By Richard Russo

(Knopf, $25.95, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Richard Russo is our contemporary bard of working class folks trying to hang on in small American towns that have lost the industries that sustained them. In novels such as “Mohawk,” “Empire Falls,” “Nobody’s Fool” and “The Bridge of Sighs,” he has created small worlds that are microcosms of American values in a time when manufacturing was losing its value. A fomer teacher of writing at Colby College, Russo still lives in Camden, Me., and in Boston. In 2002, “Empire Falls” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He now writes screenplays as well as novels.

What is this book about?

In his fiction, Russo beautifully details the slow fading of Northeastern burgs very much like the one he grew up in, Gloversville, N.Y., once the dress-glove capital of the country, before the desire for such goods petered out and cheap imports cornered the market that was left. Here, in a heartfelt memoir, Russo returns to his roots via non-fiction, centering his tale on his mother, a complex woman who tagged along when he left upstate New York for college in Arizona and who remained a nearby presence in his life until dementia, in the form of a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, took over. He depicts a strong, proud woman, married to a rather feckless gambler, who urged her son to uproot himself and find success “elsewhere.” That he did, but while he abandoned Gloversville, he never abandoned his erratic, difficult yet compelling woman whose determination pushed him into his successful life as a best-selling American author.

Why you’ll like it:

Russo is a born storyteller, and one who tells his stories straight, without a lot of fancy-schmancy literary devices. This down-to-earthiness serves him very well in “Elsewhere,” in which he gives us his personal history and also clearly and tenderly presents his mother, with all her contradictions, as the driving force in his life. This is a story from the heart that is not cheapened by sentimentality.

What others are saying:

“…Richard Russo is known for the unblinking honesty of his portrayals and the clarity of his writing. Those attributes figure decisively in his memoir about growing up in economically vulnerable upstate New York. Russo’s nostalgic recreations of his parents, especially his mother, are leavened by comic stories and generous swaths of local color. A candid look back by a talented writer; easy to recommend,” says the Barnes & Noble review.

Says Publishers Weekly: “[Russo] fashions a gracious memoir about his tenacious mother, a fiercely independent GE employee who nonetheless relied on her only son to manage her long life. Separated from her gambler husband, Russo’s mother, Jean, resolved that she and her son were a “team,” occupying the top floor of Russo’s grandparents’ modest house in a once-thriving factory town where “nine out of ten dress gloves in the United States were manufactured,” the author notes proudly. …the town by the late 1960s was depressed and hollowed out; Russo’s intrepid, if erratic mother encouraged Russo to break out of the “dimwitted ethos of the ugly little mill town” and attend college at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. Except she came, too, on a hilariously delineated road trip in the 1960 Ford Galaxie Russo purchased and nicknamed the Gray Death. Despite the promise of a new job and new life, however, Jean was never content…Russo’s memoir is heavy on logistical detail—people moving around, houses packed and unpacked—and by turns rueful and funny, emotionally opaque and narratively rich.”

“…Russo describes how his life decisions were often limited by the need to accommodate his mother’s particular needs and, later, debilitating illness: One of the book’s most powerful chapters describes the author’s mother as her dementia begins to set in, fussing over a clock as if the device itself had the power to control time. (What his extended family and estranged father called “nerves” was likely a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.) Though she routinely made her son’s life more difficult, this book isn’t borne out of bitterness, yet he doesn’t place his mother in soft focus either. What Russo strives to do is place his mother’s life in a social, cultural and personal context. He explores how her options were limited as a single mother in the ’60s, as a product of a manufacturing culture that collapsed before her eyes, and as a woman who needed to define herself through other men. That Russo found the time and emotional space to write novels is somewhat miraculous given her demands, but he acknowledges he couldn’t have written them without her…,” says Kirkus Reviews.

“Pulitzer Prize–winning author Russo brings the same clear-eyed humanism that marks his fiction to this by turns funny and moving portrait of his high-strung mother and her never-ending quest to escape the provincial confines of their hometown of Gloversville, New York. All of her life, she clung to the notion that she was an independent woman, despite the fact that she couldn’t drive, lived upstairs from her parents, and readily accepted their money to keep her household afloat. She finally escaped her deteriorating hometown, which went bust when the local tannery shut down, by moving to Arizona with her 18-year-old son when he left for college and following him across the country right up until her death. His comical litany of her long list of anxieties, from the smell of cooking oil to her fruitless quest for the perfect apartment, is a testament to his forbearance but also to his ability to make her such a vivid presence in these pages. Part of what makes this such a profound tribute to her is precisely because he sees her so clearly, flaws and all…” says Joanne Wilkinson for Booklist.

When is it available?

Don’t look elsewhere. You’ll find it on the new book shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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