The Age of Light: A Novel by Whitney Scharer

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Or Lee could tell the real story: the one where she loved a man and he loved her, but in the end they took everything from each other- who can say who was more destroyed.

Man Ray was an American visual artist who spent much of his career in Paris, France and was a part of the Dada and Surrealist movement but this is about his love affair with Lee Miller. Lee Miller was an American who began as a fashion model in the 1920’s, her passion was photography leading her to become a serious photojournalist in her own right for Vogue during World War II. Certainly photographing horrific carnage, Nazi horrors is a far cry from her days of posing nude, her wild nights of partying and lovemaking while she was working in Paris as Man Ray’s assistant and lover. Being a man’s muse wasn’t ever going to be enough for Lee, whose beauty betrayed a talent that could rival the men she worked for.  Man was seventeen years Lee Miller’s senior, photographed her obsessively, hungered to understand her beyond her flawless, ‘ideal’ beauty. Her beauty was overwhelming, blinding, a thing most people cannot look past. One must imagine she was a fascinating woman, Man Ray photographed some of the most famous people of our time and yet couldn’t get enough of Lee. Their love blazed for years, and in that time both betrayed each other in love, and in career (Man failing to credit her in famous work).

Their love seems to move in phases, sometimes he seems like her father, sometimes like her child, at other times an erotic lover hungry for all sorts of playful exploration involving pushing the edge of each other’s boundaries.  Speaking of fathers, ruminating about the relationship between Lee Miller and her own father Theodore, one can understand where the rumors of possible sexual abuse by him was born. It’s no secret she was sexually abused (raped) when she was only 7 years old while in the care of a family friend, contracting gonorrhea, a downright horrific disease for a child to suffer but that nude photos followed that event, that her own father snapped of her “as art”, can’t help but leave one feeling disturbed. Their relationship was strange, he seemed at times more a lover than a father, which comes into play in the novel when Man finally meets him. Her beauty and body didn’t belong to her in the early years, it’s hard to understand how free and open she was about nudity and sexuality after such a traumatic violation. Maybe being raised as her father’s model made her body become an instrument for her? We are the sum total of our experiences, whether we like it or not, we can let the horrible trauma we suffer be our ruin or we can decide to own our destiny. She had some serious grit! This wasn’t a woman who was going to cower in the presence of any Master.

Man Ray’s own sexuality was a curious thing for the times, rumors swirled about him, naturally he used his love of Miller as a shield. Certainly that didn’t endear him to her, nor the ways he tried to control and manage her. She was a young woman, not quite resigned to a life of staying in and playing at the ‘happy couple’ he wanted to be, she hungered for experiences that would fuel her artist’s mind. There is a line in the novel, “Their gaze made her into someone she didn’t want to be”, and Man was guilty of molding her into some ideal too. There was always a distance within her, she loves him and questions that love, sometimes you can feel a hesitation in giving all of herself to him. She has made this happen, she was the master of her own ship, famously telling him she was to be his student, mind you he wasn’t taking any students.She wasn’t a woman who waited for things to happen, she pursued her desires whether it was for flesh or photographs. Such ambition and commitment is difficult for any of us, but for a woman in the 1930’s, wildly admirable. She needed open love, needed to fall into bed with whom she pleased, separating love from sex when it came to different people. Not such an anomaly really, plenty of people are into open love, and her youth and beauty certainly provided her a smorgasbord of opportunity and temptation, is just doesn’t bode well in a relationship with a man who wants promises.  Man was possessive and jealous, he began to need her and desperation is never attractive to the young. She has her warning early in the relationship upon meeting another of his muses, a former lover Kiki (sultry performer and dancer) who causes a jealous scene. Man tells her his former relationship was simmering in jealousies.

As with any love, the cracks begin to appear. Lee’s fresh ideas are in contrast to Man’s own lack thereof, then comes their perfecting a technique called solarization, based on her discovery, but it is the bell jar photo series that is at the heart of their relationship’s decline. Masters can’t let their students eclipse them completely, right? It’s his studio, his name… Throughout the novel he wants to possess and consume her, crack her skull open, know all her secrets and dissect her because he never seems to reach the center. Man becomes a vulnerable mess, a beggar, desperate that she never leaves him. He loves her, they have fierce passion for each other, but sometimes love that starts as a fire can fizzle out, and all that’s left is ash, smoke.

The story flows between the past and the future where Lee Miller is working as a photojournalist for Vogue, where some of her most famous, shocking  work was produced, during the Second World War. The woman she became seems nothing like the beautiful muse of the past, but she was always there inside, waiting to break free. Then she reinvented herself into a wife, Lady Penrose. The attic becomes the keeper of her past. What a hell of a story! I am going to read her son’s (Antony Penrose) memoir about his ‘unconventional’ mother, The Lives of Lee Miller.

This book has quite a bit of sexuality, of course it does, this is Paris in the 1930’s following a Bohemian set. It’s all sex, art, and libération! Much of Man Ray and Lee Miller’s relationship was about their sexual need for each other as much as their creative life together, it is said Man couldn’t get enough of her. This really is a brilliant book!

