A little more variation from expectation would have been welcome. Still, a well-intended and welcome first effort.

READ REVIEW

LAY DOWN YOUR WEARY TUNE

Musicians can be a handful. Even folk musicians. That’s not news—but it’s news you can use, courtesy of Belcher’s modest debut.

“What the hell happened to Eli Page?” You might as well have a T-shirt made with the question emblazoned on both sides, for Eli Page, the dark heart of the story, is a bibulous, cantankerous, but beguiling troubadour whose soap-operatic life includes spells of Dylan-esque disappearance and Morrison-ian mayhem. Enter “John Wyeth of nowhere special,” as Eli dubs the young man who stage-manages him through what could have been a disastrous performance. It’s not exactly My Favorite Year, but if you’ve seen that wonderful film in a double feature with Inside Llewyn Davis, you’ll have some idea of the setup. Belcher enriches what in turn could have been an overly broad yarn with a more specific narrowing of the stage as Jack moves to Eli’s small town to help him work through his archives and memory banks in a “ghostwriting gig,” with some mentoring in the fine art of how to be a folkie on the side. Jack’s no schmo, but he’s a little hapless, and as he lands square into Eli’s messes he makes some of his own; as Eli grumbles, midway through the book, “You move to town, live with me, and start up with [the town cop’s] fiancée. That’s three strikes.” One wishes Belcher had a slightly more seasoned view of small-town life of the sort that Richard Russo and the late Kent Haruf so ably drew from; there’s not much that sets his leafy town apart from any other. And while a musician as nice and even-keeled as, say, Donovan probably wouldn’t fuel a good old conflict-driven story, and there’s plenty of conflict here, Eli rather too neatly checks all the boxes of what a dissolute, world-weary musician—and is there any other kind?—is supposed to be like.

A little more variation from expectation would have been welcome. Still, a well-intended and welcome first effort.

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59051-746-8

Page Count: 407

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 18, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2015

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With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

ALL ADULTS HERE

When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus run over a longtime acquaintance of hers—Barbara Baker, a woman she doesn't like very much—it's only the beginning of the shake-ups to come in her life and the lives of those she loves.

Astrid has been tootling along contentedly in the Hudson Valley town of Clapham, New York, a 68-year-old widow with three grown children. After many years of singlehood since her husband died, she's been quietly seeing Birdie Gonzalez, her hairdresser, for the past two years, and after Barbara's death she determines to tell her children about the relationship: "There was no time to waste, not in this life. There were always more school buses." Elliot, her oldest, who's in real estate, lives in Clapham with his wife, Wendy, who's Chinese American, and their twins toddlers, Aidan and Zachary, who are "such hellions that only a fool would willingly ask for more." Astrid's daughter, Porter, owns a nearby farm producing artisanal goat cheese and has just gotten pregnant through a sperm bank while having an affair with her married high school boyfriend. Nicky, the youngest Strick, is disconcertingly famous for having appeared in an era-defining movie when he was younger and now lives in Brooklyn with his French wife, Juliette, and their daughter, Cecelia, who's being shipped up to live with Astrid for a while after her friend got mixed up with a pedophile she met online. As always, Straub (Modern Lovers, 2016, etc.) draws her characters warmly, making them appealing in their self-centeredness and generosity, their insecurity and hope. The cast is realistically diverse, though in most ways it's fairly superficial; the fact that Birdie is Latina or Porter's obstetrician is African American doesn't have much impact on the story or their characters. Cecelia's new friend, August, wants to make the transition to Robin; that storyline gets more attention, with the two middle schoolers supporting each other through challenging times. The Stricks worry about work, money, sex, and gossip; Straub has a sharp eye for her characters' foibles and the details of their liberal, upper-middle-class milieu.

With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-59463-469-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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A daring concept not so daringly developed.

THE BOOK OF LONGINGS

In Kidd’s (The Invention of Wings, 2014, etc.) feminist take on the New Testament, Jesus has a wife whose fondest longing is to write.

Ana is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. She demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for writing, and Matthias, for a time, indulges her with reed pens, papyri, and other 16 C.E. office supplies. Her mother disapproves, but her aunt, Yaltha, mentors Ana in the ways of the enlightened women of Alexandria, from whence Yaltha, suspected of murdering her brutal husband, was exiled years before. Yaltha was also forced to give up her daughter, Chaya, for adoption. As Ana reaches puberty, parental tolerance of her nonconformity wanes, outweighed by the imperative to marry her off. Her adopted brother, Judas—yes, that Judas—is soon disowned for his nonconformity—plotting against Antipas. On the very day Ana, age 14, meets her prospective betrothed, the repellent Nathanial, in the town market, she also encounters Jesus, a young tradesman, to whom she’s instantly drawn. Their connection deepens after she encounters Jesus in the cave where she is concealing her writings about oppressed women. When Nathanial dies after his betrothal to Ana but before their marriage, Ana is shunned for insufficiently mourning him—and after refusing to become Antipas’ concubine, she is about to be stoned until Jesus defuses the situation with that famous admonition. She marries Jesus and moves into his widowed mother’s humble compound in Nazareth, accompanied by Yaltha. There, poverty, not sexism, prohibits her from continuing her writing—office supplies are expensive. Kidd skirts the issue of miracles, portraying Jesus as a fully human and, for the period, accepting husband—after a stillbirth, he condones Ana’s practice of herbal birth control. A structural problem is posed when Jesus’ active ministry begins—what will Ana’s role be? Problem avoided when, notified by Judas that Antipas is seeking her arrest, she and Yaltha journey to Alexandria in search of Chaya. In addition to depriving her of the opportunity to write the first and only contemporaneous gospel, removing Ana from the main action destroys the novel’s momentum.

A daring concept not so daringly developed.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-42976-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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