A lovely, empathetic novel set in Depression-era Oklahoma and California. With a gently lyrical style, Karen Halvorsen Schreck takes us along the jourA lovely, empathetic novel set in Depression-era Oklahoma and California. With a gently lyrical style, Karen Halvorsen Schreck takes us along the journey of healing, redemption, and self-discovery of a young widow, Ruth, as she finds her way in an America coated with dust and fear.
Ruth makes her way to a university in southern California, her new life provided for by the grace of a full scholarship at a time when higher education for women usually a gateway into marriage. For Ruth, it is a gateway to the reality that others may face difficulties at least as devastating as her own grief. Schreck opens her character and her readers to the terrible history of repatriation of Mexican nationals and in this story, the very present reality of our current political culture is thrown into heartrending relief. We project the same irrational fear and anger against "the other" today as Ruth's America did eighty years ago.
A delightful, illuminating read. My thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of Broken Ground for review. ...more
Edna O'Brien's novels were once censored in her native Ireland. Her graphic depictions of sex, the scandalous nature of her subject matter—the violentEdna O'Brien's novels were once censored in her native Ireland. Her graphic depictions of sex, the scandalous nature of her subject matter—the violent, shameful, behind-closed-doors reality of Irish rural and religious life—have shocked authorities and citizens alike since her fiction debut, The Country Girls in 1960. Now eighty-five, this extraordinary writer and philosopher is still challenging our notions of innocence and guilt, of sex and desire, of politics and prose. The Little Red Chairs, her first novel in ten years, is classic O'Brien: terrible and beautiful; haunting, unsentimental and transcendent.
There has always been something otherworldly, a little faerie tale-ish, about O'Brien's writing—a blend of lilting lyricism and fabulist style—that often distances the reader from the immediacy of the tragic worlds she portrays, like a layer of moss softening the blows from the hammerhead of her pen. In this instance she places us, as she often does, in the petty intimacy of an Irish village, a sodden, lush, secret place that both shelters and punishes its inhabitants with religion and tradition and family.
Fidelma is married to a man more than twenty years her senior and, as her husband becomes an old man in the grips of early dementia, she is choked by regret and loneliness. Longing for both children and passion, Fidelma wanders alone through the green fields and forests outside the western Ireland village of Cloonoila, fighting her body's yearnings. Thus, she is an easy mark for the town's newest resident, the mysterious Vladimir Dragan, a self-proclaimed healer and sex therapist. Vlad, with his long white hair, his black cloak and white gloves, and thick, seductive accent, seems a throwback to a Gothic central European antihero. O'Brien shows us that Fidelma is not the only Cloonoila resident to be caught in Dr. Dragan's spell: several nearly-comedic encounters, including the massage given to Sister Bonaventure, elevate Vlad to near-mystical regard.
Then Fidelma becomes pregnant and the novel's murky undertone takes a desperate, wretched turn. Let this serve as a trigger warning for those who cannot read graphic violence, particularly against women (a warning which should accompany nearly any O'Brien novel). Doctor Vlad is in fact a Serbian warlord known as “the beast of Bosnia,” accused of torture and genocide against Bosnian Croats and Muslims. The novel leaves the seemingly safe surrounds of rural Ireland and crash-lands in London, where Fidelma serves as a window into the world of exploited migrant workers. We travel with her into the Kent countryside, in search of refuge and redemption, and finally to The Hague and a war crimes tribunal, in search of justice.
Based on the hunt for the leader of the Serb Republic in Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic, who was captured in 2008 after thirteen years in hiding, The Little Red Chairs—like Lidia Yuknavitch's 2015 The Small Back of Children—shows us the ancillary victims of war, the lives destroyed beyond the battlefields. She also explores themes of guilt and complicity, our unwitting acceptance of others' lies because we are so desperate to ignore our own truths. O'Brien smashes once again this notion of a charming Ireland knitted together by legend and rain with a hammer of reality ripped from headlines. Fidelma—at first a hapless victim—becomes a witness to others' suffering, as O'Brien herself has often done as a writer, finding redemption and courage in the raw humanity around her.
