Mona in Three Acts: A Novel by Griet Op de Beeck

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Lying is a national sport in our family. We learned it when we were little and it’s gotten into our bodies like blood and water for other people.

Mona in three acts is an emotional journey, maybe too downhearted and crawling for some readers but it clicked with me. This is a novel about the way we are shaped by our families, not often for the best. Three Acts, part one and it is 1976 when Mona says, “They say your eyes get used to the dark”, from a tiny room in the corner of the basement. She’s in trouble again with her mother, she is not the good kid, that’s her brother Alexander’s role. The punishment feels excessive to the reader, as Mona sits in that dark space fearful of mommy’s wrath. Mona seems to be nothing but a disappointment simply for existing, a hard woman obviously as Mona is only 9, stricter with Mona “because I needed it” and then she exits the family in a tragic instant. She’ll never be able to prove to her mother she is a good girl. Her maternal Grandmother knows what the children need to recover and that is order, routine so steps in to take care of them all until… daddy gets sick of her meddling and judging.

Mona’s father wants them to meet a very special visitor even though only months have passed since their Mommy’s death, a woman named Marie who is fated to become their new mommy. Things aren’t going to get any easier. Some children get to be children and some, like Mona, have to fuss over the grown ups. Stuck in the middle with her maternal grandmother’s disgust for her father’s speedy new marriage and not wanting to invoke her father’s displeasure, she stuffs down her own feelings. Marie is emotionally demanding, quick to tears, feeling the family isn’t grateful for all the effort she puts forth as their new mother. It is here that Mona learns to fake happiness, to put her best face forward and make sure that Marie is, at all costs, appreciated. Weight is piled on her shoulders and with her father’s distant nature, this marriage and Marie’s pregnancy is more Mona’s cross to bear, already involved in nurturing her brother Alexander she is caring for the newest addition, because Marie needs rest. It’s all just too much for Marie, right? Everything has always felt like Mona’s fault, more so now. If someone is unhappy, storms off, feels sad, it’s because of her. The weight of the world.

Mona’s twenties find her feeling ‘defined by the things she is not’, though there is hope working in theater.  She becomes a ‘dramaturge’ for one of the most important theater directors. It’s a world away from her family, but somehow they still seep into her life. She accepts love in f half-measures, it’s what she learned growing up around first, her mother Agnes, her disapproving Grandma after the accident and lastly her replacement mommy Marie and her disinterested father. As for her lover Lois, why not stay with him? If his touch doesn’t set her on fire, well it’s okay. If he is self-centered, not fully in the relationship, well he must have his reasons, it’s still love. He is a writer, it demands all of his focus, attention, surely she has to understand that? Life has never cared much for the state of her well being, not even her own important work is enough to give her the confidence to define herself as something more than what her family or lover has decided she is. She has been surrounded by difficult characters, whose only constant is their theatrics, which may well have prepared her for her job. So much of her life has been packed away, much like her own mother Agnes whom really is more a faded memory, never to be spoken of as not to upset Marie. Her father has been, though, almost as absent as the dead. I know it comes off as a lot of whingeing, and many readers will think ‘hell, pick yourself up and make the life you want’, and some people are strong enough, confident enough to do it and say ‘the hell with the lot of you.’ But during the formative years, some people shrink deeper into themselves and start believing the version their family has decided they are meant to be. They learn to be pleasing, to convince themselves that any scrap is enough. They want more for others forgetting themselves in the process and you see this in how she cares for her brother Alexander and half sister Anne Marie. It’s strange how in many families, there is often one person (more if you’re unlucky) like Marie, who can strike fear into everyone, why do we succumb to such abuse, long after we have the freedom to walk away? Physical abuse is easier to recognize, it’s those that distort our versions of ourselves that are hardest to expose, especially when everyone else is so good at playing along, ‘keeping the peace’. I absolutely understand such people with their ‘toxic unhappiness’, how like a disease, a disaster.

