The Devil and Webster — An Unsettling Academic Novel by Jean Hanford Korelitz

Jean Hanff Korelitz has written another deeply unsettling novel about an accomplished middle-aged woman who suddenly confronts unexpected attacks on her sense of well-being.  In her 2014 n0vel You Should Have Known, the therapist heroine is suddenly thrown the ultimate curve when she learns that husband has gone way off the rails.  In Korelitz’s most recent work, The Devil and Webster, Naomi Roth is a single mother and the successful president of an elite university and she is going to confront some big-time challenges.

Korelitz writes in a suspenseful style, so you are fully alerted to the fact that bad things are going to happen.   Naomi presents as a loving mother and successful academic who thinks of herself as a good, responsible person and who is generally regarded as such.  But as events unfold, Naomi learns that she hasn’t thought enough about important things and that ultimately she hasn’t been responsible enough.  

Naomi hasn’t done anything particularly bad, and she isn’t nimble in the face of unexpected adversity.  This presents problems as it turns out that Naomi has taken the wrong things for granted and has missed some important clues.   So when events overtake her and make her the bad guy she doesn’t know how to react.   She is bewildered and furious.  She also feels terrible wronged.

I recommend this book, even though it is unsettling.  There is this sense, which Naomi certainly has, that if you lead a productive honorable life, your efforts are to be rewarded, or at least that you shouldn’t fall victim to vicious attack from people who have absolutely no interest in understanding you or respecting anything you’ve ever done.  There is also the strong tension of waiting for the bad things to happen to someone not equipped to handle them.

Why We Die  —  A Strong British Mystery Featuring a Tough Female Detective and a Very Noir Atmosphere 

Mick Herron’s Why We Die is a strong mystery with quite a lot happening.  It’s a shame Lauren Bacall isn’t around to play the vamp, but Jennifer Lawrence would make a powerful Zoe Bohm, a down on her luck private eye who stumbles into the highly perilous inner workings of a crime family.  Arkle, one of three brothers, is seriously the scariest thug I’ve seen.  Sociopath doesn’t begin to describe him.  The interplay among Arkle and his two seemingly less scary brothers provides unifying substance to the careening violence, where nothing seems to go quite right.   The plot is spectacular, but so too are the characters and their troubles.  It’s a page turner with depth, supported by a grungy Oxford setting.    I highly recommend this book, particularly to people who like female detectives, British mysteries and a lot of noir. 

S.D. Sykes’ Plague Land Presents an Complex Murder Mystery Against the Back Drop of Britain After the Plague

S.D. Sykes has written a masterful murder mystery set in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death in Britain.  Plague Land has an unwilling hero.  Oswald de Lacy, the third son of a minor British lord, was destined for the religious life, despite his lack of faith.  When Oswald’s father and two elder brothers are killed by the plague, Oswald inherits his father’s title and returns home literally to become the lord of the manor.  

In the course of an interesting plot and intriguing characters, S.D. Sykes tells her readers quite a bit about how the Black Death

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings Captures a Certain Kind of Friendship

The principal characters in Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings have dubbed themselves cool and interesting.  They come together as teenagers at an artsy summer camp in the early 1970’s, and the novel follows them into their fifties.  The group, initially comprised of a wealthy brother and sister, a striving would-be cartoonist and the talented son of a folk star, invites Jules (previously know as Julia) Jacobson to join them.  Although told in the third person, the story is largely seen through Jules’ eyes.   As the story begins, Jules is a miserable teenager from a middle class New York suburb. Her father has  recently died, and she feels estranged from just about everything.  Awarded a scholarship by the camp, Jules is mystified as to why she has been invited to join this “cool” group of New Yorkers.  She eagerly joins them, and a great story of decades of friendship ensues.

All of the other Interestings are from New York City, and Jules views everything about them as hip, fascinating and special in contrast to her own stifled life in the suburbs.   She can’t believe she is part of this group and becomes known as a consistently loyal and wryly funny member.   Jules’ view that the other characters are special and generally lead relatively charmed lives in contrast to her own more prosaic and periodically impoverished existence is one of the central themes of the book.  Jules spends  a lot of time regretting that she hasn’t been more “successful” as she stubbornly defines it and discounting her own significant, real-life accomplishments.  We all know people like this, and they can get pretty annoying, but Jules held my interest.  Her struggles and the decisions she made were heroic in their own way and gave structure to the book.

Whereas Jules’ backstory is pretty much laid out at the beginning of the book, Wolitzer supplies the details for the other characters as the story proceeds.  The novel tracks these friends well into their fifties, through years of crazy success, economic hardships, romantics ups and downs and various highs and lows.  At times each of these characters gets pretty annoying.  I wanted them to suck it up and got on with their lives.  Sometimes they do, but often they don’t.  Whereas Jules is persistently observant and dissatisfied, the others generally seem far more caught up in the details of their own lives and more accepting of the lives they have been dealt. 

In the end some of the characters have luck and others don’t; some of the characters adjust and some of them don’t; and the definition of success is probed and redefined.  Wolitzer’s writing is clear and gives the reader plenty of time to think about the choices the characters make.   I liked this book.  It made me think a lot about past and current friendships. 

