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

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The Red Daughter: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz

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She survived her life, which maybe under the circumstances is maybe sort of heroic.

John Burnham Schwartz takes liberty with his fictions, imagining the life of Josef Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, as she defects from the communist state to America in 1967, leaving behind her son and daughter, carrying with her the stain of her father’s infamy. Always thereafter to be ‘a foreigner in every sense of the word’ having left her homeland, a terrible mother to the two children she abandoned, that even Americanizing herself through marriage, now Lana Peters can never remove the blood that runs through her veins. Though there is an electric current that runs between Svetlana and her young lawyer Peter, loosely based on the author’s own father, the meat of the novel is in the tragedy of being Stalin’s daughter, it is a poisonous legacy. The cruel truth behind her mother’s erasure, the rest of her people ‘exiled or in prison by her father’s decree’, aunts and uncles arrested and executed, even her own brother Yakov captured by the Nazis wasn’t worth a prisoner trade. Her father controlled her life, who she was permitted to fall in love with, the state too ever a watchful eye reporting back to Stalin, there wasn’t an emotion felt, a movement made that wasn’t under scrutiny. A caged child, fed a diet of lies, not even knowing the truth behind her mother’s death. Daring to fall in love with a Jewish filmmaker, which her father forbid it seems no shock he was sent to labor camps. There was an arranged marriage, producing her daughter Katya. There was a deep love for an ill Indian man, whom she met while in hospital for her own treatment, of course she wasn’t allowed to marry him. Within the novel as in life, she journeys to India to scatter his ashes upon his passing. With her father’s death, the only release was to make a new home, to become someone else and remaining in her homeland was an impossibility.

“Svetlana’s entry into our marital orbit was something neither Martha nor I ever recovered from. Our own personal Cold War, you might say…”  of course the story fictionalized a romance between Peter and Svetlana, their intimacy a window into her unsettling life in America. It would be a spot of happiness were it true too. Here, she will never escape being her father’s daughter, not even by marrying Sid and giving birth to an American son. We follow her tortured path, living with rumors about her Russian children, Katya and Josef who have forsaken their mother (were barred really from speaking to her, as she was a traitor to the Motherland) and wonder will they ever reunite but knowing that if the ‘future has defected’, then the past keeps its grave hands upon her feet. We suffer with Peter, who can’t help but wonder at the woman behind the eyes and fall in love with her. A love cultivated in letters and visits. In 1984, Svetlana appears as a star of the international press conference at the Moscow offices of the Soviet Woman’s National Committee. With her son Yasha, she shockingly renounces her American citizenship. She was ready to unite her family at last, return to her now grown children, who needed her. It wasn’t to last, tumultuous winds were always blowing through her life and again she leaves her homeland.

It would do one good to research the real story behind Svetlana, but this was a fascinating novel regardless of how true to facts the author leaned. She did seek political asylum and she was invited by Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow to visit the studio in Scotsdale, she did marry an architect and have a child with him, but it was a daughter named Olga not a son. Looking her up, she seems like a very fascinating woman too. John Burnham Schwartz tells us in his author’s note that he used his father’s ‘expansive Svetlana file’ with original material as his father ( lawyer Alan U. Schwartz) did travel under CIA cover to escort Svetlana Alliluyeva, the only daughter of Josef Stalin into the United States. She was a part of his family, that much is fact, but it is a fictional novel and his father did not have a love affair with her. Living in the shadow of such a father as Stalin (undeniable monstrous) , one can only wonder at what went on inside of her, stuck between cultures, unable to shed the horrors of her father, removed from her children… it’s a hell of a life.

Publication Date: April 30, 2019

Random House

Ask Again, Yes: A Novel by Mary Beth Keane

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It didn’t seem that important, not nearly as important as people would make it. It was just a thing that happened, same as all other things that happened.

