*****The Sellout

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Paul Beatty, narrated by Prentice Onayemi – I write, knowing this review cannot do justice to this stunning satire—winner of both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—which tackles a tricky subject: U.S. race relations and the essential absurdity of the human species. I can only urge you to read it for yourself as a journey to important places, dark and light.

Near the end of the story, Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me comments on a black comic who m.c.’s the Dum Dum Donuts open mic nights. He says the comedian “did more than tell jokes; he plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” Beatty has just spent 285 pages doing exactly that with his readers’ every racial attitude and carefully buried prejudice, whether toward blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, or whites.

Perhaps the only way for Americans to approach this difficult subject is with the tools Beatty wields so well: wicked perceptiveness and devastating humor. He slaps them down like a bricklayer troweling thick mortar, building his case brick by brick.

At first I thought his approach was to come at racism obliquely, like an artist using negative space, rendering everything around an object, not the object itself. Draw all the plants and trees, the shape of the dirt patch, the rocks, the pond, the lines of fencing, and every other feature surrounding an elephant and, when you’re done—voilà—out pops the pachyderm.

His descriptions of his southwest Los Angeles neighborhood, his administratively erased home town of Dickens, his father and his friends, with their intellectual floundering and frustrations as members of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “the local think tank.” All seemed designed to produce that elephant.

We meet unforgettable characters, not least Bonbon himself: erudite, fearless, hell-bent on offending and sure to succeed. Bonbon’s father was a psychologist who subjected his son to bizarre experiments growing up, which the boy’s psyche was lucky to survive. His slave (yes) Hominy Jenkins, was a minor celebrity in his youth as a member of the Little Rascals cast; on-again girlfriend and city bus driver, Marpessa, tries to talk sense to him. And more. Much.

However, as the story proceeds, Beatty brings the hammer down. As a joke, Bonbon puts a temporary sign inside a bus that reads “Priority Seating for Whites.” When it’s inadvertently left in place, behavior on the bus becomes exemplary. People are treated with respect. Marpessa says, “Crip, Blood, or cholo, they press the Stop Request button one time and one fucking time only. You know where the kids go do their homework? Not home, not the library, but the bus. That’s how safe it is.” The sign is just the start of a Bonbon crusade. If there’s a word for “this is sooo crazy, it just might work,” Bonbon must have had that word in mind.

The book’s Prologue at the U.S. Supreme Court was a little slow for me, but when Beatty starts to roll, you are in for an amazing, hilarious, heart-breaking ride. Bonbon never breaks character. But at some point, all the comedy flips and you see it for what it is, the mask of tragedy.

It’s also a feast for people who love language. Beatty’s talent as a poet shows up in the rhythm of his prose; in multi-meaning slant rhymes, like the name of his lawyer, Hamilton Fiske; in direct rhymes, like the reference to his father’s farm, “forty acres and a fool”; and his imagery, “he was unpaid-electricity-bill dark.”

I’m sure reading this book in print would be transformative, with the advantage of being able to go back and reread and pause to reflect. Yet, Prentice Onayemi’s narration of the audio version was pitch-perfect. His Hominy addresses Bonbon as “Massa,” with just the right combination of obsequiousness and insolence; Foy Cheshire and the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals bloviate convincingly; Marpessa keeps her wits about her. You see each of them in front of you, just like you cannot avoid seeing the elephant in the middle of our collective living room.

Paul Beatty is coming to Princeton on February 8, 2017, and will appear at the Berlind Theater, 4:30 p.m., sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts. Open to the public. Free.

***Blonde Ice

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

By RG Belsky — This is the third crime mystery in the series featuring New York Daily News reporter Gil Malloy, dogged practitioner of a fading profession. Written in the first person, it holds you close to the genial Malloy and his ups and downs—reportorial, romantic, and bureaucratic.

On the up side, Gil Malloy has fallen into what may be the scoop of the year: a beautiful blonde serial killer is targeting married men cheating on their wives. Malloy’s print editor Marilyn Staley and his internet/social media editor Stacy Albright want to milk the sexy story for all it’s worth. Keeping these two antagonists happy could be a second career. Another plus, Malloy’s adored ex-wife Susan shows promising signs that all is not well with hubby #2. Is there a chance? Capstone to his good luck, Malloy has a juicy job offer from the man likely to be New York’s next mayor.

