Reviews: The Fluidity of Time

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Somewhat science-fiction with time traveling children, A Wrinkle in Time is a quick, easy read as an adult. I’ve known about this book for as long as I can remember, even bought my daughter a copy from Scholastic Readers, but had never read it. I needed a Middle-grade read for May’s GirlXOXO Monthly Motif challenge and this fit the theme of books I’d been reading lately.

Under the guidance of three wise, funny, little old lady guardian angels, three children enter the 5th dimension in search of the father of two of them who disappeared while doing top secret research on time travel. What follows are lesson learning challenges on kindness, confidence, acceptance and belonging. The children stumble into a Stepford Wives type of community where everything is “perfect”, everyone the same and no one feels anything. They disrupt the Eden by finding the strength to be themselves, to support each other through the dark times and that inner confidence allows them to break their father from his imprisonment there.

I’m sure it has retained its popularity among parents and children alike for the same reasons The Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter have – it lets you believe that having the courage to just be yourself will enable you to conquer all your fears and challenges and everything will be okay in the end.

The book was written in 1962, so I’m particularly impressed by the author’s main protagonist being a young girl. Meg has the strength her brother lacks, and it is her inner force that pulls him through. It is her strength that breaks the prisoned glass and allows them to bring their father home. I have vivid memories of a librarian in middle school giving me a book on Amelia Earhart to read which flew in the face of my very strict, sexist household where I was taught to be quiet, nice no matter what, that my brothers and father were more important and being pretty was the only life goal a girl should have. So while I didn’t find Earhart’s courage as a young girl, somewhere in the back of my mind, that book stuck with me and when I had a daughter, I understood how important it was and was always looking for books with a strong female heroine for her to read. I wish I could have been a better role model of strong women myself, but I’m grateful this book, and many others were there for her. And to that Washington Middle School librarian, thank you.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

This was just a pleasure read. People were talking about it. I saw it on a colleague’s desk and she was really enjoying it, so I borrowed a copy from my beloved Timberland Regional Library. Thousands of miles away from home, and they still think of ways to serve me and allow me to check out books to fall in love with. Typing this makes realize the book also fits a PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt. Bonus.

Haig’s novel is a melancholic tale of second chances interspersed with transcendentalism. Nora finds herself in a lonely, miserable life at a final crossroads, when she stumbles across a surreal library which holds her other life stories. Each book drops her into the life she would have lived if she made a different choice when faced with a decision. So she goes back and makes the other choices: a different career, not leaving a partner, having a child, staying close to her family and best friend. Each new choice reveals a different life and she reads book after book trying on lives of varying lengths to find the one that fits her best.

The book offers the timeless question of regrets over paths not taken – would you start over if you could? – or learn to be grateful with the life you have? Nora answers that question in her own way at the end and the reader is left to ponder how they would answer it.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

This was my second Literati book club shipment with Susan Orleans. Similar to Midnight Library, and written almost a decade prior, the novel also explores the chance to do it all over, to correct the mistakes of the past. It does it differently though in that Ursula keeps dying and being reborn into a different life. From being stillborn, to dying as a a child, to living a lifetime, she keeps starting over. In fact, when reading the second chapter, I was momentarily confused and had to look up what the book was about. Then I started over.

Life After Life is a long, heart-warming read, full of beautiful prose and heart stopping sentences. Where Nora drops into her new life with full knowledge of her past one, Ursula only retains the deeply etched memories of her past life as a sort of deja vu in her new one. Something is familiar, but she can’t quite put her finger on it. She knows something is about to happen, but doesn’t know how she knows. With each life, she retains more. So while Nora tries on unfamiliar lives in search of a better one, Ursula builds on past lives to create the best one for not just her, but those around her.

On the surface, both books deal with second chances and corrective time travel. But Atkinson’s book takes on the issues of the time in which Ursula is living – World War II, Nazis, Women’s Rights, the Labor Movement. Haig’s novel focuses solely on a suicidal woman looking for a happiness she thinks she’s lost. Both books are well-written and easy to lose yourself in and set you to pondering your own choices and how life might have been different. Not better, not worse, just different. Both books will leave you with an understanding that every choice, even the small ones, matter and the compilation of them have brought you to the life you have now, made you who you are. If you don’t like this life, or this version of yourself, throwing away the past may only create other regrets, but making a different choice now still offers the possibility of a better future.

