Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

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“The best way I can put it is that I want to know them, this child, whoever they are” (299).  Get to know this narrator, Natsuko, and her family inside and out in Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami’s first novel to be published in English.

Natsuko’s sister, Makiko, and daughter Midoriko, visit Natsu in Tokyo summer 2007.  Makiko is looking for a cheap and reputable place for breast enhancement surgery and Midoriko, 13, is so mad, she refuses to speak.  Ten years later, Natsu contemplates having a child herself. She weighs opinions and advice, then makes her own decision.

A simple plot, the drama is in Natsuko’s development as a whole, round person.  Although sharply focused on her writing career, and leggy, her edges are soft. She listens acutely to her sister’s and friends’ tales of woe and is easily affected by physical sensations.  Drinking, amusement park rides, and sex make her dizzy and troubled. Tokyo’s heat gets to her. At times, she loses touch with reality. Dreams about grapes exploding, balloons popping and events from the past mingle with her waking experience.  Despite her airy-ness, Natsuko remains grounded in her desire to know.  She is impossible to pigeonhole.  The end of the book comes full circle, returning to the warm affection between a family of women.

A mostly inward-oriented story is punctuated by moments of outward-directed anger.  Midoriko breaks cartons of eggs in a fight with her mother. Natsuko finds herself yelling at a symposium on artificial insemination, mad at fellow attendees and her own situation.  Natsu’s author-colleagues lash out at each other. Midoriko’s raw, pubescent journal entries best capture the novel’s idiosyncratic delivery.  

The story is candid about the pain of being a woman.  Marriage, balancing work and parenting, and relationships are constant sources of tension the women characters discuss.  Their language is punchy – less lyrical and more percussive. Bars, restaurants, and homes mimic the tension in their cramped, cluttered interiors, surrounded by a bustling urban center.  

Natsuko’s only published novel features characters who all die yet somehow keep living.  Timeless and thoroughly contemporary, intimate and expansive, Natsuko and her companions encompass extremes in a singular and unforgettable fashion. 

American by Day by Derek Miller

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A stand-alone sequel to Norwegian by Night, in American by Day, Derek Miller follows Oslo police chief Sigrid on a search for her brother, lost in upstate New York.  Sigrid finds herself in the middle of a hefty investigation during the Obama campaign: on the heels of her nephew’s murder by a cop, a black American professor (her brother’s lover) falls from a six-story building.  The novel explores some American touch points – race, politics, theology and depression – from Sigrid’s outsider perspective.

Weighty subjects are grounded in humor.  Sheriff Irv, a Jesuit theologian by training, and in charge of the case involving Sigrid’s brother, complements Sigrid’s intellectual stoicism with his disarming wit.  His good natured debates with Sigrid sprinkle the text like bacon bits; they go well with everything.  Sigrid, having learned from the best criminals in Oslo, out-smarts the American police force trying to find her brother and keep him away from the police.  Her antics keep the plot unpredictable and funny.

As well as comedy and heady discussion, the book serves up equal portions of action.  There are motorcycle chases, guns, boats, bombs and blueberry muffins.  Sigourney Weaver makes an appearance, too.

With a surprise at every turn, the book doesn’t solve problems so much as entertain wholeheartedly, with characters who face the facts with charm and courage.  I hope Derek Miller is working on a trilogy because I can’t wait to encounter these people again!

 

Lake of Urine by Guillermo Stitch

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An assemblage of odd activities such as milkings, witchcraft (aka Branding), and  burger-flipping, are par for the course in Guillermo Stitch’s second novel, Lake of Urine.

Meet the Wakelings, stars of this rollicking show.  Near Tiny Village, Pastor Charles Wakeling, hellbent on saving lascivious women, and his demur (hidden) wife, Rose, raise their game-loving daughter, Emma, under the fastidious care of housekeeper Phinoola Quigg.  Emma’s eight marriages produce two daughters, Urine and Noranbole. When they come of age, Emma hires William Seiler, a scientist of a sort, to keep an eye on them. But he has other plans on his mind, as do the girls.

