The deep, dark and ugly of Fourth of July Creek

Fourth of July CreekThe Montana Visitors Bureau will not be hiring Smith Henderson any time soon. The Montana of Henederson’s gripping debut novel is bleak and desolate, filled with alcoholics, addicts, guns, separatists and loneliness. Even his brilliant depictions of the state’s wilderness seem hard-edged and dangerous. Henderson’s characters are beyond broken; they are fractured into tiny pieces and spinning out of control.

This is not a pretty novel.

“The children were like children from anywhere, maybe a little less so.”

Pete Snow, a Department of Children’s Services social worker, should be our hero, but he’s an alcoholic who abandoned his own child and shelters more than one criminal. The fact that I still have sympathy for this man is a testament to the strength and power of Henderson’s writing.

His adversary, Benjamin Pearl, is a wild near-animal zealot, raising his son and hiding from society. (Conspiracy theorists will love his philosophy and anti-system rants.) Again, he is the antithesis of everything I believe in and yet, my heart broke for him and I was unable to compartmentalize him in the role of “bad guy.”

Is it any accident that these men have the names Snow and Pearl which evoke images of innocence and purity? I’ve got to hand it to Henderson. Down to the characters’ names, he doesn’t leave any detail of this novel to chance.

Snow and Pearl almost dance around each other through the events of this novel, alternating between trust and betrayal. Their relationship illustrates all the themes and questions of freedom, relationships, loyalty and democracy.

Meanwhile, Snow’s daughter is missing. In some of the most emotionally powerful chapters of the novel, we hear directly from Rose.

“What was it like on the way to Texas? It was Wyoming, which means to drive forever through ugly subscrape the color of dirty pennies. It was just wyoming along.”

The way in which Rose continues to use “wyoming” as a verb, noun and adjective to describe the nothingness she feels is absolutely brilliant.

All of these journeys are incredibly sad. I never shy away from dark reading material. In fact, I couldn’t help but compare this book to The Painter, Once Upon a River and Girlchild. All of these are fiction about the darker underside of America. The difference is that Fourth of July Creek, I found no hope. I could not put this book down, but I didn’t want to read it.

“the world is a blade and dread is hope cut open and spread inside out.”

Read-alikes:

The Painter by Peter Heller

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

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Book Review: The Invention of Wings

the invention of wingsSince I’m one of the last people I know to read this book, I was familiar with its premise and prepared to find something emotional, powerful and inspiring (the words that pop up most often). I found a good and emotional read, but I didn’t get the powerful and inspiring. Is it me?

According to the author’s note, she set out to write about the Grimke sisters, real life abolitionists and women’s rights activists, mostly forgotten by history. Much of the novel is told by Sarah, a fictionalized account of the sisters’ journeys from slave-holding southern belles to Quakers, writers and public speakers.

To add perspective to the novel, Sue Monk Kidd also creates the character of Hetty/Handful, a young slave gifted to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. Like Sarah, Handful has a strong-will, intelligence and determination. I fell in love with her from page one.

“My mauma was shrewd. She didn’t get any reading and writing like me. Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy.”

I love a character whose wisdom comes from the heart and not the head.

“you got to figure out which end of the needle you’re gon be, the one that’s fastened to the thread or the end that pierces the cloth.”

It’s a good story, a slave and her mistress, neither of whom wants to be tied to the other, developing a friendship that can only lead to pain. In the tradition of good historic fiction, there are many details of life in Charleston in the early 19th century and as Sarah makes her journey northward, the novel is populated with historical figures.

But, as much as I was engrossed in the story (I flew through this novel in 2 days), I was bothered by the emotional distance between me and the characters. Handful and Sarah seem to be telling their stories as recollections from some unnamed point in the future which lacked immediacy for me.

I also kept waiting for the action of Sarah’s story to begin. It’s not until the last third of the novel that she becomes fully animated and involved in her own life. This might be the trouble in basing fiction on real people. The author is somewhat beholden to the slow pace at which real life takes place.

“I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I’d lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it.”

I wanted so much more of her story once she’s out from under her mother’s cane and her relationship with Nina once they’re on the road speaking. There seems to be so much undiscovered drama in the tension between women’s and slaves’ rights.

But that’s not the book Sue Monk Kidd wrote. She wrote the story of two women trapped and struggling to break free.

