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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sunday Sentence: The Land of Dreams

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

A boy goes out fishing and has a lot of fun, and then suddenly one day his whole boring adult life starts up, with all its obligations. Fifty years later the interruption is finally over, and he can go back to fishing again.

-- The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstol (translated by Tiina Nunnally)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: 'The Wangs vs. the World'

The Wangs vs. the World
By Jade Chang
Literary fiction
October 2016
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0544734098

A man comes to America, makes a fortune, has three remarkable children and a second wife who has loved him since childhood, then loses his fortune. This is only the beginning of The Wangs vs. the World.

Jade Chang's novel is an odyssey for all of its characters. Charles Wang, upon losing his makeup fortune, has now decided he hates America. He now dreams of reclaiming his family's land in China, even though his family fled to Taiwan and he came to the States.

His oldest child, Saina, once was the toast of the New York artistic community. She and her fiance, Grayson, another luminary in that world, had it all. Then she put together a questionable third show that used the faces of Middle Eastern women killed in war, re-imaged into fashion photographs. Grayson slept with a beautiful blonde heiress and made a baby. Saina decamped to upstate New York, bought a farmhouse and fell for a sweet African American man who was adopted as a baby by a family of organic farmers.

Middle child Andrew is at a party university struggling to lose his virginity. He wants to fall in love first. The busty white girl he's with doesn't see things that way. Maybe he can make it as a comedian after all.

Youngest child Grace is at boarding school, whether she wants to be there or not, and is far more interested in her fashion blog and artistic selfies than anything academic.

Their stepmother, Barbra, was the child of cafeteria workers where Charles was at school in Taiwan. He was the one for her, the one most likely to be successful, but he went to America and never returned. His first wife died in a helicopter crash when Grace was a baby; Grace still has the photograph her father snapped of her mother just before she got on board. Barbra is usually just there in the background, neither beloved nor reviled. But she is steadily there, even if she is angry right now at their new financial circumstances.

Before Charles can go reclaim his Chinese land, he wants his family gathered. Having lost everything in sunny California, where he made a fortune manufacturing makeup instead of contacting the fertilizer manufacturers his father sent him to meet. There is a common ingredient -- urea -- which is itself a comment on the irony of financial greatness.

Charles's love and hate for America, what he thinks he did for it and what he thinks it did to him, form the reason for his overwhelming desire to reclaim his family and his ancestral land. At his deepest hate, he thinks:

America was a great deceptor. Land of Opportunity. Golden Mountain. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. But inside those pretty words, between the pretty coasts, was this: Miles and miles of narrow-minded know-nothings who wanted no more out of life than an excuse to cock their AK-47s and take arms against a sea of troubles. A Great Wall? Ha! This country could never build itself anything as epic as that. America wanted to think itself as a creator, but all it could do was destroy -- fortunes, families, lives. Even the railroads needed the Chinese to come and build them.

Charles and Barbra gather Andrew and Grace, then drive across America in the old car they still have (because he sold it to his old ama for $1 and then took it back after dropping her off with family).

On the road, what might turn into madcap zaniness episodes are instead looks at each individual in the family as they undertake their own inner journeys. Waiting for them in her refuge, Saina has her own emotional journey when her old lover and a former friend now looking to make her part of a big story of New York failures, appear.

In this meeting of family story, and the creation of art and wealth, observations such as ones Saina make are formed:

Your clubscapes don't really exists, she wanted to say. They're a bunch of things that are supposed to make a statement about another thing. Your collectors are buying a series of symbols because critics have conferred meaning upon them. It's the same thing as buying a piece of paper that the banks say represent a group of homeowners' individual promises to pay back their mortgages. Wasn't that abstraction the beautiful thing about what they did? ... The things we agree to call art are the shamanic totems of our time. We value them beyond all reason because we can't really understand them. They can mean everything or nothing, depending on what the people who look at them decide. ...
All I wanted, Saina thought, was to make someone feel something. Money can't do that. ... You can earn it, win it, lose it, save it, spend it, find it, but you can't sell it because you never really own it. On the other hand, you didn't have to possess a song or a sculpture for it to make you feel something -- you only had to experience it.

