The Neighbor (Part 2)

Part 1: Read here.

I just spoke to the dispatcher. About the boards in her window.

For several moments, there is nothing at all — not even the irritating thrill of three dots appearing and disappearing. Lottie’s nothing if she’s not a drama hog, and we all know she won’t offer anything else until someone takes the bait.

…and?

Almost immediately, the dots appear . . . and as quickly, they disappear. Nothing. Just as we’re all uttering the first syllable of a curse under our breaths, Lottie pulls through. A gray mass of words appears in our Messages, a torrent of gossip she’s surely had typed and saved into her notes for the seven minutes since that call to the dispatcher ended.

Leon figures he saw the husband late last night, says he saw the truck roll in around one. Who works that late?! I clock out the minute that second hand hits five. Anyway, the neighbors called in a noise complaint around four this morning — heard some loud banging — and the sheriff drove by for a look. He said boards were going up, sure enough, but couldn’t tell who was doing the hammering. And since it’s on the inside, and there’s no current noise problems, there’s nothing he can do at the moment. I bet it’s that woman. She’s always been…different.

We absorb this noninformation: a disappointment. In the moments before the message came through, our breath hung suspended at the doorways of our mouths — lips parted softly, stagnant air drowsing in a relieving moment of inaction. I would say that nobody hopes for bad news, but that seems a bit idealistic for this day and age, doesn’t it? We, each of us, salivated over fantasies of doors being broken down by bomb squads and the woman being led from the cracked steps of the front porch, hands cuffed behind her back.

The wanting, the buzzing need for a dramatic denouement: I’m sure it’s a genetic mutation that’s occurred over lifetimes, since humankind reached a state of existence that didn’t demand constant vigilance against the dark of night.

***

The woman slumps against the living room wall, fingers curled around her phone. The screen betrays nothing, no one. Slivers of daylight pierce the drab room, highlighting floating particles of DNA and who-knows-what-else as they drift toward destinations unknown. She can smell the boards, their scent unnatural in the room manufactured by machinery rather than soil, and she hates them for that.

While she sits, the house sings its daily score: from the hallway, the methodic thrumming of the dryer; from the kitchen, a here-and-gone-again hum from the refrigerator; a startling groan from shifting joists every so often. It’s as though the woman is hearing this music for the first time — she sinks into the chorus, allowing her head to tilt back as she considers the rustling nature of silence. How can it be possible to occupy a still space and encounter ceaseless chatter?

When she was a teenager, the woman had an affair with a married man. He’d capitalized on her naïveté, snaking an arm around her shoulders seemingly haphazardly at first; later, with the confidence that accompanies ownership. Quick side-armed hugs goodbye lazily transitioned into embraces that lingered moments longer each time — she was never sure when it was okay to pull away — and then one day, he pointed at his cheek and said Can I have a little kiss? and then seven weeks had passed and she was holed up in the bathroom at the Kwik Stop in town with a box at her feet and cellophane littering the floor nearby and a room full of silence bearing down on her with the weight of ten thousand hands. She remembers, now, that the silence had had a vibrancy then, too: the fluorescent fixture whined at an unreasonably low pitch while the cellophane crinkled in a slow unfurling on the floor, independent of human contact.

Three weeks later, she’d experienced silence for the last time she could remember, in the front seat of her car while it idled in a parking lot she never thought she’d call a resting place. The engine prrrrrrr-ed in alternating levels of high- and low-volume as she retched into a McDonald’s cup — formerly host to sweet iced tea — and moaned into the emptiness around her.

Yes, the woman decided now: silence was alive, and just like her son, incapable of keeping still.

***

From the corner of Elm and Hyacinth, the house looks abandoned. The boarded-up windows are dark, and when the sun hits just right, it’s almost impossible to tell if the windows have been covered or if the house is merely vacant.

Almost.

The garden is a dead giveaway: a healthy growth of weeds dominate, with two or three marigold bushes sprinkled throughout and a miraculous patch of zinnias shouting “Look at me!” to passersby. If the house were abandoned, the zinnias would have wilted long ago, while dandelions and clover and other pests sprouted upright and starved the flowers of sunlight and moisture. The garden would look a bit like Jumanji, after the kids have opened Pandora’s box and they’ve floundered about helplessly for a day or two. An observant neighbor will notice the zinnias, tended — albeit, haphazardly — and know: someone lives there.

