Book Review: Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8-14

I’m so excited that Alice Hoffman is putting out another novel for young people!  I loved her books when I was a teenager.  She captures moments of “everyday magic” like fireflies in jars, and puts them on bookshelves to shed light on the little magical corners of mundane life.  Cursed girls, powerful sisters, dangerous misconceptions: these are common, timeless themes in Hoffman’s books.  Nightbird is like a little jam jar, stuffed to the brim with twinkling lights, that can be put on the shelf next to her more weighty books or placed on a child’s windowsill to shine alone.  (Forgive the fireflies in jars metaphor.  Night Bird made me miss the summertime.)

Nightbird is a middle grade book, appropriate for ages 8 and up.  It will come out in March, 2015.  I read an ARC of the book, so some details may change before publication.

Twig lives on an apple orchard with her beautiful mother, who bakes pink pies to be sold at the general store and diner in town.  Sidwell is a small Massachusetts town where everyone knows each other and tries to look out for their neighbors.  But Twig’s mother doesn’t want to socialize with the people in town, no matter how friendly they try to be.  Ever since she moved back home from New York City, without Twig’s father, they’ve kept mostly to themselves.  It’s not because the town will judge them for being a single-parent family; this is a supportive and fairly open-minded place.  The problem is that Twig’s family is cursed.  A witch used to live in Mourning Dove Cottage, next door to Twig’s house, and she took magical revenge upon one of their ancestors way back during the Revolutionary War.  They can’t let anybody find out what they’re hiding.  Mourning Dove Cottage has been abandoned for a long time, but now a family of new neighbors has moved in.  Fun neighbors, with a girl Twig’s age.  Despite her mother’s rule not to hang out with Julia Hall and her glamorous older sister Agate, Twig finds herself pulled into a true friendship for the first time in all her years living in Sidwell.

But there might be a reason for all the secrecy. Their town is supposedly home to a monster.  The Sidwell Monster appears on goofy tourist tee shirts and features in local legends, but there’s definitely something truly strange making appearances and stealing from peoples’ yards.  Strange graffiti has been showing up on rocks in the forest.  Twig knows the woods better than anybody, or so she thinks, but change is stirring among the trees as well as within town.  In between her efforts to keep her family’s secret safe and discover who might be creating the mysterious disturbances, Twig and Julia start learning about Agnes Early’s curse, and how it ties their families together.  The girls are helped by a mysteriously knowledgeable librarian, a secretive journalist who’s new to town, a perceptive old man, and someone (or something) else, as they do their best to keep Sidwell from caving in to old fears and new threats.

Loving Hoffman’s typical themes and patterns as I do, I kind of knew what to expect when I read Nightbird. Good characters, small miracles, and complex family relationships.  It’s a quick book, with a story and setting you can fall into as easily as hopping down from your favorite tree branch.  (Thank goodness it wasn’t terribly long, as I had only one night to read it before attending a dinner to celebrate Hoffman’s new work.  Thank goodness, too, that the book was completely worth celebrating.)   Sidwell was brought to life beautifully; both nature and the town hide sorrow and wonder beneath their surfaces. Parts of it reminded me of my home, even though I’m not very near the Berkshires, just by virtue of that small-town love for a place.  Any town with a wise librarian is a town worth reading about, and Miss Larch does not disappoint.

It’s not a perfect place, of course.  Twig’s mother is right to worry that people would not know how to react to the family’s difficult situation.  But people are generally kind – if overly curious – and little glimpses of extra kindness from a waitress at the Starline Diner, or the kind encouragements from strange old Dr. Shelton, made me wish alongside Twig that her mother would let more people into their secluded life.  Unlike some of Hoffman’s books for adults, there’s no overwhelming sense of persecution in Night Bird: more of a nervous tension brought about by bad communication.  It’s a nice way to create friction in a Middle Grade novel, and a lot more emotionally resonant than the slightly cheap evil villain just likes being wicked tradition that perseveres in some series.

Twig is a steadfast young narrator.  She’ll be an instant kindred spirit to any young readers who have worried that they’ve done something to deserve loneliness.  Her family is loving and supportive, but a lack of friends takes its toll on a girl.  Who can blame her for breaking the rules and basking in the warmth of the family next door?  At the same time, how can we be surprised when she tries to push her new friends away once school starts, worrying that they’ll find out she’s boring and dump her before she has the chance.  Luckily, the Halls are good people who can recognize an extraordinary young person when she falls out of a tree.  The connections Twig makes with the people she’s barely known for years, getting involved in the community for the first time, are a gratifying benefit to the reading experience.

