Saturday, October 29, 2011

Amaryllis in Blueberry

Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum
Gallery Books, February 2011
Trade Paperback, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781439156896

In the stirring tradition of The Secret Life of Bees and The Poisonwood Bible, Amaryllis in Blueberry explores the complexity of human relationships set against an unforgettable backdrop. Told through the haunting voices of Dick and Seena Slepy and their four daughters, Christina Meldrum’s soulful novel weaves together the past and the present of a family harmed—and healed—by buried secrets.
“Maybe, unlike hope, truth couldn’t be contained in a jar. . . .”
Meet the Slepys: Dick, the stern doctor, the na├»ve husband, a man devoted to both facts and faith; Seena, the storyteller, the restless wife, a mother of four, a lover of myth. And their children, the Marys: Mary Grace, the devastating beauty; Mary Tessa, the insistent inquisitor; Mary Catherine, the saintly, lost soul; and finally, Amaryllis, Seena’s unspoken favorite, born with the mystifying ability to sense the future, touch the past, and distinguish the truth tellers from the most convincing liar of all.
When Dick insists his family move from Michigan to the unfamiliar world of Africa for missionary work, he can’t possibly foresee how this new land and its people will entrance and change his daughters—and himself—forever.
Nor can he predict how Africa will spur his wife Seena toward an old but unforgotten obsession. In fact, Seena may be falling into a trance of her own. . . .
My Thoughts:
Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum is set in Michigan and West Africa during the summer and fall of 1976. It is a highly atmospheric novel that follows the highly dysfunctional Slepy family: parents Dick and Seena and their four daughters, the Marys - Mary Grace, Mary Catherine, and Mary Tessa - and Amaryllis, known as Yllis. After their summer in Michigan, Dick decides to take his family to Africa where he will serve as a medical missionary.
The first chapter reveals the end of the novel - when Seena is on trial for Dick's murder in West Africa. Then the narrative goes back to the summer and intertwines scenes from the past and present. The novel is told from the viewpoints of all the Slepys, their elderly neighbor Clara, and a single, final chapter from the viewpoint of the priest, Father Heimdall. Although each character has a unique voice, Meldrum makes an interesting stylistic choice and has everyone but Yllis tell their stories in the present tense, even when they look back on past events. Yllis tells her story in past tense. 
In Amaryllis in Blueberry truth and reality are questioned. Obsessions, imagination, storytelling, and cross cultural myth-making (Greek mythology, African mythology, and Catholic doctrine) are explored. Additionally, we learn that Yllis has synesthesia; she is an emotional synesthete so she sees and feels all the emotions of everyone around her. The Slepy's bring a myriad of emotions and problems with them to Africa where Dick hopes they will find redemption but instead everything escalates out of anyone's control. All of the characters are flawed and it is these flaws that form a basis for their problems. There is also a feeling of distant reserve, a separateness, from all the characters in the novel.
Although it shares some similarities with Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, which apparently turned some readers off, I felt there were enough differences to separate the two novels. In Amaryllis in Blueberry creditability was a little stretched when the Slepy's were in Africa so quickly after Dick's decision and their family is so radically affected immediately upon arrival. Although I accepted it, I will also admit to liking the second half of the novel a bit less than the first. Additionally, since it is set in 1976, I could certainly pick up any cultural references to the time.
Meldrum is a very talented writer and I imagine we can look forward to more well crafted novels with intricately developed characters from her in the future. (The Artist in me must note that the cover of this book is simply gorgeous.)
Very Highly Recommended
Dick is dead. Seena knows this, of course: her husband is dead. Yet she keeps expecting him to barrel in, his enormous, gangling self plodding along, a spectacle unaware that he is one. Was one, she thinks. Was one. Still, she finds herself waiting for him to call out, make some pointless point, make it clear to everyone that he just doesn’t get it.  opening

“What don’t I have to say?” she would like to say. “You want me to admit guilt? I’ll admit it. I came here having little respect for your beliefs and laws and I flouted them willingly. You want me to say I hated my husband—that I wanted him dead so I could be free to love my lover? I’ll say it. You want me to tell you I committed adultery and squandered the welfare of my children for the sake of lust while I spit in God’s face. It’s all true.”
“No,” she says. “I have nothing to say.”  pg. 5-6

