The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara

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A newly-graduated doctor sent in 1950 on an anthropological expedition to an island in the South Pacific to find a lost tribe: sounds like it might be an adventure story. However, by making the bulk of this novel Dr. Norton Perina’s memoir, Yanagihara turns it into an intense psychological portrait of a thoroughly unpleasant man.

In the memoir, which is introduced and edited by his obsequious assistant Dr. Ronald Kubodera, Perina describes his childhood, isolated on a farm with his fraternal twin. The two spend their time torturing insects and small animals as well as their mother; Perina despises both his parents for their uselessness and lack of ambition.

After medical school his brilliance is finally rewarded by his inclusion on the expedition. Ivu’ivu is thought to be uninhabited and cursed, but Paul Tallent, leader of the expedition, has reason to believe it harbors a lost tribe who live to an advanced age. The description, through Perina’s eyes, of his first encounter with the jungles and people of Ivu’ivu is brilliant, vividly evoking the sounds and smells of this new world and Perina’s wonder and anxiety.

Perina’s discovery on the island and his amoral behaviour around it lead to fame and fortune and the Nobel Prize. However, we learn from the first pages that he is in prison for sexually abusing one of the 43 children he adopted from the island.

When I finished the book, I felt strongly that the pedophilia plot detracted from the story. It was nowhere near as intensely written as Perina’s trips to the island and seemed to be included purely for gratuitous shock value and to provide a climax at the end.

Perina’s story of his discovery and the consequences for Ivu’ivu and its people raise questions of power, colonialism and abuse of both nature and people. It also raises questions of how to evaluate a genius who is also a sociopath—a question much in the news of late as gifted and famous men are forced out amid revelations of abuse. That important and nuanced story did not need to be wrapped in a simple soap opera about pedophilia.

However, I later learned that, while the island and its tribe are fictional, Perina’s trajectory is based on the true story of a Dr. Carleton Gajdusek who won a Nobel Prize for his work among the Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea on kuru, a fatal disease. Gajdusek later went to prison for the same reason his fictional counterpart did. It may not always be the right thing to include every aspect of the story that inspired you.

This first novel shows some of the author’s strengths that made her second, A Little Life, a huge bestseller. She doles out information in such a way that for every question answered, new questions emerge, thus keeping the reader from getting too frustrated while maintaining the suspense. Her male characters—and all the primary characters are male—are deeply characterised, by which I mean that we have full confidence that she thoroughly understands all their formative experiences, their demons and angels, their subtlest shadings.

The weaknesses are here as well. The single female character is presented as an unpleasant stereotype, though this is only to be expected since we learn about her through Perina’s eyes. Perina is born into wealth and becomes much richer through his famous discovery. The fact that all four protagonists in A Little Life also became fabulously rich and famous was one of the factors that left me bored and unmoved by the story.

Worse, though, is that both narrators here are thoroughly unpleasant. I felt that way about the protagonists in her second book as well, though not everyone agrees with me.

Aside from their obvious pathologies, both Perina and his assistant are unreliable narrators. For example, Perina at one point claims that he went to Ivu’ivu solely for the adventure when it is obvious that he was desperate to be the center of attention. Equally he claims that his childhood torturing of insects, animals and even his mother is only what every small boy does.

What I did like about this book that I didn’t find in the second book is the attempt to grapple with serious problems. Because we are limited by Perina’s self-serving point of view, and notes by his loyal assistant, the issues of power, colonialism and abuse are sketched in broad strokes. In retrospect Perina is sorry for the changes he brought to the area, but unrepentant, saying any scientist would do the same, and he himself, knowing the result, would certainly do it all again.

The changes are so horrific, as are Perina’s crimes against the children, that we have no choice about what to conclude, both about these issues and the question of how to evaluate a genius who is also a sociopath. Still, obvious as our conclusions must be, it is good to be reminded of these horrors that continue to occur today.

