Heartwood 10:1 – Lives & Deaths

Two brief reviews of small books that are well-worth your time.

Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives contains twenty-two short biography-like accounts of lives that, in life-like fashion, are all rounded out in death. Schwob focuses on a variety of historical figures, such as Empedocles, Herostratus, Lucretius, Petronius, Pocahontas, Paolo Uccello, and Captain Kidd. He also includes stories of the associates of famous people: Cecco Angiolieri (wannabe poet rival of Dante), Nicolas Loyseleur (deceiver of Joan of Arc), Major Stede Bonnet (romanticizer of piracy, who crosses paths with Blackbeard), and actor Gabriel Spenser (falling under the sword of Ben Jonson), to name a few.

I relished these tales (each about a half-dozen pages) reading one or two at a time, savoring their richness, and marveling at Schwob’s way of capturing character in resonant details. Though I’m incapable of reading the original French, it appears that Chris Clarke has done an excellent translation – the attention to word choice is notable and his awareness of Schwob’s sources (usually unattributed) speaks to his deep knowledge of the author’s personal interests and reading history.  The Wikipedia page for this book provides links to the (real) characters that have Wikipedia entries.

The main narrative thread of Valérie Mréjen’s very brief book, Black Forest, involves a daughter’s lifelong reflections and speculations about her mother and the day she died of an overdose while she, the daughter, was at the hairdressers. But this unfolding account is frequently interrupted by extremely compressed descriptions of the various deaths of other individuals – a woman who chokes to death while laughing at a joke while dining; an overweight man whose body blocks the bathroom door and prevents his girlfriend from assisting him when he has a heart attack; a man who is thrown from his motorcycle and lands alive and intact in a wheat field only to be mowed down by a truck as he returns to the road; a woman whose baby drowns in the bathtub when she steps away to answer the telephone. It is not always easy to tell when these transitions are occurring, and this is partly due to the main storyline being told variously in first- and third-person voices, but also by the distance achieved by the careful diction – a finely rendered tone and immediacy that is open and honest, personable but free of sentimentality. The language is so fine, in fact, that the reader would never guess that this is a translation. A gem.

Did You Know? (Mosquito Edition)

Mosquitos are more prone to bite someone who just ate a banana?

Also, mosquitos carrying malaria are more likely to be drawn to sweet tastes. I found this out from the book Why do Pandas do Handstands by August Brown on page 41.

Wicked Bugs by Amy Stewart tells us that malaria has killed more people than all wars combined. Tests performed on mosquitoes found in amber from 30 million years ago have found they were already infected with malaria, so this disease predates humans.

We have a children’s music CD titled Wiggle Town that has a song called “Mosquito.” It is quite a catchy tune, the refrain goes “buzz, buzz, stick me, OW!” At least you won’t actually get bit listening to it!

Sometimes, things are even named mosquito. At the dawn of the 20th century, a man working in an office overlooking Elliot Bay saw the myriad of boats serving Puget Sound and said the activity looked like “a swarm of mosquitoes.” The name stuck, and thus, the ‘Mosquito Fleet’ was born. There were steamboats, launches, sternwheelers, sidewheelers, tow boats, passenger boats and boats with propellers or boilers along with many others. Mosquito Fleet of South Puget Sound by Jean Cammon Findlay and Robin Paterson is full of pictures of some of the vessels from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

If you are going to take your chances of getting mosquito bites by eating a banana, you may as well get some banana leaves too. You can make a scented leaf basket with dried banana (or other) leaves with the directions in Organic Crafts: 75 Earth-Friendly Art Activities by Kimberly Monaghan. Another fun leaf craft is to make ‘great green leaf prints’ by pounding them onto cloth. You can find the directions to do this in Berry Smudges and Leaf Prints by Ellen B. Senisi.

And lastly, you can make a soccer ball from banana leaves like Deo, a young boy in a refugee camp in Tanzania, whose family was forced to leave their home in the inspiring story The Banana-Leaf Ball by Katie Smith Milway.

Short But Not So Sweet

I’ve always had a soft spot for short stories. Maybe it is my limited attention span or perhaps wanting to feel I’ve accomplished something quickly, but there is always a short story collection or two on my reading list. In addition to brevity, I’m also drawn to fiction that is odd, introspective, and, might as well admit it, a tad dark at times.

So be warned, if you want to invest in characters for 800 pagers or more and need a happy ending, the titles I’m about to recommend are probably not for you. If you don’t mind visiting the dark side now and again, however, here are three collections that are well worth your limited reading time. I will be brief. Promise.

…and Other Disasters by Malka Older is a surprisingly unified work for a collection of stories, a poem or two and a few written fragments. All are brought together by their subject: a speculative future that seems both plausible and frightening. You will learn about a child implanted with a recording device, a Lifebrarian, from birth, receive advice from voting ‘counselors’ who scientifically measure who you should vote for and why, and get inside the head of an artificial intelligence that is taught to feel in order to make better decisions. While the ideas are big, all the stories are told from an individual and personal perspective. This makes them all the more affecting, and chilling.

