Where Reasons End: A Novel by Yiyun Li

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Since Nikolai’s death I had asked people to send poems. They came like birds from different lands, each carrying its own mourning notes. 

I felt the deep sorrow expressed in this novel so much I researched the author. I wondered, did she herself lose a son to suicide, only to discover more about Yuyin Li’s own breakdown. Li wrote a memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life  while she was struggling with deep depression. In Where Reasons End, Yuyin Li tells a fictional tale of a mother composing a story in conversation between she and her son, who has taken his own life. This is a story about the elusive presence of grief, how it transforms us even if we don’t understand it. It is a mother reflecting on memory, where her son can now only live for her, and questioning how memory isn’t enough. If she can just keep the conversation going, she can keep him alive, stop the essence of him that lingers from escaping, disappearing. Too, she knows words are incapable of expressing the all consuming sorrow, pain. That clichés cannot carry us through life, nor the losses in one. How to recapture time? How to breathe and exist through the worse thing that can ever happen, to know her son has succeeded in the biggest win of hide-and-seek.

“I was almost you once, and that’s why I have allowed myself to make up this world to talk with you.” Our narrator promised her son she would understand, didn’t she? Her own past sufferings, were they inherent in the blood? She can’t lose him more than she already has. The old things remain, things Nikolai made or wrote, remembrances of the Nikolai his friends knew, objects she has never kept tract of nor made an effort to freeze in time, not much of a keeper of life’s detritus nor treasures unlike other mothers whom fiercely cling to ‘things’. This conversation is made up, right… but “sometimes what you make up is realer than the real.” Such a bright boy, whose perfection hurt him too much to anchor him to the world.

Not a day will pass, when you’re left behind, that you don’t imagine how your loved one would react to each of your remaining days, from the mundane to the eventful. It truly is a novel about ‘inescapable pain’ and the solitude of grief. There is a gut wrenching chapter, Catchers in the Rain that left a lump in my throat because there isn’t anything thing left to catch, she can longer be her child’s safety net. This isn’t the sort of novel that makes you weep with the obvious moments, nor is it an attempt to explain suicide. Though through the intimacy between mother and son, remembering even the stories he himself wrote where the boy characters often died hints that maybe he was sad for a long time, and she didn’t see. Or maybe not, maybe that’s what we do in the aftermath, look for reason where maybe there is none. Maybe fiction is just sometimes fiction. The Nikolai she gives life through writing is as witty and biting in her creative story as he was in life. She utilizes her gift of authorship (which her son himself showed promise of early on) to attempt to soothe herself and carry on in this abyss she never asked for.

Yes, Nikolai took his own life but it is as much about motherhood because even when it is taken from you in such a way, you are still a mother. How should one find meaning in their child’s death, in this backwards way to travel in time, when a child should never go first, especially through their own hand? With the novels closure,  I want to ask only who are you today, instead of how are you?

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Random House

 

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Soon the Light Will Be Perfect: A Novel by Dave Patterson

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I’ve often prayed for our misery to be transferred to someone else- anyone else.

A young man comes of age  in rural Vermont alongside his older brother, just a sliver away from the trailer park and poverty they used to live among before moving into a house. The two contend with more than their hormones. Their Catholicism is little help in facing the harsh reality of a mother whose illness turns out to be cancer. The shame and confusion of raging urges that are becoming more of a fetish has him believing he is a deviant whose desires cannot be controlled. Often hungry for a filling meal himself, sick of heating frozen meals, he begins resenting his mother’s charitable meals for those that have even less, considering the recipient’s son is anything but thankful and seems enraged by generousity. His own mother tends to others needs despite her fragile health, yet contrary to her faith goes against the church during a protest, proving sometimes you have to honor your own moral code.  There is the debt he owes for a cat, a ‘fruitful’ endeavour that sees felines taking over their home but far more confusing is his father’s concerns over the tanks he helps build for the war. There is an inner conflict, risk losing the job that provides for his family, particularly now with his wife so ill or just do one’s job and remember ‘it’s best not to question things’. Their father isn’t the only one struggling with his place in life. How do you put your faith in God when even Father Brian isn’t holding strong?