We discussed the title in my new book group without coming to any conclusion. The tribe is not in the trees but in their village. Perhaps it is meant to remind us of the song Strange Fruit, though I think the comparison is strained; both peoples suffered tragically but differently.

We were also reminded of Euphoria, of course, the novelisation of a portion of Margaret Mead’s life. Though I disliked that book for its tampering with the facts of Mead’s life, it does approach the issues of colonialism and tampering with more depth and subtlety.

Still, this book is a good read if you can bear to spend so many pages with someone so awful. The writing keeps you turning page after page, and the psychological portrait of a narcissistic sociopath is brilliant.

Have you read a novel based on a real person? Did it change your view of the person?

Accounted For: Poems, by Jeannine Savard

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A chorus of voices fill this 2011 collection of poems from Red Hen Press. People crowd the pages, alone or in company, describing prayers and portents, dreams and deserts. Savard uses the things of this world—donkeys, gold silk, stars, wild thyme—to ground emotions and epiphanies. Like Virginia Woolf’s “moments of being”, each poem holds a cup of liquid light.

However, much as I reveled in individual phrases, sometimes the objects and images came too fast for me, piled on top of one another, without enough context for me to follow.

I first understood what appealed to me in poetry when I read Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry. He says:

My idea, then, is that a great work of art often has at its center a long floating leap . . . The work can have many leaps, perhaps shorter. The real joy of poetry is to experience this leaping inside a poem.

Graves maintains that the leap enables the reader to access the unconscious. He calls it “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again.” While that may be true, I instead think of it as being given the space to bring my own experience, my own emotions into the poem.

I love when two images come up against each other, the liminal space between them resonating with sounds neither can summon on their own. Similarly, an artist can lay down two strips of color on canvas and where they meet, our eyes see a spectrum of colors faintly vibrating. For example, in one of my favorite poems, “In a Radiant Field”, Savard says:

Touching her own ribs
she overhears the years of a tree

before the lightning struck.

She gives us a moment to hold these two images, of ribs and rings, and let them echo before summoning the lightning strike.

However, too much obscurity, too much private meaning invested in the image leaves the reader stranded on one side of the gulf. As Bly says of Neruda: “The links are not private, but somehow bound into nature.”

In several of the poems in this collection, the gaps are sometimes too wide for me, rendering the poems impenetrable. Perhaps there were allusions that I didn’t recognise or my brain couldn’t move fast enough. Bly goes on to say:

Thought of in terms of language, then, leaping is the ability to associate fast. In a great ancient or modern poem, the considerable distance between the associations, the distance the spark has to leap, gives the lines their bottomless feeling, their space, and the speed of the association increases the excitement of the poetry.

Other poems, with time, yielded meaning. “Ekstasis”, for example, conjures in cascades of images the experience of different kinds of music, the sound of the words as important as the images themselves, such as “Acoustical honey” and “Nine parrots come pecking at the foot of the porch stairs.”

As writers we struggle with finding the line between saying too much and saying too little. Certainly, as readers we want to do some of the work, not be spoonfed, but finding that line can be difficult. Trusted readers can help. I rely on my critique group to let me know when I haven’t provided enough information or am being too obvious.

To make it even harder, individual readers bring their own preferences and experience to a poem. I’ve participated in a poetry discussion group for several decades, enjoying the opportunity to explore in depth the work of a different poet every month. A side benefit has been hearing how others react. Tastes vary wildly. People interpret words, phrases, images differently. Their disparity has nothing to do with right or wrong, good or bad.

I found many of the poems in this collection difficult. When the juxtaposition of images worked for me, I experienced the excitement Bly describes. Always, I appreciate the vividness of her descriptions and am happy to immerse myself in the music of her words. I love, too, the way she tests the barriers, trying to surmount what holds us apart. As she says in “Sky Treasure”, our history is the “cry of so many hungers, / no boundary in between.”

What excites you in a poem?

Selected Poems II, 1976-1986, by Margaret Atwood

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I came to Atwood through her fiction, but it is her poetry that has come to mean the most to me. For me, her poems from this period expressed my own complicated mix of sorrow, pity, praise, and controlled rage.

