Ohio: review

Ohio
Stephen Markley
Simon & Schuster (August 2018)

Stephen Markley’s novel Ohio follows four twenty-somethings (Class of 2004) back to their home town in Ohio shortly after Obama’s election. ohioChapters follow each character to New Canaan, giving their backstory with special attention to their high school years. New Canaan has been ravaged by the financial crisis and torn apart by the conflicts in the Iraq and Afghanistan. But despite the biblical name, this was no Promised Land. Life in New Canaan was man against man, neighbor against neighbor.

Bill Ashcroft, Stacey Moore, Dan Eaton, and Tina Ross each have their own dark reason for returning to town and one fateful night culminates in conflict. (That word ‘conflict’ is quite the understatement.) In some ways, the character’s stories can stand alone, a bit like the those in Elizabeth Strout’s work. But from childhood through high school and into the present, their lives–and a whole cast of hangers on–have woven together in inexplicable ways and Markley shows us the underside of the tapestry, all loose threads and knots.

Let me be blunt: this book was a difficult read. Markley touches on alcoholism and drug abuse, sexual violence, assault, eco-terrorism, and murder. The angst of a generation–born of economic disparity, family dysfunction, misogyny–is revealed in all its ugliness.

I began reading the book one night before bed and within the first fifty pages had read about a detailed description of a meth trip, a drug-fogged drive involving some sort of contraband, and a funeral with an empty casket–and all I could think was, “This is waaay too depressing. I’m not sure I can finish it.” Twenty-four hours later I turned the last page.

Nearly two years ago I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a raw look at the same time and place, told through the eyes of Vance who had overcome his circumstances–and escaped. While it was an intriguing read, it didn’t touch me quite like Ohio did. There is something about fiction that cuts deep.

So read Ohio … but be prepared to have your quiet world shaken.

Three Things About Elsie: review

Three Things About Elsie
Joanna Cannon
Scribner (2018)

“Everyone’s life has a secret, somethings they never talk about. Everyone has words they keep to themselves. It’s what you do with your secret that really matters. Do you drag it behind you forever, like a difficult suitcase, or do you find someone to tell?”

three things about elsieJoanna Cannon’s first novel The Trouble With Sheeps and Goats was a delight–Cannon’s insight into the hearts and minds of little girls and her portrayal of the rough waters of family life was spot-on.  Her second novel, Three Things About Elsie, gives us a glimpse into the heart and mind of Florence, resident of Cherry Tree assisted living, and in this book it’s the rough waters of aging that she explores.

The story opens with Florence Claybourne who has fallen in her room, and, as she waits for help, replays her life both at Cherry Tree (which, by the way, has no cherry trees, much to Florence’s annoyance) and her childhood. Each chapter marks the intervals with a time stamp. Florence isn’t easy to deal with for the staff or residents: she avoids social events, is loud and often belligerent, and (everyone assumes) delusional. The home’s manager Miss Ambrose is her nemesis, probably for continually threatening to send Florence to Greenbank, the next step in care, and dreaded by all the seniors–probably because it’s the Last Stop. When Florence suspects a new resident at Cherry Tree is a shadow from her past out to destroy her, her hunch is summarily dismissed.

So who is this Elsie-in-the-title? And what are the three things we need to know about her? The first is that she is Florence’s best friend. Has been since they were young girls growing up in a small English town. The second thing is that “she always knows what to say … to make [Florence] feel better.” And it’s quite clear from the story’s beginning, that Elsie and Flo were inseparable as children and that even now Florence turns to Elsie, ever at her side, for reassurance and advice. But only a few chapters in, it’s clear that Elsie isn’t visible to anyone else in the story, and the only person who converses with her is Florence. And that’s where I’ll leave Elsie. Because the third thing … oh, the third thing …

Florence, she of the outbursts and crazy rants, gets the attention of Jack, another Cherry Tree resident, and their friendship gives Florence hope simply (simply?!) because he believes her. The end of the novel is tender and poignant, and Florence–for all of her difficult behavior and troublesome accusations–is vindicated at last.

As to that third thing about Elsie? You’ll just need to read the book.

“It’s strange, isn’t it? How love paper-aeroplanes where it pleases. I have found that it settles in the most unlikely of places, and once it has, you are left with the burden of where it has landed for the rest of your life.”

