This installment: the Gilded Age on the East Coast (f); nastiness at an English college (f); surrealistic “real life” stories (f); three floors, three stories—all fraught (f); more O’Nan (f); and a teen CD about rap and growing up (f).
The Peacock Feast by Lisa Gornick
Tiffany of stained glass fame threw the eponymous event every year, a grotesque spectacle with girls in Greek tunics carrying roasted birds, refeathered for the occasion. (They taste awful, we learn.) He also dynamited the breakwater in front of his estate to destroy the beach because locals were using it too. A mean man. We get the story through 102-year-old Prudence whose parents worked for Tiffany. A great niece, Grace, shows up and out comes the tangled tale. Grace (for Slick) and her brother Garcia (for Jerry) spent their early years in a Mendocino commune. Lots of sorrows and complicated relationships, perhaps too much and too many, but definitely evocative of the Gilded Age (1916 on) and the way class and personal foibles can create miseries. Evocative.
The Club by Takis Wurger
The exclusive Pitt Club at Cambridge invites upper class guys who box. The members also indulge in “extracurricular” activities. Hans, a solitary fellow whose parents died early, is contacted by his last remaining relative, Alex, who teaches at the college. She asks him to enroll under a false name, infiltrate the club, and redress a wrong though she doesn’t reveal what it was. He meets Charlotte, one of Alex’s students, and gradually discovers what happened to her at the club (drugging and a rape). A tweaked form of justice ensues. Strange, dark, and compelling.
The Sadness of Beautiful Things by Simon Van Booy
This writer’s specialty: he listens to people and creates stories from their narratives. Many demonstrate the surrealism of “everyday” life. Like a Chinese eye doctor whose spectacles provide literal insight which can cure depression. Or a daughter pieced together after a catastrophic accident; the parents feel she is only a simulacrum and deal with her in a shocking denouement. Van Booy’s matter-of-fact retelling creates even more fascination.
Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo
What a concept: on each floor of this apartment building a narrator unburdens his or her dilemma to a listener. On the first a guy is driven to find out what happened to his 7-year-old daughter in the woods and (possibly) destroys his marriage in the process. On the second, a woman hides her brother-in-law, on the lam (he’s a big-time scam artist). Her marriage is probably shot as well. On the third a retired judge, widowed, reconnects with her estranged son. She confides it all to an old answering machine that still plays her husband’s message. There’s a reference to Freud’s three “stories”—Id, Ego, and Superego. Very compelling. Note: the author is Israeli.
Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan
After I read O’Nan’s latest, I reread this one which came out in 2011 and thoroughly enjoyed it. (And you should know I very seldom revisit books except in a different form, like the CD version.) This is what I wrote about it then: “Pittsburgh where a widow moves through her modest, measured life. Disappointing grown children and teenage grandchildren. A weekly lunch out with her sister-in-law, Arlene. Betty the housecleaner who also comes weekly. Contemporaries dying right and left. The old dog. The garden. Arlene ends up in the hospital and Emily has to start driving again. Time hangs heavy. She misses her husband, Henry. The summer is stifling. Construction next door destroys the peace of her garden. Off she goes to their summer cottage, and on the way visits the graves and plants geraniums for Henry and her parents. A fussy, constrained, melancholy existence with flashes of joy and wry humor. Is it a look into the future for me?” To update: luckily I’m now 5 years older than Emily and so far that’s not my future. (Whew.) This time I really picked up on the sustenance classical music brought her. And was interested to pick up on some political action in the book. Unfortunately, she’s a Republican.
On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
I’m so glad I came across this teen book in CD form because it really comes into rich, vernacular focus in the ear. Bri, 16, daughter of Lawless (murdered by a gang), has her dad’s gift. She wins her first rap “battle” with the eponymous title song but it has gritty lyrics that make her sound hoodlum. Caught selling candy at school she’s manhandled by the security guards, gossip portrays her as a drug dealer, and things get very tense indeed. Her mother, 8 years sober, is out of a job. Her father’s producer tries to capitalize on her talent but that would mean cultivating an even worse reputation. Bri comes through (comes up—yes!) and we learn a lot about racism, compromises, and claiming oneself. Excellent narrator.
Back next week.