Sadness is a White Bird, by Moriel Rothman-Zecher*****

“There’s nothing ‘not political’ in Palestine, habibi.”

SadnessisaJonathan grew up in the United States, but now his family is in Israel, the land of his mother’s birth. He’s visited Auschwitz where much of his family died, and he can’t wait to turn eighteen so that he can train to be an Israeli paratrooper. Enough with being ‘people of world’, he figures; he wants to be a Jewish warrior, the ‘people of the sword,’ and exact some payback.  A friendship with two Palestinian teenagers complicates his life in ways he didn’t expect. I received an advance review copy of this exquisitely rendered story free, courtesy of Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for this honest review.

Twin siblings Laith and Nimreen are Palestinians, but long days at the beach and twilit evenings spent with Jonathan, getting high and telling ridiculous jokes, blur the social boundaries observed by most Jews, and by most Palestinians. With the absurd idealism peculiar to young people that haven’t run up hard against life’s limitations, Jonathan thinks that he can have both, that he can become an Israeli soldier and keep his friendships separate from his new career. His friends know better, but still they love him.

There’s only one way to tell a story like this one, and that’s as a tragedy; that’s exactly what Rothman-Zecher does, but he does it better than anyone else I can imagine.  This doomed friendship becomes more deeply intimate the closer the day comes when Jonathan must report for duty. Ultimately it becomes a bizarre love triangle in which our young protagonist has a sexual relationship with both of them—though fortunately not simultaneously.  For a good long while this lodges in my craw, and as the story continues, I am too revolted to focus. As brilliantly written as this story is, I was headed in the direction of a four star review in protest; that was true, anyway, until I recognized the allegory. Then I was over it.

Nimreen is a teenager too, but she lives with the partitioned state every damn day of her life. She knows that Jonathan can’t have it both ways, but she hopes against hope that he’ll change his mind, that he won’t go into the service. And as Jonathan and his friends try to do anything, go anywhere where there are other people, we see exactly how polarized this place has become. They can’t hitchhike together; there are so many places where either Jonathan isn’t safe, or Laith and Nimreen are not permitted. He goes through a checkpoint where, without his suspicious-looking friends, he would simply have been waved through, and he finds out what it’s like to have one’s homeland invaded.

Rothman-Zecher does a splendid job of depicting exactly how difficult this question is. If I ask myself, have Jews been systematically robbed of their possessions, their homes, and sometimes their lives across not just hundreds of years, but across centuries? I know the answer is yes. I knew it before, but this story drives it home in a way that is visceral. And do Jews deserve to have a home that nobody can ever, ever take from them again? Again, the answer is absolutely yes.

But then we look at the Palestinians, indigenous people living in the Third World at a bare subsistence level. Their homes are almost all they possess, and does anyone have the right to march in, evict them from this place and chase them away from their homes, their families, their livelihoods? Oh hell no, of course not.

In this epic story, Rothman-Zecher bridges the scholarly with the deeply personal, fulfilling a task that can only be achieved by excellent fiction. This searing debut has put this writer on the map definitively and marked him as a new voice in literature.

Highly recommended.

White Houses, by Amy Bloom*****

 

“Lorena Alice Hickock, you are the surprise of my life. I love you. I love your nerve. I love your laugh. I love your way with a sentence. I love your beautiful eyes and your beautiful skin and I will love you till the day I die.”

I pushed out the words before she could change her mind.

“Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, you amazing, perfect, imperfect woman, you have knocked me sideways. I love you. I love your kindness and your brilliance and your soft heart. I love how you dance and I love your beautiful hands and I will love you till the day I die.”

I took off my sapphire ring and slipped it onto her pinkie. She unpinned the gold watch from her lapel and pinned it on my shirt. She put her arms around my waist. We kissed as if we were in the middle of a cheering crowd, with rice and rose petals raining down on us.”

 

WhiteHouses

A sea change has occurred in the way mainstream Americans regard lesbian relationships. This book proves it. We would have laughed at the possibility in the 1980s, that a major publishing house would one day publish this novel depicting a revered  First Lady in such a (covert) relationship—while she was in the White House, no less. But Amy Bloom tells it, square and proud, and she lets us know that this is only fiction by an inch or two. Many thanks go to Random House (I will love you till the day I die) and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.  This novel is now for sale.