On the down side, Malloy discovers the scoop through Victoria Issacs, who tells him her husband’s gone missing. In a former life, Issacs was the infamous prostitute Houston. When Malloy wrote a Pulitzer-nominated feature article about her several years back, neglecting to disclose his quotes were all second-hand and he’d never actually met the elusive Houston, criticism of him and the paper was withering. He nearly lost his job, and the stress cost him his marriage. Saying too much about Issacs now will reveal that Malloy actually knows her real identity and, probably worse, has concealed it from his editors.

But Houston’s secret isn’t keepable when a hotel maid finds Walter Issacs dead. The knockout blonde who went up to the room with him has disappeared. As the murders keep coming, the chase is on: NYPD after the killer, and Malloy after the story.

Malloy is a regular-guy kind of narrator with a wisecracking exterior that makes for some lively banter in the newsroom and in his efforts to get back between the sheets with Susan. His colleagues keep telling him his constant jokes can wear thin. He knows that, but can’t seem to stop himself. It is, in fact, his armor.

Frustratingly, Staley, Albright, and NYPD detective Wohlers repeatedly jump to conclusions about the case, based on their assumptions and a remarkable lack of definitive evidence. The narrative glosses over various routine questions that arise in murder investigations. How is it possible there was no forensic evidence at any of these violent crime scenes? No long blonde hair, for instance? How did a woman overpower these much larger, fit men? Drugs are an obvious possibility, but there’s no mention of toxicology tests of the victims until Chapter 49. Although this book is not a police procedural, Malloy’s proximity to the investigation and his evident skills as a reporter suggest he should be asking questions exactly like these.

Despite these quibbles, it’s fun to spend time with Gil Malloy on another wild ride. Author Belsky is an experienced New York journalist who perceptively describes the woes and conflicts in today’s news business and conjures a realistic, energetic New York City, too.

Delicious Mayhem in 3 Crime Thrillers

reading, book

photo: Kamil Porembiński, creative commons license

Recent vacations gave me the chance to delve into my scary pile of “to-read” books, where I discovered these gems. I hope you’ll enjoy them too.

*****The Poison Artist

By Jonathan Moore – About this psychological thriller Stephen King said, “I haven’t read anything so terrifying since Red Dragon.” Based in San Francisco, it’s the story of a UCSF professor of toxicology asked to help look for the presence of poisons in a set of torture-murder victims. Something very grim haunts the scientist’s past, his wife has left him, and he becomes obsessed with a beautiful, absinthe-drinking woman named Emmeline, whom he meets in an exclusive late-night bar. As the number of victims increases and he comes to know Emmeline better, he suspects she may be linked to the murders, but could he give her up? Is he the next victim? Smartly written and thoroughly immersive.

****Forgiving Mariela Camacho

By A.J. Sidransky – NYPD detectives Pete Gonzalvez and Tolya Kurchenko discover the body of a young woman inside what’s meant to look like an elaborate suicide device, but they see what really happened: murder. And Gonzalvez knows the victim, a Dominican beauty named Mariela Camacho whom he once loved. Maybe still does. As this police procedural unwinds, you learn more about Gonzalvez’s early life in the Dominican Republic, and the code the people he grew up with lived by. Kurchenko also has reasons to look into his past and his family’s enemies in Russia. Past and present move toward a deadly collision in this fast-moving ride through the city streets. It’s also a powerful testament to friendship. The detectives’ banter—spiced with Dominican Spanish—is entertaining and genuine. The book won the 2016 David Award at the annual Deadly Ink conference.

****The Good Cop

By Brad Parks – Reporter Carter Ross is based in Newark, New Jersey, quietly rebelling against the commodification of the news for internet and social media tastes. This is the fourth book featuring Ross and his wicked sense of humor. He needs it, because his work takes him to some pretty dark places. Ross is looking into the suicide death of Newark policeman Darius Kipps and before long decides the death wasn’t a suicide at all. Clues are hard to come by, though, and he can recognize stonewalling when he encounters it. The paper accepts the official story, so he’s pretty much on his own, depending for help on a lively and engaging set of secondary characters. Absinthe is drunk (apparently I missed a trend here). You’re reminded of the importance of deep reporting and a commitment to uncovering the truth somehow lost in the era of “non-stop news” soundbites.

****Made in Detroit

moon

(photo: halfrain, creative commons license)

This is a review of two books with the same title and of the same re-readable excellence.

