Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Jewelweed is a Gem of a Novel

Jewellweed book cover
 
 
A thousand thanks to my literary mentor and friend Linda Holland for awarding five stars to Mr. Rhodes' exquisite novel, "Jewelweed." Linda is not prone to lavish praise unless it is really deserving. So the question is, why haven't more of us discerning readers heard of this book? Do you know that I actually had an advanced readers' copy sitting in my bookcase for months and hadn't even given it a second thought.
 
Like a dinner of plain old down-home cooking, Mr. Rhodes serves up simple sentences so crystal clear that each of the five senses are on high alert. No obfuscation, no high fallutin' phrases, but simple prose that pulls you into the story and doesn't let you go. We are in Words, Wisconsin, after all, a small town, yes, but a microcosm of every city everywhere.
 
What's so special about this book? To begin with, David Rhodes loves and respects each and every one of his characters. He treats them tenderly. They have troubles, they make huge and small mistakes, they suffer from alienation, false pride, misplaced assumptions, loneliness, and all of the other foibles that make us human. Mr. Rhodes is kind to these people and, in being so, he is kind to us as readers. I can't help but feel that he must be a lovely person, one you would want to know.
 
There is a plot, but it's not really necessary for me to retell it. This is a full-on, character-driven story about people whose lives intersect at just the right moments in their lives.
 
Why did Pastor Winifred feel the urgent need to go to the supermax prison to meet and talk with Blake Bookchester? He'd already been incarcerated for ten years for a small-time crime that was exacerbated by Blake's stubborn temper. Now he's due for parole. Might Winifred reach him through her constant gift of books? Help him acclimate to his freedom after his release?
 
How is it that Winifred's dreamy, scary smart son August befriends Ivan? Of all the kids at school, these two misfits seem to have an almost immediate, mystical kinship. And though Ivan's mom, Dart, distrusts everyone, scarred by years of bad men and broken dreams, she cracks open her heart just long enough to let Pastor Winnie in.
 
By doing so, Dart (actually Danielle) finds a job with the Roebuck clan, a multi-generational family with love to spare, a need for a no-nonsense cook/housekeeper like Dart, and an apartment for her and Ivan that's a huge step up from the one room dump over the meat locker in town.
 
And then there's Blake's dad Nate. A long distance trucker whose wife split when Blake was a kid, Nate did the best he could with Blake and still blames himself for Blake's downfall. Now he's a wreck. Blake may be released soon and Nate needs to get his rig home. He's been alone for so long he's unsure how the two of them will do together.
 
Avoiding the main highway, he takes a country road that leads him to a farmhouse where he stops to take a rest, accepting a kind offer of mashed potato pie from an elderly gent. In a glorious flight of magical realism, the very taste of the pie floods Nate's brain with memories of his cousin Bee, a woman he's loved since childhood. Could he ever reconnect with her?
 
When I closed the final page on this novel I sighed in pure delight. David Rhodes is a balm for the soul. This beautiful novel of time's healing properties, the eventual rightness of life, the ability to reconcile with the past, to forgive, to move on, is a joy to read. And the best news is that there's a prequel named "Driftless," which I've just checked out from the library. I'm willing to give my copy of "Jewelweed" away but it won't be easy. Comment if you'd like to share a wonderful reading experience!



Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Booker Prize Nominee - Us

http://www.usbydavidnicholls.com/

A novel about a marriage and family in free fall was probably not the best choice of reading matter for me last week as I sat at my brother's bedside in the Ohio hospital where he was being treated for multiple debilitating side effects from his cancer therapy. I witnessed a disparate group of folks, my nieces, nephews, in-laws, and medical personnel all coming together with a common goal, to see Alan well enough to walk out that door.

I suppose it was unfair of me to expect that same cooperation from the characters in Mr. Nicholls' engaging but disturbing new novel, one that he refers to on his website as a "tragi-comedy." I found the story more tragi than comedy but I loved Nicholls' writing style and the self-deprecating voice of the narrator, Douglas Petersen.

If there were ever two people less meant for each other it had to be Douglas, an introverted, bookish scientist, and the wild child, pseudo-artist, Connie. Lessons we all should have learned by now? Physical attraction will only get you so far in a relationship. At the end of the day you really need to like one another and Connie's dismissive attitude toward Douglas and his exacting personality wore on me as a reader. On Douglas? Not so much.

