Every year at this time I share books that that may interest my readers. What I have discovered in year two of the Trump administration is how I often have I sought escape into fiction, though it is fiction with a political edge.
Waking Lions by Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is a thriller about a neuro-surgeon who, having done a double shift at his hospital, lets off steam by driving his SUV at high speeds on a dessert road very late at night. He hits a man and, having ascertained that death is inevitable (his brain is split like a cantelope), gets back in his car and takes off. The wife of the victim, an Eritrean illegal, finds the doctor’s wallet, goes to his home and extorts him. She demands that he provide medical care in an abandoned garage to other illegals, Which he does night after night. Tension mounts because the doctor’s wife, a police investigator, is in charge of the case. This a compelling narrative and psychological exploration, replete with ambiguities. A really good read.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie is broadly modeled after Sophocles’ Antigone, in its battle of a sister against the government to bring home Her brother. Isma, a hijab-clad Muslim, is a Londoner of Pakistani origin whose father was a jihadist. The book opens with her being interrogated en route from the U.K. to Amherst College, where she’ll be studying. Her brother Parvaiz, whom Isma has helped raise, is lured by ISIS cause, changes his mind and is trapped in Raqqa. Parvaiz’ twin sister Aneeka falls in love with the son of the British home secretary, also a Pakistani, whose help she will need in getting Parvaiz back to London. It’s all about loyalty, love, grief and radicalism. The narrative is hard to put down, and the writing is riveting.
Behold the Dreamers, a first novel by Imbolo Mbue, shows with nuance and occasional humor how we are all migrants, travelling from one place to another. The protagonist, Jende, came from the Cameroons to America and, to help his family, learns how to work and “make it” in America, if necessary gaming the system to get ahead. His boss, Clark, came from nowhere in America (his forebears were immigrants) to be a powerful CEO in New York’s financial world. He has his own problems, and the weaving of the tales of their families is a compelling narrative.
In Exit West, author Mohsin Hamid deals with some of the same migrant/refugee issues but in a war-torn setting. Critically acclaimed as on of the best books of 2017, Exit West doesn’t quite succeed for me, possibly because Hamid seems to reach in a kind of magical realism. As refugees (and lovers) Saeed and Nadia flee from one country to another, trying to make a life for themselves, moving from what could be Syria to Greece, somehow showing up in London and then, surprisingly in California. The take-away is a sense of the unease that comes from displacement, but the book’s fabulous turn was perplexing.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is set in 1977 in small-town Ohio, where the teenage daughter of a biracial couple (Chinese, Caucasian) goes missing and turns up dead. It’s a who-dunnit with exploration of race, family and class tensions and deconstruction of the relationship between the family and the town. Another really good read.
If you like family sagas, I’d recommend Pachinko by Min Jun Lee, covering four generations of a Korean family, starting in Japanese-occupied Korea and then in Japan itself. The book takes its name from the gambling establishments where Koreans could earn a good living though excluded by discrimination from more mainstream occupations. Against the backdrop of sweeping historic changes, class and ethnic tensions, Pachinko’s success rests with the family narrative, and it’s a darn good yarn.
If you haven’t yet read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, it’s a charming story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat living at the grand Hotel Metropol in 1922 when he was arrested for writing a poem and sentenced to house arrest. He ends up going from being a much respected guest to being a waiter, his living quarters shifted from a fine suite to a small garret. All of this he accepts with grace and refinement. The world passes through the Metropol, and Rostov creates his own world of culture, proper etiquette, as he networks with colorful figures who cross his path. The book starts slowly but ends up having a great deal to say about human dignity and survival.
The Burning Girl by Claire Messud is a tale of girlhood friendship, told by teenaged Julia and set against the backdrop of an abandoned mental hospital, where she and friend
Cassie would hang out. It is a well written and compelling narrative with themes of dysfunctional families, attempted suicide and plenty of peer pressure. Not a Nobel Prize winner but a good summer read.
Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is also engrossing , the story of the medical experiments carried out on women prisoners at the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Poland. Two of the characters were real: Nazi surgeon And war criminal Herta Oberheuser, who carried out the experiments to further her career, and Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite who did non-profit work for French orphans until, after the war, she learned of the Polish experiments and turned her attention to helping the Ravensbruck victims, bringing many to the United States for physical and mental rehabilitation. Other principal characters in Lilac Girls are fictional, composites based on the victims of this notorious and brutal scheme. The characters are unevenly developed, but that doesn’t stop Lilac Girls from being enjoyable.
Last but not least, this summer I reread The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, told in his voice as a child. The book imagines that, instead of FDR’s winning a third term in 1940, airline hero and Nazi apologist Charles Lindbergh wins the Republican nomination for President on an “America First” platform and is elected in November. A tsunami of nativism sweeps the country and, with it, an increase in anti-Semitism. Some Jews successfully assimilate and are coopted by the right-wing government. Others, derided as “ghetto Jews,” are relocated to the heartland of the country to be “Americanized.“ There’s just enough mixture of fact and fiction to make the reader break out in a cold sweat in today’s political context.