Deacon King Kong“Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969. That’s the days the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .45 Luger in the face of a nineteen-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens, and pulled the trigger.”

Sportcoat is 71 years old and well known in the Projects. His wife, Hettie, had recently died and he spends most of his time talking to Hettie, drinking homemade liquor affectionately referred to as King Kong and doing odd jobs. Sportcoat belongs to the Five Ends Baptist Church and Hettie had been the Treasurer and responsible for keeping the Christmas Club money. When Hettie died, no one knew where she kept the money. Sportcoat is obsessed with finding the money. Almost everyone in the novel is obsessed with finding Sportcoat.

Every year the projects receive a large delivery of gourmet cheese and the residents stand in line to get a share of the cheese. No one knows where it comes from or who is responsible, but it shows up every year.

The shooting of Deems Clemens sets off a series of unique events, bringing a wide array of characters together in very unlikely ways. An honest police officer by the name of Potts, just a couple of months from retirement, is assigned to the case. Potts is big, Irish and white. He spends a lot of time at the Church and in the community, where he gets to know sister Gee. There are sparks.

Sportcoat does some work for an 89 year old Italian widow named Mrs. Elefante. Her deceased husband, Guido Elefante was a smuggler. Their son, 45 year old Thomas Elefante, nicknamed the Elephant, has carried on the business. He strikes fear into the heart of almost everyone, but is an extremely complex character. The Elephant and Sportcoat have not crossed paths.  However, when a friend of the Elephant’s father pays the Elephant a visit and asks a favor, worlds collide.

The drug dealers behind Deems and Deems want Sportcoat. They are all a tad incompetent. When their local man fails to get him, they bring in a professional hitman to take care of Sportcoat. This is where things get really interesting and I am not going to tell you any more of the story.

“Deacon King Kong” is a mystery and a cultural romp through 1969 New York City, covering racial equity, mobsters, religion, love and change. This novel is fun, full of characters, well written and thoughtful, with twists and turns and a moral to boot. The novel was just named the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner for fiction. Five stars. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.


From Briefs to Books was recently featured in Ohio and Kentucky Super Lawyers Magazine. To see the feature in Super Lawyers, click here.

Interior Chinatown“Interior Chinatown” is a creatively conceived story of the difficulty of being Asian in America. The story is told by Willis Wu, the adult son of Chinese immigrants.

Willis is an actor, usually playing minor roles and longing to be “Kung Fu Guy.” “Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy. You are not Kung Fu Guy.” Willis’s parents were also actors, playing minor parts throughout their lives and otherwise working at the Golden Palace. Willis’s parents live separately and are borderline destitute in old age. Willis’s older brother, Older Brother, is extremely talented and foregoes the opportunity to become an actor and instead becomes a lawyer (which, let’s face it, is really just a different type of performance).

Willis’s father was highly educated, but because he was Chinese was unable to find work in his field or to live safely outside of Chinatown. Willis’s mother was shifted from sister to sister in America and worked as a nurse’s aide. They met working in the Golden Palace restaurant. As result of discrimination against Asian Americans, Willis and his parents live in the Chinatown SRO Apartments. “Open a window in the SRO on a summer night and you can hear at least five dialects being spoken…” The SRO consists of seven floors of single room apartments with one shared bathroom on each floor, and the Golden Palace on the ground level.

At the start of the novel Willis has a role in a detective drama with two police officers labeled Black and White (for their races). Black is the extremely handsome Miles Turner and White is the attractive Sarah Green. Everything is described in terms of racial identity. “Dead Asian Guy”, “Old Asian Man”, “Black Dude Cop”—you get the idea.

Willis meets the beautiful Karen Lee, who is playing a detective in one of the detective shows. They fall in love, marry and have a child. Karen is offered her own program which will enable the family to move out of the SRO and into the suburbs. There is also a place for Willis in the program. At this point though, Willis is finding independent acting success and decides to stay in Chinatown, hoping to finally become Kung Fu Guy. The family splits up.

