Sunday, May 24, 2015

Book Review: "Mislaid" by Nell Zink

Hmm. This book was definitely intriguing.

Peggy Jackson grew up in Virginia in the 1960s, a girl of some means raised by parents with more of an eye on social niceties and appropriateness than actual parenting, especially when she realizes she is a lesbian. She convinces them to send her to Stillwater College, a small, all-girls school, where she can pursue her dreams of literary success, and perhaps find a girlfriend. They are none too happy to send her away.

But it isn't long before she winds up under the spell of Lee Fleming, Stillwater's resident poet, whose wealthy family allows him to indulge his profligate lifestyle and invite poets from across the country to share their talents, not to mention share their drugs and alcohol. Despite one major complication—Lee is gay and Peggy is a lesbian—the two begin an affair, which quickly leaves 18-year-old Peggy pregnant and forced to withdraw from school.

Peggy is unprepared for marriage and motherhood, despite the fact that she loves her son and daughter. But her jealousy at Lee's serial infidelity and his unwillingness to help her advance her literary career leaves her angry and depressed. An impulsive act has Lee threatening to commit Peggy to a psychiatric institution, so with no other choice, she runs away with her three-year-old daughter in tow, leaving her nine-year-old son Byrdie behind with Lee.

Determined to live a life outside the margins, Peggy (now Meg) and her daughter Karen squat in an abandoned shack in the midst of an African-American settlement, and she adopts African-American personae for both of them (despite their outward appearances). They live in near-abject poverty, supplemented by Meg's odd jobs (including aiding a drug dealer), but eventually the two move into a housing project, where Karen can be closer to her best friend, Temple, whose intellect and potential far outweighs those around him, and this helps propel Karen forward as well, despite that she is younger than Meg has led everyone to believe.

Years later, Temple and Karen wind up as students at the University of Virginia (Karen on a minority scholarship), and it is there the two encounter Byrdie, now a senior, happy to be living a life away from his father's emotional complexity. The lives of the three intersect one Halloween night, the implications of which not only threaten to unravel each of their academic lives, but the lies that have been told for years prior.

I thought the concept of this book was really fascinating, and Nell Zink is a very good storyteller with a knack for language and dialogue. However, I felt more often than not, this book was satirical when I expected it to be serious, and chose a heavier hand when dealing with more farcical material. I think it wanted to be a commentary on the heavy weights of racial and sexual prejudice, social mores, and the damages that family can cause, but often it got mired in more exposition than it needed, and I felt the ending was a little too pat for a book that was really unique in most other ways.

If you enjoy social satire, this may be your cup of tea. Zink's writing is crisp and her ideas are really creative, but for me, Mislaid, well, missed the mark.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Book Review: "I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them" by Jesse Goolsby

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.

Sadly, war has nearly always been a part of our collective understanding, no matter what generation you are from. So much has been written about the cost of war, and the impact it has on those on the front lines. Jesse Goolsby's powerful, brutal new book, I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, takes this one step further, looking at war's impact not only on those who serve, but on those they leave behind, and those they interact with after their service has ended.

Wintric Ellis is a young man from a small town in California who decides to join the army directly after his high school graduation, if for no other reason than to provide him direction and give him an opportunity to see life beyond his small town. He leaves behind his girlfriend, Kristen, and winds up in Afghanistan. While he considers himself fortunate not to be in the middle of the deadly fighting in Iraq, the placidity of Afghanistan does little to quell his fears that the enemy is just around the corner, that every step or every encounter could mean peril. But he gets taken under the wing of two more experienced soldiers, Torres and Dax, and their friendship helps make the fearful days less so.

One day, the soldiers are forced to act in a split second, essentially making the choice between life and death. And that decision, made in the heat of the moment, is one that will affect each of their post-war lives and impact their relationships with others, and set each of them on a tremendously challenging path. And after his friends are decommissioned, Wintric faces a shocking incident of violence that further affects him.

I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them is essentially told in snapshots, looking at the early lives of Wintric, Dax, and Torres, and how they wound up in Afghanistan, and how their lives unfolded after they left the military. The book looked at their relationships with family, loved ones, friends, children, and the demons that haunted each of them, many of which formed in that one moment in Afghanistan. The struggles are moving, at times brutal, and tremendously poignant, when you realize that many who have served our country deal with similar issues.

Goolsby is an absolutely talented writer, and his use of language and imagery is tremendously poetic. The characters are tremendously complex (although not always likeable) and you can feel for them and their struggles. My challenge with the book, however, is that in his vignette-like approach, Goolsby often doesn't paint the full picture of what happens to the characters, leaving you with more questions than answers. This was the case with several key incidents in the book—he is oblique rather than direct, and I had to re-read parts of the book a few times, and still didn't always come away with the answers I was seeking.

There have been many fine books written about the scars of war, both physical and emotional, and I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them deserves to stand alongside them. I look forward to seeing what's next in Goolsby's career, because his talent is tremendous.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Book Review: "The Grown Ups" by Robin Antalek

Relationships. Can't live without 'em, can't, well...

