John Brown: abolitionist, Harper’s Ferry raider, failure. Dry high school American history text material, forgotten right after the test…or not, especially if presented by author James McBride in his bawdy and raucous new novel, The Good Lord Bird.
Henry is 10 years old. He helps out in the rural Kansas barbershop in which his father works. Both Henry and his father are slaves, owned by Dutch. Henry’s father is barbering the scripture-quoting Old Man when Dutch walks in; an exchange with the Old Man gets heated and after guns blaze, Dutch is wounded, Henry’s father is dead and the Old Man is unmasked as the despised John Brown. Brown rescues Henry, though he mistakes him for a girl and calls him “Henrietta.” “She” is incorporated into his motley band of family and stragglers embarked on a mission to free the slaves.
McBride presents this story as 103-year-old Henry’s recollections, recorded by a fellow church member. Written in the coarse lexicon of the times, the rich and illustrative language can result in a comedy of errors. Henry is biracial and becomes adept as passing for a girl, and sometimes as white, to ensure his safety. As he travels through the states, alone or with Brown, he offers an out-of-the-mouth-of-babes razor-edged skewering of blacks and whites, slaves and owners, and country and city folk. The Good Lord Bird is historical fiction and McBride freely molds icons like Frederick Douglas and Brown into his own flawed characters. This book is not a choice for the easily offended.
Only in the hands of a talented writer like McBride could subjects like slavery and emancipation manage to entertain and amuse while also inform and illuminate. Despite the irreverent approach, ultimately the reader is left with Henry’s observation on slavery and its poisonous legacy when he says “the web of slavery is a sticky business. And at the end of the day, ain’t nobody clear of it.”
Night Film by Marisha Pessl will be one of the most talked about books of the fall. This new thriller is riveting, impossible to put down and hair-raisingly creepy.
It's the story of a washed-up journalist ruined by the story that got away. Scott McGrath was once a successful investigative journalist who tracked down the darkest, seediest stories. The one elusive target that cost him his career was film director Michael Cordova. Cordova is the director of dark, transgressive films that are so disturbing they cannot be played in theaters. The films are only rarely shown at secret screenings in tunnels around the world.
During his initial investigation of Cordova, McGrath got a lead that the secretive film director may be hurting children. McGrath went public with the accusation and was subsequently sued by Cordova’s team of lawyers. Since he had no definitive proof, his career as a journalist was essentially over.
Fast-forward several years later. Cordova’s daughter, Ashley, has just committed suicide under mysterious circumstances, and McGrath again becomes obsessed with the dark, twisted world of the Cordovas. Follow McGrath into the world of Michael Cordova where reality is elusive and dark forces may be at work.
Pessl’s unique style will be one of the first things readers notice. She spins her dark labyrinthine tale by interspersing newspaper and website clippings throughout the book. The technique pulls the reader further into the book and adds to the overall authenticity of her story.
Readers who like creepy, disturbing stories will relish the dark paths McGrath will take to find the truth.
Always eagerly anticipated, Great Britain’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction committee announced its 2013 Long List on July 23. The Man Booker is widely considered Britain’s most prestigious literary award and has such a devoted following that one can lay odds with a bookie on the winner. The Long List will be whittled down to six selections in September with the winner declared on October 10, 2013.
The books and authors on the Long List are often an eclectic bunch and this year is no exception. Ireland’s Colm Toibin is named for his The Testament of Mary, a very short novel written in the first person from the perspective of the grieving and bitter mother of the crucified Jesus Christ. Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki, who divides her time between British Columbia and New York City, made the list for A Tale for the Time Being, in which a Canadian woman finds the diary of a bullied Japanese teen washed up on the Pacific shore. The story unfolds as the diary entries are read.
We Need New Names: A Novel is Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s contribution to the list. Preteen Darling, her home destroyed and father gone, lives with her mother in the shantytown of Paradise. She and her friends play games inspired by the violence of the post-colonial Mugabe regime until Darling is shipped to America to live in “Destroyed”, Michigan with her aunt’s family. Bulawayo writes “there is no journey without a price”, and Darling’s journey from comfortable home to Paradise, then from Paradise to America all comes at a cost.
Philipp Meyer’s new novel spanning nearly 200 years of the American West, The Son, opens with the transcription of a 1934 New Deal WPA recording of 100-year-old Eli McCullough’s reminiscences. Eli, also known as the Colonel, discusses his imminent death: in one breath, comparing himself to Alexander the Great and, in the next, dismissing women and marriage. From vests fashioned of scalps, Aztecs as “mincing choirboys,” and vaqueros to Texas rangers, ranchers and oil wells, the Colonel has seen it all and is not shy about sharing his opinions.
