Tag Archives: books

Intrepid Women Writers of the 21st Century

By Carole Reedy

“Some things work far better in imagination than in reality.”
Lauren Willig, author of historical fiction

The word “intrepid” is often used to describe explorers and travelers, but anyone who breaks out and moves beyond the norm to discover the mystery of humanity also deserves this classification. The women in this article do just that. They have committed to dedicating their lives to the written word and our amorphous world.

These books are big and bold and unsettling. When I finished reading the masterpieces written by the women below, I sat and stared into space for a moment, absorbing the beauty and fierceness of their creative abilities, of how they weave a narrative with flair and conviction about who we are and who we may become.

Olga Tokarczuk
I first saw an interview with this Nobel Prize winner in 2020 at the prestigious Hay Festival (streamed rather than live due to the pandemic). I had read several of her novels, including the philosophic Flights (2007), and thus was expecting a staid, serious woman. Instead I saw, seated with her translator Jennifer Croft, a woman who looked 40 rather than her actual 60, bouncing in her chair, animated, often smiling and joking, and with a funky hairstyle.

Here’s a woman who writes historically about life, literature, and philosophy, books like Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009) and Flights. Her novels, written in a distinct narrative style, tackle the most onerous of philosophical subjects with determination and hope.

From the Booker Prize-winning Flights, a taste of this philosophy:

Standing there on the embankment, staring into the current, I realized that—in spite of all the risks involved—a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.

Fresh off the press is her thousand-page The Books of Jacob (first published in 2014 in her native Polish, in English in 2021). It begins in 1752 in what is now western Ukraine and ends in the middle of the 20th century in eastern Poland, where a family of Jews is hiding during the Holocaust. The story is that of historical figure Jacob Frank, leader of an heretical Jewish sect and whose unusual practices were controversial.

The translation of Tokarczuk’s text to English is a daunting task. Consider that in Slavic the word order varies significantly, and is more complicated than English. Tokarczuk’s translator, Jennifer Croft, won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Flights. Croft says that “The words of the text are the embodiment of its past, and its sentences, on the other hand, lead the way to the future.”

In its review of this much-awaited novel, the Wall Street Journal recognized the diversity and command of Tokarczuk’s writing: “Ms. Tokarczuk is as comfortable rendering the world of Jewish peasantry as that of the Polish royal court.”

Hanya Yanagihara
After turning the final page of Yanagihara’s newest, 600-page-plus novel, On Paradise (2022), I felt as I did 40 years ago as I closed the cover of the final installation of Marcel Proust’s million-word tour de force Remembrance of Things Past (7 volumes, 1913-27), wondering “What could I possibly read now that I have read the final, definitive word on humanity?” This too is Hanya Yanagihara.

Her unusual structure, deeply creative approach to history and society, and the emotional prices paid by her finely wrought characters contribute to this literary success.

The novel takes place over three centuries (1893, 1993, and 2093) in a North America unrecognizable to us. We’re surprised and fascinated by the enormous shifts in society’s norms, the principal players developing in the most unexpected situations as we follow the families and individuals across the centuries.

Perhaps most important, though, is Yanagihara’s descriptive flowing style, which allows the reader to traverse a seamless constellation of emotions.

Elizabeth George
Multitudes have thrilled to the travails of Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers over the past 20 years. George’s sharply drawn characters and her ability to create an atmosphere of order and resolution among the chaos of murder cases in London’s criminal justice system is why we yearn for more. Her skill in depicting the shifting mores of the various populations that make up Great Britain keeps faithful readers awaiting each new book in the series.

George’s latest novel, Something To Hide, just published in January 2022, involves investigation into a shocking and extremely sensitive issue: FGM, or female genital mutilation. The contrast of the painfully serious practice of FGM and the effect on some women in predominantly Nigerian and Somalian communities of London is a fresh approach for George, although she’s always been a keen analyzer of Britain’s class system.

Fans of Lynley and Havers will be reassured to know they skillfully navigate the horrors of this disfiguring practice and those whose lives are forever destroyed by it.

Although George is an American, she has been lauded for her insight and accuracy in setting her novels in the British Isles.

Jennifer Clement
We who live in Mexico have great respect and affection for fellow Mexican-American Jennifer Clement, president of PEN Mexico from 2009 to 2012, followed in 2015 by a term as the first woman president of PEN International. During her tenure she brought attention to the safety of journalists in Mexico and spearheaded a change in the law, making the killing of a journalist a federal crime.

Clement, along with her sister Barbara Sibley, is founder of Poetry Week in San Miguel de Allende.

Prayers for the Stolen (2014) was praised by prestigious publications and readers on both sides of the border. Recently, it was made into a film, Noche de Fuego, which has been nominated for best foreign language film for this year’s Academy Awards.

The movie itself depicts only the first third of the book, which takes place in a mountain village in the state of Guerrero where narcos dominate the lives of the inhabitants. The book goes on to examine life in Acapulco, ending up in Mexico City.

Don’t look for happy endings in Clement’s books, but rather the reality that surrounds the disenfranchised. One of my favorite books of hers is Widow Basquiat: A Memoir (2000), a portrayal of Clement’s friend Suzanne Mallouk, MD, the painter and psychoanalyst who was muse and lover of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the brilliant artist who died at 27 from a heroin overdose. Basquiat was part of the graffiti movement in New York and well known by his alter ego, SAMO. Today his paintings sell for millions of dollars.

Bernardine Evaristo
She is a dynamo. There’s simply no other way to describe her. Although only recently in the limelight for her Booker-prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other in 2019, Evaristo has been on the scene for years, fighting sexism and racism going back 40 years to when she and her drama school friends heckled London theater performances.

Evaristo is the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize, and her Girl, Woman, Other was named by Barack Obama as one of his favorite books of the year. Of note: when the novel was nominated for the Booker prize, it had not yet found a US publisher. The book itself is a remarkable tour de force, following the lives of 11 Black British women, as well as a non-binary woman, centering around a theatrical production and the playwright who reflects on her relationships with these women.

Evaristo’s latest book Manifesto, published in February 2022, is a memoir about her years of struggle to be recognized in the sacred halls of literature. Her story is one we can all applaud.

Enduring Novels of Unrequited Love

By Carole Reedy

“The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, of anything else that we cannot define.” E M Forster in Aspects of the Novel

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche felt that the state of unrequited love was preferable to that of no love at all, saying “indispensable … to the lover is his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference.”

However debatable that idea, we’ve all experienced unrequited love at one time or another, and the feelings it evokes have provided novelists fodder over the centuries, starting with Dante and Beatrice in The Divine Comedy.

Here are a few literary gems that center on unrequited love. All remain as fresh as the day they were written.

Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham (1915)
Listed first among these noted authors is Maugham’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece about the disabled Philip Carey, who falls in love with a waitress who subsequently treats him cruelly. The story follows Philip from the struggle with his disability as a teenager in an English vicarage to his studies in Heidelberg, a short stint as an artist in Paris, and then back to England where he meets Mildred, the beginning of the pain of unrequited love.

Maugham actually had more success writing for the theater, although today he is best known for his novels. Of Human Bondage was written when he was 23 and finishing medical school. When he was refused an advance on the manuscript, he put the book aside and concentrated on his successful career writing for the theater. Maugham himself didn’t think he had the technical ability to be a good writer, but he tells a good story, which is the key element of any good book. Of Human Bondage was finally published in 1915 and to this day remains one of the most popular and best-selling novels by an English author.

The Course of Love: A Novel, by Alain de Botton (2016)
This is de Botton’s second novel, following his first success, How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel (1997). As a philosopher, writer, editor, and journalist, he has been compared to Julian Barnes, Woody Allen, and Donald Barthelme, all both smart and ironic. De Botton is also a founding member of The School of Life in London and a new institution, Living Architecture.

This novel, which received rave reviews, follows the life of a married couple from first passion through the predictable challenging years that come. It is a truly Romantic novel, exploring the longevity of love over a lifetime.

