REVIEW: THE BURNING GIRL, BY CLAIRE MESSUD

Julia and Cassie have been friends since nursery school. They have shared everything, including their desire to escape the stifling limitations of their birthplace, the quiet town of Royston, Massachusetts. But as the two girls enter adolescence, their paths diverge and Cassie sets out on a journey that will put her life in danger and shatter her oldest friendship. The Burning Girl is a complex examination of the stories we tell ourselves about youth and friendship, and straddles, expertly, childhood’s imaginary worlds and painful adult reality—crafting a true, immediate portrait of female adolescence.

Claire Messud, one of our finest novelists, is as accomplished at weaving a compelling fictional world as she is at asking the big questions: To what extent can we know ourselves and others? What are the stories we create to comprehend our lives and relationships? Brilliantly mixing fable and coming-of-age tale, The Burning Girl gets to the heart of these matters in an absolutely irresistible way.

My Thoughts: Julia (JuJu) and Cassie met in nursery school and bonded over similar interests, and a unique ability to know what the other girl was feeling.

At some point, and after Cassie has seemingly turned away from Julia, rather abruptly, the two are barely civil for a while. In fact, some of Cassie’s new friends are downright mean girls.

The Burning Girl moves back and forth in time, showing us some of their best adventures together, like exploring the abandoned asylum near the quarry. Those moments spent there would come back later in the book in a pivotal way.

Cassie is described as frail, beautiful, and with “famous” white blond hair. But her behavior over the years is “slutty,” according to the other girls, and soon Cassie is isolated from everyone except the bad girls. Cassie’s issues exacerbate after her mother invites her new boyfriend to stay with them. Dr. Anders Shute seems to offer Cassie’s mother Bev a feeling of upward mobility, in which she can feel “better than” she once felt. Meanwhile, Cassie struggles with her daddy issues and resents Dr. Shute’s controlling attitudes.

What happens when Cassie completely goes off the rails, disappearing mysteriously? After her second disappearance, Julia is drawn into a sense of connection with Cassie again, having dreams of a dark cloak covering a “burning girl.”

I like Julia’s musings near the end: “Whatever choices we think we make, whatever we think we can control, has a life and a destiny we cannot fully see. That I can sense the way the plot will go, that I could…save the life of one Cassie Burnes—it’s only an illusion I cling to.”

A book that moved slowly in the beginning, but always had a hint of darkness that might be revealed later on, the tale was a coming-of-age story with mystical edges. Still, I could only give this book 4 stars. It kept me engaged, but there was much to ponder that left me shaking my head.

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PINPOINTING THE “BEFORE” & “AFTER” MOMENT: EXCERPTING “WEB OF TYRANNY”

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In an excerpt from Chapter One, of Web of Tyranny, Margaret Elaine Graham thinks back to some defining moments in her childhood.

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Later in her life, Margaret would remember the summer of 1956 as that time when she’d still had illusions about what life could be.

 

Even with the backbreaking, seemingly endless chores, there was still that camaraderie amongst the workers.  Even Lucy helped keep things light, chattering away about her plans for the evening.  Margaret listened and pretended she had Lucy’s life with Lucy’s parents.  Uncle Joe and Aunt Noreen laughed a lot.  They even had a television set and when Margaret had the good fortune to visit at their house, hanging out with Lucy’s younger sister Nanette, the whole family sat around on the couch eating their dinner on TV trays and laughing along with the I Love Lucy show.  Sometimes Margaret thought that Aunt Noreen, who was Father’s sister, must have grown up in a different family.  They were total opposites.  Father was all stern and uptight, while Aunt Noreen laughed and joked and seemed to enjoy being with her kids.  Just like Father’s other sister Molly, who had all those stories to tell.  Even Uncle Victor and Aunt Janice seemed so different from Father.

 

Margaret couldn’t figure any of it out back then.  Later she would come to believe that it all had something to do with Father being the eldest child in his family.  The one who had to drop out of school to work the farm.  The one who had to give up his own fun and lightheartedness to help bring in the crops.

