Tag Archives: books

Continuing in Quarantine: Autumn Reading Repertoire

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!

In the Dog Days of Quarantine… What We’re Reading

By Carole Reedy

This past month I asked my avid-reader friends to share with The Eye the books that have accompanied them in their seemingly never-ending hours of free time during the Covid-19 quarantine.

When the replies arrived, they inevitably started with “Well, I haven’t been reading much these days,” or “I’m having trouble concentrating on anything but news of the virus.” From personal experience I know that one of the repercussions of grief is difficulty concentrating. Could this be grief?

Coincidentally, a friend sent me an article with some insights on this very topic from Oliver J. Robinson, a neurologist and psychologist based in London. Briefly, some of Dr. Robinson’s insights: We are living in a time of uncertainty; we don’t know what to expect. Nothing is certain, and we’re “trying to resolve an uncertainty that is unresolvable.” In addition, we are experiencing loss of control. These feelings are generating anxiety.

“But I’d be lying if I tried to say this is what anxiety is, and this is why people are having difficulty concentrating,” he adds.

I too had difficulty reading during the first days of isolation, but find now that I’m back in the swing. Once we shift our thinking and establish new home routines, perhaps the relaxing act of reading will bring us joy again.

According to The Reading Agency, a UK literary charity, reading has increased by a third, especially in the 18-25 age group. The trend is to comfort, with fiction highlighted, especially crime/mystery and the classics. James Daunt, chief executive of the British bookseller Waterstones, believes “many people may plump for poetry to provide a more detached contemplation during times of stress.” After 9/11, poetry sales increased, supporting Daunt’s theory for a need for “books that encourage or support contemplation.”

With that said, I hope this list of diverse books and the observations that accompany them are helpful as you search for reading satisfaction in an uncertain time.

PLAGUE LITERATURE

First, however, I offer you some plague literature. Often it’s helpful to look to the past. Note that these plagues lasted years, not months, with similarities to our current virus. The precautions were for them the same as our own: stay in, close businesses, avoid crowds. The phrase “waiting for a vaccine” wasn’t part of their vocabulary. The rich were able to leave the cities (the reason Henry the VIII was always moving from castle to castle), but the poor were condemned to stay and try to survive in the metropolitan areas to make their living. Some things never change.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (published in 1722 about the Great Plague of London in 1665). Defoe was just five years old when that plague hit London in 1665, so his account is academic rather than first-hand, as opposed to that of Samuel Pepys in his Diary. Pepys actually lived through the plague years. Defoe’s work is a novel disguised as fact; the story relates the personal experiences of a survivor of the plague, and also addresses the societal repercussions on the poor.

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (written in the 1350s after the plague of 1348-53). The 100 stories of The Decameron have satisfied readers for hundreds of years. A far different point of storytelling than that of Defoe.

The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni (written in 1827; the action takes place in the early 1600s, ending with the plague year of 1630). This is one of the most frequently read novels in Italian literature. It is a love and adventure story at heart, but the last quarter is about the plague. It’s slow going sometimes, with a lot of detail, which is my kind of book!

Hilary Mantel’s Trilogy (some call it The Tudor Trilogy or the Wolf Hall Trilogy) consists of three novels based on the life of the influential Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII: Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the just-released The Mirror and the Light. These books provide terrific reading in times of isolation. Mantel picks you up and drops you in the world of merry old England in the 16th century. She has a unique and refreshing style in these novels, as in all her writing. The New Yorker magazine writer Jia Tolentino describes Mantel’s talent succinctly: “Mantel writes history like it’s always on the cusp of occurring.”

The Guardian recently quoted Hilary Mantel in a speech at the prestigious Hay Festival: “The Tudors were very good at quarantine in those days. They took it very seriously. I think he [Thomas Cromwell] would have locked us down for a bit longer.”

LITERARY FICTION

First, a short note from Larry in Denver with advice about a different way to read if you feel too distracted to concentrate on the written word.

“I try to walk every day, and rather than listen to news or music, I listen to audiobooks. I’ve been listening to a lot of Dickens and especially like the reader Simon Vance. He makes Dickens’ prose and characters come alive. No matter how many characters, he is able to distinguish all of them for the listener, so there’s never any doubt about who is carrying the narrative. So far, I’ve listened (or I should day re-listened) to Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and Oliver Twist. All have been great fun and entertaining. Vance also reads the novels of one of my all-time favorite authors Patrick O’Brien and his British naval history novels.”