Two young NYPD rookies partnered up for a time in 1973 later become neighbors, though not exactly friends, Francis finds Brian to be ‘a likable guy.’ So when Brian ends up in the house Francis once told him about , it seems fitting his wife Lena would befriend Brian’s wife Anne. Lena certainly makes an effort, trying her best to quietly offer support, always met with Anne’s back retreating into her home, finding offense to any offer of help, wondering what she could have possibly done to offend her. At a loss to understand Anne’s off-putting behavior, Lena focuses instead on her own family, both women give birth to children only six months apart, Peter and Kate.  Despite the relationship between their mothers, Peter and Kate become close friends as they come of age but their childhoods couldn’t be any more different.

There is something wrong with Peter’s mother, even as a little girl Kate notices Anne isn’t like other moms. It’s the very thing Peter’s own father doesn’t acknowledge, to his way of thinking she just needs help around the house, rest, quiet. The problem is Peter never is sure which mother is going to appear each day, if she will ’emerge after a few days’ from her room and be his favorite version or be irritated by the noise a little boy can’t help but make. Life in his home is about forecasting her moods, in order to navigate his day. Of course he loves her, despite her growing indifference. Her troubling behavior becomes impossible to hide, it’s more than just being ‘sensitive.’ Their problems are beginning to spill out of the house.

Something about Kate gets under Anne’s skin, and Lena wants Kate to just find a new friend, anyone but Peter! No love is lost between the women. Something is humming beneath the surface and in one moment their lives are altered forever. We follow the aftermath of one horror filled moment, and watch as every character tries to build a new life from the ruins. Peter feels staggeringly helpless when the most important people are absented from his world, but nothing rips him apart more than losing Kate.

In staying true to our nature, helping others, we could risk losing everything. One incident can drive a wedge between spouses, destroy young love, and shake up our future. Kate and Peter are destined never to forget each other, but coming together again is for some a bigger betrayal. Love and loyalty is tested, more than just the meaning of family. This book is disturbing and deeply moving, we know the hand that brings down destruction, but to demonize isn’t so simple in this story. Mary Beth Keane has written a story with mental illness at the forefront, and how with Anne’s decline it’s the failure of those around her that sets the stage for tragedy. Why do we go on like everything is fine? There are so many people within us all, how different we are when life tests us.

Marriage is explored too, in how Brian tiptoes around in his, how our partners needs often eclipse our own as witnessed by Lena’s loneliness and Francis’s need for trees and quiet, a place separate from his job, his grueling work. The way things shift after the incident, why the act happened at all, due in part to one partner’s helplessness in understanding his own wives deterioration. Infidelity, loyalty, sticking when things are hopeless. Marriage is a different beast when life beats us, so different from when we’re fresh and young.

Time moves on and life closes in on us but sometimes it is only the broken people who truly understand our struggle. Sometimes you face the enemy only to see roles aren’t set in stone. Things really do sometimes come full circle, and my heart was in my throat at the end. We cannot outrun that which shapes us and while we don’t have to be victims, we’re not untouchable when it comes to things we inherit from our former selves, or our families, loved ones. There will always come a time you have to confront the chaos of a moment. Yes, add this to your TBR list!

Publication Date: May 28, 2019

Scribner

 

The Lost History of Dreams: A Novel by Kris Waldherr

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A last display of care before consignment to the grave.

Robert Highstead spends his time daguerreotyping corpses as keepsakes for grieving strangers, a far cry from his years at Oxford University as a scholar of history. Understanding all too well that loss and tragic turns are like a contagion, this work becomes personal. His own wife Sidda’s accident altered their future, he walks closer to death than life. When his famous cousin and poet Hugh de Bonne dies, Robert must take his remains to be interred in his stained glass chapel on the moors of Shropshire where he will be reunited with his deceased, beloved wife Ada. Here, Robert is to make his daguerreotype. He’d much rather remain with his own ‘fading’ wife, than engage with the world, nor honor any tasks put to him. Yet travel he must, it’s the honorable thing to do. “This was his cousin. His cousin was dead. Though it made little sense, Robert stepped toward the coffin as though not to disturb it.”

