Maureen Johnson’s ‘Truly Devious’ Series Goes Out with a Bang in ‘The Hand on the Wall’

the hand on the wallThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

The ‘Truly Devious’ series goes out with a bang in its final installment. The intrepid Stevie Bell makes it back to Ellingham Academy after a series of tragedies disrupt the school’s idyllic environment. She knows who committed the crime of the century, as the original Ellingham kidnapping/murders came to be known. But, now, she must piece together the present-day murders. Are they connected to the original killings? Are they even connected to each other?  In The Hand on the Wall, a page-turner from start to finish, Maureen Johnson provides those who have followed the mysteries of Ellingham Academy from the beginning with a satisfying conclusion.

Stevie’s deal with the villainous Edward King – a Senator cut from the Donald Trump mold – damages her budding romantic relationship with King’s secret problem child, David. After getting himself beaten up on purpose at the end of The Vanishing Stair, David is missing and, on top of that, Stevie’s advisor has been killed in a house fire. The uncertainty of the school’s future after these tragic deaths, combined with Stevie’s personal problems and academic demands, provide an anxiety-driven sprint to the finish as pieces of the puzzle start coming together in unexpected and chilling ways.

As with the two previous installments, Johnson alternates between perspectives told from the players of the original Ellingham affair and Stevie’s efforts in the present. The link between past and present becomes clearer as time passes, and the mysteries of the school continue to reveal themselves. Stevie’s advisor was convinced Albert Ellingham made a codicil in his will stipulating that any individual who discovers the whereabouts of his daughter, Alice, and returns her, alive or dead, will receive millions of dollars. If such a codicil exists, Stevie wonders, are the present-day murders motivated by the same entity that spurred the original crimes? Money makes a monster of us all, and it seems there are those who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

While this novel and its predecessor, The Vanishing Stair, suffer a little from the sophomore slump destined to plague most sequels, the entire series is a satisfying whodunit for young adults. Rereading the first two installments would be ideal before plunging into the final book, but Johnson’s unflagging ability to engross readers with her suspense-filled prose and character-driven narratives shines through in this ending – a perfect way to spend a few hours in the dead of winter.

Nicolette Polek’s ‘Imaginary Museums’ Is a Surreal Exploration of Timeless Themes

imaginary-museumsThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Nicolette Polek’s debut collection of short stories, Imaginary Museums, contains a surreal world in miniature. These stories – more accurately categorized as flash fiction – are parable-like sketches, elegantly rendered, ranging from uncanny to mythical. Moving back and forth between the Midwest and Eastern Europe, Polek exhibits a preternatural control over the tone of her narrative snippets. Each tale, from the runaway bride in “Arranged Marriage” to the mathematician seeking reinvention in “A House For Living,” successfully distills the nature of isolation. Polek’s characters, disconnected in various ways from the realities that face them, move in a dream world that mirrors our own in almost every way. The few unsettling differences that rear their heads are enough to make the reader feel out of step.

Yet, Polek’s stories are not without a sense of profound grace – a need to amend disconnection (between lovers, to one’s homeland, with God) in order to heal the rifts that form. She uses her masterful command of compression to encompass a range of scenarios, from interpersonal relationships (“Garden Party” and “The Dance”) and the prospect of death (“The Nearby Place”), to larger themes such as immigration (“Invitation,” “Your Shining Trapdoor”) and the anxiety that comes with experiencing grief and uncertainty (“Doorstop,” “The Rope Barrier”). In these glimpses, Polek manages to move fluidly from scene to scene without veering outside the collection’s atmospheric tone.

This sense of consistency lies in the smallest details aligning with the collection’s overarching thematic elements, from the stories’ placement in each of its four sections to the pointed strangeness of her sentences. In the title piece, “Imaginary Museums,” the protagonist’s sister is described as someone who “picked vegetables, read the Bible, and always had bad phone reception.” Such incongruous descriptions crop up around Polek’s characters in almost all of these fictions. But, as is the case with most stories that border on the surreal, kernels of truth are embedded in the characters’ strange traits and observations. In “The Rope Barrier,” a woman finds that her habit of cordoning herself off from things and people with a literal rope barrier cannot save her from life’s difficulties. Polek writes:

The woman both despised the rope barrier and hissed at those who approached it. She felt singled out and angry at things that were bigger than her. It felt, now, as if she were forced to put herself on a side of things she encountered, and that she often chose the wrong side.