What’s the Matter with Kansas — Thomas Frank’s 2004 Book is All too Timely

Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas is a very prescient piece of political writing.  Frank grew up in Kansas and looks back in bedwilderment at how the state has lurched to the right in defiance of the economic interests of its citizens.  In particular Frank is mystified by the conservative voting habits of Kansas working class whites, who keep voting for rich Republicans making lots of promises they never keep as they just keep lowering taxes for the rich.  The poor workers just keep getting poorer with less government support, and they keep voting for the most conservative candidates they can find.  Some of this can be attributed to carefully executed anti-abortion and other socially conservative strategies, but it is still hard to suss out why people would keep voting against their own self-interest.  It is kind of a reverse Roosevelt.

What’s the Matter with Kansas is entertaining and even funny, but it is also confounding.   Frank underscores how radical Kansas was years ago, which makes its current passion for to-the-right-of-Attila-the-Hun conservatism seem so bizarre.  I checked:  Kansas hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

So in his 2004 book, Frank sagely diagnoses the average white Kansan’s complete disaffection with the Democratic Party.  Since this book was written,the Republican Party has continued to follow disastrous economic policies that have led to recession and increased unemployment.  Obama’s national success in 2008 and 2012 may have masked the phenomenon to some extent, but the 2016 election has shown that Kansas’ self-destructive voting habits have been adopted enthusiastically by the Rust Belt.

This begs the question, what should the Democrats have done or what should they do to convince working class Kansans that their best shot at improving their lot in life lies with the Democratic Party.  Unfortunately, while Frank is very good at diagnosing the problem and its permutations, he is less successful at suggesting how Democrats or even centrists might pry these voters away from the far right.  Embracing anti-abortion and social conservatism might sway a few voters, but it would also eviscerate the Democratic party.  This is a massive problem that the Democratic Party needs to try to solve.  Logic suggests that it should be easy to solve, but Frank’s excellent book suggests that there is nothing simple about Kansas politics.

Love Wins:  The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality

At the time it seemed like gay marriage almost burst on the scene as a demand and as a right.  In their beautiful book Love Wins:  The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality, Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell (the plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s landmark decision Obergfell v. Hodges) provide the context and the stories behind the decisions that established the right to gay marriage and recognition of gay marriage.  Spoiler alert:  it didn’t happen all that quickly and their were significant bumps in the road along the way.  The legal cases started with a dying man who could not have his lover and then husband of 20 years listed on his death certificate and who couldn’t provide for his husband the same way a heterosexual husband or wife could because the State of Ohio refused to recognize a gay marriage lawfully performed in another state.  That’s a very real situation that focused the legal argument and the court’s attention.   The relationship of Obergefell and his husband john Arthur is movingly described, and the mere thought of denying their marriage legal recognition is to deny their humanity.  Similarly, gay couples with children were only permitted to list one parent on the birth certificate, despite their lawful marriages in other states.  That arbitrary position meant that the non-listed parent had no legal status vis-a-vis the child —  no right to information about or decision making authority regarding the child’s health, welfare and education.  In retrospect, it seems bizarre that any state would go to the trouble to fight gay marriage and recognition of gay marriage when the plaintiffs were fighting for the right to care for and belong to each other, but fight it Ohio did.

Love Wins is powerful because of the human stories it contains, but it also shows how effective lawyers and the legal process can be to protect rights that the majority might deny.  The legal history and strategy is absolutely fascinating, and Al Gerhardstein, the main lawyer in the book, is a true hero.  He gets kicked in the teeth with hostile court decisions, but he keeps going.  He’s not getting rich, but he can obtain justice for his clients.  Although Obergefell’s husband didn’t live to see his right vindicated, a satisfying sense of justice and love pervades this book.  Reflecting back, I was also touched by all the people who supported the gay plaintiffs and their families.  Hostile or simply stunned parents came to realize they loved their gay kids, that their love was unconditional and that their kids needed them.  Parents became supporters and advocates.  That was their real world, thank goodness.

Miss Buncle’s Book — An English Village with a Mystery Author in Its Midst

In the 1930’s, the English novelist D.E. Stevenson wrote a warm, funny book about village life.  The millieau of Miss Buncle’s Book is familiar to readers of E.F. Benson’s Lucia novels and the genre of village mysteries.  There is no murder here, but the village is faced with the mystery of who wrote a novel that describes the village and some of its more prominent citizens all too clearly.  Stevenson empathizes with the undisclosed author and her genteel poverty.  The books’s humor largely lies with the reactions of some of the more self-absorbed and pretentious members of the community to their inclusion in the book. Their outrage is hilarious.  There is an undeniably warm and cozy quality to this book, but it also has an interesting and sometimes surprising plot line and a brilliant take on how people perceive themselves and others.  I recommend this book as a satisfying and clever read.