Made in Detroit, the memoir by Paul Clemens, is a tale of growing up in the 1970s in one of the Motor City’s last white neighborhoods. It’s fascinating to see the whole “minority status” issue turned on its head, and he comes out of it with decidedly mixed emotions. It’s a struggle, a worthy one, and following his evolving attitudes and understanding of both whites and blacks around him is a thought-provoking journey for readers, as well.

Clemens’s family is Catholic and he gets a Catholic education as parishes and schools close one by one. Meanwhile, the family’s economic stability is increasingly shaky due to the rapidly declining auto industry. Yet, the Church and his father’s love of cars were two constants in his life. He says his family members weren’t readers. “There was enough serious content, enough transcendence, in cars and Catholicism; it wasn’t necessary for them to concern themselves with ideas buried away in books.”

Made in Detroit, the book of Marge Piercy poetry, covers an enormous swath of emotional and physical territory. She uses the simplest language to express the deepest thoughts and makes it “poetic,” without superfluous lily-gilding. I was first drawn to her work by her poem “In Praise of Joe.” As a dedicated caffeine consumer, we recognized each other across the page. Here are the two lines that snared me forever: “It is you who make me human every dawn. All my books are written with your ink.” And here’s a bit from the title poem:

The night I was born the sky burned red
over Detroit and sirens sharpened their knives.
The elms made tents of solace over grimy
streets and alley cats purred me to sleep.

Clemens’s book takes place some decades after the night Piercy was born, yet the burning skies (steel mills then), sirens, and desolate streets were only more so in his youth. Despite all the city’s frustrations and conundrums that Clemens describes so well, despite a college education that could have taken him anywhere, he returned to the city. “At times, I feel like a failure in several directions simultaneously,” he writes. “That, with my education and reading, I should be more broad-minded than I am; and that, with the education I received from my father and Sal, I should be angrier about what the broad-minded morons have wrought. . . . Detroit, which drives people to extremes, has left me standing in the middle.”

Clemens’s book makes an interesting counterpoint to Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House, describing the experience of a closeknit black family in Detroit and Susan Messer’s beautiful Grand River and Joy, about a Jewish businessman’s reluctance to flee to the suburbs around the time of the 1967 riots. Perhaps one family story at a time, it might be possible to assemble a picture sufficient to comprehend this fascinating, catastrophe-ridden American city.

***Sunset City

Houston, flock of birds

photo: Adam Baker, creative commons license

By Melissa Ginsburg Lots of buzz about poet Melissa Ginsburg’s debut crime novel. In it, her home town of Houston becomes as much a character as the protagonist, Charlotte Ford, a young woman in her early 20s. Houston’s suffocating heat and dark corners, its breakneck freeways, its seedy bars and lush suburbs – a living paradigm of the income gap – are the kind of noir backdrop against which a multilayered story can play.

Narrated by Charlotte, the story begins in a terrific rainstorm when she encounters a man on the landing outside her apartment and unlocks her door in front of him – the first clue she’s missing a little something in the “ be a little careful” department.

Luckily for her, he’s a Houston police detective named Ash, but unluckily, he’s come to tell her that her oldest friend, the glamorous Danielle Reeves, has been bludgeoned to death. Charlotte and Danielle attended high school and took some drugs together, but Danielle drifted into heroin and didn’t get clean until she got caught. After four years in prison, her friendship with Charlotte had cooled, and she had taken up acting in porn videos.

Charlotte’s back story is handled mostly in a couple of awkward information dumps about her deceased mother, high school years, and growing up relatively poor. Danielle, by contrast, came from money. Her mother, Sally, from whom she is estranged, had a high-powered, high-paying job. What they had in common was that both of them were rather neglected–Charlotte because her mother was a chronic pain patient, and Danielle because of the demands of her work. No dads in the picture.

Work kept Sally so busy during Danielle’s childhood, she didn’t realize her brother was sexually abusing the girl–a plot choice that has become a cliché and, here, is not explored for its specific impact on Danielle. Now Sally wants to be in touch with Danielle and enlists Charlotte to do the outreach. That mission puts the two former best friends in touch again, just two days before Danielle’s murder. Did Charlotte’s visit begin a deadly chain of events?

She starts hanging out with Danielle’s new friends—fellow actress Audrey (another child sexual abuse victim) and video producer Brandon. To Charlotte these people seem exotic, but the first-person point of view limits readers’ access to their thoughts and feelings. Their motivations and experiences are always second-hand, filtered through Charlotte. I’d contrast this approach with John Schulian’s A Better Goodbye, which provides a fully rounded picture of people working in the sex trade.

