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It Was A Very Good Year: Best Reads of 2022

By Carole Reedy

The incomparable Maria Callas said once of an opera, “An opera … becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I have left the opera house.”

I would use the same words to describe the way I feel about the books I read this year – each is unique in style, structure, and content. All of them enrapture and engage, while giving us food for thought long after we’ve finished reading. They are lush and contain all we hope for in a reading experience.

To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara
After turning the last page of this book in March, I knew it would be my top read of 2022. As with her earlier masterpiece, A Little Life (2015), Yanagihara dissects and analyzes while elaborating on the world she creates for the reader.

Yanagihara’s newest story is divided into three parts set a century apart. The first part starts in 19th century New York City, but not the New York we think we know. Yanagihara has designed a new entity out of the territories of the US following the Civil War. As a result, life is very different.

A century later, we are taken to Hawaii, and then a century after that to a new dimension. Although this is a lengthy book, you won’t need a list of characters or a family tree before you begin. As the flow and tension of the writing consumes you, the characters become evident in their placement in history.

Great Circle: A Novel, by Maggie Shipstead
I heard about this book through my book grapevine, which includes readers of all ages and backgrounds. Published in 2021, here’s a book that is widely admired and loved. And little wonder. The two stories at the center, one present day and the other 50 years earlier, are centered around strong women characters.

The current-day heroine is an actress, the counter heroine an airplane pilot. Their lives parallel in many ways, and the juxtaposition makes for a compelling, enjoyable, and even educational read.

The Marriage Portrait: A Novel, by Maggie O’Farrell
This historical novel arrives with great anticipation on the coattails of O’Farrell’s beautifully rendered Hamnet (2020) and it is a worthy successor. In The Marriage Portrait we live and empathize with the 16-year-old Lucrezia de Medici who lives her life in the lush Italian Renaissance world with all its conventions and excesses.

O’Farrell’s novel is said to have been inspired by the Robert Browning poem “My Last Duchess,” just as the author’s previous novel was based on the life of Shakespeare and his play Hamlet. O’Farrell relies on poetic justice to weave the intricacies of this story and period with a flair and sensitivity rarely found in historical novels.

Lessons: A Novel, by Ian McEwan
For me, this is McEwen’s magnum opus. In his lifetime’s worth of novels he has blessed us with a constellation of style, length, and personages. This surprisingly lengthy (449 pages) novel simply follows the story of a man across all the upheavals of time and history.

Through the characters we experience decades of disruption and tragedies brought about by war and man’s flaws. It is beautifully rendered and said to be quasi-autobiographic.

Young Mungo, by Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain, the young boy in the novel of the same name (2020), was the creation of Douglas Stuart based on his own life. There are few writers who can so adeptly transport us to an alien world and also break our hearts. In this book, Stuart generates an empathy rarely experienced by readers. I felt it a privilege to be taken into Shuggie’s sphere and life in 20th century Scotland.

This second novel is equally worthy. Here the teenage Mungo suffers the trials of poverty and being different in a society struggling with religious conflict. Once again, Stuart’s lyricism captures the essence of this world and brings it clearly into our hearts and minds.

Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott
While awaiting the world to return to normal as the calendar changed from 2021 to 2022, I read this novel by an author I didn’t know, but I knew immediately it would be on this list at the end of the year.

We book enthusiasts love to read about books, publishing, and even the whirlwind author tours. While telling this story, the author takes us on a double journey, with the writer/protagonist performing the tasks expected of his publisher, but also tackling the ghosts of his past.

Watt deservingly won the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction for this most engaging novel.

Babysitter: A Novel, by Joyce Carol Oates
This is the Joyce Carol Oates I love, a novel reminiscent of her 70s masterpieces. It is frightening in its spot-on depiction of a rich suburban housewife and her emotionally charged, rash decisions. Every fiber in your body wants to shout “Don’t do that!”

A supporting sub story tells of another suburban nightmare: the threat of a serial killer in the midst of a closed, pristine community. As always, Oates tightly knits the daily chaos of our modern world into a compelling story, a talent she’s mastered over the years.

