Talent: A Novel by Juliet Lapidos

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But the alternative is to let your talent lie fallow and rot.

Anna Brisker is a graduate student at Collegiate University trapped under the heavy weight of her incomplete dissertation that is “very nearly finished”, lacking enthusiasm, feeling uninspired writing about the ” intellectual history of inspiration”. Inspiration, in her mind, isn’t simply floating around like blessed golden confetti thrown by some  benevolent being, landing on the chosen. Great works of art and literature take blood, sweat, tears, and talent, of course. She would know, as her own drive has fled. A far cry from the brilliant future everything in her youth promised, a young girl who was valedictorian at her high school and burned as bright at an elite college. How did she get here, feckless and without either the self-control or the divine touch necessary to continue blazing along on her trail of accomplishments. Most says she’d rather stuff a pop tart in her mouth. Her advisor is exasperated by her lack of progress thinking she has lost her focus, her parents think she is lazy, spending her days wandering aimlessly doing nothing to establish herself , they may be right.

Then she meets Helen Langley, niece of Frederick Langley, who for Anna was the introduction to literary culture during her middle school years. A  wildly talented writer who burned bright on the scene with his own following, wowing people, producing a book every so many years only to suddenly cease publishing. Perplexed that a man who was said to have ‘found writing easy’ could just one day decide to cease all creativity and live his life closed off, makes what Helen has to say something to put her faith in. Anna she is giddy again with the possibility that something big could come out of this. As she becomes closer to Helen, she discovers that the talented author did not stop writing. In fact, there are notebooks he penned at Collegiate’s Elston Library, hidden. This is exactly the spark of hope Anna needs to feed her passion once again. Helen is the way Anna can get to know Freddy, she is her stroke of luck! Who knew that a chance encounter, a small debt at the grocery store could turn her life around?

Though an antiquarian, Helen isn’t as ‘intellectual’ as Anna but she knows full well the worth of her uncles notebooks. With a promise to her uncle long ago she had sworn to be the keeper of his work but there was a tangle, the school has them, but Helen approves who gets to see them. So begins the plan.  Helen is far more bohemian than Anna who lives with means beyond your average struggling student. Everything about Helen is vibrant and full, overly generous maybe messy and a little too free spirited but at least there is no shame in her ‘degeneracy’. Anna intends to help her new friend.  So maybe Helen is a little wayward and her talent is in forgery, she does what she must for her survival so what, she grabs life by the throat and certainly doesn’t judge Anna for caving to her own pleasures. More than ones intellectual weight, social status,  nor the heft of promise in one’s future this is a story about how we chase the “then what” of life. I sort of felt like saying, what the hell does it matter in the end? Any of it. One woman has family money but can’t seem to get her hands on the life she has envisioned for herself, another wants her own inheritance and comfort and both think Freddy is the means to their end. The two meet in the middle and if things take a bit of a criminal turn, so be it. What will it mean for Anna, and will her dissertation ever get finished?

Clever. Juliet Lapidos points out the snobbery of academia and the mistakes people make by putting all their faith in philosophy too. Talent as accidental, or indiscriminate blessing/curse vs talent as choice, work. Maybe it is just all BS, according to Anna anyway.

Publication date: January 22, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

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Aerialists Stories by Mark Mayer

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I loved my mom, but sometimes I would pester her to tears. It was easy to make her sad, but she only wailed like that after she thought I was asleep. 

In this haunting collection of circus themed misfits the reader is surrounded by stories that are at once amusingly lighthearted and yet can turn painfully absorbing with deeply flawed characters coping with life’s pitfalls. My favorite is Strongwoman, where an eleven-year-old deals with coming of age while his parents split apart, his mother breaking under the weight of her sadness until along comes Klara, a ‘tremendous woman’ all muscle and brawn, to breathe life back into their home and his mother’s heart. One of the most beautiful moments in the story for me is his explanation about overhearing he was an accident. Just a small paragraph and yet it beat on the walls of my heart. Junior came to life for me, and writing believable children in short stories especially isn’t easy but Mayer has created a kid I could pick out of my own childhood.

In Aerialists two brothers discuss their time enlisted, one brother back home, his deployment finished until he hits the water for a different job but swearing he suffers from PTSD, another about to follow in his footsteps and join up while saying goodbye to his girlfriend, working for a pilot who is slowly going blind. In The Evasive Magnolio a lonesome peach farmer says goodbye to the elephant Maggy, wondering what sort of funeral could commemorate the beloved beast, left behind on unworthy land? Mayer’s writing is beautifully descriptive whether it’s about the eyes of a girl in one story ” Trinia’s eyes are green with little sunflowers” or an elephant’s ear in another, “ear like a sheet of moon.” As he dissects the gentle beast for burial he is a lonely man in a ghost town. Left with only dust from a storm, Maggy remains his only family, and he is the only person left to give her a funeral. Maple has a connection with Sasha, her special needs friend whom she bonds with through imagined conversations in her mind in the story Twin. When Maples dad gets the blues, she finds comfort with Sasha. Both grow up, but not in the same direction.

