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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
Amistad
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

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sunday Sentence: 'Against the Country'

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

So it was that whereas we were led to believe we had acquired the land, when in fact the land had acquired us; and whereas the land was, in my estimation, perfectly happy with this arrangement, though in a remarkably short time we were not; and whereas the law in no way met its onus to correct, or at a minimum to address, this injustice as it might any other; therefore my father's war on the property, and its war on us, could in no way be considered actionable, which left us his only incentive to sue for peace the psychological welfare of his famly, which he seemed to regard, if that word even applies here, as no more than an annoyance ... So it was that we stumbled into the country life like an infant who takes his first astonished steps and then, as his frightened grin dissolves, reaches out to catch himself against the side of a red-hot wood stove.

-- Ben Metcalf, Against the Country

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sunday Sentence: 'The Turner House'

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:

One man's haunting is another man's hallowed guest.

-- Angela Flournoy, The Turner House

Monday, July 27, 2015

Review: 'Our Souls at Night'

Our Souls at Night
By Kent Haruf
Literary fiction
May 2015
Knopf
ISBN: 978-1101875896

Addie Moore has been widowed for years. Her only son and his family live out of town. She keeps fairly active but she’s lonely. So one day, out of the blue, she calls a neighbor. Louis Waters, a retired high school English teacher, lost his wife years ago. His only daughter lives out of town as well.

Since Addie and Louis live in Holt, Colorado, the setting of all of Kent Haruf’s unembellished novels, where people tend to create makeshift families, they won’t be alone all the time in his final novel, Our Souls at Night.
 
The worst part of being alone, Addie tells Louis, is there is no one to talk to at night. So what does he think about coming over to spend the same night, to sleep in the same bed, no obligations, no sex? Well, Louis thinks about it. And he heads over.
 
Their unorthodox relationship has some in town buzzing and others cheering. But Addie says she’s way past worrying about others and it’s time Louis did the same:

"I told you I don’t want to live like that anymore -- for other people, what they think, what they believe. I don’t think it’s the way to live. It isn’t for me anyway."

Over the course of a summer, they tell each other secrets and stories from their lives, secure that neither will judge the other harshly or wrongly. This includes a huge mistake Louis made and still regrets. He also believes that mistake says something about his character.

It’s not something he wishes for his own daughter. He wishes the opposite for her:
 
"I wish you would find somebody who’s a self-starter. Somebody who would go to Italy with you and get up on a Saturday morning and take you up in the mountains and get snowed on and come home and be filled up with it all."
 
When Addie’s young grandson is sent to spend the summer with her, because his parents are fighting, Louis adds wonderful experiences to the child’s world -- watching a nest of newborn mice, learning how to play catch, going camping and having a dog.
 
Trouble could come from many sources -- their ages, their children, even changing feelings. When trouble does arrive, it is infuriating, all the more because it is entirely plausible. Family members don’t always wish the best, and only the best, for each other. This seems especially true when past hurts become deeply ingrained grudges. Some people just don’t get over things. They let their hurts fester until their souls are poisoned. And then, sometimes, they try to infect others with the same venom. Even the people who love them.

Haruf gets this across calmly, quietly, letting the characters and their actions speak for themselves without much exposition. This narrative style may seem too quiet and nondescript for some. But when the emotional wallops come, they are all the stronger for the lack of hyperbole.

In this, his final novel, Haruf also has a grand meta moment when Addie and Louis talk about dramatic adaptations of stories set in their town by some writer. But they couldn’t be true. They’ve lived in Holt for years and never heard about two old bachelor brothers who took in a young pregnant woman.

For readers such as this one, who have adored Haruf’s novels since that story, Plainsong, it was a sweet moment of farewell.
 
©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Friday, July 24, 2015

Review: 'Life After Life'

Life After Life
By Kate Atkinson
Literary fiction
April 2013
Arthur Reagan Books
ISBN: 978-0316176484


I loved this novel for the way Atkinson captures the England I first fell in love with in The Forsyte Saga and Delderfield -- the copse, the meadow, the picking up and carrying on. She is masterful in her depiction of that England.

 
In addition, all the passages of the Blitz are brilliant. The long section at Hitler's mountain retreat, not so much. That was dreadful and I could hardly wait to get past it. And it was probably written that way on purpose, to point out how dreadful it must have been.
 
The germ of the main idea in the novel can be seen in the epigraphs at the beginning (and I do think it's delightful that Atkinson quotes her own characters both here and at the beginning of A God in Ruins).

What if we could go back and start all over again, and get it right? What if we could save our beloved brother, what if we could keep from marrying a man who beat us to death, what if we could save the neighbor girls from the mysterious stranger, what if we stayed in Germany, what if, what if? 
 
Ursula finally realizes this when she states toward the final pages that she is a witness. She knows what she has to do in the next life and she has developed the ability to make the choices that will help. There is the hint that the other characters may have had a bit of a sense of something too, especially when Teddy tells her thank you from across the pub.
 
But Atkinson also tells me that some things can't be changed. I always had the impression that Izzie's child that was adopted became Hitler. But when the Todds kept him and he drowned (as Roland), WWII still happened. The conversation the long-lived Ursula had with her nephew the history professor on what if probably ties into this, but I decided to not parse it too closely.
 
Because some things just can't be changed.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sunday Sentence: More Per Petterson

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

... is time like an empty sack you can stuff any number of things into, does it never go just from here to there, but instead in circles, round and round so that every single time the wheel has turned, you are back where you started.

