Friday, September 11, 2020

Review: Inland

Lurie is a man on the run--he's running from his past, he's running from the law, and he's running from the ghosts that won't leave him alone. Nora, on the other hand, is waiting. She is waiting for her husband to bring water to their remote home on the frontier of Arizona, waiting for her older sons to return after a fight, and waiting for the terrible beast that her youngest son saw to make a move.

I was captivated by Obreht's debut novel The Tiger's Wife and I have been anxiously waiting for her to publish another book. I enjoyed Inland too, but the two stories are very different. A western gives a writer a unique vantage to examine how much people need each other, and how we are often very alone. Nora finds herself holding the household together by herself and even when neighbors and friends stop by, she knows that she alone is responsible for the safety and well-being of her family. Lurie recounts his backstory to someone who is unknown for a good portion of the story. He recalls coming to the United States, his loneliness after his father's death, and his experiences joining outlaws, pickpockets, and a group transporting livestock across the Southern states. It is only then that readers learn he has been talking to a camel this whole time.

While Inland is inarguably a Western, it is also a ghost story. We love the creepy feeling of a dark house, but there is something nerve-wracking about the great expanse, when the only thing between you and your closest neighbor is the danger of the desert. The ghosts who haunt the characters in this story aren't malevolent, but there is a feeling of unease throughout--things are not as they should be, and Lurie and Nora aren't sure what they should do next.

The characters and setting of Inland are instantly familiar--we all know the vicious outlaw, the strong woman on the frontier, and the kindly town doctor. But Obreht turns every piece just a bit. It is just enough to throw the reader off-balance and make them desperate to find out what happens next. The United States lacks the mythology of older nations (at least if we are uninformed about the history and folklore of Native Americans). Tea Obreht suggests we can find a communal American story (and American ghosts) on the frontiers of the Wild West. I can't wait to read what she writes next. 

By Tea Obreht
Random House August 2019
384 pages
Read via Netgalley

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

World War II Mini-Reviews: Paris 7 A.M. and The World That We Knew

In June of 1937, Elizabeth Bishop travels to France with her college roommates. She is not yet a famous poet--she is just a young woman looking for adventure. She misses her mother and looks for solace from her mentor Marianne Moore or at the bottom of a bottle. During her time abroad, Elizabeth will fall in love, discover her passion for poetry, and smuggle Jewish children to safety.

Elizabeth Bishop is a poet loved by many people, myself and the author included. As Liza Wieland looked through Bishop's letters and meticulous journals, she discovered that there was no record of 1937. In this book, she imagines what might have happened during that gap. Unfortunately, it fell very flat for me. Wieland seemed to focus on the feel of Bishop's writing, instead of crafting her character. I didn't get a sense of who Elizabeth was, in reality or as the author might have imagined her. The description of the book is also a bit misleading, since very little of the plot has to do with getting Jewish children out of the country. Elizabeth Bishop was an extraordinary poet, and I hope that readers will read multiple books to better understand both the writer and her work.

Paris, 7 A.M.
By Liza Wieland
Simon Schuster June 2019
353 pages
Read via Netgalley

In 1941 Berlin, a woman knows she must get her daughter out of the country. She uses a somewhat unusual method, asking her rabbi to create a golem to take Lea across the border and keep her safe. The rabbi refuses, but his daughter Ettie is willing to bring the golem to life. Lea and the golem, who they name Ava, flee to France in the hope of finding safety. Ettie leaves home as well, and becomes a resistance fighter determined to avenge the deaths of her friends and family.

Alice Hoffman has a gift for combining myth with reality, and it is particularly vivid here. In a world where bombs are falling and children are murdered, does it seem impossible that a golem could come to life or a girl could communicate with birds? There is a lot going on here; readers follow several characters for years as they travel through Europe, but you will have the rare experience of wanting to stay with one character while wondering what is happening to another. Books about World War II are everywhere, but Hoffman's care for her characters and the intersection of history and fantasy, and cruelty and love make for a gripping read.

The World That We Knew
By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster September 2019
384 pages
Read via Netgalley