Tag Archives: ghosts

Late for the Sky

american music

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Vintage, $15.00, 256 pages)

“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time, too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…”   Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)

“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it…  This was where he was headed.   He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”   Jane Mendelsohn

This one  is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience.   Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past.   Or in the future.

“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”

The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor.   As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories…  His body “is like a haunted house.”   She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees.   He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.   Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time:  17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969.   These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.

Music and its simple joys is  one of the themes that unite the distinct stories.   A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits.   Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together:  “The music had swung them here…  this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”

Another theme is the past as prelude.   We cannot fully understand who we are and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices  during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.

“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the theater?”  Anna asked.

“No, I don’t,” Pearl said.   She was looking straight up with  her eyes open.   Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears.   “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”

At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related.   But this is not the key point.   Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it.   Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.

“She saw the…  figures walk into the desert and she watched them…  and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”

There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book.   He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his work.   Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more.   I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   

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The Book of the Year

Last year, I selected Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger as the book of the year.   This year, I’m selecting a novel that is just as daring, powerful and unique – American Music by Jane Mendelsohn.   A long review of American Music was posted on this site on August 22, 2010.   To find that initial review, enter the terms Other Voices, Other Rooms (a tip of the hat to Truman Capote) in the Search It! box on the right and hit enter.

Here is a shorter review that I wrote for Sacramento Book Review:

“He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”

Author Jane Mendelsohn has produced a taut, sui generis story that should be a major contender for novel of the year.   The storyline is truly unique:  A severely injured Iraq war veteran is treated by a female physical therapist at a U.S. army hospital.   As she works on him, she sees and hears stories that radiate from his body – these stories involve events in 1623, 1936 and 1969.   What’s the meaning of these past lives, and what is their relationship to each other and to the wounded soldier?   The typical reader will want to race through the pages to find the answers.

A love of music is one common factor, from the creation of the modern drum cymbal to one of jazz’s greatest concerts.   But this is a story that involves more than just mortal humans and their musical creations, there are ghosts and guardian angels in the mix.   Suffice it to say that Mendelsohn brings to life the words of Jackson Browne, “Tracing our steps from the beginning…  Trying to understand how our lives had led us there.”   There are few writers other than Jane Mendelsohn who would tackle something this brilliant, stunning and divinely thought-provoking.

Joseph Arellano

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Missing Persons

Continuing a Conversation with Suzanne Berne, author of Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew

6.   What is the most interesting or surprising fact you learned about your grandmother?

I discovered that she’d had a love affair of some sort with a French brigadier who was in charge of a German POW camp a couple miles down the road from the little village where she and her fellow relief workers were headquartered after the war.   That really was a surprise.   When I developed those photographs from the packet of negatives, almost the first thing I noticed were several photographs of a handsome man in a French uniform – he looked like Clark Gable – and I thought, “Who is this?”   But it wasn’t until I started doing research in the Wellesley archive that I found out his name, then later I found letters from a nurse in Lucile’s unit that corroborated what I’d already begun to suspect.   My father loved finding out that his mother had had a romance.   That was perhaps the single most important discovery for him – it humanized her more than anything else I found out.

7.   Your story is in essence two stories – the biography of your grandmother, and the story of a daughter trying to provide a mother for her elderly father.   How did you meld these two stories together?

Mostly by trying to remember that one didn’t have much relevance for the reader without the other.   Also by recognizing that these are not only two stories, they are two impossible stories:  My grandmother has been dead for over 75 years and almost everything that once belonged to her was thrown away, so to try to “find” her I had to look past what I didn’t know into what could be or might be true.   My father lost his mother over 75 years ago.   I couldn’t “give” her back to him; but I could give him my efforts to reconstruct her life, and that brought the two of us much closer after many years of estrangement.

Yet always, always I had to keep my eye on what I couldn’t do, couldn’t know.   Which, oddly enough, is what gives this book tension and coherence, or that’s what I hope.

8.   You discover that the function of family history is “to explain what is essentially inexplicable – how we came to be ourselves.”   Do you feel that you, and your father, now have a better sense of who you are and how you became that way?

History is made up of people and what they do and what they fail to do, just as people are made up of all the history that has gone before them.   What I helped my father reclaim, I believe, is the feeling of being connected to something larger than himself.   Lucile was an intellectual, an early feminist, a business executive, a relief worker, a wife and mother.   She was a person of history, who was a product of her times, and also more than that, as we are all more than just “products” of our time.   Through his mother, my father was connected to tremendous world events, to commercial innovation, political change, seismic social shifts, war.   And so, I discovered, was I.

