Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout*****

Nobody writes more convincing characters than Pulitzer winner Elizabeth Strout. In her most recent novel, Oh William!, she brings back Lucy Barton, the protagonist in My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review; this book is for sale now.

Reading Strout is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s a glorious thing to read writing this strong. On the other, poor Lucy Barton has endured a tremendous amount of pain, and Strout’s skill enables her to communicate every inch of Lucy’s pain and suffering to the reader. I wasn’t sure if I was up for it, but now I am glad I read it, because in this installation, most of her dreadful early years are left in the past, where they belong, and she is a successful novelist that can afford to provide for herself and when necessary, her adult daughters.

The premise is that Lucy’s ex-husband, William, has once again been left by his most recent wife; this is what happens when a man can’t keep his zipper shut. But he has taken an ancestry test, and he’s discovered that he has a half-sister that lives in Maine. His mother is dead, so there’s no asking her about this. Should he contact this sister? Well, probably not. But he’s curious. Should he? Maybe. Well, no. Unless.

Lucy is recently widowed, and she is hurting. Her second and last husband, David, was a wonderful man, and it was a terrific marriage. She misses him terribly. But she has remained friendly with William; after all, they had two daughters together, and so there are occasions. William calls Lucy to ask her advice about the half-sister, and later, he wonders if she’d drive with him to Maine. He’s not sure what to do.

I am always astonished at people that can divorce, yet remain so friendly. It’s hard enough to be courteous on occasions involving children and grandchildren; to be chummy enough to chat on the phone, to seek each other’s advice, to go on a road trip together, for heaven’s sake, seems to me like a tremendous gift. At any rate, Lucy and William are friendly, and she agrees to go with him to scope out the land of his forefathers, and do a little recon on Louise, the secret sister.

The magic of Strout’s prose is in her sterling character development. Earlier here, I was discussing how amazing it is that Lucy and William are on such good terms; these are fictional characters, but to me, they have become flesh. Lucy’s first person narrative is so intimate that I feel as if I am talking with an old friend over coffee.

If I could change one thing, I’d tone down a couple of Lucy’s mannerisms. The title, Oh William!, is used so frequently in the narrative that by the last quarter of the book I want to say, Yes, okay, I get it already. The other one is “What I mean is…,” and “…is what I was thinking.” These are legitimate devices that contribute to the writer’s voice, but I would use them less often.

Because I had fallen behind–or more truthfully, I had been avoiding this galley because I expected it to be grim—I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons. Kimberly Farr is an exceptional reader, and for that reason I recommend the audio book over the print, although both are excellent.

Highly recommended to those that treasure fine literary fiction.  

Our Country Friends, by Gary Shteyngart*****

Gary Shteyngart is a funny guy. In Our Country Friends, he tells a story in which Sasha, a former literary luminary, up to his eyeballs in debt, invites five friends to join him and his little family at their country estate to weather the pandemic. The results are not at all what he anticipated.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is available now.

Shteyngart does us the favor of listing the cast of characters (“Dramatis Personae,”) at the book’s opening, and I relied on it heavily. Because all of the characters are introduced at the outset, I took a ridiculously long time getting them straight, but it was worth it. The group’s dynamic would be fairly stable but for the introduction of “The Actor,” someone he knew back in the day but who is an A-lister now. But frankly, some, if not all, of the other guests would probably not have come but for the mention of The Famous One as a possible addition. When he comes, the women practically swoon in his presence, and then nothing is the same for the rest of the story.

The first third of the book seems relatively formless, but I suspect the author (should I say, “The Author?”) is warming us up, letting us get to know the characters before a lot of other action takes place. The promotional blurb tells us that this story encompasses six months and four romances, and that it’s about love, friendship, and betrayal, and that sums it up.

Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy novels about rich people, but because Shteyngart is setting them up for satirical misery and angst, I dive in, and I emerge shortly afterward, laughing. This sly humor is unmissable.

