Review: Before you Suffocate your Own Fool Self, by Danielle Evans

This book is a collection of eight short stories with the unifying element of young, African-American or mixed race characters trying to find their way in modern American culture.  When I read short stories, inevitably some affect me more than others; this book was no exception.   The best of this bunch were:

  • Virgins: two 16-year-old girls, tired of small-town life, go clubbing in New York City and find themselves growing up a little too fast.
  • Snakes: Tara, a mixed race girl, spends a summer with her white grandmother and cousin.  She finds herself in the middle of long-standing family tension, and one small but dramatic act results in years of emotional pain.
  • Someone Ought to Tell Her:  Georgie, recently returned from Iraq, offers to babysit his ex-girlfriend’s daughter when her regular childcare arrangements fall through.  The arrangement fills an emotional void for both Georgie and the daughter, but ultimately results in a difficult conflict.

Unfortunately, in a couple of stories I found glaring factual inaccuracies which detracted from the author’s credibility.  Sometimes this completely ruins my reading experience.  In this case, I loved Evans’ voice, and her ability to quickly create pictures of her characters in my imagination.  I’m sure we will see more from this promising young author.

Review: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns

This is a very quirky novel, at times comic and at others, incredibly dark. The story opens with a disturbing description of a flood sweeping through a village:

Swans were there, their long necks excavating under the dark, muddy water. All around there was  a wheezy creaking noise as the water soaked into unaccustomed places, and in the distance a roar and above it the shouts of men trying to rescue animals from the low-lying fields. A passing pig squealing, its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding, and a large flat-bottomed boat followed with men inside. The boat whirled round and round in the fierce current’ but eventually the pig was saved, and squealed even louder.  (p. 1)

The details continue for two more pages, and then we meet Ebin Willoweed and his family, who are a pretty unique group.  His crotchety, outspoken mother is constantly complaining and belittling everyone around her.  He has two daughters, Emma and Hattie, the latter of mixed race.  Ebin also has a young son, Dennis, who he repeatedly refers to as a “cissy.” This is definitely not “Leave it to Beaver.”

And the flood is only the beginning of the hardship that will befall this small village.  People start dying left and right, and no one knows why. Ebin’s already dysfunctional family becomes even more so, drifting from one funeral to the next while still trying to work through a host of family dramas.  How can Ebin become financially and emotionally independent from his controlling mother? Will oldest daughter Emma ever escape?  Can Dennis redeem himself in his father’s eyes?

Barbara Comyns’ very direct writing style takes some getting used to.  Her words are spare, yet the characters and setting are still well drawn.  Once I became accustomed to the writing I turned the pages eagerly, wanting to see what would happen next.  The story was quite surreal.  I hated Ebin’s mother; she made me cringe on more than one occasion.  The novel moved quickly from one event to the next.  A great deal happens in 146 pages, but to me it felt rushed.  I wanted more plot development.  I wanted to be more emotionally invested:  feeling sadder about the tragedies, and laughing harder at the novel’s many humorous moments.  This book is a favorite of Comyns fans, but I enjoyed Our Spoons Came from Woolworths more.

For my review of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, click here.

Review: The Lieutentant, by Kate Grenville

In every situation in his life, Rooke had seen that there were people with a power of personality that gave them effortless authority.  It was not to do with rank or position: the governor lacked it. Rooke did not possess it either, he knew that about himself, but Silk had it, and so did Gardiner.

And so did Tagaran.  (p. 175)

Daniel Rooke was an introverted boy, in love with mathematics and astronomy.  He was fortunate to receive a place in the Portsmouth Naval Academy, vaulting him into a different social class and affording him the opportunity to meet the Astronomer Royal.  At 15 he left school and was assigned to a ship supplying His Majesty’s forces in the American colonies.   He proved to be a skilled navigator, but naive as to the realities of military service.  Rooke returned home permanently changed by war’s violence and an early encounter with slaves in Antigua.  But he was still a young man, and in 1786, when Rooke was 24, the Astronomer Royal recommended him to serve on one of the first ships taking prisoners to Australia.  The journey began in 1788; serving in the same fleet was Captain Silk, a colleague from Rooke’s earlier tour of duty.  On arrival, the English found the landscape much less hospitable than expected, with very little edible agriculture and game.  Not surprisingly, the native people were also less than thrilled by their presence.

