Fiction

Top Ten Books on My TBR This Spring

This week’s Top Ten (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) asks us about the top ten books on our TBR. While many people might list new books being published this spring, I have an eye on my backlog of books. Of course, the slightest shift of the wind will change my reading mood, so take this list with a grain of salt. You may or may not see reviews for these books in the coming months…and given that I am officially FIVE books behind in reviews this year, even if I read them, you may still not see reviews. Ahem. Anyway.

Today I’m in the mood for deep books, even some rather big books, and I know that as slowly as I read that this list also an ambitious one I’d be lucky to finish by the end of summer. I’ve included two books I started but never finished (The Plot Against America, which should be interesting in context of what’s happening politically these days, and The Blind Assassin), and the only remaining book left to read by one of my favorite authors, Kent Haruf (Where You Once Belonged). Without further ado, here’s my full list:

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Crossing to Safety

Angle of Repose

Atonement

The Plot Against America

An Instance of the Fingerpost

East of Eden

The Blind Assassin

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

Where You Once Belonged

Jumping on That #Weirdathon Bandwagon

I think everyone is probably well aware of this by now, but Julianne from Outlandish Lit is hosting a month-long Weirdathon. After seeing all the chatter in my Twitter feed (and seeing all the fun books people are choosing), I decided to hop on the bandwagon and get my weird on. o what, you may ask, constitutes a “weird” book? Let’s see what Julianne has to say:

What counts as weird? Anything that’s weird to you. Maybe that’s aliens. But for others maybe it’s bizarro fiction written in a created dialect starring a talking fruit. Click here to see my lists of weird books for inspiration and TBR padding!

Admittedly, when I first heard everyone talking about this a few weeks ago, my initial thought was simply that I couldn’t join because I don’t read weird books. But Julianne is giving people a lot of room to decide what’s weird for them. I highly recommend taking a look at her lists, I found a couple of books that were on my shelf and my TBR and that got my creative juices flowing. I also realized that I had read far more “weird” books than I realized. In fact, I was able to tweet out a few suggestions based on my own reading the last few years:

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The challenge for me was going through my current books and trying to figure out what was “weird” enough for the challenge. Here’s what I selected:

A Head Full of Ghosts

Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay. I put this on my TBR when I first heard about it last year, and I just happened to snag it for $1.99 on Kindle (deal still happening as of March 3!). And guess what? It was on Julianne’s list of recommendations, so there you go! “The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia. To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help…Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface–and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.”

Travelers Rest

Traveler’s Rest, Keith Lee Morris. You all know how much I loved The Dart League King, and I also loved Morris’s surreal short story collection, Call It What You Want. Traveler’s Rest is his latest effort, and it fits the weird bill to a T: a family stranded in a blizzard decides to spend the night at the Traveler’s Rest hotel, where “Once inside the hotel, the family is separated. As Julia and Tonio drift through the maze of the hotel’s spectral interiors, struggling to make sense of the building’s alluring powers, Dewey ventures outward to a secret-filled diner across the street. Meanwhile, a desperate Robbie quickly succumbs to his old vices, drifting ever further from the ones who love him most. With each passing hour, dreams and memories blur, tearing a hole in the fabric of our perceived reality and leaving the Addisons in a ceaseless search for one another. At each turn a mysterious force prevents them from reuniting, until at last Julia is faced with an impossible choice. Can this mother save her family from the fate of becoming Souvenirs-those citizens trapped forever in magnetic Good Night-or, worse, from disappearing entirely?” Creepy, right? [Updated to add: Morris also put together an awesome 70s playlist for the novel on Largehearted Boy.]

Stay Awake

Stay Awake, Dan Chaon. Dan Chaon is one of those writers who simply doesn’t get the attention he deserves. I loved both of his novels, You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply, and I’ve had this book of his short stories sitting on my shelf for years. I’ve been wanting to get back to reading more short stories, and this collection is said to be “haunting, suspenseful stories, lost, fragile, searching characters wander between ordinary life and a psychological shadowland. They have experienced intense love or loss, grief or loneliness, displacement or disconnection—and find themselves in unexpected, dire, and sometimes unfathomable situations.” Fit the bill? Yep.

