Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott*****

It really is.

This book is a standout in more ways than one. First the obvious: look at that cover! Then again, how many novels have a nameless protagonist all the way through the book? Get into it deeper, and the distinctions become more complex. The buzz around it is wholly justified. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our author is on an odyssey that takes the form of a book tour, and it lands him, in the end, back where he grew up. He doesn’t tour alone; apart from the various organizers he meets in various locations, he is accompanied by a small Black child he refers to as “The Kid.” Alternately, we also see the story of a young Black boy, a very Black boy, nicknamed “Soot,” who grows up in the American South.

As I read, I am always on the back foot, understanding most of what it being said, yet developing questions as I go. Our author says (often) that he has a condition, and that this is probably why he can see The Kid when others cannot. My notes ask whether his condition is dissociative, and is The Kid just part of himself? Or is The Kid Soot? Are Soot and The Kid both part of the author? Every time I come up with a plausible theory, something else happens to undercut it. Yet one other thing becomes clearer all the way through: to be born an African-American boy in the United States is to be perpetually on the back foot; perpetually having to guess how best to proceed; to perpetually guess at one’s welcome or lack of same, at the quality of one’s relationships with Caucasians, to perpetually guard one’s own safety. And to be very Black—“Nigga, I bet when you get out of the car your daddy’s oil light come on”—is to invite not only the suspicion and hostility of Caucasians, but to draw the enmity of lighter Black people, too.

The synopsis of this story that initially drew me billed it as humor, and in places, it is not only funny, but laugh-out-loud funny. But the further we get in, the darker it becomes.

There are a number of sardonic references to the publishing world; editors, agents, and other promoters have told the author that while it’s fine to write about Black characters, He must not write about being Black:

“The last thing people really want to hear about is being Black. Being Black’s a curse—no offense—and nobody wants to feel cursed when they read something they just finished paying $24.95 for…The future of this country is all about patriotic, unity-inducing language. Post-Racial. Trans-Jim Crow. Epi-Traumatic. Alt-Reparational. Omni-Restitutional. Jingoistic Body-Positive. Sociocultural-Transcendental. Indigenous-Ripostic. Treat of Fort Laramie-Perpendicular. Meta-Exculpatory. Pan-Political. Uber-Intermutual. MOK-Adjacent. Demi-Arcadian Bucolic. Write about love. Love and Disney endings…”

Later, an interviewer asks if the past doesn’t still matter, and the author says, “It does. Not just three-fifths of it, but all of it.”

So, my friend, you can see why this book should be called a love story. Race? Oh, no no no. Fear? Injustice? Police brutality? Of course not. After all, this is a hell of a book!

Highly recommended; one of the year’s finest.

Voices from the Pandemic, by Eli Saslow****

Eli Saslow is the journalist that wrote Rising Out of Hatred, the story of former White Supremacist Derek Black, in 2018. When I was offered the chance to read and review his new book, Voices from the Pandemic, I jumped on it, because I like this author a lot. Once I had it, I avoided it like the plague (pardon the reference) for a couple months, wondering just what I had been thinking, to sign on for something like this. In the end, I am glad to have read it.

My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy.

Saslow tells us in the introduction that he expected to become depressed, perhaps numbed, by all of these interviews, but ultimately was galvanized by “their empathy, their insight, their candor and emotional courage.” Fair enough, but an awful lot of these stories are gut-wrenching. For whatever reason, he chooses to start with some of the most horrific ones, but as we work our way into the book, there are several that are not about the excruciating, grim death of a loved one, but are interesting for different reasons. There are stories of essential workers, of coroners, and medical professionals. One that has stayed with me is that of a middle aged man, ex-military, who is finally compelled, when everyone in the household loses their livelihoods, to visit a food bank. He gets there two hours before it opens to be on the safe side, and discovers that there’s already a huge, hours-long line.

My favorite story is that of Bruce MacGillis, a wily old man that barricades himself in his room in his nursing home, lets nobody in, throws open his windows in subfreezing weather, and stuffs towels underneath the doorway to keep out other people’s germs. He ends up being one of two residents that are spared, out of eighty-nine residents. (My notes say, “Hell yeah!”) On December 28, he lets a nurse come in to administer his vaccine. I hope that man lives to be a hundred.

There are some stories by vaccine deniers, mask avoiders, included here, but if you are among them, you probably won’t enjoy this book. It leans heavily toward science, and away from conspiracy theories.

