ARC Review – Once, In Lourdes

ARC Review – Once, In LourdesOnce, in Lourdes by Sharon Solwitz
three-stars
Published by Spiegel & Grau on May 30th 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
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Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  A poignant novel of teenage friendship set during a two-week span in the turbulent summer of 1968, in which four friends make a pact that will change their lives forever.

Four high school friends stand on the brink of adulthood—and on the high ledge above the sea at the local park in Lourdes, Michigan, they call the Haight—and make a pact. For the next two weeks, they will live for each other and for each day. And at the end of the two weeks, they will stand once again on the bluff and jump, sacrificing themselves on the altar of their friendship. Loyal Kate, beautiful Vera, witty C.J., and steady Saint—in a two-week span, their lives will change beyond their expectations, and what they gain and lose will determine whether they enter adulthood or hold fast to their pledge. Once, in Lourdes is a haunting and moving novel of the power of teenage bonds, the story of four characters who will win your heart and transport you back to your own high school years.

 

MY REVIEW

 

Once, In Lourdes is a story that, I have to confess, left me scratching my head.  I’m also finding it a little hard to review so I’m basically just going to jump in and ramble for a bit.  In the opening pages of Once, In Lourdes, we meet four teens – Kay, Vera, Saint, and CJ.  They are basically outsiders at their school who managed to find their way to each other and form a pretty strong bond of friendship. When we meet them, three of them are at the park playing bridge while the fourth, Vera, is conspicuously absent.  Once she finally does arrive, there is something amiss with her and her friends pry until she finally confesses that she has just dropped acid for the first time.  After this confession, Vera then announces that she thinks the four of them should all kill themselves in a grand “f*** you” kind of gesture to everyone around them.  After much discussion, the other three agree and they actually draw up a suicide pact where they pledge to live their lives fully for the next two weeks and then on the fourteenth day, they will return to the park at dawn, climb up on the bluff wall and throw themselves off the wall and on to the rocks below. The rest of the novel follows the four teens for those two weeks leading up to the agreed upon date of death.

 

LIKES

 

I have mixed feelings about the story overall, but I would definitely give the author full marks for her recreation of the summer of 1968.  With her inclusion of little details like Bob Dylan’s music, dropping acid, sexual freedom, protests, and discussion of the Vietnam War, Solwitz captured the atmosphere perfectly and makes you feel like you’re experiencing the late 60’s era. It felt very authentic and I did love that.

I also liked how Solwitz was able to create suspense with this story.  Even though I had a few issues with the story overall, I still read this in about a day because I was so curious about why these kids were so eager to end their lives and I really wanted to know if they would actually go through it or not.  Since the story is being told from Kay’s point of view, I knew she had obviously survived but the fates of the others was very unclear.

 

DISLIKES

 

My biggest issue with the story was that I had a hard time connecting with any of the teens, even with Kay even though we probably got to know her the best out of the four.  I don’t know if it’s just because I’m older and too far removed from my teenage years, but I just felt nothing but frustration over the fact that these kids were willing to throw their lives away.  Following them for those two weeks, it was clear to see that they each came from somewhat dysfunctional home lives – there are some instances of abuse, both physical and verbal.  I understood that life was a struggle for them at times, but every step of the way, all I kept thinking was “OMG, you guys are about to be high school seniors. One more year and you’re out of here anyway. Why throw everything away to make some tragic statement?” Maybe if I had connected with the characters more, I’d feel more understanding about their reasoning for making this suicide pact but as it was, I just felt like a curious onlooker watching these kids.  Plus, their version of living life to the fullest and living it for themselves just didn’t really resonate with me either.  For the most part, it just felt like they squandered those moments if they were indeed meant to be their final moments.

One other issue I had with the novel was that it was full of very long paragraphs.  I’m sure this is just a personal quirk with me, but I prefer writing that is broken up into smaller paragraphs.  Turning a page and seeing a paragraph that is over half a page long just makes me sigh and start to skim, especially when the novel is full of them. If long paragraphs don’t bother you, this probably wouldn’t be an issue like it was for me.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

As I said, even though I had some issues and wished I could have better connected with the characters, their journey and their fate was still compelling enough to keep me reading until the end even if I didn’t fully understand their motives for making the pact. Once, In Lourdes is filled with dark themes – suicide, abuse, even incest – but if you can handle those, it also provides an intimate look at just how far friends are willing to go for one another.

