Violeta“I was born in 1920, during the influenza pandemic, and I’m going to die in 2020, during the outbreak of coronavirus…I’ve lived a century and I have a good memory…I’ve witnessed many events. I’ve amassed a lot of experience, but either because I was too distracted or too busy, I haven’t acquired much wisdom. If reincarnation is real, I’ll have to return to earth to make up for what I’m lacking. It’s a terrifying prospect.”

“Violeta” is the story of the life of Violeta Del Valle during a century of great change. Violeta is telling the story in the form of a letter to Camilo, whom she “loves more than anyone in the world.”

Violeta is born into a family of wealth and prestige in a country in South America. Her father, Arsenio, amassed many business enterprises, unfortunately built on a foundation of debt and tax evasion. Violeta has five brothers, although four of them are not a part of the family story. Violeta’s oldest brother, Jose Antonio, 17 years older than Violeta, worked with their father in the family business.

Violeta, pampered and spoiled as a child, rapidly becomes uncontrollable. As a result, her father decides to hire an English Governess. Enter Josephine Taylor, referred to as Miss Taylor throughout the book. Miss Taylor is not at all what the family expected. She is young, thin, attractive and perhaps not exactly British. Violeta and the family come to adore her and she has a very positive impact on Violeta’s disposition and education. Jose Antonio falls in love with her and there follows numerous rejected proposals. Miss Taylor meets Teresa Rives, an outspoken feminist, who changes the lives of Miss Taylor and the Del Valle family in indelible ways.

The country goes into a deep depression along with the rest of the world and Arsenio’s house of cards begins to crumble. At the age of 11, Violeta finds her father in his office with a self-inflicted bullet to the head. The family is financially ruined and find themselves with nowhere to turn. Teresa Rives arranges for them to move to the country and live with her parents, Lucinda and Abel, retired teachers. The Del Valle family (mother, two aunts, brother and Torito) refer to this as “exile”, but learn to love the life and the Rives family. Lucinda and Abel travel across the area and provide teaching to children living in poverty with no access to education. When Violeta gets older, they take her with them to help.

Close to the Rives farm (called Santa Clara) is a community of German immigrants. Fabian Schmidt-Engler is the youngest son in a family of German immigrants. His father owns dairy farms and his mother and sisters run a hotel on the lake in an area popular with tourists. Fabian immediately falls for Violeta and after putting him off for many years she agrees to marry him. Fabian is a veterinarian and is kind but dull. Violeta immediately tires of him and then meets a man named Julian Bravo, a pilot as well as a man of many talents. They begin a passionate love affair, but Fabian refuses to annul their marriage. Violeta and Fabian have two children together, Juan Martin and Nieves. Juan Martin is a bookish unathletic child, a perpetual disappointment to his macho father. Nieves is a beautiful rebellious young girl and is spoiled rotten by her father.

Juan Martin goes on to study journalism and becomes the student body president and an outspoken critic of the opposition party. Nieves becomes a drug addicted disaster.

Julian Bravo moves in with Violeta but continues to have many women. He travels broadly, moving people and weapons on his various airplanes. Violeta goes into business with her brother building prefabricated homes and she becomes very wealthy. A lot happens in the book. The country goes through a violent coup and Juan Martin has to escape. Julian moves to Miami where he is working variously for the CIA, the mafia and other unsavory organizations. Violeta has many romances and changes in many ways throughout her 100 year existence. Through the unfolding of her story we learn the identity of Camilo and Camilo’s role in her life.

The story is wonderful, told with Isabel Allende’s usual sense of humor and insight. I highly recommend this novel. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Lincoln Highway“The Lincoln Highway” is the story of a cast of characters who find themselves out on the road with intertwined stories. The story begins with 18 year old Emmett Watson. Emmett has just been released early from Salina, a workhouse for young men, where he had been sentenced to 18 months for killing Jimmy Snyder. He is released early and the warden drives him to his home in Nebraska, where he finds his neighbor, Mr. Ransom and the local banker waiting on him. The banker is there to foreclose on his home and Mr. Ransom is there, apparently, for moral support. Emmett’s father was a hard luck farmer who died while Emmett was at Salina. Emmett’s 8 year old brother, Billy, had been staying with the Ransom family. After Emmett ends business with the banker, Sally Ransom brings Billy home.