As in her fiction, Atwood sometimes uses a female protagonist to shed new light on social issues. Most poems about the myth of Orpheus focus on his divine music and tragedy of his trip to the underworld to bring his wife Eurydice back to the realm of the living. However, Atwood’s “Orpheus (1)” gives us the voice of Eurydice who says, “the return/to time was not my choice.” She speaks of his “old leash . . . love you might call it” and says:

Before your eyes you held steady
the image of what you wanted
me to become: living again.
It was this hope of yours that kept me following.

In these few lines, Atwood captures the frustration of women wanting to be seen for themselves, not something to be molded to their husband’s fantasy, along with the patient kindness, the desire to spare him hurt that keeps us silent.

Myths and fairy tales are subtexts in many of these poems. In “Variation On The Word Sleep”, she alludes to several fairy tales, including one of my favorites: The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands . . .

Atwood’s Canadian identity has informed much of her critical work, including her landmark book Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Published in 1972, it makes a case that Canadian literature reflects a unique national identity, one derived from the harsh conditions in the frozen north and the clear-eyed accounts by early pioneers trying to survive in the wilderness. This somber theme works its way through many of the poems in this collection, sometimes emerging in strong, unpretty images. In “Flying Inside Your Own Body”, for example, she describes

Waking, your heart is a shaken fist,
a fine dust clogs the air you breathe in;
the sun’s a hot copper weight pressing straight
down on the thick pink rind of your skull.

That sense of the landscape as something hostile is tempered by her ecological awareness and sometimes difficult love for the things of this world. In “Marsh, Hawk” she describes a swamp and “a mass grave” of detritus—rotten trees, old tires, bottles and cans—that “spreads on the / land like a bruise.” But the poem takes a left turn in the middle, as so many of Atwood’s poems do, as the speaker wants the marsh rushes / to bend aside, the water / to accept us”, to become one with the complicated beauty of the physical world.

In much of her writing, Atwood draws inspiration from historical figures, particularly Canadian ones, such as Susanna Moody. Some of the poems in this collection seem to draw on this awareness. Sometimes she seems to be speaking for those who came before us.

In Negotiating with the Dead, a collection of her Empson lectures, she says, “Not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and fascination with mortality – by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.”

What themes or preoccupations do you see in one of your favorite writers?

Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things, by Amy Dickinson

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There are many reasons to write a memoir: to work through a personal trauma, to leave a record for your family, to try to understand how you’ve gotten to this place in your life, to name just a few. Not all such memoirs are appropriate for publication, or in fact written with publication in mind.

While it’s true that for a few years there were quite a few illness and grief memoirs published that were thought to be useful to others suffering similar calamities, that time has passed. With such a glut of what my friend calls “woe-is-me” memoirs, publishers and the reading public look for something more than a sad story.

To be commercially published today, memoirs must be well-written—always a priority!—and addressing some larger social issue, something that the general public will find interesting. Take, for example, Hillbilly Elegy which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. True, it had a bit too much woe-is-me for my taste, but it hit the mark commercially by telling the inside story of what it’s like to grow up in the white working class in an environment where there’s not much work anymore.

You’re probably already raising your hand and saying, “But what about . . .?” Yes, the exception to this rule is a memoir by a celebrity. Fame is a peculiar sort of intimacy, where we feel we know someone from their shows or books, but at the same time know that we don’t know them at all. I recently devoured The Memory of All That, a memoir by Betsy Blair’s memoir of her marriage to Gene Kelly. As a huge fan, I was relieved to find him portrayed as the truly decent man I’d thought him.

Dickinson’s memoir wins on all three counts. Roughly chronological, the story flows well, written in forthright prose sweetened by a generous dose of humor. While pulling no punches in telling her own story, Dickinson invites us to look at families and small-town life, how we are different and how we are the same. And as the author of the syndicated “Ask Amy” column and a regular on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me . . . !, she has a legion of fans already.

