Monday, November 30, 2015

Loving Donovan by Bernice McFadden (2003)

I received a copy of Loving Donovan by Bernice McFadden (2003) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Actually, it's the third book of McFadden's I've gotten through Early Reviewers (see my reviews for Gathering of Waters and Nowhere is a Place), and I've liked all three so much that I should probably throw some of my own money down on the next one.

Loving Donovan is (as you may guess) a kind of a love story, deeply rooted in the characters of its two protagonists, Campbell and Donovan. The first section of the book, "Her: 1973-1980," takes us through Campbell's childhood, ages eight through fifteen, and delves into the history of her family, particularly her mother, Millie, and her larger than life aunt, Luscious. Campbell has a loving but strained family life, is pushed into sex with a boyfriend when she is 15 and, like her mother and Luscious, gives birth to a child before she is really ready.

The second section, "Him: 1971-1985" gives Donovan the same treatment, ages seven to twenty-one. He also has a strained family life after his mother leaves his father and takes his baby sister with her, leaving the men to live with Donovan's overbearing and controlling Grammy (who has a slightly belief-defying connection to Luscious that would have been a little too much if it wasn't handled as lightly as it was). Donovan is sexually abused as a young boy, an experience he finds it impossible to talk about, and one that will color his relationships and emotions for the rest of his life. Still, he is an athletic and friendly young man, and an ambitious and hard worker who quickly builds a good life for himself, albeit a lonely one in an apartment on the second floor of Grammy's house.

Finally, "Them: 1999-2000" brings Campbell and Donovan together. They are both in their thirties, both experienced in life and (more or less) in love. Both pretty lonely. They have an immediate spark and a strong connection that is boosted by, and ultimately destroyed by, the experiences we lived through with them in the first two sections of the book. We know from Campbell's prologue at the beginning that their relationship wouldn't last, but that doesn't make working through its ups, downs, and implosion any easier.

Like the other two books I've read, McFadden has a lyrical writing style that matches the depth and intensity of her characters. She does not shy away from violent, upsetting, and cruel actions, but she is just as willing to wax poetic and sing out the happy parts of her characters' lives. I really enjoyed the structure of this book, although I could have used a little more Them (or, alternatively, a little more of Campbell's young adulthood). And I was, to be honest, a little disappointed in the ending which I thought veered away from the personalities of the characters that we'd spent so much time getting to know. Still, McFadden has created another encompassing and readable universe here, and one which any reader in love with good characters should try to seek out.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013)

Our latest theme for the DAFFODILS book club was a book that had been waiting in one of our members "to read" pile, and the lucky winner was Joolie and The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013).

Although we read this one for my more free-form bookclub, it would be a perfect choice for my other book club, the Debbie Downers, because man oh man, this is a downer of a book. And yet I really loved it! I guess it shouldn't be surprising that a person who is a voluntary member of a book club that only reads sad books would like things on the melancholy / tragic side of the scale.

The Lowland takes place in a small community on the outskirts of Calcutta and in University towns of the Northeast United States, mostly in Rhode Island, and spans from the 1950s through to the present day. The action centers on two very different brothers who are, nonetheless, very close to each other as children. Subhash is the older and more conventional of the two brothers. He is thoughtful, risk-averse, and often in the shadow of his more outrageous and political brother, Udayan. While they are very close as  children, Udayan's secretive involvement with the Naxalite movement (a violent Maoist group in India) pushes them further apart. Subhash focuses on his studies and ends up moving to Rhode Island to study and oceanography. While he is there he has sporadic correspondence with his brother and parents, but mostly lives in isolation from them (and, to be honest, pretty much everyone else). He has a brief friendship with an American roommate and later a passionate but controlled affair with a recently separated American woman. Then he gets a telegraph from his parents that Udayan is dead, killed by soldiers in front of his family, and he returns home to Calcutta immediately.

There he finds the empty shells of his parents and the sad, angry, and pregnant wife of his brother. Udayan married Gauri, an intellectual and politically active university student, without the permission of either of their parents, and while she has the right to live with her in-laws after her husband's death, she is not welcome. Subhash does one of the only unexpected and risky things of his life, and asks Gauri to marry him, come to the United States, and allow him to raise Udayan's child as his own. She can continue her studies in philosophy in the U. S.

And then things go on and on and on. Gauri has her daughter, who is the one bright spot in the neutral and isolated life of Subhash, but there are very few bright spots or connections for any of the characters in this book that continues to follow Subhash and his family through to their retirements and old age.

Sounds like a real fun read, right? Luckily, with Lahiri at the helm, it really kind of is. The amount of control she exerts over the narrative -- never letting the intense and tragic things become too forceful, or the neutral and isolated sections become too dull -- is impressive and engaging. The crossing back and forth between Bengali and American cultures gives movement to a narrative that is locked into the resignation of the characters and their inability to change, even when they want to. These characters are straightforward and open to the reader in a way that they aren't to each other or, really, to themselves, and that puts us in a unique perspective on these sad, long, isolated, but really not that unique, lives. This is a pretty literary book, but a very readable one as well. Definitely give this one a chance.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lone Star Noir edited by Bobby Byrd and Johnny Byrd (2010)

I picked up this copy of Lone Star Noir edited by Bobby Byrd and Johnny Byrd (2010) on a family trip to San Antonio when we went to check out The Twig bookstore at the old Pearl Brewery (highly recommended!). It seemed like an appropriate souvenir for a fan of crime fiction and Texas.

This book follows the same format as the other "LOCATION Noir" books put out by Akashic Books. An editor from the city, state, or country in question brings together an anthology of contemporary crime fiction (defined pretty broadly) that all takes place in that location, and that is usually written by authors that live there.

I read another title from this series (Helsinki Noir) earlier this year, and maybe I'm just more Texan than Finnish, but I liked the Lone Star Noir anthology quite a bit more.

The Byrds bring together a diverse group of authors (including quite a few women) that set their stories throughout the state. This book gives the reader a combination of traditional hard-boiled crime fiction, unsettling dark stories, and a few pretty disturbing tales. Everything here is really well written and I appreciated the variety in backgrounds and formats.

I'm definitely interested in picking up more books from this series, partly because I just like crime fiction, but also because they give you such a neat look at a place through the lens of a specific genre. You don't have to be from Texas to like this writing -- it's just good writing! -- but living in Texas gives another layer to the collection that I really liked. Plus the title is extremely fun to say.