Reading List: May 2017
The opportunity to discover new books to read presents itself with every new month and I have much to look forward to with this month’s reading list. Anyone who knows me knows that when it comes to reading (and writing), I totally adore short fiction. So color me brightly excited to have not one, not two, but a whopping three new short story collections on the reading list for the month of May. Also on the list are three of my much-anticipated books of the year: Lisa Ko’s prize-winning, much-talked about book as well as the new oeuvres from Jill Santopolo and Hala Alyan. The only book that I have read by renowned American author Paul Theroux is 1981’s The Mosquito Coast and his new book released this month looks to be just as engaging a read. Rakesh Satyal’s novel looks to capture the sentiments of these interesting times we live in. I first mistook Amelia Gray’s book on the life of the late legendary Isadora Duncan for a piece of non-fiction and I look forward to reading this inventive new novel. I do have one non-fiction book on the list which ironically features letters by some of the great names in contemporary fiction and finally in fiction, Charmaine Craig’s narrative about a family in Burma will succeed in satisfying my curiosity about events in that country. Behold the Reading List for May…
The Leavers by Lisa Ko.
“There was a time I would have called Lisa Ko’s novel beautifully written, ambitious, and moving, and all of that is true, but it’s more than that now: if you want to understand a forgotten and essential part of the world we live in, The Leavers is required reading.”
Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth
This powerful debut novel is the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by (one of my all-time favorite writers) Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.
One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Polly, goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her. With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left with no one to care for him. He is eventually adopted by two college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate. They rename him Daniel Wilkinson in their efforts to make him over into their version of an “all-American boy.” But far away from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life with his mother’s disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind.
Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging. It’s the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he’s loved has been taken away — and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of her past.
The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo. Lucy and Gabe meet as seniors at Columbia University on a day that changes both of their lives forever. Together, they decide they want their lives to mean something, to matter. When they meet again a year later, it seems fated – perhaps they’ll find life’s meaning in each other. But then Gabe becomes a photojournalist assigned to the Middle East and Lucy pursues a career in New York. What follows is a thirteen-year journey of dreams, desires, jealousies, betrayals, and, ultimately, of love. Was it fate that brought them together? Is it choice that kept them away? The journey takes Lucy and Gabe continents apart but never out of each other’s hearts.
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. On the eve of her daughter Alia’s wedding, Salma reads the girl’s future in a cup of coffee dregs. She sees an unsettled life for Alia and her children; she also sees travel, and luck. While she chooses to keep her predictions to herself that day, they will soon come to pass when the family is uprooted in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967. Salma is forced to leave her home in Nablus; Alia’s brother gets pulled into a politically militarized world her can’t escape; and Alia and her gentle-spirited husband move to Kuwait City, where they reluctantly build a life with their three children.
When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in 1990, Alia and her family once again lose their home, their land, and their story as they know it, scattering to Beirut, Paris, Boston, and beyond. Soon Alia’s children begin families of their own, once again navigating the burdens (and blessings) of assimilation in foreign cities. Lyrical and heartbreaking, Salt Houses is a remarkable debut novel that challenges and humanizes an age-old conflict we think we might understand – one that asks us to confront the most devastating of all truths: you can’t go home again.
Mother Land by Paul Theroux. To those in her Cape Cod town, Mother is an exemplary of piety, frugality and hard work. To her husband and seven children, she is the selfish, petty tyrant of Mother Land. She excels at playing her offspring against each other. Her favorite, Angela, died in childbirth; only Angela really understands her, she tells the others. The others include the officious lawyer, Fred; the uproarious professor, Floyd; a pair of inseparable sisters whose devotion to Mother has consumed their lives; and JP, the narrator, a successful writer whose work she disparages. As she lives well past the age of 100, her brood struggles with and among themselves to shed her vise-like hold on them.
Mother Land is a piercing portrait of how a parent’s narcissism impacts a family. It presents an engrossing, heartbreaking, and often funny saga of a vast family that bickers, colludes, connives, and ultimately overcomes the painful ties that bind them.