Chang has crafted a novel in which individuals and the group -- the family -- each have their story. And those stories work together. Each of them deals with love, whether they love too much or don't care enough. A novel in which love that characters feel -- whether it's for family, a person, a career, the land, a great country or a great idea -- is a novel worthy of time and attention. It doesn't have to be possessed to be experienced and appreciated. It's a novel in which a character decides that "loving too hard was the only option" and it rings true.

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review: 'Hag-Seed'

Hag-Seed
By Margaret Atwood
Literary fiction
October 2016
Hogarth
ISBN: 978-080414291



Reading this novel the same week that we lost Leonard Cohen, I kept hearing his Anthem with that important point of wisdom: There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.

I found light in Margaret Atwood's retelling of The Tempest. Her latest novel, Hag-Seed, is part of the Hogarth series retelling Shakespeare. To be able to convey a long-held desire for revenge, competing desires and motives and, at the height of it all, forgiveness and letting go, both Shakespeare and Atwood are writing about larger-than-life characters who can serve as grand tools of catharsis.

Atwood's Prospero is Felix Phillips, artistic director of a theatrical troupe that has made a small town an artistic hub. He married late; his wife did not survive long past childbirth. His beloved daughter, named Miranda, died when she was three; her fever grew worse while Felix was at the theater. His productions grow ever more  avant garde. His upcoming production of The Tempest will be all over the map and of questionable taste, including a magician's cloak of animal pelts. But that's what art is all about, right?

Not to The Powers that Be. Especially when Felix's number two, Tony, has him escorted out before a single performance of the play where his Miranda can be the child who never died, but who grew up on the island and fell in love with a noble lad, spared from Caliban.

That was 12 years ago. In the interim, Felix found a little shack in the country, an island, if you will, where he pretends Miranda never died but is an Ariel-like sprite who no one sees but him.

What he wants above all else, even revenge, is the chance to stage The Tempest. To bring his play to life, for his daughter, for Miranda.

He unexpectedly gets that opportunity a few years after he takes on a part-time teaching job in a prison. He teaches Shakespeare and writing by staging plays, with the inmates acting, doing the stage work and writing about their characters. Felix takes the job under a stage name, Mr. Duke, even though the university professor who arranged his hiring knows who he is, and was.

Mr. Duke is a hit with the inmates. After the obvious plays for the men -- Julius Caesar, Richard III, that Scottish play -- and tracking the movements of his enemies, Felix is ready. It's time to stage The Tempest. For his enemies, for himself, for Miranda.

There is a grand caper-like quality to putting on this production. Will Felix and the men pull it off? He even has a real woman to play Miranda -- the very young actress he hired years ago for the production that didn't happen is taking part as a poised young woman. But between the caper aspects of the story, Atwood keeps the emotional aspect of the novel going as well. At one point Felix "has a split instant of seeing Prospero through the gaze of Miranda -- a petrified Miranda who's suddenly realized that her adored father is a full-blown maniac, and paranoid into the bargain." What will that moment of realization about the character and about himself do to Felix and what will happen?

Should we be rooting for him? Does it depend on who Prospero is? Atwood tackles this head-on with the men delving into the afterlives of their characters, with their raps to make the play more vibrant and real for them, with their questioning of Felix to make him justify his actions and interpretations.

His voice sounds fraudulent. Where is the authentic pitch, the true note? Why did he ever think he could play this impossible part? So many contradictions to Prospero! Entitled aristocrat, modest hermit? Wise old mage, revengeful old poop? Irritable and unreasonable, kindly and caring? Sadistic, forgiving? Too suspicious, too trusting? ... They cheated for centuries when presenting this play. They cut speeches, they edited sentences, trying to confine Prospero within their calculated perimeters. Trying to make him one thing or the other. Trying to make him fit.

Which is what we do not only through art and the way we view art.

