A classic based on a classic
I feel like I need some kind of reward for having finished, just as the author deserves an award for having written! I enthusiastically and optimistically started Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver, two days after Christmas, thinking it would be my first read of 2023, but my count is now up to 11 books, and I just finished it. I took two breaks, one motivated by wanting to be able to read on my Kindle in the dark of night in my bed (I bought the hardcover of Demon Copperhead, knowing that I’d want to keep it on my shelf), and the other by realizing that the depressing nature of the story was having such a profound effect on my mood that I needed to read something else for a while! But I was determined to finish, and the wink-out of my Kindle battery mid-sentence day before yesterday sent me, finally, back to the last 13 percent of this tangible book.
It’s not that I didn’t want to read it—it’s an amazing story of a quirky, irrepressible, sad, endearing red-headed boy who nobody wants, and it’s also both a literary masterpiece and a stern indictment of America’s marginalization of the disadvantaged. For all those reasons, it is worth my time and yours. But lordy, is it depressing! Damon Fields (the protagonist’s real name) is a logical (though still incredibly unlucky) product of his surroundings, growing up in the foster care system after his junkie mother leaves him an orphan in a single-wide at a young age. But he is not an anomaly—there are plenty of unfortunates in the culture of Southern Appalachia who contribute to the dour mood. One of the most powerful understandings comes towards the end of the book, when Tommy, one of Demon’s former foster brothers, crafts a philosophy of America that pits the “land” people against the “money” people, and the land people—those who hunt and fish, farm tobacco, and share what they have with their family and anyone else in need, operating outside the monetary system—always lose.
I am somewhat ashamed to say that I have never read David Copperfield, the book on which Kingsolver based this one, although I have a fairly good knowledge of its contents and am in awe of how she translated Dickens’s “impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society” (Kingsolver, Acknowledgments) into this stunning story of the opioid crisis in Appalachia. But unlike the Jodi Picoult novel about which I blogged last, this book is not preaching about the social crisis but instead is determined to tell the story via the victims and survivors of it in a straightforward, completely realistic manner that guts the reader who is invested in them. Every person in this book (and there are dozens) is vivid, individual, and completely memorable. Even though I broke it up into multiple reading sessions over the course of more than a month, I never once had to think, Um, who is this character again? and backtrack, because every single one of them stood out as a person. I can’t think of a much better compliment you could give to a writer, and Kingsolver deserves it.
But it is the character of Demon who dominates—and sometimes overwhelms. His circumstances are beyond tragic, horrifying when you think of a child having to endure what he does, and yet he is a source of continual hope. It’s not that he’s a falsely optimistic Pollyanna of a character, it’s that he has somehow assimilated a work/life ethic that causes him to put his head down and push through every challenge in his desire to live. And even when he fails—and he does that just as spectacularly—he somehow never gives up on himself. As he loses family, friends, mentors, homes, abilities, he manages to continue focusing on what he does have and what he can use, and keeps hauling himself back to his feet.
One reviewer on Goodreads repeated a quote from a Washington Post book review that said,
“Demon is a voice for the ages—akin to Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield—only even more resilient.”
I couldn’t agree more. Another said “This is a book about love and the need for love, the search for love,” and that, too, is true. And the language, both brutal and brilliant—Kingsolver’s way with words is beyond skillful. I won’t say much more about the book, I’ll leave it to you to discover. But it deserves all the accolades.
I have read many (most?) of Alice Hoffman’s books, and although there are major shifts in the tone of her writing at certain points in her career, she is consistently someone who is attentive both to detail and to character. Her book Faithful is no exception to that, but what is missing (despite erroneous labeling by Goodreads) is the element of magical realism that pops up in many of her books. There is one part of the story that I suppose, at a stretch, could qualify, but it’s such a low-level background piece of information that I don’t really count it, especially because the magic is cited but doesn’t exactly manifest. At first I was disappointed at its absence, but as the character and the story grew on me, I put that aside and just enjoyed the transformation of Shelby Richmond
I admired one Goodreads reviewer’s phrase when addressing what this novel is about: “Rather than coming of age, it’s coming to grips.” That is the plot in a nutshell. Shelby and Helene are best friends throughout most of their lives, until a treacherous, icy road under their wheels leaves Helene in a coma and Shelby trying to deal with the idea that she is walking away unharmed while her friend will never come back from this. The thought that she wasn’t damaged is, of course, not the truth at all: Shelby is overwhelmed by grief and guilt, and spends years cancelling herself out of life as a punishment for the one she believes she ruined.