After I’d procrastinated reading this thing, I checked out the audio version at Seattle Bibliocommons to give myself a leg up. I thought it might be easier to hear these stories while I was also engaged in some other task, so I fired it up while I was slicing bell peppers and marinating meat. If anything, it was worse that way. Well—to be fair—worse, and also better. There’s a separate reader for each story, and the hard ones are read with such searing emotion that it makes them all the worse. The saving grace is that each person’s story is concisely told, so there was only one time that I hit the stop button and fast-forwarded to the next one. At the outset, I only listened for a few minutes at a go, and then turned to listen to another book, something light and fictional, to restore my mood. By the second half, I no longer needed to do that.

The book only covers the 2020 portion of the pandemic, but I’m not sure it would sound much different had he waited to include the whole horrible thing. (It will be over someday…won’t it?) Recommended, for those that can do this.

Home Stretch, by Graham Norton***-****

3.5 stars, rounded down.

Home Stretch is Graham Norton’s third novel, and because I absolutely loved his first, Holding, and his second, A Keeper, I expected great things from this one. It’s not a bad book, but it didn’t delight me the way the first two did.

My thanks go to Net Galley and HarperVia for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

We start with a tragic accident, and our protagonist, Connor, is unhurt, but three of his friends are killed, and Connor is blamed by everyone, including his family. It’s a small town, so trying to keep his head up and avoid people that dislike him is impossible.

His family feels the same, and so he is abruptly packed off to Liverpool, and from there to bigger and in many ways, better places. And in many ways this is a favorable development, as he is no longer forced to hide his sexuality; and yet, it’s a tough thing to live a life that’s separate from your family, one that you know would horrify them.

The story is set in the 1980s, the era of the AIDS epidemic. This reviewer lost friends to it during that time; a lot of people did. Norton does a serviceable job with setting, and with character too; and yet, this book lacks the spark of his earlier two novels. The pacing is not as brisk, and the surprising bursts of humor that made me laugh out loud never materialized here. At times it felt like work to read it, and I wonder if he found as much joy in writing it.

I still believe in Norton as a novelist; everybody has a “meh” moment now and then. I look forward to seeing what he writes next.

The Guncle, by Steven Rowley*****

How do you spell instant parenthood? It’s the last thing GUP—the appellation bestowed on Gay Uncle Patrick—expected, and the transition is hilariously rocky. My thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Patrick’s whole life appears to be on hold. He was on television for a good long while, and so both fame and fortune are his. He doesn’t actually have to do anything, and since the demise of his beloved partner, he hasn’t wanted to. Then one of his closest friends, Sarah, who had been his college roommate, dies, and everything changes.

Grant and Maisie, Sarah’s children, are six and nine years old respectively. When the memorial service concludes, Patrick is blindsided by Joe, Sarah’s husband. While she was on her deathbed, she made Joe promise that when she was gone, he’d go into rehab—but of course, someone has to take the children. Joe wants that someone to be Patrick.

The humor is ribald at times, but never over-the-top. Patrick knows nothing about children. Nothing! In a daze, he returns home with his charges in tow, and he has to learn on the job. Maisie is at a somewhat bossy age and is only too happy to tell him what to do and how to do it, and oh is it fun to watch. As the fog lifts, Patrick begins making small changes to create a more child-friendly space, but mostly, he embraces his unconventional situation. There’s a Christmas celebration in the middle of summer; there’s a party. And as he steps up to his new role, he realizes that he should return to work; he has heirs now, after all.

Aunt Clara arrives, and she demands the children return with her. She knows how to do this. She frowns on nearly every aspect of Patrick’s life. But Patrick is amazed to realize he is willing to fight to hang onto them.

Some may be surprised to find a book like this earning a five star rating; it’s not serious literature. It’s fun; it’s fluffy. But this reviewer rates each book on its excellence compared to others of its genre. As a humorous novel, it shines. As a feel-good book, it’s terrific. As beach reads go, what can be better?

Perhaps it’s indicative of Rowley’s skill that I have found myself writing review notes in his voice. This doesn’t happen often. But as for you? You should get this book and read it, because all of us need a mood elevator, and in that respect, it’s a bargain. Highly recommended!

The Incredible Winston Browne, by Sean Dietrich****-*****

4.5 rounded upward.

