Category Archives: fiction

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

Book Review: May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes (Penguin Books; 496 pages; $16).

17707741If your family is anything like the Silvers in A.M. Homes’ black comedy May We Be Forgiven, you’re glad the holidays are over.  Homes is fierce and fearless in her depiction of a Twenty-First century family in crisis.  She knows just how to blend satire with realism, just how to mix tragedy with comedy, and just how to make her pages sizzle.

Homes’ characters are deeply flawed people, yet they are nothing but real.  Harold Silver, the novel’s main character, cannot help but be jealous of his little brother, George.  While Harold is a Richard Nixon scholar and historian, his brother is a powerful and wealthy television executive with a beautiful wife, two children, and a gorgeous home.   What Harold doesn’t envy about George is his violent temper.

The dominoes fall one by one when George gets into a car accident, killing a mother and father and injuring and orphaning their young son.  If that were not enough for one week, George snaps when he comes home to find his wife in bed with Harold.  He grabs the bedside lamp and hits her over the head with it.  These are not spoilers.  They happen within the novel’s first fifteen pages.

The story is not about these events anyway: rather, May We Be Forgiven is about how Harold seeks atonement for his part in the tragedy.  He blames himself.  If he had not been having an affair with his sister-in-law, then perhaps he could have averted catastrophe.  Harold becomes the guardian of his brother’s children, Nate and Ashley.  He also feels responsible for the orphaned boy.  As Harold assumes a new life so different from the one he had before, he seeks absolution.

Although Homes’ characters are completely unlikeable and unrelatable, they are strangely fascinating.  Harold is Homes’ most well-developed character.  When he is asked to edit a series of fictional stories written by Nixon, Harold jumps at this opportunity.  He sees Nixon as a father figure.  As Harold tries to atone for his own misdeeds, he seeks to assuage history’s view of the president.  It makes for compelling reading.

In fact, I challenge you to stop reading this story.  Once you start, you cannot stop.  Homes’ pacing is quick.  Her punches are like those of a boxer’s.  Surprises permeate on every page.

Sometimes, though, it is just too much.  It is as if Homes tries to one-up herself on every page, producing an over-abundance of shocking scenes with little or no segue between them.  Reading Homes’ novel can be like running a marathon, leaving you gasping for breath.  Homes, in certain instances, goes too far, most notably when Harold instructs his niece on how to use a tampon.  Shock value is a tool that should not be overused, even when writing a black comedy.  A little can go a long way.

Homes is unapologetically irreverent in May We Be Forgiven.  That’s why this is not a book for everyone.  If you enjoy dark comedies, you will love this story.  If you are not a fan of black comedy, stay far away.

I reviewed this novel last year and it’s now available in paperback.  I absolutely love the new cover!

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In His Own Words: Chad Gayle, Author of Let It Be

let it be

Let It Be by Chad Gayle (Bracket Books; 220 pages; $12.95).

Today, I am very pleased and proud to feature an exciting new voice

in literature on my blog–Chad Gayle, author of Let It Be.

LET IT BE is a touching tale of loss, longing, and forgiveness that chronicles the breakup of a marriage, the destruction of a family, and the struggle to come together in the aftermath of what remains.  Searching for the love and happiness she feels she deserves, Michelle Jansen leaves her abusive, overbearing husband behind and takes her two kids to Amarillo, Texas, where she begins to learn how to stand on her own two feet, supporting herself and her children with the money she earns from a low-paying job as she becomes increasingly involved with a coworker who is an even bigger fan of the Beatles than she is.  But Michelle doesn’t realize that her ex-husband is willing to do whatever he can to destroy her new life. When Michelle is betrayed by her very own son, this already fractured family will be damaged in an almost unimaginable way. Can they find forgiveness in the midst of so much sorrow and guilt, or will love give them the strength that they need to let it be?  Part family saga, part coming of age tale, LET IT BE is a story intimately linked to the music of the Beatles, a debut novel filled with true-to-life characters who want nothing more than a second chance.

Chad Gayle is a photographer and writer who has written for literary journals, trade publications, and newspapers. Previously, Chad worked for Poetry Magazine in Chicago and taught English at several colleges including Texas A&M University. Born in Texas, Chad lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and two children; Let It Be is his debut novel.

Here’s Chad, in his own words.

Sgt. Pepper’s, the Bee Gees, and the Making of an Unlikely Fan

let it be gayle    “There was magic packed into that twelve-inch disc, an uncanny, otherworldly kind of joy that revealed itself at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute. I was ten years old when I heard it for the first time, and there was something miraculous in the fact that I could sit down and listen to it at all, this album that had been recorded by The Beatles, the rock and roll band that had disbanded the year I was born, because I was the child of tone-deaf parents who were only interested in the kind of vinyl that covered couch cushions and dining room chairs.