And did I say it was funny? I actually laughed aloud, startling the cat into bolting from the room. Most of the humor is directed at herself and her own foibles, but she doesn’t hesitate to bring out the quirks in those around her. She says of her mother:

One of Jane’s primary modes of home decorating was to saw the legs off of things. You’d go upstairs to bed at night, and in the morning when you came back downstairs, the kitchen table had become a coffee table. Growing up, we got used to it.

People in my memoir classes often ask how to handle criticising family or friends. They want to tell their story honestly but avoid hurting or offending other people. I believe the key is to respect their privacy as much as possible and, when you have to show them in a bad light, do it with love. Try to understand why they behaved as they did. One factor in The Glass Castle’s success was the way Jeannette Walls told us all the horrible things her parents did, yet she always spoke of them with love and explained their reasoning.

In this book, Dickinson is generous and truly writes from love, even about her ne’er-do-well father who not only abandoned the family but sold off all their assets and absconded with the money.

When you need a laugh or reassurance that life can be crazy and good at the same time, pick up this book. It is an excellent read: honest, plain-spoken, and full of the humor found in daily life.

Can you recommend a warm and humorous book? Or share a joke?

Hélène, by Deborah Poe

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In this chapbook of poems, a young woman, Hélène, works in a factory-convent in 19c France weaving silk. As described in the epigraph from Foucault girls entered these factory-convents at thirteen and stayed for years, confined and watched over by nuns. Their wages were kept back and only given to them when they left at 21, after food and lodging were deducted.

Hélène’s factory is located in the village of Jujurieux in Ain, not that she knows the village; enclosed by the factory walls, her days consist of “nine hours weaving and three hours teaching” by which she means being taught. She speaks admiringly of “the benefactor” who has created this golden prison, who “offered something other than work on farms.”

The first poem is so dense with images, images without context, that the reader is overwhelmed. Only gradually do they begin to cohere and convey meaning. Thus we experience what Hélène, must have felt on first entering the enclosed world of the factory and her awe at seeing the glorious silk tapestries that she will have a hand in creating. The book’s beautiful cover gives us a taste of that glory.

Other poems are bare statements, stripped to the bone yet still carrying the weight of the story that emerges from these pages. It is Hélène’s story, of finding a friend among the “mummied” girls, of her own fall and its consequences. Poe gives us only the ghost outlines of a story, leave more than the usual space for the reader to fill in with her imagination.

Hélène’s story is much more than this simple outline. As her loneliness and restlessness grow, she escapes into a fantasy of living in China herself, feeding mulberry leaves to the worm, imagining how the secrets of silk “wandered via nomads along elongated slender grasslands.”

The other epigraph is from Chuang-Tzu about the use and limitation of words. Together these epigraphs signal the twin concerns of this book: imprisonment and art.

The brevity of the poems reinforces the sense of confinement, the silencing of the girls. Hélène compares herself to the work in cocoon, saying “Feel but tell no one a way of being.” Even the accents of her name seem to enclose her.

Poe uses additional quotes from Chuang-Tzu to signal and suggest hinge moments in Hélène’s story. Poe also makes effective use of the Japanese poetic technique of the kakekotoba, or pivot word, one that carries two meanings, such as when she says of the factory’s architecture “it looms straight down.” Hélène becomes entranced with individual words and the world of meaning each can hold.

Gently, always leaving space for us to make Hélène’s story our own, Poe juxtaposes the beauty of the silk tapestries with the working conditions of the time. We cannot help asking ourselves what confines us and how we escape. As readers and writers, words are our tools and our drugs; they are the keys that open our memory and senses and imagination. Hélène’s story gives us room to ponder what we dream and how we are transformed.

What confines you? How do you escape?

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance

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As often happens when I get around to reading a much-hyped book, I was disappointed by this best-selling memoir. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town whose once-robust steel industry attracted many folks from Kentucky. Now a Yale-educated lawyer, his childhood was one of poverty, violence, drugs, and chaos—which he says is common in what he calls his hillbilly culture.

