“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.

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“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.”

“White Houses” by Amy Bloom

White Houses by Amy BloomDid they or didn’t they? The question of whether or not Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok were more than friends has been a hot topic ever since their passionate letters were made public in the late 1970s. While historian Doris Kearns Goodwin declared that “whether Hick and Eleanor went beyond kisses and hugs” can never be known, others find the correspondence makes a convincing claim for Roosevelt’s queerness. Here’s an article featuring excerpts from a number of their more romantic letters. Sample: “Hick darling, I just talked to you, darling, it was so good to hear your voice. If I just could take you in my arms… Someday perhaps fate will be kind & let us arrange a life more to our liking.”

The Hick/Roosevelt relationship has been explored in books like Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters Of Eleanor Roosevelt And Lorena Hickok and Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady, as well as a play, “Hick: A Love Story.” Now comes Amy Bloom with a fictionalized account of their relationship, which definitely comes down on the “yep, they were lovers” side of the equation. (Franklin Roosevelt, in this telling, is having a long-term affair with his secretary, Missy LeHand, another allegedly-romantic pairing which has been debated by historians.)

Bloom’s novel is narrated by Hickok, who describes her rough upbringing—her mother died when she was quite young, and she left home at the age of 14, escaping her abusive father. She eventually became a successful journalist, the first woman to have a byline in the New York Times. Assigned to interview Eleanor Roosevelt shortly after Franklin had been elected governor of New York, Hickok found herself drawn to her subject. She began covering Eleanor full-time during Franklin’s first presidential campaign. Their relationship heated up when Hickok accompanied Eleanor on a train trip; by the time FDR was in office, it became increasingly clear that Hickok could not cover the administration objectively, so she quit her job with the Associated Press. At times, Hickok even lived in the White House, but in Bloom’s telling, loving Eleanor was not easy—the beloved First Lady always had many demands on her attention. Hickok describes herself as “the brave and battered little dinghy” to Eleanor’s “lighthouse.”

While most of the people in White Houses are historical figures, I’m pretty sure that the Roosevelt cousin Parker Fiske, a key character in the book, is fictional. Fiske is a career diplomat and closeted gay man who is not above using a little blackmail to gain protection for himself; he pops up from time to time to beg Eleanor for a favor or threaten Hickok of the potential consequences if her relationship with the First Lady became public. “People didn’t see his homosexual self coming (unlike yours truly) and that bothered them. He didn’t look at all like that type of man, so everyone who liked him—smart and charming and so good at his job—pretended it didn’t happen, or that somehow it had happened but only due to a mix of bourbon and misunderstanding.” By today’s standards, the fact that Eleanor and Hickok were not able to live openly as lovers does seem sad, but Fiske’s story is ultimately far more tragic, a way for the author to shine a light on the genuine dangers of being gay in an earlier era.

White Houses is obviously not meant to be the final word on the subject, but it offers an interesting and poignant perspective on a relationship that continues to intrigue.

“The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin and “The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George

The ImmortalistsHaving a good airplane book is something I take very seriously. My library copy of Chloe Benjamin’s novel The Immortalists came in a couple days before I headed out on a cross-country trip. I read the first few chapters, and was sufficiently entranced to buy the ebook version for my flight. (I travel light, so I didn’t want to drag along a library hardcover.) It was a wise investment; I was so absorbed by the book that I didn’t even check my watch every 10-15 minutes, which I have an unfortunate habit of doing on long flights.

The Immortalists tells the story of the four Gold children, who sneak out of their Lower East Side apartment one fateful day in 1969 to consult a psychic. It’s summertime, and the siblings are bored; little do they know that what she tells them will have reverberations down through the decades.

Each of the children meets with the psychic individually, and she reveals to each of them the date of their death. The reader only follows one child, Varya, into the room; she is told that she’ll die on Jan. 21, 2044, when she’s 88. When she emerges, her siblings, who have already spoken to the seer, seem badly shaken by what they’ve heard.

