Time for Bed, Miyuki by Roxane Marie Galliez, Seng Soun Ratanavanh (Illustrations)

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“Miyuki, it’s time for bed.”

“But, Grandfather, I must water my vegetables.” “All right,

Miyuki,” Grandfather sighed.

“Water your vegetables, and then it’s time for bed.”

Miyuki may well be creating a Canopy for the Queen but she is the Queen of Stalling. This beautifully illustrated children’s bedtime book is a French import with Japanese culture as its theme. Having lived in Japan, it’s imagery is a reminder of the years my family and I spent there. Miyuki is one of my favorite names too. There is such a gentle tenderness, a patience in her grandfather and this illustration in particular moves me.

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(Image copyright Seng Soun Ratanavanh, 2018, text copyright Roxane Marie Galliez, 2018. Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press.)

My daughter used to stuff her little feet into shoes just like the one that becomes Miyuki’s bed in the above photo, long after she outgrew her favorite pair. The mushroom, the details in all of the illustrations are perfection. I miss fun, sweet illustrated children’s books.

Like most children when it’s time to wind down, Miyuki’s imagination is running wild, her energy is contagious and lucky for her, Grandfather is more than willing to go along on her journey, accomplishing her many tasks. His soft sighs are the only tell that he is worn out. It really isn’t time for bed, no way, not yet.

The carp streamers (windsocks) known as Koinobori, that she sits upon in one of the illustrations dominate the towns during Children’s Day in May. I remember the beautiful colors the first time we saw them, isn’t it lovely, a day to celebrate children? This book is a nod to nature and it’s elements too. Lily pads, dragonflies, frogs, snails for travel, tiny birds, ants hard at work… its perfect imagery for a little one’s mind before entering dreamland. Growing up in the late 70’s and early 80’s children’s books had the best illustrations, I am so happy to see such artistry dedicated to the young today.

I am going to find a copy in French too for my grown children, it’s very sweet!

Out today!

Princeton Architectural Press

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Days of the Dead by Kersten Hamilton

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Papi held me tight and told me Mamá’s depression was a sickness. We aren’t ashamed when people die of cancer or pneumonia. We can talk about it and cry. He said mamá had been too sick to understand how much her leaving would hurt us.

It’s been a while since I’ve read children’s books, as my son and daughter are adults now, but sometimes I see books that grab my attention. In Days of the Dead, Glorieta Espinosa is trying her best to move on from her mother’s suicide even accepting her father’s marriage to a white Texan woman, Alice. That doesn’t mean she has to accept Alice’s nightmare of a daughter, Lilith. Since she’s stormed into her life, she’s done nothing but rip off her friends and spread her cruelty. Angus, her new step-brother isn’t so bad, even if he sometimes thinks he is a truck. When she isn’t dodging Lilith’s twisted games, Glorieta is devising plans to convince her Tía Diosonita (the town patron) to allow her mother’s ashes to be buried with the rest of her family.

Tía Diosonita is a strict Catholic, she refuses to see the souls of her ancestors, their people, be stained with a suicide in their midst even if she loved Glorieta’s mother as her own. Glorieta doesn’t have a chance to see her mother’s spirit during los Días de los Muertos if she is kept out of the cemetery. Her mother will have no company in the afterlife, no chance to reunite when it’s Glorieta’s time to die. Tía Diosonita won’t even talk about her mother! Could there be things she doesn’t know, shame her own Tía carries with her about what happened to her mother?

How can she convince her Tía of anything when poisonous hatred is collecting in her own heart, soul? She wants nothing more than to see her tormentor, step-sister Lilith get her just deserts! After an incident with immigration officers she is traumatized, then raging but she must keep her word as an Espinosa to never reveal Lilith’s true nature, having struck a deal. That all changes when Glorieta goes above her Tía Diosonita, which feels like an unforgivable betrayal, a sin! Accident or not, it’s caused a crack in her family, one she isn’t sure she can ever mend. She feels cast out, as doomed as those in Fool’s Field, where the dead were too sinful in life to sleep (be buried) in consecrated ground.

This is when Glorieta will be tested, and discover if she is weak or strong.

This was a wonderful story about love, compassion, tradition and immigration. It would be perfect for 6 grade and up.

Available Now

Skyhorse Publishing

 

The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop

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More instances of unrequited love are added to the mix so that, in the end,  it’s a merry-go-round of people sighing over people looking the other way. 

