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Falling Apart & Running Away: A Look at Three New Novels

These three novels sparkle with the energy of their characters’ struggles, and stand out as some of the best psychological fiction of 2012. They deal with the themes of running away and falling apart, as the characters dare to explore and experience their own frailties, faults and fears. They are also great stories for readers to escape into. As I read them, I was totally captivated by their exotic locations and emotional intensity.

Flight BehaviorFlight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver begins with a young rural woman’s frustration as she struggles to accept the dull confines of her marriage. Dellarobia’s emotions sing out to us with the rich music of her Appalachian dialect. She is like an exotic bird caged by the limits of her traditional Tennessee town. Emotionally starved, she considers an affair, and she suffers from impulses to run away from her family. Alone on a mountainside, she looks down and sees a “valley of fire,”  an event that seems biblical but is actually a frightening sign of nature’s own upheaval caused by climate change: a mass of millions of monarch butterflies, covering the forest in fiery orange as they seek refuge from the weather.

As the town is torn apart by people’s responses to this “miracle,” Dellarobia’s own life rips open as she savors new ideas and experiences. Biologists, journalists, tour guides, and church groups descend on the family’s farmland, and in the midst of this chaos she discovers a way to put back the pieces of her own life and to move forward with strength.

Forgiven

The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne transports us to an exotic setting in the desert mountains of Morocco which the author Lawrence Osborne knows well, being a nomadic journalist and world traveler. A middle-aged British couple, stagnating in their marriage and careers, are driving a rental car through rural Morocco with little idea of the culture and the desolation that they are passing through. After sniping at each other in a cafe, the husband David orders a bottle of wine and finishes it, and his wife Jo wearily resigns herself to his alcoholic indiscretions.

Back in the car, they head for a hedonistic party given by Richard and Dally, a gay celebrity couple. On the rural road in the gathering darkness, two young men spring out, holding out fossils to sell to the passing tourists…and David’s careless swerve leaves one man dead. The couple arrives with the young man’s body in the back of the car, and find themselves in the midst of an international crowd of revelers. They are invited to enjoy the decadent food, plentiful drugs, and an orgy that horrifies the Moroccan Muslim servants. Soon David and Jo are caught up in a web of judgment and anger, as they must deal with their responsibility under Islamic law and tradition for the consequences of their own behavior. The dead man’s family journey there from their remote village, demanding retribution. As these two vastly different cultures struggle to comprehend each other, people seem to forget their basic humanity.

Too bright to hearIn Too Bright To Hear Too Loud To See by Juliann Garey, we are invited into the mind-storm of Greyson, a Hollywood studio executive who is barely keeping himself together under the pressure of his job. He is no longer thrilled by celebrity angst and by sharing lines of cocaine at Beverly Hills parties. And it’s becoming harder and harder to hide the storms of his manic depression from his co-workers, his worried wife, and their little daughter. This is a compassionate and vivid portrayal of mental illness, and the author is skilled at portraying Grey’s gradual mental disintegration.

Grey is furious with himself for failing his wife and daughter, and he arranges for them to be financially secure before he decides to flee. The novel follows ten years in Grey’s life as he travels the world and let’s himself “fall apart.” With blinding light and terrifying darkness, his travels lead him through Italy, Israel, Chile, Thailand and Uganda. He tries to find relief by taking risks, and he seeks out danger, edgy sex, and exotic destinations. But even his money cannot protect him from feeling vulnerable and being victimized. The storyline jumps between Grey’s travels and his experiences years later in a psychiatric hospital. He is truly a man who excels at running away, a man who can easily be swept away by the hurricane of his chaotic mind. But when his daughter seeks him out on a journey of her own, Grey begins to take small steps into the unfamiliar realm of the heart.

Esta

Who in the World is Hari Kunzru?

Hari Kunzru has kept a low profile even though his reviewers marvel over his wildly original fiction. But with his latest novel Gods Without Men winning critical acclaim,  it’s time to get to know this author whose work you may have missed! 

The backdrop of Gods Without Men is the eerie desert landscape around Pinnacles National Monument in California. Baked by sunlight and shadowed by spires of rock, it’s an otherworldly place that draws people who are trying to fill the hollow places in their souls. When the book begins, we see the legendary Native American trickster Coyote mixing up some methamphetamine…and we sense that this story will be a mind-altering experience.

Then the story veers to gritty-edged reality with a cast of unusual characters, focusing mostly on a young interracial couple, Jaz and Lisa and their struggles with their severely autistic son Raj. They are worn down by the child’s tantrums and ferocious energy, and the desert landscape mirrors the slow crumbling of their marriage. 