— excerpt from Nicolette Polek’s Imaginary Museums

The beauty of these stories rests in their simplicity and control, something that Polek has honed to a point in this particular craft of flash fiction. While there are individual stories that lack the structure to stand on their own outside the collection, the whole is well worth revisiting for its elegance and technical accomplishment.

Eliese Colette Goldbach’s Memoir ‘Rust’ Is a Poignant Debut

Rust_Book-CoverThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Eliese Colette Goldbach has lived every dreamer’s nightmare. In her book-length debut Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, Goldbach details how the recession and her struggle with bipolar disorder effectively precludes her from securing meaningful employment post-university. Through the overarching framework of her working life at the mill, Goldbach’s memoir describes a downward trajectory of disappointment. The largely halcyon days of her childhood – distinguished by ambition, promise, and a naïve, unguarded piety – give way to years of self-doubt and loneliness in adolescence and young adulthood. Most strikingly, her account of working in a massive steel mill encapsulates the dark side of a certain fantasy peddled to millennials since their youngest days in elementary school: if you get a college degree, you are guaranteed work. Like many others in her position, Goldbach finds that the combination of a liberal arts degree, an economic recession, and a severe illness do not lead to the image of success imparted upon us by working-class parents.

When relating her early memories as a child growing up in a devout Roman Catholic family, Goldbach describes what I imagine is the near-universal desire among young girls in the Church to become nuns. The obsessive, fearful need for goodness, combined with the competitive nature of a younger sibling trying to out-do an older sibling in everything, imbues the author with what she comes to describe as a hunger for the extraordinary. As with most strict religious upbringings, and a future weighed down by expectation, Goldbach’s later years are marred by disillusionment followed by the need for course correction. She finds that the institutions she once believed represented justice, morality, and compassion are not so when difficulties arise in her life, namely her battle with bipolar disorder and a sexual assault during her college years.

The mill provides Goldbach with financial stability as a union laborer. And while her illness continues to cast a shadow over her personal life during these years, she finds herself part of a community among her fellow workers. By extension, she finds a new identity underneath the auspices of Cleveland’s famed grit – a place where the backbone of America’s infrastructure is born. Steelwork is known for its hazards, and Goldbach makes a point of comparing the steelmaking process with hellfire. The extremity of the work – along with the “snitches get stitches” attitude of her fellow workers – requires a new level of toughness, or else, a newbie will get chewed up and spit out by the mill. This rough-and-tumble education belies everything she thought she knew about the blue-collar industry in her hometown. Goldbach writes:

I heard about it from pundits and economics professors, and I’d come to believe that the Rust Belt was the collection of tidy metaphors that everyone else wanted it to be.

-excerpt from Rust

Goldbach’s personal experiences during this time of young adulthood provide a poignant, relatable reading experience for those who have been negatively affected by the post-recession economy, for those who have struggled with an incapacitating illness, or for those teetering with the religious values of one’s youth.

But, in the same vein as J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and other post-election literature, the strongest components of Goldbach’s memoir rest on keen observations of life at the steel mill, specifically as a woman in a largely male environment; how the identity of laborers is consistently exploited by politicians; and the myriad ways households are divided by hyperbolic political rhetoric. In a characteristically Biblical description, she describes the “rift” between Americans as something that “had been borne from a particularly human failing.” Goldbach writes:

 We had forgotten how to see each other. We had let our guard down. We had closed our eyes. Now the weavers of shrouds and fantasies had come along recognizing our self-imposed darkness. They believed that we were too blind to know better, so they covered our eyes carefully, hoping that none of us—both steelworkers and lawyers alike—would ever see clearly again.

-excerpt from Rust

Unfortunately, Goldbach fails to delve into the nitty-gritty of the economic disillusionment and pure rage that changed the tide of our 2016 election, which would likely uncover a slightly more nuanced portrait of this oft exploited demographic. Human failing certainly plays a role, but decades of poor economic policy and plain old political opportunism likely play a larger one.

