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Category Archive for 'Book Club Suggestions'

On the night before an auction of world-class paintings, thirty-something Matt Santos gets permission to spend the night at the auction house “saying goodbye” to “Budapest Street Scene,” painted in 1925 by Hungarian artist Ervin Kalman. Although Matt is considered the owner of the painting, he has, in fact, just recently learned about his connection to the painting as part of the on-going repatriation efforts made for paintings stolen by the Nazis. Author Mark Sarvas involves the reader from the outset of Memento Park as Matt spends a long night delving into memories going back three generations, considering whether they reflect truth or merely his interpretation of it based on his own experience. At the same time he also reflects on his present life in Los Angeles, where he has been working as a “reliable, drama-free,” B-list actor and living with his model fiancée, who spends her free time working on social causes. Ultimately, Matt relives his very recent trip to Budapest, describing what he has learned about the artist, and exploring his own Jewish roots for the first time. Staring at the painting in the auction house, he admits, “I find myself wondering yet again how I could have failed for so long to see this painting for what it is, a rotted memory, an epitaph to everything I thought I knew.” For the reader, it is equally an epitaph on the self-centered, disconnected life Matt Santos has been living to date. As he shares his life and thoughts with the reader, the novel develops into a complex personal story, at the same time that it is also a story filled with mysteries.

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Winner of innumerable prizes in both Ireland, where he grew up and went to college, and Scotland, to which he moved permanently with his family during the Irish Troubles in 1975, Bernard MacLaverty has always had a special place in my heart. His writing is unpretentious, realistic, and often filled with ironic humor, even when he is dealing with the complexities of relationships and the honest feelings of his sometimes quirky characters. This novel, his first in sixteen years, is worth waiting for – a novel about an older, retired couple, Gerry and Stella, married for decades, who have pursued their own goals separately, while living together, and have now reached a point at which they must consider whether they are still truly in love. Wanting a brief vacation away from Scotland, to which they, like the author and family have moved permanently from Northern Ireland, they have decided to spend a few days in Amsterdam – or rather, the wife, Stella, has suggested the location because there is a special place there that she wishes to see. Her genuinely caring husband Gerry is amenable to whatever she wants, but he has been living recently in an alcoholic haze, and his primary concern has been hiding the physical evidence of his consumption from her. MacLaverty, combining both subtlety and sometimes outrageous honesty, reveals the inner hearts and minds of both of these characters at a variety of times in their long relationship, from courtship through early marriage, beginning careers, heartbreaks, and on up to the present. The future of their marriage is at stake on this “break.”

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Thirty-one years have passed since author Cristina Garcia’s first trip to Germany, and she has just returned to Berlin for the first time since then. Because she is fascinated by some of the people she meets there, she creates a “Visitor” as a stand-in for herself acting as the third person narrator of this book – not telling the stories of these people, so much as introducing them and then allowing each of the thirty-five characters she features the freedom to tell their own individual stories. As she “listens” to these stories, she and the reader share the same vantage point – and the stories come to life in unique ways, some of them so unusual that most readers will become spellbound, wondering why they never thought to ask the questions about postwar life in Germany that these characters are answering without being asked. Though the individual stories are unique, brilliant in their execution, and enlightening for the reader – even readers who have read dozens of books about postwar Germany and the generation after that – Cristina Garcia performs magic by opening up even more new threads and suggesting dozens of issues which most of us have not yet even thought to explore. On the top of my Favorites List for the year so far.

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Sharing his feelings with the reader, Dickson Steele becomes the linchpin of this psychological noir mystery by Dorothy B. Hughes, and within the first two pages, the reader discovers that Dix’s thoughts and behavior are vastly different from what the rest of us would consider “normal. By the third page, he is following an attractive young woman walking along the road and planning what he will say to her when he catches up to her. Only a series of cars passing prevents him from crossing the street to meet up with her, and he decides to let her go, turning instead into a local bar. Author Hughes, with her efficient pacing and streamlined prose, does not make the reader wait long for the action to develop. On the fourth page, at the bar, Dix overhears another patron nearby mention a man named “Brub,” the name of one of Dix’s friends from the air corps whom he has not seen for two years. A quick call from Dix to Brub at his house in Santa Monica Canyon, and the old friends decide to get together that night at Brub’s house. There Dix meets Brub’s wife Sylvia and also learns that Brub, having graduated from Berkeley, has now started work at a new job – as a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department. What develops is a noir murder novel in which author Hughes develops these ideas throughout the remainder of this two-hundred page novel, bringing her characters to life and the action to a peak. In the process she will also bring Los Angeles and its suburbs to life as people try to get back to the kinds of lives they had before the war.

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In her startling, futuristic title story, debut author Lesley Nneka Arimah wakes up her reader and signifies that this is no “ordinary” collection. The stories in this book make so many creative leaps into new worlds that in many ways the author actually defies the limits of her genre. Born in the UK, Arimah grew up in Nigeria, following her father in his work abroad and acquiring such varied experiences of life that she has escaped the cultural limitations which so often root a writer’s work firmly in one place. The multicultural Arimah finds, appreciates, and focuses on the elements which make people from different places and times react differently to seemingly similar sets of circumstances, creating stories which are full of surprises and unexpected twists. Within these stories, however, she also recognizes the seemingly universal problems and habits which can often limit and determine a character’s personal outcomes. As she explores life from many points of view, her own vision, often dark, creates in the reader the urge to re-read, re-explore, and re-imagine both her work and the settings in which her characters live, to come to know them better and, perhaps, understand what makes many of her conclusions so surprising. An original and brilliant first collection.

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