Friday, July 12, 2013

Book Review: Bloom

Kelle Hampton of Enjoying the Small Things had everything ready for her new baby girl, down to party favors for delivery room visitors and a chalkboard sign ready at home welcoming the baby to their perfect American family: two half-brothers and a sister already at home.

What never entered Kelle's mind is that Nella Cordelia might not be who Kelle thought she would be—something she knew intuitively the minute Nella was placed in her arms. In this memoir, Kelle takes us through her journey from the moment she realized Nella had Down syndrome through their first year together: a year filled with heartache, acceptance, incredible joy, and a more accurate definition of perfection.

Kelle is an upbeat, young, hip mom. She wears cute clothes and makes party favors for delivery room visitors. (People do that?) The last thing she would have imagined is that her daughter isn't…"perfect." This is not what she signed up for; this does not fit her dreams. Kelle is honest about her initial disappointment. She never glosses over the shock of being told her baby has Down syndrome. She admits the terrible burden of guilt of wishing Nella were someone else. I think that must be really hard to do, knowing you are going to have critical readers who call you a selfish person.

This memoir isn't so much about Nella; it is almost entirely about Kelle's personal journey. I admit that I skipped large portions of the second half of the book because it seemed redundant, and I didn't need to know all the organizations she'd spoken to, parties she had attended, etc. Kelle is less of a lyrical memoir writer and more Pioneer-Womanish, so if you like a hip, sometimes flippant and less poetic style, this is a great memoir to read.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Book Review: A Land More Kind Than Home

The front cover declares this novel by Wiley Cash "as if Cormac McCarthy decided to rewrite Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird." And so of course, because I love both of those authors—Harper Lee much more than McCarthy—I was intrigued.

And if that comparison wasn't enough, the novel has snake handlers, and I am fascinated and repulsed by the notion of snake-handling churches. I read Fred Brown's nonfiction The Serpent Handlers several years ago, so I had a basic understanding of the whys and hows of the snake-handling tradition.

This is the story of nine-year-old Jess and how his family fell apart—how he lost everything at the hands of one evil man, disguised as a pastor. It's also the story of love gone awry, selfishness and sacrifice, children lost, revenge and forgiveness, and redemption.

The story unfolds through three voices: Adelaide, the town's midwife who knows children shouldn't watching adults handling writing serpents; Jess, the fierce protector of his older brother, Stump, who can't speak for himself; and Clem, the sheriff who can't prevent tragic outcomes. The center of all the evil is Pastor Chambliss, a low-life crook who is charismatic enough to seduce a whole congregation into snake-handling—and covering up his mistakes.

There are a lot of "how coulds" in this novel: how could Jess's mother…, how could his father…, how could all these people… —but I can't spoil the novel by investigating those specifically. The question really is: what is lost inside a person that makes them follow a single person so blindly?

It's a tragic book, really, but so beautifully written. The reader wants to best for nearly everyone who is left at the end, and I can't say I like to think about how Jess will turn out as an adult. If Cash writes a sequel, I'd snatch it up in a second.

Highly recommended. Cash is a fantastic writer and storyteller. There was nothing distracting about this novel, and I could have read twice as much of it. I also recommend Brown's book The Serpent Handlers alongside Cash's novel. This is our book club's choice for next month, so I look forward to the discussion and reactions.

Linked up at Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale

I read this book by Diane Setterfield many years ago and absolutely loved it. (My woefully short review is here.) I just spent a lovely weekend re-reading it for book club. This is one of those times I am grateful that I can rarely remember what happens in books and movies because I had forgotten everything that happens in this wonderful novel.

First of all, Setterfield is a beautiful writer. Her prose is poetry, her insight speaks to my core. Next, Setterfield is a masterful storyteller. This is a book that is hard to put down, the kind you keep thinking about as you go about your day and can't wait to get back to when your day's activities are finished. I even took the luxury of reading this one on the couch during the day, which I don't usually do.

This is a kind of ghost story, a mystery, a love story, a story of families gone horribly wrong and also being repaired or forged anew.  It's a story of discoveries and confirmations. Famous author Vida Winter is dying, and she wants someone to tell her true story. She picks Margaret, a quiet young woman who works in her father's bookstore.  Margaret reluctantly enters into this relationship as Vida Winter's biographer but ultimately does everything she can to find the truth in Vida's tale.

The novel was a big hit in our book club, and we rarely all love a book. One of our members pointed out that it is extremely disturbing. There are scenes that are hard to scrub out of one's memory, although I assured her that I had no recollection of those scenes these many years after reading it for the first time. We all agreed that we wanted to underline whole paragraphs because Setterfield's writing is so beautiful, especially when she is talking about the power of families and the necessity of books.

I'm glad I had a chance to read The Thirteenth Tale again, and I am excited to see that Setterfield finally has another novel due to be published in November, Bellman and Black: A Ghost Story. If you like Kate Morton, you'll love Diane Setterfield.

Linked up at Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books