Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki

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“I’d been beautiful. The past tense was like a shove to the chest.”

Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki was not quite what I expected. I was thinking it would be a simple Women’s Fiction read, something to pass the time on a beach. Instead I got fully developed, messy characters that I could relate to. I underlined like mad, I cringed, I ached… they are awkward and naive but strong and wise too, does that make sense? Do any of us make sense? Lady is a writer, a blocked one at that, separated from her fantastic husband Karl and she knows that makes her seem crazy. Who ‘takes a break’ from such a wonderful catch? Her past is always alive inside of her with her teenage son Seth, a mute that she shares secret ‘signing’ with. It’s their thing, at times it seems she feels Seth is her son and toddler Devin is more Karl’s. Devin is untouched by difficulties, he is wonderful and everything perfect. As the reader travels back to Lady’s time with Seth’s irresistible, feckless father Marco it is much like a trip through the painful romantic hope of youth. There is the blindness, the us against them (mainly Lady’s mother who knows, as age gives us that cruel insight, that Marco is not fit to be a father or a husband). Marco is that guy a young woman is hungry for, one that can set her world afire when it’s just the two of them and there are no demands on him,  he is perfect when he is the center of a woman’s life but isn’t the sort of man that can contribute nor father his offspring. Crushing reality washes over the lovers and Lady finds herself abandoned, she becomes a single mother because someone has to be the adult and there is no going back to her mother, making room for fate to step in  one day through Karl.

Karl is successful and wealthy with a twin sister Kit, a famous photographer who takes a series of photographs about ‘common’ women that creates a division between Kit and Lady. The relationship is complicated, as so many between women are but with a photograph of Lady, so much is said about her life before Karl and why there is resentment she feels towards Kit. Devin is the perfect child, where Seth is ‘flawed’ and I loved Seth’s character. Devin’s curiosity about how his big half-brother speaks (with his hands) is sweet. It’s about time an author writes about someone who is ‘different’ and yet has the normal desires and urges, who isn’t just a pity caricature of a real boy. Seth is simmering, he has been in the dark so long about his real father that there is a distance growing between he and Lady. Any mother with a child with any sort of disability can understand the consuming, sometimes suffocating mothering that is given to said child. A mother gets used to protecting, sometimes denying the son/daughter a chance to grow, to stand on their own and take the hard knocks life gives us all. It’s done out of love, but it also limits. It is a point of contention between Karl and Lady, as  Karl seems to be interfering.  Lady is blind to her son’s sexuality, it’s too easy to think because a person can’t communicate in the same way as others that they don’t feel nor need the same things. It’s dismissive, it’s infuriating but it happens all the time. Karl has always been hers, he was there through the rough times, before Karl, it was just mother and son trying to survive. I even felt, more than any lover, the closest thing to a soulmate she has is her eldest. It’s a familiar pain reading about Seth when he was young and his ‘difference’ was becoming evident the older he got. It’s a mass of conflicting emotions a parent feels, I know this too well, and Edan Lepucki approached the subject beautifully. I love this line. “There was a time when everything mattered to me, when life was grave, when I required that gravity to survive.”  It is such a strong statement but what follows is the gut punch for any parent.
“That visit to the pediatrician was where my memoir should have begun, for it was the first time an expert expressed concern, thus turning Seth into a specimen.”  It feels that way, it guts a parent to see their child treated as a specimen, examined for what’s ‘wrong’ so to speak. There is an innate protective viciousness that is born and is never quite put to rest, it is this animal that protects the child for life. It is also why it feels the world is out to get your baby. Most of us hate anyone pointing out our differences, but it’s brutally cruel when someone does it to your child (professionally or not).  Can we blame Lady for erasing Seth’s father? “Seth never cried over his dad’s subtle gesture of neglect, and neither did I.” 

And yet, this isn’t a sad story to make you pity Seth, he is a vibrantly, hungry young man that doesn’t need your pity! When S enters the scene, she may seem to be the catalyst but things were already bubbling below. S is such a fun, character- artistic and by wanting to create something meaningful after a failed attempt at another project she has decided to wear her mother as a coat. She will shed her former self (Esther Shapiro, the fool that loved a ‘better’ artist, Everett) and become more “HappyKathy”. She is eccentric and darling in her crazy projects. I think about her time in college surrounded by art students (I relate too well, my children are both studying the arts in college as I write this) and the attempts to distance themselves from the cookie cutter world. She’s so lost and yet burning with an intensity after-all, who comes up with the idea to be haunted by their living mother? “My mom blurts everything out.”  S is going to approach life as her mom, and this experiment is going to involve Lady and her entire family, unbeknownst to her. As she becomes a nanny for Lady, Seth and S take an interest in one another. They are all going to become entangled in each other, and when everything settles nothing will look the same.

