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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review: 'Battleborn'

BATTLEBORN
By Claire Vaye Watkins
Literary fiction stories
August 2013 (paperback edition)
Riverhead Trade
ISBN: 978-1594631450 

One of the reasons I'm drawn to fiction set in the West is that the good stuff, the really good stuff, brings this part of the world to life. It is a vivid, harsh, beautiful place that rarely nurtures but often rewards anyone who can handle it.

Many of the characters can handle it in Claire Vaye Watkins's brilliant stories in Battleborn, which are set in Nevada and Northern California. They just don't know they can handle it until circumstances point it out to them abruptly.

That's certainly the case in "The Last Thing We Need". Thomas Grey, who lives out in the Middle of Nowhere, finds the debris of what may have been a wreck and writes to the man whose name and address he finds on some prescription bottles. Even though he has a wife and two children, he lives mostly with his thoughts. And, because the man he is writing to has not answered, Thomas Grey begins to relay his thoughts.

This is our old joke. Like all our memories, we like to take it out once in a while and lay it flat on the kitchen table, the way my wife does with her sewing patterns, where we line up the shape of our life against that which we thought it would be by now.


I'll tell you what I don't tell her, that there is something shameful in this, the buoying of our sinking spirits with old stories.


And later:

On second thought, perhaps sometimes these things are best left by the side of the road, as it were. Sometimes a person wants a part of you that's no good. Sometimes love is a wound that opens and closes, opens and closes, all our lives.


Grey finds out that there is something he cares very much about besides the past. He can handle where he is and what he has.

Other characters need to leave to reach that epiphany. One leaves a brother to his own devices after his sibling is enthralled by something else out in the land where gold was hunted and where gamblers still believe they will come out on top. Another has been depending on her sister and reaches a point where, perhaps, her sister can now depend on her.

Others are not so successful. Not all attempts by the men to be heroic succeed, as one old-time miner discovers. Not all attempts by the women to let go of the past succeed.

For all of them, the men and the women, the ones who thrive and the ones who barely survive, promises matter. In a story, "The Diggings", set during the Gold Rush, a 49'er explains:

A promise unkept will take a man's mind. It does not matter whether the promise is made by a woman or a territory or a future foretold. ... Because though I was afraid and angry and lonesome much of the time, I was also closer to my own raw heart there in the territory than I have ever been since.


©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review: 'TransAtlantic'

TRANSATLANTICBy Colum McCann
Literary fiction
June 2013
Random House
ISBN: 978-1400069590

Waves come in and the tide goes out. The sea ebbs and flows, but what changes does that result in? It is only when taking long looks from a distance does it seem that anything has been altered. But looking at a distance also can mean an impersonal point of view in which individual grief does not matter and mourning is no more than another part of life.

The same could be said about what happens in Colum McCann's Transatlantic, which has been longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize. Men die, women mourn, women endure, women lose. Another generation comes along, grows old in the blink of an eye and suffers grevious loss.

McCann uses the same type of storytelling that he used in Let the Great World Spin to write about life and death, especially death, on both sides of the Atlantic. In both Northern Ireland and North America, great men stand out and attempt great deeds.

In the years between the two great wars of the 20th century, two former prisoners of war attenpt to fly from Newfoundland to Ireland. After they land, the stage shifts to young Frederick Douglass before the Civil War as he visits Dublin to speak and raise funds for the abolition movement. After he leaves, it's more than 100 years later and George Mitchell is leaving New York, his second wife and infant son to head toward the last stage of what will be known as the Good Friday Accords.

In each of these set pieces, the famous men touch the lives of women who are perhaps more extraordinary than they are, because they endure and they do so without celebrity or honor, without recognition or reward.

As Alcock and Brown prepare for their flight across the Atlantic, in part to win the prize money and in part to use the war-waging airplane when there are no overt battlefields, Brown is given a letter to deliver by young photographer Lottie Erlich. It is one her mother has written to someone in Ireland, a country her own mother left decades ago after hearing Douglass speak. Young Lily was inspired by Douglass and ends up as a nurse helping Union doctors in their bloody work. She started following the army after her young son, turned down twice already, goes off to fight. She ends up marrying one of the doctors but death continues to follow Lily.

