Tag Archives: loss

Interview with Karen Brown, Author of The Longings of Wayward Girls

The Longings of Wayward Girls by Karen Brown (Washington Square Press; 336 pages; $15).

Compelling, atmospheric and smart, The Longings of Wayward Girls lures you in, beguiles, and even abducts you for a time.  You are in Brown’s dark domain where deep guilt, loss and impossible longing rule.  Little Sinners, and Other Stories as well as Pins and Needles made Brown the darling of critics, but I predict The Longings of Wayward Girls will speak to readers and critics alike.  Brown is a powerful force in fiction today, but her new novel makes her distinct voice even louder and more relevant.

Jaime Boler: Thank you for letting me ask you these questions, Karen.  The Longings of Wayward Girls captivated and wowed me.  Your setting, your plot, and your characters are all pitch-perfect and smart.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Karen Brown

Karen Brown

Karen Brown: I have piles of writing stored in accordion folders and boxes, going all the way back to my first illustrated story about talking squirrels who convince a girl to jump from her second story bedroom window. Writing has always been something I seemed to do well. In school teachers put my poems on the bulletin board. When you have early acknowledgement, it becomes part of who you are, and if you’re lucky, who you become.

JB: Your previous works have won awards.  Pins and Needles received the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, and Little Sinners, and Other Stories was awarded the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction.  What were those experiences like?

KB: I was a short story writer who’d published in literary magazines, and the natural goal was to get “the book.” These contests came with publication, so I began putting stories together and submitting them. I did this for many years–rearranging stories, replacing older stories with newer ones. I never got discouraged—maybe because I was always writing, and always changing the manuscripts, and because it was fun, and I was doing what I loved. It was a great surprise and a great honor to have each of my manuscripts chosen. I knew how many people entered, and I was all too well aware that my winning meant others faced rejection.

JB: The Longings of Wayward Girls is very similar to the titular tale from your short story collection, Little Sinners, and Other Stories.  Did you always intend for the story to be a longer novel? little sinners

KB: Each story I write feels like just a piece of something larger. I was drawn to the setting of “Little Sinners,” and I thought that the prank the girls pull might have more lasting repercussions. I’d also written “Housewifery” at this time, and I knew that I wanted the main character to be living in a similar suburb with her own family, and to discover a hidden pond. The combination of both stories led to the novel.

JB: Please describe your new novel The Longings of Wayward Girls out July 2 from Atria Books.

KB: Set entirely in a small Connecticut town, The Longings of Wayward Girls is a book about how the past influences the decisions of a woman, Sadie, as she confronts pivotal life events: the birth of a stillborn daughter, and the anniversary of her mother’s death—the realization that she has now reached the age her mother hadn’t, that she is moving into “unknown territory.” Sadie must confront her memories of her childhood, and recognize that her perception was skewed by her own inability, as a thirteen-year old, to understand the events of that time.

JB: How did you come up with the title?

KB: The story of titles starts with the collection, Little Sinners. Originally, the collection was titled Leaf House, and the press felt that I needed something more commercial. I’d already been working on the novel, based on the short story “Little Sinners,” and I’d always planned for Little Sinners to be the novel’s title as well. But faced with coming up with a new one for the collection, I basically stole my novel’s title. That left the novel title-less, and the working title (The Lost Girl) wasn’t quite what the team at Atria wanted. “Something more like Little Sinners,” my editor said. Of course, I regretted stealing my novel’s title, but the book had already come out, and I couldn’t steal it back! We made lists. I even brainstormed with my students. We had some good ones! But I kept going back to my editor’s suggestion, and I agreed. The title Little Sinners fit Sadie and her friend so well. My idea for Longings came from that. They aren’t really “wayward,” just like they aren’t really “sinners.” The title assumes a world within the book that judges them, one that the girls emerge from, that’s ingrained in who they become.

longingsJB: Did you always know where you ultimately wanted  to take your story and your characters even when you wrote it as a short story?