A maniacal clown  (realtor) knows what the truly wealthy want, as he channels his own murderous intent in The Clown, plotting their deaths as he shows them around. A boy tries to understand his distracted mother and later her absence in April Thief, while writing a story and sharing a dog with his pal. He hopes he can he wrap his mind around why he likes his dad more, not quite understanding the adult atmosphere. The stories are strange, but there is much to discern if you’re paying attention. An original collection by a writer who likely has so much more up his sleeve in the future.

Publication Date: February 19, 2019

Bloomsbury Publishing

 

Where Reasons End: A Novel by Yiyun Li

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Since Nikolai’s death I had asked people to send poems. They came like birds from different lands, each carrying its own mourning notes. 

I felt the deep sorrow expressed in this novel so much I researched the author. I wondered, did she herself lose a son to suicide, only to discover more about Yuyin Li’s own breakdown. Li wrote a memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life  while she was struggling with deep depression. In Where Reasons End, Yuyin Li tells a fictional tale of a mother composing a story in conversation between she and her son, who has taken his own life. This is a story about the elusive presence of grief, how it transforms us even if we don’t understand it. It is a mother reflecting on memory, where her son can now only live for her, and questioning how memory isn’t enough. If she can just keep the conversation going, she can keep him alive, stop the essence of him that lingers from escaping, disappearing. Too, she knows words are incapable of expressing the all consuming sorrow, pain. That clichés cannot carry us through life, nor the losses in one. How to recapture time? How to breathe and exist through the worse thing that can ever happen, to know her son has succeeded in the biggest win of hide-and-seek.

“I was almost you once, and that’s why I have allowed myself to make up this world to talk with you.” Our narrator promised her son she would understand, didn’t she? Her own past sufferings, were they inherent in the blood? She can’t lose him more than she already has. The old things remain, things Nikolai made or wrote, remembrances of the Nikolai his friends knew, objects she has never kept tract of nor made an effort to freeze in time, not much of a keeper of life’s detritus nor treasures unlike other mothers whom fiercely cling to ‘things’. This conversation is made up, right… but “sometimes what you make up is realer than the real.” Such a bright boy, whose perfection hurt him too much to anchor him to the world.

Not a day will pass, when you’re left behind, that you don’t imagine how your loved one would react to each of your remaining days, from the mundane to the eventful. It truly is a novel about ‘inescapable pain’ and the solitude of grief. There is a gut wrenching chapter, Catchers in the Rain that left a lump in my throat because there isn’t anything thing left to catch, she can longer be her child’s safety net. This isn’t the sort of novel that makes you weep with the obvious moments, nor is it an attempt to explain suicide. Though through the intimacy between mother and son, remembering even the stories he himself wrote where the boy characters often died hints that maybe he was sad for a long time, and she didn’t see. Or maybe not, maybe that’s what we do in the aftermath, look for reason where maybe there is none. Maybe fiction is just sometimes fiction. The Nikolai she gives life through writing is as witty and biting in her creative story as he was in life. She utilizes her gift of authorship (which her son himself showed promise of early on) to attempt to soothe herself and carry on in this abyss she never asked for.

Yes, Nikolai took his own life but it is as much about motherhood because even when it is taken from you in such a way, you are still a mother. How should one find meaning in their child’s death, in this backwards way to travel in time, when a child should never go first, especially through their own hand? With the novels closure,  I want to ask only who are you today, instead of how are you?

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Random House

 

Little Darlings: A Novel by Melanie Golding

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He really hadn’t seen it. Seen her, the woman from the hospital, the woman in the bushes. But Lauren had, solid and real as the trees themselves; the eyes still glared at her when she closed her own, the image burned there like she’d looked at the sun too long. She was going mad, she must be. That or the woman was some kind of witch, some kind of demon would could disappear at will.

