It’s a bold concept: take one of the most famous photographs in U.S. history – Migrant Mother, the photo that defined the Great Depression – and reima...moreIt’s a bold concept: take one of the most famous photographs in U.S. history – Migrant Mother, the photo that defined the Great Depression – and reimagine the story of the subject, Florence Owens Thompson (called Mary Coin) and the photographer, Dorothea Lange (dubbed Vera Dare).
Whenever an author deals with “faction”, the reader has a decision to make: view it from the prism of history or view it as a fictional creation of the author. I chose the latter. The skeleton facts are all there: the 32-year-old mother with six (or is it seven?) young children whose spirit remains strong even while the family is suffering hunger pains…and the photographer who wrestles with her ambition while making a different decision about her own two children. Add in a completely fictional character, Walker – a professor of cultural history who has his own reasons for pursuing his interest in this story – and you have three intriguing perspectives of the times.
This type of concept could easily have fallen into hagiography, but it doesn’t. Marisa Silver does a great job of recreating the era and sketching her characters with enough attributes – both good and bad – to make them come alive.
And then she goes one step further to ask a vital question: when you see a photograph like Migrant Mother, do you look or do you truly see? How far does any photo go to capture the life of the subject rather than just a frozen moment in time? Are we all inadvertent historians? As Walker reflects: “It is the human fallacy to believe that we discover any single thing. It is only that we are slow to learn how to see what is in front of us.”
Marisa Silver has written a fine novel, beautifully weaving imagination with historical fact. Her questions are solid: “Out of the billions o objects that were tossed into the trash bin of time, why did this one survive?” The answer tells us a lot about ourselves.
Eric Kennedy – nee Erik Schroder – needs a life he can revise. In ways, he embodies The American Tragedy written by Dreiser over a century ago; he has...moreEric Kennedy – nee Erik Schroder – needs a life he can revise. In ways, he embodies The American Tragedy written by Dreiser over a century ago; he has come to the land of opportunity and reinvention to find a new self.
In so many ways, Erik is a product of wherever he is in time. Born in divided East Berlin, he experienced first-hand the desperation that comes from a physical division. Now, years later, he finds himself in the midst of an acrimonious custody battle for the one person he truly loves: his six-year-old daughter, Meadow. The problem – or one of the problems – is that in the interim, Erik has reinvented himself. He took on the identity of a distant Kennedy cousin (yes, THOSE Kennedys!) to apply to a prestigious camp and later, to earn a Pell Grant that allowed him to gain access to a college education.
It is here – and only here – that the novel slips into inauthenticity. It is difficult to accept that Eric could so seamlessly change identities, even in 1984. He manages to keep his father from visiting him at college and lies to his wife Laura without any detection.
The beauty of this book is that as readers, we slide over that obstacle and accept Eric Kennedy, who is – to put it mildly – an unreliable narrator. His first-person account of the unplanned kidnapping of his daughter is recounted from the start in epistolary form to Laura, while he is in the correctional facility. As readers, we know how this journey will end from the start.
Yet there is so much to keep us going. Amity Gaige deal with heartfelt and complex issues: what happens when powerful parental love crosses the line? Can anyone truly reinvent himself or does the dissonance produce a fragmented identity? Is it possible for a deeply flawed person who hurts those who love him still be a “good” person? What makes a “good” person anyway?
Schroder should not be a sympathetic character. As readers, we quickly see the holes in his reasoning and understand how he is placing his daughter in perilous situations – both physically and emotionally. Yet Amity Gaige is a fine writer and somehow, we end up empathizing with Schroder – not an easy feat to accomplish. I should add that there are several footnotes in the text, starting out as an academic exploration into the theories of silence and gradually revealing more and more about him.
I started this review torn between 4 and 5 stars; upon completing it, it is apparent to me that this is, indeed, a 5 star book. Those who enjoyed Bonnie Nadzam’s book, Lamb – another book about troubled characters and human emotions that drive us to disturbing extremes – will particularly like this book.
"Success is measured in different ways. The success of the harvest. For some, the success of harvesting souls."
This sweepingly ambitious novel by Jose...more"Success is measured in different ways. The success of the harvest. For some, the success of harvesting souls."
This sweepingly ambitious novel by Joseph Boyden – a 500 page epic – focuses strongly on all these successes as well as failures in the early beginnings of Canada, when the Huron, the Iroquois as the Jesuit missionaries clashed together. It’s narrated by three characters: the well-respected Huron warrior Bird, the Iroquois girl Snow Falls, whom he claims as his daughter after slaying her true family, and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary whose faith defines his very existence.
It is evident that Joseph Boyden did exhaustive work to unearth this story of 17th century Canada. It rings of authenticity, from the description of the missionaries (called “crows” because of the way they are perceived to hop around and peck at the dead or dying… the oki, or soul, that resides within each human, animal and thing…the rules of battle between the Huron and the Iroquois…the meticulous creation of the wampum belt…and so much more.