KB: When I’m writing a story I don’t really know the ending until I get about halfway through. Because the novel is based on the story I had a sort of template, but I had to change the ending to add more momentum—so I did know where I was heading—just not how I would get there!

JB: I know the idea for Longings is based on a real person.  Who was Janice Pockett?  And how did this little girl provide the impetus for your literary works?

KB: In the 1970s several girls went missing in a particular area in Connecticut, and Janice Pockett was one of them. I’d been researching missing girls even before I wrote the short story, and I discovered newspaper articles about Janice’s disappearance. She went missing about the time my friends and I were exploring pastures and woods, and roaming freely about our neighborhood. We didn’t know about Janice Pockett or the other girls, or feel any sort of fear about where we lived, and yet they’d disappeared just a few towns away. Janice, too, lived in a rural area. She’d simply gone off on her bicycle to retrieve a butterfly and never returned.

The presence of the real missing girl was always with me as I wrote the book, and it greatly influenced the conclusion. She has never been found, and her sister keeps a Facebook page for her. On it she posts photographs of her sister wearing the same clothes my friends and I wore—the same Brownie uniform, the same bell-bottom pants and cardigan sweaters. I think I wanted the Laura Loomis sections to bring to life the stages of loss and the absence of resolution that families with missing children experience.

JB: Now I want to talk about the differences in the novel compared to the short story.  First of all, you have changed points of view.  In the short story Little Sinners, you tell the story from the main character’s first person perspective.  In the novel, though, you write in the third person.  Why the change?

KB: The reminiscent narrator in the short story isn’t Sadie from the novel—she’s an adult at a different place in her life, regretting her inability to determine what really happened all of those years ago, and seeking forgiveness. I had to invent a character who would live within the frame of the story, who would have experienced things—marriage, childbirth, the loss of her own mother—that the story’s narrator hadn’t. And I didn’t feel that the voice in the story could carry a book. It’s just too heavy with sadness.

JB: Another difference is the name change of the best friend.  In the short story, the friend’s name is Valerie Empson; while in the novel, the best friend is Betty Donahue.  Why was this changed?

KB: I’m not sure why I changed the name! Valerie was the name of one of my close friends growing up, and I think I wanted to be sure to distance the fictional character from the real person—in case she read it—something she is actually doing now! And as Betty’s character developed she seemed more like a “Betty.”

JB: By far the biggest change, though, is that in the short story, Francie, a little girl who disappears, is found alive.  But in the book, it is years and years before her fate is revealed.  What prompted you to change this part of the story?

KB: I wanted the revelation of what happened to Francie to remain, as it does in the short story, at the end. And I wanted the impact of this to have had bigger ramifications for Sadie—so that the reader knows she’s lived all of these years with the belief that she was implicated in Francie’s disappearance. It felt weightier, more powerful. Also, since the main characters in the story and novel are fundamentally different, the events resonate differently in each.

JB: The Longings of Wayward Girls is set in a Connecticut suburb.  Is it much like the town in which you grew up?  What was your childhood and adolescence like?

KB: I used the town I grew up in as a model for the town in the book. My niece drew the map from a sketch I made. The town was once called Wintonbury, and the historical society is called The Wintonbury Historical Society. The names of the roads are slightly off (mostly because I didn’t use a real map of the town as I wrote—I just pulled names and vague locations out of my memory!) We had plenty of fields, a swamp, the “dead end” and a local produce stand. There was a Vincent Elementary School. The pond, and the American Indian names are drawn from Windham County, in northeastern Connecticut, where my brother lives. (Once, he led me up a path through the woods, and showed me an amazing pond.) My friends and I did put on plays, and hold a version of the Haunted Woods in the summer. We played elaborate games of house in my basement. And so much more, that never found its way into the book!

The map from Karen's website

The map from Karen’s website

JB: When you were younger, did you ever pull a prank on someone?  Or have one played on you?

KB: I do remember leaving letters from a farmer boy under a stone at the dead end. But I’m not entirely sure they were ever retrieved, or who, exactly, they were intended for. Memory has a way of blurring these things. If I remembered exactly I wouldn’t have been able to make a story out of it.