The time is the 1950s; the place is Moab, Florida, a tiny town where everyone knows everyone else. Winston Browne is the sheriff; Eleanor Hughes is a frustrated single woman that fears she is headed for spinsterhood; and a small girl, Jessie, is on the lam from a creepy cult that considers her to be “a little abomination.”

I read this book free, courtesy of Net Galley and Thomas Nelson Publishers. It’s for sale now.

The story begins with Winston in his doctor’s office. There’s bad news about his chronic cough. Tests show it’s not only malignant; it’s metastatic. In other words, Winston should put his affairs in order.

Winston is a friendly guy, but he’s also an introvert. He tells no one of his condition. He’s single, and there’s no family to warn, so he goes about his life about the same as before he learned his diagnosis.

Jessie is awakened in the middle of the night by one of the Sisters, who hustles her into a waiting vehicle. She’s being busted out of the Temple compound by softhearted women that know the girl is doomed if she remains. Jessie has an independent spirit, and so when she is dropped off at the train station with instructions of where to go and who to trust, she follows her instincts instead. Her instincts take her to Moab, Florida.

Eleanor—you can call her Ellie—is fed up with Jimmy. They’ve dated for year upon year, and she is so frustrated by his inaction that she can scarcely stand the sight of him. If he is so crazy about her, then why doesn’t he propose? She’ll never have a husband or a family, and it’s all his fault. But then Winston comes along, and the birds sing in the trees.

For the first half of this book, I thought it would be a four star read. It was a good enough tale, but I had my reservations. For starters, where are the Black people in Moab? If we’re meeting the townsfolk—and we surely are—how is it that all of them are Caucasian? A visit from Jackie Robinson is all well and good, but this is Florida, for heaven’s sake. Is Moab a sundowner town?

I run a quick search, knowing that the African-American population during this mid-1900s was much lower than it is now, and I am grudgingly convinced that there might well be a little town in the boondocks with only white residents. Back then, it could have happened, so…okay.

It is during the second half that everything falls together and I am swept away by the characters. No more consulting the Google oracle; the intimacy has become too strong for me to step back.

It’s difficult for me to find a feel-good book without schmaltz. Most books that are billed as heartwarming tend to make me roll my eyes or retch a little. Dietrich works magic, though, and although it takes a minute or two to reel me in, ultimately I am captivated. The droll, understated humor that drops in and out at just the right moments is a key element. The captions that appear regularly make me guffaw more than once; don’t skip over them! They’re terrific. The text is punctuated now and then by contributions from the Moab newsletter, whose minutiae underscores just what a dull place this town usually is.  

However, let me also say a quick word here about the audio version. I began reading this book close to the publication date, and so when I was partway into it, I checked out the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. By doing so, I could extend my reading sessions, switching over to the audio when I had to do something else with my eyes and hands. The author reads his own narrative, and he has a wonderful voice, warm with just the right amount of drawl. The best way to enjoy this book is to access both the print version and the audio; if you must choose one or the other, it’s a toss-up, perhaps with a slight edge toward the audio.

Some readers will be pleased to know that there is no off color language or sex involved. If a movie were made based on this book, it would most likely show a General Audiences rating.

Highly recommended to those that love a feel good story, historical fiction, or Southern fiction.

Foregone, by Russell Banks*****

“Oh, Canada!”

Leonard Fife is a legendary filmmaker, his searing social commentary an important part of North American history. But now he is dying, and he has a few things he needs to get off his chest before he goes. My thanks go to Net Galley and Harper Collins for the review copy. This book is available to the public March 2, 2021.

Fife is not a lovable character, and now that the end is near, he wants everyone to know it. With the cameras trained on him, darkness all around him but for the spot shining on him as he speaks, he tells his life’s story, and he spares himself nothing. One relationship after another, abandoned without even a goodbye. Children left fatherless. Lives laid waste in his passing. Banks is one of the most brilliant novelists in the U.S., and his word smithery can turn nearly any terrible story into spun gold, but he never pulls punches. His writing is often painful to read, and here it is true in spades, agonizing. By the halfway mark, I am watching the page numbers crawl by and wishing it over.

But of course, there’s a surprise in store.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but in the last half of the book, the question arises as to whether our narrator is reliable. He says he did all of these dreadful things; but did he really…?

The book flows so seamlessly that the difficulty of writing it is not obvious, but here it is: almost the entire thing is one man’s narrative. There’s very little dialogue. It’s not an easy thing to carry off, and yet, this is Banks, and he does.

