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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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Great September Reads

Typically, publishers unveil some of the year’s best and biggest books in September.  Cooler weather means weightier, more serious novels.  The same is true for 2013, and I so welcome them!

Here are THE titles to read this month (or at least according to Bookmagnet).

What To Read Now:

affairs of others

From Picador

A MESMERIZING DEBUT NOVEL ABOUT A YOUNG WOMAN, HAUNTED BY LOSS, WHO REDISCOVERS PASSION AND POSSIBILITY WHEN SHE’S DRAWN INTO THE TANGLED LIVES OF HER NEIGHBORS

Five years after her young husband’s death, Celia Cassill has moved from one Brooklyn neighborhood to another, but she has not moved on. The owner of a small apartment building, she has chosen her tenants for their ability to respect one another’s privacy. Celia believes in boundaries, solitude, that she has a right to her ghosts. She is determined to live a life at a remove from the chaos and competition of modern life. Everything changes with the arrival of a new tenant, Hope, a dazzling woman of a certain age on the run from her husband’s recent betrayal. When Hope begins a torrid and noisy affair, and another tenant mysteriously disappears, the carefully constructed walls of Celia’s world are tested and the sanctity of her building is shattered—through violence and sex, in turns tender and dark. Ultimately, Celia and her tenants are forced to abandon their separate spaces for a far more intimate one, leading to a surprising conclusion and the promise of genuine joy. 

Amy Grace Loyd investigates interior spaces of the body and the New York warrens in which her characters live, offering a startling emotional honesty about the traffic between men and women. The Affairs of Others is a story about the irrepressibility of life and desire, no matter the sorrows or obstacles. 

Coming Soon:

September 3 from Little, Brown and Company

The American master’s first novel since Winter’s Bone (2006) tells of a deadly dance hall fire and its impact over several maids versiongenerations.

Alma DeGeer Dunahew, the mother of three young boys, works as the maid for a prominent citizen and his family in West Table, Missouri. Her husband is mostly absent, and, in 1929, her scandalous, beloved younger sister is one of the 42 killed in an explosion at the local dance hall. Who is to blame? Mobsters from St. Louis? The embittered local gypsies? The preacher who railed against the loose morals of the waltzing couples? Or could it have been a colossal accident? Alma thinks she knows the answer-and that its roots lie in a dangerous love affair. Her dogged pursuit of justice makes her an outcast and causes a long-standing rift with her own son. By telling her story to her grandson, she finally gains some solace-and peace for her sister. He is advised to “Tell it. Go on and tell it”-tell the story of his family’s struggles, suspicions, secrets, and triumphs.

 

 

September 3 from Algonquin

explanationThere is nothing inherently threatening about Melissa, a young evangelist hoping to write the definitive paper on intelligent design. But when she implores Andy Waite, a biology professor and a hardcore evolutionist, to direct her independent study, she becomes the catalyst for the collapsing house of cards surrounding him. As he works with Melissa, Andy finds that everything about his world is starting to add up differently. Suddenly there is the possibility of faith. But with it come responsibility and guilt—the very things that Andy has sidestepped for years. 

Professor Waite is nearing the moment when his life might settle down a bit: tenure is in sight, his daughters are starting to grow up, and he’s slowly but surely healing from the sudden loss of his wife. His life is starting to make sense again—until the scientific stance that has defined his life(and his work) is challenged by this charismatic student.

In a bravura performance, Lauren Grodstein dissects the permeable line between faith and doubt to create a fiercely intelligent story about the lies we tell ourselves, the deceptions we sustain with others, and how violated boundaries—between students and teachers, believers and nonbelievers—can have devastating consequences.

 

September 3 from Nan A. Talese

Months after the Waterless Flood pandemic has wiped out most of humanity, Toby and Ren have rescued their friend Amanda from maddaddamthe vicious Painballers. They return to the MaddAddamite cob house, newly fortified against man and giant pigoon alike. Accompanying them are the Crakers, the gentle, quasi-human species engineered by the brilliant but deceased Crake. Their reluctant prophet, Snowman-the-Jimmy, is recovering from a debilitating fever, so it’s left to Toby to preach the Craker theology, with Crake as Creator. She must also deal with cultural misunderstandings, terrible coffee, and her jealousy over her lover, Zeb. 

Zeb has been searching for Adam One, founder of the God’s Gardeners, the pacifist green religion from which Zeb broke years ago to lead the MaddAddamites in active resistance against the destructive CorpSeCorps. But now, under threat of a Painballer attack, the MaddAddamites must fight back with the aid of their newfound allies, some of whom have four trotters. At the center of MaddAddam is the story of Zeb’s dark and twisted past, which contains a lost brother, a hidden murder, a bear, and a bizarre act of revenge. 

Combining adventure, humor, romance, superb storytelling, and an imagination at once dazzlingly inventive and grounded in a recognizable world, MaddAddam is vintage Margaret Atwood—a moving and dramatic conclusion to her internationally celebrated dystopian trilogy.

 

September 10 from Ballantine

songs of willow frostTwelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese-American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.

Determined to find Willow, and prove his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte. The pair navigates the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive, but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star. The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.

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

 

September 10 from Simon & Schuster

It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave riversway to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and sunshine glistened across the drenched land.

Following years of catastrophic hurricanes, the Gulf Coast—stretching from the Florida panhandle to the western Louisiana border—has been brought to its knees. The region is so punished and depleted that the government has drawn a new boundary ninety miles north of the coastline. Life below the Line offers no services, no electricity, and no resources, and those who stay behind live by their own rules.

Cohen is one who stayed. Unable to overcome the crushing loss of his wife and unborn child who were killed during an evacuation, he returned home to Mississippi to bury them on family land. Until now he hasn’t had the strength to leave them behind, even to save himself.

But after his home is ransacked and all of his carefully accumulated supplies stolen, Cohen is finally forced from his shelter. On the road north, he encounters a colony of survivors led by a fanatical, snake-handling preacher named Aggie who has dangerous visions of repopulating the barren region.

Realizing what’s in store for the women Aggie is holding against their will, Cohen is faced with a decision: continue to the Line alone, or try to shepherd the madman’s captives across the unforgiving land with the biggest hurricane yet bearing down—and Cohen harboring a secret that may pose the greatest threat of all.

Eerily prophetic in its depiction of a southern landscape ravaged by extreme weather, Rivers is a masterful tale of survival and redemption in a world where the next devastating storm is never far behind.

 

September 10 from Random House

enonThe next novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Tinkers, in which a father’s grief over the loss of his daughter threatens to derail his life.

Powerful, brilliantly written, and deeply moving Paul Harding has, in Enon, written a worthy successor to Tinkers, a debut which John Freeman on NPR called “a masterpiece.” Drawn always to the rich landscape of his character’s inner lives, here, through the first person narrative of Charlie Crosby (grandson to George Crosby of Tinkers), Harding creates a devastating portrait of a father trying desperately to come to terms with family loss.

 

 

 

 

September 10 from Doubleday

A dazzling novel from one of our finest writers—an epic yet intimate family saga about three generations of all-dissident gardensAmerican radicals

At the center of Jonathan Lethem’s superb new novel stand two extraordinary women. Rose Zimmer, the aptly nicknamed Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens, is an unreconstructed Communist and mercurial tyrant who terrorizes her neighborhood and her family with the ferocity of her personality and the absolutism of her beliefs. Her brilliant and willful daughter, Miriam, is equally passionate in her activism, but flees Rose’s suffocating influence and embraces the Age of Aquarius counterculture of Greenwich Village.

Both women cast spells that entrance or enchain the men in their lives: Rose’s aristocratic German Jewish husband, Albert; her nephew, the feckless chess hustler Lenny Angrush; Cicero Lookins, the brilliant son of her black cop lover; Miriam’s (slightly fraudulent) Irish folksinging husband, Tommy Gogan; their bewildered son, Sergius. These flawed, idealistic people all struggle to follow their own utopian dreams in an America where radicalism is viewed with bemusement, hostility, or indifference.

As the decades pass—from the parlor communism of the ’30s, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, ragged ’70s communes, the romanticization of the Sandinistas, up to the Occupy movement of the moment—we come to understand through Lethem’s extraordinarily vivid storytelling that the personal may be political, but the political, even more so, is personal.

Brilliantly constructed as it weaves across time and among characters,Dissident Gardens is riotous and haunting, satiric and sympathetic—and a joy to read.

 

September 17 from Soho

a beautiful truthTold simultaneously from the perspective of humans and chimpanzees, set in a Vermont home and a Florida primate research facility, A Beautiful Truth—at times brutal, other times deeply moving—is about the simple truths that transcend species, the meaning of family, the lure of belonging, and the capacity for survival.

A powerful and haunting meditation on human nature told from the dual perspectives of a Vermont family that has adopted a chimp as a surrogate son, and a group of chimpanzees in a Florida research institute.

Looee, a chimp raised by a well-meaning and compassionate human couple who cannot conceive a baby of their own, is forever set apart.  He’s not human, but with his peculiar upbringing he is no longer like other chimps.  One tragic night Looee’s two natures collide and their unique family is forever changed.

At the Girdish Institute in Florida, a group of chimpanzees has been studied for decades.  The work at Girdish has proven that chimps have memories and solve problems, that they can learn language and need friends, and that they build complex cultures. They are political, altruistic, get angry, and forgive. When Looee is moved to the Institute, he is forced to try to find a place in their world.

A Beautiful Truth is an epic and heartfelt story about parenthood, friendship, loneliness, fear and conflict, about the things we hold sacred as humans and how much we have in common with our animal relatives. A novel of great heart and wisdom from a literary master, it exposes the yearnings, cruelty, and resilience of all great apes.

 

September 24 from Little, Brown and Company

A taut, thrilling adventure story about buried treasure, a manhunt, and a woman determined to make a new life for herself in the outcastsold west.

It’s the 19th century on the Gulf Coast, a time of opportunity and lawlessness. After escaping the Texas brothel where she’d been a virtual prisoner, Lucinda Carter heads for Middle Bayou to meet her lover, who has a plan to make them both rich, chasing rumors of a pirate’s buried treasure. 

Meanwhile Nate Cannon, a young Texas policeman with a pure heart and a strong sense of justice, is on the hunt for a ruthless killer named McGill who has claimed the lives of men, women, and even children across the frontier. Who–if anyone–will survive when their paths finally cross? 

As Lucinda and Nate’s stories converge, guns are drawn, debts are paid, and Kathleen Kent delivers an unforgettable portrait of a woman who will stop at nothing to make a new life for herself.

 

 

September 24 from A.A. Knopf

lowlandTwo brothers bound by tragedy; a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past; a country torn by revolution: the Pulitzer Prize winner and #1 New York Times best-selling author gives us a powerful new novel-set in both India and America-that explores the price of idealism and a love that can last long past death.

Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and Udayan-charismatic and impulsive-finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty: he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America. But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family’s home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind-including those seared in the heart of his brother’s wife.

Suspenseful, sweeping, piercingly intimate, The Lowland expands the range of one of our most dazzling storytellers, seamlessly interweaving the historical and the personal across generations and geographies. This masterly novel of fate and will, exile and return, is a tour de force and an instant classic.

 


September 24 from St. Martin’s Press

When prestigious plantation owner Cornelius Allen gives his daughter Clarissa’s hand in marriage, she takes with her a gift: Sarah—wedding gifther slave and her half-sister.  Raised by an educated mother, Clarissa is not a proper southern belle she appears to be with ambitions of loving who she chooses and Sarah equally hides behind the façade of being a docile house slave as she plots to escape. Both women bring these tumultuous secrets and desires with them to their new home, igniting events that spiral into a tale beyond what you ever imagined possible and it will leave you enraptured until the very end.

Told through alternating viewpoints of Sarah and Theodora Allen, Cornelius’ wife, Marlen Suyapa Bodden’s The Wedding Gift is an intimate portrait that will leave readers breathless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now that you know my picks for the best books of September, I want to hear from you!  Which titles will you read?  What books are you hoping to read in September?

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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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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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Spotlight on A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

Coming July 30 from Alfred A. Knopf

markerA hypnotic, spellbinding novel set in Greece and Africa, where a young Liberian woman reckons with a haunted past.  

On a remote island in the Aegean, Jacqueline is living alone in a cave accessible only at low tide. With nothing to protect her from the elements, and with the fabric between herself and the world around her increasingly frayed, she is permeated by sensory experiences of remarkable intensity: the need for shade in the relentless heat of the sun-baked island; hunger and the occasional bliss of release from it; the exquisite pleasure of diving into the sea. The pressing physical realities of the moment provide a deeper relief: the euphoric obliteration of memory and, with it, the unspeakable violence she has seen and from which she has miraculously escaped.

Slowly, irrepressibly, images from a life before this violence begin to resurface: the view across lush gardens to a different sea; a gold Rolex glinting on her father’s wrist; a glass of gin in her mother’s best crystal; an adoring younger sister; a family, in the moment before their fortunes were irrevocably changed. Jacqueline must find the strength to contend with what she has survived or tip forward into full-blown madness.
Visceral and gripping, extraordinary in its depiction of physical and spiritual hungers, Alexander Maksik’s A Marker to Measure Drift is a novel about ruin and faith, barbarism and love, and the devastating memories that contain the power both to destroy us and to redeem us. 

 

Alexander Maksik is the author of the novels, You Deserve Nothing (Europa, 2011) and A Marker to Measure Drift (Knopf, 2013). A Alexander Maksik by Beowulf Sheehangraduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his writing has appeared in Harper’s, Tin House, Harvard Review, The New York Times Magazine, Salon and Narrative Magazine, among others and has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

He lives in New York.

 

A Marker To Measure Drift will leave an indelible mark on its readers.  I can tell you it had a very profound effect on me.  With lucid, beautiful prose, A Marker To Measure Drift is deceiving, something you only fully realize as you tear through the very last of Maksik’s pages.  He will make you shudder and gasp aloud as you absorb the brutal reality of  Jacqueline’s past and her uncertain future.  Fans of Chris Cleave’s 2009 stunner Little Bee will surely appreciate Maksik’s equally striking and impressive narrative.

Don’t miss A Marker To Measure Drift!  Check back soon for a book review.

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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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The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan

Book Review: The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan

The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan (William Morrow; 432 pages; $25.99)

I still remember the sensation I felt when I read some of my favorite novels for the first time—Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.  The sense that I was not reading just another ordinary book or just another mundane story overwhelmed me.  Instead, I was considering the writer’s very own soul.  Reading these narratives turned into a transcendent experience.  These emotions resurfaced as I read Stephen P. Kiernan’s dazzlingly provocative, compelling debut The Curiosity, and I welcomed them.  The Curiosity blends science fiction, fantasy, romance, and history, producing an intriguing and poignant tale guaranteed to leave an indelible mark on readers.

the curiosity   Kiernan’s first novel is adroitly plotted, skillfully paced, and interspersed with delicate foreshadowing.  Dr. Kate Philo, a scientist on an innovative mission led by Erastus Carthage, and her team look for small frozen life forms such as plankton and shrimp in the Arctic Ocean that they can “reanimate,” or bring back to life.  The experiments thus far have worked, but not on large beings and only for a very short time period.

Imagine their shock when they find a man frozen in the ice, a discovery that redefines both life and death.  On Carthage’s orders, the specimen is shipped back to his state-of-the-art research lab in Boston.  There, scientists reanimate the subject regardless of the implications, inciting media frenzy and leaving religious fundamentalists reeling. The “Lazarus Project” reignites the age-old debate between science and religion.

The Curiosity is told from varying, intricately-drawn viewpoints.  Kate, the sole female protagonist, energizes Kiernan’s narrative as she illustrates sympathy, empathy, and even love for the subject.  Kiernan contrasts Kate with Carthage, the vain and obsessive-compulsive antagonist, a character I loved to hate.  Curiously, Carthage’s account is told in the second person.  Kiernan’s use of “you” ensures no one will identify with this adversarial narrator, undoubtedly a deliberate and highly effective move.  Daniel Dixon, a reporter, functions as another of The Curiosity’s raconteurs as he stokes the media firestorm yet ultimately redeems himself.

The true star of Kiernan’s work, though, is the curiosity himself, the man raised from the dead: Jeremiah Rice.  As he slowly regains his memories, we learn that Jeremiah was a judge who fell overboard into the Arctic Ocean in 1906.  Priceless are Kiernan’s passages in which Jeremiah tries to understand and navigate the twenty-first century.  Heartbreaking are the passages in which he discovers the fates of his loved ones.  As Jeremiah’s health falters, the story takes on an ominous dimension.  Reanimation of a human is just too new and mysterious a phenomenon.

Jeremiah’s future matters deeply to us.  To experience his death a second time would dishearten the reader, as Kiernan understands.

The author

The author

His and Kate’s fate are precarious but makes for captivating reading.  Whatever happens, I know you will root for Jeremiah just as I cheered him on.

Brilliant, imaginative, and thoroughly unconventional, The Curiosity is my new favorite novel.  As a reader and reviewer, I hold so many books in my hands.  But The Curiosity is a story that will be forever etched in my heart.    Kiernan binds you to his narrators in such a way that you will never forget them; his characters stay with you always. That is why I hereby declare the hand of Kiernan divine.  When you finish this tale, you are not the same person who started it.  And that’s a good thing.

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Book Review: Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt

Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books; 384 pages; $14.95).

is this tomorrow

            Fear of communism and nuclear war permeated the psyches of millions of Americans in the 1950s.  Public and private concerns were heightened by Senator Joseph McCarthy when he proclaimed that hundreds of Communists had infiltrated the United States government.  Many writers and entertainers were accused of sympathizing with Communists and thus were blacklisted.  His accusations were later disproved, but that did not stop his fervor from spreading.

In her tenth and best novel, Is This Tomorrow, expert storyteller Caroline Leavitt capitalizes on these anxieties.  “You can’t trust these Communists,” one of Leavitt’s minor characters maintains.  “They couldn’t tell the truth if they wanted to….You kids think it’s funny, but any second a missile could come down on us,” he insists.  “And we wouldn’t even see it or be prepared.  One minute we’re here talking in this nice neighborhood, and two seconds later, boom, we’re ash.”  In his eyes, the Russians “hide explosives” and could be anywhere, even in his own neighborhood, “and we wouldn’t even know it.”

The era in which Leavitt sets her story is perfect for her setting.  Father Knows Best gently reminds American kids who is boss in the household.  Echoes of “just wait until your father gets home” are heard all across the United States as the mother keeps house and raises the children and the father brings home the bacon.  Doors are left unlocked.  Sunday is the Lord’s day.  The post-war economy is booming, and so is the birthrate.  Everything seems idyllic, but appearances often deceive, as we all know.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is at its frostiest with no signs of thaw.  Nuclear annihilation is a real and daily threat as school kids are taught to duck and cover and worried fathers build bomb shelters.  New phrases such as Red Scare and Yellow Menace become part of the everyday lexicon.  Americans view those who are different, who do not conform, who look different, who sound different, and who worship differently with contempt.  Anyone deemed not like everyone else was considered deviant.

Life seems peachy for Americans, but ugliness and fear lurk just under the surface.  This juxtaposition is at the heart of Leavitt’s taut, atmospheric, and humane tale.  Blending a coming-of-age saga with history and mystery, Leavitt creates a tense and suspenseful atmosphere when a neighborhood boy goes missing.

Is This Tomorrow is told from three different and varied perspectives: Ava, divorcee, working mother, and the head of the only Jewish family on the block; Lewis, her son; and Rose, her son’s best friend and sister to Jimmy, the youth who vanishes.  Although Jimmy is not a narrator, his disappearance looms over the novel; his presence and his absence are powerfully palpable.

Because Ava is different from the other neighborhood parents, she is suspect.  Ava locks her doors when all the other doors are unlocked; she works when the rest of the mothers do not have jobs outside the home.  She does not dress like the other mothers and she has had a string of boyfriends. The neighbors see her as a floozy.  These things do not necessarily damn her, though.  Other parents believe she may have had an inappropriate relationship with her son’s best friend.  Ava denies it but admits she knew Jimmy had a crush on her.  He was at Ava’s the day he went missing.

Jimmy’s disappearance profoundly changes the lives of all of Leavitt’s main characters.  Jimmy’s departure leaves Ava, Lewis, and Rose stuck and unable to go forward.  The calendar turns and they grow older, but they are still stuck in the moment Jimmy faded away forever.  They have too many loose ends in their lives, and the burning desire to know what happened drives them.

Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt

Rose, Jimmy’s sister, becomes a teacher but never forgets her family tragedy as she desperately pleads with the principal to put a fence around the playground so school kids will not wander off.  Lewis withdraws from his mother and searches for his father, who once wanted custody of Lewis but has since vanished himself.  Ava feels alone and bakes pies that she sells to a local restaurant but has never forgotten Jimmy and the day he seemed to evaporate into thin air.

Leavitt hooks you in the first chapter when young Jimmy goes missing and does not let you go until the very last page.  I was riveted.  Leavitt provides readers with timely and weighty issues such as missing children, difference, and paranoia.

With expert pacing, the author takes her time revealing secrets.  This master storyteller is meticulous and wise as she teases out every detail but still keeps you guessing.  Is This Tomorrow is atmospheric and taut and has everything you could ever want in a book: compelling, fully realized characters; an intense, dramatic, and compelling plot; and the perfect, evocative setting.  Everything comes together superbly in Leavitt’s skilled hands.