In taking the play and the characters apart after their own production, the men come up with fascinating ideas that can provide even more catharsis than the play as they call out Prospero and give Ariel and Caliban their due. (It looks like Atwood had fun creating raps with biting lyrics the men perform instead of the traditional songs.) And they recognize that it's all right to change one's mind about revenge, that it's all right to change one's mind and forgive. It's a chance that is not given or taken lightly by the characters:

Is extreme goodness always weak? Can a person be good only in the absence of power? The Tempest asks us these questions.

And the answer? Doesn't it depend on one's character regardless of power? Or was Lord Acton right? Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Prospero nearly fell victim to that hubris. But Ariel saved him. And they all were saved.

Because, as is also noted in the novel's chapters that deconstruct the play:

There is of course another kind of strength, which is the strength of goodness to resist evil; a strength that Shakespeare's audience would have understood well.

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


Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review: 'Today will be Different'

Today will be Different
By Maria Semple
Literary fiction
October 2016
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316403436



Family letting you down, micro-aggressions, President John Tyler's progeny, letting the days slip by and whether you love someone enough to move to Spokane with them are among the ideas in Maria Semple's warm, funny and seriously good Today Will be Different.

In her second novel, following the brilliant Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, Semple again focuses on a Seattle mother of a precocious young child and an accomplished husband. Our heroine this time was behind a cult hit of an animated series years ago. She has had an advance for a book based on the characters but gotten nowhere. Eleanor has been spinning her wheels for years. Her morning mantra that "today will be different" and that she might, say, get dressed and go to yoga after taking her son to school shows how encapsulated her life has become.

Eleanor realizes she has first-world problems. Her husband is a successful surgeon prized by the Seahawks. In Seattle, this practically makes one royalty. (The scene in Costco of people swarming around 12th Man cupcakes decorated with blue and green frosting is repeated across the state. It's not just Seattle. It's not just Costco.) Their son attends a prized, private school. She takes personalized poetry lessons from an aspiring writer. Her worst nightmare is going to lunch with a woman she views as boring.

Through the course of a day that is at times over the top, filled with flashbacks and takes more twists and turns than a hiking trail in the North Cascades, Eleanor shows the reader why she has been spinning her wheels, how much it could cost her and what really matters to her.

One person who really matters to Eleanor is her sister, Ivy. After their mother died, Eleanor took care of Ivy while their father drank away the rest of his life. Her drawings of those times about the two Flood Girls are the foundation of the work she is trying to create now.

The strength of Semple's storytelling is that the following wisdom is not plunked in the middle of finding out what the current situation is with Eleanor and Ivy, but it resonates with this and what happens after the reader finds out what the current situation is:

"If you were raised by a drunk, you're above all the adult child of an alcoholic. It means you blame yourself for everything, you avoid reality, you can't trust people, you're deeply insecure and hungry to please."

This is what has made Eleanor tick. That this truth is not the sole basis of what happened makes the novel even stronger. Whether it's a spouse's evolving belief system, whether it's holding onto the past well past its sell-by date, or whether it's realizing that, like Dorothy, there's no place like home (even if it means moving home to Spokane or Scotland or even New York City), Today will be Different has a strong heart beating under the madcap antics of Eleanor on her wild ride of a day.

"Today there will be an ease about me." Eleanor starts her story promising this. By the end, we see that it may well come to be.

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

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Louise Penny

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

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

-- Louise Penny, The Long Way Home

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review: 'Commonwealth'

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



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

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

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

The children come to two realizations. The first:

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

The other realization:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Ann Patchett

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

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

-- Ann Patchett, Comonwealth

Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: 'Another Brooklyn'

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and printed with permission

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Review: 'LaRose'

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review: 'Homegoing"

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 1, 2016

Review: 'The Serpent King'

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sunday Sentence: More from 'Homegoing'

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

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

-- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Yaa Gyasi

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

Ness looked at the woman. She tried to smile, but she had been born during the years of Esi's unsmiling, and she had never learned how to do it right. The corners of her lips always seemed to twitch upward, unwillingly, then fall within milliseconds, as though attached to that sadness that had once anchored her own mother's heart.

-- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review: 'Reader, I Married Him'

Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre
Edited by Tracy Chevalier
Literary fiction
March 2016
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0062447098


Perhaps it's a reflection of this summer of anger and fear, perhaps it's a yearning to return to a beloved book, but there are occasions when riffs on a known story provide a rewarding reading experience.

That has been the case with Reader, I Married Him. It's a collection of stories edited by Tracy Chevalier, all based on that famous line from Jane Eyre. Written by a wealth of modern female authors, the stories are far more varied than one might first suspect. Part of this may well be because the idea is not to ruminate on Jane, but instead to take that pronouncement of hers, that she married Mr. Rochester and that she directly addressed her reader, and run with it.

The variety is implicit in Chevalier's forward:

"Reader, I married him" is Jane's defiant conclusion to her rollercoaster story. It is not, "Reader, he married me" -- as you would expect in a Victorian society where women were supposed to be passive; or even, "Reader, we married." Instead Jane asserts herself; she is the driving force of her narrative, and it is she who chooses to be with Rochester.

The choice of a variety of narrators with a corresponding variety of results shows the beauty of Chevalier's choice in determining the focus of the anthology, as well as the beauty and strength of the source material. There is not a single story here that takes away from the power of Jane Eyre's narrative, even the iconclastic stories. They have a power of their own without taking away from the original, something that is at odds with The Wide Sargasso Sea, the Jean Rhys novel about Rochester's first doomed wife.

Among the women writing about this declaration of the determination to choose one's mate are Tessa Hadley, Jane Gardam, Emma Donoghue, Francine Prose, Elif Shafak, Evie Wyld, Salley Vickers, Lionel Shriver, Audrey Niffenegger, Elizabeth McCracken, Nadifa Mohamed and Namwali Serpell.

The mates chosen by their narrators and protagonists range from a mother's lover to a surly neighbor, from a succession of suitors to a favorite companion. Some clearly have happy endings while others lead to heartache, resignation or even a possible victim of gaslighting.

One reason Jane Eyre endures is the strength of the heroine. She is plain, poor and mistreated by her relatives and the school where she was sent. Her only friend is murdered by the cruelty of their so-called protectors. Yet she perseveres and breaks free, choosing not to stay in familiar straits but to get a job on her own with unknown people.

Once at Thornfield, she makes her own way, endearing herself to the people who matter most, in a most unconventional household. When she again has the choice to stay in a familiar setting with less than what anyone deserves, she again leaves. And when she receives St. John's attention, she hears the voice of the one she has chosen and returns to Mr. Rochester.

Although these stories do not all follow this path, they do demonstrate the ups and downs of a main character who does not want to settle for second best, whether that's what happens or not, and whether they live happily ever after or not.

Charlotte Bronte's life failed to follow the path established by her heroine, but she had some things in common with Jane. She fell in love with a married man, Constantin Heger, husband of the headmistress of the school where she worked in Brussels. Charlotte, too, was plain but inside was not a mouse.

As Claire Harman notes in the prologue of her biography, Charlotte Bronte, A Fiery Heart:

...Charlotte was also struggling with the larger issue of how she would ever accommodate her strong feelings -- whether of love for Heger, or her intellectual passions, or her anger at circumstances and feelings of thwarted destiny -- in the life that life seemed to have in store for her, one of patchy, unsatisfying employment, loneliness and hard work. What was someone like her, a plain, poor, clever, half-educated, dependent spinster daughter, to do with her own spiritual vitality and unfettered imagination? How could she live with the painful "consciousness of faculties unexercised" that had moved her to go abroad in the first place, and that she recognised, from the example of her equally brilliant siblings, not as some sort of freakishness, but as an intimation of the sublime?

Although opportunities for women have, to some extent, changed since her days, some things do not change. It is that recognition that has fired the imaginations of the authors in Reader, I Married Him.

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

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Virginia Woolf

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:

"It seemed to her such nonsense -- inventing differences, when people, heaven knows, were different enough without that. The real differences, she thought, standing by the drawing-room window, are enough, quite enough."

-- Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sunday Sentence: 'Sweetbitter'

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

I forgot the parade of people in my life as thin as mesh screens, who couldn't catch whatever it was I wanted to say to them, and I forgot how I drove down dirt roads between dessicated fields, under an oppressive guard of stars, and felt nothing.

-- Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Elizabeth Strout

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

Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.

-- Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Review: 'Daredevils'

Daredevils
By Shawn Vestal
Literary fiction
April 2016
Penguin Press
ISBN: 978-1101979891

There is a time in every person's life, even the ones who seem to be least capable of it, when they wonder and marvel at such questions as: Stay or go? Obey? Submit? Be one's own true self? What is that?

These are the kinds of questions the characters in Shawn Vestal's audacious new novel, Daredevils, ask. Except for Evel Knievel. He's not the question-asking type. He's counterpoint and fulcrum to the novel's characters,  which are teenagers and their families in their bleak little towns in the American West of the 1970s. He is Greek chorus and tipping point, and he is as vital a part of this novel as any other character.

But back to the beginning. Loretta is a teenager in a small Arizona town in the 1970s. She wants more than the long, empty days of work that she sees her parents endure. She wants a brightly colored Mustang, Tussy makeup, all the good things in life. Her future is, Vestal writes, a specific place, a determined destination to which she wants to fly. She also is intrigued by Bradshaw, a local bad boy who wants her. She sneaks out at night to ride with him and share kisses with him. Her parents are hard-working, faithful Mormons on the outskirts of a community where those who are in power are outsiders to the rest of the world. When she is caught, she ends up a sister wife.

At the same time, Jason, up in southern Idaho, is a child of hard-working Mormon parents on a diary farm. The work is unrelenting, the life filled with aching bones and sore knees and "the never-ending boredom of the righteous and the self-righteous" as the author notes. So is the faith of his parents, especially his mother. They don't reject the world but they don't celebrate its excesses either. And they certainly don't approve of their only son going down to Twin Falls to watch Evel Knievel try to jump over the Snake River canyon.

To Jason's delight, his grandfather takes him, lying to Mom and Dad about where they're going. It's Jason's first clue that adults lie to each other and that the ways men navigate the rules are not the same as the way they try to adhere to eternal truths. While Jason wants to believe that the stunt is the equivalent of reaching for the stars and feels he has crashed to Earth when it failed, his grandfather is amused that the stuntman got a comeuppance and so will be less likely to believe his own spiel.

The tug of war between yearning and dashed hopes is not only the story of Loretta and Jason, it's also the story of Dean, the man that her parents gave her to, and Dean's wife, Ruth, who was one of the children taken from a polygamist community years ago. That both characters are seen from the inside as fully human is but one of the strengths to Vestal's writing. Ruth is an exceptionally complex character who, with just a few musings, shows how someone can live a life that looks horrific from the outside without being a monster or a victim. Jason's best friend, Boyd, one of the few Native Americans at school, delivers in three paragraphs a blistering takedown of ignorant white privilege while retaining his own important place in the story.

The insights with which the characters are crafted are used to guide them through their journeys that weave in and out together. Dean is brother to Jason's father. Bradshaw goes to work for Dean. The teenagers may or may not run into a famous person. It all fits together brilliantly.

And through it all, there is the voice of Evel Knievel. In the 1970s, especially in the inner West of which Vestal writes, Knievel was a genuine hero. He was as big a folk hero as any of the colorful 19th century figures. And you never did know where he might show up. He was always getting into fights and crazy things seemed to happen in hotels all the time.

One of the reasons that Vestal's novel works so well is the authenticity not only of his characters, but of the time and place in which they exist. Vestal not only beats the sophomore curse, following up his vibrant, PEN/Bingham-winning Godforsaken Idaho, with Daredevils, he shows he is one of the leaders of a grand moment in the current writing coming out of Spokane, Washington. This is not only where Vestal lives and works at the local newspaper, Spokane is also home to Jess Walter, Kris Dinnison and Sharma Shields. Sherman Alexie is a Spokane Indian, but he dumped it for Seattle years ago. (If you're from Spokane, this moving to Seattle thing is a big thing. Spokane still loves him though.)

