Denise Nicholas: Freshwater Road
Fear and no air--that's what Freedom Summer volunteer Celeste Tyree wakes up to every morning in fictional Pineyville, Mississippi. After the disappearance of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, she becomes the lone staff member assigned to a town well-known for lynching. Nurtured in Detroit's African American community, and defiant in her choice of a bohemian white boyfriend, the University of Michigan sophomore has never before had to confront such unabashed, virulent racism. An intimate portrait that tracks Celeste's changing emotions almost minute to minute in Pineyville's claustrophobic yet culturally rich community, this novel is one of the best representations of the daily lived experience of a Freedom Summer volunteer. Written by icon of my childhood, Denise Nicholas of TV's "Room 222" fame, the story has an autobiographical feel. Nicholas was part of the Free Southern Theater, a movement theater and educational group founded in 1963 at Jackson's Tougaloo College. Nicholas helps to de-mythologize Freedom Summer by portraying a young black woman's ambivalence, sexuality, tensions with her mother, fear and bravado, and slow emergence into leadership. Other characters are complex and richly-drawn as well--her host, an older woman widow named Geneva Owens, and Reverend Singleton, in whose church she creates the most modest of Freedom Schools--that is until it is burned down. Vulnerability, tenuousness, and tenacity--"Freshwater Road" reminds us that change-makers do not have to be superhuman to answer history's call.
Tea Obreht: The Tiger's Wife: A Novel
Can one have Yugo-nostalgia if one has never set foot in the real Yugoslavia? Belgrade-born, youthful (!) author Tea Obreht (b. 1985) reminds me of what I loved about working in the post-Yugo world from 1997 to 2007. Her characters manifest that uniquely Balkan combination of fierceness and sweetness. This tale follows the intertwined fates of two doctors--a grandfather and his grand-daughter--set within, yet transcending, the region's ethnic conflicts. This novel is an expertly-crafted, mesmerizing story of childhood bonds, humanism, spirituality, mythology, and the havoc wrought by superstition and vengeance. "The Tiger's Wife" held me in its spell until the mysteries were revealed, illustrating the ongoing tension between empirical knowledge and mythological belief as ways of understanding life and human experience. The escaped tiger reminds us of the place wildness holds in our imagination, while the kindnesses rendered in the story highlight the possibility of remaining human under extreme circumstances.
Did I forget to mention that Death is one of the main characters? How did someone so young, born in Belgrade, but raised in the US, create such a deep meditation on what survives after brutal conflict and death? Hope, understandably, is not something handed down from generation to generation in the Balkans. Yet, Obreht leaves us with something beautiful. First she masterfully seduces the reader into yearning for happy endings, and then confront us with our own naivete.
That may sound bleak, but the experience of reading the novel invokes wonder and sustenance--and the embodied knowledge that above all else, stories endure.
Hilary Mantel: Bring Up the Bodies
History versus literature? What was more chilling: to stand in March at the very spot of Anne Boleyn's execution inside the Tower of London or to co-conspire with Thomas Cromwell's sinewy thought processes in Hilary Mantel's intimate re-telling of the queen's downfall? The novel, which I devoured, wins easily.
Machiavelli would have been proud of Mantel's ability to portray the almost imperceptible shifts of favor at Henry VIII's court. Perception determined political outcomes then as it often does today.
Though we read this novel knowing its inevitable outcome, we are riveted by every twist and turn because of Mantel's genius for character development and plot structure. Interactions are vivid; the scenery lush; and the deux ex machina utterly delicious.
The uniqueness of this book, a sequel to Mantel's "Wolf Hall," winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, is its look at Tudor court intrigue through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from humble origins to become Henry's Chief Minister. Cromwell is usually demonized and juxtaposed to Thomas More, the "man for all seasons," who died defending Catholicism while Henry VIII created his own church in order to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn.
