Novels

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.

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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

Favorite Reads of 2013

Better late than never, I suppose, I’ve put together a list of my favorite books of 2013. I’ve noticed a lot of people have mentioned that 2013 was a particularly dry year for them, and a lot of prolific bloggers have confessed to reading fewer titles in 2013 than in years past. For me, 2013 was a particularly good year for reading. I only read 38 books, which shocks me, but this year I started a new job that hasn’t really left me with much of a life outside work–and what life I’ve had has been mostly filled with stressing out about…work. That’s something I am determined to change in 2014, so no point in spending a lot of time whining about it, but it may take me some time to get my reading mojo back.

Another weird thing happened at the end of the year: after I finished The Goldfinch and The Little Friend, both by Donna Tartt, I found it impossible to stick with any other novel I picked up. I started no less than ten different books only to find myself becoming restless and disinterested. I cannot fault any of the books I picked up, and I plan to finish all of them at some point, but I just couldn’t seem to keep things going (see above: stress). In November I got through two non-fiction books, though: Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised (which I recommend if you enjoy quality television–I haven’t seen all of the shows he discusses in the book, so I skipped those chapters, but I’ve seen most of them, and I follow Sepinwall’s reviews online pretty religiously for shows I watch) and Ann Patchett’s The Secret of a Happy Marriage. I enjoy the way Patchett writes and have always enjoyed her non-fiction, but…well, the truth is, this book of essays is probably best read in small doses if you want to keep liking Ann Patchett (and I do). Reading all of these essays together in almost one sitting, I thought she came off as both a bit smug and full of first-world problems. While I appreciate her for opening an independent bookstore, for example, she seems (ingenuously) unaware that the book store is probably a success both because her name is attached to it and because she has rather deep pockets to help keep it going (at one point in the book, she talks about writing a $130,000 check–I’m sure many independent bookstore owners across the country wish they had ready access to such capital).

Anyway, without further ado, below are my favorite reads of 2013. I’ve added links for books I wrote about, and added a few notes for books I never got around to reviewing.

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry

American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell

Benediction, Kent Haruf

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner. This made many big-name “Best of 2013″ lists this year, and I stand with those who think all praise is well-deserved. This book worked for me because I liked the narrator so much–she’s the quintessential quiet outsider who both longs to be a part of the art world and also sees the shallowness of both her longing and the art world itself.

Serena, Ron Rash. This dark, dark novel is set in western North Carolina at the start of the Depression. George Pemberton has brought his new bride Serena home to his timber camp. Serena is ruthless and ambitious, and George is completely under her spell. A dark twist on the idea that behind every great man, there’s a great woman, this novel has a Shakespearean quality that makes it both eloquent and gripping.

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, Paul French. Last year, The People Who Eat Darkness, the story of a young British woman who went missing in Japan, made my list of favorite reads. Midnight in Peking tells the true story of a young British woman found murdered in 1937. The mystery has never been solved, and the story is as chilling as any modern tale I can imagine.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl

Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam

Cartwheel, Jennifer DuBois

You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt

Open Secrets, Alice Munro. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, and this book had been lingering on my shelves far too long. It’s Munro. Enough said.

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt. I did it! I finally read The Little Friend, after five or six attempts. I picked it up because I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of The Goldfinch and had handed over my copy of The Secret History to my husband to read. I thought I might as well give this one another shot, and I’m so happy that I did, because somehow it finally clicked for me. As a matter of fact, I was almost reluctant to set it aside when The Goldfinch arrived. Set in Alexandria, Mississippi in the 1970s, The Little Friend is the story of Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, a 12-year-old girl who decides that the death of her older brother Robin was no accident and sets out with her friend Hely to find his killer. What Tartt does so effectively in this book is paint a vivid and complex picture of life in the deep South. If you’re interested in novels about the South, and want a more accurate and less cliched (and funnier, deeper) portrayal of the racial and class inequalities that persist in small Southern towns than you might find in a book such as The Help, then pick up The Little Friend.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. I am not going to say much about this one, because so much has already been said. I found it completely engrossing and enjoyable. Tartt is a world-builder, which I think is why she has lately been compared so often to Dickens. I’ve seen some reviewers who seem to want to pick apart the book–why, for example, would terrorists bomb an art gallery? I don’t know. Why, in reality, do they bomb discotheques? The book isn’t about terrorism. It’s about loneliness, isolation, friendship, and perhaps on some level the power of art to sustain us in the strangest ways.