JB: Do you see Sadie and Betty as bullies?  Why or why not?

KB: I think they are precocious and caught in the process of moving from childhood to adulthood. The book pauses them on the edge of that, and so their actions seem to arise out of a sense of their trying to claim some power over something in their lives. Sadie, especially, feels the loss of childhood acutely. But to answer your question, yes! Most readers would agree that they are bullies.

Holyoke is one of the subjects in this book.

Holyoke is one of the subjects in this book.

JB: You incorporate colonial history into your story, and I really love that you do.  What role does the diary of Mary Vial Holyoke play in the life of Sadie, your main character?  What does Sadie learn from the colonial woman?

KB: Colonial women frequently dealt with the death of a child—something Sadie discovers when she volunteers to map out the old cemetery. The section of Mary Vial Holyoke’s diary that I quote is her recording of the illness of her oldest daughter Polly. Most of the diary notes the passage of days as chores and errands and visits, and suddenly there’s a line that alerts the reader that Polly is sick. From this point on each day names a different woman who came to “watch” over Polly, and there’s a great sense of women pulling together to help Mary through what we discover is the death of her child. I think Sadie is in denial about her own grief—and doesn’t yet see the ways the women who gather at the pond, and at Kate’s, might help her through it, or how the regularity of her life—the way she is needed by her husband and children–might ease her pain.

JB: Emotions such as deep loss and impossible longing resonate throughout your novel.  What made you want to explore these feelings?

KB: I’m not sure I set out to explore those feelings exactly, but in creating the character of Sadie I seemed to gravitate toward them. I imagined that loss and longing fueled Sadie’s choices, and that these feelings arose from her childhood. While I never feel I have to explain a character’s actions, I still believe that a reader should understand her or him, whether she agrees with them morally or not.

JB: You teach creative writing and literature at the University of South Florida.  How has teaching writing made you a better writer?

KB: The practice of reading good fiction in class, and discussing what strategies a writer has used to achieve that result definitely keep me focused on my own choices.

JB: In your view, Karen, what is good fiction?  How can good fiction change both the writer and the reader?

KB: For me, good fiction provides readers with a unique voice—one that allows us to navigate a world  that is familiar enough for us to believe we are experiencing events there, but that retains an element of strangeness that keeps us guessing, and wanting to know more. Good fiction utilizes specific details that accomplish multiple tasks: they let us in on secret aspects of the world—visual, emotional, and intellectual. If a book can lure a reader in, it has the potential to change the way they view their world.

JB: Which writers have influenced your work the most? Which books have had the greatest effect on your life?  Which matter the most to you?

KB: I’m drawn to lyrical writing, and as a literature student I loved writers like [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez, [Vladimir] Nabokov, Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo. I still love these writers, and reread their work. They tell their stories, which seem private—and by this I mean they are about particular people’s lives, but somehow they manage to encompass all of us, and deal with vital issues in the world.

JB: As an author of both short stories and novels, which medium do you prefer?  Why?

KB: As a reader, I enjoy a novel to escape. But if I’m reading as a writer, and want to come away from something with a jolt, a fine short story is always best. As a writer I can’t choose which I prefer—they are both so different, and require different things from me. I’ve trained myself to distill a moment down to fit the length of a story, but it’s an entirely different process loosening up the story, and filling it with scenes and multiple moments.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Longings of Wayward Girls?TheLongingsofWaywardGirls

KB: I’m going to answer this in a roundabout way: When I knew I wanted to write a novel, I began to read them voraciously. I joined a book club, and I read the other members’ choices—books I would never have chosen myself as a stuffy instructor of Modern American Literature: Stieg Larsson, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, David Baldacci, Kate Morton. And I introduced my book club to my own choices: Richard Yates, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett, Jess Walter. I learned how invested readers could be in characters, and how engaged they became with the events that befell them.

I realized that books can entertain, as well as teach us something about ourselves, and I hope that readers will enter the world I’ve created and experience both of these things.

