Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

It’s hard to find the words to summarize this beautifully crafted novel.  It’s a harrowing story, a heart-breaking story, a story that makes one shake their head to tamper down the bubbling and repeating question of Why? Why? Why?  Even though it’s fiction – I still wanted to be able to change the events, to reduce the tragedy, to save well-drawn characters from senseless deaths.

But the tragedy has already occurred when the novel begins.  A boy wakes up, tokes from a bong and whispers to himself: “I’m okay. Everything’s okay.  Nothing’s happened.” But something harrowing has indeed happened.  We jump forward to watch as the lone survivor of a house fire takes off driving aimlessly without a driver’s license, belongings or an actual destination.  It’s only later that we learn that the house fire occurred the night before her daughter’s wedding.  Her daughter, her daughter’s fiancĂ©, her boyfriend and her ex-husband all perished in the fire.

Clegg is a magnificent story-teller.  In the beginning, I was frustrated with all the shifting voices and the dancing around the central action of the story. But as I continued reading, I marveled at how the pieces fit together and came to completely trust Clegg for the scattershot way he scripted the novel.  I was enthralled by the way the plot moved both forwards and backwards.  The pacing of the book is hard to truly capture. There isn’t a great deal of forward movement for each character. Instead we get shifting voices filling us in on vital elements of the back story.  Months pass quickly for certain characters –June, Lydia—because they are stuck in grief and the events of their lives have completely slowed down.  Eventually the book culminates with a beautiful crescendo. The last voice to speak may surprise some but the book delivers a clear point: it isn’t always the people most connected to a tragedy who can explain it.

While reading I couldn’t help but think of the Christmas fire in Connecticut in which a woman lost her three daughters and her parents.  I also thought about the tremendous memoir Wave written by a woman who lost her parents, her husband and her children in the tsunami.  How can one possibly go on in the face of so much loss?  Clegg successfully captures this breaking wave of catastrophic grief with great authenticity.  It’s hard to grapple with such a large tragedy and yet the reader easily moves forward wanting to discover how each chapter can possibly end and how the entire story will wrap up.

I found myself ruminating over Bill Clegg’s ability to characterize people. For example, I stopped to cherish and linger over a father’s description of his son’s daughter-in-law.

“Who knows what draws people together? Lolly seemed unformed to us. Young. She was colorful and chatty, full of stories, but had few questions. She drew you in, but once you were there, you sensed she could vanish without warning.  She had a way of telling two stories at once, looking behind you when she spoke.  She seemed like someone who covered her bases, kept several balls in the air so she always knew she would have at least one in hand at the end of the day. She was clever, but not careful…”

Clegg’s writing is simple, and direct but also evocative and lyrical. At multiple points, I stopped to actually jot down his writing. For example, I took notes on the following passage in a June chapter: “To be given a glimpse now was a bitter miracle, a ghostly caress that left more regret than solace.” (pg. 203)

I know I will think about this haunting and lyrical novel for a long time.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Brewster by Mark Slouka

I can’t think of a single year more important in American history than 1968. The assassinations of MLK and Robert Kennedy, race riots, the Tet Offensive, African American athletes raising their fists from the podium at the Olympics. I wasn’t alive in 1968, but I happily sat through a college class titled American in the 1960s. I devoured the class readings.  I wrote my undergraduate history thesis about the culture of the 1960s. I’ve retraced the places in DC that were burned to the ground during the 1968 riots. I’ve been fascinated with trying to understand this distinct time period in American history for the last eleven years.

So its no surprise I found Mark Slouka’s novel Brewster fascinating.  It is set in Brewster NY in the year of 1968.  The story is a coming age story, a story of friendship, a tragedy. But it is also a vivid depiction of life in America in 1968.

Slouka is masterful at creating the setting.  Jon Mosher, the protagonist, carries around a picture of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand in Mexico City.  He explains:
            “I knew they were fucked. It didn’t matter. If anything, it made it better. They’d
done it, they said, for all the people nobody said a prayer for.”

But Jon is aware of the universe he lives in. 
“We could change the world, rearrange the world, but that’s not how it felt, ever. Not in Brewster. How it felt was like somebody twice as strong as you had their hand around your throat. You could choke or you could fight.”

Jon and Ray are two boys who hate Brewster and have good reason to want to escape their wintery small town, a world not yet opened up by the currents of the late 1960s (“Woodstock may have been just across the river, but Brewster was a different world).  Jon’s parents are Jewish immigrants who fled Germany and have been rebroken by the death of their first-born son in a household accident that Jon can barely remember. They have abandoned Jon emotionally in the wake of his older brother’s death.  Jon has no memories of a normal family life.  Growing up in a cold quiet house where his mother opens his brother’s curtains daily he feels as if he is the one who has died and nobody wanted to admit it.

