“November Road” by Lou Berney

November Road by Lou BerneyThe day John F. Kennedy was assassinated is frequently described as “the day America lost its innocence.” A decade later, Watergate represented the beginning of a new era, one in which many citizens grew deeply mistrustful about whether or not our leaders were telling us the truth. For someone like me, who grew up steeped in that post-Nixon cynicism, it’s hard to believe that after the Warren Commission report was issued, 87% of Americans were convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. 20 years after JFK’s murder, that number was down to 11%.

Since it’s likely no one will ever know what really happened, the tragedy in Dallas is ripe for reinterpretation and myth-making. Enter Lou Berney, born the year after JFK’s assassination, who has skillfully spun his own yarn about who ordered the hit on the president: a fictional New Orleans mob boss named Carlos Marcello. When one of Marcello’s lieutenants, Frank Guidry, hears the news about Kennedy, he immediately realizes he’s in trouble; after all, he just finished running an errand in Dallas for Carlos.

“Maybe it was just a coincidence, he told himself, that he’d stashed a getaway car two blocks from Dealey Plaza. Maybe it was just a coincidence that Carlos despised the Kennedy brothers more than any other two human beings on earth. Jack and Bobby had dragged Carlos in front of the Senate and pissed on his leg in front of the whole country. A couple of years after that, they’d tried to deport him to Guatemala.

“Maybe Carlos had forgiven and forgotten. Sure. And maybe some mope who lugged boxes of books around a warehouse for a living could make a rifle shot like that—six floors up, a moving target, a breeze, trees in the way.”

When Carlos starts getting rid of loose ends, Guidry realizes that he’s probably next in line to be disposed of, so he hits the road, hoping to reconnect with a powerful pal in Las Vegas who holds a grudge against Carlos. Perhaps his friend might be willing to smuggle Guidry out of the country. But first, he needs to get there, knowing that Carlos’s man is hot on his trail.

Then Guidry stumbles upon the perfect cover—no one will be looking for a family man. Enter Charlotte, a small-town Oklahoma housewife. She is on the run from her alcoholic husband with her two daughters and their epileptic dog in tow, making her way to Los Angeles with plans to start her life over. When her car breaks down in New Mexico, and she and Guidry wind up at the same motel, he sees his chance to win her trust and offer her a ride. So Frank Guidry becomes Frank Wainwright, insurance salesman: “If Guidry could pull this off, he’d be practically invisible.”

My main beef with books about mobsters is that they tend to have high body counts, and ruthless, remorseless killers are not generally people I enjoy reading about. However, Berney (whose last book, The Long and Faraway Gone, was one of my favorites of 2015) is such a gifted writer that he is able to bring a lot of depth to Frank Guidry. His journey with Charlotte and the girls changes him in some very significant ways. And Charlotte’s story takes some unpredictable turns as well, as Guidry comes to realize that he has feelings for this woman who was unwittingly dragged into his dangerous road trip. By the end, I found myself caring about and sympathizing with both characters.

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“Mr. Nice Guy” by Jennifer Miller & Jason Feifer

Mr. Nice GuyLooking back, I often wish I had moved to New York when I was younger. I suspect the city would have chewed me up and spat me out, but at least I would have been young and dumb enough to try. So I could immediately relate to Lucas Callahan, a mid-20s native of North Carolina who breaks up with his fiancée and drops out of law school in order to chase his NYC dreams.

Lucas winds up as a fact-checker at Empire magazine, a New YorkVanity Fair-type publication that is ruled by its capricious and social-climbing editor-in-chief, Jay Jacobson. One fateful night, Lucas stops in at a West Village bar called Kettle of Fish where he spots a stunning woman sitting solo and scribbling notes on a bar napkin. Lucas boldly offers her a sheet of paper, and after a couple of drinks, they head to her apartment.

