Novels

The Fever: A Playlist

While I wThe Fever, by Megan Abbottas reading Megan Abbott’s The Fever, I kept thinking of a particular Radiohead song on OK Computer, called “Climbing up the Walls.” I decided to listen to it, and the next thing I knew I thought of another song, and then another, until this playlist was conceived. I tried to choose songs that would match the sort of sinister, frustrating atmosphere, but that would also match the new, raw power and sexual tension at play in the novel. I’ve done my very best to avoid anything spoilerish in the explanations below. I hope you enjoy it!

“Blasphemous Rumors” – Depeche Mode. “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumors / But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor / And when I die, I expect to find him laughing.” This is possibly the most teen-angsty song of all time: Everyone is struggling to understand what has happened, especially Deenie.
“Teenage Lust” – The Jesus and Mary Chain. “She’s taking hold of her sins now for the first time / Well, she’s been told about sins now but it feels fine.” At the very beginning of the novel, Deenie loses her virginity, and she spends much of the book working through her sense of ambivalence and awakening and how it all relates to the events at hand.
“Call the Doctor” – Sleater Kinney. “They want to socialize you / they want to purify you / they want to dignify, analyze and terrorize you.” All of the high-school girls, afflicted and unafflicted, are subjected to scrutiny after the fever begins to spread. Everything about their lives is analyzed for a root cause. If they are afflicted, they must be to blame. If they are still okay, they must be to blame. It’s a no win situation.
“Climbing Up the Walls” – Radiohead. After the second girl, Gabby, has a mysterious seizure, Gabby’s mother Lara tells Deenie’s father Tom that the world is infused with so much danger that they can never protect their children from. This song is about an actual male predator, but it fits so well with Lara’s view of how sinister everything is: “So lock the kids up safe tonight / And shut the eyes in the cupboard. / I’ve got the smell of a local man / Who’s got the loneliest feeling.”
“Somebody That I Used to Know” – Gotye. I picked this one specifically for Deenie’s parents, Georgia and Tom, who divorced two years’ prior to the events in the novel, but it also applies to Deenie and her mother (they are basically estranged–Deenie’s preference). It also applies to Deenie and Gabby, who has been spending more and more time with another friend Deenie doesn’t like much.
“Do Me A Favour” – Arctic Monkeys. “Curiosity becomes a heavy load / Too heavy to hold, will force you to be cold / And do me a favour, and ask if you need some help! / She said, do me a favour and stop flattering yourself!” Deenie’s brother Eli is worried about his sister, worried about her friends. He’s mystified at how they’ve grown into such unknowable, unfathomable beings, and the fever makes them more mysterious than ever.
“The Sky Is a Poisonous Garden” – Concrete Blonde. “They knew with the dawn / They knew with the day / They knew what they had / Would be young naked prey / And attacked from all sides / By a world filled with / Poison and hate” The fever happens just as spring is beginning to burst forth. On a night when the PTA holds a meeting to discuss the fever and what to do about it, the weather turns strangely warm and the sky takes on a strange glow, and Tom is no longer sure about the town and his or his childrens’ place in it.
“Jealous Girls” – The Gossip. “Jealousy won’t get you anything that you lost / Jealousy it will never be what it was / Jealousy well I’m afraid of what I’ve become / Jealousy it feels like everything’s come undone” Deenie, Gabby, and Lise have been best friends since junior high, but things have changed. The balance has shifted. Lise seemed to become the center of male attention overnight; Gabby has a mysterious new friend she shares her secrets with; and Deenie also has a secret of her own.
“Evil’s Sway” – Japandroids. “A candle’s pulse is no companion / When all you see is sexual red
You burn away your dreams inside a journal / And leave those primal words unsaid” Gabby’s mysterious friend Skye irks Deenie and somewhat fascinates Eli. She talks about energies and spells and incantations and seems immune to any harm.
“You’ve Been a Friend” – The Jesus and Mary Chain. “What if I say / I couldn’t take another day / Aw if I told you would you stay / And I’ve got you / And you’ve always seen me through / Aw if I told you would you stay” Deenie goes to visit Lise, who is in a coma at the hospital. She has to tell her something, something she hopes will wake her up–but that also might mean she will lose Lise anyway.
“Talk Amongst Yourselves” – The Grand National. “So talk amongst yourselves / While I try to figure it out / Figure it out / I’ll let you know in my time” One of the afflicted girls makes a YouTube video where she points the finger at Deenie. Deenie herself worries that she has somehow caused everything that happens, but she’s more interested in uncovering the truth than in anything else.

