Tag Archives: families

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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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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Q&A with Susan Rebecca White, Author of A Place at the Table

A Place at the Table by Susan Rebecca White (Touchstone; 336 pages; $25).

a place at the tableA rich, beautiful novel about three unlikely, complex characters who meet in a chic Manhattan café and realize they must sacrifice everything they ever knew or cared about to find authenticity, fulfillment, and love.

A Place at the Table tells the story of three richly nuanced characters whose paths converge in a chic Manhattan café: Bobby, a gay Southern boy who has been ostracized by his family; Amelia, a wealthy Connecticut woman whose life is upended when a family secret finally comes to light; and Alice, an African-American chef whose heritage is the basis of a famous cookbook but whose past is a mystery to those who know her.

As it sweeps from a freed-slave settlement in 1920s North Carolina to the Manhattan of the deadly AIDs epidemic of the 1980s to today’s wealthy suburbs, A Place at the Table celebrates the healing power of food and the magic of New York as three seekers come together in the understanding that when you embrace the thing that makes you different, you become whole.

 

If you are a fan of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, you will absolutely devour Susan Rebecca White’s newest creation, A Place at the Table.  Thanks to the wonderful Alison Law, I was able to ask Susan three questions and here are her answers.

Do you have several story ideas in your head at one time? How do you know when you can run with an idea and

Photo Credit: Dorothy O'Connor

Photo Credit: Dorothy O’Connor

when you need to shelf it for later and when you should just discard it?

I work on several story lines at once. While writing A Place at the Table I would work on Bobby’s section for a little bit; then hit a wall. Then I’d turn to Amelia and work on her section for a bit; then hit a wall. Then I’d turn to Alice. That’s probably why I keep returning to the multiple narrator form. I can pick up a different piece of the storyline when I exhaust myself with another.

I am not entirely sure how it is that I ultimately decide which storylines stay in the final novel and which are jettisoned. I write a lot more than is ever actually published. I probably wrote 1000 pages of text when putting together A Place at the Table, but only 300 + made it to the final draft. I am a big believer in spilling material and then tidying it up during the editorial process. Often I think of writing as excavation. The story is in there, but I have to dig it out of me. And I dig it out by writing.

In your opinion what is good fiction?               

Good fiction disrupts the tidy narratives that we create about our lives and exposes something deeper, darker, and ultimately more authentic. Good fiction excavates if not The Truth then deeper truths about who we are. Ultimately good fiction connects us to each other. There’s an adage “the more specific, the more universal.” By paying exquisite attention to specific characters on the page, seeing who they really are beneath the well-rehearsed stories they tell of their lives, we begin to question our own tidy narratives, our own delusions. Good fiction makes you acutely aware of being alive when you are reading it, even though you are reading about someone else’s story. And in that regard good fiction does what we ask of religion: It takes us outside of ourselves. It helps us transcend our own limited perspectives. Good fiction also grabs us, makes us want to know what happens next, makes us want to turn the page.

How would you respond to those who claim women writers do not write “serious” fiction?

Hmm. Well, first I would want to give that person the middle finger, but being a nice southern woman I’d probably refrain. I guess I respond by giving a big eye roll, shaking my head at ignorance, rolling up my sleeves, and getting back to work.

 

Learn More about Susan:

susanrebeccawhiteauthorphotoBorn and raised in Atlanta, Susan Rebecca White earned a BA in English from Brown University, then moved to San Francisco, where she taught and waited tables for several years, before moving to Virginia to earn her MFA in creative writing from Hollins University. At Hollins, she was a teaching fellow and the recipient of the James Purdy prize for outstanding fiction.

Susan’s debut novel, Bound South, received wide critical acclaim and was shortlisted for theTownsend Prize. Bound South was followed by A Soft Place to Land, also critically acclaimed and a Target “Club Pick.” Susan’s third novel, A Place at the Table, is receiving early praise and is on the American Booksellers Association “Indie Next List” for June of 2013. The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) selected A Place at the Table as a 2013 Summer “Okra Pick.

Susan has been invited to festivals and book events around the country and has been a speaker at numerous academic and cultural institutions, including SCAD Atlanta, the Carter Center, the Margaret Mitchell house, and Birmingham’s Hoover library. Susan appeared in the February 2011 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, in a photograph and accompanying essay celebrating women authors living in Atlanta. During the summer of 2011, Susan lived in Manhattan to gain on-the-ground knowledge of the city and research in greater depth the history of Café Nicholson, the real-life restaurant that inspired Café Andres in A Place at the Table.

