“The Dining Car” by Eric Peterson

Pub. Date:  Nov. 1, 2016

Publisher:  The Independent Book  Publisher Associationthe dining car

The narrator of this novel is a once-famous college football star whose career ended after an accident.  Once he recovers, he is employed as a bartender on an elaborate, old-fashioned railroad dining car owned by a rich, alcoholic, eccentric man.  This character is modeled after legendary Lucius Morris Beebe (1902-1966).  Beebe, as our protagonist, was an American author, gourmand, railroad historian, syndicated columnist and a notorious socialite.  Reading about the absurdity of this sort of insanely rich life through the eyes of a regular Joe, our football player, will give the reader many a chuckle.

The book is called “The Dining Car” because our gourmand, the protagonist, refuses to ride on an airplane.  He writes that airports treat people like cattle, touching them in ways that one should be able to sue over. (I laughed many times over his opinionated statements he makes in his column).   So instead he buys an old Pullman railroad car and travels solely on his vintage private luxury dining car, which is straight out of the 1930s.  He has his own personal top-tier chef and his own bartender who is always decked out in a white jacket.  Both are at his beck and call twenty-four hours a day.  Our quirky gourmand always starts his day with some kind of decadent breakfast that would clog anyone’s arteries. Of course, breakfast is served with a Bloody Mary.  The food and alcohol continues until the end of the day, when he finally drops off in a stupor.  He surrounds himself with the rich and famous who are beyond wealthy, as well as beyond obnoxious.   We really should dislike them.  Yet the writer somehow makes them into endearing characters to chuckle over.  We also should dislike the protagonist because he is such a self-absorbed narcissist.  But despite all his flaws, the reader will come to love him because his wit and charisma are as big as his appetites.

The farcical situations he accidentally finds himself in are so ridiculous one cannot help but laugh out loud with him rather than at him.   When meeting his 11-year old niece for the first time, his magazine’s Board suggests he give her a teddy bear.  They do not suggest this because it will be a kind gesture, but because it will be a good photo-op.  First, they buy a talking Smokey the Bear doll by mistake.  Then they try to feminize the bear with a hat and dress.  When he hands the bear over to the child (of course, he is as drunk as a skunk), the hat is no longer on the bear’s head.  Then the bear’s voice mechanism jams and he begins laughing uncontrollably.   So what observers witness is a man laughing at Smokey in a dress.  This is how he inadvertently manages to get himself in trouble with the LGBT community who think he is poking fun at transgender people.   The scene reads like an updated “I Love Lucy” episode where everything goes wrong and is misinterpreted creating simply silly slapstick humor.

I could have happily read about the fictional Beebe’s overindulgent lifestyle and his hilarious antics throughout the whole book.  But the author adds romance, chef spying, a sister in politics, murder, and an orphaned niece into the plot.  The niece is written as if she is 6-years old instead of 11-years old.  Her character felt rushed in as a means to influence the bartender’s fate.  I did not feel a connection to her at all.  Nor did I care if the football player falls in love with his co-worker or a celebrity chef.    By adding in these other characters, I felt that the author is trying to write a bestselling book, not realizing that he already has one.  For me, these characters with their subplots felt like filler.  One sees the author putting his plot-driven fingerprints all over a delightful, character-driven novel.   Nevertheless, I recommend that you treat yourself to a delicious book with course after course of scrumptious meals served with signature cocktails that will leave you hungry for more travels on “The Dining Car.”

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

“Hag-Seed” by Margaret Atwood

Hag-Seed

Publication Date:  October 11, 2016

Publisher:  Crown Publishing

This is my second Hogarth Press novel and I am hooked. As I wrote in a previous review for Vinegar Girl, Hogarth Press was founded in 1917 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. In recent years Hogarth Press launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project in which much admired novelists are retelling the Bard’s stories in contemporary times.

Vinegar Girl is based on Taming of the Shrew. This novel is based on The Tempest, which unlike Taming of the Shrew I have never read. So I looked over SparkNotes, CliffNotes and Wikipedia to give myself an understanding of the play. However, even with some insight into the story line I must admit I do not know how or where to begin to review this book. Reading the Hag-Seed may be equivalent to being on an acid trip (think Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.)

The protagonist is a father who is a famous avant-garde theater director who is betrayed by his right hand man (now this sounds Shakespearean). He is fired while directing the play The Tempest (keep somewhere in the back of your mind that before he is fired, he lost his beloved three year old daughter to meningitis and his wife to childbirth). He is in a bad place even before he is pushed out of his position of power in the world of the theater, and now he has lost everything.