The Fever by Megan Abbott

The Fever, by Megan AbbottI first picked up a book by Megan Abbott back in 2009. That book was Queenpin, the story of a nameless narrator’s apprenticeship under a 1950s female mob boss named Gloria Denton. I was immediately hooked and went on to read Bury Me Deep, based on the true story of Winnie Ruth Judd, the “Trunk Murderess” of the 1930s who murdered her husband and shipped him from Arizona to California in a steamer trunk. Here’s what I said in my original review of Bury Me Deep: “While fiction hardly lacks for strong female protagonists, one of the things I like about Abbott’s books is that her women are so very pragmatic. These aren’t intellectual heroines, plucky young women defying convention by sneaking into the boys’ club or determining not to marry and instead pursue a life of the mind.” (Always quote yourself whenever possible, people. All the cool kids do. Like Kanye.)

In 2011, when I read about The End of Everything, the story of a 13-year-old girl whose best friend disappears, I was excited to see how Abbott’s ability to create such compelling heroines would translate to a more modern, more conventional plot line (let’s face it—many, many novels have been written about missing girls). Sadly, when I read the novel I found it didn’t seem to translate at all. In fact, I felt like I had picked up a book by another author entirely (and maybe in some ways I had). While I didn’t dislike The End of Everything, it lacked the darkness and the gumption of her earlier books.

I hoped for better when I read the blurbs about her 2012 novel Dare Me, which while entertaining enough felt like little more than Mean Girls meets psychological thriller. While she successfully brought back the darker atmosphere of her earlier works, the characters—popular, oversexed cheerleaders with so much raw ambition they make Cersei Lannister look like an amateur—felt like caricatures.

I admit, I approached The Fever with some trepidation. I say some because the truth is, Abbott is a terrific writer with a unique voice, and so she’s one of those writers who will always make me jump at the chance to read what she’s written, even if I’m just hoping for better than last time. Luckily, The Fever did not disappoint—not by a longshot.

In The Fever, Abbott maintains her own unique style while somehow also channeling the empathy of Judy Blume and the edginess of Joyce Carol Oates. Deenie Nash’s best friend Lise is struck by a mysterious seizure at school one morning. The next day, Deenie and Lise’s friend Gabby is also struck by a seizure during a school orchestra recital. As the days go by, more and more girls at the high school are affected by a mysterious illness that includes symptoms such as uncontrollable twitching and violent vomiting. Parents and teachers are panicked, the whole small-town community of Dryden in an uproar.

Only the girls are afflicted. The boys are fine. Some parents believe a (semi) mandatory vaccine is to blame, others believe pollution in the town lake is the problem, while others still blame demonic possession. The book alternates points of view, from Deenie to her father Tom, a chemistry teacher at the school, to her brother Eli, a popular Senior hockey player. This shift is effective because while Tom and Eli are directly affected by the town’s hysteria and their concern for Deenie, their sections provide a broad viewpoint of Deenie and her friends, creating a less insular experience than the ones Abbott created in her previous two novels. Deenie (named for Blume’s Deenie, perhaps?) also has some of the pragmatism and gumption of Abbott’s early heroines. Abbott also does such a terrific job of—how else to say this?—showing what it means to be a girl. Not a cheerleader, not a prom queen, but not Carrie, not an outcast. Just a girl, with all those mysterious feelings about herself and her friends, all the changes taking place physically and mentally, the safety of staying in childhood and the excitement of becoming something more, something else, and how all that shifts alliances and balances of power in relationships that once seemed so easy. “She thinks I need her but she’s the one who needs me,” Gabby says of Deenie. “I make her feel more interesting.”

Abbott does a terrific job of drawing out the suspense and creating a palpable atmosphere of hysteria. Although the subject matter is completely different, it reminded me of an Australian film (from long, long ago) called Picnic at Hanging Rock, a psychological thriller about the mysterious disappearance of several girls and a teacher and the hysteria that ensues. It’s a frightening movie because it never resolves anything, and the audience is left to wonder whether a crime was committed at all, or if perhaps the missing women were simply the victims of an accident while hiking in the rocks. And if The Fever has a weakness, I would say it’s the ending, which is not implausible but perhaps a little too neatly tied off, at least for my tastes. I would have preferred that Abbott maintain the mystery right through to the end. Four out of five stars.

Full disclosure: I received my copy of The Fever from NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top 10 Books of 2014 (so far)

Yesterday I had the stunning realization that I read only ONE book in May: The People in the Trees. Lucky for me it was a really terrific book, but honestly, it’s bad enough that I generally only average three books a month. Definite room for improvement.