We lived on fallow farmland that was miles away from the nearest town, in a part of Texas that was sandy and saturated with country and western songs and accents weighed down by a heavy Southern twang, at a time when movies, magazines, and TV shows were our only links to the world that lay beyond the dirt road that ran in front of our house. In that place, and at that age, I was cut off not only from parts of the present but from large swaths of the past as well, so that anything that had happened even a decade before seemed like ancient history, a black and white version of what was real that had the dense grain of a photo preserved in a faded newspaper.

My parents didn’t care about the Top 40, but I craved music, and I swore allegiance early on to both Soul Train and American Bandstand. With a transistor radio that I’d inherited from my grandfather clipped to my belt, I sang along with the pop idols I’d already become attached to (Elton John; David Bowie), waited anxiously for one of my one-hit-wonders to get some airplay, and grooved along to R&B and rock and roll tunes whose lyrics were obscured by the tinny eight-ohm speaker they had to squeeze through. I listened to anything and everything, and there was only one kind of music I didn’t dig—Disco, that vapid, empty collection of cloned beats that seemed pointless to a kid like me—but it was Disco, tangentially, that would determine my lifelong musical affiliation, because it was Disco that drove that hirsute trio, the Bee Gees, to the top of the charts in the late Seventies and almost made them movie stars.

In 1978, fresh from their success with Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees co-starred with Peter Frampton in the world’s worst jukebox musical, MGM’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which borrowed songs from The Beatles’ albums Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road to tell the absurd story of a not-so-fabulous band’s rise to fame. Filled with cheesy, cheap special effects, amateurish acting, and renditions of classic songs that were either startlingly good (Aerosmith’s version of “Come Together,” for example) and gut-wrenchingly awful (Steve Martin’s interpretation of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”), it was a film which appeared, even to a child, to be a joke that had gone all wrong. To say that it was just another one of Hollywood’s box office bombs was to give it credit it didn’t deserve: it was a gross error in judgment that should have stained the conscience of the movie mogul who had cobbled its crooked script together from song titles and lyrics that were never meant to be connected in any way.

My parents wouldn’t have paid to see it in a theater even if it had won a bevy of Oscars, but I happened to see it on television at my grandparents’ house the year after it was released. At that point in my life, I didn’t know anything about The Beatles; I barely knew who The Beatles were, and the songs in the movie seemed to come at me from out of nowhere, like comets that had suddenly appeared in the night sky. In spite of the fact that I rolled my eyes with everyone else at the scenes that made no sense, I realized, almost immediately, how inexplicably special the soundtrack was, and I wanted to watch the movie again when it was over, although I was almost too embarrassed by the pull the music had had on me to admit this out loud.

Luckily, I had an aunt who had lived briefly in Ohio and who had willingly—some people in our family would say defiantly—identified herself as a hippie in the Sixties. My aunt explained where the songs in the movie had come from, and she also tried to help me understand why The Beatles had been such a big deal before they broke up; when we began to talk about the songs in the movie that we liked (“Here Comes the Sun” was one of her favorites;  “With a Little Help from My Friends” was one of mine), she asked me whether I would like to hear these songs as they were meant to be heard, and she told me that she had a few of her original Beatles’ albums that I could borrow, if I wanted to.

This was the beginning of my musical education, and it started with Revolver, the bridge between softhearted ditties like “Love Me Do” and those psychedelic masterpieces, like “Strawberry Fields,” that would come later. For me, it was love at first listen, and I consumed that album, devouring it the same way that I’d devoured the sci-fi paperbacks by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov that I’d discovered at age nine. Although the context that had helped to build the record had been stripped away by the intervening years, I felt as if the melodies inscribed on it were meant for me, even if some of the lyrics were puzzling, occasionally so cryptic that they seemed to be written in a different language. This might explain why a song like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which was unlike anything I’d ever heard in my short life, was a little less appealing to me than “Got to Get You Into My Life,” as I tended to bond more easily with the McCartney-leaning lyrics (I’d already been exposed to the major hits of Wings, after all). Nonetheless, I was hooked, and I needed to hear more; my aunt was kind enough to oblige me by letting me borrow a compilation that covered the early part of The Beatles career, and after I made a copy of that record on cassette tape, I listened to it until I was singing those tunes in my sleep.

I’d started this journey at the end of the summer, but there was a pause of several months when I had to be content with scanning what is now known as an Oldies station for the opportunity to pluck “Yesterday,” “And I Love Her,” or another Beatles-era ballad from the ether. Then, over the Thanksgiving holiday, I took the great leap that would make me a Beatles fan for life. We were visiting my grandparents when my aunt arrived with her own precious cargo: a copy of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“It’s my favorite,” she said. “Don’t scratch it.”Sgt._Pepper's_Lonely_Hearts_Club_Band

I wasn’t allowed to take it home with me, so I listened to it for the first time by myself, while the rest of my family was watching a raucous game of football on the living room TV. I slipped the disc onto the turntable that was in the den and lowered the needle, letting it rest in the record’s outermost groove.

