ere is a refresher of each of the seven books we’ve read to have our own version of the contest sponsored by the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn. I have cribbed some information from the various posts to remind us all of what the books are about. Please send in your vote. No overthinking allowed. Pretend you’re a great Pooh Bah and your task is to select one of these debut novels for further consideration. Please send vote to the following, with vote as the subject line!
WHAT IF YOU HAVEN’T READ ANY
There is an app out there called Blink, which gives you a brief reprise of many so called important books. People pay to be in on the know with Blink. You, dear Reader, for no money at all, can have the same understanding of these seven books that Blink would provide (if they were to look at literature). And agents and editors, so rumor has it, only look at the opening paragraph of a book to decide whether or not to carry on reading it. Think of each of these reviews as a kind of literary hologram, a part which stands in three dimensions for the whole. It’s a real achievement for each of these authors, and also, taken together they may show some direction about literary fiction at the moment.
WHY DOES IT MATTER
Could I be honest and say it doesn’t really. But it’s fun to say with your vote, I kind of like the direction this book is going in. I have included a link at the end of each brief summary to the post where each book was reviewed, just in case you’re hesitating between two choices.
READER: Is that cheating?
ME: I hope so.
Here we go, in random order.
Brood by Jackie Polzin
The novel Brood begins in Minnesota with the narrator’s first week of owning chickens. We are brought into the world of chickens, their maintenance, their habitat, their welfare. Four chickens, Gloria, Gam Gam, Miss Hennepin County, and Darkness, occupy our thoughts and the thoughts of the narrator. “Do the chickens think of warmer times?” The unnamed narrator poses that question and then answers it: “They do not. By the time a snowflake has landed, snowflakes are all a chicken has ever known. Theirs is a world of only snowflakes or only not.” I especially responded to the narrator’s style of writing and the way she layered her observations and her sorrow.
The book is structured into a series of short chapters, opening up from thoughts about chickens to thoughts about motherhood. Helen brings her toddler to be babysat, a boy who is ferocious in his cries. The narrator in desperation tries a chicken remedy: “Finally, I pinned his arms to his body and tucked him between my elbow and the curve of his waist. This is one way that chickens like to be held. His cries tapered to a trembling whimper.” The book then pairs a meditation on chickens with her other job as a housecleaner. She returns to a house to clean where unfortunately her miscarriage had begun to happen. The meditations are about struggling with her unfulfilled identity as a mother.
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
Well, this story is not easy to recap. (Spoiler alerts) We start with Winnie, a Vietnamese / American arriving in Saigon, who goes missing. Her sort of boyfriend begins a desultory search, as the novel, likewise, wanders off in search of Vietnamese history, superstition, murder and intrigue. On the one hand, it is a brilliant collection of various aspects of Vietnamese culture, both present and past. On the other hand, due to its extravagant largesse, it manages to lose Winnie in the process, which is no mean feat because Winnie is already missing!
A second woman, Binh, who was murdered, and therefore counts as missing, inhabits a dog and finds Winnie at the end of the novel, teaching Winnie how to leave her own body, which she happily does, becoming first a rat and then a dog herself. Now for sheer fun and playfulness, this is extra as the French would have it, meaning excellent. But what good does this do Winnie? So not only does the scope of the novel lose Winnie, but the end loses her too. The end is especially quirky because in the earlier parts of the novel we see in painstaking realism Winnie’s attempts to adjust to Vietnam. And by the end of the novel she has come undone, as has the novel, in my opinion. It’s sheer extravagance is brilliant.
Build Your House https://jeannekoresalvato.com/build-your-house-around-my-body/
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
There’s a two-part structure of the book. First, the communal consciousness via the Internet, or the portal as it is called here. And secondly, the very personal upending event in her family, which actually happened, when her sister gives birth to a baby with Proteus syndrome, familiar to us from the play The Elephant Man.
Part I, then, features an Internet influencer who goes around the globe, talking about her generation and the portal. Remember that she had become famous for a post that said, “Can a dog be twins?” She is awash in the particular, random detail, the communal stream of consciousness and addiction that is the Internet.