Revisiting: The Secret History Soundtrack

secrethistoryNote: In honor of the official publication of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch tomorrow, I though it would be fun and fitting to re-post this soundtrack for The Secret History that I originally posted March 3, 2009.  I’ve also updated the post below to include a  link to the soundtrack in Spotify. Happy listening!

Several weeks ago I came across a post on American Bibliophile that challenged readers to create a soundtrack for their favorite books. Immediately this was something I wanted to do, but little did I realize how difficult it might be. First, which book should I pick? I have many favorite novels: Plainsong, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, The Bright Forever, Franny and Zooey, and Rabbit, Run, just to name a very few. I finally settled on The Secret History because I had certain songs I associated with that book from the very first time I read it. Still, that brought up another dilemma: What sort of soundtrack should I create? Should I stick to a certain time period (i.e., if the song wasn’t around when the book was published, should I be allowed to use it?) or to a certain mood? Should I create it as though it were a movie soundtrack or pick songs for each of the characters?

After thinking about it for well over a week, I decided to go with the mood (and songs that were around when or before the book was published), following the chronology of events in the book. Without further ado, I present for you my soundtrack for The Secret History. I hope you enjoy it! In fact, I hope you’ll join the challenge!

Updated:  I’ve created this playlist in Spotify. You can listen to it here.

“Blue Bell Knoll” – The Cocteau Twins. This song has opens with an ethereal beginning and moves into a swirling, windswept feel that grows in intensity through the end of the song. I think it fits the opening of the book, where Richard first quietly reveals Bunny’s murder and then backtracks to tell us the story of how he decided to go to Hampden College.

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of the situation.” (Note: This is NOT a spoiler; it’s the first sentence of the book.)

“Those first days before classes started I spent alone in my whitewashed room, in the bright meadows of Hampden. And I was happy in those first few days as really I’d never been before, roaming like a sleepwalker, stunned and drunk with beauty. A group of red-cheeked girls playing soccer, ponytails flying, their shouts and laughter carrying faintly over the velvety, twilit field. Trees creaking with apples, fallen apples red on the grass beneath, the heavy sweet smell of them rotting on the ground and the steady thrumming of wasps around them. Commons clock tower: ivied brick, white spire, spellbound in the hazy distance. The shock of first seeing a birch tree at night, rising up in the dark as cool and slim as a ghost. And the nights, bigger than imagining: black and gusty and enormous, disordered and wild with stars.”

“Three to Get Ready” – Dave Brubeck Quartet. This neat little jazz number makes me think of Richard watching the other Greek students on campus, and going to visit Julian, and realizing he wants to be a part of their world (as he imagines it). This song has the feeling of dappled sunlight and late fall afternoons, where there’s still a bit of warmth in the air, and everything in the world feels like a possibility.

“And what did I do in Hampden town? Frankly, I was too staggered by my good fortune to do much of anything. It was a glorious day; I was sick of being poor, so, before I thought the better of it, I went into an expensive men’s shop on the square and bought a couple of shirts. Then I went down to the Salvation Army and poked around in bins for a while and found a Harris tweed overcoat and a pair of brown wingtips that fit me, also some cufflinks and a funny old tie that had pictures of men hunting deer on it. When I came out of the store I was happy to find that I still had nearly a hundred dollars. Should I go to the bookstore? To the movies? Buy a bottle of Scotch? In the end, I was so swarmed by the great flock of possibilities drifted up murmuring and smiling to crowd about me on the bright autumn sidewalk that–like a farm boy flustered by a bevy of prostitutes–I brushed right through them, to the pay phone on the corner, to call a cab to take me to school.

Once in my room, I spread the clothes on my bed. The cufflinks were beaten up and had someone else’s initials on them, but they looked like real gold, glinting in the drowsy autumn sun which poured through the window and soaked in yellow pools on the oak floor–voluptuous, rich, intoxicating.”

“Symphony No. 4 in C Minor (‘Tragic’), D. 417: Adante” – Franz Schubert. This piece is so pretty, but it has an undertone of melancholy that befits this section. The time during fall leading up to Christmas, when Richard spends weekends with the others at Francis’s family home in the country, is the most idyllic time for Richard, but he’s already told us it’s not to last.