This is a long winded review, I understand that, but the scope of this novel is so rich that I can’t even scratch the surface of what I felt and thought. I laughed, I blushed for the painful awkward moments (Lady and S are both awkward in their youth), I ached with the love and mistakes, and I understood the resentment Lady felt towards Kit. No one likes to be dismissed, no one enjoys being seen in messy detail (at their slum I guess you could say) particularly by someone whose life seems to have never verged in your own territory of poverty or struggle. That S is taking on her mother’s messy persona makes me laugh a bit, because it’s the same thing Lady is distancing herself from in the intimate photograph Kit took. Even when S’s parents came for her, I was laughing because S is such a complex young woman, that for her parents this isn’t so outside the norm. I read this a while ago and it’s still simmering inside of me. Woman No. 17 is a gorgeous novel. It won’t be published until May 2017. I could still go on about every character, but this review is becoming a novel. Add this to the top of your 2017 reading list now. I apologize for the long winded review, but the story affected me for personal reasons and not many books can do that.

Publication Date: May 9, 2017

Crown Publishing

Hogarth

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The Inkblots Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing by Damion Searls

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“In a twist of fate that seems too good to be true, Rorschach’s nickname in school was “Klex”, the German word for “inkblot”. Was young Blot Rorschach already tinkering with ink, his destiny foretold?” 

I remember one day in Kindergarten we took a blob of paint and created blotchy art work by folding the paper in half, most looked like moths or butterflies when we peeled open the paper. The first time I can recall mention of Ink Blots for psychological purposes, my mind went back to this day and the blots have forever interested me. What a strange way to invade the mind, and could this really tell you anything about a person’s psyche? Hit the internet, there are quizzes everywhere from the silly to serious telling you about yourself. As controversy entered the ink blots growth, I too am one of those people that wonders if  ‘  you  can really sum anyone up based on images, or questions?’ Really, as the reader sees in the book, if you live in another country can’t the images affect you differently simply because of one’s culture? The horrifying reality is tests can fail, as happened to a woman concerning the ink blots, that caused her child’s abuse to be dismissed. Used as a tool, it seems to have stood the test of time, but should we ever really rely on images or questions to determine court cases, should the findings be an absolute? The research stands, is it simply coincidence if most psychopaths see certain images and I happen to see the same thing or does it mean I have psychopathic tendencies? There is solid work and decades of research, and yet always that but pushes it’s way in.

This book focuses on the life of the Rorschach Test which outlived its creator. There are stories about the man himself and I was interested in his approach to patients. From the reading, Hermann appeared to be someone who truly wanted to heal the minds of the afflicted. There is controversy in everything that is meant to help or categorize, in anything that medicates, treats. The fact stands that nothing is full proof, but do we dismiss it altogether? The ink blot test morphed through the years as it changed hands, could that be the problem? Could the biggest problem  be that people  reviewing the test aren’t always qualified, trained to? That can be a fatal flaw. There was a time it held up, used by the military and in job hiring to weed out undesirable applicants, in trials, in abuse hearings… see it as you will, but it is an icon itself and not just in America. My thoughts are in the middle, I tend to believe that you can’t peg people that easily, I always think about what we say, what we don’t. My question is always, ‘How do you know the answers someone is giving are honest?” Sure, the counter argument is that deception is spotted by those trained to see it, and says a lot too. But can we ever really know? As with anything, it helped and it hindered. It is alive and well today and still has its uses. I enjoyed the history of Rorschach’s ink blot test’s birth and how it morphed into what it is today. Fascinating read that is well researched, I learned things I had never known about Hermann Rorschach and the ink blot test, the reasons why he chose the designs and color he did. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: February 21, 2017

Crown Publishing

History of Wolves: A Novel by Emily Fridlund

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“By their nature, it came to me, children were freaks. They believed impossible things to suit themselves, thought their fantasies were the center of the world. They were the best kind of quacks, if that’s what you wanted- pretenders who didn’t know they were pretending at all.”