I didn’t think this book would be so much fun, let’s face it, Russian Literature is heavy but Viv Groskop had me laughing about her own Russian experience. In search of her roots, trust me this changes the meaning Viv excavated from literature and Russia itself, Viv takes us on a ride through the minds of the great authors and you don’t have to throw yourself on the train tracks to relate. There were interesting tidbits, where inspiration bubbled up for say Leo Tolstoy or Ivan Turgenev and how many of the authors struggled with their own hypocrisy. Then there is Gogol and his neurotic tendencies, you shouldn’t laugh, but how can you not? We are only human, and just as contrary as the greats.

What of Viv, herself a fool for love, unrequited? Who hasn’t walked the empty rooms of such love? Baying at the moon, why… why don’t you love me? Well, the Russian’s have your back. Just join the ranks of all those star-gazing fools sighing over the object of their affections who are sighing over someone else, who probably doesn’t love them back either. Oh it’s a cold, cruel world!

One could overdose on all the moralizing, and yet the very characters we’re meant to avoid becoming, they make us love. Am I a hedgehog or a fox? Am I both? (you have to read)  Let the women not be discounted either, for their own greatness, how many people write for survival, how many write when it could very well be your death? I can’t even memorize this post, and I doubt I could find ten people to keep something I’ve written safe in their own heads.

Viv is frank about her own life, her search for identity by hitching on the Russian wagon, and when she finally solves the mystery of her family’s ethnicity I couldn’t suppress a laugh because it has the ingredients for a classic story itself… really, doesn’t it just figure, what a character Viv is! I loved it, loved her voice, her drama, her humor  and you don’t have to like Russian literature, you can avoid it, fear it, embrace it and still come away from this book having a giggle. Trust me, there are serious moments, of course there are, some downright heartbreaking, no wonder these authors wrote masterpieces, their own lives were fresh hell at times. You can’t get more morbid or down in the dumps than the characters these men created, well maybe you can, the world can be a pretty ugly place. But like Viv tells us, ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.’

Publication Date: October 23, 2018

Abrams Press

 

Ponti: A Novel by Sharlene Teo

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The distance between where she was and the glossy point where she wanted to be stretched and stretched. 

In Ponti, Szu lives in the shadow of her mother Amisa’s otherworldly beauty and small diminished fame. ” I marvel for a split second at the unfairness of genetics, mysterious spirlas of DNA coiling and cohering into life sentences: You will be plain. You will be beautiful. You will repulse mosquitoes. You will have an iron gut. You will be sickened by crabmeat.” Amisa’s career never took off with the promise her beauty once held. Having left her small village for bigger things, she works hard and falls in love with Wei Loong, they marry and she works full-time at the Paradise Theater until she is discovered by filmaker “visionary” Iskander Wiryanto. She has the perfect beauty, like a mask, exactly who he desires to play the Pontianak (folklore, a ghost of a woman who dies in childbirth and preys on men, in the form of pale beauty, long dark hair) in his films. We follow Amisa through the making of the film, witness to the ‘bloom of her ego’ even in the face of grief for her losses back home. Playing the Ponti takes it’s toll on her, the filmaker difficult, pushing her harder than she can stomach, not as enraptured by her sexually as all men are. Three films in, and her shining star dims, the movie becomes a cult classic, but of the times no one is interested in superstitions nor films about ghosts. The parts dry up, Wiryanto no longer needs his beautiful ghost and life with Wei Loong leads to just another part, of poor housewife. It isn’t long before she is pregnant with Szu, and feeling dreadfully close to her own mother and the life she trudged through. Amisa is more like a ponti now than a starlet. Wei Loong leaves before Szu turns 8, and then it is three, Szu, Amisa and Auntie Yunxi.

Aunt Yunxi and Amisa earn their living as fakes, mediums who ‘trade in hope’, milking the desperation of their clients. It’s necessary to con people for their survival, what with her tragic mother more a ghost of a woman, sleeping away her life. Szu is a misfit and completely friendless, until she befriends Circe. The two of them ‘citizens of nowhere’, feel unique, bonding over their discontent with the world. For Circe, the allure is Szu’s mother and mysterious aunt, even in their ugly home, there is a pull. Jump ahead to 2020, Circe’s team is going to be working on promotions for the new re-make of Ponti, hence “it feels like a can of Amisa-shaped worms has been opened.” The reader is dragged through time, guest to each character’s perspective. Szu, once seeming so bitter, strong, solid begins to fade, retreat into herself.  Something many female relationships wrestle with is the discomfort of familiarity, seeing too much of yourself in another. Sharlene Teo exposes this uncomfortable bond perfectly, there is a pull and push between Circe and Szu, a sort of marriage. They feel warm and cold toward each other, until Circe can’t stomach Szu, when Szu needs to be anchored most to the here and now! “She started wearing her hair in a bubble ponytail just like mine and mooched  about my house all day drinking gallons of diet coke and draping her sadness over my things.” It’s too much heavy sadness, Szu is dwindling, and she isn’t going down with her!  Circe wants to be young, fun, free and this friendship is suffocating, she needs to shake her off, shake off this stale depressive air. Circe of the present day isn’t sure she wants that Szu back in her life, and is surprised to hear of a Szu who turned out differently then she imagined.

Szu doesn’t really hate her mom, she hates that she wants her love and never gets it. That her mother was more a phantom through her entire childhood, never happy to play her part in her real life role. What is more melodramatic than a fallen star? Despising all the ordinary living that remains. How did Amisa, so beautiful, so alluring allow her promise to fizzle out? How could this woman, who as a young girl showed so much grit and courage by venturing into the city, the unknown to become something more, simply surrender? Auntie Yunxi is the bones of the household, maintaining the only structure in Szu’s life. But she is a mysteriously strange woman herself, and where is Szu’s father? Is she right in blaming her mother, for chasing him away being like a Ponti, a threat to his happiness? When he makes an appearance again, after life turns tragic, he has some truths to unveil.

This novel is disquieting, because the real ghost here is grief, blindness, and starry eyes. It’s about the whims of fate, beauty isn’t always a promise of anything solid either, you can’t bank solely on dreams nor a face. It’s giving up and closing your eyes to what you have, haunting your own future and destroying those nearest you in the process. It’s a child trapped by her mother’s shadow, who sees nothing but disappointment reflected back at her, a girl who hungers for the love she will be denied even from the grave. It’s clinging to another person for dear life, because they are a sort of stand in for the mother/daughter bond. Circe and Szu represent that awkward hunger girls have for connection, and how easily it can turn monstrous and all you want is your freedom. The Ponti in this story isn’t so much about the folkloric ghost, the more terrifying creature is Amisa, and what she allows her disappointments to do to her future.  She was so sure her beauty signled her out for more, made her special and she simply retreated from life when it knocked her back to earth. Szu follows in her footsteps for a breath of time, devoured by her own form of grief, like a disease. I found this to be terribly sad, heavy to carry.

I admit I was disappointed by the ending. I felt the story was a gathering storm, waiting for a climactic moment (big things do happen throughout, in their own unassuming way, with death) but I was waiting to be a part of Circe and Szu’s reunion, which was more hinted at. It never culminates. The writing is gorgeous, it’s an emotional upheaval which is strange considering there is a great distance between all the characters. There is an air of detached coldness, but it seems more a defense, Szu isn’t as strong as she seems. Her anger is a wall. Maybe it’s true that grief  ‘makes ghosts of us’ and that is part of why Amisa is more a suggestion of a mother, having lost someone dear to her early on. I am mixed on the novel, this is a talented writer but again I kept waiting for the big ending. Despite the aforementioned issues, the novel itself is beautifully written.  Circe is haunted by the past friendship, and years later carries the burden of her reaction to Szu as she began falling apart. It’s a complicated look at friendship, unwanted motherhood, dead dreams  and the terrible ways we allow certain moments to define our lives, for better or worse.

Sharlene Teo is one to watch. I am wildly curious what her next novel will be about.

Released Today! September 4, 2018

Simon & Schuster

The Golden State: A Novel by Lydia Kiesling

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“This is my house, ” I say aloud, and everything in the house contradicts me, down to its dubious foundation.

