AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones

Because I pay attention to what’s displayed prominently on the fiction tables at book stores these days, I instantly recognized the turquoise jacket of Tayari’s Jones’ An American Marriage when I was helping sort books for the Winterset Public Library’s annual sale a couple of months ago. The novel was the Oprah Book Club 2.0 pick for February 2018, and won other accolades, I believe. I bought the hard cover copy for a song.

An American Marriage is a fast read, told in first person from three points of view—Celestial’s, Roy’s, and Andre’s—easy to follow because the narration alternates from chapter to chapter. Each character tells part of the story, as well as his or her side of the story, a wrenching tale about a young married couple separated when Roy is incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.

Roy is not the stereotypical black teenager locked up for a drug offense. He’s a successful thirty-something Morehouse College graduate on the rise in corporate America, a handsome, thriving, business-suited guy. Celestial is a talented Atlanta artist raised in privilege by well-educated, successful parents. Andre is Celestial’s childhood friend.

Celestial and Roy have been married only eighteen months when they are in the wrong place at the wrong time and Roy is accused of a rape he could not possibly have committed. Whether the victim is white or black we never learn—or I missed it—which is important because the book is not about race. An American Marriage is about what happens when circumstances get in the way of relationships between complicated, flesh-and-blood people, people who, importantly—like most non-poor people—have choices. We read on to find out whether Roy and Celestial’s union can survive Roy’s sentence of twelve years.

Jones’ writing is both fluid and solid, often delightful, and her characters rang true to me 99% of the time. In Roy’s sections, for example, I definitely believed a man was doing the telling. Celestial is an art doll maker. Her sewing techniques were described in a way that makes me think Jones is either a sewer herself or has an avid one among her beta readers.

For me, An American Marriage was good but not great—a novel I’m very glad I had the opportunity to read.

THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s The Keep was recommended by one of my teachers in a workshop at this year’s University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival. The class was on point of view, and my teacher used excerpts from The Keep and another of Egan’s novels, A Visit from the Goon Squad, to illustrate shifting point of view in the novel.

Egan’s writing is jaw dropping good, which is stating the obvious, since Goon Squad won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. In The Keep, her ability to put me way, way, way inside the head of one character in particular, Danny, practically made my head spin.

I doubt I’m the first person to envision M.C. Escher’s artwork when following The Keep’s plot lines—the main and sub stories fold back and in upon themselves so seamlessly I became unsure which one actually was the main story, the one taking place in an ancient castle in an unnamed country or the one set in a prison.

In Danny’s story, the one in the castle, point of view is third person limited (mostly), told in past tense. With third person limited, the reader generally only learns the interior thoughts of a single character, but in Danny’s sections of the novel, a narrator busts in from time to time with comments such as “I’m taking a pause here to tell you Danny wasn’t listening.” The prison sections are in present tense, first person, with prisoner and budding writer Ray telling us what’s happening in the prison in (mostly) real time, but gradually we realize Ray’s the one writing Danny’s story, i.e., the intruding voice in the castle story is Ray, who’s in a prison writing class taught by Holly, a woman with her own backstory of crime and punishment.

Until I read the final section of The Keep, which is Holly’s, in first person, present tense, I was going to say reading the novel was like listening to an incredible violin cadenza, a tour de force of virtuosity that blows your mind until you realize you’re not crazy about the concerto itself. Holly’s thirty pages tied up loose ends in mostly satisfying ways, but my takeaway from The Keep still has more to do with the incredible way Egan told the story than the story itself, which is after all why my instructor recommended I read it.

 

New Acronyms + HELLO?

In the quilt world, common acronyms are FQ (Fat Quarter), UFO (Unfinished Object), QM (Quilt Market), and QOV (Quilt of Valor).

My new career in fiction introduced me to a whole new set of shortcuts. WIP is one’s Work-in-Progress—and (BTW) it’s not cool to refer to one’s WIP as a novel or a book. Until your WIP has a publisher, it’s a manuscript or a draft.

POV is the very important Point of View. Choices include First Person, Third Person Limited, Multiple (alternating), and Omniscient. In my WIP, I’m attempting omniscience—the most challenging of POVs due to potential head-hopping. Head-hopping (which doesn’t have an acronym, but should) happens when the writer switches clumsily from the internal thoughts of one character to another, losing the reader.

