‘The Great Believers’ by Rebecca Makkai

the-great-believers-makkaiLife is beautiful. Life is terrible. Life is blind and unforgiving. Rebecca Makkai delves deeply into what it means to be alive, what it means to feel like the last person alive, and what it means to leave someone behind and keep living in her latest novel The Great Believers.

Told from a dual perspective, Makkai sets one storyline in Chicago during the AIDS epidemic in the early nineteen eighties paralleling this narrative with a continuation of the story in 2015 Paris. Yale is the main character on the Chicago scene, a man in his late 20s living both a dream and a nightmare he never thought possible. The story begins with Yale attending the funeral of one of his best friends, Nico; the first of many funerals to come. Yale’s friends it seems are disappearing, literally disappearing into themselves as they are ravaged by diseases so uncommon, so debilitating and rampant, that there’s hardly anything left of the friends he knew.

AIDS has hit Chicago, and Yale, a gay man living in Boystown is learning just what that means. But Yale is safe, he and the love of his life, Charlie, have gotten tested. They don’t have it. They have lucrative and fulfilling jobs, a home, a perfect life. They’re safe. He hopes.

In 2015, Fiona, Nico’s sister, is desperately trying to find her daughter. Fiona, whose seen so many die, whose lost so many to an unknown emptiness, has somehow lost her daughter too, a daughter she knows (she hopes) is alive in Paris. Fiona spent her youth caring for Nico and his friends in Chicago acting as their saviors, their families, their friends. While in Paris, Fiona finds herself at battle with the ghosts from this past: a past so dredged in love and hatred that she can’t separate it from the present; a past that haunts her and her daughter, someone who hardly lived through its darkness; a past that reminds Fiona over and over again that no one has really “survived” it, there’s too much left that’s broken.

Running beside Yale and Fiona is an unsuspecting character, a character that spans all time and space, that stands for social justice, inequity, and everything in between: art. Art features prominently as both a source of remembrance and a way to be forgotten in the histories that follow.

Makkai tells a compelling and absolutely necessary story with The Great Believers, one that asks questions about the meaning of life, love, and art. Beautifully told and impossibly true on levels much deeper than the plot (which Makkai based on real events but which are in fact entirely fictional), The Great Believers is a book no one should miss.

Released by Viking in June of 2018, The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘In Lieu of Flowers’ by Rachel Slotnick

in-lieu-of-flowers-slotnickRachel Slotnick’s In Lieu of Flowers is a series of epistle like poems that address ideas of memory, time, and the nuances that pervade both concepts. Woven between the poems and poetic prose are poignant illustrations, collages, and graffiti that capture perfectly the essence, the sadness, and the pragmatism with which Slotnick takes on the world in her collection.

Each section of the book is addressed to a different person: Fisherman, Mathematician, and Musician. Further, each address is a calling not only to the named person, but to a specific idea attached to that person. In Dear Fisherman, Slotnick particularly addresses the subject of her father: a man in love with the sea, a man handicapped by a shark, a man with a wooden stump for an arm. After his experiences in youth, her father “became a shark hunter, and he hated all trees for daring to resemble him.” As shown in this example, Slotnick has a knack for capturing language at its most vulnerable and apt entry points and twisting it to fit the exact mood and mode of her poetry.

She uses this section to explore ideas of life, and passing through life, as it slowly slips through your fingers like water. “At the edges of the fishbowl,” Slotnick describes the last moments she spends with her father, moments in a hospital, moments in which she can see his life slipping away as well as the life the two have yet to live together. Each slipping further, he towards death, and she towards a life without her father. “I realized we both knew we were headed somewhere strange,” Slotnick remarks as she watches her father leaving her.

As in the early section, Dear Mathematician also addresses the concept of death and the passage of time. This address, though, is made to Slotnick’s grandfather, a man so in love, that without his wife, his life, became a living landmark of her memory. “Memory is a strange father,” says Slotnick. “It’s funny how you tend to remember sweetly,” trying your best to ignore the harshness of life, the pain in memory. At its end, Dear Mathematician also confronts death with the passing of Slotnick’s grandfather, and though sad in its content and in its form, Slotnick somehow portrays the reality of death with a sincerity rather than an edge toward the depressive.

