Playing catch-up: Cheap shots and books that deserve better

So this is really ridiculous. I have a baker’s dozen of books that I’ve not written about, dating back several months because either I’ve lost interest in this blog (along with several other readers) or I’ve just not had the time. Or, perhaps, both.

So let’s play catch up. (And in the interest of catching up, I’ve decided NOT to proofread this.)

nest 2.jpeg“The Nest” by Cynthia D’aprix Sweeney and “Lookaway, Lookaway” by Wilton Barnhardt are remarkably similar in plot, but prove once again, it’s all in the execution.

Both books focus on a family of four adult children—one gay, which I only point out as more evidence of similarity— who are waiting for the big payoff.

“Nest,” one of the books of the summer said the critics, opens when the wastrel brother of the Plumb family is in a car accident with a woman who is not his wife. That doesn’t surprise anyone, not even the wife. What does, is that their mother has used a trust fund to pay for the son’s rehab and to settle a lawsuit brought by the woman who was disfigured in the accident. That trust fund, which the siblings all call “the nest,” is of more concern than their brother’s health. See, they all want their share and they all want it now. More to the point, some of them need it now, because they’ve been borrowing against it. And, of course, because so much was spent in the aftermath of the accident, the other three are afraid their portion will be much smaller. And should he get a fourth of the nest, even though so much of it has gone for his expenses?

If whiny New Yorkers is your thing, have at it: There’s a whiny writer, a whiny wife, her whiny children, a whiny antiques dealer who doesn’t understand how good he has it and the wastrel who whines because no one trusts him. The Plumbs are self-absorbed to the extent that you can see why the rest of America hates people who live in the Big Apple so much. And, just asking, but does every modern day novel set in New York need a 9/11 subplot? It’s getting trite, sorry.

lookaway__140129200557 2.jpegNow Barnhardt’s book is, for the most part, delightful. The Johnston family of Charlotte, North Carolina, is also money obsessed, but they blunder forward despite it and, it turns out, some end up happy.

Let me just say one of my favorite books is Barnhardt’s “Emma Who Saved My Life,” about a young man trying to be an actor in New York and the crowd of misfits he calls friends. I read it probably 30 years ago and found it hilarious and sad and moving. (Though, truth be told, I recommended it to someone bookclub recently and she said everyone hated the characters and the book.)

“Lookaway” has its self-absorbed family, but they are presented with an impressive amount of dark humor that makes them a lot of fun to be with. Sexual peccadilloes, money problems, gossip, alcohol, the Civil War and Southern status, all drive what the Johnstons do and don’t do and who they screw and who they take under their wing. You’ll be stunned at the way the mother addresses her daughter’s date rape and heartened when one son’s dangerous gamble on love pays off.

This is one funny book, both in the story it tells and how it tells it. It’s well worth the time, even if, at the end, it feels slightly unfinished.

broad 2.jpegWhile we’re in the South, I’ll touch on “South of Broad,” Pat Conroy’s novel set in Charlotte, S.C.

I have a love/hate relationship with Conroy whose books like “Prince of Tides” and “Beach Music” are so good at the same time they’re so bad. His stories are emotionally wrenching one minute and mawkish the next. I think I give him a pass because when he’s good he’s great and when he’s bad, I cringe and wish he had a stronger editor who could say, “Bitch, please, this needs to go.”

“Broad” touches on all Conroy’s themes: suicide, family, evil (both great and small), self-loathing, fathers, sons, mothers. It’s got everything, even a psychopathic killer.

I fault the book for trying to do too much. Is it a story about a group of friends and a horrible task that brings them together? Is it a crime story? Is it a revenge story? Is it the story of a boy coping with the suicide of his brother? Maybe it’s a story about second, and third chances. Actually, it’s all the above. Conroy throws too much into the mix, though, giving racism, the AIDS crisis and Hurricane Hugo starring roles.

While not a total waste, Conroy’s earlier work is better.

zorro 2.jpegNow onto an unqualified treat: “Zorro,” by Isabel Allende.

Not knowing anything about this early superhero except what I remembered from TV reruns and late movies, I have no idea whether Allende created her world from whole cloth or started with legends and beautifully embellished them. I decided I didn’t care because the book is so much fun.

Zorro is the son of a Spanish nobleman and an Indian woman whose passion could not be dimmed except by marriage. He gets his gentlemanly skills—sword fighting, for example—from his father and a thirst for justice and love of the land from his mother.

The book spans the globe, taking Diego (Zorro’s real name) from what will be California to Spain to New Orleans to California. Along with way he hones skills that end up coming in handy later: He learns rope tricks from the sailors on the ship that takes him to Spain, and medicines from his Indian grandmother, trickery from some gypsies he falls in with and, well, you get the picture.

Nothing deep here, but there’s a lot to enjoy. You’ll find yourself smiling at the way Allende weaves together her characters and how they return to the story just at the right time. And there’s a good villain, too.

Almost caught up! Thanks for staying with me.

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