Once Upon a River–Bonnie Jo Campbell


I heard about Bonnie Jo Campbell at an AWP panel this March.  I looked up her once upon a rivernovel while I was in the panel and it was on its way to my home before I was.  Campbell is from Kalamazoo, which is three hours south of me in Michigan, so not a neighbor, but, given there are not that many Michigan authors, and then limit that to women Michigan authors, I wanted to see what she had.  The story is set near Kalamazoo.  The time seems at some not-too-far-away past, but past because there are no cell phones (a marker of contemporary teen life).  Margo is a beautiful sixteen-year-old who was abandoned by her mother at fourteen (later we learn her mother chose this age because she stopped physically growing, so was able to be on her own).  She lives in a shack with her father, who has stopped drinking, but who still has a temper problem, although not with her.  She is a sprite, drawn to the water and uncomfortable in groups and indoors.  She watches her aunt and uncle and their family, who live across the river, and imagines their warm domestic life, of which she partakes in a limited way, or did until her uncle raped her.  Margo is a sharp shooter who admires Annie Oakley.  Her aim is so good she was able to shoot the end of her uncle’s penis off.  That decision, that teenaged-rationality that said this would make her and her uncle even for the rape, led Margo on an odyssey that keeps her to the river and into the arms of a series of men, some of whom she welcomes and some of whom she does not.

Much of the novel is Margo’s internal dialogue.  She goes in search of her mother and finds herself.  The novel is a bit like a river.  In some stretches, it flows along rapidly.  In others, it becomes turgid and dark.  Its vision of the fate of women is depressing if realistic.  The book is seven years old, but it has particular valence in this age of awareness campaigns on the issue of human trafficking.

Although I nearly gave up on this book because it was taking me to such dark spaces, particularly mid-way through, I am glad I did not.  Margo is a character that I will carry with me.

Finished 4.9.




Liliane’s Balcony: A Novella of Falling Water–Kelcey Parker

lilianes balcony

I had never heard of Falling Water, but the Alden B Dow Home posted a book club to discuss Liliane’s Balcony and now a visit to Falling Water is on my bucket list.  The novella is a bit like a chain of character sketches, with various characters brought together through a tour of Falling Water. The true story is of  Liliane Kaufmann, the woman who overdosed at Falling Water and who haunts the tour and the tour participants.

I love walking through empty houses and imaging the lives of people who lived there and imagining the life I might have were I to live there.  Parker puts this imagining on the page.  That Kaufmann was a tragic, glamorous woman living in a glamorous time aids her endeavor.

I met some of the staff of Rose Metal Press at their AWP booth.  It’s worth a visit to their website, www.rosemetalpress.com, to browse their other listings, including Parker’s newest work, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage.

Uncommon Type: Some Stories–Tom Hanks

uncommon type

I have long marveled at the Renaissance talents of Steve Martin.  When I saw Tom Hanks had published a collection of short stories, I thought perhaps we had another Steve Martin on our hands.  When I began reading the stories, I was not sure I could finish.  I could not stop hearing Tom Hanks’ voice in the stories.  I did not stop hearing his voice until about a third of the way through the collection.

The stories are tied together by typewriters and an aura of mid-century. My favorite story in the collection is “The Past Is Important to Us,” set in the future when the wealthy can purchase time travel to specific locations, one of which is the 1939 World’s Fair.  Mr. Allenberry’s love for the past echoes Hanks’ own nostalgia, and Allenberry’s fate suggests Hanks sees the danger therein.

Hanks sprinkles the collection with columns from a hometown newspaper, entitled “Own Town Today with Hank Fiset.”  I heard Hanks’ voice most clearly in these columns, particularly Hanks as Forest Gump, not because the author was slow, but rural and traditional.  Rather than tying the collection together, for me these columns were a distraction.