-- I Refuse, Per Petterson

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review: 'Between the World and Me'

Between the World and Me
By Ta-Nesihi Coates
Memoir
July 2015
Speigel & Grau
ISBN: 978-0812993547

For his son, for himself, for anyone who recognizes the world as he sees it and for anyone who is part of that world, Ta-Nesihi Coates has written a masterful, deeply personal and profoundly moving memoir. Between the World and Me is structured as a letter to his son, a young man on the verge of adulthood.

Coates, a writer for The Atlantic who has been helping form a national conversation on the state of race relations and the state of blacks in America, takes readers back to what his Baltimore neighborhood was like. He describes the difference between his black blocks and the ones he saw on his television set. Those people on TV are living the Dream. Their white world is not his, even though they could be in the same city and are in the same country. Black kids, he writes, have to be twice as good to be seen as half as worthwhile. Many of their parents treat them harshly out of fear that they will step out of line. Coates could have died as a teen when another boy pulled a gun out of his coat pocket, but he changed his mind and put it away.

As he notes:
Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.

In college, Coates found his Mecca at Howard University. The glorious education he had there, in class and by meeting so many others, is brought to vivid life. Anyone who loved their time at university, who had the opportunity to know at the time they were learning about life and themselves, will enjoy this section. Coates does a marvelous job of depicting how important that time was to him, all the more important because it was Howard and all that represents. (Although Coates did not graduate but started carving out a career as a writer, the education he received there was fundamental to his joy in life and his continued search for knowledge. When Coates goes into a history book-recommending mode on Twitter, the depth of his knowledge is tremendous.)

Before the tragedy after tragedy after tragedy of the last few years, from Travyon Martin to Michael Brown to John Crawford to Jordan Davis (whose mother Coates interviewed and to which he took his son in a powerful passage) to Freddie Gray, and on and on, a fellow Howard University student was gunned down by a cop. This cop followed Prince Jones out of his Prince George's County jurisdiction and shot him.

The description of the man that the officer was looking for was 5 feet 4 and 250 pounds; Prince Jones was 6 feet 3 and 211 pounds. The wanted man had long dreadlocks and Prince Jones had very shortly cut hair. The officer drew a gun on Prince Jones but showed no badge. The officer claimed Prince Jones tried to run him over with his Jeep, the same Jeep his mother bought him for high school graduation.

The mother of Prince Jones, herself a doctor and the child of sharecroppers, references Solomon Northrup of 12 Years a Slave in her talk with Coates. And how Northrup's home and work and family did not matter when he was taken. And how, years later and under different laws in the same country, the wealth and respect she built up and the things she gave her children did not matter.

The structure Coates uses in what is essentially a long essay (the book is less than 200 pages) is similar to one James Baldwin used in addressing a work to his own nephew. Coates has been tied to Baldwin because of Toni Morrison's advance praise of this work, and both this work and Coates are now established in the line of black Americans writing about themselves and their society, and how that fits into what white Americans see of our society.

The title comes from Richard Wright's poem of the same name:

"And the sooty details of the
scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me ..."

The sooty details of what has happened to the man in the poem, to what happened black people, to what continues to happen to black people, and how their experience continues to be different from others in this country despite any laws, any cultural changes, are what keep Americans separated. Slavery was replaced by Jim Crow and has been replaced by housing projects, predatory loan sharks, voting laws, inequitable education and other shams.
 
But it's not just legal structures, or the way banks handle loans or companies hire people without "ethinic-sounding" names. White people still cross the street to avoid black men in suits who are still followed in stores. Black women are told by boutique clerks that they cannot afford pricey clothing. Black people who do not become shining models of making it (Coates calls them the Jackie Robinson elite) are told it's their fault, despite any obstacles in their way.
 
When Coates took his son to a movie on the Upper West Side and they were coming off an escalator too slowly, a white woman pushed the child for going too slowly for her. When Coates yelled at her for pushing another person's child, a crowd gathered and a white man got in his face and, when Coates dared to push him away, was told: "I could have you arrested." Coates writes he felt shame for endangering his child and himself by the act of standing up for them.

This is an essential point to this work. Because those of us who are not black cannot have the same experience, any of us who care about the state of the country need to find out as much as we can, to educate ourselves. This is an eloquent, thoughtful and honest work to use in the pursuit of knowledge that may, in time, become wisdom.

It is a point on which Coates frames this entire work. His thesis acknowledges that the powerful always work to keep those without power from gaining it. But America, he notes, was supposed to be different. America says so:

Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, ...

"I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.

Acknowledging that exceptional moral standard means recognizing that individuals operate under the burdensome belief of American exceptionalism. It also means that those who expound this belief in exceptionalism need to apply it not only to other individuals, but to the society as a whole. For in that application is the possibility of a new understanding of what means to have those sooty details affect every aspect of an individual's life.

He quotes Solzhenitsyn in this regard:

"To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he's doing is good, or else that it's a well-considered act inconformity with natural law." Coates notes this is the foundation of the Dream that he refers to throughout. It's how a black police officer could shoot Prince Jones, how black officers could take part in Freddie Gray's death.

Coates says that he has continued his studies, in part, to try to find the right question to ask. The "gift of study", he adds, is "to question what I see, then to question what I see after that, because the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers." That questioning is a gift he passes along to his son and other readers.

