Fiction

Claire of the Sea Light

This Sunday at 2 p.m. in Room 2B, join our Booksplus discussion about Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light.  In honor of Black History month, we will discuss this luminous book set in Haiti just before the cataclysmic earthquake of 2009.

Danticat, who emigrated from Haiti as a child, has won many awards including the MacArthur Award (nicknamed the genius award).

If you like folklore and learning about other cultures, Claire of the Sea Light is the book for you. It tells the tale of a young girl whose mother died just after her daughter’s birth. According to Haitian folklore, this makes Claire a revenan, a child who battled with her mother’s spirit and won.

On each of her birthdays, Nozias, Claire’s father, takes her to visit her mother’s grave. In the cemetery they meet Madam Gaelle, a fabric store owner and wealthy widow in town, who lost her own daughter on the same date as Claire’s birthday.

Best Short Stories of the Year

I love anthologies, particularly of short stories. But I must confess I never follow the editor’s carefully thought-out arrangement.

Certainly, I hit pay dirt with this year’s O. Henry prize collection.  The very first story I dove into “Good faith” by Colleen Morrissey wowed me on first reading and ended up being my favorite.

What made it so good? Snake handlers, religion, a summer road-trip, girls coming of age, family conflict, romance, and camping out under the stars. It tells the story of a religious family travelling the south who meet two rich young men on the road.

That night the leading character Rachel does snake handling, not for entertainment, as she tells the more serious young man, Mr. Pattinson, but as part of her faith and religious practice.

The Invention of Wings

Two young women characters guide the reader back to 19th century South Carolina where the institution of slavery affected everyone’s life and relationships. Hetty (nicknamed Handful) is a skinny wisp of a girl with amber eyes and wild braids in her hair. 

At the age of ten, the Missus gives her to her middle child, Sarah, who has just moved up from the nursery.  In this society it’s normal to have your own slave, and one who can mend and sew is highly valued.

At an elegant birthday party attended by the privileged young of Charleston society, Sarah refuses this lady’s maid/slave.  Sarah does not believe in the institution although her family’s life centers around its abuse and brutality.  The Missus walks everywhere with a cane, but the slaves know its real use—to hit them on the head should they bring this lady displeasure.

Lucky Us

This intriguing 1940s novel opens with a mother announcing that someone has died and they better hustle over to the house and "see what might be in it for us."  The house belongs to Eva's dad and his recently deceased wife.

A week later Eva's Mom deposits her on the doorstep with a suitcase then disappears from her life. Upstairs is Eva's half-sister, Iris. Until this day, neither sister knew the other existed. 

Iris, four years older and in high school, enters and wins many talent contests (elocution, dramatic readings, poetry, patriotic essays, and dance) in their small Ohio town and bergs like it within fifty miles. However, she must hide her earnings from her father, Edgar, a college professor of elocution, who has no qualms about stealing from his children.

Before long, Iris graduates from school and heads out to Hollywood. Because their dad basically abandons Eva to her own care, she soon drops out of school to join her older sister in Hollywood. They move into a rooming house and Iris shares her adventures with Eva as she holes up in their room until school is out each day.

Iris scores a few speaking roles in movies, but soon becomes involved in a gay sex scandal and gets blacklisted in Hollywood. The older more famous actress marries immediately and her career zooms on.

Soon Edgar reappears and along with a helpful make-up artist, Francisco, they decide to drive across country to find possible jobs in New York. Edgar thinks he can pass as a butler and with some training, Iris, can be a governess. As they drive through the west, Iris memories facts from The Little Blue Books, and the party grills her on Shakespeare. Luckily, father and daughter land jobs with an Italian nouveau riche family, the Torellis.

Eva grows up to become a fortune teller. As Iris advised Eva, "It's the great thing about the war.... Anyone can be anyone." Iris adopts a son (somewhat illegally--they actually steal him from the orphanage) and falls in love with the Torellis' cook, Reenie, whom she convinces to leave her husband and move in with them.

To this crazy disfunctional family, Bloom brings her insight as a former psychotherapist. The 40s time period is captured well and a series of letters from a dear family friend, who was thrown out of the country for being Jewish describe some of the hardships of Europe including the Dresden bombings.

In no sense is this a light, hopeful book, yet it is very well-written and captures the complex relationships and dynamics of a modern American family in the midst of a rapidly changing world.

For a book about another family surviving WW II on the other side of the pond, try Amanda Hodginkson's 22 Britannia Road.

Let Me Be Frank With You

I’m not from Jersey, but Philly, which is a short bridge- or boat-ride away, but boy has Ford captured the Jersey patois, sense of alienation, and its ironic humor. Plus that reverence Jerseyites feel for what they call The Shore, a kind of mythical Fun Paradise with nature in the otherwise cemented-over Northeast.

Realtor and ex-sportswriter, Frank Bascombe returns in these four intertwined tales.  Ford has stuck with the sensitive, observing hero from three of his novels The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, two of which won major awards.

Something bad, really bad, has happened to The Shore. Houses and lives have been ripped apart and most everyone is in a bad mood. Hurricane Sandy recently ripped through and most people have lost not only their homes, their finances, but also confidence in the future.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

If you loved Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels, this collection of stories will convince you that she can capture modern people at least as well as medieval ones showing all their foibles and unachieved dreams. 

Mantel’s prose is startling clear, her metaphors striking but en pointe, and her feel for characters both rich and sure.  She has a ready feel for plot and for infusing her stories with a deep feel for the mysterious.

In the opener, “Sorry to Disturb,” she portrays a sick British ex-pat living in Saudi Arabia, who is almost a prisoner in her own apartment (because of women’s very restricted social and cultural standing there.) An Asian foreign man starts to visit her in the afternoons and though he is married, she immediately suspects his lack of good intentions. When he tells her that she reminds him of his first American girlfriend who was risque, she knows her perceptions are right.

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