Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami, Lucy North (Translator)

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“Maybe the only reason I kept searching for her was because I began searching for her.”

Night chews on all of us at some point in time, and of course with these  phantasmagorical metamorphoses the reader can take it as it is or read more meaning into every moment. There is a reason Schrödinger’s Cat (from the first story) hung out in the the dark closet of my mind for a while. “How could anyone endure such a state, of having someone there and not there- not there and there- at the same time?”  It’s more than physics, isn’t it? People really can be there and not there, and endure it we do. As for the quote, why does she keep searching for the girl? Why do we do anything? Why don’t we stop?

I fancy writing that loses some people, it’s an art-form. Sometimes it seems writers try too hard to pen something incredibly outlandish, but Kawakami isn’t just throwing strange happenings your way without reason. Or maybe I just decipher the hallucinatory elements in such stories to satisfy my own fancies. Whether our narrator is gathering pieces of a girl,  losing her own flesh, witnessing terrifying transformations helpless to stop them, or running in fear- the first story is eerily entertaining.

The other stories in the collection are just as bizarre. In Missing, family members are ‘spirited away’, simply disappear. When Brother no 1 vanishes, Brother 2 steps in to marry Hiroko. There is Goshiki, family heirloom, ceramic jar inhabited by a speaking spirit that vanishes first. Brother no 1 isn’t really gone, not far from his beloved Hiroko, which may be why she is shrinking. People vanish and are forgotten in this peculiar family of “living pillars”. Hiroko tries to fit in, but in her own sense she is vanishing just as our narrator is expanding. Why is she expanding exactly, what does her brother have to do with that, hmmmm?

In the third, A Snake Stepped On, when a woman steps on a snake, it tells her, “You know, once you’ve stepped on me, it’s all over.” In a puff of smoke it becomes a human being, a woman in her fifties and she is heading to the young woman, Miss Sanada’s, apartment! The snake claims to be her mother, of course she isn’t, but just what is she exactly? The snake wants to lure her to the snake world, but what does the snake really represent? What is the ‘innocent little act’ the snake claims she is putting on? Some have married snakes, she learns. She wants to deny the snake world, but it’s not so easy. A struggle ensues.

A strange book indeed, wildly entertaining if you’re into stories that confuse you as much as your own fractured dreams, the strangest dreams, naturally.

Publication Date: December 5, 2017

Pushkin Press

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November/December Buzz Books Monthly by Publishers Lunch

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I know we bloggers get our hands on these all the time, but I always like to support the Publishers Lunch and write about what ‘reads’ I’m longing to be fed over the upcoming months.

Under the forthcoming list, not samples
I read Janet Fitch’s forthcoming novel The Revolution of Marina M. I can’t wait to review it, if you have an interest in the Russian Revolution it’s perfect for you.

Elizabeth Berg’s The Story of Arthur Truluv sounds promising.

I don’t often read young adult fiction but I enjoyed Hilary Reyl’s novel Lessons in French, her latest about a boy in France living on the autism spectrum interests me. I can be picky about such novels though as my own son is on the spectrum, so I can’t bare anything written as if read from a textbook, where the character isn’t real. I haven’t requested the arc, but it’s on my to read pile.

One of the books I’m really interested in reading is The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak. It’s said to be The Help meets Dead Man Walking and from the excerpt sample, I’ve already been moved.
Donna Everhart’s forthcoming novel The Road to Bittersweet has been on my radar for months. I absolutely devoured and loved The Education of Dixie Dupree.
Decent reads on the way for November/December My TBR pile is enormous! Happy Day

The First Day: A Novel by Phil Harrison

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I had, as I said, told her who I was, but in every story there are gaps, and I’d been careful enough, or cowardly enough, to leave out some of the darker ingredients.

