Library Books to Start the New Year

Libby, the email librarian, has been offering me “skip-the-line” books lately, with a seven day deadline to finish.  Ready to meet the challenge, I finished two books in record time, while ignoring others under the usual three week time frame.  The pressure to finish before Libby surreptitiously swallows my book back into the void is a challenge I cannot ignore.

The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half did not tempt me when it was first published, despite accolades from Barack Obama, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and others.  I usually buy a book immediately – hardback, if I can wait a few days,  or ebook, if I need it now  – sometimes even preordering, when a new book is one I want to read and review immediately.  When I order from the library, I  expect I will have forgotten why I did by the time it appears six months later on my screen, but Libby’s “skip-the-line” brought The Vanishing Half forward sooner than expected.

Mirroring the theme from the film Imitation of Life, with a black woman passing as white, Bennett creates a novel about twin sisters, one choosing to live her adult life as a black woman and the other as a wealthy white woman. Desiree returns to her mother’s house in the small Southern town where she grew up, while Stella moves on to the big city to marry a white man who knows nothing about her background.  Their lives grow predictably different, with one struggling through poverty and the other eventually becoming a college professor.  Their daughters meet as adults, with one in medical school in love with a transgender and the other a struggling blond actress.

A Local book club picked this book for a future zoom discussion and questions rifle through the story as well as in the ending. Looking beyond the issues of race, this all white female book group might consider Libby’s pointed analysis of the book: “how a person’s past shapes decisions, desires, and expectations, and explore… {how some} feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.”

Hidden in Plain Sight

Eighty year old author and former member of Parliament, Jeffrey Archer, is still writing compelling stories with delicious hanging threads at the end to tease readers into the next novel with his characters continuing their adventures.  Hidden in Plain Sight is the second book featuring Detective William Warwick. As with the Clifton Chronicles, the Warwick novels create a family saga, as the novels follow William through his career, his loves, and his family.  Using his trademark twists, Archer chronicles the characters’ triumphs and tragedies,   This one was easy to finish quickly, and a nice distraction from the present day world.

 

 

Looking Forward to 2021 in Books

Author Sophie Hannah reminded me that when I curse an inanimate object for getting in my way, causing me to smash my toes or bruise my elbow, it is, after all, not the inanimate object’s fault.  In an article listing her favorite books for the new year, Hannah notes:  “I’ve heard many say good riddance to 2020 and I understand why, but it also makes me want to correct the misunderstanding. A year is a moral-value-free and agenda-free unit of time. It has neither agency nor culpability. It’s merely a container inside which we have experiences.”

She suggests you start your 2021 reading with Abigail Dean’s Girl A a psychological drama about a girl whose new life starts when she escapes from an abusive family. “It’s a riveting page-turner, and full of hope in the face of despair.”  Publication: February 2

Fans of Kristin Hannah will be happy to know she has a new book – The Four Winds – set in the depression era of 1934 Texas. Elsa Martinelli must make the choice between the land she loves and moving west in search of a better life.   Publication: February 2, 2021

 

Here are a few more books to look forward to in 2021:

Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishaguro focuses on what it means to be human in his new novel Klara and the Seed.  Klara, an Artificial Friend, smiles and nods to customers in the store while tracking each day by the sun’s arc. When a mother and daughter adopt Klara, repressed emotion springs open, fleshing out Ishiguro’s themes of resilience and vulnerability in our crazy world.  Publication: March 2, 2021

Remember The Nest?  The author Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney returns with her next novel in Good Company, a tale of a marriage in mid-life and the secrets that threaten to upend the relationship between Flora and her husband, as well as with her best friend, Margot. Publication Date: April 6, 2021

Chris Bohjalian returns with a new thriller in Hour of the Witch. In Boston in 1662, A young Puritan woman plots her escape from an abusive marriage while being careful to avoid any accusations of witchcraft. April 20, 2021

The first novel in nearly a decade by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahira, Whereabouts is set in an unnamed city with the story’s first-person narrator a single woman in her mid-40s.   Lahiri wrote the novel in Italian and translated it into English. Publication: April 27, 2021

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead is an historical novel about a female aviator at the turn of the twentieth century whose disappearance becomes the basis for a big Hollywood production a century later. Publication: May 4, 2021

Jean Hanff Korelitz, whose book You Should Have Known became the basis for the HBO series The Undoing,  returns with another tale of deceit and betrayal. Jake, looking for his next bestseller, tries   literary theft to rise to stardom in The Plot.  Publication: May 11, 2021

More books to come.  Ann Patchett is promising a collection of essays in November, and Beatriz Williams has a new historical fiction in June.

