By Carole Reedy
The environment, migration, and conservation are not new topics for novelists. For many of us, our first book on change and migration due to a deteriorating earth was required reading. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, is the landmark 1939 novel in which the Joad family is forced to leave their homestead in Oklahoma, ravaged by the Dust Bowl, for the promised land of California.
Hindsight is foresight. In 1962 Rachel Carson was accused of exaggeration by the government and big business when she challenged the use of chemical pesticides in her groundbreaking book Silent Spring.
For this column, I’ve chosen several books from numerous recent novels exploring these increasingly urgent themes.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
The individual stories and plots of the nine US environmental activists who populate the novel play second string to Powers’ intensely detailed descriptions of the symbiotic relationship between trees and forests and their unique role in the survival of our planet.
Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2018, this seminal work is referred to regularly in any discussion of the environment and its degradation.
Three Novels by T. C. Boyle (Thomas Coraghessan Boyle)
I’ve written about the novels of T. C. Boyle multiple times over the past eleven years, and with good reason. The Tortilla Curtain remains among my top ten reads of all time and has been lauded as one of the most insightful on migration in Southern California.
Boyle, without fail, entertains while illuminating our grasp on issues that concern him and our planet, and he does it in an amusing style that can prompt readers to chuckle, despair, or contemplate simultaneously.
A Friend of the Earth
This piece of eco-fiction takes place in 2025, which seemed a long way off in 2000 when Boyle wrote it. It was interesting for me to revisit this book in 2021 after reading it 21 years ago. That which seemed far-fetched in 2000 is more realistic now. Many of his premises ring true: the degradation of ecosystems, deforestation, change in climate, the building frenzy, shortened life expectancy, and overpopulation.
The story is told through the eyes of the main character, Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater (Boyle’s character names are as intriguing as his own), a 75-year old disheveled man looking back on his life as an environmental activist. Tierwater’s future seems as hopeless as the state of the earth. Boyle does not politicize, but rather tells a compelling story that keeps your mind spinning. Spoiler alert: it ends on a bittersweet but satisfyingly positive note.
When the Killing’s Done
A compelling premise for this 2011 novel: An animal rights activist takes on the National Park Service, which is removing invasive species (rats and pigs) from the Channel Islands National Park in California. Based on historical fact, here Boyle relates actual occurrences by shrouding them in a family story. Other actual events from the islands make their way into the always engaging story that Boyle tells.
As I review T. C. Boyle’s novels I’ve come to appreciate them more with each passing year, and this one especially. His books ring true in so many ways, especially during these days of Jeff Bezos and his space exploration schemes.
In this 2016 novel set in 1994, a group of eight prepare for possible colonization on Mars by spending months in a biosphere facility called Ecosphere. As always, Boyle’s insight and exploration of human reactions, relationships, shortcomings, and strengths are the focus throughout the characters’ isolation together.
By the way, T. C. Boyle’s favorite novelist is Gabriel García Márquez.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
Latin America’s favorite son and a Nobel-prize winner from Colombia, García Márquez focuses on his country and its larger setting in the vast collection of novels and short stories he left us. The magical realism woven throughout his novels carries the reader through time and the lush ambience of the country he loves.
There is no better time to read this 1984 novel, which takes place over six decades, during which an intermittent cholera epidemic affects not only South America, but also the world. In addition, the arrival of the 20th century brings with it severe environmental damage from deforestation. For many of my friends who are avid readers and fans of Marquez, this is their favorite.
The Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet
For me, the outstanding characteristic of this novel is the intelligence and perceptiveness of the twelve children compared to the naïveté of their clueless parents. After being forced into a supposedly grand family getaway in a remote mansion, the children rebel when they perceive environmental dangers that the party-loving parents ignore. The children escape to a safer location, leaving their parents to their debauchery.
Millet has earned well-deserved attention from the New York Times, BBC, and Washington Post. This book was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction.
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
Attention bird lovers: the focus here is on the main character’s quest to follow the Arctic terns on what she believes, due to extreme climate changes, to be their final journey from Greenland to Antarctica. The book transports the reader along with its main character, Franny, on a boat from Greenland to the Southern Ocean. While the novel explores her search and the adventure of following the terns, it also delves into her innermost secrets, shortcomings, and personal issues in need of resolution. Franny’s outer search echoes her inner one. Formerly the author of young adult fiction, here McConaghy debuts as an adult novelist.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Considered by some to be the ultimate in environmental disaster stories, The Road has been made into a film. Don’t be tempted – read the book. The book has a power all its own, with multiple elements including the centerpiece father-son relationship. Praised for its ability to portray the earth’s destruction and yet criticized for its minimal plot and characterization, this book is hailed by many as the masterpiece of our climate emergency. The unusual writing style and use (specifically, the nonuse) of punctuation irritates many readers, me among them, though I understand the source and reasoning behind the author’s choice. This short, intense book will transport you.
