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Girls Burn Brighter

Girls Burn Brighter

By Shobha Rao

Published 2018

Read Aug 2020

This premier novel from Rao, born in India but migrated to the US at age 7, depicts the story of two girls’ struggle to retain their “brighter” selves despite relentless abuse they suffer. Poornima’s mother has died of cancer and her father’s alcoholism keeps the family struggling to eat.  He uses a marriage broker to seek a husband for Poornima but his meager estate makes this difficult.  Savitha’s family is even poorer, living on and picking through the local trash heap.  Savitha ends up working for Poornima’s father’s weaving business and the two girls kindle a friendship that helps them continue to “burn brighter” despite the obstacles they encounter.   The novel alternates between the stories of the two girls. The two girls end up in “thrown away” situations for different reasons which won’t be revealed here and are separated. 

This reader listened to the novel.  The reader was generally breathless, except in dialog sections. This reading style became somewhat annoying to this reader.  The non-dialog prose may have prompted this approach as it was sometimes nearly over the edge as it describes the relentless abuse the girls suffer and the girls’ struggle to keep their “light burning” while on their quests.  Poornima’s  quest was to find Savitha.   Savitha’s quest was to escape her appalling slave-life situation.  Her quest also seems pretty hopeless. 

Despite the near implausibility of their quests and an editing issue with respect to timing, the book was engaging. This reader knew that the “finder” at the nearby train station they both encounter at different times was leading them to a human trafficking situation which turned out to be true.  But this reader certainly hoped their quests would be fulfilled despite the odds.  The book paints a very bleak picture of life for Indian girls growing up in this kind of village in this region—having no worth except to have babies (boy babies) and serve the husband’s family.  When this path can’t be achieved, the options are bleak at best.    Unfortunately, this situation is not limited to poor Indian villages but remains true for many women in many cultures throughout the world and even within certain cultural situations in the United States.  This was a sobering book to read during the summer of the 100th anniversary of women achieving the right to vote in the United States.  Clearly the struggle for basic rights for women remains incomplete. 

The Mountains Sing–Learn About Vietnam

The Mountains Sing

By Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Published 2020

Read Aug 2020

Que Mai was born in northern Vietnam in 1973 in the midst of the war known globally as the Vietnam War and called the Resistance War Against America to Save the Nation by the government of Northern Vietnam.  She has authored 11 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction.   The Mountains Sing is her first book written in English.  She draws upon her family’s history and her extensive research to tell the story of the Tran family of Nghe An Province in north central Vietnam.  She brings to the reader the experiences of this family as it lives through a long period of great turmoil which left this reader with a new perspective of the people of this area and the struggles they have endured. 

The reader meets Grandma Dieu Lan (born 1920 to Mr and Mrs Tran) and granddaughter Huong (born 1960 to Grandma’s daughter Ngoc and her husband) in 1972 in Ha Noi where Grandma is a school teacher and Huong a student.  They are anxiously awaiting the war to be over and for Grandma’s six children and families to be reunited and returned to them.  While Grandma and Huong are hiding in a cave to shelter from the Dec 18, 1972 major extended bombing of Ha Noi, Grandma begins telling Huong the story of her family starting in 1930. Her stories which, progress in time from 1930, alternate with Huong’s narration of the family’s story moving forward from that day in the cave.

Grandma Dieu Lan was born into a land owning farming family.  All the members of the family worked taking care of animals and working in the field.  She marries, begins having a family, and is happy. But change is underway.  She tells Huong about the family trials during the Japanese occupation, the Great Famine, and the Viet Minh’s execution of the Land Reform.  During the Land Reform, her family is torn apart and then works to recover itself.  The Vietnam War disperses the family again as the sons are drafted to fight with the Viet Minh and Huong’s mother, a doctor, leaves to find her husband.  Huong’s narration covers the period of the war through letters and diaries and discussions with her mother and uncles after they return from the war.  Her narration also describes her family’s post-war period through 1980 as they work to find a new normalcy in the newly united county under communist rule.

The author makes several choices that enables the reader’s engagement and gives the reader a sense of the family’s culture.  As with many families with six children, life paths the children take, freely chosen or not, can cause substantial family conflict and this is true for Grandma’s children.  Que Mai sprinkles the text with Vietnamese words and uses a variety of approaches to provide their definition.  Several characters, and in particular Grandma Dieu Lan, use proverbs to express their feelings—and to help buoy spirits in difficult times. 

Que Mai uses her book to make clear that the Vietnamese people are more than some of the impressions that have been suggested—poor, illiterate farmers.   Grandma Dieu Lan’s farming parents believed in education—they hired a tutor for her brother AND her.  She becomes a teacher.  Her children are educated and Huong attends school and wins a place at a premier high school.  She gives Huong books as presents including a Vietnamese translation of “Little House on the Prairie”.  This book allows Huong to understand that Americans, who have pledged to bomb her people into submission, also work hard and love their family.  Both Huong and an uncle see young American soldiers taken prisoner or killed by the Viet Minh army and wonder about the humanity of these American solider and how their family members would be treated if they were prisoner of the American enemy.  Huong wonders at one point if people read more about each other if they would find other ways to solve their problems besides war. 

Que Mai uses Huong’s description of her journaling after an uncle’s death to explicitly show some of her themes regarding war:  “I wrote for Grandma, who’d hoped for the fire of war to be extinguished, only for its embers to keep burning her.  I wrote for my uncles, my aunt, and my parents, who were helpless in the fight of brother against brother, and whose war went on, regardless of whether they were alive or dead.”  But her book covers more than the Vietnam War and introduces the reader to a broader history of the struggles of these people who have been occupied by foreigners for centuries and whose struggles continued after their expulsion.  In the final chapter, Huong and her family are at Grandma’s grave.  Huong tells us she has converted Grandma’s stories into a manuscript which she brings to the grave.  She says “Grandma once told me that the challenges faced by the Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountain.  I have stood far enough away to see the mountaintops, yet close enough to witness how Grandma became the tallest mountain herself:  always strong, always protecting us.”

This remarkable book will engage the reader’s brain and your heart and give the reader a new perspective on this time and these people and on the concept of the usefulness of war in general. 

Where the Crawdads Sing—Good Summer Reading

Where the Crawdads Sing

By Delia Owens

Published 2018

Read June 2020

This book has been wildly popular.  This reader listened to it while on a summer vacation and understands the appeal.  It is a coming-of-age story. The person coming of age is a young girl abandoned by family and surviving on her own in the swamplands of North Carolina. It has lush language about the landscape. The young girl blossoms into a well-respected author despite many obstacles.  It has a murder mystery, the story of the investigation running parallel to the coming-of-age story.  The reader is engaged to root for the young girl during her struggles to both interact with and avoid society.   It is sweet but not sappy.  It’s a little unbelievable with regards to the ability of a girl of nine to actually survive on her own but as the youngest of a hard-scrabble family she had to learn some things before everyone left and the family from whom she buys gas has their eye on her.

So enjoy reading this book along with lots of other readers even if it’s not one that you  will discuss for many hours with a serious book discussion group.  We need some of these too, especially during these days of a seemingly unending pandemic and this one might provide some needed positive nourishment.

Provocative Mothers and their Precocius Daughters: 19th Century Women’s Rights Leaders

Provocative Mothers and Their Precocious Daughters

By Suzanne Schnittman

Published 2020

Read Aug 2020

This reader devoured this thoughtful and thought provoking book.  The author’s scholarship is remarkable.  She has reviewed countless pages of primary source documents—personal letters, diaries, and the writings of these remarkable women, as well as countless pages of secondary sources—biographies, histories, etc.  The author then concisely presents the reader with clear pictures of these reform mothers and their daughters—how the reform mothers managed motherhood and their activism, for several of the mothers on very limited incomes; how their activism translates to their parenting of their daughters; how the daughters responded to this parenting and the kind of adult they became as a result; and how the relationship between mother and daughter evolved over time.  This reader appreciated the extensive footnotes—it gave this reader confidence that the pictures presented of events and personal feelings reflect the data available about them and appreciation that the heavy lifting had been thoughtfully and thoroughly done by the author. 

