July 25, 2014

Building a Family in Civil Rights Era New Orleans

Dollbaby: A Novel, by Laura Lane McNeal, (Penguin Group), 338 pages

About a week ago, I made a list of my ten favorite reads published so far this year. Now I’m going to have to figure out which one to kick off because Laura Lane McNeal’s Dollbaby definitely has to be there.

Dollbaby is set in New Orleans during the 1960s and early 1970s. It’s got all the elements you’d expect from a southern novel: a big, decaying house, an eccentric matriarch, servants who have become family, racial tension, and a whole passel of family secrets. After her father’s death, Ibby (short for Liberty) is dropped into this house to live with Fannie, a grandmother she’s never met; Ibby’s mother drives off to “figure her own life out.”

In less capable hands, this is the sort of novel that could degenerate into melodrama quickly, but McNeal’s deft, simple prose never allows that to happen. Each of the novel’s secrets has its own logic, and each secret forces the characters to hold one another at a distance—but the love and loyalty among them is clear. Even when the improbable is happening, the characters come across as genuine. As a reader, I never questioned the actions in the book because I was so engaged by the individuals populating it.

This is definitely a book worth buying in hardback—or requesting from your local library this very day. Read it, spend time with its characters, ponder events and might-have-beens. It will be time well spent.

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July 23, 2014

Good Greens (and Delicious, Too)

Brassicas: Cooking the World’s Healthiest Vegetables, by Laura B. Russell, (Ten Speed Press), 168 pages

For ethical and health reasons, my wife and I eat vegetarian/pescatarian. We’re always looking for new cookbooks—especially those that can help us turn simple greens into multi-flavored deliverers of deliciousness. Whether or not you’re working your way to a vegetarian diet, Laura B. Russell’s Brassicas is a great cookbook to place on your shelf of basic cooking references.

Brassicas is actually more than a cookbook. It’s a reference guide to a wide range of vegetables packed with nutrients and phytochemicals galore. The book begins by defining brassicas (you may be more familiar with their other name: cruciferous vegetables) and giving basic info about preparation, storing, and developing your own ability to improvise in the kitchen using these veggies. The subsequent chapters focus on particular types of brassicas—kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage—and begin with general tips for cooking with these veggies.

Then there are the recipes. Some of them are very basic and won’t be necessary for experienced cooks, but there are lots of interesting/unusual ones as well. Earlier this week I made Brassica‘s grilled baby bok choy with miso butter for our dinner. I’m used to grilling many fruits and vegetables, but had never thought of grilling leafy greens like bok choy. The mix of flavors and textures was a delight: soft, wilted leaves, crisp stems, crunchy charred bits, all topped off by the sour-salty tang of miso. The directions were absolutely clear, making prep and cooking easy.

I’ve got a long list of other recipes I want to try soon: Brussels sprout leaves with lemony yogurt dressing (which also involves fresh mint and pistachios); five-spice red cabbage salad; roasted broccolini with winey mushrooms, and watcress salad with ginger carrot dressing, to name a few.

Not every recipe is accompanied by a photo, but the photos that are included are beautiful—the sort of thing I call “food porn” because of the way it gets me salivating. The reference sections also include useful line drawings illustrating prep techniques. This is a great book to help you on your way to a better (and delicious-er) diet.

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July 21, 2014

Reporting the Tet Offensive as a Combatant

River of Perfumes: A Novel of Marine Combat Correspondents in Hue City During Vietnam’s Tet Offensive, by Michael Stokey, (Warriors Publishing Group, Open Road Integrated Media), 306 pages

Warriors Publishing Group believes that “War stories need to be published, distributed and consumed if we are to understand the mentality and motivation of military people. And we must do that to appreciate their service and sacrifice on behalf of this nation and its people.” River of Perfumes serves that purpose well. First published in 2011 and released in a digital edition in 2013, it’s not new, but it is one of those books that’s worth reading regardless of the date on the copyright page.

As the title makes clear, this is a novel about marine combat correspondents (CCs) in Hue during the Tet Offensive. The CCs are a mixed breed: weapon-carrying marines who engage in combat, but whose primary responsibility is to produce stories for the Marine Corps’ internal newspaper. Though assigned to specific companies, their press passes give them an autonomy unlike that of ordinary soldiers.

