‘ROUND MIDNIGHT: a tapestry of four diverse lives set against 50 years of a changing Las Vegas

’Round Midnight

By Laura McBride

Touchstone/Simon & Schuster: May 2, 2017

374 pages; $25.99

 

In just two novels, Laura McBride has become the unofficial Laureate of Las Vegas, depicting life on and beyond the Strip in vivid, occasionally wrenching detail. Her debut, We Are Called to Rise, made a strong impression with its interwoven narratives of disparate lives coming together in unexpected ways, with profoundly moving results. Her follow-up, ‘Round Midnight, uses a similar structure to probe the the lives of her four characters and the dramatic changes in her hometown since the 1950s.

The novel is told in three parts. The first part introduces the most complex of the characters, June Stein, a 21-year-old unhappily married proto-feminist who flees a life of looming suburban drudgery in 1950s New Jersey to create a life of her own choosing in Las Vegas.

“When she moved to Las Vegas, she was free of her marriage, free of certain expectations (not just those of others, but also her own)—free of a past she had never fully shouldered. And it was Vegas in the fifties, when it was a small town and a big town, when no one she had ever known would be likely to visit, when a young woman who enjoyed men and adventure and the casual breakdown of conventions was something of a community treasure.”

Before long, she is married to Odell (Del) Dibb, with whom she renovates a casino, the El Capitan. With the hiring of a charismatic black singer named Eddie Knox to perform in the Midnight Room, the El Capitan becomes one of the city’s hot spots. McBride perfectly captures the rapidly changing physical and cultural scene in Las Vegas, which is reflected as well in the liberal attitudes of June and Del and their close working relationship with Knox at a time when the city was still segregated. The plot soon becomes somewhat melodramatic, but it sets up one of the other sections of the narrative, which comes into play in the last half of the book.

Part Two of ’Round Midnight, set in 1992-93, tells the story of Honorata, a young woman from the Philippines who is essentially sold by her uncle to a wealthy but socially awkward man from Chicago when Honorata shames her family. He is frequently away on business, stranding Honorata in a world she barely comprehends and intensely despises. Eventually, he takes Honorata, whom he has renamed Rita, with him on a trip to Las Vegas, where she discovers that he is a high-stakes gambler who is well-known to the owners of the El Capitan casino.

As sometimes happens, a few days in Las Vegas changes her life.

Part Two is also the story of a young music teacher named Coral Jackson whose father, Ray, was Del Dibb’s best friend and right-hand man for many years until he died shortly before Coral was born. She had always known that Ray was not her father, for this reason and because she was obviously mixed race, but her mother refused to tell her the identity of her birth father. It didn’t seem important to her mother or her three siblings; as they always said, she was a Jackson through and through. But she always wondered. Through clever but generally plausible plot twists – connected to the El Capitan — Coral and Honorata meet and develop a tentative friendship.

The third part, set in 2010, introduces Engracia, a Mexican immigrant who worked as a maid at the El Capitan until her heartbreaking past caught up with her and set her on a life-altering path. The trajectories of Honorata, Coral, and Engracia intersect, eventually setting up the return to the narrative of an 80-year-old June Stein.

As in We Are Called to Rise, McBride juggles the various narrative strands skillfully, maintaining interest in the current character while holding the other characters in the near distance. At the same time, she seamlessly incorporates the sociocultural issues of each era into the respective characters’ lives: race relations in the 1950s, cultural and geographic displacement in the midst of Vegas’s boomtown years of the 90s, immigration in the last decade, and related racial and ethnic issues that arise out of the characters’ diversity of backgrounds. The real power of ’Round Midnight comes from McBride’s sensitive depiction of a range of internal and external conflicts and in the way these women change each other’s lives. All the while, Las Vegas, like the four protagonists, is steadily transformed.

’Round Midnight combines the best of plot-driven summer fiction with the kind of character studies and social, cultural, and economic context one finds in literary fiction. McBride has suffused this novel with a level of compassion and intelligence that makes the whole greater than the sum of its many parts.

Fathers’ Day favorites: 12 Novels by Women for the Men in Your Life

In honor of Fathers’ Day, I’ve compiled a list of novels by women that fathers (well, men in general, actually) should like. One of my objectives in starting this blog was to encourage men to read more fiction by women. I don’t think I’ve succeeded, but it’s a battle worth continuing to fight.

The following novels feature compelling characters  (both men and women), involving plots, a powerful sense of time and place, enough action to satisfy the typical male’s requirement that “something happens,” and that certain something that just makes me think they would appeal to guys.

Sparta cover art  Roxana-ROBINSON-2-C-David-Ignaszewski-koboy

Sparta — Roxana Robinson

Roxana Robinson’s Sparta  may well go down as the definitive depiction of the costs of war paid on the home front. In a gripping third person narrative, Robinson shadows Conrad Farrell upon his return from four years of front-line duty in Iraq. Sparta moves back and forth in time from Conrad’s tour of duty to his return home.

But the core of the story concerns his attempts to cope with PTSD, reestablish his relationships with his family, friends, and girlfriend Claire, and to reintegrate into a civilian world that he finds mystifying and occasionally even infuriating. He has left some crucial part of himself behind in Iraq and struggles to find his true self again. To an observer he appears to be the ideal American warrior specimen, but inside he is psychologically and emotionally shattered.

The last section of the book is something of a page-turning thriller, as the reader wonders what Conrad will do to solve what appear to him to be overwhelming and unsolvable difficulties. If I had to choose one novel about the experience of Iraq War veterans coming home that will still be read in 20 years — and likely considered a modern classic — it would be Sparta. It is required reading for anyone who cares about the human costs of war.

Hundred Year House paperback  Rebecca Makkai 2013

The Hundred-Year House — Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai’s sharp-witted sensibility is at work on every page of The Hundred-Year House, an entertaining and absorbing novel that combines genres into an appealing and unique hybrid. Her second novel (following 2011’s The Borrower) is a literary mystery, a multi-generational family saga, a ghost story, a portrait of several marriages, and an exploration of the creative life set in three different eras (1929, 1955, and 1999), reflected in the novel’s three sections.

It is 1999 and Doug and Zee Herriot have agreed to live in the expansive carriage house on the Chicago-area estate of Zee’s eccentric mother, Gracie Devohr, and her Y2K-obsesssed stepfather, Bruce. Zee is an English professor at the local university and Doug, currently unemployed, is researching the life of minor American poet Edwin Parfitt with plans to write a biography. What would possess a young couple to live with the wife’s parents? Well, the price is certainly right, but for Doug it’s the fact that Laurelfield was once an artists’ colony at which Parfitt was a regular guest.

Makkai has cleverly structured The Hundred-Year House in reverse, so we experience Doug’s investigation into the life of Edwin Parfitt and the estate’s past as we travel back to 1955, when the house changed from arts colony to a private residence once again, and 1929, when the colony was in its heyday. And the family’s secrets are also revealed by going back in time. Makkai juggles several plot strands with aplomb, and there are plenty of surprises in store for attentive readers who are trying to solve the mysteries of Laurelfield alongside Doug.

This is a wickedly plotted and colorfully peopled novel that makes for a completely engaging read, full of perplexing mysteries, skillfully revealed (and often twisted) explanations, and a palpable sense of time and place.

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We Are Called to Rise — Laura McBride

Laura McBride’s debut novel captures the times in which we live with a story that skillfully weaves four narrative strands into a compelling and unforgettable tapestry. Set in the neighborhoods of Las Vegas, We Are Called to Rise tells the stories of a middle-aged woman whose marriage has suddenly collapsed, an eight-year-old Albanian immigrant boy whose family is struggling culturally and economically, and a recently returned Iraq War vet with a head injury and PTSD. The fourth narrator, who appears occasionally, is a social worker who becomes a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for the boy.

