A Running List of Books Read

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.

A Children’s Book – Perfect Therapy for Viral Times

In her essay for the New York Times Book Review today – “An Author Perfect for Now”  – Ann Patchett  talks about discovering award winning children’s book author Kate DiCamillo.  Amazingly, Patchett had never read any of DiCamillo’s books.  And her comment made me realize – not everyone knows about the wonders of children’s books.

Reminded of my traveling days when a good children’s book would carry me away and pass the long hours on a flight, I thought of the time I was surreptitiously reading Dahl’s BFG, trying to hide the cover from my seat mate, or the happy discovery of a discarded old Flat Stanley in the waiting area of an airport.   But, it seems, adults do not read children’s books – unless they are reading a story to a child,  If Ann Patchett had never read Kate DiCamillo, probably many well read adults had missed her too – along with Maurice Sendak, Beverly Cleary, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, Scott O’Dell, E.L. Konigsburg, and more.

With my attention span wavering between Saki’s short stories and the New Yorker’s one frame cartoons, a children’s book seems a likely diversion.

What’s your favorite children’s book?

If you are looking for ideas for reading, I have a list of children’s books I’ve reviewed.  The top three are written by Kate DiCamillo.   Click here for a list of children’s books

Three Hours

I found Rosamund Lupton in Heathrow airport during a long layover, and devoured her debut novel Sister before I boarded the plane.  Since then I have anxiously waited for her novels to travel across the pond; but Three Hours was too long to wait.  I still have not seen it in stores here but I found it through the Book Depository and escaped into its world, reading through it in one day.  I love it when a book captures me; it’s been a while since a story has been so compelling.

Three Hours reminded me of the first of Ann Patchett’s novels, Bel Canto, with its theme of hostages, terror, lives intersecting and morphing into positive and negative influences, with a well constructed plot leading to surprises at the end. Lupton updates her characters to students in a liberal British school, unknowingly infiltrated by a psychopath who has connected with a hate filled group.  Students tweet and send messages through all the current social media and learn how to make bombs and adapt machine guns on the internet; they are more adept than their teachers and parents, of course.  Two Syrian refugees, one who proves to be a hero, provide the fulcrum as the story unravels through three hours of terror in the school.

So much happens, the three hours could have been weeks, as the reader watches students, teachers, parents, and the attackers through the lens of innocence and bias.  Macbeth plays a pivotal role on the story, and as someone who has read and taught the play, I was impressed by how Lupton integrates Shakespeare’s universal themes into today’s world.  As their fellow students are held hostage in the library, barricaded by books, and in a small pottery shed, making clay animals, the seniors rehearse the play in the seemingly foolproof theater.  The play’s murders and the infamous witches are suddenly relevant to the horror around them, and Birnam Wood will never be the same.

A fast paced thriller with not so subtle implications for today’s world, Three Hours is another of Lupton’s amazing rides.

Related Posts:

Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

The Quality of Silence

Sister

 

 

 

American Dirt

I was inclined to not like this book with so much going against it  – Oprah picked it for her book club and several literary reviewers were critical of the author’s credentials to write about the topic. From the moment I started reading American Dirt, I could not put it down.  Jeanine Cummins does not have the easy style of  Isabel Allende or Sandra Cisneros nor the entrancing wording of Zafon or the magic of Marquez, but she knows how to tell a story.

American Dirt is the tale of a mother and her son trying to escape from a Mexican drug cartel after they witnessed the brutal murder of everyone they loved, including their grandmother, at a family barbecue. Luca is the brave intelligent eight year old with a penchant for memorizing geographical details; his mother, Lydia, is the college educated book store owner. Her husband Sebastian was the investigative journalist whose inflammatory articles precipitated the slaughter.

Following  Lydia and Luca as they narrowly escape through roadblocks, walk miles in the scorching heat, and hoist themselves onto the tops of cargo trains, creates a thrilling and breathless image of migrants trying to escape. Their flight to the North, as they leave behind their home, their language and culture, and their lifetime friends is depicted as their the only choice to be able to survive.

Cummins sometimes reverts to flowery descriptions, perhaps trying to balance the horrors, and sprinkles Spanish idioms and words into conversations, perhaps to offer authenticity. Both can be annoying distractions.  As the story develops, the journey is harrowing and fearful, with the tenseness of a thriller and the expectation and hope that all will be well in the end.  Cummins’ characters reveal the best and worst of themselves and of humanity.

The book ends on a hopeful note, with room for speculation about what new challenges the future will bring, but Cummins adds fifteen pages in her notes and acknowledgements at the end, explaining the purpose of the book, how she wrote it, and why she hopes reading it will change readers’ view of migrants and border policy – perhaps stirring the controversy she now finds in some of the reactions to the book.

The story is a thrilling page-turner.  Although the characters and scenes may be stereotypical, the historical notes are disturbing and timely.  As far as whether or not Cummins had the right to write the book, Leon Krauze noted in Slate:

“There is no reason, literary or otherwise, to challenge an author’s legitimacy to tackle any topic, much less based on her ethnicity or nationality. In both literature and journalism, examples abound of brilliant authors who have illuminated countries and themes that were, initially, outside their familiar milieu…”

However, he goes on to say Cummins’ main characters are frauds.  Migrants fleeing to the North ” are escaping poverty, not financially stable family lives. They do not run bookshops with a hidden section of favorite authors, but work in the fields, often struggling to feed their families. They are often fleeing drunk, abusive, or absent husbands, not an awkward love triangle with a smitten narco dandy.”  And, he notes, leaders of drug cartels could never be Bill Gates in this or any life, as the author suggests in describing her villain, Javier, the handsome aspiring poet who loves to read “Love in the Time of Cholera” (another Oprah pick).

Right, this is fiction, isn’t it?  Not a documentary.  Is the danger that some readers will forget?  Maybe…

Dear Edward

After reading Ann Napolitano’s essay ” Dear Me ” in the Sunday New York Times, I was intrigued by her idea to write letters to her future self.  Since her new novel has the salutation Dear Edward, I expected one of the characters in the novel to do the same – write letters to himself to be read in the future. i was wrong; letters do play a prominent role in the novel but from others to the main character, Edward.

In her novel, now on the bestseller list, Napolitano examines the coming of age of a twelve year old boy who is the lone survivor of an airplane crash.  All other passengers (191) including his parents and older brother die.  In her afterward, the author explains how she was inspired by a real story of a commercial flight from South Africa to London crashing in Libya in 2010 with only a nine year old boy surviving.  Her survivor is Edward who is relocating with his parents from New York City to Los Angeles.  Jane, his mother, is sitting in first class to finish the script of a movie she has been hired to edit, while Eddie is with his father and teenage brother in the back of the plane; Eddie has the window seat.

The reader knows early in the story about the crash and the author deftly maneuvers between the countdown to the inevitable in the plane cabin and Eddie’s new life with his aunt and uncle.  Watching Eddie  through his physical recovery, his metal anguish and survivor’s guilt, and his adjustment to his new life is not always easy but getting to know the passengers in first class with Eddie’s mother and in coach with his family has its merits, as long as you can forget they are all about to die. Eddie’s interaction with them is superfluous and fleeting yet their lives have a significant impact later when he receives letters from their relatives and friends.

Napolitano notes her writing is about “how we can make a meaningful life in the face of a devastating loss.”   Her scenario is extreme but we probably all can relate to someone who has managed to survive the unexpected and carry on successfully with the new normal in their lives.

I still like Napolitano’s idea of writing to herself in the future; letters can be powerful in a world where they have been replaced by faster electronic communication.  I may write a letter to my future self; I just hope I can remember where it is in five years.