Desiderata: Monthly Book Wrap

Desiderata: things desired

This is the first in what I intend to be a monthly review of books recently read. As a new month turns over, here’s a look back at what I read in October that stirred my soul.

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lights All Night Long

It’s not lost on me that I consumed most of this book in the lonely clutches of insomnia, my internal lights on deep into the night. Sometimes I think I embrace this torture, for it offers the opportunity to do the thing I most love in life besides writing: reading.

And this was one worth having insomnia for. One of the year’s most moving (trembling, shaking) reads for me. I gasp in wonder and humbleness that Lights All Night Long is Lydia Fitzpatrick’s debut.

The lights of Fitzpatrick’s novel refer to the harsh and constant glare of the massive oil refineries that light the frozen plains of the small northwestern Russian town where Ilya Alexandrovich Morosov grew up and the steaming bayous of Leffie, Louisiana where he is spending the year as an exchange student.

The two landscapes and cultures couldn’t be more different and the story opens as Ilya arrives at the airport in Baton Rouge, walking deliberately past the smiling, plump, eager host family that awaits him, holding high the sign with his name. He walks past the Masons not once, but several times, only meeting them at last at the car rental kiosk where they have him paged. Fitzpatrick captures the moment they register Ilya’s face as one they had seen walk by, ignoring them, so perfectly —a moment’s mixture of embarrassment, hurt, confusion, and then kindness. No one mentions the gaffe and Ilya is welcomed into the Mason family: Papa Cam, Mama Jamie, two young daughters, and the misplaced, reclusive teenager, Sadie, who becomes his guide to American high school and eases his cultural transition.

Ilya packed very little for his year abroad, but he comes laden with a terrible secret. His beloved older brother, Vladimir, is in prison, having confessed to the murders of three women shortly before Ilya left for America. Vlad is a drug addict, a petty thief, a high school dropout. But a murderer? Ilya knows his brother, knows his optimistic, fun-loving heart. He may have mired his life in terrible choices, but Vlad is not a killer.

The chapters alternate between America and Russia, between the present and the immediate past, the year leading up to Ilya’s departure, when things were going so right in his life, and so terribly wrong in his brother’s. Fitzpatrick crafts a murder mystery with a slowly-tightening circle around the truth as Ilya sets puzzle pieces in place each night in his basement room at the Mason’s, surfing the net after he completes his daily homework. He reveals his secret to Sadie and together they work to prove Vladimir’s innocence.

Lights All Night Long is beautifully written, with characters cast in tenderness and compassion, landscapes that crackle with ice and throb with humidity, and an intricate, carefully woven plot that will leave you gasping at the end. But it is the relationship between the brothers Ilya and Vlad that will burrow into your heart, and break it, over and over.

One of the year’s best. Now, let’s all get some sleep.

Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice

I need a new category/shelf: Books That Make Me Cry Because I Think The Author Sees Into My Soul.

I’ve been reading this slowly these past few weeks, just a short essay or two in the morning before turning to work on my novel-in-progress. It’s served as a devotional, an inspiration, a kick in the ass, a point of focus, permission, forgiveness, scolding, hope. I think it will remain on the coffee table beside my morning writing spot, and I’ll return to the beginning and keep rereading through to the end, rinse-repeat until McCann’s nuggets of wisdom, tenderness, and no bullshit advice on the writing life are ingrained in my brain. It doesn’t matter how much one has or hasn’t written, published or not published, Colum McCann writes to our deepest fears and hopes, with the solid conviction that we must write on. Rage on.
 

The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks

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A gorgeously-penned novel that is nominally about real-life composer Erik Satie, but at its core is the story of the death of a possibility. Not of Erik Satie’s, whom Caitlin Horrocks shows to be an occasionally inspired, oft-petulant and paranoid genius, but of his sister Louise’s, whose gender made her own career as a gifted musician a risible intention.

Satie’s rise to fame as a composer in fin-de-siècle Paris occurred within an inner circle of family and fellow artists, and his ambitions reveal both the genuine struggle and the patriarchal privilege artists in all mediums faced or benefited from then, and now.

