“This Is How It Always Is” by Laurie Frankel

 

First off, please excuse this review that was written in a New York minute.  I’m off to This is how it always isParis tomorrow and swamped with things to do.  Okay, the message in the blurb was what attracted me to this novel.  The story was about a brave and loving family that usually was in a hectic state from the responsibilities of raising five sons.    Besides all the challenges that come with a large family, they were also struggling with the difficulties of bringing up a transgender child.  The parents immediately noticed that their youngest son was different.  He was sweeter, calmer and more sensitive than his older brothers ever were.  He didn’t like to wrestle with them or blow things up, he would rather spend his time in a Cinderella coloring book.   At the age of three, he started to ask his parents if he could wear a dress.  They didn’t see any red flags because they thought, Don’t most children of both sexes want to wear their mom’s heels sometime in their early childhood?  By the time he was five, they let him wear a dress at home but not to kindergarten, but it was so clear that this little boy did not want to be a boy.

My heart broke for this child when he asked his parents, if when he grew up, would he finally be a girl.  He was so miserable being a boy that both parents knew something needed to be done.  With the help of the school’s social worker, his parents let him wear a dress, hair barrettes and all sorts of “girly” accessories to school. This was too confusing to all at the school and the poor kid had to use the nurse’s bathroom.   The family decided to move from Wisconsin to Seattle, which is a more gay-friendly state. However, even in Seattle (where their little boy is now passing as a little girl) they still kept their secret, because they simply didn’t know how to explain the situation.   Nevertheless their unhappy five-year-old son starts school as a very happy little girl.

In the end-notes, we learn that the author has a transgender daughter, but she makes it clear that this is not her story.  She does a wonderful job of raising awareness on gender dysphoria.  But for me, the story read unrealistically.   All the complications that would arise in such a family were too easily solved.    All of her brothers were 100% supportive without any questions asked.    At the age of ten, this child was “outed.”  Of course the transgirl was devastated.  So the mother, who is a doctor, takes her youngest child to Thailand on an excursion to work at a clinic there.  Here the child is exposed to Buddah and discovers that Buddah could be a man or a woman.  In Thailand, she meets many people who are genderless.  The country is very accepting of all gender identities and she gets a big boost of encouragement and decides that it was time to go home and try school again.  This is wonderful for the character, but let’s be realistic.   Most moms wouldn’t be able to just pick up and go to a foreign country.  Plus, the ending was so tidy, it should have been wrapped up in a bow.  Back in the States, at her school (where now all know what is under her pants), she is completely accepted.  At her first dance, she is asked to dance by a boy she has a crush on.  It is doubtful to me that such acceptance would come so easily to children. How I wish this was true, and maybe one day soon, it will be.  But in the year of 2017 it was hard to buy.  I hope I’m wrong about this.

This was a sweet story about a loving and wonderful family who would move mountains if that was what it took to raise a happy child.  The story was more about how to be a loving parent to a transgender child, so I guess the book needed to be written.  But, I found that the tale often went flat.  (I actually started to skip the father’s fairytales created to help his daughter cope).  For me, I much preferred the novels “Trans-Sister Radio” by Chris Bohjalian and “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides that were also on the subject of being transgender.

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“Small Mercies” by Eddie Joyce

 

small mercies

I appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which is a portrait of a family,  a portrait of everyday life taking place in Staten Island, NY.  The story reminded me of my own roots, growing up in Queens, NY in the 1960s and 1970s.  Maybe a different place, but the same cultural mix, where Irish Americans and Italian Americans frequently marry and produce the most beautiful black haired blue eyed children.   The author, Eddie Joyce (who is from Staten Island), writes as if the actual island is one of the characters.  The Verrazano Bridge is a metaphor for the ethnic customs and class battles just as the Queensboro Bridge is for that NY borough.

In this story, an Irish girl from Brooklyn marries an Italian boy from Staten Island where they live and raise their family of three boys. The story revolves around the week leading before the birthday party of the couple’s seven-year-old grandson, the son of a firefighter, their youngest, who was a casualty of 9/11.  Each member of the family has a variety of knots they must untangle before they meet the boyfriend of the widow of the firefighter.   The young widow, who is very close to the family (of course, this is Staten Island), and has been a part of them since she was a teenager.  She too is dealing with the changes in her life.  And if one thing is clear, in this novel it is that the only constant in life is change.

