Posts Tagged ‘The Great Gatsby’

From the deck of his big new house on Brushy Mountain Road, JJ Ferguson can look down at the rooftops of the North Carolina community where he grew up as a foster child. The view is even better at night when lights twinkle in the darkness that hides Pinewood’s shabbiness and depressed economy.

If this scene from Stephanie Powell Watts’ involving first novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us (Ecco, digital galley), recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it’s no surprise. The publisher is billing the book as a contemporary re-imagining of the classic with African-American characters and a Southern setting, but that’s not the whole story. While Gatsby may echo through its pages, No One Is Coming to Save Us — a great title — stands on its own as it explores the nature of family and home, the currents of change, the persistence of dreams.

Watt moves fluidly among the perspectives of her memorable characters. JJ — “Call me Jay” — returns to Pinewood after a 15-year-absence, hoping to rekindle a romance with childhood friend Ava, desperate to be a mother after several miscarriages. She’s married to handsome underachiever Henry, who is keeping a big secret from her. Ava’s mother Sylvia, close to retirement, has her own disappointments and sorrows, including a lost son and her estranged husband Don. The latter, the baby of his family and “always a good time,” now lives with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter but keeps showing up at Sylvia’s. And no wonder. Sylvia is a woman of substance — literally — who nurtures people and her garden. She finds solace in accepting the calls of a young man in prison she’s never met. She realizes that JJ is looking for family and “to be the hero of his own story.” So do they all, that recognition of worth dignifying their busted lives. They beat on. “Haven’t we always done this trick? If you can’t get what you want, want something else.”

Soon after Landon Cooper moves into the downstairs of an old rental house in south Birmingham, she meets Abi, her lively upstairs neighbor, who tells her she’s going to love living on this street.  “Really, we’re like a family. I didn’t mean to pry when I asked you what your story was. It’s just that most of Mr. Kasir’s tenants have a story.”

What those stories are and how they intertwine is the premise of Vicki Covington’s perceptive novel Once in a Blue Moon (John F. Blair, digital galley).  As Barack Obama campaigns for president in 2007 and 2008, Covington’s diverse characters are marked by hope and cope with change. Just moving is a jolt for Landon, a recently divorced psychologist who has her own mental health issues. She meets many of her new neighbors when a drunken stranger passes out in her living room and they rally to her screams. Abi’s the country girl trying to escape her rural roots by taking college courses. Roy’s the athlete with big dreams who deals weed on the side. Jet’s a former prostitute who recently discovered the surprising identity of her birth mother. Their landlord, Abraham Kasir, lives “over the mountain” but keeps a fatherly eye on his tenants as he trains his young grandson Jason to take over the property business.

It’s pure pleasure to read a new novel from Covington, an assured chronicler of the contemporary South at turning points. Night Ride Home, for example, takes place just as World War II begins, while The Last Hotel for Women calls up 1961 Birmingham and the era of Bull Connor. Now with Once in a Blue Moon, Covington gently reminds us of when hope and change brought people together.

Other good Southern books to put on your reading list include Bren McLain’s One Good Mama Bone: A Novel (University of South Carolina Press, review copy), about a hardscrabble 1950s South Carolina widow, the boy she is raising who is not her own, and a mama cow with a strong personality; Taylor Brown’s The River of Kings (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), which combines family history and adventure as two brothers journey down Georgia’s Altamaha River to scatter their father’s ashes; and Phillip Lewis’ The Barrowfields (Crown, digital galley), a coming-of-age saga of father and son in a small Appalachian town. All three were recent Okra Picks chosen by Southern indie booksellers.

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ladiesnightYes, spring was late most places, but Florida is already prepping for a long, hot summer, as my pal Mike reminded me. Could I recommend some books for those seeking escape from the heat and humidity? You betcha. Here’s my TBR summer list, or at least the beginning of it.

Ladies’ Night, by Mary Kay Andrews (St. Martin’s Press; June). After driving her cheating husband’s sports car into the pool, a Florida lifestyle blogger moves in with her widowed mom who owns a rundown beach bar. Court-mandated divorce therapy sessions soon evolve into “ladies’ night’ at The Sandbox. Andrews’ 2012 hit, Spring Fever, just pubbed in paperback.

badmonkeyBad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf; June). The king of comic crime (Skinny Dip, Lucky You, Stormy Weather) returns with the tale of a former South Florida cop who is drawn into a murder investigation involving his ex-lover, real-estate speculators, a kinky coroner, a voodoo queen, a frozen arm and the eponymous monkey. 

Heart of Palm, by Laura Lee Smith (Grove/Atlantic; April). I reviewed this first novel a couple weeks ago (“Family Matters.”). To recap, the past and future collide when the quirky Bravo clan of a sleepy North Florida town must decide whether to sell the family homestead to real-estate developers.

boardstiffBoard Stiff, by Elaine Viets (NAL; May). South Florida sleuth Helen Hawthorne works “dead-end jobs” to keep off the grid. Murder Unleashed found her at a dog grooming parlor, while she was a yacht crew member in Final Sail. In the 12th in the cozy crime series, Helen and her new P.I. husband are on the trail of “the Paddleboard Killer.”