The book gave this reader much to consider about both mother/daughter relationships and how new access to rights or advantages of one generation impacts both the parent/child relationship and the person/society relationship.  Some aspects of the mother/daughter relationship are likely universal and not impacted by time or place.  This likely includes hoping for the life of the daughter to be even easier/better than experienced by the mother and hoping that the daughter will support the mother in times of need.  How this translates in particular, however, is likely dependent on the constraints present in society, laws, and religious/tribal/family culture at the time.   When these constraints change substantially from one generation to the next, the relationships between parent/child and person/society might be different for one generation of children compared with another which can be both liberating for the child and troubling for the parent and society. 

This book is one you won’t forget soon and it will likely incite further exploration of the history of struggles for rights in this society that have needed amendments to the Constitution and/or federal laws to make them possible and how society has evolved as a result. 

The Cellist of Sarajevo–Relentless Struggles

The Cellist of Sarajevo

By Steven Galloway

Published 2008

Read June 2020

The cellist of Sarajevo really existed.  He was playing his cello when twenty-two people lost their lives in a bombing outside his window while waiting in line for bread during the siege of Sarajevo.  He really played that song each of twenty-two days in a row in their memory.  This book uses three voices to describe fictional people living in Sarajevo during those twenty-two days.

Arrow learned marksmanship in school and shot in competitions with her teammates.  She had been pressed into service to kill snipers lurking in the hills who were killing residents while they went about their daily business.  During the time of this story she has been assigned to kill the sniper sent to silence the cellist.  We hear what she is thinking and feeling during this time.  Her voice is the clearest and most distinct of the three.  We are left, as was she, with the question—is she really different from the snipers in the hills?

We listen to Keenan’s thoughts as he ventures into the streets to collect water for his family and neighbor from one of the few water sources left in the city. He doesn’t want to expose anyone else in his family to potential death by sniper during these treks but also doesn’t know what would happen to them if he is shot. 

Finally we listen to the thoughts of Dragon, a baker who has lived in the city all his life and is mourning the loss of the majesty of the buildings and the vitality of its people.  His family is no longer in the city—he has sent them away for safe keeping.  He too ventures into the streets to collect food and water.

The voices of Keen and Dragon are less distinct from each other compared with the voice of Arrow.  They recount their terror when worrying about whether it is safe to leave the safety of buildings and barricades to cross the street when needed.  They recount the various buildings that have been lost during this endless struggle. 

There is no discussion regarding the parties engaged in battle nor the reasons for the siege.  The book is solely focused on these three people as representatives of those whose lives are in a sort of suspended animation as their city and its people are being slowly destroyed.

The book is mercifully short (235 pages) as each page describes the endless dreadful state of being for the three characters.  This reader read a Kindle version so the extent of progress in the book wasn’t as obvious as when reading a hardcopy.  At one point, this reader wondered if the book would ever end as the relentlessness of destruction and sense of doom was almost overwhelming.  Fortunately this reader did eventually break out of this feeling, did experience the ability of the characters to persevere, and did appreciate the author’s ability to show both endurance of the spirit and the enormity of what Sarajevo citizens endured. 

Christine Falls—John Baneville’s first book as Benjamin Black

Christine Falls

By Benjamin Black

Published 2006

Read July 2020

This is the first book John Banville wrote as Benjamin Black and the second book of this Quirke series he is producing with this pen name.  Quirke is a melancholy, often drunk, pathologist who manages to get involved in trying to understand cases others think should be considered closed.  His inability to let them go reminds one of the character “Columbo” in the 1970’s TV series—always another question to consider.  But in this case, Quirke is a hospital pathologist, not a police officer, and in this book, no police are involved in the case at all except when they are called to deal with people that end up dead after Quirke connects with them to talk about this case he can’t quite leave alone.

