Monday, November 12, 2018

Andre Dubus III, Gone So Long

A bare foot three-year-old stands over her mother's body quietly calling, "Mommy? Mommy?" Her father gently picks her up and, rather than call for help, takes little Suzie into her bedroom and reads her a story. By the time the police arrive, the woman with the knife in her chest is long dead, and Suzie has no doubt been traumatized for life.

Gone So Long: A NovelWhen I met Mr. Dubus in New York in June I asked him if his new novel, "Gone So Long," would be a little more hopeful than the devastating "House of Sand and Fog," or his excruciatingly beautiful memoir "Townie." He reassured me that he, at least, thought it would. He was wrong.

I struggled mightily with Danny, Daniel Ahearn, husband and killer of Suzie's mother Linda. I firmly believe that a felon does his time, pays his dues to society, and should re-enter the world without prejudice. Daniel, now in his sixties, is dying of prostate cancer and hopes to see his little girl once more before he slips the bonds. To facilitate a meeting, he obsesses for months over a letter of explanation, self-examination, introduction? We aren't quite sure, nor is he.

Suzie is now forty-three, an adjunct writing professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. She is a blocked novelist and a woman whose life has been permanently upended by her past. Raised by her grandmother, Lois, she was hell on wheels as a kid, refusing to believe that anyone could truly love her (after all, didn't she carry half of her father's genes), and therefore, unable to open herself to love even when it's staring her in the face.

Back and forth through time and place, Dubus takes readers on a journey to a scruffy New England seaside carny, where Linda and Daniel first spotted each other and, to the surprise of many, became inseparable. Linda was a loner, happiest with her head in a book. Daniel was a loner too but for darker reasons. Insecure, nursing a ferocious anger that often surfaced with little provocation, he couldn't believe his good luck when he and Linda married and had Suzie. Jealousy and a lack of faith would be his downfall.

Any act of violence will have repercussions for years. Dubus addresses this truth in all of his work, usually on a broader, more political scale. Domestic violence can be especially difficult to read. Secrets are kept, truths repressed, grudges are nursed, and forgiveness withheld. At times we want to shake these characters, to yell, "Get over it!" But is that humanly possible?

Lois and Susan are two of the prickliest women I've ever met in fiction. At first I was annoyed but then I took a step back and realized that I'd have to walk a mile in their shoes before I could judge them. Of course, this is where Dubus works his literary magic. He forces readers to do just that. And Daniel? He is practically Shakespearean in his fatal flaws, unable to give Susan the only thing she's ever needed from him. Three words. I am sorry. He'd just been gone too long.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Golden State is Golden

The Golden State: A NovelOne more book that didn't quite make it to Library Journal's top ten this year is still well worthy of the accolades it's been receiving and it's a debut novel that only came out last month! "The Golden State" by Lydia Kiesling, http://www.lydiakiesling.com/
touted as the next great read for young mothers, will be just as appealing to any age group that loves putting one word in front of another. I would venture to say that the title may less likely refer to California than it does to that "golden state" of time when a mom spends so much time in her toddler's company that she has an "ah ha" moment. There's actually a little person in there behind the whining, crying, and perpetually fussing visage.

Daphne is nearing a nervous breakdown the day she walks away from her office, packs up the accoutrement of babyhood, and puts the big Buick in overdrive. Leaving the stress of San Francisco behind, she and Honey are on their way to cowboy country where she has a haven awaiting in the form of an old mobile home left to her after the deaths of her mother and grandparents. In Altavista, she fools herself into thinking that she can get her priorities straight and bond with the toddler who has spent her life in daycare.

Daphne is no fool. She works at the university. She's multi-lingual. She's the sole support of her family right now as her Turkish husband was refused re-entry to the states on a technicality under the new administration. For eight months they have been holding the relationship together on the strength of daily Skype encounters, leaving each desperately lonely, unfulfilled, and questioning the future.