Undermajordomo Minor

Undermajordomo Minor, Patrick deWitt. I honestly think The Sisters Brothers is one of the best books I’ve read in the last decade, so I snatched up a hardcover of deWitt’s latest novel only a few weeks after it was published. The last novel was a Western, but this one is more of a strange fairy tale: Lucy Minor is the resident odd duck in the hamlet of Bury. He is a compulsive liar, a sickly weakling in a town famous for begetting brutish giants. Then Lucy accepts employment assisting the majordomo of the remote, foreboding Castle Von Aux. While tending to his new post as undermajordomo, he soon discovers the place harbours many dark secrets, not least of which is the whereabouts of the castle’s master, Baron Von Aux. Thus begins a tale of polite theft, bitter heartbreak, domestic mystery, and cold-blooded murder. Undermajordomo Minor is an ink-black comedy of manners, an adventure, and a mystery, and a searing portrayal of rural Alpine bad behaviour, but above all it is a love story. And Lucy must be careful, for love is a violent thing.” A little more lighthearted weirdness is never a bad thing.

The City & the City

The City & the City, China Miéville. Okay, I’ve had a copy of this book on my Kindle since 2011, so I think it’s high time I read it. This is a backup pick for me. I don’t read that quickly and will be lucky to get through four books, let alone five, but I’ve heard so many bloggers praise Miéville that I thought this would be a terrific choice. I may be continuing #weirdathon on my own in April just to mark it off my list and see what all the fuss is about. “Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad finds deadly conspiracies beneath a seemingly routine murder. From the decaying Beszel, he joins detective Qussim Dhatt in rich vibrant Ul Qoma, and both are enmeshed in a sordid underworld. Rabid nationalists are intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists dream of dissolving the two into one.”

Are any of these on your #weirdathon lists? I can’t wait to read everyone’s updates this month—not that my (virtually) creaking TBR shelf needs any more books added to it!

Top Ten…Er, Top Eight Tuesday: Reading Outside My Comfort Zone

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, asks us to list ten books we read in the last year or so that are outside our comfort zone. A simple enough question, but looking at the list of books I read over the past 15 months or so, not an easy one to answer. I don’t spend a lot of time reading outside my comfort zone, probably because the last few years reading has seemed like a struggle, so when I read, I don’t want it to be a challenge. Whatever book I pick up, I want it to be THE book.

That said, I do try to get outside my comfort zone now and again. None of these books are a huge stretch, but they are outside what’s been my more typical fare lately, which I guess I’d call modern literary fiction with a twist.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster

Assassination Vacation

Unfamiliar Fishes

Nonfiction. I read very little nonfiction, but in 2015 I read three books I’d normally not pick up: I read Into Thin Air because my mother (cough**book pusher**cough) kept insisting that I read it. She said it was terrific. In this, she was correct. I read Assassination Vacation as part of an effort to read from the TBR pile. I picked it because I bought it in 2005 and you know, figured it was time. I loved the way Sarah Vowell writes so much that I immediately bought two more of her books (thereby thwarting my efforts to read what I already had) and followed up Assassination Vacation with Unfamiliar Fishes, a book about the colonization and eventual statehood of Hawaii. (And weird aside: I kept picking up books last year that took me to the South Pacific during times of exploration and colonization: this one, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams. I highly recommend all three, and reading them close together gives you a rich experience.) I have Lafayette in the Somewhat United States sitting on my bedside table and am hoping to read it soon.

Big Little Lies

The Husband's Secret

Chick Lit. I don’t know. Maybe the “chick lit” label isn’t completely fair to Liane Moriarty. She’s just this side of writers like Gillian Flynn, Sophie Hannah, or Paula Hawkins, only because she deals more in the domestic space and focuses less on mystery. Either way, she has a razor-sharp way with characterization that makes her books compulsively readable. I liked Big Little Lies the best, but they were both solid efforts and would be perfect travel or beach reads.

The Signature of All Things

Possession

Landfalls

Historical Fiction. Okay, first: look at those covers! So gorgeous! Second: do you ever decide that you just HAVE to read a book RIGHT THIS SECOND? That’s what happened to me last year with The Signature of All Things. The joke was on me, because the used copy I bought turned out to have a whole set of pages missing in the book’s final section. Lucky for me, the people at Viking are wonderful and when I tweeted about the problem, they sent me a new copy immediately. This story of a female botanist in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries was absolutely captivating–the characters, the narrative, the science all swept me away.

The same thing happened to me with A.S. Byatt’s Possession—I decided I just had to read it so I bought a used copy. I think I should note here that while plenty of things are outside my wheelhouse, probably nothing is further than Victorian poetry. But this story of two modern scholars uncovering the mystery of a relationship between two Victorian poets through their poems, letters, and journals was outstanding.

