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.

Band of Sisters, by Lauren Willig*****

Lauren Willig is an established author, but she is new to me. Band of Sisters, her newest release, has made me a fan. I read it free and early, and my thanks go to Net Galley, William Morrow, and Harper Audio for the review copies. It will be available to the public March 2, 2021.

A group of Smith College alumni sail to France on a mission to help civilians suffering extreme deprivation during World War I.  “They carry money, supplies, and good intentions—all of which immediately go astray,” says the promotional blurb, and that’s what happens. It’s hard to make plans when you don’t know which way the battle may turn or where bombs may fall, but these are plucky women, two doctors among them, and several of them are members of wealthy, influential American families as well. The story is based on actual women and events, and the teacher in me wishes I were still in the classroom and able to order sets of this excellent novel to share with honors students, girls especially, who need to see more of themselves in the study of American history.

Our two protagonists are Kate and Emmie, best friends and roommates a decade ago, united in this adventure. Kate is the only woman among the “Smithies” that doesn’t come from money and that doesn’t pay her own way; she is led to believe no one else paid their own way, either, but it isn’t true. And this is a chewy, inviting historical truth that we don’t see often in fiction. Though social class divisions are every bit as present and sharp today, assumptions made by most Americans have become more generous. During the early years of the twentieth century, there was a widely held belief that rich people were better in other ways as well, whether they had earned their fortunes or inherited them. They considered themselves to be God’s own chosen ones, and their wealth was one more sign that the Almighty loved them a bit more than others. Poverty was considered shameful, a thing to be concealed; there were no government funds of any kind to help the poor, and if there had been, women like Kate would have just about died before accepting them. Taking charitable contributions was a sign of personal failure and possibly dishonesty to most people back then. And the truth is, Kate isn’t impoverished, and she surely hasn’t failed at anything, but she has to work to earn her living, a thing most Caucasian women in the U.S. didn’t do in 1917. She is horrified when, midway through our narrative, she learns the truth about her travel expenses, and this creates one of the crises within the story.

Willig is a fine novelist. The pace never flags, and there’s never a moment of revisionism that makes me blink. She is true to the time period and the characters. Emmie’s character is a harder sell, to my way of thinking, because she comes from tremendous wealth, but her family has made her feel unworthy because of her physical appearance, and by the end of the book, I love Emmie as much as I do Kate.

I’ve plucked a sample for you, a scene in which Kate and Emmie are evacuating an area which is being overrun by the Germans:

[Kate] wanted Mrs. Barrett; she wanted Dr. Stringfellow; she wanted anyone who could tell them what to do and where to go. Grecourt looked different already, the anemones churned up by the tread of two hundred soldiers, tents dotted around the lawn, Maybe, if she closed her eyes and wished hard enough, she could make it a week ago; the ground bright with flowers; slipping into story time and holding Zelie on her lap while Nell read to the basse-cour children in French about little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, joking with the unit around the supper table about their amazing ability differentiate between types of guns.

But it wasn’t a week ago. The Big Bad Wolf was here, he was on the march, with his big, big teeth and big, big guns, and maybe she wasn’t the best the Unit could have, but she was what they had right now.

By the time we reach this part of the story, I could not stop reading if I wanted to. It would have been impossible.  

The hardest characters for many writers are the children, and although we have no child protagonists, there are numerous scenes in which children play a part. How does a child act when he is traumatized by war? Willig is in perfect form here as well.

I received both the digital review copy and the audio, and I used them both. At the beginning there are so many women introduced to us at once that I felt lost with just the audio, and so I listened and read along to keep track. The narrator, Julia Whelan, does a superb job with a challenging manuscript, changing her tone and point of view to let us know which woman’s point of view we are hearing. My only concern regarding the audio version—which is much easier to follow once you have learned the most important characters—is that the story begins with a lengthy list of the women that participated, and it’s not great to listen to. I recommend you fast forward the audio to somewhere between five and seven percent, and then dive in.

I requested this galley because a number of Goodreads friends whose opinions I respect recommended it to me, and all of them were absolutely right. This book is a gem, and I highly recommend it.

Love and Other Crimes, by Sara Paretsky*****

Sara Paretsky is a venerable author, one who—along with the late, great Sue Grafton—reframed the role of women in detective fiction nearly forty years ago. When I saw this collection available for review on Edelweiss, I jumped on it. It’s for sale now, and you should get it and read it—although there’s a caveat coming up that should be considered first.

Sometimes when a favorite writer releases a book of short stories, I find that I’ve already read a lot of them in one form or another. This time, nearly every story is new to me. One forms the basis of a full length book that I read a long time ago and have forgotten much of. Another is a reworked version of the short story “Wildcat,” which I purchased a short time ago. These are the only duplicate stories I can detect, and I am a voracious reader where this author is concerned.  Some of her work was included in Sisters in Crime anthologies, but I haven’t seen them. Not all of them feature the iconic V.I. Warshawski. The signature elements that include social justice issues such as women’s rights, immigration, racism, and the homeless are here in abundance, as one might hope.

My favorite selection is the second, “Miss Bianca,” a mystery in which a little girl saves a research rat and ultimately uncovers a dangerous conspiracy. Paretsky gets the tone of the child’s voice just right, making her bright within the bounds of what a child that age is capable of, and registering the thought processes and perceptions of her protagonist flawlessly.

There’s an historical mystery that involves a Sherlock Holmes retelling, and like all of that ilk, it bored the snot out of me, a first where this writer is concerned. I abandoned it halfway through. The five star rating is unchanged, because the reader can skip this story and still get her money’s worth and then some; also, I am aware that not everyone is as averse to this type of writing as I am.

Another story is set during the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement is center stage. In order to convey the horror of the backlash by some Caucasian Chicagoans during this tumultuous period, the *N* word is included several times. I used the audio version of this book for some of the stories, including this one, and I feel as if it should have a warning sticker of some sort because hearing that word shouted angrily sent a cold finger right up my spine, and I don’t like to think of other readers, especially Black readers, listening to it within the hearing of their children. I don’t deduct anything from my rating, because the author includes a note about its use and her reasons for it at the end of the story; in fact, there is an author’s note at the end of many of these that makes the story more satisfying. But you should know that this word is there, so be ready for it.

When all is said and done, there are few authors that can deliver the way Paretsky can. With the considerations above included, I highly recommend this collection to you.