A Beautiful Death

A few years ago, I had the pleasure to take a literature class with Ladette Randolph, author and publisher-in-residence at Emerson College. I admired her work then, and was excited to learn she had a new book out, Haven’s Wake

Haven’s Wake is a unique novel that takes place over the course of two days and a handful of viewpoints, all surrounding the death of a Nebraskan Mennonite family patriarch. We get views of the preparation for the funeral from such varied people as his elderly wife with a martyr complex, his shunned son who now runs a lighting design company in Boston, and his granddaughter through his other son who collects the towns dirty little secrets. To tell you much more than this would spoil the story.

What that story does, however, is to construct an incredible portrait of a splintered family, with all the sibling rivalries, trauma from days gone bye, and religious fervor you could wish for. Your heart breaks for this family while at the same time you find yourself rooting for one family member to stick it to another, then in the next chapter find yourself sympathizing with the one you just wanted to get their comeuppance. It is masterfully wrought, and I am not ashamed to say that I cried at the end.

I highly suggest this novel for anyone who appreciates a good solid family drama, and isn’t afraid to feel some emotion, because there is no way to avoid it. Go out and find yourself a copy of this one today.

A Tree of Heaven

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith was another fabulous blast from the past. I saw an early printing of it sitting on my boyfriend’s shelf, got curious, and stole it for a couple weeks until I finally got around to reading it. This is a complex coming of age story of a young girl named Francie growing up below the poverty line in Brooklyn just prior to World War I. A lot of it is most likely autobiographical from Smith’s own experiences growing up as the daughter of immigrants in Brooklyn during that time, but not all.

The book gets its title from a particular species of invasive plant that has taken root in Brooklyn, called a Tree of Heaven. There is one tree in particular that has grown up and around the fire escape that Francie will escape to and read on for hours at a time.

A view of brooklyn filled with trees of heaven.

Split into five books, this novel starts with a set of scenes from early in the girl’s life, then jumps back even further to focus on her parents and how they met. It then progresses through her early childhood, school years, graduating from the lower grades and skipping high school to help her family out by working in the city, finagling her way into college courses and we finally end the story as she is getting ready to leave for college out of state and is contemplating a possible marriage.

Smith’s writing is simple and poignant. It’s stripped-down nature is at times its most powerful tool, making scenes that could be overwrought and sentimental instead brutally efficient. If you want an example, read it through until you get to the scene where they have to buy her father’s funeral plot. There is a simple small section about the star bank they have to empty to buy the plot that literally felt like a blow. If this section had been gussied up, it would have been saccharine and terrible, but it’s simplicity is what gives it its incredible power.

I can see why this novel has become a standard of literary fiction. It draws you in and makes you cheer on the protagonist. Rarely do you feel pity or guilt or any of those other somewhat negative emotions, regardless of the circumstances of this family. Instead, they are so strong and so beautiful that you as a reader are left feeling warm and empowered. They accomplish so much with so little that it is a truly inspiring tale.

Cover of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Hardly a Romantic Romance

Core: A Romance by Kassten Alonso is a self-titled romance. And, in a sense, it does deal with relationships and love, but it may be more accurate to say that the subtitle of this book places it squarely into the Romantic period of literary influence, alongside authors such as Edgar Allen Poe.

This is a very disturbing tale of a man’s descent into madness and violence due to his obsession over a woman. Now, granted, as you flash backwards and forwards in his life, you come to feel that he is not entirely responsible for his actions due to circumstances beyond his control and traumas he has suffered, but still. This is one disturbed gentleman. I’d give you his name, but you don’t get to know that as a reader. Instead, you sit in his psyche and bite your nails as you watch his sanity degrade farther and farther until he is lost.

Now a book like this could easily fall prey to the imitative fallacy and at first I was worried that it would do so. But it settled out nicely within the first chapter and was fairly easy to follow. The writing is very stream-of-consciousness, as you are inside the main character’s head, and you are jumping back and forth between a single present moment, his early childhood, late adolescences and mid 20’s. It was an interesting and well transitioned frame for the story. Overall, I think Alonso managed the mechanics of a challenging form quite well.

Core did bring to mind another novel I read a couple years ago, Lux by Maria Flook. I had the privilege of working with Flook my first term at Emerson and so I read her novel before the workshop so I had a sense of her style. Lux is another novel about a deeply disturbed love affair, handled quite differently, but I am fairly confident that a person who enjoys one of these books will enjoy the other.

Cover of Core: A Romance

“It was probably my fault…”

Wrack & Ruin by Don Lee was quite the ride. You start with the fairly innocent scene of an organic Brussels sprouts farmer having a string of bad luck. But as the story progresses and you find out he was once a famous sculptor, things just keep getting worse and worse. Between a developer trying to get his farm for the 18th hole on a new gold course cum resort and his brother’s failing movie project starlet seducing his best friend, he barely has time to deal with his ex girlfriend putting nails in his tires and the local pot dealer taking offense at his personal plants.

This book was a fun and poignant view into the life of an artist who found fame and didn’t like it and tried instead to retreat into the calm obscurity of a Brussels sprout farmer. The writing is absolutely phenomenal and the characters are fresh and complex.

One aspect I found very interesting is the reason that the main character left the art world was not only that he found the constant creative pressure and critiquing painful, but that he was slotted into the label of Asian American artist and everyone tried to keep forcing his work into an interpretation based upon that. As a reader, you definitely draw parallels at this point between Lee and his character. It makes you think twice about whether pigeon-holing artists and authors with a race label is helpful or harmful. Are all those classes based around African-American or Asian-American literature doing justice to those authors? Or is it forcing their work to fit an archetype and we get disappointed when they don’t deal explicitly with issues of race or even gender? And can any author cross the line and write about another race? Or is that going to be a problem? All questions that I think the educational hegemony are going to have to start asking themselves in the near future.

