A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: review

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Anthony Marra

I confess to knowing nothing about the conflict in Chechnya. Okay, like many Americans (I’m assuming) I know a little. I know Chechen rebels took constellation of vital phenomenahostages in a Moscow theater. I know the Boston Marathon bombers were radicalized ethnic Chechen-Americans. But my eyes always glazed over whenever PBS News Hour featured a story on the wars and although I’m a daily NPR listener, I turned a deaf ear to any news Chechen. If you’d asked me to find it on the map, I couldn’t.

But like all good fiction, Anthony Marra’s extraordinary novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena touched both my mind and my heart. (I have a list of articles to read about Russia’a involvement in Chechnya, and God bless Wikipedia for a quick tutorial.)

Spanning ten years and both Chechen wars, Marra tells the story of three neighboring families in the small village of Eldar, as well as two sisters in Volchansk. The novel opens with neighbor Dokka taken away in the night by Russian Feds to the Landfill (that name says it all), his house burned, and  neighbor Akhmed hurrying Dokka’s eight-year-0ld daughter Havaa to safety at the city hospital in Volchansk.

There they meet the head surgeon Sonja (who also happens to be the only surgeon), and she is none to pleased to find them in her waiting room. Akhmed makes the case that since he did attend medical school years ago, he might be of some use–even though he graduated in the bottom three percent of his class. Anything to find sanctuary for Havaa. Sonja, an ethnic Russian, runs on amphetamines, cigarettes, and contempt. But she’s desperate for help. She’s also desperate to find her sister Natasha, gone for nearly two years to where Sonja doesn’t know.

Havaa spends her days trailing Sonja or simply sitting in the waiting room clutching her blue suitcase of souvenirs, flotsam and jetsam that refugees had given her father as payment for a night (or two) in their house on the way to refugee camps. Havaa doesn’t open her suitcase until the end of the novel, and when she does, she reveals a poignant surprise.

Tucked next to Akhmed’s house is the old professor Khassan, who has spent most of his life writing a history of the Chechen people, and his informant son Ramzan, who has made eleven villagers disappear, but whose trade as a snitch keeps the electricity on, food in the refrigerator, and Khassan’s insulin needs supplied. Father and son haven’t spoken in months, but it is Ramzan’s last betrayal that sets the story in motion.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a sweeping novel that uncovers the characters’ pasts and propels them into the future. Each chapter is set in one of the ten years the book covers and the alternating stories require the reader’s close attention. It’s also a difficult book to read. There’s nothing easy about torture. Sex slavery. Dismemberment. Murder. But it’s a story about love as much as it is about hate. About what connects us as much as what divides us. Most of us experience (at some point or another) estrangement from those we love dearly, and Marro’s long view gives us hope.

Marra’s writing is lush and evocative, his storytelling tender, the ending oh-so-satisfying. I’m only sorry A Constellation of Vital Phenomena sat neglected on my TBR pile for so long.

The Floating World (review)

The Floating World
C. Morgan Babst
Algonquin Books

October 15. Forty-seven days after landfall.

The Boisdore family is collapsing, the levees of their carefully constructed life breached by the destruction that wthe floating worldas Hurricane Katrina. The patriarch Vincent, once a renowned New Orleans furniture carver, drifts in and out of dementia, one moment clear-thinking, the next living in the past. His son Joe, an sculptor, has made his name in the art world with his primitive carvings, and life had been good. Joe’s wife Dr. Tess Eshleman is a successful psychologist with a thriving practice. And family money. Now their daughter Cora is suffering from the trauma of the death and destruction she witnessed during the storm; her sister Del leaves her life in New York behind to rescue them all. Their historic home on Esplanade is destroyed, a life of privilege gone, a marriage in ruins.

Katrina only reveals what has slowly been unraveling all along. It’s a sobering thought.

So Cora’s mental illness is just a symptom of family dysfunction. And Joe and Tess, the biracial couple who years earlier risked everything for their love, had simply glossed over differences they couldn’t deal with. Del finds she can’t save her family because she’s not yet set her own feet on the solid ground of adult life.

Writer C. Morgan Babst peels back the characters’ shortcomings until they are defenseless before us, not certain who they are without the veneer of social niceties.

Ninety-three days after landfall and the rebuilding begins. For some, more than others.

But aren’t we all of us just a hurricane–metaphorically speaking, anyways–away from finding our lives flung open and ripped apart? By disease. Unexpected death. Addiction. Estrangement. It’s how we confront that reality that will define us.

If you want a novel that is gritty and revealing–thought-provoking–The Floating World would be it.

An afternoon of pleasures with Elizabeth Berg

I didn’t give it a second thought when friend Denice emailed the first week in September to ask if I would take time off work to hear writer Elizabeth Berg speak at the Kent District Library in November. I’m sure you can guess my answer. What better way for an English teacher to spend a personal day, no?!

Ms. Berg is every bit as down-to-earth as her characters: she is funny and warm and took the time to autograph every attendee’s book. There’s nothing like getting a peek into the life of a writer I’ve read and loved. Berg begins her day writing and said it’s a “great job when you can work in your pajamas”, drink “90 cups of coffee”, and then take the dog for a walk. (Sounds pretty good to me, too!) She was also open about the more creative aspects of the writing life, saying she doesn’t know a book’s ending when she begins writing. Writing is a “process of discovery and surprise” and Berg believes in the “wisdom and creativity in [the] subconscious”.

We listened as Berg read passages from Arthur Truluv and  she confessed that the book is now her favorite. (It might be mine, too.) She graciously took the time to answer audience questions and when asked if there was a story she hadn’t written yet, Berg said she always has an idea for another book … adding “may it ever be so”.

I’m pretty sure her readers feel the same.


True Love: The Story of Arthur Truluv (review)

The Story of Arthur Truluv
Elizabeth Berg
Random House

Elizabeth Berg’s new novel The Story of Arthur Truluv is, as the title suggests, a story about True Love–not necessarily the love you’ll find in sappy Valentine cards, but the kind of love that is even greater. Like the love that reaches across generations, old to young and back again. And the love that lives across the street in a neighborly sort of way. The love that awakens between a mother and her child at the first little flutter. Or even the love that comes in a home-baked orange blossom butter cookie, shared.

Arthur Moses visits his Nola every day in the cemetery, riding the bus to eat his lunch and have a little chat with her. Since her death nearly six months before, Arthur’s life has become flat. Gray. It’s just Arthur and their cat Gordon making do with hots dogs and beans, toast and soup. There are no more garden bouquets on the kitchen table. Gone is the hum of her sewing machine. And the steady rhythm Nola brought to Arthur’s life? Missing.

Until he meets seventeen-year-old Maddy Harris.

Now Maddy has always been sad. Her mother died when she was only two weeks old, and her father’s parenting was distant, at best. He never talked about her mother, never shared his remembrances.  Maddy loves cemeteries and that’s where she meets Arthur. Distraught after being dumped by her older boyfriend, Maddy finds a warmth in Arthur that she’s never experienced. And they become fast friends.

Arthur’s neighbor Lucille thought love had passed her by sixty years ago until a high school sweetheart returns and they make plans for the future. But Lucille’s plans are foiled and she, too, finds a friend, first in Arthur–and then Maddy.

When Maddy suddenly finds herself in a difficult spot, she runs away–and ends up running towards a love that is big enough to save her. And Arthur. And Lucille.

Now that I’m closer in years to my end than to my beginning, one of my greatest worries is that I’ll feel like Lucille did for a time: useless. What happens when the career is over? Passion has been snuffed out? The children (and someday even the grandchildren!) are preoccupied with their own lives? Our world worships youth and values productivity–what will be my place? Arthur found his calling: “I am the audience. I am the witness. I am the great appreciator … I don’t feel useless. I feel lucky.”

The Story of Arthur Truluv is a deceptively simple story, and it might be tempting to read it as a sweet tale about an old man and a young girl. Nothing more. But as in the best of storytelling, it is Truth. Arthur continued to reach out and offer love even when he seemed to have nothing worthwhile to give. And in doing so, he changed lives.

May this be my own love story, too.

Wonder-ful: Wonder (review)

R. J. Palacio

I might very well be the last reader in the U.S. to have read Wonder, writer R. J. Palacio’s best-selling first novel. I’m kind of out of the middle-reader loop at this stage in my life, and I found the title by clicking on a trailer that popped up on my Facebook feed. Thank goodness (at least in this case!) for click bait because this book was a gem.

Auggie Pullman was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a craniofacial condition that left him facing surgery after surgery (twenty-seven, to be precise) from his first few months of life. Because he was so often hospitalized or recovering from surgery at home, Auggie’s mom home-schooled him. His dog Daisy and sixteen-year-old sister Via are his best friends because Auggie doesn’t get out much. When he was younger, Auggie wore an astronaut’s helmet in public just to minimize the stares from adults and children alike. (Strange creatures we humans are that a boy wearing a helmet is less odd than dealing with a facial difference.)

But now ten-years-old, Auggie is starting school for the first time. A small group of children–Jack Will, Julian, and Charlotte–have been recruited to show him around the building before the school year begins, and it’s a rocky start. Charlotte is overly niceJulian pretty much ignores Auggie and then bluntly asks “What’s the deal with your face?” But Jack Will. Auggie smiled at him, and Jack smiled back.

The first days of school, Auggie keeps his head down and his mouth shut. Except that the tween world is a stratified place and his difference isn’t easy to hid. Fifth grade can be rough. There are whispers. The lunchroom is hell. A cruel game called the Plague circulates around Auggie. Even his English teacher Mr. Browne’s monthly precepts (September’s is “Choose kind”) can’t keep the wolves at bay. But Auggie’s humor and wit win over a few good souls and he finds a tribe.

Of course that’s not the whole story. There’s a betrayal, a violent episode on a class camping trip, a heart-wrenching loss, and some pretty despicable adults. Palacio also gives us the story from the voices of Summer and Jack, true friends both of them. Auggie’s sister Via’s chapters reveal how a condition like TCS affects the whole family. My heart ached for her.

When I saw the movie trailer, I wondered how the movie industry ever put out a call for actors to play Auggie and how the boy with TCS who played Auggie would be recieved. But this is Hollywood, after all, and it was prosthetics and make-up that turned child actor Jacob Tremblay into August Pullman. Shouldn’t have been a surprise.

If you’d like a thought-provoking response from a young woman who lives with a craniofacial condition, read Ariel Henley’s review in Teen Vogue. Invoking the attitude “nothing about us without us”, Henley is clearly disappointed that the movie makers chose Tremblay: “… it was devastating to realize that the directors involved with Wonder would rather cast a healthy, “normal” looking child and put him in makeup and prosthetics, rather than cast someone who looked like me.” If you are a Wonder fan already, please read her article “What ‘Wonder’ Gets Wrong About Disfigurment and Craniofactial Disorders” for another perspective.

In the end, though, August Pullman’s story is fiction. And the most important Truths can be found in story. For me, it’s Auggie’s indomitable spirit that makes me want to be a better person.