The Study of Animal Languages: A Novel by Lindsay Stern

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The usual wreckage drifts towards me…

Ivan and Prue are married and couldn’t be any different. Ivan is a philosophy professor who lives in a controlled manner, lover of language that longs for it to be exact, ‘like symbols of mathematics’, a languge that can be played with, twisted to mean anything other than what is is. Like philosophy it would ‘eliminate misunderstandings once and for all’ here in lies the humor in the novel, for his marriage crumbles under that exact invader, misunderstanding. Wife Prue studies biolinguistics whose discoveries leads her to believe one day people could understand their ‘birdsong’ as language, not senseless chatter. This form of communication could be very much alive in the animal kingdom, as much as human’s relate to one another, why not they? Certainly studying ‘sounds’ of birds, monitoring them cannot truly tell us what they are saying, feeling, thinking? What about we humans, superior animals and our gorgeous vocabularies? Aren’t our words often fraught with unintended outcomes, consequences, errors, comedies? Words used as camoflauge to hide our real feelings? Words to strip and bare our souls, just as misunderstood depending on whose ears they fall? Prue’s lecture scares Ivan, because he fears no one will take her, nor her intelligence seriously and it all unravels.

Prue’s father Frank comes into town to hear his brilliant daughter lecture, but he is on a downward spiral, his highs and lows having long navigated Prue’s entire childhood. Strange that his inability to corral his thoughts and behavior somehow makes him the most solid character in the novel, and the most likable. Prue and Ivan’s marriage is tested too by writer Dalton Field, whose book she has taken an interest in reading, the attractive visiting author infuriating Ivan. He sees an easy intimacy between them, but no, it has to be his imagination? There are clues something is going on, he can feel a rupture in their love. To make matters worse, people are always surprised that Prue chose a man like him as husband, bland and predictable. Then there is Prue’s niece May, witness to the adults falling apart around her, which gives insight into what life with Frank must have been like for Prue, the fear of his mania as well as the thrill of it. Which makes the reader wonder if that could be why Prue fell in love with someone as stable as Ivan. “It may come as a surprise to you, Dad, but you’re not a prophet. You’re a provocateur.” I was focused more closely on Frank and the influence his mental illness had on his daughter’s life. It was beautiful and sad because he does love her. Ivan loves Prue as well, without a doubt, but he never feels quite worthy while at the same time feels superior, it’s so odd.

Ivan is methodical until he let’s his fear of losing Prue ravage his common sense. He is going to stay on the sinking ship until the end. Will he save their love? Salvage the wreckage of his marriage, patch up the cracks caused by his misinterpretations of their love language? Ivan thinks he is nothing like Frank, there seems to be a condescending attitude toward his father-in-law, but as he unravels he may find he has more in common with him than he ever imagined. A novel that speaks in more than words or birdsong.

It’s a clever story of academics turned foolish. I enjoyed it, but some may not as the excitement is quiet.

Available Now

Penguin Group

Viking

 

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Driving Into The Sun by Marcella Polain

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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

 

 

The Fifteen Wonders of Daniel Green by Erica Boyce

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‘The farm is beautiful at this hour, before the fog has lifted and you start remembering the ways it has betrayed you.’

The small town of Munsen, Vermont is in trouble, a land full of collapsing barns and dead fields await Daniel Green who has been requested by a farmer named Sam. In a plan to bring publicity with his mysterious crop circles, Sam thinks it will be enough to get the ‘young folks’ to stick around, maybe create enough interest to bring outsiders in who will stay to help work the farms. At least, that’s his desperate wish! His plan is a ‘circlers dream’, how can Daniel resist? Daniel knows how to blend in and go unnoticed until he gets his job done, undercover.

