Recommended Summer Escape Reading

Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo

If you have not yet read Everybody’s Fool and have also not yet read Nobody’s Fool, then start with the latter and work your way up.  Having watched the movie is not sufficient (though, in my humble opinion, the movie does justice to the book).  And, also, if you have yet to read Nobody’s Fool, then do not read this review.  There.  Enough instructions already.

Richard Russo is a master storyteller.   The fact that I have not written any reviews of his novels is a testimony to my laziness not the quality or appeal of his writing.  Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Empire Falls, and The Bridge of Sighs are all masterful.  Serious, thought-provoking, but intriguing, interesting, and captivating.

In Nobody’s Fool, Russo’s lighter side shines through.  While ignoring none of the realities of the hard-scrabble existence of the residents of the fictional Bath, New York, Russo develops compelling and memorable characters not soon to leave your memory.  Donald Sullivan (aka Sully) is the 60 year-old once-divorced, WWII veteran who makes his way doing odd-job physical work on a bum knee (the idea of holding a real job being, perhaps, beyond his ken) in the down-on-its-luck town of Bath, the town in which he grew up).  He is the best friend of Rub Squeers, is a man of questionable IQ but despondent character who idolizes Sully and is easily roped in to doing every single job on the shitty side of the stick.  The cast of characters who nightly inhabit the Iron Horse Saloon include the witty, one-legged lawyer, Wirf, and the bane of Sully’s existence (but also only regular source of off-the-books cash income), Carl Roebuck, with whose wife Sully is half joking, half seriously flirting with regularly.  Add in the return of his son, Peter to town with his wife and 2 children and barely holding together marriage (and the resentment of Rub, who sees Peter as a threat to a lifelong friendship) and along with the inept police officer, Raymer, with whom Sully has a running battle and his on-again, and his off-again relationship with the Ruth, the married-to-someone-else owner of the diner in town where he helps out with the morning rush and you have the scene set.  Well almost.

See, Sully isn’t a total lost cause.  While trying to reconcile his reaction to, and feelings for, his abusive alcoholic father, he is also the main moral and strategic support to his old high-school teacher, Miss Beryl, whose son Clive Jr, is the overbearing, overprotective main banker in town trying to sell the population on the development of a new amusement park and resort that will revitalize downtown.

Sully is a wise-cracking, hard-drinking, insult producing smart-ass with a bit of a heart.  The town’s dying, Sully is in constant trouble with the cops, his memories, his erstwhile boss, Carl, the pompous Clive Jr, and the expectations of Miss Beryl.  Nobody’s Fool ends with Sully a bit more comfortable with his past and with his role as friend, lover, and grandfather.

Everybody’s Fool starts up 10 years or so later with approximately the same cast of characters.  Clive Jr split town after the amusement park investors pulled out and all the townspeople who bought in lost their money.  There are other, sadder losses. Sully discovers he has a serious heart condition.  His former lover and still friend, Ruth has a daughter whose abusive ex-husband is just paroled.  Carl’s construction company is going broke.  Raymer is now police chief and has a huge problem with his own confidence, the death of his wife and his relationship with his smart, insightful, and caring African-American policewoman who wants out of the office and into the field. 

Sully shares billing in Everybody’s Fool with Raymer – and unlike Nobody’s Fool, there paths do not really cross that much.  It is two tales with some parts that connect.  Well, really three tales…. because the misbegotten town of Bath is a plotline all its own.

Russo has done the near impossible.  He has written a sequel that is as interesting, entertaining, and as laugh out loud funny as the original.  He captures the flow, the language, the despair and the humor of both the human condition and the struggle of middle American towns in decline.

I cannot remember enjoying reading a book more, and for sure few have made me laugh (and almost cry) as this one did.  I highly recommend Richard Russo’s “Fools” to you as your summer reading fare.

Lesbian Assassins by Audrey Faye

Sometimes it is a circuitous route that leads me to a book, or a series of books.  I know, you took one look at the title and thought I was reviewing a new porn site.  Sorry, nope.  In truth, the title did give me pause for a moment, but then I thought perhaps this would work like sweeps week does for network and local news……that’s when all the promos are about teachers having sex with high school kids or nurses murdering old folks in the hospital or “Russians advancing up New Jersey Turnpike, details at 11”.  You know, the good ‘ole bait and switch.

I was searching Amazon for new books by my favorite authors when a recommendation popped up for Audrey Faye’s series, “The Fixers” (Book 1 & 2) and since I find new sci-fi the perfect plane book (doesn’t’ take a lot of concentration), I read them.  And liked them….interesting ideas and pretty good writing. Quick, entertaining reads requiring a minimum of intellectual investment.   When I finished Book 2 (Destiny’s Song), I looked for other books Audrey Faye had authored.