While he acknowledges the effect of a failing economy, Vance also says these evils are embedded in his culture. This balanced look at what holds people in poverty–both society’s structural problems and personal failings–is why the book appeals to both liberals and conservatives. Vance is the first to deny that he “pulled himself up by his bootstraps”–the conservatives’ solution–and to assert that it won’t help to simply spend more money on programs (jobs, training, etc.)–the liberals’ solution.

The major claim admiring reviewers make for this book is that it is, as Jennifer Senior in The New York Times puts it, “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump.”

Yet Vance himself is careful to say in his introduction that he is writing about a specific “group of people I know—working-class whites with ties to Appalachia.” It’s dangerous to assign a singular character to all the members of a group, and there has been pushback against Vance’s characterisation of all hillbillies as violent, unwilling to work, patriotic and proud while succumbing to welfare dependency and/or drug addiction. As one commenter on Rod Dreher’s interview with Vance said:

I worked as an ER nurse for several years in a mountainous region of upstate NY with lots of white poor people. There was also a small (less than 5%) population of poor black people. I saw the same pathologies in both groups of people: alcoholism, joblessness, domestic violence, broken families, drug overdoses, etc. I also saw people busting their butts working 2-3 jobs, going to church, and doing their best in very difficult situations . . .

As she asserts, there are plenty of “working-class whites with ties to Appalachia” who don’t fit Vance’s stereotype. And like her, some reviewers noted that the problems Vance sees for whites are similar to those that have long been faced by poor people of color.

I was mostly interested in the relatively brief sections of analysis in Vance’s book. The rest of the book is his account of his childhood and becomes what one friend of mine calls “another woe-is-me story”. The physical and emotional abuse is tremendous and I certainly feel for the child, but the unrelenting focus on his own hardships turns the other people in his story into one-dimensional stereotypes. His sister is an angel who protects him. His mother, a violent drug addict, seems deranged. Although they can be violent as well, his grandparents are always fiercely loving toward him. There is no attempt to understand the nuances of these people or the forces acting on them. Of course, one expects a child to be self-centered and not understand much about others, but Vance is writing this as an adult looking back.

What Vance does do very well, though, is to open himself up. He shares his fears and failures and weaknesses, something that’s awfully hard to do, but necessary if you want a memoir to work.

While the superficiality of the characters and the “woe-is-me” preoccupation disappointed me, I was more disturbed by his double standard. He’s extremely critical of people who take welfare, but is himself grateful to go to college on taxpayers’ money and to law school on scholarship. It’s okay for him to take handouts but not for others.

He has bought the conservative fantasy that people on welfare and food stamps are living high on the hog. Having been on welfare, I find this laughable. Vance is certain that undeserving people on welfare are getting much more than he is, citing his jealous anger that people on welfare had cell phones while he didn’t. Apparently he is not aware of programs that provide cell phones to poor people. His anger would be better directed at his mother for taking drugs and cycling through boyfriends and husbands instead of providing for him and his sister. What welfare does do–in its meager and grudging way–is to provide a little stability for vulnerable families, something that would have benefited his family.

He also trots out the urban legend of seeing someone on food stamps buying a steak, a favorite story among conservatives many of whom claim to have seen this with their own eyes or know someone who has. If it really did happen—and as someone who was on food stamps for several years, I find it extremely unlikely—and if he took a moment to think about it, he would realise that with less than $23 for an entire week’s worth of food, anyone buying a steak is going to be starving the rest of the week.

I do agree with him about the mix of structural obstacles (e.g., failing economy, shortage of good jobs) and the lack of what he calls individual agency. I call it personal responsibility. However, his path is not a solution for every child suffering in poverty, as another commenter on the interview quoted from above says:

Whether the kids are black, Hispanic, white, or Asian, the same dictum applies: if your solution to get the next generation out of poverty is be extremely smart, work incredibly hard at school, ignore temptations to stop working hard at school, and to take on thousands in debt or owe years to the military in order to get a 4 year degree, then you have no solution. Solutions can’t require extraordinary people. They have to work for ordinary people.