All of these books offer up a naively privileged view that life is infinite in its possibilities and you just have to be strong enough to overcome.

Catch Up: A Montage of Reviews

In a House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

Such a strange read of magical realism. I’m still trying to decide how I feel about it. This was a Powell’s Indiespensible from years ago and I just never picked it up. Until GirlXOXO named The Great Outdoors as June’s Monthly Motif. It fit, so off the shelf it finally came.

A man and a woman marry and move out to the middle of nowhere to live off the land and start a family. She becomes pregnant but miscarries. She continues to have miscarriage after miscarriage. They go on to have a child, but the ghost of the miscarriage haunts the man to destruction.

It sounds straight forward enough. But the fetus speaks to the man. It curls up inside his ear and whispers to him that he must destroy the living child as proof of his love; that his wife is against them both and he must throw her out. He must burn the home they’ve built. The wife turns to song in her desperation and grief and whatever she sings about becomes real. She sings about a chair and one appears at the table. Oh, and a bear stalks their house looking for her lost cub, which may or may not be the fetus. And we can’t forget the giant squid that lives in the lake. It was hard to keep track, just when you thought it couldn’t get any weirder, Bell found a way.

Bell’s description of the man’s descent into madness is shivering. His description of grief is heart-wrenching. Parts of the novel reminded me of Claire Fuller’s, Our Endless Numbered Days. Both novels deal with madness brought on by isolation and poverty. Despite the lyrical writing, I had to put the book down at several points due to the horror and violence. Fuller’s book was a gut punch when the true madness finally became clear, but Bell’s novel was a festering nausea intensifying with every page.

Either read takes day to recover from. For me, Fuller’s was worth it, but I’m not so sure about Bell’s.

Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises by Rebecca Solnit

Solnit is one of my favorite social justice writers and this book didn’t disappoint. She waxes poetically about the violence of climate change, white male privilege and mysogyny as means of destruction of humanity, voter suppression as the ruin of democracy and she lays out solid arguments for how the words used to describe them create our views of them.

Her essay on climate change as violence against the poor is brilliant. A way of looking at it you won’t see in mainstream media, but that could have more impact than anything you will. It did for me.

Reagan’s war on drugs as a thinly veiled racist attack on people of color and poor neighborhoods is nothing new. The links to it as part of the new Jim Crow has been laid out by authors such as Michelle Alexander or filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay. Solnit joins their voices and reminds us that the words that were used created the illusion of a problem purposefully to scare white voters into support. She notes how echoes of it are used today to push voter suppression and militarized police forces.

Solnit offers hope that more and more Americans are paying attention to the actions behind the words. Paying attention to the harm caused by class division, by putting self above community, exploiting women, laborers and people of color. She points to the marches, the sit-ins, the grass roots movements such as Me Too and Fair Fight.

She reminds us the sing-song poem you may have learned as child was wrong. Words can hurt us. They can destroy all of us if we’re not conscious of how they’re used, how we use them. With her usual passion for social justice, Solnit cautions us to choose them wisely.

Disappearing Moon Café by Sky Lee

I was looking for a book set in a restaurant for March’s Girl XOXO Monthly Motif challenge when this popped up on my Timberland Library’s suggested reads. Set in British Columbia, it took me home to the Pacific Northwest for a bit and was worth reading for that.

The story itself, Chinese immigrants in the 1800s and their descendants to modern day, was interesting. Unfortunately the dialogue often felt forced, the many metaphors simplistic and the writing juvenile.

Not a book I would recommend, unless like me, you are homesick for the PNW.

Divide Me by Zero by Lara Vapnyar

In Vapnyar’s novel, a middle-aged woman going through a divorce uses finishing her mathematician mother’s textbook as a healing tool. The story is punctuated with math notes her mother left.

It’s an interesting way of writing a book. Almost two books in one. One following the notes the mother has left as her mind is going and seeing the dementia set in. And the other, about the protagonist’s life falling apart and her attempts to rebuild it as something new.

Vapnyar is a Russian-American author and her novel echoes common Russian literature notes of stoicism amidst tragedy, difficult circumstances defining the characters. Her writing is concise and almost devoid of emotion despite the emotional subject matter.

If you enjoy Russian literature as much as I do, this is worth the read. It’s not as intense as most works, but still dark with it’s own life lessons.