SF (Science Fiction) and YA (Young Adult) are genres, neither of which I know much about, but this morning I finished Hello?, a YA debut by one of my new writing pals, Liza Wiemer of Milwaukee, who I met this spring at the “Paths to Publication” event sponsored by Write On, Door County.

Set on Washington Island and in Sturgeon Bay, WI, Hello? follows the lives of five high school seniors. It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but I remember the emotions (often the most powerful of one’s entire life), and Wiemer captures them well. As for POV, she used five, putting me inside the brain (and heart) of each character in turn in alternating chapters. One girl’s POV comes through her poetry, which is private and closely guarded. The POV of Brenda, a playwright headed for writing school in New York (NY!) is handled in the form of an ongoing screenplay.

Though I’m not the novel(!)’s intended audience, Hello? kept me turning pages for two mornings and two evenings, anxious to see how the characters came to terms with their individual crises and whether the right couples would connect. Wiemer, a longtime K-12 educator and the mother of teenagers herself, writes plausibly and compassionately about kids with true love in their hearts and real issues in their lives.

My New Favorite Novel

Not long ago, I wrote about belonging to a book club for the first time ever. I love my book club in general, for many reasons, but specifically at this moment because of the book Luann chose for March.

I had not heard of writer Garth Stein or The Art of Racing in the Rain, though according to the cover it’s a New York Times Bestseller with over four million copies sold. All I knew before I started reading was that the story is told from a dog’s point of view, which sounded schlocky.

A couple of months ago, when I opened The Book Thief (also a NYT best seller), I was predisposed to like it, but didn’t. I opened The Art of Racing in the Rain predisposed to dislike it, and couldn’t put it down.

One day, the dog Enzo’s owner, a budding race car driver, forgets to turn the TV off as he leaves for work, and Enzo’s education begins, with The Weather Channel. Enzo tells us, “The Weather Channel is not about weather; it is about the world!” Watching The Speed Channel and racing videos with Denny, Enzo learns everything about Formula One driving and competition. In this beautiful book, the fact that Enzo has favorite actors and movies (Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, Le Mans, Bullitt) is plausible because we know some dogs like to watch television, plus Enzo is a really smart dog.

Well into The Art of Racing in the Rain, charmed and often moved to tears, I began to worry. Would Garth Stein’s mastery of narrative carry through all the way to the end? Would the final chapters satisfy? Would the evil characters be punished properly? Would the ones I loved prevail? The answers were yes, yes, yes, and yes!

Luann chose The Art of Racing in the Rain even though she’d read it before, because Garth Stein will be among the presenters at the Des Moines Book Fair this weekend (March 30). Our club will hear what Stein and other authors have to say about their work. We’ll enjoy lunch together from food trucks participating in the downtown event. Likely to come up is that Stein’s novel about Enzo, Denny, Eve, and Zoe is to be released in movie form this fall, with Kevin Costner as the voice of Enzo. I’m skeptical anyone can do cinematic justice to the story, and I know Enzo would be, too.

 

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND . . . Meh

While in Nashville recently for QuiltCon, I took a break from the convention center to visit Parnassus Books, the classy independent bookstore established in 2011 by one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett. My sidekick on the pilgrimage was my new writing buddy Frances O’Rourke Dowell. Frances and I gabbed about books and writing (and quilts) all the way to Parnassus, throughout our time in the store, and back. We even conducted an impromptu counseling session for a customer searching for the perfect book for her club, unanimously recommending The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai.

One of the titles I purchased at Parnassus was My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (not the author’s real name, apparently). Set in the 1950s in a poor neighborhood in Naples, the story takes off when the two main characters toss each other’s dolls into a dark cellar. In early chapters, I was wowed by the way the narrative travels away from (and back to) its dramatic opening scene, something I’m trying to do in my own work-in-progress.

Gradually, however, I wearied of Elena’s and Lila’s ridiculously (to me) intense relationship, of their endless competition, of the many other, often interchangeable, characters both male and female, and especially of the posturing and trivial rivalries of the men. I’m not saying the author did not accurately describe life in the narrow world in which she grew up—I just found reading about it boring. Every character, young and old, seems stuck in the life of the neighborhood. Men and boys defend the honor of their wives and sisters, but beat these same wives and sisters when tradition calls upon them to do so.

