My Sister The Serial Killer – by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister the Serial KillerMy Sister the Serial Killer may be the most literal title of any novel I have posted here. The novel is one sister’s story about her sister who kills her lovers, in what seems like rapid succession.

Korede, the older less attractive sister, is a nurse at St. Peter’s in Lagos. Ayoola, her beautiful younger sister, designs clothes. Ayoola is so beautiful that men, apparently all men, are drawn to her. Big mistake!

The story starts with killing #3–Fermi. Ayoola calls Korede from Fermi’s apartment and Korede arrives to find the dead man on the bathroom floor. He is big and strong and handsome. They clean every inch of the bathroom, load him into the car and drop his body over the bridge into the water. Apparently this is the second body they have dropped here (#1 they simply set on fire). Fermi’s family becomes concerned and the police arrive to ask questions, but of course, they are mesmerized by Ayoola’s beauty.

One of the doctors at the hospital, Tade Otumu, is kind and handsome and an excellent doctor. Korede is romantically attracted to him but when he meets Ayoola, he is just like any other man. “He isn’t deep. All he wants is a pretty face. That’s all they ever want.” Despite Korede’s best efforts, Tade and Ayoola begin a romance, which is briefly interrupted by Ayoola’s affair with an older, wealthy married man who mysteriously dies of food poisoning while they are off together in Dubai. The Tade experiment ends badly, but perhaps not the way you might think.

Korede’s guilt over the situation is overwhelming and she takes to talking to a hospital patient, Muhtar, about all the killings and her sister. Muhtar is in a coma so she thinks it’s safe, but is it really?

We also learn that their father had been extremely abusive and died under mysterious circumstances. Ultimately, the book is about abuse, the shallowness of men (sorry to my male readers), the mindset of a sociopath and family loyalty. This is a fun and quick read and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Nickel Boys – by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel BoysLet me start by saying this is an excellent book. This is a very sad book but it is an excellent book.

The Nickel Boys is the story of Elwood Curtis, an African American teenager with immense potential whose life and future take an unexpected turn. In 1962 Elwood’s grandmother gives him a copy of Martin Luther King at Zion Hall. The Civil Rights messages he hears in the album stick with him throughout his life and he tries too hard to live consistently with Dr. King’s messages.

Elwood is a serious student and an industrious young man, living with his grandmother in Tallahassee Florida after being abandoned by his parents. His grandmother works at the Richmond Hotel and Elwood spends his days there after school in the hotel kitchen. “Whenever the dining room door swung open, he bet on whether there were Negro patrons out there.” Elwood stopped going to the Richmond when he was 12 years old and never got to see a black patron in the dining room. As a 13 year old, he takes a job at Marconi’s tobacco shop. Mr. Marconi understands that neighborhood kids will pilfer candy and comic books from time to time and that this is just part of the cost of doing business. But Elwood does not understand this and after calling out some neighborhood kids for theft he is beaten. And yet the lesson that he should learn there does not stick.

Elwood attends Lincoln High School, where the students use the second hand textbooks used by the neighboring white high school in prior years. Sadly, the white students leave unpleasant messages in the textbooks for the Lincoln students to see. Elwood is befriended by his junior year teacher, Mr. Hill who gets him involved in the Civil Rights movement. He also arranges for Elwood to take college classes at Melvin Griggs Technical College. The classes are free and Elwood and his grandmother are excited that he will get this jump on college.

Elwood hitches a ride to the college and this is when things immediately go downhill. I will not tell you exactly what happens but Elwood gets sentenced to reform school and is sent to Nickel Academy. Maynard Spencer, an exceptionally cruel man, is the Superintendent at the “Academy”.

The school is divided into campuses for black students and white students. The school portion is itself perfunctory and many of the students cannot read or write. The facility is known for its White House, a shed with an industrial fan where students are taken to be beaten with a leather whip by Spencer and his helpers. When Elwood attempts to help another student he believes is being abused, he is taken in the middle of the night to the White House where he is beaten  to the brink of death. Afterwards he ends up in the Nickel hospital for weeks.

Throughout the story we learn of various cruelties at Nickel, including being taken “out back”, where the student is chained to a tree, beaten to death and buried in an unmarked grave. Elwood and his friend Turner are assigned to “Community Service”, where they work with a facility employee to sell school supplies of all sorts to the free community and pocket the profit.  As you might imagine, this does not sit well with Elwood and trouble ensues.

