Finding Dorothy: A Novel by Elizabeth Letts

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“Oh,” Maud said. “I don’t know the first thing about theater. How does one go about becoming a theatrical man?”

“Well, I wasn’t fit for anything else,” Frank answered, his eyes crinkling up into a smile. “Not a whit of business sense, I’m afraid- unless that business is magic.” 

Maud Gage “understood that she has been anointed- she must not let her mother down.”  Matilda, her mother, had fought for women to be seen as equals to men, for women to have the right to earn college degrees (the only hope for a better future) something she herself was denied. When Maud’s older sister Julia cannot fulfill her progressive mother’s expectations due to health difficulties, Maud must take her place. At Sage  (Sage Hall was built to house females at Cornell back in 1875) she befriends Josie Baum, and realizes that her ‘eccentricities’ that at home were encouraged make her feel like a complete misfit at Cornell. Women may have more doors open to them than her mother ever did, but aren’t meant to be engaging, are expected to fade into the wallpaper. For all the talk of equal rights, women are still expected to be ‘like a houseplant’ more for pretty decoration, to be less engaging, to bend to a man’s will and be a rapt audience who fawns over the male pontificating in the classroom rather than voicing their views. If they don’t land a husband their only other option, educated or not, is to return back home to their parents, where they are managed instead by their father or mother. It is through her friend Josie Baum that she meets her future husband, when Josie invites her over to her to a party at her house over Christmas break.  Josie’s cousin Frank, a man of the theater (actor, director, stage manager of the small traveling  Baum Theater Company) who will go on to write the much-loved children’s classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Frank, whose name starts with F. F, the letter that during a seance with her group of friends at the college appeared on the board, whose name her future husband begins with, if you believe that sort of thing and of course… of course she doesn’t. Does she?

The joy of this novel is how Maud and others served as Frank’s inspiration, from a fear of scarecrows to a sad, lonely niece, her special doll and the dress that inspired Dorothy’s iconic gingham one. Anyone who has ever watched Dorothy will warm while reading about the birth of Oz. It wasn’t all success for Maud, whom watches her own sister’s poor choice of the heart and every sorrow and hardship that follows. Her own path now tied to Frank Baum’s, she must bust free from the confines of her mother’s plans, marrying a man whose life is spent on the road with his theater. When she has a child, he must find a career to support Maud and their infant son, working as a salesman and trying to ignore his ‘flights of fancy’. They experience loss, Maud’s severe illness during her second pregnancy,  changes in career for Frank, family strain and deep grief between she and her sister Julia while living in the vastness of Dakota territory.

Future Maud is a widow, nearing 80 and on the set of the film The Wizard of Oz. Here she meets and befriends Judy Garland, developing tender feelings for the lonely, young woman whose overbearing stage manager mother doesn’t seem to protect enough. Bullied by everyone from the director to her co-stars, spies watching her diet like a hawk, young Judy Garland spends a lot of time on the verge of a breakdown, her insecurities fueled by on set cruelties but finds a nurturing presence in Maud, as well as insider information on the part she wants to play to perfection. Who understands Dorothy better than Baum’s own wife, inspiration behind the beloved characters? Too, Maud will fight to keep one of the now most famous songs Somewhere Over the Rainbow from being cut from the film, as much as fight to see young Judy isn’t smacked around, literally. This ‘old woman’ will not be pushed aside, she has made a promise to her husband’s memory and herself that this film must do justice to Frank’s tale, not diminish it! Having been raised by a mother who was quite the suffragette, it seems like destiny that Maud witnesses the binding of Judy’s developed body, to make her appear younger, after all Dorothy was a little girl in the book and the attempts to deny her proper nutrition of course Maud sneaks tasty snacks to feed Judy herself! Such control a far cry from the rights her mother demanded, so far into the future and women still being handled, unrealistic expectations forced upon them. Maud, despite giving up her degree for marriage wasn’t one to retreat, her marriage to Frank dealt her many hardships that even the most educated, progressive woman would break under. They always had love and respect, and she is due credit as much as Frank’s own diligence, for his success. Maud was a woman who managed their family finances, raised their two sons while Frank’s career often pulled him away, who pushed her husband to realize his dreams.

While the relationship between Maud and Judy Garland is tender, the past is the heartbeat of this novel. I don’t think I will ever watch the film without thinking of all the sorrows that touched the Baum’s. There is a lot of heartbreak, the story isn’t all rainbows and good witches but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of happiness too. Beautiful, I didn’t expect to like this novel as much as I did. It’s a very rich story!

