This installment: Short stories on CD (f); a mess of a wedding (f); a charming kid’s book (CD-f); hard luck in Sweden (f); a mystery featuring a prison librarian (f); and Ethiopians in Boston.
Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides
Short stories I first encountered on CD, and quite entertaining. Some explore the depredations of age, and there are excursions into music, entrapment, a funky Florida motel, a young man seeking enlightenment on an obscure island but in effect starving to death, and more. Most a bit bitter, but that’s a flavor I appreciate when leavened with wit, as it is here.
The Garden Party by Grace Dane Mazur
Weddings are petri dishes for family dysfunction and this rehearsal dinner really heats things up for the Cohens and the Barlows. Adam, a poet, is the groom to be; his inamorata, Eliza, wants to be a vet. Her relatives are mostly lawyers and extremely uncomfortable in the wild garden of Leah and Pindar, his parents, who are academics. Lots of opportunities for sparring, groping, and some surprising alliances. New England setting. Charming, with a slightly elegiac cast.
Inkling by Kenneth Oppel
An absolutely charming kid’s book that sucked me in via CD and lifted my spirits. Ethan worries about his dad, a blocked graphic artist. Things around the house have been grim since his mother died of cancer. Enter Inkling, a protean inkblot escaped from dad’s sketchbook and a very lively character in his own right. With octopus-like tentacles Inkling can draw magnificently which helps Ethan’s project at school enormously. Inkling can also turn himself into a dog, kind of, to delight Ethan’s sister Sarah who has Downs Syndrome and is a delightful character as well. There’s suspense, plot twists, humor, and healing—a gem of a book for all ages.
Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist
When the protagonist bears the name of the author, one assumes it’s an autobiographical novel. If so, poor Tom. A tragic story. He and Karin had been together for 10 years. Both writers, and now she’s very pregnant and gets very sick very fast. After a C-section baby Livia survives but despite desperate last ditch measures, Karin doesn’t. First Tom exhaustedly shuttles back and forth between them in the hospital. Then he’s home, totally unprepared, with a premature baby. Both sets of grandparents provide some help and some burdens; Karen in effect shut them out when she was dying and Tom’s father has terminal cancer. Also a grotesque set-to with the Swedish government over Livia’s custody. (Tom invokes Kafka after the third go-round.) So why read about such sad stuff? Because as the title suggests, there is luminous life-force afoot here, beautifully invoked and grounded.
The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos
I’ve never read this popular tough-guy mystery writer before but picked up this one because of Anna, who’s a prison librarian. DC setting, a crooked lawyer who partners with a bail bondsman on extracurricular heists, and Michael, a nice guy gone astray, who develops the reading bug in jail and determines to go straight. (Thank you, Anna—she turns him on to literature.) Interesting interplay with race and class; the lawyer’s wife is black, as is his partner, as is Michael. Another client is rich and there are spoiled kids to deal with. Michael faces considerable challenges and temptations, but as the title suggests, it’ll all work out, at least for him. Lively dialogue and suspense.
The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat
Things seem dire for father and teenage daughter on a mysterious tropical island under mysterious circumstances. It’s cult-like, with privations and a sense of menace. How did they get there? It all started in Boston where the daughter, the narrator, hung out in the eponymous attendant’s shed, doing her homework after school. His name is Ayele, he’s making lots of money, and has many complex connections with the Ethiopian community. She does errands for him and down the line this puts her and dad at risk, hence the forced relocation. I couldn’t always figure out what was going on but so much local color and immediacy kept me spellbound.
Back next week.