On a rainy October-like day, there’s nothing like settling in with good fiction to escape from the Trumpian travails of our time. Here, in no particular order, are some of the books I’ve been reading over the past months.
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks is what The New York Times called “thundering, gritty, emotionally devastating.” With her enormously expansive imagination and use of language equal to her compelling vision, Brooks retells the story of King David, a fierce warrior, nation builder, carnal exploiter, and gifted musician and composer. The story is told through the eyes of Natan (Nathan), a prophet in David’s court through whom God supposedly speaks to David. It’s worth the effort to suspend disbelief and open oneself to Brook’s riveting writing.
Another high impact book is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction. It follows the escape of Cora, a slave and grandchild of slaves, from Georgia to South Carolina and beyond. Life for slaves is not sugar-coated, nor is the physical deprivation, brutality, sexual abuse, hunger and despair. Yet the effort to escape drives the story, even while, as Whitehead explained to NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air, elements of the old horrors still resonate today in the experience of many poor blacks across our country.
The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis is a highly autobiographical novel, portraying the harsh reality experienced by a gay boy in a poor town in France in the 1990’s. He was the lowest of the low, more despised by the town than even hated Jews or Arabs. Regular beatings in the corridors of his elementary school are just part of the tapestry of a fading town colored by working class rage, testosterone-driven violence and alcoholism. That he emerged from that childhood of unrelenting cruelty to become a successful author reminds me of J. D. Vance, writer of Hillbilly Elegy.
Another change in country, this time to Vietnam. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (born in Vietnam, raised in the United States) is a distinctly Vietnamese perspective of what it took to survive in Vietnam during the war. The narrator (writing his story from a jail cell) is a half-breed, born to a Vietnamese mother and Catholic priest. His political sympathies are similarly riven, his spy/ counter-spy roles facilitated by his ability to speak perfect English. He is both an aide to the South Vietnamese police and a spy for the Communist north. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book is all about intrigue, murders and betrayals but also includes some grotesquely comic interludes when the unnamed narrator is living in California and working as a consultant to a director doing a film on Vietnam. The book’s complexities require a reader’s commitment and maybe even a second read, but it’s well worth it (at least the first reading).
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is the fictionalized account of Dmitri Shostakovich’s life under Joseph Stalin, the daily crush of the heavy hand of the state on artistic expression. Shostakovich’s music, melodic in the earliest years of his artistry, became more difficult and dissonant as he struggled to retain his independence and individuality. When it becomes unsafe for anyone to perform his music, Shostakovich accommodates, but struggles with his own cowardice. Forced by Stalin to deliver a speech in New York to the Congress on World Peace, Shostakovich would eventually submit even to becoming a member of the Communist Party. Despite these concessions, the portrayal of the composer is a sympathetic one and a really absorbing read.
Finally, Siracusa by Delia Ephron, sister of the late, beloved writer Nora Ephron. It’s about the relationships between and among two couples vacationing together in Italy, who they have been and who they might end up with. It’s about feelings, families, flirtations, affairs and careers. There’s also an unfolding mystery. The chapters are told in their four alternating voices, and it took me half the book to be able to remember who is who and who is with whom. I stuck with it (perhaps out of inertia?) long enough for the mystery to start unfolding, and, by the end, I could conclude that it was actually a pretty good yarn. Not a prize winner, to be sure, but decent enough summer reading.
My next blog will reflect on some non-fiction that I’ve read over the last several months. Until then, I wish you extended summer days and hours of pleasurable reading and would appreciate your contributions to this list.