Saturday, September 16, 2017

Extraordinary Adventures by Daniel Wallace

Let us now meet Edsel Bronfman. He's not Ed or Eddie to anyone. He's Edsel. In fact, as Charlie Brown is always called Charlie Brown, he's really more Edsel Bronfman. Two words

As a first name, Edsel is unusual, outdated, and reminiscent of the automobile that was such a spectacular failure. Bronfman sounds like a muffled tubercular sneeze. The shoe fits. 

Edsel Bronfman is ordinary. Extra ordinary--two words, not one. He lives in Birmingham in a shabby apartment in a shabbier complex where his only semblance of a friend is a drug dealer Edsel distrusts. He has held the same position, a junior executive shipping manager, for ages,where he has perfect attendance and you imagine he will likely retire in, oh, 30 more years. In his free time, he looks after his free-spirited mother though she gets along just fine, thank you. His world is tiny and he keeps it that way. Edsel Bronfman doesn't live his life. He is just passin' through.  

Adventure or the potential for one arrives with a phone call. A Carla D'Angelo (how exotic-sounding!) is calling from Extraordinary Adventures to tell him he's won a free trip to Destin. The only cost is the time-share pitch meeting he must attend in order to collect. The catch is that this prize is for couples and he has 79 days to work it out or he forfeits. As you might imagine, Edsel has never been chosen for anything. He's never been anywhere. He's certainly never won anything. He's the equivalent of human wallpaper so this prize offer is a big to-do and sets in motion his adventures. 

Now you might want to write this off as a frothy beach read or trite rom com material but fortunately for us, we are in the capable hands of Daniel Wallace. Sure, it ain't War and Peace but it's not supposed to be. What we get is a funny, and very touching portrait of an extraordinarily lonely man who attempts to break out. It's as if he only now sees there is a world out there and he can actually live in it; that he deserves to do so. 

What follows is a great shambling attempt at romance and second-guessing with the impetuous Sheila McNabb. On the way, he attracts the attentions of a lovely lady cop and the drug dealers' girlfriend. Edsel is working without a net and we can't help but root for him. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

When the English Fall by David Williams

Dystopian fiction is all the rage and has been for some time now, especially in the YA market. Done well, it can make for great storytelling (see work by Orwell, Atwood, Huxley, Bradbury, Burgess, etc). I keep reading how, with that orange maniac and his cronies hastening the decline of the republic, this outpouring of dystopian fiction is a metaphor, as well as a manifestation, of our current fears. Perhaps so. I was especially intrigued by his new spin on it and was rewarded with a fast, tense novel that practically made me yearn to be Amish. 

Jacob is an old order Amish farmer in rural eastern Pennsylvania and the story is told from his journal entries. At first, they are normal, even mundane, as he discusses work on the farm, the families in his community, and his hopes and fears for his own family. His daughter has an ability to see the future which causes him grave concern but, of late, she has been on an even keel. Still, he worries. 

One evening, the skies dance with strange light, both beautiful and terrifying. However, no light shines from the nearby town and the family sees a plane plummet from the sky. The next day, Jacob learns a solar storm has destroyed all electric and electronic power. The English world (the non-Amish world) is crippled. 

So begins the end of the world scenario--communication is all but impossible and as desperation leads to lawlessness, the Army's grasp on order slips. Jacob clings to his family, his community, and his deep faith as the English begin to encroach on his way of life. 

What most endeared Jacob to me was his sense of honor, fairness, and grace amidst the struggle over which he has no control. Were it not for the dire situation for the English, he could live his life as he always has but he must serve his fellow man and so he does. While his family and community come first, he also helps those outside, even taking in an English family. Williams evokes great humanity in Jacob and his wife, Hannah, and the religious aspects of the book never seems cloying. In fact, they seem quite genuine which makes sense since the author is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church.

When The English Fall is a rewarding story of kindness and decency set in a time of desperation and ruin. Let's hope it's not too prescient. If so, I want Jacob as my neighbor. 

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Almost Missed You by Jessica Strawser

The author is a friend, former colleague, and a homegirl and I was thrilled when she landed a book deal with a big house and more excited to be at her book signing debut. However, there was a lot of anxiety about this first novel mostly because she and I are old pals and what if I didn't like her book? 

Now when asked to be an early reader prior to publication, I am always straightforward with notes and opinions even if they might sting a little. If I'm not honest at this point, it serves no one well and it's a waste of everyone's time to tell a friend their work is better than I really think it is. Certainly they may not agree with my suggestions but at least I've been square with them and fulfilled my duty.

However, post-pub is a little dicier, especially since I write about what I read on occasion. I will confess, there was a time or two that I chickened out completely and that was just an awful feeling. The faint praise I was able to muster coupled with not writing about it here was, well, it was miserable. Miserable and obvious. 