The main question of this first of four volumes in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet seems to be, “Who will win the hand of Lila, the most beautiful girl of all?” Ultimately, I didn’t care. Here’s an excerpt, a scene just a few pages from the end, during the reception following Lila’s marriage to Stefano, the narrator (Elena) describing the guests: They would restrain their rage for love of Lila . . . but when she had left, with her husband, then a huge fight would erupt, and it would be the start of hatreds lasting months, years, and offenses and insults that would involve husbands, sons, all with an obligation to prove to mothers and sisters and grandmothers that they knew how to be men.

Also, what’s with, “Translated from the Italian . . . ” on the title page? I mean, do we ever see, “Translated from the French”? “Translated from the German.”? What’s up with that?

Hanging Out with Michelle

Back in the late 2000s, a dream of Quilts of Valor founder Catherine Roberts was for our nation’s First Lady to make a Quilt of Valor in The White House. Since I was to be the nationally-known quilter who would keep the sewing machine threaded, I was the board member elected to write a letter inviting Michelle Obama, her daughters, and her mother to let me take them under my quilting wings.

Even though no sewing session at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue came about, I spent a fair amount of time imagining what it would be like to sew with Michelle, in case it did. She seemed so down to earth, I felt sure I would not be intimidated. Having recently finished Becoming, I know I was not wrong.

Getting to know Michelle, her mom Marian Robinson, and daughters Malia and Sasha was fascinating and fun. I learned Michelle’s upbringing was much like my own, steered by parents who valued honesty, work, education, dignity. Later, as Michelle navigated her way through a public role in the public eye, she kept her own eyes focused on her children, as any caring mother would.

Becoming is not a sweeping, literary novel with high stakes and powerful tension, but a straightforward life story about a regular person whose path took her places she never dreamed she would go, something I can relate to, at a much lower level, as well.

I’d still like to sew with Michelle, teach her how to do a perfect quarter-inch seam, impart pressing skills, help her build that Quilt of Valor on a design wall. We could do it in Washington, Chicago, even Winterset. I’m available, totally.

Written by? Born in?

After viewing the Oscar-nominated film based on Lee Israel’s memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? I picked up the book that inspired the movie, a slim volume describing Israel’s short career as a forger and seller of letters written by famous people like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. Israel was found out by the FBI and punished for her crimes.

As I read about the world of autograph and ephemera collectors hoodwinked by Israel back in the early 1990s, and enjoyed the wonderfully pithy, fake letters she wrote (reproduced as visuals in the book), I found myself nostalgic for pre-email days, when letter-writing was much more of an art. I recalled typing in the 1990s on my own personalized letterhead and the thrill of opening my mailbox each day to collect letters, both business and personal, written to me.

Email—which looks pretty much the same no matter who’s writing it—is unlikely ever to enjoy the collectibility of old, through-the-mail correspondence, which means famous people of the past (though deceased) squarely hold the corner on this particular category of pricelessness.

I remember similar thoughts when local doctors (GPs) stopped handling births (this also, perhaps, in the 1990s) in Winterset.

George Stout, leader of the famous WWII “Monuments Men,” came into the world in Winterset, in 1897, as did legendary screen actor John Wayne, in 1907, my father James Graham in 1921, and my own children in ’75, ’79, and ’82. Our town takes great pride in the accomplishments of its noteworthy native sons, honoring John Wayne’s birthday every year with a big celebration. Now, sadly, no one (unless via an at-home or emergency) is born here.

I guess it’s up to those who took their first breath in Madison County in the past (hear me, Fons kids!) to distinguish themselves and keep us on the map. Maybe it’s up to me to pick up a nice piece of stationery and write a pithy note—maybe to local friend Brian Downs, director of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, who alway pens his thank-yous in ink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belonging: My New Book Club!    

At a holiday party in December, a new Winterset friend invited me to join her book club. In all my years of avid fiction and nonfiction consumption, I’ve never belonged to a formal circle of readers. Just being asked made me feel like I’d fallen in love!

January’s title was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, published in 2005, set in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. From the back cover, I learned Zusak’s novel spent ten years on the New York Times Bestseller List, that it’s been translated into forty languages, and that it has sold over sixteen million copies. Naturally, I was predisposed to like The Book Thief.

The deeper I got into the story, to my dismay, instead I found a lot to dislike, and I began to worry about the upcoming meeting, fearing I’d be a wet blanket or perceived as a literary snob if I criticized our hostess’s selection at my very first meeting. I felt like a kid asked to the cool kid’s birthday party, anxious to be liked.