According to The New York Times, “The Course of Love is a return to the form that made Mr. de Botton’s name in the mid-1990s … Love is the subject best suited to his obsessive aphorizing, and in this novel he again shows off his ability to pin our hopes, methods, and insecurities to the page.”

Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante, published in 2005
For me, this novel evoked an intensity of emotion more pronounced even than Ferrante’s famed quartet, The Neapolitan Novels. The pain and subsequent actions of the “abandoned” protagonist are impeccably portrayed. Shocking but understandable. Is she unreasonable or incredibly sane? You decide.

Ferrante remains voluntarily sequestered from publicity in the noble attempt to attract readers based on the quality of the writing rather than publicist hype. I hope her identity remains a secret, as it adds another layer of enchantment to her books.

Another of her noted books, The Lost Daughter (2008), has been made into a movie directed by and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal; it is available on Netflix.

Heartburn, by Nora Ephron (1983)
The always-entertaining Nora Ephron brought us hours of poignant laughter during her career as a writer and observer of our times. In Heartburn, a novel based on her tumultuous marriage to and break-up with political journalist Carl Bernstein, she expertly blends a range of emotions expressing her state of being with a variety of recipes.

Adam Gopnik speculated in The New Yorker on her decision to include recipes: “In Heartburn, the recipes serve both as a joke about what a food writer writing a novel would write and as a joke on novel-writing itself by someone who anticipates that she will not be treated as a ‘real’ novelist.”

Ephron has a talent for converting the apparently tragic to the absurdly comic.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver (1981)
Not a novel, but the short stories in this collection are among the classics in modern literature. The title of the collection is also the title of one of the stories. You may recognize this title from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2014 film Birdman, in which the central character is an old Hollywood actor who is mounting a Broadway play named for and based on Carver’s story.
Carver is consistently praised by critics for his succinctness and veracity and for his ability to relate a broad range of emotion in few words. These stories about love pass the test of time.

Persuasion, by Jane Austen (1818, published posthumously)
A somewhat different twist on unrequited love in this, the last of Jane Austen’s six published novels.
In this one the protagonist, Anne Elliott, discards her love interest based on some rather bad advice from a friend, an action she lives to regret. It all turns out well in the end, as do a majority of Austen’s novels, most of which include some form of love gone wrong.

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
“Singular, intelligent, and beautiful” are words that have been used to describe this Booker-Prize-winning novel by Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. The praise is well deserved, and this book in particular is a favorite among readers.

The heartbreaking story of a butler in post-WWII Britain who receives a letter from the housekeeper of two decades past, this short book is filled with the ambience of the period, and of the war with its fascist-sympathizing aristocrats. But the story that moves the narrative is that of the relationship between butler and housekeeper, and the regret of unrequited love.

In 1993, the book was made into a popular movie starring Antony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez (1985, Spanish; 1988, English)
Another winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1982) graces this list. Márquez hails from Colombia, where he had homes in both Bogotá and Cartagena, in addition to Paris and Mexico City, where he died in 2014. During his long life, he not only wrote novels, he also studied law and was a journalist. Márquez also was a friend to many famous people and politicians, including Fidel Castro.

The love story of Florentino and Fermina in Love in the Time of Cholera spans a lifetime and is one of Marquez’s most beloved novels, demonstrating that over the years love is not fluid, but ever changing.

Magical realism (the mixture of fantasy and fact) permeates his creations. In his own words, Márquez tells us, “In Mexico, Surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.”

Márquez was influenced by many other writers, among them Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and especially William Faulkner. In the 1960s, Márquez lived in the colonia San Ángel in Mexico City, where he wrote his famed One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

Year Two of Covid:Literary Favorites of 2021

By Carole Reedy

This second year of the pandemic has given us another opportunity for many hours to ponder our fates and read new literary selections. When asked what makes a good book and, of the good ones, what makes a book great, Salman Rushdie, the thought-inspiring and entertaining writer, replied:
“What I look for in a book is a voice that sounds fresh, a relationship with language that feels exciting, and a vision of the world that enlightens or challenges me, or, just occasionally, changes the way I see the world in some degree. When I find at least one of those things, then that’s what I’d probably call a good book. When I find all of them, then the adjective ‘great’ may come to mind.”

Keeping in mind Rushdie’s analysis, I’ve chosen ten books I feel meet those criteria. Coincidentally, they’re also among the most entertaining reads of the year. The first two books I would place in Rushdie’s “Great Literature” category, the rest just slightly less than great.

CROSSROADS: A NOVEL, by Jonathan Franzen (2021)

Franzen’s masterpiece is so compelling it could win all the major literary awards next year. What makes that probable? Exactly what Rushdie’s formula dictates.

We discover Franzen’s 1970s American family, the Hildebrants, as if through a microscope, every movement of their lives together and their individual emotional states and thoughts detailed in this 600-page stunner, the first of a trilogy to come. As we’re drawn into each character’s world, our own reactions and a slight shift in perspective add to the sheer enjoyment of the language and provocative twists with each turn of the page. I seldom need a dictionary when reading a novel, but Franzen’s books are exceptions.

THE MAGICIAN: A NOVEL, by Colm Tóibin (2021)

After reading Tóibin’s story of Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann’s long life, a friend said to me, “The masterpiece written by Tóibin about Thomas Mann’s life is infinitely more compelling and introspective than any of Mann’s well-respected novels.” And I have to agree.

Tóibin took on an enormous responsibility when he sat down to write a novel based on the 80 years that Mann graced our planet. Mann basked in the limelight during his life, which encompassed two wars over two continents. But the outstanding characteristic of this grand tribute lies in the life beneath the exterior, delving into the inner workings of his mind and heart.

Similar yearnings and emotions are reflected in Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer, also appearing below on this list. In both cases, it is heartbreaking to read the pain these men suffer for emotions they feel which, at the time, are in conflict with society’s norms and must therefore remain hidden and nrequited.

SHOULD WE STAY OR SHOULD WE GO: A NOVEL, by Lionel Shriver (2021)

Only a writer as adept as Lionel Shriver can make us chuckle about death and, especially, suicide. When do we say enough is enough? The aging couple in Shriver’s latest novel has devised a plan for leaving this life when body and soul dictate.

Shriver creates several scenarios of the manner in which the end might come about for the couple and the various consequences that might arise. As always, she doesn’t leave a loose thread hanging or a conclusion sloppily rendered.

Shriver in each of her novels explores, dissects, and delights in a modern-day problem/challenge/fad/concern that is unique to the human condition. I’ve never been disappointed in her rendering or treatment of our delicate mentality.

THE GIVER OF STARS: A NOVEL, by Jojo Moyes (2019)
THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK, by Kim Michele Richardson (2019)
These two novels are similar in subject, characters, and history, but vary in their treatment. The overriding topic is books and reading, which would capture the interest of any reader of this column. Both novels are based in fact, taking place during the 1930s depression era in rural Kentucky, where an FDR government initiative is being enacted: books delivered to rural areas on horseback by librarians.

These women are brave, tenacious, and strong (even if they start out a bit weaker) pioneers in the advancement and acceptance of women’s physical strength and determination.

I paused before opening each of these books, as I wasn’t familiar with the writers, the situation, or the geography and sociology of the area. Though I was doubtful, I decided to give them a try. Once immersed, I saw that I’d rushed to judgment and had happily been proved wrong.

The difference between the books is in the storytelling and characters. Moyes concentrates on four women who fight the terrain, customs, and mores of the area in their pursuit of dispensing knowledge. Each is unique in style and the manner in which she handles her job and the resulting dissent. But in the end each triumphs in her own way.

Richardson takes a different approach, with one woman front and center. Also woven into the narrative is the phenomenon of the “blue people.” Here’s a fascinating historical twist to the story – as if these dedicated women needed any more problems!

ARCTIC SUMMER, by Damon Galgut (2014)

What Tóibin accomplishes in his in-depth analysis of Thomas Mann, Galgut parallels in this beautiful portrayal of the admirable yet suffering author E. M. Forster. Instead of 80 years, however, Galgut concentrates on a more specific time and travel period, when Forster lived in India and Egypt.