***

A phone rings in another room — her daughter’s, she thinks — and its chirpy proclamation is shrill and unwieldy in the heavy near-silence of the house. The woman quivers imperceptibly. The tune plays two, three, four times before cutting off abruptly mid-ring; the stillness returns, the call a brief (but jarring) ripple already fast dissolving.

To be continued.

Review: The Parking Lot Attendant

In January (or February?) I won a pretty sweet giveaway from Henry Holt & Co., an imprint of Macmillan Publishers. The reward: a stack of books from debut authors, set to release this spring. First up on the list for me was The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat.

The Parking Lot Attendant is a title that probably falls under the genre “literary fiction,” although I’ll be real honest with y’all: I love that genre and decidedly did not love this book.

Tamirat’s debut novel is seemingly the definition of a slow burn — except that it merely flickers and sputters out, without enough fodder to maintain a flame. Truthfully, up until page 170, very little discernible action occurs. And while I love a good bit of background-building (here’s looking at you, Steinbeck), 170 pages is a bit much.

Readers are introduced to the unnamed narrator and her father, who are self-proclaimed “unwelcome guests” on the unnamed island of B——. We get a brief — albeit perplexing — peek at daily life ok the island, where a commune lives in “utopian” peace, separate from the island’s bulk and natural inhabitants. We’re told things aren’t quite as ideal as they seem, then thrust backward in time to Boston to receive background on how the narrator and her father came to reside on B——.

Alas, Boston was sluggish and full of self-indulgent ramblings on the author’s end. (I get it; sometimes I let my own writing ramble because I like the look of it. But still.) The narrator — 15? 16? — befriends Ayale, an older man who is a parking lot attendant somewhere generally near the narrator’s home. Despite the gap in their ages, Ayale and the narrator find commonality in their Ethiopian roots and he takes the girl under his expansive gangster wing, acting almost like a father: checking on her schoolwork, asking about her life, giving her gifts and cash. They have some late-night meals — dates? — at diners and spend long hours chatting on the telephone, even after she’s spent post-school hours at the parking lot with Ayale. In short, the relationship teeters at the brink of awkward and inappropriate 90% of the time. Even the narrator’s utterly incapable father recognizes the sheer wrongness of the friendship and makes feeble attempts to end it. Meanwhile, I spent most of the book dreading their seemingly imminent sexual…coming together, if you will. (Spoiler: it never happens, THANK GOD.)

The novel concludes back on the island, with a brief description of how things have gone awry and a hint as to what will come. In short, 170 pages of mostly rambling fluff, only to be left with a hint at what might happen to our narrator. Sigh.

Tamirat’s strength lies in her writing of passionate diatribes from Ayale regarding the immigrant experience (I flagged a few of these gems as I read), and the occasional cheeky quip from the narrator, such as:

“I marvel at those who have made a living out of seamlessly appearing to be someone other than themselves. I haven’t done a particularly bang-up job of being me, and if I can’t manage that, it seems unlikely that I’ll ever do better by taking on someone else. I suspect that on the whole, I am untalented at the art of existence.”

These shiny moments in her work give me hope for Tamirat’s future works.

Ultimately, though, the novel was full of characters I didn’t particularly care for or like and meandering inaction. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m grateful for the review copy nonetheless. It’s always good to be exposed to different types of writing, right? Right. (Here’s looking at you, Henry Holt Books!)

Overall: 2 stars, not likely to recommend.

Review: Siracusa

Siracusa, by prolific author Delia Ephron, is my third read of the year. It’s not even halfway through the month and I’m already patting myself on the back for sticking only to my shelves and not actually buying anything new (although I do have a December BookOutlet haul to show off . . . ).

This book came on my radar via Book of the Month Club — it was an August pick a couple years back — and though I was intrigued by the premise (more on that later), I hesitated to buy the book because I’d read some pretty mixed reviews online. As fate would have it, I bought this book for my Litsy winter solstice book exchange partner, only to discover she’d purchased it right before I shipped out my box of goodies. I did a quick swap with a book from my own shelf and decided to give Siracusa a read.

To be brief: the novel follows two couples (Lizzie & Michael, Taylor & Finn) on a couples retreat to hell Italy. Told from the perspective of quite possibly the literary world’s most unreliable narrators, Siracusa bounces from one member of the very conflicted and entwined foursome to another. Taylor and Finn have brought a heavy dose of discontent and their clinically-diagnosed-as-extremely-shy daughter, Snow, who is ten and — to be frank — disconcertingly watchful and quiet. Lizzie and Michael have packed up silent betrayals and insecurities and gleefully brought them abroad. The couples plan to spend ten days together, first in Rome, then in Siracusa, each with his or her own idea of how to maximize their time.

