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Storied Places

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins (Riverhead Trade; 304 pages; $16).

This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila (Hogarth; 240 pages; $16).

The best stories are those suffused with colorful, detailed settings—tales in which place is not only vital but a central component of the narrative.  When a writer gets it right, the setting becomes a character itself.  And that’s when the magic begins.

Two story collections emphasize the significance of place and herald the arrival of two powerful and confident women writers.  In her collection of stories, Battleborn, Top 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honoree Claire Vaye Watkins swallows the folklore of the American West, chews it up, and then spits it back out as she brilliantly reimagines the region.  Conversely, Kristiana Kahakauwila, Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University and a native Hawaiian, captures the essence of Hawaii, its people, and its cultural traditions in her debut story collection This Is Paradise.

battlebornBattleborn consists of ten bold and gritty tales.  Watkins takes us from Gold Rush to ghost town to desert to brothel and weaves such passion and intensity into each story that she leaves us breathless.  Her keen insight and gorgeous, lyrical realism bring to mind literary greats like Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx.  More than any other writer of the American West, Watkins leaves an indelible mark.

Watkins does not shy away from the personal in her collection.  The author confronts the mythology of her own family history, a legacy that includes notorious killer and cult leader Charles Manson, in what is perhaps her best piece entitled “Ghosts, Cowboys.”  Her father, Paul Watkins, was one of Manson’s followers whose main responsibilities included wrangling new girls for Manson.  In exposing her life and the stigma of her father’s past, Watkins bares herself before us, allowing us to witness both the rawness of her past and her faith in readers. It takes guts for an author to write herself into the narrative.  Her candidness makes this collection rare and beautiful.

From the American West we venture to Hawaii, the setting of the six stories in Kahakauwila’s haunting and compelling collection This Is Paradise.   Kahakauwila reveals the conflicting world that is Hawaii—old vs. new, tradition vs. modernity, and “native” Hawaiian vs. tourist.  Hawaii, or at least Kahakauwila’s Hawaii, is a place of opposition, and the author does a splendid job of getting to the heart of both the state and its people.  This Is Paradise is as majestic as Hawaii’s last queen, Lili’uokalani.

In the titular tale, “This Is Paradise,” Kahakauwila uses the first person plural (“we”) to tell the story of a young, carefree American this is paradisetourist who gets a taste of Hawaii’s dark side from the perspective of the women of Waikiki.  Their distinctive voices inject emotion into the story, easily making it one of the strongest in the collection.  Here, Kahakauwila’s dazzling writing is reminiscent of Julie Otsuka’s formidable novella The Buddha in the Attic.  Kahakauwila then explores the almost double life of a woman seeking revenge in the cockfighting ring in “Wanle.”  In “The Old Paniolo Way,” Kahakauwila illumines a son coping with the imminent death of his father and struggling with his own identity.  Deeply flawed characters and achingly real situations give This Is Paradise a universal appeal.

In their short story collections, Claire Vaye Watkins and Kristiana Kahakauwila prove that as much as we shape our world, that place, in turn, influences us.  Watkins was born in Death Valley and raised in the desert of Nevada; Kahakauwila was born in Hawaii and raised in Southern California.  Whether the focus is on the American West or modern Hawaii, these tales have extraordinary power and meaning because of the place in which they are set.

 

 

 

 

 

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Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Book Review: Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

(Alfred A. Knopf; 256 pages; $25.95).