To not only cement the novel in its time but to make it timeless, there are occasions when Knievel's voice sounds like the beginning of Don DeLillo's Underworld, speaking in your voice, American:

What do you call that, when the world guides you toward its purpose? We believed, America. We believed we could do anything we tried to do. We believed we could do anything we said we would do. We believed in ourselves and the things we were saying. We believed that in saying these things, we were already making them true.

And how does that work out? There is but one way:

... the more we were granted, the more we hungered. The more we starved. Until there was nothing that could ever feed us.

The Greek chorus that is Knievel blames it on trying to give other people what they want, and how other people will always mess things up for you.

The way this plays out for the various characters who have tried not to rely on each other even while not being able to stop caring for each other is fascinating. There is hunger and hubris and reaching out beyond oneself in ways both pure and selfish.


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

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Review: 'The Waters of Eternal Youth'

The Waters of Eternal Youth (a Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery)
By Donna Leon
Crime fiction
March 2016
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 978-0802124807

Past, present and future, family and strangers all play roles in Donna Leon's latest Commissario Guido Brunetti novel, The Waters of Eternal Youth, working together for a subtly enriching, always engaging reading experience.

Brunetti is roped along with his wife to a formal dinner for a Venetian preservation charity dear to the heart of a friend of her family. The aristocratic patroness commands his presence for a later interview. She is old and there is something from the past she wishes to have settled. Many years ago, a beautiful teenage girl -- a Venetian afraid of the water -- fell into a canal one night. She was starting to drown but was saved by a passerby. The man who saved her, an alcoholic, thinks she was pushed but can remember nothing specific. Who he was is unclear. The girl was the aristocrat's granddaughter, and she has been trapped in a child's mind ever since. Before the grandmother dies, she wants to know the truth.

What can Brunetti find out? Was a crime committed? Is there any way to go back 15 years to find out? If so, is there any way to bring anyone responsible to justice?

Reluctantly drawn to the older woman's story, Brunetti will see what he can find out. This includes seeing what the ever-resourceful Elettra can find out. This most remarkable woman is on a quest of her own regarding electronic goings-on. Brunetti also enlists the aid of another policewoman with previously unknown skills of her own, Griffoni, who plays a key role in moving things along.

At the same time, Brunetti is disturbed to discover new refugees are starting to bother the girls outside school, including his daughter. They're far too aggressive for his taste. It's a small part of the story that echoes when, for example, during one of Brunetti's classic musings, he notes why other people's prejudices sound far more worse than our own. And the realization disturbs him. He and Paola have serious discussions, there is serious cooking, the children are nearly grown and definitely their own people, and, as ever, Venice is an integral part of each character and the story itself.

The kind of a person someone is, despite status, career or goals reached, is part of the characteristic climax of the novel. Donna Leon excels at carving out small, significant moments of grace and dignity in addition to a clear-eyed look at political and personal corruption and other failings.

The Waters of Eternal Youth, as Brunetti looks into what happened to a teenage girl years ago, uses those small moments to create an enormously satisfying ending. And because it's Donna Leon, the ending is handled just right. What a marvelous book.


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

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Review: 'The Portable Veblen'

The Portable Veblen
By Elizabeth McKenzie
Literary fiction
January  2016
Penguin Press
ISBN:  978-1594206856
 
 
This must be my year for quirky protagonists created by women writers. Veblen Amundsen-Hovda may well be my favorite.

She is the young heroine of Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen. She’s named for the nonconformist economist Thorstein Veblen, and lives in Palo Alto, where this creator of the term conspicuous consumption also spent time.
 
Our Veblen is a temp typist, who loves the act of typing, and a freelance translator of Norwegian prose. She finds a little house that is close to falling apart and turns it into a home. That little place is a haven, and why Veblen would love to create and have and hold a haven becomes clear as the story rolls along.
 
