Tuesday, May 31, 2016

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich, for me, has been an acquired taste. When I was younger I don't believe that I fully appreciated, or even understood, her deep desire to acquaint non-native Americans with the nuances of the native culture into which she was born. And certainly, not until "Round House," http://bit.ly/1qD3Xbl did I absorb the passion that Erdrich feels for her Ojibwe ancestors and for the difficult balancing act that they and other native peoples perform as they try to live in two worlds.

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In her new novel, "LaRose," released a couple of weeks ago, Erdrich returns to North Dakota where another tragedy decimates a family, pointing to the vast differences between tribal justice and state laws. In the book's shocking opening scene, tribal member Landreaux Iron aims steadily at a deer on the edge of the property line that separates his land from that of his wife's half-sister, Nola and her husband, Peter. But as the deer flees, a small body crumples to the ground. Landreaux has killed a little boy, his son Larose's best friend, Dusty.
Though eventually cleared of legal wrong doing by the police, Landreaux's burden of guilt invades his entire being, affecting his relationships in town and in his family, especially with his wife Emmaline. Seeking the spiritual solace of his ancestors, Landreaux approaches Emmaline asking the impossible. They must give their beautiful boy, LaRose, to Peter and Nola, for them to raise as their own child. This is the tribal way.
It may seem outrageous to readers and yet, in her research, Erdrich found that this was in fact a means of atonement in other cultures too. What is so unforgivable is that the boy, LaRose, is not really told why his family is basically giving him away. Yet, when he moves in with Nola and Peter, he intuits that he is there for an important reason, and with a knowledge way beyond his years, he accepts his situation and vows to be all that Nola needs to help her through her grief.
Grief is at the heart of this novel, depicted so beautifully, that all-encompassing inability to find joy in life or in the love and support of family. Nola is debilitated to the point where her older daughter Maggie, also devastated at the loss of her brother, joins forces with LaRose in a pact to watch over and care for their mother, to keep her from the ultimate act of a woman without hope.
And what, you might ask, of Emmaline? What can she be thinking, seeing her own last born child being raised by another woman, running into her son in the store, feverish with desire to hold and squeeze him to her breast, yet unable? What hatred and resentment does she nurture as she lies next to her husband at night, unable to feel anything after the loss of her boy?
And what of the fathers? Peter? Is he less of a man because he cannot bring himself to kill Landreaux in an act of vengeance? Might it have been easier on everyone if Landreaux had been found guilty of a crime? Perhaps he was drunk? After all, he was an alcoholic at one time.
This novel is agonizing to read and yet Ms. Erdrich injects just enough backstory, dollops of humor, and, as is her style, a native myth tracing the LaRose name back through generations, attached to both male and female characters gifted in the healing arts. In this way she miraculously weaves a thread that will eventually stitch these two families into a semblance of one. It's a tale of power, redemption, reconciliation, and love, feelings sorely needed in today's world. A magical read.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

More Forthcoming Treats from Book Expo

Product DetailsTwo debut authors and two seasoned veterans shared the big stage in the afternoon at Library Journal's Day of Dialog, and I'm especially excited about the novels from the newbies.

I wasn't able to snap up a copy of Emma Cline's "The Girls," but will be watching for it. Those of you who were riveted by the publicity surrounding the Charles Manson murders will recognize the time and place of Cline's book, northern California, late '60's, a novel which Cline remarks is not so much about the murders themselves as it is about the way in which na├»ve young women, desperately wanting to fit in, to be included, can be mesmerized by the tremendous power of evil. Published by the wonderful Bill Clegg ("Did you Ever Have a Family"), and already optioned for a film, the 26-year-old, Cline is on her way. To read more see this interview:

Product DetailsThe beautiful, passionate, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Jamaican-born, Cornell-educated writer, was there every time I turned around at Book Expo. Her credentials are impressive http://nicoledennisbenn.com/index.html, and the buzz on her first novel, "Here Comes the Sun," is hot. I DID manage to get a copy and will be offering it as a giveaway the moment I finish it.

The book revolves around a major corporation that buys up the much sought after Jamaican waterfront property to build oases of opulence and indulgence for tourists, without giving a thought to the native population who once worked their own land. Jamaicans are supposed to consider themselves fortunate to be able to smile ingratiatingly while they man the phones, clean the rooms, and serve the food, for the foreigners who deign to fly in for a week of R and R and a chance to get on "Jamaican time, mon."