Nobody can tell a story the way that Bloom does it, and this is her best work yet. The story is told us by Lorena Hickok, a journalist known as “Hick”, an outcast from a starving, dysfunctional family, the type that were legion during America’s Great Depression. The voice is clear, engaging, and so real that it had me at hello, but the story’s greatest success is in embracing the ambiguity at the heart of the First couple, Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So many great things done for the nation; so many entitled, thoughtless acts toward the unwashed minions they knew. A new friend, a favorite visitor brought from cold hard poverty, here and there, to occupy a White House spare bedroom and provide stimulating conversation, a new viewpoint, and to demonstrate the administration’s care for the common folk; then dumped unceremoniously, often without a place to go or money to get there, when they became tiresome or ill or inconvenient. The very wealthy, privileged backgrounds from which the Roosevelts sprung provided them with myopia that comes with living their whole lives in a rarefied environment. It is fascinating to see history unspool as Eleanor visits coal camps and picket lines, visits textile mills where children labor; but then of course, she repairs to the best lodging available before her journey home commences. And Hick is welcome when she is convenient, but she is banished for a time when there’s too much talk.

And yet—oh, how Lorena loved Eleanor, and the reverse was true, but not necessarily in the same measure, with the same fealty, or the same need.

Social class, the dirty secret America has tried to whitewash across the generations, is the monster in the Roosevelt closet. And FDR, perhaps the greatest womanizer to grace the Oval Office, has his PR people tell everyone that he has no manly function what with the paralysis, and that all those pretty girls that come and go are just there to cheer him up. He makes JFK look like a monk in comparison.  Yet we cannot hate him entirely, because of the New Deal:

He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day…He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, Who’s for cocktails?”

I have a dozen more meaty quotes I’d like to use here, but it’s much better if you get this book, by hook or by crook, and find all of them for yourself.  It’s impressive work by any standard, and I defy you to put it down once you’ve begun.

Highly recommended.

She Regrets Nothing, by Andrea Dunlop****

“Love,” she thought, “is for the rich and foolish.”

SheregretsLaila is just twenty-three when her mother dies, and she is astonished when her cousins appear at the funeral. Cousins? What cousins? In fact, they are from her father’s side of the family, long estranged—and they are very wealthy. Cousin Liberty wants to make amends, and nobody has to tell Laila twice. She ditches her home in Michigan, leaves her spouse, a dull dentist who’s blindsided by her sudden departure, and heads for New York City, to live in the style to which she would like to become accustomed.

Lucky me, I read this darkly funny story free courtesy of Atria Books and Net Galley. It was released Tuesday, so you can get a copy of your own now.

As Laila arrives in New York, the reader cannot help but worry for her. She’s never been to New York before, and she has very little money. She’s brought a few pieces of her mother’s jewelry, the only things of any value her mom had owned, but she doesn’t want to sell them. As she meets her newly found kinfolk and settles into a guest bedroom, it’s instinctual to wish we could grab her by the wrist and yank her back out of there. Careful Sweetie, you’re playing with fire. They’re being nice to you now because you’re new. When the novelty wears off, they’ll spit you back out again. New Yorkers are tough, and nobody uses people and discards them as quickly as the very rich—right?

There are at least a dozen places where I make predictions that prove incorrect. For example, given Laila’s trump card that makes her a possible heir, I find myself waiting for the DNA test that will prove she actually isn’t related to them at all…but that doesn’t happen. I can tell things won’t work out the way she anticipates because the author drops so much wry foreshadowing. But what she does with it at the end is both completely consistent with the protagonist as we know her, and a complete surprise as well.

Part of the joy this novel sparks is its understated quality. Some writers will drop something amusing into the storyline, but then they have to go back to it, explain it, make sure the reader got it and at that point it’s cold and lifeless. None of that for Dunlop. Stay on your toes; if you’re paying attention you’ll get it, but if you are distracted, oh well. Think of it like trying to catch a cab right after the theater lets out; watch out or you’ll be left behind.

I confess that I have read neither of the novels to which this one is compared in the promotional blurb, but to me, the humor is similar in some ways to that in The Nanny Diaries.

If you need a giggle—and frankly who doesn’t—you should order this snappy, cleverly turned novel. It’s a fast read and it made me laugh out loud.

Smoke City, by Keith Rosson*****

SmokeCityNerds, geeks, and bibliophiles be ready. Marvin Dietz, who in an earlier life was the executioner of Joan of Arc, is leaving Portland, and he’s collected some unlikely traveling companions. Why not join him?  I read this story free and early thanks to Meerkat Press, but it’s worth your nickel to seek it out, because there is nothing else like it. This book is available to the public Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

Mike Vale was once a great painter, and now he has been forced out of his record store by a shifty, corrupt landlord, so he heads south to Los Angeles to attend the funeral of his ex-wife. En route he picks up Dietz, who is hitchhiking, and further along the way Casper stows away in the back. The voice with which their story is told is resonant and the word-smithery makes me shake my head in some places—who writes like this?—and in others I laugh out loud. Here’s a sample from the passage where we meet Casper:

 

‘I want my money,’ Casper said. “My money or my gear. You pick.’
‘Jesus wept,’ the last counterman said before wheeling around on his stool. Then Gary, our mechanic, walked past me and threaded his way through the tables. He laid his hand on the end of the bat… Casper turned and looked at him. What little fight there was deflated out of him like a balloon. Almost lovingly, Gary put him in a headlock.

