Book Review: THE GONE DEAD, Racism’s Long Legacy

The Gone Dead
Chanelle Benz

In The Gone Dead, set in 2003, Billie James inherits her father’s Mississippi Delta dilapidated shack from her grandmother and returns for the first time in thirty years. Her father Cliff, a poet and civil rights activist, had died in 1972 from an accidental fall. She was a young child staying with her father the night he died, and in speaking with denizens of the town realizes her memories are incomplete.

As she attempts to uncover the truth, she is stonewalled by the McGee family, white landowners who have long employed the Jameses as tenant farmers and domestic laborers, the sheriff’s office, and even her own uncle. But with the help of an academic writing a biography of Cliff and a woman who was dating him at the time of his death, Billie ignores warnings and threats to her personal safety in her quest to uncover what she is sure is a conspiracy around her father’s death.

The point of view shifts among a range of characters including even a shuttered juke joint, some getting a single chapter, some several. The gains of revealing information known only by that character comes at a cost of a patchwork narrative where several strands are introduced never to be discussed again or other storylines having various degrees of completion or extraneous information. For me, the result was feeling removed from the characters and events. The primary narrative, of Billie uncovering what happened to her black activist father in a small Mississippi town mired in racism was horrific, especially seeing how these attitudes persist into the present. At the same time, it’s a story familiar from other books and movies. The book is strong, though, in its style, with lovely writing and distinctive voices.

Book Review: DEEP RIVER, a well-researched book that gets buried in details

Marlantes, Karl - Deep River (4)Deep River
Karl Marlantes

Deep River follows the Koski siblings–Aino, Ilmari, and Matti–from childhood in Russian-occupied Finland to their settlement in the Pacific Northwest as they enter adulthood and begin families of their own. Ilmari, the first to arrive in the United States, homesteads on a large piece of land he received. Matti, the youngest, embraces capitalism as a way to protect himself from fears seated in childhood. Aino, however, the middle child and only girl, interested in communism from a young age, delves into the labor movement.

In the community that survives largely on fishing and logging, the Koski siblings encounter many fellow Finns as well as Swedes, some of whom they knew in their hometown. Their business dealings and activism–not to mention relationships–take them in and out of each other’s orbits, while Aino, a stubborn lightning rod, often attracts danger from powerful business and political interests. They also face obstacles from nature–sometimes dry spells, sometimes too much rain–from world events, and from the economy.

Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn is a tour de force, combining an engrossing setting with fully realized, unforgettable characters. In that novel, the details of being a soldier in Vietnam are so vividly drawn, it’s visceral, and the frustrations and injustice deeply felt.

In Deep River, Marlantes conveys the same comprehensive awareness of setting born of personal experience and extensive research. No matter the context–a socialist meeting, a fishing boat, a logging site, or a bootleggers’ shootout–Marlantes provides encyclopedic knowledge. On the one hand, this can be very interesting, and I definitely learned a lot. On the other, it can be almost overwhelming and at times distracts from the story, bogging it down in unnecessary details.

Because the book seemed to want to address every historical event in the time period over which it was set–some more tangential to the narrative–such as the Spanish Flu and the introduction of the automobile, the story is very long and bloated without a clear focus. Probably the most accurate answer to what the story is about would be that it charts Aino’s growth. Unfortunately, I found her a less than sympathetic character. This is surprising to me because she is a strong, independent woman before her time. Yet, she is clearly unable to read a crowd, and is so stubborn, she is selfish. Characters I was more interested in such as Vasutäti, a Native American elder, and Aino’s niece, Mielikki, had less of a role in the story. Overall, though, I think that the novel would have benefited from a ruthless editor who provided focus for the narrative while eliminating the unnecessary technical details of the logging and fishing crafts.

Also, I was uncomfortable with how Marlantes used gender and cultural stereotypes without problematizing them. Finally, I was most disappointed in the writing style which I found less than polished. The transitions were often awkward, and the sentence structure led to a choppy, discordant flow.

