Brilliance & Brutality: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

Empires die, like all of us dancers in the strobe-lit dark. See how the light needs shadows.

Just before The Bone Clocks was published, David Mitchell wrote a Twitter story called “The Right Sort,” which has been collected in full on The Millions.

The Bone ClocksMitchell calls Neil Gaiman one of his greatest fantasy influences, and here you can see why – the horror and absurdity in “The Right Sort” is very like Gaiman’s latest, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But David Mitchell far surpasses Gaiman in his literary ability, scope and ambition. The Twitter story is a deliciously spooky read, and the most successful one of its kind, in my opinion. But it’s only a taste of what you’ll find in The Bone Clocks. It is not a preview, or prequel, exactly, but it “occupies the same universe.” One where, to summarize, the mind is both a weapon and a battleground, our little life is rounded with a sleep to which some beings are immune, and the mundane is pierced suddenly and briefly with wondrous sights we will never understand.

Cloud AtlasThe Bone Clocks, like Mitchell’s award-winning Cloud Atlas, is told with linked narratives. This novel, however, is not so tightly constructed. The symmetry is not explicit, the connection between characters is more grounded in the mess of reality, and the aforementioned universe is expanded until it becomes clear that nearly all of Mitchell’s work will be set within it. Mitchell’s fans will recognize recurring characters and entities, part of what he has dubbed his “uber-novel.”

The novel begins in the voice of Holly Sykes, a runaway of fifteen years, scathing and sassy and delightfully (Britishly) teenaged. She’s left behind a loving, if complicated, family life to embark on a short, ill-conceived, monumental journey. Her mind and heart just beginning to mature, she’s full of wisdom like:

‘What if … what if Heaven is real, but only in moments? Like a glass of water on a hot day when you’re dying of thirst, or when someone’s nice to you for no reason, or …’ Mam’s pancakes with Toblerone sauce; Dad dashing up from the bar just to tell me, ‘Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite’; or Jacko and Sharon singing ‘For She’s A Squishy Marshmallow’ instead of ‘For She’s A Jolly Good Fellow’ every single birthday and wetting themselves even though it’s not at all funny; and Brendan giving his old record player to me instead of one of his mates. ‘S’pose Heaven’s not like a painting that’s just hanging there forever, but more like … like the best song anyone ever wrote, but a song you only catch in snatches, while you’re alive, from passing cars, or … upstairs windows when you’re lost …

After Holly we meet Hugo Lamb, a collegiate sociopath, Ed Brubeck, an embittered war correspondent, writer Crispin Hershey, and… well, beyond that are spoilers. It has to be said that the first narrative switch is startling, and feels like a loss. You will miss Holly deeply. But she reappears – in fact, more than a tale of an age-old war between immortals, this is Holly’s life story.

If this sounds like it all might be a bit much, well, David Mitchell’s ahead of you. In the center of The Bone Clocks’ structure is the story of Crispin Hershey, an author in the throes of serious depression. Growing in his irrelevance, becoming acutely aware of his age, contempt thickening like fat in his veins, this narrator’s is a voice filled with bile. In a review of Crispin’s latest book, a colleague says:

…One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?

Each a point that could be made about The Bone Clocks itself. In an interview, Crispin is asked to what degree his protagonist, Trevor Upward, “whose morality is decidedly elastic, modeled upon his maker?” He responds:

‘Trevor Upward is a misogynist prick who gets exactly what he deserves on the final page. How, dear Maeve, could a royal arse like Trevor Upward’ – I flash a smile of mock innocence – ‘possibly be modeled on a man like Crispin Hershey?’

You see, any criticism we might have of Mitchell has been preempted by Crispin’s own self-loathing and -mockery. And though his voice is negative where Holly and Hugo are light, jaded where Ed Brubeck, for all his sadness and confusion, is fiercely passionate, Crispin makes you laugh out loud. And instead of coming to dislike him as much as he can’t stand himself, I found I grew fonder of him along the way.

And Holly? Well, she feels a more authentic character than I’ve read in a while – particularly a female character written by a man. Though more beset by tragedy than your average British Gen-Xer, not to mention one who experiences ghostly voices and premonitions, Holly is varied, flawed, aching, and her complex entanglements, romantic and otherwise, reminded me of those of people I know. This is no grand love story – it is a series of broken ones. And setting aside this story’s fantastic elements, that is the real world at its most raw and heartbreaking. Perhaps her story is so affecting as it’s told not just from her own point of view, but from those of the people who love her. The Holly they each know, the Holly at each age, begin to build a picture of a whole person.

