Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review: What Is Found, What Is Lost

What Is Found, What Is Lost
Anne Leigh Parrish
She Writes Press
paperback, 253 pages
Publication Date: October 14, 2014

I first read Anne Leigh Parrish's debut novel over the summer, and it is striking to me that the characters and the atmosphere of the novel have continued to stay with me. I first read Parrish's short story collection Our Love Could Light the World back in January, and really loved the way Parrish built her characters. The characters in Parrish's stories were just so real: flawed, yes, and not always thoroughly likable. But oh so real.

In What is Found, What is Lost Parrish again creates real and convincing characters, who seem to have stepped out of life and on to the pages of her novel. What is Found, What is Lost is a complex, multi-generational story that tackles life's most mystifying questions. In particular, Parrish shows how four generations of women grapple with questions of faith.

The novel begins with Freddie, a recent widow, looking back over her life with her late husband, Ken. Her daughter, Beth, soon enters the story and we begin to see the layers of conflict between Beth and Freddie. Eventually the reader finds out that Freddie and her sister Holly had a very unusual upbringing in a Baptist revival camp, and that their mother Lorraine was both a religious zealot and a seriously neglectful mother. In part two of the novel we get even more of Freddie's back story when we learn about her grandmother, Anna, who emigrated from Constantinople. Anna is a complex woman, and in some ways the core of the book. Her first marriage to Paul, and then her relationship with Olaf, for whom she leaves Paul, inform all of the intricacies of the other relationships in the book.

I suppose this is what I love most about Parrish's writing. She somehow creates the intricate context for understanding everything her characters do, and she does it all while maintaining a compelling sense of story. Parrish is unafraid of the most contentious topics: her novel explores the intersection of faith and doctrine within the context of Judaism, Catholicism, the Baptist faith, and Islam. Her characters include a convert to Islam, a Catholic priest involved in an extramarital affair, and a placid atheism that is not without a spiritual aspect.

I loved the way that Freddie looked back on her life with a sort of distance and wisdom, and the way that her relationship with Beth, who has worked as a stripper, contains both parental guilt and acceptance. In fact, there are no characters in this book who arrive at any sort of perfection: every character is entirely believable because each has thoroughly human flaws.

It is difficult to really do What is Found, What is Lost justice in a short review. I will just say that this is writing of the highest quality. Anna, Lorraine, Freddie, and Beth are still so vivid and alive to me. The novel is a beautifully woven tapestry that brings to life multiple generations, showing how their lives are interwoven. Highly recommended.

Anne Leigh Parrish has a website here:

The novel is available on-line and in bookstores, and can be ordered through Barnes and Noble, as well as the author's website.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Diversiverse: Men We Reaped

#Diversiverse is hosted by Aarti at Book Lust

A More Diverse Universe

September 14-27

Men We Reaped: A Memoir
Jesmyn Ward

We saw the lightening, and that was the guns, and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.
--Harriet Tubman
      Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, oldest daughter in a family fractured by divorce. She attended a mostly White Episcopalian private school, starting in the seventh grade, sponsored by her mother's White employer. After high school, Ward attended Stanford University, and then University of Michigan, where she received a MFA in Creative Writing.

     In this raw, visceral memoir, Jesmyn Ward asks why so many Black men die, why their lives are "nothing" in this country, why the history of Black lives is a history of loss. Ward delves deep into her own life and the lives of her family and those in her community. She looks deeply into Black lives, including her own, exposing the forces that lead to substance abuse, suffering, death. The memoir goes back and forth in time, and Ward focuses on the loss of five young men, including her own brother Joshua, who died violently.

     Every sentence in Men We Reaped leads inexorably to Joshua's death. Ward is unsparing in her examination of the lives of people, young and old, in her community. She builds her narrative patiently, showing how all the forces of systematic racism and deep-seeded hatred lead inevitably to the devaluing of Black lives, the impossible, devastating power of White privilege and power being used to deny the existence of Black lives.

     In one scene, Ward and her family and friends are enjoying a day at the beach, Blacks separated from Whites, each group ignoring the other, when a boat flying the Confederate flag chugs past. The White people cheer, and Ward suddenly wants to leave:
....and suddenly I wanted to leave these White people to their beach, their stars and bars, their glances, the howl that said what so many of the White politicians in Mississippi have said in coded language, one time or another: You're nothing.

