Margaret Renkl Melds Personal History with the Natural World in ‘Late Migrations’

Margaret-Renkl-Late-Migrations-Book-Review

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Margaret Renkl‘s debut, Late Migrations: A  Natural History of Love and Loss, contains multitudes for such a slender volume. Structured as a series of vignettes through which Renkl juxtaposes her family history with observations of the natural world, this timely collection presents the universe in miniature—the violent, painful, heartbreaking realities of daily life that, when accepted for what they are, yield hope.

Renkl writes with the well-trained eye of a seasoned naturalist despite her not being one. Her thorough attention to detail—her ability to name things in the natural world for what they are—imbues each piece with an authoritative grist and a tapestry-like quality, aided by Renkl’s assured poetic flair. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, particularly her knowledge of birds and flora, stems from the adventurous days of an uninhibited childhood during which time was spent running barefoot in the red clay of southern Alabama. Such is her attachment that a twenty-something Renkl could not complete her graduate course in Philadelphia, where she came to understand the loss of nature was like the loss of home.

In the present, Renkl makes a small haven for wildlife out of her backyard in Tennessee, where she observes the “red in beak and claw” behavior of territorial passerine birds and the steady predation of rat snakes and raptors alike. “This life thrives on death,” she writes, and with that, the difficulty in knowing when to provide aid and when to leave things as they are. Through these observations, Renkl tells stories of her family, her universe—an endless source of deep love, support, and humor. Their struggles, presented in tandem with scenes from the natural world and the insight Renkl draws from them, weave together to form a narrative that discourages cynicism and despair. And while it might take the reader some time to gain purchase in the short, seemingly desultory passages at the book’s beginning, the overall effect is something deeply moving.

When I began Late Migrations, I feared what conclusions Renkl would present concerning the ever-growing existential threat to our natural world. After all—the longstanding hope of our species, all our talk of eternity—rests on the fact that life will continue beyond our oblivion until the sun reaches the end of its life cycle and the entire galaxy is destroyed. How do we manage the weight of this knowledge? And with it—how do we possibly maintain hope? Renkl touches on the effects of climate change lightly, going into some detail about the ways in which the migrations of certain birds are altered by changes in climate patters and the forced encroachment of non-native species into areas where their presence threatens native wildlife. I was saddened by these accounts, but I was also unexpectedly comforted by Renkl’s optimism about the resiliency of these living things.  She does not place blame, or attempt to shame anyone, the implication being that, while the situation is dire, there is always the chance for life to regain its balance with death. Ultimately, the cycle continues as we expect it to. Every living thing adapts to tragedy.

On her imagining of what an early human would have thought upon encountering the “flare of light on moving water,” she writes:

The first instant must have felt the way waking into darkness feels–not knowing at first if your eyes are open or closed.

In that instant, the river is not a life-giving source of water and fish and passage. In that instant, it is not the roiling fury that can swallow whole any land-walking, air-breathing creature. It is only itself, unlike any other thing. It was here long before we were here, and it will be here after we are gone. It will erase all trace of us–without malice, without even recognition. And when we are gone to ground and all our structures have crumbled back to dust, the river will become again just the place where light and water and sky find each other among the trees.

The beauty of Renkl’s writing in Late Migrations is staggering—on a par with other naturalist writers such as Annie Dillard and Peter Matthiessen. The honey-tongued lilt of southern dialogue and the verse-like quality of her prose show a writer with full command of her craft, effectively transforming a slim, unassuming collection of essays into a magnificent microcosm of the multitudinous universe.

Richard Roper Delivers A Funny, Heartwarming Debut With ‘How Not to Die Alone’

Richard-Roper-How-Not-to-Die-AloneThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In  How Not to Die AloneRichard Roper explores loneliness and isolation as a modern phenomenon from the perspective of a man in pursuit of his own happiness. Fascinated by a news piece about government agencies responsible for burying those who die alone, Roper tells this story from one such government employee named Andrew—a 42-year old who spends day in and day out bearing witness to the lives of the poor and lonely. Some of the people Andrew deals with have been dead for months before anyone realizes, and those who come around afterward claiming to be friends of the deceased are often opportunists hoping to stake a claim on anything they might have left behind.

Every year his department sees an increase in these lonely deaths, but no one is worried about Andrew. Everyone knows he has a wife and kids to go home to every night…at least that’s what they believe. For five years, Andrew’s been harboring a secret. A misunderstanding during the interview for his position becomes the lie that he’s too embarrassed to rectify. When his boss suggests the department staff bond by visiting each other’s houses for dinner, Andrew is faced with the weight of his lie and the mortification that will come when people find out he doesn’t actually have a family. The wife and kids he made up in his interview don’t actually exist.