The killing of Prince Jones, the murders that continue, the sorrow that Coates's son felt when learning that Mike Brown's killer received the same treatment as the killer of Prince Jones, form the backdrop to the final words Coates has for his son.

While Coates is reluctant to aspire to hope, expressing the need to be honest, one statement toward the conclusion of this work is something on which hope can be built:

They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.

Taking pride and celebrating that pride sounds like an honest way to live with eyes that can see into and beyond sooty details, not ignoring them, never ignoring them, because, as Coates tells his son:

...there is so much out there to live for, not just in someone else's country, but in your own home.



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

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sunday Sentence: Per Petterson

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

If you were outdoors at night, standing by the corner of a house waiting for someone to come through the forest, someone you knew well, someone you had loved for years, it was hard to catch sight of her until she was quite close.

-- I Refuse by Per Petterson

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review: 'The Mapmaker's Children'

The Mapmaker’s Children

By Sarah M. McCoy
Fiction
May 2015
Crown
ISBN: 978-0385348904


An integral part of being a woman is the potential to bear children, to nurture and watch the lifelong joys and sorrows of those children’s lives. Two women separated by decades, whose inability to have children affects their lives, are brought to vivid life in Sarah M. McCoy’s The Mapmaker’s Children.


In the present, Eden has a good life. She and her storybook prince of a husband have just bought a beautiful old home. But nothing matters to her because years of trying to conceive a child, including fertility treatments, have not worked. Eden can’t get past it.


In the past, Sarah Brown overhears that the fever that nearly took her life has taken her ability to have children. She grows into womanhood never forgetting what her mother said: “Who will love her now?”


When your worth as a woman depends on the marriage market, that’s a big drawback. When your father is the infamous John Brown, it may be even more significant, depending on the kindness of other abolitionists.


Sarah is not the kind of person to look at things that way though. If one avenue to living is closed, she’s going to find another. Her artistic ability helps her father’s work with the Underground Railroad, depicting maps as artwork. Even if it’s supposed to be a secret, Sarah knows she is helping.


After her father’s death, she is the only child to not give up on the cause or fall into despair. She grabs any educational opportunities possible and the attention of the son of a southern family that believes in their cause of abolishing slavery.


Back in the present, Eden would just as soon spend the day in bed. But her husband gives her a puppy, then leaves for business trips. He also enlist the help of the neighbor girl who is resilient and handy in ways Eden can only marvel at. Finding the head of an antique doll in the house and the arrival of Eden’s musician brother add to the world not allowing her to pull the covers over her head.


Whether it’s the onset of the Civil War and its hardships on families in the path of the battles or the ways in which a modern small town struggles to keep up with the times yet not lose its heart and soul, McCoy weaves the tales of Eden and Sarah into their times. But the times do not take over the women’s stories. The focus remains on their hearts and how they are shaped by the ways they make families.


Although many novels currently use multiple storylines, McCoy shows how it should be done -- to serve a storytelling purpose that has great heart and uses great skill. The Mapmaker’s Children is a novel that is about love in various forms and how one creates a legacy by being true to oneself and what one holds dear. McCoy’s research into Sarah Brown pays off well by bringing this artist and maternal figure back to vivid life.

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

Monday, July 6, 2015

Review: 'The Book of Speculation'


The Book of Speculation
By Erika Swyler
Fiction
June 2015
St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 978-1250054807


Tolstoy may have noted that “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, but it may also be true that each family that loves each other loves in its own way.


That’s certainly the case in Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation, a whimsical, magical and yet well-grounded novel about mermaids who drown and a heritage that finds each generation without them even seeking it.


In the present day, Simon Watson seems the quietest and dullest of men. He works as a reference librarian and lives in his late parents’ house, which is starting to fall apart around him as it perches on the edge of an inhospitable Northeastern coast. His retired neighbor Frank is over constantly, mending the house and cajoling Simon into having serious work done on it. Frank’s daughter, Alice, also works at the library.


The only things not grounded about Simon’s life are his own relatives. His mother drowned when he and his sister, Enola, were young. He raised his sister while his father took years to die, sitting at the kitchen table. He and his sister can hold their breath underwater for unreal lengths of time. Enola travels with a carnival, reading Tarot cards. She’s getting near the age when their mother walked into the ocean and she’s finally made one of her infrequent phone calls. She’s coming home.


Simon also receives an old book from a rare books seller in the Midwest. It’s not a normal book. There are sketches and tales of a traveling show on the road. There is the story of a mute boy who wandered into Peabody’s traveling menagerie, an old fortune teller and a young woman who arrived in terror.


Each member of the troupe has suffered loss and each can do something no one else can. The boy, who the fortune teller names Amos, can breathe slowly and disappear. The fortune teller has an affinity for a hand-drawn Tarot deck that goes beyond sideshow tales. The woman was enchanted by a carnival man who disappeared, and who killed the one who tried to prevent her from repeating her mother’s sorrowful mistake. Peabody makes her a mermaid act.


The mute and the mermaid fall in love, but it is not a happy tale.


In alternating chapters, Simon’s life is starting to fall apart. He and Alice realize they are even closer than they have always been, but Simon loses his job in these days when libraries are not treasured.


And the book he was sent -- it draws him in as surely as the water has drawn in generations of the women in their family.


