Books We Loved, Jul. 2017
Thelma Adams, The Last Woman Standing (Lake Union, 2016)
As a teenager, Josephine (Josie) Marcus, the daughter of a Jewish baker in San Francisco, scandalizes her parents by running off to Tombstone, Arizona, to marry Johnny Behan, a local politician. When Johnny fails to produce the promised ring, Josie’s waning infatuation causes her to turn her attention elsewhere, and she tumbles into a passionate affair with the legendary Wyatt Earp, stoking Johnny’s jealousy and sowing the seeds of an enmity that plays out in, among other places, the famous gunfight at the OK Corral.
Decades later, Josie, facing the realities of middle age and the loss of her renowned beauty, reminisces on her long common law marriage with Earp, whom she did more than anyone else to turn into the image of the impeccably virtuous frontier lawman that later inspired John Wayne. Like Mary Doria Russell’s Epitaph (2016), a previous BWL pick of mine, this novel brings to life the story behind that classic hero and reveals a set of complex, flawed human beings so much more interesting than the myth. Bright, determined, lively Josie has a particular charm.—CPL
Elif Batuman, The Idiot (Random House, 2017)
It mattered not a whit, the huge age gap between Selin, protagonist of The Idiot by Elif Batuman, and me. I loved her witty, gentle story of first love and becoming among the intellectually gifted yet socially inexperienced. The story opens in 1995 as Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, begins her freshman year at Harvard. The entire time, we are inside Selin’s lively, funny mind as she searches for meaning and purpose via words, her chosen vehicle.
Selin loves language and learns about email. Electronically conveyed messages lend an unexpected weight to words; meanings explode. Largely through email, she develops a crush on Ivan, an older Hungarian senior. In summer, she teaches English in Hungary, Ivan’s home base between his travels to seemingly random countries. Small events make little happen, but the immediate present is integral to Selin’s growing self-awareness. We never know what drives Ivan, the charmer who is reminiscent of the more unscrupulous Nino Sarratore in Elena Ferrante’s novels. I wondered if Ivan would advance as much as Selin after they part. Once again, women may emerge the wiser. A thoroughly easy, enjoyable read.—AA
Linda Nagata, The Last Good Man (Mythic Island Press, 2017)
In The Last Good Man, Linda Nagata uses a brisk and bracing writing style to immerse us in the lives of private military contractors in the near future. The team, basically moral individuals, work in conjunction with individually guided, robotic weapons and surveillance equipment. If Bigelow, the director of Zero Dark Thirty, wrote a speculative fiction novel, it might be something like this. Wasting no words, the story stays right on track, concentrating on army veteran True Brighton as she and her teammates undertake a dangerous mission that reopens old wounds. True’s anguish and her questions about “right action” are absorbing and affecting.—GM
Victor Lodato, Edgar and Lucy (St. Martin’s, 2017)
Edgar and Lucy features an eight-year-old albino boy who likes closets and barks when he’s upset; a mom who drinks, smokes, and carouses (sometimes right in front of her kid); a well-meaning dad with a death wish; a nearly bald, crack-heeled grandma with a habit of creeping up on people; a stranger with a severely shattered heart; a butcher; and a couple of ghosts. Say no more. The plot line, which moves in and out of chronological time, is intriguing too (it revolves around a kidnapping) but insignificant next to the characters. This is a story about what it means to be human—and in the case of the ghosts, post-human. It’s all heart, and also heartbreaking.—JS