ElCicco #CBR5 Review #44: Good Kings Bad Kings: A Novel by Susan Nussbaum

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A novel about disabled youth living under abysmal conditions in a sub-par nursing home in Chicago sounds mighty depressing and perhaps not the kind of thing you’d want to dive right into. This novel, however, the winner of a PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, is one of the better novels I’ve read this year and tackles a very serious, sometimes tragic, topic with intelligence, compassion and, yes, even humor. Nussbaum allows seven of her characters to take turns relating to the reader their personal histories and experiences at ILLC — the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center. ILLC is one of several nursing homes that the state has placed under the supervision of a private company called Palm-Whitney. ILLC is understaffed, and while some staff are conscientious and compassionate toward their patients, others clearly have no business being there. Abuse and negligence lead to several tragedies and, eventually, serve as a catalyst for change not just at ILLC but among our characters as well.

Three of our narrators are disabled youths who are in wheelchairs. Yessenia is 16. She is an orphan who has taken the loss of her beloved Tia Nene very hard, but she hides her sadness behind a tough, street-fighter kind of personality. She is fabulous and has some very funny lines in the story, including, “Milwaukee is different. It don’t look like Chicago too much but you could kinda tell it’s supposed to be a sort of city.” Mia is sweet and quiet and has been abused for much of her life. Teddy, age 22, is Mia’s boyfriend. He wears a suit every day and dreams of living independently but ILLC’s plan is to move him to an adult nursing home. Teddy resents the treatment that he and his friends receive at ILLC and engages in acts of subversion to protest. When an aide told his friend she would never get a job because she was “retarded,” Teddy tells the reader, “That’s not nice to say and I’m against the R-word. I put Vaseline on her cigarettes.”

The other four narrators are adults. Michelle works for Palm-Whitney as a “recruiter.” She visits shelters to try to recruit the homeless into Palm-Whitney institutions and gets paid a bonus for reaching recruitment goals quickly. She also visits Palm-Whitney nursing homes and files reports, a job which eventually leads her to question her dedication to her job. The other three adults work at ILLC. Joanne became disabled as an adult and works on data entry in the office. She is connected to the disability rights community and is concerned about the conditions she sees at ILLC. Ricky drives the van and helps inside the building as well. He sees first hand the physical abuse that some children suffer at the hands of aides who seem to be on a power trip. Jimmie (female) is an aide who develops a special friendship with Yessenia. These three are decent and conscientious people who care about the kids and the kids respect them in return.

For those unfamiliar with the disability rights movement and the push for community living and integration instead of institutionalization, the novel serves as an educational tool. Nussbaum shows that not only has our treatment of the disabled not improved, it has in some ways gotten worse. Yessenia tells of an aunt who had developmental disabilities but who lived with her family until she died. “She was a hard case, Tia B., but we had a lot of fun with her. You know, we didn’t know any better…. By now, we should know better how to treat them.”  Joanne frequently notes that being in a wheelchair causes others to either ignore her or treat her as a child. And the abuses that occur in this novel — rape, physical abuse, death, Medicare/Medicaid fraud– could be taken right from today’s headlines. The novel, despite the heavy themes, does end on a somewhat optimistic note and I hope it makes readers run to support their local disability rights advocacy groups.

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Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #51: The Ophelia Cut by John Lescroart

The Ophelia Cut is the newest novel in Lescroart’s long-lived series centered around a cluster of friends within the legal and police community in San Francisco, and I would describe it as another hit — despite the cheesy cover on the book. As with most of Lescroart’s novels, his characters are all-too-human, portrayed with a depth rarely seen in a legal thriller, and it is they which drive the plot forward, and not the other way around.

A rapist is murdered, and the rape victim’s father is Moses McGuire, a hard-drinking and volatile bar owner and brother-in-law to criminal lawyer Dismas Hardy. Hardy, along with fellow lawyer Gina Roake, new District Attorney Wes Farrell, Homicide department chief Abe Glitsky and McGuire himself, have all kept a dangerous secret for years, and when McGuire gets arrested for the rapist’s death, the others are afraid that McGuire could break under pressure and spill the beans, destroying them all. Hardy undertakes to defend McGuire despite all evidence pointing to his brother-in-law as the killer. One other possible suspect is Tony, a squirrely sort of guy with a mysterious past who befriends Hardy and begins dating McGuire’s daughter around the time of her rape. Also in our sightlines are corrupt politician and mayoral contender Liam Goodman for whom the rapist worked, and one of his major contributors, brothel owner Jon Lo.