‘Casper, Duncan sold your meter for a bag of crank days ago. Give it a break. Getting money from him is like getting Thousand Island from a basset hound’s tits, man. You can squeeze all you want, but it ain’t happening.’

 

As the journey continues, somewhere in California, the Smokes appear. They’re the undead, and they appear as if they are made of smoke. They can’t hear live people or see them, but their personal dramas and torments play out for people in the here and now, and they don’t observe the laws and conventions regarding private safety and property, either.  They show up at random times and in random places, causing traffic accidents and other complications. And so we have to wonder if there’s a connection between Marvin, whose many incarnations are recounted to us in his confidential narrative, and these apparitions. The government and the military are at a total loss; the press is enjoying itself, but even the most ambitious journalist recognizes that things have spun out of control.

The plot is complex, and readers must bring their literary skills along for the ride or there’s no point in coming.  It’s a story that takes awhile to develop, but it’s more than worth the slow build. The playful use of language and quixotic spirit of the prose are reminiscent of Michael Chabon at his finest hour.

Highly recommended; get it in hardcover.

Straying, by Molly McCloskey*****

StrayingThis title is the first fictional work McCloskey has published in the US, but surely it cannot be the last. This addictive novel came to me free and early, courtesy of Scribner and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. It becomes available to the public February 20, 2018.

Alice has returned to Ireland. As a young woman of 24, she had gone there intending to visit, gain some perspective about what to do with her life, and then return to Portland, Oregon, but instead she met Eddie and married. “I was not sure how grown-up love was supposed to feel.” Now she is more mature and single again; she returns to Ireland and in a deeply intimate, gently philosophical narrative, tells us about what happened, and about the affair with Cauley that was instrumental in ending her marriage.

Here I must confess that I have old-fashioned ideas about cheating on a spouse. If your marriage is solid, you should respect it and be faithful. If your marriage is dying, get out before you start something new; don’t sneak around and tell lies. If your marriage is troubled and you aren’t sure what you want, address that first, but don’t poison the well with a fling. It’s unethical and unfair. Have some integrity, for goodness sake.

And so, why am I reading this novel, and more to the point, why am I loving it? It goes to show that a strong writer can make me want to read almost anything, whereas an indifferent one may start with a promising scenario that fizzles. McCloskey pulls me in and doesn’t let me go.

The cover art tells the reader right away that despite the title, this is not erotica. Those looking for a novel that will make them breathe hard will have to find something else. Straying gives us something far better, in my view. I feel as if Alice is my dear friend. I usually read several titles at once, drifting from one to another over the course of a day or evening. But Alice interrupts my literary smorgasbord because in a way, I feel disloyal for reading anything else. The narrative here, told in the first person, is so deeply personal that it’s as if she is sitting across from me at a coffee shop (or since we’re in Ireland, in a pub perhaps), and she’s spilling the beans, confessing everything that she did, and the consequences that followed. She isn’t beating herself up Anna Karenina-style, nor is she proud of her mistakes; rather, she is explaining what happened, what she’s learned from it, and what she still wonders about. It’s not prose you can walk away from until it’s over.

Those that love excellent fiction should buy this book and read it. If you can get it cheap, do that; if you have to pay full jacket price, do it anyway. You don’t want to miss this one.

The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin****

TheImmortalistsFour adolescent siblings growing up in New York City learn that a traveling psychic has hit town, a woman that can tell each person the date that he or she will die. Against the wishes of their parents, they sneak out to find her. I received my copy free and early in exchange for this honest review, thanks to Net Galley and G.P. Putnam’s Sons. This book is now available to the public.

The book is divided approximately into fourths, a quarter for each of the Gold children and across five decades. To my own way of thinking the first half of the story is far more resonant than the second half. Simon, the “golden boy”, dies of AIDS before the disease has been named, but before he is gone, the San Francisco of that time period is set out in such meticulous, immediate detail that I feel as if I am back there, back then. The portion of the book devoted to Klara, who becomes a magician, is nearly tangible in different ways, and older women that have worked in unconventional professions—before the year 2000, that meant just about all of them—will recognize themselves when they see how she is dismissed, harassed, and stigmatized.