In the opening chapter we meet Malachy Griffen, an ob/gyn doctor who practices at the same hospital as Quirke.  A sense of tension between the two is suggested in this opening scene which could be due to Griffen’s unexpected presence in Quirke’s office writing in a file.  Certainly this unusual situation is what peaks Quirke’s interest in the case.  We eventually learn that the tension is probably also associated with the unusual relationship between Quirke and Malachy.  Malachy’s father rescued Quirke from an orphanage when he was a boy and raised him as a son, actually showing parental preference for Quirke as a son over sickly Malachy.  Over the course of the book we learn more interesting and unusual details of their relationship which follow them to the present. 

An aspect that separates this series from other crime/mystery books is the language.  It’s not clipped but rather tends to be atmospheric and requiring involvement from the reader.  It doesn’t rely on short chapters that end on a cliff that compel you forward.  But you are drawn into the book to understand how the parallel story being told connects with the story Quirke is trying to dissect—which in this case requires involvement with living and, likely, lying people.

The time element of the story is not directly revealed, but it’s clearly not set in the present.  No cell phones are used and orphanages still exist, among other differences with current society.  These understated differences help pull the reader into this somewhat foggy world, shrouded in the gloomy weather, present but not explained melancholy of the characters, and likelihood of long-term deceptions that may never be fully revealed to the reader or the characters.  I look forward to reading more of this series. 

Hidden Figures: So Much More than the Movie

Hidden Figures

By Margot Lee Shetterly

Published 2016

Read July 2020

This reader had seen the movie “Hidden Figures” which was based on this book.  When this reader’s discussion group decided to read it as part of our upcoming season, this reader was prepared for the book to cover the same ground in words vs live action.  This reader was absolutely delighted to learn that although the movie was loosely based on the book (various liberties were taken to convey major themes of the book which were supported by the author and the three main characters), the book offers much more. The movie adaptation was well done and received critical acclaim and many awards including nomination for Best Picture at the 89th annual Academy Awards.  It’s possible that the Congressional Gold Medals awarded the three women in 2019 (post-humorously for Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan), the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Katherine Johnson in 2015, and naming of NASA facilities for Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson in 2019 and 2020 were influenced by Shetterly’s book and movie which made the major contributions of these Hidden Figures visible. 

Shetterly gives us three histories in her book:  a history of the Langley aeronautical research facility, a look at gender and race barriers faced by black mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, and  a history of segregation in schools.  She does this via the stories of three amazing mathematicians who gently but powerfully broke gender and race barriers during their tenures at Langley.  She comments early in the book that she discovered that there were hundreds of women at what is now known as Langley Research Center both black and white that made major contributions to the war efforts of WWI and WWII and to the space program that launched men into space and landed them on the moon.  In addition, these women broke race and gender barriers regarding the appropriateness and usefulness of women, black and white, in science and engineering.   By telling the stories of these remarkable women, Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson, Shetterly engages the reader in real stories that illuminate the histories she reveals. 

Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was established in 1917 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a US government agency created in 1915 to promote industry, government, and academic coordination of war projects.  As a civilian facility, its initial mission was to conduct research to enable successful fighter planes for WWI.  Over the years the focus of the laboratory evolved as needs of the nation evolved during WWII and during the cold war, leading to launch of manned space craft and manned landings on the moon.  The number of engineers, mathematicians, and technical support required to accomplish its missions was huge.  Unlike some aspects of the “military industrial complex”, employment levels at Langley did not waver substantially between wars.  Until the 1960s, most calculations were done manually with the support of mechanical calculators and the volume of this work was staggering—both theoretical and experimental work created large reams of data that had to be processed and analyzed.   Langley recruited hundreds of women as “human calculators” (steps below “mathematician”).  In parallel, it recruited hundreds of men into mathematician, scientist, and engineering positions. 

