June 2016
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-110194713

Many who read do so in search of something, whether it's information, entertainment, affirmation or curiosity. The characters in Yaa Gyasi's novel Homegoing are searching for something as well. Most often, it is themselves or a sense of how they fit into the world.

The story begins in the 1700s, on Ghana's Gold Coast, with two half-sisters. One is claimed by the commander of the Castle, where kidnapped Africans lay in squalor before they die or are transported across the ocean. The other is one of those women down in those dungeons of despair.

Across the centuries to the present, each chapter is the story of one of the progeny of those women, with each line of descent taking alternating turns. The reader learns about lives in both Ghana and America as the years and tears roll by.

The way the narrative is built shows several of Gyasi's writing strengths. The reader is immersed in what a life might be like for someone in each time period, in each place. But the focus is not a treatise on politics, economics, race relations or slavery.

Instead, the focus is on how all of these things, in all of these times and places, could affect a person without defining who that person is. Each character is fully realized within the space of a short story, setting out on a journey whether it is what he or she seeks or not.

What each character seeks is to be his or herself within the strictures of their lives. They suffer heartbreak, find love and sometimes find a fulfilling niche. Each story deserves its own space -- I could have easily read a whole novel about H, whose free mother was taken in Baltimore and who grew up in slavery.

But each chapter also fits well within the overall narrative arc, which is best described by the title of the novel, Homegoing, rather than homecoming. Gyasi tells their stories with a lovely, engaging style. One of the characters is a dreamer, a seeker who isn't quite certain what she is after. Here's how Gyasi describes her days:

But she wasn't just staring into space; she was listening to all the sounds the world had to offer, to all the people who inhabited those spaces the others could not see. She was wandering.

Whether each character realizes it, she or he is wandering toward something. Gyasi's fulfillment of that search is a moving tribute to the different parts of herself, a person born in Ghana who is now a writer living in the United States, and someone as interested in history as she is in literature.

That interest in history is, for the most part, something that is shown rather than told in the book. But one of the characters, a teacher in Ghana, has a way of engaging his students on the first day and making an important point for every reader as well:

"Whose story is correct?" Yaw asked them. ...

"We cannot know which story is correct because we were not there." ...

"This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely on the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories and so on. But now we come upon the problem of conflicting stories. ... Whose story do we believe, then? ...

"We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?"

Whether each character finds what she or he is searching for, there is an arch to the search within the novel, to give us stories of those that have been missing.

©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted by permission

Monday, August 1, 2016

Review: 'The Serpent King'

The Serpent King
By Jeff Zentner
YA Contemporary
March 2016
Crown Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-0553524024

You know those books that are so good you don't want them to end? Add The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner.

The book covers the senior years of three friends -- Dill, whose father is a serpent-handling minister now in prison for having kiddie porn on his computer; Lydia, a force of nature with a fashion blog that has caught the attention of the big city fashionistas; and Travis, a big lug of a man-child who loves his fantasy books, wears a dragon pendant and carries a wooden staff.

The story takes turns with its centering on the three characters, but none of them are ever really left out. They are outcasts at school and their interactions with the bullies are documented, but thanks to Lydia the outcomes are not the usual slink-and-go-hide-in-the-bathroom.

Zentner also includes the home life of each friend. Dill's mother works long, menial hours and is broken in spirit and body. The few scenes with his father in prison show a wicked man who twists words to make everything all about him.

Travis's mother stays home and is still getting over the loss of his older brother, a Marine who died in service. His father also hasn't gotten over it and takes it out on both of them, especially after he's been drinking.

Lydia's parents are amazing. He's a dentist who decided to stay in his family's small town to protect his beloved daughter from the evils of a big-city life, and who helps the boys. Her mother would be the kindest woman in any suburb. They're the kind of parents who sip wine and read their books out on the enclosed porch while the three friends have their usual Friday movie night.

Dill, who loves music, does fear his family's heritage. He not only carries his father's name, and all the weight that carries in a small town, but also knows his grandfather went mad and died of grief after a snake killed his beloved daughter.  The sins of the father are a genuine burden. Both Lydia and Travis have online friends; one is honest and the other keeps major parts of everyday life hidden.

One of the highlights is when the three friends climb a railroad trestle to inscribe words important to them to commemorate their senior year. They know Lydia will go off to college and that the boys will stay in town to work and help their parents.

But life doesn't always turn out the way one thinks.

One of the great things about the novel is that there are events that make a reader think the worst is going to happen. Bad things do happen, but so do good things. And they feel real.  Zentner's characters are complex human beings with hopes, dreams and sorrows. They are well worth knowing.