Anyway, I haven’t even gotten to that war of the immortals I mentioned. I’ve yet to bring up political commentary on the war in Iraq, or a dystopian future where the internet has died. It’s all in there. And I didn’t find that it “violently clashed.” Much the opposite! Reincarnation, labyrinths in the twilight beyond this life, psychic traveling souls trapped in a memory, the pain of divorce, the sharp and sudden shock of loss, an interminable wedding ceremony, a long walk, a love affair, an argument – Mitchell has written all these and more in the same tone, with the same wit and detail, and by the end you believe in his universe. None of it seems impossible. He knows well the incredible brilliance and brutality of life, and he leaves you open to it all.

David Mitchell
Recommended Reading on The Bone Clocks:

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The Home Place – Fiction from the Farmlands

barr farmBarr Family Farm – Rodelia, KY
Continuously Farmed Since 1835

Learn more at barrfarmsky.com.

One Thing Leads to Another – Hidden Gems on the Fiction Shelves of the Portsmouth Public Library
by Cathy Okhuysen

13590712Wendell Berry, poet, environmentalist, essayist and novelist, has published over 40 books. The most recent, Distant Neighbors, encompassing his correspondence with Gary Snyder, was published in June 2014. One can not talk about fiction from the farmlands, especially from Kentucky, without including the lives and loves of Port William, Kentucky. The tenth in the series, A Place in Time, was published in 2012 and includes a poignant story,  SOLD, of the auction of Beulah Gibb’s home place – she hopes to the tenant farmer Coulter Branch.  This book also has a delightful map that includes both the Catlett home place and the Coulter home place. In her blog post on “agrarian dreaming in the fiction department,” Sharyn Astyk favors Jayber Crow in the Port Williams membership but I think you will be delighted with young Andy Catlett and his grandparents.

As one things leads to another, an exploration of rural fiction brings up the classic stories of Willa Cather, as well as the 12-book gentle, historical fiction Love Comes Softly series by Christy-award-winning author Janette Oke.  The challenges of living off the land in both the original  prairies and the current farmland make for heartwarming reading.

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On a grittier side, a hidden gem with another Kentucky farm setting is the 2009 novel All the Living by first time novelist C. E. Morgan:
All the Living

Rarely in this reviewer’s memory has a debut novel emerged with such a profound sense of place…. Descriptions are so vivid, yet so integrated and organic, that the reader can almost feel the lassitude of stifling humid air; smell the rich, warm earth; and see the furrowed fields, the dark mountains in the distance…. A slow, seductive dive into another time and place, a deep, quiet place.
- Karen Campbell, The Boston Globe

You know from the first pages that challenges are ahead for the young couple.

The bottomland yawned into view and she saw the fields where the young tabacco faltered on the drybeat earth…

…she found a paper heart taped to the wood… ‘Aloma, If you come when I’m gone, the tractor busted and I went to Hansonville for parts. Go on in…Orren’

Aloma was orphaned and raised by her aunt and uncle. She stayed on at her mountain mission school as the pianist until she met Orren, an aggie from the nearby college.  Then he unexpectedly inherits the family farm and their journey from passionate young lovers to overwhelmed couple is complicated by Orren’s grief and Aloma’s conflict between independence and love.  Theirs is not a gentle love, but they are honest in all their passions, including the search for beauty and the call of the land.

From the Texas panhandle of Woody Guthrie’s House of Earth, a Dust bowl era novel, finished in 1947 but only published in 2013, to the Iowa farmland of the 70s and 80s in The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson (2011), the home place has many faces.

Like this review? You can find more Staff Picks on our new Goodreads page!

Friendship in the Forest: Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins

Please welcome our newest reviewer, Lisa, who’ll be recommending her favorite children’s books!

Nuts to You is the newly released book by Lynne Rae Perkins, the 2006 winner of the Newbery Medal for her book Criss Cross.

Occasionally, I read a book that begs to be read aloud. This week when I picked up “Nuts to You”, I knew from the very first page of the author’s note that this book was going to be added to my list of recommendations for good read alouds! “Nuts” is a short chapter book aimed at grades 3 – 7 but children as young as 4 -5 years old would enjoy hearing it read aloud.

Our story opens as an elderly gray squirrel shares, with a very surprised human, recollections from an adventure of his youth. One squirrel from his group of friends is scooped up by a hawk. Luckily he is dropped and not made into lunch. Unluckily he is dropped far from home. His friends come to his rescue – not, however, without challenges. Squirrels are not known for their long attention spans and finding their friend proves difficult, but they persevere because they care deeply for their friend. Once reunited, they experience cultural differences common to those who travel, like meeting a group of red squirrels who speak with an Australian accent and eat pine cone seeds, rather than acorns.

The story offers the opportunity for discussion in areas of friendship and loyalty, cultural differences, environmental issues, problem solving and teamwork. It has a many of the elements that I look for in a great read aloud: an engaging plot; characters we care about; delightful illustrations; opportunities for the reader to adopt an accent; and humor that children and adults will enjoy.