The doctors and her parents can call her condition whatever they wish; Shelby knows what’s wrong with her. She is paying her penance. She is stopping her life, matching her breathing so that it has become a counterpart of the slow intake of air of a girl in a coma.
This is a somewhat dark tale, as some of Hoffman’s later writings have tended to be (for me, the turning point was her book Here on Earth, which forsook the lighthearted, sort of wacky heroines for a more serious tone and incorporated magic that was more portentous than incidental), but it is still enlivened by moments of comic relief. In this case, it’s Shelby’s impulsive nature, which slowly begins to rescue her from emotional trauma and depression and carry her forward into a new life. I love that it takes the form that it does, but I won’t specify what that is here, because it was such a delight to read.
The people and their relationships are the essential and most engaging part of this book; Hoffman paints a vivid picture when she develops a character, and it’s hard not to become emotionally involved with them, from Ben to Maravelle, Jasmine to James, to Shelby’s mom. This is a wonderful story of the effect persistent caring can have on someone, even when they don’t believe they deserve to be the recipient.
I never really figured out the significance of calling the book “Faithful.” While Shelby is faithful to her resolution to atone for the damage to Helene, and the two men in her life are both faithful to her redemption (as are her dogs), it just didn’t seem to fit. But I’m sure Hoffman knew what she meant.
I love that word, and it’s not one that you often get the chance to use. But it perfectly describes the book Holding Smoke, by Elle Cosimano, which I reread this week after a six-year hiatus and discovered that I liked it every bit as well the second time as I did on first perusal (another good word).
I originally picked up the book back in 2016 because of its setting—juvenile hall. While I was in library school, I took a class that required racking up service hours as part of the grade, and a dozen of us started book-talking groups (like a book club, but each person reads their own choice of book) in seven of the living units there. My friend Lisa and I ran a group in one of the four maximum security units (which more closely resembled the set-up of this book), and we loved doing it so much that we ended up continuing for two years, long after both the class and library school were over.
Cosimano, whose father was a warden, really has the setting, the interpersonal relations and interactions, and the rhythms of the place down in this book. I felt like I was right back at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Detention Facility in Unit W, but with a new group of troubled kids.
The title of this blog post doesn’t entirely fit the vibe of the book, since part of the story qualifies as magical realism. The main character, John Conlan, nicknamed Smoke, is serving time in a long-term facility in Denver, Colorado, for two murders, and although one was self defense and the other was committed by someone else, no one believed any part of his account when it went up against the damning circumstantial evidence. During the course of the event, John died for a period of six minutes and then was brought back, and during that six minutes had an out-of-body experience that he discovers he is now able to replicate. So while the other inmates are locked up inside the concrete walls of the “Y,” John is able to pass through them and wander out in the world in spirit form, tied to his body by a sort of cable that seems to be fraying the more trips he takes.
He uses this ability to good purpose by checking in on the families or business partners or girlfriends of other inmates and reporting back on their status—are they okay? are they cheating me? are they cheating ON me? No one can figure out how Smoke is communicating with his outside sources to garner this information, but they’re willing to pay in favors for his services.
He doesn’t use this ability in his own interests until, in the course of observing a drug dealer’s transactions at a bar, he meets a waitress he calls Pink, who can see and hear him in his spirit form, and with her help he begins to explore the truth around who could have manipulated the situation to put him in prison. But someone has a vested interest in keeping him there and keeping him quiet, and suddenly his existence is perilous, as is everyone’s who helps him…
The scene-setting, the characters, the pacing of this story are all visceral and gripping, and I also appreciated the philosophical elements Cosimano brings to the characters. I had no trouble with the suspension of disbelief over Smoke’s abilities, and the author makes the whole thing palpable by setting up and exploring the rules of how those abilities work. There are quite a few twists, and an exciting ending I didn’t see coming. This is a good example of gritty fiction crossed with the paranormal that will appeal to a wide range of teen readers. Although I have enjoyed Cosimano’s other books (particularly the Finlay Donovan series), I think I would call Holding Smoke her best so far.