Part II. Summoned back to the family by her mother, the narrator learns that her sister is carrying a baby with a rare genetic defect, which had been detected in utero. This part of the book is brilliant in a different way. The news of the genetic defect and the decisions that have to be made with regard to this kind of a pregnancy are harrowing. The baby is born and the family, for all its squabbles and political divisions, responds in such a beautiful, empathetic way to the baby. The writing keeps its peripatetic pace and sometimes reaches a beautiful sublimity. Speaking of the baby, the narrator says, “Her face was luminous as if someone had put flesh on the bone of the moon, and her beautiful blue eyes were larger than ever, as if coming to the end of what there was to see.” You can tell Lockwood’s early work was in poetry.
So what are people not talking about? Perhaps it’s that the specificity of the Internet doesn’t make it into novels. Or could it be a challenging pregnancy? Other questions: Do the two parts go together? Kind of. Is it immature? Yes. Is it brilliant? Yes.
No One Is Talking https://jeannekoresalvato.com/no-one-is-talking-about-this/
The City of Good Death by Priyanka Champaneri
The story begins in Benares, the holy city on the Ganges, where the sick and dying make pilgrimages to die. Pramesh, the manager of a death hostel, is attentive to the needs of the dying and their families. He is also attentive to his own family, Shobha and their daughter, Rani. There is quite a world surrounding the death hostel: the ghats, the police, the homeless, the boatmen, the merchants, the neighbors. And we must also include the ghosts.
Early in the story, a man is fished up out of the river who looks strikingly like Pramesh. In fact, it is his cousin, Sagar, from whom he has been separated for many years. For Pramesh to discover the drowned Sagar with no explanation for his sudden presence in the city is a mystery that permeates the book.
It is an expansive book, touching on many Hindu cultural norms, from religious beliefs to food. It also deals with the ways women can be ostracized and families devalued. This large canvas can render the story-telling itself a bit slow. When the ghost of Sagar haunts the death hostel, a most interesting development, the storyline seems to plateau. Much pot rattling ensues and not enough else. The promptings of the ghost cause Pramesh and his wife, Shobha, to journey back to the family land. This journey catches us up on the life of Sagar and reunites the two families.
A parallel story unfolds, in which the sister of a policeman died in strange circumstances, an apparent suicide, leaving his other sisters in a kind of Indian limbo, unable to marry. What really happened that night his sister died? An aging, grumpy neighbor is the key. Why what she knows comes to light so many years after the fact is troubling to me, but it does create a momentum, albeit slightly artificial, for that story line.
The City of Good Death https://jeannekoresalvato.com/the-city-of-good-death/
Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng
Four Chinese lives intertwine: Momo, a village boy who earns a prestigious scholarship and does his village proud; Cassia, a nurse, who becomes his wife, who nurses a brutal secret; Junie, their child born with no legs from the knees down; and Dawn, a violinist and college friend of Momo’s. The early part of the book with its rich setting and each personal adjustment of three adults to the cultural revolution is very painful and compelling.
Momo goes to the West, to study engineering in a make-believe town in Wyoming, leaving Junie with his parents. For me the story drags here. Cassia intends to join her husband, flying into San Francisco, but decides not to continue on to meet him. She is the most fragmented character. We don’t know why she does what she does, except that we learn that the man Cassia first loved was harassed during the cultural revolution and ultimately bullied backwards until he fell out of a window. Cassia never recovered; never told her husband, Momo, about this until the end of the story.
Dawn. We miss Dawn who only reappears briefly as she defects when, as a member of an orchestra, she makes it to the States. Dawn’s is a virtually untold story in the book to the extent that some readers believe there were only three main voices and not four. This I think is the book’s weakness.
The story ends with Momo and Cassia on their way to scatter the ashes of a stillborn baby they’d had after Junie. A tender, fragile almost-reconciliation in the fog. On their way back to the city, the narrative gaze alights on an elk, who is described so closely it is almost as if we have his point of view, but only almost. The elk steps out into the road, causing a fatal accident. Dawn goes to Trout River to teach Junie the violin, and Junie apparently becomes highly successful.
In one of Momo’s letters, he writes beautifully about grief and love and music. “You cannot stop grief in its tracks any more than you can cut off the aria at just any point you deem convenient. And maybe, as someone says, love is a wound that closes and opens, all our lives.”