 

But in her tenth year of life, Margaret Elaine Graham only knew that the father who had once loved her had turned on her.  And her life had somehow shaped itself into Before and After.  First there had been love and acceptance.  Then there was coldness and disapproval.   And fleeting moments of secret fun and freedom meted out in small portions, to be grasped and cherished.  As rare and unexpected as a stash of jewels.  And just as precious.

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DISTURBING DREAMS: AN EXCERPT FROM “INTERIOR DESIGNS”

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Martha’s dream filled with childhood memories shakes her up, disturbing her equilibrium.  Excerpted from Interior Designs.

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My dreams took me along a quiet country road.  My parents were in the front seat of their old Pontiac, driving and chatting.  They always seemed to be talking about something that only they could understand.  Greg and Jon sat on either side of me in the back seat, pushing and shoving, with me sandwiched in the middle.  But I knew better than to complain.  Nobody dared interrupt my parents when they were deep in conversation.

 
But then one of Jon’s jabs hit me hard in the stomach and I cried out.

 
I noticed my mother’s frown, even before she quickly turned into the parent who smiled and took care of me.  But the momentary annoyance I saw there reminded me of how I should behave.  “I’m sorry, Mommy,” I quickly spoke.  “It was an accident.”

 
She stared at each of the boys, giving them that look that she reserved just for them, and then smiled at me again.  “Okay, then, sweetie.  We’ll be home soon.  Then you can work off some of that energy.”

 
I could hardly wait, and soon, sure enough, we were pulling into the driveway.

 
Running into the house and up the stairs to my room, I settled into my window seat and curled up with a tablet of blank pages for drawing.  I tried to turn my thoughts and frustrations into pictures I could later give to my mother.  Then she would remember that I was the good girl and not the one who complained.

 
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“Martha!”  The voice intruded on my dream life, and I lifted my head, feeling foggy and disoriented.  Where had I gone?  Caroline was staring at me with that look of concern that everyone seemed to wear these days.

 
“Oh, I guess I must have needed my power nap,” I laughed, trying to pretend that everyone took a nap halfway through the afternoon.  “What’s going on?  More client calls?”

 
“No, I was just going to ask if you needed anything else before I leave.”  She seemed apologetic, so of course I quickly reassured her.

 
Well, I thought, after she’d gone, it must be almost time for Meadow to arrive home.

 
I hastened into the adjacent bathroom, checking the mirror for any telltale signs.  My hair was tousled and a deep pink crease divided the left side of my face.  Great, I thought gloomily.  But I splashed cold water on my face, tried to smooth out the marks, and ran the brush through my hair.  After applying a touch of makeup, I straightened my slightly rumpled outfit.

 
As I scurried out of the office wing and toward the front of the house, I tried to remember what I was fixing for dinner, but then recalled that we were dining with my parents.  Relieved, I opened the fridge and grabbed a water bottle.  I sat at the kitchen table, sipping it as if I were parched.  Feeling somewhat better, I glanced at the kitchen clock, noticing the time, and headed toward the front porch.  I grabbed a book from the coffee table in the living room just before I opened the door.

 
Settled in the wicker chair, a water bottle on the table and a book in hand, I waited.

 

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REVIEW: CROOKED RIVER, BY VALERIE GEARY

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Sam and Ollie McAlister look forward every year to their time in the meadow near Terrebonne, a rural village in Oregon, the home they have with their father, Frank (Bear). A beekeeper and an eccentric loner, he is an important part of their world.

And then their mother dies unexpectedly, and they are now living fulltime with their father.

Exploring the river one day shortly after their arrival, they discover a woman’s body in the river, but it floats away before they can reach it. And then, for unknown reasons, they decide to keep their find a secret.

Their father’s mysterious face scratches, some missing hours that he was not at home, and his unwillingness to share what is going on with him are the unfortunate secrets that add to the “circumstantial evidence” leading to Bear’s arrest.

But Sam and Ollie feel sure that he is innocent. However, Ollie, damaged by events, has stopped speaking, ever since their mother’s death, and she “sees” visions. She is guided by Shimmering…from the spirit world. Through body language and gestures, she tries to communicate to Sam, without much luck. So Sam is on her own, playing detective, and bumbling along in her efforts to prove someone else killed their father.