As the boys help their father build a table for their ailing mother, the only thing she truly demands, her health continues to decline. Then new girl Taylor comes along, confusing him with her desire to know what his life feels like, that even as empty and terrible as it sometimes proves to be, it is still full of the love and stability others with so much less may long for. He finds himself drawn to her, whether it makes sense or not. Taylor’s environment is wildly freer than his own, surrounded by kids in the trailer park who have nothing better to do to pass the time than drink or worse. With a mother who goes through boyfriends, she needs protection and maybe he can be the one, even if he is wise enough to know running away isn’t an option, not when they don’t have two dimes to rub together between them. The only certain truth about Taylor is he understands even less about her actions than he does about his own.

It’s a story about being trapped in situations outside one’s control, that even faith sometimes has to take a backseat to the harsh realities and obstacles that come into our lives. Not all moral dilemmas can be resolved with a prayer anymore than laying on of hands is going to cure his mother’s illness. Paths can converge and lead to happy awakenings, as much as it can lead to tragedy. Before the end of the novel, our young narrator will grow up and discover that when misery and suffering eases its hold on us, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve seen the last of it.

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Hanover Square Press

Not a Clue: A Novel by Chloé Delaume, Dawn M Cornelio (Translator)

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You’re all even more sealed off from your environment than from yourselves, have been for a long time.

We are told in the beginning there are six patients and ‘you killed me. One of you or maybe each of you.” The murdered is Dr. Black, each of the accused patients at Paris’s St. Anne’s Hospital is gathered to play a life-size game of clue. The murderer really isn’t important, the novel lends itself to unraveling minds, and the writing can induce nervousness, anxiety, depression, confusion, anger, paranoia the list goes on. How to trust minds that don’t even trust themselves? This is not an easy read, and may well slip through the cracks of reader’s minds, myself included. I think I get it, some of it, but confess to being lost here and there. This is challenging reading, certainly creative writing that plays with and bites you in turns. I was exhausted, just as exhausted as the wounded characters. The author has lived through tragedy herself, I won’t go on about that, though certainly it must lend itself to her work as anything in life touches us, from tragedy to the most mundane moments, if you’re curious just look her up.

I got to the point that I didn’t care about killer, murderer and found I was far more invested in the why. Why is each patient sick, who brought them here or why did they come of ‘their own volition’. What about life disturbed this ‘chorus of misfits’ so much that they broke? There is a lot to trudge through, and if you aren’t one who reads literary fiction, who accuses certain books of being ‘too wordy’ then move along. “In her head, Aline was talking loud. In your head it’s always very easy to talk so loud you bother yourself.” There are certainly gems, beautiful writing between these pages. I’m not sure I’ve grasped the writer’s purpose but there seems to be any manner of meaning one can find.

Each patient brings their damage to the table, to the game. Life has had its way, and the result lies in forgetting, vacancy, or best yet becoming a revisionist. Aren’t we all, in our own precious way revisionists? Some look at themselves and are horrified, maybe it is better not to look at oneself too closely. One of my favorite lines “I can feel the word solitude.”  Solitude not a horror for the patient, but a comfort, a necessity. One of the b&l’s (The Bipolars and the Like) goes on to discuss the torment of memories, wanting to be emptied out. To express the pain of not wanting to accept the particular body given, well… it’s hard  not to the polish that little nugget of wisdom. To not understand in some circumstances that with so much internal struggle, you are bound to be swallowed by tidal waves. It’s eye-opening to think about the difference between temptation and those with illnesses they don’t chose. Never being able to avoid their mental torment as an alcoholic or drug addict can deny themselves (if even for a moment) their fix. Those with their poor polluted brains, their vanishing or rotting memories gathered together, afraid of who they are in the outside world, suspects, pariahs, discarded for your reading pleasure. Most didn’t have a say in their pollution, their fog.

Then there is the Omniscient Narratrix, a ‘psychological harassment’ to all fictional characters who should really be charged with a crime too, all those ‘repeated offenses’ against characters just trying to live, much like real people, without judgement or humiliation. A god, who wants to manage its cast, make them be better or worse than they are. Oh the hell of literature! Then there is the writer who won’t interfere, laughable because that’s all writers do is interfere. The characters in this novel are in revolt, and refuse to be managed! There will be no established form, this book is inhabited by characters that want to be left alone, to simply exist whether worse for wear or not, and remain unimproved if they so chose. Not A Clue thumbs it’s nose at how we say things, and Delaume disturbs the text, shakes things up. She is testing narrative conventions, breaking out of themes, toying with the setting, blowing up the plot because I am still not fully certain of the plot here. It works but it also confuses the hell out of you, or maybe just me.