Selected Shorts

I had never heard of these before, but needed a different format to read for a PopSugar reading challenge prompt. Graphic novels didn’t interest me, but I found these. They are short stories, written by well-known authors, and read by actors. Apparently it’s a weekly radio program. Or was at one time.

I listened to the Wondrous Women version which included short stories by Richard Russo, D.H. Lawrence and others with the voices of Holly Hunter and Jon DeVries among others. The stories in this collection all have a strong woman protagonist, some were inspiring, some were incredibly sad, but all were indeed wondrous.

I enjoyed the format so much, I also listened to American Classics, which included the most wonderful version of Eudora Welty’s Why I Live at the P.O. read by Stockard Channing.

I’m not usually a fan of short stories, preferring to be lost in a story for much longer, but these were so well done. Great authors, great stories, and great readers who made them come alive. I will definitely be listening to more of these Symphony Space presentations.

Reviews: Shakespeare Reimagined

One of my favorite things about this series by Hogarth, is that it spurs me to read the original Shakespeare before the reimagined one. I love to find a dramatic reading, usually through BBC radio, but sometimes L.A. Theatre Works. So good. So, so good. And then settle into the retelling by some of today’s best writers. Heaven.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Vinegar Girl is the retelling of the The Taming of the Shrew. Tyler sets the story at a Baltimore college where Kate takes care of the house for her absent-minded scientist father. She packs his lunch, runs his errands, brings him his keys, keeps her air-head younger sister from getting into too much trouble.

His research assistant is a Russian on a student visa about to expire and he comes up with the logical plan of marrying him to Kate to get him a green card. Naturally this idea isn’t as logical to Kate. There are the requisite romantic-comedy antagonistic sparks between the two, but by time the wedding comes around she actually does love him.

Tyler’s version is somewhat kinder to women than Shakespeare’s. It’s also more subdued, leaving one to wonder exactly who was tamed in the retelling.

I like Anne Tyler, and I liked this book, but it wasn’t my favorite retelling nor my favorite Tyler novel.

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

Winterson’s retelling of The Winter’s Tale is an entertaining read and was one of NPR’s best books the year it came out. Hers was the first release in the Hogarth series and set a fairly high bar for the authors that would follow.

Leo goes mad with jealously over his wife and best friend, whom he is certain are having an affair. They are not, but he loses everything in his rage, including his beloved son. Winterson takes the missing 16 years and delves into the spiral that follows the loss of a child.

Rescued from a father who wanted her drowned, Perdita is found in a baby-drop box by a man and his son in Louisiana. The father, Shep, decides to keep the baby girl and raise her. She is loved by them both and has a good life, but eventually realizes who she is and ends up back at her roots.

Winterson retells the story with wit and a mastery of words. She also does something that none of the other authors I’ve read so far have done, she starts her novel by summarizing the original play and finishes her retelling by analyzing it. It’s like being in a lit class with a renowned professor. Marvelous.

Any of the retellings will stand alone as good books even if the reader somehow doesn’t know they are a reimagining of a work of Shakespeare. Winterson’s book is especially stand out in that regard. It was the first book I’ve read by her and had me searching for more of her novels when I’d finished it.

MacBeth by Jo Nesbo

MacBeth always takes me back to high school and Mrs. Holbrook’s Lit class. Her class was a respite, a place to get completely lost in another world. Anytime I hear a line from MacBeth, I’m instantly transported to the third row, second seat, listening to her read the most wonderful passages from some of the greatest literary works – Great Expectations, The Canterbury Tales, and of course, MacBeth. I’ve read it a few times since, but in her class remains my favorite.

Jo Nesbo’s retelling is a dark Scandinavian crime story with drugs, murders and the requisite paranoia. Fantastically told, it’s a great read to lose yourself in, and at 500 pages, you can stay in this bleak, suspense-filled world for quite awhile. Although, it’s hard to put down so even at that length the end comes too quickly.

MacBeth is a crooked cop. The witches are call girls. Lady MacBeth is a casino owner. Hecate is a drug lord. The seedy dead-end Scottish town is never named, but the description is so spot on, you know it and feel the damp in your bones as you read. It’s magic – the writing, the setting, the plot, the characters – so near perfect.

Almost as good as being back in Mrs. H’s class

Shakespeare would be proud.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

This wasn’t a part of the Hogarth series, but the premise is close enough that it fits here.