“My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”

Paperback Picks – July

Summer really is the season of paperbacks isn’t it? Some of my favorite titles have been/are being released in paperback this summer, so if you haven’t read these, I highly recommend the following:

Gone GirlGone Girl, Gillian Flynn

I find it difficult to review this book without giving the whole thing away, but with all the buzz around the novel and the upcoming film adaptation, I’m pretty sure there are few people left who haven’t heard about this book. I chose it for my list because Flynn’s talent for storytelling has forced me to completely re-examine my belief that I’m not a fan of thrillers. Flynn investigates the bonds of marriage, obsession and identity in the modern world. She uses language to expertly pull her characters apart and put them back together.

“It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless amount of characters.”

The Cuckoo's CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith a.k.a. J.K. Rowling

Another thriller that is well-written, well-crafted, surprising and engaging! I wouldn’t have guessed it was Rowling, but in retrospect it has the same depth of character and setting I’ve felt in her Harry Potter novels. Just a terrific mystery. And now, with the release of The Silkworm, is the perfect time to get hooked on this series. (Just a side note: the hardcover edition’s cover was so much better than the cheesy paperback cover. Don’t let that distract you.)

“But the lies she told were woven into the fabric of her being, her life; so that to live with her and love her was to become slowly enmeshed by them, to wrestle her for the truth, to struggle to maintains foothold in reality.”

And the Mountains EchoedAnd the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini writes with such agonizing beauty that I could have stopped every few pages to copy his words, pull apart sentences and admire his gifted storytelling. Using the complicated politics, displacement and fractured lives in Afghanistan, he manages to both expand the setting to Europe and America and make it more intimate by so closely examining the lives of his characters. At its core, this is a book about family. Who are they? What are the bonds that tie? What does it mean to love someone?

“Beauty is an enormous, unmerited gift given randomly, stupidly.”

The LowlandThe Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri has such a light touch in her books, it’s almost as if you forget there’s an author behind the story. She treats her characters delicately, simply placing them in front of the reader without judgment and seemingly without premeditation to get them from the beginning of the plot to the end. Nothing ever seems forced or contrived in her books. She also evokes setting better than almost anyone I’ve read. Her sketches of Calcutta and Rhode Island were so real to me that I feel I’ve been to both places. My one criticism is that I never fell in love with any of the characters. I felt for them, but not as deeply as I hoped.

“The future haunted but kept her alive; it remained her sustenance and also her predator.”

Best Quotes of the Week — Independence Day edition

I thought I’d change up my Friday post this week in honor of Independence Day. Liberty and Independence are complicated ideas upon which to found a country as our history has proven. Here are my favorite quotes from founding fathers, classic writers and even a fictional president.

 

Benjamin Franklin, Memoirs of the life & writings of Benjamin Franklin

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Abraham Lincoln

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”

Thomas Jefferson (affectionately known as TJ in our house)

“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves ; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”

John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage

“If by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal”, then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

“The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.”

Robert G. Ingersoll, The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child

“This is my doctrine: Give every other human being every right you claim for yourself.”

Emma Goldman

“People have only as much liberty as they have the intelligence to want and the courage to take.”

Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement speech, 2005

“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

And, finally, my favorite fictional presidential speech of all time: Andrew Shepard, The American President

“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, because it’s going to put up a fight.”

Check out the video here:

Book Review: My Year of Meats – 5 stars

My Year of MeatsRuth Ozeki writes with such precision and honesty that I found myself walking alongside her main character Jane Tagaki-Little, completely immersed in the story rather than viewing it objectively. I had to keep reminding myself that this was Ozeki’s first novel, because it’s so fully formed and well-written.

Jane is a documentary maker who lands a job producing a television series for Japanese housewives called “The American Housewife” sponsored by the US Beef Conglomerate. She travels the country in search of families who exhibit American wholesomeness and values and can also provide a tasty meat recipe. (It’s really a great premise.) Across the world, Akiko is a bulimic Japanese housewife, watching and being moved by these shows. Opening each chapter are the words and poetry of a 1st Century female writer Sei Shonagon.

Given the alternating viewpoints, the mix of verse and prose, the author’s tendency to switch from first person to third person and a jumble of faxes thrown in, this could have been a hot mess of a book. Instead, it’s a work of art.

Both of these women are on a journey to find themselves which provides the emotional backbone for the novel. Akiko’s story seems to unfold in real time while Jane is writing with some self-awareness as she is looking back on “My Year of Meats.”

