Saturday, August 7, 2010

Triple Review: COMING OF AGE IN AMERICA






















Today, a look at three debut novels, all coming-of-age stories in which the protagonists share first-person voice and family dysfunction. Apprentice Writer has no idea why the cover images are such different sizes; this wasn't supposed to be a statement on relative quality.

GODS IN ALABAMA, Joshilyn Jackson Literary Fiction, 2005

SIDEWAYS, Jess Riley Women's Fiction, 2009

APOLOGIZE, APOLOGIZE, Elizabeth Kelly Literary Fiction, 2009

Premise
1. Alabamian returns home after ten years to confront old ghosts and deal with current family pressures.
2. Middle-American kidney disease survivor goes on a road trip to celebrate life and seek answers to some significant questions.
3. Eldest son of a wildly eccentric/wealthy East Coast family struggles to define himself and build relationships while buffeted from all directions by differing expectations and judgements.

Cover
1. Title - Captures the overarching theme excellently, the small g in'gods' is significant, even though traditional religion with a capital R plays a role as well. Art - eye-catching, dead-on accurate in image of woman traveling, in every sense of the word, in a rural environment.
2. Title - Short and evocative = very good. Art - the rustic track and flipflops (as in opposite of urban background and stilettos), make it very clear this is not chicklit.This is the story of a thoughtful woman, taking her time to wind her way in whaterver direction the route may show. Well-done.
3. Title - Confuzzling until one reads the story and realizes that it is a compulsion the protagonist seems to feel all his life. Art - water and dogs are a constant background presence, so the images are accurate, but they convey the impression that the story is primarily about the relationship between people and dogs. Or dogs and dogs, for that matter, neither of which is accurate. Could have been done better.

Thoughts
1. Apprentice Writer kept encountering rabid enthusiasm for this author's work, and decided to give the debut a go. She almost stopped reading relatively early on due to some extreme and puzzling flashback behavior on the part of the heroine, but stuck with it - and was richly rewarded. What a wonderful, complex, sometimes-stark-yet-sometimes-funny story. The heroine, Lena, had a tremendously rough early childhood. Her mother was always on the fragile side emotionally, but when her husband dies of cancer she unravels completely, giving herself over to depression and pill addiction with the consequence of extreme emotional and physical neglect of her daughter. Her Aunt Florence is described as 'roaring' into town to rescue them despite her own recent tragedy of losing a son, and 'roaring' is pretty much how Aunt Florence takes charge of everyone around her from that moment on, her common sense and bossiness literally saving Lena's life as well as her mother many times after. Lena the survivor, Florence the warrior farmwife, and Burr the sharp-witted but sweet-natured lawyer boyfriend were all wonderful, thoughtful, flawed yet appealing characters, slowing dancing closer and closer to the truth of what drove Lena away from her home for ten years. The unraveling secrets twist and turn in a way that made AW read ever faster.
Did this book do its job? HELL YES! Apprentice Writer closed this book with a profound sense of satisfaction at the story's well-roundedness and ending, thought about Lena, Burr and Aunt Florence for days, looks forward to glomming the author's backlist, and, for the first time in her life, longs to visit Alabama.

2. AW loves road trips, whether in real life, books, or movies. Add to that excellent basic device a heroine who has the guts and humor to summarize her situation with "I'm the Beirut of health!" after being nearly killed by kidney disease, and who decides to escape her overprotective older brother to get in her car and go where the whim takes her, and you have the ingredients for a great story. As the trip goes on and she acquires travelmates, the life questions she tries to seek resolution on escalate from near-universal (looking up a former boyfriend to see how he's doing without me and if there's still a spark) to rare and heartbreaking (one last bid to find the mother who abandoned her in childhood). The story is unpredictable and the ending refreshingly non-Hollywood.
Did this book do its job? YES! This was a lovely, thoughtful, appealing story of a young woman who gets a raw deal and responds to all of it with poise, grace, and smarts. AW will eagerly look forward to the author's next title.

3. This book was an impulse choice when AW walked by a display table that proclaimed "The World Needs More Canada!" and offered all Canadian authors. AW could only agree, and the quirkiness of the title and backcover blurb convinced her.
Evaluating the novel itself was a bit perplexing. On the one hand, the author is wickedly good at unique simile and metaphor construction. AW's copy is dogeared with pages she wants to return to for additions to her quote collection. On the other hand, it was often difficult for this reader to understand how different scenes or chapters built on each other. It was also frustraing how the protagonist, and several secondary characters seemed to remain much as they were from the start, with negligible development.
Did this book do its job? Qualified yes. Though AW would have liked more clarity by the end of the story, the author's amazing talent with deft description will make this reader sift future titles for all the shining turns of phrase embedded within.


Soundbites
1.(Lena calls home after a delay on the road: "Hey, Aunt Flo -"
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm-"
"Are you hurt?"
"No, we're fine, but-"
"Hold, please," Aunt Flo said. I heard the clatter of the receiver being dropped on the counter on her end...
"Gladys? It's your daughter. she must be calling you to tell you she is dead and in hell and to ask you to dip your finger in the water and cool her tongue, as she is tormented in flames. Surely she is dead and in hell, because nothing else would explain her not showing up and not even calling you, her own mama, to keep you from pulling out all your hair with worry. I am so sorry she is dead and in hell, but at least they have phones there."


"Married," said Florence in a dire, deep voice."You got married. Well. Thank you so, so much for calling to tell me this...Anything else you want to tell me? Is your new husband that your family has never met an ex-convict, for example? Or are you just knocked up?"
"...I'm not pregnant, and he's not a convict. I told you, he's a lawyer. but I guess I should tell you he's black."
Finally she said, "What do you mean, he's black? You mean he himself is black? A black man?"
"Yes. by black, I mean he is black."
"I am hanging up now Arlene. I will take this up with you and your secret black husband when you arrive."

2. "...the San Rafael Desert..(makes) my soul sit up and rub her eyes: vast, empty plains stretching for miles back to rugged cliffs and brick-colored buttes, sagebrush and grasses eking out a thirsty existence in the ditches, gregarious sky overwhelming in its blue clarity. The road unspools before us, endless white lines running together into an albino snake."

"You know how people always seem to see the Virgin Mary in a burrito, or in a stain on an underpass highway?..Ned and Cassie have collected numerous objects that have a) been spiritually imprinted with a visage from beyond, b) fallen into a puddle, or c) been crushed by a portly ass at some point in history. These curiosities, shelved helter-skelter in the tiny shop, include items like a bath mat with a Joan of Arc-shaped stain and a piece of driftwood allegedly in the shape of Ganesha (if you held it at arms length and squinted while running at high speed)."

"...I wouldn't (do that) even if you paid me with money still warm from George Clooney's front pocket"


3. "(The estate) was famous for its heritage rose gardens...leave it to (my grandfather) to take a thing of beauty and turn it into a military operation. To this day, the rose is my least favorite flower - I think of it as a scented hand grenade..."

"(Your grandmother) was skinny and mad, a veritable vibrating hairpin."

"It was clear to me (my political activist mother's) real purpose in attending (the party) was to meet Robert Redford, which isn't to say that her entrance wasn't any less reminiscent of a Bolshevik charging the palace on foaming horseback...(I watched) in dismay as she chased down a prominent CEO, running him through with her verbal pitchfork. Before the night was over, just about everyone in the place had sprung leaks..."

Recommended for
1. Fans of skilled, multi-layered writing, memorable characters, stories of family and couple dynamics.
2. Fans of road trip stories, friendship and sibling dynamics, non-formulaic endings.
3. Fans of superb characterization, one-liners, readers with a high tolerance for non-linear progression and ambiguous endings.

Learn more
1. Joshilyn Jackson. Also maintains a funny blog. Latest: 'Backseat Saints'
2. Jess Riley. Also maintains an entertaining blog. Next work's title unknown.
3. Elizabeth Kelly - could not locate a website or blog. Next work's title unknown.

/m

5 comments:

Rachel said...

I'm rarely drawn in my "coming of age" stories but 1. has be intrigued. (side note: when is it that plots came in to fashion? or have they not yet? I'm either way behind or ahead of the times.:)

Speaking of needing more Canada: have you seen this video?

M. said...

Rachel - 'gods in Alabama' is a delayed coming-of-age story, so you may be more comfortable with it.

And - ROFLMAO! Where do you find these things? I think the best part of the video is '...sorry about Celine Dion....'

M. said...

Rachel - 'gods in Alabama' is a delayed coming-of-age story, so you may be more comfortable with it.

And - ROFLMAO! Where do you find these things? I think the best part of the video is '...sorry about Celine Dion....'

Julia Smith said...

M - did you know you can delete all of your fascinating spam by clicking on the little garbage can icon in the lower-left corner of each comment?

I really, really laughed at the quotes from Elizabeth Kelly:

which isn't to say that her entrance wasn't any less reminiscent of a Bolshevik charging the palace on foaming horseback

LOL! That's killer!

Loved these reviews as I always do, M. Don't forget - I'll be in Toronto this Christmas...save me an afternoon so we can meet In Real Life.

Rachel said...

You know how it is banging around the internet... you find all kinds of stuff. But I think that was a SBTB Friday video. However, here's another you might like: http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/62924

Had you any idea goats were so funny?