It amazed Rachel how much you could forget, and everything you forgot made that person less alive inside you until you could finally endure it. After more time passed you could let yourself remember, even want to remember. But even then what you felt those first days could return and remind you the grief was still there, like old barbed wire embedded in a tree’s heartwood.
And now this brown-eyed child. Don’t love it, Rachel told herself. Don’t love anything that can be taken away.
Serena by Ron Rash
384 pages, Ecco, October 2008
I’ll admit, the reason I heard of this book was that I read it was being made into a movie with Jennifer Lawrence, who I have a bit of a crush on. Also, I like American history and period pieces and look at that cover. That’s a gorgeous cover, right there.
However, the book itself won me over. It didn’t need an upcoming movie to market it. It markets itself. Because it’s all kinds of brilliant, and I want you all to grab it and read it and sit curled up with your eyes huge like I did until it’s done wondering “Holy hell, what is Serena going to do next.”
Because if you read it, you’re most definitely going to do that.
George Pemberton, lumber baron, brings his new bride, Serena, to the North Carolina mountains. It’s 1929. Women are still very much seen and not heard. And Serena’s more than seen – she’s tall and blonde and cool, quite a comparison to the women that age too quickly due to hard work and a harder life in the mountains – but she’s to be heard, too. She’s heard without yelling. She doesn’t need to yell. She slowly takes everyone and everything around her in her iron fist and it becomes very clear to the camp who’s really in charge. No one dares stand in her way – because those that do don’t last long. When Serena finds out the one thing she wants more than anything is the one thing she can’t have, she sets her sights on Rachel, the woman who shared George’s bed before she arrived.
This has been mentioned here and there as a retelling of Macbeth. It’s got aspects of the Scottish play, yes. Serena makes a fine Lady Macbeth, and there are the plots and the machinations. There’s even one of the three witches. But honestly, I think you can twist anything into a version of something Shakespearian, if you try hard enough. Let’s just say it’s got Macbethian aspects, and leave it at that. (Not every strong woman is Lady Macbeth, though, people. Even if she’s murderous.)
Here’s what struck me in this book (and a lot of things did, really – but this is what struck me the most, I think) – Rash was not afraid to write a female character with no redeeming qualities. Yet, somehow, you never really hate her. You fear her, sure. But something in you almost ADMIRES her. She’s got this ruthlessness, this implacable streak. She’s a force of nature. She does despicable things, but something about the way she does them makes them seem…fated, somehow? None of the men make a move to stop her (or, if they do, they’re powerless in the face of her.) She’s a woman, competing what is most definitely a man’s world – and she’s not only winning, she’s winning by miles. None of them even compare.
I’m not sure about the casting for the movie. Jennifer Lawrence – maybe. She’s got the acting chops, and I’m interested to see her stretch into a role like this. As much as I like Bradley Cooper, I’m a little wary of this. Pemberton isn’t a pretty playboy. He’s a hardscrabble lumber baron. He’s Serena’s match. But I’ll give it a chance – again, Cooper’s a good actor.
And the stills coming out of the studio are gorgeous. There are some scenes I can’t wait to see on the screen. Ooh, and the COSTUMES. Just LOOK at them.
Do me (and yourself) a favor, though, before seeing it? Read the book. You need the slow burn of this. You need to read this country poetry and wait with bated breath on every word to see, exactly, how far Serena will go…and if she’ll succeed.
Watch Jennifer Lawrence later. Read the book now. You’ll be glad you did.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
230 pages, Little, Brown and Company, September 2012
When I was in high school, I became strangely (and somewhat disturbingly) obsessed with the Vietnam War. I’m not old enough to remember this war. It ended right about when I was busy being born. I was kind of a crazy hippie kid, and I desperately wanted something to protest, so apparently I decided I was going to retroactively protest something that had been over for a very long time. I don’t know. Don’t try to figure out teenage Amy. She had issues.
I still find war fascinating. Not in a strange way, now, though. More in a psychological way. What drives people to kill one another. What it does to a person, having to shut off their basic humanity in order to survive. How fragile, and yet how tenacious, a human being can be. How when a person comes home, they’re expected to bounce right back to the person they once were, as if that time away hadn’t happened; as if that person they had to be wasn’t still inside of them, screaming for attention.