Swyler’s alternating stories veer more toward the magic than the real. But whether the things that happened can be explained rationally or not, what remains real and true are the ways in which the characters care for each other. Motives are revealed that explain characters’ actions and enrich their personalities. There are few villains -- even the most selfish are seeking love or forgiveness.


There is evil, however, and at one point Simon fears it lives in the objects he loves most, including books. It’s a terrifying notion for anyone who loves books as Simon does.


For a novel in which many of the characters are hurting deeply, there is little that is morose, in part because Swyler can rely on a narrative voice that resembles a fairy tale.


Like a fairy tale, by the time The Book of Speculation has come to an end, connections are made and resolutions have come to pass. Unlike many fairy tales, there is the knowledge here that things go on and that the characters still have life to experience. And that whatever that experience is, it will include each other:


“We carry our families like anchors, rooting us in storms, making sure we never drift from where and who we are. We carry our families within us the way we carry our breath underwater, keeping us afloat, keeping us alive.”
©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sunday Sentence: Kent Haruf

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:

I wish you would find somebody who's a self-starter. Somebody who would go to Italy with you and get up on a Saturday morning and take you up in the mountains and get snowed on and come home and be filled up with it all.

-- Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday Sentence: 'The Book of Speculation'

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:

His days shrank, becoming only fog, mountains, and a thick of trees so full the world itself fell in. The boy disappeared into this place, and it was here that he first learned to vanish.

-- The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sunday Sentence: 'None of the Above'

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

Even though he wasn't wearing his warehouse uniform, he smelled faintly of metal and wet cardboard, which isn't exactly perfume but always smelled like home to me.

 -- None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review: 'Dept. of Speculation'

Dept. of Speculation
By Jenny Offill
Literary fiction
October 2014
Vintage Contemporaries
ISBN: 9978-0345806871
                                                                                                                                                  
Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation would probably be considered too twee or the stuff of fiction from The New Yorker for some readers. It's the story of a New York City marriage, of a wife, of her husband, of their child (none of them are ever named), and how they started out and how they carried on and what happpened when the husband was unfaithful. But it didn't read like the oft-told tale it appears to be from that description.

The whole novel is comprised of the short bits of wisdom, whimsy or sangfroid that one underlines or copies into a chapbook. And they make a finely woven, coherent, heartfelt story. It is a combination of technique and heart that works well.

From the snippets, it's clear to see the wife didn't do all the things she imagined she would. As a young woman, she planned to be an art monster, to be creative, to matter.


For years, I kept a Post-it note above my desk. WORK NOT LOVE! was what it said. It seemed a sturdier kind of happiness.

Now she teaches and tries to survive a colicky baby. Her husband, a Midwest transplant who is famously kind, makes soundscapes of the city. He is introduced to her by her friend, who she calls the philosopher and who is an adjunct professor and late night DJ. Offill deftly chronicles what it's like to be at home with a baby who has colic:

After you left for work, I would stare at the door as if it might open again.

My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn't know them.

She was small enough then to still fall asleep on your chest. Sometimes I fed you dinner with a spoon so you wouldn't have to raise your arms and wake her.

Offill writes about different kinds of love with vivid, wistful remembrance in only three paragraphs. Some writers cannot do that in hundreds of pages. She has kept in only the important bits, but sometimes reveals them explicitly and other times obliquely. Taken together, they tell us about these characters without names and their hearts.

She also weaves in quotes and bits from other writers, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Buddhist philosophers and this:

Advice for wives circa 1896: (italics) The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject. Besides the false views of human nature it will impart ... it produces an indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities.

The only cliched part of the story is that the husband is unfaithful. Up until the very end, it's not clear if they will stay together or part. But either way, the feeling of dread has been introduced. Whatever happens, this happened, and it cannot be erased.

The narrator is having a hard time holding it together. She wanted to be an artist, a writer, a monster who lived for art and art alone. Even if she had not fallen in love and had a family, it's easy to see that life probably would not have turned out exactly as she planned. It just doesn't work that way. But she deals with words, with art, every day as part of her real life.

There is, at the end, the inference that she may see this reality, this ability to live with other people who mean so much to her and the art that has been as much a reason to live as those she loves. That makes Dept. of Speculation as much a work of art as it does a faithful chronicle of what the small moments of family life are really like.

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

Monday, March 9, 2015

Review: 'Bone Gap'

Bone Gap
By Laura Ruby
YA fantasy
March 2015
Balzar + Bray
ISBN: 978-0062317605

Finn and Sean have been raising themselves in a rundown farmhouse on the outskirts of a small town in the middle of nowhere for years. Their father died long ago and their mother left with another man, nursing her broken and vagabond heart. Sean, the older brother, is one of those strong, silent, sturdy types who everyone relies on. Finn is seen as dreamy and not quite with it.

Their lives started to look up when Finn found Roza one morning in their barn. The young woman had been hurt and was more skittish than a wounded animal. But the boys gave her sanctuary, Sean tended to her physical wounds and the chance to pay them back with her cooking and gardening gave her a chance to begin healing.

One day she disappeared. Finn can’t describe the man she left with and people aren’t even sure if they can believe the scanty details he provides. But he’s not going to quit looking for her. Even Petey, the beekeeper’s daughter who is more comfortable with the hives than with people, except for Finn, isn’t sure what to think.

