Saturday, September 8, 2018

Review: Shelf Life of Happiness, Stories by Virginia Pye

Sometimes a book's cover gets it so right. Like the withering flowers of Margaret Buchanan's stunning cover design, the characters in Virginia Pye's Shelf Life of Happiness (forthcoming October 2018, Press 53) are haunting and beautiful not in spite of, but because of, their broken complexity.

The stories felt very intimate as I read them, exploring intense feelings like secrecy, failure, shame, longing, and regret. In Her Mother's Garden, a woman struggling with her aging parents' decline sells their beloved family home to a trusted friend, only to discover she has been betrayed. A wife planning to leave her husband in Crying in Italian can't help but follow blissful young lovers through the ancient ruins of Rome, leaving her children perilously unattended at a busy tourist site. In White Dog, a fading but fiercely independent artist rejects a stylish and successful young art dealer's attempts to reinvent and resurrect him.

One of the things I loved best was the way the author conveyed a very visceral sense of these emotions. In Redbone, a man contemplating his life choices swims out beyond the safety zone: waves of water and waves of regret well up, increasing and overwhelming him as he becomes ever more helpless in a surging ocean. Best Man was the first, and my favorite of the stories, and the most striking example: Two college friends, Keith and Don are reunited for a trip to Reno for Don's wedding to Caroline. Don is a gay man dying of AIDS, Keith is a bit of a ladies' man, Caroline is a newer but dedicated force in Don's life. The story is compelling and heartbreaking, as Don grows weaker and the three race against time to have a wedding before it is too late. Don and Keith have a complicated past, and with the entrance of Caroline into Don's life,  Keith struggles to make sense of all of it. As I read, I could feel Don's frailty, the feverish heat of his skin juxtaposed against the chills of illness and a Nevada snowstorm, and the practically electric connection between the three in the heightened moment of Don's dying. 

There were a few very small things that didn't work as well, for example, a dad's suddenly severe reaction to his son at the very end of An Awesome Gap felt like just a bit of a leap, undermining a story that had me up until that point; the main character in New Year's Day felt just a little too naive from the start. Overall, however, I loved these stories and with all the images and questions they conjured up. Recommended for fans of short, literary fiction.

My thanks to the publisher and publicist for a complimentary review copy of Shelf Life of Happiness.

Happy reading!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Review: The Comedown - Rebekah Frumkin

"Of those who've shut their eyes to the world with few or no regrets, it can be said both that their number is small, and that Leland Abdiel Bloom-Mittwoch Sr. was not among them."
Two things I am always excited to find when I first open a novel: a map, and a family tree.

The presence of either suggests that there is so much more here that you might need a guide to more fully appreciate and immerse yourself in it - complex bloodlines, or perhaps a previously uncharted world. And while sometimes the map or chart is a necessary reference to understanding a book, other times, like this one, it is more of a visual preparation for the journey ahead: don't forget we are all connected.

From the arresting first sentence quoted above, The Comedown (Rebekah Frumkin, Henry Holt & Company 2018) charges headfirst into a gripping first chapter, which, it will be no spoiler to tell you, culminates in our Leland, to whom we have very quickly become attached, throwing himself from the roof of a Tampa, Florida hotel. To understand why he should do such a thing, we travel back in time to Cleveland, Ohio, where a drug deal goes bad and cascades into a fateful chain of events that become this funny/sad/heartwarming and deeply satisfying family saga.

The plot is punctuated with exciting elements: dealers, double crossers, murder, and a suitcase full of cash - but the story is really one of family and how the legacy of our actions and mistakes ripple across generations. The structure of the novel amplifies this: chapters move forward and back in time, and rotate through the cast of characters, steadily threading each person and place to another. In some books a timeline like this might get confusing, but I didn't find it so here. Frumkin's characters are so carefully detailed and thoroughly developed that any of them - including two wives, a mistress, a best friend, their children, and their lovers -  could be an entire novel unto him/herself. And because they were so complete, and written which such love and humor, I loved them all, even the maddening ones, as if they were my own family.

