Chances Are…

Do you have a friend you haven’t seen in years, yet when you finally get together, you fall into a comfortable conversation as though you had seen each other just yesterday?  Good friends are like that.

In Richard Russo’s Chances Are... three college friends reunite on Martha’s Vineyard after years apart, and find they connect as they had years earlier, with an easy camaraderie but haunted by the ghost of the woman they all loved.  The old Johnny Mathis song in the book title creates the theme for Richard Russo’s latest story of relationships as Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey struggle through a long weekend of memories and surprising revelations.

I always imagine Paul Newman as one of Russo’s character, reprising his role in the movie adaptation of Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool.” None of the three main characters in Chances Are seem to have Newman’s charisma but together they present a dazzling composite.  Lincoln is a successful realtor in Las Vegas, who has inherited the house on Martha’s Vineyard from his mother, and is now considering selling it. Teddy is owner of a small publishing house in upstate New York, who suffers from debilitating episodes.  Mickey, who went to Canada for a few years to avoid the Vietnam War draft, is a musician living on the island.

As their pasts are revealed, fathers figure prominently in their influence, all strangely different for each man, from Lincoln’s strict Calvinist father who tolerated no one, to Teddy’s pseudo intellectual father who had no time for anyone, to Mickey’s father of a large family who expected his youngest child and only son to follow his lead.  But the key character and major influence on the three college boys who bonded over working as hashers in a sorority house on campus was one of those sorority sisters – Jacy.  A seemingly free spirit, Jacy was the mascot to their group – their fourth Musketeer.

The mystery of Jacy’s disappearance years ago provides the suspense as the story evolves around the discovery of what really happened.  Russo delivers a surprising solution in his big reveal at the end of the novel, but the satisfaction of reading how each man developed and maintained a sense of community overwhelms the finale.

Russo, with acerbic wit and irreverence balances stories of his characters coming of age after college with their inevitable struggles as they are entering old age years later when they meet again. Their bond seems to have been the girl but Russo confirms they still have a strong connection beyond their youthful adoration of Jacy. They were there for each other as young men and Russo refreshes their connection years later.  Can their friendship last after all the secrets are revealed? Chances are their chances are awfully good…

Off the Library Shelf

Although I tried linking to another writer’s “Library Lust” list, I was not successful, but here are a few books from my library I read in a sitting, so I could get back to the library for more books waiting for me:  The books all seem to come at once sometimes.  Have you ready any of them?

Never Have I Ever by Joshlyn Jackson

A complicated murder mystery drama, reminding me of Finn’s The Woman in the Window, with unreliable characters and a twisting plot.  A page turner full of betrayal, romance, and deception.  Amy Whey has started a new life but is soon battling to keep her past a secret when the devilish Angelica Roux shows up at book club. The two match wits as the drama continues into a surprising ending.

 

The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess

When Eve leaves her job with a publishing company to become an assistant to a prominent and prolific New Yorker writer, summering in Cape Cod, secrets, sex, and the New England literary vibe emerge to create a quickly readable and entertaining story.  Aside from her coming of age journey and her romps in bed, Eve meets a number of literary stars.  She also references a number of books; I had to stop to jot a few down I plan to find: George Eliot’s Middlemarch (with the suggestion to read beyond the first 150 pages to be hooked), Zaleika Dobson by Max Beerbaum, and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

 

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

After a slow start, Davis transitions the story of two young women who met on a USO tour during World War II into a dramatic exploration of the McCarthy hearings targeting stage actors, directors, and producers in the nineteen fifties in the United States.  The Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan is the fulcrum of the story, where the women lodge with an assortment of artistic hopefuls.

The story follows Maxine Mead, the beautiful diva, and Hazel Ripley, the talented writer, as their lives change from their wartime friendship into a competitive challenge of spies and deceit.  In the end, both get their due, but along the way Davis offers a look into how McCarthyism overpowered democracy and ruined lives.

 

Reading Now:  The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I may take a little longer to read this story of the artist Harriet Burden.  Hustvedt had me believing it was based on a true person in her clever “Editor’s Introduction,” and I stopped to find reviews about this 2014 work of fiction, doubting  the library’s FIC designation.

Using journals and interviews, the author presents the life of Burden, a talented artist ignored in her time, who decides to conduct an experiment she calls “Maskings” in which she presents her own art behind the names of three prominent male artists, masking her female identity.  Of course, the three shows are successful, but when Burden reveals herself to be the artist, critics doubt her.  The novel promises to not only be ambitious in its revelation of prejudice against women in art, but also a clever exploration of a complicated character, who seems real to me.  I plan to savor it.

 

Books Waiting for Me at the Library:

  • Chances Are by Richard Russo
  • The Darwin Affair by Timothy Mason
  • The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
  • Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe
  • The Reckless Oath We Made by Bryn Greenwood
  • This Tender Land by William Kent
  • Why You Like It by Nolan Gasser

 

 

The Dutch House

My old friend’s younger face stared at me from the cover of Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, as I wandered through the airport bookstore.  I had just left her husband’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery and the moment of her last goodbye as she bent over the coffin, surrounded by the military color guard, was still with me.  Looking back on his life seemed like a fast forward through time, full of moments of joy and sadness – some only he and my friend shared alone.  Ann Patchett captured this colorama of life as she focused on one family’s life journey in her book, based in a place I grew up – the suburbs of Philadelphia.

I read through The Dutch House from Washington D.C. to Honolulu, never turning on the movie screen in front of me, and time flew by as I did.  I noted Bishop McDevitt High School, where my brother and I cheered the basketball team, Abington Memorial Hospital where my father and brother died, the references to Elkins Park, the neighborhood a cut above it all,  and Jenkintown, with its old library, all within the radius of my childhood home.  I followed Danny and Maeve from childhood to funerals, and gladly immersed myself in a world of characters Patchett created.

