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

 

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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 Beekeeper of Aleppo: A Novel by Christy Lefteri

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I am scared of my wife’s eyes. She can’t see out and no one can see in. 

Beekeeper Nuri’s wife Afra (a talented artist once full of joy, laughter like gold) is disappearing to a dark place deep inside after horrific tragedy in Allepo obliterates every speck of life they created. It’s better not too see, there is safety in blindness when you live in a world brutal, hateful, ugly. This is war, it cares nothing for the land nor it’s people.  Things are getting more dangerous, if they stay they will die, how can Nuri get the blind Afra to see this? How can Nuri convince her that emotions must be corralled, logic must be the only guide for now? How can Afra leave this land, it holds the blood, the remains of every breath of life she existed for? Leave they must, but they will take the wasteland with them, inside their hearts. For Afra isn’t the only one whose mind has been ravaged by grief, Nuri may have his vision but he sees life as a version he can stomach, as a way to keep his feet moving so he can have a dream to hitch them to.

With his cousin Mustafa waiting for him in the UK, he will do everything it takes to begin anew, but first they must live as refugees where their very lives are dependent on trusting others, proving themselves as worthy of getting to Great Britain. They will meet others just as damaged as them along the way, with broken dreams and tortured memories. “These things are in the past. They will evaporate soon, like the river..”, but the past has it’s hooks inside Afra, and Nuri too. He must be strong, for Afra’s fragile state makes her vulnerable and her heart cannot take much more.  Afra doesn’t want the past to evaporate, she doesn’t want to see the future, for it died that day in Syria.

Nuri feels he has lost Afra, and loss seems to be all he knows anymore. Their world in ruins, through the journey they will inch closer together and drift apart, can they keep their love alive, is there any hope of beginning anew, will anything give Afra the desire to heal? Maybe Afra isn’t the one who needs healing. Would that they could be like Nuri’s beloved bees, that “small paradise among chaos”. There isn’t a sanctuary from the ravages of war, it’s impossible to return to what was, the only hope is in finding something new to live for, and with memory and love keeping what was from being erased.

So many of us are protected by the happenstance of our birth, and will never know about such wars, the all consuming terror, grief and destruction. We won’t have to alter our ways to fit into another country, and abandon our very culture, it’s traditions. Leave behind all the people who were a part of the landscape of our days and wonder if they are still alive. Hope for word from the very person you are running too, unsure if they are still waiting for you. We won’t be living our lives in between places, wishing for a place that is gone. If tragedy opens our doors, most of us won’t be forced to leave our homeland without family to comfort us, with time against us and the chance to grieve a luxury we can’t afford. We won’t have the barrier of language to scale. It is only through stories, films, and memoirs that we can even scratch the surface of such tragedy and yet still, I repeat, you will never know about such wars, the all consuming terror, grief and destruction. We have our miseries, of course we do, but there are not enough words to express the abyss of war. We can feel compassion, but I’m not sure we have the capacity to fully comprehend it as those who live through it have no choice to.

We sometimes overlook people living in different parts of the world, it’s easy enough to do when it isn’t affecting us. We forget to see them as human beings, we do it sometimes in our own families as well, it’s human nature. This story gives life through Nuri and Afra, something to connect with, a bridge of sorts, something beyond the news that we can just gap at in horror and turn the channel, go on our merry way. There are lives beyond the headlines, people with emotions and children, partners, battles to wage. How easy it is to forget.

There is hope and love between these pages, between Nuri and Afra, despite the fear he has of his wife’s eyes. Fear of what their loss has done to her, the state it’s left her in, fear she may never come back to him and be the woman he loved with an easy, deep affection. Yet, there is no room for surrender if you want to live, it takes strength beyond measure to survive. Survive they will, but with sacrifice of immense proportions. There is beauty in moments, but it is a heavy read.

Publication Date: August 27, 2019

Random House

Ballantine Books

Wild Wisdom: A Warthog’s Tale by Laurada Byers, Natalie H Stewart (Artist), Stewart Williams (Designer)

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Here are some of the Wonderings and Realizations I’ve had along the way.