claireIn Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat, author of The Dew Breaker, brings the rich culture of Haiti to life on the page.  Despite the title, the story is less about the main character, Claire Limyè Lanmè (“Claire of the Sea Light”) Faustin, than the people who inhabit the Haitian village of Ville Rose.  Danticat expertly charts how tragedy is an everyday occurrence in the community as mothers die in childbirth, daughters in car accidents, fathers from gunshot wounds, and friends are lost to the sea.  Nozias, Claire’s father, worries over the fate of his daughter if an accident should befall him.  His anxiety has merit, as he and his neighbors live precariously: disaster is part of their everyday lexicon.   Nozias knows this more than most as his wife died while giving birth to Claire.  Danticat does an excellent job of placing the reader in his mindset, urging us to sympathize with a father desperate to make the right choices for his daughter.  When Claire turns ten, Nozias decides to give her to a local woman, who lost her own daughter in a horrific accident, to raise.  Claire gets wind of the plan and flees.  Danticat’s storyline suffers as she explores the lives of villagers and loses her overall focus.  Although the plot periodically meanders, the author’s language is magical and striking.  A “wall of water” rose “from the depths of the ocean, a giant blue-green tongue, trying, it seemed, to lick a pink sky.”  Sometimes when Claire was “lying on her back in the sea, her toes pointed, her hands facing down, her ears half submerged, while she was listening to both the world above and beneath the water, she yearned for the warm salty water to be her mother’s body, the waves her mother’s heartbeat, the sunlight the tunnel that guided her out the day her mother died.” Ultimately, Claire of the Sea Light is a breathtaking but sometimes uneven character-driven novel.

  

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Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

(St. Martin’s Press; 368 pages; $25.99)

lookaway         The Johnstons of North Carolina really do put the “fun” in dysfunctional.  Your family will look tame and even normal by comparison.  Scandal seems to follow members of the Johnston family, proud descendants of Confederate Civil War General Joseph E. Johnston. Tradition, pride, and appearance matter a great deal to them, yet one thing is certain:  the Johnstons will not be sending out Christmas letters along with their Christmas cards anytime soon.  You know the ones I mean, and you probably have relatives who’ve sent you these, too, bragging about what their kids have accomplished this year.

Although Lookaway, Lookaway is not written in the same unique style in which Maria Semple wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette, this singularly Southern story will appeal to Semple’s fans.  While Semple caricatured Seattle culture, Barnhardt satirizes the South.

Barnhardt offers up wit and cleverness, a combination guaranteed to elicit a loud guffaw or two.  Case in point:  “You’ll do something, I would hope, with your future Carolina degree,” Jerene Jarvis Johnston tells her daughter, Jerilyn, when she leaves for college.  “Enjoy your independence.  Work for a few years before you see which of the young men at Carolina seems destined for something besides his parents’ basement.  Or, given the atmosphere at Carolina, rehab.”  Wickedly hilarious, this piercing story will soon be all everyone is talking about.   Lookaway, Lookaway is the perfect social satire—Southern style.

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Book Review: The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

perfume collectorThe Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro (Harper; 464 pages; $24.99).

It was with quite a bit of reluctance that I picked up The Perfume Collector.  I read the description and sighed deeply.  Yet another dual narrative?

If it had been closer to Halloween, I would have dressed up like the Statue of Liberty, torch and all, shouting my own version of the Emma Lazarus poem:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your dull dual narrators yearning to break free…”

I wanted something different.  I wanted to read a story in which the narrator was the setting of the story.  I wanted a coming-of-age tale in which the protagonist was unreliable.  I wanted suspense.  I wanted thrills and chills.  I wanted the first person plural.  I wanted flash fiction, meta fiction, flashback, flash forward.  Anything, anything other than a dual narrative.  It just seems as if we are inundated with those these days.

However, there was one aspect of The Perfume Collector that I found unable to resist: perfume.  Ever since I was quite young, I have collected perfume bottles and scents.  I will admit that it was the perfume aspect of the novel that persuaded me to read the book.   And when I did, the experience was so intoxicating and unforgettable.

An inheritance from a mysterious stranger . . .
An abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank of Paris . . .
And three exquisite perfumes that hold a memory . . . and a secret

London, 1955: Grace Monroe is a fortunate young woman. Despite her sheltered upbringing in Oxford, her recent marriage has thrust her into the heart of London’s most refined and ambitious social circles. However, playing the role of the sophisticated socialite her husband would like her to be doesn’t come easily to her—and perhaps never will.

