The Dangerous Life of an Art History Major

Unbecoming

By Rebecca Scherm

Rebecca Scherm has written an intricately plotted thriller that compels readers forward with curiosity about how Grace ended up exiling herself to Paris, and how she transformed herself from a Tennessee girl who wanted to please the boy and his family that she loved into a young woman who betrayed them as she turned into a pretty good, though neurotic, art thief, specifically of jewelry. It’s as much plot-driven as it is a very good psychological character study (with interesting insight into jewelry and the counterfeiting of it), both admirably accomplished and polished for a first novel.

Grace and Riley grow up together in the small town of Garland, where his family has some prominence and her family leaves her wanting. In her young teen life, she sets herself to beguiling Riley into loving her as much as she loves him and all that comes with him. She’s so successful that she even gets her own room in his house, where she is treated nearly as a daughter, particularly by his mother. More, Riley falls deeply and inseparably in love with her, seemingly what she wants.

Riley fashions himself into a painter, but of limited horizons, satisfied to chronicle the buildings of Garland, not as commentary on small-town life, but purely representational. An art student herself, his ambitions, or lack of them, disappoint Grace. While her romantic attraction to him remains solid, her passion strays.

Riley has two best buddies, Alls and Greg. Eventually, Riley, the buds, and Grace room together in a shared house. Student poor, with Riley and Grace conversant in art, and an old, artifact-filled estate, the Wynne House, practically next door, they hatch a plot to rob the place. Grace subtly takes over as the ringleader, based on the knowledge she picked up while employed in New York City, and from this springs the ever-growing tentacles of duplicity that reach to Prague and Paris.

Paris is where we find Grace at the opening of the novel, working in a jewelry restoration shop, using the name Julie. Naturally, in a world with a foundation of lies and deception, the shop is more a den of thieves. Grace, as Julie, has fled there after romantic and robbery fiascos in Garland, and an even harsher incident in Prague, seeking distance and anonymity for fear the boys will find her after they finish their prison terms. How all this transpired, how Grace changed from a girl who wanted love to a femme-fatale nervous all the time, and how she forges a life of crime, well, that’s the fun of the novel. w/c

Coming of Age in Crisis

The Girl Who Slept with God

By Val Brelinski

In Val Brelinski’s well done and often moving debut novel, readers see the world through the eyes of a girl (Jory) just reaching puberty (13 turning 14), raised with two sisters (little Frances and older Grace), in rural Idaho, as a member of a small evangelical church, by parents who eschew the modern world of the 1970s. As she comes of age, she has to deal with 17-year-old Grace’s return from a mission in Mexico pregnant and claiming it to be the work of God, with parents (Oren and Esther) in turmoil and at odds, and with an older man (Grip, in his 20s), of dubious background, who befriends her, a relationship not a few may find creepy (though Grip reveals himself to be a noble character).

You’ll find the strengths of the novel in Brelinski’s gently melodic tone, upon which you’ll find yourself drifting, as if on the Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” (Pure Moods, Vol. I), and the change in Jory, both in her maturation, her personal strength, and the world beyond her church and insular religious school. In other words, this is a novel not so much about the mystical, which you might expect from the title, but one grounded firmly in the experiences of families dealing with crises and young women grappling with their new roles as young, social women. Read with this in mind and you’ll find it an impressive first effort. w/c

When a Novel Fails …

Gold Fame Citrus

By Claire Vaye Watkins

Sometimes—maybe for you, too often—a novel comes highly recommended with descriptors such as “beautiful debut,” “scorching vision,” “imagining a terrifying future,” and similar. Then you buy it and wonder what the reviewers were talking about, what did you miss, perhaps you are a dunce? No, probably you rely more than you should on reviewers opinions, says us who review books regularly. Case in point: a 2015 debut by short story writer Claire Vaye Watkins, a literary novel with a dystopian disposition. Why do we think it fails?

