Book Review: The Swan Gondola
by Timothy Schaffert

 photo 2fac73fc-2fc7-49e3-ac0b-f6609eddf56b_zps3ddad943.jpg The Swan Gondola
by Timothy Schaffert
Riverhead Books, 2014
Hardcover: $27.95


Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

A fair, done correctly, fills its visitors with wonder and amusement. A bizarre bazaar should make people’s eyes sparkle and satiate their sense of adventure from darling rides and attractions. The fair is the talk of the town during its stay, and memories of its heyday linger even during its decline. Timothy Schaffert tries to accomplish all this with his novel, The Swan Gondola, and almost succeeds. But the audience can sometimes see through the guise and notice where pieces are pasted together and lines are drawn to add effect. What’s left is a warped mirror reflection that hints at real characters underneath a fluffy presentation.

But then, this novel was never meant to be fluffy. It was meant to dazzle in the beginning before unveiling a stark truth: people are broken and misunderstood; they wear masks even in private. To illustrate, the book steps into wonder almost immediately. Darkness falls over a shaking house, inside of which sit two scared elderly sisters, Emmaline and Hester. When the commotion settles, they discover that a deflated hot air balloon had landed on their roof and brought with it Ferret Skerritt, a ventriloquist with a troubled past. The novel proceeds to bounce between that past, the present, and letters to a ghost as Ferret explains what brought him to the sisters’ run-down farm, and explores what resulted from his presence in their home. The key to all of it, met at the key-shaped 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, was Cecily. With biased hindsight, Ferrett describes their whirlwind romance, tragic separation, his desperation to get her back, and their sparse stolen moments.

In Cecily and her baby daughter, Doxie, Ferrett finds pieces of himself that he hadn’t realized were missing. He becomes consumed by Cecily’s presence, and lives completely for her. He comments:

Every time her name crosses my mind, I whisper it. I whisper her name. Like a chant, or a prayer. Cecily. I like hearing it, this name of silk and satin. I like feeling the teakettle hiss of it on my tongue. And like a chant, or a prayer, it soothes my soul.

This narration almost suggests obsession. Yet only when Cecily is gone does the narration introduce a skewed perception. Ferrett is surrounded by people—friends and enemies alike—who convey different events during his time with her. They don’t just include different perspectives, but new information—details that are both unbelievable and yet, somehow, true. Because the readers are so close to Ferret’s mind, which is helped by the first person perspective, they can’t trust what the other characters say. Yet, as the novel unfolds, that distrust slowly shifts toward Ferret. In the end, readers may suspect that he has an unhinged sense of reality. Did he register everything as it was, or did he only see things as he wanted them to be and rejected the rest? His final musings of events reveal a slight but wondrous insanity. He narrates:

On the farm, I came to believe in the logic of dreams. I believed in magic, perhaps even a heavenly order. I went up in the balloon so the balloon would come down, so Emmaline would dream, so the cathedral would rise, so Cecily would speak. Not only did I believe it, but it seemed insensible to believe anything else.

The logic of dreams and magic wouldn’t have been there, of course, without the romantic glitter the fair had settled over a dusty livelihood of peddling for laughs on dirty streets and in seasonal theaters. The fair itself warped reality before its gates opened. And because of the novel’s jumping linear timelines that converge into an ultimate outcome, readers will lose track of time and may believe that a few weeks is a few months. Ferrett, certainly, forgets time and lives wholly in the moment. Everything is drawn out to where even the act of smoking is a holy moment. Schaffert writes:

He took smoke in his lungs like it was a breath of bottled air, and it appeared as if he could feel the cigarette healing all the cracks of his bones, working down through him like a vapor.

Of course, the novel isn’t just about Ferrett and Cecily, or the sturdy old biddies Emmaline and Hester. In fact, the main characters are rather dull compared to their friends. All their intrigue is showcased in the beginning chapters as a hook. But the friends appear as spice to thrust the plot forward. August—a gay Native American who dresses in a drag of mismatched clothing and sells “tonics”—and Rosie—a Polish anarchist who sells tastefully artistic nudie pictures from under his coat—are the leading compatriots in Ferrett’s life. They are solid, reliable, scarily creative, and loyal. Even Mrs. Margaret, a crotchety one-eyed hag who hates Ferret immediately, provides intriguing conflict and believable barriers between Ferrett and Cecily.  More believable, in fact, than the pitiable but diabolical antagonist, Billy Wakefield, the millionaire who owns most of the fair and schemes to steal Cecily. He doesn’t become a fully developed person until the end, when Ferrett finally sees weakness and learns his full story. Of course, he is technically a main character.

When everyone finds their places in the world, tension is finally and satisfactorily released. Readers will close the book and see through the bound papers to the shiny interior: wonder, romance, appeal, and an unexpected sparkling of the supernatural. They’ll want to look away from grimy details that eventually overtook the dream, and ignore the process of dismantling as characters returned to reality. They may want to resume the meandering tread through sugar-dusted flights of fancy, when everything was new and special, and damn the rest.


Book Review: The Heart of June by Mason Radkoff

 photo b8ac9c11-156b-4dab-93e6-3a87ccc3f28d_zps4e4cf5ff.jpg The Heart of June
by Mason Radkoff
Braddock Avenue Books, 2014


Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

The Heart of June by Mason Radkoff is Pittsburgh, from its industrial laborers to its old money societies. Pittsburghers will enjoy mapping the story through their city, writers will appreciate the painstaking craft, hopeless romantics will cheer for the various couples, and laborers will sympathize with and recognize the main character’s choice of careers and vehicles.

The novel follows Walt, a scholar, carpenter, and handyman who ambles through life without urgency to finish his projects. There is nothing spectacular about him. He is the new Everyman—hard working but lazy, intelligent but unmotivated, and would rather eat at diners and bars instead of fancy restaurants with fellow scholars. His ex-wife, Sam, is as down-to-earth as he is, and her husband, Arthur, is a perfect but ridiculous gentleman. Miss June, an ancient socialite who helped to raise Walt and for whom he works, is strict and manipulative but caring. And Gwen, Walt’s student crush when he taught history, is almost too perfect in her ability to do everything, and happens to be going through a divorce.

These characters are full and complex. However, it seems as if the author wanted to write more about Pittsburgh and needed people to fill it. To do this properly, he created realistic characters and entrenched them in the city and its outskirts. Radkoff takes readers through Fifth Avenue, down Craig Street, up the Allegheny River, and out toward parks like McConnell’s Mill and small towns like Evans City. Local readers can map the characters’ progresses, whereas others will get a unique glance into the faded steel mill industry’s orange skies and the old-fashioned lifestyles surrounded by urban landscapes.

However, despite vast descriptions and references to a beloved city from a working man’s perspective, Pittsburgh ends there. The city itself is represented well, but not its people. Their defining aspect is almost nonexistent: Pittsburghese. Occasionally, Radkoff introduces double negatives in dialogue and colloquialisms such as “slippy,” but not much more. It would be difficult to do Pittsburghese justice without also making it a joke, but Radkoff could’ve tried a little harder linguistically. At the very least, he could have removed conjugations for the verb “to be,” which is a singular Pittsburghese trait. Walt is an educated lazy man who occupies a strange space between his poorly spoken (and thus apparently dumber) hard-working friends and the doctors, teachers, and the rich old biddy with which he spends time. The other friends could have been from anywhere that once had a thriving industrial sprawl. Nothing makes them distinctly Pittsburghers, though Radkoff successfully represents hard working, joking, and hospitable people who look after each other.

Through subtly drawn-out characterization and plot that appears and disappears as the need arises, the book follows a realistic pace. Conflict is stable with realistic reactions, and Radkoff includes moments of insight through hindsight, such as when he mentions Walt’s childhood like an ominous undertow that readers may forget until it randomly pulls them under the steady current of narration. Radkoff essentially telescopes into the lives of a few people in a particular city and presents the story as it would be if it happened in real life. In order to rationalize his writing style, Radkoff occasionally inserts passages that fit scenes but also comment on the book. For example, when Walt and Gwen first spend time together, they have a “moment.” Radkoff writes:

“That’s it?” she said quietly, afraid to break the moment.
Walt nodded in return. “That’s it,” he said softly. They lingered there, together, close.
“What are we doing here?” she whispered after a while.
“Building,” he replied, in a whisper of his own.

Radkoff builds Walt’s character through construction projects that ultimately affect his personality. He builds tension and conflict through minor actions. He builds a world within a well-established setting, and he seems to want readers to recognize that in order to build, things must take time and patience. In case readers didn’t get the hint the first time, Radkoff almost overtly states the novel’s symbolism. He writes:

Walt worried this might be too much activity for the grand dame, but Gwen assured him that they were in no hurry during their excursions, moving at a pace as slow as need be. Through it all, the parlor transformation had begun to take hold. Walt’s progress was undeniable, and to those who didn’t know him, the work would appear to be heading toward completion. And it was all for Miss June, performed against the sound of her ancient ticking clock, a steady but anxious race to fulfill her wish.

In one paragraph, Radkoff clearly summarizes the entire book. Walt is renovating a room for Miss June because she is dying. He works against his own lazy clock and her relentless ancient one in order to fulfill a last wish. It also seems to suggest that if readers continue to be patient and persistent, they will reach the satisfying end along with Walt.
This consistent stream of narration occasionally falters, though. It is difficult to discern the characters’ ages, except for Miss June. And after a pivotal scene, the ending wraps up a little too quickly and readers are denied an eagerly anticipated character’s reaction. And sometimes, Radkoff fails to include details where they’re needed. The narration then becomes quick and sloppy, as if in oversight. For example, when Walt and Gwen go on a date, Radkoff suddenly omits details about which the characters comment. Everything else in the story is fully realized, but he leaves some things for readers’ imaginations when they should have been included. He writes:

“You’re paying for our dinner?” [Walt asked Miss June.]
“For Gwenneth. It’s a reward for her hard work. For you, well, let’s just say I’m hoping that some proper nourishment will help keep you on task. You’re far from finished, you know. I can’t have you keeling over before you’re done, which is a distinct possibility given that you take so many of your meals in establishments of questionable repute.”
“I’m speechless.”
This was an uncharacteristically sweet gesture from his formidable old partner.

“Psst,” Gwen said from the door.
She seemed more beautiful than ever, to have somehow turned up the wick on her glow.
“Wow,” he said. “Look at you.”
“Me? Look at you. The girls are gonna throw rocks at all the other fellas.”
“Well, then,” he said, pleased at the compliment. “Our chariot awaits.”