Quirky, at times surreal and always a bit odd, the stories making up Raised in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction by Chuck Klosterman are many things, but never dull. How odd you ask? Well there is the story of a man who finds a puma in an airplane lavatory, a couple considering a medical procedure that transfers the pain of childbirth to the man, and a high school football team that only executes one play repeatedly every game. All the stories are told in a plain and matter of fact style, with the characters accepting the weirdness as perfectly natural. If you give this unique collection a try, you might come to accept the altered reality as well and will definitely have a good chuckle or two in the bargain.

The darkest of the three titles, Rag: Stories by Maryse Meijer is a powerful, intimate and deeply unsettling collection. The writing is sparse and direct, but the author has an uncanny ability to convey her characters’ inner thoughts and struggles. Whether you want to be in that headspace is another matter. I won’t give away any of the plots, but each story deals with ideas of gender, violence and the roles we are assigned and what we do with them. While there are elements of horror, or perhaps dark fairy tales, in these stories, they come off as all too real. This adds to their impact and is a credit to Meijer’s unique and affecting style. This is an unforgettable collection, just remember: you have been warned.

 

Tayari Jones coming to Everett

This weekend, there is an outstanding library sponsored event that we here at A Reading Life had to let you know about. This Saturday, February 15th, Tayari Jones will be at the Everett Performing Arts Center starting at 7 pm to talk about her award wining novel, An American Marriage.

This novel is a moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young couple. Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are standing on the threshold of the American dream when Roy is arrested and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, and their lives implode.

In addition to a great plot, An American Marriage has received much praise and many accolades. It was named a notable book by The New York Times and The Washington Post and was awarded the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Aspen Words Prize, and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Fiction. It has been published in over 20 countries, with more than 700,000 copies in print domestically. It was selected as a 2018 Oprah  Book Club pick, a summer reading list pick by Barack Obama, and one Bill Gates’ top five books of 2019.

So join us this weekend for an excellent and thought provoking program. No registration is required and copies of the book will be available for sale and signing following the presentation.

Gonna Wait ‘Til the Midnight Hour

Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour begins with a doctor visiting a beauty of a Victorian house in the Garden District of New Orleans. Two elderly sisters have asked a doctor to see to their youngest sister who has been in a catatonic state for years. The doctor often sees a man standing on the porch with the catatonic woman and when the doctor asks who the man is, both sisters deny the existence of a man visiting with their sibling.

The doctor doesn’t think much of their denial. It is, after all, New Orleans where wealthy people don’t even try to act like every day normal humans. But the doctor knows he saw the man being tenderly attentive to the woman locked within herself. When the man attacks the doctor, the physician believes he’s lost his own mind. Because the man wasn’t there when he attacked the doctor. There was no physical form to the doctor’s attacker. Shaken and having escaped the house, he realizes the only explanation that makes sense is that he was attacked by a spirit.

The Mayfair’s are an old money family with a not so secret history of being called a family of witches. Rowan Mayfair has been kept from the New Orleans Mayfairs and was raised by another family member in San Francisco with the knowledge of who her birth mother is: the woman languishing on the porch of the grand painted Lady house in New Orleans. Rowan is a brilliant neurosurgeon with an odd talent of being able to heal a sick patient along with the power to destroy a life. Her mother’s death in New Orleans sends her back to her birthplace where she begins to learn about the family she’s been estranged from for her entire life.

Michael Curry was born in New Orleans but left for San Francisco many years before to become a popular architect whose talent is restoring old Victorian homes. Michael dreams of the houses of his childhood in New Orleans and longs to return. One day Michael drowns in San Francisco bay only to be brought back to life by Rowan who found him while sailing. A side effect of coming back from the dead is Michael’s clairvoyance, a very unwanted new skill. He can touch any object and see its past. Rowan and Michael fall in love (as two people usually do when brought back from death) and Michael travels to New Orleans with Rowan.

Aaron Lightner is a scholar with a shadow group known as the Talamasca who study strange happenings. He has followed the Mayfair family for centuries and calls them “the Mayfair witches.” He has also seen the ghostly man on the porch and knows what it is – not human and not exactly a ghost – and that it means danger to those outside the family. The not human man has a plan for Rowan, and nothing can stop it from getting what it wants.

This hugely sprawling novel spans centuries of the Mayfair witches along with the guardian man who attaches itself to the stronger females in the family. Will Rowan be the family member to break the thing’s hold or will she too become seduced by it and its ancient history?