Mama named me Amaryllis, right out there in the blueberry field, and when Papa’s mustache quivered after she told him the name, and his eyes took on the glassy, stunned gaze, Mama straightened her long back and stretched her giraffe’s neck and flounced that Mary-hued hair as she pointedly turned away, and Papa knew the name was not negotiable. pg. 9

I myself have an affinity for the name Seena, perhaps because it contains the word “see.” Long before I had any understanding of who I am—what I am—I could see Mama’s instincts were right: I was different, and not just on the surface. I didn’t fit in my family, I didn’t fit in at school. pg. 10

People say joy is infectious, but that’s a myth. It’s melancholy that’s infectious. And sneaky. It skulks about, climbing legs, mounting skirts. It’s particularly active when joy is in the room. Joy shows up, a sort of humming, and melancholy gets the jitters. I’ve seen it time and again. While joy bathes one person— who purrs almost, like she’s been plugged in—melancholy makes the rounds. And those closest in proximity to joy are melancholy’s most likely targets. That’s not to say joy’s humming doesn’t sometimes spread—it does—but melancholy is crafty and determined, while joy spreads mostly when it tries not to. At least when it doesn’t try too hard.
Guilt, in contrast, is tricky to see, smell, hear, because guilt is a mush—a combination of envy and anger, joy and melancholy. And love. But I know guilt. I know the taste of its quivering, shimmering, cloudy, smelly, buzzing self. pg. 11

Yet it seemed to me in that moment there is a painful sort of beauty in seeing things for what they really are. pg. 15
Funny thing was, once Dick had seen Seena's face, he couldn't think of anything else. Not even her neck. Those eyes that at first seemed demonic came to seem like burning-hot suns, exposing parts of him he barely knew. She'd become the perfect woman to him. An angel. The Virgin Mary. pg. 28
He thumbs through the magazines, though page after page of breasts and spread thighs and come-hither looks, until he chooses one set of breasts and spread thighs, one come-hither look. And for the few minutes while he is with this paper girl who is not his wife, he forgets he loves his wife. pg. 35
"We have choices in life. You have choices. You don't have to live your life trapped in a box. You don't have to be the person you've been. Be the person you want to be - the kind of person you admire. Control what you can control." pg. 38
I've come to learn there is a name for what I am....the name I'm referring to is "synesthete," meaning I have synesthesia, from the Greek syn, which means "with," and aesthesis, which means "sensation." pg. 89
We weren't sardines so much as we were popcorn kernels sizzling in hot oil, pressed kernel to kernel to kernel. We could only sizzle this way for so long before one of us cracked. pg. 97
Set up the tripod and the timer and snap a picture of your happy family, being protected by you, this God-fearing father and husband who worships the Virgin Mary. Then hang it up alongside your centerfolds. pg. 197

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester
HarperCollins, 2010
Hardcover, 512 pages
ISBN-13: 9780061702587
Atlantic is a biography of a tremendous space that has been central to the ambitions of explorers, scientists, and warriors, and continues profoundly to affect our character, attitudes, and dreams. Simon Winchester makes the Atlantic come vividly alive. Spanning the ocean's story from its geological origins to the age of exploration-covering the Vikings, the Irish, the Basques, John Cabot, and Christopher Columbus in the north, and the Portuguese and the Spanish in the south-and from World War II battles to today's struggles with pollution and overfishing, his narrative is epic, intimate, and awe inspiring. More than a mere history, this is an unforgettable journey of unprecedented scope by one of the most gifted writers in the English language.
My Thoughts:
Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories is Simon Winchester's biography of the Atlantic Ocean. Winchester decided that, since the ocean is a living thing, the story of the Atlantic could be told in the format of a biography. In an extension of this comparison, Winchester decided to structure the chapters in the book based on the seven stages of man as outlined in Shakespeare's As You Like It:
"Infant; School-boy; Lover; Soldier; Justice; Slipper'd Pantaloon; and Second Childishness. It seemed all of a sudden, just about the ideal. Pinioned within these seven categories, the stages of our relationship with the ocean could be made quite manageable.
"I could examine in the First Age, for example, the stirrings of humankind's initial childlike interest in the sea. In the second, I could examine how that initial curiosity evolved into the scholarly disciplines, of exploration, education, and learning - and in this as in all the other Ages I could explore the history of that learning, so that each Age would become a chronology in and of itself. I could then become captive in the Third Age - that of the lover - by the story of humankind's love affairs, by way of the art, poetry, architecture, or prose that this sea has inspired over the centuries.
"In the Fourth Age - that of the soldier - I could tell of the arguments and conflicts that have so often roiled the ocean....In the Fifth - that of the well-fed Justice - I could describe how the sea became a sea of laws and commerce....In the sixth Age, that dominated by the fatigue and tedium of the pantaloon, I could reflect upon the ways man has recently wearied of the great sea, has come to take it for granted....And in the Seventh and final Age....I could imagine the ways by which this much-overlooked and perhaps vengeful ocean might one day strike back, reverting to type, reverting to the primal nature of what it always was. (pg. 26-27)"
As a fan of Winchester's books, I was really looking forward to reading Atlantic, and, as much as I enjoyed it, I must add a few precautions for those considering reading this massive narrative. First, it helps if you have read other books by Winchester and appreciate his writing. Since he's a talented writer who has a good eye for interesting details and can share many entertaining anecdotes, many people will find this part easy. Second, this is not an easy-to-read-light-hearted-entertainment. While it is entertaining and Winchester can be humorous, it's also dense, expansive and detailed -  it's not a quick read. You need to know you will be investing some time in reading. Third, it will help if potential readers have an appreciation for a wide range of topics from ancient history to geology to art to military history, to exploration.

