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Posts tagged ‘book review’

What She Left Behind

61bLHO4EiELWhat She Left Behind
by Ellen Marie Wiseman
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans
New York Journal of Books
12 December 2013

“What She Left Behind screams with authenticity, depth, and understanding.”

She’s done it again. At this time last year, Ms. Wiseman’s first novel The Plum Tree was released. It was excellent and received deservedly wonderful reviews. It is rare that a writer’s follow up work is as good as their first. Such a rarity has been accomplished with What She Left Behind. The author has once again delved into the lives of teenage girls, albeit in different circumstances than her first work, yet with the same insight, nuance, and raw emotion readers can appreciate and enjoy.

One of the girls in the story is 18 and is living in the 1930s (Clara) and the other (Izzy), lives in the 1990s. Clara is sent to a state mental institution (Willard State), because she challenges her father’s wishes for whom she should marry and Izzy must adapt to a new set of foster parents and her last year in high school, as a result of her mother having killed her father when she was seven. The girls’ lives intersect when Izzy gets involved in a project that unearths suitcases in the now defunct mental institution in which Clara was captive—she finds Clara’s journal and photo inside.

The scenes of Clara’s experience and travails at Willard State are all too real and affecting in part because many similar circumstances actually took place at that mental facility and others around the country for many decades. Izzy’s struggle with a school bully, harming herself, and learning who and how to accept love and whom to trust, is no less impactful than Clara’s chapters.

What She Left Behind screams with authenticity, depth, and understanding of human behavior and what can and has been done to others to maintain control.

Read entire review and more at New York Journal of Books.

The Round House

41HfjdXnn9L._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_The Round House by Louise Erdich
Review by Gabriel Constans

I usually only review books for The New York Journal of Books and tend to not make the effort to share what I am reading, at least not often. This is an exception.

There are many times when books that have won prestigious national or international awards tend to fall short (in my eyes) and don’t live up to the hype and praise. 2012 National Book Award winner (for fiction) The Round House by Louise Erdich is not not one of those books. This story soars and takes you with it.

The story focuses on the aftermath of a brutal attack upon Geraldine Coutts, on the reservation where she and her husband and her thirteen-year-old son Joe live in North Dakota. Everything is seen through Joe’s eyes as he and his father (who is also a judge) try to discover who attacked their loved one and why.

Every character in this book is as real as real can be. Joe’s family, extended family, friends and everyone else on and off the reservation come to life with nuance and depth. “My father bent his head down and rested his forehead on his fist. He closed his eyes. There was the ticking of the clock in that sunny kitchen. Around the face of the clock there was a kind of sunburst. But the rays were plastic squiggles and the thing looked more like a gilded octopus. Still, I kept looking at the clock because if I looked down I would have to see the top of my father’s head. To see the egg brown scalp and thin patch of gray hairs would put me over the edge. I’d snap, I thought, if I looked down.”

One could go on and on, with further explanations and examples, but it will suffice to simply say that this is a story most people will want to read. It includes humor, pathos, fear, suspense, drama, coming of age and romance, but most importantly, it includes some of the best writing to be published in years.

Tour of the Breath Gallery

9780896727946Tour of the Breath Gallery
by Sarah Pemberton Strong
Reviewed by Arielle Yarwood

Lambda Literary 6 November 2013

Read Tour of the Breath Gallery with a blanket and a stormy day, read it surrounded by strangers on the bus, read it in the sterile confines of a hospital room – wherever you happen to be, Sarah Pemberton Strong’s vivid lines of poetry will quiet and sharpen the life around you.

A Walt McDonald First Book winner, Tour of the Breath Gallery focuses on “the details / of duller things: a space / of silence, an opened window, / the moon-shaped crack / on the edge of this blue plate.” Strong’s book praises silence, and in doing so, allows the reader to hear what she has learned by listening.