Her daughter, a bookworm, becomes a writer, is used by a man, and raises a daughter of her own. They end up in Newfoundland, where the daughter hands off the letter before they go back to Ireland. She marries an Ulsterman and stays to raise a family. The daughter grows old, meets George Mitchell and wishes him success because there has been one death too many in her extended family. Her own daughter grows old and hopes the letter, which was not delivered nor opened, but which finds its way back to her,  will be worth enough money to save her home.

Things that would be played up in most novels, such as how the various women feel about the various deaths, how they find the strength to carry on, what it means to them to be the ones who survive, even the letter and whether it saves the home, are not important in this novel. Time goes on and there is no tarrying.

A few setpieces do not make a novel, especially when many of the setpieces have the flat emotionless style of reportage (the George Mitchell section is particularly flat; as a friend remarked, you can almost see where McCann took notes of what Mitchell said and where he added a wee bit of flair).

Although I don't often specifically reflect on a book as being from a woman's point of view, part of the flatness of the McCann was due to his standing back and not looking at the lives of these women and the deaths of so many loved ones they survived as a mother would look at them. That does not do justice to the men who grieve for lost children and other loved ones, and is yet another reason why the McCann did not work for me.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday Sentence: Claire Vaye Watkins II

Presented without commentary, as inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I have read this week:

Because though I was afraid and angry and lonesome much of the time, I was also closer to my own raw heart there in the territory than I have ever been since.


-- Claire Vaye Watkins, "The Diggings" from Battleborn

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: 'A Dangerous Fiction'

A DANGEROUS FICTION
By Barbara Rogan
Crime thriller
July 2013
Viking
ISBN: 978-0670026500

Jo Donovan, widowed young and taking over a literary agency from her mentor, has made a good life. She's terrific at what she does, and doesn't see many changes on the horizon. One night, she is accosted by a wanna-be author whose manuscript Jo's agency turned down. Soon, there are attacks against her business and even her clients. Suspicions are cast among the people at the agency and the police even wonder if Jo didn't have too much to gain when the attacks turn deadly.

In Barbara Rogan's smashing new thriller, Jo will have to look clearly at her colleagues, herself and her past if she's going to see it through.

Every aspect of A Dangerous Fiction works together and works so wonderfully well. Rogan's experience as a literary agent provides a fascinating look at how the business works. The hopes and dreams of writers are balanced against the realities of publishing. The personal life of the widow of a literary giant such as Jo and her pursuit by a biographer are played against each other well, and serve the story's marvelously realized journey of its protagonist. Anyone interested in a picture of how publishing works will be fascinated by the inner workings. As someone who once read unsolicited manuscripts for a mystery house, I can certainly attest to the quality of so many submissions in the scenes addressing this. Rogan's love of good books also shines through.

Jo is an interesting character who came up from nothing the hard way. That she didn't let her austere, loveless upbringing warp her is part of the reason the entire novel works so well. She is strong but not perfect (and the explanation of a "Mary Sue" character created by a fictional writer shows just how well Jo is developed). Her colleagues and writers are fascinating to watch. There are easily more heroes than suspects, and to have a strongly written novel in which so many characters are shown to be good-hearted is a pleasure to read.

And, while it may not be the most important part of the story to many, setting is strongly evoked throughout the novel. The bustle of Manhattan, the glory of a farmhouse, the entrancing Santa Fe are all portrayed in their best light. It's a treat to read a story in which it's so easy to picture the characters where they are, especially in the film-worthy final pages.

Just make certain you have time set aside when you start A Dangerous Fiction because this fast-paced novel is the kind you don't want to put down until the last page is read.