The narration shifts each time a family member reminiscences about their own youth to the present day.  The oldest son is the only one who leaves the borough to become a successful lawyer and marry a WASP (a foreign religion to the family), but immediately before the birthday party, we learn that his professional and marital life is crumbling. The mother’s relationship with her eldest adult son is and always was strained. “He was fourteen or fifteen. Cock of the walk…. Already entitled, not in a rich-kid way but expectant…She wanted the little prick to taste some disappointment. Strange how you can hate your own kids at times.”  The middle son is an alcoholic, like his maternal grandfather and basically is the black sheep of the family who never recuperated from his brother’s death.  He was “a drunken ruined memorial to his dead brother.”  As a grown man he often slips into his parents’ home “drunk and melancholy, while they were sleeping, spreading one sadness over another.” His parents thought they had reached rock bottom when he was a young adult and was arrested.  They realized he would never sober up with the love of the right girl, because the right girl would never date this particular son.  And then real tragedy struck when death took their youngest son on 9/11.  The dead firefighter is very much alive in all their memories.  He was the sweet brother, everyone’s favorite.  His personality was “easy as a hammock…(in his room there is still an award reading) MOST IMPROVED PLAYER, FARRELL JUNIOR VARSITY 1990–91.”  For years his widow couldn’t bring herself to date because she thought, “He was the absolute best possible version of a man, the absolute best. To try to love some lesser version of him would be the greatest insult to his memory,” which is why it took her seven years to attempt to find love again.

While giving voice to six different family perspectives, the author uses flashbacks to develop well-drawn life histories.  I felt as if I was going through the family photo album, flipping pages from their youth to the present day. (And when looking at her teen sons in this imaginary album I always thought of the character “Vinnie Barbarino” played by an unknown John Travolta from the 1970’s TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter”).    Then I turn a page, and the present day grandmother of the seven-year-old grandson “takes a quick look in the mirror. Not for vanity, not anymore, but for its older sister: dignity.”  And her husband who is shocked to see his long-dead father’s Italian “right off the boat” face in the mirror looking back at him.  To bring his characters to life, the author focuses on family, community, marrying young, tradition, and participation in the NCAA basketball pool at the neighborhood watering hole with lots of booze all around.  I usually felt as if I was sitting there myself sharing a pint with a neighbor while making bets. The author takes the reader through four generations of an immigrant family.  My favorite author, Richard Russo, who also writes about blue-collar families, summed it up perfectly: “Eddie Joyce’s terrific first novel is so American that the story might as well have taken place at the base of the Statue of Liberty.”

However, nostalgia can be funny and play tricks with our memories.  I so liked reading about a time and place when there was no need to be politically correct about, well anything, but I guess I like to forget that back in my own youth some members of my Queens community were silently hurting because anything outside the norm was simply unimaginable.  In my real life, a boy in high school who is now a 60-year-old man just came out as gay.  He spent his whole life lying solely because he was a tough Queens kid and gay does not fit into that mold.  But in this book the reader does not need to think of such discrepancies, we only need to focus on this family’s strength and failures that are common to Staten Island (or any NYC neighborhood).  There is much-noted pain in this book about an ordinary family.  They weathered many storms, a husband made a wrong career move and someone else gets rich on his father’s butcher shop, a son cannot tame is addictions, a wife almost has an affair, a son dies and now another man will be raising his children.   But each chapter has a “small mercy.”   Joyce focuses in on how human we all are, and that sometimes a “small mercy” is just being able to enjoy a good veal parmesan sandwich.

(If you enjoyed this book try “The Clancys of Queens: A Memoir” by Tara Clancy).

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“Small Hours” by Jennifer Kitses

Genre:  General Fiction (Adult)                  

Pub Date:  13 Jun 2017

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing  

I chose to read and review this book since it is being pegged as the writing is in a Richard Russo and Tom Perrotta style.  I beg to differ.   These are two of my favorite authors and I just did not see it.  The only similarities I could find are that “Small Hours” written by Jenifer Kitses, evokes a sense of place, and money, or lack of it, in the blue collar world of upstate New York.  The protagonists are in their early forties with twin three-year-old daughters.  Like many city couples, they buy a home in the suburbs that they really cannot afford.  Unfortunately for them, they bought the house at the height of the market. When they realize that their new neighborhood has a seedy side, obviously little research went into the buying, it is now too late to sell for it would be at a loss. So the wife, who works from home, is surrounded by those she would rather not have to interact with, her own neighbors.