Then one evening a letter arrives from France that will change everything. Grace has received an inheritance. There’s only one problem: she has never heard of her benefactor, the mysterious Eva d’Orsey.

So begins a journey that takes Grace to Paris in search of Eva. There, in a long-abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank, she discovers the seductive world of perfumers and their muses, and a surprising, complex love story. Told by invoking the three distinctive perfumes she inspired, Eva d’Orsey’s story weaves through the decades, from 1920s New York to Monte Carlo, Paris, and London.

But these three perfumes hold secrets. And as Eva’s past and Grace’s future intersect, Grace realizes she must choose between the life she thinks she should live and the person she is truly meant to be.

Illuminating the lives and challenging times of two fascinating women,The Perfume Collector weaves a haunting, imaginative, and beautifully written tale filled with passion and possibility, heartbreak and hope.

Tessaro, the author of Elegance, creates two strong yet very distinctive women who transported me to places I had never been, to an era in which I was not a part.    She has an innate ability to immerse her readers completely in the time period in which she writes. And aren’t those the best novels?

It wasn’t long before my heart skipped a beat and my senses heightened.  My whole body became alert.  Was the dual narrative what I needed?  Even when I had turned my back on this technique? 

I sped through the story, utterly riveted to Tessaro’s pages, heady with feeling, intoxicated by the author’s prose, setting, characterization, and plot.

The Perfume Collector restored my faith in the dual narrative, and I have the author to thank for that.  Kathleen-Tessaro-236x300

So I pose these questions to you:

Which technique and style do you prefer?

What do you think there is just too much of?

What would you like to see more of?

To read more reviews of this book, connect with other readers,  enter giveaways, and participate in discussion–visit She Reads.

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A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

Book Review: A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik (Alfred A. Knopf; 240 pages; $24.95).

marker.jpg  Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee, ekes out the barest of existences on an island in the Aegean Sea in Alexander Maksik’s stunningly visceral second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift.  “Only go down the path.  Only find water.  Find food.  Find shelter,” Maksik writes.  These basic necessities occupy Jacqueline’s time and lead us to wonder why a young woman as cultured, gentle, and intelligent as Jacqueline (who was named after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) ends up sleeping in a cave.

Maksik’s protagonist is a person who is completely stripped down.  She cares only about surviving her new environment, a place in which she knows not a soul.  Dependent upon the kindness of strangers and the voices of her parents, she lives day to day, sometimes even hour by hour.   “Forward,” her mother urges.  “Forward.”

Her father, a former finance minister for the Liberian government, admonishes his daughter to look at the facts: “You are alone.  You have the clothes you’re wearing.  You have the contents of your pack.  Including twenty euros.  It will soon be night.  It will soon be colder.  You are thirsty.  You will soon be hungry again.”

Once her belly is full, her thirst quenched, and temporary shelter has been found, Jacqueline has nothing but her memory, and that seems “like madness.”  For a while, “the act of eating displaced memory.  It was like a solid thing in a pool of water and the second you removed it, the water returned.”  Jacqueline comes to realize that “to live, one must be able to live with memory because memory was the constant,” even in such “precarious,” uncertain, and dangerous times as she faces.  Maksik breaks it down succinctly but eloquently: “We are our bodies, and we are memory.  That’s it.  That’s spirit.  That’s God.”

A Marker To Measure Drift unfolds in tantalizing parts, requiring patience from the reader.  Maksik offers up Jacqueline’s memories in tiny morsels, much the same way in which Jacqueline finds and consumes her food.  He employs this seemingly coy tactic because the whole horrible truth is too harsh to swallow in one gulp.

From Greece to Liberia, A Marker To Measure Drift follows an extraordinary young woman who has witnessed unspeakable atrocities.  At times, one cannot help but wonder if Jacqueline, “between madness and memory,” alone and bereft, has gone insane.  One thing is certain: Jacqueline struggles against erasure; through self-negation, she has erased herself from her violent past.  There comes a time when she can no longer expunge herself from her own history, when she must stop running from it.