Judging only the cover*: Broken (review)

Broken
Lisa Jones
Scribner (2009)

As I drove through New Mexico on my trip this summer, I was struck by the signs–Leaving Nambe Pueblo; Entering Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo–and those ubiquitous green historical markers–Aqua Fria: a traditional historical community; Bandelier National Monument: home of the Cochiti; Captive Women and Children of Taos County.

This is very clearly a land proud of its heritage and its people.

But as my car slowed to wind through reservation land, I was struck (as many are) by the poverty. It seemed to me that we talked out of both sides of our mouth. “We honor the heritage of these Native peoples, but we really screwed them over … so we’ll honor the heritage of these Native peoples.” I visited the famous Taos Pueblo and saw the love our college-student guide had for his traditional way of life–but I felt like an intruder, traipsing through someone’s living room and gawking at their kitchen. Add to all this the fact that I know many in the New Age movement who have (in my mind at least) co-opted religious traditions and practices that don’t belong to them–and it seems like a kind of spiritual colonization.

Writer Lisa Jones wrote about one Native American, Stanford Addison, in her memoir titled Broken: A Love Story. And while she didn’t lay to rest any of the conflict I felt in New Mexico, she did speak eloquently to the incredible spirit that can transform even the most desperate circumstances–and in that very transformation come to heal others, including her. Through her eyes, I came to see New Mexico in a different light.

As a young man, Stan Addison lived life at full tilt. He boozed it up, used women shamelessly, and didn’t shy away from a good fight. That is until a truck accident left him first, near death, and finally, a quadriplegic. But even while he recovered in the hospital–even when he hadn’t yet accepted his fate–the spirits came to his side and made it clear: he could stay or he could go. But if he stayed, he had some compelling business to attend to. Stan wasn’t ready to leave quite yet, and he gradually came to understand that he was given some powerful medicine. And he was to share those gifts. He held sweat lodges and took on the pain of others so they could heal. Shared his visions. Warned off bad spirits. Gentled horses. Took in young men who needed the anchor he provided.

But that’s Stan Addison’s story.

And, yes, the story in Broken seems at first to be Stan’s–but it is, in the end, the story of Lisa Jones. Lisa grew up in a less-than-functional home. (This, despite the fact that her father was a psychiatrist.) When her parents divorced, meeting the emotional needs of three children wasn’t high on their list of priorities. But Lisa was smart, driven, and independent. A survivor. She became a successful journalist and lived a life of adventure. It was the Good Life. Except when it wasn’t. There were those nagging doubts. Feeling lost. The draw of commitment and its companion, the fear of being tied down. Uncertainty.

Like most 20th century educated professionals, Lisa disguised her fears quite well. Except Stan saw through her and her heart felt the pull of the man with incredible gifts. Lisa became the supplicant to Stan’s sage. So she returned to the sweat lodge over and over again. She listened to Stan’s stories. She argued. Questioned him for hours on end. She washed his hair, lit his cigarettes, and drove into town for his sodas. Cooked meals. Stan waited and Lisa learned–but not without unraveling even more emotional pain.

And that’s what I failed to keep in mind as I drove through New Mexico–I was outside looking in. My eyes saw what might have been material poverty, but they failed to see the richness of spirit.  I wasn’t privy to the private lives of Native peoples or their spiritual practices–but Lisa Jones was when one very extraordinary human being welcomed her into his circle, and I am grateful she shared her story with us in Broken. 

 


* When I looked over the art on the both the hardcover  and paperback of Broken I so. totally. misjudged the book, actually passing it over a few times. (Isn’t there some saying about that … ?) The cover art was rather … romantic … and then there was the subtitle “a love story”. I convinced myself I wouldn’t like the book (I was thinking shades of Horse Whisperer) until I actually read the back cover blurb. I finished the book in just under two days. ‘Nuff said about that whole ‘book by its cover’ thing. How fitting that my first drive through New Mexico left me feeling similar.

The Forgotten Guide to Happiness: review

The Forgotten Guide to Happiness
Sophie Jenkins
Avon (July 2018)

Lana Green writes romance novels–or at least one, the best seller Love Crazy. Her second romance, Heartbreak, has just gotten a thumbs Forgotten guide to Happinessdown from her publisher. The reason? It’s bleak and bitter, hardly the stuff of romance. Except Lana was just writing what she knew. And what she knew was that the hero of Love Crazy, photographer Marco, had dumped her the heroine Lauren, just as Lana’s photographer boyfriend Mark had dumped her. See where this is going?