Hamnet was the son of William Shakespeare. This is true and O’Farrell’s Hamnet is based on historical facts, but she imagines his life and family in this rich piece of historical fiction. She reinvents his mother as a mother-earth type woman in love with a young dreamer. They marry and start a family. He finds himself in theater and begins to make a career of it taking him from home for long periods and in the beginning not making much money. They live in a side house of his parents where his father continues to berate him as foolish and his mother criticizes his wife.

Young Hamnet and his twin sister catch ill. The disease isn’t named, but it’s easy to surmise it’s the plague. The passages of the young mother at their bedside as they hover on the edge of death are heartbreaking. My breath caught in my throat numerous times.

The death destroys the parents. The mother pulling into herself with grief. The father throwing himself into the theater to not be at home at all. He sends money, but she only wants him home.

His play Hamlet is explained as his way of working through the grief of losing his child. Agnes is in the audience when it debuts and at once she understands this. It saves their marriage and it saves them.

Hamnet is a raw, emotional book that deals with the most extreme heartache. It will make you think of Shakespeare in a different light, perhaps a more human one.

I’m eagerly awaiting Gillian Flynn’s retelling of Hamlet to round out this series. Having read Hamnet will influence how I feel about it. In a good way I think.

Reviews: Reflective Literary Gifts from Ireland

Actress by Anne Enright

Award-winning Anne Enright is one of my favorite Irish writers and the Women’s Prize for Fiction winning novel Actress didn’t disappoint. This Powell’s Indiespensible reads like a daughter’s memoir of her famous actress mother who has recently passed, but the story is entirely fiction. I kept picturing Maureen O’Hara as the mother and hearing Nuala O’Faolain as the daughter. If you’ve ever read, Are You Somebody, you might hear that as well. If you haven’t, do. It’s an equally beautiful read, but unlike Actress, it is a memoir.

Norah’s haunting voice, full of pain from the past, draws you in and keeps you at the kitchen table listening to her story. One more cup of tea please. Hers wasn’t a happy childhood, but not in the stereotypical “there’s no such thing as a happy childhood in Ireland” sense. There’s some of that to be sure, but she focuses more on her mother’s unravelling and in what starts as the answers to an interviewer’s questions, the memoir becomes a soul searching way of trying to understand her not just as a mother, but Katherine O’Dell, a woman adored by many and tortured by powerful men behind the scenes.

Actress is a mostly dark read, but there are moments of pure light as she remembers the sound of her mother’s laughter, her easy way with people, and her inner beauty. In the end it feels like a daughter’s love letter to a mother she wishes she’d had more time with.

I wish I could spend more time absorbed in Anne Enright’s lyrical worlds.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

People kept telling me to read this one. They were sure I would like it. I didn’t really. I’m not sure that’s entirely the book’s fault though. I just don’t enjoy YA fiction. I try. I pick one up every now and again when people are raving about it. But I rarely enjoy them.

In this one, I couldn’t get past the poor decisions of the main characters. Over and over. The same ones. As if they were set on learning nothing throughout their teenage years, college years, and well into adulthood. There was no growth, which for me, made them unlikeable, and I have a hard time liking books if I don’t like the characters. The supporting characters weren’t much better. The mother vicious, the brother abusive, the friends superficial. Connell’s mother seemed the only redemption.

I disagree with the general consensus that this is a love story. Marianne and Connell often went out of their way to hurt each other, kept going back even though they knew it would destroy them. That’s obsession, not love. It’s understandable at 15, not so much at 30.

So while it’s true that tragic Irish fiction is one of my favorite genres, this one just wasn’t for me.

Reviews: Spending Lazy Afternoons in the South

Where the Crawdads Sing by Della Owens

Just when I was starting to fear I was getting too old and cynical to read coming-of-age stories, along comes Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens with a sweet, shy 8 year old trying to make her way in the North Carolina lowlands.

Orphaned at a young age, she takes to the lowland marshes and earns money selling crawdads to a bait shop. The owners of the bait shop look out for her and a friend of her brother keeps an eye on her. She studies the habitat through observation and grows up to be an expert on the fauna and flora of the region.

A sweet story about growing up and discovering who you really are with some dark moments.

What it Means to Miss New Orleans by Mark Childress

Childress created this small book as fund-raiser for Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The book consists of three heartfelt essays originally written for The New York Times and The Birmingham News about the magical and mystical city of New Orleans and its food, people, culture and hospitality.

