Jacob’s Ladder: A Novel by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Polly Gannon

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I feel that if I don’t write this down it will all evaporate, disappear into oblivion. 

Man Booker International Prize nominee, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel Jacob’s Ladder tells us the story of Nora Ossetsky and her family, as far back as her grandfather (a third generation Swiss watchmaker) Pinchas Kerns, who moved to Kiev in 1873 to open a branch of watchworks and instead opened a watchmaking-and-repair shop. Despite his lack of interest in communism, and capitalism “he placed a high value on his craft, and viewed commerce almost with contempt” and “the watchmaker never read the Bible of communism” his children assimilated the ‘progressive ideas of humanity’. The family is one of close knit siblings, educated, happy until October of 1905 and a pogrom against Kiev’s Jews alters the course of their lives.

Fast forward to 1974: Nora is with her married lover, renowned theater director Tengiz where she is working as an artist in theater set design. Their days are filled with creative work, love and undying passion for each other. Seldom does Nora take an interest in her mother Amalia, whose own life seems to orbit around Andrei Ivanovich. The two seem nothing alike at times, and this exchange really moved me, as it seems Nora is irritated by her mother Amalia’s joy and it’s telling of Nora’s more cynical nature.

‘Amalia had positively bloomed from country life, and she laughed constantly”…

“What are you smiling about?” Nora asked.

“About everything,”Amalia answered, suddenly very serious, her smile gone. “Learn now, Nora, before it’s too late.”

Abruptly, the Chekhov play Nora and Tengiz are working on is shut down on the eve of its premiere, he flees back to the arms of his wife and child in Tbilisi, “the love cloud had vanished.” This is their sixth parting, and Nora can’t moon over losing him for long, after all going away ‘forever going away’ is what he is best at. He always finds his way back to her. For now, she has a new project and she turns to Vitya Chebotarev and here a fork, the story reaches back to their meeting and the link between them, one that fires up his mother Varvara’s hatred for Nora.

The characters are complex, Yurik ( Nora’s child) and his wonder often tickled my heart as I pondered ‘where do these beings we birth come from, similar to us in some ways carrying their ancestors in their DNA with similar features of those long departed and yet the things their strange little hearts think and say, their longings so different from our own?’ We try so hard to understand each other while sometimes not even fully aware of ourselves. Of Nora: “Nora was pitiless to everyone, not least to herself.” Of Vitya: Despite his unusual memory and his innate abilities in logical thought, he was emotionally rather backward , and had not an iota of a sense of humor. 

The family saga includes Nora’s grandfather Jacob Ossetsky’s diary entries, a man of musical passions, and desire for a beautiful girl named Maria (Marusya). The pair will join together, and spend their love in a life of letters, separated for so very long. Later those same letters collecting time in a willow chest, ignored, nearly forgotten. Simply another link in a tangled family chain that goes back and forth between the past and present. A heavy sorrowful tale of separation, isolation.

Nora becomes a single mother to her son Yurik, a strange child whom sometimes seems more her equal than her little boy. Of course Tengiz is always on the periphery of Nora’s life and Yurik’s. There was theater, now there is film! He always has something on the horizon. Vitya too is an important player, but half in and half out. He seems led about by Nora, resigned to whatever plans befall him, for a time anyway. Like an echo from past, Jacob’s love of music is birthed anew in Yurik’s very cells, a lifelong passion. Where will it take our strange little fellow?

With Vitya’s ‘trained mind’ and interest in the computer revolution, it is through his mathematical brain and the whims of fate (or his mother Varvara’s fervent hopes) that he is invited to a conference in the United States of America, where life finally blooms, maybe even love is in the stars? So too Nora and Tengiz find themselves in America when Western audiences become ‘ecstatic’ over their work, but only for a visit.  How changed Vitya is!  Back home, Nora worries about her son and how he needs something to occupy his heart and soul fully.  Time flows, death has come to her door as it must for us all, teaching her things she didn’t understand about her mother and father. Yurik finally makes it to America, is ingesting more than music, and changes his life, but is it for better or worse?

