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Book Review: Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne

Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne (Plume; 336 pages; $16).

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A child’s first providers and protectors are his or her parents.  Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.  In her powerful, provocative, and semi-autobiographical debut novel, Hand Me Down, Melanie Thorne chronicles the epic struggle of a teenage girl suffering from neglect and abuse,  determined to protect her sister at any cost.  Hand Me Down feels so real that it reads like a memoir.  Thorne’s story left me indignant and emotionally spent, which is proof of the author’s skilled writing and adept characterizations.

Sometimes family can let us down and hurt us more than anyone else can.  The people who are supposed to be taking care of 14-year-old Elizabeth “Liz” Reid and her younger sister, Jaime, have failed miserably.  The girls’ parents are divorced.  Their father, who used to beat their mother, is a drunk.

Their mother, Linda, has been a refuge for her daughters, loving them and supporting them and providing a safe haven.  As Liz tells us in her mature and sage voice, Linda “saved us from bad dreams, left the light on in our room, let us snuggle into her bed.  She rescued us from the neighbors’ fighting, sang songs loud enough to drown out the woman across the landing screaming with her head out the window until her husband jerked her back inside.”  Linda “protected us from our drunken father, stood her ground in the face of hurled beer cans and TV remotes, steered us through broken dishes on the kitchen floor and shattered windows in the carpet.  She carried us past his sleeping body in bloody slippers, pulled us out of range of his raised fists more than once, and her bruises proved her loyalty.”  Liz and Jaime “didn’t need anyone else.”

The above passage is just a sample of the abuse described in Hand Me Down.  Most, if not all, of the parts are gut-wrenching and very difficult to read, as well they should be.

When Terrance comes in their mother’s life, everything changes.   Terrance has a history of criminal behavior, but Linda is not deterred.  Linda and Terrance marry and have a son together.  Terrance ends up in prison, offering Liz and Jaime a brief reprieve.  After serving his sentence, though, Terrance returns—worse than ever.   Linda aims to please her husband and casts aside her daughters.  Like old garments, the sisters are handed down to relatives, some of whom only continue the cycle of neglect and abuse.

More than anything else, Liz worries for Jaime, especially after the sisters are separated.  She has tried to shield Jaime, but she is unable to protect her after they are split.

This upsetting novel is narrated from Liz’s first-person perspective, which elicited a visceral reaction from this reader.  This story unsettled and upset me from the very beginning.  Everyone who reads Hand Me Down will ache all over for Liz and will feel beaten and hurt just as she is.

Yet, not all of Hand Me Down is morose.  Thorne introduces beacons of hope through many characters, most notably Tammy, Liz’s aunt, and Rachel, her best friend.  Elements of humor also echo throughout the novel, just as they do in life, no matter how dire the situation.

Liz is only 14, but she seems so much older given what has happened to her.  Her voice calls to mind other teen heroines, like Ava Bigtree in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Susie Salmon in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.  Thorne leaves readers with white knuckles as they wait to see if Liz and Jaime survive and even thrive.

The paperback version of Hand Me Down has a brand new epilogue not included in the hardcover edition.   If you enjoy books narrated by strong teen girls, wise beyond their years, then Hand Me Down is a must read.  I do warn you, though, you will become so invested in this tale that the adults in the story will infuriate you but the kids will inspire you.  This is a survivor’s story perfect for fans of Janet Fitch and Dorothy Allison.

Melanie Thorne

Melanie Thorne

 

 

 

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A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

Book Review: A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri (Riverhead Books; 432 pages; $26.95).

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            In 1981, eleven-year-old Saba Hafezi shows her best friend, Ponneh, an issue of Life Magazine dated January 22, 1971.  The young Iranian girls look at the pages, featuring a newly-engaged Tricia Nixon, in awe.  “Ta-ree-sha Nik-soon,” Saba says, is “the daughter of the American Shah.”

As far as the two girls are concerned, Ms. Nixon’s world is straight out of a fairy tale.  “She is a princess.  Shahzadeh Nixon.”  Saba soaks up the four-page magazine spread of the smiling young woman and her beau, Ed Cox.  For Saba, the main character in Dina Nayeri’s breathtakingly beautiful debut novel, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, the daughter of the American president is vibrant and mysterious, and she is, above all, American.  Saba is enamored of everything American. And it’s very easy to understand why—post-revolutionary Iran is no place for a girl to grow up in.

Overnight, or at least it seemed so to Saba, the “pro-scarf people” overthrew the “pro-hair government.”  Just like that, the things Saba loves—nail polish, shorts, bare arms in summer, new music—are forbidden. Every part of Saba’s body must be covered.  Nayeri writes, “They [the new government] shut up beautiful things in dark places, so no one can see…What do you do when you want to douse a fire?  You throw a big, heavy cloth over it, deprive it of oxygen.”  That is exactly what the Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters do to Iranian women.

But, in the summer of 1981, Saba does not yet care about all that.  Her concern is Mahtab.  Without her twin sister, Saba feels like an important piece of her body and her soul is missing.  What really happened to Mahtab, and to their mother, who disappeared the same day, is a mystery to Saba.

Saba cannot remember much about that day; everything is “muddled memories within memories.”  She recalls feeling dizzy, and her head ached.  It had hurt ever since “that night on the beach,” but she is oblivious as to what occurred or how she injured herself.  Saba is clear about one thing: she thought they were all going to take a plane to America, her mother, her sister, and herself.  Her father was to stay behind for the time being.

That was not to be.  As Nayeri wisely maintains“memory plays such cruel tricks on the mind.”  Saba can only recall seeing a woman dressed similarly to her mother, holding the hand of a little girl who looked just like Mahtab, getting onto an airplane to America.

Just like that, they vanish out of Saba’s life forever.  Nothing can fill the void of her twin, not Ponneh, not her father, and not even Reza, a boy she has a crush on.

Because Iranians believe that “all of life is written in the blood” and that twins must share the same fate, Saba believes that everything she experiences and endures her twin must also face and live through.  Thus, Saba imagines her sister’s life in America.

America, or at least the America that exists in her mind, captivates Saba.  She comes up with elaborate tales in which Mahtab confronts a problem or learns a lesson that Saba has recently tackled.  Since Saba is so obsessed with American television (Family Ties, Growing Pains, The Wonder Years, and The Cosby Show—all family dramas), each episode of Mahtab’s life lasts no longer than 22.5 minutes, the average length of a 30-minute TV show, minus the commercials.  These chapters help Saba feel closer to her sister, who is surely “conquering the world so many scoops of a teaspoon away.”

Since Saba herself cannot attend a prestigious university (she will marry instead), Mahtab gets accepted into the very best American institution of higher learning—Harvard.  Nayeri expertly personifies Harvard University—“Baba” Harvard.  The university becomes Mahtab’s father since Mahtab’s true father is absent.  Baba Harvard is kind, comforting, stern when necessary, and paternalistic.

Saba holds onto the hope that her sister is living the American dream, an Iranian Tricia Nixon, even though those around her insist her sister’s fate lies elsewhere.  Saba knows this, too.  Yet Iranians place a high value on the art of storytelling.  “At the end of every tale, Nayeri explains in her story, “the storyteller is required to do the truth-and-lies poem, the one that rhymes ‘yogurt’ and ‘yogurt soda’ (maast and doogh) with ‘truth’ and ‘lies’ (raast and doroogh).”  Lying “well is crucial” in Iran, but Saba must stop lying to herself if she is to have a life of her own.

This story is very personal for Nayeri.  A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is Nayeri’s own dream of Iran, “created from a distance just as Saba invents a dreamed-up America for her sister.”  Saba “longs to visit the America on television” just as strongly as Nayeri longs “to visit an Iran that has now disappeared.”  A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is Nayeri’s very “own Mahtab dream.”

What a dream Nayeri has invented for us.  A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea effectively transports the reader to post-revolutionary Iran and into this small village.  Nayeri’s passion and elegance are visible throughout her tale as she explores themes such as love, loss, friendship, family, identity, and memory.  Most of all, she illustrates how stories have the power to transform our lives.

Dina Nayeri

Dina Nayeri

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Book Review: The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell (HarperCollins; 336 pages; $25.99).

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            Lisa O’Donnell opens her brilliant, stunning debut The Death of Bees with the birth and death dates of a man and woman, the same kinds of information you would expect on gravestones.  Except this man and woman do not have headstones; they are buried in their own backyard.

“Today is Christmas Eve,” O’Donnell writes in her intriguing and explosive opening.  “Today is my birthday.  Today I am fifteen.  Today I buried my parents in the backyard.  Neither of them were beloved.”

Immediately, she grabs you by the throat and does not let go until the very last page as she tells the story of fifteen-year-old Marnie and twelve-year-old Nelly, sisters who have just lost their parents and find themselves alone.

Marnie is the tough, practical, and protective one, the typical elder sister.  Marnie is fifteen going on thirty, though, and as cynical as a sixty-year-old.  Nelly is her complete opposite, charming and so obsessed with Harry Potter that she wears glasses just like his.  “Another little foible of Nelly’s is how she talks.  She sounds like the queen of England most of the time.”  Nelly, fond of words like “hullabaloo,” “confounded,” and “good golly” seems so young next to Marnie.  Their three-year age difference feels more like three decades.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the girls, namely Marnie, killed their parents.  Marnie confesses as she buries them: “I was on autopilot.  I wanted them buried and gone.  I didn’t have time for tears, I knew we had a job to do and mostly I was wishing we’d got rid of them sooner and, to be honest, I don’t know why we didn’t.”

Neither sister misses her mother nor her father.  Most of the time, Izzy and Gene were too stoned to care about their daughters, often leaving the girls to fend for themselves.  Marnie practically raised herself, and now she is raising Nelly.  Their lives are not that much different than they were before…except for the bodies in the backyard, of course.

Marnie knows the upturned dirt will be a tell-tale sign of something untoward.  Ever pragmatic, Marie has a solution.  “When all was done we covered Izzy with two sacks of coal and planted lavender on top of Gene, not out of sentiment you understand, but to better hide what was buried in the earth.”

The girls keep mum about their parents’ deaths.  All the sisters really have is each other.  In just a short year, Marnie will turn sixteen, the age when she will be considered an adult and can legally take care of herself and Nelly.

Things do not go as planned when Lennie, their elderly next-door neighbor, notices the sisters are alone and takes an interest in them.  He is concerned about their parents’ whereabouts and invites them into his home and into his heart.

The reluctant Marnie calls Lennie a pervert and keeps him at arms’ length.  However, Lennie is lonely and loving, and both sisters warm to him when he shows them more understanding and affection than their parents ever did.  But he knows something is not quite right next door.

Gene’s drug dealer knows it, too.  When he begins asking questions and when a long-lost family member turns up, the girls’ scheme begins to unravel.  The girls’ home, the haven they constructed for themselves, is threatened.  Their struggle to stay together and away from foster care seems doomed.  But Marnie, ever resourceful, should never be counted out.

The Death of Bees is an unflinching portrait of how so many young people are forced to rear themselves.  They are forgotten and slip through the cracks of the urban landscape, lost in the sprawl and even lost in their own families.  Lennie is the girls’ savior; without him, the story and their fates would have been very different.

The distinctive voices of Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie alternately narrate The Death of Bees. O’Donnell writes this coming-of-age story in pitch-perfect prose.    Both Marnie and Nelly join the elite club of young girls who literally come of age on the page, a group that includes Ava Bigtree (Swamplandia!) and Lily Owens (The Secret Life of Bees).

Coming-of-age can sting, just like a bee.  O’Donnell gives us painful instances of violence, abuse, and molestation that are achingly real but difficult to read.  The Death of Bees is a grim and, at times, depressing tale, tempered by sisterly affection, humor, hope, and, above all, love.

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Book Review: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan (Riverhead; 368 pages; $26.95).

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                During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the Prussian army laid siege to the city of Paris, cutting off supply lines and transforming the “center of the universe” into a mean, alien environ.  It was not long before the stomachs of Parisians grumbled with hunger.  Soon, the people of Paris were starving.  Desperate times called for desperate measures.  With food running low, pride and social convention went out the window as people slaughtered and ate dogs, cats, horses, rats, and even two elephants, Castor and Pollux, the pride of the city’s zoo.  The only thing that mattered was survival.

Cathy Marie Buchanan’s second novel, The Painted Girls (she previously wrote the national bestseller The Day the Falls Stood Still), opens in 1878, years after the siege of Paris.  Yet her Paris has much in common with that other Paris.  Buchanan’s Paris is not the stuff of love stories; her Paris is raw, unflinching, intimate, coarse, menacing, and achingly real.  Girls are particularly vulnerable, as they must use their cunning, femininity, and sexuality to make their way in the world.  As Le Figaro said in 1880, “No social being is less protected than the young Parisian girl—by laws, regulations, and social customs.”  In Buchanan’s Paris, survival is not guaranteed; instead, the mere act of existence is a constant struggle.

