Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

LiveByNight2“That’s what it took to stay on top in the rackets,” we’re told, “everyone had to know you’d long ago amputated your conscience.” And for awhile, the sentiment is believable. Almost. The thing is, Joe Coughlin, the protagonist in Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night, is nothing if not conscientious. Maybe he doesn’t see the world through a completely legal lens, but he does see it, a virtue to which his counterparts cannot lay claim.

Joe is Irish and hails from Boston, a typical scenario for a gangster story, at least based on popular portrayal. His story begins and ends with his struggle to define himself, outlaw or gangster, “syndicate boss” or father. Joe is fairly certain of himself, seeing only an outlaw trajectory for his life, until he meets Emma Gould, whom he would, in later years, describe as “a beautiful woman whose vices had failed to love her back.” Emma is responsible, at least in part, for propelling Joe right out of his outlaw status and into true gangster territory. Through Emma, Joe finds himself swimming in an undercurrent of crime that reveals the harsh realities of rationalization.

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Rage and its appeasement play a critical role in Joe’s ascension up the ladder of organized crime. His ability to commit crime feeds on it, requires it for sustenance, thus rendering Joe its captive. Despite this rage, though, and the crimes he commits in its name, Joe remains a sympathetic character. Readers will not find him to be a good guy, but they will not find him an all-encompassing bad guy either. During his prison stint, Maso Pescatore, a reputed crime boss, tells Joe, “Everything in a man’s life is about profit. Profit or succession.” Joe is a whiz at profit, organizing Ybor City and other outlying areas of Tampa with a no-nonsense approach to order and productivity. But given his tenuous relationship with his own father, the idea of succession permeates Joe’s existence, sometimes on a conscious level, sometimes not, and Joe uses the fundamental idea here (a kill-or-be-killed mentality) as the basis of his enterprise.

The undercurrent of religion in the novel cannot be ignored, and Joe struggles with how his idea of religion governs his actions. His is not the Catholocism that’s expected of him by those who don’t know his true profession. Neither is it the absolute rejection of a moral code as is assumed by those who do. Joe’s belief in God is a personal one, one that doesn’t depend on proselytizing evangelists or beads and rituals and crucifixes. In the few short years we get to know him, he decides that heaven, the only real heaven that we can ever attain, is here on Earth. Since this is to be the most perfect place, Joe seems to see it as his personal duty to maintain a functioning order by whatever means necessary, even means of questionable legality, and this belief becomes the religion to which he adheres.

Terminal Notes: The novel is nothing if not climactic, twisting and turning the plot as frequently as the allegiances between the gangsters. The inclusion of the Ku Klux Klan in Tampa seems somewhat arbitrary, but it does give the story more historical dimension. Lehane has created a character whom readers will neither wholly fear nor love. They will, however, combine the two. By the end of the novel, we may not agree with everything Joe has done, but we respect the person he’s decided he truly is.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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The Corrections, at its fundamental level, serves up a dish of reality harshly truthful and bitingly accurate. Franzen’s depiction of the Lamberts, each in his or her own grossly human element, is convicting at best, condemning at worst.

No sympathetic characters present themselves at the beginning of the novel. As we are introduced to the Lamberts—Alfred, Enid, Gary, Chip, and Denise—we learn only the baser parts of their characters, their flaws, their shortcomings, their weaknesses, their failures. We learn that Alfred was less than a perfect father; Enid is a shrill, judgmental, and meddling mother; Gary is a depressed father and husband with a chip on his shoulder; Chip is the chip on Gary’s shoulder, the brother to whom Gary can’t measure up even though Chip himself is a less-than-perfect intellectual has-been whose life has no direction; and Denise is a sexually confused girl of privilege whose choices are made only in consideration of how shocking they might be to her family, if her family ever found them out.

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Of course, there are secondary characters. No novel would be complete without them, but these characters exist merely to amplify the discontent that seems all but genetic in the Lambert family unit, acting either as foils or reinforcements for their faulty personalities.

Franzen’s prose is unique in that it is both clear and poetic. He has a way of weaving story elements together here that, by the end, leaves his readers with a sense of completion and fulfillment, a sense that even if the story was, at times, too real, we still got the whole of it. The Corrections doesn’t just tell a story; it explains how the Lamberts arrived at their present circumstances without the reader realizing what’s happening. It explains, through Alfred’s degeneration, that there is an age at which we will eventually realize that it is too late for corrections.

Terminal Notes: By the end of the novel, each of the Lamberts has become a sympathetic character. We may not like them, but we understand them, which seems to be the book’s overarching. Sure, there are issues of class, sexuality, marriage, and ethics. The Corrections is nothing if not burgeoning with thematic material, and readers will find plenty of book club discussion fodder.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

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Audiobook narrated by Rebecca Lowman.

“Be careful of choosing what you’re proud of,” warns Katey Kontent, the protagonist of this 1930s-era fiction, “because the world has every intention of using it against you.” In her chronicle of Katey’s experiences in 1938, Amore Towles weaves an intricate web of clever deception, wicked circumstances, and simultaneous self-preservation and discovery.

