Saturday, September 2, 2017

Goodbye, Vitamin - Rachel Khong

      "Today after you lost a tooth, you cried that you looked like a pumpkin.
       Today I had to stop by the post office and you looked around and said, aghast, 'This is errands?"
       Today, while I was changing your brother's diaper, and putting baby powder on him, you burst into tears and begged me not to put too much salt on him.
       Today you were so readily impressed by me."  -  Ruth's father's journal

In Rachel Khong's playful yet deeply moving Goodbye, Vitamin (Henry Holt and Company, 2017), Ruth is a thirty-ish woman with a recently broken engagement who comes home to live with her mother and father after he is diagnosed with dementia. Mom, always an enthusiastic cook, blames the aluminum cookware and quite possibly Dad's past marital indiscretions, and has closed herself off physically and emotionally from the kitchen and from the family. Ruth steps in as Dad's primary caregiver and daily companion, and as his symptoms progress and their roles reverse, their relationship finds a close and comfortable mutuality.

Food and romance also find their way into Ruth's story.  As one recently jilted, Ruth must, of course, find a new and improved love interest. There is just enough romance to feel happy and hopeful for Ruth, without taking away from or taking over the novel. The author, a former editor of Lucky Peach, also brings her culinary sensibility to bear in wonderful ways - Ruth relishes cooking, and the reader delights in the sensory joys of her ingredients and creations, as well as in the ways food brings her closer to her friends and family.

Above all, I loved and was won over by the author's lovely and engaging balance of humor and grief. The novel's California setting, with its quirky people and places, seems absolutely the right backdrop for whimsically offbeat but strikingly specific observations about Ruth's world. Khong skillfully uses the funnier aspects of Alzheimer's to best advantage, and for much of the novel, one could almost forget the inevitable sadness of the disease. But she doesn't, and we don't, either. One quiet and poignant request from Dad: "could you write it all down, so I won't forget?" leads us, hearts and eyes brimming, to the book's perfect conclusion.

I received my complimentary copy of Goodbye, Vitamin from the publisher. 

Happy reading!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Muir Woods or Bust - Ian Woollen


You can always look forward to a delightfully madcap cast of characters in Ian Woollen's novels, and Muir Woods or Bust (forthcoming from Coffeetown Press, August 2017) does not disappoint. Gil Moss is a father, recent widower, and leading psychotherapist in the emerging field of Eco-Mood disorders who spends an unhealthy amount of time conversing with his dead wife, Melody. His son, Chum, is a not-quite-launched young adult living at home, a gamer (and likely hacker though Gil would really rather not know) holed up in his room commanding a mission control-like dashboard of screens and devices. Gil and Chum get by, but neither is exactly thriving, living instead in the fringes of life rather than engaged in the thick of it... Until! Doyle Wentworth, an ornery former client and washed-up reality TV star kidnaps Gil and forces him to drive to LA so Doyle can reclaim his standing in the world of entertainment. Hijinks, misadventures, and mischief ensue for all involved, with a good dose of self-reckoning for our unlikely heroes and their supporting cast.

Muir Woods deftly threads modern environmental anxieties and gaming sensibilities into a story inspired by nature advocate John Muir, and binds them together with humor, playfulness, and a great, great deal of heart. This is the third Ian Woollen novel I have read, and I never fail to be struck by the deep but messy love his characters have for each other, and how they always muddle through and come out on the other side imperfect, but redeemed. In a time in which the daily news tends to leave me overwhelmed with anxiety and cynicism, Muir Woods offered a fun, thoughtful and welcome reminder not only to have faith in, but to absolutely relish our shared, flawed humanity.

My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary review copy of Muir Woods or Bust.

Happy reading!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Anklet and Other Stories by Shome Dasgupta

When well done, fiction and travel share the ability to move you beyond your comfort zone, challenge the steadfastness of your boundaries, and give you a new lens for interpreting yourself and that which you take for granted. In Anklet and Other Stories (Golden Antelope Press, 2017), author Shome Dasgupta transports us to Kolkata, India, and invites us, in ways at once tangibly real and magically surreal, to unsettle ourselves in the most fundamental of ways.