Publication Date: February 12, 2019

Random House Publishing

Ballantine Books

 

 

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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

Sea Monsters: A Novel by Chloe Aridjis

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It was impossible to recall how those four syllables, Tomás Román, had once felt like an incantation, strong enough to hex school and city, the initials TR evoking the promise of anything, two consonants awaiting a vowel awaiting an act.

Luisa, 17 years old and living in Mexico City in the 1980’s is miserable among her own peers, a misfit whose musical tastes (Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nick Cave, The Cure, Joy Division) swayed me to request this novel. Enter Tomás Román, TR the boy who seems like a promise of something other, a boy who she didn’t even like but couldn’t deny being intrigued by as he began making appearances in her life. Tomás, that ‘sliver of black slicing through the so-called calm of the morning’ a proud drop-out, master of his days is everything she wants to be, fearless and free. It is with this teenage boy of 19 she runs away but it is the newspaper article she happened upon that inspires her to run to Oaxaca. A strange story about 12 Ukrainian dwarfs having escaped a Russian Circus, said to be headed to the coast of Oaxaca, finally something thrilling and exciting for her to latch onto. It is her idea to go, and so they do.

It takes quite a bit of time to reach that part of the story, trudging through their early days when he appeared on the scene, her father’s stories about shipwrecks and aquariums. The writing is beautiful, I highlighted like crazy but I spent a lot of time wondering when I would find something to latch onto. One can sense, as the novel finally gets more steam, the desire for flight and her struggle with shame for the pain her disappearance must be causing her parents and yet not caring enough to end her trip, wanting to claim her independence. She should be in the city, preparing for her future with college interviews, not going to the beach with a stranger, not worrying her parents whom by all accounts aren’t bad people.

On Zipolite, the beach of the dead, well-known as a dangerous place for swimming, a vagabond’s paradise, Luisa begins to be bored by Tomás  and searches for stimulation in other people on the beach, like the sultry stranger she calls the merman. Much like she did with Tomás, she builds a story about him, based on nothing but her longings. Mostly she spends her time suffering some sort of melancholy, absorbing the sun and ocean, not quite giving the cathartic effect most people experience beside the sea.

Aridjis nailed the listlessness that many teenagers feel, when on the cusp of adult decisions. The novel has a dreamy landscape, because half the time Luisa seems like a sleepwalker, unable to define why she has taken this out of character journey. She is mostly aimless through the entire novel, idleness would have been a grand title. I am still not entirely sure what the story was about, I confess. There is good writing, but I wasn’t fully engaged, I think I was still waiting for something to happen, which now that I think of it is exactly how it feels when you are a teenager, waiting for life to happen.

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Catapult

 

The End of Loneliness: A Novel by Benedict Wells

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My thoughts roam further back in time, until at last they settle on the calamity that overshadowed my childhood.

In one tragic instant, Jules, Marty and Liz Moreau’s parents die in a car crash while on a spur of the moment vacation. The sheltered life they knew living in their family home in Munich is over, “it seemed that there were families that were spared by Fate and others that attracted misfortune; and that night I wondered whether my family were one of these.” Jules, eleven years old, along with his older siblings is sent to live in a boarding school, a cheap state-run children’s home, not to be confused with those elite institutions the wealthy attend. “From time to time, particularly criminal specimens would wash up like flotsam at school”, here the children split, no longer bonded to each other as they once were. Jules is no longer confident enough to be the wildly brave joker he was at his old school. He sheds that skin and becomes isolated, insecure, a twister of words as they tangle on his tongue, poorly dressed, sinking into the role of orphan. The other boy he once was only a vague memory. He crosses paths with  another student, Alva. Whatever fate has swallowed his parents up, chewed his old secure life  has spit out Alva like an offering, his salvation for a time. What makes her decide to befriend him he learns later. His brother Marty seems the same as ever, buried in his intellect, seemingly unaffected by their parent’s deaths. Disinterested in maintaining family connection nor looking out for his brother and sister, set on the path for success he no longer seems to need anyone. Liz, beautiful as ever, like a queen surrounded by her ever-present admirers, always too much, living only in the present, hungry for experience until one day she abandons it all, vanishes without rhyme nor reason is just as distant as Marty. All of the siblings are far more affected by their loss than they know, but it will take years before they see it.

As the years pass, it is Alva Jules confides in, even as they love and date other people. Eventually, they turn to each other but there are secret places inside of her that she doesn’t share. Alva is full of old mysterious wounds and secrets. He hears about his sister only ‘through static’, as she can’t seem to anchor herself anywhere and when she does to land it never lasts. Marty, with a computer science degree is incredibly successful, even finds a girlfriend while scoffing at love but may not be as  adjusted as he projects to the world. Jules turns to photography, his father’s love, haunted by the manner in which he once rejected his father’s passions. Afterall, his mother was “the undisputed star of their family” , their father not as easy to warm to. Now, could he make a career from this art form?

As much as his parents and sister slipped through his fingers so did the parallel live he should have been living had his parents never died, too he loses Alva only to find her again years later living in Switzerland. Here, he begins to take writing seriously, having realized his talent for photography isn’t good enough. Alva has a life tangled in complications that he finds himself caught up in and if he has to have her this way, in the shadow of a  greatly talented man she admires, so be it. Their love story challenges Jules in ways he never could have imagined, pushing him to play with life or death. He finds himself in Lucerne, Switzerland finally willing to force himself to confront this thing between he and Alva, and to ‘stop chasing after a ghost.’

Just when everything Jules has wanted is aligned and it seems happiness is at last on the horizon, forces beyond his understanding have other plans. What will he do with his grief this time? A haunting story about family, grief, love and how certain pivotal events can change the trajectory of a life.

Publication Date: January 29, 2019

Penguin Books

Brides in the Sky: Stories and A Novella by Cary Holladay

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They couldn’t get the winter out of their lungs, was how Kate thought of her parents’ deaths.

The collection of stories begins with the tale of eighteen-year old Kate and her sister Olivia, twenty. Shocked by the grief of having lost their parents, now tied to land they must learn to farm on their own, either that are get hitched. With a mean harvest, they soon meet two young men, brothers Martin and Andrew heading out West for the promise of gold or better farming. Before long, change arrives as the sisters tie their fate to the men. A journey that will change everything between them, shape their futures. The perils they face on the Oregon trail will force both Kate and Olivia to find strength, when faced with darkness they never could have foreseen.

In the story Shades, Natalie takes a fancy to little Warren and takes him for a ride, ending up with her sorority sisters during rush week. “She was too beautiful and scandalous” and maybe a little criminal. Is she babysitting him? Comanche Queen begs the question, can you really ever go home? 1860, Cynthia Ann Parker is being rescued from her captive, once kidnapped by Comanche Indians when she was only nine-years old, now one of the Chief’s wives, mother to his infant child. After living and learning the ways of the Comanche, now her people too, what will happen when she returns to the world of the white man? Why is she enraged by her saviors? Women’s lives are shaped by luck, good and bad. There are choices that can ruin a life or save it, illnesses that can take children, violence, unwelcome touches and desirous ones. Through the pages of history a woman can disappear or live to ripe old age but never untouched by the times. There is the story with Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s sweetheart, and her admission of the “wonderful feeling of being chosen” and too she tells of the end that such excitement must come to. The tale end, her great grand-daughter crying, holding her hand and “she grabbed my hand and held on, like I could go back and change things.” Wow! Gut punch.

The best of the stories is A Thousand Stings and I was happy to end the collection immersed in the sister’s lives. Coming of age, chasing after the handsome Ray, the summer of love stirring things up when the preacher in their town begins growing his hair and nails long, strumming his guitar, sweet on a young thing while his wife and daughter are away on a trip. Scandalous! Times are changing as much as the sisters. Their mother’s moods, usually predictable sometimes seem worn out from mothering, tired for all that is to come with her three girls.  “It is a cumulative exhaustion she feels, a crushing sense of responsibility.” The story is focused more on Shirley than the other sisters, Patty and Diana but each of the sisters are fully developed characters, as is their mother. Shirley is the watcher, “on guard against harm” of the family. She is the eyes, she knows “when to just listen” too. You forget, as you age, what it’s like a to be so young, dealing with your ever-changing body and only half understanding the adult world, or your own siblings. With Patty, the need to fit in with the girls her own age, to have the perfect party, all that longing for things go right, and how we fear being embarrassed by making the wrong move or our mothers. There is a lot of story in their everyday actions, if you pay attention. The ending is adorable, the rain, the shampoo! It’s the letting go, a release, a ‘forgetting your troubles’ and stealing happiness, a sisterhood of freedom. I would have loved a full novel about these girls and their mother alone! I stayed up just to finish their story. This is an author I will be watching!

Publication Date: January 14, 2019

Ohio University Press

Swallow Press

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Hanover Square Press

The Blurry Years: A Novel by Eleanor Kriseman

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

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

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

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

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

Out now

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