Happily that was not the case with Almost Missed You, a gripping tale of betrayal, grief, and kidnapping. It is a taut, tangled tale of deep friendships and dark secrets (my, how alliterative I am this morning!). Strawser offers up a worst-case scenario that somehow manages to worsen and which threatens everyone involved. When I felt certain I knew where this was going, it didn't and I found that quite skillful. 

I will say that had it not been written by a friend, I'm not sure I would have found this book but I'm so glad I did. She'll have another book coming out in 2018. Jump on the bandwagon now. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

Tinti's The Good Thief was among my favorites of 2008 (we was kids back then, weren't we?) so I have waited years for another novel. I have been patient because she has been busy at the helm of the fantastic One Story, a subscription service celebrating the short story. As a fan and proponent of the short story form, I have been an ardent supporter and subscriber for many years (It makes a swell gift, too! And such a deal! One Story website). Her latest is a worthy successor. 

The twelve lives in the title are actually the specific details surrounding the twelve times Sam Hawley was shot over his lifetime. In short, Hawley is an accomplished crook for hire despite the number of bullets in his hide. His young life is spent pulling jobs and living quietly and nomadically off his fees. This life is changed dramatically when he meets Lily at the funeral of her father, himself a career criminal. It is with her that he can lose himself and with whom he has Loo, his beloved daughter. 

Sam lives a life laced with longing and loneliness. That longing manifests itself in a shrine to Lily in every bathroom where they live. Lonely in that he must always keep a low profile since reprisal could happen at almost any time. Because they often need to pull up stakes at a moments notice, there are many bathrooms. As a result, Loo's life is heavy with these feelings without knowing why.  The books' first sentence, "When Loo was twelve years old, her father taught her how to shoot a gun" certainly sets up the rest of the story. 

As ever, Tinti manages to capture the very essence of her characters. As we came to adore Ren and Dolly in The Good Thief, we love Lily and how she makes it possible for Sam to love. As a result, we can only begin to understand his endless grief. 

As for Loo, she is one of those very rare birds that literature allows us to glimpse in the wild. Tinti writes gorgeously of her young life and how her normal adolescent struggles are even more trying living under the lingering cloud that is her mother's memory and the many crimes of her father. 

Though very different from her first novel, it has been well worth the wait to read Tinti again. She is a brilliant storyteller who deserves a much bigger audience. 

If you'd like another take on this book, see what this smart fellow has to say: 
Ron Charles review

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

In Evicted, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, has created a story that is moving and maddening. It provides first-hand insight into how our broken housing, public assistance, and mental health systems are largely irreparable in their current states. It is about how we are detached from our communities, our loved ones, and how our public institutions fail so many.

Having never given much thought to the topic, I assumed eviction was a finite experience in that when you were in arrears to your landlord, you received an eviction notice, moved out (or your possessions were seized in more extreme cases), and then you went and found another place to live. Done.

Evicted, taught me the act of eviction is, in these times, an ongoing event with sprawling consequences and octopus arms that keep hold of you in tattered housing and justice systems. The act itself often leads those affected to shelters and unsafe housing, to court appearances, joblessness, and an eviction record that trails them for years, making it harder to rent the next time. It also leads to sickness, depression, and exacerbates existing mental health issues.

As described in the book, it appears all too many of those affected have the ability to manage their lives in a way that would allow them to break the cycle. When more than half of a meager paycheck or government assistance check goes to rent, leaving little for other essentials, it's easy to see how quickly already questionable situations deteriorate into homelessness. Throw in mental illness, little education or real-world skills like knowing how to balance a checkbook, along with bad choices and the ensuing undoing of a segment of an already marginalized society is complete.

To his vast credit, the author allows us to see the situation for its many sides. You can feel terribly for Arleen and her boys almost as often as you slap your forehead as a result of her bad judgement. You may applaud landlord Sherrena when she shows renters small kindnesses like buying them a bag of groceries but disgust sets in quickly when Desmond describes how despicably mercenary she can be. While she can still locate her own humanity, as she says "the 'hood is good. There's a lot of money in there." Reportedly, she's worth more than two million dollars

This is the story of an America that exists today. Safe and affordable public housing is going the way of the dodo, especially for those living at or below the poverty line. Desmond offers several solutions including housing vouchers that would be helpful but since government and much of the public confuses helping the poor and working poor with entitling them, I have little hope the cycle of eviction and poverty will end anytime soon, especially under the regime of Il Douche'.

The book has won many awards including the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction and the Pulitzer in literature. This may be among the most important book to read these days.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Gene and Dean

Two showbiz books. One a memoir, the other a bio.

Kiss Me Like a Stranger by Gene Wilder

You usually don't start your list of your favorite actors with Gene Wilder but I think you should, just for the three Mel Brooks films alone. Then you get the Richard Pryor pictures, Willy Wonka, the bit with the sheep in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. He even did great work on two episodes of Will & Grace as Will's crazy boss late in his career. For me, his performances were memorable and often quite affecting and he could hold his own with actors with much larger personalities. Then he marries Gilda Radner who also could make me cry with laughter. 

