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

Advertisements

Paperback Pick

Just going to show that books are just as good in paperback, here are a few of my picks for your weekend reading.

A Land More Kind than Home

A Land More Kind Than HomeWiley Cash

One of the best books I read in 2012 is now in paperback! Rural, religious zeal, coming of age, mystery — this book has it all.

From my 5 star review

Wiley Cash did not so much ease me into the disturbing world of his novel, as grip me by the throat and pull me along…The Appalachian mountains come alive through his descriptions. The characters’ voices practically sing off the page.

Cover image from Goodreads

Cover image from Goodreads

Girlchild

Tupelo Hassman

Another 5 star review of another harrowing book.

To love Girlchild as much as I did, you have to be willing to understand “raw.” Tupelo Hassman does not shy away from the anger, bitterness or shame that go with the broken down territory.

I am currently reading two books in paperback edition

Finally getting around to reading The Catcher in the Rye, which I’m liking not loving…

and one of absolute favorite books, which I am rereading (and enjoying even more the second time around), The Family Fang, by the uber-talented Kevin Wilson. This was another 5-star review.

The Catcher in the Rye

Book cover from Goodreads

Book cover from Goodreads

What are your weekend picks?

Happy reading.

My Favorite Books – 2012

I know. I know. Everyone and their brother has a “Best of” list at this time of year, but this tradition of mine predates blogging. This is just a more convenient way to share.

Readers should keep in mind that I don’t limit myself to books released in 2012. Although I try to keep up with what’s new and hot, I’m just as likely to pick up an unread classic or finally get around to reading something I’ve had on my list for months (or years). So you’ll find a mix of old and new.

And, I just couldn’t decide which book to cut from the list, so here you have my Top 11!

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeTell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is everything I love in a book – a thoughtful, socially awkward young narrator coming of age at a particularly dramatic historical moment. June Elbus is 14 years-old in 1986 when her beloved uncle dies of AIDS.  June is caught between childish games of imagination and the harsh realities of death, fear and discrimination. Struggling with the love-hate relationship between herself and her 16 year-old talented and popular sister, feeling orphaned by her busy-at-work parents and full of teenage self-loathing, she still comes across as tender and sympathetic. Read more…

Extremely LoudExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer

Brilliant. Devastating.  Can a book be described in two words? Probably not, but 2,000 will not be enough to convey the depth and intelligence of this masterpiece. Certainly, it’s a 9/11 book. The main storyline revolves around Oskar, a 9 year-old boy on a quest for closure after his father’s death on that horrible day. But the book is more than that. Read more…

book cover from Goodreads

book cover from Goodreads

A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash

Wiley Cash did not so much ease me into the disturbing world of his novel, as grip me by the throat and pull me along. Within the first few pages I knew to be very afraid of the charismatic, snake-handling, strong-arming Carson Chambliss. I knew someone had died. I knew children were involved. And I felt the heart-wrenching isolation of the people in this Appalachian community through the eyes of Adelaide, an elderly midwife. In fact, as the novel opens, Adelaide is about to step into Chambliss’ church and meet him face to face. Read more…

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I find it difficult to review this book without giving the whole thing away. Any spoilers would ruin this brilliantly crafted novel by literary “It Girl” Gillian Flynn. So let me say instead that Flynn has forced me to completely re-examine my belief that I’m not a fan of thrillers. What starts out as a straightforward premise – woman goes missing on her 5th wedding anniversary; husband is primary suspect – twists and turns in so many directions that I was left guessing, often. Read more…

The Rules of CivilityRules of Civility by Amor Towles

I cannot possibly write a review that reflects the intelligence and sophistication of this book. Integrating art, photography and literature into his portrait of 1938 New York, Amor Towles also tells a great story about the choices made by one young woman — Kate/Katey/Katherine Kontent, and her friends. Kate is smart, funny, unpredictable and determined, all qualities that make a fine heroine. But she’s also imperfect, which makes her infinitely more interesting. Read more…

sense of an endingThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending is further proof that my favorite books are not those that are driven by plot, or even by character, but instead, are books whose language transports me. I don’t mean to imply that nothing happens or that I didn’t care about the characters, but they aren’t the critical elements in my 5 star rating for this book. What elevates Julian Barnes to 5 star status is the way he makes me think. Read more…