Oates has been writing for more than 50 years and has produced more than 100 written works, from short stories and essays to many of our favorite novels. Her early novels – Them (1969), A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), Expensive People (1968) – and a couple of decades later, We Were the Mulvaneys (1996) and Blonde (2000) have assured her a prominent place in the history of American literature.

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Alan Hochschild
Published in 1998, this is the sole nonfiction book to make my list. To me, it reads like a novel in its detailed plot and character development.

The story is told through main characters who are involved in the corruption and dismantling of the Congo by imperialist Europeans in the late 19th century. It is probably one of the most disturbing books I have read, depicting the greed and divisiveness of white men in their attempts to protect the status quo and their white empires. King Leopold II of Belgium desired exceedingly to head an empire, and the jealousy he feels toward his counterparts and cousins in other European countries who had their own empires leads him to take over the Congo, depleting the area of its valued ivory and rubber, making the rich even richer and the poor dead.

Alan Hochschild also has described the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War in his recent well-regarded book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (2017). He depicts the Americans who traveled to Spain to participate as freedom fighters against the dictator Franco. Both books are fine examples of how fact and history can entertain as well as educate.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh
This author’s name seemed to come out of nowhere, and now you see it everywhere. Justifiably, the waitlist is lengthy at the Chicago Public Library to obtain any of her novels, including her book of short stories, Homesick for Another World (2017). Moshfegh’s attraction is her style, which I would describe as “patient.” In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, published in 2018, as in her novels Death in Her Hands (2020) and Eileen: A Novel (2015), the protagonist’s dilemma is resolved only after a careful and thorough rendering of the situation.

This book isn’t quite as easy-going as the title suggests, and the approach is even more complicated. What appears simple is complex, as the writer takes us slowly through each step of the protagonist’s recovery.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a name to remember. She’s an American of Croatian and Persian descent. I am sure we will see more of her work in the future.

Trust, by Hernan Diaz
As I wrote this entry, I coincidentally received the news that Trust had won the Kirkus Prize for Fiction for 2022 (Kirkus is a commercial book review service that covers an enormous range and number of books).

Trust comprises four manuscripts, in varying states of completion, that explore the capacity of money “to bend and align reality.” There is a novel-within-a-novel about a Wall Street tycoon who benefited from the 1929 stock market crash and his wife, who ended up mentally ill in a Swiss sanitarium; the partial memoir of a second Wall Street tycoon; scraps of some diaries by the wife of this second tycoon; and a long memoir by the ostensible ghost writer of the second tycoon’s memoir. Kirkus recognition is often heavy on plot, short on praise, and never gushes. Here’s what they say about Trust:

“The novel overall feels complex but never convoluted, focused throughout on the dissatisfactions of wealth and the suppression of information for the sake of keeping up appearances. No one document tells the whole story, but the collection of palimpsests makes for a thrilling experience and a testament to the power and danger of the truth—or a version of it—when it’s set down in print. A clever and affecting high-concept novel of high finance.”

The four-part novel is clever but not manipulative. And it is thoroughly enjoyable.

Now, on to another year and the anticipation of new books. What joy!

Writing in Mexico:
Female Authors, Fantasy, and Femicide

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Last month, the New York Times profiled a “new vanguard” among the women writers of Latin America (October 9, 2022, “For Latin American Women, Horror and Fantasy Capture Everyday Struggle”). Make no mistake, though, book critic Benjamin P. Russell, warns – the fantasy he’s talking about is not the magical realism we have known and loved from Columbian Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967), Chilean Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits, 1982) or Mexico’s own Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate, 1990).

Magical realism integrates the magical or supernatural into a realistic setting (although you can easily argue that the magic overtakes the real in Like Water for Chocolate!). The magical elements serve to comment on how the real world works – often very badly. In Like Water for Chocolate, Tita falls in love at first sight with Pedro; however, Tita is her mother’s youngest child, and is expected to stay single and care for her mother until she dies. Mom makes Pedro marry Tita’s sister. Esquivel uses Tita’s magical ability to incorporate her emotions into the food she cooks to comment on the injustice of her loneliness. While magical realism can include death and destruction, the very fact that it combines magic and realism, that it makes the magic “real,” means that it does not lend itself well to depicting true horror and evil.

