“Virgil Wander” by Leif Enger

Genre:          Literary FictionVirgil
Publisher:    Grove Press
Pub. Date:    Oct. 2, 2018

The author, Leif Enger, is the winner of many awards including the 2008 Midwest Booksellers’ Choice Award Honor Book for Fiction.  He captures the heart of small-town life when the town has seen better days.  This may be because he lives on a farm with his wife and two children in the Midwest.  The title gets its name from the story’s protagonist and narrator.  Virgil owns and runs the town’s only movie theater, The Empress.  For that reason and other similarities, this novel has shades of the 1971 film, “The Last Picture Show.”  But there is also much different.  The film is a realistic version of a flagging town. This book is like reading about a small-town while smoking a joint.  The writing is playful, sometimes too much so and it can get puzzling.

The book’s pages are filled with quirky characters.  Among others, there is, of course, Virgil, who survives a near-death experience in the book’s opening pages.  He awakens in the hospital in a fog-like state, which sets the tone for the rest of the novel.  There is also his friend who was a minor league eccentric baseball pitcher.   He disappeared years ago, leaving behind his beautiful wife and now depressed teenage son.  We also meet an old man kite-flying Norwegian pied-piper, who has come in search of the son he never knew he had until recently.  The son is the disappeared pitcher.  There is even a pet raccoon, not to mention a killer sturgeon fish who takes the life of a father, leaving yet another fatherless son in the story.  The town’s bad luck is every bit as much of a character.  Still, expect a fun read.  All in all, this is a story that will make you chuckle.  You will smile that happiness can be found in hard times.  But, the goofiness can begin to feel like overload.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Clock Dance” by Anne Tyler

Genre:           Literary FictionClock Dance
Publisher:    Penguin Random House
Pub. Date:    July 10, 2018

“Clock Dance,” the latest novel by the author Anne Tyler, affectionately known as the bard of Baltimore, is filled with her familiar themes and quirky characters, but it is not up to par with her earlier works.  The gist of the book is that the heroine has four defining moments of her life, which is categorized into four years.   The reader only gets flashing glimpses of the first three defining moments, which is part-one.  I found this annoying.   Characters come and go as if they are walk-ons in a play.  However, once the novel is completed, the reader will get what Tyler was up to— a slow start with a strong finish.  I enjoyed the novel though I am not sure that the threadbare writing, which she is known for, isn’t too bare in part-one.

Part I:  In 1967, our heroine is a schoolgirl wondering what happened to her unstable mom who has disappeared.  She is too young and frightened to cope.  In 1977, she is a college student flying home with her bossy fiancé.  Suddenly, on the plane, the man sitting on the other side of her whispers, “This is a gun, and it’s loaded.  Move and I shoot.”  Once again she is too frightened to act.  When the flight is over the man just gets up and leaves.  She informs her soon to be husband what happened, and although she is shaking with fear, he tells her that she is being histrionic and that “all’s well that ends well.”  She agrees.  (This was hard to buy,  because although she is subservient, she is not stupid.)   In 1997, she is a young widow too traumatized to do what needs to be done to move forward.  In 2017, she is married, once again to another bossy man who patronizes her.   By this time in her life, she is way too timid, mild-mannered and insecure in her abilities to handle almost any situation by herself.  She is more than willing to be a passive bystander in her own life.  As a female reviewer, I wanted to jump into the pages and scream at her to grow a spine.

Part II continues in 2017, it is the bulk of the book and where all its strength lay.  But by this time, I was almost ready to give up on our heroine.  Which I wonder is what the author intended the reader to feel.  But, in 2017, our heroine surprises us.   She finally takes a stand in her own life and learns she is cable of making not only the simplest of decisions but the major ones as well.  For fear of spoiling, I will not share how her wake-up happens, but it is almost comical.  As usual, Tyler’s warmth for her characters shines through.    I am a fan of the author.  Still, I almost ditched the novel.   If Tyler did intend for a slow start, hoping that it would pay off in the second half of the book, then she made a heck of a gamble.  Or, maybe part-one was not written to be intentionally maddening.   Possibly, Tyler didn’t realize just how frustrating part-one actually read. Though, this is also hard to buy since Tyler is a Pulitzer Prize winner.  No matter, either way, I am glad I read her latest work.  Though I am not sure other readers will feel the same.  Still, I recommend the novel to fans of literary fiction.