Atlantic includes: A Table Of Contents, List of Maps and Illustrations, Preface, Prologue, Seven Chapters, an Epilogue, Acknowledgments, A Glossary of Possibly Unfamiliar Terms, Bibliography, and Index. 
Very Highly Recommended
The ocean romance that lies at the heart of this book was primed for me by an unanticipated but unforgettable small incident. opening
There was something uncanny about the sudden silence, the emptiness, the realization of the enormous depths below us and the limitless heights above, the universal grayness of the scene, the very evident and potentially terrifying power of the rough seas and the wind, and the fact that despite our puny human powerlessness and insignificance, invisible radio beams and Morse code signals had summoned readily offered help from somewhere far away. pg. 11
Wasn't the ocean just distance for most people these days? Didn't we all take for granted a body of water that, so relatively recently - no more than five hundred years before, at most - was viewed by mariners who had not yet dared attempt to cross it with a mixture of awe, terror, and amazement? pg. 19
It is both possible and reasonable, then, to tell the Atlantic Ocean's story as a biography. It is a living thing; it has a geographical story of birth and expansion and evolution to its present middleaged shape and size; and then it has a well-predicted end story of contraction, decay, and death. pg. 22
He had arranged his chosen poems in seven discrete sections, to illustrate each of the seven stages of a man's life that are listed so famously in the "All the world's a stage..." speech in As You Like It. And I was reading Owen's book one day when I realized that this very same structure also happened to offer me just what I needed for this human aspect of the Atlantic story: a proper framework for the book I planned to write, a stage setting that would transmute all themes of ocean life into players, progressing from infancy to senescence, so that all could be permitted to play their parts in turn. pg. 25

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Emily, Alone

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan
Penguin Group, 2011
Hardcover, 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780670022359
A sequel to the bestselling, much-beloved Wish You Were Here, Stewart O’Nan’s intimate new novel follows Emily Maxwell, a widow whose grown children have long moved away. She dreams of visits by her grandchildren while mourning the turnover of her quiet Pittsburgh neighborhood, but when her sole companion and sister-in-law Arlene faints at their favorite breakfast buffet, Emily’s days change. As she grapples with her new independence, she discovers a hidden strength and realizes that life always offers new possibilities. Like most older women, Emily is a familiar yet invisible figure, one rarely portrayed so honestly. Her mingled feelings-of pride and regret, joy and sorrow- are gracefully rendered in wholly unexpected ways. Once again making the ordinary and overlooked not merely visible but vital to understanding our own lives, Emily, Alone confirms O’Nan as an American master.

My Thoughts:

The Stewart O'Nan fan club is back in session. Please note that O'Nan is incapable of writing a bad book. All reviews of his books here at She Treads Softly are done only in comparison to his other books. They are all very highly recommended.

In Emily, Alone it is amazing how Stewart O'Nan realistically captures the inner thoughts of  Emily Maxwell, an 80 year old middle class widow in Pittsburgh. Her life revolves around future visits from her children and grandchildren, Tuesday breakfast buffets with her sister-in-law, Arlene (using, naturally, a two for one coupon), her dog Rufus, and attendance at the early church service. Emily is financially secure and has her health.

