Oh Mother Where Art Thou?

I always enjoy the little surprises that books can provide. Recently, I finished a fantastic book while on vacation. It followed a young man haunted by the disappearance of his mother, grappling with adulthood, identity, and a tumultuous, changing world. It was the kind of book that stays with you, suppressing any desire to begin something new. I needed a book for the rest of my trip but had no idea what I wanted. Luckily I was visiting two friends with strong opinions and great taste. They clued me in to another incredible novel, this one about a young man haunted by the disappearance of his mother, grappling with adulthood, identity, and….you guessed it, a tumultuous, changing world.

Despite this coincidence, these books both feature rich, nuanced characters in very different circumstances. It was a pleasure to stumble into their lives one-after-the-other, and to have the opportunity to discover the links between them as their stories unfolded.

51ru-JNuaDLIn Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Deming Guo is introduced as a boy living with his mother and her boyfriend in the Bronx. Deming’s life is far from perfect- his family has little money, he struggles in school, and he argues with his mother. But they love each other fiercely and seem to have an unbreakable bond. This makes it all the harder when Deming’s mother suddenly disappears without explanation, leaving him shattered and alone. Eventually Deming is put in foster care then adopted by a well-meaning but aloof white couple who take him to live upstate and, hoping to help him fit in, change his name to Daniel.

The narrative follows Deming both as a child, coming to terms with his mother’s disappearance and his strange new life, and as Daniel, a recent college dropout desperate to make a name for himself among the ultra-cool of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. As Daniel’s life begins to unravel, the narrative also expands to include the story of his mother, how she came to America, and the real reason she disappeared from Daniel’s life.

The Leavers is a painful but redemptive story of family, immigration, assimilation, and identity. Ko methodically reveals Daniel’s and his mother’s stories, bringing careful attention to their struggles, their triumphs, and their flaws. Daniel repeatedly finds himself on the outside looking in. In upstate New York he feels too Chinese; among New York City’s hipsters, he feels like an impostor from upstate. When he finally visits China, he feels conspicuously and inescapably American. Ko’s narrative may be at its strongest when Daniel is puzzling through his questions about identity, but through Daniel’s birth mother’s story, Ko also deftly brings attention to the cruelty and inhumanity of America’s militarized immigration enforcement system.

saleemhaddad-guapaOn its face, Guapa, by Saleem Haddad, is a very different kind of story. Guapa follows a young man named Rasa who lives in an unnamed Arab country during and after the Arab Spring. Like Daniel, Rasa struggles to escape his memories of his mother, who disappeared when he was a child. Rasa is also facing a crisis point. His grandmother just discovered him in bed with his boyfriend, who is also about to get married. To a woman. Rasa struggles to salvage this romance while keeping his identity under wraps in a society where knowledge of his sexuality is a legitimate danger to his life.

As Rasa struggles through a truly terrible day, his story shifts through time revealing details of his childhood and the circumstances that led his mother to abandon him, his years as a college student in New York where he struggled to explore his sexuality and not be pigeonholed because of his ethnicity, and his traumatic days protesting during a period of revolutionary unrest in his homeland. Haddad also explores generational conflict in the Arab world. Rasa is one of many young people determined to change their country, but frustrated at every turn by a mix of oppression, extremism, and bureaucracy. On a personal level, Rasa struggles to understand his grandmother’s adherence to traditional values, particularly the idea of shame.

As Rasa’s day lurches towards decisive confrontations with the two largest figures in his life, his grandmother and his boyfriend, he contends with his own past, his country’s future, and the nagging fear that he may not have a place in the world around him. Rasa is a compelling character who seems caught in impossible circumstances, with the oppressive constraints of identity, expectations, and cultural norms bearing down on him with heart-wrenching weight.