When Lauren gives birth to beautiful, healthy twin boys, Morgan and Riley, the birthing process was less smooth than she hoped, leaving her exhausted, sore. Then, her husband leaves too fast for her liking leaving her, a new mother, alone with the boys in the hospital. When she finds time to rest, sleeping when not feeding her boys, the strange dreams overtake her, terrifying and lingering upon her waking. She is sure in between a state of wakefulness and sleep that she heard another mother with infant twins too, just like her. The next day, the nurses are perplexed, what other patient? What other babies? Trapped in the hospital for yet another night, things take an eerie turn. Is it just a bad reaction from the difficult birth that makes her imagine a filthy, ragged woman is trying to trade her babies for her own vile mewing creatures, or is Lauren’s world becoming a dark fairytale? The police aren’t taking it seriously, the doctors and her own husband are convinced it’s all in Lauren’s head. No one could possibly get in without being seen, not with the secure settings in the hospital. Detective Harper is determined to check on the new mother, despite the assumption it’s just ‘bad trip’. What she sees is a woman who is terrified, and unsure of her own mind. Something about her story pulls DS Harper in, and the hospital visit won’t be the last of it.

Once home with her husband and baby boys, everything feels like a threat, especially the strange gift she receives. Then her husband tells her he plans to head back to work sooner than he promised, leaving her to cope with no support. Wanting nothing more than to get away, a fresh breath, to escape her husband droning on about how good she is at this baby stuff, trying to convince her that she can do it when she knows she needs help, she bolts for the door ready to leave it all behind. Then she sees the frightful woman again, lurking! Patrick doesn’t though, and it feels like her mind is cracking. If no one is there, why is she so frightened? How to explain the strange gift that her friend swears isn’t from her? Before long, Lauren seems the woman’s filthy face peering in the windows of her home, creeping, waiting until the time is right to swap the babies. She holes herself up in the home, locked up, curtains drawn but Patrick won’t hear of it. All she needs is to get out, be in the world again, just get outside. Heeding her husband’s advice, she ventures upriver with the boys and meets her friends Rosa and Cindy, after commiserating over birth stories and mothering, sharing cake and coffee they part ways. Lauren walks to a clearing, upriver where the secluded bench sits. “Sinking down gratefully” Lauren closes her eyes and falls asleep, knowing only of her careless, unintended slumber when she startles awake and sees the baby stroller gone.

So begins the terror that her children must have been taken by the witch even when they are found not far away with another strange woman. Though they are returned to her, Lauren is convinced these are not her babies! That monstrous woman must have taken them,  and replaced them with these stand ins for these ‘others’ are not her own! To the raging river, she and the stroller must go if ever her real, flesh and blood human babies will return to her. This mad turn in her behavior has her locked up, but she will know the truth! She will do anything it takes to get her real children back. “They strapped her down. Like a madwoman.” The doctors know it is true that ‘someone took my babies’, for it is a fact and she is simply confused,  embellishing on a real incident because they are back now, safe, unharmed! She must play along if she is to be released, despite the constant truth that circles in her head “they are not my boys”.  Pretend, pretend they are yours.

Is it in the pretending that she becomes a threat to her children or is something far more sinister truly at work?

This is a nightmare seethed in folklore, quietly believable enough that you don’t have to suspend your disbelief. Lauren is flawed to begin with, surely someone who could create a fantasy through some sort of mental break, but there are things that lend her outrageous imaginings some credibility, and DS Harper is tied to the strange mystery because of her own past. Why does she feel so close to the case? Looking to study the evidence with an open mind when colleagues are quick to dismiss Lauren as a deluded new mother? This was a creepy gem of a novel, add it to your 2019 TBR list!

Publication date: April 30, 2019

Crooked Lane Books

 

 

 

Soon the Light Will Be Perfect: A Novel by Dave Patterson

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I’ve often prayed for our misery to be transferred to someone else- anyone else.

A young man comes of age  in rural Vermont alongside his older brother, just a sliver away from the trailer park and poverty they used to live among before moving into a house. The two contend with more than their hormones. Their Catholicism is little help in facing the harsh reality of a mother whose illness turns out to be cancer. The shame and confusion of raging urges that are becoming more of a fetish has him believing he is a deviant whose desires cannot be controlled. Often hungry for a filling meal himself, sick of heating frozen meals, he begins resenting his mother’s charitable meals for those that have even less, considering the recipient’s son is anything but thankful and seems enraged by generousity. His own mother tends to others needs despite her fragile health, yet contrary to her faith goes against the church during a protest, proving sometimes you have to honor your own moral code.  There is the debt he owes for a cat, a ‘fruitful’ endeavour that sees felines taking over their home but far more confusing is his father’s concerns over the tanks he helps build for the war. There is an inner conflict, risk losing the job that provides for his family, particularly now with his wife so ill or just do one’s job and remember ‘it’s best not to question things’. Their father isn’t the only one struggling with his place in life. How do you put your faith in God when even Father Brian isn’t holding strong?