Ultimately Turner and Elwood escape and Elwood becomes a successful entrepreneur whose past never stops haunting him. The school  is closed and Texas A&M students begin to discover all its horrors. There is a website for former students and a reunion upcoming. Elwood, who is living in New York City at the time of the reunion  decides to go to Tallahassee for the event.

The book has some twists and turns that I do not want to disclose and the ending is simply brilliant. The story is based on the true story of a reform school called the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. You can read about Dozier here and here. The book comes out in July and you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Varina – by Charles Frazier

Varina“Varina” is the fictionalized story of Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The novel starts in 1906, when James Blake tracks down Varina at The Retreat, in Saratoga Springs. James, a 46 year old biracial school teacher, had been raised by Varina and lived with her family until he was around 6 years old. He is trying to recall the early part of his life. The novel revolves around Varina filling in the gaps for James and telling her story over the course of six Sundays.

The novel focuses on Varina’s life with Jeff and her family’s efforts to escape after the loss of the Civil War. Throughout the book, Varina also recalls the early part of her life. Varina’s mother had money and Varina’s father managed to lose it all on questionable business ventures. As a result of the family’s financial distress, at the age of 17, she is sent to live with the family of Joseph Davis. The family is peculiar in that Joseph is quite old and his daughters and his wife appear to be roughly the same age.

Joseph explains to Varina his theory of slavery and the combination of capital and labor. Varina argues with him and is outspoken and Joseph does not take that well. The Davis compound, interestingly, is effectively run by a slave, Benjamin Montgomery.

When Jefferson Davis shows up she is attracted to him, despite the fact that he is significantly older. They begin to court, but he is perpetually grieving over the death of his first wife, Knoxie Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor. Jeff and Varina marry and Jeff becomes a Congressman. They move to Washington where Varina becomes lifelong friends with Mary Chestnut. Jeff ultimately becomes a senator and as we all know, President of the Confederacy.

Much of the book is then dedicated to the year 1865 when Varina, her children (including James, who at the time was called Jimmie Limber because of his ability to stretch his finger backward to his knuckles) and some others are attempting to make their way to Cuba. During the trip and before they are captured they meet some colorful people and have some interesting experiences. Of course they are all captured and Jimmie is separated from the family. Many of Varina’s children die and her marriage to Jefferson is maintained on a tether. Varina moves to London and lives separately from Jeff for a long time, but they ultimately end up living free lives together.

The story is told at The Retreat and at horse races at Saratoga Springs. The Retreat is a sort of wellness center and Varina befriends a resident who is fearful of her family and becomes a part of the story. James is trying to fill in the gaps in his life, both emotionally and chronologically. He and Varina become close.

The novel is interesting, insightful and extremely well written. I suspect that the story is kinder to the Davis family than deserved. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Machines Like Me – by Ian McEwan

Machines Like MeThose of you who follow my blog know that I rarely start a review with my opinion about a book. Well rarely, but not never. Machines Like Me is one of the best books I have read in a long time. The writing is amazing, the story is captivating and intriguing and the interplay between the story, history (or I should really say alternate history) and the rise of technology is compelling

The story starts in 1982 in London. Charlie Friend, a slightly impoverished 33 year old searching for his place in the world, inherits money from his mother and spends 86,000 pounds on a 170 pound male robot, Adam. Charlie, we learn, makes a living (barely) day trading, so this purchase is beyond extravagant and arguably irresponsible.

Adam looks and acts like a real man. The longer he exists the more knowledge he gathers and the more human he seems. He has an unwavering sense of moral, intellectual and ethical behavior and a unique thirst for knowledge. He becomes an expert day trader.

In 1982 there is a lot going on in England. In the story’s version of British history (which varies greatly from the actual events) the Falkland War has been a disaster for England, unemployment rises to 25%, the garbage collectors are perpetually on strike, and Margaret Thatcher loses an election to Tony Benn of the Labour Party, who is almost immediately assassinated. In addition, artificial intelligence is well beyond where it is even today. This alternate history is interspersed throughout the book.