What seems like a one-night stand with a glamorous older woman turns into something much more when the note-taker, Carmen Kelly, writes an unsparing account of her experience with Lucas—in the pages of Empire magazine. It turns out that Carmen is the mag’s dating and sex columnist (she rarely goes into the office, which is why Lucas hadn’t met her), and her vicious takedown of “Mr. Nice Guy” (her nickname for Lucas) becomes a viral sensation. Lucas decides to respond, and sets up an anonymous email address and fires off a rebuttal. Sensing a way to boost Empire‘s web traffic, Jacobson runs Lucas’s column; it is also a hit.

Jacobson goads Carmen into meeting up with Lucas again, and having them both write about the experience for Empire: “a regular sexual exchange between [Lucas] and Carmen to be followed by columns penned by each, reviewing the other’s performance.” Since Lucas’s identity is still under wraps (he continues to file his stories via the anonymous email account), he can’t get paid for his work, but at least he’s finally a published writer, one seemingly all of New York is reading and talking about.

This is a surprisingly meaty novel which considers questions of ethics in journalism and what you’d be willing to give up in order to achieve your dreams. It’s also got a terrific sense of place; I read this just a couple weeks after I’d visited New York, and it really captured the city beautifully. The only thing I didn’t quite buy was that a power-mad control freak like Jacobson would allow “Mr. Nice Guy” to remain anonymous—surely he’d have an underling follow Carmen around until he’d sussed out her partner’s identity? But on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this very modern romantic comedy.

Mr. Nice Guy will be published on Oct. 16; thanks to St. Martin’s Griffin for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“The Alice Network” by Kate Quinn and “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

The Alice NetworkWhen last week’s book proved to be a little too much of-the-moment, I decided to retreat into the past and read a pair of historical novels. Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network offers kind of an “if you think things are bad now…” perspective, since it features two alternating storylines, one set during World War I and the other in the aftermath of World War II.

Charlie St. Clair is a young American from a wealthy family, pregnant and unmarried. Her mother is taking her to a clinic to Switzerland so Charlie can have a discreet abortion. Charlie has other plans, though; when their ocean liner stops in Southampton, she escapes her mother’s watchful eye in order to search for her beloved French cousin Rose, who disappeared during the war. All she has is a name and an address: Evelyn Gardiner, 10 Hampson Street, Pimlico, London. Eve worked in a bureau helping to locate refugees after the war, and Charlie has reason to believe she may know something about what happened to Rose.

The book’s second chapter goes back in time 32 years to May 1915. Eve is twenty-two but looks much younger; a stammer gives the mistaken impression that she’s simple. Her ability to speak fluent French and German gets her recruited to join the Alice Network, a ring of female spies. Her cover story: she’s a French country girl who neither speaks nor understands German. She gets a job as a waitress in German-occupied Lille, working at a posh restaurant owned by the profiteer René Bordelon, who is more than happy to serve the Kommandant and his officers. Her mission is to eavesdrop on the Germans, who have no idea she is absorbing every word they say in order to report it to the brave and resourceful Lili, leader of the network.

From there, we switch between the two stories as Charlie convinces Eve, still deeply scarred by her experiences during World War I, to join her hunt for Rose; and Eve’s adventures behind enemy lines. Both stories are exciting, though not surprisingly, there is a lot of loss, trauma and some descriptions of wartime atrocities that can be painful and difficult to read.

Still, The Alice Network is primarily a story of female bravery and the power of women’s friendship, and isn’t that something we should be celebrating right now? I heartily recommend this book to fans of historical fiction and spy sagas.

TranscriptionMuch of Transcription by Kate Atkinson is set during World War II, but protagonist Juliet Armstrong, a girl of just 18, is not involved in anything as exciting or dangerous as the Alice Network—she is hired by MI5 in 1940 to transcribe recordings of fascist sympathizers’ clandestine meetings. The “fifth column” has been infiltrated by British intelligence, and the London flat in which they meet has microphones hidden in the walls. The conversations, recorded to disc, are dull and often difficult to understand (“‘Oh, do speak clearly,’ Juliet thought crossly.”)

