Tag Archives: reading

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.

Personal Stories of Migration and the Transition Experience

By Carole Reedy

Home is where you are …
David Byrne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women Writers Off the Beaten Path

By Carole Reedy

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

Magda Szabó: Stunning character development is her trademark

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

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

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

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

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

Miriam Toews: Growing up in a Mennonite community

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

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

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

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

Siri Hustvedt: Elaborately structured works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garnett Kilberg Cohen: Characters you wish you had known

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

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

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

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

Year of the Ox: Read a Chinese Tale to Celebrate

By Carole Reedy

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

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

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

The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck (1931)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Novels of Amy Tan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Favorite Reads of This 2020 Pandemic Year

By Carole Reedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (2020)

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

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

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The skillfully written memoir makes for another page-turner.

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

Continuing in Quarantine: Autumn Reading Repertoire

By Carole Reedy

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are – Mason Cooley

The good news during this pandemic is that our reading recommendations do not diminish, even with the virus hovering over daily activities and dictating our routines. The novels here cover a variety of subjects and eras, all of them fighting for the top of my “2019-20 favorite books” list.

THE PULL OF THE STARS: A NOVEL, by Emma Donoghue

Dublin, 1918, war, a flu epidemic, midwives and nurses, pregnant women and their offspring, and even Sinn Fein: these are the elements that make up this fast-paced, electrifying novel.

The day I started it I was up until 2:30 am engrossed in the story of the midwife, her colleagues, and the patients in the Maternity/Fever Ward of a Dublin hospital. The book’s setting over just a few days provides real insight into the political, economic, and social history of the era of war and pandemic in Ireland … and probably of the world.

Many readers thought highly of Donoghue’s well-regarded book regarded 2011 novel Room (though I did not). Whether or not you appreciated it, you’ll be pleased that this one is totally different in approach and style. The writing is fluid and descriptive, the characters most admirable and lovable – even the grumpy ones.

THE OTHER RICHARD III, by John Birney

Turns out that Richard III wasn’t such a bad guy after all, according to author John Birney, who wants to portray Shakespeare’s most evil and disagreeable king in a different and perhaps truer light.

After I read and wholeheartedly recommended Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague (a variation on the name Hamlet) by Maggie O’Farrell (2020) to my friends Larry and Sue, they, in turn, knowing my admiration for Shakespeare, suggested I read this modern play written in old Elizabethan blank verse, authentic and archaic, but with the sweep of a modern hand.

Simply described, it is beautifully rendered. I’m in awe of any author who can take an historical figure and a play written by Shakespeare and create a new story and aspect of the play. Kudos, Mr. Birney, for tackling this project and recreating a classic story into a readable, modern, compelling, and most enjoyable piece of literature without deprecating the original.

THE LYING LIVES OF ADULTS, by Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

I awoke from a deep sleep at 12:01 am the morning of September 1, immediately knowing the reason: the newest Elena Ferrante novel was due at that moment. I stretched my arm out to reach for my iPad, always at my bedside for easy access to middle-of-the-night reading. And sure enough, there I found the link to purchase and download the book, which I did immediately for fear the electricity might go out in the night and prevent my reading the first words bright and early. Avid readers will understand completely this motive and the resulting action.

Fans of the four novels that make up The Neapolitan Quartet will not regret the five years they waited for Ferrante to publish this newest gem. Dayna Tortorici, reviewer for The New York Times, assuages any doubts about the newest book: “What a relief it is when an author who has written a masterpiece returns to prove the gift intact.”

Like the Quartet, the setting is upper and lower (class and physicality) Naples, a band of adolescents the focus, along with the dishonest parents of the title. Again, the array of characters and their predictable and unpredictable actions and reactions is the driving force behind Ferrante’s genius.

And, no, we still aren’t certain of her identity despite much speculation by journalists and others.

