Saturday, April 29, 2017

Two by Tin House

Little Sister by Barbara Gowdy (forthcoming from Tin House, May 2017)

What happens when an everyday life is suddenly infused with magic?  Rose Bowan has many blessings - steady if not especially lucrative work managing the family second-run movie theater, an aging mother whom she loves, but who needs increasing supervision due to dementia, a reliable but predictable long-term boyfriend. Not exactly glamorous, but a good life nonetheless. One day, during the height of a particularly unstable Canadian thunderstorm, Rose leaves her own body and finds herself inhabiting someone else - a woman caught up in an unraveling affair. Rose is terrified at first, but as the storms continue and the inhabitances become more frequent, she is drawn further and further into the mystery of this woman, Harriet.  Though very different than herself, Harriet also reminds her of her little sister, who died as a child. Rose sets out to find Harriet in real life and save her in a way she couldn't save her beloved sibling. By reaching out to this other troubled soul, Rose is able to reconcile with her past and break open her present. She, too, is saved.

I very much enjoyed this charming and unique novel. I loved Rose, I could very much relate to her reliance on habit and routine, and I was drawn in to the power of the magic - not so much by the inexplicable circumstances of the storm episodes in and of themselves, but by how the events intensified and deepened her relationship with Harriet. I found Little Sister to be a lovely, moving and suspenseful book. Look for it in bookstores next month.

Swimming Lessons, by Claire Fuller (Tin House, 2017)

I have been eagerly awaiting Swimming Lessons practically from the moment I finished Claire Fuller's prior novel, the exquisite Our Endless Numbered Days.  Like Little Sister, Swimming Lessons, too revisits the past to find healing in the present.

Twelve years ago, Ingrid Coleman disappeared, leaving behind two young daughters and a philandering, book-hoarding novelist of a husband. All these years later, aging Gil thinks he sees Ingrid and follows her, falling off a pier in pursuit. The accident brings his daughters home to oversee his care, and in doing so, forces the family to address long-simmering resentments, betrayals, and misunderstandings.

Interspersed through the novel are letters from Ingrid, each tucked away in one of the many books Gil so diligently collects for their marginalia. They are raw and beautiful letters, telling her truth of the marriage, the story she never spoke aloud to him, the things she knew that he didn't think she did. The emerging narrative of the letters pairs brilliantly with the present story as it unfolds, and there is a particular delight for the reader, too, in the notations telling us which title the letter is placed in.  Beautifully written, captivating in its structure, and so observant of the complicated relationships that exist inside families, Swimming Lessons is a book to lose yourself in, which I happily did.

I received a complimentary review copy of Little Sister from the publisher, and purchased my copy of Swimming Lessons.

Happy reading!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

An Elegant Theory - Noah Milligan

What if life, like molecules of light, existed as infinite possibilities rather than in specific points in time?  This question is the elegance of Noah Milligan's An Elegant Theory (Central Avenue Publishing, November 2016).

Coulter Zahn is a doctoral student with an impossible thesis proposal: he is going to definitively and mathematically prove the shape of the universe. His professors have warned him against pursuing this fruitless line of research for fear of derailing his studies and his career, his pregnant wife is increasingly frustrated by his obsession and chronic unavailability. Yet he is unable to let it go, day after day sitting alone at the university computer, hitting "enter" after "enter," one by one testing each and every possible yet ultimately rejected equation.

All his life, Coulter has also experienced inexplicable lapses - but as the baby approaches and his work feels more futile, his stress escalates and the fugues come more and more frequently. Coulter snaps, the consequences are unthinkable, and his life fractures.

Which is his real life? Which is false? Are both simultaneously real, or altogether false? I enjoyed being drawn in by the puzzle, carefully studying the clues: Is real Coulter the Coulter of the first or third person point view? Could seemingly lapse vignettes come together to form a coherent alternate reality? Is each fragment an entire reality of its own? I loved entertaining all the possibilities, though struggled to be convinced of the emotional probability that our otherwise relatable protagonist could have done a terrible thing... or maybe I just hated to think so. Embracing uncertainty proved to be the best strategy - an intriguing and engaging novel for inquisitive readers and believers in the multiverse.

I received a complimentary copy of An Elegant Theory from the author.

Happy reading!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

We Could've Been Happy Here - Keith Lesmeister

Bittersweet stories are my favorite kind, and the stories in Keith Lesmeister's forthcoming collection We Could've Been Happy Here (May 2017, MG Press) strike the perfect balance between humor and sadness, love and loneliness. The collection explores the distances between people, with the most profound chasms often between people standing right next to each other.

