French Exit by Patrick deWitt (3.5 out of 5)

•October 16, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Frances Price, doyenne of upper East Side New York City society, isn’t known for her warmth. This is proven when she finds, and then leaves, her cheating husband’s dead body, and jets off on a ski trip, leaving it for others to find. She’s known for being an eccentric force of nature, joined in her strange, shadowy, almost Grey Gardens-esque little world, by her live-in son Malcolm. Malcolm is a fully grown adult who lives in a state of permanent arrested development. Not the fine TV show, either. He should be helping his mom and finding his place in the world; instead his days are spent having strange telephone discussions with her and planning lunches and dinners- while she’s in the next room. It’s a startling mother/son dynamic here, and it’s highly unsettling. I know some people in real life that fall under that umbrella of unhealthy mother/child dynamic, but the parallels made it even easier for me to tune in to this setting. Darkly humorous, deWitt has a true gift for honing in on family dysfunction. This novel is no different. Add to this “cozy” mother & son family picnic, Malcolm’s love interest, the interesting but insecure Susan. Of course, Frances dislikes her and manages to sink the relationship. The spirit of the dead father Frank, is alive and well and supposedly living inside the family cat, Little Frank. The whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket when Frances is informed her money is all gone. She forms a plan, and only tells Malcolm the smallest of details about it. They sell off what they can, take the money, and run. First to a nice hotel, where they get adjoining suites and talk on the phone to each other throughout the day, mostly about what to order from room service. Then, they’re off to Paris by way of a cruise. The cruise is a hoot, especially for Frances; not so much for Malcolm, who is seasick through much of it. He still manages to make an acquaintance of a psychic on board, while Frances makes moon eyes at the captain. All good things must come to an end, and they do once Frances and Malcolm arrive in Paris. Malcolm quickly finds out that Frances has gotten the okay for the two of them to borrow her friend Joan’s unused apartment. It isn’t long before quite the odd band of dwellers begin to accumulate in the apartment. The neighbor, Mme. Reynard, invites herself over to visit, and decides to move in with the duo. Uninvited. Little Frank, the antisocial but aging cat, gets out, and Frances hires a P.I. to find the psychic they met on the cruise, in hopes of contacting the cat, to find out why he’s run away (another example of animals being more intelligent than humans). Malcolm’s mixed-message-bordering-on-self-pity phone calls to Susan in the States end with her showing up at the apartment, with fed-up fiance Tom in tow. Tom quickly figures out Malcolm is a spoiled mama’s boy who cannot defy her for his own happiness. For the record, Tom was one of my favorite characters. Joan, the owner of the apartment and the only true friend that Frances and Malcolm have, shows up after she receives a strange postcard from Frances, who had told a cafe owner to destroy it, but it was sent. Joan tries to get to the bottom of this whole thing. Who are all these fucking people? What is Frances up to? I have to tell you, along with Tom and Joan, Frances was my favorite character. The truest glimmers of light in a dark novel (or place) are often those with the red glowing eyes. Days and nights pass with Joan wandering Paris while reliving her past relationships with her dead husband and her alive-in-physicality son. You grow to like Frances, despite her snarling delivery to many and her treatment of some being downright rude. Malcolm is the sore thumb, but that ending….well, that ending packs quite a punch. A sucker punch. Once I got over being pissed at it, I realized that this is what DeWitt excels at. He brings in a myriad cast of characters, wipes the floor with the characters and the reader, and then runs off, cackling maniacally. In no way did I see this book ending as I did. But once the cloud parted, you realize that this timely look at the darkness of shared depression, the winking lights of temptation, the nauseatingly simpatico of the mother/son dynamic, the social classes and the long-winded injustice of those below that, and yes, deWitt even finds a way to include racial tension in this kooky Parisian satire. It is largely satire, but if you can’t handle jokes well, you better look elsewhere. deWitt has authored two other books that I have read, The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor. Those were the same style of writing, but this was more dark than he has ventured before. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the ending, although it was pretty obvious what would go down. Still, a great book from an underrated author. Check it out.

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Once Upon A Book Club: Less by Andrew Sean Greer (4 out of 5)

•October 12, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I thought about reading this book for quite a while. Then I realized that since it is paperback, it would qualify for the Literature Bandits (most of my customers prefer hardcovers; my book club members want paperback). I also liked the fact that it had won The Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Some of the other ones I picked ended up on the New York Times bestseller list; others won literary awards. Some have been local author’s works; that one is evenly divided between love and extreme dislike. One never knows with the titles I pick for the Bandits. We were down a few ladies this month, and two of our regulars did not finish it, but those of us who did read it and enjoyed it. Still others have asked me about thoughts for whether it deserved to win that top honor. I’m not comfortable crowning that statement with a response without having read the other candidate(s). I did really enjoy it, once I straightened out the narrator. Don’t give up on this, dear reader. It is frustrating because of the way it is narrated, but at the end, it all becomes clear why it is the way it is.