Laura Ruby takes this premise and these characters, going back and forth between viewpoints, time and place to create a stunning novel of devotion. She delves into the ways people look at each other, literally and figuratively. The characters are resilient and spend more time thinking about others instead of themselves. 

The novel works on so many levels. There is a realistic depiction of a very small town where everyone knows everything about everyone else. There is magic realism and a fable-like aspect to the story. There is a princess who has been spirited away but who works to rescue herself; she doesn't just sit there and wait for a hero. There is the kind of deep friendship that can lead to something more. There is overcoming hardship and heartache.

Bone Gap is thoughtful, entertaining and a tour de force of storytelling.

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

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sunday Sentence: All the Birds, Singing

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

It could have been the air, the wind. It could have been that out there in the dark, all of my sheep had turned to stare at me. Or that something pulled itself out of the sea and lumbered up the path towards me. But it wasn't. It was only the night like I'd seen it a thousand times before, alone.

-- Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing

Friday, March 6, 2015

Review: 'The First Bad Man'

The First Bad Man
By Miranda July
Literary fiction
January 2015
Scribner
ISBN: 978-1439172568

Cheryl Glickman may not know any of Barbara Pym's excellent women, but this protagonist of Miranda July's first novel is one of them. The middle-aged, never-married Cheryl lives on her own in a neatly appointed house that is no home, and works for a self-defense nonprofit organization that is as New Age and California as anything that is New Age and in California can be.

This is a woman who thinks she knows herself, but she's as much a stranger to her as everyone else in the world. (Well, all perhaps one, but more of that later.) After all, she's the kind of woman who "strolled through the parking garage and into the elevator, pressing twelve with a casual, fun-loving finger. The kind of finger that was up for anything."

In a manner both droll and deft, July lays out Cheryl's sterile life and work. The part where the nonprofit's founders talked her into staying home most of the time, and out of their hair, is magnificent. Cheryl is clueless that her employers don't want her around but keep paying her anyway:

Then he told me my managerial style was more effective from a distance, so my job was now work-from-home though I was welcome to come in one day for a week and for board meetings.

Perhaps that's because "Once Carl called me ginjo, which I thought meant 'sister' until he told me it's Japanese for a man, usually an elderly man who lives in isolation while he keeps the fire burning for the whole village". Or something like that.

Besides developing a housework system that involves doing no housework, Cheryl has two obsessions. One is a board member of the nonprofit who she thinks has been her great love in past lives. In this life, Phillip is a self-absorbed old man who occasionally texts or talks to her about his new obsession -- a much, much younger woman.

Her other obsession is a baby she met when she was a child. Cheryl thinks she had a conversation with this child, Kubelko Bondy, and that, appropriately enough for his last name, they bonded:

I watched him crying and waited for someone to come but no one came so I heaved him onto my small lap and rocked his chubby body. He calmed almost immediately. I kept my arms around him and he looked at me and I looked at him and he looked at me and I knew that he loved me more than his mother and father and that in some very real and permanent way he belonged to me. ...

Seconds later he sailed out into the night, my own dear boy. Never to be seen again.

Except I did see him again -- again and again. Sometimes he's a newborn, sometimes he's already toddling along. As I pulled out of my parking spot I got a better look at the baby in the car next to mine. Just some kid.

When not doing whatever it is she does for the nonprofit, listening to Phillip dither over his young woman or searching for her dear boy, she deals with her globus. She has trouble swallowing and is nearly as obsessed with spitting discreetly as she is with her other obsessions.

Then her employers dump their unemployed daughter, Clee, on her lap. Everyone -- really, everyone -- who puts this young woman up is delighted to see her leave. Clee, of course, upsets Cheryl's world.

The novel then takes a wild turn. Then it gets weird. Then something big happens. And then something even bigger happens. There were times I wasn't sure I could keep on reading about Cheryl's interior life and how it was affecting what was going on with her unwelcome houseguest, let alone how life with her unexpected houseguest was affecting her interior life. Cheryl is unreliable not because she sets out to deceive the reader, but because she is so clueless about herself and her world. But she's certainly far more open to experiencing life as it comes to her than the closed-up woman who thinks she has a finger that is up for anything.

And then there is one of the sweetest, best realized endings to a novel in some time. It was unexpected, satisfying and exactly right.

It's not often an author can turn the course of a novel and have it work. For a debut novelist to do this more than once and still have it all work is unexpected. Reading The First Bad Man is like watching a high-wire artist perform magic tricks while jumping through hoops of fire. And coming out at the other end with everything in place.

July has published short stories and is an accomplished actress and filmmaker. Even with all the evidence of a creative free spirit who knows narrative and character, and how well they can work together, this novel is still a remarkable work to behold.

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

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: 'Euphoria'

Euphoria
By Lily King
Literary fiction
June 2014
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 978-0802122551

It doesn't take big events or historical movements for individuals to feel they don't understand the rest of the human race. People are rather curious creatures, after all, prone to actions that seem counter-intuitive, endeavors that seem hopeless or cruel, emotions that appear more at home in left field than in the heart.

These things happen every day, from the normally cheerful person who one day scowls at everyone to the oddball actions drivers take on the road.

And they happen to all sorts of people. That's one of the graces of Lily King's Euphoria. It's a novel inspired by Margaret Mead, her second husband Reo Fortune and her future husband Gregory Bateson, all anthropologists who were involved in a love triangle and professional collaboration while researching in Papua New Guinea. These highly intelligent people who are trained to observe others do some of the damnedest things.