Hugh’s fans journey to the chapel, all longing for their piece of the love story between Hugh and Ada, but for her surviving niece Isabelle, the story isn’t the fantasy that’s been toted as truth. Robert is not welcome, and Isabelle’s refusal to embrace the return of Hugh’s body is suspicious, and infuriating. Her own past is a mystery, but Robert won’t bend to her will, finds a way to stay and earning a semblance of her trust becomes audience as Isabelle reveals the tale of Ada and Hugh as she knows it. She wants him to record it in a book. Yet Isabelle herself remains behind her cloak of privacy, until it’s no longer possible to hide. Why does she not allow anyone entrance to the chapel? What secrets are hiding there?

Both are unable to release themselves from the chains of guilt, haunted by ghosts of time and battling with the demons of their choices. No one punishes either Isabelle or Hugh more than they do themselves. The strange pair push and pull each other, and what appears as solid becomes fluid, changes. This gothic novel begins with a curious profession that bleeds into the tale of why death is easier to befriend than life. Love as muse, ghost, poetry, guilt, blame, and rage. Characters begin desperately in love, and weakness blooms for some as fate tests the soul. A heart can turn cruel when love is stolen by the hands of fate. People can love romantically and yet absent themselves in other horrible ways. Isabelle’s story is revealed as her defenses are stripped and her tale tugs the heart. The dead are not silent here. I rather like the ‘eye’ that Hugh had painted in miniature of Ada because for me as Isabelle tells the tale from Ada’s perspective it becomes symbolic of an all-seeing eye and yet what should be obvious to the characters is hidden.

A gothic love story that one must chase like a bird that disappears into the darkest of skies. Naturally love is the ruin of many, will there be time to set things right and maybe live again?

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Atria Books

The Goose Fritz by Sergei Lebedev, Translated by Antonia W. Bouis

 

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Something happened with her that Kirill had never seen. It was as if ghosts of terrible unimaginable catastrophes, wars, fires, floods, were nipping at her heels.

Russian born Kirill is the last member of his family, descendant of Balthasar Schwerdt who came to Russia from Germany in the 1800’s. An author who collects other’s people’s life stories, fearfully avoiding his own. It is time to tell the story of his family, with papers, archives he will chase the ‘threads of memory’ and ‘preserving the misunderstood and the unseen.’  It is the only way  Kirill can flee the fate of the family. As a child he sees a stone book in the German cemetery where his family plot lies, chosen as he is to be his grandmother’s constant companion on these visits. Naturally the visits isn’t something any of them talk about outside the confines of home. The book, blank as if an omen of what he must one day fill, is always waiting there for him as he comes of age.

Why, he wondered, was his Russian great-grandmother buried in the German cemetery anyway? With the adults ‘omissions about the past’ he learned to create stories as explanation. It isn’t until his grandmother Lina reveals, speaking in German, the name of his great-great-great grandfather while at his headstone, that he knows the bold truth of their German ancestry. Vile German blood, much like the Goose Fritz symbolized to the villagers, strangled to death by the harmless old Seargant in his drunken rage on the anniversary in July when he was wounded in the Battle Kursk. The goose, in the old man’s war ravaged mind, a German soldier. German, the stuff his family is made of.

Why did they not carry the surname Schwerdt, what fate befell his ancestors, a ‘scattered people’ bones buried in soil far from their fatherland? It’s always been easier for him to dig into stranger’s families than disrupt the rest of his own, and what would revelations mean for his own blind future? Is he destined to walk a path forged by those who came before him? Why can’t he guide his own future, be no one’s son, grandson? A crack in the headstone of his beloved, deceased grandmother, separating surname from birth name, birth date from death date seems to beg from the beyond their stories be told.

Balthasar’s life took a strange turn from that of medical doctor, working as his father’s assistant, to that of practitioner of homeopathic medicine, a ‘heretic’s career’. Thwarting his father’s plan, trembling with his newfound passion, Balthasar left his fractured world for a larger one, with the knowledge of his ‘travels’, Kirill needs to understand the why of it all. Pieces in museums and visiting cities doesn’t always lend an emotional landscape to history, it’s hard for him to imagine being born in the cities of his ancestors. There were seven daughters, and a son- there were wars, assassins, disease, even an early feminist who ‘excited men’s strife.’ Worse the strangest fate of all will befall the brilliant boy when as a man he encounters cannibals.

