06 January 2018

Book (P)Review: Anatomy of a Miracle by Jonathan Miles


Happy New Year, everybody! I’m not much into setting resolutions for myself these days.  Or rather, the whole “New Year, New You” mentality doesn’t hold much appeal for me, but I like the idea of being open to change and growth. The year 2017 brought a lot of changes into my life, including putting myself on the job market, and one of the most difficult personal challenges for me this year was bouncing back after each interview that culminated in some variation of, “You’re pretty nifty, Runner Up Candidate.” It’s been quite a while since I failed at something so important to me, but lately I’ve been ruminating on failure and what it can mean. While it’s true that I failed to secure an offer for the three positions I interviewed for last year, I learned something about myself with each one.  I got better with each interview, and I was lucky enough to get substantive feedback from two of the hiring managers to better place myself when the next opportunity comes along -- one of whom has even offered to help me look out for other, better suited positions. So with that in mind, what I’d like for 2018 is this: to remember that while failure is an important part of growth, it does not define me, or my worth. I also want to practice more kindness, both to myself and to others. And since I remember a time in the not-too-distant past where I actually enjoyed writing about my twin passions of books and travel, I thought it might be interesting getting back to that in 2018, too.

It turns out that it’s been quite some time since my last book review, which I posted in June 2016 about Homegoing, the best novel I read that year. Eighteen months almost to the day. Please forgive my rustiness here as I ease back into the world of book reviews.

The first book I completed this year is Jonathan Miles’ Anatomy of a Miracle.  His work wasn’t new to me, as I had started both of his previous novels, Dear American Airlines and Want Not, but hadn’t finished either one (less a criticism of them than simply being an occupational hazard).  This one I picked up at the urging of my sales rep, but I hadn’t read very far before I was hooked: this guy nailed -- I mean, absolutely nailed -- the south Mississippi setting.

Call it homesickness or nostalgia on my part, but I was extremely happy to revisit the Mississippi gulf coast of my youth in these pages, seeing through the eyes of Cameron Harris, a complicated young man whose life has been marked by tragedy: abandoned by his father, losing his best friend, the death of his mother, Hurricane Katrina and subsequently losing his home. As if that weren’t bad enough, he enlists in the army, gets sent to Afghanistan, and has the misfortune of getting a little too close to an old Soviet landmine. When Cameron returns to the US, it’s in a wheelchair.  His sister Tanya, as much parent to him as sibling, gives up everything to care for her paraplegic brother.

Four years later, strange things are afoot at their neighborhood convenience store, when Cameron’s nausea doubles him over in his chair and he leans forward to relieve it. The thing is, there is only so far he can lean forward without falling, and he somehow manages to get his feet underneath himself and stands up in the parking lot of the Biz-E-Bee. Nobody can explain it -- not Cameron or Tanya, not the medical community.

As you can imagine, the Harris home quickly becomes the epicenter of a multi-ring circus. In this most religious of red states, everybody wants to claim a piece of Cameron’s miracle, whether it’s the Republican party wanting Cameron (and by extension, God, of course) on their ticket or a pre-Vatican-II Catholic priest who uses Cameron for his own multi-layered agenda. TV interviews, social media prayer circles, pilgrims to the Biz-E-Bee, and a reality tv/mockumentary crew all descend on the scene, and the whole time Cameron and Tanya are just trying to get on with their lives, wanting to know the whys and wherefores of Cameron’s miracle.

While Anatomy is told in a journalistic fashion that strongly reminded me of the brilliant nonfiction book Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink, in both style and scope, what interested me most was the characters, both major and minor: Cameron and Tanya, absolutely; but I also loved the Vietnamese couple who own the convenience store, the devil’s advocate attorney working for the Vatican (literally the advocatus diaboli) , the sergeant under whom Cameron served in the army, and the VA doctor handling Cameron’s case. Mostly, I loved the subtle indictment of people who choose the superficial over substance and the way Miles calls attention to bigotry of all stripes, but above all, I loved the way the author limns each character with the myriad contradictions that comprise this human experience. Beyond that, the writing is just terrific -- it’s not lush, but it’s precise and incredibly evocative in a way that perfectly serves the wide-lens, third person, journalistic POV.

Hogarth, a division of Penguin Random House, will publish this book in March, and I predict that this is the book that will make Jonathan Miles a household name, at least among those households with avid readers of literary fiction. I read an advance review copy provided by the publisher. 

7 comments:

  1. I am so glad you're back with your strong and unique voice! I don't know what kind of position you're looking for but I KNOW you'll find the right fit sooner rather than later.

    The book sounds interesting but then I'm always interested in the way you write about books. Cheers, I'll be on the lookout for it.

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    1. Thanks, Sim. That's so lovely for you to say! There were elements to this book that occasionally put me in mind of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which I recall your liking. Chances are good that you'd like this one, too.

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  2. I may have to give this one a try, Emily - thanks! and glad you're back at this, too. I'll make an effort to plan a visit in your neck of the woods this year, for sure!

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    1. Thanks, Wes. And let me know next time you're passing through on your way to Maine. I'm determined to make it work one day!

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  3. 2017 was a big year for me as well and I had to teach myself that failure does not define my worth, and neither does an interview or a company with an incompatible set of values. You're still awesome just as you are, but if you pick up feedback here and there, you can always learn something new about yourself and learn ways to become even more awesome!

    Now, onto your book review: I love books that bring you back home. Granted, the American South is far out of my comfort zone as life there is hard for me to relate to, but "strange things afoot" is one of my favorite plots to uncover!

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    1. Sounds like we’re both on track for a little self-reflection and growth, then. May 2018 bring us what we’re looking for!

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Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)