The characters in King's novel, which was short-listed for the National Book Award, resemble what is easily found via Google search about the real people. Reo Fortune, Mead's husband when the three met, appears jealous of his wife. He tried to discredit his wife's work after their divorce. Nell, like Mead, makes a name for herself writing her observations of the gender and sexual roles of women and children.

It's easy to see that the characters Bankson and Nell are going to fall for each other. And it's easy to see that Fen feels jealous and yet wants to keep an unsteady equilibrium going. The physical and emotional aspects of the novel are probably paramount to most readers. And boy, does King ever deliver. Despite the somewhat clumsy set-up to the romantic climax, the emotions are genuine and bittersweet is the prominent tone. That there is delicate storytelling following a narrative fascinated with graphic swapping of traditional Western culture sexual and gender roles is something unexpected and all the more powerful for it.

Nell describes the moment when an anthropologist gets the feeling that she is at the right place doing the right thing. What she says applies to a relationship between two people as well:

It's that moment two months in, when you think you've finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It's a delusion -- you've only been there eight weeks -- and it's followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It's the briefest, purest euphoria.

King's Nell and Fen, married anthropologists who run into Bankson, another professional in their fairly new field, don't have the same outcome as the real people.

It's their feelings, professional ideas and aspirations, and, by implication as the work of all literary writers is, the wider ramifications of what these things tell us about human beings, that are more important to King's work than rehashing of old scandalous acts.

In the respect of looking at individuals to reach a conclusion about a group, the work of a novelist and an anthropologist are similar. King noted this in an interview with Vogue. It's something I noted when first reading Barbara Pym; many of the characters in her novels are involved with anthropology or fascinated by anthropologists. They study each other and it's quite obvious many times that they belong to different tribes, just as Nell, Fen and Bankson belong to different tribes. Their professional work is an attempt to differentiate people and subsets of people into larger groupings.

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," wrote Joan Didion. We also tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world and, often, to try to bring order to it. Putting people into categories or tribes is one way to do that.

That word "tribes" in and of itself can provoke a squeamish reaction. Just who are any of us to be studying others as if they were inferior? In King's novel, Fen obviously regards the peoples he studies as inferior. Nell is the character who acts most like someone who believes in equality, and yet as a woman in 1930s Western culture she is not treated with equality. Early on, she says that "For me, other people are the point." She lives as she thinks.

As Nell writes in her journal:

Who are we and where are we going? Why are we, with all our 'progress,' so limited in understanding & sympathy & the ability to give each other real freedom? ...
 
I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world.

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

Friday, February 20, 2015

Review: 'Tunnel Vision'

Tunnel Vision
By Susan Adrian
YA science fiction
January 2015
St. Martin's Griffin
ISBN:  978-1250047922

Jacob thought his life was nondescript but all right. And it was, until the night the high school senior drank too much at a party and showed his friends his secret ability.

"Tunnel Vision" is what Jacob can do. If he holds an object belonging to someone else, he can "tunnel" his vision to where they are. His military father told him to always keep that ability a secret, but his dad died in a plane crash a couple years ago. Now a stranger is following him and he's worried about keeping his little sister and mom safe.

Who the stranger is and how anyone found out from the party about Jacob's ability are just the opening mysteries in Susan Adrian's fast-paced YA novel. Along the way, Jacob will have his loyalties and sense of trust tested, and will discover his family's secrets.

Jacob also knows other people's secrets when he holds their objects. Some of the cases he is obliged to take on by holding the objects are intense, and at least once lead him to questioning whether he's serving a higher purpose or adding to people's sorrows.

Adrian's novel not only is a page-turner, it also features strong characterizations of Jacob's family, including his grandfather, a reclusive Russian, and those Jacob is forced to work with. Tunnel Vision also kicks into high espionage gear, with the twists and turns one would expect. As with all great espionage stories, the themes of who to trust and why play a significant role here. Indeed, observant teens and other readers could have a field day making connections between Tunnel Vision and principles that underscore current events. Adrian has not written a sermon on the last, but her storytelling skills have folded in layers that make the most of story and theme.

At the end, it's evident there is more that could be told about Jacob, so more novels would be welcome. This is a young man on the cusp of coming into his own, and it bodes to be a journey well worth watching.


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

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Review: 'Falling into Place'

Falling into Place
By Amy Zhang
YA contemporary realistic fiction
September 2014
Greenwillow Books
ISBN: 978-0062295040
                                                                                                                    
Liz Emerson doesn't care that she is beautiful, well-off, popular and has a boyfriend the other girls envy. The sham of how her life appears on the surface is brilliantly depicted in the debut novel by Amy Zhang, herself a teenager, in a nihilistic story of a girl who has had enough and is determined to kill herself.

Drinking, drug use, casual hooking up, debilitating bullying, Liz and her circle do it all. Liz and her boyfriend are cruel and unfaithful to each other. She does horrible things to her friends, who stand by her even though they carry the wounds of those things. There is one boy who still cares about Liz despite the horrible thing she did to him. Her mother is never around; she's trekking around the world for work since Liz's father died years ago and can afford to buy a very fancy car for her daughter to deliberately drive off the road.

There is no suspense that Liz will drive that car off the road. There is suspense in what happens afterward and parts of the story are not revealed until the very final pages.

