This installment: Russia in transition (f); a mess of a housekeeper in Taos (f); the travails of a lawn boy (f); Donald Hall’s last (nf); a spoof on academe (f); and Franken’s latest (CD/nf).
A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen
I felt in really good hands reading this book—seamless, accessible writing about a complex subject (Russia in transition) via story. Andrei, whose life is dead-ended in the States, gets the summons to help his 90-year old grandmother in Moscow from his older brother Dima, a mover and shaker in Russia’s new economy. But why does Dima have to leave and when will he return? Dark doings, we discover. At first Andrei feels disconnected, eager to return “home.” But he finds some hockey players who turn into friends and even a cause. Plus he loves his grandma, a mix of tough, demented, and periodically sharp. She’s the one who laments the state of current day Russia with the title’s words. Andrei’s essential naiveté get him and his new friends into trouble and he must leave. A lovely book, if that’s the word for such dysfunction.
Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin
Mona’s a mess, kind of ironic because she makes her sparse living as a house cleaner. She’s drawn to an unlikely lover, an addict/ dumpster diver, but things go south and she goes west, to Taos. Sharing a house with a very odd couple, she gets into even more peculiar tangles including advice from a psychic who never gets her name right. (!?) This is dream material, not dreamy but disturbing. No satisfying denouement, but the elements are so original I was intrigued by her and the oddball folks she attracts. And glad it’s not my life…
Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
That’s what Mike does, and he’s very good at it, with a talent for topiary, but it’s hard work for a mean boss and snooty folks. When he gets laid off, he has to scramble to make a buck, with lots of missteps and some sketchy alternatives. He tries to court a girl and it falls flat too, but Mike’s a bounce-back kid and he ends up with a good deal (I love it when worthy characters are rewarded) and a helpful realization about his sexuality. Sweet and satisfying.
A Carnival of Losses by Donald Hall
Subtitled Notes Nearing Ninety and the last work of this beloved poet. Essays of all sorts that get right to the point with economy and wit. Some about the indignity of old age—oh those dentures, many about life in the New England farmhouse he shared with his much younger wife Jane, a poet, who died of leukemia. And a bunch about poets and writers he’s known. Gossip and inside dope, as well as praise or not, depending on the person. He could tell it like it was, no need to curry favor any more. One especially fascinating: the genesis of the poem, “Ox-Cart Man.” Now Hall’s gone but we can savor him still.
The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher
A sequel to Dear Committee Members which I much enjoyed in 2014. A broad spoof on academe in which the English Dept. is getting brutally squeezed by Econ overhead which is trying to shrink its faculty and impinge on what classrooms they have left. Fitger, made department head, is not up to the job, and it doesn’t help that his ex, Janet, is bonking a dean who has bottom line visions of grandeur. Fitger has a good heart which gets trampled on and makes lots of tactical missteps which often lead to hilarious set-tos. A fun read.
Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken
A friend said I had to listen, and even though politics are not my bag, by the end of the CD set I was as enthusiastic as her. First there’s that delivery, honed by years of performing, and also the charm of his personality. Then there’s his decency (which I believe despite that Me-Too eruption), his intelligence, and his breathtaking candor. In these dark times it gave me a ray of hope. One fascinating element: his need to “dehumorize” his delivery on the Senate floor. Also incredible insights into how government really works—or doesn’t.
Back next week.