Claire Vaye Watkins’ novel Gold Fame Citrus prophesizes apocalypse by desertification. When part of the United States is engulfed by sand and declared uninhabitable, it becomes a refuge for those looking to escape from the lives they’ve made for themselves. To some, threats of dehydration and starvation are worth the risk to avoid returning to civilization.
Luz and Ray are surviving: after drought choked the West Coast and sand spread to the seas, it’s all anyone can do. California has shrunk into itself as golden kestrels encroached and devoured the landscape. Most have fled to military refuge zones to the north and east, but for some, that is a less desirable option than wandering the wasteland as a newly branded “Mojav.” After rescuing Ig, a malnourished child born into a gang of abusive Mojavs, Luz and Ray depart from the derelict McMansion they’ve been squatting in, hoping to find an old contact who can expunge their pasts and allow them passage into sanctuary.
During their journey across an ever-evolving frontier of shifting sands, Luz and Ray struggle to suppress nostalgia as they teach Ig about what their world has become. After losing the main road when the sand swallows the tire tracks, Ray leaves Luz and Ig to find gasoline for the car and fades from man to apparition on the horizon and alters the course of their new lives.
Readers who enjoyed Watkins’ short story collection Battleborn: Stories will recognize her beautiful prose style and wonderfully creative imaginings. Perhaps the best part of Gold Fame Citrus is the extended description of the desert itself, likening its fluid motions to those of the oceans.
Watkin’s new novel about a frighteningly realistic, drought-stricken California is so clearly and crisply described that readers are immediately sucked into this unnerving story. The writing is as blindingly brilliant as the landscape. The book is at once beautiful and brutal.
Californians are portrayed as a group of people always searching for something better, buried gold for the taking, legendary status or even year-round citrus. The dunes destroy that California, and most flee. However, some continue to be drawn by an almost supernatural magnetism to the wasteland left behind. These “Mojavs” carve out an existence, forming strange new communities with few and fluctuating rules.
Watkin’s characters are made more tangible by their flaws and readers can’t resist the urge to protect them from themselves as well as their ruthless environment.
When Ray has to strike out and look for help, Luz and Ig are rescued by a seemingly peaceful society existing in refuge on the very edge of the habitable world. The leader of this group becomes an increasingly menacing character, and the group sheltering Luz and Ig begins to look more and more like a cult. This is an interesting twist in the story given Watkin’s own personal history. The father she never really knew was Charles Manson’s trusted assistant, often in charge of recruiting young women. Though she didn’t really know him, she does explore the topic of cults in her first collection of short stories, Battleborn. Readers will also enjoy Margaret Atwood’s new apocalyptic novel The Heart Goes Last.
Did you ever wonder if anyone else went down the rabbit hole like Alice did 150 years ago? Was anyone looking for her on that summer day? If so, your next must read has to be After Alice by Gregory Maguire, the story of another girl’s journey through Wonderland and the subsequent search for her and Alice above ground.
Told in two parts, Maguire first introduces us to Ada, Alice’s friend who is mentioned briefly at the beginning of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. She is the opposite of Alice. Stricken with severe scoliosis, she walks with a limp, has poor color and is not fanciful in the least. While looking for Alice along the riverbank, she comes upon the strange rabbit hole and down she goes! Just steps behind Alice, Ada encounters many of the curious characters familiar to us all – definitely a highlight for us readers! But will she find Alice in this strange underworld where everything is not as it seems? Will she make it home safely? Meanwhile, above ground, two people are searching for Alice and Ada that day: Lydia, Alice’s 15-year-old sister, and Miss Armstrong, Ada’s governess. The second part of the story deals mainly with their adventures. Their search leads us through the town of Oxford, the University and to both Alice’s and Ada’s homes. Mirroring the journey through Wonderland, they encounter many curious characters including Charles Darwin and Siam, a former slave who escaped via the Underground Railroad.
Take the time to get to know Ada, Lydia and Miss Armstrong. Join them on that summer’s day in Oxford. You will come away with a newfound understanding and love for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. You may also want to read (or reread) it. Trust me, it gets better each time! Other novels by Maguire worth a look are Wicked: Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, my personal favorite! I also suggest checking out Gregory Maguire’s October 25th interview with NPR, which is both entertaining and insightful.
The saga of the Langdon family continues with the much-anticipated third volume of the Last Hundred Years trilogy, Golden Age by Jane Smiley. Resuming the story in 1987, the youngest generation comes of age at a time of high-stakes finance, political intrigue and new ways of farming that challenge the family homestead. Complacently assured, Congressman Richie Langdon does just enough of his political homework to be consistently reelected. His twin brother Michael, ever the financial wizard, sees opportunities in every weakness. Charlie, the newly discovered nephew, faces life with unconquerable optimism regardless of his struggle for a purpose. Guthrie, once the inevitable heir to the family farm, fights in Afghanistan instead. Meanwhile, the whole world faces an insidious new enemy determined to destroy.