 

RATING:  3 STARS

 

Huge thanks to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for providing me with an e-galley of this book in exchange for my honest review. This is no way affects my opinion of the book.

 

 

three-stars

About Sharon Solwitz

Sharon Solwitz is the author of a novel, Bloody Mary, and a collection of short stories, Blood and Milk, which won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award from Friends of the Chicago Public Library and the prize for adult fiction from the Society of Midland Authors, and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Several of her stories have been featured in Pushcart Prize anthologies and Best American Short Stories. Other honors for her individual stories, which have appeared in such magazines as TriQuarterly, Mademoiselle, and Ploughshares, include the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, the Nelson Algren Literary Award, and grants and fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council. Solwitz teaches fiction writing at Purdue University and lives in Chicago with her husband, the poet Barry Silesky.

Re-ReadIt Challenge: Review of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Re-ReadIt Challenge: Review of Invisible Man by Ralph EllisonInvisible Man by Ralph Ellison
four-stars
Published by Vintage on February 1st 1995
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 581
Source: Purchased
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Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:

First published in 1952 and immediately hailed as a masterpiece, Invisible Man is one of those rare novels that have changed the shape of American literature. For not only does Ralph Ellison’s nightmare journey across the racial divide tell unparalleled truths about the nature of bigotry and its effects on the minds of both victims and perpetrators, it gives us an entirely new model of what a novel can be.

As he journeys from the Deep South to the streets and basements of Harlem, from a horrifying “battle royal” where black men are reduced to fighting animals, to a Communist rally where they are elevated to the status of trophies, Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist ushers readers into a parallel universe that throws our own into harsh and even hilarious relief. Suspenseful and sardonic, narrated in a voice that takes in the symphonic range of the American language, black and white, Invisible Man is one of the most audacious and dazzling novels of our century.

My Review:

I chose to re-read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as my January entry for the ReReadIt Challenge hosted by Ashley at Inside My Minds.  I wanted to re-read this literary classic because I originally read it when I was a teenager and I don’t think I fully appreciated it on that first reading and so wanted to give it a second look.  I was also curious to see how relevant its themes still are today.  I’m glad I did choose to revisit Invisible Man because it truly stands the test of time as a literary classic and I actually believe its themes are more relevant than ever.

At its heart, Invisible Man is a powerful coming of age story.  An anonymous black man tells the story of his journey to adulthood as he tries to discover who he is and what his place is in an American society that makes no attempt to even hide its racist tendencies.  What kind of identity and sense of self-worth can he have in a society that refuses to see him and acknowledge that he does in fact, have any worth at all?

What I think makes Invisible Man such a powerful read is that the story is told in first person by the Invisible Man himself.  Seeing firsthand what he sees and experiences as he tries to make his own way in a society that is often hostile, at best confusing, and quite often filled with betrayal, really drives home the message of how dehumanizing life can be if those around you refuse to acknowledge that you are a human being and that you matter just as much as they do.

One vivid example that sticks out in my mind is when our unnamed narrator is a senior in high school and is chosen to give an important speech. Word gets out into the community about his oratory skills and about what a stellar student he is, and so he is invited to give his speech in front of an important group of white men in the community.  When he arrives, he is blindfolded and thrust into a ring with many other similarly blindfolded men where they are forced to fight each other like animals until the last one is standing.  This is of course pure sport for those white men who have organized this “entertainment” for themselves and completely humiliating and degrading for our young narrator.  It is especially heartbreaking seeing it from his perspective because he naively has no idea what they have in store for him, has come to the event all dressed up, and is diligently practicing his speech in his head right up until the moment he’s blindfolded and tossed into the fighting ring.  Afterwards, the white men excuse away their behavior by then allowing the narrator give his speech and then awarding him with a scholarship to an all black college.  What a painful and confusing message to give a young man!  “Here, we recognize that you are one of the best and brightest, but we we’re still going to go out of our way to put you in your place.”