This message of black lives as "nothing" recurs throughout the book. In another passage, Ward writes of a secret cellar she and her brother find in the woods behind their house: someone has dug a perfectly square hole in the ground, and then covered it with boards and pine straw. The deep hole in the earth comes to signify something dark in Ward's consciousness:
If my mother knew, she'd be angry I left my two younger siblings alone, but I wanted to see that cellar again. I needed to see if it still gaped in that small clearing. I didn't fully understand that it had taken on a symbolic importance for me, a physical representation of all the hatred and loathing and sorrow I carried inside.

     Ward's writing, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, is aching it its beauty. Men We Reaped is gorgeous, lyrical, devastating, visceral, and should be required reading for every American.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Diversiverse: Another Country

#Diversiverse: A More Diverse Universe is hosted by Aarti at Book Lust

September 14-27

Spoiler Alert...This review does reveal some plot details (paragraph two)

Another Country
James Baldwin

Another Country, published in 1962, was James Baldwin's third novel. Baldwin was born in New York, and grew up in Harlem with a deeply religious, and deeply bitter, father. A child preacher at age fourteen, He was influenced by Countee Cullen, who was advisor to the literary club at his junior high. Baldwin attended a prestigious high school, but never attended college.

What is stunning about Baldwin is simply his excoriating, incisive, and razor sharp brilliance. Baldwin records the inner lives of his characters with an insight that is nothing short of uncanny. In Another Country, he examines love in all of its permutations. Rufus, a jazz musician, is the catalyst who brings all of the other characters together. When the novel opens, Rufus has just reconnected with his friend Vivaldo, after having disappeared for three months. His sister has been frantically looking for him, and Vivaldo tries to persuade Rufus to stay with him. But Rufus is too far gone--he commits suicide by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge.

The rest of the novel circles around the idea of Rufus and what he meant to the other characters, an assortment of writers and artists: Vivaldo is an aspiring writer, Ida (Rufus's sister) is a singer, Cass is married to Richard, a writer, and Eric is an actor.

Another Country has interracial relationships, relationships between men (romantic, sexual, friendship), married relationships, extramarital relationships, and on and on. Its as if Baldwin is compelled to ask whether and how people can truly love each other, and what boundaries can lovers cross or trespass without breaking one another.

The emotional pitch of Another Country is so intense that I was just glued to this book. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone write so honestly and so deeply about sex and love.The sexual scenes are extended, intense, and deeply sensual. Its as if Baldwin poured something of his own soul into these scenes.

And the writing is beautiful. Baldwin likes long sentences, and the pages are filled with passages that create a mood--the mood of a city, the mood of a woman, the mood between two lovers. Much of the book focuses on the relationship between Ida and Vivaldo, and Baldwin explores the distance between two worlds: Ida's world, in which skin color determines fate, and Vivaldo's world of white privilege. Baldwin captures moments of euphoria and hope, and moments of total disconnect. Here's a scene from the novel where Baldwin's writing soars:
    There was a high, driving, wind which brightened the eyes and the faces of the people and forced their lips slightly apart, so that they all seemed to be carrying, to some immense encounter, the bright, fragile bubble of a lifetime of expectation. Bright boys in windbreakers, some of them with girls whose fingertips caught the light, looked into polished delicatessen windows. the windows of shops, paused at the entrances of movie theaters to look at the gleaming stills, and their voices, which shared the harsh quality of the light which covered them, seemed breaking on the air like glass splinters.
     "I've never seen such a day," he said to Ida, and it was true. Everything seemed to be swollen, thrusting and shifting and changing, about to burst into music or into flame or revelation.

James Baldwin was poor, African-American, and gay. He spent much of his adult life in self-exile (he lived in Paris, Southern France, Switzerland, and Istanbul (where he completed Another Country). I would recommend Baldwin for his essays (Notes of a Native Son is a good place to start), his stories, or his novels. Baldwin's brilliant intellect and his emotional honesty have made him one of my favorite authors.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: A Brief Moment of Weightlessness

A Brief Moment of Weightlessness
Stories by Victoria Fish
Mayapple Press
132 pages

A Brief Moment of Weightlessness is a slender collection, eleven stories in all, coming in at just over 130 pages. The stories are about children in families that are tearing apart a little or a lot at the seams, housewives feeling unmoored in their own lives, an American girl in India, wrapped in grief for the loss of her mother. Two stories, the strongest in the group (for this reader, at least) feature a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.

Overall I liked the stories, although I thought some stories were more assured and well-crafted than others. Fish's writing is quiet, and she is at her best when she stays with her characters, charting their internal lives. My favorite stories in the collection, "Green Line" and The Last and Kindest Thing," both focus on Adam, a returned veteran whose relationships have shattered under the strain of his return from war. I loved the fact that Fish returned to Adam,years later in his life, and showed how he had made a new life for himself--a life with pockets of loss, but a life. The best, most believable writing was in these two linked stories, especially in "The Last and Kindest Thing," about the relationship between Adam and his dog, Banjo.