The sins of the father shadow the sons, twisting every possibility of the future. What begins as a forbidden affair between 38 year old Pastor, Samuel Orr, married  father of three boys and 26 year old Beckett scholar, Anna Stuart becomes an evolution of tragedy. The first half is full of passion, and where one would expect Samuel to repent for his ‘sins’, instead his shameless love for Anna is like a religion itself. Anna is ‘flooded by Sam’, seduced by his words. When she becomes pregnant, he must come clean to his wife and children and find a way to bring his two families together, remain steadfast in his devotion to Christ while well aware of his hypocrisy. Fate isn’t done with him, and soon tragedy strikes, forcing his hand with his flock. Staunch in his belief and his desires, that refusal to hide who he is and instead acceptance of his ‘punishment,’ so to speak, by retreating from his work as a pastor, sours something vital in his eldest son’s soul.

The tragedy is for the children to bear, and for who do you weep? Which fruit? The innocent child born into a game of revenge or the eldest son, tormented by the consequences of his father’s indiscretion? What I expected was a story I’ve read before, the old struggle of faith over sinful lust. This is not that novel at all! This is not your usual ‘step family’ makes or breaks it. As much as Samuel loves to speak in scripture, his words can never be loaded with enough salvation to repair the rift in his children’s universe. When the newly formed family decides to come together, it seems Philip draws closer to the infant, and later, to Anna. It’s hard to see what is real when you’re so close. Samuel turns distant and cold, becomes an absence, wants Anna and baby Sam to leave. Philip’s resentment is a planted seed, growing until he is near bursting. One moment alone, between Philip and his little brother Sam, is the start of a great divide full of disappearances and fractured memories. Never will they know how life could have been before the cruelty.

Fast forward to the future, Sam is now living in New York City working in an art Museum, Anna isn’t so much a main character in the second half, more flirting on the edge of her son’s life.  He seems to have broken free of them all, trying to find out who he really is when he isn’t under the wings of his mother and her close friend, but still haunted by the past. His father Samuel has his own failing health to contend with and struggling with his memories, Sam is unsure and full of insecurities, but longs to anchor to something safe. Where is Philip? The threat of violence is alive in Sam’s mind, always, a scar a reminder of what hate can give birth too. More than anything, this novel is a mind game, and surprisingly you’re never sure what will happen. I had compassion for each character and understood the violence growing below the surface. Samuel will frustrate readers, just when things have a chance to begin anew, he retreats and we are left in the dark with Anna and their child.  In his beliefs, he is also selfish, what a refreshing freedom-at the cost of so many.

It’s a strange read, and I actually felt the ending was perfect, because it isn’t tidy and neat. This is one interesting book, the family a complete wreck. When Philip appears in Sam’s life again, the reader knows it’s a portend but of what? We live in fear beside Sam and long for a confrontation, for something, anything! Some of us suffer with the hatred we harbor, and others are the target, through no fault of our own, just the happenstance of our birth. How different we are, how much the same. I was uneasy through much of the novel, but I like stories that shake me. It’s strange for a book to be quiet and destructive at the same time, and it is. I know every reader is going to be reading a completely different book here. It’s sad, horrific, tender, and always frustrating! How did they get here? How could desire cause so much destruction? It was different too that it’s the father and his sons that are the center of the novel, usually it’s the woman being punished in such stories of forbidden fruit. I can’t wait to here other reader’s thoughts.

Available Now

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

A Selfie as Big as the Ritz: Stories by Lara Williams

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You think about how strange it is to still have absolutes like this, like marriage, in this day and age. Couldn’t there be another option, leasing it out for five, maybe ten years then reviewing it when the time comes.We are a generation of renters not buyers.

A collection of stories about women at different points in their lives. I felt as if I were a part of different incarnations and yet we all find ways to suffer little humiliations, don’t we? The death of rosy moments, the teeth stained with lipstick, children wanting nothing more than to shed their embarrassing mother, finishing school and returning home because you’ve yet to attain great prospects, and men trying to understand women- cruel, indifferent, beautiful, flawed.  Women in bodies betraying them, give up or keep the things that happen and the trauma of those decisions. “There are no words. There are no words for this basic animal trauma.” 

