Hook’s Tale, by John Leonard Pielmeier***

HooksTalePielmeier’s debut novel gives poor, maligned Captain Hook an opportunity to share his side of the story. The teaser promises a “rollicking” story, and at first it seems to be exactly that, but it runs out of steam early on. Nevertheless, thank you, Net Galley and Scribner, for the opportunity to read and review.

At the outset, Captain James Cook (his name isn’t Hook!), named for the famous sea explorer, describes himself as looking nothing like the “unbearably pompous actor”, a clear reference to the hilarious Cyril Ritchard, who played Hook in the twentieth century complete with high heeled boots and a beauty mark; however, our pirate assures us, those periwinkle blue eyes do fit the bill. There is an assumption that the reader is well steeped in both the stage and cinematic depictions of the character, and it seems like a fair one. I love reading Hook’s fond and hugely original description of Smee, and our introduction to Hook’s pet crocodile.

“I named it Daisy, after my mother.”

Unfortunately, somewhere between the ten percent and twenty percent mark, the narrative founders, and the most frustrating part for this reviewer is that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what goes wrong. The concept is strong, the voice clear, and yet my interest is gone before the quarter-mark is reached, and at that point I am reading for duty rather than pleasure. I came away with two considerations.

The first is the linear quality of the prose. The formal, old-school language is fun at the outset, but it might be more powerful if alternated with a present day narrative. Hook could have a grandson or other present-day relative that contributes; since Hook marries Tiger Lily, that might be a way to get there. Readers of the digital era may not have the patience to read the rather Victorian-sounding dialect all the way through. An alternating narrative would probably pick up the pace and make for a more compelling arc.

The second consideration is audience. There are two characteristics here that suggest completely different types of reader, and they don’t overlap very well, which may make for a small readership. We have the Boomers and those that came right after them, folks that may have seen the Cyril Ritchard version of Captain Hook on television. It was a childhood favorite of this reviewer, and you can watch the entire thing here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6K2M…

The assumed knowledge and detailed descriptions jibe with this audience. But then there is the other sort of detail, the gore and guts that are more suited to a young reader, perhaps one in his early teens. Older readers may wince at the graphic gore here, decapitations and intestines and fountains of blood—I certainly did—but younger readers that are more likely to love it are unlikely to tolerate the formal prose style adopted. It’s hard to tell whether the writer had a particular audience in mind, but if so he shot wide of the mark.

Another possibility is that the story really is better as a visual medium. Reading about people flying is not as enjoyable as seeing them do it, and I say this as a person that prefers the printed word over film almost always. J.M. Barrie’s work itself is difficult to plow through, and also racist as hell; the story took wing on stage and screen. In addition, the stage version was the first time an actor had been hooked to cables and “flew” in front of a live audience; what seems like corny, ancient technology now, was new and exciting then.

All of this notwithstanding, you may love this book. It was released July 18, and is for sale now.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither, by Sara Baume*****

spillsimmerThis novel defies genre, and if you read it, I defy you to ever forget it. Thank you to Net Galley and to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the DRC. I received an advance copy free in exchange for a fair review, and I can tell you, this one’s a keeper, and it is for sale to the public today.

Our protagonist, who tells the whole story start to finish without any other significant characters apart from his memory of them, is “…not the kind of person who is able to do things.” He lives independently in a coastal village in England, subsisting on government aid, the rent paid by the tenants in the building his father left him, and the money he has tucked away, bit by bit, over the course of his fifty-seven years. There is black mold in his house, and plenty of grit and grime, but he is left alone and can fend for himself, eating from cans and frying sausages. His greatest fear is of children, because he was bullied as a child and is certain—correctly, perhaps—that if children were to see him now, they’d do the same. His loneliness is so intense that he has purchased picture frames and kept the inset photos of the models used to sell the frames. There they are in his living room, these strangers under glass. Faces to look at.

On one of his quiet trips to the neighborhood thrift store, he sees a sign offering a free dog; it’s to go to a home without small children or other pets. He thinks to himself that a terrier might help with his rat problem. As soon as he arrives, he hears the disparaging way the shelter employee refers to this dog, which would be put to sleep the following day if not adopted; the employee seems to think this might not be a bad plan, since the “little bugger” had nipped him. Our lonely man peeks in at the matted fur, the “maggot nose”, the missing eye, and he realizes he has found a kindred spirit.

The language with which the story is told reminds me of James Joyce in its luminous quality and word play, but is more accessible than Joyce, and friendlier toward its reader. Animal stories, which this partly is, are often overly sentimental, but the violins don’t wail at us here. It’s the story of One Eye, but it is also the story of our lonely man, whose history gradually unfolds as the story is told.