As a whole, Rust is a moving portrait of Goldbach’s formative years, with gems of societal observation strewn throughout the narrative. Its shortcomings, which stem from too many narrative threads vying for center stage throughout the book, are mitigated by the author’s clear talent for observational storytelling.

On “The Need” by Helen Phillips

the need2019 ended on a strange note with a reading of Helen Phillips’ widely acclaimed second novel, The Need. In this heady blend of domestic fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, Phillips creates an atmospheric narrative that begins with a mother sensing the presence of an intruder in her home. In her fear, Molly, our narrator, operates solely on instinct in what becomes an increasingly futile effort to protect her two young children from such a violation.

Phillips’ strongest efforts in this novel can be attributed to her clever layering of a complex narrative timeline. Molly’s work as a paleobotanist brings her into contact with an excavation site known as “the Pit,” where, prior to the events of the novel, she discovers several everyday items with strange variations in their composition: a toy soldier with a monkey’s tail; a Coca-Cola can with the font shifted the opposite way; and a Bible that references God as “she.” Each is harmless, but something about these differences lends the objects an uncanny, otherworldly quality. The latter object in particular makes a splash in local papers, leading to a rapid increase in tourists to the Pit–some of whom do no take kindly to this new edition of the Holy Scriptures. In this way, Phillips introduces another threat of violence to the narrative, infusing the skewed world of the novel with dread.

As Molly confronts the prospect of an intruder in her home, the narrative cuts back to her time at the Pit and the significance of these small objects. When the plot pushes forward to Molly coming into contact with the intruder–an excellent buildup of suspense from Phillips–we find that this interloper is none other than Molly herself. “Moll”, as this variant of Molly comes to call herself, is a version of our narrator from a different reality–one of an infinite number of realities in which a tourist viewing the discovered Bible detonates a bomb, killing Molly’s children. In her grief, Moll finds her way to Molly via the Pit–a seam in the fabric of the universe that allows the alternate realities to come into contact with each other.

Moll demands access to the children, forcing Molly into an arrangement in which the two share care-giving duties. The threat of violence, combined with the weight of grief and the physical need to be with the children form this novel’s backbone. Phillips uses Molly’s experiences–and by extension Moll’s experiences–to explore motherhood, from the quotidian grind of caring for small children, who are more creature than human, to the extreme lengths a grieving mother will go to for the sake of those children…or what she will do to avenge their deaths.

Phillips writes with unparalleled beauty and grace about how the instinctive, physical  elements of motherhood–the trappings of nursing combined with the touch and smell of these small lives produced from one’s body–transcend mortal pinions to the realm of some unknowable universe; a higher existence in which infinite realities can take shape from a knowable present.

While Phillips’ prose is not consistently clean in craft, it is often stunningly understated and clear in intent. At just 272 pages, the author shows her ability to expand the short story form for which she is known, successfully executing the same succinct exploration of theme in the extended novel form.

A bit bleak for year’s end, but well worth the time.

Rick Barot’s ‘Galleons’ Examines Love, Identity and Colonialism

the-galleons-rick-barot-reviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In his latest poetry collection, The Galleons, Rick Barot explores identity, love, aging, knowledge, and sight within the context of post-colonialism. With the consistent, steady pattern of couplets—a mark of Barot’s attempt to impose what he calls “muscular logic”—the reader experiences a rendering of the world that ranges in scale from the heavy-bellied Spanish galleons of empire to the indulged son making wooden models of galleons in his basement. Barot’s “grudging faith / in the particular” leads to a meticulous effort to name things—an imposition of order on the distinctly human cycle of paradox, violence, and grief that marks the passage of time. His ability to pinpoint specific moments or elements within larger phenomena, and vice versa, shows a poet committed to sight—to noticing and putting down on paper the ways in which our personal histories intertwine with nature and the universe at large.

In his poem titled “The Marrow,” Barot writes, “I saw things / mostly as they were, which meant a kind of health.” In this sense, it’s easy to consider the poems in The Galleons as an exercise in healing. Barot devotes a significant portion of the titled Galleons poems, of which there are ten, listing stolen items from Spain’s colonial rule in the Philippines. When “research is mourning,” and when what we’re capable of doing differs from that which we want to do, the ability to recognize what exists and what has passed becomes a crucial part of identifying the self. We see this in “The Galleons 6″—a poem in which Barot makes an inventory of ships used by the Spanish empire from 1564 to 1816, and again in  “The Galleons 8” where the personified ships yearn for that which is lost to them.

