Tag Archives: novels

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.”

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

By Carole Reedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Year of the Ox: Read a Chinese Tale to Celebrate

By Carole Reedy

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

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

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

The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck (1931)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Novels of Amy Tan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Carole Reedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louise Erdrich
The Night Watchman (March 3, 2020)

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

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

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

Yaa Gyasi
Transcendent Kingdom (September 15, 2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia Álvarez
Afterlife (April 7, 2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay in the limelight, gals! Keep reading.