Childress took me home to the South, and did indeed make me miss New Orleans.

The Heaven of Mercury by Brad Watson

Set in a fictional town that Watson modeled after his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, The Heaven of Mercury, is another sweet southern nostalgic story of young love, family, and growing old as Watson weaves a heartwarming tale of lives full of love and loss.

Finus is a newspaperman who is famous for his obituaries, more like life tales of small town personalities. His childhood sweetheart is dying and as he prepares to write hers, he remembers when they first met, their separate lives and the small town they both call home.

Watson does Meridian and small town life as much justice as he does his character in this wonderful easy read.

Essential Welty: Why I Live at the P.O., A Memory, Powerhouse and Petrified Man by Eudora Welty

Welty is quintessential southern writing with vivid tales of life, family, small towns and languishing. Why I Live at the P.O. is a classic short story about a rather modern young woman who’s had enough of her backwards family and moves into the post office to get away from them. One post office and a very small town dictates no one really gets away from anyone.

The story is full of snappy dialogue and is sit-com style funny making it a thoroughly enjoyable read with or without a tall glass of sweet tea.

Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Natasha Trethewey

New Orleans grabbed all the media attention and public sympathy of Katrina. New Orleans was damaged by neglected, faulty levies that gave way after the storm whereas small towns along the Mississippi Gulf Coast were decimated by the direct hit of the hurricane. I find myself reminding people of this fact whenever it comes up in conversation. Trethewey’s book does a beautiful job of bringing that reminder to life.

Trethewey, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet, is from Gulfport, Mississippi, and her personal stories of Katrina are interspersed with her poetry. She writes about her family home destroyed, friends’ homes and businesses just gone, churches holding services in remaining shells of buildings. She writes about recovery funds that went to white home and business owners who already had insurance and money to rebuild unlike the majority of the black inhabitants of the devastated coastal region.

As happened in New Orleans, city and state officials helped ensure what was rebuilt was even more white, with investors and developers buying up the black-owned damaged buildings and land resulting in demographics and landscape being permanently changed and block after block of characterless box-stores, gaudy casinos and cancerous fast-food chains.

Gone are the protected marshes, inlets, and wild flower fields that gave species native to the Gulf region a place to call home. Gone are the small baptist churches, mom and pop shops and shotgun houses that gave neighbors a place to call home.

Trethewey’s book reminds us that sometimes the storm is the least of the damage.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I always meant to read this, but it wasn’t until my daughter mentioned it that I finally did. She had borrowed it from the library, finished it early and rather than return it, said I should read it, I would like it. Yep – loved it – cried, ranted, and was inspired to act – exactly what I love in a good social justice read.

With this debut novel, Angie Thomas joins a long list of exemplary Mississippi writers and adds a passionate voice that resonates with young and old readers alike. The story’s heroine, Starr Carter, is a young girl living between two worlds – her mostly rich white prep school and her mostly poor black neighborhood. Her worlds collide when her childhood friend is murdered by a police officer while she watches helplessly.

Thomas’ powerful writing shines a light on racism, interracial dating, activism and the closed culture that fosters police brutality and she does it all from the point of view of an accomplished teen girl caught in the middle, waking up to some horrible truths, and finding her own voice to speak out.

The book ends as most of the news stories do, those that make the news anyway. For the ones that don’t talented writers like Thomas are there to remind us that enough is enough and change must come.

REVIEW: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I read God Knows by Joseph Heller decades ago and remember it fondly as one of the wittiest books I’ve ever read with much of it causing me to laugh out loud. I think I was expecting that with Catch-22. And it is that, just not to the extent of my memory of God Knows. It could be the subject matter. I tire easily of war novels, even those that are anti-war. There were definitely points where I felt I was reading a script for M.A.S.H. episodes and did laugh. I even researched which came first. It was Heller’s novel in case you’re curious, by about 10 years. I would guess the writers of M.A.S.H. borrowed heavily from Heller’s novel.

Heller’s anti-hero, Yossarian, is an excellent pilot. Too excellent. He needs just 5 more missions and then he’s out. But he can’t get just 5 more missions. Now its 20. Now its 30. To want to do more deadly missions is crazy. What sane person would want to fly more bombing missions? To not want to do any more missions would make you sane. But if he doesn’t fly more missions, he can’t be discharged. Hence his dilemma. Klinger style sanity.