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops – A Must for All Book Store Addicts

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If you hang out in bookshops, you will love, Jen Campbell’s Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops.  Campbell works in a British bookshop and has a blog capturing some of the ridiculous things people have said or asked for in her shop.  Campbell’s blog has attracted posts from other bookshop workers around the world, and she has included some of these other contributions in her book.  It is all kind of reminiscent of the wonderful scene in Notting Hill, where an earnest customer walks into Hugh Grant’s travel bookshop and keeps asking for one non-travel book after another without ever stopping to comprehend that he has been told the shop only sells travel books.  Really anyone who has ever had the good or not-so-good fortune to work in a store will appreciate some of the idiotic questions customers ask.  It does make you wonder, however, if you have every asked similarly inane questions.

At any rate, this is a funny, light read that invokes to charm and character of bookshops around the world.

Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi – An Urgent Reminder of this Country’s Violent, Racist Past and a Call to Consider Its Continuing Impact

 

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Anne Moody’s 1968 memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi, is a tremendously important book, particularly now when some people deny that police violence against African Americans is a pervasive problem and when the Black Lives Matter movement has become a favorite target of the angry right.   This book is searing reminder that the tradition of state-sanctioned violence against people of color was a real thing that hasn’t just faded away.  To the contrary, it rears its ugly head again and again,  sometimes in the context of unduly violent and selective policing and sometimes in the context of racial barriers to voting, aka gerrymandering and voter ID requirements.  Of course this is an incomplete list, but  whether these events are viewed as isolated or systemic, their effect is profound.

In the context of Coming of Age in Mississippi, incidents of racial violence against people of color aren’t individual, unrelated events.  They are more properly viewed as a continuum that cost people their lives.  In Anne Moody’s Mississippi any African American who spoke up risked his or her life.  

 Coming of Age in Mississippi brilliantly captures the fear, the rage and the inexplicable courage of a young African American woman in Mississippi in the very early 1960’s.  Anne Moody didn’t come from an activist family.  Her family was extremely poor, her parents were separated, her mother kept having children and there was no thought of getting ahead or fighting injustice.  Moody bitterly resented her circumstances from the very beginning and she refused to accept them.

As a young child, she experienced the dangers young children faced when both parents were forced to work and there was no safe child care.  As a young girl, Moody took on whatever work she could find.  Her most painful job was working for an incredibly racist and threatening white woman, who denigrated Moody in every way possible and yet hired her to tutor her dim-witted son and his friends.  

There were lynchings in Moody’s town, and people were driven away if they didn’t kowtow to the status quo.  It was an ugly, dangerous environment.  To really think about what Anne Moody experienced every day as a child frames the discussion of why the Civil Rights Movement came to be and why there seems little reason to forget and move on when racism remains so pervasive and when racism seems to be attracting new defenders on a regular basis.

Anne Moody is so interesting, because she didn’t just accept her lot.  She refused.  She got out of town and ultimately was introduced to the Civil Rights Movement where she found her calling.  Moody was an heroic activist, but she was no saint.  She was really angry and her book tells us why.  It also provides an intense reminder of why racism was and is such a big deal, and why expecting people to “get over it” makes no sense.   When people and their forebears have lived through the horrors of the Jim Crow South, why would anyone expect them to just be grateful that things are a bit better now?  Why should anyone be content with things being a bit better?  As someone recently noted, why should anyone be expected to forgive and forget slavery when the South keeps celebrating its Civil Ware generals and their victories and while the Confederate Flag still hangs too many places?

Finally, the strength of Anne Moody’s account is that it is unfiltered.   She wrote her book in her twenties and only a few years after her lunch counter protests, her jailings and her voting registration drives.  She isn’t particularly reflective.  She just writes about what she is feeling and what she experienced.  She doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to understand why others were less bold.  She bitterly resents her family’s efforts to stop her, even as she acknowledges that reports of her activism got back to her home town and threatened her family’s security.  She is even angrier at the ministers who gave lots of noble speeches and sermons, even as they personally tried to avoid going to jail.  Moody, on the other hand, felt that going to jail was a necessary sacrifice and was quick to contrast brave school children who went to jail with the ministers who seemed happy to send them there, but didn’t want to go there themselves. 

Anne Moody might have been a tough person to know, but she was heroic.   This is a great book.  The subject is fascinating, and it really advances our understanding of what it meant to be an activist in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.  

 

 

Station Eleven – A Post Pandemic Dystopian Novel

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I ignored my general aversion to dystopian novels, and read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.   It was completely compelling, and I’m a huge fan.  Now I am hoping there will be a movie version and a sequel.  This unique novel goes back and forth between the pre-pandemic lives of individual characters who shared some connections and the post-pandemic period featuring a ragged group of survivors.  The sense of what is missed when society is just gone pervades this beautiful book.  The survivors keep on going, but the fabric of relationships is tattered and keeps dissolving.  This is a troubling tale of how people think and act after everything on which they based their lives vanishes overnight.    It is very much a story of individuals — this is not a book about an heroic family that somehow muddles through with brave and noble parents and plucky children.  Here the focus is on a captivating collection of individuals and what they are thinking, and that is what makes this such a stellar read.