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Books To Help Us Forget Pandemic Worries — Rachel to the Rescue, The Lincoln Highway and Homeland Elegies
By Elyse Sommer
With theater once again reeling from staff, including stars, testing positive and theatergoers canceling reservations, the most durable and satisfying way to spend the long days at home is to curl up with a good book. For me, books were my first love and the various homes I've lived in have always had several filled bookshelves. For several years, I collected Kate Greenaway's charming children's books. Visits to bookstores and nearby libraries were a vital part of my life. But a realistic acceptance of the less-than-golden aspects of the golden years have made reading in print text difficult unless done on my laptop or iad where text could be enlarged for more comfortable reading. Thus, my Kindle has enabled me to tap into my ever expanding library of old and new books.
The worrisome Omicron variant has once again put the kibosh on more visits to and from friends, the occasional outing to a show and made reading the best entertainment available. But this wasn't the time to reread War and Peace or finally dig into Proust's In Search of Lost Time, or Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, but something new and diverting and with a happy ending. In short, a binge-read!
I'll admit I would have dropped any book if the second season of Only Murders In This Building were ready to stream on Hulu. But Elinor Lipman's Rachel to the Rescue did provide the same sort of fast-moving light-hearted, and yet thoughtful experience. The much longer The Lincoln Hightway by Amor Towles is also binge-able but will probably have a longer shelf life than the romance Lipman has concocted to also satirize the first term of the Trump presidency.
Finally, with the real world hard to shut out for long, I did wind my way through Ayad Akhtar's Homeland Elegies, which is hardly escape fare, but too much an essential reading to pass up, especially for anyone who like me, saw the plays to which it's an enlightening, if depressing, coda.
Following is my take on all three..
Elinor Lipman is one of my favorite authors. The seven novels she's published since 1990 have elevated fiction tagged as "women's novels" into the realm of sophisticated social comedies filled with insights into the the human condition. Like Jane Austen she manages to overlay romantic plot situations with broader insights and bring them to a happy ending. But her insights focus on Jewish issues, which accounts for her frequently being dubbed as a Jewish Jane Austen.
Though Lipman's books have been popular, with several made into films, it remains to be seen whether her stories will match Austen's posthumous success. Fortunately so, since she's a busy and sharp-as-ever septuagenarian. To wit, a book of rhyming political tweets, Tweet Land of Liberty: Irreverent Rhymes from the Political Circus and anther novel with her own unique blend of romance-cum-social satire, Rachel to the Rescue.
Like all her novels, this Trump-centric romance assembles a cast of characters across the social spectrum. Therefore like that famous '70s ad campaign for Levi's Jewish Rye Bread, you don't have to be Jewish to love its fast-moving plot developments.
The titular heroine's career problems and personal life are equally funny and get entertainingly mashed together — and as fast as Trump's tweets. Scenes pertaining to Rachel's career bring on a muckraker who restores the term muckraker to our present day vocabulary. . . daughter Ivanka's Hebrew coach. . .his personal optometrist. . .a mad-as-hell Melania. . .and Rachel's new boss, a aabest-selling biographer who's averse to careful fact checking and his emotionally complicated stepsister.
Rachel's personal life includes her parents and two lesbian roommates, one of whom is a gourmet cook and both of whom matchmake her romance with an attractivr guy at the local wine store.
Since I'm counting on your discovering the details about how all these career and personal situations merge here's a very brief summary of what to expect: The 20-something Rachel has found neither a job or relationship that allows her to be her true self. As the book opens, she's been fired from her latest gig as a lowly White House staffer whose job is to patch together the mail the president prefers to tear up. The cause for her dismissal: A disdainful email about Trump-the-ripper to everyone in her address book . As she exits the White House, she's run over by the optometrist who's on her way there to attend to more than Trump's eyes.
