Friday, March 01, 2024

American Spirits - Russell Banks


The literary world suffered a great loss when author Russell Banks died of cancer in January 2023 at the age of eighty-two. Twice a Pulitzer Prize for fiction finalist, Banks came to be known as a novelist and short story writer whose work usually focused on the daily struggles and stresses of ordinary working people, those forever fated to remain on the outside looking in at others whose lives they perceive to be so much easier than their own. 

Banks's first novel, Family Life, was published in 1975 along with Searching for Survivors, his first short story collection. The Magic Kingdom, the last novel to be published during the author's lifetime, came along in 2022, some forty-seven years after Family Life. But as it turns out, there's going to be at least one more Russell Banks book for readers to enjoy because American Spirits, a collection of three loosely connected stories, will be published in just a few days (March 5, 2024). 

The three stories in American Spirits, each about eighty pages in length, or set in and around the fictional community of Sam Dent, New York. The little town is named after an early settler to the area who donated the land for the townsite on the strict condition that it be called "Sam Dent," and nothing else - certainly not some corruption of his surname such as Denton or Dentville. Unfortunately for Mr. Dent, the future would not treat his descendants kindly, and it has been all downhill for the Dents since Sam's passing. 

In "Nowhere Man," a struggling family man and his siblings decide to sell off much of the remaining family land they still hold only to have the purchaser open a private gun range and training facility for right wing militia members on the property they sell him. After the seller dares complain about the resulting noise and the now-broken promises made to him prior to the sale, his life becomes pure hell.

"Homeschooling" is set in one of Sam Dent's finer neighborhoods where two very different families struggle to figure out just what to make of each other. In one family, a woman and her wife who have adopted four black siblings live in total isolation in the large home in which they homeschool the children. In the other, a young couple naively in love with the whole idea of life in "the country" moves in next door along with their own two children. Things begin to get strange almost as soon as the two families first set eyes on each other.

The third story in American Spirits, "Kidnapped," is about an elderly couple kidnapped and held for ransom by two Canadian criminals who have come south to collect the money that the elderly couple's grandson owes the men. The utter ineptness of this pair makes them more dangerous than anyone can imagine. 

Russell Banks is not one to have ever pulled punches in his fiction, and the realistically presented stories in this collection are a vivid reminder of how quickly things can go from bad to worse in the crazy world we live in today. American Spirits is pure Russell Banks, another reminder of just how badly Banks is going to be missed.

Russell Banks in 2011 (Wikipedia Photo)

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Blues Brothers: An Epic Friendship, the Rise of Improv, and the Making of an American Film Classic - Daniel de Visé


Those of us who tuned into NBC's Saturday Night back in the day just to get another dose of John Belushi's craziness (in my case, it was also to see Gilda Radner in action) should not have been surprised by John's sudden death or even the way that he died. But most of us still were. Daniel de Visé's The Blues Brothers, part dual-biography, part show business history, and part cultural history, is a vivid recreation of those times. 

Dan Aykroid and John Belushi were destined to become best friends at some point in their lives. The two men followed remarkably similar career paths to the "overnight success" and sudden stardom they seemed to achieve as cast members of Saturday Night. Both were products of comedy clubs, Akyroid in Toronto and Belushi in his home town of Chicago, that featured small groups of improvisational comedians so when they began working together on Saturday Night, the magic came early and it came often.

Surprisingly, it would be the relatively nerdy Dan Akyroid who ended up introducing the more worldly John Belushi to a style of music he knew almost nothing about despite having grown up in Chicago. Belushi was quick to pick up on Akyroid's enthusiasm for the sound, and it was probably inevitable that their shared love of the blues would be reflected on television screens all over America. And that television version of The Blues Brothers band turned out to be so much fun and so popular a concept, that in 1980 it led directly to the outrageously expensive and difficult-to-film movie The Blues Brothers, a movie that is now considered to be a true film classic. 

