What I Lived For by: Joyce Carol Oates

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publication Date: July 23, 2019

ECCO

HarperCollins

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The Man Who Saw Everything:A Novel by Deborah Levy

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“Yes,” older Jennifer said, “I knew I had to get away from your love as fast as possible.”

It is 1988, Saul Adler is a beautiful, young Historian thinking only about his glamorous girlfriend Jennifer, a photographer who is planning to take a picture of him crossing Abbey Road just like the Beatles album cover for his host’s sister Luna, who adores the Beatles. In three days he is meant to leave for East Germany (GDR) to research “cultural opposition  to the rise of facism in the 1930s at Humboldt University”. Granted permission  into the archives for promising to ‘engage sensitively’ and ‘focus on education, healthcare and housing for all it’s citizens’, subjects of which he had discussed with his own father before he died.  Here Walter Müller will be his translator but right now his mind is stuck on Jennifer when he is nearly run over in a zebra crossing (pedestrian crosswalk) falling back instead on the curb. The car that comes seemingly out of nowhere and nearly hits him is driven by a man in his sixties named Wolfgang, and so follows a peculiar interaction, the novel itself is a peculiar interaction with the reader and yet compelling for this very reason. Looking back on his notes from the night before, his hip sore from the fall, he thinks about his dead father who was a tyrant much like Joseph Stalin. He remembers how his brother doled out the punishment for their father, for Saul being so fragile, so much like his dead mother, for not being the right sort of son, his father offended always by his ‘sublime beauty’.  Beauty that can seem to the reader like a blessing and curse. His relationship with Jennifer is crumbling and he isn’t really sure why.  Jennifer feels she isn’t really seen by Saul, does she wish to be seen beyond her beauty, is that why describing her with words is verboten? But does she see him beyond his ‘sublime beauty’ or care about his mind? He is confused by her adamant complaints that he doesn’t see her, doesn’t know anything about her art of which, by the way, he is the subject, but she is all he sees! He would marry her! She wants to end things, ‘you will always be my muse‘ and so with the death of his father and relationship ending he is ready for great change.  It is in GDR that his life splits and forks when he meets his translator Walter Müller and Walter’s sister Luna. Told not to say ‘everything was grey and crumbling’ in his report, the truth is Walter is a relief, spending time laughing in his company, finding pleasure in someone who isn’t about ‘material gain’ frees Saul. Censorship here, he knows, isn’t any different than Jennifer’s censorship of his thoughts and feelings for her.

Something strange is happening, objects look familiar like the tiny carved wooden train Walter is holding. There are new desires too, who knew mushroom hunting could be such a pleasurable experience. With his father’s ashes in tow, the haunting memories of his past too have hitched a ride. People he meets become consumed by him, Saul always the center of others. Luna is no exception. “Your hair is so black. Like the birds in the fields.” There is a lot he doesn’t see in GDR too, truths about Walter, Luna, and Walter’s colleague Rainier. Just who is Rainier really, with his acoustic guitar and interested questioning? It’s not just about communism, country, family, sex or love. It’s all those things. It’s about time and memories, about how our version of reality can be a fiction we tell ourselves. We are all haunted houses, in a sense, age at times bringing more questions, regrets like phantoms.

The past, present and future come at us fast and we are all splintered beings. Saul’s love is fluid, and not any easier for it. We are really not the stars in anyone’s lives, not even our own. When told to ‘go back to your world’, which world is that? People are suddenly older, and Saul knows everything but not how or why. His story is shattered, time is slippery and faces, people are blurring and blending. It’s how we fail to be there, how we destroy others being entrenched so deeply in ourselves. Everything is a weight, even the things we think we shucked off.

This is like a drunken read I don’t believe I would have understood were I younger, fresher and less jaded. It’s horrible and beautiful because it reveals cracks in human beings, I think. You get lost in the tangle, the shame, joy, pain, love and confusion of Saul’s life. Missing so much like you will in your own, if you live long enough for regrets, for a long hard look in a fractured mirror reflecting the many versions of you. I like that the Abbey Road photograph is the beginning of this story, we have these photographic memories of ours that never tell the whole tale, only hint at what is happening. These flashes of ours, wondering what’s outside the photo, who is the eye, what are the subjects thinking and feeling behind what we can behold. This novel put me in a weird frame of mind.

This is certainly an engaging read, but it is dizzying. In the beginning you are like a newborn baby trying to make sense of weird occurrences, not understanding up from down.

Deborah Levy’s writing can unsettle you, but I enjoy her work for that reason.

Publication Date: October 15, 2019

Bloomsbury Publishing

 

Maggie Brown & Others: Stories by Peter Orner

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Amazing what our bodies are designed to take.

