BOOK REVIEWS

 

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

By Cheryl Strayed

ISBN-10: 0307592731

 

A world held together by family love went cockeyed when Cheryl Strayed was in her twenties. Facing a desperately ill mother and a disintegrating marriage—with family ties unraveling around her—the author’s moral compass spun wildly out of control. Influenced by a toxic boyfriend, she strayed into drugs and a profligate lifestyle.

“My life became unmoored by sorrow,” she wrote. “I was so sad it felt as if someone were choking me.”

Glancing off the bottom of a life going bad, she managed to pull herself up by her bootlaces with the crazy idea to hike the forbidding wilderness of the Pacific Coast Trail—alone.

“I had to change,” she wrote. “Not into a different person, but back into the person I used to be.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry (and I did some of each) as the woefully unprepared young woman battled a monstrously heavy pack, agonizingly too-tight boots, wild animals, leering men, out of control weather, and loneliness.

“The trail would both shatter and shelter me,” she said. “The hot air tasted like dust … sweat dripped from my face onto the pale dirt like tears … I stared at my boots with a pleading expression, as if we could possibly work out a deal.”

Her aloneness was “an uncomfortable thunk that filled my gut.”

Strayed depended on the kindness of strangers—plus a formidable inner steel—to conquer not just the wilderness, but her inner demons as well.

In engaging, and occasionally breathtaking, prose, Wild takes readers on a life changing journey you won’t want to miss.

—Reviewed by Anne Sigmon, December 2012

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar

By Suzanne Joinson

ISBN-10: 1608198111

 Part mystery, part travelogue, part meditation on loneliness and connection, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson alternates between two stories in two different eras.

In the first, set in 1923, Eva—feisty young woman tired of England’s “damp phlegmatic dreariness”—snags a contract to write a book about bicycling, then follows her delicate “incandescent-eyed” sister and a sharp-boned missionary “always in agitation,” on a mission to save souls in Kashgar, a remote Silk Road tribal outpost that abuts the desolate Taklimakan desert in China’s far western Xingjiang Province.

They arrive to find the atmosphere tense. Women called them twei-tsu (foreign devils) and “the violence of [the women’s] language filled the air.” We follow Eva into old Kashgar’s “sand colored alleyways” with vast clay ovens, where the sticky smell of sweet dough mixes with “the smell of mutton fat and excrement.”

In the second story, focused on modern day London, Frieda is a scholar who spends so much time traveling that her life has become “a blur of boarding passes and indistinguishable hotels.”

She inherits the possessions—including a live owl—of a woman she doesn’t know, and finds Tayeb, a homeless immigrant from Yeman, squatting outside her door. A talented calligrapher, Tayeb has never had a home, “just a series of rented rooms and him self alone, scratching marks on the walls.”

The two stories, we intuit from the start, must be connected—and they are—but the connection emerges slowly, and the end is not what you might imagine.

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar asks us to look into ourselves and answer tough questions: What does it mean to travel, to be the outsider, an object of suspicion? What does it mean to rely on your own wits and instincts in a world gone mad? That alone is reason enough to read this fine novel. The elegant prose is a bonus.

—Reviewed by Anne Sigmon, December 2012

 

Georgia Bottoms

By Mark Childress

ISBN 978-0-316-03304-6

Trouble is brewing in Six Points, Alabama, “a hick town that didn’t have any better stores than a half-sized Belks,” and Georgia Bottoms is right in the middle of it.

It all starts at church, with Georgia, as always “hugging and howdying” her way to the fourth pew because­–whether or not she believed a word of it–“in Six Points, a woman had no choice but to go to church, especially a woman of a certain age who was as yet untouched by marriage.”

The family fortune gone generations ago, Georgia lives in an “antebellum falling-down house” with Little Mama, who prances through early-stage dementia in bunny slippers, and Little Brother, “who spent most of his childhood in detention and, at twenty-six, exists “mostly on cigarettes, Fritos, and beer.” Georgia is thirty-four, still young but “a good bit older than twenty-nine, the last time she remembered not thinking about her age.” She has naturally blond hair, sapphire eyes with “long Maybelline lashes,” and, some people say, “entirely too many charms for her own good.” She also has a secret life, a secret past, and a secret longing.