In fact, inept at emotional intelligence, Douglas failed miserably at sensing the growing divide between he and his wife until the night she told him she "might" be leaving him. Ouch! Such a passive aggressive way of lowering the boom after twenty years. Connie deliberately leaves the door open and Douglas, thinking that there's still a chance of keeping his family intact, plans an elaborate European tour to celebrate their son Albie's high school graduation and their soon to be empty nest.

Nicholls alternates chapters between the current trip through France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain with Doug's reminiscences of past excursions he and Connie took when their relationship was still new, before the death of their baby girl and the birth of their son Albie, a child who seemed to shrink from his dad from his first breath. The stronger the bond grew between Connie and Albie, the more Douglas was pushed to the periphery of the relationship, confused and uncomprehending. This trip, he believes, is the last chance he will have get to know his son and save his marriage.

This is a wistful kind of novel. The humor, while not the laugh out loud kind, is sardonic and the situations are oh so recognizable. I found myself hoping beyond hope that all would come right for Connie, Douglas and Albie even as I recognized that what might seem "right" to me might just not be what's right for them. This is a lovely book, a worthy nominee for the Booker prize. Just don't read it when you're down or blue. You wouldn't be giving it its due.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

It's never easy for me to bypass a book that has a photo of the Eiffel Tower gracing its cover, so the new Francine Prose was a must read.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932
 
Ms. Prose is a prolific and thoughtful writer whose books have intrigued me for years. Many of her works examine the duality of our human natures. I'm thinking of "A Changed Man," a story about a Neo-Nazi hoping to atone for his transgressions, or "Blue Angel," in which an aging literature professor tries to regain his glory days through the talent of a young, off-limits student.
 
With "Lovers at the Chameleon Club," Francine Prose steps fully and confidently into the historical fiction genre while retaining the nuanced psychological probing into the nature of evil. She builds slowly, but you'll be rewarded magnificently if you have patience and stay the course.
 
Multiple narrators, each with a very distinctive voice, tell the story which covers almost eighty years. Prose shifts her writing style every time she changes point of view, an amazing feat which I've enjoyed ever since Barbara Kingsolver used it in "The Poisonwood Bible." So we have a mash-up of young people, Gabor, a Hungarian photographer and his future wife Susanne, Lionel, an American writer, and Lily de Rossignol, the baroness with a passion for the arts, who thrill to the 1930's nightlife of a vibrant, all-encompassing Paris.
 
And all paths cross at the Chameleon Club where, like its color-shifting namesake lizard, men and women are free to be, for an evening at least, who they really are, gay, lesbian, transgender, cross-dressing human beings. It's here that Gabor will take the infamous photo, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, that will kick start his career and bring unwanted attention to the subject of that picture, Lou Villars.
 
 
I love a novel that makes you start to search for background material and there's a ton of it here. It seems that Prose based her Chameleon Club on a famous lesbian underground nightclub called Le Monocle. http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/le-monocle-1932/  And, I'm afraid that once I saw the above picture, Lou Villars was firmly planted in my mind.
 
Lou is a tragic figure in this novel, a young girl who never felt comfortable in her skin. A young woman who wanted to compete in sports with men. She loved women and though she was cared for in return, relationships didn't seem to last. Business ventures failed. Down on her luck, she was ripe for seduction, not for sex but for a stronger drive, love of country.
 
France, you see, was in a bad place. Prose describes it this way: "The very same government that, by raising taxes, permitting uncontrolled immigration, weakening the military, failing to control the national debt, and fostering skyrocketing unemployment, was making it impossible for them to feed their families and provide better lives for their children."
 
Sound familiar? Yes, many Frenchmen, like Villars, could only see one way forward, an easy fix, a return to conservatism.  As the Nazi storm troopers moved inexorably toward Paris many truly believed that Germany was coming to help France regain its pride of place in Europe. Lou was one of these.
 
Of course, historically we know how the story ends. Yet this amazing novel had me on the edge of my seat wondering and sadly asking, could it happen again? Could it happen here? Francine Prose is at the top of her game here as she tackles war, politics, art, sexual identity, loyalty and love. I see a book discussion in my future.
 


