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AUGUST BOOK NOOK: Four from Abby Pinard

“Book Nook” feature writer Abby Pinard returns with four recommendations for recent novels.

PACHINKO

By Min Jin Lee, 2017

“History has failed us, but no matter.”

So begins this absorbing saga of a Korean family in twentieth-century Japan. There are no beautiful sentences in Pachinko, but no matter. The members of this family are so well drawn and the harsh realities of being perpetual outsiders even in the fourth generation are so movingly portrayed that unadorned prose suits the story just fine.

“In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastard, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make, or how nice I am.” The money made, after decades of poverty, is from pachinko parlors, one of the few money-making opportunities available to Koreans who are barred from traditional occupations in Japan. I’m certain many readers of this novel were unaware of this particular shameful episode of segregation and discrimination. Now we know. And we know the characters in this novel, failed by history and ricocheting through their lives like the balls in a pachinko game. They are so complex, conflicted, and real that they will stay with you long after you finish the book.

ASYMMETRY

 by Lisa Halliday, 2018

This very fine debut novel juxtaposing two seemingly unrelated stories is made irresistible by the peek into the relationship between a young woman and a much older Philip Roth-like writer, drawn from a relationship that Halliday actually did have with Roth in her 20s. But that’s only the way into this novel. Come for the gossip value, stay for the subtle, thoughtful exploration of big questions of identity and art.

 

EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL

by Mira T. Lee, 2018

How nice to have expectations exceeded! I didn’t expect much from this debut novel, which I plucked off the library shelf on the strength of one review and the fact that the author is a casual friend of my daughter’s.  Mira T. Lee writes with great assurance and control about mental illness and its devastating effects on loved ones. The story is told from multiple, neatly overlapping perspectives but is most powerful when we hear from Lucia herself — her thirst for life and love, the periodic struggle with the serpents in her head, and the increasingly fraught relationship with the sister who is torn between responsibility and helplessness. The novel is heart-wrenching without stooping to mawkishness, except for one forgivable lapse at the very end. I’m delighted to recommend it.

 

FEVER DREAM 

by Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell), 2017

Don’t start Fever Dream unless you have about two hours to be mystified, horrified, and paralyzed by the sense of dread that permeates this short novel. A woman named Amanda, dying in a clinic in rural Argentina, is pressed by a boy named David, who is not her son, to remember and recount the events that brought them here. Where is Nina, Amanda’s daughter? Amanda repeatedly refers to the “rescue distance” — how far from her the child is at any given moment so she can rescue her if something terrible happens because, as her grandmother told her mother and her mother has told her, something terrible will happen.

Something terrible has happened. People, especially children, are being poisoned by agricultural chemicals. A psychic is “transmigrating” the souls of poisoned children into other bodies in an attempt to save them. The novel is a hallucinatory dream, an eco-disaster cautionary tale, a supernatural thriller, and a powerful gut-punch about mothers attempting to protect their children. There is no tidy resolution, nothing to assuage the terror Samanta Schweblin has provoked. You’ve been warned.

(Fever Dream unexpectedly won the 2018 Tournament of Books against much better known and more widely read competition. https://themorningnews.org/tob/)

“Book Nook” feature writer Abby Pinard

A lifelong book nut, Abby retired from a forty-year computer software career and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore.  A native New Yorker, she moved to Boston to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

 

 

 

JULY “BOOK NOOK” : A LITERARY MEMORY FROM ABBY PINARD

THE BOOK THAT MATTERED

Brooklyn Public Library

by Abby Pinard

When I turned 13, in the mid-1950s, having long since exhausted the children’s section of the Brooklyn Public Library, I was finally granted an adult card. Oh, the wonders that were now available to me! Not just the books but the soaring, sunlit space, the hush, and the certainty that important grown-up people were doing important grown-up reading there.

Early on, I read a book called (I thought) A Small Rain. I remember no other single book from that time, but that one stuck with me. There was a scene in which a young girl who plays the piano is asked if she plays well. “Yes,” she says. I was thrilled and appalled! Who could be so immodest? I played the piano, pretty well for 13, but I would never have said so! I was a gawky, nerdy, shy kid, and boasting — or even believing I had anything to boast about — just wasn’t in my repertoire.