Willis’s acting roles bleed into his real life so that it is hard to tell where the acting ends and where his real life begins. And of course this is because Willis has a hard time identifying himself as anything other than Asian Man, simply believing that this is how the world sees him. Willis also worries that he has no right to complain about the discrimination he feels when there are so many other groups of Americans who also experience discrimination based on how they look and the color of their skin. As a result, he simply disappears into a role and feels otherwise invisible.

The book ends with a history of discrimination against the Chinese in America and Willis  on trial for the way he perceives himself and the world. Older Brother is Willis’s attorney. In closing argument, Older Brother sums it up this way: “Chinatown and indeed being Chinese is and always has been, from the very beginning, a construction, a performance of features, gestures, culture and exoticism. To watch the mainstream, find out what kind of fiction they are telling themselves, find a bit part in it. Be appealing and acceptable, be what they want to see.”

At the end, Willis understands the importance of his ex-wife and daughter and the need to live as himself and not within a role. The novel is a unique perspective on the Chinese experience in America, even daring in spots, but it is not at all subtle (and in light of current events that seems completely appropriate). Interior Chinatown won the 2020 National Book Award for fiction and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.


From Briefs to Books was recently featured in Ohio and Kentucky Super Lawyers Magazine. To see the feature in Super Lawyers, click here.

The Vanishing HalfStella and Desiree Vignes are twin sisters born and raised in Mallard, Louisiana and inseparable through childhood. Mallard is not exactly a town but more of a place with an identity. “The town had never actually been a town at all. State officials considered it a village but the United States Geological Survey referred to it only as a populated place.”

Mallard was unique, “A town that, like any other, was more idea than place…The idea arrived to Alphonse Decuir in 1848…A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes…” The town consisted of very light skinned African Americans. Stella and Desiree fell into this category, as did their mother, Agnes. Their father had been lynched and murdered when they were children.

The novel starts with Desiree returning to Mallard in 1968, after having left in 1954 at the age of 16. Stella and Desiree had run away to New Orleans and lived together until Stella disappeared and abandoned Desiree in 1956. Desiree found herself in Washington DC, married to an abusive man and with a daughter, Jude. Desiree returns to Mallard in an effort to escape her abusive marriage and because she has nowhere else to go. Jude is elementary school age at the time and an outcast in the town because of the very dark color of her skin. “They weren’t used to having a dark child amongst them and were surprised by how much it upset them.” By the time Desiree returned to Mallard it had been 13 years since she had heard from Stella.

Stella, as it happened, had “passed over” and was living in Los Angeles with her white husband, Blake Sanders, and their blond child, Kennedy. Apparently no one was aware that she was in fact, black, and she was fearful that someone would find out.

The years go by and Desiree stays in Mallard and has a relationship with a kind man named Early Jones. Jude gets a track scholarship to UCLA and goes off to California for school. During her first year she meets Reese Carter and they develop a romantic relationship which lasts throughout the novel. Reese is a transgender man, which causes some complexity in the relationship.

Jude works a number of odd jobs while in college and while working a catering job at a party in Los Angeles, she sees Stella. Jude befriends Kennedy and if you want to know what happens you need to read the book. Ultimately, Jude goes to medical school, Agnes dies, and a lot happens in between.

The story is clever and an enjoyable read. That said, I did not like it as much as I felt I was supposed to, the characters and places seemed contrived and the writing is just so so. I have read worse and I have read better! You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.


From Briefs to Books was recently featured in Ohio and Kentucky Super Lawyers Magazine. To see the feature in Super Lawyers, click here.

Leave the World Behind“Leave the World Behind” is a dystopian novel that feels all too real. Something is happening but no one seems to know what.

Clay and Amanda, average New York City dwellers, have rented a luxurious house on Long Island for a much needed vacation with their two teenage children, Archie and Rose. Amanda found the house on Airbnb, where the owner suggested that the renter “Step into our beautiful house and leave the world behind.” During the lengthy drive from Manhattan, Amanda  is thinking about work and her need to be needed, Clay is thinking about cigarettes and Rose is thinking about her friends. As they approach the house on Long Island they begin to lose cell phone reception. The house is beautiful, luxurious and has a pool and hot tub. “The photographs on the website were a promise, and it was fulfilled.”

