The Dutch House: Book Review

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

“There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.”

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is a tale of growing up, nostalgia, and truth. It is a story ultimately about redemption.

The story is framed around a house, an old mansion built in the Dutch architectural style previously owned by a rich couple who made their wealth in tobacco but whose family ultimately fizzled our with no surviving heirs. Mr. Conroy, Danny and Maeve’s father bought the house after their demise, filled with their possessions as a surprise for his wife, an ex-nun accustomed to their simple life on a Navy base.

She is unsettled by the acquisition of the large home and never quite makes peace with her wealth and the general misery of the world’s poor. She leaves the dutch house, and her family, to go to India after reading about Mother Theresa’s charitable work.

Her departure nearly kills Maeve, who is diagnosed with juvenile diabetes after losing her mother. The story picks up with their father’s remarriage to a young woman named Andrea.

The book is about family, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Ultimately it’s the fact that we never can quite remember things as they truly are. And that our capacity for forgiveness supersedes everything else.

The book is beautifully written, with tight prose and vivid imagery. I was nearly disappointed in the ending, believing it would fall back in the old evil stepmother trope. Lucky for us all, it does not do that and the twist at the end makes this book worth reading.

4/5 Stars

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek: Book Review

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

“To be wilded. Have a wilded heart in this black-treed land full of wilded creatures. There were notches in these hills were a stranger wouldn’t tread, would not venture-the needle-eyed coves and skinny blinds behind rocks, the strangling parts of the blackened-green hills-but Angeline and hillfolk here were wilded and not afraid. And I longed to lift bare feet onto ancient paths and be wilded once again.”

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is set in Troublesome, Kentucky, an Appalachian Community, in the 1930s. The story follows Packhorse Librarian Cussy Mary (aka Bluet), coal miner’s daughter and one of the legendary blue people of Kentucky. Cussy Mary struggles for acceptance in her conservative and superstitious hometown. Though a Troublesome native, she is viewed through the same suspicious lens as any minority of the region.

Cussy Mary’s father works long hours on night shift in the mines, returning covered in black dust and already suffering from what appears to be black lung, a result of inhaling the coal dust underground and an affliction that coal miner’s still battle today.

Cussy Mary and her father are unique to the setting for their blue skin color, caused by a congenital blood condition. This is based on the blue Fugates of Kentucky, a well known legend to the region.

Back to the story itself, I wasn’t sure I would like this book. Being from the region I am always wary of stories that try to portray the truth of life here. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek deals with some difficult subject matter, the treatment of minorities in the region, subjugation of women, socioeconomic conditions, and cultural shortcomings. The author handles all of this with a great deal of honesty but also respect to the people who remain here.

Cussy Mary, a blue, is treated as a “colored” meaning she is held to the laws of segregation and miscegenation of the time. She is cautious, afraid to touch others and often chided for assuming she is equal to the whites around her. She is humble but eager to be accepted even by those that treat her terribly. Her greatest joy is bringing literacy to her people (an astounding act of rebellion considering them her people even though over half think of her as their inferior). The book reckons with the hypocrisy of a proud, but starving and close-knit but ostracizing community.

The writing is lyrical. More poetry than prose sometimes. That may be off putting to some but if so then literary fiction isn’t really for you anyway. This book is a bittersweet tale of overcoming hardship and bearing witness to tragedy.

5/5 Stars

Pachinko: Book Review

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“It was not Hansu that she missed, or even Isak. What she was seeing again in her dreams was her youth, her beginning, and her wishes–so this is how she became a woman.”

“Etsuko had failed in this important way—she had not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.”

“Noa had been a sensitive child who had believed that if he followed all the rules and was the best, then somehow, the hostile world would change its mind. His death may have been her fault for having allowed him to believe such cruel ideals.”

Pachinko is a big book of big, complex, sometimes conflicting ideas. This is why I think it is a more accurate view of life.

