Sisters of the Undertow by Johnnie Bernhard

Sisters of the Undertow is the third book by Johnnie Bernhard I’ve read, and I loved every line of it for the same reason I’ve loved Bernhard’s other books ( A Good Girl, and How We Came to Be): she’s a master of deep motivational subtext.

In Sisters of the Undertow, author Johnnie Bernhard takes the complicated underpinnings of sibling rivalry, gives it breath, and sets it to wings through the power of a seemingly ordinary story. What makes it extraordinary is that narrator Kimberly Ann has emotional baggage against her younger sister and knows it. She is cynical, jaded, and resentful to such an edge that the story is fueled by her bone marrow.

Kathy Renee is oblivious to her elder sister’s resentment. She was born to this world prematurely and shoulders the burden of life-long special needs. And yet she is disarmingly cheery, resilient, and God-fearing, giving Kimberly Ann one more reason to rail against their relationship—on top of her put-upon, self-appointed victimhood, she is simultaneously riddled with guilt.

Narrator Kimberly Ann explains it as this: “We were born sixteen months apart, of the same mother and father, yet our lives would become as different as two planets orbiting around the sun, never to fully understand each other, despite our years of circling.”

It’s one’s attitude that seals the deal of how one’s life will be experienced, and author Johnnie Bernhard depicts this principle by giving us sisters from middle-class, Houston, Texas with differing realities, in a deeply introspective story that builds in three, well-crafted parts. It takes a gifted author with the use of a subtle hand to suggest we create our own reality. We may see parts of ourselves in both sisters. We may deny it, rail against it, or see it as a vehicle to self-examination that just might encourage change.

I read Sisters of the Undertow twice, which should tell you something. There’s so much to glean from the intelligent story, told in one of the more refreshingly real, first-person voices I’ve ever read. I read it twice because—dare I say it—this fathoms-deep tour de force of riveting upmarket fiction has the double blessing of a page-turning story and the repercussion of an undertow that won’t quit.

 

https://www.clairefullerton.com

Book Review: Clover Blue by Eldonna Edwards

A perfectly paced, thoroughly realized, refreshingly unique story that takes the concept of world-building to expert proportions. Author Eldonna Edwards sets her standout novel in a 1970s, Northern Califonia commune’s bucolic setting and regals the reader with an unusual story from the perspective of the eponymous narrator, Clover Blue, who has a personal history, unlike all others. In a coming of age story, Edwards layers her art with the subtle fine-tuning of what it also means to come into awareness. The Saffron Freedom Community’s earthy setting is tangible, it’s free-spirited, well-intentioned residents so finely drawn as to elicit the reader’s acceptance of a lifestyle so beautifully and minutely depicted, one can’t help but become emotionally invested. At the heart of this story is the adolescent Clover Blue’s search for identity within the confines of his deep-rooted sense of place. Once the reader is hooked by Clover Blue’s story, a mystery creeps in to suggest all is not as it seems, in this idyllic world apart from the world, spearheaded by a mesmeric leader whose past is so covert, it’s no wonder his counsel is centered on nonjudgement and living in the present. Clover Blue is a story that rolls, unfurls, and deepens in seemingly simple complexity. It is a resonating, engaging story true to the spirit of its times and satisfying in its unpredictable end.

 

https://www.clairefullerton.com

Book Review: Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New

I came across this book through my fellow author, Susan Cushman’s, blog, who has a wonderful thing going as an author, editor, and champion of great books: http://susancushman.com/about/.  Susan’s engaging Facebook presence called my attention to author Suzanne Smith Henley’s book, which concerns a labor-of-love she engages in making stunning prayer beads. An impressive amount of acclimating research into ancient, religious practices went into this book, then the author brings it all home to modern day with inspiration and sheer delight! I am marveling at the connections that can be made through social media! Below is my review of Bead-by-Bead. If you’re interested in exploring the centering intent of prayer, this book is for you!

 

I am savoring this beautiful book, and turning to it nightly as a touchstone at my day’s end. Written in accessible language so compelling and engaging, Suzanne Smith Henley’s voice is like listening to a friend so rife with personality, I want to hear everything she has to say! There is a wealth of information regarding historical use of prayer practice with the use of beads. I am learning much about various religious practices, and the common thread of a physical ornament to ground one into prayer is something I find reverent in its intent and focus. This is a book for everybody: the devout, the spiritual, the artistic, the seeker. It is a manual of fine balance mixed with humor and intelligence, and its specific aim is something I find admirable as it unites. I recommend this book as a call to worship, no matter one’s proclivity or denomination. It is thought-provoking in its invitation to deepen one’s relationship with prayer, and I am so pleased to have found this book!