The cultural barriers between the Huron and Iroquois and the Christians are both dark and brutal and enlightening. Torture, to the Christians, was a barbarian act used to punish and demean. The Huron and the Iroquois used another word for torture: they called it “caressing”, and its purpose was to honor their captured and to celebrate a strong spirit that a courageous enemy might possess. Mr. Boyden goes into great detail about the torturing rituals and while the scenes are definitely cringe-worthy, they heightened my understanding enormously.
But let’s get back to the start of this review: the measurement of success. That measurement left me conflicted for many days now, contemplating how to measure a book such as the one Joseph Boyden wrote.
From a literary standpoint? There are many passages that are six-star brilliant. The opening, in which he twins his characters with animals (I wasn’t quite sure if I were reading about a human or an animal) was beautifully crafted. Descriptions of the inadvertent harm caused by the Jesuits – upsetting a balance generations in the making, and shifting from a more mystical view of the world to one in which humans crave more and more control are stunningly portrayed.
Yet there are also times when the prose falls down, or doesn’t strive nearly hard enough. As the story becomes more of an adventurous telling, I missed finding out more about the interior lives of the characters. Yes, Christophe is faith-filled and resilient, but what in his past made him so? Is he ever troubled by the beginnings of doubt? And yes, Snow Falls is a wonderfully rebellious character, but how is it possible for her to balance her growing daughterly love with the knowledge of her family’s massacre? Some of the prose appears out of place, as when Bird turns to his sidekick Fox and explodes, “Tell me again why I thought bringing them among us was a good idea?”
So over and over I asked myself: what determines a 5-star book? Is it a book that educates us or morally enlightens us? Is it a book that grabs us by the collar and won’t let go until we breathlessly turn the last page? Is it a book that changes our way of thinking and remains in our minds, long after it’s been read? Or is it a book that is defined by consistently sterling prose and authentic characters?
The best answer is “all of the above.” Those are the books that end up as classics and I don’t think Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda is quite there. But days later, I can’t get the book and its contents out of my mind. It may be flawed for this reader, but I’m giving it 5 stars. There’s too much that is good about it to give anything less. (less)
Blood Kin is a slim yet pithy book, a book that reads like a fable with characters who are identified by their function only: the President, his portr...moreBlood Kin is a slim yet pithy book, a book that reads like a fable with characters who are identified by their function only: the President, his portrait artist, his chef, and his barber. In a nameless country, at a nameless time, a president is overthrown by a military coup, and three men who are considered near to him are abruptly taken hostage and removed to his summer place...along with the portrait artist's very pregnant wife.
Chapter by chapter, we get into the head of each of these characters and begin to gain an understanding of their own ruthlessness and ambition. The master chef, for example, muses over the captive abalone -- the last ingredient in his paella -- musing, "If they sensed me coming they contracted like a heart muscle and were wasted." The portraitist considers, "I was ruthless about detail, and documented each new wrinkle or discoloration or sausage spot..." And the barber recalls, "This was the moment I waited for each day: with a brisk twist of my hands, I could have snapped his neck, slit his throat with a knife flick, but I did neither..."
The men seamlessly take their place in the new regime; the portraitist says, "Every person I see looks vaguely familiar" and is answered by, "In a strange place, ,your brain does things like that. Seeks out familiarity. A survival tactic." Here comes another one, just like the other one -- the new Commander, indeed, takes over where the old President left off, including using the very people that were past intimates.
Somewhere a little over half way through, three new characters are introduced: the chef's daughter, the portraitist's dissatisfied wife, and the barber's dead brother's fiancee. The reader knows something of them from the first part, but the story becomes increasingly fleshed out when viewed from their perspectives.
All the cut-throat violence is conducted off stage; the reader only has a sense of what is happening in the collapsing country. But the characters are vivid and powerful, the writing is luscious, and the hint of connection or even collusion is tense and threatening. This debut novel -- really, not much more than a novella -- establishes Ceridwen Dovey as a writer to watch.(less)
If Fire And Forget were being reviewed for content only, it would merit 10 stars. The bravery of these men and women extends beyond placing themselves...moreIf Fire And Forget were being reviewed for content only, it would merit 10 stars. The bravery of these men and women extends beyond placing themselves in harm’s way to confronting terrible and hard-won truths…about themselves, their private battles, their basest instincts, their buried dreams.
As Jacob Siegel writes in the very first story: “War stories were almost never about war unless they’re told by someone who was never there.” And indeed, the most successful of these stories focus not so much on war, but on the aftermath of war and what it does to the psyche.
Take the story Redeployment by Phil Klay, a Marine Corps veteran. It starts, “We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose and we called it “Operation Scooby.” Or New Me, by infantryman Andrew Slater: “I joined the Army after my girlfriend Renee drowned because I felt that some people in my hometown would be unable to not blame me.” Or Tips for a Smooth Transition by military spouse Siobhan Fallon, who captivated me with her book, “You Know When The Men Are Gone”: “A week after his return from Afghanistan, they are already on a plane to Hawaii. This trip is a surprise anniversary gift, and Evie is a girl who hates surprises.”