We are told from the start this isn’t a book meant to guide you, dear reader, towards a “perfect life”, what is a perfect life anyway? This a book of warthog wisdom, an animal that Laurada Byers sees as a sort of spiritual creature like herself, they may not always be pretty and graceful but damn if they don’t rise from all the muck and face life head on. Facing life head on is what Laurada herself has had to do, particularly after the tragic murder of her beloved husband, father to her children, Russell. She certainly didn’t give up when later, illness reared it’s ugly head. It isn’t that horrible things happened to Laurada that makes this book so inspiring, it’s what she chose to do with the arrows life slung her way.

The illustrations are playful at times, and sweet, did I just say that about renderings of a warthog? There is a page about the brain being permanently changed after witnessing a violent act that depicts a leopard leaping in the air at the warthog, it certainly must be as frightening, the act and the loop the mind gets stuck in. Seems perfectly suited to the thought. It isn’t all misery, though the moments in Laurada’s life aren’t anything to laugh about there is still humor in her wisdom. As they say, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. In memory of the life her husband lived, she chose to start a charter school which proceeds from the sale of this very book will benefit. How is that for not giving up? For thumbing your nose at misery? Inspiring, indeed. Anyone who has ever lost anyone, or suffered through an alarming diagnosis will relate. Lovely.

Available from Warthog Productions

Laurada Byers is a survivor, fighting cancer, Parkinson’s disease as well as PTSD from the tragic loss of her husband Russell.

 

 

Strangers and Cousins: A Novel by Leah Hager Cohen

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She’s become dislocated while standing in place.

That’s a fantastic line for this character driven novel, for family in fact. What is more dizzying than a gathering of your clan, particularly as it continues to grow? How can you not feel dislocated standing in place, and who can blame sweet Aunt Gladdy with one foot in the past and one in the present? Of course she slips in and out of time, gets confused by the faces and happenings, it’s a full life she’s been having. She and little Pim are my absolute favorite characters in this family novel. Pim lives in his own little world, battling unseen enemies in the buff, oblivious to the drama of the grown ups. Actually, he and Gladdy share similarities, youth and old age are so tightly intertwined (one coming as the other is slowly leaving), one battling imaginary foes as the other deals with ghosts of memories.

Walter and Bennie Blumenthal’s daughter (eldest of four children) Clementine, is marrying her college girlfriend, Diggs. But this is a special sort of wedding, a performance of sorts. Like all things meant to go against tradition with the best of intentions it can get out of hand. There will be an invasion, the Blumenthal’s are meant to accommodate nine extra people in a house already full with six family members. The real intruders to Walter’s thinking are the ultra-Orthodox Jews, going around town asking the locals to sell, trying to tip the demographics in their favor where they are sure to infiltrate all that has been, destroying entire communities. Bennie and Walter have two big secrets, one that may upset the ‘status quo’, help the very people he is against. If he and Bennie sell, they will be party to the ruin of this special community. Even Clem, as liberated as she is assumes so much about bride to be Diggs, based on her ethnicity. Aunt Gladdy is in the past, remembering fire, after-all her skin is marred, a constant reminder of an earlier tragedy.  There is a constant struggle with old versus new, in a sense. Loss, tragedy and change. Even open to accepting the ever changing world, there are fears that sway our decision making as a family, and as a community. Lloyd is the ‘prodigal one’, and has a great conversation with Tom about loyalty and what we owe our families and ourselves as he struggles with Walter’s distrust of the Haredi, and I can’t think of a more perfect example of the inner struggles children face in life. Parents raise their children to think for themselves and then feel betrayed when they might have a different opinion or view. Sometimes just in examining how they feel about a situation can force us to see our own blind loyalty to old, or outdated versions of truth. Family dynamics are always at play when you’re under the same dwelling for any amount of time. It’s hinted at in moments “What? What’s going on?” there’s a note of jealousy in her voice, a hint of the old kid sister don’t-leave-me-out petulance, when Carrie senses the tension while Bennie and Walter fight about the Haredi.

Then there is that mouse, that poor little mouse whose just going about living among the humans, whom she scavenges from. The animal just trucks on, starts over when everything falls apart, a new generation when the one before is destroyed.