The book ends with Dear Musician, which could almost be a calling to the author herself as an artist in love and in hate with her art.

Throughout all three sections, Slotnick draws through the theme of flowers. Flowers that grow in nature, funereal flowers, and flowers for the beginnings of something like love. Each series of poems in itself could be seen as in lieu of flowers – something given to the people addressed besides flowers – something potentially more, or something equally as, meaningful and significant as flowers.

A beautifully and artfully composed collection of both poetry and unique images, In Lieu of Flowers is Slotnick’s first book of poetry and is a masterpiece of a first book.

Published by Tortoise Books, you can purchase In Lieu of Flowers on Amazon.

Read more poetry book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

A Free, Unsullied Land by Maggie Kast

A-Free-Unsullied-LandIn a A Free, Unsullied Land, Maggie Kast tells Henriette Greenberg’s coming of age tale as she grows up in prohibition era Chicago. Henriette is a troubled nineteen year old girl when the reader meets her, and as a sheltered teenager, she is wooed by stories of the greater world that she has yet to experience. She has just enrolled at The University of Chicago and is about to set out on an adventure to live her own life and to separate herself from the dysfunctional household from which she comes.

Henriette though, like most teenagers, is plagued by a myriad of thoughts, issues and desires that often throw her off her course or make it challenging for her to actually find her course. Her interests range from psychoanalysis to anthropology, from communism to civil rights. However, her emotional and relational sense of self is shadowed by a secret of her past that mars her relationships, especially with men, propelling them into states of utter dysfunction.

The reader learns within the first hundred pages that Henriette has an unresolved sexual experience that she does not fully remember, nor does she fully understand how to process it even years later. Though the reveal seems to come rather late in the novel, it is easy to pick up on the clues Henriette leaves prior to the reveal, and the reader knows from the outset that she has a troubled past in relation to sexuality.

Henriette can often seem like a self-entitled, privileged moaner, and this at first makes it hard to always sympathize with or understand her in regards to her motives. However, as the novel progresses and we not only learn more about Henriette, but she learns more about herself, it becomes apparent that Henriette is simply a teenager. As she grows, she becomes less spastic and more rational, less demanding and more understanding of the world around her and the other people in it.

What Kast does a phenomenal job of is showing Henriette’s transformation from a sheltered and privileged seventeen year old girl to a young adult living on her own and dealing with her own problems not only with the outside world, but with herself. The arc of Henriette’s development from a damaged self into a stronger, more assertive and resilient woman makes her, in the end, a relatable and noteworthy character. The troubles that she goes through and the deluded way in which she often handles her problems in her youth are not only recognized, but remedied in that recognition. Henriette sees her own foolishness and is simultaneously able to understand and accept herself and her past in a way that she can’t at the outset of the novel.

A tale of growing up, of dealing with pain and of learning to love the self that other’s can’t always see, A Free, Unsullied Land  also drips with relevant historical underpinnings and shows readers a glimpse of what life must have been like in the 1920s and 30s.

A Free, Unsullied Land was released by Fomite Press on November 1, 2015. Don’t miss the launch of the novel at Women and Children First on Friday, November 13.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Thicker Than Blood’ by Jan English Leary

Thicker-Than-Blood-Jan-English-LearyWhat is a family defined by: blood, love, proximity? This is the central question of Jan English Leary’s first novel Thicker Than Blood.

The book mainly follows Andrea and her daughter Pearl from the time Andrea adopts Pearl through Pearl growing into young adulthood. Issues of race, discrimination, and acceptance also come to the forefront of the novel in record time as Andrea struggles with the difficulties of raising an African American daughter in Chicago, an already racially charged environment. In tandem with the above themes, those of expectation, self-worth and self-confidence also play a central role in the thematic make up of Thicker Than Blood.

At first the reader accompanies Andrea as she struggles to be a confident and successful single mother, but the novel quickly hops to other character’s heads giving differing perspectives on the difficult situations at hand.  We see what life is like from Pearl’s point of view, from Andrea’s boyfriend Mike’s point of view, from Andrea’s mother Nancy’s point of view, as well as from other minor characters. Though this sort of head hopping can often jar a novel and its reader out of the flow of the story, Leary does it in such a thorough and uncomplicated way that there are never any questions as to whose head we are in, or why we are there. Every character’s perspective adds weight and value to the central themes of the novel in ways that would be otherwise inaccessible.

