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Hope, Fear, Love, and Lust

CBR_Logo2The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath
A Novel
by Kimberly Knutsen

The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath by Kimberly Knutsen follows three entwined lives told over a thirty-year period. The novel takes off with intermittent flashbacks, bits of past and present mingling to reveal a remarkable tale of hope and fear, love and lust, marriage and loneliness.

Eccentric Katie is in her mid-thirties living in Kalamazoo, Michigan. After having met her husband, Wilson, during graduate school and having three babies, she stays at home reading magazines, taking baths, and lusting for her neighbor Steven, a yknutsen_promo_jktoung alcoholic. Steven is engaged to Lucy, the small and beautiful fireball who is everything Katie fears she is not. Katie’s mood is a constant pendulum of happiness and restlessness. The story slowly uncovers Katie’s troubled childhood, speckled with sexual abuse and isolation.

Wilson A. Lavender is a professor of women’s studies who also can’t seem to feel settled in his life. His hope centers around finishing his dissertation, which he has titled The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath. Convinced he is a genius and understands the plight of women, he hasn’t written anything but a cheesy opening line. He is a recovering alcoholic who eventually finds solace once again in substance abuse, thanks to pills provided by a sexy colleague named Alice Cherry, bringing him an escape from his children and his unfaithful wife. He pushes himself farther from his family and down a familiar spiral of bad decisions and lack of productivity.

One of Wilson’s main problems at home is Katie’s younger sister, January, who decides to move in with them when she finds out she’s pregnant. She looks up to Katie, mother of three and married, and fears if she continues to live alone in Luna, New Mexico, she won’t be a good mother. Like Katie, January has trouble with motivation, and she is still obsessed with her first love, the Rock Star, who left her many years ago and took all the fun from her life. January pesters Wilson constantly, and adds to the family’s relational issues. January forms a strange bond with Lucy, and they lead each other into more treacherous situations.

Set in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the novel is painted with a gray, solemn background: the frozen, miserable winters, spring that takes too long to emerge, autumn that comes too early. January and Katie grew up in Portland, Oregon, a place that haunts Katie more than it does her sister, but January was forced out of L.A. by the Rock Star. The sisters ultimately fled the West Coast for the Midwest, a place they thought would give them peace of mind and happiness, but instead leads them into more trouble. They learn that even the humility of Michigan can’t keep their ghosts away.

Each character has moments of Plathness—insanity, despair in feeling trapped. Knutsen quotes Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” in one of the section’s epigraphs: “So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain?” echoing the uncertainty the characters experience deciphering good and bad, what’s real and what’s imagined.

Knutsen writes about intense subjects but imbeds her graceful prose with laugh-out-loud humor and crafts flawless dialogue. At times the sentences are so packed with information and wit that it’s hard to keep up, but the effort pays off. Knutsen weaves in and out of the present story with changing narrators and points of view, which works well in this disjointed context. The characters’ thoughts are relatable, even if selfish, and point to universal truths about trying to move on when the past is always there. A joyous exploration of pain and the price that comes with the refusal to settle, this is a stunning first novel.

Four-Star Review

October 2015, Switchgrass Books/NIU Press
$18.95, paperback, 384 pages
ISBN: 978-0-87580-725-6

—Reviewed by Meredith Boe

Learn more about the book.

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War Must Ensue

A Novel
by Adam Schuitema

A sleepy tourist town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula awaits a coming invasion. Haymaker thrives on tourists who visit in the winter for an opportunity to tackle nature and those who visit in the summer to hike the dunes, soaking up some Lake Superior sun. The local Haymakes, as Schuitema names them, appreciate these tourists with a tight smile as they pass through, dropping funds along the way. The locals know that they need these strangers, and they accept this because these strangers leave. But a group of outsiders, joined by a common belief, have their eyes set on Haymaker as their potential utopia.Haymaker 719-5

A group of libertarians migrate in a pack, calling themselves the Black Bears, and head to Haymaker. These individuals have families, careers, and lives that they’ve decided to uproot because they have an inherently American belief: Freedoms should not be tread upon. Haymaker has a history of small government, self-reliance, and free markets. Haymaker has land for sale and few zoning laws. Haymaker could be their headquarters.

However, while the Black Bears raise the common flags of rattlesnakes and freedom, they orchestrate a military-like invasion of a small town, planning to overtake the small government by force of majority. By sheer numbers, they claim, they will win elections. Local Haymakes will come around.

Backed by a scripture-quoting billionaire who may have ties to the federal government, this group plans for resistance in Haymaker, not peaceful integration. They send out flyers and recruitment ads, trying to gain in numbers what they may lack in local acceptance. Their plans proceed until a small few realize that their actions, however good their intentions, do not align with libertarianism, and that the locals are not signing over their town easily. The voice of reason in the Libertarian group is a family man, Josef Novak, who wants to integrate with the locals, understand them, and enjoy their already-libertarian lifestyle. Haymakes describe Josef as a vanilla moderate; he’s a hard guy to hate, they say. But Josef must quiet the extremists in his midst, while battling vandalizing locals, for this migration to be successful.

In Adam Schuitema’s Haymaker, a setting develops that becomes as real as elephant ears and sticky fingers at a Michigan town fair. While this sleepy community comes alive in Schuitema’s descriptions of the Shipwreck Cafe, year-round Christmas shop, and breathtaking heat along the dunes of Lake Superior, the novel takes heart within characters such as Josef, as the best stories often do. Schuitema’s complex story of a tense and changing political landscape in small-town USA simplifies and settles into the story of a mayor expecting her first child with a mentally unstable husband. It resonates the most, however, with a community member named Theodor Roosevelt.

switchgrass niu logoCalled “the cowboy” because of his taste for all-white dusters, Stetsons, and cowboy boots, Haymakes consider Roosevelt an outsider, too, although he’s been a resident for many decades. As a transplant, Roosevelt seems to watch Haymaker from above. He mingles with the locals, but many avoid him because of his transplant status and eccentric ways.

Roosevelt acts as the voice of reason. A welcome voice that speaks of compromise, Roosevelt is a party line-toer who claims no concrete allegiances. He is also a kind, grandfatherly man with an intricate past of his own. His past is an open book, he claims, if anyone cares to ask instead of speculate. This tall, white-haired man cuts a figure wherever he goes, but few approach him. He lives alone on the shoreline of Lake Superior in a house he cares for greatly and in solitude, which he treasures as well. When battles break out on the streets and in the homes of Haymaker, Roosevelt becomes an anchor for the town. If any of Schuitema’s characters embody the freedom-seeking self-reliance of libertarianism, it’s Roosevelt, a calm and rational man who claims no party.

The events, while at times slow-moving, that occur in Haymaker outline the tensions between extremes. Without flexibility on both sides, war must ensue. Schuitema writes a relevant story of current events that makes Haymaker’s name seem flexible, as if it could become that of any small town across America. A read to pair with classic works of Paine, maybe a bit of Orwell and most certainly with Rand, Schuitema’s first novel resonates as a real-life American example of the current and changing state of democracy, and what real American’s across demographics believe that term to mean. Yet, it reads as an engaging short story with a weaving, character-driven plot and not a word out of place.

Four-Star Review

April 2015, Switchgrass Books/NIU Press
$17.95, paperback, 300 pages
ISBN: 978-0-87580-719-5

Reviewed by Mindy M. Jones


Filed under fiction