The day after they arrive the family enjoys a hot sunny day at the beach. They make dinner upon their return, the kids go to sleep and Clay and Amanda sit together slightly drunk. Suddenly Amanda is certain she hears a noise. Then there is a knock at the door. Standing at the front door is an older black couple. They introduce themselves as G. H. (George) and Ruth Washington, the owners of the house. They explain that while they were in the city at the symphony New York experienced a blackout. They live on the 14th floor of a building on Park Avenue between 81st and 82nd and did not think they would be able to climb 14 stories, so they decided to drive out to Long Island. They were pleased to see that the power was still on and they ask to stay in the house, offering Amanda and Clay $1000 in cash. Ultimately, after a lot of hesitation on Amanda’s part, some of it racial (“This didn’t seem to her like the sort of house where black people lived”), Amanda and Clay agree. The couple had built an in-law suite in the basement and that is where they stay.

The next morning Amanda sees some headlines on her phone indicating a major blackout on the east coast. Then the phone completely stops working, as do the televisions and the Wi-Fi. Rose steps outside and sees at the edge of the property what appears to be 1000 deer. She does not tell her parents for fear that they will  not believe her.

Clay decides to drive into town and get the news about what might be happening. He drives and drives, but gets completely lost. There are no other cars about but he sees a woman walking along the road. She speaks to him in another language and is clearly terrified. He just leaves her on the road. While he is away, Amanda and Ruth get to know each other. G. H. is a wealthy fund manager. Ruth had been in admissions at Dalton school. We learn that Clay is a tenured professor of English and Media studies at City College and Amanda works in advertising.

Archie and Rose go walking in the woods, where they see another house. While they are in the woods, while Clay is driving around, while G. H. and Amanda are in the hot tub and while Ruth is in the house, there is a noise. “A noise, but that didn’t cover it…This was a noise, yes, but one so loud that it was a physical presence…Of course, they’d never heard a noise like that before. You didn’t hear such a noise; you experienced it, endured it, survived it, witnessed it.”

Everyone returns to the house. Archie is not feeling well and goes to sleep. The two adult women react to each other. Ruth resents having them in her house. Amanda “blamed them for bringing the world into this house.” Clay, Amanda and G. H. get into the hot tub and they hear splashing in the pool, where they see seven pink flamingos. No one is able to explain what pink flamingos are doing in Long Island. And then suddenly, there is another noise.

Clay, Amanda, Archie and Rose all sleep together that night. In the morning, Archie throws up and then his teeth start to fall out. G. H. and Clay leave to take him to the hospital, stopping first at the home of an acquaintance of G. H. The acquaintance tells them that they should not be out, that everything is shut down and that they might be under attack.

The reader learns that there are airplanes that no one knows exists traveling across the continent to intercept enemies. People are dying all over the country. In the end, the status of the world, of the couples and the children are unknown. But should they have seen this coming? Should we see this coming? “…the information had always been out there waiting for them, in the gradual death of Lebanon’s cedars, in the disappearance of the river dolphin, in the renaissance of cold-war hatred, in the discovery of fusion, in the capsizing vessels crowded with Africans. No one could plead ignorance that was not willful.”

The novel is frighteningly real. You can feel it happening. This novel reminds me of Nevil Shute’s novel, “On the Beach”, except slightly (and only slightly) more hopeful. I really don’t know how I feel about this well written, yet incredibly creepy book. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here. After you read this, let me know what you think. I really want to know!


From Briefs to Books was recently featured in Ohio and Kentucky Super Lawyers Magazine. To see the feature in Super Lawyers, click here.

HamnetHamnet is a story of family, loss and overwhelming grief. The story begins with an historical Note advising the reader that “Hamnet died in 1596, aged eleven. ~Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.”

The story begins at Hamnet’s home in Stratford, where his twin sister Judith has fallen extremely ill, the house is empty and Hamnet is desperately seeking help. “This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry.” His mother is at Hewlands, her prior home, working with her bees. His older sister, Susanna is with their grandmother Mary out selling gloves. His Father is in London where he works  and his grandfather, a frightening figure, slaps him for hanging around. At the beginning stages of the story we learn that the grandfather, John, is a disgraced business man who has fallen from a position of respect. The reasons for the fall are not quite clear but his business dealings are fraught. He is known to beat his children.