Forster is a gentle man, even more so when compared to his British comrades, his love deep and yet impossible.

On November 3 of this year, Galgut deservedly won the prestigious 2021 Booker Prize for his novel The Promise: A Novel, also one of my favorite reads of the year.

HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead (2021)

This time around, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Whitehead gives us a whirlwind tour of 1960s New York, specifically to honky-tonk Harlem. We see it all through the eyes of small-time crook Ray Carney, who delights us with his subtle criminal, yet seemingly normal, life in the colorful barrio.

The characters surrounding him in his pursuit for a comfortable life for his family are painted in brilliant color with shades of sepia. They are quirky, frightening at times, occasionally astute, downright funny, and never stereotyped.
It was pure delight to accompany Ray on his “just a bit bent” adventures with friends and family, to whom he demonstrates uncommon loyalty, and to his enemies, with whom he gets even eventually with demonstrated patience.

HOMELAND: A NOVEL, by Fernando Aramburu (2020)

Off to another country across the ocean, to a time in the near past and a culture little-known to most of us. Basque Country is an autonomous region nestled in northeast Spain on the border with France, where long-standing conflicts take place in its struggle for independence. Homeland is a story told over several decades of two opposing families who prove to us the futility of wars and maybe even of principles.

Interesting that the reader comes to understand the motives and reactions to situations that at first seem alien, but in the end prove to be not so distant. The delicacy of human emotions seems constant regardless the culture or era.

The true stars of the novel are the matriarchs, their strength and pain. There isn’t much joy in this novel, but it reflects the deep rage, sadness, commitment, and existential challenge of the family in a remote section of Spain. The plot weaves through past and present to offer a full picture of the struggles of the region. You can watch an excellent, though less satisfying than the book, serial version of the story on HBO, called Patria, also the title of the book in Spanish.

THE IMMORTALISTS: A NOVEL, by Chloe Benjamin (2018)

The premise behind the story is one of our grand metaphysical questions: would you like to know the exact date and time of your death?

In other hands, the telling could have come off as trite and manipulated, but Benjamin guides us through the separate but intertwined lives and deaths of four young siblings who visit a fortune teller to discover the timing of their future demises. The author, perhaps wisely, leaves us with more existential questions at the end of each life than when we’d first joined them many years previously; possibly that was her intent.

THE RUTH GALLOWAY MYSTERY SERIES by Elly Griffiths

Druids, detectives, archaeologists, extramarital affairs, and digging up bones are among the elements that make this one of the finest mystery series published in this century.

Ruth Galloway is our hero, a prominent forensic archaeologist bone expert who teaches at the University of North Norfolk in England. She is sought after by local detectives seeking to solve murders that involve buried treasure … the treasure usually being a body found deep in an archeological dig.

Fourteen books make up a series in which we connect with the emotions, frustrations, and decisions of the main players, who are engaging and beautifully drawn. The ease with which we’re able relate to the characters is what sets this series apart from others.

Griffiths doesn’t go into elaborate contortions to develop or resolve her crimes, as many modern crime writers feel they must do. The plots are challenging and often humorous, without stretching for a clever solution. An additional plus is the pleasure these books bring in learning about the history and geography of the English countryside.

Try the first and see if you’re hooked. I recommend reading the books in order, as the characters are fleshed out over the series and various scenarios. Start with The Crossing Places (2010). I predict the books will bring you great pleasure in the post-pandemic (we can hope!) year ahead.

We’ve been graced with a plethora of fine novels from this and previous years. As always, I look forward to 2022 for more literary gems from old friends and new writers. We close this year encouraged by the always poignant words of the admirable Rushdie:

“The future of fiction is assured. The novel will survive and thrive.”

Fall Finds: Ten New Books By Old Friends

By Carole Reedy

“In stories we exist.”
Niall Williams, History of the Rain

In October we transition from summer to winter, lush green leaves turning bright bright orange, yellow, and red before falling, a portent of winter’s snow and dark days to come. The season itself anticipates the arrival of major Western holidays. But for me, October marks the publication of the most significant books of the year.

Why is the fall book so eagerly anticipated? Readers are tired of beach books, shoppers are making holiday purchases for bookworm friends, and serious book lovers are planning their winter reads to enjoy in front of the fireplace. In addition, like movie premieres, books published at year’s end remain fresh in the mind, augmenting the possibility of winning next year’s awards.

Whatever the reason, for avid readers this is a most marvelous time of the year, and Fall 2021 promises a brilliant selection from the most prominent and distinguished writers of our time. Here are ten books from ten of my favorite authors to savor over the next few months. Just reviewing them assuages feelings of anxiety that pandemic isolation has brought to our lives.

Crossroads, by Jonathan Franzen
For me, this is the most awaited book of the year. Franzen’s depiction of family life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been a theme in his novels, including Freedom (2010), Purity (2015), and, best of them all, The Corrections (2001).

Crossroads should be a blockbuster, and, fortunately for readers, it is the first in a promised trilogy “A Key to All Mythologies.” Once again, Franzen explores the motivations, habits, and impulses of a Midwest family, this time the Hildebrants, over a three-month period that includes those two major holidays, Christmas and Easter.

Franzen writes on other topics, but his family sagas of social realism contain his most compelling and insightful work.

Oh William! A Novel, by Elizabeth Strout
Olive Kitteridge fans, rejoice. Another masterpiece by Elizabeth Strout awaits you. No one will ever forget Olive Kitteridge, the personage or the book (2008) in which Strout magnificently yet simply sneaks a peak at the daily life of a curmudgeon with whom we all fall in love. The HBO miniseries (2015), starring the daring actor Frances McDormand, doesn’t quite capture the complexity of the character that the book so precisely portrays.

Oh William! stands on its own as a novel about a relationship, but if you’ve read My Name is Lucy Barton (2016) and Anything Is Possible (2017), your reading experience will be enhanced.

“Elizabeth Strout is one of my very favorite writers, so the fact that Oh William! may well be my favorite of her books is a mathematical equation for joy. The depth, complexity, and love contained in these pages is a miraculous achievement.”—Ann Patchett, author of The Dutch House: A Novel (Patchett’s latest book reviewed below).

The Magician: A Novel, by Colm Tóibiín
We know Colm Tóibín for the variety of novels he’s written over the past few years, the most popular being Brooklyn (2009), which was made into a heartwarming movie. With The Magician, Tóibín returns to his exploration of a famous writer, Thomas Mann. I fondly remember The Master (2004), his novel that takes us into four short years in the life of writer Henry James.

The Magician, on the surface, appears to be of the same style, but instead of four years, Tóibín analyzes 80 years of Thomas Mann, the famous novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate. As Mann does, so goes Tóibín, with astute insight into the psychology of the intellectual.

It is quite a tome, covering seven decades and two World Wars. The entire family participates in the tale, including Mann’s parents, siblings, wife, and six children.

The Every, by Dave Eggers
It wasn’t an easy task, but Dave Eggers figured out how to circumvent the Amazon monopoly. “I don’t like bullies,” Eggers has written. “Amazon has been kicking sand in the face of independent bookstores for decades now.”

The hardback edition of The Every, his newest novel and a follow-up to the successful The Circle (2013), will arrive only in independent bookstores in October. Six weeks later, the paperback and e-book versions will be available in other stores and venues. The hardcover version will always be available only in independent bookstores and from McSweeney publishers, founded by Eggers.

“One of the themes of the book is the power of monopolies to dictate our choices, so it seemed a good opportunity to push back a bit against the monopoly, Amazon, that currently rules the book world,” he said. “So we started looking into how feasible it would be to make the hardcover available only through independent bookstores. Turns out it is very, very hard.”

Eggers is truly a Renaissance man. Not only the author of novels, Eggers was trained as a painter and his artwork has been exhibited in many galleries. He has won the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Education and the TED Prize, and has been a finalist for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2018, Eggers co-founded The International Congress of Youth Voices, an annual gathering of 100 extraordinary young writers.
Eggers is an admirable example for young people as well as being an insightful and entertaining writer. While the subject matter varies among his books, each is given the attention and feeling we’ve come to expect from this man of diverse talents.