Plans going awry is a dominant theme.  In response to husband #5, a writer, Emma confesses, “I’ve never really understood the need for fictional stories” (101).  Her declaration is the least of the ironic twists this novel serves. Emma, narrator for much of the story, is unaware that the crazy yarn of which she’s a part is an absurd satire of the sacro-sanct institutions of marriage, religion, politics and corporate business, among other things.  Turning the status quo, including chronology, on its head and sideways is this book’s success. The tale toggles between Emma’s, Noranbole’s and Urine’s adventures. Part of the pleasure is finding out how – and if – they all fit together.  

           True love is celebrated, on the other hand.  Noranbole and her beloved, epicurean husband stand by each other despite language barriers, unpredictable market forces, unruly garbage heaps and a mysterious lake stinking up the whole town.  Beautiful literary prose, depicting even the most grotesque details, conveys this book’s commitment to what it holds dear.   

Reminiscent of Confederacy of Dunces’ bawdy humor and Wes Anderson’s colorful, yet darkly whimsical cinematic compositions, Lake of Urine is a bizarre, raucous love story with ornate surprises at every turn. Author website 

my review of Stitch’s previous novel

Bone Chalk by Jim Reese

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Jim Reese’s collection of essays and true stories, Bone Chalk, showcases Middle West small town life with grace, gravity and humor.

Reese grows up in Omaha, attends Wayne State College, Nebraska, where he meets his wife.  They move to the countryside where her family lives. Before becoming an English professor in South Dakota, his jobs include Wayne State mascot, farmhand, newspaper reporter (and bundler), and teacher at prisons and jails.  He and his wife have two daughters. He is a published author of poetry, stories and essays.

The first story takes place at a diner, the narrator watching himself (“you”) try to fit in among locals.  In the succeeding stories, “you” becomes “I.” Instead of looking in from the outside, over the course of the reflections, Reese slowly finds his place among matriarchs and patriarchs in so-called flyover country.  His mother and father-in-law each get a chapter, as well as his grandfather. Unlike newspaper reporting, where he “learned whose voice to capture – nobody’s” (90), he captures his elders’ personalities with punchy dialogue and their own tall tales.  A favorite of his father-in-law’s is when he and his young buddies help a drunk escape from town jail so they can get a ride home. The day Reese announces that his wife is pregnant for the first time, he discovers his grandfather’s memory is failing.  His mother-in-law is characterized by a handwritten sign taped to her door: “Please Ring Twice of Knock or Yell!” (25). Reese’s admiration shows in his loving attention to detail.

Reese studies criminals as well as his family members.  He goes to high school with both a murderer and a girl he murdered.  Around the same time, a serial killer also stalks boys in Reese’s neighborhood.  These experiences lead him to study Criminal Justice in college and go on to work in prisons.  He continually wonders: “Is there a killer inside me?” How removed is any of us from criminality?  The chapters on his prison students and these murders raise provocative political and ethical questions.

Other chapters are more humorous.  Three are devoted to funny bumper stickers he encounters in his area.  In one chapter, “hell bent on gaining new experiences” (112), Reese is the butt of the joke as he drives his boss’s tractor into the garage.  He finds his own voice learning how not to imitate clowns he hangs out with in high school and he encourages his daughters and students to find their own voices, too.

Whether serious or silly, Reese’s prose reads like poetry.  He says more in a paragraph than many write in pages. The final chapters are the shortest and most personal vignettes featuring his wife, daughters and co-workers.

Reese finds the profound in everyday, parochial life in his Bone Chalk.

Lenore and the Problem with Love

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In Lenore And The Problem With Love (When You Go To College To Save The Planet), J.T. Blossom’s sequel to The Tunes of Lenore, a freshman leaves college in California to pursue music in Nashville.

After their stunning performance at an experimental private boarding high school, Ella and her boyfriend, Brandon, secure spots at the prestigious Brecken University.  They study quantum effects in dogs, preparing them for release into the wild, where they will restore order ruined by humans. Ella becomes increasingly suspicious of the work while Brandon is more and more consumed by it.  Ella, a fiddler, joins up with an agent in Nashville, who sees her play in a coffeehouse. She and her magical violin, Lenore, influence change in listeners far and wide, some for better and some for worse.  

Many threads – Brandon and Ella’s fragile relationship, a scientist’s side project, University espionage and musical meanderings – dovetail into a complex and riveting plot, told over four parts, each more intense than the last.  The mood is urgent (the world’s fate is at stake) yet tempered by Ella’s thoughtfulness. She asks her dad, “What if dreaming is a luxury humanity can’t afford anymore?” (247). The ending is a prophetic and cataclysmic adventure.  