But the whole book is not about this. It’s about man struggling to find his place in the world and get along with everyone else. The race issue is simply one aspect of that. Wrack & Ruin is a fabulous book that I definitely recommend reading. It also left me craving Brussels Sprouts, so I made a batch sauteed in garlic, oil, salt, and pepper and smothered them in Hollandaise sauce. Yum…

Cover of Wrack and Ruin

A Rat Like No Other

Firmin by Sam Savage is an odd little book, almost small enough to be called a novella. In it, Firmin is the runt of a litter of rats born into the basement of a bookstore on a bed of shredded books. Through eating the pages under him to quell his rumbling stomach, he acquires the ability to read and philosophize with the best of humanity, though he still finds it incredibly difficult to communicate with us.

The novel follows Firmin from the time of his birth through to his death, which was a remarkably long time for a rat in Scollay Square, Boston. He spends his days watching the square slowly crumble from the bookshop and his evenings reading, foraging and watching his Lovelies in the pornographic movies at the movie theater down the street.

It was an engaging novel, though by the end you are unsure of how much is him just making up stories and what is actually happening. The writing is crisp and clean, and well placed in Firmin’s point of view. I love the phrenology references that Firmin relies upon to judge human behavior, even if that is a crackpot science. It seems to work well for the rat.

Overall, this is a story about a person who just fails to fit in. Anyone can identify with Firmin and his struggle to communicate with and socialize with the intellectual creature, man. Especially those of us who were labeled a book worm in elementary school. There was the constant companionship of the books, but you really just wanted to be asked to the cool kid’s birthday party. Firmin evokes all of those emotions and more.

A rat reading a book--just how many drugs did you take last night?

Busy Monsters are Busy

This week I had the dubious pleasure of reading Busy Monsters by William Giraldi. This was a story about a man whose fiance takes off with the captain of a vessel determined to find the Kraken of mythos. First, he decides to try and stop her from leaving and shoots up the boat. After he gets out of prison, he learns that she has actually managed to find one of the beasts and capture it, so he decides he needs to out do her and catch a Sasquatch. And his guide is promptly eaten by the man-ape. (He thinks. He ran away from the horrible noises and back to civilization.) And this is just the first 1/16 of the book. Needless to say things keep going downhill from there for the poor man.

The style of this novel is what I find most interesting. This is a first person narrative that is rather unique. Each chapter is actually an installment of his column in a magazine wherein he is memoir-izing his life as it happens. This lends itself to an incredible amount of self-referential and meta-writing opportunities which was fun and quirky. His column was widely read enough that when he met new people, they often critiqued his writing.

And what a unique style of writing it was. The language was very high art for such surreal and hyper-realistic hijinks. Unlike Zazen, which I reviewed last week, the absurdly high language of this novel worked well. If the material had been presented in language more synonymous with the material, it would have been…predictable. But the juxtaposition of the entirety of the thesaurus along with the absurd actions of the main character, well, that was just delightful.

Absurd and delightful entertainment.

A Meditation on Zazen

Vanessa Veselka‘s Zazen was an interesting read. The title itself implies a seated meditation, which I guess could be applied to the writing, though it is not an overt theme in the book.

The construction of this novel is rather lovely. Veselka’s turn of phrase is unique and I like how she renames people and things for a more fanciful feel: fetuses in utero become bellyfish, policemen are crickets, etc. It adds to the fact that the main character, Della, is not quite in sync with our world after a mental break she had when she was just out of graduate school. Since then, she has been living with her brother and his pregnant wife, imagining she hears explosions from the far off war while covering her walls in maps tracking self-immolation around the globe. After the bombs find their way to her city for real, she decides she wants to call in bomb threats of her own. For a little while, this thrills her, but that quickly fades. However, when someone actually starts bombing the buildings she’s threatening, the stakes are suddenly real.

However, even thought the prose was beautiful, I had some trouble grasping what the book was getting at occasionally. It seemed to be a novel criticizing not only consumer/American culture but also taking a hard stance on the extreme liberal movements against the corporate world. Della is the product of two parents who revel in the activist extremes, and her brother takes to the organizing and protesting angle with grace. But Della seems trapped in the liberal extremes–interested in their ideas, unhappy with their methods. But, all of this is buried behind a very unreliable and somewhat schizophrenic narrator.

Della is a woman with issues who does not see the world the way we do. And because her filter is so off-kilter, we cannot even tell how far off her world is from ours. Now, if we had an unreliable narrator, or a slightly differing world from ours, that’s one thing. Put the two of them together and it’s virtually impossible to tell what is real and what is not. Some people may enjoy this experience. I, however, found it off-putting. I would get distracted by how pretty the prose was and then realize I had no idea what the last three sentences even meant.

This is also the first book in a while were I felt the publisher could have done a much better job with the cover design and proofreading. The cover is unbalanced, with a title that is ridiculously sized and placed. And the amount of typos in the book is excessive. The worst section was two pages near the anti-climax where there were several typos together on facing pages. It makes me feel like they just missed proofreading those pages altogether.

Anyway, I think this book is worthwhile for an examination of the prose and structure, but, ultimately, it was a bit of a confusing disappointment.

I can't help but dislike this unbalanced and hard to read cover...