“Less” was the second book in a row where the lead character had absolutely terrible luck. If you’re curious what that other book was, it was “The Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison. Our lead character, Arthur Less, is a struggling novelist about to turn fifty. He’s stuck in a big way until he receives a wedding invite in the mail; his former boyfriend of nine years is getting married. That gets him moving; all over the globe, answering invites that would have lay dormant otherwise, all the while reliving how he got to this place in life, and how things got to this crossroads. One thing’s for sure; Less has some screwy luck. Berlin almost brings him down (literally), he ends up the only writer at a Christian retreat in India, he almost gets waylaid from Morocco by a sandstorm, Paris brings more emotional baggage, and on the desert island in the Arabian Sea, stands the one person he really wanted to avoid. The first half of the book is strong, but in the second half, I felt like it lost something. I’m not even sure what that something is, however. I was still laughing out loud at various parts of the book! It just felt like some indefinable quality had lessened somehow and somewhere in between all of those destinations, current and past. It is a great book club pick, bringing out discussions about nostalgia, getting older, running from your problems- things most of us have done at one point or another. It is a charming story of love, loss, and that forgotten friend, hope. Greer has brought us MORE by bringing us “Less”. It’s out in paperback and available at your local independent bookstore.

The Royal Art of Poison by Eleanor Herman (5 out of 5)

•October 5, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Eleanor Herman has to be one of the prominent historians left who still publishes “fun” history books. What is fun? Well, in my opinion, everything BUT American history. I’m a bigger fan of world history, where you get to witness first-hand the results of inbreeding, madness, rampant disease, and backstabbing the likes of which most of us have never gotten to witness. Eleanor Herman has written a number of these fascinating and fun history books. I mean, I know it wasn’t fun to those it happened to, nor those in the family line, but to people like me who like twisted history, this was a treat to read. I don’t think Herman has ever picked a focal point of interest, in this case poison, and wound her world histories around it- until now. She goes through some not-so-well-known victims of possible poisonings, and uses knowledge of ancient history, coupled with modern day medical history, autopsies, DNA tests, to determine whether poisoning was the cause of death, or a medical issue that was misdiagnosed, or mistreated as a result of misdiagnosis. Let me tell you, after reading this, I’m happy that modern medicine has advanced to its current state, because most of these poor people were truly fucked. Herman also pinpoints the art of Poison, and the effects it had on many back in those days. What about testers? Oh yes, they existed, and sometimes it didn’t matter! More on that in the book. One of the ironies revealed here is that as afraid as the royals were of being poisoned by threats to the court of power, they were poisoning themselves with cosmetics, lotions, and other “fail safe” potions to keep them looking good and staying safe and healthy. Quite a few of these had the “magical” ingredient they swore by- mercury. MERCURY. Absorb that. Not literally. Herman finishes up her fascinating treatise by highlighting some famous folks, among them Napoleon and Beethoven, and their deaths, and whether they were also victims of the royal art of poison. There is nothing that Bret Michaels or CC DeVille can do to save these sorry heads of state and their histories, but Eleanor Herman has done all of us a great service by writing this book. Highly recommended to history and nonfiction buffs alike, it’s currently available in hardback from the publishing wunderkinds at St. Martin’s Press.

Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas (4 out of 5)

•October 4, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I got an advance of this from the folks at Dey Street books. I did nominate it for Indie Next, because in the oversaturated market of political and current events, it would be easy for it to slip by. I should also mention that Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize winner, so if that isn’t a reputable source for a book in this day and age, then what is? He also defines himself as “the most famous undocumented immigrant in this country”, so he has more than ample background for delivering this book to the readers of the world. Everyone should read this book. Everyone.

Vargas has been living in the United States as an undocumented immigrant for 25 years. When he goes to get his drivers license, he realizes all of his papers are fake. This is the way of many who were sent here by their families in the past few decades (Vargas’ mother sent him over to live with his grandparents in California when he was younger). He gets an education and forges a career as a respected journalist, even winning the Pulitzer Prize along the way. Vargas finds out that there is no way for him to become a legal citizen of the country he’s been in for over 25 years. This is madness! Due process is long overdue for a change for the immigrants living in the United States. I hope Vargas’ book breaks on through to the other side. Given the current atmosphere surrounding immigrants, the supposed wall, and the administration occupying the pearly White House gates, this book shines a brighter light on another facet of an issue that continues to be on an unsolved agenda. Everyone living in this country needs to read this book.

Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison (4 out of 5)

•October 4, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Another great read from Jonathan Evison, author of “This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance” and “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving”. I like to tell readers that Evison champions the working middle-class man novel. This is a “treatise” on the class and socioeconomic divide in this country, but add in a lot of humor and heart, and this is a definite feel-good read. The sort of thing we all need to read in these times.