Her father, ever pragmatic, scolds her, “You must always tell yourself the truth.” In the end, Jacqueline tells her new friend, Alexander Maksik by Beowulf SheehanKatarina, a waitress, the reason she fled her home country.  “Is telling” the truth “an act of violence, she wonders.  Will the truth “destroy the girl”?  In this instance, words are a balm for Jacqueline as she re-inserts herself into her own narrative.

In spare and lyrical prose, Maksik presents a tale as unrelenting as the sweltering sun on the hottest day of the year.  Jacqueline undergoes a sweeping physical and spiritual journey, one which leaves an indelible mark on her and on anyone who reads A Marker To Measure Drift.

Maksik draws effective parallels between the ruins of a Greek island destroyed by volcanic ash thousands of years ago and the country of Liberia, irrevocably changed by the torture and genocide that characterized the brutal dictatorship of President Charles Taylor (1997-2003). Fans of Chris Cleave’s 2009 stunner Little Bee will surely appreciate Maksik’s equally striking and impressive narrative.  When I finished A Marker To Measure Drift, I hurled the book across the room to get it as far from me as possible.  And then I wept.  I predict all who read this will have a similar reaction—such is the power of Maksik’s story.  

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Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel

Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel (Harper Collins; 320 pages; $25.99).

Description:

sea creaturesWhen Georgia returns to her hometown of Miami, her toddler son and husband in tow, she is hoping for a fresh start. They have left Illinois trailing scandal and disappointment in their wake: Graham’s sleep disorder has cost him his tenure at Northwestern; Georgia’s college advising business has gone belly up; and three-year old Frankie is no longer speaking. Miami feels emptier without Georgia’s mother, who died five years earlier, but her father and stepmother offer a warm welcome-as well as a slip for the dilapidated houseboat Georgia and Graham have chosen to call home. And a position studying extreme weather patterns at a prestigious marine research facility offers Graham a professional second chance.

When Georgia takes a job as an errand runner for an artist who lives alone in the middle of Biscayne Bay, she’s surprised to find her life changes dramatically. Time spent with the intense hermit at his isolated home might help Frankie gain the courage to speak, it seems. And it might help Georgia reconcile the woman she was with the woman she has become.

But when Graham leaves to work on a ship in Hurricane Alley and the truth behind Frankie’s mutism is uncovered, the family’s challenges return, more complicated than before. Late that summer, as a hurricane bears down on South Florida, Georgia must face the fact that her choices have put her only child in grave danger.

My Thoughts

Graham, Georgia, and their son Frankie moved to South Florida to escape their many troubles in Susanna Daniel’s new novel Sea Creatures, but their problems had a way of tagging along.  Georgia, Daniel’s main character and sole narrator, was a protagonist I not only liked but with whom I sympathized and empathized.  I put myself in her place and understood the great weight she carried on her thin shoulders.  I absolutely hated Graham, Georgia’s husband, who suffered from parasomnia, a condition in which he experienced erratic sleep patterns.  He sometimes sleepwalked.  “Sleep was the yardstick by which all other fears were measured, and everything else dwarfed.  It’s the stuff of horror films, sleep terror, but the sleep goblins of film are imaginary.  Graham’s problems were real, and all the more alarming for their unpredictability.”

SeaCreatures_3DBookshot

Despite having parasomnia, Graham scoffed at his son Frankie’s selective mutism.  This, I must confess, was the ultimate of his transgressions for me.  Graham seemed to want Frankie to be “normal,” when Graham himself had medical problems.

Daniel expertly underscored how parenthood can change a marriage.  Georgia just could not understand her husband’s mindset, “Sometimes I thought that in becoming a parent, I’d morphed into an entirely different person, while he’d remained exactly the same person he’d always been.”  As Daniel’s tale progressed, husband and wife only withdrew farther and farther away from each other.

Georgia and Frankie, though, grew even closer.  Frankie stole my heart time and again in this novel.  “Just as he’d started to speak words, he’d stopped…[The doctors] quizzed me about my marriage and about Graham and his parasomnia, which led me to understand that children in difficult homes sometimes go mute….”  Frankie finally found his voice thanks to Charlie the hermit.