There are so many characters in the novel, it can be hard to keep track of the many personalities bringing their own versions of havoc and humor as survival tools. There’s Nately who is desperately in love with an Italian prostitute, Milo who has figured out a racketeering scheme of overpriced goods and government contracts, inept doctors who bandage and release, Major Major who may well be the most incompetent soldier ever to don a uniform, Orr with his mouthful of chestnuts, and an anabaptist minister tormented by an atheist superior to name just a few.

The satire of war, of militaries, of government bureaucracy and even God are hallmarks of Heller’s novels. He excels at dark comedy with many layers. One of Pop Chart Lab’s 100 Essential novels, Catch-22 was released in 1961 and was immediately popular with the anti-Vietnam War culture. It’s easy to see why. Underneath the wit and satire, are the horrors of war, the irreparable damage to both psyches and physical bodies, the brutal economics and cost-benefit analyses.

The genius of Heller’s novel is that it can be surface read as just funny, but it can also be read deeper as social commentary. Either way, it’s worth the read.

REVIEW: City of Thieves by David Benioff

I thoroughly enjoyed this book selection from Literati’s Book Club by Susan Orlean. From the very beginning, when a screenwriter asks his grandfather about his time in the war in Russia, Benioff’s cinematic writing took me back to St. Petersburg and I wanted to call in sick so I could stay there listening to his story. The relationship between the two main characters was dynamic and their dialogue witty. The adventure and constant mishaps well-paced and intriguing. As a reader, I was vested in their pursuit. The neat tie up at the end with Lev and Vika was heartwarming, if not simple. City of Thieves was easily a movie playing in my head as I read and a good choice for XOXO Girl Monthly Motif: March – Cultures Challenge.

An intriguing premise – find eggs for the Colonel’s wife during the siege of Leningrad in WWII and your lives will be spared plus you’ll be given Officer ration cards. Leningrad has been surrounded by the Nazis for months and food is scarce. The Russian military is doing its best to protect the city. Citizens are banding together to help. Citizens are starving. Citizens are resorting to cannibalism. But the Colonel’s wife needs eggs for their daughter’s wedding cake. The two men, Lev and Kolya, who met in jail only hours ago, agree to the challenge and set off to find the eggs. After a few grizzly attempts in the city where they narrowly escape with their lives, they move behind enemy lines into the country-side.

It’s in the country-side that they meet up with a band of rebels fighting the Nazis and Lev develops a crush on its female member, Vika. She saves his life. Through one escapade after another, they find themselves in a life or death chess game with a high-ranking Nazi who has personally killed hundreds of their citizens. Lev saves Vika’s life.

Of course the war is there, the death, the atrocities, sometimes in horrific detail, sometimes in gut-wrenching abstract, all of it vividly alongside the characters in their five-day long mission. Benioff’s knack for bringing historical fiction to life is both interesting and entertaining, reminding me why it is almost always my favorite genre.

REVIEW: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

On PopChart Lab’s 100 Must Read books and hailed as the Great American Novel, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a graphically violent epic of how the west was conquered, making it a difficult, and often stomach-turning, must read. Categorized as historical fiction, characters such as evil incarnate Judge Holden and vicious John Joel Glanton are based on real people and the murdering and scalping of Native and Mexican civilians during America’s westward expansion are real atrocities told in exquisite, if horrifying, detail.

The novel starts in 1849 with a young Kentucky boy of 13 setting out west on his own. McCarthy doesn’t even give him a name, just refers to him as “the kid.” He falls in with the band of white scalp-hunters in the western territories after a brutal bar fight. Images of dead babies hanging from trees, women and children scalped while alive, blood-dripping heads mounted on poles, rotting carcasses of both man and beast dot the landscape. Like all of McCarthy’s novels, the jarring landscape is itself a main character.

Characters die violently along the way. Some simply vanish without a trace. Page after page of violent encounters, evil rantings and barbarous action. Violence is the novel. No single protagonist. No linear plot. Just violence. In the end, the Judge and the kid run across each other in a bar. 36 years after the novel was published, there still remains much debate among readers about what actually happens. McCarthy skillfully leaves the particular horrors to the reader’s imagination. And after 337 pages of descriptive brutality, one can imagine some truly horrific conclusions.

