Reading for summer’s waning days by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

Yes, it’s past Labor Day, but it’s still summer weather. And, while the calendar is getting more cluttered, it’s still easy to cling to the image of long walks in the sunshine, leisurely reading and cold soups for dinner. Here are five works of fiction that will give also you pleasure.

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is about family and place. The protagonist, Lara, is a former actress noted for her stellar performance as Emily in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, performed at the Tom Lake summer playhouse in Michigan. The time is the Covid lockdown, when she and her husband, cherry farmer Joe, and their three 20-something daughters must manage their orchards without the help of other workers, banned from the worksite. The daughters are fascinated by the personal story of Lara’s love affair that long-ago Tom Lake summer with fellow actor Peter Duke, who had gone on to become a hugely successful celebrity movie star. Lara is pressed to recapture all the details for her daughters, while contextualizing events of the past for herself and her family. The book goes back and forth between the actors then at Tom Lake, a family by virtue of living and working together in the idyllic lakeside setting, and the family that she and Joe have created at the very special farmhouse in Michigan, with generations of family history.  It’s a book about mothers and daughters, mothers and lovers, life inside and outside the spotlight. Readers who enjoyed Patchett’s Dutch House will be pleased with Tom Lake.

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi is a deeply moving, cleverly structured book about a young Nigerian man self-identified as a woman in a society where even being gay is regarded as a moral transgression and psychological abnormality. The reader knows from the beginning, from the very title of the book, that this tortured person is dead. But the story goes back and forth across time, from his childhood, his relationship with his gay cousin, his parents and even his relationship with his dead grandmother (a powerful bond created when Vivek was born on the same day that his grandmother died.) Exploring the circumstances of Vivek’s death is the thread that weaves through all their stories, in a Rashomon-like unfolding of the tragic truth. Author Emezi raises many questions: How does one survive in a dysfunctional family when one is so different from their perceptions of him? At what point did Vivek actually die? When his head received a fatal blow, or years before when his male persona gave way to NNemdi, his inner female, and she grew her hair long and wore dresses?  This is a book about secrets, cruelty, intolerance and superstition. It is also about self-acceptance, self-expression, love and loss.

The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li set in a rural village in France still ravaged by World War II, is a deep dive into the singular friendship of two 13-year-old girls, their passions, their plots and their plans.  Agnes can write, that is, she has well-schooled penmanship.  In thrall to her more daring friend, Fabienne, Agnes  sets down the colorful and dark, expressionistic imaginings of Fabienne. The resulting book, Les Enfants Heureux, is a series of tales about dead children. The two friends seek the help of the local postmaster to polish their book and send it off to a publisher, naming Agnes as author. What happens to her, a faux child prodigy,  the impact of subsequent events on their friendship, how they deal with the cruelty of the world around them, drives the story and leaves the reader reflecting on authorship and celebrity, fantasy and reality, and how the most twisted make-believe stories can teach us about the lives one must endure. This is a well-crafted, most unusual book that sticks with you long after you close the cover.

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese is a sweeping multi-generational family saga set in Southern India. Nearly 800 pages, the narrative is marvelously crafted and is often hard to put down. Spanning from 1900 through 1977. Covenant weaves together mysterious illnesses afflicting generations along the family tree, a curse that drives Mariamma, a granddaughter who becomes a neurosurgeon to research and seek a cure.  Author Verghese, a physician, pulls us right into the blood, guts and sinews of the various medical challenges, as he did in his earlier novel Cutting for Stone. We’re drawn into many of the characters who, beset by tragedies, display enviable resilience. Set against the backdrop of the caste system in India, the revolution against British colonialism, religion and superstition, social and economic inequities, cross-caste relationships, decades-long loyalties, webs of secrets, and a thread of magical realism, unwanted marriages evolved and troubled marriages are redeemed. The multi-layered texture of the physical and emotional landscape is captured by the richness of Verghese’s language.  The story lines are too complex to capture here, but they all come together in the end, and the journey proves a satisfying one for the reader who wants to be swept along in an epic tale that captures the imagination.

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov recently won the International Booker Prize for literature. The Bulgarian author’s third novel looks through an often-comedic perspective at people’s craving to return to previous eras. Gospodinov leaves little doubt about the perils of nostalgia when it becomes obsessive and dystopic.   Psychiatrist Augustine Garribaldi (Gaustine),’s goal is to help dementia sufferers preserve whatever memories remain. He establishes in Zurich a sanitorium where each floor has all the appurtenances and memorabilia of a particular earlier decade. The narrator cleverly links the Alzheimer patients to the MAGA crowd and their European counterparts, all of whom may be comforted by the sights, smells, sounds and zeitgeists of some earlier, usually mythologized time.  The UK did Brexit in search of a better past,  perhaps one that never was.  So too with Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s attempt to recreate Greater Russia. As the narrative proceeds, rich in history and irony, referenda movements sweep Europe, allowing electorates to choose the decade in which the their nation shall live. Gospodinov finds humor in people’s lust not necessarily for what they actually had in the past but for what they craved.  He hits close to home in showing how populist manipulators twist memories and grievances for their own political gain. This is not an ordinary time travel story, a genre I dislike. It’s a rich book, deeply researched, gently humorous and worth returning to for another reading.