Radkoff usually explains why characters say certain things, or the history behind a reference. Details are rarely omitted. Yet in the above passage, there are no explanations or descriptions. There is no history behind Miss June “uncharacteristically sweet gesture” to pay. And Gwen and Walt are not described, despite commenting to each other about their appearances. Radkoff may want readers to use their imaginations here, to create their own versions of beauty that would automatically be true, but that decision contradicts his otherwise stable narrative style.

Yet throughout the novel, Radkoff’s decisions concerning character and plot development steadily unfold. His writing allows readers to ease into a comfortable afternoon, say hello to characters that are as real as their neighbors, and, for a time, forget their own concerns. Readers will recognize their own lives in loveable Walt, even down to his insights about procrastination. In this Everyman and his friends, Radkoff represents every one. And maybe, he offers the heart of everyday Pittsburgh to the rest of the world.

First-time novelist Mason Radkoff was shortlisted for the 2012 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition. As a carpenter restoring homes both modest and grand, Radkoff bore witness to the subtle drama residing within the walls that contain our lives, which he then used to create a tale filled with honesty, humor, and love.

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

 photo 7f980b7a-e276-4c33-8874-612ba6d3a1c0_zpse21c3dc3.jpg The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
by Andrew Sean Greer
HarperCollins, 2013
Hardback: $26.99


Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

Many people have thought: What would my life be like if I were born in a different era? Andrew Sean Greer answers that question and takes it a step further in his recent novel, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. The piece itself is an exploration of possibility, covering not only the side effects of electroshock therapy, but also the repositioning of the main character’s entire life throughout time. It asks existential questions about a person’s place in life, the concepts of security and happiness, and presents an opportunity for readers to answer for themselves.

Greta Wells is a middle-aged woman from New York City in 1985 who experiences hardships in her life from which she wanted to flee or fix. Her brother, Felix, dies of AIDS and her longtime boyfriend, Nathan, leaves her for another woman. But she is also a woman from New York in 1918 and 1941. In those eras, her husband is off at war and she takes a younger lover, and her eccentric and beloved aunt dies in a car accident that causes Greta to suffer a broken arm. Because of her depression from these events, she tries electroshock therapy as a last resort, which results in travels through time and space.

The novel begins with a reminder about how magic works. Not the stage show kind that’s flashy and fake, but the quiet kind that slips through the cracks of everyday life. Greer writes:

“Who would ever guess? Behind the gates, the doors, the ivy. Where only a child would look. As you know: That is how magic works. It takes the least likely of us, without foreshadowing, at the hour of its own choosing. It makes a thimblerig of time. And this is exactly how, one Thursday morning, I woke up in another world.”

Greer’s novel doesn’t just take Greta and plop her in a different time. Everyone in her immediate life also exists, and she must relearn who they are and who they remain. The historical thread is the same in each world, though, and she follows events to the best of her memory. However, once she figures out how she’s traveling, most references to psychological breaks, sadness, or her procedure disappear. The whole reason for the novel disappears, and only its causes remain—causes that must be fixed. Her brother is in denial about his gay lifestyle in both earlier eras, she cannot reconcile her lover while she’s married in 1918, and her husband is cheating on her in 1941 before he must be deployed in WWII. Eventually, Greta desires treatments only to travel, rather than fixing her depression.

The problem with Greer’s novel is its incomplete exploration of Greta’s eras. Usually in stories about time travel, characters are warned not to change anything because it could massively affect the entire world and its future. But in Greer’s novel, there are no butterfly effects; her actions and the presence of her immediate family and friends do not change the overall outcome of historical events. Her personal world is small enough in the grand scheme of things to go unnoticed; which is normal for everyday people who are not important enough to change the world—only immediately surrounding lives. Thus, the book suggests that the only significance in someone’s life is the people included in it, and world events are only tools for setting.

But setting is still important. Setting is what drives the problems for Greta, her brother, and her husband. Setting is what introduces conflict that the characters must react to, and setting is what they all go into in the end. New York is a demanding and lively city that bother caters to “deviant” activity and condemns it. Greta finds herself exploring streets she once knew well, and finding treasures in each era that no one else realizes is there, like a key in an archway. Her apartment exists in each era as a focal point, and everything else radiates from there. Nathan is abroad in WWI as a medical officer and, upon his return, Greta doesn’t want to be married to him anymore; Felix experiences prejudice and incarceration because of his and Greta’s German descent; Felix is jailed because he’s caught at a homosexual sex party at a time when homosexuality was taboo, and Felix cannot reconcile his orientation with having a fiancé in 1918 and a wife and child in 1941. These troubles both occur in her home and return to it for sanctuary. Yet Greta cannot find any for herself. For example, in 1918, she struggles to find her place in life, as well as her 1918 self’s place. Greer writes:

“And what do I mean by free? … A shrew, a wife, or a whore. Those seemed to be my choices. I ask any man reading this, how could you decide whether to be a villain, a worker, a plaything? A man would refuse to choose; a man would have that right. But I had only three worlds to choose from, and which of them was happiness? … So tell me, gentlemen, tell me the time and place where it is easy to be a woman?”

This introduces a gap in storytelling. Greta is strong and independent, despite her current slump. She uses that independence to “fix” her other lives, without remembering the context of setting. In 1918, the women’s suffrage movement has yet to culminate. She doesn’t register this cultural importance, and there should have been consequences to her actions throughout the novel, conflicts that should have reminded her about a woman’s place back then. Readers only witness an example of this when 1918 Nathan, her husband, returns from the war with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, though that is hidden beneath vague references of previous abuse. Her eventual punishment is indicative of PTSD mixed with abuse, but she never realizes where Nathan’s actions originate. Her mind is so fixated on traveling and “correcting” each life that she doesn’t consider why things are the way they are, only that they are “wrong.”

But this book isn’t just about women. Here Greer bypasses the storytelling gap and introduces a tangent path. He turns around Greta’s questions about security and self-assertion and applies them to more than just women. Felix, Greta’s gay twin brother, suffers similar moments of doubt. “When is it all going to be all right? For someone like me?” he asks. This question aligns him, and thus gay men, with Greta’s feminine plight of choices and placement. In the main character’s time of 1985, during the AIDS epidemic, the world isn’t yet “all right.” Although Greer reveals a generational relationship progression—what is deemed acceptable—between 1918, 1941, and 1985, he also makes readers think: What about our time? In 2014, people have greater rates of acceptance, but still haven’t reached a time “when it is going to be all right.”

This may be the novel’s main point: What is considered to be “all right”? Is a story with gaps still “all right,” though it suggests the need for more maturation before publication? If people could change situations by time traveling, would they be better off? And while Greer waxes poetic about love, death, and goodbyes, he also points readers’ gazes toward the future. In another thirty years, will it finally be “all right” for people to choose love, happiness, and placement without judgment? Greer doesn’t answer that question. But perhaps that’s all right.

Andrew Sean Greer is the author of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, The Story of a Marriage, and The Confessions of Max Tivoli. He studied writing as Brown University before moving to Missoula, Montana, to receive a master of fine arts degree from the University of Montana. He later wrote for Nintendo, taught at a community college, published in literary magazines, and then published a collection of stories before releasing his novels. He has taught at universities, has won a number of awards. He lives in San Francisco with his husband in a house adjoining that of his twin brother.


Book Review: The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

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The Bookman’s Tale
by Charlie Lovett
Viking, 2013
Hardcover: $27.95

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

What would you do if you found the Holy Grail of books? In Charlie Lovett’s, The Bookman’s Tale, such a book is called Pandosto. On its title page is the name of W. Shakespeare from Stratford, and in its margins are notes linking this man and this book to one of Shakespeare’s plays, “A Winter’s Tale.” It is the only document proving that the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare actually wrote history’s renowned plays. But, like a bad mystery novel, nothing is as it seems.

Lovett’s story follows Peter Byerly, a collector, restorer, and seller of antique books. He lives a reclusive life in England, personally imprisoned after the death of his wife, Amanda. During an attempt to reclaim his life, he discovers a hundred-year-old watercolor portrait that looks strikingly like Amanda in a book about Shakespearean forgeries. This launches him down an obsessive journey toward the Pandosto, and uncovering the identity of the artist B.B. Mingling with the main plot involving Pandosto‘s authorship and authenticity, and resulting murder mystery, readers learn about Peter and Amanda’s collegiate courtship.

The novel’s beginning caters to sentimentalists with a penchant for nostalgia, people who would find book restoration to be fascinating and who would want to know how the Pandosto could survive for centuries hidden from history. The latter part of the novel is for adventure enthusiasts who like a good murder mystery—if it were a good murder mystery. The two plots don’t mesh well, and the immaturity of the end clashes with the mature portrayal of Peter’s work. Because Lovett is a former antiquarian bookseller, the sections involving Peter’s craft are polished and authoritative. The murder mystery, however, seems slapdash. It’s as if Lovett assumed that book restoration alone wouldn’t be enough to engage his readers, so he added a couple dangerous love affairs.

The danger isn’t the only thing that seems to be immature. Multiple facets of the ending—including character growth, the villain’s “big reveal,” and resolution of events—are predictable and stereotypical. Lovett also uses many instances of meta-writing—molding events and details to fit the author’s needs instead of the story’s. It’s as if Lovett didn’t trust his readers to comprehend the story’s overall purpose. He even writes, “Let it be a monument to foolishness… an empty tribute to what happens to a man who places money over love, rivalry over integrity, forgery over reality” (321)—just in case the readers didn’t already understand.

In fact, Lovett’s meta-writing hinders characterization. When Peter first meets Liz, she is brazen and immediately trustworthy without any evidence supporting her reactions to Peter. She says, “You’re a man of mystery and you don’t look much like a serial killer, so I ask again—how about some dinner” (43)? This may result from Lovett’s history of writing children’s plays, wherein details need to be obvious. For example, when Peter is hunting for the identity of a woman in the watercolor painting, Liz asks him the point of knowing, Lovett writes:

“Peter pondered the question for a moment. It was one he had been careful not to ask himself so far—it was easier simply to be swept along by the mystery—but he knew Liz had gotten right to the heart of the matter. ‘I think it’s because I’ve been trying to say good-bye for so long,’ he said, picking his words carefully, ‘that I need this not to be her. I need to find out who it is so it won’t be her anymore. And then maybe she really will be gone’” (45).

