Sunday, December 16, 2018

Short story review: Jamel Brinkley's 'A Family'

The best short stories are as rich and complex as any novel. They can contain a universe or a microcosm, a lifetime or an hour. They can be populated with complex characters rich in mixed motives and emotions. Such is the case with Jamel Brinkley's "A Family".

Curtis is back from prison, after hitting a woman with his car one night while drunk. He is watching Lena, who was the woman of his former best friend, Marvin, and her son. However, after 12 years in prison, Curtis is reconnecting to his city as much, if not more, than people. And the past is right with him every moment of his present:

After a while, he got up and strolled along the promenade in the direction of the Brooklyn Bridge. The only other person he saw was a man with an unsettling face. The man's bouts of muttering formed clouds that flowered like visible emblems of his secret language before being pulled apart by the wind. ... Curtis huffed the name of his long departed friend -- my dead friend, he told himself soberly -- so he could see the wind take it, imagining that it too, along with the words steaming from the man's mouth, drifted off and seeded the East River. ... As the man prattled on, now some distance away, Curtis again said Marvin's name, which rose from his lips and hovered there for a moment, clean as an unstrung bone. 

He might also have said the name of the dead woman, the one he had struck with his car, the one who intruded on his dreams. But his life was for other things now, he'd been desperately telling himself, beautiful and wondrous things.

That I wondered at first if the son, Andre, was Curtis's son or Marvin's, and that Brinkley soon answered that question, shows the quiet way in which the reader learns the full picture. Brinkley is not the sort of author to hit the reader with info dumps. I liked filling in the spaces as a reader, especially after realizing Brinkley was not going to leave me in doubt in the long run.

Andre is Marvin's son. Marvin died as well, while he and Curtis were estranged. The reason for the estrangement, who was the one who started it and who resisted reconciling can be seen as major reasons why Curtis is watching Lena and Andre. It also plays into what happens after Lena brings Curtis into Andre's orbit.

What is perhaps inevitable happens, but what happens after that is not. To say more would be a spoiler, but the title is very important. The way Curtis and Lena tell each other the truth, and what they keep from each other, is shown in precise detail. The reader is in no doubt what is taking place, and what the repercussions would be if things were different.

"I'm not somebody you know," Curtis said. "I never was." ...
"You don't know me either," she said, and began to dress.

Curtis has been living with his mother. Life has not treated her well but it has not defeated her. Still, the ways in which it has tried to do that are shown masterfully, and those ways affect how she treats her son and their relationship. It's as much a part of this story about "A Family" as the Curtis-Lena-Andre portions. It's one of the reasons why this story is as rich and complex as a novel. It is a complete world.

But he liked the feeling of being near his mother now -- he liked her when she was asleep -- so he sat with a tall glass of water and forced his gaze onto the television screen.

Later, this scene comes to mind when Curtis and Andre are talking:

"What makes mothers the way they are?" Andre asked one day. ...
"They lose themselves and get all kinds of ridiculous," Curtis said. "Ain't no mystery to it."

The richness of these characters, what happens to them and what they do in this story made this work a wonderful introduction to Brinkley's writing. And it's not just the characters. Brinkley's descriptions put me where his characters are, to see and smell and hear and touch what they do, with no purple prose. Now that's a gift.

I discovered this story in the 2018 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited this year by Roxane Gay. Finding a story like this is one of the reasons why I buy this collection every year. And because of this introduction to Brinkley's work, I've got the short story collection in which "A Family" appears, A Lucky Man, on my wish list. It's a worthy finalist for the National Book Award (the winner will be announced on Wednesday).

Brinkley's work centers on themes of family, black men navigating their way through life and mass incarceration, and the setting of New York City. The thoughtfulness he put into the title alone shows the depth of care in Brinkley's writing. I look forward to reading what he writes, and hope it is plentiful. It is certainly abundant.

©2018 All Rights Reserved Review and reprinted with permission

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Review: Melmoth

By Sarah Perry
Gothic fiction
October 2018
Custom House/William Morrow
ISBN: 9780062856395

The feeling you are not alone, a glimpse of a dark-robed figure just out of the corner of your eye, feelings of sorrow, loneliness and guilt -- Sarah Perry takes these elements and the fable of Melmoth the Wanderer to create a remarkably harrowing tale. And, just as her prior novel, The Essex Serpent, was about more than the possible sighting of a sea monster, so this novel is more than a ghost story.