In this novel, the CCs, like the soldiers they fight alongside, are contemptuous of civilian reporters, who are generally shielded from the worst of the combat. One story told in this novel—I’ve no idea whether it’s based on fact—is of a Walter Cronkite report filmed in Hue outside of the combat area with the sounds of gunfire dubbed in prior to its broadcast in the U.S. The novel’s combatants also resent what they see as an anti-war bias among these correspondents: they’re looking for stories of atrocities by U.S. soldiers and hound those fighting for explanations of why they’re there, what the purpose of the war is. While these fall well within the scope of a reporter’s duties, those in combat can’t be sanguine about them. They may have questions about why they’re fighting, but their primary focus is surviving—and while trying to survive they can’t afford to question themselves.

The author of this novel was himself a marine in Hue during the Tet Offensive, and River of Perfumes reflects this fact. The novel is consistently precise about the course of the battle, the companies involved, the kind of action required of soldiers in the field. It’s this precision that makes River of Perfumes most valuable, placing readers in the action without over-writing it, giving them a full picture, but at the same time avoiding manipulation.

River of Perfumes is set during the war in Vietnam, but it’s valuable reading at any time our nation is considering, or is at, war. Those out of combat can’t ever really know the combat experience, but River of Perfumes gives us a glimpse of what war is like for combatants. We can all benefit from examining these experiences.

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July 19, 2014

A Backdoor Friendship with Harper Lee

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, by Marja Mills, (Penguin), 288 pages

“In the summer of 2005, I was at Burger King with Harper Lee.”

That’s the sentence that opens Marja Mills’ memoir about her time spent in Monroeville, Alabama, with Harper Lee (Nelle, actually—the last E is silent), her older sister Alice, and their friends. It sets the tone and pace for the rest of the book. If you’re looking for a literary biography, you’ll be deeply disappointed. But if you want to vicariously meet Lee in a less literary, more human way, you’ll appreciate The Mockingbird Next Door.

Mills had the good luck of being the one reporter the Lee sisters chose to open up to—at least as much as they ever opened up. From the beginning, Mills made it clear that she would honor their judgement about what would be on and off the record. If they didn’t want a story told, she wouldn’t tell it. Because Mills was facing a health crisis and couldn’t work, she was able to spend a good bit of time with the Lee sisters, even renting the house next door for over a year, going on fast-food coffee runs, jaunts to feed the ducks at a small, local pond, and listening to the sisters’ stories.

Ultimately, this book is more oral history of a particular place and time in Alabama than it is a a book about Lee the author. Mills has a voracious appetite for stories, and the Lees seem eager to share their knowledge of local history—cautious, but nonetheless eager.

The portrait of the sisters that Mills paints is quirky and affectionate. They joke about storing books in their unused stove when they ran out of book shelves. Their regard for each other is constant. While Alice lived year-round in Monroeville, Nelle divided her time between their hometown and New York City. The sisters, both hard of hearing, communicated by fax when separated—and when in New York, Nelle always faxed the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle to her sister at home in rural Alabama.

This is a gentle book, imbued with respect and love for its subjects. If you can give yourself over to the books’ slow pace and its focus on small pleasures, you’ll be deeply rewarded.

**I received a free electronic ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.**

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July 17, 2014

Serial Murders and the Birth of Criminology in Turin

City of Devils: A Novel, by Diana Bretherick, (Pegasus Books), 464 pages

Diana Bretherick’s historical mystery, City of Devils, is a novel of characters, both real and invented, so I’d like to begin my review with brief descriptions of a few of them.

Among the historical characters, we have Cesare Lombroso and Dr. Joseph Bell. Lombroso, a major figure in the history of criminology, was convinced that criminals were born, not made. He claimed that different types of criminals had different physical characteristics and that one could determine whether or not an individual was a criminal by appearance alone. In the present day his theories seem ridiculous, but in his time, he was viewed as a major scientific figure. Bell doesn’t actually make a personal appearance in the novel, but as the main character’s mentor he is a psychological presence throughout. A 19th Century lecturer in medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Bell is viewed as the founder of forensic science and was cited by Arthur Conan Doyle as being the inspiration for the character Sherlock Holmes.

The invented characters include James Murray, originally from Scotland and a student of Bell, who has traveled to Italy to study with Lombroso in order to avoid both personal tragedy and straightened circumstances. We also get several members of the two different law enforcement units charged with keeping Turin safe, and who are at constant territorial odds with one another; Sophia, a lovely prostitute-turned-housekeeper who works for Lombroso and provides the novel’s romantic interest (of course, there has to be a romantic interest); and Salvadore Ottolenghi, Lombroso’s chief assistant.