Over time, readers will have realized this fact, but Lovett just presents it openly. He doesn’t know how to write realistic interactions. Most of the dialogue between characters seems to fit in romantic comedies or campy mysteries—things children would expect and understand.

Because meta-writing provides everything necessary, there is no depth to Lovett’s characters, including his protagonist. Peter has social anxiety disorder, which Lovett reiterates constantly, but he has no follow-through. Readers do not see little scenarios in Peter’s head before he goes out or meets someone new, he doesn’t devise ways to avoid close interactions. His anxiety is simply acknowledged as an excuse to be quiet and withdrawn. Lovett may describe Peter’s thoughts, but he doesn’t meander along Peter’s emotional concerns.

Additionally, Amanda’s mother is caring and understanding. Her father shows affection by clapping Peter on the back and talking about sports, but nothing else. No matter how emotional or tense a situation becomes, it is solved by a smile, hand holding, a kiss on the cheek, and a clap on the back. They serve as tropes and nothing more. Because readers cannot feel what Peter feels or connect with the secondary characters, it creates distance and makes it hard to care about what happens to them. In fact, readers may care more about the Pandosto’s journey through history.

However, once they get past the incomplete characterization and dialogue, they will recognize the novel’s key conflict: a longstanding controversy surrounding the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works. Although Lovett doesn’t necessarily offer a personal stance in the Stratfordian/Oxfordian controversy—which states that Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlow, or Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s works—he does provide a “what if?” scenario. What if a document surfaced that conclusively proved the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare’s authenticity? How might such a discovery occur, and what is the procedure to validate originality? Lovett does attempt to be objective by volleying between originality and forgery, hope and defeat, but ultimately he picks a side.

Readers may have a tougher time picking a side regarding this book. Each positive aspect is counteracted by faulty craft. The result is ignoring the dialogue and mystery in favor of the mastery—the book restoration and controversy. Without that, it’s just another romantic suspense story with a dash of nerdiness.

Charlie Lovett is a writer, a teacher, and a playwright. His plays for children have been seen in over three thousand productions worldwide. He served for more than a decade as Writer-in-Residence at Summit School in Winston-Salem, NC. He is a former antiquarian bookseller, and has collected rare books and other materials related to Lewis Carroll for more than twenty-five years. He and his wife split their time between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Kingham, Oxfordshire.

Book Review: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

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The Other Typist
by Suzanne Rindell
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2013

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

Unreliable narrators cause readers to question their own methods of perceptions, particularly when recognizing logical cause and effect. As if to prove this, in Suzanne Rindell’s debut novel, The Other Typist, she takes a character with untapped potential for mental instability and places her in a unique and extreme situation. The book is fascinating, sensual, and sensational. It takes a prudish, conceited, and hypocritical nobody and plunges her into the chaotic world of speakeasies and bootlegged liquor—in the middle of a downtown New York City police precinct.

Rose is drab and predictable. She begins the story in 1923 as a New York City precinct’s typist who lives in a boarding house with other young women. She is intellectual but not social and often silently derides her roommate’s actions as silly, rehearsed, and selfish. As far as readers know, Rose was raised in an orphanage. Because of this, she follows rules, schedules, manners, and etiquette to the letter. Through Rose, Rindell writes:

“In the absence of flesh-and-blood equivalents, over the years I’ve taken a series of rules to serve as my mother, my father, my siblings, even my lovers…. Rules kept me safe. In keeping the rules dear to me, I could always be certain the nuns would clothe and feed me, the typing school would place in me in a job, and the precinct would employ me…. The thing about rules is that when you break one, it is only a matter of time before you break more, and the severe architecture that once protected you is destined to come crashing down about your ears.”

That governing foundation crumbles when Odalie appears. If this name makes readers whistle “Oodalalee” from Disney’s Robin Hood or “Vol der ee, vol der rah” from a post-World War II German song “The Happy Wanderer,” it isn’t a coincidence. Even Rindell writes through Rose’s perspective, “…the name of that latter individual play[ed] musically in my head, tripping along to the pace of my own steps like a child’s song: Oh-dah-lee, Oh-dah-lee, Oh-dah-lee…

On the first day Odalie is in the precinct, she drops a jeweled broach, which Rose claims to have been a purposeful act to catch her attention and pull her into Odalie’s persuasive schemes. As the story continues, Rose becomes obsessed with the enchanting new girl whom everyone adores. Eventually, the two become friends and Rose moves into Odalie’s extravagant hotel room. Odalie then takes Rose on a late-night adventure to a wig shop, where a secret door opens to invite them into the glitzy, dazzling world of speakeasies. Rindell, during her acknowledgements, claims that she drew inspiration of this era from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and it is here readers first see similarities between the two stories: a quiet neighbor commingles with a mysterious personage who follows a grand but ultimately unstable lifestyle.

Astute readers will also recognize that the writing bears a strong resemblance to a legal confession, as if Rose were typing her own story for the court to read. Rindell reveals the truth in teasing snippets: “I can only say I did it for the love of her, though the doctor I am seeing now hardly accepts that answer. Of course, ever since the incident, the newspapers have painted Odalie as the victim…but of course, if I am to tell it all in order, as I keep promising to do, there are other things I must tell first,” and “I’ve already mentioned my doctor’s encouragement that I explain my actions with an emphasis on chronology.” It is only after a devastating climax that readers are finally given the full account of events.

Here, then, is a second similarity to The Great Gatsby: the overall arc of the plot, but with a twist. Rose doesn’t just represent neighborly Nick Carraway from Gatsby; she represents Jay Gatsby as well because she adopts his glamorous but questionable lifestyle. Readers watch, helpless, as Rose is taken along a dubious but extravagant ride with many events that make her suspect her own safety and Odalie’s authenticity. But she remains faithfully by Odalie’s side and learns from her until Rose’s life and memories are turned upside down. Through Rose, Rindell writes, “The advantage of hindsight, of course, is that one finally sees the sequence of things, the little turning points that add up to a final resultant direction.”

The novel’s first-person narration locks readers in Rose’s mind and personality. Toward the final chapters, when her world no longer makes sense, the readers’ perceptions also become suspect. Up until that point, they agreed with each of her experiences. Her progression and attempts to understand are both well-paced and fascinating. Readers will not only want to know what happened to her, but how she went from a quiet, stuffy prude to a committed woman. And like a bad batch of absinthe or bathtub gin, they may not emerge unchanged from the blinding and disorienting story.

Suzanne Rindell is a doctoral student in American modernist literature at Rice University. She lives in New York City and is currently working on a second novel.

Book Review: The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

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The Cleaner of Chartres
by Salley Vickers
The Viking Press, 2013
Hardcover: $26.95

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

Everyone has a story. For The Cleaner of Chartres, Salley Vickers chose the one belonging to a quiet cleaner in Notre Dame, the famous cathedral in Chartres, France. Vickers’s problem with this choice, however, is the style with which she began the tale.

The use of a prologue has become such a stigma in contemporary literature that authors have resorted to explaining setting and history in the first chapter. In The Cleaner of Chartres, readers are greeted with the history of Notre Dame’s fires and descriptions of the main character’s obscurity instead of an intriguing opening line. Because of this, the first chapter is dry and factual, and readers may not become interested until the second chapter—one that should have started the whole book with the words “Agnes Morel was born neither Agnes nor Morel” (9).

The novel follows Agnes both as a teenager and an adult while she struggles to find a quiet place in life. Fate seems to conspire against her, and half the time she simply waits until it’s safe to move again. Readers meet Agnes as an adult who is appointed as the official cleaner for Notre Dame and various townsfolk. Readers are then introduced to baby Agnes, who is found in a basket by a farmer and brought to a convent. From there, teenager Agnes is raped, accused of being a whore, and shipped off to a psychiatric ward when her baby is adopted and she falls into severe postpartum depression, catatonia, and psychosis. The rest of the book is a juxtaposition of the crazed teenager and the somber, isolated cleaner; it weaves two timelines together until readers have a complete understanding of this unfortunate woman.

Compared with Agnes’s childhood, middle chapters in present-setting Chartres are dull. Agnes is often in the background of events and only becomes pivotal when she is falsely accused of a couple of crimes. Otherwise, she never stands up for herself. During her whole life, she allows others to dictate where she should live, what to think, and how to act. She perseveres with almost profound insight about others and abstract concepts, but she relies on truth and friends to save her. It is hard to care for a weak character; pity and morbid fascination should not be the only driving factors of a story.

Vickers’s fixation on the wrong elements extends further to backstory and architectural facts, so much so that the main plot is buried underneath a massive amount of unnecessary detail. For example, early in the novel, Professor Jones hires Agnes to organize his notes and photographs. He then inspects her work and gleefully relives memories, even in his dreams. Vickers writes,

“Professor Jones had dropped into a morning doze. He was five years old again, sitting beneath the keys of an upright piano at his mother’s feet, as she sang in the Welsh tongue that had long since left his waking mind. If he sat there long enough she would scoop him up in her soft white arms and carry him to bed. Nestling against his mother’s warm bosom – made slightly uncomfortable by the spikes of Sunday brooches of jet, bought during her parents’ honeymoon at Whitby – Professor Jones on his bench sighed in a peaceful contentment that he was unlikely to ever know again” (16).

Readers don’t need to know where Jones’s mother got the brooch or that it existed. In fact, the whole passage could be condensed into a few sentences about a mother singing a Welsh song to her son before bedtime. Short, endearing, and just as efficient as all the tiny details above. But with Professor Jones in particular, some of Vickers’s passages read like a free writing experiment, as if she donned memories and rambled just to see what emerged. Instead of determining what she could keep to provide depth to characterization, she kept it all, including breaks in speech patterns. She is adept at showing personality through dialogue, certainly, but the detail becomes cumbersome.

This detail is key to the whole story, though. It constructs the very thing that the novel presents as vile: gossip. Old biddies, Madams Beck and Picot, fill their days with speculation, prejudice, and judgment, and whispers and misconceptions surround Agnes. The narrator gives every possible piece of information—no matter how innocuous—about everyone in Agnes’s world just to appear “in the know” like certain characters. The result is a book that reads as if it is one long gossip session.

