Remarkable novel about three generations of the Pelham family.
The story is divided into three sections, one for each generation. First
we have Norman Pelham, a young man fighting in the Civil War when he is
injured and left behind. He wakes up to discover a young slave girl,
about his age, nursing him back to health. They fall in love and when the
war ends, he marries her and takes her back home (her name is Leah, btw).
Of course, his family is shocked, but eventually, they accept Leah and
come to love her. Leah and Norman have three children, Jamie, Abagail,
and Prudence. But, despite her happy life Leah is still restless. She
had fled her home in the South after killing the son of her owner.
Because she left without ever saying good bye to her mother, she decides
she needs to go back, even though 25 years have passed. So, she travels to
the South for a week. When she returns, she has changed. She will not
speak to her family, only to herself, and when her daughter overhears what
she says when she's alone, it is revealed that she discovered something
there so awful that she can barely stand it.
The second part of the book focuses on Jamie, Leah's youngest child. Jamie
was forever scarred by what happened to his mother when she returned from
that trip and when he was old enough, he too ran from his home and
attempted to forget his past and become someone new (a major theme of the
novel -- we can make ourselves what we want to be, but we can never truly
escape what really made us when we began). In his new life, he takes up
bootlegging and meets and falls in love with a Canadian woman, with whom
he has two children. The only child to survive, a boy named Foster, is
the focus of the third part of the novel.
In this last section, Foster returns to Vermont (where Norman and Leah
lived) to meet his great-aunts (Abagail and Pru) so he can find out more
about his roots. There, they tell him the story of what happened to Leah
that made her run away when she was young and what happened after she went
back home to the South 25 years later. Puzzled by the missing pieces of
the story (what really happened when Leah went back home?), Foster drives
himself down to the town she grew up in and attempts to find out what the
horrible secret was.
The style of this novel is very reminiscent of Faulkner, and not just
because it's a Civil War novel about screwed up people. The language is
similar -- the use of the language, I mean. The tone is the same. This
is one of the reasons I loved reading this book, despite the fact I felt
it was too long (the second section drags along unnecessarily -- Lent
should've skipped the third generation and just sent Jamie to the South
when he grew up). Writers who really know how to use words create magical
prose that I never seem able to let go of, even if I'm bothered by some
other elements of the novel.
It was really the characters (in conjunction with the style) that kept
me reading more than it was the plot or the urge to discover the truth
behind Leah's behavior (this "secret" is what links the three sections
together and is supposed to keep you reading until the last page).
The characters are intensely drawn and vividly real. I cared about them --
I cried when bad things happened to them, I worried about them. But I
will admit I was
disappointed by the "secret" revealed at the end. I felt Leah was too
intelligent to have been sucked in by it -- it didn't seem true to the
character that it would've upset her so much. However, this novel is a
wonderful (if depressing) look at human nature. Identity duality, for
one thing, but
also the fact Jamie states at one point, that "Mostly, people are cruel,
given the chance." This is one of the best novels I've read this year
when it comes to writing and complexity. It's beautiful and haunting,
despite its minor flaws. I will be thinking about the characters long
after I have put it down.
(8/21) The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas.
Here's the other Dallas novel I said I picked up right after
finishing "The Diary of Mattie Spenser." And it was even BETTER than "D
of M S." This one is set in a small rural Kansas town during the
Depression, where a close-knit community is struggling against the hard
times together. The women are particularly close as they all belong to a
quilting club they call "The Persian Pickle Club" (I'll let you read the
book to find out what a "persian pickle" is). Their quiet town is shaken
up a little when the son of one of the local farmers returns, bringing his
fiery new wife Rita with him. Rita aspires to be a journalist so she can
get a job in the city (she hates farming) and when the bones of a man are
found buried in a field, she jumps at the chance to get the scoop. Her
investigation, however, brings her dangerously close to a secret the
Pickles (who by this time have come to adore Rita and have made her a
member of the club despite the fact she's wretched at quilting) have sworn
to keep. She eventually has to decide whether her loyalties lie with her
career goals or with her new friends. The characters in this story are
wonderful (in fact, the narrator of this one, Queenie Bean, reminded me a
lot of Mattie Spenser, which is a good thing cuz I loved her!) and by the
end I was actually very envious of their friendships and their community
(born too late). I highly, highly recommend this and can't wait to read
the one remaining Dallas novel I haven't gotten to yet (forgot the title).
I'm thinking I'll save it, though, as her next book isn't due out until
(8/20) The Diary of Mattie Spenser by Sandra Dallas.