Barbara from Mexico City listens to audio books when she goes to bed. The only negative she reports is finding her place in the book the next morning as she inevitably falls asleep, even during the most compelling of stories. Maybe audio books will become an insomnia remedy too.

History of the Rain: A Novel by Niall Williams (via Kirby in Chicago).
Kirby says he’s reading this beautifully written novel very slowly as he doesn’t want it to end. When I asked about the theme, he said “Reading, it’s about reading, Carole.” I immediately downloaded the book to my iPad. The novel takes place in Ireland, on the banks of the Shannon River at Faha, in County Clare, Ireland. Since I’ve read only a few pages, I offer The Guardian’s description:

“The novel is suffused with … other worldliness while being rooted in the everyday. It is also crammed with literature, from Ruth’s beloved Charles Dickens – whose caricatures find contemporary equivalents in the inhabitants of Faha – to Robert Louis Stevenson, whose bed-ridden genius she closely identifies with, along with Dickinson’s elliptical solitude. The river and the endless rain are so present they become characters in themselves: Ruth notes wryly that in Ireland it has rained for ‘800 years’.

Lovers of the 19th-century novel will devour this book. I’m amazed and enchanted by it, and I imagine Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope smiling from their graves. I guarantee you will fall in love with the protagonist, the bed-ridden, young and sassy lass Ruth.

Weather: A Novel by Jenny Offill (via Marilyn in St. Petersburg, Florida).
Marilyn describes this very popular (I am on a 13-week waitlist at the library) new work by Offill, author of the well-regarded short novel, Department of Speculation.

“It is short bursts of beautiful prose, almost more like a poem and yet has character development, plot, humor. I read it in one sitting,” Marilyn writes.

The Dutch House: A Novel by Anne Patchett (via Phyllis from Chicago). We fans of Anne Patchett know she is uneven at times, but this novel is Anne Patchett at her best.

Phyllis agrees: “I love Patchett for her humor, quickness, and real-person humanity. She always provides a moves-along read, perfect for the pandemic. So I liked this story about a hapless brother and sister whose lives are upended by a move into this unusual house.”

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (via Phyllis and also Camille from Boise).
Thanks to the astute decisions of publishers, these days we’re experiencing many excellent literary works based on the immigrant and the emigration experience. Phyllis says that of all she has read about “the immigrant experience,” this one stands out.

The Guardian expressed the magic of this book: “Her new novel resonates with an unexpected simplicity that is profound and unsettling. Richard, a self-contained widower and newly retired academic, discovers empathy through delving into the individual ordeals of a group of African asylum seekers in Berlin whom he gradually befriends and tries to help.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz: A Novel by Heather Morris (via Paulina from San Agustinillo, Oaxaca, with roots in Sligo, Ireland). Paulina enjoyed this book even though some factual historical inaccuracies have recently been found in it. But we must remember, it IS a novel.

Jon Sopel, news broadcaster, comments on the novel: “It really helped me put the privations of COVID lockdown into context. I suspect if I’d read it when it first came out. I would have been moved by the terribleness and evil of the setting, but the story is really about the indomitable nature of the human spirit, how even in the worst of human circumstances there is space for compassion and a sliver of hope.”

MEMOIR AND BIOGRAPHY

A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin (Holly in Grayslake, Illinois). This memoir of a Jewish family fleeing the Soviet Union in 1989 begins on a humorous note with the young son of the family relating the challenges of the Soviet system and the process of leaving the Ukraine, arriving in Vienna and ultimately the US. But midway through the book the tone becomes sober and dark when we learn the effect the flight and uncertainty has on the young man. It is a beautifully executed, well-paced story with many aspects over more than 20 years in a variety of locales in the world.

Talking Heads by British playwright Allen Bennett (via Kirby in Chicago).
This monologue/diary was originally a BBC production, but is now in print. David Sedaris says it is the book he gives as a gift as “it is pretty much the best thing ever.”

Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier by Victoria James (via Kathy in Seattle). The youngest, at age 21, American sommelier from a Michelin-starred restaurant, James relates how she struggled through a childhood of abuse and humiliation before reaching her stunning position.

Our friend Kathy Kaye, who recommended this memoir, has top credentials for judging it, as she too is a writer and winemaker. For years she traveled from her home north of Seattle to the vineyard she and her partner owned east of the Cascades, producing a variety of wine there.

