Teaser Tuesdays: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Full disclosure: I got this tattoo, below, after reading this piece by Kingsnorth. (It’s more complicated than that, and Kingsnorth did not supply my first exposure to the green man, for the record; IMG_5964but he was a significant inspiration.) If you poke around his website, and his larger presence as a writer, you’ll see that he’s written a good deal about the Norman invasion of 1066; and now, a novel (released last year in Kingsnorth’s native Britain). But there is something different about this book: it is written in a “pseudo-language,” a hybrid between the Old English of the time in question, and the language we speak and understand today. Somewhat in the spirit of the “Landspeak” article I recently posted, Kingsnorth feels that the language in which we express a thing changes the thing being expressed: in other words, it matters.


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I am on board with the concept, but I confess, it would be a mistake to underestimate it. The Old English-ish language is a challenge, and casual readers will be dissuaded. It is worth the effort, however. The story inside is riveting and, yes, improved in tone by the impassioned voice of the narrator in his native tongue (or a slightly more readable version thereof). Pro tip: try reading aloud to get the full flavor, and to hear cognates come clear.

I have a few lines for you today that struck me especially, and which are almost understandable.

the fugols that sang here was the fugols i cnawan and the heofon was the heofon of my cildehood and for a small time i felt that my heorte had cum baec to where it sceolde always be. the mist cum round the secg cold as we walced saen lytel and sounds colde be hierde that was lic the sounds of my eald lands when i was still a man

Or, in my own translation,

The birds that sang here were the birds I knew, and the heaven was the heaven of my childhood, and for a small time I felt that my heart had come back to where it should always be. The mist came round the sedge, cold, as we walked saying little, and sounds could be heard that were like the sounds of my old lands, when I was still a man.

I love the sense of place and of belonging to a place – which is one of the losses of the Norman Invasion, in Kingsnorth’s telling – and the tone of mourning. Try it again in the original text. Go ahead. I know I threw you into it in the middle, but a full book of this actually comes to be quite compelling, if you can put in the effort.

Stay tuned for my positive review to come.

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.

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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.

Paris Red by Maureen Gibbon

The model for a famous Manet nude is exquisitely fictionalized as a young woman voracious for experience.

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“That day I am seventeen and I am wearing the boots of a whore.” So begins Maureen Gibbon’s Paris Red, a novel of art, love, sex and survival in 1860s Paris. Victorine, the red-haired narrator, is not a whore herself; the boots were a gift. She works instead as a brunisseuse–silver burnisher–along with her best friend and roommate, Nise. The two sometimes pick up men, though, and this new one, Eugène, is different from the others: he wants them both. Unlike Nise, Victorine pursues experience headlong, wanting to feel it all, and it is she who wins Eugène’s devotion. In the process she puts ambition above friendship, losing Nise, choosing instead a position as Eugène’s model and muse. She purchases oils and pastels for him, poses for sketches and paintings, and luxuriates in the role of his lover.

Paris Red is a sensual, luscious novel, filled with tastes, smells and sounds, as well as colors. Eugène is actually Édouard Manet, strolling the streets under a false name, but Gibbon’s focus here is Victorine, the real historical model for Manet’s Olympia. She finds a home for her passion for color in his studio, and plays model-actor in Eugène’s world, while also learning about–and never losing–herself.

In powerful, vivid prose, Gibbon (Thief) pulls her reader into a sensory Paris that cuts across class lines, painting a strikingly intense and intelligent young woman in Victorine. The overall effect is erotic, but also clever and perceptive, a remarkable glimpse into a moment of art and time. Readers will never view Olympia the same way again.


This review originally ran in the May 8, 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: 8 apple fritters.

Maximum Shelf: Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

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 April 2, 2015.


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Leslie Parry’s debut novel, Church of Marvels, is set in 1895, in phantasmagorical New York City, and stars a weird, lovable cast. Four protagonists share the spotlight in alternating chapters: recently estranged twin sisters Belle and Odile, orphaned loner Sylvan Threadgill, and the mysterious Alphie.

