Friday, June 17, 2011

I Married You For Happiness - Review

I requested and received the e-galley of Lily Tuck’s I Married You For Happiness through Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press Publication date: September 2011

When composing the book review of Lily Tuck’s I Married You For Happiness I found myself in a conundrum. The writing style is easy to read, good word choices, and the tone fulfilled the overall thrust of the book. I reread several parts of it, trying to determine why I felt a bit dissatisfied.

I was quite pleased with the unique setting of telling about a 30+ year relationship. There is a death. An unexpected and unexplained death. Philip comes home, says he'll lie down a bit before dinner, and that's his end. Nina finds him on the bed...dead. No sign of convulsion, or distress. Just—gone. The story is the new widow in mild shock, and remembering select moments in their life together as she sits by the bed all night.

As often happens with memories, they come erratically, triggered by sound, a glimpsed object, a taste. The memories tell of their meeting in Paris, parts of his background and hers; her concerns for things she never really knew about him, and her own secrets she kept from him. This montage of the past is laced with mathematical theory and content. That was his life, a mathematician. The well-researched comments from the profession are interesting, yet also show the distance in their relationship (even the cover image shows this). Nina didn't understand most of it, and didn't seem to want to understand.

For me, learning their story through memories (essentially flashbacks) became tedious. Another problem was the present-tense narrative that became intrusive; I found some of the transitions between past and present (both told in present tense) a bit rough. There were also scenes that Nina couldn't have known about, such as what Philip said to his class at various times—even in their last session.

I really didn't care much for Nina. I had empathy for her situation—the suddenness of lifestyle change—but she seemed too withdrawn even in the memories. Referred to as a redhead, noted for fiery character, hers was bland. The title "I Married You for Happiness" could have had an addend "But Didn't Find It." The scenes of possible happiness were tainted by the smell of garbage, a prowling cat, a lost dog. It seemed more she married him for direction and was irritatingly content to be the house frau on the fringe of his busy life. Only once was her art work referred to as completed, in reference to a piece she gave to their daughter; the rest was scrapped, unfinished, and sources of dissatisfaction. Perhaps this was Lily Tuck's design for the book. If so, I think she succeeded. If not...

Herein is one of the book's strengths: it's propensity to induce contemplation (consternation?). I Married You For Happiness will be a great title for book clubs and reading groups because of the varied opinions and reactions that will come forth.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Short Story Shorts - Reviews

I have always like short stories; I appreciate the skill it takes to develop characters and a story in a limited number of words (something I have trouble doing). Here are two authors who write both short and long fiction, and have used their short story talent to showcase their work. I "met" both of them through social networking, where I also learned about the following titles.

Craig Lancaster's This is Butte, You Have Ten Minutes contains three short stories with three very different settings and characters. In the title story is "the man with the Blackberry" who is busing home after his car broke down. He is a "modern guy" and while he sends text messages to her significant other (they are at odds), he imagines names and lives of his fellow bus passengers. One of these people offers up more than he imagined, and possibly changes his life. This story is upbeat and with moments of comedy.

In the second story, we meet Alyssa ("Alyssa Alights"), a runaway from an abusive home, as she attempts to get a new life on the streets of Billings. The third, "Star of the North", is set in the Montana State prison, with lifer inmate befriending a new con, and then learning stupefying circumstances about the buildup to his own crime.

In each of these three, very different stories, the characters of the protagonists and supporting characters are clearly drawn. Realistic dialogue fits the circumstance of each story, showing the broad range of Lancaster's abilities.

Craig Lancaster is a Montana journalist. His first full-length fiction book, 600 Hours of Edward, was a 2009 Montana Honor Book and the 2010 High Plains Book Award winner. His second book, Summer Son was chosen as an Amazon Encore book.

Velda Brotherton writes from a very different perspective and place. A native of the Ozarks, she presents the regional history with great insight. The two short stories in Going To Freedom reflect her passion for history. The title story (first published in The Whitest Wash, Lost Creek Press) is set in the Depression era, with an unlikely circumstance of a family having a Bengal tiger. Ina has a particular fondness for the big cat; her husband, Lee, does not. These differing views show the relationship in the marriage as well as situation of the times.

The second story, "Blue Ribbon" (first published in Echoes of the Ozarks, Ozark Writers League), spans several decades, beginning in 1883, as we see Lena as a young romantic girl intrigues and in love with the adventure of the passing train and the young railroad man who always waves. Then Lena is old, with only her memories and dreams. The depth of passion and remorse in this story is excellent.

Brotherton has developed two different protagonists and their lifestyles. The era of each piece is well-drawn, and the rich language evokes vivid pictures of the Ozarks.

Velda Brotherton has received many awards, which include being a 2008 finalist for the WILLA in creative non fiction. Her historical newspaper columns have earned three merit awards from the Arkansas Press, and a collection of the columns is scheduled for publication as a book.