Mamie is particularly fond of short story collections and international fiction. She pulls together our Book Club Bashes (no small feat) and runs our Signed First Editions clubs.
“Thank you for this rainy day,” is all I could say as I plowed through Jennifer Egan’s new novel, Manhattan Beach (Scribner $28 pub date 10/2/17) . From the first few pages, where Anna Kerrigan goes with her father to meet Dexter Styles for business, I was hooked. With more twists than a mountain road and shocking revelations, the story of the Anna, her father, and Styles sped downhill to an explosive ending. The time period is World War II, but most of the novel takes place state-side where Anna is one of few female divers aiding in the war effort. There’s so much to talk about—Anna’s disabled sister who was such an interesting character, graft and corruption in the thirties and forties, the effect of war on civilians, love, lust…I could go on! Egan, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for A Visit from the Goon Squad, is one of our most versatile and powerful writers. I predict this one will be a winner too. (Manhattan Beach is the November selection of the Signed First Editions Club.
A young, unmarried pregnant woman. Sound familiar? I started the year reading about one in Kevin Wilson’s Perfect Little World. But the main character in Louise Erdrich’s new novel Future Home of the Living God, Cedar Hawk Songwriter, faces completely different obstacles for her and her unborn child. A descendant of Ojibwe Indians and adopted by a liberal white couple, Songwriter is part of a world where evolution has stopped and the days are full of uncertainty and strange, threatening people and creatures. As she wrestles with what the future holds, she juggles relationships with the father of her child, her birth family and her adoptive family. Food for thought about what the world might look like in the not-too-distant future.
Last year I recommended Marguerite Duras’ book The Lover. I just finished a book with similar themes and the same spare, no-frills writing, Tokyo Fiancée by Amélie Nothomb. The sparse writing is appropriate for the story of Amélie, a Belgian woman, and her Japanese lover, Rinri, and their unconventional affair and engagement. Although Rinri is in love with Amélie, she is in it only for the time being, as she immerses herself in all things Japan where she lived as a child. This book, translated from the French by Alison Anderson, is another great release in the Europa Editions series.
Sometimes, after I’ve read a great book by an author, I judge! When I picked up a copy of James McBride’s new collection of stories, Five-Carat Soul, I was prepared to be disappointed. How could he top The Good Lord Bird? Was I ever surprised in the best way possible! These stories have all the magnificent qualities of the National Book Award winning novel: quirky and poignant and hilarious characters amid life in myriad situations, humanity at its most human presented in beautiful writing. A couple of multi-story combinations read like novellas, and satisfied my craving to know more about the most interesting of those characters. McBride has set the bar high once again.
Mark Helprin’s books take up an inordinate amount of space on my “favorites” bookshelf. A Soldier of the Great War and In Sunlight and In Shadow are on my top ten list of favorite books. His new novel, Paris in the Present Tense, has earned a prominent place on the shelf too. The main character is a cellist named Jules Lacour. At seventy-four years old, he finds that he’s not living the life of ease he thought old age would bring. His beloved wife has died, his grandson is battling cancer, he runs afoul of the law and an insurance agency. I am always taken by Helprin’s gorgeous, dense writing and the way he weaves a compelling story. But this time around, I realized that one of the things I love most about him is the way he talks about the attraction that men have for women in ways that are fresh and alluring. I raced almost to the end of this 400-page book, captivated by the story, and then crept through the final pages, reluctant to be finished.
I ran across a Facebook post of mine about one of Richard Ford’s visits to Quail Ridge Books. I sang his praises! He’s a wonderful speaker as well as a great fiction writer. He brings this same candor and intelligence to his memoir, Between Them: Remembering My Parents. The book is written in two parts, the first about his father, and the second, his mother. It is a portrait of two adults who enjoyed each other’s company immensely, and who, when Richard was born, included him in that love. He combines his impressions of his parents as a child with knowledge that he gained as an adult to bring a rich portrait of growing up in the forties and fifties in the United States.
