Fourth of July Creek
By Smith Henderson
Smith Henderson’s substantive debut novel opens with the following epigraph from Henry David Thoreau: "If I knew for a certain’ty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life". Indeed, this quote encapsulates the central issue of Fourth of July Creek, which takes place in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the Pacific Northwest, a time and place renowned for rugged individualism.
At the heart of this story is the heart of social worker Pete Snow. Employed by the Department of Child Welfare, it is his job to check on kids in unstable homes and decide on their immediate future. We meet several children with whom Pete gets emotionally involved, including Cecil, a teenage boy living with his drug addicted mother and terrified six-year old sister Katie, and ten-year old Benjamin Pearl, son of stridently anti-government, possibly insane Jeremiah. The Pearls choose to live off the grid in the woods despite malnutrition and medical hardships, and the elder Pearl may or may not be violent. These “work” relationships in which Pete attempts to protect and improve people’s lives are set against a backdrop of Pete’s tumultuous personal life: an estranged wife, a missing daughter, a fugitive brother, and a girlfriend who is a former foster child herself. Add to that his binge-drinking hobby and you have one very flawed hero. Questions emerge: Can you help others if you can barely help yourself? Can anybody truly help anybody else or is everybody more or less responsible for their own fate? Is Jeremiah Pearl paranoid or is he right to mistrust and avoid modern society? Is Pete's sympathy for him misplaced?
Much is being made of this book capturing a period in American history in which questioning authority and the virtue of self-reliance perhaps weighed more heavily on the collective mindscape than it does today. In concert with Henderson’s unerring ear for dialogue, picture perfect eye for description and impressive facility for creating page-turning suspense, this novel is a must-read for lovers of literary fiction.
February 17, 2015
By James Lee Burke
I have been a fan of James Lee Burke for some time now, especially his Dave Robicheaux series, and while I don’t read all of his novels, I am always curious when a new one turns up. Wayfaring Stranger has proven to be a satisfyingly brawny story spanning decades and encompassing World War II, Louisiana, Texas, and Hollywood as settings. As usual, Burke’s characters are an interesting slice of social and moral strata. As usual, too, his descriptions of Louisiana are particularly a pleasure to read. Burke’s novels usually involve certain moral choices that his characters must rise or sink to and not often in simplified black and white distinctions.
This most recent novel follows Weldon Holland from his teen years in the 1930s through the Battle of the Bulge into peacetime America. On this tense journey we meet Hershel Pine, Holland’s sergeant in combat and future business partner, and Rosita Lowenstein, a concentration camp survivor who becomes Weldon’s bride. The scope of this sprawling novel involves Hollywood, corruption on many levels, and a cast of very distinctive and unique characters which Burke is an expert at creating. It is Holland’s and Lowenstein’s fight for justice that creates the tension in this tightly drawn novel.
An interesting sidelight is that while reading about Burke, I learned that the renowned Massachusetts writer Andre Dubus is Burke’s cousin and helped provide some of the inspiration for Burke’s decision to pursue literature as a career. That was a decision I, and many other fans, have enjoyed over the years. Wayfaring Stranger is a good solid entertaining read for these snowy winter days and we’ve certainly had many of those recently.
February 9, 2015
Searching for Grace Kelly
By Michael Callahan
This debut novel by Vogue editor Michael Callahan sparkles with details of 1950’s Manhattan. Fans of Mad Men will be enchanted. It is a quick read, describing a formative summer in the lives of three young women staying at the Barbizon Hotel while they start their careers and search for husbands. The hotel sounds more like a dormitory by today’s standards. Men are strictly not allowed on the premises, a rule that is enforced with an iron fist by the no-nonsense Ms. Metzger. When Laura and Dolly first meet British, redheaded rebel Vivian, she is flouting this rule, and they lie for her without a second thought. They are an eccentric trio: Vivian introduces them to the city’s nightclubs, where she hopes to perform as a singer but is stuck as a cigarette girl; Laura in her turn is their ambassador to Greenwich village and literary life, while Dolly is along for the ride and often the voice of reason. Of course, they all meet men. Lots of men. The men they choose to spend their time with all end up being mistakes, with, at times, disastrous results. Searching for Grace Kelly is a light novel but makes up for a lack of substance with grace, wit and style. The three women are well-developed characters, and the reader is happy to be along for the ride.
February 2, 2015
Panic in a Suitcase
Panic in a Suitcase
By Yelena Akhtiorskaya
This hilarious first novel by Yelena Akhtiorskaya is a must-read for Russian immigrants, Slavophiles, and the like. It is an immersive reading experience, and you will leave it missing the characters as if they were friends. The reader is first introduced to the Nasmertov family in July 1993, in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, often known as Little Odessa. Pasha Nasmertov is visiting from the real Odessa, as his mother has recently been diagnosed with cancer. His family’s apartment, food, dialect, and overall way of life are emblematic of the larger Russian diaspora experience.
Pasha is a poet of reasonable renown, but also contempt in his home country, and his decision to stay there is a strong point of contention during his visit to the States. He ventures into Manhattan to see a childhood friend and attend a party of hip young ex-patriot poets, who wouldn’t be caught dead in Brighton. When they do visit Brighton, the following summer during Pasha’s second and last visit, it Is treated mainly as a quaint or ironic curiosity. This cast of characters adds richness and humor to the story, especially as Pasha, a sickly misanthrope, attempts to relate.
We switch gears in the second half of the novel, which takes place in 2004 and follows Pasha’s sister, Marina, and her daughter, Frida, now college-aged and still living at home in Brighton. She decides, much to the chagrin of her family, to travel to Odessa for her cousin’s wedding. (Among their numerous instructions: “For the feral dog situation, we recommend peppermint spray. Most of the time, they’re harmless.”) Her stay with Pasha and his new wife, Sveta, in their tiny apartment, enables yet another voyeuristic look into an unusual lifestyle.
Akhtiorskaya is an accomplished author who can easily bring readers to laughter and tears within a few paragraphs. She uses inventive metaphors and punchy dialogue which is delightful to listen to; if you are a fan of audiobooks, Stefan Rudnicki, the reader, can help out with unwieldy names and mannerisms. This family saga, while unique culturally, is moving for anyone with complex feelings about their own next of kin.