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Subjective Nature of Reviewing

I've been sitting here at the computer for going on four hours now trying to write an objective review of a book I really disliked. It doesn't happen often, though I'm less easily pleased the older I get. After all, I don't even have to mention the books I don't care for here on the blog. But this particular novel was sent to me by Library Journal and the deadline is Friday. It was the second one this month with which I was less than enthralled.

Of course, the author shall remain nameless until I can share it with you, but I feel like he's having me on and I just hate that. I want a writer to respect me as a reader and not fill up a novel with insider jokes and references that few folks would get. Is that asking too much? I just want a good story!

Between reading and getting my yard back in shape after a five month hiatus, I fear I've been derelict in my blogging duties. It's not that I don't have plenty on my mind but it's almost too frustrating, anger-inducing, and depressing to share. That would be politics, the media, and, of course, my brother's illness which seems to be relentlessly dogging him lately.

So tell me dear readers, what have you read lately? Contrary to what my sister thinks, it isn't always all about me! I need some recommendations - please. I have some fabulous forthcoming titles on my Nook but it hardly seems fair to rave about books you can't get hold of until 2015. Among them, Dennis Lehane's follow-up to the outstanding "Live By Night," http://bit.ly/1pZjqjl a look at the Irish mobster Joe Coughlin and his takeover of the Cuban rum trade in Tampa, Florida. It's called "World Gone By," and will likely disappear from the ether if I don't get to it soon.

And then there's Stephanie Kallos's "Language Arts." Those of you who read her debut, "Broken for You," will know what I'm talking about - gorgeous prose. Oh, did you know that Anne Tyler has written "A Spool of Blue Thread" for a February publication date? Hey, it's almost November, don't despair. I think I'll have a give-a-way for it as soon as I've devoured it myself. Watch for it here. I'm reading as fast as I can.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Attica Locke is Back with a Bang

OK, I'll admit that I was pretty miffed at the author Attica Locke when she blew off the Southwest Florida Reading Festival but, who knows, maybe we'll get another shot at bringing her from L.A. to Ft. Myers. I'm telling you, this gal is good. http://www.atticalocke.com/

Compliments of her publisher, Harper Collins, I had the chance to get an early reading of her latest novel, coming out next spring, titled "Pleasantville." Excellent! Ms. Locke has already compared to several of her finest contemporaries who write smart thrillers, Pelecanos, Lehane, and Turow. I think that her newest book places her right up there with John Grisham.

If you love David vs. Goliath type stories, especially those that end up in front of a judge, in a courthouse, then this is your girl. She's written a book that mixes up social justice issues with a good old fashioned murder mystery, one that I couldn't solve on my own. I hate it when that happens!

Texas politics plays an important role, circa 2000. A testy mayoral race, a campaign worker's disappearance, and a hard-won court battle against a big- pharma style polluter which is dragging its feet on the payout, all come to a head in the Houston neighborhood known as Pleasantville. This is an historic area of town which actually exists, a haven for middle-class African American working people to set down roots, own homes, and raise their kids in a supposedly safe environment.

The Hathorne family has been moving and shaking within the community for years and the aging patriarch, Sam, is bound and determined to see his son Axel, former police chief, become mayor. And things are on track until Sam's grandson Neal, campaign manager and newly minted attorney, is arrested amidst a barrage of circumstantial evidence that implicates him in the murder of Alicia Nowell, a student campaign worker.

Enter Jay Porter, a defense attorney who can't bring himself to face a jury. Since his wife died of cancer he's barely holding it together, trying to be mom and dad to his two kids and sinking everything he has into the class action lawsuit against Cole Oil Industries. He hates the idea of taking Neal's case but the Hathorne family, inexplicably, wants only him and he can't afford to turn it away, not just for the money but for the chance to redeem himself.

Locke's debut novel "Black Water Rising," was a knock out. http://readaroundtheworld-sallyb.blogspot.com/2010/01/attica-lockes-debut-novel.html It was here that we met Jay and his wife Bernie when she was pregnant with their first child, a teenager now in "Pleasantville." As I said then, it's obvious that Ms. Locke was a screenwriter (and still is). Her novels seem destined to come to a movie theatre near you soon. As you read you can actually see who would play whom in each and every roll. Even the lesser characters are outstanding. But, since we all know how long it takes to get a book to the big screen, you'd better add this one to your "to read" list and haunt the stores or your library until it comes out next spring. 