I loved the transformation in which Charlie’s character underwent.  Like Frankie, he discovered a part of himself that had been closed off for years.  Sea Creatures came to dazzling and vivid life whenever Georgia and Frankie visited Charlie in Stiltsville.  Those passages just hummed with energy.

683af41910938771f187ff55921f44d6I could not help but hope that Georgia and Charlie would develop a lasting romance.  Of course, I also hoped she would give Graham the boot.   Everything comes to a shuddering climax as Hurricane Andrew approaches South Florida, lending a threatening, uncertain atmosphere to the story: “The course of a life will shift—really shift—many times over the years.  But rarely will there be a shift that you can feel gathering in the distance like a storm, rarely will you notice the pressure drop before the skies open.”  Indeed, the hurricane heralded a new chapter for Daniel’s characters.  For them, everything changed.  Just as residents of South Florida cleaned up after the storm, the people in Daniel’s novel must pick up the pieces of their tattered and torn lives.

Thus, Daniel adeptly weaved together various conflicts throughout her narrative, cleverly moving from man against man to man against himself to man against nature.  The plot of Sea Creatures expertly revolved around these struggles.

All in all, Daniel’s second book was an absorbing, lyrical journey.  Sea Creatures left me spellbound, sleepless, speechless, and completely oblivious to the rest of the world.

He said, “Some people go to sea, and they drown.”

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Putnam; 320 pages; $26.95).

We are allKaren Joy Fowler begins her eighth work of fiction smack-dab in the middle of the story.  “In 1996,” she writes, “ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared.” How odd it is for one woman to have two siblings missing, I thought.  Just like that, Fowler had my undivided attention.  Immediately, Fowler immerses you in her story; instinctively, you know We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will be unique and different.  You will not be disappointed.  For Rose, Fowler’s narrator, this tale is cathartic and necessary.  For us, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is emotional, riveting, and very unexpected.

We travel from the middle back to the beginning.  A mother keeps two baby books for her two baby daughters to record their first milestones.  Rose learns to walk at ten months of age, while Fern can “make it all the way downstairs by herself, swinging on the railings.”  Fern’s rapid development pushes Rose to progress faster.  When she is ten months of age, Rose weighs fourteen pounds and seven ounces and already has “four teeth, two on the top, two on the bottom.”  Fern meanwhile weighs ten pounds and two ounces.  The first word Rose utters is “bye-bye,” which she signs at eleven months of age and says at thirteen months.  At ten months, Fern signs “cup” for the very first time.

No, these babies are not twins.  Rose is a human child.  Fern is a chimpanzee.  I bet that got your attention.  Fowler leaves breadcrumbs throughout the narrative to clue in careful readers to Fern’s true nature.

Rose’s parents are scientists, and her mother and father involve both Rose and Fern in a scientific experiment, the ramifications of which will affect Rose and their son, Lowell, for decades.  I was appalled at the actions of both parents and never connected with either character.  How horrible to put your own family through a scientific study.

The kicker is that Rose cannot remember what happened to Fern.  One day, Rose woke up and her sister was gone; no one wanted to talk about her disappearance.  Rose’s memory is like a “tule fog,” unlike other fogs because it is “fixed and substantial.”  Rose is short for Rosemary, but the name is not for remembrance in this case.  Fowler effectively illustrates the unreliability of memory, especially in early childhood development.

However, Rose never really rids herself of Fern.  Her lost sister is like an amputated limb one senses but is gone forever.  Rose still

Photo by Beth Gwinn

Photo by Beth Gwinn

retains some of Fern’s animalistic nature: “I often felt wild back then….”  She also admires those traits in others, as Fowler hilariously portrays when Rose meets Harlow while attending college.  In the school cafeteria one day, Harlow’s boyfriend tells her he wants space.  Harlow responds by throwing things and violently carrying on, reminding a delighted Rose of Fern. Fowler uses animalism as a recurring motif in her novel to great effect.

