Home, by Toni Morrison

This 2012 novel is a departure for Toni Morrison. It's much shorter than her other novels; the language is unusually spare; and the structure sets her an intriguing challenge. My book club all enjoyed it, and found much to discuss. Home is the story of Frank Money, back a year from Korea and still suffering from what today we would call PTSD: periods of rage or lethargy, lost time that he cannot recall. We first meet him waking up in a mental hospital in restraints after one of these episodes. He has to escape, though, and get back to Georgia to rescue his little sister.

Unwilling to go back to Lotus, Georgia when he was first discharged, he has only recently found a measure of peace in a relationship with a woman named Lily, when he receives a mysterious note that says, “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.” Rescuing his sister from whatever is threatening her has been the driving force of his life, right up until he and his two best friends joined the Army to escape from the boring emptiness of Lotus. They both died in Korea, and Frank cannot bear to face their families. But he has to go to his sister, who works for a doctor outside of Atlanta, and he has to get there as fast as he can. It is not clear what city he is in, perhaps fittingly, but has to make his way to Portland—Oregon, I assume—and then to Chicago before going on to Atlanta. Once he finds her, the only place he can take her is Lotus.

The chapters alternate, more or less, with a first person narrative by Frank. He speaks directly to whoever is telling the story. The other chapters, while all third person point of view, move between the characters: one being close in on Cee, Frank's sister; another on Lily; another on Frank's step-grandmother, etc. This structure becomes an extraordinary exercise in voice, as Morrison slightly adapts the language and the syntax for each character: Cee's helplessness showing in incomplete sentences and dreamy descriptions, for example, while Lily's practicality comes across in unadorned, businesslike prose.

While the title makes it clear that this is a story about home, it is also a story about fighting: what we fight for, who we perceive as the enemy, or when instead of fighting we disappear in the night. Scattered throughout the story are incidents of the casual violence and injustice that people of color suffered during the 1950s, more widespread than those today.

At least one person in my book club remained unconvinced by Frank's return to Lotus, by his finding it no longer the straitjacket it seemed to him as a boy, but instead the ideal place to live. Of course, our view of things changes as we grow older, but to me the appeal Lotus holds for Frank is its safety. It is the one place where he and Cee are safe, just as it was the safe place his parents fled to when driven from their homes in Texas, and the place their step-grandmother came to hide from those who shot her first husband because they wanted his gas station.

While one might think Lotus is the home referred to in the title, what the story tells us is that home isn't a place. It's even more than the strong bond of family: Frank and Cee became so close because their parents, working multiple jobs, ignored them; their grandfather didn't care about them; and his wife actively abused them. No, the real home here is the community: the collection of women who nurse Cee back to health, the people who take care of the orphaned boy who stumbles into town, the men who help Frank out along the road.

I understood what my book club friend meant, though, because I too thought Frank's change a bit abrupt. The story sometimes seemed more like a fable than events naturally unfolding. Yet I read it through almost in one sitting, captivated by the characters. I finished it full of admiration for Morrison for trying something new, something so challenging, at this point in her career. I went back to look at how she created all these subtly different voices while at the same time maintaining a consistent narrative tone: a remarkable accomplishment. Read it for the story, and then admire the risk-taking and the mastery.

The 228 Legacy, by Jennifer Chow

This debut novel follows three generations of women. While relationships lie at the core of this light, enjoyable read, some weightier issues of history and identity make it stand out.

The story opens with Lisa, born in the U.S. of Taiwanese parents. She is 32 and a single mother with a string of failed, dead-end jobs behind her. When she gets laid off from her latest job as a housekeeper in a senior home, she stops on her way out to grab a couple of folders from the empty receptionist's desk, thinking they would look good as portfolios for her resumé. One of the folders turns out to be that of Jack and Fei Chen, residents of the senior home, and Lisa promises herself that she will return it.

A rebel from childhood whose father died before she was born, Lisa's wild youth left her pregnant after a one-night stand at a rock concert. Daughter Abbey, named for the Beatles album, is the opposite, a hard-working fifth-grader who vies with a classmate for the valedictorian spot in her elementary school. However, she keeps her academic awards in her school locker because it upsets her grandmother to see her do well.

Abbey is close to her grandmother, whom she calls Ah-Mah, and loves visiting her on Saturdays for lessons in the Taiwanese language, sessions which are torture to Lisa. There's a turbulent history between Lisa and her mother. Silk still mourns for her husband, Lu, killed along with other intellectuals and elites by the Kuomintang during the White Terror following the 228 uprising in Taiwan. She has made a life for herself in the U.S. working long hours in a vineyard, preferring physical labor, but has never lost her fear of and hatred for the Chinese who took over and despoiled her country and her life. When Lisa befriends an elderly Chinese man who works as a maintenance man at Lisa's school and brings him to dinner at Silk's home, it is the last straw.

I appreciated learning more about Taiwan's history. I knew about Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalists, a.k.a. the Kuomintang, taking refuge there in 1949 after they were driven out of mainland China by Mao Zedong's Communists and creating the Republic of China. I've followed the competing claims of the two Chinese governments—the ROC on Taiwan and the People's Republic of China on the mainland—as to which was the legitimate government of China.

But I'm embarrassed to say that I had not thought much about what happened on Taiwan when the Kuomintang arrived. In fact, they took over Taiwan four years earlier, in 1945, when it was turned over to them by Japan at the end of WWII, Japan having ruled the island since 1895, at the end of the first Sino-Japanese War. Although I would have thought the Taiwanese, ethnically Chinese themselves, would have welcomed the return to Chinese rule, in fact they resented the incoming Kuomintang whose high-handed and corrupt behavior led to inflation and other economic woes and who had no hesitation about violently putting down any unrest.