Today’s Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, asks us about our ten favorite books so far this year. With such a short list for the year, I don’t have ten books, but I do have six, and here they are:

The Tie That Binds Cover

 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette Cover

 

Big Machine Cover

 

Byrd-standup.jpg

 

The People in the Trees Cover

 

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The Rise and Fall of Great Powers

9780679643654I was highly impressed with Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists when I read it back at the beginning of 2011. When I saw the e-galley for The Rise and Fall of Great Powers come up for grabs on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to read it, and I’m so happy that I did.

In spirit, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers has much in common with one of my favorite novels from last year, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. When the novel opens, we meet Tooly, née Matilda Zylberberg, reading a biography of Anne Boleyn in her pub-turned-bookshop in Wales. (Interestingly, Rachman describes Tooly as slight and somewhat tomboyish, with a black-haired bob, so I pictured Tartt as the protagonist the whole time I was reading.) She is called away from Wales suddenly by an old boyfriend, Duncan, who has been caring for an elderly, ill man named Humphrey that he believes is her father.

Who Humphrey actually is to Tooly, and who the other adults are who shaped her unusual life, is revealed slowly by moving back and forth across three points in time: 2011 (labeled as “The Beginning”), 1999-2000, and 1988 (labeled as “The End”). We learn that Tooly was removed from her family as a child and was taken from place to place (continent to continent actually—from Australia to Asia) by a man named Paul, who worked for the government designing and implementing network security. We also learn that at some point she was somehow passed from Paul to group of Bohemian types that includes Humphrey as well as a con artist named Venn and a drifter named Sarah, and that she traveled with them from place to place (from Asia to Europe to the US) until she landed in New York City in 1999. At that point Tooly meets Duncan and begins a relationship with him, but she always believes that Venn will return for her so they can complete a “big project.”

In mostly non-romantic terms, Venn is the love of Tooly’s life. She has moulded herself in his image, adopted what she believes are his life tenets, and is always awaiting his return. In 2011, she has not heard from him in almost ten years. The journey back to New York to see about Humphrey unlocks questions and memories for Tooly, until eventually she is driven to find Paul, Sarah, and Venn to understand exactly who they are, who Humphrey is, and most of all who she is herself.

I’ve seen some descriptions online about this being a book about a bookseller. If you’re looking to read this book because you think it’s going to be about that, then let me set you straight: the bookstore has almost nothing to do with the primary story at hand, although books are an important part of Tooly’s life and especially her bond with Humphrey (and also her bond with her only employee, Fogg). The frequent mentions of Dickens in this novel, as well as its circuitous plot, are also earning this novel the term “Dickensian,” which I suppose it is, in the best sense. Tooly, though, like a lot of bookish people, confuses being well-read with being worldly. In other words, even through all of her travels, most of what she has learned about the world, and the ways in which she evaluates and understands people in her life, comes from what she’s learned from reading novels. This both helps and hurts her, because while she’s intelligent, her reactions to people as characters often keeps her from understanding what is really happening in the relationships she forms.

The book gets off to a slow start, and at times the chapters that cover Tooly’s girlhood in Bangkok drag a little bit, but nothing ever slows so much it actually stalls. Rachman does a terrific job of letting out little bits and pieces of information, feeding us clues about Tooly’s life and the people in it that she fails to pick up herself, so even as the nature of her relationships becomes fully clear to Tooly herself we are also still grasping the full truth. Some people who found The Goldfinch too long and/or implausible might actually prefer The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. It’s not without its own gaps and hiccups, but as much as I loved The Goldfinch, I liked Tooly better than I liked Theo if for no other reason than she is far less prone to navel-gazing, self-pity, and self-destruction.

Highly recommended. Four out of five stars.

*image from Random House; I received my copy of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers from NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion

Reader’s Journal: The Word Exchange

The Word Exchange CoverI am definitely a person who believes that technology can help us improve our lives. Access my music from the cloud, anywhere or anytime? Sign me up! Geo-location services that help me know where I am or where my loved ones are and help to alleviate worry? Sign me up! Self-driving cars that mean an absence of road rage and accidents based on poor human decisions? Sign me up! Hundreds of books in my hand wherever I travel? Sign…oh, you get the idea.

Of course, people like me who are excited about these advancements have their counterpoint in technology luddites whose arguments are alternately based in (sometimes very real) fear (Hackers can get access to my information!) or aesthetics (Stories must be printed on paper! I love the way books smell! Trees be damned!).

When I first received an invitation from NetGalley to review Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange, I was afraid it would be a treatise against technology disguised as a novel, and to some extent, it is. Although it can be a bit heavy-handed at times, overall The Word Exchange is truly a literary thriller, and a highly entertaining one at that, and it also makes some very valid points about language and technology in society.