The Yellow Birds is a beautiful, heartbreaking book about terrible things that you’ll want to avert your eyes from. It should be required reading about war, along with my personal favorite, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. They have a similar feel; the poetry of loss and blood and death and sweat; the lyricism innate in the dying cries of the people you’ve grown to love as family and the screams of the people you’ve had to forget are people in order to kill them.
Private Bartle and Private Murphy meet in basic training. Bartle, being older, is assigned to Murphy, to keep an eye on him; he idly promises Murphy’s mother, as they are shipping out, that he’ll make sure Murphy comes home alive.
Idle promises. Men’s bodies hollowed out and turned into bombs; whores with bruises gone black and red and yellow and kindness in their hearts and fear in their eyes; friends blown to pieces as you watch; learning how to survive a bombing by lying flat on the ground, covering your head, and opening your mouth so you won’t blow your eardrums; watching townspeople mourn their dead, who were only moments ago trying to kill you; wondering if it will ever end, hoping it will end, hoping it will end quickly, and without too much pain, hoping it will end slowly, and with as much pain as you deserve.
What happens when you come home, and you still have the ghosts of the war screaming in your head, and you don’t feel like you exist, and your mother insists everything will be fine, just fine, but the only thing holding you to the ground is alcohol and trying to piece it all together, where it all started to go wrong, where you could maybe have fixed it, if you’d tried, if you could only go back, if you could only braid the threads together into something resembling a story that made sense, a story that someone might want to listen to.
Powers is a poet who served in Iraq. Somehow, a poet went to Iraq, and came back to us with this book. How this is possible, I don’t know. I don’t know that I could survive seeing that kind of destruction day after day and come back and still have this kind of broken beauty in me; I think the desert and the heat and the blood and the loss would take my voice from me and leave me mute, shattered by screams no one could hear but me and with no way to get out through my tongueless mouth, my jittering fingers.
This is a book to teach in classrooms and discuss with children whose eyes still hold the future in them. This is a book to teach to politicians who see soldiers as expendable. This is a book to give to grieving mothers and wives and husbands and fathers.
There is poetry in death and pain and loss; the art is going to the poisoned well to find it and coming back in any sort of shape to share your words with a world that may not want to hear them.
Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates
496 pages, Ecco, January 2014
I’m a fan of Joyce Carol Oates.
You know how some authors just have that voice? That sound to their writing. If you were given a sample of their writing – say, an unpublished page, with nothing telling you who wrote it – you’d know immediately which author had written it?
I feel like there are a few authors I’d know immediately from a sample of this sort. Stephen King; John Irving; Margaret Atwood; Peter Straub; Joyce Carol Oates.
She has a very distinctive way of writing, especially with dialogue. A lot of sentence fragments; a lot of hesitation, dashes, nervous laughter. Her men are all bluster; her woman are usually timid mice with moments of fire. The circumstances might change, but the characters mainly remain the same.
We Were the Mulvaneys remains my favorite of her books; never have I read a book that hits so close to the experience of a rape victim, that shame, the way it tears up a family and a community. I also love her Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is my Heart (and not only for the title, a quote from one of my favorite poems) and her Black Water (if you want a barely-fictionalized take on the Chappaquiddick incident, that’s the one for you. It’s heartbreaking.) Or Zombie, the grimmest little realistic serial killer novel you can get your hands on. And if you want to read one of the creepiest short stories ever written, here. Read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I just re-read it and got the shivers all over again. Arnold Friend, with his empty boots and holding you so tight you won’t even think of getting away. His just doing two or three things to you, that’s all. I have actual gooseflesh over this.
Carthage treads familiar territory for Oates, both setting-wise and plot-wise. In a small upstate New York town (there were so many places I recognized – this is set where I grew up, so we had Potsdam and St. Lawrence and Plattsburgh and Dannemora, with a little Albany thrown in for good measure) live the Mayfield family – Zeno and Arlette and their two daughters, Juliet and Cressida. Juliet is the pretty one. Cressida is the smart one. Juliet is engaged to Brett Kincaid, who, after 9/11, immediately signs up to serve in the military, and comes back a broken man. Once he’s home, Cressida disappears – and all signs point to the severely disabled war veteran as the culprit.