Trust: A Novel, by Domenico Starnone
Starnone’s name may not be familiar in many countries, but in Italy he is currently the country’s most popular writer, possibly excepting Elena Ferrante. In fact, in the frenzied search to identify the real Ferrante (a penname), gossip mongers have speculated Starnone is the real Ferrante, or perhaps her husband.

Gossip aside, Starnone enjoys international fame with his short psychological novels such as Ties (2017) and Trick (2018). Distinguished for his tight, compact writing, not wasting a word with anything inessential to convey the meaning and emotion of the moment, Starnone dazzles us in subtle ways.

Trust, his fourth novel to be translated into English, by none other than Jhumpa Lahiri, explores the age-old tradition of secret keeping. A loving couple reveals their darkest secrets to each other, but the novel is about more than the trust between two people. It’s also an exploration into what we look for and thus create for ourselves in the other person.

“Richly nuanced while also understated, Starnone’s latest appearance in English is a novel to be savored,” Kirkus Reviews.

Fight Night: A Novel, by Miriam Toews
The women in Toews’s novels demonstrate a combination of strength, competence, and compassion. And while the subject matter is often controversial and difficult, the ease with which she opens up the world of the protagonists and weaves a tale has established her as a formidable writer of the 21st century.
A notable example is All My Puny Sorrows (2019), which depicts the struggle of a family and its concert pianist member who can’t control her urge to commit suicide.
Women Talking: A Novel (2020) is the tale of Mennonite women who suffer abuse from men in the community and the resulting decisions they must make (based on true incidents).
This latest is the story of three generations of women, with a grandmother and nine-year-old girl named Swiv at the center of the story; Publishers Weekly called this newest novel “a knockout!”

These Precious Days: Essays, by Anne Patchett
Respected author Patchett takes a sharp turn from her usual path in her newest book. Many of us have been enchanted by her novels, which sparkle with excellent plots and engaging characterizations.
In Patchett’s latest, we’re confronted with a compilation of very personal essays that reveal the author’s feelings on home, family, and friendships.

Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead
Harlem Shuffle, a combination of historical fiction, crime, and family saga, takes a different turn from Whitehead’s previous successes. Whitehead calls it his “love letter to Harlem.”
Whitehead has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice for his novels The Underground Railroad (2016) and Nickel Boys (2019). He has also received the MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships. With ten published books, Whitehead has established himself as a dynamic force in American prose.

State of Terror, by Louise Penny and Hillary Clinton
Who could resist a new novel by Louise Penny, guided by the insight of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? Obviously, it’s a tale of political intrigue and mystery that should appeal to Penny’s worldwide fan base for her Three Pines mysteries.
Penny says this about working with Clinton: “When it was suggested my friend Hillary and I write a political thriller together, I could not say yes fast enough. What an incredible experience, to get inside the State Department. Inside the White House. Inside the mind of the Secretary of State as high stake crises explode. Before we started, we talked about her time as Secretary of State. What was her worst nightmare? State of Terror is the answer.” Thus, the book was created.

Bewilderment: A Novel, by Richard Powers
Readers and nature lovers are eagerly anticipating Powers’ latest, which arrives on the coattails of his Pulitzer-Prize winning The Overstory: A Novel (2018). Bewilderment already is long-listed for the Booker Prize and is one of the most anticipated books of the year.

The protagonist, a professor of astrobiology, deals with explaining our endangered planet to his nine-year-old son, whom he’s raising alone after the death of his wife. Dig into this marvelous story of experimental neurotherapy and speculation on alien life.

Here’s to a fall and winter of reading, contemplation, and joy.

Personal Stories of Migration and the Transition Experience

By Carole Reedy

Home is where you are …
David Byrne

By definition, migration is moving from one place to another, while transition is the process of changing or developing once you arrive. The books listed here tell the stories of both, spanning the globe from Mexico and India to Russia. Accounts of this type have been written since humans put pen to paper. These, I feel, are particularly significant for readers of The Eye.

Homeland Elegies: A Novel, by Ayad Akhtar (2020)

Although pegged as a novel, the immigration story that weaves through these pages is based on the author’s own experiences and family. Akhtar is an American, and he is also a Muslim. In a very personal manner he tells the story of his family in the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India: the journeys back and forth and the reactions, attitudes, and beliefs of his family, especially his father.

This modern story of Muslims here and abroad contains a most up-to-date analysis of the US in relation to the rest of the world. Most important to me was the flowing narrative, which appears effortless and addresses a variety of emotions, attitudes, and doubts about modern American society, what it was, and what it has become.

Salman Rushdie calls it “passionate, disturbing, and unputdownable.” It is.

On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel, by Tony Cohan (2001)

Of the many novels written about the US transition to life in Mexico, Cohan’s description of building a home in San Miguel de Allende (SMA) resonates perhaps most clearly to those interested in modern migration and transition.

As background: Two of the original pioneers from north of the border wandered to San Miguel over 80 years ago from Chicago. Stirling Dickinson and Heath Bowman together wrote books about their Mexican and South American travel experiences. Eventually they built a house in San Miguel. Bowman left, but Dickinson stayed in SMA until his death in 1988 at age 89. He contributed to the art and culture of the area, living a simple life from his arrival until his death

Tony Cohan and his wife, after visiting central Mexico in 1985, returned home to Los Angeles, sold their home, and journeyed to SMA, where they bought and refurbished at 250-year-old property. On Mexican Time is the story of the joy, tribulations, adjustment, and drama of their migration and transition to life in Mexico relating specifically to the construction experience.

Cohan’s writing is poignant, fluid, and funny. Most important, though, he finds the perfect phrasing and words to gift readers with a description of the qualities needed to integrate into a culture not their own. On Mexican Time has become a travel classic.

After the success of his first book about Mexico, Cohan went on to expand his writing geography to other parts of this diverse country. Mexican Days: Journeys into the Heart of Mexico (2007) explores the old and new Mexico of coastal and mountainous Veracruz, the sights and smells of Oaxaca, the modern and ancient culture of sprawling Mexico City, the Mayan ruins of the Yucatán, and the indigenous culture of Chiapas.

Burnt Shadows: A Novel, by Kamila Shamsie (2009)

The complete and compelling history of this novel’s families spans countries from Japan in 1945 to Delhi and then to the newly created Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is a time of major world-changing and life-changing events, from the bomb in Nagasaki to the partition of India, the creation of Pakistan, and the jihadist movement in Afghanistan.

An ambitious project, to say the least, but Shamsie creates a cast of believable, sympathetic characters whose lives are shaped by tragic world events. Kirkus Reviews praises Shamsie for her “rare combination of skill and sensitively.”

Lost Children Archive: A Novel (2019) and Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017), by Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli is one of the most visible, influential, and credible writers about migration and transition to grace bookstores in the past few years. She has personally lived the migratory life and experienced its many transitions. She was born in Mexico City, but just two years later Luiselli’s family moved to Madison, Wisconsin. From there her father’s work took them to Costa Rica, South Korea, and South Africa. At age 16 she moved back to Mexico City. She has also lived in Spain and France.

Currently, Luiselli lives in the Bronx. Her work as an intern at the United Nations, interviewing and interpreting for Central American child migrants, led to the two books mentioned here.

Tell Me How it Ends is a simple book that relates her day-to-day work as an interpreter for the children from Central America (not Mexico) who have crossed the US border and have been separated from relatives or have crossed unaccompanied. The title comes from questions her own children asked as she related her daily work to them each evening–they wanted to know “how it ends” for the children. This is a stark rendering of the state of US immigration policy, a short and mostly sad story.

Lost Children’s Archive, Luiselli’s fifth novel, is the story of a family on a road trip from New York to Arizona in which the children learn about their father’s obsession with Geronimo and at the same time are exposed to the grim realities of children crossing the border.

Luiselli is an intelligent and creative woman who writes in a variety of styles. One of her most interesting works is the short book The Story of My Teeth (2015). I won’t say more. Try it. I think you will find it quite amusing … and more.