The story is told in a span of one day, hour by hour, minute by minute using a James Joyce Ulysses format.  If you think you ever had a bad 24 hours read this story and it will no longer seem so bad.  The narration alternates between the husband’s and the wife’s point of view.  Neither knows that the other is on the verge of getting fired.  They both have been severely distracted and not at their best work wise (actually anywise).  The tale almost reads like a suspense story with the tick, tick, ticking of how many more work related, phone calls, emails, and deadlines they are each avoiding.   Both are stalling with their answers to their perspective employers.  But, Kitses plays this sort of suspense hand one too many times for her readers.  Three-quarters through, I was hoping that the damn clock would just break already and get it over with.  Both are also hiding a secret from the other (besides their soon-to-be-unemployed status).   I think the author was going for more of a “Desperate Hours” theme rather than a “Small Hours” one, either way, she lost me.   Having a book’s plot take place in a 24-hour period is not unheard of there are quite a few out there.  The classic novel “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf is one of them.  Or a more contemporary example is Everything Happens Today” by Jesse Browner, these were thought provoking novels with fascinating characters.  I am afraid that Kitses’s perpetually frenzied married couple simply were not.

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

 

“Isadora” by Amelia Gray

Pub. Date:  May 23, 2017

Publisher:  Farrar, Straus and GirouxIsadora

In this unusual historical fiction, we meet Isadora Duncan (1878-1927).  She was a controversial and successful American dancer who performed throughout Europe.  Breaking with conventional ballet, she spearheaded a cutting-edge technique that accentuated a natural and free-flowing style over traditional inflexible ballet. Today she is known as the “Mother of Modern Dance.”   The author, Amelia Gray, lets us know that in both Duncan’s professional and private lives, she disregarded convention.   Her children were born out of wedlock by different men.  On stage, she was barefoot wearing scarves inspired by Greek imagery that peeked at her breasts, which sometimes resulted in banned performances.  She was the epitome of a bohemian.  (Think of the artists Frida Kahlo).   I was hoping Gray would focus her novel on the notorious dancer who lived and loved without boundaries.  However, Gray did not.  The novel only concentrates on the aftermath of her children’s death.  In 1913 Paris, her children and their Nanny drowned when their runaway car went into the Seine.

When I began this book I wasn’t aware that the author’s formatting was different than any other historical fiction that I have read.  Each chapter starts off with a concise heading that clarifies what we are about to read. Then after the heading, each chapter reads like a disturbing stream of consciousness narration.  I confess I was often confused.  Gray’s writing made me feel as if I were having a particularly intense bad dream.   And I believe that was her goal.  I have never read Gray’s short story, “Museum of the Weird” but I have the feeling that “weird” may be her style.   Yet for myself, while reading “Isadora,” I often I felt as though I was perusing a poem that I couldn’t quite grasp.  It left me feeling disappointed because the words sounded splendid, possibly brilliant, although I just didn’t get most of it.  (Because of this, I now intend to watch the film “The Loves of Isadora” with Vanessa Redgrave playing Isadora).  However,  Gray did a great job in helping me understand that Duncan grieved as she lived, full of melodrama and spinning out of control (like the car that took her children’s lives), bordering on the edge of insanity.  I will not tell you what she did with her children’s ashes.

In this story, there were narrators other than the protagonist.  There were also observers written in the third person.  (I think Junot Díaz is the master of this kind of hybrid style of writing).  You will need to be on your toes to follow the quick changes.  Still, Gray does manage to pull it off.  One voice was her sister Elizabeth who had a leg limp not allowing her to dance.   Instead, she ran the dancing schools her sister founded.  Elizabeth was totally reliant on Isadora and loathed her for that reality.  She appeared to be the level-headed sister until you catch on that her supposedly great loves were merely her friends, and the romances were actually all in her imagination.  We also get a good glimpse on Duncan’s grief-induced turmoil in her letters to the father of one of her children.   In these letters, Isadora’s sentences fringe on insanity.  Paris Singer, the heir to the Singer sewing machine empire, was the father of her other child.   Duncan was living with him at the time of the car accident.  To hear it from Singer, he was the brains and she was the temperamental artist.  Duncan would have disagreed, but it may have been true as he was influential in her many triumphs.   These different viewpoints enhance the story of a dazzling self-destructive dancer who found fame on the brink of World War I.  Shades of the coming war were only hinted at in this tale.  The focus was all on Duncan’s anguish.  Personally, I would have enjoyed reading about the historical moments that took place during her lifetime.  As I mentioned, I honestly only comprehended sections of the book due to the dysphoria-like writing style, which I always have trouble understanding.    But if you enjoy that genre, and you can handle absurdism in a historical fiction then this book is for you.