Ginsburg attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Mississippi. In this novel, she mostly avoids literary flourishes, but occasionally her poetic side peeks through. For example, regarding the police station, Charlotte says, “Loud and ugly, the place banged against my eyes.”  Ginsburg does not shrink from discussing the seamier side of life and its difficulties, which is brave for a first novel, and in future perhaps her characters will be strong enough to carry that weight.

A longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover review website.

*****Dodgers

police car

photo: P.V.O.A., creative commons license

By Bill Beverly – A modern crime classic in the tradition of Richard Price’s Clockers, Dodgers is the story of a youthful soldier in the south Los Angeles drug trade. East, a black 16-year-old, is a yardman for a drug house, which means he runs a team of younger boys who look out for approaching trouble, 24 hours a day.

Somehow, trouble slips past them, and when the police converge on the house, sirens shrieking, East narrowly escapes. But before he flees, the curious younger girl who has approached him is caught in the crossfire and dies before his eyes, an innocent whose death he cannot shake.

After the raid, of course, the house is compromised, and the drug lord gives East a new assignment. He and three others are to drive to Wisconsin and kill a man about to testify in Los Angeles against one of the gang leaders. In the great American tradition of road trips, East heads east on a fateful journey with an ill-assorted group of companions: Michael Wilson, a self-assured, one-time UCLA student who thinks he’s by far the intellectual superior of the other boys; Walter, an overweight age-peer of East’s with an aptitude for electronic crime and a greater understanding of the big picture; and, unexpectedly, East’s younger brother Ty, a stone killer at age 13 whose internal dynamics East cannot begin to comprehend.

The interactions among the four are full of youthful wit and jockeying for position, even though the outcome of the journey is uncertain and potentially catastrophic. The last piece of advice they receive before leaving LA? “Don’t make no friends.”

The book takes its title from the boys’ purchases at the sports apparel store they visit before their departure. There they purchase shirts and caps emblazoned with the logos of the Los Angeles Dodgers, not because East or the others have ever cared about the team personally, but because “White people love baseball. White people love the Dodgers.”

The trip across America and the notice four young black men arouse among the residents of the middle-America states—and the fear of the notice they may arouse—are significant and compelling features of the plot, while he nuanced depiction of East’s mental state makes for a rich and engaging reader experience.

Beverly is a teacher of American literature and writing at Trinity University in Washington, D.C., and the quality of his writing is a great strength of the book. Take this simple description: “There was a gas station. The lights in the cold made the cars gleam like licked suckers.” Any author who can conjure up an image like that deserves to be savored.

A longer version of this review previously appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

*****The Turner House

Detroit, house

photo: ddatch54, creative commons license

By Angela Flournoy – I deeply admire this book about two generations of an African American family living in Detroit. The parents moved north from Arkansas after World War II and had 13 children whose lives play out against the backdrop of drastically changing economic and social circumstances over six decades.

Newlyweds Viola and Francis Turner spent some of the early months of their marriage separated when he moved to Detroit to find work. Chapters about that era in the family history alternate with stories of the family’s present-day experiences. By and large, their children have many more choices than they did. The parents started out poor, the children are almost all firmly in the middle class.

Principal characters in the narrative are Charles Turner (Cha-Cha to the family), the eldest child, born in 1944, and patriarch of the family since his father’s death and the youngest, Lelah, born in 1967. Lelah has the most difficulties, many of which derive from a bad early marriage and her gambling addiction. She’s near-homelessness and shunned by her daughter Brianna. Cha-Cha is plagued by a haint, which has brought him in contact with a psychotherapist, a much younger African American woman to whom he’s unexpectedly attracted. These are secrets just waiting to burst out. Readers get to know several other family members reasonably well, too, especially brother Troy, the former soldier, now Detroit cop, and Cha-Cha’s wife Tina, who wonders whether her husband is slipping away.

With these two dramas bookending the family’s present-day story, Viola’s large dispersed family is coming together to celebrate her birthday, very probably her last. How they accommodate each other, buck each other up, revisit old wounds—every interaction seems exactly right. They have expectations of each other (“Turner men don’t . . .”) and a strong sense of their shared history. I marveled at Flournoy’s acutely observed assessments of the siblings and their motivations, for example: “The things we do in the name of protecting others are so often attempts to spare some part of ourselves.”