After this prologue, we follow each of the Golds, starting with Simon, the youngest. He moves with his sister Klara to San Francisco in the late 1970s. Simon is gay, and you probably don’t need to be psychic yourself to figure out his ultimate fate. Then we focus on Klara, a budding magician; Daniel, a doctor who determines whether or not young military recruits are fit to go to war; and finally Varya, a researcher who works with primates to try to unlock the secrets of the human lifespan.

I probably enjoyed Klara’s section the most, since I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at what’s involved in becoming a successful stage magician, but each of the four segments is unique and moving in its own way. The Immortalists is a triumph of both character and plot.

The Little Paris bookshop by Nina GeorgeWhile waiting for a connecting flight, I spotted a woman who was just starting to read The Little Paris Bookshop. I was half-tempted to dissuade her, but while it wasn’t my particular cup of tea—I found it overly sentimental, not to mention at least 50 pages too long—it’s a book other readers have obviously enjoyed. The Little Paris Bookshop made the New York Times bestseller list in 2015, and has been published around the world (the author is German, and the book was translated into English by Simon Pare.)

Bookseller Jean Perdu (the French word for “lost”—because he’s a lost soul!) sells his wares from a barge in the Seine. His specialty is matching people with their ideal book, “prescribing” certain volumes to his customers: “A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that’s how I sell books.” Naturally, the one person whose affliction Perdu cannot cure with a tome is… himself.

The 50-year-old bookseller has been miserable for 21 years, ever since his lover Manon left him. He even blocked the entrance to a room in his apartment, concealing it behind a bookshelf, because it was where he had spent time with her. When a new tenant with no furniture at all moves into his building, Perdu is persuaded to give her the wooden table from the hidden room. The table’s new owner discovers a letter hidden in a drawer—one sent by Manon after her departure, which Perdu had refused to open and then forgotten about. Of course, he finally does open it, and the contents of that 21-year-old missive change his life forever.

Manon was the kind of free spirit who rode horses naked (as someone who has ridden fully clothed, I can’t begin to imagine how painful that must be) and said things like, “Who knows, Jean, you and I might be made of the dust from one and the same star, and maybe we recognized each other by its light. We were searching for each other. We are star seekers.” Most of the characters in this book share her impetuous spirit; another woman we meet later on jumps into a canal during a raging storm because she wanted to know “if my fear would tell me something important.” In fact, everyone seems to make crazy spur-of-the-moment decisions that somehow work out beautifully.

I certainly hope that the woman I spotted at the airport is far less cynical than I, and that she decided it was her destiny at work when she chose The Little Paris Bookshop to take on her flight. Personally, if I’d been reading it on a plane, I’d probably have tossed it aside and chosen instead to solve the Sudoku puzzles in the airline magazine.

“Celine” by Peter Heller

CelineI read a lot of good books, but every year, there are a couple that I find myself enthusiastically recommending to people. The latest book added to my “You must read this!” list is Peter Heller’s Celine, a beautifully-written and engrossing novel featuring one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve encountered in a while.

Celine is in her late 60s, an old-money WASP who makes her living as a private eye. The only type of case she takes is reuniting parents and children. At her side is her doting and taciturn second husband, Pete, who adores Celine and yet finds her an endless source of mystery (just how did she become so proficient with firearms?).

Celine’s latest client is a young woman whose father disappeared many years before, leaving her an orphan (her mother drowned when she was very young). Supposedly, the man—a skilled photographer who often worked for National Geographic—had been fatally mauled by a bear, but his body was never found, just some smashed camera equipment, blood on a tree trunk, and a few discarded pieces of clothing. The client is convinced her father faked his own death, and if he is still alive, she wants him to meet his grandchild.

Because Celine’s own father disappeared from her life when she was quite young, after his divorce from her mother, she feels a particular connection to the case. She and Pete head for Yellowstone National Park, site of the alleged grizzly attack. In the meantime, Celine’s son Hank is conducting his own investigation into his mother’s teenage years, a time she does not like to speak about.