Adam is one of 25 robots, named either Adam or Eve, created and sold throughout the world. After Charlie purchases Adam, he fantasizes about the possibility that he and his neighbor and love interest, Miranda, can jointly formulate Adam’s personality. Throughout the book Charlie and Miranda become closer and romantically linked. Adam becomes an important part of their lives. But Adam, who seems to know all, also falls in love with Miranda and warns Charlie not to trust her. As the novel progresses, we learn that Miranda has a tragic secret, one that Adam, in his world of black and white morality, views differently than Adam and Miranda, whose minds are arguably more nuanced. Unfortunately, Adam’s black and white sense of right and wrong sends Charlie and Miranda to a dangerous place.

Portions of the novel describe the growth of artificial intelligence and the progress of technology, in some instances in connection with weaponry and the displacement of human labor. One of the main scientists credited with this growth is Alan Turing. Turing, in reality a mathematician and computer scientist who died in 1954, is credited with being actively involved in the creation of the Adams and Eves. Charlie and Miranda spot Turing at a restaurant one evening. Charlie approaches and tells him he has an Adam but it is clear that Turing does not want to speak with him in a public place. Charlie leaves his card and Turing ultimately contacts him and asks to meet. It is at this meeting that Charlie learns that all is not well with the Adams and Eves. Charlie has a second meeting with Turing toward the end of the book which is perhaps one of the novel’s most memorable moments (and yet there are so many striking moments).

Miranda’s father, Maxfield, is an aging, cranky, slightly famous writer. Miranda decides it would be a good idea for Maxfield to meet both Charlie and Adam, so the three drive to visit him in Salisbury. Adam and Maxfield engage in a lively discussion about literature and Shakespeare and Maxfield appears to be quite taken with him. Miranda offers Adam a tour of the house and leaves Charlie with her father so that they can become better acquainted. After exchanging mundane pleasantries, Maxfield mistakenly assumes that Charlie is the robot.

There are lots of other things that take place in the novel but I will let you discover them for yourself. The novel raises all sorts of moral questions and leaves the reader wondering how slim the line is between right and wrong, and man and machine and whether man has a right to dominion over everything else. As I said at the start, the novel is just brilliant—great story, amusing alternate history and thought provoking conjecture about the role and future of artificial intelligence. You should reserve this novel right now at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here. Don’t wait!! I really want to know what you think.

Unsheltered – by Barbara Kingsolver

Unsheltered is a none too subtle examination of the times we live in, and the blinders that prevent us, and likely have always prevented us, from being our true selves and securing a meaningful future. The story takes place today and in the 1870s in Vineland, New Jersey. Today’s story and the story of yesterday revolve around a ramshackle house.

Willa Knox and her husband Iano Tavoularis, along with unconventional daughter Tig, far right nationalist and dying father in-law, Nick and ancient dog Dixie, have just moved to Vineland from Virginia. Iano had been a professor in Virginia when the university suddenly closed and the family was left border line destitute. Iano found a job at a small college in Philadelphia and thus the move. Willa had inherited the house from an aunt and so the family moved in, only to find that the house was about to fall down. Much of the family’s story revolves around what to do about the house.

Thatcher Greenwood has recently married the younger and beautiful Rose. Rose’s mother, Aurelia, had been forced to leave her beloved home and social stature in Vineland when her husband died, leaving her penniless. She had been forced to rent out the home and move Rose and her other daughter Polly into a cousin’s house in Boston. Thatcher, a teacher, found a teaching position in Vineland, and the entire family moved back into Aurelia’s Vineland home. Thatcher arrives to find that the home is crumbling around them and that the family’s expectations of his economic success are unrealistic. Thatcher’s story takes place between the years 1874-75.

Willa’s sun, Zeke, has a newborn child whose mother has committed suicide. Zeke had been living in Boston but returns to Vineland with the baby to enlist the aid of his family. Zeke does not stay in Vineland long and the task of raising the child goes to Tig and Willa, as does the task of taking care of Nick. Zeke is something of an investment banker and Tig is something of a free spirit, very focused on the environment and waste. The two do not get along and the differences in their life philosophies, as well as Nick’s far right sentimentalities, are used as a vehicle to express the author’s concerns with environmental decay, climate change, health care, the rejection of science and today’s politics.

Thatcher is a science teacher who believes strongly in evolution and survival of the fittest. His next door neighbor is Mary Treat, a historic botanist and entomologist who regularly corresponded with Charles Darwin. Thatcher and Mary become friends and Thatcher goes to Mary with his challenges teaching science in a school where the emphasis is on religion. While the two are becoming friends, Aurelia and Rose are befriending the very wealthy Dunwiddie family, trying to desperately enhance their social and economic standing. Thatcher befriends the editor of an alternate newspaper. The friend is shot and things go downhill fast for Thatcher.