Belle and Odile’s mother was the indomitable and fabled Friendship Willingbird Church, a runaway who at age 14 dressed as a boy to fight for the Union army, and later established her own circus theater on Coney Island, called the Church of Marvels. After the Church caught fire and Friendship died in its embers, Belle (ever the adventurer) left for the city with a secret that readers must wait for and wonder about. Odile stayed behind, wondering herself at her sister’s abandonment. Belle writes home: “You, dear sister, have always been the brave one, the good one, the strongest of all.” But Odile is not the brave one, and her sister’s letter illuminates nothing about Belle’s new life.

Sylvan Threadgill earns his wages as a night-soiler, cleaning out tenement privies on the Lower East Side. He moonlights by competing in fights that take place and are bet upon in back rooms and on the docks. In the novel’s opening pages, Sylvan, at work one night, finds an unusual treasure in the filth: a baby girl, pale and green-eyed, “with a small nose and a dimpled chin like a pat of butter someone had stuck their thumb in.”

Alphie is an undertaker’s wife with a scandalous past who awakes one morning, disoriented, to find herself imprisoned in the asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She is desperate for rescue, sure that her husband will come, sure that her plight is another evil trick of her mother-in-law’s.

These four characters occupy separate stories for much of the book, and are joined by a colorful supporting cast. There are actors from the sideshow: a boy who is half girl, a girl with four legs, the man who throws knives at Odile as she rotates slowly on a wheel. There is the woman Sylvan turns to for help with the baby, and the very different woman Belle turns to for a very different sort of help. A strange parade of children who dwell underground put on a show for Odile when she reaches Manhattan, with implications she takes personally; Alphie’s fellows, from her past life, shed a harsh light. This array is completed by the baby Sylvan liberates. An orphan himself, he is unable to turn away from her stark need. But a part-time pugilist who was never parented himself makes an inapt caretaker for a newborn.

However fantastical they may be, these eccentrics do not populate a fantasy, but a realistic, heartbreaking and sympathetic story of resilience and connections lost and found. Appropriately, the action of the novel begins with Odile’s breaking character. She had found familiar if uncomfortable circus work with another theater company following her mother’s death, but now leaves to pursue Belle, a journey that leads her into underground opium dens, a hothouse flower nursery curated by an enigmatic woman, and the back alleys of the tenement district. She finds an unlikely ally in her hunt for her sister, just as Belle finds her own, “in this city [where] the lights burn ever brighter, but they cast the darkest shadows.” In chapters alternating among third-person perspectives, we track the movements of the four protagonists as they close in, geographically and philosophically, on the end of their individual and shared stories.

Parry’s central players are each mysterious and multi-layered, and readers will receive shocking new intelligence in the final pages of this masterful novel. In gradually, teasingly unveiling myriad deceptions, Parry shows perhaps her greatest strength.

The atmosphere she evokes is both whimsical and grotesque. The gruesome, appalling asylum, roiling with violence and refuse, and the babies abandoned in privies paint a brutally harsh picture. But the free-wheeling circus performers and the Church family history contribute a note of fancy. Alphie’s life story in particular provides a showcase for this dualism, where horror meets magic–she once worked on the street as a “penny Rembrandt,” painting men’s faces with great skill to cover up the bruises and sallowness of their dissipated nights, so that they could go home to their respectable lives. Church of Marvels demonstrates fascinating characterization and atmosphere as well as a riveting plot.

The bizarre and fanciful world contained in New York City at the turn of the last century is a playground for Parry’s magnificent, alluring prose. These enchantments make Church of Marvels memorable. But it is the compelling characters, both larger-than-life and poignantly real, that exhibit beauty, wonder and distress, and will most beguile readers in the end.


Rating: 7 swords swallowed.

Come back Wednesday to read my interview with Leslie Parry.

Tug-of-War by Judith Somborac

This touching story plainly told provides a captivating view of wartime Serbia, its tensions, and its effects on ordinary working people.

tug

Judith Somborac’s Tug-of-War follows the fictional experience of one young woman’s coming-of-age in World War II Serbia. Teenage Miriana sees upheavals to the size and shape of her household, grasps for fortitude, and glimpses hints of love. Her war years are stressful but formative, and the resulting tale is compelling and heartfelt.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on March 3, 2015 by ForeWord Reviews.