Finally, back to author Sophie Hannah for a final recommendation – The Enchiridion by Epictetus

Epictetus was a slave and a Stoic who believed that “men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by the opinions about the things”. We can’t control what happens in the world, or even to our own bodies, but Epictetus believes we can always control our own minds by, for example, deciding to …be at peace with whatever we cannot prevent from happening.

I just ordered the paperback for $1.99 but you can get it for free on Project Gutenberg.

Looking forward to next year and more great books…

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of the Year That Shall Not be Named – in Books

With the end of a year like no other, I am again looking back to list the twelve books, one for each month, I especially loved reading.  This year, however, is tinged with the evolution of 2020 from high expectations at January to slow disintegration as the months wore on.

One of my favorite authors, humorist Dave Barry, offered his observations in his Year in Review 2020 – giving a few laugh out loud moments in following his monthly reminder of a year gone awry.  He inspired me to think about how my reading morphed with my own view of the world as history marched through a challenging year.

Here is my list of twelve books read and reviewed (click on the title to read the review) throughout the year.  My favorite has a star.

January:  What better way to start than a book with January in the title and doors magically opening to new worlds- Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January

February: The world news was getting a little scary, so I kept escaping to fantasy land with A.J. Hackwith’s The Library of the Unwritten

March: The world was really looking grim by now, so I turned to Jose Saramago’s story of how it all could be worse in Blindness

April: Spring didn’t really look like a flowery bower, so I buried myself in Eric Larson’s epic observation of Winston Churchill in The Splendid and the Vile

May: As the pandemic raged on, many of us wondered what life would have been like if 2016 had brought a different president; Curtis Sittenfeld filled the void with Rodham

June: By now, I was looking for a fictional world I did not live in; thankfully, Anne Tyler, one of my favorite authors, came through with a delightful The Redhead by the Side of the Road  *

July:  We all knew the pandemic was real when we heard beloved actor Tom Hanks had it in March, but his recovery led to his role in the movie adaptation of Paulette Jiles’ News of the World in July.  In July, I enjoyed Jiles’ new book Simon the Fiddler 

August:  By now it was clear my European travels were going to be curtailed for a while, but my dreams of Paris were fed vicariously by Liam Callanan’s Paris By the Book

September: Although I couldn’t visit my Los Angeles family, I could revisit favorite landmarks in Abbi Waxman’s The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

October: Graphic novels with short but philosophical views of life are hard to find these days. Calvin and Hobbes is in retirement, but Allie Brosh has her own brand of art and humor, easy to read and fun to explore, in Solutions and Other Problems

November: By now I was watching more TV than reading, and Netflix lured me into a series called “The Undoing.”  When I discovered it was based on a book, I had to reread Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known

December: The year is finally coming to an end, and I have been drinking a lot of coffee to wash down all the cookies, but none taking me back into the past like the Japanese translation of Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold

* Although I am still careful to drink up all my coffee before it gets cold, Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road was my year’s favorite.

What books do you remember from this year?  Any favorites to recommend?

What Me Worry – You Better Believe It

Today is Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day or just the day after Christmas.  St Stephen was the first Christian martyr, so maybe he is the best symbol of the season.

I discovered I have access to HBO Max last night.  I opted for the slow moving Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, Candace Bergman tale of three old friends on a reunion voyage on the Queen Mary II.  Meryl is a Pulitzer prize winning author (of course she is) about to win a prestigious literary award.  The other two are along for the ride, which turns out to be long-winded (a lot of talk, mostly awkwardly improvised) and little action until the end.  It put me to sleep and fit my grinch mood.  Try the new Wonder Woman instead, or just rewatch one of the old classics, if you really want to laugh or be moved (The Christmas Story or It’s a Wonderful Life).