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, by Luis Alberto Urrea (2004)

Readers are in love with Luis Alberto Urrea, who is probably the most popular and important of Mexican-American writers, acknowledged on both sides of the border as one of the most accurate descriptors of the border-crossing experience. Many of his books revolve around the economic struggle of Mexicans and their desire to cross over to the life of riches they perceive will be available to them in the US.

Urrea’s most famous book and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, The Devil’s Highway is the true story of 26 Mexican men who, in May of 2001, crossed the Mexico-US border into the most dangerous of deserts, the 130-mile dirt road in the Sonoran desert called The Devil’s Highway. Published in 2004, the subject remains as fresh in our hearts and minds as it did then.

Urrea investigates and shares the motivations of the various people involved, from the men who attempted the crossing, despite warnings of danger, to the border agents in the US and the coyotes who are paid to be “in the know” about all aspects of the crossing and to lead the men across the deadly terrain.

The Devil’s Highway has been called a must-read in age of migration from south to north, but his novels also give us insight into the Mexican way of life via brilliantly depicted characters and situations, some based on his own family. Urrea has also earned well-deserved kudos for The House of Broken Angels (2018), Queen of America: A Novel (2011), Into the Beautiful North: A Novel (2009), and The Hummingbird’s Daughter: A Novel (2005).

A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir, by Lev Golinkin (2014)
In 1989, the family of the young narrator of this story, which stretches over continents and years, leaves the Soviet Union with three unusual items and little else in tow: a bear, a backpack, and eight crates of vodka.

Told through the eyes of the young son, this memoir begins in Ukraine and ends in the US, with stops in Europe as the family makes its way from repression to freedom. Lev leads a life of confusion, not only about where they’re heading, but of his own identity as a Jew.

The tone at the beginning of this book is amusing and entertaining, but as Lev ages he finds that he needs to address his identity and the people in the past who helped him. His formative years were spent moving and settling, in doubt and even fear. The light touch at the start of the tale becomes heavier as we watch Lev develop into a man.

There are many tales of desperate groups of people seeking refuge and freedom, but Lev’s feelings and his adaptation to a wide variety of circumstances present different challenges. The constellation of emotions evoked in this memoir make it one that will stay with you – it’s also an ideal book for discussion.

The subject of migration and transition has always been with us and will remain a dominant issue for novelists and writers of memoirs for years to come. And, of course, they will provide seductive material for this column.

Women Writers Off the Beaten Path

By Carole Reedy

Not every writer creates a book that achieves best-seller status or wins a literary prize. Glancing over my 2019-2020 list of the books I read, particular authors caught my eye. Not the brilliant and popular Elena Ferrante, Joyce Carol Oates, or Maggie O’Farrell, but equally notable women writing from a variety of places and perspectives. Here are a few of my favorite unique novels, most with woman protagonists off the beaten path.

Magda Szabó: Stunning character development is her trademark

This Hungarian writer died in 2007 at age 90. Although popular in Hungary and parts of Europe, Szabó didn’t gain status in the English-speaking world until the 21st century, when her novel The Door (1987), which centers on a relationship between a prominent writer and her housekeeper, was translated into English by Len Rix (2005). Although The Door was translated for the American market by Stefan Draughon, Rix seems to have a particular talent for translating Szabó. Since that success, his translations of her novels Katalin Street (1969, tr. 2017) and Abigail (1970, tr. 2020) have won several prominent literary awards.

Szabó’s early writing career was interrupted by the repression of the Stalinist era from 1949 to 1956. She was labeled an enemy of the Communist Party because her work did not conform to the social realism it demanded. Her husband, a writer and translator, was also censored.

The four novels translated by Rix are readily available in English now, both in book form and on Kindle. The best known, The Door, was listed in the New York Times Book Review’s Top Ten Books of 2015. Abigail, a story of a young girl who is sent by her father to a girls’ boarding school in Hungary during World War II, is among her more popular books.

Iza’s Ballad (1963, tr. 2016 by George Szirtas) is my personal favorite, the tale of a doctor’s relationship with her mother and the toll that personal and professional obligations take on her life. The primary women characters are not always likeable, but Szabo’s ability to home in on the circumstances and details of their lives makes for a most compelling read. We are given an understanding of the characters from their hidden thoughts as well as their actions, and it’s in this intimacy that Szabó’s talent lies.

Katalin Street also takes place during Hungary’s struggle sunder German occupation in World War II and Stalin’s subsequent Communist regime. It is the story of three families over a period of time in which both the living and the dead tell their tales of happiness and hardship. Again, stunning character development is Szabó’s trademark.

Miriam Toews: Growing up in a Mennonite community

The early years of Toews’ life spent growing up in a Mennonite household provided this author plenty of fuel for writing about women.

Women Talking: A Novel (2018) is based on actual events that took place in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. Nightly attacks by men in the community result in the “women talking” of the title. Simple, while at the same time complex and revealing, this is a short but emotionally charged story.

In an interview with The Guardian, Toews explains her impetus for writing this story: “I felt an obligation, a need, to write about these women. I am related to them. I could easily been one of them.” In fact, Toews, like the Bolivian Mennonites, is descended from the Molotschna colony, a Russian Mennonite settlement in what is now Ukraine.

All My Puny Sorrows (2014) is another novel centered on a Mennonite family, but this time the focus is on one member, a concert pianist, and the people who love her and their attempts to stave off her suicide attempts. Her mother, husband, and dearest of sisters struggle, as does the protagonist, against demons in an attempt to lead normal lives. Toews’ own father and sister both committed suicide within a ten-year period.

Siri Hustvedt: Elaborately structured works

Probably the most diversely accomplished of the women writers mentioned here, Hustvedt received a doctorate from Columbia University in the US, as well as three honorary doctorates from Norway, France, and Germany. Her writing encompasses all the literary arts: essays, short stories, nonfiction, poetry, and six novels. In 2019 she won the prestigious Princess of Asturias Award for Literature.

In addition, Hustvedt’s fascination with psychoanalysis, neurology, and psychiatry has led to a second career as a lecturer on these subjects.

Hustvedt also writes about art, yet another topic on which she’s extremely knowledgeable. The Blazing World (2014) invites us into a world of art in which a woman artist presents her own work not as her own, instead tagging them with the names of men. The novel won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction in and was long-listed for the Booker Prize.
Memories of the Future (2019) is elaborately structured (as are all her books), bringing together a diverse set of themes that permeate our lives: memory, perception, and sensation. I especially warmed to the beginning, which describes the dismally fractured life of a young writer in New York City.

Hustvedt and her author-husband Paul Auster, along with their singer-songwriter daughter Sophie Auster, gathered members of the literary community including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, and Russell Banks to form the group Writers Against Trump to oppose “the racist, destructive, incompetent, corrupt, and fascist regime of Donald Trump, and to give our language, thought, and time to his defeat in November.” The group still meets in a continuing effort to protect the country’s democracy.

C.M. Mayo: A fine blend of Mexican and American

Mayo’s Mexican husband smiles when he notes that she was just five miles from being born Mexican. She was indeed born in El Paso, Texas, in the US, just a hop, skip, and jump from the Mexican border. And she’s lived in Mexico City for many years with this same husband.

Mayo has a wealth of writing to share with us. She has written poetry, essays, novels, and has a delightful blog featuring all types of extraneous writing. Her website is a trove of surprises, all warming a reader’s heart and all about Mexico. While the offerings are geared toward English speakers, both Mayo and her writing are a fine blend of Mexican and American.

Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (2006) is the place to start. This is a compilation of 24 pieces of fiction and prose by Mexican writers, many translated for the first time. Filled with the jewels of Carlos Fuentes, Juan Villoro, and Laura Esquivel, it is organized according to sections of the country. The Los Angeles Times tells it’s a book we should “throw in a suitcase or mochila (backpack) on your way to Mexico or just settling into a favorite patio chair. It will open your eyes, fill you with pleasure and render our perennial vecinos a little less distante.”