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“The Witchfinder’s Sister” by Beth Underdown

Pub. Date:  April 25, 2017The witchfinder's sister

Publisher:   Penguin Books

In this historical fiction the character of the sister is fictional, but her brother, Matthew Hopkins, was a real person, and a real witchfinder.  He even had the title of “Witchfinder General” during the English Civil war (1642-1646).  (I had to google this to believe such a title existed).  I was hoping to learn a bit more about the war between the Royalists, supporters of King Charles I and the Parliamentarians, supporters of the rights of Parliament, but the author decided to just educate the reader on how the fear of witches was pronounced by the general fear in England at this time.

The story is narrated by the sister who is widowed and forced to move back home with her brother.  She quickly learns that home is no longer a safe place and that her brother has grown into an evil man who longs for power.  He insists that she be a part of his witch investigations.  The tale reads like a psychological horror story, but is all the more terrifying knowing that such events in history did indeed happen.  Hopkins was a frightening monster. “My brother, Matthew set himself to killing women…but without once breaking the law.”Matthew-Hopkins

The inhuman methods that Hopkins used in his investigations are difficult to read.  Women were tied to a stool and not allowed to sleep for hours, which often led to sleep-deprived confessions.  Females accused were pricked with special needles in their vaginas and if an animal licked the blood they were considered witches.   Another example where death was the only outcome was when suspects were tied to a chair and thrown into water: all those who “swam” (floated) were considered to be witches and were then hung.  Of course, when the innocent didn’t float they died a watery grave rather than by the gallows.  I believe we are all familiar with the days of the witch hunts, still, I didn’t expect to gasp in horror, as I did when reading exactly what went on during the so-called investigations.

The author, Beth Underdown, does an impressive job in taking the reader back into this ghastly time in history.  (Think of the Arthur Miller play and the 1996 movie version of the play “The Crucible”). I could feel the uncertainty and fear in the villages caused by a righteous lunatic.  Who would be next?  One daughter gave false evidence against a group of women who lived in her village with the promise that her mother might be spared.  I will leave you to guess if mother and daughter lived.

Underdown makes it easy to read between the lines, that the Hopkins’ witch trials had more to do with politics than potions, not to mention gender issues.  Now here we are in the year of 2017 and despite all that we know, we still can breed the hysteria that can create a monster.  I can’t help but wonder if humankind will ever learn.

 

 

 

“Ararat” by Christopher Golden

Pub. Date:  April 18, 2017

Publisher:   St. Martin’s Press

Ararat

This novel originally caught my eye because the famous mountain located in Eastern Turkey has long been known for the place named in the Book of Genesis where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the great flood (Genesis 8:4). As the product of a Catholic school, how could I resist a novel with all sorts of biblical suggestions?  However, the main characters in this eerie tale are of all religions with diverse backgrounds.  I knew from the blurb that I was going to be reading a horror story.  Early into the book’s chapters, I was delighted to learn that the novel is well written.  I would say this is a literary horror tale (if there is such a genre).

The premise of the novel is that after an earthquake, on the top of one of the mountain’s sides, there is now an opening showing “something.”  There is a race between scientists, historians, religious leaders, and filmmakers all rushing immediately to Turkey.   They all want to be the first to explore the opening that just might lead to the famous ark.   Our protagonists are an engaged couple (one a Jew and the other a Muslim) who take on the dangerous mountain climb with the intention of co-writing a documentary.  They already had a bestseller on another one of their adventures together.  From the start of their climb up the mountain, there are tensions among the multi-ethnic crew with their different beliefs.  When the explorers, with their guides, arrive at the opening in the mountain they do discover the remains of an ancient ship that may or may not be Noah’s Ark.  In this cave-like ship, they discover many skeletal remains of humans and animals, as well as an ancient tomb with writing that dates before Jesus Christ.  On this expedition, a Catholic priest argues that they need to open this tomb because it just may be the greatest connection to biblical history ever found.  The Father’s suggestion is a big mistake because inside the container lays a 5,000-year-old horned cadaver, and once released all hell literally breaks out.  Think of the novel “The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty.  If you didn’t read the book, I am sure you saw the movie.  Around this point in the novel, the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up.

