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“Against the Country” by Ben Metcalf

againstthecountryReview by Andrew H. Kuharevicz

“Here, then, is what I learned on, or because of, the American schoolbus:”

Above is an opening line to an early chapter in the “novel”, Against The Country, by Ben Metcalf (country being rural surrounded by small town). It’s a difficult, award winning book (Ten best books of the year, Vulture, Best book of the year, 2015, NPR), written by an author who’s been compared to literary legends such as David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) & William Falkner (The Sound & The Fury), and I placed the word Novel in quotations, because it stretches and almost subverts the idea of what a proper novel is. This isn’t ordinary fiction, nor is it escapism; Against The Country is literature, a book some will love and more will dislike, for its never-ending sentences and southern dialect heard throughout, a voice, that gets stuck in your head.

When I first picked up the book (randomly based on the green cover with nice large font) I hadn’t heard of Ben Metcalf. I suppose that was part of the problem, and I say that because you almost need to know who the author is, and how he was a literary editor at Harper’s Magazine, born in Illinois/raised in Virginia. Later on, Metcalf taught at Columbia University. Ben’s an author who knows what he’s doing, and what he wants to pull off with his book. So, it doesn’t hurt being versed in the styles that the author uses in telling his story, such as Falknerian (long sentences with emotional, cerebral, and Gothic elements). Against The Country is a dense work of art, a first person narrative lacking a straight forward plot, and is it good or bad? Well, like the novel itself, that’s a complicated question. It is one of those books (think any Henry Miller Novel) that when you accept you’ll never figure it out, and stop trying to classify what box it fits into, you’ll discover what a truly rich and beautiful book it is. Sure, it’s a hard undertaking to let go of our preconceptions, and of the eccentric nature of the Unknown Narrator. But you can turn to any page and find nuggets of truth, wisdom, and brilliant sociological observations, written in some of the most twang worthy and sweeping prose since Mark Twain. The book isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book.

Against The Country is about The Town, its “potato-fed bullies with guns”, and about the false claim that the rural country is the heart of The United States. It’s a coming of age narrative that stumbles as much as the unconventional plot does. Readers-be-warned: You must give it an ample amount of time to sink in. It’s one of those books you have to re-read. But once you do, you’ll discover something perhaps even better than a “plot”. You’ll find a story about America. A story told by a character who like Holden Caulfield, will be a part of you even after the last page.

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“Asymmetry” by Lisa Halliday

asymmetryListed as one of New York Times top 10 books of 2018, Asymmetry is a literary phenomenon that satisfies on multiple levels.  On the basic level, the novel offers two engaging, purposely unrelated stories, exquisitely written.  At the next higher level, there are delicately subtle “blink-and-you-will-miss-it” threads that tie the sections together. Still higher, the novel explores asymmetry and inequities in age, power, talent, wealth, fame, geography and justice.  And at the meta level, the novel questions the writing of fiction itself.

The first section of the novel, “Folly,” begins with a meeting in a New York City park between Alice, a 25-year-old editorial assistant, and Ezra Blazer, a famous and critically acclaimed novelist in his seventies. Ezra asks Alice, “Are you game?”  The two swiftly begin an unconventional, tender romantic relationship whose duration spans the section. Ezra gives her books to read, among other odd gifts, and they watch baseball together and talk about literature. He teaches her how to pronounce Camus (“It’s Ca-MOO, sweetheart. He’s French.”). One day, on a walk, Alice confesses to him that she was doing some writing of her own. When he asks whether she writes about their relationship, she said she does not, and that she would rather write about people “more interesting” than her.

As their relationship grows closer, Alice begins to wonder about how it fits into the course and direction of her life. Ezra is in declining health, in need of regular medical attention, and frequently physically dependent on Alice. When she tells him that she does not think she can continue their relationship, Ezra says, “Don’t leave me. Don’t go. I want a partner in life. Do you know? We’re just getting started. No one could love you as much as I do. Choose this. Choose the adventure, Alice. This is the adventure. This is the misadventure. This is living.”  The section ends with this open question.

The novel’s second section, “Madness,” begins with the detention by immigration authorities of an Iraqi-American practical economist named Amar Jaafali at London’s Heathrow Airport in 2008. Amar is on his way to visit his brother, Sami, in Kurdistan, and has planned to stop in London to visit friends there for a couple of days, including a foreign war correspondent.  The Kafkaesque action of Amar’s detention is interchanged with his recollections of his childhood and early adulthood.