Helen Franklin is a quiet, drab woman who has purposefully tried to not draw attention to herself or experience a moment of joy. A colleague, once calm himself, is distraught as he is drawn into a study of a creature just out of sight. Melmoth is not a name Helen has ever heard before, but it is one that will continue to haunt her once her colleague goes missing after giving her some of the historical documents he has been reading.

According to Perry's version of the legend, Melmoth was one of the women who witnessed empty tomb of Jesus but denied seeing him risen. So she is condemned to roam the earth alone, always watching, and seeking a salvation that doesn't exist in an increasingly wicked world.

The stories of people who claim to have been lured into Melmoth's orbit, interspersed with Helen's journey, are harrowing in that creepy, middle-of-the-night sense. Those who finally see Melmoth, after believing there is an unknown destiny to their journey, and who turn down the chance to spend eternity with her spend the rest of their lives trying to find her again. It's a curse that slowly begins to overtake Helen as well. Is there something following her? Or is that just a shadow?

Perry displays a grand ability to conjure up the atmosphere of possibly being followed. Early on, Helen gets ready for sleep in her spare, sparse little room:

Is she uneasy now? A little -- a little: the flesh on her forearms grows chill, the hairs there lift, there is a slight dropping sensation in the cavity of her chest, as if her heart has paused before a hasty beat. It is as if she feels a pair of eyes fixed on her, unblinking, calculating; she turns, and there is only the dressing gown on the hook, the satchel on the bed. Karel's disease is infectious, it seems: she recalls, with a quickening of the heart, herself as a child, as a teenager, certain that she was in some way marked out -- feeling, as the young so often do, that she could not possibly be as ordinary as she seemed. (There is something else, also, swiftly suppressed: the memory of a cold gaze passing at the nape of her neck, when she did what she ought not to have done.)

The documents in that satchel convey the stories of a wide range of characters. Some are innocent, some are evil, some are so lost they do not know the difference. The story of Josef Hoffman, who grew up with a father dismayed his son was denied his Austro-Hungarian empire birthright because of war, examines evil and self-worth in a way that shows how eternal these moral judgment calls remain. Josef's story is a complete one unto itself, and its reverberations echo not only across this novel, but across history and current events.

Perry also adds the layer of free will to the complexity of the novel when Helen and her friend Thea, who is the companion of her colleague who disappeared, realize how the people they are reading about react to the idea of Melmoth affects the rest of their lives. Remaining lonely or giving in to the temptation of thinking a creature has been looking out for you without you realizing it your entire life is the either/or choice Perry posits time and again for these characters.

Just as the story reaches a Grand Guginol climax of decadence and decay, Helen faces her deepest fears and feelings of guilt in facing down what others may have called a demon. And an unexpected episode of reaching out to others in a full-hearted expression of free will provides a strong counterpoint to the despair that other characters have felt or fought off.

Melmoth is a rich, deep novel tailor-made for reading while the trailing remnants of a harvest moon drift past a window.

©2018 All Rights Reserved Review and reprinted with permission

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Review: 'The Silence of the Girls'

The Silence of the Girls
By Pat Barker
Literary fiction
September 2018
ISBN: 978-0385544214

Women taken as prizes in war, given to the men who slaughtered the men in their families as they watched, treated as nothing more than property -- these are the women of the Trojan War who are given voice in The Silence of the Girls, the latest novel by Man Booker Prize-winner Pat Barker. They are conditioned to be silent. And even though they may not say much in public, or to those in power, their stories will be told.

The lead voice that cannot be denied is Briseis, a young queen among the women captured in a citadel after the men have been cut down and other women have leaped to their deaths rather than become slaves. She is given as a trophy to the war hero Achilles. This is no romanticized version, as many tellings of The Iliad would have it. This is war. She becomes the thing he rapes when he feels like it.

As her life as a slave begins, she is warned to not think about her previous life:

"That's over now -- you'll only make yourself miserable if you start brooding about it. Forget! This is your life now." Forget. So there was my duty laid out in front of me, as simple and clear as a bowl of water: Remember.

