Ohio, by Stephen Markley*****

OhioMarkley’s thunderous debut is not to be missed. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early, but this is one of the rare times I can say that if I’d paid full hardcover price, it would have been worth it. This is the summer’s best fiction, and it’s available to the public August 21, 2018.

Our story is broken into a prelude and four additional parts, each assigned to a different protagonist, all of whom knew one another, traveling separately from four different directions; they were born during the great recession of the 1980s and graduated from New Canaan High in 2002, the first class to graduate after 9/11. We open with the funeral parade held for Rick Brinklan, the former football star killed in Iraq. His coffin is rented from Walmart and he isn’t in it; wind tears the flag off it and sends it out of reach to snag in the trees. The mood is set: each has returned to their tiny, depressed home town, New Canaan, Ohio, for a different purpose. The town and its population has been devastated economically by the failure of the auto industry:

“New Canaan had this look, like a magazine after it’s tossed on the fire, the way the pages blacken and curl as they begin to burn, but just before the flames take over.”

At the mention of football, I groan inwardly, fearing stereotypes of jocks and cheerleaders, but that’s not what happens here. Every character is developed so completely that I feel I would know them on the street; despite the similarity in age and ethnicity among nearly all of them, there is never a moment when I mix them up. And the characters that are remembered by all but are not present are as central to the story as those that are. As in life, there is no character that is completely lovable or benign; yet almost everyone is capable of some goodness and has worthwhile goals.

Families recall the closure of an industrial plant with the same gravity with which one would remember the death of a beloved family member; the loss has been life changing. Residents are reduced to jobs in retail sales and fast food, welfare, the drug trade, and military service due not to legal compulsion, but economic necessity. Everyone has suffered; Walmart alone has grown fatter and richer.

This is an epic story that has it all. We see the slide experienced by many of New Canaan’s own since their idealistic, spirited teenaged selves emerged from high school to a world less welcoming than they anticipated. One of the most poignant moments is an understated one in which Kaylyn dreams of going away to school in Toledo. This reviewer lived in Toledo during the time when these youngsters would have been born, and I am nearly undone by the notion that this place is the focus of one girl’s hopes and dreams, the goal she longs for so achingly that she is almost afraid to think of it lest it be snatched away.

Because much of each character’s internal monologue reaches back to adolescence, we revisit their high school years, but some of one person’s fondest recollections are later brought back in another character’s reminiscence as disappointing, even nightmarish. The tale is haunting in places, hilarious in others, but there is never a moment where the teen angst of the past is permitted to become a soap opera.

Side characters add to the book’s appeal. I love the way academics and teachers are depicted here. There’s also a bizarre yet strangely satisfying bar scene unlike any other.

Those in search of feel-good stories are out of luck here, but those that treasure sterling literary fiction need look no further. Markley has created a masterpiece, and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store for us.

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.

Lola’s House, by M. Evelina Galang***-****

LolasHouseDuring World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army forced over 400,000 women into sexual slavery; though the Korean comfort women have been recognized for a long time, the survivors in the Philippines lived with the trauma and appalling social stigmatization for decades, unheard. Recently 173 of them, now very elderly, filed suit against the Japanese government. This collection includes interviews with 16 Filipina women whose lives were ruined by this atrocity. Thanks go to Net Galley and Northwestern University Press for the DRC, which I received early and free in exchange for this honest review. The collection is for sale now.

This is a rough read, hard to push through for the very thing that makes it valuable: it tells the women’s experiences in their own words. And they want to be heard. For decades, nobody, including their own families, has been willing to listen to them. After experiencing cruel, sadistic torture, they were greeted, upon the army’s departure, as social pariahs. Their countrymen let them know that nobody wants anything to do with a woman that’s been touched, penetrated, harmed in many unspeakable ways by the Japanese. They were called “Japanese leftovers.” Thus, their nightmare at the hands of the enemy was worsened by a subsequent nightmare at the hands of those they thought would console them.

And so as you can imagine, it’s not an enjoyable book. It isn’t intended to be.

Galang is also Filipina, and she weaves her own story in with that of her subjects. I would have preferred that she restrict herself to the topic; whereas including her own memoir may be cathartic, it also slows the pace. There are also snippets of untranslated Tagalog, and although this may resonate for those that are bilingual, context didn’t make the passages clear much of the time, and so I was left with the choice to either run to my desktop, type in the passages, translate them and return to the text, or just skip them and read on. It didn’t take me long to decide on the latter.

So as a general read for the lover of history, I can’t recommend this book, but for the researcher, it’s a gold mine. There is information here that you won’t find anywhere else. There are primary documents end to end here. I can imagine any number of thesis topics for which this work would be pivotal.

For the researcher, this is a four star read.

Doc Doc Zeus, by Thomas Keech***

DocDocZeusThank you to Net Galley, the author, and Real Nice Books for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. This novel was published earlier this month and is for sale now.