Over the years, the book would periodically penetrate my consciousness, and I would think that I should re-read it to figure out why it had been important to me. Was it just that one scene? I had a vague sense that the girl was growing up in New York City but that her city was very unlike mine, and I didn’t remember anything else about her. I couldn’t remember the author’s name, but I clearly remembered that the physical space in which I’d found the book was in the section for authors from J-M. We were a long way from the Internet, and although any librarian could’ve helped me, life intervened; there were lots more books to read, and I never tried to identify the book.

Until twenty or so years ago when I read an article about Madeleine L’Engle that mentioned her first book. The title varied from my recollection only by the difference between “a” and “the,” and her name fit alphabetically. When I read a synopsis, I was certain I had found it, and I bought the book. I re-read it closely but had no clear insight as to why it was meaningful to the 13-year-old me. It’s a coming-of-age story, originally published in 1945, featuring the lonely daughter of mostly absent parents. Maybe I was as shocked by the sixteen-year-old’s relationships with grown men as I was by her immodesty, or perhaps I was fascinated by the glamorous bohemianism of her life in Greenwich Village and Paris. Or maybe it was just that one scene that was so startling that I never forgot it.

The Small Rain sits on a shelf where I can see it from where I now sit. I no longer think it has anything to tell me about who I was at 13, but I may read it once more just to be sure.

BOLLI Matters “Book Nook” Feature Writer, Abby Pinard

A lifelong book nut, Abby retired from a forty-year computer software career and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore.  A native New Yorker, she moved to Boston to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  A music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie, she flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

 

 

MAY BOOK NOOK WITH DENNIS GREENE: HARRY’S TREES

BOLLI Matters welcomes Dennis Greene as he joins Abby Pinard as a  “Book Nook” contributor.

                                 HARRY’S TREES                                            This Summer’s Must-Read Novel

Review by Dennis Greene

I just read an advance copy of Harry’s Trees by Jon Cohen, a novel which will become available in bookstores on June 12. By next winter, this uplifting tale will be the subject of discussion in book clubs across the country, and people will speculate about who will be cast in the movie. Opera may even get into the act. It’s that good. I encourage you to read it as soon as it is available, and before all the hype. Then tell all your friends about it. You will appear prescient to those who take your advice, and you will gain their gratitude and respect. Then, later, when that irritating know-it-all in your study group or book club recommends Harry’s Trees after it has become trendy, you can have the satisfaction of smiling smugly and announcing that you read it “months ago.” And even if none of the forgoing happens, you will still have enjoyed a fun read.

Harry’s Trees is not an easy book to categorize. My local bookstore checked its inventory listing and informed me that the book was designated as “a book about trees.” Harry’s Trees is no more “a book about trees” than The Maltese Falcon is “a book about falcons.” The computer’s one-word description confuses the backdrop with the story. Harry’s Trees is about the half-dozen loving relationships among a small group of well-drawn, genuinely decent people living in a small Pennsylvania town. Many of them are suffering from devastating losses, and several are burdened with crushing guilt, but as the action unfolds, they come together and end up saving one another. The story is uplifting rather than gloomy or depressing. As the narrative moves smoothly from scene to scene, with enough action and tension to keep the pages turning, and enough humor to mitigate the tension, the author weaves several dozen threads into an enchanting tale. There is a resourceful and strong willed nine-year-old girl named Oriana who rivals Mattie Ross, the heroine in True Grit, an ancient librarian named Olive who smokes a meerschaum pipe and seems as wise as Dumbledore, a hidden cache of $4,000,000 in gold bullion, a town where everyone knows your name, two bad guys who are too dimwitted to prevail, and one guilt-ridden bureaucrat named Harry who has fled his government office job to live in a treehouse near his beloved trees. At the center of the story is a mysterious leather book titled The Grum’s Ledger which changes hands several times during the narrative. The book influences Oriana and Harry to embark on a preposterous scheme which Oriana believes could fill the voids in each of their lives.

In a time of so much pessimism and general malaise, this beautifully written book reminds us that there are lots of decent people in the world; good things can happen; and a belief in magic can’t hurt. And as an added bonus for anyone interested, you will also learn quite a bit about trees.  Harry’s.

