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Interviews | April 8, 2014

Shawn Donley: IMG Gabrielle Zevin: The Powells.com Interview

Gabrielle ZevinThe American Booksellers Association collects nominations from bookstores all over the country for favorite forthcoming titles. The Storied Life of... Continue »
  1. $17.47 Sale Hardcover add to wish list

    The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

    Gabrielle Zevin 9781616203214


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A writer who reads has commented on (4) products.

Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience by Eileen Cronin
Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience

A writer who reads, January 17, 2014

To read Eileen Cronin's devastatingly human memoir is to be plunged into a seemingly bottomless well of very deep emotions: burning shock, fierce longing, everyday desire, well-founded rage, and a monumental yearning to be seen as one actually is. Many of the scenes here are of nightmare-level intensity, ranging from the perspectives of a mobility-limited small child wiggling at her mentally ill mother's feet, desperate for love and attention, to the buddingly lovely adolescent making out in the back of a van, terrified of what her disability might mean for her future sex life, to the tried-by-fire adult constantly battling a familial judgment that any attempt to understand the source of her disability could only spring from an ill-tempered desire to stir up trouble. Yet there's surprisingly little about pain in this jaw-dropping story of a smart, tough little girl's fighting to grow up sane -- and, at some junctures, to grow up at all -- in a family seemingly determined to ignore the facts and blame, if not actually abuse, the victim of intense denial.

Written with engaging simplicity, this searing tale of misguided tough love and misinformed judgments relies upon vividly-drawn incidents for its effects, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. We're not told that these kids had little rational adult supervision, for instance -- we're merely given glimpses of it when the older kids habitually compete to see who can toss Mary Eileen highest in the air with their feet, immediately adjacent to a brick fireplace. The text does not announce how insensitive Mary Eileen's teachers are; we simply see a nun bow to a stunned child, telling the girl that God has chosen her to carry the full weight of Christ's burdens. Nor are we lectured about how bullying makes children's lives miserable: we are dragged along as girls jealous of Mary Eileen's academic achievements throw her down several flights of stairs, one after the other, while not a single adult apparently notices.

If the battling boys from the Lord of the Flies had stumbled into this world, its challenges would have made them turn pale. Yet our young narrator grits her teeth, straps on her legs, and keeps soldiering on, determined that no one will see her cry.

This lack of narrative judgment is refreshing in a personal memoir, which so often veer toward anecdotal-style generalizations and sweeping condemnations. It's also refreshing to read a memoir about dealing with immense physical challenges that does not whitewash the issues or pretend that kith, kin, or even bystanders were invariably supportive of a condition not very well understood at the time. Here, the family's resentment at what they interpret as God's cruel decision to place a less-than-physically perfect child in their midst is palpable from minute to minute.

All of which is why Mermaid is one heck of a good memoir about growing up with a mentally ill parent. The denial in this household is not limited to the narrator's being born without legs from the knees down: some of her siblings remain so determined to look away from their mother's frequent stints in mental care facilities that when Mary Eileen mentions such a stay at school, one of her sisters holds her down until she calls herself insane:

"Now, as my fingers tingled to a numb state from her knees jammed into my upper arms, I shouted in a convincingly crazy voice, 'I'm LOONEY! OKAY? I'll say anything. Just leave me alone.'"

Such is the level of familial myth-making and internalized embarrassment that for much of the book -- which is to say: pretty much all of its heroine's adolescence -- everyone at home and at school calls her Tunes, short for Looney Tunes. Rarely has a scapegoat been so well-labeled, or so lastingly: even her boyfriends call her Tunes. She encourages it; chillingly, the nickname seems to strike her as affectionate.

That level of loyalty and blistering desire for normalcy will strike a chord with anyone who is now or ever has been an adolescent girl, I suspect. One of the many delightful surprises of this memoir is how good a coming-of-age story it is: learning to come to terms with one's own body and fears of how it might respond (or not) to sex are, after all, universal experiences. I would love to see this book widely read by teenagers.

Fair warning to teen readers -- and, indeed, to those under 50 -- though: this story firmly enough grounded in Baby Boomer sensibilities and 1960s-1970s cultural references that you may occasionally want to look something up. As a Gen Xer, I had never heard of Bridget Loves Bernie, for example, or the Goldie Hawn film Butterflies are Free.

That's an immensely minor quibble, however, in a piece of storytelling of great overall power. Images from this book will haunt you like memories.
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The Third Son by Julie Wu
The Third Son

A writer who reads, May 25, 2013

Wow, what an unusual book! I'm used to well-researched historical fiction that presents me with a clear, vivid impression of an exciting time and place -- which this novel does beautifully; I felt completely enmeshed in Saburo's world from the first scene -- but seldom have I encountered a first-person narrative that so convincingly carried the resonance of reality, or one that sounded so much like how a real person would actually tell his own story. It sticks in the mind (or, at any rate, my mind) as the experience of someone who actually lived through those events, rather than a personal story set against a historical backdrop.

Even very good character-based fiction set in times of great social and political upheaval sometimes gets so caught up in showing the thrilling big picture that the protagonist's private reality can get a little lost. The brilliance of THE THIRD SON lies in the narrative's treating those events (and minor characters, particularly the nasty ones) with the precise level of importance they would have realistically had in Saburo's life. A childhood encounter with a snake leaps off the page with nightmare vividness, for instance, while a change in political regime is depicted primarily through the suddenly arbitrary actions of the protagonist's schoolteacher. It's an especially effective tactic in the early chapters, where our little hero encounters some pretty eye-popping abuse.