From the Magic to the Unusual

But there are women writers who have no qualms at taking on true horror and evil. Russell points out that a “conspicuous number of women writers are using fantasy, horror and the unfamiliar to unsettle readers and critique social ills” throughout Latin America, with half a dozen authors from Mexico. The critic finds the trend unsurprising, given the widespread “frustration against restrictions on women’s rights and rising gender violence.”

Russell quotes the work of literature professor Carmen Alemany Bay, from the University of Alicante in Spain, in defining this work as the “narrative of the unusual” (narrativa de lo inusual). Fantastical and horrific elements are presented realistically, Bay says, but leave the reader to decide “what is possible and what is not.” Calling these novels magical realism is “a big, big mistake,” she says. “They may contain elements of magic, but that isn’t the foundation.”

For the most part, evil is possible in the narrative of the unusual. And what is more evil than femicide, the killing of women because they are women? Half of all femicides happen in Latin American countries; homicide is the leading cause of death for Mexican women aged 15-25. In absolute numbers for 2020, Mexico ranked second with 948; Brazil was nearly double, with 1,738. (The Eye has regularly covered domestic violence and femicide in Mexico.)

Among the female Mexican authors of novels of the “unusual” are two who have directly addressed femicide, violence against women, and systematic abuse and discrimination. Their themes are remarkably similar, the integration of what is fantasy and what is reality is seamless, and they both have a talent for depicting their settings and characters in extraordinary language redolent of place and time. For your reading pleasure, each has been rendered in English by remarkably skilled translators.

Brenda Lozana: Witches (2022)

Brenda Lozana, born in Mexico City in 1981, was recognized in 2015 by Mexico’s National Council on Culture and the Arts (Conaculta), the annual Hay Festival of Literature & Arts (held at Hay-on-Wye in Wales), and the cultural promotion organization the British Council as one of Mexico’s most important authors under the age of 40. By 2017, she made the Hay Festival’s list Bogotá 39, the most important new authors from Latin America.

Her novel Witches, translated by Heather Cleary, is really two intersecting stories – that of Feliciana, a curandera (healer) modeled on María Sabina, the Mazatec traditional healer and shaman from Huatla de Jiménez in the Sierra Occidental in northern Oaxaca, and Zoe, a Mexico City journalist who has come calling to report on the death of Feliciana’s mentor and cousin, Paloma. Paloma is a muxe, a man who takes on the appearance and obligations of a woman; referred to as the third gender, they are widely accepted in Zapotec culture, especially in the Isthmus. Paloma, originally a curandero named Gaspar, has transferred to Feliciana the family’s healing abilities, in particular healing through the use of language. The healing power, however, is usually handed from male to male, leaving Feliciana – like Paloma – in an ambiguously gendered position.

Since neither Feliciana nor Zoe speaks the other’s language, the story proceeds in two different voices. Here is what Feliciana sounds like:

It was six at night when Guadalupe came to tell me they had killed Paloma. I don’t remember times or dates, I don’t know when I was born because I was born like mountain was, go ask the mountain when it was born, but I know it was six at night when Guadalupe came to say they killed Paloma as she was getting ready to go out, I saw her there in her room, I saw her body on the floor and the shine for her eyes on her fingers and I saw her hands they were two in the mirror and the shine was on both like she had just put it on her eyes, like she could get up and put some on mine.

