Wednesday, July 23, 2014

SOUTHLAND






Southland, Nina Revoyr, Akashic Books, 2003, 348 pp



Several months back the World's Smallest Reading Group gained a third member who renamed it the Tiny Book Club. Because all three of us have come to California fairly recently, ie since the 1990s, we decided to read some fiction set in our adopted state. Southland was the perfect novel to begin our new project.

The story ranges from mid WWII, when Frank Sakai was sent with his family to the Japanese internment camp of Manzanar at the age of 15, up to 1994, the year Frank died. We learn Frank's story through the eyes of his granddaughter Jackie Ishida, a third year law school student, who is helping her aunt carry out Frank's will. In the course of learning about this man who was beloved to her, Jackie finds herself and grows from an emotionally frozen young woman into someone capable of opening up to others and to love.

This is not a mushy love story though. It is well done historical fiction and I learned about the origins of the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles where Frank grew up and lived for all of his life. The area is now pretty much a ghetto. Originally a rural area where inhabitants grew wheat and barley and hunted rabbits and squirrels, it was called Angeles Mesa. Those inhabitants were Blacks from the southern states and Japanese immigrants, living side by side in relative harmony. News to me!

Then came World War II, the camps for the Japanese, the postwar industrial and economic growth of Los Angeles, the Watts riots in the 1960s, and the destruction, fires, and racial tensions that were called the Rodney King riots in the early 1990s. Those second riots occurred within a year of my relocation to LA.

Through all these changes, Frank lived in the Crenshaw district, worked, owned a corner store, and had hardly an enemy. He also loved, made the mistakes of a young man, and paid dearly for them. As Jackie penetrates some of the mysteries of Frank's life and of her own heritage, she gets drawn into solving a murder that took place in Frank's store during the Watts riots. 

It is a great read and though the author juggles several story lines and time periods, not to mention the racial and cultural tensions of those times, it never felt like she had overloaded the story. In fact, the story of Los Angeles is a loaded one, far more complex than its Tinsel Town image, and therefore far more interesting.


(Southland is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

LIE LAY LAIN






Lie Lay Lain, Bryn Greenwood, Stairway Press, 2014, 350 pp


Publisher's Summary:  
Jennifer has a great job and a go-getter fiancĂ©. She’s on track for success, until she witnesses a fatal hit-and-run. Mistaking Jennifer for someone else, the dying victim extracts an impossible promise. Jennifer’s fiancĂ© wants her to forget the whole incident, but when she closes her eyes, she can still see the bloody face of the woman who asked for her help.

Olivia is in a rut. Burdened with caring for her brain-damaged brother and already feeling like a spinster at 27, she’s desperate to escape. In a moment of weakness, she tells a lie that draws an unsuspecting paramedic into her life. As she struggles to expiate the lie, a horrible act of violence will test her resolve to be honest.
 
Where Jennifer’s promise and Olivia’s lie intersect, their lives begin to unravel.
 
My review:
I won Bryn Greenwood's second novel by entering a contest on her blog. I have never in my life won anything in this type of contest. Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes, the lottery, even a door prize. Nope. Never. I tried to convey to Ms Greenwood how momentous this was but I'm not sure she got it.

My copy arrived sometime in early May just as I was struck down by the virus that put me in the hospital. The deal on winning the book was I agreed to write an honest review and put it on Goodreads.

Lie Lay Lain features a young church secretary, Olivia. She has plenty of problems in her life but is basically a decent person, a prerequisite for the role of church secretary. My mom was our church secretary for a while and she was one of the most decent people I've known. I guess she passed some of that on to me, because I wrote a note to Bryn explaining my situation and she, very decently, forgave me for my delay in writing the review.

To continue the decent and honest theme, I have to say that I loved Bryn Greenwood's first novel, Last Will but I only liked Lie Lay Lain

One of her strongest talents as a novelist is the way she creates characters who feel true, like ordinary everyday people you might know. Olivia and her antagonist Jennifer are young women who suffer from a tendency to avoid the truth in uncomfortable situations, especially with overbearing men. Both are extremely capable women as well as hard workers. They get themselves in sticky situations, even with each other, but you care about their fates.

Possibly because the story is so rife with issues (racism, military veterans, foster care, mental illness, religion, and truth) I felt the pace was too slow at times. The issues provided more action than the characters and somewhere in the middle of the novel, it began to seem too long.