Ella and Lenore are heroines together.  Ella funnels all her romantic angst and school troubles into her fiddling.  Lenore leads Ella into mystical, profound musical experiences that act as messages for her to decode.  These dreamy passages push the book’s dystopian underpinnings into the realm of science fiction or fantasy. While most of the writing suits middle school audiences, the trance-like interludes and some scientific vocabulary, like “epigenetics,” (165) expand readers’ horizons.  

Like Greta Thunberg, Ella, Lenore’s main character, is an ordinary teenage champion, inspiring hope in the future through loving, creative endeavors.    Author site   

The Best That Can Happen: The Grand Trek by Kathleen Schmitt

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“I know that life dreams are not necessarily the same as adventures…” (254).  In her creative nonfiction memoir, The Best That Can Happen: The Grand Trek, Kathleen Schmitt describes both her life’s biggest adventure and her life’s dream with candor, humor and wisdom.

After graduating from Georgetown, the author plans to ride from Virginia to California on horseback, with a protection dog by their side.  She calls the trip an A.A., an Apparent Adventure, “contrived or pointless, or at least not to the point” (8). Rather than affecting some specific change or outcome, her journey reveals its purpose as it unfolds.

The narrative maintains a steady trot, despite the trip’s setbacks and detours, in its varied styles.  There are mini-stories, “rants,” history lessons, insights into her relationships and feelings, all told in colloquial speech.  She paints some scenes, however, in lyrical prose. For example, in Appalachia: “Dirty streaks flowed downhill from each cavity [mining shaft hole] like sooty pus running from open abscesses” (87).  The pocked mountain is as dark and graphic as Mordor from the Lord of the Rings! Through keen observations at a close distance, she sets herself in a broader context. 

Her travel companions are as important to the plot as her own development.  The animals provide comic relief. Country Boy, her Boxer dog, acts more hurt than he is, Jack, a horse, needs practice being tethered, and Murphy, another horse, makes an escape.  Besides being comedic, these animals become family. From dashing cowboys to blind farmers, strangers the author meets along the way also add colorful layers to the travelogue.  

On a more serious note, a pivotal chapter comes towards the end, when the trip takes an unexpected turn.  Reflective life lessons are offered. Far from glib, these conclusions come from how she approaches her adventures, not what her adventures are.

Funny, educational, and insightful, The Best That Can Happen dares anyone with a momentous goal to go ahead and try it.   Find it at its own website!

 

Ingvar: The Gods’ Forsaken Son by Wayne Armstrong

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Wayne Armstrong’s Ingvar is a forthright account of one fictional Viking prince in the early 9th century, bookended by a helpful foreward and an epilogue that put the story into a historical framework.  

Before he leaves on a raiding voyage, Ingvar asks his father, King Andorr, to name his successor – either Ingvar or step-brother Thorir.  Ingvar leaves without a response and returns from his trip having lost his pillaged treasure to a storm. His father, the king, is dead. Thorir and his mother, Gyda, rule.  Banished, Ingvar flees, determined to win back his rightful place and rescue his family from Thorir’s prison. Ingvar’s adventures in Iberia quickly descend into extreme hardship, solidifying his resolve for revenge.

Told in three parts, the plot is organized in chronological order and easy to follow.  The middle section toggles between Ingvar’s travels and Thorir’s tyrannical rule at home.  Descriptions of battles and survival are graphic and grotesque. The harsh landscape, with soggy crags and deadly sea in northern Europe and heat and deprivation in the south, echoes a difficult, barbaric life.  Friendship and religion also figure into the narrative. The no-nonsense writing style is reminiscent of ancient myths and Sigrid Undset’s retellings (Gunnar’s Daughter).  

The heart of the novel is Ingvar’s maturing.  Life experience tempers his brash behavior in the beginning of the book.  He earns his leadership by the end. Other characters do not develop; they either remain loyal to Ingvar or prove themselves his enemies.  Just as Ingvar learns, so will readers – the book is full of new vocabulary like “barbican,” “thrall,” “jarl,” and “recce.” Ingvar imagines hiring a “skald” (108) or epic ballad teller to recite his tale.  He gets his wish – this is it!   

A grisly and triumphant tale, Ingvar brings Viking lore to life.