How We Remember by J.M. Monaco

 

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Unlike Dave, in my younger years I grew up with a sense of my position in the world that was closely aligned with my mother’s. I accepted that I should never expect any sense of entitlement to anything.  I continued to live out the expectations required of the good girl who never fussed. I ate that soggy McDonald’s burger without complaining and said thank you very much for the privilege.

Now an academic living in North London, Jo returns home after her mother’s death, surprised that her mother saved enough money for an inheritance. Her mother who expected nothing from life, a mother who often disappointed her still had a few surprises it seems. Once her marriage was over, she took on the role of single motherhood, becoming a nurse. Jo’s childhood was mostly a lesson in spirit breaking, the same dreary life she escaped by beating the odds with her education, a mysterious turn of luck in the universe that led her to university in England earning her ‘fancy pants’ degree,  love with Jon, and a great career. It is a far cry from her childhood with a brother who took and took from her in between disappearing acts, now an adult and still just as lost, unstable and pulling at her with his needs. The early days when her parents were still together and tension was thick as the smoke from her mother’s cigarettes, the way she only felt the love and comfort of a real family when she was at her friend Beth’s, sharing their meals and easy affection. Then there was the big shame between Jo and her uncle as she became a teenager, a seduction in which she felt somewhat complicit, as girls often do, a hushed up incident buried in the bowels of her dysfunctional family, to keep peace between her mother and her aunt, despite the cost to Jo. Her parents own wildly chaotic, broken marriage isn’t something she wanted to mirror but Jo isn’t immune to relationship woes. Now, she has her mother’s diary and the incident feels fresh, her mother’s sorrow about the strain it caused with her family and proof that her mother knew exactly what her uncle was! That she believed Jo.

Jo is battling severe health issues far worse than her inability to conceive a child or carry it to term, and coming home is only opening old wounds on top of current troubles in her own marriage. There is a student, someone she fell for, and it’s all coming back to bite her. The trouble may cost her more than her job, if Jon finds out everything may come crashing down! Dave is adamant that the money from their mother should go to him, to help him in his latest scheme to make something of himself with a business! Jo already has everything (as if she hadn’t worked hard for it, saved) so why not give him a leg up for once? Why must he Dave always think he is entitled to things without working for them? There is a struggle, she has enough to fight against on her own than to deal with her brother’s outbursts, surely it’d be easier just to give him the money, despite her lack of faith it will do him a bit of good. Her father refuses to budge, knowing his ex-wife was adamant in how she wanted the money dispersed before dying of cancer. Her father is mentally declining, but the last thing she wants with her own illness is to be tied to caring for the man who never showed up for his kids, nor his ex-wife. Maybe she won’t have to, maybe her father has his own shocking surprise too.

This story does feel like a sad memoir about deeply flawed, lost people. No one gets fixed, there are no rainbows nor happy endings. Sometimes damaged people just continue their entire life falling apart and are too stubborn or helpless to change. Is the dysfunction so deeply rooted that there is no hope, or is it simply a case of turning over and playing dead, a constant victim of circumstances? It’s hard to say. Each character seems to have done terrible stuff that needs forgiving, Jo included when it comes to her own husband Jon. Maybe some people just have to be accepted as the mess they are.

Publication Date: September 13, 2018

RedDoor Publishing

 

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The Impossible Girl by Lydia Kang

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So, thirteen-year old Cora had shivered and cried, wondering if her numbed left arm and leg would work again, or her garbled speech would right itself. And they did- only a few hours later. It never happened again, but the incident reminded Cora that her body held dark sway over her existence.

Cora, birthed three weeks too early in shame to Elizabeth, an unmarried socialite is born with an anomaly, two hearts. When her mother dies giving birth to her, a doctor discovers her extra heartbeat, assured having a chinese father follows all the other pecularities brought to the docks by those ‘foreigners’. Being of mixed blood certainly causes these oddities! Immediately the doctor is hungry to have her for dissection, when she dies of course, because he has no doubt her death will come soon. With the baby, this anatomic jewel,  she would be a great gift to medicine, something to dissect and study! He will pay them, it’s obvious they live in poverty and sorely need the funds.