Sunja is born in Korea pre-WWII and Korean War times that split the nation into the North and South of today. she is born into a relatively poor but surviving family, the daughter of a man born with several congenital deformities, a cleft lip and club foot. But he is an honorable man who loves his daughter. His honor resonates years later with a young minister with tuberculosis who agrees to marry the pregnant and unmarried Sunja and take her to Japan.

The book follows Sunja’s life, the struggles of being Korean in Japan when prejudice was high, being an outsider with no true homeland thanks to the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape of Korea, and the timeless struggle of being a woman who must reckon with her choices and the choices of the men surrounding her.

Pachinko is a generational epic done right. The novel explores many themes as a generational story must, racism and prejudice, socioeconomic distinctions, gender roles, generational differences, guilt, redemption, love and lust. Sunja is a woman who makes mistakes, but as a woman her mistakes resonate throughout her lifetime, affecting not only herself but her loved ones.

This book is worth a read and a reread. My own generational novel is inspired by this book, her near flawless rendering of this family’s fall and rise, and fall and rise. I was not aware of the history that drives this novel, the consequences of WWII for Korea and displaced Koreans who could not return home. Historically the novel offers a lot of perspective and is a great example of the value of minority voices taking their rightful place in the global platform of such narratives.

5/5 Stars

The Silence of the Girls: Book Review

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

“Yes, the death of young men in battle is a tragedy – I’d lost four brothers, I didn’t need anybody to tell me that. A tragedy worthy of any number of laments – but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave, and I thought: We need a new song.”

The Silence of the Girls could alternatively be titled Not Another Greek Mythology Novel. Seriously, that well seems to be running dry, yet writers continue to return hoping for a geyser of fresh story that just doesn’t exist.

This novel reimagines, or perhaps tangentially imagines the story of Achilles from the Iliad. Briseis, a captured Trojan Princess (Queen?) turned sex slave to her Greek captors, narrates her captivity, her life as Achilles personal concubine, and the end of the Trojan and Greek War.

Trigger warning: rape, abuse

The story focuses on the females of the tale, the Trojan women who were spared death but forced to adopt a life far less preferable.

I do think every story has its reader. I am not this story’s reader. The author shows the characters being repeatedly raped throughout the novel. While I understand the reality of this to the situation of tribal warfare, I feel like the book was written to showcase such atrocities to men. As a woman, I don’t need to be shown such a truth repeatedly. I know the world as it is.

I am not a big fan of rape used as plot device. I rarely enjoy such narratives and find them to be too disturbing to continue when the character is subjected to the event repeatedly. Some cases this may be necessary but I did not think the repetitive imagery necessary to this story.

The author is very aware of her characters’ submission to males that made such actions forgivable to the Greeks, but also leaves open the male perpetrators to redemption in the eyes of the reader. There is honor in the system they have employed, killing Trojan men and young boys, pregnant Trojan women who may birth more Trojan men. Abducting the other women and girls and forcing them into slavery. The author seems to waffle between showing the atrocities of this tribal system and praising the men who upheld it because it was, after all, all they knew.

Clearly exhibiting Stockholm Syndrome, the Trojan women adjust to their new lives, accept the rapes largely as acceptable copulation, get pregnant, and turn to worshipping their captors while their home is continually at war with the self-same captors.

I had hoped Briseis would be the exception to this collective forgiveness.

Achilles, painted monster in the beginning resumes his godhood quickly and with little irony.

The lyrical writing saved this book. The writing is beautiful and if one could ignore the content and bigger picture and just listen to the flow of the words, they would greatly enjoy this book.

There were some insights about the burden of women in wartime, those who are left behind and survive, however horrific the survival. But the insights feel disconnected and don’t seem to fully support the theme of the book. I felt a little dizzy jumping from disdain for the Greeks to reverence.

I have read several books that won the Booker Prize for Fiction and agreed with the award. This book confuses me as to its merit. It’s okay, but not life changing and frankly a little troublesome in how the author portrays her female characters growth (regression, more like).

