“Country Dark” by Chris Offutt

Genre:         Literary Southern Gothic
Publisher:  Grove AtlanticCountry Dark
Pub. Date:  April 10, 2018

Literary Southern Gothic is a new genre for me.  I have always enjoyed a good Gothic read, but had no idea what Southern Gothic meant?   So, I googled, and learned that it’s not Southern vampires (or at least not in literary southern gothic, though I’m sure that’s out there too).   To my surprise, the books in this genre include: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” and, “A Streetcar Named Desire”— well actually, just about all of Tennessee Williams’ work.   This means it is some of my favorite books that became some of my favorite movies.  So I am guessing that a story is in this classification as long as the setting is in the South, and the story contains violence, poverty, social issues, romance and a hint of noir.

I was expecting a stellar read since the author, Chris Offutt, has been awarded the Whiting Writers Award for Fiction/Nonfiction and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Fiction Award, among numerous other honors.  And, a tense and atmospheric stellar read is what I got.   It is written dark and taut and set in rural mid-century Kentucky.   The protagonist is a husband and father who would do whatever it takes including murder, to keep, to his family housed, fed, safe and most importantly all together.  At times, the protagonist reminds me of some city gang member from the TV show “The Wire,” fierce and shrewd, except our man’s evenings are not lit up with streetlights.   His nighttime is mountain hollers dark.   And, rather than city slang, his words are in Kentucky-speak.

We meet him when he is returning home from the Korean War covered in metals.  The boy can shoot.   He meets his future wife while she is about to be raped by her uncle, who is the local sheriff.  She is fourteen-years-old, and he is eighteen-years-old.   He rescues the girl, and she asks him not to kill her attacker since he is kin (that just about sums up the people who live in the hollers—if you are one who possesses Appalachian morals).  This is the beginning of one of the toughest, yet sweetest love stories that I have ever read.   They marry and have a bunch of kids.  He makes a living by running moonshine.  They need more than most since four of their six children were born with disabilities.  The first thing the country smart, female social worker did was make sure there wasn’t any interbreeding.  There wasn’t.   Since there are no signs of abuse, this caseworker does what she can to help them.  The not-so-country smart, male caseworker wants to put their disabled children in homes.  Both mother and father are devoted parents.  You can guess what happens here, which is the start of even more hardship for the family.  Although he is meaner than a rattlesnake, and she is tougher than nails, both manage to hold on to their human decency, which I am not sure many could do while living in such dire conditions.  You will root for this family that has underdog charm.

The story actually begins about here and this is all you should know for fear of spoilers.  I will share that Offutt routinely shifts points of view, feelings, and tones within tense.  The writing can be as playful as it is brutal, which can take you by surprise.  Will this novel become a classic such as, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” or “To Kill a Mocking Bird?”   I doubt it.   It’s missing what can be found in the other books: The racial southern tension with good trying it’s best to triumph.  Is “Dark Country” a spellbinding read that you will not soon forget?   The answer to this question is most certainly yes.

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“Eagle & Crane” by Suzanne Rindell

Genre:         Historical FictionEagle & Crane
Publisher:   Penguin Group Putnam 
Pub. Date:   July 3, 2018

On the first page of this historical fiction is an old black and white picture of a handsome young man with laughter in his eyes and a cocky grin on his face.  He is standing in front of a biplane – a small plane for two, with an open cockpit.  Over the picture, it reads, “In memory of my grandfather, Norbert.”  The image and words left me with a feeling that I would enjoy this novel, which I did.

The characters include two friendly but highly competitive male teens living on their farms in California during the 1930s to the 1940s.   Both are the sons of farmers who have been feuding for years.  One of the boys is shy despite a handsome, all American face.  The other boy is also handsome.   His face displays his Japanese American features.  This teen’s nature is much more outgoing than his friend’s, but because we are in the years prior to and during WWII, he hides his true personality, emulating humility to stay out of harm’s way.  We also meet a young teenage girl, her mother, and her con artist stepfather who makes a living by selling snake oil.   He usually gambles away what little money they have.  But, one time he is lucky and wins two biplanes.  Eventually, they all meet, and so begins the story of their traveling flying circus, known as barnstorming.    The conman gathers the crowds with their act, which consists of two biplanes, two stunt pilots, and two wing walkers.  They make their money by selling tickets to the crowds for biplane rides.  This is all illegal, but lots of fun.  In case you haven’t guessed, the boys are the wing walkers and they both fall for the girl.

The young love triangle is written sweetly. The description of farming during the depression and life during WWII is spot-on.   But, what I really enjoyed is learning how the early Japanese found their way into the United States.  This book didn’t concentrate on the Japanese railroad workers but rather on the Japanese farm workers.  I was completely ignorant that in the 1880s Japanese immigrants first came to the Pacific Northwest to farm.  They traveled throughout the States buying land.  Many became very successful farmers.   Sadly, these farmers lost everything when the war led to the internment of Japanese Americans.  Not a proud moment in our history.  I found this beautiful sad poem that I encourage you to read.  “Japanese-American Farmhouse, California, 1942” by Sharon Olds:   https://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/sharon-olds/japanese-american-farmhouse-california-1942/.