Gorgeously written, in bold prose that breaks all rules of conventional fiction writing, O'Brien's seventeenth novel shows a writer, now in her ninth decade, at her most fierce and powerful. I am in awe.
"The dead don't haunt the living. The living haunt themselves."
In the tradition of David Vann, Daniel Woodrell, Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy, Wil"The dead don't haunt the living. The living haunt themselves."
In the tradition of David Vann, Daniel Woodrell, Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy, William Giraldi writes of evil things set in terrible, beautiful landscapes where secrets are easy to hide and humanity rots in cellars and forests or is beset upon by wild animals that feast on the carrion of our nightmares.
Hold the Dark is a sort of Revenant for the modern age, a tale of beasts and hunting, snow and corrupt hearts. It did not surprise me to learn this 2014 novel was quickly optioned and the film is currently in production. The setting is a vibrant, wretched character in its own right, the pacing breathless, plot idiosyncratic, characters iconic.
The premise starts, takes a radical shift to the left, and never entirely returns, but it is this: In a remote village in the Alaskan wilds, wolves are stealing children. Medora Slone, a mother of one of the stolen, calls upon world-renowned wolf expert Russell Core to find her child's killer. What Core, who at sixty is hollowed out by his own tragedies, finds waiting for him in Keelut sets off a search through Alaskan backcountry that is painted in a nightmare of black and white and blood all over. Oddly, Core's character shifts into the shadows; he is replaced on center stage by Vernon Slone, Medora's husband, returned from a war in a distant desert to find his wife missing and his only child dead.
There are so many trigger warnings to this novel that you really should just stay away if violence troubles you as a reader. Shades of Deliverance, of Blood Meridian—you get the picture. Sadly, what you won't get by avoiding this novel is Giraldi's taut, shimmering prose. His language is hypnotic and mythic and worth the price of a cruel and dreadful story. Good luck. ...more
The thing is, I pantsed my first novel entirely. I survived, the novel sold, it's doing well, I'm proud of the whole endeavor. But I would never (neveThe thing is, I pantsed my first novel entirely. I survived, the novel sold, it's doing well, I'm proud of the whole endeavor. But I would never (never say never) write a novel that way again.
Yet, I can't quite get my head around stitching together an outline in which each scene is planned, the beginning, middle, end a fixed thing, predetermined by process. I know now that each book is its own creature, that the narrative itself determines the process, more than the writer. I will always be a right-brained writer, who lets the spark of creativity and the loosey-goosey nature of intuition guide her hand.
Yet, in teaching writing, I witness the flailing of my students, watch (read, rather) as their stories slip off the rails and tumble into a morass of weak conflict, forgotten goals, and confused POVs. And in helping them rein in their narratives, I recognized the weaknesses in my own.
K.M. Weiland's excellent guide to the novel outline isn't prescriptive. It offers a myriad of ways to approach the organization of thoughts into something that will make it easier for the writer to let her creative juices flow freely. She presents an excellent, really impossible-to-argue-with case for allowing process into the flow.
I used this book recently, in tandem with the outline system I most prefer (Michael Hague's Three Act, Six State Plot Structure in a workshop with my novels-in-progress group and I could just hear the gears clicking into place. Tomorrow we will reconvene and they will present their outlines-in-progress. I can't wait to see how they've grown and what I will learn from them.
Highly recommended, writers, even for-perhaps most particularly for-the die-hard pantser. ...more
Highlights are the exquisite stories by Benjamin Hale, Anne-Laure Zevi, Jensen Beach; Mary Ruefle's breathtaking poetry; and the fascinating interviewHighlights are the exquisite stories by Benjamin Hale, Anne-Laure Zevi, Jensen Beach; Mary Ruefle's breathtaking poetry; and the fascinating interviews with Luc Sante and Robert Caro. So very happy to see the end of The Throwback Special. Now I no longer have to fight the urge to throw my PR at the wall. ...more
A thoroughly engaging read. I felt I'd just had several coffee dates with Gloria, that perhaps I was a reporter or ghost writer, listening to her spilA thoroughly engaging read. I felt I'd just had several coffee dates with Gloria, that perhaps I was a reporter or ghost writer, listening to her spilling her thoughts about her life, the events and people that shaped her personal and political trajectory, and there I was with my triple Americano, scribbling furiously away, trying to capture her words and my thoughts.