BOLLI Matters Writer Dennis Greene

Dennis spent five years as an engineer and then forty as a lawyer–and sixty as a pop culture geek and junkie.  He saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since.  

Others who might like to contribute to “The Book Nook” should send material to susanlwurster@gmail.com.  We are happy to hear from you!

 

 

DECEMBER “BOOK NOOK” WITH ABBY PINARD: MANHATTAN BEACH

MANHATTAN BEACH

By Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s previous novel, the Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, was a dazzling, post-modern high-wire act. What would she do next? Too smart to try to outdo herself, she did research — lots and lots of research — mostly revolving around the mysteries of the deep. At every turn, there is water and the people who make their living and support a war on and in it: longshoremen, divers, merchant marine, sailors, the women who do the jobs left by the men who’ve gone to war, the men who stoke the boiler, and the men who know where the bodies are buried.

At heart, Manhattan Beach is a book about a girl and her father, 11-year-old Anna and Eddie Kerrigan, trying to keep his head above water and his family afloat on the fringes of the New York underworld in the 1930s. Ten years later, the country is at war, Eddie has disappeared, and Anna works in the Brooklyn Naval Yard and yearns to be the first woman to be a diver, doing underwater repairs to the great ships that she sees in the newsreels.

This is a coming-of-age novel, a crime novel, a war novel, a New York novel, and that all-too-rare phenomenon, a literary page-turner. Jennifer Egan doesn’t let her research overwhelm her literary skills and doesn’t let her story overwhelm her characters. Highly recommended.

“Book Nook” writer Abby Pinard

A lifelong book nut, Abby retired from a forty-year computer software career and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore.  A native New Yorker, she moved to Boston to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

OCTOBER’S “BOOK NOOK” WITH ABBY PINARD: DEFECTORS

There’s nothing like a good thriller once in a while. But the qualifier matters. Cardboard characters, contrived suspense, and Hollywood cliff-hangers won’t cut it. But an espionage novel that hinges on character rather than non-stop action and that provides glimpses of an unfamiliar or exotic world is a great treat. Joseph Kanon’s latest, Defectors, fits the bill nicely.

In 1970, I traveled to Scandinavia and the Soviet Union with a group sponsored by a left-wing lawyers’ association.  After stops in Stockholm, Helsinki, Leningrad, and Moscow, we flew to Central Asia, where we visited Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara. A lovely, radical sixty-ish couple wasn’t on the plane to Uzbekistan with us and didn’t rejoin the group when we returned to Moscow before flying home.  We were told there was a medical issue although both had seemed hale and hearty in the early going.  Knowing their background, I couldn’t help but wonder if they had defected.  Is that how it would have been done in 1970?  I have no idea.  But I have thought about them occasionally and tried to imagine what it might have been like for them if they had indeed stayed in the Soviet Union.  It’s safe to say that their lives would not have been like those of the defectors in this gripping novel.

Frank Weeks wasn’t an ordinary American Communist when he and his wife fled to Moscow in 1949. He had been a high-ranking intelligence officer about to be exposed as a spy for the Soviet Union after an operation that went disastrously wrong. Twelve years later, still working for the KGB, Frank has written a memoir that “the Service” will allow to be published, and his brother Simon has been approved to come to Moscow to edit the book, only to learn on arrival that Frank has an ulterior motive for this visit. There will be plenty of thriller-worthy action to come – deception, murder, betrayal, CIA and KGB operations and counter-operations – but the real pleasures of the novel are in the lives of Frank and Jo Weeks and their “friends” – the community of former British and American spies who are spared the privation of ordinary Russians but not the grim reality of the workers’ paradise they believed in…the spacious but threadbare apartment, the musty dacha, the faded elegance of the Bolshoi, the privileged access to groceries, the vodka-soaked nights at the bar in the Metropol, the ever-present KGB minder…

Frank and Simon were close as boys and followed similar career paths, Frank into the CIA, Simon into the State Department. But was Frank using his brother, extracting valuable bits of information in casual conversation over their regular dinners? After Frank’s betrayal and twelve years apart, the relationship between the brothers is tense but still intimate as Simon vacillates between trusting and being wary of his charming brother, and he is still drawn to Jo, with whom he had a brief dalliance before she met and married Frank. The fine supporting cast features a woman who once smuggled atomic secrets over a border in her hat, the lonely widow of a brilliant scientist, assorted Brits with assorted motives (including a couple of real-life spies), and Boris – the factotum who is always on hand and always listening.