I should have known better. Only one member truly loved the book, for reasons she described beautifully. Others were warm or lukewarm, and what a great time we had discussing the characters, plot, themes, and historical context. I love my book club!

My personal take on The Book Thief is that the story of Liesel, Rosa, Hans, and the other characters is a good one, deserving to be told; I just didn’t care for the way it was told. I didn’t mind Death as the narrator, but I disliked his jokey, conversational tone. I disliked the boldface, spoiler-alert “marquees” the author inserted throughout. I disliked what I viewed as sloppy writing, phrases such as, “the streets were like oil soaked pages,” and “the children’s smiles were like salt.”

In the end, though, as a novelist whose own novel may not ever see print, my heart was softened when I googled Zusak and found some interviews with him. He said when he wrote The Book Thief, he didn’t know if it would ever be published. He also said his goal was to write a book that would be someone’s favorite book. That’s totally legit. I’m just not that someone.

I’m hosting in February. I chose Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter!

Books Read by Others

On Christmas Day, after breakfast and gifts, my daughter Rebecca plucked Roald Dahl’s Matilda from the bookshelf and offered to read it to us. On the sofa, Mary was tying a quilt, Hannah lounging. Jack was tidying up the kitchen, and Mark and I were at the table, hard at the Christmas jigsaw puzzle.

Matilda is a fantastic story. Rebecca is a wonderful reader, as is Hannah, who took over for a few chapters. Both adapt their voices to the characters as they read, giving the story special life.

I recently I tried recorded books for the first time, listening to Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away, and then Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, on my daily walk. I do two miles in about 40 minutes, the perfect distance for multitasking a couple of chapters.

The Girls Who Went Away (non-fiction) describes the experience of “unwed mothers” who surrendered their children for adoption during the post-WWII era before sex education and reliable birth control were available, when having a baby “out of wedlock” was socially unacceptable. Fessler took me inside the maternity hospitals of the 1950s and 60s, where girls sometimes gave up their newborns without holding or even seeing them. I’m working myself on a novel set in 1957—developing a protagonist who will refuse to relinquish her child—so absorbing this information as I walked served my research purposes. That said, I missed the satisfaction of holding Fessler’s excellent work in my own hands.

The cover of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation intrigued me each time I saw it on display or on lists of recommendations. Intent on using my early morning hours to write instead of read, I downloaded Moshfegh’s novel and listened to it on my next series of walks.

The protagonist (whose name we never learn) is a young, wealthy, Columbia University graduate who holes up in her apartment for a year simply to sleep. She’s enabled by a helpful quack who prescribes an incredible assortment of pharmaceuticals. I disliked our anti-hero immediately, and I have to give the actress who read part of the credit. Her deadpan voice perfectly captured jaded, privileged ennui.

I’m a Pollyanna who keeps reading even a bad book in hopes it will get better, so I stuck with My Year for miles of Winterset sidewalk, empathizing when the speaker described the horrible parents who clearly never wanted her, disgusted as she made more and more of a mess of the present, glad I wasn’t at home in my chair squandering my precious morning hours. (For a better story featuring a character whose life is a mess, read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.)

To my great pleasure, I was recently invited to join a local book club. January’s title is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Rebecca Fons, unless you would kindly pop home for a couple of days and read this novel to me, I’ll just do it myself.

 

 

Two Reads in Two Weeks: Honeyman and Atkinson

During my years as a business co-owner and continent-crossing teacher of quilting, consuming fiction was a luxury only intermittently enjoyed. I probably managed only a dozen or so novels a year, reading them during air travel before Internet access on airplanes made working possible any place, any time.

Now that I’m retired from Fons & Porter and pursuing my encore career as a novelist, I have not only time to read but also a responsibility to know what’s being published these days—which writers are winning those prizes (Booker, National, Costa, etc.) and what titles are getting on those lists (New York Times, Good Reads, Barnes & Noble, etc.). I’m loving catching up, literarily speaking.

During early chapters of ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE (Gail Honeyman, May 2017), I thought, “This is so predictable,” and I’m happy to report I was dead right about two important plot elements. That said, Honeyman charmed me completely, proving it’s not always the story, but the way it’s told, that satisfies. I was pulling for Eleanor throughout. If you like rooting for an antiheroine, novels set in places other than America (like Glasgow), and can handle fictional pain, you’ll like ELEANOR OLIPHANT, in pre-production for a film release in 2019.

