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.

Inheritance From Mother: review

Inheritance from Mother (NetGalley)
Minae Mizumura
translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter
Other Press

inheritance from motherTheir mother’s body lies cold in the mortuary while two sisters, Mitsuki and Natsuki, discuss how much they’ll inherit from the estate. Mrs. Katsura had been ill for the last year of her life, so the death itself is really no surprise. What was a surprise for this reader was the frank discussion the daughters were having about the inheritance–and their emotional response (or lack of it!) to losing their mother. Mitsuki estimates they’ll each receive thirty-five million yen. The day ends with Mitsuki feeling “exhilarated, knowing that her mother was finally dead”; the sisters’ excitement “was identical–keen and palpable.”

At this point I expected some surprise twist–a codicil in the will, maybe–that would expose the women’s greed and put them in their place. What follows, however, is a poignant examination of life with a difficult mother, two sisters’ strained relationship, and the far-reaching effects of that dysfunction. That story has been told many times over, it’s true. But what made the Minae Mizumura’s novel so compelling is its peek inside of contemporary Japanese culture, one that contrasts our Western stereotypes of respectful Japanese daughters and beloved matriarchs.

Natusuki married into money; she and her cellist husband live a privileged life–yet Natsuki still muses that the inheritance might give her the freedom to divorce. Mitsuki is an adjunct university professor who also translates novels into French. Her husband Tetsuo, also a professor, is a media personality of sorts, appearing as an expert commentator on television news. Their marriage, however, is unraveling–the day her mother broke her hip (that slipperly slide towards death for so many elderly), Mitsuki discovers Tetsuo is having another fling in what has been a long series of affairs. Both women are plagued with vague health issues, we assume brought on by the stress of life in modern Japan. (Ever heard of “air conditioning syndrome“? Me, neither.) As the story unravels, we learn that Mother Noriko had been an indulged child, the daughter of a concubine, and it was that stigma that shadowed every particular of her life–and her daughters’ lives, as well. Constantly set against each other by Noriko, Natsuki and Mitsuki are more often fierce competitors than loving sisters.

By the novel’s end, both sisters come to piece together enough of their mother’s life to understand her–if only a little. The sisters also come to understand their own relationship, each recognizing the value of the other–and that, perhaps, is the most precious inheritance of all.

Old Friends: The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper (review)

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
Phaedra Patrick
MIRA Books

Over the past few years, old folks have squeezed their way into readers’ TBRs and onto bookstore “Staff Recommends” shelves. I’ve met so many Old Friends. Like Ove and Britt Marie; Miss Queenie and Harold Frye; Etta and Otto. And I’ve loved them all, I really have. These old Curious-Charms-of-Arthur-Pepperfolks are often irascible, sometimes lovable, and always wounded. After carrying life’s disappointments and tragedies for six or more decades, they come–finally–to love, and they can greet their last days with grace.

Phaedra Patrick’s The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is a book that belongs in those TBR piles, but Patrick uses a lighter touch than other authors. Arthur Pepper mourns his wife Miriam. In some feeble attempt to hold on to their life together, Arthur dresses the same each day in his “husband uniform”: sweater vest and gray slacks. He rises at 7:30, breakfasts at 8, and continues his day in the same regimented way. His daughter Lucy frets over him; his neighbor Bernadette feeds him. But when the first anniversary of Miriam’s death arrives, Arthur decides it is time to clean out her closet and pack up her clothes.

It’s then that he discovers a heart shaped box in an old pair of boots, and inside a gold charm bracelet he had never seen before. (A little odd, considering Miriam and Arthur had been married over forty years.) Puzzled by what each charm might represent–an elephant, flower, book, artist’s palette, tiger, ring, and thimble–Arthur decides to solve their mystery, if only to keep the memory of Miriam with him a little longer. He begins by calling a gentleman in India, and his adventures eventually take him to London and France.

Along the way Arthur comes to appreciate a Miriam he never knew, and this both comforts and saddens him. How can he reconcile their quiet domestic life against the backdrop of her past with its parties and travel and lovers? And as in most of the Old Friends books, Arthur comes to know himself better. He has, after all, traveled a hero’s journey. The plot of Curious Charms is a little more pat than some of the other novels, and Arthur a little less complex than other Old Friends, but it is still an endearing read.

