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The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

A Brothers Grimm fairy tale recast in 1980s London features a single mother fighting against long odds for her place in the world.

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The Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Juniper Tree” features a wicked stepmother. A pious wife desperately wants a child; her wish is granted, but she dies just after giving birth to a son. Her husband buries her under a juniper tree and remarries, but his new wife, favoring her own daughter, cooks her stepson into a stew and feeds it to his father. Her daughter buries the boy’s bones under the juniper tree with his mother. He is reincarnated as a bird, who sings to the townspeople about his murder.

Barbara Comyns’s The Juniper Tree, originally published in 1985, bears an epigraph from the fairy tale: “My mother she killed me, my father he ate me,” but from there diverges sharply from the original. In 1980s London, Bella Winter has had a run of bad luck. Her pretty face has been badly scarred in an automobile accident. She has only recently escaped a manipulative relationship with a selfish man and withdrawn from her unloving mother. She has a young daughter of mixed race she calls Marline, born out of wedlock and fathered by a man whose name she didn’t catch. In the opening pages, she is jobless and homeless, but she is resourceful and unsentimental, and soon finds a home and vocation in a small antiques shop. The friendship of an upper-class couple, Bernard and Gertrude, completes her happiness, and she spends long, sweet afternoons with Gertrude sitting under the juniper tree in the couple’s garden. She even sees a fragile reunion with her mother. This contentment is shattered, however, when Gertrude’s longed-for pregnancy ends in both birth and death. Bella plays an increasingly large role in helping Bernard run his household with the baby, Johnny, and Marline becomes like a sister to the boy. When Bernard convinces Bella to marry him, however, her life takes a turn toward the Brothers Grimm.

Bella is a remarkable narrator and protagonist. Practical, independent, resilient, she builds a neat life for herself and her daughter, meeting all their needs and bothering no one. The friendship of the wealthier couple, which brings her such joy, turns out to be a curse, and Bella the tragic hero. Comyns turns the fairy tale on its head and complicates it with class and racial tensions, mental illness and the timeless struggle of a young woman to chart her own course. This is a richer, more relevant, modern rendering of the classic, heartbreaking in its fine attention to detail and its realistic, hardy heroine. While no knowledge of “The Juniper Tree” is necessary to appreciate this version, those familiar with the original will appreciate many subtle references. This edition includes a brief, helpful introduction by critic Sadie Stein, offering context within Comyns’s body of work. The Juniper Tree is a poignant, quietly disturbing novel for fans of strong female protagonists and dark fairy tales, and anyone who roots for the underdog.


This review originally ran in the December 21, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 magpies.

The Stampographer by Vincent Sardon

This iconoclastic French artist’s work with rubber stamps is for fans of fart jokes, the f-bomb and political satire.

The Stampographer is a different kind of coffee-table book. Vincent Sardon makes rubber stamps because “the stamp is never neutral”; it generally appears as a tool of bureaucracy, but here subverts authority to play with taboo. The book’s endpapers are filled with repeating middle fingers, its pages with insults, erotic and violent images, the profane and the vulgar. In an interview (the volume’s only text), Sardon denies any such political motive: “My work simply reflects the world, which seems to have been created by an absolute moron.”

These are evocative images and complex references to art and history, showcasing Sardon’s dark, satiric, antagonistic sense of humor. He considers his stamps “both tools and works of art,” and sells them only to amateurs, not artists, from a private gallery in Paris. Readers not local to Paris are lucky to get a glimpse of his work in this unrivaled art book.


This review originally ran in the November 21, 2017 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 turd blossoms.

This Book Is a Planetarium: And Other Extraordinary Pop-Up Contraptions by Kelli Anderson

This is a work of art, teaching tool, pop-up toy and book that will delight playful lifetime learners.

This Book Is a Planetarium–as well as a musical instrument, a decoder ring, a spiralgraph and more. With a smartphone or small LED light, the galaxy comes to your living room. Graphic designer Kelli Anderson exults in the science and the art in the everyday, here playing with the powers of paper. This short but engrossing large-format book is at once an art object and a collection of teaching tools. Each page pops up and moves, dynamically demonstrating lessons from physics, geometry and astronomy. Brief explanations in small print further expand the didactic element. While the text is written for adults, not children, a little grown-up assistance (and supervision of removable parts) could make this an educational toy for all ages. Sensory play involving touch and sound as well as sight is too often left to the kids, but This Book Is a Planetarium is a physical object and absorbing interactive experience for all curious and young-at-heart readers.


This review originally ran in the November 21, 2017 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 strings.

The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke, trans. by Carlos Rojas

Two novellas translated from the Chinese offer plucky characters in terrible situations, simply but poetically portrayed.

