How to Pronounce Knife: Stories by Souvankham Thammavongsa

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They’d had to begin all over again, as if the life they had before didn’t count. 

In these stories Souvankham Thammavongsa allows the reader into the painful and sometimes humorous lives of immigrants. In some situations it is better to tell no one where you’re from, what language you speak so you are not judged. It is in rebirth that the future lies, and for children of immigrants there are often humiliations they don’t quite comprehend yet innately understand they must try to protect their parents from. My attention was grabbed from the first story where a little girl comes home with a note pinned to her chest (how well I remember the importance of such notes when I was a kid), notes that for this child have no meaning for the mother and lead to misunderstandings. Bigger humiliation visits this child when she brings home a book to read for practice and the parents attempt to help her understand a word. There is tender pride sometimes in misunderstandings. I couldn’t help but feel a connection with my father’s own youth when reading about the little girl in the first story. The memories he has of how it felt to be on the outside, trying to understand the American way of life, it is so much more than language but that is by far the hardest obstacle. She had my heart!

In Paris, Red is stuck in the chicken plant thinking about the shapes of women’s noses, and ‘the things that could make you happy’, but such happiness is available only to those who make enough money to attain it. Certainly a chicken plucker never could! In her town, there isn’t much a woman can do beyond chickens or shaking their own tail feathers, so to speak. This story is an exploration on what is beauty, dependent on where you are, naturally.

Age has its hungers in Slingshot, as a much older woman proves wrinkles aren’t in one’s heart, only the face. In another tale a mother has a runaway fantasy about a celebrity that causes her daughter and husband to lose their glimmer, she suffers from the disease of hopeless devotion in one form or another. A husband in The School Bus Driver finds his wife’s boss a little too helpful and present in their marriage. Disbelieving “people form this kind of friendship in this country,” he isn’t just a jealous man nor a fool! In Mani Pedi, former boxer Raymond used to knock people out in the ring but now works at a nail salon, realizing he ‘wasn’t the only person who’d ever lost the place he saw for himself in the world’. It isn’t only Raymond who is warned to keep his dreams small. In many stories there is an ache for more. There are young children driving through a neighborhood with their parents wishing to live in the bigger homes that come into view, unfamiliar with the strange customs, like trick- or-treating yet game to try to join in the door to door fun. In a heavy tale a mother impresses upon her daughter that she feels lucky earning money picking worms having been born in a peasant family who had no money for educating their children. It is through these slimy creatures and her ability to fill cups with many squirmers that she can hope for a better future for her daughter. Characters try to make their own place in the world, like Mr. Vong with his print shop, priding himself on the reputation of his deft skills with wedding invitations made in the Lao language. A keen eye, too, he has in the success or failure of relationships, but how will that play out in his own family?

Every story made the characters vulnerable, it is a visit in the lives immigrants make for themselves and often with next to nothing. There is beauty and heartbreak, shame, struggle, humor, love and resentment too. Beautifully written. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: April 21, 2020

Little, Brown and Company

The Girl with the Louding Voice: A Novel by Abi Daré

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But I don’t want to born anything now. How will a girl like me born childrens? Why I fill up the world with sad childrens that are not having a chance to go to school? Why make the world to be one big, sad, silent place because all the childrens not having a voice?

Adunni’s mother once told her that an education is the only way for a Nigerian girl to have a ‘louding voice’. Without an education, a woman cannot speak up for herself, will never be able to support a life of her own, nor have any say at all in what happens to her body, mind and soul. After the worst day of Adunni’s life, schooling is a long forgotten dream and all hopes die. It is after a tragic loss that her father demands Adunni be a dutiful daughter and become a third wife to a much older man, the taxi driver Morufu. This is the only way she can save her family when her father cannot afford the rent anymore, bad enough he couldn’t afford to let her continue her education, but a threat looms and he could lose the roof over their heads. As a daughter, her bride-price will be enough to pay the community rent so that her brother Kayus and father won’t be kicked out. But in forcing Adunni, only fourteen years old, to marry an old fool- he is breaking a promise to her mother. She must do as she’s told, never in a million years would she see her father and little brother homeless, hungry.