If you want to read something wildly different, this is it. I liked it and at times found it aggravating, sort of like my own life. For me,  room I want to visit is what is real for the patients, not for arrogance of repairing them but simply to see their perspective. Not A Clue certainly is a unique read, though won’t be everyone’s drug of choice, ha.

Publication Date: December 1, 2018

University of Nebraska Press

 

The Boys Who Woke Up Early by A.D. Hopkins

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I sometimes blamed my name for the bad deeds of my youth.

1959, Jubal Early High School (Early, lying almost on the West Virginia line) Jack Newcomb walks in with a swagger, and before long becomes fast friends with Stony Shelor . When Stony isn’t avoiding trouble and juvenile court, he has fantasies about pretty country girl Mary Lou who just may teach him, and the town, more than he ever thought he needed to know about racism. Jack emulates TV characters from popular shows of the times, perfecting his swagger. Wearing a beret and sunglasses is about as foreign as a teenager could get around the hollers and Jack loves playing up his part, looking like a ‘jazz musician from a Peter Gun show’ (first detective tv series where the character was created for television). Soon, Jack convinces Stony they should each become a gumshoe themselves. First they need a licence to be detectives, but Jack figures it’s no problem, he has it all figured out already. He has researched! The boys find themselves hanging out at the Early County Sheriff’s Department learning police work and falling under the spell the power of asking questions provides. They help with a case when the Rich Conway’s (the district attorney) house is burglarized. Lacking the manpower, why not let the eager boys watch the place, rather than wasting the deputies time?  If they can catch the criminal, they can make serious money! But a stolen television leads to bigger tangles, and the person they’ve fingered as guilty isn’t as cut and dry as that.

When the boys decide to bust a speakeasy and brothel, Stony further inflames a longstanding family feud between the Jepsons (moonshiners and poachers) and his own family, the Shelors. Like his grandfather once told his daughter-in law about their own ancestors “It won’t do to shake that family tree too hard,” he told her, “you might not like what falls out.” What family is without their dubious characters, whose to say or remember exactly what started the feud. Stony knows only that all the Jepsons fought like the devil and dropped out of school by the time they were sixteen. He remembers all too well the hell Buddy put on him in grade school.

Without giving the story away, it’s a coming of age during a time when racial tensions were on the rise, when the Ku Klux Klan were hidden sometimes in your own family and two boys playing at being grown men, thrilled by the power of police work sometimes learn that the difference between right and wrong, good and bad is thin. That love can incite all manner of shocking violence, and messing with the wrong boy can possibly cost you your very life. Will Stony be brave enough to support the girl he loves, in spite of the hatred in the eyes of the entire town? Will he ever be a real detective?

This reads so much like a memoir. That people freely used such inflammatory, racist language is the reality of the time and place. That sometimes we don’t understand how ugly the things we unquestioningly accept as normal are until we open our eyes is evident in the changes Stony goes through. That in looking for our own glory, we may bring the downfall of other innocent people and at a greater cost than we thought even to ourselves. It’s hard to admit even ignorance can be understood if you look at the root of it, fear. It’s nice to see brave female characters in a story about boys too, because Mary Lou has the strength of every man in this novel.

Publication Date: March 3, 2019

Imbrifex Books

The Dreamers: A Novel by Karen Thompson Walker

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It starts with a girl leaving a party. She feels sick, she tells her friends, like a fever, she says, like the flu. And tired, too,  as tired as she has ever felt in her life.

I don’t know what it is lately that I keep reading books about strange illness when I am going through something with my own health, but it made this book all the more peculiar and disturbing. Mei is a college student, one who ‘leaves only the lightest impression on this space’ who finds ‘comfort in not being seen.‘ When she discovers that her roommate Kara cannot wake up. Rushed to St.Mary’s, the doctors cannot figure out what is causing this mysterious sleeping sickness. Shocked, the students grieve the loss of the vibrant popular student, slowly coming around to notice Mei, aware only that she shared the room with Kara, that she is maybe Chinese, Japanese… that she isn’t to be blamed, like them, she couldn’t have known anything was amiss. Soon, the dizziness begins, what if they themselves have all been exposed to whatever Kara had? What if now, the contagion is making its way through the dorms?

