The Rathbones by Janice Clark (audio), first half

rathbonesI am not quite halfway through The Rathbones, and I am at no proper stopping point – nor am I stopping – but I do feel the need to pause and report back to you. I am intrigued and bemused by this book. I don’t love it, although I might in the end; but I don’t dislike it either. I’m just a little perplexed.

The Rathbones is told mostly from the perspective of 15-year-old Mercy Rathbone, the last of that clan. She lives in the large, old Rathbone mansion on the Connecticut coast with her rather crazy mother and her reclusive tutor & cousin Mordecai. She wonders about the fate of her father, gone to sea many years ago now, and her little brother, whose existence is denied by mother and cousin. An unpleasant visitor sends Mercy and Mordecai fleeing in a little boat… into strange seas. They light upon one island and then another, meeting strange people who reflect in different ways on the paired mysteries of Mercy’s missing father, and the Rathbone family legacy. As I pause to write this, we are mid-journey, and I don’t know appreciably more about these mysteries than I did at page 1; and in a way I am worse off, in terms of knowing where the heck we are going, because I still haven’t figured out which thread of this story is the lead.

The writing and language are lovely, and well read by four narrators in turn: Erin Spencer, Cassandra Campbell, Malcolm Campbell, and Gabrielle De Cuir (itself an unusual convention, though I approve). The imagery is impressive as well. Moment to moment, this book is engrossing – sentence to sentence, scene to scene. But as for the overall story, I’m still baffled. Are we concerned about finding Mercy’s father (who is not, by the way, a Rathbone)? Or about unraveling the sinister, and apparently supernatural, history of the Rathbone family? Are we going to deal with the worn-out wives again, or is their episode past? Where are we going??

I’ve chosen a somewhat random example of Clark’s descriptive stylings for you here. Perhaps you can hear the dreamy, fantastical, and outlandish tone that draws me in…

Though the man was not Oriental, he wore wide scarlet silken trousers beneath the jade robe and pointed slippers of embroidered silk whose long tips quivered at each step. Mordecai stood beside me as the man approached. They were of a similar size and bearing, and each boasted a pigtail, one pale, one dark. The man bowed first to Mordecai, pausing for a moment with a troubled look. They might have been two sides to a single coin. He then bowed to me, sweeping off his pointed hat. The pigtail came away with it. Beneath the hat curled a powdered wig. Beneath the wig, a face that made Mordecai seem the fairest of men. It was all sharp angles and harsh planes, the skin rough and pale and faintly gray, though he was a young man. I judged him to be near Mordecai’s true age. It was a face that might have been hewn from the granite on the islands that the Starks had worked so hard to smooth. I thought that if I touched his cheek I might slice my finger open.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not here to criticize. I think I am charmed by this work. But so far it is working on me more like a series of vaguely connected short stories than as a coherent novel. We’ll see; maybe she will pull it all together soon. Mystery and obscured connections seem to be a theme, so I am hopeful that this is the case.

I also want to note that there are clear influences here of the whale-obsessed culture of Moby-Dick, as well as the fantastic interconnected adventures-at-sea of the Odyssey. The latter is one of my all-time favorites (although Moby-Dick, not so much. maybe I just need another seminar course on it), so that’s a good thing.

I am having no doubts about sticking around for the second half of this odd novel, so stick around for the next review to come. I am (at least) as curious as you are.

Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

A novel of family history, passion and menace, based on historical events in eastern Canada.

alone
In her fourth novel, Alone in the Classroom, Elizabeth Hay (Late Nights on Air) awakens the hidden histories of Saskatchewan and the small-town Ottawa Valley, as her narrator Anne Flood researches the life of her aunt, Connie.

Connie Flood taught for one year, 1929, at a small prairie school in the town of Jewel. Among her students, she worked closely with one challenged boy, Michael Graves. The strikingly portrayed principal, Mr. Burns, surveyed them with an ominous air. One of Connie’s students died a tragic and mysterious death; some 80 years later, the repercussions of that death still swirl through Anne’s life. Likewise, the unrelated murder of another child shortly thereafter haunts Connie, Mr. Burns and Michael Graves for years to come.