Similarly, in the collection’s quieter moments, we see the poet lose faith in the “romantic notion” of overarching narratives when attempting to understand what defines a life.  He observes, “The shard and not the whole / comprises a life, the image and not the narrative,” pointing to world-shattering moments in which the smallest details remain clear in the mind rather than knowing as it occurs that the moment itself will change everything. These shards—these small defining moments that Barot strings like pearls throughout the collection—speak to the sense of relief that comes with being able to remember and give names to that which animates our existence.

With this naming comes precision and a clear sense of narrative purpose. Barot’s efforts reveal a reckoning with the past, personal and historical. The awareness that comes with forging these observations into art allows for hope and beauty to enter spaces where they had not existed. He writes, “And the window within the eye, / which you don’t see until you see, is white as a winter sky, / though you know it is joy that is held there.” Barot gives us the gift of sight in The Galleons, and with it, the power to capture hope.

Alia Trabucco Zerán’s ‘The Remainder’ Explores Grief and Reckoning

The-Remainder-Alia-Trabucco-Zerán-ReviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In her introduction to Alia Trabucco Zerán’s groundbreaking new novel — recently shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize — Lina Meruane frames the narrative as an exercise in “mortuary maths,” asking how we reconcile the number of people born with the number of those who die in a country stuck in the shadow of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Meruane suggests The Remainder, and other examples of post-memory literature, respond to a specific need: “the need for a kind of grief that manifests in the counting of dead bodies and the recounting of stories.” These stories, Meruane observes, question whether or not “borrowed or imposed memory [can] be separated from one’s own memories,” or if the cut will lead to another kind of death.

Told from the dual perspective of childhood friends struggling with the weight of this collective memory, Zerán explores the ways in which those coming of age in the wake of a dictatorship attempt to forge their own identities out of sustained trauma — a cycle that any number of careful calculations will almost certainly fail to undo. Yet they persist, as all characters of Latin American fiction are wont to do, searching for a cure to what ails the progeny of colonialism: the original sin.

In The Remainder, Felipe, Iquela and Paloma, the children of former militants, embark on a journey to recover Paloma’s mother’s body after it is diverted away from Santiago. Their attempt to repatriate her forces them to reckon with what they remember of the past–the brutality and grief threaded into every inch of recollection, whether experienced directly or as a product of the strange osmosis that permeates their shared stories.

We see this as the book’s narrators, Felipe and Iquela, build the story through alternating passages, effectively representing the duality of the questions Zerán attempts to answer. In Felipe’s countdown to zero–the end goal in which all of Chile’s dead have been accounted for–we see a manic, hunger-panged reaction to grief. Felipe’s is a form of suffering in which the whole and all its parts are seen at once. Nothing can be unseen, therefore, nothing can be forgotten. Everything flows from him in a wild rush of sensory overload. His passages, which go on for several pages, contain only one long stream-of-conscious like sentence. Iquela, on the other hand, is tethered firmly to reality, preoccupied with imposing her own memories (interspersed throughout the text in parenthetical asides) on the narrative of her life, and in doing so, forging a new language. In childhood, both narrators inflict and endure physical pain in an attempt to feel something that is their own–”a pain that was visible and mine,” as Iquela remembers it.

Paloma’s arrival forces the trio to examine the past and finally put it to rest, allowing them to arrive at zero. She leads them to the cure, the final reckoning, by allowing Felipe and Iquela to join her in recovering her mother’s body. It becomes an offering, which we see in Iquela’s final passage as she faces the prospect of returning to Chile:

…Only by ridding myself of it all would I be able to face going back, only by shaking off the “scars,” “grief,” “sorrows,” and repaying, syllable by syllable, that incalculable debt, a debt that would have rendered us mute…I’d walk toward my mother, gazing at her affectionately, carrying the weight of all the things she’d ever seen (carrying remains, debts, sorrows). And in an old voice–no less mine for being inherited–using frail and untranslatable syllables, final words which, once spoken, would leave me empty and alone in a desert full of new lines (to be spoken in a timeless language), I would say to her with a hint of sadness, ‘I’ve brought you Ingrid Aguirre, and here is Felipe Arrabal.’ And I would hold her (her skin so close to her bones and her bones so close to mine), and only then, from within the perfect parenthesis of our interwoven bodies, would I open my mouth to tell her: ‘Mother, I’ve done all this for you.’