Because nearly all of the characters are over forty, I highly recommend this story to readers of a literary bent—if you know Chekhov, it’s even funnier—who are forty or over.

Invisible Child, by Andrea Elliott*****

I was invited to read and review this book by Random House and Net Galley, and immediately I accepted, because it’s right in my wheelhouse. However, I also understood that it would be a painful read, and I postponed it for months, because 2021 was already a terrible year, and I wasn’t feeling brave. So my apologies for the delay; at the same time, this book is not quite as wrenching as I expected, and the research and writing are stellar. It’s for sale now.

Dasani Coates is the firstborn child of an impoverished, disorganized African-American mother with few marketable skills.  She is named after the premium brand bottled water, because her mom thinks it’s a beautiful name. (Wait till you see what the next baby’s name will be!) They live in Brooklyn, and not long after Dasani is born, she has a sister. And another. And another, and then eventually a brother and a couple of step-siblings. None of them are the result of poor family planning; all are planned and wanted. But at the same time, they have very few resources, and the slender safety net provided by relatives doesn’t last forever; and the city fails to protect its most vulnerable denizens.

As a retired teacher that worked in high poverty schools, I have seen families similar to this one, and the children suffer the most, every stinking time. I’ve also seen children take on the role that Dasani assumes without ever planning to do so, that of the adult in the house (when there is a house,) caring for a large group of tiny people when the actual adult isn’t adulting. If you watch closely enough for long enough, it can eat you alive; as for the far-too-young surrogate parent, I have seen them cope admirably, right up until they become adults themselves, and often, it is then that they fall apart. I don’t know whether that holds true for Dasani, because we don’t see her as an adult, but I can well imagine.

Elliott, a Pulitzer winning journalist from The New York Times, follows this family closely for eight years, sometimes sleeping on the floor of their house or apartment. In her endnotes, she explains her methodology, her relationship to the family during this project, and the parameters determined by the paper, for whom she originally did this research. Dasani was the subject of a front page series on poverty in New York which ran for five days. Elliott’s documentation is impeccable, and she can write like nobody’s business.

Because I am running behind, I check out the audio version of this book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and I want to give a shout out to Adenrele Ojo, the narrator, who is among the very best readers I’ve yet encountered. Though I continue to use my review copy at times, I like Ojo’s interpretation of the voices for each of the large number of characters so well that I find I prefer listening to reading.

As I read, I become so attached to Dasani that I skip to the end—which I almost never do—because if she is going to get dead, I need to brace myself for it. I’ll tell you right now, because for some of you, this might be a deal breaker, and I’d hate for you to miss this important biography: it’s dark, but not that dark.

I don’t find myself feeling nearly as sympathetic toward Dasani’s mother, Chanel, as the author does, but I do think Dasani’s stepfather, who is the only father she knows, gets a bad, bad break. He jumps through every single bureaucratic hoop that is thrown at him in an effort to get some help for the seven children left in his care, and every time, the city turns its back on him, right up until a social worker comes calling, finds that they don’t have the things they need, and takes his children. This made me angrier than anything else, apart from a few boneheaded, destructive things that Chanel does.

For those that care about social justice and Civil Rights issues, this book is a must read. I highly recommend it to you.  

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.

The Confidence Men, by Margalit Fox****

This stranger-than-fiction story of two World War I captives, one an English officer, the other Australian, that trick their way out of a Turkish prison camp via a long, elaborate con centered on a Ouija board is compelling and at times, funny as hell. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

The beginning is grim; grim enough that I abandon this story twice before ordering the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons to help me get over the hump. There’s torture, deprivation, and every ugly thing that the notion of an enemy prison brings to mind. I am especially horrified because I thought this book was going to be funny! Reader, it is, but you have to get past the grim and at times, dull beginning to get to the amusing bits. Somewhere between the fifteenth and twentieth percentiles, the shift occurs, and that’s when you can expect to enjoy yourself. You may want to skim a bit through this part; I do, and it works out well.