Rooke managed to convince his commander to allow him to set up an observatory some distance from the main camp, and there he performed “official duties” in relative isolation.  While the men in the main camp struggled to gain the natives’ trust, Rooke received regular visits from a group of mostly women and children.  He had a special rapport with a girl named Tagaran.  Their mutual curiosity allowed them to bridge the language barrier, teaching each other words and progressing to real conversations.  Rooke kept elaborate notebooks, trying to make a record of Tagaran’s language.  He developed a level of respect for Tagaran and her tribe that was far more advanced than those in the main camp.  But eventually conflict arose between the main camp and the natives, and Rooke faced a series of ethical dilemmas that threatened his relationship with Tagaran and caused him to question everything he once held true.  The resolution of this internal conflict was in some ways inevitable, and yet quite moving.

The Lieutenant is similar in some ways to Grenville’s earlier book, The Secret River.  Both explore the conflict between white settlers (invaders?) and native Australians.   By focusing on feelings and inner conflict more than violence, The Lieutenant offers a rich and sophisticated take on Australia’s history.

Review: 13, rue Thérèse, by Elena Mauli Shapiro

When author Elena Shapiro was a little girl, she was given a box of mementos that belonged to Louise Brunet, a woman in her apartment building.  Louise had recently died, so Shapiro had no way to learn about the mementos or their owner.  The contents of the box fascinated her and she turned them loose in her imagination.  Years later she wrote a novel that tells Louise’s story through the trinkets found in the box.

Louise grew up in wartime France; her father, brother and a cousin/boyfriend served at the front in World War I.  She married Henri Brunet, a quiet and unassuming man who worked in her father’s jewelry shop.  Unable to have children, Louise became resentful and bored.  She derived satisfaction from teaching piano to Garance, a very talented 15-year-old girl.  And Louise had a mischievous side, combating boredom by gleefully making up outlandish, erotic stories to shock priests in the confessional.  When a new family moved into her building at 13, rue Thérèse in Paris’ 1st arrondissement, Louise was attracted t0 the husband Xavier, and envious of his happy marriage and children. Louise’s story is an emotional one; she experienced loss not uncommon for that time period, but searingly painful nonetheless.

But there’s another story wrapped around that of Louise.  In the present day, American professor Trevor Stratton is working in Paris and finds a box of mementos (his secretary Josianne left it for him, but he doesn’t know that).  There are love letters from a young man, gloves, coins, photos, jewelry, and a handkerchief.  As he pores through the box, his imagination runs away much as Shapiro’s must have done.  He begins constructing Louise’s story, but it’s often unclear when the story is true to the contents of the box, and when it reflects Trevor’s imagination or even fantasy.  What develops is a story within a story intertwining past and present in a most intriguing way.  What really happened to Louise?  What has Trevor made up, perhaps to satisfy his own longings?  His findings are reported in letters to “Sir,” who I presumed to be his superior, perhaps back at the American university.  But he poured out his feelings so candidly and completely, I could not imagine such letters written in a professional context.   When the relationships between Trevor, “Sir,” and Josianne became somewhat clearer, the “story within a story” aspect of this novel turned out to be even more complex than I’d thought.

This book left me with lots of unanswered questions about Trevor and Louise which, like the box of mementos, are now left to run amok in my imagination.

Review: Salvation City, by Sigrid Nunez

After thirteen-year-old Cole Vining lost both parents in a flu pandemic, he was taken in by Wyatt and Tracy, a young evangelical couple living in Salvation City.  Cole’s family had only recently moved from Chicago to southern Indiana when the pandemic hit. Cole had been sick, but survived, although he suffered some memory loss.  Since he had no other family, he was placed in an orphanage with scores of children who suffered a similar fate.  Pastor Wyatt (PW) and Tracy, unable to have children of their own, felt called by God to provide for an orphan.

Salvation City is an evangelical community that sprung up around the church.  Their fundamentalist beliefs and values are foreign to Cole, whose family did not practice religion.  Prayer is a regular part of life, and he is home-schooled by Tracy whose own education did not adequately prepare her for this role.  But he is well cared for, even loved.  As Cole recovers, his memory also returns and the reader learns more about his parents, their awful deaths, and the social and economic havoc resulting from the pandemic.  Cole also begins to see PW and Tracy in a new light, as human beings with all the usual flaws.  He is then faced with situations that cause him to question the prevailing values in Salvation City, his own beliefs, and what he wants from life.

While Cole’s personal drama was interesting, I found descriptions of the pandemic most realistic and disturbing.  In the abstract, it’s easy to assume that if a real pandemic struck everything would work out.  But in this book, medical supplies ran out, food was scarce, and healthcare professionals simply couldn’t keep up.  Some people died because of the flu’s severity, but many more died simply because they were unable to receive care.  People who failed to take preventive measures early were most likely to suffer.  I was struck by just how probable it all was.  And one day while I was reading this book, my husband coughed and I nearly panicked, thinking he might be afflicted.  The book felt that real.