The first part of the book shifts, on a chapter by chapter basis, from Hamnet’s story until  his death, to the story of how his parents met. As a young man, his Father, who is never identified by name (Shakespeare of course!), is indentured to a farming family to tutor the family’s boys in Latin. The indenture is intended to pay off John’s debt to the family. One day while tutoring the boys the Father sees a young woman who strikes him. He begins to talk to her, thinking she is a servant of the household and quickly falls for her. The woman is Agnes, the daughter of the farmer who had died a number of years before. She lives on the farm with her brother, Bartholomew, stepmother, Joan and many half siblings. Her father had left her a significant dowry. Her stepmother treats her terribly.

Agnes is rumored to be “strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad.” In reality, she has the ability to see a person’s future and has an innate knowledge of plants and their healing powers. When Joan refuses the Father’s request to marry Agnes, Agnes makes the decision to become pregnant, thereby forcing the issue. “We can, she said, take matters into our own hands.” Of course Agnes and the Father marry and they move into an apartment in John and Mary’s house. At the wedding Bartholomew, who is described as very large and strong, whispers to the Father, “’Take good care of her, Latin boy, very good care, and no harm will come to you.”

Although it is Judith who is very ill, she survives and Hamnet succumbs to the plague. Agnes is inconsolable and the Father does not get back to Stratford from London before Hamnet dies. They bury their son and then the Father announces that he must get back to London, where he runs a playhouse. The second part of the novel focuses on grief and the relationship between Agnes and the Father. The description of profound grief in all its phases takes the reader deep into the family’s pain.

After Hamnet’s death, the Father’s visits to Stratford become less frequent and his correspondence also becomes less frequent. Agnes questions his faithfulness. Agnes discovers, through her stepmother, Joan, that the Father has written and is producing a play in London called Hamlet. Agnes is furious and she and Bartholomew travel to London on horseback to see the play. It is while she is watching the play that she suddenly understands her Husband’s deep grief.

There are a lot of other things going on in the novel—character studies, sixteenth century superstitions, friendships and more. However, the novel is mostly about grief. It is beautifully written and very sad. The novel won the 2020 Women’s Prize. You can reserve Hamnet at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.


From Briefs to Books was recently featured in Ohio and Kentucky Super Lawyers Magazine. To see the feature in Super Lawyers, click here.

Homeland Elegies“Homeland Elegies” is a complex, part novel, part memoir about an American Muslim’s complicated relationship with his country and his family. The novel begins with a letter from the author to his readers, explaining the intent of the novel. “I wrote Homeland Elegies in something of a fever dream after my mother passed away, and after Donald Trump’s election…I wanted to remember what it was that brought them here…fifty years ago…Above all, I wanted to remember what this half-century had been for us…Elegies, then, for homelands of various sorts, as told by the child of a generation, caught between notions of home, of success, of belonging, and most of all, of America.”

The novel begins with the author talking about his college professor, May Moroni, who significantly  influenced him  and encouraged his writing. The novel ends with him lecturing at her college many years later. But the time between…

Ayad’s parents, both physicians, were Muslim immigrants from Pakistan. His father was excited to be in America and his mother longed for home. His father was a well-regarded cardiologist, with a specialty in Brugada syndrome, a rare heart rhythm disorder. It was this specialty that brought him into contact with Donald Trump in 1993. Trump had been experiencing heart palpitations and Brugada was suspected. Trump flew Dr. Sikander Akhtar into New York and he began to run tests and provide treatment. By 1997 it was determined that Mr. Trump’s condition was not Brugada and the relationship ended, but Dr. Akhtar was a devoted supporter of Mr. Trump. Dr. Akhtar suffered constant financial reversals, initially due to his efforts to become a real estate baron and ultimately due to his addiction to gambling and alcohol.

