What I Lived For by: Joyce Carol Oates

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Always Jerome Corcoran would recall how nothing that is has the power to evoke what was.

Jerome Andrew Corcoran, “Corky” is a 43-year-old real estate developer and broker, a city councilman with a future in politics. He is also so much a MAN that you almost have to wonder, have you ever had a mother? Do you even like women? I tried to like him, I tried but it’s hard!  His mother did fall apart after his father’s murder, surely that did something to him. Childhood trauma absolutely molds us in some way. Oates brings her characters alive, down to the disgusting things that go through their mind. With Joyce Carol Oates you have a guarantee the characters she creates are never censored beings. There is nothing diluted in Corky, and he isn’t better for it, no sir… but he is more believable. “He is a man in motion. No sooner gets to one place and loves it then he’s restless and bored and can’t bear to stay another minute.” He is exhausting, intolerable and unapologetically what other men used to believe exemplified manliness. A man who would, to my way of thinking, smell of smoke, whiskey, sweat and the lingering expensive perfume of his last lover. What made him this way, is it the horrific tragedy from his childhood when “God struck swiftly and without warning. No Mercy.” Did something die in him or worse, was some misery born out of the grief? Is it the tragedy of knowing and not knowing what you should know?

Union City, New York is his! Democrat, businessman, popular guy! “Forty-three years old. Not young but anyway not old.”  This Irishman has got plans and time is on his side, he is sure Christina Kavanaugh is his but then he is sure of a lot of things isn’t he, Mr. Cocksure? He’s high and mighty now, nothing of the boy with humble beginnings and the air of tragedy hanging about him. The past is behind him, where it will stay. The women love him, but Thalia, his ex-step daughter with ex-wife Charlotte Drummond (11 years that one lasted) is one female that knows how to play games with him. A young woman of “unpredictable moods”, who leaves a message that she needs help, it’s serious and then nothing. Unreachable. But he can’t think about that, his mind is on Christina and he’s hot for her now! Corky’s not one for thinking about the whys of his own life, ‘he’s not a guy comfortable inside his own head’, and let’s face it, many of us won’t feel comfortable in his head-space either but damn if I wasn’t engaged poking around in there.

He has made it, all I kept thinking is ‘he’s a mover and a shaker’ and of course there is going to be corruption and betrayal in every corner! Power welcomes it. All those smiling people, maybe for all the screwing he is up to it’s Corky being screwed, not the women. In the beginning there is a traffic jam, caused by a young woman’s suicide, strange that yet another tragic death will again be a pivotal moment in his life, just like his father’s murder. He’s middle aged and haunted by his past, he tries to fill himself up on success and sex and women. If you can control everything, than tragedy can’t touch you, right? Neither can age. Is he a pig? Yes and no, maybe he has something redeemable, you have to stick with the novel long enough to find out. How is Thalia tied into all of this, what has she done? What does she know? We all want to be seen as who we profess ourselves to be. The only difference here is we are privy to Corky’s deepest thoughts, to the things that stir him, even shameful desires. We see behind the closed door, when he erupts, hitting his woman. Yeah, like I said, he isn’t exactly the guy you want to love. Women, he knows, you can get away with anything, even the worst things about a man, ‘if they love you, you can’t lose’ and such women will find terrible things sexy, forgivable. It pisses you off, because there are plenty of people who think just this way! Worse, it is sometimes true!

With Thalia, “by Corky’s request she never called him anything other than “Corky”, she was obviously kept at a distance, no ‘daddy’ aspirations, fuzzy father daughter intimacies he can remind her of. The resentment she feels for him as fresh as yesterday, likening him to her grandfather seemingly disinterested herself in all her wealth, the very power and success he needs. He thinks he has her figured out, like all women but maybe it’s she that has him pegged. His hunger, knowing he probably is sexually stirred by her too. Maybe he has tried to remain unaffected, but Thalia is in a bad way, which begs the question, what will he do about it? Who the hell can he trust? All those mighty people rubbing shoulders and the terrible rotten things they do. Will he be a hero? Shouldn’t he, of all people, understand injustice?

All of Oates’ work speaks for itself, even if you find a character repulsive or more human than you want to admit, it can’t be denied she can really get into the mind of anyone she so chooses. While not my favorite, I always find her work meaty.

Publication Date: July 23, 2019

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HarperCollins

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Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

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But they were not attractive children, the rest of their faces soft and undefined. They looked ratty. I hadn’t even tried to fix their cult haircuts. I feared that fixing them would only make the kids more plain.

