Friday, March 2, 2018

Review: In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills - Jennifer Haupt

"It's this place, so beautiful and full of promise. Rwanda, the people and the land, draw you in, take everything you have and make you dig deep within your soul, willingly, to keep searching for more."

Sometimes an author's love for her subject is so strong it is palpable, flowing through every word, every character, every description of a place that is deeply etched in her heart. In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills (Central Avenue Publishing, forthcoming April 2018) is just such a book.

Ten years after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, journalist Jennifer Haupt traveled the country, interviewing survivors and aid workers, learning about the impact of this terror and the difficult process of reconciliation.  From that trip was born a moving novel exploring themes of love and family, violence and peacemaking, and grief and forgiveness.

The story centers around Lillian Carlson, a young African-American civil rights worker from Atlanta, inspired to move to Rwanda to found an orphanage following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination; Henry Shepherd, the white photographer who leaves his family to make his home with her there; and Rachel Shepherd, Henry's daughter. Years later, married and hoping for a family of her own, Rachel experiences the devastating death of her unborn baby. In her grief, Rachel seeks out the father who left her, the last family she has. Rachel's research leads her to Lillian's orphanage, the children she cares for, and Tucker, a young doctor who devotes his time to them. Henry, however, has vanished.

Rachel arrives to a community still reeling from the violence. Entire families slaughtered, neighbor turned upon neighbor, survivors traumatized. As her search for Henry unfolds, Rachel becomes close to the children, Tucker, and Lillian. Meanwhile, the official reconciliation process begins, and tensions begin to rise again. As the truth of the most horrific act of violence in the village comes out, so does the truth about Henry Shepherd.

In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills transported me to this beautiful, injured country and made vivid a event that has otherwise been hard to fully comprehend. I loved the way the characters fought to save each other, protect each other, and help each other heal, however best they could. Above all, I loved that this book felt so, so personal. I can only imagine how powerful an experience it was to travel there, to hear the stories, and to bear witness.

I received a complimentary Advance Reading Copy of In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills from the author.

Happy reading!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Review: This Far Isn't Far Enough, stories by Lynn Sloan

Grief is not the exclusive province of death and dying in Lynn Sloan's poignant short story collection This Far Isn't Far Enough. Rather, we experience loss, deeply, in the many ordinary gaps and failures of our lives, over and over again.

In these stories, we meet mothers who ache after the relationships they wish they had had with wayward children, and daughters who only truly know their mothers after they are gone. Lovers and spouses lead secret lives. Coworkers betray their colleagues. Caregivers are torn between the importance of their work and all they must give up to do it.

What struck me most in this collection was the understanding and compassion with which Sloan explores the complex feelings we have about the different ages and stages and roles in our lives. In one of my favorites, an aging actor acutely feels the loss of his youth and declining career, the loss of his beloved to dementia, and the physical, practical and economic challenges of properly caring for her. The reader feels his love, his frustration, and his sadness, but also is moved by the way in which memories of the theater sustain their connection.

This Far Isn't Far Enough debuts February 20 from Fomite Press. My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary advance review copy.

Happy reading!

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Catching Up to a New Year

Every December and January, while the myriad bloggers and columnists and academies and institutions are celebrating and awarding the best of the best of the year gone by, I seem to always be just starting to catch up on everything I didn't get to. The books become my Christmas wish list, and if I'm lucky and Santa shows mercy, my vacation becomes a delicious frenzy of holiday reading.

This year, I loved Attica Locke's Bluebird, Bluebird, absorbing crime fiction which also tells powerful truths about race, family, history and our justice system. Read back to back with Ernest Gaines' exquisite short story collection Bloodline, and with Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing recently etched so deeply in my heart, the experience of each book accented and amplified the others, together creating a moving trilogy of outstanding writing and examination of our nation's collective conscience.

I eagerly dove into two small press books, Jac Jemc's The Grip of It, and A Woman is a Woman Until She is a Mother by Anna Prushinskaya. Jemc proved herself once again to be the master of the unreliable narrator, or in this case, two: a husband and a wife each increasingly consumed by a supernatural force in their house. It was creepily delightful to be drawn deeper and deeper into the story and their growing mistrust of themselves and each other. The title alone of A Woman is a Woman hooked me, even long before the pub date. This brief but smart and engaging essay collection explores the profound personal transformation that is particular to becoming a mother, but also transformation more broadly. I devoured it in one sitting, and suspect it is a book I will go back to from time to time.

If you have ever had the experience of being gifted a book you have never heard of, and would never have stumbled upon on your own, and yet turns out to be an absolutely perfect fit, you already know that the gift is so much more than the book alone. Multiply by ten when the giver is your own teen daughter, and the book is I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flasar. Originally published in German, but set in Japan, this perfectly written, heartbreaking/heartwarming novel tells the story of the lifesaving connection forged between a sacked and disgraced salaryman and a reclusive young adult. While the two are extreme examples, this beautiful little book says so much about the fragile balance between our inner selves and belonging to the larger world.

