Us Against You, by Fredrik Backman****

“The first time Peter realized that the tiny person was sleeping soundly in his arms. What are we prepared to do for our children at that moment? What aren’t we prepared to do?”

UsAgainstYouUs Against You is the second in book in the Beartown trilogy. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the invitation to read and review. This book will be available to the public tomorrow.

Beartown is in crisis. The hockey team has been undone by the arrest of their star player for rape, and Maya, his victim, has been harassed endlessly as if she were the perpetrator. Resentments simmer. There are anonymous callers. A new coach is hired, not only a woman—but a lesbian. Chins wag. New owners roll into town, friendly and treacherous, generous and oily. Violence hums beneath the surface as the town polarizes between the hometown hockey team and that in the neighboring town, to which some Beartown citizens have decamped.

Fredrik Backman, who is possibly the finest male feminist novelist in the world, is on a roll here. It’s interesting to note that although the hockey players in this story are men and boys, the best developed, most complex characters are the women. I like reading about Peter, Leo, Amat, Benji, and Teemu, but the characters that keep me coming back are Kira and Maya, Ana and Ramona. More than anything I want Kira to pack her bags and seize the opportunities presented to her, with or without Peter. Just go, woman, go. But it’s always easy to suggest that someone else should leave a troubled marriage behind, and the way that she deals with this problem—and the role that her daughter plays in the decision—is thought-provoking.

Meanwhile there are about a dozen other small threads here, and again, Backman is among the best writers when it comes to developing a large cast of town members without dropping anyone’s story or letting the pace flag. His use of repetition as figurative language is brilliant, and he is unquestionably the king of the literary head fake. If I taught creative writing to adults, I would assign my students to read his work.

I have some relatively minor quibbles here, although I know so little of Swedish culture that they may or may not be valid within that framework. I would dial the sentimentality and drama down twenty to twenty-five percent; clearly most readers love this aspect of these novels, but I would argue for a smidge more subtlety. There are occasional exaggerations that remind me that the characters are fictional. When the entire town is economically depressed, and yet everyone shows support for something by showing up in matching jackets, and when a preposterous amount of spare change goes begging in the kitty at the local bar, I wince. But then I am quickly drawn back in by the complex, compelling characterizations.

If you’re a fan of Backman’s, you won’t be disappointed. If you have never read his work before, don’t start here. Read one of his excellent stand-alone novels, or begin with Beartown, the first in this series. Recommended to those that love fiction that features excellent, complex characters, particularly female characters.

Robin, by Dave Itzkoff*****

robinWhere were you when you heard that Robin Williams had died?

I was so stunned and grieved at this loss that I honestly wondered if something was wrong with me. I had admired Williams since Mork “uncorked” in the late 1970s, and for decades I enjoyed his work, but after all, he was a complete stranger. I had never met him; why did my heart drop to my toes and stay there for a while when he left us? But as the internet exploded and friends also responded, I understood that it wasn’t just me. He was so raw, so vulnerable in so much of what he did on screen that he became, in a way unlike most entertainers, a part of who we were.

Huge thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Williams grew up in a well-to-do family, an only child that didn’t learn he had half-brothers till adolescence. His invented characters began in private during childhood with his large collection of toy soldiers, for which he invented complex lives and scenarios; in middle school he began assuming the voices of invented characters as self-defense socially. From his school days all the way through his life, those that spent time with him personally or professionally said that he was unknowable, and he admitted in an interview that in many ways, he was “performing to avoid.”

But none of us knew that when he burst onto the airwaves; all we knew was that this actor was manic, hilarious, audacious, insightful, and unpredictable. Itzkoff deftly segues in and through each period in Williams’ life, through his marriages, parenthood, and friendships, and of course, through the enormous body of artistic work that he amassed over his lifetime. There are perceptive quotes by those that knew him, some wry, some surprisingly hostile, and many of them pithy, and it boggles the imagination to consider how many of these the author began with before he whittled them down to just the right size and number, to provide as complete an account as is possible without allowing the pace to flag.

Here is one favorite clip taken during Robin’s early career:

Some of my favorite sections of the book share behind-the-scenes vignettes from the Robin Williams movies I most enjoyed. One interesting anecdote concerns the making of Dead Poets Society. Disney deemed the title to be too risky; nobody wants to watch something dead, they figured, and so why not change the title to “The Amazing Mr. Keating”? Robin and other cast members laughed; the producers laughed; then they told the Disney people that production would stop immediately if such an attempt were made.