She also has a beau. Paul is a brilliant neurologist who has found Veblen enchanting and restful. She is both. Even though he is already a doctor and a researcher, Paul feels he has something to prove. So when a giant pharma medical supply corporate daughter who runs the firm finds his instrument fascinating, he is gullible and entranced. He signs on.

As this pair realizes that they have committed themselves to a life together, their former lives come into play. Oh dear. It’s time to introduce the loved one to one’s parents.

Although McKenzie has already set a light tone in her style, with side musings that show depth, she kicks this style into high gear with the families involved. Veblen’s mother is neurotic and an uber hypochondriac. She fusses over Veblen something fierce.

In the midst of the light-hearted quirkiness, we see why. Veblen is rather nervous when Paul sets a trap in her attic’s house to keep the squirrels out. No wonder she’s nervous. She thinks one of them has been communicating with her for years. Growing up in a little place named Cobb, Veblen was akin to the Bronte sisters with her own created world:
The map represented a place called Wobb, with all the topography and various special places sketched in. No, it wasn’t quite like Cobb. It was a place where animals had been gathering to reinstate their rights, and where a runaway girl lived by herself in a tree house and was somehow an important part of their world. Humans simply could no longer see the intrinsic value of anything. Squirrels, for instance, had thought that after fifty million years on the North American continent, it was safe to let down their guard. They had made a bad contract with people in innocence and trust, and had paid the price.
Little noticings that make big points were a reading highlight, such as “Humans simply could no longer see the intrinsic value of anything” (as looking at the news today will tell us) and that any living creature might make “a bad contract with people in innocence and trust” because those qualities still do exist.

Or, as a character notes: “Do you think wishful thinking is a psychiatric condition?”

Veblen and her mother have had a strong relationship for years not only because they love each other, but because they have had to deal with Veblen’s father, who was institutionalized. Veblen’s stepfather is a librarian; she has grown up immersed in books, reading and living in other people’s words and creating her own:
The smell was the London of Dickens, the catacombs on the Appia Antica, the Gobi Desert in winter, a dark monastery in Tibet. It was Nevada City in the gold rush. It was a telegraph office near the Mexican border. It was a captain’s trunk coming around the Horn. It was a dressing room on the Great White Way in New York. Sometimes, it was a breezy little tree house in Wobb.
Paul’s family has had its struggles as well. He grew up under the shadow of his father’s brother dying a hero in Vietnam. Paul’s medical device that the big corporation has decided to develop could help battlefield medics. Paul’s brother is developmentally disabled and concern for him controls everything that has happened to the family for years. Paul’s a bit tired of that and he most definitely does not want this overwhelming concern to ruin his wedding.

This makes the novel sound more distraught and heavy lifting than it actually is. McKenzie has a light and assured narrative style that allows the characters to learn to be honest about themselves and their loved ones without an underlying sense of despair or nihilism. Yes, bad things happen. People can be greedy and selfish. But they also can hurt and try not to let it overcome them. They can acknowledge the burdens of others and they can be forgiving. They can continue to reach out. And they can love and be loved.

Even as Veblen and Paul figure out if they are grown-up and if they want to marry, let alone marry each other, the way they view their families and each other’s is a solid part of their journey. Seeing beyond the irritations or slights can do that:
Through the rough glass she saw gestures of familiarity as they huddled over the pictures. Marion placed a hand on Paul’s shoulder. Justin leaned on Bill. Bill talked to his boys, and for that moment, listening to their father, they sat as brothers absorbed in family lore. What did she know about families, and how they ran?
Another character sees this family later and knows how significant their moments of togetherness are, as we know how important family is to the observant character. It is one of those sweet moments in a novel that is the equivalent of a warm fire, comfy chair and blanket, and beverage of choice.

Occasionally we see through the eyes of other characters; these times throughout the book are not overdone, but including them adds depth. Returning to Veblen’s perspective, it’s easier to see why she has come to her conclusions.

And as for the squirrel -- an element that is not overdone and not as twee as some may think -- it’s worth the journey of reading the entire novel just to find out about its significance.
 