We come to understand what the issues of family, race and self-confidence mean for Andrea, Pearl and Nancy as we discover secrets about them that even they don’t know about one another. Gaining access to the deepest darkest parts of their pasts, the reader is able to sympathize and interact with these characters in a way that the characters themselves are not able to do with one another. In turn, the characters are strengthened and we become more invested in their imperfect and disjointed lives.

A beautiful and moving piece that explores questions relevant to every human being, Thicker Than Blood is a momentous novel. Leary has done a brilliant job of gathering universal themes and holding them up for the reader to observe and judge for herself. An excellent first novel, Leary’s Thicker Than Blood will be released by Fomite on October 20, 2015.

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FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Jillian’ by Halle Butler

Jillian by Halle ButlerTeacher and author William Haywood Henderson once said that if writers avoid uncomfortable situations and issues in their writing, their work “will suffer from a lack of intensity and edge…The deeper [the author goes], the more distinct, striking, and moving [the] novel will become.”

In her debut novel, Jillian, author Halle Butler charges into the territory of the perverse, the grotesque, and the downright ugly side of human nature that Henderson claims is essential to the verve and passion of great literary artworks. Butler’s characters are awful, hate-able, and sometimes sickeningly relatable, and this relatability is the true mark of intrigue for the novel.

Jillian is told from the perspectives of Megan, Jillian, and once and while an oddball character like Crispy the dog. Megan and Jillian work together in a colonoscopy office – which is about the only thing they think they have in common. Megan is a 24-year-old sulking, borderline alcoholic who finds – not joy, but perhaps meaning (?), fulfillment, (?) necessity (?)  in criticizing and belittling others in her own mind. Jillian is her arch nemesis for no other reason than Jillian’s ignorance, annoyance to Megan, and her vastly different worldview. Jillian is a 35-year-old single mother who is the poster woman for self-help, mantra repeating, positivity in the most obnoxious way imaginable.

At first the characters seem harmlessly broken, maybe slightly macabre; but, within a few pages, the true grotesqueness of their respective personalities is revealed. You gain insight into Megan’s intense jealousy – which is relatable in and of itself, but Megan’s approach to dealing with that jealousy is cringe worthy. She not only hates everyone who has anything that she doesn’t, but she goes out of her way to confirm her hatred by making fun of them and picking them apart to her boyfriend Randy. Unsurprisingly, Megan is also so terrified of herself and her own potential for failure, that she makes no attempt to better herself in anyway. Wallowing in the drudges of her own sea of self-pity, Megan’s stagnancy is poignant and if nothing else, motivating for readers to actively seek to be otherwise.

Jillian, on the other hand, is constantly trailing off into fantasies of new dream jobs and illusory relationships, aptly able to irrationalize herself out of every serious situation in which she is put. Ignorance doesn’t even come close to summing up Jillian’s complete removal from, and disregard, for the real world. Her idiocy, lack of perspective, and overall hideously optimistic unrealism is enough to want to make the reader puke; and yet, there are moments of relatability with Jillian too. We’ve all tried to talk ourselves into feeling one way when we really feel another, we’ve all had experiences that we wish we could change, and we all know what it is to ignore the signs of catastrophe; though hopefully, we more tactfully deal with these issues.

As we engage with these two women, we begin to see the similarities among their apparently vast differences. We see the common elements of human struggle, of human selfishness, of removal from and lack of acceptance of reality, of complacency and the different methods of dealing with the sometimes static condition of life.

Raw, cutting, primeval and engaging in a terrifying way, Butler’s 150 page book will take you a few flicks of your wrist to get through. For however powerful it is though, thank god it’s so short, because it makes you feel like you’re locked in a damp cage, naked and caked with dirt, while everyone is looking at you as you struggle to breathe.

Yes, exactly like that: a little bit the way life feels sometimes.

Slated for release in February of 2015, you can pre-order Jillian at Curbside Splendor.

Read more book reviews of small press published work at Centered on Books.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Curbside Splendor for a fair and honest review of the text.