Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

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There’s something of Grimm’s fairy tales in this novel, one of two Nobel award winners this year.  A small community in a Transylvanian forest.  Once the weekend visitors leave for the summer, hunters, a priest, a rich landowner, a mushroom picker, and an eccentric older woman living alone, witch-like, remain.  There’s a splash of Winnie the Pooh, too.  Some nouns in this closed-off place are made proper like Pooh does: Deer, Little Girls, Ailments, Tools.  The main character (the eccentric woman) shares the wise innocence of the original Pooh, before Disney got ahold of him.  But this is no children’s story.  The heroine’s quiet semi-retired existence turns upside down when three of the village’s patriarchs turn up dead.

Once a bridge engineer, then a teacher of small children, Janina, who hates her given name, moves to a remote hamlet near the Czech border.  She watches over the homes of summer residents and teaches English to make money, but spends most of her time tending experimental pea sprouts, like Darwin, walking in the woods and making Horoscopes.  She reads the movements in the sky as predictors of the future and explanations of the past.  The world’s fate is woven into the stars, obvious to those who can read the coded tapestry.  She enjoys weekly visits with Dizzy, whom she helps translate Blake into Polish, and Good News, clerk at the thrift store, and Oddball, her tidy ex-accountant neighbor.  Oddball wakes her late one night to help him dress Big Foot, another neighbor, a poacher, whom Oddball has just discovered dead.  Soon, two other bodies are found murdered.  Janina suspects the Animals of taking revenge on these hunters.

Scandal takes over the once idyllic village.  A Writer, one of the summer residents, decides not to return.  Although she writes horror stories, she’s frightened by the threat of a murderer on the loose.  Janina has nightmares of her mother and grandmother returning from the dead.  Her mysterious Ailments return and she is out of commission for weeks.  A nuanced struggle between Good and Evil ensues.  A plot twist upends any stark moralistic reading.

Drive the Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is devastatingly beautiful.  Fantasy swells through reality to reveal Truths about death, justice and art only fiction can tell.

Topeka School by Ben Lerner and Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman

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Is it a coincidence that two recent novels feature a fictional “Foundation” outside Kansas City?  Ben Lerner’s latest novel, Topeka School looks back into recent decades to understand current political and cultural trends from one family’s perspective.  Audrey Schulman’s Theory of Bastards looks forward a few decades into a world of economic uncertainty, environmental extremes and digital domination.  

Topeka School circles around an enigmatic but traumatic event involving a high school party which Darren, a developmentally delayed drop out, and Adam, a speech/debate champion, both attend.  Darren is one of the “lost boys” treated at the Foundation by Jonathan, or, Dr J. Jonathan, his wife, Jane, prominent feminist psychologist, and Adam, their son, take turns narrating segments.  While Darren is central to this family’s swirling drama, he never speaks in the first person like they each do. He is lost in the shuffle, a perennial tongue-tied victim, while Adam rises to success as an English professor.

When Frankie, the main character in Theory of Bastards, accepts a position at the Foundation, she is on the cusp of health and stability after a lifelong battle with pain.  Her work as an animal researcher has finally paid off. Not only is she famous for her insights into mating habits, but she can afford surgery to cure the symptoms of her disease.  At the Foundation she joins a team studying bonobos, the closest species to humans. Just when she’s onto a new theory, a massive storm and computer failure wreak havoc she and her new friends – scientists and bonobos alike – fight to survive.  

While Topeka School is psychologically and culturally focused and Theory of Bastards is more scientifically oriented, they share in common an interest in language and relationships.  Topeka School imagines words as weapons used in place of fists.  Adam asserts his manliness through rhetorical techniques and rap battles.  Even without Darren’s brawn, Adam will always be his superior. Yet, like Darren, Adam’s skills get him nowhere when it comes to expressing love or creating a bond.  The Foundation and his own nuclear foundation, his own word-rich family, fail Adam and Darren in many ways.

Theory of Bastard’s rooting in experimentation yield a more hopeful conclusion.  Frankie and colleagues want to know what the bonobos can learn. Without clear hypotheses, they also learn from the bonobos.  They find ways to communicate with the speechless but very friendly bonobos.  In the face of challenges in the not-too-distant future, like excessive dependence on technology, extreme weather and wealth inequality, the scientists return to the beginnings of life, to primates, for unexpected answers.

Recently, two major agricultural and scientific research centers moved from Washington D.C. to Kansas City.  It is no coincidence that these two novels chose Kansas City as the setting for their Foundations. Both inquire into the repercussions of this controversial relocation.  Topeka School sees a problem, a cultural divide in which we’re currently stuck.  Theory of Bastards sees a chance to start fresh.  Calamity spells opportunity for science, and for literary fiction.          

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

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Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is breathtaking journalism, like a live, eye witness account of battle, only, this one is largely internal.