The author does a wonderful job of making the reader feel as if the characters are the last people on earth, I could feel the cold and frostbitten body parts, see their teeth chattering, sense their claustrophobia and paranoia as they desperately try to rid themselves of the supernatural creature that they seemed to have awoken.   The atheists and the religious come together to help one another escape the cave inside the top of the mountain.   They make their descent during an out-of-control blizzard.  In a way, “Ararat” reminded me of the 1970s escape-disaster movies (“The Towering Inferno” or “The Poseidon Adventure”) where the protagonists try to save lives, subdue panic and escape a burning building or a ship’s watery grave knowing that only a few or possibly none will survive.

I started reading the book on a drive up to rural Vermont.  I decided to stop so I could finish when I arrived at my destination, which is a cabin on a mountain in what could be a scary environment.  I wanted to make the most of this tale.  To read it in the cabin at night, with the wind blowing, and the coyotes howling which I knew would enhance my goosebumps.   I enjoyed my goosebumps.  The author did what he intended: he scared the bejeezus out of me.    Yet, finishing the story, cuddled up under a blanket, in the pitch black darkness of a rural area while listening to the rain pound the cabin, I found myself disappointed with the ending.  Oh, I most certainly felt scared, but I expected more.  I felt that the ending became a familiar plot where a beast can assume the shape of its victims.   This is a story that has been told hundreds of times on cable TV shows aimed at an audience that cannot get enough of Zombie stories. I would have preferred an ending that relies less on monster movie gimmicks and more on reality-based, catechism-induced horrors.   However, the writing is so super in this book I have to recommend you give “Ararat” a spine-chilling try.  The author will give you a harrowing look at battling ancient evil forces and demand that the reader questions the existence of God, Michael the archangel (found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as well as the fallen angel, known as Lucifer.  Be prepared to be terrified.

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“All Things Cease To Appear” by Elizabeth Brundage

So many different thoughts went through my mind while reading this novel.  First, I All Things Cease To Appearresigned myself to read another contemporary thriller (not my fav) that needs to be reviewed.  Then early in the book I thought “this is very well written,” more literary than bestseller-like.   Next, the story became Gothic, a genre I do enjoy.  Plus, it also has a noir feel which is another genre that I love to get lost in.  So, to my surprise, I am pleased that I read this book.  It is not until the very end of the story that I find criticism with the tale. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The story begins with a short chapter describing an old farmhouse and all the people that once lived there.  The first family that we meet is a married couple with three sons trying to keep the farm alive in horrendous conditions born from poverty.  The parents die in the house and the boys are left orphaned.  The next family who moves into the house is a young married couple with a little girl.  They buy the farmhouse for almost nothing since it went into foreclosure.  The town’s people held that against the young couple.  The new owners are city people who move to the country for the husband’s job as a professor at a small college.  The “whodunit begins in the first chapter when the professor comes home from work and finds his wife murdered in her bed.  The three sons who first lived in the farmhouse are in all other chapters of the book.

There are no quotation marks anywhere in the novel.  The author expects the reader to be smart enough to know who said what.    I enjoyed this style of writing it keeps me on their toes.   There are many characters in this book that can feel overwhelming, but they are tied together nicely, and I enjoyed each one’s part in the plot.   It read similar to “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout, where the characters were interconnected short stories.   In addition, the author adds a large dose of irony into her novel.  The professor’s boss is a big fan of Emanuel Swedberg who is best known for his book on the afterlife, “Heaven and Hell” written in 1758.

The last chapter focuses on the little girl who is now all grown up and in her last stages of  training to become a surgeon.  The reason why the ending is a bit of a disappointment for me is that I thought the author was attempting to add romance into the plot.  In hindsight, it may have been karma (if I explain it would be a spoiler).   Still, all in all, this is a literary spellbinding page-turner that is a ghost story, as well as a psychological thriller.   Was I displeased with the ending? Yes, that is true.  Did I need to sleep with the lights on?  Yes, that is also true.  Read the book and see if you cease to appear.

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