A series of murders springs up, coinciding with Murray’s arrival in Turin. The corpses are multilated, the mutilations inflicted on parts of the anatomy that Lombroso identifies as being useful for identifying “criminal types.” Each corpse also bears a paper with a message written in blood: “A tribute to Lombroso.” The leader of one law enforcement group is determined to pin these crimes on Lombroso; the representative of the opposing camp imagines the killer will be someone other than Lombroso.

As these descriptions of characters and situation make clear, City of Devils offers an interesting read, both in terms of history and of narrative. If you enjoy historical mysteries—and particularly if you’re interested in the early antecedents of today’s CSI-style labs—you’ll be kept engaged throughout the books rather substantial length.

Where this novel falls short is in the development of Murray, the central character. The reader would assume that, having worked first with Bell and now with Lombroso, Murray would be a figure of some intelligence—but over and over in this novel Murray is given clues he can’t identify. The this-rings-a-bell-but-I-can’t-remember-what-it-reminds-me-of move makes Murray come across as an inattentive, absent-minded figure, hardly the sort on would expect to find at the side of scientists like Bell and Lombroso.

And when those responsible for the killings are revealed this happens not through any deductions on Murray’s part, but via a summons to meet at a particular time and location issued by a killer and sent to Lombroso. In other words, Murray thinks about things, but doesn’t follow through on clues, and the culprits are identified through their own hubris and not through skilled detective work.

Bretherick is clearly leaving open the possibility of a return of Murray and further criminal investigations. Such works could be quite interesting—but only if Murray develops into a more intelligent, self-directed character.

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July 15, 2014

Stories of Immigrants and of Those They Leave Behind

Drifting, by Katia D. Ulysse, (Akashic Books), 224 pages

The short stories that make up Katia D. Ulysse’s Drifting are not an uplifting read, but part of their value lies in just that fact. These stories, set in Haiti and the Haitian immigrant community in New York, present difficult moments in the lives of people who have very little to begin with. The stories aren’t unrelentingly bleak, but they have their bleak stretches, and Ulysse doesn’t make things easy for the reader by providing happy endings. She gives us moments of friendship, moments of love, moments of hope, but keeps the setting in which these occur clearly within the readers’ sight.

Although this is a short story collection, it works much like a novel. Characters recur. We come to understand the network of genetics and chance that tie these characters together. The book opens in Haiti in 2010, the year of the devastating earthquake. It then moves back in time, ultimately covering a period of some forty years. It’s divided into five sections, each of which focuses on a different family, and in each we re-encounter characters from earlier chapters as minor players in subsequent stories.

Because the book ends (by beginning) in 2010, readers don’t see the impact of the earthquake that destroyed so much of the country. Nonetheless, readers can’t help but think about that earthquake and the way its aftermath must have affected every character in the book.

“Bereavement Pay,” the book’s second story, gives us a small taste of what the earthquake’s impact might have been like for Haitians living in the U.S. It also highlights the complex relationships among families and neighbors that are necessary for survival. No one in this book survives alone, but neither states nor businesses acknowledge many of ties that make life possible. In this story, a Haitian living in the U.S. is applying for bereavement pay and time off after the earthquake. The genial human resources worker she’s asked for information quickly rattles off company policy:

If you lose a mother or father that’s an automatic five days off. With pay. If you lose a sister or a brother, three days, also with pay. Grandparents: two days (but you only get paid for the first one). First cousins: one day, without pay. An uncle or an aunt—depending on how close you were to them, half a day [...]. [S]econd cousins. Let’s see. No… they’re not on the list. You would not be allowed time off per se, but there’s always your lunch hour. [...] Your mother-in-law’s brother on her father’s side… no, also not on the list… Your cousin’s sister on his mother’s side… nope, sorry… The lady who took care of you for ten years while your parents immigrated to another country to work and send money so you could eat and go to school… sorry, not on the list either… The lady’s children? Come on, are you kidding me?

Throughout the book we encounter tensions like these—the conflicts between one cultural viewpoint on its way to dominance and another growing weaker. The son who insists on tearing down the hut his mother lives in and replacing it with a cement one does so less out of concern for his mother than out of his own embarrassment about her unwillingness to abandon the old ways.

As I said, this is not an uplifting read, but I would argue that it’s an essential one, particularly given where we live and the times we live in. The earlier influx of Haitian “boat people” is not so different from today’s increase in undocumented children making their way into the U.S. to avoid gang and drug violence in their home countries. We can debate immigration as a political issue, but we need to see it in human terms as well, and that is just what fiction like Ulysse’s allows.