As her mother suffers from cancer, Taddeo wants to write about the nature of desire.  Beautiful is the first word to describe Taddeo’s mother; she’s used to being the object of desire.  Taddeo sets out thinking she’ll learn about men pursuing what they desire but she finds their stories to be more alike than different.  It’s the women’s stories that tantalize and present the widest and most glaring lens on the subject.

Taddeo follows each of three women over an eight year period, sometimes taking up residence where they live in order to experience their lives.  Lina is a midwestern wife whose husband stops kissing her a few years into marriage.  Desperate for affection, she reconnects with her first love, Aidan, whom she meets for sex as often as he can get away from his own wife and family.  Restaurant owner, Sloane, is wealthy, elegant, and submissive.  Her husband finds men for her to sleep with.  If he isn’t with the couple, Sloane shares footage with him by phone.  At seventeen, Maggie’s English teacher in Fargo starts an inappropriate relationship with her after she opens up about her troubles at home.  Three years after he ends the affair, she confesses her story to police, as he’s up for North Dakota Teacher of the Year.

The title belies the complex relationality implied by two simple words: Three Women.  The story of women’s desire is anything but simple.  It is as varied as each woman’s history and the things said about them publicly and privately.  It is as crucial as all the hours they spend dissecting it to themselves and others, as well as the hours they spend readying themselves to engage it.  It is an impulse and a reaction.  It is the result of years of incubation.  It is getting what you want and staving off wanting at all.  One might guess that a narrative about desire would be happy, but the book is tragic than comic.  In the end, these three women whose desires lead their lives are no better off than before they embarked on the adventure of desire.

The book does not begin with a premise and conclude with a take-away.  It does not suggest what should happen.  It succeeds in its aim: to enlarge our empathy and to give credence to brave women who choose to tell their tales for the sake of all readers.  Taddeo’s careful reporting, using distinct and candid of language for each woman, betrays an acute dignity that comes from wrestling with one of life’s greatest assets and detriments – Desire.

Three Women‘s portrayal of desire is as intimate and powerful as we may ever have seen in American literary nonfiction.

Blood Creek by Kimberly Collins

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Blood Creek, the first book in Kimberly Collins’ Mingo Chronicle series, depicts the 1912 West Virginia Mine Wars from the perspective of a triangle of feisty blood sisters.

Ellie, the main character, is having an affair with the town sheriff.  When her lover confronts her husband, things get ugly. Ellie escapes to Charleston, leaving behind a baby daughter.  Cousin Polly raises baby Deannie while her husband leads miners to unionize along with Ellie’s sister, Jolene, and her husband.  In Charleston, Ellie falls into the inner circle of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, hired by the coal companies to squelch miners.  Ellie relays messages about the coal operators’ plans back to Jolene and Polly. After a year of spying, Ellie questions whether her new lavish life is worth all the risk.

The novel is just the right mix of mountain grit, romance, intrigue and solidarity.  In four parts, the chapters are discrete episodes told in chronological order. Pacing is swift.  Action dominates, with timely pauses for intimacy and tidbits of women’s wisdom. Dialogue celebrates West Virginia dialect.  A pinnacle of the story is Mother Jones’ speech on behalf of miners. She is the rabble rousing voice of the workers and their families, motivating all who hear her.  While she remains a minor character, she embodies the earthy, hell-bent spirit of Ellie, Polly, and Jolene. Many characters, like Mother Jones, are based on true figures.  A helpful description at the start of the book sorts fact from fiction.

The three blood sisters share a keen intuition and determination, but the differences in their personalities create a dynamic interplay.  Ellie’s sex appeal offsets Polly’s motherliness and Jolene’s smarts. Together, and with their various partners – including maids, midwives, musicians and kids – they create a homespun tapestry of personal relationships as a backdrop to the political excitement.

Vitriol between miners and operators is real, coming across in descriptions of actual battles as well as imagined heartaches.  The story definitely argues in favor of the miners. The bad guys are plain evil; no nuance there.

Female heroines do their part to fight for justice in Blood Creek.  

Mango Rash by Nan Sanders Pokerwinski

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Set in 1960s American Samoa, Mango Rash recounts Nan Sanders Pokerwinski’s transformation from typical Oklahoma teen to world traveller.

Samoa presents the perfect backdrop for adolescence.  Pokerwinski’s family arrives during a wave of heightened American influence on the island; it is changing as much as Nancy.  Over the course of her 11 month stay, she falls in love (more than once), makes new friends, rebels more than she ever has, dances, tutors elementary students, occasions an indoor disaster, as well as witnesses a disastrous hurricane, and watches expats come and go.  She gets sick. She considers her experience like palolo, “a delicacy to be scooped up and devoured….  Gobbling it all down before it was gone” (148).