I knew nothing about Nina Riggs until I saw an essay of hers in The New York Times “Modern Life” column entitled, “When a Couch is More Than a Couch.” When the piece came out, Riggs was dying of cancer at the way-too-young age of 37. The column was lyrical and honest, and I knew that I wanted to read more of her writing when the memoir of her illness, The Bright Hour, came out. The memoir is full of the same honesty and beautiful prose (she was a poet). I read of her physical and emotional pain, and I witnessed the anguish of her husband and two young boys, yet there was nothing maudlin about the way she told her story. A descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Riggs has peppered the chapters with quotes by Emerson and her favorite essayist, the philosopher Michel de Montaigne. Although the story is heartbreaking, I came away from it with a renewed commitment to plucking the day, and great admiration for her willingness to share her story with us. Nina Riggs died on February 26 of this year.
If you want to develop empathy for the marginalized among us, read these stories. Gautreaux is to the Louisiana bayou what Ron Rash is to the Appalachians: a master at bringing out the flavor of the region. Through his delightful characterization and dark comedy, I came to an understanding with thieves, kidnappers, and those who reach out to help others without a thought to the consequences. His novels are what he’s mostly know for, but Gautreaux can tell a story short with the best of them! (Signals is a selection of the Signed First Editions Club.)
Beloved children’s author Morty Lear has died unexpectedly, and his live-in friend and manager, Tomasina (Tommy), is left to deal with her grief and his belongings. One of Morty’s books, about his most well-loved character Ivo, is being made into a movie played by the dashing actor Nick Greene, and he wants to know all about Lear in order to perform authentically. Tommy’s brother Dani has financial problems, and was the inspiration for Ivo when he and Tommy were young. Add a museum director who, before Lear’s death, was promised some of his drawings as the cornerstone of her new endeavor, a gay lover, clandestine affairs, and voila! Complications ensue. In my opinion, Glass has written her best novel since the award-winning Three Junes.
In Orhan Pamuk’s novel, The Red-Haired Woman, a well-digger, Master Mahmut, and his apprentice, Cem, go to the countryside in Istanbul to dig a well for a wealthy customer. Master Mahmut is a father figure for Cem, telling stories and imparting wisdom to the apprentice, whose father has abandoned the family. Cem’s dream is to become a writer, and for this he is willing to do the back-breaking work necessary to raise money for his schooling. When the boy goes to town and sees a mysterious red-headed woman, he becomes fascinated with her. The novel is full of page-turning suspense, passion, and parallels to Greek mythology (such stories told to Cem by Master Mahmut and realized in the novel). Following the climactic events of the book, the red-headed woman tells her story, ending the novel with a twist.
It is so easy to see people who commit acts of terrorism as nameless, soulless people, and that is why this novel is so important. I came to see intimately the lives of three young boys and their families who were deeply affected when one of the boys sets off a bomb in a crowded Delhi market. The tragedy is not to be dismissed, and Mahajan forces us to starkly examine that also. An important book, timely and necessary if we are ever to look terrorism in the face and put an end to it.
Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time, begins in a dance class, where the unnamed main character meets Tracey, a girl very different from her. Tracey is the child of a white “dance mom” and a black father who is in prison. The narrator’s mother is a renegade intellectual, her father steady but unimpressive. While Tracey pursues her dance career, the narrator becomes a personal assistant to a famous pop star named Aimee. As the novel “swings" back and forth between continents and years, the two friends weave in and out of each other’s lives, and the narrator searches for her place in the world apart from the overbearing women in her life.
I can always count on any book short-listed or selected as a winner for the Man Booker Prizes to stretch my boundaries. The winner of last year’s Man Booker International Award, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, is no exception. The novel is told in three parts from three different characters’ points of view. A young wife, Yeong-hye, makes a commitment to eschew meat because of disturbing dreams she has, and the repercussions have a devastating effect on not only her, but her husband, brother-in-law, and sister. This is not a book for those looking for a light read, but Deborah Smith’s translation of Kang’s book, originally written in Korean, is lyrical and hypnotic. I was unable to put the book down, morbidly fascinated by the deterioration of these people and their relationships.
Last week, I sat in an Adirondack chair in the North Carolina mountains, and was transported to a graveyard in India through Arundhati Roy’s haunting new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Each of the main characters—Anjum, a transsexual woman; Tilottama, a woman involved with many men but in love with only one; and Musa, the man with whom she is obsessed—were complex and fascinating people. Bolstered by the peripheral characters, all three exhibit tenderness and toughness in equal measure. The story is set firmly in the political and social tensions of the time. Roy spares no details in exposing the reader to the horrors experienced by those who became a part of the resistance and the consequences faced by their loved ones. It has been many years since the publication of Roy’s last novel, The God of Small Things. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness will sustain us while we wait for more of her engaging characters and beautiful writing.