When Sgt. Pepper’s was finished playing, I had the feeling that it was like nothing I’d ever heard and everything I’d ever heard. It was an album that stood on its own, apart from all others, even though it was connected, in some significant way, to every rock and roll song that had come after it, as if it was a kind of blueprint for what great rock and roll should be. It was stunning, the whole of it, because its thirteen songs fit together perfectly, forming something greater than the sum of its parts.

I listened to it several times that day, and I knew, by the time I took it off the turntable and slipped it into its sleeve, that it was an album I would always be in love with, even though I realized, with a certain amount of confusion, that I couldn’t explain why this was so. Was I drawn to the sweeping arc of its production, the way its pieces fit together like bits of a jigsaw puzzle? Or had I fallen in love with its incredible melodies, those harmonies that complemented and mirrored each other like the movements of an intricate symphony? Maybe the characters who lived in Sgt. Pepper’s lyrics—the lonely singer Billy Shears; Rita, the unattainable meter maid; or Lucy, the album’s psychedelic muse—were exerting an inexorable hold over me, or perhaps I’d been exposed to it at the ideal time, having been primed, already, with the songs from that terrible film that shared its name. I wasn’t sure whether it was one of these things or all of them that made it seem so important, so special; I only knew that I had to get a copy of my own, as soon as possible, because I wanted to be able to listen to it over and over again.

Three more years would pass before I would get my wish. While I waited, I did listen to other kinds of music and was briefly infatuated with other rock and roll bands, but I was also scouring the airwaves on the weekends, ready to slap any Beatles song I could find onto a reel of used cassette tape, and I did get introduced to The Beatles’ White album and Abbey Road after a musical dry spell that spanned an entire school semester. By the time I was a teenager, I’d sampled most of the records The Beatles had released, and when I was finally able to listen to a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s that was mine and mine alone, I decided that their music was the only music I wanted to listen to, and I tortured my parents and the rest of my family by playing those thirteen songs on an endless loop spanning morning, noon, and night.

Why was I so obsessed with these sounds that had been produced decades before? It wasn’t that I identified with what The Beatles had stood for in the Sixties, although I occasionally pretended to be a “peace and love” acolyte in order to frighten my father, who was deeply conservative; part of it may have been a need that I had to be different, to set myself apart from the teens I knew who so desperately wanted to look like each other, and part of it was the simple pleasure that I took from listening to The Beatles, who seemed to represent the best of what music could be. But I think I was also fascinated, at a certain level, with what made their songs special, in the same way that I was fascinated with understanding how particular novels and short stories were put together—why one was successful when another one wasn’t—and I believed that I could figure out, intuitively, what made the Fab Four so fabulous by listening to their music and nothing else.

I did temper my fanaticism as I got older. It helped that the music that was being made in the present was improving; the age of the “hair bands” was coming to its inevitable end, and rock and roll wonders like U2 were now at the top of the charts, so there were some meaningful musical alternatives getting airplay on the radio and MTV. When I got to college, I was suddenly surrounded by people whose tastes in music were wildly different than mine, which helped to broaden my interests, but I also experienced a kind of letdown after I saw The Who and the Rolling Stones in concert, because I realized, viscerally, that The Beatles’ canon was as static as it could be—there was nothing new to add; there were no new discoveries to be made; and even the release of something like The Beatles Anthology would turn out to be a profound disappointment to someone like me, since I’d already been exposed to so many bootlegs and alternate versions of tracks like “Strawberry Fields.” I even went through a post-graduate period when I deliberately avoided listening to The Beatles because I was worried that I was wearing out their music, that I was turning their albums into background music, a kind of Muzak for my daily routine, and I wondered, during this time, whether I might have outgrown The Beatles, since most of my music budget was devoted by then to Indie Rock bands that I was finding through Pitchfork, NME, and alternative stations on the radio.

When I dug my Sgt. Pepper’s CD out of the stack of discs that had held it down during this long hiatus, I was afraid of what I might find—that my love for it might have been lost; that the album might have seemed so overarchingly important because I’d burned its thirteen tracks into my brain by listening to it a thousand times or more—but then the opening notes, those discordant sounds of an orchestra tuning up and getting ready to play, began to reverberate in my ears, and I felt that unbridled joy that I’d felt when I was ten. There was a difference, of course, because I was different, because there were so many seasons of my life that were linked to this record, so that when that final chord faded, leaving behind a silence that was vacuous, a sonic hole, my eyes suddenly filled with tears. I felt as if I’d just had a marvelous, unexpected reunion with a long lost friend, a reunion which demonstrated that the bond of friendship was more powerful than the distance that had come between us.

