Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Familiar Dark

By Amy Engel

Dutton     2020
245 pages     Noir

Just when I thought I could settle down a little and read something fun, I picked up The Familiar Dark to read and review. Incredible book but very shocking and unnerving. One reviewer called it rural noir, and it most definitely is that. I kept thinking about Once Upon a River and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. If anything The Familiar Dark is grittier than these other tales, both fictional and autobiographical.

Amy Engel’s setting is small town Missouri in the middle of the Ozark mountains. Eve is a 30-something single mother of a 12-year-old, Junie. She is a waitress in the local diner. The opening scene really grabs your attention when Junie and her best friend, Izzy, are discovered murdered at the neighborhood playground. Who would kill two pre-teen girls? While the narrative is third party, the story is told completely from the perspective of the devastated and grieving Eve. She sets out to take revenge on whoever killed the girls.

When the back story emerges, we find that Eve and her brother Cal raised themselves. Their mother is a rather stereotypical trailer-trash character, drinking, smoking, selling and using meth. One reviewer called the mother, a “pit bull.” Most of Eve’s inner dialogue is concerned with her relationship with her mother and her brother, who has become a local police officer. Much of her anxiety stems from her inability to escape her past and the corrosiveness of the community in which she was raised. She thought that by being a good mother, she could help Junie escape. The major question of the novel is “Can anyone escape their background? The way they were mothered?”

For several years, I lived with my family in small town Michigan. The village was just as small as the village where Eve, Cal and Junie were raised, but because it was on a major highway, it was much more open to the wider world. At the same time, it was very confining. I remember the exact moment that I realized that this atmosphere was much too small and confining for my children. I saw that our children were not going to have as much intellectual stimulation as we wanted, and I convinced my husband, who had been raised in a rural environment, that we had to move for our children’s sake. The benefit of small town living is that everyone knows you; this also serves as the major weakness. This dynamic plays out well in Engel’s village.

The Library Journal reviewer says, “Not just a fine thriller but a fine character study, plumbing family and particularly mother-daughter relationships and showing Eve, her mother, and Izzie’s mother, too, as women unbendable as oak.” I could really relate to this analysis, because The Familiar Dark, in many ways, moves beyond noir to explore the depths of relationships. It is a worthwhile read under any circumstances, and if you can find a warm, restful spot in the midst of a pandemic, an excellent addition to your library. It will be released next week.

By the way, once I read the book, I really appreciated the title. Sometimes we embrace the dark (whatever the “dark” is) because it is something we know. Sometimes it is better than stepping out into the light. Here is Amy Engel’s website.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

American Dirt

By Jeanine Cummins

Flatiron     2020
400 pages     Literary

First, a word of advice: don’t try to read American Dirt if you are at all stressed out about being stuck at home during a pandemic. As Maureen Corrigan said on NPR’s Fresh Air, “American Dirt is the novel that, for me, nails what it’s like to live in this age of anxiety, where it feels like anything can happen, at any moment.”

I downloaded a copy of the book when it first came out in January because of the tremendous press it was receiving. Then the controversy began, and I decided I needed to read it because of what people were saying—that it was “trauma porn,” according to several Mexican and Mexican American writers. The major criticism seems to be who is allowed to tell the story—is this a case of cultural appropriation? An article in Slate explains the story. I’ll leave it to my readers to sort through the controversy.

In the novel, Lydia, a bookseller from Acapulco, and her little son Luca escape a mass killing of their entire family on the orders of the local cartel kingpin. Lydia had become acquainted with him at her bookstore, and consequently her husband Sebastian, a local journalist,  had written an expose of him. The tale then follows the mother and son’s harrowing journey to El Nord to escape the kingpin’s wrath. Along the way, they meet people traveling north under a variety of circumstances. They form alliances and have fearsome encounters as they travel.

I  am not sure that Lydia is typical of Mexican immigrants to the United States. Some readers and reviewers felt that she was too educated, too privileged. I reached out to Kathy, the lawyer at our local Justice For Our Neighbor (JFON) site, but she had not read the book. Although I work with JFON, I have not met enough of their clients to know just how typical Lydia is. I liked her a lot—her feverish protection of her son, her intelligence, her courage, and her endurance. Actually, almost all of the characters were interesting and well-defined.

The most important lesson I learned from American Dirt is that everyone has a story and everyone has a life experience. The people we meet in the book on the journey North all have stories to share—stories that tell why they came on this journey, where they are going, and what has motivated this journey. 

Despite its review challenges, I believe American Dirt is an excellent choice for individual or book club reading—just not during a pandemic. By the same token, don’t read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel right now, because it is about the results of a pandemic. Incredible book but scary just the same. Read something fun. That’s what I intend to do next.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast

By Jonathan Safran Foer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux     2019
272 pages     Nonfiction

If you are expecting a “how to” about cooking and eating a plant based diet, Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, We are the Weather, will not satisfy that need. If you are looking for a fact-based study of climate change and our response to it, as the title might suggest, you are not going to find that either. But, if you are seeking a beautifully-written argument for changing our behaviors for the benefit of the planet, this book is just what you are seeking.

My husband and I read We are the Weather aloud to each other as part of the community “Reading Together” program  in anticipation of Foer’s visit on March 10. (OMG, was that just a week ago? Feels like a month!) We attended the lecture and finished the book this morning, with a lot of questions and not too many answers. (Actually, his lecture was the last public event we attended.)