Boats to other shores, love letters, loneliness, diary entries, Russian theater, progressive single mothers, here we feel the ravages of time and place upon one family. It may not engage everyone, as we spend time with each generation the history is rich, the letters feel genuine with details some may find mundane, but what are days of life spent absented from all you desire if not mundane? The shackles of politics don’t often give us the freedom for fun and thrills. The characters are all wildly different from one another, as people are. The “storms of love” between Nora and Tengiz are imperfect and yet fitting somehow for this creative pair. The love story of her mother Amalia and Andrei is beautiful, yes even old folks can have sweet stories, even if it comes late. Where you live alters the course of your life, how can it not? But the promise of a new place, say America, isn’t always fruitful for everyone either. There are traps we can all fall into, even if the true obstacle is ourselves. We carry on, that is our only true job. The past has its tragedies through revolutions, upheavals, politics, and with the demands of the fatherland breathing down your neck how can any one person fulfill their future hopes? How can love and family ever be together, in their right and proper places, nice and safe and free? Must we look to the future, instead, our children and their children after them, even if we never meet them? Can our descendants carry on our desires? For one family, yes and no.

Old age comes for Nora “youth ended, never to return”, for those of us lucky enough to live full lives into our ‘dotage’ so to speak, that is a given. Will she finally find happiness in ways her ancestors could only hope for in the Russia they knew? You must read.

Publication Date: July 9, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

 

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Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir by T Kira Madden

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I wanted love the size of a fist. Something I could hold, something hot knuckled and alive.

Growing up as a privileged child isn’t always as glorious as the rest of us think, and of course no one wants to hear you complain because you have all that wealth, the private schools, horses, fantastic shoes but as a biracial child coming of age in Boca Raton, Florida -T Kira Madden struggles mightily. Born as a love child, early childhood begins with a mannequin father whose heft has more presence and love than her own flesh and blood daddy. Her beautiful Chinese Hawaiian mother knows her best and as single mother does everything she can to protect them, the mannequin is her mother’s idea used as a stand in for her her father’s sporadic visits to their mice infested apartment. Her father who feels like a giant stranger. A successful older man who already has an established family shifts sails and decides to live with T Kira and her mother, so begins the fierce memoir.

When her parents aren’t fighting or in drunken, drug-fueled fights her dad is passed out on the couch in a stupor, life is mad obsession over her show horses, an uncle who is unlucky in love, massive humiliation during junior high, hunger to fit in, and the gut wrenching loss of innocence that isn’t confronted until years later. Her father in their life means overflowing ashtrays, they’re rich but live off cheap food, life going off the hinges as much as the wooden doors in the house after one of his rages. Like this, she still loves him. Then there are secrets, so many secrets through generations and her father isn’t the only one with things to hide. As her family grows so too does an understanding of all the things she didn’t see while her eyes were smeared with youth. There is cousin Cindy and her beauty, which isn’t always a prelude to a charmed life. When T Kira ‘finds her own pretty’, she goes wild with her tribe of fatherless girls. The exotic features that once made her prey to kids in school with racial slurs becomes ‘sexy’ among her girls. Parties, drugs, sexual exploration, losing people and herself until the girl from Boca becomes a New York woman. In college she allows herself deeper love and intimacy with girls and faces what it means to be queer or not.

There are moments of such honesty it makes you wince. She lets too much happen to her, living at times on autopilot, as young people hungry for love and attention do. Terrible things happen because of her trusting naivete. Her parents didn’t shelter her from all the adult situations were tangled i, and it costs her. We are shaped in childhood, but it doesn’t have to be our ruin. There is love between T Kira and her father, but the confusion of living in the storms of his moods, his violence  towards her mother, threatening her as well, wrecks her home. In his absence her mother destroys herself with drugs, and her father abandons them, leaving T Kira to be the caregiver, addiction in a parent a force someone so young shouldn’t have to contend with. Children are meant to be the needy ones. It wasn’t always nightmarish, she has sweet memories of her father taking her to her first baseball game, their trip to Vegas when she was five, but there is so much distance between them. She tells us at seventeen of New York “I’ve moved here to be closer to my dad. I want to walk his streets, eat his favorite pastrami, try on a new relationship with him.”  She loses her father, every remnant of him is ash, except the memories.

“Ghosts are better than nothing. Ghosts move. They want things. To haunt each other, then, is a way for my mother and I to keep him. He is more than a voice in the walls., a Ouija board movement, an iridescent cloud in the dark; he can exist here, inside us, through possession. We do our best to play the roles. Our bodies are not big enough.” 

     Falling in love with someone, I think, is at least like that.”

 

An innocuous Christmas present after her father’s death pries her mother’s past open wide. There may be more love out there than T Kira could have ever hoped for. The end of the memoir was moving and heartbreaking. It’s an unfinished story, because T Kira has so much living left, and so the family grows. It’s not just about the ache of missing ones father while he is alive and dead, her mother is a larger than life presence too, especially in the later years.

