The intruders arrived with designer luggage.
We’ve been neglecting our reviews. Oh, we’ve written them, just haven’t shared, and that is just sad. So, the girls are returning to reviews with a retro read of Margaret Atwood. Here’s the tease:
To read The Edible Woman is to be transported back in time. Fourty-plus years ago “girls” had entered the workforce to stay. They wore binding girdles, deferred to the men in the company, and were expected to resign when they became engaged and left maindenhood behind. Still, they were there, earning their way.
Tom Dury’s debut novel, The End of Vandalism, is a quiet book about ordinary people living in rural Minnesota. Not much happens in Grouse County, and that’s kind of reassuring in a time of climate change, uncertainty, and uncivil presidential elections.
Originally published in 1994, The End of Vandalism was compared to the works of William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson. At the heart of this fine novel is love, a love triangle actually, between Grouse County sheriff Dan Norman, his sweet and somewhat remote wife Louise, and her former husband, Tiny Darling. Beautifully written and artfully crafted, Dury’s novel lures the reader in for a glimpse the human condition up close.
Dan Norman is a good man, an upright citizen. He manages the criminal element of Grouse County, which isn’t much. He mainly performs worthy acts, and discourages the criminal element from disturbing the pervading goodness of his town.
“One fall they held the blood drive in the fire barn at Grafton. Sheriff Dan Norman was there mainly as a gesture of good will, but one of the nurses didn’t make it , so Dan agreed to place the gauze in the crook of everyone’s arm. “And I thank you,” he would say.”
Louise is an enigma. She runs Keeborg’s Photo Studio, but doesn’t seem driven by her work. She enjoys photographing the local kids’ graduation photos and certain elected officials, but she seems to sleepwalk through it all.
These are people that you feel you somehow know, or are maybe related to. Mary, is Louise’s mother, is everyone’s mother. On the day she marries Dan, Louise is at Mary’s house, preparing for the ceremony. She negotiates with Mary’s neighbor, Heinz Miller, about whether he will attend her wedding. It’s a toss-up. Heinz is hiding out from his wife at Mary’s house, watching the Twins playing the Tigers. Heinz’s wife has discovered a bad bet he made and he isn’t anxious to be outed at Louise and Dan’s nuptials.
The lyric quality of Dury’s prose is at once calm, and compelling as he spills the secrets and trials of the citizens of Grouse County. All of the large and small moments are given equal weight, so that that the daily motions of life in rural Minnesota all become monumental, as when Louise dresses for her wedding:
“She brushed out her hair and put on her dress. It was yellow with white flowers and a low back. She tied a rose-colored ribbon in her hair, spread her arms, and turned toward the mirror. Her hair was long and brown, and the ribbon made it look coppery.
After she and Dan marry, Louise moves a small trailer onto the farm property where they live. She fixes up the trailer as a place for Dan to retreat to when he wants privacy, but instead, she occupies it. She sleeps in the trailer at night and during the day they live as any married couple, sharing meals, making love, discussing current events.
When Louise suffers an unsuccessful pregnancy, she becomes untethered. She travels with Mary to visit her aunt and uncle, Carol and Kenneth Kennedy, who run a campground on Seldom Lake, in Minnesota. They intend to stay just two weeks, but they extend their stay to four. At the end of a month, Mary returns to Grafton, and Louise stays at the lake. Eventually Louise’s heart heals for the loss of her stillborn daughter, and she returns to her husband.
“Dan like the colors of her hair and skin, the long smooth arc of her back, the sound of her breath. He thought that he would never know anyone like her. . .wrapped in each other’s arms and seeming to summon everything that had happened to them, good and bad. Their lives rushed in at them, and this is what they were holding on against.”
In the end, The End of Vandalism isn’t about vandalism at all. It’s about the gift we give to the people we love, every day. Whether we realize it at the time or not.
For anyone who has watched firestorms devour entire towns; who has watched farmland wither and die for want of water, who has wondered if our current lack of water is not just temporary, but indeed the Mother of All Droughts, Claire Vaye Watkins’ debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus is familiar territory.
In a hazy future, LA-born Luz lives in “Laurelless Canyon” with her boyfriend Ray. They are squatters in a once-famous starlet’s once-elegant house where Luz spends her days dressing up in discarded ball gowns. Ray makes lists, scavenges for gasoline, food, anything worth trading for something else.
“Your people came here looking for something better,” Ray tells Luz. “Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That’s why no one wants them now. Mojavs.”
In Vaye Watkin’s future, California is a wasteland. The rivers are dry and the underground aquifers are dust. The sun blazes and when it does rain the air is so hot the water evaporates before it reaches the ground. The state is dry as death and anyone with any money at all has long since abandoned it.
Vaye Watkins’ prose is powerful, and her narrative true. The story is as real as it is terrifying, because in a place where water has become mythic, geography is all that’s left.
