The best sentence culled from my reading each week, sans commentary.
Lillian on Life, by Alison Jean Lester
I hate pineapple so much,
it might as well have been a delicate serving of blood and hair.
Cora counts everything. You might say she’s a bit of a nutter about counting and numbers. She knows how many beans fill a bag (1,233, approximately), how many fleurs-de-lis adorn the ceiling of her bedroom (564) and the number of cobbles that pave the lane where her grandmother has a tiny storefront, how many bricks are in the wall (28), and how many dresses (1,349) hang in her grandmother Etta’s shop, where Como, Gillespie, and Waller fill the air with notes and magic.
What she doesn’t know, is that Walt, the shy bookseller with a shop in the same cobbled lane as Etta’s, loves her, and has since they first met as children. Cora eats the cherry pie Walt bakes, and reads in his book store twice a week like clockwork, but she’s absorbed in her scientific studies, and just lately, in unraveling the mystery surrounding her parents’ deaths.
Etta’s dresses have a little something extra sewn into their silk and sequin perfection – a little magic, and the power to transform the lives of the women who wear them, setting them free to fulfill their dreams. But she can’t seem to help Walt get the attention of her granddaughter, Cora, even after sewing a tiny red star into the collar of Walt’s shirt.
Cora must uncover the secret of her parents’ deaths. She has little memory of the night their home burned down. Just enough to throw the official report into shadows of doubt, and fuel the search to uncover the truth. But will the truth turn her world on its ear?
Told in narrative style, Menna Van Praag’s The Dress Shop of Dreams is a charming, light read. Van Praag moves the narrative seamlessly between present tense and past, and there’s mystery, complications, and angst aplenty.
Read and reviewed for She Reads.
And now for the results of last week’s Random House Giveaway!
The 3 lucky winners of copies of M. O. Walsh’s novel, My Sunshine Away are:
My thanks to all who participated.
The adult remembrances of a teenaged boy who is never named, My Sunshine Away, by M.O. Walsh begins with an attack on a neighborhood girl. The quintessential, pony-tail swinging girl next door, Lindy Simpson is the object of the narrator’s somewhat creepy obsession. After this opening event the narrative rummages about a bit in Baton Rouge boyhood nostalgia, but by page 32 becomes interesting enough to keep reading. The explosion of the Challenger as the main character’s entire school watches on TV results in chaos, and the ensuing slapstick hilarity bothered me, but this is fiction, so I told the squeamish PC part of me that was offended to pipe down. There is a lot about this book that could offend, as it deals with teenaged boys spying on and obsessing over a girl, often to her detriment.
As the adult narrator says of himself as a kid:
“I was a pubescent boy at the time, remember, and my mind was a brothel, and nothing more.”
At the beginning the narrator felt vaguely like a Humbert Humbert type character, complete with all the excuse-making and deflection. It wasn’t apparent whether this ambiguity was deliberate. In retrospect I believe the author was striving for misdirection; a sort of unreliable narrator effect. By the middle of the novel the story settles down and begins to resemble a mystery: The danger of an older, jaded boy, Tyler, who is taken in by a neighborhood family that keeps fosters – in a home with a mysterious locked and darkened room; the unexplained rage of the burly foster father toward a stray dog; the dime-sized scars on the back of yet another foster boy.
The brief focus on Dahmer’s 1991 arrest, complete with the teenagers’ gruesome fascination with the details of the serial killer’s most notorious crimes, and remembrances of the chaos and destruction of Hurricane Katrina, augment the dark heart of this novel.
Walsh aptly captures the pathos of the narrator’s mother, dumped by her Peter Pan husband for a college-age girl: her phone conversations with her best friend as she drinks wine and dreams of her shallow husband’s return, which the reader understands will never happen. Walsh also credibly portrays the PTSD-like behavior of Lindy, whose world is so altered by the attack, and the gossip of her peers. Her resulting anger and acting out are well done and believable, so much so that I found myself feeling for her while at the same time not much liking her, and the resolution at the end of the book was a relief for this reviewer’s Pollyanna heart.
As debut novels go this one is good: wandery in places, devoid of the figurative language that, for me, would unequivocally define it as literary, the story nevertheless kept me reading to the end, and left a lingering impression.
Read and reviewed for Penguin/Random House
Want to win a copy of My Sunshine Away?
Leave a comment, along with your email address, and tweet this review with the hashtag #MySunshineAway to be entered to win one of three copies.
Available to the US and Canada.
From the very beginning this beautifully researched and written biography moves along with the tension of a fictional novel. We are plunged into the world of fifteen year old Josephine, as a naive, almost mail-order bride, arriving in the sophisticated Paris she has dreamed about from her home in Martinique.
Born Marie-Josèphe de Tascher de La Pagerie, and nick-named Yeyette, on the island of Martinique, the woman the world would come to know by the name her future husband would give her, Josephine, begins life as a bit of a wild child. Her family are French colonists and planters, slave owners, though they are not really very wealthy, and Josephine is allowed a permissive life where she runs with the plantation’s other children, and is depicted as not having had much schooling, or discipline. But she makes up for it when she reaches the shores of France, and marries her first husband, a man who is unimpressed with his not terribly pretty by the day’s standards young bride, and encourages her to improve herself.