Kirill is blind to his own future but revisionist of his family’s past, able to look upon it with a godlike eye, see the impending doom as well as lucky escapes that his ancestors couldn’t. With one family member a migrant to Russia, they cannot be native nor accepted as such, forced to hide their German blood as if a stain, as evident by Kirill not even realizing he wasn’t fully Russian, born under the hammer and sickel, loyal as the rest of his family to their country.

This novel is about political history as much as family history, how it affects us all. Are you allowed to be a nationalist when your ancestors were enemies? There are many stories about all of the characters but it is rich in history, perfect for historical fiction lovers. I adored the relationship between Kirill and his beloved grandmother Lina. It’s incredible to think about what our ancestors suffered through, how they could still cling to hope, love and laugh. Personal history too can give birth to strange fears and rituals. The deepest shame is having to hide our blood for fear of persecution. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: March 19, 2019

New Vessel Press

 

 

 

 

 

Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

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She said people will find the loveliest part of you and try to make it ugly. “And they will do anything,” she always said, “to own that piece of you.”

In this fantastic collection of stories by Kali Fajardo- Anstine about the experiences of Latina women indigenous to the vast land of the American West, characters range in age and life situations. Beauty can’t save any of them from the violence of bad men, nor can it guarantee a better life , “they look at us like we’re nothing.”  In Sugar Babies, a restless mother leaves while her daughter cares for her own school ‘baby’. Sabrina & Corina is one of the saddest with a bad ending for a much admired Cordava cousin. The loss finds Corina using her make-up skills to tend to Sabrina’s body as she reminisces of her deep love  for “the family beauty”. Too, she shares the distance between them before everything went wrong, before her cousin’s ‘carelessness’ began to disgust her. This family of women  have lived with nothing but tragedies, how can anyone hope for a happy fate with so much evidence to the contrary?

In Sisters, Dotty has her sight stolen from her and thinks about a missing girl, about survival and thus begins the story of what happens when women say no and bruise a man’s ego, inciting his rage. This is the sort of story that makes me think of Margaret Atwood’s biting quote,  ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women  are afraid that men will kill them.’ What happens to the women in each story can knock the wind out of you, and though fiction, it’s not one bit fantastical and that is frightening.

In Remedies, lice are the monster. I adore characters that understand natural medicine and for some, home remedies was the only cure. Too, a young girl struggles with a half-brother in her life, the father absent for both of them but why should she have to share her own mother? The writing is gorgeous throughout, I kept breaking my heart against each one. Just when I thought it couldn’t get sadder, I was gutted again. ‘Cora and I had been around sick and dying people our entire lives. People, we learned, weren’t permanent and neither were their illnesses.’ Characters are all struggling to keep things together through illnesses, death, grief, and the aftermath of prison. Some deal with their own shameful pasts, others with the inevitable trajectory of what’s to come. The Bob Dylan quote before the stories begin is spot on, these are certainly sad-eyed ladies. Yes, read it!!!

Publication Date: April 2, 2019

Random House

One World

Feast Your Eyes: A Novel by Myla Goldberg

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Just as I was beginning to worry that waiting was all there would ever be, I picked up a camera- but you know this already. 

Myla Goldberg states in her acknowledgements that she was inspired by the life and work of people like Diane Arbus, Sally Mann, and Harold Feinstein (just to name a few) and it certainly shows in the creation of her fictional character, Lillian Preston. This novel is beautiful, we are able to feast our own eyes on subjects Lillian photographs as much as the life of a photographer. Rather than stating someone is a photographer, the reader is witness to the inspiration and expression of Lillian’s passions, of breaking out of her ‘cage’ when she was young, and the consequences self-expression through art costs her child and parents, anyone that is both inside or outside her orbit. Feast Your Eyes is a love story of pictures but more so of mother and daughter and it isn’t always pretty. The ending gutted me, as a mother and as a daughter because I could feel the pain of both, all the regrets.