Ray’s mother left when he was nine.  His father, a World War II veteran and ex-cop collected Nazi fingers and spends drunken nights breaking glasses.  He leaves Ray to care for his baby half brother. 

Jon and Ray are two individuals who would seem strange friends in a suburban high school: the successful student and the loner always in trouble for fighting.  And yet, the boys are drawn together by their deep desires to escape the families they have been born into.

Jon is frozen by his cold home life and his staid hometown where asking questions in classrooms renders one a troublemaker.  But he is opened up by two experiences: joining the track team and befriending Ray. It is these two experiences that help him to survive.  Jon explains of the track team: “We had one thing in common, at leas the runners did: we believed in time, pledged allegiance to it—one nation, utterly fair, under the second-hand god of Falvo’s watch.”  Ray comes to stay at Jon’s house, and his parents open up to Ray in ways they do not to Jon.  Jon and Ray, stay up late listening to records and talking and it is the closest to having a brother Jon ever gets.

And then Karen arrives and both boys fall in love with her.  But this isn’t the real conflict in the story.   The real problem is Ray’s abusive father who becomes increasingly more violent. Ray and Jon and Karen and their friend Frank devise a plan to escape for the summer and take a trip.  It is an escape clause devised by seventeen year olds who feel they have no other options.  Slouka writes: “Where do you go? When you’re seventeen? When there’s nowhere to go.” This question becomes further complicated by the fact that Ray’s baby brother Gene is returned to their father’s care.

Slouka’s storytelling is masterful.  All of the elements lead us to a terrifying climax, that shows exactly what happens to seventeen year olds with nowhere to go. A reader might ponder: why don’t these young people ask adults they know for help? But it’s clear that Ray and Jon have few adults they can trust and rely on.

I deeply enjoyed this story and it will stay with me for quite a while.  And I will especially treasure the way he captures the specific zeitgeist of 1968.  Jon explains: “

“People love to tell you afterward how they saw this and saw that. We didn’t see a thing. We heard about Vietnam, we heard about Newark, Detroit, other things—but it was like listening in on a party line: You’d hear voices talking over each other, a man chuckling over a joke, a sound like somebody crying—and then Rowan and Martin would yell ‘SOCK IT TO ME!’ and that woman on the show would get knocked in the head with a giant hammer.

The closer something is, the louder it sounds; hold a baseball to your nose, it’s big as the earth. It takes time for things to find their distance. We misheard pretty much everything, sang words for years no one had ever written. We confused the large an the small, what mattered, what didn’t. There’s somethin’ happenin’ here, Stephen Stills sang and we all sang along, a bunch of blind men staring off in a dozen directions, waving our canes line batons.”

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Home Leave by Brittani Sonnenberg

Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that - but you are the only you.” – Neil Gaiman

As I read Home Leave, the above Gaiman’s quote echoed through my head incessantly (until I eventually googled it to find the exact right wording).  Home Leave is a perfect example of an author telling a story only she can tell.  Sonnenberg’s own childhood growing up on three continents allowed her to convincingly write about an American family’s expatriate life. Her own experiences give her characters an authenticity that grounds the story.

I read about Sonnenberg and review of Home Leave before actually reading the book, so I was aware that the main storyline tracked Sonnenberg’s own experiences. The novel is about an American couple raising their two daughters abroad.  Tragedy strikes and the novel probes: would this tragedy have occurred if the family was living somewhere else?  Sonnenberg, grew up outside the US and suffered the death of her sister.  She initially started writing a memoir but found fiction to be a better vehicle for making sense of her own history. While Sonnenberg’s experiences ground the novel, it is her inventive narration that captured my interest.

The novel is told from various perspectives. The first narrator is the house at 1116 Arcadia Avenue, Elise Kriegstein (formerly Elise Ebert) childhood home. 1116 Arcadia Avenue is a unique narrator and her voice is quite distinct.  Even upon re-reading I marvel over the sentences:

“But I was so thrilled to see Elise that I didn’t dwell on her odd behavior, or on the fact that my insides felt like they had ten years earlier, during Vidalia’s only recorded earthquake.  Most of my friends, the older ones, can recall similar incidents of shakiness or decay and the depression that followed, knowin they were now officially over the hill.” 

