Bad Kansas, by Becky Mandelbaum*****

“It’s either school, a job, or a girl,” she said. “Or death. Those are the only reasons for coming to Kansas. Unless you’re born here, of course. Then it’s a matter of escaping.’

BadKansasThis collection won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and it may very well win more awards as well. Thanks go to Net Galley and University of Georgia Press for providing me with a free advance review copy in exchange for this honest review. The collection is now available to the public.

We have eleven stories here, all of them set in Kansas, and all of them excellent. Every story is built around a dysfunctional romantic entanglement. There are manipulative relationships, stalkers, couples held together by money alone, and there are pathetically lonely types that want to cling to a dying romance at all costs. Somehow, Mandelbaum takes a wide range of pathological partners and makes them hilarious. In addition, the character development surprises me, going beyond what one might anticipate in short stories. My personal favorite is “A Million and One Marthas”, which is darkly funny and skewers the wealthy and entitled, but it’s a hard call, because the quality is uniformly strong, with not a bad one in the bunch.

Nobody needs to know anything about Kansas to enjoy this collection, and by the time the last rapier thrust has been extended, you’ll feel better about not having been there.

Mandelbaum is on a tear. She’s witty, irreverent, and clearly a force to be reckoned with. Look for her in the future, and if you see her coming, step aside, because nobody, but nobody can stop her now.  Highly recommended to those that love edgy humor.

The Whole Town’s Talking, by Fannie Flagg*****

 “Up on the hill, Lucille Beemer said, ‘Good morning, everybody.’

“Two hundred and three people just waking up answered, ‘Morning’.”

thewholetownstalking Fannie Flagg is legendary, and rightly so. In fact, at one point in my reading of this DRC, I reflected that someone with her power to move people has power indeed; how fortunate that she uses her gift to benefit the rest of us. I don’t know about you, but I am ready to read something that provides a level of reassurance that all has not gone sour in this world, and that everything passes, sooner or later.  I was  fortunate to read this free and in advance thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it’s one of the very few books for which I’d have paid full freight if it came down to it. It hits the shelves November 29 and is available for pre-order right now.

Our story begins with the first residents of what will become Elmwood Springs. Lordor Nordstrom arrives from Sweden, and after months of searching, finds the perfect place for his dairy farm in a pleasant spot in Missouri. The year is 1889. He puts up a house, buys some cows, and then, as a founding father, he decides he will donate a piece of land, because every town needs one thing for sure…a cemetery.

“Lordor guessed that preparing a place to spend eternity and trying to figure out how many places to set aside for himself was what made him think about his future.”

I went back and reread that sentence a couple of times; it begins our second chapter. Oh my but Flagg is droll. If one were to read this gem with half a mind on other things, nuggets like this might be missed.

The years go on, and with brief, colorful chapters, Flagg develops the town, introducing new residents that move in or are born here, and at first it seems as if the story is cotton candy, all fluff and sugar. But just as the impression is formed, it is vanquished, because our author is just warming up. Moments that are poignant, bittersweet, and darkly funny are sprinkled in lightly as we start, because after all, we are new to Elmwood Springs.

But the longer we stay there, the more intimately we become acquainted with its denizens and their peccadilloes, and then the more emotional aspects of the story unfold, almost as they might within your own large family or tightly knit community. Flagg convinces me that these people are my people, and her characters are so brilliantly developed, so utterly convincing that even when one of them does something surprising, I understand how that has come to pass.  And every time I think I see where she is headed with one thread or another, she surprises me.

About a fourth of the way in, someone dies and we find them interred, of course, at Still Meadows. But there’s an engaging twist to this aspect of Flagg’s story: the first person to pass wakes up when someone new arrives and greets them. They may be six feet under, but they can see what’s happening at the cemetery, along with everything that can be seen from the cemetery, just fine. And so the discussions that took place in life continue after death, and the dead look on avidly and wait for word of the loved ones they left behind.

As the story develops and characters’ lives are more deeply explored—always remaining more light than dark, and without a single word anywhere that isn’t needed—it occurrs to me that she just may have done it again.

Some people like to take gadgets apart to see what makes them work; I enjoy doing that with literature. And so I find myself looking back at my highlights and notes, looking for what, apart from a dry, accurate wit, makes this writer’s work so special. Some of it is an alchemy whose elements can never be described perfectly, taking ordinary Americans and spinning them into gold. But part of it is undoubtedly her deep respect for working people, and her readiness to see redeemable qualities in characters that upon first glance seem abrasive and unlovable:

“Ida had always been different. At school, when all the kids used to play church and one would be the preacher, another the preacher’s wife, a deacon…Ida said she wanted to be God, because she was the only one who knew how to do it.”

But later, once she was grown, “Someone else remarked, ‘By God, if Ida had been a man, she would have made general by now.”

She also acknowledges that once in awhile, someone comes along that no matter what heroic effort is made on their behalf, will never do anything good for anyone. Hey, it happens.