On Mother’s Day, I took some time to rest and read. I was well into the new book by Elizabeth Strout, Anything is Possible, when I came to the story entitled, “Mississippi Mary.” In the way such things happen, this story is about a mother’s love for her daughter. The story was so poignant and moving (well, I do have three daughters!) that at one point I had to stop reading and take time with my thoughts and feelings before I could finish. Anything is Possible, like Strout’s award-winning book, Olive Kitteridge, is an episodic novel—stories about recurring characters. In the new book, the stories revolve around the title character in My Name is Lucy Barton, her family, and her community. Although the mother/daughter story was my favorite, each of the stories in this novel exhibits Strout’s powerful way of getting into the hearts of her characters and of her readers.
Nancy Olson and I loved Adam Haslett's story collection, We Are Not Strangers Here. His new book, a novel entitled Imagine Me Gone, incorporates the same exquisite writing and intriguing characterization. He has created a beautiful story of a family haunted by mental illness. Early in the book, the father commits suicide to escape his demons, and the family is left to pick up the pieces. The oldest son suffers from the same demons, the youngest son is the peace-maker of the family, and the daughter struggles with balancing the needs of the family with a troubled but safe relationship. There is a Christmas scene that makes me think Haslett was eavesdropping in my living room this year! The characters are so vibrant and their situations so moving that I continue to think of them now that I've read the book to its compelling ending. Haslett has been a Pulitzer and National Book Award Finalist; I predict this will make top ten lists for 2016.
Readers who loved All the Light We Cannot See and other well-written novels of World War II will fall in love with Chris Cleave’s new book, Everyone Brave is Forgiven. Cleave, the author of Little Bee, has brought his remarkable storytelling skills to this novel of four people touched by the war: Mary North, her fiancé Tom, her best friend Hilda, and Tom’s friend Alistair. Although there is romance in the book, there is no sentimentality. We see the psychological and physical scars of war first-hand. The New York Times, in reviewing Little Bee, said, “Cleave uses his emotionally charged narrative to challenge his readers’ conceptions of civility, of ethical choice.” The same can be said of Everyone Brave is Forgiven.
I had to check the internet to confirm that William Boyd’s novel, Sweet Caress, wasn’t about a real person, so convincingly does he tell Amory Clay’s story. Her father carries wounds from his experiences in the First World War, and Amory becomes close to her uncle Greville as a result. When her uncle gives her her first camera, the story takes off, and Amory travels throughout Europe and the United States as a photographer. I loved her from the beginning and admired the intrepidness that led her to dark and strange places and people in her quest for the perfect shot. The book includes photographs which enhance the story of this wonderful character and her romp through the 20th century.
One of the Boys: A Novel, by Daniel Magariel, sheds light on the untenable situation that many children find themselves in when their parents do not split amicably. The boys, a twelve-year old and his older brother, are trapped in a web of addiction, mental illness, deceit, and manipulation while trying to hold on to some semblance of normalcy outside the home. Beautifully written, painfully honest, this small but powerful debut novel is just the start for an author that I hope will be writing for us again and again.
In chapters that alternate between the past and the present, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley explores how the literal and figurative scars of one’s history change everything about the present. Hawley and his daughter Loo have moved to the Massachusetts coast where his late wife is from. The story moves at breakneck speed through the twelve flashbacks about Hawley’s many narrow escapes from death, then slows down as Loo comes of age and deals with the mystery surrounding her mother’s death. I loved the way Tinti took Hawley and turned him into an unlikely hero. (The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is the April selection for our Signed First Editions Club.)
I want everyone in the world to read this book. It is the most beautiful book I’ve read in ages—ever? It took me a few pages to grasp what was going on, but once I did, the language, the characters, the historical data, and the setting all combined to keep me in my seat until I’d read every heart-wrenching page. According to Tibetan tradition, the bardo is the place where we go after our death until we are born into our next life. It is in the bardo that a chorus of characters in the Greek tradition observe Abraham Lincoln mourn the death of his son, Willie. Every book club, every high school and college student of literature, everyone who appreciates exquisite writing and deep emotion will fall in love with Lincoln in the Bardo. Lincoln in the Bardo is the March selection for the Signed First Editions Club.