Today I can say, unabashedly, that I am still in love with the music The Beatles made. As strange as it is that a boy who was let_it_be_book_spine_tilt_3born to musically indifferent parents, who grew up in the scruffy backwoods of east Texas, who was cut off, in many respects, from the pop culture of the present and the past should become a lifelong fan of The Beatles because of the Bee Gees, the man that the boy became is thankful for that absurd twist in his life. His days have been brighter because of it, and he was lucky enough, twenty-five years after he’d discovered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to sow the songs he’d grown up with into something new, completing a novel that follows a family of four that’s fallen apart, a book that was inspired by the breakup of The Beatles and the final record they released. That novel, Let It Be, was finally published in 2013.

Sgt. Pepper’s remains my favorite album, in spite of the fact that I am constantly discovering new music that knocks me off my feet.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

And neither would we.  Thanks, Chad, and good luck with the book!

Author Website

Photography by Chad Gayle

Excerpt from Let It Be

Blog

Follow Chad on Twitter

Buy the Audiobook

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Spotlight on The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

rosie project

I’m so excited about this novel and hope to begin reading it this weekend, after I finish Burial Rites. Unfortunately, I don’t get as much time to read and write as I used to now that I work full-time.  The Rosie Project is calling me, and I am so eager to get lost in this story.

About the Book:

Coming October 1 from Simon & Schuster

An international sensation, this hilarious, feel-good novel is narrated by an oddly charming and socially challenged genetics professor on an unusual quest: to find out if he is capable of true love.

Don Tillman, professor of genetics, has never been on a second date. He is a man who can count all his friends on the fingers of one hand, whose lifelong difficulty with social rituals has convinced him that he is simply not wired for romance. So when an acquaintance informs him that he would make a “wonderful” husband, his first reaction is shock. Yet he must concede to the statistical probability that there is someone for everyone, and he embarks upon The Wife Project. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which he approaches all things, Don sets out to find the perfect partner. She will be punctual and logical—most definitely not a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker, or a late-arriver.

Yet Rosie Jarman is all these things. She is also beguiling, fiery, intelligent—and on a quest of her own. She is looking for her biological father, a search that a certain DNA expert might be able to help her with. Don’s Wife Project takes a back burner to the Father Project and an unlikely relationship blooms, forcing the scientifically minded geneticist to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie—and the realization that love is not always what looks good on paper.

The Rosie Project is a moving and hilarious novel for anyone who has ever tenaciously gone after life or love in the face of overwhelming challenges.

About the Author:

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Graeme Simsion, PhDwas the owner of a successful consulting business, who decided, at fifty, that he would become a writer.  The Rosie Project is his first book.

 

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The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Book Review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (Riverhead Books; 432 pages; $27.95).

Throughout history and fiction, women have disguised themselves as men; it is quite uncommon, though, for a boy to disguise good-lord-bird1.jpghimself as a girl and continue the charade for decades.  However, that is just what Little Onion does in James McBride’s brilliant and exhilarating novel The Good Lord Bird.  McBride re-imagines the life of John Brown and his followers while simultaneously fashioning a remarkable and amusing character in the form of Little Onion.  Through Little Onion’s eyes, McBride recreates Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, one of the most crucial chapters in American history and one that helped spark the Civil War.

History has shown us just how charismatic Brown could be, but the magnetic Little Onion steals the spotlight from Brown time and again.  Born in Kansas Territory, young Henry Shackleford is a slave when pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions make the state a battleground, hence the term “Bleeding Kansas.”  Brown arrives and gets involved in an argument in a local barber shop.  The ensuing act of violence forces Brown to flee—with Henry in tow.  The kicker is that Brown thinks Henry is a girl named Henrietta.  Henry does not tell Brown the truth about his gender.

“Truth is,” McBride writes, “lying come natural to all Negroes during slave time, for no man or woman in bondage ever prospered stating their true thoughts to the boss.  Much of colored life was an act, and the Negroes that sawed wood and said nothing lived the longest.  So I weren’t going to tell him nothing about me being a boy.”

If that does not make you laugh or at least smile, consider this: Henry is skilled at the art of zinging one-liners and entertains even in the gravest of situations.  When Brown goes off on tangents, Henry admits, “I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but, being he was a lunatic, I nodded my head yes.”

The young slave “girl” makes a big impression on Brown when “she” eats his good-luck charm—an onion.  From that moment on, Brown calls Henry “Little Onion.”  McBride’s two main characters play well off each other and make for humorous reading.