excerpt from The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán

The pain Felipe, Iquela and Paloma carry with them — that which was passed along to them and which they inflicted upon themselves — will pass. Holding onto it will not repay the “incalculable debt” of loss, from those who disappeared to those who were killed or forced to flee. There are too many deaths to square, but the return of one body–Ingrid’s repatriation–is the key to being at peace with their ghosts.

Zerán’s formidable command of two distinct styles throughout the novel (translated beautifully by Sophie Hughes), her ability to plumb the depths of generational trauma and her ability to engage with and deconstruct the concept of collective memory propels The Remainder to the status of masterpiece. She continues the longstanding tradition of Latin American writers attempting to make sense of political violence by rendering the darkest sins of a country, and the pain of its people, into a beacon of light.

Natalia Ginzburg’s Genius Shines in Her 1947 Classic ‘The Dry Heart’

the dry heartNatalia Ginzburg’s novella The Dry Heart famously springs forth from an unnamed narrator’s matter-of-fact statement, “I shot him between the eyes.” But even before we get her pronouncement, our narrator asks this man, her husband Alberto, to, “Tell me the truth,” and he responds, “What truth?” In this brief exchange—in the moment just before such an extreme act of violence—Ginzburg presents the core theme of her story: what truth can be found in this narrator’s life? Can it be found in her marriage? Her motherhood? Her role as a daughter or friend? The simple answer embedded within this shocking, tension-filled portrait of marriage is that truth does not exist for our narrator. It has been, by turns, misinterpreted, morphed, stolen or replaced—an alchemical transmutation, collapsing deceptive imagination and a husband’s fatal weakness of character into an eerily exacting portrait. Our narrator observes, “It’s very difficult…to know what we’re really like inside,” and we see, in Ginzburg’s incisive, direct prose, how an ill-defined life has pernicious and tragic consequences.

Our narrator, a woman in her late twenties, lives a dull life. She dutifully visits her family every weekend and returns to her boardinghouse to read novels in her spare time. When she begins seeing Alberto, an older man who cares for his elderly mother, a new, entirely imagined world opens for her. Ginzburg writes:

When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence, with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenseless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her.

-excerpt from The Dry Heart

She and Alberto have no real love for each other, but the anticipation of their meetings—the visions for the future she constructs from the possibilities associated with their pairing—lead to an imagined love, which happens to be as powerful and all-encompassing as the real thing. Of their dates, she says, “We went for long walks along the river or in the outskirts of the city, where lovers go, and yet we exchanged none of the words or gestures of love.” Such is the only excitement she can find, perhaps, within the strictures of Italian society in the 1940s.

Her thoughts are entirely preoccupied with Alberto. Her work as a schoolteacher no longer interests her, and she sits and waits for him to visit or call. Eventually, they marry because, it seems, they have nothing else to do with their attachment, and a child is born. The narrator is uncertain about her relationship with Alberto, the love she breathed into being disappeared with the birth of her child. Although she knows about  Alberto’s long, torturous affair with a woman called Giovanna, she carries on with the care of their child by herself while he leaves for extended periods of time.

She obsesses over the child, placing all of her care and affection into the rearing of her daughter’s sickly form. When her cousin Francesca comes to stay, the younger woman’s disregard for social convention reveals to the narrator a different sort of life, jaded as she is trying to understand her own motivations and those of the people around her.

In just under 90 pages, Ginzburg offers up a clean sliver of the human heart, revealing all its frustrations and limitations; its foolish desires keeping us pinioned within worlds we can’t remove ourselves from even if we wanted to. In the end, our narrator’s final act takes on a frightening logic. Why wouldn’t we attempt to break the cycle and free ourselves from these hellish turnings of the mind? Only a writer of Ginzburg’s caliber could turn this simple sketch of life into a trenchant examination of despair.