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Monday, July 27, 2015

Review: 'Our Souls at Night'

Our Souls at Night
By Kent Haruf
Literary fiction
May 2015
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
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
May 2015
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
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