The Boardwalk

If you grow up in West Michigan, summer evenings are a time to pile into the car and head to The Lake with Mom and Dad to watch the sunset or walk the pier or maybe visit the Musical Fountain. The trip might involve a picnic–or you might leave right after dinner–and there was usually ice cream promised at the end. These aren’t those beach days spent chasing waves and building sand castles and Mom trying to keep the beach blanket sand-free. No, these trips are short and oh-so-sweet and just right for strolling.

This week we spent an evening in Grand Haven walking the boardwalk along the channel with my two-and-a-half-year-old grandson Jonas and his sister, ten-month-old Alexis. Oh, my. To see the ordinary through the eyes of a toddler! What is so familiar to us adults is a wonderland to a child–especially on that first visit when memories become tucked away for a lifetime.

Turns out that when we talked about all the big boats he’d see, Jonas assumed that he could hop on the boats that lined the channel, a bit of a disappointment–but there were Pronto Pups on a stick (he ate the breading and left the hot dog) and his own bag of chips (a treat!) and kids to chase rolling down the grassy hill, so it was all good. We stopped to watch a fisherman wrestle an enormous catfish onto the bank. Jonas tried to clamber over the breakwall boulders any time he heard “mokorcycles” roar by, and he ran off excitedly to see the “tiny barn”, actually an ice cream snack shack along the way. He rang the giant Coast Guard bell–does it get any better than that? And little sister? She watched, ate cheerios, had a bottle–just took it all in, waiting for the day when she, too, is mobile and can join him in the fun.

The two photos on the right are my favorites–a boy and his Boop.





Too close to home: Evensong (review)

Evensong (NetGalley)
Kate Southwood
G.W. Norton

evensong by Kate SouthwoodLast December my money market company sent me a cheery email reminding me to file for a required distribution–they also told me my estimated life expectancy was 27.5 years. Merry Christmas to you, too, Fidelity!

Still, as I approach the end of another decade, I find myself looking back on the years and wondering. And I’ve got a lot to wonder about. My children, for instance. Miscarriage. Divorce. My difficult father. His death. Addiction. Estrangement. Don’t get me wrong–there have been more moments of joy than not. Days on the front steps watching the kids play in the sprinkler. Meeting the love of my life. Sitting in a candlelit cathedral every Sunday. Camp fires and beach days.

It’s those difficult times, however, that have pushed and prodded me to snap out of any Pollyanna daydreams and get on to the business of reorganizing and rearranging my life. The process is painful … and bittersweet.

The main character in Kate Southwood’s new novel, Maggie Doud, is right there with me. She’s in the hospital after a heart attack and must come to terms with her frailty, the approaching end of her life, and the relationship she has with her daughters Joanne and Lee. Adults now, their relationship is fraught with the resentment and rejection. The girls compete fiercely for their mother’s love–Joanne by being the best and brightest, Lee by being conciliatory. Maggie sees her daughters “circling each other to work out everything they need to know before I die … because they still haven’t realized that I’ve been circling myself all these years, trying and failing to be brave, trying to riddle out the truth of it and portion out the blame in all the places it should be.”

As so often is the case in women’s lives, they can trace the source of their brokenness to a cruel and calculating husband and father. Maggie’s husband Garfield was handsome and successful, but also bellicose and controlling. Maggie forever wondered why he had chosen her–a quiet, even timid, girl who had always lived in the shadow of her more beautiful and outgoing sister Estelle. (But of course any woman who has experienced a controlling husband knows they often target those of us who are young and shy because we’re that much easier to manipulate.) Garfield left Maggie a widow when the girls were teenagers. And although his death freed them from his demands, his presence shadowed them for the rest of their lives.

As she recovers at home cared for by her granddaughter Melissa, Maggie comes to terms with her relationship to her daughters and tries to make sense of her life with Garfield. As Melissa adjusts Maggie’s pillows, tempts her with food, and massages her feet with Jergens, Maggie thinks, “I want to tell her not to be afraid. That her life will change, that everything will change and change again and it will seem sometimes that she is adrift, but she won’t be.”

Her days finally moored in the home she loves, Maggie Doud reconciles her past–and that blame she’s been riddling out is finally put to rest.

I only hope I’m as lucky.