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.

Whereabouts“Whereabouts” is a short novel that follows the solitary life of a middle aged woman through her daily movements from place to place. The novel consist of 46 chapters, each of which is a different place. Through her regular activity we learn a great deal about the life of the unnamed protagonist, who is a 45 year old university professor.

The novel begins with the main character seeing a close male friend on the street. There is some sexual tension between the two, but the man’s wife is a friend and nothing seems to happen between them. This man, his wife and their children are the one constant throughout the novel. At one point, due to a medical emergency, the protagonist takes care of their house and their dog for a number of days.

A few of the chapters are entitled “In My Head.” Through these chapters and certain others, we learn quite a bit about the main character’s family. Her mother, who at the time of the novel is quite old, was difficult and emotionally abusive. “…oh what rages she would fly into, when she way my age! I remember days, in summer, when I’d be tempted to get up and close the windows so that the neighbors wouldn’t hear her, because I’d blocked that rage inside.” Her father was introverted, tight with finances and died young and suddenly. She reflects that when she is in a store, “if I admire something but don’t buy it, if I walk out and manage to avoid the cash register, I feel like a virtuous daughter.” She blames much of her solitude and unhappiness on her childhood. “I mourn my unhappy origins.”

We learn a bit about her romantic life–the former boyfriend who was leading two lives, the prior lovers, the married men. “Never married, but like all women, I’ve had my share of married men.”

Most of the book is deeply introspective although parts are also observational. The main character seems deeply unhappy although she has moments of peace. The end of the novel provides some hope that she may find a way to work out of her isolation. The novel is beautifully written and the style and format evoke emotional connection with the main character. I really liked this novel but it is not a traditional novel with a traditional story and may not be for everyone. You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Anxious People“A bank robbery. A hostage drama.  A stairwell of police officers on their way to storm an apartment. It was easy to get to this point, much easier than you might think. All it took was one single really bad idea.”

Anxious People is the story of a bank robber and the bank robber’s hostages. Or maybe it’s not. Anxious People is a story about suicide and unexpected connections. Or maybe it’s not. Anxious People is about the mistakes we make in life and the importance of empathy and forgiveness. And that is what Anxious People is about.

But there is a bank robber. A bumbling bank robber, who tries to rob a cashless bank for precisely six thousand five hundred Kronors (roughly $780). The bank teller, whose name is London and who is a miserable person and has no friends, asks the bank robber (who is armed by the way), “Are you, like, totally stupid?” Before the bank robber, who is having second thoughts about the robbery, can answer, London advises that “Look, I’m going to call the cops now!”

The bank robber runs out of the bank and into the nearest building, up the stairs and to the top floor. An apartment door is open for an open house and the bank robber enters. So begins the hostage situation.

The hostage situation is being addressed by a father and son police duo, Jim and Jack. While they are trying to figure out how to handle the hostage situation, a more experienced team from Stockholm is on its way—the ultimate embarrassment for the duo.  Jack and Jim seem a bit incompetent.  Jim, Jack’s father spends most of his time worrying over Jack’s safety. Jim’s wife, Jack’s mother, had died and they are both still grieving.

Ten years earlier, as a teenager, Jack had encountered a man standing on a bridge. Jack tried to talk him down but the man jumped anyway. The man had lost all of his money in a financial crisis and the banks were unwilling to loan him more. A week later, Jack saw a teenage girl at the same bridge. He tackled her and prevented her from jumping. It was his desire to help people that led him to being a policeman.

Back to the hostage situation. The hostages are an eclectic crew. There is Zara, a wealthy banker who just goes to open houses for sport and has deep seated issues with the career she has chosen. She regularly sees a psychologist, Nadia, and their interactions are difficult at best.

Then there is Anna-Lena and Roger, an older couple who buy apartments, renovate them and sell them. They have a unique approach to obtaining the properties they choose and are very competitive with anyone else in the open houses.

Or and Julia are a young same sex couple expecting their first child and looking for a home. They seem to fight constantly.

There is elderly Estelle, whose husband Knut is out parking the car and never arrives at the open house.  And finally, the open house includes the slightly wacky real estate agent and a man dressed like a rabbit.

During the course of the hostage situations we learn a lot about each of these people and we see them learn about each other and develop relationships. There are lots of twists and turns and ultimately when the police enter the apartment (after the hostages order and eat pizza), the bank robber is nowhere to be found, but there is blood all over the living room floor.

Next come a series of interviews and flashbacks, where we learn even more about each of the characters.

The novel is written in sort of a glib, irreverent style, but I really liked this book. It is truly a tale of empathy and kindness even in the most difficult situations. The characters reflect real life issues, including parent child relationships, romantic relationships, professional doubts, grief and aging. The novel provides insight into the possibilities when people try to understand each other and work together. I highly recommend this novel. You can reserve it 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.

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.