The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire was named the Library Journal’s Best Book of 2009. Indeed, it’s an exhaustively researched novel based on the fascinating story of a little-known adopted son of Maximilian, the archduke of Austria, during his short reign as Emperor of Mexico in 1864.

In another vein, Mayo gives us Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico (2002). Her exploration of the thousand-mile peninsula is filled with beauty and reflection on this most-separate Mexican entity, about which John Steinbeck said, “The very air here is miraculous.”

Garnett Kilberg Cohen: Characters you wish you had known

Cohen hails from my hometown of Chicago and her work was recommended to me by a friend, to whom I’m grateful. Kilberg Cohen is the recipient of multiple literary awards and is a professor of creative writing at Columbia College, Chicago.

The most popular of her works is a book of short stories called Swarm to Glory (2014). Several of the stories have appeared in publications throughout the US. Kilberg Cohen populates these small gems with characters you wish you had known while simultaneously relating simply and directly an utterly complex idea: the something we are looking for in our lives.

How We Move the Air (2010) is a short novel made up of the recollections of seven friends (each with his/her own chapter) who recall the suicide of a dear friend. It is filled with extreme emotion and insights into what and how we remember.

This may be just the time to try some new books and authors, because really … what else do we have but time?

A Year of Reading: Ten New Books for Post-Pandemic 2021

By Carole Reedy

Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest. …Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity.
— Hermann Hesse

We’re reading now more than ever, and not just because of the pandemic. A new Gallup Poll indicates that more Americans went to libraries in pre-pandemic 2019 than to the movies; 2020 has also revealed a return of readers to independent bookshops.

If you’re already pondering books for 2021, there are numerous new titles from which to choose. Here I present ten I think The Eye audience will want to read (based on your past most-welcome comments). May each of the following new books, by many of our favorite old authors, brighten spirits that perhaps have been dimmed by life during a pandemic.

Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, by Simon Winchester (2021)

A new book by British/American author Simon Winchester cannot go unnoticed. He’s given us many hours not only of enjoyment, but also of pertinenent and often hidden information and analysis about our world, present and past. His two books about creating, of all things, a massive dictionary (The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary [2005] and The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary [2004]) are truly, believe it or not, compelling reading that will keep you on the edge of your seat. With his in-depth research, Winchester has created a plethora of books on various subjects, including the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Krakatoa, and Calcutta. This newest book, Land, explores a subject dear to the hearts of humans, past and present: ownership and property, its history and our future.

Double Blind: A Novel, by Edward St. Aubyn (Anticipated March [U.K.], June [U.S.] 2021)

I think the author Anne Enright says it best when she describes St. Aubyn’s writings: “Everything St. Aubyn writes is worth reading for the cleansing rancor of his intelligence and the fierce elegance of his prose.” Certainly, we saw that in the Patrick Melrose novels/series that he wrote few years back. Art, science, and philosophy are interwoven with psychoanalysis, ecology, love, fear, and all that is human in this new novel, which follows three friends for a year in London, Cap d’Antibes, Oxford, and Big Sur. St. Aubyn’s ability to be blunt yet delicately introspective makes this author one of the most respected and admired in Britain and the world.

Philip Roth: The Biography, by Blake Bailey (Anticipated April 2021)

With an emphasis on “The,” this has been a book years in the making. Bailey was given complete and independent access to Roth’s archives and was actually appointed by Roth, before his death, as his official biographer, so this is the book to read for fans of one of America’s greatest chroniclers. It will always be a bone of contention among those of us who idolize Roth that he never was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Letters to Camondo, by Edmund de Waal (Anticipated April [U.K.], May [U.S.] 2021)

The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (2010) was a memoir that elicited extreme emotions, either love or strong dislike, in response to style and content. It was, for me at least, a fascinating depiction of the decline and fall of the Ephrussi family dynasty in the banking empires of Europe, specifically Paris, Vienna, and Odessa. It also delights with a side story about netsuke, tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings. This newest by de Waal spins a similar tale in a different style, this time a Jewish banker and art collector who loses his family in the Holocaust. This “memoir” is a series of 50 imaginary letters that the author writes to Moise de Camondo after he’s invited to make an exhibition of his well-regarded ceramics at the Camondo mansion.

Whereabouts: A Novel, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Anticipated May 2021)

Several years ago, Lahiri decided to learn the Italian language not only for her lifestyle (she relocated her family to Rome in 2011), but also for the voice in her books. This new novel was written in Italian and translated into English. Well-known for her award-winning book of short selections Interpreter of Maladies: Stories (1999) and for the novel (and movie) The Namesake (2003, 2019 [2 ed.]), Lahiri is the recipient of many literary prizes, including the Pulitzer. Whereabouts is her first book in a decade. It will be most interesting to analyze the difference between this novel, written originally in Italian, and those that emerged from her English tongue.

Should We Stay or Should We Go: A Novel, by Lionel Shriver (Anticipated May 2021)

The Queen of Sarcasm is the way I think of this witty, spot-on observer of modern-day life in our confused world. In each of her novels Shriver dissects a new fad, lifestyle, and even the tragedies that permeate our 21st century lives. This latest novel looks at old age and the attitudes toward and self-realization of our older population. Always humorous, yet serious, and clever, yet practical, Shriver weaves her stories with silk thread. Although she is known for her award-winning novel (also a movie) We Need to Talk about Kevin: A Novel (2003), her other novels equal and even surpass that honor, among them So Much for That: A Novel (2010 – my personal favorite), Big Brother: A Novel (2013), The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 (2016), and Property: Stories between Two Novellas (2018).

Light Perpetual: A Novel, by Francis Spufford (Anticipated May 2021)

Although I’m utterly unfamiliar with this writer, my interest sparked when I read the style of this newest compared to Kate’s Atkinson’s Life After Life: A Novel (2013) and Paul Auster’s 4321: A Novel (2017), both using the parallel-lives device, which can be so effective for writers and readers alike. The novel creates stories for five working-class children in England in a moment best described as “what if they hadn’t died from a bomb that hit a Woolworth’s shop in 1944, killing 168 people instantly.” It also gives us a glimpse of and new perspective on London and England in the 40s and beyond. Spufford’s first book, Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York (2016), was well-received by critics and won the Costa Award for best first novel. Spufford hopes that this book “has the fascination of following out strands in the lives where everything makes sense when you look backwards, but you are constantly surprised going forwards.”

Harlem Shuffle: A Novel, by Colson Whitehead (Anticipated September 2021)

A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (2017, 2020), Harvard-educated Whitehead has left quite an impression on our planet. With this, his eighth novel, a crime story, he takes us to the world of Harlem in the 1960s. It’s a novel he conceived some time ago, but has just completed, in bits and pieces, during the COVID quarantine period this past year. We know Whitehead for his fiction, specifically The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys: A Novel (2019), but his larger career is impressive and diverse. Not only does he write works of fiction and non-fiction, but he has written for the most notable of newspapers and magazines, taught at Princeton University, been a writer-in-residence at Vassar, and received the MacArthur Fellowship (aka the “Genius Grant”).

Crossroads, A Novel (“A Key to All Mythologies,” Book 1), by Jonathan Franzen (Anticipated October 2021)

In my world, this is the literary announcement of the year. In his first book in six years (since Purity: A Novel, in 2015), Franzen has written not one, but three new novels, a trilogy to anticipate over the next several years. Chicago 1971 is the setting and the romp will carry us along with the Hildebrandt family as they “navigate the political, intellectual and social cross-currents of the past 50 years.” Franzen, a passionate birder, outspoken critic of social media, and the leading novelist of his generation, is gifting us, according to his publisher, “a tour-de-force of interwoven perspectives and sustained suspense.” If this is correct, I, for one, cannot wait!

Something to Hide, by Elizabeth George (Anticipated October 2021)

Are you a devoted fan of the Lynley detective series? If so, this is book 21, and I’m sure you’ve read the previous 20, as have I. Others may have watched the PBS television series created from the books. I’ve refused to watch it given what I view as the abhorrent misrepresentation of the character Detective Barbara Havers, one of the brilliant creations of Elizabeth George in the book series. You’ll have to wait until October to find out what snags Barbara creates while honing her fine detective skills under the direction, and often to the distress, of Inspector Lynley.