Luckily, Vickers occasionally inserts gems of description to counter an overabundance of detail. For example, when Agnes is marveling the cathedral’s ceiling, Vickers writes,

“The tremendous height of the ceilings, the noble lofty columns – like lichen-covered trees – the succession of roaring arches, affected her profoundly and the jeweled brilliance of the stained glass, re-created in the ephemeral butterflies of light which played over the grey stone, lifted and brightened her darker thoughts” (56).

Most people can imagine the splays of color along gray stone walls of ancient churches. It’s part of their lure. This visual talent, as well as speculation about Agnes—both her past and the resolution of her troubles—will pull readers to the last page. But it is a tough journey. Perhaps if Vickers chose to reorder her chapters, she might hold readers’ attentions better—hook them into Agnes’s childhood from the start and make them curious… instead of rambling about the church and secondary characters.

But, hidden much like the plot, The Cleaner of Chartres answers a question that most people have asked at least once: If I disappeared, would anyone notice or come find me? This reveals another gem in the book; The Cleaner of Chartres isn’t just about stories, self-worth, and truth… it’s about how one person can affect the lives of many, and the discovery and selection of family.


Salley Vickers was born in Liverpool, the home of her mother and grew up as the child of parents in the British Communist Party. Her father was a trade union leader and her mother a social worker. She won a state scholarship to St Paul’s Girl’s School (something which caused her father some anxiety because of his dislike of public schools and for a while he felt that she should not attend the school) and went on to read English at Newnham College Cambridge, with which she recently renewed working ties. She has worked, variously, as a cleaner, a dancer, an artist’s model, a teacher of children with special needs, a university teacher of literature and a psychoanalyst. Her first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, became an international word-of-mouth bestseller and a favourite among book clubs and reading groups. She now writes full time and lectures widely on many subjects, particularly the connections between, art, literature, psychology and religion.

Book Review: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

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Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
by Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martins’ Press, 2013
Hardback: $25.99

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

The Golden Couple of the Roaring ’20s was actually tarnished pyrite. This is revealed in Therese Anne Fowler’s recent novel, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Its overall message seems to be that reputations lie; it shatters any incomplete preconceptions of Zelda and Scott, leaving readers wondering what is fact and what is rumor. As Fowler writes from Zelda’s perspective,

“I was a Sayer, after all; a woman, yes, but still a Sayer; my life was intended to mean something beyond daughter-wife-mother. Wasn’t it?

“Oh, just let it go, a different voice urged me. What difference could your puny achievements possibly make?

“All the difference, the other voice answered.

“Which of my many possible lives did I want to define me? Which one could I have?

“And the question that troubled me most: Was it even really up to me?” (308)

Before readers delve into the story, they may skip to the last pages—not to learn how and when it ends in Zelda’s life, but how much of the novel is fact or fiction. Fowler’s repeated disclaimers that Z is a work of fiction based off an investigation of contracting facts, beliefs, and gossip is reassuring. The question, “Did this really happen?” may still exist in readers’ minds, but they can be assuaged by Fowler’s attempts to be as faithful to Zelda’s reality as possible.

The novel follows Zelda Sayer’s life after she meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, and finishes soon after Scott dies. Readers are easily swept up in the glitzy and glamorous era of New York and Paris in the 1920s, and the soothing beauty of the timeless Mediterranean. The couple flits between parties, hangovers, and writing sprees in a whirlwind of activity and promises. However, Fowler does not dwell on Scott and Zelda’s moments of destitution. Readers are never sure how Scott and Zelda are able to survive—where they get their money when he’s not writing, how much they have to borrow, or whose kindness they request; they just seem to get by. And according to Fowler, even Zelda was in the dark about financial circumstances.

Plot holes aside, the novel uses solid descriptions and voices. Readers could easily envision Zelda’s hometown, the glittering parties, and the sweeping landscapes of New York and southern France. And in the beginning, Zelda’s enthusiastic southern belle mentality radiates from her narration and dialogue. But as the story progresses, the structural twang in her narration slowly disappears. Perhaps as the story progresses, she is assimilating northern American and French cultures and leaving the South behind.

Largely, Zelda’s growth is due to Scott, and her transition from maiden into worldly woman is gradual and believable. Readers witness Zelda’s growth through her own eyes, as well as Scott’s dismaying spiral into paranoia and alcoholism. There is something voyeuristic about living a renowned writer’s life through his wife’s eyes. Through Zelda, Fowler reveals more of an unbiased representation of the writing life than if she had undertaken the task from Scott’s perspective. So many writers are neurotic, self-deprecating, and overly critical about their work, and it seems F. Scott Fitzgerald was no different. This novel is as much about him as it is Zelda, and writing about him from a woman’s perspective might have been easier for Fowler. The double layer of writers’ mentalities might have driven Fowler mad, but Zelda’s madness was a challenging and welcome plaything.

For most of the book, Zelda’s famed craziness is nonexistent. Her physical and medical problems coupled with marital strains make her behavior erratic, but insanity seems to be nothing but a vengeful rumor… until part four. Fowler’s Zelda is a misunderstood and captured woman struggling with her own independence during a riveting but stifling age when a woman’s role was wife, mother, and homemaker. Scott’s insecurities and unstable senses of responsibility drive her first to infidelity and—after his desperate attempts to make her adhere to a woman’s “proper” role—a physical and mental breaking point. In the story, the doctors call schizophrenia a “divided mind,” which is what Zelda is pushed toward: a divide between who she is and who Scott tries to make her be. (Doctors have since reevaluated her condition and diagnosed her as bi-polar.) Fowler writes,

“I was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realize myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it. He wanted to control everything, to have it all turn out the way he’d once envisioned it would, the way he’d seen it when he’d first gone off to New York City and was going to find good work and send for me. He wanted his adoring flapper, his Jazz Age muse. He wanted to recapture the past that had never existed in the first place. He’d spent his life building what he’d seen as an impressive tower of stone and brick, and woken up to find it was only a little house of cards, sent tumbling now by the wind.” (346)

But Fowler does more than explore the causes of Zelda’s insanity. She presents Zelda’s story and fragile state so realistically that readers will easily sympathize with her shifting emotions and rationality. This is one of Fowler’s main accomplishments: She made madness become rational. Another accomplishment: She reveals a person underneath the mask of legend.

Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
by Anthony Marra
Hogarth, 2013

Review by Nicole Bartley

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is depressing darkness filled with war-torn horrors and punctuated by bright moments of fragile tenderness. Individual points of light converge to create a story—to convey connected lives. To view a constellation is to see each star’s past during the present. So, too, is it with Anthony Marra’s characters—each one composes a story that spans generations.

The story follows a group of neighbors in a modern Chechyan village. The current government abducts a father, Dokka, who manages to hide his young daughter, Havaa, before their house burns. A neighbor and friend, Akhmed, finds her in the woods and shelters her first in his house and then in a nearby hospital, where he convinces the chief, Sonja (pronounced Sohn-yah), to not only provide him with a job but also protect the girl without him. What follows is five days of memories, secrets, and a constant debate between life and death.

Marra’s writing is beautiful and filled with lyrical phrases, intricate details, and crisp narration that hook into readers and keep them wondering until the last page. It is also harsh, horrific, and unrelenting in its depictions of a stark war-torn village that immediately settles readers into a fear-filled landscape. Despite this, Marra pays close attention to intimate, delicate additions and profound descriptions. He is adept at switching the direction of analogies, especially when fixated upon light; his best and most poetic lines contain light. For example, instead of a house disappearing into ash or smoke or being razed to the ground, “[Akhmed] watched the house he had helped build disappear into light” (6). Marra writes,

…a few hours of flames had lifted what had taken [Akhmed] months to design, weeks to carry, days to build, all but the nails and rivets, all but the hinges and bolts, all into the sky… There were these things and the flames ate these things, and since fire doesn’t distinguish between the word of God and the word of the Soviet Communications Registry Bureau, both Qur’an and telephone dictionary returned to His mouth in the same inhalation of smoke. (4)

Perhaps this use of light is a counterbalance to an otherwise dark story and setting. Marra mentions moonlight that lies as a flimsy bed sheet, and a cigarette lighter’s droplet of flame. Put poetry in light, and anything can seem bearable: daily gradual starvation, the occasional bombing raids and shootings, an informant providing names of innocent people just to fulfill a grudge, the daily possibility of someone triggering a landmine, the constant fear, and the absence of innocence from childhood. He writes:

As children Sonja and Natasha played hide-and-seek in the dust-thick catacombs of the apartment cellar. Light streamed through the high windows in long diagonals. On the floor, each semicircle was a pool of lava, and light-caught dust motes were the remains of children who had stumbled into those incandescent rays. (187)

However, the strong writing seems to dissipate as the story progresses, and the amount of shining phrases diminish with each chapter. It is as if Marra used the first chapter to dazzle readers, who will then continue to read to discover what’s happening and why.

Marra also has particular aptitude for weaving time. In the book, readers learn about Chechnya’s militaristic history as well as the characters’ personal experiences during the span of five days. The book is separated into “day” sections, and chapters contain events specific to a designated year. But they also contain references to past and future years and scenes—circumstances that readers have already and will eventually encounter. All Chechen life is happening “now;” time within time within time.

To follow these temporal jumps, Marra utilizes both tight third-person limited and omniscient narration. He follows a handful of characters, but eventually wanders to different people’s perspectives in order to provide an added bit of information, just for the readers’ sakes. It is as if Marra inserted commentary, wherein the narrator steps in to break the fourth wall and tell readers information that may not, in the end, be pertinent to the story. Most of the information jumps occur in chapters set in the past, as if they are explored more like memories. This is one of the few inconsistencies in the book, when the author’s desire to inform readers interrupts characterization and realistic possibility. For example, he follows a character, Khassan, who encounters a young, scared soldier who saves him and asks him to post a letter to the soldier’s grandparents. Marra writes:

‘You must survive,’ the blond-haired conscript said. ‘You must survive and tell my grandparents. Tell them their grandson is not like the other soldiers. Tell them that they raised him well, that he is trying so hard to stay the boy they raised.’ Khassan would write a letter to the conscript’s grandparents, but without access to a functional postal system, it would remain in his drawer for seventeen months, until the autumn morning when a Russian woman knocked on his door, asking if he had seen her son…. Khassan wouldn’t be able to help her, but he would ask her to post his letter from Russia. He wouldn’t know that in Novosibirsk the grandparents of the blond-haired conscript would receive his letter eight days after they received word of their grandson’s death and would read it is a eulogy at his funeral. (144-145)

Readers don’t need to know this information, except for a little reassurance that not all soldiers and rebels are heartless murderers and thieves, and that even in midst of danger, some people actually are inherently good. But occasional peeks into the future like this one seem out of place during consistent third-person limited narration. They appear more as confusing slips in craft that may leave readers wondering, “Wait, what was that? He could s/he know that? Why is this important?”