The setting of this realistic young adult novel by Jennifer Mathieu seemed so appropriate when I began reading it a couple of weeks ago, and even more relevant at this present moment. It takes place at a high school in a small East Texas town, and the atmosphere there reverts back to the 1950s with its misogynistic focus on football players who can do no wrong and girls who are expected, for the sake of “school spirit,” to put up with their endless immature sexist bullshit as well as their overbearing sense of entitlement.
One junior girl, previously something of a nonentity at the school, starts to get fed up and looks for inspiration to her mother’s past. Although she and her mom returned to Texas to live close to her grandparents so her mom could afford to support them, in her youth Vivian’s mother was a punk rock Riot Grrrl in 1990s Seattle, and the vestiges of her rebellious lifestyle reside in a shoebox on the top shelf of her closet. Although Vivian has previously sorted through the contents of this box, one night after the most egregious offender from the football team—the quarterback, who also happens to be the school principal’s son—takes out his sick sexist humor on the new girl in class, Viv hauls it out again and looks for inspiration. She ends up creating a feminist ‘zine she calls Moxie, gets copies made at the local printshop, and hits campus super early to anonymously leave stacks of them in all the girls’ bathrooms.
Although she mostly did it just to let off steam (and isn’t even sure that she herself will take the action that she is advocating for others in its pages), Vivian’s ‘zine provokes a response from other girls that carries it far beyond what she ever intended, and Vivian is caught up in a movement she feels she may have started but ultimately doesn’t own. The validation from her classmates helps her develop a more solid sense of who and what she is (a person with options and a feminist), and the concluding chapters of the book are particularly gratifying in their empowerment of these girls. This is an excellent portrayal of grass roots activism for teenagers in this fraught political climate.
It also tackles white privilege regarding feminist issues, and features some people of color who fill Vivian in on the differences they experience when it comes to being feminist. And it avoids cliché in that it also doesn’t completely stereotype all the males in the story—Viv has a love interest who is doing his best to support, understand, and participate in her experiment, and he is portrayed realistically—sometimes he just doesn’t get it, but he listens and he learns. It’s great modeling.
Finally, it features a lot of fun music from the ’90s Seattle scene.
Although the story and writing are somewhat low-key, the entire effect of this book was a vital exploration of the awakening of girls to a situation in life that need to be changed and the tools they can pick up to do so. Although the things they do, set in the context of high school rituals, might in some cases seem trivial, the result of their actions is to propel them on to bigger goals, and in the process to include more and more people in the awakening. I’d love to see this on high school reading lists, although taking into account the contrariness of teens, that would probably mean it wouldn’t get read. So I will just say, if you are a librarian, a sister, a parent, or a teacher who wants to inspire some girls to think more of themselves and each other, hand them Moxie.
The Horse Dancer
I decided on a re-read this week, and picked one of JoJo Moyes’s lesser known books, The Horse Dancer. I enjoyed it enough the second time around to want to revisit (for my newer readers) the review I wrote in 2019 when I first read it.
There are three intertwined stories in this book—one in the past, the other two present-day. The first involves Natasha and her soon-to-be-ex-husband Mac. Natasha is an up-and-coming attorney in the area of child protective services, and channels all her repressed feelings about the end of her marriage into her work and her tentative new relationship with a shiny partner at her firm. Mac is a freelance photographer, and appears to be fairly happy-go-lucky and irresponsible next to the upright and uptight Natasha, but seems to have major regrets about the end of the relationship. The two are in the process of sorting out their mutual possessions and financial issues on the way to divorce when their paths cross with Sarah.
Sarah is a 14-year-old girl who has two major loves in her life: her beloved grandfather, Henri, with whom she lives, and her horse, “Boo.” Her grandfather was, in his youth, a professional rider for the prestigious Cadre Noir, a French dressage academy, but he gave it all up to come to England to marry Florence, the love of his life, recently lost to cancer. Sarah’s dream is to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and ride with Le Cadre Noir in Saumur, France. Meanwhile, she and her grandfather train the horse in the shadow of an old railway siding in the seedy part of London, where they stable the horse with Henri’s friend, Cowboy Joe. When something terrible happens to Henri, Sarah discovers the fragility of her situation as a child with too many adult responsibilities, and tries her best to deal alone with all the potentially terrible outcomes.
