The Year of No Summer: A Reckoning

I did not finish this, though I feel that, at some point, I might go back.  Certainly I think I’ll be tempted to do so.  Odd and intriguing.  My first thought was stream of consciousness, but…well…maybe.  Freeform history?  Some sort of literary tone poem?  Or something like that.  Say what?  The language is beautiful and poetic, sometimes coalescing into more straightforward prose; and I wanted to read this simply for the words, lovely words; but then that coalescing comes along, taunting me with the possibility of narrative.  I’ll let the author speak for herself, and she ends by saying, “I’m standing here thinking it all fits together, but how or why, I know not.  My hands are too small for God.”  Yes, right there, and Rachel Lebowitz, I admire what you’ve done, and I think it fits together, too.  I want it to.  Maybe I’m just not ready for it.

But you might be and, if so, click here to order from your local indie bookstore or from Amazon

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Biblioasis via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and Edelweiss for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines – February 26, 2019

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“A man was staring at her in the oral care aisle.  A gorgeous, make-your-ovaries-shiver man.”

RaeAnne Thayne, The Cliff House

OK, I know that’s two lines, but one is a fragment, and it could just as easily be one if you changed the period to a comma.  Either way, it’s just awful.  A man who makes your ovaries shiver?  Does that call for medical intervention?  Oh, yes, there are gorgeous men.  I’ve seen ‘em.  Maybe, on a good day, more than one.  But make your ovaries shiver?  Further, if a man is staring at me in the oral care aisle, I’d probably beat feet out of there.  After all, Ted Bundy was nice looking, too.

In the third line, we learn that “Daisy Davenport McClure” is the chick with the shivering ovaries.  Precious.  In my experience, introducing a female character this early on with all three names is inauspicious from a literary perspective.  Then, in the very next line we’re hit with “discombobulated” and in the line after that “Dark, wavy-haired, green-eyed…”.  “Uncle”, I cried and tapped out.

Ms. Thayne and all your satisfied readers, if I’ve done an injustice, I apologize.  Perhaps The Cliff House is a tongue-in-cheek riot of a good read and my loss for not reading on.  However, heartbeats are finite, and readers must decide early on where they want to spend theirs.  I had to leave Daisy and that green-eyed man for others.  Sorry.

Young-ha Kim’s Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories

A shameful confession.  After several weightier works, I was in the mood for something more, well, let’s just say it – lurid!  From this title, wouldn’t you say I’d found it?  Ah, but it’s a translation from Korean so maybe not.  And, no, it’s not.  Not really, although the first of the four highly original pieces included here is, actually, the diary of a “retired” murderer who now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.  That may sound gimmicky or comic, but again, no.  Believe me.  It is chilling – for the protagonist and for the reader.  In “Missing Child”, a kidnapped boy is returned to his parents after ten years, but he is just as lost to them as before and they to him.  The common theme across these short works of fiction is, I think, reality versus perception, the intermingling of the two, and the coloring of our expectations.  Lastly “The Writer”, a man once hospitalized, convinced that he is “a cob of corn”.  He’s released, but returns in terror, explaining to his doctor that he knows he’s not a cob of corn, but the chickens don’t.  He does move on and into tangled relationships and a complex murder plot….before the chickens come back.  Again, this is not for giggles.  My first experience with this author, and I believe he is a different kettle of fish.  Provocative work.

Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories drops from Mariner Books on April 16. Click here to order/preorder from your local indie bookstore or from Amazon.  Support local if you can, but let your conscience be your guide.

Full Disclosure:  An advance copy of this book was provided to me by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / Mariner Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

The western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad was built almost entirely by immigrant Chinese, 20,000 or so of them.  I expect most of us are vaguely aware of that, and I expect most of us are aware this was hard, dangerous work.  Begun in 1864, finished in 1869, this portion stretches from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevadas, to the desert scrub of Promontory Point, Utah, a distance of 690 miles.  This is history we think we learned in eighth grade.  Gordon Chang takes our tiny tidbit and returns a thoroughly human story, extensively researched and rich in detail.

There was an impression then, and I suspect now, that the “Railroad Chinese” were enslaved workers, but California (the Gold Mountain of the title) was a free state, so it was important that incoming Chinese laborers were not being traded as slaves.  Most of these men were contract workers who came willingly, following opportunity.  However, Chinese women were bought in China and sold here as prostitutes, primarily for the “Railroad Chinese” – hmmm, the sex trade, as old as time and still with us today unfortunately.

All the work was done by hand – men with hand tools, wheelbarrows, black powder (a Chinese invention), horse carts and supply trains as the tracks extended.  Teams of three men using an eight-pound sledge hammer and a pole with crude bit-end could tap roughly three blasting holes a day, mile after mile, for roadbeds and tunnels.  Avalanches, explosions and fire, rock slides, entrapment, maiming injuries that would, as likely as not, ultimately kill a man.  We can only estimate the number of deaths, however.  Complete and/or accurate records of workers don’t exist.  The railroad united our country coast to coast, but, except for a scant few, we don’t even know who these men were – the survivors or the fallen.