Barbara Rogan is a colleague at CompuServe's Books and Writers Community whose work I've enjoyed in the past. It was an honor and a treat to read her latest novel, and I'm in even more awe of her generous spirit.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Claire Vaye Watkins

Presented without additional comment, the best sentence(s) I've read this week, as inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen:

Sometimes a person wants a part of you that's no good. Sometimes love is a wound that opens and closes, opens and closes, all our lives.


-- Claire Vaye Watkins, "The Last Thing We Need" from Battleborn

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: 'Harvard Square'

HARVARD SQUARE
By Andre Aciman
Literary fiction
April 2013
W.W. Norton
ISBN: 978-0393088601

Friendship, loyalty, the feeling of belonging, and how tenuous these concepts are in reality for the faint at heart, are central to Andre Aciman's latest novel, Harvard Square.

In the summer of 1977, a Jewish graduate student at Harvard from Alexandria, Egypt, who will never go home, is hit by the summer doldrums. He has failed his comprehensives, has one more chance to pass them and needs to read like a fiend all summer. So of course he would rather be doing anything else.

Drawn to a cafe that reminds him of home, he meets a loud, abusive Tunisian Arab who commands the attention of everyone around, especially the women. Kalaj is a cabdriver, but he knows more about many things than just about everyone else. And doesn't mind telling them so.

He's also a performance artist who adores women; his every public move is calculated to draw their attention and flirt until they go off together. Kalaj is mesmerizing to our narrator.

Their acquaintance becomes a friendship of opposites, an academic and cabdriver, Jew and Arab, quiet and boisterous, wavering and steadfast, one with a green card and the other without.

The themes in Aciman's story are well-served by the story of the two young men at turning points in their lives. The academic does not turn his back on Harvard, only on people. Kalaj, after being so vigorously a critic of the ersatz United States and everything it stands for, falls whole-heartedly when he is accepted into the narrator's world.

Aciman does at least as much, if not more, tell rather than show in his story, but with a purpose. The emotions, the observations, the reflections are at the heart of what Aciman's narrator is trying to recapture in the story of that long-ago summer. It's told as a flashback, with the endpieces being the older man bringing his son to Harvard during the child's college search. The narrator is searching to feel all those feelings again as much as he is weaving a narrative.

Aciman does not name his narrator. This helps reinforce the universal human qualities of his narrator, who spends that summer both knowing how fortunate he is to be at Harvard studying what he wants, while also regretting that he can't have other kinds of lives as well. His life, even when he makes choices, is not a life like the one lived by Kalaj, who lives for the moment, who lives each moment to the fullest, who is larger than life to everyone.

Aciman does a wonderful job of capturing that feeling of being in a place where you feel you will be unmasked as a fraud, that everyone will know you don't really belong there, and how empowering it feels to get away with any slight action that makes it look like you do belong. This works as well for the Harvard academic setting as it does for an ex-pat living in a foreign country.

Another aspect of the novel that worked well was that feeling of befriending someone as magnetic as Kalaj. It may initially feel like being on top of the world that such a strong personality wants to spend time with you. But does it feel the same after you realize that friend has sucked up all the oxygen in the world? What to do if you are both proud and ashamed of knowing such a person? A book that leads to wondering about such things is one well worth spending time in.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sunday Sentence: 'The Woman Upstairs'

Once again, my Sunday Sentence(s) this week, presented without further comment and as inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, is from Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs:

Suddenly, there's an opportunity, an opening, a person or people you couldn't have imagined, and -- elation! -- it feels as though you've found the pot of gold, when you'd thought all the gilt was gone from this world forever. It's enough, for a time -- maybe even for a long time -- to make you forget that you were ever angry, that you ever knew what anger was at all.

Review: 'Tell the Wolves I'm Home'

TELL THE WOLVES I'M HOME
By Carol Rifka Brunt
Literary Fiction
June 2013 (paperback edition)
Dial Press
ISBN: 978-0812982855

Before that time in life when one comes, inevitably, to age, to adulthood, there is in the best of possibilities a time when the person coming of age recognizes a rite of passage happening. In the mid-80s, June Elbus receives the gift of such a time during her fourteenth year. It's the year after her beloved uncle dies of AIDS when people could only whisper its name, and when she and her older sister realize how far apart they have grown, in Carol Rifka Brunt's debut novel, Tell the Wolves I'm Home.