There is also a mystery in this story, which I didn’t think enhanced the novel at all. Rather, the extra plot detracts from it, causing the tale to be too long.   In 1943, an FBI agent comes looking for the Japanese teen and his family.   (Eerily similar to today’s unfair treatment of immigrants coming to the US.)  While there, he witnesses a biplane crash.  The passengers are burned to death and not recognizable.  The pilot and the passenger are assumed to be the Japanese father and son.   Now, the agent’s job is to investigate the crash.  I felt as though this added plot is to ensure a bestseller.  The author would have been better off deciding to write one or the other, a mystery or a historical fiction.  But it wasn’t enough to stop me from enjoying the novel overall.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Italian Party” by Christina Lynch

Genre:          General FictionThe Italian Party
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:    March 20, 2018

Mini-Review

I wasn’t expecting to like this book, but it turns out that I did.  What I find so interesting, is that I never pay attention to book covers.  I know many do.  But, for once I did.  Since the cover of this book looks like a romance read (which I am not a fan of) I didn’t intend to read it.  However, one day when I was bookless I clicked it open, and lo and behold, I was won over.   This is a hilarious comedy about a young newly married American couple who move to Italy in the 1950s.  The book is a love letter to picturesque Italy.  You will be able to imagine the views and smell the aroma of the cuisine, while the author simultaneously pokes fun at Italian politics.   As for romance, that is not this genre but there is forbidden sex in the tale.

The couple marries keeping secrets from one another.   The wife is pregnant with another man’s child.  The husband is a CIA agent, with another secret that I cannot share without it being a spoiler.  There is also a teenage Italian boy, who the husband hires to teach his wife Italian (he can already speak the language).  However, the real reason for the boy’s employment is to help the husband spy on the local Communist Party, which is the real reason for their move to Italy.  The wife is clueless and thinks they are there for him to sell tractors.  Of course, being a comedy, everything that can go wrong does go wrong.   The husband turns out to be a bumbling spy and the wife falls for another married man.  I didn’t think that the story needed to add in an affair, it took away from some of the fun.  Still, all in all, I did a lot of chuckling. There is a surprise ending that reminds me a bit of the film “Marriage Italian Style.” The whole book is pure fun.  And for me, it is a lesson in that you cannot judge a book by its cover.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Madonna of the Mountains” by Elise Valmorbida

Genre:           Historical FictionMaddonna of the Mountains
Publisher:     Random House
Pub. Date:     June 12, 2018

Whenever I give a book a five-star review, that means, for me, it is an incredible read.  I admit that when a book is on a subject I enjoy or something that I can relate to, I usually add in an extra star.  After all, this reviewer is only human.   In this book, I strongly identify with the characters’ culture.  Still, this does not take away from the vivid imagery in the superior writing.  You will feel as though you are inside the pages and everything is personally touching you.  The novel is filled with the feel of Italy, its food, its way of life and its picturesque wonders.   As well as the ugly underbelly of peasant living; the author, Elise Valmorbida, explores the moral questions on the uneven balance of power between the sexes in Italian life.

The novel derives much of its weight from its setting: War in Italy during the 1920s to the 1950s.  The main female protagonist is the epitome of an unsentimental woman doing whatever it takes to keep her family alive during hardship in unstable times.  She and her husband have lived through and survived WWI.  Now they must do it again, with four children, during WWII.  As the reader knows, at the beginning of the war, Benito Mussolini chose to ally Italy’s forces with those of Adolf Hitler.  Soon German and Italian armies were battling Allied troops on several fronts.  Italian civilians suffered on many levels. Their homes were bombed, their food sources cut off.  Then, one month after Italy surrendered to Allied forces; it declared war on Nazi Germany.   And, the Italian people were further bombed and starved and still suffering. “War is hell.” ― General William T. Sherman.

“Madonna” focuses on the female character’s role.  Women seemed the most burnt out by life because they were the most abused.  The enemy, whoever they might be at the moment, was beating and raping the females.  Their own husbands were often no better, especially in peasant life where it is the norm for men to beat their wives and children, and have affairs.  Think the movie “Zorba The Greek,” not an Italian film but so similar in the scene where the village peasants stone to death a woman who was unfaithful to her husband.   If you think this casual acceptance of violence against women can be attributed to the period, think again.  According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year.”   I actually found myself comparing our Italian mother to Tina Turner and her husband Ike.  Ike once told the newspapers in 1985. “Yeah, I hit her, but I didn’t hit her more than the average guy beats his wife.”  I have read much fiction and nonfiction on violence against women, this novel explains it so well.  The reader will observe how mothers taught their daughters that they must be subservient to men.  And if they are not, they will be physically punished.  Here is another movie for you, “Divorce Italian Style.”  The film is a comedy that still screams of a patriarchal society where it is expected that husbands and fathers hit.

All in all, as a reviewer, I appreciate that the author did not portray the mother in a romantic sense.  What she did was show wartime horrors and the abuse the women endured in an epic novel.   The author’s characters are so real and so gut-wrenching that I was not surprised to learn about the possibility that this is autobiographical.  I applaud Valmorbida for such an honest description of Italy’s wonders and shames.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

Words for the Year

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell…

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