Just like that she is married off and slaving away as a third wife, hated by the first, Labake. Her welcome isn’t warm, it is a cold threat, “When I finish with you in this house, you will curse the day your mother born you…”  To first wife, Adunni is a husband snatcher, there to birth him children and try to replace her. What good is a woman if she isn’t fertile? Yet, this isn’t the worst of what Adunni will suffer through. She will do her time in Morufu’s house, where he is king to long suffering women who provide him with useless daughters. She learns fast just what it means for a man to have the devil inside of him. Obey, or there will be beatings. If she runs away, then what will that mean for her family who are now well fed? Her husband is, after-all, considered a rich man in his village- who else has two cars?

Running away isn’t necessarily the road to salvation. A girl with nothing is reliant on the kindness of strangers and too easily fooled into situations as bad as the ones she escaped from. Ignorance and youth make it impossible to navigate the brutality of those who would use it to their advantage. It is a crime to run, therefore what other choice is there than to bow your head in respect, work your fingers to the bone and endure, endure all manner of abuse, endure others taking their cut from your servitude? If the man of the house comes sniffing around, you do your best to hide. Sexual advances are the least she has to fear! Sometimes it is the women who are the biggest monsters. Take your beatings, do your duty even though it will never be good enough, even though the woman of the house will take her heartbreak out on you.

Through her suffering, Adunni also uncovers the horrible stories of the girls who have walked this exact path before her. Despite the violence, Adunni remains steadfast that she must do everything in her power to find her louding voice. This requires outwitting those who have all the power, and pushing herself despite her exhaustion, fear, and the constant reminder that she is nothing and never will be. She mustn’t believe what the others tell her, that it’s best to accept her station in life and stop her flights of fancy, imaging she could ever be more than a workhorse for others. She must remember her mothers dream for her, and use her words as a guiding light in these darkest of times.

This novel is painful because it sheds light on what is happening in other countries. Girls are trafficked and forced into modern day slavery, a female child a commodity when one can’t afford to feed their other children, especially the male children. Daughters are sold to afford a better life for everyone else, and this is modern times! We take for granted the luxury of an education at it’s most elementary level. We fear having the opportunity to send our children to college, imagine not having the money for basic schooling. In this novel, Morufu’s hunger for an heir exposes how women are always the ‘curse’, the ‘failure’. His first wife’s animosity is a matter of her being ‘not right in the head’, to Morufu’s way of thinking, yet what drove her to rage, madness? Imagine the demands, the crushing weight of the pain all three wives endure, all because of old beliefs. A devil inside of him, indeed.

There is hope for Adunni through a sisterhood bond but other girls aren’t so lucky. It’s eye opening. It is a relief to know the freedoms of the Western World and yet trafficking of human beings happens here too so I am not getting on some high horse. Village life in Nigeria for Adunni is certainly not like our modern ways and superstitions still run rampant. Sacrificing goats in the hopes of birthing a son, killed for loving someone who was forced to marry another, marrying girls to old men so they can use their burgeoning fertility and have sons… it can feel like the dark ages, yet it is reality for many. Disposable girls, buried futures… but Adunni may just find her voice!

Publication Date: February 4, 2020

Penguin Group

Dutton

 

 

 

Shuggie Bain: A Novel by Douglas Stuart

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He felt something was wrong. Something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was. It was just different, and so it was just wrong. 

Drinking and Drugs as escape during a time when people are out of work and downtrodden happens in any country. In this moving novel, Shuggie Bain comes of age during the 1980’s in Glasgow, Scotland. “Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work”, which is bad enough but with a taxi driver father loose with infidelities and a mother sick of living a crammed existence at her parents, who gets angry ‘with littered promises of better things’ , the future doesn’t look good for their children (Catherine, Leek and Shuggie). Agnes Bain enjoys the taste of drink as much as she loves attention from men, envy from women. She wants a better life, even if it means beautifying herself while women in the same circumstances as her laugh at her, or feel insanely terrified she’ll steal their men. She had fun once, before life meant struggle, poverty. The past was full of carefree dancing but those times are over.