June's Uncle Finn knows he is dying, and his way of saying goodbye is to have June and her sister, Greta, pose while he paints their portrait. Finn is a good artist, and a famous one, although that's not why June loves him. He is her godfather, and he pays attention to her. They have special places, such as the Cloisters. Finn shows her how the little things matter when it comes to illuminating the whole. And that's the kind of story that June tells.

At Finn's funeral, a young man is turned away. But he and June make eye contact. Then June receives a phone call from him, and packets in the mail. The young man is Toby, Finn's lover, who was never allowed by Finn's sister to know Finn's nieces. But Finn has asked Toby and June to look out for each other.

They both need looking after, because they are sweet souls who seek the beauty in life. Toby has a horrible secret in his past that complicates a plan that June concocts, as only a child can concoct a plan, to make things better. And Toby, like Finn, is dying of AIDS.

Early in their clandestine friendship, June tells Toby why she likes to pretend she lives in medieval times:

Maybe it's just that people didn't know everything then. There were things people had never seen before. Places nobody had ever been. You could make up a story and people would believe it. You could believe in dragons and saints. You could look around at plants and think that maybe they could save your life.


June is at the end of that time when she can believe in dragons and saints. June also is grappling with her older sister. Greta is the prototypical cooler-than-thou teenager. She's the youngest in her crowd, performing as Bloody Mary in the school production of South Pacific, and she is very, very talented. June knows her so well that she can tell when Greta is naturally brilliant and phoning it in, although no one else seems to notice.

Although the relationship between June and Finn, and later June and Toby, is magical, the relationship between June and Greta is realistic. It is part of the foundation that holds this novel together and the ties between June and Greta are part of what makes this novel so steadfast. Greta is disdainful. She pushes June away. June tries to ignore her. Why the once-close sisters are now longer each other's best friend is shown in heart-wrenching detail. Also shown is that there is every reason to believe that they can mend their relationship, especially with the example of Finn and their mother before them. They once were as close as June and Greta were, but Mom gave up her art and became, with their father, an accountant. They're taking care of their family. Thinking about art and the talent she once displayed makes their mother sad and angry.

The title of the novel comes from what appears in the family portrait. In the space between the sisters, June makes out the shape of a wolf. In the woods beyond her home, where she goes to be alone, she hears canine howls that may be wolves. June, in her lowest moment, decides that you can't get away from those things that are out to get you. "You may as well tell them where you live, because they'll find you anyway. They always do."

The novel takes a turn that celebrates love among family members. Tell the Wolves I'm Home is a quirky, fun story that even when it hits the low points in people's relationships, treats its characters lovingly. It's the kind of novel in which a fourteen-year-old girl and her beloved uncle's lover have this kind of conversation:

 "Don't you know? That's the secret. If you always make sure you're exactly the person you hoped to be, if you always make sure you know only the very best people, then you don't care if you die tomorrow."  
 "That doesn't make any sense. If you were so happy, then you'd want to stay alive, wouldn't you? You'd want to be alive forever, so you could keep being happy." I reached over and tapped my ash into a pretty pottery dish that Toby was using for an ashtray. 
 "No, no. It's the most unhappy people who want to stay alive, because they think they haven't done everything they want to do. They think they haven't had enough time. They feel like they've been short-changed."

By the end of the novel, it's not only all right to tell the wolves that June is home, I left these characters knowing that they all were going to do everything they want to do. They won't be short-changed.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Review: 'On Sal Mal Lane'

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews

ON SAL MAL LANE
By Ru Freeman
Literary fiction
May 2013
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555976422

In Ru Freeman's On Sal Mal Lane, several families live on a quiet lane in Columbo in Sri Lanka in the years just before and during the political upheaval, riots and deaths of the early 1980s. One family lacks rancor and is filled with music, sincerity, with hopes and dreams. Anther family is fueled by anger and alcohol, with unspoken yearning.

