Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth Silver

I finished this book without the sated feeling I normally feel when I finish a well-told story.  I felt perplexed, sucker-punched, confused, and ultimately like I needed more.  A number of hours have passed and I am still befuddled by some of Noa's actions. And yet they felt then upon first reading and feel now upon further contemplation believable and real.  Her actions appear human.

Elizabeth Silver succeeded in creating something truly novel in this story. The Execution of Noa P. Singleton provides a window into an experience that is deeply foreign, an experience most individuals do not even care to contemplate. What is it like to be a woman on death row? And what events could lead an intelligent woman who is admitted to an Ivy League School to find herself on Death Row? Additionally, why would someone facing death row refuse to help the attorneys trying to defend her?  The story of Noa P. Singleton feels deeply real because humans are complex and baffling individuals.  People often say "truth is stranger than fiction." We live in a world where a troubled young man chose to enter an elementary school and kill 20 sixth graders and 6 adults and another troubled young man hunted down TSA agents. We live in a world where a high school student sexually assaulted his teacher and killed her in a school bathroom before dumping her desecrated body in woods behind the school. We live in a world where over 11,000 people have been killed by guns since Newtown.  Our reality is baffling.

Some will say Noa P. is a psychopath, but I didn't read her that way. She went to UPenn, she lived in Philly. I have lived both of those experiences. She was raised by a mother who told a story that loomed large  in her psyche. She didn't meet her father until she was eighteen years old. She suffered two devastating losses at early ages and was not provided with the necessary guidance to help her make peace with these deeply traumatic experiences.  I have thankfully not lived those experiences.

This novel is a story of death row and of murder, but it is also a story about dysfunctional parenting. It is a story of the events that bring together two dramatically different women--Noa, an intelligent college dropout and Marlene Dixon, a high-powered attorney and the mother of Noa's victim.  Silver helps the reader to see that Noa is not completely evil and Marlene is not completely a victim or person deserving of sympathy.  The theme of agency looms large in their intertwined story.  But the whole novel seems an artful take on delving deep into the ways the events of our childhood stay with us forever and lead us to particular fates. Noa had been fed a particular story by her mother for countless years. Her mother didn't want to own up to dropping her baby, so she manufactured a story of a home invasion. Noa internalized the moral of this story; she chooses at thirteen to cover up her own worst act.  And twelve years later when faced with another dangerous situation, she chooses again to embrace creative truth telling.  After this event she refuses to provide any explanations or stories.  She spins no new yarns until right before the end, when Marlene arrives with an assistant, proclaiming she is now against the death penalty and wants to help Noa.  In the end, Noa's explanation is buried and forgiveness and clemency are thrown aside as unworthy goals.  But the reader is left pondering: What is the point of all these machinations and missteps?  What can be learned from these choices?

I'm still perplexed even as I sit here trying to make sense of this artfully drawn story.  Why did the author make these particular choices?  How do we understand the emotions and choices that drive all of the flawed characters in this story?  I think The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is an excellent choice for a book club.  There is so much in this compelling story worthy of probing and it would be helpful to make sense of this novel with others.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

On Being Away, On Returning

I have been the world's most delinquent book blogger.  I'm on goodreads and from time to time I write a review.  I can throw out excuses.  Grad school and law school, the bar exam, trying to meet new people, crafting a new life.  I can easily spin together some sentences to explain why I took such a long break from writing and pontificating about books.

But the truth is: deep down I was always disappointed with myself. I have ravenously read library books. And the desire to write about these books was always present, just pushed down.  The desire to use language to script my own thoughts and feelings and appreciation for  books has never departed.

The two most enduring loves of my life are stories and language. Nothing makes me happier than wrapping myself in an unfolding story and relishing well-composed sentences.  I love to linger inside a story, savoring the words and events that carry me forward towards fulfillment. Reading and writing are the acts that connect me most fully to the truest version of myself. And so it is imperative that I return. To writing about books and writing about so many of the other thoughts that tumble through my head.