Little Onion’s masquerade also has a serious side and allows McBride to portray Henry as a trickster.  Henry’s charade is a variation of the traditional African trickster tale.  These stories, which originated in Africa and were part of the oral history of African American slaves, served as thinly-disguised social protest against white masters and featured animals as the main characters instead of real people.  In these parables, small, weak, seemingly powerless animals used their cunning to outwit larger, powerful creatures.  A rabbit might represent the weaker animal while a wolf stood for the larger one as is the case with the Briar Rabbit tales.  Whites saw such stories as fables, nothing more.  For slaves, the tales were altogether different and meaningful.  The allegories symbolically assaulted the powerful, who worked to ensnare slaves but who became themselves ensnared.  Trickster tales sought to upset traditional social roles and served as a vehicle allowing slaves to ridicule whites and get away with it.  By fooling John Brown, Henry sees himself as one-upping the white man.  His ruse works well, and that is a credit to McBride’s ingenuity.

James_McBrideMcBride cleverly juxtaposes drama and history with comedy and humor.  Uproarious laughs pepper Little Onion’s encounters with historical figures.  The funniest of these occurs when he meets Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), reformer, abolitionist, and former slave.  Upon their first meeting, Little Onion says, “Morning, Fred.”  Douglass is livid: “Don’t you know you are not addressing a pork chop, but rather a fairly considerable and incorrigible piece of the American Negro diaspora?”  A few pages later, an inebriated Douglass makes a pass at Henrietta and mistakenly calls her “Harlot” before finally saying “Don’t marry two women at once…Colored or white, it’ll whip you scandalous” (In The Good Lord Bird, Douglass commits bigamy as he is married to Anna Murray-Douglass and Ottilie Assing, a German journalist.  In actuality, Douglass never married Assing, but McBride’s vision makes for interesting reading).

Henry Shackleford may be a figment of McBride’s imagination but as you read this novel you forget that it’s fiction. McBride brings his characters to life like you’ve never seen them before.  A multi-faceted and marvelous story, The Good Lord Bird explores identity, home, place, survival, slave life, and how far a man will go for a cause.  Little Onion’s voice resonates with authenticity and humor.  In re-telling one of the most important events in American history, McBride creates a rousing romp of a story.

Breaking News–The Good Lord Bird has been longlisted for a 2013 National Book Award in fiction.  It’s my pick because I absolutely love it!

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2013 National Book Award in Fiction Longlist

Don’t you just love this time of year?  Awards time!  No, not the Emmys or any of that, but the National Book Awards, of course!

The 2013 National Book Award in Fiction longlist was recently announced.

Here are the novels in contention for America’s top literary prize:

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f_saunders_tenth

f_pynchon_bleeding

f_mcdermott_someone

f_mcbride_good

f_marra_constellation

f_lahiri_lowland

f_kushner_flamethrowers

f_graver_end

f_drury_pacific

Which of these have you read?  Any surprises??  Any book and author who you believe should have been but was not?

Which do you think will take home the title?  Do you have a favorite among these contenders?

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The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell

maids version

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell (Little, Brown and Company; 176 pages; $25).

No one brings the Ozarks region to life like Daniel Woodrell, critically acclaimed author of Winter’s Bone.  Woodrell’s newest work The Maid’s Version explores the causes and repercussions of a dance hall fire in West Table, Missouri, in 1929, in which 42 people were killed.  The bodies were so horrifically burned that loved ones identified many victims only by the trinkets and effects they left behind.  Woodrell ably illustrates how tragedy knows no income level and can reverberate through many generations.

Woodrell’s masterful talents are on full and prominent display in ThMaid’s Version as he mines the depths of real history in this novel.  A similar and equally dreadful catastrophe occurred in a dance hall in West Plains, Missouri, in 1928.  The explosion took the lives of 39 men and women; the cause of the fire still remains a mystery.

In The Maid’s Version, Alma DeGeer Dunahew thinks she has the answers.  Alma, mother of three young boys, wife to a husband who is mostly absent, and maid to a prominent family, lost her outrageous but much-loved sister in the explosion.  Convinced her sister’s illicit love affair with a powerful and very married man caused the fire, Alma upsets a lot of people and opens wounds that never healed.  Her long and fierce quest for the truth alienates her from those in her community and in her own family.

Years later, she tells all to her beloved grandson, urging him, “Tell it.  Go on and tell it.”  Alma is illiterate, and his words are her words.  It is a very powerful thing as his separation and distance from the awful event set him apart.  He is unbiased; he is meticulous; he is her proxy.

Woodrell superbly juxtaposes the end of the carefree and spirited 1920s with the dance hall fire followed by the Great Depression.  When tragedy first strikes the town, it never leaves as dejection, suspicion, and fear envelope the community.   Since The Maid’s Version is a fictionalized version of  an actual historical event, the story becomes even more compelling because it is painfully real and stunningly rendered.  With spare prose, unforgettable characters, and a setting that fully captures the period, The Maid’s Version is a quick read but one that lingers and deeply satisfies.