While something about Cole’s story fell a bit flat at the end, this was a chilling story that will stay with me for a while.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 7

Just Thoughts: Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto

I finished this book about a week ago, and I’m still flummoxed.  It’s short, only 152 pages, and is actually comprised of two stories:  ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow.’  I didn’t particularly care for it, but I am at a loss to explain why.  So I can’t really call this a review … just a few thoughts:

  • The blurb on the back cover calls Kitchen Yoshimoto’s “best-loved book … an enchantingly original and deeply affecting book about mothers, love, tragedy, and the power of the kitchen and home in the lives of a pair of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan.”
  • Kitchen is translated from the Japanese.  The writing comes across as unsophisticated, almost juvenile.  I suppose it could be the result of poor translation.
  • Both stories deal with grief and loss.  While I could understand the grief characters felt after losing loved ones, the language felt flat and neutral.  And in ‘Kitchen,’ I knew the kitchen itself, and food, were supposed to be important but the prose didn’t convey the sensuality and power of food and cooking.

I’m taking part in an online conversation about this book and held off for a while hoping to get some new insights that would help me better appreciate this book.  It hasn’t happened, and I’m ready to move on.

Review: To Mervas, by Elisabeth Rynell

Marta has lived a life of hardship, abuse, and self-imposed solitude.  One day, seemingly out of nowhere, she receives a letter from Kosti, her one and only love.  She has neither seen nor heard from him in over twenty years, and his short letter tells very little except that he is now living in Mervas, in a remote part of Sweden.  This awakens long-suppressed feelings:

I knew that the letter I’d received wasn’t much of a letter, but still, the few words he’d written were alive inside me … They’d reminded me of my life and the fact that I was still living it, that I was supposed to live it.  I’d forgotten that.  (p. 6)

Marta quickly decides to go off in search of Kosti, but is almost immediately gripped by fear.  She is forced to examine and piece together events from her past, which include witnessing her father’s repeated abuse of her mother, and giving birth to a severely disabled child who later died.  She tries to come to terms with how these experiences sent her into a life of isolation:

And my thoughts have not been fluffy memories or daydreams of the boy. … It has even struck me that there are similarities between the writing I’ve begun and an archaeological excavation.  The carefulness. You have to be so incredibly careful with the things you find down there. They may for example be positioned in a specific order in relation to one another that mustn’t be changed.  Or they may be fragile and crumble at the slightest touch.  (p. 44)

When summer arrives, Marta is finally ready to make the journey to Mervas.  Her journey is slow and careful, and as she approaches her destination she is both attracted to and repelled by Mervas.  And as she makes her journey, the reader is slowly made aware of the full weight of Marta’s life experiences.  Elisabeth Rynell’s prose is spare and yet poetic, and the emotional reveal is a bit intense.  This is a very short book, but not an easy one to read.  The enjoyment comes not from the characters or plot, but from Rynell’s ability to convey a sense of loneliness and desperation and the promise of something better for Marta.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 5

Review: Cold Earth, by Sarah Moss

Imagine you are part of a group of archaeologists sent on assignment to a remote area of Greenland.  As you’re leaving home, a virus spreads, sparking fears of a pandemic.  Your group is isolated and safe, but will your friends and loved ones be OK?

That is the premise behind Cold Earth, Sarah Moss’ debut novel.  The archaeologists are a diverse group:  two American (Ruth, Jim), two English (Nina, Ben), one Scottish (Catriona), and their leader Yianni, originally from Greece.   Only Yianni and Nina knew each other before the dig.  Each member brings unique history and neuroses.  Ruth comes across as haughty and vain, but this masks deeper emotional scars.  Nina is plagued by nightmares, visions of what may have happened to the original settlers.  And she claims someone is lurking outside her tent in the middle of the night.  Others find the dig site disturbed overnight, and some see mysterious lights and shadows.  It’s all rather creepy.

For a while, group members maintain email contact with family, and keep up with the news via a single laptop and satellite internet connection.  But suddenly, their communication is cut off.  Is it an everyday flaky technology problem, sabotage by their mysterious visitor, or evidence of the pandemic’s global impact?   Their feelings of isolation fuel fears that they will be unable to return home.