Defectors is Kanon’s eighth novel. The others are similarly satisfying, particularly his first, Los  Alamos. It’s a murder mystery with a compelling historical overlay as J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of scientists in New Mexico race to develop the atomic bomb in the final days of World War II. There’s no better way to lose sleep and absorb some modern history than a Joseph Kanon novel.

“Book Nook” feature writer Abby Pinard\

Abby is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

Your comments are deeply appreciated–leave word for Abby below.

JUNE’S BOOK NOOK WITH ABBY PINARD: TWO SEARING BOOKS

Two flawed but searing books about two very different wars…

BIRDSONG

by Sebastian Faulks, 1997

You might want to think twice about reading Birdsong if you are claustrophobic. Also, reading it just before going to sleep might not be conducive to a restful night. You might consider yourself reasonably well educated about World War I — about the brutality of trench warfare and the unimaginable loss of life.  But you haven’t been there, at least not the way Faulks puts you there — in the trenches and especially in the tunnels that snaked under the battlefields, built by both sides, sometimes within feet of each other.

Billed as “a novel of love and war,” the novel of love is mediocre at best. The first hundred-plus pages introducing the protagonist and building up to a torrid love affair are mostly tedious and unnecessary. And the intermittent present-day framing device, in which an educated but oblivious young woman suddenly decides to unearth her family’s history isn’t any better. But most of the book — and certainly the parts that will burn into your brain — are about the war.  It’s almost too painful to read but impossible to put down…the years of carnage, of fear, of filth, the conflict between wanting to live and wanting to die, the inability to even envision a normal life…Faulks’s prose is unadorned and unsparing, as if only by stripping the language down to stark essentials can he convey the unspeakable.

 

REDEPLOYMENT

by Phil Klay, 2014

This award-winning collection of stories about the Iraq war, each told in the first person by someone who survived, compellingly depicts how we wage war in our time. We do it with technology, bureaucracy, and segmentation so narrow that the artilleryman who loaded the gun that destroyed everything in its target zone — six miles away — has been assured that yes, he can now claim to have killed bad guys but he isn’t sure whether to believe it since he sees no evidence. Each narrator has had a different job; in addition to the artilleryman, there’s a chaplain, a foreign service officer, an adjutant, a corpse-disposal specialist and more, some of whom were far from the front lines and never in danger but have learned, on returning home, that people want and expect to hear stories about heroism and bravery.

Phil Klay, himself a former Marine and veteran of the Iraq war, is a fine reporter but maybe — at least based on this first effort — a better reporter than novelist. He vividly portrays the horrors of war and the  tragic destruction of young lives and spirits but although each story has a different narrator, there’s little distinction in voice and little character development beyond the particulars of each man’s (and all the protagonists are men) experience. About half way through, I couldn’t help but feel that all the stories were really being told by a single narrator, a brilliant observer and promising writer named Phil Klay.

“Book Nook” feature writer, Abby Pinard

Abby is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

APRIL/MAY BOOK NOOK FROM ABBY PINARD: Two by Two

THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE

by Andrew Sean Greer, 2008

The Story of a Marriage was the BOLLI Book Group selection for April. We had a spirited discussion that covered a lot of ground, as does this short, absorbing novel.

The Story of a Marriage is an affecting novel that is so good on so many levels that Andrew Sean Greer — author of the wonderful The Confessions of Max Tivoli — can be forgiven some quibbles. What he gets right: 1) the evocation of the fog-bound Sunset District in San Francisco in 1953 as the young families of war veterans are putting down roots in the burgeoning middle-class neighborhood; 2) the way the fear and repression of the times — war, McCarthyism, sex, race —  are reflected in peoples’ lives and especially in their marriages, the suffocating submersion of everything that isn’t “mild and good”; 3) the way “we think we know the ones we love” but one day find ourselves sleeping next to a stranger; 4) the beautiful sentences and turns of phrase.

