Tag Archives: Nichole Argyres

The Monday Book: RANDOM FAMILY by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

This is not a happy family book, so you may want to wait until Spring to read it. I ordered it after following its appearance on my friend Nichole’s TEN BOOKS THAT INFLUENCED ME list. We shared a love for eight of the ten, one was A Prayer for Owen Meany (and Nichole is the reason our staff cat has that name; it’s the only Owen that will ever grace our shelves) and one was Random Family. I love ethnographic studies, so I ordered it.

Densely packed, this is the summation of 11 years of work with people floating through – or perhaps drowning in – the justice system. I’m not sure the term “social justice” appears often, but the whole book is an indictment of the idea that poverty is the fault of the poor. And it’s a really ringing indictment. Roaches falling by the dozens into carefully chosen food, men coming up fire escapes into the windows of “free” housing provided a woman with four daughters, the inner workings of a prison hierarchy for education and a future–it’s going to set you back a bit.

Jack liked the book because, as a prison visitor, he’s seen much of what the men go through trying to form outside attachments and secure stability. LeBlanc didn’t use the words “search for security, love, maybe some significance” very often, either, but the whole book is one mad shuffle between family members looking for those things, mostly in that order.

Coco and Jessica, the main female characters, are clearly drawn as real, lovely, flawed, and stuck. One of the questions in the book group guide at the end of this book reminds readers that LeBlanc was in the community for eleven years, part and parcel to all that is described, yet she doesn’t appear as a character.

That’s one of the book’s quirks; LeBlanc has made nothing up, it’s all from interviews and observation. Yet she is invisible, and the book is not so much narrated by an invisible person as scatter pelleted by some unseen weapon. Sentence after sentence, some of them barely hooked together, scene after scene, description after description, and although the whole thing circles a spiral of recurring events, it doesn’t sound the same. LeBlanc writes like a machine gun.

Not everyone will like this book. It’s less narrative arc or journalism than ethnographic description. It doesn’t ask “why,” just tells “how.” I’d like to say it’s haunting, but in all honesty, as someone so far removed from what LeBlanc describes, the word might be daunting. How can anyone make economic inequality going this far wrong, better?

LeBlanc did an interview ten years after the book’s 2003 publication; you can find it here.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Sarah Nelson, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction

The Monday Book: WHERE THE MOON ISN’T by Nathan Filer

moonPart of the fun of the Monday book is how a volume reaches me. We can admit that acquisition sets up expectation –a friend you admire recommends a book, and you track it down. You find an intriguing title in the bargain section of a second-hand shop, and you think, “Nothing to lose.” How you get the book starts you down the path.

So I knew I was in for something good when my editor, Nichole, mailed me this one with the single comment: “This book is very close to my heart.” (She edited the American version.)

Published in the UK as Shock of the Fall, this is a book about mental and physical illness. Matt’s brother, a physically handicapped lad, dies tragically, and it’s pretty much Matt’s accidental fault. Matt loses himself, as does his mom, but they cope and recover in different ways.

Matt’s voice is so clear, his character so well drawn, that I found myself in the happy position of looking forward to bedtime each night, so I could see what happened to the poor kid next.

Nathan Filer’s background as a psychiatric nurse really shows in his writing; he knows whereof he speaks. In fact, the book recently won what used to be called the Whitbread Prize (now Costa) in the UK–which is a BIIIIIIG good thing–and one of the repeated phrases of the judges was how amazingly “sure-footed” the writing is for a first-time novelist.

“Sure-footed” encapsulates what captured me about Moon. You totally believe in Matt as a person, have known people like him, but also get glimpses into what it must be like to realize you have a mental illness, to be self-aware and intelligent about it, and yet still be sick. Brilliant, this book was, at making the strange normal and the normal strange.

Just so you know, Nichole has recommended books to me in the past that I didn’t like, so my glowing review is not because she’s our shared editor. As witness, I present the fuzzy picture at the top of this post. That dark blue book is Where the Moon Isn’t. I took it with me on a recent trip to DC while promoting Little Bookstore (the fuzzy beige book below Moon). See that cat in the suitcase? (Yeah, the fuzzy white thing in the middle.) That’s Owen Meany, named for a book Nichole recommended highly in fairly authoritative terms. I hated A Prayer for Owen Meany, and still do. (Heck, call that a plot?)

So that cat is the only way Owen Meany will ever grace my personal bookshelf, Nichole, but you were right about Moon; it will stay in my heart and mind for a long time.

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