The Lost History of Dreams: A Novel by Kris Waldherr

38597783.jpg

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

Advertisements

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

 

43541238.jpg

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

42038048.jpg

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

40539146 (1).jpg

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

 

If, Then: A Novel by Kate Hope Day

41086039.jpg

Ginny closes her eyes. She doesn’t want her life to continue just as it is. Her life can’t stay the same, because she’s not the same. She’s full of wanting when she wasn’t before.

Visions of a parallel reality plays with the lives of four characters in Clearing, Oregon. When a surgeon named Ginny closes her eyes to check if her brain is the problem, Edith’s soft breathing enters her and doesn’t leave. Ginny’s husband Mark believes animal behavior is key to predicting natural disaster, of course his research of frogs on Broken Mountain isn’t impressing any of his colleagues, funding isn’t easy to come by, certainly not for junk science, there just isn’t enough data. He feels defeated. Soon his own visions are horrifying, serving as a warning he believes in, an obsession consumes him to protect his son and wife, to ‘shelter’ them from the future that is coming for them all. Their marriage is strained, if Mark feels like a failure in his field, than Ginny feels like a failure as a mother, consumed herself by her career.

Samara keeps seeing her deceased mother, maybe it’s grief? Why can’t she figure out what she wants to tell her? She is furious with Ginny, blames her for what happened to her mother, who was under her care. Her father is moving on and handling her death a little too well. It’s time for him to explain things. Samara can’t let go, she wants so badly to hold on to the past, physically and emotionally. Cass is a scholar, a ‘philosopher’ but then came her baby Leah, and her life as a graduate student came to a standstill. She is a loving mother, yes, but a part of her also still belongs in the world of academia. Can she ever go back, juggling motherhood, can she ever fulfill the expectations of her advisor Robbie who tells her she has so much promise? Why does she keep seeing herself pregnant again, is motherhood always going to be the obstacle keeping her from her dreams?

What will happen? “That’s the rub, isn’t it. The not knowing.” What if the visions are clues, or warnings and not just imagination or hallucinations caused by medical problems, like Ginny thinks? Choices are so often blindly made in life, that’s the gamble we all confront, even loaded with the best of advice or intuition, we can still take the wrong step but what if visions could guide us? That may well be what’s happening in If, Then. An interesting exploration on relationships and the choices that can make or break us. There are people who believe in us more than we do ourselves (as with Cass), and there are those nearest and dearest who think we are losing our grip on reality when we are true to our ‘visions’ or intuitions (Mark and Ginny). It also about the desires that tug, urging us to change and the secrets we keep from ourselves and each other.

Publication Date: March 12, 2019

Random House

Driving Into The Sun by Marcella Polain

41716592.jpg

They go to work and they don’t come back. Everywhere there are cracks in the world that other people can’t see.

The story takes place in Perth, Australia 1968 and one day Orla’s father Dan, a shining sun in her world, doesn’t come home. With his death, everything changes for Orla, her little sister Deebee and their mother Henrietta. The world becomes a threatening place without the protection of a father, there is nothing left to save them, financial hardship is that much heavier a weight, and as their father’s thoughts fade, the last are those of shame as the reader is privy to his regrets, that he left his wife nothing, that he is so sorry…  The novel flows between memories and the aftermath of the shift in their family structure. Before, there are problems, they aren’t able to stay in their house in the hills, the money isn’t coming in. Her parents must leave the hills for a cheaper living situation, they move to the ‘only-for-a-year-house’, but another house will be built. No longer surrounded by the vast wilderness, closer to the beach but in a more suburban setting they are closer to neighbors. People that are better left unknown, those you avoid. Their mother works weekends to help them stay afloat, until the death of their father makes the neighbors people to rely upon, when there is no one else. There are to be no more riding lessons for Orla, who has a head full of horses, which the family couldn’t really afford while her daddy was alive, but how could he deny his girl such a desperate desire? Left with their mother, who has always been far less patient with the children, missing the father who ‘never shouted’ they are all vulnerable to the threats ‘out there’ in the big bad world. There is never true closure for Orla and Deebee, without the finality of a funeral (as the girls weren’t allowed to go) Orla is sure her daddy will return, like a moth to a light, despite the visit from the reverend assuring her ‘God only takes the best first.’

Orla isn’t quite a teenager yet, still a little girl awakening to grown up things, and of course far less sheltered after she loses her father. The author did a wonderful job of getting into a young girls mind, everything is murky when you’re young. It’s like trying to understand words while swimming underwater. Nothing is fully explained, nor fully grasped when you are not quite developed in body and mind. But you sure grow up fast when your home is no longer made up of capable, loving parents. Henrietta, due to this tragic unexpected circumstance is now both mother and father, frustrated by Orla whom she doesn’t understand, a little girl she has always felt lacked ‘guts’, something all Australians need, but she will have to learn, she will have to learn to be harder in this place. What is she going to do, left with no one but the children, and how is she, a widow alone in the 1960’s, to keep them fed, housed, clothed? Then there is a prowler lurking about, and women just aren’t taken seriously, they need a husband for everything, how is she to secure a better home for her girls when women need men to be approved for such things? A woman alone with little girls is a target! The odds are always stacked against her. Dan left them nothing! He didn’t prepare for such things and she is paying for it all, she and her girls. Another betrayal she has to stomach, and there were other betrayals. She hates the thought of it all, trapped, a mountain on her shoulders. Would it have been better if she died? After all, people rally behind men who lose wives, forgive them anything, not so for a widow! It’s probably her fault he is dead! These thoughts are absolutely genuine of the times, it was the same with single mothers even when I grew up in America during the late seventies and early eighties, there was a ‘they probably deserve it’ mentality. There wasn’t empathy for single mom’s whether due to the loss of a husband or divorce.  Being in Henrietta’s shoes would be terrifying and there are pages dedicated to her head space, though Orla dominates the novel.