 

Whiskey and Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith

The title Whiskey and Ribbons is derived from a toast delivered by Eamon, one of three narrators in this psychological treatment of love spun unexpectedly and repercussively awry. “Women, you are sleek and gorgeous. You hold us together, you’re the ribbons,” Eamon says, yet we hear this speech as his brother, Dalton’s, memory, for the reader learns at the start that the toast maker is dead. Eamon and Dalton have grown up together as brothers, yet the ties that bind are unusual and not honestly revealed for what they are until well into the story. Author Leesa Cross-Smith holds the reader captive in language so creative and au currant that we identify with both well-drawn characters and readily understand why Eamon’s wife, Evangeline, weighs issues of loyalty between the two charismatic young men, though one is alive and the other is dead. That Evangeline is a new mother, having given birth to Eamon’s son after his death as an officer in the line of duty is the dilemma, for who is she to turn to in her prostrate grief but a brother-in-law who equally grieves? Three vantage points are entwined to tell this one story of familial connections, in a seamlessly crafted, roiling momentum that will have you thinking they each have a justifiable point. All praise this spell-binding debut author. Leesa Cross-Smith has penned an uncommon novel in a voice you won’t easily forget.

How We Came to Be by Johnnie Bernhard

How We Came to Be is a triumph of order from chaos as told in the most accessible first-person voice I’ve had the good fortune to come across in ages. I was under narrator Karen Anders’ spell from the first because author Johnnie Bernhard came out swinging by gifting the reader with this engaging novel’s premise by the third page. Karen doesn’t look good on paper. She is a fifty-year-old, high school English teacher living in Houston; a divorced, single mother facing empty-nest syndrome, well aware of her dependency on alcohol, but nowhere near ready to quit. Why should she? Karen’s life is a mess. One would think this is a recipe for a down on its heels story, but the reader is captivated by Karen’s tell-it-as-it-is persona and—dare I say it, identifies when Karen summarizes her circumstances by confessing, “I’m hating every moment, but pretending I’m having the time of my life.” When I got to this line, I knew I was hooked.
We all have that sardonic friend who manages to smile through the egg on her face. This is Karen in a nutshell, and she keeps on keeping on, trying for the upper hand, while her adopted daughter, Tiffany’s first three months away at college become a study in bad choices, of which Karen has no say beyond putting out the fires. Karen’s dilemma is a common one and raises the question of how to be an effective single parent without chasing her daughter away.
In the meantime, back at the empty nest, Karen knows she must forge a life beyond the rat-wheel of predictable sameness centered on her Houston high school’s schedule. In an uncanny act of timing, Karen’s world is widened when she is befriended by WW11 Hungarian refugee, Leona Supak from across the street, and an unlikely alliance is formed that challenges Karen to grow. Having been single for decades and barely hanging on, it probably isn’t the best time for a man to come into Karen’s life, yet when Matt Broussard pursues the surprised Karen in an Austin bar, she thinks, maybe?
How We Came to Be is a brass-tacks, contemporary story without a moment of campy pretention. The events are cause and effect, but the story is what goes on in the likable Karen’s head. She is not so much a victim of circumstances as she is a neophyte at growing into her own. How We Came to Be is the story of a woman drowning in deep waters, who has the sense to learn how to swim.
I applaud author Johnnie Bernhard for her wizardry in crafting this perfectly paced story in a voice so unique and compelling. This is a book to read and return to. It is perfect for book clubs because there is so much in it to discuss!

 

 

http://WWW.CLAIREFULLERTON.COM

Delta Rainbow: The Irrepressible Betty Bobo Pearson by Sally Thomason and Jean Fisher.

Every once in a while, you come across a hidden gem, published by a small university press. I have done just this in discovering Delta Rainbow. Delta Rainbow, accurately subtitled, “The Irrepressible Betty Bobo Pearson,” is a compelling biography with all the allure of a well-crafted novel, in that its subject does indeed come across as absolutely irrepressible. The book opens with a speeding train and holds the reader captive through the life and times of Erie Elizabeth Bobo then doesn’t lessen its grip until the repercussive significance of that train comes back to haunt.
It is the year 1955, in Sumner, Mississippi, and thirty-something Betty Bobo Pearson attends the sham of the trial of one Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago, who was found murdered in Mississippi by two white locals. In a trial telling of the times, justice is not served, and it sets the life’s work of Betty Pearson on course. But first, we learn Betty’s backstory. That she is born to privilege in a regionally prominent family sets the stage for what is to come, for, in time, Betty’s civic outlook and magnanimous heart is at variance with the tightly held racial divide, and this biography becomes an issue of personal conscious as Betty follows the beat of her own drum, and in so doing, bucks the system. On the very cusp of the civil rights movement, preceding Rosa Parks’ infamous stand, Betty is one step ahead of civil unrest. Much to her Southern family’s chagrin, she grows into a champion of integration—she is spirited, ambitious, and dogged in her egalitarian beliefs; she is a genteel warrior in a cotton print dress.
Collaborators Sally Palmer Thomason and Jean Carter Fisher have done, in this engrossing book, what Southerners do best: they have told a great story. Delta Rainbow is crafted with beautiful, historic balance. It lends a sensitive eye to detail as it lures the reader through Southern social mores with a strong sense of time and place. We feel the Delta’s humidity, marvel at Betty Pearson’s parties, covet her gardens, and wish we had half of her gumption in standing up for what she believes is right. Never one to sit on the sidelines while others dictate the law, Betty
Pearson is a woman of action, a member of every forward-thinking committee designed for racial equality, and if she wasn’t invited to join, she spearheaded the task force.
All hail the University of Mississippi Press for seeing fit to publish this important biography. Delta Rainbow: The Irrepressible Betty Bobo Pearson is as educational as it is inspiring, and I bow to Sally Palmer Thomason and Jean Carter Fisher of Memphis for taking what is clearly a wealth of research and information and adroitly handling it at such a pitch as to make it so thoroughly engaging.

