Sea of TranquilitySea of Tranquility asks the question of whether this life is real or whether we are living in a simulation. The story is influenced by the COVID pandemic, the increasing importance of artificial intelligence and the rise of authoritarianism.

The story begins in 1912, when Edwin St John St. Andrews is banished from his home in England due to his radical views about England’s presence in India. Edwin makes his way to Canada, where he travels about looking for his place. Ultimately he finds himself in Caiette. One day he goes for a stroll and enters a forest, where he sees a maple tree. “He steps forward—into a flash of darkness, like sudden blindness or an eclipse. He has an impression of being in some vast interior, something like a train station or a cathedral, and there are notes of violin music, there are other people around him, and then an incomprehensible sound—“

When Edwin returns to himself he walks to a church where he meets Father Roberts, a substitute for the Church’s regular priest. Father Roberts asks him to tell him about his experience, but when the church’s real priest arrives Father Roberts disappears.

The story then moves to the year 2020. A composer, Paul Smith, during a performance shows a video his now deceased sister made in Caiette. The video shows his sister walking toward an old maple tree. Then “the screen went black, just for a second, and there was a brief confusion of overlapping sounds—a few notes of violin, a dim cacophony like the interior of a metropolitan train station…” Mirella attends Paul’s performance because she is hoping to track down his sister, Vincent, not knowing that she had died. After the performance, Paul, Mirella and two men, Daniel McConaghy and Gaspery Roberts go for a drink. Mr. Roberts is very interested in the video. Mirella thinks she recognizes Gaspery.

The story then moves to 2202, when Olive, an author is doing a book tour in what we now know as the United States, but in the novel is the Atlantic Republic and other countries. Her travels and the talks make her exhausted. She lives in a moon colony with her husband and daughter and is anxious to return to them. Her husband is an architect and is designing a new university building, which suspiciously includes tunnels attached to the government security building. Olive’s book, Marienbad, is about a pandemic. Her last interview of the trip is in Philadelphia with a gentleman named Gaspery Roberts, which strikes Olive since a character in her book is named Gaspery-Jacques. The interview goes off record.

The book then moves forward to the year 2401 and backward at the same time. In 2401, a gentleman named Gaspery has lost his mother and is working in security. His sister, Zoey, is a physicist at the university. Gaspery goes to work for The Time Institute and becomes a time traveler. It is in this part of the story that everything comes together. I will leave it here and let you enjoy the surprises.

The novel is very enjoyable and thought provoking. “If we were living in a simulation, how would we know it was a simulation?…How do you investigate reality?” If you are a fan of Emily St. John Mandel you will recognize some of the characters from her last novel, The Glass Hotel. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Book of Form and Emptiness“The Book of Form and Emptiness” is a story about love of books,  understanding,  nonjudgmental tolerance  and the insignificance of material things. In general, the story is told by the book, which may sound obvious, but in this case, the book is a form of being. And the book is telling the story of Benny’s life (except when Benny chimes in).

After Benny stabs himself with talking scissors, he is hospitalized in the pediatric psychiatry ward of Children’s Hospital. While there he meets Alice. Alice leaves him strange notes and when he comes out of the hospital those notes cause him to start going to the main Library of his unidentified west coast town.

At the Library, he meets the Aleph and the Bottle Man (the b-man). He decides to stop going to school all together and goes to the library instead. At the library, he has all sorts of adventures. “The Library always felt like a mirror of the world.”

In the meantime, Annabelle has bought a book entitled “The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life.” Unfortunately, the book does very little to help Annabelle clear her clutter, but she begins to communicate with its author.

Although Benny is rehospitalized and child protective services threatens to place him in foster care because of the condition of their home, everything turns out okay in the end.

The novel is less about the story than about all of our stories and our distraction with material things instead of focusing on each other. The novel also highlights the importance of libraries and the very special people who are librarians. And of course, the importance of books!

“Every person is trapped in their own particular bubble of delusion, and it’s every person’s task in life to break free. Books can help. [Books] can make the past the present, take you back in time and help you remember. [Books] can show you things, shift your realities and widen your world, but the work of waking up is up to you.”

The novel is the recent winner of the Women’s Prize and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

French BraidIf you love Anne Tyler as I do, you will love French Braid, which is pure Anne Tyler and a breath of fresh air.

The novel starts in March of 2010 with Serena Drew and her boyfriend, James, in the Philadelphia train station. Serena sees someone she thinks might be her cousin and James intercedes and introduces himself to the man, Nicholas, who is in fact Serena’s first cousin. James thinks it odd that Serena is so unfamiliar with her cousin, and maintains a distant relationship with her family. James’ reaction causes Serena to think back over her family’s history. The rest of the novel is the story of that history.

Serena’s mother, Lily, is the middle child of Mercy and Robin Garrett, of Baltimore. Lily’s older sister, Alice, was always the adult of the family and her younger brother, David, always maintained a distance. Lily was somewhat wild in her younger years and experienced a number of questionable romantic relationships. Serena is the result of an affair with a married man who ultimately divorces his wife and marries Lily.

Mercy is an artist and rents a studio where she slowly moves all her possessions and ultimately, to Robin’s chagrin, makes her permanent residence. She returns to the family house periodically to do laundry and to ensure that Robin is taken care of.

Alice marries and has two children and appears to lead a traditional life. David goes off to college and the family sees very little of him. After graduation, David teaches English and drama at a high school outside Philadelphia. He never travels home. Then, in 1982, he calls the family and says he would like to visit for Easter. He travels to Baltimore and brings with him his older girlfriend, Greta, and her daughter, Emily. Ultimately Greta and David marry, although there is no family wedding. None of the Garrett children seem to be particularly close.

