The Best Kind of People – Zoe Whittall

bestkindofpeopleGeorge Woodbury is the greatest guy. In affluent, co-op food-store-supporting, Starbucks-gulping, small-town Connecticut, he’s voted Teacher of the Year, every year, at the elite prep school. He’s even a local hero, having once taken down a school shooter and saving students’ lives. Everyone loves George, and his self-sacrificing nurse wife Joan, and his grown son living in the big city, and his sweet daughter who attends the school.

Until four students of George come forward and claim he sexually assaulted them.

The most insightful aspect of this book is what it isn’t about. It isn’t about these four girls who claim to have been assaulted. It isn’t about the assault. It isn’t about whether George is guilty or innocent. It isn’t even about George.

This book is the tale of George’s wife, the shattering of her perfect marriage, the dissolution of the future she envisioned cushioned with trust fund money and easy retirement. It’s the story of George’s son, a once-closeted gay man who has to return to the hometown full of homophobes who bullied him into psychosis. This is the story of Sadie, George’s daughter, who once considered him her hero, and now wonders if she was deluded. Now the only certainties in her life are her passion for marijuana and a much older man.

The ramifications of these allegations don’t simply vanish after the trial. George’s guilt or innocence isn’t the issue at all. This book explores the lesser-known effects of the other victims of assault: the family members who are blind-sided with doubts about what they once held as truths.

Some reviewers complained that the ending left nothing resolved, but I disagree. The ending is true to life. Life goes on, people live through this, and have to live with this, for the rest of their lives. If George is guilty or if George is innocent, the ramifications of this ordeal remain. The doubts never go away.

I appreciated this exploration on the consequences of sexual assault allegations that extend beyond the accused and their victims. The writing is fast-paced enough to keep the readers’ interest. Occasionally, the clichés surfaced (wealthy prep school, small snobby town, organic food markets), and some editing might have reduced the repetitiveness of some of the anger and anxiety, but overall it was a good story, and worth recommending.

Many thanks to Random House Publishing, Netgalley, and the author for this advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

The Man-Booker Long List and What They Missed

For some reason, the Man Booker is still my favorite literary prize, and every year I await the release of their longlist selection with anticipation and glee. Some years they get it right, some years not quite, and they always overlook something spectacular. But fear not! I am here to shine the light on the darkness in my own special irreverent way. It’s my blog, and I can say what I want, so here you go.

Here are the books the committee thought were the bee’s knees in 2016:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate)
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury Circus)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet)

I am chagrined that I’ve only read three of these, but Autumn, Swing Time, and The Underground Railroad (despite the nauseating over-hype) are also on my radar to read.. Some of these books I’ve never heard of, but plan to investigate.

Of the three I’ve read, only two really belong on this list:  Lincoln in the Bardo and History of Wolves. Not so much, Exit West. Why not, you ask? I think literary critics and prize committees focus too heavily on books of the non-British/American immigrant experience. Not to discount such literature, as many novels with topics in this area are eye-opening and important, but I think they’re often heavily weighted and are given a few too many bonus points. The topic is politically relevant, but in literature it’s also trendy, which I find off-putting. The market is saturated. Exit West is not without merit, but I’m not sure it belongs with these others on the list.

Exit West just doesn’t cut the Booker mustard. It’s fine. The writing is good, the premise is intriguing. Two lovers from an unnamed country at the outbreak of civil war flee their nation for idyllic lands and also maneuver through the ups and downs of their relationship as a couple. The description of the development of the civil war is genius, how it creeps so slowly that the city’s inhabitants almost don’t recognize its gravity until it’s too late to leave.

But  . . .

At a sparsely-formatted 231 pages, the book is so short as to inhibit character development. Even worse, there’s a glaring deus ex machina that is just outrageous. Every part of the book is viciously realistic, then all of a sudden there’s a left turn into sci-fi that only cheapens the brutal reality of the original story. How did this get an editor’s ok?

If you haven’t read the book, I’ll clue you in. It’s not a spoiler — I think it’s even mentioned on the jacket copy. The characters can just leave an undesirable place through special doors that transport them across the world. Seriously. Contemporary, politically-aware plot that jumps the shark.

Had there been other elements of magical realism in the novel, I wouldn’t have protested so much. But the doors are it. There is no explanation of this sudden supernatural location-hopping. I’m flummoxed. Going along, fascinated and terrified with the escalating war, concerned for the characters, and then wham! They just go through a magical door and instantly escape to Greece. Now the story is no longer real, no longer actually possible, and nothing matters to me anymore.

Definitely check out Lincoln in the Bardo and History of Wolves, as both novels have a lot brain food to offer.

I would be remiss if I didn’t complain vehemently that the committee completely shit the bed by not recognizing the brilliance of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I have no idea what they were thinking. Maybe they were suffocated with the influx of immigrant-experience literature. Maybe they fell through a magic door to Antarctica before they were done reading it. I don’t know. I see through you, prize committee. Look beyond the expected choices.

Sinful Folk – Ned Hayes

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Set in medieval England, Sinful Folk follows Mear, a nun named Miriam disguised as a mute, old man. In Mear’s small village, five boys burned to death in a house fire, including Mear’s son, Christian. The fire was not an accident. The door was roped shut and the murderer has not been discovered. Mear and some village men decide to make the long trek to London to demand justice for their deaths, hauling the boys’ dead bodies in a cart behind them. Mear is going on the journey to discover her son’s killer, whom she believes may be one of her companions.

The historical detail and quality story-telling in this book was a surprise. I would categorize it as a historical thriller, though it’s not a swashbuckling, sword-fighting type of story. Sinful Folk is agonizingly suspenseful. It’s a slow burn, full of unreliable stories and questionable characters. It never lagged, never meandered, and I was riveted.

Along this journey we learn Mear’s backstory, why she is disguised, how she came to have a son, and why she can’t reveal her identity to any of her companions, even though she trusts many them with her life. The lives of these men are harsh. The winter is brutal and meat is scarce. It’s painfully cold, and the men are filthy and tortured with agonizing hunger. Every character is selfish, starving, and angry in their grief. The writing was above par, and the pacing was intense. I looked forward to reading this story every time I cracked the spine, and towards the end I eschewed chores, phones, and schedules to get to the end.

I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads because I enjoyed the entire book, not just the ending, or the middle, as is so often the case. I was full of anticipation to read it as it reached its close. The author’s attention to detail only enhanced the mystery of Mear’s story.

Sinful Folk is a hidden gem. I don’t give out 5 stars on Goodreads readily, and this book deserves the praise.