The Paper Wasp: A Novel by Lauren Acampora

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I’d long nurtured the private suspicion that I was an outcast not because I was inferior, but because I was exceptional; that the fulfillment of my purpose awaited activation from the universe; that I just needed to wait. And now, as simple as a music box clicking open, it was time. 

Abby Graven abandons stale Michigan, feeling she has awoken from some ‘prolonged, dank dream’. Her deep connection to her once best friend Elise (now a rising star, actress) never felt truly severed, not with her deep dreams. If it’s true we are all one being, then the dreams could very well be communication through the subconscious. As a once promising art student, Abby’s ecstatic states of being were the norm, fueling her work, something she hasn’t felt in her numbed days living at home, doing nothing. All of that changes when Elise, at their school reunion, tells her ‘Abby, Abby, I’ve missed you so much.” and “I’ve never had another friend like you in all these years.” Tipsily she tells her if she is ever in LA, in the offhanded way people do, to give her a call and they’ll hang out. Adding “I hope we can be close again someday.” Drinking loosening defenses, nostalgia causing warm fuzzy feelings while reacquainting ourselves with dear childhood friends, who can blame her?

With there being “a different story in my blood”, Abby’s dreams intensify as does her watching thoughts of Perren. The dreams keep coming, they are signs of where she needs to be, destiny. With the phone number Elise put into her phone at the reunion, she calls her from the Airport and tells her “I’m in L.A.” What can Elise do but give her address and invite her over, what else but let her stay?

A ‘disturbance’ within Abby as Elise casually throws around how she started going to Perren’s place, as if she didn’t know how important he was to Abby. As if he were her discovery! Calling herself an artist, old jealousies prickle at Abby’s flesh, for nothing could be further from reality.  She catches up on Elise’s life, sorting fact from tabloid fiction, sharing intense intimacies. Looking at books by Jung, drawing as if afire, something is coming alive again within her. Abby is like a ghost from Elise’s past, the two pick back up where they left off in childhood. Elise seems to want confirmation of her talent, her friend to soothe her as the arrows of fame pierce her. She soon gains a bigger role in Elise’s life, as her assistant. But this isn’t what she wants for her future, her dreams are speaking to her, guiding her to a rich spring.

Abby isn’t content to shadow anyone, Elise seems to want her to share her work and to stop hiding, as she has been doing for far too long. But her ‘plans’ for Abby are an insult. It gnaws at Abby that Elise plays at being ‘deep’, there is more than an edge of competitiveness. She may own the shallow world of celebrity, acting, fame but how dare she attempt to best her in plunging the soul? There is a tug of war here, as there often is in friendships, I want to lift you up, but I don’t want you to surpass me. We all have our roles, and crossing over into another’s territory can be akin to thievery. There is a love/hate burbling on the ground they share.

She immerses herself in Elise’s life, but she wants her own stake in meaning, an authentic existence. Being the ‘ever the supportive friend’ becomes more of an act, a role she downright disdains. Is Elise’s admiration superficial too? Female friendship turned ugly, will it require erasure of one’s happiness in order for the other to rise? The Rhizome story-line is fantastic, the obsession with dream recall, the pure art of children Perren surrounds himself with  strangely surreal. Is Abby sinking into a sort of madness?  That ending is so bizarre, and yet a perfect fit. Her dreams as translations are bleeding into her waking life, there’s no denying that. Are they premonitions?

Maybe it’s better to keep some room for yourself when you long for intense connections be they with lovers, or  pals. Friendship shouldn’t be submission, and yet it is. Someone seems to be the ‘alpha’ in friendships as much as romantic relationships, but eventually the person who submits, changes their mind and takes the lead. Yes, add this fine book to your summer reading list! I need to look for other books by Lauren Acampora, what strange tales she spins and the writing is rich. I am sure the reviews will be mixed, neither character is lovable but there is something fascinating in their decay and selfishness. I categorize the novel as surreal because of the dreams. The excerpt I shared above is perfection and sums up Abby’s character in ways a thousand situations never could. What a writer!

Publication Date: June 21, 2019

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press

 

 

 

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If, Then: A Novel by Kate Hope Day

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

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

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

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

Publication Date: March 12, 2019

Random House

Roar: Thirty Stories One Roar by Cecelia Ahern

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Even when practically invisible, she was still fighting to be seen.