I cannot help but think that were this protagonist real, and were he in the USA instead of the UK, he would likely either be in prison or homeless.

I read a great deal, and the truth is, now that I am the same age as our protagonist, I forget more of the DRC’s I read than I remember. A few months after I’ve read them, most are a bit foggy. A year later, I may have to check my records to be sure I have even read this book or that one. But perhaps a dozen or so each year stand out in bold relief, stories that will make me tell friends and family, “Ohhh, you have to read that one!”

This is one of those.

I would qualify my recommendation to say that because of some of the terrible things that happen in our protagonist’s history, I would not offer this title to your precocious young reader without first reading it yourself. Also, of course, this might not prove a good choice to those that for personal or religious reasons, simply detest dogs.

Apart from these narrow confines, I recommend this book wholeheartedly to one and all. It’s absolutely matchless.

Pilgrims: A Lake Wobegon Romance*****

PilgrimsOh my stars. Keillor is at his finest here. I’ve never read anything funnier. Every now and then I permit myself to read a title that isn’t a new release but that I’ve been considering reading for a long time. This is one of those.

By now you probably have an idea whether or not you are a Keillor buff. His appeal is largely (but not limited to) the boomer generation. His trademark capacity to satirize people from rural Minnesota, and in particular Lutherans and Norwegians and most of all himself, is legend. He somehow manages to tug the heartstrings occasionally and evoke bittersweet feelings that are experienced by those of us who grew up in the USA during a particular time period, even if we are not from his part of the nation or his culture.

Keillor seemed to me to be sort of a hit-or-miss writer for awhile, but lately, he’s been hitting, at least for me. Liberty, Pontoon, and this one, which parodies Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, carries on without slowing or hitching or ceasing to be interesting and at many times (especially the end) a total crack-up.

If you have never read Chaucer and don’t intend to, that won’t wreck it. The basic contours: Chaucer wrote about people going far away, in a limited group, and Keillor uses the same style of poetry Chaucer used to mark the beginning and end of this book. If there are other parallels, then I am not deep enough to find them, but if I found this to be a good bedside read with only that much recollection, then it will likely suffice for you too.

Here are the story’s components. (I actually flagged fifteen hilarious passages, and then realized that if I quoted them here, it would ruin it to you, so I’ll just give you the basics and set you free.) Margie is 53 and very unhappy. Life has sort of ground to a dull halt; the nest is empty, and husband Carl has moved to a different bedroom. She doesn’t know why. She hopes that if they take a romantic trip to Italy, it will rekindle the flame.

Writer Gary Keillor comes to town. No one includes him in anything. They all assume he is being standoffish by not coming, and he is hurt that no one invites him; very Scandinavian. Before he knows it, he has livened up the speech he is giving (and which is obviously boring his audience senseless) by offering to fund the trip to Italy. Holy smokes! What has he done?

On top of all of it, the town hero, Gussie, their fallen Norwegian soldier who fought in World War II, should have his grave decorated. His daughter Margo, born in Italy outside the sanctity of wedlock, has never gotten around to coming to the USA to meet him, and his remaining brother, very elderly and in a nursing home in another part of the USA, has long wanted someone to convey a photo of Gussie to his grave site. A simple request, and nobody would do it. Now, Margie calls to tell him she’ll be happy to help, and joy of joys, he sends her a big pile of money, and on his deathbed, he refers to her as his “daughter, Margie.” She is entirely untroubled about taking his money as the little band from Lake Wobegon sets out on its vacation and its mission to decorate Gussie’s grave.

This should give you enough information to decide if you want to see the rest. I will only tell you this: the story has some surprises in store at the end; it is not as predictable as it appears to be at the 75% mark.

I found my copy during an annual pilgrimage of my own, to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. It has been available to the public for some time.

Hilarious, and highly recommended!

Bonita Faye, by Margaret Moseley****

bonitafayeBrash Books has a new release, and it’s exactly the kind of novel you’d want to take to a warm sandy beach, or perhaps just to curl up with while the snow falls. I was permitted an advance glimpse, courtesy of Brash Books Priority Reviewers Circle. It was originally published in 1997, but due to be released again February 23, 2016. You’re in for a good time with this one.

Bonita Faye is our protagonist, of course, and although her story has been compared to Fannie Farmer’s work, I found her to be more of a female, less extreme version of Forrest Gump. The narrative begins in a dialect that is semi-literate; the setting is partly in Poteau, Oklahoma and partly elsewhere. Bonita Faye is born poor and without any real source of support, but rises above it through means that are both ingenious and at times, very funny. Although the story is ostensibly a mystery, we don’t need to know who-dunnit, because Bonita Faye did it. All of it.