The Years, Months, Days contains two novellas by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas. The title story, featuring just two characters, opens: “In the year of the great drought, time was baked to ash; and if you tried to grab the sun, it would stick to your palm like charcoal.” All the other residents of a tiny mountain village have fled, but an old man known only as the Elder does not think he’d survive the trip. He stays behind, with a blind dog for companion, to tend a single stalk of corn, in the hopes that when the villagers return, the kernels he nurtures will restart their community. In this stark tale, he speaks to the corn and the dog and his departed neighbors, alternately cursing and hopeful, and does battle with rats, wolves and the sun itself. As the food and water available to man and dog dwindle, every day becomes a fight for life.

The second novella, “Marrow,” is also about a grim struggle for existence. The father of four disabled children, out of guilt for his heredity, kills himself, leaving his wife to raise them alone. His ghost remains to accompany his wife and converse with her, in a twist that could be magical or merely her fantasy. When their children grow up, she works to find them marriages and homes of their own, despite their problems and the ill will of the villagers. Finally she discovers that there is a cure for their poor health and bad luck–but it involves the bones of direct relatives. When only her youngest is left at home, she devises a way to reinterpret his disturbing appetites for the better.

The common themes of these bleak stories are clear: hunger, solitude, the searing strain of existence. In a brief, insightful translator’s note, Rojas observes that Lianke’s work often transforms such abstract needs into literal ones. Indeed, the author’s descriptions are synesthetic: smells “roll noisily”; gazes produce a “crackling sound”; and a wolf’s roar is purplish-red. In a spare but artful style, Lianke presents the sun’s rays as physical realities, which have measurable mass and can be cut or shattered. His characters inhabit a bleak, harsh world. In bitterly hard circumstances, they show courage and ingenuity, defiance and grace. His renderings of real-world desolations are imaginative and wondrous; these austere fables are minimal, but beautifully composed. The Years, Months, Days is for readers who appreciate grim lessons, magical realism and lovely, lyric prose.


This review originally ran in the November 17, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 yelps like blades of green grass.

Mean by Myriam Gurba

This memoir is remarkable for its unflinching candor, for its humor in the face of tragedy and absurdity, and for its adventurous style.

Myriam Gurba’s Mean is a memoir of growing up queer, mixed-race, Chicana and female in Santa Maria, Calif., in the 1980s and ’90s. It is also a crime report, and a fantasy featuring ghosts, saints and martyrs. Race, class, sex, sexuality and sexual assault intersect in Gurba’s own life and in the news, especially when the man who attacked her goes on to kill a woman in her community. Surprisingly, though, this is also a book capable of making readers laugh out loud.

The first chapter, “Wisdom,” introduces a murder. Then Gurba flashes back to a childhood that confuses English with Spanish, because “I assumed we all had the same words.” She takes readers from that childhood, with her growing grasp of the messy concepts of white and Mexican (her parents are one of each), as she matures into a young woman dealing with questions of body and sexuality common to Western teens plus some exclusive to this particular slice of culture. The reader follows Gurba to college in Berkeley and beyond, as she continues to navigate family and other relationships.

Gurba approaches her grave subjects with acerbic humor and compassion, in a style all her own. She plays with form: “I hate found poems,” she writes, before presenting her own carefully shaped, visual found poem. Court transcripts and college course records offer various frames for considering a history that is both personal and broad, cultural and political. Formal play is not the point, however; Gurba makes the form follow her unusual story. Unsurprisingly, because she is an artist and a writer, she is concerned with words, appearances and how we make meaning. She is interested in race and class as they show up in food and pop culture; where modern sexual exploration meets Anne Frank; immigration and the visual arts, and more.

The title is important. “Being mean isn’t for everybody. It’s best practiced by those who understand it as an art form. These virtuosos live closer to the divine. They’re queers.” Meanness is a weapon, a defense mechanism and a reaction; it is also part of Gurba’s art. And yet her story and her storytelling voice are also loving and generous. The complexity of this voice contributes to the appeal of her memoir, which is compelling, suspenseful, both knowable as the girl next door and mysterious. Mean is a multifaceted book for many kinds of readers.


This review originally ran in the October 30, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 Jell-O parfaits.

The Wine Lover’s Daughter by Anne Fadiman

A loving daughter’s memoir of her father portrays the literary mind of Clifton Fadiman through his passionate oenophilia.

Before Anne Fadiman was known for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and At Large and At Small, she was an “oakling,” withering (according to an adage she quotes) in the shadow of an oak. Her father, Clifton Fadiman, enjoyed a long, successful career as a reader, book reviewer and wordsmith. He worked for Simon & Schuster, the New Yorker and the radio quiz show Information Please, and produced numerous collections of essays, criticism and anecdotes, children’s literature, translations and anthologies. Most of all, however, he loved wine.