Well, for starters, let the title be a warning to literary fiction fans who like their writers to make a dollop of sense and to dystopian novel fans who cherish sharp conflict and galvanic plotting: if the title makes little sense, don’t expect the avalanche of words following to clarify things.

Doubtless, Watkins can write evocative descriptions. Unfortunately, in her novel, these become the centerpiece of the entire literary venture. The plot boils down to no more than wandering aimlessly in a desert (yes, it worked in the Bible, but not here), the desert an unwanted gift of from humankind’s reckless disregard of natural resources. Her characters, the wanders, mull much over, but instead of intriguing you and stimulating your own thoughts, they commit a cardinal sin of literature, for which, you will feel them justly condemned to the desert: they bore you to distraction.

And this is a shame, for there lurks within these pages a potentially interesting novel. Less time getting out of L.A., less time baking under the sun, less time waxing on and on about what things look and feel like, more time expanding upon the chaos caused by the drought, perhaps expansion of the mining section and a rant on authoritarianism, a more coherent crystallization of the mad prophet of the desert, and the addition of more consciousness to the desert, an anthropomorphism often hinted at but never realized, perhaps these might have made this a better novel, or at least a more enjoyable one.

As this draft stands, a peek at potential, but a disappointment as published. But, hey, who are we. See for yourself, if you have a library nearby. w/c

The Alphabet Kills the Author

Dead Letters

By Caite Dolan-Leach

At the outset of this puzzling journey of Ava Antipova to determine if her identical twin sister Zelda is really dead, victim of a murder or suicide, or running an elaborate gaslight to torment Ava and slip out from under a mountain of debt, debut author Caite Dolan-Leach provides insight into why she chose the alphabet as the structure of her novel. Seems Ava has been away, escaping the grasp of her dysfunctional family in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York to study, among other things, the OuLiPo movement in Paris. Simply, OuLiPo is a method of writing that places constraints upon the writer. These might be as challenging as writing a piece without, say, using a letter or series of letters (a lipogram). Or, as with this novel, writing a twenty-four chapter novel, starting each chapter with a letter of the alphabet, and having each chapter contain a clue. While a clever way to write a mystery novel, it can, and in this case does, force the author to come with a long series of clues from the supposedly dead Zelda that can leave readers sighing in exasperation. Perhaps if the payoff at the end had been a dramatic twist, persevering would have been worth it.

So, the story goes, Ava returns from Paris when she learns of her twin’s death in a barn fire on the property of their family’s winery. This event forces Ava to return to a family she has always wanted to escape from, particularly after her sister beds her boyfriend Wyatt Darling (yes, unbearably cute), who comes across as milquetoast left too long in warm milk. Ava again has to face this, as well as a father who walked out on the family, a mother in the last throes of deadly dementia, a tragic family history, a history of alcoholism and drug use, and a mediocre winery now weighted down with debt, stumbling like a drunk to its demise. Can’t blame her for putting an ocean between herself and constant aggravation.

Each of Zelda’s clues brings back memories and in dribs and drabs fill readers in on the dark family doings (here think another twin’s death, matricide, irresponsibility, and the like). Then there’s the currency of the clues giving the idea that Zelda’s watching and cackling over the helter-skelter of Ava, and readers, trying to figure out if Zelda is alive or truly dead. In short, it all gets to be just too much.

While an interesting effort, it’s not a particularly satisfying one. And if you need the alphabet prominent in your mystery, well, you might want to give Sue Grafton a look. She’s closing in Z, you know. w/c

What is Utopia?

All Our Wrong Todays

By Elan Mastai

Elan Mastai has conjured up something exciting and fun, a mashup of alternative history, time travel, and dystopian genres, with a healthy dose of romance mixed in. Though he does run off the rails—or maybe falls out of the time slip—a couple of times, readers will find the story, told in first person in 137 micro chapters, generally races along, with small cliffhangers interspersed to goose you along. If you’re looking for something different, you’ll find it in All Our Wrong Todays.

