Tag Archives: Literature

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.”

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“History teaches us that man learns nothing from history.”
—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

The Mexican Revolution began on November 20th, 1910, with a call to arms to overthrow the government of Porfirio Díaz, which favored the wealthy. Here we are, over a hundred years later and the world is still full of similar stories of inequity. I don’t listen to the news too often – maybe a few times a week – and it is always dire. Between elections, Afghanistan, COVID updates, and natural disasters, it seems as if we are slowly self-destructing. But the news that made me the saddest came at the end of September when the ivory-billed woodpecker was declared officially extinct, along with 22 other species. It was an add-on piece of news, the sort BTW update thrown out by reporters – certainly not breaking news like a bombing or hurricane. Where do our concerns as a collective lie when the extinction of 22 species is not breaking news?

Since 1500, over 190 species of birds have become extinct and the ivory-billed woodpecker hadn’t been spotted since 1944. The biggest causes of extinction are loss of habitat through agriculture and housing for humans – in the U.S. alone, 4.8 million acres were converted for agricultural purposes between 2007 and 2018; climate change, which is causing temperature fluctuations and forcing birds to move; and collision with other structures such as powerlines (25 million bird deaths each year), wind turbines (410 000 bird deaths each year), communication towers (7 million bird deaths each year). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that as many as 72 million birds die each year from pesticide poisoning.

The list of lost birds is long and tragic. Do you remember the excitement of finding a feather when you were a child? I can feel the tactile memory of my fingers brushing against the grain. Will future generations only know birds from their likeness produced on a digital screen?

Even if you don’t care much about nature, ask yourself – If the environment we are living in is inhospitable to birds, how long before it is inhospitable to us?

This is the true revolution of our time.

See you next month,

Jane

Holiday / Festival Dates in Oaxaca

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

While November is the month when we celebrate the Mexican Revolution, virtually all towns and villages throughout the state of Oaxaca have their own festival weeks honoring one saint or another. Such an enumeration would be close to impossible to catalogue in a brief article, if not in a book. However, noting bank and government office closures and commemorative dates typically celebrated with festivities, is manageable.

So here goes, with assistance from the listings in Barbara Hopkins’ book, Oaxaca: Crafts and Sightseeing (3rd edition is 1999, currently out of print).

January 1 – New Year’s Day: National holiday with banks and government offices closed, as well as some retail outlets including restaurants.

January 6 – Epiphany, Day of the Three Kings (Día de los Reyes Magos): Bakeries sell roscas de reyes, to be eaten that evening usually at an extended family gathering. There is gift giving to children. The rosca is typically a large wreath-shaped egg bread with one or more tiny white plastic dolls inside representing the baby Jesus (Niño Diós). Whoever finds the doll(s) must prepare and serve tamales to other members of the same group, at a party on the night of Candlemas – see next item.

February 2 – Candelmas (Candelaria): More recently, when several plastic babies are found by separate people, each might contribute to the meal in different ways. Leading up to and including this date, residents purchase their larger Niño Diós dolls, and outfits for them, last year’s clothing often interchanged with those of relatives and friends. They take their finely dressed dolls to church to be blessed in memory of the presentation of Jesus to the Temple. This is the end of the Mexican Christmas season.

February 5 – Constitution Day: This date commemorates the publication of Mexico’s Constitution in 1917, during the Revolution. A national holiday, now celebrated on the first Monday in February; banks and government offices closed.

Tuesday before Ash Wednesday – Martes de Carnaval: Occurring on March 1, 2022, “Fat Tuesday” represents the last day of freedom before Lent. In cities, but more impressively in towns and villages, there are parades with live music, locals decked out in costumes representative of devils and more.

Fridays during Lent – Paseo de los Viernes de Cuaresma: They vary from locale to locale, but tradition in the state capital dictates sale of flowers at Llano park, for the purchaser to present to girlfriends / lovers.