Molly is Sam’s wife, struggling with old shame and fear for her husband, not always thrilled about the prospects and ideas Sam has for their farm, but ‘he has a way of sweeping you into his enthusiasm’, this is his biggest project yet. It’s not the struggling farm alone that she and Sam are facing, there are problems that can swallow them whole. Their son Charlie took off for the West ten years ago, bursting in his skin to be free of small town life and all its confines, to shed his father’s expectations, nay- demands. At odds with his father, not interested in farming, choosing a medical career instead, much more befitting his academic success and plans, he knows he doesn’t fit in. Sam sees his choice as a defection to the life he and Molly worked hard for, as if it isn’t ‘good enough’, but it’s a different truth about himself that Charlie believes is the real cause of their rift. Daughter Nessa is home again, wanting nothing more than to work the farm. She and Daniel draw close to one another and soon, both are revealing their pasts and deepest secrets, a relief after keeping hurts close to their hearts for too long. The very things we are shamed into hiding from the rest of the world.

Daniel has been a loner for quite some time now, healing from the wounds of a past relationship, he couldn’t have imagined just how much these strangers and their life struggles will come to mean to him. Nessa may be a bridge that guides him back to his own parents, simply for want of helping her. Is salvation possible? Or is it too late in the game? This is about more than crop circles or farms, it’s about family, love, marriage, illness, fear and hope. It’s how we alienate ourselves and each other simply because of our expectations. Sometimes we assume things about our own loved ones and how they relate to us, running with a fiction that could be wrong. It’s about changing direction and the possibility of staying in one place. These are imperfect people dealing with life altering circumstances. Sometimes the most alien thing is our own feelings.

Publication Date: April 2, 2019

Sourcebook Landmark

 

Finding Dorothy: A Novel by Elizabeth Letts

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“Oh,” Maud said. “I don’t know the first thing about theater. How does one go about becoming a theatrical man?”

“Well, I wasn’t fit for anything else,” Frank answered, his eyes crinkling up into a smile. “Not a whit of business sense, I’m afraid- unless that business is magic.” 

Maud Gage “understood that she has been anointed- she must not let her mother down.”  Matilda, her mother, had fought for women to be seen as equals to men, for women to have the right to earn college degrees (the only hope for a better future) something she herself was denied. When Maud’s older sister Julia cannot fulfill her progressive mother’s expectations due to health difficulties, Maud must take her place. At Sage  (Sage Hall was built to house females at Cornell back in 1875) she befriends Josie Baum, and realizes that her ‘eccentricities’ that at home were encouraged make her feel like a complete misfit at Cornell. Women may have more doors open to them than her mother ever did, but aren’t meant to be engaging, are expected to fade into the wallpaper. For all the talk of equal rights, women are still expected to be ‘like a houseplant’ more for pretty decoration, to be less engaging, to bend to a man’s will and be a rapt audience who fawns over the male pontificating in the classroom rather than voicing their views. If they don’t land a husband their only other option, educated or not, is to return back home to their parents, where they are managed instead by their father or mother. It is through her friend Josie Baum that she meets her future husband, when Josie invites her over to her to a party at her house over Christmas break.  Josie’s cousin Frank, a man of the theater (actor, director, stage manager of the small traveling  Baum Theater Company) who will go on to write the much-loved children’s classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Frank, whose name starts with F. F, the letter that during a seance with her group of friends at the college appeared on the board, whose name her future husband begins with, if you believe that sort of thing and of course… of course she doesn’t. Does she?

The joy of this novel is how Maud and others served as Frank’s inspiration, from a fear of scarecrows to a sad, lonely niece, her special doll and the dress that inspired Dorothy’s iconic gingham one. Anyone who has ever watched Dorothy will warm while reading about the birth of Oz. It wasn’t all success for Maud, whom watches her own sister’s poor choice of the heart and every sorrow and hardship that follows. Her own path now tied to Frank Baum’s, she must bust free from the confines of her mother’s plans, marrying a man whose life is spent on the road with his theater. When she has a child, he must find a career to support Maud and their infant son, working as a salesman and trying to ignore his ‘flights of fancy’. They experience loss, Maud’s severe illness during her second pregnancy,  changes in career for Frank, family strain and deep grief between she and her sister Julia while living in the vastness of Dakota territory.