The success of The Blues Brothers movie made the pair, but especially Belushi, such hot stars that Belushi's already problematic relationship to alcohol and drugs grew to out-of-control levels that began to threaten his marriage, his ability to work, and his life. Despite the efforts of those who knew him best, there was no going back for John Belushi.

Fans of the movie (and the musical genre) will be especially pleased to see how many pages the book devotes to the making of The Blues Brothers. The utter destruction and chaos endured by the city of Chicago during its filming is so unbelievable that it is difficult to believe that it was ever allowed to happen. This was an incredibly expensive and difficult movie to make, but even after expenditures reached a point of no return, the millions of dollars kept adding up to the extent that recovering even the cost of the movie seemed impossible to studio executives. The Blues Brothers was an important movie in another sense; it jumpstarted the waning careers of some blues regulars who were barely hanging on in 1980. Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown found a whole new generation of fans, and some would go on to enjoy the most lucrative years of their entire careers.

Reading The Blues Brothers is a little like watching a massive train wreck in slow motion, but the book is packed with so many details and stories that Blues Brothers fans are certain to be intrigued by what they learn from it.  

Daniel de Visé publicity photo

Monday, February 26, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (February 26, 2024)


I finished three books last week, but the real highlight of the week for me was the way a fourth one so unexpectedly absorbed almost all the reading time I had left over. Finished up were Study for Obedience, The Blues Brothers, and American Spirits, three books with very little in common, and the one that grabbed me and wouldn't let go was Deanna Raybourn's Killers of a Certain Age.

I'm about seventy-five percent through Killers of a Certain Age now, so that one will almost definitely be finished up in the next couple of days. In addition, I'm also nearly done with Tommy Orange's There There and well into the short story collection Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird, Hitchcock's Blondes, and the Perry Mason classic, The Case of the Empty Tin. 

And there are the ones that I've just scratched the surface of or plan/hope to start soon:

The only Michael Cunningham novel I've read is The Hours, but I was so impressed by that one that Cunningham's name on a book still grabs my attention. Day is Cunningham's latest, and although I've only read the first twenty pages or so, I'm intrigued by its premise. The novel checks in with one family on three specific days: April 5, 2019; April 5, 2020; and April 5, 2021. In effect, Day is a story about how different the family was one year prior to COVID-19 compared to how it is one year after the worst of COVID-19 is behind us. 

How to Build a Boat is one of the last two 2023 Booker Prize nominees that I'm still waiting for, and it's finally arrived at my library branch. This is an Irish coming-of-age novel about a boy with a dream that he believes will change his life forever. The boy, whose mother died when he was born, is another of those obvious outsiders who attract bullies for their entire lives. He comes to the attention of two teachers who want to help him through his troubles, but each of them have troubles of their own, so maybe before it's all over the boy will end up helping them as much as they help him.

I'm running out of library-time for The Only Good Indians, so it really needs to happen for me soon. Native American author Stephen Graham Jones is a multi-award winner, so I have high hopes that this one is better than its jacket flap makes it sound. I'm not really into "horror" anymore, so the description puts me off a bit: "Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on retribution, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and tradition they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way." We'll see.

Others starting to make their presence felt are these four which are all being published in the next four to fifteen weeks (shown here in order of publication):

I've freed up a little reading time by deciding to take a pass on The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency because I realize now that the HBO series I watched a few weeks ago is almost entirely based on this first novel in the series. The scripts greatly expand on the several mysteries cleared up by Mma Ramotswe in the book, so I already know "who did it." I've also returned Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to the library in favor of reading one of the Christie novels already sitting on my own shelves. That gives me the space to take a flyer on any wildcard that catches my eye later this week.

Happy reading, everyone...we've had genuine spring weather here for the last few days, and that means that my reading hours are shrinking in direct proportion to the rise in temperature. But that's kind of a nice problem to have for a change.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Study for Obedience - Sarah Bernsetin (And a 2023 Booker Prize List Update)


For reasons not entirely clear to me, Sarah Bernstein's Study for Obedience was included on the 2023 Booker Prize shortlist. The novel remains as much a puzzle to me today as it did when, expecting a quick read, I began the first of its 200-or-so pages. A quick read, this is not.