The lives of these characters intersect in a moment of violence that is shocking and yet seemingly inevitable. The second half of the book explores the aftermath of an event that has left Bashkim’s future in limbo. Although alternating narrators can sap the momentum from a novel when not done well, McBride keeps the chapters to a manageable length and never keeps a character offstage for long. As a result, the story moves at a steady, increasingly tense pace. McBride presents us with a vision of a world in which good people step forward and try to make someone’s life better, in which a “new normal” can come out of a tragedy. In which little things matter immensely.

The Tusk That Did the Damage  Tania-James-1024x682-MelissaStewartPhotography

The Tusk That Did the Damage — Tania James

Occasionally a book comes seemingly from out of nowhere to grab you by your heart and mind and leave a permanent impression behind when you’re finished. It is a masterful work that explores the various aspects of the illegal ivory trade in southern India. By combining timeless conflicts among humans and between humans and both the animal kingdom and the natural world, James has crafted a book that will hold most readers spellbound.

James uses a three-pronged narrative to provide readers with a panoramic view of life in the highlands of southern India, where elephant poaching is widespread. The first narrator we encounter is “The Elephant,” known as the Gravedigger. He was orphaned as a calf and raised to be exhibited, but his years of mistreatment have led him to escape his captors for a life of freedom and revenge. When the opportunity is presented, he kills humans and “buries” them and attempts to cover them with brush, virtually “erasing” them in the process.

Then we are introduced to the first-person narrative of a studious and ambitious young man named Manu, who has known only a life of extreme poverty and abuse as the son of a rice farmer.

The third point of view is provided by an American documentary filmmaker, Emma, who has recently graduated college and, along with her best friend, Teddy, is attempting to make a film about an Indian veterinarian who is attempting to rescue elephants calves and reunite them with their mothers (who are said to reject calves if they have had contact with humans).

Manu’s older brother Jayan is a small-time criminal who is part of a large poaching ring. Manu dreams of education as his escape from a life of few options and struggles to stay out of Jayan’s life. While nothing truly excuses the ivory poachers, we learn what drives them to destroy these incredible creatures in order to obtain their valuable tusks.

James weaves the plot strands together, turning the screw steadily toward the story’s inevitable tragedy. For The Tusk That Did the Damage is a tragedy despite the best intentions of some characters. The core of the novel is the universal conflict between idealism and pragmatism. The Tusk That Did the Damage is a short, sharp shock of a book that will leave readers with much to think about.

Friendswood  Rene Steinke

Friendswood — Rene Steinke

Rene Steinke, author of the 2005 National Book Award finalist Holy Skirts, has returned to the literary scene after nearly a decade with a timely and absorbing novel. Friendswood explores two issues that are seemingly discrete but are actually intertwined: corporate polluters turning a residential neighborhood into a toxic waste site and sexual abuse by high school athletes in a small town that worships football. In both cases, the immoral and possibly illegal behavior of privileged actors is indulged by the majority, who value economic growth and athletic prowess over questioning their way of life, the choices they make, and the cost of both.

The narrative is shared by four characters. Lee is a mother turned single-minded environmental activist when her teenage daughter Jess dies from a strange cancer. Jess’s death eventually drove Lee and her husband apart; now her life revolves around her part-time job in a doctor’s office and monitoring the adjacent property, the site of a former refinery. When she discovers that the site is belching toxins from the soil again, Lee moves from vigilant to vigilante.

Hal is a former mediocre high school athlete struggling to make a living in real estate; he is living vicariously through the athletic exploits of his son, Cully, and hoping that a recent religious rebirth will save him, his business, and his wilting marriage. Willa is a 15-year-old student with an artistic streak and an eccentric persona that doesn’t fit easily into the culture of this small town located between Houston and the Gulf. Dex is a classmate of Willa and Cully with more on his mind than just football and girls. Their lives intersect in ways they could not predict, even though readers probably can.

Time has passed since the toxic cleanup and town leaders believe part of the former refinery property is safe for new residential development. Big shot developer and former football star Avery Taft wants to bring this project to fruition, and Hal is desperate to persuade Taft to retain him for his realtor services. Lee has discovered worrisome materials during her nocturnal prowling behind the fences and attempts to alert the few influential people who are sympathetic to her unpopular obsession. Dex develops a romantic interest in Willa, as Cully begins to see her as an easily manipulated potential conquest.

Steinke grew up in the actual Friendswood, Texas, and she knows small towns and their residents well; she knows that football, religion, and the oil business are often the Holy Trinity in such places.

Kind of Kin  Rilla Askew

Kind of Kin — Rilla Askew

Kind of Kin author Rilla Askew deserves high praise for managing to explore the lives of those on both sides of the immigration issue without turning it into a one-sided screed. While Askew’s position is clear, Kind of Kin uses multiple narratives to put us inside the kaleidoscope of immigration politics at the national, state, and local levels.

The novel’s protagonist is Georgia “Sweet” Kirkendall. Her father, Bob Brown, a taciturn but respected local mainstay in the tiny town of Cedar, Oklahoma, has been arrested for harboring illegal aliens in his barn, to the surprise and disappointment of friends and family. Even more strange is the fact that he refuses to hire a lawyer or put up a defense.

His parentless grandson, 10-year-old Dustin, is forced to stay with Sweet, who is already struggling with her own son, a young bully named Carl Albert, and her husband, who works long hours out of town and has grown emotionally distant from Sweet and Carl Albert. At the same time, Luis Celayo has entered the U.S. illegally to search for his long-lost sons, who went north to work. The plot is enriched considerably by the fact that Sweet’s niece, Misty, is married to an illegal alien who has been deported but has made his way back into the country. Then Dustin disappears, and the hunt for him drives the story to its dramatic conclusion.

While on paper the plot may sound melodramatic, it does not read that way. Instead, it comes across as a realistic depiction of the many lives affected by the political decisions made on the issue of immigration and immigrants’ rights. The narrative is fast-moving, the various viewpoints are woven together smoothly and logically, and the characters act like real people, not cardboard cut-outs intended to stand in for points in a political or legal argument.

Kind of Kin is a deeply involving story whose headlong momentum makes you turn the pages faster as the novel progresses. Kind of Kin would make a great choice for book clubs, as there is much to chew on within its 400 pages of powerful prose. For everyone else, it is worthy of this high praise: It is a terrific, thought-provoking book that you won’t be able to put down or soon forget.

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The Home Place — Carrie La Seur

In Carrie La Seur’s masterful debut novel, The Home Place, her protagonist, Alma Terrebonne, has done everything possible to leave her dysfunctional family and its tragic history behind in Montana. She escaped by earning a scholarship to a small college outside Philadelphia. Having distinguished herself there, she then attended Yale Law School. Now, fifteen years after the winter car accident that killed her parents and took her younger sister Vicky’s leg, Alma is a hard-charging workaholic corporate attorney in Seattle living the sophisticated urban life. She is content, or has at least persuaded herself that is the case.

But a phone call from Billings changes everything. Vicky has been found dead of exposure in one of the city’s drug-infested neighborhoods, and Alma is called home to help arrange for the funeral.  Once back in Billings, she learns the details of Vicky’s death, which generally appears accidental but which has also raised a few red flags for Detective Ray Curtis, a Crow Indian whom Alma knew in high school. With her lawyerly mind now fully engaged by a complex problem, Alma works with Curtis to dig out the truth of Vicky’s death from under its mysterious circumstances. They are both suspicious of some of Vicky’s acquaintances, who are involved in the meth manufacturing and distributing business.