This history is only lightly touched on in the story, though its legacy drives Silk, and through her, her daughter and granddaughter. I'd expected to identify with Lisa as a single mother, rebellious in her youth and paying for it now. However, it was Silk who most captured my attention, her strength and determination, her sometimes misguided attempts to protect what is left of her family.

The story moves quickly. Conflicts that arise are usually resolved by the end of the same chapter. The chapters are only a handful of pages long, written in present tense.

Abbey closes her notebook and sighs. She looks around the empty campus. It's a half-day at school today because of teacher in-service. She's already completed all of tonight's assignments, but her mom still hasn't arrived. She bets her mom doesn't even remember the shortened day even though she insisted on picking Abbey up in Ah-Mah's car.

The brief sentences and short chapters make the story spin by until the final threads are wrapped up in the end. This book would make a great beach read and is appropriate for the Young Adult reader as well as for adults.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Inside, by Alix Ohlin

The book begins with Grace, a calm and confident therapist in Montreal, who hasn't seemed to have connected with anyone since her divorce. It continues with sections centered on one of her patients, Annie, 16 years old with braces and a cutting habit, and Grace's ex-husband, Mitch, also a therapist who leaves the woman he’s been living with to work for a month in a remote Arctic village. They each pick up unlikely strays, passing the point of agreement barely registering that they've even made a choice.

I’ve been curious for some time about what we owe each other. I believe in personal responsibility and that as part of a community we are responsible for each other. To a point. As one character notes, you can’t help everybody. For a therapist, of course, it must be especially hard to find that balance, to care enough about the people who come to you to listen and go beyond listening to what they are not telling you, but not to care so much that you go over the line that is the limit of your responsibility. But then when it comes to your personal relationships, how do you continue across that line you’ve worked so hard to draw? And how do you not feel like a failure, both as a therapist and as a person, when a patient succumbs in spite of your efforts? Other characters in this book struggle with what they owe their parents, balancing the need to escape with the depth of the tie.

I’d looked forward to some new insight about how much to give; what's too much; what's not enough. However, the situations the characters find themselves in are so outlandish that I cannot extract anything that speaks to life as I know it. Still, seeing my questions worked out in the context of therapists provides an interesting slant.

As I was reading, I mostly bought it, going along as situations start out badly and get worse. Once in a while, I found some of the characters so distasteful and some of their motives so mysterious that I had trouble going on. But I was glad I stuck with it. And certainly there was much that I recognised, such as the characters who hid themselves and didn't want finding.

The second time I read it, I was more willing to let go of my preconceptions, but was reading more for craft than for story. Ohlin has found an interesting balance between showing and telling. The drama of her scenes carries the story, and a word here, a gesture there illuminate what is not said. Then sometimes in the narrative breaks she gives us a direct description of the character’s feelings.

For years he had occasionally gone out with some divorced woman . . . after which he would let things drop . He became the guy who didn’t call. The guy who met your kid and played catch with him one weekend, then never came around again. It wasn’t heartlessness so much as apathy.

I appreciated the occasional guidepost into what is for me unfamiliar territory. For instance, just when Mitch’s new relationship seems to be deepening the way he wants, he learns something about himself and “(h)e was so disappointed in himself, so ashamed, that he began to crave escape. ” That is why he chose to go to the Arctic. Ohlin’s characters often don’t understand their own motivations, so it feels natural for us to discover the bare statement of them as they do. It’s an effective technique.

There are a number of interesting parallels that subtly tie the story together, such as a patient of Grace’s who loves his dog more than his wife, and Mitch loving his girlfriend’s son more that her. Watching these work out through the story is great fun if you are interested in how a story is put together. The ending is satisfying, something that has become rare, so I treasure it.

Writers Tell All

I was tagged by the marvelous Sarah Bartlett to participate in this blog hop, so I'll postpone telling you about the satisfying books I've been reading just for this week. A blog hop is where you move from one blog after another to read the entries or to leave comments. This is one way my online writing community stays in touch and has conversations.

I've mentioned this group before and my surprise at what an effective community it has become despite the fact that we've never met in 3D. In addition to blog hops, we have regular twitter chats, several book clubs, and active Facebook pages. Learn more at the Wordsmith Studio website and consider joining us.

Here are my responses to the three questions:

1. What are you working on?

You would have to ask that! I'm giving myself a few weeks to deal with some major life changes before plunging into my long-neglected WIP, a novel, which has received scant attention lately. I'm also busy promoting my new poetry collection, Terrarium. See Upcoming Events on the Home Page for details of readings.

2. How does your writing process work?

I try to concentrate on one thing at a time (stop laughing), at least when working on a long piece like a novel. I do continue to make notes on the other ideas waiting in the wings, so they are more or less worked out when I'm ready to get to them. I like outlines but don't hesitate to revise them as necessary. While writing my memoir, Innocent, I received some great advice, which was to stop rewriting the first chapter and just push on through to the end of the first draft. At that point I knew how to write the first chapter. I love the revision process, though it does make me dig even deeper to understand what the story is really about and ensure that every detail is relevant.

3. Who are authors you most admire?

I admire authors like Margaret Atwood and Arturo Pérez- Reverte who take risks, who try something new. I admire authors like Paul Scott and Timothy Findley who teach me how to use language. I admire authors like Jane Urquhart and Deirdre Madden who show me how to put a novel together. I admire authors like Toni Morrison and Alice Munro who never lose their focus.

Finally, I nominate three bloggers who inspire me: Elissa Field, Morgen Bailey, and Mare Cromwell.