Vance is right to be proud of his accomplishments. And I agree with his recommendations for helping others to succeed. They are similar to those I made in my own memoir of poverty: instead of segregating the poor in ghettos, give them the opportunity to mingle with all levels including the middle class; make sure there are mentors who will help them envision a different future, believe it is possible, and then achieve it. He adds that the definition of family alternatives to foster care should be expanded to include grandparents and aunts and uncles.

I love that Vance credits those who helped him on his way: his grandparents, the Marine Corps, his sister, his aunt and uncle, teachers, and friends. As he says, “There were many thumbs put on my scale. When I look back at my life, what jumps out is how many variables had to fall in place in order to give me a chance.”

The beauty of memoir is that it enables us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Many people have found this memoir a valuable look at what is to them an unfamiliar culture. It’s always a bit dangerous to assume that your experience can exemplify an entire culture. Nevertheless, this book adds to the discussion of poverty in the United States.

What memoirs have introduced you to another way of life?

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse

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Another Middle Grade coming-of-age story told in verse—pure coincidence that this was next up on my TBR (to be read) pile when I stopped to read Brown Girl Dreaming. Hesse’s story is also a Newbery winner but is fiction rather than memoir. Thirteen-year-old Billie Jo loves playing the piano when she isn’t busy helping her father and pregnant mother try to keep body and soul together in Dust Bowl Oklahoma.

She is good enough to be asked to play in shows, often with handsome Mad Dog. If she gets well enough known with her music, she can leave the failing farm and the ubiquitous dust behind and go to California. Then a terrible accident throws all her plans into disarray.

Spanning a two-year period from January 1934 to December 1935, these poems paint a vivid picture of what life was like during that terrible time. She describes having to turn the glasses and plates upside down on the table until the last second before serving the meal, and still the food is saturated with dust. There is the heartbreak of a field of wheat, already decimated by drought and wind, be flattened by hail or devoured by grasshoppers.

In some aspects, Billie Jo’s life is similar to many teens: wanting more independence than her mother is willing to give her, feeling as though she’s stuck in the middle of nowhere. When her teacher is in a production of Madame Butterfly, and Mad Dog says that “most everyone’s” heard of that opera, Billie Jo is miffed.

How does that
singing plowboy know something I don’t?
And how much more is out there
most everyone else has heard of
except me?

And she has a best friend. But when Livie leaves for California with her family, Billie Jo says, “I couldn’t get the muscles in my throat relaxed enough / to tell her how much I’d miss her.”

Poetry works well as a form for this novel. The fractured narrative adds to the feeling that you are reading a diary. Also, the necessary compression distills each scene into its essence while retaining the emotional impact. Hesse makes effective use of symbols as well, such as the mother’s special cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving. Here is one complete poem, called “Broken Promise”:

It rained
a little
everywhere
but here.

Other poems are longer and tell a more complete narrative, such as “Blankets of Black” about going to Texhoma for Grandma Lucas’s funeral. Billie Jo’s detailed description of the ordeal is riveting.

While written for ages 11-14, Billie Jo’s story will certainly appeal to adults as well. For younger readers, it’s a good introduction to the terrible tragedy of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Depression.

Have you read a Young Adult or Middle Grade novel that brought an historical period to life for you?

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

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Woodson’s memoir in verse invites the reader into her childhood. Reading these poems felt as though Woodson and I were leafing through a photograph album while she told me about these people and places.

Her family’s story, like so many of ours, is a fractured one, with lots of moving around and relationships that fall apart due to death and divorce. Being people of color during the 1960s and 1970s adds further complications. Still, there is a strong current of love and security holding the family and their story together.

In “home” she writes of being taken as a newborn to meet her grandparents in South Carolina. She describes the porch, the azaleas, the red dust on her mother’s shoes. Then:

Welcome home, my grandparents say
    Their warm brown
arms around us. A white handkerchief,
    embroidered with blue
to wipe away my mother’s tears.
    And me,
the new baby, set deep
inside this love.