As the novel opens, Anana Johnson discovers that her father, Douglas Samuel Johnson, has disappeared. Doug is the chief editor of one of the last remaining print dictionaries, the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). (For those of you who might worry, the other physical dictionary still in existence in The Word Exchange is the Oxford English Dictionary.) Although the NADEL is approaching the publication of its third edition, its existence is threatened by an application called The Word Exchange, which provides words and definitions of words through an individual’s Meme, a personal device similar to a smartphone with predictive capabilities. For example, a Meme can order another drink for you if you need it, call for a cab when you are too drunk to drive, or, whenever the occasion is warranted, provide the word that is right on the tip of your tongue. (By the way, this kind of technology is already a thing.)

As more people have become dependent on their Memes, it seems they have also started to spend less time thinking for themselves. This dependency is exploited by a virus introduced into The Word Exchange, whereby people searching for or trying to think of a word are being given entirely new words with new definitions. These words are slipping into everyday speech and making communication anywhere from difficult to impossible, depending on the severity of the case.

Anana enlists the help of her Doug’s close friend, Bart, another NADEL employee, to help find him. For his part, Bart is in love with Anana, who is quietly suffering from a break up with a mutual “friend” of Bart’s. And really, folks, this is about all the information I can give you because: A) the plot is incredibly intricate, which most of the time lends to the fun but occasionally causes it to become bogged down with scenes designed to show (again and again) how the infected technology is affecting the population; and B) the book is a thriller of sorts and I’m not willing to spoil the fun.

The novel is arranged by chapters that each start with a letter of the alphabet and provide a clue about the chapter contents:

B
Bartelby \bâr-tǝl-bē)\, n 1 : a scrivener 2 a : a man with many friends and casual acquaintances : BART b slang : life of the party ; a person who is never lonely, especially not on Friday night

The chapters alternate between Anana’s and Bart’s point of view as they try to uncover what has happened to Doug. Anana’s are straight narrative, while Bart’s are told through a series of journal entries. The language disease that affects the characters is sometimes serious but also used to great comic effect:

The driver was gruff. My adrenaline had worn off enough that I was starting to feel the first boln of an emotional hangover after what I’d said to Ana’s family. But most of all I was disconcerted by her mention of a doctor. And what she’d teedom about a device also had me kind of spooked; it got me started worrying a bit about the Meme. While I was shyoxing, I pold a text from Ana on my phone. It said, “I rain chuang kist you away. Sorry tic konдooлeeteч display. Stop u hui dome tode.” And then a message appeared with the blue “WE” Word Exchange logo: “Would you liek the meaning? Yes/No.”

In truth, the “new” words infecting people in the book can be a bit distracting, but even though Graedon uses them comically they never become a joke. The Word Exchange is also peppered with wordplay and literary references that deep readers will enjoy. Likewise, if you’re interested in or familiar with the culture of technology start ups, you’ll recognize some of the characters Bart gets mixed up with. (In fact, I finished reading this right around the time Silicon Valley premiered on HBO, and even before I started watching the show I was already picturing warm, hapless Bart as the actor Zach Woods, whom some of you might also recognize as Erin’s boyfriend from The Office.)

As a person who still refuses to use most popular abbreviations or shortened words (“u” for you, “tho” for though), even on Twitter, the parts about the disintegration of language bothered me a bit. While I was reading the book I remembered a news story about vocabulary words that were being removed from the SAT test and replaced with more “relevant” words that kids experience in everyday life and classrooms. (I can’t find any examples, but I seem to remember seeing another article that said “uncommon” words such as sagacious and plethora were on the list. And in fact, Google Drive has marked sagacious as misspelled as I type this—it isn’t—and offers no replacement or suggestion. Shudder.) To be sure, the dumbing down of our vocabulary has already started, but I for one am disinclined to blame technology, the same way I do not fault my car for my lack of muscle tone. Luckily, Graedon only gets a bit heavy-handed on a few sections of the book, and she herself readily admits to a bit of smartphone addiction.

Overall The Word Exchange is a fun, intelligent mystery novel. Four out of five stars.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of The Word Exchange from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Where'd You Go, Bernadette CoverI’m going to keep this one short and sweet, mainly because Bernadette is already back at the Sandy Springs Public Library. If you’re in Atlanta and you’re looking for her, that’s the last place I saw her, so you might start there.