Eventually, Juliet does get to go undercover herself, and things get a bit more intense. It’s a fascinating story, and I enjoyed reading about Juliet’s relationships with her fellow MI5 agents, even though there are so many characters and code names to keep track of that I constantly found myself flipping back and forth in the book. Atkinson must expect her readers to have superhuman memories; for instance, one character begins a sentence on page 10 (“My father was—”), and that thread isn’t picked up again until page 185 (“What was your father, Lester?”).

That wasn’t an insurmountable problem for me, though, but I must admit that I was incredibly disappointed by the ending, which came out of left field and came close to throw-the-book-across-the-room territory. Unfortunately, for that reason alone, I find it hard to wholeheartedly recommend Transcription, despite the interesting characters and compelling subject matter.

“Lake Success” by Gary Shteyngart

Lake SuccessI was such a fan of Gary Shteyngart’s last novel, Super Sad True Love Story, that I decided to read his new Lake Success without looking at any reviews—or even the jacket copy. If I hadn’t gone into Lake Success completely cold, to be honest, I’m not sure I would have picked it up at all. Why? The protagonist is the sort of person I, and many other Americans, most assuredly do not want to read a novel about: a rich white Manhattan hedge fund manager married to a much-younger wife. Even if things do not go well for him, my reserves of empathy for one-percenters who self-identify as Republicans are at rock-bottom levels right now.

And yet, as with last week’s book, I wound up finishing it. I truly hope the next book I pick up is one I am actually enthusiastic about reading all the way to the end.

Shteyngart is such a brilliant writer, and what he’s trying to do with Lake Success—present a portrait of Trump-era America (most of it is set in the run-up to the 2016 election)—ensures that the book will be studied years from now as a document of Manhattan life in the mid-2010s in the same way that Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities is an ur-text of the “greed is good” 1980s. Barry Cohen presides over a hedge fund called This Side of Capital (a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald), which has recently put him in some legal difficulty (he’s being investigated by the SEC for insider trading). His wife Seema left her law career and now devotes her time to caring for their severely autistic son, albeit with the help of a full-time nanny and plenty of therapists on call. Barry collects very expensive watches and is the type of person who, upon learning that he’s going to be having dinner with a writer, checks both the author’s Amazon ranking and the Zillow Zestimate of his condo.

Eventually, everything gets to be just too much and Barry abandons his wife and child and sets off on a Greyhound bus, mainly to prove a point of what a Man of the People he truly is, to find a long-lost love who now lives in El Paso. So this is mainly a road novel, though every other chapter, we check in with Seema and find out what she’s up to. (She’s a patient, caring mother, thank goodness; her marriage to Barry was on the verge of falling apart, so she doesn’t seem too upset by his unexplained absence.)

The upshot of the novel—and one which definitely separates it from Bonfire—is that the Barrys of the world may be brought low, but they always come out on top in the end. That is a message that seems very of the moment, but it might make for easier reading someday in the distant future, when, I sincerely hope, the horrors of the current era are far behind us.

“Clock Dance” and “Vinegar Girl” by Anne Tyler

Clock DanceWhen I was in my twenties, I was obsessed with Anne Tyler. At the time, she lived in Baltimore’s Homeland neighborhood, about a mile south of my own house, and I would often take a detour down her quiet street, hoping to see her puttering around in her yard. I never did, though. Nor did I ever run into her at Eddie’s Supermarket on Roland Avenue, where she was said to be a regular customer.

My boss at the time happened to be friends with Tyler and her husband, and he once told me that she would always insist on meeting at some nondescript Asian restaurant in a suburb just north of the city. She kept a low profile, able to skip the usual rounds of book tours and interviews that most authors must accept as one of the costs of being privileged to write for a living. Her novels sold very well regardless, and won lots of awards, including a Pulitzer for Breathing Lessons.

Today, Tyler does do the occasional interview, and while I now live far away from Baltimore, I reflexively found myself poring over these articles for clues. It sounds like she moved to the Village of Cross Keys after her husband’s death (“a high-end Rouse development on the edge of Baltimore’s leafy Roland Park neighborhood”). It seems very much in character that her writing room is “so uncluttered and antiseptic you could safely perform surgery there.”