And, to top it all, preacher Eugene is about to confess, right in the middle of Sunday service, something that will turn the town–and Georgia’s life–on its head.

Mark Childress is a master of the theater of the absurd that is great southern gothic literature. Not since Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart have I so enjoyed a romp through southern small-town shenanigans. Don’t miss this one. It’s a hoot.

—Reviewed by Anne Sigmon, June 2012

A Good Hard Look

by Ann Napolitano

ISBN # 978-1594202926

A Good Hard Look is a novel much like Flannery O’Connor might have written, a Southern gothic tale that explores themes of class consciousness, guilt, innocence, grace, and small-town values. Instead, O’Connor appears as an imagined character–a one-member Greek chorus of sorts–in this tragicomic tale.

The book begins on the night in 1962 when Flannery’s screeching peafowl shatter the peace in her hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia–the very night before the town socialite is set to marry a rich New York groom she’s convinced to move south. Things go to hell in a handbasket from there with a typically gothic cast of characters: a brown-nosing bride with a black eye on her wedding day, a groom who “didn’t feel settled,” a pot-smoking seamstress stuck in a dull marriage to a local policeman, a gossipy neighbor “with pear-shaped calves” and a lusty high-school-aged son. Then there’s Flannery, the author who infuriated the townspeople by writing about them, a figure standing apart yet somehow sucked into their tragic vortex.

A Good Hard Look is an engaging story. The one thing I expected, and missed, was the southern voice that so enriches Southern Gothic literature from Flannery O’Connor to Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Harper Lee. Still, fans of Flannery O’Connor–and of the gothic genre–will love this book.

—Reviewed by Anne Sigmon, September 2011

Three Memoirs by Floyd Skloot

The Wink of the Zenith          A World of Light                  In the Shadow of Memory
(2008-ISBN 0803211198)           (2005–ISBN 0803238479)         (2003–ISBN 0803293224)

If your life has ever been touched by brain damage or memory loss–your own (as mine has, from a stroke), a parent or friend’s, perhaps from Alzheimer’s or dementia (as mine has with two close family friends)–then Floyd Skloot is a writer you want to know.

Eight months after my stroke, when I was just beginning to read seriously again, a friend brought a copy of Skloot’s essay “Gray Area, Thinking with a Damaged Brain,” which later began the lead chapter of In the Shadow of Memory.

“I went to sleep here and woke up there,” Skloot wrote. “The place looked the same but nothing in it worked the way it used to … thoughts teeter and topple into fissures of cognition … I lose my way … Thought itself has been a gray area, a matter of lost edges and blurred distinctions … This is not the way I used to be.”

He’s been there. He understands, was all I could think. I grabbed onto his work like a lifeline. I’ve been holding on ever since.

In A World of Light, just as he begins to rebuild his own life, Skloot faces his mother’s slide into dementia. As he assumes responsibility for her care, he confronts the intractable difficulties of their past relationship, along with his fear for his own future.

“The thing that seems to agitate her the most is me. My presence seems to suggest a past and future she cannot grasp, cannot bring into focus.” Then he writes: “I can see in my mother’s ravaged mind one possible future for my own. I can only hope  … the virus responsible for my brain damage has not hastened me along her path toward senility.”

In The Wink of the Zenith, Skloot reflects further on his own illness and his mother’s, and how they shaped his life as a writer:

“This time with my mother as been a perfect reflection of what memory itself feels like when it’s compromised. Images rise …often of their own accord, often without connection … There is a feeling of emotional vertigo, an almost hallucinatory sense of being unstable within the rush of consciousness, out of harmony with your own self. Out of time, too, as the threads binding past and present have frayed.”

In 2010, Poets & Writers Magazine named Skloot one of fifty of the most inspiring authors in the world, saying: “Despite virus-induced brain damage, he writes with surprising tenderness and candor about recreating a life for himself and, in the process, makes us think about our own.”

For anyone whose life has been touched my memory loss, Floyd Skloot’s books are a balm to the soul, a hand reaching out from the night to help you hold on till morning. I’m not alone, you can’t help but feel. For anyone else, Skloot’s books are an elegiac reflection on life, memory and those we hold dear.

–Reviewed by Anne Sigmon, July, 2011

 

Mamalita

An Adoption Memoir

by Jessica O’Dwyer
ISBN-13: 978-1580053341

Mamalita, Jessica O’Dwyer’s heart-stirring memoir about her experience with international adoption, takes readers on an emotional ride as wild and unpredictable as a Guatemala chicken bus.