Animals are important in this collection, and another strong story, "What is the Color Blue?," tells of a housewife in rural Vermont, whose new neighbor is more glamorous and more troubled than anyone else she encounters in her "sweet but boring" life. Claire, a stay-at-home mom who is starting a home baking company, is tempted and dazzled by her new neighbor, Isabel, an accomplished rider who seems to have the perfect everything: figure, wardrobe, husband, life. But as Claire gets pulled into Isabel's sphere, she discovers that her "sweet but boring" personality has its strengths.

A Brief Moment of Weightlessness is a promising first collection. I liked these quiet stories, and would certainly look forward to more work from Fish. I don't know whether she is done with the characters here or not, but I'd want to read more stories about Adam, her Afghanistan veteran character. A Brief Moment of Weightlessness captures those reflective moments contained in every life. Recommended for those who enjoy short stories and moments of epiphany.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sunday Coffee: Classics Club Update

It seems like a good time to do a Classics Club update. My progress has been slow but steady. If I'm really going to meet my goal, I will have to step up my pace considerably. But even if I don't meet my goal, my reading has become much more intentional, and the classics I've been reading have enriched my reading life immeasurably.

My post The Classics Club: I'm In! was posted on November 8, 2012--almost two years ago. In retrospect, my list was ambitious and optimistic. I planned to read 85 classics within 5 years. Two years have already gone by, and I've only finished 11 of the books on my list (I'm in the midst of reading a 12th). Still, I don't feel bad at all. Each of the books I've read has been an addition to a body of reading, and if it takes me more than five years to read all the books on my list, I can live with that. I'll still keep trying, though. I've noticed that since I started keeping track of the books I read, I have increased the number of books read each year. The same should hold true for my classics list.

Here are the books I've completed so far:
1. All the Pretty Horses Cormac McCarthy.
2. The Crossing Cormac McCarthy.
3. Cities of the Plain Cormac McCarthy.
4. The Known World Edward P. Jones.
5. Lolita Vladimir Nabokov.
6. Go Tell It On the Mountain James Baldwin.
7. The Ladies' Paradise Emile Zola.
8. Hard Times Charles Dickens.
9. A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens.
10. Invisible Man Ralph Ellison.
11. East of Eden John Steinbeck.

Right now I'm reading Another Country by James Baldwin.  This novel, set in Greenwich Village in the 1950's, was published in 1962. The characters are artists, writers, musicians, gay, straight, black, white. Baldwin's writing is very, very beautiful.

I haven't even talked about Romantic Literature in September, or the September meme question. I think I will just send everyone to The Classics Club (http://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com).

Have you joined The Classics Club? If so, how are you doing on your list? If not, are you interested in reading more classics?

I'd love to hear how other Classics Club bloggers are doing....

Monday, September 1, 2014

East of Eden

East of Eden
John Steinbeck
Penguin paperback
602 pages

East of Eden is John Steinbeck's letter to his two sons, odd as that sounds. Steinbeck wrote his great family saga at a happy point in his life--he was finally married to the woman he loved (his third wife, Elaine). Each morning, as Steinbeck sat down to work on his novel, he warmed up by writing a letter to his editor and friend, Pascal Covici. Those letters were eventually published as Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters.

Steinbeck's sons were quite young when he began writing East of Eden, which was published in 1952. At first I was puzzled over Steinbeck's desire to have his sons absorb this tale of sibling rivalry (based on the Biblical story of Cain and Abel from Genesis). But then I realized that Steinbeck was also telling his own family story--eventually the reader realizes that the narrator is John Steinbeck, and that Samuel Hamilton is Steinbeck's grandfather. So John Steinbeck the novelist incorporates a family saga--his own family story--into the ultimate story of the battle between good and evil.

I haven't finished reading Journal of a Novel yet, but I've read enough to realize that Steinbeck made significant revisions before East of Eden was published. The first pair of rivalrous brothers, Adam and Charles Trask, have a troubled relationship, marked by envy and competition. Adam gives their father a gift (a puppy), and Charles is deeply hurt when their father loves and prizes Adam's gift over the gift that Charles saved for (a knife). This story takes up a significant portion of the novel, but it is really just laying the groundwork for the heart of the story. The sibling rivalry and competition for a father's love gets played out all over again with Adam's sons, Aron and Caleb.

