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Book Review: The Angels’ Share by Rayme Waters

The Angels’ Share by Rayme Waters (Winter Goose Publishing; 282 pages; $15.99).

AngelsShare

Cinnamon  Monday is a survivor.  She’s only 25, yet her life has been characterized by drug abuse, neglect, and physical violence.  If her drug addictions don’t kill her, then surely her boyfriend, Kevin, will.  Cinnamon’s world is not pretty; it’s gritty, stained, painful, and dangerous in Rayme Waters’ powerfully provocative, atmospheric and affecting novel, The Angels’ Share.

Waters was born in San Francisco and grew up in Northern California and in Sweden.  Her short story collection, The Island of Misfit Girls, was nominated for a prestigious Pushcart Prize and a Dzanc Award.  The Island of Misfit Girls won a storySouth Notable Story distinction.  The Angels’ Share is her debut novel.

In The Angels’ Share, Waters shows us both the past and present of Cinnamon in alternating chapters.  This method of storytelling adds an element of mystery to Waters’ tale.  There is such tragedy within these pages.  But there is also a great deal of hope.

As a young girl, Cinnamon turns to literature and has two imaginary playmates.  Her parents are hippies: her father, a pothead drifter; her mother, the offspring of wealthy parents who once owned a renowned San Francisco hotel.  Cinnamon makes friends with the characters in novels; they never leave her side, as her parents were wont to do.

When her mother returns to her family home to beg Cinnamon’s grandmother for money, the young child sees the opulence that her mother turned her back on.  Cinnamon’s grandmother is cold and distant, a stickler for proper decorum and ladylike behavior.  Quite the opposite of her mother.

Waters contrasts these two worlds with eloquent precision.  At home, pot occupies a place of honor on the kitchen table.  Her grandmother, meanwhile, has a large cherub that she points in the direction where she will be.  If the angel points toward the stairs, the grandmother is most likely in her room.  If its hand is directed toward the door, then the grandmother is out.    This is Cinnamon’s world, and she is a different person in each environment.

As she grows up, this gets more difficult for her to do.   For the teenage Cinnamon, drugs become a tantalizing escape.  Cinnamon sees drug use almost on a daily basis.  Her father does not even notice when teenage Cinnamon steals a portion of her father’s pot to give to her friends.  She feels like such a social outcast in high school and hangs around the stoners simply because they let her–in return for marijuana, of course.

Before long, though, Cinnamon graduates to the hard stuff, like crack and meth.   Kevin goes crazy on the latter and beats Cinnamon to a bloody pulp.  Later, he has no memory of what he has done.  On one occasion, he abuses her so violently that she ends up in the hospital.

Her hospital stay is really a wake-up call.  She cannot continue down the path she is on.  She must change if she wants to life.  A winemaker takes an interest in Cinnamon and gives her a job at his winery.  He also gives her a new purpose in life and a pride in herself that she’s never had before.

Because Waters was born and raised in Northern California, she brings San Francisco and its environs to life in her richly-imagined story.  Waters’ characters and her setting make this a compelling tale.  The Angels’ Share will appeal to many different readers as it is part mystery, part coming of age, and part romance.

One caveat: This is a hard novel to read because it feels so real.  Cinnamon’s trials and pain become the readers’.  Yet her triumphs become ours, as well.

The title, The Angels’ Share, refers to the alcohol that evaporates out of an oak barrel when stored at 60 percent humidity or higher.  The term alludes to the belief that guardian angels watch over the wine as it ages.  Waters clearly and fully researched winemaking in this story, making it a more flowery, full-bodied tale.  Maybe guardian angels were also watching over Waters as she set out creating this exquisitely rendered debut.

Rayme Waters

Rayme Waters

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Book Review: Black Crow White Lie by Candi Sary

Black Crow White Lie by Candi Sary (Casperian Books; 162 pages; $13.50).

                In her debut Black Crow White Lie, a semifinalist for the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, Candi Sary proves she is a talented new literary voice.  Her coming-of-agetale explores adolescence and identity.  With authentic prose and a compelling plot, Black Crow White Lie is engaging, entertaining, and highly readable.

Twelve-year-old Carson Calley lives in Hollywood motels with his unstable, alcoholic mother and roams the streets.  The two have a close bond, despite her frequent inebriation.  She tells him stories of their past lives.

“We were Indians—California Indians.  This pale skin,” Sary writes, “was once native brown.  And these legs of yours were once big and strong so that you could run after deer and shoot them with your arrows, and then bring the meat back to me.”

