The Study of Animal Languages: A Novel by Lindsay Stern

40338434

The usual wreckage drifts towards me…

Ivan and Prue are married and couldn’t be any different. Ivan is a philosophy professor who lives in a controlled manner, lover of language that longs for it to be exact, ‘like symbols of mathematics’, a languge that can be played with, twisted to mean anything other than what is is. Like philosophy it would ‘eliminate misunderstandings once and for all’ here in lies the humor in the novel, for his marriage crumbles under that exact invader, misunderstanding. Wife Prue studies biolinguistics whose discoveries leads her to believe one day people could understand their ‘birdsong’ as language, not senseless chatter. This form of communication could be very much alive in the animal kingdom, as much as human’s relate to one another, why not they? Certainly studying ‘sounds’ of birds, monitoring them cannot truly tell us what they are saying, feeling, thinking? What about we humans, superior animals and our gorgeous vocabularies? Aren’t our words often fraught with unintended outcomes, consequences, errors, comedies? Words used as camoflauge to hide our real feelings? Words to strip and bare our souls, just as misunderstood depending on whose ears they fall? Prue’s lecture scares Ivan, because he fears no one will take her, nor her intelligence seriously and it all unravels.

Prue’s father Frank comes into town to hear his brilliant daughter lecture, but he is on a downward spiral, his highs and lows having long navigated Prue’s entire childhood. Strange that his inability to corral his thoughts and behavior somehow makes him the most solid character in the novel, and the most likable. Prue and Ivan’s marriage is tested too by writer Dalton Field, whose book she has taken an interest in reading, the attractive visiting author infuriating Ivan. He sees an easy intimacy between them, but no, it has to be his imagination? There are clues something is going on, he can feel a rupture in their love. To make matters worse, people are always surprised that Prue chose a man like him as husband, bland and predictable. Then there is Prue’s niece May, witness to the adults falling apart around her, which gives insight into what life with Frank must have been like for Prue, the fear of his mania as well as the thrill of it. Which makes the reader wonder if that could be why Prue fell in love with someone as stable as Ivan. “It may come as a surprise to you, Dad, but you’re not a prophet. You’re a provocateur.” I was focused more closely on Frank and the influence his mental illness had on his daughter’s life. It was beautiful and sad because he does love her. Ivan loves Prue as well, without a doubt, but he never feels quite worthy while at the same time feels superior, it’s so odd.

Ivan is methodical until he let’s his fear of losing Prue ravage his common sense. He is going to stay on the sinking ship until the end. Will he save their love? Salvage the wreckage of his marriage, patch up the cracks caused by his misinterpretations of their love language? Ivan thinks he is nothing like Frank, there seems to be a condescending attitude toward his father-in-law, but as he unravels he may find he has more in common with him than he ever imagined. A novel that speaks in more than words or birdsong.

It’s a clever story of academics turned foolish. I enjoyed it, but some may not as the excitement is quiet.

Available Now

Penguin Group

Viking

 

Advertisements

The Lost History of Dreams: A Novel by Kris Waldherr

38597783.jpg

A last display of care before consignment to the grave.

Robert Highstead spends his time daguerreotyping corpses as keepsakes for grieving strangers, a far cry from his years at Oxford University as a scholar of history. Understanding all too well that loss and tragic turns are like a contagion, this work becomes personal. His own wife Sidda’s accident altered their future, he walks closer to death than life. When his famous cousin and poet Hugh de Bonne dies, Robert must take his remains to be interred in his stained glass chapel on the moors of Shropshire where he will be reunited with his deceased, beloved wife Ada. Here, Robert is to make his daguerreotype. He’d much rather remain with his own ‘fading’ wife, than engage with the world, nor honor any tasks put to him. Yet travel he must, it’s the honorable thing to do. “This was his cousin. His cousin was dead. Though it made little sense, Robert stepped toward the coffin as though not to disturb it.”

Hugh’s fans journey to the chapel, all longing for their piece of the love story between Hugh and Ada, but for her surviving niece Isabelle, the story isn’t the fantasy that’s been toted as truth. Robert is not welcome, and Isabelle’s refusal to embrace the return of Hugh’s body is suspicious, and infuriating. Her own past is a mystery, but Robert won’t bend to her will, finds a way to stay and earning a semblance of her trust becomes audience as Isabelle reveals the tale of Ada and Hugh as she knows it. She wants him to record it in a book. Yet Isabelle herself remains behind her cloak of privacy, until it’s no longer possible to hide. Why does she not allow anyone entrance to the chapel? What secrets are hiding there?