Cover image from Goodreads

Cover image from Goodreads

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

Raw.
To love Girlchild as much as I did, you have to be willing to understand “raw.” Several times while I was reading this book, my husband looked at my face and asked me what was wrong. (I was alternating between tears brimming over and horror leaving my mouth agape.) Rory Dawn suffers neglect, mistreatment and abuse at the hands of those trusted to care for her. Growing up in a Nevada trailer park outside Reno, Rory clings to her tattered copy of the Girl Scouts Handbook as the only set of rules that use “honor” and “obey” as positive edicts. Read more…

This is Where I leave youThis is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh out loud, but this one did. It also made me blush, got me a little choked up at times, and introduced me to another author whose work I will actively seek. Forced to take part in a traditional Jewish 7-day shiva for his father, Judd Foxman ping-pongs between his hilariously dysfunctional siblings, his larger than life newly widowed mother, and the agony of his failed marriage. Read more…

Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins defies easy categorization. A little bit mystery, a little romance, a little historical fiction, even a little Hollywood. Jess Walters does a fantastic job of blending all these components into something smart, entertaining and lovely. What I really loved is the way Walters carried me away to another world, another time. He puts me squarely inside the minds of his characters so that I’m on the journey with them. The characters themselves are the beautiful ruins of this novel. Read more…

unlessUnless by Carol Shields

Although Carol Shields’ novel has a tragic background, it doesn’t focus on a traditional story. Instead, we meet Reta Winters, whose 19 year-old daughter has chosen to sit on a busy corner in Toronto wearing a sign that reads only, “Goodness.”  Reta does not take dramatic action to retrieve her daughter. She does not yell or pull her hair. Instead, she thinks and she writes. This kind of passive first-person storytelling will not work for all readers, but I loved Reta from page one. Read more…

anatomy of a disappearanceAnatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

How does an author write about something/someone who no longer exists? In Matar’s case, with incredible beauty and delicacy. He words seem not so much written, as poured gently. Matar provides a touching story of a boy whose father disappears. We assume it’s a political kidnapping based on the few clues the author provides, but we don’t get all the answers — exactly Matar’s point. He wisely tells a story without depending on plot points. Read more…

Honorable Mentions: Sacre Bleu, Horoscopes for the Dead, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, The Fault in Our Stars, Zeitoun, Stone Arabia, The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Astray, One Last Thing Before I Go

Children’s voices telling adult stories

I’m the first to admit that I’m a sucker for a charming narrator, especially when that narrator is young, trapped in impossible circumstances, and wise beyond his/her years. This all started when I was young, in pretty decent circumstances and not at all wise. I fell in love with Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (novel)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those voices never left me. Since then, I’ve added countless others – boys and girls who inspire, charm, and generally break my heart. I marvel when an author can so perfectly capture the voice and tone of a child or a teenager (as I am equally frustrated by authors who try and fail to find that thin line between naiveté and cynicism.) I wanted to wrap Scotty Ocean up and bring him home with me when I read An Ocean in Iowa.  Rose Edelstein’s warmth and charm anchor one of my all-time favorite books, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. And I will never forget the brilliant 12 year-old mapmaker T. S. Spivet, the heart of one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read (The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet).

All of these characters captured my heart. But now there seems to be a new crop of young narrators telling absolutely horrific stories, intent on breaking my heart into a million pieces. I noticed it first in the uproar surrounding Emma Donaghue’s Room, a story of kidnap and abuse told completely through the voice of 5 year-old Jack. I heard from several people that they found the child’s POV difficult and a bit creepy, but I bought it completely. For me, the unusual perspective elevated the novel from good writing to an outstanding book.

When I tell her what I’m thinking and she tells me what she’s thinking, our each ideas jumping into the other’s head, like coloring blue crayon on top of yellow that makes green.”

Likewise, Girlchild is a story that can only be told in the first-person perspective. Rory Dawn suffers the kind of mistreatment and abuse that turn readers stomachs, but her voice is so honest and determined that I couldn’t put the book down.

I haven’t found a mirror yet that doesn’t reflect the curves of the Calle back at me, my dirty ways, my fragile teeth and bad skin, my hands that won’t stop picking at themselves.”

cover image from Goodreads

This week, I’ve added a new voice.  Admittedly it took a while for me to get into the groove of Stephen Kelman’s Man Booker Prize nominated Pigeon English. Kelman turns vocabulary and syntax completely upside down in order to capture the mixed-up world of young African immigrant Harri Opuku.

