Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Sinful Folk by Ned Hayes: What She Read Review

You can check out Goodreads reviews (it's doing quite well there), or purchase
Sinful Folk via these links:  Amazon, Indiebound, Audible.
When I was a senior in high school, Mr. Rapuano taught us Chaucer in Brit. Lit. class.  He fancied himself an amalgam of J. Alfred Prufrock and King Lear, with a dash of Marlow on the side.  Whenever a set of our essays displeased him, he would strike a pose in front of the class, wrist raised to forehead, chin tilted to the heavens, and moan, "Oh, people. The horror!  The horror!"  

He was an unforgettable character.  And one of the lasting blessings of a year spent in his class - aside from the witty commentary my friends and I wrought in the notes we passed under our desks - was his requirement that we all memorize the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales, pronounced as they were originally penned (or at least as he best could duplicate the speech of the day for us to copy).

Much whining accompanied this assignment, but I can recite those lines to this day, widening the wondering eyes of my students each year with my feats of memorization.  (The fact that I can sing the "Preamble to the Constitution of the United States" thanks to Schoolhouse Rock also delights them, but perhaps doesn't impress them so much.)

With Sinful Folk, I once again find myself thanking Mr. Rap, if only in my imagination.

What's Sinful Folk about?
  This historical mystery offers any and all Brit. Lit. students many a nod to well-known medieval works, and schools us in some particularly dark and dire customs and events of fourteenth century England as well.  It's also a novel of pilgrimage, and Nick Hayes borrows directly from Chaucer (and other period writers), especially toward the close of the book.  
  Our narrator and protagonist is Mear - once Miriam - a mute "man" living with his" ten year old son in the English village of Duns.  When Christian and four other boys are killed in a house fire during a particularly bleak mid-winter, Mear and the other fathers set off with the boys' bodies for Canterbury and London to seek court assistance in determining who has killed them.  On the journey, we learn something of the men's histories and experience the violent, often superstitious forces that appear to dominate popular culture in this time.  And we - with Mear - unearth clues as to who indeed killed the unfortunate young men.  
  Sinful Folk is based on a real mystery and Miriam's personal history loosely parallels that of some consorts to Prince Edward the Black as well.

My Response?
  Fans of historical fiction should absolutely pick this one up, as it is reach in period detail, but the story is never overwhelmed by it, as does happen with some regularity in this genre.  Miriam is a unique character as well, in my experience, and her story - albeit a mash-up of possibilities rather than a direct historical reference - fascinates.  Mr. Hayes does a solid job of conjuring up the settings as well, and of keeping the plot ticking until the last page is turned.
  I do wish that Mr. Hayes's editors and proofreaders had spent a bit more time on this novel, as a few continuity issues and more than a few oddly parsed sentences early in Sinful Folk made the opening quarter of the novel a pretty slow slog for me and almost turned me away from its pages.  Because I had made a commitment to review it here, I persisted, and in the end I was glad that I did, because by the last quarter of the novel I was thoroughly engrossed in both the plot and the prose.  
  It's good to see, once again, how abundantly my home state of Washington is blessed with fine writers.

Many thanks as always to the fine folks at TLC Book Tours for offering me opportunities to sample books I might otherwise not encounter.  You can find out how other book bloggers responded to Sinful Folk via links on its page at TLC too.


FYI:     Mr. Hayes is on Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest, and he also has a website. There's also a separate website and Facebook page for SINFUL FOLK.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Wage Peace : Poem In Your Post

Wage peace with your breath.   
Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings
and flocks of redwing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists and breathe out sleeping children
and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen
and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening:
hearing sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools:
flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.
Make soup.
Play music, learn the word for thank you in three languages.
Learn to knit, and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
imagine grief as the outbreath of beauty
or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Wage peace.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious.
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Don't wait another minute.
                                  - Judyth Hill (often misattributed to Mary Oliver

Although perhaps a bit didactically presented, the ideas are worth spreading, the images encouraging.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Replacement Life : Mom & Me Review

Get it at Amazon or Indiebound using these links.
This week "Mom & Me" review a novel that hit the front page of the NYTimes Review of Books on Sunday.  It's entitled A Replacement Life and its author, Boris Fishman, is there compared to Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud in a review that features laud after laud after laud for this debut work.

And for once, "Mom & Me" disagree.