Part three takes us to the heart of Mona’s relationship with her father. It is relief to understand the why of things, but it changes nothing of what children suffer through. For the reader as much as Mona her father has been absent, a non-entity whom only seems to hide and let others deal with the difficult situations. Mona has to learn sometime to toughen up, to demand what she deserves, because if you just keep lying down and taking it, people will never stop walking all over you. It may come late, but she may just learn to stand up and stop excusing the selfishness of others and walk on until she finds something better.  This isn’t a happy novel, Mona’s life has been a misery that she hasn’t understood how to climb out of, but there is hope for us all. If you ever wanted to understand what goes on inside the mind of a pleaser, you are privy to it from childhood on. Mona’s voice as a child was genuine, I felt so sorry for her. It’s a fiction that childhood is the happiest time in the lives of all, there are so many Monas out there, it makes you sick to think of it. I wonder, had her mother lived, though difficult she was, would Mona have rebelled eventually? Become someone else entirely? Just a thought.

Publication Date: November 12, 2019

AmazonCrossing

 

 

 

 

 

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Dark Mother Earth: A Novel by Kristian Novak (Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać)

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When one person took their life, the disease was theirs alone. When four people took their lives, the whole village was afflicted.

Successful Croatian author Matija’s creativity, born out of a disconnect from the torment of his past, seems to have abandoned him. His third book is a failure, nothing is going right since Dina walked out of his life. A pit is opening inside of him, abandoning himself to the abyss he must confront the past he has buried in the dark mother earth of  the Croatian village of his childhood. Fear has been at the heart of his creations, his make believe life the safety net that has maintained his sanity, kept the demons of the past from pulling him back to the trauma he has repressed. He doesn’t even truly know what he has buried. Dina wants his memories, whether they expose his fragility or not, this is the meat of any solid relationship. How can love be real if you don’t share your childhood, the glory days and the goofy awkward stages? What if all you have is horror? How do you share memories you don’t even have? Some things are better left repressed. Some memories are wild animals, animals he left behind before he and his family moved away to Zagreb. But memories have a keen sense of smell and can track you down, no matter how many years pass in between.

Reaching back, further back it all began with the passing of Matija’s father when he was only six or maybe the rot seeped in because of the legend his grandmother told him. Something about the soil of that burial ground disturbs him, some sort of ‘staged’ feeling about his father’s funeral births mistrust of the villagers. This child’s disbelief in the face of loss, death is the seed that germinates into abandonment of reality. Grief gets tangled into stories about the will-o-the-wisp folk, and what is real for a child? What about the world is solid when you are still trying to wrap your mind around all the big and small  nagging questions of the world? What happens when the village starts watching you because they think you are different, a ‘troubled’ child? What happens when you start to see things, know things maybe even become the catalyst for tragedies, and realize that they could be right about you? What’s a boy to do when the brutal dark ‘things’ visit him, as if summoned by his need?

This novel is a strange type of horror story whose engine is revved all because of Matija’s love for Dina. Everything rises to the surface, you must face the dark earth of your origins in order to have a chance at love. The past always comes back for us. For Matija  the things left unexplained have soured his thoughts, a curious, intelligent, creative little boy left to makes sense of the wounds of losing his father. He never really recovered from that first loss, and everything that followed; the suicides, the terrible things people hide from each other in any village or town haunts him so much that any fabrication is better than facing everything he knew. He doesn’t understand his father’s death and his mom and sister are so swamped in grief they don’t know how damaging keeping him in the dark will become. His strange drawings don’t help, he feeds the villagers fear of him, he can’t seem to help it. He is fated to be an outcast, every village needs one, it makes it so much easier to avoid the real horror, within ourselves and each other. Collectively, these people are suspicious and distrusting of anything different, they can overlook the ugliness in those nearest and dearest so long as the person seems admirable, clean..etc. The horror is in that.  War is looming, at least that is something solid to fear and maybe they can turn their hate there.