Spoiler alert:

Of course, as the reader knows, Adam may not even be the biological father of his twin sons. That's because his wife, Cathy, a Lilith-like figure of unredeemed evil, slept with Adam's brother on their wedding night, after drugging Adam. Yeah. I know.

East of Eden is a completely absorbing novel, one that made me forget about everything else as soon as I sat down to read. I loved the characters: Adam, a wholly good man, perhaps too innocent and naive for this world. Sam Hamilton, the moral core of the novel. Lee, the Chinese servant who adds another level of moral precision to East of Eden. Cathy, the most coldly evil character, rendered in the most realistic and believable way.

The twins, Aron and Caleb, defied my expectations. Aron was too angelic to be really likable, and I ended up identifying with and loving Caleb, who fought the evil in himself. And Abra, the girl both boys loved, was another fully developed, compassionately real, character.

I'll have to add East of Eden to my list of absolute favorite books. It was the ultimate read in so many ways, offering the kind of complexity I love, along with beautiful writing and riveting characters. Completing this novel was satisfying too, because I get to cross another book off of my Classics Club list, and herein ends (belatedly) The Estella Society East of Eden Read-a-long.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday Coffee: Catching Up....Again

Reading with the kids....

I said this before, but my number one priority this year is to turn my students into life-long readers this year. Some of them are already there. Others haven't actually read an entire book since the fifth grade. Students are experts at fake reading, and often their teachers suspect or know this, but aren't sure how to fix the problem. And English teachers are just so devoted to the whole class read, which is where we lose so many of the kids. Here's why:
  • The book just isn't everyone's cup of tea. Reading a book with your class for three to six weeks is a perfect way to ingrain the attitude that books are boring... based on the kid's experience of being forced to read a book he or she just didn't like.
  • Students read at different rates. If you hand The Great Gatsby to a group of students on a Friday, there is going to be that one student who finishes the book by Sunday. She's going to be bored and disengaged when the class is still discussing the first half of the book two weeks later.
  • Every reader is unique. Probably some of you reading this now were reading all through high school, churning through dozens of books... Just not the books you were supposed to be reading for class.
  • The only way a reader is going to fall in love with books is to find the right book. This means students have to be free to choose their own books.
So, this year in my classroom students are being given choice, and being asked to read both in and out of class...books that they choose. This doesn't mean we won't be reading anything together... there will be at least one whole class read. And we will read and discuss plenty of shorter pieces: essays, stories, poems, etc. Our first reading this year was Sherman Alexie's "Superman and Me."

For fans of classroom photos, here are a couple. In the first one, my husband is working on my bulletin board the weekend before school opened. We have a tradition that he always comes in to help me at the beginning and the end of the school year.
And this year I really started from scratch. I moved from a first floor classroom that I had been in since the school opened ten years ago, to a second floor classroom with a nice view of our stadium. Also... birds!
I need to take some better pictures, but you can probably see that my podium has a painting after Magritte... This podium was created by some of our students a few years ago, and I traded a more traditional podium to get this one. The kids like it!

Finally finishing East of Eden...

At last! Cue the Etta James song. I just finished reading East of Eden on Friday, and even though it took me forever, it is one of my favorite books of all time. I need to write my final post for Andi's event East of Eden Read-a-long hosted by The Estella Society...The even officially ended August 18th, but I'm going to use my "teacher card" and not worry about finishing so late.

An event I don't want to miss...

Aarti at Book Lust is hosting A More Diverse Universe (#Diversiverse) during the second half of September. I love this event! Reading books by diverse authors expands the universe for all. I've already signed up--I just have to make sure I manage my time so that I can get at least one, or maybe two books in. My first choice for this event is Men We Have Reaped, a memoir by Jesmyn West. I've heard this is a very powerful book, and it has been on my TBR stack since spring. I'll be making a list and arranging my reading priorities to try to get at least one more book in. Maybe Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique. This novel is set on the island of St. Thomas, which is where my husband was born and grew up. This is another book that has been sitting on my TBR stack.

For more about Aarti's Diversiverse event, go to the sign-up page at Book Lust.

Some of that other stuff....

I don't want to forget about The Classics Club. The latest "Spin" gave me my next Classics Club book: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Yesss! And I need to post an update very soon....

Coming soon:

Two books I want to mention: 
A novel from Anne Leigh Parrish, author of the short story collection Our Love Could Light the World. Parrish's novel, What is Found, What is Lost, is a beautifully written story of four generations of women, and I was enthralled by it. My review is coming within the next week.

And Judith Starkston, who is Reader in the Wilderness to me, has a new novel coming out. I just got my copy of Hand of Fire in yesterday's mail, and can't wait to read this novel of Brieseis and the Trojan War.