“It was dark and I couldn’t see a thing. My fingers finally closed on the door handle and only then, as I was climbing out of the car, the moon came out from behind a cloud and I saw the house. It was tremendous. I saw, in sharp, ink-black silhouette against the sky, turrets and pikes, a widow’s walk.”

“Prior to this first weekend in the country, my recollections of that fall are distant and blurry: from here on out, they come into a sharp, delightful focus. It is here that the stilted mannequins of my initial acquaintance begin to yawn and stretch and come to life. It was months before the gloss and mystery of newness, which kept me from seeing them with much objectivity, would wear entirely off…”

“The weekends at Francis’s house were the happiest times. The trees turned early that fall but the days stayed warm well into October, and in the country we spent most of our time outside. Apart from the occasional, half-hearted game of tennis…we never did anything very athletic; something about the place inspired a magnificent laziness I hadn’t known since childhood.”

“Road, River, and Rail” – The Cocteau Twins. This is one of the songs I’ve always associated with this book, mainly because the mood of the song fits so well (one good thing about The Cocteau Twins, half the time it’s impossible to know what she’s singing about, so no other meaning imposes itself on the song). Christmas break is approaching, the others are leaving, and Richard has nowhere to go, so he finds a place to stay in Hampden. This song evokes for me the feelings I think Richard has, being left behind.

“The last week of school was a flurry of packing, typing, plane reservations and phone calls home, for everybody but me. I had no need to finish my papers early because I had nowhere to go; I could pack at my leisure, after the dorms were empty.”

“I stood in the deserted street until I could no longer hear the sound of the motor, only the hiss of the powdery snow that the wind kicked up in little eddies on the ground. Then I started back to campus, hands deep in pockets and the crunch of my feet unbearably loud. The dorms were black and silent, and the big parking lot behind the tennis court was empty except for a few faculty cars and a lone green truck from Maintenance. In the dorm the hallways were littered with shoe boxes and coat hangers, doors ajar, everything dark and quiet as the grave.”

“Shipbuilding” – Elvis Costello. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say I picked this song because of the mood, and also because the whole idea of rumors and half-truths reflects the confusion Richard feels about what’s happening in his circle of friends. The ease that existed before Christmas has been replaced by a tension that cannot long be contained.

“I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in that cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me?

It’s funny, thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did.”

“Bunny, for all his appearance of amiable, callous stability, was actually a wildly erratic character…He sailed through the world guided only by the dim lights of impulse and habit, confident that his course would throw up no obstacles so large that they could not be plowed over with sheer force of momentum. But his instincts had failed him in the new set of circumstances presented…Now that the old trusted channel markers had, so to speak, been rearranged in the dark, the automatic pilot mechanism by which his psyche navigated was useless; decks awash, he floundered aimlessly, running on sandbars, veering off in all sorts of bizarre directions.”

“The Pan Piper” – Miles Davis. This song has the perfect sort of eerie feeling of being in the woods in the early spring: the dark, wet trees; the damp, musty earth. Richard and the others are in the woods to execute part of their plan to kill Bunny, when he happens upon them and fate takes its course.

“The woods were deathly still, more forbidding than I had ever seen them–green and black and stagnant, dark with the smells of mud and rot. There was no wind; no bird sang, not a leaf stirred. The dogwood blossoms were poised, white and surreal against the darkening sky, the heavy air.”

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” – Joy Division/ “True Faith” – New Order. I picked these songs for the sections where Richard and his friends are waiting for Bunny to be discovered, for the truth to be revealed–and once it is revealed, for the funeral. As time passes, they grow more irritable and unsure of each other.

“After what we’d been through in the previous weeks, it was no wonder we were all a little sick of one another. For the first few days we stayed pretty much to ourselves, except in class and in the dining halls; with Bun dead and buried, I suppose, there was much less to talk about, and no reason to stay up until four in the morning.”

“Phantasiestucke (Three Fantasy Pieces). Op. 73” – Robert Schumann. This longer piece works well as the group unravels further, as each person deals with the consequences of the murder.

“I was still trying to force back the blackest thought of all; the merest suggestion of it sent the rat’s feet of panic skittering up my spine. Had Henry intended to make me the patsy if his plan had fallen through? …so much of what I knew was only secondhand, so much of it was only what he’d told me; there was an awful lot, when you got right down to it, that I didn’t even know…I knew, from television, that there was no statute of limitations on murder. New evidence discovered. The case reopened. You read about these things all the time.”

