Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Book Review: Heirlooms by Rachel Hall

Heirlooms: StoriesHeirlooms: Stories by Rachel Hall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I’ve known Rachel Hall since we were at Knox College together, so these stories would have been a joy to read no matter what, just for her voice and wry humor and the memories they evoke. Though that friendship is what prompted me to buy and read Heirlooms, I can sincerely say this is a great book, and one I would highly recommend to anyone, especially if you’re interested in World War II (especially the Holocaust, the resistance, and collaboration in France) and how it is remembered (or misremembered). Issues of immigration, race, and discrimination in the U.S. are also folded into the stories as time progresses. It is no wonder that Marge Piercy selected Heirlooms for the C. S. Sharar Chandra Prize. These stories are tightly crafted with economical language and image that nonetheless pack an enormous emotional punch. They are deeply philosophical without being ponderous. They explore the past and our tempestuous relationship with it, clouded with guilt, understandable revisionism, and attempts at retrieval of the stories that have been lost. Individually, each story is poignant. When taken together as a collection, the stories speak to one another and build deeper themes that will reward multiple readings. Characters appear and reappear in new contexts, giving the reader multiple perspectives on their stories as we follow the main characters through four generations.

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Book Review: Miss Jane by Brad Watson

Miss JaneMiss Jane by Brad Watson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s no wonder Watson’s latest novel was nominated for the National Book Award. Watson presents us with compelling characters whose lives explore contemporary issues in a setting of historical fiction. The title character, Jane is born in the early 20th century with a birth defect that leaves her incontinent and unable to have children or maintain normal social relations. We see her from the day she is born and follow her and her family into adulthood as they struggle with and adapt to the implications of her condition. She cannot stay in school, yet she is bright enough to be able to learn on her own how to read and do math. She is naturally curious about herself and about her sexuality, though she is unable to fully explore that side of her life. She is intensely aware of the fertile life on her Mississippi farm, and seems more in tune with life than many around her as she accepts the body she was born with.

Watson’s portrayal of the character based on his own great-aunt is warm and sympathetic, even as his understanding of the family dynamics and the struggles Jane’s parents and sister must go through. His portrayal of rural life in Mississippi in the 1920’s and 1930’s is spot-on and a significant part of the value of this book. The relationships of men and women who work on the farm, the struggles to eek out a living from the soil during hard times, and the bone-wearying life of a country doctor, perhaps Jane’s greatest and most lasting friend, serve as the perfect foil for her own struggles and add to the rich portrayal of Southern country life.

Miss Jane is not always an easy read, as it takes on difficult issues of gender and race, yet we are much the wiser for it.

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Clarion Ledger Review

Barrier Island Suite front cover imageI am incredibly honored that today’s Clarion Ledger includes a review of Barrier Island Suite, and I’m grateful for the meticulous reading that Lisa McMurtray gives of these poems. I’m also thankful to Steve Yates who organizes these reviews, which is such a great service to writers and readers in Mississippi.

I do need to make one small correction — my reading at Delta State is on Friday, Sept. 30.

Book Review: Before He Finds Her

Before He Finds Her: A NovelBefore He Finds Her: A Novel by Michael Kardos

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An engrossing read, Kardos’s second novel captivates both as a thriller and as a character study that asks deep questions about love, family, truth, and the will to change. As anyone who has read The Three-Day Affair might expect, Kardos weaves a complex and excellently crafted narrative that alternates between the the days leading up to the murder of Allie Miller, of which her husband Ramsay is accused and the present where Ramsay is believed to be in hiding and still a threat to his 17-year-old daughter, Meg, even as she goes looking for the truth. Both narratives are full of suspense and revelations that alter our understanding of the crime and the characters involved. Kardos keeps us guessing throughout, and the payoff is satisfying both in terms of what we learn of the crime and what we may learn about ourselves, reflected in the story’s mirror. It is a book you won’t want to put down, even after you’ve read the final page.

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Book Review: Approaching the Magic Hour by Anges Grinstead Anderson

Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter AndersonApproaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson by Agnes Grinstead Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating memoir for fans of Walter Anderson’s art from the perspective of his wife, this book tells the story of their marriage, his struggles with mental illness, and the times and places that inform his paintings, drawings, and pottery. Though clearly a loving and sympathetic portrayal, this account does not shy away from discussing the challenges they faced together.

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Book Review: Sympathetic Magic by Amy Fleury

Sympathetic MagicSympathetic Magic by Amy Fleury

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As the title poem announces, “Sometimes what is needed comes to hand.” These poems are both needed and close at hand. Amy Fleury’s voice is never overly intellectual, never too familiar. These poems are calm and contemplative, yet they bring necessary images to life, whether it is through the exploration of minutiae from a Kansas landscape like the “First Morel” or the touching encounter between father and daughter in “Ablution” or the perception of nuns and saints in their “Niches.” It is great to see a poet who vacillates so dexterously between intensely personal poems and poems of complete objectivity. Read these poems whether you are in “the waters of loving” or “the sump of loss” or somewhere between. They will do you good.

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Book Review: The Last Days of California

The Last Days of CaliforniaThe Last Days of California by Mary Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved the narrative voice given to Jess, and the immediacy of her story, where every moment is painted with vivid detail. Miller’s dry, sometimes sardonic sense of humor gives the story just enough of an edge, and the four family members trapped in the sardine can car on a road trip to witness the Rapture in California, keep tensions simmering and nearly ready to boil. And yet the sisters’ conflicts are never predictable and the parents are never the cardboard antagonists they could easily have become. We develop sympathy for the mother and the father’s weaknesses and inconsistencies, even as we get to know the two sisters through their rebellions: arguments about wearing their King Jesus t-shirts and misadventures with the boys they meet along the road. If anything, I might like to see a little more resolution of the issues of underage drinking, date rape, and teen pregnancy. The issues are there and portrayed realistically, but never quite acknowledged by the characters or resolved, though a full resolution might be too much to ask of the 15-year-old narrator. We are left with haunting questions that make this so much more than the typical road-trip novel. The changing relationship between the two sisters, and their understanding of their parents’ humanity provide the heart of a story that will remain with you long after the road trip ends.

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