Nightbird reminded me an awful lot of The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, a novel for older teenagers by Leslye Walton that came out last spring.  Well, in fairness, Walton’s book had a theme and style that called Alice Hoffman’s early writing to my mind almost instantly.  The similarities are all good though: magical-realist events taking place in towns that seem so real, you’re packing your bags to visit twenty pages in; brave women trying to extract themselves from the weight of their fore-mothers’ pasts; and delectable descriptions of baked goods.  I highly recommend that anyone who enjoyed Ava Lavender pick up Nightbird, if ever you’re in a similar mood on a starlit night with only a few hours to spare.  Teenaged readers who liked Hoffman’s book should check out Walton, too, even though her debut novel has much more adult issues in it.

Kids in late elementary school, and definitely middle school, will find Nightbird to be transporting and enchanting, with just enough mystery and suspense to keep the plot moving.  It’s neither fast paced nor scary, but has lovely emotional depth.  Fans of A Snicker Of Magic and Rooftoppers will have a great time in Twig’s town, and history fans will be delighted with the curse’s origin story.  I, myself, loved the rumors of witchcraft and the children’s inventive attempts to break the curse.  I always like Hoffman’s magic; it flows through the characters and settings so easily, you might get convinced that every town and strange woman has magic at the ready.

And maybe they do.

Book Review: Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement

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Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: ****  (4 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: *** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

(I read an ARC of Widow Basquiat so a few details may have changed since publication.)

Widow Basquiat gives a very personal and poetic account of Basquiat’s journey through the beginnings of fame and all the way to his death, seen through the eyes of Suzanne Mallouk. In the introduction, Michael Holman calls Suzanne Jean-Michel’s “first great love.” She is not technically his widow: Rene Ricard gave her that nickname before Basquiat died.

Mallouk and Basquiat met very early in his career. They lived together on and off for the remainder of his life, and she was a frequent presence in the events which shaped his artistic development. The book is actually written by Suzanne’s close friend Jennifer, whose succinct style gives us little windows into various scenes of Mallouk’s life, with and without Basquiat. Very short chapters of only a page or two often contain two different voices: Clement’s spartan, lyrical prose and then Mallouk’s own memories written in italics. Suzanne’s first interjection appears after Clement has described her leaving her home in Canada, where her father could get violent and her mother claimed to be a witch. The scenes from Suzanne’s childhood are sometimes brutal, sometimes surreal like the paint fumes they breathe. In contrast to Clement’s somewhat dramatic portraits of the Mallouk parents, their daughter remembers them as more mundane, understandable people.

The balance between Clement’s storytelling and Mallouk’s frank memoirs reminded me that these wild people and dizzy experiences were very real. Taken alone, Clement’s narrative could read like a drug-painted (and then drug-sick) vision of artistic life: a short, experimental movie you can’t tear your eyes away from even though it leaves you feeling miserable. Mallouk’s memoirs, on their own, wouldn’t be so compelling either. Her writing is fine but not stunning, and the impressions of what went on around her need a narrative structure to keep from falling into a pile of paint and heroine. The collaborative style in Widow Basquiat creates a biography-memoir-story that instantly engages even readers who don’t know much at all about the art scene in which it takes place.

I read this little book only a few days after a friend showed me some of Basquiat’s paintings. I don’t know very much about the art world, and even less about the 80’s. The only real encounter I’d ever had with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings was in conjunction with Maya Angelou’s wonderful poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” in this picture book.

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After reading about Basquiat’s inspirations; his obsessions; his view of the world, I’ve had his paintings pulled up on my computer non-stop. Widow Basquiat reveals some of his motives for including certain words or phrases in his paintings, and it’s obvious from Clement’s and Mallouk’s memories of Jean-Michel Basquiat that he had a real knack for seeing how language and art intersect.

“On one painting he writes, ‘Jimmy Best on his back to the sucker punch of his childhood files,’ because he hears a hobo say this on television.” (quoted from ARC)

I still don’t know what that painting is about, exactly. But now I like it even more. These passages re-create the moments in which words caught Basquait’s attention – moments of watching silent films with Suzanne or after frustrating encounters with white art collectors in Obnoxious Liberals. They show that there was inspiration even in the mundane and unpleasant hours that measured their otherwise wild lives. Clements writes well about art, never getting overly critical, or snobby, or overwrought. Whenever she describes paintings or music, it is to conjure up the people more deeply. Jennifer herself is introduced more than halfway through the book. She remains an interesting side character in a portrait of her two subjects, with the only real physical descriptions of the blonde and Spanish-speaking woman coming from Suzanne’s own writing.