As these and other families who call Sal Mal Lane home celebrate their holidays, share food and games, and bring each other into their lives, missed opportunities as seemingly trivial as gifts of strawberry milk and chocolate become harbingers of heartbreak.

The world of the quiet street changes with the arrival of the Herath family, which sings together gathered around the piano. The music is an important unifying factor throughout the novel. It draws people to the four children -- oldest son Suren who lives and breathes music, oldest daughter Rashmi who is the perfect child at school, son Nihil who adores cricket but not as much as he adores and worries about protecting the youngest, daughter Devi, a carefree, lively child.

One of the beauties of this novel is that these children are genuinely dear souls. Their mother is a teacher who has naturally high expectations. Their father, a government worker, is akin to a less biting Mr. Bennet who doesn't regret his marriage while hiding behind his newspapers. Their neighbors, the Silvas, consider themselves the top family of the lane. They're stuffy but not overbearing. Their two boys are not allowed to play with the Bolling girls.

The Bollings are an extended disfunctional family of a physically damaged, angry father, a teenage son, Sonna, who is the neighborhood bully and who will break a reader's heart, and two younger unkempt, flighty daughters who are drawn to the Heraths. Their friendship brings into the circle the Bolling children's uncle Raju, a mentally and physically challenged man who remains childlike and who lives with his mother. Raju adores the children, especially Devi. And Devi adores Raju because he is the only grown-up who never tells her what she is supposed to do and not do.

In another house, the Nerath children take piano lessons from Kala Niles, the grown-up daughter who still lives at home. Her mother is one of the homemakers on the lane. Old Mr. Niles and Nihil become fast friends through their love of cricket and books in one of the lovely relationships forged in this novel.

There are sweet friendships among people who often don't have anything to do with each other in other circumstances. The Bolling girls love being with the Heraths, who, instead of being uptight, welcome them into their home. One Silva boy develops a crush on one of the Bolling girls, and they dream of going to Australia one day where their differences won't matter. The Niles family blossoms when the Heraths come with their music.

And then there is Sonna. He's the tough guy of the neighborhood. He is the one everyone fears, because he will attack. It's what he learned from his angry, bitter father who was hurt in a car crash before Sonna's very eyes while trying to go off to carouse with a buddy. But the Herath children cast their spell on him, too. They refuse to see that there is an evil person in Sonna, no matter what cautions the other neighbors give them. The missed opportunities of trying to give presents back and forth are symbols of the missed communication that can heal and strengthen personal relationships when successful, but which are bittersweet when they are not.

Despite the grownups' best efforts, outside political forces come into the lane. There are Tamil and Sinhalese, Hindu and Catholic families, Buddhists and Muslims. Far too many of the people on the lane fear and hate because they feel they are supposed to do so. One family retreats when the troubles come; the family members hurt only themselves.

Homes are attacked and people gather together. The relationships that have been formed don't all hold, but enough of them do to show that even in the face of the world as they know it falling apart, people can still be good to each other and true to themselves. Just as missed opportunities are bittersweet for the children, it leads one to wonder what missed opportunities might have helped the political situation from disintegrating.

In the aftermath, after a haunting chapter in which another street still stands only as ashes that will collapse to the touch and which the only living thing left is not saved, people slowly try to return to the lives they once led. Then tragedy strikes. There is enough foreshadowing early on that it is not hard to tell who something will happen to, but there is such strong storytelling that even knowing does not take away the powerful emotional impact when that something comes.

The personal and the political are woven together so finely in this novel that they do not strain against each other, but bolster the telling of the two aspects of what the Sal Mal Lane neighbors face and feel. Information needed to know why it's important to know who is Sinhalese and who is Tamil is presented clearly and in time to be useful. Freeman is both a journalist and novelist, so she knows how to deliver the small noticings that reveal character, and the sweep of politics that change a country.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission