Friday, July 12, 2019

Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera

Gertrude, Annie, and Retta. Two white women, one black. All living in South Carolina at a time when things were particularly difficult for everyone. Three classes are represented. Gertrude is a very poor, rural white woman. Childlike almost, though with four babies to raise. Retta is the daughter of a slave, free herself. She works for Annie, a wealthy Yankee woman with more than her share of suffering. Various factors exist that are different for each woman. One deals with an abusive husband, another has lost her only child. The third is estranged from some of her children.

Throughout, despite the freedom Retta now has, the South still has a racial divide (that exists even today). White women could not be friends with black women, even if all the factors were there to make them close. Friendships with each other had to be hidden from scrutiny. This shocked me and bothered me to no end. Friendships develop naturally and are treasured: to think finding a kindred spirit would be frowned upon because of race is incomprehensible.

I enjoyed the dialogue and the pacing of the story. It has almost constant suspense. Sweetness in seeing Reeta's lovely marriage, and pain at Gertrude's suffering. It is engrossing and is embellished with many accurate historical details that enrichen the narrative. I loved how the women were detailed and their distinct voices and actions that make them unique and fragile make all three easy to relate to.

I also liked how complex the women were, so much so that if you took away the racial differences, their stories would still work in how they are drawn out and created with such dimension. These are women dealing the hand they are dealt. No one has any aces in this game.

I adored Retta. She was so kind and knew what to say to everyone to keep things running that I wanted to be her. She had patience, intelligence, and empathy. Yet, she wasn't perfect and so all the more endearing.

I don't want to give out spoilers, as I think the story deserves to be read and enjoyed.

However, you may want to stop reading if you don't want spoilers (I will be as vague as possible). But still, go if you need to! Order the book!

(Leave now or dare to see some clues). SPOILERS below. Run! Or not. It's up to you!

Okay, you're still here. Are you sure you want to?

Here's the thing. The author brings tremendous suspense up to almost the very last page. And then the denouement takes place in about five pages. It's quickly wrapped up. Neatly. Too neatly. After the time put in reading it, anticipating the rising action, the drop at the end was disappointing. Frustrating.

Another problem I had with it is that there's a very obvious problem one of the women has in her family that is so easily apparent that one has a hard time suspending disbelief that it takes her so long for her to realize the problem. It was foreshadowed so much that it came as no surprise as the secret was revealed. I knew what was coming in one of the first chapters and I'm not that smart.

Following that same secret is that the author has to resort to a tired literary trope that has been done far too much. "Women's literature" resorts to it extensively, so much so that the extreme trauma becomes almost ho-hum. Maybe because the problem is universal and known that it feels like a cheap shot to throw that in as something to be considered a surprise. Basically, child molestation and incest is the big secret. Yes, it's heartbreaking and I too am a victim so I'm sensitive to it. Yet, too often authors throw it in as the big "reveal" in a novel when they could work harder and be more original.

Incest is incredibly common. Always painful to discuss. Yet we live in a Law & Order: SVU age where this crime is spread across the TV and news all the time. So why must it always be expected to be a surprise? The woman, Annie, was ignorant of her husband's brutality that led to her daughter's estrangement, her son's suicide, and her other son's emotional state (his father bullies him). I'm not saying she's to blame, as I don't fault mothers in real life. Mine never knew. What I'm saying (poorly, I apologize for not being succinct) is that the author chose to "go there" for her conclusion. I like her writing but I think it was a lazy move. Why not craft something more original?

I say this because I think as a society, even in the age of #metoo, is that we've become immune or desensitized to the true horror of it. It is not a surprise anymore to see it as a plot twist. Frankly, it's too easy.

So, having written hundreds of reviews, I can say this was one of the most difficult I've done.  But as to the novel, I'm of so many mixed thoughts. I don't want to dissuade a reader and at the same time, I wish the author had given their readers more complexity in the plot.

I pictured this becoming a movie, since the author has Hollywood roots and I can imagine it being done. Being done well would be difficult, I think. I always like books better. And given the telegraphed clues of the molestation, I think a film audience would roll their eyes at the delayed revelations.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Farm by Hector Abad (translated fiction), Archipelago Books

This book is well-written, with two scenes of suspense that are downright frightening in their telling so much I held my breath. Horrifyingly suspenseful and not easily forgotten.  But the book has issues.

For one thing, The Farm is a sort of utopian- planned community in Columbia, passed down for generations and yet every year something is taken away (land). As this begins, the matriarch (not a spoiler) has passed away and it remains to three siblings to decide what to do with it.

Here's my issue, with it and many novels, everyone is filthy rich. No one has any need to consider expenses of any sort, and the lavish lifestyles belie the fact that the Farm may need to be sold. One wants to tell them to tighten their belt a bit! Given the Columbian violence that pervades the novel, it's hard to understand the endless remodeling, refurnishing, and lavish excess the Farm enjoys.

Each sibling has a crisis of sorts. They are all interesting but not to each other. We see them in first person view as they describe their feelings and beliefs, and then in the way they are described by each other. It's fascinating to see how they perceive their strengths and then how their siblings think of those very strengths as weaknesses.  In between these first person chapters are expository chapters on Columbian violence and the history of the region (a bit snoozy here).

I liked it in all, but parts of it were tiresome. The brother is an idealist who romanticizes all things to the point of writing fables, and one sister is terribly naive as she throws money around. They aren't people you'd want to hang out with. But again, suspending disbelief and imagining this as a real family, one can't help but see how it could play out.

Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean.

Review by L.R.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Spring: Karl Ove Knausgaard (memoir)


Survival mode, a day at a time
{Disclosure: Depression is the major theme of this book and one that should never been minimized, stigmatized, or joked about. My review is not intended to make light of the subject, I suffer from PTSD and GAD myself. However, I've found humor, even the dark dry stuff one seldom owns up to, is THE survival skill. So hearing him describe the crises (many) without hearing sarcasm, self-pity, or a simple "piss off" feels unreal. Surviving decades of depression defies review, but the most vital key for me has been some form of humor. Read his book for his personal and painful explorations of family ties amid disaster, the pain suffered by loved ones of the depressed, and the adoration of a father for his children.]

Things I learned in Spring.
1. Karl is a very careful driver.
2. He is a very keen parent.
3. Karl makes up part of the 1%.
4. Karl's children are perfect.
5. Karl backs up his vehicle carefully at all times.
6. His family eats out often.
7. Despite his claim to writing, he appears to hang out at Gymboree, as he's obsessed with cute baby clothes.
8. If you ever have a secret to tell, do not tell Karl.
9. Karl likes to ruminate on countless subjects.
10. He ruminates when he drives carefully.
11. Karl pretends his children only watch 1 hour of tv per night.
12. Karl frequently washes dishes.
13. Karl doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks of him, except for his children and the assumption he is        not tidy.
14. Karl folds laundry into piles and sorts them. Dry laundry.
15. Karl dries the laundry first, after he does the dishes.
16. Karl dislikes pants.
17. Slobs (not him) can be stylish if endowed with a scarf tied properly, he feels.
18. Karl spends time in gardens, by plants, wherever he is. Looking at flowers. Feels things.
19. He likely would prop an azalea in the front seat, with seat belt, if it wouldn't cause a fuss.
20. Karl's face gets him money at foreign banks.
21. Karl's perfect children rarely argue.
22. Karl's family has all the pieces and the instructions sheet for a badminton set.
23. They play badminton. Often.
24. Karl is washing up the dishes again.
25. The wanker still smokes. It's when he feels.
26. The careful drive to Molma is lovely. Lots of feelings here.
27. Karl loves his family.
28. Karl's children are charming in a surreal way.
29. Karl seems tireless; is acknowledging a nap a crime?
30. Karl is loyal.
31. Karl wants you to know he's listening to Queens of the Stone Age.
32. Karl uses a radio. Still. Useful when drying up.
33. Karl drives so carefully he claims to see around corners in the villages.
34. Karl is not likely to adhere to HIPPA guidelines.
35. Karl would be interesting to eat a meal with. He'd either say nothing or talk the entire time. There is no in-between. It would be interesting either way.

See, at first I was taken aback of how he discloses subject matter so personal to another. Yet, I recall My Struggle (the series of them) did that very same thing. So after the shock, I was then sort of mentally dissing him because he cleans up good, too good, in his descriptions. He seems patient, reasonable, indefatigable, cheerful, a healthy eater (despite the smokes), and pretty much A-Ok. He actually doesn't describe anyone in less than affectionate terms. That bugged me. The Realist in me was muttering, "or so you say," over and over.

