Something Red by Jennifer Gilmore

I grabbed this book primarily because it was set in 1979/1980 during the cold war and some of my teenage years. I thought it would be interesting to look back through the long lens of time and see what what I think. This book, based on reviews, is either one you love or one you hate. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. I liked this book a lot. I thought the subject matter was interesting, I thought the story was pretty good and I thought the twist at the end was good, although a little convoluted.

The story is set in Washington D.C. during the Carter administration. The hostage crisis is on, the energy crisis is on, the Olympic boycott is on and the farming crisis is precipitated by the wheat boycott. The Cold War is in full effect. Fear of communism and socialism is high as well as fear of nuclear war. During this same time period, the United States was only 5 years removed from Vietnam and two or three years removed from Watergate and Nixon’s resignation so faith and belief and trust from the American people towards their government was low. The author tries to get all these broad strokes in while also setting the scene of discussion within the Jewish community. Not being Jewish, I can’t say I am fully informed but the general idea was that the community was very divided in its opinions about communism, capitalism and socialism.

The father in the story, Dennis, is an American with Russian Jewish parents. He works as a mid level government boffin at the USDA. His primary concerns throughout the story are based around the boycott and how this affects his job. In addition, the USDA has suspended all trade with Moscow and Dennis is no longer traveling for work. He is preoccupied with the fact that he may lose his job and this was a valid concern at that time. His wife, Sharon, is a middle aged woman who has a catering business with a friend. She grew up in the comparative wealth of the 50’s and she and Dennis were too old for the hippie movement of the 60’s having started a family in the early 60’s. For women like Sharon, this was a time when they were catching up with the women’s liberation movement and personal growth movements. Sharon has done both and inn addition, she has had a brief affair. She has not found her “thing” yet and by the end of the book, she has only inched closer but there is personal growth.

The two children are Ben and Vanessa. Ben is a freshman at Brandeis University. He is emerging and we really only see him as freshman. It is simply a snapshot. We know that as a high schooler he was a jock and now he is trying on being a hippie. He is discouraged because he knows he missed the heyday of protest movements. In fact, he has a professor who spends the year extolling the virtues of the yppies from Brandeis and how they changed the world while at the same time, disparaging the incoming freshman. He constantly reminds them that they missed the bus and that their concerns are somehow ‘less than.” The children of Aquarius have been very unforgiving to the generation that followed them. It was difficult to be a part of the post Boomer world.

Vanessa is a high school junior. She is trying on punk and has an eating disorder. Her character more than any other is the least clearly defined. She is going through what all teenagers of the time go through – sex, drugs, music, fashion and where they fir in the family structure as well as societies structure. She resents her parents but loves them. She resents her brother for leaving her with their parents but those changes are inevitable. Life was very unsure for many during those years. Reagan and the new prosperity hadn’t yet happened and the country was depressed as well as the people in it.

The story is told from the point of view of these four. I have seen criticism saying that it was confusing but I had no trouble following it. This isn’t a fast paced, thrill a minute novel. It is slow and lumbering like a Russian Bear. It is very reflective of the time and it may be hard for those born in the late 1980’s and beyond to relate at all to this period. We have only started looking at the early to late 60’s in cultural studies now. This is still a relatively untapped historical period. There is a good twist at the end which was worth the wait. I recommend this book and can say that I enjoyed it.

The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin

I have read the whole Tales of the City canon. I have loved every minute of it. I have laughed. I have shed one or two tears. I have been frustrated with some characters and looked forward to the re-appearance of many. I was sad when some died. The characters in the pages of these books are like old friends. I have re-read many of the novels several times. I am probably due to read the whole thing now that I have the ninth and final book. I have read these books on planes, trains, buses and cars. I have read these books on vacation and at home. I have shared these books with many people. So, it was with a mix of joy and heavy heart that I picked this one up, knowing that it would be the last.

It is a fun book and finally, the real truth about Anna’s choice of last name is revealed. And no, the anagram has been a bit of a red herring all this time. The book alternates back and forth between the current time and Anna’s past in Winnemucca. I don’t want to give any details about the story because for those who have read all the novels it might spoil the enjoyment. Half the fun in these books is the discovery as you turn each page.