Over time, he creates intimate details about his imaginary family, creating endless fabrications about who they are as individuals and the goings on of their daily activities. Allowing himself to fall into that world is a comfort, one that bars him from the reality of his life. The relationship with his only living relative—his sister, Sally—is strained at best. She feels obligated to call him every few months out of guilt over their shared past and a trauma that she has never been able to help Andrew get over—a trauma he refuses to address, but which he is triggered by often. When Sally dies, he’s forced to contend with her leftover guilt and the ways in which he never allowed himself to open up to her.

It’s the constant proximity to the reality of living life alone that forces Andrew to take comfort in the little things he places around himself as a shield—his nonexistent family, the music of Ella Fitzgerald, and his model train collection. The only substantive personal interaction he has on a daily basis is with the other model train enthusiasts he chats with on an online forum. Such is Andrew’s life until Peggy comes along.

Peggy is funny and genuinely warmhearted. She tries to comfort Andrew after Sally dies, even as she struggles with the tragedy of their work and her own marital problems; she befriends him even when he makes doing so difficult. Interacting with others is difficult for him, but he soon realizes that it’s easy to talk to Peggy. They develop a routine—house inspections together and lunch at the pub on Fridays. Like a brick to the face, he comes to understand one day that he’s made a friend.

But how can he be a friend? Peggy is honest with him, and Andrew continues to hide from his past and has yet to reveal the hoax that is his family.

Roper’s efforts in this novel are often genuinely warmhearted and funny, especially in its first several chapters. The flashback to Andrew’s interview—and a handful of his other foibles—are laugh-out-loud funny. As a non-fiction editor by trade, Roper has a grasp of economical writing and tells the story with spot-on pacing. As the story progresses, some elements of the story come across as haphazard and hastily drawn within the narrative, e.g. the feud with his brother-in-law and his somewhat relentless obsession with quirkiness. Regarding the latter point—quirkiness is fine. Lovable even. But relying too heavily on, say, Andrew’s obsession with Ella Fitzgerald or his love for model trains—while ultimately essential to the plot—become affected rather than naturally occurring.

Fans of Gail Honeyman‘s wonderful novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine will find more than a few similarities with How Not to Die Alone. I wouldn’t be surprised if Roper drew inspiration from Honeyman’s debut, which was a massive success in the UK before hitting shelves here. His efforts are admirable, and a lot of the narrative’s shortcomings are made up for in dialogue and wittiness, but the finesse and the distillation of these novels’ major themes—loneliness, isolation, and the means by which we open ourselves to friendship—is exemplified more wholly in Honeyman’s Eleanor than it is in Roper’s Andrew.

All that being said, How Not to Die Alone is still a nicely done novel that successfully explores the tragic reality of people spending the final years of their life alone. While it doesn’t delve too far into the wider causes of this increasing likelihood—Roper choosing to focus on Andrew’s personal struggles—the topic is done some modicum of justice.

Melissa Rivero Explores the Immigrant Experience in Her Debut Novel ‘The Affairs of the Falcóns’

Melissa-Rivero-The-Affair-of-the-Falcons-ReviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Melissa Rivero’s debut novel, The Affairs of the Falcóns, is a rich, multilayered narrative about the struggles of a young Peruvian family attempting to make a life in America. Ana Falcón, and her husband, Lucho, live in a vacuum where everything is dictated by money–trying to make it, not having enough of it, or coming up with ways to find more of it. Ana is driven to keep her family together in New York and clings to her dream of one day opening a restaurant. But the endless struggle for a comfortable life has Lucho prepared to send the children back to Peru–or have the whole family return. After all, he wasn’t the one who wanted to come to America in the first place.

The novel spans just a few weeks in time as the Falcóns’ troubles come to a head. We see how Ana is forced to bear the brunt of her family’s financial concerns, while also bearing the judgment leveled at her from her husband’s relatives with whom they are forced to live until they can find another place of their own. The threat of deportation and an unexpected pregnancy add fuel to an already blazing fire.

Through Ana’s experiences, Rivero creates a deeply moving portrait of immigrant life in the United States, focusing on the ways in which large communities of people are forced to live in the shadows as they silently form the backbone of our society. The endless struggle to make ends meet only reinforces Ana’s resolve. The opportunities available to Lucho in Peru–a college educated young man from a family of European descent–would never be available to Ana. As an indigenous woman from the hills of Santa Clara, Lima was not a welcome place. She was an outsider. Even Lucho’s mother never ceases to remind her that she is only a Falcón because her son was obliged to “do the right thing” when she became pregnant. Why else would her son marry so far beneath him?