Several years ago I was contacted by a PR person for Maria Semple (or for her publisher–I can’t remember) and asked if I’d like to read and review her debut novel, This One Is Mine. I agreed, and I read the book, but I never reviewed it. I didn’t like it. It came across as both glib and implausible, and even if I did laugh out loud a few times while reading it, I spent most of my time rolling my eyes and believing that Semple only managed to get a book deal because she was so well-connected. After all, she wrote for television shows including Mad About You, Saturday Night Live, and Arrested Development. I mean, duh. But I don’t really like to write negative reviews (although I guess I kind of just did), so I never posted a review.

Given my experience with This One Is Mine, I wasn’t exactly one of the first people to line up for a copy of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? when it was released. I wasn’t even one of the first million, most likely. I resisted all the positive reviews, all the 2012 year-end best-of lists, all the recommendations from friends. And then, several weeks ago, I was at a low, low point, and I was casting about for something to read that wasn’t too serious, so I decided on a whim to check out Where’d You Go, Bernadette? from the library.

And I’ll be damned if every positive review, every 2012 year-end best-of list, and every friend wasn’t right: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a highly entertaining and funny book. It isn’t perfect–it drags a bit in spots, and the plot is preposterous—but ultimately everything works. You probably know all this by now, but in case you don’t: Bernadette has gone missing, and her fourteen-year-old daughter Bee has decided to reconstruct events using emails, letters, police reports, etc. to see if she can figure out where her mother went. Because of this, the point of view shifts frequently, from sections narrated by Bee to correspondence between a crazy cast of characters that include a self-righteous neighbor and an administrative assistant at Microsoft to emails between Bernadette and her virtual assistant.

Bernadette is fantastic—she’s neurotic, depressed, terrified, intelligent, hilarious, and generous. She’s completely flawed, wholly unlikeable, and totally loveable, all within the space of a few paragraphs. The parts that tend to drag a bit are the parts where Bernadette is missing and we hear less of her voice…up until the end her husband Elgin feels more like a plot device than a real character, although the exaggerated tales of life at Microsoft (where Elgin is a top executive) lend a bit of their own hilarity. Overall, because Semple has done such a great job with Bernadette, the other characters, although well-drawn and funny in their own ways, pale a bit.

All in all, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is not without its flaws, but it is a quick and fun read, and it made me laugh out loud. Four out of five stars.

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Byrd

Byrd-standup.jpgThe first time I read anything about Kim Church’s debut novel Byrd was on Largehearted Boy. She put together a playlist for that blog’s Book Notes series, and I liked the playlist. While I’ve discovered many new bands through Largehearted Boy and the Book Notes series, sometimes I feel as though authors go to an awful lot of trouble to list the most obscure musical acts possible (with the exception of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Nick Cave, who all seem obligatory for about every third list…not that there’s anything wrong with that). Here were artists and songs I knew from childhood: The Allman Brothers, The Doobie Brothers, Nina Simone, Carol King.

As much as I liked her playlist, I was also intrigued by her explanations of how the songs connected to her novel. When I saw it was available on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to get a review copy. Byrd is a book about unrequited love, but also something deeper than that, because Addie Lockwood’s real unrequited love–if it can be called anything as simple as that–is her love for the son she gave up, a boy she calls Byrd, and the ideas and ideals she gave up with him. This story of a mother giving up her child for adoption is an unusual one because Addie is 32 when she decides to give up Byrd for adoption. Not to say that any story of giving up a child for adoption is typical, but Addie is at an age when a lot of married women start having children—or worrying about having children, with that proverbial biological clock tick-tocking, so her point of view is different than say, a high school or college student in the same position.

I picked up Byrd late on a Friday afternoon and I finished it the next day. I haven’t read a book that quickly in years. The book begins with Addie and her not-yet love interest Roland Rhodes, the book’s central figures, in 1965 when they are in the fourth grade. Told from various characters’ third-person point of view (including Addie and Roland), we catch glimpses of them alone and with each other as their relationship evolves (and then dissolves) over the course of their lives. Although Addie and Roland’s relationship is the central relationship in the book (well, besides Addie’s “relationship” with Byrd, which is one-sided, as Addie writes letters to him over the years), we also experience Addie’s relationship with her parents and friends, and Roland’s relationship with another woman and with the son they have together. The chapters that are devoted to other characters—Addie’s mother and father, her brother Sam, and Roland’s girlfriend Elle, are some of the most poignant in the novel, and they add a depth to the characters that we would not get if the story simply alternated between Addie and Roland, or stayed with only one of them.

