Monday, February 7, 2011

Back to Africa with Alexandra Fuller

I think a lot of people will be rejoicing at the announcement of another installment in the Alexandra Fuller canon. Penguin Press is calling Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness both a sequel and a prequel to Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight. And it is simply fantastic. Fans of Don't Let's may find this hard to believe, but Cocktail Hour is Fuller at the absolute top of her game.

She continues on the subject of her family's life in Africa in the same riveting, deeply personal, highly accomplished style readers came to love in Don't Let's. And if Don't Lets was Bobo's story, her explanation for her love of Africa, then Cocktail Hour is her parents' story. She thoroughly interviews both of them and tells the stories of their parents and their grandparents. From Nicola's fiercely Scottish ancestors to Tim's bucolic family farm in England, we get a better picture of why they value land so highly, why owning a farm in Africa was their life's pursuit. Fuller captures both of her parents' voices so perfectly, allowing them to tell their stories (including their reactions to the publication of Don't Let's, what Nicola calls the "Awful Book.") in their own inimitable style. Perhaps through these interviews, and perhaps through an additional ten years of ruminating on the subject, Fuller seems to have come to a deeper understanding of what her parents experienced and what it all meant--living through wars, constantly moving, losing three children, and battling manic depression, all while desperately loving Africa and being unwilling to leave.

Fuller seems to have closed the loop that she left open with Don't Let's in an honest and satisfying way. You can feel how deeply healing the book must have been for her--not just the desperation to tell her story, like in the first go-around, but also the peace that comes with understanding your family and where you came from.

Coming in August from Penguin. While you wait, try Fuller's The Legend of Colton H. Bryant. It's amazing. One of my favorites.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon a River

I have a feeling that Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell is going to be for me this year what Anthropology of an American Girl was last year: a book I read in March that remained my favorite book of the year, my favorite to talk about, obsess about, and wholeheartedly recommend, for the whole damn year.

Once again, the main character is a young girl and the writing is beautiful and breathtaking, but the similarities end there. Margo, the protagonist of Once Upon a River, is a beautiful, striking-looking tomboy of 15 when we first meet her. She is twisting up like a weed from childhood to adulthood, curious about her power over men while also longing for her mother who abandoned her. After several deeply traumatic events, Margo is left alone, on the river she loves in rural Michigan. In her grandfather's teak wood boat, she takes off upriver in search of her mother, in search of somewhere to belong. Realizing that she can't survive alone, she uses the men she meets for protection and companionship. Though she has the gun skills and guts of her hero, Annie Oakley, Margo is still a little girl in the end, needing a home and a love that won't ask questions and won't leave her.

I knew from the first page that Bonnie Jo Campbell's writing was exquisite, her cadence melodic and language deliberate:

"Margo, named Margaret Louise, and her cousins knew the muddy water and the brisk current, knew the sand and silt between their toes, scooped it into plastic cottage cheese tubs and sherbet buckets and dribbled it through their fingers to build sagging stalagmites and soggy castles. They hollowed out the riverbanks, cut through soil and roots to create collapsing caves and tunnels...They built rafts from driftwood and baling twine. They learned to read upon the surface of the water evidence of distress below."

And after a few more pages, I was hooked on Margo. Just hooked.

Coming in July from W. W. Norton.