Old Newgate Road: A Novel by Keith Scribner

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Secrets. He spoke of that night to almost no one for ten years, as if he’d just jumped town and what happened here, his entire childhood, didn’t stow away with him.

Cole has returned to his hometown of East Granby, Connecticut.  “It’s taken him nearly thirty years to come back…” in search of wood for his construction business, wood of superb quality, chestnut.  Being his busiest season the return isn’t meant to last longer than a few days, somehow he stays longer. The only piece of the past he wants are what he can take in his flatbed, the wood. As soon as he arrives, he can hear echoes of  his mother and her beautiful French, soon remembering her dreams of life in France, but to come the memories of the brutal fights, of the bruises, the years of abuse before his father stole her last breath. Remembering the rages that would move through his father, he feels disgust at any resemblance of brooding or anger he ever expressed when he was with Niki, his wife. Phil, his father, is as gruff as ever, sixteen years out of prison for murdering Cole’s mother, his mind is deteriorating with signs of dementia and Cole is surprised to find him living in their old home. One moment he is present, aware, the next he doesn’t know who his own son is. Trouble is brewing back home in Oregon with his son Daniel whose just been arrested, his social justice ideas hard not recognize as coming for an admirable place but no less criminal according to the law. Cole’s plan is to get his son working a job in tobacco, just like he did when he was a teenager. His son sees East Granby as ‘the sticks’, tobacco representing all the wealthy types he hates, though interested in the grandfather he is finally meeting who is teaching him how to make crepes. His father’s childhood finally open to him. Daniel is much wiser at times than his dad, seeing that not everything can be easily fixed, that it takes action, of course action is why Daniel is always getting himself in trouble. Then there is Liz, his first love back in his life again and the painful secrets she kept are finally being released too. Instead of a hot affair you expect from such novels, it brings to Cole’s mind all the ways he has failed his marriage and his wife Niki. For me, this makes the novel far more believable, that when the two come together it isn’t to salivate and pant over their old loves as if the past 30 years haven’t happened.

Liz brings up all the spoiled past tied up with her brother Kirk, someone in his youth Cole failed to confront. Much like being unable to stand up to his father, failing to stop his mother’s murder, he still carries guilt of failing Liz. It’s hard to even fathom giving a damn about the father who murdered your mother,  but it’s much too late to punish him because his father is slipping in and out of the past and present, confused. Cole has carried everything with him and allowed it, despite his best efforts of avoiding the traps of the past, to affect his family. Returning is to East Granby is a confrontation Cole never wanted, but he gets it all the same. Famous for mirroring his mother’s beliefs, that each time is ‘the last time’, he has embraced avoidance in his own life much the same. Kirk’s son LK (Little Kirk) becomes friends with Daniel but as things sour, the old Kirk proves he is still the same bully he always was.

Do we let tragic events define us? Sometimes they  do despite our best efforts. Maybe if he can work through the past, get his father sorted out he can move forward and have a chance again in his marriage with Niki? Be the father his son needs. His father still surprises him, and not all of it terrible. This is an exploration on abuse and how the past haunts us until we are able to face the dark monsters, in others and ourselves.

Out today!

Knopf

Doubleday Publishing

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The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man: Essential Stories by Franz Kafka, Alexander Starritt (Translator )

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The longer you hesitate outside the door, the more of a stranger you become.

I don’t know that I would agree these are the best, most essential stories by Kafka but I wasn’t disappointed. This line in Homecoming jumped out at me, it’s such a short ‘nothing’ but poignant with something, “The longer you hesitate outside the door, the more of a stranger you become.” A young man returns home, unwelcome, “I’ve come back”, to his father’s farm, a house with bricks that lie cold against each other as if ‘occupied with it’s own affairs’. It gave me the feeling of being a living ghost, unwanted, a stranger now all the same, and aren’t we all ghosts in a sense when we first return to our old haunts, homes? To family who wants to see nothing but the back of us?