What I didn’t realize until we were well into the book was that it is written as a series of essays, divided up into five sections. Primarily, Foer gives a philosophical argument for eating a plant-based diet, at least before dinner. He does this in a methodical way, building his argument step by step. One chapter is extremely powerful—even though it only indirectly talks about climate change. Foer tells the story of a man named Jan Karski, who was a part of the Polish underground. He made his way to the United States in 1943 and finagled a meeting with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter to tell him of the atrocities happening to the Jews in Europe. After listening to Karski’s story, Frankfurter said that he was “unable to believe what you told me.” Foer concludes: “Frankfurter didn’t question the truthfulness of Karski’s story. Rather he admitted not only is inability to believe the truth but his awareness of that inability.” Foer concludes that the response of most people regarding climate change is much the same. We kind of know that we should be concerned, but there is a part of us that just can’t believe it. In the rest of the book, Foer tries to convince us that it is our duty to act, and one way to do that is to change the way we eat. Chapter by chapter, Foer’s philosophical argument convinces us.

The most cleverly written chapter is an argument that the reluctant Foer has with his soul. It’s a bit hard to read out loud, but it is extremely effective in convincing the reader that the change is up to each of us. Foer’s in person lecture was just as effective as that soul argument. He let it be known that he struggles with his own inaction every day. He says, “We are good at things like calculating the path of a hurricane, and bad at things like deciding to get out of the way.”

Foer’s argument, coming as it did for us in the midst of Covid-19, hit a note. Certainly, we understand with our minds what is happening, it is something that is hard to believe in our souls. Like keeping ourselves secluded from the virus, which we definitely understand, we need to come up with a plan to do our part to reduce our consumption of animal products.

The Kirkus reviewer closes his review by saying, “Foer is not likely to sway climate-change skeptics, but his lucid, patient, and refreshingly short treatise is as good a place to start as any.” I am going to prove by our change in menu that old dogs can learn new tricks. Here is a presentation by Foer at the Philadelphia Library, very similar to what we heard in Kalamazoo.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow

By Rashi Rohatgi

Galaxy Galloper     2020
270 pages    Historical Fiction
The Shortlist

Here is the book summary:
“It's 1905, and the Japanese victory over the Russians has shocked the British and their imperial subjects. Sixteen-year-old Leela and her younger sister, Maya, are spurred on to wear homespun to show the British that the Indians won't be oppressed for much longer, either, but when Leela's betrothed, Nash, asks her to circulate a petition amongst her classmates to desegregate the girls' school in Chandrapur, she's wary. She needs to remind Maya that the old ways are not all bad, for soon Maya will have to join her own betrothed and his family in their quiet village. When she discovers that Maya has embarked on a forbidden romance, Leela's response shocks her family, her town, and her country firmly into the new century.

India in the early 1900s is a part of history that I knew very little about, other than a couple of movies—Gandhi, and A Passage to India. I had a vague understanding of the conflict between the Hindu and Muslim cultures of India and Pakistan, a subject dealt with extensively in the book. The two young women are attempting to negotiate life during a volatile time in Indian history. I enjoyed reading about the role of women and how Maya and Leela were attempting to alter history.

I found the novelized history of that time to be fascinating, knowing that the Hindu-Muslim conflict continues in the region. The Kirkus reviewer says, “The novel does an excellent job of placing readers directly into the politics of the time, highlighting the clash between old and new and between the region’s various subcultures.”

I am even more fascinated by the biography of the author Rashi Rohalgi, Wow! I would really like to meet her! She has studied marginalized peoples and lesser-known histories and is a professor of world literature in Norway. You will need to read her biography on her website to get the full picture of her incredible life journey. Here, also, is an interview with her as the book Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow was released earlier this week.

Beautiful characters. Beautiful cover. Fans of historical fiction will really enjoy this book.

Monday, March 9, 2020


By Esther Gerritsen

Translated by Michele Hutchison
World Editions     2019
188 pages     Literary

We meet Roxy, young wife and mother of a 3-year-old daughter, Louise, just as she finds out that her husband, a famous movie producer, has died in a very compromising situation with his young female intern. Roxy has been with Arthur since she was seventeen—"took a short-cut to adulthood.” Basically, she is still a child in a mother's body.

Roxy is a writer as well as a wife and mother. She had some success with an autobiographical novel, The Trucker’s Daughter, but her next two novels fell flat. There is much she doesn’t understand about herself or her husband, and she had been struggling to hold herself together for her young daughter, even before her husband died.

Her husband’s assistant, Jane, the babysitter, Liza, and Roxy’s parents try to come to the rescue, but Roxy is spiraling out of control. Finally, bizarrely, she decides to take the two women on a road trip with little Louise as a way to start again. The whole road trip experience is shattering for Roxy. The women are critical of her and her parenting, even as they try to remain upbeat and move forward with the plan; her parents try to be helpful, but she doesn’t know how to respond to their renewed interest in her; and Roxy wants to be the best possible mother to Louise, while at the same time behaving recklessly toward her.

It is really hard to like Roxy. Thank goodness the book is short, or I would have strangled her, like Jane and Liza seemingly want to do. At the same time, I couldn’t stop reading. What uncomfortable thing was I going to read next. Ah, well! There is one more totally inexplicable event before the book ends and Roxy somewhat comes to her senses.

Grief is a strange thing. It is a process more than a “thing,” and while Roxy’s behavior is on the far end of strangeness, the sudden catastrophe in her life certainly set her off. My initial interest in the book came from Roxy’s decision to go on a road trip to start anew. I did the same thing when my husband died; my young children and I went on a three-week road trip in an effort to create a new family. Our trip, however, worked out better than Roxy’s. I was a bit older than her, and my husband’s death wasn’t sudden.

Esther Gerritsen is a well-known Dutch author. The Kirkus reviewer calls her style, “deadpan comic,” and occasionally the reader sees glimmers of that humor. That same reviewer, however, closes the review by saying, “A diverting absurdist parable more shocking than memorable.” I guess I would say the same.