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

KB: I’d like to publish another novel, and I’m working on one now. The process of writing Longings—the revisions, the editing—taught me so much! I’m trying to apply that knowledge to this new book. (Like Longings it was inspired by one of my short stories—“Galatea” from Pins & Needles.)

JB: Thanks for a wonderful interview, Karen.  Good luck with the book!

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Book Review: Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler (St. Martin’s Press; 336 pages; $24.99).

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            William Shakespeare wrote that the course of true love never did run smooth, and nowhere is that truer than in Julie Kibler’s sobering, yet heartening debut Calling Me Home.  Kibler drew inspiration for her tale after learning her grandmother had fallen in love with an African American when she was a young woman.  At the time, though, any romantic connection between the two was unfeasible.  A story idea was thus born.

Employing a dual narrative format, Kibler sets Calling Me Home in both present-day Texas and in pre-World War II Kentucky, introducing us to two extraordinary women: eighty-nine-year-old Isabelle McAllister, an elderly white lady and thirty-something Dorrie Curtis, a single black mother of two.

Isabelle has a huge favor to ask of Dorrie, something so big she cannot ask anyone else.  She has to go to a funeral in Cincinnati, Ohio, and she has to leave tomorrow.  Isabelle wants Dorrie to drive her there.

Why does Isabelle ask Dorrie?  What kind of connection can an elderly white woman and a young black female have?  It’s simple, really.  Dorrie is Isabelle’s hairdresser.

If you are a woman, then you immediately understand the intimate relationship between a woman and her beautician.  There is a connection between the two women that belies age and race.  Isabelle and Dorrie have bonded over hair and have become friends.  But there are things both women have chosen not to tell the other.

Dorrie agrees to drive Isabelle to the funeral, although Isabelle refuses to say who died or how she is connected to the deceased.  For Dorrie, it’s a bit of a mystery.  But she does not pry.  She knows instinctively that Isabelle will reveal everything when she is good and ready.

When the two women set off, Kibler begins her second story arc.  Isabelle confides to Dorrie that she fell in love with Robert Prewitt when she was a teenager (Isabelle is only loosely based on Kibler’s own grandmother).  Robert wanted to be a doctor; he was the son of her family’s housekeeper and was African American.

Because this is 1939 Kentucky, the reader knows this is a doomed romance.  Especially in a “sundown” town like Shalerville where blacks were not allowed after dark.  Such places really existed.  It was quite alright for African-American maids, chauffeurs, and workers to be in Shalerville during the day, but, come sundown, they had to vacate the area or face the consequences.

Kibler’s decision to set part of the story in this sundown town has a sobering effect on the reader, or at least it did on me.  I worried for Robert and for Isabelle, but especially for Robert’s safety in such a dark, chilling and painful place.

As Isabelle narrates her part of the story, Kibler illustrates the sheer ugliness of the world in which Isabelle lives.  It’s full of small minds and discrimination so common at the time.  Robert and Isabelle know how difficult life will be for them but they are in love and determined.  They run away together, but the course of true love never does go smoothly, does it?  And Robert and Isabelle are no exception.

As Isabelle conveys her story to Dorrie, the young black mother begins confiding to Isabelle.  Dorrie likes Teague, a handsome, successful black man, but he just seems too perfect—something she is not.  After her divorce, Dorrie is hesitant about bringing a new man into her life and into the lives of her children: a sweet young daughter and a son who is a senior in high school.  Her son and his future constantly worry Dorrie, who is uncertain if she needs the added concern of a new relationship.  Listening to Isabelle’s story, though, Dorrie learns something profound about life and about love.

A bond that first formed over hair expands further.  For Isabelle and Dorrie, age and color matter not; they are insignificant things.

Calling Me Home is a courageous tale because Kibler holds nothing back.  Just a few weeks into President Barack Obama’s second term in office, you hear so often how we live in a “post-racial” society.  But is that actually true?  When Dorrie and Isabelle stop to eat at a restaurant on their trip, a white man and woman look curiously at them.  The man soon turns rude and openly stares at them.  In a stage whisper, he wonders why a white lady is with a black woman.