Back to Willa. Nick is dying and when she takes him to a medical clinic they refuse to see him due to lack of health insurance. Health insurance and the saving grace of Medicaid are a significant part of the story. In a desperate effort to shore up their crumbling house, Willa starts to research the history of the house hoping to receive an historic landmark designation and grant money. Through that research she learns about Thatcher Greenwood, Mary Treat and some of the history of Vineland.

The book is about moving beyond materiality and ambition and opening your heart and mind. In a sense, the book is a warning about what happens when you fail to move beyond yourself. Ultimately, both Willa and Thatcher understand that there are bigger things than ambition and possession.

“She aimed to be immune to the ambitions and disappointments that had maimed her parents’ existence and now were stirring up a national tidal wave of self-interest…Here was the earthquake, the fire, flood and melting permafrost, with everyone still grabbing for bricks to put in their pockets rather than walking out of the wreck looking for light.”

Each chapter alternates between Willa’s story and Thatcher’s story. The end of each chapter is effectively the beginning of the next. The novel starts out very slow. I have to admit that I almost gave up, but I trudged through and by the end was glad I did. The book is a tad preachy, but the concerns expressed and the characters themselves are real and thoughtful. If you like Barbara Kingsolver novels then you might want to give this one a try. You can reserve this at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Milkman – by Anna Burns

“Milkman” is a novel that is difficult to describe. It is not clear exactly where it takes place (somewhere in Northern Ireland) and none of the characters have names (at least not what we think of as proper names). Some of the paragraphs go on for pages and the writing style can be described best as the narrator’s not always chronological stream of consciousness. All that said, I loved this book.

The narrator, nameless, is 18 years old and is being stalked by milkman (later Milkman), a well-known renouncer of the state. Her family consisted of a mother, a father, 3 or possibly 4 brothers, 3 older sisters and three younger sisters. Consisted is the proper term because at the time of the story one brother has been killed, one brother has disappeared into the Middle East, one brother married the wrong woman (therefore ostracized) and fourth brother is not really a brother and he is on the run. Each one is designated as First Brother, Second Brother etc. So far as the sisters go, First Sister’s ex love was killed in a bombing and she married a horrible man, Second Sister was banished by the renouncers and Third Sister, as best I can tell, is perpetually drunk. The three younger sisters, ages 7, 8 and 9 are brilliant and precocious.

The times are precarious with defenders of the state and renouncers perpetually at war. Government operatives are hiding in the bushes taking pictures of perceived state enemies. Every family has lost numerous family members and narrator’s best friend has lost every single member of her family. The community includes a serial poisoner. Everyone is in everyone else’s business and judgmental to a fault. People are afraid to go to the hospital for fear of being asked questions and being deemed an informer “Us and ‘them’ was second nature…By unspoken agreement—which outsiders couldn’t grasp unless it should come to their own private expediencies—it was unanimously understood that when everybody here used the tribal identifiers of ‘us’ or ‘them’, of ‘their religion’ or ‘our religion’, not all of us and not all of them, was, it goes without saying, to be taken as read.”

In the time frame of the novel nothing about life is exactly normal. The times are so fraught that even the most ordinary events are suspect. “So shiny was bad, and ‘too sad’ was bad, and ‘totally joyous’ was bad, which meant you had to go around not being anything; also not thinking, least not at top level, which was why everybody kept their private thoughts safe and sound in those recesses.”

In addition to the family tragedies resulting from the battle between the renouncers and the defenders, the novel addresses the role of women in the middle of all this (significant and determinative). The community has different groups of women, groups looking into their rights as women and more traditional women who stand up and take action when it is needed. All of the women serve as protectors in one way or another.

The narrator is haunted by milkman. First he shows up in his white van while she is walking reading a book (yes she walks and reads, which the gossipy community finds frightful, ultimately labeling her “beyond the pale”). Then he shows up while she is out running. She is taking a French class and he shows up while she is walking home, carrying a dead cat’s head which she found at a bombing site (a particularly peculiar part of the book which only adds to her reputation as “beyond the pale”).

