Anything Is Possible: A Novel
In the rural town of Amgash, Illinois, many people are poor, and some are poorer. As children, Abel and Dottie Blaine dig for food in dumpsters. The Barton kids are subject to ridicule at school for their poverty and their father’s eccentricities. The Nicely sisters, called–meanly–the Pretty Nicely Girls, see their world fall apart when their mother’s sordid affair is discovered. Across Amgash and in nearby towns, men and women find that childhood wounds fester instead of heal–even decades later. Though it’s possible to change, the children they once were live on. Even for Lucy Barton, who leaves town and becomes a successful writer, escaping Amgash does not bring solace.
Though this book is closely connected to Strout’s previous novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, it isn’t a sequel–instead, it’s an augmentation and a reframing, sparking a new understanding of the previous work. The books work in tandem, shedding light on each other, and the experience of reading either is heightened immeasurably by reading the other. Readers may well find themselves in an endless loop of reading and rereading: the depth of these characters and their stories is immeasurable. This is a book that will remind readers why they read. An exquisite work.
Eli Cochran is your average, spunky young adult. He comes from an average family, and might appear even to blend into the vast majority of people within his demographics. However, when you look closer you see a young man struggling to stay afloat. One minute he is being hired for a wonderful position after receiving his bachelors degree, the next minute he is waking up in jail. His sudden bursts of rage and craze also set him apart from your average Joe. His journey through young adulthood takes you on a remarkable adventure that shows relationships, family, finances, and success are all in someway dependent on his addiction and current mental state, whatever that state might be at any given time. When he reaches his thirties he realizes that all the hard work and education he has is doing nothing for him. He is nothing. Finally, there comes a time when Eli wants help. He realizes he is older, fatter, and that one more wrong move could kill him. As he embarks on his journey of recovery, we delve in even deeper to who he is and how he became a man he loathes.
As I started this book, I did not know what to expect. Most of us have had some exposure to books about coming of age as well as battling mental illness. This is a tough subject to navigate. What is an even heftier challenge is executing a narration of someone journeying through mental illness of some sort. However, Alex de Schweinitz did an excellent job at portraying this feeling. He truly grabbed my attention and pulled me into this book. At first, I felt that the writing was very dizzying and threw me in many different directions. I found myself reading things over again and feeling a bit crazy.Then it dawned on me that I felt crazy, just like Eli. Genius! Brilliant! This was the point in The Deadender where I really connected. I started to think less of Eli as a crazy kid that needed some serious help and more as a lost soul who was going through something that any one of us could go through. As far as I’m concerned the only main character in this book is Eli. All of the other characters ended up feeling minuscule in my mind. I believe this was caused by how deep I was inside the alcoves of Eli’s mind. Every other person in the story was somewhere in the background. It wasn’t until Eli started to change that the dialogue within the story also started to change. This is when I felt other characters held more of a presence in the story. Overall, this is an easy and enjoyable read. However, you must be ready for an emotional journey through Eli’s ups and downs- and as I mentioned prior, they can become quite dizzying- in the best literary way possible, that is.
The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House
Two characters move the narrative of The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House forward: Nan and Jeff. Nan is a straight, recent middle-aged divorcee looking for purpose; Jeff is a gay, 30-something professor looking for purpose. Different genders, sexual orientations, and life stages, but similar dilemmashow do you live in a world of uncertainties and purposelessness? Treats subject matter is heavy, but his story is mundane; there is no moral, no point, no ah-ha moment. There is only the bleakness of life.
Nan has sold her family home and fallen in love with a larger house in the Queen Anne section of Seattle. A bit rundown and far too large for just one woman, she decides to offer the Yellow House as a meeting place for the gay mens AA group. Jeff, recently departed from NY at the onset of the AIDS epidemic, arrives in Seattle, ready for a new love and new lifewhich leads him to Henry, a troubled 20-year-old with a dark past. Through Henry, Nan, and Jeff cross pathsmuch happens in between.
The book is well-written with a tight narrative. There are elements of magical realism and glimmers of light here, but there is also an inescapable darkness that makes one wonder how anyone made it out of the 20th Century alive.
The AIDS epidemic, once loud, ugly, and violent, has become quiet as the battle against it has become more successful and the frontlines have receded to the margins. So it is surprising, and perhaps uncomfortable, for this Yellow House to rise as a reminder of a now mostly bygone era. Yet there is a truth here that is recognizable to manyespecially urban dwellers. This novel taps into the underlying fear associated with living. While this book fits comfortably within AIDS literature, the disease takes backseat to the more immediate questions: how do you define your purpose, and how do you go on after tragedy?
The isolation and anonymity of the overpopulated urban jungle becomes denser as time goes onthe small enclaves within more competitive and exclusivepersonal purpose becoming obscured by peer pressures and simple survival. Here, what becomes known as arf, could just as easily be cancer or Alzheimers or PTSD or any number of other ailments that are both physically and mentally debilitating to the individual and community. Treat takes the most feared disease of the modern age to talk about fear itself and the lengths we will go to hide, mask, and run from it.
In this, The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House is evocative and reflective. Yet there is little the reader is left with but the blanket of fear under which all the primary characters huddle. In that, Treat leaves this reader wanting morenot for the sake of a happy ending, but for the sake of balance. There are always survivors, but, here, there is only devastation and loss. These characters, masterfully made flesh and blood, never have the benefit of a laugh, a real connection or any joy. The rise is so short and the fall so permanent.