I put my alligator tooth down the rubbish pipe. I heard it fall down to the bottom and disappear. It was an offering for the volcano god. It was a present for God himself. If I gave him my best good luck then he’d save us from all the bad things, the sickness and chooking and dead babies, he’d bring us all back together again. He’d have to or it wouldn’t be fair. It was a good swap, nobody could say it wasn’t.”

Again, Harri is trapped in poverty and violence, especially considering the dead body that opens the book. But he is an innocent. He finds beauty in the rubbish of his life. Once I caught the rhythm and lyricism in his broken language, I was a goner.

If Agnes dies I’ll just swap places with her. She can have my life. I’ll give it to her and I’ll die instead. I wouldn’t mind because I’ve already lived for a long time. Agnes has only lived for one year and some. I hope God lets me. I don’t mind going to Heaven early. If he wants me to swap places, I will.”

I love Harri for his courage, his uncomplicated bargains and his pure heart.

None of these books are easy reads. They don’t wrap up in tidy little bows. Instead, they open up worlds which I hope my own children never have to face. In fact I ask myself if I am allowing myself to be manipulated by this style. Are these authors trading in on the inherent sympathy readers have for the innocent? Maybe.

Regardless, it’s a style I love and will continue to seek out. I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Girlchild sparks a raw memory

Cover image from Goodreads

*Please note that this review contains some profanity, all contained within quotes from the book.

Raw.

To love Girlchild as much as I did, you have to be willing to understand “raw.” Several times while I was reading this book, my husband looked at my face and asked me what was wrong. (I was alternating between tears brimming over and horror leaving my mouth agape.)

Rory Dawn suffers neglect, mistreatment and abuse at the hands of those trusted to care for her. Growing up in a Nevada trailer park outside Reno, Rory clings to her tattered copy of the Girl Scouts Handbook as the only set of rules that use “honor” and “obey” as positive edicts. She makes her own badges and creates her own troop.

Tupelo Hassman does not shy away from the anger, bitterness or shame that go with the broken down territory.

You’ve done a thing you can’t clean up, found a place you can’t reach with mop or apology. The forever you’ve created branches like the hairline fracture in a pelvic bone, hides like a dirty Polaroid stored under a mattress, rises like hot blood to burn cheeks pretty with shame. Places you didn’t even know you were signing your name will always be marked by your hand, but despite every new day’s resolution to never do it again, you will. You’ll look away from your own face in the mirror, pull the chain twice to hide from yourself in the dark, and when it’s all over you won’t say anything. You won’t fucking say anything to anyone ever.”

So, if you can’t read books about children being hurt, you will miss out on a truly remarkable debut novel. Rory Dawn, despite being “third generation in a line of apparent imbeciles, feeble-minded bastards surely on the road to whoredom,” inspired me. Her desire to embrace life, to live fully and to strive for more, may seem shocking given her circumstances; but that is the brilliance of Hassman’s writing. Instead of just feeling sorry for Rory Dawn, I marveled at her.

As if knowing how hard it would be for readers to stick with dark material, Hassman tells the story in very short chapters, some less than a page.  She literally blacks out line after line to make us understand that Rory Dawn refuses to remember certain parts.

In the fairy tales there’s only one Big Bad Wolf and the little girl takes only one trip through the Dark Forest…But life on the Calle is real, not make-believe…So be prepared. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

In unveiling the whole truth this way, Hassman kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

This book took me immediately back to Rebecca Gilman’s play, The Glory of Living. I was fortunate enough to be the Assistant Director for the world premiere production and remember well the pressure on the lead actress (my dear friend Deborah Puette) to be “raw.”

In live theater there was no room to let the audience off the hook. The horror and evil and shame had to be palpable. But even more importantly, each character’s humanity and hope had to shine through at key moments.

Tupelo Hassman has achieved this same balance of horror and hope.

I haven’t found a mirror yet that doesn’t reflect the curves of the Calle back at me, my dirty ways, my fragile teeth and bad skin, my hands that won’t stop picking at themselves.”

She has turned her talented skills on stories that many Americans would hope to keep hidden. She has done it beautifully.