Unable to have children on their own, Jessica and her husband, Tim, considered adoption from Guatemala.  Their path was set when Jessica fell in love, match.com-style, with Stefany, one of the newborns featured on an LA adoption agency’s website, children with “fingernails tiny as match heads, mouths the size of miniature rose petals … ”

Jessica and Tim knew it would take time. They knew it wouldn’t be easy. But they never expected the netherworld of crooked adoption agencies, shady fixers, and Kafkaesque bureaucracy they found in corrupt and crime-ridden Guatemala City.

At one point, she and Tim found themselves locked in a notario’s office: “a former motel at the end of a dusty alleyway” where “the hallway smelled sharp, like body odor that had seeped into old clothes and would never launder out.”

Getting nowhere after several months, Jessica quit her job and moved to Guatemala to try to push the process along, treading a precarious line between stubborn persistence and alienating the functionaries she needed on her side. She made friends with other adoptive mothers sharing with them “the late-night fear of losing a baby” she already loved.

A gut-wrenching tale told in lyrical prose, Mamalita broke my heart then reassembled it whole. It’s an ideal selection for book groups. Not since Three Cups of Tea have I been so moved by a story.

–Reviewed by Anne Sigmon, March, 2011

 

The Good Daughters

By Joyce Maynard

ISBN-13: 978-0061994319

Joyce Maynard’s lovely new novel, The Good Daughters, is an elegiac reflection on belonging, identity, the nature of family love–and the damage wreaked by family secrets.

The story revolves around two daughters born in the same small-town New Hampshire hospital on the same day–July 4, 1950–to two very different families: one a sturdy tribe of farmers who’d worked the same land for ten generations; the other an ill-matched couple of rootless wanderers whose pie-in-the-sky schemes never seem to work out.

In tones reminiscent of Kent Haruf’s fine novel PlainSong, Maynard’s descriptions evoke farm life: the smell of hay after a rain, “crows circling the barn, starlings looking for the rafters,” the cattle’s “long low sounds of discontent.”  From the first chapter we understand that “things are not as they should be on the farm.”

The narrative, which spans 50 years in the girls’ lives, is told in their two voices in alternating chapters.  Ruth is the good girl, troubled by the sense that “in some way I could not understand … my mother never took to me as she did to my sisters.”  Dana was raised in a family “where it seemed like the adults were the ones who needed to grow up.”

Maynard’s deeply touching story registers the restless longing of her characters for connection, and for the truths that, sadly, lay buried for three generations.  Readers who think they’ve guessed the secret early on in the book may still be surprised by the ending.

–Reviewed by Anne Sigmon, December, 2010

 

 

That Paris Year

by Joanna Biggar

ISBN-13: 978-0982625101

For anyone – especially any woman – who loves Paris, Joanna Biggar’s new novel, That Paris Year, is a delight both to the senses and to the heart. It’s perfect trip reading for anyone planning a visit.

The novel, set in 1962, follows five young women – students at a small southern California college – as they head to Paris for a “year abroad” at The Sorbonne, where “the weight of centuries hung over the stones.”

Biggar’s exquisite prose evokes both the romance of being young and in love in Paris – the “shifting light and dancing leaves” of autumn; “the light so soft over the spires of Cluny it changed the color of the clouds as they drifted overhead.”

Leaving parents and boyfriends behind, the “demoiselles” are captivated by French writers, Paris café life – Café de Flore, Deux Magots, wine caves filled with “more smoke than light, packed-in bodies, sweat, the taste of cognac.” And, of course, there were the men, one a dark prince from Dakar; another a handsome silver-haired Frenchman wearing a cravat and a jacket as well-tailored as his come-ons.

During their Paris year, the girls (and they would have been called girls, back then) also encounter the harsh realities of life there, “the high-pitched tearing of the wind,” “rain falling like ice needles,” the suffocating life of their concierge, “a lonely old woman who longed for things she no longer knew how to describe.”

The demoiselles are foreigners, “drifting predictably … like newly feathered birds, chirping away in lightly accented French.” But even in Paris they can’t escape their own hopes, their fears and the pressure to think about their futures.

