The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison

kissThe Kiss came recommended as a powerfully told memoir, the artful representation of a shocking story that does not rely upon its sensational nature to make an impact, but showcases the author’s craft. All this is true, and I am left feeling very impressed and somewhat reeling, from both the story itself and the writing.

Kathryn Harrison was raised by her mother’s parents, her mother an on-and-off presence in her life who never gives her the love she longs for. She meets her father only twice while she is growing up; his third visit, when she has just turned 20, marks the beginning of a new stage. When he kisses her goodbye at the airport, the air goes electric, and they begin an incestuous affair that will last years and cause the rest of her life to wither. Their relationship is obsessive and controlling: in other words, awfully unhealthy, even if they were not father and daughter; and it will damage her forever.

Clearly there is shock value, and the potential for merely prurient appeal. But Harrison does not let the salacious subject matter carry her book. She examines her troubled childhood, her need for love, her search for herself, and sees in hindsight the way she was preyed upon. Her father is a preacher, who argues that God wants them to be together sexually.

I never question his sanity; although I will come to the point where it is less painful to regard my father as crazy than to conclude that he has been so canny in judgment of my character and its frailties that he knows exactly what language to use, what noose of words to cast around my neck.

She studies her story, and muses on it, and the result is a work of craft, not of voyeurism.

It is still disturbing, make no mistake. You will shiver and flinch, because she doesn’t turn away from the ugly bits – and they don’t all involve her father; there is also the one with the kittens, and the scene in which Harrison’s unloving mother takes her to a doctor to have her hymen broken with medical implements. (Seriously.) But it is also, strangely, beautiful. As a writer, I am here to take notes and see how she does this thing: tells this horrifying story with grace and insight and art. I don’t really understand it, although I hope to.


Rating: 8 photographs.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida

A vibrant, thought-provoking literary puzzler about identity and self-determination.

diver's clothes

“You stand in the middle of the small square, thinking about your options.” Vendela Vida’s (The Lovers) vivid fourth novel, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, is surprising in several ways, beginning with its unusual second-person perspective: you are the protagonist.

“You” are a woman traveling alone from Florida to Casablanca, fleeing troubles at home that are only gradually revealed to the reader. What you seek is unclear: a vacation? An escape? But what you find instead is the immediate theft of your passport and wallet–in short, everything you need to travel or return home. This abrupt change in circumstances is terrifying but also strangely freeing.

As the rest of the story unfolds, the unnamed protagonist spontaneously reacts to situations as they present themselves. You accept a passport and wallet that was stolen from another American woman, offered by the Casablanca police in lieu of your own, and take on that woman’s identity. You accept an unlikely job offer as the stand-in for a famous American actress. You hang out backstage with Patti Smith, date an older Russian businessman, even undertake a little acting. When circumstances get hectic, however, you are tempted to use your newfound skills in spontaneity and anonymity to disappear again.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is a complex, enigmatic fable about starting over, the nature of identity and the possibility of escaping the past. Vida’s meticulous release of details, knowing use of suspense, colorful evocation of Morocco and tantalizing characterization make this a singular, revelatory and deliciously satisfying novel.


This review originally ran in the June 16, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 cameras.

Bobby Wonderful: An Imperfect Son Buries His Parents by Bob Morris

A son’s memoir of love and endings, despite his shortcomings and mistakes.

bobby wonderful

Bob Morris (Assisted Loving; Crispin the Terrible) loved his parents very much, even if he was not always the ideal son. His older brother, Jeff, played that role; Bob was less reliable.

When his mother died, her last garbled word was his name: Bobby. As his father died several years later, he cried out: “Wonderful!” As Morris relives and reconsiders those difficult experiences–caring for each of his parents (more or less), witnessing and helping to make decisions about the ends their lives–he pairs those final words to make the title of his searingly candid memoir, Bobby Wonderful.

Morris is on a much-needed vacation in Scotland, tasting whiskies and forgetting his cares, when he gets the call to come home for his mother’s last days. His first reaction is resentment; the scarf he brings her as a souvenir is a knockoff of the first one he considered. Still, he was there, with Jeff. In the years that follow, Morris helps his father learn to date again and encourages his independence, in part because Morris is busy trying to enjoy his own life. When his father attempts suicide, though, Morris is forced to face uncomfortable questions about his father’s end-of-life wishes, his own devotion and what it means to be a good son.

Morris’s struggles are sensitively told, deeply moving and highly relevant in a world where more and more people face situations like his. Bobby Wonderful is a gift of a book: an often funny but also perfectly serious contemplation of living and dying well.


This review originally ran in the June 12, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 performances.

Lanterne Rouge by Max Leonard

An amiable history of a largely unsung hero pays respects to the last-place finisher of the Tour de France.

lanterne

Even non-cycling fans recognize the Tour de France as the sport’s biggest annual event. Naturally, the attention of the press and the viewer is focused at the front of the race, where attacks, group sprints and winners are born. In Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, Max Leonard directs overdue consideration to a different segment of the Tour, where he finds a less fairytale-like but very sincere story.

