The Lauras: review

The Lauras (NetGalley)
Sara Taylor
Crown Publishing

Ma bustles twelve-year-old Alex out of bed in the middle of the night, grabs a backpack always waiting by the front door, and Alex doesn’t the laurasreturn “home” for nearly four years. And “home” is what Sara Taylor’s novel The Lauras is all about. Is “home” the birthplace our parents choose for us? Is it the resting place we long for–even though we haven’t yet arrived? Maybe our only true home is our body–and how we live comfortably or restlessly within its flesh. Taylor would have us believe that we’ll never truly feel at home on this earth until we answer some of those questions.

Alex knows the home her parents have kept together for her is anything but happy. But it’s all she’s known and she feels its pull even as the two of them crisscross the country. Her mother is on a journey to make sense of the people and places that shaped her: a foster home, a college friend, a lover. She exacts retribution in some cases. So they live on the savings Ma has bankrolled–sometimes home is a motel or a dingy efficiency. Sometimes it’s the backseat of the car or sleeping rough along a county road. Family meals are sometimes forgotten or come from a vending machine. Once or twice the two stop so Alex can attend school, and Ma can add to that bankroll. But she’s pushing, always pushing toward home.

Along the way Alex learns about Ma’s life through a series of stories about Lauras: the crazy one in the foster home, the one from Catholic school, the delinquent Laura, the Laura she fell in love with in college. And Alex learns that life is as much a series of missteps and heartache as it is success and delight. As a coming-of-age story, The Lauras works well.

But where the novel soars is in Taylor’s examination of how we human beings come to feel at home in our bodies. And Alex isn’t. Most reviewers I read label Alex transgender, which I think it inaccurate. Alex, at twelve, thirteen, fourteen, is simply Alex. The Alex not ready to commit to a gender, but becoming more and more comfortable with their body. You can see what I did there, using a gender-free pronoun–and I did it clumsily. Taylor wrote her novel using Alex as the narrator, never revealing her birth sex. And by doing so, Taylor humanized Alex’s experience in a way that simply identifying a character as ‘transgender’ never could. Alex is Every Man Human. And because gender is a social construction, if I remember by Psych 101 correctly, how Alex chooses to relate to the world is self-determined.

I’ve reviewed a number of novels that play with the idea of gender–Middlesex, Neverhome, The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Lobdell, Misfortune–and I wrote about them here. They were all compelling reads and approached the idea of gender roles with caution. But none of the writers did a better job of emphasizing a transgender character’s humanity than Sara Taylor did in this very raw and tender story.


*edit*
My trust in Publisher’s Weekly just tanked–throughout this short piece, the writer wrote about Alex using the pronoun “she”. Sheesh! Did they not even read the dang book?! Publishers Weekly: any chance you’re looking for reviewers …

Running : Girl Last Seen & Unbecoming (reviews)

Girl Last Seen (NetGalley)
Nina Laurin
Grand Central Publishing/Hatchett Group


Unbecoming
Rebecca Scherm
Penguin

unbecomingTwo young women: Laine, a kidnap victim; and Julie, an accessory to a crime. Both are living under assumed names, supposedly for protection. Except, as both Girl Last Seen and Unbecoming demonstrate, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to run away from one’s past.

The stronger of the two novels is Unbecoming. Julie, nee Grace, is hiding out in France where she restores antiques at a small shop. She leads a quiet life and tries not to call attention to herself. It’s also a lonely life–because friendships would mean Grace would have to invent a past and keep track of her story. At the novel’s beginning, Grace gets word that her husband Riley and his best friend Alls are about to be paroled after spending three years in prison for a crime that she helped plan. What’s worse is the fact that Grace had planned her getaway with Alls … not her husband.

Grace met Riley when they were barely teens, and fell in love with his family. (And Riley, of course. Sort of.) The Grahams–especially Mrs. Graham–gave Grace a Leave it to Beaver family to belong to, one very different from her own. Mrs. Graham took on Grace as the daughter she never had, and Grace spent most of her days and nights with Riley’s family. The two secretly married the summer after Grace graduated high school, and Grace spent her life becoming what Riley needed her to be.

Grace studied art history at a prestigious art school in New York and had worked for an estate appraiser, so when a series of drunken hijinks left Riley owing money, they hatched the plan to rob the Wynne House, an estate in their hometown. Grace’s research leads her to discover that a small oil painting at Wynne House is rare and more than enough to get them out of trouble. They plan for Riley to reproduce the painting, after which they’d slip his copy in place of the original and escape to Europe. A fool proof plan, except for the fact that Grace and Alls spend forbidden night together, can’t deny their attraction any longer, and the two secretly arrange their escape.

