The Monday Book: OUR LADY OF THE LOST AND FOUND by Diane Schoemperlen

virgin-mary_2085222bSo what would happen if Mary the mother of Jesus came to stay with you for a week, just for a break?

You would spend a lot of time re-examining your life and the life of women, and you would do a lot of research on her other appearances. Which pretty much sums up this novel. The novel is neither rude nor kind about Christianity; it kind of takes a sideways approach to Mary’s story, leaping back and forward between telling the narrator’s story – she never gives her name because she doesn’t want people to believe she’s crazy – and encyclopedia-esque entries about Mary’s other appearances.

I found it fascinating. Narrative arcs are overrated; this narrative ping-pong game is a lot of fun. The analytical nature of the first-person narrator (who is an author) as she examines her own life in light of Mary’s visit gives insight ito the lives of women overall. It’s aga saga light, latte lit, chick lit with bite. And the Mary visits chronicled through history are so interesting. Especially when she follows up on what happens to those so visited.

Perhaps the book meant more to me because I’ve actually visited Mary’s house near Ephesus – the one John took her to after the disciples left Jerusalem. It’s a tiny thing, not any bigger in its two rooms than our bookstore’s main one. But it was an amazing thing to see.

Oddly enough, Mary has never appeared at her own home. But this book does a good job with that famous “what if” approach to fiction: what if she appeared in mine?

The Monday Book: THE YEAR OF FOG by Michelle Richmond

FogPublished in 2007, this drifted into our bookstore, and I picked it up because it had a beach on the cover. It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter, and despite what your teachers told you, yes, you can judge a book that way.

From this inauspicious beginning, Fog turned into one of those books you carry with you from bathroom to bedroom, stuff into your purse in case you get a spare minute, sneak open when you should be dusting. It’s a cracking good read.

Richmond has a kind of four-part harmony going throughout her novel: it’s part mystery, has a lot of science bits about the brain and camera function in it, contains about three love stories, and is lyrically philosophical. Too intellectual to be a fast read, too compelling to be a slow one, all I can say is Richmond may well have invented a new genre: smartlit.

The story rolls around a central theme: a photographer named Abby, engaged to a man with a little girl, takes her for a walk on the beach, and the child vanishes. The whole next year is about memory, loss, memory loss, and how our brains work–not to mention Abby’s search for her missing step-daughter-to-be. Reminiscent of Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, but more tightly woven as one story, the themes swirl around each other: protagonist Abby relives a bad love affair while trying to keep her current one alive; she researches brain activity, giving lovely insights into what the hippocampus and amygdala do and how we live that out day to day; she explores what it means to be the stepmom in a family, to love two people as part of a whole package; and then there’s the actual mystery of where the little girl went, and why.

My agent Pamela and I often discuss narrative arcs (she sometimes in despairing terms at my journalistic writing style) and this book is not only a good read, but teaches a great deal about how to create one. The themes are so tight intrinsically, yet bounce off each other so well that, if one of them doesn’t interest you all that much, you can skip it and still enjoy the story. I didn’t give two hoots for Abby’s old love affair, but skimming those parts didn’t diminish devouring the book an iota. Richmond’s writing is an odd amalgam of tight and fast, yet relaxed and unhurried. It’s as if Ernest Hemingway had allowed himself to be happy in life, and this got reflected in his writing.

As our shop cat Valkyttie would say, two paws up for Richmond’s The Year of Fog. This author has other books; I’m going to keep an eye out for them.