Billy is a very unusual youngster. When Emmett tells him they must leave Nebraska and head to Texas, Billy insists that they must go to California. Billy has determined that their mother, who left eight years earlier, is in San Francisco. He has reached this conclusion on the basis of a series of postcards she sent immediately after she left. The postcards reflect her travel down the Lincoln Highway until she reached San Francisco.

Billy carries a US army backpack where he holds everything of importance, including a valuable collection of silver dollars and his beloved book, Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers. Emmett has a blue Studebaker which they will drive to leave Nebraska. Emmett looks in the trunk and sees that his father had hidden an envelope containing about one hundred fifty twenty dollar bills. Enough for them to start over.

As Billy and Emmett are getting reacquainted, Emmett looks up to find Duchess and Woolly standing in the door. The two had been his friends at Salina and had escaped in the trunk of the warden’s car. Emmett is happy to see them but not too happy that they have escaped before the end of their sentences. He tells them they need to go back but the two have other ideas. Woolly comes from a very wealthy background and they have decided they are going to travel to the family vacation home in the Adirondacks and take $150,000 out of the safe there. They intend the money to be split among the three of them. Emmett wants no part of this and tells them he is going to drive them to the greyhound station in Omaha.

On the drive to Omaha, the group takes a number of diversions, the first of which is to go onto the Lincoln Highway. Then Duchess asks that they stop in Lewis, Nebraska at an orphanage where he had lived (a previously unknown aspect of his life). Duchess disappears into the building and when he does not reappear after a period of time Emmett goes looking for him. When Emmett returns outside the Studebaker (and the money), Woolly and Duchess are gone. Billy is waiting for Emmett.

Woolly and Duchess have taken the car to Manhattan. Emmett decides that he and Billy have no choice but to follow them. Since they now have no money, they ride on a freighter train. Thus ensues a great adventure involving corrupt pastors, friendly hobos, the big role of Billy’s book, kind hearted prostitutes, Woolly’s amazing sister, Sally Ransom and Woolly’s wealth.

I know I should have liked this book. I liked the author’s previous two books, but this one not so much. The characters were unrealistic and contrived, the women seemed to be a peripheral male dominated afterthought and the ending was simply implausible and inconsistent with the prior 500 plus page buildup. The author actually summed up the way I felt about this book in a quote from one of the few women he thought to toss in: “From a man’s point of view, the one thing that’s needful is that you sit at his feet and listen to what he has to say, no matter how long it takes for him to say it, or how often he’s said it before.” That, in my opinion, sums up The Lincoln Highway. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Sentence“In love as in death and mayhem, small things start a chain of events which veer so out of control that sooner or later an absurd detail intrudes, bringing the trail of events back for us to ponder.” The Sentence is an amazing story of big and small events which give us a lot to ponder.

The narrator is a Native American woman named Tookie. Tookie is thinking back on the 60 year prison sentence she received for transporting a dead body from Wisconsin to Minnesota  in a stolen refrigerator truck in 2005. Why, you might ask, would she do such a thing? Well, her best friend Danae was in love with the dead man and he died at the home he shared with his wife, Mara. Danae claimed to be distraught and need the body. So Tookie, madly in love with her friend, stole a refrigerated truck, pretended to be a funeral director of sorts and brought the body across state lines to Danae. In exchange, she received $27,000. One big problem—unknown to Tookie– the body hid many bags of crack cocaine.

After moving the body, Tookie went to a favorite tavern for a meal where she was arrested by a tribal policeman named Pollux. “My nemesis. My alternate crush.”

While in prison, Tookie’s former teacher, Jackie, sent her a dictionary and other books. The books were a lifeline for Tookie. She was able to survive because “I discovered that unknown to myself I had a library in my head.” After about nine years into her sentence, she was released. The real story had finally come to the surface.

Tookie gets a job at the bookstore where Jackie works in Minneapolis, which just happens to be owned by a famous Native American writer named Louise. One day while she is shopping, she runs into Pollux. They marry and begin a life together, although the arrest is ever present.

The bookstore has many customers, but one in particular, Flora, is a key part of the story. Flora, who is not Native American, is convinced that she has Native American roots. “Flora told people that she had been an Indian in a former life… Later, once she absorbed the fact that ‘Indian in a Former Life’ was a much ridiculed cliché, she changed her tune. She suddenly discovered a shadowy great grandmother and showed me the photograph of a grim woman in a shawl.” Flora died on the second of November. “Five days after Flora died, she was still coming back to the book store.” Flora the ghost particularly haunts Tookie. Unfortunately, Pollux is not sympathetic as he refuses to believe in ghosts.