January ended up a bit of a bust - a tiny coating of snow shut our southern city down for nearly a week, then work, then kid stuff, then, then... but February looks brighter with two promising ARC's and a chance to see Attica Locke speak at the upcoming Savannah Book Festival. This morning, the first herald of spring on a neighbor's hurricane damaged but just-holding-on plum (cherry?) tree.

And yet she persisted. To spring, and to surviving the storms to bloom anew.

What does the month hold in store for you?

Happy reading!

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Review: Inheriting the War

When I was about ten, a Vietnamese student joined our predominantly white, middle-class elementary school. She spoke little English, but was sweet and drew exquisite, exotic-to-my-American-eyes flowers. We didn't talk much, but we smiled often and awkwardly, and drew flowers together, and became friends of a sort.

Middle school took us our separate ways, and it did not occur to me at the time - or for long afterwards - to wonder how she came to live in our (as eventually canonized by Billy Joel) waning, steel-manufacturing era, Pennsylvanian city. Like many kids, I don't remember being especially aware of current events until my tweens or early teens, and by that time the Vietnam war had been over for several years.

While the world has its way of moving on, Laren McClung's poignant anthology Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees (W.W. Norton, 2017) makes it clear that, in ways that are deep and profound, the conflict in Vietnam continues to shape the lives of both children of American soldiers and of the children of families who fled to America following the Fall of Saigon.

The collection is extensive, and it took me several weeks to work my way through, a few stories and poems at a time. As you might imagine, the emotions are powerful, with many pieces conveying painful memories of growing up witnessing parents struggling with divorce, post-traumatic stress, depression, or substance abuse. Among my favorites were Nick Flynn's portrait of his stepfather Travis, who grappled with the moral injury he sustained as a soldier and his personal struggle to find meaning; Andrew Pham's first-hand, unfolding account of living through the Fall of Saigon; Bich Minh Nguyen's affecting story of being an immigrant student in a midwestern elementary school; and Ocean Vuong's gorgeous and piercing elegy for a cousin who took his own life.

I loved the range of voices - male and female, children of veterans and children who were refugees, American and Vietnamese. Each awakened me to a different perspective, or a new fact, or a detail I hadn't considered before. Some sent me turning to Google for more context.  (I learned, for example, that Fort Indiantown Gap, not far from where I grew up, was a designated refugee resettlement camp. How had I not known this? Had my friend's family come through there? What would that experience have been like?)

Because there are so many writers, and so many pieces, I did think the anthology might have benefited from, if not more curation (for I can see why it would have been difficult to leave any of the pieces out), a clearer thematic structure. I felt this especially for the poems, which while lovely, often felt as if they floated, unmoored between other pieces. But even the prose pieces could sometimes have used a little more context to anchor them in the reader's mental geography or timeline. Nonetheless, I couldn't help but be moved by both the individual pieces and by the collection as a whole, and I came away with a richer understanding of the war and its legacy.

I must also call your attention to the stunning cover art by Binh Danh, whose artistic concept so perfectly expresses the soul of this collection:  "The images of war are part of the leaves, and live inside and outside of them."


Saturday, November 18, 2017

Review: Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng

"But after the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow."
The citizens of Shaker Heights, Ohio, are proud to live in a community that boasts thoughtful planning, impeccable schools, and well maintained lawns. These are civil, harmonious folk, who value diversity, civic duty, and community service. But behind the carefully maintained family narratives and idyllic facades, fires are burning.

Into the tidy, well ordered life of the Richardson family comes a free-spirited artist, Mia Warren, who becomes a lifeline for misfit Izzy Richardson, and Mia's teenage daughter, Pearl, who quickly becomes inseparable from the other Richardson children. Mia takes up the cause of a young Chinese immigrant seeking to regain custody of the baby girl she abandoned in desperation, setting Mia in direct opposition to her landlord and Richardson matriarch, Elena, who is best friends with the adoptive parents. The Richardson family and the community as a whole erupt and divide over the case and their alliances, Elena unearths and reveals devastating secrets from Mia's past, and their world as they know it goes up in flames.

It took a few chapters for this novel to take hold for me, but once it did, I couldn't put it down.  I was drawn in by each of the characters - the dutiful suburban mom; each of the teens with their realistic personalities, friendships and romances; the fiercely supportive but emotionally elusive Mia. The personal stories are very naturally woven together with the larger questions of cross-cultural adoption, and of the narratives we tell ourselves about who we believe we are.

Sometimes a book comes to you just when you need it most. I don't know if the author knew how timely this book would be, but to me it seemed uncanny. One of the most profound and hard to comprehend aspects of the national and political upheavals of the past year has for me, as I imagine for many people, been the realization that perhaps we had built a common story that idealized who we thought we were as a country, only to watch it implode - maybe because we took it for granted. For me, too, these larger dramas came layered upon a twelve month outbreak of personal wildfires, from which goodness miraculously, but unfailingly, keeps rising from the ashes. We are all Shaker Heights, Ohio. We are each of us both Richardsons and Warrens, parents and children, solitary yet inseparable. We are each of us Izzy, lighting fires where we need to, and we are each of us Mia, creating lasting beauty out of that which is left.

I borrowed my copy of Little Fires Everywhere from the public library.  Happy reading!