With their father gone, a young mother named Cora comes into their lives too, not as coarse as they once believed but talking about adult things Orla doesn’t always comprehend, with so much life in her, confidence, a fun person. Her mother has different views on ‘unfortunate’ Cora, jealous too of the amount of time her eldest daughter chooses to spend at her house but Orla thinks she is lucky, with both her mother and father still alive. Little sister, wild Deebee feels caged when she has to stay with the Thompsons while her mother is at work, absolutely hates it. I adored Deebee, she is feral, she isn’t a ‘good girl’ but that doesn’t make her bad. She is a fierce little thing, even less aware of what goes on around them all.

Through the novel there is a threat simmering, but threats always simmer for women living on their own. The ending really hit me between the eyes. The novel may lose some readers because often people get lost in internal dialogue, particularly when it’s the worries of an often anxious young girl. I think it actually works for Orla’s character, because with the difficulties and grief she feels, the longing, the fear of the future, her mind wouldn’t ever be at rest, her thoughts wouldn’t be linear. That’s how we are when we’re trying to make sense of our place in the world. A sad novel.

Out Today   February 1, 2019

Fremantle Press

 

 

Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family by Anika Fajardo

42099823.jpg

Not quite foreign, not quite domestic.

There is something about the above line that beautifully expresses the assumptions made about mixed race children, particularly when it wasn’t as common in our author’s youth as it is today. Skin color, ethnic features tend to be used as a map for other people to ‘tell your story’, which more often than not is wrong. Then there are expectations we cling to ourselves, as Anika Fajardo wanted to embrace her Colombian side and finally get to know the father, Renzo, who had been absent from her life for over two decades. Anika wanted to love and relate to the things a Colombian should, like authors and spicy foods. Of course, we all fall under the spell of  stereotypes for ourselves and others.  A man of secrets, and yet welcoming her as if they saw each other everyday, he greets her at the airport. The point of her existence begins first with the love story between her mother Nancy and her Colombian father Renzo. Once his student, Nancy fell in passionate love with the charming artist, having come to Colombia for a semester of college abroad in 1970 at the age of Nineteen. Eventually, when marriage came and baby made three, the romance wore thin faced with the harsh realties of  financial difficulties, isolation, lonely nights for Nancy while rumors of Renzo and other women were impossible to ignore. Her job teaching wasn’t much better, how does one end things when love is dead? Nancy made a life altering choice, one that solidified the future for their daughter Anika, who though born in Colombia would be raised in Minnesota, America.

A new family takes shape, a family made of two, mother and daughter. Through the years there are step siblings that come and go, but nothing that sticks. It always goes back to just the two of them. That her whole family is split, divided between Colombia and Minnesota, a family she will not meet until she is 21 seems more fantasy through her childhood, her mother never quite denying her access to her father but not encouraging it either. Her father is letters, her father is a phantom. It wasn’t always for selfish reasons her mother chose to steal her away to America, there were health problems, dangers in Colombia that could be the difference between life or death. Naturally, Anika spends much of her time wondering how different a person she would have become had she and her mother remained. Culture molds us like nothing else! Much like immigrants, there is always a divide in people who are torn between two cultures, as she states “not quite foreign, not quite domestic.” 

Her visit to Colombia gives her missing pieces to the puzzle of her parents early relationship and her own father’s life after. There is love, but to him she was always that baby whom he last held, not the full-grown young woman who stands before him. She is like a ghost, looking so much like her mother’s twin. Too, she explores the things that drove her mother to make such a life altering decision for them all, simply by visiting the places her mother once lived. Colombia is as much a mysterious family member as her father, sticking out like a sore thumb when she first arrives, covered up where women dress far more provocatively (by American standards anyway) confidently comfortable as sexual beings, fully at home in their bodies, she can feel her artlessness like a sore tooth. Tasting the sweetness of ‘unfamiliar fruit’, vigilant of the possibility of intruders, aware of the threat of drug cartels while in the back of her mind, her hunger to meet her father far surpasses the fact that Colombia at the time of her visit was ‘one of the most dangerous countries on the earth.’  With the presence of his wife Ceci, who is kind enough, there are two strangers for her to get to know. Renzo and Anika do share a few memories, one story in particular she tells him that he too remembers, one she hadn’t even realized he was a part of. Memory is slippery but so much harder to fully recall are the earliest ones. Reunions aren’t always full of deep meaningful conversations, intimacy takes time, they share DNA but they are still strangers. Her father talks a lot, but ‘says nothing.’   Seeing his moods, and understanding her mother’s ways solidifies for Nancy why they fell apart, and how it never would have been a harmonious home. Even five years after her visit to Colombia, there remains more to her family story, big things that were kept from her that Renzo delivers in the form of his “enigmatic emails’.  At first, it may be more than she wanted to know. Her father, that man whom could cause women to swoon with his ‘disarming charm’ is both ‘overly emotional and fiercely cut off’, the master of his own story and Anika’s because there are more chapters, untold surprises.

There is death, danger, cultural shock, love, loss, secrets and a growing family. It is about desperately wanting to know your roots, to find the missing pieces of yourself and to finally meet a parent who is like a phantom limb. It is the odd coincidences of paraellel lives, the strange experience of coming to love strangers who are your blood, the peculiar curiosity of what ifs, the wonderment that another you could have easily come to fruition had life taken different turns.

Publication Date: April 16, 2019

University of Minnesota Press