Monday, September 30, 2019

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

We are pleased to welcome a new reviewer, Damean, who has joined the BPL staff.  Damean is an author and proud Appalachian native.

Reviewed by Damean

When Chase Andrews is found dead in the mud on the outskirts of Barkley Cove, North Carolina, eyes fall on local "Marsh Girl" Kya. Kya, who has raised herself on the land since she was a young girl, is something of a legend and a recluse, and locals are more than happy to pin what looks like a murder on the wild woman of the swamp. This bestseller tells the story of Kya's life leading up to and after the discovery of the body.

I must start by saying this book absolutely blew me away. It grabbed my attention fast and held me through every page, quickly becoming one of my absolute favorite novels. Owens tells an incredible story with such attention to detail it feels like you could be standing in the weeds with Kya watching the birds flock. From the first paragraph, I was drawn into the story and felt immense connection to Kya in her struggles. 

From run-ins with local truant officers and attempts to both avoid her alcoholic father's rages and gain his affections, life is very touch and go for Kya. She relies on the knowledge handed down to her family through generations of marsh living, as well as what she can glean on her own and with the help of the few people she allows herself to trust. 

Using her knowledge and love of the marsh, Kya is able to make a life for herself in 1950's coastal North Carolina in a way that would be impossible today. Though a work of fiction, I have no trouble imagining every word of this piece could be absolutely true. Kya is a character who, from her first lines, Owens makes us care for and root for. At heart, she is a young woman who wants nothing more than a happy life and the freedom to live on the only home-place she's ever known. 

It was fascinating to see Kya learned about life and love by observing the marshlands around her. Following her interactions with the few people she lets get close to her, I could feel the tension in her spirit as she is convinced to leave her comfort zone in order to share her collected knowledge with the outside world. Not only an ode to a lifestyle that has all but disappeared, I feel Owens was attempting to make a statement vouching for the intelligence that can be gained by a life lived outside of the standard education system with Kya. A lonely girl who managed to avoid school, she is a self-taught artist who, through her struggles, learns everything she needs to know to provide herself with a certain kind of life on the marsh.

The description and scenery laid out in this novel resonate with me as well. Owens brings to life the marshlands, the small shack, the beaches Kya frequents, and the struggles she goes through at times to even put food on her table. In addition to her use of description, Owens uses the vernacular in a respectful and insightful way that avoids being too cliche or unnecessary. 

If you are interested in regional fiction, lovable characters, amazing prose, fantastic attention to detail, and a story that you will never want to end I highly recommend this novel. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, there is a reason it has ridden the bestseller list for so long. Treat yourself. Read this novel and, if the opportunity ever arises, venture beyond the confines of modern society. Reach out into nature and see if you can find the place where the crawdads sing.

Friday, September 27, 2019

If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura, translated by Eric Selland

Reviewed by Jeanne

As the book opens, our narrator, a young postman, has been met with devastating news:  he has a stage 4 brain tumor and will be lucky to live six months.  Frankly, his doctor will be surprised if he makes it another week.  Stunned, he goes home to his cat, Cabbage, and contemplates his fate.

Then Intervention occurs—and it can’t be called Divine Intervention, because it is via the devil.  He has a bargain to offer: if the postman picks one thing to disappear from the world forever, he can have an extra day of life.  Simple, no?

Ah, but of course there is a catch.  The devil has to approve the choice, so making dust or roadside trash go away is not going to happen—as the devil says, “C’mon now, what do you think I am, the maid?”

No, the item has to be important.

As the narrator weighs each choice, imagining how the things fit into his life and what they mean to him and others, he reflects on his past and his relationships. Most of all, he remembers something his mother always said:  “In order to gain something, you have to lose something.”

While this is a thoughtful and sometimes poignant book, it’s also pretty funny.  The devil shows up wearing a brightly colored Hawaiian shirt and is more used car salesman than Prince of Darkness. He also likes to play jokes, as when he enables Cabbage to speak.  There are other things I’d like to mention, but this is such a slim book—about 150 pages-- that it’s too easy to spoil.

I have to say that it covers some of the same ground as the recent The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, which I loved, but Kawamura’s work is lighter in tone. I read this one to fulfill a Book Bingo square (‘read a translated book’), which just again proves how much fun it is to expand one’s horizons.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Nevermore: Sputnik Sweetheart, Excellent Women, Carter Family, Joshilyn Jackson, Homes: A Refugee Story

Reported by Kristin

Nevermore kicked off this week with a discussion of Sputnik Sweetheart by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. All about the unrequited love of a young college student for his female best friend Sumire, this novel weaves romance and mystery together as the woman disappears from a Greek island where she has travelled with a sophisticated older woman. Our reader enjoyed how the author tied together the parts of this fantastical story.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym continued our discussion of fiction. Mildred Lathbury is a 1950s English spinster who is always there to support her community. She goes to church, takes care of those in need, and is generally taken for granted by the male of the species. Slyly comedic, the stories told express much about human nature. Our reader commented that nothing much actually happened plot-wise, but it was still a really good book.

In regional non-fiction, another reader was immersed in Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music by Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg. Rich with details, this biography of the Carter Family of southwest Virginia spans many events in the life and career of the musical family. The Carter Family have influenced many artists to this day, as is seen in Bristol with remembrances of the 1927 Bristol Sessions and the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival.

Homes: A Refugee Story by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung describes the journey taken by the al Rabeeah family as they fled their home in Iraq in 2010, experienced terrible violence in civil war ravaged Syria, and eventually found a refuge in Canada. Our reader was overwhelmed by the sadness of this young boy as he and his family sought a safe place. Despite the difficulty of the subject matter, she strongly recommended this book.

Returning to fiction, two readers raved about two different novels by Joshilyn Jackson. First, The Almost Sisters was keeping one reader enthralled. Leah is a graphic novelist who found passion at a Comic Con, and brought more away from that night than expected. The thirty-eight year old is pregnant, and breaking the news to her southern family might be more than she can handle. Jackson adds layers upon layers to her novels, and the twists and turns here were keeping our reader on the edge of her seat.

Jackson’s latest novel being enjoyed by another book club member is Never Have I Ever. Amy is a happy suburban mother with some deep dark secrets, and new neighbor Roux is intent upon using them for her own purposes. Our reader claimed that this new thriller is very well written and the story will take you on a roller coaster ride.