The Windfall: review

The Windfall (NetGalley)
Diksha Basu
Crown Publishing

Let’s get it out of the way right from the start: I was captivated by The Windfall. Writer Diksha Basu writes a sort of Indian Pride and the windfallPrejudice with some overtones of Great Expectations. The novel is at times humorous, poignant, and scathing–sometimes all on the same page.  

For nearly their entire married life, Mr. and Mrs. Jha have lived in Mayur Palli, a middle class housing complex in East Delhi. The apartments were cramped, the streets noisy, and the neighbors nosy. After Mr. Jha sells a website for the astounding amount of twenty million U.S. dollars, the couple has purchased a house in the wealthy suburb of Guragun where the homes are spacious, the streets tranquil, and the neighbors … well, they’re still nosy, just not crowded in cheek to jowl. The novel opens with the Jhas gathering their neighbors together for dinner to share the news.

It’s clear from the outset that Mrs. Jha is decidedly less eager to leave than Mr. Jha. She remembers her neighbors looking out for their son Rupak when he was young and she was one of the few career women in Mayur Palli; she cherishes the friendships that have grown up with their family over the years. Mr. Jha sees things differently, however. He worked hard and this is their reward. He wants to leave their middle class world behind and revel in his new wealth. There’s no clinging to the old ways for Mr. Jha. The house in Guragun has showers, instead of a cup and bucket. He orders a dishwasher. And he has taken delivery on a new sofa from Japan–one studded with crystals that sparkle like diamonds. As Mr. Jha decides which Next Great Thing to purchase, he reasons, “They couldn’t live in a neighborhood like this and not keep up with the neighbors.”

Caught in the middle is their twenty-something son Rupak. The family’s windfall has meant Rupak can attend grad school in the U.S. so he can make bucketfuls of money himself one day. Except that Rupak is on academic probation, distracted by an American girlfriend and a bank account that magically replenishes itself. Rupak buys thousand dollar golf club sets, an iPad, a GoPro and just about any other toy that catches his eye. He has no clear vision of what he wants to do and is going through the motions of getting his MBA, just barely.

In the end, all of his posturing takes its toll on Mr. Jha as, through a comedy of errors, he begins to recognize the emptiness in his new neighbors’ lives and begins to miss the genuine friendship of his old neighbors. Bashu also gives us the story of Mrs. Jha’s best friend Mrs. Ray, a widow who finds love at her door later in life and her story deepens the connection between the Jhas new life and their former one.

Bashu gives American readers a peek into an India most of us know little about, and her commentary on Americans is wicked. Take this observation, for example: “How come Americans get called expats but if we move to America, we’re called immigrants?” Or this: “Americans were coming to India for holidays … but once they had done yoga and tried halfheartedly to teach English to prostitute’s children, they got on planes back to their homes in Michigan or Texas.” She continues, “They laughed with the slum children and pretended not to mind touching their filthy hands. Of course they didn’t mind. It would be easy to touch those children if you knew you were leaving and next week you would be back at home … telling people how those children laugh and smile even tough their lives are so difficult.” Ouch.

Will the Jhas stay or will they go? Will Rupak return to India or finish his MBA and carry on with his American girlfriend? I thought for sure I knew how the novel would end, but I didn’t. But good people are good people whether fictional or real life characters, and they figure things out.

And the Jhas are good people.

Anything Is Possible: review

Anything Is Possible
Elizabeth Strout
Random House

anything is possibleYears ago I was a bit put off by writer Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge: great writing, stunning insight–but Olive was so … unlikable. (And I know, I know, the novel won the Pulitzer, so who am I to talk?!) But I tried her again with Burgess Boys (there was that Pulitzer, after all) and wasn’t disappointed. After My Name is Lucy Barton I was convinced like so many others that a Strout novel was a great read–but her latest novel Anything is Possible is a masterpiece.

Strout exposes the dark side of human nature in an achingly beautiful way. So, yes, we do find Linda Peterson-Cornell’s voyeurism distasteful and her tacit approval of her husband, a sexual predator, despicable.  But then Linda’s sister Patty–painfully obese, a virgin throughout her marriage, faithfully caring for an elderly mother with dementia–pulls aside the curtain of their childhood, and somehow we understand. Maybe even absolve. We meet Lucy Barton again (now a famous author), as she visits with her brother Pete and sister Vicky. They tiptoe around family secrets at first, then begin to survey the damage their parents had wracked on them. And Charley Macauley who pays for sex and then discovers that maybe he has paid for love; Mary, who left a philandering husband after her heart attack to take up with a lover nearly twenty years her junior in Italy.

Strout takes the stories of broken people and makes them our stories too. Because we all, in some way or another, carry our wounds into the relationships we enter into. And whether we like it or not, because we are flawed, we often end up hurting the very people we love the most. Hopefully not to the extent of Strout’s characters, and hopefully we find the same redemption many of them do. But anything is possible.