If the romance between Isabelle and Robert highlights race in the American past, then this scene is an eye-opening look at race in the American present.  Kibler shows us how far we’ve come in this country; however, she also shows us how far we still have to go.

Calling Me Home is both a solemn and stirringly emotional novel that takes us deep into a woman’s heart and backward into one country’s harsh past.  Kibler’s story of love, loss, family, faith, and friendship hearken to the stuff of life.  In the end, Calling Me Home is a surprising novel.  Because Kibler is always patient and easy on the foreshadowing, the conclusion is an ending that will surely amaze readers, just as it did me.

We should never dwell on our differences and focus instead on the ways we are the same.  That’s what I learned from Calling Me Home.  Kibler will break your heart in this tale, but she will also put it back together again.

julie kibler

Julie Kibler’s Calling Me Home is the She Reads February Book Club Selection.  You can discuss the book and enter to win one of ten copies and read the fabulous reviews of members.  The book comes out February 12.  Check back here on my blog February 12 for my interview with Kibler.  It’s going to be amazing!

 

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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: Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio

Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio (Plume; 320 pages; $15).

                Blackberry Winter, the new novel from Sarah Jio, author of The Violets of March and The Bungalow, is the October She Reads Book Club Selection.  You can discuss the book, comment on reviews, meet Jio, and find out how she came up with the premise of the story by going to the She Reads web site.  There are some yummy giveaways you don’t want to miss either!

Click here for discussion and giveaways!

Jio is a novelist who knows how to pull at her readers’ heartstrings.  She draws you into a story, and, suddenly, you forget everything else around you.  The rest of the world falls away; you are immersed in Jio’s world.  That is how it was for me when I read her two previous novels.  Jio is back, and she has not lost her gift.  In fact, Blackberry Winter is now my favorite of her works.  Blackberry Winter is a mystery/love story with appealing characters, a strong plot, and a setting Jio knows well: Seattle, her home.

In Blackberry Winter, Jio focuses her narrative lens on two women, born decades apart, who have experienced deep loss and heartache.  Vera Ray trudges home to her three-year-old beloved son, Daniel, early one May morning in 1933.  Vera is struggling to make ends meet in the midst of the Great Depression.  Fresh from her shift at Seattle’s Olympic Hotel, she steps out the door to a late-season snowstorm, or “blackberry winter” as it was once referred to.  To her horror, Daniel is nowhere to be found.  More horrible still: no one seems to want to help her find her son.

Fast-forward to present-day Seattle and to Claire Aldridge, a reporter for the Seattle Herald.  Her boss assigns Claire to cover their own blackberry winter.  Like Vera, Claire is struggling.  She recently suffered a terrible accident and endured the death of her baby.  Her marriage is falling apart.  She is unhappy to be given such a fluff piece and searches for an angle.  When she discovers Daniel’s disappearance, Claire is intrigued; she has her story.

In alternating chapters Jio tells the story chiefly from the first-person perspectives of Vera and Claire.  The “I” definitely made the novel more intimate.  I do not think Blackberry Winter would have had as much of an effect on me if Jio had told the story in the third person.

Initially, I was no fan of Vera’s.  I detested her inaction.  She is a woman who does not act; rather, she waits for other people, namely men, to act.  I wanted to shake her.  The more Jio delved into Vera’s character, though, the more I came to understand her.  Vera lived in the 1930s, during a time of economic crisis much worse than our own.  As a single mother, she had to work; she had no other choice.  Yet, many scorned her for working.  Upper-class women looked at her with contempt.  But they didn’t have to walk in Vera’s shoes, riddled with holes.  Vera’s story is truly a tragic tale and reminded me of the 2008 movie The Changeling, based on actual events.  In 1928 Los Angeles, a woman was reunited with her son who had been missing.  When she adamantly told the authorities that the boy was not her son, they vilified her and deemed her an unfit mother.

Claire, for me, was the star of this story.  I loved her spunk and her drive.  She really is Jio’s most likeable, relatable character.