As tragedies both domestic and international test this family, their one foundation rests solidly on the family farm. While the globe rages with anger, in the end, it becomes apparent that not all enemies are far from home.
Smiley weaves the profound events of the late 20th century through her characters’ lives with a deft hand. The chronicle of so many lives is an ambitious undertaking, and yet each character remains genuine and unique. She begins with a family gathering, which serves as a refresher of the broad cast of characters. A helpful family tree is also included. The chapters are organized by each year, moving through the lives of each individual, young and old.
Jane Smiley is the author of several novels, including A Thousand Acres, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. The first entry in the Last Hundred Years trilogy is Some Luck, followed by Early Warning. Reading these titles in order is strongly recommended. Spending time with the Langdon family is highly enjoyable.
In Oyster: A Gastronomic History (with Recipes), Drew Smith delves into everything you ever wanted to know about the briny bivalve, and then some. Smith takes a fascinating, in-depth look at the oyster's place in history — important in the diet of many cultures throughout the years but also to their economies. You would be hard pressed to find a better source of overall nutrition than the oyster. Low in fat and calories, it’s high in protein, calcium, vitamin B12, thiamine, riboflavin vitamin C and zinc, with trace amounts of other vitamins. Oysters eventually became an important industry in the colonies, with jobs for harvesting, opening, washing, measuring, selling and, eventually, canning. These jobs often went to those who would otherwise have had difficulty finding employment, including African Americans, women, immigrants and children. While people think of crabs when they hear Baltimore, we have been an oyster mecca for far longer. Baltimore was the first to become a canning center (way before any other city) in the early 1840s, where the stock was also labeled and shipped.
Oysters have long been celebrated in writing as well as art — and of course they have a long-standing reputation as an aphrodisiac. Smith has included numerous color illustrations, photographs and maps to enhance the reading experience. There are recipes throughout the book, and even recommendations on what to drink with oysters. This scholarly yet entertaining and accessible look at oysters would make a great gift for the foodie and/or historian on your gift list. Fans of Mark Kurlansky’s microhistories Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World or Salt: A World History will be entranced by Oyster.
Ron Rash’s new novel Above the Waterfall is a reflective story about Appalachia today — the juxtaposition of beautiful mountains and solitude with crime, poverty and meth addiction. Rash knows those mountains, those people, their language and their world and manages to portray it in a way that never condescends, but shows the complexity and the beauty.
Les is just a few short weeks from retirement. His replacement as sheriff in their rural North Carolina community has begun taking over most of the daily tasks, and Les is pondering how he will fill his days. One more meth raid, then all he has left to do is choose the flavor of his retirement cake. He has grown up in this town, and in his own way he has tried to make it a better place.
His plans of quiet transition to painting watercolors on his porch are scrapped when tensions rise between a wealthy fishing resort owner and Gerald, the neighboring mountain man who can’t quite give up fishing for speckled trout in the streams he has fished since boyhood. Gerald’s unlawful fishing includes the resort’s catch-and-release stream, and the owner wants him charged for poaching the rare trout. When the pool is poisoned, Gerald becomes the main suspect, though he insists he would never harm the stream. This story shows readers some of the many ethical dilemmas a small town sheriff faces in trying to do what is right.
It is a character-driven story that illustrates how everyone in a remote community is connected in one way or another. Les has a complicated relationship with Becky, a park ranger who has retreated to the mountains to find solace after the traumatic events from her past. Becky is also the only person checking in on Gerald, and she is convinced he couldn’t have committed this crime. Through Rash’s lyrical writing, the mountain itself becomes a character, impacting the lives of those in the story in profound ways. It is a thing which some find comfort in as much as others want to flee from its grasp. As Les tries to find the real culprit, the author lets readers see the inner workings and dark secrets of this small, guarded community.
“Finding your soulmate” takes on disastrous meaning as repercussions echo through the centuries in Susan Barker’s The Incarnations.
Wang Jun’s life as a Beijing taxi driver is dictated by the monotony of routine, until the day he finds in his taxi cab a letter addressed to him. The letter comes from an anonymous sender calling themselves Wang’s “soulmate.” This person has been searching for Wang to tell him that they are two souls that have been reincarnated together into different, yet connected, lives for a thousand years. More letters follow, all appearing mysteriously, all recounting the events in these past lives ranging from the time of the Tang Dynasty to Chairman Mao’s regime, all detailing in blunt and brutal language how their past lives ended in betrayal and violence.