Narrator has a maybe-boyfriend who works on cars and has come into pieces parts of a Bentley, sadly from over there. The Bentley creates political mayhem in his life. Maybe-boyfriend’s parents deserted maybe- boyfriend and his brothers when they were relatively young, to become famous ballroom dancers. Narrator wonders about maybe-boyfriend because he likes to cook and enjoys sunsets, the normal things she is unable to understand. “it wasn’t just sunsets I didn’t understand. I didn’t understands stars or moons or breezes or dews or flowers or the weather…This was when I began to wonder, again, if maybe-boyfriend should be going to sunsets, if he should be owning coffee pots…”

Milkman is 41 years old, a high ranking renouncer and his stalking causes narrator to suffer what can only be described as multiple anxiety attacks. Despite her refusal of his advances, the community is certain that she is involved with him and of course her mother and family are highly critical and reject her denials. On the other hand, there are the renouncer groupies, who  respect her because of her presumed romantic engagement with milkman. Milkman knows of maybe-boyfriend and frequently discusses the unfortunate consequences of car bombing in the context of maybe-boyfriend’s work with cars.

The book has lots of twists and turns, and is filled with dry wit. It focuses on the importance of community and its disruption by religion and politics and ultimately the importance of enduring love. Although it is an extremely difficult read, the story, the characters, the humor and the perspective make this book well worth the effort. The book won the Man Booker prize and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Good Kids, Bad City—A Story of Race and Wrongful Conviction in America – by Kyle Swenson

“…the American justice system repeatedly fails to fully analyze its own mistakes and abuses. In wrongful convictions, lawsuits and cash settlements have become common, but the system itself has little inclination to push deeper with detailed inquisition into how it could break down so catastrophically.”

“Good Kids, Bad City” is the story of the wrongful conviction, and ultimate exoneration of Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu (formerly Ronnie Bridgeman) and Rickey Jackson. The three were convicted of the murder of Harry J Franks in 1975, solely on the basis of the testimony of then 13 year old Ed Vernon. All three maintained their innocence and were incarcerated for a combined 106 years, part of the time on death row.

But the book is also about the history of Cleveland politics and corruption and racial inequity and injustice.

On May 19, 1975, 58 year old money order salesman Harry J Franks collected $429.55 from a client and traveled to his next client, Cut-Rate, owned by Bob and Anna Robinson. As he exited the Cut-Rate, two young men hit him with a pipe, threw acid in his face, shot him and stole his briefcase. Mrs. Robinson was also shot through the store door.

Ed Vernon, a 13 year old schoolboy, identified the Bridgemans and Jackson as the culprits. They were convicted solely on his testimony, despite conflicting testimony by eyewitness.

Kwame was paroled in 2003. While he was attempting to find help to get Wiley and Ricky out of jail, a well-known Cleveland attorney sent him to a reporter at the Cleveland Scene, Kyle Swenson. Swenson did his own research, concluding that the three men were innocent and in June of 2011, the Cleveland Scene published a story about the case and the innocence of the three men. Nothing happened. “Yet outside of a couple emails, hey great job, keep it up, the response was nil…There was real world heft to this: two men were sitting in prison cells, a third was adrift between a past he was powerless to escape and a present he couldn’t comfortably embrace.”

In the meantime, Rickey was sending jailhouse letters to everybody and anybody who would listen. Ultimately, he got the attention of the Ohio Innocence Project. In 2014, Ed Vernon publicly recanted his 1975 testimony and the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor withdrew its case. Wiley and Rickey were freed, after each served roughly 39 years of incarceration.

This summary of the book does not relay the intensity and emotion of the story. The men’s friends and neighbors from 1975 were aware of their innocence but never spoke up. The police manipulated young Ed Vernon and arguably withheld conflicting evidence. The men had bright futures which were literally stolen from them. The horror of their experience is hard to overstate.

The book also tells the history of Cleveland politics and police corruption. It describes the segregation of the city then and now and the city leadership’s inability to improve living conditions in predominantly black communities while downtown Cleveland thrives. And sadly, the book highlights how as much as things change, they stay the same. One day after Rickey Jackson was released from jail, Tamir Rice, a 12 year old black Cleveland boy holding a toy gun, was killed by Cleveland police. The officers involved were not charged.