Ayad’s mother had seen absolute horror as a child during the partition of India and Pakistan and was fearful of India and devoted to Pakistan. The relationship between mother and father is complicated. Ayad’s mother had been in love with another medical student, Latif, who was promised in marriage to Anjum. Anjum and Latif also moved to America and the two couples remained friends. Latif ultimately became disenchanted with America, its materialism and the impact America was having on his children and moved the family back to Pakistan. In Peshwar Pakistan, Latif provided medical care for the needy.    The United States government  paid for the  clinic.  However, the clinic was also used for American intelligence and provided medical care for mujahedeen fighters from across the border. Ultimately, after the Americans left Afghanistan, Larif was killed in a “raid” targeting a terrorist Muslim network.

Ayad decides to become a writer and it is a struggle at first. His aunt, Asma, a professor of literature and critical theory at University of Connecticut, warns him that it is a hard life and that he should always be respectful of his own people in his work. After a particularly shocking experience of bigotry, Ayad “would soon begin a series of works founded on my own unwillingness to pretend I was not conflicted about my country or my place in it. Paradoxically, these were the works that would lead to me finally finding my way as a writer in my American homeland…”

While putting on a play in New York, Ayad is introduced to wealthy hedge fund manager, Riaz Rind, who had read the play’s script, contributed to its production and attended the play. The two become friendly and Rind shares with Ayad his frustrations with white Americans. “In this country the white majority is basically blind to the worst in themselves. They see themselves in the image of their best, and they see us in the image of their worst.” Riaz has a foundation and invites Ayad to sit on its Board. Ayad  meets all kinds of wealthy and famous people, travels with Riaz and experiences a very wealthy side of life. As he gets to know Riaz better, Riaz tells him about his childhood. His parents came to America from Pakistan and settled in Pennsylvania. His father was thwarted from starting a mosque in Wiles-Barre and Scranton. The family was subjected to blatant discrimination in both places.

Riaz starts a new investment business. Ayad’s had inherited approximately $300,000 from his mother which he invests in Riaz’s business and Ayad becomes very wealthy. A number of municipalities, particularly in Pennsylvania, also invest and lose most of their money.

Ayad describes various other relationships, both romantic and otherwise. He experiences various incidents of blatant discrimination based solely on the color of his skin and religion. He describes his writing practices and his ability to perceive certain things before they happen. The books ends when his father moves back to Pakistan after suffering through a medical malpractice trial infused with racism. Ayad concludes that America had become a place where the accumulation of wealth had become the only purpose. When his father escapes his financial difficulties in America he seemed to find peace.

The novel is interesting, thought provoking and provides a unique perspective on the lives most of us take for granted. It is not in any way a traditional novel and it is not an easy read. You can reserve a copy of the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.


From Briefs to Books was recently featured in Ohio and Kentucky Super Lawyers Magazine. To see the feature in Super Lawyers, click here.

The Cold Millions“The Cold Millions” is a big (figuratively speaking) beautiful work of historical fiction. The story revolves around the very real 1909 organizing and fundraising campaign of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Spokane, Washington and the also very real activities of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

The story begins with the shooting death of a policeman, Alfred Waterbury, while investigating a burglary in one of the wealthy neighborhoods of Spokane. This shooting causes the somewhat (okay, more than somewhat) corrupt Spokane police department to go on a rampage against the city’s large vagrant (tramp) population. Enter brothers Ryan (Rye) and Gregory (Gig) Dolan. Rye is 16 years old and recently orphaned and Gig is 23 years old and has been living a transient life for many years when Rye tracks him down in Spokane and tells him that both parents have died. The two live in the back porch of a boarding house owned by an Italian immigrant, Mrs. Ricci, who frequently confuses them for her sons. Mrs. Ricci has a soft spot for them and offers to sell them the orchard behind her house for $250. Since both work only sporadically, that is a big mountain to climb.

Gig is madly in love with “Ursula the Great”, a beautiful performer who is best known for stepping into a cage with a cougar and walking out alive. She has had a long running performance at Spokane’s Comique Theater owned by the wealthy and dangerous Lem Brand. Although Ursula reciprocates Gig’s feelings, she is romantically connected to Brand.

One evening Gig and Rye have slept in an open ball field along with about two dozen “tramps, hobos, stiffs.” Suddenly a gang of men, “off-clock cops and mining agents, security guards and private citizens”, show up with all kinds of weapons aimed at the tramps’ heads. Rye, Gig and two other men (Jules and Early Reston) take off together and find themselves backed into a corner by three of these men. Suddenly, Early Reston steps up, grabs the club from a man’s hand and beats one of the pursuers near to death. The attackers flee.

