This installment: contemporary altruists—an oxymoron? (f); a hipster La Ronde of sorts (f) a nonbinary memoir in graphic form (nf); stunning Japanese-American teen book (f); Atkinson’s latest (f); and perverse house-cleaning (f).
The Altruists by Andrew Ridker
An ironic title, for sure. Arthur is a nebbishy professor who could use the money his dead wife left directly to his grown kids. He’s estranged from them but invites them home to St. Louis to make up—and to ask them for funds to pay the mortgage. It’s a tense and miserable visit, no surprise. Son Ethan needs money himself—he’s at sea in his life, haunted by a teenage coming out trauma. Daughter Maggie deprives herself and wants to give the money away to the less fortunate. The happiest Arthur ever was was long ago in Zimbabwe, building latrines; turns out his design was faulty and he left in disgrace. There’s grace of sorts at the end and sly wit along the way.
Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky
Another ironic title, because though Zahid Azzam fits the description initially (handsome, winsome, exotic), his brief affair with Rachel, his creative writing student, has heavy duty effects down the line. Because he needs a place to live, ends up in Connecticut with Rachel’s mother, and you can imagine the household tension. There are surprising conjunctions with the characters—kind of like a hipster La Ronde. Very contemporary and mordant; the worlds of high finance and academic striving both get a satirical workout.
Gender Queer: a memoir by Maia Kobabe
What a complicated subject! Here Kobabe gets to the heart of the complexity with eir own journey, explored with heart-stopping honesty. Kobabe uses e/em/eir pronouns, and non-binary means not identifying as female or male or even trans; there are so many individual variations. E takes us from childhood—very supportive parents but cruel peers—to college, graduate school, and a job in a library. A gamut of experiences: Tinder connections, books that spoke to em, discovering the joys of underwear made for boys, and much, much more. I’ve read a lot on the subject and I think this is the best so far.
This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura
CJ has a lot on her plate: a job she loves in her aunt’s flower shop; a crush on one of her school’s power figures; the fact that her McAllister High School is named after the racist who bought up her family’s property when they were interned in WWII; and a campaign to set that right. But since her ambitious single mother works for the McAllisters and has big plans for CJ, lots of conflict. Her best friend Em, gay, falls for her elementary school tormenter, another power figure. Moral dilemmas galore, well played out with pitch-perfect teen voices. Northern California setting. A very satisfying read.
Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
I love this writer but was disappointed by her last book and very relieved this one really works. There’s Jackson Brodie, PI, again (love that guy) who’s a magnet for trouble though he’s just trying to live a low-key life in this coastal village. His dog is getting old, his kid is now a grumpy teen, and his ex, Julia, a film actress, is always tied up on location. An old case involving traffickers and child pornographers rears its head and local mucky mucks want to sweep it into oblivion. Lively, suspenseful, a treat.
Vacuum in the Dark by Jen Beagin
Oh that Mona, whom we’ve met in Begin’s first novel, Pretend I’m Dead. She’s still cleaning houses in Taos but each house is more eccentric than the next, and leads her into ill-considered relationships. Mona’s a real wild card with a taste for really dark stuff (one of her lovers she actually dubs Dark; his wife is blind but their marriage is open–uh-oh). She gets sidetracked to a seedy motel in Arizona—not a good fit—but an unlikely rescuer shows up in the nick of time. Sometimes her self-destructive tendencies make me want to cringe but I love her spirit and will follow her wherever her loopy path ends up—at least on the page. Cleaning tips, too.
Back next week.