I found this book tremendously moving in several areas. The relationship between Sarah and her horse brought back memories of being that age and wanting that special partnership so badly. (My grandfather, an impulsive bidder at auctions, actually gave me a horse for my birthday when I was 12—an unbroken two-year-old palomino
stallion—and my parents, dismayed by the thought of dealing with the housing, feeding, and exercising of him from the comfort of our suburban lifestyle, made him take it back. I can hardly remember ever feeling more heartbroken.) The scenes that depict the tie between Sarah and Boo are so viscerally and immediately written as to be impossible to resist.
The interplay between Mac and Natasha was painful and confusing, and there were parts I flat-out had trouble believing, but ultimately the idea of the walls we build to protect ourselves that do us more damage than those we built them against resonated with me. The picture Moyes paints of a teen girl who depends on her grandfather and no one else, and of what happens to her when she is thrown on her own resources and believes she must cope all alone, is poignant, real, and frightening. The back story of the grandfather’s youthful experiences in Le Cadre Noir gave the book additional legs. All in all it was a satisfying and touching, albeit somewhat dark, read.
This is a book that is written for adults, but it explores the adult-child (or adult-teen) relationship from both sides, given that it shows both Natasha’s and Sarah’s views of the proper way to deal with the situation in which they find themselves; and I think that there are teens who would appreciate and even benefit from reading this book. Natasha has to transform her view of Sarah as a frustratingly opaque, surly compulsive liar and see that she is a child adrift in an adult’s world who is convinced she has to be as strong and resourceful as an adult; while Sarah has to get past her view of Natasha as a controlling authority figure and see that she is doing her best to be helpful even though Sarah is keeping the bulk of her life secret from everyone. The thing Moyes gets right is that final push through misunderstanding that is essential to a true and lasting love, whether it be between a couple, a parent and child, friends, or a girl and her horse.
Aging, dying, living
The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett (released as Eudora Honeysett is Quite Well, Thank You in the U.K.—a better title, in my opinion) is supposed to be a feel-good read. I chose it because someone on the “What should I read next?” Facebook page compared the writing of Annie Lyons to that of Linda Holmes, author of Evvie Drake Starts Over, which I liked quite a bit. I somehow got it into my head that one person had written both books, but learned my mistake after reading it, then looking up “other books by Annie Lyons” and then “Evvie Drake” on Goodreads.
I scrolled through Goodreads reviews checking to see if anyone at all had hated this book, and found only one “did not finish” (DNF) in two pages of reviews—that person called it A Man Called Ove rip-off. Otherwise, universal fours and fives out of five stars.
I have to say that it was an engaging narrative, with interesting, well-developed characters who made me care, and an alternating timeline that clearly explained how we had gotten to where we were at the opening page. Where Eudora was…
Eudora Honeysett is 85 years old. She is (that dreaded word) a spinster, and lived with her mother, Beatrice, for most of her life, caring for Beatrice until she died—after a series of incidents and illnesses—all by herself in a hospital bed. This experience shone a light for Eudora on exactly how she didn’t want to end up; so, since she is alone in life, without friends, siblings, or other relatives, and the effects of the aches and pains and obstacles of old age are beginning to become burdensome rather than just annoying, she decides that she will take steps to ensure she gets to go out on her own terms. She contacts a clinic in Switzerland that will give appropriately vetted patients “a good death” at the time of their choosing, and makes every effort to get them to see that they don’t need to doubt her motives or mindset—she is not depressed, she is simply done.
I think I have to vet my books more thoroughly and quit reading this kind. I had an almost identical, visceral reaction to Dan Mooney’s The Great Unexpected, which is much the same theme, although Eudora remained mostly in control of her environment while Mooney’s protagonist, Joel, was already stuck in the nightmare of the nursing home Eudora dreads.