It is a horribly sad world these teens live in. Their hope was killed in them long ago. Moments of happiness are depicted mainly because their absence is another way to show what a horribly sad world these teens live in.

Zhang keeps the story flowing with frequent time jumps and short bursts of story. There is the addition of a mystery narrator who occasionally comments on Liz's life ever since her father accidentally died in front of her when she was very young. It's a great touch because it is a way to show what Liz used to be like, as well as a way to look beyond the unrelenting depression of the teens' outlook.

The author is so good at building that depressing world that a moment when that black fog lifts feels shoehorned in. Except for that, however, Falling into Place shows Zhang's adept strength at characterization and storytelling. This should not be her only work of fiction, but should be only the beginning.

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

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: 'Lila"

Lila
By Marilynne Robinson
Literary fiction
October 2014
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374187613

To be able to write without pity but with understanding about people who are considered less than nothing by most of the world -- the strays, as they are called in this novel -- and to also write about grace, compassion, existence and love is a great gift to the kind of reader who still wants to reconcile all the things that go on in this world. Even if that reconciliation seems a fool's errand to many.

That's the kind of writer Marilynne Robinson is. Her latest novel, Lila, is set in Gilead, Iowa, as are her last two novels, and concerns itself with the same characters in those novels. This time, the focus is on the young wife of the Rev. John Ames. He is the old country preacher whose voice was first heard in the novel Gilead, in which he is writing down parts of his life and ideas for his young son.

Lila was carried away as a young child by Doll, a tough woman who saw no sense in letting her continue to exist neglected in a house filled with anger and fighting. There was only token resistance to their leaving, and Doll, with the help of an old woman whose house they found, nursed her from the brink of death.

She grows up as part of a loose band of drifters, migrant workers in the days before the Dust Bowl and the Depression, being a calf to Doll's cow. She feels Doll's love and sees Doll's scarred face unhidden. She sees the boundless energy and curiosity of another girl who is part of the group, the restlessness of the others, the love the leader has for his wife and the pride he has in doing what he can to take care of them all. Hard times and petty theft tear them apart.

The years are not kind to her. Even when Lila finds a place to settle for a spell, she is only existing and not looking forward to anything. She moves on when she is recognized or when Doll comes to her in a time of need after Doll sent Lila off on her own.

Lila was not looking for a place to stay when she ended up outside Gilead, sleeping in an abandoned shack, earning a little money, food and clothes by gardening and cleaning for others. Just as she was picked up off the porch one night by Doll, and again found by Doll on church steps after the others abandoned her, Lila is found when she goes into a church in Gilead to get out of the rain. The Rev. Ames sees her and their lives change.

The old man is as much on Lila's mind as she is on his, even though she doesn't open up to him and remains skittish. This continues after she suggests he marry her. Lila is lonely without thinking that she deserves company, afraid of people looking down on her or feeling sorry for her. As she notes:

When you're scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it's kindly meant.

How do you believe someone loves you when the only loving kindness you've known came from someone who pushed you away and, at a time when you thought you could give them something back, denied knowing you as thoroughly as Peter denied knowing Jesus? How can you ever believe you belong somewhere or with someone?

Robinson uses both show and tell to demonstrate how someone like Lila, who doesn't know what a large and forgiving heart she has, could start to feel comfortable with the idea of being loved. The moment when Lila began to feel loved, to believe that she could be loved, is chronicled. But its significance is not immediately trumpeted to her. She doesn't have one of those big "Eureka!" moments that tells both the character and the reader that a big change has occurred.

The significance of the moment Lila knew her life had changed does not occur to her until later, when it becomes a settled part of who she is. The moment comes after she and the reverend have wrestled with the question of existence and the theology of baptism and life everlasting. The idea that the people she traveled with as a child, especially Doll, could be condemned to hell or to not being in heaven bothers Lila a great deal. And the same for the Rev. Ames. They are both kinder than that. (So is the Rev. Ames's dear friend Boughton, the Calvinist who loves to argue with him. Their love and worrying over each other is as strong a testament to brotherly love as any large act of great heroism.)

Lila also tries to improve herself by stealing a Bible from her future husband's church and copying sentences over and over. Then and later, during her pregnancy after they are married, she ponders Ezekiel and the claiming of someone as a living being to care for. It holds her attention in a way that Job does not. She already knows bad things happen to good people. It's the idea of belonging that she struggles with.

At the same time, Lila is a character who does care about other people. During one hellish sojourn, the idea of a baby that she can take and care for, and treat well, is the only thing that keeps her going. She wants to give that gift that Doll gave to her when she picked Lila up off the porch one night and just kept on going.

It's that giving nature that she displays in an event that mirrors an event in the novel Gilead, when she understands the problem of another stray human being who doesn't feel he belongs. In both cases, it's interesting to note that her husband mistakes her intent both times. He fears she has left because he fears so much that she will leave, that he doesn't have enough to offer her. Although she keeps telling him in this novel that she could pick up and take off any time, she doesn't realize she would do no such thing.

Lila's story is a parable of love without pity, of a prodigal who doesn't realize at first she has found home, of seeking to understand in which knowledge of hardscrabble living provides as much wisdom as years of studying books and of the enduring human compulsion to reach out to another and to care about being cared for. It is a fitting kind of story for someone like Robinson whose theology studies are as embedded into her fiction as is her knowledge of human nature.

