Books We Loved, Dec. 2022
The winter holidays take a lot out of a person. So much planning, so much preparation, whether you opt for the all-out Christmas Carol-type feast, a much less demanding variation, or a celebration based on a different tradition altogether. The pressure created by unending offers for discounts and reminders that there are only X days left almost demand resistance in the form of a quiet cup of tea and a good book. Only one of these three actually addresses the holidays, but they will all pull you into another world where you can temporarily close the door on your own problems and let your cares slip away.
T.C. Boyle, Talk to Me (Ecco, 2021)
Aimee, an undergraduate, is more or less drifting as far as her goals are concerned when she catches a game show on a local TV station featuring one of the professors from her university and his chimpanzee, Sam. The professor—Guy, an animal behaviorist—has taught Sam sign language, and with it Sam has been able to build a vocabulary and communicate to an impressive degree. When Aimee sees a signup sheet for student candidates who might want to assist in Sam’s care, she signs up eagerly, interviews at “the ranch” where Guy and Sam are living, and is hired on the spot.
Because we get the story from multiple viewpoints, including Sam’s, the reader senses right away that Aimee’s new job will turn out to be dangerous, on multiple levels. Guy’s ex-wife, who helped Guy take care of Sam from the time they got the green light and the funding for this cross-fostering project, has run off. While one of Guy’s two previous assistants is willing to stay on and work with Aimee, the other is nursing a wound Sam gave her when he lost control and bit her face. Sam has a temper when he doesn’t get his way. Doors have to be locked to keep him from escaping. And by the day he is getting smarter—as well as stronger. Yet Aimee, the epitome of innocence, refuses to speculate on Sam’s possible trajectories, except to note that he doesn’t like it when she begins leaving the bed they share at the ranch to visit Guy’s bed. As for Guy, he’s under pressure constantly. He feels he must get Sam on ever more well-known TV shows (this is the ’80s, so he’s trying for Johnny Carson), so that his supervisor won’t lose heart and withdraw funding.
This novel is full of suspense, and also incredibly thought-provoking. Sam is smart, but there are blind spots in his consciousness. (He’s a wild animal after all. On the other hand, the more he learns, the more he is able to internalize verbal thought.) Guy is well intended, but he never fully prepares for what Sam’s life might be like if the funding runs out. And Aimee must realize that letting a chimp fall in love with her is a recipe for disaster, but her loyalty to Sam, and her fear for his future without that funding, weighs on her more heavily.
Talk to Me is a great read. In other hands it might have gotten preachy. But T.C. Boyle, who has written so many novels on such a great range of subjects, is a master at balancing pace with depth.—JS
Sam Lipsyte, No One Left to Come Looking for You (Simon & Schuster, 2022)
This short book packs a wallop of angst and sweetness into its 214 pages. In an odd mix of F-bombs, hilarity, heroin, violence, and grief, the story follows Jonathan Liptak, who’s changed his name to Jack Shit because he’s the bass player for The Shits, a group (but they don't use that term “these days”) whose music has been called “post-wave neo-noise art punk with a sincere approach to irony,” as he navigates the lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1990s.
Too late for the ’80s, too well-off—though starving and broke, they do have parents with homes they can return to and bachelor’s degrees from approved colleges—to be completely legit, Jack and his pals Dyl and Cutwolf (Craig Dunn, to his parents)—along with the precision drummer from Connecticut, Hera, who went to Amherst, and Corinna, the artist who still does menstrual blood performance art—are forced to solve the murder of Toad and find Alan Massad, known as the Earl, who’s strung out on heroin. Donald Trump has a cameo.
Oh, never mind. It’s a moving and funny, tragic story of music, devotion to art, the dream of art, and the angst of a truly decent, kind, and loving young man who really can play bass guitar.—CHL
Anne Perry, A Christmas Deliverance
(Ballantine Books, 2022)
It’s not necessary to be a fan of Perry’s two Victorian historical mystery series featuring Thomas Pitt and William Monk to enjoy the set of Christmas novellas of which this is the newest entry, but if you—like me—are, the books confer the added glow of reconnecting with old literary friends from a new angle. This particular novel features Scuff, a former orphan from the London streets adopted by William and Hester Monk and in training to become a doctor, and his mentor Dr. Crowe, who saved his own career thanks to a helping hand from Hester.
By the time the book opens, Dr. Crowe owns a medical clinic where he treats the poor without charge, accepting instead whatever goods they choose to give him—and that only to let them hold onto their pride. Scuff serves as his assistant, and together they treat a little girl—Mattie, probably no more than five years old. She rewards them with a calico kitten named Rosie, but she and Rosie have no sooner moved in than Dr. Crowe is called away to help Ellie, a former patient threatened with an arranged marriage to a brute. What hold does the brute have over Ellie and her father? And can Dr. Crowe really intervene to rescue them, especially after his questions attract the attention of the local police, who take it upon themselves to hassle Scuff, stuck tending the clinic alone?
Despite having only about 200 pages to work with, Perry manages to include an impressive amount of scene-setting, character development, and intricate plotting. That in itself is not unexpected: she has reached her current bestseller status for a reason, after all. But it makes for a read that can be counted on to get you into the holiday spirit and still leave time for all those preparations that demand your attention at this time of year.—CPL