It’s a clever construct to have a house reveal family secrets, and yet one that makes so much sense.  So much occurs within a family home, and so many stories lurk inside physical spaces.  A house with an aging matriarch would see and understand a family but also have its own unique lens outside of each family member.  1116 Arcadia Avenue reveals a great deal about the Ebert family, and her narration helps the reader to understand why Elise desired to leave Vidalia and her family history behind, and why she has been away for five years. She also slowly reveals additional details about the tragic events in Elise and Chris’s life.  1116 Arcadia also narrates Ada’s (Elise’s mother ) decline and mourns the loss of its complicated inhabitants. Later, Sonnenberg introduces the idea that deceased people can come back to life in the form of houses – an interesting idea that connects to other fanciful narrations in the story.

Next the reader journeys to a retirement community in Chariton, Indiana.  Chris Kriegstein’s parents are newly ensconced in this world, when they receive a phone call from a student creating a Chariton High Athletes: Where Are They Now feature for the school newspaper.  Chris was a basketball star at Chariton High School; his skills on the court catapulted him from his small town to the University of Georgia and eventually to a professional life that spanned countries and continents.  Chris Kriegstein’s parents – Joy and Frank-- have compelling voices. They sound like many aging seniors. They gave up their farm, they wish their son was closer, they don’t understand scanning, they try their best to understand the next generation’s choices. Joy believes her daughter “missed her train” when she broke off her engagement to a high school geometry teacher in 1975.  Frank has started tearing up quite a few times a day.  He takes it upon himself to respond to the high school newsletter which was factually inaccurate and writes a letter to the editor.  Ultimately Joy decides to write her own article too – about her single fifty year old daughter who “puts things where they belong.”  Overall, this chapter helps the reader to understand Chris’s unique family history while also seeing that storytelling is uniquely different based on who controls the pen.

Part two finally provides the perspective of Chris and Elise.  In Germany in 1981, Chris rides his bike to work each weekday, and Elise sleeps in while gestating their first daughter. Elise is contacted by a German family with a similar last name who is mourning their daughter and mother and is powered forward through a unique experience.  The new parents are then in India and Philadelphia.  Eight thousand miles apart from each other, each encounter a corpse and are deeply shaken. Both return home with important news – another baby and another home base.  We are introduced to the idea of the new child, before we suddenly learn of her death.

In some ways the structure of the novel is unsettling. In the beginning it was hard to figure out where the story was going.  It took a while to realize that part of the novel was being narrated by a ghost.  But I think the unsettling narration successfully helps the reader to better understand the experience of being an expatriate.  We are jostled and zoomed forward, we arrive places before we are ready to get there. We have to turn back to previous chapters to remind ourselves of specific details.  We are traversing different time periods and continents and thus we can truly understand what it means to live life in a different country.

In Part four, we see the aftermath – we get to see the experiences of the family through the eyes of the remaining daughter, and we get to feel her sense of displacement as well as her hunger for a sense of home.  We also get to see how Chris – the roving father—has been affected by his loss.  He dreads Leah’s wedding as it marks a further step away from the time when they were an intact party of four.

Sonnenberg has created unique characters with unique experiences and very specific lens on the world.  They felt deeply real to me – self-centered, flawed, broken, striving, human.  She has taken her own experiences and used them to create such an artful universe full of probing and lingering questions.  I highly recommend Home Leave and know I will read it again and likely glean even more meaning from its themes and stylistic choices.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

The "Unknown Americans" in this novel are Hispanic immigrants living in Delaware.  The novel mostly centers on Alma and Arturo Rivera and their daughter who suffered a brain injury in Mexico (spurring their journey to the US so she can attend a special school), and a neighbor teenager named Mayor Toro, whose family immigrated from Panama before he was born. But the voices of other Hispanic immigrants in the complex are interspersed at the end of each chapter as well.

Cristina Henriquez deftly weaves a lot of themes into this unfolding story.  Through the characters eyes, the reader experiences the dislocation and confusion of the immigrant experience (not knowing where to buy groceries, having to find new foods to subsist on, not being able to communicate on a public bus, struggling to figure out school enrollment, etc.).  The reader also sees how immigrant children often feel caught between two competing worlds. Henriquez also does a great job explaining how "legal" immigrants can easily be forced to become "illegal" immigrants when they lose the jobs that provided their initial sponsorship.

I learned a lot from reading this novel and I think it does a great job in engendering conversation about the immigrant experience.  I very quickly became immersed in the story and couldn't put the book down. Even now I can recall the unique stories of some of the tertiary stories (for example the young woman who moved at 18 to New York to become an actress). I ultimately found the story of what happened to Arturo deeply tragic and it made it hard for me to continue reading. I'm still trying to decide if I view his tragic story to be a realistic choice. Even though the ending upset me, I found this book to be a truly engaging story of resilience and love and a distinct part of the American experience. I could also imagine using this book as a discussion piece in a high school English class.

The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings

I started reading The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings on a day when I was feeling particularly glum.  You wouldn’t think reading about a grieving mother would be uplifting, but I closed this book feeling totally rejuvenated. Kaui Hart Hemmings created such vivid, real and memorable characters and I enjoyed learning their stories.

I was immediately by Sarah St. John’s unique voice and the Breckenridge setting.  I’ve never been to Breckenridge, and it's hard for me to imagine growing up in a resort town and yet Sarah’s narration helped to transport me and to consider her unique childhood.

The book begins with Sarah pretending she isn't a local. She’s “a woman from Idaho, on vacation with friends,” she’s a “newlywed from Indiana,” she’s “an unremarkable guest at the Village Hotel.” She’s not notable. She’s cloaked in anonymity; she’s an everywoman. She’s pretending.  We quickly learn that Sarah is a forty year old woman, who newly lost her only son. She’s returning to work, and to life.

Sarah had left Breckenridge as a young woman desiring to be a broadcast journalist. But her accidental pregnancy at twenty-one gave her reason to “whittle life down,” and return home to a smaller universe with less pressing and more immediate choices. Sarah’s son, Cully, gave her life a sense of meaning and she struggles to find meaning after his tragic death.  It was strange as a thirty year old woman to consider how appealing Sarah found it to return home at twenty-one. I don’t believe at that age I would have responded similarly; but from the vantage point of the future I was almost jealous of the choice she faced.  It’s so easy to look back and wish I had made different decisions. But even while dealing with the death of her son and her lodestar, Sarah St. John is resolute in not doing so.  Like many individuals, she is insecure and doubts that she could have been successful with her dreams even if she hadn’t gotten pregnant so young.

In one passage she recalls: “I remember something insignificant just then from college—leaving an interview and not knowing how to get back on the freeway.  It’s silly to think that I’ve forsaken an opportunity, silly to think that I could have been somebody when I couldn’t even find the freeway.  Diane Sawyer could have done it on mescaline, and there I was in a cul-de-sac asking a girl with a single dread popping out of her head like a cactus where to go.”

This is a clear example of Sarah’s humanity. She is flawed and discounts her talents.  As a woman scared to drive on highways, I could deeply relate to Sarah's reflection of her driving foibles; this passage deeply resonated with me.

In The Possibilities, the possibilities are varied.  Sarah faces life anew (with new options before her but a totally different world view) and soon has a surprising encounter with a friend of her son that opens her up to one specific possibility.  Sarah’s retired father, who shares in her grief and provides a great deal of the comedic relief in the novel, has his own possibilities to consider. And Sarah’s friend Suzanne faces life with the looming possibility of a divorce with her husband who she still loves. And there are other possibilities too for all the young people who come to Breckenridge delaying their adulthood.

In the end, it isn't clear how the story ends for Sarah and her motley crew of family. But the reader is left inspired.  Sarah thinks: “I wouldn't have chosen these things to take place, but now that they have, I can’t stop looking, fascinated by my life, his life, just plain life. I can’t wait to see what else happens.” It’s impossible to read such resilience without feeling personally buoyed.

Overall, I came to deeply cherish the characters in The Possibilities and to love the rich world Hart Hemmings created. I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

I loved the entire experience of this novel. The gorgeous picture on the cover, the almost five hundred pages packed with shifting story lines, Jacob’s use of language, the themes: first generation American life, Indian immigrant communities in random locales, loss of a family member, the endless grief of parents who have lost a child, being of two worlds, how one choice can alter a life.  Holding the heft of this novel in your hands, it is clear the time and creative energy and deep reflection that went into creating this engaging story.

I enjoyed this novel so much I started marking passages with post-it notes so I could easily find them later and ruminate further over the language and ideas.  So much of this engaging story is thought-provoking.  But it is also deeply real, incredibly well-composed and artful.

The story starts in Seattle in June of 1998. Amina Eapen is busy working as a wedding photographer when she receives a phone call from her mother revealing that her father has been conversing with his dead mother (who died twenty years before).  Amina’s mother doesn’t believe he is delusional, simply filled with weakness and devilish spirits.

The story shifts to India in 1979.  Amina is eleven. Her immediate family has journeyed to her father’s former hometown to visit with his mother and brother.  They bring American trinkets for the extended family, play cricket with their cousin, and watch their grandmother’s scheming, and their uncle’s bizarre night time behavior and then the visit is cut short. This creates a rift in the family and Amina’s uncle’s last words will soon be deeply prophetic.

The family interactions in this novel are deeply realistic.  At the center of the India drama is Thomas Eapen (Amina’s father), the brother who left, and Sunil, the brother who stayed behind and feels like a failure.  Ammachy, their mother, wants her first born son to return home and may be one of the few Indian mothers not to kvell over a successful brain surgeon son (she snaps: “Well no one asked you to become a brain surgeon”. His choice to be a brain surgeon makes it impossible for him to work in India which creates a tension between him and his mother and him and his wife).   She’s so caustic and particular and thus deeply authentic in the eyes of this reader. She tells her granddaughter she must be clever since she’s not pretty, she calls one of her grandsons a no-brains, she meddles endlessly and she refuses to accept that her son’s home is anywhere but the one she created for him. She also disparages Thomas’s wife for being too dark.

Back in Seattle (or the present day of the novel), Amina prepares to put her life on hold and return to New Mexico to help her parents. We learn all about her budding love affair with photography and the story behind the photograph that stalled her career as a budding photo journalist.
The novel shifts again to a time during Amina’s adolescence when her brother struggled with a unique medical malady. The novel does an artful job of showing how even a family helmed by a doctor can ignore signs of serious illness.

I connected deeply to Amina’s experience of taking care of her father as he fights cancer. Jacob, who lost her own father, writes about the experience of facing the perilous future so giftedly.  Simply sentences resonate deeply. For example, “It was getting harder not to spiral these days, to hear one thing and think of the next and the next,  until all that was left was a closet of her father’s sweaters and shoes” (397).  I was deeply moved by the scene that follows. Amina’s father asks her how she knows when to take a picture. And together they decide the reason he can’t get a good photograph of his wife is that “she’s a pretty woman who makes ugly faces” (398).

I also greatly enjoyed Amina’s romantic story line. She connects with a boy from her high school past – something that some would perceive as clichĂ©. But the relationship between Jamie and Amina is complicated and authentic. It also made me consider my own parents relationship with a new sense of perspective (they were high school sweethearts who reconnected in their thirties).

There were many occasions while reading that I stopped to linger over Jacob’s use of language.  For example:
“They were luminous. Pieces of moon fallen from the sky, still reflecting every bit of light from the known universe. Smiling at her across the yard in a way she hadn’t seen in years, may have never seen.” (pg. 449).

“Because really, it didn’t matter whether he was the by-product of Thomas’s tumor or some filament of time slipped through a chink in the universe; it didn’t matter that Kamala and the others could not, would not, would never see him. The very idea that Akhil could be in the garden had brought back his loss, pushing it into every corner until the house bled with it. If she shut her eyes, Amina could feel exactly how gone her brother was, her ability to weigh his absence extra keen, dialed up like a blind person’s ability to hear.” (pg. 457).

There is a rhythm to Jacob's use of language that is uniquely her own.

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is a tremendous feat. It’s a story that brings the reader inside its rich worlds to struggle and grieve and discover and fall in love with the Eapens and their extended family. It’s a story that brings us inside the experiences of a loving community of Suriyani Christian Indians. It’s a story that shows how adolescence can deeply shape us and mold our later choices. It’s a story that shows that even with deep sorrow there can be magic moments found a midst family.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

As someone who enjoyed Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, I was looking forward to reading Emma Straub's latest The Vacationers. Sadly, the book didn't meet my expectations at all. I remember being completely drawn in by the story of Laura Lamont; I was not drawn into the world of the Post family. Potentially due to all the pre-publishing hype, I simply had unrealistic expectations, but I believe the story itself could have been so much better. 

While I enjoyed the opening scene of the novel (the scene in the cab is so typical of New Yorkers), I had a really hard time getting into this novel. I am a compulsive reader who usually finishes a book in a day or two, and I found myself having to work at reading this book. Potentially the fact that it took me so long to reach the end of the story impacted my enjoyment of reading it, but many other books beckoned to me over the same time period.

I love stories about dysfunctional families. And the Posts certainly fit that description. But yet I found most of their conflicts didn't intrigue me. It's not even that they are unlikeable characters (because while they have their foibles I wouldn't define them that way)- they are realistic in some ways but not that worthy of zooming in on. Additionally, the son doesn't seem to fit in his cerebral family. Overall, I just wanted the story to reach its reasonable course and I found so much of the denouement of the story easily predictable and ultimately unsatisfying