Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Guest Review: Recovering Ramona by Kristin Russell

I'm happy to welcome my friend Stephen Lamb with his review of Kristin Russell's Recovering Ramona. Check out his blog for more thought provoking posts and follow him on Twitter.

The ad copy for Kristin Russell’s debut novel reads as follows: “Recovering Ramona is a road trip through one woman’s quest to find answers to her past so she can move forward with her future. Claudia Nichols discovers many indelible things along the winding path about family, the power of music, and the importance of forgiveness.” While that works as a suitable description of the book, I think it fails to capture what actually makes the book worth reading, or at least, why I enjoyed the book so much. For the past year or so, I’ve followed Kristin’s journey to publication as she finished writing her first novel, found an agent, didn’t find a publisher, and, in the end, decided to self-publish through 12th South Press, named after the Nashville neighborhood in which she lives and works as a hairstylist.

Kristin is the daughter of a pastor. Like many of us who were raised in the church, especially, I’d imagine, pastors' kids, Kristin went through a period in her teens and twenties attempting to make sense of her identity, trying to figure out who she was apart from her parents and her childhood where everything revolved around church. In fact, one of the best posts on her blog, Hair in My Coffee, deals with just this issue. In that light, knowing that Kristin is a PK - pastor’s kid, for the uninformed - helped the story make even more sense to me, especially looking at the dialogue about religion that Claudia, the main character, has with her mother, whom Claudia describes as a “religious nut,” always trying to quote a Bible verse or insert a prayer into every part of the day. The last thing I want to do here is make it sound like Kristin’s novel, a work of fiction, is a thinly-disguised autobiographical work, or, even more egregiously, super-impose my own memories of growing up onto her story, defining it in that way. But isn’t that part of why we love the stories we love? Because they tell us something about ourselves, because we see ourselves in them?

We learn, right at the start of the story, that Claudia uses music to make sense of her life - she has a stack of mix CDs in her car, a ready soundtrack for any mood she finds herself in, and has a habit of mentally singing along to a favorite song anytime she doesn’t want to engage with those around her. Gradually, it dawns on the reader that music fills the same roll in Claudia’s life that religion does for her mother. Like in any good story, this realization of how much we are all alike elicits empathy, empathy that in our better moments, carries over to our daily life, causing us to look at our neighbors differently, and maybe even to see our own family in a different light.

As a lover of food and of cooking, some of my favorite passages in Recovering Ramona revolve around the meals prepared by Claudia and Kate, the “good Samaritan” who rescues Claudia and her mother and invites them into her home in a time of need. But the best passage in the book, I think, is found after Kate has taken them to a special place in Joshua Tree that only the locals know about, a private oasis, so I’ll close by quoting it, mindful of the way it serves as a perfect example of what I wrote earlier, one reason I loved Kristin's story so much:

They finished the sandwiches. It was quiet, except for the bubbling of the spring. Kate hummed a low melody, and then sang the words, “Well I’ve been where you’re hanging and I think I can see how you’re pinned, Yeah, when you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness tells that you’ve sinned.”
“What song is that?” Maryanne asked Kate.
Claudia mumbled the answer without thinking, “Sisters of Mercy’, by Leonard Cohen.”
“That’s right,” Kate said. “One of my favorites of his.”
“You got that from your father,” Maryanne said to Claudia. “A great memory for music.”
“Songs are how I learned the meaning of words,” Claudia said. “Some of them, anyway.”
“I remembered something, sitting here - a Bible verse.” Maryanne said.
Of course. When does she not think of a Bible verse.
“It’s from Isaiah. I can’t remember the chapter. ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See! I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.’ It seems fitting for this place, doesn’t it?”
Kate nodded her head and put her hands in prayer position under her chin. “Beautiful, Maryanne. Thank you.”
Claudia sat and thought about the words, and how critical she was of everything that came out of her mother’s mouth - how she couldn’t listen without already assuming it would be bogus. If Kate had said the same thing, Claudia would have exclaimed the verse’s profundity. But because it came from her mother, and the Bible, she instinctively dismissed it as trite.
On the way back to the truck, they walked in silence, like three nuns and a dog leaving mass.

Recovering Ramona can be found on Kristin’s website or at Amazon.

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