Archive for November, 2021

Our Country Friends

Tuesday, November 30th, 2021

By Gary Shteyngart

The Short Take:

This novel is set during the first few months of the covid pandemic and brings back how scary and uncertain those times were. However, the core focus is on long-time friends–all immigrants or the children of immigrants. Their relationship has survived mixed levels of success, betrayals, and the test of time. But will it survive living together in a secluded compound to avoid the ravages of the virus?


Shteyngart is a terrific writer and I know I missed a lot of the literary references, since I’ve read only a handful of Russian novels. However, I did love how Boccaccio’s short stories about friends who shelter in the country during a 14th century plague outbreak turned up in a character’s name: Dee Cameron/Decameron.

There is no single point of view in this book. The narrative swings from one person’s internal musings to another’s, and occasionally an omnipotent narrator offers aides or warns of what’s to come. The group dines together each evening on a large covered porch. In their conversations they reflect on the otherness of being an immigrant as well as their privilege in being able to escape the ravages taking place in the New York City–the clashes and concords these two conditions bring to their lives.

Irony has long been one of Shteyngart’s favorite literary techniques and it’s on full display here, though maybe it’s too soon for some of us to find humor in this still vexing situation. Still the various sexual yearning/actions, the precocious observations of the only child in the group, and the occasional connections to the outside world leaven the more serious issues explored.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book but if you are triggered by covid loss, you might want to let this one age a bit. But Shteyngart is at the top of his game.

A Little Plot

Russian immigrant and once-successful writer, Sasha, invites three old friends, a student who has just achieved her first literary success, and The Actor (named only once close to the book’s end) to join his wife and daughter as they shelter from covid at his dacha-like compound on the Hudson River Valley.

Betrayals are revealed, relationships form and reform, and all learn more about themselves and each other.

I did not spot a website for the author but if you google him, there’s plenty of info out there.

Harlem Shuffle

Thursday, November 11th, 2021

By Colson Whitehead

The Short Take:

Whitehead is a brilliant writer and his exploration of the various paths a man can choose in 1960s Harlem is no exception: struggling entrepreneur, small-time crook, or an uneasy alliance between the two. Regardless, it all comes with a price.


Carney, the protagonist of this fascinating novel, wanders the streets at night imagining moving his family into the nicer apartments he sees. During the day he works hard to pay the rent at the furniture store he owns, enhancing his income by accepting and selling items “that fall of the truck” from hustlers he knows. It’s all a part of Harlem Shuffle, where everything and everyone works to move money around, be they crooks, businessmen, policemen, or politicians.

The dichotomy of Carney’s life–half way between upstanding citizen and player–forms the background of this character study. He performs a dangerous tightrope act as he tries to keep his family and business safe while fulfilling the conflicting demands of small time hoods and out-and-out gangsters.

Whitehead paints a vibrant picture of Harlem in the 1960s, from the street excitement surrounding performers at the famed Apollo Theater, to the intricate interlocking motivations and concerns of different movers, shakers, and fakers. And Carney displays drive, smarts, and nimbleness as he charts his way through the various unsavory tangles he is unwillingly sucked into. Because this novel is filled with crime-driven suspense as well as vibrant atmosphere.

One thing I love is the careful attention Whitehead pays to the furniture lines and designs of the day. Carney draws comfort from the quality of the products he sells and is eager to represent even more prestigious lines even though blocks away Harlem burns as citizens protest another police killing. Another positive attraction is his portrayal of secondary characters. Without giving you a litany of details he quickly shows you who people are and what they want. The grit, the contradictions, the striving of are all on display.

All in all a fantastic read.

A Little Plot:

Carney is exceptionally close to his cousin, Freddie. Unfortunately, Freddie is also close to one of the criminal elements of Harlem and involves Carney on the peripheries of a planned heist without his consent. This not only exposes Carney to possible arrest but also upsets other gangs, who come looking for answers as well.

For more about Colson Whitehead click here.


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November 2021