“Mother of Pearl’ – Roxy Music. If I were making this soundtrack for a movie, I would edit out the first minute and thirty seconds to get to the heart of this song, which has the feeling of a fine party that has ended, a melancholy idea of what cannot be sustained: “I’ve been looking for something I’ve always wanted but was never mine/But now I see that something just out of reach growing very Holy Grail…” Many years later, Richard goes to meet with a few friends from that time, and finds it wrenching to part:

“Raindrops on the windshield, radio stations fading in and out. Cornfields bleak in all those gray, wide-open reaches. I had said goodbye to her once before, but it took everything I had to say goodbye to her then, again, for the last time, like poor Orpheus turning for a last backward glance at the ghost of his only love and in the same heartbeat losing her forever: hinc illae lacrimae, hence those tears.”

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

I’ve been so, so bad about reviewing what I’m reading these last few months, which is such a shame because I’ve read some terrific books this summer. A couple of these books really deserve dedicated reviews, but my memory is short and so is my time, so I decided something is better than nothing.

The Sisters Brothers CoverThe Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt. The Sisters brothers are Eli and Charlie Sisters. They are hired killers who work for a man called the Commodore. Narrated in first person by Eli Sisters, the story takes place during the California Gold Rush. The Commodore is sending the Sisters brothers from Oregon to San Francisco to kill a man named Herman Warm, and Eli chronicles their misadventures along the way and what happens upon their arrival. Eli is a thoughtful and compelling narrator, and the book is full of dark humor, adventure, and melancholy. In all honestly, it’s not only one of the best books I’ve read this year but in a long, long time. I’ve seen several apt comparisons of this book to True Grit, which happens to be one of my favorite books of all time. I have a soft-spot for Westerns, especially when the characters are as well drawn as Eli and Charlie Sisters and the tale avoids all cliches.

Even though I sometimes play a fun game in my head where I cast a book as though it were a movie, the number of books I actually WANT to see turned into a movie is almost zero. I say “almost zero” because The Sisters Brothers is one of those rare instances in which the book is perfect as a story on the page but oh my, in the right hands (I’m looking at you, Coen brothers. Everyone else: hands off!) it would make a spectacular movie. (Funnily enough, though, I didn’t find myself casting any parts.)

Lamb CoverLamb, by Bonnie Nadzam. Lamb is a beautiful, thought-provoking, and disturbing book. David Lamb is a man whose world is slowly crumbling. He’s lost his father, his marriage, his job at a company he founded. Through a series of slow (and desperate) acts, he befriends and eventually abducts an eleven-year-old girl named Tommie, taking her West from her Chicago home to a farmhouse somewhere in the Rockies he claims was owned by his father. Lamb is a shallow and manipulative man in many ways, but he is no Humbert Humbert, and Tommie is no Lolita. If anything, Lamb (who tells Tommie his name is Gary) and Tommie have a chemistry born of a shared desire to be understood by and belong to someone. In many ways, Lamb’s abduction and—I guess the best word for it is education, for he wants to teach her about life but also to name plants and trees, to fish and to survive in the wilderness—of Tommie is a selfless act. He imagines her life is difficult overall, her mother neglectful, her friends cruel. He wants what is best for her, but he also wants something from her, something she is not equipped to offer. I should probably mention here that there is no overt seduction in a purely sexual sense (there are weirdly romantic overtones), but Lamb is no less disturbing for that fact. On top of that we have Nadzam’s knockout prose, which is both lyrical and sinister in all the right ways. (For example, she uses a third-person narrator who frequently refers to Lamb as “our guy,” making the reader complicit in the “hero’s story.”) The reader wants Lamb to get caught, but also on some level to get away with it so that he can, in the end, do the right thing and take Tommie home. Lamb, Nadzam’s debut, is suspenseful, itchy, and wonderfully written.

You Are One of Them CoverYou Are One of Them, by Elliott Holt. The tale in this thoroughly enjoyable novel belongs to its first-person narrator, Sarah Zuckerman. A hapless young girl whose family is haunted and torn apart by the specter of an older sister who died, Sarah Zuckerman befriends her new neighbor Jenny Jones, and all-around all-American girl. For years, Sarah, whose mother is mostly agoraphobic and whose father has left for his native England, finds comfort and acceptance as part of her best friend’s family. On the cusp of adolescence and its attendant games of popularity that threaten to tear them apart, Sarah decides one day to write a letter to Yuri Andropov, the Soviet Premier of the USSR. Jenny also writes a letter—but hers receives an answer, and she and her family are invited to travel to the Soviet Union. Upon her return, Jenny becomes a national celebrity, appearing on talk shows and at speaking engagements for several years until she and her parents are killed en route to an engagement in Maine. Almost ten years later, Sarah receives a mysterious letter from a Russian woman who hints that Jenny might not have died in the plane crash after all. Since Jenny’s death, Sarah has helped her mother to run a foundation dedicated to her memory and has still never really come to terms with what happened, so she decides to travel to Russia to see if she can finally uncover the truth.