Flora died reading a book. Her adopted daughter, Kateri, gives the book to Tookie. The title page of the book reads: “The Sentence—An Indian Captivity 1862-1883.” The book is disturbing and Tookie is convinced that it killed Flora and is the reason Flora is haunting her. She tries to burn the book but it will not burn so she buries it in her back yard.

Pollux’s niece, Hetta, comes to live with them with a newborn infant. Pollux is treated as Hetta’s father and Tookie, ultimately her mother. Tookie and Hetta have a tense relationship but circumstances and the infant bring all three of them close together.

The story continues through the start of the pandemic and the closing of the store. Although the store is closed, it is deemed essential and book orders continue to flow. Each employee is assigned a day and time to work alone, but when Tookie works, Flora torments her. Then George Floyd is murdered and Minneapolis erupts. Hetta takes to the streets and Pollux and Tookie worry for her safety. Everyone at the book store is involved in the outcry for justice. When Pollux gets COVID and lands in the hospital fighting for his life, Tookie is overwhelmed.

Throughout the novel there are books everywhere. Tookie is constantly making recommendations to customers and at the end of the novel there is a list of her recommendations. There is also the mystery of Tookie’s real name which is deftly tied into the story.

This novel has everything. It is an amazing story taking place in our current world with real issues, it has ghosts and history and is also a mystery. And for readers, well, it has a book store and book recommendations and book lovers everywhere. This is a great novel. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

These Precious Days“These Precious Days” is a compilation of 23 essays, an introduction and an epilogue, describing Ann Patchett’s life, relationships and experiences.

In the introduction Ann Patchett explains that she fears death the most when she is writing a novel. She is afraid something will happen to her before she is done creating the world she envisions in the novel. But during the pandemic, she kept writing essays and decided to put them together. “Again and again, I was asking what mattered most in this precarious and precious life…Death always thinks of us eventually. The trick is to find the joy in the interim, and make good use of the days we have.” And thus, one of the themes of the compilation.

The essays are all well done and thoughtful, covering her family, her friends, her decision to stop shopping (“If you stop thinking about what you might want, it’s a whole lot easier to see what people don’t have.”), her decluttering and a variety of other topics. There were three essays that particularly struck me.

The first is entitled “Three Fathers.” The essay begins with a picture of Ann with her three fathers (in other words her mother married three times, divorced twice). The picture was taken at Ann’s sister’s wedding, where father number two (Mike), commented to the others that: “‘You know what she’s doing, don’t you? She’s going to wait until the three of us are dead and then she’s going to write about us. This is the picture that will run with the piece.’” “He was right. That was exactly what I meant to do. That is exactly what I’m doing now.”

Ann’s biological father was a policeman and lived in Los Angeles. Ann was close to him but he did not approve of her decision to make a living as a writer. He wanted her to be a dental hygienist. “Without ever meaning to, my father taught me at a very early age to give up on the idea of approval.”

Ann’s mother divorced her father and moved to Nashville with Mike, a divorced father of four. Mike, a doctor, wanted to be a writer. And apparently he was not really so good at it! And finally, when Ann was 27 years old, her mother married her last husband, Darrell. Ann had a good relationship with all three.

The second essay that stuck with me is “A Talk to the Association of Graduate School Deans in the Humanities.” This is a speech she gave where she describes her graduate school experience and her love of reading. Ann Patchett went to the Iowa Writers Workshop which she did not describe as the greatest experience. “…one semester the very old and extremely unwell visiting professor regularly conducted his workshop in French. I don’t speak French.” But no matter what the experience, she has always loved books. She describes an encounter she had with a young man in the airport who was a Hare Krishna. He described his love of G-d as being “willing to stand in an airport day after day to tell people what it was like—to love G-d.” Ann explains that this is how she feels about books. “I would stand in an airport to tell people about how much I love books, reading them, writing them, making sure other people felt comfortable reading and writing them.” She describes her love of books and reading in a way that all of us who love books and reading can feel deep down in our souls.