In truth, adults can convince themselves of ridiculously impossible things as much as children. In History of Wolves, there is so much self-examination going on in the eyes of one observant teenage girl coming of age.I apologize if my review doesn’t stay on track, but I felt strange for days after reading this story. There isn’t a detail about people that Linda doesn’t witness and her communion with nature reminds me of the worship others feel for God. Once a child of a commune that others abandoned, Linda and her family are the remains of that past seen as ‘those people’ and strange by others. We know she is a misfit, of course she is! Anyone who comes from an unconventional family is going to be dismissed generally by others. With a carefree, hands off sort of parenting, Linda has always looked out for herself in ways other children can only imagine. When the exciting, hip new teacher Mr. Grierson enters her life she wonders what it is about beautiful, damaged Lily that pulls him so. There is something tender and sad about Linda’s obsessiveness over Lily, is there a seed of romantic crushing, is it a simple desire to be someone else by immersing herself in knowledge of her? As she shadows Lily, maybe even tries her  seductive ways on like a coat, you can’t help but remember when you too once were Linda at some point in life. As she hungers after Lily, in a sense, and finds herself desperate for Mr. Grierson’s attention the reader remembers the pain and confusion of youth. Mr. Grierson and the rumors that circle and soon consume everyone are wrapped in a haze of truths tangled in lies. But this isn’t a story just about seduction between teachers and students and it certainly isn’t a warning about child pornographers.

The marrow of the novel is time spent babysitting Paul for Patra, whom Linda watches at first- always watching others as outsiders often do. Patra’s husband Leo is much older and away- yet he is present still in conversations about his work, the brilliance of his beliefs and mind. While caring for the young Paul, Linda becomes a part of the family and finds herself with an unfamiliar feeling- happiness. But even with so much joy, the delight of young Paul, something feels eerie and off, there is something the reader can’t shake and we know the author is leading us off a cliff but when? Where? How? From the start we know Linda is an outsider, one who is equally hungry to fit in as she is repulsed by it in a strange sort of inner tug of war. Her affinity for nature has so much beauty, there is a certain quiet loner quality to those who see everything, who feel attuned to simply being. But even those at home in solitude crave communion with others, and that is so much what was missing before Patra and Paul came along. Linda’s feelings for Paul are similar to that of an older sibling, one who finds their kid brother to be adorable and obnoxious. Linda has bonded with other children in the past, during the times when the commune was still alive but never for long. Family, wherever it existed, seemed to come and go as much as childish whims. She is in awe of Patra, who seems far more educated and worldly than her. Paul is cocooned by the warm, adoring love of his mother- something Linda has never known, her life much more hardscrabble. With the mother and son,she has found a solid surrogate family until Leo comes along.

Leo is both master and God, in a sense. Patra bows to his beliefs and we all know that when one defers to another, it can be fatally tragic. It got me thinking about how all of us, in some twisted form or another defer to someone else. Yes, even the strongest of us – be it religion, lovers, family, friends or jobs… we defer and sometimes don’t even recognize that we are doing it. At the climax I thought, no… oh no! Our beliefs can obliterate everything we love, and we sometimes go into it blindly. What of the bystanders, how much blame is at their feet? Because we have all been bystanders, and we’ve ignored that gnawing in our gut that said ‘something isn’t right here.’ This is beautiful literary fiction that also raised my hackles , and it’s a strange combination to feel something sinking in your belly while your falling for the characters. The relationship between Paul and Linda is sweet,through caring for him she gets to be a kid bonding with a pesky little brother, shadowing a life she never got to lead in the commune where there wasn’t a true set of parents. This novel is strangely hypnotic, I began to understand Linda got sucked into everything that occurs with Paul, Patra and Leo. At the end, I was angry and conflicted- much as Linda will be.

What a strange story that asks a lot of us all. It made me think about beliefs the whole world over and how fatal and beautiful the things we stand and worship are. We close our eyes because of our beliefs as much as we embrace things. It’s a struggle between right and wrong, isn’t it. Not believing in anything doesn’t free us either. It really is human to err, that’s what I take. We screw things up even when we feel what we’re doing is right. Darn this book has my head sort of spinning. It’s certainly different. If you want something to talk about, to feel disturbed and hopeful both- this is for you. I loved it.

Publication Date: January 3, 2017

Grove Atlantic

Atlantic Monthly Press

Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories by Mariana Enríquez

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“I think about Adela every day. And if during the day her memory doesn’t visit me- her freckles and her yellow teeth, her blond, too-fine hair, the stump of her shoulder, her little suede boots- she comes to me at night in dreams.”

