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


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.