Ever since the Tour was founded in 1903, as a struggling newspaper’s publicity stunt, someone necessarily has come in last place. Cycling’s term for that someone dates back almost as far: based on his research, Leonard argues that it must have been in use before World War I. The usage of lanterne rouge, or red lantern, is generally accepted as having come from the railroad, where a red lantern lit the last car, letting signalmen know the line behind was clear. Over the last century and more, the lanterne has been variously a joke, a dishonor, an achievement to be sought after and a source of controversy, conflict and myth.

Importantly, the lanterne rouge achieves the accomplishment of finishing the race. The Tour has always had a high rate of attrition. Many men withdraw from the race over weeks of mountain passes, long days and severe weather; some years, Tour staff have pulled trailing riders from the race as well. The lanterne is the man who finishes last–but finishes, a respectable feat.

Leonard makes his passion easily felt as he follows his underappreciated subject. In his prologue (a word not only for a book’s introduction but also a preliminary time-trial stage of the Tour), he attempts to ride a mountain stage of the Tour, but DNF’s (“did not finish”), and his failure will haunt him for the rest of his research and writing process. He then spends nearly two years meeting with surviving lanternes and those who remember them, and searching French libraries for scraps of information about the earliest ones. For example, he pursues the legends of the first lanterne rouge, Arsène Millocheau of 1903 (but did he really finish the race?), and of Abdel-Kader Zaaf of 1951, whose story involves wine, naps, religious difference and colonial racism. Leonard studies the lanterne (and, somewhat resignedly, the leading yellow jersey as well) exhaustively, throughout history and through the race’s evolutions and rule changes. A chapter on drug and doping scandals rounds out any analysis of the Tour, and yes, some lanternes were involved.

Lanterne Rouge is an engaging, exhaustive survey of the last man in the Tour de France, a history, a collection of appealing anecdotes and a psychological consideration of winning and losing. An obvious choice for serious cycling fans, Leonard’s approachable study will also please general sports fans, history enthusiasts and those who root for the underdog.


This review originally ran in the June 12, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 bidons.

Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave by Sean Prentiss

A journey to find a famous grave and an exploration of the meanings of environment and home.

finding abbey

After the death of environmental writer Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang; Desert Solitaire), four of his friends took his body to the desert near Albuquerque, N.Mex., and illegally buried him in a hidden location. For decades since, the mystery of his final resting place has tantalized Abbey’s fans and followers. Writer Sean Prentiss set out to track down his hero, as related in the thoughtful Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave.

Prentiss calls on Abbey’s close friends Jack Loeffler, Ken Sleight, David Peterson and Doug Peacock, several of whom inspired characters in Abbey’s fiction. He visits locations that Abbey called home over decades of peripatetic soul-searching. Prentiss does his own exploring, too. Though newly settled in the Midwest for a university job, Prentiss feels enticed by Abbey’s desert Southwest, a region he has also lived and traveled in. As much as he seeks a literal gravesite, or communion with a complicated man, Prentiss equally seeks a home for himself.

Prentiss questions whether he really wants to find the object of his search. “Answers don’t solve questions. Only searching does.” His tone is wondering, and his quest is both personal (where will Prentiss call home?) and universal (what does a sense of place mean to anyone?). His goal might be disrespectful, considering the continued efforts of the Abbey camp to keep the grave’s location a secret, but Prentiss navigates this potential difficulty with sensitivity. While it offers no revelations, Finding Abbey is philosophical, poetic, a creative biography and a loving, evocative celebration of a controversial life.


This review originally ran in the May 15, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 cans of beer.

Maximum Shelf: Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 10, 2015.


did you everAcclaimed memoirist Bill Clegg (Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man; Ninety Days) offers a profound jolt with his first novel, Did You Ever Have a Family, the impetus for the creation of Gallery Books’ new literary imprint, Scout Press.

June Reid’s world is splintered and lost in an instant. In the early morning of her daughter’s wedding day, her farmhouse explodes and burns, killing June’s ex-husband; her current boyfriend, Luke; her daughter, Lolly; and Lolly’s fiancé, Will. Did You Ever Have a Family maps the circumstances of the blaze and follows the aftermath of this tragedy as it affects June and other members of the families and communities of the victims.

In Clegg’s unusual composition, each chapter belongs to a different person, with the reader left to configure their connections. Some of their stories are told in first person, some in third, and almost all in flashbacks. This ever-shifting perspective highlights mistakes and misunderstandings, including June’s; other characters provide small revelations, thereby contributing to larger questions. The relatives and acquaintances of the deceased are joined by others with less clear ties, who appear to the reader in ever-widening concentric circles. Thus Clegg slowly and skillfully reveals the night of the fire and the nuances of the surrounding community in deft disclosures, through different points of view and with deep feelings.