But Grace ends up betraying both men, and now she has every reason to expect them to turn up on her doorstep, demanding … what, exactly? There’s no reason to spoil your reading of this suspenseful novel, but suffice it to say, Grace turns chameleon and becomes someone else again.

girl last seenNina Laurin’s Girl Last Seen is a novel that attempts to look at a girl on the milk carton after her rescue. And it’s not pretty. Laine, formerly Ella Santos, was held for nearly three years in a basement. Raped and tortured. Although Laine says, “Normal is something you can fake really well, if you try hard enough,” she isn’t doing a good job of it. Battling PTSD and anxiety, medicating herself with both legal and illegal prescriptions, and drinking to forget, Laine can barely hold on to her two jobs. Her shame runs deep, and her life is a mess. When ten-year-old Olivia Shaw disappears, now thirteen years after her own kidnapping, Laine finds herself drawn into the investigation.

Police suspect that the Laine’s kidnapper just might be the same man who abducted Olivia. The officer who rescued Laine ten years ago, detective Sean Ortiz, is working the Shaw case, convinced that this time the perpetrator will be caught with her help. Or could the Olivia’s kidnapper be Laine herself? Because Olivia Shaw is Laine’s daughter, conceived in rape, and taken away from her at birth. Trusting no one, Laine takes it upon herself to find Olivia and her search brings up demons in her past she had long sought to exorcise.

Sometimes the characters Laine and Sean seemed to lack authenticity–their responses and reactions to situations fell short of how I’d expect individuals to act. It got so that whenever Laine swallowed yet another pill or drank herself into a stupor again, I found myself more bored than concerned. But Girl Last Seen is a story of recovery (in more ways than one) and redemption, and in that sense, it’s a worthwhile read.

 

The Windfall: review

The Windfall (NetGalley)
Diksha Basu
Crown Publishing

Let’s get it out of the way right from the start: I was captivated by The Windfall. Writer Diksha Basu writes a sort of Indian Pride and the windfallPrejudice with some overtones of Great Expectations. The novel is at times humorous, poignant, and scathing–sometimes all on the same page.  

For nearly their entire married life, Mr. and Mrs. Jha have lived in Mayur Palli, a middle class housing complex in East Delhi. The apartments were cramped, the streets noisy, and the neighbors nosy. After Mr. Jha sells a website for the astounding amount of twenty million U.S. dollars, the couple has purchased a house in the wealthy suburb of Guragun where the homes are spacious, the streets tranquil, and the neighbors … well, they’re still nosy, just not crowded in cheek to jowl. The novel opens with the Jhas gathering their neighbors together for dinner to share the news.

It’s clear from the outset that Mrs. Jha is decidedly less eager to leave than Mr. Jha. She remembers her neighbors looking out for their son Rupak when he was young and she was one of the few career women in Mayur Palli; she cherishes the friendships that have grown up with their family over the years. Mr. Jha sees things differently, however. He worked hard and this is their reward. He wants to leave their middle class world behind and revel in his new wealth. There’s no clinging to the old ways for Mr. Jha. The house in Guragun has showers, instead of a cup and bucket. He orders a dishwasher. And he has taken delivery on a new sofa from Japan–one studded with crystals that sparkle like diamonds. As Mr. Jha decides which Next Great Thing to purchase, he reasons, “They couldn’t live in a neighborhood like this and not keep up with the neighbors.”

Caught in the middle is their twenty-something son Rupak. The family’s windfall has meant Rupak can attend grad school in the U.S. so he can make bucketfuls of money himself one day. Except that Rupak is on academic probation, distracted by an American girlfriend and a bank account that magically replenishes itself. Rupak buys thousand dollar golf club sets, an iPad, a GoPro and just about any other toy that catches his eye. He has no clear vision of what he wants to do and is going through the motions of getting his MBA, just barely.

In the end, all of his posturing takes its toll on Mr. Jha as, through a comedy of errors, he begins to recognize the emptiness in his new neighbors’ lives and begins to miss the genuine friendship of his old neighbors. Bashu also gives us the story of Mrs. Jha’s best friend Mrs. Ray, a widow who finds love at her door later in life and her story deepens the connection between the Jhas new life and their former one.