Now that Viola lives with Cha-Cha and Tina, a key issue is whether to sell the house they grew up in, in the largely abandoned heart of the city. Everyone has an opinion, but the long and the short of it is that the house is deep under water. Much more is owed on it than they could ever hope to recover in a sale. Sentimental ties seem hardly to justify the cost of keeping it, yet it will cost thousands to sell it.

You know these people. By remaining so true to its human core, The Turner House is “an engrossing and remarkably mature first novel,” said Matthew Thomas in the New York Times, who points out another of its strengths: “artful without being showy.” No wonder it was a finalist for the National Book Award! In Flournoy’s biography, we read that her father was from Detroit, and many of the tiny touches could only come from someone who knows that city well. It’s a beautiful book deserving of a wide readership.

Read an engaging BuzzFeed interview with Angela Flournoy here.

Asian Immigrants’ Tales

suitcase, Asian

adapted from Roger Wagner, creative commons license

The recent success of the movie Brooklyn has reminds us of the universality of immigrant stories in American history (even as anti-immigrant, anti-refugee positions characterize the political discourse). While the immigrant experience is a common thread running through our national character, and the experiences of Irish and Italian immigrants relatively well known, each country’s immigrant story is in many ways as unique as the person and family who dons this new cultural garment.

Shawna Yang Ryan, writing for LitHub (“From There to Here: Five Essential Tales of Immigration”) says “Immigration is anything but pedestrian. To displace one’s self in adulthood, to uproot, to leave behind ways of speaking, moving, being that are second nature is a feat of true grit.” She tells of her own mother’s move to the United States from Taiwan after marrying an American GI, which helped inspire her novel Green Island. Among the tales from other immigrants that she recommends are:

  • Carlos Bulosan’s autobiographical America Is in the Heart, about the struggles and prejudices faced by Filipino farm workers. They worked in America legally (and, by the way, served in the U.S. military), but, says Ryan, were barred from citizenship. His book has been called a brown-skinned Grapes of Wrath.
  • The Namesake, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, about the Ganguli family’s move from Kolkata (Calcutta) to Massachusetts and the inter-generational rifts that creates. Pulitzer Prize-winner Lahiri has now taken displacement one step further, living part-time in Italy and writing in that language
  • The “graceful essays” by Andrew Lam, collected in Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, not only examine what it’s like to come to American, but also the experience of a return visit to Vietnam

On this  theme, I would add these classic award-winners from my bookshelf:

  • Anne Fadiman’s non-fiction The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the tragic consequences for a Hmong family, whose child is afflicted with epilepsy, when their traditional beliefs collide with modern medicine. (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1997)
  • The unforgettable memoir, The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston, relates her “girlhood among ghosts”—both her female relatives’ ghosts from China and the New World ghosts she encounters: Policeman Ghosts, Social Worker Ghosts, Garbage Ghosts, and Wino Ghosts. (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1976)
  • Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker—one of the early books selected for community-wide reading—about Korean American Henry Park, the “perpetual outsider.” (PEN/Hemingway award for best first novel, 1996)
  • Asian American Dreams, by award-winning journalist Helen Zia describes the transformation of Asian Americans from a small and largely invisible minority to a presence in virtually every facet of American life.
  • In the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Korean American businesses were especially targeted for destruction, with some 1500 looted and destroyed. Blue Dreams, by Nancy Abelmann and John Lie, explores the reasons Koreans were singled out and what happened in the aftermath.
  • The classic Strangers from a Different Shore, by historian Ronald Takaki, lays out the successive waves of Asian immigration in American history, with each nationality’s experience taking place in a different context.

Reader Question:

What favorite books would you recommend that tell the immigrant story?

****& Sons

ampersand

(photo: Leo Reynolds, creative commons license)

By David Gilbert – This 2014 novel was named a “best book of the year” by many reviewers, and it’s full of richness on every page. A literary novel in every sense, it’s about an aging Manhattan author and notorious recluse, A.N.Dyer, whose failing faculties compel him to call his sons to him and in other ways try to straighten out the tangle he’s made of his life.

His two older sons are estranged both from him and each other. Jamie is a filmmakers living on the East Coast who’s just completed a dubious project documenting, perhaps too rigorously, life’s final decay. Richard is a struggling Los Angeles-based screenwriter, who has the prospect of long-awaited success dangled in front of him if only he can deliver the impossible-to-get film rights to his father’s first and most important novel, Ampersand.