Landfalls I bought for two reasons. First I read this post on the author’s blog about the origins of the story (I found the blog via an interview with the author, but I’ve lost that link), which starts with a map she believed was the San Francisco Bay but turned out to be some other place altogether from an Eighteenth century expedition that was ultimately lost. Second, even though I’m terrified of the ocean, I’m completely fascinated by maritime exploration during The Age of Discovery. I was so excited to discover this book that I pre-ordered it, and I was not disappointed. Told from various points of view of people on board the two ships that took that fateful journey, Landfalls is completely absorbing. This was Williams’s first novel, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

What genres are most outside your wheelhouse? Do you read historical fiction? If so, give me some recommendations!

Reader’s Journal: Girl Waits With Gun

Girl Waits with Gun (Kopp Sisters, #1)Charming is a word I would like to see restored. These days when people say “charming” they often mean quaint, or old, or precious. For me, the word evokes the idea of having grace and spunk in equal measure, and knowing when it’s appropriate to use more of one and less of the other, or—to use a gun metaphor—when to fire from both barrels.

Amy Stewart’s debut novel Girl Waits With Gun is a charming book based on a true story that Stewart uncovered when doing research for her non-fiction book, The Drunken Botanist. The Kopp sisters—Constance, Norma, and Fleurette—live alone on a farm outside Paterson, New Jersey. The story begins in July 1914, when their horse and buggy are struck by a motor car driven by one Henry Kaufman, a wealthy hooligan who owns one of the silk factories in town. In the street, Constance asks nicely for—and then demands—compensation for the accident. Kaufman and his thug friends scoff at her and then threaten her. All of this sets off a chain of events that upset the quiet lives of the Kopp sisters, but Constance in particular refuses to back down and fights for justice for herself and her sisters. Her case falls on deaf ears at the local prosecutor’s office, but the sheriff of a nearby town becomes her ally, offering the Kopp sisters protection and even teaching them to shoot revolvers.

A less skilled author could have made caricatures of the Kopp sisters, but Stewart does a terrific job of making them each interesting and distinct. At one point, Constance, who narrates the story, describes them as three women with nothing in common and little to say to each other. That they love each other and are fiercely loyal to one another is without question, but Stewart cleverly uses their singular responses to events and their interactions with one another to show how times are changing (but also lagging)—especially for women. Their late mother, an Austrian who never cared for America or bothered to pursue citizenship, had a habit of sharing news headlines about women who were disgraced, injured, or killed in some way, all to convince her daughters that the world was a terrifying place and they were better off at home:

I can’t look at our childhood samplers without remembering the disgraceful fate of Laura Smith, age seventeen, who was lured away from her home by the grocer and ruined by him, or that of thirteen-year-old Lena Luefschuetz, found dead for reasons having to do with her “undesirable companions.”

This upbringing affected the sisters in vastly different ways. Norma, 31, dislikes any and all intrusions from the outside world, preferring to spend time with the homing pigeons she raises on the farm (she trains the pigeons by fastening news headlines—for example, ”Girl Scalded in Kitchen,” on a day when Fleurette is cooking—to their legs). Fleurette, 16, is such an ingenue that it almost seems she believes the stories she reads in the paper are actually fictions just awaiting her embellishment. And Constance, the oldest at 35, is at once restless and pragmatic. With secrets of her own, she is aware of both the lack of opportunities for and the very real threats to women that the world holds. However, she longs for something more than what she has, even daring to picture a life for her independent self apart from her sisters.

Aside from the threat presented by Henry Kaufman and company, a bit of a mystery occurs that draws Constance further into danger and helps develop her relationship to Sheriff Heath in an interesting way. The mystery also brings Constance’s past into play, which helps to explain why she reacts the way she does at the accident scene in the beginning of the story.

Somehow this novel manages to be both lighthearted and serious at the same time. Stewart manages to create comic situations about women in very real peril–and not as a result of Henry Kaufman so much as from being a woman in a society still clinging to Victorian ideas. The sisters’ quirks offer some comic relief. Fleurette is forever twirling and selecting special outfits to suit the occasion, even when that occasion is being the well-dressed target of a kidnapper, and Norma is fully devoted to her pigeons. Constance even has the occasion to manhandle Henry Kaufman to comic effect. However, even in moments of humor, we’re always reminded that the sisters face serious trouble. They are running out of money and have no foreseeable means of making income, which means that they may lose their farm–and if they lose their farm, what will happen to them? Fleurette is young enough still to find a husband, but she knows very little of the world as she was schooled at home and has been kept away even from people her own age. Norma and Constance are both essentially spinsters who are not trained in any skill, and Norma especially would rather not spend time with other people if she can avoid it. As the oldest, Constance feels the most responsible, but Stewart makes it quite clear that the options for her are limited on almost every front except the most unexpected.