The publisher compares Bernstein's style to that of Shirley Jackson, a writer I've often enjoyed reading, and I agree that Bernstein does capture some of the weirdness of a Shirley Jackson novel, especially by using a nameless narrator who lives almost entirely inside her own head. Bernstein's narrator, I suspect, is somewhere on the autism spectrum, but because no other character ever speaks to anyone but her, it's hard to tell for sure sometimes what is really happening and what is only being imagined. 

The basic premise of the book is that the narrator has been groomed almost since she could walk to be at the beck and call of her numerous older siblings and their parents. And there is every indication that the others were all happy enough to exploit her right up until they became adults with spouses of their own. After the last of her siblings left home, the narrator began working as a legal document transcriber and lived alone. Now, though, she has been summoned by her eldest brother to join him where he lives alone in some remote "northern" town where no one speaks English (French Canada, perhaps). There she is to serve as his housekeeper and general servant - even to bathing him and laying out his clothes each morning.

Despite having her life reclaimed this way, the narrator is somewhat surprised that she is so happy to be sharing a home with her brother again - and she so much relishes her isolation (especially when her brother leaves town for weeks at a time) that the language barrier is no problem. But then the animals, both domestic and wild, begin to display strange behavior and suffer in ways not known to have ever happened before in the village. Suddenly everyone perceives our forever-to-remained-unnamed narrator to be "the other," someone so different from the rest of them that she is a direct threat to the only life they have ever known.

Ultimately, this is, I think, a novel about being different, about being perceived as an outsider by everyone around you, and how the "normals" react to anyone they can't explain or understand. Perhaps Bernstein means it as a reprimand about the uneasiness that so many of us feel about the mass migration underway in the world today. And just maybe, I don't have a clue about any of this.

 Study for Obedience is not a difficult novel to read; it's a difficult novel to absorb, one that is likely to be a lot deeper than book I've just read. 

Sarah Bernstein book jacket photo


I have now read nine of the 2023 Booker Prize nominees and sampled two others long enough to know that I did not want to finish them. That leaves just two to go, and both of those have been on hold at my library for a while now.

My personal ranking of the eleven 2023 Booker novels I've experienced to this point goes like this:

  1. The House of Doors
  2. The Bee Sting
  3. If I Survive You
  4. Western Lane
  5. All the Little Bird-Hearts
  6. Pearl
  7. Old God's Time
  8. This Other Eden
  9. Study for Obedience
  10. A Spell of Good Things
  11. In Ascension 

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Ex-Libris: 100 Books to Read and Reread - Michiko Kakutani


Although Michiko Kakutani's Ex-Libris is subtitled 100 Books to Read and Reread, what Kakutani actually does here is divide the book into 100 sections, many of which include multiple books. One section, for instance, is titled "The Works of William Shakespeare" even though the author's work is only discussed in general terms with only one or two of the plays being specifically referenced at all. Other sections are devoted to particular books, usually two or three, from specific authors, and there are even a few sections highlighting entire series such as "The Harry Potter Novels" and "The Lord of the Rings." Consequently, it's difficult to get a true count of how many books are covered in the compilation.

"These magical brick-sized objects - made of paper, ink, glue, thread, cardboard, fabric, or leather - are actually tiny time machines that can transport us back to the past to learn the lessons of history, and forward to idealized or dystopian futures." Michiko Kakutani, Page 14. 

The books chosen for Ex-Libris range from well known volumes of classic literature to more obscure novels and authors of recent years, each title generally being granted one or two pages for Kakutani's sales pitch to the reader. The titles also cover a substantial amount of nonfiction, including history, sociology, and political books that Kakutani considers influential or important.  