I expected more of a political thriller when I picked this up, but truly this is a coming-of-age story about friendship told in a charming and original way. While the book has a real mystery at its heart—what happened to Jenny?—it also considers the mysteries of friendship, why we are drawn to certain people, why we often rely so much on others to define who we are.

The Virgins CoverThe Virgins, by Pamela Erens. Not unlike Sarah Zuckerman, Bruce Bennett-Jones is haunted by something in his past, this time the romantic relationship between two classmates, Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung, at a New England boarding school in the late 1970s. The book moves between a third-person omniscient narrator and Bennett-Jones reminiscing in first person about what he remembers or has learned about the couple over the years since graduation. In some respect, he is an active participant in the tragedy that finally befalls the young lovers near the end of the novel, and it’s clear that he still finds their relationship—and his involvement in it—both mystifying and captivating. The Virgins reminded me very much of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, and not to cheat, but I think what I said in that review holds true for this novel as well: “I think we all have people from our pasts, people whom we may no longer keep in touch with or who may be gone, people we may not have ever been close to, really, in the first place, but who still hold sway over our memories, who still seem larger than life to us. It’s strange to think how people can stay trapped in our memories like insects in amber, forever frozen as who they were…” The Sense of an Ending had a certain wit about it. Bennett-Jones is more clear-eyed than that story’s narrator about who he is and his role in things, and this lack of self-deception (even if he doesn’t really understand why he acted as he did) is what lends The Virgins a much more melancholy tone.

*Full disclosure: All review copies are my own. All images from Powells; I receive no compensation for any of the provided links.

Reader’s Journal: Notorious

In the last month, by some accident of fate, I’ve read two terrific novels based on true stories about women accused of murder. Burial Rites, the debut novel by Australian author Hannah Kent, is based on the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person executed for murder in Iceland since 1830. Agnes, along with Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigridur Gudmundsdóttir, was convicted of murdering her lover and employer, Natan Ketilsson and another man, Pêtur Jonsson. Agnes and Fridrik were condemned to death and beheaded on January 12, 1830. On appeal Sigridur received a lesser sentence and was sent to prison for life, where she died. Through two alternating narratives, Burial Rites tells the story both of Agnes’s last months living and working on the Jónsson family farm as she awaited her execution and, through her own voice, the events of her life leading up to and including the murder of Natan.

Product DetailsCartwheel, the second novel by Jennifer DuBois, is loosely based on the story of Amanda Knox, the American college exchange student accused and convicted (along with her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito) of murdering her British roommate, Meredith Kercher. DuBois offers us the story of Lily Hayes, who has gone to Buenos Aires, Argentina to study for a semester. The book opens with Lily’s father, Andrew, and her sister, Anna, arriving in Argentina soon after she has been placed into custody by authorities for the murder of her roommate, Katy Kellers, looping back to Lily’s arrival in Argentina and up to the time of the murder from her point of view and from the point of view of her “lover,” Sebastien LeCompte (“which sounded to Andrew like the name of a high-end suit store”).

Originally I had planned to write about each of these books separately, but I realized, after seeing that Amanda Knox will, yet again, be tried for murder beginning this week in Florence, Italy, that these stories have much in common, particularly the fact that in both cases, the notoriety of the accused has eclipsed everything else, even the victims. And in both cases, although accomplices were allegedly involved, the character of the woman in particular—Agnes and Lily/Amanda—is basically tried in a public court and found wanting. (Interestingly, although both Knox and Sollecito were convicted of murder, in DuBois’s story only Lily is apprehended and eventually arrested and tried.)

In Burial Rites, Agnes says to the priest confessor charged with bringing her to God before her execution, “To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.” The Jónsson family believes the stories they have heard about Agnes—that she is a violent criminal (and possibly a witch, as her lover Natan Ketilsson was also notorious in his own way for creating powerful potions to heal and to do who knows what else), capable of anything—but slowly, as they listen to her confessions to the priest, they begin to have a different understanding of her. And likewise, we begin to understand their prejudices against her come as much from what they know about Agnes herself (which is really very little) as from their own experiences.