Alone in the Classroom is not really a murder mystery (although no slack is permitted in the plot); it’s a lyrical, thoughtful exploration of a town’s secrets. The Flood family’s history and the legacy of Mr. Burns make for a taut, suspenseful and compelling tale. There are threads of romance intertwined with obsession, sensuality paired with threat. Anne’s relationships with mother, aunt and grandmother–both sinister and everyday–form a central theme as well. Though it’s a slim book, at just over 200 pages, Alone in the Classroom begs to be read slowly; at the novel’s close, it’s easy to feel an intimate connection with Anne and her forebears and, having come so far with her, be strangely refreshed by the journey.


This review originally ran in the August 8, 2014 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 lakes.

Maximum Shelf: The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec

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 August 6, 2014.


small

Kurt Gödel was a mathematician, logician and philosopher, best known for his incompleteness theorem, and often referred to as one of the greatest logicians since Aristotle. Born in Austria in 1906, he immigrated to the United States in 1940 to escape Hitler’s growing power and to pursue his scholarly work. Plagued by mental illness but also highly accomplished in his field, he would easily make an interesting subject to pursue. But Yannick Grannec’s first novel, The Goddess of Small Victories, is not about Kurt Gödel; it is about his wife, Adele.

Adele was six years older than Kurt, and was employed as a dancer at a cabaret when they met in 1927. They were a couple for more than a decade (during which time she nursed him through several rounds of institutionalization) before they married, with the continuing disapproval of his family. Adele would face rejection and isolation in the academic community as well, particularly when the couple finally settled at Princeton, where he worked at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study (IAS).

These details are a matter of historical record. Grannec’s foray into fiction begins with her other protagonist: it is 1980, Gödel has recently died of anorexia, and Anna Roth, an employee at the IAS, has been tasked with recovering Gödel’s archives from his widow. Adele lives in a nursing home, and continues to hold a grudge against the academic establishment that shunned her; she is known to be a prickly old woman, and at first lives up to her reputation. But she sees something she recognizes in Anna, the daughter of two egomaniacal Princeton professors, who never felt that she fit into that society, being a more timid sort. Gradually, as Anna makes regular visits to the nursing home, the two women begin to open up to one another. Adele calls it a trade: she’ll tell her story if Anna tells hers. Chapters of The Goddess of Small Victories alternate between a third-person view of Anna’s visits to Adele in 1980, and a first-person telling of Adele’s story as it happened chronologically, beginning in 1928.

In this way, “the younger woman” (as Anna is often labeled) gets to visit Adele’s past worlds: Vienna in the 1930’s, postwar Princeton, McCarthyism, the Cold War; the difficulties of being an immigrant with poor English, the thrill of close friendship with Einstein and other luminaries and, centrally, the challenge of marriage to a tortured genius. Gödel is concerned with the infinite, but unable to handle the minutiae of his life: he is a consistently and increasingly troubled man–gifted, but also cold and demanding. He suffers from depression and paranoia, starves himself, meticulously tracks his body temperature and bowel activity, and refuses to see anyone outside a small circle that includes Einstein, Oskar Morgenstern, Robert Oppenheimer and their wives. He harangues his friends with conspiracy theories and an insistent rehashing of his unpopular notions. These few individuals naturally compose Adele’s entire social world, as well. Gödel tests Adele mightily, but in the end her love persists, as does her belief in infinity (a popular topic in the Gödel marriage and within their intellectual circle).

In exchange, Adele enjoys hearing about Anna’s life, though it has been marked by broken relationships and fear. The elder woman is outspoken, where the younger is reticent; Adele is enlivened by the challenge of spicing up Anna’s professional and love lives. Anna, as it turns out, has had a gifted-but-troubled mathematician in her own life as well. As the book and the women’s relationship unfold, the reader’s perspective moves more deeply inside Adele’s head, hearing her more intimate thoughts and becoming privy to her fears and insecurities, which increase as she ages and her marriage disappoints her. Anna and Adele make a journey together, and soon Gödel’s archives are no longer the point (except for Anna’s employer).

In an author’s note at the end, Grannec succinctly outlines which parts of the story are historically confirmed, which are relatively safe conjectures, and which she has created. Sticklers for historical accuracy should be satisfied. The translation from French to English by Willard Wood is smooth, establishing appropriate voices for the two different protagonists, and creating the evolving atmospheres of nervousness, fear and, eventually, desperation that characterize the Gödel household.