This book has won several awards, including the Newbery Honor, and was chosen as the 2017 book for Vermont Reads. While it falls in the children’s book category, it appeals to adults as well.

The title tells you all you need to know about the book to entice you into reading it. While being a perfectly straight-forward description of what the book is about, the title also gives you an idea of how the story will be told. The reversed syntax is intriguing, and the startling use of “brown” let’s you know that we are going to sidestep stereotypes about race and speak plainly .

Here’s the opening of “rivers”:

The Hocking River moves like a flowing arm away
from the Ohio River
runs through towns as though
it’s chasing its own freedom, the same way
the Ohio runs north from Virginia until
it’s safely away
from the South.

Most of all, the compression and music of these three words place you in the realm of poetry. It’s had to resist hearing the echo of the opening of Langston Hughes’s great poem “Dream Deferred”:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?

As I’ve mentioned before poetry works well for memoir because of its fragmentary nature. Gathering poems together in a collection such as this doesn’t create the same sort of linear narrative as a prose memoir.

For me, finding that narrative was the hardest part of writing my memoir. Life does follow a neat narrative arc. When we’re in the midst of it, our life seems chaotic and subject to chance; it’s only later that we try to impose some sort of coherent story out of it. Thus, capturing the past in individual poems And it actually reflects how memory works: it throws up a scene seemingly at random, and we are left to make sense of it.

Then the challenge for the poet is to find a way to make these fragments of memory, these separate scenes hang together without the usual transition tools. Woodson accomplishes this with deceptive ease. Arranged chronologically, the poems sometimes also reach back to tell stories of her parents and siblings and other family members.

This is a book that all ages will enjoy. One of the great benefits of reading is the opportunity to step into another person’s life and see the world through their eyes. I’m grateful to Woodson for her gift of her story, much of which reminded me of my own childhood and even more that helped me understand another kind of experience.

Does your state choose a book each year for everyone to read and discuss? If so, which book was chosen this year?

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, by Francine Prose

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Intrigued by a photograph of a lesbian couple in a nightclub by Hungarian-born French photographer Brassaï, Francine Prose investigated further and found a blockbuster story. She considered writing it as nonfiction, but chose instead to use it as the basis for a novel.

Like the tuxedo-clad Violette Morris in Brassaï’s photograph, Lou Villars is an Olympic-bound athlete and a race car driver in 1920s Paris. She’s also an habitué of the fictional Chameleon Club, a gaudy, anything-goes nightclub. As the next war looms, she is recruited to spy for Nazi Germany and goes on to become famous for rooting out and torturing members of the Resistance.

I felt immediately at home in the milieu of this book, which was a bit puzzling because I’ve never been to Paris, much less seen its streetlights gleaming on rainwet streets or enjoyed the burlesque shows—onstage and off—of its nightclubs. Then I realised my familiarity came from my obsessive reading forty-five years ago of Anais Nin’s diaries and novels, as well as books about Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and their circle. I also spent some time a few years ago studying poet Hope Mirrlees, particularly her spectacular 1920 poem “Paris”.

Villars’s story is told by multiple narrators. There are letters to his parents from Gabor Tsenyi, a Hungarian photographer like Brassaï. We have memoirs from Tsenyi’s lover Suzanne, his wealthy patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol, and his best friend, the American writer Lionel Maine, seemly based on Henry Miller with his preoccupation with drinking and womanising. Finally, and providing much of the structure of the story, there are excerpts from a self-published biography of Villars by Nathalie Dunois, a relative of Tsenyi’s lover Suzanne.

Interestingly, we never hear directly from Lou herself, raising questions of identity and historicity. Given that we only learn about her through others, whose own reliability is dubious, we cannot help but consider the fallibility of memory and self-interested testimony. As readers, we are left to judge for ourselves how much to trust each of these sources.