Ah, now I remember why I never posted about this book. I can’t fit all the details in from this 976 page saga of a family of witches and the being who is passed down to them like hand me down jeans. The Witching Hour may be ridiculously long, but it doesn’t read as a long novel. It doesn’t feel like you’re slogging through a dense forest of words. Instead, The Witching Hour plays out like a rich theatrical release and the credits roll before you’re ready for them.

If you get into Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour and want more, don’t worry. She has written a series of books featuring the Mayfair Witches and at one point the books have a crossover between the Mayfairs and the vampires from Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. So enjoy, take frequent breaks, make yourself a snack and keep reading as the Mayfair world unfolds like some kind of night blooming flower.

Wild and Crooked

There is something suffocating about Samsboro, Kentucky, the setting of Leah Thomas’ riveting Wild and Crooked. This might be a fact of life in a small-town, where everyone knows one another’s business and old secrets have a way of resurfacing at the worst of times. But Samsboro has never fully escaped the shroud left by a terrible crime that rocked the town nearly two decades earlier. And while the community can’t seem to shake this terrible murder, they also refuse to face it, leaving Samsboro a powder keg primed and ready to blow. 

910f-d-0anLOf course, this affects different people in different ways. Though Kalyn Spence has only recently moved to Samsboro, she is already desperate for refuge from the claustrophobic, insular town. But Kalyn can’t run from her name. It’s her Spence blood, she figures, that makes her allergic to rules, fuels her impulsive anger, and keeps her friendless. It’s also the Spence name that brands her as “trailer trash,” and as the daughter of the man who killed the town’s golden boy. Though her father has never denied committing this crime, Kalyn is convinced that he is not nearly as monstrous as the town paints him. But she also knows that the Spence name will haunt her as long as she bears it in Samsboro. So when she begins school, she tries on a new name and a new persona and though the fit is imperfect, she can’t argue with the results – in place of dirty looks and cruel whispers, she finds popularity and acceptance. 

Gus Peake has his own small-town problems. He has a lot to offer, from his wry wit and eclectic fashion sense to his kindness and compassion. Yet when the people of Samsboro look at him they only see two things: 1) Gus is disabled – he has Cerebral Palsy, which has affected his physical abilities as well as his speech and 2) Gus is the son of the aforementioned golden boy, who was murdered before Gus was even born. Because of these two facts, most people pity Gus instead of appreciating the many things he has to offer. And then he meets Rose Poplawski, a new girl at school who puts up a phony front, but also seems to see the real Gus and recognize his value. 

Of course, there is a small problem. Rose Poplawski is really Kalyn Spence and her father killed Gus’s father. This fact should be the wedge that ends their friendship. But Kalyn and Gus are equally frustrated by the people around them and are both determined to find out what really happened between their fathers, even if it means tearing the town apart to uncover the truth.  

As a compelling story of friendship and an enjoyable mystery, The Wild and Crooked is surely a success. I tore through this book and while the resolution didn’t contain any bombshell revelations, it had enough minor twists to remain satisfying. It was a pleasure to switch back and forth between Gus and Kalyn’s voices. They are both lovingly developed and fully formed characters and it was a joy to watch their friendship develop. In many ways, it was refreshing to read a book that hit many of the beats of a romance but focused instead on platonic love. I also appreciate the LGBTQ+ representation in this novel. Even in a small town with plenty of prejudice, we see queer teens, queer adults, and identities that extent beyond the gay/straight binary (albeit subtly).

And yet, I find myself conflicted about this novel as a whole. I’m frustrated by the lack of diverse racial and ethnic representation among not just the main characters in this novel, but really all of those that participate in the book’s main plot lines. While Thomas created an interesting and complicated community, it is also an overwhelmingly white community and I am disappointed that she missed the opportunity to discuss the ways racial prejudice might manifest in such a town. 

I am also uncomfortable with the portrayal of Gus’s best friend, Phil. Phil is not as central a character as Kalyn or Gus, but his actions often drive the plot of the novel. It seems that Thomas went back and forth on how to characterize Phil. Early in the book, she hinted that he might be on the autism spectrum, before establishing that he was “tested…and fell short of the spectrum.” And yet, Thomas gave Phil some of the behaviors that are often negatively and falsely ascribed to people on the spectrum, including a lack of emotions and physically violent outbursts. I was disappointed that she would even passingly connect neurodiversity and these harmful stereotypes. Eventually, Thomas revealed that Phil has antisocial personality disorder, but the explanation for his social struggles and the suggested trauma that causes them to feel vague and unscientific. 

Wild and Crooked was great fun, with moments that provoked thought and encouraged self-reflection. It was also deeply frustrating, with moments that missed the mark and made me uncomfortable in the wrong ways. It all left me wondering – would I recommend this book to a reader? I think I would, but only when I have the time or space to voice my concerns.

Spot-Lit for February 2020

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

All On-Order Fiction | 2020 Debuts