Charlotte herself knows all too well what life is like as a family outcast, cut out of the family for her own ‘sins’. With her cousin Elizabeth passing and the threat of the doctor looming over their heads, she devises a plan to hide the child. One baby girl takes on two lives, as Jacob and Cora Lee, twins. So begins the adventures of Cora, Queen of Resurrectionists, employed by anatomists! Instead of gowns and all that glitters she chases down the dead from funerals to cemeteries to make a pretty penny. Even the poor that often “died in such dreadfully ordinary ways” can line her pockets, but competition can be fierce! It’s the unique bodies with oddities that are in high demand, people like Cora herself. She watches her marks, waiting until death takes them, keeping always to propriety as a lady should, even when dealing with the stink of death.

Before long, such people are dying unnatural causes, disappearing! Cora knows someone is hunting them and the killer may well be on her heels. Worse, she has met a mysterious medical student, Theodore Flint, poaching her business who knows all too well about Cora Lee’s fierce reputation. Disguised as Jacob, Cora and Flint come to an arrangement and everything gets muddled as her feelings for him become more than just business. Running from passion and love is nothing compared to the killer coming to collect a most sought after oddity for his collection, Cora herself.

Containing two hearts makes it that much more fitting that Cora has led a life as two people in order to survive but Flint could unravel the only protection she has, if he discovers her brother doesn’t even exist. The timeline beginning in 1850 with Cora’s birth, was ripe with body snatching for medical studies you can research this and find out the shocking reality. Too, this is a feminist story in the split necessary for Cora to take on the role of Jacob to navigate the rougher side of life. Cora is fiercely intelligent, full of medical knowledge and yet Jacob is the one the invite to the Grand Anatomical Museum is extended to by Theo Flint. In a world where women were less, Cora has risen to legendary status. Her own aunt and mother’s removal from the well to do family because of their pregnancies out-of-wedlock was the norm of such times and yet we see amazing strength and courage in Charlotte taking on the care of her niece. These were mean times if you didn’t have money, which is why as vile as body snatching is, it’s a sink or swim existance and people did what they needed to in order to survive! Bigotry against mixed- blood children, xenophobia, the poor versus the rich, sexism, it’s all here and it’s quite an adventure.

I was engaged to the very end and genuinely feel Cora makes for a fascinating young woman! This is one to add to your TBR pile, I was still guessing how it would all come together and the ending is just right.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Lake Union Publishing

A Key To Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed

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Expectation The Brain spends a huge amount of time expecting things. The brain lives on patterns the way a blade of grass lives on sunlight.

This is a lovely novel written in alphabetical order,  to make some sense of the disorder in orphan William Tyce’s life. There is a lot of talk about absence, as both his mother and father have vanished from his life for different reasons we slowly begin to understand. Living with an eccentric, wealthy  “bugling” uncle who lets him run free, there are still secrets beneath the surface, things his uncle has yet to tell him about his parents. When he isn’t exploring, or floating boats in a flooded basement he is entering neglected forts in the woods or meeting locals from all walks of life. Each entry shows wisdom beyond his ears, a coming of age in the rural midwest, and the setting is beautifully rendered by an entry as simple as canoeing through the reeds.

It is a look into a boy’s life that is sometimes an adventure, other times heavy with sorrow and confusion but always engaging. Sometimes he finds trouble, other times trouble finds him. Even when the adults try to give him gravity, they let him go like a balloon see under Factsthe first sad fact we learn in life… This novel has a certain charm in how it reveals William’s life through glossary entries, it hints at, it guides us through what is happening, much the way we all come of age with our missteps and lessons. We ease into things or get hit in the face by them.