Jio brings her dual time narratives together in the end for a very satisfying conclusion.  What she writes is unexpected, yet always plausible.  Once you start reading, you will want to finish this in one sitting.  The story is engaging; the characters are compelling; the setting is timely.  Jio’s themes of maternal love, loss, jealousy, redemption, hope, and healing will resonate with readers.

Blackberry Winter is a well-timed, beautifully told story from one of the masters of the dual time narrative.  I highly recommend it for fans of Sarah McCoy, Lucinda Riley, Kate Morton, Jenna Blum, and Tatiana de Rosnay.

 

 

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Book Review: The River Witch by Kimberly Brock

The River Witch by Kimberly Brock (Bell Bridge Books; 239 pages; $14.95).

                Kimberly Brock knows books; in fact, she loves them.  Brock, a native Southerner and former actor and special needs educator, is the blog network coordinator at She Reads.   She also reviews fiction and interviews authors on her website.  Her intense love of storytelling is readily apparent.

It should come as no surprise to learn that Brock wrote her first novel when she was in fourth grade.  As evidenced in her debut The River Witch, writing comes as naturally and as easily to Brock as reading and breathing.

In The River Witch, Brock focuses her narrative lens on Roslyn Byrne, a former ballerina now broken in body and shattered in soul.  A car accident left Roslyn unable to dance again; a miscarriage left Roslyn hollow and in a kind of in-between world.  She seeks solace on isolated Manny’s Island, Georgia, to escape the world and to finally bestow a name on her deceased baby.

Roslyn is a very sympathetic character, yet this reader never feels sorry for her.  She is a strong woman who comes from a long line of strong women.  Roslyn requires the use of a cane to help her walk.  The cane provides physical aid to Roslyn, but it is also symbolizes her wounded psyche.

There are many, many issues Roslyn grapples with in the cabin she rents on the island.  With the character of Roslyn, Brock has created a three-dimensional figure we not only relate to but also root for. Brock’s first-person perspective of Roslyn allows us to see her flaws, her disappointments, and her regrets; Brock also lets us see Roslyn’s triumphs.  Her indomitable will is palpable and resonates throughout the story.

Roslyn is not the only broken creature on Manny’s Island.   Ten-year-old Damascus Trezevant is a lonely and dejected little girl who aches for her deceased mother and her largely absent father.  She is drawn to Roslyn, just as Roslyn is captivated by Damascus.  In contrast to Roslyn’s narrative, Brock writes Damascus’ perspective in the third person.  I like the difference.  The distinction illustrates Brock’s range as a storyteller.

The beauty of The River Witch is in the complicated and beautiful ballet between Roslyn and Damascus.  Damascus alternately displays both affection and spite toward Roslyn.  Both principal characters have pent-up emotions that they must exhibit or everyone will suffer the consequences.  Both of Brock’s protagonists ache for an emotional connection and a sense they belong.

One character who I would have liked to see more of is Urey, Damascus’ father.  Mysterious, taciturn, introspective, sexy, and almost savage, Urey needs more of a presence in Brock’s story.  Roslyn’s chemistry with him is powerful.

Since Brock is from Georgia, The River Witch is written in a distinctly Southern voice.  I cannot imagine this novel being set anywhere else.  In the story, sense of place is a formidable force.  Manny’s Island is a locale that allows Brock to imbue supernatural elements into her story.  The magic of the island and the magic of Brock’s characters will transform the land and its people forever.

Manny’s Island can sometimes be a wild and dangerous place.  Snakes and alligators are abundant.  The current of the Little Damascus River can carry novice swimmers into the Atlantic.  Flooding is common.  Yet the island is also a place for miracles, where a woman is healed, where a child is mended, and where the wrongs of the past are reconciled.

Brock is already at work on her second novel.  If it’s anything like The River Witch, it will be a must-read.

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Spotlight on The World Without You

Today is the publication day for Joshua Henkin’s latest novel The World Without You.

 I read, make that devoured, this book Saturday night and loved every minute of it.  So will you!