The gender barrier was significant regardless of race.  While all the women recruited as “computers” had BA/BS degrees in mathematics, and often physical sciences as well, they were relegated to a role and job title beneath men hired with similar credentials as “mathematician” or “scientist” or “engineer”.  This barrier eventually fell (over decades…) as the “computers” became more incorporated directly into research groups (like Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson), their male team members began to include their names on technical papers, and their value was recognized by their supervisors.  Mary Jackson’s supervisor recognized her talent and encouraged her to take the required courses to be promoted to engineer.   Katherine Johnson’s on-going request to be included in technical group meetings including her continuing questioning of the “well women are not invited” eventually was successful and she was included in these discussions.  When a collaborator was about to leave Langley to relocate to Houston, where the new space team would be centered in the new NASA organization, he told his boss to have Katherine write up their work as it was mostly hers anyway.  Thus Katherine’s paper became the first technical report solely authored by a woman. 

The race barrier was also very significant.  There were segregated “computer” groups—the West Computing Group being all black, supervised by a white woman while the East Computing Group was all white.  Restrooms and lunch tables allowed the West Computing Group were based on their race.  Only after eight years of a “temporary” assignment as Supervisor of the West Computing Group was Dorothy Vaughan, a talented mathematician regularly requested by research groups for her computing prowess and understanding of the work, actually promoted to this position, making her the first black person promoted to a supervisory position.  A quiet protest was fought for several years by a black computer who kept removing the “black table” sign from the cafeteria table they were assigned.  Eventually the sign was no longer replaced.  Katherine Johnson simply ignored the “white only” restroom restrictions as there weren’t “black” restrooms in her building.  Mary Jackson was promoted to the engineer title after a lengthy struggle to get special dispensation from the local school board to attend required courses offered on behalf of Langley at the local (white) high school. 

Shetterly also discusses the degree and impact of segregation in schools during this period and the journey towards integration.  Education at all levels was completely segregated by race.  Graduate programs were generally not available to blacks.  Johnson and Vaughan were both encouraged to attend graduate school but neither fully pursued graduate programs for various reasons.  Johnson benefited from an undergraduate professor who designed graduate level courses for the mathematical prodigy (she graduated from college at age 18) which eventually led her to become a primary player in the determination of flight trajectories for various space missions.  Her black professor, despite tremendous capabilities demonstrated while pursuing his PhD in mathematics, only the third ever granted to a black person, could only find employment at West Virginia College, a historically black college.  After the Brown v Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court, some Virginia public schools were actually closed to all during the period 1956-1958 to prevent integration.    

Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal

Heaven’s Ditch:  God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal

By Jack Kelly

Published 2016

Read May 2020

This reader has spent 30+ years living in western New York and has biked and walked along the Erie canal on a regular so anticipated this book would be an interesting read to learn more about the canal’s history.  It certainly fulfilled that promise and much more. 

Pursuing a vision to connect the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers near Albany, NY with Lake Erie, 360 miles away making it the longest canal in the world was remarkable.   Knowing that the canal would have major impact on the land between the two waters, but as importantly anticipating that the canal would have major impact on the new nation itself was enough to fuel DeWitt Clinton’s drive to build the canal, even if the US government wasn’t willing to do so.  What wasn’t known well then was that the 360 mile canal would also have to enable lifting boats 600 feet along their journey and that technologies required to allow the canal to survive winters weren’t even available in the country much less the region.  Engineers didn’t have the ready knowledge or experience to accomplish this huge task but an amazing can-do spirit meant the project was funded by the state after being refused federal funds and neatly accomplished in 8 years (1817-1825).  A course was plotted through the wilds of central and western New York, water sources were found to power the huge number of locks, and the backs of locals and Irish immigrants hand-dug the canal, later supported by tools devised by self-taught engineers.  Another self-taught engineer, Canvass White, leveraged a technology he saw in the UK to use a hydraulic cement, impermeable to water, as mortar for stones vs the original plan of using timbers (with an expected short life) to build the 83 locks.  His discovery of a source of the required limestone near Syracuse, NY, and his experiments in how to make the cement allowed the locks and arches to survive decades longer than timbers could have.  Many of these structures are still visible and/or in use.    

