Frida Kahlo in Paris
Marc Petitjean grew up with Frida Kahlo’s disturbing painting “The Heart” hanging in his living room. As a child, he was terrified of the image of a huge bleeding heart lying in the sand, with its handless woman pierced by a metal rod staring at him out of the frame. That painting, and the unexpected arrival of a stranger bearing news of his father’s mysterious relationship with Kahlo, led Petitjean to uncover much about a conflicted time in the artist’s life, and about the father he barely knew.
When Kahlo arrived in Paris in early 1939, Europe knew her as the wife of the famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. But it wasn’t long before the artist, who wore traditional Mexican Indigenous garb, her dark hair bound with ribbons and flowers, captured the attention of the Paris art scene on her own.
Petitjean’s book reveals an intense, three-weeks-long affair between his father, Michel, and fiery, complex, passionate Kahlo, who had just been advised by Rivera that he was divorcing her. Though aware of his many infidelities and not above dalliances of her own, including an affair with Leon Trotsky, Kahlo’s discovery of Rivera’s relationship with her sister left her reeling. Feeling alone and abandoned in damp, grey Paris, her time with the sensitive, adoring Michel brought her comfort, and when the lovers parted, Kahlo gave him “The Heart” as a gift.
The book paints an intimate, unforgettable portrait of a brief but transformative time in Kahlo’s life and of the turbulent beginnings of France’s Surrealist Movement, which claimed the iconic Mexican artist as one of its own. Behind it all lies one of Kahlo’s most powerful paintings—a tortured, confrontational work that speaks of pain and transformation, abandonment and betrayal, in a voice of quiet dignity.
KRISTINE MORRIS (February 27, 2020)
The faithful girls of a struggling California town are asked to sacrifice an ungodly amount in Chelsea Bieker’s Godshot, a blazing novel about the messes made when blind faith metastasizes into madness.
In the heat of a deep Central Valley drought, fiery Pastor Vern, who’s anointed in gold dust and who heralds himself as better than the second coming, baptizes his flock in Coca-Cola, sends his women on secret assignments, and promises that the rains are coming.
Fourteen-year-old Lacey and her mother find a home in this milieu, their lives for once free from men and booze. Lacey is a true believer, but her mother warns her off from growing up too soon. Heedless, Lacey tells Vern everything: that her mother has broken the rules; that she is a woman, and ready for an assignment.
Lacey’s mother is expelled, and Vern orders that Lacey be assaulted. Lacey compartmentalizes, rationalizes, and survives, but then learns that the baby she’s carrying will be considered church property upon its birth. She picks at the fraying edges of the church’s specialized gospel and concocts a lie to shield herself from its continued influence. With her wiles and the help of three women at the fringes, she finally has a chance to be truly reborn.
Bieker’s portraits of people are harrowing, demolishing the affectations of followers and survivors alike. Her cast includes doulas and pimps, addicts and liars, and children who mimic adults in their struggle to subsist; the novel’s grace is that it makes second chances available to all among them who are brave enough to extend empathy to others.
Godshot is a flinty, exemplary novel that celebrates everyday rebellions, demolishing blind religious fervor and unmasking charlatans as it goes.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (February 27, 2020)
Imagination and a love of fantasy transform an old fort in the woods into a grand castle one day and a pirate ship the next. A young prince and feisty pirate lass are at odds until they put their differences aside and join forces, embarking on the greatest adventure yet. Delightful illustrations transform ramshackle planks into a variety of creative structures that will inspire children to blast off on their own outdoor adventures.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (February 27, 2020)
A family grapples with prejudice and impending loss in Carter Sickels’s historical novel The Prettiest Star.
In 1980, Brian ran away from his conservative hometown and arrived in New York City, where he could live openly as a gay man. Six years later, Brian is dying of AIDS; he returns home to spend his last days with his family. At first, Brian’s parents tell no one about his condition. But in a small town, it’s only a matter of time before even the best kept secrets spill out into the open.
The story is told by Brian, his mother, and his sister. Brian mourns both his imminent death and the loss of New York’s freedom. Brian’s mother, who is at first almost as concerned with what the neighbors will say as she is about her son, grapples with guilt. Brian’s sister is overshadowed by the chaos of her brother’s homecoming; she deals with her mounting fear and resentment alone. Only Brian’s father is excluded from narrating his story, reinforcing his depiction as distant and inscrutable.
The family reunion is haunting and awkward; no one knows how to react or what to do. This sense of confusion and incohesiveness plagues the family throughout. Even as their Appalachian community, which is poor in everything but faith and homophobia, rallies against them, they never quite manage to come together. Heartbreaking levels of bigotry and loss are conveyed through fluid, poignant prose. Amid the tragedy, threads of loyalty, strength, and pride result in a glimmer of hope—not for a happy ending, but for human beings’ capacity to love one another through the worst crises.
Devastating and impactful, The Prettiest Star captures the profound effects of the AIDS crisis, and the lies and bigotry that contributed to it.
EILEEN GONZALEZ (February 27, 2020)
Life-changing moments lost, reimagined, and regained form the backbone of John Elizabeth Stintzi’s meditative, lyrical Vanishing Monuments.
Alani is a nonbinary, Minneapolis-based art professor who is forced to return to their hometown, Winnipeg, when their ailing and disturbed mother Hedwig is hospitalized. Armed with an old-fashioned Leica camera, Alani documents the old, decrepit rooms of Hedwig’s house, confronting childhood traumas in the process: memories of Alani’s first love affair with a nonnormative partner, the decline of Hedwig’s mental health and the dissolution of their relationship, and struggles with identity and acceptance, all of which led to Alani’s eventual escape from Winnipeg.
Like the stray cat that wanders through Hedwig’s house, Alani is adrift and searching for meaning, and Stintzi is sensitive in documenting their inward journey. Each room in the house comes to symbolize a different period of Alani’s life. As the narrative floats back and forth in time, Alani’s inner reflections run the gamut from piercing to affectionate, stretching beyond Winnipeg’s wintry streets and foreboding rivers to other impactful events, most notably a sojourn to Hedwig’s home country, Germany, and a friendship with a former Nazi soldier who’s trying to rebuild his life by recreating an innocent photograph from his youth.
These fragments of the past merge with and color the present. Alani cares for their deteriorating mother and flirts with some sympathetic local artists, even as the love of their life awaits them back in Minneapolis. Throughout, a haunting question lingers: is it possible to both honor and move on from the past?
Foregoing straightforward plotting, Vanishing Monuments is mystifying and rhapsodic in equal terms, resisting easy summations. Through the power of John Elizabeth Stintzi’s language, it leaves a bittersweet impression.
HO LIN (April 24, 2020)