In careful attention to language, Pokerwinski relishes each new experience, from unforgettable to mundane.  Her science writing background shows through in her keen observations of her exotic environment. Each chapter begins with a quote about Samoa or a Samoan idiom, establishing a clear theme for the chapter’s stories.  She delves into Samoan vocabulary for wisdom. (A helpful glossary of all words used follows at the end). Italicized sections act as interludes, probing deeper into Samoan life or Pokerwinski’s inner thoughts. Inspired by Margaret Mead’s book about Samoa, Pokerwinski’s reflections lean toward social experiment, engaging with culture more than studying it.  She relates how Samoa influences her shifting identity.  In this way, her book appeals beyond an insightful glimpse into Samoa; it sounds a global message about self-awareness and making sense of memory.

The epilogue hints that there is more of the story to come.  This taste of Pokerwinski’s adventurous life is enough to pique interest in a sequel.

Part coming-of-age, part anthropology, part travelogue, Mango Rash highlights teenage turbulence with Samoan flair.

Never Divided by Todd Stadtman

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In Never Divided, the third and final book in Todd Stadtman’s San Francisco Punk series, Scott and friends butt heads with the police again – this time from the inside.  

In the previous two books, Please Don’t be Waiting for Me and So Good It’s Bad, the punk friends sought justice for the murder of follow rocker, Nadya.  In this finale to the trilogy, the crew takes part in a 1984 protest against Reagan and the Democrats’ ineffectiveness against him. Given Scott’s record, the Feds think Scott and crew might be up to worse than mere protesting.  They accuse his roommate, Micah, of killing an officer during the event. But the police might need the punks’ help against their own: a gang of nefarious policeman inside the SFPD.

The novel begins with a domestic scene: Scott and girlfriend, Bridge, meet Scott’s dad’s new girlfriend and her son, Hunter.  Little do they know, Hunter will become part of an adventure Scott and Bridge never intend to have, involving bar fights, sting operations, and kidnappings.  They thought they were done with this! The book flirts with settling down into adulthood. Yet, Scott never compromises his punk spirit. If there’s injustice afoot, Scott will face it, along with his pals.

New characters in the series, Hunter, and Micah’s girlfriend, Shiva, add ripples to the plot.  Scott and Bridge feel parental toward young Hunter – new feelings for them both. Shiva’s mysterious past makes her suspect to all the friends.  She must prove herself time and again. Reed, aka Inspector Serious, returns, with a humorous twist. These fresh relationships add depth and complexity to the high energy. 

Like the other two books in the series, this one is full of vivid, action-packed scenes.  The chapters are short, each focusing on one scene. Sub-plots are woven into a thick fabric of intrigue.  Sentences are robust, like the layered sound of a punk band. Most chapters end with a cliffhanger, making it hard to stop reading.  Love for San Francisco is palpable. Hot spots around the city enliven the narrative.

A coming of age story and crime thriller, the mature characters in Never Divided are also never diluted. Find it on Amazon

Queen of the Flowers by Delia Cerpa

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With warmth and precision, Delia Cerpa’s memoir, Queen of the Flowers, chronicles her “wonder years” in Puerto Rico and migration to the US in the 1950s.

After her father’s suicide when she’s an infant, Delia Cerpa, youngest of eleven, is well cared for by a resilient mother and thoughtful siblings.  Her mother manages the family’s new farm while her children work and go to school. Delia Cerpa excels as a scholar. Her eagerness to learn extends into 4H and religious studies.  She searches for answers about her father’s death. As the world economy changes after WWII, the farm is sold and many family members move to the States. Mama Cerpa, Delia and her brother follow in 1952.  

The book’s title comes from a highlight of Cerpa’s childhood, when she’s elected to become Queen of the school for a day.  The incident takes up a large part of the story, characterizing the place of school in her life, as well as her family’s gracious support of each member’s endeavors.  Her dress and accoutrements are described in luscious detail. Tastes, sounds, textures, and sensations are emphasized. Cerpa maintains a child’s perspective throughout.  Her family and neighbors play equal roles in shaping the many colorful tales, showing the communal spirit of her upbringing.  

The pacing is as steady as life on a well-maintained farm in a vibrant town.  Historical facts appear in the background, but the story is highly personal. Cerpa’s writing style is inviting, easy to follow and colloquial.  Hand drawn Illustrations accompany some chapters, adding to the playfulness of the story. Spanish text and translation is included, as are italicized quotes from Buddha and Cerpa herself – hints of wisdom coming from the future.

The book is the first in a planned series.  Ending with the migration to NY creates an eagerness for the next installment.  Extra chapters at the end fill out more history. These are integral to the story; don’t finish reading until the very last page!

Queen of the Flowers stands out as an immigrant autobiography for its innocence and awe in the face of tragedy. find the book at 3L publishing