Etta and Otto and Russell and James
By Emma Hooper
Simon & Schuster, 2015
Eighty-three year old Etta Kinnick embarks on a journey from Saskatchewan to Halifax – on foot – leaving behind her husband Otto, who she has been married to for decades, and his best friend, Russell, who has been in love with Etta for as long as Otto has. Although her memory is failing, her heart and spirit are strong, and as she slowly makes her way across Canada she befriends a coyote, James, and become a minor celebrity after stories of her journey appear in local papers. Otto copes with his loss by making large papier-mache figures out of newspapers. And Russell goes out in search of Etta. Interspersed into the story of Etta’s journey is the story of how Etta and Otto met, during the 1940s when Etta, just out of teachers college, got her first teaching job in the small town where Otto and Russell grew up.
This book is quirky and imaginative. Some reviewers have taken issue with the veracity of an 83-year old woman walking across modern-day Canada on her own, but I enjoyed her journey and the unusual people and animals she met along the way. And there is a magical element to this book, which reminded me of The Snow Child, which created a touching quality to the journey. This is a book about love, independence, commitment and aging. Some Canadian reviewers feel that it captures Canadian culture in a unique way.
My only issue with the book is that I found the final pages to be a bit rushed. The storytelling becomes more compact, with short fragments of chapters, as the story comes to an end, and I wanted Hooper to draw out her story a little more than she did. But overall, I found this to be an engaging and magical book.
Hooper is an author, musician and academic. From Canada she now lives in Bath, United Kingdom.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Net Galley.
I love reading books from other cultures and find that not many of them make it in to our shelves in the US. One way I have found to discover new authors from overseas is to follow books that win prizes, the only problem is that there is often a gap between when a book gets published overseas and when it makes it to the US. For example, Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Prize after it was published in South Asia, but didn’t come out in hardback in the US until 2014. And she is an author who even lives in the US!
But e-publishing can shorten a wait for a book. The books I write about today have not yet been published in the US but some you can buy e-versions of via Amazon.
The Stella Prize celebrates women writers in Australia. Last week they announced their shortlist, and three of the six authors are debut writers. Of the three debuts, two are short story collections. Maxine Beneba Clarke wrote Foreign Soil, a collection of stories about people on the margins in the US, the UK and Australia. Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light is a collection of literary and speculative short fiction. And Emily Bitto wrote a historical novel set in 1930s Melbourne. The story is about a young girl, Lily, who befriends a girl, Eva, who is brought up by avant garde artists.
And last night, in Nigeria, the second Etisalat Prize for Literature was awarded to Songeziwe Mahlangu, a South African novelist. This is a prize awarded to a debut African author. Mahlangu’s novel Penumbra is the story of a young man living in Cape Town who recently graduated from college, and struggles with mental illness.
I am struck by how diverse all of these debuts are. Of the Australian books, Bitto’s novel sounds like something we would read about in the US market, but the short story collections are less mainstream and not easily summarizable, not a quality found in our market where debuts often need pithy plot lines to get noticed. And Penumbra is described as a difficult book and is less mainstream than last year’s Etisalat winner, NoViolet Bulawayo for We Need New Names. An intriguing collection of books and voices!
Next up, I review Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper—a quirky novel about an 83-year old woman’s journey to the sea.
By Julia Fierro
St. Martin’s Press, 2014
Nicole (mother of Wyatt) invites her Friday afternoon mommy group (and their toddler-aged kids and spouses) to her family’s ramshackle Long Island beach house for Labor Day weekend. The mommy group will never be the same.
Set over the course of four days, the book is narrated from each of the four mother’s perspectives, plus the perspective of the one “mommy daddy” in the group and one nanny, a Tibetan woman named Tenzin, giving the reader access to all of their worries, judgments, former dreams and future ambitions. Nicole is an obsessive worrier who plans this getaway in part because she believes some sort of catastrophic event will happen over the weekend and she wants to be away from New York City when it happens. She manages her anxiety with marijuana and anti-anxiety pills. Two of the mothers, Tiffany and Leigh, are best friends but are struggling over how to share Tenzin’s work schedule. Susanna, mother of twin boys and pregnant with a third, is a former artist, who feels disconnected from her wife Allie, a successful artist. And Rip enjoys his unique status in the group, while hiding his attraction to Tiffany, and trying to feel connected with his wife, Grace, who doesn’t want a second child as much as he does.
I much enjoyed Cutting Teeth and found all the characters to be very human, longing for connection and visibility in the world. This book reads like a time capsule of 21st century parenting—Fierro does a great job bringing to life the contemporary child-parent dynamic, where parents spend so much energy tending to and doting on their children. She also explores the tensions that arise in couples when one partner works and the other is the primary caregiver. The book is not very plot driven, the story revolves around the interpersonal dynamics of the group, but Fierro captures domestic details so well that reading this book felt like I was watching a movie. And she also has a terrific sense of humor. She’s able to get inside the heads of her characters while poking at them at the same time. I don’t think I’ve laughed out loud so much while reading a book since Nick Hornby’s About a Boy.
Fierro lives in Brooklyn and is the founder/director of the Sackett Street Writer’s Workshop. I had the good fortune of meeting her last year, when she came to talk with my writers group.
A friend gave me a copy of this book.