From a very young age, his mother told him he was destined for greatness, just as he was in his previous life.  “You were the treasure of our tribe…You were destined to be the great medicine man, the great healer who would take away all the pain and disease and suffering of our people.”  In that life, though, his destiny was brutally cut short when he was killed.

After thousands of years, Carson’s mother explains, the two spirits are reunited as mother and son.  His mother is convinced that Carson has a purpose.  “You have finally come back to fulfill your destiny.  Carson…you are the great healer of our time.”

Carson does have healing powers.  When his mother is sick, he lays his hands on her and feels “tiny stars gather” in his hands.  After a few minutes, she is well again.  Carson does seem to have a very rare gift.  Yet, Carson cannot cure his own loneliness.

With his mother out late with her married lover, Carson wanders around Hollywood.  Hollywood is the perfect setting for Black Crow White Lie.  In this setting, Sary is able to people her tale with some intriguing and unique characters, people you might not find if this story had been set elsewhere.  Looking for friendship, Carson stumbles into a head shop, where he meets its owner: an albino named Casper (no, that’s not his real name).  Casper is deaf in one ear.  After Carson heals Casper, the head shop owner talks the boy into practicing in a room in the back of the store.  He accepts.  Word spreads, and long lines wait outside to see the “Boy Healer.”

Carson also meets Faris, a tattoo artist.  Faris becomes a father figure for Carson, whose father is buried in Washington, D.C. in the “cemetery of heroes.”  It is Faris who gives Carson his first tattoo, a black crow, symbolizing a story about his deceased father.

With his mother in and out, Carson relies mostly on himself.  A huge weight is on his young shoulders.  Add the heartaches of first love to the mix, and it is easy to understand the fear and anger Carson sometimes feels.

Carson thinks he knows just who he is: a son, a friend, a caregiver, and a healer.  Yet a series of stunning revelations makes Carson question who he is and what he can do.  He undergoes a crisis of identity at such a tender age.  Can he really heal the sick?  Is he a fraud?  Has his mother been lying to him all these years?

Sary handles this all with tenderness and ease.  Carson is her most well-developed character, and he drives the story.  Yet Sary’s plot is deft and satisfying.  Her setting is apropos for her story.  I can’t wait to see more of Sary’s work.  Black Crow White Lie is an indication of a highly skilled storyteller with a bright future ahead of her.

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Spotlight on San Miguel by T.C. Boyle

I am about to begin reading San Miguel by T.C. Boyle.  Here is what Boyle has to say about his newest novel:

San Miguel is my fourteenth novel, published by Viking in September of 2012. It is set on the island of the same name, the most northern and westerly of the California Channel Islands, and the story it tells derives from my research into the ecology and history of the region for my previous novel, When the Killing’s Done. In the course of my research, I found a wealth of material relating to the tenure of two families on San Miguel Island, the Waters’ and the Lesters, each of whom lived there as sole occupants of the island in different periods, the Waters family beginning in 1888 and the Lesters in 1930. Both families sought to live apart from society—from the continent itself—and make an independent living ranching sheep. I’ve chosen to tell the story from the perspective of three women: Marantha Waters, a well-to-do San Francisco woman whose second husband, Will, convinces her to invest in the island as a business proposition; her adopted daughter Edith, who was fifteen when she first went out to the island; and Elyse Lester, who, after a whirlwind romance and hurried marriage, arrived on San Miguel with her husband, Herbie, in 1930, just as the Depression was beginning to paralyze the rest of the country.”

Anyone want to read with me?

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Book Review: Misfit by Adam Braver

Misfit by Adam Braver (Tin House Books; 304 pages; $15.95).

 

            Marilyn Monroe was not born; she was the creation of both Norma Jean Baker and Hollywood.  Marilyn became one of the most iconic figures of all time yet possessed a fragile, insecure psyche.  Adam Braver’s novel Misfit explores key moments of Marilyn’s past and how they shaped her and, ultimately, how they destroyed her.  Braver’s story is a character study of the twentieth century’s most prolific sex symbol who saw herself as a misfit.  Braver shows that Marilyn should have won Best Actress for starring in the role of a lifetime—playing Marilyn Monroe.

 

Misfit, Braver says, “should not be read as a biography, or as a record of actual events.”  Instead, it is a work of fiction, “meant to examine a struggle for identity in a very public world, and the rewards and pitfalls of conforming to meet others’ expectations.”

Braver concentrates on the last weekend of Marilyn’s life: the two days she spent at Frank Sinatra’s resort on the border between California and Nevada, the Cal Neva Lodge.  In a series of flashbacks, Braver illustrates the moments that defined her.  His novel combines fact with fiction to help us better understand both the woman and the myth.