Lillian and Madison, an unlikely pair became tight friends at Iron Mountain Girls Preparatory School, hidden on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, where all the rich people sent their daughters. Lillian, having grown up poor in the valley of the mountain with a single mother knew she just needed ambition and and a scholarship, her ticket out of a luckless life. It doesn’t matter if her mother thinks this ‘opportunity’ isn’t the golden ticket her daughter thinks it is. That you can’t just go from the pits to a palace, that reaching too high can only lead to a greater fall, bigger disappointment.

With Madison’s friendship she comes to understand true power and what loyalty costs. There is an incident and Lillian must leave the school and abandon her dream for a better future, slipping mostly out of Madison’s life too. Working now as a cashier, Lillian’s life is antithesis to her old friend’s, who is ‘famous in political circles’, living a charmed life of wealth and still glamorous in her ways, with a perfect little boy named Timothy. Humming inside of Lillian is still the attraction, the need to please Madison, the desire to be needed by her. It is a desperate plea that has returned Madison to Lillian, her husband Jasper is up for secretary of state and his other two children by his ex-wife Jane have a peculiar affliction, they burst into flames upon any sort of upset. No, it isn’t a joke! It’s untenable in the limelight, how could Jasper explain, how could he reach success with children always on the verge of combustion? Imagine the danger, the chaos! All Lillian has to do is keep the children safe, calm and really, what does she have to lose? Her life is already ash anyway, really this is her salvation to Madison’s way of thinking and it’s infuriating that she may be right.

As Lillian enters the children’s life, hoping to tame them and manage their strange illness her heart expands and this temporary world comes to feel more important than any dream she ever conjured. She understands too well Bessie and Roland’s disappointments, because that is all her life has been made of, too she understands their inability to fit in anywhere and how their strange little hearts beat so much like her own. She will come to be more of a mother than their ‘governess’ and do anything to protect them. How are families made? Sometimes our wants and desires arrive disguised as disordered worlds, as lonely, dangerous children alight with fire.

This is one of the strangest, sweetest books I’ve read all year. It put a warm little fire in this heart of mine!

Yes, read it! It will warm you up in the cold of November. Wonderful fall fiction.

Publication Date: November 5, 2019

HarperCollins  Publishers

 

The Lines: A Novel by Anthony Varallo

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When the children return home from another weekend at their father’s, their mother says she has something to tell them. Great, the girl thinks. Whenever an adult tells you they have something to tell you- run. Run fast! Run fast and keep running.

It is the summer of 1979 and one family of four is splitting apart, a time when separation and divorce wasn’t quite as common as it is today. The girl seems to understand all the things that hum beneath the surface even though she is only 10 years old, things her brother, at the age 7, remains clueless about. Is this going to fix all the sorrow, this divide? How will becoming two families make life easier? It just doubles the problems doesn’t it, when you split things in half?  The boy certainly has questions about life as it’s unraveling.

Father is no longer living at home, father no longer being the man of the house isn’t there as things fall into disrepair. Is he really still a father then? Does the boy then step into daddy’s too big absent shoes and become man of the house? It’s all mass confusion. The kids are taking on the slack left behind now that mom returned to school. Then the dating, the parents are dating people! Bad enough they have to get used to two homes, two rooms, two separate lives  now doors are opening to strangers? Dad has a girlfriend, they won’t mention this to mom, and this girlfriend Sarah becomes a stand in mom when they are at their dad’s. In fact, she is often more engaged than their father, watching them at the pool.

The father had forgotten what being a bachelor means, the ‘essential’ things he can’t recall, the cooking, the food shopping and darn if he doesn’t miss his garage. Father not that good when it comes to attentiveness towards his son and daughter, hasn’t that always fallen to the mother before? Why can’t father make relationships work, even with someone new? Why must the girl be so aware of the ways her daddy falls short? There is something obscene in seeing your parents as human, with their fault lines.

“Why, the girl wonders , is life so often a matter of answering yes to things you’d rather say no to?”  Like meeting Mom’s new man. Seeing your father date is bad enough, and seeing his relationship fail is something she doesn’t wish to witness. Both parents are letting some parenting go, it’s different depending which home they are at. The summer is a bust, school feels more tempting than all this time on their hands, all this terrible change. There is a new man on the scene, Cliff. The mother’s friends are pushing her, find someone. Cliff is someone.