I had problems with this book. I love Oates, and I loved the setting, and as always, reading her voice made me happy – but the plot and the characters left a lot to be desired.
There was no one to root for. Zeno was a holier-than-thou blowhard; Arlette ended up ok, but was a bit of a non-entity; Juliet was similar to her mother, somewhat non-existent other than as a plot device; Brett was probably the most interesting character, but not used enough. And the book wasn’t about them, anyway. It was about Cressida. And Cressida was a terrible character.
There was no explanation for her. She seemed to be annoying just to be annoying. There was a mention here and there that she might be autistic, but that was dropped, as if Oates forgot about it. She was described in the most derogatory of terms, with frizzy hair, like a little monkey, like a boy (she apparently never developed); she was rude to everyone, she didn’t know how to socially interact and no one dared correct her when she was being rude, she purposely ruined people’s things and lives…
How am I supposed to feel any empathy for this person? And the book needed me to feel empathy for her to work. I just couldn’t. She was a spoiled brat whose only impetus for anger was that people thought of her as “smart” and not “pretty” like her sister. Who the hell CARES? I’d choose being the smart one over the pretty one any day of the week. The pretty one eventually fades; the smart one endures. Maybe you don’t realize that until you’re older, but still, that’s the reason for everything that happens in this book? Weak. Weak plot.
I can’t totally dislike the book. It kept me reading and interested throughout. I love Oates’ work. I’ll continue to read her. But this just wasn’t that successful for me. (And it seems a lot of people are agreeing with me, scanning reviews online.)
If you’re not an Oates person, I can recommend a lot of her books that are better for you, if you’d like to BECOME an Oates person. She’s written enough that there are a ton of starting points for you. I just wouldn’t make this one of them.
The Last Summer of the Camperdowns by Elizabeth Kelly
400 pages; Liveright; June 2013
What do you think of when you think of a beach read? Something light, something you can pick up and put down without much thought to it, something to take you away a little, but not absorb you too much; a silly romance, maybe, or an easily-solved mystery. Something everyone’s reading. The magazines always come out with lists of beach reads in the summer. (I usually want nothing to do with any of them. I don’t think I’m a beach-read type of gal.)
This, however, is my type of beach read, for the simple reason that it’s a wonderful book, and it’s set at the beach. Maybe this should be our new criteria for a beach read: it has to be good, and there has to be sun, sand and water involved, at least tangentially. Make that a thing, will you? Whoever does such things? Good, good.
Riddle Camperdown is twelve years old in the summer of 1972, living on the beach in Cape Cod with her mother, Greer, an ex-screen star, and her father, Camp, a hopeful politician. Everyone drips with old money, in one form or another; the Camperdowns (although they’re a bit down on their luck, due to Camp’s plans and schemes), Greer’s old friend Gin, who lives just up the road and has dreams of breeding horses never before seen on American soil, and Michael Devlin and his sons Charlie and Harry, who have history with the Camperdown family – history that’s studiously hidden from Riddle.
A child disappears; a romance is rekindled; a building burns; a girl falls in love for the first time; secrets pile up upon secrets until no one seems to know who’s got the truth in their hands anymore; and in the shadows, a man lurks, waiting for the minute he can catch you alone and unaware.
It’s a beach read in that it’s set at the beach, but it snags you and it doesn’t let you go. Perhaps not the right thing to read on your vacation, then, because you’ll find the sun has long since set, everyone else has gone in for the night, you have a terrible sunburn, and the tide is creeping much too close to your toes for comfort.
Riddle is a believable twelve-year-old, and I loved her for it. Who among us doesn’t remember that awkward age between childhood and the teen years, where you’re still longing for your dolls but relationships, with all their twisty mysteries, are starting to look interesting? Well, interesting, and also terrifying, because no one gives you a rulebook, do they? You’re expected to figure it out as you go. You’re all hormones and longing and weeping for no reason and overblown theatrics and everything is the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, often all within moments of one another.
I usually get bored with the horsey, old-money set – I mean, I have nothing in common with them, I don’t understand their ways, and what’s with the no white after Labor Day nonsense, I don’t even own white pants, I mean please, those are just asking for trouble, you know I’d sit on something and ruin them within fifteen minutes of purchasing them – but these people intrigued me. They were well-written enough that I wanted to know more, even when they were behaving terribly. Which was often. I mean, give people all the money and free time in the world, and what are they going to do with it, cure cancer? No. They’re going to tear each other apart. It’s human nature.
