The Hour I First Believed
by Wally Lamb Published by Harper Collins
on March 6, 2009 Genres: Fiction
, Historical Pages:
Wally Lamb has mastered writing addictive trauma porn. The Hour I First Believed includes the Columbine shooting, alcoholism, infidelity, Hurricane Katrina, homeless children, child prostitution, unexpected deaths, prescription drug addiction, injustices in women’s prisons and family secrets. I don’t find the characters likeable, but they feel immensely human. And the numerous Connecticut references (so many UConn basketball shoutouts) are great! Wally Lamb’s third novel doesn’t live up to the perfection of She’s Come Undone or I Know This Much is True, but it is still an engrossing and worthwhile read. Fun story: in 2011 I served Wally Lamb wine at a community art event in Willimantic, CT.
The Hour I First Believed is a sprawling novel, so it is challenging to write a brief synopsis. The protagonist is Caelum Quirk, an English teacher now in his third marriage. Him and his wife, Maureen, have reconciled after infidelity separated them for a few years. They move from Connecticut to Colorado where they both work at Columbine High School. Caelum returns to Connecticut after his Aunt Lolly dies. While he is away, Maureen survives the horrific Columbine school shooting. After the tragedy Caelum tries to help Maureen recover from the traumatic event. Caelum and Maureen also have a close relationship with Velvet, a troubled student who also survived the shooting. Caelum and Maureen move into Aunt Lolly’s house in Connecticut to have a fresh start after the shooting. While going through his aunt’s belongings Caelum uncovers generations of family stories and secrets. This being a Wally Lamb book Caelum and Maureen continue to face tragedy after tragedy.
Wally Lamb does ample research for his novels. It’s rare to see a piece of fiction with such a long list of citations. I also appreciate how Lamb includes a list of charities at the end of his book. These charities focus on social issues that are featured in The Hour I First Believed. I think the research and list of charities shows Lamb’s respect and compassion for the sensitive topics his book covers. I appreciate the way Lamb ends his trauma filled books on a hopeful note. This sends the message that humans can overcome unimaginable trauma. In contrast the questionably exploitative Hanya Yanagihara leaves her queer characters broken with no hope of recovery (A Little Life is a trash book, maybe one day I’ll get around to writing a rant). Lastly, Wally Lamb’s books are so addicting, I can’t put them down!
The Hour I First Believed would be an even better book with some more editing. Lamb tries to tie together too many story threads. I think he overreaches a bit. I think Lamb was trying to weave a tapestry of trauma that spanned from past to present. Some editing down would have resulted in a tighter story with stronger, more distinct themes. Specifically, I think the excerpts of letters and the thesis involving Caelum’s ancestors. Those long sections were jarring and interrupted the present-day story without feeling relevant.
by Ottessa Moshfegh Published by Penguin
on June 21, 2022 Genres: Fantasy
, Magical Realism Pages:
Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh is disturbing and wild. The dark and twisted events in Moshfegh’s latest work were right up my alley. The novel gave me A24 horror movie vibes, specifically Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Nearly every character in Lapvona is unlikeable. I did not leave the story feeling good about humanity. The novel is a wonderful hodgepodge of genres: horror, magical realism, fantasy, and historical fiction.
Lapvona takes place in a medieval village where life is extremely rough. Marek is the motherless son of Jude, a shepherd. Jude is abusive to Marek and has an intense attachment to his sheep. In the forest lives a witchy, blind woman named Ina (my favorite character), who has nursed many of the village’s children, including Marek. The lord of the village, Villiam, is deranged and supported by the problematic village priest, Father Barnabas. Marek goes to live in Villiam’s wealthy home after an unexpected tragedy. Meanwhile the villagers suffer from the effects of a harsh drought.
I realize the above synopsis is vague, but I do not want to spoil all the shocking WTF moments in the story. This book is not for everyone, but fans of horror will be pleased. Nothing is off limits in this highly irreverent book. I really enjoyed Moshfegh’s writing. Her word choice is clear and direct without superfluous phrases, making Lapvona a fast read. I struggled to find significant themes or the point of this novel. But I do think the story works as a criticism of the United States government. I found the buffoonery of Villiam to be very reminiscent of President number 45. Villiam has no concern for the well being of his people and spends his free time doing outrageous stunts. The contrast between the those living in Villiam’s manor and the starving villagers reminded me of the disconnect between the US government and the people it serves. Ina is an amazing character. Her arc is fantastic, and I wish more of the book had been told from her perspective.
Overall, I enjoyed the shocking moments of Lapvona and its overall vibe. I wish the book was more focused or had clearer themes. I felt like much of Moshfegh’s message went over my head. Or perhaps she just wanted to write a book with loads of shock value? Nonetheless, I certainly plan on checking out more of Ottessa Moshfegh’s books soon.