Future Maud is a widow, nearing 80 and on the set of the film The Wizard of Oz. Here she meets and befriends Judy Garland, developing tender feelings for the lonely, young woman whose overbearing stage manager mother doesn’t seem to protect enough. Bullied by everyone from the director to her co-stars, spies watching her diet like a hawk, young Judy Garland spends a lot of time on the verge of a breakdown, her insecurities fueled by on set cruelties but finds a nurturing presence in Maud, as well as insider information on the part she wants to play to perfection. Who understands Dorothy better than Baum’s own wife, inspiration behind the beloved characters? Too, Maud will fight to keep one of the now most famous songs Somewhere Over the Rainbow from being cut from the film, as much as fight to see young Judy isn’t smacked around, literally. This ‘old woman’ will not be pushed aside, she has made a promise to her husband’s memory and herself that this film must do justice to Frank’s tale, not diminish it! Having been raised by a mother who was quite the suffragette, it seems like destiny that Maud witnesses the binding of Judy’s developed body, to make her appear younger, after all Dorothy was a little girl in the book and the attempts to deny her proper nutrition of course Maud sneaks tasty snacks to feed Judy herself! Such control a far cry from the rights her mother demanded, so far into the future and women still being handled, unrealistic expectations forced upon them. Maud, despite giving up her degree for marriage wasn’t one to retreat, her marriage to Frank dealt her many hardships that even the most educated, progressive woman would break under. They always had love and respect, and she is due credit as much as Frank’s own diligence, for his success. Maud was a woman who managed their family finances, raised their two sons while Frank’s career often pulled him away, who pushed her husband to realize his dreams.

While the relationship between Maud and Judy Garland is tender, the past is the heartbeat of this novel. I don’t think I will ever watch the film without thinking of all the sorrows that touched the Baum’s. There is a lot of heartbreak, the story isn’t all rainbows and good witches but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of happiness too. Beautiful, I didn’t expect to like this novel as much as I did. It’s a very rich story!

Publication Date: February 12, 2019

Random House Publishing

Ballantine Books

 

 

Adèle: A Novel by Leila Slimani

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She wishes she were just an object in the midst of a horde. She wants to be devoured, sucked, swallowed whole.

Adèle is more than bored, every desire she has is insatiable and nothing is going to fill that void. Adèle’s husband Richard is a surgeon who loves to spoil her with a gorgeous apartment in Paris,  has pulled strings to get her the job she has as a journalist for a successful newspaper but her enthusiasm has died at work, as much as her joy in mothering their son, Lucien. Apart from fearing a baby would ruin her body and rob her idleness when she found herself pregnant, she comes to love her son but even that love couldn’t tame her urges. There is a line, “For now, she remains in her filth, suspended between two worlds, the mistress of the present tense.”  Filth it is, she is numb, she isn’t really alive and there isn’t a sexual encounter anywhere that can cure what ails her. There isn’t anything erotic about her encounters either, and I don’t feel it’s meant to be, though I labeled this under erotica for readers, because of the sex. She leaves each entanglement more soiled and broken, a life mounting in lies, disappearing from her own child for seedy encounters. On a superficial level she is easy to judge, there isn’t much to like about her , she has so much more than most people and we all know the argument is you can be just as unhappy with everything as someone who has nothing, but let’s just say her standing in life is quite comfortable, minus the struggles the majority of us cope with, a day in her cushy life would be a godsend, naturally this doesn’t endear her to most readers. She is certainly an object, over and over again, as still and devoid of life as a rock.