Tom Barren lives in the world of 2016, but it is not our 2016. It’s the 2016 we dream of, that our sci-fi writers for decades have imagined, a sleek world without want, with every need catered to, with an ecologically healthy planet, and with cities of swirling curves and technology dreamed of and captured on film from the days of the opening scenes of Metropolis. However, Tom is something of a failure, a botcher of most things, a young man of thirty-two with a difficult relationship with his brilliant physicist father, who lost his mother years before in a tragic accident (they still occur in the near perfect future, because, as Tom points out several times, every invention comes with an accident built in).

The Goettreider Engine, first turned on by Lionel Goettreider on July 11, 1965, has made Tom’s utopian world possible. As you might expect, the world honors and worships the memory of Goettreider. Tom’s father, Victor, wants to do more; he wants to make visiting the very moment that changed the world forever the introduction of his new invention, a time machine, for maximum impact, visiting on the fiftieth anniversary date. Since Tom can’t do much of anything on his own, Victor puts him on the backup team of chrononauts shadowing a picture of perfection named Penny Weschler. Oh well, in every plan, no matter how brilliant and meticulously conceived, potential disaster lurks. So it is here, when Tom makes two mistakes and propels himself to the fateful day, and back again to the world we know as 2016. In this world, he finds the meaning of his life, his true self, and something he never had, true and abiding love.

Elan presents the story as Tom’s own account of how we ended up with the world we have, but different, too, because after saving the world, and as he likes to say, reality, Tom and his family gives us something we hope for but have no certainty of gaining: a bright future approaching the utopia he once lived in. w/c

A Worthy Long, Long Read

The Nix

By Nathan Hill

For those who like their fiction long and winding, filled with propulsive twists and revelations, and interspersed with witty and often perceptive observations on human behavior and cultural lunacy, Nathan Hill’s debut delivers just the right balance. It is at times funny, serious, and poignant, sometimes all simultaneously, even, when venturing into the political realm, when it is extremely cynical, though truthful, too. Ultimately, you’ll find it, at its heart, a novel of discovery, particularly of self-discovery, as the main characters Samuel and Faye, as well as a stellar cast of supporting characters, chief among them Bishop, Bethany, and Pwnage, as all must come to grips with their life decisions and the consequences engendered by them, leaving Periwinkle as the sole emotionally and intellectually stagnant character operating as the cynical stripper of civilization’s glossy varnish.

The story is fairly simple: young Samuel Andersen-Anderson labors as an unhappy literature prof in a small average college teaching students who see little value or relevance in what he has to offer. Really, as Laura Pottsdam, straight A student due to her excellent cheating skills, wonders how writing a paper on Hamlet will help her get a great marketing communications job. It’s a paper she has plagiarized, refuses to rewrite, and that affords Samuel, and readers, pages of hilarious arguments and rationales as to why she should either receive an A on her stolen submission or be excused entirely from the assignment. Readers will find the novel packed cheek to jowl with flights of observation and commentary like this on the problems and oddities of modern American life. Poor Samuel seeks refuge in online gaming, where he plays with Pwnage, a master gamer and the epitome of obsessive self-destructive behavior.

Samuel’s life changes when publisher Periwinkle calls him about his mother Faye who has been arrested for assault and battery on cornpone presidential aspirant Sheldon Packer. Once Samuel was a promising emerging writer whom Periwinkle had issued a lucrative advance against a first novel, one that years later, Samuel has yet to deliver, or even begin. Periwinkle offers to absolve him of his considerable debt simply by writing a tell-all, a damning book about his mother. Samuel, who knows little or nothing about her, agrees, on the condition he be given time to do research. Thus, he sets off to discover why his mother walked out on him and his father, a frozen-food salesman. It proves to be both a complicated and revelatory tale that romps through the Fifties, the Sixties, into present post-recession America.