Even in statements as stark as this, Barker builds layers. Briseis is childless. She is both grateful that she does not have the sorrow of worrying about a child's abuse and death now that she is a slave, but she also is sorrowful to not have a child. For a soldier to talk to a childless woman about brooding is one of many thoughtless acts of cruelty.

That Achilles feels drawn to her by coincidence does not negate the fact that Briseis is his property, awarded to him, and that theirs is not a consensual relationship. Barker has a light touch in making this clear, even as the stark reality of the situation of the captured women living in a battle camp that has existed for years and years is portrayed.

To help stop a rat-caused plague from wiping out the camp, Agamemnon returns his captive concubine to her father. In recompense, he demands Achilles give him Briseis. Barker brilliantly shows how this is all about male pride and nothing to do with any other kind of human or humane consideration.

Then comes the horrific ending to the Trojan War, when Barker leaves The Iliad for Euripedes's tragedies. There is much death and abuse to come in the wake of male pride and stubbornness, all depicted calmly and vividly. Like all tales involving the cruel ways in which war affects those on the periphery, just when it appears that events have settled into dull routine, women and children are shown how their destinies are not in their control.

Even though the focus is on the women, an old man nearly steals it all with his late appearance that encapsulates the toll of loss. King Priam sneaks into Achilles's camp to beg for the body of his son, Hector, which the warrior has been abusing day after day with no sense of victory. The actions Briseis takes in the aftermath of the elderly king's visit restore the focus to the women. And just when her actions don't make sense, give it a page or two. Then they will.

This is one of the occasions when Briseis appears to be arguing with someone. She is talking to herself even as she remembers what happened. Some of the women hope to become the wives of their captors if they bear children. Asked if someone could marry a man who had killed her brothers, her answer is:

"Well, first of all, I wouldn't have been given a choice. But yes, probably. Yes. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.
"I just don't know how you could do that.
"Well, no of course you don't You've never been a slave."

This was uncomfortable to read in the context of another age-old cruel treatment that continues to reverberate today -- the racism with which so many white people either refuse to see or understand, or which they even condone. It was a horrific reminder that there is more than one way in which we as human beings denigrate others individually and institutionally.

The various careless ways, and cruel ways, in which the women are treated are seen again and again to this day. That Barker can write so clearly and calmly about this pervasive treatment of women without falling into preaching or despair shines a brighter light on the injustices. This past month has been extremely difficult. I have had to turn off the news. I have had to stop in-person conversations. I have blocked and dropped dozens of people (at least, some of them seemed to be people) on social media. Yet this novel did not make me feel worse.

It gave me strength. That's the kind of power knowledge brings. Knowing we are not alone, knowing this is not new and that we have endured and carried on and still done remarkable things in public and for our families and our communities, even with this punishment for thousands of years merely because we are women and not men. Although as Barker writes, "men carve meaning into women's faces; messages addressed to other men", we women have other ways of communicating and keeping our truth alive.

Achilles's boon companion, Patroclus, talks to Briseis and seems to treat her as an actual person. He is not an ally, but he tells her:

"Things do change. And if they don't you bloody well make them."
"Spoken like a man."
"You'll get your chance. One day. And when you do grab it with both hands."

That day arrives and leaves, arrives and leaves. But we endure. Sometimes we live in on ways the captors never imagined:

"We're going to survive -- our songs, our stories. They'll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We'll be in their dreams -- and in their worst nightmares too."

©2018 All Rights Reserved Review and reposted with permission

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Review: 'A Place for Us'

A Place for Us
By Fatima Farheen Mirza
Literary fiction
June 2018
SPJ for Hogarth
ISBN: 978-1524763558

Families, just like individuals, have an ebb and flow to their lives. There are times of contentment, times of sorrow, times of joy and times when knowing oneself is key to living the best life one can.

The story of one family is detailed with loving care in Fatima Farheen Mirza's debut novel, A Place for Us. As the novel opens, Rafiq and Layla's family have gathered for the wedding of their oldest daughter, Hadia. Layla came to the United States from India as a young bride, wedded in an arranged marriage to a man she had only met twice. Over the years, they have been calm, kind, hard-working and live by their faith.