The memoir is a fast read, filled with some very touching stories as well as some very painful tales, often in the same story. As a young man at college, he became obsessed with praying, often for hours, and couldn't stop. The good that came of it was that he started to learn and understand mental illness and much of the memoir has him talking to his longtime shrink. His mother, to whom he was close, was a sickly woman and deep down, Wilder believed that he had no right to happiness or enjoyment when the woman who gave him life had neither. 

I was surprised to learn of his classic training as an actor and how many of his movies he wrote or helped write.
He also gets into his sex life which didn't begin until later than you might expect. He's very honest and, at times, it was even a bit uncomfortable. 

When he talks of his marriage to Gilda and her untimely demise, it is with great love but there was also a fair amount of anger. It seems as though Gilda lacked self-worth while at the same time was overwhelmingly self-absorbed and it made the hard times even harder. Still, to get a peak at their domestic life was intriguing. 

We lost Gene Wilder last year and I will miss him. Reading the book made me miss him a little less. 

Dino by Nick Tosches

Years ago, when I got into Sinatra's music, it naturally led me to Sam and Dean. Sinatra was a great singer and Sam was the ultimate performer but there was something about Dean I had never noticed: he was cool. As I came to appreciate his vocal style and then his acting, I learned Dean just did his thing. He never strained, he never seemed to swing for the fences but he delivered. As I learned in Dino, that's essentially how he lived his life. 

Growing up young and poor in Steubenville, Ohio, Dino Crocetti dealt blackjack and boxed before becoming a singer, mostly in mob joints. His first ticket out was a move to mob joints in Cleveland and then he meets Jerry Lewis in Atlantic City and BOOM, more success than he could ever have imagined. 

What's odd is that we don't really remember them for that. We know Jerry from movies, many of them just plain silly, and the telethon and we know Dean for some songs, his movies, and the roasts on TV. We are even familiar with their feud that was 'resolved' on the MDA telethon in 1976 but at one point they were the highest grossing club act in showbiz, like The Beatles before The Beatles. It never translated that well outside the night clubs but by all accounts, it was magic before Dean left the act in 1956, ending a seven year ride like few others before or after.

As Tosches tells it, that cool, the ease was the very crux of Dean Martin but that menefreghista, a Sicilian term for not giving a fuck, ended up becoming complacency. If the critics didn't like him in a serious role in a movie, fuck 'em, he'll turn out dumbass comedies for the same money and get points on the back end. The roasts are proclaimed too racy for television at the time? Let's just see how vulgar we can get. Doesn't mean a thing to ol' Dino. He's got a tee time. For him, there would always be another pay day, another broad, another round. Why sweat it? Singing in front of an audience, performing on film or TV was a cinch. As Dean said, "This stuff ain't hard. You want hard? Try being on your feet all day dealing blackjack". 

Still, he was the most charming man on the planet and a great talent whose work lives on to be discovered by guys like me long after he stopped caring. The best part? The work holds up and Dean still delivers. 

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet

To most readers, White is best remembered as a beloved children's author and millions have read Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. In grade school, a teacher read Charlotte's Web to our class and I never liked it. In fact, I thought it was a "girl book" and felt the same way after seeing the movie so I never read the other two. Shame on me.

My appreciation of his work came by way of James Thurber and The New Yorker. I know him from casuals in the mag, his fantastic though nameless contributions to Talk of the Town pieces. I even refer to him as "Andy", as Thurber and most of magazine's crew did (I know. I'm kind of a dork that way). 

As well, I know him from the classic reference, The Elements of Style, which I still turn to on occasion mostly to be reminded how mistaken I am and how I should have paid closer attention in school. Regular Reed-ers likely think I should commit the small volume to memory and THEN sit down at the keyboard. A fine suggestion, no doubt.  

When I received this beautiful biography, I was delighted but reading it was an absolute treat. Author Melissa Sweet is a Caldecott honor winner and knows her way around kids books but this goes a step further. The mixed-media artwork is not only stunning but the remarkable visuals add to the the storytelling like few books I've read (Think Griffin and Sabine without all those tedious envelopes and mushy stuff). Sweet makes White's life come to life before your eyes. 

As well as striking pages like this, there are original sketches by White, family photos, and handwritten drafts of some of his most famous works. 

Best of all, it was obvious to me how much Sweet admires her subject as a person and a writer. You come away from the book wishing Andy was your friend and that is no small task for a writer to pull off. White had a way of making his subjects so approachable and there was an ease to his style that must have made other writers jealous. Sweet manages to attain a similar feeling. The book informs, entertains, and enchants the eye. If you are a fan of White's work, of great children's books, or expert visual storytelling, you can't miss with this.