There is a  story a woman of any age can relate to in this collection, whether you feel like your age or situation is making you fade to nothing, or you’re struggling with time slipping through your fingers, your most precious moments are running away from you and all you want is to eat them up and live in them. A woman returns her husband, she just has no use for him anymore, ‘Paddy wasn’t defective, he wasn’t faulty’, she had just ‘grown out of love‘ but then what happens if he is put back up for sale?

What happens when a woman walks in her husband’s shoes? She learns that men carry themselves differently, not always walking through the world as freely as she imagined. They too have expectations due to their sex, as much as women, but the best part of the story is when she runs into another man, Bob, who has his own surprise. “Our world is the same but it’s not.” Another story is about a woman who, due to a birth defect, wears her heart on her sleeve. It gives her away, her emotional state, beating loudly when her face tries to mask her feelings.

The Woman Who Wore Pink is quite interesting, as Gender Police make sure you don’t overstep your identity as male or female. It’s a damning and frustrating exploration on gender roles, how dare a woman hold open a door, that’s a ‘man’s duty.’ This story in particular reminded me of something I could easily see in the show Black Mirror. There was an eerie feeling that washed over me, all of the ‘supposed to be’ of it. There is no doubt there are unspoken rules regarding gender roles in modern-day life, and maybe there aren’t gender police, and sure you don’t get penalized or fined for doing something considered masculine/feminine (for the most part), say the type of food you eat or the color you wear but there are ‘rules’ aren’t there? I think about how a boy wearing a pink shirt when I was a kid in school would have certainly been an invitation for bullying. It’s a color… a color! The author is saying a lot in this story, and it’s my favorite.

I can’t think of a woman who can’t identify with The Woman Who Spoke Woman. Women need a translator in order for the men ‘in power’ to understand them. The men in charge demand  women who are ‘man-speaking’ and don’t ‘harp on about women’s issues.’ Sound familiar ladies? The Woman Who Guarded Gonads is a loud message, how different the world would be if men had to fight women’s ‘opinions’ about choices regarding their bodies, as we are forced to do. It comes off as preposterous, doesn’t it, and yet it’s a reality for women. I wonder what a man’s take on this short story would be, I welcome their thoughts.

The collection is a fast read but has bite, and of course the stories are meant to engage the reader to question the culture we live in relating to gender issues. Women are so hard on themselves, but so is the world. There is surrealism, as in The Woman Who Unraveled, meant to invoke deeper meaning. Visibly unraveling would likely be easier, because then maybe others would notice and one could take the time they needed to ‘feel whole again.’ Of course, our struggles are invisible in the real world, and we keep a face on, truck along, usually at the detriment of ourselves, and others. It’s not lost on me that I am dealing with a health issue and in doing my research about other women who go through what I will be soon, confess they didn’t slow down enough, nor have support enough to recover from their surgery because of the load they carry as a mother/wife. Unraveling indeed, women don’t listen to their bodies enough, and what a sad world it is when they don’t have the support they need.

Yes, read it. It’s strange but the author is playing with very serious feminist issues, to make it easier to confront she engages the reader with magical realism.

Publication Date: April 16, 2019

Grand Central Publishing

 

The Night Tiger: A Novel by Yangsze Choo

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If I’d been named something feminie and delicate like “Precious Jade” or “Fragrant Lily”, things might have turned out differently.

Set in 1930’s colonial Malaysia, Yangsze Choo has written a novel rich in Maylayan folklore, superstition, tradition involving ghosts who interact with the living, a were-tiger on the prowl and intensely realistic dreams. The characters very names are steeped with meaning in the five Confucian Virtues, too.  Houseboy Ren, 11 years old promises his dying master, Dr. MacFarlane that he will find his missing finger, long ago amputated, and bury with his body. The man’s soul cannot rest unless his body is intact, but there are only 49 soul days total for Ren to complete his mission.