Gig and Rye knew Jules but they did not know Early. Jules is native American and comes from tough beginnings. His story is told throughout the book. Early “was thin and pale, in a worn coat and a hat that retained little of its original form. His mustache was graying, but otherwise the man’s age was a complete mystery…” Early and Gig begin a discussion and it turns out that they have a mutual love of reading and philosophy. Gig has been reading “War and Peace” but has only been able to obtain volumes one and three of a five volume translation. “War and Peace” and Early Reston play a meaningful role throughout the story.

Gig, who drinks more than he ought, is active with the IWW, whose members are known as wobblies. The IWW is protesting the job agencies that charge workers a $1 per job referral fee knowing that the work they provide will be temporary at best. The IWW is planning a “Free Speech Day” and the town and particularly law enforcement are on edge.

Free Speech Day arrives and Gig tells Rye he cannot attend. Rye goes into town anyway and watches as wobblies step up on platforms to speak in support of the union and are brought down by the police and arrested. When Rye sees Gig beaten Rye steps onto a platform and he too is taken down and arrested. In jail, Jules, Rye and Gig are confronted by the corrupt police officer Hub Clegg. Jules is beaten nearly to death and ultimately taken to his niece Gemma’s home to either die or recuperate.

Rye is assigned a lawyer, Fred Moore, and he cannot quite believe it. “Ryan J. Dolan of Nothing, Nowhere, having neither house nor bed, nothing a person might call a possession, somehow had a lawyer.” Rye is released from jail, in part because he is a minor. He struggles, however, with Mr. Moore’s characterization of him in court as a pitiful orphan. “As his lawyer spoke, Rye felt an odd mix of emotions—pride that someone so eloquent was working on his behalf, but embarrassment too, a painful self-awareness that he was the hobo waif Mr. Moore was describing…”

After being released from jail, Rye returns to Mrs. Ricci’s house and suddenly Ursula shows. Ursula and a driver take Rye, in a fancy car, to meet with Lem Brand. When Rye arrives at the Brand mansion he cannot get over the opulence of the house and the man’s existence. Brand meets with Rye in his grand library and offers him a glass of brandy. Rye is overwhelmed. “It was too much. All of it, too much, and Rye cried at the too-muchness of it…The unfairness hit Rye not like sweet brandy but like a side ache…But now he knew…that men lived like this.” Thinking about all the poor who die just trying to scrape by, Rye wonders “…how many more? All people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in this world.” Brand wants him to spy on the goings on at the IWW, in exchange for $20 a month.

Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, an outspoken union organizer shows up in Spokane and all hell breaks loose. Rye ends up traveling with her to Idaho and Montana and at some point they pick up Early Reston along the way. Then enter Del Dalveaux, the dangerous detective hired by Lem Brand to take care of a number of the people in the story.

And if you want to know what happens from here, you need to read the book. Everything comes together at the end and yet it does not feel at all contrived.

I just loved this novel. It is wonderfully written, has a touch of history, has twists and turns and surprises and is just a joy to read. The novel also addresses those tough issues of wealth inequality, corruption, power and women’s rights. The story has surprising moments of kindness in spots where you might not expect. Be sure to read the acknowledgements at the end of the book. This is definitely a book that should be on your must read list and it can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Monogamy“Monogamy” is an exploration of marriage, family and friendship. Sometimes the people in those relationships are happy and sometimes, apparently most of the time, they are misunderstood and unknowable.

Annie has been divorced for about seven years when she meets Graham at the opening of his bookstore. Graham too is divorced, from Frieda, with whom he has a son, Lucas. Annie is petite and attractive while Graham is a big man with an apparent hunger for life and all it offers. As the two of them begin a life together, “she felt overwhelmed sometimes—by Graham’s size, by his energy, his appetite for people, for music, for food.” Annie is concerned she will lose herself in her life with him.

