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!

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!