As the nights get shorter and colder, here are some novels to curl up with by the fire, even if you read them on Kindle.
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride is a delightful novel set in Pottstown, Pennsylvania in the 1930’s, largely in a section of town called Chicken Hill. It’s a hardscrabble setting populated by Jews and other immigrants. Most of the “Negroes” live nearby on Hemlock Row. In a hint of Geoffrey Chaucer, the book begins with a large cast of characters, each of whom gets his or her own chapter, with colorful histories, often quirky personalities, different levels of loathing and caring for others.
What seem to be caricatures, often humorously drawn, come to be deeply plumbed, and, as their layers are peeled, they emerge intertwined with each other. Moshe and Chona Ludlow live above the Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, which Chona runs , always at a deficit. Moshe owns a music hall. A key role is that of a WASP doctor who, despite his veneer of respectability, is a member of the Klan. The story revolves around what he has perpetrated and a young, deaf Black boy who is punished for Doc Roberts’ wrongdoing. The strengths of tribe and the inventiveness demanded for survival also drive the narrative, which keeps you on the edge of your seat, tension growing as the story unfolds. It’s a tapestry of pre-World War II life in America, richly woven and captivating to read.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin follows a small group of teenagers into their thirties, drawn together by their passion for gaming, not just playing video games but creating them. Three of them, Sadie, Sam and Marx are students at Harvard and MIT. Gaming, to them, is not just addiction to the 21st century equivalent of arcade pinball machines focused on destroying characters before they blast you. These young people develop complicated story lines steeped in history, culture and literature, with sophisticated audio tracks. We learn their nuanced relationships and deep psyches as the characters themselves create digital worlds in which intractable real-world dilemmas find solutions, and players make choices that open new doors with promises of new tomorrows.
As the characters’ financial success grows, they move from Cambridge to California. There are creative tensions, gender competition, and love among the three and, eventually, violence and tragedy. I am ignorant about the technology and obsession of video game creation, but Zevin’s take on it seems authentic. Tomorrow, etc. offers a fascinating peek into their worlds, both real and electronic. The author peels back the layers of the characters, revealing their families, their traumas, their sexuality, their aspirations and frustrations. The novel is both nuanced and dramatic, generating affection for Sam, Marx and Sadie and appreciation for the creative process that drives their lives. The book is especially about friendship and possibilities.
City of Thieves by David Benioff came out 15 years ago, but, with wars today in the Middle East and Ukraine, this book, set in the 1948 siege of Leningrad, seems as relevant today. It follows a 17-year-old boy/man, Jewish, young and naïve, and a comparatively sophisticated 20-year-old deserter from the Russian army who find each other after a night’s bombing by the Germans. The boy, whose father (a poet and intellectual) had been purged by Stalin and whose mother and sister had fled, comes home to fine his apartment building is rubble. The soldier, too, is homeless. They become friends during a series of adventures that last but a week. They are on a mission, dictated by a Russian colonel who had arrested them. In the process, the soldier tries to educate the boy about sex, and the boy brings to the soldier perspectives on literature.
The boy (Lev) is based on a story purported to have been told by Benioff’s grandfather. The story is action-packed and cinematic. The characters are colorful and often amusing. The narrative is suspenseful and gut-wrenching. It resonates because of the brutality of the German occupation, the privation of the survivors of the nightly bombings, their search for food and warmth, their vulnerability to further attacks, the depths to which human beings can sink in their struggle for a sliver of security. It is leavened by dark humor, touches of friendship and occasional successes in their effort to endure.
The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter is about three generations of a family. The theme is the search for identity set against the backdrop of history, specifically, the Algerian movement for independence from France. The underlying question is the challenge to understand oneself when others – family, neighbors, nations – have already identified who you are, dictating how you live.
The patriarch is Ali, an Algerian farmer, businessman and community leader who has achieved success, even under French colonialization. Ali, who had fought for the French during World War I, treads a delicate line between colonizers and terrorists in the Front for National Liberation (FLN), which defines him as a traitor. Son Hamid’s childhood is in that increasingly dangerous environment. Ali decides his family will be safer if he moves them to France. Having left their possessions behind, they are housed in a miserable transit camp, in sub-human conditions, blocked by French bureaucracy from moving into the larger French community. Teenager Hamid, stigmatized as refugee, eventually moves to Paris, where fellow students and others see him as a dangerous Algerian. Torn between increasing sympathy for the independence movement and a desire to assimilate, he marries a French woman. Is his daughter Naimi French or Algerian?
Born in France, she struggles to understand her father and grandfather and, of course, herself. A business trip for the art gallery she works for takes her to Algeria, to a remote hill town where, for the first time, she meets family and uncomfortably encounters her roots. The novel’s voice is that of an omniscient narrator, but it is Naimi’s perspective that pulls together family memories and history. In this time of national focus on immigration policy and public animosity toward immigrants, The Art of Losing is an empathetic dive into their struggles and aspirations, their need to belong, their frustration at being neither here nor there.