Kiesling has a fabulous way with words, often giving Daphne pages of extremely funny stream of consciousness conversations with herself. Sentences may go on and on without punctuation, a trope I normally find annoying, but which totally works in Daphne's case as she utters the inanities common to women who have no one to speak with but an eighteen-month-old. Daphne suffers the overwhelming guilt trips of most young moms who pray for their kid to nap so she can slip out back for a cigarette, or to go to sleep at night so she can sneak a vodka and OJ.

Far from one-dimensional, this novel is also cleverly political. Aside from the green card status of her Muslim husband, there is the secessionist group she meets in Altavista fronted by a childhood acquaintance ugly with resentments, and an opinionated octogenarian on a quest to capture memories of happier times.

Kiesling is a bold, honest writer with talent to spare. I must send this novel to my niece Rebecca who balances home, career, hubby and three wonderful kids. I just know she'll find it cathartic. In the meantime, head to your library or local bookstore and snatch up a copy of this delightful novel. It's a treat to understand what's going on in the heads of our under thirty generation. In fact, it's a necessity!

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Ali Smith's Winter

Winter: A Novel (Seasonal Quartet)British writer (born in Scotland, lives in England), Ali Smith, is known for her mastery of language and craft. Her novels are repeatedly on the short list for all the prestigious prizes, the Booker, the Orange, and the Bailey's Women's Prize. She can be hilarious and deadly serious at the same time. Smith is writing what's been referred to as a "seasonal quartet." It began with "Autumn." I have just finished "Winter," one of Library Journal's contenders for best of 2018.

This book was a complete delight to me. It's so different from my usual fare, so sarcastic and witty though ultimately kind. Smith's books can often be difficult to describe but try this on for size. Christmas at a crumbling mansion in Cornwall;the owner, Sophia, a woman losing her grip on reality, the estranged younger sister, an old hippie who will go anywhere for a cause, and a son, Arthur, with a stranger in tow, all arrive during a blizzard to find the larder bare and Sophia in the throes of a Dickensian guilt trip as she revisits the ghosts of Christmases past.

As the four make the most of the next few days together mother, son, and sister try to reconcile their disparate memories. The stranger, a skinny, pierced and tattooed street girl who is being paid to play the role of Art's fiancĂ© Charlotte, waxes on eloquently about Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare's more obscure plays, and the conversations run the gamut from Brexit to Trump. Smith takes great joy in poking fun at Google, bloggers, politicians, and pretensions of all stripes, while ruminating on the terrifying state of our globe's environmental health.

If your taste in literature veers toward quirky characters, a touch of magical realism, and sharp, imaginative writing, then I have a book for you. My copy is up for grabs. Reply to my blog or drop me a line at s_bissell@yahoo.com. I'll mail it out before the weekend when I plan to head south and warm up. Oh, and keep in mind Shelley's words of hope, "if winter comes, can spring be far behind?"

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Library Journal's Best of 2018

You will have to wait until December to uncover LJ's list of best literary fiction for the year 2018 but I can tell you, as I was honored to be chosen as one of the judges, that fabulous fiction is being published just about every day. It is remarkable how many imaginative, lusciously written new novels we had to choose from.

My editor, Barbara Hoffert, asked me and one other reviewer, Josh Finnell from Colgate University, to send her our top ten favorites of the year. She added her own to the list and then the three of us had to read them all!! If you wonder why I've been missing in action here on the blog lately you can add this fact to the multitude of commitments I've made this summer. Last week we held a two-hour conference call and a lively book talk, eliminating some titles, defending others, until we were able to agree on the ten exquisite books that made the cut.

As you can imagine this exercise was high pressure but ultimately extremely rewarding as we were each introduced to writers who may not have previously been on our radar. Over the next month I will introduce you to some of them, beginning with the Irish novelist John Boyne, probably best known here in the states for "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." (https://johnboyne.com/)

A Ladder to the Sky: A NovelIn November Hogarth Press will release "A Ladder to the Sky." You may want to put your name on the wait list now! Boyne's latest is just that good; it's a psychological thriller that will stir up bile in your stomach, and it's a book lover's dream, a novel about novelists, their insecurities, their outsized egos, their petty jealousies, and the lengths some will go to for fame and recognition. It isn't pretty.