Aside from providing unreserved social context for the artist’s work, and a delirious parade of characters, Widow Basquiat recalls some of the appalling racism that Jean-Michel and his friends had to face in the art world (and of course the real world). In the chapter entitled “No Black Men In Museums,” Basquiat sprinkles water around the MoMA as a “voodoo trick,” explaining to Suzanne that there was no painting on the walls done by someone who looked like him. This was one of my favorite anecdotes, because while his actions might seem absurd at first, the point is completely undeniable.

“…his crazy behavior had nothing to do with being an enfant terrible. Everything he did was an attack on racism and I loved him for this.” (quoted from ARC)

The most affecting story, to me, is about Suzanne’s young boyfriend Michael Stewart. A quiet young man from a caring parent, Michael Stewart was a calming presence in Suzanne’s life while fights with Jean-Michel were on a repeating cycle. “I loved him as if he were my kid brother,” she writes. Michael gets murdered by six cops for allegedly writing graffiti. Enraged by the violent unfairness, Suzanne starts questioning the detectives, photographing Michael’s wounds, raising awareness and money for lawyers. This chapter in her life is all her. I like Suzanne best when she throws herself into her own cause, tapping into her own artistic energies to try and right a dreadful wrong. Of course, the police officers get off free for their crime. The Stewart family wins a civil suit, but the cops get to go on with their horrendous daily business. Suzanne stops working on the Michael Stewart case after she feels threatened at a radical meeting, but her work still raises awareness and points necessary fingers. These events, in which Basquiat features only marginally, broke the book’s narrative momentarily free from the artists’ lifestyles. It was an important edition to the book, and a good reminder that police brutality and a racist justice system have been raging, largely unchecked, for ages.

It was after Michael Stewart’s death that Jean-Michel Basquait painted “Defacement.” He may have acted jealously about Suzanne’s involvement with the case, but it obviously touched him deeply, as it should continue to do for anyone who hears the story or sees the art.

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At around the halfway point, the odd incidents of Jean-Michel bossing Suzanne around and their bad drug days are so frequent, the reading experience contracts an unhealthy pallor. I’ll admit to feeling uncomfortable with all the weird demands he made of his girlfriends, and the outbursts of anger that occasionally shook their relationship. The writing remains strong throughout, but it’s hard to read how everyone hurts. They split up, try to face the world, and end up together again in an unhappy and uncomfortable cycle. And because this is a true story about real people, they don’t all make it through the troubled times. Some of Suzanne’s friends manage to haul themselves together and put their dangerous vices away whenever they threaten to take over entirely. Some of them get devoured. We meet those who survive in the postscript; a show in 2010 when Basquiat would have been fifty years old. In staying true to Suzanne Mallouk’s memories, the miserable pieces of her story fit neatly with the colorful ones, and you must read about both to get a clear picture of what life was like for these people.

There’s this wonderful moment, in the postscript, when Mallouk sees the fridge she once shared with him on display. She sold it in the 80’s, when it was just one of the many scribbled-upon objects in their apartment. Now, it is marked, “DO NOT TOUCH.” So many of the memories dredged up in this book feel like that; flashes of shared experiences which seem like part of the daily roller coaster of routine, until time forces the riders to step back and see what other people have deemed irreplaceable.

This book’s title makes its subject matter clear. Basiquat’s name is the obvious one, he’s the figure we all recognize. But this particular tale belongs to his “widow” – his confidante and support system – told by her friend. There are almost certainly more complete biographies out there about Basquiat’s life, and more comprehensive studies of his art. After finishing Widow Basquiat in a few hours, it’s only clearer to me that I don’t understand art or money, and I likely never will. This book offers a transfixing glimpse of what it was like to live with Jean-Michel Basquiat throughout his influential but difficult artistic career. He’s almost always the center of attention, but Suzanne Mallouk channels that attention and turns it into something we can follow. Her memories and Clement’s prose turn the past into an additively readable trip through inspired visions and collapses. It’s the stuff of brooding novels and loopy films. Widow Basquiat is a short book; it packs a powerful punch and has left me curious to learn more about that churning cocktail of art/drugs/collaborations that produced so many enduring icons from that time.