I might as well cut to the chase. I am not much of a crier, but when I got to the end of Byrd (and maybe a few times before that), I cried. For about an hour, I cried. I wasn’t sobbing, but I continued to well up, and even now if I think about certain scenes in the novel, it brings tears to my eyes. And the beauty of it is that nothing in this novel is overworked or melodramatic. It’s the hush, the lonely hopefulness, the complexity of love and disappointment that drive the narratives of everyday life that really shine here. I highly recommend it, with 5/5 stars.

Byrd is a quiet book. Most of the time I don’t mind that my blog is not more popular, but when I find a book like Byrd, which was published by the terrific independent publisher Dzanc Books, I wish I had a wide readership so that I could help it build the attention it deserves. (Thanks goodness for Largehearted Boy, which will hopefully give it a wider audience.)

Read an interview with Kim Church here.

I received my copy of Byrd from NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Not For Nothing

NotForNothing-Standup.pngWhen I find myself wide awake in the middle of the night, to lull myself back to sleep, I work on on a blog post in my head. This happens at least once a week, and when it does I never get out of bed and actually bother to write anything. I always think I will remember everything in the morning, but of course that line of thinking also assumes that the first thing I will do when I get out of bed is go to the computer, or at the very least grab a pen and a notebook, and capture everything from the night before, the way one would record a vivid dream for later analysis. Me? I play with the cat, drink a glass of water, get up and make the bed, go downstairs for coffee. By the time I am on my second cup of coffee, The Today Show has usually obliterated most of the original or interesting thoughts that might have remained from the night before. Ah, the perils of morning television.

Last night as I lay awake I wrote a post in my head about Not For Nothing by Stephen Graham Jones. I finished the book a few weeks ago, but I have been thinking about it a lot. Here’s some of what remained of my thoughts when I awoke this morning:

  • If Larry McMurtry wrote crime fiction in the second person, this is the kind of book he would have written.
  • In cities, there are jobs. In small towns, there are simply things that have to get done. Somebody has to run the car wash, the burger stand, or say, the storage unit facility.
  • People who leave small towns are resented and admired in equal measure. People who come back from the big city are generally considered to have come to their senses, but also viewed with some suspicion. (And remember, the “big city” is relative. When you’re from a town with less than 1,000 residents, one with 100,000 residents seems huge.)
  • Someone is nodding on almost every single page in this book. I’m afraid that readers will think this is an author’s tic. Because I am from West Texas, I know very well that people there actually communicate this way. A nod can mean many things: an agreement, a disagreement, a laugh, an apology, an expression of love, an ending to a conversation or even a relationship. (See again McMurtry, Larry, Horseman, Pass By or The Last Picture Show. See Hud starring Paul Newman. If you must, see Friday Night Lights, only watch it with the sound off at least half the time. You can’t get away with all that nodding in television drama.)
  • If people pick up this novel because they are curious about the second-person narrative, I hope they stay for the story. Even though it has a mystery with all the requisite (but not expected!) twists and turns, I found it to be much more than a crime novel (see yet again, McMutry, Larry).

Not For Nothing is the story of “you,” one Nicholas Bruiseman of Stanton, Texas. You went to school with the same kids all the way through your junior year of high school. You were a fat kid, and it earned you the nickname St. Nick. You had a case of sticky fingers in your later years. You had a secret, sweet moment with a girl in high school that left an indelible impression on your mind and heart. Nobody thought you would amount to much, but you went to Midland and became a cop. And then you had to come back to Stanton because being a cop doesn’t always mean being smart. It doesn’t mean who you are or meant to be won’t catch up with you sooner or later, as everyone is happy to remind you when they see you. You have a darker side, but you also have a wry sense of humor and know not to take yourself too seriously when you can help it. You take a job as caretaker for storage units, and one day that girl you were sweet on through high school, maybe longer, shows up. She wants to hire you to watch her husband, the football hero who made your life hell as a kid. And then the football hero shows up later, after she’s gone. He wants you to watch his wife.

And the rest is about you trying to figure out what game they’re playing, to understand why people are disappearing or dying. But also the rest is you trying to get through the day to day of the life you live now and to figure out how you can help other people you see hurting who don’t need a wannabe private-eye but a friend. And that’s the most interesting part of the book, and Jones does such a seamless job of telling Nick’s story, your story, that you willingly go along. And in fact you will forget you are reading in second person, most likely, because you’ll be able to smell the hot air, see the big sky, taste the chopped barbecue sandwich or the stale burrito from the convenience store. I highly recommend it, with 4/5 stars. (The novel, that is–not the convenience store burrito.)

I admit I might be a bit prejudice in the novel’s favor because I spent my first thirteen years going back and forth between Lubbock and Odessa, and through Big Spring and Sweetwater every other small town on I-20 on the way to Dallas when I went there to visit family. I haven’t been to West Texas in 20 years—I haven’t even lived in Texas since 1999—but I still see it and feel it vividly. It’s a place that once it’s in you, it’s always in you.