It isn’t long before more students are falling asleep, dreaming more erratically, powerfully than people known to dream before. The town is terrified, somewhere in another house, a father (doomsday prepper for just such a disaster, because one will come) begins to shut his own children in, sure that there is more than is being divulged about the college infection. His twelve-year-old daughter Sara is used to this fearful ‘simmering’ this ‘something’ that is bound to happen. How many times has her father been wrong though? She and her sister Libby are maturing, are growing exasperated, embarrassed by their father’s often irrational, outlandish behavior. This time feels different though, this time it’s not just her father, it’s the town! A couple with their newborn aren’t concerned at first. Visiting professors Ben and Annie haven’t been in Santa Lorna long.  Their baby girl Grace is 17 days old, they haven’t been exposed to the ill students. Surely it doesn’t concern them, and in their case, ‘to close one’s eyes can be an act of survival’ until it isn’t.  Professor Nathaniel is a bit shamed that he can’t quite bring to mind Kara, a student of his dead now. Sorry that more are ill, surprised that the school is making news, thinking about the state of things for the young today. Catherine tries to understand the psychiatry of it, maybe it’s not physical illness, but one of the mind and she is as baffled as the medical doctors. Curious of these dreams and what they mean, psychiatry isn’t much invested in such things anymore, not in these modern times.

As a southern California town is consumed by fear, panic and losing loved ones to the depths of a strange sleep, those in charge can’t figure it out, nor save them. In fact, many fall pray to the illness themselves. Family loses each other be it through quarantine or distance. The National Guard brings to mind bitter history and the horrible things done during other epidemics incite terror amongst the citizens. For many, they find themselves alone for the first time, in a fight for their lives, fearing the unknown. Mei finally relies on another, and discovers maybe she has been asleep in life far longer than the victims.

This is a heck of a story, just the right side of strange but not overwhelmingly so. It feels like something that could happen. What distance is further, more personal than dreams and illness? Dreams that can feel like a lifetime, haunt you when you wake up, illness that no one understands, that makes you a pariah? It has happened, we have certainly seen mass panic where illness is concerned, that’s what makes it scary.  I like that it was character driven, that the story wasn’t so much about the illness but how it drew people together or apart. Illness is a bit like a slow dream, nightmare. It was a unique read for me, because the writing was beautiful and I cared about the characters but you don’t spend time with just one in particular. I hate to say one book is just like another book, so instead I will say of all the novels that blurbs claim are ‘like The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Euegnides‘ I felt the same disorientation and spacey, fuzzy emotions reading Walker’s latest offering. Again, I was coming off being sick, so it just fit my mood to perfection. It was like waking from some verwirrender Traum. Yes, read it but you’ll have to wait until the New Year. I think Karen Thompson Walker is an author to watch, I’ve had The Age of Miracles on my TBR list. Time to read it!

Publication Date: January 15, 2019

Random House Publishing

 

Who Cries for Mother Earth: A Novel by Margaret Hines

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I Am Yellowbird Woman. 

There are times when a vision is so powerful it can rest in a person’s soul forever.

Based on Lakota culture and spirituality, in Who Cries For Mother Earth, a young Lakota is mentored by Unci (Grandmother) learning how to heal her people. Zintkala Zi Win (Yellow Bird Woman) lost her mother at childbirth, her Grandmother (Unci) took her in and kept her alive for a time. Her father visited her, but she ended up in an orphan tepee until Unci came and took her in for good. A people of great warrior strength and spirituality, the Lakota once walked free giving care, medicine to people. One day her warrior father too went to the sky, her Unci would teach her the ways of medicine women, gathering roots, sacred medicines, understanding visions , giving prayers of supplication to Wakan Tanka (God) and listening to Mother Earth. Medicine is spiritual, not every person in a family is called to the healing. The Lakota travel tribe to tribe, offering great doctoring and spiritual teachings, known as the Brother Tribe. Before long, she meets her sacred animal, one that will be with her for life. While allowed to play, be a child, there is much respect and reverence taken when approaching the pejuta wakan.

The beauty of this novel is the knowledge and respect of the earth, of energies, of every living thing (which has spirit).  Noting with medicine work, due diligence must be paid to the emotional state of medicine women as they work with the plants, as energy is believed to effect the purity of the healing. Humility, peace and love are of most importance. Life isn’t easy for them, traveling place to place they deal with harsh elements, sickness. There is as much reverence for the animals, for the food they provide, the spiritual visions, messages as they have for human beings. There is never any waste. As seen as savage, she points out the true savagery is in owning and farming the land, wiping out native crops.  White men damming waters, no longer allowed to flow freely. People begin to ignore Mother Earth, to harm her. It is full of premonitions of destruction, war. Who will cry for her, Mother Earth?