This prejudice also happens also in Cartwheel, where the prosecutor Eduardo Campos believes he sees in Lily the same erratic character that he sees in his estranged wife Maria. Maria is an elusive mystery to Eduardo; she is whimsical and childish, but also dangerous because she holds his heart captive, and he believes he can never, ever please her. In Lily, who speaks Spanish confidently but often poorly, who is naive about certain cultural customs, and who is often overtaken by childish whimsy (as when she performs a cartwheel in an empty interrogation room, waiting for investigators to return from a break), Campos believes he sees a person who, when he sees her on video surveillance before she is picked up by authorities, “looked…harassed. Inconvenienced, If she looked anything at all.” He reads through her Facebook status and finds her wanting; he reads a piece of fiction written for a creative writing class and posted online almost as though it were a confession.

Perception and reality, public versus private selves, and the power of language are important to both stories. In both cases, even with letters and public documents and interviews and videos, we will never know what happened. In Burial Rites, as Agnes is taken from her first host family where she has been kept not even as well as a farm animal, she steps out into light after months in the darkness and sees a crowd. In that crowd, she spots a familiar face: “It was a comfort to see someone I recognized, and I smiled involuntarily. But the smile was wrong, and it unlocked the crowd’s fury.”

A cartwheel, a smile: these are not the actions of innocent women, the crowd believes. And beauty is also suspect. In Burial Rites, Lauga, the Jónsson’s youngest daughter, asks her mother Margrét “whether she thought there would be an outward hint of the evil that drives a person to murder. Evidence of the Devil: a harelip, a snaggle tooth, a birthmark; some small outer defect.” Margrét tells Lauga no, but then goes on to wonder if Agnes might not be beautiful: “It was not so hard to believe a beautiful woman capable of murder, Margrét thought. As it says in the sagas, Opt er flagð í fógru skinni. A witch often has fair skin.”

Andrew laments his daughter’s inability to dress herself “appropriately” in the heat of Buenos Aires. At a religious landmark, she has taken a picture of herself wearing a spaghetti-strapped tank top that doesn’t adequately cover her generous bosom. This picture is picked up by the media and also seen as evidence of some moral flaw by the prosecutor Campos.

Yesterday I saw a picture of Amanda Knox online—she was unsmiling, her long dark hair swept back from her face as though caught by a strong breeze—and I thought, in the next moment she might have cocked her head, turned to someone familiar, perhaps even given a smile. She is pretty either way, that much is undeniable. I don’t know when or where the picture was taken, or who she was with, but this is the image the media has chosen to present. Who is she really? We do not know.

Both stories are compelling, both stories will always present us with more questions than answers. Kent does a magnificent job of taking us to early Nineteenth century Iceland, of tying in historical research and setting a compelling scene that drives the narrative and helps us to understand Agnes all the better. If the book has a flaw, it’s that at times Kent’s writing is a bit over the top. Ravens, snow, black against white, swirling snow clouds, storms—ominous portents, we get it. (She also uses some form of the word “sour” on what seems like every other page during the first 50 pages or so, but thankfully stops.) But she has filled in the gaps of her research and created such compelling characters, not only in Agnes but in Margrét and Toti, Agnes’s priest confessor, and their story easily carries the reader away. I read all but 30 pages during a nine hour plane flight, and I might have finished had I not stopped to do things like eat and stretch my legs.

In my opinion DuBois had a bigger challenge, as the Amanda Knox story is current and ongoing. I haven’t followed it closely myself, but I can imagine someone who has might feel the need to pick apart the details. The book drags a bit when it follows the other characters, and DuBois offers up a slightly heavy-handed Hayes family history that seems meant to add weight to the story, but overall the characters are if not compelling then fully realized. But truly Lily’s story is her own, and for me she came to life as her own person. Sometimes while reading I felt an overwhelming sadness for Lily, just as I did for Agnes, because in everything she was only a person who was simply trying to be:

“She sat in bars drinking Quilmes and trying to look mysterious; she sat in cafes eating alfajors and licking powdered sugar off her fingers and not minding that she looked silly.

She would be dead one day, but she was not dead yet.”

Disclosure: I received the ebook version of Cartwheel from NetGalley. I read my copy of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.