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Parenting, The Bravest Act of All

I've always thought that having a child is one of the most courageous, optimistic things that a person can do. Think of it! To voluntarily accept the responsibility of raising another little being to adulthood while afflicting as little emotional or physical harm as possible. Can it even be done? Are most of us just one short phone call from the psychiatrist's couch? Or, are we amazingly resilient and adaptable?

Author Noah Hawley has written a deeply emotional yet remarkably understated novel, "The Good Father," about a man and his boy, about the lengths to which a father will go to discover what makes his son tick. If something has gone haywire in his son's brain then who is to blame? Is it the old nature v. nurture conundrum? Or is it something more fundamental?

You see, Dr. Paul Allen, contentedly watching the news as his wife makes the Friday night pizza, sees something that he can't believe and will never accept. In a crowded college auditorium, a young man with a gun has just shot the Democratic candidate for president. The face on the TV screen is remorseless, no, affectless, but recognizable. It's Paul's son, Daniel.

Within minutes the FBI is at the door. Paul's second wife and their kids watch, stupefied, as Paul is whisked away in a black SUV to an undisclosed interrogation location. The nightmare begins.

I found it especially fascinating to listen in on the Q and A with the authorities. Their questions and Paul's answers reveal how little Paul knows about Dan's life even though he was an ostensibly hands-on dad, taking custody of Dan after the divorce from his first wife and integrating him into the new family. Dan's little brothers looked up to him and Paul's wife did her very best to make Dan feel at home. The last anyone knew, Dan had been enrolled, though a mediocre student, at Vassar.

This novel reminded me of William Landay's super hit, "Defending Jacob," though it's a more cerebral version of the psychological thriller genre. Hawley writes with such empathy for all of the characters affected by the candidate's death, Dan's mother, his stepmother and brothers, letting us into the lives of the many other victims of the crime.

As Paul sets out to prove that his son could not have committed this heinous crime, tracking back and forth across the country, following Daniel's movements, he ruminates on some of the other senseless assassinations of the last decade, the Kennedy brothers, John Lennon, looking for answers that may never come. But know this, those shooters were someone's child.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Coming in March - The Bookseller

Product Details
 
 
I don't know any bona fide reader who can resist a book entitled "The Bookseller," so when the publisher offered an early look, I jumped at the chance. I'm so sorry to tell you that I failed to realize just how early a look it was. Put a note on your calendar, do whatever you do when you're making your booklists, but don't miss Cynthia Swanson's debut novel when it is released next March.
 
When you read as many reviews as I do your eyes often begin to glaze over. It seems that there's a dearth of creativity and imagination when it comes to fiction lately. I'll often find myself saying, "not this worn out story again!" But Ms. Swanson, who has been awarded a Pushcart Prize for her short stories, broke the spell with this highly imaginative novel about a woman living in two worlds.
 
Kitty and Frieda have been best friends forever. They operate a struggling bookstore in Denver called Sisters, a moniker that reflects the strong connection between them. It's the '60's, try to remember those times if you can, and two women, happily single, surrounded by books and cats, and running a business, is still an anomaly.
 
 Frieda nurses a lingering resentment that her dad had to co-sign their business loan, and worries mightily about how they will keep the business afloat without an influx of money or a risky move out to the suburbs where things called shopping malls are opening up and stealing customers from downtown businesses.
 
Kitty, on the other hand, wonders if her very supportive parents secretly regret that she didn't marry young and provide them with the requisite two or three grandchildren. Why else would she be having such vivid dreams about a picture-perfect husband and a challenging set of triplets? Could this staid woman in the twinset and pearls actually be her alter-ego? Is this the person she'd have become if she hadn't chosen the freewheeling gypsy life of a bookseller? Or, are Kitty and Frieda two sides of the same coin?
 
Cynthia Swanson may be an artist by trade but she's a writer at heart. This refreshingly original novel examines women on the cusp of a movement where choices open up that were never there before. Yet, we know that for every action there is a reaction, choices have consequences. The psychology behind how we cope with those consequences is reflected in Kitty's dream world. Or is it?
 
This is a poignant, thoughtful novel about family, friendship, and the vagaries of life with all its joy and heartbreak.