Narrated in fifteen-year-old Sam’s voice, with ten-year-old Ollie’s thoughts shared in alternating chapters, Crooked River: A Novel is a suspenseful coming-of-age tale that reveals much about the bonds of family, the secrets that can tear those bonds apart, and how determination can lead to redemption. But first, Sam and Ollie have to survive those who are trying to undermine them and even harm them.

I could not put this book down, and even though the outcome was fairly predictable, and I had figured out who the killer was early on, I rooted for Sam and Ollie, and it was fun watching them sort it all out. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: CAMBRIDGE, BY SUSANNA KAYSEN

18112117Cambridge, Massachusetts, was home to Susanna. She likened her love for this place like one would love a person. And being uprooted constantly with her family, to visit places like England, Italy, and Greece, made her feel rootless. Lost.

Set in the 1950s and narrated by young Susanna, the story takes us along as she comes of age, feeling like she doesn’t quite belong, not even in her own family. Her parents are always entertaining, whether they are home or traveling, and Susanna finds a way to eavesdrop. Listening in on the conversations of grown-ups makes her feel almost like she belongs. But so much of what she hears, she misunderstands, which only heightens her feeling of being an outsider.

At the beginning of Cambridge, our narrator is around seven and is also adjusting to her new sibling, Miranda, whom she calls “the baby” for the rest of the story. As if she can pretend she doesn’t exist.

In many ways, I could relate to Susanna, having come of age in the same era. And the author has captured the emotions of a young person’s rootlessness, that feeling of being invisible. Adults do not notice her unless someone is wanting to correct her for an infraction. School is challenging for her, but not because she lacks intelligence. Boredom is her daily companion when the teachers are repetitive.

By the time the family has returned from their latest journey, it is 1960. JFK and Nixon are running for President. Susanna has reached some milestones of her own….and she has not taken them well. Her changing body emphasizes that her childhood is ending…and the confusing emotions that accompany these physical changes are a reminder. But then she leaves us with this reassuring thought: “I could revise the empty space inside me so that it had a better shape: the outline of a happy childhood.”

A poignant reminder of the importance of stability and home, the tale kept me engaged. It read like a memoir, but is listed as fiction. I suspect there is an underlying factual basis to the story. 4.0 stars.

REVIEW: CLEVER GIRL, BY TESSA HADLEY

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Central to Clever Girl: A Novel, the story crafted by Tessa Hadley, is the character of Stella, the daughter of a single mother who has chosen to keep her daughter in the dark about her father.

We first meet these characters when they live in England in what is commonly known as a “bed sit.” It is the late 1950s when the story begins, but almost immediately, we are thrust into the 1960s, when Stella is ten years old. Something happens then that changes her ideas about her mother, and for years afterwards, the two of them are on a collision course.

What changes Stella’s mind about her mother? About herself? And how do her altered perceptions somehow dictate the course of her life from then on? How will she discover her “cleverness,” and why does she submerge it for a time in her life?

Like many coming-of-age tales, we see how Stella takes on the issues of the times and makes choices because of what is happening around her. The story is narrated in Stella’s first person voice, so her perceptions do color what is happening. Sometimes the story seems to be told from a distance, many years hence, and we discover that she is retelling events from that perspective: the perspective of a much older woman who is looking back at her life.

Thus we tend to question the accuracy of what has happened. Time and distance often alter events, and I suspect that this has happened in Stella’s case. The effect of this “looking back” seems to place a scrim between the narrator and the reader, leading to difficulty in following the story at times. She seemed to move back and forth between the moments of her life, and then, as if struck by an anecdote or event, she shares her perspective.

After years of barely scrounging along, she suddenly rediscovers her “cleverness,” attends university, and finally takes on a professional life and a marriage. At this point, Stella’s narrative shifts into a more insightful form. I enjoyed these latter pages more, and felt a connection to her life and her story. 4.0 stars.