In the end, The Goddess of Small Victories delicately evokes both Adele’s varied experiences, in historical context, and also Anna’s more circumscribed life, which leaves room for future decision-making. While light is shed on the life and work of Kurt Gödel, he takes a backseat to his dynamic wife in Grannec’s compassionate telling. The finer technical details of Gödel’s work are outlined in narrative form, as Gödel reluctantly tries to tutor Adele, or discusses theories of philosophy with Einstein and the others. (Grannec also inserts footnotes regularly to offer further explanation, or to attribute quotations.) These mathematical and philosophical dialogues, the reader is reminded, are oversimplified; but they are enough to either whet the appetite, or impress upon one the magnitude of Gödel’s genius. The stars of this story, however, are two strong and intriguing women, who are stronger together.


Rating: 8 chocolates.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Grannec!

Never Mind Miss Fox by Olivia Glazebrook

An ominous tale of betrayal and past mistakes.

miss fox

Olivia Glazebrook (The Trouble with Alice) opens her second novel, Never Mind Miss Fox, by introducing her readers to Clive and Martha in their university days, at Oxford. Clive has fallen for Martha, and “realizing her worth–afraid to leave her unattended,” he’s brought her along on a family holiday to France. It is there, in a small seaside town where Clive’s family has been vacationing for decades, that the full cast of characters comes together: the new couple is joined by Clive’s younger brother, Tom, and his guest, a girl named Eliot Fox. Tom and Eliot are “just friends,” although everyone acknowledges that Tom worships her. The boys’ parents, Val and Peter, are secondary to this vivid foursome of young people, but their personalities are evoked in brief sketches.

The narrative then jumps forward in time. Clive and Martha are happily (or at least stably) married, and they adore their lonesome daughter, Eliza, who has just come home from school to announce that she has a new piano teacher, someone from her parents’ past. Eliza is happy to have found a friend in Miss Fox; but to Clive she represents something entirely different. Eliot brings with her a secret Clive has mostly forgotten after all these years, a dark secret unknown to Martha or Eliza or Tom, one that has the potential to tear apart his carefully constructed life. “Are you going to tell?” he asks her; Eliot replies, “I won’t have to.”

The chronology of Glazebrook’s haunting tale continues to alternate between the schooldays of the original four characters and their adult lives with the heartbreaking Eliza, whose world was just starting to make sense when it began to break apart. Readers will wonder at the nature of Clive’s transgression for much of the book, as the enigma is slowly revealed; then they’ll watch in horror as his family’s present hangs in the balance.

Never Mind Miss Fox is relatively brief–easily read in a single sitting–but powerful. Glazebrook draws strong characters: Martha, ambitious, and a reluctant mother; Clive, insecure and barely competent; Eliza, an affectingly awkward, intelligent child; and of course Miss Fox, mysterious, damaged, whose motives remain obscure. As the entangled players rush toward a conclusion that will change each of their lives in profound ways, the distressed marriage and mood of sinister suspense are apt to delight fans of Patricia Highsmith and all that is darkly engrossing.


This review originally ran in the July 31, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cigarettes.

Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende (audio)

mayaI find it a little hard to believe I’ve read as little Isabel Allende as I have. You will recall that I loved Ines of my Soul as an audiobook; and I recall reading Daughter of Fortune at some point in the more distant (pre-blog) past, although I think I loved it less. Is that really all??

The music of her language reminds me of Sandra Cisneros. As soon as I began this audiobook, immediately following the disappointment of The Aviator’s Wife, I was soothed and grateful to be lulled by such lovely descriptive language (and read beautifully by narrator Maria Cabezas). The rhythm of that language is a central part of the attraction of this novel, although of course there’s more to it than that.

Maya’s Notebook is ostensibly the journal of young Maya Vidal, who turns 20 during the span of this story. That framing element of the journal is rarely referred to, but it does allow the narrative to jump back and forth in time. When the book opens, Maya is traveling from Berkeley, California to the small Chilean island of Chiloé, apparently on the run from an unlikely motley crew of threats including the mob, the Las Vegas police, and the FBI. We follow Maya as she adjusts to her new island home while also flashing back (via her journal) to the events that led her there.