If the story sounds complicated, it is, but Lescroart very deftly gives us more than enough background to keep the strands separate while giving us different perspectives from the various characters’ viewpoints. Everything hangs on sowing doubt about McGuire’s guilt within the jurors’ minds, while trying to turn up evidence that will point in a different direction. Hardy’s creditable performance in the courtroom is, however, not magical, and he is clearly losing the fight. The courtroom climax, when it comes, is as shocking for its effect on the trial as it is for its aftermath. The lives of all of our favorite Lescroart characters are dramatically changed and nothing will be the same. And for the rape victim herself, left to fend for herself while the drama swirled around her father, the future remains grim.

When you’ve turned the final page of The Ophelia Cut, you won’t have any easy solution to the tensions that have inexorably built throughout the book. Instead, you have been posed a whole load of new moral and ethical questions to consider after you’ve put the book down, and it’s exactly what I love about Lescroart’s writing.

Mrs Smith Reads Testimony by Anita Shreve, #CBR5, Review #8

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Before Testimony, the only other Anita Shreve novel I had read was The Pilot’s Wife, which I liked, but didn’t really love. Testimony, on the other hand, left me feeling disgusted with it’s tale of sexual misadventure at a New England boarding school, the tragic events that set the story in motion and the fallout for all those involved.

The narrative begins with Mike Bordwin, Headmaster of Avery Academy, who has received a videotape which shows three male students and a 14-year-old Freshman girl, involved in graphic sex in an Avery dorm room. The unfolding events are told through myriad narrators, each of whom offer their remembrances of and involvement in the scandal, which eventually leads to suspensions, arrests, firings, divorces, and death, within the school itself and in the surrounding community.

I should probably offer a *Trigger Warning* at this point because I feel the need to discuss some of the awkward contrivances Shreve places in the story, all of which made me cringe inwardly as she attempted to make readers feel sorry for the “boys” involved and to place all the blame on the jezebel.

Mrs Smith Reads Testimony by Anita Shreve

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #4: My First Murder by Leena Lehtolainen

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Leena Lehtolainen is a Finnish writer who has had success in her native land with a murder mystery series featuring detective Maria Kallio, the lone female in the violent crimes unit of the Helsinki Police Department. The author highlights chauvinism in the department and in society at large, along with the capital’s problems with drugs, prostitution and other illegal activities involving shady types from Estonia and Russia.

Maria is trying to decide where to go in life and with her career. She had been in law school but turned to police work as way to help people. But with this stint in violent crimes, dealing with rapes and murders and an alcoholic boss who is frequently out on leave due to his problems, Maria is losing her taste for the work and considering going back to school to finish her law degree.

The case that falls in her lap involves a group of people she once knew. A former roommate’s boyfriend has been murdered at his summer villa while spending the weekend their with choir friends. Tommi had been a ladies man, successful engineer, from wealthy family. Was it a jilted lover or a jealous boyfriend? As Maria conducts her investigation, she discovers details about a life that even his closest friends had little knowledge of. Did one of them do it or was it some gang-related murder?

As murder mysteries go, it was an okay book. This is the first of a series, and I feel like authors need 2-3 under their belts before they really flesh out their characters. There are a few who will clearly be around — her drunk boss, her good-humored and hard working sidekick, the possible love interest. The suspects in this novel were an interesting bunch, each with some reason to love and hate Tommi. The details about crime and culture in Helsinki were adequate, but I think I have been spoiled by Stieg Larsson. When I think of Nordic crime thriller, I expect a little more these days. Larsson’s Girl series was brilliant and would be a better choice for people who want gritty, complex characters and crimes. This is more of an airport read — something to pass the time when you can’t be doing what you want to do. I wouldn’t rush out to read the next one, but if it came across my path, I’d probably read it and not mind it.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #3: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

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Last year for CBR4, I reviewed Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer Prize nominated novel The Plague of Doves and gave it 4 stars (which seems stingy in retrospect — it deserved 5). Her latest National Book Award-winning novel The Round House is another brilliant work. As far as I’m concerned, Erdrich is the best American writer around.