While her mind is thus engaged, Alma is pulled back into the past by her family and their ancestral ranch an hour out of Billing, “the home place.” Her grandmother Maddie is still the loving and feisty white-haired matriarch, but age has caught up with her. Eleven-year-old Brittany had been living an unsettled life with Vicky and is now in need of a guardian. Matters are complicated further by a predatory coal mining company “land man” who is trying to get neighboring ranchers to sell their property.

La Seur has woven all these strands into a seamless tapestry. The Home Place is a character study of Alma’s belated coming-of-age as she faces her family’s tragic past and complicated present, a mystery that becomes increasingly suspenseful, and a love letter to the Big Sky country of southeastern Montana. In many ways, The Home Place is the type of novel I like best: literary fiction with an ethical dilemma or mystery at its core, well-written and respectful of readers’ intelligence, but warm-hearted and well-paced.

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The Bees — Laline Paull

The Bees combines the best traits of a thriller, a character study, a hero’s quest, and a dystopian fantasy to powerful effect Just as Richard Adams made readers care deeply about a warren of rabbits in his 1973 classic, Watership Down (perhaps the best novel for adults featuring anthropomorphized animals), Laline Paull’s The Bees will have readers worrying about the many threats, both external and internal, to the members of one hive in an English orchard.

Flora 717 is a dutiful member of the sanitation workers, the lowest caste in the hive, when it is discovered that she can speak (the “flora kin” group is mute). For her part, Flora is deeply conflicted between her genetic predisposition to “Accept, Obey, and Serve” (the workers’ mantra) and her rational and critical mind, which causes her to question, disobey, and ultimately lead.

As she demonstrates her intelligence, bravery, and devotion to the Queen, she moves up literally and figuratively in the world of the hive. But her proximity to the Queen, the Priestesses, and the drones makes her privy to knowledge she would be better off not knowing. Before long, Flora has become a threat to the Queen in a way she could never have imagined.

Beyond its intense and exciting plot, The Bees is distinguished by its well-drawn and credible characters. On one hand, Flora is consciously reluctant to follow her own path, for nothing could be less like a bee, yet she is compelled to take certain actions, as if her mind is being controlled by a force greater than herself.

The novel’s other noteworthy accomplishment is the way Paull has seamlessly incorporated a wealth of fascinating information about bees without bogging down the narrative. Her background in screenwriting has resulted in a cinematic thriller with several scenes you are unlikely to forget. The Bees begs to be turned into a movie; the question is whether the CGI experts will dare to attempt it.

Paull has provided filmmakers with a riveting story featuring a gamut of memorable characters and a unique setting. In the meantime, readers have the opportunity to experience The Bees in the movie theater of their own mind.

Man Alive paperback 10-7-14  Mary Kay Zuravleff

Man Alive! — Mary Kay Zuravleff

We are all fascinated by the idea of a person being struck by lightning. What is the actual experience like? How harmful is it (since we know victims are not always killed)? What effects is the victim left with? Are they changed psychologically or spiritually, in addition to the physical changes? How do their families cope with such a shocking event? Or maybe I’m one of the few people who wonders about these things.

Man Alive! answers these questions with the story of psychiatrist Owen Lerner, who is struck by lightning while putting a quarter into a parking meter one inclement afternoon during his family’s summer vacation at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware.

In the weeks and months that follow, Owen recovers from his physical wounds (entry and exit points of the lightning, skin grafts for burns, etc.). But it is his psychological changes that throw the Lerner family off its axis and into a spinout. The long months of recovery wear on his wife Toni’s patience, especially the changes in Owen’s personality: the frequent space-outs, odd and even offensive comments similar to Tourette’s Syndrome, and his preoccupation with barbecuing. Owen’s relationships with college student twins Will and Ricky and 16-year-old daughter Brooke become increasingly confused and fraught with misunderstandings.  And Owen becomes his own ultimate psychiatric patient, suffering from several disorders at once.

As with any involving novel, Man Alive! is full of the conflicts large and small, profound and mundane, found in most families. But the stakes are higher. Will Owen ever fully recover and become himself again? Or is this new Owen the permanent Owen? What effect will that have on his marriage with Toni?

Zuravleff explores the characters, conflicts, and questions with sympathy and a cutting wit. She takes Owen’s predicament seriously but also finds much humor in his shifting personality and struggle to reground himself in the life he has known. The fast, snappy dialogue among the members of this smart, ambitious family provides much-needed humor to balance this serious examination of a man, a marriage, and a family. Man Alive! is an intriguing examination of the way extreme situations can utterly alter marital and family dynamics and how humans react to change both inside and outside themselves.

River of Dust  Virginia Pye

River of Dust — Virginia Pye

One of the great joys of the reading life is the ability to travel to other times and places, to experience life among other peoples and cultures. Virginia Pye’s River of Dust, though not a joyful novel, offers those pleasures in abundance. River of Dust is a character study of a man of great faith enduring a spiritual crisis, a close examination of the dynamics in a young marriage, a suspenseful missing persons story, and a jaundiced travelogue.

A few years after the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900, Reverend John Wesley Watson and his young wife, Grace, have been sent by the church to engage in missionary work in the small Chinese city of Fenchow-fu in the drought-stricken country northwest of Beijing. After making a name for himself building schools, roads, and a hospital, the Reverend (as he is called throughout the book) and Grace, along with their three-year-old son Wesley, move out of the missionary compound to a tumbledown house well outside of town. Before they can even move their bags into the house, a pair of Mongol bandits accosts them and kidnaps Wesley. The compelling plot of River of Dust is thus set in motion. Who are these men, why did they steal Wesley, and what do they want with him?

The Reverend becomes justifiably obsessed with hunting down the nomads and reclaiming his son. He sets out with his man, 60-year-old (but very capable) Ahcho, riding across the badlands in search of the bandits and young Wesley. Many Chinese mock the Reverend and his “Lord Jesus.” They call him “Ghost Man,” some with grudging respect, some sarcastically.

River of Dust is the story of this young couple’s encounter with a strange nation: its wide range of people, incomprehensible culture, and primitive religious superstitions. Like most imperialists, whether political or religious, the Watsons and their fellow missionaries believe they understand China and its people’s needs and that they can make a difference in their lives. They soon discover that this may not be the case. China is far more complex than they had imagined.

Pye has done a masterful job blending several elements into a story about sympathetic characters operating under the most challenging of circumstances. There is much here that will fascinate, surprise, and even shock the historically and culturally curious reader.

The Enchanted  Rene Denfeld

The Enchanted — Rene Denfeld

There are some subjects one would not imagine being interested in reading a novel about. A story concerning the prisoners in a rundown prison’s Death Row and those who work with them — the warden, a female legal investigator hired for death penalty cases, and a fallen priest — might seem to be just such a novel. But there are also some novels that are so special that they transcend their subject matter by creating a reading experience that leaves an indelible impression on one’s heart and mind.

Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted is just such a novel. The Enchanted is an absorbing and haunting meditation about finding beauty and peace amidst unrelenting violence and heartlessness, the nature of sin and salvation, and forms of love in the most unlikely of places.

The Enchanted is narrated by an unnamed Death Row prisoner in the oldest prison in the state, a stone fortress in which the walls weep from the omnipresent Pacific Northwest moisture. The investigator, known only as “the lady,” is working on the case of another prisoner named York, whose crimes are of such an inhuman nature that they are not even mentioned by the narrator — who admits that his own crimes are so heinous that they too should never again be spoken of.  The priest is a broken man who has violated his vows and has come to the prison as both a last stop and a chance at some form of salvation. The warden is a good man doing a difficult job about which he has no qualms; some people’s crimes justify the punishment of death, but he takes no pleasure or satisfaction in seeing it carried out.