Hanks has published short stories in major monthly publications and this collection is his first, and he approached it with some trepidation.  I will read his next work, but I may not buy it full-price hardcover.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves–Karen Joy Fowler

we are all completely beside ourselves

Fowler begins her novel with a mystery.  Why was Rosemary a talker as a child and now rarely speaks?  What trauma silenced her voice?  Rosemary is the first-person narrator who starts her story in the middle with absences–that of her older brother and her sister, Fern.  Rosemary speaks of her sister and an idyllic childhood in a farmhouse full of her father’s graduate students.  Everything changed when she was sent on her own to stay with her grandparents and came home to find Fern gone and her older brother surly.  She gradually peels back the layers of family history to reveal that her brother is now an animal rights activist wanted by the government for domestic terrorism and her sister, Fern, is a chimpanzee who was sent to a farm, which she later discovered was not a farm, but a lab.  Rosemary’s role in her family’s calamities becomes clearer as she processes her losses by telling the story and reclaiming her voice.

Rosemary’s story raises interesting questions about the nature of family, what it means to be human, and the humanity of parents.  Rosemary’s father, a famous psychologist, is the ghost behind the story–the reason for Fern, for Fern’s disappearance, and perhaps for Rosemary’s clinical telling of her story.


The Widow-Fiona Barton

widow fiona barton

Barton’s debut novel is a fast-paced, page-turning read.  It was the kind of book that made me want to stay home and read until I was finished.  Instead, I read hungrily and then stayed up late to finish it.  Jean is the kind of women we all pity and secretly despise.  She is a mouse who allows her husband to dominate her (not in a 50 Shades way, but in a basic control freak way).  When Barton lets us see that her husband, Glen, was involved in child pornography, we are not sure if we should really despise her for turning a blind eye or if we should fear that we could be her, the wife who does not know her husband is watching child porn late at night and who believes he really is the good guy he seems.

We meet Kate Waters, journalist, and DI Bob Sparkes.  The way Barton introduces them may support my theory that The Widow was written after The Child–as if we should already know them.

Barton uses the short chapters seen in The Child, but they are not quite as brief and the cycling is not quite as rapid.  She bounces between the story of Waters pursuing an interview with Jean and Sparkes and Waters trying to find baby Bella, who was taken from her front yard.  Sparkes and Waters have an interesting dynamic.  I would love to see Barton come back to Sparkes and write a more traditional mystery novel with him as central character.  That I would not only watch for–I might pre-order.

Finished 3/18

The Child–Fiona Barton

child barton

I read Fiona Barton’s novels out of order–The Child before The Widow.  Slightly crazy Emma, the ghostwriter whose social anxiety confines her largely to her home and whose daddy issues led her to marry a man much her senior, is another not quite reliable narrator.  Kate Waters is a bored journalist who seizes on the discovery at a construction site of a baby’s skeleton.  Angela, whose daughter was stolen from her maternity room, still harbors hopes of finding her child, even if that means finding her remains.  Barton cycles rapidly between narrators and stokes the possibility that the remains are Emma’s baby then that they are Angela’s baby.  With all of the hype surrounding Barton, I kept thinking she was going to pull off a wonderful surprise, but the ending was predictable.  Once again, like Dan Chaon (but with less suspense), a suspenseful narrative concluded with disappointment.  The Child came out so soon after The Widow that I wonder if it was written quickly or if it were, indeed, written before The Widow and was rushed out to capitalize on The Widow’s success.  Perhaps my reading order was the writing order, which might explain why the second novel was less wonderful than the first.  I will watch for Barton’s third novel and give her another try.


A Separation–Katie Kitamura


I don’t remember where I saw A Separation and decided to add it to my Amazon wish list.

Kitamura chooses a first-person narrator, the wife who has been separated from her husband for several months.  He has gone missing in Greece  so she goes looking for him–rough job.  The novel proceeds through flash backs and internal monologues.  The husband’s body turns up at the side of a rural road.  His mother and father fly to Greece to look for him and end up taking his body home.  His wife decides not to disclose their separation and to embrace her identity as widow.

I think the novel was meant to be an examination of marriage, but, to someone who has been married over two decades, it fell flat.  Maybe this narrative requires someone who has experienced a miserable marriage.

It is the brief read and involves a mental trip to Greece.  There are worse ways to spend a few hours.