Reading My Life on the Road I came away with a deeper understanding of this cultural icon, the woman who is most associated with late 20th century feminism in the United States. But catching someone in their twilight years, who has had nine decades to reflect on and make peace with their place in the world, means that things are polished and tenderly elegiac. I now want to return to her earlier memoirs, to see what grit and awkwardness were present in a younger, less peaceful social justice warrior.
Steinem cleverly frames this memoir with her travels—this allows for tight control of the narrative, a kaleidoscope that shifts into the personal in measured ways. She is beautifully open about her relationship with her parents and her early years; safe territory now that they are decades passed. In addition to the fascinating and achingly raw portrayal of her peripatetic father, the portraits Steinem draws of her close friends and fellow activists Florynce Kelly and Wilma Mankiller are the book's highlights. I loved that she gave so much space and energy to the women who shaped her philosophy and psyche, but because of her itinerant path, I wondered about her heart, her love. She mentions relationships in passing and I respect that a rehash of her romantic life may not have interested her as a writer, but I wanted at least some sense of how she approached physical and emotional solitude.
The narrative is ranging collection of anecdotes, beautifully written and fascinating, and true to the nature of the book, brief stops on the road of this singular life. Steinem has had some uncomfortable moments recently, making tone deaf remarks about the role of race in feminism, seeming not to recognize how feminism without intersectionality is incomplete and grossly unjust. She addresses some of her missteps here, just opening the door to a broader discussion of the changing nature of activism and how she sees feminism playing out in the 21 century. She is content in her second wave. And perhaps at 81, she's earned the right to be. I honor and respect how she has simply never given up, how her warmth and accessibility have drawn in women and men of all identities, toward the goals of women's right to reproductive control, violence against women, and civil rights.
A rewarding read, and I suggest a must-read for those who think feminism is no longer relevant. It is now, more than ever, a cause for all who care about human rights. It's vital to know how we got here. ...more
When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them. Please, give them a voice. Ruth Sepetys, Salt to the Sea
Sepetys, an authoWhen the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them. Please, give them a voice. Ruth Sepetys, Salt to the Sea
Sepetys, an author new to me, offers up four distinct voices in this novel that brings to light a little-known maritime disaster near the end of World War II: the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945.
As the Russian army advanced across the Baltics, thousands of refugees throughout northeastern Europe piled into German ports, seeking passage on a ship bound for anywhere but here. We see the winter overland journey of Joana, a Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a damaged and vulnerable Polish girl; Florian, a Prussian with a letter of safe passage from a high-ranking Nazi official. And waiting in port is Alfred, a skittish, off-kilter German sailor. The chapters alternate from one character to the next in short, intense bursts of thought and action.
Sepetys maintains a feverish tension as Joana, Florian, Emilia and a cast of secondary characters make their way across the frozen Prussian landscape toward the German port of Gotenhafen, where the Wilhelm Gustloff awaits–a ship built for 1300 passengers that eventually casts off with over 10,000 souls aboard. Each of the three carries secrets that are artfully revealed in setting and circumstance. Once in Gotenhafen, the scope of the humanitarian disaster that was Germany in 1945 is revealed in cinematic fashion, culminating in jaw-grinding scenes of the Wilhelm Gustloff's final hours.
I was surprised to learn after finishing this lovely, sorrowful novel that it is categorized as Young Adult. Is it because these characters are still in their teens? I forgot this completely as I read, for these young people endure hardships with a grace and defiance that surpasses chronological age, and Ms. Sepetys gives them a full range of responses and depth of character that belies their youth. Is it because the chapters are short? Whatever. I encourage you to set aside category assumptions. This novel can certainly be read and felt deeply by a mature adolescent—but this adult felt no lack of narrative complexity and certainly had no idea she wasn't, perhaps, the intended audience.