Mike Munoz is a 22-year old who mows lawns for a living. Until the day he loses his job. Mike lives with his divorced mom and special needs brother, and his lack of an income hurts them all. Mike just isn’t sure how to go about achieving that elusive American dream of happiness and prosperity. He thinks he’s figured out a solution, but that twisty pretzel called life sends him on a detour. Will this detour lead to happiness, fortune and fame, and if he’s lucky, love? The only way you’ll know for sure is to pop into your local indie bookstore and get a copy. I strongly urge you to do so! “The Lawn Boy” is currently available in hardcover and published by the folks at Algonquin.

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart (3 out of 5)

•September 28, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I’m a big fan of Gary Shteyngart. I’ve read all of his other books, but his memoir has to be my favorite of the bunch. “Lake Success” has been on many lists for “Best Books of Fall 2018”. It didn’t quite light my fire until halfway through. Our main character and his wife? I really wanted to kick both their asses until halfway through, and then one thing happened and boom! I suddenly wanted to see how this topsy turvy, cross country lesson in marriage counseling worked out. In his usual manner, Shteyngart finds a way to make his stubborn, irascible human beings into character studies that the reader ends up wanting to be friends with. It’s uncanny how many times he’s pulled that off with his stories. I would recommend this one to his fan base, and anyone looking for a way into his backlist. It is not my favorite of his, however.

Barry Cohen is a hedge fund manager undergoing what can only be called a midlife crisis. He’s being investigated by the SEC for financial shenanigans, his marriage is in deep waters, and his 3-year old son (his pride and joy) has just been diagnosed as severely autistic. He tosses his phone in a dumpster at the public transit authority, gets rid of his credit cards, takes out a limited amount of cash, and jumps on a bus to take a little cross country trip. Of course, he does this AFTER an argument with his wife, so no one knows he’s leaving. Some might call it running from his problems; others might call it a road trip. Seema, Barry’s beautiful, headstrong wife who sacrificed her career for the sanctity of domestic bliss, is feeling anything but. She’s formed her own little fan club with the husband of the neighbor downstairs, and she fails to recognize that she’s playing the wrong sort of part in this unravelling. Really, dear reader, it took a LONG time for me to like Seema. I felt like she was a hell of a mother, left a hell of a lot to be desired being a wife. Still, after reading what Barry’s been up to, the character can only be credited with doing the best that she could. It was this tug-of-war with the sympathy vote through much of this book. Their 3-year old son? No doubt the best character in the book, and his involvement is mutable because of the severity of his autism. All’s well that ends as well as it can here. The reader is treated to a heaping dose of nostalgia, the past, what could have been. This plot device is always a great, dark wing standing at the end of the hall, but it seems to be in play more and more through novels in 2018. The language is outstanding, as usual, in the novel. The only thing I didn’t love was the main characters, through more than half of the book. It was a good read.

You’re On An Airplane by Parker Posey (5 out of 5)

•September 26, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I’ve not seen the Goodreads community in an uproar in quite some time. Until I checked to see what the reviewers thought of this book. I still can’t believe some of the reviews! I think a lot of people missed the point of her book. I just finished Justine Bateman’s new book, and I fear people aren’t going to get that one, either. This is the year of #MeToo and this is the year that women are NOT going to STFU, and that extends to books, as well. Parker’s book heads down a wholly different path than Bateman’s, but both resonated with me, for different reasons. But that’s a future review. This one belongs to Parker.

Most know her as an independent film actress, most notably from “Dazed and Confused”, “Waiting for Guffman”, “Best In Show”, and lately, in the Netflix reboot of “Lost In Space”. She’s “Queen of the Indies” for a reason, folks. She’s also direct to the point of making people uncomfortable. There were a lot of complaints on the GR community about her not sticking to the format of a typical memoir. Those readers clearly didn’t take note of the postscript “A Self-Mythologizing Memoir”, or they would have known that before getting their undies in a bunch. The format of her memoir is that she’s sitting with you on a plane and talking to you about her life. Except the conversation is all over the damn place. All over. You get her growing up (what a Southern Gothic family!), her attempts to make a bed with religion, her love for her dog, a whole lot of yoga, some discussion of her friendships with Louis C.K. and Woody Allen, therapy appointments, turbans, recipes, sewing, and pottery. She is all over the place, but here’s where it gets great….I have never read anything like it. And you know what happens when I read something that I’ve never run into before? I. Love. It. Reading this was like reading some of the drafts of the book I am currently writing! I felt like I had found my soul sister…and not soon enough!

So…don’t go into this thinking it’s a “typical” biography. It isn’t. And that’s why I love it. Her voice is singular, unique, and so fresh. If you want a stodgy, boring memoir, find an old Oprah book club pick and dive into that. This is not that. If you want to read something different and well-rounded, look no further than Parker Posey’s airplane coffee confessional.