That Paris Year offers a luscious, poetic view of the City of Lights, a nostalgic glimpse of life in the 60s, a timeless look at the choices young women make on their way to adulthood.

Make room in your suitcase for this one.

– Reviewed by Anne Sigmon, October, 2010

 

 

Dead Love

by Linda Watanabe McFerrin

ISBN-13: 978-1933330914

Spooky characters race across the canvas of Linda Watanabe McFerrin’s gripping supernatural thriller, Dead Love, at a furious pace, dashing, darting, rushing from Tokyo to Haiti, Amsterdam and Malaysia.

It’s a spellbinding story filled with preternatural gypsies: a not-quite-zombie girl, a smitten ghoul, a witch doctor, a dwarf, stealthy black-clad ninjas and tattooed Japanese gangsters. Dead Loves world is one of global conspiracies, corrupt diplomats, hidden microchips, poisoned blowfish, blackmail, and ominous intent, of “dark faces shut tight against inquiry.”

McFerrin’s stunning prose evokes her story’s shifting locations from Tokyo’s clip joints and karaoke bars to a drug-running photographer’s houseboat that “smelled of licorice drops and hashish and developing chemicals.”

Dead Love is a hunter’s tale, a story about searching and finding and losing and searching again. And it’s a story about hope, a “hope like a sickening rollercoaster ride that takes you up and down and throws you about.”

Lovers of the vampire/zombie genre will drool over it. But Dead Love isn’t just for them. The rest of us will be amazed at how thrilling – and literate – a zombie novel can be.

–Reviewed by Anne Sigmon, October, 2010

 

You Want Me to Do What?

Journaling for Caregivers

By B. Lynn Goodwin
ISBN-13: 978-1606962978

Lynn Goodwin has developed a brilliantly simple concept: a pocket-sized journal that allows overstressed caregivers to jot down their thoughts in pilfered moments: waiting in doctor’s offices, sitting by hospital bedsides, or over a cup of tea at midnight.  Her simple yet insightful writing prompts can help caregivers locate inner feelings that have long been pasted over with to-do lists.

The journal exercises in this book allow caregivers to focus on themselves and their needs if only for a moment. And with that focus comes insight and understanding.  As Goodwin writes in her introduction, journaling “can strengthen your relationship with yourself.”  Research shows that journaling can also relieve stress to help you stay healthy. It doesn’t take much time. Godwin asks her readers to give it 15 minutes a day. Even the most harrowed caregiver owes herself that much.

I wish I’d had this book to give to my mother as she tended my father almost around-the-clock during the last four years of his life. I wish I’d had this book for myself  as I flew back and forth across the country feeling guilty and helpless.

Goodwin’s writing prompts apply to anyone caught in the web of caring for a chronically ill friend or family member. I think the prompts – and the journaling process – could be equally beneficial to the patients as well. I highly recommend this book.

–Reviewed by Anne Sigmon, January 2009

 

 

Innocent Traitor

A Novel of Lady Jane Grey

By Alison Weir
ISBN-13: 978-0345495341

Religious turmoil and the treacherous politics of royal succession in Tudor England provide the backdrop for Innocent Traitor, historian Alison Weir’s first fiction book.

The novel traces in vivid detail and with historical accuracy the short life of Lady Jane Grey, great-niece of King Henry VIII. Caught in the vortex of the Protestant-Catholic struggle and the scheming of her power-hungry parents, Jane was – at 15 years old – wrested onto the throne of England for nine tumultuous days after Henry’s only son, the young Edward VI, died without heirs.

Weir tells the story from the points of view of eight different narrators speaking directly to the reader almost as in a letter. They include the refined and intelligent Lady Jane, her abusive mother, and the conniving Duke of Northumberland, who plots with her parents to have Lady Jane designated as King Edward’s heir, setting aside the rights of Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth.

Weir’s decision to narrate the story alternating among so many narrators was a risky one for a first-time novelist and is not altogether successful. The voices sound so much alike that characters aren’t as fully rounded as we might hope. The first-person technique also makes for some awkward dialog in a few places, such as when the arch-villain Northumberland describes himself to the reader: “Looking in the mirror, I see a bull of a man with cold black eyes.”

Even so, Innocent Traitor is a fast-paced and pleasantly readable look into a fascinating period of English history.

­–Reviewed by Anne Sigmon, September, 2008