I liked the way Greenwood handled the issues and for a book with so many scenes in church, it never had an overly Christian message. The characters and dialogue get high marks but she let me down on the plot.

One more thing. Some reviewers made derogatory comments on the sex writing. I thought it was good, realistic, even erotic at times. Basically, I will always read novels by this author, I will probably always like them, and sometimes I will love them.


(Lie Lay Lain is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

THE MOONFLOWER VINE






The Moonflower Vine, Jetta Carleton, Simon and Schuster Inc, 1962, 318 pp



This novel was a reading group pick and I loved it. It is completely American heartland family fiction with feisty daughters, a dad who is imperfect, and a long-suffering but wise mother.

The writing is wonderful and fits the story perfectly. It reminded me of Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows in the way it investigates the flaws of each family member. While it might feel old fashioned to a young woman reading it today, being set in the first half of the 20th century, I think Jetta Carleton paints an accurate picture of life for an American housewife living then in a rural area.

The author herself lived an interesting life running a small publishing house with her husband. She was my mother's age, had a master's degree, and worked in radio and television when that was an exotic career for a woman. The Moonflower Vine was her only published novel.

When I picked up a copy from the library it looked familiar. I realized that we carried the book on our "Books You Always Wanted to Read" shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore when I worked there. In addition, Jane Smiley included it in the list of "A Hundred Novels" that wraps up her unique take on being a novelist: 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Smiley writes brief reviews of each of those hundred novels and her three pages on The Moonflower Vine are typical brilliant Jane Smiley criticism. She says, 

"Jetta Carlson wrote only this novel, which appears to be autobiographical, at least in part, but Carleton's style is so dense and precise and her method of imagining the inner lives of each character so daring that she seems to have been unconstrained by fears either of remembering things wrongly or of offending her relatives." (page 306 in the hardcover edition)

Smiley also wrote the foreward to the 2009 Harper Perennial reprint of The Moonflower Vine, and positions the novel at the immediate forefront of the women's movement, a year before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. 1962 was that pivotal year and Smiley points out that Ms Carleton "managed to write her novel in a nonpolitical way; her subject matter has become political in spite of her efforts."

The appeal of The Moonflower Vine to me was exactly as Jane Smiley indicated. In 1962 we did not yet know that women's lives were about to undergo enormous upheaval but somehow we felt the need for it. Four headstrong daughters working out their romantic and professional destinies portrayed amidst the rural magic of Missouri feels like the perfect fictional format to tell the truth about women's lives in 1962 and beyond.


(The Moonflower Vine is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI






The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker, HarperCollins, 2013, 484 pp



I have wanted to read this novel since I first learned of it last year. My latest strategy with books I never seem to get to is to convince one of my reading groups to pick it. That is what I did with this one and it was a great read.

I became fascinated by golems when I read Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Now I know more about them than I did before; for instance a golem is a beast of burden completely loyal to its master and would do anything to protect that master. Also, golems are prone to running amok.

While a golem is a Jewish supernatural creature made of mud, a jinni is an Arabian supernatural creature composed of flame capable of both assuming human or animal form and dwelling in inanimate objects such as lamps. Delightful twists in this story include the golem Chava being female and falling in love (as much as a clay woman can) with the jinni Ahmad. The only thing these two have in common are their supernatural status.

The Golem and the Jinni is a love story with a mystery embedded in it. Chava and Ahmad live in  1899 New York City neighborhoods of Jewish and Syrian immigrants. Chava has lost her master and thus is prey to the unspoken needs and desires of all humans while Ahmad has recently been freed from a vessel in which he had been trapped by an evil master centuries ago.
 
It is all wonderfully improbable including Chava and Ahmad themselves. Because the assumption that magic is the main force runs beneath the story, I was comfortable with unlikely occurrences and characters who challenge logic. My only quibble is that the golem and the jinni do not meet until almost halfway through the book and eventually I became impatient.

The end was so unexpected and lovely it mollified me completely. In fact Ms Wecker gave me the key to happy relationships in the next to the last paragraph, making sense of my marriage and most of my friendships.


