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!

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!