The Night Watchman
by Louise Erdrich Published by Hachette UK
on March 5, 2020 Genres: Fiction
, Magical Realism Pages:
Like many people I’ve been frustrated with the US government’s inability to pass common-sense gun control laws. I was in desperate need of an uplifting story where characters successfully take on Washington. In Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman the Chippewa tribe works to stop a bill that would take away their land and identity in the 1950s. This is an excellent piece of historical fiction told from multiple perspectives.
This story is fictional, but in the preface Erdrich explains that the character of Thomas Wazhashk is based her grandfather. The Chippewa live on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. In 1953 Congress is about to pass a “termination” bill that would result in the US claiming Native American land and forcing the occupants to relocate to the cities. The bill not only steals Native American land but also attempts to whitewash the Native Americans, essentially eradicating them. Thomas Wazhashk is a council member of the Chippewa that works as a night watchman at the local jewel-bearing plant near the reservation. During the long nights working alone at the plant Thomas writes correspondence to politicians in hopes of stopping the passing of the termination bill. Erdrich’s story has chapters told from perspectives of many people living on the reservation. Pixie Paranteau (she prefers Patrice) is a young woman working at the jewel bearing plant. Patrice makes a trip to Minneapolis to search for her missing sister Vera. The antagonist of the story is Senator Arthur V Watkins (who interrogated Erdrich’s grandfather in real life) who is the strongest supporter of the termination bill. Erdrich also weaves supernatural elements into the plot (who doesn’t love some magical realism).
My favorite part of the novel were the loveable characters. I think it’s always refreshing to read a book with characters that I’m invested in and that are believable. One theme I picked up on was the younger Chippewa embraced their heritage to varying degrees. Pixie learned the Chippewa language and many of the skills passed down from elder family members. While her sister Vera wanted to escape the reservation and go to the city dressing to pass as a white woman. Even though Pixie shows interest in learning about her heritage she insists everyone call her Patrice, a more American name. Erdrich succeeds in educating the reader about the time period and the politics of the termination effort. For me, the best historical fiction strikes a balance between engaging story with dynamic characters and educating the reader about the time. In this respect Louise Erdrich knocks it out of the park!
In the spirit of Louise Erdrich’s grandfather’s tenacity for change I’d like to challenge you to take action to advocate for a political issue you’re passionate about. I’ve added some helpful links below for organizations that are working to prevent gun violence (the issue I’m currently fired up about).
https://www.everytown.org/ The largest gun violence prevention organization in America
https://www.sandyhookpromise.org/ A non-profit organization whose mission is to end school and create a culture that prevents violence
https://www.commoncause.org/ A helpful website that helps you determine which politicians represent your geographic region at every level of government
by Anthony Veasna So Published by HarperCollins
on August 3, 2021 Genres: Asian American
, Short Stories Pages:
Hey, you! Stop reading this and go add Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So to the top of your TBR…Welcome back! This short story collection is perfection. These nine stories center on Cambodian American characters living in California. Many of these stories feature queer characters, which was my main motivation to read it. I learned a lot about Cambodian history and culture and was blown away by So’s writing talent. So has mastered bringing out a range of emotions in his readers. A few times, while reading a single page, I found myself laughing and then suddenly heartbroken.
The stories feature Cambodian Americans that are the children of refugees. One story focuses on two daughters and their mom running a doughnut shop. Each night a mysterious man visits, only to buy an apple fritter and sit in silence, leaving the pastry uneaten. Another story features a down on his luck high school badminton coach and struggling grocery store owner trying to get a much-needed win by beating his star player. The story that inspired the collection’s title takes place at a drunken wedding afterparty where two brothers try to expose their dubious uncle for neglecting to gift money to the bride and groom. In my favorite story, The Shop, a gay son works at his dad’s car shop after failing to find a job after college.
So does a great job of creating a cohesive collection with many overlapping themes. The most prominent commonality I noticed was every character had inherited trauma from their parents. From 1975 to 1979 between 1.5 and 2 million Cambodians were killed in a genocide under the communist leadership. The number of people killed equaled about a quarter of Cambodia’s population. The characters in So’s stories are the children of the refugees that escaped to America to avoid losing their lives. Even though the children were not present at the genocide their lives are heavily impacted by the events. Another part of Cambodian culture that is featured in the stories Maly, Maly, Maly and Somaly, Serey Somaly is the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. The queer characters in this collection have the added pressure of seeking acceptance from their families. The Shop was my favorite story, not just because the main character is gay, but So perfectly captured the loss of direction some young adults experience after college. All of So’s characters are flawed. I found some, especially the main character in Human Development (what a prick)to be highly unlikeable. But these unlikeable characters felt authentically human, so the stories were still a pleasure to read.