This is a finely-crafted, painstakingly-researched work of historical fiction that opens the heart to an astonishing story as much as it brings to the intellect something new to consider about a war that seems so familiar. A war for which there are still so many stories yet to be told.
Mnemosyne, known as Memory, writes to an unseen, unmet Western journalist from her cell in Zimbabwe's notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. SheMnemosyne, known as Memory, writes to an unseen, unmet Western journalist from her cell in Zimbabwe's notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. She has been sentenced to death for the murder of her childhood guardian, Lloyd–a white man to whom her parents handed her off in a diner when Memory was a young girl. Memory is an albino African, a condition that, even after she is treated for its physical pain, leaves deep scars in her psyche. Memory's attempts to define her identity and reason through a family and community that abandoned her lead her beyond Africa and into a redemptive life in Europe. But when she returns to Zimbabwe, disaster in the guise of a horrifying coincidence befalls her and she lands, unwittingly, on death row.
The premise is breathtaking, the execution less so. The epistolary narrative means relying on the memory (a compelling and well-rendered theme) of an unreliable narrator. Much of the first half is devoted to describing daily life in this women's prison, which is worthy of its own novel, but it does crowd out Memory's memories of her childhood and it become difficult to know quite where to focus one's attention. The second half of the novel, where Memory brings the reader into her life after she is sold to Lloyd, is rushed and so many of the events inexplicable and tangential.
Gappah's writing is gorgeous–strong and clear with full-color descriptions and a vivid sensuality that brings every setting, every character to life. The narrative is well-paced and the foreshadowing of deeper, darker secrets—the essential mystery of Memory's relationship with Lloyd and her arrest and conviction—propel the reader forward. The plot is distracted and unsatisfying, but this is still a worthy read for its insights into current Zimbabwe and its wonderfully rendered female characters....more
Stories thrive in the liminal state where perception meets evidence. This is the thematic heart of Nayomi Munaweera's novel What Lies Between Us; it iStories thrive in the liminal state where perception meets evidence. This is the thematic heart of Nayomi Munaweera's novel What Lies Between Us; it is the very essence of a seemingly-unremarkable title. Between us lies the truth of our personal narrative and the truth of others' perceptions of us. Between us are the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we are told by others.
Ganga is a young girl raised in 1980s Sri Lanka, an island nation as lush with culture and history as it is with monsoon-soaked vegetation, the only child of an educated, middle-class father and a beautiful but poor mother. As an adult living in the United States, she becomes—as we learn in the book's opening pages—the perpetrator of a most unspeakable crime. We don't learn the specifics of the crime until the end of the book, but we know that as a mother, she has failed. The book's narrative shows us how Ganga herself was failed as a child.
What Lies Between Us is framed by the present—the narrator in prison–a oft-used trope (most recently in Petina Gappah's The Book of Memory, set in contemporary Zimbabwe, but to a lesser resonance). In between is the recounting of a life, a shaping of past circumstances that speak to Ganga's the current devastation. “This is a history of what we do to one another. This is the story of what it means to be both a child of a mother and a child of history.”
Ganga's personal history is one of external privilege and affluence mixed with a distant, cold father and a volatile mother. After a series of tragedies that occur when Ganga is a pre-teen, she and her mother immigrate to the Bay Area. Ganga transitions from a sheltered Sri Lankan child to a more savvy, but reserved American woman who devotes herself to her career as a nurse, until she meets the love of her life, Daniel. What seems like an idyllic union becomes enhanced by the arrival of their daughter, Bodhi Anne. And yet it is in the face of this cherished innocence that Ganga's carefully constructed world breaks apart.
They say that family is the place of safety. But sometimes this is the greatest lie; family is not sanctuary, it is not safety and succor. For some of us, it is the secret wound. Sooner or later we pay for the woundings of our ancestors. This was the truth for me and for my beautiful bright-faced child.
Nayomi Munaweera has crafted a lyrical, dramatic, intense narrative that flows beautifully, yet keeps the reader ever off-balance with unstable characters, shifting truths, and taut foreshadowing. She shows her characters no mercy, yet her grace and compassion are evident in the fullness with which she allows their stories to unfold.