Both are unable to release themselves from the chains of guilt, haunted by ghosts of time and battling with the demons of their choices. No one punishes either Isabelle or Hugh more than they do themselves. The strange pair push and pull each other, and what appears as solid becomes fluid, changes. This gothic novel begins with a curious profession that bleeds into the tale of why death is easier to befriend than life. Love as muse, ghost, poetry, guilt, blame, and rage. Characters begin desperately in love, and weakness blooms for some as fate tests the soul. A heart can turn cruel when love is stolen by the hands of fate. People can love romantically and yet absent themselves in other horrible ways. Isabelle’s story is revealed as her defenses are stripped and her tale tugs the heart. The dead are not silent here. I rather like the ‘eye’ that Hugh had painted in miniature of Ada because for me as Isabelle tells the tale from Ada’s perspective it becomes symbolic of an all-seeing eye and yet what should be obvious to the characters is hidden.

A gothic love story that one must chase like a bird that disappears into the darkest of skies. Naturally love is the ruin of many, will there be time to set things right and maybe live again?

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Atria Books

The Goose Fritz by Sergei Lebedev, Translated by Antonia W. Bouis

 

43541238.jpg

Something happened with her that Kirill had never seen. It was as if ghosts of terrible unimaginable catastrophes, wars, fires, floods, were nipping at her heels.

Russian born Kirill is the last member of his family, descendant of Balthasar Schwerdt who came to Russia from Germany in the 1800’s. An author who collects other’s people’s life stories, fearfully avoiding his own. It is time to tell the story of his family, with papers, archives he will chase the ‘threads of memory’ and ‘preserving the misunderstood and the unseen.’  It is the only way  Kirill can flee the fate of the family. As a child he sees a stone book in the German cemetery where his family plot lies, chosen as he is to be his grandmother’s constant companion on these visits. Naturally the visits isn’t something any of them talk about outside the confines of home. The book, blank as if an omen of what he must one day fill, is always waiting there for him as he comes of age.

Why, he wondered, was his Russian great-grandmother buried in the German cemetery anyway? With the adults ‘omissions about the past’ he learned to create stories as explanation. It isn’t until his grandmother Lina reveals, speaking in German, the name of his great-great-great grandfather while at his headstone, that he knows the bold truth of their German ancestry. Vile German blood, much like the Goose Fritz symbolized to the villagers, strangled to death by the harmless old Seargant in his drunken rage on the anniversary in July when he was wounded in the Battle Kursk. The goose, in the old man’s war ravaged mind, a German soldier. German, the stuff his family is made of.

Why did they not carry the surname Schwerdt, what fate befell his ancestors, a ‘scattered people’ bones buried in soil far from their fatherland? It’s always been easier for him to dig into stranger’s families than disrupt the rest of his own, and what would revelations mean for his own blind future? Is he destined to walk a path forged by those who came before him? Why can’t he guide his own future, be no one’s son, grandson? A crack in the headstone of his beloved, deceased grandmother, separating surname from birth name, birth date from death date seems to beg from the beyond their stories be told.

Balthasar’s life took a strange turn from that of medical doctor, working as his father’s assistant, to that of practitioner of homeopathic medicine, a ‘heretic’s career’. Thwarting his father’s plan, trembling with his newfound passion, Balthasar left his fractured world for a larger one, with the knowledge of his ‘travels’, Kirill needs to understand the why of it all. Pieces in museums and visiting cities doesn’t always lend an emotional landscape to history, it’s hard for him to imagine being born in the cities of his ancestors. There were seven daughters, and a son- there were wars, assassins, disease, even an early feminist who ‘excited men’s strife.’ Worse the strangest fate of all will befall the brilliant boy when as a man he encounters cannibals.

Kirill is blind to his own future but revisionist of his family’s past, able to look upon it with a godlike eye, see the impending doom as well as lucky escapes that his ancestors couldn’t. With one family member a migrant to Russia, they cannot be native nor accepted as such, forced to hide their German blood as if a stain, as evident by Kirill not even realizing he wasn’t fully Russian, born under the hammer and sickel, loyal as the rest of his family to their country.