Unfortunately, I am going to end this review on a sad note. Anthony Veasna So tragically passed away at the age of 28, due to an accidental drug overdose. The literary community has lost a great talent too soon. While it is sad that So will not get a chance to share more beautifully written stories with the world, I am comforted that his voice will live on through this magnificent short story collection. Do your self a favor and read Afterparties.
The Vanishing Half
by Brit Bennett Published by Penguin
on February 1, 2022 Genres: Coming of Age
, African American & Black
, LGBTQ Pages:
I was fortunate to begin 2022 with the wonderful The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. This is a beautiful multi-generational drama focusing on race, family, and identity. Bennett is a skilled storyteller. I was fully immersed in her prose and found myself absorbed in the story. This is one of those rare stories that has universal appeal.
The story centers on the Vignes twins Stella and Desiree. The twins are from Mallard, Louisiana a town where many light-skinned Black people reside. The twins have a traumatic childhood after seeing their father get horrifically lynched by White men. At the age of 16 the two sisters run away from their mother’s home to start new lives in New Orleans. However, Stella soon makes a dangerous and shocking decision to leave her sister to go live as a White woman. The book is written from multiple perspectives and takes place from the 1940s to the 1990s. The daughters of the twins are also featured main characters.
While The Vanishing Half is arguably a slow burn the writing is so good that it reads quickly. The major characters are well developed. No perspectives felt weaker than the others. I really enjoyed how the story was told out of order. In the end a complete story of the family was revealed. There is a character that suffers from Alzheimer’s. I found these scenes to be well written, but tough to read as they reminded me of my grandma who suffered from the same disease.
The major theme of the novel is choosing one’s identity. Desiree and Stella who are physically identical, decide to live under different racial identities. Desiree’s trans boyfriend, Reese, struggles feeling comfort with his body that opposes his male identity. The difference is Reese’s gender expression is authentic while Stella’s racial expression is based on a lie. I was deeply saddened that Stella had to deny her Blackness and family in exchange for the privilege and security of life as a White woman. The vastly differing experiences of Desiree and Stella show that racial identity is more than just the color of one’s skin. Unfortunately, one’s presenting racial identity results in vastly differing levels of privilege and wealth in the United States.
The Vanishing Half is worthy of becoming a modern classic. Between the gorgeous writing and complex themes of family, identity, and race there are a lot of discussions to be had surrounding the book. And above all Brit Bennett is a skilled storyteller.
Trigger Warnings: Alzheimer’s, Racial Violence
by Torrey Peters Published by Random House Publishing Group
on January 12, 2021 Genres: Fiction
, Women Pages:
Torrey Peter’s debut novel Detransition, Baby explores motherhood, through three individuals, brought together by one pregnancy. After detransitioning from living as a trans woman, Ames gets his boss Katrina, a cis woman, pregnant. Katrina is undecided on whether she wants to have the baby. Ames proposes they form an unconventional family with his ex, Reese, a trans woman. He is concerned he will be placed in the masculine, father-like role if he parents solely with Katrina. Ames hopes the gender roles of the parents will be less binary if a third parent is brought in. Ames is also aware of Reese’s deep, longing desire to be a mother and wants her to have an opportunity to have a child. Throughout the events leading up to Katrina’s decision with the pregnancy, Torrey includes flashbacks from Reese and Ames’ relationship. I really enjoyed this novel. The characters are delightfully messy (and not in a voyeuristic way), and Peter’s story is also informative on trans issues. This funny, sexy, heartbreaking story is well worth reading.
I really enjoyed Peter’s loose, wandering writing style. She often strays from the action, diverting into long tangents that I enjoyed. I was reminded of my close friend who can never finish a story without telling a handful of smaller stories along the way. I have seen criticisms of this chaotic style, but I thought it paralleled the characters’ messy behavior in the story. In my favorite of these digressions, Peter compares white trans women to orphaned elephants in South Africa (you’ll have to read the book to understand the comparison). There are many pop-culture references and some random celebrity appearances, including Sarah Jessica Parker (clearly Peters is a major Sex and the City fan). The most memorable and well-written scene for me was a flashback to when Ames first tried on woman’s clothes at a store. Ames’ pure joy while trying on the clothes and breast plates, contrasted with the shame and embarrassment when a cis woman and her daughter walked in, interrupting the magical moment, was very powerful. All three of the main characters are human through and through, flawed and make questionable decisions. I did not enjoy the book’s conclusion, but I will withhold the reasoning to avoid spoiling this otherwise excellent novel.
I would recommend this to anyone looking for a fun, dramatic novel, with queer representation. I am thrilled to see a mainstream, best-selling novel focusing on trans lives. And if you don’t have time to get to the book, great news a tv adaptation of Detransition, Baby is in the works!
Trigger Warnings: Suicide, HIV, Miscarriage, Trans violence