REVIEW: WHAT I HAD BEFORE I HAD YOU, BY SARAH CORNWELL

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It is summer when Olivia, newly single mom to Carrie and Daniel, takes them on a road trip to Ocean Vista, the place on the Jersey Shore where she grew up. A place where she is hoping to find something…she knows not what. But it might be the very thing that helps her understand and make sense of her world.

They are enroute to their new home In New York, a home that is half hers, and where she spent some of her teen years. It is where the moving pod awaits them.

In back and forth moments, Olivia’s past and present weave themselves around her, in a dreamlike manner. We see her as a teenager here at this very shore, exploring her independence and rebelling against her mother’s strangeness. Her mother’s psychic “otherness,” her disappearances, the very essence of her illness. Something that Olivia would not come to understand for many years. A thing that is part of her, and now is in Daniel.

He was diagnosed with his bipolar disorder the year before. Olivia blames the end of her marriage to Sam on his inability to cope. But she knows there is more to it.

So when Daniel disappears one day at the shore, Olivia’s search takes her into all the remote places of her life as she looks for her missing son. It is almost like a remembering and an exploration…a quest for herself, her mother, and now her son.

What is the meaning of Olivia’s flashes at the shore long ago? Those “sisters” she keeps seeing, who are fleeing from her? Are they her mother’s lost “twins,” the ones she described to Olivia? Are they ghosts? Or has she conjured them in her imagination? What will Olivia find when she goes to New York that summer as a teen? What unanswered questions will lead to even more?

A story about fractured families, mental illness, and one woman’s desire to know herself, while also rediscovering who her mother was, What I Had Before I Had You: A Novel is a disturbing, sometimes mystical, and oftentimes illusory tale about finding oneself. I loved some of the lyrical writing, although I was also lost at times; the shifting perspectives and scenes, going back and forth in time, were hard to follow. But I felt I had a complete grasp of Olivia’s first person voice, and really enjoyed this passage near the end, as she talks about her mother’s untreated illness:

“Here is what I would say to those people who would judge her, what I would say to myself on some days: What if all the transcendent moments of your life, the sound-track moments, the radiant detail, the gleaming thing at the center of life that loves you, that loves beauty–God or whatever you call it–what if all this were part of your illness? Would you seek treatment? I have, and sometimes I wonder if the greatest passions are just out of my reach. And sometimes I am so grateful….”

An unforgettable story….4 stars.

A UNIQUE COMING-OF-AGE STORY

3aIn the first person voice of our main character Charlie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower leads the reader through the day to day moments in one young teenager’s life, during his first year in high school.

The narration comes through letters written to “Dear Friend,” an unknown recipient. We know that Charlie lives in a city, but not which one. The time period is the early 1990s.

It is clear that Charlie is very bright, judging from the books he is reading, given to him by a teacher who takes a special interest in him. He also is very introspective, almost too much so, as he tends to hold himself back from others, like an observer rather than a participant. He develops friendships, but only after a period of time, and by the end of the year, he realizes that all of these friends, older than he, are leaving for college and he will be alone again. At this point, an emotional crisis brings him to a point where he must examine some issues.

What moments in Charlie’s early life changed how he views and engages with others? How will he finally learn or remember about those events?

It took me awhile to connect with the story and the writing style, but when I did, I literally could not put it down. And this book is not my usual reading genre. But Charlie stands out from other teen characters I have encountered, so that says something about why the story resonated with me.

By the end of the story, I was so invested in Charlie and his story that I didn’t want it to end. He is definitely not the typical teen, yet he experiences all the usual emotions of that time in a teenager’s life. A very memorable young man. A five star read.

Why was the book banned?

Reasons: anti-family, drugs, homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited to age group.

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Banned Book Week is hosted by Book Journey.

PUNCHING THROUGH THE INVISIBLE MEMBRANE — A REVIEW

519eZvlQlMLIn the 1960s, the young Dubus’s started their lives together like many couples of the times. They were golden, with their intellect, their parties, and the life they were living. They were in love.