I wish that Rasa’s New York could bleed into Daniel’s and the two could meet. While they come from very different circumstances, and want different things from their lives, they are both linked by the vacuum left behind when their mothers disappeared. Daniel might understand Rasa’s despair as he navigates his queerness and Arabness in a hostile homeland. And Rasa might understand the way that Daniel feels stretched as he tries to shed his Chinese heritage to please his adoptive parents while remaining desperate to reconnect with his mother and her roots. I, for one, felt lucky to discover these two young men and get lost in the murky, tumultuous years of their youths.

Heartwood 8:4 – People in the Room by Norah Lange

Norah Lange’s short novel, People in the Room is told from the perspective of an unnamed seventeen-year-old girl living with her family in Buenos Aires in the early part of the twentieth-century. The reader senses in the early pages that this is an imaginative narrator eager to escape the stultifying experiences of her family life. She’s afforded an escape of sorts when a lightning storm suddenly brings together the flash of the girl’s reflection in a mirror with her awareness of three women seen through the sheer curtains of their drawing room in the house across the street. This initiates in the girl a sustained obsession with spying on the three women over a period of weeks.

Very little happens – the women seem to always be at home, sitting in the same chairs and doing little more than lifting a cigarette or glass of wine to their lips – but there is palpable tension in the protagonist’s account of what she observes and imagines regarding the women, and she eventually intervenes in their lives by intercepting a telegram addressed to them and is soon paying them daily visits. Some of the more unusual and enigmatic scenes include: the narrator hearing her own voice come from one of the three women who is speaking to a clerk at the post office; watching through the window as a mysterious stranger arrives at the women’s house and is handed a package (presumably of letters) by the eldest only to immediately transfer it to the youngest; and the narrator’s panic when she wakes to a passing funeral procession for three neighborhood children who had died in a house fire, and mistakenly assumes the caskets contain the bodies of the three women.

The narrator at times is quick to assign fault or blame to the women, claiming they didn’t deserve this or that, and she also vacillates between feelings of intense love for them and wanting to see them dead, or imagining them as criminals, as wayward, or as having something to hide. She makes statements that imply she holds a certain agency over the women; that it is her imagination and inventiveness that gives them their lives, gauzy and understated though they are. Particular objects (such as a spider, or a blue dress) can trigger a kind of associative transfer in which the objects take on importance beyond themselves, or are charged with evocative power – for example, causing the narrator to think of faded letters, or instilling in her the urge to travel in the dining car of a train. There are also scenes and expressions of loneliness, anxiety, forebodings of something tragic, and talk of the slit wrists of suicides.

Finally, there is something like a psychic blending or assimilation of the three women who are “collected” and combined with the world of the narrator, as can be seen in this passage in which her mostly inattentive family notices how she has changed: ““It must be her age” others would whisper, while the three faces settled into my own, becoming accustomed to strange conversations, forever leaving their mark on my seventeenth winter.”

Lange has indicated that she started writing this novel after seeing a reproduction of a portrait of the Brontë sisters painted by their brother Branwell, who originally included himself in the portrait but later painted himself out (though leaving a ghostly trace). Given this inspiration, People in the Room could be considered a very imaginative, extended, and daring work of ekphrasis, and it’s interesting to see the protagonist also frequently referring to the three women as lifeless sculptures, or portraits, or even eerie ceramic dolls.

People in the Room, first published in 1950, appears to be the first English language translation of a work by Norah Lange, an Argentine author who was related to Jorge Luis Borges and was influenced by him and other ultraísta writers and poets with whom she associated in Buenos Aires. Readers, however, may well find the influence of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw at least as evident in this atmospheric tale that to some degree resembles an oneiric, gothic, ghost story.

But let’s not limit by comparison a work as captivating, unsettling, and poetic as this. Readers of English will want to discover this long-neglected novel, and we are fortunate now to have access to it in this nuanced translation by Charlotte Whittle.