The style of the first section is mostly unemotional dialogue.  The second section is told from Amar’s first person highly sensitive perspective.  In Amar’s story, we get the day-to-day effects of war on his family in Iraq and the often-disconnected perspective of western journalists who tend to arrive in the Middle East with preconceived notions about the region. However, the longer they stay in the region and actually experience it, the more disproven their notions become.  “There’s an old saying about how the foreign journalist who travels to the Middle East and stays a week goes home to write a book in which he presents a pat solution to all of its problems. If he stays a month, he writes a magazine or a newspaper article filled with ‘ifs,’ ‘buts,’ and ‘on the other hands.’ If he stays a year, he writes nothing at all.”

The third section of the novel – “Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs” – consists entirely of a transcript of a recording of a BBC interview with Ezra Blazer for its “Desert Island Discs” series, in which guests choose their favorite musical recordings, which are played between their responses to interview questions. In the interview Ezra reflects on his life and work, and the transcript ends with him asking the female interviewer on a date, posing the same question to her that he did to Alice in the novel’s first section: “Are you game?”

It’s rare that a book continues to pose questions and engage a reader on so many levels long after the final page is read.  I highly recommend embarking on this literary adventure.  Are you game?

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, January 7.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, January 2 to discuss Asymmetry at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Red Notice” by Bill Browder

rednoticeRed Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice is an enthralling memoir by Bill Browder that reads like an espionage thriller.

Bill Browder comes from a leftist family.  His grandfather, Earl Browder, runs for President on the American Communist Party ticket in 1936 and 1940.  He appears on the cover of Time Magazine in 1938 with the caption “Comrade Earl Browder.”  Forcing depression-era America to focus on the failings of mainstream capitalism, he arguably causes most political players of the time to revise their policies leftward.  Into this family comes grandson Bill Browder making the ultimate rebel move:  he embraces capitalism and gets an M.B.A. from Stanford.

After getting his feet wet with his first few investment and consulting firms, he chooses to specialize in the enigmatic and virgin area:  Eastern Europe.  His first assignment in Poland is getting paid big consulting bucks to ultimately tell the failing bus company to lay off most of the staff – it is equally disastrous and humorous.  While there, he witnesses Poland’s first-ever privatizations – the government is unloading its property and state-run businesses at a steal. The lightbulb goes off when he realizes, quicker than most investors, the demise of the Communist bloc offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get insanely rich.

In 1995, Hermitage Capital Management is born, Bill Browder moves to Moscow focusing on investments in Russia. Here begins a rollercoaster ride wildly whipsawed by the volatility of investing in the wild-wild East.  By 1997, Hermitage is the best performing fund in the world, and Bill Browder is considered a financial superman and instant expert on investing in Russia.  His meteoric rise (turning $25 million into $1 billion) takes a dive (down to $100 million) when Russian oligarchs begin diluting the value of shares owned by westerners.  Putin is elected in 2000, in part, because he vows to clean up malfeasance by the oligarchs.  At first, Browder considers him an ally, but later realizes Putin doesn’t want to clean up Russia; he just wants to redirect the bounty from the oligarchs to his KGB friends.  With continued opportunistic, creative, and stealthy investing, the Hermitage fund recovers, skyrocketing to $4.5 billion.  Browder is the largest foreign investor in the country.  And then, in 2005, while flying back to London, Browder is detained at the Moscow airport for 15 hours and expelled from Russia with no explanation.

Browder puts up a fight.  His office, those of his attorneys, as well as those of the underlying companies in his investment portfolio are raided.  His Russian attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovers a fraudulent $230 million tax scheme committed by internal officers.  Those that committed the crime have him arrested, and, while in custody, he is tortured and killed.

At this point in the story, Bill Browder transforms from the mega-capitalist investor to a fervent activist seeking justice for the murder of his friend and attorney.  He brings his fight to Washington and with another roller coaster “winds-of-fate” story, achieves bipartisan support for the Magnitsky Act signed into law by Barack Obama in 2012.  That law bans 18 Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s death from entering the US and freezes their assets.  Putin immediately retaliates by banning Americans from adopting Russian children.  Bill Browder understands the danger he is up against.  He tells the reader that if he dies a mysterious, untimely death, know this: it was Putin.

I highly recommend this riveting memoir – a tale much richer than fiction.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, December 3.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, December 5 to discuss Red Notice at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“A $500 House in Detroit” by Drew Philp

500houseOn the surface, this is a story of a young, idealistic college kid from the University of Michigan wanting to use his studies and hard work to make a difference in the town that needed the biggest difference made: Detroit.  He moved with no money, no job, and no friends to an apartment in the red-light district and on notorious murder row.  His apartment neighbors were crack dealers, prostitutes, and drug addicts.  And although he was out of his element, something about the place made him feel connected – much more so than in affluent Ann Arbor, where he was finishing his degree.  Commuting back and forth between Detroit and Ann Arbor his last year of college, Philp describes as economic jet lag – yo-yoing back and forth between extreme ends of race and economic divide only 40 miles apart.  His first job was as the white-face front to an all-black construction company.  The company shamelessly used his white voice and white face to bid the more lucrative jobs in the suburbs.