Marra often references the future beyond ten years—a future when people have paying jobs, don’t live in fear, and can work toward rebuilding a community by following dreams. But judging by the novel’s timeline, ten years is now. Is Chechnya rebuilt as promising as Marra writes? Are all the novel’s horrors behind that country? Time will tell whether this novel will be referenced in English classes or assigned as suggested reading for history courses, and whether history repeats itself, thus making this story relevant in any era. But one thing’s certain: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena will leave readers aware of the outside world, and thankful for what they have.

Anthony Marra is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, with an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’s won a Pushcart Prize, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Prairie Lights Fiction Prize and first place in the Atlantic’s emerging writers’ contest and in Narrative’s short story contest.

Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce
Random House, 2012

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

When he woke up, retired 65-year-old Harold Fry probably didn’t know that he would be the man who would walk 500 miles to see a dying friend. Yet that is exactly what happens in Rachel Joyce’s national bestseller, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Although there is nothing spectacular or riveting about this story, it piques readers’ curiosities.

It begins when Harold and his wife Maureen’s lives are drastically altered after they receive a letter from Queenie, a former co-worker who is dying of cancer. Harold steps out to mail a brief response, unsure of how to express everything that remained unsaid between them. He eventually believes that if he walks the 500 miles up England to see her before she dies, she will wait just long enough. The extra challenge is that Harold travels with only the clothes on his back and a pair of yachting shoes. As he puts one foot in front of the other, readers will find themselves walking with him—comparing his life to theirs and wondering if they, too, could do what he has undertaken.

In an interview at the back of the book, Joyce states, “I tend to write about small, ordinary people who find themselves at an extraordinary point in their lives, equipped with only small, everyday words” (332). Although she never stops reminding readers that Harold is an ordinary man in an extraordinary position, she uses his small, everyday words to showcase flaws and limited knowledge, which is complemented by self-deprecating memories. After a while, Harold realizes that he’s walking not only to keep Queenie alive, but also to atone for his sins. Joyce writes:

“Why must he remember? He hunched his shoulders and drove his feet harder, as if he wasn’t so much walking to Queenie as away from himself” (70).

His journey is particularly haunting because, for a long time, he only has the road and his thoughts. As he meets new people, readers witness how thoroughly each person shapes his view of the world and grafts pieces of them into his being. Joyce writes:

“He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went” (90).

England represents one of Harold’s dominant encounters. It plays such a prominent role in the story that place itself becomes a character. Harold has been detached from the world for most of his life and is suddenly thrust into it. Despite his solitude throughout the journey, he finds a companion in nature and begins to prefer it to people. Through his close observations of England’s landscape, weather, and vegetation, Harold develops almost profound wisdom. In addition, natural occurrences remind him of events in his life just as often as people do. Joyce writes:

“It surprised him that he was remembering all this. Maybe it was the walking. Maybe you saw even more than the land when you got out of the car and used your feet” (43).

In this way, Joyce is teaching readers to explore their environments. She is commenting on the amount of knowledge that one can gain from a simple walk, and that nature can provide exactly what readers may be missing in their lives.

The journey changes when the media becomes involved and transforms a simple walk into a star-crossed love story with Queenie—“a perfect love story.” And yet, his walk is all about love: for his wife, his son, and for his friend. The difference between the love is the form: romantic, paternal, and platonic. Despite the media being portrayed in a corruptive light with a touch of group think, it may have had the story right this time—it just concentrated on the wrong form of love.

As the story repeatedly references the distance Harold needs to walk, readers may find themselves constantly humming “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers. The song’s comparison becomes particularly poignant because “you” could mean alternately Queenie and Maureen. Despite no romantic affair occurring, readers can be certain that Harold loved Queenie in his own bumbling and quiet way that never touched his consuming love for Maureen and their son, David.

In the end, when the readers think they know everything, Joyce punches them in the heart. She finally resolves a piece of dramatic irony that was the catalyst of the whole story. This information surprises the characters, and readers are left saying, “Well, duh.” But then Joyce unveils the heartbreaking ace up her sleeve, the piece of information that readers never see coming. It lifts a rosy lens from the readers’ perspectives and reveals a taint on every memory and piece of dialogue about just one character. The information sweeps back and changes the entire story, leaving readers shocked, dismayed, and sympathetic.

This is the type of book that, upon finishing, will make readers set it down and ponder in silence for awhile. Readers may find that the story crept up like the tide, swept over them, and tugged them out to sea. And they can either go with the current, or surface and forget the book’s lessons. It’s just a book, after all. A simple thing anyone can pick up. Much like walking.

Book Review: The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood is a quiet exploration of womanhood within the confines of damaged relationships. Readers are rocked between eras as they learn about love and grief throughout the novel’s parallel plotlines, which interchange between chapters.

In 1919, Vivien is a “spinster” mistress who believes that her married lover, David, suffered from amnesia after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She is unable to move on until she uncovers his fate, which colors every decision in her life. She uses her grief to fuel her unconventional obituary writing that is renowned for “her gift for bringing the dead to life.”

In 1961, Claire is a dutiful housewife who realizes that her routine-based marriage is stagnant and unfulfilling; that she’s falling out of love with her husband, Peter; and that she is attracted to one of her married neighbors. She cheats on her husband, learns that she’s pregnant, and spends the rest of the book trying to make amends while being obsessed about Jackie Kennedy and the impending Presidential inauguration.

But the story is more about loss than cheating women. Without integrating Kübler-Ross’s five stages, Hood explores what should be said and done to help the bereaved and while grieving. Hood’s writing is honest and blunt. For example, she splatters descriptions of grief’s effects throughout the story.

Grief makes people guilty. Guilty for being five minutes late, for taking the wrong streetcar, for ignoring a cough or sleeping too soundly. Guilt and grief went hand in hand (32).

Grief paralyzed you…. It prevented you from getting out of bed, from moving at all. It prevented you from even taking a few steps forward (101).

The grief-stricken want to hear the names of those they’ve lost. To not say the name out loud denies that person’s existence. People seeking to comfort mourners often err this way. They lower their eyes at the sound of the dead’s name. They refuse to utter it themselves (103).

To fight off these side-effects, the novel mentions the concept of comfort food, be it the dinner parties Claire attends or Vivien’s use of tea, water, wine, broth, toast, cheese and crackers, cookies, or fruit. Vivien also believes that the proper way to show support to loved ones is to maintain their household for them instead of asking to help.

Hood is also masterful at nestling readers inside each woman’s mind in order to experience other characters through emotional lenses. She doesn’t allow readers to make their own decisions about the lovers and husbands; they hate as the women hate, love as they love, and fear for each fleeting encounter. Hood also adeptly represents various aspects of womanhood: being a mother, an aunt-type figure, a wife, a cheating wife, a mistress, a best friend, and a daughter.

In addition, Vivien and Claire are excellent foils for each other—both “other women” but for different reasons with different lifestyles. Vivien is strong and financially independent; she had a secure life alone before and after David with no social stress to get married. Claire is uncertain, weak, and apologetic; her life is tied to her family, partially due to society’s condemnation of wayward women. The main similarity between the two women is their emotional insecurity, both over the loss of a lover.

Although Hood displays excellent research of the separate eras—such as habits, specific brand items, and culture—the women seem to clash with the time-frames’ expectations. Vivien in 1919 seems to have more freedom without consequences than Claire in 1961. But what changed between the freedom of the Roaring ’20s and the dependency of the ’60s? It’s doubtful that Vivien realistically has that much freedom coming out of the Victorian era. And Claire lives in a society past 1940 and WWII when women became more involved with society and industry. Did society backtrack so much in 20 years? Culture is about to shift into an era of sexual freedom and equality, yet Claire is embarrassed from having an orgasm with her husband. Hood tries to explain this with a lengthy rundown of lessons Claire learned from her mother.

Claire came from a generation of women who did not question things. A generation raised by women who didn’t question. Before her mother died… she’d taught Claire the things she believed a woman needed to know: always wear a hat to keep the sun off your face so you don’t get wrinkles; moisturize every day; never to go bed with your makeup on; … a man likes soft hands; always get up before your husband so you can do your own morning routine in private, make yourself look pretty, and have his breakfast ready when he wakes up; keep up on current events; agree with your husband’s opinion, even if you think he’s a horse’s ass for believing that; … know how to sew a hem, darn a sock, replace a button—those skills will make you indispensable; … never refuse your husband’s sexual desires; … and Claire, honey, love goes out the window when there’s no money (181).

The list deftly illustrates the position that women were in during the early ’60s: they existed to look pretty for men, cook for men, and live for and submit to their men. Without question. Claire’s marital problems occur because she begins to ask questions and make no exceptions for her husband’s flaws. Only her guilt makes her silently acquiesce to him by way of apology instead of leaving.

Although these women are foils living in different eras, their connection is revealed toward the end of the story, which provides an intriguing moment of bonding and recognition. It also makes readers satisfied after encountering subtle hints and dramatic irony. As one story ends and another begins a new stage, the closure between the characters and the readers is complete—all questions are answered after a gentle goodbye, and Hood ends the novel there.

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker
HarperCollins, 2013

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

In the beginning, a sickly Jewish man breathes an incantation on a ship destined for New York City, and his golem wakes. And he saw that the creation was good. Then he dies and severs the master-servant connection with the golem, leaving her open to the wishes and emotions of everyone. At the same time, deep within New York City, a tinsmith undoes scrollwork on a copper flask and releases a 1,000-year-old jinni. He has no memory of his capture—only hatred for the wizard who clapped the iron cuff around his wrist and stuffed him into the flask. Stuck there in 1899, the two beings must learn how to survive, discover a new purpose, identify a sense of self, and maintain secrecy concerning their supernatural abilities.

Thus, the stage is set for Helen Wecker’s beautiful debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni. She tackles the question of what a conversation would sound like between two entities bound to servitude. When the two finally cross paths, each tries to understand—but clashes with—the other’s perspective. Wecker put extensive thought into Chava and Ahmad’s characterization and history. Each one gradually develops a sense of humanity. Readers are proud of Chava’s minor successes of passing as human, and her fascinating discovery and understanding of her own unnatural nature. But Ahmad must act human and, try as he might to remain separate, humanity slips into his subconscious actions. Wecker always informs readers when this occurs.

