The Study of Animal Languages: A Novel by Lindsay Stern

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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

 

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Driving Into The Sun by Marcella Polain

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They go to work and they don’t come back. Everywhere there are cracks in the world that other people can’t see.

The story takes place in Perth, Australia 1968 and one day Orla’s father Dan, a shining sun in her world, doesn’t come home. With his death, everything changes for Orla, her little sister Deebee and their mother Henrietta. The world becomes a threatening place without the protection of a father, there is nothing left to save them, financial hardship is that much heavier a weight, and as their father’s thoughts fade, the last are those of shame as the reader is privy to his regrets, that he left his wife nothing, that he is so sorry…  The novel flows between memories and the aftermath of the shift in their family structure. Before, there are problems, they aren’t able to stay in their house in the hills, the money isn’t coming in. Her parents must leave the hills for a cheaper living situation, they move to the ‘only-for-a-year-house’, but another house will be built. No longer surrounded by the vast wilderness, closer to the beach but in a more suburban setting they are closer to neighbors. People that are better left unknown, those you avoid. Their mother works weekends to help them stay afloat, until the death of their father makes the neighbors people to rely upon, when there is no one else. There are to be no more riding lessons for Orla, who has a head full of horses, which the family couldn’t really afford while her daddy was alive, but how could he deny his girl such a desperate desire? Left with their mother, who has always been far less patient with the children, missing the father who ‘never shouted’ they are all vulnerable to the threats ‘out there’ in the big bad world. There is never true closure for Orla and Deebee, without the finality of a funeral (as the girls weren’t allowed to go) Orla is sure her daddy will return, like a moth to a light, despite the visit from the reverend assuring her ‘God only takes the best first.’

Orla isn’t quite a teenager yet, still a little girl awakening to grown up things, and of course far less sheltered after she loses her father. The author did a wonderful job of getting into a young girls mind, everything is murky when you’re young. It’s like trying to understand words while swimming underwater. Nothing is fully explained, nor fully grasped when you are not quite developed in body and mind. But you sure grow up fast when your home is no longer made up of capable, loving parents. Henrietta, due to this tragic unexpected circumstance is now both mother and father, frustrated by Orla whom she doesn’t understand, a little girl she has always felt lacked ‘guts’, something all Australians need, but she will have to learn, she will have to learn to be harder in this place. What is she going to do, left with no one but the children, and how is she, a widow alone in the 1960’s, to keep them fed, housed, clothed? Then there is a prowler lurking about, and women just aren’t taken seriously, they need a husband for everything, how is she to secure a better home for her girls when women need men to be approved for such things? A woman alone with little girls is a target! The odds are always stacked against her. Dan left them nothing! He didn’t prepare for such things and she is paying for it all, she and her girls. Another betrayal she has to stomach, and there were other betrayals. She hates the thought of it all, trapped, a mountain on her shoulders. Would it have been better if she died? After all, people rally behind men who lose wives, forgive them anything, not so for a widow! It’s probably her fault he is dead! These thoughts are absolutely genuine of the times, it was the same with single mothers even when I grew up in America during the late seventies and early eighties, there was a ‘they probably deserve it’ mentality. There wasn’t empathy for single mom’s whether due to the loss of a husband or divorce.  Being in Henrietta’s shoes would be terrifying and there are pages dedicated to her head space, though Orla dominates the novel.

With their father gone, a young mother named Cora comes into their lives too, not as coarse as they once believed but talking about adult things Orla doesn’t always comprehend, with so much life in her, confidence, a fun person. Her mother has different views on ‘unfortunate’ Cora, jealous too of the amount of time her eldest daughter chooses to spend at her house but Orla thinks she is lucky, with both her mother and father still alive. Little sister, wild Deebee feels caged when she has to stay with the Thompsons while her mother is at work, absolutely hates it. I adored Deebee, she is feral, she isn’t a ‘good girl’ but that doesn’t make her bad. She is a fierce little thing, even less aware of what goes on around them all.

Through the novel there is a threat simmering, but threats always simmer for women living on their own. The ending really hit me between the eyes. The novel may lose some readers because often people get lost in internal dialogue, particularly when it’s the worries of an often anxious young girl. I think it actually works for Orla’s character, because with the difficulties and grief she feels, the longing, the fear of the future, her mind wouldn’t ever be at rest, her thoughts wouldn’t be linear. That’s how we are when we’re trying to make sense of our place in the world. A sad novel.

Out Today   February 1, 2019

Fremantle Press

 

 

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

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