It is an irony common to much of the greatest literature that one can write about inconceivably dark, painful subjects with one’s heart, soul, and mind open to the beauty and satisfaction that can sometimes be found in such circumstances. As tragedies from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller show, one can experience catharsis and be ennobled from reading about a flawed and deeply human character’s life and their experience of death.

StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes  Emily St. John Mandel by Dese'Rae L. Stage

Station Eleven — Emily St. John Mandel

In this spellbinding novel of a post-apocalyptic world, St. John Mandel ponders whether art can save us — or at least help us to maintain our humanity long enough to start rebuilding our world. Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and made the long-list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (UK). It was also a huge bestseller, proving that thought-provoking literary fiction can be embraced by mainstream readers.

Station Eleven begins with the death of famous actor Arthur Leander during a performance of King Lear on a winter night in Toronto. EMT Jeevan Chaudhary is in the audience and attempts to save Leander, to no avail. Watching from behind a pillar onstage is eight-year-old child actress Kirstin Raymonde.

Later that night, Chaudhary receives a phone call from his friend, an ER doctor at a Toronto hospital, telling him the so-called Georgian Flu (from the former Soviet Republic) appears to have reached Canada and is worse than anyone expected. He advises Chaudhary to get out of Toronto immediately but not via the airport, since that is where the flu entered the country. In short order — dramatically and plausibly rendered by St. John Mandel — millions perish and the city goes dark. Chaudhary eventually decides to risk heading out for safer territory to the south.

The novel then begins its many shifts in time and place, moving back in time to examine Arthur Leander’s life. Then we move forward 20 years, after the flu has wiped out most of humanity, at least as far as the survivors along the west coast of Michigan know. Living in small groups, people carve out a brutal living in former towns and isolated outposts.

Moving among these locations is the Traveling Symphony, former members of the symphony combined with an acting troupe. The TS community includes Kirstin Raymonde, the child actress who was onstage with Arthur Leander the night he died. This group of artists appears to be the most democratic and socially cohesive group of survivors. Will their art be enough to salvage and maintain their humanity and bring it back to the feral people they encounter?

Station Eleven is a riveting read from start to finish. St. John Mandel’s vision of the nightmarish “end of the world” is frightening without being gory, as well as generally plausible. There is a deep thoughtfulness and measured tone to her writing that keeps Station Eleven from becoming a melodrama. The result is a haunting, heartbreaking tale of humanity brought to its knees, humbled, and then slowly able to begin creating a new world, in which they can see glimmers of light on the horizon.

Other recommended novels:

The Untold — Courtney Collins

The Gods of Gotham — Lyndsay Faye

A Guide for the Perplexed — Dara Horn

Black River — S.M. Hulse

The Moor’s Account — Laila Lalami

The Cutting Season — Attica Locke

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste — Valerie Martin

The Half Brother — Holly McCraw

Jacob’s Folly — Rebecca Miller

The Goldfinch — Donna Tartt

WE ARE CALLED TO RISE captures intersection of lives in the real Las Vegas, inspires with humanity

We Are Called to Rise paperback U.S.  we-are-called-to-rise-UK paperbackUK

We Are Called to Rise

By Laura McBride

Simon & Schuster: April 28, 2015

320 pages, $15.00

Laura McBride’s debut novel captures the times in which we live with a story that skillfully weaves four narrative strands into a compelling and unforgettable tapestry. Set in the neighborhoods of Las Vegas, We Are Called to Rise tells the stories of a middle-aged woman whose marriage has suddenly collapsed, an eight-year-old Albanian immigrant boy whose family is struggling culturally and economically, and a recently returned Iraq War vet with a head injury and PTSD. The fourth narrator, who appears occasionally, is a social worker who becomes a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for the boy.

The first half of the book introduces us to the lives of the main characters in alternating chapters. Avis is forced to cope with her hotel executive husband’s surprising request for a divorce when she should be overjoyed with the return of her son Nate from Iraq. He has completed police academy training and is about to join the Las Vegas Police Department. Nate’s young wife, Lauren, is even more thrilled to have him home. But something about Nate seems off. He’s impatient, prone to angry outbursts, and abusive to Lauren. So while Avis tries to determine where her marriage went wrong and what she should do next, she tries to save Nate and his marriage.

Bashkim is a sweet-natured, bright boy who is thriving in school and keeping a watchful eye on his little sister, Tirana. His parents own an ice-cream truck, a seemingly failsafe source of income in the Nevada desert; yet the Ahmeti family is in financial trouble. But his father was a political prisoner in Albania and remains hostile and even paranoid. He has isolated the family from everyone, including the local Albanian immigrants. Bashkim’s mother attempts to hold the family together and serve as a buffer between her husband and the children but bears the brunt of her husband’s discontent.

Army Specialist Luis Rodriguez is being treated at Walter Reed Hospital for a head injury and PTSD after two traumatic incidents in Iraq, which have left him wracked with guilt. He hopes to return home to Las Vegas to live with his abuela(grandmother), who raised him, until he can figure out what his options are.

The lives of these characters intersect in a moment of violence that is shocking and yet seemingly inevitable. The second half of the book explores the aftermath of an event that has left Bashkim’s future in limbo. The conclusion, while perhaps stretching the boundaries of plausibility somewhat, is emotionally fulfilling.

McBride’s ability to fully inhabit each of these characters is an act of supreme authorial empathy. The four narrative voices are distinct, idiosyncratic and, most importantly, instantly credible. You will love some of these people and respect others, but you will care about all of them. They are as real as your friends and neighbors.

Another strength of We Are Called to Rise is the pacing. Although alternating narrators can sap the momentum from a novel when not done well, McBride keeps the chapters to a manageable length and never keeps a character offstage for long. As a result, the story moves at a steady, increasingly tense pace.

There is a paradoxical sense of foreboding and hope in these pages; one feels the plot strands coming together inexorably, but McBride’s tone and the reader’s inherent optimism combine to maintain a feeling of hopefulness. These characters have such big hearts and good intentions that one roots for them despite knowing that circumstances rarely turn out as one would like; life so often chews up and spits out people that it can seem as if that is its purpose. But when we doubt the presence of God or an overarching purpose, we can find it if we look for the people who are trying to help. Readers will find those helpers in We Are Called to Rise.

My only quibble with the book is the overuse of names in dialogue. People simply do not use each other’s names this often when they’re talking. It occasionally detracted from the otherwise believable and mostly natural-sounding dialogue.

McBride has used the setting of suburban Las Vegas effectively. A longtime resident, she shows us the real Las Vegas, where working people live, love, go to school, marry, and raise children. Its neighborhoods are both Middle America and sui generis.

“Most Las Vegas children don’t grow up quickly. They aren’t fast like their coastal counterparts. In Vegas, children pass through their novel environment unconsciously, lacing up their cleats or humming to the radio while a parent maneuvers through the traffic on the Strip; while bare-chested men thrust pornographic magazines at open car windows, while women wearing a few feathers leer seductively from billboards, while millions of neon bulbs flash “Loosest Slots in Town” and “Babes Galore.” And still the children don’t notice. They’ve been taught not to notice, and it’s only the transplanted ones – the children who arrive from Boston when they are nine – who think to tell their friends back home about the naked billboards, the “Live Nude” signs, the doggy-sex flyers.”