The title is taken from a propaganda comic book that came out in 1947 and warned of the dangers of a Communist takeover.  An estimated four million Americans purchased the educational comic, no doubt contributing to the fear and paranoia of the 1950s.  In Is This Tomorrow, Leavitt brings this era to life and illustrates how fear of the unknown and fear of difference transformed a country, a community, and a people.  Although her book is set primarily in a time very different from our own age, Is This Tomorrow is a cautionary tale for us in the Twenty-First Century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow Paperbacks; 304 pages; $14.99).

orphan train

            For thousands of years, the Wabanaki Indians traveled extensively by canoe, portaging from one body of water to another.  They had to decide which possessions were necessary and which were not needed on their journeys.  The Wabanakis “learned to travel light” and to make logical decisions about “what to keep and what to discard.”  The canoes were essential; little else, though, was deemed indispensable.

Molly Ayer, a Penobscot youth and one of the main characters in Christina Baker Kline’s emotional page turner Orphan Train, knows the concept of portaging all too well.  At 17, she is months away from aging out of the foster care system.  In nine years, Molly “has been in over a dozen foster homes, some for as little as a week.”

As Kline illustrates, life has been difficult for Molly, who has “been spanked with a spatula, slapped across the face, made to sleep on an unheated sun porch in the winter, and taught to roll a joint by a foster father.”  If that is not enough to make your heart go out to Molly, consider this: she got her first tattoo at 16 from a 23-year-old man in exchange for her virginity.

People make assumptions about Molly.  She has streaks in her hair, a number of piercings, and tattoos.  She comes across as tough-as-nails and extremely apathetic.  But it’s all for show.  Molly is hurting crying out for help.

Molly gets in big trouble when she steals a beat-up and old copy of Jane Eyre from the library and must do 50 hours of community service.  Because it’s “better than juvie,” she agrees to help an “old lady” clean out her attic.

As Molly sees it, Vivian Daly, a wealthy widow, has led a full and fulfilling life with everything she could ever want.  Interestingly, Molly is guilty of making the same kind of assumptions about Vivian as people make about her.

In reality, Vivian has a tragic past: she was an Irish immigrant and orphan sent by train from New York to Minnesota to be adopted by Midwestern families.  In some cases, the families fed, clothed, and educated the children until they reached 18 and mutual love and affection developed.  This was not Vivian’s experience.  Going from house to house, from family to family, Vivian endures hardship, hatred, and abuse.  Everything was stripped from her, even her name.

For Vivian, it was a “pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in.”  It really was not a childhood at all, as she knew “too much” and had seen “people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish.”  This knowledge made Vivian cautious.  Vivian learned “to pretend, to smile and nod, [and] to display [an] empathy” that she did not feel.  Broken inside, she was little more than an indentured servant, hoping and praying for the day her time would be up and she would be free.

Molly learns that she and Vivian are more alike than she knows when her American History teacher gives his students an assignment: interview someone about his or her own portage, the moments in life “when they’ve had to take a journey, literal or metaphorical.”  He urges them to create an oral history of those they are to interview and ask: “What did you choose to bring with you to the next place?  What did you leave behind?  What insights did you gain about what’s important?”  Molly seeks out Vivian, who tells the young girl about the orphan train, a secret she has kept hidden for years.

Kline makes clear that both Molly and Vivian have undertaken a number of portages throughout their lives.  Their journeys have shaped their personalities and made them skeptical, guarded, and afraid.  Although Vivian seems done with portages, Molly is not and must undergo another in the novel: “She’s a turtle carrying its shell.  Jane Eyre, staggering across the heath.  A Penobscot under the weight of a canoe.”

In Orphan Train, Kline employs a dual narrative format as she takes us from contemporary Maine to a Minnesota in the midst of depression and war.  The author gives us Molly’s perspective in the third person but shifts points of view for Vivian to first person.  This marked change underscores the importance of Vivian’s narrative and gives her story more bearing.

Orphan Train is a historical gem, shedding much-needed light on an almost-forgotten period in American history when East Coast orphans were packed up and put on trains headed to the Midwest from 1854 to 1929.  Kline not only entertains us and captivates us with such a well-told story but she also informs and educates us, and I applaud her for that.

Solemnity and heartbreak intersperse the pages of this novel, yet Kline also infuses Orphan Train with inspiration and hope.  While Molly and Vivian undertake both literal and physical portages, Kline forces us to ponder our own lives: what we take, what we leave behind, and those things that are of utmost importance.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is the She Reads May Book Club Selection.  For giveaways, interviews, discussion, and more reviews, please visit She Reads.

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Christina Baker Kline

Christina Baker Kline

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