The Blood of Heaven, by Kent Wascom (Grove/Atlantic; May).  In this early 19th-century frontier epic, a preacher’s son runs off to Spanish-held West Florida before joining up with other radicals in New Orleans, where Aaron Burr wants to create a new country.

gatsbygirlsThis summer’s classic re-read appears to be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, what with the new movie coming out in May. The renewed interest in Fitzgerald extends to his Southern belle wife, Zelda Sayre, the subject of two new novels.  Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Ann Fowler (St. Martin’s Press) was published in late March, and Call Me Zelda (NAL) by Erika Robuck, who wrote Hemingway’s Girl, comes out in May. So does Gatsby Girls (BroadLit), a collection of eight Fitzgerald short stories inspired by Zelda and which originally appeared in The Saturday Evening Post.

Open Book: I have digital galleys of most of the above, and I’ll be buying copies of the books by Andrews and Viets, who are friends.

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indiscretionAlthough it arrives midwinter, Charles Dubow’s first novel could be your next summer book, a sexy page-turner of love, desire and betrayal. Indiscretion (William Morrow, advance reading copy), though, seems a rather namby-pamby title to describe an affair with such far-reaching consequences, but F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t like The Great Gatsby as a title, either. I mention Gatsby because the comparisons are inevitable due to the similarity of the setting, the fluidity of the writing, and the Nick Carraway-like narrator.

His name is Walter Gervais, and his family is old money with a summer home in East Hampton next-door to the Winslows, Harry and Madeleine. Walter has known Maddy since childhood and has always been a bit in love with her, although he watched her fall for Harry, a charismatic hockey star, when they were all at Yale. That was 20 or so years ago, but the Winslows are still mad for one another. Handsome Harry’s an award-winning novelist, lovely Madeleine a domestic goddess; they cherish a young son who has apparently recovered from an early heart condition, and they throw fabulous summer parties for the many friends who circle like moths to their burnished life.

It’s at one such party that Claire, a pretty ingenue with a voice like a bell, needs rescuing from an obnoxious date. Harry swoops in and carries her off to Maddy. Claire, still figuring out who she wants to become, is enchanted by both and returns as a welcome weekend houseguest, listening to Harry’s stories and helping Maddy in the kitchen. The spell is partly broken in the fall when the Winslows’ depart for Rome so Harry can write his next book, and Claire realizes her infatuation with Harry is not enough to make him love her in return. At least not yet. But when he comes back to New York a few months later for a meeting with his publisher, she falls into his arms and he doesn’t resist. They meet on the sly in Paris, Harry having rationalized that what Maddy doesn’t know won’t hurt her.  He never plans to leave her.

He doesn’t have to. When Maddy inevitably finds out about Claire a few months later, she leaves Harry and moves back to New York, emotionally devastated, her life in ruins. Walter acts as a go-between as she files for the divorce Harry doesn’t want. And still there is Claire. . .

Walter’s account of what happens next is a bit drawn out, somewhat improbable. It’s really Dubow’s only misstep with a story that proves again that a tale is in its telling. And this one is well-told. I’ll be reading it again come summer.

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I love the cover and title of Danielle Ganek’s The Summer We Read Gatsby. The book, not so much. Oh, it’s a pleasant summer beach tale — two half-sisters living for a month in the rickety Hamptons cottage inherited from an eccentric aunt.  But I was led on by the Fitzgerald references, and the publishers’ blurb, “a delightful comedy of manners,” to expect something a little more substantive, say, on the order of a novel by Cathleen Schine or Elinor Lipman.

Ganek uses Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a touchstone, and she occasionally makes some pertinent observations. Older sister and actress Peck, 32, eventually confesses to journalist sibling Cassie, 28, that she thought the book was a romance on first reading and confused it with with the great love of her youth, Miles Noble.

Wealthy Miles reappears on the scene, throwing a Gatsby-themed party at his magnificently tacky and huge new mansion. Peck, given to extravagant outfits and italicized statements is sure that this means Miles wants her back. After all, he gave her a copy of the book during their initial courtship. So imagine her disappointment upon learning that a party-planner chose the theme and Miles has never read the book!

Cassie also rediscovers love with neighboring architect Finn, but it’s a bit of a bumpy ride before there’s the obligatory montage of the two lovers picknicking on the beach, strolling hand-in-hand, etc. (Cue appropriate music, maybe the theme from A Summer Place.)

And, oh yes, there’s a little bit of mystery involving the theft of a possible Jackson Pollack painting, the true agenda of a young artist claiming to be Aunt Lydia’s last protege, and the question of whether the sisters will sell their shabby-chic legacy. The engaging characters eat and drink merrily along, as fashionina Peck encourages Cassie to be more bold in her life and wardrobe choices.

Ganek writes well, and the story has the briskness of a sea breeze until she starts to wrap everything up. Then it deflates, its frothiness dissolving like a footprint in the sand before a pert epilogue.  Awwww. I wanted more. I expected more. Ganek promised more. So I am rereading The Great Gatsby.

Open Book: I bought my copy of Danielle Ganek’s The Summer We Read Gatsby (Viking) but at a nice discount. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has long had a place of honor in my permanent collection.

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