This book is consistently good and is on par with all of the other novels. It shows us a little more, actually a lot more, about Anna. We get to see old friends like Brian, Shawna, Michael and some of the newer characters like Jake. We get a brief glimpse of Mary Ann. My biggest disappointment was that only mention was made of DeDe and D’orothea who have made me laugh more than any other in these pages. The finale takes place at Burning Man in Nevada and is a fitting ending for Anna as she glides off into the sunset, still kicking at 92 years old.

I read the book in one sitting and when I turned that last page and shut the cover, I almost could not believe that my long term relationship with Tales of the City had reached its conclusion. There won’t be any new adventures to discover but I will continue to read the stories again and again and to gift the books to as many people as I think will enjoy and learn from what the book has to offer. It is a wonderful look into the history of gays, lesbians and transgender people and their straight friends and family. The whole series covers 40 years of growth and change in society. It was a great ride!

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

After being disappointed by The Wonder Boys, I did not think I would be returning to this author. Two things made me buy this book. One: the title was so wonderful and the premise on the jacket so off the wall, that I was compelled to put it in the stack in the crook of my arm and purchase without thought. Two: without thought meant that I did not look at the author’s name. Had I, I might have hesitated. I confess that while I was cleaning my bookshelves I found another by this author that I had bought based on the title. I hoodwinked myself!

This book is a 3 ½ star read. As I said, the premise is fantastic. The Federal District of Sitka has been declared a safe haven for Jews after the Holocaust. The fledgling state of Israel collapsed in 1948 and temporary states or districts have been created around the world. It is now, 60 years later and the District is about to revert back to Alaskan control, sending the members of the community into a tailspin as they attempt to get passports and resident status’ in countries around the world. Some are trying to remain in Sitka as well.

In the homicide division of the Sitka police, the detectives are being told to wrap up their cases in neat bows for the handover. But there is one case Meyer Landsman just cannot let go of that easily. A murder has occurred in the rundown hotel in which he lives – a junkie, a nobody – but Meyer is drawn in and unable to let go. Meyer’s own life is a shambles for a whole variety of reasons. The story takes place all over Sitka (probably as you would never know it) and the panhandle. There are Hasdic Jews, there are reform Jews, there are Eskimos and Inuits and Tlingit’s (both partially Jewish and not Jewish at all). There are good guys, bad guys and shades of gray. There is religion and politics. Unlikely tough guys and even more unlikely saviors and messiahs.

The story was great. I enjoyed it immensely and it definitely kept my interest and when I tried to explain this book to a friend it sounded weird even to my ears. This is a book you will either love or hate. This takes me back to why this book is only 3 ½ stars. This author simply cannot stop himself from using a ten dollar word where a fifty cent word would not only work, but work so much better. He has no economy in his writing. While some authors can get away with a lot of detail, because it complements the story or even enhances it, Chabon just hammers the reader with egomanical levels of word smithing. It is as if the story were a wall he is spackling, and he perceives cracks where none exist and compulsively fills said cracks with words.

There are times when this style detracts from the story so much that as a reader, I became utterly frustrated with the book and despite my enjoyment of the overall story, I would scan the pages wondering “How long till the end?” when this occurs over and over, one can become bored and I imagine that more than one reader has thrown the book away or passed it on with the explanation that they simply could no longer stand to read the thing. If you don’t have the stamina or patience to put up with this, then this book will not be for you.

It is my wish that this author would abandon this style for just one book. I believe that if he could write more cleanly, readers would be looking at something really special. There is nothing wrong with using this style for a single book but someone has erroneously validated this as “genius” and it is sticking. Not only is it not genius, but to me, it kind of expresses a lack of confidence in what is otherwise really good writing with excellent stories. I think it also narrows his readership. Dicken’s did not write only for what he thought were those deserving of the intellectual exercise. He wrote for people to read and enjoy the story without letting the building blocks get in the way of the view.

Stick with the story, try to endure to detail and the hyper word usage and underneath, there is a fascinating and fun story.