The family again comes together in 1990 to celebrate Robin and Mercy’s 50th anniversary (yes, even though they live apart they stay married). Time goes by and grandchildren are born and people die. Yet despite the family dysfunction and seeming lack of closeness, they come together periodically in a variety of different ways, like French braids, where the crimps in the hair show even after the braids are undone. “…that’s how families work…You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.”

And that is the story of French Braid. No matter how independent you believe yourself to be, and no matter how dysfunctional you believe your family to be, the impact of your family is always with you. This is a delightful, short, completely enjoyable novel. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Oh William!“Oh William” is Elizabeth Strout’s third Lucy Barton novel. The novel focuses on family, the importance of formative years and the lifelong process of filling in the holes of knowledge about ourselves and others.

Lucy is now 62 years old, divorced, widowed and the mother of two adult daughters. Lucy has a close friendly relationship with her ex-husband William, who is 69 years old at the start of the novel and who has a much younger wife, Estelle, and a six year old daughter, Bridget. Lucy is a famous novelist and William is a semi-retired parasitologist. Lucy’s second husband David Abramson, came from a Hasidic Jewish background and was a cellist with the philharmonic. David died prior to the start of the story. “But there is this: Both with the discovery of David’s illness and then again with his death, it was William I called first.”

Throughout the novel Lucy is contemplating her difficult childhood and her relationship with William and William’s sophisticated mother, Catherine, as well as the lives of her daughters. William calls Lucy and they meet for coffee periodically. She knows that his father had fought with the Nazis and he later tells her that his father had been a member of the Hitler youth. She recalls their visit together to Dachau.

At Christmas time Estelle gives William a subscription to Ancestry. He is very disappointed with the gift and calls Lucy to complain. “This was the William who was tiresome to me, the petulant boy beneath his distinguished and pleasant demeanor…And when I hung up I thought: Thank G-d. And I meant about him being no longer mine.”

Despite Lucy’s humble background, William’s mother, Catherine had been very welcoming. “She was vibrant. Her face was often filled with light…I thought her house was remarkable…” But Catherine had a secret, and William and Lucy would discover that secret together.

Estelle leaves William and through her Ancestry gift, William learns that he has a half-sister. He asks Lucy to travel with him to Bangor Maine to learn more about his past and his half-sister. In Bangor, they learn a great deal about Catherine’s upbringing and history, which answers a lot of questions that they did not even know they had. “And then William begins to close down.”

Throughout the novel Lucy claims that she feels invisible. While giving a reading at a library to a lot of people, she thinks “…as I stood before all those people and read and answered questions, I still felt oddly—but very truly—invisible.”

The novel seems to be about the lifelong journey of getting to know yourself and getting to know someone else. The story is told in a unique style, moving back and forth through moments in time. This is a very enjoyable and thoughtful novel. Give it a try. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Candy HouseThe Candy House is a simply amazing novel about the intrusive nature of evolving technology and the ever increasing importance of real human interaction. The novel is a companion to Egan’s Pulitzer prize winning “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” featuring some of the same characters and using interlocking narratives to tie the characters together.

The novel begins with Beresford (Bix) Bouton, famous for having created the “social media” business of Mandala, worrying over his next creation and longing for the days when he and his friends could sit together and trade ideas. Bix’s original social media idea came from Miranda Kline’s work “Patterns of Affinity,” where Kline introduces formulas for predicting human inclinations, requiring intimate knowledge of the person in question. Kline is not a fan of Bouton. “The fact that MK (as Kline was affectionately known in his world) deplored the uses Bix and his ilk had made of her theory only sharpened his fascination with her.”

In his search for open discussion to spur new ideas, Bix attends a small meeting at the apartment of Ted Hollander following a lecture by Miranda Kline. During the conversation (Bix was disguised as Walter Wad, a graduate student in electrical engineering) one of the group members mentions that she is working on externalizing an animal’s consciousness by uploading the animal’s perceptions using brain sensors. Soon thereafter arrives “The Collective Consciousness,” where individuals can share their externalized memories to the collective, by saving their memories (Own Your Unconscious), ultimately through a Mandala Consciousness Cube. Of course this technology creates an entire industry, including counters who are trying to create and quantify information, and eluders, who are trying, at a minimum, to evade the technology. “Never trust a candy house!”

Meanwhile, the novel focuses on a wide variety of interconnected characters, all of whom are differently impacted by technology and each other, because “things are more connected than they seem.” In a particularly harrowing segment of the novel Lulu becomes a “Citizen Agent,” where she uses her body to lure powerful men and obtain information for the government, albeit in an unofficial and unpaid capacity. As part of this role, Lulu has a wide variety of technology embedded in her brain, her eyes, her ears and elsewhere. There is a running commentary going through her head about her role and the steps she should be taking. The embedded technology is a camera, a recorder, a voice, an observer. This part of the novel is told in a unique style and highlights the potential intrusiveness of technology in our lives. And of course, this technology creates an underground industry of technology detection and removal. “A gain is a loss when it comes to technology.”

There is so much going on in this brilliant novel and so many different characters, all of whom are ingeniously interconnected and impacted by each other. The novel is complex and I cannot possibly include in this review everything, so you will have lots of surprises when you read “The Candy House.” But ultimately, the novel is a warning about the dangerous lure of technology and the importance of maintaining real living relationships. “…knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it’s all just information.” This novel is a wow! You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

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.