On a walk, the little boy manages to undo a stroller strap and suddenly disappears into a maze of rock. The terrified couple is browbeaten by the news media’s craving for scandal. Soon the television and the internet seethes with rumors of child neglect and even willful murder, and Jaz and Lisa are trapped in their own personal hell. 

We then explore others’ tales, and glimpse the past traumas that haunt this place: a chaotic hippie commune, a gathering of UFO abduction devotees, a Native American man who steals a bi-racial child, a Mormon silver-miner driven mad by mercury poisoning, and a Franciscan priest who has delusions of remaking the local Indians.

But the keenest irony in the book emerges with the story of the Iraqi refugees who work nearby on a U.S. military base. They are paid to dress up and role-play in the desert as “primitive” fanatical villagers, when they are actually urban sophisticates who savor American culture.

Some timeless questions appear here about identity, culture, and faith, yet this novel never becomes dull or philosophical. There’s no shortage of wonder and humor in the bizarre things that happen to these characters. The novel leads us to marvel at how people feel a universal need for a higher power to overwhelm them, possess them, and bring them escape from the pains of human life.

This is Kunzru’s fourth novel, and he continues to build characters whose lives can seem absurd and illogical, but whose inner thoughts shine with wonder and irony. 

Kunzru’s Anglo-Indian biracial background charges his writing with a vibrant awareness of cultural and social issues. His emotionally complex characters struggle with their own identity and vulnerability. They fall apart…and after watching their own lives crumble, they must re-create themselves in terrifying and thrilling ways.

Esta

Girlhood Among the Gators: Swamplandia

Alligators! When you live in Florida, you either love them or hate them. 

In the novel Swamplandia by Karen Russell, alligators are an integral part of a devoted but very dysfunctional family. This is a gem of a coming-of-age story, with unforgettable characters who we get to know in the deepest way possible. 

The father is a champion alligator wrestler who likes to be called ‘Chief Bigtree’ even though nobody in the family is Native American. The mother is renowned for her ability to dive into a pool seething with gators. Three adolescents complete the family with the boy Kiwi already wrestling gators and young Ava learning her gator-handling skills. 

They all have chores caring for their ranch-load of alligators, even hatching the eggs in incubators. Tourists come from the mainland to their swampy island to see the exciting Bigtree Alligator Wrestling Show and meet the eccentric family that puts it on.

When their mother dies suddenly and their debt-ridden father leaves to take a job on the mainland, the three siblings are left alone and their lives begin to crumble. The oldest, Kiwi, goes to work for their competitor and twelve-year-old Ava struggles to keep the alligators fed and her teen sister Ossie sane. Eventually Ossie succumbs to the call of her fantasy world of Ouija-board spirits and has visions of a dead man whom she believes is her lover.

Madness and the lush sensual beauty of the Florida swampland unite to form a magical power that lures the two girls.  Ava and Ossie are alone with their budding sexuality, their fears, and their longing for affection. When Ava is most vulnerable, a wandering loner called ‘the Birdman’ enters their lives like a character from myth. 

He seems at times to be protective and caring…yet the shadow of danger looms as he and Ava set off in a boat to find Ossie, who has gone missing in the swampland. On their journey through a gorgeous and terrifying land of reclusive swamp-dwellers, Ava’s vulnerability and courage will touch your heart.

Esta

Contents May Have Shifted

The quirky and unusual “travel novel” Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston takes you on a roller-coaster ride both around the world and through the author’s stormy relationships with men. Pam Houston is also the author of the hilarious Cowboys Are My Weakness, one of my all-time favorite books of the 90’s that captured the misunderstandings that happen when men and women try to communicate.

In Contents May Have Shifted, the author is not shy to admit that she is a travel junkie, and she captures the thrills of exploring cultural extremes in exotic locations including Tibet, Laos, New Zealand, Spain, and Tunisia as well as a jumble of places in the United States and Canada. The author describes some truly hair-raising experiences and tumultuous airplane flights. You may never feel cozy on a plane again after reading this book! On one flight they suffer a direct hit by lightning, and the jolly pilot announces that there is no need to worry since they need only one engine to land… as an electric-blue fireball crackles in the aisle. 