Graybar Hotel: review

The Graybar Hotel (NetGalley)
Curtis Dawkins
Simon & Schuster
release date: July 4, 2017

I saw the cover of Graybar Hotel on NetGalley, where I request reader copies and was intrigued–but passed it over thinking the stories might  be a too edgy. But here’s what initially caught my interest: author Curtis Dawkins is “an MFA graduate and convicted murderer serving life without parole”. How many authors do you know who fit that bill? Then when my bookish friend Denice raved about it, you’d better believe I went back to the site straightaway and put in my request. And I’m not sorry I did.

graybar hotelGraybar Hotel is a series of (sometimes) interrelated stories set in Michigan prisons told by narrators who are intelligent, articulate, and self-aware. The character in “A Human Number” calls random phone numbers just to hear the noises of life on the outside–traffic, TV in the background, a vacuum cleaner running. The character–we can call him Hey it’s me because that’s the name he inserts in the jail’s Tel Link recording–talks to KittyKat, an older man weighing the pros and cons of knee surgery, and Revelation, a woman who reads long passages from the book of Revelation aloud to him. In “Daytime Drama” the story turns on Arthur, a prisoner who wears a blanket superhero style around his neck, and requests a lobotomy when the psychologist comes to do a competency screening. “I’d like it out. You probably don’t understand the perils of a torturous brain,” he tries to reason with the doctor.  Then there’s naive Mickey (he wore a clown mask to rob a bank and his mother found the mask and turned him in) who makes a run for it across the prison yard on a misty day (suicide by prison guard), and Peanut who fakes seizures to get out of his cell, but isn’t faking a pregnancy. (That Peanut, a trans male, got through intake with no one recognizing his gender, is mind-boggling.)

There’s more than one kind of prison, though. Dawkins also gives us the stories of the men’s lives before prison where poverty, unemployment, and drug addiction are as constraining as the bars of a cell.

Writer Curtis Dawkins has published online while incarcerated and the pieces about Jack Kevorkian, his time in solitary confinement, and ten years of cellmates are well worth reading. I imagine his story will be all over the media (here’s a piece from The New York Times) after it’s published tomorrow, and rightly so. Dawkins’ stories in Graybar Hotel are compelling and original, the writing fresh–and not to be missed.

Inheritance From Mother: review

Inheritance from Mother (NetGalley)
Minae Mizumura
translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter
Other Press

inheritance from motherTheir mother’s body lies cold in the mortuary while two sisters, Mitsuki and Natsuki, discuss how much they’ll inherit from the estate. Mrs. Katsura had been ill for the last year of her life, so the death itself is really no surprise. What was a surprise for this reader was the frank discussion the daughters were having about the inheritance–and their emotional response (or lack of it!) to losing their mother. Mitsuki estimates they’ll each receive thirty-five million yen. The day ends with Mitsuki feeling “exhilarated, knowing that her mother was finally dead”; the sisters’ excitement “was identical–keen and palpable.”

At this point I expected some surprise twist–a codicil in the will, maybe–that would expose the women’s greed and put them in their place. What follows, however, is a poignant examination of life with a difficult mother, two sisters’ strained relationship, and the far-reaching effects of that dysfunction. That story has been told many times over, it’s true. But what made the Minae Mizumura’s novel so compelling is its peek inside of contemporary Japanese culture, one that contrasts our Western stereotypes of respectful Japanese daughters and beloved matriarchs.

Natusuki married into money; she and her cellist husband live a privileged life–yet Natsuki still muses that the inheritance might give her the freedom to divorce. Mitsuki is an adjunct university professor who also translates novels into French. Her husband Tetsuo, also a professor, is a media personality of sorts, appearing as an expert commentator on television news. Their marriage, however, is unraveling–the day her mother broke her hip (that slipperly slide towards death for so many elderly), Mitsuki discovers Tetsuo is having another fling in what has been a long series of affairs. Both women are plagued with vague health issues, we assume brought on by the stress of life in modern Japan. (Ever heard of “air conditioning syndrome“? Me, neither.) As the story unravels, we learn that Mother Noriko had been an indulged child, the daughter of a concubine, and it was that stigma that shadowed every particular of her life–and her daughters’ lives, as well. Constantly set against each other by Noriko, Natsuki and Mitsuki are more often fierce competitors than loving sisters.

By the novel’s end, both sisters come to piece together enough of their mother’s life to understand her–if only a little. The sisters also come to understand their own relationship, each recognizing the value of the other–and that, perhaps, is the most precious inheritance of all.

Old Friends: The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper (review)

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
Phaedra Patrick
MIRA Books

Over the past few years, old folks have squeezed their way into readers’ TBRs and onto bookstore “Staff Recommends” shelves. I’ve met so many Old Friends. Like Ove and Britt Marie; Miss Queenie and Harold Frye; Etta and Otto. And I’ve loved them all, I really have. These old Curious-Charms-of-Arthur-Pepperfolks are often irascible, sometimes lovable, and always wounded. After carrying life’s disappointments and tragedies for six or more decades, they come–finally–to love, and they can greet their last days with grace.

Phaedra Patrick’s The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is a book that belongs in those TBR piles, but Patrick uses a lighter touch than other authors. Arthur Pepper mourns his wife Miriam. In some feeble attempt to hold on to their life together, Arthur dresses the same each day in his “husband uniform”: sweater vest and gray slacks. He rises at 7:30, breakfasts at 8, and continues his day in the same regimented way. His daughter Lucy frets over him; his neighbor Bernadette feeds him. But when the first anniversary of Miriam’s death arrives, Arthur decides it is time to clean out her closet and pack up her clothes.

It’s then that he discovers a heart shaped box in an old pair of boots, and inside a gold charm bracelet he had never seen before. (A little odd, considering Miriam and Arthur had been married over forty years.) Puzzled by what each charm might represent–an elephant, flower, book, artist’s palette, tiger, ring, and thimble–Arthur decides to solve their mystery, if only to keep the memory of Miriam with him a little longer. He begins by calling a gentleman in India, and his adventures eventually take him to London and France.

Along the way Arthur comes to appreciate a Miriam he never knew, and this both comforts and saddens him. How can he reconcile their quiet domestic life against the backdrop of her past with its parties and travel and lovers? And as in most of the Old Friends books, Arthur comes to know himself better. He has, after all, traveled a hero’s journey. The plot of Curious Charms is a little more pat than some of the other novels, and Arthur a little less complex than other Old Friends, but it is still an endearing read.