Meyer alternates narrators and timeframes by chapter, giving voice to Eli as well as to his son Peter and Peter’s granddaughter, Jeanne. Born in 1834, the same year in which Texas gained its independence from Mexico, Eli’s story is the backbone of the book. As a boy, he witnesses the brutal slaughter of his mother, brother and sister by a band of Comanche who take Eli captive and eventually incorporate him as a member of their tribe. Eli’s later choices reflect his determination to survive despite the torturous customs of his captors. His conduct also mirrors the rapacious actions of a government and its people relentlessly expanding westward into territory already occupied. The Colonel has a contentious relationship with his son Peter, whose chapters play the role of a conscience, ruminating on injustice and cruelty. As the only descendent of the Colonel interested in taking over the family legacies of ranching and oil, great-granddaughter Jeanne reflects on her struggles as a woman managing a vast business in a Texas-style man’s world.
Jeanne muses, “the blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean…” The Son dispassionately recounts the barbarous atrocities committed by settlers and natives alike. Like the western novels of Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy, Meyer’s writing is notable for its lack of romanticism about its subject. Meyer, who grew up in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, has written a family saga packed with adventure and drama in which the sins of all the fathers have consequences reverberating down through generations.
You Are One of Them is Elliot Holt’s new coming-of-age novel, a story of two neighbors who become best friends at the height of the Cold War during the 1980s. Sarah Zukerman and Jenny Jones are best friends growing up in a Washington, D.C. suburb and doing everything together. Out of boredom on a rainy afternoon, they decide to write a letter to Yuri Andropov, the secretary general of the Soviet Union’s Communist party. They are children of the Cold War and afraid of nuclear war. They hope that Andropov will understand that regular Americans just want to live in peace.
Andropov actually decides to answer Jenny’s letter and a media sensation is born. Jenny and her parents are invited to the Soviet Union. She becomes a poster child for peace at a time when the US and USSR seem only to be obsessed with nuclear brinkmanship. Due to a possible betrayal by Jenny, the girls' friendship never quite recovers once Jenny's family returns to the US. Jenny and her family remain media sensations, taking publicity trips all over the country. One of the trip ends in plane crash, killing the entire Jones family.
Fast-forward 10 years: Sarah receives a mysterious email from a young Russian woman who suggests that maybe Jenny’s family did not really die in the crash. Maybe Jenny is still alive and living in Russia. The Russian reminds Sarah that Americans cannot believe everything they’re told by the media. Sarah decides to find out once and for all. She goes to Russia to find her friend — and maybe herself.
Holt has successfully blended the '80s setting and D.C. locale to create an acutely realistic coming-of-age story. The period details are spot-on without obscuring the overall story. This book is also a riveting spy tale, but one with reflection and depth.
Also, highly recommended on audiobook.
Colin Firth will always be treasured by legions of devoted fans that cherish his portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. For those who can’t get enough of the fabulous Firth, he is prominently featured in two charming books.
Three women are hoping for a meeting with the man behind Mr. Darcy in Finding Colin Firth by Mia March. The quaint tourist town of Boothbay Harbor, Maine is abuzz with the rumor that Colin Firth is coming to film. Three female residents are each determined to meet the man. Gemma lost her job and left her husband, but becomes convinced that an interview with Colin Firth will put her life back on track. Twenty-two year old Bea just learned that she was adopted as a baby and travels to Maine to spy on her biological mother. That woman, Veronica, is a waitress and local legend known for her healing pies. As their stories unfold in alternating chapters, readers will enjoy the quest for Colin and the dramatic life changes experienced by each of these delightful women.
In Austenland by Shannon Hale, Jane Hayes is single, with a dead end job, and a past littered with hapless boyfriends. Part of the problem is her secret obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by the inimitable Colin Firth. When she is bequeathed at trip to Pembrook Park, a fantasy camp for Austen fans, she jumps at the chance to spend three weeks as a Regency lady. She enjoys the garb and manners, as well as flirtations with both a gentleman and the gardener. Will she finally find a Mr. Darcy of her very own? Readers will be thrilled to know that Jane’s story will soon be on the big screen starring Keri Russell, and that Pembrook Park is the setting for Hale’s follow-up, Midnight in Austenland, featuring another fun and feisty fan of Austen.
Looking for something a little more substantial than your average beach read, but not ready to make the 350-page commitment to the latest and greatest literary masterpiece? Karen Russell, author of Pulitzer Prize finalist Swamplandia!, is ready to oblige with her second short story compilation, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Darkly humorous and always at least a little bit off-kilter, these eight tales sparkle with complex and fully realized characters that often can be so difficult to achieve in such a brief number of pages.
Though they are each quite different, all the stories share a common concern with perception that is repeatedly a driving psychological force for the characters, both internally and externally. Russell investigates how a person’s view of herself, of others, and of her surroundings affects how she acts and reacts. In some stories the manifestation of this interaction is stranger than in others. One character fights bitterness and hopelessness with determined optimism and disregard for his own illogic when year after year his team meets with inevitable defeat in the Antarctic. In one of the darker stories, a young woman’s acceptance of her very physical transformation into a silk-producing creature becomes the means of her own escape from bondage. And in the title story, a vampire and his wife who long for relief from their endless thirst find an illusory succor in sucking on lemons rather than necks, eventually leading to the demise of their relationship.