The overall effect is to leave the reader feeling as though she's eavesdropping directly upon this guy's memories. After closing the book, I remembered the supporting characters not as though I'd known them in real life, but as if I had been fortunate enough to hear Saburo the real person tell me all about them. Admittedly, I'm a reader drawn to ambitious literary high dives, but honestly, The Third Son so impressed me that I've found myself recommending this book to random strangers in bookstores.
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I, Iago by Nicole Galland
I, Iago

A writer who reads, May 13, 2012

I love it when my reaction to a new novel catches me by surprise -- and this one, frankly, knocked me over. How is it possible that reading story whose ending I know as well as Othello's kept me up all night reading because I wanted to know how it was going to turn out?

Oh, I already knew what was going to happen -- as, I suspect will most potential readers. Most of us know the basics, right? General Othello and the lovely Desdemona are in love, Iago convinces Othello to become madly jealous, and the stage quickly becomes littered with corpses. So I was not precisely expecting to be astonished by the story. So why was I, Iago the proverbial book I could not put down?

For a very simple reason: this retelling of Othello not only seduced me into liking the villain -- something I would not have thought possible -- but feeling by the tumultuous last quarter of the book that by having empathized with his increasingly warped sense of right and wrong, I had become enmeshed in his fate. Somehow, by not shouting no early enough to stop the inevitable, the story made me feel complicit in his plot.

That's right: the reader is the unindicted co-conspirator here. How refreshing to have a novel take the reader's involvement and intelligence so seriously -- and to repay it so well.

And to do it so subtly, thank goodness. At first, Iago seems merely sensitive and observant, a boy not born into a social class that would permit him the luxury of self-determination, but increasingly determined to set his own course despite a demanding father's demands (especially well-drawn) and a frivolous social order not given to recognizing real worth. He has to fight hard to remain honest, and it frequently costs him dearly.

So when he begins to feel just a bit resentful of others' advancement, who can blame him? Why shouldn't he gain the wife he wants, the promotion he craves, the spot at the exotic newly-minted general's side? Shown through Iago's eyes, his wants seem so reasonable, even moderate, and his opposition so privileged that we cannot help but cheer him on as he navigates the complex world of Venetian military and social politics.

By the time he starts to display enough sharp-edged jealousy to startle us, the reader is already implicated in what gradually emerges as a slow-acting, closely-observed madness from the point of view of the madman. Iago genuinely wants to believe he is doing the right thing as he continues to do more and more egregiously wrong ones.

The thing is, his justifications remain insidiously plausible, right up to the point when not even he can believe what he has done. But by then, as in all great tragedy, self-knowledge can no longer save him -- or anybody else. The die is cast.

An unexpected fringe benefit that friends of the Bard will love: this story is so steeped in the Shakespearean ethos that small hints of his other works seem to have been built into the very plaster of the ballrooms and steel of the swords. Here is an image plucked from a sonnet; there is descriptor reminiscent of Juliet. And could that possibly be a reference to Pericles, Prince of Tyre?

It is, in a word, fun -- not word I generally associate with tragedy. If I have a critique (other than having lost sleep to this story), it's that I would have liked to see both Desdemona's very genuine wit and Othello's descent into overwhelming paroxysms of jealousy in a bit more detail. Why was this great mind so easily overthrown?

But that's a minor quibble. As an established fan of Nicole Galland, naturally, I expected to be charmed by the writing, and I definitely was, but I have to say, I think this is her best book to date. She's a wonderful historical novelist, deft in her wit, incisive in presenting long-ago social dynamics, thorough in her research, and gifted at bringing a bygone era to life.

If only I didn’t feel so guilty for having tricked the Moor.
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The African Book of Names: 5,000+ Common and Uncommon Names from the African Continent by Askhari John Hodari
The African Book of Names: 5,000+ Common and Uncommon Names from the African Continent

A writer who reads, June 30, 2009

When's the last time any of us saw a baby name book that was actually interesting to sit down and READ? Believe it or not, this one actually is.

THE AFRICAN BOOK OF NAMES is so intelligently put together, treating both the reader and the subject matter with respect. Unlike the vast majority of baby name books out there, it's not just a straightforward list of names and meanings -- which, let's face it, is fairly readily available on the Internet, if you're looking for only common names -- but a thoughtfully-constructed examination of the significance of naming in various African and African-American cultures.

Yes, there are indeed lists, but such lists! Arranged by categories of meaning, the names are also presented by region of origin and circumstance under which a particular name might be applied. And we're not just talking about names that translate as Daisy or Strong One here -- names like the Azanian Nothango (one who forms a buffer against the enemy), the Ugandan Nangila (born while the parents were traveling around), and the Camaroonian Akam Bowho (one who does not have a problem) abound in this book.

This book belongs on the desk of any writer even considering including African or African-American characters in her work, Many writers use baby name books to help them find interesting and meaningful monikers for their characters, but speaking as a writer who has made her way through a lot of them, this is quite simply the best-organized one I've ever encountered.
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