Cliff can fix things, make life easy, help bear the brunt. Sister is getting salty with her mother, challenging, fed up. With Cliff comes Marcus, who thinks he knows everything and is probably as clueless as the brother and sister. Everything is a crap show, the adults have all lost their senses. There is no compass, life without an anchor even Gumma tells her grandchildren their childhood is over now, coming from a broken home. It’s so sad when the adults try to make a new normal, failing time and again. The parents are terrible, according to Gumma. Everyone and their opinions, their insights! Bitter adults!

Is their marriage really over? Will their parents realign themselves and everything return to normal? One thing is certain, it’s going to be a terrible summer. All that happens is beneath the skin and mind, “There’s such a relief, the girl thinks, in knowing no one knows your thoughts.” For both the mother and the father, life full of financial demands, at least they no longer have to attend to each others bottomless need, but what to do with all this freedom? Life is still life, as a mother, as a father there will always be things and children pulling you this way and that. As the novel says, “Human misery, there’s never a shortage of it”, whether you are married or not. The children shoulder the separation and their parents failings, understanding raining upon them as heavy as the suffocating heat of the summer.

Yes, read it.

Publication Date: August 15, 2019

University of Iowa Press

Coming of Age in a Hardscrabble World: A Memoir Anthology by Nancy C Atwood (Editor), Roger Atwood (Editor)

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They will tell you that the depth of that meanness often depends on what life has done to a person, on the impressions left by brushes with people different from you, on those rare times when the parallel universes came close enough to touch. -Rick Bragg from All Over but the Shouting 

Growing up in working class America takes the spotlight in this non-fiction collection of excerpts from memoirs written in the 1980’s to 2014. The many voices within encompass more differences than their ethnicity, each life experience despite location is it’s own microcosm. The readers themselves are brushing up against parallel universes here. Some grew up with parents who were immigrants, wanting desperately to gain an education, no matter how limited their options. “I only know she’s clever, she deserves an education, and she’s going to get one. This is America. The girls are not cows in the field only waiting for a bull to mate with.” This from Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments: A Memoir.  For so many immigrants their limited language skills in their new country has them working jobs far beneath their skill and education level, naturally children growing up in such homes have to help their family out, to stay afloat even working as young as nine as Luis J. Rodriguez did. Child labor wasn’t new to the Rodriguez family, his own mother a cotton picker. Maya Angelou herself wandered the streets, living in an empty car in a junkyard for days. There lies a pulsing heart full of determination, at such a tender age. Something about struggle lends wisdom, feeds talent, some gain strength from adversity they face but there wasn’t really a choice, not where living in poverty is concerned. You do what you have to do.

We talk about race and inequality, but reading about it from another’s perspective is a different experience entirely. This excerpt from Joe Queenan’s Closing Time: A Memoir, speaks volumes about how sheltered our world views often are when we are young and surrounded only by what we are taught and experience in our own environment. “Until our paths crossed, I had no idea that people with dark skins were even allowed to be Brides of Christ.” Poverty and abuse too, it is inspiring to read about the mountains others have traversed, that even when it seems fate is against them, they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and fought their way to what they wanted, a better life. It’s not enough to be smart, conformity is often the beast one had to embrace, danger, racism, and discrimination. Class, coming from nothing you have to learn how to fit into those grand, distinguished places you find yourself in, places others navigate with ease, born to it. It’s not enough to ‘make it’, you have to survive and figure out where you fit and how. It’s rebelling when you need too, conceding when you have to. We like to think we’re above class in the Western World but it’s just as alive here as anywhere else. Maybe you don’t enter places where your social standing is tested, your education, your wealth or maybe such doors are closed to you, but they exist all the same.

Alcoholism and how children grow up in the midst of it, the fighting over money and lack thereof. The things mothers and fathers keep from each other, a game children are not yet well versed in and the disastrous consequences as shared in an excerpt from Mary Karr’s memoir (and a personal favorite of mine) The Liar’s Club. Mothers of divorce who get lonely and try on a man and his family, blended families not quite mixing. Salvation that is almost as bad as loneliness, trying to become a part of a new family like Tobias Wolff. Hanging with kids on the city streets, all rough and tumble. Friendships with boys whose homes become refuges where some mothers play piano and fathers have excellent libraries, an eye into different worlds. Homes where bigotry is just as natural as breathing, where mother’s get beatings and crying “Don’t hurt my teeth”, is her only defense as her son watches on afraid momma will be killed. (Rick Bragg,  All Over but the Shoutin’).

This collection is varied and wonderful, even in the darkest corners there is light. It offers up meaningful moments in some of the most ‘hardscrabble lives’ as told through memoirs that will likely inspire readers to read the full books.