Although usually even well-known movie actors have to audition for Disney animation voice roles just like anyone else would, an exception of great proportions was made for Williams, and in fact, the role of the genie in Aladdin was written for him specifically. Try to imagine that movie without him. Impossible!

I tore voraciously through this absorbing biography of this truly brilliant performer, but as the end neared, the pace of my reading slowed, because I knew, more or less, how it would end. I would have liked the chance to change it, but nobody can do that. It’s a sad, rotten thing to see such a bright star fall so tragically.

Itzkoff’s sources are strong ones, and his tone is intimate without being prurient, affectionate but not fawning. I would read this biographer’s work again in a heartbeat.

Highly recommended.

Then She Was Gone, by Lisa Jewell****

ThenSheWasGone3.5 rounded up. Thanks to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC. This book is now for sale.

This is my third title by this author, and she is consistently strong. Our protagonist is Laurel, who is struggling. Her daughter Ellie–her favorite child—is missing. She’s been missing for years, and it hasn’t really gotten any easier.  Her marriage is over because Paul could move on, while Laurel could not; she is no longer close to their other two children, because all her thoughts and feelings went to the child that was missing.

Then one day she meets Floyd. He is warm and delightful, and his daughter Poppy, who seems too good to be true, calls to her.

I have read other reviews that suggest that the mystery here is easily solved. That’s true. But it hardly matters, because I wasn’t in this thing for the mystery. I was in it for the character. There are so many observations, small tidbits of mom-philosophy, some of which I didn’t know anybody shared with me. I have notes in my reader, where I usually ask questions or point to technical aspects of a story, that simply say, “I know, right?”

All of the characters in this story are Caucasian, and so I suspect that the main target audience is white mothers in their forties and beyond. I recommend this story to everyone in that demographic that enjoys women’s fiction.

Educated, by Tara Westover*****

educatedTara Westover’s memoir has created a lot of buzz, and all of it is justified. It’s the story of one woman’s journey from a fundamentally loving yet untenable home life, to the civilized world she has been raised to fear. Each chapter focuses on one meaningful event in the author’s life, and it’s told with sensitivity, grace, and yes, also a sprinkling of rage, because how can she not? But all told, Westover permits the balm of time and distance to balance her perspective.  This book is for sale now, and it’s going to be read for a very long time.

I received my copy of Educated free and early, thanks to Random House and Net Galley. That said, if you have to pay full jacket price for this book, your money will be well spent.

Westover grows up in a large family that is nominally Mormon (Latter Day Saints, or LDS), but she and her siblings are denied the tight-knit communal bond that most members of that faith experience.  Their father is deeply suspicious of the outside world including other church members, and as his pathology grows, they are increasingly isolated. Basic social expectations such as personal hygiene and clean clothing; inoculations against deadly diseases; a birth certificate; and an understanding of how to navigate within the greater society are denied her, as Dad’s survivalist views kick into gear. She is told the story of Ruby Ridge from the time she is tiny, but grows up believing this is an event that has happened to her own family, and that Federal agents might break into her own home at any time.

Veteran teachers like me are fascinated by the differences in how students process traumatic events, and Westover is a strong case in point. Some students experience the death of a beloved grandparent or divorcing parents, and they come undone and aren’t able to function normally for several years. Then there are remarkable young people like Westover that experience horror after horror exponentially and yet somehow, with little external assistance, they are able to claw themselves free of the rubble and become high achievers.

As Westover leaves home against the strident objections of her father, she struggles to reconcile the wider world with everything that she has been taught from the cradle, and she also struggles to win her family’s forgiveness and acceptance. As she is battered, sometimes physically, by one cruel rejection after another, a friend asks her, “Have you ever thought maybe you should just let them go?” And yet, for Tara, this is unthinkable.

There’s a lot of gritty material here, along with a number of experiences that are just weird, such as Tara’s brain-damaged mother becoming a local folk hero with her own brand of witch-doctor medicine.  There are also moments of dark humor that break up the misery and terror, along with an occasional kind or enlightening act on the part of a family member or member of the public that is able to wink through for a brief time in Tara’s life. But ultimately the thing that makes it possible to wade through the nightmare that constitutes much of Tara’s childhood is our knowledge, set within the book’s title and author description, that she will emerge triumphant.

