My reading has been sporadic, and old New Yorkers are more likely to keep my attention these days than books, especially when the issues are before the coronavirus was a staple of society. The covers offer some solace too when they picture a Sunday morning outing from September, 2019 – not that long ago, or Anna Parini’s “A New Leaf’ from January, 2019. Short essays by David Sedaris and Adam Gopnick are refreshing. And then there are the cartoons…
But now and then a book appears, sometimes preordered in the mail or iBooks. A few I’ve read:
The Starlet and the Spy by J-Min Lee
A profoundly poignant tale of the effects of the Korean War on a young woman who survives the horrors on her country, only to recap the trauma in her mind as she tries to return to a normal life after the armistice. Alice J. Kim is a Korean translator and typist for the American forces, having abandoned her career as an illustrator and artist. When movie star Marilyn Monroe is scheduled to visit the American troops still in Korea, Alice is assigned as her translator. An unexpected friendship develops between the two women as Alice is forced to confront her past. Although Marilyn Monroe’s appearance in this short novel is small, her role triggers an unexpected note of women’s strength in dealing with their lives.
The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black
Black is the pen name of Man Booker Prize winning novelist John Banville. As Benjamin Black he uses mystery and crime in easy-to-read novels. In The Secret Guests, he creates a fiction about the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret being evacuated to Ireland during the war. If you are a devoted viewer of The Crown and a fan of Susan Elia MacNeal, this story will feed your curiosity about imagined conversations and feelings of the future Queen and her sister. Short and fun.
The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian
Having read Bohjalian before, I was expecting a page-turning thriller, and I was not disappointed. Maybe a little too close to current events, The Red Lotus reveals a story about a virus released globally – this time through rats. From a bike tour in Vietnam to a New York City emergency room, the story is fast-paced with just enough romance and horrors to keep you reading. Alexis, the emergency room doctor discovers her new lover has been lying about his background and his family. The energy packets he left behind where he was found dead lead to harrowing consequences, trailing with deceit and murder. Although the idea of reading about a global pandemic when we are all in one may not seem appealing, Bohjalian creates a solvable mystery with a happy ending.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Tempted by the possibility of hearing the author via crowdnet and motivated to support a local independent bookstore, I bought the book, read the story, and watched the interview broadcast. Although the author confirms he is not native Hawaiian, he weaves a tale about a poor Hawaiian family beset by the demise of the sugar cane plantations. The three children in the family follow a typical route by eventually leaving the island for college on the mainland – one with a basketball scholarship, another for an engineering degree, and the youngest and brightest to Stanford for pre-med – and all predictably find difficulty in adjusting to non-island life.
The youngest is also the fulcrum of the story; as a young boy he was rescued from drowning in the ocean by a shark. Suddenly, he becomes the Hawaiian Messiah, with real or imagined healing powers. Later, when his “powers” fail him as a paramedic, he returns despondent to his hometown; he dies accidentally or suicidally – it is up to the reader to decide. His brother replaces basketball with drug dealing and jail time, exiting to a life as a drug lord sending money back home. His sister leaves college to help her destitute parents, and works on a local farm in exchange for food. She, ultimately, becomes the savior, using her engineering skills to reconstruct and modernize the farm into a profitable business.
Sprinkled with Hawaiian local language and lore, the story may be more interesting to those looking to understand the plight of the Hawaiian family and the magical reasoning used to explain incidents and drive opportunities.