Zoe, of course, sounds completely different:

I agreed to write the article about Paloma’s murder because gender-based violence sends me into a rage. I couldn’t take the unending stream of news stores about femicide, rape, and abuse anymore—or the sexist jokes I’d hear around the office, for that matter. Any situation or remark that targeted a woman or someone who identified as one would set me off, and I wanted to do whatever I could from the trench I’d dug at the newsroom. Plus, I wanted to meet Feliciana. I was fascinated by her. When I took the assignment, I didn’t know any more about her than anyone else did: I new she was the legendary curandera of the Language and the most famous shaman alive. I knew that the words she used in her veladas, the ceremonies she performed, had miraculous healing powers, and I knew the stories about the artists, writers, directors, and musicians who’d traveled halfway around the world to meet her. The professors and linguists from other countries who’d gone to see her in the mountains of San Felipe. I knew that books, films, songs and paintings had come out of these visits—I didn’t know exactly which ones, but I knew they existed. I received a photo of Paloma lying on the ground in a pool of blood next to a bed draped with a peacock throw.

Together, Feliciana and Zoe tell each other their stories, their worries and fears, their traumas with violence against women, their desires for independence.

Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season (2020)

Fernanda Melchor, born in Veracruz city in 1982, was, like Lozano, named one of the most important Mexican authors under 40 in 2015. Hurricane Season won the Anna Seghers literary prize and the International Literature Award of the Haus de Culturen (both given by Germany), and was short-listed for the International Booker Prize in 2020.

Hurricane Season tells of the murder of the Witch of a tiny, cinder-block town called La Matosa, outside the city of Villagarbosa (Melchor’s stand-in for the city of Veracruz). The story is told by four people who know Luismi, an ex-lover of the Witch who also happens to be a trans woman who does traditional healing. Luismi’s cousin Yesenia thinks of him as a sexual deviant; Brando is a porn addict who can’t decide whether he wants to have sex with Luismi; Norma is a pregnant (by her stepfather) 13-year-old; Luismi’s mother takes Norma to the Witch for an abortion, which turns out poorly. These four voices surround the murder with clues to the crime, the identity of the Witch, and the abysmal context of life in La Matosa. Melchor’s language ranges from the brutal to the languid, it piles up in ever-lengthening sentences, and is never less than precise and deeply evocative. Here is the opening of Hurricane Season:

They reached the canal along the track leading up from the river, their slingshots drawn for battle and their eyes squinting, almost stitched together, in the midday glare. There were five of them, their ringleader the only one in swimming trunks: red shorts that blazed behind the parched crops of the cane fields, still low in early May. The rest of the troop trailed behind him in their underwear, all four caked in mud up to their shins, all four taking turns to carry the pail of small rocks they’d taken from the river that morning; all four scowling and fierce and so ready to give themselves up for the cause that not even the youngest, bringing up the rear, would have dared admit he was scared, the elastic of his slingshot pulled taut in his hands, the rock snug in the leather pad, primed to strike anything that got in his way at the very first sign of an ambush, be that the caw of the bienteveo, perched unseen like a guard in the trees behind them, the rustle of leaves being thrashed aside, or the whoosh of a rock cleaving the air just beyond their noses, the breeze warm and the almost white sky thick with ethereal birds of prey and a terrible smell that hit them harder than a fistful of sand in the face, a stench that made them want to hawk it up before it reached their guts, that made them want to stop and turn around. But the ringleader pointed to the edge of the cattle track, and all five of them, crawling along the dry grass, all five them packed together in a single body, all five of them surrounded by blowflies, finally recognized what was peeping out from the yellow foam on the water’s surface: the rotten face of a corpse floating among the rushes and the plastic bags swept in from the road on the breeze, the dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes, smiling.

Storytelling: From Fairy Tales to Magical Realism

By Carole Reedy

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.
— Albert Einstein

STORIES
“Man is the storytelling animal,” says the master storyteller himself, Sir Salman Rushdie. During a prestigious, nearly half-century career, he has published 12 novels, among which the most famous are Midnight’s Children (1981) and The Satanic Verses (1988). Two children’s books and 13 nonfiction and essay collections complete his writing career thus far. His next innovative storytelling will be Victory City: A Novel, to be published February 9, 2023. It is described as an Indian novel styled as a translation of an ancient epic.