“The thirty-second soundbite version being promoted here was that a boy lied, innocent men were sent to prison, and now they had been cleared. That view, however, ignored all the critical context of Cleveland racial politics, not to mention the direct role police detectives allegedly played in forcing Ed to falsely testify. Without those pieces, the Jackson-Bridgeman case existed in a vacuum, a one-time piece of tragic luck; but within the framework of Cleveland’s history, the wrongful conviction felt chained to so much more than what a boy saw or didn’t see.”

The story is a real life tragedy. Despite some cringe worthy writing in places, this book is a must read if you want to understand the inequities of our system and the bold efforts of many to right these wrongs. If you want to read this book you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Killing Commendatore – by Haruki Murakami

“Killing Commendatore” is prototypical Murakami—magic realism meets philosophical quandary meets spirituality meets self-awareness—enveloped in a highly unique story with a range of characters.

The protagonist, whose name we are never told, is a talented artist who has been wasting his talents painting portraits. Although his talents might be wasted, his skill is apparent in his ability to capture not just a person’s likeness, but his (almost always HIS) essence.

After living in Tokyo with his wife, Yuzu for six years, Yuzu announces that she wants a divorce. This separation sets off an almost 9 month course of events that teaches our narrator who he is and what he wants from life.

Our narrator leaves the apartment he shared with Yuzu and drives around for almost a month before he settles in to a house offered to him by his friend Masahiko Amada, in the mountains outside Odawara. The house had been previously inhabited by Amada’s father, the renowned artist Tomohiko Amada. Tomohiko Amada was best known for his Japanese-style painting. The 90 year old Tomohiko is in a nursing home where he is suffering from dementia.

During the almost eight months that our narrator lives in the house, a lot happens (861 pages worth). He hears a noise in the attic and discovers a hidden painting, Killing Commendatore. The painting, one of Tomohiko’s, depicts what at first glance appears to be a scene from the opera Don Giovanni. It is the finest painting the narrator has ever seen and infuses him with an unsated curiosity about Tomohiko Amada. We do learn that Tomohiko had spent the late 1930s in Vienna and had been involved in an unsuccessful assassination plot leaving others in grave danger. His family’s connections and wealth enabled him to return to Japan without physical injury. The painting, we learn, has something to do with that time, and various characters in the painting come alive throughout the story.

In the meantime, the narrator meets a neighbor, Wataru Menshiki, who lives alone in a white mansion up the mountain. Menshiki, in his mid-50s and with a full head of shocking white hair, commissions the narrator to paint his portrait. The portrait reflects his essence rather than his physical self and Menshiki is satisfied. But it appears that Menshiki, who is very wealthy and has a mysterious past, wants something more from our narrator.

The narrator takes to teaching art classes two nights a week, one adult class and one children’s class. Through the adult class he takes a lover and through the children’s class (and a few other steps which I cannot divulge), he befriends a young girl, Mariye. He and Mariye become friendly when the narrator commences to paint her portrait. Mariye’s beautiful aunt, Shoko, becomes romantically involved with Menshiki.

For a couple of nights in a row the narrator hears a bell and one night goes out into the forest to find a shrine. The ringing seems to be coming from underground, beneath the shrine. With Menshiki’s help they arrange to remove layers of stones and discover a well like pit, with an old antique bell at the bottom. It is unclear how anyone could have been ringing the bell. The pit and the bell become an important part of the story.

At one point in the novel, Mariye and the narrator disappear at the same time. The narrator is pulled into an underworld and Mariye’s disappearance is a mystery. When they return, each shares the story only with the other. Through these stories we learn a little about a lot–or maybe a lot about a little, I am not sure!

There is a lot of Japanese history in the novel, a lot of music and a bit of sex. And weirdly, there is a Cleveland Indians baseball cap!

The novel addresses the depths of art, loneliness, spirituality, relationships and life’s very inexplicable complexities. There are ideas and metaphors personified, each sharing life’s invaluable lessons. The personified idea at one point comments, that “What is important is not creating something out of nothing. What my friends need to do is discover the right thing from what is already there”. The metaphor, who is not really all that bright, has no words of wisdom, although he does warn our narrator about the perils of double metaphors.

When you read Murakami you feel like you can almost grasp the meaning of life in his story, but he always leaves it just outside your reach. That said, while Murakami’s failure to bring you to that promised enlightenment is disappointing, the journey is still a blast! You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Friend – by Sigrid Nunez

“The Friend” is a novel about writing, friendship, loss and man’s (in this case woman’s) relationship to animals, most particularly dogs. Although short (214 pages), The Friend packs a punch in the way it touches on life’s many wonders.