The Vexations has a multitude of narrators, including Satie; his siblings Conrad and Louise; his companion, painter and artist’s model Suzanne; and collaborator, lyricist and poet, Philippe. I found this literary choice vexing at times, for it distanced me as a reader from Erik, and I felt it distanced the author from the character she most wanted to spend time with: Louise.

The Saties’ mother died when the siblings were young. Their father left Conrad and Erik with their grandmother; Louise was taken to a great-uncle and raised to be a docile, lightly educated Catholic young woman, devoid of any ambition other than to marry well. The boys are eventually reunited with their father in Paris and allowed aspirations. Conrad is drawn into respectable business. Erik’s pursuits land him in bohemian Paris, ascending the steep streets above the Pigalle to the wilds of Montmartre, where the avant-garde and the tawdry rub elbows and raise goats in sprawling, meadowed backyards. Horrocks immerses the reader in this landscape, deliciously evoking the circles of artists, composers, poets, writers, and painters who created the stylized dilettantism of La Belle Epoque Paris.

But this is Louise’s story, as evidenced by the first person perspective given to her character, the only one who is allowed such closeness to the reader and her own agency. Louise takes us from the Satie childhood home in Normandy to post WWII Buenos Aires, where she retreats for safety, privacy, and employment like so many Europeans during and after the war. The reader is left to wonder, had Louise been given the opportunities afforded her brothers, which Satie would we be celebrating and remembering via Spotify playlists and movie soundtracks? There is no denying Erik’s genius, but we must recognize the genius denied in Louise.

A powerful, engrossing novel. Highly recommended.

The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld

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I entered adolescence at the same time Gary Ridgeway, aka the Green River Killer, murdered his first victim, a teenager he’d abducted from a foster home near Seattle.

Through my teenage and early adult years, Ridgeway killed dozens of women in south King County and in Portland, OR. Nearly all were sex workers and runaways, compromised by poverty, drugs, trauma. They were the most vulnerable among us, forgotten and easily discarded.

Author Rene Denfeld lived homeless in Portland as a teenager at the same time as the Green River Killer was beginning his two-decade killing spree. She may even have narrowly missed becoming one of his victims, as she chronicles in this recent article for Crime Reads: The Green River Killer and MeThe Butterfly Girl is Denfeld’s gift to those abused, forgotten street children. She gives them voice, rage, tenderness, humanity, and in Naomi Cottle — the child finder— she offers them hope.

We were introduced to Naomi in Denfeld’s haunting 2017 novel, The Child Finder. In this second thriller, Naomi puts her external investigations on hold to focus on finding her sister, who was held captive with Naomi after the two were stolen from their families as little girls. Naomi escaped when she was nine, running naked through strawberrry fields into the arms of migrant workers, who delivered her to safety in a distant Oregon town. Young Naomi fled with nothing. She had no memories of her captivity, only that she left behind a baby sister. Rage and guilt propelled her into a career finding the children everyone else has given up on. Even if all she can offer the grieving families is a body, her mission is to bring closure to the devastation of the missing.

The Butterfly Girl of the title is twelve-year-old Celia, a Portland street kid who escaped repeated rape at the hands of her opioid-addicted mother’s boyfriend. Celia sleeps in the bushes and digs through restaurant dumpsters, avoiding roving bands of marauding frat boys and the slimy clutches of preying men. Occasionally she sells her body to make some cash when things are most desperate. It is a terrible existence, but better than the one she left. She finds refuge in the city library, where volumes of books about butterflies capture and release her imagination into a world of flight on beautiful wings.

But a new horror has entered the streets where Celia lives: someone is murdering young homeless women and dumping their bodies into the city’s wide, industrial river. Naomi’s quest to find her sister draws her into Celia’s life and into the hunt for this monster. The two investigations dovetail into one breathless race to catch a killer before he can strike again.

Naomi’s own trauma renders her distant and cold from her husband, from the beloved friend who takes them in, and even from the reader. She seems to serve, uncomfortably at times, as an empty vessel through which all the rage and despair and sadness of the victims pours through.