How fortunate to live in a world filled with brilliant minds who can raise our consciousness, stir our emotions, inform, teach and at the same time even entertain us.
By Carole Reedy
Home is where you are …
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.
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?
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  and The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary ) 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.
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.
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!
By Carole Reedy
This past month I asked my avid-reader friends to share with The Eye the books that have accompanied them in their seemingly never-ending hours of free time during the Covid-19 quarantine.
When the replies arrived, they inevitably started with “Well, I haven’t been reading much these days,” or “I’m having trouble concentrating on anything but news of the virus.” From personal experience I know that one of the repercussions of grief is difficulty concentrating. Could this be grief?
Coincidentally, a friend sent me an article with some insights on this very topic from Oliver J. Robinson, a neurologist and psychologist based in London. Briefly, some of Dr. Robinson’s insights: We are living in a time of uncertainty; we don’t know what to expect. Nothing is certain, and we’re “trying to resolve an uncertainty that is unresolvable.” In addition, we are experiencing loss of control. These feelings are generating anxiety.
“But I’d be lying if I tried to say this is what anxiety is, and this is why people are having difficulty concentrating,” he adds.
I too had difficulty reading during the first days of isolation, but find now that I’m back in the swing. Once we shift our thinking and establish new home routines, perhaps the relaxing act of reading will bring us joy again.
According to The Reading Agency, a UK literary charity, reading has increased by a third, especially in the 18-25 age group. The trend is to comfort, with fiction highlighted, especially crime/mystery and the classics. James Daunt, chief executive of the British bookseller Waterstones, believes “many people may plump for poetry to provide a more detached contemplation during times of stress.” After 9/11, poetry sales increased, supporting Daunt’s theory for a need for “books that encourage or support contemplation.”
With that said, I hope this list of diverse books and the observations that accompany them are helpful as you search for reading satisfaction in an uncertain time.
First, however, I offer you some plague literature. Often it’s helpful to look to the past. Note that these plagues lasted years, not months, with similarities to our current virus. The precautions were for them the same as our own: stay in, close businesses, avoid crowds. The phrase “waiting for a vaccine” wasn’t part of their vocabulary. The rich were able to leave the cities (the reason Henry the VIII was always moving from castle to castle), but the poor were condemned to stay and try to survive in the metropolitan areas to make their living. Some things never change.
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (published in 1722 about the Great Plague of London in 1665). Defoe was just five years old when that plague hit London in 1665, so his account is academic rather than first-hand, as opposed to that of Samuel Pepys in his Diary. Pepys actually lived through the plague years. Defoe’s work is a novel disguised as fact; the story relates the personal experiences of a survivor of the plague, and also addresses the societal repercussions on the poor.
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (written in the 1350s after the plague of 1348-53). The 100 stories of The Decameron have satisfied readers for hundreds of years. A far different point of storytelling than that of Defoe.
The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni (written in 1827; the action takes place in the early 1600s, ending with the plague year of 1630). This is one of the most frequently read novels in Italian literature. It is a love and adventure story at heart, but the last quarter is about the plague. It’s slow going sometimes, with a lot of detail, which is my kind of book!
Hilary Mantel’s Trilogy (some call it The Tudor Trilogy or the Wolf Hall Trilogy) consists of three novels based on the life of the influential Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII: Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the just-released The Mirror and the Light. These books provide terrific reading in times of isolation. Mantel picks you up and drops you in the world of merry old England in the 16th century. She has a unique and refreshing style in these novels, as in all her writing. The New Yorker magazine writer Jia Tolentino describes Mantel’s talent succinctly: “Mantel writes history like it’s always on the cusp of occurring.”
The Guardian recently quoted Hilary Mantel in a speech at the prestigious Hay Festival: “The Tudors were very good at quarantine in those days. They took it very seriously. I think he [Thomas Cromwell] would have locked us down for a bit longer.”
First, a short note from Larry in Denver with advice about a different way to read if you feel too distracted to concentrate on the written word.
“I try to walk every day, and rather than listen to news or music, I listen to audiobooks. I’ve been listening to a lot of Dickens and especially like the reader Simon Vance. He makes Dickens’ prose and characters come alive. No matter how many characters, he is able to distinguish all of them for the listener, so there’s never any doubt about who is carrying the narrative. So far, I’ve listened (or I should day re-listened) to Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and Oliver Twist. All have been great fun and entertaining. Vance also reads the novels of one of my all-time favorite authors Patrick O’Brien and his British naval history novels.”