Wang is disturbed by the letters and becomes determined to find out who is stalking him and stop them once and for all. But can he successfully determine who is behind the letters? Is the mysterious letter writer someone he knows or are they a total stranger? And if he succeeds in finding his soulmate, what will the consequences of his actions be?
The Incarnations is a novel of interwoven narrative layers, from the letters written to Wang to the five past lives described in detail by the soulmate narrator, with Wang’s quest the thread tying them all together. Mixing historical fiction with aspects of magical realism, Barker captures snapshots of Chinese history in brilliant and ruthless clarity as she blends them into Wang’s search and into each account of the past lives.
A caveat:The Incarnations is also a violent novel. Barker candidly details the acts of violence – physical, sexual and psychological – each incarnation experiences or inflicts. But it is a thought-provoking story about obsession, loyalty and betrayal as well, raising questions about humanity’s fallibility and the cyclical nature of time. Without giving too much away, this book makes you reconsider what reincarnation may involve and makes you wonder about the people in your own life. Readers who enjoy exploring the darker side of history or humanity, or who appreciate books that are a bit of a mind twist should check out this book.
As if the cover featuring a deliriously excited raccoon wasn’t enough to get you laughing, every vignette in Jenny Lawson’s new memoir Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things will certainly do the trick. Based on her wildly popular blog The Bloggess and follow-up to her New York Times bestseller Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson’s thoughts about living with mental illness have touched readers who identify with her daily struggles.
Chock-full of helpful advice on how to properly approach the Australian government with a request to hug a koala while wearing a koala costume and featuring chapters titled things like “Things I May Have Accidentally Said During Uncomfortable Silences,” Lawson’s sense of humor never overshadows the fact that dealing with mental illness is difficult, but rather celebrates her uniqueness and tenacity in getting through the toughest days.
Recently, Lawson made international headlines by admitting to her hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers that she replied, “You, too!” to an airport cashier after being told to enjoy her flight. What followed was an avalanche of embarrassing moments, tweeted in by thousands of people, which started trending worldwide. The particularly cringe-worthy tweets are available on her blog. In Lawson’s world, we may all be crazy and flawed, but at least we’re not alone.
Devoted fans may also want to check out It Sucked and Then I Cried by Heather Armstrong or Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh.
Rhys Bowen conjures all the ambiance and bustle of New York City at Christmastime in her newest mystery Away in a Manger. Just barely heard above the crowd, a high, sweet voice sings the old Christmas carol. Molly Murphy and her ward Bridie discover the source; a little girl of no more than six, huddling in a doorway, holding a tin cup and hoping the holiday spirit will make people generous. For in 1905, there are no laws or agencies to protect children in need. Deeply touched, Molly and Bridie speak to the girl and soon realize she is intelligent and well-mannered. Both the girl and her older brother have been cast out into the street to make money any way they can by a cruel aunt who barely keeps them alive.
Inquisitive Molly cannot keep herself from getting involved. It seems the children’s mother has disappeared and their father has died. All they have left of their old life is an obviously valuable brooch. If the mother had means, why are her children reduced to begging? Do the children have other relatives who would care for them? Molly resolves to unravel their past and provide them with a better future.
Away in a Manger is a sweet and simple account of children no one will welcome, paralleling the traditional story of Christmas. Rhys Bowen brings to light the plight of children before principled people took a stand in their defense. While this is the latest in a long running series, this title can be read independently. This lucid and powerful tale reminds us that generosity and goodwill triumph over greed and evil, a thought even more compelling in this day and age.
In The Immortal Nicholas by Glenn Beck, a simple farmer named Agios supplements his meager earnings by harvesting precious frankincense. Following a series of tragic events, he gives up on life and wanders aimlessly, numbing his sorrow with alcohol. When he meets Caspar who is searching for frankincense, Agios’ life is changed forever as he starts on a journey to meet the newborn baby that Caspar and his friends, Melchior and Balthazar, are seeking in the town of Bethlehem. Soon Agios learns that this child, Jesus, is destined to be the King of Kings, and he feels compelled to protect Jesus and his parents as they try to avoid capture by the evil King Herod.
Beck’s premise for this book is to try and give Santa Claus a Christ-centered reason for being. Agios represents Santa but he is more of a misguided soul doomed to wander eternally through the world than the jolly man most of us know. Until Agios fulfills his mission, he remains immortal and goes through many personal tragedies. While he does eventually change his name to Nicholas and begin handing out gifts to deserving people, the core of the story is about Agios and his struggle to find meaning in life.
The historical portrayal of Biblical era life seems accurate and even compelling, but the story is not a warm and fuzzy Christmas tale for children. Beck is aiming at adults here, and trying to bring the message of Christ into Christmas without the typical commercialization of the holiday season. Whether or not you are a fan of Beck, The Immortal Nicholas is an interesting alternative to traditional holiday stories.