One Word

The reading challenger for October is an intriguing one: read a book with a one-word title. There are so many choices. You could go classic (1984, Emma, Nostromo), popular (Outlander, Allegiant, Twilight), by color (Blue, Green, Grey) or throw caution to the wind and just plug in a word in the catalog and see what comes up. For my selection, I went with a book that has been generating some positive reviews lately: Florida by Lauren Groff. Luckily, I was not disappointed by my choice. Read on to find out why.

While the short stories in this collection aren’t connected plot wise, there is one place at the center of all of them: a fevered, humid, beautiful and dangerous imagining of the Sunshine State. Even in the few stories that aren’t actually set there, Florida is always in the mix, lurking in the background. In addition to setting, many of the characters in these stories are dealing with an unfocused anger produced by living in a world they see as being on the verge of collapse and not being able to do a thing about it.

But it is Groff’s ability to set a scene and her use of language that really steals the show. Take this quote from the story ‘Ghosts and Empties’:

The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one. We have few streetlights, and those I pass under make my shadow frolic; it lags behind me, gallops to my feet, gambols on ahead. The only other illumination is from the windows in the houses I pass and the moon that orders me to look up, look up! Feral cats dart underfoot, bird-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.

Just as intriguing are the stories she tells. All are gems but here are four that you definitely shouldn’t miss:

‘Dogs go Wolf’ is the tale of two young girls apparently forgotten in a cabin on a small Florida island. Their efforts to survive are harrowing, but the real danger arrives when the adults come back.

‘Eyewall’ depicts a woman who stubbornly decides to ride out a hurricane alone. The conditions outside do not inspire fear in her but rather trigger thoughts of her past life that begin to blend with the present.

‘Above and Below’ chronicles a young woman who decides to quit college and survive free from any attachments. Without realizing it, she begins to fall farther and farther down the socio-economic ladder until deprivation feels normal.

‘At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners’ follows a young boy from his youth to middle age with a particular emphasis on the troubled relationship he has with his tyrannical herpetologist father. His attempts to distance himself just draw him further in.

While there are many single worded titles to choose from to fulfill the reading challenge for this month, why not give Florida a chance. If you do, you will be introduced to an intriguing cast of characters and a memorable setting. All without having to shell out for airfare or applying copious amounts of mosquito repellent.

Down in Savage Land

It’s a universal truth that we can pick on our siblings and tease them mercilessly. In my case, my oldest brother used to chase me around the house wearing this hideous chicken mask with neon green curls. Can you guess what I might have talked about during a few therapy sessions in my 30s?

But God help anyone outside the family who teases or threatens our siblings in anyway. I’m the baby of the family with two older brothers. This means that in the span of one day I could have my brother sit down on me and fart and then he would get off the school bus before me so he could go toe to toe with a bully who’d been making noise about pushing me around.

That’s what siblings do.

In Sadie by Courtney Summers, there’s nothing Sadie won’t do for her little sister Mattie and that includes seeking revenge on the man who killed her.

Radio personality West McCray, who airs a wildly popular crime podcast, gets a telephone call from a stranger begging him to help find 19 year old runaway Sadie Hunter. West contends there are girls who runaway all the time. There’s no mystery there. Until the stranger tells him Sadie has runaway to seek revenge on the man who killed her 13 year old sister Mattie. West’s boss is convinced there is a story there and sends West off on the hunt to find the truth.

A year before, 13 year old Mattie’s body was found savagely mutilated next to an abandoned schoolhouse being eaten by fire. Someone had tried to destroy his handy work by setting the school ablaze; no doubt hoping it would incinerate any evidence on Mattie’s body along with the school.

Sadie has been like a zombie for the last year, going through the motions of living. Their mother is an addict who disappeared a few years ago and Sadie has brought up her little sister almost single-handedly with the help of a surrogate grandmother/neighbor May Beth. She’s the woman who called West McCray and said, “I can’t take another dead girl.”