Cancer, love, the complicity in the crime of marriage, the babies, the mistakes, terrible dates, feeling age creeping up… “Thirties breathing down her neck like an inappropriate uncle.” That line, my how she nailed the uneasy slimy feel of age!  Lara Williams has a way of capturing the conflicting emotions people feel in any given situation. Young, old and everyone in between, the flicker of moments are captured beautifully in this collection of stories. Big women, small women, sick and healthy- all finding themselves or retreating. Something for everyone! It’s wise, brutal, shameful, embarassing, sexy, sad, and life continues on…

Publication Date: October 31, 2017

Flatiron Books

 

 

The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire by Brian Keaney

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I’m not trying to make out that I was innocent. You don’t grow up innocent in Limehouse. But I was ignorant. I saw things but I didn’t always know what they meant.

Brian Keaney writes beautifully, the sentences can have you smiling, cringing or gagging in disgust. I felt like I was Anne, stepping over oysters of spit (yuck), choking back the rotten smell of men, forced into a life of prostitution. Anne was by far the best character in this novel, how could Thomas de Quincy not fall in love with her? Anne’s mother is scraping by to keep them alive, but everything just gets more bleak, more so when her mother takes up with a dangerously cruel man, Harold Lampton (who carried his anger around with him everywhere he went, nursing it like a baby and feeding it with little tidbits of grievance,). It isn’t long before he poisons her innocence, and in this world and time, women didn’t have much chance to fight such men. In time, she escapes to a life, while not better, at least one she can be free of Harold. Anne and Thomas live in completely different worlds, Anne makes her living in the underbelly, Thomas is as sheltered and pristine as a proper man should be in the 1800’s. But some mysterious things happen to his own murdered sister, some sort of ‘punishment’ for not obeying? So just how ‘safe’ was his surroundings? Bucking at the life he feels confines him, he is ousted into the streets where Anne comes to his rescue. The London he now finds himself in, with scratching rats and violent strangers is nothing he could ever prepare for.  The young man, one day to become a famous author, is a nervous, innocent youth before he falls for Anne. She comes to his rescue one night. Hope against hope they will last, but reality loves nothing better than to separate unfit lovers. Not before she takes the ‘bewildered’ Thomas home and nurses him to health with laudanum. “The cure for every pain and sorrow.” There is a magic in that “angel kiss” of laudanum. That isn’t all she gives him, though. He discovers many delights in Anne. That she could be loved by a poet, a man from a finer world, when she lived with vulgarity all her life, finally loved like a lady and not just a ‘street girl’- could it be? Could it really be?

Tuah is the third character, a slave taken abroad a ship, learning all horrors of man and that things can be worse, even from the pits of hell, there is always worse. He later is sold to a ship captain that becomes his future salvation. Both he and Anne are tied to Archie, a man who once read to Anne after a terrible incident.  For Anne, the words do their healing, especially for an uneducated girl like her. Archie is a man of literature, which holds a special magic for Thomas, Tuah and Anne alike. The wheels of fate turn as it throws these three children about, each slaves to different lives, and tosses them into a fractured adulthood.

It isn’t a love story, and it is. While the rot of men and the world steals Anne’s innocence, somehow she still remains pure in some distant way. This was a hell of a novel! There wasn’t a boring moment, and the historical aspect felt genuine. There is no romanticizing about this time period, there is so much grim and grit that you know how bad things were for the unfortunate. I could smell the rot, tremble at the horrors, and warm at any token of kindness tossed Anne’s way. Three narrators delight the reader through the entirety of the novel, which is much like living in their shoes.

Publication Date: November 16, 2017

Holland House

 

 

Pantry and Palate Remembering and Rediscovering Acadian Food by Simon Thibault

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“I like to think that all reasons to cook are of equal value and are equally important to transmit. 

That’s why this book is in your hands.”

I don’t often review cookbooks, but this one grabbed my attention. Mind you, I own plenty of cookbooks and family recipes, having lived overseas and being a shameless gourmand, many of my memories of each place begins with a favorite meal. I think this cookbook is fabulous. I learned about Acadian food but more importantly, I enjoyed recipes from Thibault’s own family and friends. I think fondly of recipes in my own family that has exchanged hands over the years, (mine is Hungarian) but it’s as important to our history as anything else. My husband’s family is of French-Canadian descent, and the Meat Pie recipe in this cookbook is similar to the one my father-in-law passed down to me. Potato Pancakes always makes my mouth water, my family has their version too, just made some last month. Did I mention the photos in this cookbook are beautiful? I’m starving right now, never review a cookbook when you’re hungry.