One senses that this will be a very personal, difficult novel to read based on the fact that Dennis-Benn broke down in sincere, deep sobs at one point during her talk with librarians at a private luncheon. She was able to escape to a better life here in the states but what about those who aren't so fortunate? That's who this book is about.

And what can I say about Colson Whitehead? His writing defies cataloging. A wunderkind in the literary world and too darn handsome (can I say that? Is it sexist?) http://colsonwhitehead.com/, his work has come up on the short list for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle awards ("John Henry Days"). My personal favorite was "Sag Harbor," and his last one was the non-fiction look at the world poker championship in Las Vegas, "The Noble Hustle."

Product DetailsBut coming later this summer is the novel he's been thinking about, he told us, for the last twenty years. "The Underground Railroad," mixes the facts gleaned from slave narratives complied in the 1930's by the WPA with Whitehead's stab at magical realism, in which the underground railroad is not just a turn of phrase but an actual railroad that runs underground. Readers follow Cora and Caesar as they navigate the railroad from a plantation in Georgia north to freedom and learn the dark history of America's dependence upon the economics of slavery along the way. I'm told it's a must read and yes, I'll be sharing my copy.

And that's not all! Chris Cleave, Amor Towles, and Jodi Picoult, still to come, along with my reviews of Louise Erdrich's "LaRose," and the quirky new "Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper."

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Book Expo Chicago - A Feast for the Reader

Product DetailsBook Expo America is to a reader what the next hit must be like for an addict. And Chicago is a great American city, so much fun to visit and to dine in. My friend Maryellen was not as circumspect as I. She hauled home more than forty books while, since I was flying on to another city, remained cool at a conservative 21. But even if I read all day, every day, for the rest of the summer, I couldn't get through some of these big, fat, buzzed about books like Jonathan Safran-Foer's "Here I Am,"  or Nathan Hill's debut, "The Nix."

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Library Journal, the folks I review literary fiction for, always host the first day of BEA with a knock out cast of publishers and authors in panel discussion. Picture this. We arrive at the venue around 8 am to find that all of the big name publishers, Harper, MacMillan, Random House, as well as some wonderful small presses, have tables place on the periphery of the room. In the center is a wonderful breakfast spread and tables for eight. As we walk around, eyeing the displays, sales people are literally pushing free books into our hands.

"Do you like Dennis Lehane?" a Harper rep asks.

"Of course!" we affirm.

Product Details"Then you must read this," she says as she dishes out multiples of Michael Harvey's "Brighton," already optioned for film. It's the first hour of the first day and already my book bag is full.

Product DetailsAfter breakfast we go upstairs where LJ's Barbara Hoffert is preparing to interview Pulitzer Prize-winner and FSU professor, Robert Olen Butler, whose new novel is called "Perfume River," and is a potential choice for my first book discussion in December. I'm a sucker for anything that speaks to the divisions wrought by the Vietnam war within our country and also within our families. The synopsis sounds very personal to Butler who spoke emotionally of his time spent as a translator in the country and his love for the people he met there.

Joining him were Safran-Foer and Jay McInerney of "Bright Lights, Big City" fame, with "Bright, Precious Days," his third novel to follow the Calloway family as they strive to hold it together under what should be the everyday pressures of career, parenthood, and social climbing, but are apparently all magnified in New York City prior to the big bust of 2008.

So, what does this all mean for you dear readers? Well, imagine, all this star power and it's only lunch time. Wait til I tell you about the afternoon sessions. These hot new novels will all be coming out within the next several months and you're now in the know. I'll have lots of wonderful give-a-ways for you over the next couple of months, including some obscure but delightful little books that are floating just under the radar, so stay tuned.

Monday, May 9, 2016

JoJo Moyes' After You

Here I think I'm soooo informed, yet it took a Facebook friend (thank you Colleen Peckens) to let me know that author, JoJo Moyes, had written a screenplay for her beautiful, thoughtful love story, "Me Before You." http://bit.ly/1WVX8BZ Another month and the film will be released. I suspect a full box of Kleenex may be in order.

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How pleased I was to see the sequel, "After You," sitting on the new book shelf at my Maryland library. After a full week of clouds, rain, and cold, this Florida girl was looking for a cheerful romantic comedy to lighten the mood. This novel? The perfect antidote.