The story of Cold Earth is told via letters written by each group member as they face the possibility of their own mortality.  It’s a clever technique, with each character’s point of view revealing minor details that build suspense while also providing “aha” moments.  There were a few small flaws in this novel, where Moss could have done more to dispel my inner cynic, but for the most part I found this book difficult to put down.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 4

The Sunday Salon & Review: The Earth Hums in B Flat, by Mari Strachan

Happy Sunday!  This week brought a welcome break from the incessant heat, which should have re-energized me, but instead I’m feeling very lazy.  I’ve consumed plenty of coffee, hoping that will help me get going because there are several things I “should” do today.  I am almost afraid to look at my vegetable garden, because it’s probably exploding with ripe tomatoes in need of canning.   I love being able to cook with garden tomatoes throughout the winter, but canning is a bit of a project.  So I’m trying to get motivated, and I’d really rather chat about books, so here I am!

This week I read two books.  The first was The Boy Next Door, Irene Sabatini’s debut novel (read my review).  As Sabatini wrote about a family caught up in Zimbabwe’s political turmoil in the 1980s, I was reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, one of my all-time favorite books (read my review).  Sabatini won the 2010 Orange Prize Award for New Writers, and I suspect she has a long and successful career ahead of her.

My second book this week was The Earth Hums in B Flat, by Mari Strachan.  This book caught my eye when it was reviewed in the first issue of Belletrista, and I’m so glad to have read it.  Read on for my review …

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Gwenni Morgan is 13 and lives in a small Welsh town with her parents and older sister.  She is intelligent, with an active imagination, believing she can fly as she sleeps.  One morning, Gwenni is supposed to babysit Catrin and Angharad Evans while their mother Elin visits the dentist.  When she arrives, she finds the family in a kind of contained chaos.  Later she learns that Elin’s husband Ifan has disappeared.  Gwenni struggles to make sense of the situation; adult attempts to restrain her only inspire her to step up her investigation.

Meanwhile, Gwenni faces the typical problems of a 13-year-old girl.  Her best friend Arwenna is maturing faster than she is; Arwenna’s mercurial approach to their friendship catches Gwenni off guard.  Arwenna is also a gossip, sharing tidbits gleaned from her mother that fuel Gwenni’s already active imagination, but often represent only parts of a puzzle.  And Gwenni has conflicted feelings about her mother Magda.   Magda is unstable, behaves erratically, and disapproves of almost everyone else — including Elin Evans, whom Gwenni worships.

The story is told entirely from Gwenni’s point of view.  As a result important context is missing, details go unnoticed, and the truth is elusive.  This brings an element of suspense, because as an adult reader you know there’s more to the story.  Gradually,  Gwenni learns about the complex set of connections that shaped her life, and the reasons for Ifan’s disappearance.  The story builds to an intense climax, requiring Gwenni and her family to deal with searingly painful, life-changing truths.  This is a memorable story with memorable characters, that will linger in my mind for some time.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 1

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

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Review: The Boy Next Door, by Irene Sabatini

Set in post-colonial Zimbabwe, The Boy Next Door is the story of Lindiwe Bishop, a quiet 14-year-old girl of mixed race.  She and her family live in what was previously an all-white suburb.  Ian McKenzie, the boy in the title, is a few years older, of British (white) descent, and when the story opens, has just been arrested for setting his stepmother on fire.  Despite, or perhaps because of, parental warnings, Lindiwe is fascinated by Ian.  When he is cleared of charges and returns home after serving a reduced sentence, the two strike up a clandestine friendship.

As we follow Lindiwe and Ian over more than a decade, the focus is on their relationship, set against a backdrop of a country crumbling under Robert Mugabe’s dictatorial rule.  Ian and Lindiwe’s relationship is complex, compounded by the racial tensions prevalent across the country and an intricate set of relationships between and within their families.  As the two mature, they become more aware of family secrets that have shaped their lives.  Ian struggled with demons resulting from his unstable home life.  And I felt Lindiwe’s pain every time she discovered a truth about her past, and every time she returned to her home town of Bulawayo, only to find it even worse off than the last time.   They made an unlikely couple; most of the time their relationship seemed unhealthy, and yet they would never have survived the political unrest without one another.

So much of the story revolves around these secrets, it is difficult to write a review that does justice to this book.  Irene Sabatini reveals the truth in tiny fragments, like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.  I’m not even sure I caught everything, and even after rereading a specific section several times, there’s still one aspect that remains unexplained.  This is exactly the effect I think Sabatini was trying to create, and it makes for a gripping and emotional read.  This is an impressive debut novel, and I hope to see more from Irene Sabatini.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 2

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