(The Golem and the Jinni is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, July 07, 2014

THE BLAZING WORLD






The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt, Simon & Schuster, 2014, 376 pp


For quite some years I have had a short list of favorite authors comprised of only three: Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, and Barbara Kingsolver. Yes, they are all female and I love each one for different reasons that are hard to articulate. I have read every single novel written by my top three so one of these days I am going to make a sub list of the rest of the female authors I love. Siri Hustvedt will be on it.

She has published six novels, of which I have read three: What I Loved, The Summer Without Men, and now The Blazing World. In my estimation she creates something quite different each time and the only reason I haven't read the other three novels is that reading her is a large investment of mental and emotional energy. For a good time call another writer but if you want to be seduced into exploring your own psyche, if you want to ponder life's mysteries, if you enjoy considering how life and art converge, read Siri Hustvedt.

The Blazing World was her most challenging novel yet for me. Harriet Burden, artist, wife, mother, widow, possesses the talent, intellect, and drive that often lead to wild success. Her husband had all the success however, as an art dealer. He was able to give Harriet wealth but not artistic representation, so she languished as mother of their children and hostess to his social life.

OK, so this is an oft told tale, but once the man dies she comes blazing forth, energized by all her anger, knowledge, and freedom, and creates a dastardly experiment: she has a man pose as the artist for her creations. Suddenly the critical acclaim of the art world is hers, the popularity, positive reviews, all that an artist can hope for. Except no one knows she is the artist.

She repeats her feat twice more but the third time she meets her match and is betrayed on several levels. The challenge for the reader lies partly in the construction of the novel: a male scholar poses as the editor of a collection made up of excerpts from Burden's journals, interviews with her two adult children and friends and cohorts, reviews of her work, etc.

Once you get going it works like a novel should, revealing story and characters and you get a psychological study of the artist herself as well as several others. You must however also wrap your wits around numerous philosophers including Soren Kierkegaard, the psychology of creativity, and the language of art criticism not to mention Harriet's musings on the literature she devours.

BUT...if you are a woman with a talent or skill and have experienced what happens when you take that talent or skill into the world of commerce, then you know deep in your soul that it is still a man's world and the subtle devices by which you can be passed over, invalidated, mocked, in other words suppressed, are myriad. The Blazing World then becomes satisfying, liberating, therapeutic, and a whole lot of a rare type of fun.

Check out this interview with Siri Hustvedt for more insight into the novel.


(The Blazing World is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback edition will be released in October.)

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

JULY READING GROUP UPDATE







I wish we could have summer reading groups at the beach! This month only three of my groups are meeting due to vacations, etc. Good for me because I have challenged myself to finish reading the remaining books on the 1961 list for My Big Fat Reading Project. 

Here is the short list of reading group books for July:



Once Upon A Time Adult Fiction Group:


One Book At A Time:


Bookie Babes:


Has anyone else got a big summer reading plan? Or a small one? Where do you like to read in the summer?

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

THE ORCHARDIST






The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin, HarperCollins, 2012, 426 pp



The Orchardist and I have a strange history. The book came to me months ago via my niece who got it from her mom, my sister. Then it was chosen for one of my reading groups in May. I started reading it the day I fell ill and read it off and on between naps, read it while in the hospital, and finished it the day after I got home. Much of that time, I was medicated and tired, fearing for my life, then in the foggy state of convalescence. 

It is essentially a deeply sad story. People run away, are abused, die, but other people grieve, love, nurture, and try to do right. I suspect that my state of mind and precarious health had a lot to do with my perception of the book. On some of those days, I could not bear to read it. The slow pace of the story matched my own and I could pick it up after a day or a nap and just be right there again.

The prose is incredibly beautiful. The rural Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century is described so vividly, I think a reader who had never been there would recognize it on a first visit. The characters are each some unique variation on rugged individual and Ms Coplin evokes their sorrows, their moments of accomplishment, their connections and divisions, as well as John Steinbeck or Wallace Stegner or Marianne Wiggins or Jane Smiley. This is her first novel!

I read the final 100 pages on that first full day at home from the hospital. I had no energy, was weak and dizzy, and felt I needed to get the orchardist and his weird family out of my mind so I could concentrate on getting well. Of course that didn't happen. I did get well several weeks later but the book with its haunting tone of regret and loss seemed to prove, even more than my own experience did, that human beings can survive almost anything, even recover, but none of it leaves our minds.


(The Orchardist is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)