Fadiman’s The Wine Lover’s Daughter is a beautifully composed memoir of her father’s life, viewed through the lens of his oenophilia. She recalls discovering his essay “Brief History of a Love Affair” at age 10, and being disappointed that it did not describe love for a woman. She should not have been surprised, as even at that age she knew the names of the Premier Cru Bordeaux and which were the Great Years (capitalized as such). Clifton’s passion for wine was prodigious, and it was his daughter’s shame and consternation that her palate never came to appreciate any of its forms. This memoir is in part the story of that struggle–her repeated attempts to love wine, and all the fine bottles wasted on her. Near the end, she embarks on a study of taste buds, supertasters and the possible scientific explanation for her (as she feels it) failure to live up to a legacy.

While she does not shrink from Clifton’s flaws–a condescending attitude toward women, profound insecurity–this portrait is deeply loving. Fadiman seeks to reveal a complex and multi-talented man, and to celebrate his contributions to literature. She also seeks contact with a father she clearly misses. Upon discovering the careful handwritten record of his wine purchases: “He liked thinking about a bottle waiting for decades in a hushed, dark place until a hand reached in, and the corkscrew did its work, and the wine came to life again, a life that had deepened while it bided its time. Opening the Cellar Book was like that.” She calls it “the most serious book he ever wrote, the most heartfelt, the most honest.” Finding him again in his Cellar Book, as well as in his copious writings, brings Fadiman great pleasure, and will edify and entertain readers. Along the way, she touches upon a century of U.S. cultural history, to which her father contributed.

Fadiman’s prose is clear and precise, and while not overtly poetic, perfectly composed as to rhythm and sound. As in her past work, she writes with equal skill of her own memories, family history, science and the finer points of wine appreciation (which she knows by heart and inheritance, if not by personal experience). The Wine Lover’s Daughter is a beautiful remembrance and a loving and well-deserved tribute to a literary figure–and to the joy of imbibing.


This review originally ran in the October 26, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 papillae.

Bonus:

I had a moment of joyful recognition when I discovered on page 5 that Anne’s father Clifton Fadiman was the author of the children’s book Wally the Wordworm which I remember enjoying as a child.

My review of Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was one of three brief pieces I sent in to Shelf Awareness when I applied to write for them. The beloved editor who hired me there has retired, but she is still reading and reviewing, and she changed my life in wonderful ways, as did Anne Fadiman’s writings.

Circles and synchronicity, friends.


The Glass Eye by Jeannie Vanasco

A devoted, tormented daughter eulogizes a beloved father in this thought-provoking and experimental memoir.

Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye is an intense and unforgettable memoir, as fascinating for its artistry as for its subject matter.

Jeannie was 18 when her father died. Though her mother is beloved and sympathetically portrayed, it was her father who had been her hero, her perfect person. On his deathbed, Jeannie promised him she would write about him. Although there is no sign that he heard, let alone held her to it, this promise would haunt the increasingly troubled young woman for years to come.

Her father had lost his left eye and wore a prosthetic one, which was in fact plastic, “but sometimes I call it glass. Glass implies the ability to be broken.” He lost his left vocal cord, too, and her mother loses hearing in her left ear. “What will be left of me if I lose her?” Jeannie’s father had a daughter before her, from an earlier marriage, who died in a car accident. That daughter was Jeanne; the daughter who promised to write this book is Jeannie, pronounced the same but with an added i. She fills her book with meditations on glass and left.

The Glass Eye is not what the 18-year-old intended to write. In the years after her father dies, Jeannie appears to function at high levels: she receives several degrees and works for prestigious publications. However, she is hospitalized repeatedly, battling mental illness and devastating grief. Everything is about her father–“Of course I hallucinated my eyes had fallen out.” A symptom of bipolar disorder (one of several diagnoses Jeannie receives) is a preoccupation with ” ‘clang associations,’ connections between words dictated by sound rather than meaning,” although for Jeannie, eye and i and I are also connected by meaning.

Vanasco pays compulsive attention to metaphors, and to the project of writing this memoir, which becomes a meta-exercise observing itself. She wonders, “What’s my hindsight perspective? Is this my narrative present?” and plays with plot. She asks the professor in her memoir course, “What if it’s about the promise to write the book?” The Glass Eye is indeed about Vanasco’s promise, as it’s about her father, grief, loss, her dead half-sister and reckoning with her own mental illness. And it’s about itself: both memoir and writing-about-writing.

Lyric, haunted, smart and tortured, this is an obsessive love letter to a dead father as well as a singular work of literature. The Glass Eye will attract memoir fans and readers concerned with mental illness and bereavement, as well as writers concerned with craft.


This review originally ran in the September 15, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 dollhouses.
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