In Mantel's telling, Cromwell is a much more nuanced character, at turns empathetic, compassionate, and cold-blooded in his duty to advance Henry's cause and thus his own fortune. Hilary Mantel's re-telling enables the reader to understand viscerally that historical outcomes we retrospectively see as inevitable were actually quite fungible.
This is the glory of both literature and historiography--I love them both.
Ann Patchett: State of Wonder
An anaconda almost squeezes the life out of an adorable, deaf indigenous boy; an ornery pregnant 73 year-old (yes, that's part of the tale) scientist prepares to pass on her legacy; and a middle-aged lipid researcher licks tree bark to maintain her fertility. These odd folks, living near the indigenous Lakashi and a grove of magic mushrooms, grope toward human connection deep inside the Amazon.
Easter, the deaf boy saved from his cannibalistic Hummoca tribe, and Anders, the researcher whose mysterious death sets the narrative in motion, seem like the only likeable characters in this tale.
Dr. Marina Singh and Dr. Annick Swenson are two of the most odd and least sympathetic female protagonists we have encountered in recent fiction. Yet Ann Patchett snares us into their entwining lives like the vines that choke the unrestrained vegetation they hack through in order to do their work. Her narrative skill is so great that not only did I have the sensual experience of getting lost in the jungle, I developed empathy for these two women.
The reader has to remain in a state of wonder to believe the implausible ending, but it is a fairy tale anyway, so why not suspend disbelief for pure narrative pleasure?
I do love Ann Patchett's writing and was hungry for a new novel. Nevertheless, Bel Canto remains my favorite, with The Magician's Assistant a close second. You will have to make your own decision about whether to invest in reading these 350 pages.
Emmanuel Jal: War Child: A Child Soldier's Story
Emmanuel Jal brings a creative new voice to the growing genre of former child soldier memoirs, weaving in the role of music in his life. He recounts in riveting detail the first attacks on his village in Sudan, his father's "enlistment" of him with Sudanese rebels, the hardening of his heart to death and killing, fleeting friendships, forced marches, starvation, and revelation in the desert. Having read a number of similar stories, what I liked best about this one were his unadorned descriptions of how music and spiritual belief sustained him. He does not romanticize any aspect of his life story and claims his own ambiguities, doubts, regrets and struggles. Knowing now that South Sudan has finally gained its independence makes reading about the sacrifices one young soldier made in the 1990s even more poignant.
Francine Prose: Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles (Eminent Lives)
As bold in voice as her subject was provocative in art, Francine Prose's brief biography of Caravaggio enlightens, seduces, and delights. She deftly provides artistic and historic context with the right fact, anecdote or image. The reader can smell the streets and feel the hot-headed artist's blood boil when he fails to get the recognition he deserves. The artist and writer share sensitivity, passion, and absolute fidelity to a realist aesthetic.
Timothy Snyder: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
This book grabs you by the throat and confronts you with stunning facts that turn Holocaust historiography on its head. In fact, Snyder forces several cognitive shifts by coining the term "Bloodlands" to describe the region where both Nazi and Soviet crimes of mass murder occurred in the same period (1933-1945). He places the murder of 6 million Jews in a larger context of mass murders, neither denying nor reifying the uniqueness of the racial murder of the Jewish people. He documents that the Nazis murdered more Jews with a shot to the head over ditches in occupied Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus than in Auschwitz and other killing sites. He illuminates the dialectical relationship of Nazi and Stalinist policy. These shifts force us to think regionally and holistically, rather than, as Synder suggests, allowing this history to be hijacked for individual nationalist purposes--country by country, ideology by ideology.
Extremely well-written with crisp chapter-openings and sweeping synthesis, "Bloodlands" is almost impossible to put down. That is until you get to descriptions of intra-familial cannibalism during the Soviet's forced starvation of three million Ukrainians.
What does it mean that the Nazi and Stalinist regimes murdered 14 million noncombatants in 12 years? Snyder insists on the individual humanity of each of these 14 million people, citing victims' last documents to bring their voices to life.
As an American Jew, the Holocaust history I learned consisted of "Arbeit Mach Frei" ("work makes you free" on the gates to Auschwitz) and the guilt-inducing "never again." Then I worked for a decade in post-soviet space, desperately trying to understand the region's history without the taint of cold war historiography. It was as if the two most critical histories of the 20th century ran parallel to each other. Timothy Snyder has healed my cognitive dissonance and judging by the book's surprising success, we all may just learn a few salient lesson's from the 20th century.
Mary Johnson: An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life
As a secular Jewish girl growing up in 1960s Brooklyn, I was fascinated by the nuns who swooped into our public school class on Wednesday afternoons to gather Catholic students for two hours of weekly religious instruction. The Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of Our Lady of the Rosary of Sparkill, New York ran St. Edmunds, a gothic church and girls prep school plunked down in a middle-class Jewish and Italian neighborhood. The austere majesty of the nun’s black habits and wimples convinced me they were teaching my classmates esoteric things and I felt envious.
With her powerful and compulsively readable new book about her 20 years with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, Mary Johnson has satisfied my own unquenchable thirst to lift the veil and see how nuns really live.
Although I was always frankly a bit suspicious of Mother Teresa and annoyed at her position on abortion, I was shocked at the life she created for her nuns. The order’s near-medieval austerities included self-flagellation, severe prohibitions against any human touch, rigidly controlled daily schedules, eating what the poor ate, and physically hard labor.
Poignantly portrayed is19-year old Mary’s yearning to create a pure, authentic, and meaningful life by serving the poor. She joined the order in 1977, the same year I started down a parallel secular path—to make the world more just by working for women’s rights. The grand goals and culture of the 1960s were gone and it was hard for intelligent, strong-willed young women to know how to contribute. I identified with her desire for ideological purity and a totalizing living experience that embodied one’s values.
Mary went through a rigorous process to become Sister Donata. A very spiritual person with insuppressible leadership qualities, when she follows her instincts for compassion or right action, she invariably breaks the rules and takes the punishment. Heartbreaking is her belief that she is not working hard enough to be a good sister. She constantly tries to be obedient but cannot eliminate her critical thinking. Her attempts to subtly reform the order’s foundational text and internal politics are inspiring and doomed.
The sexually naïve Sister Donata also has confusing connections with a predatory lesbian nun and her own caring confessor, Father Tom. She is courageous and honest in portraying these relationships as well as taking the difficult step of demystifying Mother Teresa and her Sisters.
Ultimately it is love that propels Sister Donata out of the order—not specific love of one person, but love of life and freedom.
I highly recommend this intimate, multi-layered portrait of a woman’s life—it will be released in mid-August 2011. As a writer and one of the founders of AROHO—A Room of Her Own Foundation, perhaps Mary Johnson has found her current vocation in encouraging all women to write and tell their truths.
- Lynn Nottage: Ruined
Lynn Notage won a Pulitizer Prize for her play based on interviews she conducted with Congolese women in eastern DRC and Uganda. Set in a mining town in the Ituri rain forest, the story gives agency to women survivors of sexual violence. With tough love, brothel owner Mama Nadi shelters the tragic young women who work for her. Impertinent Josephine waits to be rescued by her Lebanese merchant client. Salima's rebel husband returns to make amends for rejecting her after her sexual violation but it is too late. Sensitive, beautiful, and educated Sophie is "ruined" so she cannot service men. The ability of Mama Nadi and the girls to shelter Sophie seems contrived. Mama Nadi inevitably gets caught in a vise grip between the rebels and government troops. This plot crisis best captures the overall DRC conflict with its complex cycles of violence, revenge, and side-switching. At the play's end, Mama Nadi takes a well-deserved chance at personal happiness, but like the play itself, it seems a bit too good to be true.
Paul Auster: Sunset Park: A Novel
With his crisp, disconsolate sentences, Paul Auster portrays our collective brokenness through the stories of four lost young squatters in Sunset Park, a liminal neighborhood below Park Slope, soon to be inhabited--inevitably, inexorably from the Brooklyn real estate point of view--by those who can no longer afford this precious privileged village or those who can no longer stand the entitled strollers on Seventh Avenue. Auster reminds us that as the oblivious breeders carry on, many of their socioeconomic brethren are suffering in the country's crisis of money, meaning, and mobility. Miles Heller, the book's protagonist, sends himself into an exile of underachievement after a juvenile act ends in unintended tragedy. His parents and step-parents represent the creative and thinking professions sputtering to survive in a sorrowful era gone out of control--an actress, an academic, a book publisher, and a documentary filmmaker. When his mother asks why he embarked on his 7-year exile, Miles says he wanted to become a better person, "got addicted to the struggle," and forgot "why I was doing it any more." Does this represent the exhaustion of the Boomers' quest for self-knowledge and enlightment? With "Sunset Park," Auster proclaims 2010 the Year of Ennui. Rendered with accuracy and sensitivity, the quartet of primary characters in their late 20s clutch at art, sexuality, and relationships to grab onto meaning. The only hopeful character in the novel is the luminous Cuban-American Floridian, Pilar--a smart, sensitive high school student who represents the future's untapped potential.
Lan Samantha Chang: All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost: A Novel
This graceful metanarrative about writing, choice, loss, and life lulls us into caring about seemingly unlikeable characters--the icy poet/professor Miranda; the handsome, arrogant student Roman; and his friend, the humble ascetic poet Bernard. Chang, director of the Iowa Workshop, courageously portrays the treacheries of seeking professional success through art. Like Franzen, she carries us through melancholy and comes out--clear-eyed-- on the side of love and loyalty. Chang writes of the reunion of now middle-aged grad school friends: "Bernard, at 48, was as good as a stranger, but at the mere sight of him Roman became aware of the compendium of his own life, organized by time as if in separate rooms of a house, precious items left to gather dust along with the clutter of years. A door had opened, old possessions uncovered, a part of himself." While enjoying the trappings of his compromised "success," Roman constantly thinks of Bernard, writing poetry in his bare studio apartment. "More than once, while be driven along some unfamiliar highway somewhere in the middle of the continent, he recalled images from Bernard's manuscript: the delicate, pale light of the north, the sky coruscating with migrating birds, the green earth sloping, tumbling down to the great river." Authenticity triumphs quietly over regret in this beautiful novel.
Jonathan Franzen: Freedom: A Novel
Damn that Oprah for hyping this book before I had a chance to love it just for itself. It's been a long time since I've stayed up late inhaling chunks of a narrative. I kept trying to resist this 562-page juggernaut because Franzen was everywhere. But the man deserves all the accolades he is getting plus my own gratitude. This is the first novel I've read that captures the slow drip moral water torture of coming to adulthood alongside the Reagan Revolution. Talkin' about my generation.
Just a few simple (ha) characters--the protagonist Walter Berglund, a very decent man; his co-protagonist and wife Patty; and his best friend and foil, the bad boy rocker Richard Katz who "bore a strong resemblance" to Muammar el-Qaddafi. This was one of many times I just laughed out loud and would have high-fived Franzen if he had been in the room. Was there a resonance with my own absurd obsession with the anti-communist, Heritage Fund-backed Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi--just because his name, often in the news, rolled trippingly off the tongue? Franzen peppers the book with a million references that resonate with our disconnected, disenfranchised, disenchanted post-baby-boom generation: a wedding at Mohonk Mountain House; Walter's dylanesque roots in Hibbing; Patty's New York Jewish shrewish feminist politician mother; young East Asian reformer Lalitha's deadly earnestness, and so many others.
My own, admittedly perverse, subjective favorite detail was the name of a band: Tutsi Picnic. I howled, my decade of human rights work threatening to go the way of Walter's morally compromised environmental stewardship.