Numbers are lucky or unlucky in Chinese culture, Ji Lin has just hit the 44 day mark in her shameful, secret, second job as a dance hall girl at the May Flower Dance Hall, advertised as “instructors” but covertly entertaining men. A job Ji Lin takes to honor her mother’s mahjong debts, hoping her cold stepfather never finds discovers. Working as an apprentice in a dress shop for her mother’s friend Mrs.Tham has been her salvation, yet could never earn Ji Lin enough money, not when most of her payment is made in learning the skill and covering her boarding cost (living in the dressing room). On that unlucky day, the 44th mark, a patron of the dance hall gifts her with a shriveled finger in a glass bottle only to turn up dead the next day! Is it a curse of some sort? His aunt certainly doesn’t want it back, despite claiming it was his ‘good luck charm’. If it’s so lucky, why does she seem horrified by the sight of it?  Ji Lin must discover where it comes from, it’s true owner.

Upon one of her promised visit to her mother in Falim, she finds her stepbrother Shin home from the hospital in Batu where he has a scholarship studying medicine. Further education is closed to her, despite her keen intelligence, as much as marriage to Ming, whom she has loved for a long time. Her life is weighted by bad luck, it seems. Her mother, a beautiful fragile woman remarried after her father’s death to a tin ore dealer widower with a son. With ‘an eye for beauty‘ her mother was one of the few people that could turn the hard man’s eyes soft. Never much interested in Ji Lin, to his own son he is abusive and cruel, making the home anything but a warm, close one. Despite this, Ji Lin and Shin have a unique relationship. Ji Lin searches for the finger’s owner with Shin’s help, siblings who share the same birthday (though not blood related) passing themselves off now as a couple. Under this guise, Ji Lin will find herself tied to Ren as well. What about the boy in her strange dreams, who talks about his brother? In the village where Ren works under a new Master, William, people are turning up dead. All signs point to an animal,  a leopard or a tiger until upon further investigation peculiarities are discovered upon the corpse of a woman (Ambika), the absence of blood despite puncture wounds. Is it a mythical creature killing the locals, or a murderer? Why? Deeming it a suspicious death doesn’t bode well for William who has his own secret ties to the woman. Once the investigator starts digging, as he will, they will discover William’s association to her. The locals are bound to fuel gossip, that it was a “Keramet” (sacred beast). William must maintain his composure. Ren is losing days  he sorely needs to honor his old master’s dying request, working for William. Soon permitted a few days of leave to visit Dr. MacFarlane’s grave, he must use his time wisely and find the finger, which is nowhere near. The tiger, though, occupies his mind as much as William’s, terrified it could it be his old master’s tormented soul in animal form. Ren is a fascinating character in his own right, a twin with a special connection to his brother, there remains a bond that surpasses the limits of this world. With his brother Yi’s death that “beacon” is still shining, but will it guide him in his quest, dim as it’s become?

The characters connections grow stronger, at times dangerously so. There are an untold amount of secrets kept from strangers, family members and even from one’s own self. This novel tackles several subjects such as culture and class but Ji Lin’s desire to have a career, to further her education especially being a female that must fight for what for males are given naturally makes this novel far richer. There is love, but Ji Lin isn’t going to be a swooning character, she is the hero in so many interactions, to my way of thinking. There are admirable qualities in both she and her stepbrother Shin. Being a male he can find his way in the world far easier than Ji Lin, but he has been cowed and brutalized by his father for so long, it’s amazing he has the strength to succeed, that with such an example, he has tenderness inside and cares about Ji Lin’s safety and happiness. Family situations can be limiting, and when the story begins everything seems unlucky and impossible for Ji Lin, but she never gives up. She doesn’t fully undertand her own heart, but will explore love in the most unexpected places while on her journey.

Love, Magic Realism/Supernatural occurences, dreams, spirits, traditions, death, murder… I can’t imagine a reader out there that would be disappointed. There isn’t one moment in this novel that drags, engaging from the first page to the last. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: February 12, 2019

Flatiron Books

The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man: Essential Stories by Franz Kafka, Alexander Starritt (Translator )

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The longer you hesitate outside the door, the more of a stranger you become.

I don’t know that I would agree these are the best, most essential stories by Kafka but I wasn’t disappointed. This line in Homecoming jumped out at me, it’s such a short ‘nothing’ but poignant with something, “The longer you hesitate outside the door, the more of a stranger you become.” A young man returns home, unwelcome, “I’ve come back”, to his father’s farm, a house with bricks that lie cold against each other as if ‘occupied with it’s own affairs’. It gave me the feeling of being a living ghost, unwanted, a stranger now all the same, and aren’t we all ghosts in a sense when we first return to our old haunts, homes? To family who wants to see nothing but the back of us?