“They ate crackers and ration cola and told stories about the mountains, the valley, the canyon and the beach. The whole debris scene. Because they’d vowed to never talk about the gone water, they spoke instead of earth that moved like water.”
One night, Luz and Ray go down to the bonfires, a place where the climate refugees gather to drink, dance, forget. Down among the drifters and the druggies, the drinkers and the plain dangerous, Luz finds a strange toddler who whispers in her ear that her name is Ig, and she says “Don’t tell anyone. Don’t tell, okay?” The child appears to belong to a clutch of grifters, or to no one at all. Driven by instinct she doesn’t understand, Luz picks up the child and tells Ray they’re taking her home.
Luz and her family escape Los Angeles, heading east, seeking a place more hospitable, somewhere safer, somewhere with water. Their car breaks down in the midst of a borderless sand dune so vast it spreads and grows with all the desiccated bits of earth and stone and mountain that was once the Central Valley.
They join a band of misfits led by an enigmatic leader who is either a visionary or a madman, or both. The collective lives on the edges of the dune, surviving somehow as an outpost of civilization, moving their temporary desert city as the sand shifts and threatens to swallow them alive.
Gold Fame Citrus is a complex story of connection and belonging, of outcasts and survivors, of climate change to the extreme, and about the very small scrap of nature that humanity manages to cling to, in the most adverse conditions. Part science-fiction, part cautionary parable, it is a book worth reading if ecology means anything at all in the future of the West.
Cynthia Gregory is an award-winning author who lives and writes in the Bay Area with her rescue pup, Winston The Wonder Dog. Her new book, An Inspired Journal: the Art & Soul of Creative Nonfiction, on Green Tara Press, will be available in 2016.
Who knew publishing was such a dangerous and glamorous profession? Though A Murder of Magpies is journalist Judith Flanders first novel, her whip smart bravura and droll sense of humor make this Murder a fun read.
“Oh, just kill me now!” I didn’t shriek that out loud, just clenched my teeth more tightly. It was eight thirty, and already the day couldn’t get much worse. I’m always at my desk by eight not because I’m so wonderful, although I am, but because it’s the only time of day when no one asks me anything, when I can actually get on with some work, instead of solving other people’s problems.”
Meet snarky book editor, Samantha (Sam) Clair. Sam has managed a fine career in the publishing business, working with a stable of writers, several of whom churn out predictably good best sellers. San is a sensible kind of gal. She’s the type of no-nonsense person who, when a meeting is disrupted by an unexpected visitor, will deal with it in her own sensible way.
“It was probably a friend of a friend, or someone who’d got my name somehow and was trying to flog a manuscript, no doubt about how his mother had abused him, or proving that his great-great-grandfather was Jack the Ripper. We don’t have to deal with real live members of the public often, but every now and again, one sneaks under the radar.”
One of Sam’s favorite writers, gorgeous Kit Lovell, is a reliably gorgeous writer. Kit covers fashion and can dish about the great design houses with the best of them. But this time, he’s written a potentially libelous biography of a fashion icon whose death appears to have been murder. While covering the human interest story about one of the largest and most respected fashion houses in Europe, Kit unintentionally uncovers an international money laundering ring. Big fashion is inextricably linked to big money and neither are pleased with Kit’s revelations.
The manuscript proves incendiary. Before long, Sam finds herself embroiled in a hot mess. Kit vanishes, a copy of his manuscript is stolen, a courier is killed, and Sam’s flat is ransacked. This is quite a lot of excitement for a woman who spends her days reading books.
After the break in Sam begins to investigate her good friend and best author’s disappearance. Companions in her quest include her corporate lawyer mother, Helena–who is astonishingly adept at untangling the kinks of the criminal mind—and a hunky police detective, Jake Field.
As a single professional woman, Sam is aware of her options. She’s had relationships, and is currently satisfied with her quiet job, and her quiet flat, with its quiet upstairs neighbor, Mr. Ridigers. She tolerates her young coworkers with a thin layer of patience while plotting ways to get her authors placed on the best book club lists. A romantic entanglement with a cop isn’t exactly her cup of tea.
In the end, Sam and Helena and Jake solve the murder of Kit – and Helena uncovers hard evidence to corroborate Kit’s fashion house money laundering scheme. Sam takes Jake as a lover, much to Helena’s approval.
Murder of Magpies is a great, fun, smart read. Don’t miss it.
KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST
What a delicious read in J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel: Kitchens of the Great Midwest. His treatment of the subject of haute (and low) cuisine is both respectful and poetic, as is his attention to the detail of place. The Midwest has never appeared so endearing, nor possibly as strange.