The oral history of storytelling most likely goes back to the Bronze Age, but written stories are the focus of modern man. Writing down stories allows them to become static so that they can be read again and again, and thus relegated to history.

Stories help us to remember, imagine, and solve problems. In addition, they evoke empathy and provide us with many hours of thoughtful enjoyment. All these advantages apply to fairy tales as well as to fine literature.

FAIRY TALES AND MAGICAL REALISM
Fairy tales derive from the folklore of a culture, the first iteration of an oral tradition in the form of a short story. As populations became more literate, however, fairy tales appeared in written form intended for an adult audience. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the enjoyment of fairy tales extended to children.

The first formally published fairy tales were those of Charles Perrault, written in 1697, for an aristocratic French adult readership. Among Perrault’s most famous are “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” Perrault is often recognized as the creator of the modern fairy tale.

Fairy tales throughout the world vary. Those from Europe have become staples in literature in most countries, especially for children. Besides those of Perrault, you will find the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, from what is now Germany, and the stories set down by Danish author Hans Christian Anderson.

MEXICAN FAIRY TALES
Mexico’s culture is filled with folklore that translates into colorful fairy tales for children and adults. Here are a few recent ones that will engage children of all ages.

Dreamers, by Yuyi Morales (2018): A New York Times bestseller, also named a Best Book by Kirkus Reviews, this richly illustrated and relevant story is based on Yuyi’s own experience of bringing her son and the gifts of their culture to a new place.

The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes, by Duncan Tonatiuh (2016): Tonatiuh is an award-winning author and illustrator. Here he reinvents one of Mexico’s most cherished tales, that of the two majestic volcanos overlooking Mexico City and Puebla, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl. The love between the princess Izta and the warrior Popoca creates the setting for this famous retold legend.

Also by Sr. Tonatiuh is a migrant’s tale, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale (2013). This illustrated story tells of Pancho, a rabbit who travels with a coyote in search of his father who has crossed the border for work up north. It is an excellent way of increasing children’s understanding of the struggles and hardships of the people who need to cross borders.

Worth mentioning here as an aside is the marvelous children’s book, Danza, also by Duncan Tonatiuh (2017), which relates the story of Mexico’s Folkloric Ballet and its incomparable founder Amalia Hernández.

The Secret Footprints by Julia Alvarez (2000): I must mention this tale even though its origin is Dominican, not Mexican, because Alvarez is a well-known novelist of adult books, most notably How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (2010). In the Time of the Butterflies: A Novel (1994) is a fictionalized account of the four Mirabal sisters (the butterflies), who sought to overthrow El Jefe, the repressive dictator General Rafael Leónidas Trujillo.

The children’s book, The Secret Footprints, is a reinvented legend from Dominican folklore of the ciguapas, creatures who live in the sea with feet that are on backwards so humans cannot follow them. It tells of an encounter between one ciguapa named Guapa and a human boy.

Present Day Fairy Tales
Fairy tales continue to be written for adults today. Edited by Kate Bernheimer and Carmen Giménez Smith, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (2010) includes work by some of our most distinguished and beloved authors: Joyce Carol Oates, Karen Joy Fowler, Michael Cunningham, and Neil Gaiman, among others. I keep it available on my Kindle to entertain while on trains, planes, and automobiles!

MAGICAL REALISM
Magical realism reminds us of fairy tales with its mixture of dreams, imagination, and perceived reality. Here are some notable authors writing in this style:

Gabriel García Márquez has mastered the art, most notably in his best-selling One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967, English 1970), in which the ghosts and spirits of Colombia’s history abound.

Yann Martel in The Life of Pi (2003) gives us a book about inner strength and creativity seen through animals on a raft in the ocean with the protagonist.

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Present Day Fairy Tales
Fairy tales continue to be written for adults today. Edited by Kate Bernheimer and Carmen Giménez Smith, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (2010) includes work by some of our most distinguished and beloved authors: Joyce Carol Oates, Karen Joy Fowler, Michael Cunningham, and Neil Gaiman, among others. I keep it available on my Kindle to entertain while on trains, planes, and automobiles!