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The Rathbones by Janice Clark

Book Review: The Rathbones by Janice Clark (Doubleday; 384 pages; $26.95)

As summer slowly fades into fall, we sometimes yearn for something more in a novel, a story that invades our hearts and our souls, a rathbones1.jpgtale that leaves us astounded. I always find myself turning to the sea this time of year.  September is also the month in which I first read favorites like Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund and Galore by Michael Crummey, books with premises devoted wholly to the briny depths.  Longing for cooler weather after a long, hot Southern summer may play a huge role in this inclination of mine, but I think it has more to do with the storyteller.

In her riveting and magical debut The Rathbones, Janice Clark stunningly intertwines Greek myth, Gothic elements, Moby Dick, coming of age, and maritime adventure to tell the epic saga of a once proud Connecticut whaling dynasty.  The Rathbones is populated by unforgettable and powerful characters, none of whom dazzle more than Mercy, who, at fifteen years of age, sets off on a quest to find her missing father.  Verity, Mercy’s mother, has spent seven years waiting for her husband, Benadam Gale, lost at sea.  Clark draws parallels to Homer’s Odyssey in which Penelope faithfully awaited the return of her husband Odysseus; however, Mercy knows her mother’s true amorous, treacherous nature.  This unwelcome knowledge spurs Mercy to seek out her father, if she can find him.  Mercy’s quest soon evolves into a voyage of discovery and identity.

Accompanied by her strange and frail uncle Mordecai, Mercy uncovers a dark and murky family history.  Moses, the patriarch of the Rathbones, enjoyed the gift of second sight.  As Clark writes, Moses “knew the beat of the sea, its quick pulse along the shore and the slow swing of the tides.”  If he hunted in the woods or “walked too far away” from the water, “his breath went short and his limbs stiffened, and the sea pulled him back.”  Moses was one with the water and with the whales he could sense swimming beneath the surface.  He lacked only one thing, but it was crucial: a crew.

Moses developed a rather novel way to procure men: he would sire them.  Like Greek gods who captured mortal women, the Rathbone men stole females of child-bearing age to produce sons to man the whale boats.  Instead of “normal” names such as Benjamin, George, or Robert, Moses bestowed upon his sons appellations denoting their future duties like Harpooner, Bow-Oar, and First-Oar.  Moses’s peculiar methods worked, and the family thrived; Moses “reigned for three decades, the undisputed monarch of his maritime realm.”  His senses served Moses well, as he “knew before anyone else when the whales were coming, long before spouts showed on the horizon.”  Clark writes the Rathbone men “lived on land as they did at sea, their native skills honed by ceaseless practice, working as one organism.”  No other whaling family came close.

But it did not last.  Later generations lost the link they shared with both the sea and the whale.  The Rathbones became like stilt birds who lost their ability to fly once their basic needs were met on land.  In chronicling the ups and downs of this mesmerizing family, Clark highlights the rise and fall of the nineteenth-century whaling era.

janice clarkIn The Rathbones, Clark may channel Edgar Allen Poe, Homer, and Herman Melville, but she puts her own unique and indelible spin on this truly remarkable novel.  Clark offsets the Rathbone men and their whales with the Rathbone women, who are equally as formidable—women like the “Golden Wives,” sisters who were sold by their father, and Limpet, who Mercy and Mordecai find living in a cave.  And then there is Verity, deeply flawed, seemingly mad, and keeper of secrets—easily one of Clark’s most complex characters.

The Rathbones is like one of those sea sirens of yore.  Once you begin reading this enchanting story, you’re a goner.  You won’t be able to resist the pull of Clark’s enticingly rich characters or her magnificent setting.  With a novel like this, who’d even want to resist?  Go ahead and jump in.

 

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Spotlight on Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

burial ritesA brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.

Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

 

Hannah Kent won the 2011 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award for her manuscript, Burial Rites, and is currently mentored by Geraldine Brooks. She is the co-founder and deputy editor of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings, and teaches Creative Writing and English at Flinders University, where she is also completing her PhD.

 

I am currently reading Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, and it is unbelievably good.  No, it’s more than that.  In a word–amazing.  I love the varied perspectives and how Kent manages to completely immerse us in her setting.  This is an environment alien to me, yet Kent makes it recognizable and beautiful.  She also has a powerfully poetic way with language.  Very highly recommended.