Bleak and beautiful, The Butterfly Girl offers a moving and distressing portrait of street life, of those who live it and those who seek to provide relief and retreat from it. It’s a heartpounding thriller with a lyrical and humane soul.

A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman

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My ex-husband and I served briefly as Peace Corps volunteers in Chad in the early 90s. We were young newlyweds— 24 & 27 — but we’d lived abroad, we were fluent in one of Chad’s official languages (French), we were trained as educators, he as a K-12 certificated teacher, me as an instructor of ESL. We left Chad after a few months, heartbroken, disillusioned, angry and bewildered.

We quickly realized that as members of a well-intentioned but grinding government bureaucracy we were likely doing more harm than any possible benefit we could offer to a country imploding into civil war. We were essentially taking jobs away from Chadian teachers, who were on rolling strikes to protest not being paid by their own government. Into the vacuum stepped the “education” volunteers to take their place. It was a moral dilemma that we chose not to be a part of.

Misguided, even harmful, development projects are dirty not-so-secret aspects of NGOs and goodwill government organizations everywhere: foreign-funded projects often center on making the foreigners look good by creating physical structures to show donors back home the good things that come from their money. These projects are initiated not by local populations who understand best what is needed in their communities, but by outsiders desperate to spend the monies they’ve been awarded. It’s a tangled mess of convenient compassion, “white savior” mentality, and nefarious politics centered on “winning hearts and minds” that we had the intelligence to recognize and distance ourselves from, even if leaving hurt our potential careers.

Humanitarian superstar Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools is perhaps the most infamous example of development projects gone bad. Mortensen perpetuated his NGO fraud in the post 9-11 bewilderment of the war with Afghanistan to the tune of millions of dollars of donations from compassionate and guilt-laden Americans, two bestselling and nearly completely fabricated memoirs, and a foundation that served as his own money laundering network. He was exposed at last in 2011, several years after the publication of his first book, by writer Jon Krakauer and the team at 60 Minutes. It’s absolutely worth looking up Krakauer’s articles and the 60 Minutes episode to see in real time how far Mortensen led astray not just well-meaning donors, but the American military, for whom he served as a guide and advisor.

Amy Waldman, who spent several years in Afghanistan as a journalist in the fragile and frightening era immediately after 9-11, mines the rich ridiculousness of Mortensen’s rise and crash to create the premise of her latest novel, A Door in the Earth. Set in 2009, the novel tells the story of young Afghan-American woman, Parveen Shamsa, who travels to a mountain village in northern Afghanistan to conduct anthropological research. Like many Americans of the era, Parveen has fallen under the spell of a book entitled Mother Afghanistan, written by an American humanitarian Gideon Crane (our fictional Greg Mortensen) who found himself in Afghanistan after 9-11 and became a superstar philanthropist by building women-only medical clinics. Parveen traces Crane’s footsteps and secures an introduction to members of the village where Crane established the first clinic. Parveen arrives with a vague academic plan and a small grant from UC Berkeley, where she is a student. Her Afghan roots allow her family in distant Kabul and solid knowledge of Dari, the primary language spoken by the villagers.

The story is the awakening of Parveen to her own idealism, the disaster of military intervention to instigate regime change, the faulty logic of many humanitarian assistance programs that try to solve problems first and ask questions later, and the very devastating consequences that can result when outsiders intervene in places they don’t bother to take the time to learn about or understand.

I struggled with the sheep-like plodding of Parveen; her naïveté made a caricature of her character at times, and kept her from developing into a fully-realized being. She was more like a mirror upon which the truth was reflected.

Rather, it was the richness of the Afghan human and physical landscape that held me fast to the page. Waheed, the patriarch of the family which takes in Parveen, plays a central role in the fictional memoir he’s never read; the tragic death of his wife, Fereshta is supposedly what galvanized Crane into humanitarian action. He is written with nuance and compassion, as are his wives, Bina and Shokoh, and their children. I felt the urgency and warmth of the woman doctor, Yasmeen, who makes a perilous drive once a week to the village with her son, Naseer, to treat its women; the fallibility and vulnerability of interpreter Aziz, whose limited knowledge of English and selective translations imperil villagers and American soldiers alike. Most importantly, the many voices given to the Afghan village women are the heart and soul of this complex and nuanced story. The setting, which reads like an Edenic oasis in the midst of chaos, was intoxicating and revelatory.