A Report for an Academy is about assimilating as a means of survival and escape from captivity. There are several different suggestions of what the story is about and what Kafka’s inspiration was, it’s worth looking up. Kafka is always saying far more than what is at surface a story about an ape mimicking the human world, conforming to rise above the caged existence, captivity. In a sense he is thumbing his nose at humanity, isn’t he?

The Silence of the Sirens is Kafka’s version of Ulysses. Here Odysseus finds the Sirens silence is as dangerous as their singing. A weapon far more deadly, so much for wax stuffed ears. The saddest story for me in the collection is The Verdict, it begins with businessman Georg composing a letter to his friend who left for Russia and is now stagnating, should he tell his friend of his engagement? His mother is dead, he’s moved in with his father, putting all his hard work in the family business, one wonders ‘did mother keep the peace once?’ Is this meant to be a silly piece, or a disturbing tale between a young son unable to escape his father’s shadow and a weak old man unable to accept his time has passed, jealous of his son’s future, youth? It’s so bizarre, why does George’s father question if his Russian friend isn’t an invention of his own mind, a lie? Why is he so disappointed by his son? Why does Georg obey his father’s verdict as if he is helpless against the tyranny of the old man, as if a child cowering under thunderous anger? Georg’s father emasculates him as only a cruel parent can. Autobiographical. It is well-known Kafka’s father was abusive, that Kafka wrote a letter to his father, that was actually a published book that changes the way you read The Verdict. You want to understand Kafka a bit more, read Letter To His Father by Franz published in 1952. Now I’ve gone and made myself sad! Kafka’s writing always fascinates me because of the many interpretations, so much left to the imagination, all the things left unsaid that the reader is meant to figure out. Is it real or horror or fantasy? It is never what it seems and exactly what it seems.

Paperback available now

Kindle Edition publication: March 5, 2019

Pushkin Press

Watching You: A Novel by Lisa Jewell

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There was a charge in the room, as though everyone was nursing a secret too big to be entirely contained.

The characters in this novel are wonderfully developed and you must pay attention, because quite a lot is happening. Watching You takes place mostly in Melville Heights, a posh neighborhood in Bristol, England (yes, I just wanted an excuse to use the word posh) of ‘iconic Victorian villas’  where the well to do live.  Residents are lawyers, doctors, surgeons and the handsome headmaster Tom Fitzwilliam who has saved the local state school with his ‘superhead’ skill and charm. He is just one of the many people being watched or watching. Tom has a wife who doesn’t feel like she belongs, and tortures herself to be what Tom requires. Freddie is left to his own devices much of the time, aware that his mother’s sole focus is pleasing his difficult father.  Freddie spends his time tracking the residents with the skill of a spy using his ‘life-changing’ digital binoculars to observe them, though brilliant, he may not understand just what he sees, for there is a much larger story, connecting strangers in a thriller that culminates with a murder. Let not the past be forgotten either, go back to 1996 and a diary entry that begins with a girl who is in love with her English teacher, twice her age.

Tom’s neighbors are consultant heart surgeon Jack and his wife Rebecca who is pregnant with their first child and not happy about it. Jack’s carefree sister Joey, ten years his junior, with her new husband Alfie (whom she married in Ibiza) in tow have just moved in with the couple. Where Jack is successful and serious Joey can’t seem to get her life together, taking “classic Joey jobs” that don’t pay much nor require experience nor education. Regardless of where she finds herself in the world, she is still the same irresponsible Joey, so nothing surprising about her intense attraction to Tom Fitzwilliam, a man who surely would never be interested in a mess like her. She should feel ashamed of her crush, considering Alfie, even though everything between them had happened too fast. That is Joey’s way, acting out on her passions and impulses. Then there is her brother Jack’s wife, a woman so “straitlaced ” and “humorless” that she couldn’t hope to befriend nor confide in her. Why is Rebecca so distant? What did Jack ever see in her? Why isn’t she excited about having a child? Joey’s dissatisfaction with her own disappointing choices in life are buried under her new hobby, Tom, which is becoming more obsession. “Everyone wants a bit of Tom Fitzwilliams”, but she wants more than just a bit, watching him with intense longing, soon she will get to know him when she becomes the focus of his attention.