3/5 Stars

NaNoWriMo ’19: Appalachian Dynasty

Genre: Literary/Historical Fiction

Synopsis

William “Bill” Strong is born to a poor family in Dorset during the English Civil Wars. After losing his parents, 11-year-old Bill is sold as an indentured servant to a wealthy tobacco merchant and sent to Virginia to work off his servitude. After working for 8 years, Bill settles in Virginia as a poor tenet to yet another wealthy landlord.

Appalachian Dynasty follows his descendants through their mountains and valleys of poverty and privilege tracking their journey from farmers in southern England to coal miners in Southeastern Kentucky. Epitomizing the stereotype of a poor white family, Bill Strong and his descendants struggle against systematic forces designed to pit poor whites against people of color to ensure their loyalty during the Civil War, suffrage, and the Civil Rights movement, all while being exploited for their labor, land, and integrity. They learn they can never escape the sovereignty of wealthy men.

Loosely based on my own exploration of my family’s genealogy and settlement in southeastern Kentucky.

A novel in four parts-323 years-9 generations

  • Part 1: Divine Right of Kings (~1645-1776)
  • Part 2: For God and Country (~1777-1865)
  • Part 3: Us v. Them (~1866-1920)
  • Part 4: Can You Hear the Canary’s Song? (~1921-1973)

Goal: 90,000 words

Deadline: November 30, 2019

The Tiger’s Wife: Book Review

The Tiger's Wife. A novel by Téa Obreht.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Haunted Family Histories and a Tiger’s Wife

Téa Obreht blurs the line between reality and mythology in The Tiger’s Wife, spanning the majority of a man’s life. That man? The narrator’s grandfather whose influence on her life is profound. Set against the back drop of multiple wars which leave indelible marks on this novel’s diverse cast of characters (including several doctors, a tiger, a taxidermist, a mute girl, a deathless man who judges when others will die, among many others).

The main story line introduces us to Natalia, a young doctor trying to find her way in the dust of the latest war. She has been guided her entire life by her grandfather, a stolid aging doctor with somewhat eccentric routines, including taking his granddaughter to visit the zoo to see the tigers and carrying an old copy of The Jungle Book everywhere he goes.

Natalia learns of her grandfather’s death while traveling to deliver vaccines to children in a rural area of the country and grapples with her guilt of keeping his secret from her grandmother and mother as well as not being with him. Alongside the narrator’s struggle, the twining tales of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife reveal themselves weaving a melancholy story of regret, guilt, hope, and loyalty.

Modern Myth Telling

Tiger’s Wife

I have rarely read such an original attempt at crafting modern myth, fable, fairytale or whatever you want to call the three storylines that this novel contains. Obreht masterfully spins what feels like a timeless tale, as timeless as any story written by the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault. The titular tale, The Tiger’s Wife is a novel that could stand on its own. In fact, my one complaint about the book is really that the conclusion made me feel like the grandfather could have been more minor character than main character to the tiger’s wife’s impact on the story overall.

The Tiger’s Wife, so called by superstitious villagers driven to desperation by the threat of war at their border, is an enigma from beginning to end. She is the child bride of the village’s butcher, sold to him when his bride to be elopes under his nose and her desperate father tricks the butcher into marrying his youngest, mute child instead.

The butcher, feeling betrayed and trapped and grappling with his sexuality, becomes violent with the girl. Far away from family and surrounded by the suspicious villagers, she must endure alone. Until she meets the young man, Natalia’s grandfather as a child, who befriends the girl after catching her feeding a tiger who had struck terror into the village lately. The tiger, of course, being the tiger in the Tiger’s Wife, is an escaped zoo animal accustomed to a life of ease and scared from his home by its bombing and starved by his inability to fend for himself in the wild. His attachment to the wife of the butcher is not unusual, except her lack of fear towards the beast.

