The Recent East, by Thomas Grattan*****

The Recent East introduces novelist Thomas Grattan, and it’s an impressive debut. It follows a family of German-Americans from 1965, when the eldest emigrates from East Germany with her parents, to the present. I initially decide to read it because of the setting; it’s the first fiction I’ve read set in the former Soviet satellite country. However, it is the characters that keep me engaged to the last page.

My thanks go to Net Galley and McMillan for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

The story opens in 1965 as Beate and her parents are defecting:

Everyone talked about the West as if it were a secret. They leaned in to share stories of its grocery stores that carried fresh oranges, its cars with bult-in radios. Covered their mouths to mention a Dusseldorf boulevard that catered to movie stars and dictators, whole Eastern month’s salaries spent on face cream. There were entire, whispered conversations about its large houses and overstuffed stores, its borders crossed with a smile and a flick of one’s passport. Some talked about it as if it were the most boring thing. Others like it was an uppity friend. But everyone talked about it…

The first chapter makes me laugh out loud. Teenage Beate is mocked when she enrolls in school in Cologne, because her clothing is nowhere near as nice as what the kids in West Germany wear. Since her parents cannot afford to upgrade her wardrobe just yet, Beate comes up with the genius idea to alter the clothes she owns to make them look as Soviet as possible, and she “put on her Moscow face, worked on her Leningrad walk.” Sure enough, the kids at school are terrified of her now. She still doesn’t have friends, but she isn’t bullied anymore.

Morph forward in time. Beate is a mother now, living in upstate New York with her two adolescent children and unhappy husband. When the Berlin Wall falls, so does her marriage. Soon afterward, she is notified that her late parents’ house now belongs to her. She packs up her belongings and her children, then buys tickets to Germany.

Adela and Michael have always been close, but the move shakes their relationship. Their usual routines are shattered, and their mother, reeling from the divorce, becomes withdrawn and uncommunicative. What a terrible time to disengage from parenting! Both Michael and Adela roam the city of Kritzhagen at will, at all hours of the night. Michael is just 13 years old and gay; sometimes he doesn’t come home at all at night. I read these passages, written without obvious judgment or commentary, with horror. A new house, new city, new country, new continent, and it’s now that their mother forgets to set boundaries? I want to find this woman and slap her upside the head (though I guess that’s a different sort of boundary violation.) Half the houses in town stand empty, and since they have no furniture of their own and their mother is doing nothing to acquire it, Michael breaks into houses and steals furnishings. Look, Ma, I found us some chairs.

My jaw drops.

Adela goes in the other direction, becoming a conscientious student and social justice advocate. But their mother pays her no attention, either.

For the first half of this story, it seems like a four star novel to me; well written, competent, but nothing to merit great accolades. This changes in the second half, because all three of these characters are dynamic, and the changes in them are absolutely believable and deeply absorbing.

I have friends that do social work, and what they have told me is this: children that are forced to become the adults in the family, taking on responsibilities they’re too young for when a parent abdicates them, often appear to miraculously mature, competent beyond their years. Everything is organized. They may do the jobs as well as any adult, and sometimes better than most. How wonderful!

But because they aren’t developmentally ready for these things yet, what happens is that later, when they are grown, they fall apart and become breathtakingly immature, because they have to go back and live their adolescent years that were stolen from them. (As a teacher, I saw this in action a couple of times.)  And so I am awestruck by how consistently our Grattan’s characters follow this pattern.

As the second half progresses, I make a couple of predictions, one of which is sort of formulaic, but Grattan does other things, and they’re far better than what I’d guessed. We follow these characters for several decades, and at the end, we see the relationship that blooms between Beate and her grandson. When it’s over, I miss them.

Because Michael is gay and is one of our three protagonists, this novel is easily slotted into the LGTB genre, but it is much more than this. Instead, one should regard it as a well-written story in which one character is gay.

But whatever you choose to call this book, you should get it and read it if you love excellent fiction.

Well-Read Black Girl, by Glory Edim, editor****

Ahem. Yes, I am in fact, over two years late with this review. I can explain.

My dog ate…no, wait. I got a flat tire when…oh. Yeah, that doesn’t work.

So now I have to tell the truth, having failed miserably, as I usually do, at lying. Here it is. About a month after I received the galley to this book, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House, national news and social media went into a virtual frenzy discussing cultural appropriation. And I froze. I started examining everything I did through that lens, and I may have gone overboard. I looked at this galley and I thought, I have no right to review this thing. And when I read the introduction anyway, I feel it even more so. Not written with me in mind, was it? Was this the literary equivalent of reading someone else’s mail? And so I did the easy thing, which was to shove it onto the back burner and read something else. Repeatedly.  