The day after I closed ELEANOR OLIPHANT, I opened LIFE AFTER LIFE (Kate Atkinson, January 2014), the favorite novel by the favorite author of one of my favorite writer friends. Now I understand my friend’s position.

To say Atkinson is a fantastic writer is an understatement. Though I was totally immersed in the ongoing (and restarting) life of protagonist Ursula Todd, I could feel the presence of Atkinson as she so very, very deftly experimented with the “what-could-happen-next?” element of crafting a story. I felt her presence, yet I can’t say she intruded.

The first thing anyone who’s read LIFE AFTER LIFE is likely to mention is the book’s unusual structure, as Ursula Todd’s life starts and ends again and again, sometimes after only a few pages, sometimes after many. What makes this nontraditional structure work is Atkinson’s solid and brilliant narrative style. Each time we must take a flying leap in fictional time, the spot we land on is in the traditional English world of a traditional English family with its gardens, tea trays, and faithful dogs.

Now that I’ve started my own second manuscript, writing and researching each day, I may not be able to maintain the novel-a-week reading life I enjoyed during the months I spent acquiring my agent, but I can’t see myself isolated from other fiction the way I was the years I toiled on MY LIFE WITH SHELLEY. I’m a different kind of literary citizen nowadays. Stay tuned for future reviews.

THE GREAT BELIEVERS—Heart Wrenching, Hopeful

I was a fan of Rebecca Makkai even before I picked up her new novel THE GREAT BELIEVERS.

Makkai was a featured author at the 2016 Washington Island Literary Festival and taught a workshop in the boathouse on our property. I was traveling the month before, and I was delighted to find her short story collection LOVE SONGS FOR WARTIME in an airport bookshop. Intent on boning up, instead I was blown away. Her stories are some of the best I’ve ever read. Her novels THE BORROWER and HUNDRED YEAR HOUSE are good, too, but THE GREAT BELIEVERS is her best production yet.

Set in mid-1980s Chicago (and Door County, WI) and in current-day Paris, the story unfolds as the health crisis eventually known as AIDS begins taking its toll on gay men living and working in the Chicago arts and culture scene. In Paris decades later, the sister of one of the first men in the group of friends to die, now in her 50s, searches for her estranged daughter and grandchild, reconnecting with survivors of the AIDs epidemic she has not seen since her youth.

When stories about the deadly virus began to appear in national media, I was in my mid-thirties, living on a farm in Madison County (raising kids and writing how-to books on quilting), far from cultural centers like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco—but there were casualties in my industry as well. Quilters and non-quilters alike crafted panels commemorating their lost brothers, sons, and friends for the AIDS QUILT, which became the largest public art project in history.

I read THE GREAT BELIEVERS in five days, on my trip to and from New York—as if the reading experience were a set of parentheses around my journey to meet my literary agent. I started the book as my flight lifted off from Des Moines and devoured the last page back in Iowa, in Baggage Claim, as my suitcase made several trips around the conveyer belt. Through characters so well crafted they became real to me, Makkai wrenched my heart again and again as the circle of Chicago friends shrank with each death.

Many novels popular in recent years would be correctly described as “dark,” their protagonists victims of sinister, even depraved, antagonists. (I’m thinking of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, GONE GIRL.) The fiction I admire is of a different sort, the sort created by Makkai in THE GREAT BELIEVERS. In this magnificent novel, Makkai gives us characters whose loyalty to their friends elevates them, for me, to unforgettability. Their pain and loss, their love and loyalty, their nostalgia—all are part of the human condition. Makkai makes me glad, rather than ashamed, to be a member of the human race.

The Story, the Story, the Story . . .

As I become comfortable in what I consider my third career (quilting industry business owner first, nonprofit advocate second, and now, novelist), I think often of my early love of narrative, the joy I remember from childhood at the very concept of stories. That mere words are capable of creating people one can know, places one can be, boggles my mind to this day.

I recently dug through a box of memorabilia to find a photo I hadn’t looked at more than once since my quilting career began. There I am beside my mother Dorothy Graham as she reads to my brothers and me. My older brother (an athlete all his life) looks like he’d rather be outdoors. My twin (the contented one in the family) sits contentedly on my mother’s lap. But look at the little girl! Look at that face. How much more into a story could a child of three be?