There were just a few distracting didactic sections. Franzen should have trusted the reader to understand how all this culminated in the catastrophe that was George W. Bush. He captured the zeitgeist as one long, slow demoralization/ennervation.
The women characters were astonishingly well-drawn. Patty's wry autobiography, which moves much of the plot forward, is emotionally authentic. Male and female characters combine strength and sensitivity, including the interesting permutations of the next generation. Walter and Patty's Republican capitalist son (worst nightmare) displays emotional generosity and protectiveness toward his complex, tortured parents.
Those of us who decided not to be yuppies tried so hard to be good. The more we tried, the worse the world got. It was scary to start missing the original tricky Dick--we'd trade him in a second for the evil Cheney.
After a while, Walter and Patty got tired of being good. To their children's horror, they rebelled--and suffered for it.
Franzen proved his genius by carrying the reader to what could have been a saccharine ending--and wringing just the slightest bit of hope and redemption out of many betrayals--large and small.
Cathleen Schine: The Three Weissmanns of Westport: A Novel
Like "Sex and the City" for the female intelligentsia, this novel is a perfect evocation of the collective existential crisis of three female Weissmans--two sisters and their mother. When the father takes off with a younger woman, the three women go into a tailspin based on their individual circumstances, but they try to weather it together. They move into the funky summer cottage of Cousin Lou, a holocaust survivor and successful businessman, whom Cathleen Schine imbues with all the infuriating and adorable characteristics of the quintessential Jewish relative. Living together for the first time since the girls' childhood, the three women grieve and survive and try to reconstitute themselves. Betty, the mother, has the greatest struggle because she has never had to take care of herself before. High-powered Miranda nixes the melodrama and softens up. Overly-serious Annie finally stops taking care of everyone long enough to recognize her own needs. This sweet and sour novel is both tender and agonizingly real. Cathleen Schine brings this early 21st century female world of love and ritual to life with enormous skill. A great summer read.
Lucette Lagnado: The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World
Though we were female Jewish teenagers in Brooklyn at approximately the same time, Lucette Lagnado and I could not have had a more different life experience. Born into a large elite traditional Jewish family in Egypt (with roots in Aleppo, Syria), Lagnado writes lovingly of the world she and her family left behind when they fled the Nasser regime's increasingly hostile environment in the early 60s.
She writes evocatively and lovingly about her father's fall from life as a man about Cairo in his white sharkskin suit to the humiliations of immigrant life, misunderstood even by well-meaning Ashkenazi Jews in Bensonhurst. Lagnado's greatest achievement is portraying the relationship between her father's touching piety and his utter willfulness as a traditional family patriarch desperately trying to protect his family against many odds, including illness.
It helped me better understand the world my Uncle Sam Gindi grew up in. I'm proud to know him as the black sheep of the wealthy Gindi clan--who was shunned for choosing to marry outside the clan for love; my Aunt Dottie was neither Syrian nor wealthy.
The reader cannot fail to be swept along with Lagnado's rich, mesmerizing, heartbreaking, and redemptive journey. A very compelling read, highly recommended.
Achy Obejas: Ruins
This slim and suspenseful novel has a great deal of heart. The deceptively simple narrative conveys the dawning of post-communist disillusionment in Cuba when the second great wave of immigrants took to their flimsy rafts while the U.S. prepared to invade Haiti to reinstall Aristide. It was particularly poignant to read this book in the Caribbean, just six days after the earthquake decimated Haiti. Usnavy, the protagonist, a tender and ideologically naive veteran of the revolution, is drawn toward his own destruction by the siren song of early capitalism. He engages in trade purely to make life a little easier for his beloved wife and daughter. A number of historical threads are woven throughout the book, including a surprising encounter with a highly-skilled crafts tradition maintained by Jews. Having spent ten years working in early post-soviet societies, I had both sympathy and dread for the few remaining idealists in this lovely, sad story. They/we are an endangered species today under all types of political regimes.