I struggled with the first part of the book, as I tried to sort out the narrators, get a handle on the large cast of characters, and figure out where and in whom the story lay. I abandoned it for a while, but am glad I came back because it picked up about two-thirds of the way through. And I think the multiple narrators lift this book above the ordinary.

What fascinates me most in this story is the trajectory between good and evil. If we were only presented with Lou Villars in her later incarnation as traitor and torturer, we would think her a monster. But here we start with her as a child, devoted to her mentally ill brother. I don’t know who said it first, but a now-common piece of advice for writers is that even the villain thinks he is the hero of his story. What this means is that if we are to present them as fully realised characters, we must dig deep into our villain and try to understand why he or she thinks what they are doing is right.

In my recent review of Julian Barnes’s novel about Shostakovich’s life under Stalin, I said that these days I am absorbed by the question of how to live a good life, how to negotiate the inevitable choices and compromises we face. I think often of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead where the two courtiers wonder if there was a moment where they could have chosen differently and, if so, how could they have missed it? Is it ever too late to go back and choose differently?

Through her melange of voices, Prose helps us understand Villars’s choices and compromises. It is a story that never grows old for me. As the world seems more and more to be taken over by dishonest and greedy people who laugh at the harm they inflict on others, I look to stories such as this to help me understand how a good person turns to evil.

Have you read a novel with multiple narrators? What did you think of it?

Prayers for the Stolen, by Jennifer Clement

9780804138802

This is a novel. We are reminded several times that it is fiction. But it tells the truth about what happens to women and girls in a Mexico ruled by drug cartels.

Ladydi Garcia Martínez is such a girl. She lives with her mother in the mountains of Guerrero, in a place where there are no men. They have all gone to the U.S. or nearby Acapulco to work or joined the narcos. The mothers pretend their girls are boys for as long as possible to protect them from being taken by the narcos.

Telling her story in an irresistible voice, Ladydi gives us the world as she sees it. Everything that happens is, of course, the most natural thing in the world to her, whether it’s her mother’s sorcery, her friend Maria confronting a snake or finding a poppy field hidden in the mountains. She’s smart yet credulous, caring yet cautious, loyal yet curious.

Her mother is a force of nature. Furious at her husband for deserting the family—like most of the men who have gone to the U.S. he no longer visits and has stopped sending money—she dreams up ever more elaborate revenges. Her maxims and predictions seem cockeyed at first but then make sense in their own way.

Ever since I was a child my mother had told me to say a prayer for some thing. We always did. I had prayed for the clouds and pajamas. I had prayed for light bulbs and bees.

Don’t ever pray for love and health, Mother said. Or money. If God hears what you really want, He will not give it to you. Guaranteed.

When my father left my mother said, Get down on your knees and pray for spoons.

The novel has one of the most shocking and fascinating first lines I’ve ever come across. The scene that it introduces sets the stage for the story to come. There’s humor as well as horror, but most of all a vivid evocation of what life is really like.

Clement grew up in Mexico City and from 2009 to 2012 was president of PEN Mexico. She spent ten years researching this story and the quality of her listening comes through in every nuance of the voices in this story, every detail of their lives. It’s a fascinating read, one that will engage and enrage you. The human costs of Nixon’s War on Drugs spread far beyond the prisons and streets of the U.S.

Writers often struggle with how to compose stories about social justice, hoping to rouse compassion and a will to change. It’s easy for our outrage to burst out in rants and prescriptive demands that overwhelm the reader. Here Clement shows us how to do it: just tell the story. Don’t tell the reader how to feel; just create a narrator with an original voice whose hopeful heart will touch ours. Add a dose of humor and a lot of specific detail to immerse the reader in the story.

This book’s sadness is outweighed by the strong social ties: between the girls, between the girls and their mothers, between all the women who have been stolen and sold and imprisoned. Their voices are rich and full of life even as they tell of horrors. Yes, I’m outraged, but the warmth and love, the intense community of women: these are what I’ve carried away from Ladydi’s story.

What novel have you read where the voice of the narrator pulled you in and wouldn’t let you go?