By Carole Reedy
Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are – Mason Cooley
The good news during this pandemic is that our reading recommendations do not diminish, even with the virus hovering over daily activities and dictating our routines. The novels here cover a variety of subjects and eras, all of them fighting for the top of my “2019-20 favorite books” list.
THE PULL OF THE STARS: A NOVEL, by Emma Donoghue
Dublin, 1918, war, a flu epidemic, midwives and nurses, pregnant women and their offspring, and even Sinn Fein: these are the elements that make up this fast-paced, electrifying novel.
The day I started it I was up until 2:30 am engrossed in the story of the midwife, her colleagues, and the patients in the Maternity/Fever Ward of a Dublin hospital. The book’s setting over just a few days provides real insight into the political, economic, and social history of the era of war and pandemic in Ireland … and probably of the world.
Many readers thought highly of Donoghue’s well-regarded book regarded 2011 novel Room (though I did not). Whether or not you appreciated it, you’ll be pleased that this one is totally different in approach and style. The writing is fluid and descriptive, the characters most admirable and lovable – even the grumpy ones.
THE OTHER RICHARD III, by John Birney
Turns out that Richard III wasn’t such a bad guy after all, according to author John Birney, who wants to portray Shakespeare’s most evil and disagreeable king in a different and perhaps truer light.
After I read and wholeheartedly recommended Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague (a variation on the name Hamlet) by Maggie O’Farrell (2020) to my friends Larry and Sue, they, in turn, knowing my admiration for Shakespeare, suggested I read this modern play written in old Elizabethan blank verse, authentic and archaic, but with the sweep of a modern hand.
Simply described, it is beautifully rendered. I’m in awe of any author who can take an historical figure and a play written by Shakespeare and create a new story and aspect of the play. Kudos, Mr. Birney, for tackling this project and recreating a classic story into a readable, modern, compelling, and most enjoyable piece of literature without deprecating the original.
THE LYING LIVES OF ADULTS, by Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)
I awoke from a deep sleep at 12:01 am the morning of September 1, immediately knowing the reason: the newest Elena Ferrante novel was due at that moment. I stretched my arm out to reach for my iPad, always at my bedside for easy access to middle-of-the-night reading. And sure enough, there I found the link to purchase and download the book, which I did immediately for fear the electricity might go out in the night and prevent my reading the first words bright and early. Avid readers will understand completely this motive and the resulting action.
Fans of the four novels that make up The Neapolitan Quartet will not regret the five years they waited for Ferrante to publish this newest gem. Dayna Tortorici, reviewer for The New York Times, assuages any doubts about the newest book: “What a relief it is when an author who has written a masterpiece returns to prove the gift intact.”
Like the Quartet, the setting is upper and lower (class and physicality) Naples, a band of adolescents the focus, along with the dishonest parents of the title. Again, the array of characters and their predictable and unpredictable actions and reactions is the driving force behind Ferrante’s genius.
And, no, we still aren’t certain of her identity despite much speculation by journalists and others.
THIS IS HAPPINESS, by Niall Williams
This summer another book by Niall Williams, History of the Rain: A Novel (2014), caught my attention, and I proceeded to recommend it to everyone I knew who loved reading. I’ve already decided it’s one of my favorites of the year. It brought me back to childhood, Ireland, reading, and parental and family relationships in words, sentences, and paragraphs that flow like the River Shannon.
Naturally, I was eager to read this more recent book by Williams. In This Is Happiness, the author returns to the fictionalized town of Faha on the Shannon in Ireland, but this time with the story of a troubled young man, his grandparents, and an assortment of amusing, and sometimes disturbing, residents of the area. Once again, Williams carries us to a different time, locale, and world with his quirky, instinctive talent for descriptive presentation.
DADDY: STORIES, by Emma Cline
Cline surprised us a few years ago with her novel The Girls: A Novel (2016), an insight into the followers and would-be followers of convicted murderer Charles Manson. Now, with Daddy, a group of short stories, she explores further the interactions between men and women.
The Guardian’s review observes: “There is … always an awareness of economic imbalance in these interactions and the pressure put on women to be sexually available and ‘not waste [their] prettiness.’ As in The Girls, Cline is acute at exposing how women internalize the expectations of men.”
Each of these stories is a small gem, but don’t expect to derive much happiness from them. After all, she’s writing about male and female relationships (!).
THE MAN IN THE RED COAT, by Julian Barnes
Lovers of the Belle Époque and, of course, followers of the respected author and Francophile Julian Barnes will revel in his latest book about a man, this dreamy era, and the people who dominate the ballrooms of the time. If you read the hardcover edition, you’ll be swept away by the quality of the paper, the illustrations of the characters, and the entire presence of the book, which enhances the story within. Every aspect of time and place is immaculately and decorously presented, just as the era itself projects.
Who is The Man in the Red Coat? He is renowned French surgeon and gynecologist Samuel Jean Pozzi (1846-1918). Barnes entertains us with the story of his life, as well as the delicious gossip about the outlandish characters of the Belle Époque that surround him, Count Montesquiou and Sarah Bernhardt among many others. Readers of Proust will recognize their favorite personages from Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu) among the friends of Pozzi and Montesquiou.
Of course, it takes Barnes’ extraordinary talent to weave the narrative of Pozzi’s life into a fine piece of literature.
TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM: A Novel, by Yaa Gyasi
You’ll recognize this author who a few years ago wrote the gripping novel Homegoing: A Novel (2016), which follows the descendants of two Ghanaian girls through seven generations from Africa to the US.
Gyasi’s newest novel, which James Woods of The New Yorker thinks is the better, takes place in the US, the narrator a not particularly likable 28-year-old Ghanaian/American woman. Just out this week, I’ve not had a chance to read it, but it’s at the top of my list. If you haven’t read Homegoing, you’re in for a treat. It’s extremely clever without being trite and the provided genealogy chart makes easy work of keeping track of family lines.
These spell-binding novels are wreaking havoc on my sleep cycle, but, after all, we are in the midst of a pandemic. I can take a nap whenever I choose. Stay safe and happy in your reading!