Straight Man by Richard Russo

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This novel by my much loved author Richard Russo has perhaps the funniest prologue to a book I have ever read! While explaining to us how he is not in fact a Straight Man,  Russo’s protagonist William Henry Devereaux gives us a wonderful anecdote about his stubbornness as a child, now a middle aged man he is the chairman of the English Department of a run down and underfunded college in Pennsylvania. He bumbles along without really caring taking potshots at his overly zealous and to his mind ridiculous colleagues.

In the course of a week after his wife goes away, he gets himself into all kinds of off the wall situations. Free to be the anarchist he will always be at heart. Russo paints a picture of small town American life like no other. He is often hilarious but also very tender in the treatment of his subjects. He explores relationships of all kinds in his customary thoughtful and humorous style. In short, Straight Man is classic Russo–side-splitting and true-to-life, witty, compassionate, and impossible to put down.

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You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

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Well, this book is just gorgeous.  It tells the story of teacher Tom Guthrie, his two young sons, high school student in trouble, Victoria Roubideaux, and the two elderly McPherson brothers.  The McPhersons have lived a solitary, hardworking life on their farm since the death of their parents forty years previously.  The chapters in this book are short and we take it in turns to follow the characters as they go about their business in the small town of Holt, Denver.  Another character, Maggie Jones, doesn’t get her own chapters but is really the link between all the characters.

I love slow moving books about small-town America especially those as well-written as this.  The language is simple yet evocative and full of affection for the characters.  The author lets the words and actions of this characters speak for themselves – we never go inside their heads so we meet them as we would meet a person in the real world.  There is a timeless quality to this book – I spent a while trying to figure out when this book was actually set but eventually gave up because it doesn’t really matter (for the record, I think it was probably set around the time it was published -1999).

This is the first in a trilogy of books set in Holt.  Part of me wants to remember these characters as they are in Plainsong and give them the futures I want them to have.  However, I doubt I’ll be able to resist visiting Holt again.  The second book in the Plainsong trilogy is called Evensong and the third book is Benediction.

You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin

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Lean on Pete tells the story of fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson who is struggling to make his way to a long lost aunt – who might just give him a home.

Along the way he encounters some great characters, particularly the hugely unsympathetic horse trainer and a dangerous and mentally disturbed tramp who becomes the embodiment of violent threat.

There is a beautiful simplicity at work here, a lot of the story comes down to straightforward accounts of daily survival but the level of detail and inventiveness shines through, enlivening what could be seen as mundane subject matter.

Prepare for a powerful, heartbreaking & harrowing experience – as Vlautin exposes a world where the American underclass still resides.

An absolutely brilliant book!

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You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.