The third essay is the title essay. This essay starts with her serendipitously reading a book of short stories written by Tom Hanks, then meeting Tom Hanks and becoming close friends with his assistant, Sookie. Sookie and Ann start an email relationship and when Ann learns that Sookie has pancreatic cancer, Ann arranges for her to come to Nashville for a trial taking place at her husband’s hospital (Ann’s husband is a doctor). Ann and Sookie had never spoken on the phone before the invitation. The essay describes their growing friendship and Sookie’s medical, physical and spiritual changes. The essay is extremely moving. It is impossible not to get wrapped up in their relationship.

I am a huge Ann Patchett fan. The set of essays took me through every emotion—annoyance (why is she writing only about herself?), laughter, understanding, and tears. It was written in that typical Ann Patchett style, with dry humor and deceptively simple lightness that does not quite hide the depth of her subjects. Ann Patchett tells you the meaning of life without burdening you with the weight of what she is saying.  I loved the book but at the end, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. Because it ended. Because ultimately, it ends.

You can reserve “These Precious Days” at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Harlem Shuffle“Harlem Shuffle” is an atmospheric story about the thin line between criminality and honesty, the complexities of class and family and  survival. The story takes place between 1959 and 1964 and is a family saga, mystery and story of intrigue. The novel takes on big issues, tells a complex story and is impeccably written.

Ray Carney owns a retail establishment selling furniture on 125th street. At the beginning of the novel he is visiting Mr. Aronowitz, on radio row, who repairs radios and televisions—and never asks Ray about how he came to own the items. This is the part of the book that begins with “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”

Ray is aware of the risks and vagaries of illegal activity. He was raised by his father, big Mike Carney, after his mother died. His father’s business was almost exclusively illicit, although at times he did work as a mechanic. His father was unreliable so Ray spent a lot of his childhood with his aunt, Millie, and his cousin, Freddie. Freddie and Ray grew up as brothers. Ray went off to college and made efforts to avoid being like his father. “The way he saw it, living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live. You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.”

Ray is married to Elizabeth, they have a daughter May and a child on the way. Elizabeth comes from a well to do family and her parents, Alma and Leland Jones, do not approve of Ray. Alma and Leland live in the desirable Striver’s Row, “one of the most beautiful stretches in Harlem.” Ray and Elizabeth live in a tiny apartment with views into an air shaft. Ray is constantly looking for ways to move into a more desirable location.

Ray’s illicit activities are usually limited to the occasional sale of mysteriously obtained televisions and radios and the occasional movement of jewelry. Much of his activity comes as the result of Freddie dragging him into the activity, whether he wants to or not. But when Freddie tells him that he and some others plan to rob the Hotel Theresa, the “Waldorf of Harlem”, Ray pushes back. “Robbing the Hotel Theresa was like taking a piss on the Statue of Liberty.” After the robbery takes place, Ray finds himself pulled more and more into the criminal world of his father, including an unexpected relationship with Pepper, a cohort of his father. Add to all of this Freddie’s unusual relationship with Linus Van Wyck, the drug addicted son of Ambrose Van Wyck, and Ray finds himself dragged into worlds he never imagined.

Leland Jones, Elizabeth’s father, is a member of Harlem’s exclusive Dumas Club. The Dumas Club members consist of Harlem’s elite—doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and politicians. “The Dumas was a paper bag club…Carney was too dark for admittance.”

Ray has a friend, Terrance Payne, who is a member of the Dumas Club and suggests that he will sponsor Ray for entry. Ray gives the idea some thought and decides to apply. He attends the mixer for potential new members. “It was a Striver’s Row crowd, no doubt, and Carney the only representative from ‘round Crooked Way.” Wilfred Duke, a banker in the process of starting a new savings institution in Harlem, is also head of the club. He introduces himself to Ray and suggests that a $500 bribe might move him to the top of consideration for admittance. Ray pays the bribe but does not get into the club. Thus begins the story of revenge.

Freddie’s criminal activities and Ray’s business of revenge find Ray living  in two different worlds– his world of legal retail and a whole new and frightening criminal  world. He divides his days into two sleeping periods and spends the  waking hours between the sleeping hours split between legal and illicit activities. He refers to the waking hours allotted to the illegal activities as Dorvay. Even the legal activities are filled with corruption requiring payoffs to the police, and payoffs to the criminal world for protection. The illegal activities take Ray to places he never knew existed, including drug dens, prostitution rings and gambling enterprises.   And thanks to the rich language in the novel, we get to travel to these places with Ray and  experience exactly what he experiences.