As the boys help their father build a table for their ailing mother, the only thing she truly demands, her health continues to decline. Then new girl Taylor comes along, confusing him with her desire to know what his life feels like, that even as empty and terrible as it sometimes proves to be, it is still full of the love and stability others with so much less may long for. He finds himself drawn to her, whether it makes sense or not. Taylor’s environment is wildly freer than his own, surrounded by kids in the trailer park who have nothing better to do to pass the time than drink or worse. With a mother who goes through boyfriends, she needs protection and maybe he can be the one, even if he is wise enough to know running away isn’t an option, not when they don’t have two dimes to rub together between them. The only certain truth about Taylor is he understands even less about her actions than he does about his own.

It’s a story about being trapped in situations outside one’s control, that even faith sometimes has to take a backseat to the harsh realities and obstacles that come into our lives. Not all moral dilemmas can be resolved with a prayer anymore than laying on of hands is going to cure his mother’s illness. Paths can converge and lead to happy awakenings, as much as it can lead to tragedy. Before the end of the novel, our young narrator will grow up and discover that when misery and suffering eases its hold on us, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve seen the last of it.

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Hanover Square Press

Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery

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Things impermanent, incomplete: these were the sorts of things Gorey loved best.

I was excited to learn months ago that there would be a book coming out about Edward Gorey, the man whose genius inspired the likes of Tim Burton and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), among others including Anna Sui. Ahead of his time, the ‘too strange and eccentric nature’ of his creations later found a wider audience, certainly with my generation and those born after. Gorey is the father of it all, a man who found beauty in ‘things withered’ as he took ‘pleasure in that which is old, faded and lonely.’ As to his sexuality, admittedly I am not interested in the speculation so much but can understand his hesitance during his time to claim homosexuality. During his youth, it certainly wasn’t a time embracing any peculiarities of arts nor any deviate from the so-called ‘norms.’ He was flamboyant in his dress, certainly it all seemed to be theater but reading about the way he kept his home, when he finally allowed someone deeper access into it, not everything was about ‘show’, with his home ever changing almost as if a stage for his entertainmen, a show for one. He seemed a man unto himself, someone who lived for his pleasures without the need to explain himself. I always find it interesting when we try to explore the sexuality of others, that it still makes people uncomfortable if someone doesn’t chose a label. Maybe it’s because I have family members who are attracted to people but aren’t (or weren’t for those now deceased) much interested in the complications of relationships, who chose to live their lives freely, to come and go as they pleased and put their time and attention into their passions, be it art, study work, travel. As well as others who once were married and when it ended invested in themselves, didn’t chose to have more relationships later in life. In fact, I see it all the time in neighbors, friends. Not everyone wants someone in their life, at their side all the time and would rather visit with friends and then go home to the quiet of their beloved solitude. Don’t confuse being sometimes alone with chosing to live as a recluse. Why is that so hard to accept? There are people who don’t really feel invested in their sexuality at all, who find their passions in other things beyond the body. Certainly the gay imagery in some of Gorey’s work fuels the whisperings that he was homosexual, as well as his own comments in interviews. There was also the earlier crush.  In fact, Maurice Sendak (himself gay) met Edward Gorey and understood him, the need to hide his sexuality, as well as the struggle as an artist to be taken seriously, to become successful.  Whatever his sexual preference was, Gorey was a wildly creative, fascinating, private man. Before he went to Harvard, his education was delayed by serving in the Army. It’s hard to associate the Edward we all know and love with the clean-cut military picture of one Private Gorey, circa 1943.

His childhood certainly doesn’t seem as ordinary as he led people to believe as you will read about in the chapter entitled “A Suspiciously Normal Childhood”.  As the author asks, is it normal to be ‘cutting your eyeteeth on Victorian Novels’, learning to read at three? What about a grandmother’s madness? Seems he had plenty of gothic drama to fuel his future work, within his own upbringing. As this is a review, I won’t go into more,  it’s in Mark Derry’s book, read it! It seems current times would have been perfect for Gorey’s talents, but maybe for someone enamored of his privacy fame would have been too itchy a coat for the man. Certainly I can imagine the shallow narcissism of our times would have been fodder for his work, even his later plays that seemed to become a bigger passion than releasing books for his fans. We can all learn so much from the pleasure Edward Gorey revelled in while creating something for the sake of doing it simply because you enjoy it and not worrying so much about the reception. In time, those naysayers will come around, which he learned years before with a certain magazine cover he landed after prior rejection. There was a lot I didn’t know about Gorey, and this book isn’t so much about revealing deep dark secrets as it’s a peek into the life of one heck of a peculiar artist, one whose macabre style was rich in texture, his shading with only a pen is incredible, his meticulousness evident with crosshatching. He had a signature style, creepy little stories that an untold number of artists have mimicked, but will we ever know the man fully? A man of biting wit, melodramatic about the smallest events and yet seemingly indifferent about the big stuff, lover of cats who he allowed free reign, even if it meant messing up work he spent hours on, contrary to his core, highly intelligent, a lover of the ballet, avid collector, a lover of things old, faded and lonely. Can we ever know even ourselves? For fans and people new to Edward Gorey, this is a wonderful read.