And thus we move in 2021, led and encouraged by our favorite authors and new artists on the horizon.

Year of the Ox: Read a Chinese Tale to Celebrate

By Carole Reedy

What better way to start the new year than by discovering writers from across the Pacific? Novels by Chinese writers seem to get short shrift in the review sections of our modern media, and I confess to ignoring the grand culture of the Chinese in my own reading. As a result, I did some research and sought advice from a friend who is knowledgeable about all things Chinese, has lived and taught in the countryside of China, and is an avid reader of both Chinese fiction and nonfiction.

Here are several selections you might enjoy, based on your responses to the previous recommendations in this monthly column.

Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu (2020)
Two months ago, Taiwanese-American writer Charles Yu walked away with the National Book Award for Fiction 2020 for his second novel, Interior Chinatown. Yu also has experience in screenplay writing (HBO’s Westworld series and other notable features), evident in the structure of this prize-winning novel that tells the story of aspiring actor Willis Wu.
Within seconds of the announcement of the National Book Award winner, avid readers were scrambling to enter their names in their library waitlist, yours truly included. I was most impressed to read that Yu is a fan of Philip Roth and claims to have read more of Roth’s novels those of any other contemporary writer, definitely a plus in my book! Wu’s first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010) received kudos and awards, as have many of his short stories.

The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck (1931)

Probably the best-known and universally respected novel from China is The Good Earth, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1932. Buck, the daughter of missionaries, lived many decades in Zhenjiang before returning to the US in 1934. In 1938 she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and The Good Earth is now considered a classic.

Set in China at the beginning of the 20th century, this is the story of a farmer and wife caught in the web of history before the Revolution. Through their story Buck gives us a peek into the history and culture of the era, as well as into the emotions and desires of its people. One reader assures us that “the book has a contemporary feel despite being written nearly 80 years ago.”

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up, by Liao Yiwu (English edition 2009)

A public toiletries manager, a leper, a grave robber, and a professional mourner, among others, are the subjects of the 27 interviewees of China’s forgotten population. Each vignette ranges from 15 to 20 pages. The research took the author 11 years, and attention from the Chinese censors followed, of course. The book has received rave reviews, with the San Francisco Chronicle claiming “Reading The Corpse Walker is like walking with Liao. Even though our feet are not blistered and our bodies are not starved, in the end we are shaken and moved.”

Red Sorghum: A Novel of China, by Mo Yan (English edition 1993)

Mo Yan, which literally means “don’t speak,” is the pen name of Guan Moye, a man who has won almost every Chinese literary prize as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature (2012).

Perhaps the best way to describe this book’s tone is in the writer’s dedication. “With this book I respectfully invoke the heroic, aggrieved souls wandering in the boundless bright red sorghum fields of my hometown. As your filial son, I am prepared to carve out my heart, marinate it in soy sauce, have it minced and placed in three bowls, and lay it out as an offering in a field of sorghum. Partake of it in good health!”

The book’s structure is a series of flashbacks spanning three generations (it seems many Chinese family sagas take place over three generations), taking the reader through the turbulent times between 1923 and 1976 both inside and outside China.

Amy Tan, brilliant and popular Chinese-American writer, praised Mo Yan: “Having read Red Sorghum, I believe Mo Yan deserves a place in world literature. His imagery is astounding, sensual and visceral. His story is electrifying and epic. I was amazed from the first page. It is unlike anything I’ve read coming out of China in past or recent times. I am convinced this book will successfully leap over the international boundaries that many translated works face. … This is an important work for an important writer.”

The 1987 Chinese film, Red Sorghum, based on the book, received much recognition, including the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1988.

The Novels of Amy Tan

The observation from Amy Tan above brings to mind her several novels about Chinese-Americans, especially the relationships between mothers and daughters. Tan was born in the US, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. The conflict among the young new Americans and their Chinese heritage is a constant underlying element in her stories.

The first of Tan’s successful novels was The Joy Luck Club (1989), followed by several others, all receiving the kudos they deserve. The Bone Setter’s Daughter (2003) was even made into an opera that had its debut in 2008 at the San Francisco Opera.

An interesting note about Tan – she was a member of a charity garage band called “Rock Bottom Remainders” (remainders being an author’s unsold books that are then “remaindered,” or made available at reduced prices). She served the group as the lead rhythm “dominatrix” backup singer and second tambourine. The rest of the group was made up of renowned authors, including, among others, Dave Barry, Stephen King, Mitch Albom, Barbara Kingsolver, and Scott Turow, along with some actual professional musicians. Their yearly gigs raised over a million dollars for literary programs. The group disbanded in 2012 following the death of their founder, Kathy Kamen Goldmark.

Although Tan’s fans love all her books, The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) and Saving Fish from Drowning (2005) are among my favorites. When asked her favorite books, the following were on Tan’s list: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, and the Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.

Death of A Red Heroine, by Qiu Xiaolong (English edition, 2000)
Everyone loves a mystery! Here’s another inspector to add to your collections from Sicily, the Dordogne region of France, London, Scandinavia, or Scotland.

Death of a Red Heroine is the first in a series starring Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police. The true value of favorite mystery novels lies in the opportunity to steal a glimpse of life into each country. Here it’s the People’s Republic of China. Each book in the series tackles a different political and economic situation, making the novels intellectually stimulating as well as enjoyable.

Qiu’s just-published latest offering, called Hold Your Breath, will be of special interest at this time as it takes place in the midst of the pandemic in Wuhan.

Iron & Silk, by Mark Salzman (1986)
Renaissance man (writer, artist, cellist) Mark Salzman famously has pursued several careers in his 60 years. In addition to an impressive resume that includes graduating from Yale University summa cum laude, receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, and being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, he is described by friends as “a cool and kind person.”

Aside from academics and writing, he makes time to play the cello. In 1996, he performed as guest cellist with YoYo Ma, pianist Emmanuel Ax, and others at Alice Tully Hall for the 20th anniversary performance of Live from Lincoln Center. If fact, one of his novels, The Soloist (1995) is about this passion.

His connection to China? He always had a passion for China, even as a boy when he chose to walk barefoot to school, to the amazement of the other boys. In the early 1980s, Salzman taught English at Hunan Medical School, where he also studied martial arts. Iron & Silk bore on its cover the descriptive subtitle “A young American encounters swordsman, bureaucrats and other citizens of contemporary China”; it garnered several literary awards and was made into a film for which Salzman not only wrote the screenplay and but starred as himself.

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, by Jung Chang (2019)
The Soong sisters have to be the most famous sisters in China, ever. This triple biography is their story, which traverses China and the US. The three daughters were born between 1888 and 1898 of a Methodist preacher turned Shanghai entrepreneur, Charlie Soong, and their mother Ni Kwei-tseng, whose own mother, Lady Xu, was a descendant of the Ming Dynasty. They were the first Chinese girls to attend university in the US.

When the three returned to China in 1909 they found themselves in the middle of a revolution in which they became wholeheartedly involved, although they ended up on different sides. To sum up their adventure: Chingling marries Sun Yat Sen, Mayling ends up with Chiang Kai Shek, and Ei-ling becomes an advisor to Chiang, making herself one of the richest women in China. They became the most powerful women in China, never to be forgotten.

The Washington Times sees the greatest value in the book as a stepping-stone for Westerners to understand this era: “The complicated history of China during this period is little-known to most Westerners, so this readable book helps fill a gap. By hooking it onto personalities, Jung Chang has been able to chart a comprehensible way through these decades and an immense mass of information that could otherwise be difficult to digest.”

On top of that, The New York Times calls it a “riveting read.” My Chinese-expert friend also is enthusiastic about this particular book.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang (1991)

This three-generation family history, which culminates in Jung Chang’s own autobiography, received rave reviews and is listed as one of Amazon’s most read books.