I found many of the selections to be so affectively presented that I immediately added them to my personal TBR list. I even found myself going out to purchase a nice copy of Albert Camus's 1947 novel The Plague after reading about it early on in Ex-Libris because I was so immediately struck by how similar everyone's covid-year experience was to what Camus describes in that seventy-seven-year-old novel. The books added to my list are all over the map; some I had known of but had simply neglected to read for myself, some are more recent titles that I brushed aside because of the inordinate amount of hype they received when published, and others are books and authors I had never heard of before Ex-Libris. Embarrassingly enough, I even found three or four of the books already on my own shelves.

All in all, I added thirty-two books to my TBR - and now I'll see how my good intentions work out in the real world. I also see that I have already read another twenty-one of the books, meaning that I have little or no interest in reading about half of the books Kakutani presents here for consideration. In my estimation, that means that Ex-Libris worked pretty well for me.

But that leads me to what I consider to be a major flaw in Kakutani's overall approach to Ex-Libris. Many of these books, both fiction and nonfiction titles, present very strong political or societal opinions - all of them slanted in one direction. That's not a huge problem for me despite it being evidence that Kakutani does not really want to hear or give time to world views that don't correspond to her own. What is a problem for me is that fifteen of the sections include specific emotional rants about Trump (keep in mind that this book was written during the 2020 election campaign), rants that compare him to Nazi Germany and other dystopian societies over and over again. I think this cheapens the legitimate message of Ex-Libris, and I came to find it all frustrating after a while - even to the brink of almost tossing the book aside for good more than once.

I'm glad I didn't do that because Ex-Libris: 100 Books to Read and Reread is still a good book. However, I know that I'm now less likely to pick up another Kakutani book, and that's kind of a shame.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Galway Confidential - Ken Bruen


Galway Confidential is Ken Bruen's seventeenth Jack Taylor novel, but it is the first since A Galway Ephiphany was published during the catastrophic covid year of 2020. Appropriately enough, as this new glimpse into Jack's darkly chaotic world begins, Jack himself is just waking up from a coma of almost two year's duration. Jack wakes up into a world in which so much has changed that he can hardly believe his eyes. Some things, though, never seem to change no matter how much we wish they would. Those he can believe.

Jack is struggling to recall the near-fatal knife attack that preceded him being tossed into the river to drown, and he cannot recall at all the man who saved his life by pulling him from the river just in the nick of time. That man is now a fixture in Jack's life despite how utterly annoying Jack often finds him to be. But Jack owes him - and Jack always pays his debts.

Despite his brush with death, Jack's reputation on the street is still that of a man able and willing to go where the local police refuse, for reasons of their own, to go. When bad people need fixing, Jack Taylor is the man good people go to for the job. One thing that didn't change while Jack was enduring his long sleep is that there are plenty of bad people out there who need fixing. And two of them have just intruded on Jack's world. Their bad.

One of them is taking a hammer to the heads of Galway's nuns, and the other is burning alive homeless people. Jack is not having any of that.

Ken Bruen's Galway is a dark place in which no one can ever truly be trusted, least of all the police, the Church, and the government. It is a world in which despair, fear, and desperation are often the drivers, a world in which surprisingly effective alliances are sometimes formed between people who refuse to accept things as they are - people who fight back. 

Jack Taylor, a man who has been trying to drink himself to death for decades, is one of those people. His badge as a police officer of the Garda Síochána has been taken from him, he has watched his mother be manipulated by an unscrupulous priest for years, and he knows that successful politicians are never the best of us. Jack has done things he's not proud of, some of those things responsible for his seeming determination to kill himself with the booze. He has killed people to stop them from killing again. It is no wonder that the weak and the helpless come to Jack Taylor for help.

Jack Taylor is a good man.

Galway Confidential is filled with Ken Bruen's usual wit and stylistic quirks, and reading a Ken Bruen novel, dark and brutal as the world it is set in may be, is always fun. Galway Confidential is no exception.

Ken Bruen (Macmillan Publishers photo)

(Look for Galway Confidential on March 5, 2024.)