When she wasn’t growing, cultivating, and testing wines, Kathy wrote, and still writes, novels. The Case of the Missing Cobras and Death at 21 Brix: A Warehouse Winery Mystery both fall in the crime/mystery genre, but they are much more. Apart from being compelling reads, requiring meticulous research, the novels deal with issues of ecological conservation, rare species, and man’s role in nature (Missing Cobras) and the many-faceted aspects of wine making (Death at 21 Brix). Kathy also has a star-studded career in medical writing.

Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen (via Barbara and Carole from Mexico City). In this memoir, Allen tries to convince us that he is not an intellectual, citing the fact that the only reading he did before the age of 18 involved comic books. However, he is unsuccessful in this endeavor. The tone of the book (you don’t need to listen to the audio version to hear Allen’s voice), vocabulary, structure, and ease of reading are proof that genius lurks in the written and visual works of the lovable neurotic. The first half of the book is his life story, followed by a thorough analysis of the problems that grew out of his relationship with Mia Farrow.

HISTORICAL FICTION

Winds of War by Herman Wouk (via Sue in Denver). “I had never read this classic and am finding it totally prescient for the period we are experiencing. So many comparisons between Hitler and Trump!”

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (via Betty in Mexico City and Nancy in Chicago).
The eight books (of an anticipated ten) and the subsequent TV series have been popular since 1991. They cover years of time travel from 1743 in Scotland to the modern-day US. Both Betty and Nancy are totally absorbed – or rather, obsessed – with the series.

MYSTERIES AND CRIME

The Tale Teller: A Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito Novel by Anne Hillerman (via Stuart from Sedona, Arizona). You may recognize the surname. Yes, Anne is Tony Hillerman’s daughter, and has continued his fine tradition of writing novels that take place on a Navajo Indian reservation and environs, always centered around a crime committed and sprinkled with tradition and superstition. There are three more books in the series, all New York Times best sellers.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (via fellow book-club member Janet).
Janet is an avid reader of nonfiction, but in these days of upheaval she enjoyed this “thriller that is hard to put down; no problem with lack of concentration with this book!”

The Lynley-Havers series by Elizabeth George
We fans are eagerly awaiting the next, the 21st(!) book in the series. Many mystery/crime readers have followed the series based in Great Britain from the first book in 1988, A Great Deliverance, in which we’re introduced to Inspector Thomas Lynley, Lord Asherton, of Scotland Yard, and to his contrary assistant Barbara Havers.

Interestingly, the author is an American who has been praised for her accuracy in the depiction of the British citizens and police. You need not read the books in order, although part of the attraction of the series is the development of each character and the relationships with one another as the years pass. The mystery story almost seems secondary. We’re happy to wait a couple of years between books that are well researched and lengthy.

The V.I. Warshawski series by Sara Paretsky (from Chicago, via our writer friend Joan Chandler). “I decided to dive into one of Sara Paretsky’s novels featuring her great character V.I. Warshawski. V.I. lives in a perpetual state of moral outrage (which suits my mood). She’s acutely aware that it’s not always a welcome trait. I like that honesty. Sara Paretsky lives in Chicago and includes all the local color in her stories.”

Paretsky’s newest novel hit the shelves in April. It’s called Dead Land, and her publisher has promised that both the author and protagonist are as “dogged and ferocious” as ever.

French and Italian Detectives. Other readers look to European writers for intrigue: Martin Walker has created a niche for mystery fans as well as for gourmet cooks, with more than 15 books in his series that takes place in the Perigord region of France. The protagonist is Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges, a rather unconventional village cop who doesn’t carry an official gun and claims to have lost the key to his handcuffs.

Farther south in Sicily, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, created by Andrea Camilleri, also enjoys good food. The books are packed with tempting treats from sumptuous Sicilian kitchens. Fifteen of the eighteen novels have been translated into English. I have become a lasting fan of this compassionate, humor-loving, cynical detective.

Travelers to these two countries will savor the novels before and during their visits. In addition to the entertaining detective stories, both Camilleri and Walker write non-fiction and/or historical novels.