It is the kind of fiction in which a person seeks to understand why we are the way we are, written within the framework of the way she has reconciled the world to something beyond. It is the kind of fiction that does not judge her characters, or real people, and is the stronger story for that level of human understanding.


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

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Review: 'How to be Both'

How to be Both
By Ali Smith
Literary fiction
December 2014
Pantheon
ISBN: 978-0375424106

A young girl on the cusp of womanhood, struggling to continue after the sudden loss of her mother, and a long-dead Renaissance painter known only to history through a letter demanding more pay, are the catalysts to consider what is and what was, what is art, what is underneath and what remains, in Ali Smith's How to be Both.

The novel, which was listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the Costa, was designed to not be linear, but to be layered. Some editions begin with Georgie, grieving for her talented, daring mother in present-day London. The other editions begin with the story of Francesco, child of a bricklayer whose mother also excelled at storytelling.

The last trip Georgie took with her mother and younger brother (while the always-distant dad stayed home for work) was to view Francesco's frescoes in Italy. Past and present, present and future, layers of what exists and what can be seen and what stays hidden are the essence of the novel. Georgie remembers events that once happened and has to keep changing the tense, from says to said, life to not life, from living to dead.

The word play, the tropes of tense, of layers, of hiding in plain sight or there being more just underneath the surface, serve to showcase "oh!" moments. Georgie, for example, is originally called George in the story but is a girl who identifies as a girl and does not like the fact she was named for a character in an old film (1966's Georgy Girl). Who another character is in other times and forms is a puzzle; although, like any well-designed painting that tells its story in allegory form, the clues are hiding in plain sight.

Although it is noted early in Georgie's section that "People like things not to be too meaningful", Smith knows better. Georgie becomes obsessed with a video of a young girl being used sexually and watches it over and over and over again. The girl, she decides, is everywhere, a representation of harm being done over and over again. To Georgie, watching it is paying tribute to the fact it has happened but, for someone who has not seen it, the act has not happened because that person doesn't know the act exists. It happens for the first time for that person when that person does see it.

In Italy with her mother, studying the frescoed walls that Francesco painted centuries earlier, it is noted the part of the work shows "how ordinary cruelty really is". The work was hidden for years under whitewash, meaning it did not exist for the people who knew about the room but did not know what was under the whitewash. That bothers George's younger brother enormously: "Could the room you were actually in get -- lost?"

Georgie does not want her mother to be forgotten because she is no longer there, just as the frescoes were forgotten because they were no longer seen. And the painter has been completely forgotten except for a letter in which more money is asked of the patron because of it is deserved (a letter which really does exist).

On that Italian trip, Georgie's mother sets these ideas into her head:
Do things just go away? her mother says. Do things that happened not exist, or stop existing, just because we can't see them happening in front of us? They do when they're over, George says. And what about the things we watch happening ... "

Well, what about them? Who sees them and how they see them and what the viewers bring to what they see to combine that knowledge with what is in front of them, well, it's never the same, is it?

What was there and what is there are part of something else Georgie's mother did: She was part of a group called the Subverts who delighted in subliminal and unexpected messages, such as "a box that would flash up on a politics page and it would have a picture in it or some stanzas of a poem, stuff like that".

Georgie's mother also tells her that "nothing's not connected" and therein lies the harsh truth and glorious beauty in Smith's novel. The struggle, as usual, is for us to take E.M. Forster's advice: "Only connect" even if it all seems a swirl at times and the way the pieces fall together doesn't seem at all clear.

Francesco's mother creates a different spin on the connections among all things. To her, anything created creates a ring, a ripple, just as a pebble dropped in water creates its rings. To that wife of a Renaissance bricklayer, the ring encompasses everything. And if everything is encompassed, it is contained together. It is connected.

And so it is in this novel. Whether one reads Georgie's story first or Francesco's, parts of the painter's story are prelude to Georgie's and parts of it reverberate in the present.

In the spirit of Smith's novel, it does not matter which part one reads first. Because they fit together.

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

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review: 'Red Queen'

Red Queen
By Victoria Aveyard
YA fantasy
February 2015
HarperTeen
ISBN: 978-0062310637

Mare Barrow is a pickpocket, trying to help her family make ends meet until she is conscripted into the army. She will join her older brothers to serve in an unending war that crippled their father. She is a Red, one of the poor who serve the Silvers, the rich and powerful who run their society.

One evening she runs into a stranger who she thinks is a servant to aristocrats. He is kind to her even though he caught her stealing from him. Then Mare is summoned to court to become a royal servant herself.

The Reds bleed red and have no special powers. The Silvers bleed silver and have various powers, including telekinesis and the ability to invade minds. During a tournament in which aristocratic Silver girls compete for the hands of the two royal princes, Mare and the entire arena discover she’s different.

The scheming queen quickly concocts a story about Mare’s supposed past and brings her into the court that is filled with intrigue. She’s to marry the queen’s son, the younger prince, even though she’s often drawn to his older half-brother. There’s also her guilt over the harm she caused her sister and a childhood friend who may now be lost.

Aveyard combines a dystopian setting with court intrigue, fantasy elements, a strong heroine determined to help her friends and family, and boys who seem to lie when they tell the truth. The world-building in the first quarter is a bit slow but once Mare arrives at court, it’s nonstop action with a broad range of characters. Each character's motivations are integral to what they do, and make for rich, deep, compelling stories. This is a debut novel that is a completely engaging work.


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