In case you can’t tell, I really enjoyed this novel. It is wonderfully written and vivid, and describes an era and a place that most of us have not experienced. I did not want the novel to end, but alas, of course it did. This is one of the best of 2021 so far. You can reserve Harlem Shuffle at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

IntimaciesIntimacies is a story about interpersonal connections–deep rooted and shallow–and how they grow and die.

The narrator and main character has relocated from New York City to The Hague, where she works as an interpreter at the international court (the Court). Her father has recently died and her mother has moved to Singapore. The novel describes her relationships with, and observations of, her friends, coworkers, acquaintances, lover and the accused criminals for whom she must interpret.

The interpreter’s first and closest friend in The Hague is Janna. Janna is divorced and in her forties, and is the curator of the Mauritshuis, an art gallery in The Hague. “Janna had grown up in Belgrade with a Serbian mother and Ethiopian father…” The friends usually go out to dinner but Janna has invited the unnamed interpreter to her apartment for dinner. Janna has purchased the apartment in a transitioning neighborhood where there is quite a bit of crime. The narrator perceives Janna in many different ways while she is visiting her apartment. Initially, she is envious of the manner in which Janna has been able to inhabit her space with such ease. When sirens in the neighborhood drown out their conversation, Janna displays unease and “the remainder of the evening passed under a cloud of preoccupation…”  Their relationship is ever shifting.

The narrator is romantically involved with the very handsome Adriaan. Adriaan is married to Gaby and they have two children. Gaby has left Adriaan and is living with another man and the two children in Lisbon. Early in the relationship, the Adriaan and the interpreter  had gone to a party and the interpreter had met a man named Kees, who told her about Adriaan’s marital situation. Kees was leering at the interpreter and she finds him obnoxious. She soon learns that he is a well-regarded defense lawyer and encounters him again in a case. “The appearance of simplicity is not the same thing as simplicity itself.”

Janna invites the interpreter and Adriaan to dinner and it will be the first time they have met. The interpreter is late for dinner and Adriaan and Janna have had the time to get to know one another outside her presence. “I saw that some intimacy had been established between them.” The situation makes her uncomfortable and the relationship between Janna and the interpreter continues to shift. Janna tells them about a man who was mugged in front of her building and hospitalized due to his injuries. The interpreter is struck by the story.

The interpreter’s job is challenging. “…it was our job not only to interpret the words the subject was speaking, but also to express or indicate the demeanor, the nuance and intention behind their words.”

The interpreter is contacted by her supervisor and asked to take on a unique task. A well know “jihadist who stood accused of four counts of crimes against humanity and five counts of war crimes” was being extradited to The Hague. The narrator is asked to interpret for him while he is in detention. The experience is intense and the responsibility continues throughout his trial. The defendant attempts to pull her into his emotional orbit and she is continually battling the temptation.

The interpreter attends an exhibit opening at Janna’s gallery and meets Janna’s friend, Eline. The two have an immediate connection and Eline invites her to her home for dinner, where the interpreter meets Eline’s twin brother, Anton. Anton is the man who was mugged in front of Janna’s building. “…the shadow of loneliness had crept upon me as I watched Eline and her brother…they shared an air of intimate collusion, of things implied and understood.”

Adriaan tells the interpreter that he is going to Lisbon for a week to ask Gaby for a divorce and he asks her to move into his apartment while he is gone. She is elated and feels a level of closeness to him that gives her hope for the future. A month later he has not returned. Her world shifts again. “I had felt the shape and meaning of his absence begin to change.”

Each relationship results in a constant shifting of feelings, perceptions and intimacies. The novel is short, intense, thought provoking, well written  and ends with hope. I highly recommend this novel and you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Klara and the SunKlara and The Sun is about the interactions between artificial intelligence and human beings and the impact of those interactions on human relationships.

Klara is a high functioning AF (Artificial Friend) created to befriend a child who selects her. The novel starts with Klara living in a store with other AFs, waiting to be selected. Klara and Rosa are close AF friends, although they are very different. Klara is very observational, taking note of and considering everything she sees. She has a special relationship with the store manager, who tells Klara, “you are quite remarkable…You notice and absorb so much.”