Waldman uses Parveen’s dawning realization that she has been taken in by a terrible fabrication illustrates the very real tragedy of America’s presence in Afghanistan, and the greater context and consequences of foreign assistance projects everywhere. It is not that foreign aid and humanitarian assistance aren’t needed; they are, desperately. It’s that unless these projects are initiated, led and assessed by local populations, even the best intentions can do irreparable harm.

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Book Review: The Submission by Amy Waldman

The SubmissionThe Submission by Amy Waldman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Amy Waldman had written at least one draft of The Submission before the announcement in late 2009 of plans to build a Muslim community center two blocks from Ground Zero. In a wrenching example of life imitating art, the real controversy that exploded over the proposed center is expressed in the perfectly timed fiction of her début novel.

In Waldman’s novel, it is not a center openly sponsored by prominent members of New York’s Muslim community that has Americans on both sides of the controversy shouting their opinions. It is the revelation that the winner of a competition to design a Ground Zero memorial is Muslim.

The author had guts to tackle a twist in a story that remains a daily part of our national conversation – if even indirectly as we wrestle the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and debate the tangle of religious freedom, cultural identity and immigration.

Of course, we have been down a similar road as a nation considering how best to honor tragedy through public art. Maya Lin, so young and vulnerable when her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was selected in 1981, faced brutal criticism because she, an Asian-American, reminded us of our shame and loss. And yet, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has become a national symbol of remembrance, honor, shared grief and healing.

Waldman presents us with this dilemma: How would we respond to a 9/11 memorial designed by an American by the name of Mohammed Khan? Waldman seeks to capture the worst of our fears and prejudices, of our ignorance and anger, as well as the best of our ability to forgive and show fairness and empathy.

Yet, I can’t say I appreciate this novel. Perhaps it is because real events continue grip and tear that I feel The Submission offers nothing new to my understanding of and reflection on 9/11. It’s an intriguing premise that loses a lot of power right out the gate since the actual competition, which began in 2003 as it does in the novel, proceeded in relative peace –  at least to the outsider. The 9/11 Memorial, completed in time for the 10th anniversary of the attacks, was designed by Michael Arad, an Israeli-American.

I feel the author panders to a specific audience, reinforcing stereotypes by making caricatures of her villains and making her protagonists attractive, sympathetic and vulnerable. The themes address and applaud every response that I, a very left-of-center liberal, had in reaction to the attacks and their aftermath. Even in my devastation I feared the vilification of any one perceived as a threat because of their ethnicity, cultural identity or religion. I abhor chest-thumping American bravado; I wailed at the blatant restriction of civil rights in the name of national security; I protested the headless tumble into war. And I still feel the personal repercussions of the political rift that is even deeper now than it was in 2003 when we plunged into Iraq. The novel pats me on the back: religious tolerance, good; bigots, bad. But who is going to read this book? I venture to suggest only liberals, like me.

This is a novel of action and plot built around themes of reflection and character development. Perhaps this causes me to feel the disconnect between the power of the supposition and the unsatisfying story. Given Waldman’s phenomenal career as a journalist, is it to be expected that she would excel at presenting events and multiple points-of-view, at telling rather than showing. I am left without a real sense of the architect, Mohammed Khan, his motivations or his conflicted sense of personal justice and empathy. Nor can I connect with Claire Burwell, the wealthy widow who served on the selection committee as a representative of the families of 9/11 victims. The ancillary characters – the anti-memorial activists, the Bangladeshi wife of a 9/11 victim, the newspaper hack, the former politician shepherding the design selection committee – offer fascinating sub-plots but feel manufactured.

Or perhaps it’s that Waldman’s details are so close to the truth that there really isn’t a “story” to tell. The old saw ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’ is cliché writ true; sadly it’s also far more compelling, thought-provoking and heart-breaking.

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