Born with bad teeth, she was so sure dentures would glam her smile like the movie stars in Hollywood. She is beautiful but doomed by her drinking, and her constant hunger for more.  Shug senior is nothing but a selfish animal, but something about him made her hunger for him so much she left her first marriage for him, despite him being a Protestant and she, a Catholic. A steady husband didn’t give her the thrill a woman of her beauty deserved! Ending up back at her parents is not the life she had in mind, there is nothing dazzling about a handsome husband rutting with the women he drives on the job. When he promises a fresh start, instead they land in the ‘plainest, unhappiest looking homes’. The neighbor women don’t like her nor her fancy airs. Worse, Shug senior has made other plans for himself, and off he goes, blaming it on her weakness for drink, her refusal to give it up for love of him. Her vices cost her children more than just their image within the community, there is no money to stretch, nothing to eat. She isn’t adverse to pawning even her son Leek’s work tools!

As Agnes unravels, her children feel the worst of it but none more than her youngest, Shuggie. Without proper care and supervision his belly often goes empty, his ‘otherness’ making him a target for the other kids torture before he even knows what he is. In fact, adults even understand his sexuality better than him, in one horrifying moment he loses innocence, looking for his mother. His brother and sister both have different plans to escape this hellish life. Shuggie remains steadfast in his devotion to his mother, despite her humiliations and the added abuse he gets from adults and children alike for her actions. All manner of degradation enters his life too, and poverty isn’t just an aside in this story. It is ever present and suffocating. The story begins with Shuggie in a tenement, doing all he can just to survive, to feed and house himself despite his youth. Still striving, despite life never having given him one solitary gift, blessing. Maybe this strength is one inheritance he got from his mother Agnes, who even at her lowest went on with her head held high, kept going despite all the blows she received. You should hate her, you really should, but instead you just feel immense pity.

How does a child hold his own, with a mother who is always embarrassing herself and a father who is absent, uncaring, off making other families? Not every child can cling to the sinking ship, oldest sister Catherine has her own secret life with one Donald Jnr ‘away from their disintegrating mother’. But Leek was the one who wants to disappear the most! Leek, too, has too much to bear with his real father, who also ‘disappeared’ in his own way, or was pushed away. Whose to say? Leek is too young too feel so tired, so old trying to learn at the YTS site with the hopes of making a living, when in truth it is his art that is the only thing that can make him drop his shoulders in relaxation. So tired of his drunk mother and her poor decisions. Feeling abandoned too by his sister Catherine, in her new life abroad, he has nothing, no one. He can’t stay back and care for his sloppy mother nor his little brother, he too is striving for a different life. Living with Agnes is like doing time.

It is Shuggie who is her constant companion, and as the years rush on, each time he has faith she will quit drinking she fails, the dream collapses and not even fresh love can save her. Don’t expect salvation nor happy endings, this is based in the real world, not fantasy. Struggle makes you stronger, but you don’t magically get liberated from poverty with wishes and prayers. Shuggie is a survivor, and nothing in his life is easy but he just might make a friend along the way.

A heart-wrenching read that makes your problems seem flimsy. It’s not a glimpse at poverty and addiction, it is an extended stay and beautifully written despite the miseries visited upon the characters.

Publication Date: February 21, 2020

Grove Atlantic

 

Misconduct of the Heart: A Novel by Cordelia Strube

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Nobody could hurt me because there was nothing left to destroy, which is why I relate to my traumatized son. In bed at night stuff comes back, just like it comes back to Pierce in his night visions- atrocities he can’t forget.