Reader’s Journal: Two Mysteries

I seem to be on a mystery kick, but then, it is summer. It must be something about the warmer temps and the (stifling) humidity that makes me want to read about crime. As recently as six or seven years ago, I almost never picked anything in the mystery/crime genre on my own. No no no. While I credit Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know for drawing me in, the book that finally convinced me that mystery/crime and literary fiction were not mutually exclusive categories was Tana French’s In the Woods. Since then I’ve read all of French’s books, discovered authors such as Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott, and watched the literary world revise its view of psychological thrillers in particular. They’re rather trendy these days, and so enter two new(ish) novels: The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison and The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood.

For some reason, A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife is being marketed as this year’s Gone Girl. In truth, the only things The Silent Wife has in common with Gone Girl: both books are about a relationship gone awry, both books contain a twist of sorts, and they both are told from alternating points of view. The Silent Wife begins promisingly enough: Jodi and Todd have been together for well over two decades (they have a common-law marriage). A part-time psychotherapist, Jodi is an expert at glossing over the unpleasantness in her life—including the fact that Todd is a serial cheater—and in the lives of her clients. In fact, she mostly refuses to treat clients who suffer from anything more serious than insecurity and a vague melancholy. Todd, a real-estate developer, has not only made a highly questionable choice when it comes to his latest conquest, but he’s also decided he cannot go on living a lie, and so the disintegration of the relationship begins.

The Silent Wife is narrated in close third person, so it lacks a necessary immediacy. (Okay, I’ll say it: the kind of immediacy the reader gets in Gone Girl). Add to that, both characters are unlikable in the most pedestrian sort of way. Now wait a minute—I don’t mean I want them to be likable! I want them to be unlikable in an interesting or charismatic way. Because they both lack charisma, the book overall lacks tension. The reader never feels pulled to root for one over the other, which is critical in a she said/he said narrative. I suppose some readers might feel bad for Jodi because she’s the wronged party, but that’s so very Lifetime movie. Harrison gives each of them some underlying childhood problem (to explain how they are, I guess), but really…if they were guests on a talk show, you’d change the channel. And so the novel plods to the not-so-big twist and lands with a dull thud. I gave it 2 out of 5 stars.

The Wicked Girls is British journalist Alex Marwood’s (a pseudonym, by the way) debut novel. In 1986, two eleven-year-old girls are involved in an incident that leads to the death of a young child. They are found guilty and punished by the law, and perhaps more so by the media and the public. When they are eventually released from prison, they are issued new identities and instructed never to contact one another again. More than two decades later, a string of murders in the seaside resort town of Whitmouth brings them together again. Amber Gordon is the head cleaner at Funnland, Whitmouth’s amusement park; Kirsty Lindsay is a freelance journalist. When Amber finds a dead woman in Funnland’s House of Mirrors, the police take notice and begin to believe they have a serial killer on their hands. Kirsty is sent to Whitmouth to write about the murders. The reader learns rather early in the book who the killer is, but the real story in The Wicked Girls is Kirsty and Amber, and how current events threaten the lives they’ve built for themselves over the last quarter-century. Throughout the course of the book, Marwood tackles serious issues such as Britain’s struggling economy, unemployment, sensationalism in media, and the rehabilitation of young offenders. The story moves back and forth in time between present day and the events in 1986; present day events are told in third person mostly from Amber and Kirsty’s points of view.

Reading The Wicked Girls reminded me of reading something by Laura Lippman—Every Secret Thing comes to mind—or Tana French. Like Lippman, Marwood does a terrific job of letting the story be character-driven, so it’s never overwhelmed by issues. What reminded me of French was how Marwood writes about place, which lends well to the overall sinister feel of the book. The heart of the novel deals with lies, misunderstanding, and miscommunication. Much of what happens in past and present has to do with how characters perceive themselves based on how other people have treated them. The book has a few rough spots–the killer is one readers have seen before (of the “women are sluts who ask for it” variety), and the pace begins to drag at the end. The flashback chapters also go on for too long; the pacing would have been helped by Marwood getting to the past accident/crime quickly, and then either dropping the flashbacks entirely or focusing more on what happened to Kirsty and Amber during and after prison. The ending was also somewhat unsurprising. I skimmed through the final chapters, I admit, but ultimately the book still worked well. It was less that I wanted a surprise ending—truly, it has the right ending, it felt organically inevitable to the rest of the story—than that Marwood could have taken a shorter road to get there. I’m hooked, though, and looking forward to her next book. I gave it 3 out of 5 stars.