©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted by permission

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Shawn Vestal

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this past week, presented without further comment or context (except to note this book is scheduled to be published on April 12):

What do you call that, when the world guides you toward its purpose? We believed, America. ... We believed that in saying these things, we were already making them true.

-- Shawn Vestal, Daredevils

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Review: 'The Past'

The Past
By Tessa Hadley
Literary fiction
January 2016
HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0062270412


Some books are just meant to live in and enjoy. Such is Tessa Hadley's The Past.

Four siblings arrive at various stopping places in their own lives to spend the annual three-week summer holiday in their late grandparents' country house. It was once the rectory. Just like the varying perspectives of the now middle-aged children, the connotations can be either bucolic fantasy retreat or the height of dreariness. Still, we are British and we will make the best of it.

Harriet, the eldest, seems to live in her own universe without letting real life wear her down. Alice arrives determined that everyone will have a jolly time, including Kasim. He's the 20-year-old son of her former lover who has been talked into coming down to the country. Once he arrives, the lack of cell phone coverage is about the end of the world. That is, until Alice and Harriet's brother Roland arrives. Along for the ride are his intimidating, beautiful third wife and, more importantly to Kasim, 16-year-old Molly. Fran is the final sibling, bringing her younger children but unaccompanied by her husband.

In other hands, this would be the set-up for farce or histronics. But Hadley has an assured, subtle hand in guiding her characters to arrive at realizations about themselves and those they love most. This is Alice Munro territory in the English countryside.

For example, the way two of the sisters return to the rectory this summer recreates that feeling of returning somewhere so well known that it is a surprise to be back in the reality of what is remembered:

Fran unlocked the front door and the sisters stood hesitating on the brink of the interior for a moment, preparing themselves, recognising what they had forgotten while they were away from it -- the under-earth smell of imprisoned air, something plaintive in the thin light of the hall with its grey and white tiled floor and thin old rugs faded to red-mud colour. There was always a moment of adjustment as the shabby, needy actuality of the place settled over their too-hopeful idea of it.

Or this:

... the past of the place enfolded them as soon as they arrived, they fell back inside its patterns and repetitions, absorbed into what had been done there before.

This year, that will be true but not completely, as other things do happen.

Fran's children make a grotesque discovery in an abandoned cottage that fascinates them. As their fascination continues, the realization of what they are doing is something they wrestle with. Kasim would love to make discoveries about Molly. Roland's Argentinian wife confides in a sister who thinks she is poised to make a discovery about herself. Discoveries about family letters are the source of friction and the siblings are unsure if it makes sense to sell the property, if they should sell the property or, for one, if they want the property sold because the money would come in awfully handy.

The climax of the story and its resolutions feel real and right. Being able to enjoy a novel and say, "Oh yes, that's as it should be" was my reading experience here. There was even a To the Lighthouse moment that the tone of the work seemed to call for; to see it occur brought a small sigh of reading happiness.



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

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sunday Sentence: The Portable Veblen

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

She formed this estimation in faith that it would be so, because that was what she wanted, a family at ease, a family free from the heat of a central beast, traveling through vents to cook you in every room.

-- Elizabeth McKenzie, The Portable Veblen

Monday, January 18, 2016

Interim #SundaySentence: The Rev. Dr. William Barber

It's not yet Sunday Sentence time, but I came across this today in the Rev. Dr. William Barber's The Third Reconstruction (January 2016, Beacon Press) had had to share:

"We'll be back shortly. We've got to go and hope somebody."

Bringing hope, not help as he once thought she meant, Rev. Barber writes of his grandmother's saying when going out the door with food for others. He notes, she knew faith and works come as one. Something to remember on this day to honor Dr. King.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sunday Sentence: 'Undermajordomo Minor'

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

There is an instance of import when one experiences the conception of love, he realized. It was though you had been waiting for it all along; as if you'd known it was approaching, and so when it arrives you reach out to greet it with an innate familiarity.

-- Patrick deWitt, Undermajordomo Minor