This novel is about political history as much as family history, how it affects us all. Are you allowed to be a nationalist when your ancestors were enemies? There are many stories about all of the characters but it is rich in history, perfect for historical fiction lovers. I adored the relationship between Kirill and his beloved grandmother Lina. It’s incredible to think about what our ancestors suffered through, how they could still cling to hope, love and laugh. Personal history too can give birth to strange fears and rituals. The deepest shame is having to hide our blood for fear of persecution. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: March 19, 2019

New Vessel Press

 

 

 

 

 

The Paper Wasp: A Novel by Lauren Acampora

42360844.jpg

I’d long nurtured the private suspicion that I was an outcast not because I was inferior, but because I was exceptional; that the fulfillment of my purpose awaited activation from the universe; that I just needed to wait. And now, as simple as a music box clicking open, it was time. 

Abby Graven abandons stale Michigan, feeling she has awoken from some ‘prolonged, dank dream’. Her deep connection to her once best friend Elise (now a rising star, actress) never felt truly severed, not with her deep dreams. If it’s true we are all one being, then the dreams could very well be communication through the subconscious. As a once promising art student, Abby’s ecstatic states of being were the norm, fueling her work, something she hasn’t felt in her numbed days living at home, doing nothing. All of that changes when Elise, at their school reunion, tells her ‘Abby, Abby, I’ve missed you so much.” and “I’ve never had another friend like you in all these years.” Tipsily she tells her if she is ever in LA, in the offhanded way people do, to give her a call and they’ll hang out. Adding “I hope we can be close again someday.” Drinking loosening defenses, nostalgia causing warm fuzzy feelings while reacquainting ourselves with dear childhood friends, who can blame her?

With there being “a different story in my blood”, Abby’s dreams intensify as does her watching thoughts of Perren. The dreams keep coming, they are signs of where she needs to be, destiny. With the phone number Elise put into her phone at the reunion, she calls her from the Airport and tells her “I’m in L.A.” What can Elise do but give her address and invite her over, what else but let her stay?

A ‘disturbance’ within Abby as Elise casually throws around how she started going to Perren’s place, as if she didn’t know how important he was to Abby. As if he were her discovery! Calling herself an artist, old jealousies prickle at Abby’s flesh, for nothing could be further from reality.  She catches up on Elise’s life, sorting fact from tabloid fiction, sharing intense intimacies. Looking at books by Jung, drawing as if afire, something is coming alive again within her. Abby is like a ghost from Elise’s past, the two pick back up where they left off in childhood. Elise seems to want confirmation of her talent, her friend to soothe her as the arrows of fame pierce her. She soon gains a bigger role in Elise’s life, as her assistant. But this isn’t what she wants for her future, her dreams are speaking to her, guiding her to a rich spring.

Abby isn’t content to shadow anyone, Elise seems to want her to share her work and to stop hiding, as she has been doing for far too long. But her ‘plans’ for Abby are an insult. It gnaws at Abby that Elise plays at being ‘deep’, there is more than an edge of competitiveness. She may own the shallow world of celebrity, acting, fame but how dare she attempt to best her in plunging the soul? There is a tug of war here, as there often is in friendships, I want to lift you up, but I don’t want you to surpass me. We all have our roles, and crossing over into another’s territory can be akin to thievery. There is a love/hate burbling on the ground they share.

She immerses herself in Elise’s life, but she wants her own stake in meaning, an authentic existence. Being the ‘ever the supportive friend’ becomes more of an act, a role she downright disdains. Is Elise’s admiration superficial too? Female friendship turned ugly, will it require erasure of one’s happiness in order for the other to rise? The Rhizome story-line is fantastic, the obsession with dream recall, the pure art of children Perren surrounds himself with  strangely surreal. Is Abby sinking into a sort of madness?  That ending is so bizarre, and yet a perfect fit. Her dreams as translations are bleeding into her waking life, there’s no denying that. Are they premonitions?

Maybe it’s better to keep some room for yourself when you long for intense connections be they with lovers, or  pals. Friendship shouldn’t be submission, and yet it is. Someone seems to be the ‘alpha’ in friendships as much as romantic relationships, but eventually the person who submits, changes their mind and takes the lead. Yes, add this fine book to your summer reading list! I need to look for other books by Lauren Acampora, what strange tales she spins and the writing is rich. I am sure the reviews will be mixed, neither character is lovable but there is something fascinating in their decay and selfishness. I categorize the novel as surreal because of the dreams. The excerpt I shared above is perfection and sums up Abby’s character in ways a thousand situations never could. What a writer!