His stories are lovely, particularly the one about how he called his mom with cooking questions. I consider myself a decent cook, and I still asks my mother questions too. Mothers are the source, I guess. The recipes are written so that anyone can give it a go. Certainly comfort food, my favorite! I’ve started a garden this past year, so the canning section is a plus for me. Though I received this as an ARC, I intend on buying the book for my cookbook collection. The section about rendering pork fat takes me back to discussions with my own grandmother about lard and it’s importance in many recipes. Trust me, I’ve heard how our flour in America is just terrible compared to the flour she cooked with in Europe and how much of a difference in makes in the lightness of her pastries (cooking with our flour it’s too heavy for her liking).

Old recipes sometimes seem simple, but I have cooked complicated meals as much as the ‘easy ones’. Fancy doesn’t always win.

I enjoyed the stories Simon Thibault shared, food is an important bond in most cultures, and it’s funny to think you can get misty eyed over a cook book but there you go. Folklore, family history, delicious dishes from the Arcadian pantry. Darn I am craving meat pies now.

Available Now

Nimbus Publishing

In the Fall They Come Back: A Novel by Robert Bausch

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When the thing that ultimately ruins you has begun, you don’t necessarily recognize it at the outset. In fact, you might not notice it at all.

Ben Jameson has begun teaching at a small private school in Northern Virginia, and he notices many things about his students, unlike seasoned teachers that have learned to look past these very alarming realities, he knows he must step in. Most people are familiar with the aphorisms about good intentions, so I’ll spare you. Three students have drawn the intense focus of his ‘calling’, for what sort of teacher would he be if lessons remained only in the schools classroom and corridors? How can a teacher guide their students if they’re distracted by abuses at home, too precocious and vain in their beauty or choosing to remain mute? It won’t be easy, but missions of salvation rarely are.

Over time he reaches each student with a quiet wisdom, drawing them out in lessons and writing , one involving  about Hitler and the holocaust, hoping to inspire a particular student to see abuse for what it is. The trouble with young minds, as much as old, is you can guide them where you will but you cannot predict the turns thoughts will take, you can’t control what lessons they will absorb. Not even the most straight forward approach can predict the weather of the mind.

Just when he starts to make progress with one student, another demands his attention, a precious ‘dangerous’, beautiful young woman. What is on the surface doesn’t always belie what lies beneath, as with Leslie. A young idealistic teacher of 25 should tread lightly with a young girl, as much as he is learning that his teaching methods draw too much attention. Why not stick to the formulaic old ideas, the safe lessons. While it isn’t so much about subjects being taught, it’s disheartening how chained teachers are in instructing students in 1980’s (when this story takes place) and more so now. It’s as if the world prefers to prevent any ‘awakening’ minds.

Immediately with George I thought, this can’t be such an easy fix. Violence and anger have a mighty reach, abuse cannot be stopped by a few words- if only… It’s not necessarily about salvation, more a lessening? A hand reached out to a drowning boy, someone to say “you’re not a failure”. I must point out though, abuse is not a liberal nor conservative act- like most rotten things under the sun, it’s unbiased. The world is full of young men like George, but teachers put themselves at such a risk to appear human and they learn early in their careers not get too close. What a loss for the world.

Leslie got to me, girls aren’t wild and ‘dangerous’ without reason. There is a smug pride as Ben scratches the surface of this troubled young woman, but as with all things he learns never to gloat or call victory too soon. Too, he gets Suzanne to release her voice through writing poetry. He tries so hard to breathe life and strength into the lost students, to see past their retreating or abrasive manner and reach the core of their being to lift them. There are wins and losses, and one can’t know if having remained unmoved and distant might have been better. We can never know what never was, only the outcome of the actions we do chose.

School is an ever evolving experiment, private or public. Just How much are teachers allowed to get involved?  Equally punished for showing humanity and for ignoring the obvious- it’s a never-ending tug of war. A teacher is never one thing. It’s curious comparing a veteran teacher to the fresh hope of a newbie. Ben learns the hard way how getting involved is a double edged sword. It’s a quiet novel, until the end.

Publication Date: December 12, 2017

Bloomsbury USA