Lillian is born with hungry eyes, her purpose is to strip people naked through her series of work, sometimes shocking and vulgar making her the ‘Worse Mother in the World’ and other times going without notice.  A field trip when she is young, a ‘rocket in her chest’ when she sees photographs hanging in museums, a pivotal moment shaping her future,  Lillian knows she will one day have her own upon such walls. Her reasons are never about attention seeking nor fame, but always telling a story, as with her most infamous photos which her daughter is haunted by. Samantha is mostly nude in the damaging series, but worse is Lillian’s abortion photo. Having grown up in the fifties, being on ‘photo safaris’ in the streets of New York Samantha grows up free to roam the city, a child that is fiercely loved by Lillian (there is no doubt about that) but whose mother’s focus is always first and foremost her camera. Her work is her life, as vital as oxygen.

“Mommy is sick”, at least a judge rules it to be true but those ‘vulgar photos verging on the pornographic (according to some)’ don’t make up the majority of Lillian’s work, so much overlooked because it isn’t ‘shocking’.  The novel finds Samantha cataloging her mother’s work for a show, as Lillian is no longer alive. We journey through the memories, the friends, the strangers and the bond between Samantha and Lillian that sours and forces Samantha’s disappearance from her mother’s life. “Mommy is sick” ends up being a precursor of sorts, but I won’t go into that. Her notoriety ruins her chances for a successful career, but still… her work continues. It is the story of artist, subjects and what it means to come of age beside a creative genius, whether the rest of the world acknowledges their gift with praise or in horror labels said artist as a degenerate. It is fiercely engaging, and Lillian is ahead of her time, as many artists are. Her eyes feast upon the world and tell stories, ‘jolt’ viewers by exposing both the obvious and unseen. In strangers, we recognize ourselves, our pride, anger, poverty, love, sickness, strength… every situation and emotion one can scrape up on the streets. Her camera is there, a witness like God, to the very last blink of Lillian’s life- that is one of the most beautiful endings I’ve read. It’s not about the posing for her, it’s not about showing the world or people as they wish to be seen but instead, as they really are.

Of course Samantha changes as she grows up, no longer an extension of her mother like the camera. As Lillian once removed herself from her own parents and their ordinary life in Cleveland, knowing she was meant ‘live differently from others’, her own girl craves stability, affection when she learns she has grandparents. That her girl could come from her body and be so vastly different is all too familiar a truth mothers must accept. Samantha and Lillian are the biggest love story in the novel, going between immense affection to resentment (Samantha), testing the waters of teenage angst, Samantha must remove herself to understand who she is without Lillian, acts out as most children do, as a form of punishment, assuming her mother is immortal and will always be there to make up with. Those photos return and drive a deep wedge.

There is a lot of story in the cataloging, and the photographs are beautifully described to the point of painting it in the reader’s mind. It’s a bohemian life, but not for show as it was for some people during certain decades, trying so hard to be ‘other than’. Lillian really is an original, and being different is always a sore spot for children. Samantha struggles with embracing and rejecting her mother as artist, but it can be no other way, for it is her mother’s very makeup. There is a line that expresses the period of time Samantha shucks off her mother, “in the spirit of self-destruction and self-discovery”, for it can be no other way.

Somehow this novel manages to be many things and Goldberg keeps it all flowing. My heart broke at the end, it’s too close to recent losses in my life. I really caught my breath at the writing, Lillian’s final moments are so much in keeping with her character. I don’t know if my review is doing this novel the justice it deserves, all I can say is I loved it. Most people fancy themselves photographers these days and it goes without saying there is an over abundance of artifice with selfies, it’s evident so many of the pictures we see are manufactured and that makes this story all the more appealing, because there is an authenticity to Lillian that does honor to the work of people like Diane Arbus. Artists who are using their medium to relate to the world, to explain it or question it in the only way they can. It can seem shallow at times, certainly a compulsion but one must recognize it is used to express love as well, as with any pictures of Samantha. One must consider the self, and how desperately Samantha wants to be her own person, it’s so hard to do when your mother has always defined you it’s just sad what it costs her, time that can’t be given back.

Yes read it!

Publication Date: April 16, 2019

Scribner