My husband and I are no longer COVID virgins. A two-week bout with COVID, from which we’re just emerging, left me feeling disinclined to write but very much inclined to seek comfort in reading. Fiction was the best of all because it distracted me from anxieties about two of our grandchildren studying at different schools in Israel and also cut into obsessive viewing of the Republican Speakership chaos. The following are some suggested readings for your pleasure and distraction.
An Island by South African author Karen Jennings is a short intense book that packs a powerful wallop. The narrative covers just four days, revealing the inner and outer lives of a now-old man in some unnamed third world nation, living alone at a lighthouse after being a longtime political prisoner. Waves of his long-ago past sweep over him – the poverty of life in the slums under colonization, the uprising that drives out the foreigners, the revolutionary general who becomes a dictator, the slums that endure, the anger and violence that bubble up forever. An unconscious stranger washes up on the shore below the lighthouse. The lighthouse keeper takes him in. The two share no common language. Is the stranger a threat to the former prisoner’s tiny world, or is he a possible connection to a companionable world, even to human love? The question looms large, and the perhaps inevitable conclusion to this potent allegory will weigh heavily on the reader. The book brings to mind John Donne’s poem beginning “No man is an island Entire of itself” and ending “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is a tour de force, powerful on many levels. Inspired by Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Kingsolver updates the book to 21st century Appalachia, especially southwest Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. The red-headed (hence Copperhead) child (Damon Fields) was born to a drug-addicted, dirt-poor mother living in a trailer. His father had died mysteriously and tragically (how else?), and his stepfather is an abusive drunk. There follows a sequence of foster homes, incompetent case workers, inadequate teachers, leavened only by a brief period of happiness when, in high school, he succeeds at football.
A knee injury ends that interlude and introduces Demon to the Sackler world of Oxycontin and inevitable downward spirals. Using sardonic humor throughout, Kingsolver echoes Dickens in the first-person voice, the pegging of people by nicknames, the unblinking portraits of children in poverty, the exploitation and physical abuses, and the systemic indifference to suffering and malfeasance. She also gives us that rare individual who receives just enough empathy from another human being to foster hope amidst despair and encourage a sliver of resilience. The Kingsolver narrative tracks Charles Dickens quite cleverly. This richly told update is overtly political, deeply philosophical and a truly gratifying reading experience.
I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira is a deeply researched novel about American-born impressionist painter Mary Cassatt and her lifelong, albeit volatile relationship with the incomparable Edgar Degas. Cassatt was the only American artist among the impressionists, one of just two women (the other being Berthe Morisot). Degas , a difficult personality, gruff, opinionated, and often hurtful, saw something in the early works of Cassatt and in her as a woman. He mentored her, fought with her as she achieved standing of her own in the art world of late 19th century Paris, and, in his own way, loved her. But his art was the defining love of his life, the driving force above all others. Cassatt, for her part, admired him, loved him, loved her family and friends, but was also defined by her art and her struggle for independence as a woman.
An intriguing subplot of the book is the stormy relationship between acclaimed impressionist Edouard Manet and Morisot, who had married Edouard’s brother Eugene. All of these personal entanglements are set against the backdrop of the epic battles between the traditional Ecole des Beaux Arts Salon and the revolutionary impressionist movement as well as the internecine battles between writers (e.g., Emile Zola, and artists and among the impressionists themselves, including Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir. We gain insight into the techniques and creative process, the anguish and struggles, the egos and insecurities of the art world through the prism of the Belle Epoque era. If you love impressionist art, or if the city of Paris holds a place in your heart, this book is a must read.