Publication Date: June 21, 2019

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press

 

 

 

At Briarwood School for Girls: A Novel by Michael Knight

42360833

“We’ll ask the Ouija board,” she said. “You’re kidding.” 

“Do not mock that which you do not understand.”

If all boarding schools are haunted, well it seems fitting characters in the novel will channel them with a Ouija board. Lenore Littlefield, one in a line of steadfast Briarwood girls, is shocked the ‘spirit’ knows her secret, that she is carrying a child. Nothing surprises her, nor history teacher Mr. Bishop more than when she blurts it to him. Basketball player turned actress as punishment for being late for curfew, she takes to the stage in the school play being directed by Coach Fink, her basketball coach. The play, The Phantom of Thornton Hall having been written by former student Eugenia Marsh seems to mirror Littlefield’s situation. Then there is Disney’s plan to build their new theme park “America” nearby, which fires up history teacher Mr. Bishop. After all, what is Disney, builders of fantasy, creators of weak female characters, manipulators of historical truth doing building a ‘theme park’ about our rich history? Maybe Eugenia can save them all, though a recluse the playwright does dash off a letter breaking her silence to denounce the theme park. With her own painful past and failures, is it possible the Pulitzer Playwright and alumni will come out of her seclusion, draw attention to the school, Mr. Bishop hopes so.

He is too involved with Lenore, but what other choice is there? Lenore’s life takes interesting turns during the play and forever after. Fink gives her the part of Jenny, much to the dismay and anger of classmate Thessaly. Naturally there are little dramas throughout, nothing as big as what Lenore is facing. Does the spirit of Elizabeth really communicate with her? What do they have in common? History seems to chase its own tail, repeating… repeating…repeating.  How much of Eugenia’s play is true, maybe the biggest scandals are left unsaid, or with creative license were changed in the play? Just how many girls does the ghost visit through time?

Coach Fink finds herself enjoying being the stand-in director, managing the students just as enthusiastically and encouragingly as she does during big games. Yet, she misses so much about Lenore, until she overhears the truth between she and Bishop. Everyone is entangled  needing different things from each other. It’s not thwarting Disney’s plan that Eugenia is most vital to, but Lenore’s life.

This isn’t hauntingly terrifying, it’s more a story about being a young woman trapped by circumstances, handled differently through the decades. It is misunderstandings and plans, even for Mr. Bishop and how he thinks Eugenia can bring Disney down. Disney and it’s theme park is a catalyst for Eugenia to have a part. It was a decently written novel, but I think I wanted to feel more for all the characters. I felt a little detached from the females, pregnancy is an emotional time and downright terrifying when you’re a teenager. I needed to connect more with Lenore. I would have loved more time devoted to Eugenia as well.

Publication Date: April 12, 2019

Grove Atlantic

Atlantic Monthly Press

The Ash Family: A Novel by Molly Dektar

41573546.jpg

“Why would you want to leave, when you’ll have more freedom here than anywhere else?” He said. The family’s father, Bay said, was Dice, and Dice would understand me the way a lightning bolt would understand a rod.

At Nineteen years old Berie doesn’t intend to go to college despite the plane ticket to Richmond, Virginia. That is her mother’s plan, not hers. She leads her mother to believe in it, going so far as to say goodbye at the airport, her mother secure in the illusion that she’s left. Ex-boyfriend Isaac doesn’t believe in her hunger for a more essential life, but someone does. All she wants is to leave the bustle and noise of modern day life behind, the path to her desire comes in the form of a stranger she meets at a bus station on her way back to Isaac and Durham, hoping he will let her squat. The scarred stranger’s magnetic presence draws her in, before long she finds herself enthralled by his tales of the Ash Family, named for having started in Asheville, North Carolina. The members all sustain themselves and each other in an old farmhouse in the holler, their own utopia with animals, a vegetable patch and an orchard. “Thirty people and growing”, she could be one of them if the family accepts her, but three days and either you leave or stay forever. Three days, no exceptions.