Lynne Rae Perkins is a gifted writer and illustrator. Her novel Criss Cross is a book of vignettes, illustrations, photographs, and poems about a group of four small-town teenagers. Perkins’ picture book Home Lovely was a runner-up for the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. Her novel All Alone in the Universe was named an ALA Notable Book, a Booklist Editor’s Choice, a Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book, and a Smithsonian Magazine Notable Book for Children. Perkins was born, raised and educated in Pennsylvania, and now lives in Michigan. You can learn more about her on her website!

Written by Lisa Q. Harling

Like this review? You can find more Staff Picks on our new Goodreads page!

Martin Dyar, History, and the Names of Things

Maiden Names (2013) by Martin Dyar
review by Marina Buckler, Reference Librarian

So, you know how some poets write nature poems, and some poets write political poems, and some poets write almost uncomfortably personal poems (I’m looking at you, Duhamel)? Well, Martin Dyar writes–and I am not sure how else to say this–town poems, poems about people going about their lives, doubting, gossiping, grieving, half-remembering. They are universal in that way–the cattiness and the loneliness and the suspicion bleed through and make the people in them feel like people we might encounter going about their business, grocery shopping. In other ways, they embody very particular, honed depictions of specific lives. Almost all of the poems in Maiden Names are first person, but make no mistake–these aren’t confessional poems. In fact, they’re more like portraits, and compiled, they read almost as the beginning of an epic novel–the sort of poems you can imagine George Eliot writing to suss out ideas for Middlemarch, or David Foster Wallace scribbling in the margins in drafts of Infinite Jest.

Before I get into the meat of this review, I want to talk a little bit about names and the named. Philosophically, the debate about names is as old, presumably, as language, and that is obvious in many of our most well-known stories, including that one you probably know about Adam in the garden. In Plato’s Cratylus, Socrates debates the whether names have intrinsic meaning, or are a system of learned and arbitrary symbols. Naming things is also crucial to Confucius, who believed that improperly naming things (leading to the inablity to address and communicate about those things) was at the core of social disorder. In Judeo-Christian religions, the third commandment instructs followers to pronounce the lord’s name only in praise, and never in vain. In folklore, the true names of things can be invoked to defeat magical beings–remember Rumpelstiltskin? And now, think of the way you stopped in your tracks when, as a child, a parent said your full name. Names have undeniable power, and they help us to define the world around us. Presumably, then, maiden names have the power of (at least personal) history, an idea which Dyar plays with throughout this volume, as he weaves characters through their own and a wider history, referring to recognizable characters and events in the titles of his poems.

One thing that stands out about the poems in Dyar’s inaugural collection, Maiden Names, is that many of the characters contained within the volume are impassioned–creatures for whom it might be said that they have found their calling. These people (and animals) veer toward purposeful and contented lives, and the poet watches them with a wonder and near-suspicion. The cast of characters you will encounter includes: a veterinarian elbow-deep in mare, a cow grazing on a hill, a rooster watching over his brood, an elderly cardshark, a bevy of witches, and for a literary twist, modern incarnations of Casablanca and Cyrano de Bergerac. In “Independence,” one of the darker moments in the book, the reader witnesses the will of a lifelong bachelor wavering at the edges when Dyar writes,

Lately though, at night, his blood gathers itself
against that will. It ladles across his mind
an early vanity: memories of being wanted,
memories, some fictive, of being silver-tongued.
While his heart, a kind of fox, climbs down to the lake
and begs the dark to strike or bless the cottage.

But even here, one doesn’t get the sense that the bachelor had ever wanted anything else: he had lived exactly how he had intended. That the time came that his choices led him to this edge, where his memory–alive with the choices he did not make–rewrites things so that they might provide more comfort, can be true without being inevitable. There’s doubt in the narrator’s voice, and the knowledge that it is too late to undo what is done, but also the knowledge that the life he has lived was lived on purpose: he had his suitors, and made his choices. To yearn does not discount the choices made, Dyar seems to say, though perhaps none of us are immune to the ache of the life unlived.

The second thing that stands out about the collection is that the deeper you read, the more sinking the suspicion that you are not quite getting the whole story. Martin Dyar clearly respects his reader; he drops them into the middle of a conversation, immerses them in cultural references that are at once urgent and vague, presses on with images unsettled, leaving the reader jarred and Googling furiously.

Don’t believe me? Take, for instance, the last third of “The Timoney Bell,”

I’m half
committee member, and half starry conduit of ocean

voices. Slowly, but without inhibition, I work the bell,
convinced the sound is a mounting of better nature
fit to meet what is not life in life, as the April darkness
upholds the thought that the lost are listening now.

Here you see Dyar hinting at cultural context (a quick search reveals that the ringing of the Timoney Bell, the poem’s namesake, is a yearly commemoration of the 14 Addergoole residents on board the Titanic when it sank: 11 lost and 3 rescued) but never condescending to explain it. Dyar’s focus is, as always, on the experience of the speaker–in this case recalling a recurring dream and thus illuminating the particular work of memorializing.