He is abandoned by his father, his mother is dead but we don’t quite know why anymore than he does, until later. Life unfolds as he gets older and loses his childhood innocence (blindness), comes more and more into adult consciousness, as happens to all of us. We confront his life through his reflections, written from the male perspective as he isn’t looking for pity or a good cry, he is just stating the facts with the protective shell most boys use. Not to say boys feel any less, he certainly has depths to swim but it’s more quiet revelations. He becomes very real for the reader. I always enjoy these stories that make me feel like I am getting a birdseye view into another’s life. There is a connection but it’s not forceful, it’s not begging you to feel bad for the character, but you do anyway as life beats him up but he is funny too! “Dogs, however, are an exception, and they love to mate in public. It’s possible they do this because they enjoy being squirted with water hoses in the act.”  It’s a journey with beautiful writing, though you are reading a coming of age, it’s very relatable to adults. He is wounded but keeps on trucking! Yes, read it!

Publication Date: September 4, 2018

Tin House Books

Tell Me You’re Mine: A Novel by Elisabeth Norebäck

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Her right ear looks like Daniel’s and Maria’s. Elf ears. It’s genetic. 

Stella Widstrand was on a family vacation in a secluded cabin by the sea so long ago, when her baby daughter disappeared, thought to have drowned. All that remains, her  red stroller, turned over in the sand, but could the sea have truly taken her daughter, whose body was never found? One fatal mistake, one walk and it was all over for Stella and Daniel, the blame all hers to bear.

Now Stella has Henrik and Milo, a happy life despite her terrible grief. It’s better to leave that tragedy in the past, where it belongs. Psychotherapy once saved her, pulled her out of the abyss, inspiring her to help others, studying psychology herself. She was good at it, her job, until now. A handwritten letter, a threat or warning is turning her life upside down. It could be the one hostile patient from her past or it could be Isabella, the woman whom she recommends group therapy to and believes could be her dead daughter, Alice. Her child whose body was never found, Alice who could have been taken!It isn’t just grief, making her see something familiar in the stranger, it is possible, she never believed her to be dead, she isn’t losing her mind!

Isabella is damaged, raised by an overbearing mother (Kerstin) who feels her child is slipping away, living in Stockholm, engaging in therapy that she doesn’t trust. Private thoughts should be kept private, she’s of the keep yourself to yourself generation. Her daughter is fragile and should be home where Kerstin doesn’t have to worry about her, can guide her, care for her. Her father, Hans passed away recently, and she’s had a hard time with it, she needs her mother! Why don’t people understand this? Isabella is seeing her caring mother in a different light due to the therapy sessions, questioning things in her life, even her father’s death. Things no longer make sense, therapy is opening her eyes but to what? She wants control of her life and her emotions, but why is that a threat to Kerstin.

Stella is getting too close to her patient, Henrik doesn’t like it a bit, knowing how vulernable his wife his to her past tragedy. Is this all just hysteria, is she projecting on the young patient? It’s impossible, irrational, Henrik doesn’t believe her, worries over her, could she be sick again? Stella is slipping, breaking but she is going to find out if Isabella is her Alice, at any cost.

This was engaging and strange at times, one of those stories about a mother’s worst fears coming true, though what follows seems more than a little impossible. Then again life is stranger than fiction at times too. It was good but not as thrilling as I had hoped, I think because I figured it out early on. It’s more a psychological drama about damaged people and I’ve read other novels with striking similarities but it was still enjoyable.

Publication Date: September 4, 2018

Penguin Group

G.P. Putnam’s Sons

The Golden State: A Novel by Lydia Kiesling

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“This is my house, ” I say aloud, and everything in the house contradicts me, down to its dubious foundation.

It is to this house in the desert of Altavista with her baby girl Honey that Daphne flees, leaving behind her work at the University of San Francisco, a student who has never quite finished her PhD despite encouragement from those around her because “working at the institute has amply illustrated the precarious sh*tshow that is a life of the mind”. She is a single mother for all intents and purposes as her Turkish husband, Engin is trapped by a ‘processing error’ and cannot return to the United States of America. The novel follows Daphne and Honey through the desolation their lives have become in Engin’s absence. Single despite the occasional Skype with Honey’s daddy, a tiresome thing, Skype when her life is already consumed by meeting her child’s needs and demands.  A desert seems a fitting place, because this is a sort of desert period for Daphne. The house is her grandparent’s mobile home, her mother is dead and it’s hers now. Her family had lived there for a long time, settled and rooted but this life doesn’t fit her.