 

Even as a young girl, Braver maintains, Norma Jean felt like a misfit.  After her mentally unstable mother, Gladys, was institutionalized, Norma Jean was passed around from relative to relative and from orphanage to orphanage.  Sexual abuse occurred at a young age.  Norma Jean clung to the image of Clark Gable, an ideal man, surely a gentleman.  But Gable was a fantasy.  No wonder that she married twenty-one-year-old aircraft plant worker Jim Dougherty at the tender age of sixteen.  Norma Jean longed for a distraction, and she thought marriage to Jim could provide a means to escape her life.

 

While married to Jim, Norma Jean first slipped into the role of Marilyn Monroe.  In 1945, Norma Jean worked at Timm Aircraft plant at Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys, California.  Norma Jean is so desperate to be liked and to be noticed that when she tells her fellow workers, mostly women, about herself, “her stories don’t always match.”  At the plant, she does not stand out.  She is just another woman working outside the home to support the war effort.

 

One day, though, her life changes.  Captain Ronald Reagan arranges for a spread of pretty girls working on airplane fuselages to appear in Yank magazine.  “That kind of story is sure to raise morale.”  The photographer, a young army private, starts snapping photographs of the women.  He gets to Norma Jean.

 

“Then,” Braver writes, “something curious happens.  The private snaps a photo of her.  And then he snaps another.”  He is transfixed by her.  “Not only does he stop moving down the line, it’s as though he’s been walled off.  He drops his bag to the floor and kicks it forward; his legs go into a horseback-riding stance, and he brings the camera up to his face with both hands and starts clicking.”  He takes “one picture after the next.”

 

Under the photographer’s attention, Norma Jean becomes someone else.  “It’s like her bones have settled into something more solid,” Braver writes.  “Her walk is poised.”  The male workers “take notice like something around her is all sexed up.”  The little girl look vanishes, “leaving a womanly confidence that is at once stunning, alluring, and a little frightening.”  It is as if Norma Jean has “grown a little larger.”  Those around her stare.  Norma Jean is not Norma Jean anymore.  She has become Marilyn Monroe.

 

And so it began.  Later, more and more photos appeared in magazines.  She eventually divorced Jim and went on to make movies.  Marriages and divorces to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller soon followed.  Both men had an image of her that she just could not live up to.  DiMaggio wanted her to be a housewife and perhaps mother.  Miller wanted her to be an intellectual.  She tried and moved to New York with him.  Marilyn studied at the Actors Studio, but she still felt objectified and inadequate.  In her eyes, she was always less than.

 

In Braver’s story, we see the enormous amount of work it took for Marilyn to be Marilyn.  She could be anything or anybody, but her role took preparation.  Often, she did what she thought people expected her to do.  For example, while filming The Misfits, the movie Miller wrote for Marilyn, she was late for scenes.  She was also popping pills.  She played the diva, but it was not a natural role for her.  She spent most of her time not preparing for her parts in films but preparing for her role as Marilyn.  Sometimes it was frustrating for her, especially when the men in her life wanted her to be someone she did not want to be.

 

The most dependable man in Marilyn’s life, Braver implies, was Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra accepted Marilyn for who she was.  As Braver writes, Sinatra was the “one solid thing for her.”  If you are hoping to find a flashback that explores Marilyn’s relationship with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy, you will be disappointed.  Braver avoids mentioning any kind of relationship between Marilyn and the Kennedy brothers in Misfit, which is a real shame.  While such allegations can be controversial, ignoring them leaves a hole in this novel.  The Kennedy brothers, surely, shaped her just as much as the other men in her life.  Braver seems to be avoiding controversy by ignoring this subject.  Their inclusion would have made a good book an even better one.

 

During that weekend, Sinatra saw how fragile Marilyn was.  He ordered her to “pack her bags and go home.”  But even he could see she was spiraling out of control from alcohol and drugs.

 

The weekend she spent at Sinatra’s resort was the last weekend of her life.  On August 5, 1962, Marilyn was found dead, naked in her bed, by her psychiatrist.  The coroner ruled it a probable suicide.  In the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, Sharon Tate played the pill-popping actress Jennifer North.  Upon learning she has breast cancer, Jennifer overdoses on sleeping pills.  Before she dies, Jennifer says bitterly, “All I have is a body.”  Marilyn could relate.