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July 11, 2014

Survival and Redemption in Scranton

Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night: A Novel, by Barbara J. Taylor, (Akashic Books), 320 Pages

Barbara J. Taylor’s Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night (released at the start of this month) is an ambitious novel, one that attempts to capture a time period and a region, as well as a cast of characters. The period is the nineteen-teens; the region Pennsylvania’s coal mining towns, specifically Scranton; the characters are a family broken by the loss of a child, the town itself, and Grief.

On July 4, 1923, eight-year-old Violet Morgan is quarreling with her older sister, Daisy, their pinches and shoves knock over their mother who is about to put a pie in the oven, and their father yells at them to go outside. On the front porch the two girls find the sparklers their father has hidden for a celebration that evening. The girls decide to light one, and Daisy’s dress goes up in flames. Three days later, Daisy is dead.

There’s plenty of guilt and pain to go around. Grace, the girls’ mother, mourns the loss of her favorite, in her worst moments blaming Violet for the tragedy. Father Owen blames himself for sending the girls outside and for buying the sparklers. Poor Violet blames herself not just for her sister’s death, but for all the misfortunes that befall her family and her best friend.

The novel has two remaining characters, who deserve introduction. First, the town itself, which narrates occasional chapters in a collective voice, passing on gossip and speculation. The final character is Grief, who Grace has been seeing and conversing with for years as one tragedy after another has struck her family. He’s a pernicious companion, always available, always working to grind down any emerging sense of hope.

To this mix add Billy Sunday, ex-baseball player and the most well-known evangelist of the early Twentieth Century. He’s planning a Scranton crusade, hoping to drive out cards, dancing, and alcohol—and to save a few thousand souls in the process.

Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night is thick with action and emotion, making it a hard-to-put-down read. Taylor knows how to end a chapter so that the reader feels compelled to continue for “just one more.” In less capable hands, this narrative would turn into melodrama. Taylor walks that fine edge, but the vividness of the characters she portrays and the structural originality of the novel prevent her from crossing over.

This book is a great read for anyone trying to understand the contradictions of the early Twentieth Century, the combination of Bible thumping and union busting, but that isn’t the only reason to read this book: it’s just good fiction of the sort one want this time of year, offering both action and well-delineated characters.

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July 09, 2014

Brazilian Bildungsroman

Crow Blue, by Adriana Lisboa, (Bloomsbury USA), 240 pages

I love reading literature in translation. I’m no expert on languages, but it’s interesting to think about how particular sentences might have been phrased in the original or how well the translator has done at finding a style in the new language that reflects the author’s style in the original. My most recent novel-in-translation read is Adriana Lisboa’s Crow Blue, translated by Alison Entrekin. Although Lisboa now lives in the U.S., she is Brazilian by birth and writes in Portuguese.

At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, I want to say that Crow Blue reads like a novel in translation in the very best sense of that term. The voice is engaging and consistent and unlike anything I’ve read from U.S. authors. Lisboa has written the kind of book one can “chew” on, and Entrekin has rendered it luminous, sometimes dream-like prose.

The novel’s plot can be outlined quickly, Evangelina (Vanja), born in the U.S. to a mother with dual citizenship, has been raised in her mother’s native Brazil. When Vanja is twelve, her mother dies, and Vanja determines to track down her birth father, who she knows nothing about. For a first step on her journey, he moves to Colorado to live with her step-father, the man actually listed as her father on her birth certificate. With his help and with the companionship of a young Salvadoran immigrant neighbor, she begins her search.

The book is written in first person, with Vanja, now twenty-two, narrating her search. Her voice is precocious, but not in the sassy, impatient sense that the word might suggest. Her precociousness is quiet and reflective. She sees her own world more richly than one would expect from a child of her age, and her precocity extends to her understanding of others: “Fernando [her step-father] came across as being exactly what he appeared to be. Which could mean two things: that he was exactly what he appeared to be. Or that he was a talented liar, the worst kind—the sort that lie to themselves, with so much conviction and effort that they end up believing it, and when they tell other people their lies they think they are actually telling the truth.”

Not long after that, she muses, “the future was (and is, and will always be) a mutating thing, the fruit of successive forks in the road, and I was already beginning to suspect that making plans was an embarrassingly useless habit.”

Vanja interweaves the tale of her search with memories of her mother and with stories recounted by Fernando, now a guard at the Denver Public Library, but originally a Brazilian guerrilla trained in China, and later a London bartender. The pace of the novel reminds one of a children’s game—three steps forward and two steps back—repeating herself occasionally as she shifts ground.