Maiden Names is thoroughly peppered with these sorts of poems–“Turlough O’Carolan at Brabazon House” is one of the only poems in the volume written in third person, and describes a sort of enchantment. Turlough O’Carolan, a blind Irish harpist from the 17th-18th centuries, is wooed by the gentle voice of his host’s daughter, and Dyar, imagining O’Carolan’s death, has her

approaching him across the field, like the field’s
intention;
picking the tether of his mind from the earth,
standing over him;
rousing with her laughter the voles in their nettle
baskets
and prompting the near-dead harper to answer
the darkness.

Though presented with obvious themes, the poems in Maiden Names range in style and form, and a reader with patience will surely find something here worth their time. It should be said that some understanding of niche Irish history will serve the reader well, but failing that, an internet-ready device nearby will aid in deeper appreciation.

Overall, Maiden Names feels like a vision realized. Even the poems that I didn’t expecially enjoy had a such a purposeful air that I’d struggle to find a moment that felt like a misstep. Does this sound like it’d be up your alley? Check it out!

Like this review? You can find more Staff Picks on our new Goodreads page!

Rat Queens and Shadowy Fiends

Rat Queens, Volume One: Sass and Sorcery

by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch (2014)

Review by Stacia Oparowski

I’m going to tell you right off that I reserved this ratqueens1comic because I thought it was going to be about rats. I hadn’t heard anything about it, though I should have, and figured that a comic book about anthropomorphic rats might be fun. I was surprised, then, (looking at the cover) in a very good way. The “rat queens” are four b.a. lady warriors-for-hire: Violet, Hannah, Dee, and Betty. They each have their own distinct personality, and their own body shape. The comic is gaining praise from critics for its portrayal of women with real body types, among other things. They aren’t scantily-clad super-heroines existing only for the benefit of their superhero counterparts. They have emotions, love lives, strengths, and weaknesses.

Violet can’t cook. Betty only likes to eat candy and “magic” mushrooms. Hannah likes to pick fights. Dee has social anxiety.

The comic begins with the Rat Queens in a dungeon. They’re being held there because the Mayor of their town thinks that their parties (a.k.a. drunken brawls) have gotten way out of hand. They used to protect the area, and now they’re causing most of the problems. In order to be relieved of their dungeon sentence, they must complete a quest. What seems to be a routine goblin-exterminating mission turns into a battle with a shadowy assassin.

Later, after securing the safety of their rival warrior groups who were also on quests, they begin to wonder if the Mayor sent them all out to be killed. Instead of going to see if that is the case right away, they decide they need some heavy drinks and a night out. Hanna starts trouble by impersonating the town warden, Sawyer, and ends up in the dungeons again. She talks to the REAL Sawyer and discovers the Mayor hadn’t hired any assassins. With the mayor out of the picture, the queens begin to look deeper at who they may have p. o’d.

They investigate the merchant’s guild next, and something sounds fishy there. The queens

decide to have a beer and mull it over. Betty sneaks into the merchant’s guild leader’s office and what she finds triggers a massive attack on the city. When the fighting’s over the ladies throw a huge party, but Dee (who’s not into partying … social anxiety, you know?) delves deeper into the merchant guild leader’s plans.

And that’s where it leaves you, hungry for more (or should I say thirsty). This comic is everything I ever wanted: it’s dark, funny, violent, has great character development, and the art is fantastic. Did I mention it’s in full color? Also, these girls have rad style that’s still practical for fighting dragons and demons and beasts (and each other, and everyone).

Published by Image Comics (The Walking Dead, Saga), this series is already going to be one of my favorites. This was a collected edition of issues 1-5, but #6 and #7 are out now with more to come in September!

kurtis

Kurtis J. Wiebe is a Vancouver, Canada based author who has also written video games, screenplays, and novels. He is also the recipient of the Outstanding Comic Book Writer Shuster Award. Look for a Rat Queens TV show soon, too!

 

Roc Upchurch began his career as a video game concept artist but branched out to, well, everything else. He’s based in Atlanta, GA. Check out his FANTASTIC art here.roc

s.o. 8/29/14

The Complexity of Love & Belonging: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

Why did people ask ‘What is it about?’ as if a novel had to be about only one thing.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

When you work in a library, people are always wondering aloud to you whether the book is a dying format. Do people really even read anymore? If book publishers are going out of business, what does that mean for libraries? In the future, we’ll just Google everything, right?

I’m not going to answer those questions, but I will put before you a shining example of the importance of books: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And I’ll tell you why we need books. In a word? Nuance.

We lament all the time what’s missing in today’s popular films, television, news stories, even essays. That movie had no strong female characters. That miniseries never explained why he was so angry at his father. I wish that reporter had given me more background on the complex history of relations between Israel and Palestine. We know none of these mediums represent real life – they don’t match our experiences. They’re too simplistic.

