She Regrets Nothing, by Andrea Dunlop****

“Love,” she thought, “is for the rich and foolish.”

SheregretsLaila is just twenty-three when her mother dies, and she is astonished when her cousins appear at the funeral. Cousins? What cousins? In fact, they are from her father’s side of the family, long estranged—and they are very wealthy. Cousin Liberty wants to make amends, and nobody has to tell Laila twice. She ditches her home in Michigan, leaves her spouse, a dull dentist who’s blindsided by her sudden departure, and heads for New York City, to live in the style to which she would like to become accustomed.

Lucky me, I read this darkly funny story free courtesy of Atria Books and Net Galley. It was released Tuesday, so you can get a copy of your own now.

As Laila arrives in New York, the reader cannot help but worry for her. She’s never been to New York before, and she has very little money. She’s brought a few pieces of her mother’s jewelry, the only things of any value her mom had owned, but she doesn’t want to sell them. As she meets her newly found kinfolk and settles into a guest bedroom, it’s instinctual to wish we could grab her by the wrist and yank her back out of there. Careful Sweetie, you’re playing with fire. They’re being nice to you now because you’re new. When the novelty wears off, they’ll spit you back out again. New Yorkers are tough, and nobody uses people and discards them as quickly as the very rich—right?

There are at least a dozen places where I make predictions that prove incorrect. For example, given Laila’s trump card that makes her a possible heir, I find myself waiting for the DNA test that will prove she actually isn’t related to them at all…but that doesn’t happen. I can tell things won’t work out the way she anticipates because the author drops so much wry foreshadowing. But what she does with it at the end is both completely consistent with the protagonist as we know her, and a complete surprise as well.

Part of the joy this novel sparks is its understated quality. Some writers will drop something amusing into the storyline, but then they have to go back to it, explain it, make sure the reader got it and at that point it’s cold and lifeless. None of that for Dunlop. Stay on your toes; if you’re paying attention you’ll get it, but if you are distracted, oh well. Think of it like trying to catch a cab right after the theater lets out; watch out or you’ll be left behind.

I confess that I have read neither of the novels to which this one is compared in the promotional blurb, but to me, the humor is similar in some ways to that in The Nanny Diaries.

If you need a giggle—and frankly who doesn’t—you should order this snappy, cleverly turned novel. It’s a fast read and it made me laugh out loud.

I Can’t Breathe, by Matt Taibbi*****

“Try to imagine a world where there isn’t a vast unspoken consensus that black men are inherently scary, and most of these police assaults would play in the media like spontaneous attacks of madness. Instead, they’re sold as battle scenes from an occupation story, where a quick trigger finger while patrolling the planet of a violent alien race is easy to understand.”

ICantBreathe
I received an advance review copy of I Can’t Breathe: A Killing On Bay Street, courtesy of Random House and Net Galley. I had expected this civil rights title to be a good read but also to be anticlimactic, coming out as it did just after publications by literary lions like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Angela Davis. I am surprised and gratified to see that Taibbi, a journalist for Rolling Stone, holds his own quite capably. The title is for sale, and if you care about justice and an end to cop violence in the US, then you should get it and read it.

Many readers will recognize the title, which constitutes Eric Gardner’s last words and became a rallying cry for protests that spanned the globe. Why would any cop, especially one not acting alone, find it necessary to put an elderly man, a large person but not a violent one, in a choke hold over what was, after all, a misdemeanor at most? Taibbi takes us down the terrible urban rabbit hole, deftly segueing from Garner’s story, the events that led up to his death and the legal and political fight that took place afterward, to the cop killings of others, and the bizarre, farcical prosecution that takes place in the unlikely event that a cop is ever charged with having unlawfully killed another person.

Though my own life is free from this type of harassment and though I benefit from White privilege and have done so since birth, I found it hard to breathe myself as I read Garner’s story, and the behind-the-scenes machinations that result in the maintenance of the status quo. And I trembled, and still do, for the Black men in my family.

I think many people over the age of 40 understand that the attacks we see publicized online, one by one, Black boys and men that have done either nothing wrong or committed a minor offense that most Caucasian people would never be stopped for, have been taking place for a very long time. What we didn’t have was proof; what we didn’t have was the long view that allows us to see into cities, rural areas, and small towns in America such as Ferguson, where Michael Brown was killed. And there’s one other thing: we didn’t have to look at it before if it wasn’t happening in our own community, our own neighborhood. Even those of us with racially mixed families didn’t see the scope of it. Some would prefer not to know.