As his narrative unspools, we are occasionally reminded of his current circumstances by breaks in the action. Once in awhile he is overtaxed and starts to drift off, or worse, and action has to cease immediately while the nurse does important things quickly. Now and then she has to change his bag, or help him onto the toilet and wipe his butt afterward. There’s not a lot of dignity left to the man. But he doesn’t give a…okay, I’m not saying it.

As he insistently recounts his many betrayals of loved ones, ignoring the more suitable, conventional questions that the people filming him thought were going to provide the framework of the film, he makes it crystal clear that it doesn’t bother him in the slightest, what he is doing to his legacy. Torpedo all of it; hell, he’ll be dead before the film opens. What he wants is to be truthful, and the one person he wants to know the truth is Emma, his wife. He knows he cannot be truthful with her unless the camera is rolling, and he won’t proceed unless she is there. RIGHT there. He calls for her many times, making certain she hasn’t left. And through the occasional things she says, we are aware that Emma is not merely his arm candy, not a sycophant that married him for fame, fortune, or prestige; she’s a respected professional in her own field, juggling her own commitments in order to be present here and now for Leonard.

By the time the story ends, my feelings have changed. Leonard is still no angel, but he’s not the sack of excrement I believed him to be, either. The guy I hate at the end is the filmmaker, once Leonard’s protegee, but now wolfishly eager for his mentor to die on camera for him. The nurse orders the camera turned off, but the director calls over the top of her to keep it rolling, the vulture. I want to smack him!

Ultimately we see that death is a final betrayal, a form of abandonment; but Leonard is at peace, because his goal is realized. And this is the story’s title, but I am not going to tell you how that works.

Get the book and read it. All your own sorrows will feel smaller.

The Museum of Forgotten Memories, by Anstey Harris***

Cate Morris has her back to the wall. She’s lost her job and her apartment; her husband, Richard, is dead and she and her son, Leo, are still grieving. With nothing left to lose, she packs their belongings and heads for Richard’s ancestral home at Hatters, a place that turns out to be full of secrets and the unexpected.  In the end, the museum is renovated, as well as its occupants.

My thanks go Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

I read and enjoyed Harris’s last novel, Goodbye Paris, and when I saw that she had another book in the works, I leapt on it. Harris develops plots that are fresh and original, and so when I open the book, I expect great things. And in most ways, I find them.

The first and most obvious aspect is the museum. The family patriarch, Sir Hugo, is now deceased, but he was a benign presence in the tiny village; his museum, which is now somewhat anachronistic, showcases a collection of taxidermized African animals, among other things:

“It is a conundrum, like everything else in this peculiar house. From the glaring dead animals conserved in their alabaster homes, through the thousands of books that no one can reach to read, right into the wet green foliage of the unmanageable woods Colonel Hugo’s grandfather meticulously planted, this place contradicts itself at every turn, gives then takes away, frightens then comforts.”

Though Leo is an heir and has the right to be there, Cate and Leo are met coolly by Araminta, an older woman who has become nearly the sole caretaker of the whole enormous enterprise.  There are a number of things that don’t add up, but since there’s no real choice, Cate and Leo forge on. Leo, who has Down’s Syndrome, is a hugely congenial character, and again, Harris brings in an element that few other novelists have done lately. I have never had much interest in this syndrome, and came to the novel for the author rather than this attribute, but I enjoy Leo a lot, and he has a shining moment toward the conclusion that I will remember for a long time.

Throughout the novel’s progress, Cate is still processing and grieving Richard’s loss, though it’s been years. There’s a stretch midway through that feels repetitive, with Cate grieving, remembering, stewing, and assuring the reader that she won’t tell anyone everything about Richard’s death. I become impatient with it, mentally telling her to fish or cut bait and get on with it, but soon after I hit that point, she does exactly that. There are a lot of secrets floating around this museum; there’s one involving Araminta that I am able to guess ahead of time, but there’s another big reveal toward the end that I find inappropriate and jarring, and it’s important enough to the story that I can’t overlook it. Up to the ninety percent mark, I had this book pegged as a five star read.

Despite my disappointment, I am not finished with Anstey Harris. Her work is bold and original, and I respect her willingness to take risks. However, my advice to you is to buy it cheap or get it free if you’d like to read it; save the full cover price for her next novel, or use it to buy the last one, if you haven’t yet read it.