One day, a young girl speaks to her through the store window, where Klara and Rosa have been strategically placed and where they can easily absorb the sun (their nourishment). The girl, Josie, is pale and thin and has difficulty walking. Josie talks to Klara for a while through the window but has to leave. She promises to return. Josie does not return again for 3 and a half days, but still she leaves without taking Klara with her. A bit later, another young girl comes in and wants Klara. Klara, who is waiting for Josie to come back, dissuades her. The manager is not pleased, noting that “It’s for the customer to choose the AF, never the other way round.” Finally Josie and her mother return and Klara goes home with them.

Klara learns the household routine quickly and is accepted by Josie’s mother, Chrissie, although the housekeeper is not too pleased about Klara’s arrival. Josie and Klara are close and Josie tells Klara about her boyfriend Rick. Rick is a neighbor and Josie and Rick have grown up together. They care deeply about each other but Rick has not been “lifted” and his future is bleak as a result. Rick’s mother, Alice, is also a force to be dealt with throughout the novel. Klara  learns that Josie had a sister who had died, which haunts Chrissie.

Josie is in poor health and Chrissie is having a difficult time dealing with the illness. She treats Klara peculiarly at times, which we learn is connected to Josie’s health issues. As Klara ponders Chrissie’s peculiar behavior, she observes “what was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom.” As Josie’s health deteriorates, the story becomes more peculiar. Chrissie arranges for Josie to have her portrait drawn and Josie’s father, Paul, enters the picture. He and Chrissie argue vehemently over the portrait and Paul does not like or trust the artist.

When it appears that Josie will die, Klara is convinced that the sun can cure her. She brings Rick and Paul into the project to cure Josie, although neither of them understand what Klara intends to do.

Much of the story is about the differences between humans and science and whether there is something in humans that distinguishes them from machines, that is unreachable, unique and nontransferable. Or alternatively, whether everything about us can simply be artificially recreated. You will need to read the book to understand the conclusion.

The novel is enjoyable but not the best novel I have read that addresses this particular issue (Try “Machines Like Me”–Ian McEwan). You can reserve Klara and The Sun at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Berlin Boxing ClubI am very fortunate that people I know recommend books to me and as a result, I read all sorts of different genres. My law partner and friend, Danny Gottesman, recommended The Berlin Boxing Club, a book I would not have read without the recommendation. This work of historical fiction was published in 2011 and is considered teenage literature, but as Danny pointed out, and as is frequently the case with young adult literature, the novel works on many levels.

The story begins in 1934 in Berlin as Hitler is on the rise. Karl Stern, a secular Jew who does not consider himself Jewish and who does not look Jewish, is in high school. In the first chapter, entitled “How I became Jewish”, Karl is tracked down in the stairwell by three Hitler youth (the Wolf Pack) and badly beaten. “I stood in the stairwell wondering how the Wolf Pack had found out about my background.” And just like that, Karl, who never considered himself Jewish, realizes that indeed he is.

That evening Karl must attend his father’s art gallery exhibit. Business had been falling off for his father and the family is hopeful for some sales. The famous boxer, Max Schmeling, is friendly with Karl’s father and attends the exhibit. Schmeling purchases a painting and wants a second painting which is a portrait of Schmeling. Noticing that Karl has been beaten he offers free boxing lessons in exchange for the portrait. Although the family is in desperate need of cash, the exchange is made.

Schmeling gives Karl some strengthening suggestions and then goes on a worldwide boxing tour. Karl does not hear from Schmeling for quite some time. In the meantime, Karl is working out every day, shoveling coal into the furnace of the basement of his apartment building and sketching cartoons. Karl begins a relationship with Greta, who lives in his building and is Catholic. The custodian of the building catches them in an embrace.

The situation at school and around the country is getting worse. Karl’s father is having difficulty selling art and is conducting clandestine activities on the side. Karl helps with deliveries and meets the “Countess”, a transsexual whose activities are also outlawed in Nazi Germany.

About six months after the art exhibition, Schmeling shows up and invites Karl to train at the Berlin Boxing Club. Karl goes to the club and begins training with adult boxers. The club is run by a man known as Worjyk and Karl is befriended by a man named Neblig, who speaks with a stutter and provides maintenance to the club. Nobody at the Berlin Boxing Club knows that Karl is Jewish and over time, Karl becomes an excellent fighter.

