Sunday, January 15, 2017

Fiction picks of 2016

Nobody’s Fool and
Everybody’s Fool 
by Richard Russo

This was a project I was eager to undertake: read straight through Nobody’s Fool from 1996 and Everybody's Fool, the sequel published this year. Separately, Nobody’s Fool stands beautifully on its own. It is during that pitch-perfect run that began with Risk Pool and culminated with Empire Falls

It is a sparkling, hilarious tale centered around Donald Sullivan better known as Sully. Unashamedly, I will use the same quote about the character damned near every reviewer has used: "Throughout his life a case study underachiever, Sully -- people still remarked -- was nobody's fool, a phrase that Sully no doubt appreciated without ever sensing its literal application -- that at 60, he was divorced from his own wife, carrying on halfheartedly with another man's, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable -- all of which he stubbornly confused with independence." Brilliant. Picture him as Paul Newman like I do and you’ve got a fantastic novel (and a pretty decent film starring Paul Newman).

Everybody’s Fool takes us back to North Bath, NY and most of the same characters still populate the town. However, and most importantly, Sully is not our hero though he is still present. That job is filled by Douglas Raymer, a minor character from the first book, who has risen through the ranks to become police chief. Rife with intriguing characters and plentiful sub-plots, it is a Russo tale for certain but the pace is neither as breathless nor as break-neck as the first and that should be expected because it is a slightly different Russo who has written this one. We’re all a little older--Sully, Raymer, Russo and me.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Much anticipated, Moonglow pays off. It has all the hallmarks that make Chabon one of the great American authors of the last 25 years but this time he walks a fine line by making Michael Chabon one of the main characters in the book. It is his grandfather though who owns the spotlight. Like most men of his generation, he kept mum for years about himself but in the last two weeks of his life, Chabon’s grandfather reveals more about himself to young Mike than he had ever. 

Grandpa was a shtarker, a tough guy, but with a bent for science. As part of Operation Paperclip, his job was to hunt Nazis after the war and his goal was to capture Wernher Von Braun. Once he returns to the States, he marries a beautiful but troubled French Holocaust survivor with a daughter (Michael’s mom) whom he raises as his own. Typically, Chabon covers a lot of ground that would take too long to summarize and, as always, he teaches us a great deal about any number of subjects that so fascinate him but that often slow the pace. Still, Moonglow is a worthy and customarily uncommon addition to the Chabon canon.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

While a very different book than his outstanding debut, The Rules of Civility, Towles gives us another fantastic novel with sparkling prose and characters you wish you knew. Count Alexander Rostov returned to his homeland as the Revolution began, and after getting his mother to safety, took up residence in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol, one of the great Old World hotels. He is a man of generous spirit and bonhomie, well-traveled and educated, and his life at the hotel is a fine one. In 1922, he is stripped of his status for a poem he wrote as a young man that is now deemed subversive. He is sentenced to house arrest at the Metropol for the rest of his life. If he steps outside, he will be shot. He can travel nowhere and within the hotel, he can no longer enjoy the privilege he has known his whole life. This kicks off the next few decades of his life and the “family” he acquires while there. Some may find it twee but I thought it was absolutely charming and a worthy sophomore effort from the author.

Welcome Thieves 
by Sean Beaudoin

A relative newcomer, Beaudoin’s inventive short stories had me laughing out loud, grimacing at all the right moments, and rooting for his protagonists despite their inability to save themselves. I enjoyed All Dreams Are Night Dreams, a story of a fledgling water spectacle a la Cirque du Soleil and a troupe of Welsh travelers. The show is a slog and a dog and never quite reaches the Vegas heights it hopes for but the characters are most memorable. The long-titled You Too Can Graduate in Three Years with a Degree in Contextual Semiotics might make readers think it’s too clever by half but I thought it novel and affecting. Tiffany Marzano’s Got a Record, Hey Monkey Chow, and the title story were other faves in this very strong collection from an author that stood out this year.

We Are Still Tornadoes 
by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen

Set in the 80’s, Tornadoes chronicles the relationship between childhood friends Cath, who goes off to college, and Scott, who stays behind. It is a touching take on growing up, friendship, and the impermanence of youth while managing to be kind, funny, and thoughtful and that is no small task.

Regular Reed-ers might be sick of me endlessly plugging this marvelous epistolary novel but I loved it and don’t care who knows!