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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

May 24, 2012

Book Review: The Cottage at Glass Beach


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Heather Barbieri's The Cottage at Glass Beach is admittedly not the typical book that makes it way on to my desk. Committing the unpardonable sin of judging a book by its cover, the dust jacket clearly shows a young woman traipsing along the beach, starfish well in hand. Given the title, it's easy to dismiss the work as a cliché and move on to other reads.

The book's description also doesn't help to pique the reader's interest. The opening lines read as follows:

Married to the youngest attorney general in Massachusetts State history, Nora Cunningham is a picture-perfect political wife and a doting mother. But her carefully constructed life falls to pieces when she, along with the rest of the world, learns of the infidelity of her husband, Malcom.

I'm sure that writing cover descriptions is a challenging gig, but the summary reads like the re-run of a Lifetime, made-for-TV movie. This does a serious disservice to the novel and what actually makes it special.

The real contribution makes Barbieri makes in her new book is the way she captures the relationship between mothers and daughters in clear, unvarnished prose. This honesty allows her to provide a modern insight into a particular dynamic of literature that has more or less lain dormant since the era of Victorian literature.

One example comes early in the novel, as main character Nora Cunningham evacuates her family to Glass Beach. Eldest daughter Ella is clearly a Daddy's girl who blames her mother for driving him away. Youngest daughter Annie is an open mind, as free of judgments as her sister is filled with them, and a bit too young to fully understand her parents' separation. As the three set out to explore the island, Ella scorns the main village Portakinny as "Portapotty," and repeatedly echoes her hopes to return to Boston. This makes Ella a constant source of negativity for Nora, yet it is easy to sympathize with the little girl's frustration. The scandal besetting her parents has had incalculable effects on Ella, both personally and socially, leaving her confused, not knowing whom to trust.

Ella's reticence to embrace the island and her parents' circumstance creates a palpable stress for her mother Nora who is genuinely torn about the future of her marriage. Whenever questions about the future arise, Nora's reply is the universally recognized phrase of non-commitment, "we'll see." But Barbieri's prose demonstrates that the answer is a pained utterance for Nora who acutely realizes how disingenuous the words are. The fact is, Nora is just as lost as Ella and the whole point of coming to Burke's Island is to discover some insight that will shed light on what is to come.

This notion of deliberate self discovery gives Nora a dimension of strength that makes her character extremely dynamic. The storyline is that Nora is lost, trying to make sense of her life, but the story itself is more about how Nora holds it together for her girls and learns about herself in the process.

Nora's love interest in the book makes this sense of strength even more pronounced. Even as she struggles to sort out her feelings toward her estranged husband, Nora is also left to grapple with how she feels toward a new man in her life. Again, this could easily become a cliché, but Barbieri's writing frames the situation as the simple reality that relationships are messy - particularly when a partner's infidelity is at issue. In Nora, readers see the concurrent facts that old habits of love die hard, while the human need for intimacy never completely vanishes.

The mother/daughter theme is further reflected in Nora's relationship with her Aunt Maire. Nora's own mother has passed away at some point in her early childhood, a matter that also becomes an integral aspect of the plot. But her aunt acts a subtle mother figure for Nora over the course of the novel. Over blueberry pie, wine, and walks in the garden, Aunt Maire provides arms-length advice to Nora about her situation and the mysterious death of her mother - all while commending a keen sense of love toward Nora when she sorely needs it.

I suppose the themes above may not resonate for all readers. This is true for any novel. But for those seeking to get lost this summer and reconsider life's priorities, Barbieri's voice is clear and inviting. Whatever the book lacks in plot, it makes up for in character development and introspection in spades.


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May 8, 2012

May Book Review: The Cottage at Glass Beach

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According to my friends at HarperCollins, Heather Barbieri's latest novel, The Cottage at Glass Beach is poised to become one of the sleeper hits of the summer.

The story chronicles the life of heroine Nora Cunningham, the spurned wife of a cheating Massachusetts Attorney General and the frazzled mother of two daughters. As Nora attempts to pick up the pieces of an otherwise broken existence, a mysterious, almost mythical being enters her life, providing both comfort and challenge as she confronts the demons of her past.

According to the author:

The overriding message is that it is possible to navigate life's uncharted waters and find our own happiness.

Barbieri's novel will be available beginning May 15th, 2012. Preorders can be made here. I hope to have my review posted some time before then.

As always, stay tuned...

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May 3, 2012

Book Review: A Silence of Mockingbirds - The Memoir of a Murder

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For reasons having nothing to do with the author's more than capable abilities, Karen Spears Zacharias' new book A Silence of Mockingbirds ($16.50, MacAdam/Cage Publishing 2012) was an extremely difficult book to read and an even more difficult book to review. Zacharias' work chronicles the true yet sordid tale of an innocent little girl named Karla "Karly" Sheehan.

Sadly, Karly Sheehan's tale would become the inspiration for Karly's Law in the State of Oregon, which requires mandatory medical intervention in suspected child abuse cases where victims exhibit signs of suspicious physical injury. Ultimately, this is the end of Zacharias' book. But this suggests that a tragedy had to occur before the powers that be reacted. And this reflection upon tragic events is what much of Zacharias' book consists of.

From the outset, the author is quick to note her own affiliation with the story. Ms. Zacharias' family at one point had a familial relationship with Karly's mother Sarah - a figure that comes across almost as much a villain in the tale as the actual villain who would abuse poor Karly to death. This relationship makes it quite impossible for Zacharias to be objective. But this misses the point of Zacharias' work. Her point is not to be objective, but to use the story to raise awareness about "the epidemic of child abuse in our nation." And on this score, the memoir could not have delivered better. I mention the point about objectivity, because it is important to remember that not all works of non-fiction need to be told through an objective lens. There is certainly a role for the objective eye, but when the point of a piece is to advocate, objectivity inevitably yields to the story being told.  

The bulk of the work can be glibly typified as "somber" in tenor, but only insofar as readers know the outcome. Each detail of Karly's life is lovingly presented. From Zacharias' writing, it is clear that there were many moments in Karly's life that were filled with love and with joy. Her account of Karly's trip to Ireland to visit her father's family comes readily to mind. But the final outcome of the account stalks even the happiest memories, ever lurking in the background of the book. Karly's own presence in the memoir reminds me a bit of a delicate glass set precariously on the edge of a table. For but a moment all seems safe as Zacharias describes Karly's sky blue eyes and whispy golden hair. Readers get every sense that she was a precious, perhaps precocious, little girl who was much beloved by the many people in her life. But knowing the outcome of the story, readers also understand that this cannot last. The glass on the edge of the table is doomed to shatter, and the result is that an innocent little girl must die. 

My choice of the word "must" is intentionally provocative. In addition to presenting the tragedy of Karly's death, Zacharias consistently explores the broader public policy implications, directly addressing the question of whether Karly's death was preventable. The villain in the book and the man ultimately convicted of Karly's murder was her mother's boyfriend Shawn Wesley Field. But equally complicit in the sad outcome is a system that failed to protect Karly at manifold turns. As Zacharias writes:

Karly's death is not simply a tragedy - it's an unforgivable shame.

It takes the complicity of a community, and a nation, to stand by in silence as a child is tortured to death. That ought to give us all nightmares of children weeping.

If there is a moral imperative to be gleaned from Zacharias' work, this is it. And as the tale proceeds, the root of Zacharias' anger becomes more clear. From a mother in denial, to the first child services inquiry filed by a worried daycare worker, to the shoddy follow-up investigation by Oregon's Department of Human Services, to the failure of the Corvallis Police Department to have Karly's physical symptoms examined by a doctor with expertise in child abuse cases, the list of should-haves in the book is depressingly long.

The trial of Shawn Wesley Field is also an interesting aspect of the story. While readers at this point will long for justice, what actually struck me most was the lack of state's evidence available to convict Field, despite the fact that Karly was abused for such an extended period of time. The trial turned on pictures that Field had taken of Karly that were timestamped only a few minutes before she died. The photographs showed Karly battered, yet clearly alive, leading prosecutors to conclude that the blow which ultimately took her life had to have happened while she was in the clutches of Shawn Wesley Field before the paramedics and officers arrived

The lawyer in me recoils at hearing how such circumstantial evidence can connect a defendant to a crime. But this is true of a number of cases, and the inference made between the timestamped photo and the time at which paramedics and police arrived at Field's house makes a lot of sense. What is most appalling is that in the two year span of abuse allegations, the best the State of Oregon had at trial were a few pictures. If there is a fortunate aspect of the tale, it may well be that so little evidence was sufficient to convince the jury of Shawn Wesley Field's guilt. 

Finally, it's worth mentioning that the outcome of the trial really only hints at the title of Zacharias' curiously titled book - although she addresses this directly toward the end. Mockingbirds are symbolic of people in society - we are a notoriously protective and obnoxious lot, always around, always causing some ruckus or another. Yet, in Karly's case, when their alarm was needed most, the gaggle of people around her went silent and a little girl died. The natural question is "why." Or whither the empty nest?

While it's true that we can address the public policy questions of Karly's case through changes in law, and we can encourage individuals to be more vigilant, particularly when it comes to the vulnerability of children, there are never answers to questions like these. We can no more "know" what drives individuals toward evil anymore than we can know what drives saints and martyrs toward the light. But I like the approach Zacharias suggests. We can cry together. We can learn together. And we can take every precaution to ensure that our children are protected.

I never knew Karly, but I have a hunch that protecting other kids would make her smile.

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