 

As Braver writes, the embalming fluid caused Marilyn’s breast tissue to deflate, making her chest “flat as a twelve-year-old boy.”  Mary, a co-owner of the mortuary where her body rests, is horrified.  “I can’t send her out like this,” Mary cries.  “Not in front of Mr. DiMaggio.  Or her family.”  So Mary sets out to recreate Marilyn Monroe.  She gathers all the cotton she can find from the supply cabinet and fills Marilyn’s bosom with handfuls of cotton.  “Now that looks like Marilyn Monroe,” Mary affirms.  The embalmer initially thought it would make her body look freakish, but he is astounded as the cotton “makes her look strangely more lifelike…”  The embalmer cannot help but think of DiMaggio and how he will feel as he looks at Marilyn for the last time.

 

DiMaggio, the embalmer believes, will be pleased with how good Marilyn looks.  He thinks of what will go through former baseball star’s head as he looks at his former wife.  DiMaggio, the embalmer thinks, will blame her death on Hollywood.  He “can’t help but suspect that this version of her actually is the one Mr. DiMaggio wants to remember, and that has got to be a killer because it means he, Joe DiMaggio, is a part of it too.”

 

At the end, Marilyn is just a body.  To a lot of people, though, that is all she ever was.  But Marilyn was much more complicated than that.  Fact or fiction or something in between, Braver’s Misfit is fascinating.  When Marilyn exits stage left, you will be on your feet shouting “Bravo!”

 

 

 

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Book Review: The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns by Margaret Dilloway

The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns by Margaret Dilloway (Putnam Adult; 368 pages; $25.95).

 

            Galilee “Gal” Garner is not your average heroine in Margaret Dilloway’s second novel The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns.  Gal is short, tiny, prickly, and in need of a kidney transplant.  Without one, she will die.

 

Despite the bleak outlook, Dilloway provides readers an uplifting story about family and forgiveness.  She also gives us a gal to root for.

 

Gal has already undergone two kidney transplants and years of dialysis.  She had her first transplant at the age of twelve; her mother was the donor.  At 24, she underwent her second, but this kidney lasted only four years.  She has been on dialysis for eight years when the novel opens.

 

“The odds of death go up with each year you spend on dialysis.  In year two, the survival rate is sixty-four percent.  Year five, thirty-three percent.  By year ten, it drops to only ten percent.”  For Gal, then, time is running out.

 

But it’s complicated.  There simply are not enough kidneys to go around.  As Dilloway explains, “People don’t line up to donate kidneys like they do to donate blood.”  Organ donation is a subject close to Dilloway’s heart.  Her sister-in-law is a three-time kidney transplant recipient.  Gal’s struggle could very well be Dilloway’s sister-in-law’s own struggle.  Dilloway really does raise awareness of the subject, and I applaud her for that.

Gal is a biology teacher at a small private school.  She loves her students (well, most of them anyway) and she loves her roses.  In fact, before we learn about Gal’s kidney problems, we learn about her roses.  That is just how much they mean to her.

 

“I am a rose breeder,” Gal proudly affirms.  “Not just a rose grower.”  Roses are her hobby, but she hopes to make them her vocation someday.  When she is not undergoing dialysis or teaching, Gal patiently cross-pollinates different specimens, hoping for one that is uncommonly beautiful and fragrant.  “My greatest hope,” she confides, “is to get a rose into the American Rose Society test gardens, where a few select new roses are grown in different climates to see how they fare for two years.”

 

Roses, Gal admits, are “difficult and obstinate.”  They only thrive “under a set of specific and limited conditions.”  That is why she loves roses so much: she and the roses are both difficult and obstinate.  This is Gal’s life.

 

One day, though, Gal’s structured existence is thrown for a loop.  Her niece, Riley, the daughter of Gal’s older, estranged and twisted sister arrives in need of some care of her own.  Gal discovers that raising a teenager is much different than teaching one.  Unsurprisingly, the two initially butt heads.

 

Riley, though, may be just what Gal needs.  And Riley herself is desperate for a maternal figure.  Dilloway has the two help each other.

 

Teenagers, Gal discovers, are a lot like roses.  Teens need attention and nourishment.  You have to give them an optimum environment.  Fertilize if needed.  And, yes, sometimes you even have to wash the bugs off.  Sometimes things can get a little thorny.  Who knows?  A beautiful and fragrant rose may grow.

 

Dilloway’s second novel is much better than her previous work, How to be an American Housewife.  Although I did not like The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns as much as Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers, I do feel it will appeal to Diffenbaugh’s fans.  There are similarities in the stories, yet there are also some big differences.  Dilloway provides helpful and wonderful information about growing and caring for roses in this book.  If you love roses, I urge you to read Dilloway’s story.

 

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California Dreamin’

My review of Hector Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries appeared in today’s Mobile Press-Register.

To read the review, please go here.

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