Would this be a good time to mention that Lizzie and Finn have a (secret) romantic history from several years back? Yeah. About that. . . .

Straight from the beginning, it was clear that this novel was a disaster waiting to happen. Within the first 15 pages, one of the foursome tells readers, “I can tell my story as well as the rest of them. Although I’ll mess with you now and then, I warn you. I like to do that.” Meanwhile, I’m drumming my fingers together like — Alrighty then! Bring it on, Ephron. A short novel, Siracusa breezes by in under 300 pages of picturesque Italian bliss and a hearty helping of drama.

The Good: Ephron’s writing is unique and each character — batshit crazy though he or she may be — is distinctive in voice and mannerisms. The novel’s greatest strength lies in the author’s compelling characterization that doesn’t falter once from start to finish. The plot is reasonably unbelievable and enticing. Honestly, this book is worth a read just for the absolutely startling characters and the hilarity that is their unraveling throughout the plot.

The Bad: The story does some weaving between past and present within each narrator’s segment, which can get a bit confusing at times. There were some sections I had to read a few times just to make sure I was following the action, and though this could be somewhat contributed to minor distractions, I felt that at places the novel was just too cluttered. I also had a pretty good idea about where things were going fairly early on — foreshadowing may have been a bit too heavy.

The Verdict: 3.5 stars — borrow, don’t buy.

Review: Behold the Dreamers

Disclaimer: At the end of this post, after the rating/verdict, there are spoilers. These spoilers are made completely separate from the bulk of my review. If you do not want to read the spoilers, do not scroll past the little bit that says, “Caution! Spoilers ahead!” 🙂 

One of my goals for 2017: read one book per week this entire year. Five weeks in, I thought I was going to crash and burn. 😥 Luckily, my husband is all too happy to let me spend entire weekends reading — because that means he gets to spend his weekends in the shop, or playing PS4 with Derrick. (I love when we both crave Me Time at the same time.) Anyway . . . on with the review.

Behold the Dreamers, written by Cameroonian immigrant Imobolo Mbue, is one of the September 2016 Book of the Month Club selections and an intimate portrait of a timeless cliche: the pursuit of the American Dream. The story opens in New York City with a description of Jende Jonga, a Limbe (Cameroon) native who has lived in America for several years. Jende is passionate about and devoted to Becoming American, but there’s a problem: his visa expired years ago. After having lived in America without his wife, Neni, and their child, Liomi, for three long years, Jende is certain that he will become a legal American citizen and fulfill his lifelong dream of achieving a better life.

Jende takes a job chauffeuring Clark Edwards, a wealthy Wall Street magnate who appears to have it all — trophy wife, doting family, a seemingly-endless cash flow, an opulent home, and the respect of his peers. Mr. Edwards quickly becomes a fount of inspiration for Jende, despite the superficial nature of their relationship: Jende begins to regard Mr. Edwards as a young child might adore his father. As the story bounces between sketches of Jende’s interactions with Mr. Edwards and his family members, Neni’s life at school and home, and Neni’s interactions with Mrs. Edwards (who hires her temporarily), readers will find it impossible not to root for the couple whose unrelenting hope propels them through one trial after another.

Unfortunately, as the adage goes — all good things must come to an end, and for Jende and Neni, the threat of deportation looms heavily over their ambitions. In parallel fashion, the Jonga family’s relationship becomes increasingly strained as the Edwards family empire begins to crack under pressures long ignored. The two families frantically struggle to survive (much less, thrive) while Mbue delivers a stark juxtaposition of those who have — and those who do not.

The Good: While others have complained that the novel felt lackluster and did little to draw them in, I was enamored with Jende’s character almost immediately. Mbue’s masterful use of pidgin English makes the language (and characters) come alive. (I was strongly reminded of my collegiate running days and international teammates from Kenya and Nigeria.) The novel is also a fairly quick read: I picked it up Saturday morning, only 50 pages in, and managed to finish the whole novel before nightfall.

The Bad: See spoilers.

The Verdict: 3/5 stars. This novel isn’t a stellar debut, in my humble opinion. At times, the story felt a bit cliche; but the themes of strife and devotion make the novel a worthwhile read.

***

Caution! Spoilers ahead! Don’t read any further if you wish to remain surprised.