From the absurd to the chilling to the almost not quite ordinary, Russell uses this shorter format to excellent affect, creating a subtle yearning for each story to continue. Tantalizing and thoughtful, Vampires in the Lemon Grove is bursting with short summer treats that have just enough bite to keep you reading, whether you are stuck in the airport or relaxing on the beach.
As reform-minded voters were casting their ballots in Iran’s election last month, Iranian-born author Sahar Delijani was publishing her first novel. In her ambitious debut, Children of the Jacaranda Tree, opposition to the repressive regime led to a generation of displaced children in post-revolutionary Iran. Delijani gives voice to those left behind by the ensuing bloody purge that claimed thousands of lives. With her own family's experience close to heart, Delijani weaves together beautifully written and intimately entwined stories spanning from 1983 to 2011 of those lives forever changed for elusive freedoms past and future.
This was a revolution gone astray. Revolutionary guards, policemen, and morality guards patrolled the streets. So called "brothers and sisters" could not be trusted. The children of political activists, who ended up incarcerated or in mass graves, were left behind. They included Neda, born under horrific conditions while her mother was imprisoned in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. There is Sheida, whose mother keeps hidden her father's execution for fear her daughter will follow the same path 20 years later. There is three year-old Omid, whose parents' "papery lives" of forbidden books, poems, leaflets, led to their arrest straight from the kitchen table. There are the caregivers, too, like Leila, who tends her sisters' children while their mothers serve out jail sentences.
Delijani, who was born in an Iranian prison, connects her many well-drawn characters through shared experiences, as they wrestle with a past that repulses as much as it begs not to be forgotten. It is the symbolic Jacaranda tree, with its stunning purple-pink panicles, that serves as a reminder to fight for, and free, the tree inside. For those who enjoyed Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis or Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan the weight of history upon the next generation will look familiar, as will the determination to move forward.
In author Gail Godwin’s newest novel, Flora, the aged Helen is remembering the summer of 1945. She lived on a mountaintop outside a small North Carolina town in her family’s once stately manse with her adored grandmother Nonie, described by one of Helen’s few friends as looking like “an upright mastiff driving a car.” Also in residence is Helen’s remote and sarcastic father who usually prefers the company of Jack Daniels to his daughter. Helen’s mother died when Helen was three. Nonie has died, unexpectedly, in the spring and Helen’s father has eagerly accepted a supervisory position at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee military facility, leaving the nearly eleven-year-old Helen in need of a caretaker.
Arrangements are made for cousin Flora to come tend Helen. Flora, a recent teacher’s college graduate, is everything Helen’s “right side of the tracks” family is not; her lack of guile and tender heart are viewed with polite condescension and her stories of Helen’s mother’s estranged family back in Alabama are an embarrassment. Hitler has killed himself but the Japanese are continuing to fight World War II. On the home front, polio has reared its paralytic head, victimizing Helen’s buddy Brian, and soldiers lucky enough to straggle home are bringing their own demons with them. Helen’s father declares that Flora and Helen must remain sequestered on the decaying estate for their own safety.
Writer Godwin is known for her graceful prose, sharply-drawn characters, and is at her best probing family dynamics influenced by Southern Gothic tradition. In Flora, she portrays both a country and a family on the cusp of change, responding to circumstances beyond either’s control. Helen’s struggle to regain her footing in a permanently altered world has far reaching consequences, and Godwin’s careful portrayal of Helen as a child desperately emulating her beloved adults rings sadly true.
Havaa’s father once told his young daughter that a true chess player thinks with his fingers. The eight-year-old girl would remember his comments when a year later her father's fingers were savagely cut off by government security forces in war ravaged Chechnya. It is one of the many atrocities in Anthony Marra's beautifully realized literary debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, where the spiral of murder and torture is as much a part of the landscape as the myriad of landmines, checkpoints, and disappearances in the night.
Spanning a decade of war with Russia from 1994 to 2004, Marra exposes the underbelly of his complicated Caucasus region by weaving together the lives of the damaged souls in its wake. At its core are two doctors whose pasts must be reconciled as they cycle toward their fates. There is Akhmed, a neighboring doctor who rescues Havaa, now being hunted by the "feds" after her father is kidnapped for aiding the rebels. Akhmed flees with the girl, careful to avoid a neighbor's war damaged son who is now an informant. They end up at a nearly abandoned hospital heroically run by a brilliant, sharp witted ethnic Russian doctor named Sonja. She reluctantly agrees to hide the child in exchange for Akhmed's help. An artist at heart, Akhmed would rather be drawing his patients than amputating their mangled limbs.
Marra enriches his compelling, richly-detailed writing with surprising bursts of humor, sidebars, and characters whose stories are plentiful and achingly poignant. It is a place where death is prevalent but hope is instinctive. It is about being ready when the time comes; just like Havaa's "just in case suitcase" her father had her pack, waiting by the door. Readers of The Tiger's Wife or The Cellist of Sarajevo will recognize here the challenge of living with dignity at the greatest of costs.