Unfortunately, the conditions in Germany continue to deteriorate. Karl is expelled from his school for being Jewish and the family (including younger sister Hildy) are evicted from their apartment due to Karl’s relationship with an Aryan. The family takes up residence in the gallery as they are unable to rent anywhere else. The Nazis begin rioting and beating Jews.

Schmeling, who has defeated Joe Louis in America, is considered a national hero and is frequently seen with high ranking officials of the Nazi party, including Hitler. Ultimately, Schmeling loses to Joe Louis and his status in Germany is diminished.

Karl enters the youth boxing championship and is assigned to box one of the boys from the Wolf Pack. Karl is in the process of handily defeating his opponent when someone tells the referee that Karl is Jewish. Karl is immediately disqualified and prohibited from fighting in the tournament. He does not return to the Berlin Boxing Club.

The Nazis raid the Gallery and Karl’s father is hurt. He is taken to a hospital and both of Karl’s parents a disappear. Karl goes to the Countess for help, and she takes him and Hildy into her apartment. Karl has written Schmeling numerous letters requesting assistance and Schmeling does not respond. Ultimately, Karl shows up at Schmeling’s hotel apartment and Schmeling agrees to help. Karl and Hildy move in with him. They are able to locate Karl’s mother and Schmeling finances Karl and Hildy’s transport to America. Their mother chooses to stay behind to search for their father.

There is a lot going on in this book. Karl wonders, right along with the reader, whether Schmeling would have assisted if Karl had not so aggressively sought his aid. Schmeling tries to explain the complexity of his situation and why he has been seen with high ranking Nazis.

The novel is written in a deceptively straight forward style, emphasizing how a life can change in a moment. The rise of hatred and the ease with which seemingly normal citizens accept, participate in or simply ignore the hatred is chilling. The story is a gut punch. And Danny was correct, the novel works on many different levels.

The novel can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Shuggie Bain“Shuggie Bain” is the story of a dysfunctional family, living outside Glasgow, rocked by alcoholism, violence and neglect. Shuggie is the youngest member of the family and the story revolves around his life and experiences.

The novel starts in 1992 with 16 year old Shuggie working a difficult job in a supermarket and living by himself in a boarding house. “The bedsit was taller than it was long, and his single bed stuck out into the middle like a divider.” Shuggie has his mother’s porcelain figurines and thinks about her regularly.

The story then flashes back to explain how a sixteen year old boy ends up living on his own. In 1981, five year old Shuggie (Hugh) is living with his mother, Agnes, his father, Shug, his half-sister Catherine, his half-brother, Leek (Alexander), and Agnes’s parents Lizzie and Wullie. Shug is a taxi driver with a wandering eye and Agnes is a drinker. The times are hard and jobs are scarce. They are living comfortably with Agnes’s parents but certainly not well to do.

Agnes is aware of her husband’s philandering which causes her to drink more, causing him to philander more. Agnes is described as strikingly beautiful, and had been married before meeting Shug to a reliable Catholic man named Brendan McGowan. Shug, a Protestant, swept Agnes off her feet and she left Brendan, along with her children Catherine and Leek, to be with Shug. Lacking resources, they moved in with Agnes’s parents and Shuggie was born. The distinctions between Catholics and Protestants in Scotland is a constant thread throughout the novel.

After one particularly difficult evening, Agnes drinks herself into a stupor and sets her room on fire. She survives and shortly thereafter Shug announces that he has found them their own home. Lizzie, distrustful of Shug, tries to convince Agnes and the kids to stay but they choose to go. The home is in a terrible part of town, consisting of an old miner’s community where the mines were closed, the men lack work, and everyone is related and into each other’s business. Agnes is mortified. The first person she meets is a woman named Birdie Donnelly. Birdie introduces her to all her family and Agnes observes that “They all looked like Birdie, even the boys, only they looked less masculine.”

Soon after the move, Shug announces that he is leaving. “She had loved him, and he had needed to break her completely to leave her for good. Agnes Bain was too rare a thing to let someone else love. It wouldn’t do to leave pieces of her for another man to collect and repair later.”

Agnes is left drinking herself into oblivion, egged on by her neighbors. In the meantime, it becomes clear that Shuggie, who has devoted himself to his mother, is “different” and the neighbor kids and the kids at school torment him relentlessly. His sister Catherine marries Shug’s nephew, moves to South Africa and is rarely heard from. Leek, a very quiet young man, tries to protect and take care of Shuggie, but ultimately Agnes chases him away. Shuggie becomes physically ill worrying for and taking care of his mother.