There is an eeriness in what Matija starts seeing, and the overwhelming horror of fantasy that becomes a threat for others near him, which at the heart really comes from a place of love and grief to have his dad come back from the dead. The scariest moment is in his fervent, childish hope by the water with his friend. His mother just wants him to act like a normal boy, because behaving like his ‘natural’ self carries the threat of being taken away. He learns early on how to betray himself, and in turn, how to betray others in order to ‘fit in’. It’s hard to blame his actions, who doesn’t want to feel accepted somewhere, especially when you’re young and have been on the outside for so long? Sadly, it’s one of the biggest mistakes of his life, some things can’t be fixed. Is he the disease in the midst? Is he really to blame as people begin to take their own lives?

“Things you’ve forgotten bide their time. They keep an eye on you, poke each other in the ribs, and snicker softly so as not to disturb the sanctity of the delusion. They only start getting louder when you begin to stagnate, when there’s no forward movement and that’s when they go after you, seething because you’ve forbidden them from coexisting with all the new things you neatly pack into the storage unit known as your life.” 

We are the horror. It’s a solid novel, it put me in a strange place. We forget how fear can consume young minds and how destructive fantasy can be. What a sad tale.

Publication Date: January 14, 2020

Amazon Crossing

The Topeka School: A Novel by Ben Lerner

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They felt at once profoundly numb and profoundly ecstatic to be young and inflicting optional damage on each other; the heat was its own justification, but so was the cold- there was a second-order thrill in knowing you could kick someone in the chest without emotion. 

With two parents who are highly successful psychologists working for “The Foundation”, surely one would imagine their son Adam would have a solid structure to build his life upon. It’s not so, the parents marriage isn’t so perfect neither is he the well rounded, popular student the surface would have people believe. Like other foundation kids, he is on his way up, a debater and orator sure to win the state championship, popular with the other foundation kids despite being a poet (whom everyone knows makes you a total wimp, right), growing up in middle class Kansas, a seemingly charmed existence but his parents strategies are enough to drive him into a rage. He’s got verbal battles to channel bullying, a safe outlet. Thank god for his ‘language’, and he can always do ‘talk therapy’ or consult with someone they really admire, anything to dull that ‘intensity’ of his. A concussion leads to migraines, and of course there is terror in the debilitating neurological effects for people of any age. Are these migraines just the effects and pressures of ‘passing himself off as a real man?’ Lucky for Adam he has The Foundation and Erwood, “a pioneer in biofeedback” to pull him through.

There are pages where we get inside of Darren’s mind, a student with mental problems who is pulled into Adam’s circle,“Hadn’t they always been told to include him?” and involved in an incident that leads to a violent episode. In fact, this was what I loved most about the novel… that even parents with all their brilliant research and Adam’s father with his keen insight into troubled boys can still fail just like the rest of us. “Of course they knew better, but knowing is a weak state, you cannot assume your son will opt out of the dominant libidinal economy…” you want to talk about intensity and aggression how about what it means for boys to embrace violent masculinity even in a world that is ‘inclusive’, with a top-notch support system. Kids will be cruel, even when they know better, even when they are trying to be better. There is a mockery of the world as modeled by their parents, and no one exposes it in the way Lerner does in this novel. Even the adults, like Adam’s father understands that you can’t transcend feelings, even if you do understand them.

Going back in time and reading about Adam’s parents family dynamics leads us to some understanding on why they are concerned about the human psyche, what they themselves have embraced or discarded from their own childhoods, all the old wounds. But a parent can’t apply their own lessons perfectly to their own children, we live in different times, different worlds. You still have to fight societal norms, the culture of youth, the expectations of peers and the world always breathing down your neck. Jane’s interactions with The Men, the harassment she tolerates because other women suffer so much worse. How it touches Adam when he is a young boy. Just who are the men? You know them, the woman haters, the ones who would have her raped and ‘taught a lesson’ if wishes could make it happen.

Having a successfully famous feminist mother, and wondering during an interaction with another mother and son should he feel proud or emasculated by mom’s success is a fascinating thought to explore. It seems her very existence can generate situations that demand Adam act out, with ape mentality.  There is a section of the novel where his mother Jane is receiving an award after an encounter Adam has with a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. His behavior the opposite effect of what his feminist mother teaches others. The mockery from the protester when Adam does show his own hatred. When does masculinity cross the line, when is it more about appearances? What causes so much anger inside of Adam, whose been raised to redirect any form of aggression in a healthy way? The world still demands a man ‘prove’ his strength, the world still sizes him up. How do we fight back without losing our own dignity? This isn’t the last he will see of the protesters.

