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.
Sylvia Berek Rosenthal is a prolific writer. And it’s no wonder, as Rosenthal, a resident at Oakmont at Montecito in Concord, CA, who will turn 92 this August, has had plenty to write about. Her latest book, Marry Me With Marigolds, is a delicious collection of poems that reads like the spicy narrative of an interesting life. The genesis of Marry Me with Marigolds began when Rosenthal won First Prize in the 2010 Benicia Annual Love Poem contest.
The writer strongly resembles someone’s smart and jolly Nanna, with her shock of white hair, large black-framed glasses, bright floral silk jacket. She smiles gleefully. “It felt so nice for an old lady to win with a love poem,” she says about the contest.
Sylvia Rosenthal didn’t begin writing poetry until she was 75, an age when people tend to be outspoken with their truths. The poetry in this collection reflects a whole lot of truths, as it was written in the 15 years between 1997 and 2012. Many of her poems are funny and downright irreverent. Some are rich and tender. In all, her personal voice rings true. In the poem called “Maid in America,” she speaks of how her parents met.
My mother was born in Detroit.
You can’t get any more American than that
When she turned seventeen she met my father.
He spoke Yiddish and Polish
She spoke only English.
They had no trouble.
Pillow talked worked just fine.
When she turned eighteen
They celebrated by getting married.
One year later
World War One
In the book’s namesake poem, Marry Me With Marigolds, Rosenthal uses language in a way that is both playful and evocative:
Marry me with marigolds
Tempt me with your tenderness
Covet me with coriander
Favor me with foxglove
Gather me with the garden’s garland
Circle me with summer squash
Woo me with water lilies
Nurture me with nutmeg
Pamper me with peppers
Red green and
And I will stroke
Your balding head
Bake you babkas
Cook you cabbage
Pat your pot belly
If you will only
Marry me with marigolds.
Rosenthal may live in Concord, CA, but to hear her speak, you know she is pure New York, where she was a grade school teacher and guidance counselor. Her husband, George, was a ceramicist and artist. For years they lived something of a bohemian lifestyle, sojourning back and forth between New York to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. After a time, the Rosenthals moved to San Antonio, Texas, to shorten the commute between San Miguel and the states.
It was when the couple lived in Texas, that Sylvia discovered poetry. Her husband had broken his shoulder and was recovering from surgery and she had tired of being his nurse. “I decided to take a writing class at the San Antonio branch of Texas University and the only two courses available were poetry and a business writing course,” she explains. “I wasn’t going to write letters, so poetry it was.” In San Antonio, Sylvia became deeply involved with local writing and poetry communities. In San Miguel, she wrote columns for the Atencion and El Independiente newspapers.
Her first book, Mrs. Letsaveit, is the collected body of these columns, which are mainly food literature essays very much in the style of Sonoma County’s M.F.K. Fisher. The cover of Mrs. Letsaveit features a close up photograph of some of her late husband’s ceramics. The direct and humorous essays filed between the covers of the book are redolent of a happy home as Rosenthal describes her life in Mexico through a series of narratives about cooking and eating food. “Think of it as recipes through a filter of Like Water for Chocolate,” she says, referencing the 1989 best selling book by first-time novelist Laura Esquivel. In Mrs. Letsaveit, Rosenthal writes about making bagels, corned beef, Mandelbrot, and other family favorites in Mexico, far from New York – or Texas style grocery stores.
An avid reader and writer still, Rosenthal is a member of the San Miguel PEN and San Antonio Poets; she is now involved in writing and poetry groups in the Clayton/Concord Area. Is her work fact or fiction? She smiles mischievously and replies, “I like to think of poetry is a piece of the truth, but not all of it.”
It is just after World War II, and Tom Sherbourne returns to his native Australia seeking solace and normalcy after enduring the horrors experienced as a soldier on the Western Front. Kind, thoughtful, and meticulous Tom lands a job as lighthouse keeper on the island of Janus. It’s lonely work, but Tom enjoys the routine, and quiet accountability of helping to assure the safe passage of cargo and passengers off of Australia’s shoreline. He sets about making repairs to the Light, and keeps strict and meticulous records of all activity on Janus, as is his responsibility. Tom can be trusted to do a job well, and he takes great pride in being a man to be counted upon to do the right thing. To his great good fortune, if not his great surprise, Tom meets Isabel Graysmark while on leave from Janus. Isabel is everything Tom is not: gregarious, creative, outgoing. Isabel doesn’t so much seduce Tom as declare that their match is right and inescapable. An epistolary courtship follows and on his next leave from the island, Tom and Isabel are married. They return to Janus a couple, starting their life together in their own little island world. Isabel suffers a series of pitiful miscarriages, each one stealing a little more of her light.
And then one day a rowboat washes up on the island carrying a dead man and a live baby. Of course, Tom is inclined to report the incident, as is his natural and assigned responsibility. But Isabel, having lost three babies and one only recently, has been delivered an infant in need of a mother. She convinces Tom to delay reporting the body and the baby. Eventually all lines blur and Isabel names the baby Lucy and insists she is their own. As much as he loves her, Tom cannot totally reconcile baby Lucy as his; instead arguing that she belongs to someone, somewhere, who surely grieves her loss. Isabel has no such qualms. She considers Lucy a gift from God, and being mother to the little girl in all ways feels as natural to her as breathing. Like all secrets, Tom and Isabel’s slowly unravels.
On a trip to the mainland Tom encounters a woman whose child was lost at the same time that Lucy was found. Tom is devoured by guilt. On the night before the Sherbourne family is to return from the mainland to Janus, an anonymous note is found in the grieving mother’s mail box. A cryptic hand-written message assures the woman that her daughter is loved. A second trip to the mainland, a second hand-written message, and the Sherbourne’s story dissolves like paper in water. Baby Lucy is reunited with her birth mother, while Tom claims all responsibility for the deceit to protect Isabel. Following her betrayal, Isabel suffers an emotional breakdown, rejecting Tom. Lucy is torn from the loving embrace from the only mother she’s ever known, and is inconsolable, rebuffing this stranger who now possesses her, her birth mother.
The Light Between Oceans is about finding one’s way in uncertain waters. It is a book that deftly examines the choices we make, and living with the inevitable outcomes. It is about love and courage and doing the right thing. It is a book not to be missed. Cynthia G.
You know that tight feeling in your gut at the end of the day that begs for release? Or that tension that kicks in right after you wake up, when something big is up and you don’t feel quite ready? Or maybe there are bigger questions looming and you don’t have a handle on how to handle them. As one bright person said to me once, “your best thinking has gotten you this far. Maybe you should try something else.” Yeah, this just might be it. My friend, Becca Pronchick, has published a handbook for meditation called: No Matter the Question, MEDITATION is the Answer. It’s a book for beginners, full of great guided meditations. It’s also a go-to for people who have been meditating a while and need some new tricks to still the mind. Either way, this smart, pretty little book has the potential to calm your heart and mind. In case, you know, it matters.