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 Story of Arthur Truluv, by Elizabeth Berg****

TheStoryofArthurThe Story of Arthur Truluv is a gently philosophical story centered on an elderly widower. Arthur visits the cemetery every day and has lunch at his late wife’s grave so that he can talk to her. Those interred there make pieces of their stories known to him at times; it’s a bit like crossing Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking with the work of Fredrik Backman. I read it free and early thanks to Random House and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. I rate this book as 3.5 stars and round upward.

Arthur, an octogenarian, and Maddy, who is 17, meet at the graveyard. Maddy is in a spot herself; her home life is not good; she’s been dumped by a much older boyfriend; she’s a pariah at school; and on top of all these things, she is pregnant. She and Arthur form a tentative friendship, though she is wary of trusting him at first. A bond is formed, and Arthur becomes a mentor to Maddy.

Added into the mix is Arthur’s lonely next door neighbor, an older woman named Lucille, who has never married or had children. These three characters make up the vast majority of the story, but it’s not a story with three protagonists; as the title suggests, the story is Arthur’s, and Maddy and Lucille are here primarily to develop him.

The story is a sweet one and has some nice moments, particularly where gentle good humor is employed; yet at the same time, I felt a little let down. Perhaps it was the hype; there’s been so much buzz about this book. But although I liked most of it, I found it somewhat derivative. I had 90 percent of the ending figured out a third of the way into the story. The character of Lucille felt wooden to me, and a lot of Berg’s sentimentality and allegory could use a lighter hand.

This one is a good choice for those needing a little light, feel-good fiction, but I wouldn’t pay full jacket price for it. This story is available to the public tomorrow, November 21, 2017.

 

The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs, by Janet Peery*****

theexactnatureofourwrongsThe place is Amicus, Kansas; the Campbell family has come together to celebrate the birthday of their frail, ancient patriarch, Abel. Ultimately, though, their attention is drawn, unavoidably, to the youngest among them. Billy is a walking pharmacy, but he won’t be walking anywhere for much longer if something isn’t done.

I read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. If I had paid full retail price, it would have been worth every red cent. It had me at hello, and performed a miracle of sorts by rendering me temporarily speechless; I had to gather my thoughts and look at my notes before I could comment.

But back to the Campbells of Kansas. Everyone has known for some time about Billy’s dependency issues; he’s been riding the roller coaster of addiction for many years. Billy’s father wants to take a hard line with him, while his mother, Hattie, just wants to bring him home and tuck him into the guest bedroom. Brother Jesse objects, “He’s forty-fricking-seven, Mom.”

Elder daughter Doro, who is sixty and perhaps the only sane, normal person in the family, is concerned for her mother, who is past eighty and has already had a heart attack. Doro reminds her mother that “It’s Amicus. It’s your family. Where two’s company and three turns into an intervention.”

The setting of Amicus and the time period we see as we reach back into the family’s history is well rendered, but remains discreetly in the background as it should, not hijacking the story. The story itself is based on character, not just of any one person, but of the family itself. By the twenty percent mark I feel as if I have known these people all my life. The full range of emotion is in play as I immerse myself in this intimate novel, and there are many places that make me laugh out loud.

It isn’t too long before I can identify someone I know that is a Hattie, and someone that is a Billy. Given the widespread horror of opiate addiction, I will bet you a dollar that you know someone too.

But before the halfway mark is reached, a terrible sense of dread comes over me, an aha moment I would not wish on my worst enemy. I begin to sense that perhaps I am Hattie. And within a week of having read this epic story, my eldest child calls and tells me that he’s had a phone call from his younger sibling’s dealer, a man that flatly states, “I don’t want your brother on my conscience, man. I won’t sell to him anymore, but I’m telling you, there are plenty of others that do. You gotta do something, cause he’s out of control.”

Generally, I do not include personal notes in my reviews, because that’s not generally what the reader is looking for. But here I have chosen to do so because this problem is everywhere. In the case of Billy Campbell, there’s a complicating factor: Billy is HIV positive and has been since he was 21. And again, I suspect that for many others, such issues also blur the distinction between medical treatment of some sort, and addiction.

I hope that you can get this book and enjoy it for its sly humor, brilliant word-smithery, and unmatchable character development. It’s excellent fiction, just exactly right for a chilly autumn evening in your favorite chair or snuggled beneath the quilts. But for me, it is valuable as a wake-up call, and it will do the same for many other readers also—I have no doubt.

It’s the right story, at the right time.