Westover tells us that the bizarre system of beliefs and taboos practiced by her family are not typical of Mormon families, and in fact a bishop that counsels her once she arrives at Brigham Young University tries to help her separate herself, to some degree, from the madness that awaits her at home during school breaks.  This reviewer grew up alongside a number of Mormon classmates, and I have to agree that none of the things Westover’s parents brought down on her and her siblings is attributable to that church. That’s not how they work.

I highlighted dozens of passages that range from the wry, to the stupefying, to the outrageous, but when all is said and done, each is better when read within context. Go out and get this book. You won’t be sorry, and at the end of it, you’re almost guaranteed to look at your own family in a gentler light.

 

Interview with Westover:  https://www.cbsnews.com/video/tara-westovers-journey-from-off-the-grid-childhood-to-cambridge/

Sadness is a White Bird, by Moriel Rothman-Zecher*****

“There’s nothing ‘not political’ in Palestine, habibi.”

SadnessisaJonathan grew up in the United States, but now his family is in Israel, the land of his mother’s birth. He’s visited Auschwitz where much of his family died, and he can’t wait to turn eighteen so that he can train to be an Israeli paratrooper. Enough with being ‘people of word’, he figures; he wants to be a Jewish warrior, the ‘people of the sword,’ and exact some payback.  A friendship with two Palestinian teenagers complicates his life in ways he didn’t expect. I received an advance review copy of this exquisitely rendered story free, courtesy of Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for this honest review.

Twin siblings Laith and Nimreen are Palestinians, but long days at the beach and twilit evenings spent with Jonathan, getting high and telling ridiculous jokes, blur the social boundaries observed by most Jews, and by most Palestinians. With the absurd idealism peculiar to young people that haven’t run up hard against life’s limitations, Jonathan thinks that he can have both, that he can become an Israeli soldier and keep his friendships separate from his new career. His friends know better, but still they love him.

There’s only one way to tell a story like this one, and that’s as a tragedy; that’s exactly what Rothman-Zecher does, but he does it better than anyone else I can imagine.  This doomed friendship becomes more deeply intimate the closer the day comes when Jonathan must report for duty. Ultimately it becomes a bizarre love triangle in which our young protagonist has a sexual relationship with both of them—though fortunately not simultaneously.  For a good long while this lodges in my craw, and as the story continues, I am too revolted to focus. As brilliantly written as this story is, I was headed in the direction of a four star review in protest; that was true, anyway, until I recognized the allegory. Then I was over it.

Nimreen is a teenager too, but she lives with the partitioned state every damn day of her life. She knows that Jonathan can’t have it both ways, but she hopes against hope that he’ll change his mind, that he won’t go into the service. And as Jonathan and his friends try to do anything, go anywhere where there are other people, we see exactly how polarized this place has become. They can’t hitchhike together; there are so many places where either Jonathan isn’t safe, or Laith and Nimreen are not permitted. He goes through a checkpoint where, without his suspicious-looking friends, he would simply have been waved through, and he finds out what it’s like to have one’s homeland invaded.

Rothman-Zecher does a splendid job of depicting exactly how difficult this question is. If I ask myself, have Jews been systematically robbed of their possessions, their homes, and sometimes their lives across not just hundreds of years, but across centuries? I know the answer is yes. I knew it before, but this story drives it home in a way that is visceral. And do Jews deserve to have a home that nobody can ever, ever take from them again? Again, the answer is absolutely yes.

But then we look at the Palestinians, indigenous people living in the Third World at a bare subsistence level. Their homes are almost all they possess, and does anyone have the right to march in, evict them from this place and chase them away from their homes, their families, their livelihoods? Oh hell no, of course not.

In this epic story, Rothman-Zecher bridges the scholarly with the deeply personal, fulfilling a task that can only be achieved by excellent fiction. This searing debut has put this writer on the map definitively and marked him as a new voice in literature.

Highly recommended.

White Houses, by Amy Bloom*****

 

“Lorena Alice Hickock, you are the surprise of my life. I love you. I love your nerve. I love your laugh. I love your way with a sentence. I love your beautiful eyes and your beautiful skin and I will love you till the day I die.”

I pushed out the words before she could change her mind.

“Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, you amazing, perfect, imperfect woman, you have knocked me sideways. I love you. I love your kindness and your brilliance and your soft heart. I love how you dance and I love your beautiful hands and I will love you till the day I die.”

I took off my sapphire ring and slipped it onto her pinkie. She unpinned the gold watch from her lapel and pinned it on my shirt. She put her arms around my waist. We kissed as if we were in the middle of a cheering crowd, with rice and rose petals raining down on us.”

 

WhiteHouses

A sea change has occurred in the way mainstream Americans regard lesbian relationships. This book proves it. We would have laughed at the possibility in the 1980s, that a major publishing house would one day publish this novel depicting a revered  First Lady in such a (covert) relationship—while she was in the White House, no less. But Amy Bloom tells it, square and proud, and she lets us know that this is only fiction by an inch or two. Many thanks go to Random House (I will love you till the day I die) and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.  This novel is now for sale.

Nobody can tell a story the way that Bloom does it, and this is her best work yet. The story is told us by Lorena Hickok, a journalist known as “Hick”, an outcast from a starving, dysfunctional family, the type that were legion during America’s Great Depression. The voice is clear, engaging, and so real that it had me at hello, but the story’s greatest success is in embracing the ambiguity at the heart of the First couple, Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So many great things done for the nation; so many entitled, thoughtless acts toward the unwashed minions they knew. A new friend, a favorite visitor brought from cold hard poverty, here and there, to occupy a White House spare bedroom and provide stimulating conversation, a new viewpoint, and to demonstrate the administration’s care for the common folk; then dumped unceremoniously, often without a place to go or money to get there, when they became tiresome or ill or inconvenient. The very wealthy, privileged backgrounds from which the Roosevelts sprung provided them with myopia that comes with living their whole lives in a rarefied environment. It is fascinating to see history unspool as Eleanor visits coal camps and picket lines, visits textile mills where children labor; but then of course, she repairs to the best lodging available before her journey home commences. And Hick is welcome when she is convenient, but she is banished for a time when there’s too much talk.

And yet—oh, how Lorena loved Eleanor, and the reverse was true, but not necessarily in the same measure, with the same fealty, or the same need.

Social class, the dirty secret America has tried to whitewash across the generations, is the monster in the Roosevelt closet. And FDR, perhaps the greatest womanizer to grace the Oval Office, has his PR people tell everyone that he has no manly function what with the paralysis, and that all those pretty girls that come and go are just there to cheer him up. He makes JFK look like a monk in comparison.  Yet we cannot hate him entirely, because of the New Deal:

He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day…He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, Who’s for cocktails?”

I have a dozen more meaty quotes I’d like to use here, but it’s much better if you get this book, by hook or by crook, and find all of them for yourself.  It’s impressive work by any standard, and I defy you to put it down once you’ve begun.

Highly recommended.

The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah****

ThegreataloneI wanted to see what all of the buzz was about, and now I know. Kristin Hannah has a fresh, authentic  voice that transports her readers to a completely different time and place. The Great Alone, set in Alaska in 1974, made a believer of me. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the ARC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Leni Allbright is our protagonist, and she and her mother are inseparable during the early years of her childhood. But when her father, a man she doesn’t know, is released from the POW camp and then sent home, he is volatile, not the man Cora remembers. He has trouble keeping a job; he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night. He’s paranoid and sometimes delusional, too.

He likes firearms.

Then word comes that a friend, a soldier he served with, has died and left him a plot of land in Alaska. They’ll be away from the stimulation of the city, which seems to trigger Ernt’s anxiety and panic attacks. Cora tells Leni it’s perfect, because once Ernt is happy, everybody can be happy. And so, clueless hippies that they are, they head north in a VW van with little more than the shirts on their backs and of course, Ernt’s weapon collection.

Imagine their surprise upon discovering their new home is at the end of a long unpaved driveway and isn’t really in habitable condition. However, Mad Earl, the father of the deceased soldier that left the place to Ernt, introduces him around, and their new Alaskan friends teach them the ropes. Cora and Leni are accustomed to a passive role, but Ginny “the generator” and Large Marge assure them that if they don’t learn to pull their own weight, they will die before the end of the first winter. Soon Cora and Leni know how to fell trees, use tools, and kill their own meat.