The comments that are made by various characters reflect both the character’s outlook and usually, the prevailing attitude of the time period as she rolls the town steadily forward to 2016.

And this leads to one cautionary note: as with all of Flagg’s work, it is essential to read the chapter and section headings, which provide context. This reviewer once taught a group of teenage honors students that were unable to make heads nor tails of Fried Green Tomatoes, and I discovered it was because they weren’t reading the chapter headings, and so they didn’t know what the time period was or whose point of view they were reading. Don’t let that happen to you!

Finally, I want to thank the author for the kindly manner in which she draws teachers.  Fannie Flagg, every teacher I know that talks about books, loves your work. We need the encouragement sometimes, and your friendly regard means a great deal.

Highly recommended to everyone.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood****

alltheuglyandwonAnd you thought Fifty Shades of Gray was controversial.  Just remember that you heard it here first: if this novel has legs and gets around, it’s going to create a lot of noise.  I could almost smell the book-burning bonfires as I read the last half. And lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

Wavy grows up in the North American heartland, smack dab in the middle of nowhere. When you consider it for a moment, that’s obviously the place for a meth lab to be. No sophisticated, well funded cops will sniff around and shut down your operation; there’s plenty of cheap land for the various vehicles and outbuildings such a business might require.

It’s not as if guests are welcome to drop in.

Guests don’t drop in, in fact, but two children do, one at a time, to proprietors Liam and his estranged and dysfunctional wife, Val. First Wavy arrives, a daughter that grows up with instructions never to let anyone touch her, especially her father; next comes little brother Donal, whom Wavy undertakes to raise as best a small child can do, since nobody else is available for either of them. Val struggles with mental illness and has given in to addiction with no struggle at all. Liam lives elsewhere with a small harem of junkie women that he uses sexually and as part of his drug business. When Wavy sees him, he usually yells for one of the women to get her out of there and take her somewhere else. He doesn’t seem to care who she’s with, or what they do with her.

Wavy lives briefly with her grandmother, a nurturing woman who despairs of Val’s habits but is more than willing to take care of her grandchildren, and slowly Wavy begins to bloom. But Grandma is elderly and sick, and she dies. During the brief time Wavy is with her, Grandma teaches her to read the stars. Wavy has a quick, sharp mind, and with just a little encouragement she learns the constellations. They form her only reliable connection to the world, since they are the sole immutable part of her life. Take her to live here; take her to live there. Put her in school; yank her back out. No matter what happens, she can still find Cassiopeia.

Liam’s mechanic and sometime-employee is a man named Kellen. He sees Wavy left like yesterday’s mail by the side of the road and gives her a lift on his motorcycle. To stay on board, she must touch his jacket in spite of what her mother has told her about never touching other people. We all need to be touched, and children of course most of all, and a bond is formed.

As to Kellen, he’s a strange bird, and the reader is never fully informed what his deal is. Is he, as some say, a slow learner? Is he mentally ill? All we really know comes from the inner narrative we hear from him in alternate chapters, and what others say about him. And we know what he does. When Wavy’s parents don’t show up to pick her up from school or to attend parent conferences, Kellen goes. And we know that other members of Liam’s meth crew consider Kellen to be the kind of man that won’t pull the trigger, but will help move the body when the deed has been done.

Sadly, Kellen really is the best parent figure in Wavy’s life. For those that think this is melodramatic nonsense: teach in a low income school district for a decade or two, and then come back and tell me that. Because these kids are out there.

Greenwood is dead smart when it comes to developing character. The peculiar behaviors that Wavy develops along with the period in which her physical development ceases to move forward are right on the money. The author states that portions of the story are autobiographical, and that sounds about right.

The relationship that develops between Wavy and Kellen will cause plenty of fireworks way after Independence Day has passed. Those that have triggers related to anything at all should steer clear. But for the rest, this novel is worth your time and dime. As the relationship between Wavy and Kellen begins to change, readers may lean in, or may want to hurl the book at a wall, but no one will be left unmoved.

This book is available to the public August 9, 2016, but you can order it now.

Pilgrims: A Lake Wobegon Romance*****

PilgrimsOh my stars. Keillor is at his finest here. I’ve never read anything funnier. Every now and then I permit myself to read a title that isn’t a new release but that I’ve been considering reading for a long time. This is one of those.

By now you probably have an idea whether or not you are a Keillor buff. His appeal is largely (but not limited to) the boomer generation. His trademark capacity to satirize people from rural Minnesota, and in particular Lutherans and Norwegians and most of all himself, is legend. He somehow manages to tug the heartstrings occasionally and evoke bittersweet feelings that are experienced by those of us who grew up in the USA during a particular time period, even if we are not from his part of the nation or his culture.

Keillor seemed to me to be sort of a hit-or-miss writer for awhile, but lately, he’s been hitting, at least for me. Liberty, Pontoon, and this one, which parodies Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, carries on without slowing or hitching or ceasing to be interesting and at many times (especially the end) a total crack-up.