The grandfather and Tiger’s Wife bond over the tiger, the equivalent of Shere Khan from The Jungle Book (the tome he carries near to his dying days in his jacket) to the child. The fate of the Tiger’s Wife is integral to the grandfather’s story, his guilt for his betrayal, despite his ignorance, scars him for life. This is evident in his continued fascination with the tigers, the book he carries. He has periodic meetings with who he calls the deathless man, a mysterious man who appears to never age and who cannot be killed no matter how earnest the attempt.

The Deathless Man

The deathless man is the second myth/fable/fairytale woven throughout the story. He is the nephew of Death, cursed by a betrayal to his job of reading the cups of people to tell them whether they are dying. The grandfather’s adult life is tracked by these meetings with the deathless man, the meetings always set in a dreamy kind of disbelief.

The deathless man offers insight to the grandfather on death throughout these meetings, revealing he cannot die, and that this is the aforementioned curse. Being a doctor, the grandfather is not unfamiliar with death as a concept, even without his history with the Tiger’s Wife. The connection is truly made by the identity of the deathless man’s wife to the grandfather and deathless man’s choices on those around him. His disobedience touched on the lives of the taxidermist and butcher, the grandfather and Natalia. So many threads in the tapestry of the deathless man’s life.

Flawless Prose

The Tiger’s Wife is an impressive creation. The writing is simply stunning, the descriptions, word choice, originality…truly one of the better books I have read in a while. Being a collector of literary prizes this is not wholly surprising after the fact. I did not expect to enjoy the story as much as I did. I picked up this book after reading about its receipt of the Orange Prize for Fiction in an issue of Writer’s Digest. I have read a couple of other winning novels and really enjoyed them so thought I would give this one a try.

The author exhibits such control over her language and storytelling overall. A difficult thing to do with three tales that must come together by the end. Again the modern myth making was one of my favorite things about this novel. If you love language above all else, this is a book for you.

My Rating

4/5 Stars

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Appetite

I counted the carrot sticks again to be sure there were only five. I couldn’t allow myself more than that. Pressing a hand to my gurgling stomach, the bottom of my ribcage prominent against my palm, I forced myself to pace my chewing. I was in control. I could resist gobbling them down, and I could resist eating a whole sandwich for lunch. Food, eating, and my weight was the only thing in my life I could control and by God, I was going to have some control.

Twenty minutes later I chewed the last of the final carrot stick though my stomach still grumbled in anger at the meager offerings. I would not eat again until dinner, and then I would only eat half a salmon fillet and a half cup of brown rice with water.

I checked the time on my desk computer, noting an upcoming meeting. I glanced down at my phone, but no messages showed on the unlocked screen. Of course. It had been weeks since my husband had texted me at work, just to say he loved me. Or even ask what I wanted for dinner. He knew the answer to that readily enough now.

Still, I sighed in disappointment, the carrot sticks feeling heavier in my stomach than they should have.

I stood from my desk and made my way to the bathroom. The sick twisting feeling in my back could only be alleviated by purging my meal.

Resting my forehead on the porcelain basin after I emptied my stomach, my face flushed with self-loathing. I didn’t blame my husband for ignoring me. The work hours no doubt offered him a much-needed respite from me during the day. I blamed myself for not being more appealing, for hoisting my problems onto him.

I was trying. I wanted to carve every imperfection out of my body, starve away the person he had grown to hate, purge every negative thought and emotion I had shared. I wanted to be remade, renewed. Completely changed. I stopped eating. My weight plummeted from 154 to a respectable 108. But that left me too dizzy and angry. I added the minimum amount of food needed to function back to my diet, the numbers thankfully staying the same on the scale. And I reveled in the feeling of being able to shape my body, to control what went in and out for once in my life. I wanted my old self to waste away and start over as someone new. Maybe then I could make him love me.

Check out my other short stories!

Machine Men

The Gospel of Eve

Wicked Women