SHORT STORIES

Frank O’Connor short stories (via Mexican resident–by way of Belfast, London, Zambia, and Italy–Caroline Falasco). Caroline found among the collection of her family’s books a 1953 anthology of these short stories by the master of the genre. Inside the inscription under her parents’ names read “Belfast 1954.” Caroline writes to me: “an emotional find.” I suspect many of us are experiencing similar emotions as we sort through drawers, closets, and bookshelves in this time of physical and emotional cleansing.

NON-FICTION

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe (via Susan from Paris). This exceedingly readable tome that takes place in the Emerald Isle maps out the “troubles” in the guise of a mystery kidnapping/murder. It was my number two of favorite books of 2019, right after Milkman: A Novel by Anna Burns, which explores similar themes. The combination of research and lucid prose is the reason Say Nothing remains on many bestseller lists.

The following two books by distinguished writers in the field are recommended by medical editor and author Kathy (mentioned above). They seem appropriate to list considering the mysteries we are living through these days: From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel Dennett and Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen.

There are so many other stories to read. With hope for a new and different future, I promise more recommendations in the months to come. Stay in and stay safe!

Quarantine Reading: Literature’s Famous and Infamous Mothers and Fathers

By Carole Reedy

Each May and June we honor mothers and fathers with a special day. In Mexico, Mother’s Day is always celebrated on May 10 and is, practically speaking, a national holiday. Though group celebrations will be curtailed this year because of the coronavirus, children will thank their parents according to the customs of their individual cultures.

One of the advantages of the isolation dictated by the virus is the time now given us to think, reflect, and remember. The approach of May and June gives me pause to reflect on the mothers and fathers of the literature I have so loved over the years.

Just for fun, I’ve devised some awards for the outstanding literary figures of a few favorite authors.

The Queen of Jewish Mothers:
Sophie Portnoy from Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)

The Urban Dictionary provides a succinct definition of a Jewish mother:  “an unstoppable force of nature that will feed you, pamper you, and pester you at the slightest provocation, known to spout Yiddish randomly. Be warned: if you come to my house, you WILL leave with a full stomach and a bag of leftovers.”

There is little doubt that Sophie Portnoy maintains the title to this day.  Perhaps Estelle Constanza (of Seinfeld fame) holds second place, but as Lev Grossman reported in Time magazine, “There could be no Estelle Constanza without Sophie Portnoy.”

For those of you who might not be familiar with Sophie Portnoy (really?), she’s Alexander Portnoy’s overbearing mother who dedicates her life to the task of raising her son, going as far as checking his bowel movements on a daily basis. The novel thrust Roth into fame as one of the most accomplished and loved American novelists of the 20th century.

The novel’s platform is the consultation of young Alexander and his psychotherapist.  Publication of such a novel in 1969 sparked two controversies. First, the detailed description of masturbation by young Alexander, as well as obscenities and other sexually explicit adventures that were revolutionary 50 years ago. Second, some members of the Jewish community were offended by what they viewed as an irreverent depiction of the Jewish people.  The book was even banned by some libraries in the US.

Nonetheless, Philip Roth went on to prove himself to be a master of the contemporary American novel. Sadly, he died before receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was surely his due (though that remains a bone of contention).  He did, however, garner countless accolades in his lifetime as one of the great American writers.

The Bravest of Single Mothers:
Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

It would take a lot of courage to stand up to the least flexible, most cantankerous of religious fathers as well as an intolerant community. Yet this is precisely the action taken by Hester Prynne, protagonist of The Scarlet Letter. In 1642, the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, Hester becomes pregnant, her husband thought to be lost at sea, and she faces the wrath of her community as an adulteress. She must wear the scarlet A letter as punishment and degradation.

Hester leads a tough short life, her daughter Pearl being rebellious also. All the involved characters suffer from inward guilt that affects them physically. It is a sad tale. Hawthorne didn’t expect the book to be popular with the general public, but he was wrong. The Scarlett Letter was an instant success and has become a worldwide classic.

The Most Naive of Grandfathers:
Daniele Mallarico from Trick by Domenico Starnone (2016)

Highly respected Italian writer Starnone and his equally famous translator, Jhumpa Lahiri, bring us a different twist on the family saga. The main characters here are the grandfather Daniele and his grandson, the four-year-old Mario, who are spending a week together while Mario’s parents leave the city for work-related matters. Although one might think this combination would present a light, humorous, sentimental novel, it’s quite the opposite.

