Saturday, August 6, 2016

Hoopty Time Machines - Fairy Tales for Grown Ups by Christopher DeWan

"The danger of being clever is that your heart will choke on your tongue." 

This single arresting sentence captures everything I loved about Hoopty Time Machines fairy tales for grown ups (Atticus Books, 2016), Christopher DeWan's inventive, witty and poignant short story collection.

As the title implies, DeWan's stories often invoke iconic characters from across the ages - the Minotaur of ancient mythology, Grimm Brothers-style damsels in distress, changelings of Celtic lore, and even modern movie monsters like Godzilla - but these cautionary tales take place in contemporary settings. You know you are in for a good ride right from the start, with a modern-day workplace featuring an impossibly absurd interview process and a soulless corporate labyrinth that consumes all those dedicated employees who dare enter.

The stories that don't riff on familiar tales and characters introduce whimsical/fantastical elements of their own. What I loved best about the entire collection was the precision of DeWan's writing, and how each brief story conveyed worlds of meaning. In a single paragraph, "Renewal" tells the tale of a recently widowed woman who buries her husband exactly as he threatened she would have to - with the years of amassed National Geographic magazines he refused to dispose of buried "over my dead body." In a few lines, through the lens of one minor resentment, this tiny story spoke volumes about an entire marriage and a complicated grief.

Many of the stories appeal to our inner Twilight Zone: In "Voodoo," an attentive father who fears the growing distance between parents and teenage daughter anxiously considers the possibility that those we love most might inexplicably turn and conspire against us. In  "Hoopty Time Machines," a parent's seemingly innocuous and geeky past-time is unveiled to be an elaborate escape plot. "The Changeling" is a powerful and chilling microfiction about a bullied boy and revenge.

Within each story, too, is a careful balance of humor and despair, and it is this which leaves the reader thinking about many of these stories long after finishing the book. "Blog of the Last Man on Earth" is the perfect example. Both funny and devastating, this bittersweet dispatch from the sole survivor of the apocalypse reminds us that all that appears superficial and all that is profoundly meaningful about our little life here on this little planet are pretty much one and the same.

I received my complimentary review copy of Hoopty Time Machines from the publisher.

Happy reading!

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Ghost Daughter- Maureen O'Leary

"The earthquake tore open the surfaces of her life and through the cracks oozed a kind of mud she never knew was there." 

In October 1989,  a magnitude 6.9 earthquake rocked Northern California, collapsing buildings, buckling streets, disrupting the World Series as it was broadcast live on television, and famously felling a section of a busy freeway. This quake also brought the walls down around author Maureen O'Leary, trapping her under her desk, which saved her, while tragically killing several people in an adjacent coffeeshop.

The powerful, complicated emotions one can only begin to imagine in such an experience are the compelling heart of O'Leary's novel The Ghost Daughter (Coffeetown Press, 2016). In it, the Loma Prieta earthquake both precipitates a series of life-changing events for four women - who are survivors in every sense of the word - and becomes an apt metaphor for the turmoil unleashed within themselves. Angel, a young woman with a murky history, is trapped under the rubble for days but is rescued, emerging battered and broken and finding herself, unwelcomingly, an instant celebrity. Her sudden fame leads to recognition, unearthing a long-buried secret of her past. The novel explores the undeniable yet dangerous connections between Angel; her adoptive mother, Judith; Reese, a recent widow; and a determined but compassionate detective, Laura Redleaf. The quake breaks each of them open and shakes the very foundations of their beings, baring their deepest vulnerabilities, forcing them to draw on their innermost strengths, and ultimately forging new and healing connections.

I loved these tough, raw, and complicated women and read eagerly, carried along by the suspenseful unveiling of their shared history, and uplifted by the novel's moving conclusion. Behind their narratives lies a common villain, an influential and brutal man. While his cruelty was necessary to the plot, his relentlessness sometimes felt one-dimensional, and I wouldn't have minded just a little more nuance in his character - but nonetheless. Recommended for readers who like strong-yet-flawed women with more heart and more grit than they know.

I received a complimentary review copy of The Ghost Daughter from the publisher.

Happy reading!

Summer Reading: Travel Companions

"I don't recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new, approximate language. But I know that it's the most genuine, most vulnerable part of me." - In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri

One of the things I love best about travel is how it forces you out of your element. This fact is terrifically ironic, given that I am well known (at least to my spouse) as a person who thrives on routine and who is notoriously resistant to change of pretty much any kind. But travel is my exception - maybe because there is no choice - and I have come to find that I need and crave the awakening of the senses - sights, smells, sounds and tastes - that accompany journeys to places both far and near.

Language is an extreme example of this sensory stimulation - and one that I have found, if you are lucky enough to stay for a while as I have once or twice in my life, starts to rewire your brain. It is a special kind of wrestling with culture - word order and sentence structure, phrases and concepts that exist in one but not the other, and the alternatingly frustrating and elating experience of acquiring just enough words to finally express something - anything! - in a comprehensible way, no matter how awkwardly. For anyone who can relate, Jhumpa Lahiri's In Other Words (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) is a perfect (armchair or actual) travel companion. A memoir of culture and language, she writes of her longtime passion for the Italian language, finally moving with her family to Italy to immerse herself, and begins a diary - in Italian - which becomes this collection of personal essays on language.  The essays are elegantly translated from Italian into English, so if they are rough in Italian, as the author laments from time to time, the English reader won't know it, and will just enjoy her lovely and very personal reflections. While the description of struggling with the language can sometimes feel a bit obsessive, the essays also explore the many facets of cultural identity and belonging (growing up with two languages and cultures as an American child of Bengali parents; being accepted or not as a speaker of Italian who doesn't look Italian), and perhaps most interesting of all, on how writing in a new language forced her to strip away everything she had come to rely on writing in English, and to write with a new and different part of herself. I had the great privilege of reading In Other Words on a recent trip to Budapest (most of the reading done during a regrettable delay in Charles deGaulle), and it left me inspired, I think, to be a little more attentive and observant on our trip.