The novel is in part a musing on writing. In this part of the novel, the narrator is a writer and teaches writing in a university in New York. Her closest friend was a successful novelist and also a professor of writing. A great deal of the book is devoted to questions about the writer’s role in society and the changing perceptions of writers in culture. The narrator  spends a great deal of time discussing other writers and approaches to the themes of the book (the other musings that come next). Many of my favorite authors are quoted or discussed.

The novel is in part a musing about suicide and grief. The narrator’s friend has just died and the death is a suicide. This disclosure is not a spoiler since the cause of death is made clear at the beginning. The narrator spends time reading about suicide, thinking about writings about suicide and mentioning other authors who have committed suicide. She wonders what would have happened if her friend had failed.

Finally, the novel is a musing about our relationship to dogs. The narrator’s friend had a dog, a Great Dane named Apollo. Apollo weighs 180 pounds and stands 34 inches, shoulder to paw. The friend’s wife, known in the novel as wife Number 3, cannot take care of the dog and asks the narrator to take the dog. The narrator lives in a 500 square foot apartment in Manhattan that does not allow dogs. She takes Apollo and all three parts of the novel, writing, grief and dogs come together.

The landlord threatens to evict her, but the narrator comes up with an ingenious solution—you need to read the novel to discover the solution. She falls madly in love with Apollo and he became a most important part of her life and also gives her a lasting connection to her friend. When pondering the relationship of humans and dogs she asks a lot of questions and makes a number of points that most dog lovers have likely considered. For instance, after we are introduced to the lovely Apollo, Nunez taunts the reader with “Does something bad happen to the dog?” That seems to me the question I ask in every book, every television show and every movie I see where a dog plays a role.

Nunez also asks “Why do people often find animal suffering harder to accept than the suffering of other human beings?” Reflecting on the outrage we feel over cruelty to animals, Nunez answers the question by reflecting on our own instincts in early life when we are helpless and observes that “when we are no longer capable of feeling it [outrage] will be a terrible day for every living being, that our own downward slide into violence and barbarity will be only that much quicker.”

Nunez ties all three musings together at the end of the book by acknowledging the significant role that love and loss play in shaping who we are. “What we miss—what we love and what we mourn—isn’t it this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are.”

I loved this book! The author uses a number of literary tricks which work, her life observations are real and poignant, without being preachy, her writing is fantastic and then of course there are the dogs. I acknowledge that this book may not be for everyone. But if you love to read literary fiction, this is a book for you. Oh, and one more thing, the novel won the 2018 National Book Award for fiction. The Friend can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

There There – by Tommy Orange

There There is the story of urban Native Americans, whose lives come together at a massive Powwow at the Oakland Coliseum.

There There is not a cheerful tale and involves a lot of characters. Tony Loneman is a physically disfigured 21 year old whose appearance and mental capacity were adversely affected by fetal alcohol syndrome. He makes a living selling drugs.

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and her half-sister, Jacqui Red Feather, were taken by their mother to live at Alcatraz for the occupation. Jacqui was raped and their mother informed them that she was dying of cancer, leaving them to live with an unrelated man. You can guess how that went.

Dene Oxendene receives a grant to film interviews with Native Americans living in Oakland, giving each person the opportunity to tell his or her story. “I want to bring something new to the vision of the Native experience as it’s seen on the screen. We haven’t seen the Urban Indian story.” The interviews are sort of the story in the story. When we first meet Dene he is listening to Radio Head’s “There There”. (Just ‘cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there”). He also reflects on Gertrude Stein’s description of Oakland, that there is no there there. “For Native people in this country, all over America, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”

Octavio Gomez is a drug dealer. It is his idea to rob the powwow of the prize money. There are many shady characters who revolve around Octavio.

There are lots of other characters too, all engaged in some way around the powwow. The story is brilliantly conceived, bringing numerous seemingly unrelated people together, and describing differing cultures, struggles and identities. As the powwow arrives and the attempted theft begins, the chapters become short and relay a sense of urgency to the reader, so that you feel like you are part of the story.

The book made me sad and ashamed. This is a book we should all read to remind us about how our country evolved and the continuing isolation and prejudice the original founders of this country continue to experience. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.