You can’t expect a lot of dialogue between a baby and her mother and yet Kiesling manages to make Honey a solid person, whether she is cranky and whiney or like on Day 5 kissing her mommy’s face awake. That’s how we bond though, without words and there is a beautiful intimacy in it. It gets boring at times, and you feel as bogged down as she does but at least the baby is always real, present unlike so many stories where children are unnaturally silent the entire novel. I dont’ think such children exist in reality. Right now, ‘conversations are work’ and Daphne seems to both welcome and hate this self-imposed exile. She thinks Ellery and Maryam, having met their doom and compares the young women to her own very much alive child. But it’s a thought she doesn’t like to feed on, and in some strange way may shoulder a bit of blame for, or maybe not, can you bear the blame of fate’s whims? She should be opening emails, dealing with whatever mess she has jumped ship from back at the university, but she cannot find the wherewithal do it. She is in a sort of strange in-between time so many mother’s are familiar with after the birth of a child. Daphne plus one.

She meets the locals, and explains she works for an institute that studies Islamic studies which naturally begs the question, “Like Isis?” Daphne studies the language, and how countries share an islamic past. Bring up Muslim and hackles raise with a cry of Isis, which is often a shamefully believeable reaction in our country. She absolutely defends her husband and all the Muslims who don’t go around ‘blowing people up’ and plotting terrorism, yet this also isn’t the point of the novel. Despite this, she and Cindy become friends of sorts, even though she doesn’t agree with her ‘ideology.’ The biggest group of people are ‘State of Jeffersoners’, not the sort of group her husband Engin (if he ever returns to her) will be able to tolerate. The possibility of a life where her family’s people have been since the 1800’s just may not be a viable option for her. She gets caught up, somewhat, in the secessionists who don’t want to deal with ‘urban problems’. Generations of people who feel the government is robbing them of the resources they’ve always had to themselves. She meets an old ‘auntie-type’ Alice, who has been to Turkey and serves as a sort of stand in grandma, support she surely lacks with Engin scattered to the wind and the rest of her family dead. A woman who has had much loss and sadness of her own, that far surpasses anything Daphne is struggling with. They take up together on a trip and everything goes sour, this is the climactic moment in an otherwise quiet story.

The story touched on xenophobia here and there, but not as much as you would expect. I was disappointed that Engin was as absent for me as he seems to be for Honey and Daphne. I wondered if some bone thrown my way about their love would have made me care more. Engin aside, I enjoyed the tender moments as much as the exasperating ones between Daphne and Honey. The writing is beautiful but the story did drag often and I usually enjoy being a visitor in a character’s mind. Sometimes I felt as exhausted as Daphne. Good but nothing much happens until the very end.

Publication Date: September 4, 2018

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

On My Aunt’s Shallow Grave White Roses Have Already Bloomed by Maria Mitsora

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At times I wish I could get to the beginning of my story. But the begining is lost in darkness even more than the end.

Maria Mitsora’s writing is beautiful, translated from Greek to English by Jacob Moe. I always wonder about translations, how much of the author’s work can suffer or shine is dependant on the translator. It is an interesting collection, strange at times, heartbreaking, stories blooming where they please. Some of the stories are broody, which is exactly why I enjoyed them so much, full of dreams which are as disjointed as our troubling thoughts. In Versions of Persephone, the character Axan ‘is on time for her rendezvous with the explosion.’Aren’t we all, of course in her case it is a physical explosion, she is in the underworld, trapped by pain. Her father, king of it all, the criminal warlord.

In Brown Dog in November, Nino needs to refrain from barking, as he mourns the loss of his Eleni. Eleni, the one woman who transfixed him, the one whose traces he still hunts for. What violence haunts him, as divorce from his love eviscerates him still? Who is the young fresh girl, another Eleni? It’s disturbing, the way he loves, if he loves at all. Eleni who wanted him to ‘walk in the sun’, Eleni who could calm the wild dogs. She, who turned her back on him.