My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy, as Told to Katherine Clark.

Oh, the gift of this delightful book. The thing about Pat Conroy is those who get him really get him and can never get enough. It has been repeatedly written that readers feel as if they know him. That he wrote in the first person was part of what spawned the relationship between Conroy and his readers, the rest of it is that he had an uncanny way of unabashedly calling things by name and spoke for us. And any Conroy devotee knew he was healing his shattered history by veiling it in fiction. We knew it and didn’t care because not only was he charming, he was a master storyteller. Conroy wrote from the center of his sardonic personality. Once he had you, he dove down to universal truth and brought you to your knees. This business of life is not for the meek, he suggested, but there is rhyme to it, poetry, in fact, and in his fiction, he figured out how to survive it.
My Exaggerated Life gives us the man behind the curtain. On its cover is Conroy wearing his infamous flight jacket and Citadel ring, which his fans will recognize as symbols of his personal narrative. Conroy was that kind of writer. His books were mind-altering drugs and his readers were addicts who had to have more. Katherine Clark has given us more in what seems to me a labor of love. That she spent two hundred hours listening to Conroy spill out his life over the telephone to assemble this book makes me jealous, but I’ll overlook that in favor of the resounding result.
What struck me most in reading My Exaggerated Life was the realization that there was no separating the man from his craft. It’s Conroy’s voice that does it. In these pages speaks a storyteller of the highest order telling an incredibly entertaining story, it just so happens to be culled from a series of events in his life. You can intuit the haphazard way he stumbled from cause to effect as his writing career took shape. Reading Conroy’s books always made me feel they were born without effort, so to discover in this riveting book just where the struggle had been hit me as staggering—not because parts were painful to read, but because he framed it in such a human way that readers will think, you too?
At the end of My Exaggerated Life, Katherine Clark shares the speech Pat Conroy delivered spontaneously before a crowd of adoring fans in Beaufort, South Carolina at his 70th birthday celebration. In it, Conroy claims “What I wanted to be as a writer, I wanted to be a complete brave man that I am not in my real life.” He did just this in My Exaggerated Life. In an act of bravery, Pat Conroy told his story, and author Katherine Clark captured it in a book that is one for the archives.

An American Marriage: Book Review

Stark, vivid, real, and gritty, these are the words that spring to mind upon reflecting on An American Marriage. Author Tayari Jones takes the premise of an unjust, nightmarish turn of fate and unfurls a novel length treatise on a budding marriage systematically derailed, when a year and a half into marriage, Roy is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. It is a modern marriage, and newlyweds Roy Jr. and Celestial have promising careers on the rise. Roy is a young business executive, who aspires to setting his artisan wife up in business as the maker of novelty dolls in her own Atlanta shop. The couple is in the exhilarating throes of reconciling their fiercely independent natures with their unified plans for the future. They are ambitious, deeply in love, and navigating their marital positions, when an insignificant tiff arises while on vacation, and their life is irrevocably changed outside their hotel room from their mutually declared, fifteen-minute time-out.
Whether it is the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the suspicions levied on Roy as a black man in the South, justice is not immediately served when Roy is falsely accused of a crime. As time ekes by during Roy’s twelve-year sentence, Celestial gets her career off the ground, while Roy remains stuck behind bars. Issues of commitment and fidelity under duress evolve, as Celestial finds comfort in the arms of her and Roy’s mutual friend, Andre, then reasonable expectations are called to the fore when a love triangle unwittingly grows. When Roy is released five years into his sentence, the three main characters in An American Marriage take stock of their current standing. They are individuals with differing vantage points within the confines of a tribal whole.
With laser sharp insight into human nature, Tayari Jones gifts the reader with three plausible, first person narratives in this intertwined story of cause and effect set upon the fertile ground of modern day black culture. Her language is paradoxically direct and textured as she probes the innerworkings of characters wrestling with issues of appropriate placement, under the weight of delineating sacrificial right from self-serving wrong.
An American Marriage is a gripping story, disquieting in its tenable premise and gripping with tense urgency on every page during its search for apportioned equilibrium. It is a powerfully written, brilliantly crafted novel for the discerning reader, and a thought provoking treasure for book club discussions.