Of course, we are also very much products of a family history, shaped by certain traits and tendencies, either genetically inherited or passed along, as well as influenced by family losses and achievements.   Putting some of my own tendencies within some sort of ancestral context was liberating for me at least.   Or maybe it simply made me feel less alone with them.

9.   You are the author of three acclaimed novels.   How was the writing process for this nonfiction book different?

Well, frankly, I first tried to write a novel about Lucile, especially after I started learning about her experiences in France after the war.   I thought I could make her come alive after I started learning for my father even more palpably through fiction.   And she seemed like such a promising heroine for a novel!   The grocer’s daughter in ruined France.   But the fact of her kept getting in the way of the fiction I was trying to create – and the fact kept being more interesting.

So to answer your question, the process was not entirely different from what usually happens for me, which is that I have an idea for a novel and then I work away at that idea for years, and the result is nothing like what I first imagined.   In this case, I had an idea for a novel and then abandoned the idea of a novel and wrote a biography instead.

10.  What do you want readers to take away from Missing Lucile?

I’ve come to think that every family has a “missing person,” someone who died young, or disappeared, or was exiled from the family for some real or perceived crime.   Missing relatives are ghosts – real ghosts – and they haunt us by making us wonder how life might have been had they not vanished.   Maybe we would be kinder, or braver, or have made better decisions.   Maybe we wouldn’t have felt so at odds with the world.   Who knows?   I suppose I’d like readers to finish the book and realize that no one is really missing if you start looking for her.

Missing Lucile has been released by Algonquin ($23.95; 296 pages).   “Takes us deep into the lore of history as well as family.”   Sven Birkerts

 

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A Day in the Life

Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew by Suzanne Berne (Algonquin; $23.95; 296 pages)

“He had lost his mother when he was a little boy.   He’d hardly known her…  I wished I could give his mother back to him.”

Missing Lucile is a loving, lovely and lively account of the life of Lucile Kroger Berne, the grandmother that author Suzanne Berne was never to meet.   Lucile graduated from the prestigious and challenging Wellesley College in 1911, was married in 1923, gave birth to two children and died in 1932.   Hers was a short life and the author’s father was just 6 when his mother died.

Lucile was a member of THE Kroger family of Cincinnati, her own father being the founder of a grocery empire that today is worth billions of dollars.   Despite being part of such a prominent family, little was known of her life.   As Suzanne Berne writes early in her account, “Lucile has slipped out of memory…”   That is, until the author stumbled across a history of the Kroger family which provided her with the outlines of the story that is told here.   She also found developed and never-before-developed photographs that helped her to fill in some gaps in Lucile’s story.

Suzanne Berne’s father was in his eighties when she began trying to put the pieces together to create a living, breathing, woman named Lucile.   She has largely succeeded in this effort, even putting to rest some family myths.   For example, it was said of Lucile that she never smiled, but the reader sees photographs of Lucile smiling – even while her college graduation photo is being taken – and reads accounts of her being almost hysterically happy.   This is what happens in real life.

Suzanne Berne spent a great deal of time conducting research at the Wellesley College library, and a large part of this biography involves the time that Lucile spent there – a period she often referred to as the very best period in her life.   And, yet, despite the author’s best efforts some riddles remain as such…  “Every life has its blank squares.”   (Lucile was captain of the Wellesley Running Team until she dropped out for a reason that is still unknown.)

Senator Robert Taft’s wife once said of Lucile that she was, “The only one in the Kroger family with brains.”   She was also an adventurous person, a young woman who went to France just two weeks after the end of World War I; her intent being to fulfill the mission of Wellesley’s graduates – to minister to others rather than being ministered to.   There it seems she may have engaged in a romance with a military man.   Perhaps.

Perhaps is a word often used by Suzanne Berne in this work, because filling in the blanks on a life requires some guesswork:  “In my opinion, writing about other people requires a certain stupid bravado – a willingness to chat up the unknowable.   Especially since what you don’t know about someone is always going to be more interesting than what you do…”   But this account is plenty interesting enough in telling the reader what’s known about the life of Lucile Berne.

