Winter Book Reviews: Part 3 of 3
A shoe full of slush! In the sunshine! That's winter sliding into spring in March in Michigan. Its been a rough one this year. Most of us are ready to fold up the afghans, clean out the fireplace, and hang up the puffy coat in the back of the closet. Saying goodbye to winter means wrapping up the Winter Book Reviews. I didn't get a chance to read everything in the stack, but what I did were gems. Here are the last three.
Lately, contemporary literary fiction seems chock full of stories about adoption and identity within the American experience. “The Leavers” is one of the best I’ve read. Deming Guo and his mother, Polly, live a hand to mouth existence in New York City until Polly disappears and Deming is adopted by two college professors in upstate New York. Deming becomes Daniel and the only Asian-American kid at his school. His adoptive father introduces him to the music of Jimi Hendrix, and Daniel takes up the guitar. He flits through his young adult life playing in a band, gambling, and crashing on friends’ couches. When he finds his adoption file, and more questions about his mother’s disappearance haunt him, Deming/Daniel decides he must find out the truth why she left. Set in New York City and China, “The Leavers” alternates between Deming/Daniel and Polly’s point of view giving the reader an intimate look at the mother-son relationship. It took Ko seven years to write “The Leavers” and a lot of in-between time to wonder if it was worth finishing. What a gift of her time and efforts she’s given us.
Favorite line:: It was like watching water spread across dry pavement, lines going in all directions. Peter and Kay might have adopted another boy. He could be living in Sunset Park, or in the Bronx or Florida or some other place he’d never heard of. He had imagined his doppelgangers living the lives he hadn’t, in different apartments and houses and cities and towns, with different sets of parents, different languages, but today he could only see himself where he was right now, the articular set of circumstances that had trickled down to this particular life that would keep trickling in new directions.
“Winter” is not so much a story per se as it is about the atmosphere of the season these characters occupy. The season, its time and place in the characters’ lives, becomes another character. “Winter” is the second book in Smith’s Seasonal cycle. I guess I should have read “Autumn” first, but I’m not sure it makes a difference. The seasonal theme is just that—part of the setting—not following a storyline involving the same characters. To be honest, I felt like I was reading someone’s mental health journal at the beginning of this book. Winter, when most things in nature are dead, begins with a list of dead things. Art writes a blog called Art in Nature without ever stepping foot outside. He hires a woman off the street to pretend to be his girlfriend during Christmas at his mother, Sophia’s. Sophia sees a disembodied head—the result of some traumatic childhood story. Iris, Sophia’s sister, is a “hopeless mythologizer” who spends her life estranged from the family because of her former life protesting the Nuclear Arms Race. Sounds exhausting. Kind of. But the writing is exquisite.
Favorite line: He wants the essentiality of winter, not this half-season grey selfsameness. He wants real winter where woods are sheathed in snow, trees emphatic with its white, their bareness shining and enhanced because of it, the ground underfoot snow-covered as if with frozen feathers or shredded cloud but streaked with gold through the trees from low winter sun, and at the end of the barely discernible track, along the dip in the snow that indicates a muffled path between the trees, the view and the woods opening to a light that’s itself untrodden, never been blemished, wide like an expanse of snow-sea, above it more snow promised, waiting its time in the blank of the sky.
(Sorry there's no photo of Peter's book. I loaned it to a friend!!)
I met the author at The Paris Book Festival dinner where Breyer picked up an award for “My Sister,” a memoir of his quest to find the sister he never knew he had. I was interested in the subject matter since I, too, had a sibling, a product of a WWII romance, that I had never met. Overall, Breyer’s journey to reconnecting and ultimately finding family members torn apart by war captured the essence of family and what it means to find your place in its history. I’ve read about World War II, the Holocaust, Nazi Germany, the American campaign for and against the war, the French Resistance and the occupations of France—in historical fiction as well as nonfiction, but I have never read anything about German Jews, the Belgian occupation, and the hangover of feelings the German people felt after the war. A few quibbles I had with the memoir is it lacked basic information about the author—like his job. What he did before the quest for his sister consumed him. And more about his marriage to a black woman when interracial marriage wasn’t socially accepted. A good editor would have caught these gaps. I would be interested in hearing what a book discussion group would say about Breyer’s journey.
Favorite line:: I didn’t realize it at the time, but that phone call set off a chain of events that would change my life and the view I had of myself…yet coincidences don’t change lives: they come about through some inner yearning of our spirit for something more in our lives—as if God can read into the innermost depths of our souls to help us make our lives more fulfilling.