There seem to be pivotal moments in Adam’s life, the concussion and the incident that he drags with him into adulthood. Adam blames himself for Darren still too. The collapse of a serious relationship, the collapse of his own parents calm little marriage. Has he really ‘graduated from childhood’? What does that even mean? Has he learned to be a man yet, the sort of man mom wouldn’t be ashamed of, the sort of man that channels his own father’s calmness? But there are so many tests for a man beginning in childhood to adolescence, and then fatherhood?

The story shifts perspectives, we see the infidelities through his father Jonathan (how we cross the lines of intimacy in marriage), the toxic violence of our current times, the issue of masculinity, why Jane holds herself back, how our past can both guide and haunt us and the impossible task of trying to understand what it means to even be a man anymore in the world. How we distort the truth, how we make sense of the chaos outside and inside of us. Time skips, and folds in on us through the telling, it works in this novel. How do you raise a solid human being when our culture is crumbling, especially as Adam is coming of age in the 90s, where being a man seems to be modeled on demeaning others, on knowing if you can ‘take someone down’?  Having a feminist mother, parents who understand the human psyche doesn’t mean the rot of the world won’t stick to you. This is an intelligent novel but it felt scattered sometimes. There is a lot going on, and you have to keep up.

Publication Date: October 1, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Even That Wildest Hope: Short Story Collection by Seyward Goodhand

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Because her pleasure looks so small, I suspect Agvagvat of thriving on minutiae.

The stories in this novel are intriguing, sometimes peculiar particularly when you enter the realm of the galatrax, So I Can Win, the Galatrax must die. A beloved, woodland creature with a gamey taste just going about living the life of  ‘fuzzy innocents’ until… How many stories can set off your gag reflex and sympathy at the same time? It is What Bothers a Woman of the World, The Fur Trader’s Daughter  and Hansel, Gretel and Katie that had me riveted. The stories do flirt with the fairy-tale realm but if you pick it clean you feel the hum of reality within’ the lines. Wax girls, “if she’s bad I can melt her back down into wax”, are we all at some point being molded, others trying to form our personalities so we don’t spoil or turn? “Don’t stare, what kind of daughter are you? Pervert.” This story caused a revolt inside of me, is it generational, the type of girl you’re meant to be, what kind of daughter are you, indeed? It turns brutal, as dark and grim as any genuine fairy-tale. There is a line, “My father erupted off the couch” and the violence of it, what writing!

What Bothers a Woman of the World is painful, another creature following a narrator around but just what is this creature that ‘nothing sticks to.’ Life causes the mutilation, hope survives still somewhere hard inside of a woman, this is by far the best story in the collection. We’re half alive in there somewhere, lying in wait for a time when being pleasing isn’t instinctual. Mother, batten down the hatches of your eternal hope, get on with life, want not.

Hansel, Gretel and Katie, is a bitterness, a raging hunger and someone must provide reluctant nourishment, if not love. This is what it means to try and remain human, this tale is a little confection with a bite at the center. Maybe the best we are, even though it could be the worst, sometimes has to be enough. I wasn’t engaged in every story, but the ones that burrowed in, didn’t let go. I think Seyward Goodhand can whip up a hell of a story and I have my fingers crossed that a full blown novel will hit the shelves one day. Some of the stories flirt with horror, because what is uglier than what is put upon us or the shame we carry? There are always ghosts of our actions waiting in the night, sometimes people, sometimes just thoughts. Yes read it.

Publication Date: September 16, 2019

Invisible Publishing

 

 

Once Removed: Stories by Colette Sartor

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But it was exhilarating to be fearful, to feel something other than an endless cycle of impatience, hope, grief, rage.

