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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'

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
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