Clock Dance gives Tyler fans exactly what they want from her: a story with a focus on families (biological as well as ones formed by circumstance), beautifully-rendered prose, and a Baltimore backdrop (though the saguaro on the cover may tip you off to the fact that the novel covers some ground before landing in Charm City about a third of the way in). Willa Drake is in her early sixties and on her second marriage; she and her rather fussy husband Peter live in Tucson. They have two sons, both from Willa’s first marriage, neither of whom are particularly close to her, much to her dismay. Neither son has children of his own. Then one day, Willa receives an unexpected phone call from Baltimore.

The caller, Callie, is Willa’s son Sean’s former next-door neighbor; he broke up with his girlfriend Denise some time ago and moved out of her home, but Willa’s number (“Sean’s mom”) remained on the list above her phone. Denise has been shot in the leg and needs to spend a few days in the hospital, leaving no one to care for her nine-year-old daughter, Cheryl. “I say to myself, ‘Okay, I’m just going to call Sean’s mom and ask her to come get her grandchild,'” says Callie, hanging up before a flustered Willa can reply that Cheryl is not actually her granddaughter. Since Willa’s life is rather lacking in excitement, she books a seat on the next available flight to Baltimore.

Peter insists on coming along, but life in an unfamiliar place taking care of a girl who’s no relation doesn’t suit him: “I hate this city… I hate the heat; I hate the humidity; the accent is atrocious… I don’t know what we’re doing here.” Willa, however, bonds quickly with Cheryl and then with Denise, adoring the feeling of being useful for a change. Peter flies back to Tucson, begrudgingly leaving his wife behind, and she continues to become absorbed in the rhythms of everyday life in the neighborhood of “small, dingy white houses with squat front porches, some of them posted with signs for insurance agencies or podiatry offices.” It’s a real community, with neighbors who all know each other and look out for one another (though the mystery of how Denise wound up with a bullet in her leg continues to perplex the residents of Dorcas Road). As Willa gets more and more settled, absorbed into the rhythms of the neighborhood, her life in Tucson seems to recede into the distance.

There is something so genteel about Tyler’s books; most of Clock Dance takes place in 2017, and while there are references to cell phones and Facebook, it doesn’t feel particularly modern or attempt to break any new literary ground. Tyler, now in her mid-70s, has been writing novels for over 50 years now and knows exactly where her strengths lie, and thank goodness for that.

Vinegar GirlA couple of years ago, Tyler contributed a novel to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which contemporary authors put their own 21st-century spins on the Bard’s immortal works. Vinegar Girl is Tyler’s take on “The Taming of the Shrew,” a rather… problematic play by current standards. It also has a lot of the disguises and mistaken-identity plot points that I often find rather tedious in Shakespeare.

Vinegar Girl does borrow elements from “Shrew”—main character Kate is, indeed, the elder sister to the softer, prettier Bunny (instead of Bianca)—and people who are familiar with the original will find several homages and nods to the play. (Fortunately, no one attempts to wear a disguise.) It’s a fresh and funny rom-com with plenty of clever surprises and plot twists, not quite what I would have expected from Tyler, but not out of character, either (Kate and Bunny’s father, in particular, leads the strictly regimented life of many of the single men who appear in Tyler’s oeuvre). And refreshingly, while Kate does indeed wind up with a man at the end of the book, it is a partnership of equals and not one in which she vows to place her hands below her husband’s foot.

“Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan BeachJennifer Egan’s last novel, 2010’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, was such an unabashedly postmodern work, with its shifting narratives and unconventional storytelling (one large chunk of the book takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation), that many readers no doubt wondered whether her follow-up would be even more experimental. Instead, Egan has written a historical novel set during World War II, which is more conventional but no less ambitious.