Dark River definitely includes interesting debates about socialism and unionization. During World War I, not just corporations and the state government, but also the military became involved in union busting. The skirmishes between the Industrial Workers of the Work (IWW), Ainoe’s union, and law enforcement, deputized citizens, and “patriots” were hard to imagine until you consider the types of conflicts in our streets today.

Despite the flaws, this book should appeal to die-hard historical fiction fans as well as those who are interested in the history of the Pacific Northwest, particularly the logging and fishing industries, or about unions in the early 1900s.

Thank you to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic / Atlantic Monthly Press for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: WE WENT TO THE WOODS, an experiment in communal living

Dolan-Leach, Caite - We Went to the Woods (2)We Went to the Woods
Caite Dolan-Leach

After suffering a public humiliation and being skewered by social media, twenty-something Mack Johnston retreated to her parents’ house in Ithaca, New York, returning to her high school catering job. Isolated and disillusioned, Mack was searching for connection, and she found that in Louisa, Beau, Chloe, and Jack, a foursome with easy camaraderie and undefined physical boundaries.

When Louisa suggests they move to a one hundred acre plot of land in a nearby rural area, the group quickly rallies around the idea of challenging capitalism and promoting environmentalism though building a self-sufficient community that they call the Homestead. They each pay Louisa’s father $10 to rent the land for a year and begin the process of preparing the rundown structures, planting the garden, and collecting firewood for the winter. Although filled with enthusiasm, only Jack has any farming experience, and the perils of an upstate New York winter are more dangerous than they expected. They also became embroiled in a feud with a neighbor using pesticides on his crops, charging that their use would harm the shared water table. Additionally, the pull of a more militant nearby group, the Collective, strained the relationships of the Homestead group.

Internally, the members of the Homestead, too, were less united than they realized. Far from having a collective vision, their individual goals overlapped but didn’t always correspond, and their secrets threatened to destroy the trust required for living in such close quarters. The loose sexual relationships, too, fomented jealousy and competition.

Mack learned that Hector, the city where the Homestead was located, had long ago housed a group that split from the Oneida Community. Diving into research, she resolved to learn as much as she could about these other communes to determine what went wrong–and to keep it from happening at the Homestead–unless, intentional communities were bound to fail.

In the first few chapters, before the group moved to the Homestead, I found the characters, especially Beau, and their manner of talking completely insufferable and didn’t know if I could handle an entire book filled with such pomposity. However, either I became used to it, or, when they moved to the country, these tendencies were diminished.

We Went to the Woods is packed with information, from Mack’s social media disgrace and our reliance on technology, to environmental dangers like pesticides and fracking and the legitimacy of efforts to curtail them, the possibility of free love (or complex marriage in Oneida terms), the danger of charismatic and controlling leaders, the extent to which the past plays out in the present, the possibility of running from pain, mental illness and psychiatric medication, and, of course, the viability of intentional communities.

While all of these ideas are important and valid, having them in one novel made it difficult to determine their relationship. Furthermore, some of these motifs, by the nature of their quantity, were not developed. These things combined made it difficult for me to fully understand Dolan-Leach’s purpose in including them, if not just for verisimilitude.

I shouldn’t make it sound like I didn’t like the novel, because I did, quite a bit in fact. Actually, I live in Hector, where the fictional Homestead is located. (As far as I know we aren’t swarmed with communes, but anything is possible!) I felt like I was reading the journal of a real person because the setting was so accurate, such as Ithaca with the pretention of Cornell-associated professors and students and the suicide risks of the gorges. Watkins Glen did indeed have a Wildflower Cafe, though it recently has been turned into an overpriced prohibition-themed bar. Wineries line Highway 414, and the Finger Lakes National Forest is over 16,000 beautiful acres.