Several months later, it occurred to me that nobody would even have to know if I were to sneak it out of my files and just read the article by Jesmyn Ward, which was actually why I had originally requested it. Ward is on my read-anything list. I read it, and I liked it, and then I shuffled it back into the file. No harm done.

This spring, as the world tentatively emerges, one hopeful toe at a time, from the isolation imposed on all of us by the horrific pandemic, I realize what I should have known all along: that anybody can read anything, and form an opinion about it; and that since I was granted the galley, I actually owe a review. I straightened my spine, dusted myself off, and sat down to read it. There was no blinding light or thunder from the heavens. Nothing smote me. I read it, and I lived to tell the tale.

Most of the authors here are new to me; in addition to Ward, I also know Jacqueline Woodson’s work a bit, mostly from my years teaching language arts, when I used her YA book. Everyone here included in this compendium is a strong writer, and they are largely preaching to the choir, since the audience are also bibliophiles. But the common thread, the point they drive home—and rightly so—is the importance of finding literature about girls that look like themselves. They speak of it as empowerment and validation.

Back in the stone age, when this reviewer was enrolled in a teacher education program, we were likewise taught the importance of inclusive literature. It seemed so obvious to me, this obligation teachers surely have to make sure all of their students are represented in the books their students read, or have read to them. I figured it was a no-brainer. But when I arrived at my first teaching position in elementary school, (heaven help me and those children both,) I was shown the supply closet and there were the classroom book sets. The main characters were Caucasian boys; Caucasian boys and girls; fluffy woodland animals, mostly male; and more Caucasian boys. I sadly examined my battered Visa card and drove to the bookstore to order better books. And I was further amazed to learn, later, that my colleagues, all of whom were Caucasian, believed that the school’s book collection was terrific. Their students loved those books, and that included the children of color that made up approximately half of the population there, they told me.

Sure they did.

The essays in Well-Read Black Girl are a much-needed reminder that racism isn’t always overt; sometimes racism is exclusionary, unintentionally so. And what silences young voices, and what teaches children that books, and life in general, are not about them, worse than discovering that they are not important enough to be included in books?

When I moved to secondary education, where I belonged, I visited the book room there, and I found a set of books about African-American boys, but the message inherent was that they are constantly exposed to drugs and gangs, and it will be hard as heck not to be drawn in. And once again, I scratched my head. These Black kids, most of them were from middle class homes, or loving, well supervised working class homes. Drugs? Not so much. And what did these books teach their Caucasian classmates about Black people? I sighed and got back in the car, already apologizing silently to my Visa once more.

This collection of essays is important, not because of any particular brilliance in composition; they are well written, but not memorable for the writing itself. Instead, they are the key to understanding, from primary sources, why Black girls need books that depict Black girls and women in a positive light.

I’ve assigned four stars to this book for general audiences, but for teachers in training, it is five stars. Every teacher training program should include these essays as required reading. We have to read it until we get it right.

Bright Precious Thing, by Gail Caldwell*****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Gail Caldwell was the chief book reviewer for The Boston Globe, and she won the Pulitzer for Criticism. Once I began reading this luminous memoir, I could see that level of quality in her prose. She writes about her childhood in Texas, and about her travels and experiences growing up in the mid-twentieth century. More than anything, this is a feminist memoir, a chance to see how far we have come through a personal lens.

I missed the publication day here, and so I hunted down the audio version to supplement my reading. The author narrates her own work, and so it conveys the feeling that I am sitting by the fire with a dear friend, hearing about the challenges she’s faced as a single woman. Female readers will recognize the sensation: you start talking with a woman that you don’t really know, and before you know it you are talking and listening as if you’ve known one another for ages. That’s the essence of this book. In fact, I listened to it in the evening while preparing dinner, because I knew I’d be left alone during that time, and frankly, I didn’t want anybody to come barreling into the middle of my time with Gail. There’s a sense of intimacy that makes me feel a bit protective when I listen to it. Later, I go over what I’ve read and nod. Yes. Oh, yes, I remember that.

The title works in a number of ways. The darling little neighbor girl that becomes part of the family Gail chooses, bookends the memoir, coming in at the start as a very young person and ending it as an adolescent. But there’s more to it than that; life is a bright precious thing, and though she never says it overtly, I recognize that each woman is a bright precious thing as well.