Here's her take:
Slava Gelman is employed by a respected magazine in New York City. He tries very hard to get his work published. He has a girl friend who works in the adjacent cubicle. He is the grandson of Russian Jews from Minsk who immigrate to the US—this is the background for the story as it becomes entangled with ties from the Old World and the New, with family, and with Slava’s need to succeed.
We understand Slava’s dilemma as his decidedly rascally and opportunistic grandfather suggests he, the writer, forge Holocaust restitution claims for Russian Jews (who were not Holocaust survivors but had indeed lived through terrible privations during World War II and served in the war but who hadn’t been imprisoned).  Slava needs to decide how to deal with his grandfather, with the issues, and ultimately, the consequences if he accepts the task. “Slava wasn’t a judge: He was a middleman, a loan shark, an alchemist—he turned lies into facts, words into money, silence into knowledge at last.” (160)
A Replacement Life is full of beautiful writing. Here’s one of my favorite passages, especially appealing if you love New York:  “She took his hand and they tiptoed into the cold black water. Slava had been staring at the river from the edge of his neighborhood for years, but this was his first step inside the water that bordered New York on all sides. When you thought about it, it was as waterbound as a Venice, or an Amsterdam, but here, this natural boundary had been reduced to a sideshow. You did not think of New York as a water city. What if the water rose, as the scientists kept saying now and then. What would go first? What would be carried away, and what would rise in its place? The thought of a different city, a city he could have a hand in, made him excited and gave him the boldness to wade deeper into the impenetrable ocean.”  (238-239)
Reading A Replacement Life, in a way, reminded me of M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans.  We watch as both writers take (somewhat) ordinary individuals and observe how the moral dilemmas of their lives unfold. We relate to them as like us in many ways. We try to do good, to be kind, to be ethical, but sometimes we falter. And with good reason, or so we think…
I suspect that mine will be a minority opinion among readers of A Replacement Life, but here's my truth:  I feel as though the NYTimes reviewer and my mom read an entirely different novel than I did.  Where Patricia T. O'Connor (and Mom) saw its protagonist, Slava, as "an honorable man who finds that one broken rule, one risky move, changes his life irrevocably", I saw a hapless, ineffectual, morally-vacillating loser who was quickly persuaded to commit not just one act of fraudulence, but many, simply to gratify his ego.  I wasn't as enamored of Mr. Fishman's prose style as the other two were either, so we will have to disagree on those two major elements.  Needless to say, these contrasting perceptions colored our respective views of this novel.

On the up side, some of Mr. Fishman's descriptive passages brought me back to the Manhattan and Brooklyn of my youth, Slava's careful and apt parsing of New Yorker-esque writing style elicited hearty chuckles, and (SPOILER ALERT) two later chapters in which Slava develops a mutually enriching relationship with one of his elderly clients redeemed the entire novel for me.

I must add that, when all is said and done, I would certainly sample Mr. Fishman's next novel to see how his work is evolving, because I found his prose and perspective quite engaging in  non-fiction articles and FB posts I found as I researched for this review A case in point: this guest post about autobiographical fiction on Book Club Girl via his website.  Funny, insightful, and in all ways worth reading.  (So do!)

If you'd like to try A Replacement Life for yourself to see who's right, Mom and Ms. O'Connor or me, just purchase a copy of this novel via the links under the cover image above.  But why not visit Boris Fishman's FB page first:  he's quite witty and winning in his short missives there, and on his website too.

You might also want to visit a few more blogs on this tour to experience some alternate views. Here's the link: TLC A Replacement Life Book Tour.

As always, I'm grateful to sample a variety of novels and non-fiction books via TLC Book Tours.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 : Mom and Me Review

Find it via these links at Indiebound or Amazon,
(sample Prose's prose there too) or at your local bookseller.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is an historical fiction, based loosely around a single surprising bit of information that Prose stumbled upon at a museum exhibit:  the tuxedoed woman in the famous Brassai photo, “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932”, is the French athlete Violette Morris who was an Olympic hopeful and auto racer in the ‘30’s yet later wound up working for the Nazis.  (More details would spoil some of the plot, but you will be surprised at the historical events she had a despicable hand in.)