Whether she is watching vultures sampling bodies during a “sky burial” in Tibet, or fending off a lusty man on a camel trip through the desert in Tunisia, Pam’s spirit of adventure always carries her through. Pam’s confidence and courage lead her to be bold in her relationships with all kinds of men, from ranchers to sensitive-New-Age-guy-types. Her unflagging sense of wry humor buoys her along, but she also does not shrink from tearing open her own heart and showing us the contents.

When she meets Rick he comes with excess baggage: a co-dependency with his annoying ex-wife who has changed her name from Sophie to “SoFree,” and his young daughter Madison. The wonder of this book is how well Pam can reveal her own multi-faceted  emotions…jealousy, competitiveness, miscommunication, devotion…and the euphoria of the relationship when it is solid. 

As she is swept up in her discoveries about the gentle trust and joy of a child, we see her as both confident and vulnerable. In the end, her life becomes a metaphor for womanhood today: can we “have it all” and enjoy our own achievement and adventure yet also have devoted loving relationships?

Esta

New Noir

I’ve always been drawn to psychological novels that show the dark side…the internal struggles that complex intelligent characters have to wrestle with. These three new superbly crafted novels definitely have that “noir” feeling, with their cinematic intensity and vivid characters. Individuals struggle to trust each other in a world of warped intentions and hidden cons, as danger and violence loom ominously in the background.

Ed King by David Guterson portrays the dark side of ambition and sexual attraction. Set in the Seattle area, the book’s main character rockets to success with the rise of the Internet as he becomes the “King of Search.”  He becomes a tycoon and a celebrity, but he knows nothing of his own origin. Namely that he was a foundling baby abandoned by a teen mother who used him to con child support payments from an older man. Years later the two meet in the dark shadow of incest, as Ed’s brilliant but impulsive life spirals out of control.

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks, is set in a sunny resort area of Florida and portrays a shadow life that few of us know about. The main character is a young sex offender who is living (with his huge pet iguana) in a colony of homeless men underneath a causeway. A sociology professor arrives to interview the men and is drawn to the fatalistic innocence of “the Kid,” as the man calls himself. “The Professor” patiently listens and yanks the young man out of his profound solitude, and we see hidden reserves of emotion tangled up in the secrets that both men hide. Is it possible to feel empathy for someone caught in the ranks of the “most hated” in our society?

Snowdrops by Andrew Miller takes us to a tense, threatening time in Moscow during the early 2000’s. Nick, a young attorney, has been sent by a London-based corporation to grab a share of Russia’s gushing oil revenues. All around him is the flash of new wealth, thriving on decadence and corruption, while the underclass stumbles through another cruelly cold winter. Dealing with businesses that may be shells, and with people who will do anything to survive, brings out Nick’s dark side. He savors the sensual delights of his lover Masha, but she seems to be hiding secrets from him. Then her strange family members pull him into a dangerous role that he does not want to play.

Esta

Fantastic new fantasy books for middle grade kids

Kids won’t be bored for a minute this summer with these new fantasy books that take readers on wild journeys with space aliens, mer-people, magical animals, and supernatural powers. 

My hands-down favorite is Aliens on Vacation by local author Clete Barrett Smith. David dreads being sent to his grandmother’s “Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast” Inn for the summer. The tourists act and look odd. David sees a guest swallow squares of aluminum foil and drink bleach. These guests are aliens on vacation who enjoy dressing in disguise to explore the nearby town. Their imitations of “earth-speak” will keep you laughing. There’s trouble ahead as neighbor girl Amy starts to spy and her father, the Sheriff, wants to close the inn. When David takes some alien kids camping in the forest, it’s a comic delight with some bizarre consequences.

The Magnificent 12 is a new series by Michael Grant. It includes links to a website with online games. The first book, The Call, opens as 12-year-old Mack discovers that he is developing supernatural powers that come with a heavy price. Mack must travel around the world to find 12 other 12-year-olds who also have these powers. They must join together to become “the Magnifica” and battle an ancient evil that has arisen.  A wizard gives them some very cool tools: their own credit cards, iPhones, and access to a bank account (because saving the world can be very expensive).

13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison reveals the secrets of 13-year-old Tanya, who hides her ability to see into the dark and frightening fairy world. These are no Disney fairies—they can be anything from annoying to terrifying. When her mother sends her to spend a summer with her grandmother, she senses trouble in the creepy old house. A silver bracelet with 13 charms sparkles on the floor.  When Tanya places it on her wrist she meets the ghost of a girl who died over 50 years ago, and then her troubles really begin. 