Want a messy, human protagonist who loves fiercely, speaks her mind, makes mistakes, and regrets them? Who can lie, betray, ignore and lash out like all of us, and live to look back on it, searching always for meaning? Who can never be all bad, or all good, but always relatable? Allow me to present Ifemelu, the honest and intelligent heroine of Adichie’s novel. She is so real it will disarm you.

This book is set half in Nigeria, and half in an America that can often seem foreign to a native reader, because it is observed by an African woman in wry, biting commentary, with many chapters punctuated by posts from Ifemelu’s blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. This is a book that makes you make noise. I laughed, yes, I cried (that’s normal), but I gasped, too. And every time I made an involuntary noise it was because I had not recognized my own country in Adichie’s words.

I wrote this review during the height of the tension in Ferguson, MO over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. This news story, like others of its kind, reminds many of us that the American experience is not universal – that life is vastly different in this country depending on your background, your means, your neighborhood, and the color of your skin. Nowhere have I read such a fascinating, troubling, spellbinding account of this as in Americanah. Certainly it made for a particular kind of soul-searching, and one with no easy answers. How can we be curious about another’s experience without prying? How can we demonstrate compassion without presumption? How can we make friends with those we do not understand? I have been mulling questions like these over without resolve ever since I put down this book. Novels don’t always need to validate us, to make us feel good about ourselves – there is also something satisfying in complexity. Because we recognize it.

For all her outsider’s observations, Ifemelu is immediately familiar. Her struggles – desperation, ennui, longing – are ones we all know at some level. And this is not just a critical examination of our culture’s treatment of immigrants. It is also a love story!

Ifemelu and Obinze are a quiet match, growing with maturity into a love forged amid the passions of adolescence. They become family without fanfare, lovers who follow each other in turn, for whom each is an extension of the other’s being. When they met, Ifemelu “felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size.” It is the love we all hope for: an easy passion, a deep growth.

A quickening inside her, a dawning. She realized, quite suddenly, that she wanted to breathe the same air as Obinze.

So when the present-day narration shows us the happy couple separated, long out of touch, Ifemelu at Princeton and Obinze a rich, married man in Lagos, we ache already without knowing the cause of the split. It takes half the book to find out, and the other half to find a resolution. It’s delicious torment.

When you pick up a book set in a foreign country, you may expect to feel out of your depth, confused by the exotic and the strange. You expect to learn. And learn I did – but all the while feeling something deeply human, unerringly real, in Ifemelu’s experiences. This book is not a revolution. It is a quiet story about love, belonging and purpose.

… If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to the possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie splits her own time between Nigeria and the United States. She is the recipient of many literary prizes, including a MacArthur Fellowship. Her TED talk, We Should All Be Feminists, is so excellent that Beyonce decided to remix it in her song Flawless. It’s also available as an ebook. Find out more about Adichie at chimamanda.com.

In other news, the actress Lupita Nyong’o, the star of 12 Years A Slave, will play Ifemelu in the film version of Americanah!

Like this review? You can find more Staff Picks on our new Goodreads page!

Left To Their Own Devices – Challenging Childhoods in Fiction

One thing leads to another – hidden gems on the fiction shelves of the Portsmouth Public Library
by Cathy Okhuysen

Novels that feature “coming of age” stories as the primary or grounding source of  their stories are very popular.

In  Silver Star (2013) by Jeanette Walls, author of Glass Castle, we hear the voice of 12 year old Bean and see the world through her eyes.  This is the first fiction title in the Fiction Book Discussions that begin on Monday, September 8th at 1pm and 7pm.

silver starBean and  her 15 year sister, Liz, make a decision  that leads to  major changes in the girls’ life.

It starts with the cross country road trip of two sisters to stay with their uncle…even though he doesn’t know they are coming.  Explorations and summer jobs turn into fall bringing school problems and racial issues, lawsuits and, fortunately,  emus!  Things get complicated in the Virginia town that the Holladay family has lived in for generations. From the fly leaf: ” Jeannette Walls, supremely alert to abuse of adult power, has written a deeply moving novel about triumph over adversity and about people who find a way to love each other and the world, despite its flaws and injustices.”

It is intriguing to hear the voices of these young people as they consider the decisions they are forced to make in the absence of a parent, or in spite of the inability of a caring adult to guide them.

As one thing leads to another, I thought of 14 year-old Jordan as he walks off with only his backpack from his Utah home  in The 19th wife (2009) by David Ebershoft.

19th wife (The 19th wife refers to a wife of Brigham Young). He later befriends another boy  who also left a polygamist family and together they try to solve a murder. Like the still popular Orphan Train (2013) by Christina Baker Kline,  this story is also interspersed with a fictional historical account and coming of age stories that go beyond the typical childhood challenges.