Harry Jones was an attorney before the Great War commenced; Cedric Hill was an Aussie auto mechanic. Once captured, the two have no chance at all making a conventional escape; the camp is too isolated for either of them to get anywhere, even if they were able to leave. Instead, what they have is nothing but time, and ultimately, that and their excellent imaginations and problem-solving skills, aided by some genuinely stupid captors, is what saves them.

The most impressive aspect of their scheme is that it takes place over a very long period of time. Not many con artists would be able to keep their story straight for so long. Jones and Hill have a great deal of self-discipline and organizational skill. Also, they’re afraid, and fear can improve one’s consistency and attention to detail. Once the meat of the story begins, it is absolutely riveting!

I flipped back and forth between my digital galley and the audio version. Both are equally good, but I would give a slight edge to the audio version, assuming the reader is primarily seeking entertainment. For a researcher, the print version is better for keeping details and sources straight.

Recommended to those that enjoy history and intelligent humor.

Well-Read Black Girl, by Glory Edim, editor****

Ahem. Yes, I am in fact, over two years late with this review. I can explain.

My dog ate…no, wait. I got a flat tire when…oh. Yeah, that doesn’t work.

So now I have to tell the truth, having failed miserably, as I usually do, at lying. Here it is. About a month after I received the galley to this book, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House, national news and social media went into a virtual frenzy discussing cultural appropriation. And I froze. I started examining everything I did through that lens, and I may have gone overboard. I looked at this galley and I thought, I have no right to review this thing. And when I read the introduction anyway, I feel it even more so. Not written with me in mind, was it? Was this the literary equivalent of reading someone else’s mail? And so I did the easy thing, which was to shove it onto the back burner and read something else. Repeatedly.  

Several months later, it occurred to me that nobody would even have to know if I were to sneak it out of my files and just read the article by Jesmyn Ward, which was actually why I had originally requested it. Ward is on my read-anything list. I read it, and I liked it, and then I shuffled it back into the file. No harm done.

This spring, as the world tentatively emerges, one hopeful toe at a time, from the isolation imposed on all of us by the horrific pandemic, I realize what I should have known all along: that anybody can read anything, and form an opinion about it; and that since I was granted the galley, I actually owe a review. I straightened my spine, dusted myself off, and sat down to read it. There was no blinding light or thunder from the heavens. Nothing smote me. I read it, and I lived to tell the tale.

Most of the authors here are new to me; in addition to Ward, I also know Jacqueline Woodson’s work a bit, mostly from my years teaching language arts, when I used her YA book. Everyone here included in this compendium is a strong writer, and they are largely preaching to the choir, since the audience are also bibliophiles. But the common thread, the point they drive home—and rightly so—is the importance of finding literature about girls that look like themselves. They speak of it as empowerment and validation.

Back in the stone age, when this reviewer was enrolled in a teacher education program, we were likewise taught the importance of inclusive literature. It seemed so obvious to me, this obligation teachers surely have to make sure all of their students are represented in the books their students read, or have read to them. I figured it was a no-brainer. But when I arrived at my first teaching position in elementary school, (heaven help me and those children both,) I was shown the supply closet and there were the classroom book sets. The main characters were Caucasian boys; Caucasian boys and girls; fluffy woodland animals, mostly male; and more Caucasian boys. I sadly examined my battered Visa card and drove to the bookstore to order better books. And I was further amazed to learn, later, that my colleagues, all of whom were Caucasian, believed that the school’s book collection was terrific. Their students loved those books, and that included the children of color that made up approximately half of the population there, they told me.

Sure they did.

The essays in Well-Read Black Girl are a much-needed reminder that racism isn’t always overt; sometimes racism is exclusionary, unintentionally so. And what silences young voices, and what teaches children that books, and life in general, are not about them, worse than discovering that they are not important enough to be included in books?

