Books

07.07.14

This Week’s Hot Reads: July 7, 2014

A novel about investigating a family tragedy, another about the overlapping lives of an American girl and an Okinawan nurse, and a daughter’s memoir of her outlaw father.

Flying Shoes
By Lisa Howorth

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‘Flying Shoes’ by Lisa Howorth. 336 pp. Bloomsbury. $26 hardcover. ()

I grew up and have always lived in the Northeast, so by nurture and nature (nobody would ever accuse me of patience), I usually prefer to get where I’m going with as few detours as possible. That said, I am occasionally reminded that the scenic route has advantages and reading Lisa Howorth’s debut novel Flying Shoes is one such instance. Nominally about the solving of a 30-year-old crime—the molestation and murder of the southern Mary Byrd’s little brother—it is actually less a whodunit and more an entertaining and enlightening journey along the interconnected lives of a distinctive cast of characters. Upon receiving a life-changing phone call from the Virginia police, Mary Byrd plans a trip from Mississippi to her childhood home of Virginia. As she cobbles together a travel plan—she is terrified of flying, doesn’t drive, and a major storm is en route—we’re treated not only to her interactions with those around her—her husband and children, temperamental housekeeper, a flirtatious younger man who occasionally provides her with painkillers, and a flamboyant family friend—but also to spinoffs of these folks’ own adventures. It’s a bit of a kick for anyone who’s ever pondered the size of the universe and marveled at the fact that everyone they know and everyone they know and all the strangers on the street (and everyone they know) all have unique stories, too. And then, while we are savoring these brief yet occasionally momentous detours, the author skillfully guides us back into Mary Byrd’s own messy story for the resolution we came to see. A resolution made a bit more complicated by the awareness that the novel is based on a true incident: the unsolved molestation and murder of the author’s own little brother. Life is messy, indeed.

Above the East China Sea
By Sarah Bird

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‘Above the East China Sea’ by Sarah Bird. 336 pp. Knopf. $25.95 hardcover. ()

I almost gave up on this novel in the first 15-20 pages, when I became irritated by the cutesy nicknames of the characters and annoyed by the mystical premise that the souls of Okinawans stayed “alive,” seeking to capture a living person’s soul. I say this only to admit how wrong I would have been and to beg of any reader having a similar experience: do not give up on this book. Split between a modern-day girl living on a United States military base in Okinawa and a young Okinawan girl who was briefly a student nurse during World War II, Sarah Bird’s Above the East China Sea is engaging, haunting, and illuminating. The contemporary Luz James, a military brat, lives with her sergeant mother. Since her soldier sister’s recent death in the Afghan War, Luz has been despondent and contemplates suicide. Decades earlier, (on the same Okinawan island) young Tamiko Kokuba committed suicide after believing she had lost her sister and family—and that Japan had lost the war. Dispirited and lost, Luz stumbles across Tamiko’s haunted spirit and is inspired to investigate the girl’s history, and her own. With urgency and empathy, Above the East China Sea draws the reader into these two competing and vastly different worlds. Equally remarkably, it brings to light an element of history of which many are unaware: Okinawa’s part in World War II and specifically the dangerous role Okinawan schoolgirls played as nurses. As a history lesson, the book would be worth a read, but as a unique tale of friendship that defies time and space, it is poignant and deeply memorable.

Bulletproof Vest
By Maria Venegas

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‘Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter’ by Maria Venegas. 321 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26 hardcover. ()

Could you handle knowing that your father was a marked man? Author Maria Venegas had no choice. Her father, Carlos, lived as an outlaw: shooting a man for the first time at age 12, engaging in lifelong feuds—one of which resulted in the murder of Maria’s brother—and being extradited from the United States for murder. At one point he took to wearing a bulletproof vest. Eventually, he left his wife and family and returned to Mexico, and for 14 years his daughter Maria refused to speak to him. Eventually, as she began to explore her childhood through writing, Maria decided to visit him in Mexico. Lacing her memoir with descriptions of Mexican towns and filling it with story after story of Carlos’ childhood and adulthood, Maria brings us along as she begins to renew and rebuild her relationship with her father. We ride the horses, hear the gunfire, and taste the alcohol along with them and understand how she comes to treasure their time while growing increasingly worried about his inevitable, violent end. Bulletproof Vest is a riveting, at times heartbreaking, meditation on the legacy of violence, and perhaps more importantly, the legacy of family.