A hidden gem in our collection on the topic – how some young people are wise beyond their years and others make do with the best they can figure out – is Crow Lake (2002) by Canadian author Mary Lawson. Her newer books are Other Side of the Bridge (2006) and Road Ends (2014).

crow lakeWe hear Kate’s voice as an adult and at age 7:  “It was the first time we had been back to the ponds…when I saw them again, when we slid down the bank…I felt my spirits rise in spite of everything” pg 46.

Crow Lake is a great discussion title, and Random House has a reader’s guide. This is from the summary: “Set against the wild terrain of northern Ontario, where heartbreak and hardship are mirrored in the landscape, this universal drama of love and misunderstanding recounts a family’s tragic and moving past. Poignant, funny, and utterly unforgettable, Crow Lake is a deceptively simple masterpiece of literary fiction.”

“For generations, learning has been the valued goal in Kate’s family…the two oldest brothers make it possible for the younger children to remain in a household filled with love and humor” (Danise Hoover – Booklist 2002).

Adversity in youth is one of the themes in the 750-plus pages of Pulitzer Prize winner The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt, recently shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

Goldfinch 2 It was a great book to read on a Portsmouth Public Library Kindle, and some copies are now starting to show up on the shelf for checkout after months of long hold lists.

Teenage Theo shares his decisions to take off on his own several times with mixed consequences. Explosions in NYC, free wheeling teenage boys in Las Vegas, antiques, art and shady dealings – he grows up with many challenges.

For more young voices exhibiting vulnerability and strength, keep in mind these resilient female protagonists and read the Goodreads summary by clicking on the book covers:

MarjorieVictoriaLilyMolly and Vivian

Denise Duhamel’s “Blowout,” a love letter

Blowout (2013) by Denise Duhamel
review by Marina Buckler, Reference Librarian

Have you ever had one of those days where nothing goes according to plan? Where there seems to be no end in sight? How about one of those years? Denise Duhamel has, and her latest collection, Blowout, describes that year in excruciating detail.

The collection begins with the decline and downfall of Duhamel’s marriage; the opening poem is an account of she and her husband witnessing an argument between another couple on the beach. As they banter and guess, the discussion  quickly escalates into their own argument, an illumination of their own issues. In the next poem, she describes folding laundry while listening to daytime television, and we learn that, 10 days after listening to a television segment in which she learns that “a relationship is over / when one of the parties shoots a look of contempt at the other,” her husband has left, and several poems later, in “Tina and the Bruised Hearts,” the reader witnesses the unauthorized draining of Duhamel’s bank account  by her now-estranged husband, looped with a panic regarding overdraft fees, and the unexpected camaraderie we sometimes find when we are humbled and forced to ask for help.

In the poem immediately following “Tina and the Bruised Hearts,” the reader learns that Duhamel’s father has died; that her apartment flooded; that she’s lost her job. Her disappointment and sorrow are, even only seven pages in to the first section, tangible. She hides nothing, seemingly–all of the embarrassment and subsequent shame are loaded in with moments where Duhamel tries to digest a lesson, and loses it. She writes, in “Takeout, 2008″:

My sister, my brother-in-law, and I order Chinese takeout
on New Year’s Eve and my fortune reads
“You have to accept loss to win.” This makes me almost hopeful–
and maybe, for a moment, even gives me a way
to make sense out of 2008. I am going to keep this fortune, I think,
but then promptly, accidentally, throw it in the trash.

She feels pretty bad for herself, admittedly–or maybe she just feels pretty bad, hopeless in a way that is new to her. She’s powerless over these events, and struggles to bring herself out of it. Again, in “Takeout, 2008,” Duhamel reminds us that she’s able to suffer, but that she’s not suffering blankly–she is simultaneously observing that suffering, participating in her pain but also producing from it, and finding a way to live. She writes,

Did I tell you this year I have gotten on my knees
and prayed for grace and peace of mind to get through the next hour?
I know there are people with missing children, not missing husbands.
I had my father 47 long years. There are people without a place
to sleep tonight. I know that.

It’s difficult to imagine a year quite like Duhamel’s–admittedly not the worst year on record, but riddled with the types of ego blows that can be difficult to recover from. But she continues. She writes. And it is as though she is singing to herself, reassuring herself. Undoubtedly, Duhamel is suffering a great deal, but she is also making a choice to ask for grace and peace of mind, to summon the strength to continue. And in this context, one can read Blowout as a love letter.

Throughout, Duhamel writes with a style that is pithy and referential, rich with context, self-aware, and cultural (one poem parallels Duhamel’s divorce and Madonna’s, others are descriptions of movies about divorce). The collection as a whole is practiced and brave, naked and confessional, and in those things, human. Blowout is, at many points, uncomfortable to read for how bare the narrative is. But, in the discomfort it causes, it is also oddly comforting. “Look,” she seems to say, from the safe distance she’s gained, “I’ve done it. Here is the proof. You hold it in your hands.”