Available Now

University of Georgia Press

 

The Porpoise: A Novel by Mark Haddon

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She never fights, never complains. She allows these things to happen, and the gap between acceptance and encouragement is a very narrow one. The longer it goes on the more she feels like an accomplice. 

The novel begins with tragedy, when Philippe’s pregnant wife dies in a plane crash, the baby miraculously survives. Growing up, she is denied nothing but her father is a sun that will consume and burn her with his attentions, his warped love. He justifies his abuses, and Angelica doesn’t know enough of the world, sheltered by her father, to know any better… until Darius.  “she knows little of the world and it is often hard to recognize stories when you find yourself inside them”, it is her dream that Darius will take her away, drunk on his attention she will find a way to confide in him. But they have underestimated daddy’s jealousy and rage. She finds other ways to escape, into silence, refusal, disengaging.

The story transitions and Darius is on the run, Philippe is a wealthy, powerful man whose reach is far. He takes to the sea upon The Porpoise accompanied by his friends Helena, Marlena and Anton while avoiding those who would kill him, not much of the hero Angelica needed. There is something strange afoot, lulled to sleep when they wake the ship has changed drastically and there is a strange, dangerous tattooed man abroad. They are no longer in their world, their time. In this Shakespearean tale based on Pericles, we are crashing into the mythology, but then flash back to Angelica and she is reading the very tale that his life has morphed into. Is this all her fantasy? Honestly, I am not sure. Is that meant to be the thread?

Now we are with Pericles/Darius, and it can be a challenge because I was immersed in the present, disgusted by Philippe, hopeful that Angelica would escape and not into silence nor through denying herself sustenance. It is the only revolt she has, for now. Shakespeare enters the novel too, and we ponder if  it was he who ‘turned Appolinus into Pericles’  or was it George Wilkins? Let’s focus on terrible George, by the way, and how he treats women. George, the debauched man, frequenter of brothels, who will soon be dead and have to face quite a surprise in the afterlife. “for years everything has been traveling steadily towards this terrible moment”, and how just! I enjoyed this part of the novel immensely.

It was difficult at first to dig into Pericles as he arrives in Tarsus at first, but it began to flow even if sometimes the jumping through stories and time had me lost. I had to avoid interruptions while reading to keep everything straight. It is adventurous, there is mutiny, rescues, a princess fished out of the sea, births, deaths and women suffering.  It is a dark novel, because it begins with rape, no matter how you try to define it. I don’t see her as an accomplice, not at all. Angelica’s insight is vital, the dawning of how wrong what her father does to her is told in her hunger to leave with Darius, her absenting her own body too.  I still feel I lost Angelica’s story, even though I can make loose connections throughout Pericles’s tale, still I wanted to focus more on her. This is a unique book, even if I felt as if I was slipped something while reading a modern tale that suddenly changed.

Out now

Doubleday Books

Being Mean: A Memoir of Sexual Abuse and Survival by Patricia Eagle

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What has been lived will never be erased, and possibly never be completely understood.

Being Mean was a term as violent as a loaded gun in Patricia’s household. Her memories of her childhood and the sexual abuse she was subjected to by her father, enabled by her cold mother isn’t easy to stomach. It’s a society built on silence, the weapon isn’t used solely by abusers but entire families because to confront the horror of what is happening is to admit a sort of defeat and vileness in one’s own home. To the victim, particularly when it starts at a tender age, there is a traffic jam in the brain because how does a child understand what is happening to them when there is a chaos of confusion and conflicting feelings? Our bodies feel good, so is that bad if what is happening is something you both hate and enjoy? How do you measure normal with nothing to compare it to, until you’re old enough to witness what an easy, natural, harmless affection is between father and child?

How often, through stories of abuse survivors, do we hear that when the victim tried to tell their other parent or a trusted family member they were  ‘smacked across the face’ or deemed a liar, a bad girl/boy? Worse, jealousy- a mother jealous of the affections given to her child, affections that violate every cell of the little girl’s being. How do you grow up and not act out or struggle with impulses? It isn’t unusual for a woman’s body to turn against her, with the reproductive organs. It seems we bury our emotions there, a silent graveyard of transgressions. You may dissociate psychologically but the body knows, and it will revolt.

