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Beth Alston: ‘Fall-in’ for a few good reads

OK, folks, I apologize. It’s not that I have stopped reading; it’s just that now that we’ve gone to a twice-weekly publication cycle (Yea! Rah! Hallelujah!), I’m very busy doing other sorts of writing. But I’m not certainly not complaining. Everywhere I go — whether to the doctor’s or dentist’s offices, to a restaurant or retail outlet, Kiwanis Club meeting or even to the package store — I hear great comments about and compliments of our new Times-Recorder. It’s amazing. I haven’t heard that many compliments in YEARS. It does my heart good. Thank you, readers.
So I’m still attempting to catch up on all the books for review. Here are a few I’ve read recently.
• “Ken & Thelma: The Story of the Confederacy of Dunces” — Joel L. Fletcher — Pelican Publishing Co. — 2005
Pelican sends me a catalog every year or so and I never fail to choose at least one book for review. This one immediately got my attention as I consider “Confederacy” one of the best novels I’ve seen in decades. I bought it in a bookstore in the early ‘90s while I was working as city editor and living in Valdosta. I knew nothing about the book but its title was intriguing so I brought it and put it on the bookcase. The book moved with me three more times before I finally read it. Its author, John Kennedy Toole, tried futilely to get his book published, but unfortunately it didn’t make it into print until 11 years after Toole’s suicide. His mother, Thelma Ducoing Toole, would not take no for an answer from publishers until she got the brilliant work into print. It has received world renown.
The setting is early ‘60s New Orleans, the French Quarter, and after reading Fletcher’s book, I believe Toole’s book was somewhat autobiographical. His character’s are finely drawn portraits.
Fletcher met Ken Toole, who was also interested in books and writing and ideas, in the early ‘60s. He kept a journal and as well as letters from Ken Toole, hence this book was meant to be. Fletcher was also close to Ken’s mother who became a celebrity of sorts after her son’s book was published.
Even if you’ve never read “Confederacy,” which you should, you will find this little tome fascinating. I certainly did.
• “Shanghai Girls” — Lisa See — Random House — 2009
I was aware of this author because she gets a lot of media attention, but this is my first outing with her, compliments of my Book Fairy Godmother, June Shumake.
This is a lovely book, rich in history, tradition and the social mores of mid-1930s Shanghai. It tells the story of two sisters whose charmed lives are suddenly and severely curtailed when their father gambles away all the family’s riches and Japanese bombs start falling on their city. Dear old dad wants to sell his daughters into marriage to men who have come from California for brides.
That’s when the two girls, Pearl and May Chin, decide to seek refuge in America, and embark on a hazardous journey.
This is a story of love, sacrifice and courage in a rapidly changing world. It is breathtaking in its beauty. It would make a very appealing film. I highly recommend it.
• “Getting Rid of Matthew” — Jane Fallon — Hyperion — 2007
I liked this book’s cover so much I bought it twice, accidentally, at Dollar Tree.
The novel is modern and the writing smart. The story is complicated but entertaining nonetheless.
Helen decides to dump her older, married boyfriend, after years of waiting for him to divorce his wife and marry her. Just when she decides to get rid of Matthew, he leaves his wife and ends up on Helen’s doorstep, baggage (emotional and physical) in tow. He proceeds to drive Helen insane, crowding her small apartment with his stuff and his fustiness, and trying to control every aspect of her life.
But Helen, although stupid enough to wait around until she’s almost 40 for Matthew to marry her, finally comes to her senses. I won’t ruin the plot twists because they are dear, but I will say the novel moves quickly along to its unsuspected ending.
It’s high praise when an author like Fannie Flagg writes a blurb for the front cover: “I loved it! What a terrific writer!”
I couldn’t agree more. Fallon has since written four other novels, and her longtime significant other is Ricky Gervais, according to Wikipedia. Interesting factoids, huh?
• “Give + Take” — Stona Fitch — Thomas Dunne Books — 2008
This was a Dollar Tree find. I’ve learned that if I visit the book section only once a month or every six weeks, there’s a good chance there will be a new inventory of books from which to choose. I liked the cover photo of a stiletto heel resting on the keyboard of a piano. T
The author blurb inside describes Fitch’s novels as “powerful and disturbing.” It says he is the founder of “the controversial Concord Free Press, the world’s first generosity-based publisher.”
Fitch’s writing in this novel is hipsterish. His main character, Ross Clifton, is a jazz pianist which is very hip. When Clifton becomes disillusioned about everything, he decides on a life of crime, which is not hip. However, the modern-day Robin-Hoodish thief gives the spoils away to people in need, which lends a slight hipness. He uses his charm and good looks to woo unsuspecting women and then steals their diamonds, etc. which is hipless.
Of course he gets tangled up with one woman, falls in love and etc.
I enjoyed the book and where it takes the reader — from Cleveland to Chicago to St. Louis to Kansas City to Dallas to Little Rock to Memphis to Louisville to Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia to New York City to Providence, to Boston  and finally to Montpelier, Vermont. Fitch knows his musical verbiage and knows how to hold a reader.
It’s a good read!
• “The Class” — Erich Segal — Dewsbury International — 1985
While trolling amazon.com, one of my regular haunts, I came across this novel. I recognized the author because he wrote “Love Story,” which was a huge movie in 1970, and which, unfortunately, affected my view of love and marriage. Well, we won’t go into that in the middle of a good book review column.
“The Class” is the story of five young men, all members of the class of 1958, Harvard University.
What appealed to me was the time and place. The social mores of that period have always held appeal in fiction, perhaps because I enjoyed a rather sheltered childhood during the 1950s.
The book is composed of entries from the diary of one of the five men, Andrew Eliot, who is anticipating the 25th reunion of the class of 1958. Eliot is one of the elite class, meaning that many edifices on the Harvard campus bear his family name. He accustomed to wealth and recognition and deference.
Daniel Rossi is an over-achiever who grows up constantly seeking his doctor father’s approval.
Jason Gilbert Jr. is described as a “golden boy,” good-looking, athletic, popular and Jewish.
Ted Lambros is the son of an emigrant Greek restaurateur who has to work in the family business in order to attend Harvard. He is also a commuter which sets him apart.
George Keller has quite a background … a past that the other four could not fathom.
The book tells the story of how these five young men meet, become friends and how their lives and the lives of the women they love intermingle.
Segal died way too young in 2010, at the age of 72, of a heart attack. His family said he had lived with Parkinson’s disease for a quarter-century. The writer made good use of his life, however, leaving several best selling books that time can’t diminish. He was a screenwriter as well, leaving a legacy in film.
Next month, I’ll share my take on the long-awaited second novel from Harper Lee.

Beth Alston is executive editor of the Americus Times-Recorder. Contact her at 229-924-2751, ext. 1004 or beth.alston@americustimesrecorder.com