Then I read a review by someone that felt exactly the opposite, claiming that the story didn’t really wake up until the second half. And so I suspect that the age and background of the reader will inform which part of the book stands out best.

However, once I have seen Simon and Klara die, I have other reasons for reading more slowly. If both of them die during the first and second quarters of the book, I have a pretty good idea what is about to happen to Daniel and Varya in the third and fourth quarters.  These characters, a Naval physician and a primate researcher, don’t reach me the way that Simon and Klara do. With Simon and Klara, I am right there with them, and at times I am peeking out and seeing the world through their eyes. With Daniel and Varya, I am along for the ride, checking to see how many pages are left in this thing so I can go write my review and be done.

Benjamin’s  greatest gift is setting. There are aspects of each place and time that I remember, and others that I have nearly forgotten until she brings them back again. But for those expecting to see a fantasy plot, as this has been billed, or magical realism, it’s going to prove disappointing; really it is literary fiction, and some reviewers will be unhappy because of the genre issue.

Those that love good literary fiction are going to want to read this novel. There’s been a tremendous amount of buzz, and there’s nothing else like it.

Two Girls Down, by Louisa Luna*****

TwoGirlsDownThis is a quick read and a fun one. I received my copy free and early in exchange for this honest review courtesy of Net Galley and Doubleday. It becomes available to the public tomorrow, January 9, 2018.

A frazzled mother in a small Pennsylvania town pops into a big-box store one afternoon, leaving her two elementary-aged girls in the car. They’re old enough not to wander off with some weirdo, and she’s just going to be a minute. When she comes back, they’re gone.

Our protagonists in equal measure are Cap, a former cop who’s left the force in disgrace, and Vega, an out-of-state PI brought in by the girls’ relatives. Vega seeks Cap out after the local cop shop refuses to work with her; sparks fly.

If you take the story apart and look at its elements, it is all old material and should be stale. We have the missing children; a single grieving female detective, a vigilante type with little to lose; a slightly-older, single-dad, lonely older male detective, all of which leads to romance, because heaven forbid we should ever have a competent female private eye without a sizzling chemical frisson to keep readers from feeling threatened by her competence. We have the single dad’s (also-competent) teenage daughter left alone for long periods of time, vulnerable to the forces of evil. And of course our female detective has to be diminutive, a tiny-firecracker type.  Even Vega’s love of firearms isn’t new; consider Kinsey Millhone and Stephanie Plum. And our female detective has to be a very light eater. God forbid she should chow down at dinner time; no, she pushes her food around and away.

The pieces of this thing have been done to death. And yet.

And yet, the whole of the story is so much more than the sum of its parts. A strong writer can take overdone elements and make them gleam, and that’s what Luna has done here.

The thing that makes it work is the element of surprise. When I am looking ahead, I can often see, in a broad sense, where we are going, but when I try to predict how we’ll get there, I see three possibilities, and Luna always comes up with a fourth at the most unexpected of times.  Vega’s “roofless rage” gives her a no-holds-barred, Dirty-Harry-Lite kind of approach; she’s never killed anyone, but if she’s always as off the wall as she is here, it’s a miracle. But the other miracle? The fact that I am wondering what she is like at other times demonstrates how well Luna has developed her characters. Cap is a well of timeworn chivalrous decency, but Vega wants to take the kind of people that would deliberately hurt a child and “put them in the fucking earth.”

Luna uses lots of crackling dialogue and a spare prose style that makes this book accessible to anyone that finished the eighth grade, and possibly some that didn’t. Although there’s no indication that this will become a series, one has to wonder if such a thing might happen.  My own preference would be to see Vega act independently of romantic entanglements, because she has the potential to be a feminist hero, and we need one of those right now.

One way or another, this is a read you won’t want to miss. Highly recommended.

 

Brass, by Xhenet Aliu*****

“I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

Brass Waterbury, Connecticut is the place to go for immigrants, the Brass Manufacturing Capital of the World; that’s true, anyway, until the plant closes. Elsie Kuzavinas waits tables at a Greek restaurant while her mother slaves over the assembly line at the Peter Paul Almond Joy Mounds factory nearby.

Elsie tells us that “My mother had warned me when I took the job to watch out for the Albanians that worked at the Ross, because she heard they treated their women like sacks and that their tempers ran hotter than the deep fryers in the kitchen.”  Nevertheless, she falls for the line cook, Bashkim hard and fast.  When he offers to take her home one night and then deliberately points his Pontiac Fiero the wrong way, she falls silently complicit, because even if he turns out to be a serial killer, she would be “happier to have died Bashkim’s victim than his nothing-at-all.”  Elsie knows that Bashkim had left a wife behind, but they don’t talk about it.