If you’ve read Patchett’s books, you know she is all about the characters and the place.  In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Patchett gives her reason for setting the house in the story in Elkins Park:

“I was looking for a tony suburb that was near New York, because New York would definitely play into the story. And I have a very close friend, Erica Buchsbaum Schultz, who is originally from Wyncote {the actual site of Bishop McDevitt High School}.. And when I was in college [at Sarah Lawrence], I would always go to her family’s house for weekends, because I lived too far away [in Nashville]…I like to write in a place that I know, but maybe not too well. I would never set a book in Nashville. If I know a place too well, I get overburdened with details.”

But she got her descriptions right.  I know – I grew up there – and it added to the pleasure of reading the book for me.  There was my friend on the cover and in a place where we both grew up.

The story is unlike anything I knew when I was there, however, and maybe a little fantastic. A mother, overcome with guilt over her husband’s new wealth, cannot accommodate living in a glorious mansion with servants and expensive art, and leaves her three year old son and eleven year old daughter, to go to India to help with the poor.  Danny, the son, is the narrator, as we follow his journey from his life in a glass house to his reunion as an adult with his mother. Martha Southgate for the New York Times calls the story a fairy tale, and it does have the wicked stepmother with her two selfish daughters, and a few fairy godmothers.  Danny is not Cinderella, but he and his sister Maeve, do lose the comforts of wealth when their father dies.  Despite all the obstacles they have to overcome and the suffering they endure, Danny and Maeve thrive, and the wicked stepmother gets her due.

Unlike a fairy tale, Patchett weaves a story about characters you can care about, and offers so much for a discussion – great book for a book club, just like her Commonwealth.

Thank you, Ann Patchett, for delivering a book for publication, and as my friend’s husband would say, your timing for me, “was exactly right.”

A President Who Reads

I like lists of recommended books whether from movie stars like Reese Witherspoon, industry leaders like Bill Gates, or from Presidents who read. Barack Obama has a list, with a nod to recently deceased author Toni Morrison – “You can’t go wrong by reading or re-reading the collected works of Toni Morrison

His reading list has one of my old favorites – Mantel’s “Wolf Hall.” I wonder if he is just discovering this 2009 classic? Another a book is by an author local to me, Hope Jahren.  Although she has moved on from the University of Hawaii, her book “Lab Girl”prompted me to look for a Hawaiian tree mentioned in her book.  I wonder if she knows they have drastically trimmed its branches.

I will probably skip Chiang’s collection of short stories but will give Whitehead’s new book a try, since a friend has given it high marks. Hurakami is one of my favorite authors but I prefer his novels to short stories.  I suspect, but would rather not know what the internet is doing to our brains in Carr’s “The Shallows.

I’ve ordered Wilkinson’s American Spy from the library, described by Mick Herron in the New York Times as a “murder mystery that offers genuine social insight,” and purchased Tea Obreht’s Inland – I still remember Obreht’s first complicated novel, “The Tiger’s Wife.”

Here’s the list from a President who reads:

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson.
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.
How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu.
Maid by Stephanie Land.
Inland by Téa Obreht

Have you read any?

Hatchett Book Group has a website at https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/articles/best-read-u-s-presidents/ with a list of Best-Read U.S. Presidents, ranging from John Adams to Barack Obama. Shakespeare, Washington Irving, Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, Tom Clancy, Ralph Ellison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Doris Kearns Goodwin were some of the authors who made the list of Presidential favorites.

Reluctantly Returning to Reading

When I read a book a day, I never imagined not wanting to read.  Most of my life revolved around stories professionally and personally but when my own story became the drama, it’s plot was too complicated to let any other in.  Needless to say, I won’t reveal the personal – those who know me already have it – but my unexpected separation from bibliotherapy taught me to savor moments of inspiration and not take them for granted.

Kate Atkinson’s Transcription survived the purge of my bookshelves with two boxes of notable reads sent to the library annual booksale.  I uncovered its red cover under the dust jacket and it followed me until I gave in and opened to the first pages.  Many of you have already read this complicated spy novel with a twist I almost missed at the end, and Atkinson has already produced another book published last month.  But if you haven’t read Transcription, its story holds enough historical information to tease you into wondering what is indeed fact, as well as Atkinson’s trademark knack for plot twists to keep you  reading between the lines of the characters’ lives in this tale of espionage and treachery.

Juliet Armstrong flashes back to her life as a secretary secretly transcribing conversations for the British spy organization MI5.  Jonathan Dee neatly summarized the novel in his 2018 review for The New Yorker with enough detail to satisfy your curiosity if you are still deciding if you want to read the book – Kate Atkinson’s Spy Novel Makes the Genre New.

The Author’s Note at the end of the book led me to more books.  Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices is listed as  one of Atkinson’s references.  Firzgerald’s 1980’s novel tells “the fictionalised experiences of a group of BBC employees at Broadcasting House, London, in 1940 when the city was under nightly attack from the Luftwaffe’s high explosive, incendiary, and parachute bombs.”  I became a fan of Fitzgerald after reading The Bookshop.

Atkinson’s newest publication revives her detective series with Jackson Brodie as the star Cambridge detective.  Of course, I need to backtrack to the first book – Case Histories – and maybe proceed to the other four before my library waitlist number for her latest, Big Sky, comes up.

So I have books to anticipate, and more.  A friend sent me hardback copies of the newest Elin Hildebrand and Jennifer Weiner books; my stack is growing again.

What have you read lately?

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