THIS IS HAPPINESS, by Niall Williams

This summer another book by Niall Williams, History of the Rain: A Novel (2014), caught my attention, and I proceeded to recommend it to everyone I knew who loved reading. I’ve already decided it’s one of my favorites of the year. It brought me back to childhood, Ireland, reading, and parental and family relationships in words, sentences, and paragraphs that flow like the River Shannon.

Naturally, I was eager to read this more recent book by Williams. In This Is Happiness, the author returns to the fictionalized town of Faha on the Shannon in Ireland, but this time with the story of a troubled young man, his grandparents, and an assortment of amusing, and sometimes disturbing, residents of the area. Once again, Williams carries us to a different time, locale, and world with his quirky, instinctive talent for descriptive presentation.

DADDY: STORIES, by Emma Cline

Cline surprised us a few years ago with her novel The Girls: A Novel (2016), an insight into the followers and would-be followers of convicted murderer Charles Manson. Now, with Daddy, a group of short stories, she explores further the interactions between men and women.

The Guardian’s review observes: “There is … always an awareness of economic imbalance in these interactions and the pressure put on women to be sexually available and ‘not waste [their] prettiness.’ As in The Girls, Cline is acute at exposing how women internalize the expectations of men.”

Each of these stories is a small gem, but don’t expect to derive much happiness from them. After all, she’s writing about male and female relationships (!).

THE MAN IN THE RED COAT, by Julian Barnes

Lovers of the Belle Époque and, of course, followers of the respected author and Francophile Julian Barnes will revel in his latest book about a man, this dreamy era, and the people who dominate the ballrooms of the time. If you read the hardcover edition, you’ll be swept away by the quality of the paper, the illustrations of the characters, and the entire presence of the book, which enhances the story within. Every aspect of time and place is immaculately and decorously presented, just as the era itself projects.

Who is The Man in the Red Coat? He is renowned French surgeon and gynecologist Samuel Jean Pozzi (1846-1918). Barnes entertains us with the story of his life, as well as the delicious gossip about the outlandish characters of the Belle Époque that surround him, Count Montesquiou and Sarah Bernhardt among many others. Readers of Proust will recognize their favorite personages from Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu) among the friends of Pozzi and Montesquiou.

Of course, it takes Barnes’ extraordinary talent to weave the narrative of Pozzi’s life into a fine piece of literature.

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM: A Novel, by Yaa Gyasi
You’ll recognize this author who a few years ago wrote the gripping novel Homegoing: A Novel (2016), which follows the descendants of two Ghanaian girls through seven generations from Africa to the US.

Gyasi’s newest novel, which James Woods of The New Yorker thinks is the better, takes place in the US, the narrator a not particularly likable 28-year-old Ghanaian/American woman. Just out this week, I’ve not had a chance to read it, but it’s at the top of my list. If you haven’t read Homegoing, you’re in for a treat. It’s extremely clever without being trite and the provided genealogy chart makes easy work of keeping track of family lines.

These spell-binding novels are wreaking havoc on my sleep cycle, but, after all, we are in the midst of a pandemic. I can take a nap whenever I choose. Stay safe and happy in your reading!

In the Dog Days of Quarantine… What We’re Reading

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.

PLAGUE LITERATURE

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.”

LITERARY FICTION

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.

HISTORICAL FICTION

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.

SHORT STORIES

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.

NON-FICTION

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!

Quarantine Reading: Literature’s Famous and Infamous Mothers and Fathers

By Carole Reedy

Each May and June we honor mothers and fathers with a special day. In Mexico, Mother’s Day is always celebrated on May 10 and is, practically speaking, a national holiday. Though group celebrations will be curtailed this year because of the coronavirus, children will thank their parents according to the customs of their individual cultures.

One of the advantages of the isolation dictated by the virus is the time now given us to think, reflect, and remember. The approach of May and June gives me pause to reflect on the mothers and fathers of the literature I have so loved over the years.

Just for fun, I’ve devised some awards for the outstanding literary figures of a few favorite authors.