This is prose that is honest and raw and gritty and haunting. One person’s story becomes every veteran’s story. And the story goes something like this: at the prime of your life, you’re deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan where IEDs are ubiquitous, life is trivialized, and you – or a close friend -- can be blown to smithereens in a heartbeat. After being on adrenalin overload for months – years! – you’re suddenly listening to Muzak piped in at your local mall far away from the violence and terror.
Whether it’s exploring the fishing trip of a 21-year-old boy who has “already been denied in so many ways – cuckolded, mutilated”, showcasing the limited choices of an infantry veteran who can’t find a meaningful job in a recessionary America, or zeroing in on an act of violence against the favorite rooster of a little girl, these stories unflinchingly take on the war that everyone wants to forget. Some stories are stronger than others, which accounts for the 4-star rating, but each story is poignant and powerful in its own unique way.
One might suspect that a book written about a grotesquely obese academic and a coming-of-age teenager would fall into the “been there, done that” cate...moreOne might suspect that a book written about a grotesquely obese academic and a coming-of-age teenager would fall into the “been there, done that” category or at the very least,be reductive in its approach to its characters.
HEFT avoids those pitfalls. The key characters – Arthur Opp, the reclusive and obese professor who has not left his home in over a decade and Kel Keller, the son of the student that charmed Arthur many years ago, are quirky, engaging, and so human they will touch your heart.
Arthur’s epistolary confessional comes first: “My house has grown so familiar to me that I don’t see it…I roam from room to room, a ghost, a large redfaced ghost.” He is hyper-aware of his abnormalcy and doesn’t ask for our compassion, although we cannot help but give it to him. Through the use of the ampersand (&) instead of “and”, Ms. Moore displays a character who is conserving energy. When his former student, Charlene, a troubled and not very attractive woman reaches out to him after two decades, revealing the existence of her athletically-gifted son, Arthur Opp is compelled to take action. He hires a slight housekeeper named Yolanda, a pregnant and feisty 19-year-old, who is his first connection to the outside world. Her character, too, is beautifully developed.
Juxtaposed with this narrative is the story of Kel Keller, Charlene’s handsome and popular son, who is navigating the pitfalls of adolescence along with problems no teenager should have to bear – the alcoholism and deterioration of his mother. As the situation deteriorates, Kel becomes “everybody’s son”, a boy belonging to everyone and no one, least of all himself.
The book presents optimism and hope for the outsider without ever falling into the YA genre. These two unlikely heroes are complex enough to step off the pages and will have readers rooting for them against all odds. (less)
At one point in this novel, set at the renowned writing school in Bonneville, Miranda – the inscrutable and aloof poet and professor – assesses the po...moreAt one point in this novel, set at the renowned writing school in Bonneville, Miranda – the inscrutable and aloof poet and professor – assesses the poetry of her star student Roman in this way: “If you want me to be honest, you’re quite talented. There’s a great deal of power in your work. But there’s something hidden about the poems. They draw attention and give nothing back.”
By the end of All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, I felt the same way about Lan Samantha Chang’s novel.
In many ways, it reads like a fable. There is, at its core a triangle. There’s Miranda (no accident, I think, that Miranda’s name is the same as Duke Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest – a sheltered and beautiful woman who becomes emotionally entwined with the fates of the seekers). There’s Roman, a handsome, charismatic, talented student and lastly, there’s Bernard – his introspective, socially crippled friend who worships Miranda from an emotional distance.
The book succeeds when it explores the attractiveness and destructive power of art. Roman’s star peaks early; Bernard laboriously pursues his own perhaps brighter star, yet ultimately, there are personal costs that must be borne by both. Ms. Chang is in her element as she turns her novelist’s eye on the rewards and costs of this pursuit of literary excellence and literary fame.
Where she doesn’t succeed – in my opinion – is to develop fully fleshed characters. She has us believe that Miranda – a talented and married poet who wields absolute power in her classroom and goes to great lengths to remain elusive – suddenly is willing to throw over her career and her carefully-wrought stability for Roman. And why? Roman is portrayed as a handsome, callow, talented student who is, at the very least, careless with his emotional conquests and at the very most, unnecessarily cruel. He is her student and half her age. While things like that happen all the time, nothing in Miranda’s background seems to suggest she would be susceptible to a love affair with Roman.
Roman is, ultimately, unlikeable. And while I have a high tolerance for unlikeable characters, I need to understand why I don’t like him. Why are so many attracted to him? His great looks only go so far. There has to be something more – some charisma, some inherent charm – that I can’t glean in him. Why would he attract such loyalty in Miranda, who falls quickly from a self-sufficient woman to a moth around his flame, and Bernard, to whom he is less than kind.
In the end, I felt attracted to the themes of All Is Forgotten, but I suspect it will be quickly forgotten. I wanted more dimension. (less)