This book, like that one, posits that the infirm elderly can still find something to live for, if they open themselves up to life. In Joel’s case it was rebelling against his environment and reconnecting with his family; in Eudora’s, it is the acquisition, despite herself, of two new friends: Rose, the relentlessly inquisitive but also consistently kind 10-year-old girl who moves in next door and decides to adopt Eudora as her new best friend; and Stanley, an elderly widower who rescues Eudora when she faints and falls on the sidewalk in their neighborhood while out for her morning walk. Eudora tries hard to resist their interest in her, since she is determined to carry out her plan, but neither of them (especially Rose) will take no for an answer and, despite her best efforts, she finds herself caught up in their lives and drawn into a world with which she has been largely unfamiliar in the course of her life of disappointments and hardship. She discovers that people can be kind, that connections can feel welcome rather than burdensome or obligating, and that love is to be treasured, not avoided for fear of being injured.
The book was, I must admit, heart-warming, charming, and all the other accolades bestowed upon it. But my frame of mind while reading it somewhat poisoned the well for me, and I looked ahead, as with Mooney’s book, and wondered about my own fate. I have always possessed what they call “rude health”—I have had no operations (save a tonsillectomy at age 13), take one medication, and am never ill. I assumed, up until this year, that I could continue to rely on my robust constitution until I departed life in my 80s or 90s or, who knew, achieved the century mark like several of my immediate ancestors have done. But a recent health problem with a discouraging diagnosis has resulted in a major loss of mobility and suddenly, at age 66, I am wondering if an independent life will remain sustainable, or if I will end up trapped and alone as Eudora dreads and Joel experiences.
I think it’s time for some bibliotherapy: Georgette Heyer, Dick Francis, some good escapist science fiction? Four stars from me for Eudora, but I don’t really want to talk about it any more!
Old age, friendship, rebellion
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I picked up The Great Unexpected, by Dan Mooney. It was billed as “charming” and “poignant,” and compared to such books as A Man Called Ove, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, and books by Mitch Alblom. There were definitely some of the same elements present; but it was also both depressing, and depressingly real, and I wasn’t in the greatest space to read about someone’s sad last years.
Joel Monroe, 76, is counting down his days in a nursing home. After independent life got to be a bit too much, he and his wife, Lucey, moved into the home together and, as long as he had her, everything was okay. But she quietly expired one morning while waiting for her cup of tea, and since then Joel’s experience has begun a downward spiral into thoughts of suicide. His entire life as a younger man had been centered on his work and his relationship, and he has no hobbies or pastimes to occupy him. He is plagued by the sense that no one at the home—nurses, aides—and no one in his family—his daughter, Eva, and grandchildren Lily and Chris—sees him as a vital human being who has earned respect for his long, productive life. He resents being treated like a child, from being required to passively take his medications to being refused access to the world outside the gates of Hilltop Nursing Home “for his own protection.” Everyone involved wishes Joel would just settle quietly into his role as elderly dependent, do as he’s told, and not make waves, but Joel feels angry, out of control, stifled, and grief-stricken.
After his roommate who followed Lucey also dies, Joel is made to share his room with Frank Adams, stage name de Selby, a former soap opera actor. Frank is genial, outgoing, quick-witted, and perceptive—everything that Joel is not—and he rapidly gets under Joel’s skin and provokes him into confiding his thoughts of suicide. Rather than acting shocked and horrified, Frank agrees with Joel that he should be allowed to exit his life if and when he pleases, even offering to help him plan his grand gesture, and this solidarity cements a preliminary friendship between the two. But although he is ever the listening ear for Joel, Frank has issues of his own with which he has never dealt, and soon the friendship grows in both directions. Frank encourages Joel to take back some of his dignity by exhibiting some “bad” behavior, source of much of the charming bits of this story.
On the up side, this book is much more than the sentimental, sweet story of yet another curmudgeon won over by life. It’s sincere, lovely, and touching, and tells a wonderful tale of friendship that acknowledges and supports. On the down side, if you are a person of a certain age, as I am, with the eventual prospect of being unable to care for yourself sufficiently to live alone, this is a slightly scary guidebook to what that experience could hold.