What follows continues to poke fun at Trump and his retinue and her continuing search for a meaningful life. We find outselves at dinners that are part of her roommates' matchmaking. Yes, that includrs several Shabbat dinners and a finale under a wedding chuppah — but, as already mentioned, you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate Lipton's ability to make you laugh and despair over Trump's devastating effect on this country's moral, economic and physical well being. Her inclusion of Andrew Cuomo in her finale underscores how when we put our better angels on leave, Trumpish fecklessness wins.
If you find Rachel Klein's story as entertaining as I did, you can treat yourself to to some of her previous books, including my own favorites like The Inn at Lake Devine, The Ladies' Man, The Dearly Departed, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, The Family Man, The View From Penthouse and Good Riddance.
With The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles has hit a literary triple crown: three fascinating stories, all three are best sellers. Each is different yet all three have powerful historic themes and memorable characters. None cater to short attention spans but all feel shorter because they keep readers turning the pages and validating the term book-binging.
The Rules of Civility was a homage to 1938 Manhattan, A Gentleman From Moscow took the reader to Tolstoy's world. His latest, The Lincoln Highway, , is pure Americana -— a picaresque road trip by two brothers leaving their problem-filled Nebraska lives for California, where the older brother hopes to earn enough money to take care of his younger brother who's sure that they'll find the mother who deserted them there. Of course, the brothers' journey doesn't go as planned but actually sends them in the opposite direction thanks to encounters with a cast of characters representing the ordinary and extraordinary, all with their own agendas and views of right and wrong, sorrowfulness and hope.
Young Billy is an ingenious creation, not just a burdensome responsibility for brother Emmett, but a super-smart sidekick whose treasured book of the condensed stories of 26 historic heroes ranging from Achilles to Ulysses several times saves them from disaster at the hands of the greedy Pastor Joe and the charming but unstable Duchess, who Emmett met during his time at a work camp after dealing a fatal blow to a town bully .
All these picarrsque meet-ups do have a few slow spots and making Duchess the narrating voice tends to make Emmett, the novel's rock-solid good guy, less interesting than the wilder and unheroic Duchess. But for most of the 500 poages Emmett and Billy's running into Duchess and not reaching their destination — at least not without their adventures in the opposite direction — makes for a terrifically entertaining read. Definitely binge-able.
The cover says it's a novel. However, like its author, the title Homeland Elegies eludes a definitive label. True to that "a novel" on its cover, this book is fiction. But it's also a memoir of his life as the son of two Pakistani doctors who settled in America. And the afterwords or codas at the end of each of each chapter adds skilled essayist to his identity as a playwright and novelist.
While Ahktar was born in America, the homeland of the title refers to his family's Pakistani roots and the author's own search for identity as the son of immigrants who is inescapably bound to his family's origins.
By using his own name and career for the narrator, Akhtar makes it clear that he is mixing genres. While he doesn't name the controversial issue-oriented play (Disgraced, 2012) that won him a Pulitzer his narrator does win that prize. As his fictional Akhtar explores family, politics, art, money, sex, religion, and prejudice he continues to draw on real events and people. Vital to the story he tells is the gung-ho American-Dream-embracing father who horrified his son with his support of the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, with whom he was smitten when he was referred to him as a patient. Unlike his father, Ahktar's mother never felt fully at home in the family's adopted homeland. A substantial portion of the narrative focuses on a fellow Muslim medical student, Riaz Rind, who became a billionaire hedge fund manager and introduced his still financially insecure friend to the power and seductive appeal of money. It's unclear if this part of the story is more fiction than fact, but Ahktar did use what he learned about the capitalist system to write a play (Junk 2017) about the entrepreneurial shenanigans of the 1980s and junk bond king Michael Milken. based on "Junk Bond King" Michael Milken.
Ahktar's book takes us all the way into the depressing world we're currently living and its tone lives up to the second word of which is defined as a mournful, melancholy poem. But this melancholic poem does leave us uplifted about the well-being of artistic expression. Thus my advice: Go for it!
Here are links to my reviews of both the above mentioned reviews:I reviewed both the above mentioned plays. Disgraced and Junk
The book won't end up as a Hollywood movie but an FX series is in the works. .
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