“The families just off the Strip – the ones occupying mile after mile of nearly identical stucco houses – live conservative lives at home. Dad might be a dealer, mixing with high rollers at Caesar’s five nights a week, Mom might be a waitress, wearing a butt-skimming skirt at forty-seven, but home is for another life….It can be cloying, it can be surprising, but after a while, it simply becomes the way it is. And the good in it, the old-fashioned neighborly niceness of it all, is one of the reasons people stay in Vegas, stay even if they can’t explain quite why, even if they tell their friends they hate it, that the place is a dump, that off the Strip there is nothing to do, even if they worry about schools and bemoan the lack of art and feel stranded in the stark vastness of the Mojave Desert.”

As a lifelong Californian with two family members who’ve lived in Las Vegas for 15-20 years, I can vouch for the fact that this is as accurate a description of the real place as you will ever read.

Roberta, who provides the closest thing to an objective viewpoint, describes how these children go off to war, having been raised in a city with a large military presence.

“In Las Vegas, armed forces recruiting centers dot the landscape like Starbucks shops, across from every high school, near every major intersection. Everyone knows someone in the military. Thousands of people live on the base at Nellis; many thousands owe their livelihoods to it. Schoolchildren thrill to the roar of Thunderbird air shows, commuters estimate their chances of making it to work on time when they see four jets return to base in formation each morning.

“We send our children off, knowing that they will grow up, thinking the military will give them security, hoping they won’t be hurt, praying they won’t die, believing that ours is a patriotic choice. And our children come back with that war deep within them: a war fought with powerful weapons and homemade ones, a war fought by trained fighters and twelve-year-old boys, a war fought to preserve democracy, to extract revenge, to safeguard oil, to establish dominance, to change the world, to keep the world exactly the same. Yes, Vegas children fight America’s wars. These most American, least American of children, these children of the nation’s brightest hidden city: the city that is an embarrassing tic, a secret shame, a giddy relief, a knowing wink.”

McBride can write up a storm and, like the gods of old, she can throw down one perfectly aimed lightning bolt after another. At one point, Nate attempts to describe to Avis what it was like serving in Iraq. His explanation is the most comprehensive fictional depiction I have yet encountered of what it is like to fight in that complicated conflict and how it feels to come home to a completely clueless civilian population with the war still going on in your head.

“You can’t imagine, Mom. What it was like there. What we had to do. I thought I would die every day. Every hour…. You’re afraid of the kids. You’re afraid of the old ladies. You’re scared as hell of any rock you can’t see around, any building with a hole up high, where a gun might come through. You’re looking for it all the time. You’re seeing it even when it isn’t there…. And then you get back. And you’re home…It’s like a dream. Only you’re still so damn jittery. And I’m still looking for that hole in the wall up high, and the rock, and the kid with the bomb. I’m looking for it all the time. I can’t stop. If I hadn’t been looking when I was there, I’d be dead. I wouldn’t be here, Mom.”

Ultimately, though, McBride presents us with a vision of a world in which good people step forward and try to make someone’s life better, in which a “new normal” can come out of a tragedy. In which little things matter immensely.

“It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing. What is most beautiful is least acknowledged. What is worth dying for is barely noticed.”

We Are Called to Rise will carry you away for a few hours, break your heart, and then put it back together tentatively, the fragile pieces held together by hope and love and the little things that matter.

This review was originally posted on June 3, 2014 to coincide with the publication of the hardcover edition of We Are Called to Rise

What Are Some of Our Favorite Women Authors Reading This Summer?

Summer is the season when readers have more time to read than usual. Accordingly, there seems to be more talk than usual these days about what people are reading or planning to read. Inspired by a recent post on Robin Kall’s Reading with Robin blog, I thought I would ask several writers about their summer reading. 

I posed three questions to them: 

1. What have you read recently that impressed you (and that readers should know about)?

2. What are you currently reading?

3. What is in your To Be Read stack?

I received the nine responses that follow, each of which includes a book or books you will almost certainly want to read. There are more good books being published than ever, and there are still all those earlier books, from classics to last year’s overlooked books, so the options for readers are truly unlimited. 

Check back later this week for the second installment of Authors’ Summer Reading, featuring Katie Crouch, Kimberly Elkins, Patry Francis, Mira Jacob, Dylan Landis, Rebecca Makkai,  Virginia Pye, and others. 

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Laura McBride

I really enjoyed Molly Wizenberg’s memoir Delancey and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, I am loving Euphoria by Lily King right now, and I am looking forward to Long Man by Amy Greene, Funny Once by Antonya Nelson, and The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai.

[My review of We Are Called to Rise is here.]

Kahakauwila Paradise

Kristiana Kahakauwila

I just finished the novel The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (translation by Anne McLean), a lyric meditation on what it means to be Colombian, on fate and death, and at the same time, it reads like a murder mystery.

I’m reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony right now. I’m embarrassed it’s taken me this long! She handles that close third so intimately that I’m taking notes for my own first person narration.

And finally, next up is Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life. His nonfiction is thoughtful and lovely, so I’m looking forward to this first novel of his.

[My review of This is Paradise is here.]

laline-paull-the-bees

Laline Paull

Recently impressed by Horses of God by Mahi Binebine (translated from the French by Lulu Norman, Serpent’s Tail Press). Brutal, elegant, truthful imagining of the life of a young suicide bomber, from beyond the grave. Eloquent and compassionate, it asserts how poverty, ignorance and inequality, ultimately breeds atrocity. Not a beach book.

Also impressed by Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (Atlantic). Wonderful biographically accurate imagining of the life of E.M. (Morgan) Forster, before he wrote Passage to India. About class, empire, love, loss, and the mysterious alchemical process of writing. Believe it or not, a beach book – for me, anyway.

And I must mention the delightful The Vacationers by Emma Straub, and not just because of her amazing review of The Bees in the New York Times Review of Books — but because it is a sly delight, with characters as real and familiar as Armistead Maupin’s, and a delicate structure full of tension, pathos, and comic irony.  Loved it.

Next on my reading list: Her by Harriet Lane, and a lot of non-fiction research for my second novel, which I’m going to keep to myself for a bit.

And I’m currently reading My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, as my 15-year-old daughter demanded I do, so that we could discuss it. Jodi Picoult does for emotions what Lee Child does for the thriller — just keeps you turning the pages. Not sure how much I loved it — but I most definitely did admire her story-telling ability, which is brilliant. And even though I resent it a little, because I wasn’t love-love-loving the book, I did actually cry.

[My review of The Bees is here.]

2013-07-10-JessicaBlau  Wonder Bread Summer

Jessica Anya Blau

I just read Let Me See It by James Magruder. Fabulous. Deeply sad but also very funny. About two gay men coming of age in the era of AIDS. I also just read Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Stibbe. Charming, funny, and sweet letters written by a London nanny in the early 1980s.

Currently reading Patti Smith’s biography, Just Kids, and loving it. When I’m done I’ll be reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, The Signature of All Things.

[My review of The Summer of Naked Swim Parties is here.]

qualities-of-wood-pb-   Mary Vensel White

Mary Vensel White 

A book that recently impressed me, and in my opinion did not receive nearly the attention it deserved when it was released in May of this year, is Amy Rowland’s The Transcriptionist. It’s a unique novel that reminded me of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Both novels get inside the mind of someone living by, for, and through books; both maintain a sort of nostalgia for words and stories and both speak to current state of affairs between burgeoning technology and the printed word. The story concerns Lena, the sole transcriptionist of a fictional newspaper. She spends her days mostly alone, transcribing stories that come over the wires, and she relates pretty much everything that happens to books she’s read. When a blind woman with whom she had a brief encounter is killed by zoo lions, Lena becomes determined to find out more about what happened. It’s a timely, multi-faceted novel that will appeal to anyone who has spent a life in books.