After the railroad was completed, some of the “Railroad Chinese” went back to China as they’d planned to do.  Some continued as railroad workers here, in Canada, and elsewhere.  Some remained, took jobs or opened businesses, and their descendants live among us.  However, federal law immigration law prohibited anyone born in China from becoming a naturalized citizen, and that law was not changed until 1943.  Nothing brings today into focus as blindingly as history does, and so I offer you Ghosts of Gold Mountain, a thorough, scholarly work and a good read as well.

Available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 7.  Click here to order/pre-order from your local indie bookstore or, if you prefer, from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Hans Fallada’s Nightmare in Berlin

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Written and set in Germany just after the end of WWII and the fall of the Nazi regime, this novel is not a pleasant read.  An ambitious country and a proud people drank the Kool-Aid for twelve years, and now lie in ruin.  The German people are almost universally held in contempt; any Berlin building with windows intact is a miracle; conquering armies (Russia, in this instance) are feared.  Conflicts arise between those who supported Hitler and those who did not, and even some of the latter are beginning to view his regime as a time of plenty and, perhaps, to wish for its return.  Understandably in distress, characters show their baser sides, and most are quite dislikeable.

Though this novel is widely considered autobiographical, Hans Fallada (pen name of author Rudolf Ditzen) denied this.  However, his central actor, Dr. Doll, is a German author of note, and most of his story here does seem to parallel that of Fallada, who has been compared to Mann and Hesse.   As Germany struggles with the aftermath of all-out war, Dr. Doll struggles with financial ruin, addiction, frequent hospitalizations, a difficult, much younger wife (also an addict) and the contempt of his neighbors, and, even though Dr. Doll has hopeful moments, you somehow know that he is not convinced.

Yes, this resurrected novel is dark, dark and challenging, but it is important for its contemporaneous look at Germany after the war, for its probing insight into human honesty and deceit, and for the artistry of the work.  Fallada/Ditzen wrote only one more work, Alone in Berlin, before he died in 1947, but Dr. Doll and a fallen Berlin will return to you time after time.

Click here to order Nightmare in Berlin from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Scribe US via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher and Edelweiss+ for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel

I’m a Southern girl, me, and I love a stay at a nice hotel, but glamorous New York City hotels have never been a big part of my life.  However, there are hotels, and there are icons – like The Plaza.  Today’s Plaza is actually the second one on the site and opened in 1907, the same year that taxicabs were introduced in New York.  The Plaza.  Let’s do a little name-dropping here.  The first recorded guest – Alfred G. Vanderbilt.  There’s F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Conrad Hilton, Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.  Donald Trump longed to own The Plaza, made a woefully bad deal to get it, and Ivana managed it as their marriage and fortune dissolved.  Hotel as residence was a strange concept to me, but over the years, this grandest of hotels was home to many notable and wealthy folks.  Frank Lloyd Wright was one, and you’ll love the Thirty-Nine Widows who lingered on and on as residents.  Through two World Wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression, New York City’s financial perils, economic booms and busts, The Plaza held on, and its story, as told by Julie Satow, is a wonderfully entertaining one.  Oh, you know who else lived at The Plaza?  Kay Thompson and Eloise!  Visit there or move right on in as you read this delightful book.

Make a reservation for this title at your local bookseller on June 4, or click here to order/pre-order The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotelfrom Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Twelve Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia

A noted author of essays and criticism, Marin Sardy is the daughter and sister of schizophrenics, her mother and her brother Tom.  Although her mother was never officially diagnosed, doctors suggested that she did have some form of schizophrenia, and, to Marin, her mother was stolen by this “shapeless thief”.  The earlier parts of the book explore schizophrenia in a way that feels rather loosely connected, and indeed, portions of this book were previously published as essays:  personal experiences, effects on families, a possible link to creativity, David Bowie and Ms. Sardy’s own wardrobe choices.  However, as the book nears its central story, that of her brother Tom, its earlier disjointedness seems purposeful, a mimicking of the “episodic, fragmented, gaping” effect of schizophrenia itself.  Life to a schizophrenic is described as “a series of stills”.

Tom’s story is heartbreaking, and that is neither trite nor a cliche, no.  No other statement does justice.  Robbed of all hope and promise, homeless on the streets of Anchorage, in and out of our inadequate mental health care systems, loved helplessly by family and friends who shelter him when possible and search endlessly for resources, solutions, help of any kind.  Ultimately, Ms. Sardy relates a personal experience with a baby raven as a way to tell us that “…sometimes, ceremony is the only resolution we can have.”  A deeply moving and thought-provoking reading experience.  Available in May wherever books are sold, or click the following link to pre-order at Amazon.com: The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group / Pantheon via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.