If you have never read Chaucer and don’t intend to, that won’t wreck it. The basic contours: Chaucer wrote about people going far away, in a limited group, and Keillor uses the same style of poetry Chaucer used to mark the beginning and end of this book. If there are other parallels, then I am not deep enough to find them, but if I found this to be a good bedside read with only that much recollection, then it will likely suffice for you too.

Here are the story’s components. (I actually flagged fifteen hilarious passages, and then realized that if I quoted them here, it would ruin it to you, so I’ll just give you the basics and set you free.) Margie is 53 and very unhappy. Life has sort of ground to a dull halt; the nest is empty, and husband Carl has moved to a different bedroom. She doesn’t know why. She hopes that if they take a romantic trip to Italy, it will rekindle the flame.

Writer Gary Keillor comes to town. No one includes him in anything. They all assume he is being standoffish by not coming, and he is hurt that no one invites him; very Scandinavian. Before he knows it, he has livened up the speech he is giving (and which is obviously boring his audience senseless) by offering to fund the trip to Italy. Holy smokes! What has he done?

On top of all of it, the town hero, Gussie, their fallen Norwegian soldier who fought in World War II, should have his grave decorated. His daughter Margo, born in Italy outside the sanctity of wedlock, has never gotten around to coming to the USA to meet him, and his remaining brother, very elderly and in a nursing home in another part of the USA, has long wanted someone to convey a photo of Gussie to his grave site. A simple request, and nobody would do it. Now, Margie calls to tell him she’ll be happy to help, and joy of joys, he sends her a big pile of money, and on his deathbed, he refers to her as his “daughter, Margie.” She is entirely untroubled about taking his money as the little band from Lake Wobegon sets out on its vacation and its mission to decorate Gussie’s grave.

This should give you enough information to decide if you want to see the rest. I will only tell you this: the story has some surprises in store at the end; it is not as predictable as it appears to be at the 75% mark.

I found my copy during an annual pilgrimage of my own, to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. It has been available to the public for some time.

Hilarious, and highly recommended!

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend****

thereadersofbrokenwheel“What is it with this town?”

Sara comes all the way from Sweden to visit Amy, who lives in Broken Wheel, Iowa. When she arrives, she learns that Amy is dead, yet the townspeople ask her to stay anyway; in fact, they expect her to stay. And once she is there, Sara seems to belong to the town, like the last jigsaw puzzle piece being thumbed into place. She brings Hope to Broken Wheel, both figuratively and literally.

And now I have to pause for a moment in order to acknowledge Net Galley and Sourcebooks for providing me with a galley to review, free of cost. This romantic beach read rates 3.5 stars by my reckoning, and I round those stars upward. I was greatly entertained.

Sara doesn’t have a lot going on back home. She worked at a bookstore, but it closed. At first, upon arriving in Broken Wheel and finding that her host has died, she figures she should leave, but everyone insists that Amy knew she was dying and wanted Sara to use her house for two months nevertheless. They make is sound like a sacred bequest; also, without a volunteer to drive her to the airport, she is sort of stranded anyway. The icing on the cake comes when her parents order her home. What young woman wouldn’t stay right where she is in such circumstances, since she doesn’t need parental funds? Oh heck yes!

The story evolves, developing multiple characters, the town itself, and of course, Sara. Multiple romances pop up. There are problems with pacing and the writing is uneven in its proficiency, but those problems are all within the first third of the book. Once the reader pushes past that point, I can guarantee you’ll want to finish the rest of it.

A fun read, enjoyable for those looking for a fluffy, engrossing book to take on vacation or curl up with over a solitary weekend.

Liberty, by Garrison Keillor *****

LibertyKeillor is best known for his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, on NPR. I have read many reviewers (not from the mainstream media, but amateurs like me, who review on amazon and goodreads) who insist that Keillor is only funny when he delivers the lines himself, and that once you put his work in print, the humor is lost.

Nonsense!

I like reading Keillor’s novels, though the collections of quirky philosophy and bits of his radio work set in print are worth a gander as well. This one is set in the home town he has made known to many of us. (If you haven’t read or heard anything by Keillor, you may still enjoy it, but I recommend reading his classic material first. Lake Wobegon Days is a nice launch-point). In some places it is dry and droll; at other times, I found myself doubled over and gasping for breath. And to be frank, I am not that easily amused.

In fact, I laughed out loud on the first page. People often say, and tritely so, “I couldn’t put it down”, and what they mean sometimes is that they read it often until it was done, and they really enjoyed it. But I genuinely never put this book down unless it was strictly necessary. It was an awesome weekend. I was recovering from surgery and had to be sedentary, and this cheered me up considerably. It is not poignant in the way the L.W.D. is; this is just plain FUNNY. It hit my funny bone from a sort of blind spot and then kept rolling.

Life is serious business, and most of us just don’t laugh often enough. Studies show that laughter actually helps us live longer. But if you get this book and laugh your way to a massive MI, and the last thing you remember is something this hilarious, I still say it’s the best way to go out.

Get the book right away; the Fourth is just around the corner!