Here’s Taibbi’s take on how it unspooled:

“The civil rights movement ended in a kind of negotiated compromise. Black Americans were granted legal equality, while white America was allowed to nurture and maintain an illusion of innocence, even as it continued to live in almost complete separation. Black America always saw the continuing schism, but white America has traditionally been free to ignore and be untroubled by it and to believe it had reached the “postracial” stage of its otherwise proud history. That was until cell phones and the internet came along. When the murder of Eric Garner hit the headlines, it at first seemed to lift the veil.”

Taibbi’s smooth narrative and expert pacing doesn’t make this any easy book to read; nothing can. If it’s easy, you’re not paying attention. But if we ignore Eric Gardner, Michael and Trayvon and Freddie and Sandra and all the rest, we are complicit in their deaths. Highly recommended, even at full jacket price.

He Will Be My Ruin, by K.A Tucker***

hewillbemyruinMaggie Sparkes, heir to a fortune, is called to New York City when her closest friend, Celine Gonzalez, is found dead. Did Celine really commit suicide? Maggie doesn’t believe it for a minute, and when she finds Celine’s personal effects hidden away with a note, she believes it even less. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC and invitation to read and review this title. It was released February 2, 2017 and you can get a copy now.

Maggie and Celine grew up together; Celine’s mother Rosa was the housekeeper and nanny to Celine’s very wealthy family, and so apart from school, the girls were inseparable. Now Maggie is determined to find out what happened to Celine.

The cast of characters here is limited to Maggie, Celine’s neighbor Ruby, who was my favorite character, a cop named Doug, and two hunky men, both of whom were involved at some level with Celine. Jace is an investor; Grady is the property owner of Celine’s building, and both are described as immensely attractive. Who can be trusted? Who is a killer?

The limited number of characters and repetition—how wealthy and philanthropic Maggie is, how creative and hardworking Celine was—makes for an accessible read. The vocabulary is adult level but not out of range of the average reader. For those that are newly venturing into reading English language novels, this is a great place to start, because if something important slides by you the first time, you’ll be told again.

As for me, I prefer more nuance in my literature. When Maggie tells us how things went in high school, she wasn’t merely a debater, she was the captain of the debate team. Likewise, Celine wasn’t just a student actor, but scored the role of Juliet. Having both of them be so perfect within their realms of interest keeps them from seeming real to me. Maggie is rich, and we get told constantly in case we forgot. Maggie has a million charities and wants to save the world, and we’re unlikely to forget that either.

On the other hand, I wasn’t always this old and sometimes cynical. I can recall a younger version of myself that adored the writing of Victoria Holt, and I think that younger self might well have enjoyed this novel. Tucker is a successful, experienced novelist, and I have a hunch this is the pool of readers that find pleasure in her work.

Recommended to those that love Harlequin romances, Victoria Holt mysteries, and readers that enjoy romance but are still relatively new to reading in the English language.

Thirty-Eight Witnesses: the Kitty Genovese Case, by AM Ronsenthal***

38witnessesAM Rosenthal was a journalist, but in the 1960’s he was moved to write this relatively brief book—if fictional it would be considered a novella—about the failure of neighboring New Yorkers to come to the aid of Kitty Genovese, a woman that was murdered in 1964. I received this DRC free of charge from Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review.

The crime, one that occurred before drive-by shootings and mass killings in schools and other public places became an all-too-frequent occurrence in the USA, horrified New York and all that heard about it. The killer attacked 28 year old Kitty Genovese as she returned home from work. She lived in a middle class neighborhood, and when police later investigated, they would learn that 38 witnesses heard her scream for help. Nobody called the police until it was too late to save her. This is especially horrifying given that the killer left her bleeding after stabbing her several times, and she had the time, while he moved the car, to approach an apartment building and make her way inside its doors. But before she was able to go further, her murderer parked the car and returned to finish the job. She screamed a number of times, and one man opened his window and yelled at whoever was down there to leave her alone. Later the coroner would testify that had any of the witnesses phoned the police sooner, Kitty could have been saved. Instead she bled to death.

Largely Ronsenthal uses this opportunity to wax philosophical, both about the callous nature of people in general, and of New Yorkers. One New York newspaper managed to infer that it was her own fault by referring to her as a “barmaid” and mentioning that she was not living with her husband; the takeaway from this appearing to be that had she stayed with the mister and been home raising kids, she would not have been in danger. In this instance I think we can surmise that half a century later, any journalist who got that kind of misogynistic garbage past his editor would have heard from readers.