We follow the narrator from his hometown and his university in the Deep South until he gets expelled from university.  His crime?  He was tasked with driving one of the school’s white trustees around while they were visiting the campus.  One of the places the trustee asked to visit turned out to be an unsavory part of town that sits right on the outskirts of the university.  According to the headmaster, our narrator irreparably damaged the school’s reputation and therefore had to leave.  The headmaster decides not to be completely heartless though and sends the narrator up north to Harlem, armed with a handful of sealed recommendation letters, to secure a job with someone connected to the university.  The narrator arrives in Harlem and starts dutifully dropping off the recommendation letters, determined to find a job as soon as possible because he is hoping to make the most of this opportunity for a fresh start since he can’t return to school.  The narrator’s bubble is quickly burst, however, when it is ultimately revealed to him that the letters he is handing out are not, in fact, recommendation letters at all, but instead, they are letters condemning him so as to sabotage his job searching efforts.

The rest of the novel tracks him as he continues to try to make his way in the world.  Every step of the way he encounters either hatred and bigotry or else people like the self-serving “Brotherhood” who recognize his oratory gift and want to use him to make speeches that advance their own causes. They promise they’re going to turn him into the next Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. DuBois, but then proceed to change the rules at every turn and use him as a scapegoat each time things don’t go according to plan.  Each experience only serves to strip away a little more of his innocence and his self-worth until he ultimately flees and turns to life underground, off the grid, which is where we find him when the story begins.

Invisible Man is not an easy read, by any stretch.  I won’t even classify it as entertaining because there’s nothing entertaining about racism and bigotry. I will classify this as an incredibly important read though because it gives a voice to those in society who have no voice. This is echoed in the final lines of the novel:  “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak to you?”  The idea of giving voice to those who have no voice is just as relevant today as it was when Ellison wrote the book, especially when considered in light of the immigrant ban in the U.S.  It seems like more groups than ever are being made to feel invisible.

Note:  If you do read Invisible Man, I highly recommend reading it with the audible narration by Joe Morton from TV’s Scandal. I listened to this narration while I read and thought it really added a lot to the overall story.  Morton delivers a powerful reading that really highlights the nuances that might otherwise be missed – the initial innocence followed by increasing sarcasm and biting humor that develops as the narrator becomes further disillusioned with life.

 

Rating:  4 stars

four-stars

About Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison was a scholar and writer. He was born Ralph Waldo Ellison in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, named by his father after Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellison was best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953. He also wrote Shadow and Act (1964), a collection of political, social and critical essays, and Going to the Territory (1986). For The New York Times , the best of these essays in addition to the novel put him “among the gods of America’s literary Parnassus.” A posthumous novel, Juneteenth, was published after being assembled from voluminous notes he left after his death.

Ellison died of Pancreatic Cancer on April 16, 1994. He was eighty-one years old.

Review: The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie Flagg

Review:  The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie FlaggThe Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg
four-stars
Published by Random House on November 29th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Humor
Pages: 402
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  From the beloved author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe comes another unforgettable, laugh-out-loud, and moving novel about what it means to be truly alive.

Elmwood Springs, Missouri, is a small town like any other, but something strange is happening out at the cemetery. “Still Meadows,” as it’s called, is anything but still. Funny and profound, this novel in the tradition of Flagg’s Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town deals with universal themes of heaven and earth and everything in between, as Flagg tells a surprising story of life, afterlife, and the mysterious goings-on of ordinary people.

 

My Review:

What a wonderful read this was! I’ve read so many books with dark and dystopian themes this year that it feels good to close out the year with such a lighthearted and humorous look at life, death, and everything in between.  In a way that only she can, the legendary Fannie Flagg takes us on a historical journey that chronicles the birth and evolution of the small town of Elmwood Springs, Missouri.

It’s hard to discuss the plot without giving too much away so I’ll be brief, but the primary storyline follows Elmwood Springs and its residents over the course of approximately 100 years.  The story begins in the late 1880s as we watch Swedish immigrant Lordor Nordstrom build the little town from the ground up with the help of his fellow immigrants.  Because they understand that they’re all in this together, these founders work together and lovingly cultivate their town into a thriving and wonderful community.  Once the founders’ initial work is done, we then follow the town and its residents for decades and see important historic and political events, technological discoveries, and much, much more through their eyes.  Some highlights include the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the flight of the first airplane, the Great Depression, World War II, the first landing on the moon, and of course, all of the TV and pop culture icons from each decade.

I also won’t get into the strange happenings out at the Still Meadows cemetery mentioned in the book’s blurb aside from to say that Fannie Flagg will definitely give you food for thought about what happens when you die.  While what goes on at the cemetery may pay homage to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, it’s definitely got that charmingly quirky twist that only Fannie Flagg can give it.

What I Loved about The Whole Town’s Talking

The Characters:  Fannie Flagg is a master when it comes to creating realistic and endearing characters and she does just that in The Whole Town’s Talking.  Aside from the founders, it’s actually hard to really state who the main characters are, but they’re all just such an endearing group of folks.  Since everyone I know has been binge watching the Gilmore Girls reunion, think of the residents of Stars Hollow and that’s the kind of wonderful assortment of well-rounded characters you’re dealing with in Elmwood Springs.

Some, like Elner, the crazy cat-loving lady who has a chance encounter with the infamous Bonnie and Clyde, are just oozing with personality and will keep you laughing out loud, while others like the hardworking Lordor Nordstrom will just grab your heart and won’t let go.  I fell hard for Lordor in those early pages as he first meets Katrina, the woman he falls in love with.  He’s so charmingly awkward that all of the women townsfolk come to his aid to help him woo Katrina.  It’s just so sweet, but yet not too sweet, because I found myself chuckling at all of their antics throughout those early days.

The Book’s Tone:  I know I keep referring to it as light, sweet, charming, heartwarming, which it totally is, but what I also liked about it was that it wasn’t so saccharine as to be off-putting.  There was such an infusion of classic Fannie Flagg humor that I constantly found myself chuckling a bit, even at what could be considered the sweetest moments of the story.  In that sense, it’s quite well balanced.

The Suspense:  Yes, even in a novel that I’m describing as lighthearted and humorous, there’s a bit of suspense built into the story.  Now I’m not talking suspense in the sense of a thriller. If you’re looking for that kind of suspense, you’ll definitely want to look elsewhere.  No, what I’m talking about are the highs and the lows and the curveballs that life throws at all at the residents of Elmwood Springs.  It’s that kind of realistic suspense we can all relate to because we all experience the same types of highs and lows – it’s just part of being alive.

And then, of course, there are the mysterious happenings down at the cemetery…

Anything I didn’t care for?

The only complaint I really had with the novel was that I would have liked a more in depth look at some of the characters and their lives.  The characters, for the most part, are just so lovable and quirky, that I couldn’t help but want to know a little more about them.  That’s just personal preference with me though because I always want to know as much as possible about characters that I love to further my connection to them.  I don’t think that lack of depth in any way detracts from the overall quality of the storytelling though since its focus is the whole town rather than just a few select characters anyway.

Who Would I Recommend The Whole Town’s Talking to?

I would definitely recommend The Whole Town’s Talking to anyone who already loves Fannie Flagg’s novels.  If you loved Welcome to the World, Baby Girl or Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, then Fannie’s latest work will be right up your alley.

I would also recommend it to anyone else who likes a light-hearted and humorous read that also makes you think about your life and all of the people in it.

 

Rating:  A strong 4 stars

Question:  Have you ever read any of Fannie Flagg’s novels?

 

four-stars

About Fannie Flagg

Fannie Flagg’s career started in the fifth grade when she wrote, directed, and starred in her first play entitled The Whoopee Girls, and she has not stopped since. At age nineteen she began writing and producing television specials, and later wrote and appeared on Candid Camera. She then went on to distinguish herself as an actress and a writer in television, films, and the theater. She is the New York Times bestselling author of Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man; Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe; Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!; Standing in the Rainbow; A Redbird Christmas; and Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven. Flagg’s script for the movie Fried Green Tomatoes was nominated for an Academy Award, and the Writers Guild of America Award and won the highly regarded Scripter Award for best screenplay of the year. Flagg lives happily in California and Alabama.