“It changed my life. You know when that happens — when something rocks your world, and nothing is ever the same after?”

While Jane’s assignment starts out as just a job, she grows immersed in the lives of the families she chooses to profile. She struggles to balance her desire to tell the truth with her need to serve her client, the show’s BEEF-EX sponsor, personified by Akiko’s husband. As she delves into “meaty” stories, she uncovers disturbing truths about the meat industry, which lends a very disturbing (almost sickening) undertone to the novel.

Ozeki clearly points out in the author’s note that this is a work of fiction, but it feels very much like the truth, complete with bibliography and footnotes. Issues of hormones, fertility, abuse, agriculture and culture all come to the forefront, but Ozeki resists the urge to preach.

“I chose to ignore what I knew. Ignorance. In this root sense, ignorance is an act of will, a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms and knowledge had become synonymous with impotence.”

Ozeki takes this novel from sharp-witted and playful to emotional and honest seamlessly. Her writing shines in the descriptions of each of the families Jane profiles, adding layers of richness to the main story.

“Each sojourn into the heartland had its own viscosity – a total submersion into a strange new element – and for the duration, the parameters of my own world would collapse, sucked like a vacuum pack around the shapes of the families and the configurations of their lives.”

This is my second Ozeki read. Last year I fell in love with A Tale for the Time Being. I will now actively seek her out. I am officially a super-fan.

Highly Recommend.

5 stars for The Enchanted

 

Cover image from Goodreads

Cover image from Goodreads

I had no sooner closed the back cover on this astonishing novel than I wanted to flip right back to the beginning and start again.  In fact, I finished this book in one day because I simply could not put it down. From the very first page:


“I see every cinder block, every hallway and doorway…I see the chamber where the cloudy medical vines snake across the floor…I see where the small men hide with their tiny hammers, and how the flibber-gibbets dance while the oven slowly ticks.”

I knew I was hooked.

Denfeld so deftly balances the horrors of Death Row with lyrical storytelling that I often found myself breathless. How did she create something so beautiful out of people and situations so ugly? 

Most of the book is told from the perspective of an inmate who remains nameless until the end. This anonymity and mystery surrounding his story (apart from his guilt) allows the author to interweave other stories without any sense of judgement.

“York knows the truth doesn’t matter in here. Inside, the lies you tell become the person you become. On the outside, sun and reality shrink people back to their actual size. In here, people grow into their shadows.”

Our other nameless narrator is “The Lady” trying to gather evidence to commute a prisoner’s death sentence. Her deep issues and personal back stories come to light slowly, complicating an already complicated quandary. All of this propels the plot.

But what’s even more brilliant than the storytelling is the way Denfeld digs in to the environment of Death Row. Without preaching or excusing or solving, she lays bare this enchanted place in a way that broke my heart. I was captivated by the idea that some of these characters have seen the flight of their own souls.

“My soul left me when I was six. It flew away past a curtain over a window. I ran after it, but it never came back. It left me alone on a wet stinking mattress. It left me alone in the choking dark. It took my tongue, my heart, and my mind.”

Once the soul has flown, there’s nothing to stop the bad thoughts from taking over.

Warning: this novel contains almost unbearable scenes of violence, often against children, but the pain is worth the price of reading.

Brilliant.

 

For more thoughtful critiques of this brilliant debut, I encourage you to visit:

Worn Pages and Ink

The Writes of Woman

lauriesnottheworst

An Explanation

It will come as no surprise to all the wonderful people who followed this blog that I haven’t posted in a very long time. And yet alenaslife remains here in the cyberworld. No updates. Unhidden.  Open to discovery, but unchanging. Many of you have reached out to me via comments, or recently via Twitter, to inquire, to voice concern, to wonder.

I owe you an explanation.

It’s simple. My blog began to feel more of an obligation than a pleasure. It was one more thing in my day, my week, my life that I had to get done, that needed my attention, that took up my time. I grew resentful. It’s silly because none of you demanded anything of me, yet I felt beholden just the same.

So I simply stopped. I stopped posting, I stopped reading and commenting on my favorite bloggers.

I continue to read. I continue to write about what I read (on Goodreads). I continue to live my life. I continue to miss the relationships I built online with remarkable writers, interesting women & men and fellow book lovers.

I’m still not ready to come back to this supportive, engaging world of bloggers. But I’m also not ready to shut it down and say a final “goodbye.” Please bear with me as I float in limbo.