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“Alternate Side” by Anna Quindlen

Genre:          Literary Fiction
Publisher:    Random HouseAlternate Side
Pub. Date:    March 2018

The author, Anna Quindlen, writes something you do not often find: bestseller literary fiction.  Most books on the bestseller list are usually commercial fiction, not literary.  Both types of fiction require talent.  But the aim of commercial fiction is entertainment.  The aim of literary fiction is art.  Generally, there is a more attention to style.  Also, the plot is usually less obvious.  I’m a big fan of literary fiction.  In Quindlen’s novel, “Alternate Side” (referring to alternate side parking) you will find a good example of such a style.

She writes about the residents who live on a dead-end block in New York City where all own their brownstones.  Each brownstone belongs to a single family.   If you are a New Yorker, you know that only the ultra rich can afford to own a house in Manhattan.  We meet a husband, wife, their college-aged twins and their Australian sheepdog.  The story goes back and forth in time.  We read about when the couple met in college.  They move into NYC, because of its hip reputation.   They do not have any money so they live in closet-sized rooms in cockroach infested buildings.  Even with the lack of space, and the pesky bugs, they fall in love with the city.    By the time they are in their 50s, they are overly privileged and their marriage is in trouble.  (Next sentence is a spoiler).  The marriage dissolves without any major blowups, or indiscretions, but simply because they have nothing left to say to one another.  Plus, the husband is ready to move out of the city and the wife’s love affair with the Big Apple is as strong as when they were young.  “There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy.  There’s only you and me and we just disagree”

Their block is a tight-knit community.  They are excited when a new puppy arrives on the dead-end and mourn with the owner when a pet dies.  They have an annual summer barbecue, one with a police permit, not like those in other, less desirable, neighborhoods.   One resident throws an elaborate, yearly Christmas party.   At this time of year, all put wreaths on their door.  That is how you can tell if someone is renting: no wreath.  The owners don’t mingle with the renters but are welcoming when the owners return.  But not all are rich city snobs as it may sound.  Our wife knows that the block’s Latino handyman’s kids have colds.   She goes to his apartment in the Bronx to give him their unused humidifier.  She is disturbed to see how different he acts in his own neighborhood.  Before he sees her, his walk has a swagger.  She notices how, when not in his uniform, he dresses cool and loose, sporting a leather jacket.  When he does recognize her, he adjusts his posture into a meek manner and humbly addresses her as “Missus.”  They are both embarrassed and she wishes she never entered his domain.  As a one-time social worker who did home visits, I know this class difference embarrassment.  The author does such a good job with this moment.  She isn’t shy about it at all.  I cringed.

Despite being so friendly, we learn that not all the owners are so fond of each other.  Still, they are loyal and keep each other’s secrets. At parties, a dignified older woman is usually fall-down drunk.  No one gossips about her drinking problem.  When she goes away for a month or so, no one asks any embarrassing questions.  One self-appointed resident makes himself the official rule man on the block, sending the others’ silly emails regarding what is and isn’t acceptable.  They tolerate him but inside their own homes they are laughing at his made-up rules.  There is one guy known for his explosive temper.  Oddly, he is married to a psychotherapist.  Still, no one questions why a woman who helps others for a living is not capable of helping herself and stays married to a creep.

If you are familiar with alternate side parking in NYC, you know that people have been known to sleep in their car to ensure that they move their car at the set time to  have a space in the morning.   Before the couple arrived, one of the dead-end’s brownstones burned down, and the owner chose not to rebuild.  The other residents turn the space into a small parking lot for the block only.  The lot is not large enough to accommodate all residents.  You have to earn it.  The author doesn’t explain how one earns it, but income is implied.  The husband is so thrilled with getting the spot that he sends his kids a text with a picture of their car in the lot.  He feels he has finally made it into the big-time.  There is an act of violence that happens around this parking lot and the community begins to show their true feelings about their neighbors.  Stewing class and racial tensions boil over when an arrogant, rich, white lawyer resident (spoiler) hits the handyman in the leg with a golf club for blocking the entrance to the parking lot.   When the handyman is in the hospital, it becomes clear that some genuinely like the guy.   Others see him only as the hired help.  After the incident, arguments break out.