This a strange, eerie collection of stories. My favorite is Adela’s House because it’s the oddest of them all. While it is true there are similarities to the macabre stories of Shirley Jackson, I feel they have a taste of Joyce Carol Oates too. Mariana Enríquez’s characters aren’t pretty and if they once were, for some even a ‘fire’ has changed that. A strange house that children explore, mysterious dirty children, witches, a man obsessed with a murderer… from Adela’s House on the stories are dark- the first few stories are strange too, even when just writing about young intoxicated girls a bit jealous of their friend’s love for her boyfriend with the drunken spins in a van it comes off as quietly brutal, an unwanted husband in another. In Green Red Orange a young man suffers a different sort of disturbance, mental illness. It is heartbreaking, not just his shut in behavior but how it eats away at his loved ones. Will he come out of his room, is he still alive? The last sentence at the end says so very much, with so few words.

Things We Lost in the Fire, for which the collection is titled, made me smell  burning flesh. Immolation, horrific abuse, a strange feminism that overtakes burn victims,  there is twisted meaning in this story. My skin crawled thinking about it. This was a clever story, and the women are serious about the stand they decide to take, so to speak. These stories of Argentina start of a bit strange only to plunge the reader into creepy darkness. There is something off about every story, and I loved it. I look forward to a full novel by Mariana Enríquez, I find myself curious about her mind. How did she come up with such weird tales? This author is one to watch!

Publication Date: February 21, 2017

Crown Publishing, Hogarth

The Reminders by Val Emmich

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“There’s this idea of the phantom limb. A man who’s lost his arm still feels the arm and behaves as if the arm is intact. What I have, then, is a phantom love.”

Grief is a beast, an ugly snarling impulsive monster. When Gavin loses his beloved partner in a terrible tragedy he burns his home down. His ‘reminders’ hurt so bad, his love really is a phantom. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so shocking, how he acted out in grief if it wasn’t caught on video- not a good thing for an actor. Maybe LA isn’t the right place for him right now, maybe the only way out of this painful loss is to immerse himself in the true memories. This is where Joan Sully comes in, the daughter of his old friend, he just doesn’t know it yet.

Our memories are flawed, they never playback in our heads quite right. We exaggerate, omit, edit every second whether we mean to or not. For Joan, she couldn’t forget nor edit her memories if she wished to. Joan’s ability is to remember everything with perfect clarity, it has it’s ups and downs. A gift, a curse- depends on who you ask. To remember life in such exact measurement that you correct other’s stories (memories) can be annoying and beautiful. She holds the treasure of Sydney, remembering him in such a way no one else can that nearly brings him alive for heartbroken Gavin. For these details, Gavin is going to help Joan win her local songwriting contest. Joan’s reason for wanting to win is beyond beautiful, songwriter’s are not forgotten.

In a family where a child cannot forget, how devastating to have a loved one, a grandmother that cannot remember. People remember music, songs! When her grandmother started disappearing through Alzheimer’s it set off a fear that one day she too can be forgotten by anyone. She knows others remember wrong, and through her grandmother witnessed the devastation of true ‘forgetting’, even forgetting oneself. Music will be her saving grace, no one forgets famous singers! Even in the depths of disease, people can hum to songs! Songs are catchy, moving, they make us feel things. We don’t forget songs.

The Reminders is beautiful for anyone, and sometimes you just need a heartfelt story. Our loved ones live on in the hearts of those left behind but so much is lost, we don’t all have Joan’s ability. We don’t remember every detail of our time spent with them, just a kaleidoscope of moments that branded themselves into our minds. We can’t even remember the scenery as perfectly as we wish.  It’s a story about moving on as well as remembering. It’s never enough, there is never closure, not really. When we slowly come too, lifted out of the fog of mourning, we understand things better and sometimes it takes another to help us see clearly all the things we were oblivious to.

A beautiful story for the summer. Add this to your list of books to read in 2017.

Public Release Date: May 30, 2017

Little, Brown and Company

 

Forever is the Worst Long Time by Camille Pagán

 

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“I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between  the shadow and the soul.”- Pablo Neruda

What better person to quote than Neruda? Love can be brutal, disastrous, dangerous, shocking, slow.. yes, you all get the point, but love can also contain a seed of destiny. Why do people come together as they do, even if it means betrayal? Why do we fall for people, especially those ‘forbidden’ and why do we still feel driven to cross so many lines? These are age old questions that we will likely never answer.  James Hernandez is an author who is blocked, he falls into a passion filled stupor for Louisa “Lou” Bell, the perfect woman for him who just happens to be his dear childhood friend Rob’s beloved. It’s not lost on the reader that such a tangle would make for a wonderful story for Hernandez to write, instead he lives it. Lou marries Rob and when complications arise in their relationship James may finally have a chance to explore his feelings. But it’s never that simple, there will be shame, guilt, hunger and regrets. But it’s not at all what you think, it’s really not the story formula we have all seen before.