Colum McCann: Let the Great World Spin: A Novel
For a tale that winds around one act of extreme hubris, this novel is as pure and still as Philip Petit up on that wire. Yet the story is full of the brio and energy that is New York. We taste the grit in our teeth, cram against each other in collective craning bliss, and revel in the fact that a hundred stories can emerge from each subway car. The narrative follows the inter-twined lives of a diverse set of 1970s New Yorkers: an Irish hippie priest and his brother, a mother daughter hooker duo, an artsy heiress, four mothers grieving their sons lost in Vietnam, a Jewish judge, and the omnipresent cops, doormen, and hack drivers whose subjectivity we rarely pause to recognize. But the main protagonist is New York City, in all its noisy, smelly, crazy beauty. I understand why September 11 might have catalyzed this novel, but it’s beside the point. Colum McCann’s lush writing would help non-New Yorkers understand our fierce love of this city even if that world-changing event had never happened. Coming to care about his characters heightens my own 70s memories: my father making whiskey sours for backyard barbecues; watching the Watergate hearings with my mother as she reviled Richard Nixon; my constantly stoned homeroom teacher; the thrilling terror I felt driving past the Son of Sam murder sites; thousands of gay men dancing to Gloria Gaynor on the Christopher Street pier; driving to high school so we could dash over to Nathan’s for lunch. Pivoting his narrative around the events of one day, Colum McCann illuminates the lovely density that could characterize any day in the city.
William Zinsser: On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
This book is a writing-coach-in-a-box. William Zinsser has a calming effect and offers some very useful suggestions to enhance one's writing practice. He demystifies the life of a working writer in encouraging ways, while at the same time revealing with warm humor why the path is so challenging. I wanted to hug this book and thank William Zinsser personally. I'll probably have to get in line with the one million people who bought this book in the last 30 years. Zinsser will write a corny line like the one that precedes this sentence if it conveys his mood and meaning. He models comfort in his own voice and that's a gift.
Monique Truong: The Book of Salt: A Novel
Written from the perspective of Binh, the saucy Vietnamese cook of Gertrude Stein and Alice B, this delightful novel allows the reader to indulge in the sensual pleasures of 1930s Paris. As someone who could care less about the cooking of food and its related movements--slow, fast, meandering, etc. what I found most enjoyable were Binh's subversive yet loving digs at the royal couple. I started this book on a plane and devoured it in a hammock.
Colm Toibin: Brooklyn: A Novel
Eilis Lacey grows up in 1950s Ireland in the shadow of her gregarious older sister Rose. Family circumstances dictate that the more reserved Eilis will accept Father Flood's offer to help her get a job and re-locate to his Brooklyn parish. Expertly paced, the story of Eilis' adjustment to her new environment unfolds with calm, beautiful, simple language. Torn between the old world and the new, Eilis must make a choice between two men she has grown to love. Colm Toibin portrays the inner life and social world of Irish women with great mastery, insight and affectionate respect.
Louis Maistros: The Sound of Building Coffins
Wandering around the Fauborg Marigny, I came upon the gay bookstore and went in search of a book I had read about. I couldn't remember the name, but the review had said, "No novel since 'A Confederacy of Dunces' has done such justice to New Orleans." That is how I described it to the skeletal man behind the counter, standing indifferently amid claustrophobic piles of books.
He immediately pointed down to this one and I grabbed it. I didn't start reading it until weeks later, eagerly anticipating wry, knowing chuckles a la "Confederacy."
No chuckles ensued. The book opens with a boy rebirthing fetuses in the moonlit Mississippi River. The boy's name is Typhus Morningstar, brother of Malaria, Cholera, Diptheria and Dropsy.
Louis Maistros, a former forklift operater, has woven a very dark and complex tale that is really unlike anything else I have read. He captures that very thin vibration between vice and beauty that is the essence of New Orleans.
The story is set in 1891 and ends with a flood. Bodies rise; time is circular; curses are lifted at great expense; and the water trumps all--inexorably.