I spent the past weekend in Chicago, enjoying StoryStudio Chicago’s first-ever writers conference, hanging out with writers including my Washington Island writer friend Mari Anderson and the wonderful Rebecca Makkai, whose latest novel THE GREAT BELIEVERS (book report coming soon) I read in five days, my heart wrenched repeatedly. I absorbed wisdom at author panels and learned more about the publication process during “How the Book Sausage is Made.” A highlight was confirmation from Makkai’s agent Duvall Osteen that my own agent Stephany Evans is top drawer.

StoryStudio’s first conference was my own first experience at a gathering of writers. In general sessions, in the individual classes on my schedule, and even at the reading and literary smackdown at a neighborhood bar Saturday night, I took the time to scan the room, to get a good look at the other animals in my same zoo—other humans for whom the story is everything. Hopefully, some of them were lucky enough to have a mother like mine who (next to my father and us children) loved books better than anything. Whether or not they are lucky enough to have a photo like mine to prove stories thrilled them from the get-go, I know they see themselves in my face.

 

CRAZY RICH ASIANS: Book, Movie

Like any self-respecting holder of an MA in literature, I lean toward the highbrow in my reading. This unwavering lifelong quest to improve my mind and comprehend the human condition has driven me through the pages of a number of extreme downer Pulitzer Prize winners (AMERICAN PASTORAL, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES). From time to time, though, I dip my toe into less “literary” works. (THE GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO trilogy, the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, and THE DA VINCI CODE come to mind).

CRAZY RICH ASIANS was the perfect palate-cleanser after my slog through George Orwell’s 1984. The snappy cover art of Kevin Kwan’s debut had caught my eye online and in airport shops, but I didn’t buy a copy until a few weeks ago, at Fair Isle, the fabulous independent book shop on Washington Island, WI. By then, movie buzz had begun, and I happened to run across a piece about the author in the New York Times. In the article, Kwan admitted he sold the movie rights for just $1.00, commenting, “I never thought my book would get published in the first place!” As a debut novelist myself currently fantasizing about publication, I was immediately in Kwon’s royalty-accumulating corner.

The narrative teems with incredibly rich and mostly shallow characters, relieved from time to time by a (more or less) rich person with his or her head screwed on straight. I learned a lot I didn’t know about Singapore and vicinity though ultimately I couldn’t find a character I could fully love in CRAZY RICH ASIANS. Predictably, the boy that loses the girl gets her back again, so no surprises. All that said, I’m glad I can now speak intelligently about this runaway best seller.

I caught the afternoon matinee yesterday at the Iowa Theater. As usual, I purchased a large popcorn only three-fourths full so there’d be room for my Junior Mints. Enjoying the satisfying blend of salt and sweet, I settled into my seat. By about halfway in, the depictions of excessive wealth became as boring as some of the excessively wealthy people depicted obviously were. Thankfully, the movie left out enough of the too-many characters from the book that we the audience could pretty much follow the plot, and the ending (the actual way the boy Nick got the girl Rachel back) was surprisingly powerful.

Congratulations, Kevin Kwon—your fun read is also a fun film!

Orwell’s 1984—Worst Beach Read Ever!

As a person who majored in literature both in undergraduate and graduate school, naturally I’ve read a lot. During my university years, for example, I did two full semesters of Shakespeare, a semester of Chaucer, eighteenth century poetry and prose, literature in translation, modern American literature, a semester of Faulkner, and an independent study on Hemingway, to name a few. How in my long career as a reader I avoided 1984 until recently is a mystery.

If I were the type to blame others, I could point my finger at my daughter Mary Fons when regretting the hours I spent with my nose in Orwell’s miserable narrative of future technological totalitarianism. Mid-June, she asked readers of her popular blog PaperGirl for advice on summer reading. She listed five novels she’d never read and invited her fans to help her pick. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but I was definitely the one who suggested we read 1984 simultaneously so we could enjoy a highly intellectual discussion at some future time.

I had traveled from Winterset to Iowa City a few days early for a workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and went directly to Prairie Lights bookstore for a copy of 1984 so I could get started. Over several early mornings, during delightfully cool weather, I occupied a chair not on a beach, but on the balcony of the apartment where I was staying, dutifully plowing my way through the novel’s 278 pages, jotting observations on the inside back cover for our future conversation, all the while hating the colorless, boring, terrifying world Winston, Julia, and the other unhappy characters occupy. My only moment of joy was on page 241, where Winston is referred to as “the last man,” reminding me of Mary Shelley, whose novel THE LAST MAN (1826), set in the 2080s(!), is considered the first-ever post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. (Go, Mary, go!)