The Lakota lived in Harmony until the white man resigned them to boxes, reservations. It’s a highly spiritual, beautiful book, not my usual read but something to chew on considering we all share this world and the harm being done to earth is harm to us all. There is beauty in respecting that the Earth isn’t ours, we are just visitors. We have certainly gone far away from the love and respect for nature, all things spiritual the Lakota chose as their way of life. A unique book about Native American Culture and Spirituality.

Publication Date: Available Now

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Brings Good, LLC

 

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish: A Novel by Katya Apekina

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Yes, mom dragged me with her to every terrible place.I needed to get as far from her as I could. She was consuming me. That day she tried to hang herself from the rafter in the kitchen, I’d been lying on the bedroom floor. My mind was a radio tuned to her station and her misery paralyzed me.

In this gorgeous debut, sisters 16-year-old Edie and 14-year-old Mae’s lives are upended when their mother Marianne is admitted to St. Vincent’s (mental hospital) to ‘rest’ after an attempted suicide. The girls are forced to live with their estranged father Dennis (a literary success) in New York, a man who thinks he can just pick up in the middle of the story and become beloved ‘daddy’. Edie wants to go back to their old life in Louisiana, to her boyfriend, her school committees, her mother. It’s no surprise she was the one who found her mother hanging that day as she has been the one taking care of Marianne for years, through her stony silences and strange episodes. Edie doesn’t trust Dennis, feels it’s a betrayal to even be living with him when their mother needs them so badly. Mae felt swallowed up by Marianne, fearful she is too much like her damaged mother. Mae doesn’t have romantized thoughts about her mother’s illness, it has always scared her. Now that she is free of her, able to finally be herself, she doesn’t want her mother back. With Dennis’ eyes watching their every move, which irritates Edie feeling like they are just ‘new material’, Mae feels being the center of his world is intoxicating. Edie is loyal to Marianne, Mae has shifted alliances to Dennis’ side. So begins the unraveling of the sister’s bond.

It’s meant to be temporary, but time stretches and Marianne isn’t getting better, Mae is under Dennis spell but Edie won’t let herself fall, despite her desire for the comfort it would bring. It’s too late for her, where was he all this time anyway? Busy with his women, not one thought for his ‘beautiful, beautiful girls’ who now have his rapt attention. Are they just a story brewing for him, serving as inspiration as their once  beautiful, fragile mother was in her youth? There is a story there, Marianne as muse, was she the abuser, or the abused?

The reader is witness to the blossoming of forbidden love between Dennis and Marianne, the civil rights movement, and dangerous obsession. With insight from Rose, Dennis’ sister, we are forced to wonder who is to blame for the fractured family. Fatherly love takes a dangerous turn as Mae never wants to go back to that life with her mother, never again wants to be suffocated by her mother’s madness. Yet the further she tries to step away from Marianne, into a new self, the more she becomes her.

Edith is too angry, too perceptive to put her faith in Dennis. In fact, she is downright disgusted with his writing, with his seduction of her young mother so long ago. There is  a line spoken by another character in the novel that expresses the emotional storms within, “It’s hard sometimes, ” she said, “to know where you end and others begin.” You can feel the ground shaking before it opens, know you are being led somewhere you hoped they would never go. Much like the photographs Mae takes, it’s an eerie exposure of the wildly different beliefs we have about our shared experiences. Both sisters are in denial about their mother and father. If Mae hitches her wagon to her father with fat dreams and madness, Edie holds just as much false optimism for her mother’s recovery. Like a needy kitten, love gets twisted for Mae and there is a point of no return. Edie runs to destruction as much as Mae does, they just take different paths to reach the end. There is no mistake that Marianne has been a destructive influence on Mae, who looks so much like her but Dennis… Dennis is a catalyst.

To say more, would ruin the novel. I loved it, Apekina writes beautifully about a very ugly subject.The title alone, isn’t it the best, had me itching to read it. I can’t wait for her next novel, writing about family dysfunction isn’t easy, and taboo subjects if done poorly can repulse readers but it all added up here. I don’t think Marianne is alone in her wounded bird fragility, she got some help toward self-destruction in the form of Dennis and that’s all I have to say about that. Yes, read it! I still have the taste of ash in my mouth.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

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