Stevie manages Chappy’s, a Corporate owned small chain restaurant placing ridiculous demands on the staff. The ‘restructuring’ of the kitchen is a mean feat for Stevie considering the non-English speaking workers, for staff who is now forced to ‘weigh’ the portions they serve, and cheap cuts that cause life threatening incidents like the accident that befalls one of Stevie’s cooks, Jesús. Her boss threatens her to ‘keep a closer eye on her staff’ or else he’ll tell Corporate, but how is she to make any of them listen when as a woman they just don’t seem to follow her instructions? With all these hassles and rules biting at her heels at work, her mission to keep the kitchen running and the staff on the job is like walking through fire. Home isn’t any better, her veteran son Pierce has come home from Afghanistan with more than a dusty cough. Suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, he assaults Stevie when his soldier’s hyper-vigilance kicks in and the body takes over.  During war, it was necessary to keep him alive, “back home he’s just nuts”.

Stevie is a recovering alcoholic who knows all too well about PTSD, but the sort of war she struggles with is homegrown and one that far too many females have the misfortune of being veterans of. Her strained relationship with her son began long before he left for service and has nothing to do with their difference of opinions about politics. Her past feels like a cancer, one that has poisoned the well of maternal tenderness. Giving birth to Pierce when she was still in high school, there are secrets she has had to maintain his entire life, painful truths that would devastate Pierce and change how he sees himself. Alcohol was her escape,  most of his childhood and upbringing was spent under the care of his grandparents Reggie and Peggy while Stevie spent years screwing up.

Reggie and Peggy are mentally declining in old age, lost in irrational thoughts. It would be funny if it wasn’t so damn sad, particularly when Peggy becomes jealous of the Filipino nurse Ducky, who is caring for frail Reggie. Mild Peggy, who spent the entirety of her marriage silent, bottling up any anger, jealousy and suspicion is now bursting with fury as her mind deteriorates. Stevie’s son isn’t the only one who goes on the attack, there is still fight left in the old gal who wants to keep that hussy away from her man, her daddy! Stevie couldn’t cope without Ducky’s nursing of her father, bad enough he and her mother may well burn down their home. Losing them to death, shameful as it is for Stevie to admit, would be a sweet relief from this madness. Her creative writing classes would be the perfect place for therapeutic release from the torment she has kept inside for so long, but that requires an honesty she isn’t ready for.

When Stevie takes an interest in fellow worker, Slovakian busboy Gyorgi, she may just make a connection and allow herself to be vulnerable. Which is a good thing as one day visiting her parents she finds “a little girl in purple sunglasses” on her parents front porch. A note informs Stevie the little girl is Trudy and may well be her own son’s child! Which means, she is a grandma! What will be born out of this new complication? Does Stevie have any love to give? Why can’t she feel the same ease Gyorgi has around children? What about Pierce, still as distant as the sun, where is he in all of this?

Stevie is bitter but enlightenment dawns on the reader as soon as the past unfolds. Her youth was stunted, it was easier to wear the mark of shame than seek help for what really happened. Life just gets away from some people, as the years collect. It was a good book but it’s hard to warm up to Stevie. She is prickly, but can you blame her? I just felt so terrible for her son, you can’t give a child his youth back anymore than she can reclaim her own innocence. This is a book about how the consequences of one moment can change the entire lives of one family, keeping them from making emotional ties. How trauma numbs a person inside and out; a parasite that feeds on a person’s soul. It shows how for many veterans war doesn’t end when they return home, and is a look into what can happen to those who fall through the cracks.

Publication Date: April 21, 2020

ECW Press

Heart of Junk: A Novel by Luke Geddes

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A collection was a record of a life lived, maybe not well or happily but at least with attention and passion. It was an autobiography made tangible.

The Heart of America Antique Mall in the city of Wichita, Kansas is going under. For the impassioned collectors of what to others may be junk, this has been the one place they can display and sell the collectibles that are their lifeblood. They themselves are a collection of misfits, as strange and unique as the knickknacks they push on customers.  Delores, a Barbie doll aficionado, communicates with her collection of rare dolls, abstaining from all of life’s pleasures for her betterment. Poor old widower and avid postcard collector Ronald finds himself stumbling, bumbling into quite a pickle without his wife to keep him in line. Lee, A middle aged man, is back in his childhood home with his partner Seymour in tow; they are the ‘fresh blood’ for the dying business, trying to peddle the ‘detritus’ of their life, the leftovers from their own failed vintage shop in Cambridge. Might the strain of this last stop place be too much for their dying relationship to handle?