Mary (Fons) and I are both so busy these days, many weeks often pass between our phone catchups, and we always have so many topics to cover, the subject of 1984 only resurfaced recently, during a glorious week we spent together at the family cottage on Washington Island, WI, sewing and yakking all day long. “I didn’t read it,” she admitted. To my raised eyebrows, she responded, “I don’t like fiction.”

Mary, my dear, how wisely you avoided the torture that is 1984! I later cleansed my palate with Crazy Rich Asians. More on that true beach read in a future book report!

 

AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I’ve always thought of myself as an avid reader, but during my very busy career years, time was scarce for one of my greatest personal pleasures. Once I “retired” in 2006, I gained time, but soon was pursuing my own literary project. I spent five years continuing my research on Mary Shelley and FRANKENSTEIN, studying the craft of fiction, and writing sometimes four hours a day.

Now that my MY LIFE WITH SHELLEY is a completed manuscript, I’m happily gobbling up novels, reading classics I never managed to get to, and immersing myself in contemporary fiction.

AMERICANAH, by celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a sumptuous read. In the story, circumstances bring Ifemelu from Nigeria to the US as a young woman, separating her from Obinze, her first love. Her struggles in America and her efforts to claim her own identity lead her to cut off communication with Obinze for many years. Obinze’s own struggles (perhaps more severe) in a hard hearted London are all the more difficult without Ifemelu’s empathy.

I knew practically nothing about Nigeria (ex., one in every five Africans is a Nigerian) before I went on protagonists Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s journeys. Adiche’s prose is an absolute joy to read. Her ability to move us back and forth in the timeline of the story amazed me. As the novel opens, Ifemelu is traveling from Princeton to Trenton, NJ, in order to have her hair braided in the proper African way for her return to Nigeria. From the hair salon Adiche transported me far away both geographically and chronologically (and back) but never once lost me.

I’m on to another book (MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Otessa Moshfegh), but I highly recommend Adiche’s delightful and subtly educational novel. You’ll be turning pages rapidly as you savor her prose.

 

THE DOLLHOUSE: Fun for Fans of NYC

The historic building that was once the Barbizon Hotel for Women is arguably a guest protagonist in Fiona Davis’ debut, THE DOLLHOUSE. If you’re fascinated (as I am) by all-things-New-York-City, you’ll enjoy a pleasant read.

Built in 1927, the 23-floor architectural gem on East 63rd Street once housed young women seeking their fortunes in the Big Apple, whether as models for the Eileen Ford Agency, budding journalists, or secretarial students at the Katharine Gibbs School. Nicknamed The Dollhouse by young men who dated the residents, the hotel was operated like a dormitory, with curfews, a dining hall, and strict rules of behavior. Today, one of the luxury condos in the repurposed building, a three bedroom, 3.5 bathroom unit, is available for just under $5 million.

Chapters of THE DOLLHOUSE alternate between 1952, the year shy, non-model-material Darby McLaughlin arrives from Ohio, and 2016, when journalist Rose Lewin occupies one of the fancy condos with her rising politician boyfriend, who shortly dumps her.

Awkward Darby, who’s come to New York for secretarial training, gets stuck on the Eileen Ford floor with all the beautiful girls—most of whom admit their actual career goal is to snag a husband. She has a rough time of it at first but is shortly befriended by Esme, a Puerto Rican elevator operator with big dreams, who introduces her to more colorful parts of the city like Lower Manhattan jazz clubs. At the Flattened Fifth, Darby meets Sam, the love interest in her section of the story. 

At the modern day Barbizon, Rose becomes intrigued by an elderly resident, one of a handful who still live on the fourth floor due to rent control laws, and pitches a story about them to her boss at the media startup where she works. The project puts her together with photo journalist Jason Wolf, who becomes her new love interest. The elderly resident at the Barbizon always wears a hat and a face-concealing veil and turns out, of course, to be Darby.

I thought the the author handled the chemistry in both eras well, and I kept turning pages to find out the truth beneath Darby’s veil and in just what way Rose was going land on her feet. Davis ties up the loose ends plausibly enough, keeping The Barbizon itself at the heart of both stories.

 

 

Words On Water

This year’s Washington Island Literary Festival (September 13-15) will feature authors and books focused on water, including Kirk Landers’ compelling novel ALONE ON THE SHIELD and Jeff Goodall’s relevant report on climate change, THE WATERS WILL COME.

