Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Drowning House by Elizabeth Black

Dark and disturbing story, beautifully told


Drowning House

By Elizabeth Black

Knopf Doubleday Publishing

When professional photographer Clare Porterfield receives an invitation to return to her home town of Galveston, Texas, to coordinate a historical photo exhibit, she accepts it. Her marriage is crumbling beneath the weight of a family tragedy, and Clare takes the opportunity to return to her roots, despite the cloud of scandal under which she left some years previous, and the shaky bonds she’s barely maintained with the surviving members of her family. Clare begins to examine the community’s oldest photos and poke into her own family history, and that of one of the most powerful families in Galveston. But the deeper the story goes, and the further back in history, the darker the secrets get, until Clare uncovers the most shocking secret of all.

A lot of first novels ramble along like a clumsy puppy, mechanically uneven and stilted, tripping a bit as the author learns her trade. Not this one. Elizabeth Black’s writing skills are remarkably well-developed, and the story unfolds in beautiful, if grim, prose. The reader doesn’t get much respite from the dark and unsettling subject matter, but the writing is really lovely, and the characters (including Galveston) come alive through the author’s words. Suspenseful, disturbing, and stark, Drowning House is a very worthy read. 


Monday, January 7, 2013

The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison

Heart-filled stories describe the landscape and spirit of Michigan

The River Swimmer
by Jim Harrison
Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Available 1/8/2013

Harrison’s latest consists of two novellas, The Land of Unlikeness and the title story. In The Land of Unlikeness, Clive, a sixty-something, cultured art appraiser who resides in a condo in New York when he isn’t rubbing elbows and taking the measure of the art of the rich and famous, is summoned home to a small farming community in Northern Michigan in order to care for his elderly mother while his sheltered younger sister goes on her first European vacation. The secluded community of Reed City hasn’t changed much, and Clive is flooded with memories and a feeling of warped time. Clive’s mother still seasons bland meals with salt and pepper only (any further seasoning is a sign of weakness), the small-town ‘girl next door’ who broke Clive’s heart while they were in their teens is still around when she’s not working her Grand Rapids grocery store job, and she’s still a heart breaker. Clive gave up painting twenty years before, but being home is changing his perspective, and he’s starting to feel a yearning to pick up a brush. Clive thought he was happy with his life in New York, but relationships with his loved ones are all undernourished and the longer he views the natural world through the glass panes of the second-story door of his mother’s house that doesn’t lead to anywhere, the more he wonders which path to the future is the right one.

The River Swimmer is a bit more of a folktale with just a hint of magic realism, but lots of references to real local places including Schuler Books, a wonderful, locally-owned retreat for the bookish in Grand Rapids. The main character, Thad, a strong and determined lad with a one (well, maybe two) track mind, loves swimming more than anything else in the world. The story follows him on his journey from a baby whose caretakers harness him to keep him from drowning because they cannot keep him out of the water, to a young man as he swims through the rivers of Michigan and the Great Lakes, including a stint from Muskegon to Chicago, and the Rhone and Seine rivers in Paris, and also as he swims through the hearts and minds of several women around him: caretakers, lovers, and friends.

In both stories, the main characters are wrestling with their present choices and with a decision about what path they will choose for the future. In all Harrison’s stories, nature is described in the most beautiful language, water and colors are symbolic, women and yearning are in abundance, and the characters are beautifully flawed.

Using punctuation discriminately in a style that isn’t stream of consciousness but isn’t entirely structured either, Harrison knows how to put real live people down on paper, flailing around, doing and thinking  things one can imagine their own f*cked up friends or self doing or thinking. The characters and situations are utterly relatable and it’s such a comfort to read a story in which you recognize the people and actions as genuine and real. Not to mention the wonderful familiarity of the place names for this Michigan resident.  My first Harrison book was A Woman Lit By Fireflies, three novellas published in 1990, and Brown Dog – a character introduced in one of those novellas whose story continues in later novellas – is still my favorite. Clive’s story in this book is a close second. Harrison has added another set of stories to a growing library of fine, quality work. Just a taste of the incredible language, from the last paragraph of Chapter 1 of The Land of Unlikeness: “He recalled with immoderate reverence his burgeoning love at age ten for looking at paintings and listening to classical music, the lack of mind in his pleasure. How wonderful it was to love something without the compromise of language.” What a lovely compromise of language with Harrison at the helm. I’ve never read a book by Jim Harrison that didn’t touch my heart.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Moscow But Dreaming

Magical realism, Russian folklore, and real world issues intermingled


Moscow But Dreaming
by Ekaterina Sedia
Prime Books
Published December 5, 2012
Moscow But Dreaming is a collection of Ekaterina Sedia’s short stories. The stories contain elements of magic realism, Russian folklore and mythology, social commentary, and studies of Moscow and its surrounding areas, mostly in the late 80s and 90s. The grittiness of subject matters like child abuse, sexual abuse, starvation, and death might make a reader cringe if not for the fact that Sedia’s combination of dark imagination and equally dark real world issues shines a light on some ugly truths without sensationalism. My first exposure to Sedia’s incredible prose was in the reading of The Secret History of Moscow, which I plucked from the library shelf on my way to the checkout station on a whim, based solely on the stark design and testimonial paragraph written by Neil Gaiman on the front cover. I was completely bowled over by The Secret History of Moscow and anxious to read more by this author. Finding Moscow But Dreaming on NetGalley the same day was a serendipitous and happy moment. The collection of short stories affirmed my newfound admiration for this writer. The standout stories for me include “A Play for a Boy and Sock Puppets,” “Hector Meets the King,” and “Cherrystone and Shards of Ice.”  “There is a Monster Under Helen’s Bed” drove home to me what a special gift Sedia has for interweaving real social issues like the state of orphanages or children’s homes and the complications of international adoption with dark fantasy. The stories are disturbing, uncomfortable, and filled with truth. It is so rare when a writer’s words and stories can alter a reader’s perspective. I’m entranced. I want to read everything she’s written. Ekaterina Sedia is a new favorite author – Moscow But Dreaming and The Secret History of Moscow are among the best books I read in 2012.