This novel is a great slice-of-life story on a large canvas.  Slowly, you begin to realize that the married couple are not the real protagonists after all.  The story is really about the enviable dead-end block, which turns into a metaphor of a divided city.  The author is subtle.   Still, you start to understand how this novel is direct in other venues.  She never mentions politics, but I cannot help but think that recently the United States is making global headlines for being a divided country.  If you are not accustomed to literary fiction, you may find the book a bit slow for your tastes.   For me, a few paragraphs are too detailed reading more like a poem than a novel.   But overall, Quindlen’s narrative is a remarkable character study on the complexities of neighborhood, family, and political dynamics.

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I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Dunbar” by Edward St. Aubyn

Genre:         Adult Literary FictionDunbar

Pub. Date:   Oct. 3, 2017

Publisher:    Crown Publishing

This is my third Hogarth Press novel.  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.  “Dunbar” is the re-write of “King Lear” by Edward St. Aubyn.  I confess, before this novel I have never heard of Aubyn, though he is the author of eight novels and in 2006 was nominated for the Booker Prize for “Mother’s Milk.”  Other than “Vinegar Girl,” which is based on “The Taming of the Shrew,” I have not read any other of Shakespeare’s plays.  I did see the 1983 film version of “King Lear” with Laurence Olivier.  And like most, I am aware that the play is about an aging King who invites disaster when he steps down giving his power to his two corrupt daughters while rejecting his third, loving and honest daughter. In other words, they were the original dysfunctional family.

What’s the modern version of a 16th-century kingdom?  Why, a corporate empire, of course with CEO Henry Dunbar (Lear) written as a Rupert Murdoch-like multi-billionaire.  In “Dunbar,” the evil daughters/sisters are plotting a hostile takeover of the company, and have their sedated dad placed in a sanatorium while they prepare for the takeover.  In the interim, the youngest, loving daughter, who has been treated unfairly by her dad, is suspicious of her elder sisters and trying to uncover her dad’s whereabouts.  She alone is worried about her father.  We first meet Dunbar while he is in the sanitarium, where his fellow inmate, a former comedian, is plotting their escape.  The comedian can only speak when he is doing exaggerated voice imitations of others.  His mania is exhausting to read.  I personally found the similarities between the novel’s comedian and Robin Williams way too close for comfort.  I am not sure if that is the author’s intent, but that is how I read the character.  The two do escape. Now the daughters, both good and bad, are in hot pursuit of finding their father first.

Moral of the story; one cannot have the luxuries of living like a king without the responsibilities.  The parallels of the famous play and this novel are excellently drawn. The most powerful part of “Dunbar” is his emotional awakening and reconciliation with his youngest daughter.  So when tragedy hits, and she dies, I found myself feeling for her father.  That felt real.  As did the Dunbar character, even though his drugged brain read like an acid trip, which was hard to keep up with.  But the good, ever-suffering youngest daughter is so saccharine that she got on my nerves. Everyone has at least one mean bone in their body. The other two sadistic, nymphomaniac daughters, who have a taste for sexual perversion and their henchmen, are also too one-sided to be believed.  These two characters struck me as comic villains.  For some reason, I see them as an R rated “Cruella De Vil” from the Disney movie, “101 Dalmatians.”  The author has keen wit, using black humor throughout the story.  There are some good laughs for a tragedy. Still, I did not feel that “Dunbar” could stand as a novel in its own right.  If I didn’t know I was reading a re-telling of one of the Bard’s plays I would not have finished the book.  For these reasons, I am a bit disappointed in this latest Hogarth Press.  Still, the author is clearly talented and I admire his courage to take on Shakespeare.  I recommend you read this one only if you are addicted to this Shakespeare project.

This is an Advanced Review Copy (ARC) book.  I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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