When Sadie’s mother was around, flying high on pills or nearly comatose with alcohol, there would usually be a man around the house, one she picked up at a bar.  Some were harmless. Others tipped the creepy scales. But one man in particular was evil incarnate. Sadie didn’t realize just how predatory the man was or how far his monstrous ways reached until she began to hunt him.

Told in alternating transcripts of McCray’s podcast and Sadie’s own story of tracking the killer down, Sadie is not your average revenge tale. It’s not even about right and wrong or being alone in the world and having absolutely nothing to keep you here. It’s about the love between siblings and a life on hold until the job of revenge can be completed.

They say revenge is a dish best served cold. But what they (whoever they are) don’t know is that revenge is a white-hot agonizing fire coursing through you, a fire that can only be doused and even then it smolders and lingers like a tire fire. Sadie will feed your need for close siblings, vengeance, and the downfall of the evil that men do.

Treasure! Pirates! Danger! Giant Squid!

I would never in a million years do this: dive to the depths of the ocean in search of shipwrecks; then, once found, weave through the wreckage to find clues as to why it sunk. I’ve seen enough stuff on TV and in the movies to know it’s no picnic under the waves. And when things go wrong, they go horribly wrong. Plus, there are all those giant squid watching you with their bowling-ball sized eyes. I know this from Discovery Channel specials I should never have watched.

Luckily, someone else has done all the diving, researching and dodging giant squid for me while searching for a long-lost pirate ship, the Golden Fleece. And Robert Kurson has written all about it in Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship in which he chronicles the treasure hunt by diving superstars John Mattera and John Chatterton.

Mattera and Chatterton scuttle their plans for a major dive after they are contacted by a world-renown and very successful treasure hunter (we’ll call him Mr. Smarty-pants) who is obsessed with finding the lost ship of John Bannister, pirate extraordinaire. The divers will get a cut of what they find, but there is a short window of opportunity to find it. The Dominican Republic is on the verge of signing the UNESCO international treaty that would put a stop to private shipwreck hunting in their waters.

The Golden Fleece is the holy grail of pirate shipwrecks. It sunk in June of 1686 when Bannister and his crew fought a two-day battle with two British warships. England had been embarrassed many times by Bannister and they were determined to put an end to his pirate shenanigans. But Bannister wasn’t captured and the Royal Navy ships limped back to England, further adding to Bannister’s swashbuckling reputation.

The only thing is, the two divers agree to search only where Mr. Smarty-pants says the shipwreck of the Golden Fleece must be. So, with their state of the art equipment and two other experts on board, they comb the waters off the white sandy beaches of Cayo Levantado for months and months and months. They start running out of time and money and realize they’re never going to find the wreckage if they continue to do what Mr. Smarty-pants tells them to do. Mattera decides to strikes out on his own and uncovers clues that point in another direction. He finds these clues IN A LIBRARY(!!) and they are able to pinpoint where the wreckage lies.

This is a choppy but satisfying ride of a book. You don’t have to be a good swimmer to enjoy it and you may even find yourself holding your breath in a couple of places. And those giant squid? Turns out, they’re only in the really, really deep ocean. Can you blame me for reading between the bubbles?

The Teenage Brain is a Frightening Place

School’s back! I guess I’m at a funny age. I’m old enough to fool myself into thinking I miss the excitement of a new school year, but I’m also young enough to remember all of the terror, uncertainty, and anxiety that I experienced throughout middle and high school. Because of my job, I’m also fortunate to spend a lot of time with tweens and teens, both in the library and when I visit schools, and I am constantly amazed at how many teens seem so much more articulate, organized, and driven than I feel now, let alone compared to my own teenage years. I guess all of this is to say, WOW the adolescent years can be weird!