Well-researched from experiments on chimps and apes to the early space program to pop culture references to fascinating information on memory, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves focuses on ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  Fowler morphs one woman’s childhood into the stuff of science and makes for compelling reading.

What ultimately happens to Fern is beyond words.  When I reached the end, I cried, and I cried, and I cried, and I was completely and utterly beside myself.  Fowler’s emotional, pitch-perfect tale is perfect for fans of Sara Gruen’s Ape House and Lucy by Laurence Gonzales, but We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is even better.  A well-orchestrated plot, an immersive setting, and unforgettable characters propel Fowler’s novel into a class all its own, making it one of the year’s best fictional works.

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The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill

Book Review: The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill

The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill (Scribner; 368 pages; $26).

the-violet-hour.jpgKatherine Hill begins her intimate and utterly beguiling first novel, The Violet Hour, on a boat.  This leisure cruise ultimately charts the course of Hill’s novel.  What we assume will be a  fun excursion on the San Francisco Bay for Abe and Cassandra Green and their daughter, Elizabeth, leads to the end of a marriage.  Hill then progresses the narrative forward from 1997 to 2005, an eight-year progression into the future that seems strange at first but then becomes clear.  It is just the distance Hill’s distinctive and multi-faceted narrators need to illuminate both the union and the fracturing of a family.

Cassandra has not laid eyes on Abe in almost eight years when she, Elizabeth, and her siblings gather for the birthday of Cassandra’s father.  When a tragic accident befalls Cassandra’s father and takes his life, his loved ones are left reeling.

Hill has a rationale for killing a character on his birthday when he is surrounded by his family.  Cassandra’s father had run a funeral parlor in the basement of their home.  For this family perhaps more so than for others, death is truly a part of life.  Especially in late August of 2005.

Hill’s superbly crafted characters are especially attuned to the suffering that a storm called Katrina has inflicted upon the Gulf Coast.  Hurricane Katrina left an indelible mark on both the region it hit and on our nation as a whole.  As a person who went through Katrina’s destruction and aftermath, I do not see how a writer could set any kind of tale in late August and early September 2005 and not feature Katrina.  It would be irresponsible otherwise.  Hill draws a compelling and convincing parallel between Hurricane Katrina and the death of Cassandra’s father, nicely juxtaposing the two calamities.  As a family is changed forever, a country is irrevocably altered.  Thus, Hill effectually intertwines a family and a country both in the midst of loss.

Katrina’s flood waters provide Hill with the opportunity to bring her story full circle.  Abe had relished the time he spent on hillthe San Francisco Bay in his boat.  Sure, the water might have been choppy at times, but the experience renewed him.  Water nourishes us; we need it to survive.  The essential liquid cleanses, soothes, and provides respite, but it also has a dark side. In Katrina, the water thunders, roils, gathers momentum and wreaks havoc on a city.  Tiny vessels ferry residents to safety.  As in the beginning of the story, Hill returns to boats.  This time the boats are rescuing hurricane survivors and charting the course of others’ lives.

Deftly plotted, richly characterized, and brilliantly placed, The Violet Hour is a perfect novel for fans of Ghana Must Go.   Hill knocked me over with her very personal portrayal of a family’s past and present.  She knows how to keep readers turning pages.  I am particularly  pleased she highlights Katrina so prominently in the book.  Without the historic and devastating storm, this story would definitely lose some of its impact

 

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The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

Book Review: The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton & Company; 304 pages; $25.95).