I’m currently reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, but before you become too impressed with my erudite summer selection, I will tell you that I’m operating at about a 70% comprehension rate reading this book. I don’t know what the problem is—I had a minor in history, after all (!)—and normally love historical fiction. Maybe it’s the huge cast of characters, most of whom are named Anne, Mary, John or Thomas, or the way the book jumps from place to place. But it’s something about the style, too. In and out of Cromwell’s thoughts, confusing perspective, pesky pronouns. Every so often, a paragraph begins with “He” and I have no idea who she’s talking about. Most of the time, it’s Cromwell, but still, it drives me crazy. This book is a rollercoaster for me; there are times when I think it’s utterly brilliant and other times when I’m not sure how I’ll finish the next five pages.

Next up is book two in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, so hopefully, I’ll have found a groove with Mantel’s style by then.

[My review of The Qualities of Wood is here.]

Vanessa Blakeslee Train Shots

Vanessa Blakeslee

Last month I was in residence as an Edward F. Albee fellow and devoured several collections by Alice Munro that I’d never gotten to: Dear Life, The Beggar Maid, Runaway, The Moons of Jupiter. To me, Munro is always impressive for her time-jumps, her use of dreams and subplot devices, and the sheer breathtaking force of her characters’ illuminations. But The Beggar Maid impressed me the most, for how those stories could be read as distinctly separate but when assembled, achieve the effect of a novel so naturally, without a hint of strain. As someone who is wrestling with two different novel-in-stories projects for several years, I’m in awe.

I’m currently reading two books by Pamela Erens, The Understory and The Virgins, as a review assignment for Kenyon Review Online.

I’m eager to read Edan Lepucki’s California and the short stories of the Russian Nobel Prize-winner Ivan Bunin, which another writing fellow at the Albee Barn recently recommended. I’ll also be revisiting Aristotle’s Poetics, Horace’s Ars Poetica, and Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders for an upcoming podcast at The Drunken Odyssey with John King.

[My review of Train Shots is here.]

Sand Queen   Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict

I have just finished Abide By Me, by Elizabeth Strout, a lovely novel about the evil powers of gossip and the struggles of a good if simple man to stay that way. Strout is very good and getting to the heart of people in a few swift strokes, and encapsulating the culture of a small town.

Right now, I’m reading Sabina Murray’s collection of stories about the Philippines in World War Two, called The Caprices. I’m truly impressed by how well she captures the sinister absurdity of war and how she brings to life this obscure part of history. She inhabits her male characters brilliantly, and every story shows off a different voice and tone. The book won the PEN Faulkner when it came out. I can see why.

Next up is Orphan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. I was just in Istanbul and want to keep reading him.

[My review of Sand Queen is here.]

Ronlyn Domingue   the-chronicle-of-secret-riven

Ronlyn Domingue

Wolf Skin by Mary McMyne. So I’m blatantly giving attention to one of my best friends here. Mary writes in several genres, and her first poetry chapbook released this summer. It’s a spectacular mix of fairy tale retellings and a woman’s reflections about her mother. Author Jeannine Hall Gailey describes the poems as “at the nexus of science and mythology.”

The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. This is on my stack for research purposes. Along with the myths—written in a serious yet descriptive style—Graves includes the sources where he found the myths and comments to explain or expand on the narrative. Every time I pick it up, I keep thinking it’s time for us to evolve into a new era of myths without so much power-over, rape, and vengeance.

Bees Make the Best Pets by Jack Mingo. My mom gave me this book because I love bees. It makes for quirky, relaxing night reading and, as a bonus, lets me get some enjoyable research done at the same time. Fun fact…when bees fly, the sound of their wings makes the note B natural.

[My review of The Chronicle of Secret Riven is coming soon!]

An Unexpected Guest   Anne Korkeakivi

Anne Korkeakivi
Impressed, in an unfortunate way: I’ve read many excellent books this past year, but in early summer, I hit a rut where I managed to read five thoroughly disappointing novels in a row. The experience reminded me what a delicate balancing act writing fiction is.

I am currently reading an ARC of Michelle Bailat-Jones’s beautiful novel, Fog Island Mountains, winner of The Center for Fiction’s 2013 Christopher Doheny Award.

Pulling one book off my TBR shelf is scary, a bit like that old game Pick Up Sticks. Will they all tumble? I *think* next up will be Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, A Still Small Voice.

[My review of An Unexpected Guest is here.]

 

A conversation with Laura McBride: “To me, a novelist’s research is about picking up tone and voice, and the occasional telling detail. From there, it has to be a work of personal imagination.”

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Laura McBride’s first novel, We Are Called to Rise, was published by Simon & Schuster on June 3. It is receiving well-deserved acclaim for its powerful depiction of the intersecting lives of four widely varying characters in “off-the-Strip” Las Vegas. It is as timely and relevant as any novel I’ve read in recent years. We Are Called to Rise is one of those special novels that has something for everyone. [Read my review here.]

What inspired you to write We Are Called to Rise? I understand that the book’s turning point is based on an actual event.

I often start thinking about a story from some bit of news that catches my attention.  It is a kind of a mental game – to ask how could that have happened, who would have done it, why – and I have done it for many years.  I can write a hundred pages on hearing an intriguing thirty seconds!  I was inspired to write a novel for the experience of writing one itself.  It is something I had long wanted to do, and the process was something I enjoyed very much.

Did you always conceive of telling the story with multiple narrators, or did that approach occur to you after you’d written a draft in third person or through the eyes of a single character? Why did you opt for the four first-person narrators rather than an omniscient narrator?

I had heard that novels with first person narrators might be more likely to be published. (I have no idea if this is true, but I thought I might as well give myself every chance I can.)  The first person voice is quite restrictive, so I decided to use several narrators in order to be able to tell the full story.

I was so impressed by how convincingly you inhabited four completely different characters in order to make each work as a first-person narrator. That is an act of great imagination and artistic empathy. In particular, what was the key to getting inside the mind of an 8-year-old Albanian immigrant boy?

I’m not sure.  What I did was imagine myself as a child, and put myself into some of Bashkim’s situations.  What would the world look like to him? What would others do, and how would he interpret that?  His voice came very easily, once I committed myself to trying it.  It was so mentally engaging –  to imagine the world from the viewpoint of a child.  I loved writing in his voice.

When most Americans think of immigrants today, they tend to think of Mexicans. Yet we know that immigrants come from nearly every country. Why did you choose to make Bashkim an Albanian boy?

I wasn’t thinking of him as a type, as a typical anything, or even as an immigrant at all.  That’s not the way I approach stories.  He could have been from anywhere, and once I had given him a few details, he just grew into himself.  It’s only when it was time to market  the story that I started to think: oh, it is a book about an immigrant, or about war.  Also I don’t particularly associate the word immigrant with Mexicans.  As you say, the whole history of our nation is immigrants.

While Bashkim is the central character in the plot, I found Avis to be the heart of the novel. She is such a well-conceived and -executed character. Her mother was a nomadic drug addict who neglected Avis and her little brother Rodney. Yet by sheer force of will, we learn through flashbacks, she has created a better life for herself. As the novel begins, she is an upper-middle class suburban wife whose husband suddenly announces he’s leaving her for a younger woman. She is also the mother of a son recently returned from Iraq who does not seem like himself but refuses help, a caring mother-in-law, and part of a circle of close female friends she has known for decades. She has suffered so much, yet she seems to represent the fact that “we are called to rise,” to overcome and be more than what happens to us. Can you talk about your vision of Avis and her role in the novel?

I love Avis too, and I appreciate your comments here.  Avis was very difficult to write.  I saw her as a woman who had spent her whole life very much on her own, having to figure things out without models or people to show her the way. In middle age, she faces challenges that make her think about her life and her choices, and she doesn’t even know if that reflection is something one should do. To me, Avis is brave and reflective and independent.  She relies on herself.  

What kind of research did you do in creating the character of Specialist Luis Rodriguez? You cover his traumatic experiences in Iraq, his long recovery in Walter Reed Hospital, and his relationships with Dr. Ghosh, his abuela, and Bashkim so believably. Have you had college students who were Iraq War vets?

Yes, I often have soldiers in my classes, and while we do not particularly discuss their experiences, things sometimes come out.  I have been paying attention.  I also did a novelist’s sort of research (as opposed to an academic’s); I read blogs by soldiers and went on chat rooms that were populated by people associated with the military.  To me, a novelist’s research is about picking up tone and voice, and the occasional telling detail. From there, it has to be a work of personal imagination.

Another impressive aspect of We Are Called to Rise is your accurate depiction of the Las Vegas where people live their real lives, and your insight into the effect living there has on people. My mother has lived in Henderson for 15 years, so I’ve become familiar with the non-tourist areas of metro Las Vegas, and your descriptions are spot-on, both physically and culturally. There is such a strong sense of place in your book that “off-the-strip Vegas” feels like another character. Tell me about your thinking behind making such an unglamorous place so central to the story.

Well, I have lived here for 25 years, and I think it is a very interesting place, so it was natural to set a story here. Las Vegas is fascinating because it is a boomtown.  It attracts 40 million tourists each year, but it has also attracted millions of new residents in a short period of time.  We came from all over the world, from all sorts of backgrounds, for all sorts of reasons.  And the place, a dusty desert city, was not ready for us.  That explosion of people, and the lack of infrastructure to accommodate them,  makes for some crazy events.  Those of us who lived here learned how to help each other; we turned to our neighbors – who did not look or talk or think like each other – and created communities.  Las Vegas is not a utopia, but it does succeed at social mobility, it often succeeds at diversity, and it has given many people a second, a third, even a fourth chance.  As far as I’m concerned, it is a novelist’s dream.

When did you write We Are Called to Rise? In your free time during the school year, during breaks from school, at writing retreats like Yaddo? What was Yaddo like for someone who did not have an MFA or move in those literary circles?

I had a sabbatical in the spring of 2012, and I wrote it that semester. I went to Yaddo for a month at the end of that term, and I finished the novel there.  I did some rewriting and additions during the next six months, while I was teaching.  I like to focus intensely on what I am doing, so each of those rewrites was done in a concentrated rush of days, working 10-12 hours at a time, over a weekend or a school break.

How did you come to use a line from an Emily Dickinson poem as the book’s title? It’s so fitting.

It is fitting, and I did choose it, but it was my agent and her assistant who recognized what a great title it would make.  I sent them several possibilities, none of which seemed quite right to me, and they picked We Are Called to Rise.  I’m grateful for their strong sense of that title, because I think the sentiment does fit the book, though it was not what I was thinking about when I wrote it.  Also, I adore Emily Dickinson, particularly for her artistic courage and sureness.

WE ARE CALLED TO RISE captures life in the real Las Vegas, inspires with humanity

We Are Called to Rise

We Are Called to Rise

By Laura McBride

Simon & Schuster, June 3, 2014

320 pages, $25.00

Laura McBride’s debut novel captures the times in which we live with a story that skillfully weaves four narrative strands into a compelling and unforgettable tapestry. Set in the neighborhoods of Las Vegas, We Are Called to Rise tells the stories of a middle-aged woman whose marriage has suddenly collapsed, an eight-year-old Albanian immigrant boy whose family is struggling culturally and economically, and a recently returned Iraq War vet with a head injury and PTSD. The fourth narrator, who appears occasionally, is a social worker who becomes a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for the boy.

The first half of the book introduces us to the lives of the main characters in alternating chapters. Avis is forced to cope with her hotel executive husband’s surprising request for a divorce when she should be overjoyed with the return of her son Nate from Iraq. He has completed police academy training and is about to join the Las Vegas Police Department. Nate’s young wife, Lauren, is even more thrilled to have him home. But something about Nate seems off. He’s impatient, prone to angry outbursts, and abusive to Lauren. So while Avis tries to determine where her marriage went wrong and what she should do next, she tries to save Nate and his marriage.

Bashkim is a sweet-natured, bright boy who is thriving in school and keeping a watchful eye on his little sister, Tirana. His parents own an ice-cream truck, a seemingly failsafe source of income in the Nevada desert; yet the Ahmeti family is in financial trouble. But his father was a political prisoner in Albania and remains hostile and even paranoid. He has isolated the family from everyone, including the local Albanian immigrants. Bashkim’s mother attempts to hold the family together and serve as a buffer between her husband and the children but bears the brunt of her husband’s discontent.

Army Specialist Luis Rodriguez is being treated at Walter Reed Hospital for a head injury and PTSD after two traumatic incidents in Iraq, which have left him wracked with guilt. He hopes to return home to Las Vegas to live with his abuela (grandmother), who raised him, until he can figure out what his options are.

The lives of these characters intersect in a moment of violence that is shocking and yet seemingly inevitable. The second half of the book explores the aftermath of an event that has left Bashkim’s future in limbo. The conclusion, while perhaps stretching the boundaries of plausibility somewhat, is emotionally fulfilling.

McBride’s ability to fully inhabit each of these characters is an act of supreme authorial empathy. The four narrative voices are distinct, idiosyncratic and, most importantly, instantly credible. You will love some of these people and respect others, but you will care about all of them. They are as real as your friends and neighbors.

Another strength of We Are Called to Rise is the pacing. Although alternating narrators can sap the momentum from a novel when not done well, McBride keeps the chapters to a manageable length and never keeps a character offstage for long. As a result, the story moves at a steady, increasingly tense pace.

There is a paradoxical sense of foreboding and hope in these pages; one feels the plot strands coming together inexorably, but McBride’s tone and the reader’s inherent optimism combine to maintain a feeling of hopefulness. These characters have such big hearts and good intentions that one roots for them despite knowing that circumstances rarely turn out as one would like; life so often chews up and spits out people that it can seem as if that is its purpose. But when we doubt the presence of God or an overarching purpose, we can find it if we look for the people who are trying to help. Readers will find those helpers in We Are Called to Rise.

My only quibble with the book is the overuse of names in dialogue. People simply do not use each other’s names this often when they’re talking. It occasionally detracted from the otherwise believable and mostly natural-sounding dialogue.

McBride has used the setting of suburban Las Vegas effectively. A longtime resident, she shows us the real Las Vegas, where working people live, love, go to school, marry, and raise children. Its neighborhoods are both Middle America and sui generis.

“Most Las Vegas children don’t grow up quickly. They aren’t fast like their coastal counterparts. In Vegas, children pass through their novel environment unconsciously, lacing up their cleats or humming to the radio while a parent maneuvers through the traffic on the Strip; while bare-chested men thrust pornographic magazines at open car windows, while women wearing a few feathers leer seductively from billboards, while millions of neon bulbs flash “Loosest Slots in Town” and “Babes Galore.” And still the children don’t notice. They’ve been taught not to notice, and it’s only the transplanted ones – the children who arrive from Boston when they are nine – who think to tell their friends back home about the naked billboards, the “Live Nude” signs, the doggy-sex flyers.”

“The families just off the Strip – the ones occupying mile after mile of nearly identical stucco houses – live conservative lives at home. Dad might be a dealer, mixing with high rollers at Caesar’s five nights a week, Mom might be a waitress, wearing a butt-skimming skirt at forty-seven, but home is for another life….It can be cloying, it can be surprising, but after a while, it simply becomes the way it is. And the good in it, the old-fashioned neighborly niceness of it all, is one of the reasons people stay in Vegas, stay even if they can’t explain quite why, even if they tell their friends they hate it, that the place is a dump, that off the Strip there is nothing to do, even if they worry about schools and bemoan the lack of art and feel stranded in the stark vastness of the Mojave Desert.”

As a lifelong Californian with two family members who’ve lived in Las Vegas for 15-20 years, I can vouch for the fact that this is as accurate a description of the real place as you will ever read.

Roberta, who provides the closest thing to an objective viewpoint, describes how these children go off to war, having been raised in a city with a large military presence.

“In Las Vegas, armed forces recruiting centers dot the landscape like Starbucks shops, across from every high school, near every major intersection. Everyone knows someone in the military. Thousands of people live on the base at Nellis; many thousands owe their livelihoods to it. Schoolchildren thrill to the roar of Thunderbird air shows, commuters estimate their chances of making it to work on time when they see four jets return to base in formation each morning.

“We send our children off, knowing that they will grow up, thinking the military will give them security, hoping they won’t be hurt, praying they won’t die, believing that ours is a patriotic choice. And our children come back with that war deep within them: a war fought with powerful weapons and homemade ones, a war fought by trained fighters and twelve-year-old boys, a war fought to preserve democracy, to extract revenge, to safeguard oil, to establish dominance, to change the world, to keep the world exactly the same. Yes, Vegas children fight America’s wars. These most American, least American of children, these children of the nation’s brightest hidden city: the city that is an embarrassing tic, a secret shame, a giddy relief, a knowing wink.”

McBride can write up a storm and, like the gods of old, she can throw down one perfectly aimed lightning bolt after another. At one point, Nate attempts to describe to Avis what it was like serving in Iraq. His explanation is the most comprehensive fictional depiction I have yet encountered of what it is like to fight in that complicated conflict and how it feels to come home to a completely clueless civilian population with the war still going on in your head.

“You can’t imagine, Mom. What it was like there. What we had to do. I thought I would die every day. Every hour…. You’re afraid of the kids. You’re afraid of the old ladies. You’re scared as hell of any rock you can’t see around, any building with a hole up high, where a gun might come through. You’re looking for it all the time. You’re seeing it even when it isn’t there…. And then you get back. And you’re home…It’s like a dream. Only you’re still so damn jittery. And I’m still looking for that hole in the wall up high, and the rock, and the kid with the bomb. I’m looking for it all the time. I can’t stop. If I hadn’t been looking when I was there, I’d be dead. I wouldn’t be here, Mom.”

Ultimately, though, McBride presents us with a vision of a world in which good people step forward and try to make someone’s life better, in which a “new normal” can come out of a tragedy. In which little things matter immensely.

“It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing. What is most beautiful is least acknowledged. What is worth dying for is barely noticed.”

We Are Called to Rise will carry you away for a few hours, break your heart, and then put it back together tentatively, the fragile pieces held together by hope and love and the little things that matter.

Guest Blogger Laura McBride: My Year with Virginia Woolf

Laura McBride   Virginia Woolf

Laura McBride is the author of We Are Called to Rise, which is published today (June 3) by Simon & Schuster. She is a professor of English at the College of Southern Nevada in Henderson, just south of Las Vegas, where her novel is set. It has received strongly positive notices and is one of this summer’s must-reads. (Look for my review tomorrow and an interview shortly thereafter.) 

About a million years ago, when I was in college, I did my senior thesis on Virginia Woolf.  It was an odd choice of topic – for an American Studies major – but my department was an easygoing place.  They didn’t mind that I was preparing to launch my deepest academic work on a British author I knew nothing about.  They just asked me to find my own qualified advisor (which they might have thought would be limiting) so I queried my friends in the dining hall, and someone recommended J. Hillis Miller (a famed member of the Yale deconstructionists).  I made an appointment, and asked if he would take me on.

I have no idea why he said yes.  I may have struck him as a raw primitive, he may just have been that sort of professor.  On that first day, he established the rules.  Read everything that Virginia Woolf had ever written, several times if possible.  Read the autobiography by her nephew Quentin Bell.  Read not one word of criticism or review.  Not an essay, not a book, not a damn student editorial.  And meet with him, once a week, for an hour, maybe two.  (Can you believe that?  Yale was great.)

I don’t remember any particular form for our sessions. I don’t remember poring over lines from the text, or discussing any literary theory.  I don’t remember any formal analysis at all; mostly, we just chatted about whatever I was reading then.  It was courteous; there was a pretense of intellectual equality.  I remember my youthful enthusiasms; I must have bored him terribly.  And then, when the hour or so was up, Professor Miller said “Alright, Laura, back to your reading.”

And that is how I spent many months, steeped in Virginia Woolf – her life and temperament so different from my own – with no particular expectations and no particular knowledge.  It was magical.  I don’t know how much I remember from that reading – I have that sort of mind – but I did eventually write a brutally long (for the reader, that is) essay on The Waves.  No evidence of it exists – thankfully – but I vaguely remember an experimental beginning in stream-of-consciousness style.  Ouch.

It seems to me that I often don’t know when I am in the middle of an extraordinary moment, when I am doing something I will never do again, and those months reading Virginia Woolf and talking about it with Hillis Miller, in that way, in that delightfully casual way, was such a moment.

I also learned two things.

One, it is a great pleasure to discover something in literature for oneself.  To read a review, a critique, or an analysis is to lose something of one’s own impressions forever.  I am careful of the chatter of other minds, even if they are better than my own.  I try to strike the balance thoughtfully: between reading what others are reading at a given moment, which offers the great pleasure of shared experience, and reading what no-one else is reading at the time, for the different pleasure of silent space.

Two,  when I write, I focus.  I rewrote that senior thesis, all 40-some pages of it, on the day before it was due.  I had woken up with the clear realization that the essay was terrible, and also with a clear idea of how to fix it.  It was a Thursday in December, bitterly cold; I went to the Mudd Library, which had wonderful light, and I sat down at a table in the middle of the reading room and began to write.  I wrote furiously.  I remember my hand cramping several times, and I remember shaking my fingers angrily; I had to hurry.

I started writing when the doors opened at eight, and when I finished, when I wrote the very last word, the first thing I did was look at my watch.  It was after four in the afternoon.  I was relieved that I had finished before the library closed at five, I was surprised that I had been sitting so long.  I remember those two thoughts, and then I remember realizing that I was cold.  I was freezing.  I was so cold that the feet of my chair were banging against the wood floor as my body shook.  I could barely stand up – I was so cold and cramped – and also, I was hungry, I needed a bathroom, and it was getting dark; I could barely see the page on which I had just been writing.  I looked up to see a young man, a graduate student probably, dressed in a winter coat and a stocking cap and gloves, with a red nose.

“Are you finished?” he said.

“I’m cold,” I almost yelled back. “There’s something wrong with the heat in here.  I’m really cold.  And it’s dark.”  I was a bit frantic, not at all polite.

“Yes,” he said. ‘The power went out about ten this morning.  The library’s been closed since noon.  We asked you to leave several times, but you never looked up, so I said I would just wait here until you were done.”

I really wish I knew who that man was.  Wow, I really wish I knew who he was. But then, perhaps you can see why I stopped writing when my children were small.