Amazing what our hearts and souls are designed to take too. This is a hell of a collection of connected stories by Peter Orner. I was blown away by all of the characters because they resembled reality too much, the pain of being alive, our insecurities, our curiosity about family members closest to us, our assumptions about others that diminish them as people. There are stories about the fire of youth and the desires that flow beneath our skin, how hungry our hormones make us, how did we survive all that want? Later in life, the ache of it all, the self-pity. You can’t feel too sorry for the characters because when you do, you are snapped back into reality by lines such as this “He’d grown up poor, he said. That’s novel? The mass of humanity lives a world away from a hot bath.” I am always hungry for short stories that throw the reader right into a town, a house, a family, any situation where I can immediately understand the score because the writing is saturated with insight and emotions, the atmosphere rich, going between light and heavy. This line “He’d written, he told her, about flower children because they made him laugh. Spent my life trying to get clean and these kids can’t get dirty enough.”  That is gold, it sums up so much with a few choices words. Writing at its best. Truly, I was hooked.

My heart could break, my breath catch with a line describing our narrator’s mother, about her hands while she played the piano because he humanized her so tenderly in The Case against Bobbie. We dance through time, through our own hearts, first memories, beginnings, endings and all the decisions we face each day simply because we exist. How we live with what remains when death decides to court us. Wealth to poverty, love to the absence of it, youth to old age, and the curiousness of the parts we all play in between. Why do some images stick while some are diluted or fade away entirely? How strange to be a human being, what imperfect creatures we are.

Yes, yes add this collection to the top of your TBR list! These short stories swallowed me as much as a full length novel.

Publication Date: July 2, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

 

We Will Tell You Otherwise: Stories by Beth Mayer

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You have to count your blessings. Or pick your poison. And for God’s sake, not every single thing means some other terrible thing. But that I keep to myself.

This collection of stories by Beth Mayer will play with your emotions, is it dark? It can be, human behavior isn’t always pretty. It is moments of people at their best and worst. The very first story can break your heart as in Tell Me Something I Don’t Know a father tells us about his mother’s visit to give he and his wife a break, trying to get through the heavy days of their little boy Ethan’s chemo for his brain tumor. How do you grab happiness watching your child suffer, how do you break out of the fear that something worse is waiting around the corner?

In When The Saints Tell Their Own we’re left to wonder who is broken, when Blue (the narrator’s brother), checks himself into a hospital because ‘something is wrong with him’ but she is the one talking to the saints. Each story has fractures, I loved Let Her Tell The Way. It is the summer of 1978 and a family of four is meant to go on a vacation but the father (Bill’s) loyalty is always his clients (he owns and runs a funeral home). But this time, Peggy (wife/mother) is going to go on the trip as planned, of course her eldest child and headstrong daughter is going to test her. “The girl thought of herself first (always) and it was ugly.” What stuck to my guts is the disappointment, their trip is closer to reality than all the happy ads we see about how great getting away is. You take your family issues with you. Even the little ones can’t rally enough happiness to make it work, “The children bore too much.”  There is a short little story too from the “summer people” who really don’t mind the old bachelor whose family has been on the lake for generations… no, not at all. They tolerate the locals.. sure they do. If they don’t stay long they won’t be infected by whatever miseries visit the locals, right?

The lump in my throat remained from Don’t Tell Me How This Story Ends, it’s for imperfect families, the ones who have a revisionist in their midst. Truth is malleable for some, the convenience of old age or ‘forgetting’ to suit your own conscience… it hit hard for me. The most difficult family member (here it’s a father) but it can be anyone, grandparent, mother, sibling, uncle… that their fragility humanizes them, the unfairness of it all, when it seems they should be punished for the cruelty they spread. Life doesn’t play out like that though does it? Not always.

A young boy seeks council about his future through his classmate Suzy, a man fancies old-fashioned ways until his world is rocked by a mysterious girl who will help him navigate the technology he hates and a young girl finds a best friend in the beautiful Cha Cha McGee who the whole town may want to mark just as badly as Lady Pearson, the harlot, witch…  These stories are all about human nature in its many forms. This is an author to watch.

Publication Date: August 20, 2019

Black Hawk Press

Beth Mayer is the Hudson Prize Winner

for more information  https://www.blacklawrence.com/we-will-tell-you-otherwise/

Mrs. Everything: A Novel by Jennifer Weiner

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“This life,” Cal said. “You have to give up a lot, I have family who won’t see me. It’s hard. It’s not for everyone.”

In the beginning, it is older sister  Jo “tall and gangly and everything she did was wrong” and little sister Bethie ” chubbie and cute” a child who “always said exactly the right thing” that complete the makeup of the Kaufman family.  Where Jo is closer to her father, Bethie is Mommie’s perfect darling, a child who doesn’t behave in the unnatural manner her older ‘tom boy’ sister Jo does. It is 1950’s Detroit and their new home is surrounded by families just like them, “birds of a feather” all perfectly flocking together in rhythm and God forbid you are “different.” No one tests their mother more than Josette, who doesn’t mean to be so difficult and really cannot explain why things that come easy to others is so hard for her. She can’t help but be herself, even when she tries to be the good girl her mother desires, catastrophe follows and boy does her mother make sure she knows just how much she fails to be the daughter she wants.