61x0HVYEP9L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Noah Oakman, the 16-year-old narrator of David Arnold’s The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotikseems to understand this fact better than most. Noah certainly has his quirks: inspired by his favorite poets and philosophers, Noah has taken to wearing the same outfit every day, what his friends refer to as his “navy bowies” (navy pants and a David Bowie shirt). It’s not just that Noah likes these clothes. He also appreciates that they allow him to avoid wasting time and energy deciding what to wear. Noah also tends to get lost in his own thoughts and has peculiar obsessions which include an old man he sees walking the same route each day, a strange yet wonderful YouTube video, and a photo dropped by a local rock star. These are a few of Noah’s titular strange fascinations.

Outside of his unique interests, Noah leads a fairly normal life. He has loving parents, two great friends, seems just popular enough to float by in high school, and is a good enough swimmer to garner some serious scholarship interest from colleges. But Noah is also supremely stressed out. His senior year is beginning bringing with it the end of an era for him and his two long-time friends. He doesn’t fully understand his little sister and worries how she will fit in with those around her. And despite being a good swimmer, he secretly loathes the sport and has no idea how to tell those around him. Rather than confront this final problem he is faking a back injury, a lie that seems to be leading him into an ever-deepening hole of deceit.

All of these stresses are wearing Noah down, which is why he finds himself drinking far too much at an end of summer party and following home a strange young man who promises to help him “exit the robot.” When Noah wakes the next morning, everything seems to have changed: his DC obsessed friend now only reads Marvel comics; his mother has an old scar on her face that was not there the day before; his old, useless, and mute dog has regained its youth and its shrill yap. Noah does not understand what has happened and fears for his sanity. As he tries to gain some level of comprehension, he discovers that his fascinations seem to be the one constant between his old life and new. He hopes that understanding the connections between these fixations might be the key to a return to normalcy or at least the closest thing he has ever known to that.

Though at times Noah is a bit pretentious, perhaps even mopey, I found it easy to root for him. He is a bundle of anxiety and self-doubt and genuinely seems to struggle to understand the value he offers to those around him. Arnold has shown in his previous work that he has a keen understanding of the teenage years and the impact that the strange mix of social pressure, ennui, feelings of isolation, and turbulent emotions can have on a developing brain and this latest work is no different. It is as odd and disorienting as it is genuine and warm-hearted. If you’re looking for a strange trip through a teen-aged mind, buckle up and grab The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik.

Northland

Of the many great things about visiting the library, one of my favorites is being able to browse the collection. You can throw caution to the wind and select a title based on whimsical things like the look of a cover, an interesting title or even the number of pages. Blame it on the whole ‘being a librarian thing’ but I usually like to do a bit of research on a title before borrowing it. Every so often, however, I succumb and just can’t resist a title I see while out in the stacks. Happily, a recent impulse borrow introduced me to a really great book.

Northland: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border by Porter Fox initially drew me in with its interesting cover. The fact that I’m also a sucker for borders, weird I know, and partial to the northern climes, sealed the deal.

The basis of the book is Fox’s three year journey traveling along the U.S. and Canadian border from Maine to Washington. But this work isn’t a simple travelogue (even though the characters and incidents he encounters would be worth reading about on their own). Instead, the author intersperses his travel experiences with the surprisingly contentious history of the border as well as contemporary issues unique to each northern region that he visits. In this way, Fox brings out a lot of intriguing and vital facts about this often forgotten border that you may not know:

12 % of Americans live 100 miles from the border, 90% of Canadians do.

A 2010 Congressional Research services report stated that U.S. Customs and Border Protection maintains “operational control” over just 69 miles of the 3,987 mile border.

The border cuts the Akwesasne Mohawk Indian reservation, Niagara Falls and the Haskell Free Library and Opera House in two.

In the end, however, the human element is what makes this book so worthwhile. Whether visiting with lodge owners in Maine, bulk carrier captains on the Great Lakes, fishing guides and adventurers in Northern Minnesota, members of the Sioux nation protesting the XL TransCanada pipeline in North Dakota, or the leader of a ‘constitutional militia’ in Idaho, Fox captures the unique feel of sharing a border and the experiences of those living in the Northlands.