Annie is a photographer and had some success with shows of her work. Her second successful show had been a series of photographs taken of her mother over the years that recorded shifts in her face and carriage as she descended into Alzheimer’s disease. The public display of the photographs created a rift with her siblings. As a result, and in order to take care of her daughter, Sarah, she pulls back from her career. Sarah is described as a large, awkward and miserable child.

Graham’s marriage with Frieda had ended due to his many infidelities. However, they remain close friends and Annie and Frieda also become close friends. Lucas spends a lot of time with Annie and Graham and Sarah spends time with Frieda. They are in many ways (but certainly not all ways) a combined family. A portion of the book describes Sarah and Lucas as adults (both likeable and successful).

Graham and Annie’s next door neighbor, Karen is a single elderly woman with dementia. She moves in and out of the story. There are a variety of other people who move in and out of the story, but with a couple of exceptions, none of them are notable or memorable.

At the age of 65, and unexpectedly, Graham dies in his sleep.  At a celebration of Graham’s life, Annie discovers that Graham has been unfaithful to her and that Frieda knew about his infidelity. This portion of the book is dedicated to her anger.

We are given glimpses into the lives of Sarah and Lucas and a glimpse into Frieda’s life. The book focuses on marriage, infidelity, grief, anger and relationships, and the difference between how we view the lives of others and their actual lives.

The book is well written but I found it dull, unpleasant and trite. The author is well regarded but if you have a stack of books at home awaiting your attention I would not add this to that! That said, if you find that doing the opposite of what is suggested is your raison d’etre, you can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Jack“Jack” is a love story…sort of. The time is uncertain, post-World War II, and Jack is living in St. Louis, recently released from prison. He meets Della, and they fall in love.

Jack has just been released from prison and is wearing a dark suit. He is walking around St. Louis on a rainy, windy day and steals the umbrella from a man asleep on a park bench. He sees a woman drop her papers and books and he helps her retrieve them. The woman, Della, assumes he is a reverend and she invites him to tea. They have a lively conversation, both of them passionate about literature, poetry and theology. Della shows him a book of poetry signed by Paul Dunbar that had belonged to her grandmother. Jack steals it.

Jack cannot stop thinking about Della. He invites her to dinner and then abandons her at the restaurant. They unintentionally reconnect at night in a cemetery, where they are both locked in. Sounds like a simple, if not quirky, love story. But there are complications.

The first complication is that Della is black, Jack is white and their relationship is illegal. The second complication is that Della is a teacher in a black high school where improper behavior will cause her to lose her job. Another complication is that Jack is something of a grifter and a thief, with very few prospects. And finally, Della’s family is less than thrilled about the relationship.

Della’s father is a highly regarded Bishop in the Methodist Church in Memphis. Jack’s father is a highly regarded Presbyterian minister in Gilead, Iowa. Most of the book addresses the racial issues of the times, the impact of religion and family on both of them and Jack’s introspection about his nature, his family and this relationship.

We learn that as a child, Jack was constantly in trouble, and had a child out of wedlock, for whom he took no responsibility. Jack enrolled in college and allowed his brother Teddy to take his classes. Jack left his hometown to give his family some distance and moved to St. Louis. His brother Teddy periodically travels to St. Louis and leaves money for Jack at his rooming house.

Throughout the book Jack makes efforts to improve himself. He gets a steady job (albeit teaching dance) and tries to stay sober. He begins to attend a black Baptist church and develops a relationship with the Pastor Samuel Hutchins. Their conversations are fascinating and soul searching. He tells the pastor that “’Forgiveness scares me. It seems like a kind of antidote to regret, and there are things I haven’t regretted sufficiently.’”

He has boundless intellectual curiosity and spends a great deal of time at the library, where the librarian always has a sandwich for him. Of course he steals library books, always with the intent to return them.

Jack is constantly pondering his impulses to steal and his desire, and yet inability, to do no harm. He knows that his love for Della is the antithesis of do no harm but he is unable to walk away from her. And she does not want him to. “If he were an honorable man, he’d have left her alone.”

Della’s family learns of the relationship and throughout the book various members of Della’s family arrive in St. Louis to try to talk sense into Della and to specifically ask Jack to stay away from her. Nothing works. The novel ends with her abandoning her family for him and a very uncertain future.