But their children have changed with the times. Hadia is a doctor who is marrying a man of her own choice. He is also a Muslim, but does not know the language of her childhood. Huda, the middle child, also is a woman working outside the home. And youngest child Amar is introduced as a man of mystery. He is the prodigal child. What drove him away? Will this family occasion be a reconciliation?

Weaving back and forth through time, and from the viewpoint of various family members, the reader learns the how and why behind Amar's story. The reader also learns the depth of feelings that created the situation and which made these characters the people that they are.

The layers to this family's story start with the quiet faith of Layla. She was raised "not to question the way God worked" and, as her mother taught her, "we don't have to see past the fog to know there are stars". The simplicity of her love for each member of her family does not mean it is a simple love, though. And that's true for every member of the family.

These are characters who want to give each other everything, whether they are falling in love for the first time or realizing how deeply they have loved someone for years. The final section, from a character not everyone will have expected to hear from, brings together all the different ways this family loves each other.

These also are characters who most deeply hurt those they love, not out of malice but often because they think they are doing the right thing by those who they love. They would give each other the moon and the stars if they could, and watching the night sky is a motif throughout the story that tugs on the heartstrings.

Throughout, many of the characters question their belief. Their journeys bring to mind the great struggles people of other faiths have gone through as they try to work their way toward understanding their life, the world and how can it all fit together. As one character notes:

The older I get, the easier it is for me to imagine that God can forgive a man for his sins when they only affect him, but maybe He wants people to mend any hurt and harm they cause their fellow brothers and sisters while in this life, while living in this realm.

This search for wisdom while not rejecting compassion is the stuff of which this novel is made.

To be able to see these relationships from so many angles is one of the great gifts in this deeply satisfying novel, and to see that from the different points of view, each character is right. This is the first in the SJP -- as in Sarah Jessica Parker -- for Hogarth imprint. A Place for Us is an impressive debut to the imprint as well as the author. That a publisher who has already gifted readers with Hogarth Shakespeare has also brought another great imprint to life bodes well for all who love what books can do for us.

©2018 All Rights Reserved Review and reprinted with permission

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Review: 'The Temptation of Forgiveness'

The Temptation of Forgiveness
By Donna Leon
Crime fiction
March 2018
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 978-0802127754

The lens through which one views something can be affected by many factors -- including one's experience, who one trusts, where one was born and grew up, one's gender. Each of these lenses plays a role in The Temptation of Forgiveness, in which Guido Brunetti has to grapple with decisions that greatly affect the lives of others.

Brunetti's extremely talented colleague, Signora Elettra, is troubled by internal reports of leaks. Usually unflappable, she is bothered by the talk and, unusually for her, the ongoing office politics. At the same time, a colleague of Brunetti's wife comes to see him. Reluctantly, she admits she is worried about her teenage son. She has decided he is using drugs and the police should do something about it.

Then a man is found in the night near a bridge with a horrendous head wound. His recovery is doubtful. Brunetti realizes the victim is the husband of his wife's fellow professor.

Was the attack on him related to his wife's concerns for their son? With no other apparent motives, and a wife who isn't forthcoming with information, Brunetti sets out to see what he can discover.

Leon uses these events, and what would appear to be a logical progression in a police investigation, to delve into far more subtle affairs. Claudia Griffoni, Brunetti's esteemed fellow officer, is from Naples and sees things from a different angle than her two male Venetian colleagues. Brunetti and Griffoni come close to arguing about another case. They don't agree about a Muslim father who killed his daughter when he thought she had been carrying on with boys, and who now says he wants to die after discovering he was wrong. Without making a judgment call as the author, Leon instead shows all the different ways the two officers look at the situation.

This idea of different perspectives extend to both Brunetti's home, where he is re-reading Antigone, and to the case at hand. The classic play has Brunetti wondering if the lead character is right or wrong -- it depends on whether one views the king's decree as absolute or whether honoring family matters most.

When Brunetti, Griffoni and their colleague Vianello put their heads together, some will jump to conclusions. Some will think they are using logic when they are only able to view the situation in one way. In the end, Brunetti will find his way to a solution, but whether he makes the right decisions at the end could be questioned. It all depends on what lens one uses to view the situation.

This is a rich, nuanced and deeply engaging story. Donna Leon continues to present a beloved city, even if the lenses are not rose-colored, and characters who continue to surprise even long-time readers.

