Sunday, July 26, 2015

Uncomfortable and Unproductive vs. Ambiguously Imperfect but Utterly Charming: Reviews on You Don't Have to Live Like This (Markovitz) and Crooked Heart (Evans)

I'm plowing through them lately.  Here's one I loved, presented (and read) after one I struggled to complete:
Greg, or Marny to his old college friends is a bit lost.  After graduating from Yale and earning a PhD in literature at Oxford, he fell into a non-tenure track job teaching at a college in England.  A brief meeting at a reunion leads to Greg quitting his job and returning to his parents' home in Louisiana.  He decides to move to Detroit to be part of something akin to a social/economic (somehow that sounds more accurate than 'socioeconomic') experiment.  A college friend is trying to get people to apply for and join a planned community, buying cheap abandoned and often dilapidated homes.  The back cover references a line calling it "the Groupon model for gentrification."  In Detroit, Marny navigates a social life while also confronting issues of race and class that develop as the participants in "New Jamestown" face animosity from some long-time residents who refuse to sell.  

This seemed like an interesting topic, but it never really flew for me.  It seems pretty clear the author doesn't want us to like Marny and the lack of sympathy for his own lead character made it hard to feel invested in his fate.  I'm not sure if he's an "everyman" or simply a loser...or maybe both.  The author provides brief sketches of far too many characters and I was often a little lost because I knew a name was familiar but I hadn't been invested enough to remember which of many characters was in action.  

I can't complete this review without turning to the topic of racism, class-ism, and other -isms.  There are a number of times when Marny's words and/or actions contain outright racism.  I do believe that there's a place for literature that contains more-than-uncomfortable lines but it needs to be done right (see Huck Finn).  Sometimes the best works of art make you uncomfortable.  Here, it doesn't really enhance the context, the plot, or the point (if he has one) which mean every time Marny recorded a racially charged thought (and that's pretty often....he dates a woman seemingly just to be able to say he is dating a black woman from the other side of the tracks) I wanted to throw the book at the wall and give up.
I give this book 2 of 5 stars.  I read it quickly not because I enjoyed it and was propelled along, but because I wanted it to end.  I might have initially gone for 3, but the more I think about the book the less I like it.  This review is based on an advance reader copy of the novel supplied to me by Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review.

Noel has had something of an unusual childhood but then again he's an unusual child.   He has been raised by godmother Mattie, a former suffragette who teaches her own lessons and who is truly the boy's kindred soul.  As WWII settles in, Mattie begins to show signs of dementia and eventually passes on leaving Noel to the care of a much-hated tangential family member.  The family is all too happy to send Noel to the suburbs along with the rest of London's children during the Blitz and the meat of the story comes when Noel finds his way into Vee's care.  Vee lives by her own moral code, bending (okay, breaking) the law to support her mother and her son, Donald.  Vee and Noel clash at first but eventually team up in their own little scheme.  Of course, that can't go well...

I really enjoyed the vast majority of this book.   I loved Mattie and mourned her right alongside Noel, hoping with him that things might somehow take a different turn. The characters of Vee and Noel were beautifully rendered, perfectly imperfect. Noel is not your typical 10-year-old, but he's also very much 10 as is best displayed when he's complaining about perceived injustices (I was reminded of Snow White as a child in Once Upon a Time....moral, but young).  The language is lovely.  

Where this book lost me and where it lost that elusive fifth star was with the story of Vee's lazy lump of a son, Donald.  I disliked him from the start, as we are meant to, but I also disliked having to read about him.  In particular, the story involving Donald near the end of the book just felt wholly out-of-place in a novel that otherwise felt quite genuine.  

Still, highly recommend. I all-but-devoured this one.  It isn't complex and probably fits a mass-market fiction audience (vs a more literary fiction that has a narrower audience), but a good solid read nonetheless with enough moral ambiguity to ring true.  I loved visiting with Noel and, ultimately, Vee as well.  Might have hit 5-stars if it hadn't wasted time on a side-note.  This was provided to me by Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review.

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