This book was absolutely so delightful I did not want it to end. Halfway through the novel I was already sorry about saying goodbye to Constance, Norma, and Fleurette, so I was very happy to learn that Stewart is writing a sequel to Girl Waits With Gun called Lady Cop Makes Trouble, to be released in September 2016. Keeping my fingers crossed for a series!

Top Ten Tuesday: With Love, From Me to You

For today’s Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, we’re asked to list our favorite top ten romances (or top ten literary crushes, or something similarly Valentine’s Day themed). I don’t read romance or chick lit, and I don’t get crushes on characters in books (although I do get crushes on books themselves, for whatever that’s worth). I also realize that for many people Valentine’s Day is just another commercial joke, and for other people it’s just another reason to feel shut out of a culture that’s obsessed with couples. Instead of worrying about all that, I offer you ten books I love that are about love of all kinds.

Our Souls at NightOur Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. Addie Moore and Louis Waters are neighbors. They are also both widowed, with grown children who live elsewhere. They live in a small town in Colorado with people who are prone to judge and talk, but despite that they form a touching relationship. Heartfelt and heartbreaking, like all of Haruf’s work.

Just KidsJust Kids, Patti Smith. This book isn’t just about Smith’s relationship with her love and best friend Robert Mapplethorpe—it’s a love letter to a culturally revolutionary place and time, and to self discovery.

The Art of FieldingThe Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. Several years ago, I had this to say about The Art of Fielding: “It tells a timeless story of love, the ways we’re interconnected, whether through love or friendship or what we sometimes even think of as destiny.” This is most definitely a book about how love—not just romantic love, but that too, shapes our lives. One of my favorite books ever.

You Are One of ThemYou Are One of Them, Elliott Holt. Sometimes we hang on to romantic ideas, because they infuse everyone and everything with interest, including ourselves. Sarah Zuckerman believes her fascinating childhood best friend Jenny is dead, but a mysterious letter makes her think otherwise. As I said in my short review in 2013, “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 Secret HistoryThe Secret History, Donna Tartt. Narrator Richard Papen looks back to tell a tale of murder, and of the people and place he loved that changed him irrevocably. This is one of my favorite books of all time. I never reviewed it here, but I did create a soundtrack that speaks to all that love and loss.

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler. Rosemary Cooke is heartbroken. Her beloved sister Fern is missing. Her beloved brother Kevin is wanted by the FBI. To mend her heart she must confront an awful truth. This book is one of a kind.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild, Cheryl Strayed. To recover from her mother’s death (and all her own subsequent personal little deaths of the heart), Cheryl Strayed hiked most of the Pacific Coast Trail. Some people called this book (and Strayed) self-indulgent, but I thought it was a beautiful account of love and grief and imperfection all together.

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. Friendships, especially those from childhood, are probably some of the most intense relationships we have, because we are in the process of discovering who we are and who we are not. Elena and Lila are sometimes friends, sometimes almost enemies, but no doubt their lives are entwined and their feelings for each other are strong.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Lorrie Moore. In this wistful and slim novella, Berie recalls her best teenage friend Sils and the summer they were both fifteen.

Reader’s Journal: The Pursuit of Cool

The Pursuit of CoolI don’t know how I came across Robb Skidmore’s self-published novel The Pursuit of Cool, but all I had to do was read the description and I knew I had to read it:

A novel that uniquely captures the 1980s, The Pursuit of Cool tells the story of Lance Rally and his turbulent college years. He faces pressure to live up to his super-achieving family and is fueled by grandiose ambition. He wants to become a success but is easily distracted and obsessed with pop culture. He also has a deeply romantic nature and though inept he is sincere and falls in love quickly…This coming-of-age journey is a funny and emotional ride through album covers, dance techniques, all-nighter revelations, and corporate internships gone bad. The story comes alive with music and movies which give Lance solace as he questions his beliefs and his heart gets crushed. He tries to capture that illusive quality, that magic of youth, the essence that is ‘cool.’