We meet several men who have lost custody of their children, the heartbreak of past failure undermining their paths forward. In "Burrowing Animals" the main character returns, emotionally and financially defeated, to his parent's home. Relapsed into and stifled by old roles and routines, and prevented from seeing his kids even when they visit the grandparents, he reverts to teenhood, hanging out in a camper in the backyard, sneaking girls and smokes. When his father charges him with handling an invasive badger, the task becomes a vector for all the power he has lost in every other aspect of his life.  In "Nothing Prettier Than This" and its bookend companion, "We Could've Been Happy Here," another failed dad is also up against nature and himself. He faces a herd of rogue cows which, like his life, have wandered out of his control. Rounding them up seems just about as possible as getting his life back on track, though he gives it his best shot. Meanwhile, in "Nothing Prettier," he finds companionship with a young woman with her own fraught circumstances. They are close, but they also both know the intimacy is temporary. In the closing story, he falls in with a family that reminds him of all he has lost, but in the daughter's grace finds a measure of forgiveness.

A child's alienation from his or her parents is another common theme, sometimes taking the form of grief. In maybe my favorite story of the collection, the beautiful and heart-wrenching "Lie Here Next To Me," a young woman leaves school and her messy personal life to care for her dying mother. Her mother is alive, but already gone, she is no longer responsive. Sally turns to a beloved but now impractical shared ritual: baking a cake. While Sally's lover tries to reach her by phone and her grandmother shows up to assert her competence, Sally closes them all out, locking herself and the cake in the bedroom with her mother.

There are also rewarding connections after disconnection - twins whose relationship is disrupted by infatuation with an older idol but who return to each other in "A Basketball Story," a husband and wife who put the spark back in their marriage by robbing a bank and going on the lam in "East of Ely," and a young man who finds solace in an old friendship in "Company and Companionship." Each of the stories is smart and engaging, with compelling characters, memorable situations and just the right amount of humor. They unfold with perfect pacing, and the author nails the endings every time, leaving us perched between resolution and possibility. I unconditionally loved the collection and highly recommend it for fans of literary short fiction.

I received a complimentary advance review copy of We Could've Been Happy Here from the publisher.

Happy reading!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Piece of Mind, Michelle Adelman

Sometimes it is all about the voice. In Piece of Mind by Michelle Adelman (W.W. Norton, 2016) we are charmed by the clear, unique voice of Lucy, a young woman who has grown up with a traumatic brain injury. Because of her disabilities, she lives with her aging father, both of them finding comfort in the daily routines they share. When Lucy's father dies suddenly, her younger brother moves her from their quiet, suburban childhood home to his tiny apartment in bustling New York City. In these new surroundings, and unmoored from her father's protection and support, Lucy finds her way to greater independence, and forges a new, more equal relationship with her sibling.

The novel immerses us in Lucy's world. Because her disabilities are not necessarily visible to others, we must understand the tiny obstacles of her daily life - confusing interactions, decision making, forgetfulness, easily becoming overwhelmed, fatigue. In some hands, these details could be heavy, or the tone didactic, but Adelman takes us there lovingly with Lucy's appealing personality, sensitivity and humor. We gain insight into a life we might easily overlook otherwise, and learn to appreciate Lucy for both her gifts and her flaws.

The plot, too, is charming. Lucy finds friends, romance, and purpose, especially through her art. The book includes lovely sketches by the author's own sister, who also has a brain injury. They are lovely discoveries as you read and give the book a very personal feel. While the story may feel a bit familiar, the point of view was engaging and refreshing. I thoroughly enjoyed this glimpse of the world through Lucy's eyes.

I received a complimentary copy of Piece of Mind from the publisher.

Happy reading!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Book Pairing: Lost and Found

Don't you love finding unexpected connections in your reading? Two novels, two writers I greatly admire. While they could not be more different in tone, style, and the lives their characters lead, both explore grief and personal revelation in touching and insightful ways.

In Courtney Elizabeth Mauk's The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things (Little a, 2016), a vibrant, beautiful young woman goes missing, and her parents and brother struggle, alone and together, with her absence, their grief, and what it means for their identities and their family as a whole.

As in previous novels, the author writes powerfully about the complicated relationships in families, especially between mothers and daughters. In The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things, the lost girl's brother seeks out her old friends and tries on his sister's lifestyle. Her mother, devastated and consumed, embarks on a dangerous mission of revenge. Her father, the designated-by-default handler of the practical and procedural transactions of their lives, must find a way to reel his son and wife back in. The novel is heart-wrenching - the heartbreak of loss and the family's unraveling ring so true - but also riveting as the mother follows her grief deeper and deeper into perilous delusion.

In Marcy Dermansky's funny but poignant The Red Car (Liveright, 2016), a thirty-ish-something, unhappily married writer learns that an estranged friend and mentor has died, leaving her a very expensive red sports car. Leah returns to San Francisco, mourning a friendship that had fallen by the wayside, only to discover that their connection is stronger than ever - and the car is quite possibly possessed. As she did so brilliantly in her earlier novel Bad Marie, the author once again gives us an irreverent and unconventional woman to love and laugh with. Our Leah is a hot mess, making questionable choices and getting into untenable situations, usually as a way of not dealing with her issues, all the while carrying on a conversation with her dead friend. I shook my head, laughed out loud and rooted for Leah, enjoying every moment.

What surprising book connections have you found recently?

Happy reading!

I received my copy of The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things as a gift and The Red Car from my public library.