The quibbles: Neither the plot nor the protagonist’s voice are fully plausible; the “delayed reveal” of important plot points feels manipulative; and there’s some overwriting going on.

This is nothing more or less than the story of a marriage — one marriage, of a young couple who had been teen-age sweethearts in rural Kentucky and stumble upon each other on a beach in San Francisco, having each landed there after the war. It’s a well-worn dictum that there are only two plots in fiction: someone goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. This novel is a quintessential example of the latter as a handsome, blond stranger knocks on Pearlie Cook’s door, upends everything she thought she knew about her husband and their marriage, and sets the story in motion.

There is not much more that can be said without giving away too much. Whether you find them annoying or pleasurable, unexpected twists and secrets are at the heart of this short novel and you can’t help but be borne along on the beautiful language and by wanting to know what happens. An extremely satisfying read.

 

THE NORTH WATER

by Ian McGuire,  2016

I can breathe now. Clean, warm, fresh air wafting in the window. There’s not much breathing to be done while reading The North Water – one of The New York Times ten best books of 2016 – both because of nonstop action and because of the overwhelmingly fetid atmosphere that pervades this brutal and brilliant novel. Seafaring saga, wilderness survival adventure, suspense story, morality tale, and more blood and guts (literally) than you can imagine in under 300 pages.

As a 19th-century whaling ship heads north to Greenland for reasons not limited to whaling, mortal danger — and not just from the elements — is the constant companion of the miscreants and misfits passing for a crew. The brutality in the novel is shocking and relentless but never gratuitous. And unlike in most historical fiction, there’s no scene-setting distraction, no digressions to describe, say, the state of the whaling industry or the ways of the Esquimaux. The only descriptive detail is the minimum needed to advance the story and our understanding of the characters. Thus the lack of a respite in which to breathe as the story careens forward.

This is not a novel for the faint of heart or, trust me, the queasy of stomach. But for pure story-telling power, it doesn’t get much better than this.

BOOK NOOK feature writer, Abby Pinard

Abby is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

FEBRUARY BOOK NOOK with Abby Pinard: Two You May Have Missed

This month, Abby reaches back to the relatively recent past for two books you may have missed.  And if you did, both are worth your attention!

 

THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON

by Adam Johnson, 2012

There are many books I’ve loved, many writers I’ve admired, some whose talent has been awe-inspiring. But it’s not often that I read a novel wondering “how the hell did he/she do that?” This is one of those times. How did Adam Johnson imagine his way into the dystopia of Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea and create a world so real to the reader that when Americans show up, they seem oddly alien?

The book is darkly comic and desperately sad, always teetering on the brink of complete absurdity but true in its heartbreaking depiction of people just trying to survive the stories of their lives that the state has determined for them.

“Where we are from . . . stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

In the first part of the book, the protagonist, Pak Jun Do, is plucked from the orphanage run by his father and becomes a fighter in the tunnels under the demilitarized zone, then a kidnapper, a spy at sea intercepting radio transmissions, and, when a mission to Texas goes hilariously wrong, a prisoner in a mining camp. In part two, the picaresque gives way to intrigue and romance among the upper echelons and the Dear Leader himself as Jun Do evolves from a tool of the state to a man determined to fashion his own story.

This is a remarkable accomplishment, at once compellingly readable and scarily disorienting. It is every bit as good as its Pulitzer Prize (2012) would suggest.

 

THE GOOD LORD BIRD

by James McBride, 2013

James McBride walks a fine line in the National Book Award-winning (2013) The Good Lord Bird. Treating tragic and painful historical events with humor is risky business. His subject is John Brown and the failed raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry in 1861. Brown was a zealot whose plan to free the slaves bordered on lunacy but McBride succeeds in humanizing him in a rollicking romp of a story that is both irreverent and historically astute.

The narrator is Henry Shackleford, a twelve-year-old slave mistaken for a girl and swept up by “the Captain” to become his good-luck charm in the war against slavery. Henry/Henrietta is a wonderful character who doesn’t understand John Brown’s religious zeal and doesn’t want any part of war but figures out how to survive both.

“I couldn’t make head nor tails of what he was saying, for I was to learn that Old John Brown could work the Lord into just about any aspect of his comings and goings in life, including using the privy. That’s one reason I weren’t a believer, having been raised by my Pa, who was a believer and a lunatic, and them things seemed to run together. But it weren’t my place to argue with a white man, especially one who was my kidnapper, so I kept my lips closed.”