Available Tomorrow November 6, 2018

Little, Brown and Company

The Blurry Years: A Novel by Eleanor Kriseman

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I wanted to stop driving, even if where we stopped wasn’t home. I wanted my world to narrow to one point again, to stay the same in front of my eyes, wanted the landscape to stop blurring as we sped by life instead of living it. We were in limbo.

A coming of age set in the late seventies early eighties Florida. This isn’t the sunshine state all the tourists and snowbirds know and love. There aren’t trips to theme parks and lazy beach days with coolers full of food and drinks, a parent’s watchful eye for her. Callie (Calliope) grows up starved for more than food and a place to call home. Affection and attention is fleeting, she is exposed to the seedy side of life where her mother Jeanie can’t keep herself together let alone be a role model for her child. The places she lives have thin walls, too much noise, bugs, rodents. The fun her mother and friends have when they aren’t working crummy jobs is full of partying, and conversations her young mind can’t decipher, nor should she be exposed to. The men that surround her life don’t concern themselves much with age, young girls are all the more appealing.

Just when her mother gets herself into a jam, they decide to return to her grandmother June’s place in Eugene, Oregon. It’s the very place her mother Jeanie fled so long ago, but the best laid plans often go awry. Callie is her mother’s rag doll, dragged along, at the mercy of her whims. For a time, Callie feasts on love and stability when they shack up with Jeanie’s best friend Starr and she wonders how long this happiness, as thin as it is, will last. Her desire feels muddled, inducing shame and hunger, changing the way she thinks about women, men and love all because of her adoration of Starr. The only constant in Callie’s life is that her mother will get restless, or find trouble, surely the lull in the chaos of their existence won’t last; happiness for Callie rarely does.

When they are back in Florida again, Callie’s soul becomes as bruised as the Florida sky during a thunderstorm. Offering herself up to an older guy, desperate to feel wanted, loved, to feel anything but the emptiness of goodbyes. This wanting, over time because a sense of owing, owing people (mostly men) pleasure, payment for any drop of decency shown to her. With teachers lecturing on their usual spiel, ‘you can be anything’ and working as a babysitter for a wealthy couple she has to wonder if someone like her, who comes from nothing, could ever find her way to a fuller life. How do you believe in a bright future when the only evidence before you is contrary to your dreams? Or worse, what if you don’t even really have dreams because you’ve learned far too early that world is off limits to the likes of you. All you have been witness to is adults failing, living in the gutter, not one story worth latching unto? A mother who for all her presence is vacant, unable to share any intimacy with her daughter Callie, but is fast to drink with her, include her in her raunchy escapades. With a mother who encourages her into sleazy situations and then fails to protect her, how do you believe in a better tomorrow?

This novel is an all too familiar story where I am from. Don’t be mistaken, there are plenty of children living in poverty whose parents give them love and affection, who guide them. It just isn’t always the case that poverty equates with neglect, poverty makes things harder, there is a lot of wanting that goes unfulfilled but parents can still nuture their children. However, Jeanie is a disaster, the sort of mother who never seemed to develop beyond her own reckless teenage mentality. She hates her life, resents the adult responsibilities raising a child entails and while it’s possibly a cycle where help was absent when she was ready for it, that doesn’t excuse the neglect of Callie. Far too often kids around Florida grow up too fast, exposed as they are to adult chaos or worse, predators who have easy access thanks to their self-centered parents. A single mother who herself manipulates, plays men to get what she needs when she isn’t running from abusive relationships isn’t aware enough to shelter her girl from the world she constantly lands them in. The darkness is always lurking but the biggest threat to Callie may well be her own mother. At 171 pages it is a fast read, and yet gritty as our sandy beaches. It is tragic because it’s too real. Florida isn’t the only state with these types of stories, most people have at least one friend or someone they know of who had damaged parents and it doesn’t always end with the child breaking free one day. Some become like their parents despite their hunger for anything other than… some don’t make it out alive and numb themselves with drugs, abusive relationships… you name it. How will it be for Callie?

Out now

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