And she has. As the book progresses, it becomes much less about the sort of visceral pain the reader had grown accustomed to watching Duhamel work through in the first section. The collections grows into something funny and awkward, with poems about very early experiences with the opposite sex titled “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” “Fourth Grade Boyfriend,” and “Lower East Side Boyfriend.” It even includes poems about historically significant events, like “Cleopatra Invented the First Vibrator.” In fact, by the end, the collection isn’t just metaphorically a love letter–it is actually full-blown, with the last several poems in the book about Duhamel’s new love interest, cycling back through, reemerging with heart open again, practiced. And brave.

Down the Rabbit Hole: Murakami’s 1Q84

1Q84 CoverRemember that childhood novel that had you holed up in your room for hours? Forgetting the world? Remember the innocence with which you solemnly undertook the journey, the experience of being changed profoundly by the story, the way reality melted into the background and you stopped only for hastily prepared meals, sustenance for the long road ahead?

It has been too long since I’ve felt that way. It seems to me that more than spa days, vacations, or binge watching Orange is the New Black, a day spent in bed with only a book is a fundamental, essential renewal. You emerge blinking into the light, sorry and sad but feeling all the more strongly the ground beneath your feet and the heights to which you might rise if you only try. You want to be a better person, make art and useful things, love well and be happier. Remember what that’s like?

I’m happy to say I felt that way after 1Q84. This is the long-weekend-stay-in-bed book of your teenage years, grown up. And I mean really grown up. Ages 21+.

Murakami is one of the most refreshing writers today. He has much in common with other magical realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and postmodernists like John Fowles, and he has cited Kafka many times as influential in his development as a writer. I even think maybe there’s a bit of Ray Bradbury in his fascination with the innocence of teenagers. But his worlds are stranger than all of these – places where your unavoidable fate can spring upon you at any moment, where characters act as spirit guides or symbols, where the line between real life and that of the mind is not only blurred but unimportant, beside the point.

He does monotony so well – like Hemingway, he can describe the preparation of a simple meal in captivating detail – and while the fantastic often occurs in his novels it is with all of the real world’s frustrating ambiguity and complexity. If you’ve read one Murakami story, you’ll know not to expect answers or resolution or happy futures in the next. You may receive them, but they’re unpredictable and without warning.

Two Moons

Moons, SpontaneousPotato

Just like the two moons observed by the main characters Aomame and Tengo in 1Q84, things appear suddenly and then have always been there. You cannot ask why or how, but while confused you are equally satisfied with the accuracy of it. This is just like reality, you think, only more so.

During 1Q84 I was at turns horrified, outraged, bewildered, frightened, tense, exhilarated, in love. It was the best kind of love story – like an Austen novel or a modern sitcom, the couple keeps almost meeting, almost uniting, almost… Until you think if it does happen you might die of relief. All this is wrapped in the strangest of all Murakami’s plots, with deep horror and darkness as a constant thread. Like Orwell’s 1984, from which the novel’s name is derived, it is a story of escape, too, of consequences and existential confusion. Though I promise you it’s not as bleak!

Aomame is a personal trainer with a highly dangerous part time job. In a sense she is quite like Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, with hardened principles, a blunt conversational style, and a tendency toward calculated violence. But she is much more human. This is a literary novel, and her character has a degree of warmth beyond Larsson’s ability. We see all her fears, her regrets, the things she loses and rediscovers, including hope for a new life. It is easy to identify with Aomame, even as we learn she has “not an ounce of fat on her body,” and even as she descends into an underworld populated by cult members, victims of domestic violence, and Little People from another world whose air chrysalises reveal the specters within.

Tengo is a mathematics instructor and unpublished novelist whose easy manners and quiet strength are immediately recognizable: remember that smart student in high school who didn’t look the part? Like a bear he stood tall and shaggy above the rest of us, and excelled almost accidentally in all he did, sports or music or scholastic pursuits, but we could never fault him for his success as his demeanor was never one of pride nor aggression, but simplicity and unobtrusive kindness. His passion, when it emerges, is a welcome surprise to his students and his mentor, and women find him magnetic. But Tengo cannot be envied – like Aomame, his childhood was a strange and difficult one, and he made his own way without a fuss, never asking for much. His passivity and easy-going disposition lead him into trouble almost immediately in 1Q84, as he becomes embroiled in a literary scam that brings him to the same underworld, where fiction is made real and weather makes strange changes to the human reproductive system.

Air Chrysalis

Air Chrysalis, A Fish Named Seymour

About halfway through this novel you may find yourself deeply offended. I don’t blame you – but as with all that Murakami creates, it’s never as simple as you’d wish. All I can say is that I’m glad I kept reading. A spoiler free review (I think I have succeeded in that, so far) makes it impossible to reveal any more.