It isn’t only within her family that her nature brushes against societal norms. Friendships with other girls mean more than they should, her wants and desires for her future are thwarted by the times Jo lives in, and will chip away at her dreams of freedom. An athlete, a writer, liberal minded coming of age in a conservative world will whip her into an acceptable shape. Through betrayal of those she loves most, and of course responsibility to her little sister and impossible to please mother, Jo (like countless women before her) will forget herself in order to fit in. Marriage, children… she is finally a good girl, right? The world isn’t ready to accept a woman like her, to let her live freely. It’s not safe to be her true self.

Bethie’s beauty should make her world a tasty confection and guarantee her most fevered dreams come true. Her mother knows she’s meant to be something special one day!  A girl who everyone loves immediately, the perfect lil’ helper, people pleaser, someone whose very nature charms everyone in her orbit, why… what could possibly derail her future? Sometimes, a girl with so much appeal attracts nothing but danger, through no fault of her own. Bethie learns nothing stays sweet in an ugly world, and before long becomes the subversive daughter that Jo once was, refusing to settle in one place nor with a man. There is so much to taste in the forbidden elsewhere! If Josette wants to spend her life being content, tied to convention… well bully for her. No one is going to tame Bethie. Let Jo pretend!

This is a book about women, their options, the opportunities and lack thereof. The shaming when a daughter, mother, sister dares to look beyond the plans other’s have made for her. The disapproval she will encounter when she strikes out on her own, against the will of her mother/father or husband. The ever looming threat of losing your family if you chose anything for yourself that isn’t ‘approved’. The lessening that is expected when one becomes a wife, mother. Before long, you’ve lost yourself. Too it is about the abuse that girls welcome (according to the world, at least) or have to accept for the sake of survival.

The sisters who once had to support each other drift apart, each denying themselves their true natures. Life happens, it brutalizes and punishes in unequal measure. From an early loss both find themselves sacrificing their dreams and even innocence. It is a story about sisterhood, motherhood and in a sense, self-hood and how every choice or the transgressions of others, and the demands the world puts on us makes us who we are, for better or worse. The question is, can we come back to the self we once buried in order to be accepted?

What is more heartbreaking than thinking about the deaths we suffer, internally, of our many selves? The times Josette and Bethie came of age in were full of strife and civil unrest. Children who questioned their parents ways, be it a mild irritation such as why the fuss of dressing like some cookie cutter family, or the heavy, senseless, shameful weight of their parents racism weren’t exactly the ideal child. Children didn’t question the ways of the adult world, period. Step out of line, and you will be tarred and feathered. You were not free to love where you wanted, with so many constraints, this is why free love (social, sexual movement) was born. Many people bucked convention. Yet children eventually want to please, to have their mother/father’s love, sadly at the expense of their real selves. Other little boys and girls, they get too much unwanted love from some adults. It’s hard to write about this novel without giving away everything that happens, but it truly is a novel full of heartbreak and hope. When it’s your turn to be a parent, despite promising yourself you will do better than your mother/father, you can bet a child will introduce you to your weaker self. Life happens, and comes full circle and at heart it is a tale of two sisters that find their way back to each other.

Publication Date: June 11, 2019  Out Tomorrow!

Atria Books

A Double Life by Karolina Pavlova, translated by Barbara Heldt

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Madame Valitskaia had decided that Cecily must become Dmitry’s wife so that she would not somehow become the wife of Prince Victor, and she was proceeding toward her goal.

Karolina Pavlova was a Russian poet and translator born in 1807, who had left Russia due to “hostile criticism of her poetry and her personal life”, can you imagine? It lends meaning to the character Cecily, living a passive existence as others arrange her entire future. What else created a life for a woman, particularly of the privileged class, than who she married? Her best friend Olga’s mother is a schemer, she wants to push Cecily in the direction of one Dmitry Ivanchinsky so that Prince Victor is free to marry her girl. Olga is prettier, but Cecily has her own charm and that’s a threat. Olga isn’t much better, she wants the Prince for herself but we are told she isn’t quite as skilled as her mother in deception, instead relies on her mother for ‘directions’. Ha!