The edges we confront in these taut and memorable stories are always organic to the setting - a mystical and fable-like cautionary tale of a boatman on a holy river, a tense altercation in Kolkata's impossibly snarled traffic, or, as in the lovely "Tagore's Kiss," the collective tension in a cafe when a cultural norm is transgressed - but they also powerfully transcend place to more universal experiences. In "Samosa," the narrator stops to witness a homeless man upon the street and pities him, but then, despite his vehement protests, becomes the object of pity and scorn himself. The shift is profound, and visceral. Another favorite, "This is my Head," is a nuanced and beautifully written portrait of a young person's first real encounter with age, illness and death. The disruptions also often have magical elements - blackbirds dropping from the sky, marking our foreheads with their beaks, a young man who is unable to keep himself being thrown backwards across a room - which both engage our imaginations and accentuate our discomfort in the most wonderful of ways.

I highly recommend the collection for literary short fiction fans, and also call the reader's attention to the gorgeous sketches by Indira Kalyan Dutta in the body of the collection which perfectly complement the stories. It is always a special pleasure to welcome an author back to the blog - my thanks to Shome Dasgupta for a complimentary review copy of Anklet and Other Stories. Learn more about his personal story and the background of the collection in "A Story Behind the Stories" at Deep South Magazine.

Happy reading!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

How to be Human by Paula Cocozza

We lived for a time in the countryside in Western New York. The wide open land and sky were nothing less than thrilling to this suburban girl, and for the many years we were there, not a single day went by that I didn't experience that awe anew. We realized quickly that there we were nature's guests, and not the other way around. Our yard was regularly traversed by turkeys, deer, snakes, and a little red fox who would trot blithely across the lawn and down a trail, the formality of house and property lines and mowed grass mere aberrations in a larger, untamed territory, At night, it was even more clear that this world did not belong to us. We would hear coyotes echoing across the fields, an otherworldly noise like nothing you can imagine. And if you have never heard it before, the scream of a fox calling for a mate will send you running to the phone to summon the police because surely a woman has just been murdered nearby. Could such a bloodcurdling sound come from the same charming fox who looks so soft and companionable in the early morning light?

In How to Be Human (Metropolitan Books, 2017) Paula Cocozza's beguiling fox lives closer among people, regularly haunting the backyards of a row of London townhomes abutting untamed urban space of their own. His presence alarms most of the neighbors who are quick to entertain plans to call the exterminator. Mary is the exception. Her engagement recently broken, Mary has lived alone for the last months, and is still struggling with the breakup. She is depressed, her job is in jeopardy, and now that Mark is gone, she really has no meaningful human relationships. She alone observes the fox and sees his beauty, sees that they are connected.

One night, Mary is called upon to sit for the baby next door, and soon after runs into Mark on the street. These two experiences - the tenderness of her feelings for the baby, the visceral reminders of Mark - begin to break something open in her, and this breaking comes to a head the following weekend where she must confront both again at the neighbor's barbeque party. That night, following the party, the baby mysteriously appears on her doorstep, and havoc ensues. Mary and the fox become closely and extraordinarily bound in a suspenseful and remarkable relationship, forcing her to confront her demons.

I loved every moment of this remarkable novel. Paula Cocozza writes beautifully of Mary's moments of intimacy with this wild creature, detailing fox movements and behaviors so subtle and surprising you imagine she has lived this experience firsthand. I loved, too, that the fox had his own voice, that we read from his point of view through poems of sorts, with fox phrasing and fox cadence. Above all, I loved that the novel brought us right up to the edges of it means to be wild, what it means to be human, to what extent those boundaries can soften, and where the limits must always remain. Highly recommended if ever you have been enchanted by a fox, or any wild creature at all.

I received a complimentary copy of How to be Human from the publisher.

Happy reading!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Marlena, Julie Buntin (Henry Holt, 2017)

Catherine is a straight-A scholarship student at a prestigious private school, but when her parents' marriage falls apart and she moves with her mother and brother to a remote, rural town in Northern Michigan, an alluring new friendship offers Cat an opportunity to reinvent herself. Unlike Cat, Marlena is exciting and edgy, irresistible yet dangerous, and the girls, each broken in different ways, form a deep bond that both saves and destroys them.

It's a compelling if sometimes wrenching story. Buntin writes convincingly and often beautifully about the intensity of teen-hood and the complexities of female friendships, and I was drawn in by every subtle shift and nuance in Marlena and Cat's relationship.

Marlena is well worth reading for this alone, but what especially set the novel apart for me was Cat's keen self-awareness, both as a damaged adult looking back, and within the story as it unfolded. As drawn as she is to Marlena, Cat knows they are not quite the same. Something is always held back, the tension determining their fates.

Check out this insightful interview with author Julie Buntin over on Book Talk.

Happy reading (and listening!)

I received my complimentary copy of Marlena from the publisher.