Barbara from Mexico City listens to audio books when she goes to bed. The only negative she reports is finding her place in the book the next morning as she inevitably falls asleep, even during the most compelling of stories. Maybe audio books will become an insomnia remedy too.
History of the Rain: A Novel by Niall Williams (via Kirby in Chicago).
Kirby says he’s reading this beautifully written novel very slowly as he doesn’t want it to end. When I asked about the theme, he said “Reading, it’s about reading, Carole.” I immediately downloaded the book to my iPad. The novel takes place in Ireland, on the banks of the Shannon River at Faha, in County Clare, Ireland. Since I’ve read only a few pages, I offer The Guardian’s description:
“The novel is suffused with … other worldliness while being rooted in the everyday. It is also crammed with literature, from Ruth’s beloved Charles Dickens – whose caricatures find contemporary equivalents in the inhabitants of Faha – to Robert Louis Stevenson, whose bed-ridden genius she closely identifies with, along with Dickinson’s elliptical solitude. The river and the endless rain are so present they become characters in themselves: Ruth notes wryly that in Ireland it has rained for ‘800 years’.
Lovers of the 19th-century novel will devour this book. I’m amazed and enchanted by it, and I imagine Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope smiling from their graves. I guarantee you will fall in love with the protagonist, the bed-ridden, young and sassy lass Ruth.
Weather: A Novel by Jenny Offill (via Marilyn in St. Petersburg, Florida).
Marilyn describes this very popular (I am on a 13-week waitlist at the library) new work by Offill, author of the well-regarded short novel, Department of Speculation.
“It is short bursts of beautiful prose, almost more like a poem and yet has character development, plot, humor. I read it in one sitting,” Marilyn writes.
The Dutch House: A Novel by Anne Patchett (via Phyllis from Chicago). We fans of Anne Patchett know she is uneven at times, but this novel is Anne Patchett at her best.
Phyllis agrees: “I love Patchett for her humor, quickness, and real-person humanity. She always provides a moves-along read, perfect for the pandemic. So I liked this story about a hapless brother and sister whose lives are upended by a move into this unusual house.”
Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (via Phyllis and also Camille from Boise).
Thanks to the astute decisions of publishers, these days we’re experiencing many excellent literary works based on the immigrant and the emigration experience. Phyllis says that of all she has read about “the immigrant experience,” this one stands out.
The Guardian expressed the magic of this book: “Her new novel resonates with an unexpected simplicity that is profound and unsettling. Richard, a self-contained widower and newly retired academic, discovers empathy through delving into the individual ordeals of a group of African asylum seekers in Berlin whom he gradually befriends and tries to help.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz: A Novel by Heather Morris (via Paulina from San Agustinillo, Oaxaca, with roots in Sligo, Ireland). Paulina enjoyed this book even though some factual historical inaccuracies have recently been found in it. But we must remember, it IS a novel.
Jon Sopel, news broadcaster, comments on the novel: “It really helped me put the privations of COVID lockdown into context. I suspect if I’d read it when it first came out. I would have been moved by the terribleness and evil of the setting, but the story is really about the indomitable nature of the human spirit, how even in the worst of human circumstances there is space for compassion and a sliver of hope.”
MEMOIR AND BIOGRAPHY
A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin (Holly in Grayslake, Illinois). This memoir of a Jewish family fleeing the Soviet Union in 1989 begins on a humorous note with the young son of the family relating the challenges of the Soviet system and the process of leaving the Ukraine, arriving in Vienna and ultimately the US. But midway through the book the tone becomes sober and dark when we learn the effect the flight and uncertainty has on the young man. It is a beautifully executed, well-paced story with many aspects over more than 20 years in a variety of locales in the world.
Talking Heads by British playwright Allen Bennett (via Kirby in Chicago).
This monologue/diary was originally a BBC production, but is now in print. David Sedaris says it is the book he gives as a gift as “it is pretty much the best thing ever.”
Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier by Victoria James (via Kathy in Seattle). The youngest, at age 21, American sommelier from a Michelin-starred restaurant, James relates how she struggled through a childhood of abuse and humiliation before reaching her stunning position.
Our friend Kathy Kaye, who recommended this memoir, has top credentials for judging it, as she too is a writer and winemaker. For years she traveled from her home north of Seattle to the vineyard she and her partner owned east of the Cascades, producing a variety of wine there.
When she wasn’t growing, cultivating, and testing wines, Kathy wrote, and still writes, novels. The Case of the Missing Cobras and Death at 21 Brix: A Warehouse Winery Mystery both fall in the crime/mystery genre, but they are much more. Apart from being compelling reads, requiring meticulous research, the novels deal with issues of ecological conservation, rare species, and man’s role in nature (Missing Cobras) and the many-faceted aspects of wine making (Death at 21 Brix). Kathy also has a star-studded career in medical writing.
Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen (via Barbara and Carole from Mexico City). In this memoir, Allen tries to convince us that he is not an intellectual, citing the fact that the only reading he did before the age of 18 involved comic books. However, he is unsuccessful in this endeavor. The tone of the book (you don’t need to listen to the audio version to hear Allen’s voice), vocabulary, structure, and ease of reading are proof that genius lurks in the written and visual works of the lovable neurotic. The first half of the book is his life story, followed by a thorough analysis of the problems that grew out of his relationship with Mia Farrow.
Winds of War by Herman Wouk (via Sue in Denver). “I had never read this classic and am finding it totally prescient for the period we are experiencing. So many comparisons between Hitler and Trump!”
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (via Betty in Mexico City and Nancy in Chicago).
The eight books (of an anticipated ten) and the subsequent TV series have been popular since 1991. They cover years of time travel from 1743 in Scotland to the modern-day US. Both Betty and Nancy are totally absorbed – or rather, obsessed – with the series.
MYSTERIES AND CRIME
The Tale Teller: A Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito Novel by Anne Hillerman (via Stuart from Sedona, Arizona). You may recognize the surname. Yes, Anne is Tony Hillerman’s daughter, and has continued his fine tradition of writing novels that take place on a Navajo Indian reservation and environs, always centered around a crime committed and sprinkled with tradition and superstition. There are three more books in the series, all New York Times best sellers.
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (via fellow book-club member Janet).
Janet is an avid reader of nonfiction, but in these days of upheaval she enjoyed this “thriller that is hard to put down; no problem with lack of concentration with this book!”
The Lynley-Havers series by Elizabeth George
We fans are eagerly awaiting the next, the 21st(!) book in the series. Many mystery/crime readers have followed the series based in Great Britain from the first book in 1988, A Great Deliverance, in which we’re introduced to Inspector Thomas Lynley, Lord Asherton, of Scotland Yard, and to his contrary assistant Barbara Havers.
Interestingly, the author is an American who has been praised for her accuracy in the depiction of the British citizens and police. You need not read the books in order, although part of the attraction of the series is the development of each character and the relationships with one another as the years pass. The mystery story almost seems secondary. We’re happy to wait a couple of years between books that are well researched and lengthy.
The V.I. Warshawski series by Sara Paretsky (from Chicago, via our writer friend Joan Chandler). “I decided to dive into one of Sara Paretsky’s novels featuring her great character V.I. Warshawski. V.I. lives in a perpetual state of moral outrage (which suits my mood). She’s acutely aware that it’s not always a welcome trait. I like that honesty. Sara Paretsky lives in Chicago and includes all the local color in her stories.”
Paretsky’s newest novel hit the shelves in April. It’s called Dead Land, and her publisher has promised that both the author and protagonist are as “dogged and ferocious” as ever.
French and Italian Detectives. Other readers look to European writers for intrigue: Martin Walker has created a niche for mystery fans as well as for gourmet cooks, with more than 15 books in his series that takes place in the Perigord region of France. The protagonist is Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges, a rather unconventional village cop who doesn’t carry an official gun and claims to have lost the key to his handcuffs.
Farther south in Sicily, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, created by Andrea Camilleri, also enjoys good food. The books are packed with tempting treats from sumptuous Sicilian kitchens. Fifteen of the eighteen novels have been translated into English. I have become a lasting fan of this compassionate, humor-loving, cynical detective.
Travelers to these two countries will savor the novels before and during their visits. In addition to the entertaining detective stories, both Camilleri and Walker write non-fiction and/or historical novels.
Frank O’Connor short stories (via Mexican resident–by way of Belfast, London, Zambia, and Italy–Caroline Falasco). Caroline found among the collection of her family’s books a 1953 anthology of these short stories by the master of the genre. Inside the inscription under her parents’ names read “Belfast 1954.” Caroline writes to me: “an emotional find.” I suspect many of us are experiencing similar emotions as we sort through drawers, closets, and bookshelves in this time of physical and emotional cleansing.
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe (via Susan from Paris). This exceedingly readable tome that takes place in the Emerald Isle maps out the “troubles” in the guise of a mystery kidnapping/murder. It was my number two of favorite books of 2019, right after Milkman: A Novel by Anna Burns, which explores similar themes. The combination of research and lucid prose is the reason Say Nothing remains on many bestseller lists.
The following two books by distinguished writers in the field are recommended by medical editor and author Kathy (mentioned above). They seem appropriate to list considering the mysteries we are living through these days: From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel Dennett and Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen.
There are so many other stories to read. With hope for a new and different future, I promise more recommendations in the months to come. Stay in and stay safe!