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Now in "Worship of the Common Heart," a new collection of 19 earthy stories Henley has written over the past 20 years, the reader traverses the fertile ground from which "Hummingbird House" sprang: The complexities of a woman's heart. Her characters are complex and common, some strong, some down-and-out, and the events in their lives are as momentous as the flapping of a butterfly's wings, which , of course, might change the course of history. And like waiting for history to unfold fully, the reader who expects to find resolution in these stories will wait forever.
These are women we know. Each of them wants something, maybe not much ... but something. A daughter who seeks her mother to deliver news of her estranged father's death, but finds a broken heart. A young mother has an epiphany about life and love at the very moment she delivers a child. An older woman who prefers younger men finds unexpected joy in an unlikely place. A lonely mother and wife in an Alaskan tour-fishing camp sees her flirtatious teen-age daughter as both a savior and a rival. A young nun vacations with her wild sister and learns about worship.
One such woman is Kit Ruckerson, the narrator of "Aces." She's a bit of human flotsam drifting downstream in life. After an adult lifetime of wrong choices, she is marooned in bleak Bozeman, Mont., with her toddler son (fresh from a foster home) and her one-legged ne'er-do-well husband (fresh from jail after being busted for operating a meth lab in a horse barn). It's Thanksgiving, the family is destitute, sleeping in a borrowed garage and eating from a Salvation Army charity basket while Dad shares a few hits of hash with a buddy.
As Kit mooches for money from her mother, she feels like a she's "locked in my life like a child in a closet." But she's hardly a sympathetic creature. She's merely coming to terms with the excesses of her life:
" ... a woman does not find out who she'll be or what life will be like until she has a child. And for most women, having a child is like having all the windows in your house painted shut forever. Liberty is my oldest -- thirteen. She lives in Pocatello with her Dad, who's been through several reincarnations -- surfer, computer repairman, snowplow driver. Liberty was pure accident, as I believe so many babies are, even now."
It was "Hummingbird House" that established her as a rising literary star last year when it was a finalist for the National Book Award. The achievement was rare for two reasons: "Hummingbird House" was a first novel, and it was published by a small house, MacMurray & Beck in Denver. (Perhaps even more remarkable, MacMurray & Beck -- not one of the larger houses that tend to cherry-pick promising writers from independent houses -- will publish Henley's next full-length novel next year.) Henley's prose is powerful and honest, her characters sensual and complex. These vignettes are glimpses into a complex heart.
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I would give this book five stars if not for the slightly flat and predictable conclusion, but it was well worth the read. This novel is for all those who have engaged in or who support socio-political causes as well as for those who enjoy high quality literary fiction.
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It's probably a really good book if you can do stream of consciousness and flashbacks with no warning--I had problems with it this time.
I felt the issues that this family was forced to deal with as a result of their daughter's sexuality were enough to craft a book of almost any length. The parental relationship, the long held and valued place the Church held for certain characters, and how the Church treated them, again is enough for a book. The ignorance about a person's sexuality, the violence that can be created from such ignorance, teachings, doctrine, or medieval thinking that is still taught and believed could fill volumes.
I think the author took on a very appropriate and timely issue, and did so with a greater sensitivity than is often found on Main Street in America and many other nations. I think she could have had a very effective book had she confined it to the daughter and the trials she and her partner faced, and how the parents played their roles. Instead the book introduced other issues, arguably as complex and potentially disruptive to day to day family life, and instead of adding to a central theme, they were digressions, and major trips away from what I think was, or perhaps should have been the book's core.
I would read this writer again, but I would not suggest placing this book at the top of your, to be read list.
Henley touches upon - but does not fully develop - the effects of the Vietnam War, the clandestine operations in Laos, and gay rights. Each member of Ruth Anne's family bears scars from at least one of these conflicts. They all seek a salve to alleviate their pain and confusion. While Henley roots her people in war (and gay-bashing falls into that category), she cares less about the particulars of the general issues and more about the private lives affected by them. Ultimately, this is a novel about love and family.
I recommend this novel for readers of literary fiction and of socially engaged work. The interior nature (no quotation marks, detailed exploration of thoughts and emotions) demands greater concentration than does a commercial novel. Because Henley's last work was a finalist for the National Book Award, expect to see this novel garner widespread attention.
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