Simply put, it is the story of Mao’s impact on China from a woman’s point of view. Chang shares with us the extraordinary lives of her family members: her grandmother, a warlord’s concubine; her mother’s struggles as a young idealistic Communist, her parents’ experience as members of the Communist elite, and their ordeal during the Cultural Revolution; Chang herself was a Red Guard briefly at the age of fourteen, then worked as a peasant, a “barefoot doctor,” a steelworker, and an electrician. At an early age she took a shine to reading and writing. Once again, a story of three generations!

This book sold over 10 million copies worldwide, but is banned in the People’s Republic of China. Along with her husband, Irish historian Jon Halliday, Chang has also written an 880-plus page biography on Mao Zedong, Mao: The Unknown Story (2005). Chang now lives in London, although she has said “I feel perhaps my heart is still in China.”

For me, and perhaps for you, there is a hesitation to read novels from regions we know relatively little about, perhaps for fear of not relating to or understanding the characters and their motives. The books above are among the best in their category and I believe can help open our hearts and minds to the unknown.

My Favorite Reads of This 2020 Pandemic Year

By Carole Reedy

One advantage of the pandemic is the illusion – or is it an illusion? – of excess time. With limited lunch dates, relaxed shopping, and evenings out, perhaps there actually are more hours in the day for reading.

In my wayward hours when I’m not actually reading, I’ve been pondering writing and reading and how it all comes together.

What makes a book? Start with a room, a desk, paper, and pen. Add a key ingredient, the human imagination. It all seems quite simple. In this day, most writers substitute a computer for pen and paper, but some of our favorite authors, such as Woody Allen and Paul Auster, still use a manual typewriter (Woody an old Olympic) after scribbling notes on whatever scrap of paper is available when an idea sparks.

But arriving at the finished product remains a mystery to those of us who admire the resulting work of the icons of art. Whether it’s War and Peace, the Mona Lisa, or the Moonlight Sonata, it’s the creator’s imagination that creates our universe.

The novels I read this year, which span the globe and the centuries, will permeate my life forever. Perhaps you’ll experience a similar feeling upon discovering these gems of literature.

History of the Rain, This Is Happiness, and The Fall of Light, all by Niall Williams

What took me so long to discover this ethereal writer who has been creating novels for more than 20 years? Several months ago a close friend and avid reader insisted I read History of the Rain (2014) “Because it’s all about reading, Carole.”

Williams’ novels take place for the most part in western Ireland and are written with the gentle lilt of speech and style accompanying the spirit of the Irish heritage the world so envies. It became apparent to me as I read these masterpieces that a mixture of charm and intensity permeates the landscape of the characters and setting. I’m not a fan of the magical realism so prevalent in Latin American writers, but here within the ambiance of the Emerald Isle it more than works for me

The three books differ in plot, but brilliantly depicted characterizations and sublime settings remain a staple of the structure. I would recommend the finely crafted History of the Rain as your first read. The Fall of Light (2001) is a lengthy satisfying saga of the Foley family in 19th-century Ireland and other environs. This is Happiness (2019) centers around the remote town of Faha in the 1970s and the struggle over so-called progress.

Williams takes me to another axis. One observant reader sums it up: “Niall Williams writes like one who has seen the face of God.” Move over, Proust, you have met your match!

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (2020)

A Glaswegian friend advises me that the first name is pronounced with the “u” as in “jug.” Shuggie is a loving nickname for Hugh, the young protagonist, named for his father. The time period is that of the moral destruction resulting from the policies set forth by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s: miners out of work, everyone on the dole, hope lost. Be forewarned: there are few happy moments in the book, although tender emotions are hidden among the travesties.

Stuart, a native of Glasgow who now lives in New York City, didn’t set out to write a book. He merely started putting his thoughts and experiences on paper. It turns out he wrote a best-selling novel that has just won the 2020 Booker Prize (it was also a finalist in the National Book Award for fiction).

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

Maggie O’Farrell’s remarkable skill is her ability to create a variety of characters, changing tones and plots, each novel vastly different from her others.

Hamnet, her latest, is the story of William Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son (Hamnet is a variation of the name Hamlet) who dies in the plague of the 1590s. Although little is known about the life of Shakespeare or his family, Maggie O’Farrell has woven a world in which Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife, is the protagonist.

Good writing for me falls into two categories: books that are written so well that you can’t put the them down and books that are written so well that you intentionally put them down in order to slowly savor them. Hamnet falls into the second category. It is a mesmerizing read.

The pace is set by the thoughtful, resourceful wife instead of by her frenzied husband. A friend writes, “I liked so much that Maggie O’Farrell reclaimed Agnes as one who had her own worthy life.”

I am most disturbed that O’Farrell’s novel was not present on the Booker Prize short list. Who knows what politics drive these awards?

Flights and Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, both by Olga Tokarczuk

These two novels by the Polish-born winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature make it difficult to categorize the works of this intense and unusual author. I saw this charming woman interviewed at the Hay Festival this year and was quite surprised and pleased to see such a light-hearted, amusing person since her novels reflect a more serious and daring nature. It must be that dichotomy that factors into the unusual ambiance she creates.

The title Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2009) is enough to perk up the attention of any avid reader. This is a novel of a mysterious nature with colorful characters and a riveting plot.

The novel Flights (2018), on the other hand, is structurally more free-flowing and even more philosophically intense and satisfying. Based on thoughts of movement, the uniqueness of every moment and risk-taking, the numerous short vignettes solidify and flow to create the novel, a well-deserved and winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize International Prize (shared with Jennifer Croft, her translator).

The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes (2019)

Any book by Barnes always makes my best-books list. Barnes’s writing is consistently engaging, and the themes of his novels are diverse. Here’s a new twist. The man in the red coat is a gynecologist from 19th-century France who is part of the Belle Époque society crowd. Enough to capture your attention? As many of you know, Barnes is an utter Francophile, and his knowledge of everything French captures the interest of even those who have never visited the European continent.

The physical book is a joy to behold (making it an excellent Christmas gift or a special treat for you in these times of pandemic) with its high-quality paper and large size, as well as beautiful color photos of all the engaging characters of the era.

Leave the World Behind: A Novel by Rumaan Alam (2020)

“Awestruck” is the only word I can find to define this short novel. I started reading one afternoon, went reluctantly to sleep at 11:30 pm, only to awaken a few hours later with the characters invading my disturbed sleep. I heeded their message and stayed up to finish their story.

Concurrent feelings of certainty and uncertainty dominate the characters’ actions and emotions. This is the story of two families caught up together during an apocalyptic event in New York. Alam’s fast-paced framework for the disaster and the reactions of the various people involved makes for disturbed but exciting reading. Leave the World Behind was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Awards.

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal (2010)

This memoir of the European/Jewish banking Ephrussi family, originally from the Ukraine, kept popping up from time to time in discussions with varying opinions of its worth. Essentially there are those who love it and those who are utterly bored by it. I finally bought a copy and found myself in the first camp. The descriptions of Paris and Vienna are riveting, significant, and timely in our world today.

De Waal introduces us to his uncle’s collection of netsukes (miniature sculptures from 17th-century Japan) that follow the family and lead us through the journey of success and destruction of this once-prominent family.

The Pull of the Stars: A Novel by Emma Donoghue (2020)

Here’s another work I read in two long sittings for the simple reason that the theme, the influenza pandemic of 1918, is close to our hearts and minds these days.

Most of the story takes place in a cramped storage room that has been converted into the maternity/influenza ward in Dublin. Donoghue’s story is simple and intense, involving just a few female characters to engage us in a world rife with uncertainty, pain, and hope.

A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin (2014)

The title implies a light-natured, entertaining tale. It starts out thus, but midway through the tone becomes darker, revealing the effects in his later life of the protagonist’s youth. This is a memoir of hardship and prejudice against a Jewish family in the Ukraine and their subsequent lengthy journey and eventual re-settlement in the US.

The skillfully written memoir makes for another page-turner.

So, dear readers, here’s to 2021 and the inspiration that the pandemic may bring to new and old authors alike!

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!