At 23, he bought a monstrous shamble of a house on auction for $500 – a big 2-story Queen Anne with a wraparound porch and a yard for a garden.  It needed a new everything: porch, roof, walls, floors, plumbing, electricity, heating, the works.  It was stripped and full of trash.  He says, “I wanted a house nobody wanted, a house that was impossible.  The city was filled with these structures.  It would be only one house out of thousands, but I wanted to prove it could be done, that this American torment could be built back into a home.  Fixing it would be a protest of sorts.”  It will take muscle, defiance, ruthlessness, and community to fix this thing.  And poetically, it will take the same ingredients to rebuild the city.

There were so many points in the story that less adventurous mortals like me were begging him to throw in the towel:  spending a Detroit winter in a creaky, drafty house with no heat; learning the foundation needed to be lifted; shoveling out 2 stories of trash piles as high as his chest; trying to sleep with gunshots outside the house; the basement flooding.  This was not an easy life.  Why are you doing this?

Philps began to realize “Detroit was just America with the volume turned all the way up, that what was about to happen would have repercussions for the rest of the Western world.  Detroit was the most interesting city on the planet, because when you scratched the surface you found only a mirror.”  The big struggles America faces: racism, economic disparity, education, drugs, crime, hopelessness, were the same in Detroit, but on steroids.  And how a powerhouse of a model city in its heyday can within a matter of decades be the open wound of the country is one of the most telling stories of American history.

What Philps learned from those eight years was that “there were still 700,000 people living in Detroit, with their own ideas about what it should become. There was a community already here, not a grotesque one that needed changing as I had been told, but a powerful and innovative one I wanted to assimilate into.”

Nowadays you hear about the hip vibe coming from Detroit – the renewal and renaissance.  Philps gives a cautionary warning about repeating errors from the past.  While 80 percent of Detroit is black, 70 percent of those leading the regeneration are white.  Developers have been sweeping in and bidding on properties against black families occupying the houses.  Philps and a friend successfully outbid a developer from ousting a neighbor.  City and state funds are funneled not to the diehard citizens of Detroit that lived through the crises but to the likes of billionaire Mike Illitch to build a new hockey arena.  Starting fifteen years ago, one-third of Detroit homes have been foreclosed, the homeowners evicted.  In 2014 over 100,000, one seventh of the city, had their water shut off.  This is the dark underbelly of the “renaissance”.

A $500 House in Detroit was selected as the 2018 One Book, One Community read for the White Lake Area.  Join us for a community book discussion at the Book Nook & Java Shop at 6 p.m. Wednesday, November 7.  A community potluck will be held at 5 p.m. at Lebanon Lutheran Church in Whitehall on November 11. Drew Philp will attend the potluck, and at 7 p.m. he will talk about and sign his book and some of the impact it has had since being published a year ago.

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“Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan

crazyrichasiansCrazy Rich Asians is the Cinderella story of Rachel Chu, a 28-year-old economics professor at New York University, who has been happily dating Nick Young, a 32-year-old History professor at NYU, for the past two years. Nick tells Rachel that his childhood best friend is getting married over the summer, he plans on flying back home to Singapore for the wedding, and he wants her to accompany him. But, this raises questions. Does an international trip to meet family mean something serious for the relationship? Rachel is a bit anxious, but ultimately agrees. As an economist, Rachel knows Singapore has one of the highest concentrations of wealth in the world, and she is excited to see the island up close with Nick as her guide. Rachel knows nothing about Nick’s family and is nervous about what to expect. As Rachel fishes for details about them, Nick clams up.

Rachel is shocked to learn that not only is the wedding the upper-crust social event of the year, but Nick is Singapore’s most eligible bachelor.  Nick’s mother, Eleanor, expects Nick to return to Singapore and marry a woman from his own milieu. As the potential heir to a massive fortune—and a member of one of most mysterious, wealthy, and powerful families in Asia—Nick should only be dating women in their social circle. That is, he should absolutely not be dating some unheard-of woman from New York. Despite knowing nothing about Rachel, Eleanor is certain Nick’s girlfriend is a gold digger after Nick’s fortune. Eleanor decides to take matters into her own hands, hiring a private investigator to conduct a full background check on Rachel and her family and enlisting her best friends and their daughters to help sabotage her son’s relationship.  This, from the book, sums it up:  “To Eleanor, every single person occupied a specific space in the elaborately constructed social universe in her mind. Like most of the women in her crowd, Eleanor could meet another Asian anywhere in the world…and within thirty seconds of learning their name and where they lived, she would implement her social algorithm and calculate precisely where they stood in her constellation based on who their family was, who else they were related to, what their approximate net worth might be, how the fortune was derived, and what family scandals might have occurred within the past fifty years.”