It’s a world of magic spells at a school for young wizards in The Familiars by Adam Jay Epstein. The wizards-in-training use “familiars,” animal helpers gifted and skilled with magic. A street-smart stray cat named Aldwyn sneaks into the school. He pretends to know spells, but he really just wants some yummy meals. Aldwyn forms a trio with a blue jay and a tree frog. Together they survive quests and tests and battle an evil sorceress.

Get ready for an exciting time travel experience in The Last Phoenix by Linda Chapman. In this wonder-filled adventure, a family of four kids finds an ancient phoenix bird. Her fiery gold feathers are dull with age, but she is the last of her kind on earth. She desperately needs their help. People have stolen some of her magical feathers and her powers are drained. The kids must travel back through time to bring back some of the rare substances she needs to lay a mystical egg that will hatch in fire into a strong phoenix. Ancient Egypt, the wild rainforest of Peru, and a dangerous volcano in Argentina are some of the places where the kids must travel in this story of danger and magic.

You might never want to go near the ocean again after you read Kid vs. Squid by Greg Van Eekhout. Thatcher spends the summer before seventh grade helping at his uncle’s beach boardwalk “Museum of the Strange and Curious.” The museum has shrunken heads, preserved sea creatures, a mermaid mummy and a “What-Is-It?” floating in a tank of alcohol. It looks like a monkey’s head to Thatcher, but it turns out to be the head of a powerful witch. Thatcher and his friend use their detective skills to find clues about the head. They find that the curse that goes with it is still very much alive. Watch out for the mutant mer-people! 

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Heartfelt Historical Fiction for Kids

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool 

Do you remember the first time you read To Kill a Mockingbird? When you discovered how you could truly “feel” a book, becoming entangled in one child’s world of fear, imagination and reflections on the oddness of the adults around her? Moon Over Manifest, the 2010 Newbery Award winner, grabs hold the same way. Rich in empathy and experience, this book speaks to both children and adults. 

Twelve-year-old Abilene and her father Gideon have been riding the rails as hobos during the Depression. When Gideon finds summer work, he sends Abilene to tiny, dreary Manifest, Kansas, to stay with his old friend, Shady Howard. Pastor Shady is a failed alcoholic preacher, but he’s still a caring and loyal guardian to Abilene. With the summer stretching out before her, Abilene explores the town and finds it teeming with secrets. She discovers an old box of treasured mementos, letters and newspaper clippings. Some of the letters date back to 1917. Written by Ned Gillen to a man called “Jinx,” they talk of danger, bootlegging and racial tension in the town. The letters also warn that “THE RATTLER is watching.” Abilene does some detective work with the help of two local friends, and readers immediately savor the keen curiosity and outright bravery of this girl.

A fortune-telling diviner, Miss Sadie, lives nearby in a spooky house. Abilene courageously crosses through her twisted iron gate and enters the life of this suspicious recluse. Soon she hears Miss Sadie’s vivid tales of past times in this town torn by poverty and racial fears. It seems that Miss Sadie knows the mysterious characters from that box of letters. Slowly, she and Pastor Shady reveal as much to Abilene as they think she is ready to understand.

All of the adults in this book seem as tattered and damaged as the town, but their hearts are not closed. Abilene becomes a force that steers people towards the trust, understanding and gentle compassion that they have forgotten how to feel.   

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia 

It’s 1968 and eleven-year-old Delphine has only bits and pieces of memories of her mother, Cecile, who deserted the family seven years ago for California. Delphine’s father puts her and her two younger sisters on a plane to meet their mother. The girls bubble over with hopes of seeing Disneyland and movie stars in the California of their dreams. But they find a mother who is cool, distant and obsessed with her political work within the Black Panther Party.  It seems like they are surrounded by adults with secrets. The men in big Afro hairdos and black berets seem strange and disturbing at first, and the girls can’t figure out why they call Cecile “Sister Nzila.”  

Soon the girls are sent off to Black Panther day camp to be “re-educated.” One girl gets teased for bringing along her white doll. But in this “crazy summer” right after Black Power leader Huey Newton is jailed, the girls get caught up in the energy of this unrest and change. As the sisters begin to understand the turmoil, we see the idealism and hope of young African-Americans struggling to define their need for empowerment and their vision of the future. 

Each girl has a delightful and unique way of responding to these new ideas. The book sparkles with humor as the girls support each other and muddle through. Delphine’s courage and curiosity open up some of the mystery within her mother’s locked-up heart. This book was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award. It offers a rich combination of wit and empathy. It also sings forth with the spirit of the 1960s and recreates that time of vibrant changes.

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