I'm so excited to return to being Marnes and Noble.  

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Book Review from Eight Years Ago: Away From You by Melanie Finn

I just read a beautiful book, a hauntingly beautiful book, that made me think about so much I can barely bring my thought process back around.

For some reason I've always been beguiled by Africa.  And these days race has become a major part of my life. The book is called Away from You by Melanie Finn. It is about Africa. It is about legacy. It is about putting the pieces of your history back together and letting go. Th is a really poor Reader's Response.

I  escape to books. They help me catch perspective.  They help me grow as an individual.

I think I am secretly--no, openly--in love with Barnes and Nobles and its odd green carpet. I don't even mind how uncomfortable it is to sit with a shelf poking into my back.

The details in this book are really quite astounding, affecting.

The words throbbed and lingered inside my head.  Even as I numbed myself with my IPod.

I love how concise the author is. She uses her words sparingly. It is like she collects and polishes only the good ones.

pg. 217
"The stories he tells me of his life, the words weave a cloth that binds me and anchors me. The words are my way home to Peter who sits at the kitchen table and loves so patiently.  What we share of ourselves, what we speak and give is not enough. But we are only the dust of stars and it is all we have to keep from blowing away."

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore

In my former stint as a middle school ELA teacher, I gave mini lessons on author’s purpose.  I found the concept a little bizarre at the time.  Now, I can barely recall the four reasons I listed in those long ago mini lessons. Authors write to persuade, to inform, to entertain and. . . I suppose it’s easier to explain these verbs to thirteen year olds than to say writers write to make sense of their worlds, writers write to make sense of the bewildering, writers write to tackle demons, writers write because writing makes them sane, writers write because they love sculpting words, language and events into a greater whole. Writers write so they can share their take on the human existence with other people.

As I sit thinking back about The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore, I am brought back to the concept of author’s purpose. Why do we write? Why does Gilmore write?  Why do so many fiction writers weave autobiographical elements into their fiction?

I was enthralled by Gilmore’s previous novel Something Red. It drew me into a world I deeply wanted to understand.  I loved Something Red and viewed it as an amazing accomplishment. Gilmore was able to create such vivid and human characters while also capturing the essence of the 60s and 70s and the zeitgeist of that time.  In Something Red, she created a truly believable world.

 Before reading The Mothers I had read Gilmore’s NYT Opinionator essay about her own experiences trying to adopt domestically. So I knew this novel was autobiographical fiction.  In some ways the fact that Gilmore and her husband went through similar experiences than Jesse and Ramon distracted me from the story. I found myself wanting to know how Gilmore’s husband differed from the fictional Ramon, how Gilmore differed from Jessie (besides being employed as a writer who teaches writing as opposed to an academic). Did Gilmore have a similar relationship with her own mother-in-law? Was Jessie’s family similar to her own family?  All of this took me away from the story in some ways. But I suppose it also added another layer of analysis and metacognition into the process of reading this novel.

At times it was hard for me to read The Mothers. I have known I want to have my own children since I was a child myself. There is a great deal of my future I cannot script, and yet that part has always been clear.  As a soon to be thirty year old single woman, it’s hard for me to read about a woman in her late thirties hungering for a child.  It’s close. I understand Jessie’s anxiety and anguish, even if my own anguish and anxiety is slightly different.

Jessie constantly does math to calculate how old she will be once her child is born, once her child graduates from high school. And I found that behavior so painfully true.  Every time I read about a woman with children I do mental math to calculate how old she was when her first child was born. I do similar mathematical calculations when reading about weddings and couplings as well.  Reading about Jessie’s calculations made me realize that so many people have invisible anxieties that trap them in unhealthy behaviors.

The Mothers was so deeply believable and true, and I guess that is because of Gilmore’s own experience. Jessie and Ramon are the only couple at a party without children, I am often the only single person in a gathering of my college friends. Why is it so natural and painful to recognize these comparisons?  In some ways, this book allowed me to envision more uncomfortable comparisons that may be part of my future.