resurrectionist.jpgImpeccably researched and minutely detailed, Matthew Guinn’s first novel The Resurrectionist is mined from the dark and almost-forgotten pages of buried history—literally.  During renovations of one of the oldest buildings on the campus of the Medical College of Georgia in 1989, human remains were found in the structure’s cellar.  Archaeologist Robert Blakely carefully studied the bones and published his findings in a 1997 book entitled Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training.  Blakely discovered that the remains were procured for the purposes of dissection and training for the college’s medical students.  This was nothing new.  A dearth of cadavers existed in the nineteenth century, and both American and Canadian institutions commonly hired people to bring in corpses.  But there is a strange twist to this true story.  The Medical College of Georgia bought a slave named Grandison Harris just before the Civil War to be their body snatcher, or “resurrectionist” in the jargon of that era.  For decades, Harris dug up bodies in Augusta’s African American cemetery.  This was not a job he enjoyed, but rather one he endured because he was enslaved.  Guinn loosely bases The Resurrectionist on this disconcerting aspect of our history, and it’s both effective and chilling.

Guinn begins his tale in 1995 when disgraced doctor Jacob Thacker suffers through probation for abusing Xanax.  He has been exiled to public relations at the South Carolina Medical College when workers uncover the bones of African American slaves on campus.  Jacob is determined to find out about the college’s shadowy past, even if his dogged pursuit could jeopardize his career.

Jacob is really only a small part of Guinn’s story.  In my mind, he is a much lesser character compared to the true star of The Resurrectionist: Nemo Johnston, a rich, finely-drawn, and highly nuanced personality.

Seven doctors at the South Carolina Medical College hold legal title to him.  They are his owners; he is their slave.  One of the school’s founders, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, purchased Nemo because of his impressive skills with a knife.  Nemo’s main duties, though, are to provide corpses of recently-deceased African American slaves to students.

Imagine for a moment what this existence is like for Nemo.  When Dr. Johnston bought him, Nemo took on his owner’s last name, an ordinary occurrence of the period.  More significant is the fact that Nemo changed his first name.  Previously it was Cudjo, a common African name for children born on Monday.  Cudjo said good-bye to his original name to become Nemo, which interestingly means “no man.” No man could do what he is doing and live with himself.  His responsibility weighs heavily on Nemo as he internalizes the horrors of who and what he has become—a man who robs the graves of his own kind for scientific study.  This was yet another way that slaves were degraded and demoralized.  Their bodies and their spirits were broken in life only to have their bodies mutilated after death.  To put yourself in Nemo’s place is sobering and uncomfortable.

“In Africa,” Nemo knows, “he could have expected an instant death for desecrating a grave and disturbing the spirits, and after that death, an eternity of torment from the ancestors and their demons.” Guinn offers us another stunningly terrifying awareness: Nemo has no voice.  Nemo knows that a slave is “either a creature of adaptation or just another dead body.”  He has adapted simply out of necessity.

In one of Guinn’s most incredibly powerful scenes, a student is shocked to learn the corpse he is studying is that of his mother.  Instead of producing the body of a slave, Nemo had dug up the body of a recently-deceased white woman.  Not surprisingly, there is a hue and cry.  The doctors have forgotten the slaves are human; they are all oblivious to the fact these people were once wives, mothers, daughters, husbands, fathers, and sons.  Guinn turns the lens to a striking effect.

No matter what Nemo does, no matter how he sees himself as inhuman, his actions do not truly reflect on him.  Instead, his

Matthew Guinn

Matthew Guinn lives in Jackson, MS

activities tell more about his slave owners and the school’s doctors than they do about him.  Here, Guinn illustrates Aimée Cesaire’s boomerang effect of colonialism: slavery dehumanizes civilized men.  Since racial slavery is based on and justified by contempt of the enslaved, anyone who engages in such an act is changed by it.  Slaveholders often viewed their slaves as animals and treated them as such, but such an attitude also turned slave owners into animals themselves.

In the end, Nemo reclaims his agency and seizes his place, his self-respect, and even his humanity.  And Jacob must decide what is important to him, especially when he learns of a connection to those bones in the basement.

This Southern Gothic tale fascinated, startled, and unsettled me.  By shedding light on real-life body snatcher Grandison Harris, Guinn is himself a resurrection man.

“But one folkway he could not discard. Always he brought along some piece of crockery to leave on the grave, following the ancient ritual of leaving a container nearby to catch the spirit of the departed if it was loosed.”