The third, much younger son, is 17-year-old Andy. (You’ll have noticed A.N.Dyer, Andy, Ampersand, and the book’s title). Andy is ostensibly the product of a liaison between Dyer and a Swedish nanny. The arrival in the household of baby Andy and the story of his conception ended Dyer’s marriage. But the real story of Andy’s origins are more significant than anyone but Dyer knows, and he’s summoned Jamie and Richard to New York to tell it. And to enlist them in ensuring to Andy’s future welfare, should he die.

Throughout, as a sort of shambling Greek chorus is Philip Topping, son of Dyer’s oldest friend, Charlie, whose funeral opens the book. Philip is the same age as the two older sons, and they’ve obviously never had much use for him and still don’t, even though he’s ensconced in Dyer’s East 70th Street apartment, the flotsam washed ashore from a foundering marriage. Topping is a “Mr. Cellophane”; they look right through him and never know he’s there. Or, as Philip himself says, “I’m guilty of easily falling in love, of confusing the abstract with the concrete, hoping those words might cast me as a caring individual and dispel my notions of a sinister center. I believe in love at first sight so that I might be seen.” But the Dyers don’t see him, even when it’s necessary they should.

Dyer’s clean-up of his affairs includes selling his papers to the Morgan Library, and they, like the Hollywood manipulators, are interested in Ampersand. They will sweeten their offer considerably if he includes a draft of it. Alas, he destroyed all the drafts years before, so is pushed into the insupportable position of having to retype the whole manuscript, inserting awkward phrases and misdirected text, which he crosses out to arrive at the version in the published book.

It’s a very New York book, with apt references not just to places and events but to the way the city and its citizens go about their business. All this seems sly and perfectly grounded. Here are a few sentences from the Morgan Library rep’s pitch to Dyer:

In my biased view, we are the intellectual heart of this city. A visitor from another planet would do well to visit here first in order to understand our human narrative. We also have a tremendous gift shop.

Dyer’s agent then suggests they’ve been approached by the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center with a much more generous offer, and receives this response, which manages to insult everyone:

If money’s the bottom line, we can’t possibly compete. Ransom and their ilk will always win. And they are a fine institution and Austin is a fine central Texas town. But if you want to maximize profits, may I suggest breaking up the archive and selling the pieces in lots. But if respect, sensitivity, geo . . .

Philip Topping is everywhere and nowhere in the book, as its part-time narrator. It also includes excerpts (freshly typed!) from Ampersand—a vicious tale indeed—correspondence between Dyer and Topping, senior, from childhood on, and texts between Andy and a young woman he’s hoping to seduce. Full of humor, human foibles, and beautiful writing—“seductive and ripe with both comedy and heartbreak,” as NPR reviewer Mary Pols said—it’s a book that flew under my radar, but which I’m glad I finally found.

Bonus: A History of the 27th Letter! The Ampersand!

****Wishful Thinking

busy

(photo: Priscilla, creative commons license)

By Kamy Wicoff — On Amazon, this book is categorized as “women’s fiction,” which is probably a more politically correct designation for “chick-lit,” but whatever, it’s a genre I don’t usually read. It turned out to be a lot of fun and a refreshing change from serial killers trading in body parts.

Jennifer Sharpe is a stressed-out, divorced Manhattan career woman with two young sons who struggles to fit everything into her schedule. She’s wracked with guilt that her kids are getting too little of her time. Add an ex-husband who has documented her missed appointments and such and wants to renegotiate their custody agreement to have more time with the kids. Then add a nanny whose school commitments mean she has less time to help out, and a work project that will be Jennifer’s dream come true (plus some much-needed extra $$$), if only she can reach the boss’s ambitious productivity targets.

Of course, her life is impossible—that is, until someone puts an app on her cell phone called “Wishful Thinking” that lets her be in two places at once. There are so many ways this little technological boost (involving wormholes and—don’t ask, you just have to go with it) can go wrong and does.

Wicoff has written a believable Jennifer, plausible friends and work colleagues, a self-absorbed but not totally worthless ex, a dishy new boyfriend, and a sympathetic genius physicist who is behind the whole thing. All in all, an interesting cast of characters. The book is both good-humored and grounded in the frantic reality of many working moms’ lives (minus the wormholes).

Christina Baker Kline (author of the best-selling Orphan Train) calls Wishful Thinking “A thought-provoking, gimlet-eyed satire of contemporary motherhood in the guise of a romantic comedy.” If you’re looking for a fast-paced, mostly light-hearted novel to enjoy on your winter vacation—one that really lives up to its title—this could be just the thing!