The manner in which Suzanne Berne fills in “the unknowable” is charming (this is a novelist applying her creative skills to tying the events of a life together).   The author writes about a woman she never knew in a tone that is filled with love and respect.   The reader will suspect that Suzanne Berne sees a large part of herself in her late grandmother, a feeling that haunts many grandchildren.

“…everyone’s life is a promising novel when reduced to a few lines in a reunion record…  every yearbook is full of promising-looking people who have no idea what will happen to them.”

Suzanne Berne’s father died in 2009, but not before he was able to read the majority of the manuscript that makes up this unique portrait.   His daughter Suzanne provided him with an invaluable, lyrical, account of his mother’s life – one that turned a ghost back into a living person, a woman with strengths and weaknesses; a woman who won and lost in life; a woman who lived a life in full before her early passing.   What a tremendous gift!

Lucile Berne’s life is now well accounted for, and it is well, well worth reading.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Willow Weep for Me

The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby (Avon)

The Language of Trees transports us into the deep, magical aspects of nature, while inviting us to reconsider the magnetic power of desires long-buried.   While not a believer in second chances, but rather in what is meant to exist, this story had me wanting to change my mind.   This is a well rendered tale of shattered pieces, and the sorrow of remembering their beginnings.   Ruby’s suspenseful story telling style and painterly prose make for an alluring read.

Ruby brings us to a seemingly inncuous town, whose many secrets are whispered and hidden among the giant willows.   Her characters are artfully drawn, yet oddly familiar.   We are shown Canandaigua, of the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where the folklore of the Seneca Indians runs deep.   When three children spontaneously set off in a canoe towards Squaw Island, to escape the angry father they are running from, a weeping rain turns to sudden fury; spilling into a tragedy that becomes a series of dark storms for the Ellis family.

This tightly wound tale manages to both inform and invite the reader to reconsider the gift of healing, or at least the deepest human urge to repair what is broken.   Ruby shows us the mystery of spirit in all living things and how those spirits swoop and dart among us, landing in the most unlikely of places.   This book will have you wondering about ghosts, and if those who remain and haunt us are simply the ones we choose to keep.

 

Carrie Host is the author of Between Me and the River. 

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A Great Book Giveaway

This site picked Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger as the best book released in the year 2009.   Now, thanks to Regal Literary, we are happy to celebrate the release of this novel in trade paperback form by giving away a free copy!

How much, exactly, did we love Her Fearful Symmetry?   Well, we published not one or two but three separate reviews of the dramatic ghost story (September 23, 2009; September 28, 2009; November 7, 2009).   Here is a link to the first of the three reviews (“What Comes After”) that we posted:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/09/23/what-comes-after/

So, how can you win your own copy?   It’s simple, just post a comment here or send an e-mail with your name and an e-mail address to: Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, tell me why stories about ghosts and/or twins are so very interesting (at least I find them so).   There are no right or wrong answers, just tell me what you think.   You have until midnight PST on Friday, September 10, 2010 to submit your entry(s).

The winner, as drawn by Munchy the cat, will be notified via e-mail and will have 72 hours to provide a residential mailing address in the United States.   The winner’s copy of Her Fearful Symmetry will be shipped directly to her/him by Regal Literary.   The book will not be sent to a business address or a P.O. box.  This is it for the simple rules.

Good luck and good reading!

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Do Not Enter

Based Upon Availability: A Novel by Alix Strauss (Harper Paperbacks, 340 pages, $13.99)

“Living with a ghost is easier than living alone.”

If the idea of reading about the fictional lives of eight highly dysfunctional and miserable women makes you giddy with excitement, you might like Based Upon Availability.   This novel by Alix Strauss (The Joy of Funerals, Death Becomes Them) allows one to wallow in misery.   The chief protagonist Morgan, the manager at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, would seem to have it made.   But she’s never gotten over the loss of her younger sister, so she does some very strange things – like having sex with the lowest paid males who work for her and entering the rooms of guests while they’re away.

Oh, yes, we meet the other women – all of whom have big troubles – when Morgan goes inside their room.   That’s the signal that another sad story is about to play out.   It is actually quite a shame because Strauss can write well, “Bernie sounds like a beagle that never comes when you call…  (a man) wearing a golf hat who plays cards with his cronies in Florida.”   But the sex scenes are beyond redemption.   Morgan whispers to her latest conquest so that she can pretend “like (she’s) in a porn video.”

All in all, this is a sad collection of stories which portray life as nothing more than simple torture.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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