Did you know? Whites adopted many of these African burial practices from African American slaves.

Another fact–Africans believed that when you killed a snake, it didn’t actually die until the sun went down.  My grandmother used to always say this after she killed a snake.   Slaves brought their cultural traditions from Africa to America and passed them to whites, making it part of our shared heritage.

 

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The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

Book Review: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam; 368 pages; $25.95).

other typist“They said the typewriter would unsex us,” Suzanne Rindell writes in her dark and arresting debut The Other Typist.  A typewriter “is a stern thing, full of gravity, its boxy angles coming straight to the point, with no trace of curvaceous tomfoolery or feminine whimsy,” completely masculine. Although there is nothing feminine about a typewriter, the device has typically been used by women.

The typist in danger of being unsexed is Rose Baker, Rindell’s main character who is accused of a crime she claims not to have committed and deemed mad.  Her narrative consists of a journal she is keeping for her doctor, slowly clueing us in on the reason for her institutionalization.

A typewriter excuses nothing.  With the “sheer violence of its iron arms,” it strikes “at the page with unforgiving force.”  Women tend to be more forgiving than men, but “forgiving is not the typewriter’s duty,” yet another example of its innate maleness.

In the 1920s, the setting for Rindell’s tale, women were not supposed to be violent criminals.  Men committed crimes; women, with their “delicate” sensibilities, cared for their husbands, bore and nurtured their children, and maintained the home.  But Rose is not the typical 1920s woman.

There is one crucial element about Rose that you need to know: she is an unreliable narrator.  Come on, no human can possibly type 300 words per minute.  You cannot trust anything she says, making her a thrilling and unforgettable character.  Rose, a consummate liar, will surely remind readers of Amy from Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster bestseller Gone Girl.  Rindell’s narrator also shares many of the same qualities as Grace from Charlotte Rogan’s absorbing novel The Lifeboat.  Like Amy and Grace, Rose is an unknown, unknowable, and enigmatic character; you learn to expect the unexpected from her rather early on in Rindell’s novel.

The anticipation builds as Rose grows increasingly obsessed with Odalie, her fellow typist at a police precinct in New York City’s Lower East Side.  For Rose, Odalie is “sweet nectar” she cannot help but succumb to.  She is drawn to Odalie, like an “insect drawn to his peril.”  Rose’s fixation on Odalie reminded me of Patricia Highsmith’s cunning novel The Talented Mr. Ripley.

“A lying criminal always trips himself up (or herself, I suppose, rare though that alternate scenario may be) either giving too many details or else revealing the wrong ones,” Rindell writes.  In this way, the author slowly and shrewdly reveals the truth, and it is both surprising and extraordinary.

In Rindell’s expert hands, the budding science of criminology and history merge to create an atmosphere reminiscent of the period.

Suzanne Rindell

Suzanne Rindell

New York City in the 1920s comes to vivid life as Rindell recreates the jazz-age period of flappers and Prohibition and throws in decadent parties (think The Great Gatsby), moonshine, and speakeasies.  The experience is a grand and heady one that always keeps you engaged and guessing.

You are powerless to fight the pull of The Other Typist.  It is just impossible.  The Other Typist ensnared me from the first page and never let me take a breath until I closed the book.  Rindell may be a rookie, but she possesses an inherent knowledge of storytelling.  Easily my favorite mystery novel of the year, The Other Typist held me in its suspenseful grip, and I was content to abide in its clutches.  This novel is so shocking you’ll have to force yourself to close your mouth when you read the last page.

The Other Typist is a book and not a steak, but it’s juicy and appealing.  One taste and you are want more and more and more.  Rindell successfully creates two remarkable women who seize our attention, stun us, and make us fans for life.

Keira Knightley to star in and take a producer’s role on the jazz-age period piece, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

It is unknown which of the two main characters she will play.

Keira Knightley

Who do you see Knightley as: Rose or Odalie?  And why?

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Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, mystery, Summer Reading, thriller