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Q&A with Colin Winnette, Author of Fondly

colinThank you for allowing me to ask you these questions, Colin.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes, to an embarrassing degree. Embarrassing mainly because, when I was younger, I had a very strong sense of what being a writer meant: it meant I would grow a beard and wear sweaters and drink coffee (or at the time, water from a mug) and hold my head in my hands a lot. I would sit in front of my mother’s typewriter and “be a writer,” or perform “being a writer.” I was sort of writing stories too then, but I distinctly remember that feeling less important than the overall project of “being a writer.” 

Who are some writers you have always admired?  Have they influenced your writing in any way?

Ben Marcus was an author who really cracked me open when I first read him. His book Notable American Women came into my hands at a very significant time. I was in undergrad, obsessed with Kafka and Chekhov and Carver, who were really my only models for good story writing at the time, and someone handed me this odd book by a living American writer, (which didn’t bode well to my undergraduate self). But the book was one of the strangest, most brutal and affecting things I’d ever read. He made me rethink a lot of my assumptions about stories and what they can do and what I might want to do with them. That book rerouted my trajectory and my taste got a lot weirder and my writing got a lot better.

 

You previously wrote Animal Collection and Revelation.  What was different this time around?  Is a third book easier to write or more difficult?

WinnetteAnimalI was still working on Animal Collection when I started writing Fondly. I actually finished Fondly before AC, though the release dates don’t reflect that. I like to work on multiple projects at once because it allows me to use a lot of different kinds of energy. When I’m getting nowhere with one thing, I can switch modes and give something else a try. That said, both of the pieces in Fondly came very naturally to me. I worked on In One Story, The Two Sisters for much longer, probably because it covers so much ground and takes so many different forms. I wound up cutting a lot from that piece, and rewriting it all several times. Still, the overall process was easy. I had a clear idea of what I was going for, and I had enough confidence when writing this book to say, all I have to do is keep myself interested and something good will come. I used that as the guiding principle; keeping myself interested and curious and energized.

Your new book is titled Fondly and consists of two novellas, “In One Story, The Two Sisters” and “Gainesville.”  What about the novella form appeals to you?

When I set out to work on both of these, I had no idea how long they would be. I imagined Gainesville would be fairly long, but didn’t fondlycoverwant to force it in anyway, so I just wrote and wrote until I’d reached the end. Whether or not it’s a novel or a novella or a collection of short stories, as one reviewer had it, seems based on some hard to determine combination of word count and personal opinion, as well as how the book is printed and marketed. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize these works as novellas, but I suppose it’s the most useful way of describing them. Nothing in particular appeals to me about the novella form, but I love a book that feels like it’s the precise length it needs to be. I suppose one thing I admire about novellas is that, reading a novella by someone else, I’m happy they were brave enough to write a short book. Many authors seem driven by length, because “novels” (60,000 words or more, I’m told) sell better and people take them more seriously. If a book is 1,000+ pages, it becomes the most commonly discussed aspect of the book. Why it’s 1,000+ pages, less so. To me, personally, finding the right length for a story is as important as sentence-level work. The length should be doing just as much work. A short book gives you the room to develop a story but still keep it fairly lean and swift, which seemed important for these two particular works.

How would you describe Fondly?  And how did you come up with the title?

For me, describing Fondly is difficult. Partly because it is two very different projects in one, but mainly because the scope of the work feels larger to me than a synopsis provides for. That’s not to say someone else couldn’t do it. I just don’t have the bird’s eye view other might be able to access. The work is primarily concerned with questions of family, mortality, the how and why of stories, the defects of language, as well as human deficiency, love, mutation, and some kind of messy unity. But that’s sort of like saying this pasta dinner is primarily a matter of flour and water and oil. If that makes sense.

The title came from the cover image. I had a different title, that I wasn’t very happy with. It was very long and wasn’t exactly the right tone. Then Scott Teplin did these incredible spot drawings for the book, as well as its wonderful cover, and I knew I had to change the title to something that would sit on the jacket, next to that image, and interact with it in some profitable way. I thought about it and thought about it and at some point the idea of pulling something from an email occurred to me. I don’t know why or when. It just occurred to me and I started poring through old emails for a word that felt right. It was right there from something my boss/friend Camden Avery wrote to me in one of our early emails. It seemed like the perfect combination of humor and affection and playfulness and, with the cover image, morbidity. It also turns the book into a kind of twisted offering, which I liked. 

Please tell us a little about how you came up with each novella?  What was your inspiration for the stories and for the characters?

It’s hard to say because there’s so much going on in either work, in the book as a whole, and all of it came from different sources, different parts of myself. It was ongoing too, everything I thought or felt or encountered while I was writing these got thrown in somehow, even if I ultimately removed it. The book is really massive, as far as characters and stories go. On some level, I suppose I was excited about exhausting myself, or seeing if that was possible.

In your opinion, Colin, what is good fiction?