Very sympathetic to the Homestead’s concerns about the environment and income inequality, I’d hoped for their experiment to succeed, and felt dread as their decisions seemed to pull them further and further apart, putting them in dangerous situations leading to inexorable paths. Still, the novel ended on a hopeful note for Mack and for those with a dream of doing things better.

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Seneca Lake

Seneca Lake

Hector Winter (2)

Hector in Winter

Ithaca Falls

Ithaca Falls


Dr. Trisha Raje, a brilliant neurosurgeon, comes from Indian royalty and the privileged upbringing associated with it. Her family is insular and reluctant to trust outsiders. When Trisha trusted an outsider fifteen years ago, disaster ensued, and her relationships with her father and brother never fully recovered. But now that her older brother, Yash, is on the cusp of announcing his candidacy for governor, Trisha has an opportunity to mend the rift in her family.

Meanwhile, she is working on a challenging case. Emma Caine, an artist, has a brain tumor. Other doctors told her it was terminal, but Trisha can remove it—only it will leave Emma blind. Emma’s brother, DJ, leaves his prestigious job as a chef in Paris to be at his sister’s side. Not knowing their connection through Emma, Trisha and DJ meet when he caters a fundraising event. They immediately loath each other but try to put their distaste aside to convince Emma to agree to the surgery, although Trisha can’t deny she salivates over his food.

Trisha’s family, particularly her father, view her relationship with the Caines as a threat to the Raje family. DJ himself carries a secret that might damage Yash’s reputation if it comes to light. Trisha has to weigh her newfound yet vulnerable place in the family against her responsibilities as a physician and her personal desires while DJ worries about earning enough to pay for Emma’s medical bills.

For most of the novel, Trisha was quite unlikeable, though towards the end she gained some perspective. I did like that Trisha, Emma, and DJ were all so committed to their careers which were actually more like callings. Trisha had some interesting family members but they were underutilized, particularly her younger brother, Vansh, and her cousin Esha. Another cousin owned a restaurant that had once been successful though was now on the verge of bankruptcy; I was curious about the backstory there.

Food, of course, plays a dominant role in the book, and it’s interesting to see how preparing and eating food can connect people and break down boundaries, particularly the way DJ approaches a menu. Recipes can also be shared secrets that serve to bond characters. Besides taste, sight is an important sense in the book both for Emma and fir Trisha who cannot see without glasses or contact lenses.

This is, obviously, based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which I haven’t read, but I did skim a summary. DJ’s real name is Darcy James. A journalist named Julia Wickham seems to serve the same purpose as the character on which she is based. As in the original, the lovers must overcome pride and prejudice before they can admit their true feelings for each other.

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors is a light, breezy read, and I think that fans of romances or love stories will enjoy this in particular.

Book Review: NORMAL PEOPLE, two young adults struggle to understand themselves and each other

Reading Normal People by Sally Rooney was a joy even through the dark moments. In the book, Connell and Marianne attend high school together in West Ireland. Star of the soccer team, Connell has a large circle of friends even though his family has little money. In contrast, intelligent Marianne, living a privileged life with her widowed mother and brother, accepts her place as the school outcast. Normally, the two would not be friends, but they meet because Connell picks his mother up from her job cleaning Marianne’s house. Though they begin to spend time together, Connell insists on keeping their friendship secret.

But when they both attend Trinity University in Dublin, the only two of their class who leave the security of their local region, their roles reverse. Marianne, comfortable in her new environment, becomes popular while Connell feels lonely and isolated. Still, the two orbit each other throughout college as their closeness ebbs and flows.

Both characters are very flawed yet at the same time likable and sympathetic, though I wished that Marianne had experienced more growth by the end of the book if only because I wanted better for her. Rooney’s writing style is economical but insightful and intellectually seductive, as when one character describes “feeling a strange sense of nostalgia for a moment that was already in the process of happening.” I feel like I should read this again to appreciate the subtleties, but that wouldn’t be a hardship as the novel is so enjoyable.