Ellie feels like a caged animal, trapped working at her parent’s business since she was 13 and now likely for an extended stint thanks to her mother. Ellie wants nothing more than to spend her days trying to blank out her surroundings, dreaming of abandoning it all. This is not the future she desires, it is worse than death, so much so that she longs to be like the abducted beauty pageant toddler Lindy Bobo, at least something happened in her life. Bobo, whose face is on flyers, is soon discovered to have a strange connection to the very mall Ellie hates. The local child star’s disappearance is creating a ripple effect that may ruin Ellie’s dad’s plans for revival of the mall.

Keith, Ellie’s father and owner of The Heart of America is sure salvation will come in the form of the popular antiques show Pickin’ Fortunes. They just need the attention, and who better than the presenters Mark and Grant to shine a light on the place? But will the media attention of the missing child spoil his plans? Margaret Byrd spends her time feeling superior to the others, unlike the rest of the sellers, her things are treasures and the place is going to the dogs, now that ‘the gays’ have begun to sell pop junk in her friend’s former booth!She knows their things are certainly not antiques and will only put shoppers off!  Pete Dean is the Dealer Association President, toy collector and hoarder, because of course this loud mouth isn’t serious about what he sells- but he always seems to know how to hook people, Delores especially.

Each of the characters in this novel are unraveling. The story has a slow beginning and then, out of nowhere, the most comical, ridiculous nonsense leads to serious trouble. Even the most uptight of them loses her grip on whatever semblance of control she had. They are disasters, and their future seems more doomed then poor little Lindy’s. Just how will it all end? In a tangle, of course!

A funny read about neurotic people.

Publication Date: April 1, 2020

Simon & Schuster

 

This Won’t End Well by Camille Pagán

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In reality, I’ve been expecting the best in spite of all evidence to the contrary- including an unshakable feeling that my so-called fiancé  would not be coming home tomorrow as he claimed.

Annie Mercer and her fiancé  (French teacher) Jon suddenly no longer seem to be on the same page about their future. Her important work as a chemist has ‘derailed’ after an incident involving her heinous boss Todd (who is way too hands on) , her best friend Leesa thinks every disaster can be cured with rose quartz and essential oil, products Leesa is peddling with serious ‘entrepreneurial spirit’, and Jon has abandoned her for Paris, informing her he needs space from everyone. This space encompasses her the most. Living with her mother seemed like the best thing a loving daughter could do, especially knowing her engagement has given her mom something to live for, pulled her out of her funk. It is also a chance for Annie to figure out her next move. Now, the hunger in her mother’s eyes to see Annie married is too much to bear, especially with Jon running off. Annie is resolved to keep new people out of her life, but her mother’s new neighbor gives her something to distract her, a brief escape from the disaster that is her own life. Cleaning houses for the neighbors is a welcome break from residue anger about what happened in her former work, the perfect way to make money while she maintains her ‘vow of interpersonal abstinence’. Where is the harm in watching a young life blooming?

The new neighbor is Harper, gliding through life on heels and for Annie, ‘watching her makes me feel like life could be easier’,  the shame though is Annie’s great brain never ceases to be thinking, chewing on all her problems. If only she could be as carefree. She has had enough drama, particularly the soap opera her own relationship with absent Jon has become. Jon, who won’t even reply to her emails, how is she supposed to have faith he will come back in time for their wedding date, looming awfully close now, when he has gone silent on her? Better to spend her time watching Harper, only to discover someone else is watching the intriguing beauty too. This someone is Mo, the suspicious ‘twenty-something Middle Eastern man’ that has raised alarm for the online neighborhood community. Mo, who catches her spying on Harper. Mo, however, has a purpose in his snooping, after-all it is his job as a private investigator to watch people. As the two get to know each other, he offers her the chance to work alongside him. Why not? It could be fun.

