Hut's Place
 Weekly Words about New Books in
Independent Bookstores

September 27, 2020

Robinson Prequel Features Return to Gilead, and Hornby Offers Opposites-Attract Romance
Jack by Marilynne Robinson. Gilead, Iowa, is the setting for three great American novels by Robinson - Gilead, Home, and Lila. All three books have been awarded major book prizes, with Gilead earning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005. Her novels are noted for their thematic depiction of both rural life and faith in the mid-20th century and are staples on independent bookstore bookshelves. Jack is Robinson's fourth novel in the series, a prequel that tells the story of Jack Boughton, the prodigal son of Gilead's Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton (the main protagonist in Home). Fans of the Gilead series know Jack, as he has appeared in and been worried over in the first two books. Here Robinson gives us a fuller look at Jack's backstory - a drifter and alcoholic who falls for Della Miles, a Black high school teacher who is also the child of a preacher. Their deeply felt, tormented,and star-crossed interracial romance resonates during an unspecified but obvious time of racial segregation.   
Robinson's forte is dialogue and she uses it to good advantage in developing her characters. Jack and Delia are very different but drawn to each other nevertheless, and readers will be anxious to find out if love conquers all. Jack has received some stellar reviews, although I've talked to a couple of booksellers who say this isn't Robinson's best. That said, they agree that a merely good  Marilynne Robinson novel is better than most. One other note - if you haven't read any of the Gilead novels, not to worry. Jack works just fine as a stand-alone work of fiction.
Just Like You by Nick Hornby. With novels like High Fidelity and About a Boy, Hornby has earned a reputation for treating relationships and the angst they can cause with empathy and great humor. With his new book, he gives readers more of the same with a Brexit-era romance between two people outwardly opposite in every way.  Lucy's a White, nearly-divorced 41-year-old schoolteacher with two young sons. Joseph is 22, Black, living at home with his mother, and working several jobs, including the butcher counter where he and Lucy meet. She's looking for a babysitter, not love, and he's of a different class, a different culture, and a different generation. Even their opinions of the upcoming Brexit vote differ. So, of course, they fall for each other.    
Among the kind words Just Like Us has garnered are these from Publishers Weekly: "Hornby lives up to his reputation as bard of the everyday in this thoughtful romance that crosses lines of race, age, and class ... Hornby is good company on the page and offers insights on his characters with aplomb, demonstrating an investment in each of their voices and an interest in the forces that draw people to one another. This is great fun."
Now in Paperback, Meld of Fiction and Memoir Creates Compelling Family Drama
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. Poet, novelist, essayist, and critic - that's a pretty good opening line for Ben Lerner's resume. He first attracted attention with his poetry; his 2006 collection Angle of Yaw was a National Book Award finalist. But the centerpieces of his ever-growing body of work are his three literary novels, Leaving the Atocha Station, 10:04, and now The Topeka School, which the New York Times Book Review called, "a high-water mark in recent American fiction." In all three, but most notably in his latest, Lerner meshes fiction and autobiography to tell his stories - a style known as autofiction.  
His protagonist is Adam Gordon (who Lerner introduced in his first novel), a senior at Topeka High School, class of '97. His mother, Jane, is a famous feminist author; his father, Jonathan, is an expert at getting "lost boys" to open up. They both work at a psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is a renowned debater, expected to win a national championship before he heads to college. He is one of the cool kids, ready to fight or, better, freestyle about fighting if it keeps his peers from thinking of him as weak. Adam is also one of the seniors who bring the loner Darren Eberheart - who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father's patient - into the social scene, to disastrous effect.  
The story unfolds through the alternating voices of Adam and each of his parents, and Lerner deals unflinchingly with parental abuse, infidelity, sexism, and challenges of aging and memory in the novel. In its review, UK's The Times wrote, "Lerner is a dazzlingly intelligent writer, and for anyone looking to understand contemporary America, this tale of toxic masculinity, resentful outcasts, rigged high-school debates and political disaster is a good place to start."

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Hi, I'm Hut Landon, and I work as a bookseller in an independent bookstore in BerkeIey, California.

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