If you’re interested in why Jones chose to write the novel in second person, you can read his blog post about it at the Dzanc Books blog.

If you’re interested in what real Texans look like as opposed what y’all think they look like, then you should check out sponglr.

I received my copy of Not For Nothing through NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

The Tie That Binds

The Tie That Binds CoverKent Haruf is not a writer for everyone. For example, if you have no interest in what goes on, say, outside of Brooklyn, or anywhere in between New York City and San Francisco (or Los Angeles or Seattle), then Kent Haruf is probably not an author for you. Or if you have no interest in stories about real families dealing with real struggles, not in a sensational, reality TV, Duck Dynasty or Honey Boo Boo sort of way. (I don’t know, what other reality TV families are there? Ah, the Duggars. They probably should have had a guest spot on True Detective.)

The Tie That Binds was Haruf’s debut novel, and it introduces readers to the small, fictional town of Holt, Colorado, where all of his subsequent novels are set. An 80-year old woman, Edith Goodnough, has been charged with murder. As the novel opens, a journalist from the Denver paper has come to town to get the story. When the journalist arrives at the house of Sanders Roscoe, who has lived next door to Edith for his whole life, he’s told in no uncertain terms to mind his own business and get the hell out of town. Sanders is our narrator, and after he banishes the journalist he turns his gaze directly to us, the readers, and begins to to tell the story of Edith Goodnough, her brother Lyle, and her father, Roy.

“Most of what I’m going to tell you, I know. The rest of it, I believe.”

Sanders starts at the very beginning, when Roy and his wife Ada traveled to Holt from Iowa, before Edith and Lyman were born. Sanders has learned the history of the Goodnough family from his father, John, who lived with his mother, the county midwife, on the property next door.

On Roy: “He was a mean sort of private man. I know from personal experience with him, and more muleheaded even than he was private. He hated like the very goddamn to be dependent on anyone for anything.”

What follows is a mystery of sorts, and also the simple stories of lives lived on the plains. What Haruf shows in his spare yet rich prose is how often those can be one and the same thing. After her mother dies, even though she is courted by John, Edith chooses to remain unmarried. Her brother Lyman, on the other hand, hotfoots it out of town for the next several decades, leaving Edith alone to care for their ailing, angry, abusive father.

Any other writer might feel the need to give Edith a dark secret to explain her choice. In short, she feels duty-bound. Lyman sends her postcards from all the places he visits across the United States, and she pins them to the living-room wall, an armchair journeyman awaiting his return. Eventually Roy dies, Lyman returns home, and for a while things are good:

In the end that’s what Edith Goodnough had: she had six years of what you may call fun. Or good times. Or better, just the day-in, day-out mean rich goodness of being alive, when at night you lie down in the warm dark pleased with your corner of the world, and then you wake up the next morning still pleased with it, and you know that, too, while you lie there for a time listening in peace to the mourning doves calling from the elm trees and telephone lines, until finally the thought of black coffee moves you up out of bed and down the stairs to the kitchen stove, so that once again you begin it all afresh, with pleasure, with eagerness even. Because yes, Edith had that for a while. During that period it was written all over her face. Her brown eyes shone and snapped for six years.

And then life interferes for the worse. An accident happens, and it changes the nature of the life that Lyman and Edith built together in that short six years. In the end, it leads Edith to murder.

The Tie That Binds is a novel where nothing much happens, yet I’m afraid of giving anything away. If nothing else, that shows how deep Haruf goes into ordinary lives to tell a story–or better, to show that these are stories worth telling. In this first novel I can see all the hallmarks of his later works. The only clue that he might be a less confident writer than in his later novels is how he uses the framing device of the journalist to introduce the real story to the reader. I suspect if this were one of his later novels, he might have found another way in. However, it doesn’t detract from the story, either.

I find it funny that the book synopsis includes this sentence: “As Roscoe shares what he knows, Edith’s tragedies unfold: a childhood of pre-dawn chores, a mother’s death, a violence that leaves a father dependent on his children, forever enraged.” If those things are Edith’s tragedies, then they are also the tragedies of thousands of people across the plains in the early Twentieth century, people living a rough and demanding life on the high plains or prairies of the nation’s middle states. I suppose Edith could be seen as a tragic figure, but for me she emerged as someone who made choices that mystified Sanders Roscoe but made plain, clear sense to her. Ultimately, that is one thing I love about Haruf as a writer: his characters might be ordinary, but they are never without mystery. Four out of five stars.