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal. In a suburb outside Cleveland, Ohio, a community of Indian Americans has settled into lives that straddle the divide between Eastern and Western cultures. For some, America is a bewildering and alienating place where coworkers can’t pronounce your name but will eagerly repeat the Sanskrit phrases from their yoga class. Harit, a lonely Indian immigrant in his mid-forties lives with his mother who can no longer function after the death of Harit’s sister, Swati. Meanwhile Ranjana, also an Indian immigrant in her mid-forties, has just seen her only child Prashant, off to college. Worried that her husband has begun an affair, she seeks solace by writing paranormal romances in secret. When Harit and Ranjana’s paths cross, they begin a strange yet necessary friendship that brings to light their own passions and fears. No One Can Pronounce Our Names is a distinctive, funny, and insightful look into the lives of people who must reconcile the strictures of their culture and traditions with their own dreams and desires.
Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley. In these short stories, it’s the ordinary things that turn out to most extraordinary: the history of a length of fabric, a forgotten jacket. Two sisters quarrel over an inheritance and a new baby; a child awake in the night explores the familiar rooms of her home, strange in the dark; a housekeeper caring for a helpless old man uncovers secrets from his past. The stories focus in on crucial moments of transition, often imperceptible to the protagonists. Small acts have large consequences, and some of them reverberate across decades. The real things that happen to people, the accidents that befall them, are every bit as mysterious as their longings and their dreams.
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig. A beautiful and poignant story of one family, during the most violent and turbulent years of world history, told through the eyes of Benny and Khin, husband and wife, and their daughter Louisa. After attending school in Calcutta, Benny settles in Rangoon, then a part of the British Empire, and falls in love with Khin, a woman who is part of a long-persecuted ethnic minority group, the Karen. World War II comes to Southeast Asia, and Benny and Khin must go into hiding in the eastern part of the country during the Japanese Occupation, beginning a journey that will lead them to change the country’s history. After the war, the British authorities make a deal with the Burmese nationalists led by Aung San, whose party gains control of country. When Aung San is assassinated, his successor ignore the pleas for self-government of the Karen people and other ethnic groups, and in doing so sets off what will be the longest-running civil war in recorded history. Benny and Khin’s eldest daughter, Louisa, has a danger-filled, tempestuous childhood and reaches prominence as Burma’s first beauty queen, soon before the country falls to dictatorship. As Louisa navigates her new-found fame, she is forced to reckon with her family’s past, the West’s ongoing covert dealings in her country, and her own loyalty to the cause of the Karen people.
Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times edited by Carolina De Robertis. The only non-fiction book on my list this month but featuring contributions from a panoply of fiction writers including Viet Thanh Nguyen and Junot Díaz, and edited by Caroline De Robertis, Radical Hope is a collection of letters – to ancestors, to children five generations from now, to strangers in grocery store lines, to any and all who feel weary and discouraged. It offers readers with a kaleidoscopic view of the love and courage needed to navigate this time of upheaval, uncertainty, and fear.
The Purple Swamp Hen and other Stories by Penelope Lively. In her first short story collection in decades, the author takes on the themes of history, family, and relationships across varied and vividly rendered settings. The title story chronicles the secrets and scandals of Quintus Pompeius’s villa, culminating with his narrow escape from the lava and ash of Vesuvius. In other stories, a dream house is hiding something sinister; two women having lunch share a husband; an old woman doing her weekly supermarket shopping with a secret past that no one could guess; a couple who don’t know each other at all even after fifteen years together. Each of these delightful stories is elevated by Ms. Lively’s signature graceful prose and eye for the subtle yet powerfully evocative detail.
Isadora by Amelia Gray. In 1913, the restless world sat on the brink of unimaginable suffering. But for one woman, the darkness of the new era had already made itself at home. Isadora Duncan would come to be known as the mother of modern dance, but in the spring of 1913 she was a grieving mother, after a freak accident resulted in the drowning death of her two young children. The accident cracked Isadora’s life in two: on one side, the brilliant young talent who captivated audiences the world over; on the other, a heartbroken mother spinning dangerously on the edge of sanity. In this breakout novel, Amelia Gray paints a shocking and visceral portrait of an artist and a woman drawn to the brink of destruction by the cruelty of life.
The Dinner Party and Other Stories by Joshua Ferris. These eleven stories are at once thrilling, strange, and comic. The modern tribulations of marriage, ambition, fear of missing out as temptations flow like wine and the minutes tick down are explored with the characteristic wit and insight. Each of these stories burrows deep into the often awkward and hilarious misunderstandings that pass between strangers and lovers alike, and turn ordinary lives upside down.