This takes Samuel and readers back into Faye’s life in Iowa, where Hill makes some keen observations about life in the Decade of Conformity, the most jarring for modern types Home Economics class. You’ll wonder why anyone, and certainly why any woman, would ever want to regress back to those times. Later, her life in Chicago during the 1968 riotous Democratic convention does a good job of putting readers in the moment, while also illustrating the cynicism and hypocrisy of the whole affair, as well as political and protest life in general.

Samuel, deserted as he was at eleven, finds friendship and solace when Bishop Fall befriends him and introduces him to a wealthier section of town, but more profoundly, to his twin sister Bethany. A child musical prodigy, a vision of unnatural poise and beauty, she captures Samuel’s heart for a lifetime. Bishop, Bethany, and Samuel’s relationship grows into experiences that bind them perpetually and weave through the pages of the novel to the very last words. These moments with these characters represent the finest in the novel, particularly in terms of poignancy.

Because The Nix is such as long and sprawling novel, it would be easy to go on and on about the characters, the times, and commentary on contemporary life, all of which are best left for discovery by the reader. Suffice it say that most will find this among their best reading experiences of the year, with the only flaw being that Hill perhaps lingers a bit too long over some matters, especially in Chicago and toward the end.

On a final note, to provide you with a little taste, fast-forward to the end, when Samuel again encounters Periwinkle, now an all-purpose consultant, or perhaps oracle. Periwinkle educates Samuel on the heart of modern angst, on the disquiet we feel, the emptiness, the compulsive need for a more that once gotten never satisfies. In this case, something as simple as a snack food, per Periwinkle, as an escape from the never ending melancholy that envelops you:

“You buy a missile-shaped chip! That’s the answer. What this ad does is admit that something you already deeply suspect and existentially fear: that consumerism is a failure and you will never find any meaning there no matter how much money you spend. So the great challenge for people like me is to convince people like you that the problem is not systemic. It’s not that snacks leave you feeling empty, it’s that you haven’t found the right snack yet. It’s not that politics are hopelessly bankrupt, it’s that you haven’t found the right politician yet. And this ad just comes right out and says it. I swear to god it’s like playing poker against someone who’s showing his cards and yet still bluffing by force of personality.”

Enjoy. w/c

The One-Arm Funny Man

Amp’d

By Ken Pisani

If you lost an appendage to a careless driver, would you take the high road and advice of those who say look on the bright side and make lemonade out of lemons? Hm, if you nodded yes. The road to acceptance and adaptation is usually a long one crowded with plenty of anger, self-pity, and recrimination, until maybe a person finds solace in reconciliation.

And this essentially is the path traveled by Aaron in Ken Pisani’s very good, very funny, and often very dark comedy. The plot is Aaron’s journey; the delights are the oddball characters and situations he encounters along the way, among them his family, childhood acquaintances, people he encounters, including a little boy with cancer and a radio science commentator whose voice and quirkiness he falls in love with. This is not even to mention his attempts at adapting to the limitations of life with one arm, his disturbing indulgence in drugs and booze, and his job as a fish counter, the goal of which is to preserve a near extinct resident of the Wabash River, the Acipenser pseudoboscis, a prehistoric throwback doomed by having to negotiate a dam in order to mate, and the alligator, Ali, in the bathtub.

The highpoint of the novel and a turning point for Aaron comes when he lands in the hospital, the victim of his own stupidity; during a drunken night with his layabout brother-in-law, he has the stump of his arm tattooed, which leads to a serve infection. In the hospital, he meets the little boy, Jimmy, with cancer. Jimmy changes Aaron’s life in some pretty hilarious ways and sets the stage for an uplifting, somewhat tearily happy conclusion to a story and life that might otherwise have had a grim end.

Pisani writes with both a good ear for dialogue and a terrific sense of comedic timing. Some passages will send you into loud fits of laughter. All in all, a good first novel in its own right and particularly good if you’re down and need a pick me up. w/c