The mysteries – and there are multiple mysteries – never get too tangled to follow, which I appreciated. The solutions also were never telegraphed – up until the very end, I didn’t know the final solution, and when it was revealed, I grinned. It was probably the improper reaction, considering what it was…but I do like a well-resolved mystery.
And the ending – oh, the ending. Just a perfect ending. Another thing I didn’t see coming, but so true to the characters, yet also a bit surprising. Not at all what I was expecting, yet exactly what I needed.
It’s the middle of the winter, I’m apparently living in the freezing tundra one day and then some sort of strange spring landscape the next here in upstate New York, but for a few days I got to be in Cape Cod with some really fully-realized characters and the scent of the ocean in the air. Screw saving your beach books for the summer. This is the perfect time of year for them, for me.
“I love you with my whole soul,” I said. “I wish I could explain it.”
“I know it already.”
“Good.” I smiled. “So you know what a soul is?”
“Sure,” she said, straightening. “The soul keeps the body up.”
Schroder by Amity Gaige
272 pages; Twelve; February 2013
I don’t remember where I was recommended this book. That happens to me a lot. I read a lot of book blogs and reviews and keep up with what people are reading on Goodreads and add things to my list all willy-nilly, and then I’m like, “where did I find out about THIS one?” and often have no idea what the answer is. It’s a busy place, my brain.
Eric Schroder, a young German immigrant, decides that his last name (and his accent) are keeping him from the American dream. He applies to a summer camp and impulsively writes the last name “Kennedy” as his own. When people ask if he’s one of THOSE Kennedys, he neither confirms nor denies…and years pass, and he’s never caught. He goes to college as Eric Kennedy. He marries as Eric Kennedy. His wife, his friends, his coworkers – no one knows that inside Eric Kennedy is really Eric Schroder, and he’s petrified of his secret coming out.
When his wife leaves him for his erratic behavior (and his secret-keeping – she knows he’s not telling her the whole truth, but doesn’t know about what) and doesn’t stick to the visitation schedule so Eric can regularly see his young daughter Meadow, he decides one weekend to take her out of town – and he just doesn’t stop driving.
(And I’ll stop there, otherwise we’re treading into heavy spoiler territory, and what if one of you wants to READ the damn thing?)
There were so many things I loved in this book. First, it was set in Albany. It was a love letter to Albany, actually. Look:
…Albany is a delightful city. With its magnificent state capitol, cribbed from some Parisian design, and its city hall based on that of our sister city, Ypres, Belgium, and the thirty-six marble pillars along the colonnade of the education building, Albany surprises the casual tourist. How, the tourist wonders, in the middle of upstate New York, did he stumble across this European metropolis? He walks out into the wide open of the Empire State Plaza and is awed by the scale, the towering buildings – even the one that resembles an immense egg – doubled in the reflecting pool, which is itself end to end the length of three football fields.
I read this and THRILLED. Yes. That’s exactly what walking into the Empire State Plaza does the first time. That’s why I bring people there when they’re visiting. I like the surprise on their faces when they see how beautiful it is, how grand. It’s the exact surprise I had on my face, the first time I saw it. I still have that surprise, a little, every time I go back. It’s only a small part of why I love living here, but reading it in a book? Yes. I liked that very much.
As Eric and Meadow traveled, they went to some of my haunts. They went upstate. They stopped in Plattsburgh. They took the ferry to Vermont. I loved seeing my area through an author’s eyes (even better when the author seems to love it; Gaige lives in Massachusetts, so not far from here, and I assume has some experience with the area.)
I loved the bond between Eric and Meadow; Gaige writes an excellent six-year-old. She’s not magical or hyper-intelligent; she’s realistic. Sometimes she comes out with things that are surprisingly astute and sometimes she pouts and throws tantrums, as a real child would do.
I loved the history; we got little glimpses of Eric’s life, before he came to the States, in a divided Berlin. And we got some beautiful German, here and there.
“…tell her this, please: Ich liebe Dich und werde Dich immer lieben. And tell her, also: Danke. Danke. Es war meine schönste Zeit. OK? Please. Please tell her that.”
