Being an avid reader, bookstore lover, and book collector, family and friends have often suggested that I start a book blog. It’s an intriguing idea to write about what I’m reading. Talking about books with people who like to read is pure pleasure for me. I’m not shy about offering my opinion on what I’m reading or what I’ve read. I keep a list of my favorite books handy in case anyone asks me for a recommendation. But, putting those thoughts and opinions into words on the page (or screen) seems risky. Who will read it? What if they don’t like what I have to say? Writers work hard to get their work published. What right do I have to criticize their writing? Who cares what I think anyway?
Well, I guess I’ll see. The owners of Flyleaf have agreed to let me take a stab at this. I appreciate the opportunity and will try to keep readers of this blog interested in buying and talking about books.
It took some time to figure out what books to write about first. I scanned the shelf of my most recent reads. Here is the list of books I’ve read in the past three months.
One Day by David Nicholls
The Snowman by Jo Nesbo
West of Here by Jonathan Evison
Old Filth by Jane Gardam
The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier
The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard
Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson
The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Tranck
The Long Song by Andea Levy
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Vaclav and Lena by Halley Tanner
Where to begin? Several of those titles have had a lot written about them. Here are four diverse books that may grab your attention.
The Australian, Brooks, may seem an odd author for such an American tale but she has had great success writing historical fiction. She is a dedicated researcher and the depth of detail she provides is a strength of her writing. Caleb’s Crossing is no exception. Brooks explores the possibilities of two lives crossing paths in a time when both Native Americans (Caleb) and American women (Bethia) had prescribed roles in the country; namely savage and helpmate. These characters strive to overcome those narrow life roles in a newly emerging culture. Some stereotypical interactions make me less fond of this novel than of People of the Book. It seems hard to avoid that trap when writing a story based on one surviving letter written by the actual Caleb who became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665. In a Washington Post review Paul Chaat Smith writes, “There is too much at stake in pre-modern New England, and Brooks’s achievement is that we see just how much that is, for the red characters and the white ones. They struggle every waking moment with spiritual questions that are as real and unending as the punishing New England winters.”
If you haven’t heard of Mieville, you will. He is an intelligent, iconoclastic writer with interesting views on life in the 21st century. The premise of this book is language as truth. The setting is a future where humans live along side aliens who can only communicate through two voices. A single voice is unrecognizable to the aliens as coming from a living being. They can only speak to dual speakers, clones who speak as one. Also particular to the aliens is their inability to lie. Mieville is a talented writer who is unrelenting in his command of his imagination and ability to convey it. Those with an interest in how language works and others who love a good story will enjoy this book. The Guardian’s James Purdan writes of Mieville, “To read fiction is, in some measure, to take those true untruths for granted, which makes it a paradoxical pleasure to come across a novel that reminds us so ingeniously and enjoyably of the conditions of fiction, and of the power that fictional language retains to shape and reshape our transactions with the world.”
As a native Pittsburgher O’Nan’s writing appeals to me because of the setting, but his simple portrayal of the rich internal world of an elderly woman alone and struggling to manage is moving. Emily is forced into independence after her companion and sister-in-law becomes hospitalized. Emily looks back on her life with her husband and children in a straightforward way and moves on by setting small goals for herself. The Boston Globes’ Mameve Medwed states, “In a portrait filled with both joy and rue, O’Nan does not wield a wide brush across a vast canvas but, rather, offers up an exquisite miniature. Just as Emily prefers Van Gogh’s depiction of a branch of an almond tree over the more spectacular “Sunflowers,’’ so, too, do we readers appreciate an ordinary life made, by its quiet rendering, extraordinary.”
Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner
This is Tanner’s first novel and it is a winner. She creates a world inhabited by immigrants from Russia who struggle with their assimilation. The title characters are two children who become friends because of proximity and ethnicity. Vaclav is fascinated by magic and enlists Lena in his plans to perform in his magic show on the Boardwalk on Coney Island. Vaclav’s mother, Rasia, sees what is developing between the two children but is unable to prevent the strength of their friendship even though she knows it might come to a tragic and necessary end. Susannah Meadows in the New York Times writes, “Ms. Tanner is such a strong storyteller, and her distinctive voice — winsome without being dopey — engulfs you immediately.”