This novel begins with a woman helping her elderly neighbor
move into a retirement home. The elderly lady keeps giving her heirlooms
to the woman, knowing the woman is a collector of antiques and armchair
historian. One of the things she passes along is her grandmother's diary
-- a journal kept when the grandmother, Mattie, traveled West with her
husband to set up a homestead in the Colorado Territory. The rest of the
novel is the diary itself -- a marvelous story that made me think
constantly of the "Little House" books. I really enjoyed this a lot,
actually read it in one day and then immediately picked up the other
Sandra Dallas novel I had out from the library ("The Persian Pickle
Club"). Highly recommended to anyone who misses the Ingalls or loves
stories about strong women pioneers.
(8/19) Lucy Crocker 2.0 by Caroline Preston.
WONDERFUL novel about a family caught up in the computer world
so much they almost lose touch with themselves, as well as the beauty of a
simple life (and the outdoors!). Lucy Crocker is the wife of Ed Crocker
and together they own a software company that took off when Lucy designed
an incredible interactive computer game called Maiden's Quest. The time
has come for Lucy to design a sequel to the game, though. But as she has
struggled with coming up for ideas for MQII, she and Ed have gradually
drifted apart, to the point where she starts lying to him about her
progress (and then humiliates herself and Ed at the first meeting of the
MQII team, when it's revealed she has done almost no work at all in
preparation) and he starts lying to her about his affair with a co-worker.
Meanwhile, their twin pre-teen sons, computer geniuses themselves, have
started surfing porn on in between hours spent working on their own
computer business (they have started their own consulting company in their
bedroom). When everything is revealed all at once (Lucy is fired by Ed
after she blows the meeting, Lucy sees e-mail from Ed's lover about a
weekend trip they took together, AND Lucy catches her sons in the act),
Lucy cracks. She packs up her kids and ships them off to canoe camp (even
though they can't swim and all the other kids hate them) and then takes
off by herself to the old cabin in the woods she spent a summer at with
her father many years ago. There she runs into the old love of her life,
Sam, and is forced to reevaluate everything she holds dear. What she
learns about herself during those two months brings her back to the real
world. When her kids and husband join her at the cabin (after a bunch of
crazy mishaps), she finally realizes she isn't missing anything after all.
Life is great. This novel is funny, sweet, and extremely entertaining.
When I got to the half-way point, I couldn't put it down. I absolutely
loved this book -- go check it out from the library! I command
(8/14) Midnights: A Year with the Wellfleet Police by Alec
Non-fiction book about the year Wilkinson spent as a rookie
cop in a small town on Cape Cod. The kind of town that everybody thinks
empties out completely come September, but which really has quite a lot of
excitement during the winter as well, as Alec found out the hard way!
Very entertaining and informative about not only police procedure in a
small town, but what it's like to be a cop when caught in certain
situations (like, why routine traffic stops scare the bejesus out of
police officers). Also some good historical background about Wellfleet
itself, a town I can testify is one of the most beautiful and amazing
places in the country. Recommended to anyone who likes cop stories or who
misses the East Coast.
(8/11) The Kid by Dan Savage.
Memoir of the year Dan and his partner Terry spent deciding to
adopt, then adopting a little baby boy. Not only informational about the
entire adoption process (they went with an open adoption, which means they
had very close contact with the birth mother for much of the pregnancy and
she will continue to be a part of their lives, including the baby's), but
also a very open look at the emotions that go along with it. Dan and
Terry are a gay couple and they expected to be criticized and harassed
the entire way. Instead, most people seemed very accepting of their
choice, something that surprised them both, I think. And after reading
this book, it becomes obvious that they are going to make terrific
parents. Dan brings up a very good point (one I will use in my own
arguments for gay adoption in the future) -- having two dads doesn't mean
the kid won't be exposed to mother-figures or other women. Dan and Terry
have got not only a zillion female friends, but aunts, mothers, sisters,
and grandmothers crawlin' all over the place! I recommend this book to
anyone considering an adoption, to anyone still unsure if gay parents are
good parents, AND to anybody who is just in the mood for a funny and
highly entertaining story about a family. Great book!
(8/9) An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender.