The Queen of Jewish Mothers:
Sophie Portnoy from Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)

The Urban Dictionary provides a succinct definition of a Jewish mother:  “an unstoppable force of nature that will feed you, pamper you, and pester you at the slightest provocation, known to spout Yiddish randomly. Be warned: if you come to my house, you WILL leave with a full stomach and a bag of leftovers.”

There is little doubt that Sophie Portnoy maintains the title to this day.  Perhaps Estelle Constanza (of Seinfeld fame) holds second place, but as Lev Grossman reported in Time magazine, “There could be no Estelle Constanza without Sophie Portnoy.”

For those of you who might not be familiar with Sophie Portnoy (really?), she’s Alexander Portnoy’s overbearing mother who dedicates her life to the task of raising her son, going as far as checking his bowel movements on a daily basis. The novel thrust Roth into fame as one of the most accomplished and loved American novelists of the 20th century.

The novel’s platform is the consultation of young Alexander and his psychotherapist.  Publication of such a novel in 1969 sparked two controversies. First, the detailed description of masturbation by young Alexander, as well as obscenities and other sexually explicit adventures that were revolutionary 50 years ago. Second, some members of the Jewish community were offended by what they viewed as an irreverent depiction of the Jewish people.  The book was even banned by some libraries in the US.

Nonetheless, Philip Roth went on to prove himself to be a master of the contemporary American novel. Sadly, he died before receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was surely his due (though that remains a bone of contention).  He did, however, garner countless accolades in his lifetime as one of the great American writers.

The Bravest of Single Mothers:
Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

It would take a lot of courage to stand up to the least flexible, most cantankerous of religious fathers as well as an intolerant community. Yet this is precisely the action taken by Hester Prynne, protagonist of The Scarlet Letter. In 1642, the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, Hester becomes pregnant, her husband thought to be lost at sea, and she faces the wrath of her community as an adulteress. She must wear the scarlet A letter as punishment and degradation.

Hester leads a tough short life, her daughter Pearl being rebellious also. All the involved characters suffer from inward guilt that affects them physically. It is a sad tale. Hawthorne didn’t expect the book to be popular with the general public, but he was wrong. The Scarlett Letter was an instant success and has become a worldwide classic.

The Most Naive of Grandfathers:
Daniele Mallarico from Trick by Domenico Starnone (2016)

Highly respected Italian writer Starnone and his equally famous translator, Jhumpa Lahiri, bring us a different twist on the family saga. The main characters here are the grandfather Daniele and his grandson, the four-year-old Mario, who are spending a week together while Mario’s parents leave the city for work-related matters. Although one might think this combination would present a light, humorous, sentimental novel, it’s quite the opposite.

The relationship of these two, along with that of Mario’s parents, is bluntly and honestly frustrating and difficult. While discussing the book with friends, we all wondered how the 70-year-old grandfather ever agreed to spend a week babysitting a four-year-old, which is the reason I name him the most naive of grandfathers.

The Most Successful Yet Heartbroken of Fathers:
Seymour Levov from American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997)

Seymour Levov (“The Swede” – a nickname since childhood because of his blonde hair and Nordic appearance) had it all: He was a successful Jewish-American businessman with a house in the suburbs, the trophy wife, popularity from an early age on and off the football field, friends, and family. Midway through the novel, Swede’s life begins a slow deterioration after his teenage daughter is involved in a terrorist act.

Roth’s ability to take the reader into the hearts and minds of his characters is exceptionally present in this novel, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. And while a feeling of unendurable pain permeates the second half of the book, there are many memorable scenes. For me the description of the glove factory that Seymour’s father created is one of the finest in literature.

The Gentlest of Fathers:
Mr. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

Even though Mr. Bennet’s main concern is securing good marriages for his daughters, it is evident that he also wants their happiness too. While Mrs. Bennet is in a tizzy, he is the calming hand in the family.

Probably the best film portrayal of this gentle father is the 2005 production directed by Joe Wright, who chose an acting master, Donald Sutherland, to play the role in part because Sutherland reminded him of his own father. He also thought Sutherland “showed the strength to be able to handle those six women.” Of all the Mr. Bennets, Sutherland is my favorite, and now it is always he whom I picture in my mind’s eye when re-reading the novel.