Because some of us don’t need a knight to ride to our rescue. Some of us can take care of ourselves.

Although I found the protagonist to be engaging, I think the novel would actually be strengthened by pulling back a bit on the cornpone dialect. There is also a point at which her education is improved and her English becomes more eloquent, but then for no discernible reason, she falls back into the same aw-shucks dialect she had initially.

There are multiple characters that are developed besides Bonita Faye. I liked Claude (“Oink oink!”) and also Simone. I had trouble buying into the second half of the thread involving Michel. I also found the thread with Elly to be problematic, although I loved the final resolution of the problem that develops toward the end.

When push comes to shove, Margaret Moseley is a force to be reckoned with, and I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future. Those looking for a fun, accessible vacation read should order this book.

God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison *****

godhelpthechildI’d been looking forward to reading this book, and I’d been dreading it. The fact that Morrison is such an outstanding writer makes the pain in her prose more tangible than most. One doesn’t feel the pain of a character; one feels the pain of a friend. And so even though I have three of her books I haven’t read yet sitting on my to-read stack, challenging me as if to ask why I had skipped them so many times when it was their turn, I still asked for this hot-off-the-presses title for Mother’s Day. When I opened it, my son (the eldest, the one who worries about me now and then) said gently, “So Mom…you know…have you read Toni Morrison? Because…” And I told him I had, and I knew, and that I would also read something light or funny during the time I read this one, to break up the horror.

Going into it with that level of caution, not unlike going out to pick flowers when I was seven, wanting the heavenly fragrance of the posies that grew in our California yard but not wanting to encounter the rattlesnakes that sometimes lay coiled in their vines, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Because although there is certainly plenty of pain to go around, our protagonist advocates for herself; she takes charge. I came away feeling as if there was more that was good in the world, and in people, than bad.

And when we go to the contest for best first lines, hers should be a contender, particularly when one considers context: “It‘s not my fault.” Lula Ann’s mother was horrified at the very sight of her newborn: “Midnight black, Sudanese black.” She and her husband were both light-skinned people, “What we call high yellow”.

“You should have seen my grandmother; she passed for white and never said another word to any of her children.”

It’s all there on that first page: betrayal, betrayal, betrayal, and in the case of Lula Ann’s parentage, betrayal suspected (by her father) and denied (by her mother) and a marriage undone.

I think of my own family; when I was born, everyone in my family, and all of the photographs carefully lined up of those that had gone before, were of the super-pale variety found on the British Isles and in Northern Europe. Turn us loose in the sun for twenty minutes without sunscreen and we look like a family of lobsters.

And yet, over the generations, we have chosen to marry and procreate with people of color. Then, since there were already Black and Asian children in the family, the family members that could not have children adopted two children, the first one white, the second Black. At family parties, the Black relatives all congregate for part of the festivities, then move out to rejoin the rest of us.

And I know it’s not at all the same as for Morrison’s fictional family, because Lula Ann’s parents didn’t have the choice to be all white, or to bring people of color into the family. My generation and the Caucasian members of subsequent generations have had the power to choose who would be in their immediate family; of course, our Black and Asian relatives also had a choice of who to marry, but they also had less power socially and economically, so again: not the same thing. They have none of the history, none of the rage that is inherent of being a son or daughter of a grandson or granddaughter of slaves.

Lula Ann is instructed to call her mother “Sweetness”. There’s deniability there. Her mother doesn’t want people to think…to think something is wrong.

She grows up, ironically, to become a model who is prized for her dark skin. She turns it into a brand, with help from a friend, and wears only white, using the name “Bride”. White clothing day in, day out, to emphasize her darkness. She owns a cosmetic brand but wears no cosmetics. She needs to appear pure in order to carry it off.

She has a man, until he finds out the secret that is buried in her past. Actually, he doesn’t know the whole thing, and that’s where the trouble begins.

Literary fiction often carries power and authority that nonfiction can’t convey, and so it is with God Help the Child. I suspect professors that teach African-American Studies are putting it on their required reading list, and that’s a great thing, because there is so much to think about packed into this slender volume.

If you don’t have this book, get it and read it. If you don’t have the money, go to your local library and put yourself on the waiting list. And if it is assigned to you to read for a class, please, please, don’t buy a paper to get out of reading it (and don’t copy this blog post and turn it in as if it were your own). Don’t read the Cliff Notes. Read the book. It is both accessible and potent. It may be the most important book you read all year, and you won’t forget it.