June’s farmhouse is located in the small Connecticut town of Wells, where the locals are employed, somewhat resentfully, in serving weekend people from New York City. June had first been a weekender, and later moved in full-time. She ruffled some feathers when she began dating Luke, a handsome young man some 20 years her junior with a complicated history, about whom everyone in town had an opinion. June’s own family is not uncomplicated: following her divorce, she struggled to get along with her daughter, Lolly, a dreamy girl who apparently blamed her mother for the fracturing of the household. But June had worked to get to know Lolly’s fiancé, Will. She was counting on a future. In a moment of unguarded exasperation, she rhetorically asked Will’s sister: “Did you ever have a family?” After losing hers in such a spectacular, gruesome fashion, June eventually departs Wells carrying no identification, with only her car keys and a bank card left in the jacket she was wearing when she ran out of her house.

Early chapters focus on native Wells residents: friends, neighbors, the florist contracted for the wedding, the caterer who never got paid. But as characters gradually expand and diversify, the geography of Did You Ever Have a Family also spreads as the narrative unfolds, until its focus ranges from the east to the west coast of the United States. The lives of many are altered by the loss of June’s family; their simply expressed, easily understood emotions belie the gut-wrenchingly awful stories they tell. And each is ultimately working to build or define family, with varying degrees of success.

Lydia is Wells’s town outcast, busty and socially awkward, who gave birth years ago to a baby whose father had to have been African-American, although Lydia’s husband was red-haired and pale. That baby would grow up to be an intelligent, athletic, convicted felon–June’s boyfriend, Luke. When readers meet her, Lydia is chafing under the opinions of small, mean minds and loud voices. Town gossip holds Luke responsible for the tragedy, and thereby confirms Lydia’s low social status. Following an estrangement of several years between mother and son, June had orchestrated a tentative reconciliation. But when June leaves town following the funerals of everyone she loved, Lydia loses not only her son but her only friend. After June deserts Wells, gossip gains strength, and may yet destroy what the fire didn’t.

Supporting characters include a teenage neighbor who helped fix up the yard for the wedding and who carries his bong with him everywhere, and the family of June’s never-to-be son-in-law, Will, who return home to Washington State to mourn him. At a small seaside motel on the West Coast, a couple who have fled their own tragedy in Seattle worry over their new guest, a ghostlike woman who rents by the month and never leaves her room. And with yet another perspective, the reader learns the identity of Luke’s father, although Luke himself never did. These characters and vignettes are not disconnected, although their relationships become clear only over the course of Clegg’s masterfully woven story.

June and Lydia inhabit the center of this wondrous, grave and glorious story, but each voice that speaks up in Did You Ever Have a Family is gripping and invokes the reader’s sympathies. Every character and every small tragedy is a sensitively portrayed, complex, and compelling study on its own. What first appears to be a tale of grief in the face of unspeakable loss grows with its own momentum, until finally its scope is much wider than initially suspected. The expansive and surprising result eventually portrays the building of community and the possibility of recovery, even forgiveness. Did You Ever Have a Family is an elegant first novel, carefully composed and beautifully, hauntingly written.


Rating: 8 daisies.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Clegg.

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

The fictional portrait of a real-life, rough-edged, hard-drinking “Mother Teresa” on New York City’s tough streets in the early 20th century.

saint mazie

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg (The Middlesteins) brings to life a true historical figure–movie theater proprietress Mazie Phillips–as a fully realized, full-color, unlikely hero.

They called her Queen of the Bowery. She was bottle-blonde, busty, husky-voiced and crude; she was a self-described good-time girl with a gruff manner, partial to men and drink. But she was also a humanitarian, though she would never have admitted it. Attenberg’s inspired story takes the form of a historian’s fictional collection of material: entries from Mazie’s diary, excerpts from a draft of her unpublished autobiography and interviews with descendants, acquaintances and local experts on New York City’s past.

Mazie begins her diary on her 10th birthday, in 1907. She is new to New York City; her older sister, Rosie, has rescued her and the youngest, Jeanie, from domestic violence in Boston. The three sisters form an odd but lasting household with Rosie’s husband, Louis, beloved of all three. From this day forward, Mazie remains in the city, drinking through Prohibition, assisting the wounded at the Wall Street bombing in 1920, and pinching pennies to help her neighbors through the aftermath of the 1929 crash.

Saint Mazie‘s structure establishes an evocative tone of both ancient history and immediacy. Mazie’s love affairs and friendships are wrought with sensitivity and nuance; Nadine, the barely-named researcher behind the story, surfaces with rare, delightful hints to her own personality and motivations. Mazie’s life is compelling, heartrending and irresistibly paced, but it is Attenberg’s subtle storytelling decisions that make this novel unforgettable.


This review originally ran in the June 2, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 postcards.
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