But then it clicked. It was a gift to his daughter, a memoir of a time, a day, that cannot be easily explained. It was a recreation of history. Why muss it up with tantrums, impatient driving (he's careful, you know), the ugly moods of kids, the self-loathing and constant analysis of past misfortune and current fame? Why NOT make it really lovely, like a postcard from a trip that was terrible but that you wished was better? Does it matter? Given the subject matter, I totally realize the brilliance of this move by Karl. Because he's not writing for the world, he's writing for her. This so that she doesn't have to grow up to only go back to long careful drives with the music on while ruminating on her origin story. She will anyway, but this should soften the blow. Because the pure parental love is there, not just by caregiving but by genuine affection. Like, he's choosing this life and that it wasn't bad luck.

One thing I really liked was how he relays to the reader how much time he spends talking to that voice in his head, and that he was in his teens before he figured out everyone had that begrudging, nasty, repulsive voice in their heads. I immediately thought of how I was quite old before I realized it too, like in my 30s. I just felt like I had a helpful but bad angel on one shoulder constantly crapping on my life. Then I read Diego da Silva's novel, I Hadn't Understood, and his fictional character (one of the most beloved of my reading life) is constantly arguing with that voice. And it was freedom. Now I could tell that voice to bugger off (or try to) because it was universal. How did I get so old without knowing the universal truth that we are all wondering about something and it's never, "how could I do that less well, next time?" Da Silva's novel, FYI, is amazing. Totally different vibe than this; this is far more serious and da Silva's guy was just a lovely idiot.

In all, I can't say I enjoyed the book. I would recommend it, but reading each page was more suspenseful than Hitchcock and all that suspense is tiring, and I felt it was somewhat manipulative on Karl's part. I will likely read Summer.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Impossibly Small Spaces by Lisa C. Taylor (Arlen House)

“ isn’t fair that one species can exploit another and that sometimes even when I want to, I can’t protect those who need it most”.

A universal sentiment to be sure, but the angle Lisa C. Taylor takes in this collection of short stories is defining who most needs that protection.  Stepping back from a more traditional world view, Taylor demonstrates in Impossibly Small Spaces that it is a tiny corner of our most private self that is most at risk.  How that secret self gets protected, and what defines safety, is the core of the stories that take a fresh perspective on what we do when the unpredictable occurs.

I had read her previous book, Growing a New Tail, a few years ago. I was knocked out by how she painted characters in absolutely ordinary situations who dealt with both the mundane and the ugly in their own unique way. The flip side to this new collection is that it is the situations that are nothing ordinary, and the character reactions are complicated.  Self-preservation by denial and running from grief is a tactic these characters find necessary. They aren’t making grand gestures of expansive good works to society. Rather, they are in survival mode, which can take many forms, some of which are no good at all.

In one story, two strangers awaiting a plane arrival briefly acknowledge each other before the worst news crashes in on them. They don’t react as if in a Hallmark happy-ending movie plot.  Their next actions are spontaneous, slightly insane, poorly thought out, and terribly real.  It’s that kick of the reality of what they do that drives many of the stories:  no one prepares us for crisis, so no one can say we are doing it wrong.

Many of the stories have the basis of strangers in pairs trying to navigate a crisis. One woman needs a date for a wedding, but finds that getting one means revealing her most fragile secret. Another character creates secrets to hide his own reality, but loses himself so deeply in falsehoods that nothing is real for him anymore.

In a moment of self-reflection, he considers a fish tank: “Did [the fish] have the consciousness to know he was in a prison or did every body of water feel the same?”  The reader senses that the alternate reality he’s created is probably more prison than safety, even though he has no intention of escape.

Throughout the stories, which stand alone and are not linked, Taylor’s insightful character studies mean they are not easily forgotten.  Weeks after I first read it, I remembered certain characters with a sort of wistful, “what if” thought as to their survival skill. It was as if I’d read a newspaper article about real people.

“A life with this much colour requires a mute button.”  That mute button is the key to finding the impossibly small spaces that let us survive whatever happens. Taylor’s stories are rich and complex, and entirely unforgettable.

Review copy provided by Arlen House Press.

Review by L. R.