“Jack” is deeply introspective, thoughtful and thought provoking. It addresses serious philosophical issues of character, race, religion, family, literature and human nature. The depth of discussion is impossible to capture in a review but the novel is a very worthwhile read, particularly if you enjoy being piqued about the grander nature of things. You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Night Watchman“The Night Watchman” is a snapshot of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa during a very eventful time in 1953-1954. As best explained by the author, “On August 1, 1953, the United States Congress announced House Concurrent Resolution 108, a bill to abrogate nation-to-nation treaties, which had been made with American Indian Nations ‘for as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow'”. This effort attempted to terminate five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

The author’s grandfather was the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa during this time and worked as a night watchman. The novel is in part a fictionalized story of his experiences, but also the story of the native American experience as described through the lives of a variety of other characters.

The story: Thomas Wazhashk is the Chippewa tribal chairman and works as a night watchman at the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant, which manufactures jewel bearings. Thomas, a father of five, is working hard to respond to the US Congress effort to terminate the Chippewa tribe and has little time to sleep.

Patrice Paranteau lives in abject poverty with her mother, Zhaanat and her brother, Pokey. Patrice, who is known as Pixie and is desperately trying to shake that nickname, works at the jewel bearing plant, along with her friends Valentine and Doris. Patrice’s father is a violent, abusive drunk who moves in and out of their lives. Patrice’s sister, Vera, has left the reservation and moved to Minneapolis with her boyfriend. “Vera had applied to the Placement and Relocation Office and gone to Minneapolis…They got some money to set up a place to live, and training for a job. Many people came back within a year. Some, you never heard from again.” The family has not heard from Vera for five months and they are desperately seeking to make contact with her. Zhaanat’s family performs a ceremony where they scan Minneapolis and are able to determine that Vera is in trouble and has a child.

Lloyd Barnes is a white mathematics teacher and coaches boxing. Wood Mountain is the Chippewa’s best boxer. There are a couple of bouts throughout the book. Barnes is infatuated with Patrice. Wood Mountain is infatuated with Patrice. She seems to have no interest in either.

Patrice decides to take time off of work and go to Minneapolis to find her sister. She takes the train and finds herself traveling with Wood Mountain, who is on his way to Fargo for a fight. He asks Patrice about her plans and it becomes clear she has absolutely no plan for what to do when she arrives in Minneapolis. He gives her some tips. When she arrives in Minneapolis she is immediately swept up by some shady characters and learns more than she would like to know about the use of native American women in the sex and drug trades. Wood Mountain’s fight is cancelled and he decides to go to Minneapolis to ensure Patrice’s safety. They leave Minneapolis together, unable to locate Vera, but they return to Turtle Mountain with Vera’s baby.

In the meantime, Thomas is writing letters, reading the Congressional resolution and mobilizing support to fight the effort to terminate the tribe. Thomas is exhausted and frequently, while at his job as a night watchman, he is visited by the ghost of his old friend Roderick. Thomas is unsure what these visits are supposed to mean.

A hearing on the Resolution is upcoming and Thomas and other members of the Advisory Committee are scheduled to testify in Washington DC. They raise the money for the trip, in part, through a boxing match between Wood Mountain and a well-known Caucasian fighter. It turns out to be the last fight for both of them.

Patrice, Thomas and others travel to Washington DC to testify. On their first day in Washington DC, they go to visit the halls of Congress, where Patrice witnesses a shooting. “She realized that here in Washington she’d seen people shot, a thing she’d never seen before, even on the reservation, a place considered savage by the rest of the country.” Ultimately the Resolution is not passed and the trip is successful. The effort and exhaustion is almost the end for Thomas.

There are a lot of other characters and a number of other story lines in the novel. For instance, two Mormon missionaries spend time with the tribe and give Thomas a copy of the Book of Mormon, which he attempts to read. Patrice’s friend Betty, who also works at the plant, has her tonsils removed and brings them to work in a jar for all to see. The story is told with humor and passion, is extremely well written and compelling. Although many of the families live in extreme poverty, many without electricity or plumbing, the novel makes it clear that community and family come first, and everything else is second, a lesson we could all appreciate. You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.