Maya’s Danish mother abandoned her just weeks after birth; her Chilean father works as a pilot and is therefore scarce; but her Chilean grandmother (Nini) and African-American step-grandfather (Popo) are deeply involved, devoted parental figures, so she doesn’t suffer as an abandoned child might. In fact, she has a very happy childhood, until a sudden tragedy occurs when she is in her teens, and Maya rebels violently. I’ll refer vaguely to drugs, sex, crime, organized crime, and… Nini sends her off to Chiloé, where Nini has an old acquaintance who will take Maya in. Despite her storied past, then-19-year-old Maya adjusts well to the very foreign setting of a tiny island stuck in time. Her relationship with her new guardian, Manuel Arias, also develops nicely. These easy conquests are the first of the unrealistic touches that gave me pause.

The parts of Maya’s story that take place on Chiloé are deeply enjoyable, beautiful, and exotic enough to be pleasing and to suspend my disbelief – to quote a review in The New Republic, right to the point: “readers, confronted by fiction set in remote places and eras, are likely to suspend more disbelief than usual.” (I don’t know if it would really be this easy for Maya to win over her new neighbors. Despite being half-Chilean, she has her Danish mother’s coloring and goes locally by “Gringita.” And coloring aside, she is very different culturally from the locals; her easy transition felt very… convenient.) But the street life in Berkeley and (especially) Las Vegas increasingly reminded me of Go Ask Alice, in being simultaneously superlative in its ugliness, and cursory. It didn’t feel real, and Maya’s descent from golden child (literally), well-loved and privileged, to gutter junkie, felt even more cartoonish. This was the chief flaw of Maya’s Notebook. I also feel compelled to point out that even a woman who has played soccer since she was a little girl is unlikely to break a big, strong man’s femur with a well-placed kick.

These flaws were easy to put aside, though. This story made me laugh and cry, I loved Chiloé and its colorful people very much, and Allende’s lyricism is exemplary. There are hints of magical realism. All in all, I thought the New Republic review linked to above was a bit harsh; or maybe it’s just that it picks Maya’s Notebook apart from a standpoint of craft, even literary criticism, where I’m more interested in discussing how enjoyable I found it. I found it flawed, but enjoyable, and I will definitely be back for more.

Maria Cabezas’s reading was beautiful and just what this story deserved. I would like to say something about the translation from Spanish to English being lovely as well, but I am confused: packaging on every audio edition I can find gives translation credit to Anne McLean, but the audio that played in my ear credits Allende herself. Whoever it was, it was clearly outstanding.

Despite some faults, I am pleased.


Rating: 7 photographs.

Maximum Shelf: Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre

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 July 23, 2014.


fives and twenty

When a road repair convoy stops to check for roadside bombs, their first duty is to scan five meters in all directions from within the vehicle. A bomb inside this perimeter can penetrate the vehicle’s armor and kill everyone inside. Once five meters are cleared, scouts step outside and sweep an area 25 yards in every direction, before the convoy can move forward. These are the defining dimensions of a road repair platoon’s daily work. Filling potholes in Iraq means clearing bombs.

Michael Pitre’s debut novel, Fives and Twenty-Fives, follows three men from a road repair platoon in Iraq through their lives after their service has ended, alternating among their first-person voices. In disjointed chronology, the story switches between the present, when each man has either returned home or tried to create a new one, and their far more vivid past, in the Iraqi war zone.

Lieutenant Donovan is the platoon’s leader, although he knows he relies overmuch on his highly competent sergeant and corporal. Both his rank and his natural reserve inhibit Donovan’s relationships with the men and women assigned to him. “A real southern college boy, the Lieutenant. Like he was on his way to an outdoor jam band festival one day, took a wrong turn, and somehow ended up in the Marines.” Corpsman Lester “Doc” Pleasant is from the wrong side of the tracks, but discovers a gift for medical work. The platoon’s losses, which he is meant to prevent, hit him hard. Their “terp,” or local-native interpreter, is a Baghdadi university student code-named Dodge (“a dependable car”), who carries a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in his back pocket, filled with copious marginalia in both Arabic and English. He is assigned to Donovan’s platoon but not allowed to talk with the Americans about his past–not that he wants to. In the aftermath of their war, the reader watches these three men try to navigate a world that no longer makes sense to them or of them.