Despite the violence of Peru’s military and its rebel fighters, Lucho longs for his days as a student and activist in Lima. Working as a laborer makes him bitter, leaving Ana with the feeling that life with her and the kids is a burden he never wanted to carry.

In The Affairs of the Falcóns, Rivero masterfully explores the intricate dynamics of family, love, and longing while effectively illustrating the intersections of race, class, and identity. It will almost certainly become one of this year’s finest debuts.

Ruth Ware Meets Paula Hawkins in Lucy Foley’s ‘The Hunting Party’

The Hunting Party Lucy Foley Book Review

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

What happens when a group of friends travels to a remote estate in the Scottish Highlands for New Years? One would hope for an opportunity to catch up—to reminisce about old times and rekindle the connections that are becoming more tenuous as the years pass. Eight friends whose shared history encompasses more than a decade should be enjoying an exciting and carefree annual holiday. But the idyllic getaway they signed up for almost immediately takes a turn for the sinister as the group’s fault lines begin to shift, revealing irreparable damage just beneath their veneer of perfection.

Lucy Foley takes her cue from the Agatha Christie playbook in her fourth novel, The Hunting Party. We know from the beginning someone ends up dead. Who is the victim? And who among the handful of people staying at this remote lodge could have done it? Among the group of friends, there is the center: Miranda. She is the sun around which everyone orbits, and we quickly learn that she wields a certain amount of power over the others. There is Miranda’s distant husband, Julien; Bo and Nick, the perfect couple; Samira and Giles, new parents to an infant daughter; Mark, who is prone to violent outbursts; Mark’s girlfriend, Emma, the newcomer; and Katie, the shy, illusive watcher. The only other people present are the lodge manager, Heather, and the gamekeeper, Doug — both isolating themselves from the outside world as well as a strange Icelandic couple who show a little too much interest in the gore of hunting.

Like the best mystery writers, Foley reveals over time the circumstances leading up to the victim’s death, dropping breadcrumbs and peeling back layers as she moves back and forth through time in the narrative, which is told from the perspective of five characters: Heather, Doug, Miranda, Katie, and Emma. Geographically isolated and trapped by snow, the festive atmosphere quickly becomes a playing field for shifting power dynamics and the sad, grasping claw of highly-educated professional thirtysomethings in their effort to recapture the days of their youth, not realizing that, perhaps, too much has changed.

Foley examines the subtle shifts in mood—the secrets threatening to leak out—with razor-sharp precision, and infuses the nostalgia and half-baked attempts at fun with subtle hints of sadism, violence, and callous disregard as it flits through her characters’ minds. For Heather and Doug, she plumbs the depths of loss and grief. Most remarkably, the landscape itself takes on a life of its own, as though the freezing Scottish winds are sinking into the lodge fixtures as if through flesh.

Police can’t reach the lodge until the snow clears. With a murderer sitting amongst their numbers and no one else in sight, Heather begins piecing together what happened to the ill-fated guest. Foley paces the dual narrative perfectly until the two finally meet. Her combination of character study and atmosphere become the key ingredients of a tightly-wound, expertly crafted mystery. And once you begin this book, you won’t be able to stop.

Revisiting “The View From Saturday” by E.L. Konigsburg

viewLast July, Jia Tolentino published a retrospective review of E.L. Konigsburg’s 1996 masterpiece The View From Saturday. Her thoughts on the novel regarding its subtleties and the author’s clear, spare language encouraged me to read the book again. I must have been in 4th or 5th grade when I read it for the first time, slightly younger than the cosmically strange protagonists of the story, and I loved it. The idea of four precociously intelligent 11-year-olds bonded by an indescribable energy fascinated me at the time. Undoubtedly, I believed myself to be just like them, when, in fact, I was no where near as clever or formal.

The four students–Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian, aka “the Souls”–represent Mrs. Olinski’s 6th grade academic bowl team. They decimate the competition and find themselves in the finals. No one can understand how these four random students outwitted teams of 7th and 8th graders. Even Mrs. Olinski can’t quite identify what drew her to her team. As the novel progresses, the narrative doubles back on itself with pieces of the story fitting into place as each character’s perspective is told.

As with all good novels, Konigsburg manages to say a lot through very little. She writes cleanly and clearly, but there’s an element of mysticism or magic (sometimes overt) in the way she tells the story. In many ways, the spareness of the book’s sentences convey the preternatural clearsightedness of the children and their ability to understand the things about themselves that those around them cannot.

So many of the details in this story would have been lost on me as a child. I loved the story, and I understood the idea of it. I thought it was perfect at the time. Nevertheless, the deftness of Konigsburg’s writing paired with the intricacies of the story’s plot never would have occurred to me.