Susan currently lives in Atlanta, where she teaches creative writing at Emory University. During the winter of 2011 she was the writer-in-residence at SCAD Atlanta. She is married to Sam Redburn Reid, also an Atlanta native, meaning she and Sam both grew up eating Varsity hamburgers and riding the pink pig at the Rich’s downtown.

Did you know?

Susan and Lauren Myracle are sisters.  Myracle, a New York Times bestselling author, writes books for tweens and teens.

Susan Rebecca White’s Website

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Book Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Knopf; 256 pages; $24.95).

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            Reading Ayana Mathis’ epic debut The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, I could not help but think of the poem “A Dream Deferred” by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967).

What happens to a dream deferred?

 

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

and then run?

Does it stink like rotting meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

 

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

 

Or does it explode?[1]

 

Hattie, Mathis’ central character, and her family left their home in Georgia as part of the African-American exodus to the North during the Great Migration. Six million blacks moved out of the rural South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West from around 1910 to 1970.

 

When their exodus began, slavery had long been abolished.  Yet, African-Americans were still very much bound.  Segregation, discrimination, and physical violence prompted blacks to hope for better lives in urban centers like Chicago and New York City.  Some may have had families in those cities; others set out with uncertainty, knowing no one but desperate for better lives.  The dreams of many were fulfilled as they found jobs and discovered new avenues open to them.  The dreams of others, as Hughes lyrically laments, were deferred.

 

Hattie belongs in the latter category. In 1925, she and her husband, August, live in Philadelphia, where they rent a house and where August works long hours.  Hattie gives birth to twins, Philadelphia and Jubliee, appellations “that weren’t already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia…names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones.”

The names she chooses for her children are significant.  Philadelphia represents their new home, the city of Philadelphia.  Hattie has high hopes for her family’s future in this great city.  The name then carries with it all of Hattie’s optimisms and dreams.  The name Jubilee evokes echoes of the African-American Juneteenth celebrations that marked the end of slavery (the first celebration occurred June 19, 1865).  In the North, Hattie’s children are free and do not have to worry about seeing August beaten, as Hattie once saw happen to her own father.  In Philadelphia, Hattie is certain that her twins will have opportunities she did not have growing up in Georgia.

 

When the twins become ill with pneumonia at seven months old, Hattie’s world is shaken. She tries to lessen their cough with eucalyptus, but the plant is difficult to find in Philadelphia.  When Hattie finds the plant, she has to buy it.  This feels so wrong to her.  Back home in Georgia, a eucalyptus tree is located directly “across from Hattie’s house.”  Such a stark realization leaves her bitter–especially when she cannot save them.

 

What happens to a dream deferred?  For Hattie, losing the twins is earth-shattering.  She feels as if a part of her dies with Philadelphia and Jubilee.  Hattie and August go on to have other children, but Hattie is never the same after the tragedy.

 

For her other offspring to survive in this world, Hattie must harden herself so she can harden them.  If they are to survive, then Hattie must be a survivor.  She will hold them at arm’s length if it means they will reach adulthood.  She will close herself off from them if it means they will grow up.

 

Mathis then switches gears and focuses on what happens to Hattie’s eleven children and one grand-child, her twelve tribes.  When we meet each of Hattie’s progeny in wholly intimate chapters, they are all on the cusp of something: grappling with identity, homophobia, abuse, jealousy, and sickness.  Mathis also illustrates through these chapters how Hattie’s children see her as a cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful woman.   The structure of the chapters also allows us to see how things change as the years pass.  Although Hattie and August grow apart, she still stays with him, even after she has a baby by another man and runs away.  She feels bound to August and stays by his side through affairs and economic hardships.  

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie cuts to the quick.  Mathis employs incisive, gritty dialogue that lodges itself deep in the hearts and guts of readers.  She can be elegantly precise yet equally coarse and raw when necessary, showing an amazing range of talent.

 

For me, Mathis’ other characters pale next to Hattie.  The author provides fascinating windows into Hattie’s psyche through her twelve tribes.  We know what they do not.  We know why she is cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful.

 

Mathis is by no means using Hattie to represent all African-American women who left the South to make new lives in the North.  Instead, Mathis is re-presenting one possible story through the character of Hattie.  Mathis wants to show the gritty underbelly of a family who took part in the Great Migration with all the sufferings and ordeals such an epic journey would entail.

 

Hattie’s dream of a new life did not go the way she had hoped it would.  Hattie’s was a dream deferred that festered, crusted over, and dried up.  Surely, Hattie would say her heart rotted and stank.  Perhaps she exploded from the pain.  Hattie had to survive so her children would.  What a heavy load she carried.  What a stunning literary achievement from Mathis as she chronicles one woman’s trials and tribulations.  The Twelve Tribes of Hattie resonates with meaning and with beauty.