Often fantasy can leave us feeling hollow – think of the swift wave of depression that followed the release of James Cameron’s Avatar, when audiences exited the theater into the bleak grey cold of December, greeted by parking lots and strip malls, and wondered how humanity could create two such contrasting images. Was the real world worth it at all? If we couldn’t live in harmonious congress with the hive mind of a giant beautiful tree and floating islands (I don’t know, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film), what was the point of living at all?

Such is not the case with Murakami. First of all, it’s summer in the seacoast, which helps! But much of the fantastic in the novel is horror, the depths of the human psyche revealed. The metaphor of the Little People’s air chrysalis isn’t one inside which you’d care to live. And even if taxi drivers, talking cats, and breathtaking seventeen-year-old girls don’t appear out of the blue offering adventure and guidance as you leave your home today, after reading 1Q84 you’re still in a place of deep reverence for the world and its possibilities.

That is what the best novels do.

HarukiMurakamiHaruki Murakami is an excellent, strange, reserved author who began his career after successfully running a jazz club. We can all learn something from his regimented schedule of swimming, running, and writing. Good news! The English translation of his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, will be released next month. For a more traditional bio, visit his Random House page. See also the Paris Review interview.

Something Different: Girls Like Us

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles

Review by Stacia Oparowski girls

I was going to post another graphic novel review this week, but yesterday I picked up Girls Like Us by Gail Giles and I couldn’t put it down. It’s a short YA fiction novel, around 200 pages, but it deals with some important and heavy issues.

Biddy and Quincy graduated from their high school’s special education program. They learn slowly; Biddy can’t read and Quincy can’t write. But that doesn’t make them stupid. When they learn that their families can no longer care for them, they are placed in an apartment together as roommates. The apartment is above an elderly woman’s garage. Biddy’s job is to take care of the woman and to clean the house. Quincy cooks and works at the local grocery store. While the setup takes some adjusting, the two girls eventually form a bond with each other and with Ms. Elizabeth, the elderly woman they look after. Quickly, though, things take a turn. One of Quincy’s co-workers, Robert, gets fired for harassing Quincy at work. He starts waiting outside her job at night to threaten her. She doesn’t say a word about it, because she thinks no one would believe a “Speddie”. Meanwhile, Biddy is dealing with issues from her past that resurface whenever she sees a boy. With the guidance of Ms. Elizabeth, Biddy and Quincy overcome the darkest moments of their lives–together. They learn kindness, empathy, manners, and most importantly self-worth.

The novel is written in the alternating diaries of Biddy and Quincy. Each girl keeps a journal on tape, since neither of them can write very well. Their personalities are extremely different: Quincy is tough, suspicious of others, and doesn’t like to be touched. Biddy on the other hand is loving, gentle, and timid. They are both wards of the state, and that’s why they are housed together after high school. A special program allowed them to live with and take care of an elderly woman who can’t walk due to dizziness caused by a problem with her inner-ear.

It was interesting to experience things through the eyes of Biddy and Quincy. Quincy’s diaries especially highlight the discrimination people with a mental disability experience, even from those who mean well. She often gets frustrated because she can tell when people think she is stupid.

One of the ladies tell me and Ms. D. that I’m gonna be doin’ “prep” for now. She start explaining but I stop her talking by saying, “You want me chopping the onions and celery and measuring out the ingredients and such as that.”

The lady cut a look at Ms. D., then she say I was right. She hand me an apron and point to a chopping table. Ms. D. tap me on the shoulder and kind of nudge me into a little corner. “Quincy,” she say close to my ear. “Try to be friendlier to these women. Don’t interrupt when someone is giving you instructions.”

“That woman think I’m stupid,” I say.

Biddy senses people treat her differently, too, but is less quick to anger.

I look out my little window and I see Quincy and Miss Lizzy drinking ice tea and laughing. I get a sad feeling. I wonder if they’re talking about me. Laughing about dumb, fat Biddy.

The book was a lesson in empathy, but also in safety. These girls experience more than bullying about special education. Everyone can be subjected to violence, and we can learn a lesson about protecting ourselves and speaking up when we feel threatened. When Quincy finally tells Ms. Elizabeth about what’s happening with Robert, Elizabeth says:

“Quincy, you are a woman. You can make your own decisions –I’m not going to meddle and risk making things worse. I can’t force you to tell the police. But I think you should.”

Quincy then explains,

“Lisabeth, peoples like you count. Peoples like me, it’s just different.”

“One day, I hope, you’ll know that you’re wrong about that,” Lisabeth say.

It teaches us that if we feel threatened, we should tell someone, even if we think no one will care. If it’s happening to you, it could and probably is happening to someone else. gail

Gail Giles was a special education teacher for twenty years. She is the author of a few other books for young adults. She lives near Houston, TX. She has a blog.

youngadultbooks.about.com review

Kirkus review 7/18/2014 so

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