MAGICAL REALISM
Magical realism reminds us of fairy tales with its mixture of dreams, imagination, and perceived reality. Here are some notable authors writing in this style:

Gabriel García Márquez has mastered the art, most notably in his best-selling One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967, English 1970), in which the ghosts and spirits of Colombia’s history abound.

Yann Martel in The Life of Pi (2003) gives us a book about inner strength and creativity seen through animals on a raft in the ocean with the protagonist.

In his Kafka on the Shore (2002), famed Japanese author Haruki Murakami combines dreams and pop culture.

Chilean Isabel Allende has become one of the most famous Latin American writers. Her most popular work is The House of the Spirits (1986), which follows three generations of a family in which Chilean political history and dictatorship play important roles.

To end – as this article began – with a quote from Sir Salman Rushdie from Midnight’s Children, a novel filled with magically realistic moments:

Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible.

Anticipation: Fall 2022 Fiction

By Carole Reedy

Tis the season for anticipation, which according to Balzac is the most reliable form of pleasure. The creative efforts of our favorite writers will fill bookstore shelves and Kindle apps starting this September – here they are!

Shrines of Gaiety: A Novel, by Kate Atkinson (September 27)
Devoted readers of Atkinson have followed the adventures of Jackson Brody with each selection in this series, but Atkinson has given us so much more. Her best-selling and highly acclaimed novel of 2013, Life After Life, followed the various alternate lives of protagonist Ursula Todd throughout the 20th century. A God in Ruins came in 2016 as a kind of sequel that brings to life Todd’s deceased brother.

This time the year is 1926, the place London and its Soho jazz clubs. We’re taken into both the world of the glitterati and the contrasting underworld of the era. This book is unlike anything Atkinson has done before, which is what keeps us coming back.

I Walk Between the Raindrops, by TC Boyle (September 13)
Short stories are TC Boyle’s niche, although over the past 25 years I’ve found his novels to be among the best I have read. In fact, The Tortilla Curtain (1995) remains among my top 10 novels.

I Walk Between the Raindrops is the name of a short story as well as the title of this new collection. You can get a sneak preview of his writing by reading the story version, which appears in The New Yorker magazine July 30, 2018, fiction issue.

Each one of the engaging stories in this collection is filled with Boyle’s usual satire and wit.

Lucy by the Sea: A Novel, by Elizabeth Strout (September 20)
Strout set a high bar for herself and her readers with her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge (actually 13 short stories, 2008) about the life of a retired schoolteacher. Olive Kitteridge (the protagonist) hails from the fictional, apparently nowhere, town of Crosby, Maine, and her ruthless honesty permeates each chapter. The book captivated readers worldwide.

A miniseries starring the versatile Frances McDormand received mixed reviews, with accusations that the character was portrayed as one-dimensional, though I thought it quite satisfying.

Strout also has been lauded, although with less enthusiasm, for her series of books based on her other protagonist, Lucy Barton. Strout’s latest takes place during the recent pandemic lockdown, Lucy quarantined with her ex-husband in a small house by the sea. It has been described as “poignant and pitch-perfect,” with human connection at the heart of the story.

Best of Friends: A Novel, by Kamila Shamsie (September 27)
Shamsie’s newest novel examines the different worlds and friendship of two women raised in Karachi in the first years of Benazir Bhutto’s reign and continues over three decades, when they both live in London. Loyalty and principle are guideposts woven into their lives, causing conflict and reconciliation.

Best of Friends is probably Shamsie’s most intriguing novel to date, even though Burnt Shadows (2009) and Home Fire (2017) are major achievements. In Best of Friends, we travel with her characters across the globe and live through significant world events. These provide vehicles for the actions of her complex characters. You’ll find it hard to put down.

Bad Angel Brothers, by Paul Theroux (September 6)
Over the years we’ve been the fortunate recipients of Theroux’s adventure tales via his fiction and nonfiction writing, all based on the many miles he’s traversed on our planet. From The Old Patagonian Express, The Mosquito Coast, and The Great Railway Bazaar of the 1970s to his recent Mother Land (2017) and On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey (2019), Theroux has dedicated his life to observing, experiencing, and writing.

