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Gail Caldwell...rock solid...hilariously wrought... One thinks of the flinty poetry of Mary Karr's "The Liars' Club," say, or the cocksure ease of Alexandra Fuller's "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight...
— Boston Globe
“A granite-tough perspective on a wild and sometimes dangerous childhood. . . . One thinks of the flinty poetry of Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, say, or the cocksure ease of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Hilariously wrought . . . without a whit of melodrama . . . equal parts humor and steel.”—Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe
“Rigorously beautiful without an ounce of dangerous pretension, a book I’ll put on my book club’s list and keep by the bed for dark nights when I need a language booster shot.”—Kaye Gibbons
“We root for Lillian because she’s an utterly convincing character, fiercely loyal and loving, [with] that rarest of gifts, a sane heart.”—Emily Carter, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Reading Jean Harfenist’s [writing] is like finding a hot slot machine in a casino. One winner after another? In wild defiance of the odds? Who cares. Stay seated.”—Richard Russo
"[A] luminous [story] about growing up on a Minnesota lake. Harfenist has spun gold out of the daily lives of the Andersons and their four children in Acorn Lake." –Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Few authors [have] the grace and generosity of Harfenist, whose writing is almost dreamlike in its lyricism." –Entertainment Weekly
"Charming. . . . Jean Harfenist shows a sure touch with characterization . . . deft and subtle. . . . [Harfenist's] narration is consistently absorbing and enlivened by flashes of description that are unexpected yet completely in character." –Washington Post
"Harfenist's integrated themes and evocative prose style elevate A Brief History of the Flood . . . giving it the satisfying, rounded feel of a good novel." –San Francisco Chronicle
"Funny and sad and somehow good natured, [A Brief History of the Flood] brings us in to the painful intimacies and troubled hearts of the Anderson family. . . . Jean Harfenist explores the interface between love and dysfunction through young Lillian whose voice will stick with you long after you turn the last page." –Santa Barbara News-Press
"Harfenist has endowed her narrator with an eminent toughness and scathing wit that make being with Lillian the baddest kind of fun." –Chicago Tribune
"Tender, brutal, funny. . . . I doubt there is a person born who could not 'relate to' this book." –Mark Costello, author of Big If
"Wryly funny, unflustered and watchful . . . an impressive debut." –The Arizona Republic
"Jean Harfenist is an excellent writer. . . . [A Brief History of the Flood] is so honest that you could almost swear that it's her memoir." –Florida Sun-Sentinel
"This writer can't put a word wrong." –Pawling News Chronicle
|Safety Off, Not a Shot Fired||119|
|The Road out of Acorn Lake||157|
|Fully Bonded by the State of Minnesota||170|
|The History of the Flood||189|
1. As the book opens, Lillian's mother, Marion, looks around the breakfast table at her husband and children and says, "Now this is how it's supposed to be" [p. 3]. What does she mean? What does the author want the reader to understand from this comment?
2. Marion creates a surprising pontoon-boat float for her family to ride on in the Acorn Lake Fourth of July boat parade. Its theme might be viewed as a baseline for eight-year-old Lillian's ideas about what life is supposed to be like. What events force her to reconsider? If Lillian, as an adult, were to construct a pontoon-boat float symbolizing her own idea of happiness, what theme might she choose?
3. Some families seem to be held together by the glue of secrets. What secrets do the Andersons keep? Why? Would those same secrets be kept in a family today?
4. What is the significance of the girls who work the nightshift making salads for airline flights? How do they add to our understanding of Lillian's life? Of Marion's? Are they merely relics of a time gone by, or are they still relevant today?
5. Lillian says about her best friend, Irene, "Once you reach homecoming queen, there's no place else to go but bad" [p. 159]. What does this statement say about small towns? About opportunities for girls?
6. Little violence takes place in the Anderson household, yet Lillian's father, Jack, has a talentfor making the entire family feel as if they're living under a clenched fist. How is this tension created and maintained? What makes this tension tolerable to Lillian? To the reader?
7. Is Lillian a reliable narrator? Does she ever lie to the reader, or to herself?
8. The title comes from a letter Marion writes to the IRS. Why do you think the author chose this title? What might you have called it?
9. Lillian says, "I don't want anybody ever looking at me like the girl who got her ducks shot" [p. 57]. What does this statement reveal about her character? Do any of the other family members share this sentiment?
10. Lillian says of her best friend, Irene, "Nothing you can say will shock her" [p. 107], and she notes that Irene "can sweep a room clean of guilt, doesn't matter who owns it or how they earned it. Usually that's what you want in a friend" [p. 105]. What does Irene offer Lillian that she can't get from other relationships? In what ways does Irene resemble Lillian's mother? How are they different?
11. Why doesn't Marion seem to see Jack's failings as a husband and father?
12. How are Lillian's actions in "Duck Season" a continuation of what took place in "Body Count?"
13. What role does shame play in the Andersons' behavior? What are its sources? Which children are most affected by it? Why? How does it influence their choices?
14. Men generally aren't portrayed here in a positive light. What type of men do you think Randy and Davey will become? Why?
15. At the end of the book how does each member of the Anderson family think "it's supposed to be" [p. 3]?
* Written by the author.