She is the saboteur of her own happiness and security. Then there is Richard, let’s talk about Richard. It’s easier not to acknowledge the cracks in your wife, to simply play the martyr and suffer for your beloved, to tune out. Then, when Richard finally must lift his head out of the dirt he’s buried it in,  he can play at savior or master depending on how you look at it. Richard can fix this, right? It’s so easy, it’s all about control. If he closes his eyes nice and tight, he won’t have to accept reality as it stands, right?  Just change the scenery, Richard knows best! We’re meant to feel sorry for him, and I do to a point, but he is as much the problem as Adèle’s sexual compulsions. Nothing about her trysts soothes her suffering, she is human wreckage. “She had always thought that a child would cure her.” Why are people always looking outside themselves for the cure?  Who really wants to save another person from themselves, and can you? Richard is always reaching out, trying to touch her it seems. She cannot be touched or reached, she cannot feel hence her desire to be swallowed whole, to be an object only. The novel could also be about the excruciating patience of Richard’s love, because only love that suffers is true? Right? Right? Is Richard just as sick? There is honesty though, in being in love with her still, love tangled in resentment, rage, and pain. His desire for her ‘violent and selfish’ is as corrupt as her own uncontrollable hunger and needs. They are both addicted, if you ask me. Both should be getting treatment. There is a slight peek into her family dysfunction, between she and her parents. Her own father clung to unhappiness,  life among the common people not good enough for him, the closeness she had with her father, who never saw the dirty girl she was, at least according to her mother, never let his ideal of her be defiled by who she truly was at her core, eyes closed to her antics. Is she this way because of her mother, or is it an illness her father had, a deep-rooted dissatisfaction that she inherited? We’ll never know as it’s not deeply explored, but the rot began in childhood. It seems it was an either/or. It’s dad or me! That her mother punishes her for being her father’s favorite.

She is easy to despise, to feel disgusted by. Beauty hides the ugly inside, that monster lurking that won’t look so appealing as time has its way with her. By the end, I was embarrassed for Adèle. It’s such a sad spiral, I spent most of the novel just feeling pity towards her, imagine living with all that rot within, all that indifference, to walk through life so numbed that you destroy everything you have just to feel. Tell me, who the hell wants to be pitied?

One of the saddest moments is when Adèle wishes she could confide in her mother. “She was a burden to her mother when she was a child. Now she has become an adversary…” a child that never had her mother’s tenderness, and maybe because of that faces such a destructive bitterness. Maybe it’s because I am a mother that I felt that moment like a gut punch. Who would Adèle have been if she knew a moment of guidance from her mother? Her mother’s adversary, imagine that.

Publication Date: January 15, 2019

Penguin Books

 

Look How Happy I’m Making You: Stories by Polly Rosenwaike

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A woman’s body was suppsed to know exactly what to do.

In Polly Rosenwaike’s debut collection of stories, women are confronting more than just motherhood. There are relationship struggles, bodies that are failing to behave as nature intended, and conflicting emotions within their own minds. Growing up girls are rarely privy to the reality of pregnancy and childbirth. It isn’t like all those movies where an unexpected pregnancy is a happy blessing, or the moment you try for a baby its immediate succes, the men are all adoring, the mother to be is glowing and when the time comes the couple has supportive family, friends, money and boom her body is back to its pre-pregnancy shape. Of course the baby and mother bond instantly, there isn’t any struggle breast-feeding, absolutely no sign of postpartum depression!

The reality is, there is jealousy particularly when you can’t get pregnant and all around you everyone else seems fruitful. Some women wait for a partner to arrive and realize they are stuck in a constant state of expecting, better maybe to have a child alone, for another her child’s birth represents the cycle of life and death as her beloved aunt is dying, a moment of joy tangled in grief. Pregnancies themselves aren’t one size fits all, for some months are spent consumed by illness, stress, pain. Some women get desperate and lie, their desire to grasp at their last chance to have a child before their biological clock turns everything off. Maybe forcing a man who is too young, who hasn’t chosen to be a father, through deceit. That sometimes, dishonesty feels like the only way to get what you want.Then there is the depths of postpartum depression, because expectant mothers never truly think it will happen to them. Your emotions turning you against your own nature, a dual person who can love and then feel resentment towards the baby, repulsed with breast-feeding, exhausted, visualizing doing terrible things to your child. Oh no, you would never! Courting thoughts of your own demise…all the panic within’. This is just one window to look through at the characters within.