Others have called this gritty, and it is, it has its funny moments, particularly in her blind youth, because no matter how cool people claim they were, there was an awkward desperate phase we can all relate to. You want to jump into the pages and stop her from embarrassing herself as much as save T Kira from dangerous decisions.  Rich doesn’t mean happy, being wealthy isn’t protection against the dirt of the adult world. It is a story of surviving your childhood, and coming to terms with your parents flaws while also recognizing they were people before they had you, people who made immense sacrifices and mistakes. It is holding on to the love you find in the memories, even those we revise.

Publication Date: March 5, 2019

Bloomsbury USA

 

Aerialists Stories by Mark Mayer

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I loved my mom, but sometimes I would pester her to tears. It was easy to make her sad, but she only wailed like that after she thought I was asleep. 

In this haunting collection of circus themed misfits the reader is surrounded by stories that are at once amusingly lighthearted and yet can turn painfully absorbing with deeply flawed characters coping with life’s pitfalls. My favorite is Strongwoman, where an eleven-year-old deals with coming of age while his parents split apart, his mother breaking under the weight of her sadness until along comes Klara, a ‘tremendous woman’ all muscle and brawn, to breathe life back into their home and his mother’s heart. One of the most beautiful moments in the story for me is his explanation about overhearing he was an accident. Just a small paragraph and yet it beat on the walls of my heart. Junior came to life for me, and writing believable children in short stories especially isn’t easy but Mayer has created a kid I could pick out of my own childhood.

In Aerialists two brothers discuss their time enlisted, one brother back home, his deployment finished until he hits the water for a different job but swearing he suffers from PTSD, another about to follow in his footsteps and join up while saying goodbye to his girlfriend, working for a pilot who is slowly going blind. In The Evasive Magnolio a lonesome peach farmer says goodbye to the elephant Maggy, wondering what sort of funeral could commemorate the beloved beast, left behind on unworthy land? Mayer’s writing is beautifully descriptive whether it’s about the eyes of a girl in one story ” Trinia’s eyes are green with little sunflowers” or an elephant’s ear in another, “ear like a sheet of moon.” As he dissects the gentle beast for burial he is a lonely man in a ghost town. Left with only dust from a storm, Maggy remains his only family, and he is the only person left to give her a funeral. Maple has a connection with Sasha, her special needs friend whom she bonds with through imagined conversations in her mind in the story Twin. When Maples dad gets the blues, she finds comfort with Sasha. Both grow up, but not in the same direction.

A maniacal clown  (realtor) knows what the truly wealthy want, as he channels his own murderous intent in The Clown, plotting their deaths as he shows them around. A boy tries to understand his distracted mother and later her absence in April Thief, while writing a story and sharing a dog with his pal. He hopes he can he wrap his mind around why he likes his dad more, not quite understanding the adult atmosphere. The stories are strange, but there is much to discern if you’re paying attention. An original collection by a writer who likely has so much more up his sleeve in the future.

Publication Date: February 19, 2019

Bloomsbury Publishing

 

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

A Key To Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed

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Expectation The Brain spends a huge amount of time expecting things. The brain lives on patterns the way a blade of grass lives on sunlight.

This is a lovely novel written in alphabetical order,  to make some sense of the disorder in orphan William Tyce’s life. There is a lot of talk about absence, as both his mother and father have vanished from his life for different reasons we slowly begin to understand. Living with an eccentric, wealthy  “bugling” uncle who lets him run free, there are still secrets beneath the surface, things his uncle has yet to tell him about his parents. When he isn’t exploring, or floating boats in a flooded basement he is entering neglected forts in the woods or meeting locals from all walks of life. Each entry shows wisdom beyond his ears, a coming of age in the rural midwest, and the setting is beautifully rendered by an entry as simple as canoeing through the reeds.

It is a look into a boy’s life that is sometimes an adventure, other times heavy with sorrow and confusion but always engaging. Sometimes he finds trouble, other times trouble finds him. Even when the adults try to give him gravity, they let him go like a balloon see under Factsthe first sad fact we learn in life… This novel has a certain charm in how it reveals William’s life through glossary entries, it hints at, it guides us through what is happening, much the way we all come of age with our missteps and lessons. We ease into things or get hit in the face by them.