Gladdy is overlooked by her family, as the aging so often are even if they are beloved, and yet if anyone has understood change and how deeply a turn of a moment can bite, it’s her. She is the wisest of them all, Clem’s too young to hear the truth (How could one so young be expected to understand?), that the world itself is no more than temporary. It is a novel about change, because whether we accept it or not, change comes.

For me, the title is interesting because family can sometimes feel like strangers too. Eventually, everything can start to feel unfamiliar as the old ways die off, the hardest of all is letting go of truth as we have known it to be and allowing the next generation to flourish. A story of constant upheaval, strange and interesting relatives, secrets, births, deaths, tragedies, intruders and how we live on in scraps of memories until there is no one left to remember.

Published May 14, 2019   Available Now

Riverhead Books

Deep River: A Novel by Karl Marlantes

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Anger at the senseless cruelty of it all kept her awake at night.

Escaping Russian rule, siblings Ilmari, Matti, and Aino immigrate to America joining other Finns in the hopes that they will find the perfect place to thrive. Ilmari is the first to leave Finland, to avoid being drafted in the Russian army he flees his homeland. In America, Ilmari is a devout man who builds a farm of his own and a blacksmith shop before his brother Matti follows. Helping his brother for a time with the running of things, he must make a life for himself. By Christmas finding work with the sole options being fishing or logging, he choses logging. Felling trees, a job that can crush a man, easy. With no idea how, he swears to himself he will one day have his own company! Last is Aino, seventeen- years old and desperate for work. Already having suffered for her revolutionary beliefs back in Finland, the fire burns just as bright now in America. She isn’t happy to settle as some man’s wife and men want a woman to care for their families not a maid. Marriage is still against everything she believes in, and if she ever marries, she has to feel love, hers is a heart that cannot in good conscience settle. There are more important things to her future, and her socialist desires. Life isn’t easier in America, everything is not golden nor as ‘free’ as she imagined. Instead, they meet with backbreaking, deadly work logging in the forrest of Washington, where workers are nothing better than slaves making money for others (capitalism). A staunch socialist, Aino is well read, and desperate to fight for laborers rights often at the risk of her very life. Conflicted by the expectations of women of the times (have a family, settle down) she’d rather take part in activism, even when love comes calling. Is it better to settle down, safer? She is fed up being a live in servant, did enough of that before, and marriage is much the same too. She works for a time cooking for hundreds of men at a logging camp, Reder Logging. It comes to be the hardest work she has ever known. The reality is often disheartening, even later when she is a wife living in cheap lopsided quarters, it isn’t enough to please her. She must occupy herself with a life full of purpose, helping others. Escaping the unrest of their own country only to land in a place where one must continue to fight for human dignity, America isn’t turning out to be the dream Aino envisioned. Women should know their place, and certainly not be slipping off for meetings threatened by raids! A man who works his fingers to the bone relies on his good wife waiting with a meal, the home clean and comfortable. She’s a feminist, a fighter, a woman who won’t be caged but I admit, she could come off as self-righteous and selfish at times too. Could motherhood settle her?

The men face loggers being killed, the equipment fails, people make mistakes that costs lives and no one is looking out for their safety. It matters to Aino. It is for ‘the common good’ and if she is called a communist, so be it, they must still fight! The powers that be don’t want strikes and of course will threaten those who dare strike with brute force. Naturally she finds herself jailed. The Koski  siblings will  rage against “slave wages, slave hours, and slave working conditions” and find their future as pioneers logging the vast forest of Washington. They will all search for their identity as they push for early labor rights or material success. From logging camps to fishing for salmon, strikes, Spanish flu, co-ops, the first cars, and captialism. Love and affairs, jail, unrest, starting families, and businesses in the new American dream. There is a lot happening in this novel that because of the historical scope it covers, the stories can sometimes leave the reader meandering. It is a rich, well researched historical fiction about the early days for Finish immigrants in the forrest and mills of Washington. More importantly it is a grim look at the fight for labors rights.

Publication Date: July 2, 2019

Grove Atlantic