Friday, December 23, 2016

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

Another tale of two weddings - but a very different story!

Scriptwriter/college professor Jack Griffin's life is unraveling: He's unhappy in his job, uneasy in his marriage, beleaguered by his parents, and bewildered by his in-laws. In the year between two Cape Cod summer weddings, he attempts to figure things out.

Jack's kind of like Winnie the Pooh's friend Eeyore - he's generally unhappy and it actually seems he's the most satisfied when he's unhappy. He's been driving around with his Dad's ashes in an urn in the trunk of his car and he seems completely unable to part with them as he's been instructed. His mother's haranguing on the phone leads to reminiscences about his youth, his snooty professorial parents' drama-filled marriage, and their summers on the Cape.

Richard Russo knows how to write about the common man, and he knows how to make a dramatic situation turn slapstick and yet still ring true. This book is somehow loftier (again, professorial?) than his Nobody's Fool/Everybody's Fool townies and slightly less entertaining, as I found Griffin's doldrums to be a bit wearing. But it's worth it to stick around for the final, dramatic wedding events and the resolution (or non-resolution) to his mid-life crisis.

The Best Man by Richard Peck

Archer Magill's story starts and ends with weddings - but all the fun happens in the in-between.

He makes friends with a girl, his class gets a long-term substitute teacher and then they get a MALE student teacher. There's bullying, sick grandparents, baseball, a new school, and a budding realization that if he keeps his ears and eyes open there is a big, fantastic world happening all around Archer.

The book shifts back and forth in time as Archer tells his own story, and it covers his first-grade through sixth-grade years. It's no secret to reveal there's a gay marriage - Archer tells you right away - but there are plenty of other surprises along the way.

It's a realistic look at modern schools and multi-generational families. A lot of the humor comes at Archer's expense, since his friend Lynette is as savvy as he is oblivious. It's a story sweet, sad, funny, and very, very good.

When I finished, I actually sighed, closed the book, and said aloud, "Oh, Richard Peck." What a writer! What a book! What a fantastic tale told well! Can you tell I loved it?

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Family and responsibility are at the core of this literary novel set in India and the United States. Two brothers - almost as close as twins - take very different paths in their young adulthood. Which is greater: civil action that works for change, or the tending of tradition and family?

We read this as a book discussion title at the library, but I didn't finish it in time for the conversation. Too bad, because there's a lot to talk about.

Even while Subhash builds a life in America, he's bound by duty to his family in India. He marries out of a sense of obligation, but when their daughter is born he finds a pure delight in raising her in Rhode Island. His duty to her future becomes more urgent than his dedication to the past - but that's not true for his wife, who never really left India behind.

The book offers mothers and fathers, siblings, husbands and wives, and there are lots of comparisons to be drawn between counterparts. Also, the role of responsibility: personal responsibility, family obligations, parental duty, social activism, passive acceptance. It's a heavy book, filled with lots of internal dilemmas, and it really would make for a fantastic discussion.

I listened to the audiobook version, which was an excellent way to read a book filled with foreign names and places.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Fields Where They Lay by Timothy Hallinan

Both a Russian mobster's deadline and Christmas are looming large for burglar-turned-detective Junior Bender, and it's likely either or both will be the death of him.

In this installment of the Junior Bender series (#6 if you're counting), our ethically questionable hero is stuck in a decaying suburban mall trying to figure out why store loss numbers are so out of whack. Also, what to buy for holiday gifts.

The book's funny, and this series has a wry wit that's unlike anything else. A dying mall is hardly anyone's dream, and the fact that Junior is stuck circling, circling, circling this pit of despair is a great setup for his equally dark introspection about the state of his life and love.

There's a great cast of characters in the store owners and mall regulars, with a few of Junior's friends mixed in too. It might not put you in the holiday season, but it's a great read.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick

Nanette can't keep pleasing everyone else at the detriment of her own desires, but can she face the disappointment of her teammates and parents? Alex has decided to fight back against the bullies, but that might not be the best way to express individualism.

Have you ever read a book that absolutely changed your life? For the characters in this YA novel, a cult classic, out-of-print paperback leads to a different perspective on being one of the generic human crowd. But how much can you "quit" and still be alright?

This book isn't as dark as Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, but it's certainly no spring June walk in the park. Metamorphosis is hard work and not always pretty. (Let's hope Quick does better in handling the enthusiasm of his readers than his character Booker did.)

I adore Quick's writing, and his characters are amazingly nuanced, flawed and very relatable. These kids are searching for something - searching for themselves - and the way they work through it brings love and light but also unpleasantness and drama to their lives.