Everything starts out with such promise, living off the grid among brothers and sisters, what feels cold at first turns into beauty, “I was awestruck under a wild star-smeared sky.” Of course, things fall apart as they always do, rules seem to bend and stretch for some people and cruelty rears it’s ugly head. Why would you ever leave, right, when you are with the people who really love you? Who needs medical care in the fake world when they have Pear and her natural healing ways? Listen, I am all for natural medicine, but I sure wouldn’t take an herb to cure a brain tumor or ignore it if my appendix burst, how about you? I’m more inclusive, nature embracing science, why must it be one or the other?  The problem with utopia is power and control because there always seems to be a leader that wants to give you rules. Being at peace is easy when you don’t have to interact with others and their ideas. Is it freedom if punishment and acceptance is meted out under the critical eye of a ‘father’? Father’s need obedient children.

Berie is a lost soul and for a time, she chooses to acquiesce. “The gale came into me, and blew all my doors and windows open.”  But being blown about by the wind and putting your faith, will into another’s hands never bodes well and surely can’t last. They don’t need anything that nature doesn’t provide, though over time hypocrisy shows itself. The rules don’t always make sense, what begins as a back to earth experience seems more tests of loyalty to the cause. The rot sets in, Berie finds serious flaws and weaknesses within herself and the family. Dice demands sacrifices. This peace loving community is at war with those that would destroy the environment and be the Ash Family’s ruin, even if they must turn on their own people, ignoring illness, letting nature take it’s course… so be it.

Oh boy, will she ever leave? Will she remain a sort of pawn for the ‘father’ of the Ash Family’s plans? How did Bay get those scars, by the by, she wonders. What worked about the novel is that it exposes the ugly side of commune living, while also telling the story of how easy it is, when lost, to latch on to something dangerous. Sometimes searching for a more authentic life can be ruinous, particularly if it means letting go of your will. Berie’s desire for more than what is on offer, her need to journey down an unexplored path is a struggle for many people. The need to be inspired by something bigger than what other’s expect of you burns within us and is at its strongest when you’re young and just beginning to question your place in the world. Berie has other issues that complicate her relationships, Bay seems like a gift from the universe. But her eyes are clouded over with weariness for the world, one she needs to reject, she is so tired of trying so why not hand the wheel over to someone else. It’s easy to remain a child and allow others to push you along, that’s how cults work you know. Believe in something or someone else when you don’t believe in yourself. What can you do when you feel like you don’t fit the times? Don’t go into this novel thinking it’s going to be a happy back to nature story, it turns ugly.

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Simon & Schuster

Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

42038048.jpg

She said people will find the loveliest part of you and try to make it ugly. “And they will do anything,” she always said, “to own that piece of you.”

In this fantastic collection of stories by Kali Fajardo- Anstine about the experiences of Latina women indigenous to the vast land of the American West, characters range in age and life situations. Beauty can’t save any of them from the violence of bad men, nor can it guarantee a better life , “they look at us like we’re nothing.”  In Sugar Babies, a restless mother leaves while her daughter cares for her own school ‘baby’. Sabrina & Corina is one of the saddest with a bad ending for a much admired Cordava cousin. The loss finds Corina using her make-up skills to tend to Sabrina’s body as she reminisces of her deep love  for “the family beauty”. Too, she shares the distance between them before everything went wrong, before her cousin’s ‘carelessness’ began to disgust her. This family of women  have lived with nothing but tragedies, how can anyone hope for a happy fate with so much evidence to the contrary?

In Sisters, Dotty has her sight stolen from her and thinks about a missing girl, about survival and thus begins the story of what happens when women say no and bruise a man’s ego, inciting his rage. This is the sort of story that makes me think of Margaret Atwood’s biting quote,  ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women  are afraid that men will kill them.’ What happens to the women in each story can knock the wind out of you, and though fiction, it’s not one bit fantastical and that is frightening.

In Remedies, lice are the monster. I adore characters that understand natural medicine and for some, home remedies was the only cure. Too, a young girl struggles with a half-brother in her life, the father absent for both of them but why should she have to share her own mother? The writing is gorgeous throughout, I kept breaking my heart against each one. Just when I thought it couldn’t get sadder, I was gutted again. ‘Cora and I had been around sick and dying people our entire lives. People, we learned, weren’t permanent and neither were their illnesses.’ Characters are all struggling to keep things together through illnesses, death, grief, and the aftermath of prison. Some deal with their own shameful pasts, others with the inevitable trajectory of what’s to come. The Bob Dylan quote before the stories begin is spot on, these are certainly sad-eyed ladies. Yes, read it!!!

Publication Date: April 2, 2019

Random House

One World