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!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Review: Skating on the Vertical - Stories by Jan English Leary

I can't remember a time in my adult life when women's voices have seemed more needed than they do today. I spent part of the weekend following tweets from the Women's March Convention, inspired by they way this movement seems to have created a space for voices of many kinds. So what could be more fitting this week to wish a happy pub day to a new collection of short stories which explores the complexities of women's lives and the many-faceted roles they play?

The characters in Jan English Leary's Skating on the Vertical (Fomite Press) are ordinary people, mostly women, chafing against the expectations and boundaries of their roles as mothers, wives, daughters, girlfriends, or teachers. Sometimes they are dealing with specific challenges (eating disorders, self-harm, unexpected pregnancy), but always, it seems, they are struggling most of all to be understood.

In many of the stories, the rebellions are quietly internal, but in some of my favorites they are more outwardly dramatic. In "Skin Art," Madeline, a corporate wife, accompanies her husband on a business trip to India. She completely botches her first and only official function, then is left - anxious, unattended and ignored - to struggle alone with her urge to begin cutting herself again. She finds a far more creative means of expression, but her husband, to no one's surprise, utterly fails to understand. In "Alewives," a depressed, middle-aged woman still wearing her robe and slippers drops her husband at the morning train and takes off on a day-long, soul-searching jaunt through the neighborhoods of Chicago, where she discovers her inner guerrilla artist. In the title story, one of a few in which the protagonist isn't a woman, a teenager wrestles with the damaged relationships in his family, struggles to balance his own sense of self with his need to fit in with his peers, and his guilt for participating in an act of bullying. His inner conflicts and furies must, and do, combust.

I found these to be engaging stories. As a reader, I was drawn in by Leary's clear and deep compassion for her characters, including - or perhaps especially - their flaws and secrets. I also liked that she explored difficult subjects in ways that encourage deeper consideration, rather than easy conclusions. Most of all, I loved how each of these characters simmered palpably, their emotions bubbling just below the surface, waiting for the right moment to burst into the open.

Care. Listen. Come into the world and tell your story.

My thanks to the publisher for an advance reader copy of Skating on the Vertical.

Happy reading!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Happiness by Heather Harpham

The profound love a parent has for her newborn child immediately and inherently carries with it many fears - that you won't be a perfect parent, or maybe even a good enough parent, or quite possibly even fail completely as a parent. There are a million ways you can and no doubt will disappoint your child, or choose poorly, or not rise to the occasion when a situation calls for wisdom, maturity, know-how, or transcendence. At some time you will be and do all of these things, and probably it will be okay. But deep in the heart of every parent also lurks a truly profound terror, directly proportional to the immensity of your love, that something terrible could happen to the fragile and tiny being entrusted to your care. We hope and pray that we will never need to know who we will be called to be in this moment.

Heather Harpham, author of Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After (Henry Holt, 2017), was called to this moment. She was not ready. She never expected it, nor did she even expect to become a parent when she discovered she was pregnant. Her partner, the writer Brian Morton, was reluctant to start a family. Realizing she was on her own, Heather left New York City and returned to California, piecing together a supportive network of family and friends to welcome her baby. Not a perfect nuclear family perhaps, but beautiful in its own way, and into this loving and stable world baby Gracie was born.

Almost immediately, however, it became clear something was desperately wrong. Little Gracie had a rare and life-threatening blood disorder which would send her to countless doctors and hospital visits, and eventually require a bone marrow transplant. Happiness tells the story not only of Gracie's illness and her parents' harrowing quest for a cure, but also of one family's non-traditional path to formation.

I found Happiness very engaging, and ultimately quite moving. While Gracie's illness is naturally compelling (and as a parent I couldn't help but ache along with every decline, and rejoice with every moment of hope) the real heart and strength of the book for me was Harpham's openness and honesty about her relationship with Morton and her own self-examination. I found her at her very best in the latter half of the memoir, in which Gracie undergoes the transplant, requiring months of round-the-clock hospitalization at a leading transplant clinic. Here, Harpham not only vividly and viscerally conveys the complexities of parenting under the most difficult and terrifying conditions, but also gives us eye-opening insight into the lives of other families whose lives have become centered around a sick child:
"This was how we told each other our stories, in the margins, in the kitchen, over Styrofoam cups, while washing our hands at the decontamination trough, at the snack machine, without ceremony. Without self-dramatization. Without even the faintest nod to the horror of what was described because the assumption was everyone had horror."
Gracie is one of the lucky ones, and it must be noted that she had things going in her favor that many other children might not: access to excellent doctors, health insurance, family who had the opportunity and flexibility to travel with her to find the best care, the connections that helped her find those opportunities to start with, and a community that rallied to raise funds to make her treatment possible. To her credit, Harpham is upfront about and acknowledges these. In a year in which America's health care access is being systematically dismantled for so many, these are even more important to note, for it must be true that many children did not, and many more will not, be graced with the same quality care.

But even with every advantage, there is still no guarantee of a good outcome. This is what kept me riveted, and which pierced my heart and stuck with me well beyond the end of the story. For this is every parents' deepest fear and frankest reality: sometimes no matter what you do, and what resources you have, there are things completely beyond your control. The universe will humble us, again and again. Happiness left me considering how our deepest challenges shape us and make us who we are, and who will we be called to be, when faced with the worst?

I received a complimentary copy of Happiness from the publisher. 

Happy reading!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

"The weight of time he never bore in life holds him rigid now, cloaks him somber, whittles him sharp as Pop."

When you read Jesmyn Ward, you feel the truth of her words and her stories viscerally. They electrify each hair on your arm, punch you squarely in your gut, and etch themselves deep down in your soul. Her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones (2011) hit me this way a few years ago, and I eagerly looked forward to her second novel,  Sing, Unburied, Sing (Simon & Schuster, 2017). But I also wondered if anything could come close to the powerful and raw experience of Salvage. Sing, Unburied, Sing is nothing less than stunning, surpassing any expectation I could have had with a story that is so physical, so devastating, and at the same time so beautiful, it moved me to tears.

Sing, Unburied, Sing deals with tough subjects - poverty, addiction, race and racism, incarceration, and violence, and so it is not an easy book in many regards. 13-year old JoJo, is the heart. He lives in rural Mississippi with his younger sister, Kayla, his grandparents and primary caregivers, Mam, who is ill, and Pop, who once served time at the infamously cruel Parchman prison. Jojo's mother, Leonie is sometimes present, but even when she is physically there, she is really elsewhere. His father, Michael, who is white, is being released from jail.

While the journey to meet Michael on his release and to return home as a family is the surface of the novel, the true plot takes place deep within each character, and also deeply in the past. Ward takes us so thoroughly inside that even Leonie, who by almost every measure is a poor mother, becomes vivid, complicated, and sympathetic. The ghosts, too, are as real, present, and compelling as those who are alive. The use of the supernatural reminded me of Toni Morrison and Audrey Niffeneger - haunting, believable, and essential to the story.

The past is ever-present in Sing, Unburied, Sing, and the connections this book forges across time, place and people not only create a truly striking  novel, but also feel timely and true. Newsfeeds sometimes have a way of abstracting real people and real issues, making us feel more removed. Novels have a way of bringing them home and into your heart.

I purchased my copy of Sing, Unburied, Sing. Read an exerpt of the novel online at The Oxford American.

Happy reading!