It isn’t long before she is breaking her vow to keep people out. Her relationship with Jon is going through some type of metamorphosis, as he is acting out of character. She knows he loves her, but with all this changing, are they still right for one another? Will the pull of Paris put too much strain on their love? Can she compare to the charms Paris has for her Francophile beloved? Will her best friend ever stop sipping the essential oil Koolaid (because surely it isn’t Annie who is the problem) long enough so Annie can find comfort and support? Is living with her mother truly just a ‘temporary arrangement’? Should she be enjoying herself this much working alongside Mo?  Will she ever confront what happened at the lab, so that she can free herself to make career choices? Will she get on a plane and meet Jon in Paris, when he is back in contact and desperate for her to come and see for herself why he is having a hard time leaving? She might just love France as much as him! Imagine the possibilities!

Annie is in her own way, and it’s fun. You should hate Jon, because is it really necessary to go cold turkey in your relationship because you’re having a ‘France loving crisis’, but he is too mild to offend. Annie is a handful, and of course she can be self-centered in the way so many of us are, the star of our own life and all that, but she makes for a funny little novel. She doesn’t have anything figured out, retiring from her problems seems like the answer, but the fastest way to find yourself a target for more drama is a self-imposed sabbatical from the school of life. She has some serious self-reflection on the horizon, and it’s not just about her love life. Despite her refusal to open herself to new relationships, Mo and Harper may well be the catalyst she needs to get her life back on track, but where it will lead is up in the air.

A fun, fast paced read about sexual harassment, love, career, friendship, family and snooping. It may end well, despite evidence to the contrary.

Publication Date: February 25, 2020

Lake Union Publishing

 

The Regrets: A Novel by Amy Bonnaffons

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“You’re insufficiently dead,” he said.

“I’m what?”

“Insufficiently dead. You lack rupture with your life. You have no exit narrative.”

This is a playful story about being dead and being alive. It’s just a state, really. Thomas Barrett has been trapped in nothingness due to some… mistake. He is insufficiently dead according to his visit to ‘the office’ and for the time being will exist in a state most will never have the chance to experience. Returned to earth with the living for a window of three months, he has rules that if he doesn’t follow will incur ‘regrets’. He’s best to forget the heaviness of his other life, and just enjoy his time in the new one, as much as a person who doesn’t actually exist can. He must learn to let go of the past, the old life, that is for all intents and purposes extinguished.

Thomas first notices the girl at a coffee shop, captivated by her. He decides a ‘harmless crush from afar’ won’t incur regrets, nor harm anyone. Something about the girl with her dark hair, glasses, how she “doled out her attention” pulls him in. Unbeknownst to him, she doesn’t fully exist either, but her error is loneliness and not death.  The reader is introduced to Rachel who first notices Thomas at the bus stop, who seems to have some strange energy about him and, she notices, wears the same outfit every single day. Free of romantic entanglements for a year, she works as a reference librarian enjoying the fantasy of love and how it should be more than it’s actual crushing reality.  A daydreamer, who has ‘fallen in love with her own dreams’, the object of her fantasy is now the electric man at the bus stop. Catching sight of him fuels her desire that seems to ‘encompass the world’. Will it last? Or will her bubble burst? Despite her best efforts to ignore her wild attraction, a meeting takes place and so begins one strange romance between a man and woman who compliment one another in an impossible love story.

There is so much about himself he must keep hidden and not for the usual reasons men remain mum. He truly is not at liberty to tell her, but when his body begins to betray him revelations are impossible to avoid. Being with Rachel feeds the wish for Thomas to be more present, but it is a race against time. Rachel herself seems to be disappearing more in Thomas who is much like a daydream and nightmares haunt her sleep… love as mystery. But what will become of Rachel, is it possible she too could be on some strange edge of existence?

I enjoyed this novel, it’s a romance but the life vs death theme, the exploration of individual separateness and all that entails, made it a bit more meaty. Thomas may be insufficiently dead, but is Rachel insufficiently alive? Are many of us?  Delightful.

Publication Date: February 4, 2020

Little, Brown and Company