Once Removed is a collection filled with moments in our lives that threaten to spill over, overwhelmed with quiet suffering, desperate need to clutch at what is falling away. Sometimes the ugly, means things we think get exposed here, but full of raw honesty. In Bandit, Hannah finds it easier to form an intimacy with a young boarder named Rune than face the desperate hope and need on her husband’s face after a stunning loss. Sometimes it’s easier to reach for strangers when what needs to be faced is a pain like swallowing glass, our shared tragedies pushing us apart. How do we just ‘move on’, there is no timeline to healing.

In Daredevil, Grace is a sad mother trying to build a new life coming out of the storm of a broken home, fractured family. Her yearning to bond with her son, wounded and fragile is upended all the more by a sickly little girl named Noreen, whom she teaches along with her son in Sunday school. “Forgive me, Grace prayed sometimes after receiving Communion, forgive me for being thankful she’s not mine.”  All Grace wants is to lift she and her son out of this pit, this pain of ‘a family in ruins’, a shame she can’t repair the landscape of her own home but she tries, lord knows she tries. Why is her eight year old son always trying to get away from her? Why is he accepting dares, doing things that are always to his own detriment, turning away from her boundless love for him? Why can’t she protect him?

These are families with insurmountable distances between them, favorites who have jumped ship and left the least admired child behind to keep parents afloat, as in Jump. The pain of comparison that is born within families, the terror of one day creating your own family, always armed to defend oneself because no one else ever has your back. Could you, dare you attempt motherhood? Carrying the dead-horse of your own childhood, fearful you just don’t have it in you to be any good at parenting. Marney juggles the viciousness of jealousy, betrayal and need for her family to be intact, but her needs are never considered. How do you chose one over another, seems her mother certainly always chose her brother Winston first. Winston who has gone away, who holds his grudge tight. Marney’s love life isn’t any easier, as she butts heads with her boyfriend’s mother, relationships feel like a continuation of one’s own family saga. How is it some escape the madhouse and others are entrapped by it?

The stories are connected and when I got to Once Removed, it was a gut punch. How did we get here, something I think a lot of us ask about the awful moments we encounter in our lives? We try to be better people than we are, wedging ourselves into stories that were playing out before we stepped in, because everyone is anchored somewhere we are an uninvited, unwelcome guest. The push of wanting to heal what life breaks, the ache and sacrifice of parenting, the strange little families we must make in lieu of tragedy. Once Removed was a lump in my throat, being afraid when challenged, longing for things that seem forever outside the boundaries of your current reality, the cruelty of fate. Too, the silence we hold just to keep our family intact, the unsaid always a bigger fissure than what we explain.

What a collection! Families, how do we survive them? How do we survive without them? Hope that feels like disease, hope demands so much of us. Mothers and daughters, the push and pull of resentment and love, loyalties and how we divide them, the ache of it. Colette Sartor is an author to watch, she writes beautifully about the intricacies of relationships, imperfect situations and everything that follows the impact of tragedies. Yes, read this collection.

Publication Date: September 15, 2019

University of Georgia Press

 

 

 

 

Stories I Can’t Show My Mother by Ann Tinkham

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Beau kissed like a pro from what I could tell- the feeling of Goldilocks sinking into just the right bed.

The stories in this collection sway between erotic encounters and disasters. When Mr Right never quite arrives, and Lilly hungers for her own child she figures out a better way to get a Direct Deposit. Needles as a form of spiritual release in Needle Man Sticks Bat Girl, a love desirous of punctures. This feels more like voodoo, who knew it could be so erotic? Some characters are burned out by sexual fantasy, one more word to describe reproductive organs and they’ll just die! A writer trapped creating erotica for reader’s to indulge themselves in wants to break free of all things throbbing for something more serious to create in The Sweetness of Salt.

In Static Breakdown, Misty uses her body as a means to an end, and no one can help the man who falls in love with her. It’s just a role like any other, he’s just a client, and if his life implodes, who cares? Some men need an audience for their ‘roles’, trying on images and personalities. In Fourth Step Tango, an overdue apology forgives nothing. This story is cringe worthy, the things a young woman tolerates. Not all the stories are about tearing up the sheets, a few find the characters confronting situations that force them to understand themselves better or how to ask for what they want in a world that would rather defile them.