When I moved to secondary education, where I belonged, I visited the book room there, and I found a set of books about African-American boys, but the message inherent was that they are constantly exposed to drugs and gangs, and it will be hard as heck not to be drawn in. And once again, I scratched my head. These Black kids, most of them were from middle class homes, or loving, well supervised working class homes. Drugs? Not so much. And what did these books teach their Caucasian classmates about Black people? I sighed and got back in the car, already apologizing silently to my Visa once more.

This collection of essays is important, not because of any particular brilliance in composition; they are well written, but not memorable for the writing itself. Instead, they are the key to understanding, from primary sources, why Black girls need books that depict Black girls and women in a positive light.

I’ve assigned four stars to this book for general audiences, but for teachers in training, it is five stars. Every teacher training program should include these essays as required reading. We have to read it until we get it right.

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.

Bestiary, by K-Ming Chang

It’s the best of books, but it’s the worst of books. K-Ming Chang has made her mark on modern literature, and her debut novel, Bestiary, has already made a number of prestigious lists. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review; sadly, its twisted edginess is too intense for me.

This much-buzzed-about book is for sale now.

How many triggers are packed into this one little book? All of them. Every trigger you can possibly think of, plus she may have made a few more up on the spot. There is violence a-plenty here, and the graphic child abuse and elder abuse provide such visceral imagery that I may never get it out of my head. I abandoned this book faster than just about any I can recall, and although I was certain it was the right thing to do for myself, I nevertheless experienced a twinge of regret along with it, because it is obvious from the first page that this author can write.

My gut hunch is that younger adult readers with cast-iron stomachs and level dispositions will be the most appreciative demographic for this one, but wimps like me will need to give it a pass. It is to the former that this book is recommended.

One to Watch, by Kate Stayman-London*****

I’m not usually a romance reader, but when I saw the plus-sized woman on the cover of this novel, I was mesmerized. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The premise is that Bea Schumacher, a successful plus-sized fashion blogger, is invited to be the subject of a season of Main Squeeze, which is a fictional reality show on the lines of The Bachelorette. I have been yearning for a proud, plus-sized protagonist since I read a novel last summer featuring a main character that used to be quite large. I didn’t want a protagonist that had a history of being big as her private, shameful secret. I wanted a protag that is plus-sized right now and fine with it. So I wasn’t drawn in by genre or the tie to reality television; I was hooked by the protagonist’s size.

Bea has never had a serious romantic relationship, and has just had her heart stomped on hard by a lifelong male friend. Bea had seen—or thought she had seen—their friendship evolving into something more, and after one magic night, she was sure her dreams had come true. Then the man of her dreams took off running and quit taking her calls. It would shake any woman.

But Bea has established herself as a serious force in social media, and a major reality program has come knocking. Isn’t it about time to have a plus-sized Bachelorette—er, Main Squeeze? With plus-sized courage, Bea throws her hat into the ring, but she also reminds herself that this is surely not the way to find real and lasting love; she is doing this to build her brand, and when it’s over, she’ll go back to her blog with lots of new followers. The only problem is that the audience is not so stupid that they can’t see what she’s doing. Ratings drop like a rock because Bea is obviously phoning it in, and the program director lets her know that she either needs to engage emotionally, or act like she’s doing so. No actor, Bea cracks open the door to her heart.

The readers most likely to enjoy this book are plus-sized women, and I have to tell you, there are some ugly remarks made by members of the public that are especially hard to read. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, ladies, but it still hurts every stinking time. So there’s that.

But when all is said and done, I like this book a lot. Yes, it’s a light read in most ways; I don’t rate novels on the seriousness of their content, but rather on whether they represent the best of their genre. This book is a beach read perhaps, or a light romance, but the meaty social issues that are woven into it make it more-than. In the end I found it uplifting, and in this difficult year, that’s the kind of read I’m looking for.

A note on the audio version. Since I missed the pub date, I procured a copy of the audio version at Seattle Bibliocommons, and then immediately knew two things: first, that I HAD to read this book right away, not for the author or publisher, but for myself; and second, that this book is absolutely not suited to the audio format. It’s not the narrator’s fault; the text is liberally sprinkled with social media posts and parts of TV dialogue, and when read aloud it sounds artificial and disjointed. I promptly sent the audio version back and moved the digital galley to the top of my queue. If you read it, read it. It’s no good as an audio book.

That said, this book makes my plus-sized heart sing, and if you can use some of that, get this book. You’ll be glad you did.

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop*****

They say that old writers never die, and I hope that’s true. With her last novel, The Whole Town’s Talking, Flagg announced that she was done. It was her final novel. I was sad to hear it, but grateful to have been able to read every wonderful thing she’s ever written. She has given us so much! And then, imagine my joy when I opened my email to find an invitation from Random House and Net Galley to read and review this sequel to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, which is possibly my favorite novel of all time. Over the moon, friends. And it’s for sale now.

The tricky part of a sequel to such an iconic story is in trying to live up to what’s come before. In this case, I don’t think anyone can. That said, this is nevertheless a delightful book, and I recommend it to you, although you won’t get the full advantage from it without reading the first magnificent book first.

The format mirrors that of the first novel, (and from here forward, I will refer to it by initials: FGTWSC,) with time periods and points of view that come from a variety of settings and individuals. Whistle Stop, Alabama is no more; the freeway passed the town by, and the rest of modern transportation and technology did the same. When we return there, it’s difficult to find; boarded up buildings, tall weeds, trash, and kudzu. In fact, the start of this book is depressing as hell, and for a short, dreadful time, I wondered if the author might be slipping; but no.

The protagonist is ostensibly—from the title—Buddy Threadgoode, son of the late Ruth Jamison. Again, I find myself scratching my head, because Flagg’s protagonists are women, girls, and women. And actually, that’s true here also. Buddy is an old man, and he’s been sent to live a Briarwood, a retirement home for the elite. His daughter Ruthie married the son of the local bourgeoisie, and consequently he’s been mothballed in the nicest possible place; but he hates it, of course. He doesn’t make a scene, but who wants to be warehoused if they can help it?

However, most of the action centers on his daughter Ruthie, and then later, our old friend, Evelyn Couch. (Friends have told me I resemble this character, and I’m good with that comparison.) Evelyn gained confidence in the first novel, much of it courtesy of Ninny Threadgoode, and now she’s done nicely for herself. Husband Ed has gone to that man cave in the sky, but she has recovered from the shock and then some. And it’s roughly halfway into the story that Evelyn enters the story in a big way, and with the groundwork well established, the story takes wing.

As with the original FGTWSC, the key to keeping up with the ever-changing settings and narrators is in the chapter headings. If you skip them, you will be lost. (This fact has been established by trial and error in teaching the book to honor students in literature class.)

Flagg is a feminist, and her work reflects her subtle but unmistakable passion for social justice. Again, with the first half of this book I feared she had lost her edge; once more, I see in the second half that I am mistaken. She was just warming up. Unlike so many of the novels I’ve read recently, this story gets better and better as it progresses. At 45%, it seems like a pleasant, harmless story, and a bit of a disappointment. At 56%, I’m sitting up straighter and noticing things. At 75% I’m laughing out loud. And from there to the finish, I don’t want it to end.  

I’ve seen some lukewarm reviews for this book, and it’s understandable, in a sad way, because those reviewers are weighing this book against its predecessor. And no, this one isn’t quite as brilliant as the first, but if I deny the fifth star on that basis, then I need to go back and weed out at least 96% of the other five star reviews I have written, because FGTWSC is a matchless novel. If instead I weigh this story against those others, it stands up proudly.

When push comes to shove, I think all of us need a feel-good story like this one—which it is, despite the sorrowful beginning—all of the time, but now more than ever. Civic engagement is important, but stepping away and restoring oneself is every bit as crucial. Do yourself a favor. Switch off your news feed for a couple hours and snuggle down with this book. You’ll be more effective later for having given yourself time to recharge now.

Highly recommended.