My Take:
Told in a polyphony of voices, the novel explores how its characters attempt to shape others’ perceptions of them through written language and how biographers imperfectly impose their own agendas on their subjects, all in the context of artists and bohemians carousing in pre- and WWII Paris.  But Prose’s main thematic concerns appear to be how “evil” people are formed (and /or how a particular pairing of people exacerbates innate or learned personality traits to the point that they’re exhibited in choices most would consider to be “evil”) and how people justify their own action or inaction in the face of evil.  This is not new territory for her, but if it is for you then this book would be a good fit for your TBR list. 

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 would be a worthy read for:
·          Those who admire confident storytelling and clean, sometimes elegant or slyly humorous prose
·          Those tolerant of characters who have many flaws but are also unique and multifaceted
·           Those who relish WWII historical fiction
·           Those who wonder about good and evil, power and sexuality
·           Those who enjoy the interplay of fictional forms such as letters, newspaper articles, journal entries, chapters from fiction-within-a-fiction books, etc.

I happen to meet all the criteria above, so I did find this weighty new novel thought-provoking.  Personally, I adored Prose's earlier novel A Changed Man, which explored some similar issues in a different way and was, to my taste, more focused and compelling plot-wise.  Try either novel, and absolutely buy a copy of her excellent non-fiction Reading Like A Writer – it’s a resource you will use over and over again and delight in every time.  (Best reading list ever!)

Mom's Summary:
Lou Villars is an athlete, a cross-dresser, a spy: an individual who seems always to be moving through life without any plan. When her circumstances change, she moves on to whatever is in her path, her inevitable option. Each of these options leads to a more involved and dangerous life and ultimately to her death. The story develops slowly as it is told in many voices: those of a Hungarian photographer, of an American ex-patriot, of a biographer, of a baroness/patron of the photographer, of the photographer’s model/wife. Each sees Paris, their intertwined lives and the occupation by Hitler’s army in different ways.

Mom's Responses:
One voice I wished had been used was that of Lou Villars herself; sometimes it felt disconcerting not to see from her viewpoint rather than that of all her ‘observers’. But maybe that is one of Prose’s objectives—alerting the reader to how differently or for what reasons we humans view events in our lives as we do.

I was struck by an observation Lionel, the American ex-pat writer, makes as he ponders his relationship with Suzanne: “How much simpler life would be if we were wise enough to stop at the first blush of romance, the start of a business transaction or of a casual friendship. If we knew enough to pause and think: this is as good as it gets. Everything will go downhill from this moment on. So once again our instincts are the opposite of what they should be, propelling us forward exactly when they should be holding us back.” (36-37 in the ARC) Thought –provoking….

Not my favorite book at the start and still not my favorite when I finished it. However, there is much to appreciate about the achievement, sometimes with humor, of Francine Prose in developing a complex story that propels the reader onward toward finding the destiny of characters, like them or not.

Thanks as always to TLC Book Tours for offering us this opportunity to review such a thought-provoking book.  Check out their link to discover what other bloggers thought of it, and do offer your thoughts in the comments below.


Francine Prose's author page at Harper Collins is here.
She's a prolific essayist and reviewer in addition to having penned scores of non-fiction, adult fiction, and YA fiction books.  Google her!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Risk : Poem In Your Post

The Risk

All the lovers, denying, pretending
they didn't know what was
coming. I knew ahead I might lose you.
Your coat sleeve, presences, topography, pricked my
recognition, through soul, a
lost stability.

Path to light, that angles darkness,
our lying in the grass on a
mountain, hoisted biographies in the fragmented clouds
we watched, it was clear as the winds
that changed them. Face of
fate, that didn't

either have to be.  Our incalculable
harmonies, bodies' lithe fabrication, seascape,
weather, mountains, the luck
whatever of place. Fulfillment swathed like
ammunition in the breeze,

your familiar warm shoulder, prescience -
so good there was nothing to say,
just the right pages turning,
beyond the storm, threat to our love,
their harbor risk.

                     - Jane Mayhall

At times, poems that I don't entirely fathom still move me, perhaps in part because their innate, near-animate power needn't be fully explicated or interpreted to be appreciated.  This one strikes me that way: accessible as a whole, but not so easy to parse as one might expect, given its universal theme and quotidian imagery.  

Perhaps you grasped all its nuances right away?  Or does one particular line or stanza reveal itself to you whole?  Please share your insights in the comments.

