Tag: Mary Costello

Mini-Reviews: The Graybar Hotel & Saints for All Occasions

My attention was drawn to The Graybar Hotel, the debut story collection by Curtis Dawkins, because the author is a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in a Michigan prison. (You can read more about his background in this Guardian article.) These 14 short stories are all set at least partially in prison, and feature men learning how to live with the consequences of their mistakes and how to fill long, empty days. They perfect their amateur tattooing skills, write raps, or carve soap figures; they watch TV or make collect calls to random numbers. There’s a kind of make-do attitude in the air, as well as the idea that you can reinvent yourself – starting with your past. But of course there are also more destructive forces around, with drugs, suicide, and violent revenge always lurking in the background.

Perhaps of necessity, the collection is rather homogeneous. For instance, all but two stories are in the first person, with the typical narrator an observer who recounts other prisoners’ dreams and desperate actions but reveals little or nothing about himself. My favorite stories are those that also look backward and/or forward to show the protagonist’s life before and after prison rather than just dwelling on daily life in the pen. In one stand-out, “Leche Quemada,” Clyde is released after 12 years and tries to slip back into life with Melissa but finds that – like the boiled milk candies his Hispanic cellmates made and he always coveted – what you’ve been waiting for all this time might not be all that you hope for. My overall favorite is “Engulfed,” in which Steven, who admitted selling phony security systems after he fell for a set designer, calls his roommate out for lies about his past. Fire as a destructive yet cleansing force that reveals the truth is a potent symbol here as well as in “Six Pictures of a Fire at Night.”

*All proceeds from the book go into an education fund for Dawkins’s children.

My rating:

The Graybar Hotel was published in the UK by Canongate on July 20th. My thanks to Alice Laing for the free copy for review.

 

Having enjoyed J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements, I was keen to try her new novel, Saints for All Occasions. It opens in 2009 with Nora Rafferty, a mother of four, rushing to the hospital after being informed of a death in the family. She reluctantly accepts that her next task will be to contact the abbey where her estranged sister Theresa, now known as Mother Cecilia, lives. From County Clare, the girls moved to Boston together in the late 1950s: Nora to join Charlie, the fiancé she didn’t really love, and Theresa to have a chance at a new and exciting life. Moving back and forth between 2009 and earlier points in the sisters’ history, the novel considers the way their decisions have played out over the course of half a century, musing over what was fated and what they might have changed. We meet and spend much time with Nora’s children, especially John, who worked on the campaigns of a suspiciously Mitt Romney-esque figure and adopted a daughter from China with his wife; and Bridget, who’s planning to have a baby with her partner Natalie but hasn’t come out to her mother yet.

I’m not sure I ever gave this book a fair shake; from the earliest pages it reminded me so strongly of other Irish-American family stories I’ve read: Mary Costello’s Academy Street, Anne Enright’s The Green Road, Nick Laird’s Modern Gods, Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be the Place, and Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. With these forebears in my mind, it was hard to judge the book on its own merits. I also thought the ‘secret’ was as plain as day from the beginning. If it’s a less familiar story line for you, you may well enjoy it more than I did.

Favorite lines:

Charlie gave her a sad smile. ‘Isn’t there anything you like about Boston?’ Nora thought it over. ‘Brigham’s vanilla ice cream,’ she said. ‘That’s it.’

It was amazing that you did not become your grief entirely, and walk around leaking it everywhere. It could lie dormant inside of you for days, weeks, years. You could seem a perfectly whole person to everyone you met. Without warning, grief might poke you in the ribs, punch you in the gut, knock the wind out of you. But even then, you seemed just fine. The world went on and on.

My rating:

Saints for All Occasions is published in the UK today, August 31st, by Fleet. My thanks to Hayley Camis for the free review copy.

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Novellas in November

Taking a lead from Laura over at Reading in Bed, I’ve trawled my shelves and my current library pile for some blissfully short books. For this challenge I limited myself to books with fewer than 150 pages and came up with four fiction books and two ‘nonfiction novellas’.


The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry

[92 pages]

libraryThis one-sitting read is a monologue by an embittered librarian who arrives one morning to discover a patron has been locked into the basement overnight—a captive audience. Responsible for Geography, she hopes for a promotion to History, her favorite subject. Alas, no one seems to appreciate this library as a bastion of learning anymore; they only come for DVDs and a place to keep warm. That is, except for Martin, a young PhD researcher who’s caught her eye. But he doesn’t even seem to notice she exists. In one uninterrupted paragraph, this celebrates all that books do for us but suggests that they still can’t fix a broken heart.

My verdict: There are lots of great one-liners about the value of books (“You’re never alone if you live surrounded by books”), but overall it’s a somewhat aimless little experiment and not particularly well translated. 3-star-rating

 

The All of It by Jeannette Haien

[145 pages]

all-of-itWhen this won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction in 1987, the author was in her sixties. It’s since been championed by Ann Patchett, who contributed a Foreword to this 2011 edition. Father Declan de Loughry, fishing for salmon, reflects on the recent death of parishioner Kevin Dennehy. Before he died, Kevin admitted that he and Enda were never properly married. Yet Enda begs the priest to approve a death notice calling Kevin her “beloved husband,” promising she’ll then explain “the all of it” – the very good reason they never married. As she tells her full story, which occupies the bulk of the novella, Father Declan tries to strike a balance between the moral high ground and human compassion.