That’s just one of Bashkim’s rules. Nobody is allowed to talk about Bashkim’s wife.

In fact, Bashkim is a humdinger, and seeing Elsie’s slow transition from battered mistress to—not a crusader by any means, but a woman that has a bottom line involving basic safety and minimal security—is bound to make readers sit up straight and pay attention. And when an apologetic relative tells a bruised Elsie that Bashkim didn’t mean to hurt her, I want to cheer when Elsie says, “Of course he did. That’s what fists do.”

Elsie’s story is told alternately with that of the daughter she begets with Bashkim. Lulu is her mother’s daughter, a reckless girl who’s got little to lose. Their stories are presented in a bold, original second person narrative that is unforgettable.

By now I am supposed to have told you that I read this book free thanks to Net Galley and Random House in exchange for this honest review. But when a debut like this one comes along, the superlatives come first, the disclaimers second.  Aliu has positioned herself on the literary map, and I dare anyone to try to knock her aside.

Lulu didn’t get the college scholarship she had worked toward; all her hopes and dreams were riding on it. She needs more than an education, she needs to get out of the house. In desperation, Lulu sets out to meet her daddy, convinced that if he can actually see her, he will make everything right for her. Ahmet, a fickle, sweet boy that adores her, agrees to drive her to Texas. Lulu’s journeys, both outward and inward, kept me from thumbing off my reader when midnight came. The inward journey joining Lulu and Elsie is hypnotic.

This story is available to the public January 23, 2018. It’s badass working class fiction. Every feminist, every mother, every daughter, and everyone that loves excellent fiction should get a copy of this book and read it.

Because for all of us, it is better to be Aliu’s readers than her nothing-at-all.

The Night Child, by Anna Quinn****

TheNightChildAnna Quinn is a brave writer. This wrenching debut novel occupies a place in literature that has lain dormant for decades; kudos to Quinn for bringing dark business out into the light of day for a good airing. I received my review copy free and early thanks to Net Galley and Blackstone Publishers. It will be available to the public January 30, 2018.

Nora is a high school teacher and the mother of a small child; her marriage is coming undone. Her mental health is a little on the shaky side, and she’s seeing a therapist to help her understand a terrifying vision that came to her in her classroom. A “wild numinous” face, the disembodied face of a child, floats over her students’ desks one day after school, and Nora panics. This face represents the core of Nora’s story, and once the layers of her outer self are peeled away, it makes for a deeply absorbing read.

Quinn takes some time to lay her groundwork. The first part of the story is unremarkable, and I briefly considered abandoning it. Character development seems limited to marital issues and time spent in therapy, and Nora lacks depth and originality until about the thirty percent mark. I tell you this lest you abandon the story yourself. It’s worth the wait, because once the story takes wing, it is hypnotic.

It’s tempting to say this novel is the twenty-first century’s answer to Sybil, but that doesn’t do it justice. Nora’s struggle to find the self that is held beneath layers and layers of emotional scar tissue, to heal herself so that she can be a good mother to Fiona, is one that we carry with us long after the book is over. Those that face serious mental health issues themselves will see vindication. Those that have family members or other loved ones working to unify a personality fragmented by trauma may see themselves as Paul, who’s juggling his own needs, those of his daughter, his love for Nora, and the crushing burnout that comes of living with a partner facing all-absorbing mental illness over a lengthy period of time.

Recommended to those interested in reading about mental health issues through the approachable medium of literary fiction.

Nothing with Strings, by Bailey White****

nothing with stringsWith Christmas around the corner, I bought this slender volume for less than five bucks. It brightened my days (and my bathroom) until I finished it.

White has a droll sense of humor, quirky, eccentric, and at times understated enough that if my mind strays to other things even slightly, I find I have missed something funny. My favorites are the title story, which is fall-down-laughing funny, and “What Would They Say in Birmingham”. Here I have to add that White’s protagonists tend to be Caucasian Southerners, and the humor she employs will most likely appeal to the typical NPR audience, which is mostly white liberal Boomers from all over the United States.

Although it’s billed as a collection of Christmas stories, the holiday influence here is minimal. It’s the sort of collection one could read at any time of year without feeling out of place. I like short story collections because they can be tucked into the guest room, where visitors can read a story or two even if they won’t be around long enough to go through the whole book, but this time I dropped it into a Christmas box I was mailing to relatives as a happy extra little surprise.

Recommended to fans of this writer, and to older white folks that like short stories.