For more on Jane Mayhall (1918-2009) visit Knopf's page about her last collection, Sleeping Late on Judgment Day.  Be sure to click on the "author q and a" link: Mayhall's musings on her life history are fascinating, particularly if you - like me - admired Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light, as Mayhall's biography parallels Mattie's in some regards.  Mayhall gained recognition late in life and wrote some of her best poems - like this one - in her eighties. Heartening indeed.

And once again, let me recommend you sign up for next year's poetry month offerings from Knopf.  The emails are free, and I guarantee you will (re)discover fine poems and poets if you do.


Hamlet with Yorick's skull, photographed by Sue Shaw of the Cloud Appreciation Society in England.  Catch the connection?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

An Illuminated Rumi : Poem In Your Post

Let us choose one another as Companions.
Let us sit at one another's feet.

Come a little closer now,
so that we may see each other's faces.
Inside we share so many secrets —

Do not believe we are simply what these eyes can see.
Now we are music together
sharing one cup and an armful of roses.

                      - Mawlana Jalal Ad-din Mohammed Rumi

For a gloriously crafted collection of Rumi poems, translated by Coleman Barks and illuminated by Michael Green, start here.

You will want your own copy to peruse in contemplation, so why not take a mindful stroll to your local bookseller to enjoy the many wonders there too?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Incendiary Girls : A What She Read Review

Do get yourself a copy and then pass it around:
you won't be disappointed!
Find it at your local bookseller,
via this Amazon link (sample the stories there too)
or via this Indiebound link.
Let me begin by telling you that I've already recommended Incendiary Girls to friends who appreciate the particular gratification of reading a beautifully wrought short story, and that I have two in the queue to borrow my copy, if and when I choose to part with it.

And for those of you who favor a healthy dose of magic with your realism - as I do - Kodi Scheer's first collection is a must-read.

It's been a swell month for the contemporary American short story at my house, as my Dave and I listened to George Saunders read his collection Tenth of December late in March, then I picked up Karen Russell's Vampires in the Lemon Grove from our amazing "little library" branch's "Happy Go Lucky" shelf (all current best-selling or critically acclaimed paperbacks, two week loans, no holds, no renewals - just happy book luck), and then Incendiary Girls rose to the top of my TBR-for-book-tours pile.

Truth:  Kodi Scheer's stories stand up easily to the works of her two oft-lauded, more experienced, and certainly better-known contemporaries.  In fact, I thought that Incendiary Girls compared favorably to Russell's latest.  Why?  Scheer offers readers equally intriguing and imaginative premises but with consistent depth of character and humor to balance sometimes bleak scenarios. Russell, not so much, on both counts.

Specifics, you say?  Scheer writes in the tradition of contemporary magical realists:  we enter the entirely ordinary worlds of everyday people and occasionally "magical" occurrences simply slip in.  Protagonists generally accept such unusual events - a divorced doctor-mom suspects that her own mother has been  reincarnated into her daughter's horse ("Fundamental Laws of Nature") or a National Guardsman's obsessive-compulsive wife discovers his ear in their laundry hamper while he is still serving in the Gulf ("No Monsters Here") - and react to them as they would any more "realistic" unusual event. We readers stay closely aligned with these protagonists, and - exhibiting an artistic restraint that does this young author great credit - neither we nor they spend much time pondering why such events happen or even what they might mean symbolically.  Instead, we readers receive the gift of pondering for ourselves how the "magical" elements and characters' responses  resonate thematically and symbolically.  I love this sort of stuff, and detest writers who insist on over-explaining, so Scheer's work engaged me completely.

Eleven stories total offer diverse themes and levels of intensity; Ms. Scheer's fictional territory most- times includes anatomical and/or medical details that might be daunting for some readers, and she certainly doesn't shy away from the darker side of human nature, but - as I noted earlier - she nearly always balances intensity with lightness.  I'd especially recommend these stories to fans of Margaret Atwood's and Francine Prose's earlier magical-realistic collections, and to those who remember fondly Richard Selzer's work and the fictions or personal essays of other doctor-writers.

Two thumbs up from me for this new collection, with gratitude to the folks at TLC Book Tours for alerting me to the promise of Incendiary Girls.  Use the TLC link to sample other book lovers' responses to Incendiary Girls.

You can bet I'll be on the lookout for Kodi Scheer's future work as well.


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