The events of The Round House occur in the summer of 1988. Our narrator is a 14-year-old Native named Joe, son of Judge Coutts and Geraldine (characters from The Plague of Doves). They live on a reservation in North Dakota, where dad is a tribal judge, mom is a recorder of genealogies and Joe hangs out with his buddies doing fairly typical things like riding bikes, hanging out at the lake, drinking and smoking. Their lives are shattered when Geraldine is violently raped. Geraldine retreats into herself, refusing to divulge details about the crime to tribal, state or federal officials (the question of exactly where the crime occurred will be important to determining who has jurisdiction). The Judge re-examines cases he tried in order to see if he can figure out who might want to hurt him and his family. Joe and his friends engage in some investigating of their own, and Joe makes startling discoveries about the crime and members of his community. Ultimately, he must decide how he will act on what he has learned, and the choice is excruciating for him.

The plot is grim but, sadly, based on a staggering reality — that one third of Native women are raped, 86% by non-Native men, and that justice is rarely served. Erdrich, who is part Chippewa, provides statistics and facts at the end of the novel. The lack of justice will surely make readers burn, but injustice is part of Native American history. Erdrich does a beautiful job of weaving Native history into her stories without making it seem forced or pedantic. The facts flow naturally into conversations that characters have, and the reader can see the influence of 200 years’ worth of US government decisions on the lives of Natives today.

As a writer, Erdrich is simply amazing. Her imagination and ability to put herself in the place of different ages, sexes and cultures is superb. She can write the dream sequence of Mooshum, explaining the tale of the wiindigoo, a spirit that possesses a person at a time of desperation. Then she can produce a detailed conversation between fourteen year olds about Star Trek Next Generation. She can break your heart with Joe’s decisions and his friends’ fates, and she can make you laugh out loud when the priest hears a confession that causes him to chase a teen out of the church and around the neighborhood. One especially delightful character is Grandma Ingnatia, aka Grandma Thunder, who scandalizes the younger people with her frank talk about sex. When Joe and his friends go to her place for lunch, they get an earful.

You boys listen up, said Grandma Ingatia. You want to learn something? Want to learn how to keep your little peckers hard all your life? Go and go? Live clean like Napoleon. Liquor makes you quicker and that’s no good. Bread and lard keep it hard! He is eighty-seven and he not only gets it up easy, he can go five hours at a stretch.

We wanted to sneak away but were pulled back by that last piece of information.

By far the most powerful writing deals with Geraldine’s trauma. The revelation of the crime committed against her is shocking and brutal. Equally devastating is the way Erdrich describes the aftermath — Geraldine’s anguish and depression and its effect on her family. In one scene, Geraldine is taken by surprise when she doesn’t hear her husband enter the house. He hugs her from behind, causing her to scream and drop the casserole dish she had been holding. Joe narrates what followed:

…my mother flushed darkly and an almost imperceptible shudder coursed over her. She took a gasping breath, and put her hand to her wounded face. Then she stepped over the mess on the floor and walked carefully away…. As she walked up each riser she looked straight ahead and her hand was firm on the banister. Her steps were soundless. She seemed to float. My father and I had followed her to the doorway, and I think we both had the sense that she was ascending to a place of utter loneliness from which she might never be retrieved.

Erdrich creates a rich, complicated, fascinating community peopled with very human characters. They are flawed (some drink too much, some can be abusive, some are less than honest) but despite their mistakes and flaws, still do selfless beautiful things for one another. They are real.  And the resolution to the plot is also very real, a mix of relief and sorrow.

You could read The Round House without reading The Plague of Doves first, but you would be giving yourself a treat to read them back to back. Erdrich is a national treasure and I intend to read all of her books and hope that she doesn’t stop writing for a long time.