The summer of Sam Turner's 15th year was an eventful one. Spending time with his group of childhood friends, he suddenly catches the interest of Suzie Epstein, and they begin a romantic relationship that they keep hidden from their friends, even though the hookups of others are known among them. But as quickly as it begins, their relationship ends when Suzie's estranged parents decide to give their marriage another try and move the family to another city. And then Sam suffers another blow, when his mother decides to leave his husband and move away.

In the wake of Suzie's abrupt departure and the dissolution of his family, Sam finds himself drawn into a relationship with Suzie's best friend, Bella. Their relationship continues into college, but while Sam feels strongly for Bella, he can't seem to give her the full commitment she desires—and he can't seem to give that commitment to anything in his life, which also causes trouble in his relationships with his father and older brother. He finds himself drifting, from job to job, relationship to relationship, without feeling any pull to put down roots.

Suzie left her old life and her old friends behind, mostly out of embarrassment for the way her parents' marriage affected the lives of so many. She becomes the caretaker for her younger brothers and her alcoholic mother, and works hard to graduate high school one year early, so she can start anew. And she never thinks she'll be able to have a relationship that isn't dysfunctional, until, surprisingly, she connects with Sam's older brother Michael.

The Grown Ups follows Sam, Bella, and Suzie over a decade, as they weather romantic, professional, and familial crises. Robin Antalek does a terrific job weaving their stories, and even though her characters aren't completely likeable, their lives are tremendously compelling. Even though what happens in this book is more commonplace than unique, I still really enjoyed this book, and found it emotionally provoking at times as well. This is a book about all types of relationships—romantic ones, parent-child, siblings, and of course, friendships—and at least one of the relationships in the book may seem familiar to you.

"She could feel the world that Mindy was talking about pressing in on all sides, and then the crazy crooked line that ran from her mother to Sam. They had known each other all their lives. They were in each other's DNA. This place was all she had ever known."

A Year...

Dear Dad,

It's been one year. 525,600 minutes, give or take, since we lost you. And while the loss is perhaps not as raw as it was those first few days, there's still an ache, a hurt, and most of all, a gigantic void in all of our hearts.

There's been so much you've missed over the last year, although I try to believe you've been watching over us, so you've seen it all. Hopefully you've seen the birthdays, the boys' shows and special achievements, the holidays. Maybe you've not had to see the struggles or the tears.

So many times I've picked up the phone to call you, to share both random and specific news. I had to stop myself from seeking your words of wisdom while Wayne's mom was fighting her own battles, had to stop myself from checking in with you every time I was on the road. And of course, you were the missing piece in the absolute excitement I felt when I finally got my first executive director job a few months ago. You know how long and how hard I've worked for this, and (at least in my opinion) so far, I'm pretty good at it.

But you also missed another crappy winter. I know you would have had some pointed words for what's been going on in our world. And more than that, I know you would have had some funny stories to tell.

I'm still at a loss a lot of the time. I've spent the entire year holding it together for everyone else, but there are the occasional cracks. But honestly, most of all, I feel the same way I did when I wrote what I said at your funeral.

Dad, I don't need milestone days like these to remember you, to cherish the memories, or appreciate the man you were. I do that every day. It's just, on days like these, it's just a little harder.

We love you, and I love you, with all of my heart, and I miss you more than words can say. So often I still am grateful for what you gave me and what you taught me, and simply for your being the man you were.

I love you,


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Book Review: "All Involved" by Ryan Gattis

I remember the beating of Rodney King, but what I remember more than that was the outrage and violence which exploded in Los Angeles in April of 1992, when three of the four white policemen accused of the beating were completely acquitted, while no verdict was reached on the fourth. It was utterly surreal to be living in Washington, DC, watching the rioting, looting, destruction, and violence that followed, a feeling I'd never thought I'd have again, yet I felt similarly a few weeks ago when similar incidents occurred in Baltimore.

Over a six-day period in 1992, 53 people were killed in the riots. But what few really understood was the violence that occurred outside the immediate epicenter of the riots, as Los Angeles-area gang members used the incidents as camouflage for their own activities, settling old scores with rival gangs jockeying for control, and taking whatever they could, by whatever means necessary. Ryan Gattis' magnificent, powerful All Involved is a fictionalized account of gang members and others caught up in the violence on the fringes of the riots, and how righting alleged wrongs and working to save face proved dangerous and often deadly.

Ernesto Vera works on a taco truck, but he has dreams of becoming a chef, and wants to get an apprenticeship at an exclusive Japanese restaurant so he can learn from the masters. Sent home early by a boss worried about the rioting, he is nearly home when he encounters a group of gang members looking to settle a score with his younger brother. This clash sets up a series of confrontations that affect a number of lives, including nurses, firemen, and students utterly unprepared for what is coming down the pike, both good and bad.

"There's a truth in that somewhere and maybe it's this—there's a hidden America inside the one we portray to the world, and only a small group of people ever actually see it. Some of us are locked into it by birth or geography, but the rest of us just work here. Doctors, nurses, firemen, cops—we know it. We see it. We negotiate with death where we work because that's just part of the job. We see its layers, its unfairness, its unavoidability. Still, we fight that losing battle. We try to maneuver around it, even occasionally even steal from it. And when you come across somebody else who seems to know it like you do, well, you can't help but stop and wonder what it'd be like to be with someone who can empathize."

Gattis tells 17 interconnected stories, imbuing his characters with life, emotion, and complexity, and he manages to make many of them characters you root for despite what they're doing. It's a talented author who makes you care about those who kill, injure, steal, and destroy, yet he doesn't paint over their flaws either. As you might imagine, some of the chapters are more interesting than others—I honestly would have been happy if the book had remained focused on the rival gangs and those caught up in their activities; I felt the book lost a bit of steam when it turned to other characters with only a slight connection.

Gattis' storytelling is gritty, violent, poetic, and powerful, and I was utterly hooked for the majority of the book. We hear all too often about the human toll that violence takes, but All Involved brings that home without being overly preachy. It's an unflinching look at a not-too-far-distant time in our society that sadly, we're not completely past yet. If you're a crime novel fan, this is definitely one to read and savor.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Book Review: "Bream Gives Me Hiccups" by Jesse Eisenberg

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

I tend to be dubious when I come across a book written by an actor. It's not that every actor is a bad writer; in fact, I've read some well-written books authored by actors, such as Ethan Hawke, Meg Tilly, and Lauren Graham. But of course, for every actor deserving of a book deal, there are many whose books are published only on the strength of their name and not any display of writing skill. (Cough, James Franco, cough.)

When I saw a friend had raved about Jesse Eisenberg's collection of stories, Bream Gives Me Hiccups, I was definitely intrigued. I'm a big fan of his acting and hoped that his wry, sarcastic sense of humor I've seen displayed in interviews would shine through. I also hoped that a book being touted as hysterically funny actually lived up to that billing.

I'm pleased to say Eisenberg succeeded on both fronts. This book is composed of a number of stories and humorous anecdotes which take different forms—text messages, email conversations, letters, conversations—and many made me laugh out loud. From the hilarious and touching title story, in which a nine-year-old boy reviews meals he has in different locations, many with his troubled mother, to an email conversation between a dating couple which gets hijacked by his sister, who is a scholar of the Bosnian genocide, some of these stories are laugh-out-loud funny and many others make you chuckle and shake your head at Eisenberg's ingenuity. And more than a few times, I could hear his voice coming through the narration, which added an extra layer of depth and humor.

In addition to the two stories I mentioned above, some of my favorites in this collection included (and many of the titles say all that needs to be said about the stories themselves): "My Prescription Information Pamphlets as Written by My Father"; "Carmelo Anthony and I Debrief Our Friends after a Pickup Game at the YMCA"; "If She Ran Into Me Now," in which a man is waiting for a glimpse of an ex-girlfriend; and "A Bully Does His Research," which I found perhaps a little too short.

Not every story works; there are times when Eisenberg goes for one more laugh where he could have held back, and times when the stories are more one-liner than plot, but even those are enjoyable in their own way. This was a quick, fun read, and I look forward to not only seeing more of his movies (he's playing Lex Luthor, y'all), but reading more of his books in the future. Perhaps he can pave the way for more actors with writing talent being published instead of those without it.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Book Review: "Bright Shards of Someplace Else" by Monica McFawn

One thing I love so much about reading short stories is stumbling upon story concepts and characters I haven't seen before, and of course, finding beautiful writing. Both were on display in Monica McFawn's collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else.

The characters that populate McFawn's stories are all different—a nanny and her precocious charge, a boss tasked with firing a problem employee, a pompous scientist and the art critic that comes into his circle, a pair of horse trainers and vets—but there is such heart at the core of each of the stories. And each story chronicles a need of some sort—some far more obsessive than others.

My two favorite stories bookend the collection. The first, "Out of the Mouths of Babes," follows a nanny who finds her new charge has a remarkable facility with making phone calls, so she tasks him with helping her solve a few problems. The final story in the collection, "The Chautauqua Sessions," chronicles an aging lyricist whose reunion with his former musical partner is waylaid by his drug addict son, and the lengths he goes to keep his son from affecting his inspiration. A few other stories I enjoyed included: "The Slide Turned on End," which follows a pompous scientist inspired by the intersection of art and science, and the art critic who becomes a somewhat unwilling participant in his work; "Line of Questioning," in which a poetry professor is questioned by police about his relationship with a former student; and "Key Phrases," which follows a fairly new supervisor at a company who is tasked with firing a problem employee.

McFawn, who won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, is a truly gifted writer. There were times, honestly, where her use of language and imagery actually hooked me more than the story's plot itself. Here is one example, from "Line of Questioning":
"Theirs was a comfortable relationship of light mutual contempt that drummed on them bracingly like a light rain when they were together. The old demons of their relationship were soggy but still smelled alluringly like hellfire."
This collection was a bit more cerebral at times than I'm used to with short stories, so I didn't always warm to the plot or the characters. But when I did, I realized what a talent McFawn has, and I look forward to seeing it continue to develop in the future.