Full disclosure: I received both books from NetGalley.

Reader’s Journal: The Affairs of Others

Four or five years ago, publishers seemed to be releasing novels about zombies every five seconds. Okay, the novels weren’t all about zombies–there were vampires and werewolves in there, too–and maybe not every five seconds (every ten seconds), but you get my drift: lots of novels about zombies.

Amy Grace Loyd’s The Affairs of Others is not a novel about zombies. But it is set in Brooklyn. Lately I find that just about every other book description I read is about a character or set of characters who live in Brooklyn. Mostly, the authors of these novels also live in–you guessed it–Brooklyn. Brooklyn is the new zombies.

Not that I have anything against Brooklyn. Over half the people I follow on Twitter seem to live there. I have a dear, longtime friend who lives there. It has many terrific book stores and restaurants. It has lots of wealthy people and gentrification but also some borderline affordable neighborhoods where young creative types gather. It has parks with actual trees.

Celia Cassill lives in Brooklyn, in a brownstone apartment building that she bought and renovated after losing her husband to cancer five years ago. Celia is only in her mid-thirties, and the couple was childless. She has enough money so that she does not have to work. Her building has three tenants: a retired ferryboat captain, a young(ish) married couple with no children, and a middle-aged school teacher, George, who decides to travel to France and sublet his apartment to his friend, Hope, who is going through a separation from her marriage of 25 years.

I’m not going to lie to you: this novel is filled with first-world problems and angsty navel gazing. While being widowed at a young age (or any age, really) is surely a tragic thing, and while grief often takes its own individual course (five stages of grieving be damned), Celia is comfortable enough financially that she can isolate herself from much of the world as she chooses, which leaves her a lot of time to think about herself and about her grief. Hope (the person who sublets the apartment, not the thing with feathers) becomes something of an object of infatuation for Celia and disrupts her quiet life not only with her beauty and warmth but also with her own…oh, what’s the word I want for it…idiocy.

Why idiocy? Hope’s husband, a highly successful investment banker, has left her for a younger woman. By choice, Hope has moved out of their palatial Brooklyn townhome and into George’s apartment, where she takes up with a former lover who sexually and emotionally debases her. Hope’s two adult children are distraught and concerned for her, but Hope seems only to care about…hollowing herself out by having rough sex (accompanied by really nice wine and cheese, of course).

I hate that I felt this way, but much of the time I was reading I just wanted Celia and Hope to get a grip. They live in an interesting city (Brooklyn!), they both have enough money to do pretty much anything they want (Hope more so than Celia), and this is what they choose? To be isolated and debased? Like I said, first-world angst.

So then why did I keep reading? Because Celia is not completely annoying. In fact, overall she’s rather compelling, even if she has some annoying habits, like picking up strangers on the subway and having sex with them. She may be self-pitying and a bit stupid, but she’s also an interested and interesting observer (the novel is in first person), that sort of literary outsider infatuated with–yes, the affairs of others that I tend to enjoy. And to give her credit, even Celia finds Hope’s desire for debasement ridiculous on some level. But the best parts of the book occur when Celia is focused on her other tenants, the ferryboat captain Mr. Coughlan and the couple Angie and Mitchell. These two small subplots give the book a more generous viewpoint and keep it from becoming like that one person you knew in college who had everything (looks, brains, talent, money, connections) but who did nothing but complain and wallow in self-pity.

The book’s style and structure reminded me of reading something by Lydia Davis. If you’ve read Davis and enjoyed her work, you know I mean that as high praise. Loyd’s episodic narrative is fully fleshed-out, and she turns a phrase beautifully. Unfortunately, I only have an ARC* and cannot offer any quotes as evidence. Her masterful pacing also lends to the book’s intimate feel, and because of it she is able to turn a bit of a trick.

First-world angst of the privileged abounds in this novel, and in the hands of a lesser writer the book would probably keep on going down its relentless course until someone is homeless or institutionalized or dead. We’ve all read those novels. Instead, Loyd lifts everybody up out of themselves and gives them all to each other. I won’t say how, and I won’t say this book doesn’t have moments of real sadness, but the ending has a real sense of celebration about it, an awakening. Three out of five stars.

*I received an e-ARC of The Affairs of Others from NetGalley.