The relationship of these two, along with that of Mario’s parents, is bluntly and honestly frustrating and difficult. While discussing the book with friends, we all wondered how the 70-year-old grandfather ever agreed to spend a week babysitting a four-year-old, which is the reason I name him the most naive of grandfathers.

The Most Successful Yet Heartbroken of Fathers:
Seymour Levov from American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997)

Seymour Levov (“The Swede” – a nickname since childhood because of his blonde hair and Nordic appearance) had it all: He was a successful Jewish-American businessman with a house in the suburbs, the trophy wife, popularity from an early age on and off the football field, friends, and family. Midway through the novel, Swede’s life begins a slow deterioration after his teenage daughter is involved in a terrorist act.

Roth’s ability to take the reader into the hearts and minds of his characters is exceptionally present in this novel, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. And while a feeling of unendurable pain permeates the second half of the book, there are many memorable scenes. For me the description of the glove factory that Seymour’s father created is one of the finest in literature.

The Gentlest of Fathers:
Mr. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

Even though Mr. Bennet’s main concern is securing good marriages for his daughters, it is evident that he also wants their happiness too. While Mrs. Bennet is in a tizzy, he is the calming hand in the family.

Probably the best film portrayal of this gentle father is the 2005 production directed by Joe Wright, who chose an acting master, Donald Sutherland, to play the role in part because Sutherland reminded him of his own father. He also thought Sutherland “showed the strength to be able to handle those six women.” Of all the Mr. Bennets, Sutherland is my favorite, and now it is always he whom I picture in my mind’s eye when re-reading the novel.

The Most Controversial of Fathers:
King Lear from Shakespeare’s play of the same name (c. 1606)

Since the 17th century, surely the most famous of fathers is King Lear. Every distinguished actor has played the role William Shakespeare created for British audiences more than 400 years ago. The play has evolved greatly over the years. Early on, men played women’s roles and then later women played men’s roles. Modern actor Glenda Jackson even played the demanding lead in both 2016 and 2019.

When the Puritans ruled England, theaters were shut down from 1642 until the Restoration (1660) and then again, under the mad rule of George III, from 1811 to 1820, so no King Lear was presented during those crazy eras.

The most ridiculous turn of events was the adaption of the play by Nahum Tate after the Restoration, which survived until the mid-19th century. It was entitled The History of King Lear, and in that version Lear and Cordelia live, and Cordelia marries Edgar. The Fool was eliminated totally in this rewrite. Fortunately, in the mid-19th century, Shakespeare’s original plot returned.

For the next three centuries, we’ve seen productions of Lear in most theater repertoires, movies have been made, three opera companies (Japanese, Finnish, and German) have produced it, and recently in 2018 a novel was published entitled The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton. The original play has had a long history, and here’s hoping it will endure long into the future.

The Most Confused of Modern Parents:
Toby and Rachel Fleishman from Fleishman Is in Trouble
by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (2019)

Toby and Rachel Fleishman are getting divorced and it isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s outright upsetting for the reader, who hears both sides of the story. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s been done before, but not like this. Brodesser-Akner’s style is compelling and agitating. It presents in a non-analytical way the frustrations of both parties. Reviewers are comparing the author to Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe as someone who brings contemporary society’s problems to the fore with a bang, but in the end does not leave us hopeless.

Katy Walkman, astute reviewer for The New Yorker, sums up the trouble of Fleishman, observing that the title may “refer to our collective exhaustion with a certain type of male protagonist. Brodesser-Akner is not simply knocking her main character off of his throne. She is, perhaps, staging a rescue.”

Just Like A Woman: More Color and Diversity in the Novel as in Life

By Carole Reedy

Two Latinas, one Native American, one Black American, one Ghanaian American, and one White American. These remarkable women make up the list of some of the most anticipated 2020 novels written by women.

In 2019, we saw the first black woman and first black British author, Bernadine Evaristo, win the coveted Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other. Previously, just four black women had been shortlisted for the award.

In an unprecedented action, the Booker committee decided to flout the one-winner rule. The prize was shared with author Margaret Atwood for The Testaments, sequel to her best-selling novel A Handmaid’s Tale.

The books listed here will surely be among those considered for this year’s top prizes. Let this column serve as an early alert so you can get on those library waiting lists!

Two important novels to be published this year are not on this list because we reviewed them in the February 2020 issue of The Eye: The Mirror and the Light by Hillary Mantel (in March) and The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (in June). See theeyehuatulco.com to read about these marvelous new novels.