Memories flash and dim, time rushes and stops. How much do we know of the storm inside our loved ones? In Stormy Verbs (my favorite), Verbia wants her beloved to feel the force of a river but it is the painful memories of the place that make that force dangerous, an abyss of pain. It is this place that created in Verbia what he fells for, her ‘fragile but unbreakable balance.’ A gut-wrenching story of regret and shame, short yet powerful.

Sipping the ‘distant froth’ of childhood and memory, the stories in this collection can be biting and bitter, lost characters looking for escape or return to themselves and each other. Stories we all read differently, feel uniquely. Dreamy at times, people as distant as a fading thought, struggling against the mundane and soon we all reach The End of the Show much like the wasp, sprayed with poison to oblivion and yet with the capability to fly away in spite of it all, a surprise to whatever mean eye is watching, waiting for us to die.  I got lost in the writing, a collection that engaged me.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Yale University Press

 

Evening in Paradise: More Stories by Lucia Berlin

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Missed moments. One word, one gesture, can change your entire life, can break everything or make it whole.

I have been wanting to read A Manual for Cleaning Women for a long time, having read glowing reviews so when I saw this one up for grabs I tucked in and wasn’t disappointed. Reading that many stories were based on her real life made them all the more satisfying. I was tickled by Tiny on the roof in the story Noel. Texas.1956. Spending her time overhearing her family, not quite feeling the Christmas spirit for her relatives, the very ones she did her best to escape, I couldn’t help but picture it all in my head. Then the generous toy delivery by airplane that goes all wrong and all I can think is, “life, isn’t that just the way things always are?”

Drug addiction that is both haunting and common in love, family haunts much of the collection. Laughing that two women give a man both the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ years of their lives, coming together in misery and yet somehow stronger women, wiser women for it all. How can a man who is a complete addict be the sort that all those who follow cannot measure up to? Life is mystery! One husband’s drug habit that takes a shocking violent turn for the wife who has no choice but to take care of things, cover something up and yet the next day is just another ordinary collection of days to come. Somehow these stories are both terribly sad, shocking and funny. It echoes many lives, there is one story where a little boy goes missing and it reminded me of something my own son did when he was with my mother and aunt. It doesn’t always work when authors play with the ‘truth’ of their own lives, creating fiction out of fact, but in the end everything we knew, experienced, are just stories with a million perspectives. If you think about it, no one ever tells them same story anyway, and that makes us all fascinating in what we chose to remember. That makes some people uncomfortable, the fluidity of truth but it’s necessary for fiction, I think.

I love reading stories about youth too, as we grow older we forget the bonds we shared with others. How fierce we were about loyalty and friendship. ‘When we got off the bus at the plaza, Hope repeated that she’d kill me if I ever spoke to Sammy again.                       “Never. Want blood?” We were always cutting our wrists and sealing promises.’ It could be the 1940s, the 1970s… human nature doesn’t change that much really. People fall in and out of love, grow and weed out friendships, raise children beautifully and terribly and the world spins on…

In each person there are many lives all full of beginnings and endings, tracks jumped when marriages dissipate or children are born. I loved The Adobe House With A Tin Roof because of the characters, nothing wild has to happen, it’s a quiet story but the plants, all the plants and her rowdy neighbor whom Maya both hates and adores (even if she doesn’t know it) made me feel I was there. One that stayed with me, Our Brother’s Keeper not just for the death of Sarah but more due to the flaw that so many women (especially those old enough to know better) chose to forgive because we sometimes want so badly for everything to just be okay. When it’s good, it’s good, right? Shouldn’t that be enough? Well, no… We may get bitter with age, because of what life does to us but deep down there is still that longing of a young girl’s heart.

I can’t compare her prior work, her audience was small while she was alive and has since grown after her death. Lucia Berlin was born in November of 1936 in Juneau, Alaska and died in 2005. Evening in Paradise is a follow-up collection of her remaining stories, and I genuinely enjoyed them all. Maybe my pleasure is in part my being a fellow November baby, always a little dark humored, easily finding things to laugh about even in the roughest of life’s moments, I can relate. Fitting that the stories will be released in November.

Publication Date:  November 6, 2018

Farrar, Straus and Giroux