Kate Williams spices her narrative with interesting facts: We are treated to vivid details of that period of France’s history known as The Terror, and such disturbing images as Marie Antoinette’s head, and headless body, abandoned on the grass beside an open common grave, while grave-diggers finish lunch nearby.
After her first (ex)husband’s death by guillotine, while she is in prison herself, Josephine fully expects to meet the same end. But miraculously, she survives, emerging from prison with her hair shorn, and becoming a courtesan, seeking out the patronage of wealthy and powerful men, and catering to their egos in exchange for their protection, surviving by her wits and wiles. With the end of the revolution her widowhood and status as one of the formerly imprisoned lends her a social credibility she takes to the bank, which enables her to care for her two children (a son and daughter) by her first marriage.
She meets Bonaparte, and the real fun begins. As socially awkward as she is not, Napoleon falls hard for Josephine, who has been offered up as bait by her former patron, who wishes to have Napoleon in his debt.
Napoleon is depicted as quite the misogynist, the kind of man who is as equally crazy about women, as he is terrified by them. Once in power he changes France’s laws, demoting women’s status and rights.
“Women these days require restraint. They go where they like, do what they like. It is not French to give women the upper hand.”
Josephine seems to have had an addiction to shopping and spending to rival anyone’s today. She was constantly in debt, and went to great lengths to hide it from her husband. In her defense she was expected to host a constant stream of parties and social gatherings, and her ability to do so, and to do it so well, was a large part of her appeal to a man who had few social graces himself, and who relied on her social abilities to further his cause. Josephine also had a surprising and interesting ‘hobby’. Horticulture was something of a passion of hers, and due to her deep pockets in pursuit of her pleasures, she was responsible for many new strains of roses, and did a lot of trading of seeds and plants with people all over the world that advanced France’s acquisition of plant species.
I enjoyed reading this biography. It was filled with facts I didn’t know about Josephine, Napoleon, and the times. I was often reminded of how nothing changes, and the machinations of social climbers then were much the same as they are now. Josephine’s antics and ploys have a lot in common with certain females prominent in the current media, and I have to think that if she was alive today she’d have her bad teeth capped, and we’d see her on the arm of some football player or rapper, or perhaps a politician—wherever cameras were flashing.
Having given up writing for many years to earn a living and raise my family, I found Patrick Ross’s journey, and his questions about having given up on writing early in life, one to which I could easily relate. Sometimes when we are very young we tell ourselves we aren’t good enough, that no one will be interested in listening to what we have to say, that money has to be made and obligations must be met – that last is true, but what does it really mean to meet our obligations? And why does meeting them so often seem to mean we cannot also follow our heart?
These are the questions pondered (and, finally, answered) in Committed, A Memoir of the Artist’s Road.
“Why am I obsessed with others’ creativity? Why did I drift from the creative path? Can I return to it? Should I?”
I don’t often read memoir. I’m a fiction gal. And when I’m not reading fiction, I’m usually reading research materials, in the form of biographies and history books. But Ross’s memoir was an unusual one, and appealed to me, in that it was about his journey interviewing other creatives. His journey took him across the United States, to mountain cabin retreats and urban settings, all in the pursuit of learning about the lives and choices of artists of every ilk: painters, song writers, musicians, and of course, writers, all of them occupying a substrata below fame, but all of them also making a living following their passion. He filmed these interviews. They took place in living rooms, studios, and park benches. Some of the interviews were not terribly interesting, but some of them stand out, and these formed the draw on his quest, forcing him to take a hard look at his own choices, and assumptions he’d made in the past, and to question decisions that no longer seemed to quite fit, if he was going to live a life that mattered.
“The artists I’ve most admired on this trip have won me over with stories of determination and grit. The art-committed life is all about perseverance. It’s about creating your art when life tells you there is no time. It’s about honoring your muse when there is no immediate economic return. It’s about being willing to take on new challenges alone.”
Along the way Ross thought about his family, his mother in particular, by his account a difficult woman, a writer, whose emotional antics kept his life off kilter. His thinks about his father, a man possibly suffering from the same bi-polar disease that plagues Ross himself, and his own children, who were affected by the trickle-down of these dysfunctions in his family of origin.
“I leveled the man who surrendered his creativity to a questionable lobbying cause. I demolished the young adult paralyzed by fear of mental illness. And like a patient sniper, I took out that child who couldn’t create without his mother’s approval.”
For anyone who has come away from a family with a narcissist or other ill family member, these reminisces will feel painfully familiar.
“I very much disliked living in a home where one loved one would hurt another and then both would pretend it never happened.”
“To be in my mother’s life means playing by her rules, and the first rule is that you accept reality as she defines it.”
There’s some hilarity along Ross’s journey, it isn’t all grim introspection. There’s a visit to a Hormel Spam museum, as well as run-ins with interesting characters who weren’t on the agenda: a lonely millionaire, hookers, and the gracious people you bump into crossing heartland America.