It was amazing how seemingly effortlessly O'Nan captures the life of an elderly woman. Loving difficult family members, visiting an art museum, dealing with the aging of a beloved pet, following a certain radio station, feeling disenfranchised politically, being dismayed over a scratch on the car, attending funerals for friends who have passed away, making sure Christmas cards are sent out in time... I know this woman, who plans meals for visits down to the smallest details and whose year is planned by holidays. When O'Nan records and captures all these commonplace parts of Emily's life, they are clearly routine parts of many people's daily lives.

Emily, Alone is a sequel to Wish You Were Here, however readers do not need to have read Wish You Were Here to appreciate Emily, Alone.  Emily may be an aging woman, but her life is depicted with honesty, dignity, and compassion rather than sappy sentimentality. O'Nan follows Emily's life in short chapters using precise prose. While thrill seekers maybe won't be satisfied with this very quiet introspective novel that follows the seemingly mundane days of Emily, sensitive readers who can appreciate an exquisitely drawn detailed character study will cherish every word. 

Very Highly Recommended - one of the best


Tuesdays, Emily Maxwell put what precious little remained of her life in God's and her sister-in-law Arlene's shaky hands and they drove together to Edgewood for Eat'n Park's two-for-one breakfast buffet. The Sunday Post-Gazette, among its myriad other pleasures, had coupons. The rest of the week she might have nothing but melba toast and tea for breakfast, maybe peel herself a Clementine for some vitamin C, but the deal was too good to pass up, and served as a built-in excuse to get out of the house. opening

She was dying, yes, fine, they all were, by degrees. If Dr. Sayid expected her to be devastated by the idea, that only showed how young he was. There was no point in going into hysterics. It wasn’t the end of the world, just the end of her, and lately she’d come to think that was natural, and possibly something to be desired, if it could be achieved with a modicum of dignity, not pointlessly drawn out, like Louise undergoing all those torturous last-ditch procedure because Timothy and Daniel refused to give up. pg. 3

"Taking no chances, I see," said Arlene, whose own hair was a deep henna she's adopted a few years ago, and which, like Arlene's carmine lipstick, Emily considered garish, too young. pg. 4

When she was young, the city was her new world. Now it seemed she was losing it piece by piece. pg. 11

It was just one of her spells, Arlene insisted. She had them whenever her blood pressure dipped too low. She didn't seem too surprised. pg. 16

"Do you have any idea who these people are?" Arlene asked, pointing at the TV.

"They all seem to wear a lot of makeup," Emily said. "Especially the men." pg. 21

"That's all right," Emily said, because it wasn't a proper offer, just a sop, and once she'd said, "I love you," and gotten off, she wondered why she'd brought this insult upon herself. For a while she sat in Henry's chair, pinching her lips between her thumb and forefinger, pondering what perverse urge made her ask Margaret the one question she'd specifically forbidden herself. Flopped at her feet, Rufus raised his head to look at her, then let it drop back to the carpet. pg. 25

"It's only two more days," Emily said, patting her hand, but she understood. Of all people, she knew how easily one's world could be taken away. pg. 30

The temptation was to mourn those days, when they were young and busy and alive. As much as Emily missed them, she understood the reason that era seemed so rich - partly, at least - was because it was past, memorialized, the task they'd set themselves of raising families accomplished. The thought of Margaret was enough to remind her that not all of their times had been happy, that, in truth, much of it had been a struggle, one that was far from over, if that was in fact possible. pg. 55

She was too used to living alone. While she loved them all dearly, she'd forgotten how exhausting other people could be. pg. 104 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
Simon & Schuster,  2010
Hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781439192566

“I believe there is another man inside every man, a stranger…” writes Wilfred Leland James at the start of a riveting confession that makes up “1922,” the first in this pitch-black quartet of mesmerizing tales from Stephen King. For James, that stranger is awakened when his wife Arlette proposes selling off the family homestead and moving to Omaha, setting in motion a gruesome train of murder and madness.
In “Big Driver,” a cozy-mystery writer named Tess encounters a stranger along a back road in Massachusetts when she takes a shortcut home after a book-club engagement. Violated and left for dead, Tess plots a revenge that will bring her face to face with another stranger: the one inside herself.
“Fair Extension,” the shortest of these tales, is perhaps the nastiest and certainly the funniest. Making a deal with the devil not only saves Harry Streeter from a fatal cancer but provides rich recompense for a lifetime of resentment.
When her husband of more than twenty years is away on one of his business trips, Darcy Anderson looks for batteries in the garage. Her toe knocks up against a box under a worktable and she discovers the stranger inside her husband. It’s a horrifying discovery, rendered with bristling intensity, and it definitively ends a good marriage.
My Thoughts:

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King features four novellas that examine the dark side of human nature. 

