Review 1521: The Yellow House

The Yellow House is not just a memoir. It’s more an excavation of self and belonging. Sarah M. Broom centers her explorations around her childhood home in New Orleans East. She begins with what she knows of her grandparents’ lives and her parents’ before marrying. Then she tells how her mother, Ivory Mae, purchased the yellow house when she was 19, the first house owned by the family.

At the time of the purchase, 1961, New Orleans East was touted as a promising area for expansion of the city. However, this promise never unfolded. The story of the slow crumbling of the neighborhood and house, culminating in Hurricane Katrina, is a symbol of the disenfranchising of all the poor inhabitants of the city, particularly those of color.

Although Broom was living in New York at the time of the hurricane, many of her family members had to be evacuated, and two of her brothers chose to ride the storm out. The storm destroyed the house, but it also rendered the family physically and metaphorically homeless. Almost more excruciating is the catalog of incompetence and obliviousness to the needs of its citizens by the city of New Orleans after the storm.

This is an interesting and eye-opening memoir about the population of the city that is usually ignored, and of course, it has ramifications for all such populations in all such cities.

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Day 1190: LaRose

Cover for LaRoseSet in 1999 on a North Dakota reservation, LaRose is about how a community, but in particular two families, are affected by a horrible accident. Out hunting a deer on his property, Landreaux Iron kills Dusty, the young son of his best friend, Peter Ravich, when Dusty falls out of a tree as Landreaux takes his shot.

To try to make amends, Landreaux, who has turned to the old ways to throw off addiction and straighten out his life, offers the Ravich family his own young son, LaRose, to raise. Nola Ravich, Dusty’s mother, is eaten up with hatred against the Irons, even Emmaline, who is her half sister. But having LaRose helps. Emmaline, however, can’t be expected to give up her son forever.

LaRose is the latest in a long line of LaRoses, all of whom had a special connection with the spirit world. LaRose finds himself able to help Nola and her neglected daughter, Maggie, even though he is only a small boy.

Another significant character is Romeo, who long ago was Landreaux’s best friend. He bears Landreaux a grudge because of an incident years before. Slowly, he works at his resentment despite the Irons having taken in his son Julius to raise.

Although I occasionally got distracted by how diffuse the plot is and how many directions it goes, in the main I enjoyed this novel. It isn’t nearly as depressing as a lot of Erdrich’s work, and it paints a powerful portrait of these two families. Dealing with forgiveness, of oneself and others, grief, guilt, and other human complexities, it is a strong novel.

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Day 451: The Year of Magical Thinking

Cover for The Year of Magical ThinkingThe Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion’s candid account of the first year after the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and the serious illness of their daughter Quintana Roo (which sadly resulted in her death after the time frame of this book).

The couple had just returned from the hospital, where their daughter’s illness had progressed from flu to pneumonia to septic shock. Dunne died in a manner that was so sudden, falling over forward on his face at the table, that Didion at first thought he was joking.

What follows is an honest description of Didion’s mental functioning and thoughts as she tries to deal with competing traumas in her life—the refusal to believe her husband might not be coming back (she won’t give away his shoes in case he needs them), the constant speculation about what she might have done differently that could have saved him (what if they stayed in Malibu? what if they moved to Hawaii?), the attempt to avoid anything that reminds her of time she spent with her husband. She makes a careful distinction between grief and mourning.

What characterizes this book is the unstinting look at the author’s experience, a willingness to document everything, without avoidance or euphemism. Didion’s intelligence shines through every passage as she contemplates our culture’s relationship with death—for one thing, the harm we have done by ridding ourselves of its ceremonies and even its trappings.

Day 351: The Fixer

Cover for The FixerBest Book of the Week!

In 1911 Russia, Yakov Bok is tired of his difficult life in the shtetl. So, after his wife leaves him for another man, Yakov travels to Kiev in hopes of making a better living. When he helps a drunken man who is passed out in the snow, Yakov is offered a job supervising a brick yard. However, in order to take this job, Yakov must live in a part of the city forbidden to Jews.

It is this circumstance followed by a series of mishaps that ends up with Yakov being accused of murdering a boy he chased away from the brick yard. As the case continues, it becomes clear that the murder is being used by authorities an an excuse to trump up charges of ritual murder against the Jewish community.

The novel becomes more and more difficult to read as literally everything that happens to Yakov makes things worse for him. The gentiles he knows in Kiev tell lies about him. Once he is in prison, the jailers do everything they can to incriminate him, including trying to entrap him into breaking the rules or admitting his guilt.

Yakov goes into jail a nonpolitical, irreligious, naive man who hopes for justice, and the novel is partially about his development into an angry man who refuses to be beaten. Although almost nothing in the way of plot or action happens from the time he goes to jail, I was absolutely compelled to finish reading.

Written in a storytelling fashion that I associate with the tales of Sholem Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer, this novel is more grim than most of the stories I’ve read by these other writers. However, both The Fixer and The Bloody Hoax, by Aleichem, are based on a true event from 1911 Kiev, called the Beiliss blood libel case.

Day 233: The Moviegoer

Cover for The MoviegoerWalker Percy’s classic novel The Moviegoer is a novel about alienation. Binx Bolling is an idle young man living in New Orleans during the late 1950’s. His experiences in the Korean War seem to have cast him adrift, or perhaps he has always been adrift. He spends his time chasing women and going to the movies. He cares for his cultured and prominent family, yet he seems strangely indifferent to them at the same time. He claims to be on a search, but it is not clear what he is searching for–perhaps a purpose, but his search is strangely aimless. Although he has a job as a stockbroker, he doesn’t devote much time or attention to it.

Kate, his cousin, is mentally ill in an undefined way. She and Binx seem to understand each other, and he genuinely cares what happens to her. From drifting for quite awhile in the same waters, the story finally moves forward when Kate insists on coming with Binx to attend a convention in Chicago, where he has an important work assignment.

New Orleans features as a colorful setting, but in some ways the city’s possibilities are neglected. Some of the most interesting scenes are set in a small house over a bayou, where Binx goes to visit his mother and younger siblings.

This is an existentialist novel that is supposedly heavily influenced by the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. Although Jack Kerouac’s On the Road reflects the alienation experienced by some young men following World War II, The Moviegoer shows that this alienation was still felt by young men following the Korean War, ten years later. Essentially, these two novels examine the same themes, only Binx’s explorations are followed in more socially acceptable ways.

I have to admit that these themes don’t personally strike any chords with me. For most of the novel I wasn’t that interested in Binx’s search or in the things that he finds interesting. However, I liked the ending of the book, when he finally accepts responsibility for something.