I am a grandmother myself, but Gail is about the age to be my older sister. Women like Gail gave women like me a guiding light during our coming-of-age years. Our mothers were often resigned to their status as second class citizens, and ready to accept that there were things that women should probably not even try to do, and they couldn’t help transmitting their fears and reticence to us. It is women like Marge Piercy, Gloria Steinem, Wilma Mankiller, and yes, Gail Caldwell that provided us with a beacon, a way forward through the ocean of “no” to the bright shores of “yes,” that gave us courage to be insistent, even when we knew some would label us pushy broads, or worse. We needed role models badly, and they stepped up. They’re still doing it.

The calm, warm tone that came through this audio book, right during the turbulent period after the November election, was an absolute balm.   Sometimes I would be shaken by the things I saw in the national news, and then I would head for my kitchen (perhaps an ironic place to receive a feminist memoir, but it worked for me,) and once I had had my time with Gail, I knew I’d be all right.

Highly recommended to women, and to those that love us.

The Unwilling, by John Hart*****

This one was worth the wait! John Hart’s new historical mystery, The Unwilling, is simply magnificent. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the galleys; this book will be available to the public February 2, 2021. Those that love excellent fiction should get it and read it.

The French family is troubled. The father is a cop in their small hometown in North Carolina; the mother, Gabrielle, has some sort of emotional disability. Bipolar? Anxiety disorder? Who can say. All we know is that her nerves are shot, and she loses it quickly and easily. The couple have three sons; the first two are twins, but Robert, the golden one, is dead, killed in Vietnam. Jason went to ‘nam too, and rumors say that he killed 29 people there in his first year. He is rumored to be bad news and has already done a stretch in prison. That leaves the youngest, Gibson, known as Gibby. Both parents are possessive of him. As adolescence sets in, it begins to chafe, the way he is overprotected, and now that he’s a high school senior, he’d like a little more room.

And then Jason is released, and he comes home. He isn’t welcome at the family manse, so he stays elsewhere, but he wants to spend some time with Gibby before he blows town.

The title is a chewy one. Initially, I associate it with the daredevil stunt that some high school seniors—mostly boys—consider a rite of passage. It involves jumping into the quarry from a very high bluff; make the jump wrong, and you’ll be dead when you land. Gibby doesn’t jump. Jason does.

The basic framework of the story has to do with crimes Jason has done time for, and others that are committed while he’s in town. A girl he’s spent time with is viciously tortured and murdered, and many in the community make assumptions. But in reality—and we know this early on—he is being framed by a man known as “X” in prison. Truth be told, X is actually the weakest element of the story, and he’s mostly superfluous, but since this is supposed to be a thriller, the thread involving him adds suspense, particularly at the end. The climax is something else again.

But the most interesting aspect of the narrative has to do with the family, and by extension, one could say, all families. Over the course of time, a family’s story is told, and eventually labels develop. The small town setting in a pre-internet era makes this especially true, since most people’s interactions are limited to those that live in the same vicinity. And so, Robert French is the tragic hero, cut down in his prime while fighting for his country; Gibby is the baby of the family, a good kid, a good student; and then there’s Jason. Not long after the murder, Detective French speaks with the medical examiner about Tyra’s murder, and he asks the ME what would make someone do this; not just murder, but torture and mutilate. And the ME tells him that although it’s not the accepted clinical expression, “People like that are born wrong.”  And though French is reluctant to say such a thing about his own son, he wonders if he should accept this as true. His wife, mother of all three sons, tells him, “Gibby is all that matters.”

But as the story progresses, we see that there’s more to this story; a lot more. Jason has simply given up trying to defend himself. Refusing to do so is why he spent time in prison. When the world gives up on you, why try? To be sure, he’s no innocent, sad-eyed puppy. He’s seen things, and he’s done things. But people are complicated, and when we try to drop them into neatly labeled boxes, we shut ourselves off from learning details that don’t fit the picture we’ve painted.

For me, this story was less about solving a crime, and more about the characters. I was thrilled that the main story wasn’t about Robert. I’ve read too many novels lately that focus on the dead sibling, and it’s becoming trite. But Hart is a seasoned author, and he doesn’t drop into that well-worn channel. Instead, we see why various well-crafted, complex characters think and act as they do. Reading it, I find myself thinking about my sisters, and the small ways in which we developed labels as children and young adults; happily, none of us was labeled the bad seed, but if we’d been boys…? And I think also of my own children. For a brief, terrible time, I saw my eldest as that person, the one dragging his sister into trouble. Later, much later, I learned it was actually the opposite, but he figured it was better if one of them was still in good standing, and so he took blame that wasn’t entirely his. It’s not a great feeling, but at the same time, my own experience made this story more interesting, and I’m willing to bet there are a great many other readers that will read this book and think about their own families as well.