Brief encounters of uninhibited release, shucking off the past, these stories are at times provocative and always engaging. It is a unique collection of women making their way in the world, trying to keep their mind and body connected, learning how to be unapologetic and present to their own desires and needs.

Available Now  Published March 2019

Napili Press

Feral, North Carolina, 1965 by June Sylvester Saraceno

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It’s a project I have, trying to get grown-ups to talk about things they won’t tell kids. You have to sneak up on it, come at it sideways- if you straight out ask, they’ll send you outside to play, or if it’s night time, tell you to say your prayers and get to bed. That’s true most of the time anyway.

Feral, North Carolina, 1965 is a coming of age about a little girl who is all fire and spit! She isn’t a good girl, not if it means being neat and delicate. None of your beeswax doesn’t apply to Ten-year-old Willie Mae, she is nosy and incredibly perceptive. She longs to burrow beneath the surface, to seek out every family secret, but has no qualms about spying on her neighbors either. What else is there to do but hop on your back and see what sort of fun you can rustle up? She is a child with ants in her pants, far too much spirit and lord but it sometimes seems like the very devil has her ears.

In the 60’s children weren’t bombarded with knowledge with the click of a mouse. The adults didn’t barrage them with answers to every question. That naivete is long gone, children were in the dark and if they were good little darlings, they held fast that ‘mother and father know best’. If you were a feral child, you resorted to any means you could invent to uncover mysteries. Curiosity killed the cat may apply to someone like Willie Mae, but she is witty enough to realize cats have nine lives and all the fun happens in secret!

Long stretches are spent in the company of her beautiful grandmother, Birdy. Birdy who loves to talk of the past, especially about her charismatic, handsome, beloved older brother Billy until Willie comes around, as she always does, to the subject of his death. Then it’s the silence of a grave. It’s burning inside of her, to know how someone could die so young… why, why won’t Birdy tell her how he died! Sure it was a tragedy that occurred before her birth, decades  ago, in dusty olden days, but he is still family, surely she has the right to know?  Why, why won’t Willie Mae let the dead rest? Too curious for her own darn good!

Willie Mae will fight dirty when she has to, like dealing with her big brother Dare, whom everything is a competition against. She may be a girl, but she is just as strong as him, just as fast! All her mother wants is for her to act like a little lady, but that just ain’t her way! It’s all dolls and frills when she wants to be like her brother, shooting at living creatures, why do boys get to do all the fun stuff?

God fearing children do not spy on others. They sure don’t know what happens between a woman and a man. Aunt Etta wants Willie Mae and Dare to be ‘witnesses for the lord’ because it’s certainly the end of days. “Half the time I didn’t care that I was a sinner, but I kept it secret.” It’s so hard to be a perfect, good little girl when so much action calls to your soul.

Death, racism, family secrets, God, sex, and nature are just a few things that occupy Willie Mae’s thoughts. She has so many questions bubbling inside of her. Maybe Willie Mae isn’t the only free spirit ever born into her family. Maybe she isn’t the only one who had to be tolerated. This is childhood, the lull before one’s rough edges are smoothed. Ten, a time when the secrets you poke at and prod change the way you see the world, and more importantly, your family. The world spins, and it is changing too, the old folks need to get used to it!

This is a time that no longer exists, children running through the streets at play, wild little savages with scabby knees and snarls in their hair. There was an ugly side too with racial divides, children caught in the middle of the confusion. Clinging to old ways, what happens when someone is ‘different’ be it skin color or something else, something that isn’t tolerated. The bigger issues are always just above a child’s head, but they feel the wrongness of things, we see that with Willie Mae and her ever questioning mind. I enjoyed that Willie Mae sounds like a child, she can be a nasty little whip of a thing and sweet in the center, children really are neither good nor bad. Like all of us, they sway between the two.

Yes, read it.

Publication Date: September 17, 2019

SFK Press