"1922" is Nebraska farmer Wilfred James' confession to the murder of his wife. He talks his son into helping him murder her before she can sell the land her father left to her and move to Omaha.  Wilfred is a conniving man, but guilt can be burdensome and followed by madness.

In "Big Driver" Tess, an author of cozy mysteries, is out for revenge after being ambushed, beaten, raped, and left for dead. Sometimes retribution is the only answer.

In "Fair Extension" Dave Streeter, a man with terminal cancer, is offered fifteen or more years of life. The catch is that not only does he have to pay, but he also has to name someone he hates, someone to have the dirty done to them if the dirty is to be lifted from him.

How well do you know your spouse? In "A Good Marriage" Darcy and Bob have been together 27 years. Darcy discovers a dark secret her husband has been hiding and must make a decision on what to do about it.

Fans of King's short stories have probably already read this collection. Even though I didn't officially participate in Carl's R.I.P. IV Challenge, this is certainly the time of year for some terrifying tales. While I found "1922" almost too graphic, I thought "A Good Marriage" was perhaps the most satisfying of the four stories for me. "Big Driver" and "Fair Extension" both closely followed. Be forewarned that this collection of short stories is gruesome and graphic. Detractors may want to deny it, but King proves time and time again that not only is he prolific, he is a good writer. Very Highly Recommended (if I were still giving stars I'd give it 4.5)


And I know where I shall find myself after this earthly life is done. I wonder if Hell can be worse than the City of Omaha. Perhaps it is the City of Omaha, but with good country surrounding it... pg. 4

I believe that there is another man inside of every man, a stranger, a Conniving Man. And I believe that by March of 1922, when Hemingford County skies were white and every field was a snowscrimmed mudsuck, the Conniving Man inside Farmer Wilfred James had already passed judgment on my wife and decided her fate. "Twas justice of the black-cap variety, too. pg. 4

Tess didn't believe in past lifetimes, or future ones for that matter - in metaphysical terms, she thought what you saw was pretty much what you got - but she liked the idea of a life where she was not a small woman with an elfin face, a shy smile, and a job writing cozy mysteries, but a big guy with a hat shading his sunburned brow and grizzled cheeks, letting a bulldog hood ornament lead him along the million roads that crisscross the country. pg. 136

Whether you could put a price tag on pain, rape, and terror was a question the Knitting Society ladies had never taken up. pg. 138

"I specialize only in extensions, a very American product. I've sold love extensions, sometimes called potions to the lovelorn, loan extensions to the cash-strapped - plenty of those in this economy - time extensions to those under some sort of deadline, and once an eye extension to a fellow who wanted to become an Air Force pilot and knew he couldn't pass the vision test." pg. 253

"You have to transfer the weight. In words of one syllable, you have to do the dirty to someone else if the dirty is to be lifted from you..... But it can't be just anyone. The old anonymous sacrifice has been tried, and it doesn't work. It has to be someone you hate. Is there someone you hate, Mr. Streeter?" pg. 255

The one thing nobody asked in casual conversation, Darcy thought in the days after she found what she found in the garage, was this: How’s your marriage? They asked how was your weekend and how was your trip to Florida and how’s your health and how are the kids; they even asked how’s life been treatin you, hon? But nobody asked how’s your marriage?
Good, she would have answered the question before that night. Everything’s fine. pg. 283

A successful marriage was a balancing act—that was a thing everyone knew. A successful marriage was also dependent on a high tolerance for irritation—this was a thing Darcy knew. As the Stevie Winwood song said, you had to roll widdit, baby.
She rolled with it. So did he. pg. 286

Did she know everything about him? Of course not. No more than he knew everything about her....  There was no knowing everything, but she felt that after twenty-seven years, they knew all the important things. It was a good marriage, one of the fifty percent or so that kept working over the long haul. She believed that in the same unquestioning way she believed that gravity would hold her to the earth when she walked down the sidewalk.
Until that night in the garage. pg. 289