In a post-Katrina New Orleans (and vomit-soaked French Quarter) as stark as the wartime Iraqi desert, Donovan goes back to school to pursue a business degree, but his professors don’t feel that officer training should exempt him from coursework in “leadership dynamics and business ethics.” He struggles to find relevance in school and work, and is haunted by the fates of the men and women of his platoon. Doc returns home to Houma, Louisiana, his military service having failed to offer the opportunity he sought. He can’t stop worrying about his father working out in the shed late at night, and still carries his trauma bag everywhere he goes. Dodge is lost to his American friends, his postwar experience known only to the reader.

In flashbacks, the reader witnesses these men and others in their day-to-day work in Iraq: repairing potholes, each and every one of which reliably contains an IED; trying to keep the roads safe for military and civilian travel; balancing humanity against the ugly work of war; and riding out the senselessness of military politics. Relationships grow and fade. Their homes seem very far away, and are rarely mentioned. One exception is Donovan’s phone call to his parents on his birthday, an effort that costs him dearly. Additional members of the platoon are revealed only in these flashbacks. The strong characters of Corporal Zahn and uber-capable Sergeant Gomez, for example, don’t get first-person treatment; the reader has to work a little harder to puzzle out the endings to their stories, with an increasing sense of foreboding.

Meanwhile, in the present-tense sections, Donovan struggles with the social interactions required by work, school and the possibility of dating. He is hailed as a military hero but holds himself responsible for a range of less salutary personal postwar outcomes. Doc is back at the oil-change place where he worked in high school, his society consisting of a father he can hardly speak to and two friends in a band in New Orleans. Dodge inhabits a precarious position in Tunisia, a society teetering at the brink of violent protests and social upheaval; his pleas to come to the United States have been denied.

These young people come home from a deeply traumatic foreign war to a society totally unprepared to understand them. When Doc ventures out with a girl to see the fireworks on New Year’s Eve, he reacts badly to the sounds of explosions and lashes out, wanting to protect those around him; but his companions, who barely know him, judge him to be unstable. Donovan carefully avoids playing the part of the “stereotypical brooding vet.” The experiences of Donovan, Doc and Dodge are heartwrenching in both theaters; it is Pitre’s greatest feat that they remain viscerally real people, not black-and-white cut-outs. From the perspective of his characters, there are perhaps no heroes here.

The quiet pathos of war, its aftermath and the individuals affected by it, and the inability of a tone-deaf society to relate to them, is rendered with poignancy and stark honesty in Fives and Twenty-Fives. Readers will be floored by Pitre’s spare literary style, the authenticity of each of his characters’ three different voices, and those mesmerizing characters themselves, who are not perfect but demand our compassion for their very reality. The story of Fives and Twenty-Fives is sometimes difficult to abide, but is also necessary; we are lucky to have such a fine voice as Pitre’s to tell it.


Rating: 9 potholes.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Pitre.

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

Ghosts, curses, blessings, loves, births, deaths and family in a lush Caribbean setting.

land

Tiphanie Yanique (How to Escape from a Leper Colony) constructs a wide and magical world spanning three generations on the island of St. Thomas in Land of Love and Drowning. In the early 1900s, as the Danish Virgin Islands are poised to transfer to U.S. rule, Owen Arthur Bradshaw divides his love between his wife, Antoinette, who is beautiful but a reluctant mother; his daughter Eeona, still more lovely and also inveterately jealous; and Rebekah, an obeah (sorceress) married to another man. Antoinette gives Owen one more daughter, Annette, just as Rebekah gives him a son, Jacob Esau. The three children grow up relating to one another in unusual ways. War and American influence broaden their world somewhat, and the forces of nature and island magic both influence and are influenced by the disparate forces that are Eeona, Annette and Jacob Esau.

The story begins with Owen Arthur and his women, then follows his children’s and his grandchildren’s lives. Perspective shifts among the voices of the three children, but Annette, who grows up to be a historian, speaks the loudest. Her island patois persists even as Eeona nags her to “use proper English.” As she writes, “is just a story I telling, but put it in your glass and drink it.”

The compelling history of the U.S. Virgin Islands as told through this family’s intimacies is multiethnic, colorful and vital. Yanique’s diverse characters become doctors, architects, teachers, parents, lovers and fighters; their collective story is haunting and exquisite, told with grace, vibrancy and magic.


This review originally ran in the July 18, 2014 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 red dresses.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 362 other followers

%d bloggers like this: