“Waterfall” by Mary Casanova, University of Minnesota Press, 2021

Reviewed by Gail Nord

A waterfall is a relationship based on topography. The erosional energy of water creates a channel through which water moves by gravitational necessity. A sudden decline in topography results in a waterfall. Falling water produces energy. In addition to sightseers, a waterfall may draw entrepreneurs who understand that this power can be harnessed to propel industrial production. 

Judged by the standards of her wealthy parents, Trinity Baird is a too spirited for her own good. An artist, she’s talented enough for the Sorbonne. A young woman with sexual desires, she has a long-term attraction to proto-environmentalist Victor Guttenberg. After making an overt play for him, and being roundly rejected, her emotional reaction causes her parents to commit her to the St. Peter Asylum. Set in 1922, the book examines conditions at the asylum, especially as pertaining to female inmates.

As the novel Waterfall opens, Trinity has been released from St. Peter, and will be spending the summer on a family-owned island on the northern border of Minnesota. She is, in a real sense, on probation. If she behaves herself, she returns to Paris and continued study at the Sorbonne. If she shows signs of instability, her parents have the power to have her recommitted.

Covering the span of a summer, we see a parallel between a dammed waterfall and Trinity’s present-moment life. She sees herself as trapped, being financially at the mercy of her parents (studying at the Sorbonne is not cheap). The central question of the book explores the power dynamic between Trinity and her mother, as well as Trinity’s growing sense of herself as an independent woman capable of self-determination.

Trinity’s strength is tested as she faces a fire, a storm, a boat crash, her sister’s alcoholism, her mother’s laudanum addiction, her parents’ anti-Semitism, her father’s cruelty to impoverished Natives, her attraction to a young architect, and her ongoing longing for Victor. In the process she meets author Sinclair Lewis who promises to buy a painting from her, which would finance her studies.

Mary Casanova, with 39 published books to her credit, is familiar with the landscape she evocatively portrays in Waterfall, her first adult novel. This is the third of a series of interconnected books, each of which focuses on a different main character. Trinity Baird is loosely based on Virginia Roberts, the historical figure who graces the book jacket.. I would suggest that readers begin by turning to the last few pages of the book where fictional versus historical aspects are spelled out.

If you enjoy an exquisitely drawn natural setting, have an interest in the social mores of the 1920s and the issues of women then and now, pick up a copy of Waterfall. It is a compelling read and will provide an excellent springboard for book group discussion.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know Until You Know What You Didn’t Know…A Thank-You Note to George Saunders

IMG_1436

If you love great writing and don’t know George Saunders’ work, there are three not-to-be-missed titles I would like to recommend: Tenth of December, a well-reviewed volume of short stories, Lincoln at the Bardo, a Man Booker Prize winning, unique (and I never use this term loosely) work of fiction, and A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, pictured above.

If you want to improve your writing skills, if you want to become a better reader of fiction, if you love the work of classic Russian writers, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is your dream come true. Saunders, who teaches writing Syracuse University, presents a master class in book form. We read seven short stories by Gogol, Chekov, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. Each is accompanied by a highly readable essay teaching us how to understand the story’s construction, meaning, and greatness. If this sounds in any way boring, trust me, it’s not.

Upon finishing A Swim in a Pond in the Rain I plan to reread Tenth of December and apply what I have learned from Saunders to his own short stories. Will they stand up to the Russian masters…? No matter. As a reader and a writer, this book has forever enhanced my capacity to “see” a story.

Thanks, George.

Where the Crawdads Sing, A Novel by Delia Owens

CAN you tell a book by the cover? 

The cover of Where the Crawdads Sing gives the potential reader helpful, as well as misleading, information about the book’s contents. First, the title. The word “Where” clues us in that setting will be important. And it is. One could almost say that the setting, a marshy area on the North Carolina coast, is the main character. The protagonist Kya is known by disdainful locals as “the Marsh Girl” and she truly is shaped by the environment in which she dwells. 

The word “Crawdads” establishes the novel as geographically set in the southern United States. Northerners would use the term “crayfish.” Putting a creature in the title hints at the primacy of nature as a theme. As we all know, crawdads by any name do not sing, causing us to wonder if this reference is legend, metaphor, delusion, or allusion. In any case, the title is a bit catchy.

From the back flyleaf we learn that the author has co-authored non-fiction volumes based on work with wildlife in Africa. This is her first work of fiction. She now lives in Idaho, which is a long way from North Carolina marshes. A brief internet search reveals that she grew up in Georgia, and (drumroll) is wanted in Zambia for questioning in relation to the murder of a poacher! Does this in any way inform the plot of this book?

Interestingly, the front cover portrays a female figure paddling a canoe down a tree-lined channel, toward an orange-tinged sky. Note that Kya drives a motorboat, not a canoe. But the painting is pretty.

To assure you that I actually read the book, let’s take a brief gander at the plot. At age 6, Kya is abandoned by her mom and siblings. At age 10, her alcoholic and unpredictable father also departs, after which she (improbably, in my mind) lives alone in an isolated shack and manages to stay alive by what she grows, forages, and catches. Her relationships are with creatures, primarily seagulls. Then she meets Tate, who teaches her to read in such an efficient way that she is soon perusing scientific textbooks. Not surprisingly, she falls for him. He, like her family before him, abandons her. Then she is pursued by Chase (not joking). This also comes to no good. Back to the seagulls. 

A mysterious death ensues and our protagonist is mixed up in it. I won’t reveal more. The ending is clearly written to be surprising, which it was, but also left me with…a squeamish feeling. 

Where the Crawdads Sing is beloved by many readers. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for a LONG time. Why? My assessment: a pleasant quick read, an appealing setting, a pulls-herself-up-by-the-bootstraps main character, murder, mystery, love, loss, and a sense of loneliness that touches something inside of every human being.