Kelly’s telling of the building of the canal covers the “Heaven’s Ditch” part of the title.  His parallel documentation of the cultural changes in the area covers the other parts.  Another extraordinary piece of history occurred during this same period and in this same part of the country—“The Second Great Awakening”.  In many respects this aspect of the book is larger in depth and scope than the telling of the building of the canal, covering a larger time period and geographical setting.   Kelly gives the story of three people who had huge impact on the area and beyond:  Charles Finney—“The Great Evangelist”, William Miller—who predicted (incorrectly) the date of the second coming, and Joseph Smith, Jr—who founded the religion that becomes the Church of Latter Day Saints.  Each of these men provided their followers something beyond what was available in the traditional church settings of the day. 

Kelly recounts Finney’s story.  After various jobs and approaches to education, he becomes a successful revivalist.  His revivals were often held when farmers weren’t toiling in their fields allowing entire families to trek to the revival site.  The events provided stimulating, actionable words vs the dry oratory participants heard in their traditional churches.  Kelly details major revivals held in Rochester, NY. Finney stirred abolitionist fervor that spread in the area and was carried west on the canal. 

Kelly also discusses William Miller, another influential religious leader at that time.  After various struggles with his faith, wavering between the Baptist Church and Deism, he returned with vigor to the Baptist Church.  After substantial consideration of the scriptures, he calculated the date of the second coming of Christ.  He eventually revealed this and preached about this date which would be sometime in 1843 or 1844.     Although “The Great Disappointment” arrived when expectations were not met, some of his followers reconsidered his teachings and begat the Seventh Day Adventist church that continues today. 

The impact of Joseph Smith, Jr. is more widely known.  His family left financial ruin in Vermont to settle in an area of western New York that would become Palmyra, NY and that was near the coming canal. He and family members worked on the canal as it was being dug there.  Kelly provides substantial detail regarding Smith’s humble beginning, his considerations of various religious practices, how the he engaged others to believe he had received the golden plates (although no one else ever saw them) in a clearing in a nearby woods, and how he alone was able to translate and record the history of the world that was revealed to him via these plates and later via direct revelation.  Heaven’s Ditch follows his history west to Illinois and Missouri to his eventual death and describes the others he commissions as elders, including Brigham Young.  Interesting to this reader is a review about Kelly’s book in the blog of the Association for Mormon Letters, a non-profit focused on production and criticism of Mormon literature.  The reviewer has this to say: “Every Seventh-day Adventist and Mormon certainly should read this fine book, as it will inform and illuminate.”  (1)  This reader also found very interesting that as Joseph’s power over his community rose, he followed a path common to some other men rising in power in religion, business, or government—the need to fulfill a growing sexual appetite.  His approach to reconcile this passion with his church eventually led to the acceptability of having multiple “spiritual wives”.  The author lays interesting ground for consideration for readers regarding how other religions a initiate and grow. 

The fourth person he discusses in some detail is William Morgan, who wrote an exposé of the Freemason fraternal organization that played a large role in society of that time.  He is the “murder” part of the title—-he went missing shortly before his book was published and his fate was never learned although many theories were lightly considered by various investigations. 

Although Kelly’s book title likely will capture readership of those interested in the engineering feat of the Erie Canal, readers will learn at least as much about the “Second Awakening” in the United States and the role some prominent western New Yorkers played in this important aspect of US history.  Kelly’s mission-free style informs and keeps the reader well engaged.