My reaction to finding “Lesbian Assassins 1, 2, 3, and 4” as well as “The Lesbian Assassins Stocking Stuffer” was, to be honest, skeptical.  But I dove in anyway.

It is not porn.  In fact, it is not even remotely explicit. What it turns out to be is a series of novella sized novels and one short story about two women who partner up to help other women deal with dangerous and difficult situations with their jerky, menacing, abusive, and/or simply clueless male partners.  The take on women in really tough straits by being tough on the guy.  And…they follow up on a consistent basis to ensure their “fix” is maintained.  They do the work for women that law enforcement and neighbors should do but either can’t, won’t, or are too afraid to do.  And, yes, one of the women is lesbian.

My first thought was what a great name for a punk band, “The Lesbian Assassins” – which, as it turns out, was sort of weirdly prescient.   My second thought was that Audrey Faye has turned a pretty neat writing trick…all of the really nasty interactions take place in the telling, in the past tense and are thus filtered through the experience of Jane (the putative narrator) or Carly (the lesbian with the knives).  That plays to the approach that it seems to be the threat of violence or the remembrance of violence that is even more damaging to the soul than the actual violence.  Point made.

The experience is a bit otherworldly for a hetero cis-gender male.  Jane’s life was trashed by her long-term partner (both in life, love, and music) while Carly was traumatized by a (thankfully) never detailed humiliating and abusive incident at a fraternity house.  These damaged women find each other and themselves by helping others.  In one such “case”, the run into and subsequently adopt and are adopted by Rosie, the 200 pound, 6 foot plus florist with a biker background and 16 year old Lelo, who engineers her own emancipation from her parents, wants to be an assassin apprentice, and can cook up a storm.

Audrey Faye has managed to write entertaining, quasi-action stories that are really stories about friendship and healing between and among women.  Just people in difficult situations dealing the best they can with what life has brought them.  I read all of them and while this is not “great literature” I really liked what I read and it will certainly kill any number of hours sitting in the sun.

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Fresh Air, the NPR interview show hosted by Terri Gross, is typically engaging and interesting, so I tend to listen in. Recently, they did an interview with Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With A Pearl Earring (which I have not yet read) about her new book, “At The Edge Of The Orchard”, about a family that moves from Connecticut to northwestern Ohio (the Black Swamp) to try to carve out a life. Tracy read from the book, particularly a section from the mother character, Sadie Goodenough, which was reminiscent of Faulkner (due the voice and use of dialect) and altogether intriguing.

The Amazon Kindle is a wonderful device. At a stoplight, I dug the Kindle out of my briefcase (well, backpack, actually) and ordered the book. Without thought, I raced through this small marvel in two bedtime reading sessions and one postprandial stint. It was that readable, that interesting, and that well written.

Sadie and James Goodenough take off from Connecticut (he not being the first-born son, she “needing” to be married off) and end up in Ohio, near Perrysburg, Ohio along the Maumee River south of Toledo. This area, known as Black Swamp in 1830s Ohio, is a tough place to make a living and the Goodenoughs work like animals and suffer disease and the deaths of many of their children. For James, the only saving grace is the ability to plant an orchard of his beloved Golden Pippen apples – a task taking the lion’s share of his time and attention. His children, but most of all his wife, suffer from this lack of attention. Sadie only has the time of day for apples that can be tuned into hard cider, or applejack, to which she has developed a powerful thirst. But she has taken a powerful liking to the itinerant apple seed and tree salesman, John Chapman aka Johnny Appleseed) who wanders by a few times a year. James is a single-minded fanatic, Sadie a disappointed and unhappy drunkard and the children (who do a lot of the work) take the brunt of being in the middle. Without being a spoiler, it is safe to say that this does not work out well for everyone.

For reasons that will be later explained, the eldest son, Robert, heads west, ultimate landing in California where he meets up with William Lobb – an employee of Kew Gardens in London – and learns how to be a searcher and finder of seeds, saplings, and flowers for the wealthy gardeners of England as well as his own person. Chapman and Lobb are real historical figures and Chevalier weaves their reality into her story with an ease that is wonderful to observe.

Chevalier has a touch with characterization that is really a delight. You get to know the essence of Sadie in only a few paragraphs and you can decide if you like this character or not. James is made clear by having him express his thoughts and by where his attention is focused. It is a deft, subtle hand at work here. The heartaches and tragedies of carving a living out of the wilderness are made know in whispers, not shouts. Nothing is shouted, most is muted. At yet, at the end, you find you have finished the novel and do not know where the time went because you were so engrossed.

What a treat.

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