Full of shame he goes into exile and moves himself into a two-room shack basically living as a hermit. Years go by and he applies for a job hoping human contact will help him keep his sanity. The reader is already questioning his mental health as he often thinks his dead daughter is still alive and growing up with him in this shack. He finds employment in a prison where he will direct plays with the inmates as the actors (I warned you this is a weird one). He produces a yearly Shakespearean play with them. Having convicts interpreting Shakespeare’s work into prison life is a surreal read; simply brilliant on the part of the author: Shakespeare in a hip-hop song. If you ponder about it long enough it actually makes sense.

The director learns his old treacherous colleagues will be visiting the prison to see one of his plays. For their visit he decides that his production will be The Tempest. He has a hidden motive (besides the obvious) for choosing this play. He labors with the inmates in a manner to seek revenge on those who betrayed him (shades of Julius Caesar). He knows he has the upper hand since he is using a pseudonym, so he will be able to catch them off guard. He also has help from his spirit daughter, who is now a teenager, as she also has a part in the plot.

So what we have here is a play within a play. I often found the need to re-read paragraphs for sometimes I became disoriented reading in this type of style. I strongly feel my confusion is not due to the writing, but because I am not overly familiar with the play. I also believe part of my confusion is just what the author is hoping for. She skillfully plays with her readers’ minds, keeping them guessing what is real and what isn’t. Atwood is one of the most distinguished writers of our time. I did expect this novel to be literature at its best, which it is. What threw me for a loop is that I did not expect to be reading a sci-fi-dramedy. Everything about this novel feels like it is written tongue in cheek, leaving the reader scratching their head, smiling and thinking “damn she is good.” I will now absolutely read The Tempest, just so I can re-read Hag-Seed and be able to say “ah, that’s what that line meant.” This gem of a book is worth a second read, but isn’t all of Shakespeare?

“Collected Stories” by E.L. Doctorow

Publication Release Date:  January 10, 2017

Publishers:  Random House

We lost the great American writer E.L. Doctorow last July, 2015.  I remember him most for his award-winning novels “Ragtime” (1975), “Billy Bathgate(1989), and “The March”, (2005).  This book is a collection of fifteen stories, written from the 1960s into the early twenty-first century.  The Goodreads blurb explains that Doctorow selected, revised, and placed them in order for this book shortly before his death.  I know the author only as a historical fiction writer however in this collection I see that he could be stellar in any genre.  I knew most of the stories but here are two that I never read before: “Jolene: A Life” and “A House on the Plains”.

“Jolene: A Life” takes place in current times.  The protagonist is a 15 year old girl who marries to escapes her abusive home life.  Unfortunately her adult life is just as sad as her youth; she does a stint in the loony bin, she becomes a topless dancer, she loses custody of her child and nothing really ever gets better for her.  And yet through all of this somehow Doctorow manages to keep hope alive for his character.  Okay, maybe her hope is magical thinking, but surprisingly, I did not feel depressed after I finished reading about her sad life. The story ends leaving the reader scratching their head and smiling at the comic tragedy of Jolene’s life and her never-ending quest for something better.  I recently learned that this short story was turned into a film.  I intend to find and stream it.

“A House on the Plains” occurs in the early 1900s.  It is narrated by an 18 year old son of a very shady mother.  The dull-witted son, slowly reveals his mother as a femme fatale.  The reader gets the pleasure of watching Mama, who now insists that her son call her Aunt in an attempt to appear younger, make the change from city life to country life.   Mama undertakes an elaborate scheme to reinvent herself in a positive image as a widow.   She brings into her home foster children and demands they call her mama (while her son still calls her aunt) to help enable her into tricking Nordic immigrants into a bogus land partnership. The story is one long and very dark joke filled with crime as well as a coating of laughter.

I think both of the above stories have similar qualities that we can find in Doctorow’s “Baby Wilson” (also in the book) where a couple kidnap a child.  Both absorb  some of the other’s madness which becomes random craziness that somehow all works out fine. Again, classic Doctorow, this is a sorrowful tale yet the reader cannot stop smiling.  There is nothing I could possibly write to capture the brilliance of this beloved author.  When you are in the mood to do some serious thinking in between chuckles, read this collection of short stories by a master. I am very glad that I did.