Henry lives for a time in a whorehouse, falls in love twice, escapes the clutches of Frederick Douglass, meets Harriet Tubman, and plays a role in “hiving” (recruiting) Negroes to the cause. He comes to know Brown as a “good, kind lunatic,” a man as unique as the rare bird of the title – a bird “so pretty that when man sees it, he says  ‘Good Lord.’”  The portrayal of John Brown — both hero and fool – is a great accomplishment, as is this brilliantly entertaining amalgam of history and imagination.

“BOOK NOOK” feature writer Abby Pinard

A lifelong book nut, Abby retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

 

JANUARY “BOOK NOOK”: Two BIG Novels

As the winter cold sets in,  Abby offers ideas for some good long-term reading time.   Here are two items you may have either missed along the way or might simply want to re-read.

THE FORSYTE SAGA

John Galsworthy, 1921

“He had long forgotten the small house in the purlieus of Mayfair, where he had spent the early days of his married life, or rather, he had long forgotten the early days, not the small house, – a Forsyte never forgot a house – he had afterwards sold it at a clear profit of four hundred pounds.”

There you have it. Nine hundred pages of delicious soap opera wrapped around sly commentary on the acquisitiveness and striving of the British upper-middle classes around the turn of the twentieth century. The Forsytes aren’t landed aristocracy like Lord Grantham of “Downton Abbey.” They’re only a couple of generations removed from farmers. But they’ve been successful in trade, in publishing, at the bar, and they live in ongepotchket Victorian splendor, faithfully served by retainers and housemaids, in London and its environs.

Galsworthy was himself the product of a wealthy family and trained as a barrister before traveling abroad, meeting Joseph Conrad and envisioning a different life. He fell in love with the wife of his cousin, an army major, and married her after a ten-year affair and her eventual divorce. He was among the first writers to deal with social class in his work and to challenge the mores and ideals reinforced by the Victorian writers who preceded him. Notably, but not surprisingly given his personal life, he defied the standard view of women as property and defended their right to leave unhappy marriages.

“’I don’t know what makes you think I have any influence,’ said Jolyon; ‘but if I have I’m bound to use it in the direction of what I think is her happiness. I am what they call a “feminist,” I believe…I’m against any woman living with any man whom she definitely dislikes. It appears to me rotten.’”

It is the unhappily married woman referred to here around whom much of The Forsyte Saga revolves. Irene (I-reen-ee), disastrously married to a “man of property,” is the antithesis of a Forsyte. She represents beauty and art and passion and free will. Before reluctantly marrying Soames Forsyte, she extracted a promise that he would let her go if it didn’t work out. His failure to do so drives the story and a multi-generational family estrangement. While Galsworthy thoroughly develops the other primary characters, Irene is a beautiful cipher at the center of the novel. We never get her point of view; we see her through the eyes of others and can only infer her thoughts and feelings.

The Forsyte Saga features a huge cast of characters but the family tree that accompanies most editions is needed only at the beginning. To Galsworthy’s credit, we quickly get to know the main characters and the chorus of peripheral relatives that swirl around them. There are births, deaths, betrayals, couplings, uncouplings, recouplings, and generational upheaval, all conveyed in deft, eminently readable prose, a short 900 pages. This is a sumptuous wallow of a book with redeeming social value.

EARTHLY POWERS

Anthony Burgess, 1980

A monumental novel that stuck in my mind for thirty years as an all-time favorite but needed to be reread to remind me why. An octogenarian British writer, said to be loosely based on W. Somerset Maugham, is tasked to attest to a miracle that will support the canonization of a Pope and writes his memoirs, giving us a personal tour of the 20th-century through his life as a homosexual, lapsed Catholic, successful but mediocre writer, and exile. Examines morality, the nature of evil, the role of religious belief and more. Linguistically playful and full of historical inaccuracies courtesy of its unreliable narrator, the novel features one of the best opening lines in literature* (sure to send you to the dictionary), and is funny, painful, thought-provoking, entertaining, challenging and rewarding. Shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1980, it often appears high on lists of best British fiction of the late 20th century.