Camille Pagán finds a way to tie James and Louisa together beyond their conflicting emotions and struggles. These are messy folks, and it goes beyond the love difficulties. Family here is beautiful and painful and I cannot write about what happens without spoiling the story. Sometimes we hurt the ones we love, our hearts and desires are greedy, we cling to an ideal about those we love and about ourselves that causes so much blindness. We are all in our own way to some degree, but regardless of our plans fate rings us out and hangs us out to dry where it will. The love in this story that hit me most is not the romantic bits, not at all. Were the characters all confused, directionless, depressed- sure.  But it’s where the end led me that made the novel lovely, and I am not one for weepy stories that can become movies on the channels we women deny watching. Oh how I wish I could reveal more. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: February 7, 2017

Lake Union Publishing

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley: A Novel by Hannah Tinti

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“Love isn’t about keeping promises. It’s about knowing someone better than anyone else. I’m the only one who knows him. I’m the only one who ever will.”

There are beautiful sentences aplenty in this gorgeous novel that I highlighted, but the one above hit me. How can you love someone if you don’t know them inside and out, their tame side and their animal nature. We throw the word love around and don’t mean it, not really. We love people when they are good and easy to love, and what love is more honest and pure than love parents have for their children and children for their parents? Samuel Hawley is a bad man,  or is he a man cornered into poor choices? Certainly the bullet wounds and scars all over his body tell a tale, and his gun toting habits, his raised hunches every day of their life together has to have a hell of a history? No one is this cagey, this watchful for any smell of danger without some rotten past. But Hawley is a father who wants to do right by his now teenage daughter Loo. Loo herself is full of fight and fire, she is different, a born outcast and coming of age as a sort of drifter until her father brings her back to her mother’s hometown has been natural to her. The death of her mother is something she has never been able to truly understand and any digging disturbs her father but with the pictures he carries to set up in shrines in the bathroom wherever they land, with his reluctance to love another woman she knows her parent’s love had to have been grand. Just a baby when her mother died, there are no memories beyond fading snippets of handwriting he has kept on slips of paper and fading old photographs.

Once they arrive back in Olympus, Massachusetts (her mother’s hometown) people who knew her mother, the beautiful Lily, give her bits and pieces  simply in the telling of what she was like. Loo encounters bullying, and her rage brings unwanted attention to both she and her father, but also an unraveling about the truth to her mother’s death and her father’s questionable past that has followed them like a shadow her entire life.

This novel is hard to review because it comes off like a shoot them up story, it is and it isn’t. It is about a father’s love, deep and abiding, for his child and it is also about our natures. Hawley wasn’t born into an easy life, nor did he have many options or support. Loo’s mother, Lily has a seed in her that can’t be confined to a small town and needs to find soil elsewhere. When Lily and Samuel Hawley’s meet in a twist of fate, their love is immediate and doomed, and yet Loo is the real gift of love, the true destiny of her father’s heart.

Every character is beautifully alive, and Loo has her own love story, as much as her violence. She is a tough character that the reader will love, because who hasn’t been on the outside? Who hasn’t been fully unaware of the truth of those we love, alive and dead? Coming of age without the softness of a mother’s guidance, moving around so often that you never develop a bond with your peers because to them you are always a stranger, being smacked with the truth by your deceased mother’s family and friends and trying to understand your place on this planet; our Loo has the whole world on her shoulders. At the center of this madly spinning, confusing existence though, is a father whose love is animal and pure. I could smell and feel everything in this story. I winced, I ached and I burned with curiosity. I read this novel in one night, sleep deprived and smelling blood, fish… it’s very atmospheric.

I am not supposed to be drawn to Hawley, right? But, as we are plunged into his past actions and the love story between Loo’s mother Lily and Samuel (Tinti beautifully places the past in the right spots, never did I feel irritated by going from past to present) a compassion takes root. It’s so easy to judge isn’t it, from a distance many times removed from such struggle, never knowing the terrifying orphaned feeling of being in a world where there is no one to guide,  to shelter, to love you. This is the sort of novel that fires off so many conflicting emotions. Life, life is never black and white- not truly.

This is more than a story about the love between a father and his daughter. It is also about self-exploration, the terrible fight to know who we are as we come of age and how to find our place in the world, because there is no one set path, the truth is- there is no normal family. People do bad things, but are still capable of tremendous love for another. Wonderful! Gushing, I am gushing away. Add this to your New Year reading list for 2017!

Publication Date: March 28, 2017

Random House  Publishing Group

Dial Press