Bashu gives American readers a peek into an India most of us know little about, and her commentary on Americans is wicked. Take this observation, for example: “How come Americans get called expats but if we move to America, we’re called immigrants?” Or this: “Americans were coming to India for holidays … but once they had done yoga and tried halfheartedly to teach English to prostitute’s children, they got on planes back to their homes in Michigan or Texas.” She continues, “They laughed with the slum children and pretended not to mind touching their filthy hands. Of course they didn’t mind. It would be easy to touch those children if you knew you were leaving and next week you would be back at home … telling people how those children laugh and smile even tough their lives are so difficult.” Ouch.

Will the Jhas stay or will they go? Will Rupak return to India or finish his MBA and carry on with his American girlfriend? I thought for sure I knew how the novel would end, but I didn’t. But good people are good people whether fictional or real life characters, and they figure things out.

And the Jhas are good people.

Anything Is Possible: review

Anything Is Possible
Elizabeth Strout
Random House

anything is possibleYears ago I was a bit put off by writer Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge: great writing, stunning insight–but Olive was so … unlikable. (And I know, I know, the novel won the Pulitzer, so who am I to talk?!) But I tried her again with Burgess Boys (there was that Pulitzer, after all) and wasn’t disappointed. After My Name is Lucy Barton I was convinced like so many others that a Strout novel was a great read–but her latest novel Anything is Possible is a masterpiece.

Strout exposes the dark side of human nature in an achingly beautiful way. So, yes, we do find Linda Peterson-Cornell’s voyeurism distasteful and her tacit approval of her husband, a sexual predator, despicable.  But then Linda’s sister Patty–painfully obese, a virgin throughout her marriage, faithfully caring for an elderly mother with dementia–pulls aside the curtain of their childhood, and somehow we understand. Maybe even absolve. We meet Lucy Barton again (now a famous author), as she visits with her brother Pete and sister Vicky. They tiptoe around family secrets at first, then begin to survey the damage their parents had wracked on them. And Charley Macauley who pays for sex and then discovers that maybe he has paid for love; Mary, who left a philandering husband after her heart attack to take up with a lover nearly twenty years her junior in Italy.

Strout takes the stories of broken people and makes them our stories too. Because we all, in some way or another, carry our wounds into the relationships we enter into. And whether we like it or not, because we are flawed, we often end up hurting the very people we love the most. Hopefully not to the extent of Strout’s characters, and hopefully we find the same redemption many of them do. But anything is possible.

Graybar Hotel: review

The Graybar Hotel (NetGalley)
Curtis Dawkins
Simon & Schuster
release date: July 4, 2017

I saw the cover of Graybar Hotel on NetGalley, where I request reader copies and was intrigued–but passed it over thinking the stories might  be a too edgy. But here’s what initially caught my interest: author Curtis Dawkins is “an MFA graduate and convicted murderer serving life without parole”. How many authors do you know who fit that bill? Then when my bookish friend Denice raved about it, you’d better believe I went back to the site straightaway and put in my request. And I’m not sorry I did.

graybar hotelGraybar Hotel is a series of (sometimes) interrelated stories set in Michigan prisons told by narrators who are intelligent, articulate, and self-aware. The character in “A Human Number” calls random phone numbers just to hear the noises of life on the outside–traffic, TV in the background, a vacuum cleaner running. The character–we can call him Hey it’s me because that’s the name he inserts in the jail’s Tel Link recording–talks to KittyKat, an older man weighing the pros and cons of knee surgery, and Revelation, a woman who reads long passages from the book of Revelation aloud to him. In “Daytime Drama” the story turns on Arthur, a prisoner who wears a blanket superhero style around his neck, and requests a lobotomy when the psychologist comes to do a competency screening. “I’d like it out. You probably don’t understand the perils of a torturous brain,” he tries to reason with the doctor.  Then there’s naive Mickey (he wore a clown mask to rob a bank and his mother found the mask and turned him in) who makes a run for it across the prison yard on a misty day (suicide by prison guard), and Peanut who fakes seizures to get out of his cell, but isn’t faking a pregnancy. (That Peanut, a trans male, got through intake with no one recognizing his gender, is mind-boggling.)

There’s more than one kind of prison, though. Dawkins also gives us the stories of the men’s lives before prison where poverty, unemployment, and drug addiction are as constraining as the bars of a cell.

Writer Curtis Dawkins has published online while incarcerated and the pieces about Jack Kevorkian, his time in solitary confinement, and ten years of cellmates are well worth reading. I imagine his story will be all over the media (here’s a piece from The New York Times) after it’s published tomorrow, and rightly so. Dawkins’ stories in Graybar Hotel are compelling and original, the writing fresh–and not to be missed.