There are appealing side characters here, and the most compelling is Gibby’s best friend, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to make good.

So who is the unwilling one? Is it Gibby, for not jumping off the bluff? Is it Gabrielle, for not entertaining the possibility that her son, Jason, deserves more than she is willing to give him? Is it Detective French, for not being willing to completely give up on him? You can take this title in a lot of different directions.

Hart’s literary prowess shines here. It’s not always an easy read; during the more violent patches, I took it in small bites. I received both the print and audio galleys, and I moved back and forth between them, leaning more toward the audio, whose reader, Kevin Stillwell, does an outstanding job; but at times I forgot something, or wanted to check a detail or highlight a quote, and then I dove into my digital review copy. You can go either way without fear of disappointment.

Highly recommended.

The Brother Years, by Shannon Burke*****

The Brother Years is my first book by this author, but I hope it won’t be the last. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and if you treasure excellent, character-based fiction, you should get it and read it.

It’s tempting to call this a coming of age story, but the quality of the writing renders it unique and singular, defying categorization. The quiet authority and intimacy with which this story is told within the first person point of view led me to my desktop twice to make certain I was reading fiction, rather than memoir. In addition, I’m a sucker for any story that addresses social class, and class is the flesh and marrow of this tale.

Willie Brennan is the second born into a large family, and almost all of his siblings are boys. His parents are working class strivers, determined to rise, and particularly to help their children rise, through merit and hard work. In order to obtain the best possible education, they move into a substandard rental house in an otherwise upscale community. But social class shapes us, not only in terms of material trappings, but in more subtle ways having to do with culture. For example, when the boys get angry with each other, they are ordered to take it outside. The parents, who work multiple jobs in order to elevate their sons and daughter, are often not available to mediate disputes; moreover, the family is infused with a dog-eat-dog sort of Darwinism, and so sibling on sibling domestic abuse germinates and grows, along with genuine, abiding hatreds for protracted periods of time. This contrasts sharply with the more genteel, nuanced manner that more moneyed families deal with disputes and competition within their families, and between friends. And so, Willie and his older brother Coyle are set apart, not only by their house, family car, and clothing, but by the way they treat their classmates and each other. And we see much of how their classmates and neighbors regard them:

“They knew of our family. Our reputation had grown as we’d gotten older. We were Brennans. We did crazy shit.”

As the story begins, Coyle, the eldest, is the apple of his father’s eye, the achiever in every possible arena. Willie feels the terrible weight of expectation; how does one follow an act like Coyle’s? But in adolescence, Coyle rebels, and nobody knows what to do. Willie, next in line, bears the brunt of his brother’s bottomless rage.

This could be a miserable read in the hands of a less capable writer.  I have seen other writers tell stories of horrifying childhoods, both fictional and autobiographical, that simply made me want to put that book down and walk away. When pleasure reading is devoid of pleasure, what’s the percentage in forcing oneself through to the conclusion?  But Burke is too skillful to let this happen. While there are a number of truly painful passages, the distance projected by the narrator, speaking down the long tunnel between his present adult life and that tortured childhood he recalls, provides me with enough of a buffer that my sorrow for this poor child is eclipsed to a degree by my eagerness to know what will happen next.

This reviewer was also a child of working class parents, and also attended an excellent public school where most of my classmates came from families with money, in some cases a lot of it. No doubt this further fueled my interest. I am riveted when, as a revenge ploy, Willie accepts a friendship overture from Coyle’s nemesis, Robert Dainty, whose family is among the wealthiest and most

 privileged in town. Robert was “the epitome of the New Trier student: competent, self-satisfied, crafty, and entitled.” The interactions that take place within this alliance are fascinating, and I believe them entirely. In fact, I believe every character in this story, from the father, whose judgement and impulse control is dreadful; to the mother, who smolders and tries to make the best of things; to the older brother, classmates, and of course, the protagonist, Willie.

The author—and this reviewer—grew up in the mid-twentieth century, and it was during a time, post-Sputnik, post-World War II, when the United States and its people were passionate advocates of competition and domination. For this reason, I suspect that those from or close to the Boomer generation will appreciate this story most. But it’s hard to pigeonhole writing that meets such a high standard, and everyone that appreciates brilliant fiction, particularly historical fiction, will find something to love here.

Because I was running behind and could tell this galley was one that I shouldn’t let fall by the wayside, I supplemented my usual reading with the audio version I obtained from Seattle Bibliocommons. Toward the end, because it is so impressive, I listened to it and followed along in the galley. George Newbern is the reader, and he does a wonderful job. You can’t go wrong, whether with print or audio.

Highly recommended.