But marriage and parenting four children would take their toll, and with the divorce, the children would watch their father walking away, while they were left behind, as many children of divorce are. Their lives would be more impoverished because of the financial strains of living with a single mom. Oftentimes there was not enough food in the house, and sometimes during the long hours that their mother was at work, the kids had to fend for themselves. And what they found to occupy themselves was often something disruptive.

But nearby, the father, Andre Dubus, already a published author, would enjoy the writer’s life, while teaching at a nearby college. He had many female companions, some of whom he married. And his time with his children felt like “dating” them, a description he shared with them.

As the oldest son and second child, young Andre would find that living in a series of poor mill towns in Massachusetts would be a kind of training ground for having to fight for what he wanted. And to stave off the bullying that seemed to follow him everywhere. But first he had to work out and develop the muscles he would need.

Much of the story in Townie: A Memoir reveals what that life was like for the young boy, and how he eventually came to change how he looked at fighting; how he eventually learned how to deal with that rage that arose in him. In this excerpt, he shows us what that felt like:

 

“Ever since I was a boy running from other boys, I’d been making myself into a man who did not flee, a man who planted his feet and waited for that moment when throwing a punch was the only thing to do, waited for that invisible membrane around me to fall away and I’d gather once again the nerve and will to shatter another’s. But I had discovered a new membrane now. The one between what we think and what we see, between what we believe and what is.”

 

But it would take many years for young Andre to arrive at this place…and then only after he began writing in his notebooks and channeling his feelings into his writing.

It would also be many years before father and son would develop a better relationship. Toward the end of the story, when Andre had just published the book House of Sand and Fog, the closeness between them would be stronger than ever.

The story was riveting, even though the earliest sections that dealt with the rage and fighting were difficult to get through. The rewards that came in the second half of the book made having to slog through the violence worth it. Recommended for those who relish writer’s memoirs, and especially for those who have enjoyed other works by this author. Four stars.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE: ONE YOUNG MAN’S JOURNEY TO MANHOOD — A REVIEW

 

 

 

If it takes a village to raise a child, for J. R. Moehringer, it took Manhasset, in Long Island, NY; and more specifically, it took a neighborhood bar named Dickens (later called Publicans).

In the 1970s and 80s, the young boy was first captivated by The Voice, the unseen presence of his absent father. When the radio presence mysteriously disappeared, he inadvertently stumbled upon a host of other mentors in the bar on the corner in his village.

Two themes guided the young boy: growing up to take care of his mother, and getting into Yale. Along the way, there were the men at the bar, who took him under their wing: Uncle Charlie; Steve, the bar owner with the Cheshire smile; Joey D; Cager; Bob the Cop….and assorted members of this very influential club of mentors who stood in for the missing father.

We struggle along with J. R. as he achieves his goal of growing to manhood. Connecting with J. R. is inevitable, as the coming-of-age trials and tribulations are sprinkled with the stories of his mentors and his own voice laden with humor and honesty. From this “school” of tender influences, it is no surprise that J. R. became a writer. His efforts to become a reporter (from copyboy) at the New York Times had me rooting for him, even as his path inevitably took him elsewhere to greater heights.

Other influences, like the quirky managers of a bookstore in Arizona, added “voices” to the others when they encouraged him and lent him books that would ever after enrich his life.

In the final pages of The Tender Bar, J. R. is watching a video of his mother holding him as a baby, and these thoughts sum up his story for me:

“…I’d always believed that being a man meant standing your ground, but this was something my mother had done better than anyone. And yet she’d also known when it was time to go. She’d left my father, left Grandpa’s, left New York, and I was always the beneficiary of her restless courage. I’d been so focused on getting in, I’d failed to appreciate my mother’s genius for getting out….I’d always been dimly aware, but at that moment, with my first glimpse of the warrior behind my mother’s blank face, I grasped the idea fully and put it into words for the first time. All this searching and longing for the secret of being a good man, and all I needed to do was follow the example of one very good woman.

Brilliantly chronicled, one young man’s journey through life’s adversity toward his ultimate path captivated this reader to the very end, and left me wanting more of the story. Five stars.