(1) http://associationmormonletters.org/blog/reviews/older-reviews/kelly-heavens-ditch-god-gold-and-murder-on-the-erie-canal-reviewed-by-gary-mccary/

The Last Hundred Year Trilogy—A Family Farm Saga from Jane Smiley

The Last Hundred Year Trilogy

Some Luck

Published 2014; Read June 2016

Early Alert

Published 2015; Read July 2016

Golden Age

Published 2015; Read Aug 2016

By Jane Smiley

When the first book of the trilogy was published, the following two were written and in the process of publication as well.  The series literally covers 100 years starting in 1920 and ending in 2020.  Each chapter of each book is entitled the year the actions in the chapter occur.

If you like family sagas especially those that start with rural or farming life this is a great set of books for you.  This reader plowed through them in pretty quick order (limited in part by availability of library copies!) and wasn’t disappointed.  This reader found the first book, Some Luck, to be the strongest.  Since it is focus on the first generation of the Walter and Rosanna Langdon family, it can spend more time with this set of characters and the primary setting in Iowa.  As the series progresses and the Langdon children and their cousins take a variety of paths off the farm, marry, have their own children and grandchildren,  there is progressively much more to manage and single year chapters and reasonable book lengths mean less focus on any single character. 

Jane Smiley has written a number of books both for adults and young people, short stories, books about writing, a book about Dickens, and has taught writing for a number of years so she knows the writing business well.  She can get into the mind of a two year old child, a young farm wife about to manage giving birth on her own, or a horse (Horse Heaven) with equal engaging believability.  Hopefully she will continue delivering.

Everybody’s Fool and Chances Are….Two More Richard Russo Hits

Everybody’s Fool

Published 2016

Read June 2016

Chances Are…

Published 2019

Read June 2020

By Richard Russo

A look at the published/read information shows that this reader reads Russo’s new novels fairly shortly after their publication.  This has been true since this reader read Empire Falls in 2001 and promptly read his two preceding books.  This reader also read his memoir Elsewhere:  A Memoir which nicely confirms that Russo writes what he knows:  life growing up in central upstate New York after industry had left or was leaving and the trials and tribulations of being a teacher at a small college.

Everybody’s Fool is a sequel to Nobody’s FoolNobody’s Fool  was made into a movie starting Paul Newman (who also showed up in a mini-series version of Empire Falls along with his wife Joanne Woodward).   Donald “Sully” Sullivan (Paul Newman’s character) returns in Everybody’s Fool along with other characters from the first book, all older and not necessarily any wiser.   There is a little bit of mystery and a lot of looking at this collection of flawed but sometimes loveable characters as they make their way through a Memorial Day weekend in their small townChances Are… is somewhat of a change of pace for Russo.  It’s neither set in a somewhat decaying town in central upstate New York nor at a small college nor does it involve teachers.  But it does involve men who are Russo’s approximate age so Russo once again writes what he knows.  Here three 66-year old men, who worked together in a kitchen at a small liberal arts college they attended, have gathered for a weekend at the same summer place where they were last together when celebrating college graduation.  There is a mystery again which is more predominant than usual for Russo novels (did his agent or editor indicate this was needed for sales?) this time about a female classmate who was also at that post-graduation gathering and who went missing thereafter.  All the guys had dreamed about Jacey as their girlfriend but she was always just a friend and it was clear that’s all there would be as she was engaged  to be married to someone none of them liked—someone in Jacey’s social stratum which was above theirs.  The chapters alternate between Teddy and Lincoln, two of the guys, and give both their pre-and post-college stories and their present experiences during this weird weekend.  The third character, Mickey, finally has a voice near the end of the book.  Mickey had drawn a small draft lottery number and went to Canada to avoid the draft, despite being conflicted about the decision.  Teddy and Lincoln had drawn higher numbers and avoided the Vietnam experience.  During the course of the weekend, the guys actually spend fairly limited time together and talk to each other even less (remember they are 66 year old men of an era and background that condoned not sharing with other