 

One of my recent pleasures as a member of the author selection committee was to write a review of Jean E. Pendziwol’s THE LIGHTKEEPER’S DAUGHTERS for The Island Observer, Washington Island’s local paper. Pendziwol, an award-winning children’s book author, received both critical and reader praise for her debut novel for adults. The book is set both onshore and in the waters around Thunder Bay and Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, a locale described by Pendziwol as, “a mystical place, this peninsula, jutting out into Lake Superior; chiseled rocky cliffs and worn ridges, mysteriously carved by wind and rain and time, take the form of a giant slumbering in a cradle of icy water.”

 

Principal characters are Morgan, a lonely, angry teenager, raised by her late grandfather and now in foster care, and Elizabeth, an elegant, nearly blind resident of a pricey Thunder Bay retirement home. Morgan, caught red-handed graffiti-ing the facility’s back fence, meets Elizabeth by chance when performing required community service—scraping off her spray-painted artwork.

 

The vision-impaired Elizabeth and her twin sister Emily are the daughters referenced in the book’s title, their father in charge of the Porphyry Island lighthouse in the early decades of the twentieth century. A set of journals the keeper wrote while stationed on Porphyry falls into Elizabeth’s hands, and the relationship between the two women takes off as Morgan agrees to read the volumes of handwritten history to the blind octogenarian. The plot thickens when they discover that the journal from 1925–29 (the years covering the twins’ birth and early life) is missing.

Soon, Morgan’s unique musical and artistic ability point toward a deeper connection between the two women, and Morgan becomes Elizabeth’s rapt listener as the elderly woman recounts what she can remember of the “missing” years of her and her mute sister’s youth. The novel becomes a murder mystery of sorts when long hidden secrets are gradually revealed. As THE LIGHTKEEPER’S DAUGHTERS nears its end, the loose threads of Elizabeth’s and Morgan’s stories become firmly intertwined, speeding up the narrative as point of view alternates, reaching an ending that’s quite satisfying, even though I found myself jotting down a few notes to keep characters straight.

 

After writing my review, I browsed around the Internet for other readers’ opinions on Pendziwol’s book. Some took issue with young Morgan’s frequently vulgar language. True, Morgan’s sections contain plenty of f-words and s-words, but it’s important to remember we are often inside her head, looking at the world from her young and troubled point of view. Given her age and the modern-day setting of the exterior story, she seemed realistically drawn to me. Foul language slips out in front of Elizabeth only when Morgan is under stress, trying to protect her wounded inner core from further pain. Elizabeth never appears offended, and I wasn’t, either.

Lit Fest Reading

As a planning committee member for the wonderful Washington Island Literary Festival, I was on the author selection team, reading fiction works this past winter by several writers under consideration. Now that the slate of presenters is confirmed for the September event, I’m exploring titles that weren’t on my personal review list.

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s ONCE UPON A RIVER is set in Michigan in the early 1980s, along the Stark River, a tributary of the Kalamazoo. Sixteen-year-old protagonist Margo Crane is a crack shot with a rifle, an experienced river navigator, and a fan of Annie Oakley. The death of her father shortly after the novel opens (not spoiling—his demise is right there in the cover blurb) sends her on a quest for her beautiful, absent mother. As any hero worth her salt should be, Margo is thwarted at every turn.

Campbell’s writing makes great reading. Her colorful, rough characters are well-drawn and dimensional, some of them almost Faulknerian, in my view, though Kalamazoo is a long way from Oxford, MS.

In her rowboat, Margo travels the Stark in both directions so many times the title might have been UPSTREAM, DOWNSTREAM, but Hunter’s writing is powerful enough to put the reader right on the water with our protagonist, who’s basically an abandoned child. Margo lives off the river and the land for much of the story, makes friends on both banks, and gets in such a heap of trouble my jaw dropped several times. She’s an authentic character, described by a capable, credible writer, and I found the ending truly satisfying (which doesn’t happen as often as I wish).

My only question was the about behavior of deer during hunting season. Bucks and does wandered frequently into areas of human habitation, as if inviting Margo to shoot them, which she does. In Iowa and Wisconsin, where I live, the deer we see everywhere the rest of the year vanish so profoundly on opening day we wonder if they received a memo.

That said, I liked Campbell’s writing so much I purchased her book of short stories, AMERICAN SALVAGE, for future reading.