At one point Agnes becomes sober but as the result of a relationship goes back to drinking. She decides to move away from the miner’s community and finds an apartment in the city. While living in the city Shuggie makes his first real friend, the only up beat part of the story. In many ways, the move to the city is where Agnes’s story ends.

The novel is filled with poverty, cruelty, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual abuse and mental illness. Most of the men in the story are cruel, abusive and single minded. Shuggie struggles with his differences and his sexuality and most of the people he encounters are mean to him and try to take advantage of him. The book is a rough read based on theme but it is beautifully written and it won the 2020 Booker Prize. You can reserve Shuggie Bain at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Vixen“The Vixen” is a sort of coming of age story that takes place in the 1950s, during America’s struggle to assess its morality in the McCarthy era. The novel, in many but not all ways, revolves around the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1953.

Simon Putnam narrates the story and has just graduated from Harvard with a degree in Folklore and Mythology. Despite a reference from his renowned professor Robertson Crowley, Simon is rejected from a graduate program in Norse literature at the University of Chicago. Simon is in awe of professor Crowley, explaining that when he sat through his lectures “I felt that I was hearing the answer to a question that I hadn’t known enough to ask.” After his rejection from the University of Chicago, Simon has no choice but to return home to his parents in Coney Island.

Two weeks after he returns from Harvard, Simon sits with his parents and watches the news surrounding the execution of the Rosenbergs. The Putnam family is sympathetic to the Rosenbergs and has a personal tie to Ethel. “My mother grew up on the Lower East Side, in the same tenement building as Ethel…They went to the same high school.” These were not things you told people during those times. Nor did you tell people that, despite your name, you are Jewish.

Simon’s uncle, Madison Putnam, is a distinguished literary critic and arranges for Simon to go to work for Landry, Landry and Bartlett, a distinguished publisher of literary fiction. Simon’s job is junior assistant editor, with the responsibility of reviewing unsolicited manuscripts. On his first day he meets Julia, who has been fired and whose job he is taking. Julia gives him some tips and leaves. No one at the publishing house really acknowledges Simon, except for Warren Landry, one of the named partners and Elaine Geller, the Firm’s publicity director. One of the other named partners, Preston Bartlett, has had some sort of break down and is living in an asylum. He shows up at the offices from time to time.

Warren Landry is described as a charismatic lady’s man, with a past in military intelligence. “His diction and accent combined the elongated vowels of a New England blueblood with the dentalized plosives and flat a’s of a Chicago gangster.” After about six months at Landry, Landry and Bartlett, Warren Landry pays a visit to Simon and assigns him the job of editing a novel called “The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic”, “a steamy bodice-ripper based on the Rosenberg case.” This is not the type of novel the Firm would normally consider. Warren explains to Simon that the firm is languishing and in need of money and that he believes the novel will be a best seller and bring the firm to solvency. Simon is also told that the existence of the novel is a secret.

“It was strange that I, of all the young editors in New York, should have been chosen to work on that book…My being assigned “The Vixen” was, I thought, pure coincidence.”

As he reads through the novel Simon struggles with its content and its portrayal of Ethel Rosenberg as a sexual temptress, someone very different from who she was. He has lunch with his Uncle Madison in an effort to seek advice without disclosing the information about the novel. His Uncle, an arrogant man, advises him to make the “lady writer…fall in love with you.”

Simon asks to meet the mysterious author, Anya Partridge, who interestingly lives in the same asylum as Prescott Bartlett. They immediately begin a romantic relationship.

Simon continues to struggle with editing what is a terrible novel and his interactions with Anya become ever more steamy until suddenly, Anya disappears. When Simon returns to the asylum to ask after her, he decides to pay a visit to Preston Bartlett, who advises that the firm is not quite what he thinks it is.  He also learns a bit about his favorite professor, although that comes later.   From here, things become extremely interesting, as Simon struggles with his ethical obligations and morality. The novel ends with this thought about life: “Everything was beautiful except what we do when we forget our humanity, our human dignity, our higher purpose.” Words to live by!

I loved this novel. It is a great story with lots of twists and turns and interesting and complex characters. It is beautifully written and gives the reader a lot to think about in the midst of all the action. The novel can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.