The Most Controversial of Fathers:
King Lear from Shakespeare’s play of the same name (c. 1606)

Since the 17th century, surely the most famous of fathers is King Lear. Every distinguished actor has played the role William Shakespeare created for British audiences more than 400 years ago. The play has evolved greatly over the years. Early on, men played women’s roles and then later women played men’s roles. Modern actor Glenda Jackson even played the demanding lead in both 2016 and 2019.

When the Puritans ruled England, theaters were shut down from 1642 until the Restoration (1660) and then again, under the mad rule of George III, from 1811 to 1820, so no King Lear was presented during those crazy eras.

The most ridiculous turn of events was the adaption of the play by Nahum Tate after the Restoration, which survived until the mid-19th century. It was entitled The History of King Lear, and in that version Lear and Cordelia live, and Cordelia marries Edgar. The Fool was eliminated totally in this rewrite. Fortunately, in the mid-19th century, Shakespeare’s original plot returned.

For the next three centuries, we’ve seen productions of Lear in most theater repertoires, movies have been made, three opera companies (Japanese, Finnish, and German) have produced it, and recently in 2018 a novel was published entitled The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton. The original play has had a long history, and here’s hoping it will endure long into the future.

The Most Confused of Modern Parents:
Toby and Rachel Fleishman from Fleishman Is in Trouble
by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (2019)

Toby and Rachel Fleishman are getting divorced and it isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s outright upsetting for the reader, who hears both sides of the story. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s been done before, but not like this. Brodesser-Akner’s style is compelling and agitating. It presents in a non-analytical way the frustrations of both parties. Reviewers are comparing the author to Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe as someone who brings contemporary society’s problems to the fore with a bang, but in the end does not leave us hopeless.

Katy Walkman, astute reviewer for The New Yorker, sums up the trouble of Fleishman, observing that the title may “refer to our collective exhaustion with a certain type of male protagonist. Brodesser-Akner is not simply knocking her main character off of his throne. She is, perhaps, staging a rescue.”

Editorial April 2020

“We found that trees could communicate, over the air and through their roots. Common sense hooted us down. We found that trees take care of each other. Collective science dismissed the idea. Outsiders discovered how seeds remember the seasons of their childhood and set buds accordingly. Outsiders discovered that trees sense the presence of other nearby life. That a tree learns to save water. That trees feed their young and synchronize their masts and bank resources and warn kin and send out signals to wasps to come and save them from attacks.”
― Richard Powers, The Overstory

We are facing harrowing times. Looking at the news each morning we wonder what devastation today will bring. The number of cases and deaths is mounting as coronavirus sweeps across the globe – affecting each country in turn, in a domino effect.

In Huatulco, tourists rushed to head home as governments issued travel warnings and encouraged people to stay inside. Businesses are heeding the call and temporarily closing their doors to protect employees and customers. The streets around the world are quiet. Each of us is glued to various screens for updates and connection.

We don’t know how long this will last or what the long-term effects will be as we realize just how fragile our normalcy is. There have been glimmers of hope, however, and testaments to the strength of the human spirit. The day Italians sang from their balconies filling the streets with joyful song, the number of videos being uploaded offering free classes, concerts and museum tours, shows just how important creativity is to the human experience.

There has also been a shift in our thinking, a need to think of the collective rather than the individual. The idea of working on preventing the spread by staying indoors – not to protect yourself but those around you. If there are repercussions to this world crisis, let this way of thinking remain. Let us carry it over into times of peace. Let us understand the limits of the boundaries we have created: race, class, status. The borders and boundaries we have erected in our desire to claim our identity. These are human-made divisions and if there is something we are learning from this crisis, it is that nature doesn’t care.

Nature will not be stopped by a wall or by how much money you have. As individuals, we are small and made smaller by thinking we stand alone – we are all in this together.

Until next month, stay safe.

Jane

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.