The collection is divided into three parts, beginning with the heart and moving outward. The first section deals with the lessons learned in silence, that “sometimes the metaphor for suffering / turns out to be the suffering itself,” and that “if you want the world / to be less burdened with cruelty / and indifference, this moment you / are standing in would be the ideal / fulcrum from which to lift a finger.”

It advocates for the value of the physical, the tangible, and the self, particularly in womanhood. Strong’s version of the Biblical Delilah tells her daughter to “win / your own heart first, cherish every cell / of yourself,” and the contemplation of a teacup leads to the revelation that “you do not have to be clean, or whole, / you do not have, even, to be loved / to be radiant.” A sense of wonder and wholeness permeates this section, and the revaluation of self enables the persona to spread her awareness and compassion externally, toward child and community. Throughout the book and particularly in the beginning, a sense of interconnectedness binds not only the poems, but also the persona to her world.

The second section deals with the act of learning what was imparted in the first section; in essence, it reveals the beauty in the act of living. Several love poems are included in this section – “Nest,” the most striking and gracious, a missive to her trans lover, sings for “the slim green branches / and pale unopened buds / of the girl who / inside, you are.” Although there is always “the burden of our folded wings,” at its root, this is an utterly optimistic book, showing “that when / there is no light, our eyes open anyway: / searching for it, then for each other.” The second section concludes with the persona transformed into a goddess in steel-toed boots and overalls, gaining her power from learning the plumbing trade, using her hands to build and create and fix, imbued with the elements of the earth she inhabits.

Finally, the third section extends back to the past, to family and heritage, and looks at the ramifications of inheritance and death on life, the “breaking down / then subsequent repairing of the world.” Her relationships with father, mother, and friend are examined, revealing bonds that are fragile and yet resilient, like spider webs on grass “whose strength is that of steel, / yet can be torn like that / and then repaired;” bonds that extend behind and ahead, leaving traces of history, like a trail of footsteps in the snow or the fingerprints of the deceased that “still mark the doorknobs and teaspoons / of the living.”

Read entire review and other articles at Lambda Literary.

The Bear by Claire Cameron

The Bear
by Claire Cameron.
Reviewed 10-28/13 Publisher’s Weekly

9780316230100Inspired by a fatal 1991 bear attack on a couple camping on an island in Ontario’s Algonquin Park, Cameron’s novel of fear and survival recounts the fictional escape from a similar attack of five-year-old Anna and her two-year-old brother, Alex (nicknamed “Stick” for his sticky fingers). Anna’s narrative begins midattack after her father has tossed her and her brother into the storage chest they call “Coleman.” Squished in the darkness between Stick and her teddy bear, Anna sees a black furry animal through a crack, but all she can picture is her next-door neighbor’s dog Snoopy. In daylight, she climbs out of Coleman to discover what remains of her father and to catch her mother’s last words urging her to put her brother in the canoe and paddle away. What follows is a vividly portrayed wilderness ordeal (poison ivy, hunger, rain, isolation) juxtaposed with glimpses of the inner resources young Anna draws upon (imagination, family, memory, hope), all seen through the eyes of a child who can express, if not entirely understand, her own resentment and protectiveness of her brother, her love and longing for her parents, her fear and empathy for the predator, and her determination to persevere.

Read entire review and other stories at Publisher’s Weekly

Are We There Yet?

My review of “Are We There Yet? A Zen Journey Through Space and Time” for the New York Journal of Books.

“To rest in the present is a state of magical simplicity, although attainment of this state is not as simple as it sounds.”

This remark, in the preface to Are We There Yet?, captures much of the essence of this photographic journey, which took place in 1982. Are We There Yet? is actually a republication of an earlier edition that was first published as Nine-Headed Dragon River. It follows Peter Mattiessen and Peter Cunningham, as they follow Bernie Tetsugen Glassman to Japan, where he visits his Soto Zen teachers and various sites and monasteries.

If there is a message in this work, other than providing an historical record for students in this tradition, it is the importance of lineage and one’s willingness to cut through all illusions of self to find our true nature or Buddha Nature (awakened state).

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