Crow Blue is coming-of-age novel, but one that expands that tradition, with an inner journey as thoroughly articulated as the outward one. For anyone with a reflective bent, this book will prove a deeply satisfying read.

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July 08, 2014

In which a Style Like Jane Austen’s Is Attempted, Things Happen Gradually, and Some Readers Are Pleased While Others Are Not

The Awakening of Miss Prim: A Novel, by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, (Simon and Schuster), 272 pages

When I requested an electronic ARC for Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera’s The Awakening of Miss Prim, I knew I was taking a chance. This is a “quaint” novel, one that idealizes a vague past, when things purportedly were better for everyone. Education wasn’t watered down by modern educational theory, people spoke their minds clearly and without rancor, and genuine debate thrived. People also fell in love gradually, with minds, then hearts, and physical love was left for much later.

Sometimes I find such conceits charming, at other times they seem cloying. If you visit the Goodreads page for this book, you’ll see that the responses to it are very mixed, suggesting that The Awakening of Miss Prim is a book you’ll need to look at for yourself—not one that you can buy or skip based on reviews.

To sum this book up succinctly, Miss Prim decides on a whim to apply for a rather unusual private librarian’s position: the applicant should be good with children and dogs and have no qualifications whatsoever. Miss Prim actually has quite a few qualifications, including multiple advanced degrees, but she nonetheless manages to land the position and moves to the village where her employer lives. This is a village composed of individuals who feel alienated by modern life and who are attempting to create a gentler, more intelligent world by looking to the past. Miss Prim arrives here, is first nonplussed, then increasingly attracted by life in the village.

That’s pretty much it. The prose has a sparkle to it, but the reader’s response will be shaped primarily by her patience with gradual unfoldings of minor events. The author is attempting a modern-day sort of Pride and Prejudice, with mixed results—mixed not because they’re uneven, but because different readers respond to the narrative in such different ways.

I didn’t love this book, but this doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same. The next time you’re at your local independent bookstore, pick up a copy, read a few pages. You’ll quickly be able to decide for yourself whether you’ll be delighted or disinterested.

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July 06, 2014

(Self) Discovery in Colonial Egypt

The Sacred River: A Novel, by Wendy Wallace, (Scribner), 304 pages

I requested an electronic ARC of Wendy Wallace’s The Sacred River because the story seemed so suited to my interests. The book opens in London, but is set primarily in British-controlled Egypt during the early 20th Century—a time of political unrest and archaeological discovery. What I hadn’t realized was that Wendy Wallace is also the author of one of my favorite books from 2012, The Painted Bridge, and I found The Sacred River every bit as enjoyable as that earlier work.

What Wallace writes is almost romance. Almost. But with more intellectual richness and with resolutions that are more complicated than the usual heterosexual coupling such books end with. Yes, in each book a man and a woman emerge as a couple, but that coupling isn’t the purpose that drives them. Instead, they come together because of shared interests or intellectual pursuits—and the women have as much substance in this area as the men do.

The Sacred River focuses on three women: a mother, Louisa; her sister-in-law, Yael; and Louisa’s daughter, Harriet. Harriet, now in her early twenties, is consumptive. She’s spent her years as an invalid studying texts on ancient Egypt, particularly hieroglyphs, and convinces her doctor to tell her parents that travel to Egypt is essential for her health. So Louisa and Harriet, accompanied by the spinster, Yael, set sail.

As it turns out, Egypt is good for Harriet’s health, easing her breathing and also giving her life a sense of purpose that it’s lacked before. Harriet is able to participate in archaeological work, sketching paintings and glyphs in a recently discovered tomb. Yael also finds a new sense of purpose in Egypt, one suited to her Christian beliefs and her inherent feminism. Louisa, meanwhile, is confronted with a past that, as a cover copy-writer might put it, she’d “prefer to keep buried.” The paths the women take are very different, giving the book a satisfying breadth of scope.

For the most part, the Egypt readers see is the Egypt of British colonialism. Egyptians themselves are background figures, helpful servants or vaguely menacing strangers. But by the book’s end, as political resistance to British rule increases, readers are given a sense of the anti-colonial struggle that will shake the country in years to come.

The Sacred River is one of those wonderful reads combining lyricism, self-realization, and historical reality in a combination that delights throughout. If you have time for a summer read, I can’t imagine a better recommendation than The Sacred River. This book will broaden your horizons as the heroines work to broaden their own.

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