We all know that our society doesn’t treat the elderly well; once they exhibit the least infirmity, they are ignored, discounted, and shunted aside. We have all had the experience of visiting a nursing home and walking its halls lined with old people dressed in pajamas and robes sitting forlornly in their wheelchairs, of “rec rooms” featuring TV talk shows and board games to fend off boredom, with that indefinable commingled scent of piss, Lysol, and whatever is cooking for dinner. And we have also seen how the young and fit begin to talk down to the elderly and infirm as if they were irresponsible children or even beloved pets. Although Dan Mooney is never preachy in his approach, he paints a pretty clear picture of the emotions of an elderly man with few resources who doesn’t know how to fight against this encroaching, patronizing lifestyle.
Yes, I’m being just a tiny bit dramatic here; but I identified with Joel a lot more closely than was comfortable, and thought for the first time about what could be in my future if I don’t manage to fend off physical infirmity or mental laxness. So while I would recommend this book as both a worthwhile and an entertaining read, be aware that it may push some buttons for those of a certain age. On the other hand, if you are a young person reading it and are so motivated to take another look at your aging relatives as individuals of worth instead of as problems or burdens and to consider what they are due in their maturity, then all to the good!
I opened All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood, with no knowledge and few expectations except those provoked by the prescient title. By the end of the book I was insulted on behalf of the author by those book blurbs praising her for a wonderful debut; this was a wonderful book, regardless if it was her first or her 30th. It was also ugly.
I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, because it was such an anguished kind of pleasure to discover it as it went along. It is a truly unique (and I don’t use that word casually) coming-of-age tale about a child who has not one advantage and many crippling obstacles in life and somehow, as some rare children do, manages to survive and to eke out an existence with happy moments in it despite everything.
Wavonna, known as Wavy, is the daughter of a violent, abusive, sexually prolific meth dealer and his drugged-out, paranoid, obsessive-compulsive wife. Neither of them has had a single regard for her since the day she was born, and in fact the idiosyncrasies of her personality that have resulted from ill treatment have caused her father to avoid her company. Wavy rarely speaks; she won’t eat in front of others; and she actively dislikes being touched in any way. At eight years old she trusts no one, depends on no one, owns nothing, and is struggling on her own to raise her baby brother, as the only “responsible adult” in the family.
Then she meets Kellen, a gruff young man who does occasional work for her father between his stints as a mechanic, and the two recognize one another’s blank spots. Kellen is appalled by the level of neglect surrounding this little girl, and starts stepping up to help her, from twin motives of compassion and loneliness. He registers her for school and takes her back and forth on his motorcycle; he brings groceries; he washes dishes; but more than these practical deeds, he offers Wavy both friendship and respect. In return, she sees him for who he is, rather than judging him by the story some of his bad deeds tell about him, and gives him the love and attention that have been missing from his life—and hers.
This is where the story hits a controversial twist, and it is a testament to your flexibility and understanding whether you continue to follow it with empathy or slam it shut with swift condemnation.
The best thing about this book is its unsentimental storytelling. It is a dark portrayal of abuse and dysfunction, yet it neither dramatizes nor trivializes any of it—it’s not manipulative. The reader is allowed to come to the material on her own terms and react to it with sadness, outrage, disgust, compassion, whatever emotion that emerges. Somehow this author is able to write a beautiful story about ugly events and still allow readers to draw their own conclusions.
The book is told from multiple perspectives—I believe there are 16—including chapters narrated by Wavy’s brother, her aunt, her cousin, the sheriff, a judge, a teacher, and of course by Wavy and Kellen themselves. I don’t ordinarily care for books split into so many viewpoints, but in this case it works brilliantly as a reflection of all the possible opinions about these two that might come up, depending upon your perspective. And all of the characters are distinctive and beautifully drawn.
Wavy’s story is stark, controversial, emotional, and unsettling. It’s in-your-face explicit in its descriptions, and will probably leave you feeling conflicted and uneasy, maybe outraged. It’s also some of the finest story-telling I have read in a long, long time. It won’t be for everyone; but if you resonate with a tale about raw human emotion, heartbreak, and resilience, it will continue to echo in your mind as it does in mine.
Note: It’s also well worth reading the author’s comments about content and choices at the end of the book.