Cecily is often described as pale, needing rest as she has been ill. I wonder if the illness in part is an ailment more of the soul. The novel is titled Double Life, where in her dreams her true desires take flight, the writing beautiful poetry.  Is it because the ‘claims of the earth’ on some psychological level take a toll on her body, it is said a woman’s body rejects that which it doesn’t desire. So we get these ailments, headaches, fatigue… Upon waking, all around her is smiles and flattery, all her nearest and dearest convincing her to fall in love with Dmitry. It is done so convincingly, a perfect dance of charlatans, that even his poverty is romanticized by Cecily! Poverty as a more noble choice? This from a young woman given everything, looking down from great heights of society that the happenstance of birth has placed her and thinking how impossible it is to imagine poverty so terrible one cannot even afford to order a beautiful dress. You poor little fool!

Women as pawns, that’s all I could think of the time and place. Sacrificial lambs, because once the excitement of this new life wears off and the celebrations fall by the wayside the truth will be revealed by a long life with an unworthy spouse. We know throughout the tale she has nothing to compare this with, so sheltered her world, reliant on her mother “The first obligation of a mother,” remarked Madame Valitskaia. “We should always be able to read into the souls of our daughters, in order to foresee any harmful influences and keep them safe in their childlike innocence.” Kept in a bubble of ignorant bliss, and afterwards once settled and fooled, it’s too late.

Pale, headaches due to her nights of restless sleep, there lives within her poetry like a song that has been circling her head and at the end she whispers the words and Olga after asking her what she is saying responds “What nonsense”, but she is really going forth as if sentenced, which speaks volumes about what Pavlova felt about such marriages, such lives for women.  On some level, Cecily is aware of walking the plank, so to speak. She smiles along with the fools by day, playing her part in this quiet tragedy and is only truly alive in her night escapes. Very much a young woman of the times, what choice than to go along with those who are older, wiser, and love her so? They all want what’s best, right? What else is there for her, anyway?

Fascinating literary fiction, a 19th Century Russian classic by a female author that is far heavier than it seems. Do take the time to read the afterword and the introduction.

Publication Date: August 6, 2019

Columbia University Press

Farzaneh and the Moon by Matt Wilven

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She is muddy, distant, shaking with dark knowledge.

N. is at University in London, his young mind feasting on philosophy but it is Farzaneh’s world he really longs to access. Here is a young woman who feels and thinks deeply, someone who challenges him emotionally, who stimulates his intellect as well as his physical being. Both want to live in a way that doesn’t require just ‘going through the motions’. If it takes a little psychedelic help from nature to reach the deepest access of their minds, well who better to do it with than Farzaneh. She hasn’t been anchored to anyone since her father, there is pain she hasn’t confronted, and N. wants nothing more than to be the one who can keep her together inside. She is wildly interesting to him, but is this depth or something darker?

When is loving someone so blinding that you neglect to notice the rupture in their logic? When does the hunger for spiritual bliss blur the lines of what’s sane and what’s madness? What can N. really grasp about love at his tender age? In a sense, Farzaneh would annihilate herself if she could align with the moon. This is more than longing for some spiritual awakening, there is a creeping illness inside of her. One of the most honest moments however, speaks to N.’s state of mind when he is halfway through his course and says “I’m still none the wiser about any of them”, meaning the other students. He is too busy being wrapped up with his beloved, is it possible for healthy love to be so exclusive that the rest of the world and everyone within it disappears entirely? There is a shallow relationship he has earlier on, feeling completely disconnected but should communion with another eclipse sanity? Should we really want to merge so entirely that nothing else matters? “Everything is how she wanted it.” Nothing can ever be exactly as one person wants it, that’s not healthy.

Farzaneh’s obsession with the moon escalates, she can feel it in her very womb! N. needs to be with her, can’t live without her! Love can’t be wrong, love is a balm right? She likes her alone time, but he just wants live together! Normal day behaviors are disgusting her, eating- who needs to eat? She doesn’t want to be a person in this way anymore. N. will do anything to keep her, anything. But does real love bend itself this way, keep the peace, create an atmosphere that isn’t healthy  just to be in someone’s life?

This is far more than just meditation or harmless moon-bathing going on here, can a trip to Venice be the fix? The only thing sinking faster than Venice is Farzaneh’s mind, and it begs the question, just how suspect is N. in neglecting to rein her in? He is scared of confronting her behavior, even if he doesn’t tell us so, in the simple choice of letting it continue. Then comes the burial….

The ending, what are we to make of that? I wonder, was N. an unreliable character all this time? Just who is ill here?

This was a decent read, I see love differently from someone in their twenties, time seasons us I suppose, therefore a lot of N.’s decisions seem completely ill conceived. I just kept thinking, God save us from those who love us. Clearly Farzaneh needs something, but it isn’t a man’s love. It’s a peculiar tale, if nothing else it clearly demonstrates that we shouldn’t always fulfill the requests people we love ask of us. I’m not sure even in some alternate universe I would feel comfortable helping someone dig into the earth, so to speak.

Out Now

Legend Press