It is to this house in the desert of Altavista with her baby girl Honey that Daphne flees, leaving behind her work at the University of San Francisco, a student who has never quite finished her PhD despite encouragement from those around her because “working at the institute has amply illustrated the precarious sh*tshow that is a life of the mind”. She is a single mother for all intents and purposes as her Turkish husband, Engin is trapped by a ‘processing error’ and cannot return to the United States of America. The novel follows Daphne and Honey through the desolation their lives have become in Engin’s absence. Single despite the occasional Skype with Honey’s daddy, a tiresome thing, Skype when her life is already consumed by meeting her child’s needs and demands.  A desert seems a fitting place, because this is a sort of desert period for Daphne. The house is her grandparent’s mobile home, her mother is dead and it’s hers now. Her family had lived there for a long time, settled and rooted but this life doesn’t fit her.

You can’t expect a lot of dialogue between a baby and her mother and yet Kiesling manages to make Honey a solid person, whether she is cranky and whiney or like on Day 5 kissing her mommy’s face awake. That’s how we bond though, without words and there is a beautiful intimacy in it. It gets boring at times, and you feel as bogged down as she does but at least the baby is always real, present unlike so many stories where children are unnaturally silent the entire novel. I dont’ think such children exist in reality. Right now, ‘conversations are work’ and Daphne seems to both welcome and hate this self-imposed exile. She thinks Ellery and Maryam, having met their doom and compares the young women to her own very much alive child. But it’s a thought she doesn’t like to feed on, and in some strange way may shoulder a bit of blame for, or maybe not, can you bear the blame of fate’s whims? She should be opening emails, dealing with whatever mess she has jumped ship from back at the university, but she cannot find the wherewithal do it. She is in a sort of strange in-between time so many mother’s are familiar with after the birth of a child. Daphne plus one.

She meets the locals, and explains she works for an institute that studies Islamic studies which naturally begs the question, “Like Isis?” Daphne studies the language, and how countries share an islamic past. Bring up Muslim and hackles raise with a cry of Isis, which is often a shamefully believeable reaction in our country. She absolutely defends her husband and all the Muslims who don’t go around ‘blowing people up’ and plotting terrorism, yet this also isn’t the point of the novel. Despite this, she and Cindy become friends of sorts, even though she doesn’t agree with her ‘ideology.’ The biggest group of people are ‘State of Jeffersoners’, not the sort of group her husband Engin (if he ever returns to her) will be able to tolerate. The possibility of a life where her family’s people have been since the 1800’s just may not be a viable option for her. She gets caught up, somewhat, in the secessionists who don’t want to deal with ‘urban problems’. Generations of people who feel the government is robbing them of the resources they’ve always had to themselves. She meets an old ‘auntie-type’ Alice, who has been to Turkey and serves as a sort of stand in grandma, support she surely lacks with Engin scattered to the wind and the rest of her family dead. A woman who has had much loss and sadness of her own, that far surpasses anything Daphne is struggling with. They take up together on a trip and everything goes sour, this is the climactic moment in an otherwise quiet story.

The story touched on xenophobia here and there, but not as much as you would expect. I was disappointed that Engin was as absent for me as he seems to be for Honey and Daphne. I wondered if some bone thrown my way about their love would have made me care more. Engin aside, I enjoyed the tender moments as much as the exasperating ones between Daphne and Honey. The writing is beautiful but the story did drag often and I usually enjoy being a visitor in a character’s mind. Sometimes I felt as exhausted as Daphne. Good but nothing much happens until the very end.

Publication Date: September 4, 2018

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

On My Aunt’s Shallow Grave White Roses Have Already Bloomed by Maria Mitsora

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At times I wish I could get to the beginning of my story. But the begining is lost in darkness even more than the end.

Maria Mitsora’s writing is beautiful, translated from Greek to English by Jacob Moe. I always wonder about translations, how much of the author’s work can suffer or shine is dependant on the translator. It is an interesting collection, strange at times, heartbreaking, stories blooming where they please. Some of the stories are broody, which is exactly why I enjoyed them so much, full of dreams which are as disjointed as our troubling thoughts. In Versions of Persephone, the character Axan ‘is on time for her rendezvous with the explosion.’Aren’t we all, of course in her case it is a physical explosion, she is in the underworld, trapped by pain. Her father, king of it all, the criminal warlord.

In Brown Dog in November, Nino needs to refrain from barking, as he mourns the loss of his Eleni. Eleni, the one woman who transfixed him, the one whose traces he still hunts for. What violence haunts him, as divorce from his love eviscerates him still? Who is the young fresh girl, another Eleni? It’s disturbing, the way he loves, if he loves at all. Eleni who wanted him to ‘walk in the sun’, Eleni who could calm the wild dogs. She, who turned her back on him.