Books are also wonderful anchors of memory, fixing places in time. We recently made very brief trip back to the mountains of North Carolina. I can't think of a prettier view for reading a book. This trip, I finally (finally!) finished Louise Erdrich's LaRose (Harper, 2016). I remembered being in the exact same place a few years ago, reading Ethel Rohan's Goodnight, Nobody.  An incredibly peaceful place, despite our short visit. The kind of place that opens up enough space to miss (non-work related) writing a little. I came home and - for the first time in a long time - accepted a few books for review that I'm quite excited about. Looking forward to being back soon with some thoughts to share. Where have your books or travels taken you this summer? 
Happy reading!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Reading and Retreating, the Year in Review

2015 was good year to step back, scale down, pare away, and focus in.

A few years ago I quit my Goodreads account, finding more stress than joy in the task of keeping up entries, anguishing over each and every star bestowed or withheld, and failing miserably to maintain any semblance of good literary citizenship. Shedding this draining obligation - self-admittedly one of my own making - was incredibly liberating. Since then shaking off any unsatisfying trapping of digital/blogging life (farewell Google Plus, so long review requests, hasta la vista advertising, and, embarrassingly, ciao to replying to even the politest queries) has become easier - some, out of necessity and lack of time, but more often out of realization of what brings real meaning. 

If one could possibly write any less and still be considered to have a blog, this year was the year. Yet in many ways, any writing that did happen felt more worthwhile. And the more I've let go of blogging, the more I've rediscovered the beauty of reading and writing - if primarily for myself. Going more analog has its perks, as it turns out. Prompted in part by being required to choose a workplace wellness goal, and in part by a pretty blank notebook I received as a gift, I kept a handwritten journal this year. First intended to keep track of yoga sessions, the diary also became a gratitude journal, a reading log, and repository of miscellaneous notes to self. It turns out yoga and writing are a lovely and satisfying combination: setting aside time for one and pairing it with the other - right there on the mat - creates physical and mental space for reflection that has been very valuable.

Looking back through the journal at this year's reading, the new books I loved the most were Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (stunning, gripping and original), Mothers Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell (powerful short stories exploring women's complicated lives), Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff (riveting through and through, even the parts that didn't work as well), Vendela Vida's The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty (intriguing exploration of identity). I also loved Alexandra Fuller's memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman (outstanding short stories about extremely fascinating, real women), and Philip Hoare's beautiful The Sea Inside.

I'm heading into 2016 with Heidi Julavits' The Folded Clock, which is proving to be a fitting reading choice for this moment of leaving the old year behind and starting the new. Her diary entries (essays, really)  consider selves past and present, relationships, and the changing ways we find our place and meaning in the world. She is complicated, and my feelings about many of the essays are complicated, too, but overall they are interesting, thought-provoking, and also instructive on the rich possibilities and art of keeping a diary. I'm also excited to read American Copper, the new novel by Shann Ray, and to delve into the work of two southern writers, Mary Ford and Janisse Ray (books pictured above).

As always, the beginning of a new year feels full of promise and renewal. What are you looking forward to in 2016? 

Happy reading, and Happy New Year!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Identity, Considered

In The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida (HarperCollins 2015), a young, unnamed woman travels to Casablanca, where her backpack and passport are promptly stolen at the very moment she checks in to her hotel. The local authorities, more interested in not having problems than retrieving her actual documents, insist that she accept another similarly-featured foreigner's recovered passport and close the case. In possession of someone else's identity, our narrator begins to shed her own bit by bit, first out of necessity, and then more deliberately. As she does, the disturbing truth about her flight overseas is also slowly unveiled. I loved the premise and the intrigue of the story, and the constant surprise and bewilderment of things going wrong at every turn. The narrator, who quickly reveals herself as a hot mess, draws you in with first with absurdity and impossibility, and then with great sympathy. It's a smartly written, fast-paced novel, perfect for travel enthusiasts with a love of the literary - and a good reminder to never set down your backpack.

Lori Jakiela's Belief is its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books, 2015) is a moving memoir of self-discovery. When Jakiela's adoptive mother dies, the author - a mother herself -  is completely devastated. In her profound grief, and perhaps in an attempt to fill the new and significant hole in her life, the author decides to find her birth mother. With the exception of meeting her brother, the reunion with her birth family is complicated and painful. The birth mother sends hateful and rejecting emails, and a sister, too, seems completely erratic and unstable. Through the retelling of this difficult experience, however, Jakiela beautifully considers both identity and motherhood. What makes us who we are - is it the person who gives us life, or the people who choose to love us, or the family and life we build ourselves?

I remember reading a short story by Tawnysha Greene online a few years ago and being struck both by the beauty of her writing and the cruelty of the story it told. The story, which appears again as the opening to the novel A House Made of Stars (Burlesque Press, 2015), is story of a young girl, her mother, and younger siblings struggling to survive in a home with an unpredictable and abusive father. It is not an easy novel to read - it is heartbreaking and disturbing, but it is also an important one. With spare and compelling writing, nuanced descriptions of living in poverty, parenting under stress, and the emotional terror of turbulent relationships, the author reminded me that just as there are no simple people, there are no simple answers.  The brutality is just balanced by the remarkable beauty in the narrator's strength and resilience. She, too, is able to forge an identity that is not defined by those who surround her.

I borrowed my copy of The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty from the library and purchased Belief and A House Made of Stars. Happy reading!