Doc Doc Zeus is a tough one to review. There are strengths that drew me at the outset and I thought I was going to love it; unfortunately, the literary aspects and a blind spot or two regarding women and rape have kept me from cheering and promoting the way I expected.

Conceptually, it’s innovative and gutsy. We have Diane, who at 14 has been manipulated by a conservative Christian group and agrees to carry a baby rather than have an abortion.

Diane’s physician is Dr. Zeus, and he is being paid by the church that is housing Diane. Diane is thrilled because she is made to feel heroic, special, for deciding not to end the pregnancy. At age 14, she is right in the throes of the all-about-me stage of adolescence, and this is the strongest part of Diane’s development as a character. Of course, once the baby is born and sent off to live with adoptive parents, Diane is no longer being spoiled and petted, and so she is in a vulnerable place. Her parents are not as available as they might be, so she is isolated, and makes an excellent target for a guy like Zeus.

Zeus is pond scum, a serial rapist, a liar and a thief. He conspires to direct his hospital’s lab business through an intermediary company he owns for no purpose other than to drive up costs and line his own wallet. The guy is so toxic and free of any redeeming qualities that I couldn’t read this story for very long at a time; there are other reasons, too. I’ll get to them in a minute.

Our third main character is Dave, who works for the state’s medical board. Dave is frustrated by the lack of interest on the part of the state in pursuing Zeus legally. Why is this guy allowed to practice? There’s plenty of documentation to show that he should not only be stripped of his license, but be behind bars. Why can’t this happen?

The best part of the book is the opening, not to mention the quirky, engaging title. When we begin, the narratives by Diane and by Zeus make me alternately laugh out loud and groan. It’s dry humor, savagely funny. I want it to stay that way.

Sadly, by the thirty percent mark, I am starting to wonder whether a high profile editor might be needed to assist with the literary aspects of this thing. The last time I saw this sort of problem was also with an author that had a lot of technical expertise and a lengthy, successful career in an area that dovetailed with his novel; Keech is retired from a state attorney general’s office. He has plenty of knowledge regarding state bureaucracy as it applies to physicians, but the elements a novel requires—character development and above all a story arc, with the action and urgency rising around the 75 or 80 percent mark and then falling back toward a conclusion, are simply not present. Our hero, Dave, is trying valiantly to shut Zeus down, but readers won’t engage with the amount of bureaucratic detail here. This area needs to be condensed, and Dave needs development as a character. The setting is nearly absent.

The other problem here is a certain tone-deafness regarding the book’s audience. Potentially, this story could be a rallying cry for women that have experienced rape and for anyone that has been molested as a child or when they were vulnerable. There are so many out there.

But for these readers, this is a hot-stove issue. Less is more. This reviewer has not even been there, and yet the level of detailed sexual predation in this book is painful to me, and unnecessarily so. Chapter after chapter; page after page. Most people that would otherwise champion a novel like this one, won’t finish it because it’s too hard to read. The crime itself should wink in briefly, decisively and memorably, and then the story should be built around it.

I would also change the ending.

To be sure, I am convinced that Keech is on the side of the angels, and I would bet my last dollar that he has seen or heard of a situation similar to the one in this story. I suspect that he’s a good man who is transitioning from his career in state government to a career as a novelist, and trying to use fiction to make a difference. For this reason also, I wanted to be able to promote this book and send out a Twitter storm telling people to read it. I avoided writing this review, because it isn’t the one I had hoped to write.

With a great deal of TLC, this story could be rewritten in a way that would work. The idea is strong, but the execution is lacking. A high profile editor might be very useful here, and if that happens and a rewrite significantly improves this work, I would be willing to reread and review again. But as it stands, I cannot recommend it.

It Happens All the Time, by Amy Hatvany***

ithappensallthetimeI was invited to read and review this title in advance by Net Galley and Atria Books; it is written by a rape survivor, who tells us bravely of her own experience in the introduction. I wanted to love this book and to scream it across the internet and from the top of the Space Needle, that everyone should get it and read it, but instead, I came away feeling ambivalent. The rape passage is resonant and horrifying, and it’s written in a courageous way, and I’ll go into that in a minute. The rest of the book, however, is flat, and so in some ways this proves to be an opportunity squandered. There are spoilers, so don’t proceed if you don’t want to know how the book ends. It is available for purchase today.

The premise is that Amber and Tyler are best friends. They dated when they were teenagers, but a lot of time has gone by, and they have agreed to be buddies, talking often. Amber does not know that Tyler’s torch is still burning for her, brighter than ever; he is waiting for her to come around. Meanwhile, she has become engaged to someone else.

Amber is also a recovering bulimic, and now she is a specialist in nutrition and fitness. The level of detail regarding Amber’s meals hijacks the narrative at times; I don’t care how many ounces of lean this, that, the other she is about to eat. If we’re going to write about diet and fitness, that should be another book, and otherwise it should stay in the background.

The rape itself is where the story shines, and of course, it is the central scene to the story. Hatvany wants us to recognize who rapists are, and who they aren’t:

 

“They’re not greasy-haired monsters who jump out from behind the bushes and tie up their victims in their basements.”

 

The story is told from alternating perspectives, so we hear from both Amber and Tyler. Amber is believable to a degree; a more richly developed character would be more convincing, but the story is one that countless girls and women have lived. It’s a date that goes badly wrong; sometimes the woman is one that expects that she will want sex, but then decides she doesn’t, and her date forces the issue. Is that rape? Unless she says yes to sex, it is. Sometimes it starts with kisses—drunken or otherwise—but when the man wants to go further, she decides she wants to keep her clothes on and not follow through. If she says stop, or wait, or fails to say she wants to do this, yes, it is rape. And so this part of the narrative is important, and once I have read it, I want more than ever to like the rest of the book so that I can promote it.

Tyler is just straight up badly written. I am sorry to say it, but I rolled my eyes when I read his portion of the narrative. The ending is way over the top, and it distracts us with morally questionable deeds done by Amber that we would never commit. If it was rendered brilliantly, it could perhaps come across heroically, like Thelma and Louise, but it isn’t, and it doesn’t.

What happens here, is that Amber kidnaps Tyler post-rape at gunpoint. She forces him to drive to her family’s vacation cabin, and she makes him say that he raped her. He won’t do it, so she shoots him. She refuses to take him to a hospital until he says what she wants him to say. Once all of this happens, he has a huge epiphany, and from then on, Tyler’s wails about what a bad thing he has done, and how he knows he deserves everything that will happen to him as a result.

Sure.

But in addition, I find myself squirming. At one point when Amber holds him hostage, Tyler points out to her that kidnapping is a felony. Having Amber muddy the waters morally by kidnapping and shooting her assailant is distracting and morally tenuous at best. He has to tell the truth; she doesn’t. He owes it to her to lose his job and career, and to serve his time; she never expresses any sort of remorse and never suffers the consequences of her actions. And whereas brilliant prose stylist could turn Amber into a vigilante folk hero, this isn’t that.

I know that the author intends to tell a story that is deeply moving and that will improve the social discourse regarding what rape is, and how we as a society deal with it, both institutionally and as individuals. Instead, the distractions and tired prose prevent this story from reaching its potential.

Sweet Holy Motherfucking Everloving Delusional Bastard, by Jerome Segundo****

sweetholyWow. What do I do with this story? It is clear to me that it’s most likely only nominally fictional. This is the saddest funny memoir I have ever read in my life.

Most of you won’t have the benefit of reading the cover letter that first-readers receive, which made me laugh out loud. This man has a gift for writing, and has the potential to be really hilarious. In places, his book is funny, in a dark way. But life has taken the spring out of his step.

He’s been to prison, and he emerged broke, without a license or a home. He had earned a college degree before being incarcerated, but now because his name was tarnished, it is virtually worthless, since he has to get a job under an assumed name. And he has to register as a sex-offender.

I got this from the Goodreads.com giveaway, and it initially gave me serious pause–and gentlemen out there, this is almost reflexive for most women–to see the man say that he was a convicted rapist who had pleaded nole contendre…and I had given him my address. Yes, that’s irrational. But “rape” is a really electrifying term to most of us.

Once I had read the book (and it’s a quick read, partly because I couldn’t put it down till I had the whole story, especially once I had peeked at the ending and come to believe in the guy’s innocence after all) I just wanted to cry for the man. He isn’t a rapist. He was clueless and in a relationship with a really unstable woman, unless he’s made parts of his story up wholesale…and I don’t think he has.

The fact is, the U.S. “justice” system isn’t much of one. More and more often, it serves to isolate and undercut a layer of young men and make them lesser citizens when they emerge, assuming they ever do. And whereas Segundo should have fought the charges against him, he was so physically ill,alienated and demoralized that he didn’t. Where was his family? Did they turn their backs on him, or did he slink away, afraid that they would be ashamed of him?

And I need to say this, too. This business of registering one’s whereabouts for life after having done the time for a crime (which is, as is always the case in capitalist society, unevenly enforced and penalized according to one’s wealth), is absolute bullshit. I say this as an old-school, card-carrying feminist warrior who has marched on the Capitol multiple times for women’s rights. We cannot isolate one group of “offenders” and make them permanent pariahs and then say that we have a rehabilitative system. What’s that about?

There is a lot of really graphic sexual content here. On the one hand, I am an old lady and it embarrassed me, but on the other hand, I have never seen a story where the sexual content was more essential to the telling of the story.

I wish this guy well, and I hope he can rebound and regain some joy in living. If he has become cynical, one can hardly blame him. This is not a light read, but a Lenny-Bruce-like attempt to restore some dignity to his own life and that of others who may find themselves wrongly accused and convicted of one of society’s most heinous crimes.