*”It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”

 

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“Book Nook” feature writer and Book Group co-leader, Abby Pinard

Abby is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.

 

 

 

 

NOVEMBER’S BOOK NOOK: Short Takes

Every now and then,  Abby opts for a “sextet of shorts” instead of her more in-depth “trios” of reviews.  Here is her first eclectic batch.

BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK

Ben Fountain

billy-lynn

A brilliant novel about war that takes place far from the field of battle at the annual Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day football game, the culmination of a “victory tour” for a squad of young grunts whose heroic actions in Iraq have made them a marketable commodity to drum up support for the war.  Hilariously skewers the culture of instant celebrity, politics, patriotism and power, and poignantly conveys the senselessness of sending young men to war. Five stars.  (Ang Lee’s movie version arrives in theaters this week.)

THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS

Claire Messud

messud

Nora Eldridge is angry.  How angry?  “You don’t want to know,” she tells us in the opening line of this searing psychological study.  Four years ago, she was finally shedding the Nora who was “the good friend, good daughter, good teacher, doormat….Miss Nobody Nothing…” to become more fully alive,  the artist and special person she always knew herself to be.  She was brought to this euphoric but precarious state by falling in love with (pushing her way into? getting ensnared by?) a family: a glamorous, recognized artist, her professor husband, and their beautiful eight-year-old son.   Could it possibly end well?  A novel that grabs you and won’t let go.

 

THE LAST REPORT ON THE MIRACLES AT LITTLE NO HORSE

Louise Erdrich

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In 1912, Agnes DeWitt adopts the cassock and persona of a Catholic priest who drowns en route to his missionary post in remote North Dakota. For almost a century, Agnes binds her breasts and, as Father Damien, lives a “sincere lie,” ministering to the Ojibwe people she comes to see as her own.  This novel, written in 2001, is the sixth in the series that began with Love Medicine in 1984 and features many of the same members of the Ojibwe clans in the earlier books as well as Louise Erdrich’s elegant, lyrical prose and mix of realism, fable, and humor. The devotion and passion (both earthly and spiritual) of Agnes/Damien hold it all together, despite some sluggish patches in the Ojibwe stories, and make this an emotionally affecting novel.

ONCE UPON A RIVER

Bonnie Jo Campbell

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After she is raped by her uncle and her father is killed, teen-aged Margo Crane takes to the (fictional) Stark River in rural Michigan to look for the mother who abandoned her several years earlier and to find out how to live.  Margo is a crack shot,  knows every bend in the river,  lives off the land and is sometimes treated well and sometimes badly by the men she meets.  Beautifully written, especially if you enjoy description of the natural world and wilderness survival tales, which I don’t.  I was more interested in Margo than in how to skin a muskrat, but I was interested enough in Margo to enjoy this book more than I expected to.

OPEN CITY

Teju Cole

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This critically acclaimed debut novel has no plot to propel it forward, just the ruminations of the solitary and possibly unreliable narrator – a young Nigerian-born psychiatrist – on identity, art, literature, music, death and more as he wanders the streets of Manhattan and has occasional interactions with friends and strangers, most of them immigrants like himself.  Beautiful prose, with crystalline descriptions of the city and crisp sketches of people.  Surprisingly compelling.

THE RADETZKY MARCH

Joseph Roth

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Written in 1932 by Joseph Roth, the under-appreciated Austrian-Jewish writer who died young of alcoholism in Paris a few years later, The Radetzky March depicts the waning of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the years before World War I.  It begins in 1859, at the Battle of Solferino, when a peasant-born lieutenant saves the life of the young Kaiser, Franz Joseph I, and is rewarded with elevation to the nobility.  The novel follows successive generations of the now-aristocratic von Trotta family into the bureaucracy and the military and into eventual disillusionment that parallels the collapse of the Empire.  Roth’s prose evokes a lost world on every page, not as nostalgic reverie but with a portrayal of the deadly effects of the monarchy on its subjects of all classes and with vivid, detailed descriptions of everything from the landscape to village life to an old man’s cuffs.  Brilliant.

 

ABBY P
BOOK NOOK Feature Writer Abby Pinard

Abby is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people:  family and Red Sox fans.  She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.