And to be sure, for the first few chapters, Sophie Jenkins’ The Forgotten Guide to Happiness is chick lit, plain and simple. Numbing her broken heart in a pub, Lana meets a scruffy IT guy, Jack Buchanan. Over wine and a beer, she confesses she needs to find a new hero for her second book–and Jack sets out to become that hero. Romance ensues.

But, wait a minute … not so fast.

It turns out that Lana is also looking for a job and a place to live, what with the fact that she didn’t get her book advance and all.  And Jack has just the thing. His step-mother suffers from dementia and has become increasingly difficult to manage; social services is threatening to intervene. Add to the mix that his step-mom is none other than the famed feminist writer Nancy Ellis Hall, and Lana quickly agrees to become her companion and caregiver. At first, Lana is convinced that Nancy, who carries around a black notebook and scribbles in it furiously, is still writing. (In fact, Lana even thinks she might be able to help the ailing Nancy write a new book.) And while Lana’s denial is based on her infatuation of the writer Nancy used to be, she soon comes to love the Nancy who is–and that Nancy draped her head with sheets of toilet paper and insisted she was eight years old; she kept a pastry brush in her purse and set the table with clothes pins, a book, and a ruler; that Nancy quoted the bible as her own work and bit the woman who ran the London Literary Society where Lana tutored–Nancy, the woman she cared for and loved, might seem strangely out of touch, but Lana “knew what [Nancy] meant. Language is just a means of communication, and she could communicate and I could understand her.”

It’s got to be a tricky business to write about a character with dementia, but Sheila Jenkins handles the character of Nancy tenderly, lightly, always with compassion–just as Lana does. And I hope that someday, should my aging self need a minder, I encounter someone with just as much love.

And about that love story Lana is trying to write–Does Jack get a role to play? Does Marco return and win back Lana’s love? Will there be heartbreak or more crazy love? I think its fair to say The Forgotten Guide to Happiness has plenty of love (and happiness!) to go around.

A Fan Favorite: Catherine Ryan Hyde (review)

Heaven Adjacent
Catherine Ryan Hyde
Lake Union Publishing
June 2018

Heaven AdjacentWith over thirty books, Catherine Ryan Hyde’s fan base is deep. There are probably few who don’t remember the movie Pay It Forward which is based on her book by the same title; her novel Take Me With You is a favorite of mine. Hyde is a story-teller, plain and simple–her novels may not be high art, but the stories are compelling. Heaven Adjacent is no different.

Manhattan lawyer Roseanna Chaldecott has walked away from everything: her established law firm, apartment in the city, friends, and family. With the clothes on her back and a few things thrown in the back of her Maserati, she heads for the hills (literally) and runs out of gas next to a piece of property with a FOR SALE sign posted in the yard. The house (if you can call it that) is barely two rooms, unheated save for a wood stove. There’s an even smaller out-building and an unoccupied barn. Perfect for someone who wants to escape from the stress of modern life–for someone who wants quiet. Peace. Freedom. And little, if any, human interaction.

Except that’s hardly how it played out for Roseanna.

Before she knew it, Roseanna has a young veteran camping in the woods by the creek, a mother and her five-year-old daughter squatting in the out-building, and an elderly man living on her Adirondack retreat. Her estranged son shows up on her doorstep. Add a dog and an old horse and you see how things weren’t going as she planned.

Roseanna fled New York broken-hearted and shaken: her best friend and law partner Alice died of a massive stroke at fifty-three. Alice, like Roseanna, was working full tilt, waiting for the day she could retire. And then … gone. The work? The sacrifice? All for nothing. Roseanna becomes an evangelist, of sorts, nudging others to ask themselves: am I really happy? As you can imagine, that peace and quiet suddenly becomes less and less important, and Roseanna’s relationships with Nelson and Patty and Willa and Martin and Lance become what she was seeking all along.

I had only one reservation. Hyde seems, at times, to use Roseanna as her own mouthpiece, and it comes off a bit didactic, even though fitting with the story. I want my characters to be human beings in their own right, not the writer’s proxy. But because I loved the story, I could forgive that flaw.