Now in his 81st year, he brings us yet another psychological thriller involving two brothers at odds and the prospecting of gold and precious metals in the mines of Mexico, Alaska, Africa, and Colombia. Another feather in Theroux’s cap. Although his early books are my favorites, I’m eager to read his latest.

The Marriage Portrait, by Maggie O’Farrell (September 6)
After transporting us to Shakespeare’s world in her previous novel, Hamnet (the story of The Bard’s young son, 2020), versatile wordsmith O’Farrell now takes us to the 1550s and the royalty of Renaissance Italy, exploring the life of a young woman forced into an unwanted royal marriage. Loyal followers of O’Farrell are accustomed to her ability to envelop us in different worlds and centuries. This is my most anticipated book of the season, along with the Barbara Kingsolver novel next on the list.

One reason the novels of O’Farrell are favorites among avid readers is her versatility. The places, themes, and characters vary book to book, as does her style and tempo. My personal favorite is This Must Be the Place (2016).

Demon Copperhead: A Novel, by Barbara Kingsolver (October 18)
Move over Charles Dickens! Popular 21st century author Kingsolver has created a modern David Copperfield, called Damon Fields, whose life parallels our favorite Victorian boy. He is mockingly called Demon and Copperhead for the golden locks inherited from his father.

When I first saw the title of Kingsolver’s new novel, I thought she had returned to the theme of biodiversity so popular in some of her previous works. But I was pleasantly surprised to see it’s actually a retelling of perhaps the most loved work in English literature. Yes, it’s a tome, 560 pages to match Charles Dickens’ creation, whose first edition counted out at 624 pages. Some of our favorite delightful Dickens’ characters are also reimagined for a savory touch.

Kingsolver has taken on the challenge of showing us how little progress has been made in addressing socioeconomic poverty over the past 172 years (the autobiographical David Copperfield was published in book form in 1850, a year after the magazine serialization).

Kingsolver’s version also explores the dark world of poverty, this time in rural Appalachia where Damon grows up in an atmosphere of abuse, addiction, child labor, and foster care, though eventually he finds the kinder side of humanity.

A sense of humor and a talent for artistic expression, with the mandatory bit o’ luck, seem to save both David and Damon. True heroes both, as also could be said of their creators.

Nights of Plague, by Orhan Pamuk (October 5)
The Nobel Prize winner of 2006 is publishing his latest novel this October after controversy in Turkey upon its publication there in 2021. Pamuk was accused of “insulting Turkishness.” But, he says, “In Nights of Plague, which I worked on for five years, there is no disrespect for the heroic founders of the nation states founded from the ashes of empires or for Atatürk. On the contrary, the novel was written with respect and admiration for these libertarian and heroic leaders.”

According to The Guardian, PEN America has reported that at least 25 writers were jailed last year by the Turkish government, the third-highest number globally.

The story takes place on the imaginary island of Mingheria (between Crete and Cyprus), the 29th state of the Ottoman Empire, where Muslims and Orthodox Greeks struggle to live together. Conflict, plague, and murder merge to make this century-old story too close for comfort.

The Passenger (October 25); Stella María (November), by Cormac McCarthy (Boxed set of the two novels available December 6)
I admit to not being a fan of McCarthy, but feel it’s my duty to list his new books due to his extreme popularity. He has been named one of the best American writers by reliable critics, in the company of Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon. McCarthy, however, has stated he prefers the company of scientists to writers.

The books tell the story of siblings Bobby and Alicia Western. Their stories are told eight years apart, first Bobby’s and then Alicia’s.

The publisher says “These extraordinary novels are unlike anything Cormac McCarthy has written before, and while both should be read and experienced separately, they represent two sides of the same narrative coin. We are extremely proud to be publishing the remarkable, inimitable work of Cormac McCarthy.”

Said to be the publishing event of the year – perhaps I will give McCarthy another chance.

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?