Jenna Tripp lives in the neighborhood too, and she doesn’t feel charmed or ‘blinded’ by her teacher like everyone else. Her friend Bess yearns for Tom,  thinks him “A god among men” but Jenna has different memories about Mr. Fitzwilliam, a moment she and her mother witnessed, that induce nothing but unease and a little fear.  Her mother, though, is succumbing to mental decline. It’s getting harder for Jenna to cover for her, especially when her mother has her freak outs in public, declaring that she is being followed, watched! She is adamant that Tom Fitzwilliam and ‘that son of his’ are bad people, a part of some ‘they’ who stalk people, torture them until they go mad. That Jenna just needs to wake up and see the truth, wants her daughter to stay away from the man. Her mother’s behavior is getting worse, it’s scaring her, and there seems to be nowhere for Jenna to turn for help, not without upending their life.

Everyone is being stalked and stalking in this novel inspired by love, desire, loneliness, boredom, madness or something far more dangerous. Is Tom really a god among men, is Jenna’s mother going mad, is Joey the threat? Could Freddie with his peculiar hobbies and simmering anger towards his father be the real danger lurking? How does the past and a young girl’s naive love for her teacher tie in? Who is Red Boots? The truth is full of trickery and the reader will assume many things, being both right and wrong in their guesses.

You have to read.

I began reading Lisa Jewell when I lived in England and her novels have taken a darker turn, the characters far more complex. I’ve said as much before, but I can’t help but be impressed by the webs she writes her characters into. Watching You is another success! As to the ending… I didn’t expect that and it was just right! Yes, read it! Can’t wait for her next book!

Out Now

Published December 26, 2018

Atria Books

AWAY! AWAY! A Novel by Jana Beňová, Translated by Janet Livingstone

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He’s growing from the most hidden and softest parts of my own self. Wild flesh. My own desire.

This is the latest novel from Jana Beňová, the Slovak author of Seeing People Off,  of which you can find my review here:  https://bookstalkerblog.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/seeing-people-off-a-novel-by-jana-benova/  In Away! Away! Rosa leaves her husband behind, the story is short and yet packs a lot of punch in the telling with a few pages of prose. There is a bit of her youth in snippets, such as how much she cried during her first days of high school. Of how yearning is born, be it for Paris (even if it’s just a city within herself) or red wine, cigarettes. Her frustration is evident in her head scratching and intolerance of all the cuckoos, those women who always have something to say, you have to read it. She seems hungry for escape, from work, from her husband, wishing only to distance herself from the struggle of adapting to everything expected of a woman. “And there’s the fear that someone will come along and utter the truth: she’s a fake.” An endless cycle of cuckoos.

Then there are the kisses from which she can’t catch her breath. She is Away Away and on the road, she can’t truly escape can she? She meets Pierre, who wants to join her and Corman on the road taking his puppet’s to put on The Snow Queen.  The characters swirl through Rosa’s mind, which character does she resemble, will she remain as wooden as a puppet forever, doomed to be imprisoned by the body of the man she loves, the memories that travel with you even if you attempt escape, because in the end there is no such thing, really, as Away! Away!

It is fiery passion always at the start of love and slowly, with familiarity comes the disenchantment, the want for freedom, to return just to the self again without the restrains of love. The writing is different from other styles and you have to really be still and quiet to catch what is being said. It is a bit like pillaging someone’s private runaway thoughts. Conflicted emotionally, striving for rebirth that never comes because once you’re hatched, well you’re hatched. I know my thoughts are running off the train tracks here, but it’s the mood I am in after finishing this unique book. The writing reminds me of someone purging their thoughts on scraps of paper and just walking away. I have to give a nod to the book cover too, it’s fabulous!