Memories flash and dim, time rushes and stops. How much do we know of the storm inside our loved ones? In Stormy Verbs (my favorite), Verbia wants her beloved to feel the force of a river but it is the painful memories of the place that make that force dangerous, an abyss of pain. It is this place that created in Verbia what he fells for, her ‘fragile but unbreakable balance.’ A gut-wrenching story of regret and shame, short yet powerful.

Sipping the ‘distant froth’ of childhood and memory, the stories in this collection can be biting and bitter, lost characters looking for escape or return to themselves and each other. Stories we all read differently, feel uniquely. Dreamy at times, people as distant as a fading thought, struggling against the mundane and soon we all reach The End of the Show much like the wasp, sprayed with poison to oblivion and yet with the capability to fly away in spite of it all, a surprise to whatever mean eye is watching, waiting for us to die.  I got lost in the writing, a collection that engaged me.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Yale University Press

 

Evening in Paradise: More Stories by Lucia Berlin

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Missed moments. One word, one gesture, can change your entire life, can break everything or make it whole.

I have been wanting to read A Manual for Cleaning Women for a long time, having read glowing reviews so when I saw this one up for grabs I tucked in and wasn’t disappointed. Reading that many stories were based on her real life made them all the more satisfying. I was tickled by Tiny on the roof in the story Noel. Texas.1956. Spending her time overhearing her family, not quite feeling the Christmas spirit for her relatives, the very ones she did her best to escape, I couldn’t help but picture it all in my head. Then the generous toy delivery by airplane that goes all wrong and all I can think is, “life, isn’t that just the way things always are?”

Drug addiction that is both haunting and common in love, family haunts much of the collection. Laughing that two women give a man both the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ years of their lives, coming together in misery and yet somehow stronger women, wiser women for it all. How can a man who is a complete addict be the sort that all those who follow cannot measure up to? Life is mystery! One husband’s drug habit that takes a shocking violent turn for the wife who has no choice but to take care of things, cover something up and yet the next day is just another ordinary collection of days to come. Somehow these stories are both terribly sad, shocking and funny. It echoes many lives, there is one story where a little boy goes missing and it reminded me of something my own son did when he was with my mother and aunt. It doesn’t always work when authors play with the ‘truth’ of their own lives, creating fiction out of fact, but in the end everything we knew, experienced, are just stories with a million perspectives. If you think about it, no one ever tells them same story anyway, and that makes us all fascinating in what we chose to remember. That makes some people uncomfortable, the fluidity of truth but it’s necessary for fiction, I think.

I love reading stories about youth too, as we grow older we forget the bonds we shared with others. How fierce we were about loyalty and friendship. ‘When we got off the bus at the plaza, Hope repeated that she’d kill me if I ever spoke to Sammy again.                       “Never. Want blood?” We were always cutting our wrists and sealing promises.’ It could be the 1940s, the 1970s… human nature doesn’t change that much really. People fall in and out of love, grow and weed out friendships, raise children beautifully and terribly and the world spins on…

In each person there are many lives all full of beginnings and endings, tracks jumped when marriages dissipate or children are born. I loved The Adobe House With A Tin Roof because of the characters, nothing wild has to happen, it’s a quiet story but the plants, all the plants and her rowdy neighbor whom Maya both hates and adores (even if she doesn’t know it) made me feel I was there. One that stayed with me, Our Brother’s Keeper not just for the death of Sarah but more due to the flaw that so many women (especially those old enough to know better) chose to forgive because we sometimes want so badly for everything to just be okay. When it’s good, it’s good, right? Shouldn’t that be enough? Well, no… We may get bitter with age, because of what life does to us but deep down there is still that longing of a young girl’s heart.

I can’t compare her prior work, her audience was small while she was alive and has since grown after her death. Lucia Berlin was born in November of 1936 in Juneau, Alaska and died in 2005. Evening in Paradise is a follow-up collection of her remaining stories, and I genuinely enjoyed them all. Maybe my pleasure is in part my being a fellow November baby, always a little dark humored, easily finding things to laugh about even in the roughest of life’s moments, I can relate. Fitting that the stories will be released in November.

Publication Date:  November 6, 2018

Farrar, Straus and Giroux