A Report for an Academy is about assimilating as a means of survival and escape from captivity. There are several different suggestions of what the story is about and what Kafka’s inspiration was, it’s worth looking up. Kafka is always saying far more than what is at surface a story about an ape mimicking the human world, conforming to rise above the caged existence, captivity. In a sense he is thumbing his nose at humanity, isn’t he?

The Silence of the Sirens is Kafka’s version of Ulysses. Here Odysseus finds the Sirens silence is as dangerous as their singing. A weapon far more deadly, so much for wax stuffed ears. The saddest story for me in the collection is The Verdict, it begins with businessman Georg composing a letter to his friend who left for Russia and is now stagnating, should he tell his friend of his engagement? His mother is dead, he’s moved in with his father, putting all his hard work in the family business, one wonders ‘did mother keep the peace once?’ Is this meant to be a silly piece, or a disturbing tale between a young son unable to escape his father’s shadow and a weak old man unable to accept his time has passed, jealous of his son’s future, youth? It’s so bizarre, why does George’s father question if his Russian friend isn’t an invention of his own mind, a lie? Why is he so disappointed by his son? Why does Georg obey his father’s verdict as if he is helpless against the tyranny of the old man, as if a child cowering under thunderous anger? Georg’s father emasculates him as only a cruel parent can. Autobiographical. It is well-known Kafka’s father was abusive, that Kafka wrote a letter to his father, that was actually a published book that changes the way you read The Verdict. You want to understand Kafka a bit more, read Letter To His Father by Franz published in 1952. Now I’ve gone and made myself sad! Kafka’s writing always fascinates me because of the many interpretations, so much left to the imagination, all the things left unsaid that the reader is meant to figure out. Is it real or horror or fantasy? It is never what it seems and exactly what it seems.

Paperback available now

Kindle Edition publication: March 5, 2019

Pushkin Press

The Murmur of Bees: A Novel by Sofia Segovia, Simon Bruni (Translator)

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“Nana. What else do you have there?”

Then the bundle burst into wails and frenetic movements.

“He’s hungry, boy,” said Nana Reja as she carried on with her constant swaying.

“May I see?”

As he unrolled the shawl, Francisco and his men at last saw what Nana had in her arms: a baby.

Their horror made them step back. Some of them crossed themselves.

An abandoned, disfigured baby boy mysteriously protected by a living blanket of bees is rescued by Nana Reja in a small Mexican town, October 1910. The woman as old and weathered as a tree, with a long, exhausting life a servitude behind her, has chosen to live out the rest of her days in one spot in a rocking chair outside the storage sheds on the Hacienda Amistead. Her past shed as wet nurse and caregiver for so many children that it’s hard to remember her own baby, so long departed from this world, it’s a miracle that Reja heard the abandoned child’s cries from under a bridge, so far away. It is ominous, unnatural! With fierce determination burning fire in her old heart, she refuses to budge in her plan and thus changes the course of the Morales family when she brings the ‘monstrous’ Siminopio infant home, demanding he is baptized despite the ugly, hateful whispering of the village that the boy is a bad omen. To some, like Francisco’s bitter employee Anselmo Espiricueta, he is “the devil”, will be the downfall of them all. Others are ashamed of their first reaction as they come to care for the strange child.

Francisco and Beatriz adopt Siminopio, whose bees beat within him as strongly as his own heart, guiding and protecting both he and the Morales family as he grows under their care. Soon there is war in their Northern Mexico, men of wealth are a prime target and with pretty young daughters, Francisco knows his girls must be sent away. With the war’s army wanting land, and taking his crops, he has time for his family now like never before and wonders if buying land is an answer.He begins to believe Siminopio and his bees are important to his family, for surely there is a reason he came. He will see that he remains unharmed. Over time the people who are a part of or near the Morales house come to get used to the boy, his deformity less terrifying, his affinity for nature making him a sweet boy one could even feel affection for. Unable to communicate due to his deformity, people underestimate his keen intelligence, his ability to see in others what most people overlook. It is not without sorrow that he lives his life in step with his bees, wishing with all his might he could sing or speak, express himself in ways most take for granted, but it is not to be.