The genre is a romantic comedy with colorful characters and humorous situations.  Rachel is mostly trying to survive the competitive, judgmental, and entitled women that orbit the social circle.  It’s a clash of snobbish Old World tradition and socially fluid American individualism.  The book is now a movie of the same name.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, October 1.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, October 3 to discuss Crazy Rich Asians at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Midnight at the Great Ideas Bookstore” by Matthew Sullivan

midnight

I love bookstores so any book about a bookstore gets my attention.  The Bright Ideas Bookstore is a fictional bookstore in Denver loosely based on the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver’s historic LoDo district where the author used to work.

The central character is 30-year-old Lydia Smith who loves her job at the Bright Ideas Bookstore – the employees and regular customers bond to form a loose family.  The community is shaken when one of the regular customers, Joey Molina, hangs himself with a belt among the stacks at the store at midnight without a suicide note.  Even more disturbing is that he bequeathed his meager belongings to Lydia.  She is led to unravel the puzzle of his last days when she discovers Joey has left coded messages to her in pages of his books.  And why did Joey have a picture in his pocket of Lydia’s 10th birthday party?

When a childhood friend, Raj Patel, reappears in Lydia’s life she revisits an unsolved 20-year-old tragedy.  Causing a media frenzy at the time, the Hammerman, who, while Lydia was on a sleepover as a child, brutally killed her friend and her friend’s family with a hammer, leaving Lydia alive, hiding under the sink. The Hammerman was never caught, and Lydia seeks answers from the now-retired detective who handled the case, but she may not want to hear what he has to say. Turns out he always suspected her father was the killer but was stopped from pursuing that path, even in the face of some compelling evidence, and he’s never let go of his suspicion. After all, why did the killer let Lydia live after killing a 10-year-old girl and her parents?

 

The book is filled with quirky characters and the descriptions of the store and surroundings are vivid. The plot is full of surprises and the final resolution to the story is packed with coincidences that strain credulity, but this creative and intricately plotted mystery still largely satisfies.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, September 6.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, September 5 to discuss Midnight at the Great Ideas Bookstore at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly

LilacGirls

LILAC GIRLS, Martha Hall Kelly

Review by Carol J. Biedrzycki

Lilac Girls is the story of strong women whose lives were driven by World War II.  Two are real life historic figures.  Caroline Ferriday was a generous American humanitarian who worked tirelessly to help those being oppressed in Europe during the war.  Herta Oberheuser was a German doctor who pledged loyalty to the Nazi party to gain economic security and prestige.  Kasia Kuzmerick, one of the victims of medical experimentation at Ravensbrück, is a composite character who suffered physical and emotional abuse.  Ms. Ferriday was responsible for bringing them together.  Lilac Girls is their story.

The personal backgrounds and motives of the Lilac Girls are a unique snapshot of the much written about Nazi occupation of Europe.  The stories of the three women are told through the eyes of Caroline, Herta and Kasia.  Each of the narrators has a unique voice that took me on a voyage with ports-of-call in the United States, Germany, and Poland.

Society’s expectations for women in 1939 were stereotypical and narrow.  A woman married and stayed at home to look after the children while her husband worked and brought in a weekly wage. A single woman was pitied and she usually did work which involved some form of service such as working as a waitress, cooking, and housekeeping.  No matter how well or how hard they worked, a man was always the boss.  Women did as they were told.

Societal norms in Nazi-occupied Europe didn’t budge when it came to giving women a fair chance.   Women were targets for sexual abuse and discrimination with no recourse short of suicide.  None of the Lilac Girls could live within society’s expectations and be happy.   Because they were women they had to take risks to survive and fulfill their personal goals.

I am of Polish decent.  I have deceased relatives who were political prisoners in Nazi-occupied Poland.  Besides learning about the difficulties experienced by Europeans trying to immigrate to the United States I was entrenched in the details of the plight of the Polish people who were much like my relatives who never talked about their experiences.

I bought Lilac Girls because I liked the cover photo.  It jumped into my hands and turned out to be a profound reading experience.  Martha Hall Kelly spent ten years researching this book and it shows.  When I started reading it I couldn’t put it down.  When I finished reading it I had to share it with my reading friends.  Everyone has thanked me for letting them know about Lilac Girls.

Carol Biedrzycki, an avid life-long reader, is a recently retired Executive Director of a non-profit in Austin.  She is spending the summer in Montague working at the Book Nook.

Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, August 6.  Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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