On to the next 2020 selections, with publication dates in parentheses…

Zora Neale Hurston
Hitting A Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick (January 2020)

Surely the most recognizable name on this list, the late Hurston’s works continue to rise from the ashes. Upon her death of heart disease in 1960, Hurston’s papers were tossed into a burn barrel, but then were miraculously saved by a friend passing the house where Hurston had lived, the valuable manuscripts continuing to be published to this day. It’s also thanks to writer Alice Walker, who in 1975 published “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” in Ms. Magazine, that attention has focused on the author.

It’s impossible to begin discussing Hurston’s intense struggles and experience. Just reading a brief biography of her life is exhausting. But we’re fortunate to live in a world filled with publishers who continue to remind us who she was and what she means to history and society.

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick contains 21 stories of love and race, eight of them from the lost Harlem Renaissance collection of the 1920s and 30s. The Guardian calls her tales “wickedly funny…unnerving at times, but always a thrill.” We are so fortunate to benefit from the discovery of her stories.

Louise Erdrich
The Night Watchman (March 3, 2020)

This novel is based on Erdrich’s grandfather’s story, both as a night watchman in a North Dakota factory and as a member of the Chippewa Council, where he was active in arguing for the Native American during a time (1953) when the US government was presenting a new bill that threatened their rights.

Memorable characters from the reservation and others make up the world of Erdrich’s book, one the publisher describes as “a majestic work of fiction from this revered cultural treasure.”

Erdrich has won a plethora of awards, including the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction. A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, she owns a bookstore, Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, with a focus on Native American literature.

Yaa Gyasi
Transcendent Kingdom (September 15, 2020)

This tops my eager-to-read list because I and most of my reading friends were deeply impressed with Homegoing, Gyasi’s 2016 debut historical fiction novel, which follows the family of many generations of Ghanaians. Among other awards, the book received the 2017 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.

Gyasi’s new novel also examines the life of a Ghanaian family, this time in Alabama. Those who are fortunate enough to have received advance copies give this book five stars, praising it as the book that “will make her a legend.”

Isabel Allende
A Long Petal of the Sea (January 21, 2020)

Those of you who want to read in Spanish to improve your second language skills will find Allende a good place to start. She’s accessible and a master storyteller and historian. Allende’s style is often magical realism, and the most popular of her many novels is The House of the Spirits.

The Guardian writes that “At this point in Allende’s career, it’s easy to forget what a trailblazer she was, a rare female voice in a wave of Latin American literature that was overwhelmingly male.”

A Long Petal of the Sea starts during the Spanish Civil War, continues with the protagonists through France and eventually to Pinochet’s Chile, and finally moves to Venezuela. The poet Pablo Neruda plays a part in the expansive tale of 80 years, as does Allende’s own life. It sounds to me like a complete and satisfying historical tale.

Julia Álvarez
Afterlife (April 7, 2020)

After 15 years, we’re finally looking forward to another Álvarez novel. Many of us remember well In the Time of Butterflies, the story of sisters rebelling during the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, as well as How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, also a family tale whose story takes place in the Dominican Republic and in the US.

Afterlife is a novel of the immigrant experience and of a recent widow dealing with loss and grief. It is described by critics as both moving and funny.

One of our favorite Latin American authors, Luis Alberto Urrea (if you haven’t read his The House of Broken Angels, you have a great delight in store for you!), welcomes Alvarez’s return with this: “The queen is back with the exact novel we need in this fraught era.”

Kate Elizabeth Russell
My Dark Vanessa (March 10, 2020)

Like Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl, this first novel by a young American PhD is being touted as the most-awaited novel of the year by The New York Times, Esquire, and The Guardian, among others.

Esquire says: “A singular achievement – a masterpiece of tension and tone . . . with utmost sensitivity and vivid gut-churning detail. Before you start My Dark Vanessa, clear your schedule for the next few days…this will utterly consume you.”

The story, woven from memory, is one the publisher describes as “exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher.”

The mere availability of these future masterpieces in libraries and bookstores and on Amazon and Kindle fills me with two deeply satisfying emotions: joy and anticipation. Booker-prize winner Evaristo expresses contemporary women’s concerns best in one brief sentence: “We black British women know that if we don’t write ourselves into literature no one else will.”

Stay in the limelight, gals! Keep reading.