Fourth Friday of Lent (three weeks before Good Friday) – Day of the Good Samaritan: Celebrated throughout Oaxaca’s central valleys, usually from noon to 2 pm. Churches, businesses, schools, parks and street associations gift fresh sweet juices and sometimes other food stuffs to all passersby.

Palm Sunday until Easter – Holy Week (Semana Santa): Holy week begins on Palm Sunday. Sale of intricately woven palms, visits to seven capital churches, with processions around village/town churches as well. Different locales have different mass traditions for Saturday and Sunday, culminating with the Resurrection. Churches solemnly chime, with the march of silence. Banks and government offices are closed Holy Thursday and Holy Friday.

March 21 – Birthday of Benito Juárez: Juárez, the 26th president of Mexico and the first of indigenous origin, held office from 1858 until his death in 1872. A national holiday with banks and government offices closed.

May 1 – Labor Day (Día del Trabajo): Parades, with banks and government offices closed.

May 3 – Day of the Holy Cross, Mason’s Day (Día del Albañil): Parties for construction workers, crosses affixed on construction sites, typically a complimentary meal for all workers. Often dances in the streets with revelry.

May 5 – Cinco de Mayo): A national holiday commemorating Mexico’s 1862 victory in Puebla over invading French troops; banks and government offices closed.

May 10 and thereafter – Vela Istmeña (Vigil/Festival for people from the Isthmus): In Mexico City and elsewhere, Mexicans who originate from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec gather for public/cultural events, with masses and processions showcasing traditional regional dress.

Last two Mondays of July – Lunes del Cerro (Mondays of the Hill): Entire month of July is festive, in particular those Mondays (date is adjusted if a Monday falls on July 18, the date of death for Benito Juárez); celebrated throughout Oaxaca but especially in the capital – Oaxaca de Juárez. The Guelaguetza is performed throughout the weekend leading up to the Mondays; the Guelaguetza promotes Oaxaca’s rich cultural traditions by showcasing regional song, dress, dance and items locally produced for sale and consumption. Spectacular!

August 15 – Day of the Taxi Driver: Celebrated mainly in the state capital. Taxis and colectivos are adorned with flowers and parade through the streets and in the course of daily work taking fares.

August 31 – Pet Day, Bendición de los Animales (Blessing of the Animals): Performed at the Merced church in the capital and also elsewhere. Residents bring their pets and parade them through the streets all dressed up.

September 16 – Dia de la Independencia (Independence Day): Commemorates indepenence from Spain, proclaimed in 1810. The night before (September 15) at 11 pm, people celebrate El Grito (The Cry), during which the nation’s president and all governors and mayors, with support from police and army, shout aloud re independence, typically with fireworks near government palaces. Spectacular! Banks and government offices are closed on September 16.

October 12 – Día de la Raza (Day of the Race): In Hispanic countries, Columbus Day has become Day of the Race, a celebration of the heritage and culture of peoples who were eliminated or exploited by the Spanish conquest – similar to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which has been substituted for Columbus Day in places in the United States. Banks and government offices are closed.

October 31, November 1. November 2 – Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead): Also celebrated on subsequent dates depending on the locale, especially November 1 (All Saints’ Day) and November 2 (All Souls’ Day). The celebrations combine pre-Hispanic roots with Christianity, and include attending rituals in cemeteries day and night, decorating gravesites and home altars, honoring the departed, and parades through the streets in cities, towns and villages throughout Mexico (comparsas). Oaxaca city and environs, along with Pátzcuaro, are recognized worldwide as the best places to experience Day of the Dead. Again egg bread is traditional, as is construction of elaborate colored sand carpets (tapetes). Spectacular! Banks and government offices are closed on the last two dates.

November 20 – Anniversary of the Mexican Revolution: On this date in 1910, Francisco Madero issued a call to arms to unseat the dictator Porfirio Díaz. A national holiday with parades, sporting events and banks and government offices closed.

