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Category Archive for 'Book Club Suggestions'

In a novel which is both emotionally intimate and broad in its scope and thematic impact, this debut novel by twenty-six-year-old Ya’a Gyasi, formerly of Ghana, truly deserves its description as an “epic.” The young recipient of NPR’s Debut Novel of the Year last year for Homegoing, the much lauded Gyasi was today awarded the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for Best Debut Novel of 2016, for this same novel. Opening her novel in the mid-1700s, Gyasi recreates the tumult of what is now Ghana as the Fante tribes from the coastal area and the Asante (Ashanti) tribes from inland constantly battle each other for power, a task complicated by the fact that the British have occupied the coastal areas so that they can manage the lucrative shipping of slaves to America. Anyone captured by an enemy soldier, of either tribe, is destined to be sold to the British for export. The opening chapters introduce the first of eight generations as reflected in the lives of two families: the descendants of the beautiful Effia, born in Fanteland, and the descendants of Esi, her half-sister, an Asante royal whom she does not know. While Effia strikes the fancy of James Collins, governor of the colony, who marries her and brings her to the Cape Coast Castle where he lives and works, Esi is shipped to America, living out the sad history of slavery and its aftermath. Gyasi incorporates elements common to great, majestic novels within this highly compressed epic of black lives and struggles. Folk stories, legends which evolve about some characters, the fears created by dreams and vague family memories, and the persistent drive to be successful while lacking a true understanding of themselves and their past make this novel “speak” to a modern audience, regardless of race or color.

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One of tcover coelho spyhe legends of World War I, Mata Hari has been, for over a hundred years, a symbol of mystery, excitement, and danger. Her exotic life and her eventual fate – an early morning execution by a firing squad of French soldiers on October 15, 1917 – has always felt somehow “deserved” by a woman who so craved attention that she publicly flouted every norm of society in order to develop a reputation as an erotic dancer and lover, and who was finally declared a spy by the French government. Fearless in her private life and pragmatic enough to realize, as she was approaching age forty, that she was not as supple – or as slim – as she once had been, she eventually accepted a six month contract to perform in Berlin in 1916, seeing this change of location as an opportunity for new rewards and wider opportunities. The big question raised by this novel is whether her various liaisons in Germany and France provided her with opportunities to share real secrets or whether she was merely a scapegoat, conveying the society gossip of the day, as she has claimed. When she left Germany precipitously in an attempt to return to Paris in 1917, the French declared her a German spy trying to re-enter. Whether this is true has never been fully answered, though this author has some suggestions.

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The cold and snow swirling across Lake Superior in the opening paragraph set the scene, the tone, and the atmosphere of the conclusion of this love story, which is presented in the opening chapter and told in flashbacks from that moment on. The unnamed narrator, a student researcher writing a book about luxury trains, also writes fiction in his spare time. Having come to Chicago from Switzerland to work on an advanced degree, he soon meets Agnes, a twenty-five-year-old graduate student in physics, working on her own dissertation. Like him, she uses the resources of the Chicago Public Library, and from the first time that she sits opposite him at the library, the narrator is drawn to her. Though Agnes is a plain woman, her eyes “had something unusual about them, an expressiveness [the narrator] hasn’t often seen.” Before long, they take cigarette breaks together and, later, go out for coffee, though Agnes admits that she is “not a very sociable person.” Still, it is April, spring-time – a time of promise and growth, and within a couple of weeks, the narrator and the innocent Agnes are spending nights together. As the novel develops, change and decay pervade the action, but it is the related question of how we perceive reality and the role of fiction as part of that reality which make the conclusion such a shock. It is one thing for the observant reader to become so involved in the story that s/he is horrified by the ending, and quite another for an author to write fiction with the idea of encouraging a particular outcome in real life.

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WORLD THROUGH BOOKS, here is the list of my own favorites from among the many wonderful books I read this year:

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Michael Cunningham’s ten tales, distortions of fairy tales we have all heard as children, will make most readers smile in recognition and sometimes sardonic glee, while annoying some traditionalists who would like to preserve intact their memories of an idyllic childhood. All readers will probably agree, however, that Cunningham’s interpretations of these stories deserve the more serious thought that none of us were able to accord them when we were much younger. Including stories based on Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, and several other less famous tales, Cunningham begins by examining the answer to the real, unasked question which haunts the traditional fairy tale conclusions. The convenient “And they lived happily ever after” no longer applies here, as Cunningham employs reason and some dark humor to develop the tales in more modern and more surprising ways. With these stories, we get the answers to “And then, what?” The joys and burdens of fate, the delights of dreams fulfilled and the horrors of dreams destroyed, the ability to survive life’s vagaries and the need to accept some things that cannot be changed are all themes here which make Cunningham’s depictions of life in these new tales feel more honest than the fairy tales they emerge from, and, certainly more fun for adult readers, many of whom have outgrown the black and white tales of the past.

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