I love you and I will always love you. Thank you. Thank you. This was the best part of my life.
I tried, while reading, to put a finger on what, exactly, was stopping me from falling in love with the book. I think it was this: I couldn’t connect to Eric because he was purposely hard to connect with. He didn’t know why he was doing what he was doing, so he couldn’t share it with the reader. He didn’t really, after all those years, know who HE really even was. Was he Eric Schroder, or Eric Kennedy? He was cold, and he was closed-off, and although I was able to feel pity for his plight, there was never a way into his psyche – and I think it was meant to be that way. He was a mystery – to his wife, to Meadow, and even to himself.
And although that made me not love the book – I liked it very much, but it never took that final step into love – it did make me admire Gaige’s writing. I admire that she made Eric an unlikeable character, because that’s the character he was. It wouldn’t have been true to write him otherwise. I’ll read more of her books because of this; I appreciate the way she sees, and writes, the world.
We Are Water by Wally Lamb
576 pages; Harper; October 2013
Say what you will about Oprah’s Book Club, but back in the day, when it first started, it actually introduced me to quite a few excellent books and authors. Jacquelyn Mitchard; Billie Letts; Wally Lamb. Sometimes her picks were too sappy, and sometimes they were one-hit wonders (and I know everyone got all snobby when EVERYONE was reading the same books – because heavens forfend something become popular; it’s never good when it’s popular, right?) but there were quite a few books that, early on, I was liking a great deal. And there’s nothing wrong with someone with the world’s ear recommending good books. If it gets people reading, I’m all for it. (And listen, it’s not like she was recommending Fifty Shades, people. These books ranged from very good to harmless, for the most part.)
I discovered Wally Lamb when Oprah recommended She’s Come Undone, which remains one of my all-time favorite novels. I’ve re-read it a number of times. I relate to this book. You know I love lost people, broken people, people looking for something and working so hard to find it. This book was perfect for me. I’ve read everything he’s written since, and although nothing lived up, for me, to She’s Come Undone, I’ve liked his work a great deal.
That being said: this one didn’t do it for me.
Annie Oh is an outsider artist who realizes, after 27 years of marriage and three children, she’s unhappy. She leaves her husband and falls in love with Viveca, a Manhattan art dealer, much to the confusion of her husband, Orion. Her children are in various stages of acceptance or denial about their mother’s (to them, at least) new-found attraction to women, and Annie herself isn’t sure if she’s doing the right thing. Secrets start coming out – about Annie’s past, Orion’s job, the lives of of their now-adult children, the history of their house – and the secrets can potentially sink everyone in the Oh family.
Here was my problem with this book: I didn’t like, or relate, to a single character.
I’m not saying you have to like all the characters in a book in order to like it. Sometimes you hate ALL the characters in a book, and you still like the book, somehow. That’s ok. But every character in this book somehow rubbed me the wrong way. I understood (because it was finally explained) why they were the way they were, and I did have some empathy for them…but I still didn’t LIKE them. The book was very much about how the past formed the future, and apparently the past formed these people into no one I’d ever like to meet and/or read about at length.
Wait, I take that back. There was one character I liked, but by the time the book started, he was dead. So he was kind of hard to relate to, being dead and barely a character, because of the deadness, and all.
I also feel like maybe there were parts of this that were written possibly just for the shock value? And I hate to think that, because I really like Wally Lamb. But things went a little too far where they didn’t need to in places, and I wondered why, exactly, he chose to do that. (Just a quick note: this is a super-triggery book, child-abuse wise, and I don’t know how else to say this without being spoilery, so I’m just going to stop there. If that’s something you can’t have in a book, stay far away from this.)
I didn’t hate it. I don’t want you to think I did. Wally Lamb writes well, and the plot wasn’t boring, per se. I just kept trying to connect with these characters and I couldn’t. I liked the parts about art (and wished there had been more), but honestly, I spent most of the time reading this saying things like “WHY DON’T YOU PEOPLE GO INTO THERAPY FOR THE LOVE OF PETE!”
I suppose I can’t love ’em all – and I’ll keep reading Wally Lamb’s books. One misstep doesn’t mean I’m walking away. But if you’re a Wally Lamb fan, and are expecting this to be like his other work – word of warning, it’s not.