Henkin’s themes are universal: love, loss, forgiveness, and redemption, along with a strong anti-war sentiment.  At its heart, the story is about a family coping with grief.  Each family member handles the death of Leo in his or her own, individual way.  There is no manual for dummies on how to deal with something like this.

The World Without You is my pick of the week.  I urge you to pick this one up and read it.  I am certain you will grow to feel part of the Frankel family, just like I did.

I will be reviewing the novel tomorrow so stay tuned for my review!

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Ah, the Power of Salt

The Gilly Salt Sisters by Tiffany Baker (Grand Central Publishing; 372 pages; $24.99).

 

 

Throughout history, salt has been an important commodity.  Some argue it can be included as a contributing factor in the development of civilization.  Salt preserved food and was a highly sought-after trade item.  The Romans even built roads to make transportation of salt easier.  We cannot then overemphasize its role in our society.

When salt gets in a wound, it stings.  Yet, interestingly, mineral bath salts can help ease sore muscles and a variety of skin conditions.  Salt can hurt and it can heal.

 

Jo and Claire Gilly, the two main characters in Tiffany Baker’s second novel The Gilly Salt Sisters, know this all too well.  Jo and Claire are sisters, and their family owns a salt farm on the Cape Cod village of Prospect.  Every December’s Eve, one of the sisters throws a packet of their salt into a bonfire.  The color of the fire tells the town’s future for the upcoming year.  “If the fire flashed blue, it meant the town would prosper in the coming year.  If it flared yellow, some kind of change was on the horizon, and a puff of black was too terrible to contemplate.”

 

Not surprisingly, many townspeople think the sisters are witches.  They are not.  Neither Jo nor Claire are psychic, they do not cast spells.  They do not tell the future, rather the salt does.  Both are complicated, complex women with both polish and grit.

 

The sisters have a difficult life and react to their circumstances in very different ways.  A horrible accident leaves Jo and Claire estranged.  Obligation and betrayal tears them apart.  One sister still bears the mark of their separation.  Because Baker tells the story from the point of view of both sisters, we are able to understand both perspectives.  Each sister stands firm in her disdain for the other.  Without the addition of Dee, the two might never reunite.

 

Baker, though, introduces Dee, a teenage girl whose mother has died and whose father relocates her to the village.  Unwittingly, Dee is the force that brings Jo and Claire back together.  It is curious that Baker also tells the story from Dee’s point of view as she alternates among Jo, Claire, and Dee.  Dee is not a Gilly sister.  Yet her role in this tale is just as significant.  Without her, the story would have a very different ending.

 

There are a lot of women in The Gilly Salt Sisters.  The female characters in the novel are strong and well developed.  The same, though, cannot be said for the men.  I wonder if this is not a deliberate tactic on Baker’s part.  Only women can touch the salt on the farm.  Only women can cast the salt into the fire.  Thus, Baker puts the fate of her novel into female hands.  Gilly men seem to be cursed.  For example, Mr. Gilly becomes an alcoholic and flees the farm, never to be heard from again.  Henry, Jo’s twin brother, meets a horrible fate while helping bring in the salt one day, a task he was not even supposed to be doing.  Baker never explains why men cannot touch the salt.  Perhaps she wants to add mystery to her novel, but it feels like a gimmick.

 

Still, Baker manages to achieve the perfect sense of place in Prospect.  Her characters are salt-of-the-earth New Englanders with a no-nonsense attitude.  She is at her best, though, when she describes the Gilly salt farm.  I can almost smell the brackish air.  I can almost taste the salt.  Baker writes about the pull of the salt.  Indeed, the salt has a kind of magnetism not just on the Gilly sisters but on the whole town as well.  The salt even mesmerizes the reader.

 

We take salt for granted today.  I know I do.  But Baker reminds us salt is the stuff of life.  She is a master at telling this quirky tale, just as she was with her debut The Little Giant of Aberdeen CountyThe Gilly Salt Sisters far surpasses her first novel.  I recommend it to fans of Alice Hoffman, Isabel Allende, Aimee Bender, and Brunonia Barry.  It is a story of love, loss, family secrets, rivalry, greed, redemption, and forgiveness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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