Katey is a sharp, independent female with a realistic understanding of the world in which she lives and a fierce loyalty to her sense of self. On New Year’s Eve 1938, she and her friend Eve encounter a well-to-do banker sort in a low-rent bar in New York City. For awhile, the three are inseparable, and Katey allows herself to develop feelings for Tinker, the banker, who willingly allows himself to develop feelings for her as well. But when tragedy strikes in the form of a car accident, the relationship dynamics change, and Katey is forced to suppress her feelings. Lack of family and true personal ties (outside her ties to Eve, that is) leaves her to find solace within herself.

Over the course of the year, Katey spends her time trying to avoid Eve and Tinker, and for the most part, she is nearly successful. She manages to occupy her time developing her career and reading and trying on new personas to see whether they fit. When she finally makes her way back to Tinker, her return serves no other purpose than to offer closure to both characters after which they both seek themselves in a larger world than either had ever previously considered.

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The title, Rules of Civility, is more of an indictment of such rules. Anne Granden, Tinker Grey, and Eve herself suggest that the rules of civility aren’t really rules at all. Or, in any case, if their behavior constitutes civility, we might all be better off without it, a fact Katey seems always to have known.

The audiobook incarnation of this book is every bit as moving as an actual physical reading of the book could have been. Narrator Rebecca Lowman (who also narrates Anthropology of an American Girl) is particularly gifted at interpreting nuances and expressing them in a way that seems inherent to the characters. Her reading provides a depth and clarity not always present in audiobooks and turns the experience of listening into a more meaningful one.

Terminal Notes: While love is indeed thwarted in a superficial way here, it is fully realized in a more significant way. Tinker and Katey love each other. They did from the very beginning. Although the outcome of their love is not what we might have hoped for, not what we might have expected, it proves to be the very definition of complete, the definition, as it were, of civility.

 

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

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The characters in Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us represent a number of different facets of a woman’s life, embodying everything from maternal love and disappointment to loyal friendship and betrayal. In a place and time in which caste and money are the truly governing factors of life, Bhima’s story, along with the stories of Sera and Maya, serves to expose the arbitrary nature of life, the universe, and our place in it.

While the cast is largely dominated by women, the men in the novel play a significant, if secondary, role in the story’s pacing. They do not fare well in the story. There are no male victors, no heroes, to rescue the damsels who are, in various ways, all in states of distress. In fact, most of the men are posthumous participants, active only in the women’s memories. Based on their characters, that’s the best place for them, as they tend to represent the most negatives parts of human nature.

Socioeconomic class acts as the governing force in this novel, keeping everyone where he or she is supposed to be in terms of behavior and interaction. While some characters, like Dinaz, rage against it, others, like Sera, seem to find it comforting that such a force exists to help them make sense of life and social interaction.

Maternity is also placed under the literary microscope here, and Umrigar examines even the harshest of maternal realities. Bhima’s relationship with Maya is troubled for the majority of the novel, but only because the emotions in which that relationship is rooted are so fierce. Bhima both hates and loves Maya, often simultaneously, because she is so committed to providing Maya with the opportunities requisite for a better life, one not mired in deceit, betrayal, and poverty. The flip side of that coin, however, is the relationship between Dinaz and Sera. Their relationship examines the effects of a mother’s relying too heavily on her children as the sole source of her happiness. In the end, that reliance only serves to reinforce earlier lies and bolster the boundaries that money and class so arbitrarily create.

Terminal Notes: Readers will find in The Space Between Us a raw examination of what life can do to those who are often undeserving of its wrath. The characters are, more often than not, the victims of circumstances beyond their own control, and the question then becomes whether they are better off by being blissfully ignorant, as in the case of Dinaz, or irreversibly aware, like Bhima.

Novel Thoughts: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

Hoffman’s novel is composed of short stories that relate the history of a town, Blackwell, in Massachusetts. In the book, the town binds the characters together across history; it is the only consistent element, even though Hoffman doesn’t specifically divulge the way the town itself changes, only the people in it.

Employment of magical realism helps in this book to detract from the sometimes selfish nature of the characters that inhabit its pages. The author uses colors (specifically red, green, and blue) to suggest the proper emotion for the reader without being too forceful. Readers will also notice the Garden of Eden imagery or rather the fall of the Garden of Eden. The characters in the book are related in such a way that their humanity is inescapable, raw, in need of some sort of direction which the townspeople seem to derive from nature.

Throughout the novel, a bear operates as a constant source of guidance, survival, fear, omnipotence. He transcends the generations and can always be felt lurking underneath the surface of the story and, it turns out, the surface of the garden. The insinuation, we eventually come to realize, is that we are not as far removed from nature as we like to think we are. Over the course of the novel, the people of Blackwell, the women in particular, are prone to abandon the lives they know in favor of the unknown, in favor of the mountain, of the bear. They abandon that which they have always known because it doesn’t seem to fit them. The mountain offers them a truer existence.

In its entirety, the novel is a tightly woven family narrative that spans generations and branches of the family tree. While a visual diagram of the family tree itself would have helped the reader to avoid confusion, overall the novel leaves us with an unexplainable sense of belonging and a gnawing sense of our own humanity.