Ernt wants his wife and daughter to be survivors; he wants them to be ready when “the shit hits the fan.”  He wakes them from a sound sleep at odd intervals and forces them, bleary eyed and bewildered, to assemble and load weapons in the dark. He assures them that it’s possible the enemy may attack in the small hours; it’s an old ruse. But over time it becomes clear that the most dangerous person they will ever encounter is Ernt.

Hannah is a feminist badass and an evocative, memorable writer. One of the finest things about this story is the recognition that domestic abuse often arrives hand-in-glove with some other challenge that muddies the water. Ernt is abusive, but he can’t help himself; something happened to his mind when he was a POW. Then of course, there’s addiction and straight-up mental illness. Who could just leave a guy that has been through so much and that loves them so hard?

Ernt says he is sorry, and it won’t happen again. Like so many abusers, he says it every damn time. But even when it has become crystal clear to Leni that she and her mother must put their own safety first, Cora won’t leave, and Leni won’t leave her mother.

By the halfway point, it becomes clear that someone is going to die; the three of them cannot continue together indefinitely through the dark Alaskan winters, and yet there they are, and he’s getting worse, not better. But then Large Marge injects new life into their domestic situation with an ingenious plan. It doesn’t last forever, but it buys them some time.

My only disappointment is with the ending. In many ways it is cleverly turned, but it’s a letdown to see such a magnificent young woman warrior take such a well-worn, traditional path. It’s a small quibble though, and it shouldn’t keep you from grabbing the nearest copy of this excellent novel at whatever price you have to pay to get it. It’s for sale now, and I recommend it to you.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

Love and Other Consolation Prizes, by Jamie Ford****

“‘We all have things we don’t talk about, Ernest thought. ‘Even though, more often than not, these are the things that make us who we are.'”loveandotherconsolation

Ford is the author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is one of my favorite novels, and so I was thrilled when I saw he had written another historical novel set in Seattle. Thanks go to Net Galley and Ballantine Books for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Ernest is a small child when his mother, who is dying, wrenches herself away from him and puts him on a boat to the USA. He attends a charity boarding school and then is raffled off, a free orphan to a good home, by the Children’s Home Society at the Alaskan Pacific World’s Expo. It is Flora, the madam of a Seattle brothel, that claims him and brings him to the city. There he is essentially a house boy, and he forms a warm friendship with two young women employed there, Fahn and Maisie.

The narrative is divided between two time periods, the first following Ernest as he leaves China and arrives in the USA at the dawn of the twentieth century, and the second in the early 1960s when he is elderly and his wife, Gracie, is suffering from dementia. There’s an element of suspense that is artfully played as we follow both narratives, trying to untangle whether the woman that becomes “Gracie” is Maisie, Fahn, or some third person.

But Ford’s greatest strength is in bringing historical Seattle home to us. The characters are competently turned, but it’s setting that drives this book, just as it did his last one. Ernest lands in the city’s most notorious area at the time, a place just south of downtown known as the Tenderloin:

He had never once been near the mysterious part of Seattle that lay south of Yesler Way, a street better known as the Deadline. His teachers had talked for years about sewer rats that plagued the area, and rattlesnakes, and about the wolves that prowled the White Chapel District, waiting to sink their teeth into the good people of Seattle, which a local song had dubbed the Peerless City. Ernest had imagined lanky, sinuous creatures with sharp claws and tangles of mangy fur, but as he looked out at the avenue, all he saw were signs for dance halls and saloons.


Ernest’s years at the brothel prove to be the best of his young life, primarily because the rest of it was so much worse. Every time a rosy glow starts to form around the brothel and the condition of the women that work there, Ford injects an incident that is stark and horrible to remind us that trafficking in human beings and their most intimate acts is criminal and should never be condoned. Miss Flora is a relatively benign madam because it is better for business, not because of any sentimentality toward the women she employs. This comes to us all the more starkly when her own daughter’s virginity is raffled off to the highest bidder.

All told, this is good fiction, poignant, warm, and moving. Two things give me pause: the ending seems a little far-fetched, and the depiction of the suffragists, who are some of my greatest heroes, is so hostile that it borders on the misogynistic. However, the latter is peripheral to the main story, winking in and out briefly, and overall this novel is an appealing read. It will particularly appeal to Seattleites and to Asian-Americans.

I recommend this book to you, with the above caveats, and it for sale to the public today. 

What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?

 

Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]