“He leaned on the railing, propping his chin in his hand; [Chava] wondered if he knew how human he looked” (267).

“The Jinni let out a hollow laugh. Then he leaned forward and put his head in his hands. It was a startlingly human gesture, full of weakness” (316).

Compared with the conceited confidence of a jinni, human gestures seem to show weakness or doubt. Ahmad hates to fail, but Chava seems content to adopt flaws. For example, when she begins working at a bakery, she realizes that her movements are too quick and precise.

“…The Golem wasn’t nearly so certain of herself as she appeared. Passing as human was a constant strain. After only a few weeks she looked back on that first day, when she’d worked six hours without stopping, and wondered how she could have been so careless, so naïve. It was all too easy for her to be caught up in the rhythm of the bakery, the thumps of fists on dough and the ringing of the bell over the door. Too easy to match it, and let it run away with her. She learned to make a deliberate mistake once in a while, and space the pastries a bit more haphazardly” (122).

This passage shows how desperately Chava wants to find a normal place in life, but Ahmad doesn’t share this desire and is generally apathetic. Chava tries to embrace responsibilities and relationships, but Ahmad prefers to remain isolated from humans. They are lower beings to him, stuck in one form and incomprehensible. To Chava, they hold the key to her survival and destruction. And throughout this main plot, Wecker reveals that Ahmad was not without his flaws as a full jinni—he just wasn’t aware of them. The overall story seems to suggest that humanity is all about flaws, and to embrace them.

The Golem and the Jinni is reminiscent of Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book; it has a similar gradual unfolding of characterization, plot, and pacing, as well as an unprejudiced approach to religions. Some readers may think Wecker’s novel is too slow, but the story is steady and realistic, and includes various religions with an unbiased—if fantastic—view. Wecker skillfully incorporates Judaism, Christianity, Russian Orthodox, and Atheism beliefs and superstitions without conflict. The Golem and the Jinni’s existences are also well integrated. They are not attached to particular beliefs, despite the golem being created in a Jewish society. The only other servant creature Wecker could introduce would be an angel, and that one just appears as a statue. She hints that all religions are true, and to include an actual angel would claim that that only Christianity is true. The exclusion not only equalizes beliefs in the book, but also maintains the story’s logical consistency.

There are minor problems in the novel. Wecker effortlessly switches between characters’ perspectives without relying on many section breaks in narration. However, no character has a clear voice compared with each other or the narration; they are distinct by their emotions and habits only. Wecker also doesn’t designate chapters for either Chava’s world or Ahmad’s. Most of the time, plotlines and characters switch between chapters. But sometimes, chapters include both story arcs that also leap between eras. Readers become comfortable with the even switching between plots, and may pause to gain their bearings when Chava is mentioned in Ahmad’s chapter and vice versa.

Overall, Wecker’s language is mature and almost lyrical. When she describes a crescent moon as “…a rind of moon…,” readers can easily envision a thin and discolored curve in the sky. This same language pulls readers deep into each character’s emotions and lives: Ahmad’s boredom and frustration, Chava’s fear and anxiety, and the other characters’ consternation, curiosity, affection, and gratitude. When the story ends, readers will emerge from the thick Hudson River to breathe in a clear, single life again and almost miss the voices.


Book Review: Scent of Darkness

Scent of Darkness by Margot Berwin
Pantheon Books, 2013
Review by Nicole Bartley

The Scent of Darkness by Margot Berwin dabs a touch of exotic into the readers’ lives but, in the end, is just a cheap perfume. It explores glamorous, romantic dreams that many women have—dreams that those same women would not want to experience in real life.

The main character, Eva, discovers a small bottle of perfume that her recently deceased grandmother left as a gift. With it is a written warning: “Don’t remove the crystal stopper, Evangeline, unless you want everything in your life to change.” Of course, she puts on this otherworldly perfume of jasmine, rose, leather, fire, and the mysterious scent of darkness, all of which infuses with her body and becomes her natural musk. No creature can resist her intoxicating aroma, and her life is soon jeopardized by aggressive men, pampering women, and crazed dogs.

This is when romantic fantasies become apparent. Because of this new scent, a plain girl from upstate New York gains the attraction of her handsome crush, Gabriel, and moves to exotic New Orleans where her life is consumed with paranormal customs and dangerous love affairs. While there, she meets Gabriel’s painter friend, Michael, who is also inescapably attracted to her. He is greedy and disingenuous, and sets out to ruin Eva’s relationship with nice but misguided Gabriel.

The quality of narration and characterization volleys between fantastic and disappointing. The character progression is intriguing because each character is initially perceived as amazing, but then loses his or her glamour and is eventually cast away. Eva’s mother, grandmother, and various waitresses have distinct voices that portray regional personalities, but other main characters sound just like the narrator. Eva’s narration reads as if she were writing her own story in disjointed memories, but she’s delusional because she believes that her grandmother gave her Gabriel from beyond the grave. She also disregards the fact that Gabriel cheated on and left his girlfriend for her. She justifies this by believing that he chose to be with her because he was meant to, and the scent just made that possible.

The first quarter of the book was unsatisfactory. Seventy pages set up the rest of the novel, as if the story doesn’t actually begin until the main characters reach New Orleans. Berwin seems to be more comfortable writing about that setting, which the characters glide through more smoothly than in New York. But Gabriel is also a mere instrument to transport Eva to that city. Once he completes his task, he disappears into libraries to study and fully emerges only once during a moment of conflict. It’s as if everything was buildup for the real story: Eva’s interactions with Michael.

Even here, the level of intrigue isn’t as intense as the back summary suggests. Berwin doesn’t allow double meaning to exist. For example, on page 103, Michael and Evangeline are discussing whether she will sit for one of his paintings.

“‘…I want to capture a full body this time, not just the face, like I do in the park.’
“‘I don’t want to be captured by you.’
“He stood away from me and took both my hands in his.
“‘It’s just a figure of speech, Evangeline. All painters use it…’”

Instead of allowing readers to detect innuendo—capture her body, heart, and soul; keep her physically restrained; he’s lying, it’s not just a figure of speech in this case—Berwin overtly dispels any suspicion they may have. This removes dramatic irony, mystery, and tension.

Finally, the resolution is fake. Everything appears to be tied up in a pretty ribbon, but it’s loosely tied. Eva manages to satisfy Michael and keep him away, but his promises are empty and there is nothing stopping him from finding and demanding more from her. Also, Eva will always exude her supernatural scent. Despite returning home, she is still in an environment that she left predominately for her own safety. As her grandmother warned, her life is forever changed because of that scent, and Berwin almost makes readers forget that fact. When they remember, it results in a feeling of being cheated, as if Eva went through all of that for nothing.

To make matters worse, this book needed more thorough editing to spot redundancies, plot gaps, and continuity errors.


Book Review: The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson

The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson
Soho Press, 2012

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

Readers already know the ending of The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson when they begin the story. That’s what happens when it’s based off historical events, the back summary describes those events, and the prologue reveals too much. We know the main character poisons men in her village, gets caught, and survives—though she doesn’t know how she managed it all.

But that’s the whole point: She doesn’t know. The readers are tasked to figure it out. This book was never about what happens—it’s about how it happens and why. Instead of providing readers with a twist or surprise ending, Gregson takes them on a long journey.

Sari, the main character who was branded as a witch and is a social pariah, becomes engaged to her cousin Ferenc soon before her father dies. Within months after her father’s death, Ferenc and the rest of the village men are called off to fight in World War I. This results in the women letting their guards down and easing into comfortable friendships. When Italian POWs arrive, most of the villagers begin to conduct affairs. After the husbands return broken or more abusive, their women search for an escape. Sari discovers that her sweet fiancé has turned into a controlling, paranoid man. This sparks the village poisonings that go on for years. For a while, the other women view death as an easy fix to life’s problems until a botched murder attempt.

The story is faithful to historical events in Nagyrév, Hungary, between 1914 and 1929. The main midwife Julia turns into Judit, and Susi turns into Sari, Judit’s apprentice and the clerk who signs death certificates. The method of creating arsenic is the same, as are the detections and criminal investigation methods. Gregson researched the incidents well and incorporated all of them, weaving together possibilities with facts.

Despite deaths and legal ramifications, there is no grand climax, and there isn’t meant to be. Life is composed of defining moments of intense conflict and mundane actions, as if it follows rolling hills. So instead of a dramatic accusation, the final conflict is quiet and gradual, almost to the point of anticlimactic. However, this quality of authenticity is hindered by most of the characters lacking depth.

Perhaps Gregson’s characters couldn’t evolve during the writing process because she tried to adhere so closely to historical facts. Thus, most of the villagers represent shallow archetypes and are dull, predictable plot points. It’s hard to care about any of them. There is the battered wife who is quiet but has great personality when she’s left alone long enough; the wizened crone whom everyone else fears, but is really a pushover; the war-torn fiancé; the abusing husband; the kind and worldly older Italian lover; and the snobby village queen bee.

Of those, the strongest characters are Judit and Ferenc. Judit is crude, cynical, and indifferent toward the villagers, but also honest and affectionate toward Sari. They are kindred spirits because they are both outcasts and deal in herb lore. Judit emits an air of experience to the extent that she no longer cares about life. She is an aged bottle of wine turned to vinegar.

Ferenc is a well-rounded dynamic character. The gradual alterations in his personality are fantastic. He begins sweet and caring, if a little consumed by hormones. Readers will begin to believe that he’ll take good care of Sari after they’re married, and he’ll treat her well and appreciate everything about who she is. And finally, someone in life other than Judit will want her. However, readers’ faiths in him begin to falter when he imagines Sari’s likeness above the battlefield—apart, untainted. He becomes obsessed with his idea of her; she becomes his salvation and sense of control. His disappointment after returning to her reality contributes to his downfall. When he comes home, he’s mentally and emotionally broken. He’s suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and he’s paranoid. He begins to doubt Sari and control everything about their lives.

An excellent moment of foreshadowing occurs before he beats her. Sari knows that something is wrong. She recognizes Ferenc’s tightening control over her, his loosening grip on himself, and his absolute need for her. Gregson writes:

“They are engaged, they will marry, and then she will be his. She would be just the tonic he needs, to build up his strength, to make him brave enough to leave the house, to reclaim his life again. It’s different, everything is different now, but she’s still his. She is still his” (151).