December 8, 12, 18 – respectively, celebrations of the Virgins of Juquila, Guadalupe, and Soledad: The celebration for the Virgin of Juquila is regional; for Guadalupe, it is national, with banks and government offices closed; and for Soledad, it is regional, although she is the patron saint of Oaxaca state). There are pilgrimages to Juquila, Mexico City, and Oaxaca City throughout the year, but especially with arrivals on the specific dates, with prayers for miracles, parades, and other festivities.

December 13 – Another Vela Istmeña (see May 10).

December 16 – Start of the Christmas season: Nightly processions (posadas) through the 24th, passing through city, town and village streets, representative of Mary and Joseph seeking a bed for the birth of Jesus. Building of crèches (nacimientos).

December 23 – Noche de Rábanos (Night of the Radishes): In Oaxaca City, the zócalo is adorned with stalls where state residents construct scenes of carved radishes of all sizes, representing market activity, crèches, regional dress and dance, heads of famous Oaxacans, and much more, competing for cash prizes. There are smaller competitions with scenes made of dried flowers and of corn husks and stalks. A uniquely state capital occurrence, with other daytime and evening activities. Noche de Rábanos is over a century old. Spectacular!

December 24 – Calendas de Noche Buena (Processions of Christmas Eve): The final night of posadas, with floats representing neighborhood churches from Oaxaca City neighborhoods, local marching bands, and participants in elaborate dress, all heading to and circling the zócalo. Zócalo attendance spectacular!

December 25 – Christmas Day (Navidad): Mostly celebrated at home with family. A national holiday with banks and government offices closed.

December 31 –Noche de la Cruz del Pedimento (Night of Petition) also Nochevieja (Old Night), Año Nuevo (New Year): Banks closed, and government offices have been on skeleton staff for the past two weeks, until January 2. On a hill near the central valley town of Mitla en route to Santiago Matatlán, stands La Cruz del Milagro, where this day and evening people gather near a tiny chapel and large white cross, praying for their needs and wishes to be met the coming year.

If you don’t have easy access to information on these significant dates and occasions, consider hanging on to this edition of The Eye for quick reference.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

When I was growing up, gym class was treated as a less important subject than math or English. It was grouped in with art and woodworking (which I wish I had taken). It was a class you would skip without being worried about falling behind and many girls I know routinely came up with reasons for being excused from it. However, in the real world, skills learned in gym class are incredibly useful: it forces people to get out of their physical comfort zones, and it teaches teamwork, discipline, and communication.

On a larger scale, sports unites or separates groups, depending on whether you are a glass half-full or half-empty kind of person. The swell of stadium calls and passionate allegiances to teams have led to violent riots but also to emotional triumphs that have lifted people up and improved their lives.

One such moment is happening as I write this. With the Taliban in Afghanistan returning to power, the world watches helplessly to see how this will play out. Women will most likely be prevented from working (except as teachers and nurses), they will be restricted to women-only spaces at university and I assume limited in the subjects they are allowed to learn. You can bet they won’t be allowed to play sports where any aggressiveness might be displayed, a challenge to the meek silent demeanor the Taliban wants to force upon women. In the face of this, members of the Afghanistan women’s junior football (soccer) team and their families have fled to neighbouring Pakistan.

The international organization Football for Peace worked out the arrangements; Fawad Chaudry, Pakistan’s information minister, tweeted that the team had entered Pakistan at the Torkham border crossing and were met by a representative of the Pakistan Football Federation. The news service Reuters later published a photo taken at the PFF headquarters in Lahore of the 81 people involved – the team, their families, and their coaches; another 34 people are expected shortly.

When it comes to communities where girls and women are restricted in public life, sports can have an effective social impact. Girls who play sports tend to have higher self-esteem, continue further in education, and I would also posit that they learn to value their bodies as action-based, rather than through the sexualized lens of the media and social media.

My philosophy has always been “If you want to help a community support the education of its women.” I think I can take that one step further and include supporting its sports teams.

See you next month,

Jane

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.

Novels That Inform And Entertain

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.

The Terranauts
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.