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My rating: 6 Christmases.

Luigi’s Freedom Ride by Alan Murray

A novel of love and bicycles, both funny and poignant, beginning in Mussolini’s Italy and traveling around the world.

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Alan Murray (The Wealth of Choices; Showdown at Gucci Gulch) tries his hand at fiction with Luigi’s Freedom Ride, and achieves a rare blend of humor, solemnity and grace in this sweeping tale. Luigi Ferraro was born in 1921, in a small Tuscan village where he learned metalworking and a love of bicycles from his Uncle Cesare. Under Mussolini, Luigi is conscripted into the Italian army with his two best friends and trains in the cycling corps; he escapes and joins a group of partisans resisting fascism, and experiences both love and loss. The heartbroken young man then sets out on an international tour via bicycle and train, visiting Jerusalem and Sri Lanka and circumnavigating Australia, that “furthest place” he’d been seeking. Finally, Luigi dismounts in Sydney, where unexpected good fortune awaits him. With friends, family, love and pain spread around the globe, will he ever make it back to Tuscany?

Murray’s quirky tone is absolutely charming, managing to express both the brutality and ugliness of war as well as the sweetly naive foibles of a young man learning about the wider world. Luigi is deeply endearing: he is well-intentioned but inexperienced, confounded by the English dialects of the Scots, Australians and Americans he meets, loyal and quick to love. Employing the bicycle as a symbol of freedom, fun, adventure and forward movement, Luigi’s Freedom Ride is a novel about hope, self-determination and fresh starts, both heartfelt and surprisingly optimistic.


This review originally ran in the February 24, 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: 8 clicks.

Jam! on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett

The vivid life of an African American newspaperwoman, civil rights activist and lover both entertains and inspires.

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LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s debut novel, Jam! on the Vine, is filled with color, suffering and feeling. Barnett’s protagonist Ivoe Williams is inspired by the life of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, newspaperwoman, suffragette and civil rights leader, and she sparkles from the first page, when she steals newspapers from her mother’s white employer to revel in the smell of the ink and the magic of print. Her mother, a Muslim and a former slave, is a talented gardener and cook, her father a masterful storyteller, so she is surrounded by art and encouraged in her education. The plucky Ivoe, a native of rural Texas born just after Emancipation, receives an unlikely scholarship to attend college in Austin, where she studies printing and journalism. She returns home overqualified for the kind of work available to young black women. Under the forces of power and prejudice, the Williams family will ultimately fracture and be forced to migrate to the city, where new challenges await. Ivoe finds love and purpose in work, eventually founding a Kansas City newspaper called Jam! on the Vine, which pursues the rights of African-Americans and women.

The connections to Wells-Barnett’s life are vague; the vibrancy of Ivoe’s trials and loves are a credit to Barnett the author. Sensual evocations are among Jam!‘s greatest triumphs: the Texas dirt and the tomato vines it sprouts, the savory jam crafted by Ivoe’s mother from their fruit, the family’s music and laughter, blood and pain and pleasure. Ivoe is stimulated by her study at the university, the tactile challenge of setting type and the intellectual exertions of politics and social justice. She grows from a gutsy child to become a famished student, then a frustrated young woman and, finally, finds love and joy and danger, in the Red Summer of race riots in 1919.

It is no exaggeration that the beautifully written Jam! on the Vine recalls Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. Sensuality, pleasure and pain, as well as the righteous difficulties of the early civil rights movement, yield a story that is passionate, inspired and lively. Barnett’s (editor of I Got Thunder and Off the Record) prose flows with rhythm and feeling, and her characters both major and minor are intriguing. While Ivoe’s hard, important work and her love of written words will endear her especially to readers interested in the history of journalism and the civil rights movement, this literary novel has broad appeal.


This review originally ran in the February 3, 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 jars.
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