When I read it for the first time, I was focused solely on the four kids, wholeheartedly wanting to be them. Mrs. Olinski’s realizations throughout the book didn’t register with me as much as they did when I read it as an adult. Her character seemed perfect, then, and wise. But there’s a moment when she goes to Silington House for the first time and she is overcome by jealousy at the family interactions going on around her. It’s a striking moment of rage that exemplifies just how masterful Konigsburg is as a writer.

On “The Proposal” by Jasmine Guillory

proposalOne of my greatest flaws as a reader is loyalty. If I’m unimpressed by an author’s debut novel, I will continue to read the next two or three books they publish just to make sure the first wasn’t a fluke. Such is the case with Jasmine Guillory’s contemporary romance novels. Her first–The Wedding Date–had a handful of standout qualities: one of the romantic leads is a POC, the love scenes are functional if not a little derivative (but that’s to be expected. How original can you get with that sort of thing?), and the plotting is well paced. When I finished it, I thought my lukewarm reception had to do with the fact that I’m not naturally inclined to enjoy romance novels unless they’re of the Nora Ephron variety.

I picked up Guillory’s debut more or less because I enjoy quick reads when I’m in between books that take up a lot of my attention. I decided to read The Proposal out of sheer curiosity–I wanted to see where she would take the interwoven story line. I’ll admit I became invested in the characters enough to want to know what happens to them. If you really loved her debut, then you will certainly love the second book, because she follows The Wedding Date formula to a tee. It was, par for par, exactly the same as the first one, except The Proposal has more of an emphasis on female friendship and the nature of toxic relationships, which I thought was good.

To be clear, Guillory’s writing is not bad, but it is repetitive. Books of this nature tend to follow such a stringent formula that readers have to turn to the nitty-gritty details for substance, and there isn’t a whole lot of that in this book. But I also knew when I picked this book up it was likely to be the same as Guillory’s first, just with different characters. Her focus on diversity within the romance genre is reason enough to read her work, but I guess I was hoping for more? There was a little too much of the “I’ll show you my scars and you show me your scars and we’ll cry about it” kind of thing, but without any nuance or irony.

On the other hand, I think this book was doomed from the beginning in my eyes because I read Josie Silver’s One Day in December just a week or so ago. Boy was that a page-turner. It starts with a life-altering moment that leads to an unalterable series of events–a series of events that the reader cannot help but be invested in completely from the start.

So Silver’s debut was by threshold for acceptability going into this. Ultimately, it doesn’t really mean anything because I know I’m going to read Guillory’s third novel, which is coming out in June. I think the next one will be better than The Proposal because it introduces tension between its central characters at the beginning of the novel rather than near the end as the first two books have done. And since it features the same cast, the reader can expect a nice sense of familiarity. Maybe loyalty isn’t such a flaw after all…

On “The Wife” by Meg Wolitzer

the wife
Courtesy of imdb.com

I haven’t kept up with award show season this year, so it was quite a fortuitous surprise that the legendary Glenn Close should win a Golden Globe last night for her performance in Bjorn Runge’s adaptation of Meg Wolizter’s 2003 novel just as I finished reading it. The film wasn’t a must-see for me, nor was it the reason behind my decision to pick up the book. I chose to read it after listening to BBC Radio 4’s “A Good Read” podcast hosted by the inimitable Harriett Gilbert. Comedian Lolly Adefope picked The Wife as her good read for the segment.

While reading the novel–the first I’ve read by Wolitzer–I was struck by the timelessness of the story and the bare-bones truth of its central theme: everybody wants a wife. In the book, Joan Castleman–the wife of literary superstar, Joe Castleman–has decided she is going to end her marriage after four decades. From the beginning, the reader understands how unhappy Joan is. The source of her deep-seeded resentment is revealed over time.

Joe has just won a prestigious award bestowed by the Finnish equivalent of the Academy of Arts and Letters, though, as Joan points out, it is not as prestigious as the award the Swedes hand out every year. This grand fete thrown in Joe’s honor pushes Joan to the end of her rope, causing her to look back on the course of their relationship and the events that let them to the present.

Joan expresses the sentiment that everyone must want a wife because she has done everything for Joe over the course of their marriage, and in return he has done nothing. He is childish, preening, and mildly stupid. How does this type of man publish such great work? We can suspect what the real source of his success is from the beginning. But even when Joan reveals the truth, readers will be shocked.

Wolitzer is a master of layering her narrative and moving back and forth through time. She renders, in perfect detail, the minutiae of the Castlemans’ failed marriage, getting to the heart of the ways in which men leech power from those who support them.