It seems as if this realization should have been reason enough to leave. However, Sari makes excuses and tries to ignore the warning signs. In fact, readers will recognize danger in this passage but to Sari, it represents a balm of excuses to soothe her growing concerns.

Then he beats her. Savagely. And for petty reasons. After he’s done, his condescending words almost drip poison from the page. If any character in this book is meant to evoke emotion or malice from the readers, it could be him; it’s a mark of good writing when a character pisses off a reader. And Gregson’s technique of including Sari’s name in Ferenc’s dialogue—like speaking to an unruly but punished child—is particularly effective.

Sair, however, is just plain aggravating. Readers may be able to sympathize with her situation, but not with her. She is methodical and clever, but her emotions are flat and distant. Sari seems to observe her world and choose what to react to. She is supposed to be aloof; instead, she is stiff and predictable, as if she is always under the author’s control. Again, this may be from adhering to historical events. There is little substance that makes the readers feel sympathetic toward her. Readers may react more with “All right, let’s see what you do next,” instead of “I can’t wait to learn what happens!”

When the beatings begin, suddenly every aspect of womanhood roars into the story. Initially, Sari becomes annoying because of submitting and making excuses so easily. But when Ferenc endangers her child’s life, she becomes herself. The strength that the narration always talks about surfaces and readers finally see what Sari is capable of doing. But it ends there and she soon returns to her old self.

This is where the third-person point of view has failed Gregson. The prologue is intriguing and beguiling, albeit a bit too revealing, because it opens with first-person narration. But its style sets a false stage for the rest of the book. When chapter one begins, the point of view shifts to third person. Readers are sucked away from the main character to watch as bystanders. It doesn’t matter how much the narration describes Sari’s thoughts and emotions, the readers cannot feel much because of the distance. Due to this and the prologue’s reveal of Sari’s survival, readers cannot feel invested in her character. Thus when she loses “all the vital, vibrant parts of her” (180), it doesn’t seem as disheartening as it could have been.

If that was the only point of view shift, Gregson could have been forgiven. However, it happens constantly. It jumps between characters, as if the camera looks over their shoulders for a few paragraphs before returning to Sari. Mostly this happens with appropriate section breaks and isolated paragraphs. But sometimes the shifts occur for a sentence or two in the middle of a steady section. This spins readers around, and they either falter at the abrupt and momentary change or continue reading with a mild sense that something indeterminate tilted that world. It is hard to tell if this tactic is intentional or if it reveals a faulty craft.

Overall, the novel represents well the victim’s state of mind and the progression of abuse, but in the end the characters are bland and unsympathetic, and the prose style is flawed. The result, unfortunately, is a novel that fails to engage us.


Book Review: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

“The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles is an agonizing 10.5-hours-long piece of existentialist fiction. Most literature doesn’t evoke the rage in me that resulted from this book; I’d consider burning it if I hadn’t only listened to its audiobook.

According to the blurb, “Paul Bowles’s writing is so extraordinary, so special. The landscapes are magical, the characters are questioning so much–it’s haunting in a very beautiful way.” In addition, it is “a landmark of 20th century literature, a novel of existential despair that examines the limits of humanity when it touches the unfathomable emptiness of the desert.”

It’s also about detachment from the world and loved ones, and nihilistic tendencies that leave characters both empty and dumb. The story includes a love triangle within a faithless marriage, set in the vast expanses of North African deserts during post-WWII. There are culture clashes, international conflicts, and sickness. All that is fine, because it’s enough to make anyone ask, “Why the hell am I here?” and find a way to escape, which establishes a good story.

But, it belabored the existential theme to the point that I had to ask: “Why the hell am I listening to this?”

I’m all for existentialist fiction, but not when characters contemplate their existence only because the author seems to demand it, instead of developing existential crises on their own. Every character is selfish, naive, conceited, pompous, spoiled, and pretentious. I couldn’t care for or about any of them; nothing in their lives made me feel sympathetic toward them. The two men are unremarkable and unmemorable, but it’s the woman, Kit, who really pissed me off.

Through her actions, Bowles reveals that he knows nothing about wome. I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought women were all irrational, flighty, weak, stupid, and overly emotional. Kit gives women everywhere a bad reputation. She avoids her husband, Port, despite passionate proclamations of love; has sex with the family friend, Tunner, despite said proclamation that was made to him; and even locks Port in a room while he’s on his deathbed. Spoiler Alert! She leaves his corpse there to rot, locked in that room, for the authorities to find.

What woman does that? I can go only so far in rationalizing her actions. She’s in shock. Ok, fine. She’s in shock and wants nothing nearby that reminds her of a faithless, failing marriage and a body she doesn’t know how to properly dispose. So she runs. Stupid woman, who has a passport, runs into the desert instead of deciding to return home to the United States.

Kit is also a slut. She finds people to make decisions for her in exchange for sexual favors, so all she has to do is exist. She falls in love with every male that gives her attention. She even expects a strange man riding past on a white horse to save her as if he’s her Prince Charming. In fact, she lifts her arms to him, as if he were going to swoop down and carry her off somewhere grand just because she’s pretty. She goes as far as saying she loves a different man after just meeting and sleeping with him, despite having also just met his wife. When she leaves this married man, she is accepted into a random caravan and is raped. Repeatedly. By two men. But somehow that’s okay.

And that’s what pissed me off. She accepts rape from a stranger as an act of love. She makes feeble attempts to smack him away and then lies there and accepts it like he’s a long-lost lover. What woman does that? What woman thinks, “He’s not doing this for himself. Every motion he makes is for me alone; they’re loving touches.” What woman begins to consider her rapist with affection?

A woman fights. She kicks, punches, and claws her way out unless she has a weapon pointed at her, which Kit did not. Because as a woman in that situation, even if the rape occurs, even if you’re battered and broken, you can be sure that you fought through it. But not Kit! Oh no. She loves him the moment she believes that he’s caressing her. She loves him so fervently that when his companion mounts her, she just stares at the “accommodating” first rapist in confusion and reproach. As if that, alone, would make him repent.

And of course, the initial rape is swept aside in florid prose meant to make the reader pause to consider symbolic implications of every little detail. We are detached from the action, just like Kit is mentally and emotionally detached from everything. She’s raped, but during it, let’s wonder at the glory of the rising and falling sand dunes of the Sahara desert. Such a technique is like a camera panning over to fluttering curtains next to an open window during sex scenes, back when movies strove for propriety.

Afterwards, she becomes his sex slave, pines for other male residents in a household while being held captive, and doesn’t argue when she’s forced to marry her rapist. In fact, when she finally flees, she’s still married to him—though I’m sure that doesn’t prevent her from sleeping with other random men along the way.

The argument that events and decisions are pertinent only to this character’s personality is weak, specifically because her characterization is weak. I never acquired a full sense of who these people were. Although Kit’s actions were always a surprise, I never learned anything more about her, no added depth.

So yes, I hated this book. It only serves to perpetuate the prejudices against women–flighty, irrational, over-emotional sluts and bat-shit crazy dolts. Oh, and it’s okay to rape, because she’ll love you for it. No thank you, Paul Bowles. You can keep your despicable and deplorable characters and your mutually cheating real-life marriage; meanwhile, I’ll block this book from memory.


Book Review: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks
St. Martin’s Press, 2012

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks is the kind of book you recommend with a one-line explanation: It’s amazing.

This story absorbs readers so thoroughly that they won’t realize 50 pages have been read. It’s as if the reader is sitting at a table with the main character as he colors in a coloring book, inside the lines, and tells the story. It’s about an imaginary friend named Budo and the boy who imagined him, Max. At first, readers follow daily routines of school and their home life—subplots such as bullying troubles, Learning Center teachers, and family problems at home. Then Max is kidnapped by one of his teachers, and Budo must find a way to save him, even if it means relinquishing his own existence.

Budo is the perfect combination of a childlike mentality with a few bits of adult knowledge. His narration is repetitive and simple, with a basic knowledge of how the world works. Because Budo was not imagined as being stuck by Max’s side, he can wander away for extended periods of time and for indefinite distances. Max also imagined that Budo is smarter than he is. Because of this, Budo learns from catching glimpses of the adult world, and then uses his knowledge to help Max with his daily routines.

To Max, Budo is a complete, real person. Other imaginary friends are usually startled to learn that he’s one of them. And, he’s five years old, which is ancient by imaginary friends’ standards. Budo speculates that his age and nature are the result of Max being different from other children.

Max either has Asperger’s syndrome or he’s a high functioning autistic. Yet, no one ever mentions these words, including Budo. This is what makes the novel special. To Budo, Max is normal. His fascination with toy soldiers and video games—and his antisocial tendencies—are all regular, everyday attributes of an eight-year-old boy. In fact, the only times the reader encounters signs of autism are when Max becomes “stuck” or when Budo describes him. Yet any reader who doesn’t already know the signs might agree with Max’s father, noting only that Max is peculiar. This lack of concentration on autism itself presents Max as intelligent, clever and talented instead of automatically stunted. It helps to convey that Max is not defined by his autism.

Despite his apparent freedom, Budo is confined by the science of being an imaginary friend. They seem to exist on a separate plane, and only other imaginary friends and the children who “imagined” them can see them. Thus, Budo cannot communicate with other humans. Also, imaginary friends cannot affect their immediate surroundings, and how they interact with their environment depends on how they were imagined. They are governed by the “idea” of things. They walk an inch or so above the floor because it is the idea of the floor that they touch. Some imaginary friends can walk through windows and doors, but others are trapped by the idea of the window and door as an obstacle and can only get through them if they are opened. And, when a child no longer believes in his or her imaginary friend, that friend gradually fades from existence.

Dicks probably had a brainstorming session in order to determine an imaginary friend’s capabilities and to describe all of them, and then kept every idea. The details are extensive, incredibly unique and represent the wide range of childhood imagination. Some friends have no ears but can still hear, others are different colors, one is a flat paper outline of a person that coils and folds in order to move, and another is a bobblehead. One is even a small puppy that can talk. There are so many imaginary friends in the book that Dicks may have interviewed children to discover the appearances and details of their imaginary friends.