Jesusita Gonzalez is a Mexican immigrant worker. Having to raise four children in meager environs, coupled with limited funds, Jesusita is short-tempered and quick to thrash her childrenespecially Paulina, who is incessantly disobedient. Concurrently, four other individuals are dealing with their own life issues. Angie Herrera gets involved in the sex trade at an early age. Osvaldo Montes, who is disturbed by the dichotomy between the rich and poor in his area, absconds from his mogul father to a seminary. And Felix and Ralph Bocanegra, who are abandoned by their mother, are split up in foster care because of Felix’s mental disabilities. The group of four may seem irrelevant, yet each will play a significant role in Jesusita’s life that will greatly affect her in ways never imagined.
Ronald L. Ruiz has produced a dystopian plot that reflects more fact than fiction. Set during the 1940s and 1950s, Ruiz’s fifth novel is designed as split third-person narratives. Portraying the complexities of migrant life post WWII, Ruiz throws readers off a bit when he shifts over to his cast and places supposed prominence on their accounts instead Jesusita, his featured character. That said, Ruiz’s character building approach and eventual connection to Jesusita is a unique way of keeping his story vibrant and flowing. A balanced interlacing of frankness and obscurity, Ruiz’s text deftly captures not only the harsh realities of lives wrought by impoverished circumstances, tension from unfair laws, societal stereotyping, but also the biting results of pure choice. For instances, Ruiz does not mince words as he describes the licentiousness and lust in Angie’s world, while Jesusita’s thought processes and dialogue are replete with evasiveness. Although mere examples, these give just a flavor to the depth of Ruiz’s complex character development.
There is no doubt that Ruiz’s story is dark and, at points, downright depressing. Regardless, he draws his plot to a close with an air of poetic justice, while, at the same time, leaving his readers to wonder what the future holds for his characters. Jesusita is an unforgettable page-turner!
The Last Brazil of Benjamin East
The year is 1980. Seventy-two-year-old Benjamin East returns to America from Brazil after an almost 40 year hiatus. Quite a big dreamer, coupled with his idealistic mindset of the America of yesteryear, Benjamin hopes to become famous by publishing his memoir. En route to New York, Benjamin helps a complete stranger, Amy McCaffrey, escape from her abusive husband. She, too, carries a hope of utilizing her art scholarship. The only problem is that it was issued to her more than seven years ago. After their quests lead to rejection, the odd couple heads out on a month-long bus trip to California. Once again, they hope for their dreams to be fulfilled. But this time, Benjamin and Amy have no idea that they are about to embark on a soul-searching journey.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Jonathan Freedman relays a story inspired by his experiences as a foreign correspondent in Brazil. Although the first draft of The Last Brazil of Benjamin East literally sits in a box for more than thirty years, Freedman finds that he is still fascinated by the “larger-than-life” fictional character, Benjamin East, that he created as a young writer. But, to properly develop Benjamin’s character, Freedman incorporates a variety of helpful literary tools starting off with Amy, Benjamin’s sidekick. Clearly Amy is young enough to be Benjamin’s daughter, and their backgrounds initially appear to be unrelated. The truth is that they have more in common then they realize: they have difficulty facing their marred pasts.
Freedman surrounds his two protagonists with a handful of negative characters. From examples such as the immigration officer and Louie (Benjamin’s brother) to Rosemary (the waitress at Harvey’s) and Joshua (the fledging writer), this foiled cast consistently force Benjamin and Amy to introspection. Benjamin and Amy’s characters are exceptional because they are always running away from their problems, and their reactions are unpredictable. And this unpredictability gives Freedman wide opportunities to create endless un-hackneyed scenes and keeps his plot fresh and always moving. In addition, Freedman alternates scenes throughout his third-person narrative that includes Benjamin’s flashbacks to both happy, as well as unresolved, moments during his time in Brazil.
While all these literary elements are pertinent to the design of this story, what makes Freedman’s recent novel so appealing is that it is purely a human-interest story. Certainly, readers will be able to relate to Benjamin and Amy in one form or other whether from personal experience or familiarity with a family member or acquaintance. Tender-hearted and provocative from beginning to end, The Last Brazil of Benjamin East is an engaging read and destined to be an award winner.
What She Knew
In late 2008, the American economy is imploding and money manager Liz Nabor is struggling to reassure her clients that their investments are secure. She may be out to make money, but even she knows trouble when she sees it, and thats why shes always avoided questionable funds like Madoffs. But then it turns out that one of Lizs favorite investment funds, that of Jim Leininger, has been feeding into Madoffs Ponzi scheme, and it doesnt take long for the Feds to zero in on Liz as a good mid-level candidate for prosecution. On top of that, Lizs estranged aunt is dying, her relationship with her sister is more strained than ever, and her now ex-boyfriend is pissed at the amount of money he lost. Will Liz be able to redeem herself and avoid jail time for a crime she didnt knowingly commit?
Nadine Galinsky Feldmans What She Knew examines a major aspect of the recent economic recession from the point of view of a woman trapped squarely in the middle of the unstable stock market. Liz is truly innocent of any wrongdoing, her only crime being ignorance of Leiningers true associations. Liz is the kind of powerful career woman many aspire to be, wealthy and smart and fully in charge of her own life. But when that life starts to fall apart, readers will identify with the questions she starts to ask herself about what really matters, as well as the difficulties she faces in maintaining relationships with those she loves.
By telling the story in the present tense, Feldman does a good job of conveying the urgency of Lizs situation and keeping readers on the edge of their seats as she navigates her problems. Well written and full of fascinating information about the realities of the market collapse, What She Knew is a great novel that will hook you.