I am stuck with so much unknown, just as Jessie and Ramon were. They had no control over whether a birth mother would choose them to parent her child.  Even with perfect photos and a great description and social workers telling them they would win in a “who would you pick to be your parents” game. 

Overall, The Mothers was a thought-provoking and an emotional read.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge

I've been thinking about good story telling a lot lately.  On Friday evening I sat at the Rittenhouse BandN with a friend and I read aloud to her a passage from a novel that I found amusing.  She commented: "I've heard or seen something like that before. Maybe on a sitcom." This same friend recently read a book based on my recommendation and had analogous feedback. "It wasn't novel. It felt derivative." She said she only enjoys books that are different.  I've been mulling over whether it is possible to truly create something different and new.

I remember a creative writing professor in college talking about three main stories: love, death and war. In trying to find what he was quoting, I have found many other quotes about fiction and literature.

Paulo Coello: "Borges said there are only four stories to tell: a love story between two people, a love story between three people, the struggle for power and the voyage. All of us writers rewrite these same stories ad infinitum.”

Willa Cather: "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercly as if they had never happened before."

Others assert that there are seven basic plots.

So what truly makes a novel story?

Potentially, I am just not a discerning reader, but I like reading different takes on the same idea. I love reading about interesting family dynamics, I love reading about change over time, I am a sucker for a good romance or a good coming of age story, and I devour thought-provoking contemporary fiction.

So I suppose the idea of reading about someone who has woken up from a dissociative fugue didn't feel completely new to me.  And yet there were so many aspects of Love Water Memory that felt unique. I disappeared inside the book for most of the afternoon and evening yesterday.  I was captivated by the experiences of 39 year old Lucie Walker who was suddenly cast in the role of anthropologist and detective of her own life.

The novel starts with Lucie standing knee deep in the San Francisco Bay.  Asked if she is okay she replies "I don't know."  She can't feel her legs, she does not know her name.  She can discern that the decor of a hospital room is straight out of the early 90's and yet she has no autobiographical memory.  Shortridge does such a fantastic job of allowing the reader to share in Lucie's confusion and her dawning sense of discovery, fear and revelation.

Since the story is told from both the perspective of Lucie and that of her fiance. Grady, the reader is able to understand how maddening and disorienting amnesia can be for both the individual suffering through it and their family members.  How do you bring someone home who doesn't remember you at all? How do you respect their privacy and try to get them to love you again?  This sort of story has been told in a Nicholas Spark's novel/movie and it came across as treachly and unrealistic.  Shortridge does an excellent job making Lucie and Grady's story feel realistic. There is an element of representing them as being destined to be together in some ways, but it doesn't come across as too much.

It was fascinating to watch Lucie view her former life through new eyes, and to eventually understand why the two wildly different Lucie's came to be.  I walked away with questions about how realistic Lucie's experience with dissociative fugue was, and yet I found Shortridge's telling of Lucie's story incredibly real. In learning more about the former Lucie, I came to question why Grady was with her, or why she was in some ways cold and disconnected from others, but eventually that part of her character is explained.

I also really enjoyed the imagery in the story.  Water plays as central a role in the characters lives as love and memory.  Lucie wakes up, reborn, a new version of herself (or an old one I suppose) with her feet in the Bay. Grady breaks his foot, and this immobilization is key to a great deal of character development. Because of this injury he is for the first time a fish out of water (unable to swim) and this immobilizes his development in some ways, but also forces him to greater understanding.

I found myself particularly taken with this late "coming of age" story. Lucie is on the verge of forty and still discovering herself. Grady is beyond forty and still coming to terms with his own past, still looking to be a better person.  It makes someone like me (who is on the verge of 30) feel a little bit better about what I often view as my own late development.

Love Water Memory was a very thought-provoking and engaging read. I'm interested to hear what others thought of the book.