If this were a movie of the week, Patricia would out her father and there would be a trial, he’d be shunned at some point, her mother would rally behind her. This is real life, and real life is crooked. She is a sick woman, she remembers wrong, she is making it up right? No way did her Daddy do that! The reckoning never truly comes, Patricia will struggle with the abuse memories and her love for both her parents her entire life. There isn’t a magic word or moment that suddenly heals all, because like she said “what has been lived will never be erased”, it rises to the surface within her relationships with herself, her body and others. How can you ever truly understand such abuse? Children blame themselves when a parent harms them, be it mentally or physically. In Patricia’s case, her father was abusive towards her mother, each parent had their own scars in life but does that excuse or explain enabling sexual abuse? Is his violence towards her mother a reason to ignore her little girl was being exploited?

In this violent home, it was easier to just keep the peace. Mommy knew and did nothing. There was “one last time” at the age of 13, Patricia had to block it out in order to build a life. College was her way out, the only escape. Sexual promiscuity, abortions, abusive relationships, a young marriage that feels like falling off a cliff, drugs to numb her mind and body, these are just more escapes labeled adventure. We journey alongside pivotal moments in her 65 years of life, and even find her caring for the very parents who sexually and emotionally abused her. Does her mother ever apologize for her own guilt or acknowledge the truth? What do you think? It takes a lot of strength and courage, and more forgiveness than I know I have in my heart to be the person Patricia is.

A raw, painful read. It is so difficult to be a witness to the early pages (memories) of the sexual acts, and not feel rage building within’ for every child who has ever suffered or is being abused right as you read this. I wish prayers were enough, they’re not, it takes action and those who love the child enough to protect and speak up. I can’t even count on both hands how many child abuse survivors I have met in my life, not even including those around me who know of children who have been abused by family members, strangers, partners of parents. Sometimes it feels like the real epidemic of our times. This is one victim’s story in a sea of many.

Available Now from She Writes Press

(Published June 11, 2019)

 

Good Girl, Bad Girl: A Novel by Michael Robotham

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Everything has a half-life- even facts.

Cyrus Haven’s career as a psychologist is to figure people out, reach into the broken parts, pull them out of the terrifying places that haunt them so they can confront their pain and heal. Asked to help with difficult teenager Evie, he discovers she has an uncanny ability, one that has been with her long before her own horror show life. She is “Angel Face” the child who was discovered in a secret room, a starved, sickly child of indeterminate age living more like an animal than human alongside the carnage of a horrific crime. No one knows where she came from, who she is, and she won’t talk about it. All the adults bombard her with questions, but it’s a past she doesn’t want to return to, not even in thought. “Isn’t my silence loud enough? I think. Don’t tell me that my silence doesn’t have a sound. I can hear it, loud and clear, screaming between my words.” Silence is her protection, and when she does talk it is the undoing of the people helping her, who to her are nothing more than captors, imprisoning her in the Children’s Home, fools to be played with. There is no one more skilled than Evie at eviscerating others with their own truths. She wants to be free to live life outside the home and Cyrus is key when his friend Guthrie asks for his help, undone by Evie and her mental games, but will she cooperate, when she cannot silence the noise of her past, and her only salvation is to never trust another? The other adults in charge feel she is a dangerous threat to society, with her record of violence on others. Sad as her past may be, there is something terrifying about her! She isn’t 18, they don’t really know her age, her DNA doesn’t supply her origins, she isn’t on a missing children’s list, it’s as if she came from nowhere. All they know is she was shockingly used and abused, there is no doubt she is a survivor but whatever she experienced left her damaged.

Cyrus has his own tortured past to contend with, or seal off. It is through his work, helping others that he seeks penance for the past. Where Evie was at the heart of her nightmare, Cyrus was absent from the bloody havoc of his own and it cost him his entire world. His current case involves the Ice Princess, fifteen year old figure skater Jodie Sheehan found murdered in a wooded area. What happened to her, the secrets she was hoarding are just as confounding and mysterious as Evie. The talented, sweet Jodie was living a sort of double life, rising ice rink star in the public eye but behind the scenes wrapped up in something seedy that led to her possible rape and later, her murder. Cyrus has no end of lies to sort through, from her trainer to her family and friends- everyone is a suspect.

Help arrives in the form of Evie, who deftly defies rules, authority to trudge through the intestines of the vile case. Cyrus will find a partner he didn’t ask for when he decides to take her in as a foster, and Evie’s instinct and impulsive nature may put her very life at risk. Just who is really saving whom? I found this incredibly engaging, Jodie’s story kept it all rolling but I want to pick at Evie’s scabs and find out what happened. Will there be a second book? I hope so!!! Yes, read it! Here I go again casting a book and making a movie in my head! Please, sir, I want some more.

Publication Date: July 23, 2019

Scribner