Maurice Swift, a young waiter in a Berlin bierhaus, aspires to be a writer. All too aware of his physical beauty and gender-fluid attributes, Maurice flatters and seduces both men and women as he taps into their imaginations seeking stories he's incapable of conjuring up on his own.

The opening section of the book is told from the perspective of Maurice's first victim, Erich Ackermann, an older writer whose career is experiencing a rebirth since the publication of his first novel in years. Maurice is adept at pinpointing the older man's weakness, a desire for love that was subsumed years earlier after an unrequited affair ended in a tragic betrayal. Making himself both desirable and indispensable, Maurice becomes Ackermann's paid assistant, traveling from one literary festival to another, gaining access to elite writers, publishers, and agents.

Boyne has a gift for ratcheting up the tension. As readers, we begin to suspect Maurice of evil intent even as we think, no, he wouldn't, he couldn't, could he?Boyne reveals Maurice's character through the observations of others, even taking us to Gore Vidal's idyllic home on the Amalfi coast where Swift displays his true nature to the wiser, older writer.

Early reviews compare this novel of Boyne's to Patricia Highsmith's depiction of amorality in "The Talented Mr. Ripley." I wouldn't disagree. Literary and suspenseful, brimming with insider knowledge of the publishing industry, John Boyne deftly examines the effects of unbridled ambition and misplaced trust. I could not put this book down!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

When Literature and Life Collide

I've just returned from my hometown in Massachusetts where I've been helping to take care of my aunt for a couple of weeks. At ninety-three she is in amazing health but a bout with infection and a hospital stay can wreak havoc on an elderly immune system and she was temporarily unable to enjoy her usual feisty independence.

Even as I coordinated home health aid visits, physical therapists, nurses, and meals on wheels, we had long hours to talk. Memory is a slippery thing. Some are picture-perfect in their specificity, others are dubiously shadowy. And thus, I am reminded of literature at its best, where writers play with point of view, when a narrator's truth is questionable, where families interact under stressful circumstances and shine - or not. And that brings me to Barbara Kingsolver's "Unsheltered," a novel that I thoroughly enjoyed even as I harbored the nagging feeling that she was trying to throw everything but the kitchen sink into it.

Science vs. faith, the sandwich generation, the financial crisis and its aftermath, the lost dream of home ownership, racial prejudice, the demise of journalism, all find a place on Kingsolver's soapbox.

Unsheltered: A NovelThe setting is Vineland, New Jersey, and an historical old home that's barely standing. Two families, a century apart, struggle to find physical and emotional shelter in this house that's just too costly to tame. In the 1870's it's the local science teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, whose fascination for the exciting new teachings of a man called Darwin may cost him his job.

Today, it's Willa and Iano. She is an unemployed journalist, he is a professor chasing a tenure-track job that no longer exists. They are caretaking his father, still paying off their kids' college loans, and suddenly they also have a motherless grandchild to raise. It's not the life they imagined for themselves!

Early on in the book, Willa despairingly asks herself, "How could two hardworking people do everything right in life and arrive in their fifties essentially destitute?"

That is the question that boggled my mind throughout. The plot feels like a setup to me, a plot that allows Kingsolver to rail against the injustices in the world - and don't get me wrong, I agree with her - but in a way that's just a bit too pat. After all, her husband does have a PhD in global politics, and her son, though he's an economist, has to come home to live. Really?

It's the story from the 1800's that captured my imagination. Kingsolver's research unearthed the existence of the real woman, Mary Treat, an amateur scientist who enjoyed a life-long correspondence with Charles Darwin. In Vineland she was considered a crank by most, with the exception of her next door neighbor, the fictional teacher, Mr. Greenwood. Their developing friendship, based on a shared love of the natural world and their political leanings, is a joy to read about.

What you have here is basically two novels told in alternating chapters. They could theoretically be read independent of each other. The question is whether or not the author has convincingly tied the two together. "Unsheltered" hits the shelves today. I'll be anxious to hear your opinions. My copy is going out to Pat Abosch in tomorrow's mail but I have several more give-a-ways to dispense of in the next couple of weeks.