This installment: Chabon’s latest; a British novel about getting and spending; another one about economic excesses and collapses; and a historical novel based in California citrus groves with a touch of voodoo.
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
The prophetically named Brokeland record store is limping along, now under threat by a proposed Dogpile megastore that also features vinyl albums and is very well capitalized. Partners Archy (black) and Nat (white) have conflicts. Their wives, Gwen (black) and Aviva (white) have a midwifery partnership, also under stress. Gwen is pregnant, Archy likes the ladies, and a surprise 14 year old son appears. A recipe for lots of action, emotion, and turns of fortune. Colorful characters, lively locations, jazzy, profane language and great send ups of Bay area pretensions. A treat.
Capital by John Lanchester
On Pepys Rd. in London, weird, anonymous notices arrive: we want what you have. At first it's just annoying, then the campaign escalates. We gradually get to know the neighbors: an old lady, an upwardly mobile family, Pakistani shopkeepers, and others connected to them, and each story plays out and intersects. Everyone has a different relationship to getting and spending. Terrorism, anti-Muslim sentiments, and the bank collapses of '08 all play a part. Quite a mix of satire, social commentary, and compassion (for those who deserve it). I couldn't stop reading until I found out who did what and who ended up where. Very compelling.
What the Nanny Saw by Fiona Neill
Another witty send up of the 2008 financial meltdown, based in England. (I'd just read Lanchester's Capital two days ago, which deals with the same material.) Here we have bright, literate, but provincial Ali, the nanny who saw, working for the very successful Skinner family. Her charges: twin 5 year old boys, charming and eccentric, troubled 14 year old Izzie, handsome almost 18 year old Jake. The parents are very busy and essentially absent. Ali does what she can with those long lists of requirements versus. the actual needs of the kids. There are lots of near misses but the clueless parents are well pleased with her and she's having an amazing time surrounded by the giddy absurdities of excess. It all comes tumbling down fast as banker husband Nick is accused of insider trading, wife Bryony is implicated, the bank folds, and the journalist sharks gather outside the manse. Very entertaining and nice use of shadow material, like Ali's drug addicted sister and the fraught histories of her fellow nannies from Eastern Europe. It would make a good movie.
The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli
When Claire marries Foster, she arrives at his citrus ranch in California with trunks full of books but no background in agriculture. Surprisingly, she takes to the land and becomes a deeply engaged participant in its future. A terrible trauma and the threat of insolvency destroy the marriage but Claire hangs in there over the years, helped by faithful Octavio whose family worked the property for generations. Claire gets cancer and needs care. Mysterious, attractive Minna shows up, casually recruited by one of Claire's daughters. Thus begins a fever dream of illness, intensity, voodoo, dissolution, and isolation. This book is full of fascinating material but I had to suspend disbelief often to continue reading. It was worth it for the milieu and the compelling weirdness.
Back next Monday