Lighter than "Me Before You," which carried the hefty weight of the right to die controversy, this novel still tackles the theme of loss, when our heroine, Louisa Clark, joins a bereavement group at the behest of her dad. It seems that Louisa's parents fear she might be suicidal after she falls from the roof of her London flat during a night of too much wine and too few friends with whom to share feelings of grief and guilt over Will Traynor's death.

Louisa rather reminds me of a modern day Bridget Jones. She has a wry sense of humor about her own situation as a woman at loose ends. She despises her job at a tacky Irish-themed airport lounge where she pours drinks and counsels fearful flyers dressed in a vile, green, mini-skirt and curly red wig. She has a fabulous job offer in New York City but is bogged down by inertia and a new-found sense of responsibility for Lily, a teen-age nymph who has turned up at Louisa's door claiming to be Will's daughter, a child neither he nor his still grieving parents even knew existed.

And now there's Sam, the paramedic who held Louisa's hand all the way to the hospital where doctor's stitched her broken body back together again. Is she ready to put her heart on the line for a new relationship? Is Sam? I know, I know. It all sounds a bit hokey. But, come on. Who doesn't love a good old-fashioned rom-com now and then?

JoJo Moyes is a witty, laugh-out-loud funny writer and her take on family dynamics is generous and spot on. Especially touching are the episodes involving Louisa's mother who, after thirty years of being a stay at home mom in a four generation household, decides to break out. She's taking poetry classes, reading feminist tracts, and refusing to shave her legs. You go girl!

So, if you swooned over "Me Before You," you're going to sigh with satisfaction over "After You." Read it before the film comes out. That's an order.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Nest, Life, Love, Family from a Debut Author

It's been two weeks since I've written and I realize that it wasn't so much the dreaded writers' block as it was a feeling of nesting myself. For the third year now, I have migrated from my Florida nest to my friend Don's Maryland nest. It's a beautiful place but acclimating can often bring on a disturbance in my force, a sense of being discombobulated for a little while. I wanted to settle down long enough to recommend this very talented writer to you. http://www.cynthia-sweeney.com/about-cynthia/

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Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's "The Nest" is flat out fantastic. And this is coming to you from a reviewer who tends to trash dysfunctional family novels as "been there, done that." Not so with the Plumb family, four disparate siblings being held hostage by their dead father and the trust fund he set up for them. Having just drawn up a trust myself, I know that one of the rules of the road according to lawyers, is to hold off a bit when letting your heirs know what could be theirs if you only kick the bucket sooner rather than later. Ignorance is bliss and even a small inheritance can come as a pleasant surprise when it's unexpected.
In this case, the four Plumbs, found out early on that they would come into a goodly sum on money when the youngest of the siblings, Melody, turned forty. Each of them, in their own very different ways, lived their lives with the specter of that nest egg always just within sight. And then, the unthinkable happened.
This novel begins with a bang, literally. But why spill the beans? It's enough to tell you that Leo, the eldest, and the one around whom the rest of the family seems to rotate like planets to the sun, (as we ask why, why?) causes an accident that brings a world of litigation down on the Plumb family shoulders. His doting mother is only too happy to bail him out with, you guessed it, the money from the nest. How and when will he pay back his younger brother and sisters?
And here's where Sweeney excels. She offers up each one's backstory in increments that put us right into their shoes. Bad decisions? Sure, some. And yet we feel for these people, understanding how, under the right circumstances any one of us could find ourselves financially embarrassed.
For Melody it's her lovingly restored home, purchased with an indulgent husband who just couldn't say no. Now they're upside down in their mortgage and have two delightfully precocious twin girls who will be heading off to college soon.
For Bea, who, as a younger woman, made a name for herself in New York's literary circles with a series of short stories based upon Leo's life, it's a ten year drought, a writer's block so severe that she's long used up her advance and her friendship with the agent who initially discovered her talent.
And then there's Jack, an antiques dealer married to Walter, a much more solvent and cautious man. The financial secrets that Jack has kept from his husband now threaten the demise of a carefully nurtured relationship.
How each of these flawed yet realistic, sympathetic characters learns to love himself is a joy to watch. And how Sweeney, in her well-crafted, sophisticated first novel, weaves her tale, integrating each person's story into the whole, is a pleasure to behold. And Leo? Sorry, not telling. Read it and we'll talk.