In alternating chapters, The Painted Girls focuses on two sisters, Marie and Antoinette van Goethem.  Marie, sweet, pure, and intelligent, trains to become a ballet dancer at the Paris Opera, where she earns seventeen francs a week.  Her older sister, Antoinette, earthy and street-smart, who once dreamt of the ballet herself, meets and falls in love with a young man who makes her forget her obligations.

The van Goethems are very poor.  The scant wages that the sisters receive help support the rest of their family: an absinthe-addicted mother and a beautiful younger sister.  There are opportunities, bastions of hope, for the sisters, but they are not nearly enough.  Antoinette has a role in a new kind of naturalist play, L’Assommoir, by Emile Zola, which shows the stripped-down lives of real working men and women.  Marie models nude for artist Edgar Degas, and he produces a statue of her titled The Little Dancer Aged 14.

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“It is not so much my nakedness.  I hardly mind posing undressed, not for Monsieur Degas, not anymore, and thinking back to the way I quaked the first time, it makes me wonder what a girl can get used to, how the second time is easier than the first and the third time easier still,” Buchanan writes.  As Marie stands naked before Degas, she is exposed not only physically but psychologically.  Hard truths become clear to her.

Like Antoinette’s naturalist play, The Painted Girls is stark with realism.  Life is difficult for Parisian laborers.  Their lives are far from idyllic.  Marie and Antoinette are bound by their gender, by their class, and by their facial features.

Marie bemoans the fact that she looks like a beast.  During the time in which Buchanan sets The Painted Girls, many believed a person’s facial features could hint at one’s possible criminal nature.  Facial characteristics, Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso argued, determined a person’s innate criminality: “monster in face, monster in soul.”  Much of what happens to the sisters in this story seems tied to this theory.  Buchanan chooses not to tell the story of the third sister because she was the pretty one, the one who ultimately became a ballerina, the one with perfect features.  Her life diverged strongly from that of her sisters.

How much can the sisters get used to?  Just how much can they take?  Does “monster in face” really mean “monster in soul” as well?  These are pertinent questions, especially when the reader learns the van Goethem sisters were real and lived in the same Paris slum that Buchanan brings to life so eloquently and so well.

Because Buchanan writes her story in the present tense, she lends The Painted Girls a strong immediacy.  It is as if the events are happening now and not over 140 years ago.  Buchanan immerses the reader so completely into Belle Époque Paris that she will feel like a lost van Goethem sister.

Buchanan’s Paris is not the Paris we know today.  It’s not the “city of light”; nor is it the “city of love.”  For the van Goethems and for others like them, from the slums to the Paris Opera to the studio of Degas to the underworld, Paris is a city of struggle.  To survive, a girl has to dig down deep and make heart-wrenching choices.  The Painted Girls is historically accurate, plush, and daring.

Cathy Marie Buchanan

Cathy Marie Buchanan

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Spotlight on The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees will stun you.  I read it over the holidays and still can’t get it out of my head.

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It’s no wonder, really.  Just read the first lines:

Today is Christmas Eve.  Today is my birthday.  Today I am fifteen.  Today I buried my parents in the backyard.

Neither of them were beloved.

This story grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go, not until the very last page.

From Goodreads:

“A riveting, brilliantly written debut novel-a coming-of-age story with the strong voice and powerful resonance of Swamplandia! and The Secret Life of Bees—in which two young sisters attempt to hold the world at bay after the mysterious death of their parents.

Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.

Marnie and her little sister Nelly are on their own now. Only they know what happened to their parents, Izzy and Gene, and they aren’t telling. While life in Glasgow’s Hazlehurst housing estate isn’t grand, they do have each other. Besides, it’s only one year until Marnie will be considered an adult and can legally take care of them both.

As the new year comes and goes, Lennie, the old man next door, realizes that his young neighbors are alone and need his help. Or does he need theirs? But he’s not the only one who suspects something isn’t right. Soon, the sisters’ friends, their other neighbors, the authorities, and even Gene’s nosy drug dealer begin to ask questions. As one lie leads to another, dark secrets about the girls’ family surface, creating complications that threaten to tear them apart.

Written with fierce sympathy and beautiful precision, told in alternating voices, The Death of Bees is an enchanting, grimly comic tale of three lost souls who, unable to answer for themselves, can answer only for each other.”

The author

The author

Look for my review soon.

 

 

 

 

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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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