©2018 All Rights Reserved Review and posted with permission

Monday, July 16, 2018

Review: 'Trail of Lightning'

Trail of Lightning
By Rebecca Roanhorse
June 2018
Saga Press
ISBN: 978-1534413504

In a post-apocalyptic American West, in which most of the landscape and civilization have disappeared after the Big Water and the Energy Wars, a young woman comes of age and into her powers as a monsterslayer.

Maggie is Diné, Navajo. She is alone and determined to remain that way. Those she loves have either been horrifically killed or left her. Her mentor deserting her weighs her down. Neighání is an immortal hero. But even he appeared disturbed at Maggie’s ability, and led her to believe she is as much a monster as those she hunts.

After months of being holed up alone in a single wide, she is called to try to rescue a young girl from a monster, who snatched her from home and ran up a mountain. The people who are desperate enough to seek her help are afraid of her. Maggie does little to dispel that fear, even during bargaining for payment if she prevails. Like everything else in Maggie’s life, she is successful but at a great cost. And her prevailing is likely to be misunderstood.

Back home, Coyote awaits her and sets her off on a quest. She goes to Tah, an elder Diné who once saved her life, for advice. He sends her off with his grandson, Kai, who is studying to be a Medicine Man, whether Maggie wants him or not.

The twists and turns in the relationships that take place are as exciting as the action in the adventure of the quest. There are other characters introduced to be intrigued by and to care about. And there are repercussions that await in the second book in the series.

The world-building in this, Roanhorse’s debut novel, is excellent. One reason for the strength of the world-building is the foundation of the Dinétah. The word usually means the homeland of the Diné, but it also can refer to being among the people. The concept, this being among, imbues every page. 

The world-building also serves as the setting for compelling, complex characters with more to be discovered about them. Storm of Locusts is the second book, to be published in April. (Just don’t read the preview information; it contains spoilers.)

©2018 All Rights Reserved Review and posted with permission

Friday, December 22, 2017

Review: 'Earthly Remains'

©2017 All Rights Reserved

Earthly Remains
By Donna Leon
Crime Fiction
April 2017
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 978-0802126474

To protect a younger colleague from saying something he shouldn't in a case with political implications, Commissario Guido Brunetti fakes a heart condition. To his surprise, he is advised at the hospital to take some time off to recuperate in Donna Leon's 26th novel in the series, Earthly Remains. Brunetti realizes he should take a step away from his work.

His wife's family holdings include a villa on one of the largest islands in the laguna. There, he connects with an older man who knew Brunetti's father and who takes him rowing in a boat he built himself. Brunetti and Davide Casati quickly form one of those easy-going male friendships that is respectful of the other's privacy. Casati, the villa's caretaker, spends much of his time rowing and tending to beehives located throughout the laguna. He mourns his wife, who suffered before dying of cancer, and spends some time with his daughter and her family. But it is the rowing, the bees and the mourning that occupy most of Casati's time and heart.

It is the death of bees at several hives that appears to be a tipping point for Casati. He tells Brunetti his wife's death is his fault and he is going to go talk to her. Casati disappears.

In tracing Casati's life backward from the time he left a factory and became a caretaker and beekeeper, Brunetti encounters other people who together weave a story of legacy. When someone leaves this life, what will be his earthly remains? What of the earth will remain? As Casati asks Brunetti, "Do you think somme of the things we do can never be forgiven?"

Leon has a light touch when bringing conclusions into the story. It is the questioning, and the wanting to consider the possible answers to the questions, that form the strong underpainting in her work.

As our hero ponders:

Brunetti had spent much of his reading life amidst the minds and convictions of people who had lived thousands of years ago, and he had learned not to laugh at their ideas but to try to understand why they thought the way they did. After all, his own world lived in constant discovery of its own ignorance.

The contrast in characters, their motives and their fates is fascinating and provokes curiosity. Seeing the choices each character made in the past, and how it has impacted their present and the future of others, is one of the most rewarding aspects of Earthly Remains.

The most rewarding aspect, however is the time spent with Brunetti and Paola, Brunetti's colleagues and the Brunetti library.

©2017 All Rights Reserved and republished here with permission