In contrast, beauty which evokes special favors and opens doors, such astounding eyes can cripple the brain behind them.
Tell-All by Chuck Palahniuk
192 pages; Doubleday; May 2010
I love Chuck Palahniuk.
Not at all related to him as an author, but as a person:
Probably five or six years ago, I stumbled upon a comment thread where they said, for a limited time, if you wrote Chuck Palahniuk a real pen-and-ink letter, he’d respond in kind. Well. When do you get an opportunity like that? So, feeling a little bit like a kooky fangirl, I wrote him a letter via his agent per the instructions. Haunted had just come out (which I’d loved, and also been repulsed by; seems to be the common response to that book) so I discussed that, among random other things. What do you say to a stranger whose work you really admire when you have to fill up something longer than a tweet, you know?
About a month later, my roommate was all, “YOU HAVE A PACKAGE ZOMG LOOK AT THE RETURN ADDRESS” and it was totally “Palahniuk” and we were like “WHOA ZOMG WTF” and inside were things like wax teeth and Silly Putty and some hand-burned CDs of his readings and a tiny Slinky and I totally still have the box, and there was a letter (and when I went back to the comment thread, people who’d been to his signings were like, “Yep, that’s his handwriting, he totally wrote all of these himself”) and then – get this – HE MADE ME A NECKLACE.
Yup. With little letter-beads that said his name and my name, but up where your hair goes so you don’t look like a lunatic. And it’s actually kind of pretty, and totally my color scheme. I’ve even worn it in public.
So, yeah. I like Chuck Palahniuk. I think he’s kind of awesome. BUT! Please do not think he has bought my love with trinkets; I liked him before he sent me presents.
I don’t know how I missed Tell-All. It was released three years ago. What was I doing three years ago, hiding under a rock? Good grief.
Although typical Palahniuk in some ways, this book just didn’t get to me like most of his work does. Based on some reviews I skimmed here and there, sadly, it seems a lot of people felt that way. I see what he was trying to do with it – and I always smile at what he attempts with his work, because he’s not one to sit on his laurels, he’s always trying something different and new and innovative – but the story of this one just kind of fell flat for me. (The conceit here was that all the famous people/brand names were in bold-face, so it read like one of those Page-Six gossip columns. I get it, it was a good idea, it showed how name-droppy their culture was…but it didn’t make it all that easy to read, and it got a bit exhausting after a while.)
(Side note: his latest work of fiction, however, did NOT fall flat for me, and I highly recommend it. And you can read it for free! He published a short story in Playboy recently, which is totally available online. You don’t even have to go buy a Playboy all embarrassed “for the articles.” It’s called “Zombie” and it’s really surprisingly touching, but also vulgar and violent and smash-bang – it’s a Palahniuk story, you guys, he’s not Mitch Albom, come on. I can’t recommend it enough, even if you’re only a casual Palahniuk fan. It’s one of my favorite short stories of the year.)
Tell-All is about Hazie Coogan, who takes care of fading movie starlet Katherine Kenton. It’s set in some form of the past – 50s, maybe? Early 60s? It’s not made clear, although I’m sure someone smarter than I am about such things could extrapolate that data based on the name-dropping of celebrities and when they co-existed. Katherine has moved from man to man in her life (she has dazzlingly violet eyes – perhaps she’s Palahniuk’s version of Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps not) and has recently taken up with Webster Carlton Westward III, who is much younger. Hazie is sure he’s only after Katherine to write a tell-all book about her after her death, so, as she’s done over the years, she puts in place an elaborate plan to save Katherine from yet another bad influence.
I think the problem was I couldn’t relate much to either Hazie or Katherine. Usually, even though they’re kind of horrible people, you can relate to Palahniuk’s characters – if only because they’re saying and doing things you’d only say or do in the silence of your mind because they’re just that foul. Hazie finally took an action, later on in the book, that made her somewhat relatable, but I think it was too late for me to really connect, which is a shame.
The writing’s good, as always. Not as sex-drugs-rock-and-roll as a typical Palahniuk – some sex, some drugs, some cussing, but compare it to something like Fight Club or Snuff and you’d laugh at how clean this is, comparatively. It just wasn’t my favorite of his. I liked it fine, but didn’t love it. Is it wrong I want to love every book I read? Probably. Don’t even care.