The star of the story, Eva Thorvald, is born in the late 1980s to Lars Thorvald and Cynthia Hargreaves, the two most unlikely candidates for happy marriage that ever was. But when Cynthia gets knocked up, marry they do, and vigorous ten pound baby Eva follows.
“Cynthia was still twenty-five, and bounced back to her skinny frame with color in her cheeks and bigger boobs, while Lars just grew balder and fatter and slower. He had learned, before she was pregnant, that he had to hold her hand or touch her in some way while they walked places together, so that other men knew they were a couple. Now she was the mother of his daughter, he was even more wary, snarling at passing dudes with confident Tom Selleck mustaches and cool Bon Jovi hair.”
Lars is a foodie through and through, and Cynthia has a knack for food and wine pairings beyond reason. But gravely oppressed by motherhood from the start, Cynthia ditches husband and child as soon as reasonably possible, running off to California to learn the wine trade.
Lars devotes his life to his darling daughter, whose taste buds he teases with the finest ingredients her pediatrician will permit. He reads Beard on Bread to her. He takes her on excursions through Farmer’s Markets, searching for priceless potatoes and redolent rhubarb.
Lucky for her, Eva is born with a “once in a generation palate.” But is this because of her natural father? It’s hard to say. Not long after Cynthia goes MIA, Lars dies suddenly, leaving baby Eva to be raised by her Uncle Jarl and Aunt Fiona, who while loving her completely, don’t know a mung bean from mozzarella.
Part of the pleasure of this novel derives from Stradal’s juicy narrative. From the start, we know that Eva is a survivor and that she is destined for great things. We love how she loves her adopted parents, how she embraces strays of all kinds, and how even as a kid, she demonstrates great depths of compassion.
“[Jarl] suddenly looked sad and bewildered, like an elephant that had been fired from the circus and was wandering down the side of the highway with nowhere to go. The thought occurred to Eva that if her dad confronted those boys face-to-face, they would make fun of her weak, fat, kindhearted father as brutally as they made fun of her, and she needed to protect her dad from that; his ego was already so fragile.”
It’s not giving anything away to reveal that Eva becomes a celebrated, if mysterious and deeply private, chef. Her love for good food is not for show or for fame; it is real as rice and sweet as whipped marshmallow. In the end, her love of food is about what all great food is about: celebration and gratitude and sharing your bounty with those you love.
IN A DARK, DARK WOOD
Ruth Ware’s debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, possesses all the best elements of a thriller: a remote country estate, a bachelorette party, and a group of frenemies that really, really should have scrubbed their email lists and left each other well enough alone after those terrible school days. But then, where’s the pleasure in that?
The story is narrated by Nora, an author who specializes in crime thrillers. Back in school, she was called Lee, short for Leonora. Only one person ever called her Leo, and it was her first love, James. But then he broke up with her. . .via text. . .and she moved on. Ten years later, Nora is mostly okay, writing novels and living a fine, urban single life.
Then one day out of the blue, she receives an invitation to an old friend’s wedding. Surprised, she feels a little sorry for Clare, thinking that maybe she has no other girls to invite, having to dredge back ten years for her bachelorette do. Nora is undecided about whether or not to attend the hen, but her invite is followed quickly by an email from Nina, who is also wary of Clare’s motives. “If you go, I will,” she says. Nora agrees and they somehow wind up traveling to the remote English countryside together.
Nina hates the country and misses her girlfriend, and Nora is straightway filled with dread by their accommodations: a modern glass box dropped unceremoniously in a meadow at the edge of a dark and menacing wood. The house belongs to Flo’s aunt and feels to Nora like a dangerous cage, though it is only a country estate, complete with a shotgun hung over the living room fireplace.
Miles from anywhere, cell reception is sketchy and the revelers are coolly irritable. When Clare announces to Nora that the reason she was invited to the hen and not the wedding is because the groom-to-be is the infamous James, the weekend really takes a turn. It doesn’t help that Flo’s hen party games involve embarrassing details about the bride and groom, shaming and humiliating Nora repeatedly. And then it snows. And then the land lines go out and the hen fete devolves into a churlish clutch of drunken, paranoid hostages. Fun!
When the phones go down, Melanie decides to bail, a welcome excuse to return home to her infant son. Flo is alternately weepy and aggressive toward anyone who isn’t into the spirit of the weekend. Tom would rather be home with his husband but stays on, drinking gin and taking well-aimed shots at Nina and Nora. Clare plays referee, keeping anyone from coming to actual blows.
After two days of slowly escalating hell, Nora wakes up in a hospital confused, horribly bruised, and under police watch. She is suspected of murder, but she can’t remember what happened. The harder she tries to recall, the more the truth evades her.
Novelist Ware has created a deft and ominous page turner in this fabulous thriller, replete with plot twists, red herrings, and a truly scary villain. If you’re still looking for provocative poolside reading to finish the summer, this novel should do nicely.