It is an amazing skill of McCarthy’s to write so exquisitely, so beautifully, that the horrors of our past can be brought to life, absorbed and intuitively understood. The stunning writing will hold you even as the reality of what you are seeing from his words will make you want to close the book. Close the book if you need to. Clear the images from your head. But pick it back up time after time. It is worth every cringing moment.

REVIEW: Brewster by Mark Slouka

Another Powell’s Indiespensibles selection from a few years back in my recent string of coming-of-age novels. Brewster is an intense, depressing coming-of-age story set in a dead-end town in the late 1960s that features two teenage boys, one a troubled boy from an abusive home, and the other a track star from a sad one; best friends who make poor choices that lead to life-altering consequences. Granted the circumstances of their lives in this dead-end town contribute to the choices, but so much could have been done by the more privileged one to aide the other, so much could have been done by teachers, by police, by medical professionals, by other adults. But no one in this story seems to make good choices. It’s as if Slouka’s dead-end town has seeped into the bones of its inhabitants and they’re all just resigned to misery with no way out.

The novel is told from the adult track star’s point of view as he looks back on his high school years and the friendship that permanently changed him. The novel reads somewhat autobiographical and I found it hard to believe that no one knew the boy was being horrifically abused, and worse that those who did suspect it, did nothing. They figure it out too late to save him. Then a chain reaction by adults covering things up in the name of trying to save two destroyed lives doesn’t really save anyone, but it does get them out of the dead-end town. One goes to Vietnam. One goes to college. It could be the wrong ones depending on whether or not you agree with the cover up. Regardless the misery stays with them and mixes with the addition of guilt. They would all need years of therapy in order to become functioning adults. Ironically, if the other adults in the novel had gotten the therapy they needed, the teenager’s lives wouldn’t have been as horrific. But sadly for all of them therapy wasn’t as common in 1968 as it is now and the messed up cycle perpetuated itself. Tragic.

I find it difficult to read books where I don’t like any of the characters, but Slouka’s writing is poetic and his characters at least multi-dimensional if not likable. Parts of the book are just so awful that I wanted to stop reading, but it was like watching a car crash and being unable to turn away and then being left with trauma scars. Scenes and passages I’m still trying to get out of my head. Not in a good way.

REVIEW: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

In this magical-realism coming of age novel, Aimee Bender’s protagonist is a young girl who, on her 9th birthday, discovers she can now taste the feelings of whoever made what she’s eating. Her mother baked her favorite lemon-chocolate cake for the occasion, but she tastes so much sadness in the cake, she can’t eat it. So begins The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, with a frightened young girl not sure of what’s happening and afraid to eat anything not made in a factory.

She keeps the “gift” a secret as she tries to understand what’s happening to her and figure out how to deal with it. She surreptitiously asks other family members if they taste anything odd in the food. None do. Do they have any “special” abilities? None admit to any. Her mother senses things, but her premonitions aren’t always accurate. Her brother is autistic. Her father deathly afraid of hospitals. But nothing like this. She trusts her brother’s best friend with her secret and he treats it like a science experiment, bringing her food baked by different people. She tastes boredom, loneliness, fear, happiness. He logs them all and notes the accuracy. He becomes her safe haven. She trusts another girl at school who suffers from depression and uses her to determine how she’s feeling, but the girl later turns on her. She learns of her mother’s affair before anyone else because she can taste it in the dinners her mother makes. It’s hard to know if the “tasting” is a gift or a curse. Eventually she takes refuge in a local French restaurant and is able to put her gift to good use, knowing exactly what region an ingredient has come from and whether or not it truly is organic.

The family members in Bender’s novel all suffer in their own ways with these gifts. We learn of a grandfather who also had one, and the true reason the father refuses to enter a hospital. We discover alongside the scared and confused Rose, how much more than autism has to do with her brother’s disappearing acts and his final inability to cope in the world.

There’s nothing lighthearted about this novel despite a title that might lead one to think there could be. The feelings that come up while reading are as intense as the feelings one imagines Rose Edelstein to have when she eats. This seems to have been Bender’s intention with rapid-fire, direct and sometimes curt dialogue and almost haunting character descriptions. The overall melancholia overwhelms the sweeter parts of the story and the reader is left feeling as disenfranchised yet still somewhat empathetic as Rose from the constant barrage of emotions thrown at them.

Much like that lemon-chocolate cake, be prepared to need to let the book settle a bit.