In lesser hands, Celine could have been cutesy or too precious, but Heller’s style is always sincere, wise and open-hearted, with a pronounced tinge of melancholy. Early in the book, we learn that Celine’s two sisters have recently passed away, and the book takes place in 2002, when the events of Sept. 11, 2001 (Celine is a New Yorker) have recently left their mark. As she and Pete walk down a street at night in a small town, under a starless sky, she reflects on her chosen career:

It occurred to her as they walked that they were looking for a father who had disappeared more than two decades ago, but that he had truly left his child’s life long before that, that the young woman had grown up for all intents and purposes fatherless. As she did. That finding him now might resolve something in the woman’s heart but would not change the essential sadness. And that was the business she was in. She had had to accept it long ago: that her job was enabling just such reunions. That though they could not change someone’s childhood, still—there was a great raw need in her clients to know their parents and to meet them again. There was something in that resolution that was very important. To the child, and often to the parent. She certainly knew about that. And sometimes they—the parent and the child—started again. Rarely did it work, but sometimes it did. And then a child would have a mother and a mother a daughter.

The saddest part was that parents would keep disappearing, and children would cry themselves to sleep night after night, for months, for years. And that mothers would have their babies taken from them before they had a chance to smell the tuft of soft hair, their ears, before they had a chance to say, “Oh how I love you! Forever and ever.” That the baby was taken before she had a chance to kiss her and wrap her properly in her arms.

There are a great many mysteries in Celine, some of which get resolved and a few of which don’t. It’s hard to imagine anyone finishing this book and not wishing they could spend more time with its fascinating heroine. Indeed, Heller has revealed in interviews that Celine is based on his late mother, Caroline. “When I started writing this book, I wrote with the hope to spend another year with her,” he said. His novel is an extraordinary tribute, and very much worth reading.

“The Long Firm” by Jake Arnott

The Long Firm by Jake ArnottThe Long Firm by Jake Arnott was first published in 1999, and while it’s available as an ebook in the U.K., it’s out of print in the U.S. That is a shame, because The Long Firm is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. I hope it will someday be rediscovered and given its due. (It was turned into a BBC miniseries a dozen years ago; it’s not on any of the streaming services, but parts of it seem to have been uploaded illegally to YouTube.)

This is Arnott’s first novel—he has since published a few others, which I look forward to reading—and what is most striking about this book is its colossal ambition. It is divided into five parts, each of which has a different narrator. The one thing they all have in common is their relationship to the gangster Harry Starks, who is in competition with the notorious Kray twins for the title of king of the London underworld. While Starks is Arnott’s fictional creation, the Krays, and several other characters, from Johnnie Ray to Joe Meek to Judy Garland, are real. One reason it took me almost a week to read The Long Firm is because I kept looking up things online to find out what was based in reality; Arnott was born in 1961, so he obviously has no first-hand knowledge of the period, but he must have done a tremendous amount of research.

The five narrators don’t have a lot in common—one is a member of the House of Lords, a couple are crooks, one’s a criminologist, and one is an actress who became a showgirl when work dried up. They all become sucked into Harry’s orbit, which, unsurprisingly, is not a particularly safe place to be. He may appear to be a generous soul, but the bill always comes due eventually, and being obligated to Harry Starks can be very dangerous indeed.

Besides Harry, another person we get to know through the eyes of the narrators is Detective Chief Inspector Mooney, a bent cop who frequently aids Starks and his compatriots by turning a blind eye to their criminal schemes or, in some cases, actively abetting them. It could be argued that Mooney is more of a villain than Harry, since at least the gangster isn’t making a show of serving and protecting the populace. Some antihero-loving readers may wish for Harry to get away with his crimes, but I doubt anyone will be rooting for Mooney.

As a homosexual and a Jew, Harry is an outsider, albeit one who knows which people to cultivate (Mooney, Lord Thursby) in order to gain access to the corridors of power. “He is fascinated by the world of privilege,” says Thursby. “A patriotic desire to be part of a really big racket, I suppose… He has a great admiration for upper-class men of action like Lawrence of Arabia or Gordon of Khartoum. Empire heroes and explorers he no doubt read of in picture books. And in his own way he sought to emulate them, to find some respectable and gentlemanly way to demand money with menaces. Some way of jumping the counter of middle classness straight into aristocracy.”

This is an exceptional literary thriller. As of this writing, used copies are available for under $4 (including shipping!) at ABEBooks.com—a real steal.