My verdict: Enda’s initial confession on page 27 is explosive, but the rest of this quiet book doesn’t ever live up to it. I was reminded of Mary Costello’s Academy Street, a more successful short book about an Irish life. 3-star-rating

Favorite passage: “One thing I’ve learned, Father—that in this life it’s best to keep the then and the now and the what’s-to-be as close together in your thoughts as you can. It’s when you let gaps creep in, when you separate out the intervals and dwell on them, that you can’t bear the sorrow.”

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

[143 pages]

13-waysThis starts off as the simple story of J. Mendelssohn, an octogenarian who wakes up on a snowy morning in his New York City apartment, contemplating his past – Lithuanian/Polish ancestry, work as a judge and marriage to Eileen, whom he met as a boy in Dublin – and planning to meet his son at a restaurant for lunch. But all of a sudden it turns into a murder mystery on page 24: “Later the homicide detectives will be surprised…” In 13 sections headed by epigraphs from the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” McCann flits through Mendelssohn’s thoughts and flips between the events preceding and immediately following the murder. A late interrogation scene is particularly strong – “unlike our poetry, we like our murders to be fully solved.”

My verdict: This is the first I’ve read from McCann, and it’s terrific. He stuffs so much plot and characterization into not many pages. Mendelssohn’s thought life is rich with allusions and wordplay. I was particularly intrigued to read about the autobiographical overlap in the Author’s Note. I haven’t yet read the short stories included in the volume, but for the novella on its own it’s 4-5-star-rating.

 

As We Are Now by May Sarton

[134 pages]

img_0828On the surface this is similar to a novel I reviewed earlier in the month, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old. But where spunky Hendrik determines to outwit his care home’s sullen staff, Sarton’s narrator, seventy-six-year-old Caroline Spencer, has given in. A retired high school math teacher, she’s landed in a New England old folks’ home because during her recovery from a heart attack she failed to get along with her brother’s younger wife. She finds kindred spirits in Standish Flint, a tough old farmer, and Reverend Thornhill, but her growing confusion and the home’s pretty appalling conditions drive her to despair.

My verdict: This is enjoyable for the unreliable narrator and the twist ending, but overall it struck me as rather melodramatic. However, I appreciated a lot of Caro’s sentiments. 3-star-rating

Favorite passages: “Am I senile, I wonder? The trouble is that old age is not interesting until one gets there, a foreign country with an unknown language to the young, and even to the middle-aged. I wish now that I had found out more about it.” & “And what is left of you? A lapis lazuli pin, a faded rose petal, once pink, slipped into the pages of this copybook.”


And two short works of nonfiction:

Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary by Rebecca Brown

[113 pages]

excerptsBrown is a novelist from Seattle. This is an account of her mother’s death from what sounds like stomach cancer. The disease progressed quickly and her mother died at home, under hospice care, in New Mexico in 1997. As the title suggests, the brief thematic chapters are arranged around vocabulary words like “anemia” and “metastasis.” My favorite chapters were about washing: her mother’s habit of reading while taking long baths, and the ways Brown and her sister tried to care for their mother’s disintegrating body, including a plan to prepare the corpse themselves. Clinical descriptions of vomiting alternate with magical thinking to accompany her mother’s hallucinations: “You’re packed, Mom, but all of us aren’t going, just you. But you’ve got everything you need.”

My verdict: Brown covers a lot of emotional ground in a very few pages, but I prefer my medical/bereavement memoirs to have more of a narrative and more detail than “when she died it was not peacefully or easy, it was hard.” 3-star-rating

 

Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

[119 pages]

ruinedThis 1996 memoir was sparked by reading a quote from a Chinese Buddhist in a New York Times article: he suggested that reading is dangerous as it imposes others’ ideas on you and doesn’t allow you to use your own mind freely. Schwartz, of course, begs to differ. As a novelist, reading has been her lifeline. She looks back at her childhood reading and her pretentious college student opinions on Franz Kafka and Henry James, and explains that she lets serendipity guide her reading choices nowadays, rather than a strict TBR list: “reading at random – letting desire lead – feels like the most faithful kind.”

My verdict: It’s a bibliomemoir; I should have loved it. Instead I thought it unstructured and thin. There are some great lines dotted through, but I wasn’t very interested in the examples she focuses on. Five pages about a children’s book by Eleanor Farjeon? Yawn! 2-5-star-rating

Favorite passages: “Like the bodies of dancers or athletes, the minds of readers are genuinely happy and self-possessed only when cavorting around, doing their stretches and leaps and jumps to the tune of words.” & “How are we to spend our lives, anyway? That is the real question. We read to seek the answer, and the search itself – the task of a lifetime – becomes the answer.”


Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?

How do you feel about novellas in general?