He is abandoned by his father, his mother is dead but we don’t quite know why anymore than he does, until later. Life unfolds as he gets older and loses his childhood innocence (blindness), comes more and more into adult consciousness, as happens to all of us. We confront his life through his reflections, written from the male perspective as he isn’t looking for pity or a good cry, he is just stating the facts with the protective shell most boys use. Not to say boys feel any less, he certainly has depths to swim but it’s more quiet revelations. He becomes very real for the reader. I always enjoy these stories that make me feel like I am getting a birdseye view into another’s life. There is a connection but it’s not forceful, it’s not begging you to feel bad for the character, but you do anyway as life beats him up but he is funny too! “Dogs, however, are an exception, and they love to mate in public. It’s possible they do this because they enjoy being squirted with water hoses in the act.”  It’s a journey with beautiful writing, though you are reading a coming of age, it’s very relatable to adults. He is wounded but keeps on trucking! Yes, read it!

Publication Date: September 4, 2018

Tin House Books

Treeborne: A Novel by Caleb Johnson

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What makes an Elberta so sweet, Lee Malone knew, is how long it’s allowed to trouble the tree.

Could that be true of Janie Treeborne too, being allowed to trouble her own land? This southern fiction debut begins with Janie Treeborne refusing to leave her family land, The Seven in Elberta, Alabama despite knowing that ‘the water is coming.’ The Hernando de Soto dam has ‘served it’s purpose for 80 years’, her grandfather having built it, her own father Ren an engineer but it is failing now, it must be imploded. But there is nothing that will make her leave, no sir. She has fought long and hard to maintain her hold, she would’t even trade her bad eye for a good one to leave this land that she is as much a part of as the trees. “…me and this place is just too tangled up.”

Janie tells her entire family history, and how her aunt Tammy came to be kidnapped, because everything had to be preserved. “Life ain’t easy Sister.” Janie grew up a wild thing, as wild as the land, drinking from the water tadpoles swam in. Growing up wanting nothing more than to be just like her old grandmother Maybelle, filling her ears with great stories about the land. Janie spends her time toting around dirt boy Crusoe, a creation of her eccentric junk artist Grandaddy Hugh, one that talks to her, to the Treeborne kin. A peculiar thing, this living dirt boy, or is the family crazy? Furious that her aunt Tammy and Uncle Wooten want to log trees to sell and to build a new home, even leveling her grandfather’s “assemblies” to make a foundation for the place, she refuses to allow them to destroy everything. Discovering her MawMaw May’s will leave Tammy The Seven feels like a manipulation. Tammy doesn’t love the place, she wants to sell, she wanted all her life to be a movie star.Janie knows it was MawMaw’s true intention to see the land split among the silblings and so she devises a wild mean plan of her own, to ‘take care of’ her aunt. She is desperate to save the land she is obsessed with. MawMaw’s death is the catalyst that causes the wild thing in Janie to grow.

Telling of the past while being interviewed by her grandson, she too shares the story of Hugh Treeborne’s Seven Hundred Acre Junk Garden, his peculiar creations that a ‘Yankee’ took interest in  and took advantage. We get to know many generations of Treebornes in the telling, all their longings and misdeeds. Lee Malone is as much a part of the Treebornes as Janie is, an African-American, the one who owned the Peach Pit bought for whatever money he had in his billfold, who later sells it to Janie, owning it all the same way he obtained it from the wealthy Mr. Prince. But Lee Malone is so much more than just the prior owner of the Peach Orchard, he and MawMaw had their own special relationship. When Tammy goes missing, somehow he is pulled into helping search, a funny thing considering all she has done to him. What happened to Maybelle, we at least understand more in the end, so many seemed to unravel with her tragic death. The stories are more about living with a family for a time, through the years and their antics in the wilds. Stubborn as hell our Janie is, even in her old bone days. Maybe the town has seen battles, but the Treebornes seem to battle each other and themselves more than anything. Hugh and Janie are eccentric characters, and the most fascinating but there were times I was lost in other characters stories taking me in too many directions.  It’s a lot to keep up with, however the language is perfection and the southern dialogue is never abandoned, certainly not an easy thing to write.

I am curious to read more from this author, who understands a south few others can write as genuinely about.

Available Now

Picador

 

 

 

Simon Van Booy Fans

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Somehow I missed that Simon Van Booy has a forthcoming book, The Sadness Of Beautiful Things: Stories. He is one of my favorite short story writers, so I am excited to share this update. It will be published October 2, 2018 by Penguin Books, and if the Galley gods are kind, I’ll get an arc to review.

Via netgalley: From a family saved from ruin by a mysterious benefactor, to a downtrodden boxer who shows unexpected kindness to a mugger, these masterfully written tales reveal not only the precarious balance maintained between grief and happiness in our lives, but also how the echoes of personal tragedy can shape us for the better.