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

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Pickle’s Progress: A Novel by Marcia Butler

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A worm in Pickle’s brain told him this was reasoning he should bite on. Everyone was entitled to a breakdown or a breakthrough, and if he were honest with himself, Pickle wasn’t sure which he were facing.

What did I just read? Twin brothers Stan and Pickle McArdle are just as connected, though grown men, as they were in their toxic mother’s womb. They don’t live together anymore, which is a bit inconvenient for Pickle and Karen, but when Karen and her husband Stan get in an accident intoxicated out of their minds (a common occurence) a mixed up young woman named Junie becomes a strange catalyst for some serious sibling rivalry. Does it count as sibling rivalry if you’re unaware of it (Stan)? Is this entanglement a New York thing, kidding… It’s handy that Stan’s brother is on the police force, Pickle always comes through and cleans up their messes. This time the mess is coming home with Stan and Karen, Junie “a woman standing directly in front of them, perhaps five hundred yards away, with her hands at the side of her face, mouth open, like the Edvard Munch painting”, the reason for the accident. Boyfriend Jacob jumped off the bridge, but she didn’t follow. That’s the problem with pacts, someone often opts out after you’ve already committed, or chooses to do it without you. June is Pickle’s favorite month, could love be on the rise? Karen’s reasons for helping out a stranger in dire need of support begins to make sense as she befriends Junie, who feels like a freeloader. Stan isn’t thrilled about the young woman living in their brownstone, his nature is ‘odd’ but Karen seems more overbearing mother than wife.

Pickle, cleaned up all nice, takes in interest in Junie while also making demands on Karen, and what a deceptive piece our Karen is. Secrets, betrayals and at the heart of it all it began with a mother who chose one twin as her favorite. I kept having to remind myself this was written by a woman, Pickle has plenty of reasons for his rage towards Karen, his envy toward his brother, resentment too but I didn’t feel there was a woman’s voice, isn’t that odd? We’re meant to have empathy for Karen, but in my mind her arm didn’t take much twisting and certainly she isn’t as smart as she plays up when there are a million ways she could have handled everything. I know, it makes no sense until you read, but I refuse to post spoilers. Junie is this mess that could have been a hell of a character but instead spends more time in retreat.

I hate you, I love you would be the perfect summary for what is going on between all the major players. Karen has the perfect setup, she has Pickle right where she wants him but he isn’t playing her game anymore. Her control is dimishing. It’s that ‘breakdown’ or ‘breakthrough’ thing racing through Pickle’s veins, plans swirling through his mind that won’t allow him to live in shackles anymore, funny for a cop, how captive he’s allowed himself to be.  Junie, despite Stan’s resistance, could be an antidote to all his misery. Stan is the most believable character, his artlessness, his lack of self-awareness, it’s obvious he doesn’t slip out of his own mind enough to wonder at everything happening all around him. It’s hard to hate him, there’s something childlike about him. The twins are wildly different, Pickle is abrasive where Stan is diluted in his ‘masculinity’ so to speak. Which unraveling Stan makes it easy to understand why their twisted mother favored him, if she had a bone in her body of maternal love, which is doubtful, it’s possible there was fear he would be lost on his own. Junie, I don’t know, she was more a presence than a character I could connect with. Pickle and Karen, those two are absolutely their own problem and each other’s. I just could not like either of them. I still don’t have a clue who Junie is, to be honest. I keep going back to her angry because she should have blazed brighter with such a wild start.

The ending, maybe a little too neat for me. I mean, all’s well that ends well, really? I want to witness the confrontations, you’re telling me everything just lines up? Who are these people?

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Central Avenue Publishing

 

The Embalmer by Anne-Renée Caillé, Rhonda Mullins (Translation)

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You have to be true, to be faithful to the photograph the family sometimes leaves. I am surprised to find out this is not done consistently.

Most of us don’t like to think about what happens after death, how the embalmer prepares the body, the work required to make our loved ones look as they did in life, our ‘last look’ at our beloved who is both present in body and yet not. In this literary fiction, Anne-Renée Caillé’s narrator plumbs the depths of her father’s experiences during his time as an embalmer. What seems like a macabre subject is handled with a far more matter of a fact manner. We modern-day people are removed from death, out of sight, out of mind. While a book of only 96 pages, some of the telling made my skin crawl, not so much for gruesome horror but that lives end in the strangest and saddest of ways.

Her father, at times with ‘a list of cases on hand’,  makes some of the deceased become more real by saying their names. His job, to make them who they were before the ravages of disease, accidents, murder, or even combat had his work cut out for him, and certainly there are cases where there isn’t the possibility of make-up saving the day, because only a closed casket is the option. There are indignities in dying, most of us just have to look away and let others handle the ugly details, never once giving it a thought yet knowing our time will come. Who can bear to ponder such things with so much living to do?

“The story is sensitive, they all are, but some are more disturbing.”

Through listening to her father, she wants to understand him, his choice of jobs where things are underground. Then there is illness in her own family, in her father just like his father before him but death’s movements can’t always be tracked and sometimes surprises us with the age old question, “Who is next?”

I can’t wait to read more by Anne-Renée Caillé. She is an author I will be following. I read this in one night.

Available Now

Coach House Books

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

 

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