Available Now

Two Dollar Radio

The Embalmer by Anne-Renée Caillé, Rhonda Mullins (Translation)

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You have to be true, to be faithful to the photograph the family sometimes leaves. I am surprised to find out this is not done consistently.

Most of us don’t like to think about what happens after death, how the embalmer prepares the body, the work required to make our loved ones look as they did in life, our ‘last look’ at our beloved who is both present in body and yet not. In this literary fiction, Anne-Renée Caillé’s narrator plumbs the depths of her father’s experiences during his time as an embalmer. What seems like a macabre subject is handled with a far more matter of a fact manner. We modern-day people are removed from death, out of sight, out of mind. While a book of only 96 pages, some of the telling made my skin crawl, not so much for gruesome horror but that lives end in the strangest and saddest of ways.

Her father, at times with ‘a list of cases on hand’,  makes some of the deceased become more real by saying their names. His job, to make them who they were before the ravages of disease, accidents, murder, or even combat had his work cut out for him, and certainly there are cases where there isn’t the possibility of make-up saving the day, because only a closed casket is the option. There are indignities in dying, most of us just have to look away and let others handle the ugly details, never once giving it a thought yet knowing our time will come. Who can bear to ponder such things with so much living to do?

“The story is sensitive, they all are, but some are more disturbing.”

Through listening to her father, she wants to understand him, his choice of jobs where things are underground. Then there is illness in her own family, in her father just like his father before him but death’s movements can’t always be tracked and sometimes surprises us with the age old question, “Who is next?”

I can’t wait to read more by Anne-Renée Caillé. She is an author I will be following. I read this in one night.

Available Now

Coach House Books

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

Two Dollar Radio

Who Cries for Mother Earth: A Novel by Margaret Hines

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I Am Yellowbird Woman. 

There are times when a vision is so powerful it can rest in a person’s soul forever.

Based on Lakota culture and spirituality, in Who Cries For Mother Earth, a young Lakota is mentored by Unci (Grandmother) learning how to heal her people. Zintkala Zi Win (Yellow Bird Woman) lost her mother at childbirth, her Grandmother (Unci) took her in and kept her alive for a time. Her father visited her, but she ended up in an orphan tepee until Unci came and took her in for good. A people of great warrior strength and spirituality, the Lakota once walked free giving care, medicine to people. One day her warrior father too went to the sky, her Unci would teach her the ways of medicine women, gathering roots, sacred medicines, understanding visions , giving prayers of supplication to Wakan Tanka (God) and listening to Mother Earth. Medicine is spiritual, not every person in a family is called to the healing. The Lakota travel tribe to tribe, offering great doctoring and spiritual teachings, known as the Brother Tribe. Before long, she meets her sacred animal, one that will be with her for life. While allowed to play, be a child, there is much respect and reverence taken when approaching the pejuta wakan.

The beauty of this novel is the knowledge and respect of the earth, of energies, of every living thing (which has spirit).  Noting with medicine work, due diligence must be paid to the emotional state of medicine women as they work with the plants, as energy is believed to effect the purity of the healing. Humility, peace and love are of most importance. Life isn’t easy for them, traveling place to place they deal with harsh elements, sickness. There is as much reverence for the animals, for the food they provide, the spiritual visions, messages as they have for human beings. There is never any waste. As seen as savage, she points out the true savagery is in owning and farming the land, wiping out native crops.  White men damming waters, no longer allowed to flow freely. People begin to ignore Mother Earth, to harm her. It is full of premonitions of destruction, war. Who will cry for her, Mother Earth?

The Lakota lived in Harmony until the white man resigned them to boxes, reservations. It’s a highly spiritual, beautiful book, not my usual read but something to chew on considering we all share this world and the harm being done to earth is harm to us all. There is beauty in respecting that the Earth isn’t ours, we are just visitors. We have certainly gone far away from the love and respect for nature, all things spiritual the Lakota chose as their way of life. A unique book about Native American Culture and Spirituality.

Publication Date: Available Now

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