***

The conclusion of this novel felt rushed — and that was significantly disappointing. Here are my two biggest sources of contention with the piece:

  1. The Jonga-Edwards fallout leaves a bit to be desired. The build-up was there, of course, but the tale feels looser and less . . . intentional? . . . as the Jonga family endures its last flailing months in America and the Edwards family merely fades into the background. Part of me feels that Jende had an opportunity for a major character evolution within the walls of Mr. Edwards’ office. Additionally, Jende’s last-minute farewell to Mr. Edwards left me feeling . . . well, nothing, to tell the truth. The scene felt far too contrived and convenient — a dulled Christmas bow slapped hastily on the package that could have been a cherished gift, but fell a little short.
  2. When Jende and Neni return to Africa, they just . . . return. Of course, there’s a father-son generational bonding thing that occurs when the family arrives “home” — and Jende certainly undergoes a significant character change. Though a bit unconventional, the author’s decision for the main character to give up on his dream is, in my mind, a perfectly adequate conclusion to Jende’s years of obstinate refusal to be jilted by the Great America. That being said, Neni’s conclusion feels largely underwhelming. While I understand that the dynamic of their relationship differs from that of my “Western marriage,” I felt that Neni’s story sort of folded underneath her as the author searched for an ending (any ending will do).

I found much to enjoy in this piece of diverse fiction; but the ending fell flat for me. What was your take on this novel (and/or the bones I picked at the end)?

For those who love classics.

My time for reading is — regrettably — far less than I had imagined it would amount to, when I envisioned myself as an English teacher. Perhaps it would be more prudent to include the adjective leisure in that last sentence: my time for leisure reading is abysmally inadequate.

Thus, when I make reading selections for holiday vacations or the wonderfully lengthy months that are summer, I choose with caution. To read something trifling or unstimulating would be certain heartbreak. Cue my reading selection for this Christmas break: Donna Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Goldfinch.

Set in what appears to be present-day (or near-present) NYC and Nevada, the story is a beautifully composed tale of heartbreak, tragedy, the snowball effect, and the impact of (seemingly) insignificant daily choices. The novel’s protagonist and narrator, Theo Decker, also serves as his own antagonist for much of the tale. The novel starts with a very brief (2-ish page) glimpse at his current situation in life: a seedy-sounding hotel in Amsterdam, filled with booze and a ominous-sounding newspaper headlines that readers can only assume are representative of the narrator himself. Tartt (& Theo) then take readers on a journey into the mysterious character’s past, which is marked by the tragic loss of his mother. Following the death of his mother, Theo’s life assumes a trajectory not unlike a quarter that’s been inserted in one of those “coin racing” funnels found in malls and circus halls: a swift downward spiral.

The tale is addictive; I don’t wish to give anything away, here, so I’ll refrain from telling you key components of the plot. However, there are a few distinct reasons I loved this work, namely, those listed below.

  1. Tartt’s use of language is exquisite. Pristine. Deliberate. Her words are both concise and elaborate at the same time, her voice like a whisper of poets past. The words on the pages of this novel are the closest I’ve found in contemporary writing to the quality and luxury of those classical authors I’ve idolized so long.
  2. The details are all important. Authors who make great use of minute details greatly please me; this is one of the reasons I so love J.K. Rowling, and one of the reasons I found myself so enamored by Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch. The story is a circle; Theo’s experiences overlap and his acquaintances have a way of cropping up where you’d least expect. Very six-degrees-of-separation-esque.
  3. The tale is well-researched. Tartt demonstrates more than adequate knowledge of art history and techniques, the antique world, and even the world of drug abuse. Whether through firsthand experience or interviews with experts, Tartt manages to write on a variety of topics with confidence and ease. Though many might expect this to be a “given,” I’d argue that if an author wrote on all but one of these topics with great clarity and depth of knowledge, that lack of information on the third would be enough to destroy the credibility of the work. Bravo, Tartt, for a piece well-researched.

The novel, which I made the mistake of attempting to finish in the presence of my quite animated and boisterous family prior to Christmas dinner, poses some deep philosophical questions for the reader — an aspect of the work I perhaps loved most. Upon finishing, rather than feeling disappointed that the work was over, or contented with the main character’s outcome, my mind ruminated over the questions Tartt posed and forced reflection for several days. Most notably: Does one bad decision define a life, or its destiny? Can we make bad decisions and still be good — and vice versa?

Read the excerpt here…and then run to the nearest Barnes & Noble to pick up your own copy.