 

 


[1] Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.

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Book Review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (Grand Central Publishing; 273 pages; $24.99).

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            If Edie Middlestein, the main character in Jami Attenberg’s hefty, hearty novel The Middlesteins, had a favorite commercial, it would surely be the one about chocolate chip cookies.  You know the one.  A grandmother bakes cookies for her granddaughter’s soccer team.  The girls devour them after their victory and look lovingly at the grandmother in gratitude.  One of the girl’s mothers gets an idea to bake her college-age daughter chocolate chip cookies when she is home from school.  Mother and daughter bond in the kitchen over the gooey, delicious goodies.

The commercial’s message conveys the same sentiments that Edie learned from her parents as a child.  “Food was made of love, and love was made of food, and if it could stop a child from crying, then there was nothing wrong with that either.”

In the minds of Edie’s parents, withholding food from their child, who weighed 62 pounds at age five, is akin to starving her.  Edie’s father had starved during his journey from the Ukraine to Chicago years previously and “had never been able to fill himself up since.”  Neither Edie’s mother nor her father have the heart to deny Edie food, even though the child is tired all the time from her extra weight.

Even at five, Edie “breathed too heavy, like someone’s gassy old uncle after a meal” and “hated taking the stairs; she begged to be carried up the four flights to their apartment, her mother uchhing, her back, the groceries, a bag of books from the library.”  Her parents do nothing about Edie’s weight problem.  “If Edie, their beloved, big-eyed, already sharp-witted daughter, was big for her age, it did not matter.”  They could never refuse her food because that would be like holding back their love.  “Because how could they not feed her?”

As Edie grows up, she also grows out.  She marries and has children, who grow up and have lives of their own.  Food is still a constant in her life, more than a constant really–Edie needs food.  For Edie, food provides everyday sustenance and survival, yes, but she also uses food as a crutch to cope with the deaths of her parents, her own insecurities and problems, and a painful separation from her husband, Richard.  Food thus becomes her solace.  Food never abandons her; food never complains about her weight; food never tells her she’s not good enough.  Doctors warn Edie that her alarming obesity is killing her, but she pays them no mind.

The Author

The Author

Family members do their best to help Edie.  Robin, her daughter, wants her father to pay for leaving her mother.  Rachelle, Edie’s daughter-in-law, fears Edie may be beyond help when she follows her one day from McDonald’s to Burger King to a Chinese restaurant and watches in horror as Edie gorges herself on these take-outs.  When Edie is forced to undergo surgery, it is her son, Benny, who stays up all night making sure his mother does not eat after midnight.  Benny knows she cannot resist food, even when it means life or death.

In The Middlesteins, Attenberg puts a real face to our nation’s obesity epidemic.  Attenberg’s unflinching portrayal of Edie is wholly empathetic.  She lays Edie bare before us and forces us to acknowledge something surprising: Edie’s addiction to food is not that different from all of our fixations, be they shopping, sports, fitness, gambling, sex, alcohol, or drugs.  Edie’s obesity is just more noticeable because it is a physical manifestation of her addiction to food.  In other words, we can see the evidence of Edie’s overeating while we are often blind-sided by the hidden compulsions of others.

Attenberg’s The Middlesteins is a robust, warm-hearted, and hugely entertaining story of love, family, food, and loss.  With elegant and clever prose, Attenberg makes a hot-button political topic a very personal one.  The Middlesteins is poignant, enormously big-hearted, and universally appealing.

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Book Review: May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes (Viking; 480 pages; $27.95).

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If 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.

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Spotlight on May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

I am reading May We Be Forgiven by the amazingly talented A.M. Homes. It’s an irreverent and provocative work of black comedy.

From the jacket copy:

“Harold Silver has spent a lifetime watching his younger brother, George, a taller, smarter, and more successful high-flying TV executive, acquire a covetable wife, two kids, and a beautiful home in the suburbs of New York City. But Harry, a historian and Nixon scholar, also knows George has a murderous temper, and when George loses control the result is an act of violence so shocking that both brothers are hurled into entirely new lives in which they both must seek absolution.

Harry finds himself suddenly playing parent to his brother’s two adolescent children, tumbling down the rabbit hole of Internet sex, dealing with aging parents who move through time like travelers on a fantastic voyage. As Harry builds a twenty-first-century family created by choice rather than biology, we become all the more aware of the ways in which our history, both personal and political, can become our destiny and either compel us to repeat our errors or be the catalyst for change.

May We Be Forgiven is an unnerving, funny tale of unexpected intimacies and of how one deeply fractured family might begin to put itself back together.”

It’s the perfect Thanksgiving read!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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