*image from powells.com; links are not affiliate links

Reader’s Journal: Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River CoverA guilty pleasure of mine is following the fashion critics Tom & Lorenzo. I like a pretty dress as much as the next person, and I like the fact that all in all, their criticism never takes an overly personal or ugly turn. (They also happen to do an interesting wardrobe analysis of Mad Men called Mad Style.) Now and again, as they review red-carpet looks, they’ll rate a look as GTNYD, or “Girl, that’s not your dress.” Essentially the idea is that while there’s nothing wrong with the dress and nothing wrong with the person wearing the dress, the two would be better off without each other.

Considering this approach, I’m afraid that I would have to rate Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River thusly: BINYR, or “Book, I’m not your reader.”

This is a tough review to write. I was excited to read Once Upon a River and I expected to love it; after all, Campbell’s story collection American Salvage, which contains two of the seed stories for Once Upon a River, was one of my favorite reads of 2013. And while I still believe wholeheartedly that Campbell is a fine writer whose works are well worth the time, I really struggled to get through this novel.

Once Upon a River tells the story of Margo Crane. Growing up along the Stark River in northern Michigan, fifteen-year-old Margo’s world shifts after a string of difficult events (beginning with the departure of her mother and rape by her uncle) affect Margo and her family. She leaves home just shy of her sixteenth birthday, striking out alone with fantasies of somehow being able to survive alone in the wilderness. Margo idolizes Annie Oakley and dreams of finding someone to love and care for. Sadly, the first person she finds is a man three times her age. Apparently, Margo is not only a capable young woman–a crack shot who can also skin animals and fish for her supper–but she is also beautiful. (And mostly silent, because after the incident with her uncle, she stopped talking for the most part.) She willingly becomes the man’s lover, and while he is kind to her for most of their time together, there’s something disturbing about the way he fetishizes her beauty, her reticence, and her wild nature. There are three more men, two she gives herself to willingly because she is lonely and looking for someone to love.

Once Upon a River, for this reader, is the story of a heart-breakingly lonely person. Margo is only eighteen when the book ends, and she is pregnant and alone. Through a lucky turn of events she has found a way to put a roof over her head. What bothers me about the book is how much it seems to romanticize Margo’s longing, as well as her isolation. She pictures herself as a wolf girl who who can live on her own in the wild, or as a sharp-shooter like Annie Oakley. In reality, she has been abused and abandoned, endured tragic loss. She is uneducated and has few prospects beyond hunting and trapping, keeping the crops safe for farmers and selling skins along the Kalamazoo river. She’s carrying a child she has no real way to care for; she has no support system, no medical care.

In reviews, this book is often compared to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Walden. I suppose if Huck had been abused by Jim and then started turning tricks along the river, sure, these books would be more alike. This is not a criticism of Margo as a character, because she does use her wits to survive. But the story is quite bleak, and I’m somewhat surprised at how reviewers have romanticized this book. I don’t think of myself as a prude, but I’m bothered by the idea that this young, abused female character is somehow seen as plucky and adventurous. She uses sex to survive; she uses it as her shelter because she is so alone. (And yes, in some ways she does feel and own desire as well. I don’t want to disempower the character by taking that away from her.) And while I know that not every sexual act that follows an abusive one is tainted by said abuse, the men in Once Upon a River love Margo for her silence, for her wildness, for being an empty vessel into which they can pour themselves. She finally commits her own act of violence against a man out of necessity, and in a sense it drives her into further isolation. I don’t find the fact that she is pregnant and alone at the end (although she is happy, and as I said, she finds a certain stability) to mean that she has finally found something to fill her life up with, found someone of her very own to love. If you’ve seen any documentaries or even reality shows about teen pregnancy, then you know that this is the fantasy of so many teen mothers–that finally, they’ll have someone of their own to love, someone who’ll also be required on some level to love them and want them, too.

The plusses–because honestly, there are a few–are that the story is simply so well written, and Campbell clearly knows and loves the landscape. I am a sucker for a writer who can make place as much a character in a book as the people who inhabit it, and Campbell makes the river come to life. And although I was exasperated by Margo’s story and her relentless bad luck at times, she is well-drawn and the reader cannot help but pull for her. To put down the book and not see Margo through to the end would have meant another kind of abandonment she simply did not deserve.

In the end, my own ideas and ideals fail this book. While I realize that I meant to believe that Margo has her own quiet strength, that she is a survivor–and indeed, I think that’s true–I cannot get past the fact that a quiet reserve so often isn’t enough in this world.

*image from powells.com; all links are unaffiliated with this blog