Swimming Back to Trout River https://jeannekoresalvato.com/live-a-little-read-a-little-novel-1/
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
It begins like the book of Genesis with the ancestors of the current day protagonists.
Keeping track of the many generations requires study, for some, especially since there are so many names that change for one reason or another. For others, this epic saga opens up the reader’s mind to a world minutely imagined, depicting generations of a Black family. In addition to that, we have an interwoven “real time” story, focusing on Ailey: her own family life, her coming of age, her love affairs, her family complications, her deep love for her troubled sister. Some readers love this thread that traces one individual through the fabric of the novel against the background of a welter of ancestors. Other readers find the sum total of the ancestors and Ailey at 788 pages too overwhelming (and too long).
For me, the most powerful aspect of the book has to do with the portrait of one of the most searing experiences we can possibly imagine, which is child sexual abuse. Both in the story of the ancestors, girls victimized by a white slaveholder, and in the real time story, girls victimized by a grandfather, this struggle against pedophilia is such a heartbreaking burden. Ailey’s continued struggle with her past as it plays out in her sexual relationships is brilliantly rendered. Likewise, her sister Lydia’s demise due to drugs is painful to witness.
We also have the history of Georgia, paeans to Africa and its loss. And, of course, we have the quotes from W. E. B. Du Bois, serving as commentary.
Actual historical events, such as “The Weeping Time,” in Georgia, where over 400 slaves were sold and the skies poured down rain for two days, are woven into the narrative. The story moves back and forth between the ancestors and Ailey’s story. History is braided in, as is the celebration of the women both before Georgia became Georgia and after.
Love Songs https://jeannekoresalvato.com/the-love-songs-of-w-e-b-du-bois/
The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade
A young man in his thirties, is perennially down on his luck. He lives with his mother and he’s out of work. One unusual event on the horizon is that as a member of a secret brotherhood, he has been chosen to play the role of Christ in the Easter passion week, carrying a cross and being hoisted upon it. His pregnant, unmarried, teenage daughter appears out of the blue to live with him and her grandmother. She enrolls herself in a school for pregnant mothers, learning both neo-natal skills and working towards a GED. Can this family actually become a family? The answer is a kind of yes, in fits and starts.
Here’s a critic from Goodreads:
“This young man believes that he can redeem himself in the eyes of his community by this public act of piety and self-mortification. By the end, he comes to recognize that redemption does not come from enduring punishment but by carrying the burdens of others in love. He finally realizes that we are invited to embrace what Christ felt on the cross, but this is not the physical agony, but the love that brought him there. Other characters will draw similar conclusions as they learn to accept the flaws in themselves and each other, to put others first, to love unconditionally despite the pain. There is a great deal of swearing and sex which is supposed to give this novel an edge, but that was only a thin veneer. This is a sweet story with an ending that could cause tooth decay. The writing is good. The characters grow. But I found the presentation a bit heavy handed.”
And from one of our readers:
“The five wounds of Christ bled for love. Love given and love received. Each of the five characters is also a wound, bleeding for love, wanting it, giving it.
“Great Uncle bleeding from loss of his own son and bleeding with hope for each new generation of lost young men who need direction.
“Matriarch bleeding for all the needs and hurts of her family, feeding them and sheltering them with her sweat and blood.
“Son bleeding from all his failures, for all his yearning to succeed, he tries to coast on the nails’ wounds and eventually learning that success comes slowly, in tiny increments, built brick by brick.
“Grand daughter bleeding from impetuous mistakes, ineffectual parents, unplanned pregnancy, bleeding to give birth, becoming the Matriarch, suffering pain and work to give and get love.
Baby; not yet a wound but, in the way of all humanity, bound to bleed for love’s sake.”
The Five Wounds https://jeannekoresalvato.com/the-five-wounds/
Whew. Nothing has changed since our last Godot non-sighting, so let’s continue in that vein. Who is Godot? I mean, really.
Okay, folks, time to vote: email@example.com
Don’t be shy!!
It is tempting to vote three times
1. Best Blinken summary (tough to choose, I learn something every time. )
2. Best comments from readers (I mean, wow, for the thoughts on Five Wounds above. Better than the book itself!)
3. Reader’s choice The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers