Everybody’s Fool–Richard Russo (Audiobook)

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I heard Russo on Fresh Air with Terri Gross.  I was drawn into downloading the audiobook when Russo talked about Philip Seymour-Hoffman and how he had pictured him as Raymer when writing the sequel to Nobody’s Fool.  I haven’t seen the movie or read the book (yet), but I love PSH, so had to read a book written with him in the author’s mind.

I loved every minute of this book.  Raymer is mid-life and struggling with the death of his cheating wife and the puzzle of the identity of her lover.  Sully is 70 and terminally ill, examining his life and yet blind to so much around him.  This is a book with a male perspective, certainly, although Russo’s Ruth is identifiable–she’s just not fully three-dimensional.  Her identity is tied to three men–Sully, her husband, and her ex-son-in-law.  There’s little of her without them.  Of course, Raymer is tied to his dead wife and Sully to Ruth and Miss Beryl.

This is a tale about luck–the luck of one town over another, of one man over another, of one woman over another.  The question of fate vs. free will, our ability to influence our own luck, haunts each character’s story line.

The novel reads like a love story between an author and his characters, people so beloved he couldn’t leave them at the end of Nobody’s Fool.  Characters he made me love without even having met them when they were nobody’s fool.

Finished 7/22/16

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The Last Good Girl–Allison Leotta

Book Review The Last Good Girl

Allison Leotta was a federal sex-crimes prosecutor before she became a full-time crime novelist.  Anna Curtis, a federal sex-crimes prosecutor who’s from Michigan and who then moved to DC parallels Leotta, who attended Michigan State University and now lives in DC.  In this volume (I’ll be buying the remainder of the series), Anna is investigating a campus rape victim’s disappearance.  Fraternities, date rape drugs, Title IX, campus fundraising and corruption, good guys with questionable ethics, and truly awful guys with no ethics.  Anna even dates a veteran with a prosthetic leg.

Emily is the daughter of the president of Tower University and a freshman living in the dorms.  She attends a frat party her first night in the dorm and wakes up with the son of the lieutenant governor inside her.  What follows is a time-worn tale–depression, alienation, self-recrimination, and asshatery.  When Emily decides to pursue a Title IX complaint, everything speeds up and slows down until the night she confronts Dylan and disappears–cue Anna Curtis, the Michigan native in Michigan to help her sister, who is assigned to the case.

Leotta moves between vlog entries (for a class), official campus documents, and the investigation to slowly spool out what happened and build the characters of those involved.  Anna is an interesting enough character that I want to dig back into the earlier novels to see how Leotta built her.  I enjoyed Leotta’s storytelling style enough to do so, also.

If I were to change anything, I would make Dylan, the rapist, less clearly evil.  There is almost nothing sympathetic about him–besides an asshole father.  I would also make Emily’s father’s purification less magical.  He goes from repeatedly prioritizing his job over his daughter to giving it all up to spend time with his family, including his estranged wife.

The true driving force behind the novel, however, is the cultural truth about how we handle campus rapes–and that truth is the real crime.

Finished 7/22/16

Lionel Asbo: State of England–Martin Amis

This book is set in the hard streets of Diston, a crime-ridden down-and-out British neighborhood.  Its title figure, Lionel Asbo, is hard.  He is the most feared man in his neighborhood.  He keeps two ferocious pit bulls on his apartment balcony.  He is a debt collector.  He has been a criminal since he was a toddler.  He reads tabloids religiously and speaks an English that is sliding into soft, sibilant consonants.

Amis shows us this world through Lionel’s orphaned nephew, Desmond, who is a “brother,” as Lionel says, in this poor white neighborhood.  Desmond becomes a self-taught intellect when Lionel gives him full access to his laptop with the goal of introducing him to porn and keeping him away from girls.  Desmond instead learns languages and begins exploring the world of knowledge outside of Diston.  Des loves Lionel, whose reputation allows Des to walk through the neighborhood safely, fears him, and pities him.

Des’ mother had him when she was twelve.  His grandmother had his mother at age 12.  At age 39, his grandmother initiates a sexual affair with Des, who notes that it’s not unusual in their neighborhood to see such relationships within families.  When he begins to fear his Uncle Lionel’s wrath, his grandmother takes up with one of his classmates, whom Lionel subsequently makes disappear.  This section of the novel was difficult to read.

The novel shifts when Lionel wins the lotto–140 million dollar prize.  He struggles to deal with his new wealth, but does not feel compelled to share with his large family.  He is termed the Lotto Lout, among other cutesy monikers.

Although near the end of the novel, I nearly had to stop reading when Des’ infant daughter, Cilla, was sleeping in the room adjacent to the balcony that contained Lionel’s pit bulls, who had been primed for an attack the next day.  Those pages were painful, terrifying, nauseating, worse than watching a character in a horror movie walk toward his or her death.

Amis writes a novel about class without preaching about class.  Only at one moment, when Lionel walks into a hotel and realizes his fellow patrons are in their eighties, far older than anyone in Diston, does Amis even allow anything that sounds like sociological analysis to enter his tale.  He does not need to preach.  He shows.  Lionel prefers prison.  He names his new home after the prison to which he has so often sojourned as a criminal.  He keeps his bedroom in the flat at Diston, even at the discomfort of Des and his wife and child.

This novel is told through men’s eyes.  We can pity Lionel’s mother, Grace, so lonely that she reaches out to her young grandson.  Or Gina, Lionel’s childhood muse, who is torn between two violent men and whose wedding reception puts all of the guests in either prison or the hospital.  We can cringe when Lionel beats the random women with whom he has sexual encounters, but we do not hear their voices.  Lionel sees a therapist about his deviant sexual appetites and is reassured that they’re caused my his mother having been a slag–which was evidenced by his brothers all exhibiting different phenotypes.  A novel that shows the world of Diston through the women’s eyes would be an interesting companion  State of England  volume.

Finished 7/19/16lionel-asbo-state-of-england_1932228

The Life We Bury–Allen Eskens

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This is a perfect summer read.  Or a winter storm by the fireplace read.  Or a snappy fall afternoon read.  This is a great read from page one to the end.  Eskens layers a murder mystery, Vietnam, family drama, autism, guilt, romance, date rape, and cancer around a highly intriguing central character, Joe Talbert.

Joe is a college student who’s transferred from the local community college and works as a bouncer at night to pay the bills.  His mother is a bipolar alcoholic who lives less than an hour away with his autistic younger brother.  He’s never met his father.  When his professor assigns a biography assignment, Joe seeks a subject at the local nursing home.  When the director suggests Carl, a terminal cancer patient who’s been paroled from prison to die, Joe is intrigued and even more so when he learns Carl’s crime–the rape, murder, and attempted burning of his teenage neighbor.

As he works through Carl’s story, and the trial records that compose his supporting documents, his original conceptions about Carl, his cute neighbor, his brother, and the direction of his life are turned upside down.  Nothing is what it seems and what everyone else can see he turns away from.

The bubble on the cover says “compulsively suspenseful.”  Rarely do those blurbs accurately describe the book, but this one does.  Often, thrillers trade suspense for character development–plot over character.  Joe Talbert, however, is a memorable character who can push drunk guys out of a bar and cry at a production of The Glass Menagerie.  

There’s an adorable note to the reader at the end that asks for reviews or to share with others if you’ve enjoyed the book–support for a debut author.  I look forward to reading his subsequent work.

Finished 7/14/16

Station Eleven–Emily St. John Mandel

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I was reading this novel while listening to the audiobook of the People of Sparks.  Both are set in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by disease and reading them together offered interesting intersecting views of our fears.  As in the weeks after watching Contagion, I found myself monitoring my health very closely and eyeing anyone around me who sniffled or looked ill.

The novel begins brilliantly, with a production of King Lear in which the aging actor playing Lear collapses and dies on stage.  A man jumps on stage and begins CPR.  This man, the family of the dead actor, and a young actress who had a non-speaking part in the production, play key roles in the look we have at the world after the epidemic that destroys civilization.

Once in the post-apocalyptic world, we follow a group of traveling actors and musicians who stage productions of Shakespeare up and down the western coast of Michigan.  Shakespeare, who also lived through plague and experienced the death of many close to him.  The chapters move between this post-apocalyptic world and the days before the epidemic.  They focus particularly on the life of the dead actor and the people who were most important to him.

Either Arthur, the dead actor, or Kirsten, the child actor, are the main character–or maybe both.  Kirsten is our window onto the theater troupe and her memories inform our vision of the days after the epidemic until the events of the novel.  She cannot remember her parents’ faces or the days after the epidemic, but collects celebrity gossip magazines, which she scours for stories about Arthur or his ex-wives.  She carries few possessions, but among them are two limited edition comic books set in a post-apocalyptic world, Station Eleven.

Emily St. John Mandel weaves this story expertly and turns a mirror on the reader and our society without sounding preachy.  This would be an interesting film adaptation, which we may see, since its rights have been purchased already.

Finished 7/16

Fashion in the Time of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603)–Melinda Camber Porter

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This brief volume is a combination manuscript/reproduction of a manuscript submitted by a young Melinda Camber Porter  as a student at the City of London School for Girls.  The young Camber Porter drew fantastic renditions of Elizabethan costumes and, at the start of the manuscript, gave very clear descriptions of the pieces of the costumes.  She categorized costumes by sex, class, and age.  A brief glossary of fashion items and a list of Camber Porter’s awards conclude the volume.

This attention to the early art of an important female art figure is reassuring.  I would love to review the original manuscript after having a taste of her drawings in this reproduction.

This book would be of interest to artists, theater enthusiasts interested in costuming, historical fiction novelists seeking that last note of historical authenticity, or parents and teachers seeking to inspire young women in scholarly and artistic careers.

Thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for an advanced copy of this volume.

 

The Antiques–Kris D’Agostino

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The premise of this novel intrigued me–siblings coming together in the wake of their father’s death.  One sibling, Armie, lives in his parents’ basement, shell-shocked by life and failure and possibly on the autism spectrum (which he shares with his nephew).  Another, Josef, is a wheeling-dealing businessman, sex addict, and divorcee in New York City.  The third, Charlie, is fighting addiction to Enabletol, her husband’s infidelity, her employer’s ridiculous demands, and the increasing needs of her autistic (although they never use the word) young son.

Ana and George seem to have shared an idyllic life–young marriage, building an antiques business together, raising three children, moving upstate, and growing old together (or starting to).  Until Ana reveals that a decade has passed since they’ve slept together.  And until George dies from his second bout of colon cancer in the midst of a horrible East Coast storm.

D’Agostino moves between the characters as their lives march on and, for George, towards a close.  The characters are well-developed, even if their dominant characteristics take center stage.

The question that remained for me was why, with such seeming idyllic childhoods, did all three children end up with near-crippling problems–two with addictions and Armie with fear and very low self-confidence.  D’Agostino ends the novel with a musing about life in Ana’s voice, and maybe that was meant to wrap it all up.  The characters and plot seemed well-suited to a holiday-release family movie attended by women and men who lost the date-night coin toss. It won’t be earth-shatteringly revelatory, but it will be a good escape, much like the novel.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, Simon Schuster, for an advanced review copy of this novel.

Finished 7/11/16