In 1986, Lance Rally leaves his Washington, D.C. area home, bound for the fictional Langford College on the outskirts of Atlanta. His grandfather, father, and older brother all attended Harvard, but Lance’s grades weren’t quite up to Ivy League standards, so he’s headed to a second-tier school to study economics in the hopes of getting into a really good business school after college. But here’s the thing: Lance doesn’t really understand economics, and the famous professor who runs the department (and whom everyone suggests Lance pursue as a mentor) is a crank whose opaque lectures Lance struggles to understand. So Lance begins to float…He befriends a punk rocker from California named Ian LaCoss, who’s majoring and drama and introduces him to, well, punk rock, and a squirrely genius named Charles Boyd. He eventually begins to date a popular dancer who is majoring in psychology, and he struggles (and often fails) to comprehend her subtle hints and moods. He gets a summer internship with a high-powered consulting firm. A few other things happen, but because he’s more of a dreamer than anything, Lance drifts through the rest of his time, and the reader drifts with him.

If that sounds dull, it isn’t. In fact, it’s charming. Skidmore is confident storyteller who clearly cares about Lance, who is compelling and endearing in his confusion. Lance is an all around genuinely nice guy, a good kid. He’s a dreamer. He loves to read. He loves movies. He can spend hours and hours listening to music. He’s observant and slightly obsessive when it comes to going over situations (usually involving his girlfriend Lynn) in his head. He’s constantly trying to figure out how to be. He’s picked the wrong major, but he can’t bring himself to change it for fear of disappointing his father. And besides, he has no idea what he wants to do until the very last page of the book (the very last day of college, incidentally), when everything becomes abundantly clear to him.

It’s highly possible I enjoyed this book because I identified with Lance in many ways. Although I didn’t have any family legacy to live up to, I had talked a big game all through senior year of high school about how I was going to New York to become a playwright. When I wasn’t accepted by the two schools in New York where I actually managed to complete applications for by the deadline, I decided to start college closer to home and transfer after my first year. Five years and five majors later (drama, communications, back to drama, fashion merchandising, and finally English literature) I graduated from that same university. Like Lance, I was a distracted romantic who wasn’t sure where I fit in, who was likely to spend way more time reading novels, listening to music (or going to see bands, my favorite college pastime), or obsessing over friendships and guys than I ever spent studying. It took me two-and-a-half years to settle into a major and apply myself, and another four years until one of my best friends really helped me clue into the same realization Lance has at the end of The Pursuit of Cool.

Another reason I probably identified with this book so much was the time: Lance goes to college in 1986, and I went to college in 1987. My guess is that Robb Skidmore went to college around this same time, because he gets so many things about the time spot-on, especially the music, while managing to avoid so many Eighties cliches. If you like campus novels, if you’re interested in the 1980s, or if you just like a well-told coming-of-age story, I recommend The Pursuit of Cool.

And because music plays such an important part in The Pursuit of Cool, I decided to make a playlist. Instead of adding songs from the book (the playlist would be at least three hours long and range from Led Zeppelin to The Clash to The Pixies), I decided to put together my own “greatest hits” that I loved in college. It’s hardly comprehensive, and to stop myself from going on and on, I picked twenty songs (listen on Spotify or YouTube).

What were your favorite songs from college and/or the 80s? Better to share music than tragic fashion! Happy reading!

Reader’s Journal: Our Endless Numbered Days

Our Endless Numbered DaysWhat am I going to tell you about Claire Fuller’s beautiful, heartbreaking debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days, which won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for most prestigious first-time novelists? My first five-star read of 2015, it feels like one of those books that defies reviewing. It’s deep. It’s haunting. It’s pretty. It’s enraging. All these things.

In 1976, when she is eight years old, Peggy Hamilton is taken from her London home by her father, James. Up until that time she has lived a relatively normal life as the only child of two somewhat eccentric parents, her aforementioned father James, who does not work but instead obsesses about the end of the world, and her mother, Ute Bischoff, a famous German concert pianist. Peggy goes to school. She has a best friend named Becky. She is attached to her BBC recording of Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children, and even at the age of eight still sometimes relies on her doll Phyllis for company. She loves Ute, but her mother is also larger than life, and is not willing to share that most vital part of her–the piano–with Peggy. Her father belongs to the North London Retreaters, a group of men who gather to drink (heavily) and discuss the best ways to survive the end of days, whether from nuclear apocalypse or some natural disaster. James seems to take things seriously, going so far as to build a shelter underneath their house and outfit it with food and supplies, putting Peggy through regular drills (of which Ute wants no part) where she has only minutes to pack her rucksack and report to the shelter, where at the end of the drill her father inspects the items she has chosen to bring along.