But the story isn’t just about the imaginary friends. It’s about what it takes to be a parent, and what it means to be a friend. Max’s mother tries to get his father to recognize that there’s a problem, though she never outright says what it is. His dad believes that Max is just a late bloomer, a normal kid who likes to be by himself. He believes that Max doesn’t need special teachers at the learning center or any sort of therapy. The mother seems frazzled but determined to make the best of their situation, while the father comes off as disinterested, stubborn, and in denial. This results in a dissonance at home, to the point that the reader might worry about a divorce. But when Max is taken, the parents rely on each other and do whatever it takes to get him back.

As for Budo, he realizes that while Max remains kidnapped, he will always believe that Budo exists. Budo is better off with Max this way, but he understands that Max is better off with his parents instead of a woman who thinks she knows better. Max will never grow up if he remains with his teacher, and Budo recognizes the problem with that. This culminates in a few scenes that are heartbreaking but necessary.

The book also illustrates the importance and the effect that one teacher can have on a student. In a way, it seems as if this novel is homage to the author’s teachers. It is possible that Dicks based the teachers off real people he knew while growing up, or people he knows now. In particular, Mrs. Gosk, who is Max’s favorite teacher, is revered by her students. Budo never stops talking about how great she is, to the point that sometimes she is too perfect. This is countered when Budo sees her away from the other students, where she is revealed to be flawed and emotional, but the tactic almost seems like a requirement to prevent her from being perfect.

Throughout the novel, Dicks represents childhood very well. He pulls his readers back into a child’s mind. He also panders to the inner child of his male readers. For example, there is at least one scene and multiple references to poop jokes. In the beginning, a bully tries to reach Max by crawling underneath a bathroom stall door while Max is inside. In order to escape, Max “accidentally” poops on his head, an event that establishes their relationship for the rest of the story. The event is also remembered fondly and with apprehension by Budo, who recognizes the act as a moment of growth and also a catalyst for future bullying.

Overall, Dicks makes us remember our childhood and the imaginary friends we loved or almost had. His story references the existential question of what it means to be real and alive. And at the end, when Budo is faced with his own mortality, we dredge up memories of past imaginary friends and, for a few brief moments, entertain the possibility that they were real. Then maybe, for those fleeting moments, our beloved or barely formed friends are alive again simply because we believe.


Book Review: Home

by Nicole Bartley

Toni Morrison’s novels are rarely quick reads, even the short ones take time to absorb. It’s not the pacing that slows the reader, but the fact that Morrison deserves time and thought. She always includes profound and sometimes unsettling themes within simple plots, and Home is no different.

It is a story about co-dependent siblings. Frank has always protected his younger sister, Ycidra (or Cee), who had been called “gutter child” since she was a baby because she was born while the family traveled. Frank enlists in the Korean War and Cee runs off to marry “a rat,” who steals the car they had borrowed and abandons Cee. After a couple dead-end jobs, Cee becomes a doctor’s assistant and is soon ill from an infection caused by the doctor’s exploration of her womb.

Frank returns from the war as one of the only survivors from his hometown in Georgia. He falls in love with a woman who can calm his post-traumatic stress disorder, but she eventually leaves him. Soon afterward, Frank receives a letter from Sarah, who is a woman who works with Cee. “She be dead,” is all it says. Frank then sets out to travel from outside of Portland to his hometown. On the way, he suffers a PTSD episode in public. The police apprehend him and restrain him in a hospital. He escapes with his clothes and service medal, but no money, and relies on the kindness of strangers in order to take a couple busses and a train back home.

One prevailing theme in Home is the concept that people are inherently good. Both Frank and Cee experience kindness, ignorance, hatred, and desperation from strangers, employers, and family members. While they were children, their grandmother denied them nutritious food and constantly judged Cee to be trash. As an adult, Frank is given charity money, lodging, and gifts of clothes from various strangers as he travels, but he’s also incarcerated and mugged. Cee’s employer uses her as a test subject and causes an infection, but does nothing to cure her. Frank must take Cee back to elderly women in their hometown for medical attention. It takes months for Cee to heal, and weeks until she’s able to return to Frank’s care. In that time, she matures from her exposure to the other women’s personalities and skills, and to her own stupidity. On that matter, Morrison writes, “As usual [Cee] blamed being dumb on her lack of schooling, but that excuse fell apart the second she thought about the skilled women who had cared for her, healed her… So it was just herself. In this world with these people she wanted to be the person who would never again need rescue.”

This touches on a second theme that Morrison often incorporates in her stories: female prowess. Women or girls in her story are either already strong, or they grow from their experiences. Home incorporates both of these types of characters. After reading Morrison’s stories, readers can step back and find the strict or taxing women in their lives and see them in a new perspective, thus finding ways to learn from them. How many of us have had elderly neighbors who gossip and judge, but also help when others need it? How many of us have abusive relatives who could still provide a few lessons if we stopped to listen? How many of us have strong women who were always there, affecting our lives and never receiving gratitude? And finally, how many of us want to be like those women? In this slim book, Morrison causes her readers to consider their lives, recollect all the complaints we’ve issued, and recognize where the fault actually lies and how to fix it, thereby making us stronger.

In tandem with this concept of strong women, the story also contains a few brief passages that offer social commentary that are as true now as in the ’50s. These are lines that stick out, ones that college students underline has key passages that resonate or provide fodder for discussions. It is as if Morrison inserts an “Oh, by the way, has this notion occurred to you yet?” For example, she writes in one passage:
You free. Nothing and nobody is obliged to save you but you… You young and a woman and there’s serious limitation in both, but you a person too. Don’t let [your grandmother] or some trifling boyfriend and certainly no devil doctor decide who you are. That’s slavery. Somewhere inside you is that free person I’m talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world.

Sadly, racism and prejudice still exist in modern days—people are still segregated, hated, and ridiculed based on the color of their skin or their genders. In addition to this, women are undergoing civil rights issues due to the threat of legislature that limits a woman’s rights to her own body. Morrison’s characters embody both of these issues, especially because of Cee’s infections. The above passage, then, pushes home the concept that we have the strength and the right to save ourselves, to define ourselves without requiring approval from anyone else. Also, the last line, “Locate her and let her do some good in the world,” almost echoes a popular quote from Ghandi: Be the change you wish to see in the world. This passage, then, is a verbal slap upside the head for young women who believe that the outside world is the cause for all their woes.

Morrison also excels at revealing life’s grit. She doesn’t veil details for the sake of propriety. All of her books maintain this writing style, resulting in readers almost expecting curse words, intimate details of bodily functions, or deviant sexual scenes. She writes the uninhibited truth about life. Returning readers may be less prone to being offended by the language. Morrison has a flare for making deviant activity enticing. And, in terms of language, Morrison allows her characters to speak the same way people would in the real world. This is evident in the lack of proper grammar or sentence structure in the narration, as well as in dialogue. People, especially those who are poor and live in the country, do not censor themselves. In a stroke of realism, Morrison doesn’t censor them either. When Cee is ordered to lie out in the sun with her legs spread and without clothes, she protests from embarrassment. One of her caretaker frankly says, “You think your twat is news?” In everyday conversation, many people would be offended by this statement, and yet it appears to be fitting in a Morrison novel. If that is the way people talk when censorship isn’t a concern, then that is the way her characters talk. This complements the narration and provides something tangible in order for the readers to understand location. The language aids in representing “home,” and readers may consider their own hometowns and recognize that language and accents are just as important as the physical details.

However, Frank and Cee’s hometown appears as a backdrop of events rather than a character in itself. Morrison concentrates on her characters and their histories. Even Frank’s journey home is more about the people he meets along the way than the journey itself or the destination. Also, throughout most of the story, Frank and Cee hate their hometown. They both left as soon as possible. In all that time growing up, moving apart, and finding one another again, they each represented home for the other. Only when they were together did they fit in the world. It is only after life takes a turn for the better, toward the end, that Frank and Cee begin to see their hometown as “fresh and ancient, safe and demanding.”

Whereas Morrison fails to turn place into a character, she manages to use the narrator instead. Occasionally, short italicized chapters punctuate the narrative after a few regular chapters. It is almost as if the narrator (who may or may not be Morrison) becomes an off-stage character. The voice in these italicized chapters belongs to Frank, who is speaking to the narrator as that person writes his story. Frank usually opposes the narrator and “clarifies” bits of information or emotion for the narrator’s (and thus the audience’s) benefit. Other times, he seems to reminisce about a moment that had just been explored in a previous chapter, or a new one that the narrator may not have included. In this way, Morrison creates a parallel story. It is also as if the story has a commentary feature, like on a DVD’s special features disc, with character commentary instead of an actor’s. This effect is intriguing. It makes Frank’s character more real, as if Morrison based the entire story off a real-life friend. It provides layers that fold into each other and flatten only at the end of the novel. It leaves readers guessing about what else is omitted from the narration, as well as whether the narrators and characters are reliable storytellers.

Morrison also skillfully shifts points of views between the main characters and secondary characters, who appear only briefly. This is evident in a scene when Frank removes Cee from the doctor’s house. Sarah stands at the door and watches Frank carry Cee away and, for two paragraphs, readers are able to see her side of the story, her fears and expectations. During this brief scene, she provides an explanation of the doctor’s history, which readers would not encounter during the regular narration. The POV returns to Frank when Sarah shuts the kitchen door, because her role is complete.

Despite Morrison’s stable use of realism, she incorporates a touch of magical realism, which exists in most of her stories. In Home, this touch manifests in the form of a short, older man who wears a pale blue zoot suit, a wide-brimmed hat, and pointed white shoes. Frank first sees him on a train. The man sits next to him, says nothing, and soon leaves. There is no indentation from where he sat on the seat. He appears again in a child’s room when Frank is offered shelter for the night from a family. Frank, in alarm, jumps to fight the man and protect the family, but the man again vanishes. This incident suggests that the man is part of Frank’s imagination, perhaps a symptom of his PTSD. However, he doesn’t reappear again until Frank is digging a grave with his sister. This time, Cee notices him while Frank remains oblivious. Here, at the end of the story, readers may suspect that the man was a ghost of the person whom Frank and Cee were burying, a man they had seen buried in a ditch when they were children, and a man who was guiding Frank home in order to do the right thing.

This small insertion of magical realism suggests that in the gritty details of life, there are still fantastic moments that guide and shape us from childhood to adult hood. The fact that the man appears only when Frank is either traveling home or already there might mean that wherever readers consider to be home, magic is there just for us.