Follow the suitcase. Relish the writing. Miss them all when the book is done.

Happy reading!

I received my complimentary copy of The Comedown from the publisher. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Review: Left Bank - Agnès Poirier

If you have ever imagined what it might be to live an intellectual's life in the defiant and heady era of wartime and post-war Paris, pull up a cafe chair, get a good view of the avenue, pour a glass of wine, and commence observing the colorful players in Agnès Poirier's fascinating and a bit dishy Left Bank Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50 (Henry Holt & Co., 2018).

Poirier opens with the French preparing for Nazi occupation - the artwork from the Louvre deftly smuggled to clandestine hiding places in the countryside! - then plunges the reader intimately into the lives and loves of such notable figures in literature, politics, art, music and philosophy such as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Pablo Picasso, Americans James Baldwin and Richard Wright, and many others through wartime and beyond. With their fierce intellects, their passionate friendships, and their highly unconventional romantic relationships, Sartre and Beauvoir are at the heart of this book, anchors of a creative network, and of a movement, whose influence extended far beyond Paris.

I was most struck that, in a time of repression and significant material scarcity, these talented writers and artists together nurtured such rich creative and political lives. Their food and wine may have been strictly rationed, but they were called to their work by a different necessity:
"It was the lesson learned from the war: indifference bred chaos. It was time to stare at the reality with lucidity in order to change it. To experiment with life, love, and ideas, to throw away conventions, to reinvent oneself, and to reenchant the world were the new mottos of Paris's young."
It sounds quite noble and idealistic, though the reality of their lives was rather messy (think alcohol/substance use, infidelity, etc.). The author tells their stories through a mosaic of day-to-day details pieced against a backdrop of history, and for me this was both the delight and sometimes the frustration of the book. I was often lost in the specifics, and thought I would have gotten much more from it by starting off with a far better prior knowledge of the players. But I enjoyed learning about these brilliant if often deeply flawed figures, and the history overall. And Left Bank reminds us that the question of the role of the artist during times of political injustice or repression is one that will remain forever relevant.

My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary review copy of Left Bank. Happy reading!

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Review: The Parking Lot Attendant - Nafkote Tamirat

The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat (Henry Holt & Company, 2018) is the highly intriguing coming of age story of an young woman raised amidst the Ethiopian immigrant community of Boston. Her world is one in which everyone knows everyone, nothing happens without eyes and ears upon it, and news and gossip travel fast. Our protagonist's mother long ago left her to be raised by her father, who like many dads is protective, devoted, but also hard pressed to relate to her. When Ayale - who is charming, older, and a successful parking lot entrepreneur - takes an interest, she falls fast and hard, and unknowingly becomes entrenched in a dangerous conspiracy.

I was first drawn in by the many aspects of the novel that make this story refreshingly different from other well-trodden journeys of teen self discovery. The novel opens with our narrator and father living in a mysterious intentional community on the island of B - . It isn't going well, and we immediately want to know how and why they are there. I most loved the heart of the novel, the backstory, set in Boston. Tamirat writes about this particular community with love and humor, from individual family dynamics to social and economic networks. Everyone is connected to everyone else, as wonderfully described in the father's immigration story:
"After three exhausting months, my father's mother found a heretofore ignored uncle, who had a daughter, who knew a hairdresser, who was on fairly good terms with a former radio host, who currently lived in a place or a condition called 'Fall River'. "
I also enjoyed that Ayale's parking lot business was one part legit, two parts hustle, and attracted a colorful cast of characters. The underlying nefarious plot was sometimes more challenging to get a clear handle on. Given the extremity of the danger it ultimately put our protagonist in, the details and the stakes might have been a little more explicitly conveyed. But this is a minor quibble. Most importantly, the novel got to my heart. The emotional chasm between the narrator and her father was achingly real; Ayale's magnetism was palpable, and their relationship convincing. Even as things started to go very wrong, I could not discount that by filling a vacant role in her life, he was essential to she needed to become. This tension kept me rapt, and reading.

Many thanks to the publisher for a complimentary review copy of The Parking Lot Attendant.

Happy reading!

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!