Absolutely wonderful and strange (wonderfully strange)
novel about a very young math teacher named Mona Gray. Mona is a "good
noticer" with a sick father, an obsessive need to knock on wood, a
classful of crazy amazing 7 year olds, and an almost astonishing fear of
death (other people's, not hers). Numbers mean everything to her -- they
represent an order that she craves. But despite her struggle for a life
of numerical structure, she has also "fallen in love with quitting" and
quitting things never fails to shake everything up around her. This is a
lousy description of the book, though, because what makes it truly
marvelous is Bender's writing, and it defies description. Mona and her
mixed-up brain come across so clearly that I was almost envious of her
compulsions and craziness. Like Lisa, Mona's student who is struggling
with the impending death of her mother, I wish I could stand out -- and
boy does Mona ever stand out. Waaaaay out! This is an amazing book.
Definitely one I will be buying as soon as it comes out in (quality)
paperback (I only buy books I've already read and totally loved). Highly,
(8/7) First Evidence by Kenneth W. Goddard.
Scary thriller about a crime scene investigator, Colin
Cellars, who is called out to a murder scene at a hidden cabin in the
woods. When he arrives, the two officers waiting for him are visibly
shaken and extremely terrified, constantly watching the edge of the woods
while telling Cellars that the two officers there before them are missing
and their radios don't work. Cellars sends them off to get help while he
begins collecting evidence. Inside the cabin he finds the mutilated body
of a person who might be his old friend, Bobby. He also is attacked by
someone or something he can only see in the shadows. When he escapes, he
returns to the station and finds out the two cops he'd sent for help are
now missing too. Determined to find out what is happening, Cellars keeps
returning to the cabin. But each time he tries to find clearer evidence,
eerie occurrences confuse everything even further. I couldn't put this
book down, even when nighttime rolled around and the combination of the
story and the dark gave me the screaming heebie-jeebies. I was a little
disappointed by the ending, which seemed too sudden and too convenient,
but the rest of it was so great I barely minded. Highly recommended!
(8/5) Trans-Sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian.
My second Bohjalian novel (the first was "Midwives"). This is
one truly fantastic book. The plot focuses on a transsexual named Dana
Stevens. A few months before the surgery that will change Dana's body
from male to female, she (I'm calling Dana a "she" to be consistent and
because it's what she would have wanted, but technically, genetically,
Dana is a male) meets a woman named Alison Banks and falls head-over-heels
in love with her. When Dana reveals her plans to Allison, Allison freaks
out (natch) and runs off. But she soon realizes that she's in love with
Dana and wants to give it a try. Also involved in the relationship is
Allison's teenaged daughter, Carly, who accepts Dana immediately, and
Allison's ex-husband Will, who throws a hissy fit. As Dana and Allison
grow closer and closer after Dana's surgery, the town starts to get really
uncomfortable. Parents start signing a petition to have Allison fired
from her position as a sixth-grade teacher and other people in the town
begin to harass the couple. This novel is about so many things: the
power of love, the fear of the unknown, the courage to do what you believe
is right, the pain that feeling trapped can cause, and the fact that
everything you do has an impact on those around you. Each of the four
main characters are narrators of their own chapters and interspersed
between sections are transcripts from an NPR documentary that Carly
eventually creates to educate people about transsexuals (and Dana). This
is a truly wonderful novel -- well-written and full of characters who felt
very real to me. Dana is a beautiful person and her suffering broke my
heart -- I felt the same way about Allison, Carly, and Will as well. It
kills me that people can be so close-minded that they condemn
someone else just because that person is different instead of looking to
see how, really, we're all pretty much the same. My only complaint was
with the ending -- I just didn't believe it. I highly recommend both
this and Bohjalian's novel "Midwives," and I look forward to reading all
of his other books ASAP.
(8/2) Death Train to Boston by Dianne Day.
Mystery featuring Fremont Jones, who apparently is a repeating
character in Dianne Day's books (this is my first). In this one, Fremont
and her partner Michael are on a train going east out of San Francisco
when the train suddenly explodes. She wakes up and discovers she's in a
house with a man who seems to have saved her life. He wakes up with a
broken collarbone and no Fremont Jones besides him. While Fremont tries
to figure out how she can escape from her rescuer, who has decided he
wants to make her his wife (another one of his many wives, actually),
Michael tries to figure out where she is, while he is being stalked by two
adversaries who wanted him dead on that train. It sounds like it would be
really good, doesn't it? Instead it was pretty lame. The characters were
poorly defined and seem more like stereotypes than anything else and there
wasn't much of a mystery to the mystery, if you know what I mean. I hear
from people that Day's earlier Fremont Jones novels are much better than
this one. I guess that means I should try another one -- I'll try to
muster up the interest for it, but I make no promises.