I found this little nugget hard to review. Part of it was due to a stereotype I wasn’t aware I carried; I assumed this attack was somehow related to the mafia (note the Italian last name). Whoopsie! Yes, I know that not everyone that bears an Italian name has a mobster in the family. So it goes.

But also, it’s an unusual piece of writing in that it isn’t really a memoir, isn’t really philosophy, isn’t really sociology. But the overall thesis appears to be that human beings don’t take good enough care of each other. He also uses the occasion to speak in defense of New York cops, who performed their jobs as well as they could in this circumstance. But what timing, given the behavior of NYPD of late! The piece hasn’t really aged all that well.

The writer speaks of a time in India when he himself failed to help others, a time when he regularly strolled past beggars that were ragged, often badly disabled or diseased, and he didn’t help them. He brought this item back time and again to where it felt a little like breast-beating and gnashing of teeth. I wasn’t interested in providing the author with the catharsis he seemed to be reaching for. For that, get a therapist already!

In all, I think his narrative is probably geared more toward native New Yorkers, and since the event is long gone and doesn’t really have a modern parallel, the niche that may be interested has shrunk to New Yorkers of Social Security age.

The writing was fluent, as one might expect of a seasoned journalist, but its prime period has come and gone. I was happy to read it free, but would not have wished to pay for the privilege.

City on Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg*****

cityonfireLuminous, epic, and brilliantly scribed, City on Fire is the buzz book of the year. I would be hard pressed to find a story of greater genius published this century. Those that love literature have to read this book. It will be available to the public for purchase October 13.

I received my copy early from Knopf Doubleday Publishers and Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. In doing so, I feel as if I struck oil.

The story, some 992 pages of it, is a complex story, and like an onion, the reader can decide how many layers of interpretation they wish to uncover. What the reader cannot do, however, is skim, or make the story make sense without reading it in its entirety. It is the thing that makes this story great that makes it complicated, and so those that lack the stamina for a book this length will probably not find it fulfilling. A college-ready literacy level is required in order to understand it.

First, the reader will want to know who committed the act of violence that sets so many things into motion, and how the planned escalation by her friends will unfold. But ultimately, the story is a much broader one, and its genius is in the way each character, even its most peripheral ones, is developed, usually within the same space that the setting is described, and how both of these things drive the plot forward rather than slowing it down. This reviewer came away with hundreds of flagged pages, eloquent quotes, and fifty notes to myself, most of which say exactly that; in fact, eventually I was too engrossed in the story to write a full note anymore, and began using “ch dev, setting” as a shorthand that meant, look! He’s done it again! And by the 80 percent mark, the author had so consistently developed so many characters that I began to ask myself who had not yet been included. Those I watched for were also developed by the conclusion.

In looking for a writer’s purpose, it’s easy to choose one part or another of a storyline and home in on that, and it’s particularly dangerous when the writer touches upon one’s own particular fond subject, or one’s own pet peeve.

In her memoir, Amy Tan remarks upon having stumbled upon a set of Cliff Notes for her own first novel, and discovering that she had intended as metaphor or message passages that actually, she had included for the sake of telling a good story. It’s a cautionary reminder here. If we want to know the author’s purpose and we aren’t sure, we should probably just ask him.

Yet the emphasis on the city, and the development of the characters, seems to point to one thing above all else: “I see you”. For though the author includes the diverse races, genders, ethnicities, and classes that make up a great cosmopolitan city, the story isn’t really about race, and it isn’t really about being gay or straight, and it isn’t really about the entitlement that comes of great wealth and capitalism unfettered, or anarchy and cataclysmic change, or cops, or the disabled, or addiction, or any of the story’s other facets. Rather, each is a foil to show the common humanity of all.

And at a time such as this one, with our social fabric strained and our political ideas polarized, it isn’t such a bad thing, I think, to have an author come forward and say, in a way far more compelling than anyone else has managed to do for decades, that we are all of us just people, after all. All of us will grow old or sick or both, and eventually die. All of us will grieve. Most of us will be injured, and we will forgive it to the extent that we are able. And if any of that sounds trite, it is only my own failing in this review rather than the author’s work, which is breathtaking in its scope and mesmerizing in its capacity to weave so many threads and perspectives into one intricate, flawless story.
If you read one great book this year, let this be it.