Posted June 30, 2003
A Brief History of the Flood is that rare book that can't be put down, and one you'll want to read again and again. Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, each chapter fits together with a satisfying click to reveal an insightful picture of an unforgettable family of unique characters. Read the excerpt and I guarantee you'll be captivated by Harfenist's voice, wit, and the wisdom that comes with understanding how we all grow up survivors of imperfect families. If you liked Mary Karr's memoir, The Liars Club, you will love this book. It may be billed as fiction, but it has the unmistakable ring of truth. Ironically, A Brief History of the Flood turns out to be a life preserver--reminding each of us how our unique childhood journeys help determine our destination in the world, and how understanding the past can buoy us in the present.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 20, 2003
THIS IS LILLIAN ANDERSON¿S LIFE IN Sioux County, Minnesota from aged 8 to 18 going into, 1970 as brilliantly told by new novelist author Jean Harfenist, and what a find Harfenist is. She displays wit, a catching voice, skilled writing, and creates engaging, believable, family characters, and friends ¿ as she flashily flaunts family flaws and foibles. Lillian, a happy youngster begins to recognize her parents are a badly flawed couple, as she starts to grow older and matures. She would like something better for her own life, and recognizes that inadvertently her parents¿ lack of family skills leave opportunity open to her. That also means the opportunity to make mistakes. As the stories progress we wonder if she will every be any better than her surroundings and her folks that she can now recognize as lazy drunks. After all, she muses at one point, a rust-proof car and money for a gallon of gas is all one needs . . . Isn¿t it? Harfenist continually produces the wry line, the funny sentence, the howling paragraph in a manner that refreshes each turned page, as with close pal Irene who can ¿can sweep a room clean of guilt,¿ Usually that¿s what you want in a friend.¿ Irene can put Lillian at ease by confirming (in connection with the mother) that a woman cannot get pregnant after age 40. Sometimes Irene ¿grins like she just discovered birth control pills.¿ As teens, they do not do anything by half. On a shopping spree they collect 3 blouses, six skirts, 18 greeting cards, a dress, a teddy bear, a lighter, a scarf, cosmetics, a pair of cuticle scissors, socks, 12 underpants, and a stroller. ¿The stroller¿s a first,¿ they tell the constable defensively. Under arrest, Lillian hurriedly tries to get Mom on the phone. Mom will do anything asked of her as she wards off migrames and hangovers but driving over 70 miles is out of the question. So . . . With an airy sweeping gesture over the goods, Lillian philanthropically, declares to the police ¿ You can have it all back.¿Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 28, 2003
Lil Anderson is young, gutsy, brave, naive, quirky, fast-talking, quick-witted, and totally affecting. She is also the memorable debut creation of California writer Jean Harfenist. Presented as a series of short stories, which segue easily from one to another very much like chapters, "A Brief History of the Flood" traces the life of Lil from 1950 through 1979, between the ages of eight and 18. She shares a usually flooded, much in need of repair lakefront home outside of Acorn Lake, Minnesota with older brother and sister, Randy and Mitzy, younger brother, Davey, and a black Lab, Happy. Mother Marion in tiny shorts with a wide belt encircling her tiny waist has a world view determined by the words of every love song she has ever heard. She sees only what she wishes and wishes for the impossible. If she's awake, "she's working on something," weaving a rug from panty hose or even building a floating wedding cake for the Fourth of July Float contest. Dad Jack is an intrepid hunter who built their home then dubbed it "Jack's Hunting Lodge." He delivers dictates and diatribes in equal measure as he clinks ice cubes in his glass of Old Heaven Hill. Lil learned early in life to avoid him because as her Mom explains the young girl has "a talent for saying the one thing that'll launch him. Like good morning or hello." As an eight-year-old Lil enjoys carefree days on the water, drifting in the family's pontoon or flipping over a rowboat to make breathing room underneath. Harsh reality strikes with 1965 as Randy is of draft age. Mitzi has a busy social life, having "dated every other boy who comes to school without manure on his shoes," and Lil surrenders her virginity to a teacher, Mr. C. At the age of 15, along with five friends, Lil finds work putting together salads for airline passengers at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. It's driving 62 miles each way but that night shift duty pays $1.73 an hour, even though they're overseen by a hefty supervisor who "fills the cafeteria door like a new refrigerator." Noting that her Mom knows Lil can run her own life and "Dad doesn't care," the teenager moves quickly into shop lifting with best pal Irene who pierces Lil's ears in the basement restroom of a shopping center. Being caught doesn't stem their taste for further adventure. A teacher mentions that Lil's Mom has "bursts of vigor," little knowing that these spasms may be due to the Dexedrine she pops, and generously shares with her daughter. This drug induced energy enables Lil to whip through her high school classes, and land a job as a typist at an insurance company in St. Paul. Keeping the pounds off, Lil finds, is another benefit of her "speed system." Growing up has not been easy for Lil, but reading this masterfully crafted coming-of-age tale is pure pleasure. Jean Harfenist is definitely a writer to watch with her knack for presenting an arresting narrative voice that lingers in readers' minds. In precise, penetrating strokes the author portrays off-beat characters with their foibles full-blown. "A Brief History of the Flood" is a winner.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 10, 2002
Smart and crisp, Jean Harfenist's debut collection of linked stories will appeal to both lovers of short fiction and those who prefer novel-length works. Lillian Anderson of Acorn Lake, Minnesota, is a fresh and memorable character who leaves an impression long after the last page.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.