According to a New Yorker profile, Egan had been working on Manhattan Beach for 15 years before it was finally published. The book displays a prodigious amount of research, albeit the kind that is seamlessly integrated into the plot, and into Egan’s lyrical prose. Here, for example, is a paragraph describing protagonist Anna Kerrigan’s solitary walk through midtown Manhattan:

“She decided to head back home. Walking toward the IND on Sixth Avenue, she passed a flea circus, a chow-meinery, a sign advertising lectures on what killed Rudolph Valentino. Gradually she began to notice other solitary figures lingering in doorways and under awnings: people with no obvious place they needed to be. Through the plate-glass window of Grant’s at the corner of Sixth, she saw soldiers and sailors eating alone, even a girl or two. Anna watched them through the glass while, behind her, newspaper vendors bawled out the evening headlines: ‘Tripoli falls!’ ‘Russians gaining on Rostov!’ ‘Nazis say the Reich is threatened!’ To Anna, these sounded like captions to the solitary diners. The war had shaken people loose. These isolated people in Grant’s had been shaken loose. And now she, too, had been shaken loose. She sensed how easily she might slide into a cranny of the dimmed-out city and vanish. The possibility touched her physically, like the faint coaxing suction of an undertow. It frightened her, and she hurried toward the subway entrance.”

We first meet Anna at the age of 12 when she accompanies her father Eddie on a visit to the lavish seaside home of Dexter Styles, whose own pampered daughter has more toys than Anna could ever dream of. The need to provide for his younger daughter, severely disabled Lydia, ultimately drives Eddie to work for some dangerous men. A couple years later, Eddie disappears, leaving his wife to care for Lydia on her own.

At the age of 19, Anna goes to work in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, measuring and inspecting parts. Bored with her work, Anna dreams of becoming a diver, working underwater to repair ships. But that is not a job open to women. Anna decides to fight for the position, despite the dismissive attitude of the officer in charge of hiring divers. She also has a chance encounter with Dexter Styles, whom she remembers clearly from the day she visited his home, and wonders if he might possibly know what happened to her father.

We eventually learn much more about Styles and his background, and as his story begins to intersect with Anna’s, she is finally allowed to dive. While the individual pieces seem like they may be ones we’ve encountered before—mobsters, World War II, New York in the 1940s, grief, survival in the face of great odds—Egan’s skill is that she has combined them into a tale that is unique and beautifully told.

“The Female Persuasion” by Meg Wolitzer

The Female PersuasionI read a lot of books that are primarily plot-driven, but I read Meg Wolitzer’s books because they’re character-driven: she writes so brilliantly about people and what makes them tick. Her 2013 novel The Interestings followed a group of six teenagers who meet at a summer camp, taking them from youth to middle age. The main character in The Female Persuasion, Greer Kadetsky, is only in her early 30s when the book ends, but her mentor, feminist icon Faith Frank, is nearing 80, and the trajectory of Faith’s life may serve as a preview of the difficult choices, sacrifices and compromises which will eventually be faced by Greer.

Greer is a college freshman when a chance encounter with Faith changes the course of her life. After graduation, she goes to work for Faith’s new foundation, Loci, which is well-funded by a venture capitalist. Faith (and Greer) hope they can use the money to help struggling women around the world, but the people who hold the purse strings are more concerned with providing feel-good workshops to affluent Americans. (The descriptions of Loci’s leadership summits sounded like a cross between Oprah’s Super Soul Sessions and Gwyneth Paltrow’s In Goop Health festival.)

Along with Faith and Greer, Wolitzer also pays exquisite attention to the lives of Greer’s boyfriend Cody, her best friend Zee, and Emmett Shrader, the billionaire pumping money into Loci. But the heart of the book is the complicated relationship between Greer and Faith, which is inevitably somewhat one-sided given how famous and beloved Faith is. Looking at a box of gifts given to her over the years by fans, Emmett ponders: “All of these women had needed a connection with Faith. She was plasma to them. Maybe it was a mommy thing, he thought, but maybe it was also: I want to be you. There were so many of these women, just so many. But there was only one Faith.”

In the final chapter of The Female Persuasion, a character refers to “the big terribleness,” a time when “indignity after indignity had taken place, constant hammerstrikes against everything they cared about.” What a tonic it is to read a novel about two strong female characters, with all their flaws and faults, both working toward a world where women “could feel capable and safe and free.”