A woman  psychologist is a ‘curator’ of babies laughter, but one infant’s silence is a tragedy that forces her to face her own cowardice. A childless couple (by choice, in agreement) find a shift in their desires when the husband changes his mind, because men can feel the tick of a daddy clock too. The manuals will tell you a lot, but not everything. There is so much advice about pregnancy, parenthood in books, from friends, doctors, family, strangers and online, and still yet it might not speak to your situation. Parenthood makes you hate and love your partner, it can seal your bond or break it. A woman may dream of being a mother her whole life, idealizing motherhood but when the moment comes may feel like an absolute failure. Another woman may become a mother on accident, with reluctance and fall head over heels, discover she was born for it, a natural! Others may decide to go it alone, or to never have a child at all. The kingdom of parenting never truly runs smoothly. It is a land dominated by disruption, illness, surprise attacks as much as celebration and love. Our bodies through pregnancy are the same, they can be foe or friend. Our thoughts can betray us just as much as those we love, and that bundle of joy along with our hormones can wreak havoc too, reminding mothers “Look How Happy I’m Making You”. Yes, read it! There has been quite a bit of fiction recently delving into the territory of motherhood and I champion it! We need to explore every crevice of what can go wrong (or even just feel wrong) as much as the good. When a woman is struggling, it shouldn’t be a desert period with no one to help. It’s good to know that it isn’t all teddy bear picnics, that women just like you struggle sometimes. There really isn’t a solid ‘supposed to’ in pregnancy, parenthood. It isn’t ‘one size fits all’. What pressure to be told what you should feel, how you’re meant to engage as if each baby is quiet, peaceful. Some babies come into this world squalling and how can you not resent the smugness of mothers whose little sweatpea sleeps like an angel bragging about their special bond. I wish I could have read such fiction when I was a young mother. This will be out in the new year!

Publication Date: March 19, 2019

Doubleday Books

 

Late Air: A Novel by Jaclyn Gilbert

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Murray’s fist tightened over his watch, numbers slipping like sand.

What began as a romantic, surprising love in Paris when Murray (a marathon runner, olympic competitor, coach for Yale) and Nancy ( literary archivist) first meet in a cafe, turns into marriage. Her family isn’t thrilled about his background. Just finishing her PhD, her mother wanted far more for her than someone with Murray’s less than stellar background. Not even after marriage and a child are her parents able to open their hearts. Murray himself doesn’t have many familial connections with both parent’s deceased and a brother who dropped off West when their mother was ill. Together, they create a family of their own to build upon, chosing to focus on their careers and marriage.

Murray is more than passionate about his girls, in Nancy’s mind maybe obsessed. Having moved to New Haven more for his work than hers, there are small resentments. Never easy in making friends, she finds her own footing and befriends colleagues to share the thoughts in her mind with as Murray becomes more distant, and their intimacy recedes. Often ashamed of the jealousy she feels over Murray’s ‘girls’, Nancy tries to channel all her energy into her newborn, Jean. But the days collect in loneliness, the maternal feelings don’t come naturally and Murray is always preoccupied by his stopwatch, training. She needs her work too, this she knows. Being stuck home all day isn’t nourishment to her mind, soul. She isn’t bonding naturally, her child is often a squalling bundle of energy. She is exhausted, depressed, and lonely.  In time, her little family is working again and everything feels good, though Murray is forgetful of important things, his mind never committed to Jean and Nancy.

Present day, sixteen years later Nancy and Murray are nowhere they thought they’d be. Tragedy has struck one of Murray’s star athletes, and the suffocating horrors of his own past suffering merges with present day. Now, he is beginning to see all the things he missed but is it too late, this breath of air? Could all the ridiculous fears, accusations and guilt from the past have some grain of truth? Is the injury Becky sustained his fault? Did he push his girls too hard? Was he a little too involved with others? Did he spend too much time running away from Nancy and Jean? Could anything he did or didn’t do change either outcome?

Time has its way with all the characters in this novel. Marriage through tragedy is a different beast, and sometimes it takes the passage of years to understand our choices, our mistakes, to confront our pain. Sometimes we understand too late that our partner’s betrayal may well be rooted in our own. This novel is an exploration of pain and love. You don’t have to be interested in runners (sports) to take meaning from the story, it’s much more about relationships, marriage, family. It burns slowly, takes you back and forth through Nancy and Murray’s lives, but those of you married long enough can relate especially partners who have trudged through loss together. If you haven’t known tragedy, you will one day. Grief and sorrow comes around for us all. It is the price we pay for being alive, for love.

Publication Date: November 13, 2019

Little A