Jenn McKee

As holds true in the film world where action-packed blockbusters are replaced at the local multiplex by cerebral independent films and serious-minded Oscar contenders the publishing world signals the passing of summer with a shift toward gravitas. And true to pattern, J.M. Coetzee's new novel, Elizabeth Costello, is a far cry from what you would have considered taking to the beach a few months ago unless, of course, you were sharing that beach with the likes of Albert Camus' existentialist-hero narrator from The Stranger.

A native of South Africa and two-time winner of the Booker Prize, Coetzee is a writer's writer or at the very least, a serious reader's writer and as a result, he assumes a good deal of literary knowledge on the part of his readers. In-depth philosophical and literary discussions make up the core of Elizabeth Costello, which focuses on an Australian novelist who, in her old age, is making the rounds as a speaker, most likely for the last time. An impassioned animal activist, Elizabeth is smart, though jaded, and speaks her mind even when conflicted about her conclusions.

The novel has no linear plot per se, but follows Elizabeth as she visits colleges, accepts awards, goes on an “adult enrichment” cruise, etc. The lectures and debates demand concentration on the reader's part, making this a book that's quite self-consciously about ideas. Of course, Coetzee's writing style openly toys with this notion, reminding the reader with expressionistic candor that he's behind it all. (“There is a scene in the restaurant, mainly dialogue, which we will skip.”) Coetzee's manipulation thus mirrors Elizabeth's: there is great power inherent in being an author, and both use it unabashedly.

Rather than judge or mock his aging protagonist, Coetzee lends her a fragile dignity that compels readers to ponder her personal evolution, making this difficult but fascinating novel, in the spirit of James Joyce, “A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman.” Jenn McKee is a writer in Berkley, Michigan.

As holds true in the film world where action-packed blockbusters are replaced at the local multiplex by cerebral independent films and serious-minded Oscar contenders the publishing world signals the passing of summer with a shift toward gravitas. And true to pattern, J.M. Coetzee's new novel, Elizabeth Costello, is a far cry from what you would […]

Author of the critically acclaimed short story collection Half in Love, Maile Meloy now tries her hand at writing a complex multi-generational novel. Liars and Saints has the lively feel of a Catholic soap opera in fast-forward, following the Santerre family through four generations of tangled secrets and deceptions. Yvette Santerre, the family's matriarch, keeps many truths hidden from her family with the best intentions, starting, most notably, by claiming her teenage daughter's son Jamie as her own child. Even Teddy, Yvette's husband, is kept in the dark, as the oldest daughter Margot goes to France for a year ostensibly, to study abroad while Yvette goes to a convent "to rest" during the course of her supposed pregnancy. But as Jamie grows older, Teddy struggles to connect with his unplanned "son"; Margot marries and tries, unsuccessfully, to have another child; and Jamie's other "sister," Clarissa, suffers from a decaying marriage. As Yvette's children and grandchildren mature, and a shocking relationship develops, the family must begin to unravel its own chain of lies.

Rather than having the narrative follow a linear chronology, Meloy jumps in time, with each chapter focusing on the perspective of a different character. This shifting viewpoint makes it difficult for readers to invest much in any one of the characters particularly given the fact that the novel covers more than 50 years in the life of this family over the course of a mere 272 pages. At the same time, this quality, along with the high drama that builds and unfolds, makes Liars and Saints

Meloy's writing is smooth and often vivid, and she manages to surprise readers, and thus avoid predictability, with an ever-spiraling tale of tragedy, faith and the intersection between the two.

Jenn McKee is a writer in Berkley, Michigan.

 

Author of the critically acclaimed short story collection Half in Love, Maile Meloy now tries her hand at writing a complex multi-generational novel. Liars and Saints has the lively feel of a Catholic soap opera in fast-forward, following the Santerre family through four generations of tangled secrets and deceptions. Yvette Santerre, the family's matriarch, keeps […]

Some promises deserve to be broken. At least that's the conclusion reached by Rachel Winnappee, the young Native American woman at the center of Terry Gamble's luminous debut novel, The Water Dancers.

At the close of World War II, 17-year-old Rachel works as a domestic at the Lake Michigan summer home of the Marches, a rich, white banking family that has suffered its own losses: a daughter to influenza, a son to the war, and the leg and spirit of the Marches' last remaining son, Woody. Soon, Mrs. March asks Rachel to be Woody's nurse, and the two find themselves drawn to each other, resulting in Rachel's unplanned, secret pregnancy.

Rachel eventually decides to raise her son, Ben, on her own among the Odawa Indians, and she makes a deal with Mrs. March that initially appears mutually beneficial. However, as more tragedies ensue, and Ben himself is mentally and physically damaged by the Vietnam War, Rachel feels compelled to re-open old wounds and confront the people, and the truth, she promised to avoid.

Gamble manages to represent many of the racial, economic and political complexities of Native American community life without preaching, and her prose is fast-paced but capable of evoking strong images. Her graceful style achieves its ends on multiple levels, making The Water Dancers a vivid reading experience that, to its great credit, never becomes predictable. Jenn McKee is a writer in Berkley, Michigan.

Some promises deserve to be broken. At least that's the conclusion reached by Rachel Winnappee, the young Native American woman at the center of Terry Gamble's luminous debut novel, The Water Dancers. At the close of World War II, 17-year-old Rachel works as a domestic at the Lake Michigan summer home of the Marches, a […]

The Book of Job, one of the most troubling tales in the Bible, depicts a devout man whose faith is brutally tested through disease, poverty and the death of his loved ones. In Alison McGhee's moving new novel, Was it Beautiful?, a modern-day version of Job appears in the form of William T. Jones, a haunted man who lives in the Adirondack region of upstate New York. McGhee, author of the critically acclaimed novel Shadow Baby, portrays in spare and beautiful prose a setting and community that recall the cold, harsh landscapes of Richard Russo's fiction. At the novel's outset, William T.'s 27-year-old son has died (possibly from suicide); his wife has divorced him; his feisty, old, adored cat, Genghis, dies from a bear-mauling; and he loses his job. William T., previously more than content in his typical life, suddenly finds that he has no one other than a collection of misfit animals in a broken-down barn with whom to live out his days.

And though he goes through the motions of living his life feeding the animals, eating breakfast at his favorite local diner and visiting his daughter-in-law, Sophie William T.'s desperate loneliness permeates the narrative. When he goes to a restaurant where Sophie waits tables, “She refused to look at him even though he willed her to. Look. Look. Look at me, Sophie. She took out her order pad. Poised her pencil. Look at me, Sophie. Please.” William T., a broken man who doesn't know how to express himself, suffers in silence, secretly begging those around him to see and understand his plight oftentimes seeking solace from people who are trying to find their own way through grief.

By necessity, Was it Beautiful? is a solemn-toned work with few breaks from its dark mood, but just as Job is rewarded at the end of his trials, William T. is ultimately redeemed, and the novel's conclusion provides readers with a feeling of release and the sense that while God may indeed “taketh away,” He also, of course, “giveth.” Jenn McKee is a writer in Berkley, Michigan. One of her short stories appears in Best New American Voices 2003.

The Book of Job, one of the most troubling tales in the Bible, depicts a devout man whose faith is brutally tested through disease, poverty and the death of his loved ones. In Alison McGhee's moving new novel, Was it Beautiful?, a modern-day version of Job appears in the form of William T. Jones, a […]

A Box of Matches is both the title and central metaphor of Nicholson Baker's new novel. The narrator uses matches each morning to build a pre-dawn fire, and his small matchbox also represents the contained days of an ordinary life.

While conventional novels have a central conflict that builds to a crisis point, A Box of Matches works on a cyclical, postmodernist plane. Readers are directly greeted by the narrator's cheerful "Good morning," as well as his report of the time, in chapters that read like fireside diary entries. We hear his observations on such mundane activities as showering, washing dishes, feeding pets, watching condensation on a glass and repositioning his toes to avoid a hole in his sock. Baker renders these common tasks in beautiful and strangely heartbreaking fashion, as in this description of his son: "I gave Henry a bath, and saw all of his forehead, as you do when your child is in the bath all that high, smooth forehead, as I rinsed out the shampoo, and I pointed toward the back of the tub, meaning Look way back,' so that his head would tip back enough for me to rinse the shampoo from the hair just above his forehead, and I saw his young face, trusting me not to drip water in his eyes . . . and I thought, I've got only a few years of Henry being a small boy." In such passages, the narrator's ordinary experiences quietly echo flashier ones thus examining the relentless passage of time and the logic of the novel's cyclical form comes to light, revealing a subtle conflict, existential in its nature.

Baker's experimental approach to fiction makes A Box of Matches a challenging read despite its brevity. The author aims to make his audience experience, the very sameness of days the narrator is coming to recognize. Thus, though Baker's conflict isn't immediately apparent, it couldn't be more universal. After all, we're all going through our allotted days just as the narrator works through his box of matches with contentment, dread and resignation.

A Box of Matches is both the title and central metaphor of Nicholson Baker's new novel. The narrator uses matches each morning to build a pre-dawn fire, and his small matchbox also represents the contained days of an ordinary life. While conventional novels have a central conflict that builds to a crisis point, A Box […]

In spite of the current American frenzy for all things World War II– Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation books and the theatrical release of the bombastic Pearl Harbor, to name two examples– we have heard relatively little about the Japanese WWII experience. In his debut novel, The Ash Garden, Canadian writer Dennis Bock works toward a more comprehensive depiction of events by examining, through the stories of three people, the emotional, physical and intellectual consequences of America's unleashing of the atomic bomb.

At the outset, we hear from Emiko, who, at age six, drew mud pictures on her four-year-old brother's back while playing on a riverbank that fateful morning of August 6, 1945: "I enjoyed the way the black mud quivered like a fat pudding and glistened in the clear morning sunshine as I held it up to my face." Bock's descriptions are often sensual, so that reading becomes an almost tactile experience. His imagery also succeeds in quietly underlining the novel's broad themes, particularly regarding the irresistible pull of dangerous knowledge.

And though the other two main characters don't get to tell their stories themselves, Bock's calculated inclusion of them provides balance. Anton Bšll, a German physicist, escapes from Germany to America in order to help develop the atomic bomb. Along the way, he meets Sophie, an Austrian Jewish refugee who becomes his wife.

Sophie's story feels truncated and cloudy in comparison to Emiko's and Anton's -perhaps rightfully so, since the true focus here seems to be their fateful link to each other.

Their paths cross because, by 1995, Emiko is a semi-famous documentarian, and while making a film about Hiroshima, she seeks out Anton to convince him to tell his story on camera. To this end, Emiko travels to Anton and Sophie's home in Canada, and during Emiko's stay, Anton reveals a secret to her.

In this complex, intelligent and thoroughly satisfying novel, it is the Japanese character, Emiko, who gets the last word. Through her final thoughts, the book ends on the kind of contemplative, reflective note that it —as well as all people involved, intentionally or not, in WWII—deserves.

Jenn McKee teaches at Penn State University.

 

In spite of the current American frenzy for all things World War II– Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation books and the theatrical release of the bombastic Pearl Harbor, to name two examples– we have heard relatively little about the Japanese WWII experience. In his debut novel, The Ash Garden, Canadian writer Dennis Bock works toward a […]

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