It isn’t a story solely about Siminopio though, every character has their story told, like Beatriz and her youthful longing for a good, solid man for a husband  and finds the best partner in Francisco, so much luckier than other women of the times. But revolutions and epidemics have a long reach, she will endure as she always has, just like the times after the tragic loss of her own father, in years to come. She clings to the past, she is a loyal wife and mother but the fear of giving up her family lands, starting over in an unknown land, shucking off all the old traditions for a new way is not something she wants to entertain. Then comes the fever, and it comes for Siminopio.

Influenza and the Mexican Revolution rip through every character in this novel and no one is unscathed. When fortune takes a bad turn and illness befalls the people, there isn’t time to properly grieve. Survival swamps sorrow, when death is hungry and pity becomes a luxury, because you are all under the same threat. Soon there are more dying or dead than alive but through the stink of death, a miracle gives the people hope, even if the doctor doesn’t believe in such things. The Morales family line is safe, and they owe it to Siminiopio’s fever and Francsico’s swift thinking, abandoning Linares and it’s people just in time. This decision is their salvation, but also inflames an enemy.

It is a story of  one family’s evolution and knowing when to let go , even if it means abandoning the old ways, it is about seeing past your own nose, understanding that fear can cloud your judgement and that beauty and salvation are sometimes found in the strangest of places, and people. It is a window into how animosity is often easier to nurture than accepting  the nature of your own failings, as we see with the envious Anselmo. Tired of waiting for good fortune to smile upon him, disgusted with Francisco’s benevolence, with ‘hand outs’ and making due, working land that will never be his that seems to be taken over by orange groves, helping only the Morales wealth grow while his own life is consumed by loss, he devises a scheme of his own, nurturing too the hatred he feels for the ‘devil’ Siminopio.  It is a story of love, war, illness, nature, revenge and bees. There is magical realism with Siminopio and his beloved bees, but this is more historical fiction. There are many voices telling the tale, a lot of story to sort through but worth the effort. There is beautiful writing and wisdom within, I particularly delighted at the chapter about houses, how they “die when they are no longer fed the energy of their owners.” How houses leave echoes in us, as we leave echoes in them. The invisibility of old age, the ghosts of the past that visit us as memories, even the horrors of time, it’s all written so beautifully.

Publication Date: April 16, 2019

AmazonCrossing

Lake Union Publishing

The Day the Sun Died: A Novel by Yan Lianke, Carlos Rojas (Translator)

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Astonished, I walked out of his room, and saw him heading toward the lake, like a ghost heading toward the grave.

I read somewhere this book has political meaning, and it can certainly be seen in the sleepwalking villagers, not much different from their hard-working daily lives. Going about their business, laboring , as if on automatic, is this the Chinese dream? Are they ready to embrace the modern world, should they, do they even want to? Teenager Li Niannian and his parents run the New World funerary shop, his parents creating Chinese paper offerings for the dead, supplying the deceased with everything they might need in the afterlife. Once, his father secretly aided his uncle by giving news when someone in the village died, denying them their secret burials forcing them to cremate their loved ones. This continues to shame him, and comes to light during the somnambulism of one strange night. The sun has set, but the villagers on the mountainside are acting as though the day is still on, working, some behaving in bizarre ways, finally revealing desires they would never have otherwise acted upon. Some confessing things that have troubled their conscience, much like Li Niannian’s father. But it’s turning dangerous, some are seeking the water, risking their lives. Li Niannian and his family know they must save the villagers from themselves or there will be no one left come morning, if the sun hasn’t truly died. How do you convince people they are not really awake? What if things turn violent, murderous?

Uncle Shao Dacheng is very successful but the villagers don’t want to shirk their traditional burials for cremation, then there is the special corpse oil which is another facet of this surreal story. It turns darkly disturbing as madness ensues, who will save the day? When will this darkest of nights end? Will they ever wake up?

It’s interesting to think of the poverty striken and how politics control their lives, down to how they bury their dead. How little control they seem to have, how true feelings can only arise in a dream state, a repressed people. An original that has more meaning than I can ever hope to explain.

Linake is an award-winning, successful contemporary author in China.

Pulication Date: December 28, 2018

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press