Today, this morning, right now, I feel like good fiction leads you from something you know, to something you couldn’t have known otherwise.

Do you have several story ideas in your head at one time?  How do you decide what to pursue, what to shelf it for later, and what to discard?

Yes. Always. I’m a mess.

 

It’s all about what feels right and where my energy is. If it doesn’t feel right or interesting to me, I drop it or change it and move on.

What is the best writing advice you ever received?

I’ve received a lot of incredible advice over the years, but what comes to mind right now is something I read in undergrad. There’s a passage in In Search of Lost Time, in which Proust describes a writer who isn’t particularly bright or gifted or good, but who is wildly successful and respected and widely read. I couldn’t quote it, and I’m probably remembering it wrong, but the gist of what he says seemed to come down to something like, she was just the one who kept writing and, after years of it, she was one of the few people who had stuck with it long enough to produce a body of work, and she thereby became an authority on whatever it was she was writing about. She had just put in the hours and finished what she set out to do, which is actually far more than what many people are capable of. What that passage did for me was allow me to dig a little mental tunnel around my insecurities—the voices in my head insisting that I wasn’t talented, had nothing of any interest to say, and was wasting my time—so that I could get on with the writing part of writing. And, after years of basically purging onto the page, I started getting a sense of what I liked and what I wanted to do. And I started getting better. Or, at least, I started to enjoy what I was making more and more often.

What do you like to do when you are not writing?

I run a lot. I watch movies and movie trailers with my wife. I worry about not writing. I used to hike a lot but now we live in a city, so I go to the store a lot and get coffee a lot and move the car a lot.

colin 2Have you read any books recently that utterly awed you?

I’ve been working on an interview with Zach Schomburg about Daniel Clowes’s books David Boring, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, and others. They’re amazing. So funny and dark and moving and strange. They’re really starting to sink in and affect the way I’m writing. I would recommend them to anyone and everyone. Plus, the art in them is great and they’re a quick read.

Which upcoming novels are you excited to read this fall?

I just finished an advanced copy of Jesse Ball’s new book Silence Once Begun. It’s phenomenal. It’s so heartbreaking and powerful, and it’s formally bold. It might be my favorite thing he’s done so far.

What do you hope readers take with them after reading Fondly?

I hope they know I never meant no harm, and that I still love them.

What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

I just finished a draft of a new novel, and I’ve got a few poetry manuscripts I’m kicking around. I had a book set to come out with Mud Luscious Press, but they closed up shop and now that book is out in the wind. I just got back from vacation, and I was working pretty steadily on a few new projects while I was gone. It’s hard to say, at this point, what they’ll turn into, but I’m enjoying working on them so far.

Good luck, Colin, and thanks so much for a wonderful interview!

Follow Colin on Tumblr

Buy the book here!

 

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Spotlight on Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Jamie Ford’s debut Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet ranks in my top 10 favorite novels of all time.  I was so excited to get my hands on his newest work of fiction, Songs of Willow Frost, out today from Ballantine.

About the Book:

songs of willow frost

Twelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese-American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.
Determined to find Willow, and prove his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte. The pair navigates the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive, but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star. The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.

Shifting between the Great Depression and the 1920s, Songs of Willow Frost takes readers on an emotional journey of discovery. Jamie Ford’s sweeping book will resonate with anyone who has ever longed for the comforts of family and a place to call home.

About The Author:

My name is James. Yes, I’m a dude.

I’m also the New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet—which was, in no particular order, an IndieBound NEXT List Selection, a Borders Original Voices Selection, a Barnes & Noble Book Club Selection, Pennie’s Pick at Costco, a Target Bookmarked Club Pick, and a National Bestseller. It was also named the #1 Book Club Pick for Fall 2009/Winter 2010 by the American Booksellers Association.

In addition, Hotel has been translated into 34 languages. I’m still holding out for Klingon (that’s when you know you’ve made it).

I’m an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and a survivor of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp.

My next novel, SONGS OF WILLOW FROST, should be hitting shelves September 10, 2013! And I’m also working on a YA (Young Adult) series that even my agent doesn’t know about…yet.

Bookmagnet Says:

Four words: Wow.  My God.  Wow.  I guess that’s technically three, but you’ll probably share my sentiment once you read Ford’s story.

This book has everything.  It’s steeped in rich history, placed during a time of great suffering yet also a period in which modern cinema was born.  The characters leap off the page right into your heart.  The well-paced plot means you will not be able to put Songs of Willow Frost down until you finish the book.    A quest for identity, for forgiveness, for understanding, for reunion, Songs of Willow Frost proves you sometimes have to suffer to recognize and seize true happiness.  I loved Songs of Willow Frost every bit as much as Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.  Jamie Ford is no one-hit wonder.  No one writes a boy’s coming-of-age like he can.  

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