Things seem normal enough. Like any eight-year-old child, Peggy is both fascinated and confused by her parents and their friends. She stays up late to spy on their parties, to listen to the long arguments the men maintain over the best survivalist techniques. She senses a strain between her father and Ute, but through everything she maintains her version of normal, until Ute leaves to go on a two-week concert tour. During those weeks Peggy begins to spend more time outside her normal routine and camping out with her father in the garden. She tells the school her mother has died. More time passes and still Ute does not return. And then Peggy awakens one morning to her father’s sharp whistle. He tells her to pack her things. It’s time to go. He’s promised her a holiday.

He takes her across the Channel and deep into the continent. They are going to a place called “die Hütte,” a place Peggy heard her father and his friends (especially one in particular, named Oliver Hannington) discussing during their late nights. She imagines the place to be something from a fairytale. She is wrong, but not long after they arrive there, her father tells her the world has ended, and that they are the only people left in the world, and nothing exists beyond what he calls the “Great Divide,” referring to the world on the other side of the mountains that surround their valley.

We hear the story directly from seventeen-year-old Peggy, who alternates between her time in die Hütte with her father and present day London where she is back in Ute’s house. In their exile, Peggy and her father struggle to survive. In the woods, they become not Peggy and James, but Papa and Punzel. They have not brought enough food; they have not brought the right supplies; and die Hutte is not equipped as promised. The threat of freezing or starving to death is always an issue. Yet Peggy offers her audience many, many moments of great beauty and grace, such as when Papa teaches her to play the piano with the one book of sheet music he has taken from home, Franz Liszt’s “La Campanella.” He builds her a wooden piano and she learns to sing the notes. She makes up a narrative to guide her through the music:

When I played, my father would sometimes sing the bass line while I was the bell, or the bird; one of us sang the treble clef with the other joining in on the high notes to create the chords. By page six, the bird was joined by a cat, and the fluttering became more desperate. The bird circled higher and higher, trying to escape the open maw that followed its flurries at the window. When the bird tired and swooped too low, the cat jumped, feathers were lost, and I despaired for the creature. In the final refrain, as if sounding an alarm call, the bird began to fight back. The animal I had taken for a sparrow or wren became a fiercer creature, showing its talons and curved beak so that fur flew as well as the feathers.

While Peggy/Punzel loves her father, and while she comes to love things about the woods and she begins to forget her old life, she always has a real sense of danger. And while much of the danger is very real–she is afraid of water, for example, and cannot swim–she knows something else is off kilter. But she has only her Papa to rely upon, and so she makes what life she can.

It wasn’t until well after I had finished Our Endless Numbered Days that I began to associate it with another beautiful, yet also tragic and disturbing book, Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb. In both books, a man abducts a girl (because yes, even though James is Peggy’s father, what he does is abduction, stealing her away from her life and other family) for incredibly complex reasons of his own and takes her away to a solitary place, where he feels in control, not just of the girl but of something bigger: life, maybe. And like David Lamb, Peggy is an unreliable narrator, not just because she is a child, but because she is in a sense broken forever by being taken away. No doubt about it, what happens to Peggy is clear-cut child abuse. For me, this was the most difficult thing about the book. I had very little empathy for James (although I did have a strange empathy for David Lamb, but I wonder if I would have had the story been told from the girl’s point of view). Aside from the abduction, even in real life, I have no patience for survivalist types. While so many readers (and movie fans) found Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild tragic and romantic—promising young man yearns for more authentic way of life, so gives up all worldly possessions and hits the open road—I saw someone who was quite possibly mentally ill and breaking down. That’s also what the reader sees in James/Papa, no matter how Peggy presents him. And while he cares for as best he can, he is also prone to mood swings, and we know always what he has done to her—and to Ute.

Yet this is still Peggy’s story, and she must be allowed to tell it in her own way. We will never really know what she endured in the woods. It’s the beauty of Fuller’s writing that makes this book so difficult to put down. This novel is so remarkable for a debut, and the author was 47 when it was published, which just goes to show that not every talented, promising writer is under 25 (or 30). And on that note, let’s have some music.