I have the new Jeffrey Archer Hidden in Plain Sight and have been alternating between the fictional Royal Governess and the true story of The Little Princesses – all on my iPhone, but today I think I need to hold a book in my hand.  Maybe the William Kent Krueger paperback I’ve had sitting on the shelf.  He is usually an author who inspires or at least commiserates.

I’ve pretty much had it with the holidays and cooking and being good – bah humbug.  I hear about people traveling on planes anyway, the vaccine being delayed to the islands, the surge and the next surge as the virus keeps rolling along morphing into a different form, the Congress hoisted by their own petard, the president playing games, and on and on.  I know I should be looking for things to be grateful for, but, as I said, I am tired of being good.  I want to have coffee with a friend again, I want to go out to dinner again, I want to walk around the block and along the ocean without worrying about who is coming toward me again, I want to get on a plane again, I want to live my life again. Please.

Tomorrow I will raise myself back up to be a positive purveyor of optimism, but today I think I’ll just watch the rain, read my book, and wallow.

“4:00, wallow in self-pity. 4:30, stare into the abyss. 5:00, solve world hunger, tell no one. 5:30, jazzercize; 6:30, dinner with me. I can’t cancel that again. 7:00, wrestle with my self-loathing. I’m booked. Of course, if I bump the loathing to 9, I could still be done in time to lay in bed, stare at the ceiling and slip slowly into madness.” — The Grinch 

The Children’s Bible

Despite the virus plaguing the globe, the climate disintegrating, and politics continuing to stress our boundaries, we all hope this is really not the beginning of the end of the world.  Lydia Millet’s The Children’s Bible offers a strong vision cautioning it may be, but also offering hope for the future with the next generation.

As the book opens with privileged children and the worst wealthy parents ever imagined on a holiday, I wondered if Millet was offering a treatise on spoiled brats and irresponsible adults.  Jack, one of the young children, is enamored with his illustrated book of Bible tales, and Millet uses them to cleverly lull the reader into a strong message about what will happen if we all don’t shape up soon.

In his review for the Washington Post, Ron Charles says:

“A Children’s Bible” is ready to rain down God’s wrath on these hapless families. When a tremendous hurricane moves up the coast, their Gilded Age mansion is smashed by falling trees and then surrounded by polluted floodwaters. The adults panic. Confronted with gaping holes in the roof, a rising tide in the basement and no electricity, they get high, have sex, break down in fits of crying and fantasize about incremental steps they can take to fix everything. (To their credit, none of them thinks it’s a Chinese hoax.)

Amazingly, the book becomes a prophecy with stories becoming reality. Evie is the narrator (her name should offer a clue), and she tells the story with audacious humor and vicious asides. Through a flood (of biblical proportions) caused by climate change, pretty much everything in the area where the families have relocated for the summer is destroyed. To complement the Noah reference, the children save small animals in an arc. As the disintegration continues, a baby is born in a barn, a modern day crucifixion with a staple gun and a savior with a SWAT team in a rescue helicopter are among the many other biblical references.   The children morph into responsible beings as the adults continue to sabotage what world is left.

Just in case the reader has not yet connected to the message, Jack notes:

“God” is a code word. When the people in the book say God, they mean nature. What’s more, if God equals nature, then Jesus equals science. Jack makes a chart for comparison between Jesus and science: heals the sick — check; makes blind people see — check; “turns hardly any food into lots” …

“And the proof is, there’s lots the same with Jesus and science,” Jack says. “Like, for science to save us we have to believe in it.

In these days when wearing a mask can be controversial and the President of the United States claims science doesn’t always know (what causes climate change), Millet’s message could not be more timely.  And not by accident: Millet has a degree in environmental policy, and works for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

The Children’s Bible is shorter than I had anticipated – under 300 pages.  I’m glad Libby challenged me into reading it before my short library loan called it back, and now I understand its accolades as finalist for the 2020 National Book Award, one of New York Times’ ten best books of the year, one of Time’s ten best novels of 2020, and a New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book of 2020.

It’s not too late for activism or a return to science – or is it?